Phantoms and ghosts in David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King


The narrator of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King assures us at one point that “phantoms are not the same as real ghosts.”


So what’s a phantom then, at least in the universe of The Pale King?

Phantom refers to a particular kind of hallucination that can afflict rote examiners at a certain threshold of concentrated boredom.

The “rote examiners” are IRS agents who perform Sisyphean tasks of boredom. They are also placeholders for anyone who works a boring, repetitive job.

(We might even wax a bit here on the phrase rote examiner—the paradox in it—that to examine should require looking at the examined with fresh eyes, a fresh spirit—a spirit canceled out by the modifier rote).

In The Pale King, phantoms visit the rote examiners who toil in wiggle rooms. The “phantoms are always deeply, diametrically different from the examiners they visit,” suggesting two simultaneous outcomes: 1) an injection of life-force, a disruption of stasis that serves to balance out the examiner’s personality and 2) in the novel’s own language, “the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side.”

In one scene, desperate Lane Dean contemplates suicide on the job, until he’s visited by a phantom.

“Yes but now that you’re getting a taste, consider it, the word. You know the one.”

The word is boredom, and the phantom proceeds to give a lecture on its etymology:

Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. He didn’t cast a shadow, but that didn’t mean anything. For no reason, Lane Dean flexed his buttocks. In fact the first three appearances of bore in English conjoin it with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? The French of course had malaise, ennui. See Pascal’s fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy.

(Thank you, narrator—who are you?!—for mediating the phantom’s speech and Dean’s misauditing of that speech). Continue reading “Phantoms and ghosts in David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King”

No knightly hero | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 364

The Gray Tree, Piet Mondrian (1911)
The Gray Tree, Piet Mondrian (1911)

Toward dusk, the black birds descend, millions 1  of them, to sit in the branches of trees nearby. The trees grow heavy with black birds, branches like dendrites of the Nervous System 2  fattening, deep in twittering nerve-dusk, in preparation for some important message… . 3

Later in Berlin, down in the cellar among fever-dreams with shit leaking out of him at gallons per hour, too weak to aim more than token kicks at the rats 4 running by with eyes fixed earnestly noplace, trying to make believe they don’t have a newer and dearer status among the Berliners, at minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart 5 sez: The Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands for. And you are no knightly hero 6. The best you can compare with is Tannhäuser 7, the Singing Nincompoop—you’ve been under one mountain at Nordhausen, been known to sing a song or two with uke accompaniment, and don’tcha feel you’re in a sucking marshland of sin out here, Slothrop? maybe not the same thing William Slothrop, vomiting a good part of 1630 away over the side of that Arbella 8, meant when he said “sin.” . . . But what you’ve done is put yourself on somebody else’s voyage 9—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing her, its, game… you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game. You play because you have nothing better to do 10, but that doesn’t make it right. And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you? 11

From page 364 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

1 A million black birds sounds like a hyperbole of crows, but Berlin 1945, post-V-E Day—which is like, where we are here—I mean, it’s a desperate deathly ghastly place. So maybe buzzards and dreadful crows abound.

2 Cf. the discussion between nerve cells in pages 148-49.

Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1899)
Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1899)

3  What’s the important message? Oh wait, we’re still in the marvelous tree-crow-dendrite simile—the “twittering nerve-dusk”—so the “message” the crow-tree-branches awaits is just part of the, uh, metaphor. Or not? I mean, this is a novel in large part about expectation—about waiting for the bomb to fall, waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend. And also: awaiting a message of Return.

But: What a lovely little simile. Pynchon’s powers as a prose stylist seem under-remarked upon.

4 Cf. page 359: “Last week, in the British sector someplace, Slothrop, having been asshole enough to drink out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten, took sick.”

The cellar, the diarrhea, the rats….I’ve written it before: Gravity’s Rainbow is a thoroughly abject novel—full of assholes (literal) and shit (literal) and toilets (literal). (And oh, also: metaphorical too, metaphorical too). Slothrop here is sick, literally evacuating—but also figuratively evacuating. A few pages later he’ll evacuate into his next identity, Rocket Man.

Cf. page 553, from Slothrop’s “Partial List of Wishes on Evening Stars for This Period”:

“Let me be able to take a shit soon.”

5  I counted 75 words in the dependent clause that precedes Pynchon’s finally introducing the independent clause—which is to say subject and verb

“Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez”

(My count is likely off; I counted once and I’ve had some bourbon. I counted “fever-dreams” as two words, although I think you’re not supposed to do that).

Anyway: That’s a lot of dependent-clauseauge before, like, the main idea—which I guess, from a prose/aesthetic analysis, is the, uh, main idea—ascent, suspension—and then an immediate divergence (and note how Pynchon simultaneously deflates and invigorates his predicate verb “sez” with colloquial zeal).

6  Many of Gravity’s Rainbow’s motifs almost cohere here. Pynchon highlights two of Slothrop’s ostensible “quests” — the Schwarzgerät (the mysterious “black device” that will be installed in rocket 00000 (present), and the sexy sinister plastic Imipolex G (past). (But also both, obviously: Future).

Slothrop’s dumb heart denies any knightly virtue, rejects Romanticism—and, perhaps, Modernism’s ironic obsessions with Romanticism.

(I think the passage above, what with its ravens and Venus-denial and grail-refusal, is a tidy antonym to Rossetti’s depiction of the Grail…and yet I’d argue Pynchon’s writing bears a Pre-Raphaelite streak)—

The Damsel of the Holy Grail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)
The Damsel of the Holy Grail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

The episode strikes me as utterly true, a moment of honest self-speech. As Emily Dickinson put it: “I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true.” (One of Slothrop’s ancestor’s plagiarized Ms. Dickinson on his gravestone). And yet and yet and yet…Perhaps Tyrone S. is being a bit too harsh on himself (who among us hasn’t cast a harsh gaze into the mirror?).

Slothrop expels the old identity here, the old dreams, the old, evacuating space for the arrival of “Raketemensch,” — Rocketman!

Rocketman points to an emerging postmodern hero—a comic bookish hero, perhaps—totemic, sure, but also Pop, cartoonish, textual—framed (literally) in the conventions of previous centuries’ conceptions of “heroism.”

7  Cf. page 299: “There is that not-so-rare personality disorder known as Tannhäuserism. Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations.” I annotated the page here.  Slothrop seems to accept the abject mantle of a bard, a laze, a loaf, a lingerer. I think of Whitman here, proud to lean and loafe at his ease at the beginning of Song of Myself, only to “effuse [his] flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags” in the poem’s closing lines. Like Whitman’s persona, Slothrop will dissipate.

8 Cf. pages 203-04 (annotations here), wherein Slothrop’s vomiting ancestor William Slothrop, in a remarkable passage of hysteron proteron, travels backwards from the New World to the Old.

9 One of the central paranoias of Gravity’s Rainbow is that you might be on their voyage. How much agency do you have in your own life? And what’s the cost of asserting that agency? How many identities do you have to evacuate? And in the end—what’s left?

10 Boredom strikes me as one of (if not the) central theme connecting Modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.

11 Cf. the Tannhäuser story/footnote 7.

Or: Simply note the motif of bloom, of fruition, of phallic life, of promise. In fuller context though—it’s a bloom too late. The question blooms from Slothrop’s self-speech, but also extends to you and me, reader.

Or: Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:

“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”

Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 299 | Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations

In the Venusburg, John Collier (1901)

There is that not-so-rare personality disorder known as Tannhäuserism 1 . Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations 2 .—Venus, Frau Holda, her sexual delights—no, many come, actually, for the gnomes , the critters smaller than you, for the sepulchral way time stretches along your hooded strolls down here, quietly through courtyards that go for miles, with no anxiety about getting lost… no one stares, no one is waiting to judge you… out of the public eye… even a Minnesinger needs to be alone…4  long cloudy-day indoor walks… the comfort of a closed place, where everyone is in complete agreement about Death 5. Slothrop knows this place. Not so much from maps he had to study at the Casino 6 as knowing it in the way you know someone is there… .

Plant generators are still supplying power. Rarely a bare bulb will hollow out a region of light 7 . As darkness is mined and transported from place to place like marble, so the light bulb is the chisel that delivers it from its inertia, and has become one of the great secret ikons of the Humility, the multitudes who are passed over by God and History 8. When the Dora prisoners 9  went on their rampage, the light bulbs in the rocket works were the first to go: before food, before the delights to be looted out of the medical lockers and the hospital pharmacy in Stollen Number 1, these breakable, socketless (in Germany the word for electric socket is also the word for Mother—so, motherless too 10 ) images were what the “liberated” had to take… .

From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, page 299. All ellipses are Pynchon’s

1 Tannhäuser was a 13th-century German Minnesinger, a troubadour—a knight-poet. A bard, I guess. Is Slothrop a bard, a knight-poet—a knight-errant? Not sure. (He’ll later deny he’s on a grail-quest).

In German legend, Tannhäuser falls from grace when he discovers Venusberg, the underground home of Venus. He stays there a year, neglecting his betrothed and indulging in erotic delights. Teutonic Christian knight that he is, Tannhäuser leaves Vensuberg (Hörselberg) for Rome to beg forgiveness from Pope Urban IV, who denies him, saying absolution would be as impossible as his papal staff flowering in bloom. The staff does bloom—but not until Tannhäuser has disappeared back into the Venusian underworld (and his gal Lisaura has killed herself in grief).

Title page to ‘The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser’ Aubrey Beardsley (1895)

Cf. the sonnet on pages 532-33 of Gravity’s Rainbow:

Where is the Pope whose staff will bloom for me?
Her mountain vamps me back, with silks and scents,
Her oiled, athletic slaves, her languid hints
Of tortures transubstantiate to sky,
To purity of light-of bonds that sing,
And whips that trail their spectra as they fall.
At weather’s mercy now, I find her call
At every turn, at night’s foregathering.

I’ve left no sick Lisaura’s fate behind.
I made my last confession as I knelt,
Agnostic, in the radiance of his jewel…
Here, underneath my last and splintering wind,
No song, no lust, no memory, no guilt:
No pentacles, no cups, no holy Fool…

The Tannhäuser myth connects to Gravity’s Rainbow’s Orphean motif, and readers may take note of the hero’s descent played against the mystical “blooming” of a staff…eh, what with the sexy phallic overtones and all.

And we can use the third line of Gravity’s Rainbow here to describe the bloom on the staff: “It is too late” (3).

2 “Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations” — one problem with reading Gravity’s Rainbow only once or twice is that it is too full of great sentences and you’ll likely miss them. Pynchon continues to deflate what he has inflated (only to inflate it again)—sex will give over to death—or, an un-death (an un-sex) here. Slothrop inert, underground, in the tombs.

3 Cf. Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day, wherein (briefly, too briefly), the heroic Chums of Chance take on “the increasingly deranged attentions of the Legion of Gnomes, the unconscionable connivings of a certain international mining cartel, the sensual wickedness pervading the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience [ETC.]”

4 . “…out of the public eye… even a Minnesinger needs to be alone…”


5 A perhaps puzzling line, if only because I think I get what everyone’s in “agreement about Death” here—Death as a kind of cozy promise that we all say “Fuck off” too in lieu of “long cloudy-day indoor walks” (and the horny expectations of underground sexbergs). I’m interested on anyone else’s ideas, of course.

6 The Casino Hermann Goering—Slothrop’s last “official” assigned post.

7 We privilege light over darkness; Pynchon inverts the image here: light is a violent “chisel”; darkness is a commodity to be mined.

The bulb becomes one of GR’s most powerful motifs, culminating in the late (and essential) episode “Byron the Bulb” (find Harold Bloom’s essay on Byron the Bulb if ye can).

References to Byron, via the indispensable folks at References to Byron, via the indispensable Pynchon Wiki:

“a bulb over his head burning all night long. He dreamed that the bulb was a representative of Weissmann, a creature whose bright filament was its soul” 426-27; “a theatre marquee whose sentient bulbs may have looked on […] witnesses to grave and historical encounters” 464; “The Story of” 647-55; “Someday he will know everything, and be just as impotent as before” 654; “electrical tidal wave” 665; “young Jack may have had one of them Immortal Lightbulbs then go on overhead” 688; screwed into Gustav’s kazoo hashpipe, 745

8 Pynchon loves to underline his big theme of “preterite vs elect” in Gravity’s Rainbow. There’s something sweet and even sad in the idea of the Humiliated, the preterite, finding an “ikon” in a lightbulb—a self-spark, a fragment of light. (I riffed a bit a while ago on GR’s theme of fragmentation and the dream of wholeness, the redemption of total light).

9 Laborers in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp who were forced to work toward producing V-2 rockets for the Nazis. Myth—Venus, gnomes, etc.—tips back into the horrific reality of slave labor. Pynchon seems to cast the Dora laborers as the preterite, grasping at their own spark of redemption by looting lightbulbs…and then reframes their preterite condition in the ironic quotation marks around “freedom.”

10  I don’t think the German word for electric socket, steckdose, corresponds so much to the word for “mother,” but maybe…it does? In any case, the etymology does seem to correspond to the concept of absence, or cavity, which permeates this episode of GR.

I looked for the root of “socket” in Josepth T. Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, and while I didn’t find anything about mothers or Venus or lightbulbs, I did find a connection to another of Gravity’s Rainbow’s big motifs: Pigs!—-



“A wild dream of a witch-meeting” | Westworld episode two reviewed


Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

“Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” was thrumming through my head the second time I watched “Chestnut,” the second episode of Westworld. In Hawthorne’s classic American tale, a naive youth ventures into the dark evil woods—for reasons never fully expressed—and witnesses his community’s Satanic inversion: Witches and wizards and a “devilish Indian behind every tree.” The narrator’s gambit (Was it all just a dream?) doesn’t ultimately matter—Brown’s experience irrevocably change him. He crosses the threshold of his domestic door, traipses into unknown terrors, and becomes a new person.

Last week, in my review of Westworld’s pilot, I wrote that the series engages “that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would ‘sivilize’ him.” For Twain the territory is freedom; for dark Hawthorne the frontier is freedom’s dark twin terror. We find a bit of both in this episode of Westworld. (Along with wizards and Indians).

Our naive youth here is William (Jimmi Simpson). William arrives at Westworld for the first time, “guided” by his loutish friend Logan, who chooses to “go straight evil” (if I may echo a guest’s line from last week). Westworld’s pilot episode pulled a bait-and-switch last week, presenting Teddy Flood (James Marsden) as the naive youth, new to town, only to reveal that he is actually an automaton, a “host.” William provides a more traditional audience surrogate, and his opening sequences are closer to what we might expect from a traditional pilot episode. William’s entering Westworld also feels a bit like the beginning of a video game. (Westworld often feels like a video game. I mean that as a compliment).

We enter the Westworld with William; we savor the bespoke attire he’s offered; we glance with apprehension and desire at the guns on display. In a pivotal shot, William—and perhaps the audience—must make an important choice: White hat—or black?


William chooses white, and much of his narrative in “Chestnut” is spent establishing his contrast to his “friend” Logan, who has donned a black hat, of course. William shows empathy, restraint, and civil humanity to the park’s automaton hosts, whereas Logan uses and abuses them with sadistic abandon. While Logan engages in an orgy (thanks HBO!), William rejects sex, declaring that he has “someone real waiting at home.” William hence represents a “family man” archetype. Perhaps he’s like Young Goodman Brown who just wanted to get home to his wife Faith.

Will crossing the threshold change William too? Yes. Of course. It’s a television show. For Hawthorne’s hero the results were dire: “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream.” Maybe Westworld will find a more optimistic path for William.

But this isn’t a show that’s generally optimistic about domesticity. In the pilot episode, we saw that one android father can simply be swapped out for another android father. (Mothers, android or otherwise, remain absent). In the one glimpse of a full family we get in that episode, we hear the father advise that crossing the river is “too adult” for the son. The Territory is a wild space ripe for masculine domination. Westworld continues the American fantasia of exploration and destiny-manifestin’.

“Chestnut” continues Westworld’s breaking down of familial order in two plot lines that seem to converge. In one such plot, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) kills the cousins and then the wife of a host he claims is an “old friend.” (More on the Man in the Black in a moment). In a second plot line, told mostly in nightmare-flashback mode, Thandie Newton’s character Maeve is a mother whose family is apparently killed by Indians. (More on the convergence of these plotlines in a moment too).

I was happy to see Maeve get screentime this week. Her nightmares throughout “Chestnut” echo Hawthorne’s observation that our dreams alter our realities, that our night-consciousness is vital, real. (Perhaps this is Dr. Ford’s design when he injects “reveries” into his automaton’s new programming system in Westworld’s pilot). Maeve’s dreams begin to affect her work performance, so she’s hauled repeatedly into Westworld’s underground body shop for reconditioning—and a possible decommissioning. Maeve delivers the same monologue three times to different guests in the episode. Each segment feels like a separate audition, the producers leering offstage. Westworld again draws attention to its own form, its metatextuality, its “TV-showness,” as it were.


Maeve’s “truest” performance comes underground—she somehow bypasses “sleep mode” and wakes up in the middle of the (real) nightmare: the Westworld labs and body shops. In an echo of the scalping motif that slices through the episode, Maeve grabs a scalpel and takes off, running deeper into the nightmare. The sequence is aesthetically arresting, wonderfully weird, and ultimately devastating when she finally happens upon the heaped bodies of her android fellows. Maeve’s underground odyssey furthers the Big Plot of Westworld thus far: How much consciousness–and self-consciousness –do these androids have? I’m digging how the series takes on memory, dream, and reality.


Maeve’s performance is under pressure specifically because Lee Sizemore, Westworld’s narrative director (ahem, head writer), wants to cull dead weight to make room for his new campaign, “Odyssey on the Red River.” Sizemore, who we’re invited to view as a kind of Hollywood hack asshole, assures the assembled management team that this new storyline’s grotesque savagery (meta meta meta) will make it look like “”Hieronymous Bosch was doodling kittens.” Sizemore’s smugly assured that Dr. Ford, who hasn’t commented on the story in years, won’t interfere. So of course Ford shoots him down.

Ford is the true magician of Westworld. He regards Sizemore as a huckster, a fraud peddling cheap tricks. Ford blasts Sizemore’s claim that Westworld will “tell the guests who they are,” arguing that Westworld’s true potential is to transform and transmute the guests into what they can be. Ford notes at one point in the episode that the guests crave nuance, subtlety, mystery. They want witchcraft; they want a spell that transmogrifies chaos into magic.

Where does Ford’s magic come from? Boredom! In a wonderful discussion with (what I’m assuming simply has to be) a replicant version of himself as a child, Ford twists the old idiom and suggests that “only boring people cannot conceive of boredom.” He guides the replicant child to a desert vision of the “Town with the White Church,” pointing to the imaginative possibility of the Territory—to the frontier’s magic. The Black Sabbath in the wilderness is all in the wizard’s mind. “You see what a bored mind can conjure,” Ford tells the boy, and then charms a snake, declaring, perhaps a bit glumly, that, “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.” Ford dismisses the boy, and later brings Bernie Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) up to the surface to survey the desert terrain, the rocks where he will build this church. (Bernie dons a brown baseball cap. No black or white stetson for Bernie).


But The Man in Black: He’s pure Black Hat. Compellingly, Dr. Ford’s thoughts on subtlety and magic parallel The Man in Black’s. (White wizard/Black wizard?). “When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real” he snarls at an automaton he’s interrogating, echoing Emily Dickinson’s “I like a look of agony / Because I know it’s true.”

The Man in Black’s back in town, not a stranger, in search of something called The Maze, willing to scalp androids, smash families, kill cousins, wives, daughters, etc. to get clues—ah but wait, I’m forgetting, They’re just androids, right?

Is The Man in Black an android too?

“I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” he reminds us. (Westworld  wants us to remember this three-decade benchmark—recall that the last time the park faced trouble was thirty years ago). But then, and perhaps without much of that magic subtlety, he tells us: “In a sense, I was born here.” Egads! 


Black’s plot converges with Maeve’s nightmare in a Satanic reverie. Indian marauders have chased Maeve and her (dream)daughter into a cabin corner; one enters and shape-shifts into The Man in Black, knife out, ready to scalp her.

Is this now? Is this then? Is this real? Is this dream?

I started with Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” so I’ll end with it. The Man in Black—but also Dr. Ford, perhaps—recall to me Brown’s traveling companion into the woods (lovely dark and deep), an old wizard who bears “a considerable resemblance” to the young (good?)man. The old mage steers YGB deeper into the Frontier, into the Territory, into the Weird, and he protests about going over the line:

“Too far, too far!” exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path and kept–”

“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interrupting his pause. “Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake.”

Hawthorne here lays out an American history of religious persecution, the murder of indigenous peoples, and hypocrisy, themes that find their echo in Westworld’s continuation of the American myth.

Or maybe it’s the Territory itself, the dream/nightmare of the Frontier:

America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.

Naked Lunch, William Burroughs (1959)

A riff on the Westworld pilot, “The Original”


Watching HBO’s new show Westworld, I couldn’t help but think of the late American novelist William Gaddis’s obsession for player-pianos. The narrator of Gaddis’s final novel Agapē Agape howls that the player piano “was the plague spreading across America…its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics.” Here was the idea of art, the artifice of art. Spiritless spirit. Automation.

Director Jonathan Nolan threads these automaton player pianos throughout “The Original,” Westworld’s ironically-titled pilot episodeThe motif is a perhaps-unsubtle reminder of Westworld’s core conflict—automation vs. spirit, real vs. copy, authentic vs. simulation. Human vs. machine.

You know the story of course: whether from Westworld’s source material (Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name), or from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick in general, or The Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica (original or reboot), or Pinocchio, or AI, or Pygmalion, or Baudrillard, or just generally being alive in the 21st century….or…or…or…you know the story of course. (Oh, and, uh westerns too, natch).

Knowing the story enriches this particular reboot (or reimagining or re-whatever) of Westworld’s pregnant possibilities, and “The Original” is at its finest when tweaking its tropes.

For example, James Marsden’s fresh-faced Teddy Flood arrives to Westworld a noob, a surrogate for the audience—just another “Newcomer,” a human tourist among the amusement park’s android “Hosts” looking for fun and trouble, right? An early reveal shows that he’s actually a Host too though (gadzooks!), an automaton pining after fresh-faced series lead Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy. (I suppose having a fresh face is easy when the lab operatives can grow you a new one each night).


The bait-and-switch gambit with Flood plays out in a riveting scene with ringer Ed Harris, the Man in Black, hardly a “Newcomer” and a seemingly unwelcome guest. He reveals that he’s been coming to Westworld for “over thirty years,” and we later learn that the theme park’s automatons haven’t had major glitches in (You guessed it!thirty years. “We’re overdue,” says Westworld’s operations manager, Theresa Cullen (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen–and by the way, that quote’s from my bad memory so don’t quote me on it). Foreshadowing! With the Man in Black creepin’ ’round and takin’ automaton scalps Blood Meridian style, there’s sure to be trouble!

But wait—Westworld can make its own trouble for its own damn self without mysterious outside agents, thank you very much. Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins, another ringer, and please don’t make me comment on the symbolically-overdetermined character name) has updated the “Hosts” with a new operating system, which includes a new program for “reveries.” These reveries have the replicants all fucked up. In short, the automatons, the Hosts, start going off-script (literally)—asking philosophical questions about the nature of their reality (and pouring milk over corpses).

Ford doesn’t care though—as he explains to Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe (Westworld’s head programmer), humanity, what with curing all its diseases, etc., can’t progress anymore — “This is as good as we’ll get.” So, like, why not trigger the Singularity? To return to our player piano motif, if only momentarily, Ford would like to inspirit art into the artificial. He wants, or at least moments of “The Original” suggest he wants, to teach the Hosts to play.

But the security forces behind the scenes decide it’s probably not good for their guests to be subjected to unknown quirks. They remand some of these suspect automatons to a creepy Bluebeard’s closet full of other decomissioned replicants that surely won’t be any kind of problem down the line in Westworld, right?

As my quick overview suggests, Westworld brims with potential. Indeed, “The Original,” despite a tight plot, often feels overpacked. There’s not just a season’s worth of plot lines lurking in here, but a whole series’ worth. As a result, “The Original” leaves many interesting characters on the margins for now (Thandie Newton’s brothel madam in particular).  I suppose keeping key players on the sidelines makes sense, especially as the pilot is exposition-heavy as it is (a fault with any number of TV pilots, from Game of Thrones to The Sopranos. Not every show can emerge autochthonous and fully-realized out of the gate like True Detective).

And yet even stuffed with emerging plots, Westworld finds time for a cinematic shooting-slaughter sequence that I suppose many viewers found thrilling but I found admittedly cold. With zero stakes at this early point, the scene felt like any other American TV show where meaningless bodies are gunned to pieces. Maybe that was the point though?

In any case, the punchline to the shooting sequence—one of the Newcomers (a prototypical Ugly American doof) Saves the Day! right before the baddie-Host can give his Big Speech—the punchline didn’t make me laugh so much as grimace. “The Original” is full of tonal inconsistencies and missed opportunities for sharp satire and dark humor. I hope Westworld loosens up a bit, gets a bit weirder, bites more from J.G. Ballard’s playbook. The pilot seems to go for profundity over weirdness, as if the showmakers must telegraph at all times: This is a Dark Serious Show. (Did I mention that director and creator Jonathan Nolan is Christopher Nolan’s brother?).

If the arcade shooter sequence is a dud (or, rather, the simulacrum of a real shootout, an authentic inauthenticity), the final scenes of “The Original” make up for it. In an echo of Blade Runner’s final sequence, Hopkins’s Ford squares off with his creation, Dolores’s father Peter. Peter has found a photograph depicting a girl in Times Square, and the cognitive dissonance of this unreality has him goin’ straight-glitch, quotin’ Shakespeare, and generally blowin’ android gaskets. We find out he’s been rebooted a number of times, and was once the leader of a cannibal cult in a Westworld scenario called “The Dinner Party.” (Har har! That pun works on at least two levels). Peter perhaps has realized he’s but a player in play—but not a true player, just a copy of a player, a simulacrum.


Westworld is acutely aware of its own layers of simulacra. The show constantly calls attention to itself as a show, as a play. Early in “The Original,” the camera pulls up from travelers on a train to reveal a god’s-eye diorama of the terrain—a moving diorama that recalls the intro to Game of Thrones (the show Westworld would replace in your hearts and on your screens). The Westworld is surveyed by producers and showrunners making adjustments—just like Westworld. We have here a metacommentary on television, a self-consciously postmodern (and thus, post-postmodern) gesture. Not just automation and artifice, but artists! Not just player pianos, but players!

The diorama shot also reveals the Big Dream embedded in Westworld’s Big Nightmare. We have here that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would “sivilize” him. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” declared Charles Olson in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville’s whale. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” The Newcomers, the tourists, flock to Westworld because it is a safe and constrained territory, a SPACE that is sivilized, yet masked to appear otherwise, garbed in the myth of danger, the empty promises of our National Pastimes, Sex & Violence. Dr. Ford plants reveries—dreams—into his automatons, disrupting civilization’s veneer of order. This is the new Frontier that Westworld promises to explore.

Gravity’s Rainbow — annotations and illustrations for pages 203-04

Outside, he 1 heads down toward the quay, among funseekers, swooping white birds, an incessant splat of seagull shit 2. As I walk along the Bwa-deboolong 3 with an independent air… Saluting everybody in uniform 4, getting it to a reflex 5, don’t ask for extra trouble, try for invisible 6.… bringing his arm each time a bit more stupidly to his side. Clouds now are coming up fast, out of the sea. No sign of Tantivy out here, either.

Ghosts 7 of fishermen, glassworkers, fur traders, renegade preachers, hilltop patriarchs and valley politicians go avalanching back 8 from Slothrop here, back to 1630 when Governor Winthrop came over to America on the Arbella, flagship of a great Puritan flotilla that year 9 , on which the first American Slothrop had been a mess cook or something 10 —there go that Arbella and its whole fleet, sailing backward  in formation, the wind sucking them east again, the creatures leaning from the margins of the unknown sucking in their cheeks, growing crosseyed with the effort, in to black deep hollows at the mercy of teeth no longer the milky molars of cherubs, as the old ships zoom out of Boston Harbor, back across an Atlantic whose currents and swells go flowing and heaving in reverse 11 … a redemption of every mess cook who ever slipped and fell 12 when the deck made an unexpected move, the night’s stew collecting itself up out of the planks and off the indignant shoes of the more elect 13 , slithering in a fountain back into the pewter kettle as the servant himself staggers upright again and the vomit he slipped on goes gushing back into the mouth that spilled it… 14 Presto change-o! 15 Tyrone Slothrop’s English again! 16  But it doesn’t seem to be redemption exactly that this They have in mind… . 17

He’s on a broad cobbled esplanade, lined with palms shifting now to coarse-grained black as clouds begin to come over the sun. Tantivy isn’t out on the beach, either—nor are any of the girls. Slothrop sits on a low wall, feet swinging, watching the front, slate, muddy purple, advancing from the sea in sheets, in drifts. Around him the air is cooling. He shivers. What are They doing? 18

1 The “he” here is Our Dude Tyrone Slothrop, and if anyone’s keeping count, these annotations pick up right damn exactly where the last set left off. Slothrop exits his (tampered with) room  at the Casino Hermann Goering to find his friend Tantivy Mucker-Maffick.

2 Gravity’s Rainbow is full of shit.

3 Weisenburger offers the following  gloss in A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion:

Screenshot 2016-09-22 at 8.23.26 PM.png

Weisenburger’s second “u” in “Boulougne” seems to be an error. (Or make what you will of a double-you).

Van Gogh depicted promenaders on the Bois de Boulongne in 1886, about six decades before the events in GR and about nine decades before Pynchon composed GR.

The Bois De Boulogne with People Walking, Vincent van Gogh, 1886

4 In Gravity’s Rainbow a uniform is a polyform. Our Boy Slothrop repeatedly changes uniforms; in this vignette, he’s donned an English soldier’s uniform—but just a few pages later he was wearing a purple toga; before that, a tacky Hawaiian shirt, and before that…well…you get the deal.

Pynchon might be suggesting that identity is contingent on circumstance, on external forces, on They—on the uniforms we have to slip on to cover over our shame. And yet many of his characters dress up to participate in shame! Gravity’s Rainbow is a carnival of shifting identities.

5 There’s that Pavlovian theme—will Slothrop break the reflex?

6 Invisible is clearly (heh heh heh) a key word for Pynchon—it permeates Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as his other texts—particularly his other big books Against the Day and Mason & Dixon. I’m tempted to riff at length on Invisible in Pynchon, but perhaps it’s better to rack up annotations and try to align them to some, uh, purpose.

For now, it’s worth noting that Slothrop’s salute and uniform are his means of camouflage, his cloak of invisibility.

A Taste of the Invisible, Rene Magritte, 1927
A Taste of the Invisible, Rene Magritte, 1927

7 Ghosts…invisible (?!) ghosts…what an incredible paragraph this is, one I shouldn’t molest with my grubby annotations…but… .

8 Hold on…we’re gonna do a bit of time travel here. “…avalanching back” — this is a bit of the old assy-turvy, cart-before-horse dealieness—latter-first hysteron proteron business (as Weisenburger and others note).

9 The Arbella and a trio of other ships embarked unto America in the spring of 1630 under the command of Purtitan Man John Wintrhop, He Of “City Upon A Hill” fame, a phrase that in no way (LOL) cursed New World America. Hell, it may even be that Winthrop and his gang had civilization’s best interest in heart when they made the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I’m sure religious freedom ETC. motivated them, and not, like, all that goddamn “free” land.

A postcard depicting The Arbella, printed sometime between 1930 – 1945

The poet Anne Bradstreet was on board. Something of a pre-post-modernist, riffing on writing and paranoia in “The Author to Her Book” :

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

Or maybe actually naw—not pre- or post- anything there. Just writing. And the paranoia writing entails.

10 Weisenburger and other sources point out that Pynchon’s ancestor William Pynchon was part of Winthrop’s fleet. This historical stitching suggests that Pynchon posits Slothrop as something (?) of an authorial…placeholder (?)—in any case, Pynchon and Slothrop both share Puritan ancestors. Wm Pynchon helped “settle” two places in Massachusetts—Roxbury and Springfield.

Roxbury is a the setting of one of GR’s strangest scenes, in which Slothrop descends into the abject hell of a nightclub toilet. (Around page 62 for those counting).

Pynchon kinda sorta showed up in another Springfield.

11 Hysteron proteron continued.

12 A redemption, a fall—even Pynchon’s note that Slothrop’s ancestor is a mess cook points to the novel’s abject contours.

13 Although consistently accused of willful obscurity, Gravity’s Rainbow telegraphs its central themes repeatedly. Here, we see a bobbing seasick distinction between the pure-elect and the abject-preterite.

14 And again…and gross. A sort of abject magic potion is getting worked up here, cross-Atlantic style (in-reverse)—the stew returns to the cauldron, the vomit returns to the guts. Hysteron proteron.

15 The magic words…

16 But…he was already wearing an English uniform.

17 Of course not—this They have other plans for Slothrop’s preterite soul—there is no return, no way home, no way back—no reversals.

18 Yes—What are They doing?

Gravity’s Rainbow — annotations and illustrations for pages 148-49 | Our history is an aggregate of last moments

Lotus, Chang Dai-chien, 1948

—(Quietly) 1 It’s been a prevalent notion 2. Fallen sparks 3. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation 4. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment 5. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home 6—only the millions of last moments… no more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments 7.

From pages 82-83 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

1 A stage direction. These are the final lines in a one-act play, a small (cosmically-large) tragicomedy featuring two…nerve cells. Rollo Groast of the White Visitation prefaces a page earlier:

It is part…of an old and clandestine drama for which the human body serves only as a set of very allusive, often cryptic, programme notes—it’s as if the body we can measure is a scrap of this programme found outside in the street, near a magnificent stone theater we cannot enter.

In this little play (its rough setting echoes GR’s own martial satire), a younger cell asks a senior cell if she’s ever been to the “Outer Level” and is somewhat shocked when she tells him that “sooner or later everyone out here has to go Epidermal. No exceptions.”

Is this the first episode of Gravity’s Rainbow staged as a play? I think so.

The “prevalent notion” the younger cell subscribes to is characterized in the four sentences that follow, and then rejected in the fifth, the sentence that pivots with “But.” A satire of religious hope, perhaps?—the notion of salvation, redemption, an organizing principle to arrive and tidy all the chaos?

The preterite. But also/and—

The notations on broken vessels and sparks seem to allude to the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria (1534-1572). I will not attempt a bad paraphrase of Lurianic Kabbalah here, but a basic big picture—sparks—souls, fragments of a one-soul—looking to be rectified. Pynchon, inking heavy his preterite-and-elect theme.

The deus ex machina in the last act, the game-winning Hail Mary pass, the Messiah, smiling and terrible…

6 Bummer.

Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:

“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”

These are the first lines of dialog in the novel. (If they can be called dialog).

7 The “our” here is biological—one cell to another business—but is there more to human history? Are we more than just our cells? Are there sparks for these vessels?

The narrator here seems to superimpose an answer into the senior cell’s line here: History is simply an imposition, a psychological trick, a way to organize chaos via narrative.

Cf.  Pointsman’s lines, which I brought up in some previous annotations:

Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?

This miniature cellular drama comes after the introduction to a minor character in Gravity’s Rainbow I’ve always found intriguing: Gavin Trefoil.

Trefoil, an agent (?!) of The White Visitation, has powers:

Lately, as if all tuned in to the same aethereal Xth Programme, new varieties of freak have been showing up at “The White Visitation,” all hours of the day and night, silent, staring, expecting to be taken care of, carrying machines of black metal and glass gingerbread, off on waxy trances, hyperkinetically waiting only the right trigger-question to start blithering 200 words a minute about their special, terrible endowments. An assault. What are we to make of Gavin Trefoil, for whose gift there’s not even a name yet? (Rollo Groast wants to call it autochromatism.) Gavin, the youngest here, only 17, can somehow metabolize at will one of his amino acids, tyrosine. This will produce melanin, which is the brown-black pigment responsible for human skin color. Gavin can also inhibit this metabolizing by—it appears—varying the level of his blood phenylalanine. So he can change his color from most ghastly albino up through a smooth spectrum to very deep, purplish, black. If he concentrates he can keep this up, at any level, for weeks. Usually he is distracted, or forgets, and gradually drifts back to his rest state, a pale freckled redhead’s complexion.

I suppose I could riff all day on the symbolic/historic implications of Trefoil’s powers: His gradations of color disrupt the binary (black-white, off-on, zero-one) that a Pavlovian like Pointsman insists upon (Trefoil’s super(?!)power falls in line with Roger Mexico’s gradations between 0 and 1).

Giant-Size X-Men #1, 1975. Art by Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum, story by Len Wein.

But what really interests me here is Trefoil’s mutant powers and The White Visitation as a sort of potential comic book—I mean what I want to say here is that Pynchon points ahead to the 1975 “reboot” of Uncanny X-Men, and even The New Mutants: Post-global preterite underground weirdos with strange powers. Psychics and witches and protagonists that splinter into nothingness, after going through multiple reboots—(Plechazunga, the Pig-Hero, Rocketman, etc.). (Hell, the Pynchon X-Men team could even have Grigori the Octopus).

The closest X-Men comparison for Gavin Trefoil is probably the shapeshifter baddie X-Men antagonist Mystique, whose powers are obviously more pronounced than Trefoil’s. And there’s also Nightcrawler—maybe my favorite of Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men—or maybe I mean Excalibur. And also blueskinned Beast.


Nightcrawler, Kevin Wada, 2015

Late in the novel, Our Hero Tyrone Slothrop will help form the superish heroish team the Floundering Four (along with Myrtle Miraculous, zoot-suited Maximillian, and mechanical man Marcel). The Floundering Four will set out to battle the Paternal Peril. (Make of that what you will).

On Trefoil the Blueskin, here’s Steven Weisenburger (A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion):



Gravity’s Rainbow — Annotations and illustrations for pages 82-83

Andrea Solario
Andrea Solario

Overhead, on the molded plaster ceiling, Methodist versions of Christ’s kingdom swarm: lions cuddle with lambs, fruit spills lushly and without pause into the arms and about the feet of gentlemen and ladies, swains and milkmaids. No one’s expression is quite right. The wee creatures leer, the fiercer beasts have a drugged or sedated look, and none of the humans have any eye-contact at all 1 . The ceilings of “The White Visitation” aren’t the only erratic thing about the place, either. It is a classic “folly,” 2 all right. The buttery was designed as an Arabian harem in miniature, for reasons we can only guess at today, full of silks, fretwork and peepholes. One of the libraries served, for a time, as a wallow, the floor dropped three feet and replaced with mud up to the thresholds for giant Gloucestershire Old Spots to frolic, oink, and cool their summers in 3, to stare at the shelves of buckram books and wonder if they’d be good eating 4. Whig eccentricity 5 is carried in this house to most unhealthy extremes. The rooms are triangular, spherical, walled up into mazes 6. Portraits, studies in genetic curiosity, gape and smirk at you from every vantage. The W.C.s contain frescoes of Clive and his elephants stomping the French at Plassy 7, fountains that depict Salome with the head of John (water gushing out ears, nose, and mouth)8, floor mosaics in which are tessellated together different versions of Homo Monstrosus, an interesting preoccupation of the time—cyclops, humanoid giraffe, centaur repeated in all directions 9. Everywhere are archways, grottoes, plaster floral arrangements, walls hung in threadbare velvet or brocade. Balconies give out at unlikely places, overhung with gargoyles whose fangs have fetched not a few newcomers nasty cuts on the head. Even in the worst rains, the monsters only just manage to drool—the rainpipes feeding them are centuries out of repair, running crazed over slates and beneath eaves, past cracked pilasters, dangling Cupids, terra-cotta facing on every floor, along with belvederes, rusticated joints, pseudo-Italian columns, looming minarets, leaning crooked chimneys—from a distance no two observers, no matter how close they stand, see quite the same building 10 in that orgy of self-expression 11, added to by each succeeding owner, until the present War’s requisitioning. Topiary trees line the drive for a distance before giving way to larch and elm: ducks, bottles, snails, angels, and steeplechase riders they dwindle down the metaled road into their fallow silence, into the shadows under the tunnel of sighing trees. The sentry, a dark figure in white webbing, stands port-arms in your 12 masked headlamps, and you 13 must halt for him. The dogs, engineered and lethal, are watching you from the woods. Presently, as evening comes on, a few bitter flakes of snow begin to fall 14.

From pages 82-83 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

 This strikes me as a description of Gravity’s Rainbow.

2 An architectural folly, but another description of Gravity’s Rainbow. (Perhaps ironic. Certainly ironic. Meta-ironic).

3 Late in the novel Our Hero Tyrone Slothrop will take up the mantle of “Plechazunga, the Pig-Hero” — one of many Circean (Odyssean?) transformations.

Gustav-Adolf Mossa

4 Bibliophagy, baby. Another meta-description of the novel itself.

5 A reference to the Neo-Palladian baroque style that swept Britain in the 18th century?

6 Another description of Gravity’s Rainbow, a self-describing novel…you see where I’m going with this.

7 Clive of India is a very very minor character in Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

8 See the Solario painting above; you know this old saw of course. The femme fatale, etc. The lines of leakage from ears nose and mouth point to Gravity’s Rainbow’s themes of abjection and dissolution—of unbecoming from the inside out.

Another description of Gravity’s Rainbow (disputed). Monster men populated the undiscovered country. Do you know Gaspar Schott?

10 “…no two observers, no matter how close they stand, see quite the same building” — strike building and replace with novel, and we have, perhaps, another meta-description of Gravity’s Rainbow. 

11 You know by this point I’m going to say that “orgy of self-expression” is another meta-description of the novel itself, right?

There is, of course, a real orgy (by which I mean non-metaphorical, orgy-orgy) later in Gravity’s Rainbow, on the Anubis. 

12 …yourWha? Whence this narrative shift?

13 You!? And hold on who’s this fellow, this dark figure in white webbing (a sorta kinda oxymoron, maybe)—a sentry sure, a watcher, maybe—a statue? The martial imagery prefigures, perhaps, black and white, Enzian and Tchitcherine, the White Visitation (prefigures? This whole passage is set there!) and the Counterforce…(you’re stretching, dude).

14 Our paragraph begins with “Overhead” and ends with “begin to fall”—the descent of the rocket, the arc of the rainbow, the decline of the human condition. (And curves in other directions too).

Sorcerer film poster by Jay Shaw

I need to write a proper riff on William Friedkin’s astounding 1977 film Sorcerer—I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a better film this summer—nor have I seen anything that zapped me with that How the hell haven’t I seen this yet? feeling since Michael Mann’s Thief. But as the summer ebbs and a new year of a full teaching load approaches, I’m not sure if I’ve got a spare three hours to watch Sorcerer a third time any time soon (the third viewing was perfect, by the bye). It’s great though. It’s about four dudes, exiles, trying to move nitroglycerin in two old trucks across a mountain in an unnamed South American country.

I had scratched out some notes on the first viewing though, which I won’t bother to cobble together here in anything other than a silly list, which I hope to mine later in Something Bigger on Sorcerer:

  1. Metaphors of postglobal cooperation in the cause of self-interest.
  2. Multilingual, but postlingual: Film as language. Sorcerer as its own language.
  3. Post-WWII; somehow hasn’t absorbed the Vietnam War.
  4. Like Herzog, here is a depiction of nature that conveys the sublime while stripping from it the romance, leaving only the horror and awe.
  5. Comments on its own engineering, its own technological processes (like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo).
  6. But also, its focus on engineering points backwards (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and forwards (uh, the Fast/Furious franchise? —but not fast here; no: slow).
  7. (Clearly the double feature of Fitzcarraldo).
  8. Postglobalism — terror, crime, religion, economics, class, “high” art, — all the shit that’s  dealt with in the first 30 min — is subsumed into nature vs techne — a kind of nihilsm against nature pointing at the current century.
  10. Unself-concious postmodernism, before postmodernism is properly “postmodernism”: That Friedkin is perhaps working in Modernist idioms (all the noir touches, the irony, the hallucinations, the cuts, etc.), but produces something we might describe as “postmodern.”
  11. That end — tragic, ironic, pathetic, bathetic—and a loop! (sort of)—Friedkin’s film ironizes the Romantic touches, the Bogart shadows.
  12. (Watch it again).

A review of Lucia Berlin’s excellent short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women


The 43 stories that comprise Lucia Berlin’s excellent collection A Manual for Cleaning Women braid together to reveal a rich, dirty, sad, joyous world—a world of emergency rooms and laundromats, fancy hotels and detox centers, jails and Catholic schools. Berlin’s stories jaunt through space and time: rough mining towns in Idaho; country clubs and cotillions in Santiago, Chile; heartbreak in New Mexico and New York; weirdness in Oakland and Berkeley; weirdness in Juarez and El Paso.

The center of this world—I’ll call it the Berlinverse, okay?—the center of the Berlinverse is Lucia Berlin herself. “Her life was rich and full of incident, and the material she took from it for her stories was colorful, dramatic and wide-ranging,” writes Lydia Davis in her foreword to Manual. (You can read Davis’s foreword at The New Yorker; it’s a far more convincing case for Berlin than I can manage here). Yes, Berlin’s life was crammed with incident—-so perhaps the strangest moment in A Manual for Cleaning Women is the three-page biography that appends the volume. The bio is strange in how un-strange it is, how it neatly lays out in a few paragraphs the information of Berlin’s life, information we already know as real, as true, from reading the preceding stories. She’s large, she contains multitudes.

Truth is a central theme in these stories. In “Here It Is Saturday,” a version of Berlin teaches fiction writing to prison inmates. She tells them, “you can lie and still tell the truth.” (As I describe the scenario for “Here It Is Saturday” I realize how hokey it sounds—I suppose there are lots of potentially-hokey moments in Berlin’s stories, yet her cruelty and humor deflate them).

In a crucial moment in the late short story “Silence,” the narrator tells us,

I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.

The narrator of “Silence” is, of course, a version of Berlin—fictionalized, sure, a persona, yep, an exaggeration, maybe—but she’s utterly believable.

“Silence” is one of many stories that repeat aspects of Berlin’s biography—we get little Lu’s childhood, a father away at the big war, a drunkenly absent mother, a bad drunk grandfather. A Syrian friend betrayed. Nuns. A good drunk uncle. A hit and run. Am I rushing through it? Sorry. To read Berlin is to read this material again and again, in different ways, through different perspectives and filters. “Silence” is particularly interesting to me because it combines material from two earlier stories not collected in Manual: “Stars and Saints” and “The Musical Vanity Boxes,” both published in Black Sparrow Press’s 1990 collection Homesick. These earlier stories are sharper, rawer, and dirtier; the later story—and Berlin’s later stories in general—strike me as more refined. Wiser, perhaps, sussing grace from abject memory.

Berlin’s recollections of the different figures in her life drive these stories, and it’s fascinating to see how key memories erupt into different tales. Berlin’s narrator’s alcoholic grandfather, a famous Texan dentist, sometimes emerges as a sympathetic if grotesque comedic figure, only to appear elsewhere as an abusive monster. Cousin Bella Lynn is a comedic foil in “Sex Appeal,” but an important confidante in “Tiger Bites” (a story of a visit to an abortion provider in Juarez). Several stories center on sister Sally, dying of cancer.

Berlin’s narrator’s four sons (Berlin had four sons) are often in the margins of the stories, but when she mines material from them the results are painful and superb. I note “her sons” in the previous line, but what I really want to note is the friend of one of her sons, a boy she calls Jesse. He shows up in the short “Teenage Punk,” where he’s our narrator’s date to go look at some cranes in a ditch at sunrise. That’s pure Lucia Berlin—weird abject unnatural natural beauty.:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything. It is true though that we lay there freezing for a long time in the fog. It wasn’t fog. Must have been mist from the ditch or maybe just the steam from our mouths.

That brief paragraph showcases much of her technique: Inflation-deflation-resolution-hesitation. The high, low, the in-between. Jesse shows up again in one of the volume’s lengthier (and more painful) tales, “Let Me See You Smile,” a story of police brutality, scandal, and alcoholism.

Most of the stories in Manual are in some way about alcoholism, with the ur-narrator’s mother’s alcoholism haunting the book. In the near-elegy “Panteón de Dolores,” the narrator finds her mother drunk and weeping. When she tries to comfort her mother, she’s rejected; the mother wails, “…the only romance in my life is a midget lamp salesman!” The narrator-daughter reflects, “this sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break.” Berlin often punctures her punchlines. In “Mama,” Berlin consoles her dying sister Sally by weaving a fictional ditty about their mother, a paragraph that ends, “She has never before known such happiness.” The story assuages some of her sister’s grief by transmuting it into a realization of love, but the narrator? — “Me…I have no mercy.”

And yet a search for some kind of mercy, some kind of grace propels so many of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women. The three-pager “Step,” set in a half-way house, details the residents watching a boxing match between Wilfred Benitez and Sugar Ray Leonard. The recovering (and not-so-recovering) drunks “weren’t asking Benitez to win, just to stay in the fight.” He stays in to the last round before touching his right knee to the canvas. Berlin’s stand-in whispers, “God, please help me.” In “Unmanageable,” the alcoholic narrator finds some measure of grace from others. First from the NyQuil-swilling drunks who share saltine crackers with her in a kind of communion as they wait, shaking, for the liquor store to open at six a.m. And then, from her children. Her oldest son hides her car keys from her.

The same sons are on the narrator’s mind at the end of “Her First Detox,” in which Berlin’s stand-in’s plan for the future takes the form of a shopping list. She’ll cook for her boys when she gets home:

Flour. Milk. Ajax. She only had wine vinegar at home, which, with Antabuse, could throw her into convulsions. She wrote cider vinegar on the list.

Berlin’s various viewpoint characters don’t always do the best job of taking care of themselves, but taking care of other people is nevertheless a preoccupation with the tales in Manual. “Lu” takes care of her dying father in “Phantom Pain”; there’s sick sister Sally; the four sons, of course; a heroin-addicted husband; assorted strays, sure; an old couple in failing health in “Friends”; and the disparate patients who wander in and out of these tales, into doctor’s offices, into emergency rooms, into detox clinics.

And the cleaning women. Caretakers too, of a sort. Laundromats and washing machines are motifs throughout A Manual for Cleaning Women, and it’s no surprise that “Ajax” made the shopping list from “Her First Detox” that I quoted above. An easy point of comparison for Berlin’s writing is the so-called “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and Carson McCullers. But if Berlin’s realism is dirty, what are we to make of her concern with cleaning, with detox?

As a way of (non-)answering this question, here’s the entirety of the shortest tale in A Manual for Cleaning Women, “Macadam”:

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.

I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

There’s so much in those four paragraphs. Berlin collapses geography and genealogy into ten sentences: daughter, mother, grandmother. Texas, “squalor,” convicts. A road—a new road. Berlin’s narrator converts crushed stone into caviar, then the ice left over after sweet lemonade—and then into the magic of a friend. There’s a lot of beauty in dirt.

I could go on and on about A Manual for Cleaning Women—about how its loose, sharp tales are far more precise than their jagged edges suggest, about its warmth, its depth, its shocking humor, its sadness, its insight. But all I really mean to say is: It’s great, it’s real, it’s true—read it.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is new in trade paperback from Picador. You can read the first story in the collection, “Angel’s Laundromat,” at Picador’s website.



Reviews, riffs, etc. of June-July, 2016 (and an unrelated pig)

I read a lot of great books over the past few months and failed to write proper reviews for some of them, including two by Stanley Elkin—The Franchiser and The Dick Gibson Showa double feature of two novellas by W.D. Clarke called White Mythology, and Marketa Lazarova by Vladislav Vančura. But I did riff on other books.

One of the best books I’ve read in ages is Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner (new in English translation (by Adam Morris) from Two Lines Press). I reviewed the book, but also noted

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.


I also wrote about the books I’ve started the most times without ever finishing, asking readers in turn what books they’ve started the most times without finishing. 


Frequent answers (both on the blog, on Twitter, and via email) included lots of “big” books, especially Gravity’s RainbowWar and PeaceMoby-Dick, and Infinite Jest. I was also surprised at how many readers cited Dostoevksy’s novel The Idiot, a book I’ve started at least four times without success.

Readers also told me that I needed to stick it out with The Charterhouse of Parma, which I did. I wrote about French Stendhal’s “Italian” novel here and here. Short version: Parts were great but the novel was often exhausting—Charterhouse is a novel about boredom that is frequently boring. But the fault is mine.

Another French novel I got bored with was Hell, Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel of voyeurism (I read (and often just skimmed, to be honest) 1966 English translation by Robert Baldick. (As an aside, I think my boredom and comprehension of the novel made it easy to write about—whereas I sometimes have difficulty writing about a novel that I find perplexing and which I feel a passion for, like Vančura’s Marketa Lazarova).

I was very passionate about an Italian “Italian” novel (or set of novels, I suppose), Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels. I wrote about Ferrante’s powers of abjection, stating—

From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.

But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).

I’m glad I finished the quartet.

As a sort of sequel or answer or rejoinder or whatever to my question posing post about books I’ve attempted the most without ever finishing, I wrote about the novels I’m always dipping into without ever hoping to really finish.


I also recycled two older posts: A thing I wrote about The BFG as a love letter Dahl wrote to his deceased daughter (recycled for the Spielberg film) and a review of Hemingway’s overlooked novel of doomed polyamory, The Garden of Eden (recycled for the man’s birthday).

I also spent a fun Friday afternoon browsing old sci-fi covers.

Also: Derek Pyle, of Waywords and Meansigns,  interviewed novelist Brian Hall about a bunch of stuff, including his work adapting Finnegans Wake, a novel on my “I probably will never really read this all the way through, but…” list.

Promised pig: Jamie Wyeth’s Winter Pig, 1975–


Another short report from The Charterhouse of Parma

Robert Andrew Parker’s ilustration to Ch. 4 of The Charterhouse of Parma

After many, many false starts, I’ve finished Stendhal’s 1839 cult classic The Charterhouse of Parma.  (I read Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I really, really wanted to quit around Ch. 25 (of 28). I’ll admit at times I broke a rule I’d made nearly two decades ago, now: I allowed my mind to wander. I thought of other things: A variation on a muffin recipe I was planning to make for my kids. A possible review of William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer. Lunch. What book I might read next as an antidote to Charterhouse.

The end of the novel is an utter slog. No duels, no escapes. Just courtly intrigues and courtly romances. And ironic sermons. Then, in the last chapter, a new character shows up! Some dandy named Gonzo! Out of nowhere! To move the plot along! (Stendhal pulls a similar stunt in the back half of the novel, when it first starts to really drag—he brings in a lunatic-bandit-poet-assassin named Ferrante).

And then—okay, maybe this is something close to a spoiler, but I don’t think so—and then, Stendhal seems to get bored with his novel. In the last chapter, he skips a few years in a few sentences (this, in a novel where every damn decision each character frets over goes on and on for paragraphs) and then kills everyone (not really. But really, sorta. I mean, the last chapter of The Charterhouse of Parma almost feels like season six of Game of Thrones, where the action is accelerated at a pace that seems to ironize all the previous scheming and plotting).

Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over 50-something days (I think I read that somewhere…I’ve yet to read Howard’s afterword to the novel, or Balzac’s study…I’ll save those for later, after I remember the best bits of the novel more fondly). But where was I? Oh, yeah: Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over a two-month period, and I get the feeling he was getting bored with it there at the end. Which is in some ways appropriate, as The Charterhouse of Parma is all about boredom. Phrases like “boring,” “bored,” and “boredom” pop up again and again. There’s something wonderfully modernist (or Modernist) about that.

Robert Andrew Parker’s ilustration to Ch. 11 of The Charterhouse of Parma

Of course all that boredom is punctuated with moments of wonderful action—battles and duels! Indeed, Charterhouse never really surpasses its fourth chapter, a strikingly modern depiction of the Battle of Waterloo.

Stendhal is great at conveying action and violence while stripping it from Romantic illusions—and at the same time, he presents those Romantic illusions, making them ironic (again—this is probably one of the first Modern novels, and I’m sure someone has already said that somewhere, but hey).

Stendhal is also wonderfully adept at capturing a human mind thinking. Whether it’s the Machiavellian machinations of Count Mosca, or our (ever)greenhorn hero Fabrizio, or the real hero of Charterhouse, Fabrizio’s aunt Gina, Stendhal takes pains to show his characters thinking through their problems and schemes. Not only do the heroes and villains of The Charterhouse of Parma think, they think about what other characters will think (about what they have thought…). The novel in some ways is about metacognition. But thought about thought may be a product of boredom. And it often produces boredom.

Balzac was a great admirer of Charterhouse, as was Italo Calvino, and countless writers too. Indeed, the novel is, I suppose, a cult favorite for writers, which makes sense: Stendhal crowds each page with such psychological realism, such rich life, that every paragraph seems its own novel. I’ll admit that by page 400 or so I was exhausted though.

I’ve noted here a few times that Charterhouse is a “Modernist” novel; perhaps “proto-Modernist” is the term I need. (Again—I’m sure that countless lit critics have sussed over this; pardon my ignorant American ass). And yet Charterhouse also points back at the novels before it, the serialized novels, the epistolary novels, the romances and histories and etceteras of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. My favorite lines of the novel were often our ironic narrator’s brief asides like, “Doubtless the reader grows tired…” or “The conversation went on for hours more in trivial detail…” or “The letter went on for pages more after the same fashion…” (These aren’t actual quotes, dear reader, but I think I offer a fair paraphrase here). Stendhal’s modernism, or Modernism, or prot0-Modernism, or whatever, is his wily irony, his winking at the novel’s formal characteristics. My own failing, then, is to perhaps want more of this. As I wrote last time I riffed on it, what I suppose I want is a postmodern condensation of The Charterhouse of Parma, such as Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “Eugénie Grandet,” which parodied Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet. 

Screenshot 2016-07-25 at 5.08.00 PM

How much of Balzac’s novel is lovingly leapt through right here?!

This wish of mine is of course my failure, not the novels.

The Charterhouse of Parma is undoubtedly an oddity, a work of genius, often thrilling, and often an utter slog. I suppose I’m glad that I finally finished it after so many years of trying, but I’m not sure if I got what I wanted out of it. The failure is mine.

I’ll close with the novel’s final line though, which I adore:



A short report from The Charterhouse of Parma


Have you read Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet?

I haven’t, but I’ve read the Wikipedia summary.

I’ve also read, several times, Donald Barthelme’s 1968 parody, “Eugénie Grandet,” which is very very funny.

Have you read  Stendhal’s 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma?

After repeated false starts, I seem to be finishing it up (I’m on Chapter 19 of 28 of Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I brought up Eugénie Grandet (Balzac’s) to bring up “Eugénie Grandet” (Barthelme’s). Stendhal’s (1830’s French) novel Charterhouse keeps reminding me of Barthelme’s (1960’s American) short story “Eugénie Grandet,” which is, as I’ve said, a parody of Honoré de Balzac’s (1830’s French) novel Eugénie Grandet. Balzac and Stendhal are pre-Modernists (which is to say they were modernists, I suppose). Donald Barthelme wanted to be a big em Modernist; his postmodernism was inadvertent. By which I mean— “postmodernism” is just a description (a description of a description really, but let me not navelgaze).

Well and so: I find myself often bored with The Charterhouse of Parma and wishing for a condensation, for a Donald Barthelme number that will magically boil down all its best bits into a loving parody that retains its themes and storylines (while simultaneously critiquing them)—a parody served with an au jus of the novel’s rich flavor.

My frequent boredom with the novel—and, let me insert here, betwixt beloved dashes, that one of my (many) favorite things about Charterhouse is that it is about boredom! that phrases like “boredom,” boring,” and “bored” repeat repeatedly throughout it! I fucking love that! And Stendhal, the pre-Modernist (which is to say “modernist”), wants the reader to feel some of the boredom of court intrigue (which is not always intriguing). The marvelous ironic earnest narrator so frequently frequents phrases like, “The reader will no doubt tire of this conversation, which went on for like two fucking hours” (not a direct quote, although the word “fuck” shows up a few times in Howard’s translation. How fucking Modern!)—okay—

My frequent boredom with the novel is actually not so frequent. It’s more like a chapter to chapter affair. I love pretty much every moment that Stendhal keeps the lens on his naive hero, the intrepid nobleman Fabrizio del Dongo. In love with (the idea of) Napoleon (and his aunt, sorta), a revolutionist (not really), a big ell Liberal (nope), Fabrizio is a charismatic (and callow) hero, and his chapters shuttle along with marvelous quixotic ironic energy. It’s picaresque stuff. (Fabrizio reminds me of another hero I love, Candide). Fabrizio runs away from home to join Napoleon’s army! Fabrizio is threatened with arrest! Fabrizio is sorta exiled! Fabrizio fucks around in Naples! Fabrizio joins the priesthood! Fabrizio might love love his aunt! Fabrizio fights a duel! Fabrizio kills a man! (Not the duel dude). Fabrizio is on the run (again)! Fabrizio goes to jail! Fabrizio falls in love!

When it’s not doing the picaresque adventure story/quixotic romance thing (which is to say, like half the time) Charterhouse is a novel of courtly intrigues and political machinations (I think our boy Balzac called it the new The Prince). One of the greatest strengths of Charterhouse is its depictions of psychology, or consciousness-in-motion (which is to say Modernism, (or pre-modernism)). Stendhal takes us through his characters’ thinking…but that can sometimes be dull, I’ll admit. (Except when it’s not). Let me turn over this riff to Italo Calvino, briefly, who clearly does not think the novel dull, ever—but I like his description here of the books operatic “dramatic centre.” From his essay “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse:

All this in the petty world of court and society intrigue, between a prince haunted by fear for having hanged two patriots and the ‘fiscal général’ (justice minister) Rassi who is the incarnation (perhaps for the first time in a character in a novel) of a bureaucratic mediocrity which also has something terrifying in it. And here the conflict is, in line with Stendhal’s intentions, between this image of the backward Europe of Metternich and the absolute nature of those passions which brook no bounds and which were the last refuge for the noble ideals of an age that had been overcome.

The dramatic centre of the book is like an opera (and opera had been the first medium which had helped the music-mad Stendhal to understand Italy) but in The Charterhouse the atmosphere (luckily) is not that of tragic opera but rather (as Paul Valéry discovered) of operetta. The tyrannical rule is squalid but hesitant and clumsy (much worse had really taken place at Modena) and the passions are powerful but work by a rather basic mechanism. (Just one character, Count Mosca, possesses any psychological complexity, a calculating character but one who is also desperate, possessive and nihilistic.)

I disagree with Calvino here. Mosca is an interesting character (at times), but hardly the only one with any psychological complexity. Stendhal is always showing us the gears ticking clicking wheeling churning in his characters’ minds—Fabrizio’s Auntie Gina in particular. (Ahem. Excuse me–The Duchessa).

But Duchess Aunt Gina is a big character, perhaps the secret star of Charterhouse, really, and I’m getting read to wrap this thing up. So I’ll offer a brief example rather from (what I assume is ultimately) a minor character, sweet Clélia Conti. Here she is, in the chapter I finished today, puzzling through the puzzle of fickle Fabrizio, who’s imprisoned in her dad’s tower and has fallen for her:

Fabrizio was fickle; in Naples, he had had the reputation of charming mistresses quite readily. Despite all the reserve imposed upon the role of a young lady, ever since she had become a Canoness and had gone to court, Clélia, without ever asking questions but by listening attentively, had managed to learn the reputations of the young men who had, one after the next, sought her hand in marriage; well then, Fabrizio, compared to all the others, was the one who was least trustworthy in affairs of the heart. He was in prison, he was bored, he paid court to the one woman he could speak to—what could be simpler? What, indeed, more common? And this is what plunged Clélia into despair.

Clélia’s despair is earned; her introspection is adroit (even as it is tender). Perhaps the wonderful trick of Charterhouse is that Stendhal shows us a Fabrizio who cannot see (that he cannot see) that he is fickle, that Clélia’s take on his character is probably accurate—he’s just bored! (Again, I’ve not read to the end). Yes: What, indeed, could be more common? And one of my favorite things about Charterhouse is not just that our dear narrator renders that (common) despair in real and emotional and psychological (which is to say, um Modern) terms for us—but also that our narrator takes a sweetly ironic tone about the whole business.

Or maybe it’s not sweetly ironic—but I wouldn’t know. I have to read it post-Barthelme, through a post-postmodern lens. I’m not otherwise equipped.

Bored of Hell


I am bored of Hell, Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel of voyeurism.

Maybe I should blame the 1966 English translation (from the French) by Robert Baldick, which often feels stuffily stuffy for a book about “childbirth, first love, marriage, adultery, lesbianism, illness, religion and death” (as our dear translator puts it in his brief preface). Maybe I should blame it on Baldick, but that seems rash and wrong, and I have no basis of comparison, do I?

So I blame it on myself, this boredom of Hell.

Why write then? Why not write it off, rather, which is to say, do not write—I don’t know.

I’m bored with Hell and there are half a dozen novels I’ve recently  read (or am reading) that I should commend, recommend, attempt to write about—but here I am bored of Hell, and writing about it. Maybe it’s—and the it here refers to writing about Hell, a book I confesss a boredom of—maybe it’s because I’ve allowed myself over the last few days to good lord skim the goddamned infernal thing, not skimming for a replenishing sustenance, but rather looking for the juicy fat bits, the best bits, in the same way a teenaged version of myself skimmed Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in a powerful sweat.

(I was a teenage cliché).

Maybe it’s that the best bits of Hell weren’t juicy enough. (In this novel, an unnamed narrator espies all sorts of sensual (and nonsensual) shenanigans through a small hole in his hotel room). Or maybe the juicy bits were juicy, but the translation dried them out. So many of the sentences made me want to close the book. But it’s unfair for me to write this, I suppose, without offering a sample. Here, from early in the novel, is an excerpt that did make me want to keep going:

The mouth is something naked in the naked face. The mouth, which is red with blood, which is forever bleeding, is comparable to the heart: it is a wound, and it is almost a wound to see a woman’s mouth.

And I begin trembling before this woman who is opening a little and bleeding from a smile. The divan yields warmly to the embrace of her broad hips; her finely-made knees are close together, and the whole of the centre of her body is in the shape of a heart.

…Half-lying on the divan, she stretches out her feet towards the fire, lifting her skirt slightly with both hands, and this movement uncovers her black-stockinged legs.

And my flesh cries out…

Those last ellipses were mine. Did you want more? I did, I admit. And yet after 50 pages, I grew bored. The voyeurism was boring—sprawling. Perhaps I’m lazy. Perhaps I want my voyeurism condensed. Maybe…weirder. I don’t know. Reader, I skimmed. I skimmed, like I said, for morsels—but also to the end, the the final chapter, to the final exquisite not boring paragraph, which I’ll share with you now before “I have done,” as the narrator states in this final section. Promised paragraph:

I believe that confronting the human heart and the human mind, which are composed of imperishable longings, there is only the mirage of what they long for. I believe that around us there is only one word on all sides, one immense word which reveals our solitude and extinguishes our radiance: Nothing! I believe that the word does not point to our insignificance or our unhappiness, but on the contrary to our fulfillment and our divinity, since everything is in ourselves.

Sonic Youth live in Düsseldorf, Germany, 1996

Sonic Youth live in Düsseldorf, Germany in April of 1996. As my buddy Nick points out in the email he sent me with this link: “ridiculously good quality and a killer setlist.”

Continue reading “Sonic Youth live in Düsseldorf, Germany, 1996”

Dissolving boundaries | Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

A few weeks ago I finished The Story of the Lost Child, the last of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels, and now perhaps have enough distance to comment on them briefly.

The novels have been much-hyped, which initially put me off (nearly as much as their awful kitschy covers), but the same friend who urged me to give Bolaño’s 2666 a go (after I misfired with The Savage Detectives) insisted I read Ferrante.

I’m glad I did. From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.

But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).

It’s this horrific abjection that fascinates me most about the novels. I’ll offer two longish passages from the final book in the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, to showcase Ferrante’s prowess with (what I take to be her dominant) theme and tone.

The first passage comes fairly early in the long novel, when our (now mature) heroine Lenù encounters a suicide’s corpse:

No answer. I knocked harder, I opened the door cautiously, the room was dark. I called him, silence, I turned on the light.

There was blood on the pillow and on the sheet, a large blackish stain that extended to his feet. Death is so repellent. Here I will say only that when I saw that body deprived of life, that body which I knew intimately, which had been happy and active, which had read so many books and had been exposed to so many experiences, I felt both repulsion and pity. [He] had been a living material saturated with political culture, with generous purposes and hopes, with good manners. Now he offered a horrible spectacle of himself. He had rid himself so fiercely of memory, language, the capacity to find meaning that it seemed obvious the hatred he had for himself, for his own skin, for his moods, for his thoughts and words, for the brutal corner of the world that had enveloped him.

Ferrante’s passage here strongly echoes Julia Kristeva’s 1980 essay “Approaching Abjection.” Kristeva writes (emphasis mine):

The corpse…upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance….as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border…the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel — “I” is expelled.

In my reading, Ferrante’s heroines Lenù and Lila are detectives of the abject, of the (literally) unnamable forces of culture (and oh-what-a-culture patriarchal Naples is!) that threaten subjectivity. They each seek to assert an I in a world that would devastate such an assertion.

Lenù and Lila claim their assertion through creative agency—through art. And Ferrante’s greatest strength, perhaps, in the Neapolitan Novels is that she harnesses this art, she conveys the brilliance of these brilliant friends, and does not merely “tell” the reader of their brilliance (like so many contemporary “literary” novels do). Ferrante shows authorship (and genius) as a shared, collaborative process, not an isolation, but a synthesis.

If these novels concern synthesis, they also show fracture, fragmentation, and dissolution. Observe Lenù and Lila in a key moment from The Story of the Lost Child , during a calamitous earthquake (again, emphasis mine):

She exclaimed: Oh Madonna, an expression I had never heard her use. What’s wrong, I asked. Gasping for breath, she cried out that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh. She used that term: dissolving boundaries.

It was on that occasion that she resorted to it for the first time; she struggled to elucidate the meaning, she wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her. She was still holding my hand tight, breathing hard. She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that—and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped. Contrary to what she had been doing, she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences, sometimes kneading in the vocabulary of the dialect, sometimes drawing on the vast reading she had done as a girl. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her; she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that. And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.

Kristeva’s abjection is again strongly embodied in those last few lines—the dissolution, the unspeakable and repressed forces, the trauma. The rivers of abject bodily filth. Here’s Kristeva, again from “Approaching Abjection” (my emphasis):

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.

Lila and Lenù face abjection, the primer of their culture. They trace its contours, aim at ways of speaking the unspeakable—through friendship and the fruits of that friendship: storytelling. The storytelling offers a literal form to handle the abject violence of the culture in its many, many forms (corrupt politicians, abusive fathers, abusive husbands, predatory rapists, predatory lenders, Cammorist gangsters, systemic class inequality, religion…).

The storytelling confronts abjection without seeking a transcendence, an exit, an out. Ferrante recognizes that humans are violent animals, and doesn’t want to comfort us. In an interview, she said:

I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us…I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have no interest in consoling their readers. Yet they do evoke an essential power of storytelling, a power not to transcend abjection, but rather to endure a subjectivity through abjection: Love. “Love is something spoken, and it is only that: poets have always known it,” writes Kristeva in another essay, “Throes of Love: The Field of the Metaphor.” In the Neapolitan Novels, Lenù speaks her love to her brilliant lost friend Lila. The result is moving and exhausting, an epic of fragments, a saga as discontinuous and unexpected as a real and full life. And if not all those fragments will stick in my memory, what comes through in the end is a sense of love, an author’s love her characters that persuades the readers to love them too.

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

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.