Brandon Sanderson: Mistborn

Sanderson, Brandon (2007), Mistborn, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-5038-1

mistborn 1The speed and quality of fantasy writing is quite notorious. Fantasy writers are expected to crank out thick, brick-sized books, in remarkably brief periods of time. Remarkable novelists, such as Patrick Rothfuss, whose last novel had been published in 2007, and George R.R. Martin, whose last novel of his celebrated “Song of Ice and Fire” series had seen publication in 2005, have had to defend themselves against the ire of impatient fantasy fans. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, has kept, so far, on the good side of his fans, publishing more than one new book per year, ever since debuting with the standalone fantasy novel Elantris in 2005. Since then he has not just released a trilogy of fantasy novels starting with Mistborn (2006), and continued with The Well of Ascension (2007) and The Hero of Ages (2008), but also another standalone novel called Warbreaker (2009) and he has written, from Robert Jordan’s notes, The Gathering Storm (2009), one of three projected sequels to Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, and is due to publish the second of them this year. This is an incredible amount of writing, but what’s more surprising, to be honest, is the quality of the resulting output. Mistborn is not on par with George R.R. Martin or even Rothfuss, but is still an above-average achievement, a smooth, smart novel that fuses literary, genre, religious (Mormon) and mythological inspirations to produce a great read. Nothing more but also: nothing less.

warbreakerFantasy fans have very specific expectations, and they fall, I think, into one of two camps these days. There are more traditional fans, grown up on a steady diet of Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks or Dave Eddings. They (a gross and unfair generalization, I’ll admit) enjoy books with swords and magic, orcs and elves, and an very clear set of roles and rituals. Whether it’s Goodkind’s Ayn Rand-inspired penchant for S/M-style sexuality, Tolkien’s Catholic sense of order, or just Jordan’s rank misogyny and elitism, these writers’ attitudes to power and class can be described, euphemistically, as traditional. The other camp contains writers like Martin or Rothfuss, who play with the elements of their genre, introducing a gritty realism (Martin) and even a careful consideration of class (Rothfuss). Mistborn doesn’t really belong to either camp or rather: it belongs to both, but doesn’t excel in either mode of writing. Neither Sanderson’s tepid realism, not his slouching use of the epic fantasy order is really fully convincing. This in-between nature of the book is probably its biggest problem, opening it to criticism from both camps. However, structure, original ideas and the heavy religious inspiration endow it with a very specific, unique feel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy now and then. It’s on the strength of Mistborn that Robert Jordan’s widow approached Sanderson, asking him to finish her late husband’s unfinished series, and we can easily see why. Jordan’s main problem wasn’t his ideology. It was the terminal dullness that the books developed after a short while.

well ascensionWith a finite amount of authorized notes and ideas, Jordan’s widow needed a writer able to develop a plot quickly and satisfactorily, with effective and quick characterizations, yet with enough originality not to simply write a pastiche of Jordan’s style. Sanderson possesses all of these qualities in abundance, as Mistborn demonstrates. It’s rare for the first book of a sequence of fantasy novels, no matter of what length, to have a satisfying ending that isn’t at best a cliffhanger, wetting readers’ appetites for the next novel. The exasperation that fans feel with Martin and Rothfuss has, in part, its roots in the fact that they have offered no closure, the stories are in suspension, open ended. This is true for a great many writers, but not for Sanderson. As we finish Mistborn, we have been granted closure. The main story seems to be finished, almost all the open threads have been tied up and almost all questions answered. Within one book, Sanderson has told us the story of a rebellion against the Lord Ruler of the Final Empire, who appears to be God or at least God-like, he has, in deft strokes, introduced us to a wealth of characters, and sketched the history and culture of a whole new world, without any orcs or elves and with a very original, very interesting system of magic. His characters are so well sketched, so believable, that, as we pick up the second volume, The Well of Ascension, to enter a radically changed political landscape, and end up, almost directly, in an action-packed fight, we immediately recognize the characters from Mistborn. These are people we know, and due to Sanderson’s skills: people we know well. Sanderson does not, however, escape the trap of cliché in his depictions of both the characters and political machinations.

way of kingsThe hero of these kinds of books is often a young man, with the mind of a teenager and the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Vin, Mistborn‘s protagonist, is a woman, a teenager, with the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Oh, I exaggerate a bit, but not much. The one change here is significant and interesting, yet it also displays the full extent of the timidity of Sanderson’s realism. The story about (young) male heroes often turns around questions of heroism and masculinity. Stephen R. Donaldson’s cynical and arguably cowardly Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Robert Jordan’s trias of heros (exemplifying three facets of male adolescence and early adulthood), or “the Fool”, Robin Hobb’s fascinatingly glittering character from her two trilogies focusing on Fitz Farseer, are cases in point. Any change or departure quickly becomes part of this discussion. Whatever changes are made to the almost inevitably male hero, are just that, changes that reinforce the main template. Female heroes do turn up in number, though, especially in more recent years, but the context of their appearance is subtly (or not so subtly) different. Robin Hobb’s excellent Liveship Traders trilogy is a great example. Her heroine, Althea Vestrit, doesn’t get to be a heroine in the sense that the male heroes are. Her story is connected to female tropes, starting with water, to a very interesting communion with (some) living but (usually) inanimate objects. The focus is on questions of intuition, care, and fertility, rather than on discussions of power, violence, and strength. Even in Hobb’s able hands, these questions are channeled through and resolved by the still male characters. The same applies to Mistborn‘s Vin, although Brandon Sanderson goes further than Hobb.

rithmatistImpressively, Vin’s story is largely a very masculine one. She is quietly belligerent and the way she resolves problems is through seeking controversy and fighting her way through it. Through her use of magic she’s stronger than most men, and throughout most of the book, the only other person we know possessing this power (apart from the evil Inquisitioners and the Lord Ruler) is a man, modeled on the typical male hero. This may not sound like much, but it’s extraordinary, really. So much so, that Sanderson uses additional elements to weaken his heroine in other ways. Not only does she turn into a stereotypical little teenage girl as the book progresses, head over heels in love with a a mysterious and handsome young man, who softens her mistrust towards others. She also starts to wear dresses, going to balls, and enjoying the whole ladylike lifestyle. As if to ram the tedious point home, Sanderson has her defend ‘her man’ against another woman (possessing the same powers) in what feels uncomfortably like a catfight (though it is a fight to the death). Political power, meanwhile, is still elusive to women. It is debated and decided by men, all the important offices are held by men and all the planning is made by men. In fact, Vin (and the woman she fights) is the only noteworthy woman in the whole book. To Sanderson’s credit, however, she doesn’t become a stereotypical sorceress, queen, or mother at the end of the book. The usual fate of strong female characters, which sidelines them into the nooks and crannies of narrative, is spared her. She stays a fighter, soldier, assassin. She is and remains the strongest fighter in the book.

steelheartThis to and fro as regards Mistborn‘s attitude towards gender runs parallel to other instances of indecision on Sanderson’s part, such as his use of realism and originality. World-building is often considered one of the main tasks of speculative fiction: the invention of a world, distinctly different from ours, with magic, religion, science and, preferably, language newly invented or adapted for this new world. One of the predecessors to this kind of expectation is Tolkien, who invented a completely new language, elaborate mythology and history for his stories. In fact, by far the majority of his writing deal with mythical and historical stories, fleshing out the hints and allusions in his two main works of fiction. Sanderson’s approach is careful. He uses a well-known template, a simple medieval setting, he uses a generic understanding of roles and rituals (Vin is an exception), but he is also very inventive. His two main invention is his system of races and the kind of magic used in his world. In Mistborn, we only learn about two or three basic races. The Skaa, humans and Terrismen. Now, most of us remember China Miéville’s trenchant observation that no writing is innocent, not even fantasy writing. In our use of races such as orcs and elves, we don’t invent something out of the blue. Instead, we draw on stereotypes and images that we already have in our language and our cultural reservoir. Miéville asks us to be careful, to consider what the subtext is of using humanoid races like orcs, who are slow, big, and usually, with gnomes and goblins, the only non-white characters in books. Sanderson does not need such admonishment.

inheritanceHis races are, although I’m not sure about Terrismen, not necessarily racially different from one another. That racial difference exists in the heads of the occupants of Sanderson’s world, but we soon find that race in Mistborn is a signifier of class lines, so that humans are all noblemen, and Skaa are poor people, for example. The ability to use magic is hereditary and runs only in Noblemen, but not all Noblemen are able to use magic and any progeny of Noblemen and Skaa might be able to use magic, too. In a very deft move, Sanderson has found remarkably precise metaphors for racial and class tensions in our world. He also manages to anchor his magic in the earthly, bodily parts of his universe. They are not the amorphous weavings of Jordan’s Aes Sedai. In order to use magic, one needs to ingest metal and then ‘burn’ it. No metal – no magic. This dependance upon both the bodily process of digestion and the resources of the earth is laudable and quite unique. It’s quite saddening to see all these good ideas in a mind that isn’t able to put them to full use. Just as gender differences, on a deeper level, remain intact and problematic, so are questions of hierarchy and power affirmed in a traditional manner. The latter half of the book is infused by a deep mistrust of the common people. A people’s revolution is shown to be inevitably a brutal, rag-tag affair that will plunge the world into chaos. The people can revolt, but they need an authorized, upper-class leader to shape their anger into a politically sound result. This is what ails other instances of realism and originality, too. Sanderson’s take on a magically endowed thieving crew bent on overthrowing the empire eschews cliché depictions of ‘hard criminals’, so much, indeed, that this lack of grime has been criticized a lack of realism.

DSC01516I think it is an attempt to be more realistic, open, and humorous, but this doesn’t quite work, for one simple reason: Sanderson is a horrible writer about people. His mistrust of ‘the people’ translates into an unhealthy distance to them. Any decision to forgo cliché needs, I think, to be balanced by a strong alternative idea of how human beings behave, an idea which Mistborn severely lacks. Make no mistake: the characters themselves are believable, but their interactions and motivations rarely are. This is why the book so frequently feels lukewarm and a bit flabby. Too much of Mistborn feels conceptual without the sternness and consistency that good conceptual writing depends on. The concepts are partly the metaphors and structures I mentioned, but there is one other important pillar that they rest on: Sanderson’s Mormonism. Like many Mormon (and Catholic) writers, Sanderson’s religion heavily influences his writing in more than spirit. The most famous and popular Mormon writer, who leaves ample, obvious and specific traces and references to her particular religion (as opposed to a general Christian attitude) is probably Stephenie Meyer, the best one I know of is Brian Evenson. Brandon Sanderson, who teaches at Brigham Young University, is yet another one. Without attempting a thorough analysis, there are a few things especially that have a ring of Mormonism to it. The godliness of the Lord Ruler, specific basic properties of his magic and the “Well of Ascension” in particular evoke associations to LDS concepts such as the exaltation (actually, its hard not to read the three volumes as the three stages of theosis, but exaltation is a similar concept). Joseph Smith taught that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” Through exaltation, we can all become ‘gods’. The Christ-like martyrdom of one of the book’s main characters adds an other layer to this.

DSC01322Finally, a catastrophe in the Mistborn universe that happened a few centuries ago, destroying many of the Terrismen, who are priest-like keepers of stories, history, religions and other knowledge, carries echoes of the Mormon doctrine of the “Great Apostasy”, which is a very particular version of a doctrine that many Christian churches teach. These specific references and allusions add a salvational urgency to Mistborn‘s narrative, which smoothly ties into the generic epic character of the story, but endow it with a more original power. As a whole, however, and despite all the specific changes and ideas that Sanderson brings to the table, there is an enormous amount of generic elements in his book, the worst of which is the actual writing. Without dropping to the abysmal lows of Terry Goodkind, his writing is at best serviceable, at worst dull, repetitive and, well, generic. He also displays the waste of spaced typical of his genre. While novels in other genres can describe a city, town or world, plus a set of full, believable characters in under 300 pages, many fantasy novels take twice as long without delivering twice the content. George R.R. Martin, who packs every page with action, intrigue and important observation is the exception here. More often than not, we are faced with page after page of ruminations, written in a laggard style and not serving any reasonable purpose, apart from helping to fill pages.

Still, at the end of Mistborn, lots of things have happened, and the reader has been swept away by the tide of events. It is, despite its faults, a very readable book, at least if you happen to like the genre of high fantasy. This is not one of the books that will appeal to those who dislike fantasy, but if you enjoy this sort of writing, Sanderson is a safe bet. He is an enjoyable, reasonably original and prolific writer who I very much look forward to reading more of in the months to come.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.) (ISBN)

You’re healed then / from the night

Mary Oliver: Morning at Great Pond

It starts like this:
forks of light
slicking up
out of the east,
flying over you,
and what’s left of night –
its black waterfalls,
its craven doubt –
dissolves like gravel
as the sun appears
trailing clouds
of oink and green wool,
igniting the fields,
turning the ponds
to plates of fire.
The creatures there
are dark flickerings
you make out
one by one
as the light lifts –
great blue herons,
wood ducks shaking
their shimmering crests –
and knee-deep
in the purple shallows
a deer drinking:
as she turns
the silver water
crushes like silk,
shaking the sky,
and you’re healed then
from the night, your heart
wants more, you’re ready
to rise and look!
to hurry anywhere!
to believe in everything.

Mary Oliver is one of the great living American poets. Her work shines with an extraordinary poetic sensibility, a unique sense of how lines and rhythms work. This poem is from her 1983 collection American Primitive, one of her best books, but she continues to write intriguing poetry. Her three most recent collections explore a strong spirituality and epiphanies that seem close to mysticism. It’s strong work, maybe her strongest in years.


In the Guardian, Toby Young evaluates the success of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

Part of his problem is that Americans don’t take kindly to being reproached, particularly by one of their former colonial masters. They are quick to take offence, detecting traces of snobbery and condescension in almost any critical remark, however well intentioned. In Britain, Jamie’s high-minded didacticism is softened by his cockney accent – he can get away with criticising dinner ladies because, socially, they’re not a million miles apart. Not so in Huntingdon, where his accent is just thought of as “British” and he’s assumed to live in a castle and have a butler. “Who made you king?” asks an angry local in the first episode.


Tobias Wolff: Ugly Rumours

Wolff, Tobias (1975), Ugly Rumours, Allen & Unwin
ISBN 0-04-823117-7

When Tobias Wolff, the acclaimed short story writer and memoirist, published a novel called Old School in 2003, the publisher and many reviewers referred to it as Wolff’s ‘first novel’. In fact, it wasn’t. Ugly Rumours, his actual first novel, had been published in 1975. That same year he won a creative writing fellowship in Stanford, and only a few years before this he’d returned from his tour in Vietnam. There has been only one edition of Ugly Rumours, and it was never mentioned or discussed in promotional material issued by his publisher, all this at the author’s behest. Tobias Wolff repudiated the book, telling interviewers in recent years that reading portions of it made him ‘cringe’, and this disdain meant a slow fall into oblivion for Ugly Rumours. To this day it stays out of print and there is no notable interest in this book, even a search in academic databases comes up empty. A shame, really. Ugly Rumours is not a waste of time, although it’s certainly no masterpiece. It’s neither very innovative, nor particularly well written. Furthermore it’s indulgent, frequently complacent and derivative, curiously noncommittal for an autobiographically inspired work of fiction, and harsh in its moral conclusions. But it’s still interesting, it’s a smooth, quick read by what’s clearly a very talented young writer, with the right instincts and considerable skills. If you are interested in Wolff, especially if you’ve read This Boy’s Life (1989) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), his two volumes of memoirs, this book is worth reading. It’s certainly not worth the obscene prices that it fetches on the Internet, but if you can get your hands on it (e.g., through libraries), you might want to give it a try.

Ugly Rumours is not groundbreaking, and honestly, there isn’t much ground to break these days, as far as its setting and topic is concerned. Movies, novels, even video games about the war in Vietnam have become ubiquitous. From Things They Carried to Tree of Smoke, from Apocalypse Now to Good Morning Vietnam, we had our fill, and it’s become hard to entertain us, to tell a new story about this war that we seem to know so well. And in this light, it’s not terribly astonishing that Ugly Rumours doesn’t shock or surprise. But the real problem is elsewhere: Tobias Wolff’s debut novel lacks an energy, drive, and a feeling for the described situations. The novel can be described as almost mannered, distanced. Wolff focused on its odd sense of humor rather than upon the war that serves as a setting for it. And while the brutality of war (and the difficulty of describing it) has forced many writers to create books that are innovative of form or powerful in language and imagery, Ugly Rumours appears to stand aloof. Every page tells us that Wolff is a very talented writer, but one who doesn’t look eye to eye with his subject here, turns away, pushing jokes, and wooden dialogue between himself and the subject matter. The reader, even if he or she hasn’t read In Pharaoh’s Army, can’t help but feel the effort involved in this evasion. This is why the book, although it often aims for laughter, never feels light or fresh. When we laugh, it’s a stifled, affected laughter, and one which sucks all the life from the book. The book feels like a walk through a dimly lit, dusty house. It’s very well constructed, and there’s much to admire, and you may even enjoy your time there, but you’ll be glad to be out again.

All this means that if you come to this book with the expectations that its subject matter evokes, you’ll be disappointed: in many ways, Ugly Rumours just isn’t the kind of novel that one would expect from a war novel, nor from an autobiographically tinged book. In spirit, I think, it owes more to books like Catch-22 and movies like M*A*S*H than to fellow war texts like Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) or O’Brien’s novels. In Ugly Rumours, Wolff shows himself less concerned with the details of warfare, with blood, murder, tactics and the jungle, than with his two protagonists who do not really ever see battle. Instead they drink away their nights, joke around, get laid, cheat, scrounge and talk. They never wanted to fight or be endangered and so they bribed their way into a situation that would keep them safe in one of the least safe places for an American soldier in those days. And when we do see battle, gore or mayhem, we find that Wolff hasn’t yet found the language or structure to properly deal with this. The stark brutality of the situations in question does shine through each time but I think it can’t help but do so in a vaguely competent hand. The fact remains that Wolff seems intent on keeping us away from the action, offering us a glimpse, but moving away again swiftly. The problem is not the length of these scenes: in these small situations, we can already see the nascent short story master, with his ability to compress a lot of meaning and feeling into one, almost emblematic, scene. But this early in his career, he hasn’t yet overcome a distance and a stiffness that hurts the emblematic quality; the violence and shock doesn’t work as you feel it should or could.

You can, however, see that these scenes are very well-constructed and reasonably well-placed in the book, and no matter how disappointing these passages are, there is raw talent that keeps shining through, and a glittering intelligence. This is true for the whole book. I’ve already mentioned part of its plot, but it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t all take place in Vietnam. We are actually introduced, in a slow and considered manner, to the two central characters, Christopher Woermer and his friend Stanley Grubbs. Grubbs is a big, tough man, who “liked people to say what they meant.” He used to be a criminal teenager, until he was taken in by a priest, who encouraged him to use his talents. In the army he met Woermer, who is the main protagonist. Not only does Woermer have a name of Germanic origin like Wolff, his vita also conspicuously mirrors many elements in Wolff’s own life. Readers of This Boy’s Life will recognize “Toby/Jack Wolff”’s stepfather Dwight in the descriptions of Woermer’s stepfather, but they might also be puzzled at the cold treatment of Woermer’s past history. We learn that Woermer’s stepfather had a profound influence on the way Woermer lives his life, but this is empty, uninvolving information. It could have been used to bring Woermer, as a character, alive, by introducing a biography that unites all his odd traits and preoccupations. Instead, it serves as just another one of his odd qualities.

Woermer feels awkwardly constructed. He is an opportunistic character, one who likes to put on a show, wear a clean and ironed uniform to impress men and women alike. He would wear forged medals if he didn’t fear to be exposed. Being a soldier, for Woermer, is all about the reputation that you’ll have afterward, about the mysterious and heroic air that someone, returning from their tour abroad, can put on display. On the other hand, it is his stepfather’s drills and discipline that made him into what is actually a quite able soldier. He can shoot, make his bed, and organize the personnel on a base when disaster breaks out. He just doesn’t like it much. There are many strange contradictions in Woermer’s character. On the one hand, he eschews authority, trying to push against the rules as much as he can, offending superiors, stealing jeeps and bribing his way through life. He’s a scrounger, an imp of sorts. On the other hand, his vanity, and the fact that he knows where to stop, that, indeed, he has an uncanny sense of when to stop, suggests a man who has no real issues with authority, who, in fact, reaffirms and supports it and its associated values at every turn. He is slow to make friends, but a raucous and chummy person. He is a ladies’ man but doesn’t appear to take much delight in the actual fucking. There’s nothing in Ugly Rumours that really connects all these traits, no narrative that explains the logic underlying these contradictions. The fact that Woermer’s biography could have been such a connectional narrative becomes clear if we consider the complexities in This Boy’s Life, which shows that Wolff is, in fact, able to pull off the kind of characterization that is sorely missing from his debut novel.

It’s moot to unravel all these contradictions here, but one among them is remarkable in still other ways: neither Grubbs nor Woermer are womanizers. In many respects, Woermer is a ladies’ man, he knows how to impress women and invests quite a bit of time and effort into achieving just that, yet the actual sexual intercourse seems to disgust him or leave him, at best, indifferent, although he “tried his best to simulate interest; passion was beyond him.” Granted, the women we know him to have sex with, do sound a bit icky, but we only see them through his point of view, and his disinterest in the fairer sex could well color his perceptions. There is a homoerotic tension throughout the book, and even his fights and scuffles with authority often come down to a kind of teasing of his superior officers. Woermer, one might say, is a flirt. There are no actual homosexual acts in Ugly Rumours, but with an admirable consistency, Wolff creates an ambiguous perception of all the inter-male dealings in the book. This is something that is threaded through many books dealing with male cultures, and usually its not consciously done, but Wolff achieves a fascinating balance between making this outrageously obvious, thereby foregrounding something that is at best a subtext in other books, and lapsing into camp. Ugly Rumours is never campy, although I daresay it comes close sometimes. Its hard to say how the homoeroticism is supposed to work here, the use of father figures, the cultural context of army and church, one can’t help but see a potential that is wasted here, because Wolff’s novel is helplessly disparate, distant and cold. The artistic commitment, conviction and vision that usually makes novels like these cohere is largely missing.

Instead we get an assortment of motifs and tropes, although they are usually very well crafted. Perhaps the largest trope is the one suggested by the title. Despite the occasional awkward or wooden dialogue, any act of communication in the novel feels purposeful and replete with meanings, especially if writing is involved. Often we don’t quite know whether something is reliable, although Wolff switches the focus of his novel between his protagonists, and although we know or suspect that Grubbs and Woermer have been fed contradictory information, Wolff doesn’t opt for an easy exposure of errors. The vast majority of doubtful facts remains just that: doubtful, rumors. Newspaper articles and reports are skewed, but any kind of communication in Vietnam is suddenly problematic, unclear, bound to involve misapprehensions and confusions. It’s quite apt that near the end, an important message is not sent directly to the person who is meant to see it. Instead its pinned to a message board, in the hope that it will, after all, reach the right person, like a message in a bottle. The unclear quality of communications is reflected in the shadowy relationships between many characters. Although, sometimes, Wolff seems to reference the criticism of wartime bureaucracy and scheming of Catch 22 and books like it, Ugly Rumours lacks the lucid descriptions of the best of these books that keep the absurdities from collapsing into chaos. In Wolff’s novel there isn’t chaos, but he also toned down the criticism and the satire, which leaves the reader with what feels like an weak in-between effort, but this quality is part and parcel of the mistrust of communication that pervades the novel everywhere. To reproduce this trope on so many levels is very impressive, but doesn’t, necessarily, make for good reading.

This mistrust may be due to a personal mistrust of Wolff vis-à-vis autobiography. One can’t shake the impression that the autobiographical inspiration was both hampering and helpful. Helpful in the conception of the book, but hampering in the execution. In his actual memoirs we’ll see a writer who has perfected both the impulse to be truthful about his path and to be artistically flawless. His memoirs are so well written, structured, and arranged that they read like great fiction, and the artfulness of it all seems to have liberated Wolff to communicate fear, hurt and terror in a much more open fashion. Ugly Rumours is caught in a net of shame, not just shame about writing one’s self, but also shame about the things one did in the war. In his fine debut, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Tim O’Brien writes “Do dreams offer lessons? Do nightmares have themes, do we awaken and analyze them and live our lives and advice others as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.” Wolff isn’t ready yet to “tell war stories”, which we see in what develops as the main moral fiber of the book: Grubbs is quietly berated by the priest (whose creation seems inspired by Victor Hugo’s Monseigneur Myriel) that merely not doing harm, by doing nothing, is not enough. “I’m glad”, the priest, Father Cavanaugh, writes, “to hear that you’re in a position where you don’t have to hurt anyone else. Just be sure in your own mind that doing nothing means that you’re not hurting anyone. Sometimes the only way we can be sure of that is to get out and help them.” There’s a suggestion here what being morally good means, a suggestion that, as the protagonists find, is certainly hard to follow, especially since we’re always happy to believe that doing nothing is good enough, and resisting to do a bad thing is sufficient. Ugly Rumours, to its credit, bears out Father Cavanaugh’s suggestion, summoning an immense amount of guilt and resentment until the dramatic finish.

In this moral line of thinking, Ugly Rumours is harsh on its characters, uncomfortable for its readers and harsh on its author. This is perhaps the most admirable thing of them all: a book powered by moral doubt and shame, not seeking easy resolutions, not needing to shock or devastate the reader through violence. The downside, however, is that the shame may have kept Wolff at this point in his career to come into his own as a writer. The book appears cobbled together, it keeps the reader at arm’s length and is very unevenly written. Some pages are tortuously dull and awkward, but now and then sentences shine with an intense brilliance. As a whole, it shows a writer who doesn’t have the breath and scope to make such a long narrative cohere, nor the ear to make dialogue work. Small wonder he found his voice when he wrote short stories and novellas. Even books like In Pharaoh’s Army consist of smaller pieces, each structured not like a chapter but like a proper short story. This is certainly an interesting book, and a reasonably entertaining read, as well. Read it for the instinct, the signs of craft, and the insight into the beginnings of a great writer, whose hand and voice is visible here already, if through a veil. In its best moments, there is a great pathos in Wolff’s words and we witness the gifted awakening of an uneasy literary spirit. For this alone, it’s worth a peek at least.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

The Lost Booker: Shortlist

I already mentioned the so-called Lost Man Booker Prize awhile ago, and, so far, reviewed one of the longlisted books (click here for my review of Shirley Hazzard’s Bay of Noon). Now the shortlist has been announced:

The shortlist for The Lost Man Booker Prize – a one-off prize to honour the books published in 1970 that were not eligible for consideration for the Booker Prize – is announced today, Thursday 25 March.

The six books are:

• The Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden (Virago)
• Troubles by J G Farrell (Phoenix)
• The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard (Virago)
• Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (Arrow)
• The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (Penguin)
• The Vivisector by Patrick White (Vintage)

Everything sounds better with Science!

Some recent nonsense (especially the publication of The Male Brain, the newest installment of what one expects again to be the usual dose of bad science by Louann Brizendine), and the generally dismissive attitude towards alleged ‘non-scientific’ knowledge that swamps so much impoverished contemporary intellectual discourse, have reminded me of “The seductive allure of neuroscience explanation“, a 2008 article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Here is the abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

(via the always excellent Language Log)

“Emperor’s Children”: The Movie

Claire Messud’s excellent book The Emperor’s Children (my review here) is being adapted by the extraordinarily talented director of The Squid and the Whale, who’ll also direct:

Noah Baumbach is gathering a cast of serious names for his next project, an adaptation of Claire Messud’s novel The Emperor’s Children – Richard Gere, Keira Knightley and Eric Bana are all signing on for roles.

A visit behind the eyes

I’ve got notes on Mona van Duyn in my notebook somewhere but so far, nothing substantial. Here’s one of my favorite poems of hers. It’s complex both in terms of form and content. A great poem.

Mona Van Duyn: Into Mexico

Past the angular maguey fields, a ride on the optic nerve,
we come to the first rest stop, and the visit begins.
It is what I have always wanted; to follow the first signs
in another language makes me weak with joy. I am brave
out back in a courtyard, by a shack that might be the toilet,
when bulging senoras bump me on the back and shoulder me.
If they look at me I do not know what they see,
since even metaphors are changed. Overhead in the heat
the skinned, outrageous body of some animal hangs from a line.
Is it rotting, or drying? I’ve never smelled its rawness before.
Yes, there is a stool in the shack, and soiled toilet paper
in a waist-high pile beside it. Water is in a can.

I touch the paper on the roll, it is rough, it is like . . . nothing else.
I am behind the eyes at last. It is as if one could by-pass
love, when the other eyes parry with a picture of one’s own face,
and never arrive at marriage, either true or false,
when eyes glaze and minds are more private than ever,
but could stop in between at a point where no one
can stop. To be in one’s first foreign country, in approximation,
is to be in you–or to feel what it must be like to be there.

Now it is one long agony of taking-in. From the bus
I can see inside the palings, or tin, or straw of a shelter,
and all pots, braziers and pallets are unfamiliar.
At the first market, walking in through the restless
yellow of bananas, I will go to such furnishings and handle them.
Country dogs here are yellow also, with a long body.
And all the time I have lived as if you were like me.
Now, here, I am released from that stratagem.

In the city I would never have expected a glassy hotel
to rise between little sheds of pink and orange cement,
nor men to pull down their pants and squat in the vacant
lot downtown. Sweet rolls–I am trying to taste them all,
but it will take weeks–are named for creatures and the parts
of creatures, Snails, Cheeks, Noses, Ears, Dogs.
What is that snarled bouquet of herbs a little boy drags
toward home, making a green sweep of the streets?
A woman kneels on the pavement all day to sell
six pyramids of seven cracked walnuts each.
I tongue a clay cup that tastes of dark and starch,
and buy eggs singly, since the price of one is marked on its shell.
Each noise, each name, is enchanted and necessary.
I drift in bed, astonished by faintness and nausea and chills.
I would never have felt this way–is this the way it feels?
Thousands of black beans shine near sweet potato candy.

One starves for this journey, I think, a simple sensing of what is
not thou, not it, but you–a visit behind the eyes
where the map bulges into belief, relief, presents sea,
mountains, macadam, presents a strange and willful country.

Berryman, Unearthed

I have, on occasion posted videos and links to videos of readings (like this one) and talks (like this one) and of John Berryman. Berryman is, I think, currently my favorite American post-WWII poet. In my review of a critical study of Berryman you may find some reasons for this. Recently, another interview has been put on-line. It was recorded in 1970, two years before Berryman’s departure, the interviewers are William Heyen and Jerome Mazzaro (whose books on Lowell I enjoyed a great deal). It’s in six parts, below you’ll find part 1 and 2. Double-click on any of the videos to access youtube and the other parts.

Part 1 begins with a reading from his poem “The Song of a tortured Girl” (in: The Dispossessed (1948). Click here for the full text)

Softer than a moan

John Berryman: The Song of the Tortured Girl

After a little I could not have told –
But no one asked me this – why I was there.
I asked. The ceiling of that place was high
And there were sudden noises, which I made.
I must have stayed there a long time today:
My cup of soup was gone when they brought me back.

Often ‘Nothing worse now can come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died, and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.

Through leafless branches the sweet wind blows
Making a mild sound, softer than a moan;
High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
– I no longer remember what they want. –
Minutes I lie awake to hear my joy.

An early poem, from John Berryman’s first collection The Dispossessed (1948), which you can now find in the Collected Poems 1937-1971. Even if you already own one of the many editions of the Dream Songs, this volume, edited by Charles Thornbury, is an indispensable volume, if you’ve got any interest in modern American poetry. “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”, one of the best American poems of the 20th century alone is worth the price of admission. Buy it. Read it.

John Wray: Lowboy

Wray, John, (2010), Lowboy, Picador
ISBN 978-0-312-42933-1

It’s astonishing, really, how far popular fiction steeped in philosophy or theory has come. Modernist and postmodernist fiction, despite the levity and ease that the latter brought to that kind of writing, was still explicitly (and difficultly) theoretic. Writers like Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme have, to this day, written for a certain kind of audience, a select group of readers, not small in numbers but far from representing the mainstream of popular literary fiction. Although there are young writers like the amazing Colson Whitehead, who continue writing these slightly difficult, openly brainy kinds of books, many of our younger writers have managed to create books which are sneakily smart, which tell an engaging tale that works both on a theoretical level as well as on a level concerned with the complexities of ‘normal’ storytelling. Among the writers in this vein are Lorrie Moore, whose so-so most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (review forthcoming) is part moving coming of age-tale, part intellectual exercise, obsessed with naming, meaning, and reality and Brian Evenson, who writes harrowing tales of horror, fueled by a fine philosophical mind, fed on a diet of French philosophy. Another writer is the prodigious John Wray. Lowboy, published in 2009, is his third novel, after The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan’s Tongue (2005). Wray is a consistently astonishing writer, and Lowboy is an incredibly good book. It’s a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s a compelling, great read, and a smart one at that. Trust me. Read it.

Like Evenson, Wray manages to write, his literary and philosophical concerns aside, a completely convincing genre novel. This is harder to do than you’d imagine, but Wray pulls it off with aplomb. Lowboy is a mystery novel, employing many tropes and tools of the genre, and it’s an addictively readable mystery at that. From the first to the last page, the reader hurries through the book following the hints Wray has scattered throughout, exploring the dark landscapes below and above NY City. That Lowboy does work like an excellent thriller or mystery is all the more interesting, since Wray has sidelined the detective in his book, more than that: he has given him a bit part, made him second to the narrative and theoretical structure of the book. Without this move, Lowboy wouldn’t be half the great novel that it actually is. In his classic study of postmodern fiction, McHale has pointed to the detective mystery as the genre that best embodies the modernist paradigm. Modernism, according to McHale, is about finding out about the world, the one, real, indivisible world. The literary techniques that are applied to achieve that goal may vary but the goal never changes. There are problematic issues attached to that, especially if we look at fringes and peripheral phenomena. Wray tells his story through his protagonist, and robs the detective of the power to read and explain the world. Things have to be explained to him although the whole story, ultimately, is beyond him, and beyond a simple explanation, actually.

This is important, because Lowboy‘s protagonist Will Heller, nicknamed Lowboy, is an outsider, fringe, part of the periphery: he is mad. No, really, he is a paranoid schizophrenic, and as we enter the book he has just made his escape from the Bellavista Clinic (a thinly veiled reference to Bellevue, I guess) and roams the streets of NY. Or rather: he enters the intricate, labyrinthine underground world of the New York subway system. Even with his perception endangered, he can find his way through NY with ease, and a determination that makes him some kind of Theseus. In fact, this isn’t that odd a reference. Although this Theseus doesn’t need Ariadne’s help, his zeal and resolve are similarly fueled by the wish to save other lives, though in this case, it’s the whole world that Will attempts to save from fiery destruction. In Will’s odd head, the dire global warming warnings have engendered a belief in the imminent destruction of the world by fire that can only be stopped if Will (bear with me) is cooled down, which to achieve he needs to get laid. This may sound like an adventurous story a desperate teenager tries to tell a gullible girl he wants to bed, but Will completely and utterly believes it. In fact, at no point in the whole novel does Wray condescend to his protagonist, he’s utterly serious about Will’s problems and concerns, which is rare.

Mental illness is often subject to readings that celebrate the margin as different, using its symptoms as cute or terrifying images, in order to achieve something akin to an ‘atrocity tale’: connecting with normal people in the mainstream by using the margin as contrast. Wray doesn’t do that, and much of the power and drive of the book is due to Will’s genuine anguish. Sometimes Wray doesn’t offer explanations, which contributes to the mystery and tension in the novel, and even Lateef Ali, Lowboy‘s detective, is sometimes blindsided by the mentally ill people he pursues. Impressively, the mystery that surrounds Will and those like him in the book, is never really resolved, cleared up. This is not about understanding madness. Indeed, Wray appears to harbor no wish to relate Will’s thoughts and ratio in a way that makes perfect sense to his readers, who do not share Will’s predicament, and so the clinical view is completely absent from the book, although psychiatrists do make an appearance in Lowboy. Yet their explanations create as much fog as they clarify issues, and in a twist in the very last sentence of the book, John Wray makes, unambiguously, clear that Lowboy is a literary work of art, that it does not attempt to speak about people afflicted with Will’s illness. As we know from Foucault, this is a central problem: mental illness is rarely allowed to speak itself, and if it is, its speech is licensed, framed, ‘allowed’. For a writer not afflicted with the illness in question, this can be a kind of trap.

John Wray offers a few solutions. Among these is his refusal to explain Will, to make his readers empathize with him at all costs. Another is the serious, earnest nature of his portrayal of Will’s perception. Although Lowboy creates an exaggerated image of the mind-set of many teenage virgins, and of the hyperbole that teenagers are often prone to display whenever they are feeling particular put-upon and desperate, exaggeration never turns to caricature. Will’s desperation is palpable and real, and his reading of the world is different from mine or yours, but Wray doesn’t linger on the specific issue of the difference, he doesn’t spend much time with Will’s symptoms as symptoms. The seriousness (despite the fact that Lowboy is actually a hilarious book, to be honest) provides an interesting link to another genre that Wray sets his book in, apart from the mystery aspect. It’s a coming-of age tale in a way. Many reviewers have correctly cited J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as point of reference. This is appropriate inasmuch as the anger and directness of Salinger’s protagonist, and his disdain for the “phoneys” does have many parallels to Will’s behavior in Lowboy. But Will is like the light, open version of Caulfield. There is no hate, no real disdain in him, he’s wondering, trying to cope, and understand. One of Wray’s remarkable achievements is that he managed to use a difficult character in a way that is not the least exploitative, I think, that makes use of his unique situation without pathologizing him. There are many schizophrenic characters in fiction and many more who are otherwise mentally ill. Will doesn’t resemble them as much as he does the unmarked boys from modern (normative) coming of age novels.

I have, accidentally, been reading a few of those lately, from great works, like Padgett Powell’s Edisto, to dire ones, like Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, or Sue Townsend’s series of horrible books. The worse the book, the stronger the tendency to use irony and sarcasm, to distance oneself from the story through clever tricks and ruses. Clever puns and a knowing air, these can work when you’re as extraordinarily talented as the young Martin Amis who managed to pull this kind of writing off in The Rachel Papers (read my review here), but there’s a dishonesty, really, to the whole enterprise, and looking at its center you’ll find, more often than not, an unoriginal philistine mind cloaking itself in cleverness. In the bad (but well-praised) books, this is invariably the case. And what’s worse, they are horribly normative in the worst way. Iterating white male narratives, reproducing cute images of repressive myths, these books are really quite damaging to public discourse. The cleverness and irony makes it just less bearable. Caulfield is an exception, because of his directness.

Another exception, and focus of one of the best coming of age novels ever written, is the protagonist of Henry Roth’s magisterial Call It Sleep. Roth’s David Schearl (though he’s quite a bit younger than the usual characters of these books) is bewildered by the world around him, and as he uncovers the world beyond his apartment, he discovers language anew, and the world, and Truth, are revealed to him in a set of complex epiphanies, though his head can’t grasp them. This poetic and religious understanding of his environment, which unfolds in the pages of Roth’s incredible novel, is close to how madness may be described by some. There is dirt, and sex, and intrigue, but Schearl stumbles through all this without having to resort to cheap asides and ironies. Reading Lowboy, Roth’s book was the first I thought about. While the gravitas and the scale of the two novels are very different, they share a concern (also questions of cultural heritage, by the way) about how the world is read by someone who is not part of the in-crowd, whose sexuality may be differently bracketed (With Roth there’s also of course the later books to consider), someone who cannot rely on convention to make sense of it all.

This is crucial. What separates Will from ‘normal’ people is not madness, it’s that his perception of the world is fresh. Philosophers like Nelson Goodman have shown how much even the very act of seeing is translated to us via conventions. Much of Will’s oddness, when he changes into a two-dimensional world, for example, or when signs around him come alive, this is not strictly speaking mental illness. Wray has captured a fragility in narrating the everyday, by using a character at the margins, who is able to see the world the way he does because the normative narrative has pushed him so far aside that he doesn’t even develop double consciousness. Those whom we regard as sick and disabled we shelve, we box them, as/like objects. And still we punish them. So while they do not get to partake of the narrative of power, they suffer its consequences. The ease with which we as a society inflict punishment upon those whom we regard as disabled is astonishing, the forcefulness with which we ensure that the conventional reading of how limbs and minds are supposed to work is the only reading available and deviations are shelved, boxed and punished, is frightening. The cascade of story and images in Lowboy implies a cognizance of this fact, of the enormousness of this kind of oppressive structure.

Will is dangerous to himself and others, this we learn early in the book. Or is he? Lowboy captures eloquently the fine line that separates truth from normative fiction. There is a careful ambiguity to the question of how (and if) Will is as dangerous as Lateef Ali and the others think he is. Although the larger structures of state and society are not explicitly invoked, Wray scatters obvious references throughout. The fact that Lateef Ali was born Rufus Lamarck White (there are five essays begging to be written just about that name and its meanings in relationship to the novel and its contexts, political and cultural) is one such plain, but unforced reference, another is “Skull and Bones”, Will’s nickname for the wardens who pursue him through the underground, which can’t help but recall the Yale society that goes by the same name. Not only that one. Conspiracy theories, not just Sutton’s silly one, are at heart reductive, reactionary celebrations of the status quo, even when they appear to question it (cf. for example Daniel Kulla’s fine book-length essay on the topic), and as such, the nickname and the job of the two wardens in hot pursuit of Will are a perfect fit. Between Ali and the wardens, Will navigates between realistic and cliché representations of reality. The fact that he doesn’t depend upon convention and consensus to understand the world, means that he can move from a realistic world into a symbolic world of representations, where people are proxies for ideas and structures.

There’s more to the novel than that. Personally, I felt a strong connection between this book and Saul Bellow’s slanderous (but brilliant) Humboldt’s Gift, also, the use of semiotics in the book warrants many close inspections. Lowboy manages to take on a difficult kind of protagonist without falling into various traps. This book is not about understanding Will (and those like him), it continues to put off final explanations. It’s an incredibly rich book, and a review as short as this cannot possibly do it justice, but in closing, it’s important to not overstate the ideas, because, incredibly, despite all this, Lowboy is a great, suspenseful, quick read, that works on a direct, engaging level. Wray’s prose is careful, elegant and insanely precise, but also very unobtrusive. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this book. By rights it should be a bestseller and the object of university seminars both. This is a moving, great read. Don’t miss out on it.

Translating Thomas Mann

Cautionary tale, case study, or tragicomedy of errors? Even years after his death, the saga of the English translations of Mann has failed to find a satisfactory ending, and presumably for some considerable time to come, if not indefinitely, two Thomas Manns will continue to coexist in our midst: the German original, read chiefly by academics and some students of German, and the Lowe-Porter ‘adaptations into English’, which offer the unsuspecting general public access to another, a pseudo- Mann that Thomas, warned of the shortcomings of his would-be translator, had feared might result from her being appointed. For his ‘pact’ with the prestigious publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf, which would bring him royalties and recognition in the English-speaking world, but no say in the choice of his English echo, he paid a high price indeed.

Thus writes Timothy Buck in his interesting, if disquieting essay “Loyalty and License: Thomas Mann’s fiction in English translation” (The Modern Language Review, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 898-92), where he, thoroughly, brilliantly, and frighteningly dissects Helen Lowe-Porter’s “damaging” translation of Mann’s work, which reads horrible. The amount of falsifying, incompetence both in English and German, that Buck unearths here, is staggering. The same argument is developed in Buck’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, which I highly recommend. If you want to read Thomas Mann in English or have done so and are interested how much Mann you can get for your money, these essays are required reading.

The custom that imprisons.

Robert Lowell: Five Hour Political Rally

A design of insects on the rug’s red acre,
one to each ten feet like the rich in graves;
the belly is like a big watermelon seed,
each head an empty pretzel, less head than mouth,
the wings are emblems, black as the ironwork
for a Goya balcony, lure and bar to love –
the darkeyed and protected Spanish girls
exhibited by the custom that imprisons.
Insects and statesmen grapple on the carpet;
all excel, as if each were the candidate;
all original or at least in person;
twenty first ballerinas are in the act.
Like insects they almost live on breath alone:
If you swallow me, I’ll swallow you.

This is from the odd and astonishing sequence of sonnets that make up Lowell’s History.

Something other than perfection

In 2003, FSG published the Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, and while there were great assessments of the book (Willard Spiegelman’s in The Kenyon Review, or Helen Vendler’s in The New Republic), there were also some less smart takes. One of the most harebrained ones was James Fenton’s in the NYRB (“The Return of Robert Lowell”). DeSales Harrison, one of the book’s editors, gave the right answer and an excellent assessment of Lowell’s work in his brief letter to the editor. This bit especially is extremely well put:

Fenton assumes that Lowell undertakes his revisions in the interest of a perfection that anyone would recognize. What Fenton does not consider is the way in which revision might strive toward something other than perfection in this narrow sense. The “comprehensive review and correction” that he proposes must perforce ignore or deny how much of Lowell’s power inheres in the refusal of correction, and in its insistence upon leaving exposed the work’s pentimenti. The surface of the text is in its essence erratic, torn, distorted, or—to use a word Fenton might intend differently—incorrigible. In its scrapings, smudges, patchings, and scars the poetry enacts the struggle between impulse and repentance, gesture and erasure—between, in short, the forces of making and unmaking.

Opening Round, 2nd Match. Womack is ridiculous

Drunk or off his meds, Andrew Womack lets Kathryn Stockett’s The Help move ahead against John Wray’s Lowboy, one of the best books published last year (here is my review). The judgment is as ridiculous as his reasoning for it:

I’m reducing this matchup to style versus substance, and where Lowboy has much more of the former, The Help brings a bigger story to sink your teeth into. My sense, though, is that neither book has what it takes to go the distance in this competition. The Help has the ambition, but lacks Lowboy’s edginess.

Opening Round, 1st Match. McCann destroys Mun

Rosecrans Baldwin brought down her gavel and let McCann move on in the opening match of the Tournament of Books.

I greatly enjoyed Miles From Nowhere from start to finish, but after a dozen pages with Let the Great World Spin, I knew which book would win. McCann’s written a monster: It wants to consume the Earth whole while naming every molecule on the way down. It’s a blast.

let none live here but those who will die here

Ko Un: New Year’s Day

This is the loneliest spot in the country on New Year’s Day.
I’ve spent the whole long winter here,
devoid of everything.
It’s been a week already since the boats stopped running.
Chuja Island goes on getting smaller
until sad eyes cannot see it.

Don’t overturn the glass from which you drank.
Once you’re past thirty,
you can make friends with an empty glass.

Tell me, wind: what can I hope for on New Year’s Day on this remote island?
After some tedious, very tedious reading
by the light of a small oil lamp,
I mutter a single drunken line
but vowels alone cannot make it audible
as far as that widower’s tomb out there.

So, wind: let none live here but those who will die here.
Endurance is the greatest journey of all.
Even if the boats are completely overwhelmed by the gale,
I’m going to set out, though I’ve got no overcoat.

Tell me again, wind: what more can I hope for on New Year’s Day?
From the guts of a boarding house, coughs flee
one after another, that’s all I can hear…
One day, they’ll return, transformed into the local dialect.
Ah, New Year’s greetings, buried alive by Cheju Island’s wild whirlwinds.

From Songs of Tomorrow, Green Integer’s collection of Ko Un’s dazzling poetry, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach. Green Integer, whose motto is “Pataphysics and Pedantry”, is an amazing publisher, who keeps providing a stage and a voice to poetry in translation. Without them, I would have had no chance of finding this extraordinary poet. Read Ko Un. He’s worth every bit of your attention.

Grant Morrison: Batman: The Black Glove

Morrison, Grant; J.H. Williams III, Tony S. Daniel (2008), Batman: The Black Glove, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-1945-1

Batman: The Black Glove is another installment in Grant Morrison’s work with DC Comics characters like Batman and Superman, and while it’s another strong showing, it’s also suffering from being one volume in a larger build-up to last year’s major crossover events. Sometimes it seems to me as if superhero comics are a bit like Pro Wrestling. Hundreds of story-lines, different organizations and titles, with crossovers between the different kinds of titles and wrestling events happening now and then. It’s all very odd and confusing, and so are superhero comics. If you try to follow superhero comics without really buying every issue of the dozens of smaller magazines where they are published, you are bound to get kind of confused. Now and then there’s a huge crossover event that tries to clean up a bundle of story-lines in one fell swoop, but the result are books like Batman: The Black Glove, which overwhelm some of their readers with the richness of references and events that they are embedded in. This particular book is part of an enormous undertaking. It is part of the Batman R.I.P. Story (as was The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul which I’ve reviewed here), which in turn leads into the larger project of Final Crisis. But, first things first.

Grant Morrison, superhero writer extraordinaire, writes on many stories at the same time, and unlike the major other writer who works on many canonical characters and story-lines at the same time, Mark Millar, he doesn’t get to invent a parallel canon where he can change and adapt and do as he pleases without catching flak for it. Millar inaugurated the Ultimate series, with his Ultimate X-Men books, which spawned a whole Ultimate Marvel universe that is similar but different from the Marvel canon. This re-invention culminated in the bafflingly great The Ultimates, a re-vamping of the Avengers in the Ultimate Marvel vein, and in Civil War, both of which I’m still pondering and will review later this month. Part of the ease with which Millar’s stunning work for Marvel reads is due to the fact that his re-invention of the characters allows him to let go of the past, and work with a clean slate. This leads to an incredible energy and freshness in his books, and to a renewed understanding of how, in cultural terms, these characters work. Millar’s work for Marvel continues to explore new alleys, with nods and references to canon, but being really independent of its exigencies and baggage. His most recent publication, Old Man Logan, is a case in point.

Millar’s approach couldn’t be more different from Grant Morrison’s, who, before signing an exclusivity contract for DC Comics, dabbled a bit everywhere (he had a part, for example, in the conception of The Ultimate Fantastic Four). In temperament he’s much closer to the prolific Brian Michael Bendis, who thrives on canon and continuity, and is the main reason why recent Ultimate Marvel publications are almost as confusing as all the recent DC Comics events. Grant Morrison’s Batman issues especially are not so much new and interesting story- lines but riffs on old ones, which is both a boon and a problem for these books. Naturally, the better you know the older stories and the more of the recent (sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting) stories you have read, the richer your reading experience may be. However, I’m herewith issuing a full recommendation to read Batman: The Black Glove. Compared with the flaccid affair that The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul was, this is a dense and interesting piece of storytelling which may seem obscure and bewildering at times, but that does not necessarily make for bad reading.

On the contrary. I greatly enjoyed this book and so will you, unless you have an inexplicable aversion to men in tights. Part of this enjoyment is due to Morrison’s impeccable writing, yet another, arguably greater, part is due to the choice of artists. While Tony S. Daniel, who penciled one of three sections of the book, isn’t great, his pencils are confident and clear enough (especially when inked by Jonathan Glapion) to steer the reader through what, at times, seems like a maze of smaller and larger stories. The highlights are the first and the short last section of Batman: The Black Glove. The first seems to comprise a self-contained story, which draws on Gothic elements and classic DC characters and story-lines, as well as thriller and mystery tropes from various literary and cinematic sources. The art, by J.H. Williams III, who appears to have penciled and inked the whole section himself, is extraordinarily evocative and energetic. There are many moments in Morrison’s recent output when you have the impression that his work is a chore and that he’s content with producing solid stories that make enough sense to continue in later volumes. Maybe it took an artist like Jim Williams III to reintroduce this kind of enthusiasm for the genre to Morrison’s efficient “event” writing.

This first section, “The Island of Mr. Mayhew” is about a meeting of Silver Age ersatz-Batmen, with different looks and strengths. There is a Native American with a cliché feather headdress, an Englishman who uses a knight’s armor. There is an American crime fighter who dresses up like a Roman soldier, and many more. All of them refer back to equivalents in the canon, but their grievances, and the back stories that are introduced here and alluded to are clearly influenced by the work of Neil Gaiman in some of his Sandman volumes, and by Alan Moore’s writing in The Watchmen. These characters meet regularly, and Batman is also regularly invited yet he never shows up. There is a bitterness in these would-be superheroes. They are not ridiculous, in fact, they have fought crime, each of them, with varying degrees of success. They are old now, grown fat, lazy and despondent, and blame others for their demise. Since the whole Batman R.I.P./Final Crisis event involves the demise of Batman, who vanishes at the end of these story-lines, dead, mad or lost, the coven of old superheroes is a clever mirroring of the actual Batman, it also prefigures the appearance of multiple Batmen later in the story. Most importantly, however, it uses its connections to Moore’s and Gaiman’s work to smuggle a critique of superhero-dom and its Manichean thinking into what appears to be a regular kind of story (unlike books like Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns).

Grant Morrison is adept at this: writing a great story which, however, has implications that transcend the usual goals and meanings of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to belittle superhero comics, on the contrary. I think that the things that can be said with the tools and tropes of the genre are fascinating, interesting and challenging intellectually, but there is, as with all other genres, a limited palette, all colors of which tend to point inward, into the dark caverns of genre and writing. This is true of many of the best works of the genre: the aforementioned book by Miller, or Frank Miller’s great Electra run (with art by the amazing Bill Sienkiewicz), Greg Rucka’s writing, or indeed much of Mark Millar’s work, for example. Morrison, even in his weaker stories, is different. He never seems to have abandoned the thinking and powerful artistic vision that we see in his The Invisibles comic book series (continued in the madness of The Filth), but he’s no longer flaunting it. Instead his work quietly, through juxtapositions and odd disruptions, destabilizes assumptions in normative narratives. Sometimes, as in “The Island of Mr. Mayhew”, it’s just a few references and peculiar settings.

The chapter develops into a regular murder mystery, as one by one the aging superheroes are murdered by what we soon assume to be Mr. Mayhew, the man who called the meeting. It’s a retread of a story that is old enough to have been consummately parodied as far back as 1978, when Neil Simon’s hilarious Murder by Death came out. In essence, “The Island of Mr. Mayhew”’s is a very similar story, with a showdown that appears to be as convoluted and overwrought as Simon’s. But it is the art that makes it stand out. Williams’ panels are often dipped in blackness, with disrupted and skewed panels, sometimes resembling the Bat sign, for example. Blood and fear seems to spill from panel to panel and page to page. It’s a highly dynamic design, although the actual drawing of the characters is much more static. As is, the reading experience is disorienting, recreating for the reader the mazes and dangers of the Mayhew’s house. In the Gothic setting, Morrison found a perfect background for his continuing interest in family and heredity.

The vision of order that follows the Batman through all his incarnations, from Bob Kane’s (or rather Bill Finger’s, as it were) colorfully campy original, to Frank Miller’s pitch-black version of it, has been transposed onto the personal level by Morrison. In this, as in previous volumes in this crossover event, from Batman & Son (pencilled by Andy Kubert) to The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, Morrison engages private order as compliment and contrast to social order, a structure that will culminate in the two parallel publications of Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. It’s fascinating to read the spin on this that this first section develops. As a standalone volume, this would be a short but excellent addition to the canon. It is paired, however, with two more sections. The second one, easily the longest, is called “Space Medicine” and is even more disorienting, if mostly because of what feels like dozens of stories crashing in. There are so many of them, in fact, that the main storyline gets lost and when it resurfaces at the end of the section, we don’t really care. The section continues an arc from the final chapter of Batman & Son, but you don’t need to have read it. In fact, I think that part of the fun of it is trying to make sense of the onslaught of things that happen, revelations imparted upon the reader and odd names and words.

I’m not sure that Batman: The Black Glove is supposed to be much clearer, actually, since Morrison’s sly deviations from old stories should be sufficiently confusing even to veteran readers of the books, such as his reinvention of the alien Batman Tlano from the planet Zur-En-Arrh, from a 1958 story called Batman – The Superman of Planet-X, reinvented as a psychotic personality developed by a trauma suffered by Bruce Wayne a few years ago. Again, events are turned inward, to the personal, and an interstellar crisis is converted into a personal one. It’s impossible to say more without spoiling the surprise and pleasurable bewilderment of this section, which paves the way for Batman’s last stand in Batman R.I.P.. A final mention should be accorded to Ryan Benjamin, whose art I have already praised here and who penciled the brief last section. He doesn’t get much to work with, as he’s asked to illustrate a chapter that feels rushed inasmuch as the writing is concerned. This chapter is clearly a bridge to the next volume, and that purpose is always clear to the reader. These few pages are intriguing but necessarily unsatisfying. What pleasure we derive from them is due to Benjamin’s pencils which intimate the disintegration of Batman, something that we hoped for from Daniel’s pencils in the previous chapter who wasn’t able or willing to deliver. As always, Benjamin’s work is dynamic and extremely effective, and I wish there was more of it.

That said, the book as a whole seems to be very well proportioned. Some shortcuts, some rushed scenes and story-lines, but all told, Batman: The Black Glove seems remarkably concise. It makes sense as a prequel to the cataclysmic events to come, it makes sense as a standalone book, and, most importantly, it makes sense as part of an ongoing larger project. In his most recent novel Lowboy, John Wray has one of his characters say “Your order isn’t my order”. In Wray’s excellent book, this is a statement about perception and about an examination of the conventions embedded in that which we accept as given. Grant Morrison writes about similar issues, but he doesn’t examine. He destabilizes, he suggests, intimates. As a writer he doesn’t write from an authoritative position, he doesn’t lecture. And, surprisingly, he keeps finding excellent artists to work with him. Good ones like Tony S. Daniels and extraordinary ones like Ryan Benjamin, J.G. Jones or, more recently, Frank Quitely. It’s a joy to read a new book by Morrison, and his publications are among my most highly anticipated publications each year. If you haven’t yet got on board, do so. If you’re new to this, maybe not with this exact volume, but don’t pass Morrison by. It’s more than worth it to check him out.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Here come the Painbirds. R.I.P. Mark Linkous

I’ll write more of this tomorrow or later, or something, but I can’t just now. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) killed himself. It’s not enough to say he will be missed. It’s impossible to say how much his art meant to me, and to others. Fuckin hell.

Eating, Killing, Whining

In my review of A.L. Kennedy’s stellar On Bullfighting (click here) I mentioned a hypocrisy of so many meat-eating critics of bullfighting. Now, Jonathan Safran Foer published a well-written account of what Eating Animals actually means. But, like many that take positions as he does, he’s prey to his own inconsistencies and hypocrisies. In his review for the TLS, Mark Rowland explains, and it’s worth listening to his argument:

Safran Foer concludes that we should not raise and kill animals in the way we now do. This is a negative prescription – it says what we should not do, and this is compatible with there being more than one thing we should do. As a result of the three-year investigation that went into this book, Foer writes: “I’ve become a committed vegetarian . . . . I don’t want anything to do with the factory farm, and refraining from meat is the only realistic way for me to do that”. To be a vegetarian is to refrain from meat, but not other animal products. And Safran Foer accepts that he might be willing to revise even his vegetarianism if more humane manners of living and dying could be devised. “The vision of sustainable farms that give animals a good life (a life as good as we give our dogs or cats) and an easy death (as easy a death as we give our suffering and terminally ill companion animals) has moved me.” Indeed, one of the notable features of his book, and which separates it from a straightforward case for vegetarianism, is the time and careful analysis he gives to these methods of farming. We might call this position “contingent vegetarianism”.

Contingent vegetarianism is a respectable position in the sense that it is almost certainly better for the animals whose products we use and better for the environment. This is largely due to the lesser numbers of the animals that would be involved if everyone were to be vegetarian: essentially, you get more cheese than meat from a single cow, so fewer animals have to live miserable lives and die ghastly deaths. But the contingent vegetarian still has to face some inconvenient facts. First, consider the flirtation with humanely produced meat. Here, the comparison with companion animals is distinctly misleading. A good life for a dog, for example, does not involve having its throat slit when it reaches four months of age. Even if painlessly euthanized at that age, the brevity of its life precludes that life from having been a good one (at best, it was “promising”). To make the comparison accurate, we would have to envisage farmed animals living long and fulfilled lives, and being painlessly euthanized only when terminally ill. Then, of course, sustainable farming becomes economically non-viable. Safran Foer claims that “The myth of consent is perhaps the story of meat, and much comes down to whether this story, when we are realistic, is plausible. It isn’t. Not anymore”. The myth of consent is the myth that the animals we eat would, if they could speak, agree to their treatment: they would agree to the way in which they live and die because of the security that comes with it. Safran Foer has made an utterly compelling case for the untenability of this myth. It is, however, so easy to merely exchange one myth for another. The myth that animals would consent to their lives and deaths in an economically viable humane farming industry is certainly not as egregious a myth; but I suspect it is nonetheless still myth.

Second, if we focus on Safran Foer’s vegetarianism, rather than his flirtation with a more humanely produced meat, we should remember that the fate Safran Foer skilfully and accurately described earlier is indifferent to whether the cow is beef or dairy. The same thing happens to dairy cattle after their “productive” lives are over – around four to five years of age. Also, to produce milk, they have to be kept pregnant. What happens to the calves? They are taken from their mothers, usually within twenty-four hours, and are destined for a short, miserable life, quite possibly in a veal crate, and a death whose general contours follow those described above. So, a vegetarian who drinks milk and eats cheese indirectly supports both the veal industry and a horrific form of slaughter.

Hm. Sounds not very well thought through. So whence all the praise? In his last paragraph, he implicitly tells us when he says

It is almost certainly one of the finest books ever written on the subject of eating animals.

Konrad Bayer: The Head of Vitus Bering

Bayer, Konrad (1970), Der Kopf des Vitus Bering, Suhrkamp
ISBN 3-518-01258-4

Bayer, Konrad (1994), The Head of Vitus Bering, Atlas Press
translated by Walter Billeter.
ISBN 0 947757 83 X

I haven’t been unsettled by a book in quite some time. Experimentalist novels or cheap effects designed to shock the reader, whether through outrageous sexual elements or blunt violence, after a while, they elicit barely a shrug. However, upon reading Der Kopf des Vitus Bering, Konrad Bayer’s only finished novel, I was stunned and unsettled. This is an extraordinary achievement, a rich, brilliant, devastating experimental novel that is as ambitious an undertaking as I have ever seen yet it succeeds on every count. Der Kopf des Vitus Bering is great literature as well as a singular work of art. You can see the traditions that Bayer is writing in, you can smell Joyce, Döblin, Ball, Schwitters, Faulkner in these pages, yet the result is staggeringly original. Lucky for you, it’s been translated into English as The Head of Vitus Bering (by Walter Billeter, published by Atlas Press and Serpent’s Tail), so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t read it. This is a great, great text, one that may not have the same effect on you that it had on me, but it will affect you, one way or another.

Konrad Bayer, an Austrian writer born in 1932, wrote this book in the 1950s, although it wasn’t published until after his suicide in 1964. Bayer was part of a highly influential Viennese literary group which established the literary parameters for the budding literary scene in Austria. Up until then, Austrian post-war literature was dominated by a conservatism and a general determination to ignore what had happened in the war. This phenomenon has, as linguistic studies in the 1990s have shown, continued up until the 1980s, and it had produced a cloistered and narrow climate where oppositional literature flourished. Without Austrian restrictiveness, genii like Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek would have been unthinkable.

And it was never as bad as in the 1950s, where writers like Heimito von Doderer became famous for their elaborate, traditional novels, which were mild on innovation but strong on local color. Returned exiles, like Friedrich Torberg (incidentally an extraordinary writer in his own right), became figures of authority who shaped the public discourse in Austria by instilling highly conservative guidelines. Torberg became notorious for his intense hatred of Communists, adopting the appellation “fellow travelers” in the pejorative McCarthyite sense for any and all of those he suspected of being too far left. These early Austrian attempts to define and determine all aspects of the cultural discourse peaked when, between 1952 and 1963, a de-facto boycott of Brecht’s work was declared in Austria, during which time no notable theater dared to stage Brecht’s work, due to the intense pressure from people like Torberg and a variety of political figures.

This, in the decade after the war, seemed to stunt Austrian literature, while in Germany a lot of fresh and unconventional work was published to great acclaim, much of it channeled through the Gruppe 47, a loose association of writers and critics (founded in 1947) who met once a year to read works in progress to one another. Whatever effects that association had in later decades, in the time after the war the Gruppe 47 had a galvanizing impact on young German literature, creating support, context and attention for writers who might not have been noticed by the literary public otherwise. Inspired by them, somewhat older writers like H.C. Artmann and younger ones like Konrad Bayer, Oswald Wiener (whose incredible masterpiece die verbesserung von mitteleuropa was published in 1969) and especially Gerhard Rühm, without whose influence a writer like Gert Jonke (who is currently experiencing a revival in English translation) would be unthinkable, formed a Viennese equivalent to the Gruppe 47, simply called Wiener Gruppe.

It’s really impossible to overestimate the importance of these writers for Austrian literature. The debates and discussions they engaged in, their conflicts with Austrian society, these were extremely formative and most of innovative and powerful post-war fiction in Austria followed in the wake of the Wiener Gruppe, in the trails they blazed into the blasé facade of Austrian culture. Their radical poetics were modeled upon Dada writers like Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, but in their concerns and their acidic power they carried the weight of the atrocities of the last war on their shoulders. Their critique of literature, art and culture went beyond games with form. In their work the desperation and the naked fear that was bred by tanks, guns and camps, by bombs and gas and the hatred of so many of their fellow citizens was plainly visible and contributed to the intensity of that work.

Of all these writers, it might just be Konrad Bayer who produced the most potent cocktail from these ingredients. Bayer, like the Dada writers and like the fellow writers of the Wiener Gruppe was an artist first and a writer second. His work was made to be read aloud, his plays and poetry mostly intense monologues, in their radical absurdity prefiguring the early work of playwrights like Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard (who were both, though Anglophone readers may not be aware of it, as good writers of drama as of prose, although their fame abroad rests almost exclusively upon their epic work). He wrote in short bursts, assembling fragments rather than working on long drafts. Contradictions fueled his writing, and the traditional, reasoned, elaborate work of art, the Doderer kind of novel, with its carefully worked out (almost Jamesian) psychologies, buying into a realist consensus, these books were, so to say, the enemy.

Bayer’s work was intent upon resurrecting the power of art, by rescuing it from the cold clutches of consensus, even if that meant attacking it. This had already been the project of the Dada poets, but in Bayer’s work, the idea of ‘Anti-art’ returns with a vengeance, accompanied by a disturbing vision of humanity. Bayer’s mode of writing meant that his legacy consisted largely in unfinished prose works and an uneven body of poetry. Der Kopf des Vitus Bering is his only finished work of prose of any length and it is truly stunning. In less than 70 pages, Bayer writes what could be called a historical novel, and attaches copious endnotes in an ‘index’ that, on the contrary, doesn’t work like an index but like an extension of the fictional part of the book, supplying additional meanings, sending the reader back to the beginning to reread the whole book, which is one of the most re-readable books I have ever read, because it keeps unfolding and expanding in your brain the more time you spend with it. It is like the eponymous house in Danielewski’s novel: there are dark and unchartered depths inside this book that appears to be much smaller and more modest from the outside.

What is it about? Well, on the most simple level, it is a story about the life and death of Vitus Bering (1681 – 1741), a navigator in the employ of the Russian navy of Peter the Great. Bering is one of the most famous explorers in Western history, his impressive exploits leading to being the first European to discover Alaska and the Aleutian islands as well as (indirectly) the Bering strait and thus proving that Russia and America were not connected. He died, possibly from scurvy, on an island near the Kamchatka peninsula. His life could (and has) filled many thick and engaging volumes, but he gets less than 60 pages in Bayer’s book. As it turns out, Bayer isn’t interested in telling a straight story, or writing a portrait of Bering. Instead, he uses two techniques throughout the book to challenge, mislead and intrigue the reader.

One is simple symbolism. The title refers to a game (a game of dice I think) that is mentioned in the opening pages, where the “head” is a certain part of the game. Another game mentioned in the same paragraphs is chess. Chess has often been used to symbolize power games or to talk about politics. Bayer engages this same usage, but, as the reader soon notices, in Bayer’s work divisions are dissolved and symbol, meaning and history are quickly enmeshed in a way that does not allow the reader to look for correspondences between reality and the symbol. Instead he is asked, well, it is demanded, expected, really, of him, to make sense of the complex as a whole. The only help Bayer offers his bewildered reader is the old usage, but it’s clear that it means more here. Strongly, insistently, Bayer inserts the body (of the protagonist, of the reader, of the author) into the equation, and developing a kind of mystic meditation from these beginnings.

The whole book consists of small fragments that often seem to be in an accidental, haphazard order. This impression is amplified by small semantic disruptions. Almost all deictic expressions lose meaning, because they point into nothing: Bayer renders these words and phrases, which usually organize a sentence and paragraph, which dominate and constitute much of the internal logic of a text, completely useless in any conventional reading. If we the readers want to make sense of the text we have to fill in the gaps, the empty spaces that the grammar of Bayer’s novel points us to, on our own. But we are not completely helpless. Here is where Bayer’s second technique, which I earlier alluded to, enters the fray: Bayer makes ample, almost obsessive use of the apokoinu.

The apokoinu is a very traditional stylistic device, common in Greek and Roman poetry, as well as in poetry of the Middle Ages, where the beginning and the end of a sentence are connected by a koinu, a middle section that is used twice, so that, grammatically, the clause at the beginning and the koinu make sense, and the clause at the end and the koinu make sense, but the sentence as a whole appears ungrammatical. This device slows down the reading because it conflicts with the usual way that sentences are parsed. It’s use in poetry is understandable, but in prose, it’s quite the stumbling block for readers, and Bayer has built most of his book around it, and not just in the way it’s usually used. In Bayer’s book time jumps back and forth, sometimes within the same sentence, and with some of his paragraphs, which make grammatical sense, Bayer uses a disorienting apokoinu by switching around people and places so that at the end of a sentence or a paragraph, the reader ends up somewhere else, and is sent back to the sentence he has just read to see where Bayer changed horses from under him.

This change is not always subtle, and since it’s impossible not to read the book slowly and carefully, we can see the switches while we read, but the disorientation remains a part of the overall effect that the book has on its readers. This disorientation, interestingly, mirrors, in part, maybe, Bering’s neurological defects: Vitus Bering was (probably) an epileptic, he suffered from morbus sacer, the holy sickness, and Bayer draws from different sources about shamanism, especially Siberian shamanism, to connect the mystic element of the sickness with the corporeal effects and defects of it, in his depiction of Bering, who, as an explorer legitimized by the czar, symbolizes a very clear and potent myth of masculinity. Bayer, in this book as in many parts of his other works, is very critical of masculinity and its use as myth and foil to create societal standards. The weakness and ambiguousness that stems from Bering’s illness and the spiritual implications and connotations destabilize that myth. But the heavy lifting of all this is not done by the novel itself.

It is only when we arrive at the “Index”, an enumeration of quotes and sources, sometimes a whole paragraph, sometimes just a phrase or a sentence, that we fully realize the possibilities of Bayer’s extremely elliptical fiction, and we return to it, to make more sense of some of the dead ends and false trails that he scattered throughout the book. Ultimately, it is us who do that heavy lifting, because the book relies on us to make it work. Many books depend upon the reader to unfold their full potential. However, Der Kopf des Vitus Bering makes precious little sense at all unless we try to make sense of it, actively. And as we connect the modern history of geographical discovery, with European history, with the despair that envelops Bering in his weakest moments, and with the cannibalism that Bayer (in another instance of apokoinu) fuses with eating animals and exerting political power, we get a complex, devastating impression of the dirty underbelly of civilization and humanity

Der Kopf des Vitus Bering is a liberating, an empowering book that declines to engage in exploitative narratives. It merely suggests, intimates, implies. It allows us to draw our conclusions. But we shouldn’t undersell the enormous strength that was needed to arrive at this point, to achieve this. Bayer and his colleagues ripped open the fabric of culture, literature and language, a rupture that was never to close again, one which writers like Bernhard, Okopenko and Handke used to craft one of the most incredible bodies of work that the 20th century has seen.

As a person, Konrad Bayer was apparently (if we believe the critic Hans Meyer) a very congenial and impressively enthusiastic writer, whose appearances and readings made a huge impact on his audiences. His fame during the 1950s and 1960s was derived almost exclusively from his performances, and yet, when he read from Der Kopf des Vitus Bering at a meeting of the Gruppe 47, he didn’t win the prize that the group handed out almost every meeting, although many of those present were overcome with admiration. This is, I think, because this book really works best in writing. Its complexities become far more tantalizing and interesting when we scan the text on the page, leaf back and forward, follow the peculiar music of the words as well as its trail on the page of paper. In trying to create anti-art and anti-literature, Konrad Bayer created a work of art that makes use of the oddities and beauties of literature, that feeds upon and enriches literary tradition. Der Kopf des Vitus Bering is a truly experimental novel, the best experimental novel I read in a very long time, and it is beautiful, moving and challenging. If you have any interest in experimental literature, you must read this book.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

A hyperthyroid injection

Now, to be thoroughly in act is human perfection; in other words, it is to be thoroughly made. According to Catholic theology, perfection demands a substantial transformation, which is called first sanctifying grace and then beatitude; it involves the mysterious co-working of grace and free will. To go into this question further would be a digression. What I want to emphasize is that for Hopkins life was a continuous substantial progress toward perfection. He believed this, he lived this, this is what he wrote. (…) Hopkins’s rhythms, even when he’s not writing sprung rhythm, have the effect of a hyperthyroid injection.

Robert Lowell on Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Hopkins’s Sanctity”, in his indispensable Collected Prose (ed. R. Giroux))

gnawed like bears

Amy Clampitt: Thermopylae

Where the bay flashed, and an unrecorded number
of the Persian troops, whip-flicked into the spear-
clogged hourglass of the pass, were impaled and fell
screaming from the precipice to drown, the mirror

clogs: geography too gathers dust, though busloads
of us (sandaled Germans mostly), hankering for
an attar or a foothold, a principle that still
applies, a cruse of oil, a watershed no rain erodes,

find small inkling of what was staved off here,
or saved. A calcined stillness, beehives, oleanders,
polluted air, the hung crags livid; on the little hill
(beneath, the bay flashed as men fell and went under

screaming) where a stone lion once stood in honor
of that grade-school byword of a troop commander
Leonidas, we ponder a funneled.down inscription: Tell
them for whom we came to kill and were killed, stranger,

how brute beauty, valor, act, air, pride, plume here
buckling, guttered: closed in from behind, our spears
smashed, as, the last defenders of the pass, we fell,
we charged like tusked brutes and gnawed like bears.

One of my very, very favorite American poets. Her collected poems are wondrous. Please, go and get yourself a copy. I cannot imagine a reader of poetry who would not be enraptured by the beaty and craft of Clampitt’s work.