A review of Alfred Döblin’s turbulent, encyclopedic riot of a novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz

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“Unbe-fucking-lievable,” interjects the ominvalent narrator of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel  Berlin Alexanderplatz at one point. I’m not sure if the original German (Ist gar nicht zu glauben) conveys the amazed profanity here in Michael Hofmann’s 2018 translation, but “Unbe-fucking-lievable” nevertheless captures the raucous spirit and mutable form of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The novel is a polyglossic spree, an encyclopedic riot, a tragicomic masterpiece of syntax and diction, chopped and screwed, twisted and turned.

What is it about?

The first italicized page summarizes the entire novel in nine neat paragraphs, beginning with this one:

The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.

For further clarification: It is the 1920s in Berlin, that slim decadent wedge between those two big wars, and the Weimar capital buzzes with working-class resentment and political unrest. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

We soon find out the “stupid stuff” Biberkopf did that landed his ass in jail, and find that the stuff wasn’t so much stupid as stupid and horrific. But by the time we’ve discovered the crimes of Biberkopf, it’s too late: the narrator’s got his sharp teeth sunk into the bit of our brain that pumps sympathy for the supposed hero of the story.

But again: What is it about?

Well:

Biberkopf tries to play it straight, but life on the Alexanderplatz and its seedy environs ain’t easy. He slings newspapers, mixes it up with communists and Nazis alike, and tries to keep his nose clean. But, this being a picaresque tale, he falls in with old associates, falls into old petty crimes, and eventually loses his arm. (Like, literally.) He takes to pimping, thinking it easy, but pimping presents its own problems. There’s love, lust, murder, and betrayal. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

What is it about? is not really the right question for Berlin Alexanderplatz. Instead: What is it?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a literary montage, a vicious collage, an explosion of colors, a carnival of noise and chaos and entropy, told by a narrator who occasionally tries to sort the pieces out for the reader, but usually is more content to drop a metaphorical bomb on us and then spend a dozen or so pages explaining how the bomb got there and who planted it and why the saboteur was so hellbent on destruction in the first place.

Our narrator is a ventriloquist, popping into the consciousnesses and throats of characters major, minor, and peripheral (at best) alike. There’s a cinematic orality to the novel, a shuffling, skipping, vamping voiceyness to Döblin’s prose that Hofmann’s translation renders as a kind of cackling cockney English. It sparks and hoots and howls.

Döblin’s narrator might wander around in Biberkopf’s brain, and then end up in the voice of his girlfriend Mitzi (whom he pimps), or his friend and enemy Reinhold, or just some random cafe sitter or beer drinker at a bar. Döblin’s camera goes anywhere it likes; indeed, Berlin Alexanderplatz is crammed with flights into history, mythology, books of the Bible, math, industry, science. A riff on the First Newtonian Law? Sure. A lengthy treatise on industrial pork butchery? Why not. A retelling of the Book of Job? Of course. Ever wondered why berries sweeten in the cold of winter? Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz is voluminous, exhausting, exhaustive, ecstatic. Döblin’s narrator grabs a hold of a subject, picks at it, puts it down, picks up later. Sometimes these threads coalesce (the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes became refrains); other riffs seem to be included for no reason other than Döblin’s narrator finds them interesting. He gleefully steals from newspapers, injecting the narrative with tangential-at-best stories of the day: murders and plane crashes and invasions and assassination attempts and failures and successes and crimes, large and small. Döblin’s novel aims to be about everything, about both the small and the big worlds his petty criminal antihero Franz Biberkopf is a citizen of. 

With its voracious, swirling, omnidirectional scope and undulating stylistic turns, Berlin Alexanderplatz readily recalls James Joyce’s big book Ulysses. Döblin’s novel seems less beholden to a series of correspondences than Joyce’s, however—it’s freer, more anarchic really, roiling around in its own entropy. Both novels are bawdy, smart, and very funny of course. With its celebratory attention to Berlin’s seedier side, Berlin Alexanderplatz also recalls the paintings of Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, and George Grosz (whose 1919 painting Panorama adorns the cover of my NYRB edition). There are also notes of Kubrick here—there’s something of both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to Berlin Alexanderplatz: the former’s energetic, horrific violence and pastiche-slang; the latter’s ironic and affecting treatment of the traditional bildungsroman. Döblin’s technique of stealing freely from newspapers also reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and segments of William Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions. (All of these work belong in what the protagonist of William Gass’s novel Middle C dubbed “The Inhumanity Museum.”)

General comparisons of other works to Döblin’s great big fat novel don’t really do Berlin Alexanderplatz justice of course. There is simply no substitute for reading it. It is a novel about itself; it is a novel that one doesn’t so much read for plot (or worse, to learn something); rather, it is a novel that produces waves of feelings, confusions, problems in its reader. It is a novel packed with grotesquerie and excess, yes, and the turbulent humor does not leaven the novel’s core meanness. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s spine is a spike of ice, but lots of wonderful juicy rich fat hangs from that icy spine.

And through its meanness, the novel pushes its hero to a strange redemption of sorts, announced on the novel’s very first page: “The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose.”

And do I spoil the final line?

Why not: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

I did not pay dearly for Berlin Alexanderplatz, either in my money or in my time. I was rewarded. Very highly recommended.

On the Halloween chapter of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

Mischief Night, Jamie Wyeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the next paragraph:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this post in October of 2018.]

Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek

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I got a copy of Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek strips a few weeks ago and have been reading a strip a day, or sometimes reading two or four strips a day, or sometimes reading no strips a day.

Snake Creek comprises the first volume of Snake Creek comix created by Lerman between the summers of ’18 and ’19. Lerman made one each day, as far as I can tell, which, like props.

The heroes of Snake Creek are maybe-human Dav (an altar-ego for Lerman?) and maybe walkin-talkin potato/maybe-mutant Roy, who spend their days and nights strolling the beaches, riffing on life, and extemporizing poems and songs. They take up with a dog and one point, and later encounter strange ducks. (I’m sure there’s more—I’ve been trying, like I said, to limit myself to a few strips a day.) It’s all a big anarchic kick.

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Snake Creek has an absurdist and occasionally nihilist bent, flavors I love. Never too bitter, the strip’s sweetness is anchored in the weird friendship betwixt Dav and Roy, who wander and wonder along a Miami Beach that Lerman turns into a kind of desert island running on Prospero’s magic.

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Snake Island’s chords and rhythms resonate with Walt Kelly’s Pogo, another Floridaish strip, as well as George Herriman’s zany strip Krazy Kat. Lerman seems like a willing descendant of Kelly and Herriman, but Snake Island is also wholly contemporary, a comic that begins with a discussion of old G-chats.

I’m really digging the collection, and I hope not to gobble it up too fast.

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The authentic American apocalyptic novel | Harold Bloom and Blood Meridian

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562

Harold Bloom’s esteem for Blood Meridian may have done much to advance the novel’s reputation since its publication, especially in pre-social media outlets, like Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook. His essay on the book, first published in his 2000 collection How to Read and Why and later included as the preface to Random House’s Modern Library edition, makes a strong case for Blood Meridian’s canonical status. Bloom begins, in typical Bloomian fashion–the anxiety of influence is always at work–by situating McCarthy’s book against other heavies:

Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2000 than it was fifteen years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian . . .

The Garden of Earthly Delights — Hell, Hieronymus Bosch, 1503-1504

Bloom goes  on to rate Blood Meridian over DeLillo’s Underworld, several books by Philip Roth, and even McCarthy’s own All the Pretty Horses. Indeed, Bloom proclaims Blood Meridian “the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” This doesn’t mean that Bloom is at home with the book’s violence; he confesses that it took him two attempts to read through its “overwhelming carnage.” Still, he makes a case for reading it in spite of its gore:

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence–its language, landscape, persons, conceptions–at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.

Bloom repeatedly invokes Melville and Faulkner in his essay, arguing that Blood Meridian’s “high style” is one of its key strengths (unlike fellow aesthetic critic James Wood, who seems to think that McCarthy is a windbag). The trajectory of Bloom’s essay follows Melville and Shakespeare, finding in Judge Holden both a white whale (and not so much an Ahab) and an Iago. He writes:

Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them.

I think that Bloom’s great insight here is to read the book as a prose epic as opposed to a linear novel. Bloom intuits that Blood Meridian foregrounds a deeply tragic and ironic reworking of the great American myth of Manifest Destiny. While hardly a pastiche, the book is somehow a collage—a massive, deafening collage that numbs, stuns, and overwhelms with its layers of thick, bloody prose. The effect is akin to the apocalyptic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Dense and full of allusion, paintings like The Triumph of Death and The Garden of Earthly Delights surge over the senses, destabilizing narrative logic. Like Blood Meridian, these paintings employ a graphic grammar that disorients and then reorients. They are apocalyptic in all senses of the word: both revelatory and portentously conclusive. And like Blood Meridian, they showcase “a sinister aesthetic glory” (to use Bloom’s term), a terrible, awful, awesome ugliness that haunts us with repulsive beauty.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published a version of this post in September of 2010].

Blog about Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy

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I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film The King of Comedy last weekend and then added it to a list of examples for a much bigger Thing I’ve been working on for a few years (and hence will never likely finish, unlike these Blog about posts). The much bigger Thing is about the relationship between Comedy and Horror—not purely the formal characteristics that belong to specific genres of literature, film, and art, but rather the relationship between the emotions themselves (with special attention to how literature, film, and art evoke that relationship).

The short thesis for this bigger Thing is that I think that comedy relies strongly on horror, and that the best provocations of horror are tempered in humor. There is a long list of examples in support of this thesis, including Goya and Bolaño and Larry David and Don Quixote and Candide  and Thomas Bernhard and Surrealism and Get Out and etc. —-but that’s all for said bigger Thing, and the title of this post seems to promise Something (not a big Thing) on Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy, which I recently rewatched.

I first saw The King of Comedy in the spring of 1998. I was a freshman at the University of Florida and had quickly discovered their library of films on VHS, which I would imbibe over my four years there. I started with stuff I was already a bit familiar with though. Like every other stupid eighteen-year old, I thought Taxi Driver was A Work of Genius (without fully understanding it), and I’d seen Goodfellas and Casino approximately one thousand times by this point. I started UF’s collection of Scorsese tapes with the neo-neorealism of Raging Bull, a brutal and hence thoroughly comprehensible character study, an ugly film shot in gorgeous black and white. The King of Comedy was next.

The internet in 1998 was not the internet of 2018. What I mean is that we generally learned about films through books and journals and magazines, or really other films, or really, really by word of mouth. I don’t think I had any word of mouth on The King of Comedy—what I mean is that I think I thought the film was a comedy. Which it is. Sort of. I mean, it’s funny—-very funny sometimes. But it’s also very cruel, and often scary and off putting, and generally queasy.

The King of Comedy stars Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin. That ridiculous name is on one hand a running joke, but on the other hand a vein of horror that pulsates throughout the film—an aberrant twitching oddity, a sort of literal curse, both on poor Rupert (who bears that name) and on every person who encounters him. Rupert is a would-be comedian who dreams (literally and often from his mother’s basement) of stardom. He dreams that he’ll achieve this stardom through a spotlight gig on The Jerry Langford Show, a Carson-style late night show hosted by Jerry Langford, played by a wonderfully fed-up Jerry Lewis.

Rupert is an autograph hound, an obsessive type of fan who makes Jerry’s life a literal terror.  Rupert’s foil is Masha, a trust-fund baby played by Sandra Bernhard. Masha stalks Jerry with extreme competitive anxiety; her stalking is a lifestyle elevated to art. When Masha goes too far early in the film and hijacks Jerry’s limo, Rupert sees an opening—he saves the day, ousting Masha, but then he invades the limo (proving himself stalker supreme over Masha).  In the limo ride, Rupert asks Jerry for help in advancing his career, and Jerry gives generous if general advice, which amounts to Put the work in and pay your dues. Rupert complains that he simply doesn’t have time to invest in doing the real hard grinding work, and basically demands that Jerry give him a shortcut.

In showing a deranged would-be artist who feels he’s entitled to bypass the years of work involved in honing a skill, Scorsese anticipates our current zeitgeist. Rupert Pupkin desires fame, adoration, and applause, but he is far less interested in producing an art that would earn these accolades. The King of Comedy slowly shows us that Pupkin is mentally ill, and that his disease is radically exacerbated by a culture of mass media.

The King of Comedy’s most sarcastic bite is that Rupert is eventually rewarded for his deranged behavior. He and Masha kidnap Jerry as part of a plan to get Rupert an opening set of The Jerry Langford Show. The plan succeeds, and Rupert executes it so that he not only gets to land his dream gig, he also gets to watch himself do it in front of The Girl He Liked in High School:

Rupert’s audacious gambit is part and parcel of a postmodern mass media era that makes only the slightest distinction between fame and infamy. Rupert is famous for doing something famous—and something horrific, kidnapping a beloved TV host. It’s his one bit of work, but it’s enough to land him a book deal, celebrity, and money (and a fairly short prison sentence).

Parts of Rupert’s monologue are funny, but other parts read like the memoir of a damaged soul trying to recover from an abusive childhood. And maybe these parts mix. Again, horror underwrites comedy.

This horror repeats in Scorsese’s framing of Rupert’s routine. There’s a dream-like quality to the monologue, with its television tube frame. This is not the first time we’ve seen this framing in King of Comedy—we get similar TV fantasies via Rupert’s deranged mind—but this time the plot asks us to think of it as “real,” even as Scorsese’s aesthetics suggest that the ending of the film may all be in Pupkin’s warped mind, the unseen clapping audience just another delusion of grandeur.

The same gesture is present at the end of Taxi Driver, which is essentially the twin of The King of Comedy. Travis Bickle—another ridiculous name, another loser—improbably ends up the hero of the narrative. But the conclusion of Taxi Driver has always struck me as the internal fantasy of its reactionary (anti-)hero. Likewise, The King of Comedy concludes in yet another fantasy in Rupert Pupkin’s addled consciousness.

With its metatextual contours and its insinuations of reality-as-mediated-by-mass-media, The King of Comedy is perhaps Scorsese’s most formally postmodern film (although his smaller follow-up After Hours might be his most thematically postmodern). It’s no wonder that the film didn’t land with audiences in 1983. Beyond its postmodern rhythms, The King of Comedy is essentially repulsive—nothing good happens; there is no clear hero; the world it depicts is devoid of any meaning not centered in relation to fame. Its satire is so black no light escapes. In comparison, Scorsese’s later films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are laugh riots.

The genius of The King of Comedy is something best felt. The film disrupts genre conventions (and audience expectations), pushing a comedy into a horror. Or maybe The King of Comedy is a horror film with comedic overtones. Or, really—I mean, what I really want to say here is:

The King of Comedy isn’t a horror film or a comedy film—like many of Scorsese’s best films, it’s a character study—realistic and engrossing and grotesque in its utter realism. Time has caught up with it. If Rupert Pupkin seemed an extreme example of the kind of derangement and alienation that could be aggravated by a mass media culture in the early 1980s, by today’s standards he’s perhaps charming. And that’s horrifying.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran this post in April, 2018].

A review of Keiler Roberts’ Rat Time

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Let’s start with the title. Rat Time is a great title.

What is Rat TimeRat Time is a graphic novel—or graphic autofiction, or graphic discursive memoir—I’m not really sure what genre it fits into, nor does that matter—Rat Time is a very funny and often moving book by cartoonist Keiler Roberts.

And so what is “rat time”? Rat time is the time that Keiler shares with her daughter Xia and their rats Sammy and Mateo Too. “We eat dinner, then rat time, then bed time,” Xia explains to her classmates during show and tell.

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When poor Sammy dies though, “rat time” takes on a different meaning. “It’s not a time of day,” Xia declares. “It’s the time when had rats.” Keiler optimistically points out that “We still have Mateo Too.” (Care to guess what happened to Mateo One?)

The early vignettes in Rat Time intersplice rat time with riffs from Keiler’s therapy sessions, calls and visits with her parents, and child memories. Although Rat Time’s structure might be at times oblique and discursive, Roberts’ pacing and pages are often surprisingly traditional and darkly comic, as in this little episode, in which Keiler recalls a pet’s death:

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Initially, Rat Time appears to have an elliptical structure. Vignettes and riffs and one-pagers succeed each other without the usual narrative linking devices we might expect from a traditional graphic novel. Roberts’ humor is so dry too that for the first few pages the tone of Rat Time may be difficult to comprehend. The more I read though, the more I laughed, and the more I cared about Keiler and her daughter.

Roberts’ mines her life for material, and the material is often painful, coming out in unexpected ways. We learn that rat time originated as a coping mechanism, a response to a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis:

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Rat Time features scenes of Keiler going to the hospital for blood work, or visiting a chiropractor for treatment, all with a wonderfully droll humanity that resonates with just how damn specific the moments are. We also see Keiler in her therapist’s office, and see how her friends and family react to her bipolar disorder, as well as how she manages it. Making oatmeal seems to provide Keiler a lot of comfort, and while I’m not a fan of oatmeal myself, I deeply relate to her feelings on breakfast:

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Some of my favorite parts of Rat Time hover around Keiler’s experiences as an art instructor. There’s an intense pathos to Keiler-as-teacher, even when she seems mean:

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Keiler’s teaching vignettes are balanced with her own memories of teachers past. Roberts frames these moments with the clarity of detail that telegraphs raw honesty. There’s the gym teacher who humiliated her on the bus to the bowling alley, the art teacher who showed the class a cadaver, and the political science professor who earned Keiler’s admiration for “stating a truth so plainly” (namely, “I know this would be more interesting if I were entertaining, but it’s worse if I try.”)

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Roberts’ spare, plain style is effective in achieving her punchlines, but it can also affect the reader with a strange poignancy:

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At one point, Roberts includes a polished piece in Rat Time, which creates a wonderful moment of narrative dissonance, a strange reverberation between Keiler the hero-narrator of Rat Time and Roberts the author-illustrator of Rat Time.

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Indeed, a major theme of Rat Time is storytelling itself. Keiler wants to be a writer of fiction, but it seems like her own life is far more interesting than the ideas she brainstorms. Rat Time is perhaps Roberts’ way of sussing out why her genre is ultimately autobiographical.

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Rat Time, like any good autobiography, is crammed with life, brimming with vivid moments that feel authentic and real. Often funny and sometimes painful, Roberts’ book is sweet without sentimentality, sour without caustic meanness, and generous to both its subjects and its readers. Highly recommended.

Rat Time is new from Koyama Press.

 

 

The problems of Bartleby

What are the problems of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”?

This question seems like a bad starting place.

Let me share an anecdote instead.

—I was in the tenth grade the first time I read “Bartleby.”

At the time, I thought I was a teacher’s dream—a sharp reader, someone who loved English class, someone with opinions about the texts we read. Lots and lots of opinions. In retrospect, I realize that I was a nightmare for poor Ms. Hall, a wonderful teacher who I’m sure dreaded our meetings (there were like 15 guys in the class, all unruly).

Simply put, I didn’t want to do things her way.

So she gave me a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and told me to read “Bartleby,” suggesting that there was something I might learn from it.

I don’t know if backfired is exactly the right term for the results of this experiment. I do know that “Bartleby” offered me a brilliant retort—a literary allusion!—to refuse any task I didn’t feel like undertaking in 10th grade English:

“I would prefer not to.”

—While we’re here—

“I would prefer not to”

So, this is clearly one of the problems of “Bartleby,” if not the core problem condensed into one utterance: Why would? Why the conditional?

Consider, vs. I prefer not to, a constative (or maybe even performative) utterance.

But Bartleby “would prefer not to.”

Contrast this with the imperative must that the narrator employs:

At the expiration of that period, I peeped behind the screen, and lo!
Bartleby was there.

I buttoned up my coat, balanced myself; advanced slowly towards him, touched his shoulder, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”

“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.

“You must.”

He remained silent.

Now I had an unbounded confidence in this man’s common honesty. He had frequently restored to me sixpences and shillings carelessly dropped upon the floor, for I am apt to be very reckless in such shirt-button affairs. The proceeding then which followed will not be deemed extraordinary.

“Bartleby,” said I, “I owe you twelve dollars on account; here are thirty-two; the odd twenty are yours.—Will you take it?” and I handed the bills towards him.

These brief lines perhaps serve to summarize Melville’s tale.

We see here the basic plot—our titular scrivener will not leave the lawyer’s office after weeks of refusing (although refusing is not quite the right word) to work.

We also see here what I take to be the theme of “Bartleby,” the strange ethical position Bartleby’s (conditional) would prefer not to places the narrator’s (imperative) must set against the moral backdrop of do unto others: namely, an impossible ethical position for a Wall Street lawyer especially and most of us in general.

And “Bartleby,” as you’ll no doubt recall, is in some ways Melville trying to work out the problems of Matthew 25:35-39—

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

Perhaps our narrator tries to do these things—tries to feed and clothe and help this stranger Bartleby—but he can’t. Because Bartleby won’t give him an agency to relate to.

Because Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” denies the performative or constantive or declarative—indeed, it suspends or disrupts its own conditionality, the relation of the subject to its predicate verb.

Or consider one of Bartleby’s only other lines: “What is wanted?” His grammar again suspends agency, disrupts the notion of a stable I (let alone objective case me) that the narrator can interface with, dictate to, interrogate, see his own narcissistic reflection in).

—Hang on though, I was telling an anecdote. It was about the first time I read “Bartleby,” when I was fourteen or fifteen. This is the book:

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I stole it of course, or never returned it. Yes, that’s duct tape on its side. It is more or less falling apart. Here’s the back, barcode and all.

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Over the years, like many readers, I returned many times to “Bartleby,” reading it again in high school, then in college, then in grad school. I read it unassigned too, of course—when I read Kafka and it recalled itself to me, and when I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I read it when compelled. And then I read it with my own students. (I read most of the other stuff in the collection too, of course — Billy Budd and then later (why so much later?!) Benito Cereno).

I scrawled through so much of the book that my annotations are basically worthless, virtually everything underlined or circled:

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So we butt up against the problems of “Bartleby”—the problems of interpretation. How to figure an eponymous “hero” who is no more than a phantom, a trace, a lack? How to hash out a narrator who presents himself in relatively admirable terms and yet is so clearly an ethical failure? Why oh why would Bartleby prefer not to? Is the story a tragedy or a comedy? Does it present a world with rules, codes, ethics, or is all absurd here—nihilistic even? Is Bartleby a Christ figure? An ascetic monk? A ghost? Is the story just about Melville’s own anger over the poor reception of Pierre? How much of contemporary transcendentalist thought can we find in the story?

—Slight shift:

The kind people of Melville House were sporting enough to send a copy of “Bartleby” my way. The book is part of their HybridBooks project; these books offer “digital illuminations” along with traditional (uh, paper) books.

I’d requested a HybridBook—any one of them, really—because I now read about half the time on a Kindle Fire—so I was particularly interested in what a “hybrid” had to offer. What is the reading experience like?

First, the book itself is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series—beautiful, minimal design with French flaps. I read it on my porch the afternoon it arrived, enjoying its pristine, white, unmarked pages. Then, I checked out the “Digital Illuminations.”

The illuminations are available in several device-specific options, all easy to download with the QRC that comes with the book. I read most of the illuminations on my Kindle, but I also put them on my iPhone and my laptop. I had originally intended this post to be specifically about the digital illuminations, but hell, “Bartleby” is just too damn freighted a read for me at this point. Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there, including “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, selections from Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and several excerpts from Melville himself, including letters, other books, and reviews. What I found must, uh, illuminating was “Of Some of the Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations” from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There are also illustrations, including a map; there’s even a recipe for ginger nuts. I wish that MH had included a digital copy of the book though. From a practical, concrete standpoint, I found it easier to switch between the free public domain version of “Bartleby” on my Kindle and MH’s illuminations than it would have been to pick up the physical book.

Now, to shift back (perhaps):

Do the digital illuminations help to answer or solve or address some of the problems of “Bartleby,” some of the issues posed above?

Should they?

—I suppose the hedging answer is yes and no.

The additional material illuminates some of the philosophical, political, historical, and even personal context for “Bartleby.” The material is edited with minimal intrusion, but with enough explication to clearly connect the various selections to Melville’s story. If I’m reading with my teacher hat on (this is a metaphor; there is no literal hat), I’d say you probably couldn’t do better than what Melville House has put together here. The digital illuminations provide a strong foundation for an informed reading, a range of texts that speak (obliquely or otherwise) to “Bartleby.”

Does it all add up to a deeper or richer understanding of “Bartleby”?

Should it?

—Well. No. And then no.

I mean, would we want a series of essays that would provide the missing pieces that would allow us to puzzle out “Bartleby”? Could we even trust such pieces, let alone trust ourselves to trust such pieces? Isn’t this strange uncertainty why “Bartleby” endures—and endures apart from Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, strange texts themselves, but also not nearly as confounding?

“Bartleby” simultaneously wriggles and plays dead; it burns with apparent wit but then reminds us that we might not be in on the joke. It is Kafkaesque thirty years before Kafka was even born. It shakes off its allegorical idiom the minute we think we might limn its contours. It makes us read it again because we cannot pin it down.

—But maybe you want to pin it down, tickle it, torture it, make it solve its problems (or at least respond, damn it!).

And maybe I claimed that “Bartleby” was about something—that it was about ethical relations, about duty to one’s fellows—especially when a fellow isn’t a fellow but rather the trace of a fellowthe idea of a fellowa ghost.

So, look, here’s a take on it:

The narrator—let’s call him Lawyer—Lawyer, see he’s a dick, in the parlance of our times. He’s a dick because he doesn’t know that he’s a dick, which is one of the constituting factors of the ontological state of being a dick. He also does not want to see himself as being a dick (this is another factor in the ontological state of being a dick). He wants to see himself as a good guy, this Wall Street dickhead, but Bartleby won’t let him do that. Bartleby won’t even let him see himself at all: Bartleby doesn’t reflect back. He prefers not to.

Our Lawyer, see, he’s all buttoned up, he’s snug (these are his words). He tells us upfront that he possesses “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”; he repeatedly points out the way that people are “useful” to him (or to others). He sees no possibility of an ethics outside of usefulness; on top of that, he cannot see that he cannot see any possibility of an ethics based on anything but “usefulness” (or the negative economy of obstruction figured in Bartleby).

And ah Bartleby, ah humanity: One time model employee, once apparently free from the eccentricities that plague the Lawyer’s other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Machinelike.

Bartleby mechanically completes large quantities of copies without comment or complaint.  But when asked to simply read in unison with Lawyer and his scriveners, Bartleby replies: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby will not read with others—he is literally not on the same page as his colleagues.

Lawyer confronts Bartleby with his noncompliance; Bartleby repeats his mantra. Fuck mantra though because it’s not a mantra. It’s only repeated for Lawyer, to Lawyer, really, who can’t schematize/name/pin down Bartleby’s response. In fact, I would prefer not to so startles Lawyer that he says he’s  “unmanned” by the words. So he rationalizes Bartleby’s odd response, internalizes it, paraphrases it, if you like.

And then Bartleby ceases to even do his copying work. Oh the anarchy! But wait, there’s not even anarchy. There’s not even protest. There’s just big nothing. But not even big nothing—instead the smallest nothing (which proves that big nothing is possible).

So Lawyer attempts to “help” Bartleby. Lawyer believes doing so is his “Christian duty.” And to know that this duty has been met, Lawyer needs Bartleby to be his echo. But Bartleby’s I prefer not to denies this narcissistic exchange. He empties his I of ego (shades of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball).

Confused, Lawyer tries to pay off Bartleby. When that doesn’t work, Lawyer actually packs up and moves to a new office. But even here he can’t cut off Bartleby. The office’s landlord comes to Lawyer to remove Bartleby.

And when Bartleby refuses to leave the office he is taken to “the Tombs”—prison.

Here, Lawyer tries to provide comfort for Bartleby (hearken ye back to Matthew 25:35-39). He arranges for Bartleby to receive good food in the prison. Bartleby prefers not to eat though, and dies curled up in the fetal position during a visit by Lawyer.

Lawyer is the first reader of Bartleby. But like many readers of “Bartleby,” he is confused.

Lawyer’s confusion results from his need for safety—for ease, for comfort, for a snug, buttoned-upness—and that safety is bought through an affirmation of first-person experience: namely, in the affirmation of the self in the other. That security is bought through assimilating another person’s first-person perspective. But Bartleby is empty of I, of self, of ego.

Bartleby would prefer not to: He will not be ventriloquized: He will not echo: He will not read from the same script: He will not be “of use,” as Lawyer puts it.

So Bartleby dissipates and dissolves: He goes down in the Tombs: a ghost, and impossibility, presence coupled with absence.

— And the epilogue:

We all recall the epilogue, yes?

Lawyer offers up “one little item of rumor,” a morsel, a “vague report . . . that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” The idea tears the narrator up inside: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”

For Lawyer, Bartleby is a dead letter, a failed letter.

Did Melville worry that “Bartleby” would be a failed letter? That it would not find an audience? That his work would not be delivered? If he did, it seems too then that Bartleby’s negations foreclose or reject this concern. Not sure of how to wrap up this riff, I’ll retreat to the safety of my title.

We find the final problems (in basic narrative chronology, that is) of “Bartleby” in its final line. Has Lawyer learned from his experience? Can he empathize, finally feel something for Bartleby beyond the confines of a perceived ethical duty? Is Bartleby a place holder for all humanity? Or is Bartleby in opposition to humanity? What does it mean—-

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

?

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally posted this riff in November of 2012. I’m running it again for Herman Melville’s 200th birthday.]

Moby-Dick | A short riff on a long book

Green and White, Georgia O'Keeffe
Green and White, Georgia O’Keeffe

Prompted by Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s marvelous study of Moby-Dick, I took a fifth trip through Melville’s massive opus this past month.

Every time I read Moby-Dick it seems funnier and sadder. Richer. Thicker.

I cobbled together my reading over different media and spaces: I listened to William Hootkins‘ outstanding unabridged audiobook version, and then reread on my Kindle key passages I’d mentally underlined; I then checked those passages against the copy of Moby-Dick I annotated the hell out of in grad school. As I read, I posted some of my favorite excerpts on this blog.

I posted some of my favorite excerpts of Moby-Dick here on Biblioklept because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to write about the book—not really—that I wouldn’t be able to handle all of its language. (My riff on Olson’s book obsesses over Olson’s ability to write after Melville and Melville’s ability to write after Shakespeare).

Really, in posting so many fragments of Moby-Dick, I suppose that I’ve attempted to abrogate any kind of critical duty to describe the book under discussion in terms of its own language.

The above is really a way of saying: Moby-Dick, like any sublime work of literature, is a self-defining, self-describing, and even self-deconstructing text.

Or, another way of making such a claim: Let me (mis)appropriate Samuel Beckett’s description of Finnegans Wake and contend that the description fits Moby-Dick just as aptly: 

Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that something itself.

So here circumnavigate back to my own recent reading and auditing of the book: Hootkins’ audio recording would make a great starting point for anyone (unnecessarily) daunted by Melville’s big book. He performs the book, commanding his audience’s attention. He unpacks the humor that might otherwise hide from untuned 21st century ears; he communicates the book’s deep, profound sorrow. His Ishmael is perceptive, clever, generous. His Stubb, hilarious. His Ahab a strange philosophical terror.

After listening to Hootkins on my commute, I’d return to key passages on my Kindle, and then finally review the notes I wrote in the cheap hardback Signet edition I read in grad school.

But why bring this up?

I don’t know.

Maybe: Unpacking Moby-Dick is too hard, too much—would require its own book, a book that would cite the entirety of Melville’s book.

But discussing the book this way seems a disservice to potential readers; it’s as if we would cloak the book in a mystic veil.

White Figure, Wassily Kandinsky
White Figure, Wassily Kandinsky

If I have a point to all of this: Moby-Dick is wonderful, funny, moving, engaging; a genre-bender that tackles philosophy, history, science; an adventure tale; a psychological novel brimming with ideas, allusions—but one delivered in sonorous, poetic language. It’s good, great, grand. Read it, if you haven’t. Reread it.

So I’ve failed to even try to begin to attempt to pretend to describe the plot.

Here: Ishmael, depressed, suicidal perhaps, decides to go to sea. To go whaling.

He tries to measure the whale, and by measuring the whale, maybe measure the world. But this is not really possible, certainly not in language. Certainly not in first-person perspective.

In Chapter 86, “The Tail,” Ishmael tells us:

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. … Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.

(I don’t suppose I need to remark that Melville here lets one mighty tail stand in for another mighty tale—a tale he cannot face).

Call me Ishmael”: our protagonist hails us.

But these famous opening lines aren’t really the beginning of the book. First we have the section titled “Extracts,” and before that “Etymology.” The first entry on the etymology of the whale, from  Hackluyt, warns us not to leave out “the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word.”

Whaling. Hailing. Wailing.

The whiteness of the whale.

The witness of the wail.

How, just how, does Ishmael witness? How does he manage to tell this story? Did I obsess over this in earlier readings? I don’t think so—I was too concerned with absorbing the what and the why of the story to closely attend the how of its telling.

The novel begins in standard first-person point-of-view territory, Ishmael guiding us through Manhattan, New Bedford, Nantucket—but by the time he’s boarded the Pequod and set out into the wide watery world, this first-person perspective transcends the limits of physics: Our narrator not only attends the private conversations of Ahab, his mates, his harpooners, his men—but also the very interior of those men, their minds, their dreams, their imaginations.

Is Ishmael a ghost?

Leviathan-Job 40-21, Salvador Dali
Leviathan-Job 40-21, Salvador Dali

And to return to Ahab for a moment: My godwhat a voice! His infecting, addicting insanity. His agon with Moby Dick, with the sun, with himself.

And Starbuck: Starbuck comes across weaker and weaker each time I read the book. We’re to believe he’s a man of convictions, but he moves in half-measures. In his final moments he tries to match or feign or approximate Ahab’s insanity: tragicomedy.

And Stubb: Despite his cruelties, he may be my favorite character in the book.

While I’m riffing: Is there a novel more phallic in the American canon than Moby-Dick? All that sperm: All that life-force.

This is maybe what Moby-Dick is about: Life-force. The attempt to to resurrect and die and resurrect again. The coffin that serves as life-buoy. The life-line that connects men that might also be their death. A counterpane to counter pain. A condensation of oppositions.

A yarn, a rope, a series of knots, layered, layering, self-contextualizing.

An attempt to put into language what cannot be put into language.

Have I reached my end? Maybe too long for the “short riff” promised in the title, but also surely too short to even begin to start to approach to pretend to say something adequate about the novel. So a parting thought: Moby-Dick is better—richer, fuller, deeper—each time I read it, and I look forward to reading it again.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally ran a version of this riff in February 2013. I’m running it again for Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. I haven’t read Moby-Dick in full since 2013.]

Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, and interviews of April 2019-July 2019 (and an unrelated horned sheep)

I haven’t done one of these roundups in a while (let alone updated Biblioklept’s main review page (argh!)) but here goes:

I didn’t really write any reviews in April, it turns out. That was a pretty busy month for me, in retrospect, although I did read, and I did write about what I was reading, as well as about a bunch of books that I gave away.

Highlights of April reading included a collection of Leslie Fiedler essays, Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, and Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

I actually managed to muster a review of James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf (a very long review in fact) a few weeks after finishing it—I felt like I owed it that. I concluded my review,

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is clearly Not for Everybody. It’s violent and strange, and the sex in it will likely upset conservative readers. It’s also shaggy and unwieldy. It probably has a future as a cult novel. You just sort of have to go with its fluid (in every sense of that word) program and enjoy the ride. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to the sequel.

I also wrote about David Berman’s new band Purple Mountains in May. Since then I’ve had that record on repeat. I don’t really like to write about music (I’m terrible at it), but I think the record is simply fantastic and sad and probably the best one he’s made. I wrote about the lead single “All My Happiness Is Gone” here.

I did way more reading again in June–again, a busy month—and couldn’t muster reviews of Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts (excellent), Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man (superb), Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (very good), or Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists (a slog), although I did write a bit about them here.

For The Comics Journal, I reviewed Jaime Hernandez’s latest Love & Rockets graphic novel, Is This How You See Me?, writing—

Can you ever really go home again?

This is the central question of Jaime Hernandez’s Is This How You See Me? Collecting serialized comics from the past five years into a cohesive graphic novel, Is This How You See Me? is a moving tale of friendship, aging, and how the past shapes how we see the present.

I had read Ann Quin’s novel Berg earlier in the spring, but waited until the U.S. republication to post my review. The book knocked my socks off. From my review

…I loved reading Berg; I loved its sticky, grimy sentences, its wriggly worms of consciousness. I wanted more, and I sought it out, picking up The Unmapped Country, a collection of unpublished Quin stuff edited by Jennifer Hodgson and published by And Other Stories, the indie press that reissued BergHodgson is also a guest on the Blacklisted Podcast episode that focuses on Berg. That episode offers a rallying ringing endorsement, if you need voices besides mine. The Blacklisted episode also features a reading of most of novelist Lee Rourke’s 2010 appreciation for Ann Quin’s Berg.(Rourke had championed online as early as 2007.) Rourke should be commended for being ahead of the curve on resurfacing a writer who feels wholly vital in our own time. He concludes his 2010 piece, “Berg should be read by everyone, if only to give us a glimpse of what the contemporary British novel could be like.” Read the book. 

I also loved loved loved Anna Kavan’s novel Ice, which I was led to via Berg. I wrote three reviews of it in late June: I wrote about the first third herethe second third here and the third third here. Here’s my initial reaction to Ice

The first three words of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice are “I was lost,” a simple declaration that seems to serve as a mission statement for the next 60 odd pages. I read these 60 odd pages (63, to be precise, in my Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of the novel) today, often feeling lost, and glad of it. I like it when I don’t really know what a book is doing, and Ice is such a book.

In July, I reviewed Geometry in the Dust, a novel by the French author Pierre Senges with accompanying illustrations by the Oubapo comix artist Killoffer, new in English translation by Jacob Siefring. The novel is syntactically thick. From my review

Notice the punctuation: the semicolons, the dashes (em and en), the periods, the parentheses, the commas. Senges’ prose in Geometry is syntactically thick. Sentences, like alleys in a strange city, begin in one place and end up somewhere quite different. The interposition of jostling clauses might cause a reader to lose the subject, to drop the thread or diverge from the path (or pick your metaphor). The effect is sometimes profound, with our narrator arriving at some strange philosophical insight after piling clause upon clause that connects the original subject with something utterly outlandish. And sometimes, the effect is bathetic. In one such example, the narrator, instructing his sovereign on the proper modes of religious observance in the city, moves from a description of the ideal confessional to an evocation of Limbourg’s hell to the necessity of being able grasp a peanut between two fingers. The comical effect is not so much punctured as understood anew though when Senges’ narrator returns to the peanut as a central metaphor for the scope of a city (“there are roughly as many men in the city as peanuts in the city’s bowls”), a metaphor that he extends in clause after clause leading to an invocation of “Hop o’ my Thumb’s pebbles,” a reference to Charles Perrault fairy tale about a boy who uses riverstones to find his way home after having been abandoned in the woods by his parents.

I also interviewed Margaret Carson about her translation of Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings. The interview is maybe my favorite that I’ve ever done. We talked about Varo of course, as well as the writers she read, the artists she was friends with (including Leonora Carrington), and the writers she influenced, like Thomas Pynchon and Roberto Bolaño.

I also reviewed Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, which I loved loved loved as well (if it seems like I loved everything I read, I assure you this is not the case. I was indifferent to much of what came through Biblioklept World Headquarters). From my review:

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

(I also recycled a bunch of old reviews when I went on vacation with my family to the gorgeous Pacific Northwest corner of the U.S., including riffs on

Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno

Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama

Gisèle Prassinos’ The Arthritic Grasshopper

and

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon.)

Unrelated horned sheep:

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The Islander, 1976 by Jamie Wyeth

On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno

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

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

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

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

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

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally ran this review in February of 2017.]

Let me recommend Antonio di Benedetto’s overlooked novel Zama

Let me recommend a novel for you.

The novel is Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama.

Zama was first published in Argentina in 1956.

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

What is Zama about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There we were: Ready to go and not going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in April, 2017.]

A review of Gisèle Prassinos’s collection of surreal anti-fables, The Arthritic Grasshopper

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I can’t remember which particular Surrealist I was googling when I learned about Gisèle Prassinos. I do know that it was just a few weeks ago, and I’ve had an interest in Surrealist art and literature since I was a kid, so I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of her before now—strange, given the origin of her first publication. In 1934, when she was 14, Prassinos was “discovered” by André Breton, and the Surrealists delighted in what they called her “automatic writing.” (Prassinos would later reject that label, and go as far as to declare that she had never been a surrealist). Her first book, La Sauterelle arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) was published just a year later.

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Prassinos reading her work to the Surrealists; photograph by Man Ray

 

I somehow found a .pdf of one of her stories, “A Nice Family,” a bizarre little tale that runs on its own surreal mythology. The story struck me as simultaneously grandiose and miniature, dense but also skeletal. It was impossible. Surreal. I wanted more.

Luckily, just this spring Wakefield Press released The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944, a new English translation of a 1976 compendium of Prassinos’s tales, Trouver sans checher. The translation is by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg, whose introduction to the volume is a better review and overview than I can muster here. Ruberg offers a miniature biography, and shares details from her letters and visits with Prassinos. She situates Prassinos within the Surrealists’ gender biases: “For a young writer such as Prassinos, being involved with the surrealists would have meant gaining access to resources like publishers, but it also would have meant being fetishized and marginalized.” Ruberg characterizes Prassinos’s tales eloquently and accurately—no simple feat given the material’s utter strangeness:

Taken collectively, their effect is a piercing cackle, a complete disorientation, rather than an ethical lesson. The politics of these stories are absurdist. They upend the world by making children dangerous, by reanimating the dead, by letting the carefully tended domestic deform, foam, and melt. No social structure holds power in the world of these stories—not on the basis of gender, or nationality, or class. The force that reigns is chaos.

Let’s look at that reigning chaos.

In “The Sensitivity of Others,” one of the earliest tales in the volume, we get the sparest narrative action seemingly possible: A speaker walks forward. And yet dream-nightmare touches impinge on all sides and on all senses. The opening line shows a world that is never stable, and if monsters and other dangers lurk just on the margins of our narrator’s shifting path, so do wonders and the promise of strange knowledge. Here’s the tale in full:

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I still have no idea what to make of the punchline there at the end, but those final images—a father, a faulty library, a power failure—hang heavy against the narrator’s trembling walk.

Many of Prassinos’s anti-fables conclude with such apparent non sequiturs, and yet the final lines can also cast a weird light back over the previous sentences. In “Photogenic Quality,” a dream-tale about the act of writing itself, the final line at first appears as sheer absurdity. A man receives a pencil from a child, whittles it into powder, blots the powder on paper, and throws the paper in the river (more things happen, too). The tale concludes with the man declaring, “Brass is made from copper and tin.” It’s possible to enjoy the absurdity here on its own; however, I think we can also read the last line as a kind of Abracadabra!, magic words that describe an almost alchemical synthesis—a synthesis much like the absurd modes of transformative writing that “Photogenic Quality” outlines.

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You’ll see above one of Allan Kausch’s illustrations for The Arthritic Grasshopper. Kausch’s collages pointedly recall Max Ernst’s surreal 1934 graphic novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness). Kausch’s work walks a weird line between horror and whimsy; images from old children’s books and magazines become chimerical figures, sometimes cute, sometimes horrific, and sometimes both. They’re lovely.

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Surreal figures shift throughout the book—monks and kings, daughters and mothers, deep sea divers and knights and salesmen and talking horses—all slightly out of place, or, rather, all making new places. Even when Prassinos establishes a traditional space we might think we recognize—often a fairy trope—she warps its contours, shaping it into something else. “A Marriage Proposal,” with its unsuspecting title, opens with “Once upon a time” — but we are soon dwelling in impossibility: “the garter snake appeared in the doorway, arm in arm with the snail, who was slobbering with happiness.” Other stories, like “Tragic Fanaticism,” immediately condense fairy tales into pure images, leaving the reader to suss out connections. Here is that story’s opening line: “A black hole, a little old woman, animals.” At five pages, “Tragic Fanaticism” is one of the collection’s longer stories. It ends with a four line poem, sung by five red cats to the old woman: “Go home and burn / Darling / You’re the only one we’ll love / Trash Bin.”

I still have a number of stories to read in The Arthritic Grasshopper. I’ve enjoyed its tales most when taken as intermezzos between sterner (or compulsory) reading. There’s something refreshing in Prassinos’s illogic. In longer stretches, I find that I tire, get lazy—Prassinos’s imagery shifts quickly—there’s something even picaresque to the stories—and keeping up with its veering rhythms for tale after tale can be taxing. Better not to gobble it all up at once. In this sense, The Arthritic Grasshopper reminds me strongly of another recently-published volume of surreal, imagistic stories that I’ve been slowly consuming this year: The Complete Stories of Leonora CarringtonIn their finest moments, both of these writers can offer new ways of looking at art, at narrative, at the world itself.

I described Prassinos’s tales as “anti-fables” above—a description that I think is accurate enough, as literary descriptions go—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we can learn from them (although, to be very clear, I do not think literature has to offer us anything to learn). What Prassinos’s anti-fables do best is open up strange impossible spaces—there’s a kind of radical, amorphous openness here, one that might be neatly expressed in the original title to this newly-translated volume—Trouver sans checherTo Find without Seeking.

In her preface (titled “To Find without Seeking”) Prassinos begins with the question, “To find what?” Here is a question that many of us have been taught we must direct to all the literature we read—to interrogate it so that it yields moral instruction. Prassinos answers: “The spot where innocence rejoices, trembling as it first meets fear. The spot where innocence unleashes its ferocity and its monsters.” She goes on to describe a “true and complete world” where the “earth and water have no borders and each us can live there if we choose, in just the same way, without changing our names.” Her preface concludes by repeating “To find what?”, and then answering the question in the most perfectly (im)possible way: “In the end, the mind that doesn’t know what it knows: the free astonishing voice that speaks, faceless, in the night.” Prassinos’s anti-fables offer ways of reading a mind that doesn’t know what it knows, of singing along with the free faceless astonishing voice. Highly recommended.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in August of 2017.]

A review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

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Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” has finally been published. The book is based on Hurston’s 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Barracoon went previously unpublished due in part to Hurston’s refusal to revise the prose into a “standard” English. Hurston wrote Barracoon in a phonetic approximation of Cudjo’s voice. While this vernacular style may pose (initial) challenges for many readers, it is the very soul of the book in that it transmits Cudjo’s story in his own voice, tone, and rhythm. Hurston used vernacular diction throughout her work, but Cudjo’s voice is singular; it bears a distinctly different sound than the characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel. It is hard to conceive a more compelling version of Barracoon than this one, the one Hurston refused to compromise, with its intense, vital orality.

What is Barracoon about? I shall liberally borrow my summary from the book’s introduction, penned by Hurston scholar and biographer Deborah G. Plant:

On December 14, 1927, Zora Neale Hurston took the 3:40 p.m. train from Penn Station, New York, to Mobile, to conduct a series of interviews with the last known surviving African of the last American slaver—the Clotilda. His name was Kossola, but he was called Cudjo Lewis. He was held as a slave for five and a half years in Plateau-Magazine Point, Alabama, from 1860 until Union soldiers told him he was free. Kossola lived out the rest of his life in Africatown (Plateau). Hurston’s trip south was a continuation of the field trip expedition she had initiated the previous year.

Oluale Kossola had survived capture at the hands of Dahomian warriors, the barracoons at Whydah (Ouidah), and the Middle Passage. He had been enslaved, he had lived through the Civil War and the largely un-Reconstructed South, and he had endured the rule of Jim Crow. He had experienced the dawn of a new millennium that included World War I and the Great Depression. Within the magnitude of world events swirled the momentous events of Kossola’s own personal world.

Zora Neale Hurston, as a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and folklorist, was eager to inquire into his experiences. “I want to know who you are,” she approached Kossola, “and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?” Kossola absorbed her every question, then raised a tearful countenance. “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”

Those final sentences should give you a quick taste of Barracoon’s central rhetorical conceit. After her own introductory chapter (which details the historical circumstances of the Clotilda’s illegal journey to West Africa), Hurston lets Cudjo inspirit the text, telling his own story in his own voice. Hurston, who spent three months with Cudjo, initially interposes herself in the story, as we see early in the book’s first chapter:

“My grandpa, he a great man. I tellee you how he go.”

I was afraid that Cudjo might go off on a tangent, so I cut in with, “But Kossula, I want to hear about you and how you lived in Africa.”

He gave me a look full of scornful pity and asked, “Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil I cain tellee you ’bout de son before I tellee you ’bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father (et te) till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, (et, te, te, grandfather) now, dass right ain’ it?

This brief “cutting in” is one of the last moments in the narrative that Hurston attempts to steer Cudjo in a particular direction. Instead, she befriends the old man, bringing him watermelons, hams, peaches, and other treats. These little gifts serve to frame Cudjo’s narrative as he moves from one episode to the next. Otherwise, Hurston disappears into the background, an ear for Cudjo’s voice, a witness for his story.

Cudjo’s story is astounding. He describes life in his own West African village and the terrible slaughter of his people at the hands of “de people of Dahomey,” a tribe that eventually sells Cudjo and the other young people of his village to white men. Cudjo describes his early enslavement in Alabama, which took place in secret until the Civil War, and his eventual freedom from bondage. He tells Hurston about the founding of Africatown, a community of West Africans. He describes his life after capture and slavery—his marriage, his children, his near-fatal railroad accident. Cudjo’s life and his children’s lives were incredibly difficult. They were always othered:

“All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.

“Derefo’, you unnerstand me, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time. Me and dey mama doan lak to hear our chillun call savage. It hurtee dey feelings. Derefo’ dey fight. Dey fight hard. When dey whip de other boys, dey folks come to our house and tellee us, ‘Yo’ boys mighty bad, Cudjo. We ’fraid they goin’ kill somebody.”

Somehow most devastating in a narrative full of devastation are the deaths of Cudjo’s children. After his daughter dies in infancy, his namesake is killed by a sheriff, a scene that resonates with terrible pain in 2018:

Nine year we hurtee inside ’bout our baby. Den we git hurtee again. Somebody call hisself a deputy sheriff kill de baby boy now.

He say he de law, but he doan come ’rest him. If my boy done something wrong, it his place come ’rest him lak a man. If he mad wid my Cudjo ’bout something den he oughter come fight him face to face lak a man. He doan come ’rest him lak no sheriff and he doan come fight him lak no man.

Another of his sons is decapitated in a railroad accident. A third son, angry with the injustice of the world, simply disappears: “My boy gone. He ain’ in de house and he ain’ on de hill wid his mama. We both missee him. I doan know. Maybe dey kill my boy. It a hidden mystery.”

Cudjo, ever the survivor, went on to outlive his wife and all of his children.  In her foreword to Barracoon, Alice Walker captures the pain and pathos of this remarkable position:

And then, the story of Cudjo Lewis’s life after Emancipation. His happiness with “freedom,” helping to create a community, a church, building his own house. His tender love for his wife, Seely, and their children. The horrible deaths that follow. We see a man so lonely for Africa, so lonely for his family, we are struck with the realization that he is naming something we ourselves work hard to avoid: how lonely we are too in this still foreign land: lonely for our true culture, our people, our singular connection to a specific understanding of the Universe. And that what we long for, as in Cudjo Lewis’s case, is gone forever. But we see something else: the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point almost of erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving.

I cannot improve on Walker’s phrase here. Hurston brings that “nobility of soul” to life via Cudjo’s own rich language.

While Barracoon is of a piece with Hurston’s anthropological collections Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, it does not read like an autoethnography. It is rather a compelling first-person narrative. Hurston collecteed stories from Cudjo–fables, parables, games—but these are included as an appendix, a wise narrative choice as any attempt to integrate them into the main narrative would hardly be seamless. The appendix adds to the text’s richness without imposing on it, and links it to Hurston’s work as a folklorist.

I’ve noted some of the additional material already—Walker’s foreword, the appendix of folklore, as well as Plant’s introduction. Included also is an afterword by Plant that contextualizes Barracoon within Hurston’s academic career, a list of the original residents of Africatown, a glossary, a bibliography, and a lengthy compendium of endnotes. This editorial material frames the historic and academic importance of Barracoon, and will be of great interest to anyone who wishes to study the subject more. However, Cudjo’s narrative stands on its own as a sad, compelling, essential story. It’s amazing it took this long to reach a wider audience. Recommended.

[Ed. note–this review originally ran in May, 2018.]

Blog about Anna Burns’s maybe-horror/maybe-comedy novel Milkman

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Anna Burns’s third novel Milkman won the 2018 Man Booker Prize and was reviewed in a number of prominent publications. It hardly needs my recommendation at this point, but I do recommend it: It’s artful, horrific, endearing, and troubling, a claustrophobic, unrelenting depiction of terror and paranoia. It’s also really funny.

Scattershot snippets I’d heard about Milkman indicated that the novel was “difficult” and even “confusing” or “challenging,” in large part because of the novel’s major stylistic trope—the first-person narrator refuses to ascribe clear, “stable” names to the characters in the book.

Our narrator, an eighteen-year-old woman in Northern Ireland, is referred to variously as “daughter,” “middle sister,” and “maybe-girlfriend” (among other titles) depending on whom she is interacting with. Similarly, most other characters are referred to in such terms: “oldest friend,” “third brother-in-law,” or simply “neighbour,” a nebulous catchall. (There are “named’ characters of a sort though: “chef,” “tablets girl,” “nuclear boy,” “real milkman,” and, of course, the horrific titular character “milkman.”) This narrative device might disarm some readers initially, but I found it easy to sink into our first-person narrator’s distinctive, brave, funny voice, a voice that emerges into new states of knowing and new states of consciousness as the novel unfolds.

Naming, or rather not naming is especially rhetorically significant given the setting and context of Milkman. It is the late 1970s, and the strange hot cold silent loud civil war in Northern Ireland has been going on for the entirety of our narrator’s lifetime. It has fully colonized her consciousness, shaped her language. Significantly, the conflict itself cannot be named except obliquely, nebulously. When our narrator tries to describe this zeitgeist, she employs the vague term “political problems”; her third brother-in-law replies, “Are you referring to the sorrows, the losses, the troubles, the sadnesses?”

Similarly, phrases like Protestant or Catholic are never employed, let alone anything as specific as the British army and the IRA, or unionists and nationalists. There’s just “their side” and “our side.” The sides don’t ultimately matter in Milkman. Rather this is a novel about what a constant state of their side-our side does to a person.

Our narrator, bound since birth in this state of their side-our side, has difficulty clearly communicating the central conflict of Milkman. She finds herself the strange victim of the milkman, an older married man who is a top level operative of the renouncers, anti-government paramilitaries who essentially run her district. (To be clear, he is not a real milkman. There is a real milkman though, and he’s a good guy.) Milkman stalks the narrator, creeping up next to her in his white van as she walks home reading 19th-century novels (a habit that marks her as “beyond the pale,” an outsider in her community) or waylaying her as she runs in the park. He’s a nightmare force of patriarchal ideology, a creeper at the edge, but utterly empowered.

Milkman isn’t the narrator’s only stalker. No, there’s also Somebody McSomebody, who we meet, sort of, in the novel’s astonishing opening sentence: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” Somebody McSomebody is a poseur though. He’s a pretend renouncer, a would-be hardman also inscribed in the violent ideology of the the Troubles. The narrator calls him her “amateur stalker.”

The narrator uses variations of the word “stalk” in Milkman, but this word is meant to convey meaning to us, to a readership that might now better understand the term. (This effect of an older voice imposing its wisdom on a younger perceiver persists in Milkman.) What’s clear though is that nobody, or at least nobody in authority, can help the narrator from her stalkers:

That was the way it worked. Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors. He could have meant what I thought he’d meant, but equally, he might not have meant anything.

Our narrator lives in a constant state of maybe, a trope underscored by her relationship with “maybe-boyfriend” (himself something of an oddball). Maybe-boyfriend is a compelling character in Milkman, and perhaps something of tragic-absurd one as well. (One of the strangest details in the novel: maybe-boyfriend and his brothers are abandoned by his parents so that they can become world champion ballroom dancers—which they do (become world champion ballroom dancers, that is.)) In a particularly strong section of the book, maybe-boyfriend, a mechanic and car enthusiast, brings home the supercharger of a Bentley and shows it off to his neighbors. The jovial atmosphere slowly slides into a tense then paranoid exchange—Bentleys are English after all—which eventually erupts into violence. It’s a remarkably controlled episode that describes the ideology of the Troubles in a way that a historical textbook never could.

Even though our narrator lives in a perpetual maybe, she still understands her community and can describe it for us. She is intelligent and perceptive, and much of the humor in Milkman evinces from moments where she gets on a rhetorical roll, as when she describes her home as “our intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.” Horror and comedy conjoin in her absurd description of a run-in with the milkman as “talking to a sinister man while holding the head of a cat that had been bombed to death by Nazis.”

Radical horror, violence, and uncertainty percolate in Milkman. Paranoia rules on all levels, but by focusing primarily on the narrator’s being stalked by milkman, Burns offers a concrete portrait of a malevolent force that might otherwise be too sinister and abstract to properly convey in a fictional novel. At the same time, our narrator is able to extrapolate beyond her concrete circumstances to other injustices—

those big ones, the famous ones, the international ones – witch-burnings, footbindings, suttee, honour killings, female circumcision, rape, child marriages, retributions by stoning, female infanticide, gynaecological practices, maternal mortality, domestic servitude, treatment as chattels, as breeding stock, as possessions, girls going missing, girls being sold and all those other worldwide cultural, tribal and religious socialisations and scandalisations, also the warnings given against things throughout patriarchal history that were seen as uncommon for a woman to do or think or say.

Milkman is full of moments like this, rhetorical flights that help weave a richer picture of our narrator’s psychic state.

Milkman also shows us how that psychic state deteriorates. Our narrator was always an outsider, reading novels while walking or going on long runs as a way to tune out reality. Our narrator is aware of this tuning-out; indeed, it is her primary practice. However, as gossip and lies spread about her and the milkman, her consciousness begins to crumble–

Thing was though, before I’d gained the understanding of what was happening, my seemingly flattened approach to life became less a pretence and more and more real as time went on. At first an emotional numbness set in. Then my head, which initially had reassured with, ‘Excellent. Well done. Successfully am I fooling them in that they do not know who I am or what I’m thinking or what I’m feeling,’ now began itself to doubt I was even there. ‘Just a minute,’ it said. ‘Where is our reaction? We were having a privately expressed reaction but now we’re not having it. Where is it?’ Thus my feelings stopped expressing. Then they stopped existing. And now this numbance from nowhere had come so far on in its development that along with others in the area finding me inaccessible, I, too, came to find me inaccessible. My inner world, it seemed, had gone away.

This is a sad, remarkable, and genuinely horrifying passage. We get the horror of un-becoming, a kind of un-becoming that we might find in many other horror-tinged feminist works, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Anna Kavan’s Ice to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. 

Not only is our heroine emotionally and psychologically drained, she also finds herself physically exhausted by the duress of being stalked—stalked now not only by the milkman, but also by the whispering community. No longer able to take the walks and runs that replenished her, she languishes. The horror and absurdity culminates when she is poisoned, for no real reason, by tablets girl, “our district poisoner” and must recover without the aid of professional medical care. (Nobody in the district can go to the hospital without fear of being thought an informant.)

After a serious bout of purging, the narrator recovers. While recovering, her triumvirate of “wee sisters” asks her to read them a story. Tellingly, they purloin their ma’s copy of The Exorcist. Milkman is a novel of possession and purging, of being inscribed in a preexisting symbolic order and forging a consciousness strong enough to resist and endure that order.

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

A review of Pierre Senges’ confounding novel Geometry in the Dust

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Describing Geometry in the Dust is a challenge. I’ve deleted so many openings now and my frustration is mounting: so some very basic description:

Geometry in the Dust is a novel by the French author Pierre Senges with accompanying illustrations by the Oubapo comix artist Killoffer. The novel was originally published in France (as Géométrie dans la poussière) in 2004. The English translation is by Jacob Siefring, and was published by Inside the Castle earlier this year. Geometry in the Dust is 117 pages and includes 22 black and white illustrations. The prose is set in two columns per page, with infrequent inclusions of inset notes of a smaller font obtruding into the text proper. The typeset is Venetian. The book is approximately 217cm long, 172cm tall, and 10cm thick. It weighs approximately 210 grams.

This is a lousy way to describe a book.

What is it about?, you’ll want to know. What’s the plot? Who are the characters? What’s the drama, the conflict, the themes?, you’ll insist.

So there’s a geometer.

The geometer is a first-person “I” who addresses himself to the “inheriting prince” who rules a “country of sand.” The geometer is of course also addressing himself to you the reader. In addition to being a geometer, he is also

your minister (of Economy, of Religion, of War, and also of the City, we decided). As your sole, faithful minister, your counsellor, chamberlain, and your scapegoat, having weathered many dry seasons and countless reorganizations of your cabinet, I am your confidant too, and, judging from appearances–one can say this without offending the dignity of your kingdom or its constitution, we might even call me your friend.

And so we have our characters: Geometer and his absent audience, his sultan, his reader.

And so for plot? What is our friend, our confidant doing in Geometry in the Dust? He is trying to describe the city that he and his monarch (?) have…dreamed up? Built from scratch? Proposed as a thought experiment?

(I’m not sure.)

The reality or unreality of the city in question should be dispensed with entirely of course. The city is made of words, and it exists in Geometry in the Dust through words. Our narrator implores us in the novel’s second paragraph: “do not be afraid of words!”

So our narrator the geometer tries to describe the city, this city, the sultan’s city, in words. But of course capturing a city in words is a problem—

How does one form an idea of the city, when all one has seen of it are little pieces of it brought back from voyages in trunks? how to describe a metropolis to someone who has only ever known sand and its forms through the cycle of seasons? how to speak of snow to a Moor, of cannibalism to a vegetarian Jesuit?

Measuring a city for our narrator amounts to measuring the angles of waves as they break on the shore: an impossible task. Even metaphors run dry, point in the wrong directions, and ultimately, “all of these measures will be in vain and mediocre , the descriptions will be lost in allegories.” Nevertheless, our narrator will try. 

This trying to describe the city is the plot, I suppose, such as it is. And it’s really quite marvelous, far richer and smarter and funnier than I’ve managed to capture here so far. Our geometer is observant, sharp, witty, strangely sincere, flighty and whimsical at times. He advises his prince, his reader, on the value of getting lost in the city (the only way to know it), and a lot of Geometry might amount to our narrator getting lost himself, losing us, leading us in, out, around.

“You will readily understand that a city is not composed only of itself,” he avers at one point, continuing that, “a city is composed of city, the intentions present in the city, and the difference between the city and those intentions…” Perhaps too Geometry is our narrator’s effort to measure the gaps and lacunae between split intentions, and to situate the various players that fill these gaps: black marketeers and insomniacs, calligraphers and macabre dancers, crowders and loners, musicians and animals (including “an alligator of the White Nile” to reside “in the conduits of our main sewer,” whose presence will surely “spice up the lives of your people, those incorrigible auditors of fables.” And if such an alligator can’t be find, never mind–just spread its legends. Words).

And themes?, you ask after. I don’t know. I’ve read Geometry twice now and it’s thick with themes, the basic one, I suppose (and I could be wrong) is: What is a city(This is too easy, I know). Senges’ narrator invokes and evokes every manner of archaic text, imagined or otherwise; he considers our native tendencies, the roles outsiders play, the movements of crowds, what constitutes a garden, and so forth.

Maybe a better description of Geometry is to simply look at the text itself. Here is a short chapter (go on, read it—click on it if you need a bigger version):

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Notice the punctuation: the semicolons, the dashes (em and en), the periods, the parentheses, the commas. Senges’ prose in Geometry is syntactically thick. Sentences, like alleys in a strange city, begin in one place and end up somewhere quite different. The interposition of jostling clauses might cause a reader to lose the subject, to drop the thread or diverge from the path (or pick your metaphor). The effect is sometimes profound, with our narrator arriving at some strange philosophical insight after piling clause upon clause that connects the original subject with something utterly outlandish. And sometimes, the effect is bathetic. In one such example, the narrator, instructing his sovereign on the proper modes of religious observance in the city, moves from a description of the ideal confessional to an evocation of Limbourg’s hell to the necessity of being able grasp a peanut between two fingers. The comical effect is not so much punctured as understood anew though when Senges’ narrator returns to the peanut as a central metaphor for the scope of a city (“there are roughly as many men in the city as peanuts in the city’s bowls”), a metaphor that he extends in clause after clause leading to an invocation of “Hop o’ my Thumb’s pebbles,” a reference to Charles Perrault fairy tale about a boy who uses riverstones to find his way home after having been abandoned in the woods by his parents. 

What is the path through Geometry in the Dust? The inset notes, as you can see in the image above, also challenge the reader’s eye, as do the twin columns, so rare in contemporary novels.

Killoffer’s illustrations also challenge the reader. They do not necessarily correspond in pagination to the sections that they (may) illustrate; rather, they seem to obliquely capture the spirit of the novel. The following image is perhaps the most literal illustration in the novel, evoking something in the passage I shared above:

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The experience of reading Geometry is confounding but also rewarding. The first time I read it, at least for the first third or so, I kept looking for all those basic signs of a novel—character, plot, clear conflict, etc. I was happy to find instead something else, something more challenging, but also something unexpectedly fun and funny. In its finest moments, Geometry evokes the essays that Borges disguised as short stories. Readers familiar with Italo Calvino and Georges Perec will find familiar notes here too, as well as those who love the absurd tangles Donald Barthelme’s sentences can take. But Senges is singular here, his own weird flavor, a flavor I enjoyed very much. Recommended. 

An area of total strangeness | Blog about the final third of Anna Kavan’s novel Ice

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Bondage by Leonor Fini. Part of Fini’s illustrations for a 1962 edition of Pauline Réage’s novel The Story of O.

I wrote about the first third of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice here and then wrote about the second third here. This third blog will discuss, sort of, the novel’s final third. If you want a very short review though, here goes: If you like novels that disrupt our conventional sense of how a novel should “work” and challenge the very process by which we understand narrative, you will like Ice. Like is maybe not the right verb here, but I’ll let it stand. Ice is simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, personal and alienating, small and epic. Kavan conjures an apocalypse that refuses the promise of revelation that an apocalypse entails, leaving her readers and characters in a state of radical unknowing. Kavan’s strangeness is Kafkaesque, yes, but hardly imitative, instead drawing from the same wells of modern absurdity, but also sculpting that absurdity into something new, something postmodern, a tale that deconstructs its own telling with  gothic earnestness. If you “like” weird ones, Ice might be for you.

Now then.

So I finished reading Ice the other afternoon. I then made the mistake of reading Kate Zambreno’s marvelous afterword to the novel (originally published as “Anna Kavan” in Context N°18). Zambreno’s essay is fantastic. She reads Kavan’s novels and contextualizes them within and against the novelist’s life. If Zambreno’s essay were not a work rooted in biographical reality, it would be a highly-achieved short story. Kavan’s life was fascinating.

I used the noun “mistake” in the second sentence of the previous paragraph; what I mean to say is: I should have let myself write this third blog before I had any context about Kavan’s biography. I’m glad I initially skipped Jonathan Lethem’s foreword to the Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of Ice that I read, which would have done me the disservice of coloring the lens through which I read Ice. Zambreno’s essay is excellent, and I don’t begrudge it (Lethem’s is, like, fine), but the fact that Penguin felt the need to wedge Ice into such a contextual frame perhaps attests to the novel’s wonderful estranging weirdness.

(Of course, had I read Zambreno’s essay beforehand (which, like, go for it, I would have picked up Ice as soon as possible.)

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At Her Feet by Leonor Fini. Part of Fini’s illustrations for a 1962 edition of Pauline Réage’s novel The Story of O.

Where was I? Ok. The last third of Ice.

Kavan structures her novel (structure is not the right verb) around three persons, all unnamed: the narrator, the girl, and the warden. The narrator and the warden pursue the girl, a cipher who is placed, displaced, replaced, and displaced again throughout Ice. But as the narrative progresses, it seems that this unstable menage a trois might simply be the narrator’s projection—indeed, Ice is a monomaniac narrative. Projection in the previous sentence is not the right word—I think it implies too much a level of psychological introspection that Ice subverts. There are objects and subjects and analyses in Kavan’s novel, but they never quite meet up.

The ever-shifting setting of the novel is apocalypse in the form of (of course) the titular ice. We never quite learn the specific cause of this apocalypse, although we do know that it is humanity itself that has engendered its own permanent victimhood. Beyond this slim explanation, Ice is a novel that defers, derails, and deconstructs our traditional notions of cause and effect. While there’s often a Ballardian tone to Kavan’s apocalyptic narrative, there’s none of the connective tissue that we might expect from even the strangest science fiction. There’s instead push and pull, contraction and expansion.

We see these oppositions at the beginning of Ch. 11, which initiates the novel’s final third. Our narrator somehow arrives at a safe harbor, a small paradise subsisting on illusions and borrowed time—

The past was forgotten, the long, hard, dangerous voyage and the preceding nightmare. Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been imagined or dreamed. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality. There were theatres, cinemas, restaurants and hotels, shops where goods of all sorts were sold freely, without coupons. The contrast was staggering. The relief overwhelming. The reaction too great. A kind of delirium was induced, a mad gaiety.

The passive voice our narrator employs here highlights his arcing agency as he moves from nightmare to a “solid reality” that will, in due time, disintegrate. And everything in Ice disintegrates, only to re-integrate into new textual territories.

It would be too easy to read Ice as a prescient allegory for our own stark era of impending ecological disaster (the poet picked fire, although he noted that ice would suffice). Still, it’s hard not to nod in recognition at a passage like this one—

The festivities went on and on: carnivals, battles of flowers, balls, regattas, concerts, processions. Nobody wanted to be reminded of what was happening in other parts of the world. Rumours coming from outside were suppressed by order of the consul, who had assumed responsibility for the maintenance of law and order, ‘pending the restoration of the status quo’. To speak of the catastrophe was an offence under the new regulations. The rule was to choose not to know.

“The rule was to choose not to know,” but our narrator’s delusions of grandeur won’t permit him to party nonstop at the threshold of apocalypse (even if he has the girl with him)—

I could not remain isolated from the rest of the world. I was involved with the fate of the planet, I had to take an active part in whatever was going on. The endless celebrations here seemed both boring and sinister, reminiscent of the orgies of the plague years. Now, as then, people were deluding themselves; they induced a false sense of security by means of self-indulgence and wishful thinking. I did not believe for one moment they had really escaped.

And so our narrator departs, leaving the girl (who must always be abandoned, found again, imprisoned, and stolen in endless deferrals of victimhood). He heads out in search of the indris, large lemurs who reside in Madagascar (the country is never named of course). These lemurs, whom the narrator claims sing sweetly, are absurd symbols of peace, a world that suspends the very predation and violence that the narrator has participated in and will continue to participate in.

In time he joins a guerrilla force—does it matter which one?—and finds his way back to the warden, a powerful warlord here in the end of days. The warden is horrified to learn that the narrator has abandoned the girl. He chides the narrator, underscoring Ice’s Sadean themes—

‘You don’t know how to handle her,’ he stated coldly. ‘I’d have licked her into shape. She only needs training. She has to be taught toughness, in life and in bed.’

The narrator though is not upset at this idea; rather, he is mortified that his sense of identification with the warden has been sundered:

At that moment I was more concerned with him, linked to him so closely, as if we shared the same blood. I could not bear to be alienated from him. ‘Why are you so angry?’ I went a step closer, tried to touch his sleeve, but he moved out of my reach. ‘Is it only because of her?’ I could not believe this, the bond between him and myself seemed so strong. Just then she was nothing to me by comparison, not even real. We could have shared her between us…’

But of course that sharing has happened throughout the novel, in the most cruel and sadistic way. The girl, a trace, the decenterd center, slips between narrator and warden, all three agents of the same narrative force.

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Submission by Leonor Fini. Part of Fini’s illustrations for a 1962 edition of Pauline Réage’s novel The Story of O.

As Ice approaches its apocalyptic conclusion, the narrator continues to contend with his disintegrating perception of reality. Perhaps the greatest strength of Kavan’s novel is the way in which it reckons with how a first-person perspective is always under duress, always under the pressure to witness to and account for a world that will not stand still, a world to which we can never fully acclimate—

 I should have been inured to climatic changes; but I again felt I had moved out of ordinary life into an area of total strangeness. All this was real, it was really happening, but with a quality of the unreal; it was reality happening in quite a different way.

The final paragraphs of Ice give way to insular, speeding destruction, the narrator and the girl (and the warden, implicitly always with them) in a heated car shuttling through a dying world. Indeed, the narrator remarks near the very end that, “The world seemed to have come to an end already. It did not matter.” The final moments of Ice are sinister and a bit heartwarming, the final phallic image an ironic spike to the narrator’s conciliatory tone. And the apocalypse? Well, the narrative ends, and the world of Ice ends with it—much as it began, with a narrative voice, lost in the cold. Very highly recommended.