A riff on my favorite ghost story, Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return”

spectrum
Detail from Spectrum Appearance of Banquo by Gustave Doré.

Roberto Bolaño’s short story “The Return” is so good that it has two perfect opening paragraphs:

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.

That’s a hell of a way to start a story! Bolaño lays out his two themes—the afterlife and necrophilia—in a jovial, almost cavalier, but dare I say sweet, even charming way. And then this paragraph:

Death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning. My doctor had warned me, but some things are stronger than reason. I was convinced, mistakenly (and even now it’s something I regret), that drinking and dancing were not the most hazardous of my passions. Another reason I kept going out every night to the fashionable places in Paris was my routine as a middle manager at Fracsa; I was after what I couldn’t find at work or in what people call the inner life: the buzz that you get from a certain excess.

Those are the first two paragraphs, and maybe they’ll entice you to read the story. However, the following riff includes what some people might consider spoilers; my hope is that if you’ve never read it before, you’ll take it on faith that “The Return” is a great, great story and you’ll go read it and stop reading this riff now. (Maybe come back later though after you’ve read it).

“The Return” is a ghost story that transmutes the horror of death and the abjection of the corpse into love, empathy, and communication—and art. It’s a beautiful ghost tale in the Romantic, Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom Bolaño drew heavily. However, while Poe’s tales of necrophilia (like the poem “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Berenice” to name just a few) obsess over repression, loss, burial, and imperfect and violent attempts at restoration, Bolaño’s “The Return” offers its readers a peaceful reconciliation with death. It’s collected in The Return (New Directions, English translation by Chris Andrews), which is a perfect introduction to Bolaño—so many great stories there (“Buba,” “Clara,” “William Burns,” etc.). So go read it.

So but and anyway: a close reading continued for those inclined.

Our narrator is a ghost, a man who died on the dance floor. Bolaño’s next move is so ridiculous that it almost seems unbelievable at first:

Like just about everyone else, I went to see Ghost, I don’t know if you remember it, a box office hit, with Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, the one where Patrick Swayze gets killed and his body is left lying on a Manhattan street, or in an alley, maybe, on a dirty pavement anyway, while in a special-effects extravaganza (they were special for the time, anyway) his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.

But when my turn came, that’s exactly what happened.

The narrator is quick to accept the conceit—he’s quick to accept a lot in this story. He concedes of Hollywood artifice that there’s “more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” This acceptance quickly turns into a new affect: strange joy: “Once I was dead, I felt like bursting out laughing.” (Forgive me, but it’s impossible for me not to note that “The Return” was composed very late in Bolaño’s too-short life, that its composition strikes me as a kind of love letter to his audience, more than a consolation prize: a gift).

Our ghost-narrator, not quite sure what to do, follows his corpse to the morgue: “What a paltry thing it seemed, my body or my ex-body (I’m not sure how to put it), confronted with the labyrinthine bureaucracy of death.” The labyrinthine bureaucracy of death!

The (metaphysical) narrator then starts to reflect on metaphysical matters:

The feeling of dizziness gradually abated, although at one point I got to thinking about heaven and hell, reward and punishment, and I had a panic attack, but that bout of irrational fear was soon over. And, in fact, I was starting to feel better.

Bolaño’s narrator quickly overcomes a religious tradition of “irrational fear” and guilt; here, death–by which I mean ghosthood—is life anew. In his new life|death, the narrator comes to understand the “insomnia and pervasive insecurity” (note here the language of Poe) he once felt over his “being a toy (or less than a toy) for [his lover] Cécile.” The ghost-narrator can find a certain grace in his one-time desire to be desired, his desire for solidity.

So. The plot, yes? Well, Bolaño’s already announced his theme of necrophilia, yes? How do we get there?

Two orderlies from the morgue sneak the body away, transporting it to the most beautiful house (mansion!) that the narrator has ever seen. The orderlies are described variously as hipsters, poseurs, and (significantly) “pseudo-artists.” Despite employing these terms, the narrator is ultimately sympathetic to the orderlies. (As an aside, I can’t help reading the two as figurations of those romantic dogs Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, strivers, would-be greats, youth).

The orderlies deliver the body to a famous fashion designer, Jean-Claude Villeneuve. And:

I didn’t know what his intentions were—I’ve always been an innocent. If I’d known, I would have been nervous. But I didn’t, so I sat down in one of the comfortable leather armchairs in the room and waited.

Our narrator is again identified with innocence and naïveté (one senses that it preceded his rebirth)—but Bolaño lets his tale play out in an unexpected way. The abjection that follows doesn’t corrupt innocence; rather, it allows for empathetic communication.

But, reader, thou art forewarned—Bolaño literalizes the necrophilia that is merely metaphorical in Poe:

…after a quarter of an hour of cuddling in the semi-darkness I noticed that he had an erection. My god, I thought, now he’s going to sodomize me. But that’s not what happened. To my surprise, the designer rubbed himself against one of my thighs till he came. I would have liked to shut my eyes at that point but I couldn’t. My reactions were contradictory; I felt disgusted by what I was seeing, grateful for not having been sodomized, surprised to discover Villeneuve’s secret, angry at the orderlies for having rented out my body, and even flattered to have served, unwillingly, as an object of desire for one of the most famous men in France.

What a paragraph!—shocking, humorous, human. 

Our narrator immediately judges the taboo-breaking that has occurred as abject: “You should be ashamed, I said.”

But then something supernatural happens—the designer responds to the ghost.

I knew at once that he had heard me. It seemed like a miracle. Suddenly I felt so happy that I forgave him his act of depravity.

Human recognition—contact—becomes a “miracle” here (recalling the word “grace” from before), transmuting abject depravity into radical forgiveness. And then the narrator declares aloud:

It’s not a problem, I said in a conciliatory tone, You’re forgiven.

These are the words so many of us long to hear—but maybe most of all we wish to hear them when we are most wrapped up in our private abject sins. It’s as if Bolaño here absolves all the mad aesthetes of the Gothic tradition in one empathetic quip.

But of course, our necrophiliac-designer must worry that he’s going mad, mustn’t he? He searches for speakers, bugs—any physical explanation for that metaphysical voice. Again, our narrator is empathetic; again the language here points to Poe, but also to a reversal of Poe’s abject pain:

From experience I know that trying to wrench yourself out of a nightmare is futile and simply adds pain to pain or terror to terror.

The narrator then sets about proving that he’s real (or if not “real,” then at least that the narrator isn’t insane) by describing the various beautiful objects in the designer’s home. Aesthetic sensation confirms shared perception.

This tour of proof concludes in the style of Poe, in a tomb-space, all aesthetic objects removed, like something from “Usher”:

…we came to a little room, covered inside with a layer of cement, in which there was nothing, not one piece of furniture, not a single light, and we shut ourselves in that room, in the dark. An embarrassing situation, on the face of it, but for me it was like a second or a third birth; that is, it was like hope beginning and with it the desperate awareness of hope.

The abject embarrassment of the human body in close contact with a stranger is converted into rebirth and hope.

As the story ends, the fake-artist orderlies arrive in the morning to retrieve the narrator’s corpse. He realizes that he could continue haunting his body, but makes the choice to let it go:

But I mustn’t give in to sentimentality, I thought, and when the orderlies’ car left the garden and vanished down that elegant, tree-lined street, I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of nostalgia or sadness or melancholy.

In accepting the loss of his body without “nostalgia or sadness or melancholy,” our narrator affirms his new life.

The tale concludes with the narrator returning to the designer’s living room to discover that the man has been talking aloud—to the narrator, whom he believed was still with him. The story ends with this beautiful line:

I let him go on talking as long as he liked.

Reconciliation and acceptance rule in the end. Bolaño turns Gothic horror and abject pain into human empathy here.

Am I reading too much into the tale if I find in it a declaration of Bolaño’s acceptance of his own impending death? Perhaps. In any case, those who’ve formed an opinion of the man’s work based solely on the grisly reputation of 2666 would do well to check out “The Return.”

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in October of 2015].

Advertisements

Blog about some recent reading

img_1305

I ended up reading the last two chapters of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic a few times, trying to figure out exactly what happened. I then read Steven Moore’s excellent essay on the novel, “Carpenter’s Gothic or, The Ambiguities.” (If you have library access to the Infobase database Bloom’s Literature, you can find the essay there; if not, here’s a .pdf version). Moore offers a tidy summary of Carpenter’s Gothic—a summary which should be avoided by anyone who wants to read the novel. Because Carpenter’s Gothic isn’t so much about what happens but how it happens. Moore writes:

As is the case with any summary of a Gaddis novel, this one not only fails to do justice to the novel’s complex tapestry of events but also subverts the manner in which these events are conveyed. Opening Carpenter’s Gothic is like opening the lid of a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces seem to be there, but it is up to the reader to fit those pieces together. …Even after multiple readings, several events remain ambiguous, sometimes because too little information is given, sometimes because there are two conflicting accounts and no way to confirm either.

Moore then lays out the novel’s theme in clear, precise language:

Such narrative strategies are designed not to baffle or frustrate the reader but to dramatize the novel’s central philosophic conflict, that between revealed truth versus acquired knowledge. Nothing is “revealed” by a godlike omniscient narrator in this novel; the reader learns “what really happens” only through study, attention, and the application of intelligence.

Quite frankly, Moore has written an essay that I wish I had written myself. I had been sketching parallels between Carpenter’s Gothic and Leslie Fiedler’s classic study Love and Death in the American Novel all throughout my reading; Moore ends up citing Fiedler a few times in his essay, in particularly working from Fiedler’s idea of how Gothicism manifests in American writing. (Moore does not bring up Fiedler’s critique of masculinity though, which opens up an occasion for me to write—once I’ve reread the puzzle though).

Anyway—I loved loved loved Carpenter’s Gothic, and I read it at just about the right time: It’s a Halloween novel. Great stuff.

In line with the Halloween theme: I had been working on a post about horror, about how I love scary films, grotesque literature, and weird art, because fantasy evocations of terror offer a reprieve from anxiety, from true dread, etc. Like, you know, a climate change report—I mean, that’s genuinely horrifying. But scary films and scary stories almost never really scare me. So I was thinking about literature that does produce dread in me, anxiety in me, and listing out examples in my draft, and so well anyway I reread Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Last Evenings on Earth.” I wrote about the collection named for the story almost a decade ago on this blog, focusing on the “ebb and flow between dread and release, fear and humor, ironic detachment and romantic idealism” in the tales:

In “Last Evenings on Earth,” B takes a vacation to Acapulco with his father. Bolaño’s rhetoric in this tale is masterful: he draws each scene with a reportorial, even terse distance, noting the smallest of actions, but leaving the analytical connections up to his reader. Even though B sees his holiday with his dad heading toward “disaster,” toward “the price they must pay for existing,” he cannot process what this disaster is, or what paying this price means. The story builds to a thick, nervous dread, made all the more anxious by the strange suspicion that no, things are actually fine, we’re all just being paranoid here. (Not true!)

I’m not sure if I’ll get the essay I was planning together any time soon, but I’m glad I reread “Last Evenings.”

There’s a strange background plot in “Last Evenings” in which Bolaño’s stand-in “B” dwells over a book of French surrealist poets, one of whom disappears mysteriously. Jindřich Štyrský isn’t French—he’s Czech—but he was a surrealist poet (and artist and essayist and etc.), so I couldn’t help inserting him into Bolaño’s story. I’ve been reading Dreamverse, which ripples with sensual horror. I wrote about it here. Here’s one of Štyrský’s poems (in English translation by Jed Slast); I think you can get the flavor from this one:

img_1307

And here’s a detail from his 1937 painting Transformation:

img_1308

I’ve finished the first section of David Bunch’s Moderan, which is a kind of post-nuke dystopia satire on toxic masculinity. While many of the tropes for these stories (most of which were written in the 1960s and ’70s) might seem familiar—cyborgs and dome homes, caste systems and ultraviolence, a world of made and not born ruled by manunkind (to steal from E.E. Cummings)—it’s the way that Bunch conveys this world that is so astounding. Moderan is told in its own idiom; the voice of our narrator Stronghold-10 booms with a bravado that’s ultimately undercut by the authorial irony that lurks under its surface. I will eventually write a proper review of Moderan, but the book seems equal to the task of satirizing the trajectory of our zeitgeist.

I started Angela Carter’s novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman last night and the first chapter is amazing.

Finally, I got a hard copy of Paul Kirchner’s new collection, Hieronymus & Bosch which finds humor in the horror of hell. The collection is lovely—I should have a post about it here later this week and hopefully a review at The Comics Journal later this month. For now though, a sample strip:

hieronymus26bosch-angels-laugh36

A patchwork of conceits, a hodgepodge of good intentions, another blog about William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

img_1155

In its sixth (and penultimate chapter), William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic includes a rare scene. Our heroine Elizabeth Booth exits the house she spends most of the book confined in and actually looks at it from the outside. With her is the house’s owner, the mysterious Mr. McCandless:

—I’ve never really looked at it.

—At what… looking where she was looking.

—At the house. From outside I mean.

Carpenter’s Gothic is a novel of utter interiority—the reader never makes it but a few feet out of the house, and only then on rare occasions. This postmodern Gothic novel tingles with a smothering claustrophobia, its insularity underscored by continual references to other spaces outside the house. The possibility of an outside world waiting for Elizabeth is realized through dialogue with her husband Paul, her brother Billy, and mysterious Mr. McCandless, as well as the non-stop (and, from the reader’s perspective, one-sided) telephone conversations that make up so much of the novel’s material. And yet with all its references to traveling away to California, Africa, New York City, Acapulco, etc., Carpenter’s Gothic keeps Elizabeth locked away in the old house, tethered to the umbilical phone cord at the novel’s center.

McCandless is off in his own interior space—the shifting tortured howl of his own consciousness—when Elizabeth remarks that she has never really seen the house from the outside. Her observation raises him “to the surface” of concrete reality:

—Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface —yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork.

The house is built in the Carpenter Gothic style (sometimes called Rural Gothic style), which essentially amounts to an American imitation of European Gothic’s forceful elegance. McCandless continues:

That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions, those vertical darts coming down from the eaves? and that row of bull’s eyes underneath?

McCandless, stand-in for Gaddis, performs a metatextual interpretation for the reader. The Carpenter Gothic is Carpenter’s Gothic, the American postGothic reinterpreation of the European form—namely, the Gothic novel. The materials Gaddis uses to build his book are the materials of mass media and mass textuality. He condenses high literature, lurid newspaper clippings, mail, textbook pages, scraps of illegible notes, pornographic centerfolds, and every other manner of paper into a postGothic synthesis. And not just paper, but also the telephone (always ringing) and the radio (always on, always tuned to inhuman human voices). And the television too, tuned to Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1943),  a film which weaves its way in and out of Elizabeth’s consciousness in the beginning of the novel, planting seeds of romance and locked rooms and secrets and fire.

But I’ve cut off McCandless, who was just about to give us another neat description of the Carpenter Gothic, which is to say another neat description of Carpenter’s Gothic:

He was up kicking leaves aside, gesturing, both arms raised embracing —a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale, because it’s stood here, hasn’t it, foolish inventions and all it’s stood here for ninety years…

 Carpenter’s Gothic is more than just a hodgepodge or patchwork; it is more than a ridiculous effort; it is more than the sum of its foolish inventions. Gaddis gives us something new, a postmodern Gothic analysis of the end of the American century.

McCandless, Gaddis’s stand-in, wants to put all the pieces together. He echoes Jack Gibbs, the (anti-)hero (and fellow Gaddis stand-in) of J R, and he prefigures the narrator of Gaddis’s last novel, Agapē Agape, who, like Gibbs, strives to stitch together something from the atomized scraps and remnants of the 20th century.  Gaddis’s protagonists contend with entropy and attempt to get the detritus of the modern world “sorted and organized.” The push-pull of hope and despair drives these protagonists, but often drives them too far.

And McCandless’s reverie takes him too far, again into the interiority of his skull:

…breaking off, staring up where her gaze had fled back with those towering heights and cupolas, as though for some echo: It’s like the inside of your head McCandless, if that was what brought him to add —why when somebody breaks in, it’s like being assaulted, it’s the…

In a moment of self-speech, McCandless realizes that the Carpenter Gothic is “like the inside of [his] head,” underscoring his connection to his creator, Gaddis, as well as the connection between the house and the novel.

The (always) ringing phone punctures the scene:

—Listen! The phone had rung inside and she started up at the second ring, sank back with the third. —All I meant was, it’s a hard house to hide in…

Elizabeth’s lines here emphasize Carpenter’s Gothic’s central Gothicism—the Carpenter Gothic and Carpenter’s Gothic is a hard place to hide in. Secrets will out.

And so well where does our hodgepodge of good intentions lead?

Blog about about the Halloween chapter of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

Mischief Night, Jamie Wyeth

The fourth of seven unnumbered chapters in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic is set over the course of Halloween, moving from morning, into afternoon, and then night. Halloween is an appropriately Gothic setting for the midpoint of Gaddis’s postmodern Gothic novel, and there are some fascinating turns in this central chapter.

A summary with spoilers is not necessary here. Suffice to say that our heroine Elizabeth Booth is left alone on Halloween in the dilapidated Rural Gothic style house she and her awful husband Paul rent from mysterious Mr. McCandless. As Paul exits the house to go on one his many fruitless business trips, he notices that some neighborhood kids have already played their Halloween tricks:

He had the front door open but he stood there, looking out, looking up, —little bastards look at that, not even Halloween till tonight but they couldn’t wait… Toilet paper hung in disconsolate streamers from the telephone lines, arched and drooped in the bared maple branches reaching over the windows of the frame garage beyond the fence palings where shaving cream spelled fuck. —Look keep the doors locked, did this last night Christ knows what you’re in for tonight… and the weight of his hand fell away from her shoulder, —Liz? just try and be patient? and he pulled the door hard enough for the snap of the lock to startle her less with threats locked out than herself locked in, to leave her steadying a hand on the newel…

The kids’ Halloween antics take on a particularly sinister aspect here, set against the stark New England background Gaddis conjures. We get gloomy streamers, desolate trees, and the bald, ugly signification of one lone word: fuck. (Fuck and its iterations, along with Gaddis’s old favorite God damn, are bywords in Carpenter’s Gothic). Paul’s reading of this scene is also sinister; he underscores the Gothic motif in telling Elizabeth to “keep the doors locked” because she doesn’t know what she’s “in for tonight.” Tellingly, the aural snap of Paul’s exit shows us that Elizabeth is ultimately more paranoid about being locked in. Indeed, by the middle of the novel, we see her increasingly trapped in her (haunted) house. The staircase newel, an image that Gaddis uses repeatedly in the novel, becomes her literal support. Elizabeth spends the rest of the morning avoiding chores before eventually vomiting and taking a nap.

Then, Gaddis propels us forward a few hours with two remarkable paragraphs (or, I should say, two paragraphs upon which I wish to remark). Here is the first post-nap paragraph:

She woke abruptly to a black rage of crows in the heights of those limbs rising over the road below and lay still, the rise and fall of her breath a bare echo of the light and shadow stirred through the bedroom by winds flurrying the limbs out there till she turned sharply for the phone and dialed slowly for the time, up handling herself with the same fragile care to search the mirror, search the world outside from the commotion in the trees on down the road to the straggle of boys faces streaked with blacking and this one, that one in an oversize hat, sharing kicks and punches up the hill where in one anxious glimpse the mailman turned the corner and was gone.

What a fantastic sentence. Gaddis’s prose here reverberates with sinister force, capturing (and to an extent, replicating) Elizabeth’s disorientation. Dreadful crows and flittering shadows shake Elizabeth, and searching for stability she telephones for the time. (If you are a young person perhaps bewildered by this detail: This is something we used to do. We used to call a number for the time. Like, the time of day. You can actually still do this. Call the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1069 if you’re curious what this aesthetic experience is like). The house’s only clock is broken, further alienating Elizabeth from any sense of normalcy. In a mode of “fragile care,” anxious Elizabeth glances in the mirror, another Gothic symbol that repeats throughout this chapter. She then spies the “straggle of boys” (a neat parallel to the “black rage of crows” at the sentence’s beginning) already dressed up in horrorshow gear for mischief night and rumbling with violence. The mailman—another connection to the outside world, to some kind of external and steadying authority—simply disappears.

Here is the next paragraph:

Through the festoons drifting gently from the wires and branches a crow dropped like shot, and another, stabbing at a squirrel crushed on the road there, vaunting black wings and taking to them as a car bore down, as a boy rushed the road right down to the mailbox in the whirl of yellowed rust spotted leaves, shouts and laughter behind the fence palings, pieces of pumpkin flung through the air and the crows came back all fierce alarm, stabbing and tearing, bridling at movement anywhere till finally, when she came out to the mailbox, stillness enveloped her reaching it at arm’s length and pulling it open. It looked empty; but then there came sounds of hoarded laughter behind the fence palings and she was standing there holding the page, staring at the picture of a blonde bared to the margin, a full tumid penis squeezed stiff in her hand and pink as the tip of her tongue drawing the beading at its engorged head off in a fine thread. For that moment the blonde’s eyes, turned to her in forthright complicity, held her in their steady stare; then her tremble was lost in a turn to be plainly seen crumpling it, going back in and dropping it crumpled on the kitchen table.

The paragraph begins with the Gothic violence of the crows “stabbing and tearing” at a squirrel. Gaddis fills Carpenter’s Gothic with birds—in fact, the first words of the novel are “The bird”—a motif that underscores the possibility of flight, of escape (and entails its opposite–confinement, imprisonment). These crows are pure Halloween, shredding small mammals as the wild boys smash pumpkins. Elizabeth exits the house (a rare vignette in Carpenter’s Gothic, which keeps her primarily confined inside it) to check the mail. The only message that has been delivered to her though is from the Halloween tricksters, who cruelly laugh at their prank. The pornographic image, ripped from a magazine, is described in such a way that the blonde woman trapped within it comes to life, “in forthright complicity,” making eye contact with Elizabeth. There’s an intimation of aggressive sexual violence underlying the prank, whether the boys understand this or not. The scrap of paper doubles their earlier signal, the shaving creamed fuck written on the garage door.

Elizabeth recovers herself to signify steadiness in return, demonstratively crumpling the pornographic scrap—but she takes it with her, back into the house, where it joins the other heaps of papers, scraps, detritus of media and writing that make so much of the content of the novel. Here, the pornographic scrap takes on its own sinister force. Initially, Elizabeth sets out to compose herself anew; the next paragraph finds her descending the stairs, “differently dressed now, eyeliner streaked on her lids and the
colour unevenly matched on her paled cheeks,” where she answers the ringing phone with “a quaver in her hand.” The scene that follows is an extraordinary displacement in which the phone takes on a phallic dimension, and Elizabeth imaginatively correlates herself with the blonde woman in the pornographic picture. She stares at this image the whole time she is on the phone while a disembodied male voice demands answers she cannot provide:

The voice burst at her from the phone and she held it away, staring down close at the picture as though something, some detail, might have changed in her absence, as though what was promised there in minutes, or moments, might have come in a sudden burst on the wet lips as the voice broke from the phone in a pitch of invective, in a harried staccato, broke off in a wail and she held it close enough to say —I’m sorry Mister Mullins, I don’t know what to… and she held it away again bursting with spleen, her own fingertip smoothing the still fingers hoarding the roothairs of the inflexible surge before her with polished nails, tracing the delicate vein engorged up the curve of its glistening rise to the crown cleft fierce with colour where that glint of beading led off in its fine thread to the still tongue, mouth opened without appetite and the mascaraed eyes unwavering on hers without a gleam of hope or even expectation, —I don’t know I can’t tell you!

Gaddis’s triple repetition of the verb burst links the phone to the phallus and links Elizabeth to the blonde woman. This link is reinforced by the notation of the woman’s “mascaraed eyes,” a detail echoing the paragraph’s initial image of Elizabeth descending the stairs with streaked eyeliner. The final identification between the two is the most horrific—Elizabeth reads those eyes, that image, that scrap of paper, as a work “without a gleam of hope or even expectation.” Doom.

Elizabeth is “saved,” if only temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Mr. McCandless, who quickly stabilizes the poor woman. Gaddis notes that McCandless “caught the newel with her hand…He had her arm, had her hand in fact firm in one of his.” When he asks why she is so upset, she replies, “It’s the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there…” McCandless chalks the mess up to “kids with nothing to do,” but Elizabeth reads in it something more sinister: “there’s a meanness.” McCandless counters that “it’s plain stupidity…There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This phrase “Halloween out there” repeats three times in the chapter, suggesting a larger signification—it isn’t just Halloween tonight, but rather, as McCandless puts it, the night is “Like the whole damned world isn’t it.” It’s always Halloween out there in Carpenter’s Gothic, and this adds up to mostly malice of mostly stupidity in this world—depending on how you read it.

The second half of the chapter gives over to McCandless, who comes to unexpectedly inhabit the novel’s center. Elizabeth departs, if only for a few hours, leaving McCandless alone, if only momentarily. A shifty interlocutor soon arrives on the thresh hold of his Carpenter Gothic home, and we learn some of his fascinating background. It’s a strange moment in a novel that has focused so intently on the consciousness of Elizabeth, but coming in the novel’s center, it acts as a stabilizing force. I won’t go into great detail here—I think much of what happens when McCandless is the center of the narrative is best experienced without any kind of spoiler—but we get at times from him a sustained howl against the meanness and stupidity of the world. He finally ushers his surprise interlocutor out of his home with the following admonition: “It’s Halloween out there too.”

 

Blog about the first 96 pages of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

img_1155

I have blazed through the first three (unnumbered) chapters of William Gaddis’s third novel Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) this weekend, consuming the prose with an urgency I did not expect. After all, Gaddis is (at least according to Jonathan Franzen) “Mr. Difficult,” right?

But Carpenter’s Gothic is not especially difficult, or does not feel that way to me, anyway—although I’m sure I find it so readable in large part because I’ve read Gaddis’s second novel  J R twice already, and Carpenter’s Gothic is written in the same style as J R. The first time I read J R did find its style tremendously challenging. Gaddis strips almost all exposition and scene-setting in J R. The novel’s 726 pages are comprised primarily in dialogue, often unattributed, leaving the reader to play director, producer, and cinematographer. Reading it a second time was, in a way, like reading it for the first time, revealing one of the best and arguably most important American novels of the second-half of the twentieth century.

In any case, reading J R has taught me how to read Carpenter’s Gothic, which is told in the same style. Carpenter’s Gothic is a smaller novel though, both literally (around 250 pages) and figuratively. While J R sports a large cast, sprawling and interlinked plots, divergent tones, and a wide array of themes, Carpenter’s Gothic is restrained to a few talking characters, whom Gaddis keeps confined to an isolated house somewhere in New England. (It is from this house’s architectural design that the novel gets its title).

The central character is Elizabeth Booth, 33, an heiress locked out of her inheritance. Elizabeth is married to an awful abusive man named Paul, a racist Vietnam Veteran who embodies almost every characteristic of what we now think of as toxic masculinity. Elizabeth is recovering from an as-yet-unspecified accident, and spends most of her time confined to her rented house, fielding phone calls. Some of these phone calls are from folks related to her husband’s latest scheme with a televangelist. Other calls are from her friend Edith who has run off to sunny Jamaica—a prospect of escape that entices Elizabeth. Even more calls come for the mysterious owner of the house, McCandless, who eventually shows up in the third chapter.

McCandless’s visit sparks something in Elizabeth. She gets to glance into his locked study, crammed with papers and books and even a piano, and she takes him for a writer, but he claims he’s a geologist. His short visit inspires Elizabeth to dig up the draft of a book, or something like a book, she’s been working on, and add a few notes. The romantic impulse is eventually punctured by her husband’s return.

Carpenter’s Gothic’s relentless interiority and inherent bitterness can give the novel a claustrophobic feeling, and reading it often reminds me of the scenes in J R that are set in the ramshackle 96th Street apartment shared by Bast and Gibbs. And yet its interiority always branches outward, evoking an exotic and pulsating world that Elizabeth might love to experience. There’s Montego Bay, there’s Orson Welles in Jane Eyre, there’s the nomadic Masai of central east Africa. Etc. But Elizabeth’s experiences are mediated by newspapers, magazine articles, phone calls, and old movies on television. It’s quite sad and frustrating.

Elizabeth thus far fits neatly into American literature’s motif of the confined woman: Walt Whitman’s 29th bather, Kate Chopin’s Mrs. Mallard, William Carlos Williams’ young housewife, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s distressed and nervous heroine. There are many, many more, of course.  I’m not quite half way through Carpenter’s Gothic–no spoilers from you please, readers!—and curious what Gaddis will do with his heroine. Will there be an escape? Freedom? A happy ending?

So many 19th and 20th century American writers seemed unsure of what to do with their heroines, even after they had freed them (Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier is a particularly easy go-to example, but again: there are more). Carpenter’s Gothic seems set on a tragic track, but Gaddis has a way of making his readers recognize the farcical contours in tragedy.

I haven’t given a taste of Gaddis’s prose yet. I will share, as a closing, the novel’s opening two-sentence paragraph, which I think is simply marvelous, and which I had to read at least three times before I could turn to the novel’s second page. Here it is:

The bird, a pigeon was it? or a dove (she’d found there were doves here) flew through the air, its colour lost in what light remained. It might have been the wad of rag she’d taken it for at first glance, flung at the smallest of the boys out there wiping mud from his cheeks where it hit him, catching it up by a wing to fling it back where one of them now with a broken branch for a bat hit it high over a bough caught and flung back and hit again into a swirl of leaves, into a puddle from rain the night before, a kind of battered shuttlecock moulting in a flurry at each blow, hit into the yellow dead end sign on the corner opposite the house where they’d end up that time of day.

Blog about Evan Dara’s two-act play Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins

Screenshot 2018-10-06 at 1.38.52 PM

Evan Dara’s latest work is a two-act play called Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins. Set “c. 2015” on a stage “As bare as you can stand it,” Dara’s play follows Mose Eakins, “35-ish and spry,” as he becomes afflicted with a condition that “has come to be known as imparlence.”

Mose’s imparlence erodes his ability to communicate with others. He loses his job, his home, and eventually his girlfriend Zina, from whom he initially hides his condition. Though his life deteriorates, Mose eventually lands a job as the maitre d’ of an overpriced French restaurant. Here, his sympathies extend to the overworked kitchen staff, and he takes a stand against the unjust working conditions, trying to make meaning through his actions, even as his words fail to communicate.

Dara keeps Provisional Biography spare but active, using a device he calls “the swirl” as a kind of Greek Chorus to keep the play shuttling along, even as the narrative threatens to fall apart. And because Mose is our viewpoint character, and because Mose is afflicted with “imparlence,” the narrative of Provisional Biography is under constant threat of its own linguistic erasure. As the swirl helpfully informs the audience, “people with imparlence lose the capacity to infuse their words with intelligible significance.”

Provisional Biography’s opening lines are an especially baffling affront to “intelligible significance.” When we meet Mose, he’s already imparlent, although he does not know it yet. Consider the play’s opening lines:

MOSE: Tell me something, Jeff. Those numbers convincing to you?

(to someone else)

Bring me the swordfish. Not blackened. You got that? Not blackened. Go.

(to someone else, jauntily)

Well, you know what they say…

(to someone else)

Nice, Zina – the chart is really good. Zina, your students will love it!

(to someone else, laughing)

Tell him that and he’s totally going to have a kitten!

The first few pages of the play continue in this line, Mose’s utterances disconnected from any context that might anchor their meaning. A swirl member eventually appears on stage to push the narrative into more traditional territory:

SWIRL MEMBER 1: Hear it here! Mose Eakins (born June 10, 1978) is an American
field-risk analyst working for Concord Oil. Specializing in mid-level hard-soil
extractions, he won the Kamden Prize for his research into adjacent fauna protection and occasionally lectures in his field.

As Mose’s imparlence worsens, the tension between Mose and the world he cannot communicate with increases, erupting in moments both tragic and comic (and farcical and tragicomic). The swirl is often there to assuage him (and the audience), armed with a humorous (and occasionally ironic) quiver of quotes from the likes of Melanie Klein, William H. Gass, Jean Jacques Rousseau, St. Augustine, and television personality Doctor Oz.

The swirl advises our poor hero, suggesting treatments and support groups—and also offering up punchlines when there’s no real hope in sight:

SWIRL MEMBER: There is no known cure. Imparlence is untreatable—

MOSE: But the doctor – the doctor recommended medicine!

(Mose pulls out the paper given by Doctor Mazlane, shows it to the swirl.)

He told me to take this and come see him again! It’s a prescription…

(reads the paper)

…a prescription…to pay him five hundred and twenty dollars… And I thought bleeding patients went out in the nineteenth century.

SWIRL MEMBER: There’s been a strong return to traditional medicine.

(Other jokes don’t land so neatly—in a segment mocking TV drug commercials, a swirl member offers up an absolute groaner with the phrase “irregular vowel movements.” Who knows though? Maybe the joke plays well on the stage).

With all of its humor, Provisional Biography is ultimately a sad, even tragic story, and nowhere is it sadder than in Mose’s revelation that he can communicate to other humans through one medium: economic exchange. He takes to desperately buying Tic Tacs from street vendors simply to communicate intelligibly, and eventually resorts to buying phrases from a fellow homeless person.

And yet these purchased utterances are not true linguistic exchanges—they do not mean outside of their inherent economic content. Mose Eakins despairs:

MOSE: So – so that’s it? That’s it for me? I can only just flapgaggle by myself for the
rest of my days – flapgaggle and hope?

SWIRL MEMBER: Perhaps inevitable. According to Robert Nozick of Harvard, imparlence is just the latest expression of the ownership society.

SWIRL MEMBER: Meaning has been privatized. It’s been made part of the private
sphere.

SWIRL MEMBER: Significance is no longer a publicly-owned utility, a service
provided by a command and control center.

SWIRL MEMBER: This will vastly increase our linguistic productivity—

SWIRL MEMBER: —liberate our potential as creators of meaning—

SWIRL MEMBER: —freeing us from the restrictions and inefficiencies of the nanny
dictionary!

MOSE: But…

The swirl here satirizes the newspeak of late capitalism, imagining language—a thing that makes us inherently human—as yet another commodity to be consumed and sold back to us by a dehumanizing system that seems to operate on its own inscrutable logic. While there’s humor in the little scene, it’s also quite painful.

The idea that late capitalism reduces linguistic exchange to only an economic (and thus inauthentic) exchange is repeated again in a far more painful scene later in the play. Mose pleads for “Something real…A real response – something that speaks from the heart!” from the homeless man he has been buying phrases from, to which the man simply puts out his hand for a coin. “Is that the only thing left?” cries Mose. The swirl is there to offer an out to this existentialist despair: “Salvation–only through action! Guided by further philosophical slivers proffered by the swirl, Mose converts his despair into radical action by the end of the play. The conclusion is fittingly moving and movingly strange.

Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins, in showing a human communication dissolve, follows Dara’s 2013 novel Flee, which shows a town dissolve. Flee is an oblique but devastating address to the 2008 economic collapse in America, and Provisional Biography is a fitting follow-up, continuing Dara’s critique of the human position in the late-capitalist landscape.

Significantly, Dara’s critique of the relationship between language and commerce extends to accessing his play, which can be downloaded for free at his publisher Aurora’s website.  You simply have to give them your email address. Under the “Download” button and above the PayPal button is the following message:

“If you please, reciprocation accepted only after reading. Thank you.”

And what would “reciprocation” mean, in the end? Write your own two-act play about the relationship between language and commerce in the early 21st century and send it to Evan Dara?

I PayPal’d Aurora $11.11.

Blog about George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a novel of not knowing

img_1146

I have just now finished George Eliot’s novel Silas Marner, which I enjoyed. The novel is set in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and its plot goes something like this:

As a young man, Silas Marner, a weaver, is a member of a nonconformist church with Calvinist tendencies. Falsely accused of theft, he is excommunicated from his church. Divided from the only community he knows, he loses faith in humanity and religion, leaves his “native place” Lantern Yard in Northern England, and moves to Raveloe, a village in the Midlands.

(Lantern Yard and Raveloe are both Eliot’s inventions, like Middlemarch in Middlemarch. And while Silas Marner is much shorter than Middlemarch, the world Eliot conjures in Raveloe is nevertheless similarly rich and full and detailed, a real fake place, a spot in the Eliotverse).

Silas’s technological prowess at the loom finds him plenty of customers in Raveloe, and while he amasses a wealth in gold coins, testifying to his weaving’s popularity, he nevertheless remains isolated from the community. For a decade and a half he hoards his gold coins, counting them late into the night alone at home, and cementing his reputation as an eccentric with the Raveloe folk. He’s always the Stranger.

In the meantime, Raveloe’s wealthiest family, the Casses, continue their lives as obnoxious rich assholes. The elder son Godfrey harbors a shameful secret, the younger son Dunstan is an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, and Papa Cass—excuse me, Squire Cass—is a pompous prick. There’s a ruined horse, an opium-addicted wife, a Christmas Party ruined by a visit from big-A Anxiety. Etc.

Through a series of skillful plot-moves, Eliot meshes the Cass story line with Marner’s story weaving the two together around the novel’s central conceit: Silas Marner’s hoard of gold is stolen. Soon after, he finds a baby girl, whose golden curls he takes as a kind of symbolic exchange for his golden coins. The girl saves his life in the sense that she saves his soul. Eliot gives us this moving exchange between adopted father and daughter near the end of the novel:

“But I know now, father,” said Eppie. “If it hadn’t been for you, they’d have taken me to the workhouse, and there’d have been nobody to love me.”

“Eh, my precious child, the blessing was mine. If you hadn’t been sent to save me, I should ha’ gone to the grave in my misery. The money was taken away from me in time; and you see it’s been kept—kept till it was wanted for you. It’s wonderful—our life is wonderful.”

There is nothing like a character declaring something like “It’s wonderful–our life is wonderful” to signal an impending moment of the unwonderful, of course, and Godfrey Cass barges into the life of Silas Marner on queue. Old secrets come to light, etc.

But there is a happy ending, a classically comic ending, with a wedding and a garden and laughter and everything.

I do not think my plot summary spoils too much, or at least I very much hope it spoils nothing. I went into Silas Marner not knowing anything about the plot, and, after writing my little summary, I can see how the novel might be misinterpreted as a tad, uh, sentimental. And it does earn its emotional ending, that’s true. But, as in Middlemarch, it’s really the way that Eliot captures emotion—psychology, intention, bewilderment—-that so compels me.

Silas Marner is a novel about conscience and consciousness, anxiety and isolation, strangers and community. It is a novel about knowing, but it is also very much a novel about not knowing. The novel’s strange hero Silas Marner is a weaver, a symbolic doubling for an author, sure, but Silas Marner is a novel that points to its own loose threads.

This theme of not knowing is most evident in the final paragraphs of the novel’s final numbered chapter. There is a chapter titled “Conclusion” after the final numbered chapter, and this chapter “Conclusion” gives us the classical comedic ending of a wedding in a garden and, you know, happily ever after. This “Conclusion” gives the text a sense of resolution that the novel’s final numbered chapter withholds. I find Eliot’s evocation of not knowing in the final numbered chapter a far more persuasive indicator of the emerging modernism I read in her novels.

In this final numbered chapter (Chapter XXI), Silas takes his daughter Eppie to the North, to Lantern Yard. He wants to show his daughter his “native place,” but he also wants to confront Mr. Patson the minister of the church that excommunicated him. He wants to demonstrate his innocence to the minister. He wants this member of his old community to know himself the way he knows himself; he wants to know that the minister knows what he himself knows.

Silas and Eppie are aghast at Lantern Yard though—the place looks awful and smells bad; none of it is as Silas had known it. It is a new place, an industrialized place. Even the church where he had worshiped is gone, replaced by a factory. And his detective work does not pay off:

But neither from the brush-maker, who had come to Shoe Lane only ten years ago, when the factory was already built, nor from any other source within his reach, could Silas learn anything of the old Lantern Yard friends, or of Mr. Paston the minister.

When Silas returns to Raveloe, he confides in his friend Dolly Winthrop, who serves as kind of leveling conscience in the novel, telling her:

The old home’s gone; I’ve no home but this now. I shall never know whether they got at the truth o’ the robbery, nor whether Mr. Paston could ha’ given me any light about the drawing o’ the lots. It’s dark to me, Mrs. Winthrop, that is; I doubt it’ll be dark to the last.

Silas has reconciled himself to the darkness of not knowing; there’s no teleological neatness in this conclusion. Teleological neatness is reserved for “Conclusion” —for the wedding, the garden, the laughter. And it’s in those human moments, moments that serve to counter his early years of isolation, that Silas finds “light enough to trusten” the human race he once rejected. Silas weaves the dark loose ends of his old life into something new and bright, and in this way, preserves his soul.

A review of Anders Nilsen’s comic Tongues

screenshot-2018-08-31-at-4-30-04-pm

Check out my review (at The Comics Journal) of Anders Nilsen’s new comic Tongues. First paragraph:

There’s a lot going on in the first two issues of Anders Nilsen’s new graphic novel-in-progress Tongues. A black eagle plays chess with Prometheus before tearing out the chained god’s liver. A young American ambles aimlessly through a Central Asian desert, a teddy bear strapped to his back. Stealing away from his lover’s tower window, a youth morphs into a black swan and flies into the desert, where he consumes the tongue and throat of a murder victim sprawled in the sand. A little girl chats in Swahili about her assassination plans with a black chicken. (There are lots of black birds in Tongues). There’s also some literal monkey business. It’s all really beautiful stuff.

Read the full review at The Comics Journal.

screenshot-2018-08-31-at-4-34-20-pm

On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno

Near the middle of Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, our erstwhile protagonist Captain Amasa Delano encounters an old sailor tying a strange knot:

For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship, nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot, treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.

At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man…

This knot serves as a metaphor for the text of Benito Cereno itself. We readers (along with our hapless surrogate Captain Delano) are the ones tasked with unknotting the text’s central mystery.

Part of the great pleasure of reading Benito Cereno for the first time rests in Melville’s slow-burning buildup to the eventual unknotting. I was fortunate enough to have been ignorant of the plot (and eventual revelation) of Benito Cereno when I first read it over a dozen or so years ago (although even then I cottoned on to what was really happening earlier than Captain Delano did). I read the novella again last week and marveled at Melville’s narrative control, enjoying it anew by seeing it anew.

Benito Cereno is a sharply-drawn tale about the limits of first-person consciousness and the cultural blinders we wear that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The book subtly critiques the notion of a naturally-ordered morality in which every person has a right and fitting place, whether that be a place of power or a place of servitude. Melville shows the peril and folly of intrinsically believing in the absolute rightness of such a system. There is comfort in belief, but unquestioning belief makes us radically susceptible to being wrong. When we most believe ourselves right is often when we are the most blinded to the reality around us. We cannot see that we cannot see. And Benito Cereno is about how we see—about how we know what we know. Melville’s novella is also about how seeing entails not seeing, and, further, not seeing what we are not seeing—all that we do not know that we do not know. Melville makes his readers eventually see these unknown unknowns, and, remarkably, shows us that they were right before our eyes the entire time.

Forgive me—much of the previous paragraph is far too general. I want you to read Benito Cereno but I don’t want to spoil the plot. Let’s attempt summation without revelation: The novella is set in 1799 off the coast of Chile. Amasa Delano, captain of the American sealing vessel the Bachelor’s Delight, spies a ship floating adrift aimlessly, apparently in distress. Captain Delano boards one of his whale boats and heads to the San Dominick, a Spanish slaving ship, and quickly sees that the enslaved Africans on board dramatically outnumber the Spanish sailors. Delano offers aid to the San Dominick’s captain, Benito Cereno, who tells Delano that most of the Spanish crew perished in a fever (along with the “owner” of the slaves, Alexandro Aranda). Benito Cereno himself seems terribly ill and not entirely fit to command, so Delano waits aboard the San Dominick while his men fetch food and water from the Bachelor’s Delight. In the meantime, he tours the ship and talks with Benito Cereno and Cereno’s enslaved valet Babo.

Delano is frequently troubled by what he sees on the ship, but his good nature always affords him a natural and acceptable answer that assuages the sinister tension tingling in the background. Even though he’s troubled by the “half-lunatic Don Benito,” Delano’s “good-natured” sense of moral authority can explain away what he sees with his own eyes:

At last he began to laugh at his former forebodings; and laugh at the strange ship for, in its aspect, someway siding with them, as it were; and laugh, too, at the odd-looking blacks, particularly those old scissors-grinders, the Ashantees; and those bed-ridden old knitting women, the oakum-pickers; and almost at the dark Spaniard himself, the central hobgoblin of all.

For the rest, whatever in a serious way seemed enigmatical, was now good-naturedly explained away by the thought that, for the most part, the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about…

These paragraphs not only summarize some of the images that give Delano pause, they also show Melville’s remarkable prose style, which follow’s Delano’s psychological state: laughing dismissal returns back to anxious image; anxious image gives way again to relieved certitude. All that is “enigmatical” in life can be “good-naturedly explained away.” And yet as the narrative progresses, good-natured explanations will fail to answer to visceral reality. Melville’s slow burn catches fire, burning away the veils of pretense.

The rest of this post (after the image) contains significant spoilers. I highly recommend Benito Cereno, which is reprinted in any number of Melville collections (I read it again in Rinehart’s Selected Tales and Poems), including The Piazza Tales (which you can download for free at Project Gutenberg). While I think that Benito Cereno has gained more recognition in recent years, it remains under-read compared to Melville’s more famous novellas Bartleby and Billy Budd. Those are great books too, but I’d argue that Benito Cereno, with its critique of white supremacy, is more timely than ever. Check it out. (Again, spoilers ahead).

IMG_0160

Continue reading “On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno”

Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, etc., June and July 2018 (and an unrelated griffin)

bibicnsh_ydn_2400x2400
Grifo de California, 2017 by Walton Ford (b. 1960)

Links to reviews, riffs, etc. I wrote in June and July of 2018–

I continued and then apparently abandoned the silly project of trying to write reviews on every film I watched or rewatched this summer:

I hated both Ant-Man and The Disaster Artist, which I made a bad double feature out of.

I loved Lady Bird though.

I took my son to see Pom Poko in the theater as part of the Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 program.

I finally watched David Cronenberg’s film Map to the Stars and was not especially impressed.

I watched Blade Runner 2049 a second time and annotated my original review.

And I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man for the first time in ages and boy is it really really good.

Trying to write about every film I watched what was exhausting and I’m not really sure what I got out of it, if anything. Here are the other films that I remember watching and not writing about:

All eight of the Star Wars films, again, sort of, with my kids.

Samsara (dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)—bought a new TV for the first time in eleven years and used this film to test the screen. Ended up watching it twice.

Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)—another one I watched with the kids, although I’m not sure it was for them. It wasn’t for me. A lot of wasted potential in this one.

The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan, 1984)—I think this one holds up well. I remember renting it for 99 cents from the Hollywood Video next to my apartment in Gainesville, FL in 1997 and thinking it was a work of genius.

Princess Mononoke (dir. Hayao Miyazkai, 1997)—in the theater for the first time, again as part of Ghibli Fest 2018. I wrote about the film here a few years ago.

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2014). Watched it again last night on Netflix. I wrote about it here. I like a film that is basically a mood.

Screenshot 2018-07-31 at 8.40.39 PM

I finally read George Eliot’s longass wonderfulass novel Middlemarch  this summer. I wrote about wanting to reread it from about halfway through 

I also wrote about finishing Middlemarch, but edited out a few paragraphs about how much the last paragraphs of Eliot’s novel reminded me of the last lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

Screenshot 2018-07-31 at 8.41.11 PM

In what is either strange felicity or my need to connect everything to Whitman, I did connect the end of Song to one of Denis Johnson’s posthumous stories, the title story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. 

Writing about “Largesse” was the first of an intended five part series on each of the stories in Johnson’s last book; I wrote about the second story, “The Starlight on Idaho” here and “Strangler Bob” here. (Links to the full texts of those stories are in each of those pieces, by the way).

I recycled a review of Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile after I saw its new cover in a Charleston bookstore.

I also wrote about how weak and ineffectual I think George Saunders’ “satire” of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is. I see Saunders’ piece as part of an obsolete postmodernist mode that cannot viscerally engage the emerging zeitgeist. I wrote,

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Screenshot 2018-07-31 at 8.42.52 PM

A review of Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile

djhkew-vaaavpst

Toward the end of the 130 page monologue that is Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile, narrator Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix claims that “An individual is no match for history.” His statement neatly encapsulates (what might be) the dominant theme of By Night in Chile, namely an individual person’s capacity and ability to correctly–and sanely–somehow measure, attest to, confront, and witness the horror and brutality of history. In this case, Bolaño’s narrator, a Catholic priest–and conservative literary critic (and, of course, failed poet)–Father Urrutia, via a sweeping deathbed confession of sorts, recounts his life story, leading inexorably to Pinochet’s coup and its attendant subsequent draconian reforms and abuses. While it would be a mistake to reduce Bolaño’s rich novella to one conflict, I think the root of Urrutia’s struggle emanates from his inability to come to terms with his role as an intellectual (let alone an artist, critic, or priest) complicit somehow in Pinochet’s crimes. Throughout the book, from the very beginning, Urrutia blames his inner turmoil on a “wizened youth” (I don’t want to spoil this antagonist’s identity, but puzzling out that paradoxical appellation provides a major clue), a kind of idealist who stands apart from the dying priest, mocking and taunting him. After his claim that “An individual is no match for history,” Urrutia avers that “The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.” For Urrutia, this is of paramount importance, not just as a Catholic priest (which, it must be pointed out, is a role he doesn’t seem particularly suited for) but also as a literary critic and intellectual: Urrutia wants to systematize and critique history, to be “on the right side of history,” to quote Barack Obama. And yet his own attempt to narrativize his own life ironizes and critiques this very possibility at every turn–he is a sham, a charlatan, motivated and prompted by fear and even hate.

And on that attempt to narrativize a life: I would call By Night in Chile an anti-bildungsroman. Although Urrutia relates a life story, the free flow of psychic impressions that characterizes his telling slip and sail and rock and crash throughout years and over decades, often flowing backwards and forwards, sometimes spending pages on what could only be considered inconsequential minutiae, while at times glossing over the profoundest events with little more than a word or two. It is often what Urrutia does not remark upon that characterizes what is of the greatest importance in this work, and this is a testament to the power of Bolaño’s writing, to his command of voice. In one of the greatest performances of the novel, Urrutia describes the time right before, during, and after Pinochet’s coup. The passage is less than four pages, and for every contemporary action of immediate consequence, Urrutia seems to provide twice as many examples of his retreat into the past: ” . . . the first anti-Allende march was organized, with people banging pots and pans, and I read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, all the tragedies, and Alkaios of Mytilene and Aesop and Hesiod and Herodotus . . . .” Urrutia doesn’t bother to scrutinize or analyze the visceral reality of history in the making around him, regressing instead to the comfort of established philosophical tradition–the history of Herodotus in favor of the chaos, anarchy, and brutality happening around him. He’s really quite a terrible priest, and as an intellectual he refuses to be engaged. Confident that he will always be “on history’s side,” he refuses to actively even try come to terms with history until he’s dying. And thus we get the narrative of By Night in Chile.

This reckoning with the past takes the form of a long monologue but, as those familiar with Bolaño will attest, there are plenty of other voices here, stories nested within stories like Russian dolls. The force and vitality of Urrutia’s speech is astonishing; one envisions the monologue as a single immediate and discrete exhalation, a stream of memory, the living wail of a dying man. Bolaño’s rhetorical style here conveys this ironic energy. He employs long (very, very long) sentences, sometimes going on for several pages, and often uses little or no transitions between what should be major shifts of space and time. There are plenty of references to writers, of course, many obscure, and more motifs and leitmotifs than I can work out here (or elsewhere, to be honest). I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the book is probably even more intense in the original Spanish, although I think Chris Andrews has done a brilliant job translating here, just as he did in Last Evenings on Earth. And since I’ve brought up that book, I’m going to make another suggestion: if you’ve yet to read Bolaño, you should, and Last Evenings of Earth (or 2666 if nearly a thousand pages doesn’t seem too daunting)is probably the best place to start–which is kind of another way of saying that By Night in Chile is not the best entry point to Bolaño–at least not for anyone intimately familiar with Latin American history. It’s not that By Night is particularly challenging or hard to read. However, I think that this particular book will probably be better enjoyed with more context. As Rodrigo Fresán points out in his essay “The Savage Detective,” (published in the March 2007 issue of The Believer), By Night in Chile could be (should be?) read as part of one cohesive book along with Amulet and Distant Star. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, Bolaño’s works seem to coalesce into one great work, a secret universe parallel to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Urrutia’s voice enriches this universe, but one must have something of a foothold on Bolaño’s themes in order to appreciate the complex ironies of By Night in Chile. Or maybe not. Maybe this is a great entry point to Bolaño. Either way, great book. Highly recommended.


Editorial note: Biblioklept ran the original version of this review in July of 2010. I saw the new cover for By Night in Chile today in a bookstore I was visiting in a town that I do not live in, and the new cover—the picture of which is the only new “content” for this review—is the occasion for republishing this Bolaño review.

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “Strangler Bob”

Screenshot 2018-07-25 at 5.28.36 PM
Detail from Newgate Exercise Yard by Gustave Dore, 1872

Denis Johnson’s story “Strangler Bob” is the third selection in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. At about 20 pages, it’s also the shortest piece in the collection (the other four stories run between 40 and 50 pages). While still a bit longer than the stories in Johnson’s seminal collection Jesus’ Son, “Strangler Bob” nevertheless seems to pulse from that same vein, its narrator Dink another iteration of Jesus’ Son’s Fuckhead. Indeed, “Strangler Bob” feels a bit like an old sketch that’s been reworked by Johnson into something that fits thematically into Largesse.

Here’s the opening paragraph of “Strangler Bob” in full, which gives us the basic premise and setting (and you can’t beat those two opening sentences):

You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail. I remember a monstrous tangle of arms and legs and fists, with me at the bottom gouging at eyes and doing my utmost to mangle throats, but I arrived at the facility without a scratch or a bruise. I must have been easy to subdue. The following Monday I pled guilty to disturbing the peace and malicious mischief, reduced from felony vehicular theft and resisting arrest because—well, because all this occurs on another planet, the planet of Thanksgiving, 1967. I was eighteen and hadn’t been in too much trouble. I was sentenced to forty-one days.

Those forty-one days take us from Thanksgiving to the New Year, with the story’s spiritual climax occurring on Christmas Eve.

Before we get to that climax Johnson builds an unexpectedly rich world in the county lockup, populating it with young toughs who can’t yet see how bad the paths they’ve chosen will be. The men of Johnson’s jail aren’t simply down on their luck or somehow morally misunderstood. They are jovial young fuck-ups who plan to continue fucking up their lives the minute they get out.

A lot of the stage-setting and background characterization in “Strangler Bob” reads like picaresque sketches that Johnson had lying about unused from decades ago. Much of the early part of the story is dedicated to “the blond sociopathic giant Jocko,” a sort of prince of the jail who saves a crazy kid from being murdered by the other inmates. Such scenes give the story a ballast of baroque energy and even an unexpectedly-comic realism, but they don’t fully fit into the main theme of the story, which is hunger.

On his first day in the jail the narrator Dink is warned not to oversleep or he will have his breakfast stolen. Hardheaded, he sleeps in anyway, but learns from his mistake:

After that I had no trouble rousing myself for the first meal, because other than the arrival of food we had nothing in our lives to look forward to, and the hunger we felt in that place was more ferocious than any infant’s. Corn flakes for breakfast. Lunch: baloney on white. For dinner, one of the canned creations of Chef Boyardee, or, on lucky days, Dinty Moore. The most wonderful meals I’ve ever tasted.

Hunger in “Strangler Bob” is an expression of the deep boredom the prisoners feel, and mealtimes become the only way these men measure the passing of time. The hunger in “Strangler Bob” is not just a desire for food, but rather something to fill up the void, the space, the empty feeling. In this world, romantic adventure is ironized into confined torpor:

Dundun, BD and I formed a congress and became the Three Musketeers—no hijinks or swashbuckling, just hour upon hour of pointless conversation, misshapen cigarettes, and lethargy.

Dundun and BD are perhaps unlikely friends for Dink—

Dundun was short and muscled, I was short and puny, and BD was the tallest man in the jail, with a thick body that tapered up toward freakishly narrow shoulders.

—but their fellowship holds together because they had “long hair and chased after any kind of intoxicating substance.” Thanks to BD they get their mitts on some LSD:

BD told us he had a little brother, still in high school, who sold psychedelic drugs to his classmates. This brother came to visit BD and left him a hotrod magazine, one page of which he’d soaked in what he told BD was psilocybin, but was likelier just, BD figured, LSD plus some sort of large-animal veterinary tranquilizer. In any case: BD was most generous. He tore the page from the magazine, divided it into thirds, and shared one third with me and one with Donald Dundun, offering us this shredded contraband as a surprise on Christmas Eve.

The ink from the newsprint turns their tongues black. Narrator Dink seems to think that the LSD was not evenly distributed on the page though—BD trips the hardest, seeing snow falling indoors, but Dink seems to think he’s mostly unaffected, while Dundun denies any effect at all. However, consider this exchange between Dink and Dundun, which suggests that they might be tripping harder than they think:

“I’m feeling all the way back to my roots. To the caves. To the apes.” He turned his head and looked at us. His face was dark, but his eyeballs gave out sparks. He seemed to be positioned at the portal, bathed in prehistoric memories. He was summoning the ancient trees—their foliage was growing out of the walls of our prison, writhing and shrugging, hemming us in.

A sloppy and unnecessary Freudian analysis of the three kids parcels them out easily as id (Dundun the apeman), super ego (BD the strange moralist), and ego, our narrator who rejects any kind of spirituality in a world where “Asian babies fried in napalm.”

Dink’s cellmate, the eponymous Strangler Bob, poses a challenge to the narrator’s easy nihilism though. Even though Dink believes that he’s not affected by the LSD, his encounter with Bob on Christmas Eve reads like a bad trip:

The only effect I felt seemed to coalesce around the presence of Strangler Bob, who laughed again—“Hah!”—and, when he had our attention, said, “It was nice, you know, it being just the two of us, me and the missus. We charcoaled a couple T-bone steaks and drank a bottle of imported Beaujolais red wine, and then I sort of killed her a little bit.”

To demonstrate, he wrapped his fingers around his own neck while we Musketeers studied him like something we’d come on in a magic forest.

Dundun then exclaims that Strangler Bob is “the man who ate his wife” — but Bob admonishes that his cannibalism was greatly exaggerated:

Strangler Bob said, “That was a false exaggeration. I did not eat my wife. What happened was, she kept a few chickens, and I ate one of those. I wrung my wife’s neck, then I wrung a chicken’s neck for my dinner, and then I boiled and ate the chicken.”

The hunger in Strangler Bob is perverse and abject; his crime is of a moral magnitude far more intense than the malicious hijinks the youthful Musketeers have perpetrated–it’s taboo, a challenge to all moral order. He’s also an oracle of strange dooms:

He said, “I have a message for you from God. Sooner or later, you’ll all three end up doing murder.” His finger materialized in front of him, pointing at each of us in turn—“Murderer. Murderer. Murderer”

We learn in the final melancholy paragraphs of the story that Bob’s prophecy comes true, more or less. In those paragraphs too there is a moment of grace, albeit a grace hard purchased. Of the latter part of his life, the Dink tells us:

I was constantly drunk, treated myself as a garbage can for pharmaceuticals, and within a few years lost everything and became a wino on the street, drifting from city to city, sleeping in missions, eating at giveaway programs.

It’s worth noting that if Dink were 18 in the fall of 1967, he would likely have been born in 1949, the year that Denis Johnson was born. The narrators of two other stories in Largesse are also born in or around 1949, and it’s my belief that all of the narrators are essentially the same age, and all are pseudoautofictional iterations of Johnson.

In “Strangler Bob,” Dink is an iteration that fails to thrive, that can’t survive addiction and recovery and enter into a new life. He does not heed Bob’s warning, and at the end of the story he laments that he is a poisoned person who has poisoned others:

When I die myself, B.D. and Dundun, the angels of the God I sneered at, will come to tally up my victims and tell me how many people I killed with my blood.

These final lines push the narrator into a place of bare remorse and regret, as he reflects back on his time in the jail, which he describes in retrospect as “some kind of intersection for souls.” Dink now sees that he’s failed to acknowledge the messengers that might have sent him on a better path. Angels come in strange forms.

Very early Christmas morning on the planet of 1967, after “the festival of horrors” that constituted the LSD trip, Strangler Bob gives one last message, a strange delivered in Dink’s grandmother’s voice:

I studied him surreptitiously over the edge of the bunk, and soon I could see alien features forming on the face below me, Martian mouth, Andromedan eyes, staring back at me with evil curiosity. It made me feel weightless and dizzy when the mouth spoke to me with the voice of my grandmother: “Right now,” Strangler Bob said, “you don’t get it. You’re too young.” My grandmother’s voice, the same aggrieved tone, the same sorrow and resignation.

“You’re too young” — wisdom is purchased through folly, pain, terrible mistakes, crimes and sins. The narrator’s grandmother ventriloquizes Strangler Bob, but she doesn’t have a moral message, just tired pain.

The voice here is Denis Johnson’s voice too, inhabiting a mad oracle, warning some version of himself that exists today.


You can read “Stranger Bob” online here.

I wrote about the title story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden here.

I wrote about the second story, “The Starlight on Idaho” here.

 

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”

img_0381

I finished reading Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection of short stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden a few weeks ago. I felt a bit stunned by the time I got to the fourth story in the collection, “Triumph Over the Grave,” which ends with these words: “It’s plain to you that at the time I wrote this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Denis Johnson died just over a year ago, of course, a fact that haunts any reading of Sea Maiden (at least for fans, and I am a fan). The collection was released just half a year after his death, and I managed to avoid reading any reviews of it. I held out on picking it up for reasons I don’t really know how to explain, but I when I finally read it, I consumed it in a greedy rush.

Anyway, since I finished the book I’ve tried a few times to put together a “review,” but each time I get some words down I find myself sprawling out all over the place, rereading bits of the stories, picking out new motifs, new questions, new parallels between Johnson’s life and the lives of his narrators. Very short review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is one of Johnson’s best books, a perfect gift to his readers—his own tragicomic obituary in fictional form. It’s a book about death and writing and art and commerce and regret and salvation, and each time I go back to it I find more in there than I saw the first time–more order, more threads, more design. So instead of a full long review, I’ll offer instead a series of blogs about each of the five stories in the collection. (Perhaps this form is simply an excuse to reread The Largesse of the Sea Maiden).

The first story is the title track, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” First published in The New Yorker back in 2014, this long short story (it runs to not-quite 40 pages) introduces the major themes and tones of the entire collection. “Largesse” is told by a first-person narrator in ten titled vignettes. Some of the titles, like “Widow,” “Orphan,” “Farewell,” and “Memorial,” directly name the themes of both the story and the book.

The narrator of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a writer—but not a writer of literature or fiction—of art—but of commercials. Although “Largesse” shows him somewhat comfortable in his life in San Diego with his third wife, the narrator nevertheless is melancholy, even dour at times. In the beginning of the vignette “Ad Man,” he declares:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life—the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.

(Is there a subtle nod there to one of Johnson’s most well-known stories, “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking”? I think so. If not, I find a thread).

“Ad Man” initiates the major plot trajectory of “Largesse”: Our narrator has won an award for an advertisement he wrote and directed decades ago, and he will have to return to New York City to be given the award at a special dinner. Floating through the vignettes is the ad man’s anxiety about his own legacy of work against the backdrop of the finer arts. We learn in “Accomplices” that he cares enough about the arts to object that his host has hung a Mardsen Hartley oil landscape above a lit fireplace—but he doesn’t prevent the man from burning the painting—his “property”—in a moment where Johnson subtly critiques the relationship between art and commerce. The narrator turns the burning of the painting into a new art though—storytelling.

The narrator later tells us that “looking at art for an hour or so always changes the way I see things afterward,” and “Largesse” is riddled with encounters with art and artists, like the outsider painter Tony Fido, whom the narrator meets at a gallery. The artist offers, unprompted, a scathing critique of a Edward Hopper’s painting Gas:

“You’re a painter yourself.”

“A better painter than this guy,” he said of Edward Hopper.

“Well, whose work would you say is any good?”

“The only painter I admire is God. He’s my biggest influence.”

That attribution — “he said of Edward Hopper” — is a lovely example of Johnson’s sharply-controlled wit.

Tony Fido plays a major minor role in “Largesse.” Fido tells the narrator the story of his encounter with a widow—one of several widows in both “Largesse” and Largesse, and his own suicide—Fido’s—becomes a strange moment for the narrator to realize how little he actually knows about his friend. And of course, all of these plot points give Johnson a chance to riff on the themes of death, loss and regret.

“Largesse” is loaded with thoughts on regret and forgiveness. Talking with a friend, the narrator muses that “we wandered into a discussion of the difference between repentance and regret. You repent the things you’ve done, and regret the chances you let get away.” The vignette “Farewell” stages a chance for the narrator to repent his past sins; his ex-wife, dying of cancer, calls him up to (possibly) forgive him:

In the middle of this I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake—if this wasn’t my first wife Ginny, no, but rather my second wife, Jennifer, often called Jenny. Because of the weakness of her voice and my own humming shock at the news, also the situation around her as she tried to speak to me on this very important occasion—folks coming and going, and the sounds of a respirator, I supposed—now, fifteen minutes into this call, I couldn’t remember if she’d actually said her name when I picked up the phone and I suddenly didn’t know which set of crimes I was regretting, wasn’t sure if this dying farewell clobbering me to my knees in true repentance beside the kitchen table was Virginia’s, or Jennifer’s.

I’ve quoted at such length because the moment is an example of Johnson’s tragicomic genius—a sick punchline that disconnects crime from punishment and punishment from forgiveness. The narrator ends up making the connections himself in the end: “after all, both sets of crimes had been the same.” And yet Johnson keeps pushing his character past reconciliation into a midnight walk to clear his conscience:

I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasseled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it. The sign said “Sky and Celery.”

Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”

“Farewell” ends on this note of a winking Mystery—on the profound insight that we are always susceptible to misreading the signs in front of us.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is very much a story about trying to put together a cohesive narrative from the strands and fragments around us. Indeed, its very form points to this—the fractured vignettes have to be pieced together by the reader. Johnson fractures not just form but tone. The deadpan, tragicomic, pathos-laden humor that’s run throughout Johnson’s oeuvre dominates in “Largesse,” yes, but there are strange eruptions of sentimental fantasy, particularly in “Mermaid,” a vignette that reads like the narrator’s own imaginative construction, and not the (often banal) reality that most of the narrative is grounded in. After receiving his award in New York, the narrator makes his way to a bar, and here conjures a scene like something from a film noir:

I couldn’t see the musician at all. In front of the piano a big tenor saxophone rested upright on a stand. With no one around to play it, it seemed like just another of the personalities here: the invisible pianist, the disenchanted old bartender, the big glamorous blonde, the shipwrecked, solitary saxophone…And the man who’d walked here through the snow…And as soon as the name of the song popped into my head I thought I heard a voice say, “Her name is Maria Elena.” The scene had a moonlit, black-and-white quality. Ten feet away at her table the blond woman waited, her shoulders back, her face raised. She lifted one hand and beckoned me with her fingers. She was weeping. The lines of her tears sparkled on her cheeks. “I am a prisoner here,” she said. I took the chair across from her and watched her cry. I sat upright, one hand on the table’s surface and the other around my drink. I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.”

The ecstasy here—internalized and “still”—is the ecstasy of storytelling, imagination, art. This is the gift of the mermaid, the largesse of the sea maiden. The minor moment is the real award for our ad man hero, who finds no real transcendence in commercial writing.

I’ve been using “the narrator” in this riff, but our hero has a name, which he reveals to us in the final vignette, “Whit.” It’s here that he describes the ad he’s (not exactly) famous for, an “animated 30-second spot [where] you see a brown bear chasing a gray rabbit.” The chase ends when the rabbit gives the bear a dollar bill.” Narrator Whit explains that this ad for a bank “referred, really, to nothing at all, and yet it was actually very moving.” He goes on:

I think it pointed to orderly financial exchange as the basis of harmony. Money tames the beast. Money is peace. Money is civilization. The end of the story is money.

And yet our ad man, despite his commercial interpretation of his own writing, recognizes too that this work “was better than cryptic—mysterious, untranslatable.” The word “untranslatable” is one of several clues that link the final section of “Largesse” to the final section of Walt Whitman’s long poem, Song of Myself. Whitman’s narrator (“Walt Whitman, a kosmos”) claims that he is, like the spotted hawk who swoops to disturb his reverie, “untranslatable.” Bequeathing himself to us—a gift for our good graces—he reminds us that “You will hardly know who I am,” a line that Johnson echoes in the beginning of “Whit”: “My name would mean nothing to you, but there’s a very good chance you’re familiar with my work.” And then of course, there’s the big tell—Johnson’s narrator is Bill Whitman, a pun that works on several levels. Walt Whitman’s language has seeped into the language of advertising—in a way it is the genesis of a new commercial American idiom—and here Johnson slyly pushes it back into the realm of art.

Just as the conclusion of Song of Myself builds to a self-penned elegy for its self-subject, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” reads like Johnson’s elegy for an alter-ego. We learn in the final paragraphs that Bill Whitman is “just shy of sixty-three” — roughly the same age as Johnson would’ve been when the story was published. (We learn that the narrator of “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” the final story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is also the same age as Johnson. That narrator was born on “July 20, 1949.” Johnson’s birthday was July 1, 1949).

Narrator Whit reflects on his life in the story’s melancholy penultimate paragraph:

I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.

However, there’s still a restlessness to his spirit, a questing desire to answer the final lines of Song of Myself, perhaps, where Whitman writes:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

The last paragraph of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is Johnson’s narrator’s implicit response to these lines, and as I cannot improve upon his prose, they will be my last lines as well:

Once in a while, I lie there as the television runs, and I read something wild and ancient from one of several collections of folktales I own. Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.

The Elephant Man (Summer Film Log)

5059

I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man (1980) last night for the first time in at least a decade (likely more than a decade). The Elephant Man is not my favorite Lynch film to rewatch, perhaps because it is his most realistic film despite its fantastic touches.

The Elephant Man is emotionally devastating, propelled by naturalistic performances unusual in Lynch’s oeuvre. Lynch teases the titular elephant man’s hideous countenance for the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, but when we finally see John Merrick (played by an unrecognizable John Hurt), we feel only pity for his circumstance and contempt for a world that can’t accept him.

Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) shares that mix of pity and contempt. Treves is the surgeon who moves Merrick from his freakshow prison to a respectable London hospital, where the young man can finally find some measure of comfort in his own skin. Away from his former handler, the sadistic Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), young Merrick quickly becomes an aesthete, the toast of London society.

2159

Merrick’s hospital suite becomes an artiste’s garret, where he builds a model of a nearby cathedral and takes tea with a famous actress. However, a cruel night porter named Jim (Michael Elphick) intrudes into this peace, selling tipsy gawkers tickets to see the elephant man in his new minor paradise. While Jim’s invasions are horrifying, more subtly terrible is the notion that Dr. Treves himself is simply recapitulating the freakshow, only this time to a “higher society” — a sin that Ms. Mothershead, the ward’s head nurse, warns Treves against. She serves as the moral anchor of the film, proclaiming that care and attention—bathing, feeding, cleaning—are the truest forms of “love.”

Despite its subject matter, The Elephant Man is possibly Lynch’s most straightforward, even traditional film (this estimation includes The Straight Story (1999)). The plot is ultimately a character study of a lonely man who craves not wholesale acceptance or dramatic love but simple friendship. The emotional crux of The Elephant Man rests in Treves’ reticence to truly befriend his patient, a reticence Lynch refuses to resolve.

2659

We feel pity for Merrick, but as his social status swells into a surreal ironic infamy, we feel a second pity—the fame goes to his head. Hurt portrays these strange emotional swings through thick layers of makeup, aided by Lynch’s impeccable framing and Freddie Francis’ dreamy black and white cinematography. (Francis served as cinematographer on Lynch’s next film, 1984’s Dune, as well as the aforementioned The Straight Story). Lynch’s sound design is haunting, but not as proficient as later efforts—too reliant on flange and echo, the sound design often subtracts through addition.

3859

Visually, The Elephant Man plants seeds for any number of Lynchian set pieces to come. The nightworld Lynch creates for poor Merrick to endure repeats throughout his oeuvre, notably in Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks (1990-2017). Michael Elphick’s night porter Jim is particularly sinister, a proto-Frank Booth. Freddie Jones’ Mr. Bytes is a loathsome first copy of Baron Harkonnen from Dune. It’s all quite horrifying.

Lynch always tempers the dark with the light. The subtle supernatural touches in The Elephant Man—halos and orbs, night spectacles, bewitched paintings—are motifs that repeat throughout his work. So much of The Elephant Man’s DNA is in Twin Peaks, and perhaps my favorite thing about watching it—aside from the rich blacks and grays and lights—was how much it evoked for me Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return—the best thing I saw on a screen last year.

6059

Lynch finds light in life’s grotesque pageant, and this strange light is what colors The Elephant Man as such an intensely meaningful film. Merrick is more than a freak, but also more than a human—Lynch refuses to show his title character’s humanity as a series of banal platitudes. Such a representation would not be true to human nature. And in the end, The Elephant Man is about human nature, or, more importantly, one real fantastic unreal human.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, very late at night. I am indebted to the archive Film Grab as the source of the images used in this post.

Riff on finishing Middlemarch, George Eliot’s novel of consciousness

Screenshot 2018-06-12 at 8.35.14 PM
Detail of a portrait of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) at age 30 by François d’Albert Durade (1804–1886)

I finally finished George Eliot’s long and marvelous 1872 novel Middlemarch.

When I wrote about reading Middlemarch last month, from not-quite-the-middle of the book, I lamented that I’d rather be rereading the book than reading it. Rich and dense, it’s the kind of big book that clearly offers more on repeat readings. And yes, I will reread Middlemarch, but I’ll give it a year or three to mellow in the back of my consciousness.

Middlemarch is a novel about consciousness, and what the novel does best in my estimation is show how different kinds of consciousness mediate and are mediated by the social forces they inhabit (and are inhabited by).

(The word consciousness appears 90 times in Middlemarch. If we include similar iterations, like consciousconsciouslyunconscious, and unconsciously, the count grows to a total of 172 times. In contrast, iterations of the word conscience appear only 38 times).

Dorothea Brooke remained my favorite consciousness throughout the novel, and I missed her when she wasn’t there, when Eliot had us hovering around or even fully inhabiting another consciousness.

I’ll admit that in the final quarter of Middlemarch I found myself a bit weary of the Bulstrode disgrace plot—and yet I appreciate how Eliot inhabited that consciousness as well. Bulstrode provides Eliot a sharp tool to show how consciousness is blind, or even self-blinding—how consciousness massages conscience in order to survive. In a passage that illustrates this process, Eliot writes,

Bulstrode shrank from a direct lie with an intensity disproportionate to the number of his more indirect misdeeds. But many of these misdeeds were like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness, though they bring about the end that we fix our mind on and desire. And it is only what we are vividly conscious of that we can vividly imagine to be seen by Omniscience.

Consciousness cannot lay claim to conceiving of an absolute omniscient conscience, an absolute and ever-present moral consciousness. Too, earlier in the novel, Eliot’s narrator observes,

For the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.

Egoism is a central problem in Middlemarch; indeed, Eliot seems to posit egoism as the greatest threat to how individual consciousnesses navigate social reality. Here is here narrator again:

Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.

I cannot improve upon “no speck so troublesome as self” and will not adventure an attempt.

But back to the consciousness I liked best in Middlemarch: Dorothea.

Dorothea is a kind of genius of intention, and Eliot harnesses that genius—she shows us Dorothea’s consciousness-in-action. Eliot doesn’t just tell us what’s happening in Dorothea’s head; she makes that consciousness live in our own heads.

Dorothea’s life, like all lives, is beset with foiled plans and terrible mistakes. Still, Middlemarch grants Dorothea something of a happy ending in her marriage to Will Ladislaw, and yet refuses the conclusion of a classical comedy. There is no wedding scene. Indeed, the last time Dorothea speaks in the novel it is to reconcile with her sister Celia—a conclusion that confirms their love story the equal to that of Dorothea and Ladislaw’s love story.

Eliot’s novel is too sophisticated and too realistic for a simplistic happy or tragic conclusion, of course. In the novel’s “Finale,” the narrator reminds us that,

Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending…the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web.

The narrator then gives us broad details of the fates of the novel’s principal couples: Lydgate and Rosamond, skewing depressive; Mary and Fred, skewing comic; and finally Ladislaw and Dorothea. We learn of Ladislaw’s success as a reform politician and understand that Dorothea is an instrumental force in this success.

Eliot’s conclusion for this final pair skews neither comic nor tragic, but is something more complex—more realistic. Dorothea becomes a cautionary tale in the town of Middlemarch; her legacy is one of misspent potential in the eyes of society. The novel ends without indicating that any of the grand plans of Dorothea’s youth have been achieved. And yet the novel concludes with an oblique revelation about Dorothea’s misunderstood legacy.

In the second-to-final paragraph of Middlemarch, Eliot writes that,

those determining acts of [Dorothea’s] life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.

Eliot refuses a simple happy ending here; her heroine is still a consciousness subject to the social forces around it. Dorothea’s great utopian ambitions are ultimately tempered by the cultural constraints her consciousness would otherwise seek to transcend.

But then the final paragraph of the novel points towards transcendence:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. … But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Dorothea—and, more significantly, the spirit of Dorothea—did real grand good in the world, an immeasurable good, “incalculably diffusive.” Even if she lived ultimately a “hidden life,” Eliot insists that it is people like Dorothea who have made the world better for “you and me.”

While “hidden life” and “unvisited tombs” may harbor negative connotations, these phrases are ultimately ironic: Eliot’s novel itself is the key to the hidden life of Dorothea Brooke. Middlemarch is a vivid and vivifying tomb for Dorothea, and we readers are the lucky visitors.

George Saunders’ “Little St. Don” and the limits of contemporary satire

Screenshot 2018-06-27 at 6.48.39 PM

George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:

Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.

Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.

The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.

The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckter’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

Screenshot 2018-06-27 at 6.48.07 PM

There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.

This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.”  Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.

If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.

There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

Screenshot 2018-06-27 at 6.48.21 PM

Maps to the Stars (Summer Film Log)

uk

Surreal and often grotesque, David Cronenberg’s film Maps to the Stars (2014) attempts to merge a satire of the film industry with a riff on haunted Hollywood. The title, with its double meaning, suggests a cartography that might pinpoint the connections between larger-than-life screen avatars and the mythological figuration our culture has lent to them.

Maps to the Stars presents a large stage then for its host of strange characters to play upon. Center stage is the (ironically-named) Weiss family. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a TV psychologist who manipulates his celebrity patients with psychobabble quackery. He’s emotionally-estranged from his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), who plays stage-mother to their son Benjie (Evan Bird), an improbably gangly teen heartthrob trying to get his film career back on track after a stint in drug rehab. The Weiss family finds their not-so-blissful life terribly disrupted when daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) shows up again after years in a mental hospital. She’s a schizophrenic with pyromaniac tendencies. Meanwhile, aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) pines for a role playing her own mother’s role in a remake of a film called Stolen Waters. Segrand resents that her mother’s fame exceeds her own. Alleging that she was sexually abused by her mother as a child, Segrand receives treatment (in her lingerie) from Dr. Weiss. Agatha eventually takes a job as Segrand’s “chore whore,” more firmly linking the two plots. There’s also a limo driver named Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison), who wants to both write and act in Hollywood. Oh, and a bunch of ghosts.

The various plot points double and triple each other: actors hope to gain coveted roles, family members hope to convert their pain into love and forgiveness, people try to escape their past. The film kneads themes of child predation, infanticide, ageism, Hollywood-as-vampirism, and incest into the plot, along with fire and water motifs. Throughout, characters repeat lines from Paul Éluard’s 1942 poem Liberté, as if the mantra’s force might grant them liberty from all these evils.

Cronenberg’s keen visual sensibilities are a highlight of Maps to the Stars. The film sparkles with a glossy Pop Art appeal which Cronenberg delights in griming up with occasional Cronenbergian touches. Still, Maps to the Stars, while thoroughly thematically abject, is not Cronenberg’s most visually Cronenbergian film.

The performances are very Cronenbergian though—stylized, affected, warped, weird. Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore are particularly good, and John Cusack leans into his role with unexpected menace. As surreal as these characters are though, there’s a ballast of reality underneath—sometimes and ultra-real reality, as when Carrie Fisher, daughter of a famous actress, plays her self in a bit role. The whole affect is unnerving.

Maps to the Star’s unnerving tone generates in part from its divergent trajectories. The film strives to be both a biting satire of Hollywood and a familial drama with mythological undertones. There’s no reason that these trajectories might intertwine successfully, but they don’t in Maps to the Stars. The tonal elements never fully cohere, and the plot careens to its climax with a pace that upsets the film’s earlier mood of slow-burning menace. The rushed ending is probably the worst part about Maps to the Stars. There’s plenty of promise in its first hour that the last 45 minutes fails to deliver. The film might have made a better limited series, even, giving Cronenberg more time to weave the threads together.

Bruce Wagner, who wrote Maps to the Stars‘ screenplay, found more room to expand in his 2012 novel Dead Stars, which ran just over 650 pages in paperback. Wagner’s novel predates the film, and is based at least in part on an earlier version of the screenplay for Maps to the Stars. (This is all a bit confusing, I know). In interviews, Wagner has rejected critics’ characterization of Maps to the Stars as a satire, declaring it rather an elegiac family melodrama. (Cronenberg himself didn’t outright reject the idea that the film was satirical though). While it’s unlikely that Wagner is being disingenuous when he claims Maps to the Stars isn’t satirical, he and Cronenberg have nevertheless produced a satire—yet one that strives to be an elegiac family melodrama, and also a take on the old haunted Hollywood stuff. And yet all this material feels pretty hollow.

The specters and doppelgangers haunting the background of Maps to the Stars remain disappointingly underexplored by the film’s end. Worse, the film suffers from a comparison to David Lynch’s far superior Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynch’s film is richer and more expansive, evoking more with far less.

Maps to the Stars also suffers from comparison to Cronenberg’s earlier work, like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1985), and Dead Ringers (1988). In the 2000s, Cronenberg delivered a particularly strong one-two punch with a pair of his most perfect films, both starring Viggo Mortensen: A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). The magic with Mortensen seemed to wear off in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg’s next film Cosmopolis (a 2012 adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel) was, in my estimation, unwatchable. While I think Maps to the Stars is stronger than the last two efforts, it does seem to point to a late-career slump. Here’s to hoping the next Cronenberg joint is a better deal, like the far-superior satire eXistenZ (1999) which he wrote himself. Maybe he should write the next one himself too.


How I watched it: I put it on a few nights ago on a big TV via a streaming service, late at night after a few tumblers of scotch, thinking, “Oh hey, I never watched this” but that turned out to be a false start. Rewatched on an iPad in bed with headphones in two sittings, very late at night.