A few sentences on every Thomas Pynchon novel to date

Today, 8 May 2021, is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 84th birthday. Some of us nerds celebrate the work of one of the world’s greatest living authors with something called Pynchon in Public Day. In the past I’ve rounded up links to Pynchon stuff on Biblioklept and elsewhere. Last year, that weird pandemic year, I finally finished all of Pynchon’s novels. I’d been “saving” Bleeding Edge for a while, but broke down and read it that spring. Having read all eight Pynchon novels (a few more than once), I’ll offer some quick scattershot thoughts.

V. (1963)

I reread Pynchon’s first novel for the first time last month and found it far more achieved than I had remembered. For years I’ve always recalled it as a dress rehearsal for the superior and more complex Gravity’s Rainbow. And while V. certainly points in GR’s direction, even sharing some characters, it’s nevertheless its own entity. I first read V. as a very young man, and as I recall, thought it scattershot, zany, often very funny, but also an assemblage of set pieces that fail to cohere. Rereading it two decades later I can see that there’s far more architecture to its plot, a twinned, yoyoing plot diagrammed in the novel’s title. The twin strands allow Pynchon two critique modernism on two fronts, split by the world wars mark the first half of the twentieth century. It’s a perfect starting point for anyone new to Pynchon, and its midpoint chapter, “Mondaugen’s Story,” is as good as anything else he’s written.

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Pynchon’s shortest novel is not necessarily his most accessible: Crying is a dense labyrinth to get lost in. At times Pynchon’s second novel feels like a parody of L.A. detective noir (a well he’d return to in Inherent Vice), but there’s plenty of pastiche going on here as well. For example, at one point we are treated to a Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy, which serves as a kind of metatextual comment on the novel’s plot about a secret war between secret armies of…letter carriers. The whole mailman thing might seem ridiculous, but Pynchon’s zaniness is always doubled in sinister paranoia: The Crying of Lot 49 is a story about how information is disseminated, controlled, and manipulated. Its end might frustrate many readers. We never get to hear the actual crying of lot 49 (just as we never discover the “true” identity of V in V.): fixing a stable, centered truth is an impossibility in the Pynchonverse.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Unbelievably rich, light, dark, cruel, loving, exasperating, challenging, and rewarding, Pynchon’s third novel is one of a handful of books that end up on “difficult novel” lists that is actually difficult. The difficulty though has everything to do with how we expect a novel to “happen” as we read—Gravity’s Rainbow is an entirely new thing, a literature that responds to the rise of mass media as modernist painters had to respond to the advent of photography and moving pictures. The key to appreciating and enjoying Gravity’s Rainbow, in my estimation, is to concede to the language, to the plasticity of it all, with an agreement with yourself to immediately reread it all.

Vineland (1990)

It took Pynchon a decade and a half to follow up Gravity’s Rainbow. I was a boy when Vineland came out—it was obviously nowhere on my radar (I think my favorite books around this time would probably have been The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and likely a ton of Dragonlance novels). I do know that Vineland was a disappointment to many fans and critics, and I can see why. At the time, novelist David Foster Wallace neatly summed it up in a letter to novelist Jonathan Franzen: “I get the strong sense he’s spent 20 years smoking pot and watching TV.” Vineland is angry about the Reagan years, but somehow not angry enough. The novel’s villain Brock Vond seems to prefigure the authoritarian police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen of Inherent Vice, but Pynchon’s condemnation of Vond never quite reconciles with his condemnation of the political failures of the 1960s.  Vineland is ultimately depressing and easily my least-favorite Pynchon novel, but it does have some exquisite prose moments.

Mason & Dixon (1997)

If Mason & Dixon isn’t Pynchon’s best book, it has to be 1A to Gravity’s Rainbow’s 1. The novel is another sprawling epic, a loose, baggy adventure story chronicling Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s Enlightenment effort to survey their bit of the Western World. Mason & Dixon presents an initial formal challenge to its reader: the story is told in a kind of (faux) 18th-century vernacular. Diction, syntax, and even punctuation jostle the contemporary ear. However, once you tune your ear to the (perhaps-not-quite-so-trustworthy) tone of Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke (who tells this tall tall tale), Mason & Dixon somehow becomes breezy, jaunty, even picaresque. It’s jammed with all sorts of adventures: the talking Learned English Dog, smoking weed with George Washington, Gnostic revelations, Asiatic Pygmies who colonize the missing eleven days lost when the British moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar…Wonderful stuff. But it’s really the evocation of a strange, hedged, incomplete but loving friendship that comes through in Mason & Dixon.

Against the Day (2006)

Oof. She’s a big boy. At over a thousand pages, Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel. Despite its size, I think Against the Day is the best starting point for Pynchon. It offers a surprisingly succinct and clear summation of his major themes, which might be condensed to something like: resist the military-industrial-entertainment-complex, while also showing off his rhetorical power. It’s late period Pynchon, but the prose is some of his strongest stuff. The songs are tight, the pastiche is tighter, and the novel’s epic sweep comes together in the end, resolving its parodic ironies with an earnest love that I believe is the core of Pynchon’s worldview. I forgot to say what it’s about: It’s about the end of the nineteenth century, or, more accurately, the beginning of the twentieth century.

Inherent Vice (2009)

Inherent Vice is a leaner work than its two predecessors, but could stand to be leaner still. The book pushes towards 400 pages but would probably be stronger at 200—or 800. I don’t know. In any case, Inherent Vice is a goofy but sinister stoner detective jaunt that frags out as much as its protagonist, PI Doc Sportello. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation finds its way through those fragments to an end a bit different from Pynchon’s original (which is closer to an echo of the end of The Crying of Lot 49)—PTA’s film finds its emotional resolution in the restoration of couple—not the main couple, but adjacent characters—an ending that Pynchon pulled in his first novel V.

Bleeding Edge (2013)

While Bleeding Edge was generally well received by critics, it’s not as esteemed as his major works. I think that the novel is much, much better than its reputation though (even its reputation among Pynchon fans. Pynchon retreads some familiar plot territory—this is another detective novel, like Crying and Inherent Vice—but in many ways he’s doing something wholly new here: Bleeding Edge is his Dot Com Novel, his 9/11 Novel, and his New York Novel. It’s also probably his domestic novel, and possibly (dare I?) his most autobiographical, or at least autobiographical in the sense of evoking life with teenagers in New York City, perhaps drawing on material from his own life with wife and son in the city. It’s good stuff, but I really hope we get one more.

 

 

 

Ann Quin’s novel Passages collapses hierarchies of center and margin

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.

The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.

Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.

Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)

Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.

Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:

Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.

Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:

I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.

The woman’s becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.

The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:

How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.

The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.

This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:

Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.

Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:

I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.

Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:

An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.

Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.

The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.

As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:

It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.

Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challengingabject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.

 

A list of twenty novels I loved in 2020, presented without comment and in no particular order

Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

Anasazi, Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan

Gringos, Charles Portis

The Wig, Charles Wright

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

Animalia, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo; translation by Frank Wynne

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark

Zeroville, Steve Erickson

Citizen, Claudine Rankine

Oreo, Fran Ross

A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes

Satantango, László Krasznahorkai; translation by George Szirtes

Lancelot, Walker Percy

Dunfords Travels Everywheres, William Melvin Kelley

Motorman, David Ohle

Fat City, Leonard Gardner

Blog about The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich’s Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies novel

Hey, it’s Halloween, spooky times, dark times, right? So here’s a novel recommendation: Grace Krilanovich’s “Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies” novel The Orange Eats Creeps.

Here is the first paragraph of The Orange Eats Creeps:

The sun is setting. The hobo vampires are waking up, their quest for crank and blood is just beginning. Over the course of the frigid night they will roam the area surrounding the train stop looking for warm bodies to suck, for cough syrup to fuel a night of debauched sexual encounters with fellow vampires and mortals alike. They distribute sexually transmitted diseases like the daily newspaper but they will never succumb, they will never die, just aging into decrepit losers inside a teenage shell. They have a sense of duty to their habit and their climax — twin addictions that inform their every move. They are lusty, sad creatures, these Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies. They traverse the Pacific Northwest’s damp, shitty countryside, forests and big trees, the dusty fields and gravel pits clearing a path of desolation parallel to the rail lines of Oregon and Washington, the half-blown-out signs for supermarket chains in strip malls featuring exactly one nail place, one juice-slash-coffee place, and one freshmex-type grill chain restaurant. Here everything is coated in brown-grey paste like moss at the bottom of a crappy tree…

Krilanovich’s novel is coated in brown-grey paste, an accumulation of scum and cum and blood, a vampiric solution zapped by orange bolts of sex, pain, drugs, and rocknroll. It’s a riot grrrl novel, a psychobilly novel, a crustgoth novel. It’s a fragmented, ugly, revolting mess and I loved it. The Orange Eats Creeps is “A vortex of a novel,” as Steve Erickson puts it in his introduction, that will alternately suck in or repel readers.

The vortex of The Orange Eats Creeps recalls another black hole, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, also set in the Pacific Northwest, also crawling through subcultural punk detritus. Visually and thematically, there are also echoes of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s 1986 film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s 1997 film Gummo. (And yeah, I’m sure a long essay could be worked out in the ways that this book grimes the gilt glam from Joel Schumacher’s 1987 film The Lost Boys.)

As a prose stylist, Krilanovich recalls Kathy Acker or William Burroughs, and the vomitiness and abject bodiness of it all is reminiscent of Julia Kristeva’s theory. Krilanovich’s style seems to have roots in punk rock, in zines, and cut-ups, in theft and weird Xerox collages. The novel is fragmentary, random. We’re trapped—trapped?—in the narrator’s ESP-consciousness, zipping through time and space, drugged out, immortal, wishing to nullify time and space, to achieve a comforting and insensate zero.

All the shooting galleries and basement punk shows and drugstore robberies and gallon buckets of cold coffee won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Readers looking for a tightly-plotted vampire novel will find themselves frustrated. The lore here is a separate lore: foster families and parking lots and quick scores and quicker sex. The world is boxcars and group homes and 7-Elevens. But there’s plenty of weirdness: vampire boys, punk rock legends and would-be legends, a warlock, a serial killer called Dactyl, the Donner Party, and ESP, ESP, ESP. There’s a core quest: The narrator searches for her sister. Maybe the quest is a metaphor; hell, maybe vampirism itself is a metaphor in The Orange Eats Creeps. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the aesthetic impression, a swirl of images, words, and motifs coagulating around the reader’s mind’s eye. The Orange Eats Creeps is a survey of consciousness in crisis—the crisis of late capitalism, with vampires making their way through a gig economy, addicted, transient, desperate, enthralled to a particularly Western weirdness. It doesn’t all work, but who cares? Good gross stuff.

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas is here, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose can be served on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in December, 2017].

Moby-Dick | A short riff on a long book

Green and White, Georgia O'Keeffe
Green and White, Georgia O’Keeffe

Prompted by Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s marvelous study of Moby-Dick, I took a fifth trip through Melville’s massive opus this past month.

Every time I read Moby-Dick it seems funnier and sadder. Richer. Thicker.

I cobbled together my reading over different media and spaces: I listened to William Hootkins‘ outstanding unabridged audiobook version, and then reread on my Kindle key passages I’d mentally underlined; I then checked those passages against the copy of Moby-Dick I annotated the hell out of in grad school. As I read, I posted some of my favorite excerpts on this blog.

I posted some of my favorite excerpts of Moby-Dick here on Biblioklept because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to write about the book—not really—that I wouldn’t be able to handle all of its language. (My riff on Olson’s book obsesses over Olson’s ability to write after Melville and Melville’s ability to write after Shakespeare).

Really, in posting so many fragments of Moby-Dick, I suppose that I’ve attempted to abrogate any kind of critical duty to describe the book under discussion in terms of its own language.

The above is really a way of saying: Moby-Dick, like any sublime work of literature, is a self-defining, self-describing, and even self-deconstructing text.

Or, another way of making such a claim: Let me (mis)appropriate Samuel Beckett’s description of Finnegans Wake and contend that the description fits Moby-Dick just as aptly: 

Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that something itself.

So here circumnavigate back to my own recent reading and auditing of the book: Hootkins’ audio recording would make a great starting point for anyone (unnecessarily) daunted by Melville’s big book. He performs the book, commanding his audience’s attention. He unpacks the humor that might otherwise hide from untuned 21st century ears; he communicates the book’s deep, profound sorrow. His Ishmael is perceptive, clever, generous. His Stubb, hilarious. His Ahab a strange philosophical terror.

After listening to Hootkins on my commute, I’d return to key passages on my Kindle, and then finally review the notes I wrote in the cheap hardback Signet edition I read in grad school.

But why bring this up?

I don’t know.

Maybe: Unpacking Moby-Dick is too hard, too much—would require its own book, a book that would cite the entirety of Melville’s book.

But discussing the book this way seems a disservice to potential readers; it’s as if we would cloak the book in a mystic veil.

White Figure, Wassily Kandinsky
White Figure, Wassily Kandinsky

If I have a point to all of this: Moby-Dick is wonderful, funny, moving, engaging; a genre-bender that tackles philosophy, history, science; an adventure tale; a psychological novel brimming with ideas, allusions—but one delivered in sonorous, poetic language. It’s good, great, grand. Read it, if you haven’t. Reread it.

So I’ve failed to even try to begin to attempt to pretend to describe the plot.

Here: Ishmael, depressed, suicidal perhaps, decides to go to sea. To go whaling.

He tries to measure the whale, and by measuring the whale, maybe measure the world. But this is not really possible, certainly not in language. Certainly not in first-person perspective.

In Chapter 86, “The Tail,” Ishmael tells us:

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. … Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.

(I don’t suppose I need to remark that Melville here lets one mighty tail stand in for another mighty tale—a tale he cannot face).

Call me Ishmael”: our protagonist hails us.

But these famous opening lines aren’t really the beginning of the book. First we have the section titled “Extracts,” and before that “Etymology.” The first entry on the etymology of the whale, from  Hackluyt, warns us not to leave out “the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word.”

Whaling. Hailing. Wailing.

The whiteness of the whale.

The witness of the wail.

How, just how, does Ishmael witness? How does he manage to tell this story? Did I obsess over this in earlier readings? I don’t think so—I was too concerned with absorbing the what and the why of the story to closely attend the how of its telling.

The novel begins in standard first-person point-of-view territory, Ishmael guiding us through Manhattan, New Bedford, Nantucket—but by the time he’s boarded the Pequod and set out into the wide watery world, this first-person perspective transcends the limits of physics: Our narrator not only attends the private conversations of Ahab, his mates, his harpooners, his men—but also the very interior of those men, their minds, their dreams, their imaginations.

Is Ishmael a ghost?

Leviathan-Job 40-21, Salvador Dali
Leviathan-Job 40-21, Salvador Dali

And to return to Ahab for a moment: My godwhat a voice! His infecting, addicting insanity. His agon with Moby Dick, with the sun, with himself.

And Starbuck: Starbuck comes across weaker and weaker each time I read the book. We’re to believe he’s a man of convictions, but he moves in half-measures. In his final moments he tries to match or feign or approximate Ahab’s insanity: tragicomedy.

And Stubb: Despite his cruelties, he may be my favorite character in the book.

While I’m riffing: Is there a novel more phallic in the American canon than Moby-Dick? All that sperm: All that life-force.

This is maybe what Moby-Dick is about: Life-force. The attempt to to resurrect and die and resurrect again. The coffin that serves as life-buoy. The life-line that connects men that might also be their death. A counterpane to counter pain. A condensation of oppositions.

A yarn, a rope, a series of knots, layered, layering, self-contextualizing.

An attempt to put into language what cannot be put into language.

Have I reached my end? Maybe too long for the “short riff” promised in the title, but also surely too short to even begin to start to approach to pretend to say something adequate about the novel. So a parting thought: Moby-Dick is better—richer, fuller, deeper—each time I read it, and I look forward to reading it again.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally ran a version of this riff in February 2013. I’m running it again for Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. I haven’t read Moby-Dick in full since 2013.]

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose can be served on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in December, 2017].

Inherent Vice (William Gaddis’s The Recognitions)

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From page 182 of my copy of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. (See also and also).

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose rest can well on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

 

Now seems as good a time as any to read Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel

The Iron Heel

by

Jack London

 


 

Foreword

 

It cannot be said that the Everhard Manuscript is an important historical document. To the historian it bristles with errors—not errors of fact, but errors of interpretation. Looking back across the seven centuries that have lapsed since Avis Everhard completed her manuscript, events, and the bearings of events, that were confused and veiled to her, are clear to us. She lacked perspective. She was too close to the events she writes about. Nay, she was merged in the events she has described.

Nevertheless, as a personal document, the Everhard Manuscript is of inestimable value. But here again enter error of perspective, and vitiation due to the bias of love. Yet we smile, indeed, and forgive Avis Everhard for the heroic lines upon which she modelled her husband. We know to-day that he was not so colossal, and that he loomed among the events of his times less largely than the Manuscript would lead us to believe.

We know that Ernest Everhard was an exceptionally strong man, but not so exceptional as his wife thought him to be. He was, after all, but one of a large number of heroes who, throughout the world, devoted their lives to the Revolution; though it must be conceded that he did unusual work, especially in his elaboration and interpretation of working-class philosophy. “Proletarian science” and “proletarian philosophy” were his phrases for it, and therein he shows the provincialism of his mind—a defect, however, that was due to the times and that none in that day could escape.

But to return to the Manuscript. Especially valuable is it in communicating to us the FEEL of those terrible times. Nowhere do we find more vividly portrayed the psychology of the persons that lived in that turbulent period embraced between the years 1912 and 1932—their mistakes and ignorance, their doubts and fears and misapprehensions, their ethical delusions, their violent passions, their inconceivable sordidness and selfishness. These are the things that are so hard for us of this enlightened age to understand. History tells us that these things were, and biology and psychology tell us why they were; but history and biology and psychology do not make these things alive. We accept them as facts, but we are left without sympathetic comprehension of them.

This sympathy comes to us, however, as we peruse the Everhard Manuscript. We enter into the minds of the actors in that long-ago world-drama, and for the time being their mental processes are our mental processes. Not alone do we understand Avis Everhard’s love for her hero-husband, but we feel, as he felt, in those first days, the vague and terrible loom of the Oligarchy. The Iron Heel (well named) we feel descending upon and crushing mankind.

And in passing we note that that historic phrase, the Iron Heel, originated in Ernest Everhard’s mind. This, we may say, is the one moot question that this new-found document clears up. Previous to this, the earliest-known use of the phrase occurred in the pamphlet, “Ye Slaves,” written by George Milford and published in December, 1912. This George Milford was an obscure agitator about whom nothing is known, save the one additional bit of information gained from the Manuscript, which mentions that he was shot in the Chicago Commune. Evidently he had heard Ernest Everhard make use of the phrase in some public speech, most probably when he was running for Congress in the fall of 1912. From the Manuscript we learn that Everhard used the phrase at a private dinner in the spring of 1912. This is, without discussion, the earliest-known occasion on which the Oligarchy was so designated.

The rise of the Oligarchy will always remain a cause of secret wonder to the historian and the philosopher. Other great historical events have their place in social evolution. They were inevitable. Their coming could have been predicted with the same certitude that astronomers to-day predict the outcome of the movements of stars. Without these other great historical events, social evolution could not have proceeded. Primitive communism, chattel slavery, serf slavery, and wage slavery were necessary stepping-stones in the evolution of society. But it were ridiculous to assert that the Iron Heel was a necessary stepping-stone. Rather, to-day, is it adjudged a step aside, or a step backward, to the social tyrannies that made the early world a hell, but that were as necessary as the Iron Heel was unnecessary.

Black as Feudalism was, yet the coming of it was inevitable. What else than Feudalism could have followed upon the breakdown of that great centralized governmental machine known as the Roman Empire? Not so, however, with the Iron Heel. In the orderly procedure of social evolution there was no place for it. It was not necessary, and it was not inevitable. It must always remain the great curiosity of history—a whim, a fantasy, an apparition, a thing unexpected and undreamed; and it should serve as a warning to those rash political theorists of to-day who speak with certitude of social processes.

Capitalism was adjudged by the sociologists of the time to be the culmination of bourgeois rule, the ripened fruit of the bourgeois revolution. And we of to-day can but applaud that judgment. Following upon Capitalism, it was held, even by such intellectual and antagonistic giants as Herbert Spencer, that Socialism would come. Out of the decay of self-seeking capitalism, it was held, would arise that flower of the ages, the Brotherhood of Man. Instead of which, appalling alike to us who look back and to those that lived at the time, capitalism, rotten-ripe, sent forth that monstrous offshoot, the Oligarchy.

Too late did the socialist movement of the early twentieth century divine the coming of the Oligarchy. Even as it was divined, the Oligarchy was there—a fact established in blood, a stupendous and awful reality. Nor even then, as the Everhard Manuscript well shows, was any permanence attributed to the Iron Heel. Its overthrow was a matter of a few short years, was the judgment of the revolutionists. It is true, they realized that the Peasant Revolt was unplanned, and that the First Revolt was premature; but they little realized that the Second Revolt, planned and mature, was doomed to equal futility and more terrible punishment.

It is apparent that Avis Everhard completed the Manuscript during the last days of preparation for the Second Revolt; hence the fact that there is no mention of the disastrous outcome of the Second Revolt. It is quite clear that she intended the Manuscript for immediate publication, as soon as the Iron Heel was overthrown, so that her husband, so recently dead, should receive full credit for all that he had ventured and accomplished. Then came the frightful crushing of the Second Revolt, and it is probable that in the moment of danger, ere she fled or was captured by the Mercenaries, she hid the Manuscript in the hollow oak at Wake Robin Lodge.

Of Avis Everhard there is no further record. Undoubtedly she was executed by the Mercenaries; and, as is well known, no record of such executions was kept by the Iron Heel. But little did she realize, even then, as she hid the Manuscript and prepared to flee, how terrible had been the breakdown of the Second Revolt. Little did she realize that the tortuous and distorted evolution of the next three centuries would compel a Third Revolt and a Fourth Revolt, and many Revolts, all drowned in seas of blood, ere the world-movement of labor should come into its own. And little did she dream that for seven long centuries the tribute of her love to Ernest Everhard would repose undisturbed in the heart of the ancient oak of Wake Robin Lodge.

ANTHONY MEREDITH

Ardis,

November 27, 419 B.O.M.


 

Read or download the rest of Jack London’s 1908 dystopian novel The Iron Heel at Project Gutenberg (and consider donating to their worthy cause while you’re there!).

A review of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad

ilya_repin_-_leo_tolstoy_barefoot_-_google_art_project-1457AC8C0DE4F21084B
Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, 1901 by Ilya Repin

Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.

I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.

Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.

In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—

It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.

Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.

The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—

That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.

Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally ran a version of this review in June, 2011. That review neglected to include the names of the translators, Aylmer and Louise Maude].

A quick note on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog

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I surprised myself by picking up and rapidly reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 Soviet satire The Heart of a Dog this week. I read Michael Glenny’s translation (Harcourt Brace, 1968) at a quick clip, finding the novel propulsive and zany. I didn’t know anything about the plot beforehand, which I think helped me to enjoy the novel all the more. I liked The Heart of a Dog more than Bulgakov’s posthumously-published classic, The Master and Margarita. I had a rough idea of Master’s plot, whereas my ignorance of the events in The Heart of a Dog allowed me to ride along its zany track without loaded expectations. Perhaps this first paragraph is a way of saying: The Heart of a Dog is a quick, fun, funny read, probably better read without too much foregrounding.

A bit of foregrounding—not too much—The Heart of a Dog begins with the sad howl of a street mutt in Moscow. We’ll first get to know this dog as Sharikand then later Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov. Sharik opens the novel: “Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying.” The line is prescient and ironic: Our pup will, in time, be reborn as a human. The basic plot of The Heart of a Dog is a riff on Frankenstein. Eminent surgeon (and vocal critic of the Communist Party) Dr. Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky finds the poor beast and restores him to the fattest health. Dr. Phil’s scheme though is a bit nefarious though. The not-quite-mad scientist, securing a thief’s corpse, trepans his poor dog’s skull and inserts the rogue’s pituitary gland. He then transplants the human’s testicles into the dog. Hormones and testes turn Sharik into a terrible shape-shifting speechifying brute, a mannerless boor who cannot be trained and who will not abstain from vodka. In time, Sharik (in the guise of Poligraf Poligrafovich) makes Dr. Phil’s life hell, leading the brief novel to its zany climax.

As with The Master and Margarita, I’m sure there was a lot that I missed in The Heart of a Dog. Undoubtedly, some of Bulgakov’s allusive jokes and jabs couldn’t land on my ignorant skull. What did come through though was a mean-but-fun satirical streak, a howling and yapping and biting at power, groupthink, philistinism, and hypocrisy. I liked the book.

I’ve just now (after having written that paragraph) gone back and read Michael Glenny’s April 1968 introduction to the novel (I always skip prefaces and intros). His final paragraph is far finer analysis than I can muster—but I can share it with you:

Like all the best satire, The Heart of a Dog can be read and relished in several ways: On one level it is a comic story of splendid absurdity; it also pokes fun at the discomforts, shortages, and anomalies of life in the Moscow of the twenties. But it has more profound meanings. It is a fierce parable about the Russian Revolution. The “dog” of the story is the Russian people, brutalized and exploited for centuries—treated, in fact, like animals instead of human beings. The weird surgeon, a specialist in rejuvenation (for “rejuvenation” read “revolution”), is the embodiment of the Communist Party—perhaps of Lenin himself—and the drastic transplant operation that he performs in order to transform the dog into the simulacrum of a human being is the revolution itself. In the story this modern Frankenstein is so appalled by the unredeemable beastliness of the creature he has conjured up that he reverses the process and turns his “new man” back into a dog. With this ending Bulgakov implies that he would like to see the whole ghastly experiment of the Revolution canceled out; unfortunately, successful revolutionaries, even when they realize their mistake, cannot reverse history by a stroke of the pen as an artist can with his fictional creatures. The bitter message is that the Russian intelligentsia, which made the Revolution, is hence-forth doomed to live with—and eventually be ruled by—the crude, unstable, and potentially brutal race of hominids—homo sovieticus—which it has called into being. Bulgakov saw the Revolution as a hideously misguided attempt to achieve the impossible—to change humankind. Man is brutish by nature, and “Soviet man,” he warns, is little more than a lout who has been led to believe he is the very pinnacle of creation. The results of giving power to such men will be disastrous; in fact, Stalin’s terror was carried out ten years later by exactly the sort of callous, brutal cretins that Bulgakov satirizes in this grimly prophetic story.

A trailer for the film adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama

This is the first trailer for Lucrecia Martel’s film adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama.

Tribes. They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born (From Coover’s Huck Out West)

“Palling around with injuns, Huck, is right down dangersome. You can’t trust ’em. Remember what happened to them poor emigrants we met when we first come out here. You’ll get your throat slit before you know it. And it ain’t right. There’s a war on.”“We made the war, not them,” I says, recollecting what Dan Harper said. “We been bullying in and taking away everything they s’posed was their’n. They’re only just defending theirselves.”

“Well, from where they set, Huck, they got a point. But we ain’t them. We got to stick with our own tribe, even if they ARE all lunatics. If we don’t, we’ll end up crazier’n any of them. You remember that poor preacher up in Minnysota? Even if he was maybe right, his rebel notions was turning him plumb loco, and in the end they probably got him lynched by his own congregation. These lands is become our lands, that’s the story now, and it’s only got just one ending. There ain’t nothing them hoss-tiles can do about it, nor not you nuther.”

“Tribes,” I says. “They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can’t get away from them. They’re a nightmare a body’s got to live with in the daytime.”

Dialogue between Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from Robert Coover’s 2017 novel Huck Out West.

 

Three Books (or, My three favorite rereading experiences in 2016)

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I prefer rereading to reading. Rereading an old favorite can often offer comfort. A week or so after the US presidential election, I picked up Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth and reread its fourteen stories over a few mornings and afternoons. I’m not sure why, but somehow Bolaño’s sinister vibes and dark humor worked to alleviate my own post-election dread in some small measure. “Life is mysterious and vulgar,” after all, as one of his narrators points out. (I reviewed the book seven years ago).

I’m not really sure what impelled me to reread William Gaddis’s great grand gargantuan novel J R in 2016, but I found the experience incredibly rewarding—richer, sadder, funnier, more bitter. Most of J R is composed as unattributed dialogue, so one of the great challenges for a first reading is simply figuring out who is speaking to whom; additional readings help flesh out the narrative’s colors and tone. I wrote about rereading J R, noting

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves).

This little note offers me an easy bridge to the reread that dominated the second half of 2016, a slow read of Gravity’s Rainbow. I finally read Gravity’s Rainbow in full in 2015—and then immediately reread it. Which is sort of like, y’know, actually reading it. To put it plainly, the only way to read Gravity’s Rainbow is to read it twice. Reading it a third time was fascinating—not just in seeing all the stuff I’d missed, but also in experiencing the novel’s radical coherence, its sublime plotting, its real depth—and most of all, Pynchon’s prose. Critics and commenters tend to foreground Pynchon’s humor and themes, perhaps overlooking his prowess as a sentence-shaper. I also had fun annotating sections of the novel, a project I’ll be continuing next year, when I read Gravity’s Rainbow again.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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The Leopard, Giusesspe Tomasi di Lampedusa

After a few years of false starts, I finally read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard this August. Then I read it again, immediately (It’s one of only two novels I can recall rereading right away—the other two were Blood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow). The Leopard tells the story of Prince Fabrizio of Sicily, who witnesses the end of his era during the Risorgimento, the Italian reunification. Fabrizio is an enchanting character—by turns fiery and lascivious, intellectual and stoic—The Leopard takes us through his mind and through his times. He’s thoroughly complex, unknown even to himself, perhaps. The novel is impossibly rich, sad, electric, a meditation on death, sex, sensuality—pleasure and loss. More mood than plot, The Leopard glides on vibe, its action framed in rich set pieces—fancy balls and sumptuous dinners and games of pleasure in summer estates. But of course there is a plot—several strong plots, indeed (marriage plots and death plots, religious plots and political plots). Yet the narrative’s viewpoint characters keep the plots at bay, or mediate them, rather than propel them forward. Simply one of the better novels I’ve read in years, its final devastating images inked into my memory for as long as I have memory. (English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, by the way).

Dhalgren, Samuel Delany

I think The Leopard initially landed on my radar a few years ago after someone somewhere (where?) described it as a cult novel. Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) really is a cult novel. I’m about 200 pages into its 800 pages, and I’m ready to abandon the thing. Delany often evokes a fascinating vibe here, conjuring the post-apocalyptic city of Bellona, which is isolated from the rest of America after some unnamed (and perhaps unknown) disaster—there are “scorpions,” gangs who hide in holographic projections of dragons and insects; there is a daily newspaper that comes out dated with a different year each day; there are two moons (maybe). And yet Delany spends more time dwelling on the mundane—I’ve just endured page after page of the novel’s central protagonist, Kid, clearing furniture out of an apartment. I’m not kidding—a sizable chunk of the novel’s third chapter deals with moving furniture. (Perhaps Delany’s nodding obliquely to Poe here?)Dhalgren strives toward metafiction, with the Kid’s attempts to become a poet, but his poetry is so bad, and Delany’s prose is, well, often very, very bad too. Like embarrassingly bad in that early seventies hippy dippy way. If ever a novel were screaming to have every third or second sentence cut, it’s Dhalgren. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold out.

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

I had never heard of Forrest until a Twitter pal corrected that. I started Tree (1973) this weekend; its first chapter “The Lives” is a rush of time, memory, color, texture…religion and violence, history, blood…I’m not sure what’s happening and I don’t care (like Faulkner, it is—I mean, each sentence makes me want to go to the next sentence, into the big weird tangle of it all). Maybe let Ralph Ellison describe it. From his foreword:

As I began to get my bearings in the reeling world of There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, I thought, What a tortured, history-wracked, anguished, Hound-of-Heaven-pursued, Ham-and-Oedipus-cursed, Blake-visioned, apocalypse-prone projection of the human predicament! Yet, simultaneously, I was thinking, Yes, but how furiously eloquent is this man Forrest’s prose, how zestful his jazz-like invention, his parody, his reference to the classics and commonplaces of literature, folklore, tall-tale and slum-street jive! How admirable the manner in which the great themes of life and literature are revealed in the black-white Americanness of his characters as dramatized in the cathedral-high and cloaca-low limits of his imaginative ranging.

Typing this out, I realize that I’m bound to put away Dhalgren and continue on into Forrest.

The Combinations, Louis Armand

I read the “Overture” to Armand’s enormous so-called “anti-novel” The Combinations (2016)…the rush of prose reminded me of any number of post-postmodern prose rushers—this isn’t a negative criticism, but I’ll admit a certain wariness with the book’s formal postmodernism—it looks (looks) like Vollmann—discursive, lots of different fonts and forms. I’ll leap in later.

Literary criticism (From Lampedusa’s The Leopard)

Now that Don Fabrizio felt serene again, he had gone back to his habit of evening reading. In autumn, after the Rosary, as it was now too dark to go out, the family would gather around the fire waiting for dinner, and the Prince, standing up, would read out to his family extracts from modern novels, exuding dignified benevolence from every pore. Those were years when novels were helping to form those literary myths which still dominate European minds today; but in Sicily, partly because of its traditional impermeability to anything new, partly because of the general ignorance of any language whatsoever, partly also, it must be said, because of a nagging and strict Bourbon censorship which worked through the Customs, no one had heard of Dickens, Eliot, Sand, Flaubert, or even Dumas. A couple of Balzac’s volumes had, through various subterfuges, it is true, reached the hands of Don Fabrizio, who had appointed himself family censor; he had read them and then lent them, in disgust, to a friend he didn’t like, saying that they were by a writer with a talent undoubtedly vigorous but also extravagant and “obsessed” (today he would have said “monomaniacal”): a hasty judgment, obviously, but not without a certain acuteness. The level of these readings was therefore somewhat low, conditioned as it was by respect for the virginal shyness of the girls, the religious scruples of the Princess, and the Prince’s own sense of dignity, which would have energetically refused to let his united family hear any “filth.”

From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.