I’m not sure exactly how many nested layers there are to Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment.” Sometimes I count as many as nine frames to the tale, sometimes only four or five. Sometimes the story seems its own discrete entity. A matryoshka doll could look like one thing or lots of things, I guess, and this matryoskha doll points back at herself: When you open the final doll, the minutest level of narrative, you find that you’ve found the source of the story. The biggest doll is there nesting in the belly of the smallest doll.
But I’m getting ahead, maybe. Break it down:
The title is the first frame, the big doll that declares: This is a story.
The second-person pronoun here is general, sure, but also points directly at you, you reader you. We have here another frame, one outside of the story (because you are the reader) but also bounded inside of it (as the character you).
ask her what is a favorite story she has written,
We’re not into the next frame yet, but we’ve got a new character, a her—a story writer! Like Lydia Davis! The author of this particular story!
she will hesitate for a long time
Still no new frame, but rather the space between layers, the hesitation, the drawing together of thought, judgment, analysis, reflection—Davis doesn’t makes the reader feel any of that rhetorically, instead snappily snapping to the point of this whole deal.
and then say
Okay here’s the next frame. I’m not counting though.
it may be this story that she read in a book once:
Good lord, where to start here. Okay, so, we have another frame, but even more significantly, we have this verbal shift: Our her, our she, our hero-author, who has been asked (hypothetically by interlocutor you) about a favorite story she’s written avers that the favorite story she’s written is a story that she read in a book once.
(To save me the trouble of coming back later: Of course our hero-author is writing the story she read in a book once now; “Happiest Moment” is this performance, kinda, sorta, kindasorta).
an English language teacher in China
There’s a frame.
asked his Chinese student
Another frame (and a second ask).
to say what was the happiest moment in his life.
The student, like the hero-author-has to say his answer (not write it).
The student hesitated for a long time.
(Like the hero-author—note the precise repetition of verbs in this tale).
At last he smiled with embarrassment
(God I love this guy).
and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there,
(We’re getting to our climax folks).
and she often told him about it,
Another frame, another telling.
and he would have to say
Our verb, our answer—
that the happiest moment of his life was her trip and the eating of the duck.
What a sweet, sweet ending.
The Chinese English language student’s wife’s enjoyment of duck in Beijing is his favorite memory, despite it not being a memory at all, but rather the story of a memory, not his own, but his beloved’s. He relays this memory of someone else’s to his English teacher and the memory somehow ends up in a book, which the hero-author of “Happiest Moment” somehow reads, and then attests to be the most favorite story she has written, despite the fact that she makes it clear that this is a story she read and didn’t write—although of course, she wrote it, because it is the story “Happiest Moment.”
Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1982 short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” is a tale about living in radical uncertainty. The story is perhaps one of the finest examples of postmodern literature I’ve ever read. Playful, funny, surreal, philosophical, and a bit terrifying, the story is initially frustrating and ultimately rewarding.
While I think “Schrödinger’s Cat” has a thesis that will present itself to anyone who reads it more than just once or twice, the genius of the story is in Le Guin’s rhetorical construction of her central idea. She gives us a story about radical uncertainty by creating radical uncertainty in her reader, who will likely find the story’s trajectory baffling on first reading. Le Guin doesn’t so much eschew as utterly disrupt the traditional form of a short story in “Schrödinger’s Cat”: setting, characters, and plot are all presented in a terribly uncertain way.
The opening line points to some sort of setting and problem. Our first-person narrator tells us: “As things appear to be coming to some sort of climax, I have withdrawn to this place.” The vagueness of “things,” “some sort,” and “this place” continues throughout the tale, but are mixed with surreal, impossible, and precise images.
The first characters the narrator introduces us to are a “married couple who were coming apart. She had pretty well gone to pieces, but he seemed, at first glance, quite hearty.” The break up here is literal, not just figurative—this couple is actually falling apart, fragmenting into pieces. (Although the story will ultimately place under great suspicion that adverb actually). Le Guin’s linguistic play points to language’s inherent uncertainty, to the undecidability of its power to fully refer. As the wife’s person falls into a heap of limbs, the husband wryly observes, “My wife had great legs.” Horror mixes with comedy here. The pile of fragmented parts seems to challenge the reader to put the pieces together in some new way. “Well, the couple I was telling you about finally broke up,” our narrator says, and then gives us a horrific image of the pair literally broken up:
The pieces of him trotted around bouncing and cheeping, like little chicks; but she was finally reduced to nothing but a mass of nerves: rather like fine chicken wire, in fact, but hopelessly tangled.
Nothing but a mass of nerves hopelessly tangled: one description of the postmodern condition.
The bundle of tangled nerves serves as something that our narrator must resist, and resistance takes the form of storytelling: “Yet the impulse to narrate remains,” we’re told. Narration creates order—a certain kind of certainty—in a radically uncertain world. The first-time reader, meanwhile, searches for a thread to untangle.
Like the first-time reader, our poor narrator is still terribly awfully apocalyptically uncertain. The narrator briefly describes the great minor uncertain grief she feels, a grief without object: “…I don’t know what I grieve for: my wife? my husband? my children, or myself? I can’t remember. My dreams are forgotten…” Is grief without object the problem of the postmodern, post-atomic world? “Schrödinger’s Cat” posits one version of uncertainty as a specific grief , a kind of sorrow for a loss that cannot be named. The story’s conclusion offers hope as an answer to this grief—another kind of uncertainty, but an uncertainty tempered in optimism.
This optimism has to thrive against a surreal apocalyptic backdrop of speed and heat—a world that moves too fast to comprehend, a world in which stove burners can’t be switched Off—we have only heat, fire, entropy. How did folks react? —
In the face of hot stove burners they acted with exemplary coolness. They studied, they observed. They were like the fellow in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, who has clapped his hands over his face in horror as the devils drag him down to Hell—but only over one eye. The other eye is looking. It’s all he can do, but he does it. He observes. Indeed, one wonders if Hell would exist, if he did not look at it.
—Hey, like that’s Le Guin’s mythological take on Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment!—or at least, part of it.
(Hell exists because we keep one eye on it, folks. Look away, maybe).
I have failed to mention the titular cat thus far. Schrödinger’s cat is the Cheshire cat, the ultimate escape artist and trickster par excellence who triggers this tale (tail?!). He shows up to hang out with the narrator.
Le Guin peppers her story with little cat jokes that highlight the instability of language: “They reflect all day, and at night their eyes reflect.” As the thermodynamic heat of the universe cools around our narrator and the feline, the narrator remarks that the story’s setting is cooler— “Here as I said it is cooler; and as a matter of fact, this animal is cool. A real cool cat.” In “Schrödinger’s Cat,” Le Guin doubles her meanings and language bears its own uncertainty.
A dog enters into the mix. Le Guin’s narrator initially thinks he’s a mailman, but then “decides” he is a small dog. The narrator quickly decides that not only is the non-mailman a dog, she also decides that his name is Rover. In naming this entity, the narrator performs an act of agency in a world of entropy—she makes certain (at least momentarily) an uncertain situation.
Our boy Rover immediately calls out Schrödinger’s cat, and gives the narrator (and the reader) a fuzzy precis of the whole experiment, an experiment that will definitely give you a Yes or No answer: The cat is either alive or the cat is not alive at the end of our little quantum boxing. Poor Rover gives us a wonderful endorsement of the experiment: “So it is beautifully demonstrated that if you desire certainty, any certainty, you must create it yourself!” Rover gives us an unintentionally ironic definition of making meaning in a postmodern world. Agency falls to the role of the reader/agent, who must decide (narrate, choose, and write) in this fragmented world.
For Rover, Schrödinger’s thought experiment offers a certain kind of certitude: the cat is alive or dead, a binary, either/or. Rover wants to play out the experiment himself—force the cat into the box and get, like, a definitive answer. But the curious playful narrator pricks a hole in the experiment: “Why don’t we get included in the system?” the narrator questions the dog. It’s too much for him, a layer too weird on an already complex sitch. “I can’t stand this terrible uncertainty,” Rover replies, and then bursts into tears. (Our wordy-clever narrator remarks sympathy for “the poor son of a bitch”).
The narrator doesn’t want Rover to carry out the experiment, but the cat itself jumps into the box. Rover and narrator wait in a moment of nothingness before the somethingness of revelation might happen when they lift the lid. In the meantime, the narrator thinks of Pandora and her box:
I could not quite recall Pandora’s legend. She had let all the plagues and evils out of the box, of course, but there had been something else too. After all the devils were let loose, something quite different, quite unexpected, had been left. What had it been? Hope? A dead cat? I could not remember.
Le Guin tips her hand a bit here, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great dark romantic she is heir to; she hides her answer in ambiguous plain sight. Hope is the answer. But hope is its own radical uncertainty, an attitudinal answer to the postmodern problem—but ultimately a non-answer. The only certainty is non-certainty.
What of the conclusion? Well, spoiler: “The cat was, of course, not there,” when Rover and narrator open the box. But that’s not the end. The last lines of Le Guin’s story see “the roof of the house…lifted off just like the lid of a box” — so the setting of our tale this whole time, as we should have guessed, was inside the apocalyptic thought experiment of Schrödinger. Apocalyptic in all sense of the word—in the connotation of disaster, but also revelation. The revelation though is a revelation of uncertainty. In the final line, the narrator, musing that she will miss the cat, wonders “if he found what it was we lost.”
What I think Le Guin points to here as the “it” that we lost in these hot and fast times is the radical uncertainty of hope.
In this vast space, which seems like nothing so much as a container for emptiness, we sit with our documents always ready, wondering if someone will appear and demand to know who we are, someone in authority, and to be unprepared is to risk serious things.
The terminal at each end is full of categories of inspection to which we must submit, impelling us toward a sense of inwardness, a sense of smallness, a self-exposure we are never prepared for no matter how often we take this journey, the buried journey through categories and definitions and foreign languages, not the other, the sunlit trip to the east which we thought we’d decided to make. The decision we’d unwittingly arrived at is the one that brings us through passport control, through the security check and customs, the one that presents to us the magnetic metal detector, the baggage x-ray machine, the currency declaration, the customs declaration, the cards for embarkation and disembarkation, the flight number, the seat number, the times of departure and arrival.
It does no good to say, as I’ve done a hundred times, it’s just another plane trip, I’ve made a hundred. It’s just another terminal, another country, the same floating seats, the documents of admission, the proofs and identifications.
Air travel reminds us who we are. It’s the means by which we recognize ourselves as modern. The process removes us from the world and sets us apart from each other. We wander in the ambient noise, checking one more time for the flight coupon, the boarding pass, the visa. The process convinces us that at any moment we may have to submit to the force that is implied in all this, the unknown authority behind it, behind the categories, the languages we don’t understand. This vast terminal has been erected to examine souls.
It is not surprising, therefore, to see men with submachine guns, to see vultures squatting on the baggage vehicles set at the end of the tarmac in the airport in Bombay when one arrives after a night flight from Athens.
All of this we choose to forget. We devise a counter-system of elaborate forgetfulness. We agree on this together. And out in the street we see how easy it is, once we’re immersed in the thick crowded paint of things, the bright clothes and massed brown faces. But the experience is no less deep because we’ve agreed to forget it.
All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.
It’s unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.
We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” and there is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill… So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth- telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life—of a sort, for a while.
Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.
We have inhabited both the actual and the imaginary realms for a long time. But we don’t live in either place the way our parents or ancestors did. Enchantment alters with age, and with the age.
We know a dozen different Arthurs now, all of them true. The Shire changed irrevocably even in Bilbos lifetime. Don Quixote went riding out to Argentina and met Jorge Luis Borges there. Plus c’est la meme chose, plus fa change.
From Ursula K. LeGuin’s foreword to her 2001 collection Tales from Earthsea.
“For me, the litmus test is always language,” George Saunders told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. “If the sentences are kind of jangly and interesting, then I know how to proceed.”
Saunders composes stories syntactically: his themes and plots and characters emerge from the right jangle, the right discordant note that simultaneously pleases and disturbs. This technique shows in his latest collection Tenth of December, a showcase for Saunders’s estimable verbal prowess and a reminder that he is one of America’s preeminent satirists.
Tenth of December also reveals some of Saunders’s limitations, the biggest of which is that he seems to write the same few stories again and again. Granted, these stories are sharp, funny, puncturing criticisms of American life—satires of corpocracy and the ways commerce infests language (and hence thought); satires of how late capitalism engenders cycles of manufactured desire and very-real despair; satires, ultimately, of how we see ourselves seeing others seeing us in ways that we don’t wish to be seen. Perhaps Saunders writes the same plots repeatedly because he thinks we need to read them repeatedly—and there’s certainly pleasure and humor and pathos in Tenth of December—but there isn’t any territory explored here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia.
Take “Escape from Spiderhead,” one of the stronger entries in December. This is pure Saundersville, a story nudging weirdly into a skewed future that might come too-true too soon. Said spiderhead is a prison command center where wardens subject their inmates to language and desire experiments, using drugs like “Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, ChatEase™” (lord does Saunders love incaps) to manipulate the prisoners’ minds and bodies alike (all with consent, of course).
The story is a biting and often painful exploration of how our desires and actions might be constrained and controlled by others. It’s also an excellent excuse for Saunders to flex some of those verbal muscles of his:
He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.
“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of several tales in Decemberthat ultimately posit selflessness and empathy as a metaphysical escape hatch, an out to all the post-postmodern awful. It’s a near-perfect little story, which is why it’s too bad when Saunders essentially repeats it (right down to the Verbaluce™/amplified language conceit) in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” (Perhaps “My Chivalric Fiasco” was necessary though; it provides the sole “weird theme park” story requisite to any Saunders collection).
An equal to “Spiderhead” is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the collection’s strongest condemnation of how capitalism engenders bizarre ethical positions within families, between neighbors—and even countries. The longest story in the collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” purports to be a harried middle class father’s diary, a conceit which gives Saunders plenty of space to jangle.
Our poor narrator just wants to keep up with the Joneses, a serious character flaw that often results in hilarious hyperbole. He takes his family to the birthday party of his daughter’s classmate. This classmate’s family is wealthy, perfect, glowing, healthy, innovative, happy:
Just then father (Emmett) appears, holding freshly painted leg from merry-go-round horse, says time for dinner, hopes we like sailfish flown in fresh from Guatemala, prepared with a rare spice found only in one tiny region of Burma, which had to be bribed out, and also he had to design and build a special freshness-ensuring container for the sailfish.
Set against such a pristine backdrop our hapless narrator’s own life seems stressful and shabby:
Household in freefall, future reader. Everything chaotic. Kids, feeling tension, fighting all day. After dinner, Pam caught kids watching “I, Gropius,” (forbidden) = show where guy decides which girl to date based on feeling girls’ breasts through screen with two holes. (Do not actually show breasts. Just guy’s expressions as he feels them and girl’s expression as he feels them and girl’s expression as guy announces his rating. Still: bad show.) Pam blew up at kids: We are in most difficult period ever for family, this how they behave?
I love how Saunders works I, Gropius in there—his dystopian touches work best when they are simultaneously over-the-top (idea) and graceful (delivery of idea). These moments of humor don’t deflate the extreme anxieties that “The Semplica Girl Diaries” produces; rather, the humorous, hyperbolic eruptions add to what turns out to be a horror story.
Like the narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the eponymous would-be hero of “Al Roosten” is painfully attuned to how others might/do see him. “Al Roosten” is one of several of December’s exercises in how we see others seeing us (set against the backdrop of how we desire others to see us, etc.). The story starts at a charity auction where local businessmen are being auctioned off (including Roosten’s rival Donfrey—an echo of Emmett) and then heads precisely nowhere (or rather, remains entirely in poor Roosten’s skull). First paragraph:
Al Roosten stood waiting behind the paper screen. Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous. Although probably a lot less nervous than most people would be. Most people would probably be pissing themselves by now. Was he pissing himself? Not yet. Although, wow, he could understand how someone might actually—
That sentence-interrupting final dash precedes the intrusion of the “real,” phenomenological world into Roosten’s consciousness. There’s much of James Thurber’s “Walter Mitty” in “Al Roosten”—and, indeed, much of Mitty in Saunders generally—perhaps because Saunders’s jangles lead him to explore the strange gaps between thought and action, reality and imagination. It’s worth sharing a few paragraphs of Saunders’s technique:
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
Roosten brightened and sent a relieved half wave in the direction of the whoop, and the awkwardness of this gesture—the way it inadvertently revealed how terrified he was—endeared him to the crowd that seconds before had been ready to mock him, and someone else pity-whooped, and Roosten smiled a big loopy grin, which caused a wave of mercy cheers.
Roosten was deaf to the charity in this. What a super level of whoops and cheers. He should do a flex. He would. He did. This caused an increase in the level of whoops and cheers, which, to his ear, were now at least equal in volume to Donfrey’s whoops/cheers. Plus Donfrey had been basically naked. Which meant that technically he’d beaten Donfrey, since Donfrey had needed to get naked just to manage a tie with him, Al Roosten. Ha ha, poor Donfrey! Running around in his skivvies to no avail.
We can note here the transitions between what the world sees (in those first two paragraphs) to how Roosten sees the world seeing him. This is Saunders at perhaps his finest, showcasing a meticulous control of free indirect style; Roosten is simultaneously pathetically endearing and loathsome. He is attractive and repellent precisely because we understand him—what it is to see him, but also what it is to be seen in the way he is being seen.
The titular story, which closes the collection, also offers a Walter Mittyish figure, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” who sneaks off into the woods to fantasize about the Lilliputian “Nethers” who might try to kidnap his crush Suzanne (whom he’s never addressed, of course). “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said,” the poor boy imagines. Again, this is Saundersville, where we laugh out loud and then reprimand ourselves for our cruelty and then engage, empathize, say, Hey kid, I’ve been there too…
“Tenth of December” is a sort of rewrite of two stories from Pastoralia, “The End of FIRPO in the World” and “The Falls.” I suppose I don’t mind, but I wish that Saunders’s jangles might lead him to new plots. Despite its rehashing of these earlier stories, “Tenth of December” delivers possibly the strongest case for empathy-as-transcendence in the collection. Our boy gets a shot at actually living up to his haircut—he’ll valiantly help a suicidal terminally ill man, who will, in turn, help him. What the story illustrates best though is how impulse precedes action and action precedes thought, how action can be shot through with memory:
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree to tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint birdfeeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—
There’s that dash again. Dare I liken it to the dashes of Poe, of Dickinson? Maybe, maybe not.
I’ve shared some highlights of December, which I believe outweigh its weaker spots, unremarkable pieces like “Puppy,” a transparent exercise in how class in America inheres through a system of seeing/not-seeing others, or “Exhortation,” an amusing but forgettable memorandum that reads like Saunders-doing-Saunders.
“Home” is really the only story I would’ve left out of December. It’s the story of a war veteran trying to reintegrate into a society that flatly reiterates “Thank you for your service” while doing precisely nothing to actually thank the vet. Saunders’s sentiments are clearly in the right place, but the story rings false and hollow, its authorial anger overriding the humanity of its characters. At its worst moments, “Home” gives us a world of shuffling grotesques whose quirks preëmpt any possibility for genuine pathos. Saunders, usually in command of language, seems strained here. And it’s not a strain of venturing into new territory; no, all of Saunders’s tricks and traps are on display here (including an unexplained/unexplored substance called MiiVOXmax). Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps there’s too much of the author in the story.
And maybe that’s why I like the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks” so much–it seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections. I don’t know why Saunders included it in December but I’m glad he did. It breaks up some of his rut.
That rut, by the way, is a pleasure to roll through—a fast, funny pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Saunders is very good at highlighting our culture’s ugly absurdities, and he usually does so with moving pathos. And if his jangly sentences are their own raison d’être, then so be it. They are harmonious and sour, soaring and searing. Recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept first ran this review in April of 2013]
William Gass: I don’t know whether The Tunnel’s hole is a trope for the Postmodern because I never understood Postmodernism. I’m not a Postmodernist. I only understand that term as it is used in architecture, where it makes some sense to me, and I don’t find the movement of much interest even there, simply eclectic and superficial. My work is probably best characterized as late or decayed Modern end of the road sort of thing, last gasp. All of my principles and models and so forth come from modernism. People may call The Tunnel Postmodern because of certain elements—visual, mostly—but everything I do has been done previously by other people. Even the dislocation and fragmentation is old stuff. Labels reflect the desire many people apparently have to give new life to old ways by conferring upon them new names. All kinds of exciting things are going on in the novel all over the world, and no one work puts an end to the production of another kind.
Jan Castro: Maybe we should trade our definitions of Postmodern. My definition, based on studying a bit with Sartre scholar Michel Rybalka, is the French idea, drawing from the range of sources that have existed both in modernist and in premodernist literatures. Modernism is a fairly strong rejection of the past whereas postmodernism recycles the past without taking it too seriously. According to my definition, you would be in the camp. You evidently have a different definition.
WG: Modernists all rode the recycling bike. The modernist tradition certainly rejects certain parts of the past, but only certain parts. Even when you have someone like Ezra Pound saying “make it new,” he’s going back to Provençal troubadours, to the Greeks. At the same time he’s saying this, he’s off stealing something from Confucius. So you can call, let’s say, Picasso modern, but he’s borrowing from Japanese, African, or other sources. This always takes place. What is important is not whether you are looking back (you had better), but how and for what reason. When you go back as a modernist in architecture, you’re going back to see, for instance, in Palladio, what you can discover about the very foundation of architecture. You can find in an earlier writer like Sterne, the very foundations of fiction—its possibilities. You don’t reach back to imitate them, to use Sterne like little signatures later on so people will say “Sterne!” When an architect suddenly starts using columns or round windows or friezes to remind us of the past, he’s probably only employing pastiche. But to go back to somebody with the idea of discovering what the art is all about, not by copying their style or mode, but by discovering the fundamental principles which they may help you to wield, that is what modernists tried to do at their best. Corbusier goes back to earlier principles to find out what architecture is all about, not to dance the Palladian polka.
I find Postmodernists rarely interested in fundamental things, but only interested in finding qualities of the past which they can decorate a modernist shed with. Most Postmodern buildings are merely modernist buildings wearing a different skirt, to switch the image. There are a few exceptions. Sterling’s Museum in Stuttgart, for example, is a triumph.
So when one returns to an earlier model, it’s not to copy something, it’s to refine the essence of the whole task. You know Cervantes understood fiction more deeply than almost anybody. You go back to find out what he knew if you can. That’s one more reason why certain people like Calvino or Borges or Beckett are so wonderful. They’re wondering what’s fundamental to their art. I undercut certain traditional forms in order to discover that beneath those superficial forms there is something that my novel, as crazy at it may appear, can share with a very well-mannered Jane Austen novel. We’re doing the same thing, basically.
JC: You have been put into the Postmodern camp by your friend Heide Ziegler.
WG:Yes, Heide certainly does, and most critics do. But when a number of us—John Barth and John Hawkes and I—were in Germany some years ago, and the Germans kept calling us postmodernists, we all rejected the label.
I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).
The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.
Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:
Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?
In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”
Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!
So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.
The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).
Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).
Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous. Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.
What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is. And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.
As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum—but The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.
At first, it was great. Sure. It always is. She cuddled a frog, wishing for more, and—presto! A handsome prince who doted on her. It meant the end of her marriage, of course, but her ex was something of a toad himself, who had a nasty habit of talking with his mouth full and a tongue good for nothing but licking stamps.
The prince was adorable—all the girls at the bridge club, squirming with envy, said so—though you could still see the effects his previous residence had had on him. He had heavy-lidded eyes and a wide mouth like a hand puppet’s, his complexion was a bit off, and his loose-fitting skin was thin and clammy. His semen had a muddy taste, like the pond he came from, and his little apparatus was disappointing, but his tongue was amazing. It could reach the deepest recesses, triggering sensations she’d never known before. His crown was not worn like a hat—it grew out of his head like horns and sometimes got in the way—but his tongue was long enough for detours and tickled other parts on the path in. It gave him not so much a lisp as a consonantal slurp, making gibberish out of his sweet nothings, but talking was never the main thing between them.
Today’s Sunday Comics entry is a page from Chris Ware’s magnificent 2012 novel Building Stories (Pantheon Books).
I had occasion to look through Building Stories again this week. I had to paint a room, which required moving books from shelves, which meant unshelving Building Stories, which unwieldy beast that it is, has been covered in other books for a few years. Building Stories takes the form of 14 different sized books in a box—it’s pretty hard to shelve in any accessible way, which is a shame (but also a pleasure). Ware’s opus seems to me one of the best American novels of the past decade, but I think its greatness tends to get overlooked because a) people are still prejudiced against comics and b) it challenges all the “reading rules” we bring with us to novels—there’s not a “right way” to read the novel. You have to put it together your self, in a sense. Anyway, for me the page above, which is the last page of the chapter called “Disconnect,” is the “conclusion” of the novel, a sort of metacommentary epilogue that (somehow) ties the narrative threads together in a moving and satisfying “end.”
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a television series by Hulu, a fact which you probably already knew if you are on the internet and are interested in these sorts of things.
Initial clips of the show seem promising enough. Elisabeth Moss, who I loved in Top of The Lake, plays the novel’s protagonist Offred, and Margaret Atwood, a consulting producer, has been a vocal supporter of the adaptation. And, as many have pointed out lately, the story’s backdrop—a patriarchal theocratic regime—seems, uh, timely. (Hell, there’s even a Wall).
In anticipation of Hulu’s adaptation, I decided to reread The Handmade’s Tale a third time in a third decade. I found it subtler, more personally intense than the broad, voluminous epic my memory had concocted. My memory had filled in some of Atwood’s strategic gaps; one of her rhetorical gambits is to deliver the so-called “worldbuilding” common to sci-fi novels in tiny morsels and incomplete glimpses. She refuses to give us a big picture. We see this world like one of the handmaids, who view it through a veil of white wings around their heads.
Our narrator Offred is one of those, whatchamacallit, unreliable narrators (as she frequently, subtly reminds us), and her picture of the Republic of Gilead is necessarily incomplete. My memory filled in huge swaths of backstory—a caste system, forced breeding, a plague of infertility, civil wars, ecological collapse, mutations, religious infighting, spy networks and underground railroads. There’s something of an epic scale there, no? But the The Handmaid’s Tale actually elides much of the its genre’s heavy baggage. Exposition hides in bits and pieces for the reader to scrabble together. Even in some of its more straightforward expository passages, as when Offred describes the theocratic regime’s coup d’etat, we still only get the events from her perspective. We experience the effects of the revolution as the effects on her life. There’s no big picture geopolitical analysis. The causes aren’t clear.
Indeed, the lack of clear causality between events is one of the scariest aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our narrator emphasizes how quickly norms can change in a culture, which is, from a plot-standpoint, quite important. Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a point of comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Orwell’s novel the totalitarian regime has presumably been in power for decades (although of course, the protagonist’s job in that novel is to revise historical documents so that they align with the past, making “history” suspect).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, crucially, the protagonist is still connected to the pre-Revolutionary, pre-theocratic world. We’re reminded again and again that she’s one of the first generation of handmaids; we’re reminded again and again that after the first generation takes hold, the practice of forced breeding will become completely normalized. The Handmaid’s Tale is the preamble to dystopia. Offred remembers life in the U.S., life before her role was absolutely proscribed by a patriarchal theocracy. The narrator’s disconnection between that life and her new one drives the narrative.
This radical disconnection threatens the narrator’s sanity. It’s not just the wings of her habit that obstruct her vision, but also a veil of creeping instability. The unraveling of history, the sense that she is dislocated in time threaten to undo her. Her way of seeing the world and her self in the world is completely destabilized. Consider the following passage, in which our heroine gazes at the “smile” of a dead man hung from the Wall as a warning:
I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.
The protagonist’s defense against the threat of dislocation, displacement, and insanity is her power to tell her tale. In this sense, The Handmade’s Tale has as much in common with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s“The Yellow Wallpaper” as it does with Orwell’s dystopian classic.
Our narrator’s need “to be very clear [in her] own mind” carries (what many readers will consider) the main thread of The Handmaid’s Tale on a straightforward, linear path: Offred is pressed into the service of the Commander (Fred, from whom she receives her patronymic) so that he can impregnate her, become a father, and perpetuate his class tier. If she can’t produce a child in a certain time frame, it’s off to the colonies! (Never mind that the Commander is likely sterile).
The narrative’s linear sequence will provide a sturdy frame for Hulu’s adaptation, and the constant flashbacks that interweave through the novel will also likely help to flesh out the series, both in tone and characterization. The ways in which the novel’s narrator weaves and unweaves these story strands might be much more difficult for the show to capture though. Indeed, Atwood’s rhetorical technique here is something native to literature itself. Atwood evokes consciousness under duress. She shows us a heroine trying to weave strands of a story together into something meaningful, to make a story where there is none, to find a space to speak where there is only the specter of mute doom. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling as resistance and self-preservation:
I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.
If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
It isn’t a story I’m telling.
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.
Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one.
A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.
You can mean thousands.
Our storyteller—we are her You—is finely attuned to language. She constantly points out old phrases, commonplaces, and cliches, and remarks on what they used to mean in “the time before.” In some of these moments of linguistic mulling, Atwood calls attention to language’s destructive potential, of its ability to unravel the very meaning we seek to pin to it. If language connects, it can also disconnect. Consider the following passage:
It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.
The Book of Job.
Language can protect, but it can also threaten. It can slipslide from a random memory to an existentialist myth in the span of a breath. It can turn tulips into bloody smiles and bloody smiles into explanations for executions. Language can turn into stories, but stories can swallow up whole lives, whole cultures. That’s the threat of theocracy.
Atwood highlights the novel’s attention to storytelling itself in the final chapter, which reads almost like an appendix. Called “Historical Notes,” and separated from the text proper by its own title page, the final (unnumbered) chapter purports to be the transcript of a speech given at an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” in the year 2195. There is much exposition and analysis here. Our anthropologist lecturer informs us that what is known as The Handmaid’s Tale is the composite of a number of audiocassettes. Furthermore, we learn that the narrator Offred (apparently) fabricated or synthesized elements of the story, either to protect certain persons’ anonymity, or for her own pleasure—or simply in the service, of, y’know, good storytelling. The lecturer laments that Offred failed to give future listeners more details about politics and war and the culture of Gilead at large. In a sense, the lecturer’s complaint is the one that many readers who go to Atwood’s novel expecting “worldbuilding” might have. The narrator isn’t telling a story about dystopian Gilead. She’s telling a story about storytelling. She’s making herself a story. Speaking to a You helps to preserve her I.
The “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid’s Tale are an example of a particular trope I generally dislike—the “expert shows up at the end and explains everything” device. However, Atwood’s final chapter is successful, and perhaps even essential to the novel’s critique of patriarchy and of how institutions tell and what they tell. The key, of course, is to recognize the layers of irony in this “explainer” chapter, in which a male authority arrives and asks all the wrong questions about Offred and criticizes some of her narrative choices. Even though he’s an expert on her text, he manages to miss that she’s woven her true name into the story. It’s right there at the end of the first chapter.
“Historical Notes” shows the problems and limitations in telling “the truth,” highlighting that all tales are constructions, syntheses of pre-existing elements. At the same time, the chapter points towards a narrative future, and a fairly stable future at that. “Historical Notes” thus provides the “happy ending” that the text proper—The Handmaid’s Tale—refuses to offer.
After finishing Atwood’s novel, I indulged in a favorite treat: sifting through one-star Amazon reviews with the express purpose of rearranging lines and fragments into…something. A complaint that arose again and again about The Handmaid’s Tale was the novel’s ambiguous ending. Only “ambiguous” wasn’t a word I saw used—our stalwart reviewers insisted that the novel had no conclusion. Such an interpretation is either a misreading or a failure to see that ambiguity is its own opening to adventure.
Our heroine concludes her tale: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The line might frustrate many readers and even license them to accuse Atwood of simply not knowing how to finish her story. The final line’s ambiguity is structural though, part and parcel of the narrative itself. The heroine crosses a threshold. She’s pregnant, both literally and figuratively. The novel’s final ambiguity opens a space for our heroine to “step up” into. As Scheherazade understood, storytelling isn’t about closing off, but opening up. When the narrator walks out into either darkness or light, she’s entering a new narrative possibility—one that can be imagined by the auditors of her tale, her future You.
Here’s the short review: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a dark, comic masterpiece—witty, bizarre, and buzzing with surreal transformations that push the limits of language. I am ashamed that I came so late to its cult (how the novel escaped my formative teens and twenties escapes me), but also thankful that I trusted the readers of this blog who kindly suggested I read it.
I’m also thankful that I knew pretty much nothing about the book going in; I’m thankful that I skipped over Denis Donoghue’s introduction (which has the gall to spoil the novel’s end); I’m thankful that I resisted looking up information on de Selby, a philosopher I had never heard the name of before The Third Policeman. I read the novel in an ideal state, a kind of Platonic purity of appropriate bewilderment, at turns gaping and guffawing at O’Brien’s sublime impositions on plot, imagery, thought, language.
To be plain, I think that you should read the book too, gentlest reader, and if you are fortunate enough to possess innocence of its strange virtues, all the better. The less you know about The Third Policeman, the more enjoyable your first time will be. But if such conditions are too much to ask, here are a few fragments of plot:
We have an unnamed narrator, a one-legged orphan and would-be de Selby scholar (don’t ask) who enters into a nefarious plot with a man named Divney. Okay, they plan and execute a murder for treasure. Shades of Crime and Punishment creep into the novel by way of Poe’s nervous narrators; the plot even anticipates in some ways The Stranger, though not as moody and far funnier and honestly just way better. (I’m riffing on books here because, again, it seems to me a disservice to the interested reader to overshare the plot of The Third Policeman).
Let’s just say there’s a two-dimensional house. Let’s just say there’s an absurd picaresque quest to recover a missing black box. Let’s just say there are two policemen (okay, there are three), alternately terrifying, edifying, assuaging, bewildering. Let’s just say there’s an army of one-legged men. Let’s just say there’s a soul. Let’s call him “Joe.”
Let’s just say there are bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles.
And the wisdom (?!) of de Selby, of course, “the savant,” who, via our unnamed narrator’s erudite footnotes (including the notes of de Selby’s esteemed commentators, of course) offers up opinions and maxims on matters of natural science and philosophy alike. Here’s a taste of de Selby, from the epigraph:
Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.
It’s also a good taste of the bizarre thrust of The Third Policeman; the first five words might work as a dandy summary, or at least summary enough.
But maybe I should share some of O’Brien’s language (and not just some philosopher that if you’re being honest you’ll admit you’ve never heard of before, although it seems like maybe you ought to have heard of him, hmmm?).
Just the first paragraph, gentle soul. It was enough to hook this fish:
Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.
Okay. Hopefully I’ve convinced you a) to read The Third Policeman and b) to quit reading this review (let’s be honest, this isn’t so much a review as it is a riff, a recommendation, and it’s going to get even ramblier in a moment). You can get The Third Policeman from The Dalkey Archive, so you know it’s good, but oh-my-God-guess-what-can-you-believe-it? The Dalkey Archive is actually named after one of O’Brien’s novels, The Dalkey Archive.
So, yes, very highly recommended, read it, etc.
The rest of this riff I devote to puzzling out (without resolution) some of the marvels and conundrums of The Third Policeman; if you haven’t read the book, I suggest skipping all that follows.
I imagine that there’s a ton of criticism out there that might try to explain or elucidate the meaning of The Third Policeman, and while I’d love to hear or read some opinions on the book, I think it ultimately defies heavily symbolic readings. I suppose we might argue that the bicycle motif points toward the slow mechanization of humanity in the post-industrial landscape (or some such nonsense), or we might try to find some codex for the plot of the novel in the work of the fictional philosopher de Selby (and his critics), or we might try to plumb the novel’s mystical and religious underpinnings. It seems to me though that the absurd, nightmarish fever-joy of The Third Policeman lies in its precise indeterminacy. Here’s an example, at some length, of our narrator’s marvelous powers to describe what cannot be described:
This cabinet had an opening resembling a chute and another large opening resembling a black hole about a yard below the chute. He pressed two red articles like typewriter keys and turned a large knob away from him. At once there was a rumbling noise as if thousands of full biscuit-boxes were falling down a stairs. I felt that these falling things would come out of the chute at any moment. And so they did, appearing for a few seconds in the air and then disappearing down the black hole below. But what can I say about them? In colour they were not white or black and certainly bore no intermediate colour; they were far from dark and anything but bright. But strange to say it was not their unprecedented hue that took most of my attention. They had another quality that made me watch them wild-eyed, dry-throated and with no breathing. I can make no attempt to describe this quality. It took me hours of thought long afterwards to realize why these articles were astonishing. They lacked an essential property of all known objects. I cannot call it shape or configuration since shapelessness is not what I refer to at all. I can only say that these objects, not one of which resembled the other, were of no known dimensions. They were not square or rectangular or circular or simply irregularly shaped nor could it be said that their endless variety was due to dimensional dissimilarities. Simply their appearance, if even that word is not inadmissible, was not understood by the eye and was in any event indescribable. That is enough to say.
O’Brien’s unnamed narrator repeatedly runs up against the problem of the ineffable, of the inability of language to center meaning.
The policemen—Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen—are handier at navigating the absurd pratfalls of language. When the Sergeant asks the narrator if he’d like “a velvet-coloured colour,” we see the tautological, self-referential scope to description, and hence the underlying trouble of approaching pure communication. Much of the humor of The Third Policeman comes from such language. The Sergeant tells of an angry mob that “held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public except the man in question,” and we see the mutability of oppositions like “private/public” played to absurd comic effect.
When the policemen describe machines that break sensation into opposing and contradictory parts, we get here an anticipation of deconstruction, of the idea that difference and instability governs sensation and meaning. There is no purity:
‘We have a machine down there,’ the Sergeant continued, ‘that splits up any smell into its sub – and inter-smells the way you can split up a beam of light with a glass instrument. It is very interesting and edifying, you would not believe the dirty smells that are inside the perfume of a lovely lily-of-the mountain.’
‘And there is a machine for tastes,’ MacCruiskeen put in, ‘the taste of a fried chop, although you might not think it, is forty per cent the taste of…’ He grimaced and spat and looked delicately reticent.
The policemen’s analytic machinery correlates strongly with the narrator’s interest in philosophy and science. Through de Selby and his various critics, O’Brien simultaneously mocks and reveres the atomizing pursuits of knowledge. Delivered mostly in footnotes that would give David Foster Wallace a run for his money, the absurd philosophy of de Selby underpins the physical and metaphysical conundrums of The Third Policeman (this is, after all, the story of a man traversing a world where the laws of physics do not adhere). Here’s an early footnote:
. . . de Selby . . . suggests (Garcia, p. 12) that night, far from being caused by the commonly accepted theory of planetary movements, was due to accumulations of ‘black air’ produced by certain volcanic activities of which he does not treat in detail. See also p. 79 and 945, Country Album. Le Fournier’s comment (in Homme ou Dieu) is interesting. ‘On ne saura jamais jusqu’à quel point de Selby fut cause de la Grande Guerre, mais, sans aucun doute, ses théories excentriques – spécialement celle que nuit n’est pas un phénomène de nature, mais dans l’atmosphère un état malsain amené par un industrialisme cupide et sans pitié – auraient l’effet de produire un trouble profond dans les masses.’
This is wonderful mockery of academicese, a ridiculous idea presented with some commentary in French. At this point in the novel, I started to doubt the existence of de Selby; as the narrator’s notations of de Selby’s ideas grew increasingly bizarre, I soon realized the joke O’Brien had played on me.
And yet these jokes do not deflate the essential metaphysical seriousness of The Third Policeman: This is a novel about punishment, about crime, about damnation; this is a novel about not knowing but trying to know and describe what can’t be known or described.
This not knowing extends strongly to the reader of The Third Policeman. I was never sure if the narrator was dreaming or hallucinating or wandering through a strange afterlife—and in a way, it didn’t matter. There’s no allegorical match-up or metaphysical scorecard from which to parse The Third Policeman’s final meaning because there is no final meaning. Here’s O’Brien—or really Brian O’Nolan, I suppose; O’Brien was a pseudonym—summarizing the novel in a 1940 letter to William Saroyan:
I’ve just finished another book. The only thing good about it is the plot and I’ve been wondering whether I could make a crazy…play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing. Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he’s been away three days, this other fellow is twenty years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door.
Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start thro’ all the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he’d never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever – and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either…I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.
Happily, as I mentioned earlier, I skipped the introduction and thus missed this letter, which I think deflates the novel in some ways, including the authorial spoiler. Also, O’Brien’s just plain wrong when he contends that the “only good thing about it is the plot” — there’s also the language, the ideas, the rhythm, the structure . . .
But 1940 was not ready for such a strange novel, and The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, a year after its author’s death. By 1967 Thomas Pynchon had published V. and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth has published The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo had quit advertising to start writing novels, Donald Barthelme had published Snow-White, Kurt Vonnegut had gained a large audience—in short, the world of letters had caught up to O’Brien (or O’Nolan, if you prefer). Here was a post-modern novel delivered while Modernism was still in full swing.
But literary labels are no fun. You know what’s fun? The Third Policeman is fun. And unnerving. And energetic. And surreal. And really, really great. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in May of 2012].
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.