Another short report from The Charterhouse of Parma

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Robert Andrew Parker’s ilustration to Ch. 4 of The Charterhouse of Parma

After many, many false starts, I’ve finished Stendhal’s 1839 cult classic The Charterhouse of Parma.  (I read Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I really, really wanted to quit around Ch. 25 (of 28). I’ll admit at times I broke a rule I’d made nearly two decades ago, now: I allowed my mind to wander. I thought of other things: A variation on a muffin recipe I was planning to make for my kids. A possible review of William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer. Lunch. What book I might read next as an antidote to Charterhouse.

The end of the novel is an utter slog. No duels, no escapes. Just courtly intrigues and courtly romances. And ironic sermons. Then, in the last chapter, a new character shows up! Some dandy named Gonzo! Out of nowhere! To move the plot along! (Stendhal pulls a similar stunt in the back half of the novel, when it first starts to really drag—he brings in a lunatic-bandit-poet-assassin named Ferrante).

And then—okay, maybe this is something close to a spoiler, but I don’t think so—and then, Stendhal seems to get bored with his novel. In the last chapter, he skips a few years in a few sentences (this, in a novel where every damn decision each character frets over goes on and on for paragraphs) and then kills everyone (not really. But really, sorta. I mean, the last chapter of The Charterhouse of Parma almost feels like season six of Game of Thrones, where the action is accelerated at a pace that seems to ironize all the previous scheming and plotting).

Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over 50-something days (I think I read that somewhere…I’ve yet to read Howard’s afterword to the novel, or Balzac’s study…I’ll save those for later, after I remember the best bits of the novel more fondly). But where was I? Oh, yeah: Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over a two-month period, and I get the feeling he was getting bored with it there at the end. Which is in some ways appropriate, as The Charterhouse of Parma is all about boredom. Phrases like “boring,” “bored,” and “boredom” pop up again and again. There’s something wonderfully modernist (or Modernist) about that.

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Robert Andrew Parker’s ilustration to Ch. 11 of The Charterhouse of Parma

Of course all that boredom is punctuated with moments of wonderful action—battles and duels! Indeed, Charterhouse never really surpasses its fourth chapter, a strikingly modern depiction of the Battle of Waterloo.

Stendhal is great at conveying action and violence while stripping it from Romantic illusions—and at the same time, he presents those Romantic illusions, making them ironic (again—this is probably one of the first Modern novels, and I’m sure someone has already said that somewhere, but hey).

Stendhal is also wonderfully adept at capturing a human mind thinking. Whether it’s the Machiavellian machinations of Count Mosca, or our (ever)greenhorn hero Fabrizio, or the real hero of Charterhouse, Fabrizio’s aunt Gina, Stendhal takes pains to show his characters thinking through their problems and schemes. Not only do the heroes and villains of The Charterhouse of Parma think, they think about what other characters will think (about what they have thought…). The novel in some ways is about metacognition. But thought about thought may be a product of boredom. And it often produces boredom.

Balzac was a great admirer of Charterhouse, as was Italo Calvino, and countless writers too. Indeed, the novel is, I suppose, a cult favorite for writers, which makes sense: Stendhal crowds each page with such psychological realism, such rich life, that every paragraph seems its own novel. I’ll admit that by page 400 or so I was exhausted though.

I’ve noted here a few times that Charterhouse is a “Modernist” novel; perhaps “proto-Modernist” is the term I need. (Again—I’m sure that countless lit critics have sussed over this; pardon my ignorant American ass). And yet Charterhouse also points back at the novels before it, the serialized novels, the epistolary novels, the romances and histories and etceteras of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. My favorite lines of the novel were often our ironic narrator’s brief asides like, “Doubtless the reader grows tired…” or “The conversation went on for hours more in trivial detail…” or “The letter went on for pages more after the same fashion…” (These aren’t actual quotes, dear reader, but I think I offer a fair paraphrase here). Stendhal’s modernism, or Modernism, or prot0-Modernism, or whatever, is his wily irony, his winking at the novel’s formal characteristics. My own failing, then, is to perhaps want more of this. As I wrote last time I riffed on it, what I suppose I want is a postmodern condensation of The Charterhouse of Parma, such as Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “Eugénie Grandet,” which parodied Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet. 

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How much of Balzac’s novel is lovingly leapt through right here?!

This wish of mine is of course my failure, not the novels.

The Charterhouse of Parma is undoubtedly an oddity, a work of genius, often thrilling, and often an utter slog. I suppose I’m glad that I finally finished it after so many years of trying, but I’m not sure if I got what I wanted out of it. The failure is mine.

I’ll close with the novel’s final line though, which I adore:

TO THE HAPPY FEW

 

The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway’s Tale of Doomed Polyamory

In general, I dislike reviews that frontload context—get to the book, right? So here’s a short review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: it is stranger than most of what Hemingway wrote, by turns pleasant, uncomfortable, bewildering, and beautiful. And readable. It’s very, very readable. Young people (or older folks; let’s not be prejudiced) working their way through Hemingway shouldn’t put The Garden of Eden on the back-burner in favor of his more famous works, and anyone who might have written off Hemingway as unreflective macho bravado should take a look at some of the strange gender games this novel has to offer. So, that’s a recommendation, okay?

Now on to that context, which I think is important here. See, The Garden of Eden is one of those unfinished novels that get published posthumously, put together by editors and publishers and other book folk, who play a larger role than we like to admit in the finished books we get from living authors anyway. For various reasons, cultural, historical, etc., we seem to favor the idea of the Singular Artistic Genius who sculpts beauty and truth out of raw Platonic forms that only he or she can access (poor tortured soul). The reality of how our books get to us is a much messier affair, and editors and publishers and even literary studies departments in universities have a large hand in this process, one we tend to ignore in favor of the charms of a Singular Artistic Genius. There’s a fascinating process there, but also a troubling one. Editing issues complicate our ideals of (quite literally) stable authority—is this what the author intended?, we ask (New Critics be damned!). David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Franz Kafka and Max Brod, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley . . . not to mention Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, The Bible, Homer, etc. etc. etc. But you’re here to read about The Garden of Eden, right gentle reader? Mea culpa. I’ve been blathering away. Let me turn the reins over to the estimable talents of E.L. Doctorow, who offers the following context in his 1986 review of the book in The New York Times

Since Hemingway’s death in 1961, his estate and his publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, have been catching up to him, issuing the work which, for one reason or another, he did not publish during his lifetime. He held back ”A Moveable Feast” out of concern for the feelings of the people in it who might still be alive. But for the novel ”Islands in the Stream” he seems to have had editorial misgivings. Even more deeply in this category is ”The Garden of Eden,” which he began in 1946 and worked on intermittently in the last 15 years of his life and left unfinished. It is a highly readable story, if not possibly the book he envisioned. As published it is composed of 30 short chapters running to about 70,000 words. A publisher’s note advises that ”some cuts” have been made in the manuscript, but according to Mr. Baker’s biography, at one point a revised manuscript of the work ran to 48 chapters and 200,000 words, so the publisher’s note is disingenuous. In an interview with The New York Times last December, a Scribners editor admitted to taking out a subplot in rough draft that he felt had not been integrated into the ”main body” of the text, but this cut reduced the book’s length by two-thirds.

So, yeah. The version we have of The Garden of Eden is heavily cut, and also likely heavily arranged. But that’s what editors do, and this is the book we have (for now, anyway—it seems like on the year of its 25th anniversary of publication, and the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death that Scribner should work toward putting out an unedited scholarly edition) — so I’ll talk about that book a bit.

The Garden of Eden tells the story of a few months in the lives of a young newlywed couple, David Bourne, an emerging novelist, and his wife Catherine, a trust fund baby flitting about Europe. The novel is set primarily on the French Riviera, in the thin sliver of high years between the two big wars. David and Catherine spend most of their days in this Edenic setting eating fine food and making love and swimming and riding bikes and fishing. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. Lots of drinking. It all sounds quite beautiful—h0w about a taste?

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and fresh and the girl’s were not cooked quite as long as the young man’s. He remembered that easily and he he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.

Hemingway’s technique throughout the novel is to present the phenomenological contours of a heady world. It’s lovely to ride along with David and Catherine, rich and free and beautiful.

Their new life together is hardly charmed, however. See, Catherine gets a haircut—

Her hair was cropped as short as a boy’s. It was cut with no compromises. It was brushed back, heavy as always, but the sides were cut short and the ears that grew close to her head were clear and the tawny line of her hair was cropped close to her head and smooth and sweeping back. She turned her head and lifted her breasts and said, “Kiss me please.” . . .

“You see, she said. “That’s the surprise. I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.”

“Sit here by me,” he said. “What do you want, brother.”

David’s playful response—calling his wife “brother”—covers up some of his shock and fear, but it also points to his underlying curiosity and gender confusion. And indeed, Catherine’s new haircut licenses her to “do anything and anything and anything” — beginning with some strange bed games that night—

He had shut his eyes and he could feel the long light weight of her on him and her breasts pressing against him and her lips on his. He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”

“No.”

“You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”

“You’re Catherine.”

“No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful, lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.”

David, partial stand-in for Hemingway, transforms into a girl who feels “something” during sex with Catherine (or, ahem, Peter)—note that that “something” has no clear referent. As their gender inverting games continue (much to David’s horror), Hemingway’s usually concrete language retreats to vague proforms without referents, “it”s without antecedents; his usually precise diction dissolves in these scenes, much as the Bournes’ marriage dissolves each time Catherine escalates the gender inversion. David gives her the nickname “Devil,” as if she were both Eve and Serpent in their Garden. Catherine’s transformations continue as she cuts her hair back even more, and sunbathes all the time so that she can be as dark as possible. She dyes her hair a silver blonde and makes David get his hair cut and dyed the same.

The bizarre behavior (shades of Scott and Zelda?) culminates in Catherine introducing another woman into the marriage. Marita falls in love with both David and Catherine, but her lesbian sex with Catherine only accelerates the latter’s encroaching insanity. David is initially radically ambivalent to the ménage à trois proposed by his wife; he has the good sense to see that a three-way marriage is ultimately untenable and that his wife is going crazy. He vacillates between hostility and love for the two women, but eventually finds a support system in Marita as it becomes increasingly apparent (to all three) that Catherine is depressed and mentally unstable, enraged that David has ceased to write about the pair’s honeymoon adventures on the Riviera. Catherine has been bankrolling David; jealous of good reviews from his last novel, she insists that he write only their story, but David would rather write “the hardest story” he knows—the story of his childhood in East Africa with his father, a big game hunter.

In some of the most extraordinary passages of The Garden of Eden, David writes himself into his boyhood existence, trailing a bull elephant with his father through a jungle trek. David has spotted the elephant by moonlight, prompting his father and his father’s fellow tracker and gun bearer Juma to hunt the old beast. As they trail the animal, David begins to realize how horrible the hunt is, how cruel it is to kill the animal for sport. The passages are somewhat perplexing given Hemingway’s reputation as a hunter. Indeed, this is one of the major features of The Garden of Eden: it repeatedly confounds or complicates our ideas about Hemingway the man’s man, Hemingway the writer, Hemingway the hunter. David describes the wounded, dying elephant—

They found him anchored, in such suffering and despair that he could no longer move. He had crashed through the heavy cover where he had been feeding and crossed a path of open forest and David and his father had run along the heavily splashed blood trail. Then the elephant had gone on into thick forest and David had seen him ahead standing gray and huge against the trunk of a tree. David could only see his stern and then his father moved ahead of him and he followed and they came alongside the elephant as though he was a ship and David saw the blood coming from his flanks and running down his sides and then his father raised his rifle and fired and the elephant turned his head with the great tusks moving heavy and slow and looked at them and when his father fired the second barrel the elephant seemed to sway like a felled tree and came smashing down toward them. But he was not dead. He had been anchored and now he was down with his shoulder broken. He did not move but his eye was alive and looked at David. He had very long eyelashes and his eye was the most alive thing David had ever seen.

David succeeds in writing this “hard” story, and the passages are remarkable in their authenticity—David’s story is a good story, the highlight of the book perhaps; it’s not just Hemingway telling us that David wrote a great story, we actually get to experience the story itself as well as the grueling process by which it was made. Hemingway and his surrogate David show us—make us experience—how difficult writing really is, and then share the fruit of that labor with us. These scenes raise the stakes of The Garden of Eden, revealing how serious David is when he remarks (repeatedly) that the writing is the most important thing—that it outweighs love, it surpasses his marriage. These realizations freight the climax of the novel all the more heavily, but I will avoid anymore spoilers.

The Garden of Eden has some obvious flaws. Marita is underdeveloped at best for such an important character, and her love for David and Catherine remains unexplored, and in fact barely remarked upon. The biggest problem with the book is its conclusion, which feels too pat, too obvious for such a strange, amorphous book. It is here that the presence of an editorial hand seems clearest, to the extent that I wonder if the short little chapter that concludes the novel wasn’t cobbled together from a few stray sentences throughout the manuscript. But The Garden of Eden, despite some shortcomings, is a book well worth reading. The novel complicates not just Hemingway’s reputation, but also our sense of Hemingway’s sense of himself. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in August of 2011]

A short report from The Charterhouse of Parma

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Have you read Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet?

I haven’t, but I’ve read the Wikipedia summary.

I’ve also read, several times, Donald Barthelme’s 1968 parody, “Eugénie Grandet,” which is very very funny.

Have you read  Stendhal’s 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma?

After repeated false starts, I seem to be finishing it up (I’m on Chapter 19 of 28 of Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I brought up Eugénie Grandet (Balzac’s) to bring up “Eugénie Grandet” (Barthelme’s). Stendhal’s (1830’s French) novel Charterhouse keeps reminding me of Barthelme’s (1960’s American) short story “Eugénie Grandet,” which is, as I’ve said, a parody of Honoré de Balzac’s (1830’s French) novel Eugénie Grandet. Balzac and Stendhal are pre-Modernists (which is to say they were modernists, I suppose). Donald Barthelme wanted to be a big em Modernist; his postmodernism was inadvertent. By which I mean— “postmodernism” is just a description (a description of a description really, but let me not navelgaze).

Well and so: I find myself often bored with The Charterhouse of Parma and wishing for a condensation, for a Donald Barthelme number that will magically boil down all its best bits into a loving parody that retains its themes and storylines (while simultaneously critiquing them)—a parody served with an au jus of the novel’s rich flavor.

My frequent boredom with the novel—and, let me insert here, betwixt beloved dashes, that one of my (many) favorite things about Charterhouse is that it is about boredom! that phrases like “boredom,” boring,” and “bored” repeat repeatedly throughout it! I fucking love that! And Stendhal, the pre-Modernist (which is to say “modernist”), wants the reader to feel some of the boredom of court intrigue (which is not always intriguing). The marvelous ironic earnest narrator so frequently frequents phrases like, “The reader will no doubt tire of this conversation, which went on for like two fucking hours” (not a direct quote, although the word “fuck” shows up a few times in Howard’s translation. How fucking Modern!)—okay—

My frequent boredom with the novel is actually not so frequent. It’s more like a chapter to chapter affair. I love pretty much every moment that Stendhal keeps the lens on his naive hero, the intrepid nobleman Fabrizio del Dongo. In love with (the idea of) Napoleon (and his aunt, sorta), a revolutionist (not really), a big ell Liberal (nope), Fabrizio is a charismatic (and callow) hero, and his chapters shuttle along with marvelous quixotic ironic energy. It’s picaresque stuff. (Fabrizio reminds me of another hero I love, Candide). Fabrizio runs away from home to join Napoleon’s army! Fabrizio is threatened with arrest! Fabrizio is sorta exiled! Fabrizio fucks around in Naples! Fabrizio joins the priesthood! Fabrizio might love love his aunt! Fabrizio fights a duel! Fabrizio kills a man! (Not the duel dude). Fabrizio is on the run (again)! Fabrizio goes to jail! Fabrizio falls in love!

When it’s not doing the picaresque adventure story/quixotic romance thing (which is to say, like half the time) Charterhouse is a novel of courtly intrigues and political machinations (I think our boy Balzac called it the new The Prince). One of the greatest strengths of Charterhouse is its depictions of psychology, or consciousness-in-motion (which is to say Modernism, (or pre-modernism)). Stendhal takes us through his characters’ thinking…but that can sometimes be dull, I’ll admit. (Except when it’s not). Let me turn over this riff to Italo Calvino, briefly, who clearly does not think the novel dull, ever—but I like his description here of the books operatic “dramatic centre.” From his essay “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse:

All this in the petty world of court and society intrigue, between a prince haunted by fear for having hanged two patriots and the ‘fiscal général’ (justice minister) Rassi who is the incarnation (perhaps for the first time in a character in a novel) of a bureaucratic mediocrity which also has something terrifying in it. And here the conflict is, in line with Stendhal’s intentions, between this image of the backward Europe of Metternich and the absolute nature of those passions which brook no bounds and which were the last refuge for the noble ideals of an age that had been overcome.

The dramatic centre of the book is like an opera (and opera had been the first medium which had helped the music-mad Stendhal to understand Italy) but in The Charterhouse the atmosphere (luckily) is not that of tragic opera but rather (as Paul Valéry discovered) of operetta. The tyrannical rule is squalid but hesitant and clumsy (much worse had really taken place at Modena) and the passions are powerful but work by a rather basic mechanism. (Just one character, Count Mosca, possesses any psychological complexity, a calculating character but one who is also desperate, possessive and nihilistic.)

I disagree with Calvino here. Mosca is an interesting character (at times), but hardly the only one with any psychological complexity. Stendhal is always showing us the gears ticking clicking wheeling churning in his characters’ minds—Fabrizio’s Auntie Gina in particular. (Ahem. Excuse me–The Duchessa).

But Duchess Aunt Gina is a big character, perhaps the secret star of Charterhouse, really, and I’m getting read to wrap this thing up. So I’ll offer a brief example rather from (what I assume is ultimately) a minor character, sweet Clélia Conti. Here she is, in the chapter I finished today, puzzling through the puzzle of fickle Fabrizio, who’s imprisoned in her dad’s tower and has fallen for her:

Fabrizio was fickle; in Naples, he had had the reputation of charming mistresses quite readily. Despite all the reserve imposed upon the role of a young lady, ever since she had become a Canoness and had gone to court, Clélia, without ever asking questions but by listening attentively, had managed to learn the reputations of the young men who had, one after the next, sought her hand in marriage; well then, Fabrizio, compared to all the others, was the one who was least trustworthy in affairs of the heart. He was in prison, he was bored, he paid court to the one woman he could speak to—what could be simpler? What, indeed, more common? And this is what plunged Clélia into despair.

Clélia’s despair is earned; her introspection is adroit (even as it is tender). Perhaps the wonderful trick of Charterhouse is that Stendhal shows us a Fabrizio who cannot see (that he cannot see) that he is fickle, that Clélia’s take on his character is probably accurate—he’s just bored! (Again, I’ve not read to the end). Yes: What, indeed, could be more common? And one of my favorite things about Charterhouse is not just that our dear narrator renders that (common) despair in real and emotional and psychological (which is to say, um Modern) terms for us—but also that our narrator takes a sweetly ironic tone about the whole business.

Or maybe it’s not sweetly ironic—but I wouldn’t know. I have to read it post-Barthelme, through a post-postmodern lens. I’m not otherwise equipped.

Bored of Hell

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I am bored of Hell, Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel of voyeurism.

Maybe I should blame the 1966 English translation (from the French) by Robert Baldick, which often feels stuffily stuffy for a book about “childbirth, first love, marriage, adultery, lesbianism, illness, religion and death” (as our dear translator puts it in his brief preface). Maybe I should blame it on Baldick, but that seems rash and wrong, and I have no basis of comparison, do I?

So I blame it on myself, this boredom of Hell.

Why write then? Why not write it off, rather, which is to say, do not write—I don’t know.

I’m bored with Hell and there are half a dozen novels I’ve recently  read (or am reading) that I should commend, recommend, attempt to write about—but here I am bored of Hell, and writing about it. Maybe it’s—and the it here refers to writing about Hell, a book I confesss a boredom of—maybe it’s because I’ve allowed myself over the last few days to good lord skim the goddamned infernal thing, not skimming for a replenishing sustenance, but rather looking for the juicy fat bits, the best bits, in the same way a teenaged version of myself skimmed Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in a powerful sweat.

(I was a teenage cliché).

Maybe it’s that the best bits of Hell weren’t juicy enough. (In this novel, an unnamed narrator espies all sorts of sensual (and nonsensual) shenanigans through a small hole in his hotel room). Or maybe the juicy bits were juicy, but the translation dried them out. So many of the sentences made me want to close the book. But it’s unfair for me to write this, I suppose, without offering a sample. Here, from early in the novel, is an excerpt that did make me want to keep going:

The mouth is something naked in the naked face. The mouth, which is red with blood, which is forever bleeding, is comparable to the heart: it is a wound, and it is almost a wound to see a woman’s mouth.

And I begin trembling before this woman who is opening a little and bleeding from a smile. The divan yields warmly to the embrace of her broad hips; her finely-made knees are close together, and the whole of the centre of her body is in the shape of a heart.

…Half-lying on the divan, she stretches out her feet towards the fire, lifting her skirt slightly with both hands, and this movement uncovers her black-stockinged legs.

And my flesh cries out…

Those last ellipses were mine. Did you want more? I did, I admit. And yet after 50 pages, I grew bored. The voyeurism was boring—sprawling. Perhaps I’m lazy. Perhaps I want my voyeurism condensed. Maybe…weirder. I don’t know. Reader, I skimmed. I skimmed, like I said, for morsels—but also to the end, the the final chapter, to the final exquisite not boring paragraph, which I’ll share with you now before “I have done,” as the narrator states in this final section. Promised paragraph:

I believe that confronting the human heart and the human mind, which are composed of imperishable longings, there is only the mirage of what they long for. I believe that around us there is only one word on all sides, one immense word which reveals our solitude and extinguishes our radiance: Nothing! I believe that the word does not point to our insignificance or our unhappiness, but on the contrary to our fulfillment and our divinity, since everything is in ourselves.

Stanley Elkin reviews Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show (kinda sorta)

[Ed. note: I finished Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show a few days ago. I read The Dick Gibson Show immediately after finishing Elkin’s 1976 novel The Franchiser. I want to write something about these novels, which seem of a piece to me, but I also wanted to get a bit more context first, and the most basic of internet searches led me to Elkin’s 1974 interview in The Paris Review with Thomas LeClair.

What follows are selections from the interview in which Elkin kinda sorta analyzes The Dick Gibson Show, providing what I take to be a Very Good and Fascinating Review of the novel.

Look, I went to school for reading books, I learned about the goddamn intentional fallacy and la mort de l’auteur and all that jazz, and I know that the author isn’t supposed to be the goddamn authority on his own work, I know that what follows isn’t a proper review—but I don’t care. I like it.

My assumption is it’s likely that anyone interested enough in a review of The Dick Gibson Show has probably already read Elkin’s Paris Review interview, and would probably prefer, like, something new on the novel. Which I’ll attempt down the line. But for now: Elkin on Elkin—]


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INTERVIEWER: I have some questions now about themes or ideas I find in much of your fiction. You have Dick Gibson say, “The point of life was the possibility it always held out for the exceptional.” The heroes in your novels have a tremendous need to be exceptional, to transcend others, to quarrel with the facts of physical existence. Is this a convention—which we’ve just been talking about—or something very basic to your whole view of life?

ELKIN: It is something very basic to my view of life, but in the case of that character it becomes the initial trauma which sets him going. It becomes his priority. Dick Gibson goes on to say that he had believed that the great life was the life of cliché. When I started to write the book, I did not know that was what the book was going to be about, but indeed that is precisely what the book gets to be about as I learned what Dick Gibson’s life meant. Consider the last few pages of the book:

What had his own life been, his interminable apprenticeship which he saw now he could never end? And everyone blameless as himself, everyone doing his best but maddened at last, all, all zealous, all with explanations ready at hand and serving an ideal of truth or beauty or health or grace. Everyone—everyone. It did no good to change policy or fiddle with format. The world pressed in. It opened your windows. All one could hope for was to find his scapegoat . . .

Now, everything that follows this is a cliché:

to wait for him, lurking in alleys, pressed flat against walls, crouched behind doors while the key jiggles in the lock, taking all the melodramatic postures of revenge. To be there in closets when the enemy comes for his hat, or to surprise him with guns in swivel chairs, your legs dapperly crossed when you turn to face him, to pin him down on hillsides or pounce on him from trees as he rides by, to meet him on the roofs of trains roaring on trestles, or leap at him while he stops at red lights, to struggle with him on the smooth faces of cliffs…

and so on. The theme of the novel is that the exceptional life—the only great life—is the trite life. It is something that I believe. It is not something that I am willing to risk bodily injury to myself in order to bring to pass, but to have affairs, to go to Europe, to live the dramatic clichés, all the stuff of which movies are made, would be the great life.

INTERVIEWER: But what if one were aware that they were clichés? Isn’t that what causes so much despair in contemporary fiction—that characters can’t live a life of clichés?

ELKIN: Dick Gibson is aware that they are clichés. What sets him off—what first inspires this notion in him—is his court-martial when he appears before the general and says that he’s taken a burr out of the general’s paw—something that happens in a fairy tale. When Dick realizes what has happened to him, he begins to weep, thinking, oh boy, I’ve got it made—I’m going to have enemies, I’m going to be lonely, I’m going to suffer. That is the theme of that book.

INTERVIEWER: Do the characters in your novels, then, have rather conventional notions of what exceptional is?

ELKIN: Yes, I think so.

Dick can’t stand anybody’s obsession but his own, which is largely the plight of myself and yourself, probably, and everybody. He’s opened a Pandora’s box when he opens his microphones to the people out there. When they find the platform that the Gibson format provides, they just get nuttier and nuttier and wilder and wilder, and this genuinely arouses whatever minimal social consciousness Dick Gibson has. The paradox of the novel is that the enemy that Gibson had been looking for all his life is that audience. The audience is the enemy. Dick builds up in his mind this Behr-Bleibtreau character. That Behr-Bleibtreau is his enemy. That’s baloney paranoia. The enemy is the amorphous public that he is trying to appeal to, that he’s trying to make love to with his voice. Dick Gibson is a bodiless being. He is his voice. That’s why the major scene in the novel is the struggle for Gibson’s voice.

INTERVIEWER: Who is Behr-Bleibtreau? There is a suggestiveness to his name that I can’t articulate.

ELKIN: Neither can I. I used to know a guy named—Bleibtreau. Hyphenating the name made it more sinister than just Bleibtreau itself. You know, you could almost put Count in front of it.

INTERVIEWER: s that why Dick thinks that Behr-Bleibtreau is the enemy—because there is this suggestion of cliché?

ELKIN: That’s right. Behr-Bleibtreau is a charlatan—that’s what he is. He has this theory of the will that is alluded to in the second section of the novel. And he is a hypnotist, exactly the kind of guy who Gibson sees as out to get him. Of course Behr-Bleibtreau isn’t out to get him. When Gibson thinks it is Behr-Bleibtreau calling him from Cincinnati, it isn’t. It’s just Gibson’s own paranoia that creates the conditions for Behr-Bleibtreauism.

INTERVIEWER: Is radio in the novel an index to social change, perhaps the devaluation of language?

ELKIN: That was not my intention. I could make a case that once upon a time there were scripts, a platform and an audience out in front of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, that radio then was a kind of art form and now it is an artless form in which you get self-promoters and people with theories about curing cancer by swallowing mosquitoes or something. Language, since it is occurring spontaneously rather than thought out, is devalued. But actually, in real life, modern radio talk shows are much more interesting than The Jack Benny Program ever was because you are getting the shoptalk of personality.

INTERVIEWER: Dick is a professional word man, and by the end he is reduced nearly to silence. Is this your “literature of exhaustion” that Barth talks about, a comment on the futility of language…

ELKIN: No. Certainly not.

INTERVIEWER: He does say less and less as the novel moves along.

ELKIN: Right. And the other people say more and more. That is intentional. But Dick makes an effort to get his program back from the sufferers. He starts hanging up on people. Then he gets the biggest charlatan—Nixon—at the end. Wasn’t I clever to invent Nixon before Nixon did?

INTERVIEWER: In bringing together so many stories and storytellers, did you have a thematic unity in mind?

ELKIN: I had in mind, as a matter of fact, The Canterbury Tales, particularly in that second section where the journey to dawn is the journey to Canterbury. Although there are no particular parallels, when I was sending out sections of the novel to magazines, I would call the sections “The Druggist’s Tale” and so on. There is that choral effect of the pilgrims to Canterbury.

The BFG, Roald Dahl’s love letter to his lost daughter

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Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”

If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.

Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page.

I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.

(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever).

The BFG does not have an especially complex plot: Young Sophie, up late at night, is snatched away to a strange country by a giant whom she spies blowing dreams into a room of sleeping children (she does not of course know at the time that he is blowing dreams into the room). Luckily, this is the Big Friendly Giant. Unluckily, she’s stuck in his cave, where he must hide her from nine awful giants (including the Fleshlumpeater, the Meatdripper, and the aptly named Childchewer), who set off into the world each night to guzzle “human beans” (they especially love to eat children). The BFG, smaller than the other giants, refuses to partake in their infanticidal, anthropophagic practices, dining instead on stinky snozzcumbers. While the other giants are out gobbling up humans, the BFG is in Dream Country collecting dream blobs, which he mixes into wonderful visions and blows into children’s homes at night. Sophie and the BFG concoct a special dream for the Queen of England and through this scheme manage to capture the nine terrible giants. Sophie and The BFG live happily ever after.

Dahl’s command of language in The BFG marks the book as one of his strongest achievements. The most obvious and endearing aspect of the book’s language is the voice of the BFG, who invents, inverts, and generally twists up nouns, verbs, and adjectives into a fine mess. He tells Sophie:

Words . . . is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.

That squiff-squiddling though is what gives the giant’s voice such power. The tinges of nonsense actually reify and amplify what the BFG intends to say. There’s a sing-songy, burbling, bubbling rhythm to the BFG’s speech, which I took great joy in performing aloud for my daughter. Dahl clearly understood that his prose would be read aloud.

The BFG’s trouble with “correct” language derives from the fact that he never got to go to school. In fact, he’s learned everything he knows from one book: Nicholas Nickleby, “By Dahl’s Chickens,” the BFG tells Sophie. The underlying problem that governs the plot of Nicholas Nickleby is the unexpected death of Nicholas’s father. Dahl might have picked any of Charles Dickens’s novels here, but I believe he chose this one to thematically answer to The BFG’s secret plot: A missing father to match a missing daughter.

Dahl also not-so-subtly inserts his own name into the authorial position in this scene, which occurs about half way into the novel. This insertion happens again in the novel’s final chapter, which is appropriately titled “Author.” The book ends with the nine awful giants captured and held in a pit deep in the earth (shades of the Titans), their infanticidal violence contained and suspended, but still alive, still potential. The Queen has an enormous house built for the BFG right by her own palace, with a small cottage for Sophie in-between. The vision, rendered in Quentin Blake’s marvelous wobbly inks, suggests a fairy tale ending, as Sophie finds an ersatz family in the Queen (more of a fairy godmother) and the BFG, her new father.

And yet Sophie too takes on something of a parental role, teaching the BFG to read and write. He soon “started to write essays about his own past life.” Sophie reads these and urges him to become “a real writer … Why don’t you start by writing a book about you and me?”

Reading this chapter the other night devastated me and delighted my daughter. She cackled in glee and I found myself unable to perform the BFG’s voice through my tears. I finished the novel in my own, regular voice, doing my best not to let the sharp cracks of the emotion I felt break into those final lines, where we learn that the BFG, too modest to put his own name on his book (published by the Queen to bring joy to children), has chosen a pseudonym—the one on the spine of the book, Roald Dahl.

The BFG was of course always an author, even before he was literate; his medium was the dream, and he used dreams to tell stories to bring joy to children. He gave these dreams as protest, resistance, and counterattack to the consuming violence of his nine awful brothers.

Dahl’s rhetorical trick at the end of The BFG—claiming his own name as the pseudonym for the book’s real author, the Big Friendly Giant—is far less whimsical than a surface glance suggests. Rather, I find in it something sad, dark, and sincere, a moment of deep love and deep pain. The transposition—the squiff-squiddling, if you will—of the two names signals Dahl’s recasting of himself as the eternal BFG, bringing joy to children all over the world. The BFG gets to live happily ever after with his dream-daughter Sophie (the recast Olivia), their home and family sanctioned and provided for by the land’s highest authority.

But even before the Queen grants the father-daughter pair their own homestead, Sophie has already found her place by the giant—behind his ear, where she whispers to him. Is this not the fantasy of a consciousness that communicates beyond time, beyond death, directly and without the intermediary of a physical body?

Did Dahl hear Olivia’s voice in his own ear decades after her death? Did her spirit speak to him? Speculation of that sort is not my place or intention, and as I type it out, the suggestion appears far more lurid than I wish. I do know that the image was inescapable for me as I finished The BFG with my own daughter.

Our love and care for our children is shaded and intensified by an understanding of their fragility, their mortality, their susceptibility to disease, accident, chaos, the carelessness of others…factors easily metaphorized into child-eating giants. Our love for our own children precludes an equal love for children who are not our own, despite whatever ethical systems we claim to practice and subscribe to.

And this is what I find so moving about The BFG: Dahl converts the personal (and infinite) loss of his own daughter into a loving gift he seeks to share with all children. He shared that gift with me when I was a child, when I never imagined that I would grow up to be an adult with a child of my own to whom I would read that gift again, in a new, strange, sad, dark, joyous way.

Maybe all I am trying to say here, in this long, long-winded way, is Thank you.

[Ed. Note. Biblioklept ran a version of this review in July of 2014. Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of The BFG is in wide release this week].

 

Dissolving boundaries | Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

A few weeks ago I finished The Story of the Lost Child, the last of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels, and now perhaps have enough distance to comment on them briefly.

The novels have been much-hyped, which initially put me off (nearly as much as their awful kitschy covers), but the same friend who urged me to give Bolaño’s 2666 a go (after I misfired with The Savage Detectives) insisted I read Ferrante.

I’m glad I did. From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.

But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).

It’s this horrific abjection that fascinates me most about the novels. I’ll offer two longish passages from the final book in the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, to showcase Ferrante’s prowess with (what I take to be her dominant) theme and tone.

The first passage comes fairly early in the long novel, when our (now mature) heroine Lenù encounters a suicide’s corpse:

No answer. I knocked harder, I opened the door cautiously, the room was dark. I called him, silence, I turned on the light.

There was blood on the pillow and on the sheet, a large blackish stain that extended to his feet. Death is so repellent. Here I will say only that when I saw that body deprived of life, that body which I knew intimately, which had been happy and active, which had read so many books and had been exposed to so many experiences, I felt both repulsion and pity. [He] had been a living material saturated with political culture, with generous purposes and hopes, with good manners. Now he offered a horrible spectacle of himself. He had rid himself so fiercely of memory, language, the capacity to find meaning that it seemed obvious the hatred he had for himself, for his own skin, for his moods, for his thoughts and words, for the brutal corner of the world that had enveloped him.

Ferrante’s passage here strongly echoes Julia Kristeva’s 1980 essay “Approaching Abjection.” Kristeva writes (emphasis mine):

The corpse…upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance….as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border…the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel — “I” is expelled.

In my reading, Ferrante’s heroines Lenù and Lila are detectives of the abject, of the (literally) unnamable forces of culture (and oh-what-a-culture patriarchal Naples is!) that threaten subjectivity. They each seek to assert an I in a world that would devastate such an assertion.

Lenù and Lila claim their assertion through creative agency—through art. And Ferrante’s greatest strength, perhaps, in the Neapolitan Novels is that she harnesses this art, she conveys the brilliance of these brilliant friends, and does not merely “tell” the reader of their brilliance (like so many contemporary “literary” novels do). Ferrante shows authorship (and genius) as a shared, collaborative process, not an isolation, but a synthesis.

If these novels concern synthesis, they also show fracture, fragmentation, and dissolution. Observe Lenù and Lila in a key moment from The Story of the Lost Child , during a calamitous earthquake (again, emphasis mine):

She exclaimed: Oh Madonna, an expression I had never heard her use. What’s wrong, I asked. Gasping for breath, she cried out that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh. She used that term: dissolving boundaries.

It was on that occasion that she resorted to it for the first time; she struggled to elucidate the meaning, she wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her. She was still holding my hand tight, breathing hard. She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that—and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped. Contrary to what she had been doing, she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences, sometimes kneading in the vocabulary of the dialect, sometimes drawing on the vast reading she had done as a girl. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her; she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that. And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.

Kristeva’s abjection is again strongly embodied in those last few lines—the dissolution, the unspeakable and repressed forces, the trauma. The rivers of abject bodily filth. Here’s Kristeva, again from “Approaching Abjection” (my emphasis):

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.

Lila and Lenù face abjection, the primer of their culture. They trace its contours, aim at ways of speaking the unspeakable—through friendship and the fruits of that friendship: storytelling. The storytelling offers a literal form to handle the abject violence of the culture in its many, many forms (corrupt politicians, abusive fathers, abusive husbands, predatory rapists, predatory lenders, Cammorist gangsters, systemic class inequality, religion…).

The storytelling confronts abjection without seeking a transcendence, an exit, an out. Ferrante recognizes that humans are violent animals, and doesn’t want to comfort us. In an interview, she said:

I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us…I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have no interest in consoling their readers. Yet they do evoke an essential power of storytelling, a power not to transcend abjection, but rather to endure a subjectivity through abjection: Love. “Love is something spoken, and it is only that: poets have always known it,” writes Kristeva in another essay, “Throes of Love: The Field of the Metaphor.” In the Neapolitan Novels, Lenù speaks her love to her brilliant lost friend Lila. The result is moving and exhausting, an epic of fragments, a saga as discontinuous and unexpected as a real and full life. And if not all those fragments will stick in my memory, what comes through in the end is a sense of love, an author’s love her characters that persuades the readers to love them too.

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

“Between Absence and Forgetting” — A Review of Human Acts

At 3:AM Magazine, I wrote a review about Han Kang’s latest book Human Acts. I wrote about her last book, The Vegetarian, on the blog here.

Below is an excerpt of the new review. Follow the link to the full piece.

Suffering from an unnamed illness, all J. wants is to die—which, as Blanchot describes for us in his essay ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, is her inalienable right—yet the narrator ruins her chances. In the essay, Blanchot takes issue with Sartre’s ‘What is Literature?’ because he offers a definition of literature that only perpetuates the primordial lie of language. The so-called committed work’s language is forced to “designate, demonstrate, order, refuse, interpolate, beg, insult, persuade, insinuate”. Sentences are then specialised and instrumentalised towards a specific end. The grave risk here is articulated a bit differently from Blanchot by Adorno: “The error of the primacy of [commitment] as it is exercised today appears clearly in the privilege accorded to tactics over everything else. The means have become autonomous to the extreme. Serving the ends without reflection, they have alienated themselves from them.”1 Committed literary works lose their object of action because they forget that language first murders, as Hegel might say, its referents in service to mere presence—mere sake of behaving politically. “When even genocide becomes cultural property in committed literature,” Adorno writes elsewhere, “it becomes easier to continue complying with the culture that [gives] rise to the murder.”2 In affect alone, atrocious experiences are straitjacketed into fixed meanings. These kinds of works imagine themselves as counteractive agents to the strategies of violence and domination that governments still practice today, literally murderous and not, and continually risk complicity with the very regimes of brutality themselves. Both Adorno’s and Blanchot’s responses to this literary affectation result in high-modernist works that, through a resistance to exaggerated forms of politicking, appear in reality as apolitical but offer a more political resistance by not participating in the “rigid coordinate system” of authoritarian systems. For both of these thinkers, it is not an author’s or text’s political orientation that is at most risk, but the problem of representation itself.

While Human Acts does not resist denotative meaning like Beckett’s The Unnameable, it sympathises with the question that Blanchot raises in his essay. When J. opens her eyes and seethes at the narrator, it is because he made her open her eyes and refused her right to death. This opens onto a question of place and action: Does the very act of writing itself violate this right to death, or does it constellate a map of the ways in which language attempts to fill the void it instantiates in the first place?

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.

Reviews and riffs of February-May, 2016 (and an unrelated stag)

Hey, wow. Haven’t done one of these in a while.


I reread William Gaddis’s big big novel J R, writing

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J  R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).


I also read and wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History, a scary little primer that argues mass species extinction is

…the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole…capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth.

My reading of Extinction—and hence my writing about it—is/was inextricably bound up in a viewing of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 eco-fable 1997 , Mononoke-hime. (The film’s title is usually rendered in English as Princess Mononoke, but I think Spirit-Monster Wolfchild is a more fitting translation). I also linked the book to Gilgamesh and Easter. And I used this gif:

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I wrote a post about listening to audiobook versions of “difficult novels,” taking my lead and license from this big quote from William H. Gass’s essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.


99 reasons I didn’t read your novel.


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I reviewed Mahendra Singh’s marvelous satire American Candide. Far better than my measly review is a long interview I did with Singh, who is just a damn genius. I’m most grateful for the final exchange of our review, which was not really a part of the official q & a type thing we were doing—rather, I was bemoaning my ability to write anything lately, and Mahendra offered me the following, which I edited into the interview:

The hidden contempt that our culture harbors towards art will drive you nuts if you think about it … so don’t think too much … write instead! And if you can’t write, read smartly. I find great solace in the classics and have devoted most of my life to trying in whatever way I can to perpetuate the classical tradition (in concealment) and create situations where young people can gain access to the eternal truths and beauty of the classical world tradition. We are living in a time of imperial decline and must preserve the best of the past as our ancestors did in similar times of trouble. The pendulum will swing the other way in a few centuries.


Prince died.

I wrote about him in a Three Books post.

The three books had nothing to do with Prince.


Despite some fascinating images, I was not impressed by Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of Ballard’s High-Rise. I concluded that,

While the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.


And I wrote about Ferrante, Knausgaard, and their good/bad/ironic book covers.


Here’s that promised stag (by Diego Velazquez):

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Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant FriendI’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. I love Ferrante’s novel, by the way. More one-star Amazon reviews].


 

ugh

Odd book

too wordy

so violent

so bummed

Depressing

It’s a series

stupid critics

Maybe terrific

I was so board

Did outline it all

I loved this book

It simply ended!!

So many characters

Too many characters

Not so Good this time

like Twitter on steroids

angst-filled adolescence

I’m an uncultured swine

Everyone in our book club

reading it for my book club

the ending was a dirty trick

there are over 40 characters

Riddled with punctuation errors

Chick lit with no plot or substance

This book is an exercise in despair

I was looking forward to this trilogy

by far the worst book I have every read

Of course it’s a matter of personal taste

the characters were not very nice people

I consider family sagas my favorite genre

endless clusters of names, names, names

Italian names that are difficult to remember

the characters are unlikable (and confusing)

we finished it only because it was Book Club

I damned near tore out what’s left of my hair

too many characters none of whom are likable

a story of domestic violence and male dominance

This book could not have been written by a woman

the main characters are interdependent in a very sick way

Boring and couldn’t Finnish it despite raves from others.?

Just couldn’t get past the violence and disrespect of people

found myself having to look back to figure out who was who

the two central characters may have been intended to be complex and interesting (and may be across the series) they were boorish and flat

the narrator was dryly describing events, as opposed to us being shown what happens through her interaction with characters and the world around her

the struggle of two smart intelligent girls to escape their poor brutal neighborhood in vain

basically a long list of long Italian names and stereotypes

one of my favorite books is The Brothers Karamazov

Just one self-absorbed observation after another

This book could not have been written by a man

WAY too many characters to keep track of

One of the best books I have ever read!

discussing it at my book club this week

an indulgent description of characters

the words did not flow in an easy way

If there were a zero stars rating

I read a lot in a variety if genres

her prose is dry and impersonal

meandering, fancy Chick Lit

it is the first part of a series

I am an English teacher

the characters are dark

what a very long book

choppy and uneven

too many charactors

more of a YA book

tooooo long !!!’n

laborious at best

like a soap opera

wonderful book

my book club

dix no finish

pure drivel

Pure trash

Despite our Ballardian present, the High-Rise film adaptation is a nostalgia piece

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  1. Our present is utterly Ballardian.
  2. Our present is so utterly Ballardian that our present is actually our (unevenly distributed) future.
  3. Like, what is the 2016 U.S. presidential election but a short story Ballard might have written in 1983 (and hopefully thrown in the trash)?
  4. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise is particularly concerned with this present-future condition: the phrase to come (as in a future to come) repeats throughout the novel, a key dissonant note.
  5. Near the end of the novel, Ballard’s free indirect style drifts into the mind of protagonist Robert Laing:

    ...he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

  6. A version of this line shows up in the first minutes of director Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film adaptation of High-Rise.
  7. While Ballard’s satire evokes the post-future’s psychological (ir)reality, Wheatley’s film adaptation feels like a nostalgic period piece for a future that came and skedaddled. Perhaps he (and his fellow filmmakers—screenwriter Amy Jump, the editor, the set designers and costumers, etc.) found it impossible to do more than stylistically recapitulate the Modernist contours that Ballard transcended.
  8. Critic Tasha Robinson lays it out neatly in her proper review at The Verge:

    The retro cars, suits, and architecture all put High-Rise more in a quaint, remote past than a dystopian future. They also add to the sense of otherworldliness that hangs over the film.

    And so does the sense that High-Rise is driven more by Wheatley’s poster-ready striking images —€” a suicide falling from a high balcony in ultra slow motion, Laing expressionless and spattered with paint — than by any sort of human drives.

  9. (I modify “review” in the above with “proper” because Robinson wrote a real review; I’m not doing that here. I think her take on the film is far more detailed and broad than what I’m doing here, and certainly attends more to the, like, plot of the film—even as she acknowledges that the plot basically gets put on the back-burner for long stretches).
  10. So probably my biggest quibble with the High-Rise film adaptation is its nostalgia, its obsession with midcentury modernism and Brutalism and style—by which I mean the idea of style—over, like, ideas. 
  11. Those ideas: Ballard’s central critiques of capitalism, consumerism, and class do come through in the film, but Wheatley and his team resist giving them any air to breathe, let alone room to stretch their legs. (My god. Forgive me these metaphors, this terrible personification).
  12. There are very, very few scenes in the film where people exchange ideas.
  13. Instead, ideas are wedged in, often in snippets lifted directly from the book, crammed quickly into a frame that will surely veer back into the film’s main technique: Montage!
  14. The first chapter of Ballard’s novel is titled “Critical Mass.” As I pointed out in my review of the novel, “Ballard dispenses with any simmering in his tale of depraved debauchery,” and gets his pot boiling in a hurry.
  15. In contrast, Wheatley’s film gets a slower—but strong—start. (The first 50 or so minutes are actually pretty great).
  16. At its midway point though, the High-Rise film tries to pick up the pace—dramatically. The solution is montage after montage.
  17. Indeed, the final hour of the film slips into a state of near-constant montage. The big set piece scenes (y’know—dance parties and food riots and orgies and the like) dissolve into the film’s frenetic technique. It often feels as if Wheatley is more interested in making a bunch of cool music videos than a film. While this jumpy method might have been the filmmakers’ intention—y’know, to evoke paranoia, anxiety, exhaustion, claustrophobia, etc.—the result, at least for me, was a kind of paradoxical lethargy, a creeping dullness.
  18. Key moments, like the first encounter between Wilder and Royal for example, fly by in rushed blips. It’s as if Wheatley was afraid that if he let two people talk on-screen for more than 30 seconds the viewers would not, y’know, pick up on the fact that we are witnessing the thin veneer of society crack open revealing an abject tumult of sex and violence underneath.
  19. (Wilder—the Id man! Royal the Superego. So much of Ballard’s psychological stuff gets lost in the film, which foregrounds class hierarchy instead of synthesizing the two. But that’s a separate quibble).
  20. What were likely great performances (and much potential for humor) get lost in all the short cuts and montage.
  21. Still:  Sienna Miller is great as Charlotte Melville, and Tom Hiddleston is charming enough.
  22. But best in the film—at least for me—is Elizabeth Moss as Wilder’s pregnant wife Helen.
  23. Still, the filmmakers insist on mining her pregnancy for cheap nostalgic jokes—she’s always smoking, always finishing a drink or pouring a new one.
  24. Which brings me back to: Why a period piece? Why not update High-Rise—or, even better take it outside of time completely?
  25. (It will be interesting to look at the film in twenty years: Oh! These were the aesthetic obsessions of the 2010’s, these were the nostalgic totems of that silly decade).
  26. (And while I’m wedging points in parenthetically in a rush: The ending. I read the novel’s conclusion ironically—the high-rise is a phallic failure, and as its patriarchy devolves into chaos and death, a matriarchy arises (or maybe coalesces is the verb I want). But the film concludes more ambiguously—sure, it points to the idea of a matriarchy (or harem)—but it leaves Laing in the kind of alpha male position that the novel had sought to ironize).
  27. And, to return to point 24: Did the filmmakers underestimate the currency of Ballard’s satire? We live in an era of radical wealth inequality, where the richest in our society are rapidly establishing their own private greenzones away from the plebeians. High-Rise is more timely now than ever.
  28. (A short list of (non-)adaptations of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise: Pete Travis’s Dredd (2012), Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (2008), and George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005)).
  29. (And re: point 27 w/r/t adaptations—in a sense, Ballard adapted/revised the novel himself in his 2003 novel Millennium People).
  30. Reading back over this riff, briefly, I see that there’s so much I left out—on stuff the filmmakers left out (why change the key plot point of Laing’s sister?)—on stuff I should’ve praised more (great soundtrack; good cinematography)—but most of all, what doesn’t come through is my admiration that the filmmakers tried. And they tried hard, successfully evoking a Ballardian style. But while the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.

In American Candide, Mahendra Singh reboots Voltaire’s classic satire

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About halfway through Mahendra Singh’s American Candide, our omniscientish (yet beguiled) narrator slows down for a moment to offer an internal critique (and useful summary) of the novel thus far:

If Candide could address the reader right now, he would probably apologize for both the breakneck pace and pixelated tenor of his adventures so far. Modern literature evolved beyond that sort of thing long ago, and an easy-to-swallow plot enlivened with a soupçon of ironic handwringing is all the rage today. The idea of a fictional hero running afoul of angry fathers, jihadi terrorists, secret police, corporate mercenaries, a cable TV network, and a secret cabal of global warmers simply boggles the reader’s mind, an authorial fate worse than death.

And yet of course many readers enjoy a good mind boggling every now and then.

I do, anyway.

Our narrator’s little condensation of the novel thus far reminds us that stylistically and formally, American Candide is a true heir to Voltaire’s Candide. Both novels offer a “breakneck pace and pixelated tenor”; both novels pulse with picaresque energy; both novels drip with delightfully venomous satiric acid; both novels are basically one-damn-thing-happening-after-another. Both novels are funny as fuck all.

Our narrator’s quick summary also jabs at the limitations of contemporary socially-conscious-realistic fiction—you know, “serious literature”—which limitations American Candide dispenses with in favor of frenzied fun. Instead of a soupçon of ironic handwringing, we get full-blown glorious agitation.

What’s all the agitation over?

American Candide’s full title is American Candide; or Neo-Optimism, a direct nod to Voltaire’s full title, Candide; or Optimism. But Singh’s subtitular prefix points to other connotations: Neoliberalism, neoconservatism—hell, neofascism—but most of all, the irony that very little of human nature really has changed in three centuries. The big ideals of the Enlightenment continue to radiate too radically for some folks.

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To wit, American Candide carves sharply into the last two decades, synthesizing the dangerous follies of the Bush Gang (and the subsequent fallout of their crimes) into a kind of mythical transposition. Singh offers a cruel fun satire of the neo-optimism that underwrites blind belief in “the better-than-best of all possible worlds, 21st-century America”. The novel’s satirical sting is simultaneously sweetened by intense humor and painfully amplified by the cruel realism underneath Singh’s zany hyperbole. Tell all the truth but tell it slant, as the poet advised.

And so American Candide is terribly terribly funny but also terribly terribly sad.

For example, Singh’s take on Hurricane Katrina shows American Candide’s capacity to condense historical critique into sharp moments that bristle with anger leavened in caustic humor:

The offending hurricane was clearly an act of god, and the Freedonian government prided itself on its special relationship with god.

Another snippet (“Hooterville” is New Orleans’s Freedonian stunt double):

The winds howled, the clouds unleashed a torrential rain, and the fetid waters of an entire ocean climbed over the heads of those surviving Hootervillains too patently lazy to live on higher ground.

Just a page or two later, Candide and Pangloss mistake armed and uniformed authorities for civil peacekeepers:

Rah! Ooh! We’re better than best police! … We’re Tender-Mercynaries® from Baron Incorporated, booyah, and this is a federally-restricted emergency disaster area, yoot-yoot rah booh!

Instead of helping our heroes, the mercenaries abduct, torture, and interrogate them. Candide and Pangloss find themselves in black hoods at a black site, and even though our young hero “had been lightly sodomized and beaten and even urinated upon…his innermost Freedonian convictions had not been too badly shaken.”

It’s the reader who shakes, in a mix of laughter and rage. The world of American Candide is simply our own world dressed up in a satirical frock that somehow reveals, rather than covers over, our society’s garish ugliness, our addictions to binding illusions. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains, commented Rousseau (Voltaire hated Rousseau).

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American Candide’s  blurb warns that, “College-boy sissies will call it a Juvenalian satire upon America’s penchant for mindless optimism and casual racism.” Hooray for college-boy sissies! But no, really, I think that’s a fair assessment—as is Singh’s Candide’s assessment from the aforementioned blurb: “rage against the rage, Voltaire-dude!”

But it’s not just rage: Laughter—laughter in the all-seeing eye of absurdity—it’s laughter that undergirds American Candide.

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In a review of Lowell Blair’s translation of Voltaire’s Candide, I suggested:

The book’s longevity might easily be attributed to its prescience, for Voltaire’s uncanny ability to swiftly and expertly assassinate all the rhetorical and philosophical veils by which civilization hides its inclinations to predation and evil. But it’s more than that. Pointing out that humanity is ugly and nasty and hypocritical is perhaps easy enough, but few writers can do this in a way that is as entertaining as what we find in Candide.

Singh’s update-reboot-translation of Candide fittingly answers Voltaire’s pessimistic prescience with not just bitter affirmations of contemporary predation and evil, but also with an eye toward entertainment—to the affirmations of laughter.

[Note: All the illustrations in this review are by Mahendra Singh, and are part of American Candide].

I conclude now I have no inner resources (Reading/Have Read/Should Write About)

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For twenty years now Berryman’s line I conclude now I have no inner resources has been plinking around the inside of my dumb skull. The line is plinking like crazy lately, as I shuffle final exam essays into some kind of order (what order?) that might align with my ability to offer the student, the writer, some meaningful note, some suggestion for improvement, some revelatory remark. Plink plink plink. No inner resources.

It is bad to start with a complaint so I will dress up the preceding paragraph (I dress it mentally) as an apologia. (Why the hell did I decide to write about books online?!).

I’ve been reading some really great books lately, folks. People, yes, you, listen. It’s not true that I have no inner resources. I am unstuck as a reader. I’m all gummed up with what I’ve read. Well-fed. And yet I go to scribble out a, like, review and plink plink plink. Nothing.

But like I said, the reading’s been really good. From the bottom up:

Let me strongly recommend American Candide by Mahendra Singh. I recommend this book for people who enjoy laughing at tragedies that should otherwise make them weep. You can and should purchase this book from Rosarium.

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Illustration to American Candide by Mahendra Singh

Above American Candide in the stack so lazily pictured above is Yuri Herrera’s neon noir novella The Transmigration of Bodies, which I also highly recommend. I managed a few words on it here.

If you were to describe Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle 1956 book to me, I might politely decline with a small gesture of my hand. It’s about a guy who takes mescaline and writes about the experience and he draws these pictures and then he later takes “Indian hemp” and compares it— you might say to me, you, knowing as you know that I dig weird books, but I would cut you off at with an em dash, polite but firm, Not interested in drug novels these days (and besides dude, you know that Aldous Huxley did kinda the same thing at kinda the same time). And then you, having the book with you might press it into my hand, declaring, No, look

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—and I would say Thanks and consume the book in two sittings.

And so after a few years of false starts, I finally broke through the second chapter of Stanley Elkin’s satire The Franchiser. The many years of recommendations, exhortations (and scoldings) to read The fucking Franchiser were correct and good and now appreciated, as I work my way into the novel’s rich fat middle—but I admit it was Mr. William Gass who finally sold me on a commitment. I read his introduction published elsewhere—in A Temple of Texts—and that was that.

Thanks to Jon for sending me Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection The Language of the Night. The collection collects the collective introductions to Le Guin’s so-called Hainish collection, which I read this winter, and wrote about here. Not one of my editions featured the reflections Le Guin (or more likely her editors) called “Introductions” in later essays, and reading the Hainish intros is, in a very slight sense, like rereading those books. Lovely.

Last and never least: Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. I’ve thought often of Clark’s poems as stories pretending to be poems so maybe these are poems pretending to be stories. Or maybe I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. (Plink plink plink). I read most of them except for the longest one, “Incident at Basecamp,” which I will save save save for the future, an old habit, maybe a bad habit, that, to read all but one story in a collection, to maybe keep the collection afresh somehow or not wholly discovered—eh? Plink plink plink. Wag.

William Gaddis’s J R (A short riff on a long book)

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1.

I reread William Gaddis’s 1975 novel J R this February and, as is usually the case with a reread, I was pleasantly unsurprised by all its unremembered surprises—the jokes and japes, riffs and routines that had oozed from my brain-sieve since that first read back in 2012.

How could I forget about a scheme to freeze sound, or an art theft subplot, or the Indian uprising? How could I forget that in J R, Gaddis anagrammatically parodies the critical rejections of his first novel The Recognitions? (I did remember the stuffed Eskimo).

2.

What I was surprised surprised surprised about in my rereading of J R was how much of the first reading had stuck. And stuck hard, soaked in, saturated—the sign of a great grand thing, the em-word thing, the masterpiece thing.

3.

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J  R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).

4.

So I already wrote on J R on this blog: A misfire of sorts from halfway through (in which I offer more description of the novel’s plot and form than I intend to here, maybe), and a thing I wrote after finishing it which (this thing I wrote before, I mean) might be better than anything I can muster here, in terms of analysis, of like, theme. I’ll limit myself to, I don’t know, eleven points in this riff, yes? (Why 11? Why not? Why not go to 11? 11 for Chapter 11, for bankruptcy, for the moral artistic intellectual bankruptcy that the novel J R skewers). So, having limited myself to eleven points, and having not gotten to the damn point yet, which is—

5.

J R is so good, y’all. The book is a performance, an opera, an essay on America, a howl, a condemnation, a farce, a romance, a tragedy. When I read it in 2012 I couldn’t believe how prescient it was, a feeling reconfirmed with force four years later. J R diagnoses and describes and ridicules American corporatism, the industrial-military-entertainment-banking-education-etc. -complex. And then it weeps.

6.

But wait—what I wanted to say is J R is so good—so, uh, entertaining. It’s fucking funny. And sweet.

7.

(And bitter).

8.

And J R’s not as hard a read as some dudes would have you believe. Sure, it’s composed almost entirely in unattributed dialogue—and that can be tough, to start, but you can learn to hear it very quickly.

In his essay “William Gaddis and His Goddamn Books,” William Gass writes that, “J R takes time. J R takes patience. J R takes faith.” But Gass also points out the payoff of J R “unlike other faiths…is immediately and continuously redeeming.”

It is redeeming (continuously), and I don’t just echo Gass here as some kind of rhetorical flourish—reading J R again was a reminder that the novel posits redemption through Bast’s call to action, to his resolve to, as the failed writer (or stymied writer) Eigen puts it, “go do what [he has] to do” to make real art—or, in our hero Bast’s own terms: “…until a performer hears what I hear and can make other people hear what hears it’s just trash isn’t it…”

9.

And in J R the reader becomes the performer, making the voices, singing the voices, (muttering the voices), navigating all the trash, the entropy—J R is a novel of unraveling, where art trips over commercial trash and literal trash–old ads, betting tickets, stock ticker tape, phone book pages, train tickets, scraps. Is there another American novel so aware of its own textuality, its own metatextuality—I mean one that doesn’t goddamn wink all the time at its readers like so much clever postmodern slop?

Gass again: “[J R] is written in speech scraps, confetti-like wiggles of brightly colored cliché. As a medium, it would appear to be as unpromising as might be imagined. And the reader has to ride in the parade and organize all that fluttering that’s come down from on high.” High and low.

10.

And all the heroes of J R—Bast and Gibbs and Amy Joubert, but also the titular J R his own goddamn self (and maybe, if we’re feeling charitable examining this novel of capitalism, Eigen)–they’re falling apart and trying to put themselves back together (even their clothes unraveling, their shoes falling apart). Chaos, entropy.

The whole deal is best summed up in an early episode in which Gibbs rants against the modern education system: “Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos…”

Or maybe it’s best summed up (not the right phrasal verb—maybe described by the chaos of, but gee-dee that’s clunky) in the scraps Gibbs keeps wadded in his pocket or in his folders, scraps toward something bigger

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Gibbs’s novel is Agapē Agape, which is also Gaddis’s last novel. And to go back to whatever thrust this riff had re: rereading—J R coheres, perhaps (it doesn’t have to cohere) after a reading of Agapē Agape (which also, Agapē Agape, works to dismantle coherence, or to emphasize the chaos of thought, or to highlight entropy, or to you know what goddamn it pick your own phrase). What I mean to say is I think it’s a good move to read Agapē Agape after J R.

(What I mean to say is that I care and cry for Jack Gibbs, and find in Agapē Agape for him a redemption and resurrection (and dissolution, of course…)).

11.

So I get to point 11 and fail to say so many things I intended to say—about the novel’s sexiness (it’s sexy!)—about its wit (goddamn!)—

——-about its repetition of phrases like god damn and its unrelenting use of forms of the verb threaten—and ——– and

—–and here I see/read/hear that I’ve been referring to the novel as its own agency, its own its, as if it were its own beast independent of its master Gaddis—

—-which I guess, like any Great Novel (American or otherwise), it is.

Independent, I mean.

And great, I mean.

And, <enthusiasm> You should read read it! </enthusiasm>.

I mean, I love it.

The Coen Brothers’ film Hail, Caesar! adds up to less than the sum of its parts

 

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Hail, Caesar! film poster by Chuck Sperry
In her cameo in the Coen brothers’ newest film, Hail, Caesar!,  Frances McDormand gets her scarf stuck in her editing machine. It nearly chokes her (or, I should write, her character, film editor C.C. Calhoun) before Josh Brolin’s studio head/fixer Eddie Mannix hits “Reverse,” saving her life.

Like so many of the scenes in Hail, Caesar!, the editing scene is funny, well-acted, impeccably filmed, and ultimately superfluous. It’s a throwaway, a wonderful scrap, one of many scraps that the Coens seem to toss to their audience, goading, Hey, you put all of this together.

The McDormand scene is ultimately just another way for the Coens to highlight the artificiality of their medium. Hail, Caesar! is of course a film about film, a film that aims to satirize how the metaphorical sausage is made. As such, Hail, Caesar! is self-satirizing, meta-metaphorical. It’s the Coens pointing out the flawed seams or imperfect varnish before the product is even finished. McDormand’s editor getting caught in the machine is some kind of clumsy synecdoche then.

These metatextual gestures only helped to heighten my own awareness of Hail, Caesar’s! flawed seams. This is a film brimming with wonderful, energetic set pieces—synchronized swimming with Scarlett Johannsson! — Channing Tatum tap-dancing on a bar! — Alden Ehrenreich (not so famous, yet) stunting on horses!—that add up to almost nothing. The end result would almost be fascinating were it not so dull.

Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie Doyle is not dull, and every time he’s on the screen Hail, Caesarthreatens to become interesting. “Called up” to be in more, eh, prestigious fare than the cowboy pictures he’s been doing so well in, young Hobie’s plot has the slightest (just the slightest) tinge of Mulholland Drive — “This is the girl.” (Or, eh, “This is the boy. The cowboy”).

Hail, Caesar! can’t commit fully to Hobie for its hero, alas. Instead the film, after an initial bout of goodwill-building (including an especially funny early scene in which religious leaders are invited to critique Hail, Caesar!, the film-within-a-film here)—instead the film (the Coens’ Hail, Casear!, that is) plods along a few not-quite-intersecting tracks, introducing the occasional grotesque for a cameo that serves no real plot point.

Look, I get it. Having a character’s fate expositioned away via clumsy dialogue at the end of the film is like, meta, right? It’s the Coens way of grinning at the corny clumsy past of their chosen medium, hey? It’s like, purposefully, self-reflexively bad, a piss-take on an audience’s willed suspension of disbelief, hm?

Suspension of disbelief—faith. Does Hail, Caser! aim to take on faith? It certainly dabbles, exploring (“exploring” is not the right verb—but I already used “dabbles”) political faith, economic faith, religious faith. Faith in the aesthetic power of film, which again and again Hail, Caesar! attempts to embody via kinetic spectacle before puncturing said aesthetic transcendence with ironc winking (or technical failure).

The signal moment in the film’s ironic treatment of faith is delivered in its penultimate scene. George Clooney’s character Baird Whitlock’s character (a Roman soldier whose name I can’t recall, but, hey, note the layering, man) deilvers a monologue. The speech is meant to be this kinda sorta Road-to-Damascus epiphanic transcendence deaile, and the aesthetic power of Clooney’s Whitlock’s delivery is confirmed internally on set by the various film people  (grips and script folk, etc.) offering up admiring Brady nods—only Whitlock stumbles over the last word of the speech—which last word, of course, was faith.  Charlie Kaufman did the same thing much better in the funeral monologue near the end of his film Synecdoche, New York. In Hail, Caesar!, the moment feels like a glib trick played on the audience

It’s entirely likely that there’s a much finer design to Hail, Caesar! than I’ve credited the Coens here. Maybe on a second viewing, I won’t be bogged down so hard looking for a thread to follow. (Shagginess is hardly a sin though, yes Lebowski?). And I’ve failed to point out some of the fine performances here—Josh Brolin anchors the film admirably (although half the time he was on the screen, I kept hoping the film would turn into Inherent Vice). Hail, Caesar! has plenty of great moments, and those moments, like I said, might cohere into something sharper upon a second screening. But right now there’s nothing that compels me toward a second screening any time soon.

A conversation on Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World

After I posted a review on this site of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven, the novelist Adam Novy recommended that I check out her under-read first novel, Rocannon’s World. So I did. Our email exchanges about the book developed over a few weeks (during which time I ended up reading all of Le Guin’s so-called Hainish novels), and Adam’s analysis of the novel is, I think, especially perceptive. An edit of our conversation is below.

Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels is fantastic. Buy it from Hobart.

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Edwin Turner: Thanks for suggesting Rocannon’s World, Adam. I’m not really sure how I missed it in my first few forays into Le Guin—when I was younger it might not have been in my school library—but I’m glad I read it. Very vivid stuff. You told me it was your favorite Le Guin. Why?

Adam Novy: There are many reasons why I love Rocannon’s World. The beautiful and exact descriptive writing, and the syntax. Le Guin can really sing. The sadness of the heroes for their vanished civilizations. The way so many passages evoke the feel of hiking. The flying cats. The incomparable ending.

But it’s the way Le Guin explores the idea of agency sets the book apart for me. The protagonists, Semley and Rocannon, take decisive action they believe in, which sets in motion plots that spiral out of control and annihilate their intentions. Rocannon and Semley end up being massive historical figures, yet also tiny cogs in galaxy-sized machines. This comparison of the massive and the tiny is not a calculated stalemate—not the cultivated balance I think a lot of writers feel we must produce these days, as if our calculations will be checked and we might get partial credit—but an ambivalence that’s immune to human desire or even narrative. It’s one of the things I love about Le Guin. Her idea of a human being’s influence in the world is like the ancients’.

This is fascinating to me in a lot of ways, first at the level of plot. How much should a character affect the world around her? Too much power can seem unserious and thrillery, like a fantasy, like competence porn. (A possible new definition of literary fiction is “incompetence porn.”)  Le Guin is just so elegant with this. Semley and Rocannon may be important figures in their communities—Semley is a kind of Duchess and Rocannon is a government anthropologist with administrative dominion over half the galaxy—and yet, by merely performing their own social roles, they ruin everything they care about, including the context in which their identities exist. Le Guin’s formula is magical: a central figure in a community commits a deliberate act, and the consequences are massive, unforeseen, accidental, and diminish this central figure to almost nothing. And yet, despite their total disempowerment, their influence endures in major ways. But even this is misconstrued by people in the future, who tell the history. There is no linear connection between intention and result. The reader feels the ages passing every time Rocannon takes a step.

This leads to the other aspect of the plot I really love, which is political. Rocannon is a bureaucrat in a colonial hegemony, and by honestly yet patronizingly trying to protect the subjects he administrates, he initiates a plot that will destroy them, and himself. He’s a kind of blinkered, well-meaning liberal who does not know what the hell he’s really doing, or how power works, since the force that does the destroying—an anti-government entity called “the enemy”—seems to emanate from the government Rocannon works for. In the end, his people simply don’t belong on the planet, which he only learns when he, too, is a refugee.

ET: But there’s also the sense that Rocannon integrates into the planet—he marries into the Angyar at the end, although we don’t really hear that story. It’s an epilogue that fulfills the legend-structure of the tale. So, on one hand Le Guin’s written this story that’s highly ironic—especially in the ironic title, Rocannon’s World—a title that points to the novel’s themes of colonialism. On the other hand, there’s a sense of discovery and exploration—a kind of High Adventure narrative à la Verne, where our viewpoint character ascends, peers down over the planet from his flying machine (in this case a winged cat).

And then Rocannon sort of achieves his Romantic quest of attaining Semley, or rather the idea of Semley—the exotic, the beautiful, the aristocratic—by marrying into her ancestral chain, and becoming a sort of Duke. This is all very much Fairy Tale stuff, Fantasy stuff. And Le Guin isn’t really synthesizing fantasy tropes with sci-fi in Rocannon’s World. It’s more like she’s tapping into a deeper, mythic vein—so on some level, I think that the novel is really about storytelling itself. There’s something oral and episodic about it, with its riffs on Eurydice and winged men and Valhalla. I reread The Dispossessed after Rocannon’s World. The Dispossessed strikes me as more deliberately structured than Rocannon’s World—more dialectical, more focused, but also centered much more on dialogue-monologue (similar to The Lathe of Heaven). Rocannon’s World is literally more fantastical than The Dispossessed. Do you think that Le Guin’s first novel has been overlooked as a book of ideas? Continue reading “A conversation on Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World”