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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So…what’s it about?

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

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

There’s a lot more going on than that.

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

Okay then.

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

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

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

What I want to say is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our arrival at the manor.

The power was out. We lit lanterns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

99 reasons I didn’t read your novel.


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

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

Prince died.

I wrote about him in a Three Books post.

The three books had nothing to do with Prince.

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

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

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

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


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

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



Odd book

too wordy

so violent

so bummed


It’s a series

stupid critics

Maybe terrific

I was so board

Did outline it all

I loved this book

It simply ended!!

So many characters

Too many characters

Not so Good this time

like Twitter on steroids

angst-filled adolescence

I’m an uncultured swine

Everyone in our book club

reading it for my book club

the ending was a dirty trick

there are over 40 characters

Riddled with punctuation errors

Chick lit with no plot or substance

This book is an exercise in despair

I was looking forward to this trilogy

by far the worst book I have every read

Of course it’s a matter of personal taste

the characters were not very nice people

I consider family sagas my favorite genre

endless clusters of names, names, names

Italian names that are difficult to remember

the characters are unlikable (and confusing)

we finished it only because it was Book Club

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

too many characters none of whom are likable

a story of domestic violence and male dominance

This book could not have been written by a woman

the main characters are interdependent in a very sick way

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

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

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

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

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

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

basically a long list of long Italian names and stereotypes

one of my favorite books is The Brothers Karamazov

Just one self-absorbed observation after another

This book could not have been written by a man

WAY too many characters to keep track of

One of the best books I have ever read!

discussing it at my book club this week

an indulgent description of characters

the words did not flow in an easy way

If there were a zero stars rating

I read a lot in a variety if genres

her prose is dry and impersonal

meandering, fancy Chick Lit

it is the first part of a series

I am an English teacher

the characters are dark

what a very long book

choppy and uneven

too many charactors

more of a YA book

tooooo long !!!’n

laborious at best

like a soap opera

wonderful book

my book club

dix no finish

pure drivel

Pure trash

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I do, anyway.

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

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

What’s all the agitation over?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Illustration to American Candide by Mahendra Singh

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

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

img_2156 img_2154 img_2155 img_2158

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


(And bitter).


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Independent, I mean.

And great, I mean.

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

I mean, I love it.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews and riffs of November, 2015 – January, 2016 (and unrelated fox studies)

I was unblocked for years, getting reviews or riffs or whathaveyous out at least once a week. For months now—more than months, really—the words don’t come out, or they come out in quips on Twitter. Or I don’t feel like they’re necessary. I guess that’s fine. I’m not sure what I’m doing with the blog at this point. So anyway, these are the signed pieces on the blog over the last three months.

I reviewed two titles from Nowbrow, Vincent Mahé’s 750 Years in Paris and Victor Hussenot’s The Spectators; both graphic novels center on Paris. 

I also reviewed Paul Kirchner’s The Bus 2.


I riffed on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, suggesting that “SW: TFA takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is “about” Star Wars.”

David Bowie died.

I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels and riffed on them.

And I wondered if anything good happened in Quentin Tarantino’s film The Hateful Eight.

There were several books I wanted to write about and failed to write about in the past three months, notable The Free-Lance Pall Bearers by Ishmael Reed, Vertigo by Joanna Walsh, and Lucia Berlin’s Homesick. They were all great and good and grand.

Unrelated Studies of a Fox (1669-1671) by Pieter Boel:


Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?


I don’t like films where nothing good happens, my wife told me years ago. I can’t remember the film that occasioned this remark, and I don’t find myself beholden to her rubric, but I still find myself applying it to films now and then. Especially after watching Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

(This is not the right question to ask about a film, but—).

This question isn’t the same as, say, Is any part of The Hateful Eight good?—because so many of the elements are good—excellent even—Ennio Morricone’s score, Robert Richardson’s cinematography, Yohei Taneda’s set design.

And the acting is great, or sorta great, or it’s hard to tell, maybe. Let’s say the performances are great. I mean, it’s Tarantino, so the acting is always at least one level removed from reality—even in Sam Jackson, the realest dude, the dude who carries the film as former Union officer, Major Marquis Warren. Sam Jackson is Tarantino’s main man, his star of hyperreality, and his performance is electric here.

But for hyperreality, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who stands out in The Hateful Eight. Her portrayal of prisoner Daisy Domergue is refined Looney Tunes slapstick. Cartoon soul. Watching Walton Goggins (vile racist ex-Confederate marauder Chris Mannix) or Kurt Russell (bounty hunter John Ruth)—both of whom get lots and lots of lines and screen time—one can’t help but realize one is seeing an actor acting—or, more Tarantinoesque—a character acting.

But Jennifer Jason Leigh, remanded to a punching bag for much of the film—or even stranger, a chained work-wife to Kurt Russell’s John Wayne parody (via Kurt Russell’s John Wayne parody as Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little Trouble)—JJL imbues her Daisy Domergue with a wily pathos that surpasses both the script she’s made to read and her Seussian name.

Not that JJL’s Daisy Domergue’s isn’t vile, nasty, deeply racist, and hateful…but her hatefulness points towards something, I dunno, complex. Real. True. (I should mention now Laura Bogart’s essay “Hipster Misogyny: The Betrayal of The Hateful Eight,” which I think offers an intriguing read on the film. Bogart seems to argue that JJL’s DD is not complex enough, or not given enough complexity, which, hey, okay, fair enough—but I think also that Bogart was disturbed by the film’s conclusion—which I was too, disturbed). 

But: Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

What do I mean here by good? Should I just admit I don’t know “good,” but rather feel “good”? Okay. I don’t know good through definition, but rather by example. Fuzzy precis. Good: Perhaps a moment of redemption, but like, say, an earned one, a real one, one not forced through a Hollywood formula. Good might be kernel of hope—a real moment of hope, not just an up established for a foreshadowed down. Or maybe by good I just mean something aesthetically true.

Tarantino’s best films—the Kill Bill films, Pulp FictionJackie Brown, and Reservoir Dogs—point to something good in their conclusions—and by conclusions I mean both literal endings and thesis statements. I’m not sure if I find this same “goodness” evident in the conclusion of The Hateful Eight, or, if it is there, it’s awfully ambiguous.

The conclusion of The Hateful Eight is the not-exact opposite of the end of my favorite Tarantino conclusion, the end of Kill Bill 2:


And The Hateful Eight’s conclusion is the not-exact opposite of the ending of Jackie Brown’s bittersweet take on redemption, loss, and escape—American lives that earn second acts.

And The Hateful Eight’s conclusion is the not-exact opposite of the ending Pulp Fiction, a film that resurrects Vincent Vega and sees Sam Jackson’s Jules Winnfield suspend wrathful violence and judgment on Tim Roth’s Ringo (or Pumpkin. Or whatever his name was).

And what about those films that didn’t make my silly little list of “Best Tarantino” — Inglorious Basterds (which is one of my faves, actually, just to watch for like, pure entertainment), Django Unchained, and Death Proof (which actually belongs on that best-of list, maybe, or at least the final sequence)? Shoshanna Dreyfus using film as weapon to end the Nazis? Django’s righteous rampage against slavery? Or the ecstatic violence of “the girls” destroying serial killer Stuntman Mike?


What most of QT’s conclusions share in common is that they somehow mediate the relationship between revenge and justice, and do so in a way that’s aesthetically convincing. The Hateful Eight also seeks to be a film about the relationship between revenge and justice. Its final moments attempt to aesthetically recapitulate much of American history into a morbid sequence of violence.

[Fair warning: There’s a discussion of the conclusion of The Hateful Eight coming up, including what some folks might call spoilers].

Continue reading “Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?”

A riff 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 “A riff on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels”

A probably incomplete list of books I read in 2015

The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon*

Dockwood, Jon McNaught

A German Picturesque, Jason Schwartz*

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon*

Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles

Flee, Evan Dara

Birchfield Close, Jon McNaught

Nazi Literature in the Americas, Roberto Bolaño*

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

Infinite Fictions, David Winters

Syrian Notebooks, Jonathan Littell

Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon

Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

Gaha: Babes of the Abyss, Jon Frankel

The Spectators, Victor Hussenot

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace*

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

Cess, Gordon Lish

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

High Rise, J.G. Ballard*

Millennium People, J.G. Ballard

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

Mislaid, Nell Zink

The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Culture and Value, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Martian Time-Slip, Philip K. Dick

Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson

Suttree, Cormac McCarthy*

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy*

Red Doc>, Anne Carson

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Bus, Paul Kirchner

The Bus 2, Paul Kirchner

The Free-Lance Pall Bearers, Ishmael Reed

Vertigo, Joanna Walsh

Rocannon’s World, Ursula K. LeGuin

Censorship Now!!, Ian Svenonius

750 Years in Paris, Vincent Mahé

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin*

The Word for World Is Forest, Ursula K. Le Guin

Planet of Exile, Ursula K. Le Guin

City of Illusions, Ursula K. Le Guin

Homesick, Lucia Berlin

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin*

* indicates a reread

A review of Paul Kirchner’s surreal sequel, The Bus 2


Paul Kirchner’s cult classic comic strip The Bus originally ran in Heavy Metal from 1979-1985. The (anti-)story of “a hapless commuter and a demonic bus” (as Kichner put it himself in a recent memoir at The Boston Globe), The Bus, at its finest moments, transcends our expectations for what a comic strip can and should do. Sure, Kirchner delivers the set-ups, gags, japes, and jests we expect from a cartoon—but more often than not The Bus surpasses the confines of its form and medium. Its protagonist The Commuter is an allegorical everyman, a passenger tripping through an absurd world. Kirchner’s strip often shows us ways to see that absurd world—which is of course our own absurd world—with fresh eyes.

Thanks in part to the internet (and, in particular, an album of scans posted at Imgur), Kirchner’s comic has found a new audience. Over the past few years, Kirchner’s produced more than 40 new strips, which are now collected in one handsome volume as The Bus 2 (or the bus 2 if you like) from French publisher Tanibis EditionsTanibis also has collected the original run of The Bus in an edition that’s more complete (and polished) than the Imgur album. These books are fantastic stuff.

The Bus 2 picks up in full satirical mode with an intro that informs us that “the studio that produced ‘The Bus’ was forced to shut down” in 1985; “Its closing left over 70 talented employees jobless.” The intro unwinds over a few pages—we’re told the bus itself and the “commuter’s iconic overcoat” are now in museums, and that the role of the commuter in this sequel will be played by the son of the actor who played the original commuter. From the outset, Kirchner uses irony to draw our attention to the artificiality of his strip, highlighting The Bus as a performance, an entertainment focused on the utterly mundane topic of a daily commute. And even though the intro unfolds over four pages, Kirchner keeps it true to form—literally: Six equal black and white panels.

The first strip in the new collection positions The Commuter as an ironic hero, a foundling in a basket like Moses or Superman (note the signs that Kirchner employs to show the passage of time):

01 Continue reading “A review of Paul Kirchner’s surreal sequel, The Bus 2”

Two graphic novels about Paris reviewed: 750 Years in Paris and The Spectators


Two new(ish) graphic novels from Nobrow, Vincent Mahé’s 750 Years in Paris and Victor Hussenot’s The Spectators, showcase Paris as an enduring site of progression, turbulence, and renewal, both in culture and consciousness. Mahé’s 750 Years in Paris is a time-machine, putting its viewer in a stationary position to observe the dramatic changes in one building—and French society and culture—over the course of nearly a millennium. Hussenot’s The Spectators is a dream-machine, shuttling its characters through different skins, faces, and eyes. The titular spectators transcend not only time and space, but mind. Both books attest to the power of transformation while subtly noting the various forces that shape identity.


Vincent Mahé’s 750 Years in Paris begins in 1265 and moves its viewer through time to 2015. The book takes us through the Black Death Plague and the 100 Years War, the reigns of Louis XIV and IV, the storming of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror, Napoleon and Hausmann, a grand Metro and a terrible Flood. The second shot in this chronology shows us a Knights Templar procession in 1270. The crusaders remind us that Western history is inextricably bound in violence, religion, and territorial expansion—but also in the exchange of ideas, information, and knowledge. We get to May 1968 with a strong visual context for France’s history of intellectual turbulence.

IMG_0613The book ends in 2015; I’ll let Mahé’s image speak for itself:

750 Years in Paris shows us that Paris not only survives drastic change, but progresses in the face of violence. When we see, for example, that a winch has been used to hang a Protestant during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572—


—it’s worth noting that on the next page, neighbors help each other during a terrible fire. The winch remains in the picture, a visual motif of progress, of building up.IMG_0617


Like every Nobrow title I’ve read, Victor Hussenot’s The Spectators is better experienced than described. Its aesthetic is its narrative and its narrative is its aesthetic, flowing from a lovely dream-logic of identity shifts. Who shall I be today?, the book asks.


The titular spectators try on different skins, wear different hats, look through different eyes. Paris’s metro becomes a labyrinth dream-lab, where the spectators create the world anew by synthesizing known with unknown:IMG_0609

This vision of synthesis carries the narrative through a poetic examination of individuality and society. How much of me is me? Hussenot frames his characters in the geometry of picture puzzles, only to blur the borders that would constrain them.

It’s possible to imagine the spectators of Hussenot’s book gazing on Mahé’s ever-changing Paris building. Or, conversely, we can take Mahé’s building as one of Hussenot’s spectators—another shapeshifter in a city of shapeshifters.

I’ll close with an image from The Spectators that points towards a dream of synthesis, of infinite perspective, of unity. We have here not just a dream, but a vision of progress:


Reviews and riffs of September and October, 2015 (and an unrelated tiger)

The only way I could muster a review of Gordon Lish’s challenging novel (spokening?!) Cess was in a faux-dialog with myself.

I reread Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree in September and considered if Suttree dies at the end.

Then I reread Blood Meridian for the umpteenth time.

I reviewed Penguin Classics bicentennial edition of Jane Austen’s Emma.

I wrote about Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant, arguing it was most successful as an evocation of “not knowing.”

Ryan Chang and I continued our discussion of New American Stories, an anthology edited by Ben Marcus. We mostly rapped about stories by Robert Coover and Tao Lin.

I had somehow never read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven before October of 2015.

And, special for Halloween, but really just because I really wanted to reread it, I wrote about one of my favorite ghost tales, Roberto Bolaño’s short story “The Return.”

I also read Autobiography of Red and Red Doc> by Anne Carson during September-October, but erased everything I tried to write on them. I found Autobiography particularly excellent—a real How is this possible? kind of read.

Unrelated tiger by Utagawa Kunisada: