Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem,” a meditation on language and consciousness


The science magazine Nautilus has published Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem.” This is the first piece of nonfiction that McCarthy has published. It’s a fascinating essay that takes its name from a dream of Friedrich August Kekulé, “father of organic chemistry.” Kekulé dreamed of an ouroboros, an unconscious insight that led him to “discover” the ring-structure of the benzene molecule. (Thomas Pynchon writes about Kekulé’s dream in Gravity’s Rainbow, by the way).  Anyway, it’s a nice piece on a complex subject, and it’s fun to watch McCarthy move from lucid, transparent, and direct prose into wry fragments that are, well, more McCarthyesque. From the essay–

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

We dont know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.

Geoff Dyer’s Another Great Day at Sea (Book acquired, 3.26.2015)


Another Great Day at Sea, Geoff Dyer’s account of life (okay, two weeks of life) on board a U.S. aircraft carrier, is new in trade paperback next week from Random House. Their blurb:

As a child Geoff Dyer spent long hours making and blotchily painting model fighter planes. So as an adult, naturally he jumped at the chance to spend a week onboard the aircraft carrier the USS George H.W. Bush. Part deft travelogue, part unerring social observation, and part finely honed comedy, Another Great Day at Sea is the inimitable Dyer’s account of his time spent wandering the ship’s maze of walkways, hatches, and stairs, and talking with the crew—from the Captain to the ship’s dentists. A lanky Englishman in a deeply American world, Dyer brilliantly records daily life aboard this floating fortress, revealing it to be a prism for understanding a society where discipline and conformity become forms of self-expression. At the same time we are reminded why Dyer is celebrated as one of the most original voices in contemporary literature.

Read an excerpt here.

Book Acquired, 2.08.2012—D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse


I need another book like I need a hole in the head, but, when I’ve had a stressful day at work, I like to browse the huge, labyrinthine used bookstore conveniently located just over a mile from my house. I don’t know how I wound up browsing D.H. Lawrence books, but Apocalypse stood out—first for its name, and second because, in a section of literally hundreds and hundreds of Lawrence volumes, it seemed to be the only one. Five minutes with the thing and I knew I was going to pick it up. It’s essentially a long essay on the Book of Revelation—and the concept of apocalypse and end-of-the-world in general.

Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature is a seminal volume for me, one I return to repeatedly—but I’ve never made it through one of his novels; I even found his short fiction tedious. Anyway, read a huge chunk of this last night. More to come.

Download Chamber Four’s New Literary Magazine, C4

Chamber Four has a new literary magazine called C4. You can get the inaugural issue in several formats here.

A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial — Steve Hendricks

Steven Hendricks’s A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial details the story of radical imam Abu Omar. Omar, an Egyptian radical who sought political asylum in Italy, was the focus of an investigation by the Milan police force, who, via wiretaps and other forms of surveillance, were building a case against Omar for recruiting a network of Islamist terrorists. In early 2003, the Milanese case fell apart when Omar was disappeared in what turned out to be one of the most conclusively documented cases of the CIA’s “extraordinary renditions.” Omar was kidnapped, relocated to Germany, and then returned to Egypt, where he was tortured and held by Egypt’s SSI–under the watchful eyes of the CIA. Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro, erstwhile protagonist of Kidnapping, reconstructed the evidence of the CIA’s extraordinary (and extra-legal) rendition, leading to the prosecution of twenty-six CIA operatives for kidnapping; twenty-three were convicted.

Hendricks combines journalistic clarity with the structure of a detective novel in Kidnapping, giving his book the urgency of a modern thriller, all the more striking for its cold reality. The book is well-researched; Hendricks interviewed, among others, Spataro, Omar, and even some of the indicted CIA agents–but Kidnapping never reads as a dry recitation of facts or a ponderous series of analyses. Additionally, Hendricks fleshes out his story with a consideration of the CIA’s history in Italian politics, with an emphasis on why Milan is such a hotbed for clandestine activities. Guiding the narrative is a refined sense of moral outrage against the idea that dark deeds done in the dark make our world somehow safer. While there are some that will remain unmoved by his descriptions of Omar’s torture — the cleric is a “bad guy,” in the Bush admin’s parlance, after all — Hendricks builds a clear case that the “outsourcing of torture” is a vile practice, and one antithetical to the spirit of our Constitution. And, even if the Obama administration is unwilling to shed further light on such crimes, it is good to know that there are writers who will.

A Kidnapping in Milan is new in hardback from W.W. Norton.

The Ten-Cent Plague — David Hajdu


David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague serves as a fascinating cultural history of Cold War-era America. Hajdu’s book, subtitled “The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America,” illustrates the strange paradoxes at work in the post-WWII zeitgeist. Under the veneer of the conformity and suburban affluence of the Eisenhower years, a counter-cultural movement was finding its voice in the unlikely medium of comic books. Hajdu traces the history of the comic from its beginnings at the turn of the twentieth century through the end of the 1950s. Working in part from Gilbert Seldes‘s thesis that comics exemplified a type of “critical democratization” of art (along with “the movies, ragtime, vaudeville [and] popular song”) that “challenged aesthetic elitism,” Hajdu explains how such a maligned medium became a conduit for social change.

Although Hajdu covers the early strips like “Katzenjammer Kids” and “The Yellow Kid,” tracks the rise of Walt Disney and the pulp beginnings of Will Eisner, and explores the rise of seminal superheroes like Superman, the majority of the book is devoted to the national panic that arose from the massive popularity of crime and horror comics in the 1950s. Many of these comics were published by Bill Gaines’s EC comics. Bill Gaines became a crusader against the false morality of the Comics Code Authority (ironic side note: Gaines actually created the CCA as an attempt to bypass censorial influence, a maneuver that backfired) and its champions like Frederic Wertham whose pseudopsychological tome Seduction of the Innocent led to Congressional hearings on comic books, of all things. Hajdu explores not only the underlying civil rights battle on this censorship front, but also the themes of civil rights to which these comics were ultimately sensitive. Hajdu makes a persuasive case for comics as the foment of the anti-establishment youth culture of the 1960s–a beginning many cultural historians choose to identify exclusively with rock and roll and television. The epilogue of the book neatly dovetails this theme, moving from the establishment of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, a group that would feature outsiders and misfits of every stripe and color, to the bizarre and outlandish comix of Robert Crumb, who attests that “Mad was probably the biggest influence of all” on both himself and most of the other underground comix artists. So even though Gaines–the erstwhile hero of Hajdu’s narrative–has to give up EC–his legacy influenced not only the mainstream heroism of Marvel, but also forever affected the underground current of the counter-culture.

Comics on fire at St. Patrick's Academy in Binghamton, New York, 1949
Comics on fire at St. Patrick's Academy in Binghamton, New York, 1949

Hajdu’s writing is both erudite and populist, well-researched with a thorough bibliography and index but also highly narrativized, the sort of nonfiction that reads at a tidy clip. In short, the book works on two levels, both as a scholarly undertaking, ready for handsome quoting in any MA’s term paper for Graphic Narratives, but also as simply a good beach read for those fascinated–or astounded–by the paranoia of America’s McCarthyian past. If you’ve read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, you may know a bit of this history, and The Ten-Cent Plague would be an entertaining way to learn more. Most die-hard comics fans will know the background here, but will surely want Hajdu’s book to get the full story. An entertaining, often funny, and even sometimes enraging narrative. Recommended.

The Ten-Cent Plague is now available in paperback from Picador Books.

To the Castle and Back — Vaclav Havel

Václav Havel’s latest memoir To the Castle and Back plays as a strange series of paradoxes. It’s elliptical and fragmentary yet thorough and exhaustive; it’s personal and introspective yet political and social; it presents a total picture of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and the subsequent dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, yet it repeatedly admits to being unable to convey the full story. The narrative of the Velvet Revolution is fascinating even for those who aren’t political junkies. Make no mistake though–To the Castle in Back will be most enjoyed by people who can’t get enough of world politics. The book is larded with dry political details, and Havel the poet and playwright, Havel Lou Reed’s buddy, Havel the Zappa enthusiast–in short Havel as hipster–is largely absent from this text. Instead, we get journalistic accounts of Havel as politician and speech maker interwoven with Havel’s own commentary and even interoffice memos. At times the level of detail is almost excruciating, but Havel seems to understand this. His preface to the book actually serves as the best review (and guide) possible:

If you occasionally feel like putting the book aside because it seems to skirt some of the world-shaking events that I lived through, or to burrow too deeply into exclusively Czech or Czechoslovak matters, I urge you to skip ahead. It’s easy to do because the book is divided not only into chapters but into short sequences, separated by horizontal lines.

Late in the memoir, Havel writes that for all of his life, he’d “longed to write a brutally honest diary, something in the style of Henry Miller, Charles Bukoswki, [or] Anaïs Nin.” And while To the Castle and Back hardly approaches the rough and scandalous material of that mid-century triad, it does contain something just as honest perhaps: an unglamorous, unromanticized accounting of the past told at all times with the caveat that this story is not history writ large, but rather the perspective of someone who lived through it and acted upon it. Honest, moving, often humorous, and, yes, occasionally dull, To the Castle and Back is probably not a book for everyone, but for those interested in the man and the events of the Velvet Revolution it makes a competent introduction.