Blog about some recent reading (Spring break/quarantine (?) edition)

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Left to right:

I used interlibrary loan to check out a copy of Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography. It’s pretty neat, and includes some photos of Our Reclusive Favorite that I’d never seen before, like this one:

I read Charles Wright’s 1966 novel The Wig last weekend. The novel is amazing—a picaresque, burlesque, Black black comedy that made me want to reread Invisible Man and read all the Ishmael Reed that I’ve left unread. And more Charles Wright. The energy of The Wig enraptured me; Wright’s cartoon vision of 1960’s Harlem is poised just on the edge of horror. I loved loved loved this novel, and aim for a full review sometime this week.

To its right is The Complete Gary Lutz, which I’ve been nibbling at for a few months. It’s like a rich cheese block or a lovely single malt—not something to inhale all at once, but wonderful in moderation.

I’ve also been picking through Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, mostly reading the journalism at the front end. (I’m saving the play, Delray’s New Moon for…I don’t know…like a quarantine or something?)

This afternoon, I dipped into Marrow and Bone, Walter Kempowski’s satirical road novel set in Germany and Poland right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlotte Collins’s translation renders Kempowski’s prose as frank, funny, and often ironic.

I’m a little over halfway through Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult classic Nog. The novel is far more abject and despair-inflected than I had imagined, and so far, anyway, the despair and abjection isn’t leavened with any humor that’s registered with me. I dig the absurdity, but I’ve got to admit that the book isn’t working for me. I wanted to love it—-blurbed by Pynchon, right? features an imaginary octopus, right?—but something’s missing for me. (The vague something in the previous sentence is humor—there are maybe some jokes or japes I’m missing, to be fair, but…) The book’s strengths bleed over with its weaknesses. Wurlitzer does an admirable job portraying a consciousness dissolving and resolving, only to desire to not desire consciousness at all, only static, Buddhist peace. Nog is essentially a narrative voice, a howl disintegrating in on itself, bubbling down, and revivifying itself via verbal goo to speak anew. There are Big Western Themes, too—Wurlitzer’s critique of America’s favorite myth of Manifest Destiny is subtle but sharp. The novel’s druggy haze recalls William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg, but a bit more focused. It so far makes me think of better novels by João Gilberto Noll, though. I very much love two films that Rudolph Wurlitzer wrote: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971; dir. Monte Hellman) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973; dir. Sam Peckinpah). I’d love to see two others he wrote: America (1986; dir. Robert Downey Sr.) and Walker (1987; dir. Alex Cox).

Nog also has some really gross sex scenes.

(I think I might be enjoying Wurlitzer’s debut novel more if I hadn’t read The Wig immediately before it.)

The last two skinny volumes there on the right are new joints from Sublunary Editions. Vik Shirley’s Corpses is like a thirty-paragraph prose-poem, part comic, part morbid.  The blurb for Jessica Sequeira’s A Luminous History of the Palm describes the tract:

This little book can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract. The palm is a symbol traced through history, a hidden portal to intimate moments that bring geographies and situations to life. A vital presence, it coaxes out vitality. It’s everywhere once you start to look, a secret joyful emblem.

To the right of Palms is a pothos plant that was formerly thriving on the window sill of my office. Our college’s spring break starts tomorrow, but I wasn’t sure if we’d be coming back after it, so I brought my plants home. It turns out we’ll come back, sans students. I brought my textbooks home too, but I forgot my copy of  S.D. Chrostowska’s novel The Eyelid, which I’d brought to work to snack on. So it isn’t in this blog, except it is.

S.D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid (Book acquired, 23 Dec. 2019)

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An AR copy of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel The Eyelid showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters a few days before Xmas. I was inundated with books, both review copies and gifts and gifts to myself, but still excited—I think Chrostowska’s novel Permission is great. (I was lucky enough to interview Chrostowska about the novel, too.)

The book’s blurb points to a kind of sci-fi or dystopian plot that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected from Chrostowska (all the better):

In the near future, sleep has been banned. Our unnamed, dream-prone narrator finds himself following Chevauchet, a diplomat of Onirica, a foreign republic of dreams, to resist the prohibition. On a mission to combat the state-sponsored drugging of citizens with uppers for greater productivity, they traverse an eerie landscape in an everlasting autumn, able to see inside other people’s nightmares and dreams. As Comprehensive Illusion — a social media-like entity that hijacks creativity — overtakes the masses, Chevauchet, the old radical, weakens and disappears, leaving our narrator to take up Chevauchet’s dictum that “daydreaming is directly subversive” and forge ahead on his own.

In slippery, exhilarating and erudite prose, The Eyelid revels in the camaraderie of free thinking that can only happen on the lam, aiming to rescue a species that can no longer dream.

The Eyelid is forthcoming from Coach House Proof in April of this year.

Read My Interview with S.D. Chrostowska at 3:AM Magazine

I interviewed S.D. Chrostowska for 3:AM Magazine. I reviewed Chrostowska’s novel Permission here.

3:AM also features a new piece of short fiction from Chrostowska, “How to Avoid the Cardinal Sins /A Nominalistic Pamphlet/“.

From the interview:

 

3:AM: How did Permission begin? Did it begin as a novel? As something else?

S D Chrostowska: It began with the first message, and ended with the last. It was principally a literary effort subordinated to communication. To me this remains a crucial difference, itsdifferentia specifica. The origin of the now-book Permission was in an illegitimate literary dimension outside the frame of book authorship. You have to understand that, though I had chosen my reader, this reader could not know what if anything would become of the writing that came their way. Naturally I wonder whether and how it changes things for readers today, who approach them as a bound book, to know that the letters, just as they are, were once for real.

3:AM: Why write the letters under a pseudonym? How did you arrive at “Fearn Wren”?

SDC: For the sake of ambiguity. Knowing too much, or for that matter anything, about the artist-producer prejudices us about their work. The prejudice is not just personal or social but also simply contextual. It is all but unavoidable in visual and performing artworks requiring direct human contact, where other people are involved from the start rather than just on the receiving end. Sitting for a portrait or mounting a play depends on direct interaction. But we have already chosen the photographer based on their reputation. And we know something about the director before we get involved in their production or, if we happen to be directors, select actors based on their training or past work.

But writing, usually done at some distance from readers, can minimize our reader’s prejudices—at least until the finished work is judged, and the reviews and exposés come out. One way it can do this is by appearing anonymously or pseudonymously. Such publishing has a long history. As, one should add, does letter-writing under a pseudonym. Permission’s first reader would have had no context to go on.

Being read as an unknown author, not part of the literary scene, mimics that condition somewhat. But almost everyone nowadays can be googled, which is to say traced. I imagine that many people who would pick up a book like mine would be curious in this way.

I’m not sure how I settled on this particular pen-name. I do like ferns and wrens, their behaviors and the myths around them.

Bonus:

So, my signature interview question — “Have you ever stolen a book?” — had to be cut because it was just kind of confusing on 3:AM, but I couldn’t not ask it, so:

3:AM: Have you ever stolen a book?

SDC: Of course. 

 

S.D. Chrostowska’s Novel Permission Deconstructs the Episotolary Form

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In trying to frame a review of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, I have repeatedly jammed myself against many of the conundrums that the book’s narrator describes, imposes, chews, digests, and synthesizes for her reader.

I have, for example, just now resisted the impulse to place the terms novelnarrator, and reader under radical suspicion. (I realize that the last sentence carries out the impulse even as it purports not to). Permission, thoroughly soaked in deconstruction, repeatedly places its own composition under radical suspicion.

This is maybe a bad start to a review.

Another description:

Permission pretends to be the emails that F.W. (later F. Wren, and even later, Fearn Wren) sends to an unnamed artist, a person she does not know, has never met, whom she contacts in a kind of affirmation of reciprocity tempered in the condition that her identity is “random and immaterial.” She aims to work out “an elementary philosophy of giving that is, by its very definition, anti-Western.” Her gift is the book she creates — “Permit me to write to you, today, beyond today,” the book begins.

Why?

What I want to measure—or, rather, what I want to obtain an impression of, since I do not claim exactitude of measurement for my results—is my own potential for creatio ad nihilum (creation fully within the limits of human ability, out of something and unto nothing). To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity?

F.W.’s project (Chrostowska’s project) here echoes Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of giving, of the (im)possibility of authentic giving. F.W. wants to give, but she also deconstructs that impulse repeatedly. This is a novel (novel-essay, really) that cites Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot in its first twenty pages.

Her project is deconstruction; as she promises at the outset, her giving, her writing “is not solid, and does not lead to solidarity.” On the contrary,

it is solvent, and leads, through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work), which meanwhile becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.

“Will it?” I asked in the margin of my copy. It does, perhaps.

After an opening that deconstructs its own opening, Chrostowska’s F.W. turns her attention to more concrete matters. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the F.W.’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of her first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon. We get an overview of our F.W.’s most intimate library—The Hound of the Baskervilles, a samizdat copy of Listy y Bialoleki [Letters from Bialoleka Prison], 1984. We get an analysis of Philip Larkin’s most famous line. Prisons, lunatic asylums, schools. Indian masks. Hamlet. More cemeteries.

My favorite entry in the book is a longish take on the “thingness of books,” a passage that concretizes the problems of writing—even thinking—after others. I think here of Blanchot’s claim that, ” No sooner is something said than something else must be said to correct the tendency of all that is said to become final.”

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The most intriguing passages in Permission seem to pop out of nowhere, as Chrostowska turns her keen intellect to historical or aesthetic objects. These are often accompanied by black and white photographs (sometimes gloomy, even murky), recalling the works of W.G. Sebald, novel-essays that Permission follows in its form (and even tone). Teju Cole—who also clearly followed Sebald in his wonderful novel Open Cityprovides the blurb for Permission, comparing it to the work of Sebald’s predecessors, Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. There’s a pervasive melancholy here too. Permission, haunted by history, atrocity, memory, and writing itself, is often dour. The novel-essay is discursive but never freewheeling, and by constantly deconstructing itself, it ironically creates its own center, a decentered center, a center that initiates and then closes the work—dissolves the book.

Permission, often bleak and oblique, essentially plotless (a ridiculous statement this, plotless—this book is its own plot (I don’t know if that statement makes any sense; it makes sense to me, but I’ve read the book—the book is plotless in the conventional sense of plotedness, but there is a plot, a tapestry that refuses to yield one big picture because its threads must be unthreaded—dissolved to use Chrostowska’s metaphor)—where was I?—Yes, okay, Permission, as you undoubtedly have determined now, you dear, beautiful, bright thing, is Not For EveryoneHowever, readers intrigued by the spirit of (the spirit of) writing may appreciate and find much to consider in this deconstruction of the epistolary form.

Permission is new from The Dalkey Archive.

(Not Quite Reviews of) Stuff I Read in September

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So somehow in September, I neglected to write a single book review—not even a riff!—on this blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa. This oversight (not really an oversight) I mayhap blame on the nascent Fall semester. Or perhaps I should pin it on a certain fatigue after working my way through Pynchon’s mammoth beast Against the Day and Bernhard’s caustic Gargoyles at the end of the summer. But I shouldn’t blame the Thomases. No, I’ve been reading too much at once again. Bad habit.

So, what have I been reading?

Thomas Bernhard’s early novel Frost (on my Kindle, in the dark, often not exactly sober). I posted an excerpt of Ben Marcus’s review of the novel earlier, which I think does a nice job of describing Bernhard’s project. I’m really close to the end, but the novel wears me down—I experienced a similar feeling when I doubled up Correction and The Loser—I should’ve taken a break I think. Still, an excellent, funny read.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t own this book. There are a lot of negatives in that sentence; let me reword: Sixty Stories is perfect, a trove, a performance of an author doing stuff that no other author can do. I think I read most of this in college and just sort of went “check” next to it and moved on and I’m certain I didn’t get what he was doing like I do now—just amazing stuff.

I’ve already posted a few excerpts from the latest collection of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. I like this collection more than the last one—there’s almost a curatorial aspect to Sontag, who is perhaps in her intellectual prime near the end of the journals—or, maybe prime is not the right word; rather, it’s like her mind (which we get to access in some sense via her entries) is so finely attuned (and at times perfectly out of tune) with the intellectual milieu of the day. I’ll be posting a full review sometime in the next two weeks.

S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, new from Dalkey Archive, is lovely stuff—and again, it’ll get its own proper review on here once I can muster the strength. Chrostowska does all sorts of things here that shouldn’t work—cite directly from Blanchot, Derrida, et al—but it does work. The novel is Sebaldian, soaked in history and literature, a book about books, writing about writing. Full review forthcoming. Short review: It’s very very good.

I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:

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That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.

Here’s his poem about The Purple One:

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“The thingness of books” (From Chrostowska’s Novel Permission)

The thingness of books, especially of many books kept in a small space, stacked high without rhyme or reason, can become impressive. I worry about being oppressed by the books I own––quite different from being oppressed by the ownership of books. There are days when I am certainly very oppressed by the presence of so many books in such a small space. There is really no more room for me with them around, just as there is no room for more books with me around. Yet I keep introducing new books, and reintroducing books that have either fallen or been misplaced and have now been picked up or found, or those I have lent (both with relief at the extra space and with apprehension at never seen them again) and that have just been returned to me. So now: loads and loads of books everywhere, and the fear that they will all come falling down one moment as I am passing through (or edging through) or sitting or (worse) dozing in my armchair, and that I or (more so) that they might be injured in the fall. The idea of all those books tipping over or (even) a shelf detaching itself from the wall and crashing to the floor, is positively nerve-wracking. Every time a book is taken off the shelf, transposed or put back I feel I am pushing my luck. I have so far been unusually lucky in avoiding an avalanche of book matter. I do believe a little order goes a long way, and that the ordering of books and maintaining always some semblance of order are possibly the best way of obviating the clutter typical of book-laden apartments. One really cannot speak of a book collection without having taken stock and organized and subjected one’s books to a more or less logical and consistent access-and-retrieval system. And apartments where the number of books impedes one’s access to them and exceeds a sustainable human-to-book ratio, books attract a frightful degree of clutter in a category unto itself. If it were merely dust and cobwebs everything would still be manageable; but a book heaven that has not been whipped into shape invites its owner to let go of themselves, is an invitation to physical sloth, if not intellectual sloth and downright mental confusion (too many books in too much chaos too often proves deadly for a thinking brain). The typical flat where books predominate, hence a space dominated by books, sooner or later adapts to the physical dimensions of books and reconfigures itself to accommodate even more of them––that is, ceases to be a flat and becomes a library. The sole occupant of such a space is, properly speaking, sharing accommodation. Without realizing it, this inhabitant has already given up many of the advantages of living alone. For starters, there is the uncontrollable, self-begetting clutter. You can deceive yourself that you could straighten up any day, but the mess that comes with the preponderance of books is addictive and ineradicable. It takes considerable exertion of the will to alter this reality. Similarly you may claim to be free to move out any day, to leave the mass and cramped conditions behind, but the truth is only too material: you are not going anywhere as long as you hold on to this many books. There is finally, the sheer lack of space for independent thought. These towers of intellect are known for their diminishing effects. You feel dwarfed both physically and mentally, and when this inequality in stature becomes too great you are done for as an independent thinker. Intellectual inferiority won’t let you scale the shoulders of giants to see further than them.

–From Sylwia Chrostowska’s novel Permission.

S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission (Book Acquired, 8.10.2013)

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Sylwia Chrostowska’s novel Permission—got it in the mail on Saturday. I’d been swimming in the river, in the relentless August sun, for most of the day, and when I got home I just wanted to watch a film and drink some wine and pass out.

But I started reading. And reading. And then I looked up and and I was like fifty pages in.

Here’s publisher Dalkey Archive’s blurb:

Composed of anonymous e-mail messages sent by the author to an acclaimed visual artist over the course of a year, Permission is the record of an experiment: an attempt to forge a connection with a stranger through the writing of a book. Part meditation, part narrative, part essay, it is presented to its addressee as a gift that asks for no thanks or acknowledgment—but what can be given in words, and what received?Permission not only updates the “epistolary novel” by embracing the permissiveness we associate with digital communication, it opens a new literary frontier.

And here’s novelist Teju Cole’s blurb, from the back of the book (for some reason not posted at Dalkey):

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Permission’s central premise (if such a work so soaked in deconstruction could be said to have a center) immediately recalled to me Jacques Derrida’s discussions of the paradox of giving:

To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity? Can my giving be unhinged from a sense of both investment and pointless expenditure?

The first few “chapters” — the narrator’s weekly missives to the unnamed artist — are thoroughly soaked in deconstruction and continental philosophy; this is a novel that cites Blanchot and Deleuze in its first twenty pages. However, the narrator promises that her book, “through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work) . . . becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.”

This promise seems true, as subsequent passages flow into personal memory, reflection—storytelling. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the narrator’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of the narrator’s first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon.

Strange and lovely stuff. More when I finish.