Sitting in the wing chair, I reflected that I had pretended to be shocked by Joana’s suicide and pretended to accept the Auersbergers’ invitation to their artistic dinner. When I accepted it I was only pretending, I now thought, yet in spite of this I had acted upon it. The idea is nothing short of grotesque, I thought, yet at the same time it amused me. Actually I’ve always dissembled with the Auersbergers, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, and here I am again, sitting in their wing chair and dissembling once more: I’m not really here in their apartment in the Gentzgasse, I’m only pretending to be in the Gentzgasse, only pretending to be in their apartment, I said to myself. I’ve always pretended to them about everything—I’ve pretended to everybody about everything. My whole life has been a pretense, I told myself in the wing chair—the life I live isn’t real, it’s a simulated life, a simulated existence. My whole life, my whole existence has always been simulated—my life has always been pretense, never reality, I told myself. And I pursued this idea to the point at which I finally believed it. I drew a deep breath and said to myself, in such a way that the people in the music room were bound to hear it: You’ve always lived a life of pretense, not a real life—a simulated existence, not a genuine existence. Everything about you, everything you are, has always been pretense, never genuine, never real. But I must put an end to this fantasizing lest I go mad, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, and so I took a large gulp of champagne.
From Thomas, Bernhard’s novel 1984 Woodcutters; English translation by David McLinktock.
The public for whom Poe wrote, though grossly unappreciative of his art, was by no means unaccustomed to the horrors with which he dealt. America, besides inheriting the usual dark folklore of Europe, had an additional fund of weird associations to draw upon; so that spectral legends had already been recognised as fruitful subject-matter for literature. Charles Brockden Brown had achieved phenomenal fame with his Radcliffian romances, and Washington Irving’s lighter treatment of eerie themes had quickly become classic. This additional fund proceeded, as Paul Elmer More has pointed out, from the keen spiritual and theological interests of the first colonists, plus the strange and forbidding nature of the scene into which they were plunged. The vast and gloomy virgin forests in whose perpetual twilight all terrors might well lurk; the hordes of coppery Indians whose strange, saturnine visages and violent customs hinted strongly at traces of infernal origin; the free rein given under the influence of Puritan theocracy to all manner of notions respecting man’s relation to the stern and vengeful God of the Calvinists, and to the sulphureous Adversary of that God, about whom so much was thundered in the pulpits each Sunday; and the morbid introspection developed by an isolated backwoods life devoid of normal amusements and of the recreational mood, harassed by commands for theological self-examination, keyed to unnatural emotional repression, and forming above all a mere grim struggle for survival—all these things conspired to produce an environment in which the black whisperings of sinister grandams were heard far beyond the chimney corner, and in which tales of witchcraft and unbelievable secret monstrosities lingered long after the dread days of the Salem nightmare.
Poe represents the newer, more disillusioned, and more technically finished of the weird schools that rose out of this propitious milieu. Another school—the tradition of moral values, gentle restraint, and mild, leisurely phantasy tinged more or less with the whimsical—was represented by another famous, misunderstood, and lonely figure in American letters—the shy and sensitive Nathaniel Hawthorne, scion of antique Salem and great-grandson of one of the bloodiest of the old witchcraft judges. In Hawthorne we have none of the violence, the daring, the high colouring, the intense dramatic sense, the cosmic malignity, and the undivided and impersonal artistry of Poe. Here, instead, is a gentle soul cramped by the Puritanism of early New England; shadowed and wistful, and grieved at an unmoral universe which everywhere transcends the conventional patterns thought by our forefathers to represent divine and immutable law. Evil, a very real force to Hawthorne, appears on every hand as a lurking and conquering adversary; and the visible world becomes in his fancy a theatre of infinite tragedy and woe, with unseen half-existent influences hovering over it and through it, battling for supremacy and moulding the destinies of the hapless mortals who form its vain and self-deluded population. The heritage of American weirdness was his to a most intense degree, and he saw a dismal throng of vague spectres behind the common phenomena of life; but he was not disinterested enough to value impressions, sensations, and beauties of narration for their own sake. He must needs weave his phantasy into some quietly melancholy fabric of didactic or allegorical cast, in which his meekly resigned cynicism may display with naive moral appraisal the perfidy of a human race which he cannot cease to cherish and mourn despite his insight into its hypocrisy. Supernatural horror, then, is never a primary object with Hawthorne; though its impulses were so deeply woven into his personality that he cannot help suggesting it with the force of genius when he calls upon the unreal world to illustrate the pensive sermon he wishes to preach.
Hawthorne’s intimations of the weird, always gentle, elusive, and restrained, may be traced throughout his work. The mood that produced them found one delightful vent in the Teutonised retelling of classic myths for children contained in A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, and at other times exercised itself in casting a certain strangeness and intangible witchery or malevolence over events not meant to be actually supernatural; as in the macabre posthumous novel Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, which invests with a peculiar sort of repulsion a house existing to this day in Salem, and abutting on the ancient Charter Street Burying Ground. In The Marble Faun, whose design was sketched out in an Italian villa reputed to be haunted, a tremendous background of genuine phantasy and mystery palpitates just beyond the common reader’s sight; and glimpses of fabulous blood in mortal veins are hinted at during the course of a romance which cannot help being interesting despite the persistent incubus of moral allegory, anti-Popery propaganda, and a Puritan prudery which has caused the late D. H. Lawrence to express a longing to treat the author in a highly undignified manner. Septimius Felton, a posthumous novel whose idea was to have been elaborated and incorporated into the unfinished Dolliver Romance, touches on the Elixir of Life in a more or less capable fashion; whilst the notes for a never-written tale to be called “The Ancestral Footstep” shew what Hawthorne would have done with an intensive treatment of an old English superstition—that of an ancient and accursed line whose members left footprints of blood as they walked—which appears incidentally in both Septimius Felton and Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret. Continue reading ““The Weird Tradition in America,” H.P. Lovecraft’s analysis of American horror fiction”→
It’s a work of mesmerism and transformation—vampire powers. Dracula showing up is a winking sick joke, a satire.
IV. In his post “Castle Dracula” at Infinite Zombies, Daryl L. L. Houston connects the many strands of vampirism that run through 2666, suggesting that “Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.” Hence Aztec blood rituals, the Holocaust, the murder of helpless, marginalized women in Santa Teresa . . .
V. Okay, so back to that thesis. Let’s start with the first appearance of the unnamed SS officer:
At midmorning they came to a castle. The only people there were three Romanians and an SS officer who was acting as butler and who put them right to work, after serving them a breakfast consisting of a glass of cold milk and a scrap of bread, which some soldiers left untouched in disgust. Everyone, except for four soldiers who stood guard, among them Reiter, whom the SS officer judged ill suited for the task of tidying the castle, left their rifles in the kitchen and set to work sweeping, mopping, dusting lamps, putting clean sheets on the beds.
Fairly banal, right? Also, “midmorning” would entail, y’know, sunlight, which is poison for most vampires. Let me chalk this up to the idea that the SS officer is inside the castle, which is sufficiently gloomy and dark enough to protect him (I’m not going to get into any vampire rules that might spoil my fun, dammit!). In any case, hardly noteworthy. Indeed, the SS officer—a butler commanding house chores—seems hardly a figure of major importance.
VI. Next, we get the Romanian castle explicitly identified as “Dracula’s castle” and meet the actors for this milieu:
“And what are you doing here, at Dracula’s castle?” asked the baroness.
“Serving the Reich,” said Reiter, and for the first time he looked at her.
He thought she was stunningly beautiful, much more so than when he had known her. A few steps from them, waiting, was General Entrescu, who couldn’t stop smiling, and the young scholar Popescu, who more than once exclaimed: wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance.
(I love Popescu’s line here).
VII. Our principals soon take a tour of castle and environs, led by the SS officer (boldface emphasis is mine):
Soon they came to a crypt dug out of the rock. An iron gate, with a coat of arms eroded by time, barred the entrance. The SS officer, who behaved as if he owned the castle, took a key out of his pocket and let them in. Then he switched on a flashlight and they all ventured into the crypt, except for Reiter, who remained on guard at the door at the signal of one of the officers.
So Reiter stood there, watching the stone stairs that led down into the dark, and the desolate garden through which they had come, and the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar. Then he felt for a cigarette in his jacket, lit it, and gazed at the gray sky, the distant valleys, and thought about the Baroness Von Zumpe’s face as the cigarette ash dropped to the ground and little by little he fell asleep, leaning on the stone wall. Then he dreamed about the inside of the crypt. The stairs led down to an amphitheater only partially illuminated by the SS officer’s flashlight. He dreamed that the visitors were laughing, all except one of the general staff officers, who wept and searched for a place to hide. He dreamed that Hoensch recited a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach and then spat blood. He dreamed that among them they had agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe.
He woke with a start and almost bolted down the stairs to confirm with his own eyes that nothing he had dreamed was real.
When the visitors returned to the surface, anyone, even the least astute observer, could have seen that they were divided into two groups, those who were pale when they emerged, as if they had glimpsed something momentous down below, and those who appeared with a half smile sketched on their faces, as if they had just been reapprised of the naivete of the human race.
Bolaño concludes the crypt passage by highlighting an essential ambiguity that courses throughout the entire “Castle Dracula” episode, a strange axis of horror/humor, romance/banality. What has been revealed in the crypt? We don’t know, of course, but our surrogate Reiter allows us access to a few visions of what might have happened, including terror and fear and cannibalism. (He employs Hawthorne’s escape hatch too—it was all a dream).
VIII. Then, supper time:
That night, during dinner, they talked about the crypt, but they also talked about other things. They talked about death. Hoensch said that death itself was only an illusion under permanent construction, that in reality it didn’t exist. The SS officer said death was a necessity: no one in his right mind, he said, would stand for a world full of turtles or giraffes. Death, he concluded, served a regulatory function.
Clearly it’s easy to link any of the dinnertime comments about death to Dracula, but note that the SS officer’s idea that death is a “regulatory function” is terribly banal, is quite literally regular—this idea contrasts with Hoensch’s more poetic notion that death is an illusion (an illusion that the SS officer, if he is in fact Count Dracula, would realize in a perfectly mundane way that foreclosed the necessity of metaphor).
IX. Dinner conversation turns to murder—obviously one of the central themes of 2666:
The SS officer said that murder was an ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, ill-defined word, easily misused.
Again, ambiguity: on one hand, sure, an SS officer’s job was in large part about coordinating and executing mass murder. At the same time, we might appreciate that murder is a vague term if people are one’s lunch.
X. Then conversation turns to culture:
The SS officer said culture was the call of the blood, a call better heard by night than by day, and also, he said, a decoder of fate.
I’m pretty sure that this was the moment I started entertaining the fancy that the SS officer might be Dracula.
XI. Popescu the intellectual also seems to reconsider the SS officer:
The intellectual Popescu remained standing, next to the fireplace, observing the SS officer with curiosity.
XII. Then, they finally riff on Dracula. Significantly, the SS officer believes that Dracula is a good German (bold emphasis mine):
First they praised the assortment of little cakes and then, without pause, they began to talk about Count Dracula, as if they had been waiting all night for this moment. It wasn’t long before they broke into two factions, those who believed in the count and those who didn’t. Among the latter were the general staff officer, General Entrescu, and the Baroness Von Zumpe. Among the former were Popescu, Hoensch, and the SS officer, though Popescu claimed that Dracula, whose real name was Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, was Romanian, and Hoensch and the SS officer claimed that Dracula was a noble Teuton, who had left Germany accused of an imaginary act of treason or disloyalty and had come to live with some of his loyal retainers in Transylvania a long time before Vlad Tepes was born, and while they didn’t deny Tepes a real historical or Transylvanian existence, they believed that his methods, as revealed by his alias or nickname, had little or nothing to do with the methods of Dracula, who was more of a strangler than an impaler, and sometimes a throat slitter, and whose life abroad, so to speak, had been a constant dizzying spin, a constant abysmal penitence.
The SS officer is the noble Teuton. More importantly, we get language that connects Dracula to the murders in Santa Teresa, most of which are stranglings; we also get the idea that Dracula has had a “life abroad”—one outside of time—a life that might see his spirit inhabit and ventriloquize an industrial city in the north of Mexico. (Or not. I know. Look, I’m just riffing here).
We also get the idea of an abyss (this is the structure of 2666), as well as the idea of Dracula as a penitent of sorts.
So, let us recall that early in “The Part About the Crimes,” detective Juan de Dios Martinez is searching for a criminal dubbed The Penitent who desecrates churches and has committed a few murders in the process. He goes to psychologist Elvira Campos for help:
Sacraphobia is fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion, said Elvira Campos. He thought about making a reference to Dracula, who fled crucifixes, but he was afraid the director would laugh at him. And you believe the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? I’ve given it some thought, and I do. A few days ago he disemboweled a priest and another person, said Juan de Dios Martinez.
This is the first mention of Dracula in 2666, and he’s explicitly likened to the Penitent; later, as we see above, Dracula will be explicitly linked to penitence.
(I’m not suggesting that the Penitent is Dracula traveled to Mexico to piss in churches. What I want to say is that Dracula’s dark spirit ventriloquizes the text of 2666).
XIII. Our other principals continue to discuss Dracula, but I won’t belabor that discussion (I’d prefer you, dear reader, to return to the text).
I will summarize though: Popescu sees Dracula in nationalistic terms (“a Romanian patriot” who repels the Turks), and General Entrescu goes on a long rant about heroism and villainy and history, culminating in a lengthy digression on Jesus Christ (recall now that Entrescu will be crucified JC-style by his men).
One aside on the SS officer bears mentioning: we learn that “the fastidious SS officer” is the most sober conversant as he “scarcely wet his lips with alcohol.” (Because he’s a vampire who prefers blood! Muahahahaha!)
XIV. Fast forward a few hours. Our man Reiter, among fellow soldiers, sets out to explore the secret crannies and passageways of Castle Drac and play voyeur:
The room they came to was empty and cold, as if Dracula had just stepped out. The only thing there was an old mirror that Wilke lifted off the stone wall, uncovering a secret passageway.
Dracula’s spirit leaves the room, creating an opening, behind the ever-symbolic mirror. (Muahahahaha!). (2666: Mirror, tunnels, chambers, labyrinths).
They enter the passageway and come first upon our supposed Dracula, the SS officer:
And so they were able to look into the room of the SS officer, lit by three candles, and they saw the SS officer up, wrapped in a robe, writing something at a table near the fireplace. The expression on his face was forlorn. And although that was all there was to see, Wilke and Reiter patted each other on the back, because only then were they sure they were on the right path. They moved on.
XV. Dracula, the epistolary novel. Count Dracula, troubled writer of letters, will author the following scenes, his spirit ventriloquizing the principals all: Here, we find Reiter and his homeboy Wilke, lurking in a secret passage, jerking off to werewolf-cum-Jesus-Christ-figure Gen. Entrescu screwing the lovely Baroness Von Zumpe and reciting poetry (emphasis per usual mine):
Then Wilke came on the wall and mumbled something too, a soldier’s prayer, and soon afterward Reiter came on the wall and bit his lips without saying a word. And then Entrescu got up and they saw, or thought they saw, drops of blood on his penis shiny with semen and vaginal fluid, and then Baroness Von Zumpe asked for a glass of vodka, and then they watched as Entrescu and the baroness stood entwined, each with a glass in hand and an air of distraction, and then Entrescu recited a poem in his tongue, which the baroness didn’t understand but whose musicality she lauded, and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the baroness on his cock, erect again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and as the baroness sank down onto Entrescu’s cock or Entrescu’s cock rose up into the Baroness Von Zumpe, the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that again neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula,which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or metaphysical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting astride Entrescu’s thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia, digging her nails into her lover’s neck, scrubbing the blood that still flowed from her right hand on her lover’s face, smearing the corners of his lips with blood, while Entrescu, undeterred, continued to recite his poem in which the word Dracula sounded every four lines, a poem that was surely satirical, decided Reiter (with infinite joy) as Wilke jerked off again.
I contend that the poem is the work of the SS officer, psychic mesmerist, the poet Dracula, a poem no one in the scene can understand, a dark satire that might also be a war poem or a love poem or an elegy, but definitely a dark satire, written in violence and sex and blood, a poem that ventriloquizes not only Entrescu, phallic delivery device, but also the baroness, and also Reiter and Wilke. And perhaps the reader.
XVI. Where to go after such a climax? Maybe point out that Dracula infects Reiter and Wilke, of whom we learn:
Some of their battalion comrades dubbed them the vampires.
(But better to return I think to our strange figure, the SS officer).
XVII. Here, his last appearance:
The next morning the detachment left the castle after the departure of the two carloads of guests. Only the SS officer remained behind while they swept, washed, and tidied everything. Then, when the officer was fully satisfied with their efforts, he ordered them off and the detachment climbed into the truck and headed back down to the plain. Only the SS officer’s car—with no driver, which was odd—was left at the castle. As they drove away, Reiter saw the officer: he had climbed up to the battlements and was watching the detachment leave, craning his neck, rising up on tiptoe, until the castle, on the one hand, and the truck, on the other, disappeared from view.
Dracula stays in Dracula’s castle; his spirit, his seed, his blood seeps out.
In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.
The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs. J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.
The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:
Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.
The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.
These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:
She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.
The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.
But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:
She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.
Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.
Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:
At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.
The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.
There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.
What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.
Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.
A couple of weeks back, I was looking for John Berryman’s biographical study of Stephen Crane. I did not find it, but I did find a signed hardback edition (not sure if it’s a first or second printing) of Harry Crews’s amazing memoir A Childhood.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
I already have the book (it’s included in Classic Crews—the best starting place for Crews (you should start)), but I couldn’t pass up a signed copy. (It was like 8 bucks I think, and I have store credit out the wazoo).
The War has been reconfiguring time and space into its own image 1. The track runs in different networks now. What appears to be destruction is really the shaping of railroad spaces to other purposes, intentions he can only, riding through it for the first time, begin to feel the leading edges of… .2
He checks in to the Hotel Nimbus 3, in an obscure street in the Niederdorf or cabaret section of Zürich. The room’s in an attic, and is reached by ladder. There’s also a ladder outside the window, so he reckons it’ll be O.K. 4 When night comes down he goes out looking for the local Waxwing rep, finds him farther up the Limmatquai, under a bridge, in rooms full of Swiss watches, clocks and altimeters 5. He’s a Russian named Semyavin. Outside boats hoot on the river and the lake. Somebody upstairs is practicing on a piano: stumbling, sweet lieder. Semyavin pours gentian brandy 6 into cups of tea he’s just brewed. “First thing you have to understand is the way everything here is specialized. If it’s watches, you go to one café. If it’s women, you go to another. Furs are subdivided into Sable, Ermine, Mink, and Others. Same with dope: Stimulants, Depressants, Psychomimetics… . What is it you’re after?”
“Uh, information?” Gee, this stuff tastes like Moxie… .
“Oh. Another one.” Giving Slothrop a sour look. “Life was simple before the first war. You wouldn’t remember. Drugs, sex, luxury items. Currency in those days was no more than a sideline, and the term ‘industrial espionage’ was unknown. But I’ve seen it change—oh, how it’s changed. The German inflation, that should’ve been my clue right there, zeros 7 strung end to end from here to Berlin. I would have stern talks with myself. ‘Semyavin, it’s only a temporary lapse away from reality 8. A small aberration, nothing to worry about. Act as you always have—strength of character, good mental health. Courage, Semyavin! Soon all will be back to normal.’ But do you know what?”
“Let me guess.”
A tragic sigh. “Information. What’s wrong with dope and women? 9 Is it any wonder the world’s gone insane, with information come to be the only real medium of exchange?”
“I thought it was cigarettes.”
“You dream.” He brings out a list of Zürich cafés and gathering spots. Under Espionage, Industrial, Slothrop finds three. Ultra, Lichtspiel, and Sträggeli 10. They are on both banks of the Limmat, and widely spaced.
“Footwork,” folding the list in an oversize zoot-suit pocket 11.
“It’ll get easier. Someday it’ll all be done by machine. Information machines. You are the wave of the future.” 12
1 If there is a central thread through these Gravity’s Rainbow annotations—and I’m not claiming that there is one—but if there is a central thread I’ve been trying to tease out, it’s that GR, despite being a complex and confounding conundrum, repeatedly clarifies its thesis. The narrator spells out another summary of the tale, this time in a dozen words.
2 The “he” here is Our Main Man Tyrone Slothrop en route to Zurich. It’s the spring of 1945, and we’re at the end of the second part of Gravity’s Rainbow, “Un Perm ‘au Casino Hermann Goering,” and riding into part three, “In the Zone.” Here, the war—excuse me, The War—is an entropy pushing out into “other purposes.”
3 Weisenburger notes in A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion that “The Nimbus appears to be a fictional hotel.”
You, dear reader, of course know that a “nimbus” is a cloud. I’ve always been partial to Magritte’s clouds.
“Nimbus” is also a term for the halo or aureola that often surrounds sacred or supernatural figures in artistic representation, like the rainbow that shimmers around Albion in Blake’s Albion Rose.
Later, in his hot air balloon escape from Marvy’s Mothers, Slothrop and his pirate pilot Schnorp will try to hide in a cloud.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984). Check his last notation (the Nibelungen are a motif in Gravity’s Rainbow):
4 As GR progresses, Our Free Agent Slothrop gets better and better at spotting means of escape (he’ll note the keys left in an unattended car later in Peenemünde, for example). A ladder up, a ladder down. Rise, ascend, escape. Repeat.
5 All devices for measuring, obviously—ones and zeroes and all that. Slothrop is a disruptive force to traditional means of measurement, natch.
6 “French and Swiss liqueur distilled from the roots of gentian plants; also called Enzian” (Weisenburger, A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion).
Cf. Oberst Enzian, introduced on page 100—Enzian meets Slothrop a few dozen pages later and pushes Marvy from a train.
7 The inflation, the zeros…Pynchon intricately repeats his motifs, ever-threading them throughout the novel.
8 And who among us has not assured themselves that “it’s only a temporary lapse away from reality”? Semyavin’s complaint seems to be the default position of the 20th century. It’s downright quaint or naive in the 21st.
Reality is not a stable story, a progress, a culmination, but rather a entropic mess, a shuffling chaos, one big etc.
10 Weisenburger gives “Ultra, Lichtspiel, and Sträggeli” as nightclubs, and offers that Sträggeli means “‘specter,’ a ‘play of light’ (or Lichtspiel); in the same context, ‘Ultra’ refers to the very high frequency light waves in any spectrum of illumination.” Synonyms.
11 The zoot suit is another motif in GR (another kind of uniform that Slothrop dons—a non-uniform? a uniform of resistance?), and Pynchon’s evocation of the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 (roughly 10 pages earlier) is a superb little number of storytelling.
The zoot suit received an unnecessary revival in the 1990s. I was then an impressionable lad in my very-late teens/early twenties, yet still had the sense to find this attire revolting. It’s possible now to see that the zoot suit revival gelled with the zeitgeist’s preference for baggy garb—hip-hop, mall goth, and skate culture clothes in particular.
12 Clearly prescient lines—both in the spring of 1945 and in 1973 when GR was published. Pynchon explores the idea of these information ideas in his 2009 novel Inherent Vice.
I love the metaphorical evocation of Slothrop as “the wave of the future” — a cliche that the narrative literalizes.
Just before dawn knocking comes very loud, hard as steel. Slothrop has the sense this time to keep quiet.1
“Come on, open up.”
“MPs 2 , open up.”
American voices, country voices, high-pitched and without mercy. He lies freezing, wondering if the bedsprings will give him away. For possibly the first time he is hearing America as it must sound to a non-American 3. Later he will recall that what surprised him most was the fanaticism, the reliance not just on flat force but on the rightness 4 of what they planned to do… he’d been told long ago to expect this sort of thing from Nazis, and especially from Japs —we 5 were the ones who always played fair—but this pair outside the door now are as demoralizing as a close-up of John Wayne (the angle emphasizing how slanted his eyes are, funny you never noticed before) screaming “BANZAI!” 6.
“Wait a minute Ray, there he goes—”
“Hopper! You asshole, come back here—”
“You’ll never get me in a strait jacket agaaaaain… .” Hopper’s voice goes fading around the corner as the MPs take off in pursuit.
It dawns on Slothrop, literally, through the yellowbrown window shade, that this is his first day Outside. His first free morning. He doesn’t have to go back. Free? What’s free? He falls asleep at last. A little before noon a young woman lets herself in with a passkey and leaves him the papers. He is now an English war correspondent named Ian Scuffling 7.
1 Slothrop has fled the clutches of The White Visitation and made out for Nice, where he hooks up with Blodgett Waxwing’s contacts in a squalid safehouse…the safehouse is actually closer to a madhouse though, or a halfway house.
2 Military Police—a concept that perplexed me when I was five or six, watching MASH reruns with my father. MASH is kinda sorta (slightly) Pynchonian, actually.
3 A fascinating notation.
Some jingoists would insist, of course, that no decent American (i.e., a Real American) ought to hear America the way it must sound to a non-American. Slothrop has already posed as an Englishman, but there’s a bit of a conversion here, I think—a shift for our shifter, who’s moving from not simply performing a double-agency to actually existing (or non-existing) one.
Cf. Walt Whitman’s 1860 poem “I Hear America Singing”:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
To which, Langston Hughes, in 1926 replied in “I Too”:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
4 When we most believe we are right we are most susceptible to being wrong. Unconsidered belief is terrifying.
5 Pynchon is too often accused of obscurity; his critique of blind patriotism and government propaganda is so clear that it hardly warrants this footnote. So I’ll comment, rather, on his brilliant modernist style—note the shift here, via free indirect speech, from third-person to first-person, from “he” to “we.”
6 I’m admittedly confused here—does the narrator attribute the expression BANZAI! to the MPs, or to John Wayne? I think what we have here is a conflation of both (which is to say a conflation of the third-person “he” with the first-person “I”—in other words, Slothrop, now attuned (or detuned) to “hearing America as it must sound to a non-American” can recast his country’s jingoistic martial fantasies and see/hear the Hero of the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex (John Wayne) as a cartoonish, racialized war trope).
In Japanese, the term banzai translates as ten thousand years, but basically means, as I’m sure you know, something like “Hooray.” During WWII, banzai was an attack cry for Japanese soldiers (review the independent clause after the ellipses in Pynchon’s original sentence).
Is BONZAI! here a strange transposition of GERONIMO!, an exclamation cribbed by U.S. Army parachutists from a 1939 film of the same name?
The ironic notation of John Wayne’s “slanted…eyes”seems like a nod to the notorious 1956 flop The Conqueror, which featured John Wayne as…Genghis Khan.
And speaking of BANZAI—
Have you seen the Pynchonesque 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension? It is good fun.
(W.D. Richter, director of Buckaroo Banzai, also co-wrote Big Trouble in Little China, in which Kurt Russell did a good/bad John Wayne impression).
7 Slothrop’s always shuffling off identities—or shuffling into them. Here, we get Ian Scuffling, his English journalist identity (for a few dozen pages). Scuffling…shuffling…? Let’s get the etymology.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984):
Outside, he 1 heads down toward the quay, among funseekers, swooping white birds, an incessant splat of seagull shit 2. As I walk along the Bwa-deboolong 3 with an independent air… Saluting everybody in uniform 4, getting it to a reflex 5, don’t ask for extra trouble, try for invisible 6.… bringing his arm each time a bit more stupidly to his side. Clouds now are coming up fast, out of the sea. No sign of Tantivy out here, either.
Ghosts 7 of fishermen, glassworkers, fur traders, renegade preachers, hilltop patriarchs and valley politicians go avalanching back 8 from Slothrop here, back to 1630 when Governor Winthrop came over to America on the Arbella, flagship of a great Puritan flotilla that year 9 , on which the first American Slothrop had been a mess cook or something 10 —there go that Arbella and its whole fleet, sailing backward in formation, the wind sucking them east again, the creatures leaning from the margins of the unknown sucking in their cheeks, growing crosseyed with the effort, in to black deep hollows at the mercy of teeth no longer the milky molars of cherubs, as the old ships zoom out of Boston Harbor, back across an Atlantic whose currents and swells go flowing and heaving in reverse 11 … a redemption of every mess cook who ever slipped and fell 12 when the deck made an unexpected move, the night’s stew collecting itself up out of the planks and off the indignant shoes of the more elect 13 , slithering in a fountain back into the pewter kettle as the servant himself staggers upright again and the vomit he slipped on goes gushing back into the mouth that spilled it… 14 Presto change-o! 15 Tyrone Slothrop’s English again! 16 But it doesn’t seem to be redemption exactly that this They have in mind… . 17
He’s on a broad cobbled esplanade, lined with palms shifting now to coarse-grained black as clouds begin to come over the sun. Tantivy isn’t out on the beach, either—nor are any of the girls. Slothrop sits on a low wall, feet swinging, watching the front, slate, muddy purple, advancing from the sea in sheets, in drifts. Around him the air is cooling. He shivers. What are They doing? 18
1 The “he” here is Our Dude Tyrone Slothrop, and if anyone’s keeping count, these annotations pick up right damn exactly where the last set left off. Slothrop exits his (tampered with) room at the Casino Hermann Goering to find his friend Tantivy Mucker-Maffick.
2Gravity’s Rainbow is full of shit.
3 Weisenburger offers the following gloss in A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion:
Weisenburger’s second “u” in “Boulougne” seems to be an error. (Or make what you will of a double-you).
Van Gogh depicted promenaders on the Bois de Boulongne in 1886, about six decades before the events in GR and about nine decades before Pynchon composed GR.
4 In Gravity’s Rainbow a uniform is a polyform. Our Boy Slothrop repeatedly changes uniforms; in this vignette, he’s donned an English soldier’s uniform—but just a few pages later he was wearing a purple toga; before that, a tacky Hawaiian shirt, and before that…well…you get the deal.
Pynchon might be suggesting that identity is contingent on circumstance, on external forces, on They—on the uniforms we have to slip on to cover over our shame. And yet many of his characters dress up to participate in shame! Gravity’s Rainbow is a carnival of shifting identities.
5 There’s that Pavlovian theme—will Slothrop break the reflex?
6Invisible is clearly (heh heh heh) a key word for Pynchon—it permeates Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as his other texts—particularly his other big books Against the Day and Mason & Dixon. I’m tempted to riff at length on Invisible in Pynchon, but perhaps it’s better to rack up annotations and try to align them to some, uh, purpose.
For now, it’s worth noting that Slothrop’s salute and uniform are his means of camouflage, his cloak of invisibility.
7 Ghosts…invisible (?!) ghosts…what an incredible paragraph this is, one I shouldn’t molest with my grubby annotations…but… .
8 Hold on…we’re gonna do a bit of time travel here. “…avalanching back” — this is a bit of the old assy-turvy, cart-before-horse dealieness—latter-first hysteron proteron business (as Weisenburger and others note).
9 The Arbella and a trio of other ships embarked unto America in the spring of 1630 under the command of Purtitan Man John Wintrhop, He Of “City Upon A Hill” fame, a phrase that in no way (LOL) cursed New World America. Hell, it may even be that Winthrop and his gang had civilization’s best interest in heart when they made the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I’m sure religious freedom ETC. motivated them, and not, like, all that goddamn “free” land.
The poet Anne Bradstreet was on board. Something of a pre-post-modernist, riffing on writing and paranoia in “The Author to Her Book” :
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
Or maybe actually naw—not pre- or post- anything there. Just writing. And the paranoia writing entails.
10 Weisenburger and other sources point out that Pynchon’s ancestor William Pynchon was part of Winthrop’s fleet. This historical stitching suggests that Pynchon posits Slothrop as something (?) of an authorial…placeholder (?)—in any case, Pynchon and Slothrop both share Puritan ancestors. Wm Pynchon helped “settle” two places in Massachusetts—Roxbury and Springfield.
Roxbury is a the setting of one of GR’s strangest scenes, in which Slothrop descends into the abject hell of a nightclub toilet. (Around page 62 for those counting).
Pynchon kinda sorta showed up in another Springfield.
11 Hysteron proteron continued.
12 A redemption, a fall—even Pynchon’s note that Slothrop’s ancestor is a mess cook points to the novel’s abject contours.
13 Although consistently accused of willful obscurity, Gravity’s Rainbow telegraphs its central themes repeatedly. Here, we see a bobbing seasick distinction between the pure-elect and the abject-preterite.
14 And again…and gross. A sort of abject magic potion is getting worked up here, cross-Atlantic style (in-reverse)—the stew returns to the cauldron, the vomit returns to the guts. Hysteron proteron.
15 The magic words…
16 But…he was already wearing an English uniform.
17 Of course not—this They have other plans for Slothrop’s preterite soul—there is no return, no way home, no way back—no reversals.
In high school I was, like many American intellectual kids, a stranger in a strange land. I made the Berkeley Public Library my refuge, and lived half my life in books. Not only American books—English and French novels and poetry, Russian novels in translation. Transported unexpectedly to college in another strange land, the East Coast, I majored in French lit and went on reading European lit on my own. I felt more at home in some ways in Paris in 1640 or Moscow in 1812 than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1948.
Much as I loved my studies, their purpose was to make me able to earn a living as a teacher, so I could go on writing. And I worked hard at writing short stories. But here my European orientation was a problem. I wasn’t drawn to the topics and aims of contemporary American realism. I didn’t admire Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, or Edna Ferber. I did admire John Steinbeck, but knew I couldn’t write that way. In The New Yorker, I loved Thurber, but skipped over John O’Hara to read the Englishwoman Sylvia Townsend Warner. Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.
—(Quietly) 1 It’s been a prevalent notion 2. Fallen sparks 3. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation 4. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment 5. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home 6—only the millions of last moments… no more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments 7.
From pages 82-83 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1 A stage direction. These are the final lines in a one-act play, a small (cosmically-large) tragicomedy featuring two…nerve cells. Rollo Groast of the White Visitation prefaces a page earlier:
It is part…of an old and clandestine drama for which the human body serves only as a set of very allusive, often cryptic, programme notes—it’s as if the body we can measure is a scrap of this programme found outside in the street, near a magnificent stone theater we cannot enter.
In this little play (its rough setting echoes GR’s own martial satire), a younger cell asks a senior cell if she’s ever been to the “Outer Level” and is somewhat shocked when she tells him that “sooner or later everyone out here has to go Epidermal. No exceptions.”
Is this the first episode of Gravity’s Rainbow staged as a play? I think so.
2 The “prevalent notion” the younger cell subscribes to is characterized in the four sentences that follow, and then rejected in the fifth, the sentence that pivots with “But.” A satire of religious hope, perhaps?—the notion of salvation, redemption, an organizing principle to arrive and tidy all the chaos?
3 The preterite. But also/and—
4 The notations on broken vessels and sparks seem to allude to the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria (1534-1572). I will not attempt a bad paraphrase of Lurianic Kabbalah here, but a basic big picture—sparks—souls, fragments of a one-soul—looking to be rectified. Pynchon, inking heavy his preterite-and-elect theme.
5 The deus ex machina in the last act, the game-winning Hail Mary pass, the Messiah, smiling and terrible…
Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:
“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”
These are the first lines of dialog in the novel. (If they can be called dialog).
7 The “our” here is biological—one cell to another business—but is there more to human history? Are we more than just our cells? Are there sparks for these vessels?
The narrator here seems to superimpose an answer into the senior cell’s line here: History is simply an imposition, a psychological trick, a way to organize chaos via narrative.
Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?
This miniature cellular drama comes after the introduction to a minor character in Gravity’s Rainbow I’ve always found intriguing: Gavin Trefoil.
Trefoil, an agent (?!) of The White Visitation, has powers:
Lately, as if all tuned in to the same aethereal Xth Programme, new varieties of freak have been showing up at “The White Visitation,” all hours of the day and night, silent, staring, expecting to be taken care of, carrying machines of black metal and glass gingerbread, off on waxy trances, hyperkinetically waiting only the right trigger-question to start blithering 200 words a minute about their special, terrible endowments. An assault. What are we to make of Gavin Trefoil, for whose gift there’s not even a name yet? (Rollo Groast wants to call it autochromatism.) Gavin, the youngest here, only 17, can somehow metabolize at will one of his amino acids, tyrosine. This will produce melanin, which is the brown-black pigment responsible for human skin color. Gavin can also inhibit this metabolizing by—it appears—varying the level of his blood phenylalanine. So he can change his color from most ghastly albino up through a smooth spectrum to very deep, purplish, black. If he concentrates he can keep this up, at any level, for weeks. Usually he is distracted, or forgets, and gradually drifts back to his rest state, a pale freckled redhead’s complexion.
I suppose I could riff all day on the symbolic/historic implications of Trefoil’s powers: His gradations of color disrupt the binary (black-white, off-on, zero-one) that a Pavlovian like Pointsman insists upon (Trefoil’s super(?!)power falls in line with Roger Mexico’s gradations between 0 and 1).
But what really interests me here is Trefoil’s mutant powers and The White Visitation as a sort of potential comic book—I mean what I want to say here is that Pynchon points ahead to the 1975 “reboot” of Uncanny X-Men, and even The New Mutants: Post-global preterite underground weirdos with strange powers. Psychics and witches and protagonists that splinter into nothingness, after going through multiple reboots—(Plechazunga, the Pig-Hero, Rocketman, etc.). (Hell, the Pynchon X-Men team could even have Grigori the Octopus).
The closest X-Men comparison for Gavin Trefoil is probably the shapeshifter baddie X-Men antagonist Mystique, whose powers are obviously more pronounced than Trefoil’s. And there’s also Nightcrawler—maybe my favorite of Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men—or maybe I mean Excalibur. And also blueskinned Beast.
Late in the novel, Our Hero Tyrone Slothrop will help form the superish heroish team the Floundering Four (along with Myrtle Miraculous, zoot-suited Maximillian, and mechanical man Marcel). The Floundering Four will set out to battle the Paternal Peril. (Make of that what you will).
On Trefoil the Blueskin, here’s Steven Weisenburger (A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion):
I got to page 258 (of 801 pages, in the 2001 Vintage paperback edition).
On that page, the visiting poet (Visiting Poet?)—he’s visiting the post-apocalyptic city of Bellona, which is I guess the central character of Dhalgren (I guess?)—on that page, Ernest Newboy (go ahead and groan at that name), declares:
There’s no reason why all art should appeal to all people.
I took that as a sign that I could go ahead and quit Dhalgren.
Delany’s cult novel initially appealed to me, but: No.
I’m trying, right now, to think of a novel I’ve wanted to like more but didn’t like than Dhalgren. (Thomas Disch’s 334, maybe, which Dhalgren resembles? Ballard’s Millenium People, which suggests that somewhere out there there’s a better Delany novel I need to read—like I read the wrong one, the famous one?).
I wanted to like Dhalgren because it’s weird and messy and post-apocalyptic and discursive and shambling and tripping and plotless and vibe vibe vibe…but mostly I found it boring. And the prose was often, uh, bad.
(I just read William Gibson’s foreword to the thing, in which he declares it a “prose-city…a literary singularity…executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.” Nah. (Gibson’s intro has this real awful Baby Boomer you-had-to-be-there-man tone to it too)).
There are bits and pieces of Dhalgren that were interesting enough to make me keep wading through the rubbish: tree sex, hologram gangs, the unnamed apocalypse, the specter of violence, the drugs, the weapons…but to give you an idea of this novel’s rhythm, the central protagonist, Kid, spends a sizable chunk of the novel’s third chapter moving furniture from one apartment to another.
The Kid also wants to be a poet, and Delany spends a lot of time dipping into our boy’s notebook. It’s bad stuff, cringeworthy, and not in an Isn’t-he-a-bad-writer? way. Delany’s own prose veers hippy dippy too—a mirror. (Mirrors and lenses and prisms and recursion images twist through the 250 pages I read. Reality’s an illusion, man. Or not. Or memory. Or something).
I’ve had every kind of warning that Delany’s novel is plotless and will refuse to cohere (Gibson: “Dhalgren does not answer”). I fucking love those kinds of novels. But they have to have something else: Good sentences, one after another. Humor that’s actually, uh, funny. A point of feeling or message beyond the kind of apocalypse vibe I absorbed by reading comics (and comix) when I was 11, 12, 13. Less furniture moving.
Anyway, I’m unconvinced that anything wonderful’s going to pop out in the next 550 or so pages. And I’m fine, at this point, of being wrong, and ready to move on to something else.
September 7th.–In a wood, a heap or pile of logs and sticks, that had been cut for firewood, and piled up square, in order to be carted away to the house when convenience served,–or, rather, to be sledded in sleighing time. But the moss had accumulated on them, and leaves falling over them from year to year and decaying, a kind of soil had quite covered them, although the softened outline of the woodpile was perceptible in the green mound. It was perhaps fifty years–perhaps more–since the woodman had cut and piled those logs and sticks, intending them for his winter fires. But he probably needs no fire now. There was something strangely interesting in this simple circumstance. Imagine the long-dead woodman, and his long-dead wife and family, and the old man who was a little child when the wood was cut, coming back from their graves, and trying to make a fire with this mossy fuel.
Louis Armand’s novel (or anti-novel, or whatever) is new from Equus Press.
It’s bigger than a brick.
Lots of footnotes, end notes, different fonts, maps, images, etc. The “text proper” (whatever that means) refuses to begin—epigraphs, notes, an “Overture,” etc.
Here’s the blurb from Equus:
Fiction. Drama. Art. The “European anti-novel” in all its unrepentant glory is here in THE COMBINATIONS, following in the tradition of Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes, Joyce, Perec.
In 8 octaves, 64 chapters and 888 pages, Louis Armand’s THE COMBINATIONS is an unprecedented “work of attempted fiction” that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. “Golem City”), across the 20th-century and before/after. Golem City, the ship of fools boarded by the famed D’s (e.g. John) and K’s (e.g. Edward) of the 16th/17th centuries (who attempted and failed to turn lead into gold), and the infamous H’s (e.g. Adolf, e.g. Reinhard) of the 20th (who attempted and succeeded in turning flesh into soap). Armand’s prose weaves together the City’s thousand-and- one fascinating tales with a deeply personal account of one lost soul set adrift amid the early-90s’ awakening from the nightmare that was the previous half-century of communist Mitteleuropa. THE COMBINATIONS is a text whose 1) erudition dazzles, 2) structure humbles, 3) monotony never bores, 4) humour disarms, 5) relentlessness overwhelms, 6) storytelling captivates, 7) poignancy remains poignant, and 8) style simply never exhausts itself. Your move, Reader.
It was September now, a season of rains. The gray sky above the city washed with darker scud like ink curling in a squid’s wake. The blacks can see the boy’s fire at night and glimpses of his veering silhouette slotted in the high nave, outsized among the arches. All night a ruby glow suffuses the underbridge from his garish chancel lamps. The city’s bridges all betrolled now what with old ventriloquists and young melonfanciers. The smoke from their fires issues up unseen among the soot and dust of the city’s right commerce.
Sometimes in the evening Suttree would bring beers and they’d sit there under the viaduct and drink them. Harrogate with questions of city life.
You ever get so drunk you kissed a nigger?
Suttree looked at him. Harrogate with one eye narrowed on him to tell the truth. I’ve been a whole lot drunker than that, he said.
Worst thing I ever done was to burn down old lady Arwood’s house.”
“You burned down an old lady’s house?
Like to of burnt her down in it. I was put up to it. I wasnt but ten year old.
Not old enough to know what you were doing.
Yeah.–Hell no that’s a lie. I knowed it and done it anyways.
Did it burn completely down?
Plumb to the ground. Left the chimbley standin was all. It burnt for a long time fore she come out.
Did you not know she was in there?
I disremember. I dont know what I was thinkin. She come out and run to the well and drawed a bucket of water and thowed it at the side of the house and then just walked on off towards the road. I never got such a whippin in my life. The old man like to of killed me.
Yeah. He was alive then. My sister told them deputies when they come out to the house, they come out there to tell her I was in the hospital over them watermelons, she told em I didnt have no daddy was how come I got in trouble. But shit fire I was mean when I did have one. It didnt make no difference.
Were you sorry about it? The old lady’s house I mean.
Sorry I got caught.
Suttree nodded and tilted his beer. It occurred to him that other than the melon caper he’d never heard the city rat tell anything but naked truth.
Another vignette from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree—a transition scene perhaps, but one that draws Suttree and Harrogate closer, even as it underlines their differences.