A few years ago I passed up on a hardback first-edition copy of Walker Percy’s weird dystopian Southern Gothic Love in the Ruins, and have regretted it ever since, or at least ever since I read a run of his novels back in 2020. I wound I’m reading a digital copy of Love from my local library, loved it, and would put it up there with Lancelot as his best, knowing damn well I still haven’t read The Last Gentleman or The Thanatos Syndrome. (The Thanatos Syndrome sounds like the name of a bad novel in a dystopian parody novel or film.) The cover for this edition of Love in the Ruins is by Janet Halverson.
I’ve read nine of Ishmael Reed’s first ten novels, but I still haven’t read Japanese by Spring, his ninth work, a campus novel that parodies America’s ever-ongoing culture wars. I picked up this first-edition hardback today. Before I even opened the copy, I wondered if it belonged to the same dude who I’ve managed to cop so many used postmodern novels of the past three decades. This guy—I won’t write his name out here—this guy put stamps or stickers of his name and address in the books he bought, I guess, and I ended up picking up a lot of them used over the years: Ishmael Reed, Stanley Elkin, Don DeLillo…I was thinking about maybe writing the guy? Anyway, sure enough, this copy of Japanese by Spring included a sticker bearing this guy’s name and the same address. I did a basic internet search and it looks like he’s moved, but not far, and that he’s (probably) eighty years old. I guess I’d just want to say Thanks is all.
Ishmael Reed’s 1974 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a sharp, zany satire of US culture at the end of the twentieth century. The novel, Reed’s fourth, is a sequel of sorts to Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and features that earlier novel’s protagonist, the Neo-HooDoo ghost detective Papa LaBas.
In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed gave us the story of an uptight secret society, the Wallflower Order, and their attempt to root out and eradicate “Jes’ Grew,” a psychic virus that spreads freedom and takes its form in arts like jazz and the jitterbug. The Last Days of Louisiana Red also employs a psychic virus to drive its plot, although this transmission is far deadlier. “Louisiana Red” is a poisonous mental disease that afflicts black people in the Americas, causing them to fall into a neo-slave mentality in which they act like “Crabs in the Barrel…Each crab trying to keep the other from reaching the top.”
The Last Days of Louisiana Red begins with Ed Yellings, “an american negro itinerant who popped into Berkeley during the age of Nat King Cole. People looked around one day and there he was.” Yellings is the West Coast counterpart to New-York-based Papa LeBas, a fellow Worker of Neo-HooDoo who fights against the secret forces of psychic slavery.
Sliding into the mythological motif that ripple through Louisiana Red, Reed writes,
When Osiris entered Egypt, cannibalism was in vogue. He stopped men from eating men. Thousands of years later when Ed Yellings entered Berkeley, there was a plague too, but not as savage. After centuries of learning how to be subtle, the scheming beast that is man had acquired the ability to cover up.
Yellings’ mission is to destroy the psychic cannibalism that afflicts his people. He gets to it, and earns “a reputation for being not only a Worker [of the voodoo arts] but a worker too.” Yellings’ working class bona fides helps solidify his sympathies and his mission:
Since he worked with workers, he gained a knowledge of the workers’ lot. He knew that their lives were bitter. He experienced their surliness, their downtroddenness, their spitefulness and the hatred they had for one another and for their wives and their kids. He saw them repeatedly go against their own best interests as they were swayed and bedazzled by modern subliminal techniques, manipulated by politicians and corporate tycoons, who posed as their friends while sapping their energy. Whose political campaigns amounted to: “Get the Nigger.”
As always, Reed’s diagnosis of late 20th-century American culture seems to belong, unfortunately, just as much to our own time, giving his novels a perhaps-unintended sheen of prescience. Reed’s work points to dystopia, even as his heroes work for freedom and justice. And yet Reed gives equal air time to the forces that oppress freedom and justice, forces that find expression in “Louisiana Red”:
Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another., carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires few in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin Show set….
The miserable workers were anti-negro, anti-chicano, anti-puerto rican, anti-asian, anti-native american, had forgotten their guild oaths, disrespected craftsmanship; produced badly made cars and appliances and were stimulated by gangster-controlled entertainment; turned out worms in the tuna fish, spiders in the soup, inflamatory toys, tumorous chickens, d.d.t. in fish and the brand new condominium built on quicksand.
As a means to fight the culture of erosion, decay, and entropy, Yellings founds the Solid Gumbo Works. Here, he manufactures a gumbo—a spell, really—to combat “Louisiana Red.” In the process he manages to cure cancer, which pisses off a lot of big corporations, and pretty soon Yellings is murdered. Papa LeBas is sent in from New York to solve the case.
Papa LeBas runs into trouble pretty quickly, mostly by way of Yellings’ adult children: Wolf, Street, Sister, and the provocative and gifted Minnie, who leads a group of militants called the Moochers. Each of the children seem to embody an allegorical parallel to some aspect of the American counterculture of the late sixties and seventies, allowing Reed to mash up genres and skewer ideologies. There are a lot flavors in this gumbo: voodoo lore and California history bubble in the same pot as riffs on astrology and Cab Calloway’s hit “Minnie the Moocher.” Reed frequently compares and contrasts East with West, New York with California, underscoring the latter’s anxieties of influence about being the New World of the New World. Throughout the novel, we get routines on Amos & Andy, slapstick pastiches straight out of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comix, hysterical nods to Kafka. Reed plays off early blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Superfly (not to mention Putney Swope), and synthesizes these tropes with kung fu imagery and neo-Nazi nostalgia garb. He turns Aunt Jemima into a loa at one point.
Reed’s prose ping-pongs between genres, skittering from pulp fiction noir to surrealist frenzies, from bizarre sex to raucous action, from political essaying to postmodernist mythologizing. Through these stylistic shifts, Reed satirizes a host of ideologies that feed into “Louisiana Red.” Aspects of the Berkeley youth movement, radical feminism, free love, and intellectual hucksterism all get skewered, but through an allegorical lens—Reed dares us, often explicitly (by way of a character named Chorus) to read Louisiana Red as an allegorical retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone.
This retelling is both tragic and comic though, premodern and postmodern, a carnival of varied voices. The chapters are short, the sentences sting, and the plot shuttles along, pivoting from episode to episode with manic picaresque glee. Reed’s narrator is always way out there in front of both the reader and the novel’s characters, hollering at us to keep up.
Ultimately, The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a bit of a shaggy dog. It’s not that it doesn’t have a climax—it does, it has lots of climaxes, some quite literal. And it’s not that the novel doesn’t have a point—it very much does. Rather, it’s that Reed employs his detective story as a frame for the larger argument he wants to make about American culture. Sure, Papa LaBas gets to the bottom of Yellings’ murder, but that’s not ultimately what the narrative is about.
When we get to the final chapter, we find LaBas, sitting alone “on a plain box” in the empty offices of the Solid Gumbo Works reflecting on the case in a way that, in short, sums up what The Last Days of Louisiana Red is about:
He thought of the eaters and the eaten of this parable on Gumbo…all ‘oppressed people’ who often, like Tod Browning ‘Freaks,’ have their own boot on their own neck. They exist to give the LaBases, Wolfs and Sisters of these groups the business, so as to prevent them from taking care of Business, Occupation, Work. They are the moochers who cooperate with their ‘oppression,’ for they have the mentality of the prey who thinks his destruction at the fangs of the killer is the natural order of things and colludes with his own death. The Workers exist to tell the ‘prey’ that they were meant to bring down killers three times their size, using the old morality as their guide: Voodoo, Confucianism, the ancient Egyptian inner duties, using the technique of camouflage, independent camouflages like the leopard shark, ruler of the seas for five million years. Doc John, ‘the black Cagliostro,’ rises again over the American scene. The Workers conjure and command the spirit of Doc John to walk the land.
So here, near the end of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Papa LeBas—and Ishmael Reed, of course—conjures up the spirit of Doctor John, the voodoo healer who escaped slavery and brought knowledge of the hoodoo arts to his people. There’s a promise of hope and optimism here at the novel’s end, despite its many bitter flavors. But the passage cited above is not the final moments of Louisiana Red—no, the novel, ends, despite what I wrote about its being a shaggy dog story, with a marvelous punchline.
Ishmael Reed remains an underappreciated novelist whose early work seems as vital as ever. The Last Days of Louisiana Red is probably not the best starting place for him, but it’s a great novel to read right after Mumbo Jumbo, which is a great starting place to read Reed. In any case: Read Reed. Highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this review in March, 2019.]
Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).
The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.
I used the word allies above, but truculent Tracker is just as likely to fight against the members of his fellowship as he is to fight with them. Black Leopard, Red Wolf runs on the same logic we find in comic books, where heroes fight each other first and then figure out why they are fighting each other after the fact. Sure, they’ll band together to fight lightning zombies, vampires, or roof-walking night demons—but they’re just as likely to go at each other with brass knuckles, axes, or arrows right after.
Chief among Tracker’s allies/rivals is the Leopard, a shapeshifter. Throughout the book, Tracker and the Leopard fall in and fall out, fight and fuck, laugh and scream. Their bond is forged early in the novel, when they work together to rescue Mingi children, outcast mutants with strange appearances and stranger abilities. These children become an ersatz family for Tracker and provide an emotional ballast to a novel that often reads like a violent tangle of chaotic, meaningless tangents.
The fact that Leopard and Tracker—the title characters for the novel (Tracker gets his eye sucked out by a were-hyena and replaces it with a magical wolf eye; don’t ask)—the fact that Leopard and Tracker save children, particularly strange children is central to understanding their motivations in their quest to save the missing child.
From the outset though, the reader has to doubt just how successful the quest will be. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens with these intriguing sentences: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” These lines for foreground the novel’s two major themes: radical infanticide and the problem of knowing what we know and (story)telling what we know.
James’s novel uses infanticidal threat as the impetus for its central plot, the fellowship’s quest to save a child. In the backdrop though is Tracker’s oedipal rage toward his father/grandfather (don’t ask), a rage born out of the infanticidal threats Tracker himself has survived. Tracker has survived, but he is not at peace. He is perhaps the angriest narrator I have ever read, quick to temper and driven by (oedipal) impulses of revenge against a target he cannot name. His anger boils over repeatedly, and not just at his foes, but at his partners and his lovers—the Leopard, in particular.
At the same time, Black Leopard, Red Wolf transports us to scenes of strange love and strange families. James’s novel shows how radical love—Tracker and his Mingi children—might mediate, disrupt, or upend the impulses of revenge. And yet there is nothing permanent or stable in this postmodern novel.
Indeed, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is very much about the problem of how we know what we know and how we can express what we know. Tracker is our narrator, but he doesn’t tell us his story straight (there is nothing straight about this queer novel). Tracker tells his stories—the novel—to someone he addresses as inquisitor, but we never learn how Tracker came to be the inquisitor’s captive. Like Sheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights, Tracker seems to spin his story as a life-saving trick.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tangle, a fluid that courses this way and that, a jumble of time and space. Like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport from one city-state to another, the narrative leaps through time and space, discursive and discontinuous. Tracker nests his narrative as well. We get tales inside tales inside tales, a matryoshka doll without a clear and definite shape. I occasionally felt submerged in reading James’s novel, as if I’d disappeared into an undersea cave only to find some strange current that bore me elsewhere.
Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker neatly summarizes the novel’s deconstruction of a stable truth, and then reverses the roles, demanding testimony from the inquisitor:
And that is all and all is truth, great inquisitor. You wanted a tale, did you not? From the dawn of it to the dusk of it, and such is the tale I have given you. What you wanted was testimony, but what you really wanted was story, is it not true? Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true? When we find this, shall we seek no more? It is truth as you call it, truth in entire? What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.
James has planned to write two sequels to Black Leopard, Red Wolf in what he is calling his “Dark Star” trilogy, and he’s stated that each entry in the series will, like an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, tell the story from another perspective. After all, “Truth is just another story.”
Of course, Tracker’s telling can be confounding, even exhausting. James’s prose often feels picaresque, one-damn-thing-happening-after-another, a phantasmagoria of sex and violence signifying nothing—only it doesn’t signify nothing. It means something. Many readers won’t want to puzzle that out though.
A lot of the plot is delivered after the fact of the action. We get a form of clunky post-exposition—another form of storytelling, really, with one character summarizing the fragmented details the reader has been wading through for another character. In a kind of metatextual recognition of his tale’s messiness, James will often wink at the reader through his characters. Summarizing pages and pages of plot for the Leopard (and the reader), Tracker finds himself befuddled:
I told the Leopard all this and this is truth, I was more confused by the telling than he was by listening. Only when he repeated all that I said did I understand it.
A few chapters later, the pattern repeats. “The more you tell me the less I know,” one character tells another. Even storytelling can’t stabilize the truth.
While the plot’s unwieldiness can become tiresome, it is not a defect of the book as much as an intentional feature. However, some of the battle scenes fall into a kind of mechanical repetition of blank violence. Tracker tells us again and again how he “hacked” or “yanked,” etc. in scenes that become duller and duller as there are more of them.
The book is far more fun when it’s weirder—Tracker getting trapped by a mutant spider demon who sprays webs all over his face, or Tracker swimming with mermaids to the land of the dead, or Tracker and his companion visiting a technologically-advanced tree city-state ruled by a mad queen. James’s best set pieces don’t need battles to reverberate with energy.
There’s so much more in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I haven’t touched on. The novel is lurid and horny, abject and affecting. It’s often quite funny, and, in the end, it turned out to be unexpectedly moving. It’s also exhausting and confusing, and will likely prove divisive for many readers. It’s clear that Lord of the Rings was a reference point for James (the word “fellowship” is oft-repeated in his novel), but Black Leopard, Red Wolf reminded me more of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones than it did a traditional fantasy.
In its vivid weirdness and pure invention, James’s book also reminded me of Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh. However, Catling’s novel often takes the colonialist viewpoint. Black Leopard, Red Wolf points to a fantasy that could reverse our own history, potentially obliterate that viewpoint’s existence. When Tracker asks the inquisitor, “Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true?”, his questioning seems to point to the larger implications of the James’s Dark Star universe—a precolonial space with a looming threat from the West. Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one character warns the others that the warring between the North and South Kingdoms, between tribes and city-states must end. There’s an existential threat on the horizon. I find the potential storytelling here intriguing.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is clearly Not for Everybody. It’s violent and strange, and the sex in it will likely upset conservative readers. It’s also shaggy and unwieldy. It probably has a future as a cult novel. You just sort of have to go with its fluid (in every sense of that word) program and enjoy the ride. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to the sequel.
[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in May of 2019. This novel’s sequel, Moon Witch, Spider King, is out next week.]
Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”
The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.
After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid,Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:
We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.
The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.
Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,
a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.
Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.
Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.
Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.
The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).
Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:
O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.
So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.
Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:
Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?
The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.
That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.
And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.
Through all its anger,Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again.The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in February of 2017.]
Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo is an overlooked masterpiece of postmodern literature, a delicious satire of the contemporary world that riffs on race, identity, patriarchy, and so much more. Oreo is a pollyglossic picaresque, a metatextual maze of language games, raps and skits, dinner menus and vaudeville routines. Oreo’s rush of language is exuberant, a joyful metatextual howl that made me laugh out loud. Its 212 pages galloped by, leaving me wanting more, more, more.
Oreo is Ross’s only novel. Itwas met with a handful of confused reviews upon its release and then summarily forgotten until 2000, when Northeastern University Press reissued the novel with an introduction by UCLA English professor Harryette Mullen. (New Directions offered a wider release with a 2015 reissue, including Mullen’s introduction as an afterword.)
In Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo, the Greek legend of Theseus’ journey into the Labyrinth becomes a feminist tall tale of a young black woman’s passage from Philadelphia to New York in search of her white Jewish father.
Mullen goes on to describe Oreo as a novel that “explores the heterogeneity rather than the homogeneity of African Americans.”
Oreo’s ludic heterogeneity may have accounted for its near-immediate obscurity. Ross’s novel celebrates hybridization and riffs–both in earnestness and irony—on Western tropes and themes that many writers of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s specifically rejected.
Indeed, Oreo still feels ahead of its time, or out of its time, as novelist Danzy Senna repeatedly notes in her introduction to the New Directions reissue. Senna points out that “Oreo resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today,” and writes that Ross’s novel “feels more in line stylistically, aesthetically, with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntzoke Shange.”
In his review of Oreo, novelist Marlon James also posits Ross’s place with the postmodernists, suggesting that “maybe Ross is closer in spirit to the writers in the 70s who managed to make this patchwork sell,” before wryly noting, “Of course they were all white men: Vonnegut, Barth, Pynchon, and so on.”
Of course they were all white men. And perhaps this is why Oreo languished out of print so long. Was it erasure? Neglect? Institutional racism and sexism in publishing and literary criticism? Or just literal ignorance?
In any case, Ross belongs on the same postmodern shelf with Gaddis, Pynchon, Barth, Reed, and Coover. Oreo is a carnivalesque, multilingual explosion of the slash we might put between high and low. It’s a metatextual novel that plays zanily with the plasticity of its own form. Like Coover, Elkin, and Barthelme, Ross’s writing captures the spirit of mass media; Oreo is forever satirizing commercials, television, radio, film (and capitalism in general).
Ross plays with the page as well, employing quizzes, menus, and charts into the text, like this one, from the novel’s third page:
Oreo won me over with the postmodern paragraph that followed this chart, which I’ll share in full:
A word about weather
There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.
What happens in Oreo? Well, it’s a picaresque, sure, but it goes beyond, as Ralph Ellison put it, being “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.” (Although there are plenty of damned things happening, sheerly or otherwise, after each other.)
Oreo is a mock-epic, a satirical quest for the titular Oreo to discover the “secret of her birth,” using clues left by her white Jewish father who, like her mother, has departed. All sorts of stuff happens along the way–run ins with rude store clerks, attempted muggings, rhyming little people with a psychopathic son camping in the park, a short voice acting career, a soiree with a “rothschild of rich people,” a witchy stepmother, and a memorable duel with a pimp. (And more, more, more.)
Throughout it all, Oreo shines as a cartoon superhero, brave, impervious, adaptable, and full of wit—as well as WIT (Oreo’s self-invented “system of self- defense [called] the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” In “a state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as [Oreo could] engage any opponent up to three times her size and weight and whip his natural ass.)
Indeed, as Oreo’s uncle declares, “She sure got womb, that little mother…She is a ball buster and a half,” underscoring the novel’s feminist themes as well as its plasticity of language. Here “womb” becomes a substitution for “balls,” a symbol of male potency busted in the next sentence. This ironic inversion might serve as a synecdoche for Oreo’s entire quest to find her father, a mocking rejoinder to patriarchy. As Oreo puts it, quite literally: “I am going to find that motherfucker.”
Find that motherfucker she does and—well, I won’t spoil any more. Instead, I implore you to check out Oreo, especially if you’re a fan of all those (relatively) famous postmodernist American novels of the late twentieth century. I wish someone had told me to read Oreo ages ago, but I’m thankful I read it now, and I look forward to reading it again. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in July of 2020.]
I’ve read “The Balloon” more than any other Barthelme story. I’ve read it at least three times a year, every year, for the past ten years, in the context of an American Literature after 1865 course I teach every Fall-Spring-Summer. It’s widely-anthologized. It’s over-anthologized. It’s probably most folks only exposure to Barthelme, which I think is strange—I think it’s a particularly challenging Barthelme story, even though it’s the Barthelme story I’ve read more than any other Barthelme story.
My students are often exasperated by the story, which seems to lack any traditional plot or character—but I think that’s kind of the point. “The Balloon” is about the creation of “The Balloon.” It’s a story about a story, as much as Barthelme would have protested the notion. This interpretation is not particularly radical. Just earlier this month, the writer Donald Antrim did a reading of “The Balloon” for The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. After the reading, fiction editor Deborah Treisman engages (or tries to engage) Antrim in a discussion of the meaning of the balloon. Antrim insists on rebuking the balloon’s metaphoricity, repeatedly claiming it’s a “real” balloon. Treisman points out that it’s just a story.
As many readers have observed, Don’s story considers public responses to art. But besides this general theme, he had in mind a specific set of reactions, in a crucial time.
In invoking Manet’s balloon and the Olympia scandal, Don encoded in his story an early chapter of the art that nourished him throughout his career; an art inseparable from social change, resistant to strict ordering, and opposed to the narrowing of perceptions required by commodification.
5. “Will You Tell Me?” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
One of Barthelme’s more formally challenging stories, “Will You Tell Me?” begins strange (“Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas”) and gets even stranger. It’s a subtle satire on soap operas and convoluted prize (“The French countryside (the countryside of France) was covered with golden grass”) shot through anarchic glee:
In the cellar Paul continued making his bombs, by cellarlight. The bombs were made from tall Schlitz cans and a plastic substance which Paul refused to identify. The bombs were sold to other boys Paul’s age to throw at their fathers.
Note the ever-present oedipal theme in Barthelme’s work.
4. “For I’m the Boy” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
Like most of Barthelme’s stories, “For I’m the Boy” is a rewarding re-read. Among the stories in Sixty Stories culled from Come Back, Dr. Caligari, “For I’m the Boy” has a somewhat straightforward plot: A man named Bloomsbury has divorced his wife. He takes his two friends Whittle and Huber with her to the airport to see her off so that there will be no “weeping.” They then drive home, stopping for a bottle of brandy on the way. Whittle and Huber demand details of the divorce from Bloomsbury:
It would be interesting as well as instructive Whittle said casually, to know for instance at what point the situation of living together became untenable, whether she wept when you told her, whether you wept when she told you, whether you were the instigator or she was the instigator, whether there were physical fights involving bodily blows or merely objects thrown on your part and on her part, if there were mental cruelties, cruelties of what order and on whose part, whether she had a lover or did not have a lover, whether you did or did not, whether you kept the television or she kept the television, the disposition of the balance of the furnishings including tableware, linens, light bulbs, beds and baskets, who got the baby if there was a baby, what food remains in the pantry at this time, what happened to the medicine bottles including Mercurochrome, rubbing alcohol, aspirin, celery tonic, milk of magnesia, No-Doze and Nembutal, was it a fun divorce or not a fun divorce, whether she paid the lawyers or you paid the lawyers, what the judge said if there was a judge, whether you asked her for a “date” after the granting of the decree or did not ask, whether she was touched or not touched by this gesture if there was such a gesture, whether the date if there was such a date was a fun thing or not a fun thing – in short we’d like to get the feel of the event he said.
“Give us the feeling,” they insist, but Bloomsbury refuses. At the end of the story Whittle and Huber literally beat it out of him with a brandy bottle and tire iron. The feeling emerges in the form of tears and blood.
In Hiding Man, Daugherty makes a strong argument that “For I’m the Boy” serves as an early aesthetic statement from Barthelme: art is “our most refined public expression of what is private, unreachable, unsayable…it fails–words cannot do the trick–but it is the best we have…art’s value lies in the fact that it offers forms for our experiences.”
“Me and Miss Mandible” is an excellent and absurd story told by an adult man who is “officially a child.” Here is the story’s opening:
Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal’s office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven’t quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I’ve been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.
Our narrator handles the mix-up (if it could be called a mix-up) with bemused aplomb. Unlike the hero of Barthelme’s 1976 story “The Sergeant,” who similarly awakes to find himself affixed with the wrong identity, the narrator of “Mandible” seems to find opportunity in his predicament. There’s nothing especially sinister here; the situation is Kafkaesque, but the tone isn’t. The narrator gets to see the American educational system through the eyes of an experienced adult: “Everything is promised my classmates and I, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking.”
As the story develops, the narrator comes to understand that these promises are perhaps undeliverable:
We read signs as promises. Miss Mandible understands by my great height, by my resonant vowels, that I will one day carry her off to bed. Sue Ann interprets these same signs to mean that I am unique among her male acquaintances, therefore most desirable, therefore her special property as is every thing that is Most Desirable. If neither of these propositions work out then life has broken faith with them.
I myself, in my former existence, read the company motto (“Here to Help in Time of Need”) as a description of the duty of the adjuster, drastically mislocating the company’s deepest concerns. I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. Brenda, reading the same signs that have now misled Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, felt she had been promised that she would never be bored again. All of us, Miss Mandible, Sue Ann, myself, Brenda, Mr. Goodykind, still believe that the American flag betokens a kind of general righteousness.
But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.
In “A Shower of Gold,” we find Peterson, “a minor artist” with a bad liver, mulling over whether or not to sell out by appearing on the television show Who Am I? He’s tormented by a series of absurd “punishments” for even considering selling out, including having the President of the United States show up and destroy one of his pieces of art. Finally though, broke and beerless, he condescends to the appearance. The tale ends with an epiphanic monologue:
I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd. Before the emcee could ask the first question, Peterson began to talk. “Yesterday,” Peterson said to the television audience, “in the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue, I found a recipe for Ten Ingredient Soup that included a stone from a toad’s head. And while I stood there marveling a nice old lady pasted on the elbow of my best Haspel suit a little blue sticker reading THIS INDIVIDUAL IS A PART OF THE COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION OF THE ENTIRE GLOBE. Coming home I passed a sign that said in ten-foot letters COWARD SHOES and heard a man singing “Golden earrings” in a horrible voice, and last night i dreamed there was a shoot- out at our house on Meat Street and my mother shoved me in a closet to get me out of the line of fire.” The emcee waved at the floor manager to turn Peterson off, but Peterson kept talking. “In this kind of world,” Peterson said, “absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again. I am a minor artist and my dealer won’t even display my work if he can help it but minor is as minor does and lightning may strike even yet. Don’t be reconciled. Turn off your television sets,” Peterson said, “cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar. How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was.” A man on the floor in front of Peterson was waving a piece of cardboard on which something threatening was written but Peterson ignored him and concentrated on the camera with the little red light. The little red light jumped from camera to camera in an attempt to throw him off balance but Peterson was too smart for it and followed wherever it went. “My mother was a royal virgin,” Peterson said, “and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension…” Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.
Peterson takes up the mantle Perseus, an ironic hero for an absurd world.
1. “Margins” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
“Margins” is one of only two stories collected in Sixty Stories to directly address race relations in the United States (the other one is “The Sandman”). Interestingly, the “first” story of Sixty Stories is close to pure dialogue, the form that that Barthelme would land on almost exclusively in his latter years. The dialogue here is between Edward, a white man, and Carl, a black man. Edward is critiquing the margins and handwriting of a sandwich board Carl is wearing. This is the text of the sandwich board:
I Was Put In Jail in Selby County Alabama For Five Years For Stealing A Dollar and A Half Which I Did Not Do. While I Was In Jail My Brother Was Killed & My Mother Ran Away When I Was Little. In Jail I Began Preaching & I Preach to People Wherever I Can Bearing the Witness of Eschatological Love. I Have Filled Out Papers for Jobs But Nobody Will Give Me a Job Because I Have Been In Jail & The Whole Scene Is Very Dreary, Pepsi Cola. I Need Your Offerings to Get Food. Patent Applied For & Deliver Us From Evil.
Edward’s microaggressions swell to macroaggressions: “You look kind of crummy,” he tells Carl, and then asks, “Do you think I’m a pretty color…Are you envious?” When Carl replies, “No,” Edward pauses before offering a baffled, “but I’m what.” Carl tries to shift the conversation to something of substance: “Let’s talk about values or something.” Carl recommends a few books to Edward: Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older and John Hawkes’s The Cannibal and The Beetleleg. But Edward isn’t interested in making connections. He demands to know Carl’s “inner reality.” But like Bloomsbury in “For I’m the Boy,” Carl keeps that inner reality for himself: “‘It’s mine,’ Carl said quietly.”
The aggression mounts: Edward accuses Carl of having lied on his sign about stealing a dollar and a half. Carl protests, but does admit to being a biblioklept:
“Mostly in drugstores, ” Carl said. “I find them good because mostly they’re long and narrow and the clerks tend to stay near the prescription counters at the back of the store, whereas the books are usually in those little revolving racks near the front of the store. It’s normally pretty easy to slip a couple in your overcoat pocket, if you’re wearing an overcoat ”
“Yes, ” Carl said, “I know what you’re thinking. If I’ll steal books I’ll steal other things. But stealing books is metaphysically different from stealing like money. Villon has something pretty good to say on the subject I believe.
At the end of the story, Carl asks Edward to put on his sign for a minute so Carl can use a nearby restroom. “Boy, they’re kind of heavy aren’t they?” Edward declares, to which Carl replies, “They cut you a bit.” Barthelme notes Carl delivers the line with “a malicious smile.”
“Margins” might seem oblique on a first read, but rereading it there’s a lack of subtlety to Barthelme’s approach–the trading of the sign is a bit heavy handed. But the final strange image saves the story: “When Carl returned the two men slapped each other sharply in the face with the back of the hand-that beautiful part of the hand where the knuckles grow.”
Summary thoughts: Everything here is pretty strong. “Margins” and “Shower of Gold” have an energy that might make up for some zany misteps and heavyhanded symbolism, and “Will You Tell Me?” is a difficult but rewarding read. “Me and Miss Mandible” is Essential Barthelme (as is “The Balloon,” of course). Rereading “Mandible” simply confirmed its excellence. In contrast, I’ll admit that I didn’t remember “For I’m the Boy” at all, but found it to be surprisingly strong and unexpectedly moving for something that didn’t stick with me when I first read Sixty Stories.
Going forward (in reverse): At some point early in this reverse reread I thought, Hey, maybe I’ll do the same thing with Forty Stories, but now, no, no, no. Maybe next year, maybe never. I will have one final post though. I’ll read David Gates’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of Sixty Stories and offer my own edits: Thirty Stories, Fifteen Stories, and Ten Stories.
An odd domestic tale, “The Dolt” features the hostilities of a young married couple, Edward and Barbara. Edward is “preparing to take the National Writer’s Examination, a five-hour fifty-minute examination, for his certificate.” He squabbles with Barbara, who is “very sexually attractive…but also deeply mean.” Barbara doesn’t seem to think much of Edward’s chances at earning his “certificate.” Her lack of confidence seems to bear out as we hear the details of Edward’s entry story, a nineteenth century goof on a baron and his faithless wife:
The Baron, a man of uncommon ability, is chiefly remembered for his notorious and inexplicable blunder at the Battle of Kolin: by withdrawing the column under his command at a crucial moment in the fighting, he earned for himself the greatest part of the blame for Friedrich’s defeat, which resulted in a loss, on the Prussian side, of 13,000 out of 33,000 men.
There’s potential in the story, and Barbara begins to be persuaded as Edgar reads the story’s “development.” However, the story is missing something crucial:
“But what about the middle?”
“I don’t have the middle!” he thundered.
There’s a pastiche of ironic biographical details here—writerly anxiety, domestic anxiety—that ultimately gives over to Barthelme’s biggest thematic concern: oedipal anxiety. In an final-act swerve, a surreal figure, “the son manqué,” asking if there’s any “grass in the house.”
The son manqué was eight feet tall and wore a serape woven out of two hundred transistor radios, all turned on and tuned to different stations. Just by looking at him you could hear Portland and Nogales, Mexico.
The giant figure (a strange filial prefiguration of The Dead Father), girded in an amplified cacophony of mass media, suggests an artistic rival that Edgar is unsure he can surpass—even if that rival is a mere manqué. (The word choice “manqué” here is significant in its oddity. Earlier, Edgar points out that, “You put a word like that in now and then to freshen your line…Even though it’s an old word, it’s so old it’s new.)
The story’s final moment leave us in a limbo derivative of Barthelme’s hero Beckett:
Edgar tried to think of a way to badmouth this immense son leaning over him like a large blaring building. But he couldn’t think of anything. Thinking of anything was beyond him. I sympathize. I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.
“Report” distills one of the main themes of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel: technology drives warfare; indeed, war is an excuse for the advancement of modern technologies. This is about as direct an anti-war story as we would get from Donald Barthelme. It begins:
Our group is against the war. But the war goes on. I was sent to Cleveland to talk to the engineers. The engineers were meeting in Cleveland. I was supposed to persuade them not to do what they are going to do.
Of course, the directness of those opening lines gets refracted and tangled in obliquity and fantasy, as the narrator (the “Soft Ware man”) learns of the unspeakable and unnatural practices of the engineers:
“The development of the pseudoruminant stomach for underdeveloped peoples,” he went on, “is one of our interesting things you should be interested in. With the pseudo-ruminant stomach they can chew cuds, that is to say, eat grass. Blue is the most popular color worldwide and for that reason we are working with certain strains of your native Kentucky Poa pratensis, or bluegrass, as the staple input for the p/r stomach cycle, which would also give a shot in the arm to our balance-of -payments thing don’t you know” . . . I noticed about me then a great number of metatarsal fractures in banjo splints.
“The kangaroo initiative . . . eight hundred thousand harvested last year . . . highest percentage of edible protein of any herbivore yet studied …”
“Have new kangaroos been planted?”
The engineer looked at me.
The Soft Ware man leaves with the engineer’s promise:
I confidently predict that, although we could employ all this splendid new weaponry I’ve been telling you about, we’re not going to do it.”
The Soft Ware man’s audience does not believe the engineer’s promise though.
The version of “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” published in Sixty Stories bears a slight difference from the version first published in New American Review and then later in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Act. The Sixty Stories version is the only Barthelme story signed with a date of publication. Here, “April, 1968.”
The date is contextually significant, and something that I overlooked the first time I read ” Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” some time around the year 2000. At that time, I read the tale as a kind of hagiography. Barthelme’s Bobby Kennedy — “K,” in the story’s vernacular (a nod perhaps to Kafka’s hero?) — is a Modernist man. In the final vignette, he’s saved by the narrator who emerges in this last paragraph as an “I”:
K. in the water. His flat black hat, his black cape, his sword are on the shore. He retains his mask. His hands beat the surface of the water which tears and rips about him. The white foam, the green depths. I throw a line, the coils leaping out over the surface of the water. He has missed it. No, it appears that he has it. His right hand (sword arm) grasps the line that I have thrown him. I am on the bank, the rope wound round my waist, braced against a rock. K. now has both hands on the line. I pull him out of the water. He stands now on the bank, gasping. “Thank you.”
When I first read this story, I thought it was a sympathetic attempt to save RFK — that the “line” was a metatextual reference to writing itself, an imaginative recouping of yet another assassinated Hero of the Sixties. The parodic Pop Art contours of the story were lost on me.
It wasn’t until I read Tracy Daugerty’s biography Hiding Man (and subsequently read Sixty Stories in full) that I understood that RFK was assassinated in June of 1968—two months after the story was first published. Indeed, Daugherty reports that Barthelme was working on the story as early as 1965, and likely only kept up with it after learning that Saul Bellow, whom Barthelme was competitive with, was working on a profile of RFK for LIFE (the Bellow piece never came out).
In an interview with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Barthelme stated,
I cannot account for the concluding impulse of the I-character to ‘save’ him other than by reference to John Kennedy’s death; still, a second assassination was unthinkable at that time. In sum, any precision in the piece was the result of watching television and reading the New York Times.
The story’s publication in April, 1968 also coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. As Daugherty notes in Hiding Man,
[Comedian and activist] Dick Gregory went public with the fact that the FBI harassed King. The agency’s code name for him was “Zorro.” Don had dressed RFK in a Zorro costume, in the story’s final scene, to mock Kennedy’s heroic image. The coincidence unnerved him.
“Alice” is probably the most formally challenging and experimental piece in Sixty Stories. I use the word “experimental” here in a pejorative sense—I’m not quite sure Barthelme pulls the experiment off. We get something like the stream of consciousness of an obstetrician who wants to fuck Alice, his friend’s wife. (Is the name an evocation of the Alice of the Wonderland? Stein’s beloved Alice B. Toklas?)
The inside of the narrator is a ball of sticky language:
the hinder portion scalding-house good eating Curve B in addition to the usual baths and ablutions military police sumptuousness of the washhouse risking misstatements kept distances iris to iris queen of holes damp, hairy legs note of anger chanting and shouting konk sense of “mold” on the “muff” sense of “talk” on the “surface” konk all sorts of chemical girl who delivered the letter give it a bone plummy bare legs saturated in every belief and ignorance rational living private client bad bosom uncertain workmen mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system Lord Muck hot tears harmonica rascal
There are some wonderful fragments there — “mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system” is a lovely insult from our would-be “harmonica rascal” — but the horny chaos becomes a bit of a headache over seven pages. Still, chaos is the point:
that’s chaos can you produce chaos? Alice asked certainly I can produce chaos I said I produced chaos she regarded the chaos chaos is handsome and attractive she said and more durable than regret I said and more nourishing than regret she said
Chaos—here a disruption of both the (illusion of) prescribed linguistic order and the domestic order—offers both rejuvenation and new possibilities. It may be nourishing and durable, but in “Alice,” it’s also exhausting.
The narrator of “Game” is a first lieutenant in some unspecified branch of the military. Here is his situation:
Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other. We each wear a .45 and if Shotwell behaves strangely I am supposed to shoot him. If I behave strangely Shotwell is supposed to shoot me. We watch the console and think about shooting each other and think about the bird.
“Game’s” postmodern paranoia is worth of Poe. The story is full of repetitive tics, frequently about who is “well” and “not well.” While the ostensible object of “Game” is Cold War anxieties about nuclear war, the story’s evocation of paranoia continues to resonate. I won’t say too much more about “Game” here, but it’s a nice little funny horror story and well worth the ten minutes it will take you to read it.
7. “The President” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)
Is strangeness alone enough?
I am not altogether sympathetic to the new President. He is, certainly, a strange fellow (only forty-eight inches high at the shoulder). But is strangeness alone enough? I spoke to Sylvia: “Is strangeness alone enough?”
The titular President’s strangeness charms the nation, leading to waves of mass faintings. While there’s an absurd comedy to the faintings, they also point towards the story’s sinister, paranoid undertones. For all his charisma, the President is an oddity, an unknowable Pop representation driven by unclear, even mystical motivations. There’s a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here—the seventies one with Sutherland and Nimoy—but just a touch. The whole thing ends in the rapturous applause of an audience overwhelmed by the anachronistic spectacle of Strauss’s operetta The Gypsy Baron.
Summary thoughts: I’m not really sure if “The President” works. “Alice” doesn’t, but is more interesting in its not working than it has any right to be. “Dolt” is good but not great. “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” is as good as a story so situated in a historical moment can be. “Report” is very good. “Game” is excellent.
Going forward (in reverse): The last (by which I mean first) six stories, including some of Barthelme’s Greatest Hits, “The Balloon” and “Me and Miss Mandible.”
Also, I will be happy to be done with this project. It’s better to read these stories as morsels. Better not to pig out. Better not to snort them down or shoot them up. Better to let them breathe a bit.
Barthelme’s goof on Gaston Leroux’s serialized title of the same name is a mix of sweet and mean. The narrator wonders to himself about midway through, “Why must I have him for a friend? I wanted a friend with whom one could be seen abroad.” He quickly elects though to “put these unworthy reflections behind me,” and then the narration gives way to a metatextual moment:
Gaston Leroux was tired of writing The Phantom of the Opera. He replaced his pen in its penholder. “I can always work on The Phantom of the Opera later-in the fall, perhaps. Right now I feel like writing The Secret of the Yellow Room.” Gaston Leroux took the manuscript of The Phantom of the Opera and put it on a shelf in the closet. Then, seating himself once more at his desk, he drew toward him a clean sheet of foolscap At the top he wrote the words, The Secret of the Yellow Room.
“The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend” lines up with Barthelme’s other experimental forays into nineteenth-century novels, but it’s less successful than “Eugénie Grandet” or “Views of My Father Weeping” or “The Dolt.” It does have a lovely conclusion though:
But when I call for the Phantom on Thursday, at the appointed hour, he is not there.
Am I not slightly relieved?
Can it be that he doesn’t like me?
I sit down on the curb, outside the Opera. People passing look at me. I will wait here for a hundred years. Or until the hot meat of romance is cooled by the dull gravy of common sense once more.
A pastiche of essay, fiction, found material, and even poetry, “On Angels” begins with a fundamentally postmodern position:
The death of God left the angels in a strange position. They were overtaken suddenly by a fundamental question. One can attempt to imagine the moment. How did they look at the instant the question invaded them, flooding the angelic consciousness, taking hold with terrifying force? The question was,”What are angels?”
“Creative misunderstanding is crucial,” we’re told at one point in “Paraguay.” These eruptions lead to the “Creation of new categories of anxiety which must be bandaged” — another kind of art. “Paraguay” is a strange sci-fi fable about art and creation and imagination, a story that constantly defers all available referents in favor of creating “new categories of anxiety.” Consider this early paragraph:
Where Paraguay Is
Thus I found myself in a strange country. This Paraguay is not the Paraguay that exists on our maps. It is not to be found on the continent, South America; it is not a political subdivision of that continent, with a population of 2, 161,000 and a capital city named Asuncion. This Paraguay exists elsewhere. Now, moving toward the first of the “silver cities, ” I was tired but also elated and alert. Flights of white meat moved through the sky overhead in the direction of the dim piles of buildings.
Flights of white meat. Dim piles of buildings.
15. “Views of My Father Weeping” (City Life, 1970)
Barthelme’s oeuvre is oedipal, both in form and content, a thematic obsession best realized in his novel The Dead Father, but a theme that nevertheless haunts (haunts is not the right verb; Barthelme’s oedipal dead father is a playful mournful ironic ghost—but let’s fall on haunts for now)—nevertheless haunts (he writes again) Barthelme’s fiction proper. “Views of My Father Weeping” is a father-haunted tale—haunted by Barthelme’s own father, the modernist architect, Donald Barthelme Sr., as well as a host of literary fathers (of varying shades of modernism)—Dostoevsky, Freud, Tolstoy, and so on. The plot at first appears to be another goof on hoary nineteenth-century tropes, but Barthelme wads the material into a ball of anxiety dream nightmare stuff worthy of another dead modernist father—Kafka. I’ve neglected to summarize the plot: An aristocrat’s stagecoach runs down the narrator’s father (who may or may not have been drunk at the time). The narrator attempts to solve the case and come up with a crumb of justice. My only quibble with the tale is its failure to resolve — the final paragraph, after a devastating twist, reads simply “Etc.” — I suppose the joke is ahead of its time, but it also feels like our author reached his exhaustion before his plot did.
If someone asked me, Hey Ed, this Don Barthelme fellow, what should I read first? —which no one ever has and likely no one ever will — I would offer up “The Indian Uprising.”
The story is a formally-challenging success, an experiment that Barthelme pulls off perhaps in spite of himself (some of the other pieces in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts are beautiful misfires). In his biography of Barthelme Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty devotes several pages to describing the agon between Barthelme and the story’s original editors in The New Yorker, Roger Angell (who advocated for Barthelme) and William Shawn (who fought Barthelme tooth and nail over commas specifically and syntax in general).
“The Indian Uprising” is a dizzying paste-up of urban American life in the troubled 1960s. This setting is transposed to a mythical Manifest Destiny Westworld, a genocidal project that can be understood as a blackly surreal reading of the Vietnam War. It’s an ugly business. The story’s final paragraph begins with this sentence:
We killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we had killed were children and more came from the north and from the east and from other places where there are children preparing to live.
The imperial project is an infanticidal project.
“The Indian Uprising” is larded with markers of culture. The first paragraph ends with this little descriptor: “The table held apples, books, long-playing record.” The table is the central metaphor of the story—or one of the metaphors, I guess (“central” is an unfit adjective). The narrator has made the table with his own hands from a hollow core door, a symbol perhaps of the American Dream.
The Dream is a nightmare though. “The Indian Uprising” is punctuated by two torture scenes, both of which resonate just as strongly a half century after its publication. Here is the first, a waterboarding adventure:
We interrogated the captured Comanche. Two of us forced his head back while another poured water into his nostrils. His body jerked, he choked and wept…And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love.
The second scene is an ugly repetition:
We attached wires to the testicles of the captured Comanche. And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love.
What is the narrator drunk on here? Torture? Pain? Power? And what is the object of his love? Power? Pain? Language?
The power and pain of language overflows in “The Indian Uprising,” challenging the reader to make meaning from waves of images. Barthelme, ever-beholden to the Modernist fathers and mothers, shows a bit of his Gertrude Stein stuff shot through with William Carlos Williams’ dictum, No ideas but in things. Those things:
Red men in waves like people scattering in a square startled by something tragic or a sudden, loud noise accumulated against the barricades we had made of window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors), wine in demijohns, and robes. I analyzed the composition of the barricade nearest me and found two ashtrays, ceramic, one dark brown and one dark brown with an orange blur at the lip; a tin frying pan; two-liter bottles of red wine; threequarter-liter bottles of Black & White, aquavit, cognac, vodka, gin, Fad #6 sherry; a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black wrought-iron legs; a blanket, red-orange with faint blue stripes; a red pillow and a blue pillow; a woven straw wastebasket; two glass jars for flowers; corkscrews and can openers; two plates and two cups, ceramic, dark brown; a yellow-and-purple poster; a Yugoslavian carved flute, wood, dark brown; and other items. I decided I knew nothing.
I decided I knew nothing.
13. “See the Moon?” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)
“Yes I know it’s shatteringly ingenuous,” says the narrator of “See the Moon?,” but I wanted to be a painter.”
Why does the narrator (surely a version of Barthelme) want to be a painter?
They get away with murder in my view; Mr. X. on the Times agrees with me. You don’t know how I envy them. They can pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper on the street, glue it to the canvas (in the right place, of course, there’s that), and lo! people crowd about and cry, “A real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God; what could be realer than that!” Fantastic metaphysical advantage. You hate them, if you’re ambitious.
The narrator pieces together bits and bytes and things and souvenirs, tacking them to a wall: “Fragments are the only forms I trust.”
The statement “Fragments are the only forms I trust” sounds like an aesthetic mission statement from DB, but our DB ultimately rejected it in an interview with Jerome Klinkowitz:
And yet “See the Moon?” is clearly a pastiche of Barthelme biography rendered in Pop Art pastings, non sequitur, and cheap funny jokes. It’s also tinged with the notes of melancholy and regret that will heavily flavor Barthelme’s later work. Perhaps as I read backward the material will lighten.
Summary thoughts: Everything here is good and much is great. “The Indian Uprising” is essential, and “See the Moon?” and “Views of My Father Weeping” are definitely Greatest Hits. “Paraguay” seems like a perfect Barthelme gateway drug, and “On Angels” is a fun sad jam. Even the weakest piece here, “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend,” is pretty good.
Going forward (in reverse): Our penultimate episode is chock full of pieces from 1968’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, including classics “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and “Game.”
A cruel cruel story bristling with venomous punchlines, “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” takes its title from Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s 1947 book of the same name. The story is a caustic satire of quotidian domesticity, showing the dissolution of a marriage through the perspective of an alcoholic narrator who very much resembles Barthelme. It begins ugly:
While I read the Journal of Sensory Deprivation, Wanda, my former wife, read Elle. Elle was an incitement to revolt to one who had majored in French in college and now had nothing much to do with herself except take care of a child and look out of the window.
And continues ugly:
Our evenings lacked promise. The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise, if you are a married man. There is nothing to do but go home and drink your nine drinks and forget about it.
There’s a deep anger and contempt toward domesticity that Barthelme’s narrator sustains throughout the story while also pulling the rhetorical trick of quickly retreating into the second-person you, a conceit that never fully absolves the narrator from his intrinsic horribleness:
Slumped there in your favorite chair, with your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array, and your hand never far from them, and your other hand holding on to the plump belly of the overfed child, and perhaps rocking a bit, if the chair is a rocking chair as mine was in those days, then it is true that a tine tendril of contempt – strike that, content – might curl up from the storehouse where the world’s content is kept, and reach into your softened brain and take hold there, persuading you that this, at last, is the fruit of all your labors, which you’d been wondering about in some such terms as, “Where is the fruit?”
The narrator quickly divides himself from the you, the horrible man who cannot live the quotidian life:
…you look, as I say, to your wife, as the cocktail hour fades, there being only two drinks left of the nine (and you have sworn a mighty oath never to take more than nine before supper, because of what it does to you), and inquire in the calmest tones available what is for supper and would she like to take a flying fuck at the moon for visiting this outrageous child upon you.
Ultimately, “Quotidienne” is too mean and ugly (borderline misogynistic, perhaps); it lacks the kernel of heart that beats in Barthelme’s best satires.
The story is a list numbered to one hundred. Most of the numbered points are a solitary sentence, with exceptions coming from a handful of citations Barthelme includes.
“The Glass Mountain” fits neatly into City Life. It’s a city story transported into the realm of the mock-heroic. With the aid of two plumber’s friends (plunger, you might call them), the narrator (a mock hero) climbs the titular mountain, which “stands at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue.” It’s a skyscraper, of course:
7. I had strapped climbing irons to my feet and each hand grasped sturdy plumber’s friend.
8. I was 200 feet up.
9. The wind was bitter.
10. My acquaintances had gathered at the bottom of the mountain to offer encouragement.
13. Everyone in the city knows about the glass mountain.
His “acquaintances” continue to berate him as he climbs (“24. “Dumb motherfucker.” / 25. I was new in the neighborhood.”)
As he climbs, the heroic arc swells, enriched by a riff on symbolism and signs, which is the story’s main theme. And yet at the end, Barthelme’s “hero” rejects symbolism the minute it transubstantiates into sign:
97. I approached the symbol, with its layers of meaning, but when I touched it, it changed into only a beautiful princess.
98. I threw the beautiful princess headfirst down the mountain to my acquaintances.
In his Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty links “The Policeman’s Ball” to the eruptions and disruptions of May ’68:
In Don’s story, Horace, a policeman with the “crack of authority” in his voice, takes his girlfriend Margot to a policemen’s ball, hoping she will surrender to his force–the “force of the force.” At the balll, she is drawn to a fireman named Vercingetorix. Finally, though, she returns home with Horace and gives him what he wants…All the while, the “horrors lurk outside Horace’s apartment…The story’s smirk at authority is clear. The names Horace and Vercingetorix come to us from Roman history. Vercingetorix was a Gallic rebel noted for building barricades to thwart Roman soldiers. Shortly after vanquishing Vercingetorix, Caesar was assassinated. Horace, an irreverent poet and satirist, fell under Brutus’s sway, and joined him in a hopeless attempt to establish a republic.
The historical referents–to a decadent empire and rebellions against it–make Don’s story, in the context of the May Days, an extended utopian slogan, as playful, sly, and funny as much of the graffiti in the Latin Quarter.
(A version of) Vercingetorix shows up in “City Life” (in City Life).
I think “The Policemen’s Ball” is more relevant than ever, as we (who is we?) contest against the force of the force.
Another story about writing a story—and again, Barthelme displaces the creative act to fine art—and again (in reverse), he chooses a sculptor as his artist. The sculptor achieved a thin bare fame with his YAWNING MAN statues, but when a dog falls on him, he finds new inspiration. (And puns. Lots of lots of puns.)
(I keep thinking about another Don here, although it’s in no way related—Don DeLillo’s Running Dog (1978) and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007).)
(doG is God backwards—can you even fucking believe?)
20. “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” (City Life, 1970)
There’s a tension that runs throughout much of Barthelme’s short fiction: professed leftist idealism set against the writer’s urbane bourgeoisie (or bourgeoisie-proximal) reality as an arbiter and curator of Modernist culture. Barthelme’s aesthetic describes technological postwar American culture–often through a mythological lens, often through the spectacle of both pop art and Pop Art (which becomes American mythology in his writing). His satires, pastiches, and parodies set a funhouse mirror up to America’s hypermediated massculture reality. At the same time, Barthelme’s stories tend to eschew direct action, direct engagement with the realities of the age his stories (not so much document but) describe: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other social inequalities. A passage in the Q&A story “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” shows Barthelme perhaps a bit defensive about these elisions:
Q: You’re not political?
A: I’m extremely political in a way that does no good to anybody.
Q: You don’t participate?
A: I participate. I make demands, sign newspaper advertisements, vote. I make small campaign contributions to the candidate of my choice and turn my irony against the others.
Here, we get Barthelme declaring the political scope of his literature: it is an irony against the others. Much of the story is given over to the answerer’s summary and analysis of Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony, followed by a defense of Friedrich Schlegel’s novel Lucinde, which Kierkegaard regards as a moral failure because it does not instruct its readers how to live. The answerer says Kierkegaard fails to attend to the novel’s “objecthood” — its aesthetics. At the end he remains ambivalent: Kierkegaard is both fair and not fair to Schlegel:
…What is interesting is my making the statement that I think Kierkegaard is unfair to Schlegel. And that the whole thing is a damned shame! Because that is not what I think at all. We have to do here with my own irony. Because of course Kierkegaard . was “fair” to Schlegel. In making a statement to the contrary I am attempting to… I might have several purposes-simply being provocative, for example. But mostly I am trying to annihilate Kierkegaard in order to deal with his disapproval.
Q: Of Schlegel?
A: Of me.
(There’s also a deep strain of horniness to the story that I will not comment on at this time.)
19. “City Life” (City Life, 1970)
The title story of Barthelme’s 1970 collection is a weird, oblique love letter to a version of NYC. The Houston-native seems to finally earn his New Yorker stripes. It’s an unusually long story, rich with meanings that I won’t bother to plumb here, because I’ve had a long day, and I doubt anyone is actually reading this (I can live in doubt). The basic plot of “City Life” is the whole Virgin Birth thing, with the city-as-father—which is par for Barthelme’s oedipal course. It has some wonderful passages, including this one.
Summary thoughts: “City Life” and “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” strike me as seminal Barthelme texts, but neither make a good starting point to his fiction. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” the story in this batch from Sadness is sad, mean stuff, and also likely relatable for any dad who’s ever wanted to hop in his car and go out for a pack of cigarettes or a carton of milk or whatever your deadbeat idiom is. “The Falling Dog” is okay. Both “The Policemen’s Ball” and “The Glass Mountain” would make nice starting places for anyone interested in Barthelme’s stuff.
Going forward (in reverse): A few more from City Life and then we crack into what might be Barthelme’s best collection, 1968’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.
“The Crisis” is a bit of a toss off, a bricolage of the last decade (’69-’79) that never coheres into a duet, monologue, theme, or even punchline. Its plot, such as it is, details (details is not the correct verb) the circumstances of an absurd failed revolution. Ostensibly a dialogue (or is it a chorus?), “The Crisis” doesn’t add up to much, and is perhaps best summarized in one of its closing images:
Distant fingers from the rebel forces are raised in fond salute.
Is Barthelme shooting his readers the bird?
The story feels like a slapdash riff on Walker Percy’s weird and wonderful satirical novel Love in the Ruins. (Barthelme was a huge Percy fan.)
46. “Our Work and Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976)
“Our Work and Why We Do It” is self-consciously postmodern, a mash-up of Beckett’s absurdism, Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” burgeoning Marxist aesthetic philosophy, and the modes and means of modernism. The opening line seems to satirize capital’s relationship between art, artist, and the means of production: “As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses . . . ” The ellipses are not mine; rather, Barthelme sets the stage here for a print economy of capitalist transactions. The Wells Fargo man arrives, gun in hand, to pick up the “bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up.” He hurries the “precious product” — that’s all it is, product, content — to the “glittering fans”.
We then learn there’s a bit of conflict between the owners and the workers.
A few lines later, the narrator quips, “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold.” Barthelme copies-cuts-pastes the modernists into his collage here—we get the visual of Charles Demuth’s painting, itself copying-cutting-pasting Willliam Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure.”
Publication is a rough business: “If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!” laments the narrator–
But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless
The hanging “unless” is Barthelme’s rhetorical trick and not my oversight—the punchline is “leather,” by the way. “Leather is the way to accomplish more impressions. But the real hanging punchline is that word “impressions,” with its many connotations.
45. “The Great Hug” (Amateurs, 1976)
Such a great weird little story—is it about a toxic relationship between the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady? is it a metaphor for relationships in the modern era? is it an autobiographical riff, Barthelme’s love woes scribbled into a weird parody? —an oblique comment on e.e. cummings “in Just” — look, I don’t fucken know, maybe read it here. It’ll only take a few minutes, and then you can think about it for a week or so.
It’s a monologue I guess, delivered by a sorry educator whose schooling has killed off all manner of creatures. In the first three paragraphs we learn about the school’s failure to keep alive trees, snakes, and herb gardens, but then there’s a more drastic turn:
Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.
We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.
We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy—goddammit Donald Barthelme. This line made me laugh out loud. And then it made me sad.
Reviewing my summary of the first three paragraphs, I’m tempted to make something religious out of it all—trees, snakes, gardens, and the like—but I don’t think that’s the gist. Or maybe it is the gist (Barthelme grew up Catholic). Is this a goof on the Eden thing? Humanity’s failure to be good stewards of the planet, etc. etc. etc.? I don’t know. Look, it’s a funny little story, read it.
43. “The Sergeant” (Amateurs, 1976)
“The Sergeant” reads like an oddity in Barthelme’s catalog—although not really, I guess, when that catalog is all oddity.
On one hand, “The Sergeant” is narrated in a seemingly-straightforward Hemingwayesque first-person I. This narrator is clearly based on a version of Barthelme. Barthelme served in the Korean War, but the real backdrop of “The Sergeant” is the Vietnam War–which was also the backdrop of much of Barthelme’s writing career (he arguably best addresses that folly in his 1968 story “The Indian Uprising,” which I’m still a ways from).
On the other hand, “The Sergeant” comes from the school of Kafka—it’s the bad dream we’ve all had, the nightmare repetitions of past duties we didn’t even sign up for. “The Sergeant” reads like a short blueprint for much of the Kafkaesque fiction that would follow it, including the labyrinths of Kazuo Ishiguro.
But Barthelme punctuates his nightmare-tale with a mythological touch: “Penelope!” cries the narrator, extending Barthelme’s anxiety riff into an ageless epic.
42. “I Bought a Little City” (Amateurs, 1976)
“I Bought a Little City” is likely regarded as one of Barthelme’s greatest hits, possibly because it’s a more straightforward affair than his collages, pastiches, and oblique parodies. There’s a mean streak to this story about a rich man who buys Galveston, Texas. The story is about a lot things—control, desire, community, and creativity, maybe best summed up in two of its early lines: “What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it.” People love to blow up their lives, but the asshole narrator citybuyer starts to blow up other people’s lives. He shoots six thousand dogs, for example. He humiliates a cop by making said cop buy him some fried chicken. He tries to steal another man’s wife, but it doesn’t work out. Maybe “I Bought a Little City” is about creative failures; maybe it’s a satire of capitalism. Or maybe it’s just another Barthelme goof.
Summary thoughts: Uh…the stories in Amateurs are generally better than those in Great Days. The weakest one here is “The Crisis,” from Great Days; the other stories feel more of a piece with each other. I enjoyed “The Sergeant” the most, but mostly because it has a different flavor from the other stories. “The School” is probably the best of the batch.
Going forward (in reverse): We continue backwards through the seventies, where we eventually hit (what I think might be a top-ten Barthelme hit) “Eugénie Grandet.”
54. “How I Write My Songs” (previously uncollected, 1981)
Like his postmodernist contemporaries Robert Coover and William H. Gass, many of Donald Barthelme’s stories are, on at least some level, about the act of writing itself. “How I Write My Songs,” is, as its title suggests, a story about writing. Our narrator the songwriter offers tips and advice, most of it pretty straightforward, and he peppers his monologue with recitations of his own songs. Each time he offers up a song though, we’re treated to copyright notice at the end—little interjections from a faceless corporate voice. The copyright notices are ironic, especially given that the narrator’s songs are clearly based in folk traditions like blues and Appalachian music. The narrator acknowledges these traditions, positing his writing as a synthesis:
Songs are always composed of both traditional and new elements. This means that you can rely on the tradition to give your song “legs” while also putting in your own experience or particular way of looking at things for the new.
In the end, the story’s ironies don’t bite too hard—it it’s a parody of teaching creative writing, it’s loving, and full of practical advice. The narrator’s revelation of his name—Bill B. White—is also a nice punchline.
It’s the longest story in Sixty Stories, a 29-page epic that Barthelme culled from an aborted novel, according to Tracy Daugherty’s biography Hiding Man. Unless I’m wrong, it’s the only piece Barthelme published in Esquire; most of his stories showed up in The New Yorker, whose editor Roger Angell was an early champion of Barthelme. Angell rejected “The Emerald” though. In his biography, Daugherty points out that Angell initially did not like Barthelme’s turn toward stories composed entirely in dialogue.
“The Emerald” (and the other stories discussed in this riff) is such a story. Barthelme adeptly commands the various voices here, but without exposition or stage directions of any kind, the story is challenging the first time around. Repeated readings reveal a rich, funny, strange fable.
Here’s what happens: Our hero Mad Moll, a bearded witch, is impregnated by “the man in the moon,” Deus Luna (she has a three-hour orgasm). After a seven-year pregnancy, she gives birth to a sentient emerald. This strange birth attracts the attention of the news media as well as hordes of would-be kidnappers who are after the emerald. Most of the bandits after the emerald want him because, well, he’s an enormous emerald. The emerald understands that they “want to cut me up and put little chips of me into rings and bangles.” When the emerald asks Moll if she values him, she replies that he’s “Equivalent I would say to a third of a sea.” However, our villain, a mage named Vandermaster, has different designs. Vandermaster wants to imbibe the emerald to obtain a second life: “Emerald dust with soda, emerald dust with tomato juice, emerald dust with a dash of bitters, emerald dust with Ovaltine.” He’s discovered a formula, “Plucked from the arcanum,” which will let him live again—and hopefully, find love. Oh, and Vandermaster has a secret weapon: The Foot, a sentient reliquary with devastating powers.
The final moments of “The Emerald” are lovely. Hero Moll gives an exit interview to Lily (“a member of the news media”) in which the young witch states that the gods are not done with us yet:
But what is the meaning of the emerald? asked Lily. I mean overall? If you can say.
I have some notions, said Moll. You may credit them or not.
It means, one, that the gods are not yet done with us.
Gods not yet done with us.
The gods are still trafficking with us and making interventions of this kind and that kind and are not dormant or dead as has often been proclaimed by dummies.
Still trafficking. Not dead.
Just as in former times a demon might enter a nun on a piece of lettuce she was eating so even in these times a simple Mailgram might be the thin edge of the wedge.
Thin edge of the wedge.
Two, the world may congratulate itself that desire can still be raised in the dulled hearts of the citizens by the rumor of an emerald.
Desire or cupidity?
I do not distinguish qualitatively among the desires, we have referees for that, but he who covets not at all is a lump and I do not wish to have him to dinner.
Positive attitude toward desire.
Yes. Three, I do not know what this Stone portends, whether it portends for the better or portends for the worse or merely portends a bubbling of the in-between but you are in any case rescued from the sickliness of same and a small offering in the hat on the hall table would not be ill regarded.
Moll’s final questioner though is her child the emerald:
And what now? said the emerald. What now, beautiful mother?
We resume the scrabble for existence, said Moll. We resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.
52. “Aria” (previously uncollected, 1981)
Another monologue, this time in two paragraphs. Like “Grandmother’s House,” (story #60), “Aria” is an oblique reflection on parenting. In a 1982 interview, Barthelme claimed that the story was a mother’s monologue, but it could just as easily be a father. The monologue condenses the parent’s experience of parenting after the children have left home into an often absurd catalog of pleas, mixed metaphors, and bits of received wisdom. Like a lot of the later work, there are tinges of an empty nester’s melancholy here.
51. “The Leap” (Great Days, 1979)
Another dialogue–however, I think that this piece can actually be read as an internal dialogue–a central consciousness engaging in self-debate. That debate centers (“centers” is a very loose verb here) on whether or not to take the titular leap of faith. As David Gates points out in his explanatory notes for Sixty Stories,
In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846),
Kierkegaard rejects the notion of a ladder of logical steps to spiritual certainty in favor of a “leap of faith” toward the Absolute.
Those familiar with Barthelme will know his early deep engagement with existentialism, and with Kierkegaard in particular. (In his biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty makes a strong case that it was not just Kierkegaard’s ideas that informed Barthelme’s work, but Kierkegaard’s style as well—disparate voices, pseudonyms, juxtapositions, aesthetic and literary references deployed ironically, etc.)
The interlocutor(s) of “The Leap” begin by trying to catalog the glories of the creator before realizing that the task is impossible. They eventually work themselves into the existential crises of the day (some of which seem dated, and dare I say, downright lovely compared to our current, ahem, climate).
In the final moments of the story, one of the speakers—or, in my estimation, one of the singular speaker’s internal voices—declares “Can’t make it, man.” What can’t he make? The leap. And again: “Can’t make it. I am a double-minded man.” (The latter phrase underlines the notion that a single voice authors this dialogue.) And so well: “What then?” Barthelme echoes lines of one of his other heroes, Samuel Beckett:
–Keep on trying?
–Yes. We must.
The conclusion is sad and beautiful, a list of earthly consolations that can inspire the leap:
-Try again another day?
-Yes. Another day when the plaid cactus is watered, when the hare’s-foot fern is watered.
-Seeds tingling in the barrens and veldts.
-Garden peas yellow or green wrinkling or rounding.
-Another day when locust wings are baled for shipment to Singapore, where folks like their little hit of locust-wing tea.
-A jug of wine. Then another jug.
-The Brie-with-pepper meeting the toasty loaf.
-Another day when some eighty-four-year-old guy complains that his wife no longer gives him presents.
-Small boys bumping into small girls, purposefully.
-Cute little babies cracking people up.
-Another day when somebody finds a new bone that proves we are even ancienter than we thought we were.
-Gravediggers working in the cool early morning.
-A walk in the park.
-Another day when the singing sunlight turns you every way but loose.
-When you accidentally notice the sublime.
-Somersaults and duels.
-Another day when you see a woman with really red hair. mean really red hair.
-A wedding day.
-A plain day.
-So we’ll try again? Okay?
50. “On the Steps of the Conservatory” (Great Days, 1979)
I initially started rereading Sixty Stories in reverse order as a fluke, but I quickly found it interesting to think about Barthelme’s development as a thinker and writer by going backwards instead of forwards. I think I would have enjoyed “The Farewell” (story #55) much more if I had read it after “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” to which it is the sequel. It’s a neat little parody, but I think the sequel is even funnier, even meaner.
49. “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Great Days, 1979)
A postmodern riff on Mozart’s opera Abduction from the Seraglio. Barthelme told an interviewer the story originated from an assignment he gave to his writing class that he ended up doing himself. We have pure monologue here; the speaker seems to be a sculptor. He crafts “welded-steel four-thousand-pound artichokes” and plays around on his “forty-three-foot overhead traveling crane which is painted bright yellow.” He occasionally breaks into song.
There are a number of references to architecture and architects in “Abduction.” Again, it’s tempting to read for autobiographical traces here. Barthelme’s father, Donald Barthelme Sr., was a modernist architect who cast a large shadow over his son’s life. But I’m not too tempted by those traces—or, rather, I’m not sure what to make of them, just as I’m not sure of what to make of “Abduction.”
Summary thoughts: “The Emerald” is a fabulous late-period Barthelme–the best in this batch for sure. It’s much, much longer than most of Barthelme’s stories though, so my other pick would be “The Leap.” I didn’t remember “The Abduction from the Seraglio” even as I was rereading it, and I reread it once more before writing about it, and I don’t really think Barthelme pulls it off here.
I’ve enjoyed these late-period dialogue stories, but I’m also looking forward to some new (older) flavors ahead (behind).
I will keep going forward (in reverse) and resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.
Q: You don’t consciously see yourself as John Barth, the postmodernist?
JOHN BARTH: Oh no, no, and the term now has become so stretched out of shape. I did a good deal of reading on the subject for a postmodernist conference in Stuttgart back in 1991, and I think I had a fairly solid grasp of the term then. At the time, there seemed to be a general agreement that, whatever postmodernism was, it was made in America and studied in Europe. At my end, I would say the definitions advanced by such European intellectuals as Jean Baudrillard and Jean- Francois Lyotard have only a kind of a grand overlap with what I think I mean when I am talking about it.g about it. They apply the term to disciplines and fields other than art-their thoughts about postmodern science, for instance, are very interesting-but when the subject is postmodern American fiction, things get murkier. So often we’re told, “You know, it’s Coover, Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme,” but that’s just pointing at writers. Perhaps that’s all you can do. It led me to say once, “If postmodern is what I am, then postmodernism is whatever I do.” You get a bit wary about these terms. When The Floating Opera came out, Leslie Fiedler called it “provincial American existentialism.” With End of the Road, I was most often described as a black humorist, and with The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, and Lost in the Funhouse, I became a fabulist. Bill Gass resists the term “postmodernist,” and I understand his resistance. But we need common words to talk about anything. “Impressionism” is a very useful term which helps describe the achievements of a number of important artists. But when you begin to look at individual impressionist painters, the term becomes less meaningful. You find yourself contemplating a group of artists who probably have as many differences as similarities. I recall a wonderful old philosophy professor of mine who used to talk about the difference between the synthetic temperament and the analytical temperament. With the synthetic, the similarities between things are more impressive than the differences; with the analytical, the differences are more impressive than the similarities. We need them both; you can’t do without either. In that context, once you’ve come up with some criteria that describe what has been going on in a certain type of fiction composed during the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, I think the differences among Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter, and Italo Calvino are probably more interesting than the similarities.
From an interview with Barth conducted by Charlie Reilly in the journal Contemporary Literature, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 2000).
The profile is by Julian Lucas, who does an excellent job covering both Reed’s extensive literary output as well as his biography. While Lucas’s profile is generally sympathetic, he doesn’t shy away from Reed’s many (many) battles (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, the New York literary establishment, etc. etc. etc.). The print edition of the article is titled “I Ain’t Been Mean Enough,” which comes from a line from Reed’s 1973 poem “The Author Reflects on His 35th Birthday”:
For half a century, he’s been American literature’s most fearless satirist, waging a cultural forever war against the media that spans a dozen novels, nine plays and essay collections, and hundreds of poems, one of which, written in anticipation of his thirty-fifth birthday, is a prayer to stay petty: “35? I ain’t been mean enough . . . Make me Tennessee mean . . . Miles Davis mean . . . Pawnbroker mean,” he writes. “Mean as the town Bessie sings about / ‘Where all the birds sing bass.’ ”
Lucas’s Reed is not a cantankerous caricature though. We get a nice survey of the man’s works situated against his ever-evolving politics and aesthetics. Nor does the profile dwell too long on Reed’s earlier novels (which I confess are my favorites—the most recent long work of Reed’s I’ve read was 2011’s Juice! I had absolutely no idea before reading the profile that Reed has a new novel out this summer, The Terrible Fours).
There’s a measure of defiance to his late-career productivity. Wary of being tethered to his great novels of the nineteen-seventies, Reed is spoiling for a comeback, and a younger generation receptive to his guerrilla media criticism may be along for the ride. “I’m getting called a curmudgeon or a fading anachronism, so I’m going back to my original literature,” Reed told me. “In the projects, we had access to a library, and I’d go get books by the Brothers Grimm.” Now, he says, “I’m reverting to my second childhood. I’m writing fairy tales.”
‘Christie,’ I warned him, ‘it does not seem to me possible to take this novel much further. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry,’ said Christie, in a kindly manner, ‘don’t be sorry. We don’t equate length with importance, do we ? And who wants long novels anyway ? Why spend all your spare time for a month reading a thousand-page novel when you can have a comparable aesthetic experience in the theatre or cinema in only one evening ? The writing of a long novel is in itself an anachronistic act : it was relevant only to a society and a set of social conditions which no longer exist.’
‘I’m glad you understand so readily,’ I said, relieved.
‘The novel should now try simply to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short,’ Christie epigrammatised.
‘I could hardly have expressed it better myself,’ I said, pleased, ‘I’ve put down all I have to say, or rather I will have done in another twenty-two pages, so surely. . . .”
‘So I do go on a little longer ?’ interrupted Christie.
‘Yes, Christie, you go on to the end,’ I assured him, and myself went on : ‘Surely no reader will wish me to invent anything further, surely he or she can extrapolate only too easily from what has gone before ?’
‘If there is a reader,’ said Christie. ‘Most people won’t read it.’
‘Politicians, policemen, some educators and many others treat “most people” as idiots.’
‘So writers may too ?’
‘On the contrary. “Most people” are right not to read novels today.’
‘You’ve said all this before.’
‘I’m very likely to say it again, too, since it’s true.’
A pause. Then suddenly Christie said :
‘Your work has been a continuous dialogue with form ?’
‘If you like,’ I replied diffidently.
‘Only one of the things it’s been,’ said Christie generously. ‘It’s something to aspire to, becoming a critic ! Though there are too many exclamation marks in this novel already.’
Another pause. One of the girls in what is ill-reputed to be a brothel opposite hung out the shirt of what might be her ponce. Christie smiled gently, turned back to me.
‘But I am to go on for a while ?’
‘Of course,’ I assured him again.
‘Until I have everything ?’
‘Yes, Christie, until you have everything.’
The excerpt above is the complete text of Ch. XXI of B.S. Johnson’s 1973 novel, Christie Marly’s Own Double-Entry. The title of the chapter is “In which Christie and I have it All Out; and which You may care to Miss Out.” The chapter begins with this epigraph:
. . . the novel, during its metamorphosis in respect of content and form, necessarily regards itself ironically. It denies itself in parodistic forms in order to be able to outgrow itself. Széll Zsuzsa
Válságés regény (p. 101) Akadémia (Hungary) 1970 transl. by Novák Gyorgy
This particular chapter might stand as a synecdoche of Christie Marly’s Own Double-Entry itself.
I was perusing the anthologies, looking for a book called Anti-Story: An Anthology of Experimental Fiction (1971). I didn’t find it, but the spine of American Short Stories Since 1945 interested me enough to pull it out, and the wonderful cover (by Emanuel Schongut) intrigued me more. The tracklist on the back cover is what got to me:
I’ve read seven of the stories and fourteen of the twenty-six authors here. You probably have too. But there are close to a dozen authors here I’ll admit I’ve never even heard of—authors rectangle-pressed in with favorites of mine like Barthelme, Gass, Jackson, and Pynchon, whose piece “Under the Rose”is part of V., which I recently re-read. (I opened the “Acknowledgements” page to see that “Under the Rose” was first published in Noble Savage 3, May 1961—I checked the “N” anthologies and found Noble Savage #2, but no three for me.)
Edited and introduced by the poet John Hollander, Since 1945 “aims to show the major shapes taken by shorter fiction in America since the end of World War II.” Published in 1968, it’s heavy on the white guys, but I think there’s an attempt here to point toward not just “major shapes,” but new shapes.
I couldn’t not pick it up (I’d brought in some paperbacks to trade, anyway). Maybe I’ll try to read it this summer, posting on each piece. I’m most interested in how the selection of authors shows a tipping over in to postmodernism, a postmodernism many of these guys never signed up for.
McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns” are two minor characters in Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. I will get back to them in a second.
A novel crammed with minor characters (hundreds of them, I’d guess) V. pulsates with intersections, drive-bys, concordances and discordance. Characters crisscross and quick-change in ways that both parody and honor the authorial sleight-of-hand in play in V.
Pynchon repeatedly challenges his readers’ credulity–while its intersections are never as neat and tidy as its titular vee angle might suggest, V. is still a confusion of happenstance that both confounds and sanctifies coincidence, even as it ironizes those winds of fate.
The mode is necessarily postmodern. Pynchon repeatedly evokes Modernist poets by name—Pound and Eliot, especially—but it’s the immediate postwar (post, war, world, two) that he’s most concerned with in V. The novel critiques Modernist critiques (through a double lens of a critique of colonialism).
The great concern here is for the divergent angle of the second half of the twentieth century. As such, much of V. is a loving parody of the Beat scene (much more loving than Gaddis’s sustained attack on art poseurs in The Recognitions). In V., Pynchon creates a non-chorus in The Whole Sick Crew, an outcast cast of losers and would-bes and pseudointellectuals.
The Whole Sick Crew lards V.’s enormous, hard-to-follow cast. Two members of the nebulous Crew are
McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns.”
There’s a marvelous moment about two-thirds of the way through V. where McClintic and Paolo, erstwhile lovers (Paolo in the guise of “Ruby” — everyone here is a quick change artist)—where McClintic and Paolo transcend the quick-changing and irony and and sensory-cloggingness of the modern condition. They drive upstate, talk straight—the plot details don’t matter here, just read:
Maybe the only peace undisturbed that night was McClintic’s and Paola’s. The little Triumph forged along up the Hudson, their own wind was cool, taking away whatever of Nueva York had clogged ears, nostrils, mouths.
She talked to him straight and McClintic kept cool.
And then our man McClintic comes to something close to an epiphany, although epiphanies are always hedged, suspicious, constrained in Pynchon—but I think there’s something real here. Earlier in the novel, McClintic feels concern for the postwar “cool,” for the feeling that the world might flip or flop again, go from zero to binary in a weird heartbeat (that binary code theme pulsates through the rest of Pynchon’s work to date). Makes sense for machines, maybe, but people aren’t, or shouldn’t be, machines.
McClintic’s epiphany is a pragmatic resolution, and I take it to be Pynchon’s cautionary thesis:
…there came to McClintic something it was time he got around to seeing: that the only way clear of the cool/crazy flipflop was obviously slow, frustrating and hard work. Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care. He might have known, if he’d used any common sense. It didn’t come as a revelation, only something he’d as soon not’ve admitted.
The epiphany is bitter, and Pynchon’s narrator refuses its epiphanic value (“It didn’t come as a revelation”), even as the narrative acknowledges its intrinsic power. A few lines later, McClintic addresses the Real Work to Be Done in the World:
Nobody is going to step down from Heaven and square away Roony and his woman, or Alabama, or South Africa or us and Russia. There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough. Can you see Eisenhower telling Malenkov or Khrushchev that? Ho-ho.”
“Keep cool but care,” he said. Somebody had run over a skunk a ways back. The smell had followed them for miles. “If my mother was alive I would have her make a sampler with that on it.”
The highway stinks, sticks skunky to fleeing motion, gummed up in the nostalgic emblems we’d imaginatively credit to our loving forebears. The grist, grit, and horror of the big postwar world will cling to the present. Nobody’s stepping down from heaven, or Heaven and there are no magic words—but there is a kind of love, a loving with your mouth shut, a kind of radical, earnest, transcendent love that Pynchon evokes, soils, and sanctifies here.
Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet begins with its nonagenarian narrator forced into a retirement home and ends in an ecstatic post-apocalyptic utopia “peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats.” In between all sorts of wild stuff happens. There’s a scheming New Age cult, a failed assassination attempt, a hunger strike, bee glade rituals, a witches sabbath, an angelic birth, a quest for the Holy Grail, and more, more, more.
Composed in the 1950s and first published in 1974, The Hearing Trumpet is new in print again for the first time in nearly two decades from NYRB. NYRB also published Carrington’s hallucinatory memoir Down Below a few years back, around the same time as Dorothy issued The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. Most people first come to know Carrington through her stunning, surreal paintings, which have been much more accessible (because of the internet) than her literature. However, Dorothy’s Complete Stories brought new attention to Carrington’s writing, a revival continued in this new edition of The Hearing Trumpet.
Readers familiar with Carrington’s surreal short stories might be surprised at the straightforward realism in the opening pages of The Hearing Trumpet. Ninety-two-year-old narrator Marian Leatherby lives a quiet life with her son and daughter-in-law and her tee-vee-loving grandson. They are English expatriates living in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country, and although the weather is pleasant, Marian dreams of the cold, “of going to Lapland to be drawn in a vehicle by dogs, woolly dogs.” She’s quite hard of hearing, but her sight is fine, and she sports “a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive.” Conventional people will soon be pushed to the margins in The Hearing Trumpet.
Marian’s life changes when her friend Carmella presents her with a hearing trumpet, a device “encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn.” At Carmella’s prompting, Marian uses the trumpet to spy on her son and daughter-in-law. To her horror, she learns they plan to send her to an old folks home. It’s not so much that she’ll miss her family—she directs the same nonchalance to them that she affords to even the most surreal events of the novel—it’s more the idea that she’ll have to conform to someone else’s rules (and, even worse, she may have to take part in organized sports!).
The old folks home is actually much, much stranger than Marian could have anticipated:
First impressions are never very clear, I can only say there seemed to be several courtyards , cloisters , stagnant fountains, trees, shrubs, lawns. The main building was in fact a castle, surrounded by various pavilions with incongruous shapes. Pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets , railway carriages , one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boot, another like what I took to be an outsize Egyptian mummy. It was all so very strange that I for once doubted the accuracy of my observation.
The home’s rituals and procedures are even stranger. It is not a home for the aged; rather, it is “The Institute,” a cult-like operation founded on the principles of Dr. and Mrs. Gambit, two ridiculous and cruel villains who would not be out of place in a Roald Dahl novel. Dr. Gambit (possibly a parodic pastiche of George Gurdjieff and John Harvey Kellogg) represents all the avarice and hypocrisy of the twentieth century. His speech is a satire of the self-important and inflated language of commerce posing as philosophy, full of capitalized ideals: “Our Teaching,” “Inner Christianity,” “Self Remembering” and so on. Ultimately, it’s Gambit’s constricting and limited patriarchal view of psyche and spirit that the events in The Hearing Trumpet lambastes.
Marian soon finds herself entangled in the minor politics and scheming of the Institute, even as she remains something of an outsider on account of her deafness. She’s mostly concerned with getting an extra morsel of cauliflower at mealtimes—the Gambits keep the women undernourished. She eats her food quickly during the communal dinner, and obsesses over the portrait of a winking nun opposite her seat at the table:
Really it was strange how often the leering abbess occupied my thoughts. I even gave her a name, keeping it strictly to myself. I called her Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva, a nice long name, Spanish style. She was abbess, I imagined, of a huge Baroque convent on a lonely and barren mountain in Castile. The convent was called El Convento de Santa Barbara de Tartarus, the bearded patroness of Limbo said to play with unbaptised children in this nether region.
Marian’s creative invention of a “Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva” soon somehow passes into historical reality. First, she receives a letter from her trickster-aid Carmella, who has dreamed about a nun in a tower. “The winking nun could be no other than Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva,” remarks Marian. “How very mysterious that Carmella should have seen her telepathically.” Later, Christabel, another member/prisoner of the Institute helps usher Marian’s fantasy into reality. She confirms that Marian’s name for the nun is indeed true (kinda sorta): “‘That was her name during the eighteenth century,’ said Christabel. ‘But she has many many other names. She also enjoys different nationalities.'”
Christabel gives Marian a book entitled A True and Faithful Rendering of the Life of Rosalinda Alvarez and the next thirty-or-so pages gives way to this narrative. This text-within-a-text smuggles in other texts, including a lengthy letter from a bishop, as well as several ancient scrolls. There are conspiracies afoot, schemes to keep the Holy Grail out of the hands of the feminine power the Abbess embodies. There are magic potions and an immortal bard. There is cross-dressing and a strange monstrous pregnancy. There are the Knights Templar.
Carrington’s prose style in these texts-within-texts diverges considerably from the even, wry calm of Marian’s narration. In particular, there’s a sly control to the bishop’s letter, which reveals a bit-too-keen interest in teenage boys. These matryoshka sections showcase Carrington’s rhetorical range while also advancing the confounding plot. They recall The Courier’s Tragedy, the play nested in Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49. Both texts refer back to their metatexts, simultaneously explicating and confusing their audiences while advancing byzantine plot points and arcane themes.
Indeed, the tangled and surreal plot details of The Hearing Trumpet recall Pynchon’s oeuvre in general, but like Pynchon’s work, Carrington’s basic idea can be simplified to something like—Resistance to Them. Who is the Them? The patriarchy, the fascists, the killers. The liars, the cheaters, the ones who make war in the name of order. (One resister, the immortal traveling bard Taliesin, shows up in both the nested texts and later the metatext proper, where he arrives as a postman, recalling the Trystero of The Crying of Lot 49.)
The most overt voice of resistance is Marian’s best friend Carmella. Carmella initiates the novel by giving Marian the titular hearing trumpet, and she acts as a philosophical foil for her friend. Her constant warning that people under seventy and over seven should not be trusted becomes a refrain in the novel. Before Marian is shipped off to the Institution, Carmella already plans her escape, a scheme involving machine guns, rope, and other implements of adventure. Although she loves animals, Carmella is even willing to kill any police dogs that might guard the Institution and hamper their escape:
Police dogs are not properly speaking animals. Police dogs are perverted animals with no animal mentality. Policemen are not human beings so how can police dogs be animals?
Late in the novel, Carmella delivers perhaps the most straightforward thesis of The Hearing Trumpet:
It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ The word, I expect, frightens people. It is a form of planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy. Men are very difficult to understand… Let’s hope they all freeze to death. I am sure it would be very pleasant and healthy for human beings to have no authority whatever. They would have to think for themselves, instead of always being told what to do and think by advertisements, cinemas, policemen and parliaments.
Carmella’s dream of an anarchic utopia comes to pass.
Well, there’s a lot to it, and I’d hate to spoil the surrealist fun. Let’s just say that Marian’s Grail quest scores a big apocalyptic win for the Goddess, thanks to “an army of bees, wolves, seven old women, a postman, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven Ark, and a werewoman.” No conventional normies who might find Marian’s beard repulsive here.
With its conspiracy theories within conspiracy theories and Templar tales, The Hearing Trumpet will likely remind many readers of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum (or one of its ripoffs). The Healing Trumpet’s surreal energy also recalls Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. And of course, the highly-imagistic, ever-morphing language will recall Carrington’s own paintings, as well as those of her close friend Remedios Varo (who may have been the basis for Carmella), and their surrealist contemporaries (like Max Ernst) and forebears (like Hieronymus Bosch).
This new edition of The Hearing Trumpet includes an essay by the novelist Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) which focuses on the novel as a feminist text. (Tokarczuk also mentions that she first read the novel without knowing who Carrington was). The new edition also includes black and white illustrations by Carrington’s son, Pablos Weisz Carrington (I’ve included a few in this review). As far as I can tell, these illustrations seem to be slightly different from the illustrations included in the 2004 edition of The Hearing Trumpet published by Exact Change. That 2004 edition has been out of print for ages and is somewhat hard (or really, expensive) to come by (I found a battered copy few years ago for forty bucks). NYRB’s new edition should reach the wider audience Carrington deserves.
Some readers will find the pacing of The Hearing Trumpet overwhelming, too frenetic. It moves like a snowball, gathering images, symbols, motifs into itself in an ever-growing, ever-speeding mass. Other readers may have difficulty with its ever-shifting plot. Nothing is stable in The Hearing Trumpet; everything is liable to mutate, morph, and transform. Those are my favorite kinds of novels though, and I loved The Hearing Trumpet—in particular, I loved its tone set against its imagery and plot. Marian’s narration is straightforward, occasionally wry, but hardly ever astonished or perplexed by the magical and wondrous events she takes part in. There’s a lot I likely missed in The Hearing Trouble—Carrington lards the novel with arcana, Jungian psychology, magical totems, and more more more—but I’m sure I’ll find more the next time I read it. Very highly recommended.