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”
that one obtuse voice as close as is to breathing.
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
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:
And here’s a detail from his 1937 painting Transformation:
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:
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?
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.
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.”
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 (Outline, Transit, 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)
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)
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)
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 Crake, The 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.
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.
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.
Biblioklept is twelve today.
Here are twelve books that I’ve never read before that I’ll try to read some time in the next twelve years.
From top to bottom, with no real hierarchy other than the physical heft involved in composing the photograph above—
The Final Circle of Paradise by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (trans. by Leonid Renen)
I snatched up this Daw mass market paperback of this Strugatsky brothers novel a few years ago; they aren’t as easy to find as you might think (although Chicago Review Press is slowly reissuing new translations).
Chance I’ll get to it soon: High. I’ve been on a Strugatsky kick the last two years and this is one that I physically own, so.
The Net by Iris Murdoch
I picked up a slim Penguin edition of The Net when I couldn’t find The Bell (not realizing that the “Iris Murdoch” section extended in my used bookshop and that there were plenty of copies of The Bell). I loved The Bell, and want to read more Murdoch. Folks told me not to do The Net next, but I own it. So maybe let’s call it a placeholder.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: The chance that I get to another Murdoch novel sometime later this year is very high.
Silas Marner by George Eliot
I finally read Middlemarch in 2018. I loved it but good lord it was long. Silas Marner is much shorter.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: Very high. It’s on deck after I finish up a few of the shorter novels and short story collections I’m reading now.
The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (trans. by Ronald W. Sousa)
Like seemingly every book blogger, I went through a Lispector jag in the early part of this decade, gobbling up The Hour of the Star and Near to the Wild Heart. I had thought that I’d read The Passion According to G.H., but when I pulled it out earlier this year to look for something in it, I realized I hadn’t finished it—I probably hadn’t even gotten a third of the way through, if the idle bookmark (a charming doodle by my daughter) is any indication. Furthermore, the selection I was looking for, a passage on abjection, wasn’t even in Passion—it was in Wild Heart.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: Not extraordinarily high, but it’s unshelved, loose in the wilds now.
Great Expectations by Kathy Acker
I picked this one up a few weeks ago, and started in on it a bit—it’s short and has this kind of dark wild surreal icky sexy beach read vibe to it.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: I should’ve taken it camping with me next week. It’s the kind of book I want to read in a specific place that’s not, like, my couch or whatever. What I’m saying is that I’ll read this on the beach or in a tent or like, maybe you invite me down to stay at your place for a weekend but your house is so full of other guests, but, Guess what? There’s a wonderful little bedroom on your catamaran, which is docked gently right here. So after a night of good wine and good conversation, I’ll sneak off to the catamaran and read Kathy Acker before falling into wavy slumbers.
The Reservoir by Janet Frame
I read the first few of the stories in The Reservoir a few years ago and loved them but then got absorbed in something else. I was looking for a story by her to use in class, and I pulled this collection out, but it wasn’t in there. I think it’s in The New Yorker though.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: Again–I pulled it out of rotation, so who knows? I’m in the midst of another short story collection (which is frankly turning into a hate read at this point), so maybe a few of these Frames will be an antidote to the Very Clever Author Whose Work I Keep Wincing At.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover
When I picked up The Universal Baseball Association, I knew that I wasn’t going to read it anytime soon, but I also knew that I’d regret not having picked up a copy for three bucks when I had the chance. I was finishing up Going for a Beer, Coover’s recent collection of greatest hits, and was frankly exhausted with the man (the stories in A Night at the Movies can, uh, be repetitive).
Chance I’ll get to it soon: Not very high. I downloaded a copy of his novel The Origin of the Brunists one night on a lark and I don’t know if I’ll get to it any time soon either.
Milkbottle H by Gil Orlovitz
A somewhat rare cult novel with no real visible cult, Olrovitz’s Milkbottle H has been described as “the Ulysses of Philadelphia.” I found it a few weeks ago in the miscellaneous O section of my local used bookstore for three bucks. The book is long and seems to employ a mix of modernist techniques that makes it, uh, confusing at first.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: Not high. Right now it’s more like a thing I want to do, but it looks like a project that will require its own special time.
Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis
I hate that I still haven’t gotten past page 30 of Carpenter’s Gothic. I gave it a second shot a few years ago and then wound up rereading J R instead.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: Should I prioritize this one after Silas Marner? I’m sure some new novel/review copy will get in the way, mucking things up…but should I commit to Carpenter’s Gothic? (I recently wrote about wanting to reread The Recognitions, so…).
The Tunnel by William H. Gass
I made a Serious Attempt earlier this year and stalled out.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: I will make a Serious Attempt earlier next year (and likely stall out).
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is one of those big books that I can’t believe I haven’t read. Earlier this year I said I’d give it a shot and then I never did (I tried The Tunnel and then settled into Middlemarch).
Chance I’ll get to it soon: Can anyone suggest a good audiobook version?
The Dying Grass by William H. Vollmann
The Dying Grass is almost 1,400 pages. I tried reading the ebook when it came out but the page breaks were weird (Vollmann has a Whitmanesque style on the page). I downloaded the audiobook which is 54 hours long, but I kept losing the thread. I picked up a used copy of the hardback for six bucks and it’s a goddamn monster.
Chance I’ll get to it soon: Try holding your breath.
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.
A vignette from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree—a transition scene perhaps, but one that draws Suttree and Harrogate closer, even as it underlines their differences.
In my review of Suttree a few years back, I argued that the novel is a grand synthesis of American literature, brimming with literary allusions. I singled out Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” as the basis for a later scene with Harrogate, so I can’t help but think of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” here.
…it may be urged that there is nothing a writer of fiction should more carefully see to, as there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved. But this, though at first blush, seeming reasonable enough, may, upon a closer view, prove not so much so. For how does it couple with another requirement—equally insisted upon, perhaps—that, while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity as to understanding them. But if the acutest sage be often at his wits’ ends to understand living character, shall those who are not sages expect to run and read character in those mere phantoms which flit along a page, like shadows along a wall? That fiction, where every character can, by reason of its consistency, be comprehended at a glance, either exhibits but sections of character, making them appear for wholes, or else is very untrue to reality; while, on the other hand, that author who draws a character, even though to common view incongruous in its parts, as the flying-squirrel, and, at different periods, as much at variance with itself as the butterfly is with the caterpillar into which it changes, may yet, in so doing, be not false but faithful to facts.
If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life as elsewhere. Experience is the only guide here; but as no one man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every ease to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in the specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.
But let nature, to the perplexity of the naturalists, produce her duck-billed beavers as she may, lesser authors some may hold, have no business to be perplexing readers with duck-billed characters. Always, they should represent human nature not in obscurity, but transparency, which, indeed, is the practice with most novelists, and is, perhaps, in certain cases, someway felt to be a kind of honor rendered by them to their kind. But, whether it involve honor or otherwise might be mooted, considering that, if these waters of human nature can be so readily seen through, it may be either that they are very pure or very shallow. Upon the whole, it might rather be thought, that he, who, in view of its inconsistencies, says of human nature the same that, in view of its contrasts, is said of the divine nature, that it is past finding out, thereby evinces a better appreciation of it than he who, by always representing it in a clear light, leaves it to be inferred that he clearly knows all about it.
But though there is a prejudice against inconsistent characters in books, yet the prejudice bears the other way, when what seemed at first their inconsistency, afterwards, by the skill of the writer, turns out to be their good keeping. The great masters excel in nothing so much as in this very particular. They challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it; in this way throwing open, sometimes to the understanding even of school misses, the last complications of that spirit which is affirmed by its Creator to be fearfully and wonderfully made.
At least, something like this is claimed for certain psychological novelists; nor will the claim be here disputed. Yet, as touching this point, it may prove suggestive, that all those sallies of ingenuity, having for their end the revelation of human nature on fixed principles, have, by the best judges, been excluded with contempt from the ranks of the sciences—palmistry, physiognomy, phrenology, psychology. Likewise, the fact, that in all ages such conflicting views have, by the most eminent minds, been taken of mankind, would, as with other topics, seem some presumption of a pretty general and pretty thorough ignorance of it. Which may appear the less improbable if it be considered that, after poring over the best novels professing to portray human nature, the studious youth will still run risk of being too often at fault upon actually entering the world; whereas, had he been furnished with a true delineation, it ought to fare with him something as with a stranger entering, map in hand, Boston town; the streets may be very crooked, he may often pause; but, thanks to his true map, he does not hopelessly lose his way. Nor, to this comparison, can it be an adequate objection, that the twistings of the town are always the same, and those of human nature subject to variation. The grand points of human nature are the same to-day they were a thousand years ago. The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.
But as, in spite of seeming discouragement, some mathematicians are yet in hopes of hitting upon an exact method of determining the longitude, the more earnest psychologists may, in the face of previous failures, still cherish expectations with regard to some mode of infallibly discovering the heart of man.
From Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man.
RIP Tom Clark, 1941-2018
The American poet Tom Clark died in the first hour of Saturday, August 18th, 2018 in Berkely California. The cause of the death happened a few hours earlier, late Friday night, as a motorist collided his sedan into Tom Clark as Clark tried to cross the street. Clark was 77.
Tom Clark authored over two dozen poetry collections, many published by Black Sparrow Press. He also wrote a number of literary biographies, including a pair on Jack Kerouac, bios of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, and a biography of John Keats called Junkets from a Sad Planet that is actually a series of poems. (But also actually a biography of Keats). Clark was the poetry editor for The Paris Review from 1963-1973 (maybe you read his interview with Allen Ginsberg there). Clark was also a blogger—an excellent blogger. He updated his blog a few hours before the car collision that killed him.
I first read Tom Clark in the middle of September, 2013. I read Fractured Karma (1990) and I had never heard of him before. I know the time specifically not because I have a good memory (I don’t), but because I wrote about it then:
I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:
That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.
I actually did go to the bookstore after writing that post and pick up another book by Clark, Sleepwalker’s Fate (1992). The store had several books by Clark, and I wasn’t sure which one to get. I remember that the title Sleepwalker’s Fate stood out, so I picked it up and thumbed through it, and I remember reading the poem “Terminator Too” there in the store—it did something electric to me—the goofy title, the winking irony, but also the earnestness of the poem, which paraphrases a few lines from Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Here it is:
“Terminator Too” by Tom Clark—
wrote, will have no
easy time of it when
powers of the mind
are so blunted that
exertion dies, and
public is reduced
to a state of near
savage torpor, morose,
no attention span
whatsoever; nor will
the tranquil rustling
of the lyric, drowned out
by the heavy, dull
of persons in cities,
where a uniformity
of occupations breeds
cravings for sensation
which hourly visual
gratifies like crazy,
likely survive this age.
Sleepwalker’s Fate is a good starting place to read Tom Clark’s poetry, as are Fractured Karma and the collection Paradise Revisited (1984). Here’s one from Paradise Revisited:
The later poetry collection Like Real People (1995) is also pretty great. It includes this humdinger:
Like Real People also includes a series of autobiographical sketches and stories told in an engaging but straightforward manner. The epilogue there is particularly good—Clark mulls over what it means to write an autobiography, straining against his anxieties over framing his own life stories. Tellingly, he lards the essay with quotes and ideas from other folks. Clark’s poetry often takes on the form of translation, citation, history, or reinterpretation (as we see in “Terminator Too,” above), and works like Empire of Skin (1997) and Junkets on a Sad Planet (1994) are particularly ambitious. Empire of Skin is a series of poems that take on the history of the American fur trade through a lens critical of Manifest Destiny. Junkets on a Sad Planet is an impressionistic series of riffs on Keats’ short life (“junkets” is a pun). From Junkets—
What a lovely condensation of biography, history, and poetic anxiety!
I’ll close with one of my favorite Clark poems, “Heavy,” which discharges poetic anxiety. Clark dedicated the poem to Jack Kerouac and Charles Olson—the gods in the first line, perhaps?–figures he would later write biographies on.
Peace be with Tom Clark.
“The Policemen’s Ball”
Horace, a policeman, was making Rock Cornish Game Hens for a special supper. The Game Hens are frozen solid, Horace thought. He was wearing his blue uniform pants.
Inside the Game Hens were the giblets in a plastic bag. Using his needlenose pliers Horace extracted the frozen giblets from the interior of the birds. Tonight is the night of the Policemen’s Ball, Horace thought. We will dance the night away. But first, these Game Hens must go into a three-hundred-and-fifty-degree oven.
Horace shined his black dress shoes. Would Margot “put out” tonight? On this night of nights? Well, if she didn’t– Horace regarded the necks of the birds which had been torn asunder by the pliers. No, he reflected, that is not a proper thought. Because I am a member of the force. I must try to keep my hatred under control. I must try to be an example for the rest of the people. Because if they can’t trust us. . .the blue men. . .
In the dark, outside the Policemen’s Ball, the horrors waited for Horace and Margot.
Margot was alone. Her roommates were in Provincetown for the weekend. She put pearl-colored lacquer on her nails to match the pearl of her new-bought gown. Police colonels and generals will be there, she thought. The Pendragon of the Police himself. Whirling past the dais, I will glance upward. The pearl of my eyes meeting the steel gray of high rank.
Margot got into a cab and went over to Horace’s place. The cabdriver was thinking: A nice-looking piece. I could love her.
Horace removed the birds from the oven. He slipped little gold frills, which has been included in the package, over the ends of the drumsticks. Then he uncorked the wine, thinking: This is a town without pity, this town. For those whose voices lack the crack of authority. Luckily the uniform. . . Why won’t she surrender her person? Does she think she can resist the force? The force of the force?
“These birds are delicious.”
Driving Horace and Margot smoothly to the Armory, the new cabdriver thought about basketball.
Why do they always applaud the man who makes the shot?
Why don’t they applaud the ball?
It’s the ball that actually goes into the net.
The man doesn’t go into the net.
Never have I seen a man going into the net.
Twenty thousand policemen of all grades attended the annual fete. The scene was Camelot, with gay colors and burgees. The interior of the Armory had been roofed with lavish tenting. Police colonels and generals looked down on the dark uniforms, white gloves, silvery ball gowns.
“Horace, not now. This scene is so brilliant. I want to remember it.”
Horace thought: It? Not me?
The Pendragon spoke. “I ask you to be reasonable with the citizens. They pay our salaries after all. I know they are difficult sometimes, obtuse sometimes, even criminal sometimes, as we often run across in our line of work. But I ask you despite all to be reasonable. I know it is hard. I know it is not easy. I know that for instance when you see a big car, a ’70 Biscayne hardtop, cutting around a corner at a pretty fair clip, with three in the front and three in the back, and they are all mixed up, ages and sexes and colors, your natural impulse is to– I know your first thought is, All those people! Together! And your second thought is, Force! But I must ask you in the name of force itself to be restrained. For force, that great principle, is most honored in the breach and the observance. And that is where you men are, in the breach. You are fine men, the finest. You are Americans. So for the sake of America, be careful. Be reasonable. Be slow. In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Ghost. And now I would like to introduce Vercingetorix, leader of the firemen, who brings us a few words of congratulation from that fine body of men.”
Waves of applause for the Pendragon filled the tented area.
“He is a handsome older man,” Margot said.
“He was born in a Western state and advanced to his present position through raw merit,” Horace told her.
The government of Czechoslovakia sent observers to the Policemen’s Ball. “Our police are not enough happy,” Colonel-General Cepicky explained. “We seek ways to improve them. This is a way. It may not be the best of all possible ways, but. . . Also I like to drink the official whiskey! It makes me gay!”
A bartender thought: Who is that yellow-haired girl in the pearl costume? She is stacked.
The mood of the Ball changed. The dancing was more serious now. Margot’s eyes sparkled from the jorums of champagne she had drunk. She felt Horace’s delicately Game Hen-flavored breath on her cheek. I will give him what he wants, she decided. Tonight. His heroism deserves it. He stands between us and them. He represents what is best in society: decency, order, safety, strength, sirens, smoke. No, he does not represent smoke. Great billowing oily black clouds. That Vercingetorix has a noble look. With whom is Vercingetorix dancing, at present?
The horrors waited outside patiently. Even policemen, the horrors thought. We get even policemen, in the end.
In Horace’s apartment, a gold frill was placed on a pearl toe.
The horrors had moved outside Horace’s apartment. Not even policemen and their ladies are safe, the horrors thought. No one is safe. Safety does not exist. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. To be very clear, I think Moby-Dick is fantastic—but I also enjoy seeing what people compelled to write negative reviews of the book on Amazon had to say. What follows are selections of one-star Amazon reviews; I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling].
It made for a smashing movie.
If you want to read lots of meaningless whale trivia read the book.
Boy gets whale. Boy loses whale. Boy gets whale. Spawns yawns
I think if you made it into a short comic strip, you would have liked it.
I bought this book for a friend in jail. Alas, he was unable to read it because the font was too small.
Ray Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay for this novel, (a la Gregory Peck) couldn’t even finish the damn thing!
If you like a story with nonessential information and an author that is entirely to verbose, then this book is for you.
I am quite the fan of stories which involve man eating sea creatures, such as Jaws. Moby Dick is nothing compared to such classics, I fear.
Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.
Moby Dick, was a horrible waiste of time. Along with its wordy paragraphs, it also talked about uninteresting issues. It is also to long, and you don’t hear of them encountering the whale until the end of the book.
The only people who like this book are english teachers who derive a feeling of moral superiority from forcing others to read this incredibly bad novel.
First of all, classiflying it as fiction is a mistake. Probably a good 60% of the book is non-fiction – chapter after chapter dedicated to every imaginable detail of the biology of the whale and every imaginable nuance of whaling.
I love literatur just as much as the next guy but we must face it 100 years or so ago American literature was reall weak and lagging from the rest of the world, perhaps now they’re starting to catch up with writers like Ann Rice and them.
I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!
Those chapters about Ishmael sleeping with whatever his name was and Ishamel had such a good time with the other guy’s arm over him and leg over him that he didn’t know if he was straight or gay any more.
i personally didn’t enjoy the philosophical or deep side of the book, i have read much much better books in that regard.
There is no suspense, and I find the idea of people hunting whales offensive. Offensive with a capital O.
Honestly, Over 400 pages devoted to killing a whale because it ate your hand? Come on.
It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today.
What is the whales motivation? You dont know.
It is 540somepages of boring whaling details.
No wonder Melville flopped as a writter.
OMG, this is tedious and torture to read.
I HATE this book. Why? It’s BORING!
Moby Ick’s more like it.
Toward the end of the 130 page monologue that is Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile, narrator Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix claims that “An individual is no match for history.” His statement neatly encapsulates (what might be) the dominant theme of By Night in Chile, namely an individual person’s capacity and ability to correctly–and sanely–somehow measure, attest to, confront, and witness the horror and brutality of history. In this case, Bolaño’s narrator, a Catholic priest–and conservative literary critic (and, of course, failed poet)–Father Urrutia, via a sweeping deathbed confession of sorts, recounts his life story, leading inexorably to Pinochet’s coup and its attendant subsequent draconian reforms and abuses. While it would be a mistake to reduce Bolaño’s rich novella to one conflict, I think the root of Urrutia’s struggle emanates from his inability to come to terms with his role as an intellectual (let alone an artist, critic, or priest) complicit somehow in Pinochet’s crimes. Throughout the book, from the very beginning, Urrutia blames his inner turmoil on a “wizened youth” (I don’t want to spoil this antagonist’s identity, but puzzling out that paradoxical appellation provides a major clue), a kind of idealist who stands apart from the dying priest, mocking and taunting him. After his claim that “An individual is no match for history,” Urrutia avers that “The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.” For Urrutia, this is of paramount importance, not just as a Catholic priest (which, it must be pointed out, is a role he doesn’t seem particularly suited for) but also as a literary critic and intellectual: Urrutia wants to systematize and critique history, to be “on the right side of history,” to quote Barack Obama. And yet his own attempt to narrativize his own life ironizes and critiques this very possibility at every turn–he is a sham, a charlatan, motivated and prompted by fear and even hate.
And on that attempt to narrativize a life: I would call By Night in Chile an anti-bildungsroman. Although Urrutia relates a life story, the free flow of psychic impressions that characterizes his telling slip and sail and rock and crash throughout years and over decades, often flowing backwards and forwards, sometimes spending pages on what could only be considered inconsequential minutiae, while at times glossing over the profoundest events with little more than a word or two. It is often what Urrutia does not remark upon that characterizes what is of the greatest importance in this work, and this is a testament to the power of Bolaño’s writing, to his command of voice. In one of the greatest performances of the novel, Urrutia describes the time right before, during, and after Pinochet’s coup. The passage is less than four pages, and for every contemporary action of immediate consequence, Urrutia seems to provide twice as many examples of his retreat into the past: ” . . . the first anti-Allende march was organized, with people banging pots and pans, and I read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, all the tragedies, and Alkaios of Mytilene and Aesop and Hesiod and Herodotus . . . .” Urrutia doesn’t bother to scrutinize or analyze the visceral reality of history in the making around him, regressing instead to the comfort of established philosophical tradition–the history of Herodotus in favor of the chaos, anarchy, and brutality happening around him. He’s really quite a terrible priest, and as an intellectual he refuses to be engaged. Confident that he will always be “on history’s side,” he refuses to actively even try come to terms with history until he’s dying. And thus we get the narrative of By Night in Chile.
This reckoning with the past takes the form of a long monologue but, as those familiar with Bolaño will attest, there are plenty of other voices here, stories nested within stories like Russian dolls. The force and vitality of Urrutia’s speech is astonishing; one envisions the monologue as a single immediate and discrete exhalation, a stream of memory, the living wail of a dying man. Bolaño’s rhetorical style here conveys this ironic energy. He employs long (very, very long) sentences, sometimes going on for several pages, and often uses little or no transitions between what should be major shifts of space and time. There are plenty of references to writers, of course, many obscure, and more motifs and leitmotifs than I can work out here (or elsewhere, to be honest). I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the book is probably even more intense in the original Spanish, although I think Chris Andrews has done a brilliant job translating here, just as he did in Last Evenings on Earth. And since I’ve brought up that book, I’m going to make another suggestion: if you’ve yet to read Bolaño, you should, and Last Evenings of Earth (or 2666 if nearly a thousand pages doesn’t seem too daunting)is probably the best place to start–which is kind of another way of saying that By Night in Chile is not the best entry point to Bolaño–at least not for anyone intimately familiar with Latin American history. It’s not that By Night is particularly challenging or hard to read. However, I think that this particular book will probably be better enjoyed with more context. As Rodrigo Fresán points out in his essay “The Savage Detective,” (published in the March 2007 issue of The Believer), By Night in Chile could be (should be?) read as part of one cohesive book along with Amulet and Distant Star. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, Bolaño’s works seem to coalesce into one great work, a secret universe parallel to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Urrutia’s voice enriches this universe, but one must have something of a foothold on Bolaño’s themes in order to appreciate the complex ironies of By Night in Chile. Or maybe not. Maybe this is a great entry point to Bolaño. Either way, great book. Highly recommended.
Editorial note: Biblioklept ran the original version of this review in July of 2010. I saw the new cover for By Night in Chile today in a bookstore I was visiting in a town that I do not live in, and the new cover—the picture of which is the only new “content” for this review—is the occasion for republishing this Bolaño review.