A review of The Paris Review’s overproduced podcast


In his introduction to the first episode of The Paris Review Podcast, former editor Lorin Stein tells us that we’re going to hear some great writing. He then claims, “what you won’t hear is much in the way of hosting from me or anyone else. We’re just going to let the writing speak for itself, the way it always has in the magazine.” The first two parts are true—there’s plenty of great writing here from The Paris Review archive, and there’s no one hosting the pieces. The last part of Stein’s claim is the problem though: The Paris Review Podcast repeatedly refuses to simply let the writing speak for itself. Prose and poems alike are slathered in distracting and silly sound effects and busy musical cues. This is a shame, because the estimable voice talents the producers have enlisted do a marvelous job conveying the tones, mood, and rhythms of the pieces the producers have selected (most of which are excellent). Perhaps the podcast’s producers simply don’t trust their readers enough to stay engaged without all the buzzing clutter—but for me the overproduction is too much.

There are ten episodes of The Paris Review Podcast to date. I have listened to half of them: episodes 10, 1, 5, 2, and 3 (in that order). Episode 10, “The Occasional Dream,” was perhaps an unfortunate starting point, as it contains some of the most overproduced segments I heard in the series.

The problem wasn’t the first selection, a fantastic Frank O’Hara poem called “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” which I’d never read before. David Sedaris’s reading conveys the poem’s wit and depth, and the musical cues are only mildly intrusive, bleeding in at beginning and end. Then we get to Roberto Bolaño’s poem “When Lisa Told Me,” read by Dakota Johnson. The poem is set in a phone booth, so the producers, not trusting Bolaño’s powers of mimesis, or the auditor’s imagination (or both), include phone booth sound effects, like change dropping into a slot, buttons being punched, a dial tone. There’s also some distracting music. All of this takes away from Bolaño’s music (and Johnson’s capable reading).

By the time I got to Mary-Louis Parker reading Joy Williams’s story “Making Friends” I was dismayed. Cheesy calypso music crawls all over the story. When Williams notes a dog panting, the producers employ the sound effect of a dog panting. This is not how fiction works. In my distracted consternation, I forgot to pay attention to the story itself.

The worst offender by far though is an archival recording of John Ashberry reading his poem “Soonest Mended” which has been, for some reason I do not understand, accompanied by a new guitar composition by Steve Gunn. Gunn’s music is wonderful, his guitar evocative of fingerpickers like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, and I would be happy to listen to it on its own. Mashing it up with Ashberry’s poem adds nothing—or rather, we have subtraction by addition.

Archival recordings fare better elsewhere. In Episode 2, Jack Kerouac tells the story of the Buddha without any fussy interruptions. Kerouac’s unadorned riff showcases the podcast’s potential to present wonderful little moments, stitching them to other wonderful moments, without any overproduced impositions. Similarly, the inaugural episode, “Times of Cloud,” gives us Maya Angelou and Paris Review founder George Plimpton in conversation. The producers choose an apt moment; Angelou essentially offers a raison dêtre for The Paris Review Podcast:

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.

The most “glorious language” in Episode 1 of The Paris Review Podcast comes from Wallace Shawn reading Denis Johnson’s classic story “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking.” A really good reader—and Wallace Shawn is a really good reader—can help us hear a story we’ve read a dozen times in a new way. It’s a testament to both Shawn’s reading and Johnson’s prose that they withstand the goofy sound effects and needless music the producers daub all over the story. Johnson’s narrator has already told us that it is raining; we do not need a canned rain shower murking up the audio.

The mimetic cloudiness of sound effects can be cheesy, but the unneeded musical cues are often the more damaging imposition. In Episode 5, Alison Fraser reads Lucia Berlin’s  “B.F. and Me,” conveying the story’s odd flirty energy with aplomb. The bluesy vamping soundtrack adds nothing though—again, it takes away from the auditor’s experience of the prose. In the same episode, Caleb Crain reads his wonderful short story “Envoy.” The tale’s strange poignant climax manages to survive the unnecessary intrusion of a heavy-handed musical cue that could easily have disrupted the ambiguities in the last few sentences. A Dorothea Lasky poem in Episode 3 begins well enough. Its imagistic contours of concrete reality unfurl without any noisy claptrap. But when the poem’s second half steers toward abstraction, the producers add a piano étude to compete with Lasky’s own music. And in the climactic moment in Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” (also in Episode 3)—you know, the part where the characters, um, dance—the producers actually add a fucking country waltz.

The Paris Review Podcast perhaps suffers from an anxiety of influence. I imagine the show wishes to separate itself from The New Yorker’s no-frills Fiction Podcast, where one author reads another author’s story, and then discusses the story with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. The Paris Review Podcast veers far more closely to the busy buzziness of Radiolab, with a dash of This American Life. I can understand the appeal there, the attempt to capture some of that ole timey radio Foley stage energy. But Radiolab is its own medium with its own formal innovations. The Paris Review is a mixtape, yes, but it’s a mixtape of poetry, prose, and interviews. A poem that John Ashberry wrote and read aloud in his own voice does not need the innovation of a contemporary guitar score. We do not need the sound of shallots simmering in a pan to convey that someone is cooking, as happens in Shelly Oria’s story “My Wife, In Converse.” We do not need a bluesy-guitar bend or the sustain of melancholy piano chords to convey the emotion that the writer has already conveyed through the language.  The effect of such impositions is like someone doing shadow puppets over an oil painting, or talking during a film, or pouring soup over a really good salad.

And yet you’ll note above that I listened to half of the podcasts. I listened while walking or driving or doing small household chores or yard chores. The stories, the poems, the interviews are quite good. There’s so much potential here. But it often seems like The Paris Review Podcast is content to present the material as an ambient backdrop, an aural texture that might compete with a commute. This is wholly unnecessary. The form is already there, embedded in the content—the language itself. And the language is best—most glorious, Angelou might say—when it is naked.



Paul Kirchner’s comix collection Awaiting the Collapse reviewed


My review of Paul Kirchner’s collection Awaiting the Collapse is up now at The Comics Journal.

From the review:

Tanibis has now published Awaiting the Collapse: Selected Works 1974-2014, a gorgeous compendium of some of Kirchner’s finest work over the past four decades. Many of Kirchner’s Dope Rider strips are here, along with a handful of his covers for Screw, as well as miscellaneous comics in different genres. Despite the range of years and variety in genres here, Kirchner’s surrealist spirit dominates. His comics poke at the weird worlds that vibrate beneath the surface of our own routine reality, offering new ways of seeing old things, to see the real as surreal.

Kirchner’s Dope Rider strips are particularly surreal. Dope Rider, a psychedelic skeleton cowboy, embarks on adventures that transcend time, space, and psyche. In “Beans for All”, Dope Rider rescues Pancho Villa, busts his revolutionary army out of the hoosegow, and opens the U.S. border, leading the revolution to Las Vegas, a psychedelic city floating over an astral desert. In “Loco Motive”, Dope Rider crosses the border again to smuggle good dope back into the mother country. “Crescent Queen” finds Dope Rider on a quest to find mythical Tucumcari. In this episode, Kirchner transmutes the Battle of Little Bighorn into a Pop Art mandala where Plains Indians morph into centaurs. And in “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…” our hero… well, our hero smokes some really, really good dope, resulting in a vision that allows Kirchner to show off his estimable visual talents.

Check out the full review.


Omelette à la Alma | Phantom Thread riff



Rambling Preamble 

Phantom Thread (2017) is the eighth feature film by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. I have been a fan of Anderson’s work since I saw Boogie Nights (1997) in my freshman year of college, and have watched each of his subsequent films in the theater. The theater is the proper place to watch Anderson’s lush, luscious films, although they are also so strong as narratives that they hold up just fine on, say, a 19″ Toshiba television with a built-in VCR, which is how I repeatedly watched Blockbuster-remaindered cassettes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia (1999) circa 1998-2001. But again: The theater is the proper place to see an Anderson film, and Phantom Thread is exceptionally lovely on the big screen—one doesn’t so much watch it as imbibe it, or perhaps, in a reversal of that metaphor, sink into it. What I’m saying is: Watch Phantom Thread in the theater.

Is “Watch it in the theater” not enough in the way of argument, reader? Perhaps you want, like, details?

Here are some details I knew going in to the film (I generally try to avoid reviews and any press on any film I plan to see): The film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; the film stars Daniel Day-Lewis portraying a fashion designer; the film is set sometime in the 1950s.

My wife and I went to see the film yesterday afternoon and we loved it, then discussed it at length at dinner, and then again this morning over breakfast (perhaps prompted by “breakfast” itself, one of the film’s motifs). It’s a strange, beautiful, perplexing romantic comedy that will disarm and unsettle audiences. I can’t wait to see it again.

Screenshot 2018-02-04 at 3.27.03 PM

The Plot and the Major Characters

1950s. London and countryside environs. Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous fashion designer who dresses the highest of high in European society. He and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run the House of Woodcock, following a precise, obsessive routine. At the film’s outset, Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a countryside restaurant. He asks her to dinner that night, and from there the two enter into a strange relationship. The film’s trajectory explores the conflicts and confluences of that strange relationship, tracing how Reynolds’ and Alma’s romance intertwines with Cyril, business, design, and art. (Oh. And Reynolds’ and Cyril’s dead mother).

Cinematography, Score, Costume Design and Set Design

Gorgeous. Like I said, go see the film—the aesthetics are marvelous, rich, sumptuous. I’ve been writing about Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur (and will continue to do so), but his production team is fantastic, and I think there’s an implicit argument in Phantom Thread itself against the whole auteur concept. (If you listen to or read interviews with Anderson, he will often use the pronoun “We” when discussing his work).

Screenshot 2018-02-04 at 3.26.09 PM

Phantom Thread’s Place in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Filmography

Phantom Thread might be Anderson’s “best” film to date: it is certainly one of the best-acted, best-shot, and best-directed, and its editing and pace move with a more precise rhythm than his looser and more sprawling films. I loved it, but it’s not necessarily my favorite Anderson film. If pressed to choose a favorite, I might point to the weird sprawl of Inherent Vice (2014) or the perfect imperfection of The Master (2012)—or just settle on There Will Be Blood (2007). Many Anderson fans point to Anderson’s shortest film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) as his best.

In some ways, Phantom Thread has more in common with Punch-Drunk Love than his other films. They are both romantic comedies featuring emotionally-challenged leads who find their way to a strange resolution. In any case, Phantom Thread is an engaging character study focused on just a few intense personalities—like The MasterPunch-Drunk Love, or There Will Be Blood. It’s more focused in its vision than Boogie Nights or Magnolia, and more emotionally “true” than Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight (1996). Those first three films seem to me particularly beholden to Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, but Phantom Thread continues to show Anderson overcoming his anxiety of influence. (Although I’ll admit that I was occasionally reminded of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) while watching Phantom Thread—probably because of the luxuriant imagery. And Daniel Day-Lewis. Anderson’s film is superior).

The Goddamn Movie Trailer

The discussion of the film that follows contains spoilers, including descriptions of the film’s ending 

Continue reading “Omelette à la Alma | Phantom Thread riff”

The Last Jedi and the Anxiety of Influence


Let me start by erasing my own anxieties about “reviewing” The Last Jedi (2017, dir. Rian Johnson). I saw it over a month ago in a packed theater with my wife and two young children. We loved it. I haven’t seen it since then, although I’d like to. Because I’ve only seen it once, this “review” will be far lighter on specific illustrating examples than it should be. Now, with some of those (writing) anxieties dispersed, if not exactly erased:

The Last Jedi strikes me as one of the best Star Wars films to date, of a piece with The Empire Strikes Back (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner) and Revenge of the Sith (2005, dir. George Lucas).

Not everyone agrees with me. Clearly, a lot of people hated Rian Johnson’s take on Star Wars. I won’t repeat the laundry list of gripes about The Last Jedi, but instead offer this: the numerous noisy denunciations of The Last Jedi can be rebutted via the terms, tropes, and tones of any of the previous films themselves. Put another way, anything “wrong” (tone choices, plot devices, casting, etc.) with The Last Jedi can be found to be “wrong” with any of the previous films. Furthermore, I don’t intend to directly rebut gripes about The Last Jedi here. Most attacks on the film simply amount to iterations of, “This film did not do what I wanted this film to do,” to which my reply would be, “Well, good.”

“Well, good” — the passionate reactions to The Last Jedi show the film’s power—both narratively and more importantly, aesthetically—to disturb a cultural sense of what the Star Wars franchise “is” or “is not.” In burning down much of the mythos (again, both narratively and aesthetically) of the films that preceded it, The Last Jedi opens up new space for the series to grow.

I enjoyed The Last Jedi’s most immediate predecessor,  The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams), but was critical of its inability to generate anything truly new. Riffing on The Force Awakens, I wrote that the film “is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos. . . [the film] takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is ‘about’ Star Wars.” And, more to the point:

Isn’t there a part of us…that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond that which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?

The Last Jedi transcends the narrative stasis of The Force Awakens. “Stasis” is probably not a fair word to describe TFA. Abrams’s film excited viewers, roused emotions, offered engaging new characters, and even killed off a classic character via the classic Star Wars trope of Oedipal anxiety erupting in violent rage. TFA’s stasis is the static-but-not-stagnant excitement of having expectations confirmed. In contrast, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi punctures viewer expectations at almost every opportunity, aesthetically restaging tropes familiar to the series but then spinning them out in new, unforeseen directions.

The Last Jedi echoes visual tropes from The Empire Strikes Back in particular. Indeed, many fans believed that Rian Johnson’s TLJ would (or even should) reinterpret Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan’s entry into the series, much as J.J. Abrams had restaged A New Hope (1977, dir. George Lucas) with The Force Awakens. Instead, Johnson pushes the Star Wars narrative into new territory, with an often playful (and sometimes absurd) glee that has clearly upset many fans.

Johnson’s (successful) attempt to reinvent Star Wars might best be understood in terms of what the literary critic Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. Bloom uses the anxiety of influence to describe an artist’s intense unease with all strong precursors. To succeed, new artists must overcome their aesthetic progenitors. Bloom compares the anxiety of influence to the Oedipal complex. An artist has to symbolically kill what has come before in order to thrive.

An apt description of franchise filmmaking’s inherent anxiety of influence can be found in Dan Hassler-Forest’s essay “The Last Jedi: Saving Star Wars from Itself,”  published last year in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

An overwhelming anxiety of influence predictably permeates any new director’s attempt to elaborate on the world’s most famous entertainment franchise. In J. J. Abrams’s hands, this anxiety was clearly that of a fan-producer struggling to meet other fans’ expectations while also establishing a viable template for future installments. In doing so, his cinematic points of reference never seemed to extend far beyond the Spielberg-Lucas brand of Hollywood blockbusters that shaped his generation of geek directors, and he tried desperately to make up for what he lacks in auteurist vision with energy, self-deprecating humor, and generous doses of fan service.

But Rian Johnson is a filmmaker of an entirely different caliber. Just as Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan once added complexity, wit, and elegance to Lucas’s childish world of spaceships and laser swords, Johnson makes his whole film revolve around characters’ fear of repeating the past, and both the attraction and the risk of breaking away from tradition.

A break with any tradition, however, paradoxically confirms the power of that tradition. Johnson understands and clearly respects the Star Wars tradition. Despite what his detractors may believe, Johnson hasn’t erased or trampled upon the Star Wars mythos in The Last Jedi; rather, as the Modernist manifesto commanded, he’s made it new. Continue reading “The Last Jedi and the Anxiety of Influence”

A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven

The City I Dream, Victor Brauner

George Orr is not well. The meek protagonist of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven abuses prescription drugs in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to stop himself from falling asleep. Orr doesn’t want to sleep because he believes that his dreams come true—that they literally alter reality—but in such a way that no one but Orr realizes that the world has changed. Orr gets caught using a “Pharmacy Card” that doesn’t belong to him, and is court-ordered to begin treatment with a sleep research psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber. Although Haber initially doesn’t believe Orr’s claim to be cursed with “effective dreams” that transform reality, he soon realizes that Orr’s dreams somehow do come true. Then, via hypnotic suggestion (and an “Augmentor” device), Haber begins wielding Orr’s gift/curse as a clumsy tool to “better” the world.

The world of The Lathe of Heaven is grim, gray, dystopian. Published in 1971 and set in Portland in the palindromic year of 2002, Le Guin’s novel is depressingly prescient. Not only does she capture the onset of seventies malaise (the ashes of hope that burned out in the sixties), she also points to a future of environmental catastrophe:

Very little light and air got down to street level; what there was was warm and full of fine rain. Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth—70° F on the second of March—was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising…

This is also a world of urban sprawl, overpopulation, malnutrition, and total war (a clusterfuck in the Middle East, wouldn’t you know). The government is a vague and menacing presence here—vaguely totalitarian, vaguely Big Brotheresque. We learn of the “New Federal Constitution of 1984,” one of many references to Orwell’s book. (The most obvious is our passive hero’s name).

So it’s no wonder that Haber sets about to create a utopia, right? Wouldn’t you, like, try to make the world a better place if you could? Haber is repeatedly described as a “benevolent man”—Le Guin withholds the word dictator—but the central theme comes through repeatedly: Is it possible to alter reality for the greater good? Or do we simply exist in nature, a part of everything around us?

Haber’s experiments with Orr’s mind have unintended consequences. How might we, say, cure overpopulation? How about an awful plague. Orr’s “effective dreams” revise history, rewrite reality, remap consciousness. But he’s never quite able to pull off the massive tasks Haber sets for him—end racism, end war, cure the damaged ecosystem (Le Guin is extremely pessimistic on this last front). Orr is burdened with the consciousness of multiple realities, and feels deep guilt for his role in uncreation. He starts to go crazy:

“I am cracking,” he said. “You must see that. You’re a psychiatrist. Don’t you see that I’m going to pieces? Aliens from outer space attacking Earth! Look: if you ask me to dream again, what will you get? Maybe a totally insane world, the product of an insane mind. Monsters, ghosts, witches, dragons, transformations—all the stuff we carry around in us, all the horrors of childhood, the night fears, the nightmares. How can you keep all that from getting loose? I can’t stop it. I’m not in control!”

Continue reading “A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven”

On Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels



“Are we not Men?”

— The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells (1896)

“A country, a people…Those are strange and very difficult ideas.”

— Four Ways to Forgivenss, Ursula K. Le Guin (1995)

—Each of the novels in Ursula K. Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle obliquely addresses Wells’s question by tackling those strange and very difficult ideas of “a country, a people.” The best of these Hainish books do so in a manner that synthesizes high-adventure sci-fi fantasy with dialectical philosophy.

—What am I calling here “the best”? Well—

The Left Hand of Darkness

Planet of Exile/City of Illusions (treat as one novel in two discursive parts)

The Dispossessed

—(How oh how oh how dare I rank The Dispossessed—clearly a masterpiece, nay?—so low on that little list? It’s too dialectical, maybe? Too light on the, uh, high adventure stuff, on the fantasy and romance and sci-fi. Its ideas are too finely wrought, well thought out, expertly cooked (in contrast to the wonderful rawness of Rocannon’s World, for example). None of this is to dis The Dispossessed—it’s probably the best of the Hainish books, and the first one casual readers should attend to. (It was also the first one I read way back when in high school)).

—The novels in Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle are

Rocannon’s World (1966)

Planet of Exile (1966)

City of Illusions (1967)

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Dispossessed (1974)

The Word for World is Forest (1976)

Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995)

The Telling (2000)

—Okay, so I decided to include For Ways to Forgiveness in the above list even though most people wouldn’t call it a “novel” — but its four stories (novellas, really) are interconnected and tell a discrete story of two interconnected planets that are part of the Hainish world. And I pulled a quote from it above. So.

—I read, or reread, Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle close to the chronological order proposed by the science fiction writer Ian Watson. I don’t necessarily recommend this order.

—(I keep modifying “Hainish cycle” with “so-called” because the books aren’t really a cycle. Le Guin’s world-building isn’t analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (Except when her world-building is analogous). But let us return to order).

Le Guin on the subject:

People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read my science fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities (like, what happened to “mindspeech” after Left Hand of Darkness? Who knows? Ask God, and she may tell you she didn’t believe in it any more.)

OK, so, very roughly, then:

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions: where they fit in the “Hainish cycle” is anybody’s guess, but I’d read them first because they were written first. In them there is a “League of Worlds,” but the Ekumen does not yet exist.

—I agree with the author. Read this trilogy first. Read it as one strange book.

—(Or—again—pressed for time and wanting only the essential, read The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness—but you already knew that, no?).

Continue reading “On Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels”

Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, and interviews of 2017 (and seventeen roosters)

I read fewer books in 2017 than I have in years, and wrote a lot less on this blog than in the past. There are (uninteresting) reasons. There were lots of books and films that I wish I’d written about—maybe I’ll squeeze them into a post in the next week—but for now, mostly as a means of archiving and organizing (and a reminder to update the reviews page), these are the longer things I wrote on this blog this year (and, uh, some roosters):

Garden with Roosters, 1917 by Gustav Klimt

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

RIP William H. Gass

Th Rooster, 1966 by Ivan Generalic

Not a review of Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language

Eddie Campbell’s canon of great graphic novels, 1977-2001

Sparring Cockerels by Charles Tunnicliffe

A review of Blade Runner 2049

On Philip K. Dick’s novel A Maze of Death

Two Roosters, 1905 by Pablo Picasso

Hurricane Irma reading riff

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

Rooster and Hen with Hydrangeas by Ito Jakuchu

A riff on rereading Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

This is not a review of Shattering the Muses, a strange hybrid “novel” by Rainer J. Hanshe and Federico Gori

The Rooster Goes on a Trip by Michael Sowa

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

Lost in The Vorrh

Rooster and Chicks by Ohara Koson

“Translation is an act of risk” | An interview with Rainer J. Hanshe on translating Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare

Not a review of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian

Rooster, 1900 by Ivan Bilibin

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

A quick note on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog

Cock on Drum, 1882 by Shibata Zeshin

Let me recommend Antonio di Benedetto’s overlooked novel Zama

The Cock Fighters 1950 by André Fougeron 1913-1998
The Cock Fighters, 1950 by André Fougeron

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

Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods just wasn’t for me

The Cock Fight, 1882 by Emile Claus

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

A review of Robert Coover’s excellent new novel Huck Out West

Dead Cock, 1660 by Gabriel Metsu

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose rest can well on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.


Jangly George Saunders | A review of Tenth of December

Money, With Space Between by John Baldessari
Money, With Space Between by John Baldessari

“For me, the litmus test is always language,” George Saunders told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. “If the sentences are kind of jangly and interesting, then I know how to proceed.”

Saunders composes stories syntactically: his themes and plots and characters emerge from the right jangle, the right discordant note that simultaneously pleases and disturbs. This technique shows in his latest collection Tenth of December, a showcase for Saunders’s estimable verbal prowess and a reminder that he is one of America’s preeminent satirists.

Tenth of December also reveals some of Saunders’s limitations, the biggest of which is that he seems to write the same few stories again and again. Granted, these stories are sharp, funny, puncturing criticisms of American life—satires of corpocracy and the ways commerce infests language (and hence thought); satires of how late capitalism engenders cycles of manufactured desire and very-real despair; satires, ultimately, of how we see ourselves seeing others seeing us in ways that we don’t wish to be seen. Perhaps Saunders writes the same plots repeatedly because he thinks we need to read them repeatedly—and there’s certainly pleasure and humor and pathos in Tenth of December—but there isn’t any territory explored here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia.

Take “Escape from Spiderhead,” one of the stronger entries in December. This is pure Saundersville, a story nudging weirdly into a skewed future that might come too-true too soon. Said spiderhead is a prison command center where wardens subject their inmates to language and desire experiments, using drugs like “Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, ChatEase™” (lord does Saunders love incaps) to manipulate the prisoners’ minds and bodies alike (all with consent, of course).

The story is a biting and often painful exploration of how our desires and actions might be constrained and controlled by others. It’s also an excellent excuse for Saunders to flex some of those verbal muscles of his:

He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of several tales in December that ultimately posit selflessness and empathy as a metaphysical escape hatch, an out to all the post-postmodern awful.  It’s a near-perfect little story, which is why it’s too bad when Saunders essentially repeats it (right down to the Verbaluce™/amplified language conceit) in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” (Perhaps “My Chivalric Fiasco” was necessary though; it provides the sole “weird theme park” story requisite to any Saunders collection).

An equal to “Spiderhead” is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the collection’s strongest condemnation of how capitalism engenders bizarre ethical positions within families, between neighbors—and even countries. The longest story in the collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” purports to be a harried middle class father’s diary, a conceit which gives Saunders plenty of space to jangle.

Our poor narrator just wants to keep up with the Joneses, a serious character flaw that often results in hilarious hyperbole. He takes his family to the birthday party of his daughter’s classmate. This classmate’s family is wealthy, perfect, glowing, healthy, innovative, happy:

Just then father (Emmett) appears, holding freshly painted leg from merry-go-round horse, says time for dinner, hopes we like sailfish flown in fresh from Guatemala, prepared with a rare spice found only in one tiny region of Burma, which had to be bribed out, and also he had to design and build a special freshness-ensuring container for the sailfish.

Set against such a pristine backdrop our hapless narrator’s own life seems stressful and shabby:

Household in freefall, future reader. Everything chaotic. Kids, feeling tension, fighting all day. After dinner, Pam caught kids watching “I, Gropius,” (forbidden) = show where guy decides which girl to date based on feeling girls’ breasts through screen with two holes. (Do not actually show breasts. Just guy’s expressions as he feels them and girl’s expression as he feels them and girl’s expression as guy announces his rating. Still: bad show.) Pam blew up at kids: We are in most difficult period ever for family, this how they behave?

I love how Saunders works I, Gropius in there—his dystopian touches work best when they are simultaneously over-the-top (idea) and graceful (delivery of idea). These moments of humor don’t deflate the extreme anxieties that “The Semplica Girl Diaries” produces; rather, the humorous, hyperbolic eruptions add to what turns out to be a horror story.

Like the narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the eponymous would-be hero of “Al Roosten” is painfully attuned to how others might/do see him. “Al Roosten” is one of several of December’s exercises in how we see others seeing us (set against the backdrop of how we desire others to see us, etc.). The story starts at a charity auction where local businessmen are being auctioned off (including Roosten’s rival Donfrey—an echo of Emmett) and then heads precisely nowhere (or rather, remains entirely in poor Roosten’s skull). First paragraph:

Al Roosten stood waiting behind the paper screen. Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous. Although probably a lot less nervous than most people would be. Most people would probably be pissing themselves by now. Was he pissing himself? Not yet. Although, wow, he could understand how someone might actually—

That sentence-interrupting final dash precedes the intrusion of the “real,” phenomenological world into Roosten’s consciousness. There’s much of James Thurber’s “Walter Mitty” in “Al Roosten”—and, indeed, much of Mitty in Saunders generally—perhaps because Saunders’s jangles lead him to explore the strange gaps between thought and action, reality and imagination. It’s worth sharing a few paragraphs of Saunders’s technique:

Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.

Roosten brightened and sent a relieved half wave in the direction of the whoop, and the awkwardness of this gesture—the way it inadvertently revealed how terrified he was—endeared him to the crowd that seconds before had been ready to mock him, and someone else pity-whooped, and Roosten smiled a big loopy grin, which caused a wave of mercy cheers.

Roosten was deaf to the charity in this. What a super level of whoops and cheers. He should do a flex. He would. He did. This caused an increase in the level of whoops and cheers, which, to his ear, were now at least equal in volume to Donfrey’s whoops/cheers. Plus Donfrey had been basically naked. Which meant that technically he’d beaten Donfrey, since Donfrey had needed to get naked just to manage a tie with him, Al Roosten. Ha ha, poor Donfrey! Running around in his skivvies to no avail.

We can note here the transitions between what the world sees (in those first two paragraphs) to how Roosten sees the world seeing him. This is Saunders at perhaps his finest, showcasing a meticulous control of free indirect style; Roosten is simultaneously pathetically endearing and loathsome. He is attractive and repellent precisely because we understand him—what it is to see him, but also what it is to be seen in the way he is being seen.

The titular story, which closes the collection, also offers a Walter Mittyish figure, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” who sneaks off into the woods to fantasize about the Lilliputian “Nethers” who might try to kidnap his crush Suzanne (whom he’s never addressed, of course). “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said,” the poor boy imagines. Again, this is Saundersville, where we laugh out loud and then reprimand ourselves for our cruelty and then engage, empathize, say, Hey kid, I’ve been there too…

“Tenth of December” is a sort of rewrite of two stories from Pastoralia, “The End of FIRPO in the World” and “The Falls.” I suppose I don’t mind, but I wish that Saunders’s jangles might lead him to new plots. Despite its rehashing of these earlier stories, “Tenth of December” delivers possibly the strongest case for empathy-as-transcendence in the collection. Our boy gets a shot at actually living up to his haircut—he’ll valiantly help a suicidal terminally ill man, who will, in turn, help him.  What the story illustrates best though is how impulse precedes action and action precedes thought, how action can be shot through with memory:

He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree to tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.

Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint birdfeeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—

There’s that dash again. Dare I liken it to the dashes of Poe, of Dickinson? Maybe, maybe not.

I’ve shared some highlights of December, which I believe outweigh its weaker spots, unremarkable pieces like “Puppy,” a transparent exercise in how class in America inheres through a system of seeing/not-seeing others, or “Exhortation,” an amusing but forgettable memorandum that reads like Saunders-doing-Saunders.

“Home” is really the only story I would’ve left out of December. It’s the story of a war veteran trying to reintegrate into a society that flatly reiterates “Thank you for your service” while doing precisely nothing to actually thank the vet. Saunders’s sentiments are clearly in the right place, but the story rings false and hollow, its authorial anger overriding the humanity of its characters. At its worst moments, “Home” gives us a world of shuffling grotesques whose quirks preëmpt any possibility for genuine pathos. Saunders, usually in command of language, seems strained here. And it’s not a strain of venturing into new territory; no, all of Saunders’s tricks and traps are on display here (including an unexplained/unexplored substance called MiiVOXmax). Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps there’s too much of the author in the story.

And maybe that’s why I like the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks” so much–it seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections. I don’t know why Saunders included it in December but I’m glad he did. It breaks up some of his rut.

That rut, by the way, is a pleasure to roll through—a fast, funny pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Saunders is very good at highlighting our culture’s ugly absurdities, and he usually does so with moving pathos. And if his jangly sentences are their own raison d’être, then so be it. They are harmonious and sour, soaring and searing. Recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first ran this review in April of 2013]

Not a review of Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language


I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).

The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.

Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:

Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?

In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”

Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!

So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.

The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).

Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).

Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous.  Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.

What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is.  And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.

As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulumbut The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.




A review of Blade Runner 2049

Film poster for Blade Runner 2049 by James Jean

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), but I do remember that it had an instant and formative aesthetic impact on me. Blade Runner’s dark atmosphere and noir rhythms were cut from a different cloth than the Star Wars and Spielberg films that were the VHS diet of my 1980’s boyhood. Blade Runner was an utterly perplexing film, a film that I longed to see again and again (we didn’t have it on tape), akin to Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984), or The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)—dark, weird sci-fi visions that pushed their own archetypes through plot structures that my young brain couldn’t quite comprehend.

By the time Scott released his director’s cut of the film in 1993, I’d read Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and enough other dystopian fictions to understand the contours and content of Blade Runner in a way previously unavailable to me. And yet if the formal elements and philosophical themes of Blade Runner cohered for me, the central ambiguities, deferrals of meaning, and downright strangeness remained. I’d go on to watch Blade Runner dozens of times, even catching it on the big screen a few times, and riffing on it in pretty much every single film course I took in college. And while scenes and set-pieces remained imprinted in my brain, I still didn’t understand the film. Blade Runner is, after all, a film about not knowing.

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. Moody, atmospheric, and existentialist, the core questions it pokes at are central to the Philip K. Dick source material from which it originated: What is consciousness? Can consciousness know itself to be real? What does it mean to have–or not have—a soul?

Set three decades after the original, Blade Runner 2049 centers on KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling in Drive mode). K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb). K is a blade runner, working for the LAPD to hunt down his own kind. At the outset of the film, K doesn’t recognize the earlier model Nexuses (Nexi?) he “retires” as his “own kind,” but it’s clear that the human inhabitants of BR ’49’s world revile all “skinjobs” as the same: scum, other, less human than human. K, beholden to his human masters, exterminates earlier-model replicants in order to keep the civil order that the corporate police state demands. This government relies on replicant slave labor, both off-world—where the wealthiest classes have escaped to—and back here on earth, which is recovering from a massive ecological collapse. The recovery is due entirely to Niander Wallace’s innovations in synthetic farming—and his reintroduction of the previously prohibited replicants.

Our boy K “retires” a Nexus-8 at the beginning of the film. This event leads to the film’s first clue: a box buried under a dead tree. This (Pandora’s) box is an ossuary, the coffin for a (ta da!) female replicant (a Nexus-7 if you’re counting). Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want any plot spoilers.

Continue reading “A review of Blade Runner 2049”

Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous is a dark, disarming novella

Knife and Glass, Richard Diebenkorn

The strongest and strangest literature usually has to teach its reader how to read it, and, consequently, to read in a new way. Jason Schwartz’s new novella John the Posthumous is strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth—entomology, etymology, gardening, the architecture of houses, the history of beds, embalming practices, marital law, biblical citations, murder, drowning, fires, knives, etc.—and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.

What is the book about? Was my list too choppy? Our unnamed, unnameable narrator tells us, late in the book: “Were this a medical, rather than a marital history—you might then excuse so conspicuous a series.” (His series, of course, is different from mine—or perhaps the same. John the Posthumous, as I’ll suggest later, is a series of displacements). 

So, John the Posthumous is a marital history. There. That’s a summary, yes? Ah! But there’s conflict! Yes, this is a book about adultery, about cuckoldry! (“Cuckoldry, my proper topic . . .”). Adultery is threaded into the titles of the three sections Schwartz divides his novella into: “Hornbook” — “Housepost, Male Figure” — “Adulterium.” There’s something of a poem, or at least a poetic summary just there.

Do you sense my anxiety about writing about the book? Some need to deliver a summation? Perhaps I’m going about this wrong. How about a sustained passage of Schwartz’s beguiling prose. From the first book, the “Hornbook”:

The lake is named for the town, or for an animal, and is shaped like a blade.

Adulterium, as defined by the Julian Statute, circa 13 B.C., offers fewer charms, given the particulars of winter, not to mention various old-fashioned sentiments concerning execution. Mutilation, for its part, is more common—the adulterous wife, or adultera, to use the legal term, surrenders her ears or nose, and, on occasion, her fingers—with divorce following in short order. Some transcriptions neglect the stranger, or adulterer, in place of graves—a simple matter of manners, this, not withstanding the disquisition upon the marriage bed. Others relate ordinary household details—dismantling the chairs, and visiting the windows, and departing the courtyard.

A gentleman, remember, always averts his eyes.

Cuckold’s Point, near Brockwell, in London, is most notable for its gallows—the red sticks recall horns—and for the drowning of dogs.

Schwartz’s narrator’s sentences do not seem to flow logically into or out of each other. They seem to operate on their own dream/nightmare logic, as if the words of John the Posthumous were the concordance to some other book. The single line paragraph about the lake (source of its name not entirely determined; its shape best expressed in simile) shifts into a horrific legal history of adultery and then into Cuckold’s Point, a bend in the Thames that owes its name to a simile.

Simile is perhaps the dominant mode of John the Posthumous. Schwartz’s narrator condenses and expands and displaces his objects, his characters, his themes. Sentences sometimes seem to belong to other paragraphs, as if multiple discursive discussions wind through the book at once. Our narrator tells us that

The common wasp measures roughly two hundred hertz. This is well below the frequency of, say, a human scream. Anderson compares the sound of a dying beetle with the sound of a dying fly. (The names of the families escape me at the moment.) The common bee, absent its wings, is somewhat higher in pitch. (Carpenter bees would swarm the porch in August.) The true katydid says “Katy did” — or, according to Scudder, “she did.” The false katydid produces a different phrase altogether, something far more fretful. Wheeler concludes with the house ant and the rasp of a pantry door. Douglas prefers a hacksaw drawn across a tin can. (We found termites in the bedclothes one year.) A sixteenth note, poorly formed, may be said to resemble a pipe organ or a hornet. The children set their specimens on black pins.

Here, entomologists (note how Schwartz always pulls his language from his reading, his research) try to describe the language of insects. Interspersed we get images of mutilation and impalement (“The common bee, absent its wings”; “The children set their specimens on black pins”) along with interjections of insects infesting intimate domestic spaces (“We found termites in the bedclothes”). The passage also picks up the novella’s motif of sharp objects (“a hacksaw drawn across a tin can”). There’s something simultaneously banal and horrifying about the tone of this passage, its language a juxtaposition of scientific observation and cloudy personal recollections—all contrasted with “the frequency of, say, a human scream.”

Infestation, violence, and betrayal shudder throughout John the Posthumous, erupting in strange moments of deferral and transference: “When the horse becomes a house, furthermore, termites appear on the floor,” reads one bizarre line. “A woman says ‘dear’ or perhaps ‘door,’ and then two names—or perhaps only one,” we’re told. “Even the earliest primers compare the heart’s shape to a fist or to a hand waving goodbye,” the narrator points out.

At one point, the narrator laments: “how I regret these grisly, inexpert approximations.” In context, he’s working through a series of etymologies (linking shroud to groom and wishing that dagger had some connection to dowager), but the phrase—“grisly, inexpert approximations”—approaches describing the narrator’s program of deferral and displacement.

Etymology repeatedly allows the narrator (an approximation of; an attempt at) a basis of description:

The doorframe disappoints the wall, as the wall disappoints the door. The mullions divide the yard into nine portions. But portions—or, if you like, portion—is an unlovely word. Guest and host, for their part, issue from the same root—ghostis. Which means strangervillainenemy—though naturally I had believed it to mean ghost. And the figure in the corner, lower right, is neither my daughter nor her hat, but just a paper bag in the grass.

The passage is remarkable. We begin with the mundane but symbolically over-determined image of a doorframe, along with an equally mundane wall and door—all connected, bizarrely, with the verb disappoints, producing an uncanny effect. The mundane mullions that divide the yard reveal the perspective of our narrator. He is looking out. He seems to be trapped in a house, but the house is always displaced, shifting—it’s many houses. Portion leads him etymologically to ghostis (a root I’ve long been obsessed with), a word that condenses a series of oppositions—and, as the narrator points out, provides its own imaginary ghost. The final sentence shifts us again; it seems to belong to another paragraph. But perhaps not. Perhaps we continue to survey the wall, the door, the mullions—do we look out the window and see the figure that is not (and thus, in the realm of the narrator’s program of imaginative displacement, is, or rather, approximates) his daughter or her hat? Is it a photo on the wall? Both?

I’m tempted to keep on in this manner, pulling out passages from John the Posthumous and riffing on them, but maybe that’s a disservice to its potential readers, who I think should like to be assimilated by its strange strength on their own terms. Schwartz’s narrative doesn’t cohere so much as it enmeshes the reader, who must learn a new way of reading, of grasping (or releasing) his series of objects and histories and rumors and rituals.

The novelist and editor Gordon Lish (who has championed Schwartz) famously advised: “Don’t have stories; have sentences.” Great writing happens at the syntactic level, which cannot be separated from plot—the language is the plot. John the Posthumous embodies this aesthetic, creating its own idiom, composed from the real and the imaginary and the symbolic, an idiom that refuses to yield a straightforward calculus or grammar. The effect is wonderfully frustrating; the novel nags at the reader, confounds the reader, haunts the reader.

Haunt has its own strange etymology, likely deriving from the Old Norse heimta, “to return home,” through to Old French hanter, “to be familiar with,” popping up in Middle English haunten, “to use, to reside.” We can take it all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root kei — “lie down, sleep, settle, hence home, friendly, dear.” Etymologically, all houses are therefore haunted—the series of houses (all different, all the same) in John the Posthumous especially so. This is a horror story, a haunted house story, a story larded with killers and connivers and adulterers. Another passage (I promise just to share this time and withhold remarks):

In the cellar: a pull saw and a hasp, a jack plane, a wrecking bar, and a claw hammer. A tin contains a cap screw and a razor blade. A jar contains the remains of a carpet beetle.

I dismantle the chairs and place all the parts in a crate. I station the broom beside the garden spade.

The killer in the cellar, in folklore, is discovered by a mute child. The prisoner in the cellar survives a fire or a storm—but is later mauled by wolves.

There were fleas last year, and squirrels the year before that.

I feel like I’ve offered enough of Schwartz’s uncanny prose here to appropriately intrigue or repel readers. The vision here is dark and the prose imposes an alterity that the reader must work through. This book is Not For Everyone, but it might be for you—I loved it. Haunting, frustrating, and disturbing, John the Posthumous is one of the best new books I’ve read this year.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in 2013. I reread John the Posthumous last night and it’s even better than I’d remembered. Get it from OR Books].

On Philip K. Dick’s novel A Maze of Death


I finished Philip K. Dick’s 1970 novel A Maze of Death this afternoon. The end made me tear up a little, unexpectedly. It’s a sad end, profoundly sad in some ways, and the unexpectedness of the sadness, is, like, particularly sad.

Sad because I didn’t quite expect (hence that adverb unexpectedly) Dick to stick any kind of ending, what, after nearly 200 pages of cardboard characters wandering through a pulp fiction death maze, ventriloquized by the author to perform monologues on consciousness and perception and reality and religion and prayer and faith and afterlife and salvation and so on and so on and so on.

A Maze of Death has some strong moments and strong images—one-way space shuttles, organic 3-D printers, riffs on a deity that would necessarily absorb the concept of a non-deity, a cosmic recapitulation of Odin, space sex, etc.—but on the whole A Maze of Death peters out towards the end, its energy sapped as Dick tires of revolving through (and killing off) the cast of characters (and consciousnesses) he’s assembled in his Haunted (Space) House. The thin allegory he’s patched together crumbles. Or perhaps it was only an allegory assembled for its author’s sad delight. In any case, the whole does not cohere. But no matter.

Too, A Maze of Death suffers perhaps in comparison to its twin, Dick’s bouncier 1969 ensemble satire Ubik. Hell, Ubik probably peters out too, but it’s funnier and sharper. Still: A Maze of Death delivers a strong conclusion, a thesis statement that will resonate with anyone who’s ever envied a machine’s “Off” switch.

But book reviews aren’t supposed to start with endings, right?

What is A Maze of Death about? I mean, that’s what a book review is supposed to do, maybe? Give up some of the plot, the gist, right? The short short answer is Death. (And, like, how does consciousness mediate the ultimate promise of a life-maze that leads to Death, the apparent undoing of consciousness?). But wait, that’s not the plot, that’s like, theme, which is just a way of condensing the plot. This paragraph has gotten us nowhere. I’m going to get up off my ass and walk across the room I’m in to pick up Lawrence Sutin’s 1989 biography of PKD, Divine Invasions and crib from the “Chronological Survey and Guide” at its end. Okay, here, from the entry for Maze:

A group of colonists encounter inexplicable doings—including brutal murders—on the supposedly uninhabited planet Delmark-O. They then learn the truth of Milton’s maxim that the mind creates its own heavens and hells. … In his forward to Maze Phil cites the help of William Sarill in creating the “abstract, logical” religion posed in the novel; Sarill, in interview, says he only listened as Phil spun late-night theories.

—Okay, wait—I promise I’ll return to Sutin’s lucid summary—but Damn, that’s it right there— “Phil spun late-night theories” —much of Maze reads like a late night amphetamine rant about consciousness, man

The plots of Eye [in the Sky]Ubik, and Maze are strikingly similar: A group of individuals find themselves in a perplexing reality state and try to use each other’s individual perceptions (idios kosmos) to make sense of what is happening to them all (koinos kosmos). Only in Eye, written ten years earlier, is the effort successful. In Ubik and Maze, by contrast, individual insight and faith are the only means of piercing the reality puzzle. In Maze, Seth Morley alone escapes the dire fate of his fellow twenty-second-century Delmark-O “colonists” (who are in truth…

—Okay, wait, it looks like Sutin is eager to spoil the ending there—but honestly, the ending that I found so satisfying wasn’t the twist that Sutin goes on to describe in his summary. The ending that Dick gives to his main viewpoint character Seth Morley that I found so moving had nothing to do with plot. Sutin’s line “Morely alone escapes” echoes the actual language of Dick’s novel, which echoes the end of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael alone escapes the wreckage of the Pequod, which in turn echoes the book of Job, where a witness returns from disaster to exclaim, I only am escaped alone to tell thee. This is the core of storytelling, I suppose: witnessing, enduring, and telling again. But Dick’s Morely wants an out, an off switch, a way to break the circuit, to escape the maze. The end of the novel—am I spoiling, after I cut Sutin off for fear of spoiling? Very well, I spoil—the end of the novel posits storytelling as a kind of survival mechanism against the backdrop of the existential horror of endless and apparently meaningless space. And yet the hero Morely still wants out of the story, and Dick lets him out. Out into non-story, out into a kind of plant-like existence—life without consciousness, life without a story.

But what’s the story the others, the rest of the maze’s ensemble, create?—

There is a quaternity of gods in Maze—an admixture of Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, and Christianity; the Mentafacturer, who creates (God); the Intercessor, who through sacrifice lifts the Curse on creation (Christ); the Walker-on-Earth, who gives solace (Holy Spirit); and the Form Destroyer, whose distance from the divine spurs entropy (Satan/Archon/Demiurge)/ The tench, an old inhabitant of Delmark-O, is Phil’s “cypher” for Christ.

The “tench” is originally introduced as a kind of 3-D printer thing and I didn’t read it as a Christ figure at all, but what the hell do I know. In fact, I took the name (and figuration) to be a composite of the tensions between the characters—the allegorical forces at work in Dick’s muddy made-up late-night religion.

Anyway, I suppose you get some of the flavor of the novel there, dear reader—a mishmash of metaphysical mumbo jumbo, filtered through touches (and tenches) of space opera and good old fashioned haunted housery. A Maze of Death is a messy space horror that threatens to leave its readers unsatisfied right up until the final moments wherein it rings its sad coda, a reverberation that nullifies all its previous twists and turns in a soothing wash of emptiness. Not the best starting place for PKD, but I’m very glad I read it.

Almost no memory | A review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, a metaphysical mist engulfs sixth-century Britain, clouding the memories of all who inhabit the land. Saxons and Britons alike cannot recall their bellicose past. Against this mist, elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice seek their long-lost son. They meet a Saxon warrior who hunts an ancient she-dragon he’s vowed to slay. He’s aided by a youth, Edwin, who’s been exiled from his village after being bitten by a mythic creature. King Arthur’s aged nephew Sir Gawain lingers as a courtly protector, a figure from an already-bygone era; the mist seems to slowly rot his brain and his conscience, pushing him into paranoia and madness. There are Charonic ferrymen and awful ogres; there are mad monks and terrible pixies. A hellhound, a dragon, a poisoned goat. Rivers and mountains and crypts and villages. But most of all that mist.

Charon, Joachim Patinir

Ishiguro makes the reader experience that mist. He obscures. The action that occurs—and yes, there’s action here, measured action (often measured in a literal sense)—the action that occurs in The Buried Giant is almost always oblique, shadowed, indistinct, but also very mechanical. The memory-mist renders the world treacherous, immediate, a dark, vague place that offers its travelers no purchase of reference. Deceptive.

Forgive me for quoting at such length, but I think a longish passage here shows how and what Ishiguro is doing. Almost all of our principals are here, underground—note their procession, their movement—a constant motif in the novel, movement, single file or side by side—and the presence of a light, illumination—also a motif. Note the variety of interpretations of not knowingnot seeing, note the simple horror:

They went on into the tunnel, Sir Gawain leading, Axl following with the flame, Beatrice holding his arm from behind, and Edwin now at the rear. There was no option but to go in single file, the passage remaining narrow, and the ceiling of dangling moss and sinewy roots grew lower and lower until even Beatrice had to stoop. Axl did his best to hold the candle high, but the breeze in the tunnel was now stronger, and he was often obliged to lower it and cover the flame with his other hand. Sir Gawain though never complained, and his shape going before them, sword raised over his shoulder, seemed never to vary. Then Beatrice let out an exclamation and tugged Axl’s arm.

“What is it, princess?”

“Oh, Axl, stop! My foot touched something then, but your candle moved too quickly.”

“What of it, princess? We have to move on.”

“Axl, I thought it a child! My foot touched it and I saw it before your light passed. Oh, I believe it’s a small child long dead!”

“There, princess, don’t distress yourself. Where was it you saw it?”

“Come, come, friends,” Sir Gawain said from the dark. “Many things in this place are best left unseen.”

Beatrice seemed not to hear the knight. “It was over here, Axl. Bring the flame this way. Down there, Axl, shine it down there, though I dread to see its poor face again!”

Despite his counsel, Sir Gawain had doubled back, and Edwin too was now at Beatrice’s side. Axl crouched forward and moved the candle here and there, revealing damp earth, tree roots and stones. Then the flame illuminated a large bat lying on its back as though peacefully asleep, wings stretched right out. Its fur looked wet and sticky. The pig-like face was hairless, and little puddles had formed in the cavities of the outspread wings. The creature might indeed have been sleeping but for what was on the front of its torso. As Axl brought the flame even closer, they all stared at the circular hole extending from just below the bat’s breast down to its belly, taking in parts of the ribcage to either side. The wound was peculiarly clean, as though someone had taken a bite from a crisp apple.

“What could have done work like this?” Axl asked.

He must have moved the candle too swiftly, for at that moment the flame guttered and went out.

Ishiguro gives us mystery, interpretation, and then an incomplete, ambiguous revelation. (This is the basic structure of the novel). Beatrice never relents in her belief that she’s stumbled over a dead child. Brimming with lost children and lost parents and orphans, The Buried Giant is a novel of erasures. But an erasure leaves a trace, a violent, visceral marking into the page’s blankness. Revelation through absence.

We would have no plot, not really, without some overcoming of blankness, and Axl in particular overcomes the mist in his quest. A backstory fleshes out, in watery strokes albeit. The Buried Giant, as far as fantasy epics go, is awfully indistinct. Or rather, Ishiguro offers only mechanical and immediate glimpses into this world, a Britain on the cusp of the Middle Ages. Through Axl’s consciousness (and conscience), we see the vital precision in hand-to-hand combat, for example. Its patience, its slowness, its dependence on muscle memory. Or perhaps (dare I say) more boringly, we feel the very real peril involved in walking in the wild dark as an elderly person. The thrills in The Buried Giant come not from its sword and sorcery costumes, but from its Kafkaesque edges and gaps. This is a novel about not knowing.

And it’s here that The Buried Giant is most successful—as an evocation of not knowing. Axl and Beatrice’s quest unfolds as a series of choices and consequences severed, for the most part, from the anchor of memory. There’s an episodic vibe to the novel, a sense that it’s making itself up as it goes along. (It’s not). The novel strongly reminded me of some of the old RPGs I’d play on a Commodore 64 as a kid. The graphics weren’t great and I had to use my imagination a lot. The games were sometimes frustrating and slow. But perhaps you want a more, uh, literary comparison? Something more recent too? The Buried Giant recalls Ishiguro’s short story “A Village after Dark” a lot more than, say, A Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. It’s a fantasy novel, but one that feels etiolated, its vivid colors drained. More Gustave Doré than Gustave Moreau.

While a precise indistinctness (forgive the oxymoron) is part of The Buried Giant’s program, there’s nothing indistinct about its heroes’ love for each other. Axl and Beatrice, A & B—can I say I came to love them? Or if I didn’t quite love them, I was rooting for them, say? Rooting for their survival, but specifically their survival as a they, a shared survival. Ishiguro successfully communicates their intimacy, their romance, their love, a love threatened by both the natural world and the supernatural return of lost memory. Their relationship is the heart of the novel upon which Ishiguro fixes his themes of memory, justice, vengeance, and love. Ishiguro’s commentary on those themes ultimately may feel pessimistic to many readers, particularly in the novel’s conclusion.

Excepting the ones that we love and return to and obsess over, we retain little of the novels that we read. What memories remain are kernels—the outline of a plot, a strange lingering phrase or detail, a bright or bold character, a theme, an idea, an image. It’s the love between Axl and Beatrice that I’ll likely recall most strongly from the shadows of The Buried Giant. If we can’t remember, we can at least experience.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this review in October, 2015],

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


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

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


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

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

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

Let’s look at that reigning chaos.

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

A riff on rereading Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

  1. I’m not really sure what made me pick up Carson McCullers’ 1940 début novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to read again.
  2. Actually, writing that sentence makes me remember: I was purging books, and the edition I have is extremely unattractive; I was considering trading it in. But I started reading it, realizing that I hadn’t reread it ever, that I hadn’t read it since I was probably a senior in high school or maybe a college freshman.
  3. So it was maybe two decades ago that I first read it. I would’ve been maybe 18, about five years younger than McCullers was when the novel was published (and not much older than its protagonist Mick Kelly). The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter never stuck with me like The Ballad of the Sad Café or her short stories did, but I remember at the time thinking it far superior to Faulkner—more lucid in its description of the Deep South’s abjection. (I struggled with Faulkner when I was young, but now see his tangled sentences and thick murky paragraphs are a wholly appropriate rhetorical reckoning with the nightmare of Southern history).
  4. And of course I preferred Flannery O’Connor to both at the time—her writing was simultaneously lucid and acid, cruel and funny. Maybe I still like her best of the three.
  5. O’Connor, in a 1963 letter: “I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers.”
  6. O’Connor again:

    When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.

  7. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is at its best when it is at its most grotesque, which is to say, most realistic.
  8. Here’s a sample of that grotesque dirty realism from very late in the book, as Jake Blount (an alcoholic and would-be revolutionary) departs the small, unnamed Georgia town that the novel is set in—and the narrative:

    The door closed behind him. When he looked back at the end of the black, Brannon was watching from the sidewalk. He walked until he reached the railroad tracks. On either side there were rows of dilapidated two-room houses. In the cramped back yards were rotted privies and lines of torn, smoky rags hung out to dry. For two miles there was not one sight of comfort or space or cleanliness. Even the earth itself seemed filthy and abandoned. Now and then there were signs that a vegetable row had been attempted, but only a few withered collards had survived. And a few fruitless, smutty fig trees. Little younguns swarmed in this filth, the smaller of them stark naked. The sight of this poverty was so cruel and hopeless that Jake snarled and clenched his fists.

  9. The passage showcases some of McCullers’ best and worst prose tendencies. Her evocation of the South’s rural poverty condenses wonderfully in the image of “a few fruitless, smutty fig trees” — smutty!—but there’s also an underlying resort to cliché, into placeholders — “stark naked”; “clenched his fists.”
  10. (Maybe you think I’m picking on McCullers here, yes? Not my intention. I’ll confess I read a career-spanning compendium of Barry Hannah’s short stories, Long, Last, Happy right before I read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and McCullers simply can’t match sentences with Our Barry. It’s an unfair comparison, sure. But).
  11. But McCullers was only 23 when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. Stock phrases must be forgiven, yes? Yes.
  12. And there are plenty of great moments on the page, like this one, in which (McCullers’ stand-in) Mick Kelly tries her young hand at writing:

    The rooms smelled of new wood, and when she walked the soles of her tennis shoes made a flopping sound that echoed through all the house. The air was hot and quiet. She stood still in the middle of the front room for a while, and then she suddenly thought of something. She fished in her pocket and brought out two stubs of chalk—one green and the other red. Mick drew the big block letters very slowly. At the top she wrote EDISON, and under that she drew the names of DICK TRACY and MUSSOLINI. Then in each corner with the largest letters of all, made with green and outlined in red, she wrote her initials—M.K. When that was done she crossed over to the opposite wall and wrote a very bad word—PUSSY, and beneath that she put her initials, too. She stood in the middle of the empty room and stared at what she had done. The chalk was still in her hands and she did not feel really satisfied.

    Who is ever really satisfied with their own writing though?

  13. We’re several hundred words into this riff and I’ve failed to summarize the plot of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There really isn’t a plot per se, actually—sure, there are a development of ideas, themes, motifs, characters—yep—and sure, lots of things happen (the novel is episodic)—but there isn’t really a plot.
  14. The point above is absurd. Of course there is a plot, one which you could easily diagram in fact. Such a diagram would describe the sad strands of four misfits gravitating toward the deaf-mute, John Singer, the silent center of this sad novel. These sad strands tangle, yet ultimately fail to cohere into any kind of harmony with each other. Even worse, these strands fail to make a true connection with Singer. The misfits all essentially use him as a sounding board, a mute confessional booth. They think they love him, but they love his silence, they love his listening. They don’t learn about his own strange love and his own strange sadness.
  15. Or, if you really want to oversimplify plot: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is about growing up. In a novel with a number of tragic trajectories, it’s somehow the ending of the Mick Kelly thread that I found most affecting. She still dreams of making great grand music, of writing songs the world would love—but McCullers leaves her standing on her feet working overtime in Woolworth’s to get her family out of the hole. This is the curse of adulthood, of grasping onto dreams even as the world flattens them out into a big boring nothing. The final lines McCullers gives her, via the novel’s free indirect style, strike me as ambiguous:

    …what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was
    too and it was too. It was some good.
    All right!
    Some good.

  16. Is Mick’s self-talk here a defense against disillusionment—one haunted by the truth of life’s awful boring ugliness—or a genuine earnest rallying against the ugliness—or perhaps a mix of both? “Some good” can be read both ironically and earnestly.
  17. Its navigation of irony and earnestness is where I find the novel most off balance. There’s a clumsy cynicism to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—a justified cynicism, to be sure, given its themes of racism, classicism, modern alienation—but McCullers’ approach to sussing out her big themes is often heavy-handed. Too often characters’ speeches and dialogues—particularly those of the working-class socialist Blount and Dr. Copeland, a black Marxist—feel forced. Entire dialectics that seem lifted from college lecture notes are shoved into characters’ mouths. Still: if I sometimes found such moments insufferable, McCullers nevertheless reminded me that she was pointedly addressing suffering.
  18. The earnestness there is mature, but the cynicism isn’t. I’m not quite sure what I mean by this—the cynicism isn’t deep? The cynicism is a pose, a viewpoint not fully, but nevertheless freshly, lived in. The cynicism is the cynicism that some of us like to try on when we’re 18, 19, 20, 21.
  19. And re: the point above—that’s good, right? I mean it’s good that McCullers channeled this pure and very real anger into her novel. Maybe I failed the novel, this time, in rereading it twenty years later and thinking repeatedly, But that’s the way the world is: Often awful and almost always unfair. Blount and Copeland are interesting but essentially paralyzed characters; they howl against injustice but McCullers can only make them act in modes of ineffective despair.
  20. Despair. This is a sad novel—a realistically sad novel, a grotesquely sad novel—sympathetic but never sentimental. (We Southerners love sugar and sentiment; bless her heart, McCullers cuts any hint of the latter out. And if Mick Kelly enjoys an ice cream sundae for her last dinner in the novel, note that she chases it with a bitter beer that gets her just drunk enough to keep going).
  21. But some of us like to laugh at and with despair, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter serves up a big bitter brew without a heady or hearty laugh to help you swallow it down. The novel’s humorlessness was perhaps by design—these characters dwell in absurd abjection. But absurdity often calls for a laugh, and laughter is not always sugar sweetness, but rather can be a reveling in bitterness—perhaps what I mean here, is that laughter is a sincere and deep reckoning with mature cynicism.
  22. I quoted O’Connor above, in point six; in the same lecture, she warned against writers (particularly Southern writers) giving into the need of the “tired reader…to be lifted up.” O’Connor often forced her characters into moments of radical redemption, moments that complicate her “tired reader’s” desire to have his “senses tormented or his spirits raised.” This modern reader, according to O’Connor, “wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.” For O’Connor, the modern reader’s “sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” Restoration in O’Connor’s fiction is always purchased at a heavy cost—many readers can only see the cost, and not the redemption in her calculus.
  23. And restoration in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is its lack of sentimentality, its unwillingness to restore its characters to a mythical Eden. Indeed, McCullers’ setting never even posits a grace from which her characters might fall. Instead, the novel’s final moments leave us “suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.” Any restoration is impermanent, as the final line suggests: “And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.” If the morning sun promises a new tomorrow, a futurity, that futurity is nevertheless conditioned by the need to repeatedly “compose” oneself into a new being, always under the duress of “bitter irony and faith.” McCullers’ plot might side with bitter irony, but her belief in her characters’ beliefs—belief in the powers of art, politics, and above all love—point ultimately to an earnest faith in humanity to compose itself anew.

Eli Valley’s comix collection Diaspora Boy


Diaspora Boy, new from O/R Books, collects Eli Valley’s comix from the past decade.

Here’s O/R’s blurb:

Eli Valley’s comic strips are intricate fever dreams employing noir, horror, slapstick and science fiction to expose the outlandish hypocrisies at play in the American/Israeli relationship. Sometimes banned, often controversial and always hilarious, Valley’s work has helped to energize a generation exasperated by American complicity in an Israeli occupation now entering its fiftieth year.

This, the first full-scale anthology of Valley’s art, provides an essential retrospective of America and Israel at a turning point. With meticulously detailed line work and a richly satirical palette peppered with perseverating turtles, xenophobic Jedi knights, sputtering superheroes, mutating golems and zombie billionaires, Valley’s comics unmask the hypocrisy and horror behind the headlines. This collection supplements the satires with historical background and contexts, insights into the creative process, selected reactions to the works, and behind-the-scenes tales of tensions over what was permissible for publication.

Brutally riotous and irreverent, the comics in this volume are a vital contribution to a centuries-old tradition of graphic protest and polemics.

Diaspora Boy, subtitled Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, is enormous (if a slim 144 pages). Valley’s comix are reproduced on full pages; his thick inks and worried lines are never cramped here—and neither are his words. Here’s a shot of the book with a Penguin novel as a comparison point:


The anthology makes great use of its oversized format. On the left-hand pages, Valley introduces each comic (all chronologically-ordered, by the way) with a short essay that offers context, personal reflections, and even analysis or interpretation. The comics are then reproduced on the right-hand pages. You can see this below, in Valley’s mash-up of Kafka’s The Trial with the Knesset vs. J Street hearings:


The cultural, political—and personal—contexts that Valley provides are perhaps essential for many readers, like me, who may know a bit about comix and Kafka, but are perhaps lost when it comes to a discussion of a “hearing into the heart and soul of Diaspora Jewry” (as Valley puts it).

Valley is constantly riffing on American popular culture, mining comic books, films, television and music for his bitter mash-ups, as in “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” below, a comic that turns the Iran debate into a grotesque and ironic Choose Your Adventure tale:



Like many comix artists, Valley’s target audience is nebulous—or rather maybe it’s just himself. He appropriates American culture’s broad shared mythic signifiers to satirize the incredibly specific details of an American Jew’s relationship to Israel—namely, his relationship. The first comic in the collection, 2007’s “What if Batman and Robin Worked in the American Jewish Community?” satirically captures Valley’s teenage anxieties about his relationship to Jewish identity:


In his thorough (and completely necessary) introduction to Diaspora Boy, Valley recounts at some length a complicated relationship with his parents, both Ba’alei Teshurva (he points out that this Hebrew expression “literally means ‘Masters of Return,'” but continues then characterizes it as “a fancy way of of saying ‘Born Again Jews'”). Valley writes that his father interrogated him daily as to whether or not his new friends and acquaintances in his public high school were Jewish or not, and it’s hard not to read these personal anxieties into Valley’s comix (even if I know it’s not good criticism to extrapolate that Valley is “Johnny” in the Batman riff above). Valley’s mother later left the orthodoxy and the marriage, becoming “secular.” Valley positions them, perhaps, as two poles of “reverence and rebellion” which inform his work.


The “reverence” might be hard to spot. In their press page for Diaspora Boy, after three quotes praising Valley’s comix, O/R includes some scathing gems: from former New Republic publisher Marty Peretz: “Your work is disgusting. And also stupid”; Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League: “Bigoted, unfunny”; neocon hack Bret Stephens: “Grotesque…Wretched.” It’s plain to see how conservatives like these might be offended by Valley’s comix. Indeed, it’s not just the message, but the form that they might object to—Valley’s style is sharp but rough, its subtlety relying almost wholly on an extremely ironic viewpoint.


If it’s easy to see how conservatives might resent Valley’s satire, it’s also possible to see how moderates or liberals might misunderstand these comix too. Cartooning has always been a form with an inherently broad appeal. Editorial cartoons are meant to telegraph their ideas quickly and coherently, message and medium intertwined. Valley’s cartoons are harder to suss out. The layering of meaning is intense, magnified. Comic book heroes become displaced into ironic inversions of themselves, consumed by self-hatred. Literary tropes are twisted into a complex entanglement of Jewish-American cultural relations. Biblical stories are transposed into  hallucinatory modern horror stories. And in turn contemporary figures—political, economic, cultural, etc.—are subsumed into the same mythic tropes that superheros operate within. It can all be a bit perplexing, and readers who only glance over the surface will miss the real message.

Thus, Valley’s introduction to the volume and his prefaces to each comic become essential context to understanding how to read these comix. The need for political context is especially strong when a cartoon has lost some of its currency due, simply, to the passing of time (they were editorials, after all). However, even when Valley is satirizing a particular news story or political moment that we might have forgotten, a viewpoint comes through, coherent and biting but sincere under all the ironic mechanisms in play. I’ll give Valley the last word here, letting him characterize his own project:

The comics in this collection take pride in Diaspora. Not just in a general sense but in a specific strain of Diaspora experience: the secular, post-Enlightenment, universalist Judaism informed by centuries of Jewish narrative tradition as well as by the experience of living in and amongst other communities. Among other things, it transformed memories of inequality into a lasting cultural norm of solidarity with the oppressed. Theses comics celebrate, relish, and dialogue with that history, a strain of Diaspora that finds far more inspiration in early and mid-twentieth-century social justice movements than in anything wrought in the contemporary Middle East. That is Jewish Pride: pride in the Jewish tradition practiced, experienced, and cherished by the vast majority of American Jews today. And for me, it’s personal. If I’d been brought up solely in the strain of secularism and social justice, I probably wouldn’t have come to filter political passions through an emphatically Jewish lens.