Marc Chénetier: Wouldn’t you say that one of the reasons why the writer is of necessity very skeptical is that his or her trade consists of knowing how the idea of a truth can be built into a sentence? Therefore, the skepticism would derive from the awareness of the manipulations that are at work—
William Gass: The writer really doesn’t build the truth into the sentence, the reader does, especially if the sentence is well constructed. That was one of the things that Plato was worried about, because the poets were so persuasive, whereas the sentences of science, expressed in highly mathematical terms, are not the kind of soft bed that one wants to lie in. Rhetorical constructions have enormous seduction, but the writer doesn’t build the belief in it. What you build is something that has unity and emotional power that the reader, then, is liable to latch onto. A good writer should be able to make any point of view sound terrific. Shakespeare could do it, of course. Then that terrificness has nothing to do with the truth, it has to do with being terrific.
From a discussion on William Gaddis’s speech/essay “Old Foes with New Faces.”
Gaddis delivered the speech at the International Writers Center as part The Writer and Religion Conference at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, 23-26 Oct. 1994. The discussion held afterwards was moderated by Marc Chénetier and the panelists were Wayne Fields, William Gass, and Heide Ziegle (and Gaddis, of course).
The essay, discussion, as well as other essays and discussions are collected in The Writer and Religion, ed. by William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco.
The New York Times published “Authors’ Authors” on 5 Dec. 1976. The piece “asked a number of authors, ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to John Dean, to tell us the three books they most enjoyed this year and to say, in a sentence or two, why.”
There’s of course something silly and even gossipy about such articles, which fall far from literary criticism, of course. But, simultaneously, these kinds not-really-lists are fun. I came across the article looking for something else, and ended up reading it all. There are plenty of my favorite authors as well as notable authors who contributed to the piece: Ishmael Reed, William H. Gass, Eudora Welty, Maurice Sendak, Henry Miller, Joan Didion, and loads more. What’s most interesting to me are the “new” books many books include—I mean books published in (or around) 1976. Some I’ve never heard of, others are classics (of one fashion or another) and many are long long forgotten.
John Cheever’s answer opens the list with an appropriate warning:
I’ve always thought the response to these questionnaires cranky and pretentious and associated them with the darkest hours of Sunday. I mention this only to make it clear that you are free to throw my reply away.
He selects the only book by John Updike I’ve retained, Picked-Up Pieces, cites Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate as an airplane read, and reflects on Daniel Deronda:
It may be a reflection on George Eliot’s refinement or my grossness but my most vivid recollection of this estimable classic is a scene where Deronda enthusiastically seizes the oar of a wherry. It seemed the only robust gesture in the book.
(I had to look up the word wherry.)
Cheever’s pick Updike is on the list, providing a bit of satire on the whole business:
I also found some of Nabokov’s response amusing, although I don’t think it was his intention. He gives us “the three books I read during the three summer months of 1976 while hospitalized in Lausanne”: Dante’s Inferno (“in Singleton’s splendid translation”, The Butterflies of North America by William H. Howe (natch), and his own book, The Original of Laura. Nabokov describes it as
The not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind: I must have gone through it some 50 times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.
Nabokov never finished The Original of Laura. A version of it was published in 2009.
Conservative commentator William F. Buckley picked books by John McPhee, Hugh Kenner, and Malcolm Muggeridge. Joyce Carol Oates liked Ted Hughes’s Season Songs. Despite having “has no taste for contemporary fiction,” Maurice Sendak recommends Leonard Michaels’ collection I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Maxine Hong Kingston breaks the rule of three, adding Nabokov’s Ada to her trio. Philip Roth includes Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, which was part of a series of translations Roth “edited.” Robert Coles liked Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle. Lois Gould lists Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, possibly one of the most enduringly popular books of 1976. Saul Bellow enjoyed Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade. Richard Yates enjoyed Larry McMurty’s Terms of Endearment. Nora Ephron loved Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer. Joan Didion loved Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Cynthia Ozick gives only one title, Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James.
A book of gentle meditations on death in the remote English village: the quietest book of essays I know. To read it is like sinking under the leaves and views and grass of a gentle and caring cemetery and being profoundly glad to be there.
Eudora Welty sticks mostly to Virginia Woolf, recommending the second volume of Woolf’s letters (“Nothing in this book to get between the reader and the writer: Virginia Woolf in her own words, her own mind, speaking for herself”) as well as Mrs Dalloway’s Party. Welty also references Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which I now must track down.
William H. Gass cites two bona fide postmodern classics and an oddity I’ve never heard of:
J R by William Gaddis. Perhaps the supreme masterpiece of acoustical collage. A real contribution to the art of fiction.
The Geek by Craig Nova. A hard, brilliantly visual novel which is equal in quality to early Hawkes. Few American writers have such a sensuous yet masterfully controlled style.
The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin. Elkin is a genius. I am happy he is also a friend. There are paragraphs in this book in which the language leaps from the page and flies away. The critics owe Elkin much bowing and scraping.
Ishmael Reed describes a book called Dangerous Music by by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, a writer I’d never heard of until now:
While the boys were drawing graffiti what were the girls doing? They were writing “Ditty Bop” books, black and white speckled composition books usually, full of gossip, desire, fashion, recipes, proverbs and boyfriends. Written in fire-engine red lipstick “Ditty Bop” books spell “cause” c-u‐z. Nikki Giovanni (“Gemini”) and Alison Mills (“Francisco”) have written classics of the genre. Now Jessica Hagedorn, who makes the S.F. rounds with her West Coast Gangster Choir, has penned the Latino‐Filipino version of the “Ditty Bop.” Reviewers describe “Ditty Bop” books as “sultry”; this one is that. It is a joyous, mean, mambo book blessed by the patron Saint of Latino‐Filipino Ditty Bops, Carmen Miranda.
He also recommends Shouting by by Joyce Carol Thomas, who, thankfully, is not Joyce Carol Oates.
Two authors picked up John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces (Joyce Carol Oates and John Cheever).
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is cited three times on the list: twice for Autumn of the Patriarch (Lewis Thomas and Bernard Malamud) and once for One Hundred Years of Solitude (John Dean).
John Dean’s Blind Ambition shows up three times (Ishmael Reed, Bob Woodward, and Nikki Giovanni).
Somehow, Nikki Giovanni is the only writer to include Alex Haley’s Roots in a list.
Harold Bloom. Is he the one who wrote about the schools? The point is that there are two Blooms, and one of them is dead. [He is told he is confusing Harold with Allan.] Good—if he were the other one, I would like to flee. He’s very welcome to his opinion, especially this one; it sounds like very good company to be in. You can say I’m embarrassed not to know his work. And that I’m glad he’s not Allan Bloom.
From a sidebar in “The Next Big Lit-Crit Snit” by Rebecca Mead in New York Magazine (15 Aug. 1994). The article is about the publication of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Bloom included Gaddis in his silly canon for The Recognitions.
I would worry about being on such a list, because I like to write uncanonical things, things that oppose the general flow of the culture. I would certainly be happy to believe that I could share the same halls or bookcase or something with some of the writers whom I admire so much, but I would feel very insecure about my place there…I”m not sure that I want my books to be patted on the back by lots of scholars in the academy and told, “There, there, these are okay.” …My feelings about things like this are more the sort of thing I have about my children: I would be a little disturbed if everybody loved them.
From a sidebar in “The Next Big Lit-Crit Snit” by Rebecca Mead in New York Magazine (15 Aug. 1994). The article is about the publication of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. The sidebar quotes a number of authors who were included and omitted. William H. Gass was included in Bloom’s canon for both his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, and his follow-up of long short stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. In the New York article, Bloom, says that he was encouraged to make the list by his editor, wavering “I’m not so sure it was a good idea.” He was more forceful in a 2008 interview in Vice, claiming that,
The list was not my idea. It was the idea of the publisher, the editor, and my agents. I fought it. I finally gave up. I hated it. I did it off the top of my head. I left out a lot of things that should be there and I probably put in a couple of things that I now would like to kick out.
I jumped enthusiastically into Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer (1961) last week. I read his fourth novel Lancelot (1977) earlier this month. I loved Lancelot. I did not love The Moviegoer.
The Moviegoer is narrated by John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, who works as a stockbroker in a suburb outside of New Orleans. A Korean War vet, Binx has never quite lived up to the aristocratic mantle his family expected of him. He should’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, that sort of thing. Instead, Binx ambles amiably (and sometimes not-so amiably) through a vague existence, searching for “the wonder.”
Binx is semi-determined not to be “distracted from the wonder,” an attendance to the possibility of spiritual transcendence. In Walker’s postwar American South, commercial culture and modern manners slowly suffocate spirit. Binx is a would-be philosopher attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to find a dram of wonder in a desacralized world. He fools around with his secretaries, reads novels, checks in on his earthy mother, and has drawn out philosophical conversations with the aunt who raised him after his father’s early death. His aunt too sees the fall of her world, her South—its long drawn out decline into the Big Modern New.
Binx is also deeply intimate with his aunt’s stepdaughter, his stepcousin Kate. (Note the Gothic tinge here, a semi-incestuous plot in this novel full of semi-themes and semi-plots.) Modern malaise is the theme of The Moviegoer, and Kate suffers her malaise far more intensely than Binx or anyone else. Semi-suicidal and prone to bouts of mania, she finds an anchor in Binx. But Binx is a loose anchor, a semi-anchor, a little anchor:
It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”
The Moviegoer is full of sad little happinesses: bourbon in paper cups, dips in the Gulf of Mexico, moviegoing, natch. Binx’s post-aristocratic malaise is a privileged, horny malaise. A half-century after The Moviegoer’s publication, Binx’s ennui reads as blinkered, solipsistic, reactionary even. There’s a casual, even temperate sexism and racism to his worldview, which I suppose we might expect out of a midcentury novel by a white male. Binx seems unable or unwilling to regard the humanity of other humans as equal to his own deeply felt humanity. But he’s gentle (and even ironically genteel) in his outlook.
That outlook: the ennui in The Moviegoer is mostly polite and mostly well-mannered. And horny. Unlike the manic, dark, zany vitriol of his later novel Lancelot, the humor of Percy’s debut is lightly ironic, droll, even a touch whimsical at times. It’s almost lethargic. But I suppose a certain lethargy is to be expected from a novel that takes malaise as a theme.
Still, there are moments that puncture the malaise in The Moviegoer. In an earlyish section of the novel, Binx riffs on the classic This I Believe radio program (presumably the one hosted by Edward R. Murrow). Binx pokes gentle polite loving fun at the program in general, before proffering his own short essay:
“Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans,” it began, and ended, “I believe in a good kick in the ass. This—I believe.”
And yet just one line later Binx vacillates back, the conscience of tradition echoing in his grandfather’s phrase:
I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called “a smart-alecky stunt” and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.
Percy’s—excuse me Binx’s—anger immediately collapses—or maybe reconstitutes into—respect for for tradition and a resigned faithful commitment to listening.
But anger eventually boils over, even if Percy is quick to remove the pot from the burner. Very late in the novel, Binx delivers the closest thing in The Moviegoer to a rant:
Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies —my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.
The passage reads false to me, from the corny “dark pilgrimage” (Oh no! Your thirties!) to the aristocratic substitution merde to the complaint against humanism to the ultimate had-too-many-drinks-at-the-dinner-party pose that, Yeah, come come nuclear bomb. And does poor little rich boy Binx really want to fall prey to desire?
Ah! Prey to desire! Existential dread! A call to human feeling, an anxiety of the individual caught between the wonder and the flesh, the spirit and all that horny ennui. For a novel set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, The Moviegoer is light on fun. Percy, via Binx, repeatedly insists that this is all serious business, even as the light irony drolly undercuts the novel’s core message. Binx comes off as a party guest eager to get along gently, afraid of the potential menace under his surface, but also incapable of accepting the menace under everyone else’s surface.
I wanted more menace. The Moviegoer, like its antecedent, Camus’s The Stranger, seems pointed toward howls of execration—but even if Binx might wish to howl at the absurd, he can’t.
From its opening paragraphs, The Moviegoer’s tone reminded me strongly of Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger. I loved The Stranger when I was sixteen, appreciated it when I reread it at twenty for a course on existential literature, and have had the good sense to let it alone since. Those howls of execration at the end have always stuck with me. But I know I’ve changed over the past two decades, and I revere my memories of the book. I’d hate to find fault.
The preceding paragraph is perhaps a rough draft of the following statement: I think I would’ve loved The Moviegoer if I had read it when I was much younger. This isn’t a knock on Percy’s prose, the novel’s voice, or the loose, lilting plot. I appreciated all those elements. The problem is me. The problem is that I already read The Stranger so long ago. And also so long ago—The Plague and The Fall and Nausea. And Waiting for Godot, and Invisible Man. And Hemingway and Salinger and Heller’s Catch-22, which The Moviegoer beat to win the 1962 National Book Award.
And then a few weeks ago, as a significantly older guy, I read Percy’s later novel, Lancelot.
Published in the late 1970s, Lancelot reads like a postmodern Gothic. It’s a parody of Southern gentility and movie-making, a riff on cultural incest, a howling execration of the century preceding it. It’s a ranting monologue worthy of Thomas Bernhard, more Notes from Underground than The Stranger, rough, mean, wild. It’s possible to read Lancelot as the weird dark cursed sequel to The Moviegoer, its sinister postmodern zaniness exploding the former novel’s mannered modernism.
If I was ultimately disappointed in The Moviegoer, it’s likely because I read Lancelot first. I wanted more of that dark weird flavor, that mad ranting fervor. The Moviegoer has its moments, and likely has more that I missed. I found the last line unexpectedly moving: “It is impossible to say.” (Nevermind the referent of that “It.” Suffice to say that we have found ourselves at Ash Wednesday.) But then Percy—or maybe his editors?—appended a goddamned epilogue to the whole affair, almost ruining the novel.
(It’s possible that I’ve fundamentally misread The Moviegoer, that I’ve missed something profound in it, that I’ve read in earnest what was meant in irony, that I’ve skated over wells of depth that seemed otherwise shallow.)
Anyway. Should I read another Percy novel? I’ll admit that Love in the Ruins (1971) seems far more interesting than the famous novel, this one, the one I’m ostensibly “reviewing.” Given the strength of Lancelot, I’ll give it a shot.
In his 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian, as many critics have noted, is made of some of the finest literature out there–the King James Bible, Moby-Dick, Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, Faulkner, and Shakespeare. While Blood Meridian echoes and alludes to these authors and books thematically, structurally, and linguistically, it also owes much of its materiality to Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue.
Chamberlain, much like the Kid, Blood Meridian’s erstwhile protagonist, ran away from home as a teenager. He joined the Illinois Second Volunteer Regiment and later fought in the Mexican-American War. Confession details Chamberlain’s involvement with John Glanton’s gang of scalp-hunters. The following summary comes from the University of Virginia’s American Studies webpage—
According to Chamberlain, John Glanton was born in South Carolina and migrated to Stephen Austin’s settlement in Texas. There he fell in love with an orphan girl and was prepared to marry her. One day while he was gone, Lipan warriors raided the area scalping the elderly and the children and kidnapping the women- including Glanton’s fiancee. Glanton and the other settlers pursued and slaughtered the natives, but during the battle the women were tomahawked and scalped. Legend has it, Glanton began a series of retaliatory raids which always yielded “fresh scalps.” When Texas fought for its independence from Mexico, Glanton fought with Col. Fannin, and was one of the few to escape the slaughter of that regiment at the hands of the Mexican Gen. Urrea- the man who would eventually employ Glanton as a scalp hunter. During the Range Wars, Glanton took no side but simply assassinated individuals who had crossed him. He was banished, to no avail, by Gen. Sam Houston and fought as a “free Ranger” in the war against Mexico. Following the war he took up the Urrea’s offer of $50 per Apache scalp (with a bonus of $1000 for the scalp of the Chief Santana). Local rumor had it that Glanton always “raised the hair” of the Indians he killed and that he had a “mule load of these barbarous trophies, smoke-dried” in his hut even before he turned professional.
Chamberlain’s Confession also describes a figure named Judge Holden. Again, from U of V’s summary–
Glanton’s gang consisted of “Sonorans, Cherokee and Delaware Indians, French Canadians, Texans, Irishmen, a Negro and a full-blooded Comanche,” and when Chamberlain joined them they had gathered thirty-seven scalps and considerable losses from two recent raids (Chamberlain implies that they had just begun their careers as scalp hunters but other sources suggest that they had been engaged in the trade for sometime- regardless there is little specific documentation of their prior activities). Second in command to Glanton was a Texan- Judge Holden. In describing him, Chamberlain claimed, “a cooler blooded villain never went unhung;” Holden was well over six feet, “had a fleshy frame, [and] a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression” and was well educated in geology and mineralogy, fluent in native dialects, a good musician, and “plum centre” with a firearm. Chamberlain saw him also as a coward who would avoid equal combat if possible but would not hesitate to kill Indians or Mexicans if he had the advantage. Rumors also abounded about atrocities committed in Texas and the Cherokee nation by him under a different name. Before the gang left Frontreras, Chamberlain claims that a ten year old girl was found “foully violated and murdered” with “the mark of a large hand on her throat,” but no one ever directly accused Holden.
It’s fascinating to note how much of the Judge is already there–the pedophilia, the marksmanship, the scholarship, and, most interesting of all, the lack of hair. Confession goes on to detail the killing, scalping, raping, and raiding spree that comprises the center of Blood Meridian. Chamberlain even describes the final battle with the Yumas, an event that signals the dissolution of the Glanton gang in McCarthy’s novel.
Content aside, Chamberlain’s prose also seems to presage McCarthy’s prose. In his book Different Travelers, Different Eyes, James H. Maguire notes that, “Both venereal and martial, the gore of [Chamberlain’s] prose evokes Gothic revulsion, while his unschooled art, with its stark architectural angles and leaden, keen-edged shadows, can chill with the surreal horrors of the later Greco-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico.” Yes, Chamberlain was an amateur painter (find his paintings throughout this post), and undoubtedly some of this imagery crept into Blood Meridian.
You can view many of Chamberlain’s paintings and read an edit of his Confession in three editions of Life magazine from 1956, digitally preserved thanks to Google Books–here’s Part I, Part II, and Part III. Many critics have pointed out that Chamberlain’s narrative, beyond its casual racism and sexism, is rife with factual and historical errors. He also apparently indulges in the habit of describing battles and other events in vivid detail, even when there was no way he could have been there. No matter. The ugly fact is that books are made out of books, after all, and if Chamberlain’s Confession traffics in re-appropriating the adventure stories of the day, at least we have Blood Meridian to show for his efforts.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first ran this post in September of 2010.]
I finally started Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia last week. I took the book with me to a place we rented near Black Mountain, North Carolina for a week. I purposefully took only Animalia, leaving behind two books I was in the middle of—Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent and Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine. I used the adverb purposefully in the previous sentence, although I’m not sure what my purpose was. I think I just wanted an associative break from the past few months. I read geographically, even in my own home. I read the first section of Animalia, often overwhelmed by its abject lifeforce. The novel begins in rural southwest France at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on a family farm. The preceding sentence is a bad description: Animalia is, so far anyway, a visceral, naturalistic, and very precise rendering of humans as animals. I don’t think I’ve ever been as intrigued as to how a novel was translated, either. In Frank Wynne’s English translation, Del Amo’s prose carries notes and tones evocative of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. Del Amo employs precise Latinate words, using, for example, genetrix, instead of mother, as in this paragraph:
The genetrix, a lean, cold woman, with a ruddy neck and hands that are ever busy, affords the child scant attention. She is content merely to instruct her, to pass on the skills for those chores that are the preserve of their sex, and the child quickly learns to emulate her in her tasks, to mimic her gestures and her bearing. At five years old, she holds herself stiff and staid as a farmer’s wife, feet planted firmly on the ground, clenched fists resting on her narrow hips. She beats the laundry, churns the butter and draws water from the well or the spring without expecting affection or gratitude in return. Before Éléonore was born, the father twice impregnated the genetrix, but her menses are light, irregular, and continued to flow during the months when, in hindsight, she realizes that she was pregnant, though her belly had barely begun to swell. Although scrawny, she had a pot-belly as a child, her organs strained and bloated from parasitic infections contracted through playing in dirt and dungheaps, or eating infected meat, a condition her mother vainly attempted to treat with decoctions of garlic.
The paragraph, from early in Animalia, conveys the prose’s abject flavor. Read the rest of the excerpt at Granta.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is over 500 pages but somehow does not read like a massive novel, partly, I suppose, because the novel quickly teaches you how to read the novel. The key for me came about 100 pages in, when the narrator goes to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. There’s an earlier reference to a “bleeper” that stuck out too, but it’s at the precise moment of this alternate 2001 that The Unconsoled’s just-slightly-different universe clicked for me. Following in the tradition of Kafka’s The Castle, The Unconsoled reads like a dream-fever set of looping deferrals. Our narrator, Ryder, is (apparently) a famous pianist who arrives at an unnamed town, where he is to…do…something?…to help restore the town’s artistic and aesthetic pride. (One way we know that The Unconsoled takes place in an alternate reality is that people care deeply about art, music, and literature.) However, Ryder keeps getting sidetracked, entangled in promises and misunderstanding, some dark, some comic, all just a bit frustrating. There’s a great video game someone could make out of The Unconsoled—a video game consisting of only side quests perhaps. Once the reader gives in to The Unconsoled’s looping rhythms, there’s an almost hypnotic pleasure to the book. Its themes of family disappointment, artistic struggle, and futility layer like musical motifs, ultimately suggesting that the events of the novel could take place entirely in Ryder’s consciousness, where he orchestrates all the parts himself. Under the whole thing though is a very conventional plot though—think a Kafka fanfic version of Waiting for Guffman. I loved it.
I will be posting a proper review of Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine some time this month, so I won’t remark at length on it. I’m a little under halfway through (had to restart after returning from the mountains), and it seems to me that the plot is impossible to describe. Or maybe it’s really simple: A rural couple, Norabole and Bernard, escape from their small town and move to the big city (“Big City”). Norabole very quickly becomes the CEO of a huge company, with an eye toward creating “the world’s first Gothic conglomerate” (she plans to get an exorcist on the board, as well as having the company partake in an annual seance). Meanwhile, Bernard struggles to find employment and whips up seven course meals for his Noarbole. He also has apparently contracted (contracted?!) xenoglossia. Lake of Urine is energetic and very funny and so so weird. Stitch seems to be doing whatever he wants on the page and I dig it.
I really enjoyed Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan), mostly for the narrator’s voice (which reminded me very much of Al Swearengen of Deadwood). Through somewhat nefarious means, Paulo Honorio takes over the run-down estate he used to toil on, restores it to a fruitful enterprise, screws over his neighbors, and exploits everyone around him. He decries at one point that “this rough life…gave me a rough soul,” which he uses as part confession and part excuse for his failure to evolve to the level his younger, sweeter wife would like him to. São Bernardo is often funny, but has a mordant, even tragic streak near its end. Ultimately, it’s Honorio’s voice and viewpoint that engages the reader. He paints a clear and damning portrait of himself and shows it to the reader—but also shows the reader that he cannot see himself. Good stuff.
Four by Muriel Spark. I’d never read her until May, and I’ve just been gobbling these up. I started with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is fantastic, and then read The Girls of Slender Means, which I liked even more than Prime. Slender Means unself-consciously employs some postmodern techniques to paint a vibrant picture of what the End of the War might feel like. The novel unexpectedly ends in a negative religious epiphany. (And the whole thing coincides with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) I then read Loitering with Intent, which is my favorite so far—just sharp as hell, and chock full of patterns and loops that I want to go back to again. I definitely will reread that one. I’m near the end of Memento Mori, a novel that concerns aging, memory, loss, and coming to terms with death. I was surprised to learn that this was Spark’s third novel, and that she would’ve been around 41—my age—when it was published. Most of the characters are over seventy, and Spark seems to inhabit their consciousness with a level of acuity that surprises me. Memento Mori is sharp and witty, but, barring some last minute shift, it’s not been my favorite Spark—but it’s still very good, and I want to read more. Any suggestions?
“Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1967) / “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” (1967) / “Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970)
Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories, collected and published together (under the title Vermilion Sands in 1971), are generally my least favorite selections in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. The stories, composed over a decade, share a unified tone and a consistent (first-person) point of view to match their unified setting, and that setting is interesting enough—Ballardian enough—but each story is essentially just a delivery mechanism for a Cool Idea that Ballard has about art.
In “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!”, Ballard’s Cool Idea is a light-responsive painting technique:
Like all paintings produced at Vermilion Sands at that time, it would not actually need the exercise of the painter’s hand. Once the pigments had been selected, the photosensitive paint would produce an image of whatever still life or landscape it was exposed to. Although a lengthy process, requiring an exposure of at least four or five days, it had the immense advantage that there was no need for the subject’s continuous presence. Given a few hours each day, the photosensitive pigments would anneal themselves into the contours of a likeness.
This discontinuity was responsible for the entire charm and magic of these paintings. Instead of a mere photographic replica, the movements of the sitter produced a series of multiple projections, perhaps with the analytic forms of cubism, or, less severely, a pleasant impressionistic blurring.
The idea is interesting in and of itself, calling back to the central conceit of another VS story, “Studio 5, The Stars.” In that tale, poetry is the automated product of programmed machines. The concept of programmed art is fascinating, and clearly Ballard’s fiction tracks a predictive curve, but like most Vermilion Sands stories, “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” is clumsily executed pulp fiction. “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” is no different (the Cool Idea is cloud-sculpting, which allows Ballard to riff on one of his central motifs, airplanes). “Say Goodbye to the Wind” features living, responsive clothing. It also features another stereotypical Ballardian (pseudo)ingénue (the man really had a difficult time coming up with complex female characters). However, with its notes on “the teenage cult” and its obsession with plastic surgery, the story points to the more compelling territory Ballard was exploring.
“The Recognition” (1967)
A doomed circus, another (pseudo)ingénue, another dwarf, another morality fable, another stab at magical realism—far less successful than “The Drowned Giant” though.
“Reagan” was first published when the former actor and then-Governor of California was positioned as a write-in candidate for the ’68 election—the Gipper was the conservative alternative to Nixon. Written in the style of an academic psychology paper, the piece isn’t so much satire as something else entirely. I’m not sure exactly what that “something else” is, but it’s probably best signaled in Ballard’s own prose:
Sexual fantasies in connection with Ronald Reagan. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth–parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear–exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child–victim of sexual assault. In 89 per cent of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self–induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.
According to a number of sources, including Ballard himself, the story was disseminated at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. VICE reports:
. . . a number of still-unknown former Situationists got hold of letterhead stamped with the seal of the Republican National Committee, upon which they printed Ballard’s Reagan text, replaced his offending title with the innocuous, “Official Republican 1980 Presidential Survey,” and managed to distribute copies to delegates on the convention floor in Detroit, one of the most audacious acts of political theater in our time.
“Reagan” is one of only three sections of The Atrocity Exhibition collected in The Complete Stories. It also clearly belongs in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, an ideal collection that does not yet exist.
“The Dead Astronaut”
Betrayal, unfaithful wives, the fall-out of the space race against the backdrop of the Cold War, paranoia, radiation, etc.
“The Comsat Angels”
Ballard’s best stories, like “The Index,” “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “The Beach Murders,” or “Answers to a Questionnaire” all succeed because their form is indivisible from their content—the idea that Ballard delivers is inseparable from the method of delivery. Most of Ballard’s stories are beholden to genre conventions though, and while Ballard’s treatment of these conventions are often excellent (and sometimes not-so-excellent), against the backdrop of his best stuff, the conventional exercises are always a little disappointing, or at least frustrating. Often clunky and heavy-handed, his stories for sci-fi mags are often the worst offenders.
However, when Ballard works through the conventions of detective fiction, he usually has stronger results. Edgar Allan Poe is surely Ballard’s foremost literary ancestor, a comparison that finds illustration in “The Comsat Angels,” a detective piece with a nimble streak of sci-fi running through it for flavor. Cloning, conspiracy, and paranoia done right. Great stuff.
“The Killing Ground” (1969) / “A Place and a Time to Die” (1969)
These stories are basically thought exercises where Ballard takes on the Vietnam War and its simultaneous culture war. “The Killing Ground” foregrounds the Vietnam War, but still displaces it, extrapolating a future where “Thirty years after the original conflict in south–east Asia, the globe was now a huge insurrectionary torch, a world Vietnam,” with Imperial America dominating the globe with its war machine. (Thank goodness nothing like that really happened!). “A Place and a Time to Die” is more oblique, a tale of fear of invading otherness. “A Place and a Time to Die” could resonate just as strongly today in contemporary America, with its exurbs and gated communities and Stand Your Ground laws.
On the horizon:
Some of Ballard’s best, including “The Index” and another (oblique) Vietnam story, “Theatre of War.” I’ll also riff on Ballard’s pseudo-but-not-so-pseudo-autobiographical story, “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown.”
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]
“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)
“The Beach Murders” (1966)
Up until the mid-sixties, Ballard wasn’t able to find a rhetoric to match his ideas. Perhaps this makes sense if we consider that Ballard’s fiction has always been more interested in art, music, film, and biology than literature itself. He still relied on the tropes of magazine pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective stories to frame his tales, and while even the weakest of these tales was better than an episode of The Twilight Zone, they still occupied the same territory. Although Ballard’s earliest stories are distinctly Ballardian–obsessed with time, saturated in surrealism and psychology, shot through with a Cold War era paranoia and its attendant nihilism—it’s not until 1964, in the fragmentary “The Terminal Beach,” and the wry fabulism of “The Drowned Giant,” that Ballard finally merges form and content.
With “The Beach Murders,” Ballard manages to overstuff all of his tropes into a strange burlesque game. Paranoid, breast-obsessed, violent and funny, “The Beach Murders” comprises 26 sections, one for each letter in the English alphabet. And like the alphabet, Ballard’s story can be combined in any number of possibilities. In his introduction to the story, the narrator hints at a solution to the puzzle, before pointing out that any “final answer” will forever remain unclear:
Readers hoping to solve the mystery of the Beach Murders – involving a Romanoff Princess, a CIA agent, two of his Russian counterparts and an American limbo dancer – may care to approach it in the form of the card game with which Quimby, the absconding State Department cipher chief, amused himself in his hideaway on the Costa Blanca. The principal clues have therefore been alphabetized. The correct key might well be a familiar phrase, e. g. PLAYMATE OF THE MONTH, or meaningless, e. g. qwertyuiop… etc. Obviously any number of solutions is possible, and a final answer to the mystery, like the motives and character of Quimby himself, lies forever hidden.
“The Beach Murders” reads like a postmodern update of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories. Its gestures recall the fragmentation of his hero William Burroughs, as well as the techniques of his American contemporary Donald Barthelme–not to mention the emerging wave of continental deconstruction. It’s also very, very fun. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
“The Day of Forever” (1966)
It’s tempting to give in to biographical criticism when considering the subtle but significant shift in Ballard’s work after the shocking death of his wife Helen in 1964. While themes of loss, sleeplessness, and despair reverberate through many (if not most) of his early stories, they become sharper, more defined after 1964.
“The Day of Forever” is not exactly a great story, especially if you do what I’m doing—that is, read all of his stories chronologically. The story, about a world that has ceased to rotate, feels like a series of sketches that Ballard is using for something bigger (or has left out of something bigger). Taken in the context of his wife’s death, however, the story seems richer, sadder, more personal in its evocations of dreamlessness and loss.
When the story’s protagonist Halliday raids an abandoned gallery for its surrealist images, it’s hard not to intuit Ballard’s own desire to recover the unrecoverable:
In the students’ gallery hung the fading reproductions of a dozen schools of painting, for the most part images of worlds without meaning. However, grouped together in a small alcove Halliday found the surrealists Delvaux, Chirico and Ernst. These strange landscapes, inspired by dreams that his own could no longer echo, filled Halliday with a profound sense of nostalgia. One above all, Delvaux’s The Echo’, which depicted a naked Junoesque woman walking among immaculate ruins under a midnight sky, reminded him of his own recurrent fantasy. The infinite longing contained in the picture, the synthetic time created by the receding images of the woman, belonged to the landscape of his unseen night.
“The Impossible Man” (1966)
The theme of recovery surfaces again in “The Impossible Man,” where a young man named Conrad (insert observation here that so many of Ballard’s protagonist’s are nakedly named for writers) is given the chance to walk again after a terrible accident—he’ll receive the limbs of a man who died causing the accident. With its fetishizing of scars, auto accidents, and surgery, “The Impossible Man” points directly toward Ballard’s weirdest works, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.
“Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)
“Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer” evokes a rich, Gothic world, a swampland where humans battle mutant birds. Here, a strange woman in mourning awaits the return of her lost child (there’s that theme again!) through some avian agency. There are skiffs and pergolas and feathers and shotguns. There is a dwarf. Dark and romantic, the tale’s themes—and the delivery of those themes—recall Ballard’s earlier forays into magical realism, “The Drowned Giant” and 1962’s “The Garden of Time.”
“Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)
Ballard’s narrator in “Tomorrow is a Million Years” directly invokes Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick and alludes to the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Allusion is a fundamental trope of literature—indeed, most literature seems to take literature as its own subject—but Ballard’s allusions, beyond his character names (he christens a character in 1967’s “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” Melville) tend to skew toward art and music. The allusions to doomed voyages and shipwreck are appropriate here, and Ballard synthesizes them into a tale of madness and hallucination. And, at the risk of spoiling the tale’s shocking ending, I’ll suggest again that Ballard is writing through/to/around/beneath the death of his wife.
“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)
Ballard begins “Assassination” with an author’s note:
The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, raised many questions, not all of which were answered by the Report of the Warren Commission. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation. In particular Alfred Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” gives us a useful lead.
Author of the infamous proto-surrealist play Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical conceits undoubtedly influenced and engaged Ballard, offering him new ways of writing beyond the constraints of his earlier pulp fiction. Published almost 60 years after Jarry’s death, “Assassination” is just as shocking as the text it’s modeled on, suggesting that the disruptive powers of language that Ballard was beginning to experiment with retain vitality outside of history. It’s worth sharing the opening paragraphs of “Assassination”:
Oswald was the starter.
From his window above the track he opened the race by firing the starting gun. It is believed that the first shot was not properly heard by all the drivers. In the following confusion Oswald fired the gun two more times, but the race was already under way.
Kennedy got off to a bad start.
There was a governor in his car and its speed remained constant at about fifteen miles an hour. However, shortly afterwards, when the governor had been put out of action, the car accelerated rapidly, and continued at high speed along the remainder of the course.
The visiting teams. As befitting the inauguration of the first production car race through the streets of Dallas, both the President and the Vice–President participated. The Vice–President, Johnson, took up his position behind Kennedy on the starting line. The concealed rivalry between the two men was of keen interest to the crowd. Most of them supported the home driver, Johnson.
If “Kennedy got off to a bad start” doesn’t crack you up then it’s likely this story isn’t for you. Ballard’s humor often rests entirely on a kind of moral irony in his earlier stories (you know, like something from the Twilight Zoneseries), but “Assassination” shows a wry constraint, a trust in the reader that probably originated in Ballard’s growing comfort in his own powers. (Later stories like “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” and “The Life and Death of God” advance Ballard’s control of dark humor).
“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” was published in The Atrocity Exhibition; for whatever reason, The Complete Short Stories only includes two other stories from that collection (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Secret History of World War 3,” which wasn’t actually part of the original AE pressing). So maybe Complete is not so complete.
I’m actually almost finished with the book (my Kindle tells me I’m at 72%). I should probably slow down and try to take more notes for these riffs—or just write faster and looser. But the reading becomes far more compelling at this point, as Ballard transcends the limitations of sci-fi pulp and begins to contend with his surrealist forbears. Next time: “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”! Another Vermilion Sands story—this one not so bad! Ballard takes on Vietnam! Etc.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]
“The Reptile Enclosure” (1963) / “A Question of Re-Entry” (1963) / “The Time Tombs” (1963) / “Now Wakes the Sea” (1963) / “The Venus Hunters” (1963) / “Minus One” (1963) / “Prisoner of the Coral Deep” (1964) / “The Illuminated Man” (1964) / “The Delta at Sunset” (1964) / “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” /”The Volcano Dances” (1964)
There are 98 stories in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. That’s a lot of stories. Maybe too many. Too many for me to write about in full, anyway. I’ve lumped these stories together because they are somewhat unremarkable: Ballard does his Ballardian thing way better elsewhere. Several of these stories feel like sketches (or leftovers) from Ballard’s early novels like The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World. Themes of time, memory, art, and nature abound here, usually glommed on to simple adventure narratives or sci-fi pulp treadthroughs. Jungles, watches, crystals, structures, beaches. Misanthropy, paranoia, nagging wives, misunderstood heroes. Man apart from nature, but beholden to nature. Etc. The worst moments of these stories—and we can find these moments all through early Ballard, to be fair—suffer from a bad case of White Man’s Burden doubled up with a shot of misogyny. I’ve written it before in these posts, but the most disappointing aspect of early Ballard is our would-be futurist’s inability to transcend the patriarchal ideology of the post-war era. So now let’s move to the good stuff.
I first read “End-Game” when I was sixteen or seventeen, and it’s always stuck with me. It’s the story of a former “party member” who’s been imprisoned under nebulous circumstances—only his prison isn’t that bad—a nice little villa, comfortable, with books and a chess set. He even has a housekeeper. Unfortunately, the housekeeper is also his executioner, and the date and method of the execution is forever withheld from him:
This ironic inversion of the classical Kafkaesque situation, by which, instead of admitting his guilt to a non–existent crime, he was forced to connive in a farce maintaining his innocence of offences he knew full well he had committed, was preserved in his present situation at the execution villa.
The psychological basis was more obscure but in some way far more threatening, the executioner beckoning his victim towards him with a beguiling smile, reassuring him that all was forgiven. Here he played upon, not those unconscious feelings of anxiety and guilt, but that innate conviction of individual survival, that obsessive preoccupation with personal immortality which is merely a disguised form of the universal fear of the image of one’s own death. It was this assurance that all was well, and the absence of any charges of guilt or responsibility, which had made so orderly the queues into the gas chambers.
Ballard directly invokes Kafka, whose tale “Before the Law” comes to mind here (not to mention The Trial and The Castle); “End-Game” also feels like Ballard’s take on 1984. It’s a great little tale, and I think it helps to prove that Ballard is at his best when he sticks to a confined, limited cast and setting. Much of the force of “End-Game” comes from Ballard pitting his prisoner/protagonist against the protagonist’s mental conception of his guard/executioner. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
“The Sudden Afternoon” (1963) / “Time of Passage” (1964)
In “The Sudden Afternoon” and “Time of Passage,” Ballard explores how time and place—context, I suppose—constitute identity. The former story is a tale of metempsychosis with a troubling take on Indian spirituality, wherein a doctor—an Indian, of course—transplants his psyche and his wife’s psyche into the bodies of another couple (his wife is dying of a terminal disease). Ballard’s own wife died a year after the story was first published (I’m reminded of Poe here, whose wife Virginia died after the publication of “The Raven”). “The Sudden Afternoon” isn’t very good, but structurally we see Ballard beginning to employ something approaching the cut-ups/fragments he’ll move to in the next decade.
“Time of Passage” is essentially a rewrite of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It’s also basically a rewrite of Ballard’s own 1961 tale “Mr. F Is Mr. F” — only this time, Ballard dispenses with abject-horror-for-maternal-body in lieu of a fable-like exploration of what a life in reverse might actually look like. A lovely story. Stick it in The Essentials.
“The Screen Game” (1963)
Another Vermilion Sands story. More insanity. Another femme fatale. An attempt at the story of Orpheus, perhaps. I would have lumped it in with the stories in point 1, but I wanted to clarify: The Vermilion Sands stories are the worst.
“The Lost Leonardo” (1964)
This is an excellent little detective tale with mystical-magic undertones. I’m a sucker for any story of art theft, too. We all know Dan Brown ripped off Umberto Eco, but maybe Eco ripped off Ballard? Who cares. Lovely stuff. Ballard is excellent at the detective story; Poe is one of his clearest predecessors, but like Poe, he’s more famous for other stuff. Too bad. Let’s call it Essential.
“The Terminal Beach” (1964)
1964’s “The Terminal Beach” is such a big break through for Ballard in terms of formal elements and structuring that it probably deserves its own post, but I’ll jab at it here anyway. Up until now, Ballard’s stories have been notable almost entirely for their ideas—his prose has improved some, but ultimately, the pulp fiction he’s writing for magazine publication constrains him to a pedestrian rhetoric that simply can’t match how far out his concepts are. With “The Terminal Beach,” Ballard finally approaches a narrative structure—fractured, polyglossic, shifting through interiors to exteriors, breaking through different forms—that can match the themes of his tale. The story–clearly an Essential—points to the finest of Ballard’s future work. You can read it here in twoparts, but here’s a taste that I think stands alone as a microfiction:
(A small fly, which Traven presumes has followed him into the fissure, now buzzes about the corpse’s face. Guiltily, Traven leans forward to kill it, then reflects that perhaps this minuscule sentry has been the corpse’s faithful companion, in return fed on the rich liqueurs and distillations of its pores. Carefully, to avoid injuring the fly, he encourages it to alight on his wrist.)
DR YASUDA: Thank you, Traven. In my position, you understand
TRAVEN: Of course, Doctor. I’m sorry I tried to kill it – these ingrained habits, you know, they’re not easy to shrug off. Your sister’s children in Osaka in ’44, the exigencies of war, I hate to plead them. Most known motives are so despicable, one searches the unknown in the hope that YASUDA: Please, Traven, do not be embarrassed. The fly is lucky to retain its identity for so long. ‘That son you mourn, not to mention my own two nieces and nephew, did they not die each day? Every parent in the world grieves for the lost sons and daughters of their earlier childhoods.
TRAVEN: You’re very tolerant, Doctor. I wouldn’t dare – YASUDA: Not at all, Traven. I make no apologies for you. Each of us is little more than the meagre residue of the infinite unrealized possibilities of our lives. But your son, and my nephew, are fixed in our minds forever, their identities as certain as the stars.
TRAVEN: (not entirely convinced) That may be so, Doctor, but it leads to a dangerous conclusion in the case of this island. For instance, the blocks – YASUDA: They are precisely what I refer to, Traven. Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This islandis an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?
TRAVEN: Excuse me (The fly has flown back to the corpse’s face and sits in one of the dried-up orbits, giving the good doctor an expression of quizzical beadiness. Reaching forward, Traven entices it on to his palm. He examines it carefully) Well, yes, these bunkers may be ontological objects, but whether this is the ontological fly is doubtful. It’s true that on this island it’s the only fly, which is the next best thing
YASUDA: You can’t accept the plurality of the universe – ask yourself why, Traven. Why should this obsess you? It seems to me that you are hunting for the white leviathan, zero. The beach is a dangerous zone. Avoid it. Have a proper humility, pursue a philosophy of acceptance.
TRAVEN: Then may I ask why you came here, Doctor?
YASUDA: To feed this fly. ‘What greater love – ?’
TRAVEN: (Still puzzling) It doesn’t really solve my problem. The blocks, you see
YASUDA: Very well, if you must have it that way
TRAVEN: But, Doctor
YASUDA: (Peremptorily) Kill that fly!
TRAVEN: That’s not an end, or a beginning.
(Hopelessly, he kills the fly. Exhausted, he falls asleep beside the corpse.)
“The Drowned Giant” (1964)
Another Essential, this puzzling fable readily recalls Gabriel García Márquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Ballard rarely handles archetypes so directly as he does here. Even if the story’s theme seems almost too-plain—we lose the miracle, we cast down the old gods, we deny the sublime, etc.—its construction and telling are wonderfully achieved.
The lower jaw, typically, found its way to the museum of natural history. The remainder of the skull has disappeared, but is probably still lurking in the waste grounds or private gardens of the city – quite recently, while sailing down the river, I noticed two ribs of the giant forming a decorative arch in a waterside garden, possibly confused with the jaw–bones of a whale. A large square of tanned and tattooed skin, the size of an indian blanket, forms a backcloth to the dolls and masks in a novelty shop near the amusement park, and I have no doubt that elsewhere in the city, in the hotels or golf clubs, the mummified nose or ears of the giant hang from the wall above a fireplace. As for the immense pizzle, this ends its days in the freak museum of a circus which travels up and down the north–west. This monumental apparatus, stunning in its proportions and sometime potency, occupies a complete booth to itself. The irony is that it is wrongly identified as that of a whale, and indeed most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.
On the horizon:
Ballard plays with fragmentation again in “The Beach Murders” and “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” — and we finally get to his stories of the late sixties.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]
May 16th.–It has been an easterly rain yesterday and to-day, with occasional lightings up, and then a heavy downfall of the gloom again.
Scenes out of the rear windows,–the glistening roof of the opposite houses; the chimneys, now and then choked with their own smoke, which a blast drives down their throats. The church-spire has a mist about it. Once this morning a solitary dove came and alighted on the peak of an attic window, and looked down into the areas, remaining in this position a considerable time. Now it has taken a flight, and alighted on the roof of this house, directly over the window at which I sit, so that I can look up and see its head and beak, and the tips of its claws. The roofs of the low out-houses are black with moisture; the gutters are full of water, and there is a little puddle where there is a place for it in the hollow of a board. On the grass-plot are strewn the fallen blossoms of the cherry-tree, and over the scene broods a parallelogram of sombre sky. Thus it will be all day as it was yesterday; and, in the evening, one window after another will be lighted up in the drawing-rooms. Through the white curtains may be seen the gleam of an astral-lamp, like a fixed star. In the basement rooms, the work of the kitchen going forward; in the upper chambers, here and there a light.
In a bar-room, a large, oval basin let into the counter, with a brass tube rising from the centre, out of which gushes continually a miniature fountain, and descends in a soft, gentle, never-ceasing rain into the basin, where swim a company of gold-fishes. Some of them gleam brightly in their golden armor; others have a dull white aspect, going through some process of transformation. One would think that the atmosphere, continually filled with tobacco-smoke, might impregnate the water unpleasantly for the scaly people; but then it is continually flowing away and being renewed. And what if some toper should be seized with the freak of emptying his glass of gin or brandy into the basin,–would the fishes die or merely get jolly?
I saw, for a wonder, a man pretty drunk at Parker’s the other evening,–a well-dressed man, of not ungentlemanly aspect. He talked loudly and foolishly, but in good phrases, with a great flow of language, and he was no otherwise impertinent than in addressing his talk to strangers. Finally, after sitting a long time staring steadfastly across the room in silence, he arose, and staggered away as best he might, only showing his very drunken state when he attempted to walk.
Old acquaintances,–a gentleman whom I knew ten years ago, brisk, active, vigorous, with a kind of fire of physical well-being and cheerful spirits glowing through him. Now, after a course, I presume, of rather free living, pale, thin, oldish, with a grave and care or pain worn brow,–yet still lively and cheerful in his accost, though with something invincibly saddened in his tones. Another, formerly commander of a revenue vessel,–a man of splendid epaulets and very aristocratic equipment and demeanor; now out of service and without position, and changed into a brandy-burnt and rowdyish sort of personage. He seemed as if he might still be a gentleman if he would; but his manners show a desperate state of mind by their familiarity, recklessness, the lack of any hedge of reserve about himself, while still he is evidently a man of the world, accustomed to good society. He has latterly, I think, been in the Russian service, and would very probably turn pirate on fair occasion.
One day we were cleaning an overgrown path on a hillock near the pond. We cut down a lot of brier bushes, willows, and poplars,—then came the turn of a bird-cherry. It was growing on the path, and it was so old and stout that it could not be less than ten years old. And yet I knew that five years ago the garden had been cleaned. I could not understand how such an old bird-cherry could have grown out there. We cut it down and went farther. Farther away, in another thicket, there grew a similar bird-cherry, even stouter than the first. I looked at its root, and saw that it grew under an old linden. The linden with its branches choked it, and it had stretched out about twelve feet in a straight line, and only then came out to the light, raised its head, and began to blossom.
I cut it down at the root, and was surprised to find it so fresh, while the root was rotten. After we had cut it down, the peasants and I tried to pull it off; but no matter how much we jerked at it, we were unable to drag it away: it seemed to have stuck fast. I said:
“Look whether it has not caught somewhere.”
A workman crawled under it, and called out:
“It has another root; it is out on the path!”
I walked over to him, and saw that it was so.
Not to be choked by the linden, the bird-cherry had gone away from underneath the linden out on the path, about eight feet from its former root. The root which I had cut down was rotten and dry, but the new one was fresh. The bird-cherry had evidently felt that it could[Pg 177] not exist under the linden, so it had stretched out, dropped a branch to the ground, made a root of that branch, and left the other root. Only then did I understand how the first bird-cherry had grown out on the road. It had evidently done the same,—only it had had time to give up the old root, and so I had not found it.
The colonel’s face fills the screen, broken up sporadically, smeared, pixelated, blown through by winds of noise and forgetfulness, failing links, lost servers. Its voice was synthesized several generations back and never updated, lip movements don’t match the words, if they ever did. What it has to say is this.
“There is a terrible prison, most informants believe it’s located here in the U.S., though we also have Russian input comparing it unfavorably to the worst parts of the gulag. With classic Russian reluctance they will not name it. Wherever it is, brutal is too kind a description. They kill you but keep you alive. Mercy is unknown.
“It’s supposed to be a kind of boot camp for military time travelers. Time travel, as it turns out, is not for civilian tourists, you don’t just climb into a machine, you have to do it from inside out, with your mind and body, and navigating Time is an unforgiving discipline. It requires years of pain, hard labor, and loss, and there is no redemption—of, or from, anything.
“Given the lengthy schooling, the program prefers to recruit children by kidnapping them. Boys, typically. They are taken without consent and systematically rewired. Assigned to secret cadres to be sent on government missions back and forth in Time, under orders to create alternative histories which will benefit the higher levels of command who have sent them out.
“They need to be prepared for the extreme rigors of the job. They are starved, beaten, sodomized, operated on without anesthetic. They will never see their families or friends again. If by accident this should ever happen, during an assignment or simply as a contingency of the day, their standing orders are immediately to kill anyone who recognizes them.
“Standard strategies for deflecting public attention are considered to be in effect. Rapture by UFOs, disappearance into the correctional system, MKUltra-type programs have all proven useful as diversionary narratives.”
Machines in the Head, new from NYRB, compiles twenty-three Anna Kavan stories that were originally published between 1940 and 1975, as well as one previously unpublished story. The stories here, culled from five previous collections, show not so much a stylistic evolution over three decades of Kavan’s writing as they do a writer pushing herself into ever stranger territory. And while Kavan’s experimental forms shift from story to story, her modes of radical ambiguity, rattling paranoia, and sinister menace course through the collection, giving it a strange coherence.
Machines in the Head is arranged chronologically, with the first nine stories coming from Asylum Piece (1940). These storiesannounce themes and images that repeat throughout Kavan’s writing and this new NYRB collection: sleep, dreams, ice, sun (and the lack of sun), prisons, asylums, hospitals, lovers, friends (and the absence of friends), enemies, persecutors, mysterious patrons, strange summonses from abstract authorities, sentencing and judgment, windows, walls, doors.
“Going Up in the World” is a miniature study of cold anxiety in which the unnamed protagonist suffers alienation from the “Patrons” who seem to abandon her. “The Enemy” is five paragraphs of Kafkaesque persecution and paranoia. In “The Summons,” an ugly waiter ruins a meal with an old friend, and our narrator is soon taken away by an ambiguous authority, only to return to dinner to have her friend urge her to go back to the authority on her own volition. The nightmare-dream logic here is part and parcel of Kavan’s style, as is the the conclusion of “The Summons”:
…I began to wonder, as I have wondered ever since, whether the good opinion of anybody in the whole world is worth all that I have had to suffer and must still go on suffering — for how long; oh, for how long?
Pretty much every tale in Machines in the Head ends in existential suffering, inconclusive menace, our outright doom. The narrator of “The Summons” tells us at one point that “a feeling of dread slowly distilled itself in my veins,” a line that could fit neatly into any of the stories here.
Suffering and despair continue in “At Night,” where the narrator’s bedroom is a “jailer,” her bed her “coffin.” The story’s surrealist touches capture the all-too-real horror of insomnia. “Machines in the Head” continues the sleep motif, showing us the terror of that tyrant, the alarm clock. Kavan conveys the awful moment many of us experience upon awakening too early:
Roused in this brutal fashion, I jump up just in time to catch a glimpse of the vanishing hem of sleep as, like a dark scarf maliciously snatched away, it glides over the foot of the bed and disappears in a flash under the closed door.
“Asylum Piece II,” however, suggests that there is trouble in dream:
I had a friend, a lover. Or did I dream it? So many dreams are crowding upon me now that I can scarcely tell true from false: dreams like light imprisoned in bright mineral caves; hot, heavy dreams; ice-age dreams; dreams like machines in the head.
In “The End in Sight,” our narrator, having “received the official notification of my sentences,” experiences time’s passing “like shadows, like dreams,” again suggesting that dreams and sleep are not the solution to anxiety and unease. “The End in Sight” concludes with our narrator still in the grips of anxiety, waiting to be carted away by invisible and unnamed forces.
Asylum Piece was the first collection that Kavan published under the name “Anna Kavan.” She previously had written under her legal name, Helen Ferguson, but took “Anna Kavan” (from a character in her 1930 novel Let Me Alone) first as a pen name and then later as her new personal identity. It’s hard not to read Kavan’s fiction as largely semi-autobiographical, while also recognizing that much of that biography was the result of imaginative invention and re-invention. Asylums and psych wards show up in her stories so much because she spent quite a lot of time in such places. Kavan suffered depression and attempted suicide several times in her life. Alienation and loneliness permeate her work: her characters can never seem to truly know each other, to truly communicate. Kavan was essentially alienated from her parents; her father abandoned the family (and later committed suicide), and she spent most of her youth at boarding schools. Both of her marriages failed before the publication of Asylum Piece, a fact that underscores her stories’ curves toward despair. She did have romantic relationships later, doomed as they were, and also was extremely close to Dr. Karl Bluth, the German psychiatrist who prescribed her heroin from the time that he met her until he died in 1964.
Iterations of Bluth—sympathetic doctors—-start to appear in some of Kavan’s stories stories starting with I Am Lazarus (1945). The stories here are longer, richer, and more focused than those in Asylum Piece (but still strange, strange, strange). The nightmare of the Blitz hangs over the tales, which are populated with doctors, nurses, and soldiers.
“Palace of Sleep” — the first third-person piece in the anthology is set in a mental hospital. “Palace” picks up the night shift motif of Asylum Piece, focusing on an unnamed patient undergoing treatment for narcosis. “The Blackout” continues the narcoleptic motif. In this story—one of the strongest in the collection—a soldier who had blacked out for five days talks to psychologist. The soldier parcels out bits of a tragic life story, redeemed in part by the aunt who eventually raises him after he’s orphaned. There’s an oedipal undercurrent to “The Blackout,” which circles around a profound horror without actually naming the crime at the heart of the tale. “Face of My People” is another psych ward piece, with a tone and development worthy of J.G. Ballard. (Ballard was a big fan of Kavan’s fiction.)
“The Gannets” is another very strong piece. In five visceral paragraphs, Kavan condenses the horror of World War II into a strange allegory of terrible violence. “The Gannets” contains one of the strongest images in the whole collection. It’s shocking, really, when it happens—so much of her writing runs on unspecified dread and slow-motion menace, that when she does deploy concrete horror, the effect is devastating. I won’t spoil that devastation by quoting the image, but I will share the story’s final paragraph:
How did all this atrocious cruelty ever get into the world, that’s what I often wonder. No one created it, no one invoked it, and no saint, no genius, no dictator, no millionaire, no, not God’s son himself, is able to drive it out.
“Our City” is a longish Kafkaesque exercise that feels similar to the early short stories “Airing a Grievance” and “The Summons,” but with more absurd humor and more control. Kavan elides details that would allow us to identify the titular city as London during the Blitz. Instead of realism, we get something closer to a psychological portrait of a place under the most extreme duress. “Our City” is a slow-motion panic attack, a fever dream that sprawls outward but refuses to resolve.
Machines in the Head includes just three stories from A Bright Green Field (1957), but all are excellent. “A Bright Green Field” is the surreal story of a visitor (to where?!) who witnesses “prone half-naked human bodies, spreadeagled on the glistening bright green wall of grass.” The bodies are bound “by an arrangement of ropes and pulleys [with] semi-circular implements of some sort fastened to their hands.” The bizarre image has an even more bizarre explanation: These people are employed in the Sisyphean task of mowing the grass in this fashion. Why? Well, look, are you expecting a rational answer?–
That poison-green had to be fought; cut back, cut down; daily, hourly, at any cost. There was no other defence against the mad proliferation of grass blades, no other alternative to grass, blood-bloated, grown viciously strong, poisonous and vindictive, a virulent plague that would smother everything, everywhere, until grass and only grass covered the face of the globe
If “A Bright Green Field” is allegorical—and it really, really doesn’t have to be—perhaps it’s an ironic allegory of humanity’s perverse relationship to ecology.
The plot of “Ice Storm” is scant: a woman travels from New York City to Connecticut to visit some friends and decide whether or not to leave America. It turns out that she doesn’t really like her friends that much, and she’s ultimately unable to make a decision, “Because there were far too many decisions to make about everything and no permanent set of values by which to decide.” With its touches of realism, “Ice Storm” feels anchored in autobiography. (The title and much of the imagery suggest that “Ice Storm” might be the germ–or a germ—of Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice.) Kavan interposes newspaper headlines, seemingly at random, throughout the story, a device that might have come off as a gimmick; instead the headlines serve to highlight the narrator’s alienation from reality.
“All Saints” is the most avant-garde exercise in the collection. The story—story is probably not the right word—the story seems to drift between two or three consciousnesses that riff on decadent decline and imminent death. I’ve read it several times and still can’t puzzle it out, which is why I like it so much, I suppose. (I put a big star on the margin next to the line, “the end of every project comes down to the rat.”)
The stories from Julia and the Bazooka (published in 1970, two years after Kavan’s death) are the first to deal openly and frankly with drug addiction. “The Old Address” is a sad first-person number steeped in agoraphobia. Our addict-narrator, discharged from the clinic, ventures into an anonymous but teeming world which she murders in her imagination in an abject and revolting sequence:
Huge black clots, gouts, of whale blood shoot high in the air, then splash down in the mounting flood, soaking the nearest pedestrians. Everybody is slipping and slithering, wading in blood. It’s over their ankles. Now it’s up to their knees. All along the street, children start screaming, licking blood off their chins, tasting it on their tongues just before they drown.
The poison-blood-drowning-murder vision continues for several more paragraphs, before the narrator capitulates to her own panic, realizes that there’s “only one way of escape that I’ve ever discovered,” hops in a taxi, and tells “the man to drive to the old address.” Another sad ending.
The magical realism of “A Visit” initially suggests the possibility of happy ending. Kavan gives us a rare tropical locale, where our narrator receives an erotic night visitant, gorgeous a leopard. She longs to meet the leopard again, but never sees him until he returns in a new form:
One day while I was on the shore, I saw, out to sea, a young man coming towards the land, standing upright on the crest of a a huge breaker, his red cloak blowing out in the wind, and a string of pelicans solemnly flapping in line behind him.
She glimpses the youth and leopard together just one more time, and lives the rest of her life in disappointed waiting. Sometimes the pair enter her dreams though, which only weighs her down with “the obscure bitterness of a loss” — which she blames on herself. Kavan doles out a magical epiphany, only to hobble it down to a kernel of disappointment, another machine in the head.
“Fog” tells the story of a woman high on heroin, driving her car at a dangerous speed through foggy streets. She tells us how peaceful she feels, then adds: “The feeling was injected, of course. She ends up committing a terrible crime on her joyride, and is soon brought in by the police. As the fog of the heroin wears off, the story skirts a bipolar line reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” In the end, the narrator wishes to nullify her consciousness—to “stay deeply asleep and be no more than a hole in space.”
The hero of “Julia and the Bazooka” is unstuck in time. Kavan essentially tells a version of her own life story here, with its sad childhood, failed marriages, and heroin addiction. (The titular “bazooka” is a syringe.) In some paragraphs, Julia is a young child; in others, she is a new bride, or a young woman traveling the world, or meeting the doctor who advises her to stick with heroin — “Without it she could not lead a normal existence, her life would be a shambles, but with its support she is conscientious and energetic, intelligent, friendly.” In other paragraphs, Julia is dead. Indeed, like Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” “Julia and the Bazooka” shows us a consciousness unraveling towards death.
The final two stories in Machine in the Head, while as strange and disconcerting as anything in the collection, are notable for one major difference: both have happy endings. “Five More Days to Countdown” (the only story here from 1975’s posthumous My Soul in China) is a gleeful picaresque exploding in energy. The story centers around an experimental school run by a genius named Esmerelda and her hapless husband. Pretty soon the school is in the grips of a youth rebellion that turns into outright violent revolution—and all five days before Christmas:
A sack of mail, directed to Santa, was delivered later. Sifting through through the contents, through the requests for definitive trendy kaftans, avant-garde night caps, exciting fab fun-fur hoods, switched-on gear of all kinds, I found the more basic items. Junior practical fighting techniques. Guerrilla warfare for the under-sixteens, including training in hand-to-hand combat. Do-it-yourself weapons for schools: simple construction of mortars, flamethrowers, ballistic missiles. How to construct an ambush, a booby trap. Useful tips on terrorism, napalm, nuclear devices, with sections on robbery with violence, blackmail, piracy on the high seas, arson, karate.
The gleeful satire here makes me wish there were more Kavan pieces like this. While the energy of the story matches the picaresque energy of Ice, there’s nothing close to the humor of “Five Days to Countdown” in the rest of the collection. (I’m also a sucker for surreal British boarding school revolution stories, like Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film if….) The absurd vivacity of the tale culminates in a surreal apotheosis of sorts:
Esmerelda and I are swinging high over the world, conveyed through a sky full of snow by eight polar bears, whose bells jingle. Gosh, I never expected a happy ending.
Gosh, neither did I.
The previously-unpublished “Starting a Career” also ends on a positive, if ironic, note. The narrator (yet again!) receives a summons. This time, Kavan names the summoner—it’s Lord Legion, a-not-quite-ousted relic of older times who contests the President (the narrator’s employer) for power. The narrator agrees to become a spy for Lord Legion, a thrilling idea that loads his imagination with all kinds of fantasies.
I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be!
The lines ironically point to Kavan’s own sense of her legacy. While she maintained some success in her lifetime as a writer, she knew that the experimental and avant-garde nature of her writing would guarantee that, well, if she wasn’t exactly “the worlds best-kept secret,” she was definitely bound to some measure of obscurity. The world has a way of catching up to the avant-garde though, and the recent Penguin reissue of Ice and this new NYRB collection suggest that Kavan has found a broader, if not exactly mainstream, audience. Her writing is still challenging today—which is what makes it so engaging. As the collection’s editor Victoria Walker puts it in her foreword—
Kavan’s writing is not to everyone’s taste. Reading her work can be disorienting and discomforting; her narratives shift disconcertingly between past and present tense, first and third person. Her characters are often disagreeable, misanthropic, self-absorbed, priggish or delusional, and the paranoia of her nameless narrators is infectious.
Walker acknowledges that it’s not possible to neatly situate Kavan into any one group of writers. She points out that Kavan is definitely from the Tree of Kafka, and also admired Joyce and Woolf. Walker does make a small canon of writers on Kavan’s wavelength though, and I think the group is is worth listing out: H.P. Lovecraft, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles, Leonora Carrington, Unica Zurn, Ann Quin, and J.G. Ballard. (I’d also throw in João Gilberto Noll, Gisèle Prassinos, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Roberto Bolaño.)
Walker’s editing of the anthology is commendable. Images echo earlier images, motifs build, themes swell, and Machines in the Head offers what I believe to be a close-to-comprehensive showcase of Kavan’s proclivities and range. At the same time, I would’ve loved just a few more stories from the mid to later volumes, A Bright Green Field, Julia and the Bazooka, and My Soul in China. It’s probable of course that Walker selected the more achieved pieces from those volumes, dispensing with sketches and experiments that didn’t quite come off—but I’d love to read, say “Lonely Unholy Shore” or “Mouse Shoes” from A Bright Green Field, or “Experimental” and “Obsessional” from Julia and the Bazooka, and really, just any other story from My Soul in China.
I would advise readers interested in Machines in the Head to start with the mid-late stuff. Maybe get into anything from A Bright Green Field and move forward a bit, before snacking on some of the shorter tales from Asylum Piece. You’ll get the full picture and also, perhaps, a more satisfying read. The selections from Asylum Piece are good but so chilly that they invoke a bit of brain freeze.
Machines in the Head provides a fantastic and surreal overview of an overlooked cult favorite, a writer whose work—long championed by those marvelous archivists, the sci-fi nerds—deserves a broader audience. The stories here will not comfort you and they won’t affirm any heroic sympathy for whatever-the-fuck the human condition is supposed to be. But they are terrifyingly, menacingly real in all their sinister surrealism. Recommended.