A Mason & Dixon Christmastide (Thomas Pynchon)

They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”

The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

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A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose can be served on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in December, 2017].

Read an excerpt from Antoine Volodine’s novel Lisbon, Last Frontier

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The latest issue of The Evergreen Review features a long excerpt from Antoine Volodine’s novel Lisbon, Last FrontierThe excerpt is translated by Andrew Wilson and features some pretty cool art by Billy Jacobs. Here are the first six paragraphs:

On the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, gallows abound.

“What?” he asked, startled. “What did you say?”
“Gallows,” she confirmed, with a provocative movement of her shoulder.
And: I’ve always wanted to start my novel that way, with a sentence that slaps them in the face. And him: Your novel? You aren’t seriously going to write it? And anyway who is slapping whom? And her: It just hauls off and slaps them, all of them, the overfed slaves of Europe, pudgy little slaves and their tie wearing masters, and all the managers, militarized by America, and the employers’ serfs and all those pathetic types, subjugated by everyone, and the social-traitors and their bulldogs, and you as well, my bulldog, you as well.

He sensed she was drifting, on the verge of hysteria again, and if that happened she was liable to lose the fundamental sense of things, attracting the not necessarily indulgent attention of the passers-by, and creating a scene and, in the wake of that scene, a disaster; for herself certainly, but also for him, for he was up to his neck in this affair. “A slap to the snout of the Western pig,” she hissed playfully. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to ruin everything by writing a book riddled with information,” he countered, “where anyone who cares in the German police will find all he needs to pluck you from your hiding-place, not to mention plucking me from my not so hiding-place and breaking me, dismantling in turn what’s left of your network of nutjobs? Don’t forget I’m up to my neck in this thing.” And her: Would you get a hold of yourself, my brave bulldog, I’d never rat on you. I wouldn’t rat on you for anything in the world. And him: Again happy. And her: Nevertheless, my novel will open with a vision of gallows. And him: That’s absurd. Don’t write anything. And her: I remind you that we are in fact on the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, and gallows do abound. As throughout Europe, I might add. And him: Darling, let me just say: you’re fucking nuts.

He hastily examined the messages being sent by her pupils, diving immediately for the shadows and light, which conveyed, from the other end of this tunnel, her intellect. She’d turned toward him, her sunglasses perched atop her head, as if to hold back abundant curls, but for the past two weeks she’d worn her hair short; it was the face of a young woman sunning, only tormented and hard; her features ravished by passions, hatreds and fear. An arid veil was morphing the transparent blue-green of her eyes; darkening the silver glints, until recently so bright: a wind carrying charred dust across an age-old steppe, where presently everything alive was tempted to rave. She’s going mad, he thought. Despondency rose in him. Her mind is fading, she’s drowning. A cynical mistrust had sunk its claws into him, and already he was drawing up contingency plans, already he was preparing emergency measures, sirens wailing. Their joint survival rested on a ruse. If Ingrid were to crack, she would take him down with her. And he, Kurt, had no intention of stumbling into the void just to keep her company.

As he stared her down, she reigned in her smile, and then broke free, joyous. She nodded with her chin towards the clumps of dried cod hanging in front of the markets.

And: You see, I’m not lying, all around us it’s nothing but disfigured corpses. And him: I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were sinking into madness. And her: Oh don’t worry I sank ages ago, now I’m just pretending. My bulldog was the only one to realize, such a clever bloodhound. And him: Forget about writing this book. The trail will be too visible. And what’s the point of leaving clues? Forget about literature. And her: First I give up my machine gun, and now black ink; is that how it is, my bulldog?

Read the rest of the excerpt at The Evergreen Review (the last paragraph is, uh, really something).

I stole a book (Clarice Lispector)

The moment her aunt went to pay for her purchases, Joana removed the book and slipped it furtively between the others she was carrying under her arm. Her aunt turned pale.

Once in the street, the woman chose her words carefully:

— Joana.. . Joana, I saw you…

Joana gave her a quick glance. She remained silent.

— But you have nothing to say for yourself? — her aunt could no longer restrain herself, her voice tearful. — Dear God, what is to become of you?

— There’s no need to fuss, Auntie.

— But you’re still a child… Do you realize what you’ve done?

— I know…

— Do you know… do you know what it’s called… ?

— I stole a book, isn’t that what you’re trying to say?

— God help me! I don’t know what I’m going to do, you even have the nerve to own up!

— You forced me to own up.

— Do you think that you can… that you can just go around stealing?

— Well… perhaps not.

— Why do you do it then… ?

— Because I want to.

— You what?

— her aunt exploded.

— That’s right, I stole because I wanted to. I only steal when I feel like it. I’m not doing any harm.

— God help me! So, stealing does no harm, Joana.

— Only if you steal and are frightened. It doesn’t make me feel either happy or sad.

The woman looked at her in despair.

— Look child, you’re growing up, it won’t be long before you’re a young lady… Very soon now you will be wearing your clothes longer… I beg of you: promise me that you won’t do it again, promise me, think of your poor father who is no longer with us.

Joana looked at her inquisitively:

— But I’m telling you I can do what I like, that…

A biblioklept episode from Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart. English translation by Alison Entrekin.

 

Donald Barthelme interviewed by George Plimpton

Mother Lish’s Bologna Sandwich, a recipe from Gordon Lish

  1. First check the refrigerator to make certain none of the following are in there: lettuce, butter, margarine, mustard, ketchup or mayo.
  2. Remove the jar of mint jelly from the cupboard. (Marmalade is an acceptable substitution.)
  3. Your bread should be of the diet variety, well-aged and adequately chilled. If the counter is wet, place two slices of bread on it. Press down with the heel of your hand to make sure they lie flat. (If you experience some difficulty in separating two slices of bread from the rest of the loaf, rap the loaf smartly on the edge of the counter.)
  4. Never use presliced bologna. Your bologna should be of the sausage type, with good stout rind on it. Working with a dull knife, hack off what you need. What you’re aiming for here are pieces of bologna that display a certain ragged configuration.
  5. Spread mint jelly on one slice of your dampened bread. On the other slice, distribute chunks of bologna. Lift jellied slice up, jellied side up and lower it over the other slice. (If jellied slice sticks to the counter, use screwdriver to pry it off.)
  6. Still working with the same knife, halve the finished product, cutting from one corner to the other. (Bread should come apart into a number of small pieces all by itself. But if this does not occur, start over again.) Serve immediately. (If this is not possible, store in freezer for later use.) keeps indefinitely if wrapped in a brown paper bag with a rubber band around it.)

From “The Day Mother Invented Junk Food” by Gordon Lish. The full piece was published in The New York Times, 2 Aug. 1978. Thanks to David Winters for sharing it with me years ago.

Seek it like a dream | Another blog about Gaddis’s The Recognitions

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Earlier this week, continuing my audit of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recogntions, I felt a tingling sense of recognition in the following lines from which Basil Valentine reads from “a copy of Thoreau” (this is at the very end of Part I, on page 265):

What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.

I attributed this tingling recognition to having read The Recognitions before (and to having read Part I once before that)—but then I realized that I’d read the line far, far more recently: It’s the epigraph to Gaddis’s fourth novel A Frolic of His Own, which I’d opened up again just a few weeks ago (and subsequently put back down).

This recognition is nothing special and certainly uninteresting to longtime Gaddis fans, but it motivated me enough to look more into the remark, so I plugged it into Google and quickly found  J. M. Tyree’s essay “Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the Buried History of an Epigraph.” Tyree’s essay was originally published in New England Review but I found it, natch, on Steven Moore’s The Gaddis Annotations.

Tyree’s essay is a fascinating read, tracking the strange history of the line. Thoreau’s words, it turns out, are not exactly Thoreau’s words—rather, they are Emerson’s recollections of a conversation between the pair from a walk in the woods. Additionally, Emerson wrote and attributed these words after Thoreau’s death. The remark initially appeared in Emerson’s literary eulogy “Thoreau,” published in the August 1862 edition of Atlantic Monthly. As Tyree observes,

This detail, which seems highly trivial at first, in fact slyly reinforces the theme of original and copy supersaturating Gaddis’s novel. The very nature of authorship falls into question here, in a manner similar to the problem of Socrates and Plato: is Thoreau’s saying from Emerson or from Thoreau, or is it from both?

While issues of originality and authenticity of authorship clearly correlate to the themes of The Recognitions, Tyree’s essay is most interesting to me in the ways by which it situates Gaddis’s work with/against the American Renaissance tradition. Tyree gives us some of the flavor of that tradition, recontextualizing Gaddis’s epigraph in a full paragraph of Emerson’s. Here’s Emerson eulogizing his friend Thoreau:

It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great . . . Presently he heard a note which he called that of the night-warbler, a bird he had never identified, had been in search of twelve years, which always, when he saw it, was in the act of diving down into a tree or bush, and which it was vain to seek; the only bird that sings indifferently by night and by day. I told him he must beware of finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show him. He said, “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.”

Tyree situates the passage within the contrasting (and quickly diverging) philosophies of the old friends: “Emerson was essentially cosmic in his Transcendentalism, while Thoreau sought the divine in the actual empirical details of nature.”

Tyree’s essay becomes most interesting to me when he begins to interpret just what the hell the quote means. His analysis hovers around the word family, underlining an obsession of American literature: escape from domesticity. Here’s Tyree’s paraphrase of the Thoreau’s/Emerson’s line:

One finds the object of a long quest, quite suddenly, at the family dinner table. But in the moment of discovery, something seems to go wrong; rather than capturing the truth, one becomes its prey.  Clearly, the conversation here has expanded beyond night-warblers. Thoreau is now speaking of truth and its relationship to the family dinner table.

Tyree then susses out Thoreau’s complicated relationship with Emerson’s family:

It is possible to make too much of the fact that Thoreau’s intellectual life, as both a thinker and a man, developed in Emerson’s shade, in the shelter of Emerson’s house and family. But it is clear that Thoreau was often of two minds about living with or near Emerson. In a September 1841 letter….Thoreau told a friend that he was “living with Mr. Emerson in very dangerous prosperity.”

That “dangerous prosperity” of domestic life echoes one of the grand themes of American literature—namely, civilization is a blockade to be surpassed on the trek into wild nature, individuality, and freedom. Domestic duty interferes with such adventures. Just ask Rip Van Winkle, Ishmael, or Huck Finn. (Or perhaps Hawthorne’s cautionary figure, Young Goodman Brown).

Tyree underlines the point (final emphasis mine):

In the exchange over the night-warbler, the family is again identified in terms of danger; the quest is a danger to the family, or the family is a danger to the quest. One might read this as Thoreau’s critique of what would now be called Emerson’s “lifestyle.” A man who is the prey to truth must leave the dinner table to find it, but Emerson, in the comfort of his household, among his family, will never book the night-warbler. Thoreau does not say that having “all the family at dinner” stops one’s seeking, only that one becomes the prey of a protracted, half-conscious quest at mealtime. Then, one must decide what to do about it—whether to search out the night-warbler or not, and how to do it. The question seems to be whether the truth can be found through the life of the family, or whether one must leave it behind in some sense.

In The Recognitions, Wyatt circumvents the danger to his quest by not only removing himself from family (in the form of his wife Esther), but from removing himself from society in general. In J R (1975), most of Gaddis’s heroes find themselves unable to reconcile to Wyatt’s solution; their seeking fumbled out in half measures, neatly figured in the 96th Street apartment apartment shared by Gibbs, Eigen, and Bast. This hellhole is a transitory space, an inbetweeness of domesticity and city wilderness. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) offers a more thorough critique of the impulse in American literature to send its (generally masculine) characters out into the wild spaces where they can transcend all the trappings of domesticity that bog them down. Carpenter’s Gothic confines its heroine to one haunted house, the men in her life flitting in and out if like silly birds on foiled quests. That domestic confinement reaches a kind of apotheosis in Gaddis’s posthumous novel Agapē Agape (2002), the stifling uninterrupted monologue of a man in a room, fighting against entropy.

And what about A Frolic of His Own (1994)? Well I haven’t read it yet.

Barry Hannah reading “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail” on his porch swing

Barry Hannah reading “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail” (from Airships) and talking about memory and voice at his home in Oxford, Mississippi in February, 1986.

“In Defense of Mechanisms” — Colin James

“In Defense of Mechanisms”

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Colin James

                    Pursued, I ran on the litter strewn beach.
                    Dogs howled, glancing back was not productive.
                    Among the less than pristine dunes
                    were painted signs conceived in a hurry,
                    DR. MOREAU NO LONGER PRACTICES HERE!
                    I stumbled, my thighs inconsolably stressed.
                    To pause was not entirely temporary.
                    I heard my own scream not express optimism,

                    that one obtuse voice as close as is to breathing.

The writer as a confidence man (William Gaddis)

To turn now–it’s not a different direction; it’s this whole idea of the risk of authorial absence and the risk one takes with the reader putting down the book, saying, “It’s too much trouble, I don’t know what’s going on here.” Refusing to collaborate because it’s not worth the effort. So in that light, the idea of the writer as a confidence man has always appealed to me and to many writers. When you think about it, the number of novels [wherein there is a confidence man is great; one thinks] of Melville and, oh dear, Maugham I think had one. The idea of a confidence man has a great appeal for writers because there is something of the con man in the writer, I think. He’s trying—What? What does the confidence man do?—he is working for this “willing suspension of disbelief.”

An excerpt from William Gaddis’s New York State Writers Institute reading, April 4, 1990

Blog about some recent reading

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I ended up reading the last two chapters of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic a few times, trying to figure out exactly what happened. I then read Steven Moore’s excellent essay on the novel, “Carpenter’s Gothic or, The Ambiguities.” (If you have library access to the Infobase database Bloom’s Literature, you can find the essay there; if not, here’s a .pdf version). Moore offers a tidy summary of Carpenter’s Gothic—a summary which should be avoided by anyone who wants to read the novel. Because Carpenter’s Gothic isn’t so much about what happens but how it happens. Moore writes:

As is the case with any summary of a Gaddis novel, this one not only fails to do justice to the novel’s complex tapestry of events but also subverts the manner in which these events are conveyed. Opening Carpenter’s Gothic is like opening the lid of a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces seem to be there, but it is up to the reader to fit those pieces together. …Even after multiple readings, several events remain ambiguous, sometimes because too little information is given, sometimes because there are two conflicting accounts and no way to confirm either.

Moore then lays out the novel’s theme in clear, precise language:

Such narrative strategies are designed not to baffle or frustrate the reader but to dramatize the novel’s central philosophic conflict, that between revealed truth versus acquired knowledge. Nothing is “revealed” by a godlike omniscient narrator in this novel; the reader learns “what really happens” only through study, attention, and the application of intelligence.

Quite frankly, Moore has written an essay that I wish I had written myself. I had been sketching parallels between Carpenter’s Gothic and Leslie Fiedler’s classic study Love and Death in the American Novel all throughout my reading; Moore ends up citing Fiedler a few times in his essay, in particularly working from Fiedler’s idea of how Gothicism manifests in American writing. (Moore does not bring up Fiedler’s critique of masculinity though, which opens up an occasion for me to write—once I’ve reread the puzzle though).

Anyway—I loved loved loved Carpenter’s Gothic, and I read it at just about the right time: It’s a Halloween novel. Great stuff.

In line with the Halloween theme: I had been working on a post about horror, about how I love scary films, grotesque literature, and weird art, because fantasy evocations of terror offer a reprieve from anxiety, from true dread, etc. Like, you know, a climate change report—I mean, that’s genuinely horrifying. But scary films and scary stories almost never really scare me. So I was thinking about literature that does produce dread in me, anxiety in me, and listing out examples in my draft, and so well anyway I reread Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Last Evenings on Earth.” I wrote about the collection named for the story almost a decade ago on this blog, focusing on the “ebb and flow between dread and release, fear and humor, ironic detachment and romantic idealism” in the tales:

In “Last Evenings on Earth,” B takes a vacation to Acapulco with his father. Bolaño’s rhetoric in this tale is masterful: he draws each scene with a reportorial, even terse distance, noting the smallest of actions, but leaving the analytical connections up to his reader. Even though B sees his holiday with his dad heading toward “disaster,” toward “the price they must pay for existing,” he cannot process what this disaster is, or what paying this price means. The story builds to a thick, nervous dread, made all the more anxious by the strange suspicion that no, things are actually fine, we’re all just being paranoid here. (Not true!)

I’m not sure if I’ll get the essay I was planning together any time soon, but I’m glad I reread “Last Evenings.”

There’s a strange background plot in “Last Evenings” in which Bolaño’s stand-in “B” dwells over a book of French surrealist poets, one of whom disappears mysteriously. Jindřich Štyrský isn’t French—he’s Czech—but he was a surrealist poet (and artist and essayist and etc.), so I couldn’t help inserting him into Bolaño’s story. I’ve been reading Dreamverse, which ripples with sensual horror. I wrote about it here. Here’s one of Štyrský’s poems (in English translation by Jed Slast); I think you can get the flavor from this one:

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And here’s a detail from his 1937 painting Transformation:

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I’ve finished the first section of David Bunch’s Moderan, which is a kind of post-nuke dystopia satire on toxic masculinity. While many of the tropes for these stories (most of which were written in the 1960s and ’70s) might seem familiar—cyborgs and dome homes, caste systems and ultraviolence, a world of made and not born ruled by manunkind (to steal from E.E. Cummings)—it’s the way that Bunch conveys this world that is so astounding. Moderan is told in its own idiom; the voice of our narrator Stronghold-10 booms with a bravado that’s ultimately undercut by the authorial irony that lurks under its surface. I will eventually write a proper review of Moderan, but the book seems equal to the task of satirizing the trajectory of our zeitgeist.

I started Angela Carter’s novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman last night and the first chapter is amazing.

Finally, I got a hard copy of Paul Kirchner’s new collection, Hieronymus & Bosch which finds humor in the horror of hell. The collection is lovely—I should have a post about it here later this week and hopefully a review at The Comics Journal later this month. For now though, a sample strip:

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A patchwork of conceits, a hodgepodge of good intentions, another blog about William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

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In its sixth (and penultimate chapter), William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic includes a rare scene. Our heroine Elizabeth Booth exits the house she spends most of the book confined in and actually looks at it from the outside. With her is the house’s owner, the mysterious Mr. McCandless:

—I’ve never really looked at it.

—At what… looking where she was looking.

—At the house. From outside I mean.

Carpenter’s Gothic is a novel of utter interiority—the reader never makes it but a few feet out of the house, and only then on rare occasions. This postmodern Gothic novel tingles with a smothering claustrophobia, its insularity underscored by continual references to other spaces outside the house. The possibility of an outside world waiting for Elizabeth is realized through dialogue with her husband Paul, her brother Billy, and mysterious Mr. McCandless, as well as the non-stop (and, from the reader’s perspective, one-sided) telephone conversations that make up so much of the novel’s material. And yet with all its references to traveling away to California, Africa, New York City, Acapulco, etc., Carpenter’s Gothic keeps Elizabeth locked away in the old house, tethered to the umbilical phone cord at the novel’s center.

McCandless is off in his own interior space—the shifting tortured howl of his own consciousness—when Elizabeth remarks that she has never really seen the house from the outside. Her observation raises him “to the surface” of concrete reality:

—Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface —yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork.

The house is built in the Carpenter Gothic style (sometimes called Rural Gothic style), which essentially amounts to an American imitation of European Gothic’s forceful elegance. McCandless continues:

That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions, those vertical darts coming down from the eaves? and that row of bull’s eyes underneath?

McCandless, stand-in for Gaddis, performs a metatextual interpretation for the reader. The Carpenter Gothic is Carpenter’s Gothic, the American postGothic reinterpreation of the European form—namely, the Gothic novel. The materials Gaddis uses to build his book are the materials of mass media and mass textuality. He condenses high literature, lurid newspaper clippings, mail, textbook pages, scraps of illegible notes, pornographic centerfolds, and every other manner of paper into a postGothic synthesis. And not just paper, but also the telephone (always ringing) and the radio (always on, always tuned to inhuman human voices). And the television too, tuned to Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1943),  a film which weaves its way in and out of Elizabeth’s consciousness in the beginning of the novel, planting seeds of romance and locked rooms and secrets and fire.

But I’ve cut off McCandless, who was just about to give us another neat description of the Carpenter Gothic, which is to say another neat description of Carpenter’s Gothic:

He was up kicking leaves aside, gesturing, both arms raised embracing —a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale, because it’s stood here, hasn’t it, foolish inventions and all it’s stood here for ninety years…

 Carpenter’s Gothic is more than just a hodgepodge or patchwork; it is more than a ridiculous effort; it is more than the sum of its foolish inventions. Gaddis gives us something new, a postmodern Gothic analysis of the end of the American century.

McCandless, Gaddis’s stand-in, wants to put all the pieces together. He echoes Jack Gibbs, the (anti-)hero (and fellow Gaddis stand-in) of J R, and he prefigures the narrator of Gaddis’s last novel, Agapē Agape, who, like Gibbs, strives to stitch together something from the atomized scraps and remnants of the 20th century.  Gaddis’s protagonists contend with entropy and attempt to get the detritus of the modern world “sorted and organized.” The push-pull of hope and despair drives these protagonists, but often drives them too far.

And McCandless’s reverie takes him too far, again into the interiority of his skull:

…breaking off, staring up where her gaze had fled back with those towering heights and cupolas, as though for some echo: It’s like the inside of your head McCandless, if that was what brought him to add —why when somebody breaks in, it’s like being assaulted, it’s the…

In a moment of self-speech, McCandless realizes that the Carpenter Gothic is “like the inside of [his] head,” underscoring his connection to his creator, Gaddis, as well as the connection between the house and the novel.

The (always) ringing phone punctures the scene:

—Listen! The phone had rung inside and she started up at the second ring, sank back with the third. —All I meant was, it’s a hard house to hide in…

Elizabeth’s lines here emphasize Carpenter’s Gothic’s central Gothicism—the Carpenter Gothic and Carpenter’s Gothic is a hard place to hide in. Secrets will out.

And so well where does our hodgepodge of good intentions lead?

Something in this sunny autumnal atmosphere | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for October 14th, 1837

Characteristics during the walk–Apple-trees with only here and there an apple on the boughs, among the thinned leaves, the relics of a gathering. In others you observe a rustling, and see the boughs shaking and hear the apples thumping down, without seeing the person who does it. Apples scattered by thewayside, some with pieces bitten out, others entire, which you pick up and taste, and find them harsh, crabbed cider-apples, though they have a pretty, waxen appearance. In sunny spots of woodland, boys in search of nuts, looking picturesque among the scarlet and golden foliage. There is something in this sunny autumnal atmosphere that gives a peculiar effect to laughter and joyous voices,–it makes them infinitely more elastic and gladsome than at other seasons. Heaps of dry leaves tossed together by the wind, as if for a couch and lounging-place for the weary traveller, while the sun is warming it for him. Golden pumpkins and squashes, heaped in the angle of a house till they reach the lower windows. Ox-teams, laden with a rustling load of Indian corn, in the stalk and ear. When an inlet of the sea runs far up into the country, you stare to see a large schooner appear amid the rural landscape; she is unloading a cargo of wood, moist with rain or salt water that has dashed over it. Perhaps you hear the sound of an axe in the woodland; occasionally, the report of a fowling-piece. The travellers in the early part of the afternoon look warm and comfortable as if taking a summer drive; but as eve draws nearer, you meet them well wrapped in topcoats or cloaks, or rough, great surtouts, and red-nosed withal, seeming to take no great comfort, but pressing homeward. The characteristic conversation among teamsters and country squires, where the ascent of a hill causes the chaise to go at the same pace as an ox-team,–perhaps discussing the qualities of a yoke of oxen. The cold, blue aspects of sheets of water. Some of the country shops with the doors closed; others still open as in summer. I meet a wood-sawyer, with his horse and saw on his shoulders, returning from work. As night draws on, you begin to see the gleaming of fires on the ceilings in the houses which you pass. The comfortless appearance of houses at bleak and bare spots,–you wonder how there can be any enjoyment in them. I meet a girl in a chintz gown, with a small shawl on her shoulders, white stockings, and summer morocco shoes,–it looks observable. Turkeys, queer, solemn objects, in black attire, grazing about, and trying to peck the fallen apples, which slip away from their bills.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for October 14th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

 

Blog about about the Halloween chapter of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

Mischief Night, Jamie Wyeth

The fourth of seven unnumbered chapters in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic is set over the course of Halloween, moving from morning, into afternoon, and then night. Halloween is an appropriately Gothic setting for the midpoint of Gaddis’s postmodern Gothic novel, and there are some fascinating turns in this central chapter.

A summary with spoilers is not necessary here. Suffice to say that our heroine Elizabeth Booth is left alone on Halloween in the dilapidated Rural Gothic style house she and her awful husband Paul rent from mysterious Mr. McCandless. As Paul exits the house to go on one his many fruitless business trips, he notices that some neighborhood kids have already played their Halloween tricks:

He had the front door open but he stood there, looking out, looking up, —little bastards look at that, not even Halloween till tonight but they couldn’t wait… Toilet paper hung in disconsolate streamers from the telephone lines, arched and drooped in the bared maple branches reaching over the windows of the frame garage beyond the fence palings where shaving cream spelled fuck. —Look keep the doors locked, did this last night Christ knows what you’re in for tonight… and the weight of his hand fell away from her shoulder, —Liz? just try and be patient? and he pulled the door hard enough for the snap of the lock to startle her less with threats locked out than herself locked in, to leave her steadying a hand on the newel…

The kids’ Halloween antics take on a particularly sinister aspect here, set against the stark New England background Gaddis conjures. We get gloomy streamers, desolate trees, and the bald, ugly signification of one lone word: fuck. (Fuck and its iterations, along with Gaddis’s old favorite God damn, are bywords in Carpenter’s Gothic). Paul’s reading of this scene is also sinister; he underscores the Gothic motif in telling Elizabeth to “keep the doors locked” because she doesn’t know what she’s “in for tonight.” Tellingly, the aural snap of Paul’s exit shows us that Elizabeth is ultimately more paranoid about being locked in. Indeed, by the middle of the novel, we see her increasingly trapped in her (haunted) house. The staircase newel, an image that Gaddis uses repeatedly in the novel, becomes her literal support. Elizabeth spends the rest of the morning avoiding chores before eventually vomiting and taking a nap.

Then, Gaddis propels us forward a few hours with two remarkable paragraphs (or, I should say, two paragraphs upon which I wish to remark). Here is the first post-nap paragraph:

She woke abruptly to a black rage of crows in the heights of those limbs rising over the road below and lay still, the rise and fall of her breath a bare echo of the light and shadow stirred through the bedroom by winds flurrying the limbs out there till she turned sharply for the phone and dialed slowly for the time, up handling herself with the same fragile care to search the mirror, search the world outside from the commotion in the trees on down the road to the straggle of boys faces streaked with blacking and this one, that one in an oversize hat, sharing kicks and punches up the hill where in one anxious glimpse the mailman turned the corner and was gone.

What a fantastic sentence. Gaddis’s prose here reverberates with sinister force, capturing (and to an extent, replicating) Elizabeth’s disorientation. Dreadful crows and flittering shadows shake Elizabeth, and searching for stability she telephones for the time. (If you are a young person perhaps bewildered by this detail: This is something we used to do. We used to call a number for the time. Like, the time of day. You can actually still do this. Call the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1069 if you’re curious what this aesthetic experience is like). The house’s only clock is broken, further alienating Elizabeth from any sense of normalcy. In a mode of “fragile care,” anxious Elizabeth glances in the mirror, another Gothic symbol that repeats throughout this chapter. She then spies the “straggle of boys” (a neat parallel to the “black rage of crows” at the sentence’s beginning) already dressed up in horrorshow gear for mischief night and rumbling with violence. The mailman—another connection to the outside world, to some kind of external and steadying authority—simply disappears.

Here is the next paragraph:

Through the festoons drifting gently from the wires and branches a crow dropped like shot, and another, stabbing at a squirrel crushed on the road there, vaunting black wings and taking to them as a car bore down, as a boy rushed the road right down to the mailbox in the whirl of yellowed rust spotted leaves, shouts and laughter behind the fence palings, pieces of pumpkin flung through the air and the crows came back all fierce alarm, stabbing and tearing, bridling at movement anywhere till finally, when she came out to the mailbox, stillness enveloped her reaching it at arm’s length and pulling it open. It looked empty; but then there came sounds of hoarded laughter behind the fence palings and she was standing there holding the page, staring at the picture of a blonde bared to the margin, a full tumid penis squeezed stiff in her hand and pink as the tip of her tongue drawing the beading at its engorged head off in a fine thread. For that moment the blonde’s eyes, turned to her in forthright complicity, held her in their steady stare; then her tremble was lost in a turn to be plainly seen crumpling it, going back in and dropping it crumpled on the kitchen table.

The paragraph begins with the Gothic violence of the crows “stabbing and tearing” at a squirrel. Gaddis fills Carpenter’s Gothic with birds—in fact, the first words of the novel are “The bird”—a motif that underscores the possibility of flight, of escape (and entails its opposite–confinement, imprisonment). These crows are pure Halloween, shredding small mammals as the wild boys smash pumpkins. Elizabeth exits the house (a rare vignette in Carpenter’s Gothic, which keeps her primarily confined inside it) to check the mail. The only message that has been delivered to her though is from the Halloween tricksters, who cruelly laugh at their prank. The pornographic image, ripped from a magazine, is described in such a way that the blonde woman trapped within it comes to life, “in forthright complicity,” making eye contact with Elizabeth. There’s an intimation of aggressive sexual violence underlying the prank, whether the boys understand this or not. The scrap of paper doubles their earlier signal, the shaving creamed fuck written on the garage door.

Elizabeth recovers herself to signify steadiness in return, demonstratively crumpling the pornographic scrap—but she takes it with her, back into the house, where it joins the other heaps of papers, scraps, detritus of media and writing that make so much of the content of the novel. Here, the pornographic scrap takes on its own sinister force. Initially, Elizabeth sets out to compose herself anew; the next paragraph finds her descending the stairs, “differently dressed now, eyeliner streaked on her lids and the
colour unevenly matched on her paled cheeks,” where she answers the ringing phone with “a quaver in her hand.” The scene that follows is an extraordinary displacement in which the phone takes on a phallic dimension, and Elizabeth imaginatively correlates herself with the blonde woman in the pornographic picture. She stares at this image the whole time she is on the phone while a disembodied male voice demands answers she cannot provide:

The voice burst at her from the phone and she held it away, staring down close at the picture as though something, some detail, might have changed in her absence, as though what was promised there in minutes, or moments, might have come in a sudden burst on the wet lips as the voice broke from the phone in a pitch of invective, in a harried staccato, broke off in a wail and she held it close enough to say —I’m sorry Mister Mullins, I don’t know what to… and she held it away again bursting with spleen, her own fingertip smoothing the still fingers hoarding the roothairs of the inflexible surge before her with polished nails, tracing the delicate vein engorged up the curve of its glistening rise to the crown cleft fierce with colour where that glint of beading led off in its fine thread to the still tongue, mouth opened without appetite and the mascaraed eyes unwavering on hers without a gleam of hope or even expectation, —I don’t know I can’t tell you!

Gaddis’s triple repetition of the verb burst links the phone to the phallus and links Elizabeth to the blonde woman. This link is reinforced by the notation of the woman’s “mascaraed eyes,” a detail echoing the paragraph’s initial image of Elizabeth descending the stairs with streaked eyeliner. The final identification between the two is the most horrific—Elizabeth reads those eyes, that image, that scrap of paper, as a work “without a gleam of hope or even expectation.” Doom.

Elizabeth is “saved,” if only temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Mr. McCandless, who quickly stabilizes the poor woman. Gaddis notes that McCandless “caught the newel with her hand…He had her arm, had her hand in fact firm in one of his.” When he asks why she is so upset, she replies, “It’s the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there…” McCandless chalks the mess up to “kids with nothing to do,” but Elizabeth reads in it something more sinister: “there’s a meanness.” McCandless counters that “it’s plain stupidity…There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This phrase “Halloween out there” repeats three times in the chapter, suggesting a larger signification—it isn’t just Halloween tonight, but rather, as McCandless puts it, the night is “Like the whole damned world isn’t it.” It’s always Halloween out there in Carpenter’s Gothic, and this adds up to mostly malice of mostly stupidity in this world—depending on how you read it.

The second half of the chapter gives over to McCandless, who comes to unexpectedly inhabit the novel’s center. Elizabeth departs, if only for a few hours, leaving McCandless alone, if only momentarily. A shifty interlocutor soon arrives on the thresh hold of his Carpenter Gothic home, and we learn some of his fascinating background. It’s a strange moment in a novel that has focused so intently on the consciousness of Elizabeth, but coming in the novel’s center, it acts as a stabilizing force. I won’t go into great detail here—I think much of what happens when McCandless is the center of the narrative is best experienced without any kind of spoiler—but we get at times from him a sustained howl against the meanness and stupidity of the world. He finally ushers his surprise interlocutor out of his home with the following admonition: “It’s Halloween out there too.”

 

Notes on Vulture’s “Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon”

Last year, Vulture put together a list of “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction,” and I wrote about it on my blog. The list was good fun, and there are a handful of novels on it I’m still keeping an eye out for (feel free to send me a copy of David Ohle’s Motorman, people).

Today, Vulture published another list of 100 books, this one ambitiously but cautiously titled, “A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon.” The list begins with a nearly-900 word prefatory essay called “Why Now?” that isn’t bad but is perhaps unnecessary; the sentence, “We thought it might be fun to speculate (very prematurely) on what a canon of the 21st century might look like right now” is fine enough. I mean, look: List-making is fun. Putting together a syllabus or anthology or “canon” is fun. It generates conversation and maybe pisses folks off. And Vulture racked up a range of ringers to make their list—I have a lot of respect for many of the critics and writers who contributed here.

But ultimately, I think we all know that this canon is not a canon; it cannot be a canon because a canon evolves over time, and then evolves (or devolves or implodes or mutates or pick your verb) more. We don’t know what the most important books of the past eighteen years are yet, and most of us won’t be alive to know what they turn out to be. We would be better suited, really, to naming the canonical novels of 1900-1918 I suppose. But again, I think we all know that. Lists are fun. I take Vulture’s list to be a lovely set of reading recommendations from a set of smart folks.

I’ve already prefaced too much. I will go through the list, fairly quickly, in the order that Vulture prepared it, making comments or making none, occasionally recommending an alternative. I will write quickly without much reflection and I will undoubtedly forget a ton of books.

The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt (September 20, 2000)

For a few years now, almost every single reader whose taste I greatly admire has recommended DeWitt’s debut novel to me. I’ll admit that I didn’t care for her novel Lightning Rods at all, which seemed like the premise for a Ballard story stretched too thin over 200 or so pages. I am close to giving up on her short story collection Some Trick. I may be entirely misreading her. However, I admire the critic Christian Lorentzen, who helmed Vulture’s essay on The Last Samurai, and the fact that it came in number one on the list means that I’ll almost certainly give it a shot.

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (September 1, 2001)

I recall chuckling at the part where the one son was drunk and doing some business with the lawn clippers. I suspect there’s some nostalgia at work with this one. Should I recommend a different book so early? Sure: Open City, by Teju Cole  (February 8, 2011) is somehow absent.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3, 2005) 

I can’t quibble. Reminds me that I want to read The Unconsoled

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti (September 25, 2010) 

Autofiction! Maybe I should read it. In the meantime, may I recommend Writers, by Antoine Volodine (August 5th, 2016)?

The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante (2011-2015)

Are these autofiction, too? I love these books. I would read a fifth one. And a sixth one. Etc.

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (May 5, 2015)

I downloaded the audiobook of this this summer but kept stalling, which is weird because it’s pretty short (Nelson reads it herself, too). Give it another shot.

2666, by Roberto Bolaño (November 11, 2008) 

What can I say? There are seven review of 2666 posted on Biblioklept. I would’ve picked this as number one. Ten years after a hype cycle that could’ve withered a lesser book, 2666 seems as prescient as ever—not only in its content, but in its form—or really the welding of content and form, into one big dark dark big labyrinth-poem.

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (March 3, 2015) 

Another reminder that I don’t read enough contemporary fiction.

The Outline Trilogy (OutlineTransit, and Kudos), by Rachel Cusk (2014–2018) 

Somehow Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon (November 21, 2006) is not on this list, a fact that has nothing whatsoever to do with Cusk’s books, which I have not read.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan (September 2001) 

I found it a slog and an utter bore. Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann (2005) is somehow not on Vulture’s list.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (September 1, 2005) 

I remember reading it when it came out but I really don’t remember anything other than the premise.  A Mercy, by Toni Morrison (November 11, 2008) is not on Vulture’s list

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner (August 23, 2011)

I hated 10:04 (Lerner’s follow up to Atocha Station) so much that I doubt I will ever read another book by the man. I loved loved loved Flee, by Evan Dara (2013) though.

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (April 2, 2013) 

Luc Sante is recommending The Flamethrowers, so maybe I should finally make time to read it.

Erasure, by Percival Everett (August 1, 2001)

Haven’t read any Everett; is this a good starting place?

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides(September 4, 2002)

A thoroughly passable entertainment that has no business on a list. Did you know that Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware (2000) was published in the last 18 years also?

Platform, by Michel Houellebecq (September 5, 2002) 

Houellebecq writes fascinating stuff, and his follow up The Possibility of an Island (2005) would fit in here too.

Do Everything in the Dark, by Gary Indiana (June 1, 2003)

Lorentzen’s write up of this one made me add it to a little note I keep on my iPhone of books to look out for.

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (August 14, 2003)

Haven’t heard of it.

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth (September 30, 2004)

I tried with Roth, I really did, and it just didn’t stick, none of it, just not for me. Point Omega, by Don DeLillo (February 2, 2010), is, in my estimation, one of the better novels of the post-9/11 zeitgeist (and really underrated as a DeLillo novel).

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (October 1, 2004)

A really fantastic book that’s not on this list is Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli (July 7, 2009).

Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill (October 11, 2005)

I’ve enjoyed some of her short stories a lot.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (September 26, 2006)

It’s good. No Country for Old Men (2005) is probably better, but not as zeitgeisty.

Ooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel (November 14, 2006)

Ooga-Booga is a fantastic name for a book.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (September 6, 2007)

I recalled enjoying it fine, but it’s hardly canonical stuff, is it?

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (April 30, 2009)

I loved Bring Up the Bodies (May 8, 2012) very much too.

The Possessed, by Elif Batuman (February 16, 2010)

Always meant to read this and then never followed through.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender (June 1, 2010)

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi (June 1, 2011)

Lives Other Than My Own, by Emmanuel Carrère (September 13, 2011)

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead (October 6, 2011) 

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (May 24, 2012)

NW, by Zadie Smith (August 27, 2012)

White Girls, by Hilton Als (January 1, 2013)

Mr. Fox looks good—but is it fantastic? I read Zone One but I guess it didn’t make a huge impression on me, because I don’t recall much besides the premise. White Teeth didn’t persuade me to read another of Smith’s books, but many smart people say they are good so.

My Struggle: A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 13, 2013)

Where are my Never Knuasgaards?

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (September 23, 2013)

Is this any good?

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (January 28, 2014)

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews (April 11, 2014)

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (October 7, 2014)

consent not to be a single being, by Fred Moten (2017–2018)

I’ve been copying and pasting the titles, authors, and dates from Vulture’s sites, and each time I have to remove their Amazon links.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (September 19, 2000)

I will never understand the acclaim for this one. Never.

Also: Hey: If this Vulture list came out in, say, 2008, how many Jonathan Lethem books would be on it? How many Dave Eggers books?

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman(October 10, 2000)

Great stuff.

True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey (January 9, 2001)

I’m beginning to get tired of this post and I wished that I hadn’t started and I apologize to you, reader. Gerald Murnane seems like a writer to put on a list.

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, by Anne Carson (February 6, 2001)

I don’t know this one! Autobiography of Red came out in 1998 so it can’t go on the list, and thus proves lists are only foolish fun.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich (April 3, 2001)

This list is a huge reminder to me that I don’t read enough women. I try, but I think I don’t try hard enough.

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald (October 2, 2001)

A challenging book, and not the best starting place for Sebald, but also very rewarding. (Start with The Rings of Saturn (1995)).

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (February 4, 2002)

The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers (October 3, 2002)

The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong (April 7, 2003)

Mortals, by Norman Rush (May 27, 2003)

Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte (February 16, 2004)

I recall liking Home Land a lot, but canonical it ain’t. I tried with Richard Powers but it did not take.

Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace (June 8, 2004)

I’m tempted to write a whole mini-essay here in the middle of this damn thing about how Wallace’s literary stock seems to have fallen, at least to a broader audience, over the last few years. He seems like a target for handwringers to wring their hands over—and he (and, more importantly, his work) doesn’t even seem like the target—it’s his reputation and his fans that seem like the target. Anyway. I mean:

“Good Old Neon” is in Oblivion, and it belongs on the list.

Honored Guest, by Joy Williams (October 5, 2004)

Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky (October 31, 2004)

The Sluts, by Dennis Cooper (January 13, 2005)

Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich (June 28, 2005)

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (July 1, 2005)

The Afterlife, by Donald Antrim (May 30, 2006)

Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell (August 7, 2006)

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (August 8, 2006)

American Genius, A Comedy, by Lynne Tillman (September 25, 2006)

Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta (November 28, 2006)

Many casual readers may not know that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) was both a commercial and a critical flop—it essentially ended his writing career. The book found its audience among the modernist critics, writers, and readers of the 1920s though, and by the 1940s was generally esteemed as a canonical classic.

The Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling (1997–2007) 

Oh.

Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August Kleinzahler (April 1, 2008)

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga (April 22, 2008)

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon (May 1, 2008)

Home, by Marilynne Robinson (September 2, 2008)

Fine Just the Way It Is, by Annie Proulx (September 9, 2008)

Scenes From a Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee (1997–2009)

Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss (February 3, 2009)

Spreadeagle, by Kevin Killian (March 1, 2010)

There are 100 books on this list and somehow The Last Novel, by David Markson (2007) is not one of them.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart (July 27, 2010)

I genuinely hate this novel.

Seven Years, by Peter Stamm (March 22, 2011)

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes (August 4, 2011)

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (October 25, 2011)

The Gentrification of the Mind, by Sarah Schulman (January 7, 2012)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain (May 1, 2012)

Capital, by John Lanchester (June 11, 2012)

I’ve finally given in and admitted to myself that Haruki Murakami is Not For Me.

The MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood (2003-2013)

MaddAddam wasn’t especially good but Atwood’s first two are pretty good zeitgeisty affairs (and fun quick reads).

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra (May 7, 2013)

Taipei, by Tao Lin (June 4, 2013)

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward (September 17, 2013)

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (April 7, 2014)

How to Be Both, by Ali Smith (August 28, 2014)

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (October 2, 2014)

I’ll admit I’ve stopped reading even the blurbs at this point.

Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish (November 11, 2014)

A tremendous novel. The sort of thing that if you described the plot to me I’d, like, wave my hand as if to say, “Pass” — but, no, it’s so, so, so very good.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (April 7, 2015)

The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander (April 21, 2015)

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2015-2017)

What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (January 19, 2016)

Collected Essays & Memoirs (Library of America edition), by Albert Murray (October 18, 2016)

The Needle’s Eye, by Fanny Howe (November 1, 2016)

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag (February 7, 2017)

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (February 28, 2017)

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg (March 7, 2017)

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Thi Bui (March 7, 2017)

Tell Me How it Ends, by Valeria Luiselli (March 13, 2017)

Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood (May 2, 2017)

Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas (January 16, 2018)

Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday (February 6, 2018)

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson (January 16, 2018)

Johnson’s novel isn’t last on the list—Halliday’s is—(and I don’t think “last” is anything but chronology for the authors near the end of the list)—but I’ve read it and I love it (and it’s another write up from Lorentzen)—but it’s not a canonical work. It’s great, and it somehow manages to match Johnson’s best early stuff, but again—not canonical. Although of course I could be wrong.

What I think is this:

For a while, we’ll see the canon, or The Canon if you prefer—and just as significantly, the idea of a literary canon–increasingly atomized, interrogated, personalized, and deconstructed (and perhaps neglected, at least from an academic standpoint). It doesn’t matter. The work of today’s literary darlings may be the foamy flotsam and jetsam of tomorrow. But of course you’ll be dead—I mean I’ll be dead—what I’m saying is we’ll be dead, so it doesn’t matter. We could pretend to be, like, Stewards of the Canon or something—hope for a cultural continuity (or discontinuity) that preserves (or disrupts) Certain Literary Values (Ours!)—or maybe just accept that reading is a bit of pleasure, a bit of fun, and that we antecede those who will decide, a hundred years from now, what the 21st-century canon really is.

 

I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire | Denis Johnson

At the moment, I was heading anywhere at all for breakfast, but when I heard the desk clerk’s radio playing news that an aircraft, I assumed a sightseeing plane, had struck Tower Two of the World Trade Center, I decided to jump on the number 3 subway half a block west, and go have a look.

As I headed toward Eighth Avenue I tried calling Mark Ahearn about lunch, but my cellphone only hammered out a rapid-fire beep. Please don’t ask me how this can be true: I traveled through the busy lobby and walked for half a long block on a crowded Manhattan street and then boarded the World Trade Center subway completely unaware that I was participating in a citywide disaster, and moving toward its center.

The World Trade Center station came a few stops south of Twenty-Third Street, but we didn’t get there. After Christopher Street the train halted in the tunnel and waited, humming. It gave a screech, lurched backward slightly, and stopped again. Somehow the general news had infiltrated the sealed subterranean environment that something historically enormous was happening very nearby, and it got quiet in our compartment, and almost everybody entered into a small, desperate battle with a worthless cellphone. The train moved forward and gained speed, but began braking long before Houston Street, the next station, where it halted with several rear cars sticking out behind into the tunnel. For a tense minute, whoever spoke only whispered. Then came a shout—“Tell us what’s going on!” and others raised the same cry until we heard the conductor’s PA saying something about the tracks, the tracks…“Due to the catastrophe, this train will not go farther. Please exit out the forward cars onto the platform. Do not go onto the tracks.” We were all on our feet, maneuvering selfishly, angling for the doors. But the doors didn’t open. The engine stopped. “Open the doors! Open the doors!” The engine started. A man shouted, “Just everybody stand still!” People from the car behind had pried their way into ours, and somebody almost went down. A woman said, “Stop that, you fool!” A man in front of me pushed a teenage boy beside him. With the meat of his fist he began beating the back of the boy’s head. And I jumped into the fray, didn’t you, Harrington, like a monkey, yes you did, and got yourself an elbow in the eye. The doors to the compartment flew open and people clambered out onto the station’s platform, where a dreadlocked man in a crimson athletic suit jumped up and down on a bench as if it were a trampoline, screaming “God, see what we’re doing to each other down here.” When I came up into the street, dizzy and one-eyed, I couldn’t get my bearings. I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire. I asked a man nearby—“Where are we? I can’t see the other tower.” He said, “It fell” and I said, “No it didn’t.” He didn’t argue. We stood in the middle of the street with thousands of other people, all of us motionless, like a frozen parade, all silent. I began to believe the man. We watched the flames spreading through the building’s upper stories over the course of about twenty minutes, and then the eighteen-hundred-foot structure seemed to curtsy and dip left, and then it went down.

I turned around and looked at the people behind me. I saw shocked laughter, weeping, horror, bewilderment. The young man next to me bawled at the top of his lungs. I was afraid to ask him if he had a loved one in the buildings afraid to talk to him at all, but he raised his agonized, Christly face to me and suddenly laughed, saying, “Buddy, you are working on one heck of a black eye.” We stood far from the buildings—at least a mile, I’d say—far enough that we didn’t feel the ground shake, and we heard nothing but sirens, and official-sounding voices screaming, “Get out of the street! Stay out of the street!” and others too—“They’re attacking the Capitol!—the Pentagon!—the White House!”

Cop cars and ambulances heaped with dust and chunks of concrete came at us out of the south. I started walking that direction, I don’t know why, but I soon realized I was the only person heading downtown, and then the tide of panic pressing toward me was too heavy to go against, and I turned around and let it take me north.

From Denis Johnson’s short story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” Collected in  The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, 2017.

 

About the time the Spy and the Fanny sailed | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for September 10th, 1852

September 10th.–Here is another beautiful morning, with the sun dimpling in the early sunshine. Four sail-boats are in sight, motionless on the sea, with the whiteness of their sails reflected in it. The heat-haze sleeps along the shore, though not so as quite to hide it, and there is the promise of another very warm day. As yet, however, the air is cool and refreshing. Around the island, there is the little ruffle of a breeze; but where the sail-boats are, a mile or more off, the sea is perfectly calm. The crickets sing, and I hear the chirping of birds besides.

At the base of the light-house yesterday, we saw the wings and feathers of a decayed little bird, and Mr. Thaxter said they often flew against the lantern with such force as to kill themselves, and that large quantities of them might be picked up. How came these little birds out of their nests at night? Why should they meet destruction from the radiance that proves the salvation of other beings?

Mr. Thaxter had once a man living with him who had seen “Old Bab,” the ghost. He met him between the hotel and the sea, and describes him as dressed in a sort of frock, and with a very dreadful countenance.

Two or three years ago, the crew of a wrecked vessel, a brigantine, wrecked near Boon Island, landed on Hog Island of a winter night, and found shelter in the hotel. It was from the eastward. There were six or seven men, with the mate and captain. It was midnight when they got ashore. The common sailors, as soon as they were physically comfortable, seemed to beperfectly at ease. The captain walked the floor, bemoaning himself for a silver watch which he had lost; the mate, being the only married man, talked about his Eunice. They all told their dreams of the preceding night, and saw in them prognostics of the misfortune.

There is now a breeze, the blue ruffle of which seems to reach almost across to the mainland, yet with streaks of calm; and, in one place, the glassy surface of a lake of calmness, amidst the surrounding commotion.

The wind, in the early morning, was from the west, and the aspect of the sky seemed to promise a warm and sunny day. But all at once, soon after breakfast, the wind shifted round to the eastward; and great volumes of fog, almost as dense as cannon-smoke, came sweeping from the eastern ocean, through the valley, and past the house. It soon covered the whole sea, and the whole island, beyond a verge of a few hundred yards. The chilliness was not so great as accompanies a change of wind on the mainland. We had been watching a large ship that was slowly making her way between us and the land towards Portsmouth. This was now hidden. The breeze is still very moderate; but the boat, moored near the shore, rides with a considerable motion, as if the sea were getting up.

Mr. Laighton says that the artist who adorned Trinity Church, in New York, with sculpture wanted some real wings from which to imitate the wings of cherubim. Mr. Thaxter carried him the wings of the white owl that winters here at the Shoals, together with those of some other bird; and the artist gave his cherubim the wings of an owl.

This morning there have been two boat-loads ofvisitors from Rye. They merely made a flying call, and took to their boats again,–a disagreeable and impertinent kind of people.

The Spy arrived before dinner, with several passengers. After dinner, came the Fanny, bringing, among other freight, a large basket of delicious pears to me, together with a note from Mr. B. B. Titcomb. He is certainly a man of excellent taste and admirable behavior. I sent a plateful of pears to the room of each guest now in the hotel, kept a dozen for myself, and gave the balance to Mr. Laighton.

The two Portsmouth young ladies returned in the Spy. I had grown accustomed to their presence, and rather liked them; one of them being gay and rather noisy, and the other quiet and gentle. As to new-comers, I feel rather a distaste to them; and so, I find, does Mr. Laighton,–a rather singular sentiment for a hotel-keeper to entertain towards his guests. However, he treats them very hospitably when once within his doors.

The sky is overcast, and, about the time the Spy and the Fanny sailed, there were a few drops of rain. The wind, at that time, was strong enough to raise white-caps to the eastward of the island, and there was good hope of a storm. Now, however, the wind has subsided, and the weather-seers know not what to forebode.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for September 10th, 1852. From Passages from the American Note-Books.