In Roberto Bolaño’s sprawling opus 2666 (specifically, in “The Part About Fate”), founding member of the Black Panthers/cookbook author Barry Seaman offers the following recipe during a lecture at a Detroit church–
The name of the recipe is: Brussels Sprouts with Lemon. Take note, please. Four servings calls for: two pounds of brussels sprouts, juice and zest of one lemon, one onion, one sprig of parsley, three tablespoons of butter, black pepper, and salt. You make it like so. One: Clean sprouts well and remove outer leaves. Finely chop onion and parsley. Two: In a pot of salted boiling water, cook sprouts for twenty minutes, or until tender. Then drain well and set aside. Three: Melt butter in frying pan and lightly sauté onion, add zest and juice of lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Four: Add brussels sprouts, toss with sauce, reheat for a few minutes, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon wedges on the side. So good you’ll be licking your fingers, said Seaman. No cholesterol, good for the liver, good for the blood pressure, very healthy.
I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).
The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.
Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:
Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?
In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”
Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!
So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.
The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).
Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).
Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous. Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.
What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is. And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.
As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum—but The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.
Most of Malcolm Lowry’s dense, depressing novel Under the Volcano takes place over the course of November 2nd, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Like a reticent, dour Virgil, Lowry guides the reader through the day’s tragic arc, floating between the minds of his novel’s three protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin, his half-brother Hugh, and Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne. Geoffrey is British Consul to Mexico — ex-Consul, really, as British-Mexican relations sour against the backdrop of Spanish fascism and the rise of nationalism in Mexico — but he is almost always referred to as “the Consul,” a blackly ironic title. See, the Consul bears little authority aside from an extreme expertise on how to stay drunk (or “drunkly sober un-drunk”) 24/7. He’s ambassador to bar stools, a manager of mescal and little else (certainly not his own life; certainly not diplomatic affairs). The Consul is a wreck, an alcoholic to put Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s (and even Bukowski’s) alter-egos to shame.
After a first chapter that seems to derail all but the most patient readers, the narrative conflict arrives when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, a year after leaving (and divorcing) the Consul. She arrives to find the Consul (“Geoffrey,” as he’s called when the free indirect style inhabits her mind) drinking whiskey in a hotel bar in order to sober up (yep). It’s not immediately clear why Yvonne has returned to the Consul, but it seems that she hopes to save him from drowning in a drunken downward spiral. As the pair walks to the Consul’s house, they pass numerous advertisements for a boxing match; a child’s funeral proceeds down the avenue. These motifs of fighting, death, and futility permeate the novel.
During the walk we learn that Yvonne is not the only one concerned about the Consul’s health; his (much) younger brother Hugh has come to stay with him in the hopes of sobering him up. (Hugh employs a revolting and unsuccessful “strychnine cure”). That Hugh has also returned doubly complicates the plot. Much of Under the Volcano remains implicit, unnamed, hinted at, and this seems especially true of the implication that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with Hugh in the recent past (this implication may have been stated conclusively at some point in the novel, but I’ve only read the book once, which is perhaps like not having read it at all). What’s certainly clear is that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with a French filmmaker, Jacques Laruelle, a man whom the Consul, through sheer bizarre coincidence (but of course it isn’t sheer bizarre coincidence), spent a childhood summer with, an experience which bonded them as brothers in an Edenic holiday that eventually (inevitably) soured.
Despite her infidelities, Yvonne is generally present (I choose the verb “present” over “presented as” to highlight Lowry’s impeccable Modernist style) as a sympathetic character. Still, it is hard not to identify with the Consul (with “Geoffrey,” I suppose, if we are going to be familiar), the dark soul of this novel, and his complicated, painful feelings for Yvonne form the core of Volcano’s tragedy. He longs for her, pines for a complete life with her, yet resents her, cannot forgive her, hates her. For what? For leaving him. For betraying him. But perhaps foremost, he despises her inability to understand his alcoholism (he is particularly upset when she refuses to share a morning libation with him when they meet for the first time in a year). I’ll quote a passage at length now, one that showcases Lowry’s free indirect style, and one that reveals the strange indignities of the Consul’s sense of his own alcoholism. For context, dear reader, you must only know that Yvonne has suggested that she and the Consul might make long-term plans when he is sober “in a day or two”—
The Consul sat perfectly still staring at the floor while the enormity of the insult passed into his soul. As if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober? And even if he were not sober now, by what fabulous stages, comparable indeed only to the paths and spheres of the Holy Cabbala itself, had he reached this stage again, touched briefly once before this morning, this stage at which alone he could, as she put it, “cope,” this precarious precious stage, so arduous to maintain, of being drunk in which alone he was sober! What right had she, when he had sat suffering the tortures of the damned and the madhouse on her behalf for fully twenty-five minutes on end without having a decent drink, even to hint that he was anything but, to her eyes, sober? Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of a drunkard’s life! From what conceivable standpoint of rectitude did she imagine she could judge what was anterior to her arrival? And she knew nothing whatever of what all too recently he had gone through, his fall in the Calle Nicaragua, his aplomb, coolness, even bravery there—the Burke’s Irish whiskey! What a world! And the trouble was she had now spoiled the moment.
The “fall in the Calle Nicaragua” the Consul references is quite literally a drunkard’s blackout (followed by the aforementioned fortifying whiskey, courtesy of a tourist), but it — falling — is perhaps the dominant motif in a novel crammed with motifs. In allegorical terms, if we want to ruin a good book (I don’t recommend this, of course), Volcano is pure Faust-stuff: end of innocence, fall of man, intractability of the human condition, ethical peril, moral inertia. While the Consul’s fall dominates the novel, Lowry brings this decline into dramatic relief in a late, climactic episode when his (anti-)heroic trio encounter a dying (dead?) man on the side of the road. Hugh tries to help, but the Darwinian venality of Mexican commonplace law makes his attempt impotent. Yvonne and the Consul are basically paralyzed.
Hugh’s attempt to save the man is a desperate call to action, an endeavor to perform some good in a world dominated by war and fascism. Hugh’s character fascinates. We learn of his past in one of the novel’s most intriguing episodes, a mini-bildungsroman that finds young Hugh working in the merchant marine as a calculated ploy to lend romance to his persona — he longs to prevail as a songwriter. He returns to find that no one cares about — has even heard — his guitar compositions; his publicity stunt fails. Although Hugh is only twenty-nine, he already seems himself as a failure, a fallen hero; he obsesses over the Battle of Ebro, daydreaming of helming a ship laden with hidden arms that he will deliver to the Loyalists who oppose the Fascists. Hugh’s greatest pain — and perhaps (only perhaps) Lowry’s greatest cruelty — is the awareness that the idealism of romantic heroism is intrinsically bound to a kind of selfish egoism. Hugh, perhaps with the visceral signal of his half-brother as a kind of radical prescience, can already see his own fall; his parts in Volcano are in a sense a constant meditation on falling. Hugh tries to save the dying man on the road, the cold double of his brother, whom he also tries to save — and yet it is all to little avail.
In Lowry’s world, in the volcano-world, there is only expulsion from the Eden. Lowry spells out this theme near the middle of his novel in a strange episode. The Consul wanders into his neighbor’s garden and reads a sign —
¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!
The Consul stared back at the black words on the sign without moving. You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy! Simple words, simple and terrible words, words which one took to the very bottom of one’s being, words which, perhaps a final judgement on one, were nevertheless unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony, an agony chill as that iced mescal drunk in the Hotel Canada on the morning of Yvonne’s departure.
Significantly, either the sign is posted with improper punctuation, or (and?) the Consul’s translation is wrong — in either case a meaningful misreading occurs. We later receive the “proper” version of the sign: “¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! – “Do you like this garden that is yours? See to it that your children do not destroy it!” The Consul’s first reading is a corruption, a cruel misreading that questions humanity’s right to happiness, and, tellingly, he connects the sign to the end of his relationship with Yvonne. The second version of the sign, while still foreboding, perhaps signals a kernel of hope in Lowry’s bleak work — the idea that a garden might be preserved, might be tended to; that children might be raised who do not kill, cheat, steal, rape, enslave, or otherwise prey on each other. Still, Lowry refuses to imagine what such a world might look like for us. Did I mention that Volcano is really, really sad?
For all its bleak, bitter bile, Volcano contains moments of sheer, raw beauty, especially in its metaphysical evocations of nature, which always twist back to Lowry’s great themes of Eden, expulsion, and death. Lowry seems to pit human consciousness against the naked power of the natural world; it is no wonder then, against such a grand, stochastic backdrop, that his gardeners should fall. The narrative teems with symbolic animals — horses and dogs and snakes and eagles — yet Lowry always keeps in play the sense that his characters bring these symbolic identifications with them. The world is just the world until people walk in it, think in it, make other meanings for it.
In many ways, Under the Volcano is an antipodal response to Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels stream through a number of consciousnesses over the course of one day; both novels invert and subvert mythical frameworks against diurnal concerns; both novels point to the ways that the smallest meannesses — and kindnesses — can color and affect our lives. And while there are many divergences (chiefest, I believe, the spirit of redemption in Ulysses that seems entirely absent from Volcano), the greatest similarity may be their difficulty. Simply put, Lowry, like Joyce, throws his readers into the deep end. The first chapter of the novel inhabits the mind of Jacques Laruelle and takes place exactly one year after the events of the rest of the novel. It is both overture and context for all that follows, and yet it is radically alienating; indeed, it only fully makes sense after one finishes the novel and goes back and reads it again, realizing it is the rightful coda, the sad epilogue of a sad story. Lowry leads with his conclusion, show us the fall-out up front, the splinters and shards of the narrative to come. Picking up these pieces is hardly easy and never joyful, but it is a rewarding experience. Very highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in March of 2011; we run it again in honor of The Day of the Dead]
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.
[Ed. note: This post was originally published in 2012].
George Saunders has won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo. He is the second American (in a row) to win this British prize after the prize’s rules were changed in 2013 to allow U.S. authors. (Paul Beatty’s The Sellout won last year).
I’m a fan of many of Saunders’s short stories, especially those in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which I did not review on this website, unlike the collections Pastoraliaand Tenth of December, which I did review on this website.
I really, really, really wanted to love Lincoln in the Bardo, but I didn’t. I tried to read it at least three times earlier this year and failed to make it past the halfway mark.
I first tried via the audiobook, a gimmicky affair that caught my interest. I’m a fan of audiobooks and like most humans I crave novelty. The Lincoln audiobook features 166 readers over a relatively slim seven and a half hours, and is led by the capable Nick Offerman, along with David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, et. al. I quit the first time maybe only an hour in, assuming that the chorus of narrators was throwing me off. But then I thought, Shit, Ed, it’s not even eight hours, just knock it out. After three hours I found that I genuinely hated it. So I picked up a physical copy from the library and tried again—maybe the audiobook was the wrong media—maybe I needed to see it on the page? But: Nope.
Lincoln in the Bardo might be a really good novel and I just can’t see it or hear it or feel it. I see postmodernism-as-genre, as form; I read bloodless overcooked posturing; I feel schmaltz. I failed the novel, I’m sure. I mean, I’m sure it’s good, right? The problem is me, as usual. I’m tempted here to launch into a long rant about how little contemporary fiction seems to do for me lately, but why? Why rant?
(The last really really great contemporary American novel I read was Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, a novel that does everything I think Lincoln wants to do with a real raw precise blood-coursing intensity that I’ll never forget. And (I know this because I used my Twitter timeline as a reference just now) I just realized that I picked up Preparation for the Next Life on the same day that I downloaded the audiobook of Lincoln in the Bardo—so I was reading/auditing the novels at pretty much the exact same time. Look, let me very strongly recommend Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life).
In the second paragraph of this silly riff I wrote the words “I’m a fan of many of Saunders’s short stories.” One of those stories is a perfect two-paragraph joint, “Sticks,” which he included in Tenth of December. As I wrote in my review of that collection,
…the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks”…seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections.
I figure out a way to insert “Sticks” into pretty much any literature class I teach—I love sharing it with students so I’ll share it with you:
Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod’s helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veterans Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad’s one concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup, saying, Good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said, What’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.
We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he laid the pole on its side and spray-painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day.
September 13th.–I spent last evening, as well as part of the evening before, at Mr. Thaxter’s. It is certainly a romantic incident to find such a young man on this lonely island; his marriage with the pretty Miranda is true romance. In our talk we have glanced over many matters, and, among the rest, that of the stage, to prepare himself for which was his first motive in coming hither. He appears quite to have given up any dreams of that kind now. What he willdo on returning to the world, as his purpose is, I cannot imagine; but, no doubt, though all their remaining life, both he and she will look back to this rocky ledge, with its handful of soil, as to a Paradise.
Last evening we (Mr., Mrs., and Miss Thaxter) sat and talked of ghosts and kindred subjects; and they told me of the appearance of a little old woman in a striped gown, that had come into that house a few months ago. She was seen by nobody but an Irish nurse, who spoke to her, but received no answer. The little woman drew her chair up towards the fire, and stretched out her feet to warm them. By and by the nurse, who suspected nothing of her ghostly character, went to get a pail of water; and, when she came back, the little woman was not there. It being known precisely how many and what people were on the island, and that no such little woman was among them, the fact of her being a ghost is incontestable. I taught them how to discover the hidden sentiments of letters by suspending a gold ring over them. Ordinarily, since I have been here, we have spent the evening under the piazza, where Mr. Laighton sits to take the air. He seems to avoid the within-doors whenever he can. So there he sits in the sea-breezes, when inland people are probably drawing their chairs to the fire-side; and there I sit with him,–not keeping up a continual flow of talk, but each speaking as any wisdom happens to come into his mind.
The wind, this morning, is from the northwestward, rather brisk, but not very strong. There is a scattering of clouds about the sky; but the atmosphere is singularly clear, and we can see several hills of the interior, the cloud-like White Mountains, and, along the shore, the long white beaches and the dotteddwellings, with great distinctness. Many small vessels spread their wings, and go seaward.
I have been rambling over the southern part of the island, and looking at the traces of habitations there. There are several enclosures,–the largest, perhaps, thirty yards square,–surrounded with a rough stone-wall of very mossy antiquity, built originally broad and strong, two or three large stones in width, and piled up breast-high or more, and taking advantage of the extending ledge to make it higher. Within this enclosure there is almost a clear space of soil, which was formerly, no doubt, cultivated as a garden, but is now close cropt by the sheep and cattle, except where it produces thistles, or the poisonous weed called mercury, which seems to love these old walls, and to rot itself in or near them. These walls are truly venerable, gray, and mossy; and you see at once that the hands that piled the stones must have been long ago turned to dust. Close by the enclosure is the hollow of an old cellar, with rocks tumbled into it, but the layers of stone at the side still to be traced, and bricks, broken or with rounded edges, scattered about, and perhaps pieces of lime; and weeds and grass growing about the whole. Several such sites of former human homes may be seen there, none of which can possibly be later than the Revolution, and probably they are as old as the settlement of the island. The site has Smutty Nose and Star opposite, with a road (that is, a water-road) between, varying from half a mile to a mile. Duck Island is also seen on the left; and, on the right, the shore of the mainland. Behind, the rising ground intercepts the view. Smith’s monument is visible. I do not see where the inhabitants could have kept their boats, unless in the chasms worn by the sea into the rocks.
One of these chasms has a spring of fresh water in the gravelly base, down to which the sea has worn out. The chasm has perpendicular, though irregular, sides, which the waves have chiselled out very square. Its width varies from ten to twenty feet, widest towards the sea; and on the shelves, up and down the sides, some soil has been here and there accumulated, on which grow grass and wild-flowers,–such as goldenrod, now in bloom, and raspberry-bushes, the fruit of which I found ripe,–the whole making large parts of the sides of the chasm green, its verdure overhanging the strip of sea that dashes and foams into the hollow. Sea-weed, besides what grows upon and shags the submerged rocks, is tossed into the harbor, together with stray pieces of wood, chips, barrel-staves, or (as to-day) an entire barrel, or whatever else the sea happens to have on hand. The water rakes to and fro over the pebbles at the bottom of the chasm, drawing back, and leaving much of it bare, then rushing up, with more or less of foam and fury, according to the force and direction of the wind; though, owing to the protection of the adjacent islands, it can never have a gale blowing right into its mouth. The spring is situated so far down the chasm, that, at half or two thirds tide, it is covered by the sea. Twenty minutes after the retiring of the tide suffices to restore to it its wonted freshness.
In another chasm, very much like the one here described, I saw a niche in the rock, about tall enough for a person of moderate stature to stand upright. It had a triangular floor and a top, and was just the place to hold the rudest statue that ever a savage made.
Many of the ledges on the island have yellow moss or lichens spread on them in large patches. The moss of those stone walls does really look very old.
“Old Bab,” the ghost, has a ring round his neck, and is supposed either to have been hung or to have had his throat cut, but he steadfastly declines telling the mode of his death. There is a luminous appearance about him as he walks, and his face is pale and very dreadful.
The Fanny arrived this forenoon, and sailed again before dinner. She brought, as passenger, a Mr. Balch, brother to the country trader who has been spending a few days here. On her return, she has swept the islands of all the non-residents except myself. The wind being ahead, and pretty strong, she will have to beat up, and the voyage will be anything but agreeable. The spray flew before her bows, and doubtless gave the passengers all a thorough wetting within the first half-hour.
The view of Star Island or Gosport from the north is picturesque,–the village, or group of houses, being gathered pretty closely together in the centre of the island, with some green about them; and above all the other edifices, wholly displayed, stands the little stone church, with its tower and belfry. On the right is White Island, with the light-house; to the right of that, and a little to the northward, Londoner’s Rock, where, perhaps, of old, some London ship was wrecked. To the left of Star Island, and nearer Hog, or Appledore, is Smutty Nose. Pour the blue sea about these islets, and let the surf whiten and steal up from their points, and from the reefs about them (which latter whiten for an instant, and then are lost in the whelming and eddying depths), the northwest-wind the while raising thousands of white-caps, and the evening sun shining solemnly over the expanse,–and it is a stern and lovely scene.
The valleys that intersect, or partially intersect, the island are a remarkable feature. They appear to be of the same formation as the fissures in the rocks, but, as they extend farther from the sea, they accumulate a little soil along the irregular sides, and so become green and shagged with bushes, though with the rock everywhere thrusting itself through. The old people of the isles say that their fathers could remember when the sea, at high tide, flowed quite through the valley in which the hotel stands, and that boats used to pass. Afterwards it was a standing pond; then a morass, with cat-tail flags growing in it. It has filled up, so far as it is filled, by the soil being washed down from the higher ground on each side. The storms, meanwhile, have tossed up the shingle and paving-stones at each end of the valley, so as to form a barrier against the passage of any but such mighty waves as that which thundered through a year or two ago.
The old inhabitants lived in the centre or towards the south of the island, and avoided the north and east because the latter were so much bleaker in winter. They could moor their boats in the road, between Smutty Nose and Hog, but could not draw them up. Mr. Laighton found traces of old dwellings in the vicinity of the hotel, and it is supposed that the principal part of the population was on this island. I spent the evening at Mr. Thaxter’s, and we drank a glass of his 1820 Scheidam. The northwest-wind was high at ten o’clock, when I came home, the tide full, and the murmur of the waves broad and deep.
Sunday, September 5th.–To-day I have done little or nothing except to roam along the shore of the island, and to sit under the piazza, talking with Mr. Laighton or some of his half-dozen guests; and about an hour before dinner I came up to my room, and took a brief nap. Since dinner I have been writing the foregoing journal. I observe that the Fanny Ellsler, our passenger and mail boat, has arrived from Portsmouth, and now lies in a little cove, moored to the rocky shore, with a flag flying at her main-mast. We have been watching her for some hours, but she stopped to fish, and then went to some other island, before putting in here. I must go and see what news she has brought.
“What did you fire at?” asked one of the Yankees just now of a boy who had been firing a gun. “Nothing,” said the boy. “Did you hit it?” rejoined the Yankee.
The farmer is of a much ruder and rougher mould than his brother,–heavier in frame and mind, and far less cultivated. It was on this account, probably, that he labored as a farmer, instead of setting up a shop. When it is warm, as yesterday, he takes off his coat, and, not minding whether or no his shirt-sleeves be soiled, goes in this guise to meals or wherever else,–not resuming his coat as long as he is more comfortable without it. His shoulders have a stoop, and altogether his air is that of a farmer in repose. His brother is handsome, and might have quite the aspect of a smart, comely young man, if well dressed.
This island is said to be haunted by a spectre called “Old Bab.” He was one of Captain Kidd’s men, and was slain for the protection of the treasure. Mr. Laighton said that, before he built his house, nothing would have induced the inhabitant of another island to come to this after nightfall. The ghost especially haunts the space between the hotel and the cove in front. There has, in times past, been great search for the treasure.
Mr. Thaxter tells me that the women on the island are very timid as to venturing on the sea,–more so than the women of the mainland,–and that they are easily frightened about their husbands. Very few accidents happen to the boats or men,–none, I think, since Mr. Thaxter has been here. They are not an enterprising set of people, never liking to make long voyages. Sometimes one of them will ship on a voyage to the West Indies, but generally only on coast-wise trips, or fishing or mackerel voyages. They have a very strong local attachment, and return to die. They are now generally temperate, formerly very much the contrary.
September 5th.–A large part of the guests took their departure after an early breakfast this morning, including Mr. Titcomb, Mr. Weiss, the two Yankees, and Mr. Thaxter,–who, however, went as skipper or supercargo, and will return with the boat. I have been fishing for cunners off the rocks, but with intolerably poor success. There is nothing so dispiriting as poor fishing, and I spend most of the time with my head on my hands, looking at the sea breaking against the rocks, shagged around the bases with seaweed. It is a sunny forenoon, with a cool breeze from the south-west. The mackerel craft are in the offing. Mr. Laighton says that the Spy (the boat which went to the mainland this morning) is now on her return with all her colors set; and he thinks that Pierce is on board, he having sent Mr. Thaxter to invite him to come in this boat.
Pierce arrived before dinner in the Spy, accompanied by Judge Upham and his brother and their wives, his own wife, Mr. Furness, and three young ladies. After dinner some of the gentlemen crossed over to Gosport, where we visited the old graveyard, in which were monuments to Rev. Mr. Tucke (died 1773, after forty years’ settlement) and to another and later minister of the island. They were of red freestone, lying horizontally on piles of the granite fragments, such as are scattered all about. There were other graves, marked by the rudest shapes of stones at head and foot. And so many stones protruded from the ground, that it was wonderful how space and depth enough was found between them to cover the dead. We went to the house of the town clerk of Gosport (a drunken fisherman, Joe Caswell by name), and there found the town records, commencing in 1732, in a beautiful style of penmanship. They. are imperfect, the township having been broken up, probably at the time of the Revolution. Caswell, being very drunk, immediately put in a petition to Pierce to build a sea-mole for the protection of the navigation of the island when he should be President. He was dressed in the ordinary fisherman’s style,–red-baize shirt, trousers tucked into large boots, which, as he had just come ashore, were wet with salt water.
He led us down to the shore of the island, towards the east, and showed us Betty Moody’s Hole. This Betty Moody was a woman of the island in old times. The Indians came off on a depredating excursion, and she fled from them with a child, and hid herself in this hole, which is formed by several great rocks being lodged so as to cover one of the fissures which are common along these shores. I crept into the hole, which is somewhat difficult of access, long, low, and narrow, and might well enough be a hiding-place. The child, or children, began to cry; and Betty, fearful of discovery, murdered them to save herself. Joe Caswell did not tell the latter part of the story, but Mr. Thaxter did.
Not far from the spot there is a point of rocks extending out farther into the ocean than the rest of the island. Some four or five years ago there was a young woman residing at Gosport in the capacity of school-teacher. She was of a romantic turn, and used to go and sit on this point of rock to view the waves. One day, when the wind was high, and the surf raging against the rocks, a great wave struck her, as she sat on the edge, and seemed to deprive her of sense; another wave, or the reflex of the same one, carried her off into the sea, and she was seen no more. This happened, I think, in 1846.
Passing a rock near the centre of the island, which rose from the soil about breast-high, and appeared to have been split asunder, with an incalculably aged and moss-grown fissure, the surfaces of which, however, precisely suited each other, Mr. Hatch mentioned that there was an idea among the people, with regard to rocks thus split, that they were rent asunder at the time of the Crucifixion. Judge Upham observed that this superstition was common in all parts of the country.
Mr. Hatch said that he was professionally consulted the other day, by a man who had been digging for buried treasure at Dover Point, up the Piscataqua River; and, while he and his companions were thus engaged, the owner of the land came upon them, and compelled Hatch’s client to give him a note for a sum of money. The object was to inquire whether this note was obligatory. Hatch says that there are a hundred people now resident in Portsmouth, who, at one time or another, have dug for treasure. The process is, in the first place, to find out the site of the treasure by the divining-rod. A circle is then described with the steel rod about the spot, and a man walks around within its verge, reading the Bible, to keep off the evil spirit while his companions dig. If a word is spoken, the whole business is a failure. Once, the person who told him the story reached the lid of the chest, so that the spades plainly scraped upon it, when one of the men spoke, and the chest immediately moved sideways into the earth. Another time, when he was reading the Bible within the circle, a creature like a white horse, but immoderately large, came from a distance towards the circle, looked at him, and then began to graze about the spot. He saw the motion of the jaws, but heard no sound of champing. His companions saw the gigantic horse precisely as he did, only to them it appeared bay instead of white.
The islanders stared with great curiosity at Pierce. One pretty young woman appeared inclined to engross him entirely to herself.
There is a bowling-alley on the island, at which some of the young fishermen were rolling.
Raymond suddenly knew it was time to return to the bad restaurant and then his ache for visions would be satisfied. The bad restaurant would stay when only zombies prevailed. It served food for the dead, tired fishermen and humble vacationers worsened the instant they sat down and had the bad water. Thousands like it at state lines, watering holes in the great western deserts, far flung Idaho and Maine. Their owners say, “We just couldn’t help it, we were food people. We never said good food people.”
Raymond was in the pawnshop looking at a delightful saxophone and about to buy it when the feeling hit him. What he would see and be transformed by was right next door to his own cottage, not out in the fars, the wides, the bars or churches. He put the saxophone down and within seconds saw a shadow past the shop. It was a man hobbling and slurring of the few words he could manage, and Raymond was positive it was Mimi’s old ex, what was left of him after the suicide attempt in Vicksburg, rolling and pitching up Market and the pawns to find Raymond. He went out to the walk and saw nothing but a red car leaving. And he followed it in his own. Mimi it was in Miami singing with another band for a couple of weeks. He was alone. He knew this was right. He had not eaten for two days, for no good reason. The moment was pressing.
A zombie had just waited on him in the pawnshop, a man who stood there remarking on the history of this saxophone. In apparently good health, in decent clothes and well groomed, polite, but quite obviously dead and led by someone beyond. You could look at them and know they are spaces ahead into othernewss. Not at all adolescent either, that natural Teutonic drifting or the sullenness without content. They might still be people, but unlikely.
Everything about the zombie is ravaged except his obsessions, thought Raymond, following the red car. Dead to every other touch. They simply imitate when there is movement or sound. They imitate the conversations around them to seem human to one another. He had seen them in scores from the airports to the bandstands imitating one another, mimicking the next mimicker in no time, no space, no place, no history.
The bad restaurant even had bad-food loungers and loiterers, hard to shake when they got a good imitation of you going. The restaurant with its RESTAURANT sign. Its mimicking of the dining life, yet no edible food, bad water and a weak tea to go with that. Refill that beige for you, sir? Every dish served in contempt for what used to be human. Rations for an unannounced war.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan
A rough-looking, sunburnt, soiled-shirted, odd, middle-aged little man came to the house a day or two ago, seeking work. He had come from Ohio, and was returning to his native place, somewhere in New England, stopping occasionally to earn money to pay his way. There was something rather ludicrous in his physiognomy and aspect. He was very free to talk with all and sundry. He made a long eulogy on his dog Tiger, yesterday, insisting on his good moral character, his not being quarrelsome, his docility, and all other excellent qualities that a huge, strong, fierce mastiff could have. Tiger is the bully of the village, and keeps all the other dogs in awe. His aspect is very spirited, trotting massively along, with his tail elevated and his head likewise. “When he sees a dog that’s anything near his size, he’s apt to growl a little,”–Tiger had the marks of a battle on him,–“yet he’s a good dog.”
Ulrich had been quiet, painting on deck varnish. Now he spoke. “We don’t love each other as much as we used to. You can see the uncertain looks, the calculations, the dismissals. People are not even in the present moment. Everybody’s been futurized. You look in those eyes and see they’re not home, they’re some hours ahead at least. I hate to go into Vicksburg anymore. Anywhere, really. It’s all like meeting people who have just departed. Old men and women don’t look wise anymore. They are just aged children. And who gets the highest pay? Actors. Paid to mimic life because there is no life. You look at everybody and maybe they’re a little sad, some of ’em. They’re all homesick for when they were real.” Ulrich began painting again as the others tried to guess what could have prompted this.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
In the evening there was a strange fellow in the bar-room,–a sort of mock Methodist,–a cattle-drover, who had stopped here for the night with two cows and a Durham bull. All his talk turned upon religion, and he would ever and anon burst out in some strain of scriptural-styled eloquence, chanted through his nose, like an exhortation at a camp-meeting. A group of Universalists and no-religionists sat around him, making him their butt, and holding wild argument with him; and he strangely mingled humor, with his enthusiasm, and enthusiasm with his humor so that it was almost impossible to tell whether he were in jest or earnest. Probably it was neither, but an eccentricity, an almost monomania, that has grownupon him,–perhaps the result of strong religious excitement. And, having been a backslider, he is cursed with a half-frenzied humor. In the morning he talked in the same strain at breakfast, while quaffing fourteen cups of tea,–Eliza, all the while, as she supplied him, entreating him not to drink any more. After breakfast (it being the Sabbath) he drove his two cows and bull past the stoop, raising his staff, and running after them with strange, uncouth gestures; and the last word I heard from him was an exhortation: “Gentlemen, now all of you take your Bibles, and meditate on divine things,”–this being uttered with raised hands, and a Methodistical tone, intermingled, as was his expression, with something humorous; so that, to the last, the puzzle was still kept up, whether he was an enthusiast or a jester. He wore a suit of coarse brown cloth, cut in rather a Quaker fashion; and he had a large nose, and his face expressed enthusiasm and humor,–a sort of smile and twinkle of the eye, with wildness. He is excellent at a bargain; and if, in the midst of his ghostly exhortation, the talk were turned on cattle, he eagerly seized the topic and expatiated on it.
While this fellow was enumerating the Universalists in neighboring towns who had turned from their errors on their death-beds, some one exclaimed, “John Hodges! why, he isn’t dead,–he’s alive and well.” Whereat there was a roar of laughter. While holding an argument at table, I heard him mutter to himself at something that his adversary said; and though I could not distinguish what it was, the tone did more to convince me of some degree of earnestness than aught beside. This character might be wrought into a strange portrait of something sad, terrific, and laughable.
The Sabbath wore away lazily, and therefore wickedly. The heavy caravan-man inquired for some book of light reading, and, having obtained an old volume of a literary paper, betook himself to the seat of his wagon, to read. At other times he smoked, and talked sensibly enough with anybody that offered. He is a man of sense, though not quick, and seems to be a fair man.
When he walks, he puts the thumb of each hand into the armhole of his waistcoat, and moves along stiffly, with a knock-kneed gait. His talk was chiefly of hotels, and such matters as a man, always travelling, without any purpose of observation for mental improvement, would be interested in. He spoke of his life as a hard one.
There was a Methodist quarterly meeting here, and a love-feast.
There is a fellow hereabout who refuses to pay six dollars for the coffin in which his wife was buried. She died about six months since, and I believe he is already engaged to another. He is young and rather comely, but has not a straightforward look.
One man plods along, looking always on the ground, without ever lifting his eyes to the mountain scenery, and forest, and clouds, above and around him. Another walks the street with a quick, prying eye, and sharp face,–the most expressive possible of one on the look-out for gain,–of the most disagreeable class of Yankees. There is also a sour-looking, unwholesome boy, the son of this man, whose voice is querulous and ill-natured, precisely suited to his aspect. So is his character.
We have another with Indian blood in him, and the straight, black hair,–something of the tawny skinand the quick, shining eye of the Indian. He seems reserved, but is not ill-natured when spoken to. There is so much of the white in him, that he gives the impression of belonging to a civilized race, which causes the more strange sensation on discovering that he has a wild lineage.
Earlier this summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where the clerk kindly let me handle a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel Ray. It was like sixty bucks, so I didn’t handle it too fondly. But somehow the image of the signature rattled around in my silly skull all summer—probably because I spent a big chunk of July slurping up Long, Last, Happy. I wanted to find out some info about Hannah’s last quartet of stories—the last four stories in L, L, H—and doing a search of his name in Twitter led me to a link for a signed first-edition hardback copy of his slim 1985 collection Captain Maximus. (The title is a joke on his then-editor, Gordon “Captain Fiction” Lish, who apparently Hannah referred to as “Captain Minimus” in some of their letters). I might have had a scotch or two, but I bid on the book (eighteen bucks). No one else bid on it, so it’s mine now.
The cover is lovely, purple and orange, designed by Fred Marcellino, and under the bright shiny jacket is this:
I love the reserved arrogance of those initials!
And of course the signature, dated five years after the book’s publication and geographically anchored to the town my grandfather and namesake attended college in—
I didn’t actually own a copy of Captain Maximus beforehand, and I think the only stories from it included in Long, Last, Happy (which, by the way is a great starting place for Hannah) are “Fans,” “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter” and “Even Greenland” (you can read “Even Greenland” at Ben Marcus’s website). This particular copy has clearly never been read. Which leads me to this afternoon. I went to my favorite used bookstore to pick up a copy of Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Threes—I just finished The Terrible Twos, a novel that is too prescient and too funny and too cruel and you should read it read it read it—and well anyway, I went to see if maybe they had a copy of Yonder Stands Your Orphan, which they didn’t the last time I was there, but they did today. Under it was a well-thumbed 1986 Penguin paperback edition of Captain Maximus. I need to read Yonder (which hell by the way my god what a bad cover c’mon people) before I can write the Thing I want to write on the final stories in Long, Last, Happy (or at least I think I need to read it, or anyway, I want to). And the second copy of Captain Maximus, at three dollars in store credit, is something I don’t have to worry about cramming into a pocket or dropping into a bathtub or eventually giving away to a friend.
Ramón signed on at Cádiz. The ship’s first call was at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a day and a half out. They put in at night, soon after dark. Floodlights around the harbor illumined the steep bare mountains and made them grass-green against the black sky. Ramón stood at the rail, watching. “It must have been raining here,” he said to a member of the crew standing beside him. The man grunted, looking not at the green slopes unnaturally bright in the electric glare, but at the lights of the town ahead. “Very green,” went on Ramon, a little less certainly; the man did not even grunt in reply.
As soon as the ship was anchored, scores of Hindu shopkeepers came aboard with laces and embroidered goods for the passengers who might not be going ashore. They stayed on the first-class deck, not bothering to go down below to third-class where Ramón was scullery boy in the passengers’ cocina. The work so far did not upset him; he had held more exacting and tiring jobs in Cádiz. There was sufficient food, and although it was not very good, nevertheless it was better than what was taken out to the third-class passengers. It had never occurred to Ramón to want privacy in his living quarters, so that he was unmoved by the necessity of sharing a cabin with a dozen or so shipmates. Still, he had been acutely unhappy since leaving Cádiz. Except for the orders they gave him in the kitchen, the sailors behaved as if he did not exist. They covered his bunk with their dirty clothes, and lay on it, smoking, at night when he wanted to sleep. They failed to include him in any conversation, and so far no one had even made an allusion, however deprecatory, to his existence. For them it appeared that he simply was not present. To even the least egocentric man such a state of affairs can become intolerable. In his sixteen years Ramón had not been in a similar situation; he had been maltreated but not wholly disregarded.
Most of the crew stood at the prow smoking, pointing out bars to one another, as they scanned the waterfront. Partly out of perversity born of his grievance, and partly because he wanted to be by himself for a spell, Ramón walked to the stern and leaned heavily against the rail, looking down into the darkness below. He could hear an automobile horn being blown continuously as it drove along the waterfront. The hills behind backed up the sound, magnified it as they threw it across the water. To the other side was the dim roar of the sea’s waves against the break-water. He was a little homesick, and as he stood there he became angry as well. It was inadmissible that this state of affairs should continue. A day and a half was too long; he was determined to force a change immediately, and to his undisciplined young mind kept recurring the confused image of a fight—a large-scale struggle with the entire crew, in which he somehow finished as the sole victor.
It is pleasant to walk by the sea-wall of a foreign port at night, with the autumn wind gently pushing at your back. Ramón was in no hurry; he stopped before each café and listened to the guitars and shouting, without, however, allowing himself to be detained by the women who called to him from the darker doorways. Having had to clean up the galley after an extra meal had been served to sixty workmen who had just come aboard here at Santa Cruz, bound for South America, he had been the last to get off the ship, and so he was looking for his shipmates. At the Café del Teide he found several of them seated at a table sharing a bottle of rum. They saw him come in, but they gave no sign of recognition. There was no empty chair. He walked toward the table, slowed down a bit as he approached it, and then continued walking toward the back of the café. The man behind the bar called out to him: “You were looking for something?” Ramón turned around and sat down suddenly at a small table. The waiter came and served him, but he scarcely noticed what he was drinking. He was watching the table with the six men from his ship. Like one fascinated, he let his eyes follow each gesture: the filling of the little glasses, the tossing down the liquor, the back of the hand wiping the mouth. And he listened to their words punctuated by loud laughter. Resentment began to swell in him; he felt that if he sat still any longer he would explode. Pushing back his chair, he jumped up and strode dramatically out into the street. No one noticed his exit. Continue reading “Read Paul Bowles’s short story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz””→
I’m not really sure what made me pick up Carson McCullers’ 1940 début novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to read again.
Actually, writing that sentence makes me remember: I was purging books, and the edition I have is extremely unattractive; I was considering trading it in. But I started reading it, realizing that I hadn’t reread it ever, that I hadn’t read it since I was probably a senior in high school or maybe a college freshman.
So it was maybe two decades ago that I first read it. I would’ve been maybe 18, about five years younger than McCullers was when the novel was published (and not much older than its protagonist Mick Kelly). The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter never stuck with me like The Ballad of the Sad Café or her short stories did, but I remember at the time thinking it far superior to Faulkner—more lucid in its description of the Deep South’s abjection. (I struggled with Faulkner when I was young, but now see his tangled sentences and thick murky paragraphs are a wholly appropriate rhetorical reckoning with the nightmare of Southern history).
And of course I preferred Flannery O’Connor to both at the time—her writing was simultaneously lucid and acid, cruel and funny. Maybe I still like her best of the three.
O’Connor, in a 1963 letter: “I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers.”
When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is at its best when it is at its most grotesque, which is to say, most realistic.
Here’s a sample of that grotesque dirty realism from very late in the book, as Jake Blount (an alcoholic and would-be revolutionary) departs the small, unnamed Georgia town that the novel is set in—and the narrative:
The door closed behind him. When he looked back at the end of the black, Brannon was watching from the sidewalk. He walked until he reached the railroad tracks. On either side there were rows of dilapidated two-room houses. In the cramped back yards were rotted privies and lines of torn, smoky rags hung out to dry. For two miles there was not one sight of comfort or space or cleanliness. Even the earth itself seemed filthy and abandoned. Now and then there were signs that a vegetable row had been attempted, but only a few withered collards had survived. And a few fruitless, smutty fig trees. Little younguns swarmed in this filth, the smaller of them stark naked. The sight of this poverty was so cruel and hopeless that Jake snarled and clenched his fists.
The passage showcases some of McCullers’ best and worst prose tendencies. Her evocation of the South’s rural poverty condenses wonderfully in the image of “a few fruitless, smutty fig trees” — smutty!—but there’s also an underlying resort to cliché, into placeholders — “stark naked”; “clenched his fists.”
(Maybe you think I’m picking on McCullers here, yes? Not my intention. I’ll confess I read a career-spanning compendium of Barry Hannah’s short stories, Long, Last, Happy right before I read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and McCullers simply can’t match sentences with Our Barry. It’s an unfair comparison, sure. But).
But McCullers was only 23 when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. Stock phrases must be forgiven, yes? Yes.
And there are plenty of great moments on the page, like this one, in which (McCullers’ stand-in) Mick Kelly tries her young hand at writing:
The rooms smelled of new wood, and when she walked the soles of her tennis shoes made a flopping sound that echoed through all the house. The air was hot and quiet. She stood still in the middle of the front room for a while, and then she suddenly thought of something. She fished in her pocket and brought out two stubs of chalk—one green and the other red. Mick drew the big block letters very slowly. At the top she wrote EDISON, and under that she drew the names of DICK TRACY and MUSSOLINI. Then in each corner with the largest letters of all, made with green and outlined in red, she wrote her initials—M.K. When that was done she crossed over to the opposite wall and wrote a very bad word—PUSSY, and beneath that she put her initials, too. She stood in the middle of the empty room and stared at what she had done. The chalk was still in her hands and she did not feel really satisfied.
Who is ever really satisfied with their own writing though?
We’re several hundred words into this riff and I’ve failed to summarize the plot of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There really isn’t a plot per se, actually—sure, there are a development of ideas, themes, motifs, characters—yep—and sure, lots of things happen (the novel is episodic)—but there isn’t really a plot.
The point above is absurd. Of course there is a plot, one which you could easily diagram in fact. Such a diagram would describe the sad strands of four misfits gravitating toward the deaf-mute, John Singer, the silent center of this sad novel. These sad strands tangle, yet ultimately fail to cohere into any kind of harmony with each other. Even worse, these strands fail to make a true connection with Singer. The misfits all essentially use him as a sounding board, a mute confessional booth. They think they love him, but they love his silence, they love his listening. They don’t learn about his own strange love and his own strange sadness.
Or, if you really want to oversimplify plot: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is about growing up. In a novel with a number of tragic trajectories, it’s somehow the ending of the Mick Kelly thread that I found most affecting. She still dreams of making great grand music, of writing songs the world would love—but McCullers leaves her standing on her feet working overtime in Woolworth’s to get her family out of the hole. This is the curse of adulthood, of grasping onto dreams even as the world flattens them out into a big boring nothing. The final lines McCullers gives her, via the novel’s free indirect style, strike me as ambiguous:
…what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was
too and it was too. It was some good.
Is Mick’s self-talk here a defense against disillusionment—one haunted by the truth of life’s awful boring ugliness—or a genuine earnest rallying against the ugliness—or perhaps a mix of both? “Some good” can be read both ironically and earnestly.
Its navigation of irony and earnestness is where I find the novel most off balance. There’s a clumsy cynicism to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—a justified cynicism, to be sure, given its themes of racism, classicism, modern alienation—but McCullers’ approach to sussing out her big themes is often heavy-handed. Too often characters’ speeches and dialogues—particularly those of the working-class socialist Blount and Dr. Copeland, a black Marxist—feel forced. Entire dialectics that seem lifted from college lecture notes are shoved into characters’ mouths. Still: if I sometimes found such moments insufferable, McCullers nevertheless reminded me that she was pointedly addressing suffering.
The earnestness there is mature, but the cynicism isn’t. I’m not quite sure what I mean by this—the cynicism isn’t deep? The cynicism is a pose, a viewpoint not fully, but nevertheless freshly, lived in. The cynicism is the cynicism that some of us like to try on when we’re 18, 19, 20, 21.
And re: the point above—that’s good, right? I mean it’s good that McCullers channeled this pure and very real anger into her novel. Maybe I failed the novel, this time, in rereading it twenty years later and thinking repeatedly, But that’s the way the world is: Often awful and almost always unfair. Blount and Copeland are interesting but essentially paralyzed characters; they howl against injustice but McCullers can only make them act in modes of ineffective despair.
Despair. This is a sad novel—a realistically sad novel, a grotesquely sad novel—sympathetic but never sentimental. (We Southerners love sugar and sentiment; bless her heart, McCullers cuts any hint of the latter out. And if Mick Kelly enjoys an ice cream sundae for her last dinner in the novel, note that she chases it with a bitter beer that gets her just drunk enough to keep going).
But some of us like to laugh at and with despair, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter serves up a big bitter brew without a heady or hearty laugh to help you swallow it down. The novel’s humorlessness was perhaps by design—these characters dwell in absurd abjection. But absurdity often calls for a laugh, and laughter is not always sugar sweetness, but rather can be a reveling in bitterness—perhaps what I mean here, is that laughter is a sincere and deep reckoning with mature cynicism.
I quoted O’Connor above, in point six; in the same lecture, she warned against writers (particularly Southern writers) giving into the need of the “tired reader…to be lifted up.” O’Connor often forced her characters into moments of radical redemption, moments that complicate her “tired reader’s” desire to have his “senses tormented or his spirits raised.” This modern reader, according to O’Connor, “wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.” For O’Connor, the modern reader’s “sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” Restoration in O’Connor’s fiction is always purchased at a heavy cost—many readers can only see the cost, and not the redemption in her calculus.
And restoration in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is its lack of sentimentality, its unwillingness to restore its characters to a mythical Eden. Indeed, McCullers’ setting never even posits a grace from which her characters might fall. Instead, the novel’s final moments leave us “suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.” Any restoration is impermanent, as the final line suggests: “And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.” If the morning sun promises a new tomorrow, a futurity, that futurity is nevertheless conditioned by the need to repeatedly “compose” oneself into a new being, always under the duress of “bitter irony and faith.” McCullers’ plot might side with bitter irony, but her belief in her characters’ beliefs—belief in the powers of art, politics, and above all love—point ultimately to an earnest faith in humanity to compose itself anew.
All of the times that Flannery O’Connor mentions Carson McCullers in her letters collected in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor:
I read in the paper that Carson McCullers is going to have a play shortly to be called The Square Root of Wonderful—a title that makes me cringe. (8 Oct. 1957)
…Paul Levine [is] preparing a book on 6 writers—McCullers, Capote, Buechner, Bellow, Salinger, and me… (25 June 1960)
I haven’t read [Frederick] Buechner myself, but if I was writing it I would throw out Capote in favor of Malamud and Carson McCullers in favor of [J.F.] Powers. (9 July 1960)
Last week Houghton Mifflin sent me a book called Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers. This long-awaited-by-the-faithful book will come out in September. I believe it is the worst book I have ever read. It is incredible…It must signal the complete disintegration of this woman’s talent. I have forgotten how the other three were, but they were at least respectable from the writing standpoint. (26 July 1961)
If you ever go to the Albee-McCullers [play] let me know what you think about it? … Did you ever consider Wise Blood as a possibility for dramatizing? If the times were different I would suggest that, but I think it would just be taken for the super-grotesque sub-Carson McCullers sort of thing that I couldn’t stand the sight or sound of. (5 Nov. 1963)
I was interested in the reviews of the Carson McCullers adaptation. I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers but it is interesting to see what is made of it in the theatre, and by Edward Albee at that. (28 Nov. 1963)
The gunman lights a cigarette, watches despondently as dusk falls upon the empty alley. He is alone in a lonely place, summoned here to receive instructions from a master criminal known only as the Boss, but the Boss isn’t here. No one is. It’s spooky. He feels like a marked man. The Boss is known for his ruthlessness. When he orders a killing, someone dies. The gunman would like there to be witnesses for what happens next, but the alley’s deserted.
He glances at his watch, a gift from the Boss. Face a gold coin, no numbers. A joke, probably: time is money. Or, maybe, money is time; it depends on what you’re short of. The Boss is a great joker. The watch hands are hair-thin, like the edge of a razor blade, hard to see, especially in this fading light. There and not there, like time itself. Which is perhaps not being clocked—perhaps that’s what the numberless face is saying. How can you measure the shit you’re buried in? He doesn’t know what keeps the watch running. Battery inside, maybe. When the battery dies? Don’t think about it.