Three Books


The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch. First edition hardback, 1975 by The Book Club (Foyles Group of Book Clubs). Jacket design by Angela Maddigan.


Speedboat by Renata Adler. First Perennial Library edition, 1988. Cover illustration by Steve Guarnaccia.


Snow White by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback by Atheneum, 1986 (7th printing). Cover illustration by William Steig.

Ray — Barry Hannah


Barry Hannah’s slim 1980 novel Ray is a strange wonder, a poem rocket assured to offend any unsuspecting customer who wanders in unaware. I use the term “offend” here loosely: some may be offended by Hannah’s subject matter (booze, drugs, sex, violence), others may be offended by his refusal to submit to any of the conventions we expect from a “novel.” Sure, there are defined characters, conflicts, hints of a plot even, but don’t expect arc, easily recognizable growth, or even linearity. Hannah breaks almost every convention, right down to a first-person narration that shifts occasionally into a kind of second-person meditation and then into a faux-objective third-person voice and then into the third-person free indirect style that marks modernism. The subject Ray careens not just through perspectives but also through time. Here he is in Chapter V (this is the chapter in its entirety)—

I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.

And if Ray is busy stumbling through his own psychic quagmire, shooting down planes in ‘Nam or killing Yankees under Jeb Stuart’s command, he’s also a very real, concrete personality, a doctor, a family man, an alcoholic, a suffering soul trying to navigate children and lovers and patients and neighbors in the swelter of Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the end of Carter’s presidency.

None of this should work, of course, but Hannah’s writing assimilates the reader, inculcates the reader, infects the reader. Ray is a dramatically unstable figure of the old school—misogynist, casually racist, the kind of doctor who finds himself “drinking five bottles of wine a day just to stay cool” — but Hannah’s syntactic powers (which he awards to his narrator Ray) become the core of a novel that by rights should run off the tracks, what with its sharp velocity and manic force and hairpin turns. But Ray doesn’t run off the tracks; it explodes them.

It’s hard to summarize the plot of this fragmentary novel, but I’ll give it a try (and at least share some of Hannah’s remarkable prose). Ray is a country doctor of some note and education, a former pilot who fought and killed in Vietnam, a man with literary ambitions who tries his hand at poetry and occasionally lectures at the local college. Here’s a taste of one of those lectures, showcasing Hannah’s wit, the radically ambivalent place of history in his work, and the core paradoxes of his lead character—

So now, class, I say:

“Americans have never been consistent. They represent gentleness and rage together. Franklin was the inventor of the stove, bifocals, and so on. Yet he abused his neglected family. Jefferson, with his great theories, could not actually release the slaves even though he regularly fornicated with one of them. One lesson we as Americans must learn is to get used to the conrarieties in our hearts and live with them.” Etc.

Lazy Blakean. In addition to his history lectures, Ray has even written a number of papers with unlikely titles about women and depressives and medicine; it is wholly ironic that Ray should lay claims to understanding women and depressed people, let alone understanding how to treat them. During the course of the novel he marries again, to a woman named Westy, and they combine their children into a post-nuclear family that recalls The Brady Bunch on Dexedrine and bourbon and weed (that description sounds far more negative than I intend; I’m trying to telegraph the spirit or tone of the novel, which is difficult, impossible). Ray’s lusty marriage to Westy doesn’t prevent his shambolic philandering. Not all of Ray’s infidelities are born of human weakness though. His love for a young woman named Sister from a white trash family called the Hooches deeply informs the novel; it also allows me another chance to quote from the novel—

Sister is always in love with somebody, sometimes me. There is a capricious wisdom she has about attaching herself to anybody for very long, although her loyalties are fast. She plays the guitar well and has a nice voice that she keeps to herself. Life has been such for her that she has no attitude at all. She expects no sympathy. Two of her teenage lovers died in an accident at the railroad tracks. That’s when I met Sister. I rode down to the tracks, and she was standing there in a long sleeping gown, two weeks after the accident.

“What’s wrong, girl?”

“I growed up.”

Along with Sister, a man named Charlie DeSoto plays a large role in Ray; indeed, at times the novel comes to inhabit his consciousness, as if he was some alter-ego of Ray. That consciousness also becomes unstuck in time. In a passage that recalls (and predates) Blood Meridian, DeSoto (via Ray?) migrates back to the mid 1500s, into the mind of one of Hernando DeSoto’s companions in arms. In a bizarre first-person sequence, this ancient Christian describes slaughtering 4,000 Indians under the command of the war chief Tuscaloosa. History is a nightmare that Ray cannot wake up from.

Ray is a strange fever dream, buzzing with tumult, beauty, filth, and ugly vitality. Our clumsy (anti?)hero cannot seem to reconcile his violent past (both as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and as an American with “contrarieties” in his heart) with his duty as a healer, a doctor. He tells us—

I am infected with every disease I ever tried to cure. I am a vicious nightmare of illnesses. God cured me with a memory that holds everything in my brain. There is no forgetting with me. Every name, every foot, every disease, every piece of jewelry hanging from an ear. Nothing is hazy.

If “Nothing is hazy” then everything is brought into vibrant foreground, all details afforded a prominent place, none pushed to a defining background. If “Nothing is hazy” then everything is hazy; contrariety rules.

Perhaps Ray might be summed up by one of its chapters, LII (again, in its entirety)—

To live and delight in healing, flying, fucking. Here are the men and women.

Hannah might have been heir to Faulkner, with his grotesque characters and bizarre syntax and challenging tropes (not to mention the sweaty ickiness of both writers’ prose). Ray also hearkens back to Henry Miller’s rants, although I’d suggest a larger, or at least more loving spirit in Hannah. There are even tinges of Bukoswki here. Ray also recalls Renata Adler’s strange novel Speedboat, another discursive, vaulting piece from the late ’70s. But comparing Ray to other works risks belying its radical originality, which is surely one of its great pleasures. Ray is not a novel for everyone, and those interested in Hannah might do better to begin with his equally strange compilation Airships, but those seeking a challenging, funny novel will appreciate Ray, a novel that explodes literary convention even as it reaffirms the affective power of literature. Highly recommended.


Seven Fragmentary Novels That Aren’t The Pale King

I finished David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King the other night (don’t worry—I know that there’s been a terrible shortage of coverage for this obscure book, so I’ll post a review pretty soon review here). The Pale King unfolds as a series of fragments, some short as one page, many the length of long short stories, and one novella length piece. Characters recur, but themes, images, and motifs hold these pieces together rather than any linear plot. The better pieces can stand on their own as short stories, yet are much richer when read with/against the rest of the novel. The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of Wallace’s death, but his notes on the manuscript (published at the end of the book) suggest that fragmentation was always his intentional method.

The fragmentary novel is nothing new, but its particular powers have gained resonance against the backdrop of a world where authority, information, and communication are increasingly decentralized, scattered, and, well, fragmented. Fragmentary novels might have roots in the picaresque (those one-damn-thing-after-the-next novels like Don QuixoteCandide, Huckleberry FinnInvisible Man, Orlando, Blood Meridian . . .), but picaresque novels tend to have a shape, a trajectory, even if they seem to lack traditional plot arcs or characterization. What I’m talking about here are novels made of pieces, segments, or chapters that work fine on their own, and  may even seem self-contained, but when synthesized help reveal the novel’s greater project. So, seven fragmentary novels that aren’t The Pale King—

Steps, Jerzy Kosinski

There’s force and vitality and horror in Steps, all compressed into lucid, compact little scenes. In terms of plot, some scenes connect to others, while most don’t. The book is unified by its themes of repression and alienation, its economy of rhythm, and, most especially, the consistent tone of its narrator. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same man relating all of these strange experiences because the way he relates them links them and enlarges them. At a remove, Steps is probably about a Polish man’s difficulties under the harsh Soviet regime at home played against his experiences as a new immigrant to the United States and its bizarre codes of capitalism. But this summary is pale against the sinister light of Kosinski’s prose. Here’s David Foster Wallace: “Steps gets called a novel but it is really a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever. Only Kafka’s fragments get anywhere close to where Kosinski goes in this book, which is better than everything else he ever did combined.”

Speedboat, Renata Adler

Telegraphed in bristling, angular prose, Speedboat unwinds as a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes, japes, and jokes all filtered through the narrator’s ironic, faux-journalist sensibility. Adler’s novel eschews plot, conventional characters, and resolution—its contours are its center. Speedboat was published in the early 1970s, but it would seem ahead of its time even if it were published tomorrow.  Adler captures the deep existential alienation of modern life, converting dread into verve and despair into marvel.

2666, Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s opus bears considerable superficial comparison to Wallace’s The Pale King: both were published posthumously, both have endured a process of buzz and backlash, both are unfinished, and both are purposefully fragmented. 2666 comprises (at least five) parts, some connected explicitly, others tied loosely together, but all interwoven with themes of violence, darkness, art, and love. The book’s most notorious section, “The Part About the Crimes,” is itself a fragmented beast, a procession of murders and rapes, dead-end investigations, bizarre TV appearances, and other sinister doings. Prominent characters disappear into the violence of Santa Teresa never to return again; the great mystery of the book seems unsolved. But like Ariadne, Bolaño offers his readers a thread through the labyrinth, a layering of motifs, as words and images repeat throughout shifts in space and time.

Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch’s cut-up origins are well-known and probably greatly exaggerated: the book is far more coherent than its reputation insists. Still, Burroughs’s infamous novel is all over the place (quite literally), moving through time and space and even to Interzone. Comic, rambling, lusty, and perverse, Naked Lunch’s satire is often overshadowed by its seedier, more sensational side. Burroughs claimed his novels were part of an antique literary pedigree: “I myself am in a very old tradition, namely, that of the picaresque novel. People complain that my novels have no plot. Well, a picaresque novel has no plot. It is simply a series of incidents.”

Vertigo, W. G.  Sebald

Vertigo blurs the lines between fiction, history, autobiography, and biography. The book comprises four sections. The first section tells the story of the romantic novelist Stendhal (or, more to the point, a version of Stendhal); the second section details two trips Sebald made to Italy, one in 1980, and one in 1987; the third section describes a trip Kakfa took to Italy near the end of his life; the final section describes the narrator hiking from Austria to visit the village where he was born in Bavaria. Underwriting and uniting these separate episodes is the narrator’s attempt to find a common thread between past and present, to find a unity in a Europe fractured by time and war. There’s also a deep, throbbing melancholy mixed with beauty and wisdom here.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Mitchell constructs Cloud Atlas like a doubled matryoshka doll, nesting narratives inside narratives that work their way to an apocalyptic future; once Cloud Atlas hits its middle mark, it works outward to the past, back to its own edges. With the exception of the middle piece, a nod to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Mitchell fragments each piece of Cloud Atlas at a key turning point, an old literary trick really, but one that pays off. The tales likely hold up on their own, but their intertextual play is the real delight of the novel, as Mitchell showcases a variety of styles and genres and forms that reflect the content and era of each tale. At its core,  Cloud Atlas explores Nietzschean themes of eternal recurrence and the will to power; its clever fragmented structure emphasizes the loops of history humanity finds itself caught in again and again, even as brave souls seek a new way of seeing, living, doing.

Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner

Faulkner always insisted that Go Down, Moses was a novel, although in its initial publication it was presented as a collection of short stories.  And granted, any of the stories can be read on their own. “Was” is hilarious homosocial hijinks, but read against the sorrow and anger in “The Fire and the Hearth” and “Pantaloon in Black,” or the prolonged majesty of “The Bear,” Faulkner’s project becomes much clearer—he is taking on a century in the lives of the Mississippi McCaslins. Go Down, Moses is strange and sad and funny and truly an achievement, a book that works as a sort of time machine, an attempt to undo or recover the racial and familial (and in Faulkner, these are the same) divides of the past.

“She Was a Dynamite Girl and He Was an Aces Fellow” — A Passage from Renata Adler’s Speedboat

A passage from Renata Adler’s marvelous and strange novel Speedboat

She was a dynamite girl and he was an aces fellow. On the day he at last agreed by phone to marry her, the switchboard operators were overjoyed. For six months they had listened, in sympathy and indignation, to the tears, the threats, the partings and reconciliations. They were so unequivocally for the girl that only the purest professionalism kept them, at times, from breaking in. On the day Tim, after calls to his best friend, his firs wife, and his therapist, gave in at last, the oldest operator, who had been on the switchboard for twenty years, actually wept. The other two told the receptionist, at lunch. All four ladies had a drink, and then bought a card of slightly obscene felicitations. They had wavered toward the sentimental, but rejected it as basically unswinging. They did not sign the card. Tim and his girl, who had been breaking up once again on the day they received it (she was packing; they were in his apartment, were appalled. As a result of the card, and discussions of what to do about it—what it implied, who knew and who didn’t—they married.

Books I Will (Make Every Reasonable Attempt to) Read in 2011

If you’re looking for a comprehensive “Books to Look Forward to in 2011” kind of list, The Millions has you covered. This post is not about books that are coming out in 2011, although some books mentioned here will come out in 2011. This post is really just about books I’d like to/plan to read in 2011 (it’s also kind of a dare to myself).

First up, I will finish the books I’m reading/listening to now. This means Adam Levin’s The Instructions (reading; McSweeney’s) and Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (listening; Iambik Audio). I’m on page 342 of The Instructions; there are 1030 pages; a calculator tells me that that is 33.2%. It’s easy reading, often entertaining, but it’s hard to see, even a third of the way in, how Levin can justify taking up this much space. Oh, what is it about? Okay, this kid Gurion Maccabee may or may not be the Messiah. In the meantime, he rules the special ed program at his suburban Chicago school, writes scripture, and gets in lots of fights. The best parts of the book (so far, anyway) are Gurion’s comments on Torah (I would’ve written “the Torah,” but this book seems to suggest that the definite article is pretty Gentile).

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart has been enjoyable, sardonic — funny but sad — and I’m coming up to the end soon. Basically, a trinity of scientists who helped invent the atom bomb (Robert Oppenheimer is the famous one) come back from the dead (sort of) to . . . I don’t know yet. It’s unclear. To hang out with a quiet librarian and her gardener husband as their marriage slowly dissolves? To lead our nation to world wide peace? To take part in a movable circus of weirdos and End Times prophets? Not sure. Full review forthcoming.

I already wrote about one of the Tintin collections I picked up late last year; I will read the other three collections (and likely hunt down more). I’ll also read (hopefully; that is, hopefully it will come out) the next installment in Charles Burns’s X’ed Out trilogy.

Also on the proverbial plate, non-illustratedwise, is Heinrich Böll’s The Clown, the story of a clown in post-Reich Germany who can smell through the phone (I think there’s more to it than that). Melville House is actually releasing several new editions of Böll’s novels this year, and they have a pretty excellent track record with the Germans, what with Hans Fallada and all, so hey, why not.

On the I-will-read-everything-Sam-Lipsyte-writes front, Picador is putting out a new edition of his first novel The Subject Steve (perhaps in concordance with The Ask coming out in paperback?). I will read The Subject Steve.

Books I bought this year and didn’t read but will make every reasonable attempt to read this year—

William Gaddis’s JR was, I think anyway, the last book I picked up in 2010. It’s really long, seems to be written entirely as a dialog, and hey, I read 2/3rds of The Recognitions and then didn’t even finish it (yet?) which is kinda remarkable/totally lazy. Maybe I should just finish The Recognitions. I just feel like “I get it already.” Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Loved the first chapter of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, even though it was really silly. Stay tuned, folks.

I read the first two stories in Barry Hannah’s Airships and then a few galleys bombed my doorstep and then I got distracted, but these things have Spring Break written all over them, so, yes, look for the Airships report in the future (or be a hipster douchebag and write in to tell me how awesome you already know Hannah is now that he’s dead blah blah blah).

I remember that I bought Renata Adler’s Speed Boat the same day I bought Airships (because, y’know, the titles). I read the first 30 or so pages and then read them again and then read them again a week or so ago. Kind of dumbfounding stuff. It’s been hovering around the coffee table, the nightstand; it’s been jammed in briefcases, wedged in coat pockets. What is it? What is she doing?

After slowing down my consumption in 2010, I’m ready to feed the addiction again in 2011: Bolaño, Bolaño, Bolaño. I need to read Amulet; I’ll also read The Insufferable Gaucho and probably something else.


The Pale King

But everyone’s buzzing about that already, right?