On Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, abjection, and sublimated dreams

I forced myself through the last half of Gwendoline Riley’s 2017 novel First Love wondering if I actually liked her latest novel My Phantoms, a book I read just a few weeks ago.

(What do I mean to capture in the puny verb like?)

The material of First Love will be familiar to anyone who’s read My Phantoms, and I kept mentally underlining the similarities: first-person narrator, woman, living in London, a city she is culturally alienated from; bad parents–abusive asshole dad, narcissistic dippy mum. Vegetarian cooking.

Like My Phantoms, First Love is a slim, spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, sublimated dreams, and lowered expectations. Pervading the novel is a general sense that one would prefer not to get stuck in a corner with any of these characters at a party, let alone end up living with one.

The thrust of First Love (one wouldn’t call it a plot, which isn’t a negative criticism) is something like this: Neve, a thirty-three-year-old writer (who makes some money teaching) is married to a man named Edwyn, who is a generation older from her, and suffering a heart condition. His heart condition has left him close to death at least once, but it also doubles as a symbol for his trashed spirit: Edwyn’s heart condition is that Edwyn has the heart of an asshole.

Edwyn belittles and abuses Neve, condescends her feminism, and generally bullies her. Most of the abuse is verbal, but sometimes it is physical. The abuse is always awful though—an abuse of spirit, of love.

Riley announces the themes of this awful “love” by the novel’s fourth paragraph:

We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises—little comfort noises—at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage.’ Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.’

‘You can always just get out if you find me so contemptible,’ he went on, feet apart, fists clenched, glaring at me over on the settee. ‘You have to get behind the project, Neve, or get out.’

What’s the project? you might wonder, as does Neve—well, it’s not “winding up” Edwyn and “feel like shit all the time!’”

Does Edwyn actually feel abused by Neve’s behavior?

Riley certainly gives the man plenty of opportunities to vocalize his self-pitying and abusive rants. The central totem Edwyn hangs his anger on is an episode in which Neve drank alcohol excessively and vomited (apparently) all over the couple’s apartment. Riley does not depict the episode because Neve, natch, cannot recall it. The bits we get from it involve Edwyn’s violence, his anger. An ugly and true recollection of the sweaty abject reality of a hangover.

Much of First Love is mired in abjection—sweat and grime and piss and shit. Early in the book Neve and Edwyn exchange reminiscences of their young mothers on the toilet, Neve’s suffering IBS, Edwyn terrified of “The thundering waterfall of her first piss” in the early morning. “Terrifying. I thought bodies were terrifying.”

The abject reality of bodies and filth repulses Edwyn, and he buries his repulsion into a store of misogynistic tropes and curses that explode with more ugly frequency as First Love progresses. “You live in shit, so we all have to live in shit, is that right?” he demands of Neve, who he repeatedly accuses of slovenliness, filth. For Edwyn, Neve’s apparent uncleanliness is also related to her Northernness, underscoring the novel’s themes of class and place. Neve herself capitulates, reminiscing:

But was anybody clean back then? When I think of my friends’ houses, they weren’t any less filled with shit. Here were cold, cluttered bedrooms, greased sheets. The kitchens were a horror show: ceilings bejewelled with pus-coloured animal fat, washing-up sitting in water which was spangled like phlegm. Our neighbour’s house, where we went after school, was an airlocked chamber smelling of bins that hadn’t been put out. There was a long skid mark, I remember, on one of the towels in their bathroom. It was there for three years.

So—I did grow up in shit. It was no slander.

Shit, filth, stupidity, dishonesty. (Mother looking up slyly from a crying jag.)

I did use to be sick a lot. No slander, though Edwyn didn’t know it.

Edwyn doesn’t know fucking anything. I was relieved in the novel’s final moments, where the narrative disappeared him.

But now and so I go back to the beginning of this riff and see the opening clause, I forced: I did force myself to finish First Love, poison cup. And, that second sentence up at the top: Did I like the novelNo. Reading it hurt. Riley offers up raw reality, ugly, abject, mean. The novel is well-written, which I don’t mean pejoratively: no seams show, and thematic resonance carries from minute details: dialogue, concrete imagery, minor moments that coalesce into an abject portrait of sick “love,” messy and cruel. I am so happy that I’m now outside of the thing.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger. I think The Passenger is a brilliant, messy, baggy synthesis of much of the philosophical and aesthetic themes of McCarthy’s previous work; I loved it.

I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.]


jumble

I’m too old

Horrible sci fi

another gut-punch.

literary tricksterisms

this one is different in so many ways

the airplane is never mentioned again

a cluster mess of absolutely nothing

Virtue signaling

who is missing

Zero.

Zilch.

Nada.

rambling

confusing

nonsensical

300 pages of mostly sci-fi

nothing like his previous writings

This author has written several really good novels

The only mention of salvage diving to find a plane was in the beginning of the book.

nothing about it makes one happy to be reading it

Introspection with no development

mediocrity

absurdity

Incest

A plot with … no plot.

I literally threw it in the garbage

portions in italics about some person with flipper hands in some alter reality

Tedious chapters where a character we never meet argues with her imaginary friends.

the editor and McCarthy were both under the influence of something!

he has decided to eliminate quotation marks

these questions are never answered

disjointed

irregular

senseless

I am a fan of McCarthy

The only passenger is the reader

reads like two people on an acid trip

If you are an average reader then you will find this book difficult to read

Why is the plane in the river

lack of punctuation

time line confusing

no stars

ten zeros

lost and confused

made me feel stupid

one of Americas great writers

A lot of physics talk by men with questionable morals.

a sunken private jet in the Gulf of Mexico is the MacGuffin in this book

I’ve read two other Cormac McCarthy works: The Road, and No Country For Old Men. I enjoyed them both, although they were nothing special.

If this book had been submitted for publication by an unknown author it never would have been published

gassy dialogue about cars, tools, diving, drinking, the Deep State, hopeless forbidden love, and loss

I get the distinct impression that the publicists never read more than the beginning of the book.

Will I read the sequel? Probably, just to see if this novel can be redeemed.

not the action adventure novel that the jacket cover advertises

I was continuing out of spite.

life is too short

What story?

 

What else? | Last scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

What else?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Versions of the phrase What else repeat throughout The Passenger, sometimes at the beginning of a sentence but more often than not as a two-word statement or question. It’s a verbal tic not unlike the plentiful instances of They rode on to be found in Blood Meridian, and like that phrase, it serves as a linguistic placeholder that both moves the action of the novel and also advances one of its central philosophical themes.

What else? here is plaintive, existential, but also human, relatable.


The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment.”

The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills


A small mule danced in a flowered field. He stopped to watch it. It rose on its hind legs like a satyr and sawed its head about. It whinnied and hauled at its rope and kicked and it stopped and stood splayfooted and stared at Western and then went hopping and howling. It had browsed through a nest of wasps but Western didnt know how to help it and he went on.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

This minor scene in the last pages of The Passenger seems like another previously-rare self-referential move on McCarthy’s part. Our “unchallenged king of literary mule carnage” sets up what appears, at first, a bucolic, even corny image—a mule dancing in a field of flowers. The pastoral, frolicking image comes undone under scrutiny—the mule is not at play but under duress. But the duress is not the result of a moral malice. It’s simply natural. Western cannot assuage the mule’s pain, he can only observe it, which he does so with a stoic measure of sympathy.

Detail from Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the Dead Mule, Honore Daumier, 1867

He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy


The other dream was this. There was a riderless horse standing at a gate at dawn. Some other country, some other time. The news that the horse brings is a day’s ride old, no more. The horse’s dreams were once of mares and grass and water. The sun. But those dreams are no more. His is a world of blood and slaughter and the screams of men and animals all of which he has little understanding of. The horse stands at the gate with his head bowed while the day breaks. He wears a cloak of knitted steel dark with blood and he stands with one forefoot tilted upon the stones. No one comes. The news does not arrive.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

The above passage was probably the saddest moment in The Passenger for me. The speaker is the ghost of Long John Sheddan, present in the consciousness of Bobby Western. It is the horse’s dream inside of Sheddan’s dream (inside of Western’s dream (McCarthy’s dream)) that I find so sad—an Edenic vision flooded with the reality of blood and violence, by the mechanics of war. The horse stalks the stones of the earth, awaiting a revelation that does not come to pass. No one comes. The news does not arrive.


I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy


I waited to hear from God and I never did.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .

But [in Blood Meridian] McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.

Red Planet”, James Wood

Critic James Wood was unkind in his estimation of Blood Meridian. He demanded a theodicy from McCarthy—never McCarthy’s intention—and then failed to attend to any evidence in the novel that would indicate the possibility of resistance to unrepentant Darwinian malice, to an illiterate taste for mindless violence.


I don’t know if Wood has written on the latest, not last, but close-to-last, novel from McCarthy. The only review I’ve read was a short tweet from a contemporary Irish writer whose latest novel I very-much admired. He did not think The Passenger was good. I believe he wrote that it was, in fact, very bad. I really loved The Passenger, and when I finally get this last little riff out of my system, I might even read some reviews.


In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of a sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy


In the end, she had said, there will be nothing that cannot be simulated. And this will be the final abridgment of privilege. This is the world to come. Not some other. The only alternate is the surprise in those antic shapes burned into the concrete.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

The final moments of The Passenger, particularly Alicia Western’s words (via Bobby’s memory) seem to echo the gnostic dream that is the epilogue of Blood Meridian. Her apocalyptic final line (again, via Bobby’s consciousness) evokes the consequences of the atomic bomb, a new original sin of creation: “My father’s latterday petroglyphs and the people upon the road naked and howling.”

Alicia chooses to erase herself from the world, while Bobby stays in it, lives. The final moments of The Passenger point to a sliver of metaphysical hope:

He knew on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty with him into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly on his pallet in an unknown tongue.


You have to carry the fire.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy.

 

The incest thing | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

He’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

 

The theme of brother-sister incest haunts the early American novel on its lower levels of literacy as well as on the higher—a nightmare from which our writers do not choose to awake too soon, since it is one their readers are willing to pay to share.

Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler

 

When he woke she was leaning against his shoulder. He thought she was asleep but she was looking out the plane window. We can do whatever we want, she said.

No, he said. We cant.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

 

She turned to the Kid. What does it say on the trunk?

What does what say? 

There’s a sticker on the trunk.

Yeah. It says progeny of Western Union.

Progeny?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


The last in the series of quotes above is an exchange between Alicia Western and her hort/figment/projection the Thalidomide Kid. The Kid has caused to be brought to Alicia a wiseassed—cruel, even—ventriloquist dummy. The dummy is another fitting prop in the Alicia-Kid episodes that punctuate The Passenger. It again underlines the vaudevillian aspect of these interstitial pieces, while also highlighting the novel’s themes of ventriloquism—of how memory of the dead might speak through the living, as the living grapple with death.

The quips above feature another of the Kid’s malapropisms — in this case his substitution of “progeny of Western Union” for property of Western Union. The Freudian slip (never really a slip on our imp’s tongue) points to The Passenger’s incest motif. It turns out that the dummy’s name is Crandall (perhaps named for the typewriter?). It’s likely Alicia herself named Crandall, and her grandmother tailored his clothes. I think the strong implication is that handy Bobby Western built (fathered) Crandall. In this sense, Crandall is the dreamchild born of a Western union. “I was only six,” Alicia cries as he disappears back into his case.


The incest motif perforates the literary tradition. We find it in Oedipus, in Lot seduced by his daughters, in David’s children Tamar and Amnon–a tale recapitulated in Faulkner’s southern Gothic Absalom! Absalom! We find it coded in Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” or made strange but more clear in Melville’s baffling Pierre. We find it in the tawdry attic of V.C. Andrew’s lurid Dollanganger novels (likely read by many more Americans than the other novels I’ve named).

The incest thing in literature is, of course, an exploration of taboo, and is such the rightful property (or progeny) of literature. In his seminal (and often bombastic) study Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler suggests that “brother-sister incest in particular comes to stand in Romantic symbology for the rebellion against paternal authority, for the spirit of revolution itself.” He continues, declaring that the “Oedipal significance” of this revolutionary spirit “projects not only the desire to revolt, but also to die; that is to say, beneath the yearning for rebellion lies hidden the wish to be punished for it.”


Le’ts follow Fiedler’s reading (ahem, rehashing of Freud) and stick it on to the Western children: What is the paternal authority they rebel against—that is, beyond the actual literal father (a marginal memory)? Père Western was one of the lead authors of the atomic bomb. He changed the American relationship to death, permanently.


I have a little under a hundred pages left to go in The Passenger, but if either Bobby or Alicia has expressed overt familiar guilt over their father’s work in engineering mass death, I’ve missed it. What does linger is a deep-seated, unspoken anxiety about their father’s deeds.


At the end of his own surreal and improbable conversation with the Thalidomide Kid, Bobby expresses the only loss of his life, the only ashes in his world:

There is no other loss. Do you understand? The world is ashes. Ashes. For her to be in pain? The least insult? The least humiliation? Do you understand? For her to die alone? Her? There is no other loss. Do you understand? No other loss. None.

The emotional outburst, with its plaintive tone and cycle of repetitions, is rare for Bobby Western: for the most part, when The Passenger juts its free indirect speech into Bobby’s skull, we get simple, direct (if increasingly paranoid) language.


It’s when he thinks of his sister Alicia that Bobby’s voice gives over to passion, to a kind of Gothic romantic language that recalls Poe more than Hemingway. Consider how Gothic frills in the following passage soon give way to an archaic and obscure (yet still ornate) style that recalls the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian:

In his dreams of her she wore at times a smile he tried to remember and she would say to him almost in a chant words he could scarcely follow. He knew that her lovely face would soon exist nowhere save in his memories and in his dreams and soon after that nowhere at all. She came in half nude trailing sarsenet or perhaps just her Grecian sheeting crossing a stone stage in the smoking footlamps or she would push back the cowl of her robe and her blonde hair would fall about her face as she bent to him where he lay in the damp and clammy sheets and whisper to him I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe. And all the while a clangor like the labor of a foundry and dark figures in silhouette about the alchemic fires, the ash and the smoke. The floor lay littered with the stillborn forms of their efforts and still they labored on, the raw half-sentient mud quivering red on the autoclave. In that dusky penetralium they press about the crucible shoving and gibbering while the deep heresiarch dark in his folded cloak urges them on in their efforts. And then what thing unspeakable is this raised dripping up through crust and calyx from what hellish marinade. He woke sweating and switched on the bedlamp and swung his feet to the floor and sat with his face in his hands. Dont be afraid for me, she had written. When has death ever harmed anyone?


(I had not intended to type out the entire passage above, but once I got going I couldn’t stop.)


Bobby’s dream begins as an erotic manifestation of his sister, a Gothic evocation in silk ribbon or Grecian garb. She takes to a “stone stage,” again underscoring the shift into high drama. “I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe,” she declares. The word shadowlane here seems like a symbolic substitution for the near homphone chatelaine, an archaic word for a woman who keeps a castle or great house (readers of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series will be familiar with the word).

A chatelaine also refers to a chain belt used for holding keys, an image that carries over into the second half of Bobby’s dream, which shifts from eroticism to terror. Shadowy figures inhabit a “dusky penetralium,” an innermost chamber, a locked place. Here, the figures labor with red “half-sentient mud” (Adamic atoms) in an “autoclave” (self-key). Amidst a litter of stillbirths, the figures toil to bring a new creature into being.

Bobby’s dream moves from brother-sister incest to the Gothic terror of a laboratory creation coming to life—an evocation of the father’s sins. Bobby’s subconscious mind transmutes the Manhattan Project into a satanic ritual presided over by a clandestine “heresiarch” — the damning father figure whose strange experiment impede Bobby’s incestuous consummation. Instead, we get another Western union. And the promise of death.


(More thoughts to come.)

Scattered thoughts on starting Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger (Book acquired, 25 Oct. 2022)

I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger today. The last Cormac McCarthy novel was The Road, which came out way back in 2006, year of this blog’s birth. I read most of The Road in the delivery ward over a few days when my daughter was born. Since then I’ve read pretty much everything by McCarthy that’s been published (excepting the screenplay for The Counselor), and a lot of it more than once. (I’ve reread Blood Meridian more times than I can think of. I fall asleep to the audiobook version sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, starting at a random chapter.) In the decade and a half after his last novel The Road became an unlikely, Oprah-endorsed hit, McCarthy wrote a screenplay for a film I can’t even pretend is any good and an article about “The Kekulé Problem,” which was published in Nautilus. He seemed to devote most of his time to hanging around the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a trustee.

Rumors of The Passenger have slipped around the internet for the past seven years—it would be about lawyer, it would be about a mathematician, it would be the first McCarthy novel to feature a woman as its main character, it would be in a wholly new style. Scraps and rumors seeped out, but like a lot of readers, I suspect, or at least readers I spoke to online and even in the flesh, I didn’t expect to see a completed version of The Passenger published in McCarthy’s lifetime. (He’s 89, just a few years younger than my dear sweet grandmother, also from Tennessee, who passed away this past Thursday.) I thought that we might see a version of the text, eventually, posthumous, possibly even cobbled together, a la Wallace’s The Pale King or Hemingway’s Garden of Eden.

But Knopf announced not only would The Passenger publish in 2022, so too would a shorter, connected novel Stella Maris. I’ll admit I was both excited and apprehensive, especially after reading The Silence by Don DeLillo two years ago. DeLillo is (like Thomas Pynchon) just four years younger than Cormac McCarthy. And The Silence is hardly his strongest stuff. But apples and oranges: who am I to worry one old master against another old master? So I was excited. (But apprehensive.)

So I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger today. The cover is not as bad as it looked in the early internet promotional pics—not as static and flat. But it’s still not a great cover (and I say this as one partial to blue and orange, colors of my alma mater).

But a cover is not a book. I went into the pages. Before I get into the words on the pages, here’s a bit on the form of The Passenger. The novel appears to switch between two viewpoint characters: Alicia and her brother Bobby Western. (Bobby Western sounds like a William S. Burroughs character.) The Alicia passages are shorter, written completely in italics (which is fucking annoying) and given chapter numbers. The Bobby Western chapters look like regular ole Cormac McCarthy chapters.

And so well: I ended up reading the first chapter, the Alicia chapter twice. It is unlike anything else McCarthy has written. The chapter takes place in Alicia’s head in the form of a discursive discussion with “the Thalidomide Kid,” a vaudevillian interlocutor who’s quick with punning wordplay that’s rare in McCarthy’s work (of the apparent suicide note Alicia aims to write, he chides that it will be a “wintry summary”). With all his japes and clowning and weird zany energy (and hell, that name), the Thalidomide Kid seems like something more out of a Pynchon or Robert Coover story than a McCarthy novel. The closest thing that I can compare it to, at least in McCarthy’s oeuvre, is the trip scene in Suttree. I really really dig it. It’s dark and weird.

The first Alicia section ends with a dream of her brother, whom we then meet in the next section. Bobby Western is a salvage diver working with the Coast Guard in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s three am and freezing cold and there’s a jet with nine dead bodies down in the dark water. The writing here is what I would expect from McCarthy: lots of ands and thens, a general disregard for punctuation, and a lot of descriptions of men doing things. (There’s even a He spat in there!) This particular section was excerpted in The New York Times a fortnight ago, and you can read it without anything being spoiled for you, but I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting without the hallucinatory Alicia chapter that precedes it.

And that’s all I’ve got for now. I saw some lit folks I respect who have apparently read the novel already suggest that it’s Not Good, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far, and Want More.

 

A review of My Phantoms, Gwendoline Riley’s novel of disappointed expectations

Gwendoline Riley’s novel My Phantoms is not so much a sad novel as it is an unhappy one—an unhappy novel about an unhappy family. Some joker once suggested that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but the unhappiness of the unhappy family evoked in My Phantoms will feel familiar to anyone who grew up with a narcissistic or depressed, passive-aggressive parent.

Our unhappy family are the Grants: mom Helen (“Hen”), father Lee, and sisters Michelle and Bridget (“Bridge”). Bridge is our narrator and her foil is mother Hen. In some ways, My Phantoms amounts to an oblique biography Hen, one patched together through estrangement and emotional distance. Bridge does not let her mother into her life: she refuses to introduce Hen to her boyfriends and will not let her into her home. She meets Hen once yearly for a dreary birthday dinner filled with passive-aggressive banter.

Late in the novel, Bridge finally acquiesces to spend a few days with Hen, caring for her after a surgery, and the pair almost—almost—come to a communication breakthrough. Hen, an extrovert with two failed marriages and only one close friend (whom she does not like), repeats her mantra: It was just what you did. The It in that sentence stands in for a proscribed life: getting married when you were a certain age, moving to the suburbs, abandoning your dreams. Having children, even if you didn’t want children.

As My Phantoms progresses, it becomes clear that, even if she never states it, Hen resents that Bridge has evaded the proscriptions of It was just what you did. Bridge has engineered a patchwork of phrases and prompts to make it through her “conversations” with Hen, but as her caretaker visit comes to a close, she actually opens up to her mother, suggesting that Hen starts therapy. Bridge continues:

Can I tell you what I think? You need to think about what you want. And why what you get seems to leave you so empty. This comes up a lot with you, this note of disappointed expectation. I think you feel like a bargain has been broken when you say you do what you’re supposed to do. You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?

Hen never attends therapy, but she is finally permitted to go to her daughter’s flat for dinner and meet her boyfriend, John. A man Hen met traveling also attends the dinner. The awkward evening is yet another example in a series of Hen’s disappointed expectations. She is unable to converse naturally with anyone at the table. John observes of Hen, after their first meeting, that:

It just became quickly obvious that she wasn’t going to engage with anything that was actually being said. She had a stance, she was sticking to that, and that precluded reacting to what was actually happening. Or experiencing what was actually happening.

Hen’s inability to square her idealized expectations with reality and the impact that inability has on her children will be familiar to many readers. Riley’s evocation of the passive-aggressive mother is understated and deeply realistic. There’s nothing hyperbolic about My Phantoms, which makes the novel’s core unhappiness even more unsettling.

Take for instance Riley’s portrayal of Bridge’s narcissistic father Lee. Like Hen, he is unable to clearly communicate with his daughters. Instead, he picks on them with stock phrases and formulations. “I’m testing the produce!” Lee declares in the grocery store, stealing grapes to his daughters’ embarrassment. He mocks Bridge for reading Chekov, insisting that she’s merely “posing with a book. He makes lewd comments about women’s bodies to his daughters. And yet his hectoring ultimately fails to get under their skin. They learn to tune him out, and choose to have nothing to do as soon as they are able. Lee is possibly the most annoying character I’ve read in a contemporary novel. Unable to communicate with his daughters, he verbally bullies them in a light style that might be plausibly denied as actual abuse. But it is abusive. Lee is a man who believes himself to be much smarter and much funnier than he is, and when the world around him fails to notice his supposed brilliance, he responds by amplifying his obnoxiousness. I am sure you know someone just like him in your own life.

Bridge’s estrangement from her parents is unhappy—and realistic, as I’ve noted repeatedly. It’s her disconnection from her sister Michelle that I find most sad about the novel. It is not that the two are on bad terms; rather, they seem to have cultivated distance as a coping mechanism. What might have brought them closer instead separates them. But again, that separation is realistic.

There’s no joy in My Phantoms, and the bits of humor are bitter. The enjoyment in the novel comes from slowly piecing together the emotional reality behind the accretion of realistic details in the foreground. Bridge isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator, but she’s rarely direct. She shows us scenes from her life and comments on their emotional impact–but she never tells us what they mean, even as we reach the novel’s indelible and unhappy final image.

My Phantoms is available now from NYRB.

October recommendation: Fireworks, Angela Carter’s collection of sadomasochistic erotica

It’s October, and maybe you want some light heavy reading, something titillating but deep, sharp, maybe a little gross at times, always unnerving, right?

How about reading Angela Carter’s 1974 collection Fireworks?

Subtitled Nine Profane Pieces, the collection features nine profane pieces. Actually, I don’t think profane is the right adjective (although I’d always cede to Carter’s judgment in matters of diction). Many, no, most, of these stories approach the spiritual—albeit in a roundabout, okay, profane, manner. In the phallically-titled “Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest,” for example, Carter reimagines Adam and Eve in a new garden through a lens that ironizes both Rousseau’s notion of the noble savage as well as the European colonial project in general. There’s also some mild incest in the tale, to boot—so, okay, sure, profane.

The noun in Carter’s subtitle, pieces, is wholly accurate: the selections in Fireworks have a unified tone, but are disparate in form. There are fabulous thrillers here (“The Loves of Lady Purple,” the story of a puppet prostitute who sucks the life out of her ventriloquist master), morality tales (“Master,” a riff on the Great White Hunter with a figurative middle finger pointed in the general direction of Defoe’s Crusoe), and reminiscences that approach so-called autofiction (“A Souvenir of Japan” and “The Smile of Winter,” mementos of the years Carter lived in Japan). “Flesh and the Mirror” expands on Carter’s years in Japan, but swerves into Borgesian territory; “Reflections” goes straight through the Borgesian mirror into Burroughs world (William S., with just a touch of Edgar R.).

The strongest piece in the collection, at least in my estimation, is “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” which reads like a travelogue into incestuous abjection. “Here we are, high in the uplands,” our detached narrator begins, before offering up an anthropological catalog of life in that upland. The barest ghost of a plot clutches onto “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” and the piece is all the stronger for it. Instead, we get a cold, ugly study in cruelty and horror.

Readers new to Carter might prefer to start with her seminal 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, a book whose inverted fairy tales eviscerate the adjective I used in the previous clause, that adjective seminalThe Bloody Chamber is great! (Check out “Wolf-Alice” for a taste.) (And while I’m hanging out in parentheses, I’ll point out that Burning Your Boats collects pretty much all of Carter’s short fiction.) But back to Fireworks—if the pieces here are not as refined and unified as the anti-fairy tales that comprise Carter’s more-celebrated collection The Bloody Chamber, they are all the more fascinating as studies in sadomasochism, alienation, and the emerging of a new literary consciousness. Great stuff.

Vladimir Sorokin’s Their Four Hearts made me physically ill. (This is praise.)

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Their Four Hearts (in English translation by Max Lawton) made me physically ill several times. To be clear, the previous statement is a form of praise. I finished it a few weeks ago and put it on a high shelf where no one in my family might come across it.

I picked up Their Four Hearts on the strength of the first Sorokin novel I read, Telluria, and the third, Blue Lard (both also in translation by Max Lawton). The kinetic energy of those novels evoked cinema in my mind’s eye—something akin to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal Holy Mountain or Luis Buñuel’s comic masterpiece L’Age d’Or—narratives that engender their own new visual grammars. In Their Four Hearts, I again found a cinematic comparison, this time in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s study of depravity and cruelty, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Like Salò, Sorokin’s Their Four Hearts explores seemingly every form of depravity in extreme detail. It is not for the faint of heart or stomach. (Sorokin’s potent language, in Lawton’s sharp translation, would eviscerate the cliches that precede this parenthetical aside.) Their Four Hearts is fairly short—200 pages, including over 30 pages of charcoal illustrations by Greg Klassen—but I had parcel it out over four distinct sittings. (After the second time I had to put it down because of nausea, I decided to avoid reading it close to mealtimes.)

Frontispiece for Their Four Hearts, Greg Klassen

Before I touch briefly on that depravity, it might be useful to interested readers to offer a gloss on the plot of Their Four Hearts. There is no recognizable plot. Or, rather, the plot hides behind the accumulation of violent, abject details, forever unavailable to a reader, no matter how keen a detective that reader might be. It is a cannibalizing plot, both literally and figuratively, stochastic, absurd, consuming its own horrific iterations.

But, like, what is it about?, hypothetical you might ask. In lieu of a list of depravities, let me cannibalize the back cover copy:

Their Four Hearts follows the violent and nonsensical missions carried out by a group of four characters who represent Socialist Realist archetypes: Seryozha, a naive and optimistic young boy; Olga, a dedicated female athlete; Shtaube, a wise old man; and Rebrov, a factory worker and a Stakhanovite embodying Soviet manhood. However, the degradation inflicted upon them is hardly a Socialist Realist trope. Are the acts of violence they carry out a more realistic vision of what the Soviet Union forced its “heroes” to live out? A corporealization and desacralization of self-sacrificing acts of Soviet heroism? How the Soviet Union truly looked if you were to strip away the ideological infrastructure? As we see in the long monologues Shtaube performs for his companions––some of which are scatological nonsense and some of which are accurate reproductions of Soviet language––Sorokin is interested in burrowing down to the libidinal impulses that fuel a totalitarian system and forcing the reader to take part in them in a way that isn’t entirely devoid of aesthetic pleasure.

Libidinal forces . . . totalitarian system . . . forcing the reader . . . aesthetic pleasure?

Aesthetic pleasure? Pleasure is doing a lot in that phrase, although I was admittedly alternately rapt by Their Four Hearts even while I was (quite literally) disgusted. I’ve read enough Sorokin to this point that I didn’t have to be forced into the surreal, jarring logic of the plot, finding instead deeply dark humor in it, where possible (although more often than not, horror without humor).

“Rebrov took a noose out of his pocket and put it around Alexandra Olegnova’s neck,” Greg Klassen

I have resisted turning this ostensible “review” into a catalog of the horrors Sorokin offers in Their Four Hearts. These horrors are all the more horrible for their sensory evocation set against their seemingly senseless (lack of) meaning. When the foursome, very early in the novel, drug and murder Seryozha’s parents, remove the glans from his father’s penis, and pop into the kid’s mouth to suck on, does that mean something exterior to the novel’s own aesthetics? That the quartet continues to trade the glans off, taking turns sucking on it throughout the novel—are we to plumb that for some kind of allegorical gloss? Or do we simply ride with it? Their Four Hearts confounds its readers, creating not only its own inventions of vocabulary, but its own grammar of storytelling.

Instead of my describing further the horrors of Their Four Hearts (murder, pedophilia, parricide, torture, mutilation, coprophagia, rape, cannibalism, etc. ), it might be more profitable for interested readers to inspect the illustrations by Greg Klassen I’ve included in this review. Reminiscent of George Grosz or Hans Bellmer, Klassen’s charcoals capture the tone and vibe of Their Four Hearts. They add to the text’s cinematic quality. (Publisher Dalkey Archive should have given Klassen the cover.)

“With only a few strokes, Schtaube opened up the maxillary sinus cavities in the corpse’s face,” Greg Klassen

By now you likely have a clear idea if Their Four Hearts is For You or Not For You. I found the experience of reading Sorokin’s novel paradoxically compelling and repellent. (One of the closest experiences I can compare reading it to was eating beef chitterlings at a Korean restaurant in Tokyo. The waitress brought the raw gray intestines to our table, where we grilled them ourselves over charcoal, dipping them in sauces. We ate three orders.)

“He skewered all of their hands on the first meter-long spoke,” Greg Klassen

Telluria and the forthcoming Blue Lard are much better starting places for those interested in Sorokin, but his translator Lawton suggested in an interview that,

…any new reader of Sorokin [should] immediately chase TELLURIA with THEIR FOUR HEARTS: those two combined give something like a complete picture of the master at work.

It’s a strange chaser, and it leaves a flavor unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted. Highly recommended.

A review of Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black

In Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black, a fat psychic named Alison endures the harrowing torment of a collective of ghosts she calls the Fiends, the spirits of cruel men from her childhood. When a young, aimless woman named Colette comes into Alison’s life and assumes managerial duties for her career, Alison’s bilious past comes to a head. Colette engineers more and better gigs for Alison (the death of Princess Diana causes a huge spike in business), who, despite her genuine psychic talents, must nonetheless run the kind of scam the “punters” in her audience crave. Colette and Alison soon move in together, buying a new house in a quiet, boring suburb outside of London; their prefab homestead is drawn in sharp contrast to the slums of Aldershot where Alison grew up–the novel’s second setting. As Beyond Black progresses, contemporary suburban Britain increasingly crumbles into Alison’s grim, greasy past in Aldershot. Alison’s chief tormentor is, ironically, her “spirit guide,” a mean little man named Morris, a one-time frequent customer for Alison’s prostitute mother. Alison, like many victims, has suppressed much of her grotesque childhood, but it’s hard to black out everything with psychic baggage like Morris weighing her down. In time, more and more of the Fiends reemerge, forcing Alison to confront her mother and the abuse they both suffered at the hands of those awful men. As the book lurches to its chilling climax, Alison asserts independence, casting out her metaphysical and psychological demons.

At its core, Beyond Black asks what it means to be haunted and how one might survive an abusive past intact. A slim specter of a character named Gloria floats through the book. The Fiends, whose vile antics are sometimes compared to a gypsy circus, have dismembered Gloria with the old saw trick. In Alison’s memory, pieces of Gloria are scattered around her childhood home, parceled out, fed to dogs, transported in boxes at midnight, hidden. Alison’s awful mother frequently alludes to Alison herself being “sawed up,” a metaphor that dances on the literal as we come to realize that the old drunk has pimped out her daughter repeatedly. Mantel’s novel investigates the return of the repressed, and although she gives us something like a happy ending, the book’s central thesis seems to be that pain cannot be abandoned or hidden, but only mitigated through direct confrontation.

The book’s humor does nothing to lighten its grim subject–if anything it exacerbates and confounds the darkness at the heart of Beyond Black. Mantel’s gift for dialogue fleshes out her characters (even the spectral ones), and while the book aims for a satirical tone at times, its characters are too richly drawn to be mere cutouts in a stage production. Mantel’s satire of contemporary English life is sharp and bleak; you laugh a little and then feel bad for laughing and a page later you’re horrified. It’s a successful book in that respect. It’s one real weakness is in the character of Colette, whose voice gives way to Alison’s past by the book’s end. This is actually no problem, as Colette’s narrative life is not nearly as interesting as Alison’s psychic traumas; Colette is, however, catalyst for the changes in Alison’s life. It would’ve been nice to see more resolution here, but I suppose Beyond Black hews closer to real life here, with all its messy loose ends.

I chose to read Beyond Black because I enjoyed Mantel’s recent Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall so much. The books have little in common other than being well-written and tightly paced, and I think that anyone who wanted more Mantel after an introduction via Wolf Hall would do right to pick up Beyond Black. Recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in 2010. RIP to Hilary Mantel, who died “suddenly but peacefully” yesterday at 70.]

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures

 

Vladimir Sorokin’s 2013 novel Telluria, in its first English translation thanks to the estimable talents of Max Lawton, is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in a long time. Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures. Its fifty sections are simultaneously discrete and porous, richly dense but also loose and funny. It teems with life and language, exploding notions of stable storytelling into a carnival of wild voices.

The world Sorokin conjures in Telluria is best experienced without map or gloss. My joy in reading the novel came from wandering through its fifty chapters and slowly building my own sense of this post-collapse world. You explore Telluria, finding footing after stumbling initially over the disorienting newness of a particular section. And just as you’ve tuned into the particular section’s frequency, you find yourself in a new chapter, a new idiom, a new voice. It’s a goddamn linguistic picaresque best enjoyed on its own terms, terms it refuses to spell out in simple exposition.

Telluria does not have a plot in the traditional sense, although its sum is greater than its parts. The fifty sections are not mere exercises in style, but rather a reflection of post-twentieth century consciousness: fractured, paranoid, hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic, chaotic, joyous, dystopian, utopian, ironic, earnest, strange…The reader who wanders through the fifty chapters will piece together a brave weird world where our contemporary nation states and political alliances have splintered into a cacophony of fiefdoms, city states, monarchies, republics, and so on. (There’s even a system of “enlightened theocratocommunofeudalism.”)

The needle that threads through it all is tellurium, a real (if earth-rare) element (as you’ll undoubtedly recall from your high-school chemistry class). In our world, tellurium is mostly employed in creating alloys for machines. In the world of Telluria, it is a drug that can take its user on a transcendental journeys, Those lucky enough to get their hands on a tellurium spike might find themselves transported into metaphysical spaces. Expert “carpenters” hammer tellurium nails into the heads of seekers, and these seekers go on to communicate with the dead, rampage fearlessly in battle, meet Christ in heaven, fly above mountaintops, or, in some cases, simply perish.

I should have by now offered a taste of the language in Telluria. A nice chunk of text set within the gum of context, no? But I don’t know how to do that effectively–Telluria is a dazzle of tongues. Offering a taste of just two or three of the sections would insufficient. It would amount to something like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Instead, I’ll offer Max Lawton’s thoughts on translating Telluria, from an interview he granted me earlier this year

Sorokin’s conceit in writing the thing was not to symbolically represent a particular historical period or something like that, but to give voice to difference itself. 50 voices and 50 differences. Because of that, my task was monomaniacal in its complexity: to follow Sorokin out into deep waters of difference and, like him, give birth to 50 absolutely unique voices…I had to be impenetrable where he was impenetrable, ungainly where he was ungainly, and senseless where he was senseless; anything less would have been a betrayal of what makes the book worth reading. As such, I appealed to Chaucer (for the centaur), Céline (for the bagmen), Turgenev translations (for the hunting), Faulkner and McCarthy (for the oral narratives about highly rural situations…), Ginsberg (for the “Howl” rip-off), Mervyn Peake (for the overripe fantasy-novel fun), and a great many others.

Telluria’s verbal carnival matches (and, really, engenders) seemingly endless imaginative invention on Sorokin’s part. We get dog-headed mutants engaged in philosophical discourse, “litluns” planning a revolution over the normies, the Carpenters of Western Europe hammering tellurium spikes into an army of Knights Templar who are about to set off on their thirteenth flying crusade against Islamic invaders. There are late-night, drug-fueled, multilingual bullshitting sessions, orgies, a princess who gets her kicks slumming it in disguise and fucking the serfs. There are lovers separated by thousands of miles, mutated horses larger than three-story houses, tourists in the USSR — the Ultra-Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic. A centaur falls in love. Etc.

I copped out of citing any passages from Telluria above, protesting that it might offer an incomplete picture—and that’s true. But reviewing my notes, I think it’s worth sharing one passage at some length, a passage that I think both describes the milieu of the novel as well as approaches a kind of moral vision for the novel (with the strong caveat that any one distinct moral vision is necessarily exploded and ironized by the other voices that thread through the novel—as Lawton stated in our interview, Telluria is “an ode to difference….For Sorokin, the world is a million different textures, a million different languages, and no ONE can be said to triumph.”)

“We must not take anyone else’s karma upon ourselves, not even in small matters,” the brigadier continued. “Especially now in our renewed, post-war world. Take a look at the Eurasian continent: after the collapse of ideological, geopolitical, and technological utopias, it was finally plunged back into the blessèd and enlightened Middle Ages. The world returned to human scale. Nations found themselves. Man ceased to be the sum of the technology around him. Mass production is living out its final years. There aren’t two identical nails beaten into humanity’s head. Man regained a sense of the thing, started to eat healthy grub and ride horses again. Genetic engineering helps man to feel his true size. Man has regained faith in the transcendental. Regained his sense of time. We’re not rushing anywhere anymore. Most importantly–we understand that there can be no technological heaven on earth. And, and in broader terms, no heaven at all. Earth has been given to us as an island of overcoming. Everyone chooses what to overcome and how to overcome it. And they make that choice themselves!”

Sorokin’s post-collapse world doesn’t seem all that bad to me. 

Telluria was my first encounter with Sorokin, and I think it makes a grand introduction. I’ve since read Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) and Blue Lard (forthcoming next year from NYRB and also translated by Max Lawton). I’m currently reading Lawton’s translation of Their Four Hearts. While I think Blue Lard is the strongest of these titles (and I look forward to/dread reviewing it in the future), Telluria is an excellent introduction to Sorokin’s work, offering an engaging taste of his methods (all through Lawton’s lively translation). The book’s energy and imagination offer a nice counter to the dour dystopian narratives that abound these days.

Telluria is Not For Everyone. Readers interested in clear “worldbuilding” or plots that tie up all the loose ends will find themselves exasperated, as will readers who actively resist the linguistic playfulness of Lawton’s translation. Similarly, readers searching for a moral analogy for contemporary Russian politics and culture will find themselves straining to apply whatever mold they’ve already forged in their minds. Neither is this book particularly interested in the Americas or Western Europe. Sorokin’s province is the vast vacillating mass of Eurasia. In his 2012 book Russia: A Very Short History, Geoffrey Hosking notes “the arduous and challenging task of building a coherent polity on the flat open plains of northern Eurasia,” arguing that although Russia “has been a remarkable success story,” it is nevertheless a country “which had its own weaknesses programmed into it.” Hoskings continues: “[Russia] rested on a tacit compact between ruler, elites, and communities of ordinary people, renewed after periods of upheaval and crisis, yet never wholly harmonious, always subject to internal strains.” Telluria is an ecstatic and jarring exploration of those upheavals, those crises, those wonderful strains, a satire on the very notion of a coherent polity.

I loved it. Very highly recommended.

Ann Quin’s novel Passages collapses hierarchies of center and margin

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.

The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.

Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.

Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)

Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.

Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:

Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.

Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:

I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.

The woman’s becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.

The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:

How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.

The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.

This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:

Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.

Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:

I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.

Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:

An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.

Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.

The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.

As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:

It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.

Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challengingabject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review in May, 2021. Quin’s fourth and final novel, Tripticks, is being reissued this month by And Other Stories.]

Blog about the audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19

I finished the audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s second book Checkout 19 a few minutes ago, or really, a few minutes before I started writing this blog.

Bennett reads the book herself.

Sometimes listening to an author read their own writing is revelatory; the author imposes a performance that the prose alone, particularly the syntax, couldn’t conjure in your mind’s ear. There’s more to the work than you’d imagined. (And then, later, when you settle down, maybe you realize: there’s less.)

And sometimes hearing the author read their own work is painful. It’s not the writer’s fault, necessarily, but they shouldn’t be encouraged to visit microphones. They ham it up, or their restraint cools the prose, or, maybe they’re just nervous. They wrote the book to be read, not audited, maybe.

The other category of audiobooks read by their authors, or one of the other categories of audibooks read by their authors, is in my estimation the optimal experience: The writer reads their book in the most natural of manners, as if reading something they’d worked on for months or years or whatever into a digital audio file was just a natural thing, a normal thing, and that the author, the reader—the author is the reader, now, of her own work—the author can read her own work without a veil of artifice, without a smirk, without hedging.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s reading of Claire-Louise Bennett’s book Checkout 19 falls into this third category. The experience is unforced, an adjective that I don’t know what to do with now that I’ve written it. I’ll retreat to summary and description for a moment then: the audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19, as read by Claire-Louise Bennett, is not quite seven hours long. It is divided into seven chapters, and, generally, very generally speaking, offers a kind of early autobiography through reading and writing. It is a kind of Künstlerroman, a word I learned in college which is not really useful here. In more contemporary terms it might be called autofiction, although I don’t know what that means either.

The chapters of Checkout 19 circulate not circularly in an elliptical rhythm, tracing and retracing foundational moments in Bennett’s, or Bennett’s narrator’s, life.

(I don’t believe for a minute that anything in Checkout 19 is false, even the embellishments, even possible lies.)

These moments are primarily connected to reading and writing, and something that I loved about Checkout 19 was how often Bennett concretized how physical and temporal reading and writing are: How we remember not just what or why we read or wrote, but also where, and when, and how: Where did we find spaces to carve out our own little stories? What were the beautiful covers of books we failed to read yet nevertheless lugged around with us? Why are some pens suited for drawing but not writing?

We get Bennett’s narrator sussing out the world of letters from a young age. Her Roald Dahl is the same Roald Dahl who wrote her mother’s copy of Switch Bitch, but he’s not the same Roald Dahl. Later, a boyfriend worries that Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton might not be good for her, and tries to keep them from her. He’s the same boyfriend who gets way too into Bukowski, embarrassing really. And even later (as a sort of capping grace on this motif in the story) Bennett’s narrator reclaims Anaïs Nin from freshman dorms everywhere, declaring her a talent to be reread later. Bennett’s book made me want to revisit Anaïs Nin, who I’ll admit I’ve compartmentalized along with Plath, Sexton, and Bukowski as writers I read in college.

There are lots of other books that pop up, full lists at times, canon-making, frankly (enough to make me order a physical copy of the book), but E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, which I have never read, is a major touchstone. Checkout 19 didn’t make me want to read A Room with a View, but I did relate very strongly to a moment when Bennett’s narrator admits to misremembering a key detail in the narrative in a way that fundamentally impacts her life.

Bennett also weaves and estimable biography of the avant garde writer Ann Quin into Checkout 19, which I hope will lead lots of people to read the novels of the avant garde writer Ann Quin. (Start with Berg.)

What else, what else? So much else—boyfriends and obsessions, mean girls and chronic boredoms, a Russian magician, bearing Nietzsche books, a hanged man at the children’s park. Bennett smuggles in a magnificent, strange story in, the life of one Tarquin Superbus, who acquires an impossible library only to find every book blank and null. Only Tarquin Superbus’s mentor assures him that there’s a magic sentence hiding somewhere in there—he just needs to hunt for it. The story is like something from Eco or Calvino, and I would’ve lapped up more of it.

What else, what else? There were parts that cracked me up to no end, as when the narrator lends her copy of a Paul Bowles novel—must’ve been The Sheltering Sky—to a guy who had had some flowers he’d bought for himself ruined while attempting to bicycle them home. She witnesses a car drive over the flowers and sees her friend, or acquaintance maybe, upset, and decides to loan him the Bowles novel when she meets him at the pub, but he’s too caught up in the story of his destroyed flowers to really take note, and he doesn’t even open the book—which Bennett’s narrator had purchased in Morocco or Algeria (look, I can’t remember right now, I don’t have a physical copy)—and he doesn’t even open The Sheltering Sky (it couldn’t have been Let It Come Down, right?), he just keeps retelling the story of his flowers destroyed, ever more tragic. Worst of all, he hates that she’s already witnessed the flowers’ ruin: he can’t tell his tragedy. She never gets the book back. And isn’t that always the way?

If you read and loved Bennett’s first book Pond like I did, you’ve probably already read Checkout 19 or put it into some stack to get to. If you haven’t read Pond, read Pond—and then check out Checkout 19. Great stuff.

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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Schrödinger’s Deer | A review of Dashiel Carrera’s surreal debut novel The Deer

Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel The Deer is puzzling, sometimes brilliant, and occasionally frustrating. Gloomy, surreal, and terse, The Deer is at its best when it’s at its most sinister—namely, on its first half, “Side A.” Taking a record album as its model, The Deer has two sides (A and B), each divided into titled Tracks  (on side A) or Lessons (side B). This unusual structure results in a genuinely experimental novel, where some elements crackle with eerie verve and others fall flat. The result is a novel that simultaneously compels and baffles readers, while challenging their notions of what a novel can—or should—do.

“Side A” of The Deer follows a man who may or may not be quantum physicist Henry Haverford, who may or may not have been drunk when he may or may not have hit a deer with his automobile at the beginning of the story. Henry may or may not be going back to his parents’ home to bury his father. I could keep adding may or may not to pretty much everything else that happens in The Deer, which operates on its own nightmare logic. The name Schrödinger is invoked in the fourth paragraph. The Deer reads like an attempt to apply quantum superposition theory to a novel about family trauma.

The family trauma that resonates in the first half is dark and icky—dead dogs, dead deer, Henry’s aloof brother Arthur, their sinister father, a dying (dead) mother, and a mother-figure girlfriend. In the background murmurs jazz piano, messages from the International Space Station, baseball on the radio, and the stifling threat of the police force, which Henry Haverford’s father may or may not have been a member of.

Henry’s multiple encounters with the police, who are simultaneously local law enforcement officers as well as Kafkaesque Authorities — “the Force” — showcase some of the best writing in The Deer. An early run-in with the police at the grocery store unfolds with particularly menacing grace:

“What have you got there, Mr. Haverford?”
The cops sip their coffees and grin.
“Beets,” I say. “I’ve got to bring home some beets for
dinner.”
“We heard you were sick,” says one of the cops.
“You did?”
“Yes, we heard you’ve come down with something really awful.”
“Truly awful.”
“That you’ve been asking all sorts of strange questions.”
I frown. “Well, I’ve been remembering a few things here and there. It’s been a long time since I was home.”
“Yes, but very strange things, Mr. Haverford. You haven’t been thinking straight.”
I force a chuckle.
“Is that liquor in your bag?”
I fondle the cap and lean back. The sliding glass doors open. “Yes. It’s for Arthur.”
“Oh, Arthur.” The men exchange a smile.
“Yes—I should get back to him, actually.”
“Oh, of course, Mr. Haverford. We wouldn’t want to
keep Arthur waiting.”
“Thank you. Yes, I shouldn’t keep him waiting.” I turn.
“It’s just that—well—we’d like to have you come into
the station tomorrow. For a few questions.”
“Questions?”
The other man takes off his cap. “Just a routine follow-up, Mr. Haverford. I’m sure you understand.”
“Right. Sure.”
“Wonderful.” One of the cops glances at the other.
“Well, we must be off.” He grasps my forearm and smiles.
“Great to see you again, Mr. Haverford.”
I nod. “Right. Very good to see you too, Officer.”

When he goes to his first interrogation, things get even stranger, with the police asking Henry what they believe should be done with the dead deer. The interrogation culminates with an ominous line that shouldn’t feel like a threat, but nevertheless sounds like one:

“Am I free to go?”
“Yes,” says the man in the long grey coat. “But we’ll
have you back to see the fawn.”

From there, side A of The Deer edges further into a nightmare of superimpositions and displacements—Henry seems unstuck in time and reality, he’s a boy, a teen, a man, but also a deer, even a fawn, a victim. The situation climaxes in the final track on side A, “The Deer.” It’s another interrogation scene, far more intense, and by the end of it one senses that our Henry, like a character from a David Lynch film, has shifted identities by the time he’s left the room—although nothing is permanent or stable in the world Carrera’s constructed.

Side B continues exploring the may-or-may not themes of the first half, but in an entirely different setting. We move to a first-person narrator, a woman who cares for an ailing mother with her sister. They live in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world, with threats of marauding “riders,” illness, drought. Although the settings are radically different, Carrera takes pains to underscore the thematic line in his novel, invoking Schrödinger’s cat again:

Mother prepares another bowl. We eat slowly. The
kitchen light rocks back and forth. Sister leans back on the counter, popping bread in her mouth.
I read aloud to Mother. It is the Old Book, from the
Before Times. The title has long disintegrated.

I say, this is the story of a cat.

She nods slightly. Or maybe it is a rocking. Maybe her head was rocking, and I only thought it was a nod.

I say, the cat goes into a box.

I say, a man comes up to the box, and he leans down
next to it.

I say, the cat does not make a sound. Not even a scratch.

I say, the cat’s tail slowly curls around itself but the man does not know, because he cannot see the cat and the cat cannot see him.

I say, the man must decide if the cat exists.

At times the choppy, etiolated first-person voice of side B didn’t resonate as fully-realized in my ear, and I found some of the genre-bound descriptors (like “Before Times”) too on-the-nose in a book that is otherwise full of compelling obliquities. Other moments are stronger, like in the following passage, which again underscores the book’s theme of quantum superposition:

Read to me in the book how everything is shaking. Read to me how all the objects are composed of molecules and these molecules are fluid in structure. Read to me how all things twirl in recombination and the existence of objects is confirmed only through collective patterns of sensory perception. Read to me about how we must stay in sync, how these objects which we know to be real must be kept afloat by a rhythm of agreement, how this Earth which tilts so slowly pulls us all in the same direction. Read it to me again, Sister, because I can only feel the cool of the ink and the scratch of the parchment. Read it to me again, Sister, because I can only see the glimmers of this world.

It’s a remarkable paragraph, which feels both timely and timeless, for are we not always in a crisis of the “rhythm of agreement”?

Carrera studied writing under both Jason Schwartz and Evan Lavender-Smith, and the imprint of those writers, as well as the tree from which their own fiction might be said to extend, bears influence on The Deer. In his masterful John the Posthumous, Schwartz found sinister power in the vignette, in the cruel detail, which Carrera evokes in his novel as well. The Deer’s engagement with radical ambiguity also brings to mind Lavender-Smith’s novella Avatar, a study in untethered consciousness. Beyond that, Carrera branches from the Kafka tree, and The Deer will appeal to those who can hang in the surreal abject worlds of, say, João Gilberto Noll or Kōbō Abe or Anna Kavan or Hiroko Oyamada, without collapsing into goo. Good stuff.

The Deer is available from Dalkey Archive.

 

 

Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat is a funny, ludic novel about trauma and art

A book should be like a lot of spit. But who would publish me? Who publishes a person who’s sort of soaking in pain, who can’t always walk, employed only pretty much in name?

Did writing exist in books anyway these days? I thought perhaps defensively. Maybe it didn’t.

Writing does exist in books these days, despite what Iris, the narrator of a book of writing that exists, a book by Caren Beilin entitled Revenge of the Scapegoat, thinks perhaps defensively.

Iris, who will later transform into Vivitrix Marigold, thinks these defensive thoughts after receiving a package from her estranged father. The package contains two letters her father wrote to her when she was a teenager and a play she began but never finished composing when she was 17. The play had a title though: Billy the Id.

And why does Iris need defensive thoughts to defend her against this offensive package? Well, it turns out she was the designated scapegoat of her family, the atavistic locus for her father’s animus and her terminally-ill mother’s helplessness.

Mom’s dead now and Iris has escaped to Philadelphia, where she’s an underemployed adjunct teaching creative writing to overworked kids. She’s been “re-parented by the crucial cosmos, if poorly,” living in a house her mother left to her “like a moldy letter, black botches all over, and all over the counters.” Her mother had bought the house as an escape plan for Iris and her brother, but she never escaped (“She died of staying”). Iris lives in the moldy old house with her alcoholic husband. He lies about being a recovering alcoholic (“He told me that microdosing heroin was helping him in his recovery”). It’s clear that the marriage is failing.

But this isn’t a marriage story. It’s not her husband’s unremarkable departure, but rather the arrival of the packaged writing, that sparks Iris’s transformation. This transformation occurs over four distinct sections.

The first section is mostly a dialogue between Iris and her friend Ray, who is transitioning between genders. Like Iris, Ray was the designated scapegoat of their family, and the pair bonds and shares their trauma at a coffee shop called Good Karma. There’s a zaniness to Scapegoat that frequently veers into absurd humor and even outright surrealism (as when, for example, Iris punctuates her conversation with this observation: “The sun was going down. Holograms of dead parrots flopped in the road,” which I take to be Beilin’s oblique approximation of the old chestnut, “Somewhere in the distance a dog barked”). But the zaniness in Scapegoat is never precious or cloying; rather, the verbal quirks and eccentric images are anchored in the concrete pain and real trauma that Iris is trying to process.

Inspired by her conversation with Ray, Iris offers them her house in exchange for their boxy old Subaru. Iris drives and drives and drives, out into the New England countryside, repeatedly playing the same cassingle, one “SCAR” by Vivitrix Marigold. The poor Subaru, which “had more than 700,000 miles” on it, eventually gives out, and Iris finds herself stranded “out in the middle of a New England nowhere” — but not a poor nowhere, “No, this was all richie rich.”

It’s in this second section that Iris transforms into Vivitrix, and the narrative becomes even more surreal. It begins with our hero outside of an obscure art museum called The mARTin. There is a heart-stepping cow, of old Nazi stock, stepping on her heart. From there things get even weirder, and it would be a shame to spoil more of the plot. I don’t actually care about plot too much, but a lot of wild stuff: a curator who may or may not have murdered her husband, cowherding, a patricidal pervert, kale marmalade made from bull semen, castration conversation, a queasy dinner party (with a forced table reading of Billy the Id!) and more.

There’s also a very cathartic end, which I wasn’t anticipating. But it was lovely.

Perhaps ultimately the plot of Revenge of the Scapegoat is about transforming trauma into art, but as I write this sentence out, it seems like something Iris would tell her students not to do in their writing. Iris scatters her writing advice into the narrative and then breaks it: “Do not italicize foreign words”; “I told students there could be no rain or scenes on benches”; “Don’t write about food in an inventive way”. And my favorite: “Don’t make adult women reconcile or admit anything in your writing.”

In addition to this metatextual conceit, Beilin also employs the strange rhetorical device of turning Iris’s poor arthritic feet into Bouvard and Pécuchet, characters from Flaubert’s unfinished satire Bouvard et Pécuchet. At one point the pair bicker over which kind of precious metal or gem a witch might prefer. They are the not-quite-chorus of Revenge of the Scapegoat.

Beilen also lards her tale with similes that wonderfully strain credulity. On the first page, Iris compares the vegan leather of shoes to “a liquid you would press from a hot tampon you are pulling now, by the lamplight, out of a toad’s omnibus of Anaïs Nin.” Iris will often then puncture the artifice of the simile with rough reality: “I was shaking in the grass like an Etch-a-Sketch a higher power was trying to erase wholesale. Fuck that. I stopped shaking.” Or consider the surreal swell and bathetic pop in this passage, where Iris (now Vivitrix) compares her first encounter with The mARTin museum to the narrator of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” seeing the titular house for the first time:

Like that narrator, that man, so too I, Vivitrix, first looked at the reflective water rather than at a real building, weird, so I first saw The mARTin upside down. Its pink door stretched tall on morning’s mandible, as though it were flocked in flamingo leather, a pink surpassing the high heat of “hot,” a flamingo ultravinegar spilled all over something like a primed bookcover of a welcome new monograph on someone like Sade, or Wilde, someone such as Rimbaud or O’Hara, or Keats, men with honorary vaginas who castrated by love and the system, Flaubert, Adorno or Baldwin. It was a very pink door.

I’ve shared a taste of Beilin’s prose at length, and while I think it’s representative of the novel’s style, it can’t replace the feeling of how her sentences flow and build and ebb and swell. Initially, some of the verbal tics in Scapegoat irritated me, but it was the kind of irritation that makes you want to keep reading. And, a few pages after the lovely strange passage I’ve quoted above, our hungry hungry hero declares, “I needed some beef like you wouldn’t beleef.”

I laughed out loud and that initial irritation resolved into something like love. Highly recommended.

Revenge of the Scapegoat is available now from Dorothy.

Not toward peace | On Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary

“I don’t live well,” the unnamed narrator of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary tells the young woman he will soon marry. “The excuse isn’t clear to her, though she tries to follow its meaning,” he continues, this time to the reader. While the narrator seems, on the surface, a man with a good job as a clerk who lives in a respectable house with his mother, he doesn’t live well—the adverb modifies the verb live in a literal, visceral sense: our hero is an anxious wreck who cannot tune in to the modern condition. He “can’t sleep or eat or read or speak in the chaos of sound” that is the modern, post-war condition.

And that is the central problem of The Silentiary: the chaos of sound. Set in an unnamed, rapidly-growing Latin American city in the early 1950s, Di Benedetto’s 1964 novel belongs to the same canon of Kafkaesque, existentialist postwar novels like Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Like those novels, The Silentiary follows the nonadventures of a disaffected young man out of tune with his society.

There’s no need to summarize The Silenciary at length. The narrator works in an office, has a crush on his neighbor but ends up marrying her friend, and converses with his flighty philosophical foil, Besarion. He also dreams of completing a novel (to be called The Roof), but alas can never set about even getting started because of the “chaos of sound” that ever encroaches upon him. And that is the real plot of The Silentiary: our poor hero is ever retreating from modernity’s cacophony, only to find new, louder sounds piercing his repose.

His attempts to evade noise are simultaneously mundane and absurd. At one point, he’s schlepping around an old piano that no one can play (symbol of his mother’s middle-class respectability) like a giant anchor, trying to jam it into small quarters. Another sequence finds him moving to a small town, only to end up with a tragic punchline. He’s moved next door to a blacksmith: “Forge and bellows, the anvil and its hammers.”

The narrator’s wife loves him without understanding him, but he finds a confessor in his friend Besarion. This enigmatic character pops in and out of the novel, engaging in puzzling dialogues with the narrator, who is wary and possibly jealous of his friend: “He’s free. He has managed to make his life a long digression, or a kind of multiple metaphor.” Years ago, before the narrator had married and before Besarion had gone on a series of religious travels, he had diagnosed the narrator thusly: “Your quest against noise is metaphysical.” Upon return though, Besarion ironizes that diagnosis, stating that even though his friend believes that his “adventure is metaphysical,” it is actually “physiological, or psychic, or nervous.” This can’t relieve the narrator’s pain though: the chaos of noise “won’t let me exist,” he protests. Besarion solemnly tells him, “Bear up. Make do.”

For all its seriousness, The Silentiary is often a funny, wry novel. Consider the narrator’s description of the automechanics who’ve moved next door: “They seem to have abandoned themselves entirely to their passion for the hygiene of all that has four wheels and an engine.” Or our anxious guy getting dyspepsia: “The food I ingest at lunch does not resign itself to its destiny.”

The phrasing in such moments recalls Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama, also ably translated by Esther Allen. Again, Allen captures something crisp and wry, subtle and precise that is surely native to Di Benedetto’s prose. The results are often beautiful, like in a strange little haiku-like moment early in the novel:

Last night the big gray cat of my childhood came to me.

I told him that noise stalks and harries me.

Slowly, intensely, he cast his animal, companionable gaze upon me.

Or the beautiful phrasing of another strange moment:

…I come across a photo of the lion tamer we dined with after the circus performance.

The tamer’s mane is as untamed as ever, in all the dishevelment of bad nights to which no comb can offer a morning remedy. He’s under double guard.

Lovely!

Yet for all its humor and beauty, The Silentiary is ultimately a sad, though never dour, read. The novel does not wax elegaic for a romanticized, quieter past, nor does it call to make peace with cacophony. There’s only Besarion’s stern intonation to “Bear up [and] Make do.” We’ve the portrait of one man who cannot escape or mute the chaos of sound. Ultimately, he cannot bear up and make do. So he resists, becoming a martyr for silence…but it doesn’t end well. The novel concludes darkly: “The night flows on…and not toward peace.” Recommended.

A few thoughts on John Williams’ brilliant historical novel Augustus

At the beginning of April, an old friend (who wrote some excellent reviews on this site in the past) told me that I needed to read John Williams’ 1972 novel Augustus. I loved Williams’ Stoner, which I read (and reviewed) a decade ago, when its cult status seemed to explode thanks to a new edition from NYRB. After Stoner, I tried a few times to read Williams’ western, Butcher’s Crossing, but never got too deep into it. I handled copies of Augustus a few times at bookstores, but the subject didn’t appeal to me. But my friend recommended it, and he’s never steered me wrong, so I picked up a copy of Augustus and cracked it open.

I picked up a copy of Augustus and cracked it open and didn’t put it down that much, unless I had to, until I’d finished it. The novel tells a life story of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, grand nephew Julius Caesar, who suceeds and avenges his assassinated great uncle (and adoptive father) to become the first Emperor of Rome. I was surprised at how much Roman history I remembered—some of it through two Shakespeare plays, some of it through an old HBO show, but most of it from, like, school. And this is one of the most fascinating elements of Augustus—Williams takes an old story and revivifies it.

Essentially an epistolary novel, Augustus features a rotating cast of voices. Prominent among these voices are Augustus’ — or really, Octavian’s — core group of friends, Maecenas, Agrippa, and Virgil. We also hear from notables including Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, and Ovid, as well as many other voices, both invented and historical. There’s something addictive about Williams’ lucid prose, which imbues each character’s voice with its own distinctive style without falling into rhetorical gimmickry.

The early parts of the novel focus on young Octavian’s rise—the assassination of Julius Caesar, the warring Triumvirate, the political intrigue which overlaps with familial duty. We see Octavian/Augustus from multiple perspectives, but Williams’ withholds his hero’s voice until late in the novel. It’s Augustus’ daughter Julia who emerges, slowly, as the novel’s most sympathetic (and ultimately tragic) hero. Her sections of the book are particularly poignant, and recall from Stoner the doomed relationship between William Stoner and his daughter Grace.

Augustus is sad and wise but never dour. Williams harnesses the intellect and soul of his characters, who are simultaneously mortal and timeless. So many passages seem to describe life in the present-day United States (as well as other Western democracies). Consider the lines Williams attributes to Augustus’ intellectual adviser Maecenas, writing late in his life to the historian Livy:

What you seem so unwilling to accept, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world.

The complacency, the greed, the cynical failure to not just live up to its expressed ideals, but to take for suckers those who would still believe in those ideals—there’s something heartbreaking about the way Augustus anticipates contemporary democracy in peril to spectacle, hypocrisy, and avarice.

The titular character takes over in the brilliant last act of Augustus. Our Emperor is an old man, melancholy, reflective, but ultimately hopeful that he’s left the empire in good hands (he hasn’t). His final letter echoes Maecenas’ concerns about the corruption of Roman ideals:

. . . I knew that my destiny was simply this: to change the world. Julius Caesar had come to power in a world that was corrupt beyond your understanding. No more than six families ruled the world; towns, regions, and provinces under Roman authority were the currencies of bribery and reward; in the name of the Republic and in the guise of tradition, murder and civil war and merciless repression were the means toward the accepted ends of power, wealth, and glory. Any man who had sufficient money could raise an army, and thus augment that wealth, thereby gaining more power, and hence glory. So Roman killed Roman, and authority became simply the force of arms and riches. And in this strife and faction the ordinary citizen writhed as helplessly as the hare in the trap of the hunter.

And yet Williams’ Augustus is a realist, but one who tempers his perceptions of reality in a compassionate idealism:

Do not mistake me. I have never had that sentimental and rhetorical love for the common people that was in my youth (and is even now) so fashionable. Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant, and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant or the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.

I haven’t done enough to convey how wonderful Augustus is. Very highly recommended.