Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe est fini (The Luncheon on the Grass Is Finished), 2015 by Susannah Martin (b. 1964)
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe est fini (The Luncheon on the Grass Is Finished), 2015 by Susannah Martin (b. 1964)
1. Caricature. A Woman Seated on a Two-Legged Ass-Headed Monster Straddling a Man in Military Uniform, 1809 by George Dance (1741–1825)
I surprised myself by picking up and rapidly reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 Soviet satire The Heart of a Dog this week. I read Michael Glenny’s translation (Harcourt Brace, 1968) at a quick clip, finding the novel propulsive and zany. I didn’t know anything about the plot beforehand, which I think helped me to enjoy the novel all the more. I liked The Heart of a Dog more than Bulgakov’s posthumously-published classic, The Master and Margarita. I had a rough idea of Master’s plot, whereas my ignorance of the events in The Heart of a Dog allowed me to ride along its zany track without loaded expectations. Perhaps this first paragraph is a way of saying: The Heart of a Dog is a quick, fun, funny read, probably better read without too much foregrounding.
A bit of foregrounding—not too much—The Heart of a Dog begins with the sad howl of a street mutt in Moscow. We’ll first get to know this dog as Sharik, and then later Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov. Sharik opens the novel: “Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying.” The line is prescient and ironic: Our pup will, in time, be reborn as a human. The basic plot of The Heart of a Dog is a riff on Frankenstein. Eminent surgeon (and vocal critic of the Communist Party) Dr. Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky finds the poor beast and restores him to the fattest health. Dr. Phil’s scheme though is a bit nefarious though. The not-quite-mad scientist, securing a thief’s corpse, trepans his poor dog’s skull and inserts the rogue’s pituitary gland. He then transplants the human’s testicles into the dog. Hormones and testes turn Sharik into a terrible shape-shifting speechifying brute, a mannerless boor who cannot be trained and who will not abstain from vodka. In time, Sharik (in the guise of Poligraf Poligrafovich) makes Dr. Phil’s life hell, leading the brief novel to its zany climax.
As with The Master and Margarita, I’m sure there was a lot that I missed in The Heart of a Dog. Undoubtedly, some of Bulgakov’s allusive jokes and jabs couldn’t land on my ignorant skull. What did come through though was a mean-but-fun satirical streak, a howling and yapping and biting at power, groupthink, philistinism, and hypocrisy. I liked the book.
I’ve just now (after having written that paragraph) gone back and read Michael Glenny’s April 1968 introduction to the novel (I always skip prefaces and intros). His final paragraph is far finer analysis than I can muster—but I can share it with you:
Like all the best satire, The Heart of a Dog can be read and relished in several ways: On one level it is a comic story of splendid absurdity; it also pokes fun at the discomforts, shortages, and anomalies of life in the Moscow of the twenties. But it has more profound meanings. It is a fierce parable about the Russian Revolution. The “dog” of the story is the Russian people, brutalized and exploited for centuries—treated, in fact, like animals instead of human beings. The weird surgeon, a specialist in rejuvenation (for “rejuvenation” read “revolution”), is the embodiment of the Communist Party—perhaps of Lenin himself—and the drastic transplant operation that he performs in order to transform the dog into the simulacrum of a human being is the revolution itself. In the story this modern Frankenstein is so appalled by the unredeemable beastliness of the creature he has conjured up that he reverses the process and turns his “new man” back into a dog. With this ending Bulgakov implies that he would like to see the whole ghastly experiment of the Revolution canceled out; unfortunately, successful revolutionaries, even when they realize their mistake, cannot reverse history by a stroke of the pen as an artist can with his fictional creatures. The bitter message is that the Russian intelligentsia, which made the Revolution, is hence-forth doomed to live with—and eventually be ruled by—the crude, unstable, and potentially brutal race of hominids—homo sovieticus—which it has called into being. Bulgakov saw the Revolution as a hideously misguided attempt to achieve the impossible—to change humankind. Man is brutish by nature, and “Soviet man,” he warns, is little more than a lout who has been led to believe he is the very pinnacle of creation. The results of giving power to such men will be disastrous; in fact, Stalin’s terror was carried out ten years later by exactly the sort of callous, brutal cretins that Bulgakov satirizes in this grimly prophetic story.
From Ron Cobb’s 1970 collection Raw Sewage (Sawyer Press).
Roman Muradov’s newest graphic novella, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art (Uncivilized Books, 2016), is the brief, shadowy, surreal tale of an illustrator who’s robbed of his artwork by a rival.
There’s more of course.
In a sense though, the plot is best summarized in the first line of Jacob Bladders:
Maybe that’s too oblique for a summary (or not really a summary at all, if we’re being honest).
But it’s a fucking excellent opening line, right?
Like I said, “There’s more” and if the more—the plot—doesn’t necessarily cohere for you on a first or second reading, don’t worry. You do have worth, reader, and Muradov’s book believes that you’re equipped to tangle with some murky noir and smudgy edges. (It also trusts your sense of irony).
The opening line is part of a bold, newspaperish-looking introduction that pairs with a map. This map offers a concretish anchor to the seemingly-abstractish events of Jacob Bladders.
The map isn’t just a plot anchor though, but also a symbolic anchor, visually echoing William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (1805). Blake’s illustration of the story from Genesis 28:10-19 is directly referenced in the “Notes” that append the text of Jacob Bladders. There’s also a (meta)fictional “About the Author” section after the end notes (“Muradov died in October of 1949”), as well as twin character webs printed on the endpapers.
Along with the intro and map, these sections offer a set of metatextual reading rules for Jacob Bladders. The map helps anchor the murky timeline; the character webs help anchor the relationships between Muradov’s figures (lots of doppelgänger here, folks); the end notes help anchor Muradov’s satire.
These framing anchors are ironic though—when Muradov tips his hand, we sense that the reveal is actually another distraction, another displacement, another metaphor. (Sample end note: “METAPHOR: A now defunct rhetorical device relying on substitution of a real-life entity with any animal”).
It’s tempting to read perhaps too much into Jacob Bladder’s metatextual self-reflexivity. Here is writing about writing, art about art: an illustrated story about illustrating stories. And of course it’s impossible not to ferret out pseudoautobiographical morsels from the novella. Roman Muradov is, after all, a working illustrator, beholden to publishers, editors, art-directors, and deadlines. (Again from the end notes: “DEADLINE: A fictional date given to an illustrator to encourage timely delivery of the assignment. Usually set 1-2 days before the real (also known as ‘hard’) deadline”). If you’ve read The New Yorker or The New York Times lately, you’ve likely seen Muradov’s illustrations.
So what to make of the section of Jacob Bladders above? Here, a nefarious publisher commands a hapless illustrator to illustrate a “career ladders” story without using an illustration of a career ladder (From the end notes: “CAREER LADDER: An illustration of a steep ladder, scaled by an accountant in pursuit of a promotion or a raise. The Society of Illustrators currently houses America’s largest collection of career ladders, including works by M.C. Escher, Balthus, and Marcel Duchamp”).
Draw a fucking metaphor indeed. (I love how the illustrator turns into a Cubist cricket here).
Again, it’s hard not to find semi-autobiographical elements in Jacob Bladders’s publishing satire. Muradov couches these elements in surreal transpositions. The first two panels of the story announce the setting: New York / 1947—but just a few panels later, the novella pulls this move:
Here’s our illustrator-hero Jacob Bladders asking his secretary (secretary!) for “any tweets”; he seems disappointed to have gotten “just a retweet.” In Muradov’s transposition, Twitter becomes “Tweeter,” a “city-wide messaging system, established in 1867” and favored by writers like E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.
I do. Which makes it, again, kinda hard for me not to root out those autobiographical touches. (He sometimes tweets on the illustration biz, y’see).
But I’m dwelling too much on these biographical elements I fear, simply because, it’s much, much harder to write compellingly about the art of it all, of how Muradov communicates his metatextual pseudoautobiographical story. (Did I get enough postmoderny adjectives in there? Did I mention that I think this novella exemplary of post-postmodernism? No? These descriptions don’t matter. Look, the book is fucking good).
Muradov’s art is better appreciated by, like, looking at it instead of trying to describe it (this is an obvious thing to write). Look at this spread (click on it for biggeration):
The contours, the edges, the borders. The blacks, the whites, the notes in between. This eight-panel sequence gives us insides and outsides, borders and content, expression and impression. Watching, paranoia, a framed consciousness.
And yet our reading rules—again, from the end notes: “SPOTILLO: Spot illustration. Most commonly a borderless ink drawing set against white background”; followed by “CONSTRAINT: An arbitrary restriction imposed on a work of art in order to give it an illusion of depth”.
Arbitrary? Maybe. No. Who cares? Look at the command of form and content here, the mix and contrast and contradistinctions of styles: Cubism, expressionism, impressionism, abstraction: Klee, Miro, Balthus, Schjerfbeck: Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Etc. (Chiaroscuro is a word I should use somewhere in this review).
But also cartooning, also comix here—Muradov’s jutting anarchic tangles, often recoiling from the panel proper, recall George Herriman’s seminal anarcho-strip Krazy Kat. (Whether or not Muradov intends such allusions is not the point at all. Rather, what we see here is a continuity of the form’s best energies). Like Herriman’s strip, Muradov’s tale moves under the power of its own dream logic (more of a glide here than Herriman’s manic skipping).
That dream logic follows the lead (lede?!) of that famous Romantic printmaker and illustrator William Blake, whose name is the last “spoken” word of the narrative (although not the last line in this illustrated text). Blake is the illustrator of visions and dreams—visions of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob Bladders. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art culminates in the Romantic/ironic apotheosis of its hero. The final panels are simultaneously bleak and rich, sad and funny, expressive and impressive. Muradov ironizes the creative process, but he also points to it as an imaginative renewal. “Imagination is the real,” William Blake advised us, and Muradov, whether he’d admit it or not, makes imagination real here. Highly recommended.
First two paragraphs:
The handsome Senator from Texas, the Capitol’s leading heartthrob, a former astronaut, and a likely future President, was in bed with two ladies, a young intern and the more mature Secretary of the Interior (the Senator called her the Secretary of the Posterior and had just made several charming off-color but complimentary remarks about hers, bringing an embarrassed flush to all four of her cheeks, and giggles from the intern, who was playing with two of them), when his private security phone chimed with the news: “The Martians have landed! In Texas!” He kissed the ladies, donned his spacesuit and helmet, and sprang into action.
The Senator flew his private jet directly from his ranch to the Martians’ landing site, not at all surprised that they had chosen the great state of Texas for this historic occasion. There, in an internationally televised address, he welcomed them to the once sovereign Republic of Texas, the last best place on earth and the heartland of the American nation, to which it also presently owed allegiance. The Martians poured out of their pear-shaped spaceship like spilled soup. They were pea-green, as anticipated, but with fluid bodies and multiple limbs that appeared and disappeared in the sticky flow. A random scattering of startled eyes blinked like tree lights. It wasn’t easy to see what separated one Martian from another.
Robert Coover’s short story “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm” is new in this week’s New Yorker. It’s of a piece with the last Coover story The New Yorker published, “Invasion of the Martians.”
Here are the first few paragraphs of “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm”:
The schoolmarm is playing poker in the town saloon. The stake is the saloon itself. As she is preparing to deal the cards, one of the men demands that she cut the fuckin’ deck, and she shoots him from her lap. “Sorry, but I simply cannot allow . . .”
The others tip their crumpled hats. “No, ma’am, you just go ahead and deal.”
The men of the town find the schoolmarm difficult but are awed by her refined and lofty character, and generally do what she tells them to do. The sheriff likes to say that she’s as pure as the spotless lily of the lake, though they have no lake, and there are no lilies in it. No damn lilies. The men cuss a lot—in fact, all the time—but never around the schoolmarm. Cussing doesn’t go together with the schoolmarm. It’s like salting your coffee, to put it politely.
After winning the saloon in the poker hand, the schoolmarm has the deceased removed and turns the card tables into school desks. The bar becomes an altar on Sundays, but there’s no preacher, so the schoolmarm provides temperance lectures from it, which the men are obliged to attend. In their minds, it’s still the old bar, the old saloon, so they carry along hip flasks and beef jerky to ease themselves through the unholy tedium, belching and snorting noisily.
If Candide could address the reader right now, he would probably apologize for both the breakneck pace and pixelated tenor of his adventures so far. Modern literature evolved beyond that sort of thing long ago, and an easy-to-swallow plot enlivened with a soupçon of ironic handwringing is all the rage today. The idea of a fictional hero running afoul of angry fathers, jihadi terrorists, secret police, corporate mercenaries, a cable TV network, and a secret cabal of global warmers simply boggles the reader’s mind, an authorial fate worse than death.
And yet of course many readers enjoy a good mind boggling every now and then.
I do, anyway.
Our narrator’s little condensation of the novel thus far reminds us that stylistically and formally, American Candide is a true heir to Voltaire’s Candide. Both novels offer a “breakneck pace and pixelated tenor”; both novels pulse with picaresque energy; both novels drip with delightfully venomous satiric acid; both novels are basically one-damn-thing-happening-after-another. Both novels are funny as fuck all.
Our narrator’s quick summary also jabs at the limitations of contemporary socially-conscious-realistic fiction—you know, “serious literature”—which limitations American Candide dispenses with in favor of frenzied fun. Instead of a soupçon of ironic handwringing, we get full-blown glorious agitation.
What’s all the agitation over?
American Candide’s full title is American Candide; or Neo-Optimism, a direct nod to Voltaire’s full title, Candide; or Optimism. But Singh’s subtitular prefix points to other connotations: Neoliberalism, neoconservatism—hell, neofascism—but most of all, the irony that very little of human nature really has changed in three centuries. The big ideals of the Enlightenment continue to radiate too radically for some folks.
To wit, American Candide carves sharply into the last two decades, synthesizing the dangerous follies of the Bush Gang (and the subsequent fallout of their crimes) into a kind of mythical transposition. Singh offers a cruel fun satire of the neo-optimism that underwrites blind belief in “the better-than-best of all possible worlds, 21st-century America”. The novel’s satirical sting is simultaneously sweetened by intense humor and painfully amplified by the cruel realism underneath Singh’s zany hyperbole. Tell all the truth but tell it slant, as the poet advised.
And so American Candide is terribly terribly funny but also terribly terribly sad.
For example, Singh’s take on Hurricane Katrina shows American Candide’s capacity to condense historical critique into sharp moments that bristle with anger leavened in caustic humor:
The offending hurricane was clearly an act of god, and the Freedonian government prided itself on its special relationship with god.
Another snippet (“Hooterville” is New Orleans’s Freedonian stunt double):
The winds howled, the clouds unleashed a torrential rain, and the fetid waters of an entire ocean climbed over the heads of those surviving Hootervillains too patently lazy to live on higher ground.
Just a page or two later, Candide and Pangloss mistake armed and uniformed authorities for civil peacekeepers:
Rah! Ooh! We’re better than best police! … We’re Tender-Mercynaries® from Baron Incorporated, booyah, and this is a federally-restricted emergency disaster area, yoot-yoot rah booh!
Instead of helping our heroes, the mercenaries abduct, torture, and interrogate them. Candide and Pangloss find themselves in black hoods at a black site, and even though our young hero “had been lightly sodomized and beaten and even urinated upon…his innermost Freedonian convictions had not been too badly shaken.”
It’s the reader who shakes, in a mix of laughter and rage. The world of American Candide is simply our own world dressed up in a satirical frock that somehow reveals, rather than covers over, our society’s garish ugliness, our addictions to binding illusions. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains, commented Rousseau (Voltaire hated Rousseau).
American Candide’s blurb warns that, “College-boy sissies will call it a Juvenalian satire upon America’s penchant for mindless optimism and casual racism.” Hooray for college-boy sissies! But no, really, I think that’s a fair assessment—as is Singh’s Candide’s assessment from the aforementioned blurb: “rage against the rage, Voltaire-dude!”
But it’s not just rage: Laughter—laughter in the all-seeing eye of absurdity—it’s laughter that undergirds American Candide.
In a review of Lowell Blair’s translation of Voltaire’s Candide, I suggested:
The book’s longevity might easily be attributed to its prescience, for Voltaire’s uncanny ability to swiftly and expertly assassinate all the rhetorical and philosophical veils by which civilization hides its inclinations to predation and evil. But it’s more than that. Pointing out that humanity is ugly and nasty and hypocritical is perhaps easy enough, but few writers can do this in a way that is as entertaining as what we find in Candide.
Singh’s update-reboot-translation of Candide fittingly answers Voltaire’s pessimistic prescience with not just bitter affirmations of contemporary predation and evil, but also with an eye toward entertainment—to the affirmations of laughter.
[Note: All the illustrations in this review are by Mahendra Singh, and are part of American Candide].