A review of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad

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Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, 1901 by Ilya Repin

Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.

I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.

Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.

In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—

It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.

Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.

The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—

That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.

Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally ran a version of this review in June, 2011. That review neglected to include the names of the translators, Aylmer and Louise Maude].

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A review of Barry Hannah’s cult classic collection Airships

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In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.

We find that humor and violence in an outstanding trio of Civil War stories (or, more accurately, stories set during the Civil War). The narrator of “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a Confederate infantryman relates a tale of heroic slaughter with a hypberbolic, phallic force. Observe—

I knew the blueboys thought they had me down and were about ready to come in. I was in that position at Chancelorsville. There should be about six fools, I thought. I made the repeater, I killed four, and the other two limped off. Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on the top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun. Then I brought up another repeater and sprayed the yard.

Later, the narrator defects, switches to the Union, and claims he kills Jeb Stuart, a figure that towers over the Civil War tales. The narrator of “Dragged Fighting” hates Stuart; the narrator of “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” is literally in love with the General. In contrast to the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” the speaker in “Knowing” — an avowed “sissy” whom the other soldiers openly detest — hates the violence and madness of war—

We’re too far from home. We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal. The gleam in the men’s eyes tells this. Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of being simply too far from home for decent return. It is like Ruth in the alien corn, or a troop of men given wings over the terrain they cherished and taken by the wind to trees they do not know.

He despairs when he learns of Jeb Stuart’s death. In the final Civil War story, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” a Union spy is given the task to communicate news of Stuart’s death through enemy lines. Rather than offering further explication, let me instead point you, dear reader, to more of Hannah’s beautiful prose, of which I have not remarked upon nearly enough. From “Behold the Husband” —

Isaacs False Corn, the Indian, the spy, saw Edison, the Negro, the contact, on the column of an inn. His coat was made of stitched newspapers. Near his bare feet, two dogs failed earnestly at mating. Pigeons snatched at the pieces of things in the rushing gutter. The rains had been hard.

The short, descriptive passage rests on my ears like a poem. Hannah, who worked with Gordon Lish, evinces in his writing again and again that great editor’s mantra that writing is putting one sentence after another.

Although set in the Vietnam War, “Midnight and I’m not Famous Yet” seems an extension of the Civil War stories. In it, an officer from a small Southern town goes slowly crazy from all the killing, yet, like the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” he presents himself as a warrior. Above all though, he laments that the war has robbed him of some key, intermediary phase of his late youth, a phase he can’t even name—

The tears were out of my jaws then. Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. It seemed to me my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer.

This ironic sense of a “pursuit of horror” pervades Airships, particularly in the collection’s most apocalyptic visions. “Eating Wife and Friends” posits an America where food shortages and material scarcity leads people to eating leaves and grass — and then each other. In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—

In August it’s a hundred fifty degrees. In December it’s minus twenty-five and three feet of snow in Mississippi. In April the big trees explode.

A plan is made to “escape” these conditions via a rocket, but of course there’s not enough fuel to get past Newark. In Airships, modes of flight are transcendent but ultimately transient. Gravity’s pull is heavy stuff.

Just as Hannah’s war stories are not really war stories, his apocalypse tales are really about human relationships, which he draws in humor, pathos, and dark cynicism. In “Green Gets It,” an old man repeatedly attempts his suicide, only to fail again and again. His suicide note, written to his daughter, is scathing and shocking and sad and hilarious and wise–

My Beloved Daughter,

Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality. But perhaps you were too busy being awful to ever think of the cause. I hear you take self-defense classes now. Don’t you understand nobody could take anything from you without leaving you richer? If I thought rape would change you, I’d hire a randy cad myself. I leave a few dollars to your husband. Bother him about them and suffer the curse of this old pair of eyes spying blind at the minnows in the Hudson.

Your Dad,

Crabfood

Although Hannah explores the darkest gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference. This love evinces most strongly perhaps in Airships trio of long stories. These tales, which hover around 30 pages, feel positively epic set against the other stories in the collection, which tend to clock in between five and ten pages. The first long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” details the development of a boyhood friendship over a few decades. It captures the strange affections and rivalries and unnameable bonds and distances that connect and disconnect any two close friends. The second of the long tales is “Return to Return,” a tragicomic Southern drama in the Oedipal vein (with plenty of tennis and alcoholism to boot). As in “Testimony of Pilot,” Hannah finds some measure of redemption, or at least solace, for his characters in their loving friendship, yet nothing could be more unsentimental. The final long story, which closes the collection, is “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” a daring work of stream of consciousness that seems to both respond to — and revise — Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The story concludes (and of course concludes the volume) with a vision of love that corresponds to the imagery of The Pietà, a kind of selflessness that ironically confirms the self as an entity that exists in relation to the pain of others.

I could keep writing of course — I’ve barely touched on Hannah’s surrealism, a comic weirdness that I’ve never seen elsewhere; it is Hannahesque, I suppose. Nor have I detailed Hannah’s evocations of regular working class folk, fighting and drinking and divorcing and raising children (not necessarily in that order). Airships is a world too rich and fertile to unpack in just one review, and I’ve already been blathering too long, I fear, when what I really want  to do is just outright implore you, kind reader, to find it and start reading it immediately. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on March 20th, 2011. I am currently listening to the audiobook of the Hannah omnibus Long, Last, Happy, and just finished the first section, which contains most of Airships. The audiobook is good, but I wish it was Hannah reading it himself.]

Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons condenses myth into vibrant narco noir

Yuri Herrera’s new novella Kingdom Cons condenses myth and archetype into concrete, brutal noir. Gritty and visceral, but also elegant and surreal, Herrera’s prose bristles with cinematic energy in a tale of blood magic and the relationship between power and art.

In Kingdom Cons, our central protagonist Lobo is a singer of corridos, ballads he improvises in dive bars for a few coins to survive on. Herrera paints Lobo’s backstory in quick but rich strokes that evoke a hardboiled, hardscrabble life:

The next day his father went to the other side. They waited in vain. Then his mother crossed without so much as a promise of return. They left him the accordion so he could make his way in the cantinas, and it was there he learned that while boleros can get by with a sweet face, corridos require bravado and acting out the story as you sing. He also learned the following truths: Life is a matter of time and hardship. There is a God who says Deal with it, cause this is the way it is. And perhaps the most important: Steer clear of a man about to vomit.

In one of these cantinas Lobo encounters “the King,” a Mexican drug lord. Lobo is instantly smitten by the King’s power; or, more precisely, by the aesthetics of power that attend the King. Lobo sees himself as a reader of blood. Indeed, he’s survived the streets by

…learning blood. He could detect its curdle in the parasites who said, Come, come little boy, and invited him into the corner; the way it congealed in the veins of fraidycats who smiled for no reason; the way it turned to water in the bodies of those who played the same heartache on the jukebox, over and over again; the way it dried out like a stone in lowlifes just aching to throw down.

Lobo believes he detects magic in the King’s blood, and vows to become a retainer in the King’s Court, which in time he does. There, in the Palace, he takes up a new mantle. He becomes “the Artist,” a singer of narcorridos he composes to flatter his patron, the King. In the Court,

The Artist realized that people saw him only when he sang or they wanted to hear how tough they were; and that was good, because it meant he could see how things worked in the court.

The Artist’s personality is quickly subsumed into this archetypal Court, which includes the Manager, the Journalist, the Jeweler, the Doctor, the Girl, and the Heir. There’s also the Witch and the Commoner, agents who bring the plot of Kingdom Cons to its climax. There’s a cinematic, page-burner quality to the plot, a briskness that perhaps disguises the novella’s heavier themes of art and power.

Herrera weaves these themes into their own subtle climax. The Artist is initially spellbound by the King, whose very “smile seemed a protective embrace” to the singer. The narcobaron urges the Artist to tell the truth in his corridos, even if the truth is brutal: “Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” And yet in time the Artist begins to parse the layers of distinction to “truth,” and to see the complicated relationship between truth, beauty, and power. He grows into a new art, a new blood.

Indeed, Kingdom Cons is a subtle, spare Künstlerroman, in which Herrera’s hero’s quiet, internal observations lead him to a new artistic outlook. Regarding a slain narco’s corpse, the Artist thinks first that the man probably deserved his death, before appending the notion: “if there’s one thing we deserve, it’s a heaven that’s real.” When the Artist recognizes himself in a “an ashen boy coaxing squalid notes from a trumpet,” he laments “It’s as if there is no right to beauty.” The Artist seeks to create a right to beauty, to secure a heaven that’s real, but his tools are limited—and thoroughly mediated in violence, in blood. Herrera pushes his hero “to feel the power of an order different from that of the Court,” a power that emanates from “his own sovereign texture and volume. A separate reality.” Herrera’s skill as a writer evokes that “separate reality,” first by creating a mythical-brutal narcoland noir, and then by evoking the consciousness of an artist trying to navigate that violence and find his own power through art, through words.

In its finest moments—of which there are many—Herrera evokes his hero’s consciousness in action. Consider the following passage. The Artist has sneaked out of the Palace to return “to the cantina where he’d first met the King”; there, he observes again, becomes eyes and ears that will channel grimy reality into artful storytelling:

…he heard the fortunes and tragedies of the average jack:

The wetback who’d been deported by immigration and was unwanted on this side as well. They’d told him to sing the anthem, explain what a molcajete was and recite the ingredients of pipián to see if he was really allowed to stay; his jitters made him forget it all so they kicked him out too. The narco-in-training who sent bindles of smack over the river with a slingshot and then simply crossed over to pick them up, until one day he got a wild hair and hit a gringo in the head with his whiterock crackshot, and tho that was the end of his business, he still got a kick out of calling himself an avenger. The woman who, to free herself of her cheating husband, sold the house to a much-feared loanshark and left hubby with no house, no wife, and no peace. The boy who faked his own kidnapping to wheedle money from his parents, who believed the ransom note was real and replied, You know what? We’re tired of that bum, how about bumping him off for half the price? And the boy, out of utter sorrow, said Okay, collected the cash, spent it on booze and then kept his word.

The force of storytelling leads the Artist to an epiphany about the King—and, more significantly, to himself as an artist capable of creating a “separate reality.”

I can’t help but think of Kingdom Cons as the third part of a loose trilogy that also includes Herrera’s previous novellas Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies. All three are published by And Other Stories and all three are translated by Lisa Dillman, who conjures magic in translating Herrera’s neologisms, slang, and mythical tone. Kingdom Cons extends the mythic-noir mode that Signs initiated and Bodies continued. Herrera is a writer with a voice and a viewpoint, an author whose archetypal approach shows the deep significance to contemporary life’s concrete contours. I wrote “trilogy” above, but to be clear, I’d be very happy if Herrera, Dillman, and And Other Stories kept putting out these fine novellas. Highly recommended.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a perfect novella

With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.”  I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.

The opening lines hooked me:

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.

The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.

Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:

Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.

Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:

The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.

The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.

Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in May of 2012].

A review of Angels, Denis Johnson’s first novel

AngelsDenis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.

Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.

The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”

Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.

And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.

Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.

The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first posted this review in 2010].

Bolaño’s Borges

Jorge Luis Borges is first mentioned in the sixth paragraph of Roberto Bolaño’s masterful short story “The Insufferable Gaucho.” In this paragraph, the narrator tells us that the story’s hero, an ex-judge named Pereda, believed “the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous.”

Several paragraphs later, Bolaño’s narrator explicitly references Borges’s short story “The South,” the precursor text for “The Insufferable Gaucho.” The reference to Borges is tied again to Pereda’s son, the writer Bebe.

Leaving tumultuous Buenos Aires, basically destitute from the Argentine Great Depression, Pereda heads to the countryside to take up residence in his family’s ancient ranch. Departing the train and arriving to a rural town, 

Inevitably, he remembered Borges’s story “The South,” and when he thought of the store mentioned in the final paragraphs his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he remembered the plot of Bebe’s last novel, and imagined his son writing on a computer, in an austere room at a Midwestern university. When Bebe comes back and finds out I’ve gone to the ranch . . . , he thought in enthusiastic anticipation.

Bolaño essentially appropriates the plot of “The South” for his tale “The Insufferable Gaucho” and inserts a version of himself into this revision. Bolaño is “Bebe” here, an author who “wrote vaguely melancholy stories with vaguely crime-related plots,” his name phonically doubling the series of mirrors and precursors that Bolaño, mystery man, leaves as clues: Bebe, B-B, Borges-Bolaño, Belano-Bolaño. (Is this too wild a conjecture, dear reader? Mea culpa). 

And Pereda then? A stand-in for Borges’s Juan Dahlmann (hero of “The South,” who “considered himself profoundly Argentinian”), surely, but also, maybe also—a stand-in for (a version of) Borges.

What I mean to say:

Bolaño, displaced Chilean, writes “The Insufferable Gaucho” as an intertextual love letter to his displaced father, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.

Bolaño then, to steal a line from Borges’s story, locates in Dahlmann/Borges “his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death.” (English translation of the Borges here by Anthony Kerrigan; Chris Andrews translates Bolaño).

Bolaño’s retelling of Borges’s tale is initially marked by a heightened self-consciousness on the part of its hero Pereda, who, over time, gives over to an entirely different consciousness. Let me share a passage of some length; note the hazy dream-tone:

On the way back to his ranch, he dozed off a couple of times. He woke up from his second nap on one of the streets of Capitán Jourdan. He saw a corner store that was open. He heard voices, and someone strumming a guitar, tuning it but never settling on a particular song to play, just as he had read in Borges. For a moment, he thought that his destiny, his screwed-up American destiny, would be to meet his death like Dahlmann in “The South,” and it seemed unfair, partly because he now had debts to repay and partly because he wasn’t ready to die, although Pereda knew that death is an occurrence for which one is never ready. Seized by a sudden inspiration, he entered the store on horseback. Inside, he found an old gaucho, strumming the guitar, the owner, and three younger guys sitting at a table, who started when they saw the horse come in. Pereda was inwardly satisfied by the thought that the scene was like something from a story by di Benedetto. Nevertheless, he set his face and approached the zinc-topped bar. He ordered a glass of aguardiente, which he drank with one hand, while in the other he held his riding crop discreetly out of view, since he hadn’t yet bought himself the traditional sheath knife. He asked the owner to put the drink on his account, and on his way out, as he passed the young gauchos, he told them to move aside because he was going to spit. This was meant as affirmation of his authority, but before the gauchos could grasp what was happening the gob of phlegm had flown from his lips; they barely had time to jump. May the rain fall soft on you, he said, before disappearing into the darkness of Capitán Jourdan.

Is this insufferably romantic episode real or simply imagined by our hero? Borges perhaps would simply answer, Yes.

We can find that Yes in”The South,” which turns the binary of real/imagined on its metaphorical ear. The story is larded with examples, but I’ll share one where Dahlmann dozes on a train ride to the ranch (just as decades later Pereda will doze on his train ride to a ranch, and then (then?!) doze on a horse):

Tomorrow I’ll wake up at the ranch, he thought, and it was as if he was two men at a time: the man who traveled through the autumn day and across the geography of the fatherland, and the other one, locked up in a sanitarium and subject to methodical servitude. He saw unplastered brick houses, long and angled, timelessly watching the trains go by; he saw horsemen along the dirt roads; he saw gullies and lagoons and ranches; he saw great luminous clouds that resembled marble; and all these things were accidental, casual, like dreams of the plain. He also thought he recognized trees and crop fields; but he would not have been able to name them, for his actual knowledge of the country side was quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge. 

Two men at a time, Borges tells us; Bolaño will continue exploring that bifurcation decades later with Dahlmann’s doppelgänger Pereda. Do either of the men actually ever wake up? Are their journeys merely their own fictions—or, more Borgesian, the fictions they cobble from the fragments of precursor fictions, shot through the lens of “nostalgic and literary knowledge?”

The extent of Dahlmann’s literary knowledge is never quite clear, although Borges (of course) names a precursor text for “The South”: Weil’s The Thousand and One Nights, a book so intertextually fraught and metatextually overdetermined that I feel little need to remark on its Borgesian significance other than to point out that the tales in that volume are Scheherazade’s way of saving her own life. In “The South,” we are told that Dahlmann uses The Thousand and One Nights as a tool for “suppressing reality” and that during his intense illness it “served to illustrate nightmares.”

Does Dahlmann actually die then, or does he, through literature, imagination, and story-telling, like Scheherazade, stave off death for one more night? Again, I think that the Borgesian answer here is, Yes.

Although I’ve been citing Anthony Kerrigan’s early translation of “The South” here, I think Andrew Hurley’s more recent one makes a marvelous emendation that resonates with the spirit of the tale (and actually fits the original Spanish): He translates the last line into the present tense: “Dahlmann firmly grips the knife, which he may have no idea how to manage, and steps out into the plains.”  Dahlmann is still alive at the end of “The South.” Like the enormous sleeping cat that dozes in his memory, Dahlmann “lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.”

Tellingly, Pereda doesn’t share my interpretation—for him, Dahlmann dies. Recall that “he thought that his destiny, his screwed-up American destiny, would be to meet his death like Dahlmann in ‘The South.’” Bolaño’s tale (typically Bolañoesque) radiates a cryptic, sinister morbidity, one saturated in dark humor. In a moment that seems both ironic and wholly earnest, Pereda fantasizes a death coded through “nostalgic and literary knowledge,” one modeled after “his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death.”

I’ve plugged Borges’s lines into a different context here, but they work, and really the context isn’t so different. In “The South,” the specific ancestor alluded to is Dahlmann’s “maternal grandfather…Francisco Flores, of the Second Line Infantry Division, who  had died on the frontier of Buenos Aires, run through with a lance by Indians from Catriel.” Dahlmann figuratively or literally (Yes) repeats his ancestor’s romantic death.

And then Bolaño repeats his ancestor’s romantic death, reconfiguring the climax at the end of “The South,” in which Dahlmann faces off against the muchachones. I consulted three different translations of “The South”; each one does something a bit different with the youths who threaten Dahlmann: country louts, ruffiansyoung thugs.

How does Bolaño translate these young men? At the end of “The Insufferable Gaucho,” our quixotic hero, dirty, haggard, “attired like a cross between a gaucho and a rabbit trapper,” perhaps dreaming, perhaps insane, peers into a cafe, where he sees

. . . a group of writers who looked as if they worked in advertising. One of them, who had an adolescent air, although he was over fifty and maybe even over sixty, kept putting a white powder up his nose and holding forth on world literature. Suddenly, the eyes of the fake adolescent met Pereda’s. For a moment, their gazes locked, as if, for each of them, the presence of the other were a gash in the ambient reality. Resolutely and with surprising agility, the writer with the adolescent air sprang to his feet and rushed out into the street. Before Pereda knew what was going on, the writer was upon him.

Of course Bolaño, list-maker, canon-maker, curator, always registering the competitive anxieties of poets and authors, of course Bolaño will turn the threatening youth into a fucking writer!

Significantly, Pereda sees (or more likely believes he sees, although Bolaño doesn’t tip his hand here) “Bebe and an old man (An old man like me! Pereda thought)…presiding over one of the most animated tables.” The image betokens a fantastic displacement in Pereda’s warped mind, yes, but also perhaps signals Bolaño’s fantasy to hash out literary matters in a buzzing cafe with his father, Borges. In any case, this is the last we hear of Bebe, a detail that undercuts the reality of what happens next, as the coked-up writer advances on the insufferable gaucho:

Pereda realized that he had grasped his knife, then let himself go. He took a step forward and, without anyone noticing that he was armed, planted the point of the blade, though not deeply, in his opponent’s groin. Later, he would remember the look of surprise on the man’s face, in which terror blended with something like reproof, and the writer’s words as he groped for an explanation (Hey, what did you do, asshole?), as if there could be an explanation for fever and nausea.

Bolaño’s gaucho—the fantastic reconfiguration of Borges’s gaucho, son of Borges’s gaucho, but also doppelgänger to Borges’s gaucho—Bolaño’s gaucho performs a symbolic castration, an Oedipally-charged act of violence that seems to tip into visceral reality in the story’s last moments.

Bolaño turns the country louts into cosmopolitan poseurs, writers that look like yuppie admen, and then he has his hero cut one—right in the crotch.The gesture revises the ambiguous ending of “The South,” following through with the once-suspended knife fight.

Whether or not this final episode actually happens or happens only in the protagonist’s mind may or may not matter to you, reader. “The Insufferable Gaucho” is stocked with surreal Lynchian moments, from Pereda riding his horse into the country store, to a publisher being attacked by a feral rabbit (after which Pereda cauterizes the man’s neck wound with his knife!).

As the story progresses, Pereda shakes off nostalgia and literary reference. Like a bedraggled Quixote, he lives his romance. His consciousness, once informed by Borges and Antonio di Benedetto, becomes freer, asserts its own fantasy as self-generative and self-sufficient. When Pereda first entered the country store, “He heard voices, and someone strumming a guitar, tuning it but never settling on a particular song to play, just as he had read in Borges”; later in the tale, holding a party for his son, Pereda “sent for the foremost of Capitán Jourdan’s guitar-strumming gauchos, warning him beforehand that he was to do strictly that: strum, without playing any song in particular, in accordance with the country way.” Pereda omits Borges as the source of style here: Borges becomes the country way

The fantasy Bolaño constructs allows him to simultaneously posit Borges as his literary progenitor and then erase the evidence of that progenitor, even as his contours and essence remain. Bolaño-as-Bebe remains a marginal figure—Bolaño’s own stable consciousness, perhaps?—while knife-weilding Pereda enacts Borges’s revenge on all the poseurs and hacks. And if Pereda is too passionate, too romantic, too violent, too unstable—so be it. At least he thought enough of his son to class him with Borges the Great.

And it’s through this gesture—this literary trick—that Bolaño asserts and defends the literary lineage he lays his claims to: His romantic ancestor, Borges.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept published aversion of this essay in May of 2014].

Lost in The Vorrh

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I got lost in Brian Catling’s expansive 2012 novel The Vorrh, a phantasmagorical critique of colonialism set in and around a massive, possibly infinite jungle called the Vorrh. Apparently God likes to stroll this primeval forest while he meditates, the original Adam (gray and shrunken) skulks about like Gollum, and anthropophagi lurk in the hopes of capturing a human or two to snack on.

These are just minor moments though in this shaggy opus. The Vorrh is larded with myth, religion, science, history, art, and literature. Catling, a sculptor by trade, synthesizes the nascent 20th-century’s ideas about all the centuries that came before it into what Alan Moore calls “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” Moore goes on to describe The Vorrh as

….a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.

Moore is enthusiastic (perhaps overly so), and his introduction to the novel serves as a far better review than anything I can muster here—like I said at the outset, I got lost in The Vorrh. It’s an overstuffed beast of a book, its storylines sprouting strangely (often from nowhere), tangling into other storylines, colliding in a kaleidoscope of blooms that often fall from their vine before bearing fruit.

There are a several main strands to The Vorrh’s plot though, and they do bear strange fruit. There’s a Cyclops named Ishmael, raised by robots underneath a haunted house in the colonial capital of Essenwald. He has sex with a blind woman named Cyrena during Carnival and she becomes sighted, an event that sparks a healing epidemic which in time turns into a plague. There’s Peter Williams, veteran of the Great War, who makes a bow out of his wife’s corpse in the novel’s opening section. (Don’t worry, she was a shaman who wanted him to do that). He treks into the Vorrh.  Tsungali, a warrior of the True People, tracks the trekker. Another warrior tracks him. There’s a shady doctor and a Scottish taskmaster who conspire to keep a hive-mind slave army happy (?) cutting down trees at the periphery of the Vorrh. There’s a knot of historical characters, including the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (the dude who photographed a horse in motion), Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir William Withey Gull (whom Alan Moore posited as Jack the Ripper in From Hell), and a version of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel. I realize I began this paragraph with the phrase “several main strands” and then listed more than several without even getting to all of the plot points, let alone an articulation of how they come together—or don’t come together.

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The Vorrh has the feel and texture of grand great shaggy comic book, one rendered in my mind’s eye in the fabulous, expansive style of Moebius. Characters—so many characters!—come and go, and if someone dies, don’t worry—there’s every possibility of resurrection in The Vorrh. Catling delights in giving us the backstory on a pair of twin assassins even after he’s killed them off; he allows his free indirect style to enter the consciousness of a sleeping dog’s sex dream; he spends a few sentences on a charming cannibal’s dinner plans. The Vorrh’s in the details.

In its loose erudition and striking visuals, The Vorrh reminded me of the fiction of China Mieville or Neal Stephenson. In its shaggy weirdness it also reminded me of Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men. Its Victorian Gothicism and syntheses of adventure, horror, and Western tropes also recalls the late Showtime television series, Penny Dreadful. And The Vorrh’s prose style often harnesses some of the bombast we find in classic Weird Fiction of Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.

If it’s lazy to simply trot out comparisons (and there are so many more I can make), mea culpa. The novel is big, and I’d have to read it again to figure out how its baroque features fit together to do any real proper decent analysis—and I’d rather read its sequel, The Erstwhile. I will say that I liked it despite (and maybe to an extent because of) its faults. I think you can suss out from my weak summary in the fourth paragraph if The Vorrh holds any interest for you.


[Ed. note–the image at the top of this review is a scan of a strange press booklet that publisher Vintage sent with original review copies of The VorrhIn addition to Alan Moore’s introduction, the slim, string-bound booklet contains an interview with Catling, and a portrait by Catling of Alan Moore as a cyclops. The cover of the booklet is a painting by Catling].

Not a review of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian

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  1. What follows is not a novel of Han Kang’s 2007 novel The Vegetarian, which I read this weekend (in Deborah Smith’s 2015 English language translation).
  2. Here—by which I mean this link—is a review of The Vegetarian by Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang. He reviewed the novel two years ago on this blog, in depth, and with plenty of like, citations and examples from the novel itself.
  3. I meant to read The Vegetarian after reading Ryan’s review, but got sidetracked, (Sidetracked is not the right metaphor. I hoped to read it but didn’t. Until this weekend).
  4. Anyway, in the meantime while I was not reading it, The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, which means it got plenty of reviews and attention, which is good, because it’s a “good” book (whatever that means—what I mean is it’s a perplexing and fucked up and weird book), and also I’ve been out in the sun drinking beers all day and I know I couldn’t muster, like, a review.
  5. To really review the book, I’d have to reread it anyway, which I’ll probably do. The narrative’s arranged in three sections told via three very different perspectives—kinda sorta Rashomon style, I guess—and information in each section shades and intensifies information in other sections—so rereading the first two sections would be, um, valuable to seeing/feeling the novel anew.
  6. I use seeing/feeling above in lieu of understanding. The Vegetarian produced an aesthetic sensation in me (by which I maybe mean emotion that I don’t have the right word for. This previous statement sounds like boilerplate hyperbole, but it’s not—I literally cannot think of an accurate word to describe the feeling of the end of the novel. I’ve read takes on the novel that use terms like “unsettling” or “disturbing,” but these seem like adjectives without clear or proper referents.
  7. My adjective/noun combo for The Vegetarian: “dreamy queasiness.”
  8. Or maybe: “queasy dreaminess.”
  9. Does that hold appeal for you, kind reader? A dreamy queasy South Korean novel about a woman who stops eating meat after a weird dream and whose family reacts extremely poorly to her decision to stop eating meet? That description sounds way more banal than the novel really is. The books’ not banal at all; it’s a weird take on cruelty and abjection and refusal, refusal, refusal. It’s confounding. (I don’t have the right adjectives right now).
  10. I don’t have the right adjectives right now. Maybe I’ll just hit “publish” on this post and then repost Ryan’s review, which is far more detailed and perceptive and interesting than this non-review. In fact, I’m sure I’ll do that.

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On Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story about storytelling

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Talhas been adapted into a television series by Hulu, a fact which you probably already knew if you are on the internet and are interested in these sorts of things.

Initial clips of the show seem promising enough. Elisabeth Moss, who I loved in Top of The Lake,  plays the novel’s protagonist Offred, and Margaret Atwood, a consulting producer, has been a vocal supporter of the adaptation. And, as many have pointed out lately, the story’s backdrop—a patriarchal theocratic regime—seems, uh, timely. (Hell, there’s even a Wall).

In anticipation of Hulu’s adaptation, I decided to reread The Handmade’s Tale a third time in a third decade. I found it subtler, more personally intense than the broad, voluminous epic my memory had concocted. My memory had filled in some of Atwood’s strategic gaps; one of her rhetorical gambits is to deliver the so-called “worldbuilding” common to sci-fi novels in tiny morsels and incomplete glimpses. She refuses to give us a big picture. We see this world like one of the handmaids, who view it through a veil of white wings around their heads.

Our narrator Offred is one of those, whatchamacallit, unreliable narrators (as she frequently, subtly reminds us), and her picture of the Republic of Gilead is necessarily incomplete. My memory filled in huge swaths of backstory—a caste system, forced breeding, a plague of infertility, civil wars, ecological collapse, mutations, religious infighting, spy networks and underground railroads. There’s something of an epic scale there, no? But the The Handmaid’s Tale actually elides much of the its genre’s heavy baggage. Exposition hides in bits and pieces for the reader to scrabble together. Even in some of its more straightforward expository passages, as when Offred describes the theocratic regime’s coup d’etat, we still only get the events from her perspective. We experience the effects of the revolution as the effects on her life. There’s no big picture geopolitical analysis. The causes aren’t clear.

Indeed, the lack of clear causality between events is one of the scariest aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our narrator emphasizes how quickly norms can change in a culture, which is, from a plot-standpoint, quite important. Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a point of comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Orwell’s novel the totalitarian regime has presumably been in power for decades (although of course, the protagonist’s job in that novel is to revise historical documents so that they align with the past, making “history” suspect).

In The Handmaid’s Tale, crucially, the protagonist is still connected to the pre-Revolutionary, pre-theocratic world. We’re reminded again and again that she’s one of the first generation of handmaids; we’re reminded again and again that after the first generation takes hold, the practice of forced breeding will become completely normalized. The Handmaid’s Tale is the preamble to dystopia. Offred remembers life in the U.S., life before her role was absolutely proscribed by a patriarchal theocracy. The narrator’s disconnection between that life and her new one drives the narrative.

This radical disconnection threatens the narrator’s sanity. It’s not just the wings of her habit that obstruct her vision, but also a veil of creeping instability. The unraveling of history, the sense that she is dislocated in time threaten to undo her. Her way of seeing the world and her self in the world is completely destabilized. Consider the following passage, in which our heroine gazes at the “smile” of a dead man hung from the Wall as a warning:

I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.

The protagonist’s defense against the threat of dislocation, displacement, and insanity is her power to tell her tale. In this sense, The Handmade’s Tale has as much in common with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as it does with Orwell’s dystopian classic.

Our narrator’s need “to be very clear [in her] own mind” carries (what many readers will consider) the main thread of The Handmaid’s Tale on a straightforward, linear path: Offred is pressed into the service of the Commander (Fred, from whom she receives her patronymic) so that he can impregnate her, become a father, and perpetuate his class tier. If she can’t produce a child in a certain time frame, it’s off to the colonies! (Never mind that the Commander is likely sterile).

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The narrative’s linear sequence will provide a sturdy frame for Hulu’s adaptation, and the constant flashbacks that interweave through the novel will also likely help to flesh out the series, both in tone and characterization. The ways in which the novel’s narrator weaves and unweaves these story strands might be much more difficult for the show to capture though. Indeed, Atwood’s rhetorical technique here is something native to literature itself. Atwood evokes consciousness under duress. She shows us a heroine trying to weave strands of a story together into something meaningful, to make a story where there is none, to find a space to speak where there is only the specter of mute doom. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling as resistance and self-preservation:

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

It isn’t a story I’m telling.

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.

Even when there is no one.

A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.

You can mean thousands.

Our storyteller—we are her You—is finely attuned to language. She constantly points out old phrases, commonplaces, and cliches, and remarks on what they used to mean in “the time before.” In some of these moments of linguistic mulling, Atwood calls attention to language’s destructive potential, of its ability to unravel the very meaning we seek to pin to it. If language connects, it can also disconnect. Consider the following passage:

It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.

The Book of Job.

Language can protect, but it can also threaten. It can slipslide from a random memory to an existentialist myth in the span of a breath. It can turn tulips into bloody smiles and bloody smiles into explanations for executions. Language can turn into stories, but stories can swallow up whole lives, whole cultures. That’s the threat of theocracy.

Atwood highlights the novel’s attention to storytelling itself in the final chapter, which reads almost like an appendix. Called “Historical Notes,” and separated from the text proper by its own title page, the final (unnumbered) chapter purports to be the transcript of a speech given at an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” in the year 2195. There is much exposition and analysis here. Our anthropologist lecturer informs us that what is known as The Handmaid’s Tale is the composite of a number of audiocassettes. Furthermore, we learn that the narrator Offred (apparently) fabricated or synthesized elements of the story, either to protect certain persons’ anonymity, or for her own pleasure—or simply in the service, of, y’know, good storytelling. The lecturer laments that Offred failed to give future listeners more details about politics and war and the culture of Gilead at large. In a sense, the lecturer’s complaint is the one that many readers who go to Atwood’s novel expecting “worldbuilding” might have. The narrator isn’t telling a story about dystopian Gilead. She’s telling a story about storytelling. She’s making herself a story. Speaking to a You helps to preserve her I.

The “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid’s Tale are an example of a particular trope I generally dislike—the “expert shows up at the end and explains everything” device. However, Atwood’s final chapter is successful, and perhaps even essential to the novel’s critique of patriarchy and of how institutions tell and what they tell. The key, of course, is to recognize the layers of irony in this “explainer” chapter, in which a male authority arrives and asks all the wrong questions about Offred and criticizes some of her narrative choices. Even though he’s an expert on her text, he manages to miss that she’s woven her true name into the story. It’s right there at the end of the first chapter.

“Historical Notes” shows the problems and limitations in telling “the truth,” highlighting that all tales are constructions, syntheses of pre-existing elements. At the same time, the chapter points towards a narrative future, and a fairly stable future at that. “Historical Notes” thus provides the “happy ending” that the text proper—The Handmaid’s Tale—refuses to offer.

After finishing Atwood’s novel, I indulged in a favorite treat: sifting through one-star Amazon reviews with the express purpose of rearranging lines and fragments into…something. A complaint that arose again and again about The Handmaid’s Tale was the novel’s ambiguous ending. Only “ambiguous” wasn’t a word I saw used—our stalwart reviewers insisted that the novel had no conclusion. Such an interpretation is either a misreading or a failure to see that ambiguity is its own opening to adventure.

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Our heroine concludes her tale: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The line might frustrate many readers and even license them to accuse Atwood of simply not knowing how to finish her story. The final line’s ambiguity is structural though, part and parcel of the narrative itself. The heroine crosses a threshold. She’s pregnant, both literally and figuratively. The novel’s final ambiguity opens a space for our heroine to “step up” into. As Scheherazade understood, storytelling isn’t about closing off, but opening up. When the narrator walks out into either darkness or light, she’s entering a new narrative possibility—one that can be imagined by the auditors of her tale, her future You.

Perhaps its best to assess Atwood’s ending using her own rubric. Here are the last lines of her 1983 short story “Happy Endings”:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

Now try How and Why.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds in answering How and Why. 

Let me recommend Antonio di Benedetto’s overlooked novel Zama

Let me recommend a novel for you.

The novel is Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama.

Zama was first published in Argentina in 1956.

NYRB published Esther Allen’s English translation in 2016. It is excellent.

What is Zama about?

Zama tells the brutally funny and often sad story of Don Diego de Zama, a bored and horny americano wasting away in the provincial backwaters of Paraguay. It’s the end of the world at the end of the 18th century, and there’s not a lot to do. Zama fills his time with schemes of lust and petty pride, shirking his job as a nominal governmental authority. He longs to be reunited with his wife and family in Buenos Aires, but seems to sabotage every opportunity to get back to them. He also longs for his glory days as a corregidor, putting down “the native rebellion” in the service of Spain’s imperial project. Zama is a confusing and confused character, frequently frustrating but also oddly sympathetic. He is a loser who does not seem to see that he is a loser, although life gives him every opportunity to come to this conclusion. As South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s  puts it in his excellent in-depth review of the novel:

[Zama] is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.

He is also the author of himself, in a double sense. First, everything we hear about him comes from his own mouth, including such derogatory epithets as “swaggering” and “dogslayer,” which suggest a certain ironic self-awareness. Second, his day-to-day actions are dictated by the promptings of his unconscious, or at least his inner self, over which he makes no effort to assert conscious control. His narcissistic pleasure in himself includes the pleasure of never knowing what he will get up to next, and thus of being free to invent himself as he goes along.

Coetzee captures the joy of reading Zama in those last few lines: It’s the joy in watching a first-person perspective invent itself in shambling picaresque adventures born of sheer boredom. It’s the pleasure of seeing an asshole who refuses to acknowledge that he is an asshole try to pretend that he is not an asshole—all in a kind of language that is simultaneously romantic and flat.

Let me give you a taste of that language, reader. Here are the opening bars of the novel:

I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.

I reached the old wharf, that inexplicable structure. The city and its harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.

I observed, among its pilings, the writhing patch of water that ebbs between them.

A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit. All his life the water at forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse. The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going. And there we were.

There we were: Ready to go and not going.

The ship that won’t come in, the floating dead monkey, the state of unknowing—these abject and negative motifs are the paradoxical genesis of the novel. The clipped repetitions, culminating in “Ready to go and not going” recall Samuel Beckett, whom translator Esther Allen acknowledges as “a perfect counterpoint to the prose voice of Zama” in her introduction.

In addition to Beckett, easy points of comparison are Dostoevsky, Camus, Borges, and especially Kafka. In his perceptive analysis of Zama, critic Benjamin Kunkel points out the novel’s existential core, absurdist peripheries, and realistic contours:

As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance. Zama, a man as impetuous as he is stuck, resembles other existentialist antiheroes as he swings between spellbound passivity and sudden lunges into action. But Don Diego never seems like a figure in an allegory, like K. in The Castle; or an ambulatory philosophical argument, like Roquentin in Nausea. Zama induces a rare feeling—to put it as naïvely as possible—of the main character’s realness. Don Diego is consistently surprised by his own behavior, but not as much as he would like. His abrupt acts and swerving meditations have an air of unplotted inevitability about them. He is a character more convincing than coherent, and more persuasive than intelligible.

These lifelike moments of “unplotted inevitability” are enthralling. Di Benedetto doesn’t just show us Zama seeing, he shows us Zama seeing what he is seeing. He shows us consciousness at work—or rather, consciousness in distress. In a representative passage which can stand alone as a bizarre parable in search of a moral, Zama, having lost all his money betting on horses, awakes from a drunken stupor to witness a spider crawling on a fellow drunkard: 

The spider approached the drunk. From a quarter vara away, these spiders can leap and bite so that if taken by surprise, even a man who’s awake has no time to defend himself. I had no wish to move. I could crush it with my boot but would postpone until the last.

The spider moved toward the sleeping head and I watched to see whether anything out of the ordinary would transpire. Would the man—obedient to some mysterious warning instinct—suddenly awaken and kill it? He did not. Now the insect was crawling in his hair. I didn’t see it climb up; I saw it there on him and then I was quite certain I should do nothing.

The episode continues in this way, building in tension as the large spider crawls over the man’s face while Zama remains inert and fascinated by his own inertia—until the drunken man absently bats the spider from his face. Zama is paradoxically stunned by this anticlimax:

I reviewed the episode. At no point had I felt any emotion, except when I imagined the man had wakened and was about to deliver himself of an entirely justified diatribe against me.

The passage is representative of Di Benedetto’s rhetorical skill—he gives us a deceptively lucid first-person narrator who articulately elides key information, both from the reader and himself. Zama refuses to name his intense desire to see the spider bite the man. Additionally, his emotional identification is bound to righteous anger, the righteous anger appropriate to the would-be-bitten drunkard. Instead of genuine pathos, Zama would usurp this man’s self-righteous anger, the anger that he feels all the time at his (literal and figurative) position in life. But the spider bite that would license self-righteousness never comes. Basically, Zama just wants something to happen.

And that’s the plot of Zama, more or less. Our (anti-)hero’s picaresque jabs at adventure and romance are sent awry or thwarted, usually by his own loutish passions. Zama’s would-be escapades unravel, that is, until the book’s final section, 1799

–Okay, let me digress momentarily: Zama, a slim 200 pages, is structured into three sections: 17901794, and 1799. The connective tissue between these sections hangs transparent, nearly invisible, but nevertheless accessible via small clues, motifs, scant threads. Di Benedetto gives us modernism in the last decade of the 18th century, boredom that tiptoes around the abyss of insanity. Rereading the three sections is a joy. But let me return to the central thread—

Zama’s would-be adventures unravel or collapse until the book’s final section, 1799, when Di Benedetto puts our hero in genuine harm’s way (and cunningly exfiltrates any opportunity for overt heroism on Zama’s part). The novel earns its drive toward what I take to be its central question: “Do you want to live?”

Di Benedetto hides his answer to this question not so much in the central figure Zama, but rather in Zama’s put-upon secretary, his mozo Manuel Fernández. Fernández is, at least for me, the secret star of the novel. When we first meet Fernández, Zama joins in gently mocking him at the lead of their boss, the governor. They tease Fernández when he tells them that he is writing a novel. “Make sons, Manuel, not books,” admonishes the governor, but the clerk replies: “I want to realize myself in myself…Children realize themselves, but whether for good or ill we don’t know. Books are made only for truth and beauty.” Later, Zama, in more of a ruse than in good faith, asks Fernández to read some of his book. He finds the “entangled” prose “incomprehensible,” to which Fernández replies: “the first man and the first lizard were each incomprehensible, as well, to all those who surrounded them.” Fernández declares that he writes for “no master.” If he has no audience today, his pages will be understood by his “grandchildren’s grandchildren…Things will be different then.” Later, Fernández reveals that he’s given away his manuscript to an old man, a stranger suffering boredom while waiting for a delayed ship to take him somewhere other than the end of the world.

Fernández sees himself as an author doomed to obscurity in the present, an author who awaits a future that will catch up to his originary vision. Perhaps it’s a bit much to suggest he’s a stand-in for Di Benedetto, but there are traces here. Above, I cited Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on Zama“A Neglected South American Masterpiece,” and to J.M. Coetzee’s review, “A Great Writer We Should Know.” Those titles point to the novel’s obscurity, an obscurity which I sense is now being (if in increments) reversed. Esther Allen’s English translation obviously opens Zama to an even wider audience, and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is apparently adapting the novel to film. But it’s perhaps Roberto Bolaño, a writer who time caught up to, however too late, who helped guide new readers—however obscurely—to Zama. In Bolaño’s 1997 short story “Sensini,” the titular character is a clear transposition of Di Benedetto, a cult author, a writer’s writer:

The novel was the kind of book that circulates by word of mouth. Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the eighteenth century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by the time I came across Sensini’s name in the Alcoy anthology, Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies.

Thank goodness, or thank evil, or thank boredom: thanks for word of mouth, for friends and enemies alike (as long as they have good taste); thanks for writer’s writers (and writer’s writer’s writers) and the cult books they transmit to us—like Zama.

Zama is a cult novel that deserves a larger cult. After two false starts (I admit I misread the voice, missing the humor), I read Di Benedetto’s novel in a kind of hunger. Then I read it again. Then I wrote this thing, to tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too. Very highly recommended.

At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were | A riff on Paul Bowles

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I was too young the first time I took a crack at Paul Bowles’ 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky. I was maybe 15 or 16 I think, reading a lot of Hemingway, Vonnegut, and William Burroughs at the time. I couldn’t click with Bowles.

Two decades later—by which I mean this January—I read/audited The Stories of Paul Bowles and fell in a weird love with them: Spare but sharp, wild but obscure, his fables refuse to square with our expectations. They are menacing, awful, loaded with strangers and travelers and outcasts. The characters do not know what is happening to them—indeed, they do not even know that they do not know what is happening to them. Sometimes the story’s narrator does not seem to know what is happening, and if the narrator does know what is happening, he’s not going to throw anything but the barest bones to the reader to piece together.

The best of the stories are wonderfully confusing, like “Tapiama,” the surreal, abject tale of a photographer’s picaresque journey into a mad foreign night. Bowles’ style succeeds in lucidly conveying the murk of a crashing consciousness:

The photographer had begun to suspect that something had gone very wrong inside him. He felt sick, but since he was no longer a living creature he could not conceive it in those terms. He had shut his eyes and put his hand over his face. “It’s going around backward,” he said. The undrunk cumbiamba was in his other hand.

Saying the sentence had made it more true. It was definitely going around backward. The important thing was to remember that he was alone here and that this was a real place with real people in it. He could feel how dangerously easy it would be to go along with the messages given him by his senses, and dismiss the whole thing as a nightmare in the secret belief that when the breaking-point came he could somehow manage to escape by waking himself up.

“Tapiama” is probably my favorite thing by Bowles, or at least the tale that best exemplifies what I like best in Bowles—the alienation of a stranger in a strange land, the creepy ickiness of realizing the unreal. Bowles’ characters are frequently tourists who wish to be more than tourists, who make ironic-romantic claims towards becoming travelers. He awakens these travelers to reality’s nightmare. There’s a quality here that I love, that dread noir thing that other storytellers like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño evoke so well.

Bowles’ early stories succeed in evoking anxious, uncanny dread — “The Scorpion,” “By the Water,” “You Are Not I” are all easy go-to examples. I found the later tales in The Stories of Paul Bowles less intriguing, but emotionally richer. Sadder. Bowles’ later stuff grows more bitter, more resentful. The earlier tales are strange, sharp, and driven by weird nightmare alienation and sinister surrealism. But they also open into possibility, exploration, and radical newness. The later tales, composed in the 1980s, seem to me a closing off, not just in themes and tone, but also in style. They retreat into formalist modernism. There’s a palpable resistance to postmodernism in the later stories, an elegiac tone that romanticizes (even through multiple ironies) the post-War colonial past.

After I read The Stories of Paul Bowles, I read The Sheltering Sky, the fan favorite of this cult author. I’ll admit I was disappointed, although I probably failed the novel, not the other way around. I liked it best in its rawest moments, its looser strands creeping out like tendrils in another direction; often these tendrils were cut off in the service of a more formally organized novel—a novel that sags heavily in the middle, but explodes into a weird nightmare in the end as Kit, the book’s true hero, travels in a way her husband Port fails to.

The Sheltering Sky is larded with fantastic moments and meditations though, like the one below. Here, Bowles shows that to be human is to invest an aesthetic (and simultaneously anesthetic) viewpoint into one’s daily life—and that to invest in this viewpoint is to calculate psychic and emotional costs and payoffs:

He did not look up because he knew how senseless the landscape would appear. It takes energy to invest life with meaning, and at present this energy was lacking. He knew how things could stand bare, their essence having retreated on all sides to beyond the horizon, as if impelled by a sinister centrifugal force. He did not want to face the intense sky, too blue to be real, above his head, the ribbed pink canyon walls that lay on all sides in the distance, the pyramidal town itself on its rocks, or the dark spots of oasis below. They were there, and they should have pleased his eye, but he did not have the strength to relate them, either to each other or to himself, he could not bring them into any focus beyond the visual. So he would not look at them.

 

While I was admittedly disappointed in The Sheltering Sky, I found much in it to propel me on into more of Bowles’ writing. I next read Up Above the World—mostly because of its title. Phrases and iterations of “out in the world” repeat through Bowles’ writing, so it intrigued me. This 1966 novel has a reputation as being one of Bowles’ lesser novels, but I enjoyed it more than The Sheltering Sky—perhaps my expectations were lower.

Up Above the World’s reputation as a slighter work might have to do with the fact that it’s something of a genre fiction—a slow-burn thriller, a crime story really. There’s a cinematic structure to it, and a plainness to its tone that belies a murderous intensity. I won’t spoil the trick of the novel, but it twists in sinister, delightful ways, leaving loose threads for the reader to tie together.

I’ll close by sharing my favorite passage from Up Above the World. This moment comes in the crux of the novel, in its middle when Dr. Slade—a tourist who perhaps had the pretensions of being a traveler—shifts from one dimension to the next:

He reached out his hand and pressed the door handle, took two or three steps on the spongy grass, and raised his head. In front of him, not three feet away, there was a face—a muzzle, rather, for it surely belonged to an animal—looking at him with terrible intensity. It was unmoving, fashioned from a nameless, constantly dripping substance. Unmoving, yet it must have moved, for now the mouth was much farther open; long twisted tendons had appeared in each cheek. He watched, frozen and unbelieving, while the whole jaw swiftly melted and fell away, leaving the top part of the muzzle intact. The eyes glared more savagely than before; they were telling him that sooner or later he would have to pay for having witnessed that moment of its suffering. He took a step backward and looked again. There were only leaves and shadows of leaves, no muzzle, no eyes, nothing. But the leaves were pulsating with energy. At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were.

At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were: This is the monstrous power of Bowles’ best moments—his ability to evoke visceral reality, his ability to show how consciousness transforms the real into the surreal, even as it tries to navigate that reality. He shows that we are all tourists in our own heads.

A review of João Gilberto Noll’s surreal novella Quiet Creature on the Corner

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Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner is new in English translation (by Adam Morris) from Two Lines Press.

The book is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning.

Forewarning (and enthusiastic endorsement): Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.

So…what’s it about?

For summary, I’ll lazily cite the back of the book:

Quiet Creature on the Corner throws us into a strange world without rational cause and effect, where everyone always seems to lack just a few necessary facts. The narrator is an unemployed poet who is thrown in jail after inexplicably raping his neighbor. But then he’s abruptly taken to a countryside manor where all that’s required of him is to write poetry. What do his captors really want from him?

There’s a lot more going on than that.

So…what’s it about? What’s the “a lot more”?

Okay then.

Maybe let’s use body metaphors. Maybe that will work here.

We are constantly leaking. Blood, sweat, tears. Piss, shit, decay. Cells sloughing off. Snot trickling. Vomit spewing. Shuffling of this mortal etc.

(—Are we off to a bad start? Have I alienated you, reader, from my request that you read Noll’s novella?—)

What I want to say is:

We are abject: there are parts of us that are not us but are us, parts that we would disallow, discard, flush away. We are discontinuous, rotten affairs. Bodies are porous. We leak.

We plug up the leaks with metaphors, symbols, tricks, gambits, recollections,  reminiscences. We convert shame into ritual and ritual into history. We give ourselves a story, a continuity. An out from all that abjection. An organization to all those organs. We call it an identity, we frame it in memory.

What has this to do with Noll’s novella?, you may ask, gentle reader. Well. We expect a narrative to be organized, to represent a body of work. And Quiet Creature on the Corner is organized, it is a body—but one in which much of the connective tissue has been extricated from the viscera.

We never come to understand our first-person narrator, a would-be poet in the midst of a Kafkaesque anti-quest. And our narrator never comes to understand himself (thank goodness). He’s missing the connective tissue, the causes for all the effects. Quiet Corner exposes identity as an abject thing, porous, fractured, unprotected by stabilizing memory. What’s left is the body, a violent mass of leaking gases liquids solids, shuttling its messy consciousness from one damn place to the next.

Perhaps as a way to become more than just a body, to stabilize his identity, and to transcend his poverty, the narrator writes poems. However, apart from occasional brusque summaries, we don’t get much of his poetry. (The previous sentence is untrue. The entirety of Quiet Creature on the Corner is the narrator’s poem. But let’s move on). He shares only a few lines of what he claims is the last poem he ever writes: “A shot in the yard out front / A hardened fingernail scraping the tepid earth.” Perhaps Quiet Creature is condensed in these two lines: A violent, mysterious milieu and the artist who wishes to record, describe, and analyze it—yet, lacking the necessary tools, he resorts to implementing a finger for a crude pencil.  Marks in the dirt. An abject effort. A way of saying, “I was here.” A way of saying I.

Poetry perhaps offers our narrator—and the perhaps here is a big perhaps—a temporary transcendence from the nightmarish (un)reality of his environs. In an early episode, he’s taken from jail to a clinic where he is given a nice clean bed and decides to sleep, finally:

I dreamed I was writing a poem in which two horses were whinnying. When I woke up, there they were, still whinnying, only this time outside the poem, a few steps a way, and I could mount them if I wanted to.

Rest, dream, create. Our hero moves from a Porto Alegre slum to a hellish jail to a quiet clinic and into a dream, which he converts into a pastoral semi-paradise. The narrator lives a full second life here with his horses, his farm, a wife and kids. (He even enjoys a roll in the hay). And yet sinister vibes reverberate under every line, puncturing the narrator’s bucolic reverie. Our poet doesn’t so much wake up from his dream; rather, he’s pulled from it into yet another nightmare by a man named Kurt.

Kurt and his wife Gerda are the so-called “captors” of the poet, who is happy, or happyish, in his clean, catered captivity. He’s able to write and read, and if the country manor is a sinister, bizarre place, he fits right in. Kurt and Gerda become strange parent figures to the poet. Various Oedipal dramas play out—always with the connective tissue removed and disposed of, the causes absent from their effects. We get illnesses, rapes, corpses. We get the specter of Brazil’s taboo past—are Germans Kurt and Gerda Nazis émigrés? Quiet Creature evokes allegorical contours only to collapse them a few images later.

What inheres is the novella’s nightmare tone and rhythm, its picaresque energy, its tingling dread. Our poet-hero finds himself in every sort of awful predicament, yet he often revels in it. If he’s not equipped with a memory, he’s also unencumbered by one.

And without memory the body must do its best. A representative passage from the book’s midway point:

Suddenly my body calmed, normalizing my breathing. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, lying with my head in a puddle of piss, deeply inhaling the sharp smell of the piss, as though, predicting this would help me recover my memory, and the memory that had knocked me to the floor appeared, little by little, and I became fascinated, as what had begun as a theatrical seizure to get rid of the guy who called himself a cop had become a thing that had really thrown me outside myself.

Here, we see the body as its own theater, with consciousness not a commander but a bewildered prisoner, abject, awakened into reality by a puddle of piss and threatened by external authorities, those who call themselves cops.  Here, a theatrical seizure conveys meaning in a way that supersedes language.

Indeed our poet doesn’t harness and command language with purpose—rather, he emits it:

No, I repeated without knowing why. Sometimes a word slips out of me like that, before I have time to formalize an intention in my head. Sometimes on such occasions it comes to me with relief, as though I’ve felt myself distilling something that only once finished and outside me, I’ll be able to know.

And so, if we are constantly leaking, we leak language too.

It’s the language that propels Noll’s novella. Each sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Adam Morris’s translation rockets along, employing comma splice after comma splice. The run-on sentences rhetorically double the narrative’s lack of connecting tissue. Subordinating and coordinating conjunctions are rare here. Em dashes are not.

The imagery too compels the reader (this reader, I mean)—strange, surreal. Another passage:

Our arrival at the manor.

The power was out. We lit lanterns.

I found a horrible bug underneath the stove. It could have been a spider but it looked more like a hangman. I was on my knees and I smashed it with the base of my lantern. The moon was full. The low sky, clotted with stars, was coming in the kitchen window. December, but the night couldn’t be called warm—because it was windy. I was crawling along the kitchen tiles with lantern in hand, looking for something that Kurt couldn’t find. I was crawling across the kitchen without much hope for my search: he didn’t the faintest idea of where I could find it.

What was the thing Kurt and the narrator searched for? I never found it, but maybe it’s somewhere there in the narrative.

Quiet Creature on the Corner is like a puzzle, but a puzzle without a reference picture, a puzzle with pieces missing. The publishers have compared the novella to the films of David Lynch, and the connection is not inaccurate. Too, Quiet Creature evokes other sinister Lynchian puzzlers, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (or Nazi Literature in the Americas, which it is perhaps a twin text to). It’s easy to compare much of postmodern literature to Kafka, but Quiet Creature is truly Kafkaesque. It also recalled to me another Kafkaesque novel, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark—both are soaked in a dark dream logic. Other reference points abound—the paintings of Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya’s etchings, etc. But Noll’s narrative is its own thing, wholly.

I reach the end of this “review” and realize there are so many little details I left out that I should have talked about–a doppelgänger and street preachers, an election and umbanda, Bach and flatulence, milking and mothers…the wonderful crunch of the title in its English translation—read it out loud! Also, as I reach the end of this (leaky) review, I realize that I seem to understand Quiet Creature less than I did before writing about it. Always a good sign.

João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and look forward to future English translations—Two Lines plans to publish his 1989 novel Atlantic Hotel in the spring of next year. I’ll probably read Quiet Creature again before then. Hopefully I’ll find it even weirder.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review in the summer of 2016. João Gilberto Noll died today at the age of 70].

The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

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Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drang movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.


Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review in June of 2013]. 

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

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

Here’s the short review: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a dark, comic masterpiece—witty, bizarre, and buzzing with surreal transformations that push the limits of language. I am ashamed that I came so late to its cult (how the novel escaped my formative teens and twenties escapes me), but also thankful that I trusted the readers of this blog who kindly suggested I read it.

I’m also thankful that I knew pretty much nothing about the book going in; I’m thankful that I skipped over Denis Donoghue’s introduction (which has the gall to spoil the novel’s end); I’m thankful that I resisted looking up information on de Selby, a philosopher I had never heard the name of before The Third Policeman. I read the novel in an ideal state, a kind of Platonic purity of appropriate bewilderment, at turns gaping and guffawing at O’Brien’s sublime impositions on plot, imagery, thought, language.

To be plain, I think that you should read the book too, gentlest reader, and if you are fortunate enough to possess innocence of its strange virtues, all the better. The less you know about The Third Policeman, the more enjoyable your first time will be. But if such conditions are too much to ask, here are a few fragments of plot:

We have an unnamed narrator, a one-legged orphan and would-be de Selby scholar (don’t ask) who enters into a nefarious plot with a man named Divney. Okay, they plan and execute a murder for treasure. Shades of Crime and Punishment creep into the novel by way of Poe’s nervous narrators; the plot even anticipates in some ways The Stranger, though not as moody and far funnier and honestly just way better. (I’m riffing on books here because, again, it seems to me a disservice to the interested reader to overshare the plot of The Third Policeman).

Let’s just say there’s a two-dimensional house. Let’s just say there’s an absurd picaresque quest to recover a missing black box. Let’s just say there are two policemen (okay, there are three), alternately terrifying, edifying, assuaging, bewildering. Let’s just say there’s an army of one-legged men. Let’s just say there’s a soul. Let’s call him “Joe.”

Let’s just say there are bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles.

And the wisdom (?!) of de Selby, of course, “the savant,” who, via our unnamed narrator’s erudite footnotes (including the notes of de Selby’s esteemed commentators, of course) offers up opinions and maxims on matters of natural science and philosophy alike. Here’s a taste of de Selby, from the epigraph:

Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.

It’s also a good taste of the bizarre thrust of The Third Policeman; the first five words might work as a dandy summary, or at least summary enough.

But maybe I should share some of O’Brien’s language (and not just some philosopher that if you’re being honest you’ll admit you’ve never heard of before, although it seems like maybe you ought to have heard of him, hmmm?).

Just the first paragraph, gentle soul. It was enough to hook this fish:

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.

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

Okay. Hopefully I’ve convinced you a) to read The Third Policeman and b) to quit reading this review (let’s be honest, this isn’t so much a review as it is a riff, a recommendation, and it’s going to get even ramblier in a moment). You can get The Third Policeman from The Dalkey Archive, so you know it’s good, but oh-my-God-guess-what-can-you-believe-it? The Dalkey Archive is actually named after one of O’Brien’s novels, The Dalkey Archive.

So, yes, very highly recommended, read it, etc.

The rest of this riff I devote to puzzling out (without resolution) some of the marvels and conundrums of The Third Policeman; if you haven’t read the book, I suggest skipping all that follows.

I imagine that there’s a ton of criticism out there that might try to explain or elucidate the meaning of The Third Policeman, and while I’d love to hear or read some opinions on the book, I think it ultimately defies heavily symbolic readings. I suppose we might argue that the bicycle motif points toward the slow mechanization of humanity in the post-industrial landscape (or some such nonsense), or we might try to find some codex for the plot of the novel in the work of the fictional philosopher de Selby (and his critics), or we might try to plumb the novel’s mystical and religious underpinnings. It seems to me though that the absurd, nightmarish fever-joy of The Third Policeman lies in its precise indeterminacy. Here’s an example, at some length, of our narrator’s marvelous powers to describe what cannot be described:

This cabinet had an opening resembling a chute and another large opening resembling a black hole about a yard below the chute. He pressed two red articles like typewriter keys and turned a large knob away from him. At once there was a rumbling noise as if thousands of full biscuit-boxes were falling down a stairs. I felt that these falling things would come out of the chute at any moment. And so they did, appearing for a few seconds in the air and then disappearing down the black hole below. But what can I say about them? In colour they were not white or black and certainly bore no intermediate colour; they were far from dark and anything but bright. But strange to say it was not their unprecedented hue that took most of my attention. They had another quality that made me watch them wild-eyed, dry-throated and with no breathing. I can make no attempt to describe this quality. It took me hours of thought long afterwards to realize why these articles were astonishing. They lacked an essential property of all known objects. I cannot call it shape or configuration since shapelessness is not what I refer to at all. I can only say that these objects, not one of which resembled the other, were of no known dimensions. They were not square or rectangular or circular or simply irregularly shaped nor could it be said that their endless variety was due to dimensional dissimilarities. Simply their appearance, if even that word is not inadmissible, was not understood by the eye and was in any event indescribable. That is enough to say.

O’Brien’s unnamed narrator repeatedly runs up against the problem of the ineffable, of the inability of language to center meaning.

The policemen—Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen—are handier at navigating the absurd pratfalls of language. When the Sergeant asks the narrator if he’d like “a velvet-coloured colour,” we see the tautological, self-referential scope to description, and hence the underlying trouble of approaching pure communication. Much of the humor of The Third Policeman comes from such language. The Sergeant tells of an angry mob that “held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public except the man in question,” and we see the mutability of oppositions like “private/public” played to absurd comic effect.

When the policemen describe machines that break sensation into opposing and contradictory parts, we get here an anticipation of deconstruction, of the idea that difference and instability governs sensation and meaning. There is no purity:

‘We have a machine down there,’ the Sergeant continued, ‘that splits up any smell into its sub – and inter-smells the way you can split up a beam of light with a glass instrument. It is very interesting and edifying, you would not believe the dirty smells that are inside the perfume of a lovely lily-of-the mountain.’

‘And there is a machine for tastes,’ MacCruiskeen put in, ‘the taste of a fried chop, although you might not think it, is forty per cent the taste of…’ He grimaced and spat and looked delicately reticent.

The policemen’s analytic machinery correlates strongly with the narrator’s interest in philosophy and science. Through de Selby and his various critics, O’Brien simultaneously mocks and reveres the atomizing pursuits of knowledge. Delivered mostly in footnotes that would give David Foster Wallace a run for his money, the absurd philosophy of de Selby underpins the physical and metaphysical conundrums of The Third Policeman (this is, after all, the story of a man traversing a world where the laws of physics do not adhere). Here’s an early footnote:

. . . de Selby . . . suggests (Garcia, p. 12) that night, far from being caused by the commonly accepted theory of planetary movements, was due to accumulations of ‘black air’ produced by certain volcanic activities of which he does not treat in detail. See also p. 79 and 945, Country Album. Le Fournier’s comment (in Homme ou Dieu) is interesting. ‘On ne saura jamais jusqu’à quel point de Selby fut cause de la Grande Guerre, mais, sans aucun doute, ses théories excentriques – spécialement celle que nuit n’est pas un phénomène de nature, mais dans l’atmosphère un état malsain amené par un industrialisme cupide et sans pitié – auraient l’effet de produire un trouble profond dans les masses.’

This is wonderful mockery of academicese, a ridiculous idea presented with some commentary in French. At this point in the novel, I started to doubt the existence of de Selby; as the narrator’s notations of de Selby’s ideas grew increasingly bizarre, I soon realized the joke O’Brien had played on me.

And yet these jokes do not deflate the essential metaphysical seriousness of The Third Policeman: This is a novel about punishment, about crime, about damnation; this is a novel about not knowing but trying to know and describe what can’t be known or described.

This not knowing extends strongly to the reader of The Third Policeman. I was never sure if the narrator was dreaming or hallucinating or wandering through a strange afterlife—and in a way, it didn’t matter. There’s no allegorical match-up or metaphysical scorecard from which to parse The Third Policeman’s final meaning because there is no final meaning. Here’s O’Brien—or really Brian O’Nolan, I suppose; O’Brien was a pseudonym—summarizing the novel in a 1940 letter to William Saroyan:

I’ve just finished another book. The only thing good about it is the plot and I’ve been wondering whether I could make a crazy…play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing. Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he’s been away three days, this other fellow is twenty years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door.

Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start thro’ all the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he’d never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever – and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either…I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.

Happily, as I mentioned earlier, I skipped the introduction and thus missed this letter, which I think deflates the novel in some ways, including the authorial spoiler. Also, O’Brien’s just plain wrong when he contends that the “only good thing about it is the plot” — there’s also the language, the ideas, the rhythm, the structure . . .

But 1940 was not ready for such a strange novel, and The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, a year after its author’s death. By 1967 Thomas Pynchon had published V. and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth has published The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo had quit advertising to start writing novels, Donald Barthelme had published Snow-White, Kurt Vonnegut had gained a large audience—in short, the world of letters had caught up to O’Brien (or O’Nolan, if you prefer). Here was a post-modern novel delivered while Modernism was still in full swing.

But literary labels are no fun. You know what’s fun? The Third Policeman is fun. And unnerving. And energetic. And surreal. And really, really great. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in May of 2012].

Sunday Comics (A riff on FX’s show Legion)

I had no interest in watching the Legion television show.

Bill Sienkiewicz is my favorite comic book artist of all time.

I like Sienkiewicz so much I can spell his last name correctly without looking it up. I like Sienkiewicz so much that he was the first artist I featured when I first started this silly Sunday Comics thing last year.

Sienkiewicz, along with Chris Claremont, created the character of David Haller (“Legion,” Professor X’s son). David first appeared in the last page of The New Mutants #25, Marvel Comics, March, 1985. (The issue is about the underrated duo Cloak & Dagger).

The New Mutants was/is my favorite childhood comic book. (By which I mean: Sienkiewicz’s run on The New Mutants was/is my favorite childhood comic book).

Here’s David’s début:

The next three issues of The New Mutants (27-29) tell the Legion story line.

I recall liking the Legion story of The New Mutants, although it never stood out as strongly as The Demon Bear Saga, or the issues where Magneto took over The New Mutants’ leadership. But that isn’t why I had no interest in watching the Legion television show.

I had no interest in watching the Legion television show because every single Marvel television show that I’ve seen so far has been boring, or garbage, or boring garbage. And don’t even get me started on the execrable X-Men films, which have squandered so many good storylines. (Although I thought Deadpool was great, which sort of counts as an X-Men film, and I do have an interest in seeing Logan).

Anyway, after a few critics and authors I admire tweeted that Legion was, like, actually really good/excellent/thrilling/etc., I looked up the show, and saw that the showrunner and creator is Noah Hawley. That’s the dude who did FX’s Fargo, another TV show I was also wary of which also turned out to be excellent.

So, over the past four nights, I’ve watched the first four episodes of Legion. (I’ll watch the fifth tonight).

The show is fantastic.

It’s the first “superhero” show I’ve seen that succeeds not just in its script, casting, and themes, but aesthetically as well. Hawley smuggles in references to the original New Mutants run in a way that doesn’t feel like fanservice—but the other reference points here go past comic books and into film: Legion openly steals from Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuaron, and Wes Anderson. (I mean this as a compliment). Hell, there’s something Pynchonesque about the show too, in its themes of paranoia, its treatment of the concept of reality, its streak of dark but somehow zany humor, and its subversive sexiness.

The casting for Legion is pretty great too. The guy who played the guy who died in the car crash on Downton Abbey so he could leave that show and get better shows does an admirable job as David. The temptation would be to play David as batshit crazy, but the portrayal is measured, often archly comical, and ultimately sympathetic. (Shit, I just looked that guy’s name up—I saw him on a web episode of High Maintenance as a stay-at-home dad who enjoyed wearing women’s clothes and thought he was great, but also thought, Damn, hope Matthew Crawley can get some higher-profile gigs—anyway, that dude, Dan Stevens, is in that new Disney live action Beauty and the Beast film with Hermione Hogwarts, so I guess he’s doing fine).

Where was I? Oh, casting—yeah, there are solid performances here. Aubrey Plaza plays a dead junkie who may or may not be a ghost in David’s head. Jean Smart (aka my least favorite Designing Woman) plays the not-Moira MacTaggart/not-Prof. X character Melanie Bird. Smart was smart in the second season of Hawley’s other FX show, Fargo, which also featured Rachel Keller, who is basically the second lead on Legion as Sydney Barrett (not subtle, I know), David’s untouchable girlfriend. And the show basically had me when Bill Irwin showed up. Like I said, it’s great stuff.

Probably my favorite thing about the show so far though is that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in being anyone’s franchise. It stays true to the paranoid spirit of mid-eighties Claremont X-Men, and seamlessly combines plot and aesthetics in a way that a show about a telepathic and telekinetic mutant would have to to succeed. It’s also dark without being self-serious or self-important. (So many superhero films and shows fail utterly here).

Anyway, I’ve loved the first few episodes, and even if the showrunners fuck it all up, hey, it’s just TV, right?

Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight

Two Women, Gwen John

Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’ only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’ novel.

“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:

Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:

Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.

The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine.

A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering—

—okay, wait, it occurs to me now that I’ve completely neglected to offer any kind of plot description that might anchor this ostensible “review,” to set up who exactly Miss Goering is, etc., so  here goes (and I encourage you to just go ahead and skip the next long paragraph)—

A bad summary: Two Serious Ladies comprises three long chapters, each of which might stand on its own as a long short story. Part the first: Miss Goering is rich but strange. Her childhood is bizarre; alienated from others “she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a human being.” Her attempt to baptize another child luckily doesn’t end in a drowning. She grows up out of step with her peers, dresses odd, speaks odd. One day out of nowhere appears a Miss Gamelon, who becomes her (often disagreeable) companion. At a party she runs into the other serious lady, Mrs. Copperfield, whose adventures in Panama comprise the second section of the book. At the same party she meets Arnold, a would-be artist, goes home with him, meets his folks, his father. She elects to move (with Arnold and Miss Gamelon) to a run-down cottage on a drab island, forsaking her wealth, sort of. Part the second: We shift to section two, the Copperfields’ adventures in Panama. Mr. Copperfield checks the couple into a seedy hotel in the wrong part of town and promptly drops his wife off where the brothels are. She moves into a run-down hotel with a prostitute named Pacifica while her husband does God-knows-what. There’s a lot of drinking and near-madness, run-ins with bad boyfriends and snooty hoteliers. Mr. Copperfield leaves without his wife. Part the third: We return to Miss Goering and gang in the dilapidated cottage. Arnold’s father soon moves in with them. Miss Goering starts going out at night alone. She gets picked up at bar and moves in with a man named Andy. She eventually leaves him for a gangster who mistakes her for a prostitute. On a dinner date—okay, not really a dinner date but—on a dinner date with the gangster (who, like the dinner date, is never actually named as a “gangster”), Miss Goering runs into Mrs. Copperfield. Both are much changed.

—okay, so this time with (or without) some context—

A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering and her gangster:

This man, they had noticed, drove up to the saloon in a very beautiful big automobile that resembled more a hearse than a private car. Miss Goering had examined it one day when the man was drinking in the saloon. It appeared to be almost brand new. She and Andy had looked in through the window and had been a little surprised to see a lot of dirty clothes on the floor. Miss Goering was completely preoccupied now with what course to take should the newcomer be willing to make her his mistress for a little while. She was almost sure that he would, because several times she had caught him looking at her in a certain way which she had learned to recognize. Her only hope was that he would disappear before she had the chance to approach him. If he did, she would be exempt and thus able to fritter away some more time with Andy, who now seemed so devoid of anything sinister that she was beginning to scrap with him about small things the way one does with a younger brother.

And of course she gives in to her terrible desire. The plot of Two Serious Ladies might be described as a search for “anything sinister.”  Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield seek the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: disasters, abysses, madness. Love?

The novel most reminded me of what I love best in the films of David Lynch and the fiction of Roberto Bolaño—that sense of perverse night-time dread, the sordid intimation of just how easily the veneer might crack, of how simple it might be for civilization to give way to the madness under the surface.

David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño suffuse their work with an absurd howling humor that percolates along with the dread, and Two Serious Ladies operates along the same horror/humor axis. The book is hilarious, but my several attempts to capture that here in a few excerpts of dialogue fail to translate into this digest form. Will you take my word? Will you take my word that the book was much funnier the second time I read it?

The reading experience cannot be easily distilled. (Strike that adverb). Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way we expect our narratives to unfold—to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows. (I don’t have the verbs for this book). I think of Harold Bloom’s rubric for canonical literature here. In The Western Canon, he  argues that strong literature exemplifies a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Nearly three-quarters of a century after its publication, Two Serious Ladies is still strange, still strong, still ahead of its time. Its vignettes flow (or jerk or shift or pitch wildly or dip or soar or sneak) into each other with a wonderfully dark comic force that simultaneously alienates and invites the reader, who, bewildered by its transpositions, is compelled to follow into strange new territory. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review of Two Serious Ladies in February of 2015].

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Wallace would have turned 55 years old today].