Flann O’Brien’s Novel The Third Policeman Is a Surreal Comic Masterpiece

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Illustration for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman by Nancy Martinez

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.

And: two more excerpts that you can read, funny-stuff, context-free.

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].

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A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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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.

A review of Robert Coover’s excellent new novel Huck Out West

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In the final lines of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our narrator-hero declares: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

We have here the signal trope of so much American literature—escape. Escape into the wild, the unknown, the expanse: the Territory. Ishmael goes to sea, Young Goodman Brown wanders into the woods, Rip Van Winkle retreats into the mountains. American literature loves to posit Transcendental escape, and with that escape, a utopian promise, a chance to reinvent “sivilization.” As the poet-critic Charles Olson puts it in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America. I spell it large because it comes large here.”

The other side of the utopian facade is much darker: westward expansion, continentalism, war, violence, extinction agendas, and the exploitation of all things mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Manifest Destiny. Olson noted that American space might be large, but it was “Large, and without mercy.” Manifest Destiny offered nineteenth-century Americans an illusion of mercy, a mimesis of meaning, a rhetorical gloss to cover over predation, violence, and genocide. Manifest Destiny was a story to stick to, a story with a purpose, good guys and bad guys, and an ethos to drive a narrative. Through such a narrative, Americans might come to see their nation allegorically maturing, coming of age, expanding freedom. Manifest Destiny offered a narrative of a nation growing, a narrative that made space for itself via the violent erasure of native peoples.

Robert Coover’s new novel Huck Out West is very much about storytelling and maturation–about how we attempt to give meaning to the passing of time. Sure, it’s a yarn, an adventure tale that answers happens to Huckleberry Finn after he’s lit out into the Territory. But it’s also a story of what it means to grow up, essentially asking whether such a thing is even possible. “It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up,” Huck remarks in the novel’s second chapter. Ever the misfit, Huck cannot square the evil around him with the dominant social narratives that would try to justify injustice. He can’t stick out a story. This is a character who has always preferred immediate truth.

Consider a few early lines:

Tom is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does. For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.

Like Twain’s original novel, Huck Out West is also a picaresque, albeit one in which the main character repeatedly wonders how to stitch together the seemingly random episodes of his life into a meaningful narrative. Huck’s life is essentially picaresque, and without Tom Sawyer around to rein the episodes together into a story, Huck’s left with “something happens and then something else happens.” Here’s a picaresque passage that summarizes Huck’s “adventures” in his new milieu:

I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffalos, worked with one or t’other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn’t think too much about any of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim’s freedom back, but I warn’t never nothing but stone broke. The war was still on, each side chasing and killing t’other at a brisk pace clean across the Territory, and they both needed a body like me to scout ahead for them, watch over their stock at night, pony messages to the far side of the fighting, clean their muddy boots and help bury the dead, of which there warn’t never no scarcity, nuther boots nor dead.

Variations of these scenarios, as well as flashbacks to earlier episodes mentioned here, play out as the early plot in Huck Out West; Huck’s only real aim is to “buy Jim’s freedom back.” Jim’s been cruelly sold as a slave to a tribe of Indians by Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer is a fucking asshole.

But Tom is Huck’s main partner, or “pard” in Coover’s Twain’s vernacular. And don’t worry, Jim (Huck’s other pard) ends up okay. We meet him again, along with other members of the old gang, including Becky Thatcher, who’s fallen on harder times, and Ben Rogers. Ben has graduated from his youthful playacting in Tom Sawyers’ Gang to armed robbery as a member of a real gang. Huck Finn accidentally joins up. The scene plays out as one of many dark repetitions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and ends in violence.

Huck Out West is a violent novel, and reading it helps to foreground the violence of Twain’s original novel. In his 1960 study Love and Death in the American Novel, critic Leslie Fiedler highlighted the horror of Twain’s novel, horror which hides in plain sight:

Huckleberry Finn, that euphoric boys’ book, begins with its protagonist holding off at gun point his father driven half mad by the D.T.’s and ends (after a lynching, a disinterment, and a series of violent deaths relieved by such humorous incidents as soaking a dog in kerosene and setting him on fire) with the revelation of that father’s sordid death. Nothing is spared; Pap, horrible enough in life, is found murdered brutally, abandoned to float down the river in a decaying house scrawled with obscenities. But it is all “humor,” of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror.

In Huck Out West, no amount of humor can convince us—and, significantly poor Huckleberry—of the innocence of violence. There is no consolation in Manifest Destiny, only genocidal violence. Take the following passage, for example, in which Huck, conscripted by a malevolent general (well, colonel really—but who hasn’t told a stretcher every now and then?) to break horses for the U.S. Army, witnesses the massacre of an Indian tribe:

What happened a few minutes later come to be called a famous battle in the history books and the general he got a power of glory out of it, but a battle is what it exactly warn’t. Whilst me and Star watched over the spare horses, the soldier boys galloped howling through the burning tents and slaughtered more’n a hundred sleepers, which the general called warriors, but who was mostly wrinkled up old men, women, and little boys and girls. I seen eyes gouged out and ears tore off and bellies slit open with their innards spilling out like sausages.

The language of Huck Out West, here and elsewhere—full of missing scalps, ears, limbs, etc.—often veers closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As ever, Huck’s sense of justice simply does not square with the narrative (“history books”… “power of glory”) that others will shape from the raw predation he’s witnessed. He’s unable to connect the letter of the law to its spirit—or rather, he plainly sees that the letter is used to gloss over an evil, evil spirit. He’s still the same kid who, in the moral climax of Adventures, elected to “go to hell” rather than see Jim enslaved again.

Anyone familiar with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will also know that the novel’s ending is an incredibly problematic vaudeville of cruel comedy. Tom Sawyer pops back into the narrative, overwhelming whatever spirit of growth and maturity Huck achieved in the novel’s climax. The pair undertakes a series of cruel jokes on Jim. Their play is, to invert Fiedler’s terms above, a showcase for the violence of innocence, the horror of good clean fun. Critics over the years have either had to brush away the novel’s final chapters, or to try to reconcile them in some way. More germane is the viewpoint of one of Paul Bowles’s narrators (undoubtedly Bowles himself), who, in the short story “Unwelcome Words” laments: “I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn.” Coover provides a rewrite, in a sense: A fuller, more mature revision, one that takes Tom and Huck out of their adolescence into full-blown, inescapable adulthood—a revision that requires Huck resist the cruelty of both Tom and the “sivilization” he represents.

“The Amazing Tom Sawyer,” as various characters call him in Huck Out West is an awful evil instigator: a con-man, a fake-lawyer, a demagogue of the worst stripe. He’s always been this way, but we failed to notice, perhaps, enthralled by his confidence game. And what American doesn’t love a confidence trickster? Hell, Tom had kids lined up to pay him to whitewash a fence.

Tom pops in and out of Huck Out West with a jolting, picaresque force, and in some ways the central plot of the novel revolves around his partnership with Huck—a partnership that requires Huck buy into Tom’s nihilism. “Ain’t nothing fair, starting with getting born and having to die,” Tom scolds Huck. Huck is right though: It isn’t fair. In this case, Huck is protesting the “largest mass hanging in U.S. history,” the execution of over three dozen Sioux Indians in Minnesota in 1862.

Tom dresses up his core nihilism in any number of narratives. The great lie of all these narratives is, of course, the idea that Tom’s various predatory schemes are actually founded in justice, in some kind of manifestation of destiny. Tom sells the narrative to the people he’s conning. For him, maturation is nothing more than progressing, perfecting, and extending the long con on any rubes he can sucker. He dresses up the tribalist demagoguery he uses to sway the herd in romantic legalese, but at heart he’s a brute.

Huck’s maturation is more profound. He understands, spiritually if not intellectually, that he needs to get away from Tom Sawyer and his tribe “sivilzation.” Huck addresses Tom late in the book:

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

Coover provides a salient contrast to Tom Sawyer in a character of his own invention, a young Lakota Huck calls Eeteh (he can’t pronounce the full name). Eeteh is a holy fool who tells (and perhaps invents) stories of Snake, Raven, and Coyote—trickster tales and origin stories. Eeteh’s storytelling seems to point in a different direction than Tom’s tall tales. Eeteh describes the trickster and hides a kernel of wisdom in his tales; Tom’s stories are tricks on fools, signifying nothing. Significantly, Eeteh is something of an outcast among the Lakota. He understands Huck in ways Huck doesn’t understand himself:

Eeteh says that both of us growed up too early and missed a lot, so really didn’t grow up at all, just only got older. I says that’s probably better’n growing up and Eeteh was of the same opinion.

Huck and Eeteh have both, through their unique early upbringings (or lack-there-of), missed the “sivilizing” influences that would bind them into a dominant social narrative. Coover’s insight here is that “growing up” doesn’t necessarily mean “growing wise,” and that the old often hide their foolishness and venality behind empty stories.

But Coover’s storytelling is marvelous, rich, full. He colors brightly Huck’s moments of epiphany. In one prominent example, Huck Finn the horsebreaker takes (what I’m pretty sure was) mescaline at the behest of the Lakota tribe that temporarily adopts him. He breaks a wild horse, his metaphorical trip literalized in a wild gallop through American history and geography:

We was pounding over a desert, but when I peeked again we was suddenly splashing through a river, then tromping a wheat field, and next on the grasslands, scattering herds a buffalos and yelping coyotes. I had to scrouch down when he run through a low forest, not to get scraped off, then pull my knees up as we raced through a narrow gorge. We hammered in and out a mining and cow towns, Indian camps and army forts.

Huck’s apotheosis is real—for him, anyway—but the Lakota still enjoy a laugh at his expense, just as they have with inside outsider Eeteh. Tribes of any stripe are a nightmare to try to escape from.

And hence the final moments of Huck Out West recapitulate the final lines of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Eeteh—do I give away too much, dear reader? Very well, I give away too much—Huck and Eeteh dream of new frontiers and new freedoms. On the eve of the American centennial anniversary, the pards venture to fresh Territory. As they set out, Eeteh spins a final tale. In this tale, Fox and Coyote create a new being with “two members” made from pre-existing elements:

 

So they made a new cretur out a parts borrowed from Whooping Crane, Prairie Dog, Mountain Goat, Rainbow Trout, Turkey Vulture, Jack Rabbit, and Porkypine.

“That must a been something to see!” I says. “A cretur with two members, joined up from a crane, prairie dog, goat and trout, plain stops me cold in my tracks, never mind the rest!”

Eeteh says he’s really glad he didn’t try to tell me about Coyote in the Land of the Dead.

“Ain’t that a story about afterlife soul creturs? I thought you don’t take no stock in souls.”

Eeteh sighed and says that’s just what he means.

The final moments of Huck Out West reinvent Huck’s dream of synthesis at the beginning of Twain’s Adventures: “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better,” Huck tells us in that much older novel.

And even if Huck digs the swap and the flow of the new, he still can’t fully puzzle out Eeteh’s headscratcher. Our boy Huck never was one for narrative. “I was plumb lost,” he admits in the next line, before signaling the new Territory all storytelling opens: “I reckoned we could start over at the campfire tonight.” Tell the story again, tell it new.

So what does Eeteh’s story mean? Is there a rejection here of metaphysical meaning, of, like, a soul? I don’t know but I don’t think so. Perhaps Eeteh’s evoking here something closer to what Emerson called the Over-Soul (“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles…but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul”).

But is “Over-Soul” just another simple gloss, a sturdy but rusty nail to hang a narrative on—like “Manifest Destiny”? Coover’s Huck ends his narrative by admitting, “I was lost again,” which seems like a more than fair metaphor for America, if that’s how we’re to take the novel. (There are plenty of other ways to take it: It’s very funny, and the prose is amazing—I mean, here’s a novel that could’ve fallen into the trap of becoming some bizarre bad fanfiction, but Coover’s too good. The novel is aesthetically marvelous. I hope I’ve shared enough samples here to convey that to you, reader).

If Huck is lost again, he has a few solutions, the first one being to “muddytate” on the problem (with some whiskey, some fish, and the company of his pard). And so Huck the escape artist recalls here at the end of his narrative the other paradigm of American literature: the lazing loafer, the shirker, the dreamer. And what is dreaming but the richest form of escape? I think of Walt Whitman leaning and loafing at his ease observing a spear of summer grass, Ishmael’s sea-dreams, Rip Van Winkle dozing through the Revolutionary War… If Huck Out West posits a utopian escape, it’s an escape through imagination, and it’s an escape utopian only in its rejection of all social order outside of a single “pard.”

But ultimately, I don’t think Huck Out West wants its readers to escape from history, from American history, from the ugly awful violence of Manifest Destiny. Rather, I think the novel calls its reader to look anew through the eyes of our naive experienced insider outsider paradox of a hero, Huckleberry Finn—to look afresh at the Big Narrative that has dominated our society, and to decide whether or not it’s something we want to recapitulate—or something we’d be better off reimagining. Huck and his one pard—there is no utopia outside of a pair, it seems—might get to escape into the sunset, but the rest of us are stuck here. Let us all muddytate and then do better.

 

Thirty-point riff on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos.
  2. SW: TFA takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is “about” Star Wars.
  3. To this end, SW: TFA is basically a remake of A New Hope. My saying this is not insightful and cannot be insightful.
  4. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (aka Episode IV, aka simply Star Wars), George Lucas synthesized Flash Gordon and Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and WWII serials into a cultural product that was simultaneously new and old, hokey and profound, campy and heroic.
  5. SW: TFA is not a synthesis (and does not seek to be a synthesis); rather it is a transcription, repetition, and  replication of the previous Star Wars films—particularly the so-called “original trilogy” (Episodes IV, V, and VI).
  6. Hence, SW: TFA often feels like a greatest hits collection, its sequences and visuals (engaging and visually spectacular) cribbed from the previous films. I could spend the rest of the riff outlining the correspondences—major and minor—but why? The correspondences are intentionally obvious to anyone who has seen the film; furthermore, they are not allusions, but the formal structure of the film.
  7. And this formal technique, this replication—it’s all very enjoyable and often warm and unexpectedly humorous and at times awfully sad even.
  8. And I liked the new characters very much, which I was of course supposed to. They are all in some ways replications of previously existing characters, just as the set pieces and sequences they act in/out/upon are replications.
  9. Let’s consider Rey, the heroine of The Force Awakens really quickly: She is, in some ways, a synthesis, but only a synthesis of the principals of the Star Wars brand-mythos: She is at once Han, Luke, and Leia: A figuration in the foreground: A childhood fantasy.
  10. A childhood fantasy: Watching SW: TFA feels like watching a Star Wars film—which is the film’s intention, obviously.
  11. But not obviously and really quickly and not a gripe: Isn’t there a part of us, by which us I mean me, that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?
  12. Re: Point 11: I already made an (awfully) oblique argument at some length almost three years ago about franchise films in general and Star Wars films in particular, arguing (maybe arguing) for, say, Wong Kar Wai to direct the next Star Wars film.
  13. In that riff I wrote that, “J.J. Abrams is a safe bet. I can more or less already imagine the movie he’ll make.” That prediction was incorrect only in that I enjoyed the product that he made more than I thought I would. That prediction was wholly correct in that I could imagine the product Abrams made. It was easy to imagine. I’d already seen the film dozens of times before he even made it.
  14. So, to return to point 11, the “not a gripe” point: Is the argument then that film as an art form allows us (the illusion of) a transcendent perspective? That film at its best, at its strongest and strangest, offers us a new way of seeing?
  15. (Yes).
  16. The Force Awakens is strong but not strange. Its major advancement (by which I mean break from previous films) evinces in its casting choices—but these reflect the progress of our own era, not the brand-mythos of Star Wars itself, which was of course always diverse.
  17. The Force Awakens is fun. Entertaining. Like I wrote in point 1.
  18. And, to repeat point 2 after repeating point 1: SW: TFA is “about” Star Wars.
  19. So what do I mean by this? Consider for a minute what the other Star Wars films are “about.”
  20. A New Hope is about escape and rescue, both in the literal, romantic, and metatextual sense.
  21. The Empire Strikes Back is about Oedipal anxieties and Oedipal violence, family entanglements, friendships and loyalties.
  22. Return of the Jedi is about restoration and redemption, a film about the genius of ecology over mechanization.
  23. And while the (so-called) prequels are generally reviled, I like them: They are “about” something.
  24. For example, Revenge of the Sith is about democracy and fascism, community and ego—and more of that Oedipal violence.
  25. Indeed the entire series is Oedipally structured—which The Force Awakens replicates and continues.
  26. Yet Abrams’s reverence for Star Wars bears no clear trace (at least on my first viewing) of Oedipal anxiety towards Lucas. No attempt to transcend or surpass—as such a move would entail a kind of critical (if metaphorical) violence directed at Lucas’s vision. (Notably, many of the criticisms of the so-called prequels rest on the way those films look beyond their predecessors (in a way that Abrams’s film doesn’t)).
  27. “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” said Jean-Luc Goddard.
  28. And Harold Bloom: “Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety…There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.”
  29. Abrams’s goal was not to criticize Star Wars or poetically engage it; his goal was to praise it—to praise it as stasis, to replicate its comforts, to avow and vindicate its forms and tropes. And he succeeded.
  30. And of course the biggest success of the film: I want to watch it again.

A riff on J.G. Ballard’s superb degenerate satire High-Rise

  1. Ballard-High-RiseWith the bad taste of a recentish YAish post-apocalyptish novel in my brain, I riffled through some old sci-fi titles, hoping to find something to hit “reset.” J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise—which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager—wrapped me up immediately with its opening  sentence:

    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

  2. (If the promise of that first line doesn’t intrigue you, High-Rise isn’t for you. Maybe you’ll enjoy all the old High-Rise covers I couldn’t help but to scatter through this riff).
  3. The first chapter of High-Rise is aptly titled “Critical Mass.” This is a book where things, uh, escalate quickly, if you’ll forgive my indulging in the parlance of our times. Ballard dispenses with any simmering in his tale of depraved debauchery (or is that debauched depravity?). He gets that pot boilin’.ballard-high-rise
  4. Depravity. Debauchery. Degeneration. The boiling pot of late-20th century consciousness.
  5. So, what is High-Rise about? Like, the plot, man? Class-war in a high-rise condo: A self-contained society that fails, its id overspilling into sex and violence: The veneer dissolved in piss and spite. And the best part? Ballard dispenses with any sort of explanation whatsoever. We begin at critical mass. He counted on his late-20th-century reader to intuit the whole damn deal (or throw down the book in defensive disgust).
  6. Ballard structures the book around three anti-heroes, who represent, probably, id, ego, and superego—or rather, what I mean to say is ironic send-ups of id, ego, and superego—with the high-rise itself a kind of consciousness in crisis.6001572752_4a601a081e_b
  7. From the middle-class (and perhaps ego)—the 25th floor—there’s Dr. Robert Laing—not really a practicing doctor, no, but he works at a teaching hospital. Ballard tricks us into thinking he’s the protagonist—which I guess he is!—by which I mean audience surrogate, and also typical Ballardian hero (divorced; mama issues; a drinker). His name may recall to you the (anti-)psychiatrist R.D. Laing (as well as, perhaps, Language).
  8. We might find a tidy—as in sanitary–summary of High-Rise in this brief excerpt, where our ego hero Laing packs away his tools and totems of the old world in anticipation of the new one to come:

    In this suitcase-sized cavity he hid away his cheque book and insurance policies, tax returns and share certificates. Lastly, he forced in his medical case with vials of morphine, antibiotics and cardiac stimulants. When he nailed the floorboards back into place he felt that he was sealing away for ever the last residues of his previous life, and preparing himself without reservation for the new one to come.

  9. The phrase “to come” — as in a future to come — repeats throughout High-Rise—a kind of irony, ultimately, that I shouldn’t step all over here. I’ll get back to that momentarily, but—
  10. Ballard soon trips us up by shifting his free-indirect style from Laing to Richard Wilder of the 2nd floor. A bestial brawny brawly dude (and the only father in this trio of anti-heroes) Wilder (c’mon with that name man!) is id id id all the way down (up). Wilder’s also a filmmaker, a camera in his hand, a sensing thing all the way down (up). He causes some problems.
  11. (The idea that a middle-class man like Wilder might represent the proletariat here is addressed in more (although oblique) depth in Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People).
  12. And then the super-ego/upper crust: Anthony Royal (O! c’mon with that name dammit!) of the penthouse. He’s the literal architect of the high-rise, which makes him possibly maybe probably responsible for its many, many design flaws, which boil down to intake, outtake, and power, but look like parking, garbage, and electricity.High-Rise
  13. And so Ballard shuttles us between these three consciousnesses, like the elevators that symbolically anchor this novel. (Anchor is a terrible verb for these mobile metaphors. Or maybe it’s the precise verb).
  14. Like I said in point 5, Ballard doesn’t really bother to foreground the causes for the high-rises’s society’s degenerate descent (ascent?)—instead, he offers concrete contours and psychological descriptions. Like this one, when a psychiatrist (yep) offers this analysis to Laing (and the reader, of course):

    I had a bucket of urine thrown over me this afternoon. Much more of that and I may take up a cudgel myself. It’s a mistake to imagine that we’re all moving towards a state of happy primitivism. The model here seems to be less the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection — obviously a more dangerous mix than anything our Victorian forebears had to cope with. Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry. Perhaps they resent never having had a chance to become perverse . . .

  15. (“Perverse” is a term that repeats throughout High-Rise, and I had to leave in those bucket of urine and cudgel details).
  16. The concrete contours, the description, the late-20th century analysis—that’s the reason to boil along with High-Rise. The book is fucking fun in its thrilling awful decadence—it’s Lord of the Flies for adults, with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo replaced with psychiatric mumbo-jumbo. Or Salò.
  17. Back to that future to come thing, here’s another citation, at some length (enjoy those concrete contours), but with my emphasis in boldface if you’re in some big fucking hurry:

    Still uncertain how long he had been awake, or what he had been doing half an hour earlier, Laing sat down among the empty bottles and refuse on the kitchen floor. He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins. He found it hard to remember what their original function had been. To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand. Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. Laing pondered this — sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

  18. Ballard’s describing the late 20th century there, but perhaps he intuits the beginning of the 21st as well.91ihsrhnexl-_sl1500_
  19. —Or maybe those are the same thing, I suppose—I mean, High-Rise was published in 1975, four decades ago, but doesn’t feel that old. For some perspective, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts was published in 1936, almost forty years before High-Rise, and that novel doesn’t feel horribly dated either, a tribute to its sharp satire.
  20. —Which is my way of transitioning to the probably completely non-controversial idea that High-Rise is wonderful dark satire. Ballard ushers our consciousness to the high-rise’s summit through surrogate Laing, the limited concrete prose focused on the failed doctor’s misperception of transcendence. Laing perceives himself as the conquering brute, alpha male par excellence, inheritor not only of the falling high-rise, but also its female cohort, his harem in a future to come, his genealogical generativity restored. Laing can’t see that he’s been x’ed out of this equation, the failed phallic figure jutting impotently into mother sky.
  21. So you know that High-Rise is going to be a movie? A Major Motion Picture? Starring Tom Hiddleston? As cynical as I am, I think the book should make a fine film—it’s adaptable, yes. It could even be a great video game. A video game where you eat a dog. A video game where you think you win, but you don’t.

I review my review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice an hour before seeing PTA’s film adaptation

I’m leaving to (finally) see Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice in a few minutes.

I’m going with my uncle. (I also saw No Country for Old Men with him in the theater. This point seems hardly worth these parentheses).

Below, in block quotes, is my review of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (which I published here—the review obviously—in 2009). My 2015 comments are interposed.

inherent_vice

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice

Oh god I used to bold face key terms jesus christ sorry.

is a detective-fiction genre exercise/parody set in a cartoonish, madcap circa-1970 L.A. redolent with marijuana smoke, patchouli, and paranoia.

“genre exercise”…”madcap”…ugh!

Navigating this druggy haze is private detective Doc Sportello, who, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend, searches for a missing billionaire in a plot tangled up with surfers, junkies, rock bands, New Age cults, the FBI, and a mysterious syndicate known as the Golden Fang–and that’s not even half of it.

Not a bad little summary, bro.

At a mere 369 pages, Inherent Vice is considerably shorter than Pynchon’s last novel Against the Day, not to mention his masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and while it might not weigh in with those novels, it does bear plenty of the same Pynchonian trademarks: a strong picaresque bent, a mix of high and low culture, plenty of pop culture references, random sex, scat jokes, characters with silly names (too many to keep track of, of course), original songs, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia, and a central irreverence that borders on disregard for the reader.

Uh…

And like Pynchon’s other works, Inherent Vice is a parody, a take on detective noir, but also a lovely little rip on the sort of novels that populate beaches and airport bookstores all over the world. It’s also a send-up of L.A. stories and drug novels, and really a hate/love letter to the “psychedelic 60s” (to use Sportello’s term), with much in common with Pynchon’s own Vineland (although comparisons to Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski and even Chinatown wouldn’t be out of place either).

When I heard the PTA was adapting Inherent Vice, I thought: Wait, the Coens already did that before Pynchon wrote the book.

While most of Inherent Vice reverberates with zany goofiness and cheap thrills,

Clichés, bro.

Pynchon also uses the novel as a kind of cultural critique, proposing that modern America begins at the end of the sixties (the specter of the Manson family, the ultimate outsiders, haunts the book). The irony, of course–and undoubtedly it is purposeful irony–is that Pynchon has made similar arguments before: Gravity’s Rainbow locates the end of WWII as the beginning of modern America; the misadventures of the eponymous heroes of Mason & Dixon foreground an emerging American mythology; V. situates American place against the rise of a globally interdependent world.

Uh…

If Inherent Vice works in an idiom of nostalgia, it also works to undermine and puncture that nostalgia. Feeling a little melancholy, Doc remarks on the paradox underlying the sixties that “you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting be sold out.” In one of the novel’s most salient passages–one that has nothing to do with the plot, of course–Doc watches a music store where “in every window . . . appeared a hippie freak or a small party of hippie freaks, each listening on headphones to a different rock ‘n’ roll album and moving around at a different rhythm.” Doc’s reaction to this scene is remarkably prescient:

. . . Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.

Oh cool you finally quoted from the book. Not a bad little riff.

If Doc’s tone is elegiac, the novel’s discourse works to undercut it, highlighting not so much the “great collective dream” of “a single public self,” but rather pointing out that not only was such a dream inherently false, an inherent vice, but also that this illusion came at a great price–one that people are perhaps paying even today. Doc’s take on the emerging postmodern culture is ironized elsewhere in one of the book’s more interesting subplots involving the earliest version of the internet. When Doc’s tech-savvy former mentor hips him to some info from ARPANET – “I swear it’s like acid,” he claims – Doc responds dubiously that “they outlawed acid as soon as they found out it was a channel to somethin they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?” Doc’s paranoia (and if you smoked a hundred joints a day, you’d be paranoid too) might be a survival trait, but it also sometimes leads to this kind of shortsightedness.

Will PTA’s film convey the ironies I found here? Or were the ironies even there?

Intrinsic ironies aside, Inherent Vice can be read straightforward as a (not-so-straightforward) detective novel, living up to the promise of its cheesy cover. Honoring the genre, Pynchon writes more economically than ever, and injects plenty of action to keep up the pace in his narrative. It’s a page-turner, whatever that means, and while it’s not exactly Pynchon-lite, it’s hardly a heavy-hitter, nor does it aspire to be.

I’m not sure if I believe any of that, bro. Did I believe it even when I wrote it? It’s a shaggy dog story, and shaggy dogs unravel, or tangle, rather—they don’t weave into a big clear picture. And maybe it is a heavy hitter. (Heavy one-hitter).

At the same time, Pynchon fans are going to find plenty to dissect in this parody, and should not be disappointed with IV‘s more limited scope (don’t worry, there’s no restraint here folks–and who are we kidding, Pynchon is more or less critic-proof at this point in his career, isn’t he?). Inherent Vice is good dirty fun, a book that can be appreciated on any of several different levels, depending on “where you’re at,” as the hippies in the book like to say. Recommended.

Oh geez.

Okay, I should write more but my uncle says it’s time to roll.

Review: Tim O’Brien’s Novel The Things They Carried, Read by Bryan Cranston

thingsI’ve used Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” in the classroom for so many years now that I’ve perhaps become immune to any of the tale’s rhetorical force.Trekking through the story again with a new group of students can occasionally turn up new insights—mostly these days from veterans going back to school after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan—but for the most part, the story “The Things They Carried” is too blunt in its symbols, too programmatic in its oppositions of the physical and metaphysical, too rigid in its maturation plot. There’s no mystery to it, unlike other oft-anthologized stories which can withstand scores of rereadings (I think of Hawthorne or O’Connor here; when I reread “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, I always understand it or misunderstand it in a new, different way).

But my students invariably love “The Things They Carried,” and I love reading it with them.

Despite reading the story “The Things They Carried” semester after semester, I hadn’t gone back to the novel The Things They Carried in years, until the kind people at Audible sent me a new audiobook version read by character actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the MiddleSeinfeld). I enjoyed the audiobook over a week of commutes.

The Things They Carried is a loose collection of stories that centers on a character named Tim O’Brien and his time with Alpha Company during the Vietnam War. The book also focuses on O’Brien’s experiences, as well as the experiences of some of his fellow soldiers, before and after Vietnam. O’Brien ties the book around a few major stories, fleshing it out with fragments, and telling tales from different viewpoints and even different chronologies. If a character dies in one story, he’s welcome to show up in a later story or vignette. That’s how memory works. And when memory fails, there are stories:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

O’Brien’s major concern in The Things They Carried isn’t just the experiences of regular soldiers in the Vietnam War. He’s also deeply concerned with how to frame, recall, tell, and retell those experiences. In this sense, the formal aspects of the novel—its fragmentary, decentered structure—carry out its themes. The result is a strange beast, a novel that is simultaneously postmodern metafiction and dirty realism. Almost every single story in The Things They Carried attempts to suss out its own telling; indeed, how to tell, how to witness to (horror, violence, war) is probably the book’s real aim. Nowhere is this more evident than in “How to Tell a True Story”:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The notation of a “rule of thumb” there is a dark little sick joke, a thread that O’Brien picks up from the opening title story. Moments like these, little threads, little images, help the work to cohere as a novel, even as O’Brien does his damnedest to fracture the whole business. His hand-wringing about truth and fiction and reality begins to wear on the reader. It’s not that O’Brien isn’t right to be concerned about these issues, but The Things They Carried spends a bit too much time dithering over its own right to imagine a truth.

O’Brien is better at the dirty realism, I think, which we can see in the brutal vivid details in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a story about a guy who brings his teenage girlfriend to Vietnam. “Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that,” O’Brien writes at the beginning, “but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane.” In “Sweetheart,” O’Brien toes that line to great effect. The story culminates in imagery that seems borrowed from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m tempted to share the story’s strongest image but won’t. No spoilers.

“Sweetheart” is less concerned with the frames and edges of its own telling than some of the other stories in The Things They Carried, but O’Brien still highlights the essential problem of witnessing:

“Patience, man. Up to now, everything I told you is from personal experience, the exact truth, but there’s a few other things I heard secondhand. Thirdhand, actually. From here on it gets to be … I don’t know what the word is.”

“Speculation.”

I think it helped me to hear The Things They Carried in a different voice, a different tone or mode or mood than my own. Bryan Cranston does a wonderful job here. I’ve written before about how a good reader makes all the difference in an audiobook. Cranston, surely most famous for his iconic performance as hapless father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, telegraphs O’Brien’s tales in a straightforward but sonorous voice, injecting pathos and wry humor at the appropriate moments. Cranston inhabits each voice in The Things They Carried, imbuing every character with his own tone and rhythm. The result is a compelling and moving interpretation of The Things They Carried. Cranston opens up what I had thought to be a more-or-less closed book.

This new audiobook features a bonus essay called “The Vietnam in Me” which recounts O’Brien’s 1994 return to Vietnam with his young girlfriend. The essay reads as a condensation, repetition, and extension of the book that precedes it, with O’Brien repeatedly admitting as much—reminding us again and again of the relationship between memory and story. O’Brien reads the essay himself in a reedy, often shaky voice. The recording quality seems to depart from the clean studio perfection of the book proper—there’s more hiss, more crackly, longer gaps. More dirty realism. Strangely, O’Brien’s quaver suggests a man less in control of the story than alter-ego Cranston’s confidence suggested. The divergence in the two readers underscores the book’s core theme, reminding us that it’s not just the story that matters, but the storyteller

You can see/hear Cranston read bits of the book in this video:

RIP Roger Ebert

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RIP Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Roger Ebert had a tremendous impact on how I thought about criticism and how a review should be written, voiced, pitched. I didn’t always agree with the guy, but I loved watching his show (usually more than the films he and Siskel reviewed) and reading his reviews, and I loved following him on Twitter, where I’ll miss him most I guess.

A Riff on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Film The Master (Including a Take on the Ending)

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1. I finally saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master last night. I’m going to riff on the film. Fair warning:this riff will contain spoilers—I’ll talk about the film’s final scene, for instance (and if you just want to read about the ending, scroll down to point 23, after the embedded video).

2. The first hour of The Master is probably the best thing PTA has done.

3. The Master begins on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific. These are the final days of WWII. Navy boy Freddie Quell (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix), solitary from his fellows, pours from a can of the mystic moonshine he brews into a coconut he’s hacked open with a machete. He then drinks the potion and mimes chopping off his hand with the machete. After this, he humps a woman made of sand and jerks off into the ocean.

4. The idyll of the Pacific beach contrasts strongly with Quell’s tortured psyche—it’s clear from the film’s first few moments that he’s borderline deranged, a sex-obsessed alcoholic who was damaged long before the war.

5. Quell is also a profoundly talented chemist (or alchemist) capable of brewing strange cocktails mixed from whatever’s at hand. These potions intrigue Lancaster Dodd (henceforth Master, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who samples a flask and asks Quell to brew more. Quell says he’ll make Master something different from that first batch, asking him, “How do you want to feel?”

6. “How do you want to feel?”

This question governs The Master, and the film is at its best when probing and plumbing these depths.

7. Back to my second statement: The first hour or so of The Master is probably the best thing PTA has done. Freddie Quell is an intriguing figure, a desperate madman who recapitulates the crimes of Oedipus where ever he goes.

He is The Misfit of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” trying to match faith to the phenomenal world.

He is Jonah, fleeing angry Yaweh, stowing away on a ship.

8. The first scenes of The Master borrow liberally from the Terrence Malick playbook:

The opening scene on the beach strongly recalls the opening of The Thin Red Line, and the subsequent scenes where Quell maybe murders a man and then must run feel like the opening minutes of Days of Heaven.

Like Malick, PTA lets the gorgeous cinematography convey meaning; dialog passes through the background of the film.

9. The dialog begins when Quell meets Master, charismatic leader of “The Cause.” You know of course that Master is based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. It’s worth pointing out that the film isn’t really about Scientology, or cults, or charlatans—although these points are explored, for sure—it’s really about the search for meaning, for stability. For some kind of peace.

10. The friendship—and friendship-as-dialog—between Master and Quell is by far the most compelling part of The Master, and the film’s best scene is a long episode where Master initiates “Processing” with Quell—delving into the man’s founding traumas to purify his spirit. I usually hate to laud actors, but Hoffman and Phoenix are sublime here, fully inhabiting the characters through the scenes deep emotional shifts.

The Master never surpasses this scene.

11. Indeed, the biggest failure of the film is that there’s no moment in its back half that can respond to the Processing scene. The film’s final scene attempts to mirror it in some ways, but the attempt lacks the weight. It’s off balance.

12. I feel the need to preface what I’m about to write by saying very clearly:

Paul Thomas Anderson is an extremely gifted auteur, a filmmaker who has, moreso than perhaps any of his contemporaries, continued in the (anti-)tradition of the New Hollywood films of the seventies. I would rather watch a PTA film than a film by just about anybody.

But:

The guy has a real problem sticking the ending. His films fail to cohere, to transcend the sum of their parts. This might be an editing issue or a plotting issue or something more commercially-driven, like running time. I don’t know.

13. Exceptions to PTA not sticking the ending:

Punch Drunk Love, easily his most concise and focused film, a long short story from a filmmaker who works in sprawling novels.

Possibly Boogie Nights, which sags in the final third but is nevertheless buoyed by an energetic scene featuring Alfred Molina, a mixtape, some cocaine, and fireworks. (This scene is lifted from Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, by the way).

14. For the most part though, PTA’s films swell outside of the margins that their own narratives establish in the beginning of each film (I’m not sure if this sentence makes sense—what I mean is that the films’ endings fall apart w/r/t the films’ beginnings).

In There Will Be Blood, PTA uses a stunning, violent, unforgettable final moment as a punchline to the film. It’s probably what most of us remember, and it’s certainly a great way to close the epic. Still: When I rewatch Blood, I start to become impatient with the film’s meandering after its thrilling opening hour. I start to anticipate the horrific punchline.

15. The easiest example to point to of PTA’s undisciplined sprawl is Magnolia. I can’t think of a film with a stronger opening that so quickly devolves into Altmanesque chaos. Which is the point, yes, I get—but Magnolia, again, is a PTA film which can’t live up to its first hour. (Again, PTA covers over the back end’s sloppiness with a marvelous final scene).

16. So, to return to The Master: I went into the film with high expectations—hoping that this would be the film by PTA that coheres, that is more than just a collection of fantastic performances and amazing scenes. And for the first hour, I was enthralled: I cared deeply about Freddie Quell, found his strange passions heartbreaking, was moved by his bizarre relationship with Master.

And the film is great—it really is—but it’s not as great as I wanted it to be. (Which, yes, I know, says nothing about the film and everything about me).

17. The film’s seams start to show after the magical sea voyage from California to New York. The first few scenes in New York are fascinating (especially when Master is confronted by a skeptic at a party), but as the The Cause moves back West over land, PTA increasingly relies on montages and shorter scenes that seem like placeholders to cobble together the film’s longer sections.

18. The last truly transcendent scene is where Master sings “I’ll Go No More A-Roving,” and it comes at almost exactly the half-way point of the film’s 138 minute running time.

19. All kinds of interesting stuff happens after the “Roving” scene—and PTA seems content to raise more mysteries than he resolves, which I’m fine with—but a long montage showcasing the different Processing techniques of The Cause sucks the energy right out of the film.

20. What follows is a lot of meandering, a lot of unexplained—or worse, unexplored—moments between characters that shift focus away from the relationship between Master and Quell.

21. Maybe I want a longer edit of The Master.

22. Here’s a 20 minute reel of cut footage:

23. And what about the ending of The Master? As I tried to convey in points 13-15, PTA usually closes with a very strong scene or image. With the exception of There Will Be Blood, I’d argue that the final moments of PTA’s films generally depict moments of love, redemption, or reconciliation. The Master fits into this trend. How so?

24. Okay: So The Master is in some ways formally Oedipal.

Quell’s crimes are two-fold: He kills a man who he says reminds him of his father and he has sex with his aunt. The film leaves open the possibility that both of these crimes—crimes he confesses to Master during Processing—are simply displacements for the more direct sins of killing his real father and fucking his real mother.

The Oedipal tensions that underwrite the film are strongly on display in the relationship between Master and Quell: Master is in love with Quell; Quell needs a father figure. All sorts of weird familial displacements ensue between Master’s family members and Quell.

The Oedipal theme also evinces in the film’s motif of breasts, bellies, and other pregnancy images. While not many of The Cause’s ideas are expressed clearly in The Master, the idea that all founding traumas are recorded in/on the soul is made plain several times. Put another way, all people are subjected to traumas that exist in pre-Oedipal, pre-lingual, pre-conscious states.

Quell wants to return to the womb to correct or ameliorate or avoid these traumas. The impossibility of achieving this desire drives him to self-medicate with his homemade brews and to see sex in everything.

The film ends with Quell having sex with a stranger he picks up in a bar. They laugh heartily—another of the film’s motifs—laughter as a measurement of joy, but also dejection, also hysteria, also fear, also irrationality, also no language, just laughter—they laugh heartily, and in a shot that foregrounds his sex partner’s large breasts, Quell begins Processing her.

25. We then get the film’s last line, delivered with laughter: “Stick it back in, it fell out.”

The referent of the “it” is, on the surface level, Quell’s penis, but it also serves as a substitution for Quell himself, who would like to return to a mother, to start again in a new life. (The scene, a riff on Quell’s first Processing with Master, can also be read as the displaced sexual consummation between the two men).

The film’s final image gives us Quell lying down next to the woman made of sand, her huge breasts erect, dominating the shot; he curls into her, peaceful, serene, fetal. The shot is deceptive: It suggests reconciliation or even redemption, but the memory of peace is just one fragment of Quell’s terribly fragmented life. Significantly, the moment comes from the beginning of the film. If Quell is to be reborn and live again—as Master believes all people are—it is clear that he has not transcended his base animal urges.

When Quell awakes, he awakes to trauma.

26. Having riffed on the film’s end, I think the film is probably better than I gave it credit for earlier. It’s a cold Sunday. I think I’ll watch The Master again.

Flann O’Brien’s Novel At Swim-Two-Birds Is a Postmodernist Masterpiece of Comic Storytelling

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The vibrant force of storytelling in Flann O’Brien’s excellent first novel At Swim-Two-Birds threatens to overwhelm reader and narrator alike—and what a strange joy it is to be overwhelmed. This novel overflows with stories; its plot threads twist into each other, break out of each other, erupt into new ideas, characters, riffs, sketches. First published in 1939—the same year as James Joyce’s Finnegans WakeAt Swim-Two-Birds seems light years ahead of its time—indeed, this is a book that is still ahead of its time.

Summarizing At Swim-Two-Birds is difficult but worth attempting. We have an unnamed narrator, a student living with his uncle who doesn’t think much of how his nephew spends his time. Our narrator likes to imbibe large quantities of porter and wax philosophical with his friends about his literary projects. These projects, our narrator’s riffs and scribblings, begin to take on lives of their own: they intersect, overlap, intermarry, degenerate and regenerate.

The book’s opening paragraph announces the novel’s intention to disregard the classical unities of action, place, and time:

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.

First, we meet “Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class,” a hobgoblin of Irish folklore (he turns out to be a thoughtful and polite fellow). Then, there’s John Furriskey, who “was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it.” Furriskey is the literary creation of another of the narrator’s literary creations, one Dermot Trellis, a grumpy old man who writes Westerns; Trellis (an author, it’s worth reiterating) is the eventual antagonist of the novel, the target for all of the other characters’ vengeance. The third opening offers up Finn Mac Cool, “a legendary hero of old Ireland.”

Much of the early part of At Swim-Two-Birds features Finn Mac Cool holding forth on all matters Irish in wonderfully baroque and hyperbolic passages. Here’s a snippet (a long one!), featuring Finn on the ideal man:

When pursued by a host, he must stick a spear in the world and hide behind it and vanish in its narrow shelter or he is not taken for want of sorcery. Likewise he must hide beneath a twig, or behind a dried leaf, or under a red stone, or vanish at full speed into the seat of his hempen drawers without changing his course or abating his pace or angering the men of Erin. Two young fosterlings he must carry under the armpits to his jacket through the whole of Erin, and six arm-bearing warriors in his seat together. If he be delivered of a warrior or a blue spear, he is not taken. One hundred head of cattle he must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men of Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. He must swiftly milk a fat cow and carry milk-pail and cow for twenty years in the seat of his drawers. When pursued in a chariot by the men of Erin he must dismount, place horse and chariot in the slack of his seat and hide behind his spear, the same being stuck upright in Erin. Unless he accomplishes these feats, he is not wanted of Finn. But if he do them all and be skillful, he is of Finn’s people.

It’s hard not to feel something of Joyce in the passage (I’m particularly reminded of the Cyclops episode of Ulysses), and O’Brien’s narrator name-checks Joyce (along with Aldous Huxley) in the first few pages of the book. The narrator’s comically mechanical and precise descriptions also recall Joyce. Joyce and O’Brien drew from the same well of mythology, but O’Brien more keenly attunes his focus on Irish legend and folklore in At Swim-Two-Birds, while Joyce’s project skews to archetypes. Similarities and divergences aside, there’s something strangely fitting about O’Brien’s Finn Mac Cool dreaming his way into other characters’ lives in At Swim-Two-Birds, as if this Finn is the psychic twin of Joyce’s Finn.

Indeed, such a reading would fit neatly into our young narrator’s ideas about the function of character in literature:

Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

This decree strikes me as wonderfully post-postmodernist. That the “modern novel should be largely a work of reference” finds its suitable echo over half a century later in the note-card novels of David Markson (and other reality smugglers). The citation above serves as a metatextual description of At Swim-Two-Birds itself: O’Brien’s narrator framing the various tales that erupt in the novel, but also undoing the frames, allowing his characters to converge, to tell their own stories (and within those stories characters tell other stories…).

In its finest moments (of which there are many), At Swim-Two-Birds operates on an ad hoc logic that it creates and describes in motion, a kind of improvised dream response pattern. Most books, particularly postmodern books, teach the reader how to read them—that is, most novels provide keys, hints, and reading rules early enough in the text to allow perceptive readers to interpret (subjectively, of course) what the novel is doing. O’Brien’s novel in toto, with its discontinuities, gaps, eruptions, and juxtapositions, paradoxically is its own discrete, unified key.

But I seem to be getting bogged down in a bit of literary theory, which is not my intent at all.

Instead, let me draw attention to a wonderful extended jaunt in the middle of At Swim-Two-Birds where the Pooka MacPhellimey enters into an ersatz quest with the Good Fairy, two cowboyish thugs (or thuggish cowboys) named Slug and Shorty, the poet Jem Casey, and the mad King Sweeny. This ragtag band sets out to bequeath gifts to the forthcoming child of Miss Lamont (the creation of a creation of a creation). These episodes unfold in comic bravado, their slapstick rhythms recalling the manic but precise energy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the linguistic brio of the Marx brothers. This miniature picaresque is tempered in sweet pathos for poor crazy Sweeny who must be plied forward with the promise of a feast. The poor man, broken, starving, and living solely on watercress, falls into despair. What eventually moves him? The force of language:

And getting around the invalid in a jabbering ring, they rubbed him and cajoled and coaxed, and plied him with honey-talk and long sweet-lilted sentences full of fine words, and promised him metheglin and mugs of viscous tarblack mead thickened with white yeast and the spoils from hives of mountain-bees, and corn-coarse nourishing farls of wheaten bread dipped in musk-scented liquors and sodden with Belgian sherry, an orchard and a swarm of furry honey-glutted bees and a bin of sun-bronzed grain from the granaries of the Orient in every drop as it dripped at the lifting of the hand to the mouth, and inky quids of strong-smoked tabacca with cherrywood pipes, hubble-bubbles, duidins, meerschaums, clays, hickory hookahs and steel-stemmed pipes with enamel bowls, the lot of them laid side by side in a cradle of lustrous blue plush, a huge pipe-case and pipe-rack ingeniously combined and circumscribed with a durable quality of black imitation leather over a framework of stout cedarwood dovetailed and intricately worked and made to last, the whole being handsomely finished and untouched by hand and packed in good-quality transparent cellophane, a present calculated to warm the cockles of the heart of any smoker. They also did not hesitate to promise him sides of hairy bacon, the mainstay and the staff of life of the country classes, and lamb-chops still succulent with young blood, autumn-heavy yarns from venerable stooping trees, bracelets and garlands of browned sausages and two baskets of peerless eggs fresh-collected, a waiting hand under the hen’s bottom. They beguiled him with the mention of salads and crome custards and the grainy disorder of pulpy boiled rhubarb, matchless as a physic for the bowels, olives and acorns and rabbit-pie, and venison roasted on a smoky spit, and mulatto thick-tipped delphy cups of black-strong tea. They foreshadowed the felicity of billowy beds of swansdown carefully laid crosswise on springy rushes and sequestered with a canopy of bearskins and generous goatspelts, a couch for a king with fleshly delectations and fifteen hundred olive-mellow concubines in constant attendance against the hour of desire. Chariots they talked about and duncrusted pies exuberant with a sweat of crimson juice, and tall crocks full of eddying foam-washed stout, and wailing prisoners in chains on their knees for mercy, humbled enemies crouching in sackcloth with their upturned eye-whites suppliant. They mentioned the leap of a fire on a cold night, long sleeps in the shadows and leaden-eyed forgetfulness hour on hour – princely oblivion. And as they talked, they threaded through the twilight and the sudden sun-pools of the wild country.

I’ve perhaps overshared here, let our characters babble on too long—but the verbal dexterity of the passage above illustrates O’Brien’s rhetorical force, the force he lends his characters in order that they should move their insane and desperate friend forward. There’s a sublime alchemy at work here, where imagination turns into words and words turn into food and drink.

I also fear these big chunks of text I’ve pulled from At Swim-Two-Birds don’t highlight O’Brien’s extraordinary talent at rendering speech. The dialogue in this novel is hilarious but nuanced, its ironies rarely if ever remarked upon by intrusive attributions. That O’Brien’s narrator’s characters (and their characters…) speak through the layers of texts adds to the book’s juxtapositions.

These juxtapositions will perhaps confuse or even alienate many readers. At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an attack on the classical unities of action, place, and time. O’Brien’s novel is a send-up of stability, order, and tradition. Some of the novel’s best moments are its strangest indulgences, as when O’Brien (or his narrator) gives the novel over to citations from imaginary antique texts, or allows his characters to indulge in a seemingly endless recitation of obscure facts, or satirizes the moral dangers of tea-tasting. These moments seem to erupt from nowhere, bizarre, wonderful, joyous.

At Swim-Two-Birds lacks the cohesion of theme and voice that characterizes O’Brien’s other masterpiece, The Third Policeman, but this is hardly a deficiency. At Swim-Two-Birds is one of those rare books that actually deserves to be called dazzling, a critic’s crutch-word that mars too many blurbs. Its dazzle derives from its rhetorical force, its humor, and its openness to experiment with not just the novelistic form, but the form of storytelling itself. And it’s here that O’Brien’s novel is most real—he captures the strangeness of storytelling, its mutability, its crazy rhythms. Ultimately, this is a novel unconcerned with providing pat answers and clear solutions. I loved this book, loved reading it—and then immediately rereading it. I’ll let O’Brien get the last word:

Answers do not matter so much as questions, said the Good Fairy. A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question.

I Review The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights, a Chapbook by Allen Kechagiar

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“The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” is a lovely little chapbook, new from Pilotless Press, an Athenian  outfit (uh, Greek, not Georgian) that  knows how to put together an aesthetically-pleasing text. “Lockwood Heights” is their first release. It’s by Allen Kechagiar, who, full disclosure, I’ve been email-friendly with for a several years now.

What’s “Lockwood Heights” about?

An unnamed narrator, a young man, returns to his hometown in California, the titular Lockwood Heights, “another far station, another dead end valley prone to fire, another far suburb with no other cause than the profit it would generate for its contractors.” With little going for it in a depressed economy, the citizens of Lockwood Heights allow porn production to become their town’s raison d’etre. Studios move in and the girls of Lockwood Heights soon find they can essentially auction off their virginity on camera:

They struggle to keep their virginity intact (or at any rate their parents struggle to keep it so) and hope that they will be chosen as the royal heir’s queen consort. Here, at Lockwood Heights, we had our very own race: at its finish line there was no prince to greet the winners, but a whole menagerie, or more accurately a bestiary, comprising of artificially tanned Californian would-have-beens, barely legal girls with gigantic strap-ons, transvestites and hermaphrodites, midgets and giants, obese, anorexic, effeminate, silicon-enhanced or not, all of them with a ticket to her body, standing in a metaphorical queue. A body that wasn’t hers to control anymore. The studio owned it from then on, through the unwritten contracts of promised fame that is rarely delivered.

They were also called the Treasurers or The Knights Who Say No. Their motto was non numquam. Their herald was a locked gate.

The various histories of these girls fill most of “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights,” and as the narrator often uses the first-person plural “we” (that is, the high school boys), the story sometimes takes on a melancholy and wistful tone similar to Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. These are the finest moments of “Heights,” compact and precise narratives that relate the sad (and sometimes not-so-sad) lives of these girls who make porn (or, in some cases, refuse to).

It’s not just the girls of Lockwood Heights who sell their bodies on film—our protagonist comes home to sell all he has left, his “twin virginity” to be lost for a director who is sometimes called the Stanley Kubrick of porn. Scenes of the narrator meeting the casting director, his costar, and other workers on the film’s production are interspersed with the girl stories, as well as the backdrop of the narrator’s homecoming. His father has died, his mother is absent, and a strange little ersatz closet has been constructed in one of the house’s corridors. The interrelationship between these three elements is not as fully developed as it could be; I found myself wanting more. I also wanted more of the strange, aphoristic asides the narrator occasionally offers, like this one:

When we sleep we do not live in the full sense of the word. We rehearse death. Our dreams, the fallout of our daily lives, can only be remembered. They cannot be lived.

When they happen, we do not exist.

In its best moments (and there are plenty of those), “Heights” commands the reader’s attention with its bizarre mix of pathos and the pathetic, with sharp humor that threatens to tip into something more sinister. The southern California exurb Kechagiar crafts recalls the slightly off dystopias of George Saunders—the kind of place we wish were more removed from our immediate reality. “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” feels like the starting point of something bigger, more expansive, more detailed—and I’d want to read that something. Recommended.

A Rambling Riff on the Age of the Amateur, Book Review Ethics, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

1.There’s been a lot of hubbub (at least in my particular echo chamber) the past few weeks about book reviews and the ethics of book reviews:

Too nice?

Too mean?

Just fine?

What about straight-up buying a book review?

And what about when authors get involved, via social media, in calling out reviewers?

2. A sloppy synthesis of what I’ve linked to above might be:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

3. I’m not sure that I exactly agree with the statement above.

4. Still, we live in the Age of the Amateur.

(Saturday Night Live parodied this phenomena in a sketch called “You Can Do Anything!” that hits nail on head).

5. (SNL also unintentionally documented what happens when an amateur is given a forum beyond her untested abilities).

6. I suppose I could spend a few paragraphs parsing the delicate distinctions between literary criticism and book reviews and awarding fucking stars on Amazon or Goodreads, but I think you, gentle reader, probably get all that already.

7. (I consider myself an amateur book reviewer with an interest in but no pretension to literary criticism. I don’t intend to write about myself, but I do feel like I should clarify this).

8. (I know I just said that I don’t intend to write about myself, but again, perhaps germane:

I don’t read a lot of book reviews, especially contemporary book reviews. I mean, I hardly ever read contemporary book reviews. If I’m planning to review the work, a contemporary review may poison any pretense of objectivity I have.

With the occasional new major release, it’s almost impossible not to get a fix on some critical consensus—and I always scan of course.

I usually read a handful of reviews of a book I’m reading after I’ve drafted a review.

And I read lots of old reviews. Lots.

Again, maybe germane to all of this).

9.  But I’m riffing out all over the place. Let me get to the point. Let’s return to the second part of Point 2:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

Is this true? I don’t know, exactly. A few points to consider:

Literary criticism has existed via two more-or-less stable forms for about a century now: Academic scholarship and popular media.

Academic scholarship tends to be highly-specialized and literally inaccessible for most people. I think academic scholarship and research about literature is important and I don’t want to knock it all—but most of it simply isn’t exposed to, let alone absorbed by, a reading public.

Popular media—magazines and newspapers—is clearly in a transitional phase. A lot of this boils down to the dissemination of new technologies, the advent of the so-called “citizen journalist,” and the oligarchization of mass media. Journalism, as taught in journalism school, prescribed a set of methods and ethics that seem frankly quaint when set against the internet and 24hr cable networks. How book reviews fit—if they fit at all—into the emerging paradigm of popular media is hard to say.

10. Obviously, one model for how book reviews/lit crit fits into the emerging paradigm of popular media  is Goodreads, which I really don’t know much about to be honest. Another is Amazon, which has so many problems I don’t even begin to know how to start. Both of these sites use star ratings though, which has always struck me as probably the worst critical model available.

11. (I got an email recently about Riffle, a new service “powered by the Facebook social graph and loaded with expert curated recommendations.” I mean, how’s that for a shudder down the metaphorical spine?)

12. (Re: Point 11—What is it with this term “curator”? Is it synonymous with: “I produce no original content”?)

13. So, to return to the pretense that I have a point:

I’ve written about 300 reviews on this site. Most for books, some movie reviews, and a few other things as well (uh, malt liquor). I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning—I mean, I wasn’t even intending to review books. I was just writing about books I’d pilfered, pinched. Stolen. (The name of the site was its mission statement).  At some point I started making critical judgments, trying to, you know, recommend books that I loved to people who I hoped would love them also.

And at some point I came across John Updike’s rules for reviewing books.

I’m not an Updike fan—wasn’t then, amn’t now—but his rules resonated with me, and I made a point of reading his criticism, which is generally excellent.

In short, I’ve tried to follow his rules.

14. (To clarify: A simple thesis for this whole riff: I think book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way—and I think Updike’s list is great).

15. Updike’s first rule is his best:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

This one seems fairly straightforward, but is abused all the time, whether it’s Kakutani at the NYT pretending YA is not YA, or a reviewer at Book Kvetch lamenting that a metaphor-laced experimental novel isn’t a science textbook.

(I might have abused Updike’s first rule myself, but I’m not going to ransack the archives for self-incrimination).

16. Updike’s first rule is so graceful because it allows for a sliding scale of sorts, a range of possibilities beyond the critic’s own highly-subjective taste.

Put another way, it’s very easy to say, “I loved it” or “I hated it,” but Updike’s first rule places the onus of critical imagination on the reviewer. The responsible reviewer has to understand his or her audience (or at least has to try to understand his or her audience).

17. The subjective can’t be removed from reviews of course—nor should it be. I think the balancing act here might be described as taste.

18. I’ve occasionally broken some of Updike’s rules, especially when I super hated a book (usually #s 2 &3–didn’t bother to cite text—actually, I’ve done this repeatedly),

19. Sometimes a book confuses my approach to criticism.

20. Hence, Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which I reviewed in hardback a few months ago, and which is now available in trade paperback, and which I will use now as some sort of loose illustration for whatever point there is in this ramble:

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21. (Okay. So, normally I photograph reader copies (and other books I obtain) and run a little blurb—usually the publisher’s copy or another review—and I was gonna do this with The Orphan Master’s trade paperback (citing my own review in this case), but the post lingered, thoughts accrued around it as I glommed onto all the ideas reverberating around my little echo chamber re: this whole riff. I bring this up in the recognition that a post purporting to address in some way the ethics of book reviewing should point out that the publisher in question (e.g. this blog, e.g. me) regularly posts what amounts to a kind of advertisement for forthcoming books).

22. So why The Orphan Master’s Son?

I use it as example (barring info re: Point 21 for a moment) of a book that didn’t do what I wanted the book to do.

Here’s the end of my review:

 Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.

I think my review of The Orphan Master’s Son was/is fair, but it didn’t—couldn’t—exactly capture how I felt about the book: a mix of disappointment and admiration.

23. To be clear, I took pains to clarify that I thought highly of Johnson’s prose and that I thought most readers would really dig his book.

I gave it, I suppose, a mixed review, which is almost like giving it a negative review.

24. But I didn’t give it a mixed review to be nice—I tempered my criticisms with the knowledge that any attack I made on The Orphan Master’s Son was really a way of defining my own aesthetic tastes. Let me cite Updike’s fifth rule:

 If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

Ultimately, my problem with The Orphan Master’s Son boils down to me wanting Johnson to have written a different book. I feel like I have plenty of reasonable reasony reasons for wanting a different book—first and foremost Johnson’s prowess as proser and storyteller—but that’s no way to review a book. From my review:

I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill,  again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished.

25. Let me end here in repetition (and, perhaps, here in the safety of these parentheses point to how riffing in a rambling wine-soaked list somehow frees me from actually coherently writing about any of the things I promised to—or maybe it doesn’t—which is of course its own ethical ball of worms) by restating a basic answer to some of the basic problems of amateurism:

Book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way.

“What’s Outside the Window?” (Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives Revisited)

Untitled (Desert Landscape) by Salvador Dali

Biblioklept has already published two reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s big novel The Savage Detectives.

In the first review, from 2008, I suggested that the book was technically impressive but ultimately “unmoving.” In the second review, from 2010, Dave Cianci argued that my first review “was unfair and premature.”

I tend to agree with Cianci’s criticism of my early review, although in my defense I struggled with a first reading of The Savage Detectives because I was ignorant of the history of Latin America, Central America, and Mexico, a history that provides much of the context for the Bolañoverse. I was like the auditor in The Savage Detectives who listened as Ulises Lima

reeled off a story that I had trouble following, a story of lost poets and lost magazines and works no one had ever heard of, in the middle of a landscape that might have been California or Arizona or some Mexican region bordering those states, a real or imaginary place, bleached by the sun and lost in the past, forgotten, or at least no longer of the slightest importance here . . .  A story from the edge of civilization . . .

The citation above more or less pins down some of the problems first time readers to Bolaño might have with The Savage Detectives. More so than the rest of his oeuvre, Detectives dwells on “lost poets and magazines and works no one had ever heard of.” These poets and writers are mixed in with famous poets (like Octavio Paz, who appears as a character in one segment), and parsing the various characters’ attitudes toward these writers can be a perplexing challenge, and at times a turn off.

And it’s not just the names of poets and writers that can addle a reader: Many of Bolaño’s narrators share an obsessive compulsion to name every avenue, street, or alley they walk on or past, details that become frankly boring over an extended period. It’s a novel of names and places: canonizing, map-making.

Why the map-making? Because this is a book about being lost. Its first section is titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” Notice how many times the word “lost” crops up in the citation above. Indeed, The Savage Detectives is not only about what it means to be lost, but also about what it means to lose—one’s friends, one’s group, one’s country, one’s mind. It’s a book about exiles.

Maybe, dear reader, you’re looking for a bit of plot summary, a morsel at least—that is, maybe you haven’t read The Savage Detectives and you want to know if you should or shouldn’t. I suggest reading Cianci’s review in that case. In any case, I don’t suggest starting Bolaño with The Savage Detectives (although I’m sure plenty of folks might disagree with me here). A better starting place might be the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. Or really just jump into the beast at the abyssal heart of the Bolañoverse, 2666.

I reread 2666 this summer and immediately knew I had to reread The Savage Detectives, knew I had to parse some of what I missed in my first “unfair and premature” reading. I ended up checking out Blackstone Audio’s recording of the book, featuring the voice talents of Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran.

The audio production is excellent: Lopez, surely a very young man, reads the narratives of Juan García Madero that bookend the central section, “The Savage Detectives,” which is read with a startling depth of range by Duran. Lopez’s García Madero comes across as the naïve pretender to cynicism, the would-be artist faking a life of romance. In Duran’s handling, the myriad characters in the middle of the novel come to life with humor and pathos. He animates the characters, showcasing the irony and pain and sadness and small moments of lunatic joy that erupt in the book. The Savage Detectives makes for a surprisingly excellent audiobook. (Quick note anticipating a query those familiar with the novel may have: The cryptic pictograms that show up late in the novel are included in the audiobook; they displayed on my iPod in tandem with their sections, and I imagine they would pop up on any player with a screen).

I enjoyed The Savage Detectives much, much more this second time. I still found parts of it boring (perhaps purposefully boring, but boring nonetheless), and the episodes I enjoyed most on the first reading (the duel, the cavern, the Liberian segment, the Israeli prison, the campers in Spain) were the ones I enjoyed the most on the second round. Better equipped for this reading, I appreciated the riches of Detectives, the way its fragments, intertextual, metatextual, reach out through the Bolañoverse to couple with other fragments, other texts.

My metaphors above are all wrong—the texts don’t reach or couple—the reader does this work, this reaching, this coupling, this detecting.

In my first reading, not up to playing detective, I surely blew through this passage near the end of the novel, a passage that ripples with strange significance for anyone puzzling over 2666:

And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.

Here we have lost poet Cesárea Tinajero, object of the savage detectives’ quest, holed up in her room in Santa Teresa, the central setting for the murders of 2666, a map of a factory (a maquiladora, like the ones the murdered women work at in 2666?) pinned to her wall; here we have Cesárea Tinajero, who keeps “a switchblade with a horn handle and the word Caborca engraved on the blade” by her side, believing she is “under threat of death.” Cesárea Tinajero is prophet to the horrors at the core of 2666.

2666’s Benno von Archimboldi twins Cesárea Tinajero. Just as a quartet of savage detectives search for Tinajero, so to a quartet of literary critics seek out the lost Prussian writer. (Archimboldi even shows up a few times in The Savage Detectives, albeit under the pseudopseudonym “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” identified as a “Frenchman,” the author of The Endless Rose, his second novel in 2666). Cesárea Tinajero is also repeated in 2666’s Florita Almada, a psychic medium who not only testifies to, but also tries to stop, the unrelenting violence in Santa Teresa.

I suppose I could keep teasing out these intertextual meetings. I could point out that Detectives character Joaquín Font winds up in an insane asylum babbling about fate (fate and insanity being two major themes of 2666). I could point out that Auxilio Lacouture, narrator of Bolaño’s novella Amulet, gets to tell her story in miniature in Detectives. I could point out that the central figures (“central” is not the right word of course) of Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are everywhere in the Bolañoverse—even unnamed, it is clear that one of the duo fathers the bastard Lalo Cura, one of the good detectives of 2666. But what would be my point in elaborating detail after detail here? Or, and perhaps this is the real question I mean to ask here—is a full reading of The Savage Detectives ultimately dependent on intertextual relationships with other Bolaño books?

Maybe a better way to finish here is to hash out the last few pages of the novel, which find our narrator García Madero driving around Sonora with Lupe, on the run from the law (maybe). The last few entries of the book—in diary form—are simply a list of place names, obscure places in the Sonora desert the pair presumably drive to. García Madero takes up the mantle of exile and reads Cesárea Tinajero’s notebooks, which perhaps influence him—the last three entries of Detectives feature pictographic riddles that recall Tinajero’s visual poem “Sion.” Here is the final entry, which is also the final page of the book—

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I suppose there are plenty of answers to Bolaño’s final riddle. What’s outside the window? Abyssvoiduncertainty. Aporia. And also: Possiblityopennessfreedom. Certainty. And also: The perforated suggestions of a shape, lines to guide our scissors, form. And also: It’s to be taken literally, a literal dare to the reader to get up, to look out, to see. I could probably keep going.

If we know Bolaño’s detective games, we know that the mysteries are really labyrinths, mazes where we might get trapped and go insane. (The Savage Detectives is in large part a novel that outlines the risks—mental, physical, emotional—of literature). How do I read the gaps in the visual riddle? The gesture is visual ambiguity, paradox. The dashes open to void and close to make form; they define yet are indefinite; the window is there and is not there. So what we’re left with is a way of seeing, or at least an invitation to a way of seeing, which is to say a way of reading. So, if you like—and I like—what’s outside the window is the rest of the Bolañoverse—or at least an offer to play detective.

I Audit Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Part 1)

The good people at Macmillan Audio were kind enough to send me a copy of the unabridged audiobook of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the highly anticipated sequel to her 2009 Booker prize winner, Wolf Hall. (I loved Wolf Hall, by the way). I’ll be writing about Bring Up the Bodies in brief installments as I audit the book, instead of waiting to complete the whole thing before reviewing (as I usually do) because a) it’s hard to dogear passages from an mp3 and b) the book is pretty damn long (about 24hrs) and c) I’ve yet to read a review of the book that might color my own perceptions.

Bring Up the Bodies—now seems as good a time as any to point out that, hey, that’s just a great title—Bring Up the Bodies picks up right where Wolf Hall left off. Just as that first book throws its audience into the deep end, with one of the more bewildering openings in recent memory, so too does Bring Up the Bodies begin abruptly in media res. Please forgive me if I begin in the middle of things as well—to be clear, it’s not a good idea to jump into Bodies until you’ve read Wolf Hall. And Wolf Hall is worth your time.

It’s 1535 and our protagonist Thomas Cromwell is 50 and starting to feel his age (he laments at one point that he no longer remembers any of the snippets of Welsh he once knew; he can no longer play tennis). His prince, King Henry VIII, is also quickly aging, his body turning to the fat lump that we tend to picture him as these days. An expanding tummy is the least of Henry’s worries, however—and Henry’s worries are Cromwell’s worries. The major plot arc will likely be Henry’s plans to oust his newish bride Anne Boleyn, a repetition of sorts from Wolf Hall, where Henry and Cromwell (mostly Cromwell) worked to annul Henry’s marriage to Queen Katherine. Obviously though, we can’t accuse Mantel of a lack of imagination in crafting her plots. She’s working from history of course, and what’s most amazing about both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is how Mantel invigorates that history. Who knew the hoary Tudor saga needed a retelling?

It works here of course because Cromwell is such a fascinating character. Mantel anchors her impeccable free indirect style in Cromwell’s mind, and she channels his intense intellect with sharp grace.  Here’s a remarkable passage that somehow summarizes (broadly, of course) much of Wolf Hall and showcases Mantel’s ability to move her prose seamlessly from exterior to interior,  from how others might see Cromwell to how he might understand himself:

Thomas Cromwell is now about fifty years old. He has a labourer’s body, stocky, useful, running to fat. He has black hair, greying now, and because of his pale impermeable skin, which seems designed to resist rain as well as sun, people sneer that his father was an Irishman, though really he was a brewer and a blacksmith at Putney, a shearsman too, a man with a finger in every pie, a scrapper and brawler, a drunk and a bully, a man often hauled before the justices for punching someone, for cheating someone. How the son of such a man has achieved his present eminence is a question all Europe asks. Some say he came up with the Boleyns, the queen’s family. Some say it was wholly through the late Cardinal Wolsey, his patron; Cromwell was in his confidence and made money for him and knew his secrets. Others say he haunts the company of sorcerers. He was out of the realm from boyhood, a hired soldier, a wool trader, a banker. No one knows where he has been and who he has met, and he is in no hurry to tell them. He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. Every day Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly. Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood.

Of course, good fortune is not without its headaches, and Bring Up the Bodies quickly establishes the daily grind of being the king’s chief minister. Cromwell has to worry about the uncertain finances of the kingdom; the plots of the Catholic Church; the ever-present threat of Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor; Cromwell also has to worry about scheming at court and gossip in the towns. And yet he keeps a level head, even as he appeals to his memories of the late Cardinal Wolsey, who hangs like an ironic ghost over the early chapters of Bring Up the Bodies. (I’m hoping Wolsey’s ghost will continue to haunt the book). It’s when Cromwell turns his sharp mind to a critique of the cleric class (he’d turn out all the abbeys and seize their coffers), or to a flat rebuttal of the concept of confession (“God doesn’t require an intermediary”), or even when he sniffs at Machiavelli as too conservative that we see in Cromwell the advent of modernity.

A quick word on the audio production—it’s great stuff. Reader Simon Vance delivers the tale in a dry, clear cadence that perfectly suits Mantel’s prose. Vance knows when to lean into the ironic inflections that sometimes color Cromwell’s dialogue (both interior dialogue and speech with others), and he employs a range that easily differentiates the other voices that pop up in the narrative without losing a consistent tone. As I’ve stated on this blog many times, a good reader makes all the difference, and Vance is a good reader. More to come.

I Review Patience (After Sebald), an Oppressively Overstylized Documentary

Let’s get this out of the way first:

I love W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

I think it’s an important book—but more than that I think it’s an engrossing, good, excellent book, an enlarging book, a bewildering book, a depressing book, an intelligent book, an extraordinarily affecting book.

reviewed The Rings of Saturn  and you can read that review if you feel the urge for me to support those claims in greater detail.

Better yet, read Sebald’s book.

Whatever you do, please don’t use Grant Gee’s new documentary Patience (After Sebald) as a substitution for actually reading Sebald. It’s not that Gee’s film doesn’t lovingly attempt to approximate the spirit of Saturn. No, Gee and his cast of writers, architects, historians, and other Sebaldians clearly attempt to match the rhythms and moods and content of Saturn—and herein lies the film’s failure.

In an essay on Virginia Woolf—a writer who shows up in both Sebald and in Patience—literary critic (and Sebald champion) James Wood notes the anxiety of influence always at work between the artistic subject and the would-be critic:  “The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Wood here is specifically calling attention to Woolf’s own critical powers—of her ability to transcend merely reviewing a work, of her status as a poet-critic—but I think he gives us a simple little rubric for evaluating critical work in general: the truly excellent stuff goes its own route. Gee’s film so dutifully commits to visually and aurally replicating the melancholy and erudite mood of Saturn that it often seems cartoonish or clumsy—or, even worse, dreadfully boring.

It’s not fair to put down one filmmaker for not being more like another, but I wish Gee had taken a page out of, say Errol Morris’s book. Morris’s style is, in a sense, to remove style, to eliminate the aesthetic shield between the subject and the camera/audience. In contrast, Patience is overstylized to an almost embarrassing degree. The film veers between lethargic, numbing black and white shots of the places that Sebald visited on his walking tour in Saturn, occasional archival footage, and slippery impositions of text, maps, documents, and talking heads—sometimes delivered in a bizarre, agitated pace. Perhaps the tone I’ve just described may seem appropriate to any critical measurement of Saturn; in my review of Sebald’s novel, I noted that one element of saturnine melancholy is “sluggishness and moroseness, paradoxically paired with an eagerness for action” — but Gee’s lack of restraint here is bad art school stuff. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the viewer to simply listen to (let alone watch) a talking head for a minute.

A few notes on those talking heads:

There are some very smart people here saying some really cool things about Sebald—writers like Rick Moody and Iain Sinclair, lit critic Barbara Hui (if you’re a Sebald fan you might’ve already seen her maps of his walks), some historians and architects and so on. There are also excerpts of Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm interview with Sebald woven into the film, sometimes to great effect. Especially interesting are remarks from Christopher MacLehose, Sebald’s publisher, who recounts the time he asked the author which genre his book belonged to. Sebald replied, “Oh, I like all of the categories.”

Gee’s technique with his band of experts is to mostly cast their voices over cold landscape shots, occasionally superimposing a head for a few seconds in a ghostly mishmash that dissolves—along with the voice—into another shot or another voice. Sometimes this is really frustrating because, hey, maybe we’re missing some enlightening remarks, but more often than not it’s frustrating in its sloppiness. Film editing that constantly calls attention to itself is tiresome. The film is at its best when it it stops trying to honor/compete with Saturn and instead imparts some meaningful information about the man and his work. When Patience relaxes enough to simply show archival footage of RAF training flights, it’s a welcome moment from the film’s earnest, torpid buzz.

I realize “torpid buzz” is an oxymoron, but I think it fits Patience. In fact, it might be exactly what Gee was going for. There’s an oppressiveness about the film that belies the often gorgeous and expansive and empty shots of Suffolk, and yes, to be clear, there’s often a similar oppressiveness in Sebald’s book—an oppression of history, of self, of other—but this paradox does not translate well into film.

Sebald makes ample room for his reader; we get to go on this excursion with him. He lets us puzzle out his themes, connect all his strange dots (or not, if we so choose, or, perhaps just as likely, find ourselves unable). The gaps in clear meaning make Saturn such a strange, engrossing book, the kind of book that you return to again and again, the kind of book you press on others (I’ve given away two copies to date). In contrast to the breathing room that Sebald allows his readers, Patience feels somehow stifling and simultaneously small.  There’s a brickishness to it, a forceful inclination to fill in all those marvelous Sebaldian gaps. And while yes, some of these people have some really keen insights about Sebald and Saturn, over the film’s interminable 80 minutes these opinions and insights and back stories start to torture meaning out of the text. Any potential reader has had much of her intellectual work removed at this point.

But perhaps I’ve been harsh without illustrating enough. Here’s psychoanalytic critic Adam Phillips who probably gets more voice time than anyone else in Patience; throughout the film he repeatedly over-explains Sebald’s project. I’ll shut up and let him talk (these are a few clips strung together, if my memory is sussing this out right):

Did you watch it? I watched it too—and it seems pretty cool at under four minutes, I’ll admit. But over the course of the film the heavy, “arty” edits, the overexplaining, well . . .  it’s too much.

Admittedly, only ten minutes into the film I asked myself who the film was for. As a fan of the book I’d much prefer to just spend 80 minutes of my time rereading parts of it. Or, alternately, a straightforwardish biography would be nice too. And I suppose there are many, many people who will love what Gee’s done (the film has gotten plenty of rave reviews, including one by A.O. Scott at the Times). I also suppose many folks will commend Gee for trying out his own hybrid, for showing a little plumage. This is another way of saying that I think that Gee has turned in the film he intended to make—it just wasn’t for me.

Flann O’Brien’s Novel The Third Policeman Is a Surreal Comic Masterpiece

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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.

And: two more excerpts that you can read, funny-stuff, context-free.

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.

I Review The Hunger Games Film (And Mostly Complain About the Jumpy Camera Work)

So the wife and I went to see The Hunger Games last night. By way of readerly context: she ate up the trilogy in a spare week; I listened to the first audiobook last summer, and wrote about it here, including these sentences which loosely sum up my feelings:

Look, I get that these books are for kids, and that they’re probably a sight better than Twilight, but sheesh, exposition exposition exposition. There’s nothing wrong with letting readers fill in the gaps (especially when your book is ripping off The Running Man + a dozen other books). Also, there’s a character in this book who I think is named after pita bread.

However, I was prepared to accept that the plot of The Hunger Games could make for a fine film—I mean, it’s basically “The Most Dangerous Game,” or Lord of the Flies, or The Running Man, or Logan’s Run or whatever—so I went with an open mind.

By way of context/citation, here’s a trailer that gives a fairly accurate visual sense of the film—up to a point (I will belabor that point momentarily):

Short review:

Plot—fine.

Dialogue—fine.

Pacing—not bad.

Acting—better than average, especially Jennifer Lawrence as lead Katniss. (Lawrence stars in a better film called Winter’s Bone, which is like the real hunger games, by the bye). Woody Harrelson brought more to his character, drunken mentor Haymitch, than Collins’s cardboard book allowed, so kudos, bro.

Music/score—surprisingly good and rarely overused. I think T-Bone Burnett supervised. Also, no forced obtrusive pop songs from the “soundtrack.”

Set design—fine, I guess, although who knew the dystopian future would look like Coal Miner’s Daughter (for the plebes) and future-Vegas/Logan’s Run (for the aristocrats). The scenes in the capital city will look incredibly dated in ten years, but whatever. The thunderdome itself where the kids fight it out was underdeveloped, but this had more to do with plotting and pacing. But hey, the movie was already almost two and a half hours long, which is long, so, fine, I guess.

Editing/camera work: Not fineHorrible. I’m probably referring more to the director’s choices than to the acutal work of the DP and cinematographer here—I mean the lighting was good — what I’m talking about was the shoddiness of the framing of each shot, of the camera’s faux-unsteadiness, as if a shaky-cam in someway connotes realism or drama. The shaky cam connotes headache and nausea — especially when used so liberally. The camera seemed unable to ever simply rest on an image, particularly during the first 30 minutes. The shots—from bizarre and disparate angles—jump-cut around, refusing to actually show the audience the staging and action.

Particularly frustrating is an opening scene where Katniss hunts a deer in a lush green forest. There’s the potential here for an excellent introduction to the character—to her seriousness, her gravity, her skill, her keen attenuation to environment (all extremely relevant later, of course) — the camera could simply show the audience the hunt, linger a bit even — I’m not talking about Malickian nature-gazing, but simply taking the time to attune character to setting. Instead, the camera whips around frenetically with a nervous energy that seems to have nothing to do with Katniss’s calm, steady bowhand. It’s as if the director does not trust the audience to attend to a specific shot or angle for more than 2 seconds.

My frustration grew after this initial scene, as the director seemed determined to withhold any simple shot that would establish place or character. This frustration culminated in a climactic scene at the beginning of the Battle Royale—excuse me, Hunger Games tournament—where the contestants, admitted to the arena, either run for weapons or cover. There’s a bloodbath here, one that highlights the intense Darwinian stakes in play—only, again, we don’t really get to see it. The camera whirls around as if it were in the hands of someone’s dad at a birthday party, two beers in, as he tries to capture everything all at once on his cheap Sony — and therefore misses everything. Sure, the conceit might be that this shaky unsteady whirling is how Katniss experiences the scene, but the Hunger Games tourney is televised, so obviously we could see what the home audience could see, right? I’m not asking for gore or explicit violence here, to be clear: I simply don’t understand why the camera refused to show the basic action that was happening on the screen. Repeat this criticism for every single fight scene.

The clunky, clumsy fight scenes reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s shoddy work in the Batman films or even the sheer incomprehensibility of Michael Bay’s stuff : is this what audiences will accept? Are these what pass for action films? I’m not arguing that these Hollywood blockbusters need to adhere to the precision that we can find in Hong Kong martial arts films (or even Ang Lee’s arty take on such films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)—but, c’mon, even the Jason Bourne movies and recent James Bond movies respected their audiences enough to adhere to a modicum of verisimilitude.

Verdict: The Hunger Games, like any dystopia, succeeds or fails by how well it synthesizes—and then surpasses—its myriad sources. The film, in this case, is simply okay. Dystopia has so assimilated our culture’s collective imagination (from the aforementioned Batman films to political ads to the wild financial success of Collins’s HG trilogy) that its tropes are overly-familiar, to the point that they have become comfortable, well-worn. A more successful dystopian vision—let’s take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men or Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood as ready recent examples—offers familiarity with one hand and utter strangeness with the other. Successful dystopian visions are strange, disruptive, and uncanny—they allow us to project ourselves into worlds we pray are impossible. The Hunger Games feels, dare I say, dull, predictable, and somehow awfully normal. Catch it on cable in two years.