It was about the commander of a death squad in El Salvador who falls in love with a nun he’s supposed to massacre (Nell Zink’s Mislaid)

Meg took advantage of Karen’s absence to start another play. It was about the commander of a death squad in El Salvador who falls in love with a nun he’s supposed to massacre. In the early drafts, they were a man and a woman. They were always in bed by act 1, scene 2, because they didn’t have much to say to each other.She decided to draft them as lesbians to make them more communicative. Afterward she could go back and change the death squad commander character to be male. But it didn’t work. The openhearted death squad commander refused to seem male to her.

She rewrote him as a man. Pouty and sarcastic. Instantly the nun became a solicitous bore. He ignored her. And there they were again, back in bed.

She tried again, establishing the female character first, in scenes with other nuns. Now the death squad commander seemed superfluous. She made him win her heart away from the nice nuns by being even nicer, but they were both so unsexy as affectionate chatterboxes, the love story just fell apart. They had to ignore each other to get anything done.

She tried one last time. She rewrote him as a complete jerk. Instead of falling in love with anybody, the commander said he would kill his own death squad to have sex with the nun. Afterward the nun went to bed with him to reward him. It was kind of sexy.

Meg saw a distinct pattern to it: patriarchy.

She had wanted to write about idealized partners. But the impressive men she had known weren’t anybody’s partner. They were lone wolves and dictatorial heads of families. The idea of partnering with a powerful man—well, it sounds nice enough, but even on paper it won’t fly. A novel ends with a wedding for a reason. Partnership is antidramatic. Partners are not adversaries. Partners don’t fuck. Yet she dreamed of loving a lesbian partner. Was she stupid?

Lee had been sexy to her at one time. But it wasn’t because they had a relationship. It was the opposite. Because they didn’t. And then she stupidly became his partner. She wasted her love on a wolf. What an excellent use of her youth and beauty! She glared at the typewriter, blaming it for her existential angst.

She finished the play with the nun sacrificing the other nuns one by one to protect the death squad commander from the revenge of his dead death squad’s death squad friends. She tore it into very small pieces and buried it deep in the trash can.

From Nell Zink’s novel Mislaid.

Mislaid is taking me a lot longer to get through than The Wallcreeper, maybe in large part because I’m reading it as an ebook, which means it’s competing with other stuff on my iPad that’s easier to read after a glass or two (or bottle or two) of red wine—Wittgenstein’s aphoristic Culture and Value, which I can squint at, or Netflix, which is also easier to read. But Mislaid is not uneasy to read at all—it’s good stuff—very very funny, pivoting into plots and places unexpected. The passage above stands on its own (I think), but also does a fair job summarizing (a part of the piece of an aspect of) the plot.

Reviews and riffs of June and July, 2015 (and an unrelated owl)

The second part of my (long) interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. Chock full of all sorts of riffage: sincerity, authenticity, Vollmann’s visual art, etc. Special bonus: slightly frazzled Franzen pic.

I reread David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in June/July. First time I’d read the whole thing since 2001. I wrote about reading the first 299 pages. I was also reading some of the essays in William H. Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life, and I riffed at some length on Wallace contra Gass, masscult entertainment, etc. From that riff:

…this is Wallace’s big insight in Infinite Jest, right?—that our consciousnesses, mapped in the muck, are framed in desire and reward, and we are conditioned/subjected into that system of desire/reward, so that we desire the desire, even as our consciousnesses…can sneer at something we love, can dismiss the muck that helped shape us even as we plunge into it, the muck. And—too, part of Wallace’s insight in Infinite Jest—too, the consciousness of the consciousness of the desire of desire—that that’s, like, the contemporary condition. And what Wallace…seems to want to point to is some way out of the muck of pop consciousness, a reconciliation toward a pure consciousness that doesn’t sneer—right?

I also wrote a brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest, and included a list of motifs, which (the list) may or may not be helpful.

Nell Zink’s debut novel The Wallcreeper is fucking incredible.

Loved loved loved J.G. Ballard’s degenerate debauched depraved novel High-Rise

—but his later novel Millennium People, despite a great concept and some fascinating ideas, really isn’t so good.

Here’s that owl—with a special guest no less!

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A review of Nell Zink’s extraordinary novel The Wallcreeper

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The short review is, “Nell Zink’s début novel The Wallcreeper is extraordinary.”

But this argument is insufficient, unsupported, you, dear reader, may protest. Why should you spend your hard-earned time reading The Wallcreeper, eh? (I read the book in four sittings. I was late to Sunday dinner for finishing the thing). To invert one of the better book short book reviews I’ve ever read: Every sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Is that not a good enough reason to read The Wallcreeper? Maybe you want to read some of those sentences. Here’s the first one:

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.

Or a page or two later when our heroine/narrator Tiffany describes how she met Stephen:

Our first meeting prevented a crime. He saw me standing in front of the open gate of the vault.

(Don’t worry about that crime). Oh, and, on that first meeting with Stephen:

It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck. It might take a while, though, because Stephen looked as respectable as I did.

And here’s a simile from Tiffany, just because I love the line and can wedge it in here:

After the cranes had landed, the geese passed overhead in so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.

It occurs to me now that I’m probably doing this wrong, right? I should be summarizing the book a bit, no? I’m not particularly interested in that—the plot is the sentences—I mean, yeah, there’s a plot, about Tiffany and Stephen in Berne and later Berlin—and some other places too—and the different lovers they take and the various projects they undertake—music, language acquisition, ecoterrorism—and lots of birdwatching.

Maybe I should lazily just reblurb Keith Gessen’s blurb:

Who is Nell Zink? She claims to be an expatriate living in northeast Germany. Maybe she is; maybe she isn’t. I don’t know. I do know that this first novel arrives with a voice that is fully formed: mature, hilarious, terrifyingly intelligent, and wicked. The novel is about a bird-loving American couple that moves to Europe and becomes, basically, eco-terrorists. This is strange, and interesting, but in between is some writing about marriage, love, fidelity, Europe, and saving the earth that is as funny and as grown-up as anything I’ve read in years. And there are some jokes in here that a young Don DeLillo would kill to have written. I hope he doesn’t kill Nell Zink

The DeLillo comparison is apt, but Zink’s novel is funnier than anything DeLillo’s done in ages. Maybe that’s not fair. “Funny” seems like a weak word, really, for Zink and her narrator Tiffany (and Stephen)—all the words I would use to describe what Zink’s doing here seem pale and imprecise. I mean wittysmartintelligent, devastatingconfounding. Extraordinary, right, that was the word I used above, yes? (He looks the word up in an online dictionary, somehow at 36 and a lifelong native English speaker unsure what it actually means). A placeholder like strange would work, except some of y’all take that word as a pejorative. Eccentric or quirky imply, I think, a rhetorical imprecision wholly absent from the novel. The Wallcreeper is a precise book. The book is very good. It is an interesting book. (What awful sentences those were! But true).

Can you know a book through the words the reviewer uses to describe it though? (No). Can you really know a character through the words she launches your way, anyway? In The Wallcreeper, Tiffany doesn’t really know herself, or Stephen, and the narrative is in some ways her kinda sorta finding out about herself (and Stephen, and other stuff), in a non-urgent manner. Or maybe very urgent, I don’t know—she and Stephen are in a constant state of crisis, sort of, or epiphany-making—

Our marriage had begun in the most daunting way imaginable. We had barely known each other, and then we had those accidents and that jarring disconnect between causes (empty-headed young people liking each other, wallcreepers) and effects (pain, death).

A wallcreeper is a small bird with crimson wings, by the way.

The titular wallcreeper, also by the way, is the thing that makes Stephen swerve in that opening sentence I shared for you above. The book is full of swerves, dips, dives, turns—each sentence swerves into the next, artfully, gracefully, precisely. Tiffany’s consciousness, or the language that Zink uses to represent Tiffany’s consciousness, swerves:

We walked down into the lower garden and sat on a bench. He looked into the pond and remarked favorably on the lack of goldfish. I thought of all the spawn-guzzling carp I had admired in the past and felt abashed. I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.

Beautiful!

But where was I? I think swerves was the metaphor I was batting about a bit—well, I suppose I could go on, suggest that all that swerving swerves up to Something More, that the novel swerves (swells? no, not swells) to an ending shot-through with mythical undertones (which our narrator punctures)—I mean to say that, yes, okay, the novel is a wonderful witty aesthetic read—each sentence made me want to read the next sentence—but readers who require More Than That will also get it. Or maybe not. The Wallcreeper, like all extraordinary novels, is Not For Everyone. The Wallcreeper was/is for me though, and I hope it will also be for you too.

The Wallcreeper is available directly from publisher The Dorothy Project and finer bookshops.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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From top to bottom:

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Last summer, I read Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark and never mustered a review (Florida heat; Fourth of July fireworks; booze; other excuses). I’ve thought about Lanark all the time though. I’m afraid Mumbo Jumbo is gonna fall in the same slot as Lanark—too much to handle in one read. I need to go back and reread Mumbo Jumbo—just fantastic stuff—conspiracy theories, hoodoo, music, art theft—I owe it more than I seem to be able to register here.

Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass

So I read a handful of essays in Gass’s earliest essay collection interspersed with Infinite Jest, and I actually did write a bit about one of them here, in conjunction with IJ. Perfect sentences. (Gass’s sentences. Not mine). I wisely shelved the thing (Gass’s “review” of a Donald Barthelme collection almost paralyzed me), leaving more pieces to return to later.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

I started Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper this afternoon and only put it down when I had to go pick my kids up from day camp. Then I picked it up again. I just put it down again, at a break, of sorts, on page 77, to write this. Every sentence makes me want to read the next sentence (“I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction,” our narrator quips; a bit later: “My life was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth”). It’s about this young married couple living in Bern, Switzerland—also sex, birdwatching, music, etc. I was kinda worried that any novel I picked up after Infinite Jest (see below) might suffer, but nah. The Wallcreeper is fantastic so far.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Okay, so I mustered a few riffs on rereading Infinite Jest, including a thing about the first 299 pages and a thing for first-time readers—but I finished the novel yesterday, and this is how I felt:

Twitter was the easiest way to try to bottle the feeling of finishing the novel, which is a feeling that I wanted to bottle because didn’t record the feeling of finishing IJ the first time, back in 2001. But I remember finishing it, very, very late at night/early in the morning, and going back through it, rereading that first chapter, trying to figure out What Happened. So what I mean is I felt enthusiasm and energy—it was the opposite of the reread, which was deflationary, I suppose—richer and sadder. And I hate to write this, but it’s impossible not to reread Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s suicide. Just too many suicides in the novel…and then this late passage, from Hal’s narration (elisions and emphasis mine):

…the old specimen’s horrified face as the boy sobs into the chartreuse satin and shrieks ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ over and over, so that almost a third of Accomplice!’s total length is devoted to the racked repetition of this word — way, way longer than is needed for the audience to absorb the twist and all its possible implications and meanings. This was just the sort of issue Mario and I argued about. As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!’sessential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself. By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man’s face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge’s real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1⁄3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal–Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.

From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor…

There’s hero Hal horizontal, psychic parallel to Don Gately, the hero of stasis, to borrow Hal’s own term…

I’ll try to muster more.

Cess, Gordon Lish

AKA Gordon Lish does whatever the fuck he wants. I read this in one alarmed sitting, and I’m not sure if I read it “correctly,” whatever that means.

The Spectators,Victor Hussenot

Another beautiful book from Nobrow—not a graphic novel, but something closer to a colorful illustrated tone poem, a meditation, a feeling. Excellent review at Loser City, which I made the mistake of reading before I composed my own.

Ishmael Reed/Nell Zink (Books acquired, 6.24.2015)

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Went to my favorite bookstore today to get a copy of The Borrowers for my daughter and to replace a copy of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which I bought last month, read, and then gave away to a friend. I still aim to write something about it on the blog (hence replacing it), but short term: The book is extraordinary—metatextual, intratextual, very, very funny, filled with erudite citations and scathing humor. I can’t believe I hadn’t read it until now.

So, as I went to replace the copy I’d bought in May with the same edition, I spied this mass market paperback edition, which kinda sorta matches the copy of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down—which hey look at that cover, how could I not pick it up?

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I also found a copy of Nell Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper, which I’ve heard good things about from smart people.