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

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

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

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

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

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

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Illustration to American Candide by Mahendra Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1.

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

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

2.

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

3.

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

4.

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

5.

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

6.

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

7.

(And bitter).

8.

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

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

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

9.

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

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

10.

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

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

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

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

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

11.

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

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

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

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

Independent, I mean.

And great, I mean.

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

I mean, I love it.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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:

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Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

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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:

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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?

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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

 

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“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

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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

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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.

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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:
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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—

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—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

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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.

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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:

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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:

A riff on my favorite ghost story, Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return”

Roberto Bolaño’s short story “The Return” is so good that it has two perfect opening paragraphs:

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.

That’s a hell of a way to start a story! Bolaño lays out his two themes—the afterlife and necrophilia—in a jovial, almost cavalier, but dare I say sweet, even charming way. And then this paragraph:

Death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning. My doctor had warned me, but some things are stronger than reason. I was convinced, mistakenly (and even now it’s something I regret), that drinking and dancing were not the most hazardous of my passions. Another reason I kept going out every night to the fashionable places in Paris was my routine as a middle manager at Fracsa; I was after what I couldn’t find at work or in what people call the inner life: the buzz that you get from a certain excess.

Those are the first two paragraphs, and maybe they’ll entice you to read the story. However, the following riff includes what some people might consider spoilers; my hope is that if you’ve never read it before, you’ll take it on faith that “The Return” is a great, great story and you’ll go read it and stop reading this riff now. (Maybe come back later though after you’ve read it).

“The Return” is a ghost story that transmutes the horror of death and the abjection of the corpse into love, empathy, and communication—and art. It’s a beautiful ghost tale in the Romantic, Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom Bolaño drew heavily. However, while Poe’s tales of necrophilia (like the poem “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Berenice” to name just a few) obsess over repression, loss, burial, and imperfect and violent attempts at restoration, Bolaño’s “The Return” offers its readers a peaceful reconciliation with death. It’s collected in The Return (New Directions, English translation by Chris Andrews), which is a perfect introduction to Bolaño—so many great stories there (“Buba,” “Clara,” “William Burns,” etc.). So go read it.

Continue reading “A riff on my favorite ghost story, Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return””

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”

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.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood MeridianI’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].


It may be art.

Damn McCarthy.

I find him boring.

unrelenting nihilism

The story is thin at best.

Are we supposed to enjoy it?

I felt abused by Blood Meridian

not a traditionally enjoyable book

this book is simply just not “all that”

wordy, over the top speechy dialogue

endless streams of dependent clauses

I am a devout fan of Cormac McCarthy.

The characters are not really sympathetic

He is obviously a sick man psychologically.

all about violence and no plot what so ever.

if I was a trained geologist I might like it better.

too many words that are not in standard dictionary

I guess people think he is cool because he writes so violent.

This one guy peed on some clay stuff to create a bomb like thing

murder, slaughter, killing, massacre, beating, stabbing, shooting, scalping

It consists of a series of almost unconnected scenes of unspeakable violence.

Esoteric words, eccentric expressions, pedantic philosophizing, arcane symbolism

I have to believe that he must be embarrassed to have this book back on the market.

A bunch of guys ride around Mexico killing everyone they come across for no particular reason

If you’re a fan of babies, quotation marks, and native americans, then avoid this book like the plague.

The reception he has had shows how tone deaf America has become to moral values, any moral values.

This book was written long before McCarthy had mastered the style that has brought him so much fame and credit.

the unrelenting amount of violence and cruelty in Blood Meridian strikes me as having crossed the line to pornography

It seemed like Cormac McCarthy wrote this with a dictionary in his lap trying to find words that he had never used before

Many of the words have to have been made up or are contractions of words and/or non-words, including much Spanish dialogue

Eliminate five words from the English language (“They rode on” and “He spat”)and this book would have been about 25 pages long

In this book, one sees him trying hard to hone his now-extraordinary powers of observation and description, and failing badly.

The standards for writing have clearly fallen far if all the praise heaped upon this inchoate, pompous mess of a novel is to be taken seriously.

Everything died: mules, horses, chickens, plants, rivers, snakes, babies, toddlers, boys, girls, women, men, ranchhands, bartenders, cowboys, good guys, bad guys…

I dont think the writer knows very much about AMERICAN history, the way he makes all the scalping get done by the AMERICANS and never by the indians, nor do I think he a PATRIOT

Wherein a company of men wander northern Mexico and the West killing, maiming, raping, and/or torturing everyone they meet, all described in gory, endless detail, led by the symbolic characters Glanton and his advisor, ‘the judge’, and supposedly illustrating that war and bloodletting are the only things that count, and the rest of life is just a meaningless dance.

Some kid with a few guys and a spattering of mans rambling through some part of the US or Mexico or a post-apocalyptic Australian desert seeing scores of gruesome, pointless scenes of violence, inhumanity, and death.

Holden is the sort of overt child defiling character who in real life wouldn’t last a month in a state penitentiary, because someone would rightly dispatch him as soon as possible.

Self-consciously faux-baroque linguistic stylings make this fetus-hurtin’ Treatise a feast for weakest link readers fascinated by the mark of the beast.

This book has some wonderful flowery language, and some beautiful descriptions of the southwest countryside.

They say that this book contains BIBLICAL themes, but I’ve read it and I don’t see how that could be so.

The author seems as if he is somehow trying to make some kind of “statement” about AMERICA

In a well ordered society McCarthy would be serving a life term or he would not exist at all.

there are times when it even seems as though English were not McCarthy’s first language

this book cannot be called a novel because it does not have character development

Would you let Cormac McCarthy look after your child for the night?

McCarthy is the most evil person because he is a talented writer

the author likes to use pronouns without establishing a subject

Who are the good guys and the bad guys, everyone is bad.

read Lonesome Dove instead, it’s a hundred times better

rampant nonstop mindless violence and depravity

I can’t dislike a book more than I dislike this one

This is a great writer being lazy and skating

good if you enjoy violence and nonsense

Theres lots of scalping of indians

Was there a quota on similes?

this booked scarred me

sociopath killers

It’s pure bunk.

a moral blight

utter trash

Ugh

Does Suttree die? | A riff on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree

Does Suttree die?

At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, I mean?

Look, before we go any farther, let’s be clear—this little riff is intended for those who’ve read the book. Anyone’s welcome to read this riff of course, but I’m not going to be, y’know, summarizing the plot or providing an argument that you should read Suttree (you should; it’s great)—and there will be what I suppose you’d call spoilers.

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Oarsman is a sculpture by David Phelps, located at the northwest corner of Gay and Church Streets in Knoxville, TN. This photo is by Wes Morgan, part of his Searching for Suttree series.

So anyway—Does Suttree die at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree?

This question percolated in the background of my brain as I revisited Suttree this month via Michael Kramer’s amazing audiobook version (I also reread key sections—especially the last), in large part because of comments made on my 2010 review of the novel.

The first comment suggesting that Suttree dies at the end of the novel came in 2012 from poster “Jack foy,” who suggested that Suttree “has died in the boat and that it is his corpse cariied [sic] from there and his spirit and not his body hitching a ride at the finale.”

Earlier this year, a commenter named Julie Seeley responded to Jack foy’s idea; her response is worth posting in full:

I kind of agree that Suttree dies at the end also–or at least there are a lot of indications that the ending is meant to be ambiguous. Suttree reflects on his life, saying something to the effect of “I was not unhappy.” He visits his own houseboat and finds the door off and a corpse in his bed. A driver picks him up and says, “Come on,” even though Suttree had never even stuck out his thumb to hitch-hike It feels oddly similar to Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” All of the scenery whizzing by faster and faster does feel like (sorry for the cliche) his life sort of flashing before him. This was a thought-provoking novel that I am looking forward to reading again soon.

Julie Seeley’s analysis is persuasive and her connection to Dickinson is especially convincing upon rereading the book’s final paragraphs. In my Suttree review, I argued that the book is a synthesis of American literature, tracing the overt connections to Faulkner and Frost, Poe and Cummings, Ellison and Steinbeck, before laundry listing:

…we find Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, to name just a few writers whose blood courses through this novel (even elegant F. Scott Fitzgerald is here, in an unexpected Gatsbyish episode late in the novel).

Revisiting Suttree this month I found myself again impressed with McCarthy’s command of allusion and reference. Its transcendentalist streak stood out in particular. (Or perhaps more accurately, I sensed the generative material of the American Renaissance writers filtered through the writers that came before Suttree). But one American Renaissance writer I failed to name in my original review was Dickinson’s (near) contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work of course filters through all serious American novels. There are plenty of echoes of Hawthorne in Suttree—Hawthorne’s tales in particular—but it’s the way that Hawthorne ends his tales that interests me here. Like the dashes that conclude many of Dickinson’s poems (including “Because I could not stop for Death”), Hawthorne’s conclusions are frequently ambiguous. Like the conclusion of Suttree.

So: Does Suttree die at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree?

Well, wait. Let’s go back to the beginning. Of the novel, I mean. Like I said, I’d had this question buzzing around in the back of my head as I revisited the book.

So, the beginning. Well, I’d forgotten that Suttree had a twin brother who had died at birth. The twin resurfaces a few times in the text, and there’s even a scene in the musseling section featuring a set of twins. Does Suttree’s twin brother’s death in infancy prefigure Suttree’s own death? How could it not? But—at the same time—hey, it’s ambiguous if Suttree dies; should I have stated my answer to my own damn question earlier?—hey, at the same time, the twin brother’s death is not Suttree’s death sentence, right? It simply introduces a motif—the dead body. Continue reading “Does Suttree die? | A riff on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree”

A review of Gordon Lish’s novel (spokening) Cess

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-What is the book about?

-Language.

-I mean, like, what’s the plot?

-Okay. I’ll try. The narrator is Gordon Lish—a version of Gordon Lish, of course (Gordon!), who tells us about a cryptographic “test” his aunt, an agent for the National Reconnaissance Office, sent him in 1963.

-Why did she send him this test?

-Poor Gordon was jobless and had a wife and kids to support and-

-You mean his kid the novelist Atticus Lish?

-Please don’t interrupt; no, these, these are other kids; Atticus comes later, but Lish does write about him in Cess. Anyway-

-What does he say about Atticus?

-He writes that “Atticus is, a, you know, a writer by Christ—is a novelist, by Christ, is indeed, if I, by Keerist, may say so myself, ever so proudly so, ever so rivalrously so, a novelist of nothing less than of rank.” Okay?

-Okay.

-So: The narrator gets this “test” from his aunt and-

-What does it look like? What is it?

-It’s a long list of esoteric words.

-May I see?

-It’s a pretty long list.

-How long?

-About 170 pages, about 22 words per page.

-May I see a section then?

-Sure:

image

-Whoa!

-That’s what I thought too! In fact, I first got a digital copy from publisher OR—so I was just reading, you know, on an iPad—which is, I mean, if you can imagine, I wasn’t doing the flicking through thing, the physical browsing thing—so I had no idea that there would be this big long list of words as like, the main course. I was shocked. It was electric. Continue reading “A review of Gordon Lish’s novel (spokening) Cess”