Literary critic Daniel Green has written a longish essay on the writings of Evan Dara. Titled, “Giving Voice: On the Work of Evan Dara,” the essay situates Dara’s work within the context of its postmodern forebears and so-called “experimental” literature in general. Green contends that,
…it is obvious once one begins reading these novels that the author wants to subvert any presumptions we might have that the novel we are reading will bear enough family resemblance to those we have read before that it will be explicable according to the “rules” we believe we have learned about how novels should proceed. Clearly it intends to replace those rules with others applicable only to this work (although any one of Dara’s novels certainly does then provide direction in reading the others), rules that we will have to learn as we read. In this way, Dara’s novels work like all of their predecessors in the lineage of “experimental” fiction, presenting the reader with a heterodox formal arrangement the reader must learn to assimilate by attending closely to the new patterns the work establishes as alternatives to those patterns more conventional fiction has predisposed us to expect. Indeed, in the challenge they pose to the assumption that the conventional patterns define the novel as a form, Dara’s novels are arguably the most radically disruptive books in American fiction since, say, Gilbert Sorrentino in a work like Mulligan Stew (1979)
Much of Green’s essay is devoted to Dara’s 1995 debut, The Lost Scrapbook, which is a great starting point for anyone interested in Dara. Green describes The Lost Scrapbook as a work that
seems to consist of a series of disconnected episodes (some longer than others) leaning heavily on interior monologue and introducing “characters” whose relationships to each other are not immediately apparent. Moreover, these self-standing scenes don’t merely succeed each other but at times appear to merge, one dissolving into the other, as if the novel’s discourse represents a radio set whose dial is being tuned, bringing in one station before moving on to another.
Green also discusses Dara’s follow-ups to The Lost Scrapbook, 2007’s The Easy Chain and 2013’s Flee, as well as Dara’s most recent work, a 2018 play titled Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins. Green’s reading of the latter seems to inform his conclusion that Dara is ultimately “a moralist, not an aesthete,” a claim that I’m not quite sure I fully agree with (maybe he’s both?)—but I haven’t reread the works (although reading Green’s essay makes me want to). Green’s essay is, to my knowledge the only lengthy measure of Dara’s career to date, although I’m sure it won’t be the last of this under-read and important contemporary writer.
Describing Geometry in the Dust is a challenge. I’ve deleted so many openings now and my frustration is mounting: so some very basic description:
Geometry in the Dust is a novel by the French author Pierre Senges with accompanying illustrations by the Oubapo comix artist Killoffer. The novel was originally published in France (as Géométrie dans la poussière) in 2004. The English translation is by Jacob Siefring, and was published by Inside the Castle earlier this year. Geometry in the Dust is 117 pages and includes 22 black and white illustrations. The prose is set in two columns per page, with infrequent inclusions of inset notes of a smaller font obtruding into the text proper. The typeset is Venetian. The book is approximately 217cm long, 172cm tall, and 10cm thick. It weighs approximately 210 grams.
This is a lousy way to describe a book.
What is it about?, you’ll want to know. What’s the plot? Who are the characters? What’s the drama, the conflict, the themes?, you’ll insist.
So there’s a geometer.
The geometer is a first-person “I” who addresses himself to the “inheriting prince” who rules a “country of sand.” The geometer is of course also addressing himself to you the reader. In addition to being a geometer, he is also
your minister (of Economy, of Religion, of War, and also of the City, we decided). As your sole, faithful minister, your counsellor, chamberlain, and your scapegoat, having weathered many dry seasons and countless reorganizations of your cabinet, I am your confidant too, and, judging from appearances–one can say this without offending the dignity of your kingdom or its constitution, we might even call me your friend.
And so we have our characters: Geometer and his absent audience, his sultan, his reader.
And so for plot? What is our friend, our confidant doing in Geometry in the Dust? He is trying to describe the city that he and his monarch (?) have…dreamed up? Built from scratch? Proposed as a thought experiment?
(I’m not sure.)
The reality or unreality of the city in question should be dispensed with entirely of course. The city is made of words, and it exists in Geometry in the Dust through words. Our narrator implores us in the novel’s second paragraph: “do not be afraid of words!”
So our narrator the geometer tries to describe the city, this city, the sultan’s city, in words. But of course capturing a city in words is a problem—
How does one form an idea of the city, when all one has seen of it are little pieces of it brought back from voyages in trunks? how to describe a metropolis to someone who has only ever known sand and its forms through the cycle of seasons? how to speak of snow to a Moor, of cannibalism to a vegetarian Jesuit?
Measuring a city for our narrator amounts to measuring the angles of waves as they break on the shore: an impossible task. Even metaphors run dry, point in the wrong directions, and ultimately, “all of these measures will be in vain and mediocre , the descriptions will be lost in allegories.” Nevertheless, our narrator will try.
This trying to describe the city is the plot, I suppose, such as it is. And it’s really quite marvelous, far richer and smarter and funnier than I’ve managed to capture here so far. Our geometer is observant, sharp, witty, strangely sincere, flighty and whimsical at times. He advises his prince, his reader, on the value of getting lost in the city (the only way to know it), and a lot of Geometry might amount to our narrator getting lost himself, losing us, leading us in, out, around.
“You will readily understand that a city is not composed only of itself,” he avers at one point, continuing that, “a city is composed of city, the intentions present in the city, and the difference between the city and those intentions…” Perhaps too Geometry is our narrator’s effort to measure the gaps and lacunae between split intentions, and to situate the various players that fill these gaps: black marketeers and insomniacs, calligraphers and macabre dancers, crowders and loners, musicians and animals (including “an alligator of the White Nile” to reside “in the conduits of our main sewer,” whose presence will surely “spice up the lives of your people, those incorrigible auditors of fables.” And if such an alligator can’t be find, never mind–just spread its legends. Words).
Andthemes?, you ask after. I don’t know. I’ve read Geometry twice now and it’s thick with themes, the basic one, I suppose (and I could be wrong) is: What is a city? (This is too easy, I know). Senges’ narrator invokes and evokes every manner of archaic text, imagined or otherwise; he considers our native tendencies, the roles outsiders play, the movements of crowds, what constitutes a garden, and so forth.
Maybe a better description of Geometry is to simply look at the text itself. Here is a short chapter (go on, read it—click on it if you need a bigger version):
Notice the punctuation: the semicolons, the dashes (em and en), the periods, the parentheses, the commas. Senges’ prose in Geometry is syntactically thick. Sentences, like alleys in a strange city, begin in one place and end up somewhere quite different. The interposition of jostling clauses might cause a reader to lose the subject, to drop the thread or diverge from the path (or pick your metaphor). The effect is sometimes profound, with our narrator arriving at some strange philosophical insight after piling clause upon clause that connects the original subject with something utterly outlandish. And sometimes, the effect is bathetic. In one such example, the narrator, instructing his sovereign on the proper modes of religious observance in the city, moves from a description of the ideal confessional to an evocation of Limbourg’s hell to the necessity of being able grasp a peanut between two fingers. The comical effect is not so much punctured as understood anew though when Senges’ narrator returns to the peanut as a central metaphor for the scope of a city (“there are roughly as many men in the city as peanuts in the city’s bowls”), a metaphor that he extends in clause after clause leading to an invocation of “Hop o’ my Thumb’s pebbles,” a reference to Charles Perrault fairy tale about a boy who uses riverstones to find his way home after having been abandoned in the woods by his parents.
What is the path through Geometry in the Dust? The inset notes, as you can see in the image above, also challenge the reader’s eye, as do the twin columns, so rare in contemporary novels.
Killoffer’s illustrations also challenge the reader. They do not necessarily correspond in pagination to the sections that they (may) illustrate; rather, they seem to obliquely capture the spirit of the novel. The following image is perhaps the most literal illustration in the novel, evoking something in the passage I shared above:
The experience of reading Geometry is confounding but also rewarding. The first time I read it, at least for the first third or so, I kept looking for all those basic signs of a novel—character, plot, clear conflict, etc. I was happy to find instead something else, something more challenging, but also something unexpectedly fun and funny. In its finest moments, Geometry evokes the essays that Borges disguised as short stories. Readers familiar with Italo Calvino and Georges Perec will find familiar notes here too, as well as those who love the absurd tangles Donald Barthelme’s sentences can take. But Senges is singular here, his own weird flavor, a flavor I enjoyed very much. Recommended.
AV: Yes, what’s important in post-exoticism is that it does away with exoticism. You suggested anti-exoticism, and it could just as well have been anti-exoticism, in as much as what characterizes exoticism is the absolute distinction between the metropolis and the margin, between the center and the periphery. With exoticism, there is an interest in the margins–the writer lives on the margins–but it’s all for the sake of the center. In exoticism, one describes the margins with ideas that come from the center, whereas in our books, the characters—who are dying, or perhaps already dead, who are birds, or animals, or insane—have no center, or rather it is their margin that is the center—the center no longer exists. For us, mental derangement doesn’t refer to a discourse of normality outside of it. In the books, it is present, and it is the center, it is what’s creating the world. In Lisbon, Last Frontier, it’s Ingrid Vogel who creates the world. The reader might think she’s completely mad, schizophrenic, paranoid, but, in fact, the book never refers to an outside normality, from which one could judge Ingrid’s experience. Yes, the book enters her imaginary; yes, it creates imaginary spaces for her to inhabit, but it never refers to a normality outside of her. And it’s through this precise mechanism that the books are on the margins, in the dustbin (to borrow an expression from Lisbon, Last Frontier); it’s in this way that they are dustbin literature, a literature from elsewhere, and that’s what comes into being with post-exoticism. That’s what’s important I think: a literature that doesn’t refer to normality, that doesn’t refer to the center. In that sense it’s more anti-exoticism… but of course I’m not going to change it now. It’s too late; it’s post-exoticism until the end!
It seems that for the past two weeks I have been reading mostly final exams and research papers, but I have read some other things too.
I have all but finished Tristan Foster’s collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father, which I think is excellent contemporary fiction. Foster’s pieces do things that I did not know that I wanted contemporary fiction to do until I read the pieces. Read his story/poem/thing “Economies of Scale” to get an illustrating example.Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father deserves a proper review and I will give it one sooner rather than later. For now let me say that I am jealous of that title.
I’ve continued sifting unevenly through John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. Earlier this year I tried reading one Dream Song a day and then realized I didn’t like reading one Dream Song a day. Some days I wanted to read three or five and some days I wanted to read none and some days I felt like skipping ahead to later Dream Songs and some days I got stuck on a few lines or a spare image or an oblique word and then I couldn’t move on. Here is Dream Song 30, which took me two days to read (I got hung up on “Hell talkt my brain awake” for more than a little while):
I am still auditing/rereading William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions. I riffed on rereading it here and here and here) and hope to riff some more, but I doubt I’ll have anything comprehensible to write about the chapter I just finished, II.3 (Chapter 3 of Section II). The opening of this chapter is a stream-of-consciousness flowing so freely that it overwhelms the reader. Gaddis takes us into Wyatt’s addled brains, a space overstuffed with hurtling esoteric mythopoetic gobbledygook. (The section also strongly recalls Stephen Dedalus’s stroll on the beach in Chapter 3 of Ulysses—although Gaddis denied having read Joyce’s opus).
The interior of Wyatt’s skull is frustrating as hell, which is maybe half the point. Things don’t get any simpler when Wyatt goes to his childhood home where no one recognizes him. Or, rather, he is misrecognized, recognized as someone else: an acolyte of Mithras, Prester John, the Messiah. As always with The Recognitions though, there’s a radical ambiguity: Is Wyatt misrecognized? Or is there an originality under the surface that his ersatz fragmented family recognizes?
I have around 100 more pages left to read of Helen DeWitt’s debut novel The Last Samurai. I’ve read the book at such a fast clip that I’m frankly suspicious of it. The book is 530 pages but feels like its 150 pages. I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means it’s not a particularly dense novel, although it is rich in ideas—ideas about art, language, family. The book won me over when DeWitt steers the narrative into one of its first major side quests, the story of a musician named Kenzo Yamamoto. I recall reading late into the night, overtired but unable to put the book down. I stayed up too late and was too tired the next day, and then sneaked in a few sections during office hours the next morning. I think that means that I like the book very much—but I also find myself irked at times by something in DeWitt’s style—a sort of archness that veers into preciousness, a cleverness that interminably announces itself. The book tries to spin irony into earnestness, which is vaguely exhausting. I think I would have been head over heels in love with this book if I had read it ten or fifteen years ago.
In his recent review of The Last Samurai at Vulture — where the book garnered the dubious prize of being prematurely called “The Best Book of the Century” — Christian Lorentzen wrote that DeWitt’s “novel was never easily subsumed in one of the day’s critical categories, like James Wood’s hysterical realism.” But reading The Last Samurai, I am reminded of the books that Wood thought of as “hysterical realism.” Wood coined the term to describe a trend he saw in literature of the late nineties, literature that combined absurdity with social and cultural realism (at the expense of Wood’s precious psychological realism). Wood specifically applied his description to Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (published, like The Last Samurai, in 2000), but slapped it down elsewhere, notably to David Foster Wallace. While I don’t endorse Wood’s scolding use of the phrase “hysterical realism,” I do think that it’s a useful (if perhaps too-nebulous) description for a set of trends in some of the major novels published in the late nineties and early 2000s: Infinite Jest, Middlesex, The Corrections, A Heartbreaking Work of Something or Other, etc. And, to come in where I started: The Last Samurai shares a lot of the same features with these texts—the blending of styles and texts and disciplines, etc. DeWitt’s filtering a lot of the same stuff, I guess. I would maybe use the term post-postmodernism in place of “hysterical realism” though—although a novel need not be subsumed by any term, and maybe the best can’t really be described in language at all.
In Ch. VII of Part I of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, the erstwhile hero of the novel, Wyatt Gwyon—who has by this point disappeared into an anonymous he—meets Basil Valentine, a somewhat ambiguous and priestly art-world contact for Recktall Brown, the arch-capitalist Mephistophelean villain of the novel. Brown uses Valentine to arrange the forgeries that Gwyon executes. Here, Valentine and Wyatt discuss Brown, who has left the room. (Brown is the initial He; Valentine speaks first):
—He would absolutely have to have Alexander Pope in a box, to enjoy him. He is beyond anything I’ve ever come upon. Honestly, I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence. Basil Valentine rested his head back, blowing smoke toward the ceiling, and watching it rise there. —Earlier, you know, he mentioned to me the idea of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production, he said, and tailored to the public taste. But not so absurd, Basil Valentine said sitting forward suddenly.
—Yes, I … I know. I know.
—When I laughed . . . but it’s not so funny in his hands, you know. Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.
—Yes, good God, imagine if … submitting paintings to them, to a cross section? You’d better take out . . . This color . . . These lines, and . . . He drew his hand down over his face, —You can change a line without even touching it. No, he went on after a pause, and Valentine watched him closely, —nothing is funny in his hands. Everything becomes very . . . real.
Do you like the passage? I do.
I continue to enjoy re-reading Gaddis’s debut novel, aided in large part by an audiobook version read by Nick Sullivan. I’ve also been reading The Recognitions with/against Letters of William Gaddis (ed. Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive, 2013), which I do not recommend doing (especially for first-time readers). Gaddis, paraphrasing his own novel, said that the artist was simply “the dregs of his [own] work,” and much of The Recognitions reads like Gaddis polishing the material from his own early life and travels and readings, and then forcing that material—the nuggets and the morsels (and, let us be honest, the occasional duds)—into an angry demanding sustained attack on the Modern condition. But the material is good ammunition in that oh-so self-conscious attack on Modernism—an attack that in many ways engenders postmodernism, or at least builds a bridge to it, or perhaps sunders links to Modernism—
—look, I have way too many stupid metaphors cooking here, forgive me: What I mean to say, in simpler terms, is that The Recognitions diagnoses the end of big-em Modernism, that it describes something yet-to-emerge, and that it also, significantly, performs that something yet-to-emerge. Gaddis’s letters show the frustrations of a young man trying to cook up adventures in a modern world: a world already explored, mapped, tagged, and written about by other folks. And not just written about im histories and novels, but also in cheap guide books and cheap glossy magazines. This is the world after the age of mechanical reproduction, the world in which Gaddis’s hero Wyatt strives to forge a legitimate forgery of a place for himself.
Gaddis’s novel’s emergent postmodernism—more fully realized in his follow-up, J R—also presciently points to the post-postmodernist storytelling world of late capitalism. Gaddis’s villain Recktall Brown is a brute, but this philistine is perceptive, and he understands the economy of middlebrow aesthetics. As erudite Valentine laments, “I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence.” Valentine should imagine harder. But this is America, where people frequently mistake wealth and the power to create wealth with creative intelligence.
Maybe I’m too hard here on Valentine, who eventually realizes that an appeal to the lowest common denominator is “not so absurd,” after he reflects on Recktall’s business idea “of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production…tailored to the public taste.” And we then learn that Recktall has already capitalized on his vision of masscult writing: “Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.”
Reading this, I mentally annotated: Ah, Netflix-—that’s the novel factory of 2018. And not just Netflix—I mean, clearly, not just Netflix, that’s simply a signal example—but rather the idea of the data-driven artefact, the non-artefact, the copy of a copy of a copy, the narrative entirely derived from atomizing the masscult nostalgia artefacts of 20, 30, 40 years ago, retrofitting them, repackaging them, and selling them as the real thing. Wyatt’s final observation in the passage laments that Recktall Brown, and the emerging late capitalism he represents, is winning a kind of war on culture and imagination. And nothing is funny in this devil’s busy hands: “Everything becomes very . . . real.” Even the fakes. Even the copies. Especially the copies.
Attempting to fictionalise things that happened to me or that I observed, even from afar, can be like trying to slip through a gap in a wire fence: shirtsleeves are snagged and threaten to unspool—so bear with me.
From “Music for Church Organs.”
Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.
“What does one wear to one’s death? What does the sheep think of the sky? Wrap the disc of soap in the washer. Draw it slow across the flesh, up the arm, up the arm, across the belly. Flesh of the living becomes flesh of the dead. Open the cupboard, doorknob squealing. Finger through coathangers, coats and throwovers and dresses. Pull a skirt out to see, imagine it on the hips, around the legs, hang the hanger back and look for death-clothe again. The water hot brings out the soap’s smell soft and light as feathers. That day on the corner the boys threw eggs. Egg in the hair and ran home. Egg on face means a smile now. Water down back down legs.
From “What the Sheep Thinks of the Sky.”
There are 28 stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father.
I met the dead man in the only place appropriate: underground. I was in Cappadocia, Turkey, in a tunnel dug more than a millennium ago by Byzantines hiding with their faith. I was—I admit this only reluctantly—lost; I’d separated from the tour group soon after the smiling guide had explained that the network of tunnels stretched out under the countryside for kilometers, and was alone in the ancient hallways for long enough to imagine being trapped in them forever.
From “The Deadest Man in the Underworld.”
I have not read all of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father yet.
While on holiday in Europe you go to a Courbet exhibition with a friend but you are so distracted by the scratching of your shirt’s tag on the base of your neck that later, after you’ve left the gallery, all that will remain with you are memories of idyllic, woodland scenes. A deer maybe. Only when you exit the exhibition do you go into a toilet cubicle, wrestle the back of the shirt around to the front and pluck off the tag, tearing a hole in the collar.
From “Stories About You.”
Some of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father are microfictions; some are not. Most are what could lazily be called experimental, but I don’t think Foster is experimenting. I think he knows what he’s doing. The reader is the one who gets experiment.
To be specific: fire-burnt fingers.
Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.
Antoine Volodine’s collection of loosely-connected stories Writers (2010; English translation by Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive, 2014) is 108 pages. I have read the first four of the seven stories here—the first 54 pages. This is the first book by Volodine that I have read. Antoine Volodine is in fact a pseudonym, I know, but I don’t know much else about the writer. I’ve been meaning to read him for a few years, after some good folks suggested I do so, but I’ve never come across any of his books in the wild until this weekend. After I finish Writers I will read more about Volodine, but for now I am enjoying (?) how and what this book teaches me about the bigger project Volodine seems to be working towards.
That bigger project evinces in the first story in the collection, “Mathias Olbane,” which centers on the titular character, a writer who tries to hypnotize himself into a suicide attempt. Poor Mathias goes to prison for twenty-six years — “He had assassinated assassins.” Like most of the figures in Writers (so far anyway—you see by the title of this post that I am reporting from half way through, yes?) — like most of the figures in Writers, Mathias is a revolutionary spirit, resisting capitalist power and conformist order through radical violence. Before prison, Mathias wrote two books. The first, An Autumn at the Boyols’ “consisted of eight short texts, inspired by fantasy or the bizarre, composed in a lusterless but impeccable style. Let’s say that it was a collection that maintained a certain kinship with post-exoticism…” The description of the book approximates a description of Writers itself; notably, Volodine identifies his own genre as post-exoticism. Autumn at the Boyols’ doesn’t sell at all, and its sequel, Splendor of the Skiff (which “recounted a police investigation, several episodes of a global revolution, and traumatizing incursions into dream worlds”) somehow fares even worse. Mathias begins a new kind of writing in prison:
…after twenty-six years in captivity, he had forged approximately a hundred thousand words, divided as follows:
sixty thousand first and last names of victims of unhappineess
twenty thousand names of imaginary plants, mushrooms, and herbs
ten thousand names of places, rivers, and localities
and ten thousand various words that do not belong to any language, but have a certain phonetic logic that makes them sound familiar
I love the mix of tones here: Mathias Olbane’s grand work is useless and strange and sad and ultimately unknowable, and Volodine conveys this with both sinister humor and dark pathos. Once released from prison, our hero immediately becomes afflicted with a rare and incurable and painful disease. Hence, the suicide urge. But let’s move on.
The second tale in Writers, “Speech to the Nomads and the Dead,” offers another iteration of post-exotic writing, both in form and content. The story plays out like a weird nightmare. Linda Woo, isolated and going mad in a prison cell, conjures up an audience of burn victims, an obese dead man, Mongolian nomads, and several crows. She delivers a “lesson” to her auditors (a “lesson,” we learn, is one of post-exoticism’s several genres). The lesson is about the post-exotic writers themselves. She names a few of these post-exotic writers (Volodine is addicted to names, especially strange names), and delivers an invective against the modern powers that the post-exotic writers write against:
Post-exoticism’s writers…have in their memory, without exception, the wars and the ethnic and social exterminations that were carried out from one end of the 20th century to the other, they forget none and pardon none, they also keep permanently in mind the savageries and the inequalities that are exacerbated among men…
The above excerpt is a small taste of Woo’s bitter rant, which goes on for long sentence after long sentence (Volodine is addicted to long sentences). Like Mathias Olbane, Linda Woo writes in the face of futility, creating the “post-exotic word,” a word that creates an “absurd magic” that allows the post-exotic writers to “speak the world.”
Linda Woo’s name appears in the next story in Writers, “Begin-ing,” if only in passing. This story belongs to an unnamed writer, yet another prisoner. Wheelchair-bound, he is interrogated and tortured by two insane inmates who have taken over their prison, having killed their captors. The pair, Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian, are thoroughly horrific, spouting abject insanities that evoke Hieronymus Boschs’s hell. They are terrifying, and I had a nightmare the night that I read “Begin-ing.” It’s never quite clear if Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian are themselves post-exotic writers gone mad or just violent lunatics on the brink of total breakdown. In any case, Volodine affords them dialogue that veers close to a kind of horror-poetry. “We can also spew out the apocalypse,” Greta defiantly sneers. They torture the poor writer. Why?
They would like it, in the end, if he came around to their side, whether by admitting that he’s been, for a thousand years, a clandestine leader of dark forces, or by tracing for them a strategy that could lead them to final victory. … They would like above all for him to help them to drive the dark forces out from the asylum, to prepare a list of spies, they want him to rid the world of the last nurses, of Martians, of colonialists, and of capitalists in general.
The poor writer these lunatics torture turns inward to his own formative memories of first writings, of begin-ing, when he created his own worlds/words in ungrammatical misspelled scrawlings, filling notebook after notebook. Volodine unspools these memories in sentences that carry on for pages, mostly centering on the writer’s strange childhood in an abject classroom where he engages in depravities that evoke Pasolini’s Salò. And yet these memories are the writer’s comfort—or at least resistance—to the lunatics’ violence. Volodine’s prose in “Begin-ing” conjures Goya’s various lunatics, witches, demons, and dogs. It’s all very upsetting stuff.
After the depravity of “Begin-ings,” the caustic comedy of the next story “Acknowledgements” is a welcome palate cleanser. In this story’s twelve pages (I wish there were more!) Volodine simultaneously ridicules and exults the “Acknowledgements” page that often appends a novel, elevating the commonplace gesture to its own mock-heroic genre. The story begins with the the hero-writer thanking “Marta and Boris Bielouguine, who plucked me from the swamp that I had unhappily fallen into along with the bag containing my manuscript.” The “swamp” here is not a metaphor, but a literal bog the writer nearly drowned in. And the manuscript? A Meeting at the Boyols’, a title that recalls poor Mathias Olbane’s first book An Autumn at the Boyols’. Each paragraph of “Acknowledgments” is its own vignette, a miniature adventure in the form of a thank-you note to certain parties. Most of the vignettes end in sex or death, or an escape from one of the two. “Grad Litrif and his companion Lioudmila” as well as “the head of the Marbachvili archives” (oh the names in this story!) are thanked for allowing the writer
…to access the notebooks of Vulcain Marbachvili, from which I was able, for my story Long Ago to Bed Early, to copy several sentences before the earthquake struck that engulfed the archives. My thanks to these three people, and apologies to the archivist, as I was sadly unable to locate either her name or her body in the rubble.
“Acknowledgments” is littered with such bodies—sometimes victims of disasters and plagues, and elsewhere the bodies of the married or boyfriended women the writer copulates with before escaping into some new strange circumstances (he often thanks the husbands and the boyfriends, and in one inspired moment, thanks a gardener “who one day had the presence of mind to detain Bernardo Balsamian in the orchard while Grigoria and I showered and got dressed again”). He thanks a couple who shows him their collection of 88 stuffed guinea pigs; he thanks “the leader of the Muslim Bang cell” who, during his “incarceration in Yogyakarta…forbid the prisoners on the floor from sodomizing” him; he thanks the “Happy Days” theater troupe who “had the courage” to perform his play Djann’s Awakening three times “before a rigorously empty room.” Most of the acknowledgments connect the writer’s thank-you to a specific book he’s written. I’m tempted to list them all (oh the names!), but just a few—Tomorrow the Otters, Eve of Pandemic, Journal of Pandemonium, Goodbye Clouds, Goodbye Romeo, Mlatelpopec in Paradise, Macbeth in Paradise, Hell in Paradise…Without exaggeration: “Acknowledgements” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.
With its evocations of mad and obscure writers, Volodine’s books strongly reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s work. And yet reading it is not like reading an attempt to copy another writer—which Volodine is in no way doing—but rather like reading a writer who has filtered much of the same material of the 20th century through himself, and has come to some of the same tonal and thematic viewpoints—Volodine’s labyrinth is dark and weird and sinister and abject, but also slightly zany and terribly funny. More to come.
David Winters: Literally: the act or way of leaving a place; an emergence, opening or exit. Egress is also a biannual literary magazine devoted to showcasing the most innovative writers on both sides of the Atlantic today. Our first issue features, among others, Gordon Lish, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, Kathryn Scanlan, David Hayden and Kimberly King Parsons.
Biblioklept: How long has Egress been incubating? How did the magazine come about?
DW: Incubation began in May 2017, over a lunch of okonomiyaki in Bloomsbury, London. We met through Gordon Lish. Little Island had published Lish’s White Plains, as well as books by his students Russell Perrson and Jason Schwartz. I’d also alerted Andrew to the work of David Hayden, author of Darker with the Lights On, who has two new stories in Egress #1. So, there was a sense of shared tastes. A sense, too, that UK literary magazines–despite the efforts of a few pioneers—lacked the avant-garde spirit of US publications like NOON and New York Tyrant. We both saw a space for something new. Okonomiyaki, for the benefit of your readers, are a type of savoury Japanese pancake.
Andrew Latimer: Through David and Gordon Lish, I’d discovered writers like Christine Schutt and Sam Lipsyte (both in Egress #1) and desperately wanted a vehicle for engaging this type of work here, in the UK. Egress – the name, the style, the design – all came about quite naturally from a desire to bring writing like this into one place.
Biblioklept: For readers unfamiliar, can you describe the Lishian aesthetic, at least as you see it?
DW: Well, in a sense, there’s no such thing. Journalists in the eighties harped on about ‘minimalism’—a stupid label, with little purchase on the writers in question. Sven Birkerts once claimed there was a ‘School of Gordon Lish’. But Lish’s influence can’t be reduced in that way. Over the decades, hundreds of very different writers have worked with him, learned from him, bounced off him, swerved away from him. What the best of them have in common is an acute sensitivity to the power of language, and a commitment to creating new and lasting art—art that stands apart from the marketplace. Those are also the qualities we prize at Egress. But they are hardly restricted to “Lishian” fiction.
Biblioklept: That “acute sensitivity to the power of language” is on display in the two fictions from Lish in Egress #1, “Jawbone” and “Court of the Kangaroo.” The first Lish story, “Jawbone,” is about this seemingly unimportant minuscule moment, but Lish turns the whole thing into a drama about language itself. There’s this line in “Jawbone” that I kept tripping over, rereading and rereading: “Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.” The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky—rapturous really.
AL: Rereading is the key here. We’re familiar with rereading whole stories that we like or ones with endings that puzzle us. But what Lish, and writers of this ilk, ask us to do is to reread sentences in the course of making our first reading. This assumes a reader, a listener even, with the patience to linger over the page, its construction. (Gary Lutz prefers a “page-hugging” to a page-turning reader.)
DW: “Gorgeous and ugly” — exactly, yes. Donald Barthelme once said, “every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful.” Lish, when he was teaching, called this “burnt tongue”: “God only listens to those whose tongues are burnt, twisted, crippled.” Writers of fiction can achieve extraordinary power by attending to everything wrong, skewed, erratic in their natural speech — and, rather than being afraid of that wrongness, amplifying it on the page. But power of this kind needn’t be purely spontaneous; it can also be elicited by editing. The sentence you mention went through multiple revisions; Lish reworks his stories obsessively, right up to the final proof stage. When I edit fiction, in my lesser way, I often look out for those off-kilter sentences, isolate them, tweak them, try to increase their tension and pressure.
Biblioklept: How much and what kind of editing did you guys do with Egress #1. I mean, were the authors submitting finished pieces, or were you working with them through the process?
DW: It varies. Some stories are, with the authors’ approval, heavily edited. Some authors come to us in such command of their material that no editing is necessary. Sometimes, editing is simply about discovery: finding the new. Sometimes it’s about reinvention: getting stuck in and making it new. Between these extremes, there’s a whole spectrum of interventions.
Biblioklept: I’ll admit that I opened Egress with the idea that I’d probably go straight to Lish and then maybe read Christine Schutt or Evan Lavender-Smith—some of the writers I’d already read before—before reading ones that were new to me. However, the first story in Egress #1, which is by Kimberly King Parsons had a title that grabbed my attention: “Mr. Corpulent Wants Polaroid Proof.” So I started there, and all the sentences made me want to keep reading, and then read into her second story. Then I read the next story, Grant Maierhofer’s “Everybody’s Darling.” (The opening line “I suppose I took to mother’s unders when the end became too sure” sort of insisted Keep going). How important is sequencing the stories (and essays) of Egress and what was that process like? How much of your editorial mission involves opening up a place for newer voices?
DW: Openings are important. Andrew and I share the view that stories should command attention from their very first sentence–what some would call the ‘attack’. Again, though, an attack doesn’t have to be nailed down straight away; it can emerge in the process of revision. However they’re made, the best openings astonish, seduce, compel us, as you say, to ‘keep going’.
And if literary art is about attention, so too is the art of the literary magazine. Drawing attention to unknown writers has long been the mission of little magazines, ever since the heyday of modernism. Incidentally, this has also been my mission as a critic. When I started writing about Christine Schutt, Evan Lavender-Smith and others, they were largely overlooked and unpublished in the UK. Both in mainstream literary journalism and in the academy, critical attention often fixates on the famous and commercially successful. This is especially true of prose fiction, which inhabits a different institutional ecosystem to, say, poetry. With the current renaissance of small presses, the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. Even so, the writers who make the Booker Prize shortlist or get reviewed in The Guardian are not, by and large, the writers who’ll be remembered decades from now. The market exerts a powerful pull on our collective attention. Good publishing, like good criticism, resists that pull. The task is to look away from what everyone else is looking at–look at what they’re not looking at–and then make them see.
AL: Absolutely – and the sequencing of the stories and essays plays a huge part in showcasing those new voices. As a reader, there is always that pull to go to the names you know and love first. (It’s part of why you pick up a magazine.) But, as an editor, you can’t just rely on the big names; you’ve got to be in the business of making new ones. You have a responsibility to disrupt the reader’s expectations, to put things in their way. Beyond names and reputations, there’s also a careful and deliberate counterpointing of the work in Egress. David and I think about how one story or essay speaks to another, how it’s placement can enrich another’s meaning, its rhythms. This kind of editorial work, the imposition of an overarching rhythm to the issue, wills the reader to ‘keep going’. Catrin Morgan’s illustrations (of various egresses – trapdoors and staircases) are a neat visual cue to the reader to push on, to explore what’s round the corner.
Biblioklept: Some of this blog’s readers might know Catrin Morgan from her illustrated version of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. How did you get her involved with Egress? Do you plan for each issue to have a different artist?
AL: Originally we asked her for an image for the front cover, but she ended up drawing all these bizarre stairs and exits that were so compelling I just had to use them. I’d like to continue using her illustrations throughout the text for the future, but there will be a new artist featured in the colour plates each issue. The “artist” for this issue is Hob Broun.
Biblioklept: I know David has been enthusiastic about Hob Broun’s writing for a few years. Broun is sort of a “writer’s writer’s writer,” if that makes sense. The first issue of Egress features a section titled “Remembering Hob Broun: 1950-1987”; in addition to remembrances from the novelist Sam Lipsyte and Kevin McMahon, who befriended Broun when they attended Reed College together in the late sixties, you include a full color selection from one of Broun’s journals. Can you describe some of the journal for readers, and talk a bit about how the Broun section came together? For readers unfamiliar with Broun, what’s the appeal?
DW: Broun is a ‘writer’s (writer’s) writer’ only in that he isn’t well-known–his work isn’t at all opaque or aloof. He published three books in his lifetime, the novels Odditorium (1983) and Inner Tube (1985), and the superb short story collection Cardinal Numbers (1988). While writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a spinal tumour. He was left paralysed from the neck down. Remarkably, he finished the novel–and wrote the stories in Cardinal Numbers–using a kind of writing-machine: an oral catheter (or ‘sip-and-puff device’) connected to a customised word processor, triggered by his breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen. This aspect of Broun’s life lends itself to mythologization: what better image of writerly dedication? At the same time, it risks obscuring what really matters: the work itself. I was delighted, then, when Kevin McMahon got in touch. Kevin’s essay only glances at Broun’s illness, giving us, instead, a vivid portrait of the man behind the myth. Best of all, Kevin sent us Broun’s personal journal. It’s an extraordinary artefact–a scrapbook of doctored magazine clippings and miniature, fragmentary narratives–unmistakably Brounian in its pulpy, screwball surreality. Broun’s journal is continuous with his fiction (Cardinal Numbers contains the manifesto-like statement, ‘modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage’), but, unlike his fiction, it wasn’t created for public consumption. Not unlike the art of, say, Ray Johnson or Joseph Cornell, it gives us a glimpse of a private world, a game played for inscrutable reasons—what Don DeLillo calls “the pure game of making up”. Our celebration of Broun ends with a wonderful essay by Sam Lipsyte–a writer Andrew and I both revere–who captures his essence far better than either of us ever could.
Biblioklept: Which of Broun’s three books do you think is the best starting place for folks interested in his work after reading about him in Egress?
DW: Cardinal Numbers, without a doubt. Open Road recently reissued all three titles as e-books, but I’d recommend picking up the old Knopf hardbacks, which can be had for as little as a dollar. Another Broun novel–a previously unpublished manuscript–might be out in a year or two.
Biblioklept: Maybe Egress could get a hold of a few pages.
DW: We’ve been looking at some of his unpublished work, yes.
Biblioklept: Why is it necessary to publish Egress in a physical, print form?
AL: Why is Egress in print? There are so many reasons, but I’ll focus on one. The role of curation has never been more important as it is now. We are distracted: information, entertainment, stuff causes our attention to bleed from one thing to the next. Egress, like all the best journals and mags, is a highly curated affair. David and I wanted there to be a palpable sensation derived from receiving and reading each issue of the magazine. The style of writing, the artwork, the design. Much of that effect relies on all the pieces being enclosed between covers – simultaneously held together and also cut off, if only briefly, from everything else that’s going on. It’s hard, likely impossible, to get that same sense of quietude, to enforce focus, when reading on a screen as infinite worlds suggest themselves merely clicks away. As well as this, there’s an indispensable sense of occasion one gets from a print magazine: ‘when is it out?’ The magazine, as a format, craves temporality.
Biblioklept: Do you envision future issues of Egress publishing some of the authors featured in the first issue?
AL: Yes, definitely.
Biblioklept: There’s an obvious aesthetic value to a literary journal or magazine publishing the same authors frequently, but are there any risks?
DW: There are risks and rewards. Magazines like Egress serve two roles in the culture. Our primary role is to discover and promote new writers. Often unpublished, unagented, and lacking industry connections, these writers reside at the margins. But we believe in them, fervently, and we believe they deserve to be heard. This gives rise to a second role. You might even call it a moral responsibility. Newness needs to be nurtured, protected, given a space in which it can grow. One contributor to Egress #1 only began writing fiction six months ago. She’d published nothing before she came to us. But what she’s doing is truly unique. Will we publish her again? You bet. We’ll do everything in our power to support her work. The same goes for any writer we believe in. If you do that and keep doing it–if you keep bringing new writers together–you become something more than a magazine. You become a community. Look at the best literary magazines of recent decades–from The Quarterly through to elimae, NOON, Tyrant and Unsaid–and that’s what you’ll see: artistic communities. Temporary autonomous zones; bubbles in which innovation can flourish. The risk, of course–and here I could name several lesser litmags–is that such communities can solidify into coteries, stables, ‘closed shops’. We’ll champion writers as long as they need us, but we’ll never close ourselves off in that way. After all, the real thrill is when someone comes to you from out of nowhere–no publications, no social media accounts, no ‘platform’, fuck, even no cover letter–just power on the page.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
DW: Sure, when they’re overpriced or out of print. Worse, I’ve had others steal them for me. Years ago, a friend went to great lengths to liberate Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ Order Out of Chaos from a university library for me. And a contributor to Egress #2 once smuggled an exorbitantly priced theology monograph out of a bookshop on my behalf. (Sorry Julie—see you in prison!)
AL: I’m bad for stealing books from places I’m staying at — friends’, hostels, BnBs — especially if I think I’d appreciate the book more myself. My favourite steal so far has been Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis, which I’ve read the covers off so can’t return that now (not that I would).
The first issue of Egressis out now in the UK. It will be available in the US on 21 June 2018.
David Winters is a literary critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. He currently holds a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Cambridge, where he is writing a book about Gordon Lish. He co-edits both Egress and 3:AM Magazine, and can be found online at www.davidwinters.uk.
I’m not sure exactly how many nested layers there are to Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment.” Sometimes I count as many as nine frames to the tale, sometimes only four or five. Sometimes the story seems its own discrete entity. A matryoshka doll could look like one thing or lots of things, I guess, and this matryoskha doll points back at herself: When you open the final doll, the minutest level of narrative, you find that you’ve found the source of the story. The biggest doll is there nesting in the belly of the smallest doll.
But I’m getting ahead, maybe. Break it down:
The title is the first frame, the big doll that declares: This is a story.
The second-person pronoun here is general, sure, but also points directly at you, you reader you. We have here another frame, one outside of the story (because you are the reader) but also bounded inside of it (as the character you).
ask her what is a favorite story she has written,
We’re not into the next frame yet, but we’ve got a new character, a her—a story writer! Like Lydia Davis! The author of this particular story!
she will hesitate for a long time
Still no new frame, but rather the space between layers, the hesitation, the drawing together of thought, judgment, analysis, reflection—Davis doesn’t makes the reader feel any of that rhetorically, instead snappily snapping to the point of this whole deal.
and then say
Okay here’s the next frame. I’m not counting though.
it may be this story that she read in a book once:
Good lord, where to start here. Okay, so, we have another frame, but even more significantly, we have this verbal shift: Our her, our she, our hero-author, who has been asked (hypothetically by interlocutor you) about a favorite story she’s written avers that the favorite story she’s written is a story that she read in a book once.
(To save me the trouble of coming back later: Of course our hero-author is writing the story she read in a book once now; “Happiest Moment” is this performance, kinda, sorta, kindasorta).
an English language teacher in China
There’s a frame.
asked his Chinese student
Another frame (and a second ask).
to say what was the happiest moment in his life.
The student, like the hero-author-has to say his answer (not write it).
The student hesitated for a long time.
(Like the hero-author—note the precise repetition of verbs in this tale).
At last he smiled with embarrassment
(God I love this guy).
and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there,
(We’re getting to our climax folks).
and she often told him about it,
Another frame, another telling.
and he would have to say
Our verb, our answer—
that the happiest moment of his life was her trip and the eating of the duck.
What a sweet, sweet ending.
The Chinese English language student’s wife’s enjoyment of duck in Beijing is his favorite memory, despite it not being a memory at all, but rather the story of a memory, not his own, but his beloved’s. He relays this memory of someone else’s to his English teacher and the memory somehow ends up in a book, which the hero-author of “Happiest Moment” somehow reads, and then attests to be the most favorite story she has written, despite the fact that she makes it clear that this is a story she read and didn’t write—although of course, she wrote it, because it is the story “Happiest Moment.”
Toward dusk, the black birds descend, millions 1of them, to sit in the branches of trees nearby. The trees grow heavy with black birds, branches like dendrites of the Nervous System 2 fattening, deep in twittering nerve-dusk, in preparation for some important message… . 3
Later in Berlin, down in the cellar among fever-dreams with shit leaking out of him at gallons per hour, too weak to aim more than token kicks at the rats 4 running by with eyes fixed earnestly noplace, trying to make believe they don’t have a newer and dearer status among the Berliners, at minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart 5 sez: The Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands for. And you are no knightly hero 6. The best you can compare with is Tannhäuser 7, the Singing Nincompoop—you’ve been under one mountain at Nordhausen, been known to sing a song or two with uke accompaniment, and don’tcha feel you’re in a sucking marshland of sin out here, Slothrop? maybe not the same thing William Slothrop, vomiting a good part of 1630 away over the side of that Arbella8, meant when he said “sin.” . . . But what you’ve done is put yourself on somebody else’s voyage 9—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing her, its, game… you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game. You play because you have nothing better to do 10, but that doesn’t make it right. And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you? 11
From page 364 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1A million black birds sounds like a hyperbole of crows, but Berlin 1945, post-V-E Day—which is like, where we are here—I mean, it’s a desperate deathly ghastly place. So maybe buzzards and dreadful crows abound.
3 What’s the important message? Oh wait, we’re still in the marvelous tree-crow-dendrite simile—the “twittering nerve-dusk”—so the “message” the crow-tree-branches awaits is just part of the, uh, metaphor. Or not? I mean, this is a novel in large part about expectation—about waiting for the bomb to fall, waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend. And also: awaiting a message of Return.
But: What a lovely little simile. Pynchon’s powers as a prose stylist seem under-remarked upon.
4Cf. page 359: “Last week, in the British sector someplace, Slothrop, having been asshole enough to drink out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten, took sick.”
The cellar, the diarrhea, the rats….I’ve written it before:Gravity’s Rainbow is a thoroughly abject novel—full of assholes (literal) and shit (literal) and toilets (literal). (And oh, also: metaphorical too, metaphorical too). Slothrop here is sick, literally evacuating—but also figuratively evacuating. A few pages later he’ll evacuate into his next identity, Rocket Man.
Cf. page 553, from Slothrop’s “Partial List of Wishes on Evening Stars for This Period”:
“Let me be able to take a shit soon.”
5I counted 75 words in the dependent clause that precedes Pynchon’s finally introducing the independent clause—which is to say subject and verb—
“Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez”
(My count is likely off; I counted once and I’ve had some bourbon. I counted “fever-dreams” as two words, although I think you’re not supposed to do that).
Anyway: That’s a lot of dependent-clauseauge before, like, the main idea—which I guess, from a prose/aesthetic analysis, is the, uh, main idea—ascent, suspension—and then an immediate divergence (and note how Pynchon simultaneously deflates and invigorates his predicate verb “sez” with colloquial zeal).
6Many of Gravity’s Rainbow’s motifs almost cohere here. Pynchon highlights two of Slothrop’s ostensible “quests” — the Schwarzgerät (the mysterious “black device” that will be installed in rocket 00000 (present), and the sexy sinister plastic Imipolex G (past). (But also both, obviously: Future).
Slothrop’s dumb heart denies any knightly virtue, rejects Romanticism—and, perhaps, Modernism’s ironic obsessions with Romanticism.
(I think the passage above, what with its ravens and Venus-denial and grail-refusal, is a tidy antonym to Rossetti’s depiction of the Grail…and yet I’d argue Pynchon’s writing bears a Pre-Raphaelite streak)—
The episode strikes me as utterly true, a moment of honest self-speech. As Emily Dickinson put it: “I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true.” (One of Slothrop’s ancestor’s plagiarized Ms. Dickinson on his gravestone). And yet and yet and yet…Perhaps Tyrone S. is being a bit too harsh on himself (who among us hasn’t cast a harsh gaze into the mirror?).
Slothrop expels the old identity here, the old dreams, the old, evacuating space for the arrival of “Raketemensch,” — Rocketman!
Rocketman points to an emerging postmodern hero—a comic bookish hero, perhaps—totemic, sure, but also Pop, cartoonish, textual—framed (literally) in the conventions of previous centuries’ conceptions of “heroism.”
8Cf. pages 203-04 (annotations here), wherein Slothrop’s vomiting ancestor William Slothrop, in a remarkable passage of hysteron proteron, travels backwards from the New World to the Old.
9One of the central paranoias of Gravity’s Rainbow is that you might be on their voyage. How much agency do you have in your own life? And what’s the cost of asserting that agency? How many identities do you have to evacuate? And in the end—what’s left?
10Boredom strikes me as one of (if not the) central theme connecting Modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.
Or: Simply note the motif of bloom, of fruition, of phallic life, of promise. In fuller context though—it’s a bloom too late. The question blooms from Slothrop’s self-speech, but also extends to you and me, reader.
Or: Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:
“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”
Watching HBO’s new show Westworld, I couldn’t help but think of the late American novelist William Gaddis’s obsession for player-pianos. The narrator of Gaddis’s final novel Agapē Agapehowls that the player piano “was the plague spreading across America…its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics.” Here was the idea of art, the artifice of art. Spiritless spirit. Automation.
Director Jonathan Nolan threads these automaton player pianos throughout “The Original,” Westworld’s ironically-titled pilot episode. The motif is a perhaps-unsubtle reminder of Westworld’s core conflict—automation vs. spirit, real vs. copy, authentic vs. simulation. Human vs. machine.
You know the story of course: whether from Westworld’s source material (Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name), or from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick in general, or The Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica (original or reboot), or Pinocchio, or AI, or Pygmalion, or Baudrillard, or just generally being alive in the 21st century….or…or…or…you know the story of course. (Oh, and, uh westerns too, natch).
Knowing the story enriches this particular reboot (or reimagining or re-whatever) of Westworld’s pregnant possibilities, and “The Original” is at its finest when tweaking its tropes.
For example, James Marsden’s fresh-faced Teddy Flood arrives to Westworld a noob, a surrogate for the audience—just another “Newcomer,” a human tourist among the amusement park’s android “Hosts” looking for fun and trouble, right? An early reveal shows that he’s actually a Host too though (gadzooks!), an automaton pining after fresh-faced series lead Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy. (I suppose having a fresh face is easy when the lab operatives can grow you a new one each night).
The bait-and-switch gambit with Flood plays out in a riveting scene with ringer Ed Harris, the Man in Black, hardly a “Newcomer” and a seemingly unwelcome guest. He reveals that he’s been coming to Westworld for “over thirty years,” and we later learn that the theme park’s automatons haven’t had major glitches in (You guessed it!) thirty years. “We’re overdue,” says Westworld’s operations manager, Theresa Cullen (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen–and by the way, that quote’s from my bad memory so don’t quote me on it). Foreshadowing! With the Man in Black creepin’ ’round and takin’ automaton scalps Blood Meridian style, there’s sure to be trouble!
But wait—Westworld can make its own trouble for its own damn self without mysterious outside agents, thank you very much. Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins, another ringer, and please don’t make me comment on the symbolically-overdetermined character name) has updated the “Hosts” with a new operating system, which includes a new program for “reveries.” These reveries have the replicants all fucked up. In short, the automatons, the Hosts, start going off-script (literally)—asking philosophical questions about the nature of their reality (and pouring milk over corpses).
Ford doesn’t care though—as he explains to Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe (Westworld’s head programmer), humanity, what with curing all its diseases, etc., can’t progress anymore — “This is as good as we’ll get.” So, like, why not trigger the Singularity? To return to our player piano motif, if only momentarily, Ford would like to inspirit art into the artificial. He wants, or at least moments of “The Original” suggest he wants, to teach the Hosts to play.
But the security forces behind the scenes decide it’s probably not good for their guests to be subjected to unknown quirks. They remand some of these suspect automatons to a creepy Bluebeard’s closet full of other decomissioned replicants that surely won’t be any kind of problem down the line in Westworld, right?
As my quick overview suggests, Westworld brims with potential. Indeed, “The Original,” despite a tight plot, often feels overpacked. There’s not just a season’s worth of plot lines lurking in here, but a whole series’ worth. As a result, “The Original” leaves many interesting characters on the margins for now (Thandie Newton’s brothel madam in particular). I suppose keeping key players on the sidelines makes sense, especially as the pilot is exposition-heavy as it is (a fault with any number of TV pilots, from Game of Thrones to The Sopranos. Not every show can emerge autochthonous and fully-realized out of the gate like True Detective).
And yet even stuffed with emerging plots, Westworld finds time for a cinematic shooting-slaughter sequence that I suppose many viewers found thrilling but I found admittedly cold. With zero stakes at this early point, the scene felt like any other American TV show where meaningless bodies are gunned to pieces. Maybe that was the point though?
In any case, the punchline to the shooting sequence—one of the Newcomers (a prototypical Ugly American doof) Saves the Day! right before the baddie-Host can give his Big Speech—the punchline didn’t make me laugh so much as grimace. “The Original” is full of tonal inconsistencies and missed opportunities for sharp satire and dark humor. I hope Westworld loosens up a bit, gets a bit weirder, bites more from J.G. Ballard’s playbook. The pilot seems to go for profundity over weirdness, as if the showmakers must telegraph at all times: This is a Dark Serious Show. (Did I mention that director and creator Jonathan Nolan is Christopher Nolan’s brother?).
If the arcade shooter sequence is a dud (or, rather, the simulacrum of a real shootout, an authentic inauthenticity), the final scenes of “The Original” make up for it. In an echo of Blade Runner’s final sequence, Hopkins’s Ford squares off with his creation, Dolores’s father Peter. Peter has found a photograph depicting a girl in Times Square, and the cognitive dissonance of this unreality has him goin’ straight-glitch, quotin’ Shakespeare, and generally blowin’ android gaskets. We find out he’s been rebooted a number of times, and was once the leader of a cannibal cult in a Westworld scenario called “The Dinner Party.” (Har har! That pun works on at least two levels). Peter perhaps has realized he’s but a player in play—but not a true player, just a copy of a player, a simulacrum.
Westworld is acutely aware of its own layers of simulacra. The show constantly calls attention to itself as a show, as a play. Early in “The Original,” the camera pulls up from travelers on a train to reveal a god’s-eye diorama of the terrain—a moving diorama that recalls the intro to Game of Thrones (the show Westworld would replace in your hearts and on your screens). The Westworld is surveyed by producers and showrunners making adjustments—just like Westworld. We have here a metacommentary on television, a self-consciously postmodern (and thus, post-postmodern) gesture. Not just automation and artifice, but artists! Not just player pianos, but players!
The diorama shot also reveals the Big Dream embedded in Westworld’s Big Nightmare. We have here that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would “sivilize” him. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” declared Charles Olson in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville’s whale. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” The Newcomers, the tourists, flock to Westworld because it is a safe and constrained territory, a SPACE that is sivilized, yet masked to appear otherwise, garbed in the myth of danger, the empty promises of our National Pastimes, Sex & Violence. Dr. Ford plants reveries—dreams—into his automatons, disrupting civilization’s veneer of order. This is the new Frontier that Westworld promises to explore.