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So we’ve been doing this for over 2 years now, happily chatting away and picking up intelligent audiences along the way. However, that’s like all we know about you. We’d like to know more, and we’d be mightily grateful if you would just spend a few minutes to fill in a short survey about the show.

Wrestling with (my God!) my God

One of my favorite poems in any language by one of my favorite poets (here is Lowell’s take).

Gerard Manley Hopkins: (Carrion Comfort)

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

Cheer whóm though? The héro whose héaven-handling flúng me, fóot tród
Me? or mé that fóught him? O whích one? is it eách one? That níght, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

(quoted after The Major Works, edited by Catherine Phillips (Oxford World’s Classics))

“Null Punkte aus Israel”

Bei Jörg Marx eine schöne Darstellung von selbstbewußten Deutschen, die gestern im Freudentaumel (so etwa)über die “nationale Leistung” sauer auf die unbotmäßige Benotung aus Israel waren. Unter anderem postet er diesen Auszug aus dem #esc twitterfeed (click on image to enlarge or go directly to Marx’ blog).

A caricature, a swollen shadow

Delmore Schwartz: The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

“the withness of the body” –Whitehead

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
–The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
the scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

David Shields’ pale echoes

Robert Archambeau over at Samizdat has written an excellent assessment of David Shields‘ over-hyped Reality Hunger:

It’s not just that Shields sees novelty where, in fact, there’s a long historical tradition. It’s that his version of an aesthetic of incoherence in “Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps” is attenuated in the ethical dimension that was so thoroughly elaborated by earlier thinkers. Shields’ version of the aesthetic of incoherence isn’t a triumphant break with an impoverished past: it’s a pale echo of an old idea. It’s weak tea that thinks it is nitroglycerine.

Imperialismus, Baby

Horst Köhler ist ehrlich:

Meine Einschätzung ist aber, dass insgesamt wir auf dem Wege sind, doch auch in der Breite der Gesellschaft zu verstehen, dass ein Land unserer Größe mit dieser Außenhandelsorientierung und damit auch Außenhandelsabhängigkeit auch wissen muss, dass im Zweifel, im Notfall auch militärischer Einsatz notwendig ist, um unsere Interessen zu wahren, zum Beispiel freie Handelswege, zum Beispiel ganze regionale Instabilitäten zu verhindern, die mit Sicherheit dann auch auf unsere Chancen zurückschlagen negativ durch Handel, Arbeitsplätze und Einkommen.


I can say “I love you” through fisting

Syd Blakovich, “MMA fighter and queer pornstar extraordinaire” talks about rough sex on Fleshbot

I think that rough sex can come from a really sweet and loving place and not necessarily from anger. I personally don’t think at this time in my life I would have rough sex with someone who I was really upset with. Although I definitely had this happen, where sex became a means of expressing anger or upset, emotional landscapes tend to play out everywhere. Sometimes it’s really hot and perfect, but sometimes it’s inappropriate. You have to be really on it and decide when it’s good for you and your partner. I think sex is a communication between people and can be a mixture of feelings and thoughts, but should also be an open space for each person to contribute to in their own way whether it be taking a pounding or biting or whatever. There should be something in it for each party, like you are giving each other really awesome gifts! Sex is a vehicle for dialog. I can say “I love you” through fisting, but you can also say a lot of things. I think the way we often look at sex is very limiting at times and sometimes the best way to understand it is to keep an open mind and try things while also really understanding your own body and mind.

New record out (update)

Classless Kulla has a new record out. Lyrics and concepts by Classless Kulla and music by istari Lasterfahrer. I have their last record, and the music alone is worth the buy. You can buy it directly here. The shop also allows you to listen to it. Click here. Trust me. Below’s a snipped, below that is the awesome cover, designed by Oona Leganovic.

classless Kulla & istari Lasterfahrer “Wir hatten doch noch was vor” Snippet by classless


Michael Fitzpatrick makes a good, but still too careful point in this opinion piece in the New Scientist.

THE epithet “denier” is increasingly used to bash anyone who dares to question orthodoxy. Among other things, deniers are accused of subordinating science to ideology. In his book Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives, for example, Michael Specter argues that denialists “replace the rigorous and open-minded scepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment”.

How ironic. The concept of denialism is itself inflexible, ideological and intrinsically anti-scientific. It is used to close down legitimate debate by insinuating moral deficiency in those expressing dissident views, or by drawing a parallel between popular pseudoscience movements and the racist extremists who dispute the Nazi genocide of Jews.

The incredible wave of secular Catholicism, of stubborn, closed minds, that not only accept academic consensus as gospel Truth, but that also brand everyone with a different opinion as a fool, without, usually, ever really engaging with these opinions in a fair and open manner. After all, we know that everything sounds better with science, and pseudo-scientific explanations, no matter how hackneyed, are now the go-to response in all areas, and other voices are drowned out in ridicule and tags like “denier”. To quote Fitzpatrick again

As Skidelsky says, “the extension of the ‘denier’ tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people”. What we need is more debate, not less.

Lorrie Moore: A Gate At The Stairs

Moore, Lorrie (2010), A Gate at the Stairs, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-307-73942-1

A Gate at the Stairs, published in 2009, is only Lorrie Moore’s third novel, and it was published to great but not unanimous praise. Moore is one of the most highly acclaimed writers of her generation, one, however, who’s been silent for years now, publishing her last book of fiction (the story collection Birds of America), in 1998. Eleven years later, there is this novel, and I’m not sure it was worth the wait. It’s a surprisingly slight book, reading like a clever debut novel rather than like the work of an established wordsmith and recipient of a PEN/Malamud award, among several others. There is no indication that this writer has written and published several books, honing and developing her craft. The strengths of this book are strengths that you’ll be able to find in a great many flashy debuts. There’s no discernible routine in the way that characters, plots and developments are handled, nothing really works here, as far as the craft of writing a novel is concerned. A Gate at the Stairs has one big advantage, and that’s Lorrie Moore’s love for language and her incredible ability to write extraordinary sentences that are surprising, beguiling and consistently interesting. This is the oddest novel: the writing itself, the words and phrases used, this shows an enormous amount of care and instinct, there’s is dullness, too, or the occasional muddled thought that died in mid-sentence. It’s nonetheless true that you can open the book at random, and look even at innocuous sentences, and find pleasurably turned phrases, small inversions. The language seems thoughtful, using puns, allusions, and an enormous amount of brilliant images. But if you look at the broader picture, at the novel as a novel, it seems cobbled together quickly, with little care and less success. There’s nothing thoughtful about the characters or the ideas, all of which seem ramshackle. From the meager, disappointing evidence of A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore seems to me a poet manqué at best: and I see potential for this book in small, condensed portions. I’m willing to bet that could be an interesting publication. This isn’t. Not by a long stretch.

On its surface, A Gate at the Stairs appears to be a realistic tale of one girl’s coming of age in the Midwest. But it’s more than that, it’s a meditation about language and moreover, it’s almost a classic Bildungsroman, condensed into a very short period in the girl’s life, and like most novels in that mode, it’s more of a theoretical exercise than a strictly realistic one. That is one of the reasons why a reading of this novel as a plausible depiction of growing up in the Midwest is bound to be disappointing. There is little depth to any of the characters, even Tassie Keltjin, the protagonist, is a slapdash creation. As she suddenly stumbles into a series of tumultuous events, her actions often seem erratic, the reader could spend hours trying to unravel her motivations and finding a plausible impulse behind her actions. Those motivations are simply not to be had. Her actions and her behavior is necessary as part of the writer’s intellectual schemes, of Lorrie Moore’s attempt to provide a full, coherent and closed account of that crucial moment of adolescence, where we move from childhood to adulthood, in short, to show what she “leaned in college” (‘college’ being a cipher for the whole experience). The characters all seem interesting, and the story can be even moving, but it feels like a slightly skewered dream, an intellectual fantasy played in a literary key. It’s devastating, finally, for the book, that the intellectual foundations of the book are so weak, spineless, without substance, conviction or vision, since it so depends upon them. Like most classic Bildungsroman novels, the book’s protagonist is less like a chess piece moved on a board and more like the center of a web of meanings and allusions, a web that moves, turns and spins, with the movement of its protagonist. The elements of the book exist to accompany the protagonist into adulthood, they help them, test them and teach them. There are characters and events to educate, events to punish, and events to transform. In this case, however, the web is a bit wobbly, and the intellectual commitments sometimes seem as hazy and unclear as the characters’ motivations.

See, it’s not surprising that the characters lack distinctive voices, that the book seems glazed with just one unflaggingly, untiringly clever voice. The characters ceaselessly pun or provide quotable lines. The effect of the particular voice here is negative, however, since it presents the reader with an impression of a certain prim-faced cleverness. Tassie narrates the whole novel and she’s an insufferably self-satisfied little creature, a self-satisfaction fed by Lorrie Moore’s indiscriminate handling of means and events. There seems to be a lack of subtlety at work here. In crude brushstrokes, Tassie’s lessons are doled out, but unlike in most novels of this kind, it’s almost never the protagonist who suffers. People die, become terrorists, become orphans, suffer terrible pain, relationships break up and racist epithets are thrown around, in order for Tassie to learn her lessons. But Tassie herself suffers mostly in an affected, deeply Romanticist kind of way. She is an observer and suffers the exquisite pain of aesthetic disturbance. It’s her sense of superiority, her awful sense of being white, clever and very ‘aware’ that is somewhat assaulted. It’s an impression of an immense ennui, mixed with a delicate kind of Weltschmerz. All of this, naturally, wrapped in a truly extraordinary tortilla of language. This, for example, is a simple description of road-kill:

Walking home, I passed a squirrel that had been hit by a car. Its soft, scarlet guts spilled out of its mouth, as if in a dialog balloon, and the wind gently blew the fur of its tail, as if it were still alive.

And this is a sentence dealing with another visual impression:

It seemed now that the town had started to throw off the monochromatic winter to reveal its bright lunatic pajamas beneath.

This is startlingly written, a description that no other writer I know could pull off. In terms of writing, this is not just raw talent, this is true excellency. And it doesn’t stop there. One of the first things we notice, reading the book, is the obsession with names and naming, with the particulars of language. Puns are employed not just with relish and zest, but with a slow deliberation. The names of places are dismembered, interrogated, mirrored, twirled around. But it soon becomes clear that there’s no real thinking attached to these snippets of ideas. It doesn’t ever go beyond the clear interest and fascination in language as tool, element and object. But even if this aspect disappoints, it’s still fair to say that the book crawls with perfect and surprising images and descriptions. And since Tassie is the narrator, these are her excellent descriptions. The very title of the book is taken from one of her “waltzy ballads”. The whole of A Gate at the Stairs is basically a paean to Tassie Keltjin.

The novel is largely set in the “university town of Troy”, where Tassie is thrust into “a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends”´. Tassie isn’t used to that, coming as she does from a farm. Her father is not your typical farmer, he raises and sells potatoes not for the mass market but for connoisseurs. In this past, Moore creates a contrast between Tassie’s peasant upbringing and life in the big city, without having to commit to the complexities that a truly simple home and a sophisticated education may create. Her father is better than other peasants, we are made aware of that, not just once, but time and time again. That’s why the fact that she despises the poor language skills “[b]ack in Dellacrosse”, for example, doesn’t lead to complicated tensions in the book. Instead, her education serves as a pulpit from which she pronounces her superior verdicts, as in this bit about their use of language.

Prepositions mystified. Almost everyone said “on” accident instead of “by”. They said “I’m bored of that” or “Wanna come with?” They pronounced “milk” to rhyme with “elk” and “milieu” as “miloo”, as in skip to my loo – when they said it at all. And they used tenses like “I’d been gonna.” As in “I’d been gonna do that but then I never got around toot.” It was the hypothetical conditional past […].

There’s a smirk hidden in these pronouncements and the final, happy coinage. The impression we have of her is that of a self-satisfied minor writer, critic or editor, with a narrow knowledge of grammar and linguistics, who nonetheless feels empowered to correct other people’s use of grammar. We all know these nitwits, and we all know that actual grammars and dictionaries mostly contradict their pompous judgments of what is ‘bad’ or ‘incorrect’ language, but we also know that they themselves tend to be incorrigible, huffy, self-righteous. That’s because their positions, while mostly shunned by actual linguists, are supported by a broad alliance of creative writing lecturers, English composition teachers with an ax to grind, or literary critics, tenured at universities led by their accountants logic. With the academic stamp of approval, these philistines stampede through our literary lives, dumping their nuggets of wisdom left and right. And here is the exact reason why this is relevant to A Gate at the Stairs, because Tassie, too, is empowered by college education. We the readers don’t know her outside of that intellectual frame. Empowered by the networks of knowledge and power, she doesn’t hesitate to lord it over those less privileged.

The failure of Moore to extract something meaningful from the raw material she’s amassed is even more stunning when we compare A Gate at the Stairs to two other American novels, Lisa Alther’s 1976 Kinflicks, and more to the point, John Williams’ extraordinary novel Stoner, published in 1965, and reprinted by the great NYRB imprint in 2006. The comparison to Kinflicks highlights the excess of satire that is inherent in this kind of set-up. Kinflicks, to this day Lisa Alther’s best novel, is like an incessant flood of satiric laughter that pools around more serious issues of the time depicted. It’s sobering to see how little humor runs through Moore’s book, and how it’s a dried up cleverness that plays not for laughter but for applause. There is undoubtedly a certain delight to be wrenched from A Gate of the Stairs, but it’s a harsh delight, a joy at watching mere technical prowess. The generousness that accompanies true laughter is completely absent from Moore’s mirthless pages. The contrast to Stoner is a different one. Stoner is the novel of a man, the eponymous Stoner, born into rural poverty, who decides to go to university and starts pursuing an academic career. In Stoner we find a convincing depiction of the contrast between poverty and ‘proper education’. Stoner’s very identity is on the line in all this, and the result of his own journey to adulthood is a troubled, conflicted personality. There is no self-satisfaction in the character of Stoner, who is genuinely attracted by knowledge, who is on a constant quest to do right by his ideals which are a mix of his parents’ ideals and his own, hard won ones. Stoner is a memorable novel, an insightful, well written affair that is so convincing one might call it necessary. A necessary work, serious about its subject, which is everything that A Gate at the Stairs is not. The utter obliviousness to the darkness, to the problematics of entitlement, that Lorrie Moore displays is frightful, and, I can’t help but emphasize it: surprising. Such a well-written book, the language of which easily surpasses both Stoner and Kinflicks, and yet such a blind, witless and annoying read.

The plot starts with Tassie Keltjin needing a job in order to support herself, and she finds an opening as a babysitter for a wealthy couple. The husband is a scientist, and the wife runs a gourmet restaurant, and when they hire Tassie, they don’t even have a child to be baby sat yet. In a series of scurrilous encounters and intriguing vignettes, the couple, with the help of Tassie, tries to adopt a black baby, which quest finally succeeds. But this success sets in motion a cavalcade of events that will ultimately shake the worlds of each one involved. Not the worlds of Lorrie Moore or the intellectual house that Tassie Keltjin built, though. Here, everything is in place, although, as I mentioned, the commitments are a bit off, and the thinking hazy and muddled. The couple serves as a representation of the arrogant NY elite. They are rich, they are Atheists and they are do-gooders, filled to the brim with ideas about the perniciousness of racism. Regularly, they meet with other parents of adopted black children, and fill the room with phrases that Tassie is quick to recognize as empty and vapid, about diversity and dichotomies, yadda yadda. But the funny thing is that the talk, while consisting less of thinking and more of fashionable talking points, is not wrong. The content is not inherently ridiculous, but the book takes great pains to make it seem so, by means of exaggerations, by caricature and by branding some that take part in this discussion as hypocrites. Attacking a speaker’s moral fiber doesn’t invalidate his points, but Lorrie Moore, I take it, disagrees. I think that this attitude is one that has also led to the broad renunciation of ‘political correctness’. Reactionary linguists such as Steven Pinker, and talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh have perfected this rhetoric, which banks on the idea that people are what they are and no amount of perfumed language will change that. Pointing out that white, able-bodied males such as themselves are the main beneficiaries of political incorrectness may be petty.

However, while the basic ideas, sketched straw men rather than elaborated, are not ridiculous, the form context and the setting are indeed problematic. There is, indeed, a hypocrisy in the whole set piece, and its is the fact that Moore shows us privileged people indulging in acts of appropriation, of bodies, minds, and cultures. We know that writing can be used for oppression, and speech can be used (and mostly is) to govern the speechless. This insight, however, is beyond Tassie, and her depiction of a Muslim boyfriend she momentarily acquires, proves to be just the same kind of defining, dominating, governing speech. The depiction I mentioned is that an odd, almost unexplainable one, that of a young man, a fellow student with a darker skin, who turns out to be not just a Muslim, but a fellow traveler of terrorists. This book is set shortly after 9/11, in a time when suspicions towards Muslims and Arabs were rising steadily, and in Moore’s book there is only one man of Arab descent, and he’s both a Muslim and a sympathizer with the goals and means of terrorists.

This episode is the nadir of the whole sorry book. Nothing in Moore’s novel really coheres, which reads like a hastily edited manuscript created by pasting in small snippets of fictional ideas, but this last episode is mind-bogglingly nonsensical, unconnected to the larger whole of the novel and ridiculous in almost every single way. It caps a novel that is so complacent and self-absorbed as to be completely irrelevant. Its handling of characters is largely incompetent, so much so, indeed, that you need to stop following characters and plot and just take things as they come. But, as I said earlier, even if we allow for the fact that this is not a realistic novel but a novel, so to say, of ideas, the outcome is less than satisfying. Both ideas and narrative possibilities are tossed into the air either to be forgotten or to be tied off untidily at the end. It gets so bad that at one point I thought maybe the book was a satire, satirizing Tassie Keltjin, her point of view and those who share her point of view, but even this, ultimately, didn’t pan out, because the book wraps up in one great conciliatory movement. It situates the book firmly among other coming of age tales, and confirms the book’s utter mediocrity. A Gate at the Stairs is one severe disappointment, a gaudy empty box that smells a bit funny. Do not read this book.

Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk!

Arjouni, Jakob (1987), Happy Birthday, Türke!, Diogenes
ISBN 9783257215441

[English translation: Arjouni, Jakob (1994), Happy Birthday, Turk!, No Exit Press
Translated by Anselm Hollo
ISBN 1874061378]

From Raymond Chandler to Georges Simenon and Jean-Claude Izzo, the hard-boiled detective novel and the noir both have occupied an interesting place within literature. Their clean brethren, police procedural, regular mystery or detective novels are, at best, highly entertaining reads, cleverly structured maybe or elegantly told. There is a reason, however, why critics, even snobbishly inclined ones, are more likely to accept noir or the hard-boiled detective as Literature (note the capital ‘L’) than their less dark or gritty cousins. I think that these genres capture an idea or a feeling for a certain section of society, and manage to create a competent and cunning image of problems troubling the whole of society. The best books written in these genres can provide an impressively accurate idea of the socioeconomic tensions that run through the society of their time, whether it’s Chandler’s Californian wastelands, Simenon’s post-war France or Izzo’s sweaty, bitter Marseille. Instead of using a figure of authority as a way of handling a story, they tend to pick criminals, or private investigators who are little better than criminals and frequently resorting to criminal means. The connection of sexual and political deviation with life as a criminal is probably most often associated with Jean Genet’s magnificent novels, but in the best of hard-boiled detective and noir novels, it has always been present. Thus they often manage to furnish a sharp commentary on the current situation in their countries, via the dark underbelly of the society’s sinners, those who serve as scapegoats and victims, sources of exploitative practices and thought. This is what makes these genres endure, what turned their writers into literary legends and influential figures even within the mainstream literary canon after a while.

During these writers’ lifetimes, their work is often seen as merely entertaining, however, which is one of the reasons why writers like Jakob Arjouni are not fêted and showered with prizes for their genre writing. After all, Arjouni, who is a bestselling writer of genre fiction (although he’s increasingly been publishing more blatantly ‘literary’ books), writes work that is often as perceptive and incisive as that of political writers and literary giants like Heinrich Böll or Günter Grass. His 1985 debut novel, Happy Birthday, Türke! (translated into English as Happy Birthday, Turk! and into French as Bonne fête, le Turc!) is the first of, so far, four books modeled on Chandler’s novels about private eye Philip Marlowe. It remains as vital and interesting as it was the very year it was first published. But despite the fact that Happy Birthday, Türke provides as cogent and focused a comment on the state of Germany in the mid-1980s, as regards race, sexuality and history, as any other book written that decade, Arjouni’s book and its followup volumes are primarily perceived as “great reads”, “pleasurable”, “intriguing entertainment” or “suspenseful”, to quote randomly from reviews. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the books are crammed with adventure and violence. Happy Birthday, Türke is chock full of stuff, full, of fights, exposures, sex, and an awful lot of drinking. There is little thinking, events just keep piling up, people get punched, stabbed and shot, conspiracies are uncovered, people are blackmailed, gassed and run over by cars. Prostitutes and pimps, policemen and drug dealers, Turks and Germans, all play a role (or several) in this eventful little book. Arjouni wrote it at the tender age of 22, and the speed, the impulsive, playful, angry quality of youthful writing streams from every pore of this book and is one of its strongest points.

Less strong is the actual writing, although it’s more correct to call it less literary. Happy Birthday, Türke! is written in a wild melange of voices. There are different dialects, various registers, all warring for domination and there is no narrative voice that is careful and literary enough to tame the diverse sounds into one coherent soundscape, into a hierarchy of sounds. This aspect is perfectly fitting for the lack of hierarchies and authoritative instances in Arjouni’s novel and is one of many instances where his choices as a writer are surprisingly spot-on for such a young man. Happy Birthday, Türke! is set in Frankfurt, the capital of the German state Hessen, in west-central Germany, and he does a great job of conveying the local dialect to his readers. Arjouni, who went on to write plays as well as novels, seems to have a knack for finding the right register, the right tone for each of his characters. He rightly recognizes that even regiolects are indicative of diastratic varieties and the moment a character, no matter how minor they might be, opens their mouth, we have a clear sense of their place in the social order of 1980s Frankfurt. There’s no need for Arjouni to spend hours explaining histories and contexts to his readers: by grabbing his characters by the tongue, so to say, he nails down their situation in an uncannily precise manner. That said, the language isn’t perfect or even particularly great in the book, despite Arjouni’s instincts and insights. One problem, and this is not a small one, is that he seems, far too often, stiff and artificial when rendering dialogue that does not contain regiolects. As many, many other German writers and reviewers, Arjouni, too, seems incapable of rendering colloquial language in a lively and believable manner. That need not be a strong disadvantage, but his book relies so much on the descriptive and narrative power of colloquialisms that a lack of skill in that department is an enormous problem for the book.

Another problem has to do with the fact that the book’s narrator is its protagonist, the private detective Kemal Kayankaya. He is Turk “by birth” but, orphaned early, he had grown up with German parents, went to the Gymnasium, and then, for fun, started his private eye business. He doesn’t speak Turkish, and he is untouched by other aspects of Turkish culture, as well. His horizon, as far as culture and education is concerned, is that of a moderately well-off German, who has recently fallen on hard times. That conflict, between the level of education, his current standing in his society and a clear wish to be somewhat cool, produces his language, which is the only constant voice in the book. It is itself, however, not ‘constant’. The uneven flow of his voice is oddly uncomfortable. Cheap jokes, hard-boiled asides, reasoned remarks and observations and a generally uncouth attitude are taking turns in Arjouni’s book. Except for the fact that he never lapses into local dialect, his voice seems less his own, than a mixture of other people’s voices. This impression is exacerbated by the fact that there are few deliberations, a decided lack of sentimentalities or interiorities, in keeping with the genre of the hard-boiled detective novel. As readers, we are often left with what feels like a patchwork of quotes, pastiches and homages to Chandler, Hammett and much lesser writers. The very character of Kemal Kayankaya himself is less of an autonomous character and more like a new coat of paint on an already very familiar model. All this, while interesting in concept, can make for slightly annoying reading, because, no matter how fitting, how smart or well thought-out that kind of language is, it’s always teetering on the brink of trash. Quoting and paraphrasing trashy writing, as Arjouni frequently does, has the downside of introducing that trashy quality into one’s own pages. Arjouni’s decision not to use a dominant and overarching artistic frame or narrative means that the trashy writing, irregardless whether its quoted or not, keeps jostling its ways to the forefront of the book.

As I already mentioned, the titular Turk, Happy Birthday, Türke!‘s protagonist Kemal Kayankaya is a paint-by-numbers hard-boiled detective. He drinks a lot, is not hesitant to beat people with a fist, random objects or his hand gun, he keeps his cool with girls, with such a tried-and-true mixture of condescension and flirtatiousness that we almost expect him to call them ‘dolls’. He is tough on the outside but has a hard of gold, hidden somewhere in his battered body. Because not only does he hit people a lot, he also gets hit a lot, in the face, in the stomach, on the head and elsewhere. For most of the book he is nursing the bruises from the first beating he receives in the course of this investigation, reminding this reader of Jack Gitte’s injured and bandaged nose. Like many heroes from the books and movies that served Arjouni as inspirations, Kayankaya is fully engaged, with his body, life and, in a way, his whole existence, on the line. This has always been one of the most interesting differences between the dark and the light kind of mysteries. Despite the occasional threats to regular detectives and police officials in the light mysteries, these are easily categorized threats, usually reducible to one specific hostile party. There is never that utter, tantalizing precariousness of noir and hard-boiled detective novels. Even Marlowe, white and male, with the confidence and swagger of the privileged prick, is balancing there. The fears of the privileged, sexual, violent and political, which often form literary subtext, are palpable, endangering forces in these works. It’s Arjouni’s genius that his protagonist’s very identity is informed by such a balancing act. Culturally, he is a (white) German male, but the Other, which in Germany is more often the Turkish immigrant than Gilroy’s blacks, is also part of his identity, since his outward appearance betrays his Turkish ancestry.

This is Arjouni’s innovation, this is what he added to the long tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel. In 1985 Frankfurt, we learn, Turks are despised even by street hookers, traditionally viewed as pretty low on the ladder of social hierarchy. Turks, Kayankaya’s interlocutor’s often assume, can’t speak German, are stupid, criminal, greedy, or sexual perverts. He is an outcast, often literally, as his skin alone is reason enough to have himself thrown out of various houses and establishments. He is paid to investigate the murder of a Turkish worker (the plot, convoluted though it is, is just as hard-boiled-by-numbers as the protagonist himself), and is soon almost submerged by a wave of hate. The racism, both popular and institutional, is mind-boggling, and makes Happy Birthday, Türke! often an especially dark read. The language and the narrative is so quirky and often at pains not to dwell on the dark aspects, but the Kafkaesque nightmare of living in a city the main inhabitants of which despise you because of how you look, often breaks through. As the book progresses, we quickly find that the cheap jokes and puns are often stabs at gallows humor. In only two quick, almost unremarked, asides, Arjouni points to the historical continuity of all that hate, by having one retired policeman help Kayankaya, a policeman who had occasionally disobeyed orders during the Third Reich, as well, in order to help Jews. The vision of Germany here is unremittingly bleak, but what shines are Arjouni’s instincts. Arjouni himself is German, his real name is Jakob Bothe, he’s the son of Hans Günter Michelsen, a reasonably well-known German playwright. The novel shows us that he’s marvelously aware of the problems that writing from a privileged angle involves and all the evasive, non-dominant aspects of the novel suddenly appear to be geared to create a writing that can narrate a Turkish story without exploiting, exoticizing or Othering Turks or foreigners in general. The protagonist’s voice itself represents a retreat from narrative privilege. That does not usually make for better reading, but it does add layers of intrigue to the whole book.

That level of awareness and conceptual clarity is rare enough in experienced writers, but in a 22 year old, it’s wondrous. As is the longevity of his insights into German culture and politics. Today’s resurgence of racism is similarly patterned, although it’s often coated with claims of ‘religious criticism’. The same thing that appears to power politics in southern US states, where Chicano studies have to battle absurd accusations of anti-white racism, is slowly taking over discourses in Germany as well. For a few years, resentment at the difference of Turks has been mounting. Germans expect Turks to not speak with a dialect, to not speak Turkish, to dress properly, and be quiet with their religious beliefs. Germans have settled into a feeling of resentment, whether towards Turks or Jews or other minorities. For decades, this was complicated and tempered by a slow-burning guilt over the Third Reich and its atrocities. This has changed. Germans are now expecting those who aren’t German to assimilate, to come to heel, and any kind of cultural or ideological independence is viewed almost as an act of treason. The atmosphere, and the rage that fuels it, has an almost Wilhelminian (the Second) air about it. Arjouni’s novel, published 25 years ago, manages to provide such a cogent vision of the dark underbelly of the Germany of its time, that its implicit conclusions and indictments are still valid, still bleak and the book is still worth reading. This is a crime novel that demonstrates why that genre is so vibrant, powerful and important, to this day. With hesitations, with caveats, I nevertheless recommend this short and harsh little book.

A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Love like anger in the night

J. V. Cunningham: To My Wife

And does the heart grow old? You know
In the indiscriminate green
Of summer or in earliest snow
A landscape is another scene,

Inchoate and anonymous,
And every rock and bush and drift
As our affections alter us
Will alter with the season’s shift.

So love by love we come at last,
As through the exclusions of a rhyme,
Or the exactions of a past,
To the simplicity of time,

The antiquity of grace, where yet
We live in terror and delight
With love as quiet as regret
And love like anger in the night.

What to say about this incredible poet? You read the poem. It’s from The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, a great, great volume of poetry, edited by Timothy Steele. You should get it. You can buy it here or elsewhere.

I was naked without my line-ends

I’m still in free verse, written in the blue period after sickness, when I felt I could do nothing else well. On the balance side and on the side of formality, I am told all my lines are lines. I do scores of revisions to make them so. I use iambics often loosened into anapests. I suppose definitions of words in the dictionary can be made to do this – anything can be scanned but not made into decisive lines. (…) How different prose is; sometimes the two mediums refuse to say the same things. I found this lately doing an obituary on Hannah Arendt. Without verse, without philosophy, I found it hard, I was naked without my line-ends.

– Robert Lowell (in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop (April 15, 1976), available in the magnificent, indispensable book Words in Air: The complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (eds. Travisano and Hamilton). You need to read it. You know you do.)

Peter Carey: Theft: A Love Story

Carey, Peter (2007), Theft: A Love Story, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23150-8

It’s quite frightening to hear that Peter Carey’s 2006 novel Theft: A Love Story is not his best work. It is frightening because it is such an extraordinary success on almost every level. Theft manages to do so much in so few pages and yet it succeeds in never sounding convoluted or dense. It’s is a funny, suspenseful read, a book sure to appeal to almost every reader. In it, Carey manages to craft a story steeped in Australian history and culture, in art and art history, a book that tells a fast, noir-ish tale, and is linguistically sophisticated and inventive, reaching as far into theory as Deleuze. Sure, there are slow moments in the book now and then, but they are an exception. Sure, too, it lacks plausibility in many places, but despite the realistic varnish and the noir genre borrowings, Theft isn’t supposed to be awfully plausible (in terms of verisimilitude) anyway. There are other minor flaws, but the good aspects dominate the reader’s impressions of Theft.

Among these, two achievements in particular stand out. The first is Carey’s treatment of othered speech, by which I mean the speech of a character marked as “slow”. The speech and the character attached to it are finely tailored to convey to the readers the complexities of having a mind that is regarded as deviant by your compatriots, without lapsing into exploitative and exotic exaggeration. The second success in Theft is Carey’s thorough and inspired discussion of art, originality and forgery. One of his protagonists speaks of art at great length, delivering several long rants. Peter Carey is not afraid to be precise and explicit about the techniques of creating and selling art, yet we never feel lectured to. Theft is evidence of impressive insights into art, artistic inspiration and the accompanying frustrations. The result of all this is a book that I’d easily recommend to anyone interested in the topic, or, well, anyone, really. Theft: A Love Story is a very, very good novel.

The basic story revolves around two brothers, Michael and Hugh Boone, also known as Butcher Bones and Slow Bones, who get involved in an elaborate, and ultimately murderous, art scam. As Hugh has it: “Phthaaaa! We are Bones, God help us, raised in sawdust, dry each morning.” The change from ‘Boones’ to ‘Bones’ is one of several absorbing, meaningful details. For one thing, “Bones” invokes a child-like, fairy-tale setting, a children’s story, which is a genre where aptronymns are quite common, where names are tailored to fit themes of the story and to suggest elements to come or destinies to be fulfilled, they also tend to add an additional layer of characterization. Changing the name of the Boones to “Bones” is relevant to the book’s major topics in still more ways: since part of the central theme of Theft is Australia, especially in relation to other countries, I’d suggest that “Boone” is an oblique reference to Daniel and Squire Boone, two famous historical figures connected to the myth of the American Frontier. In contrast, Hugh says “[w]e are the nation of Henry Lawson”, a realistic writer, often credited with dismantling the myth of the Australian Bush.

This possible reference to Daniel Boone is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in Theft. The amount of Australian references that even I was able to catch suggest that a reader more knowledgeable about antipodean literatures and history than me would unearth multitudes. As is, I felt sometimes a bit shortchanged, bewildered by names and places that Carey just assumes the reader to understand and contextualize. Some are explicit, like the mention of Lawson, but one suspects quite a few others lurking in place-names and other nooks. This is not a significant problem, however, since Theft is written with a very clear and precise sense of place. Carey constructs a version of Australia, Japan or the United States that works like a charm even for provincial, untraveled readers like me. The reader understands what any given place is supposed to signify, how it works within the story and how it interacts with the characters.

The plot is, typical for noir fiction, very convoluted and dense, relying strongly on revelations and twists. Much of it reminded me of Michael Frayn’s exhilarating and taxing 1999 novel Headlong. Some passages and plot elements in Theft contain such strong parallels to Headlong that it’s hard to imagine Carey not having had Frayn’s novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize, now and then in mind. In Headlong, Frayn’s protagonist is an art historian, who believes to have uncovered a Brueghel painting heretofore unattributed to the great Flemish master. In his manic attempts to prove his theory and acquire the painting without letting its owner find out about its supposed great value, he entangles himself in a web of lies, deceit and crime. There is no happy ending in the cards for Frayn’s protagonist, which the author lets us know early. The whole of Headlong pretends to be the protagonist’s own account, including an introduction and an afterword ‘written’ by him.

This is not the case in Theft, although Carey’s novel is similarly transparent as a written artifact. None of the Bones explicitly mentions the writing process, but they both narrate the book (first person narrators, both) and Michael ‘Butcher Bones’ Boone for example frequently employs literary techniques such as foreshadowing or flashbacks, cleanly recognizable as such. The difference between these two set-ups, despite their similarities, closely corresponds to another difference between the two books. Headlong is about art history, it’s a novel as much concerned with the interconnections of archives and memory as with the actual art. Frayn’s readers are treated to extensive lectures on the history of Flemish art, and are offered art as an object, something that you look at from a distance, something to be contextualized. The art history in it is not imaginary, it largely contains knowledge that the reader is also privy to, that he may even know. Departures from that common knowledge and the inventions are meant to create a contrast to the archived bits.

In contrast to that, Peter Carey’s approach is different. He invents everything, the artists, the relevant sections of art history and so on, but more importantly, his protagonist Butcher Bones is not an art historian, he’s an artist, one who used to be quite famous, actually. Released from prison after serving a sentence for burglary he is content to get back to being a painter. His crime was having broken into his old house, now inhabited by his ex-wife, and Butcher Bones attempted to forcibly retrieve some of his own paintings, since “my own best work […] had been declared Marital Assets” (italics his) and had been lost in the ensuing divorce. This crime, as happens a few times in this dense and interlaced novel, already contains in nuce the tensions and questions that preoccupy the whole book: what is the economic and historical relationship of an artist to his work? What happens after a painting is finished, how does it end up in other people’s hands? How does this tie into questions of authorship, ownership and originality? One of the strengths of Theft is that it doesn’t present answers, merely suggestions.

In a patron’s house in a rural area in northern New South Wales, Butcher Bones sets up shop, builds a studio, nails a canvas to a wooden frame, buys colors and starts painting. This whole process is told in admirable detail. Butcher tells us about the types of colors he uses, about the types of nails, screws and wood utilized in his endeavors, but we are never overwhelmed. Instead, he involves us in his art, lets us be part of the small world he constructs in the house he doesn’t own. It’s a bit like listening to the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (my review here). Unlike Baker’s lonely poet, Butcher’s not alone, he never is, Hugh always accompanies him. Hugh is a bit slow, hence his nickname ‘Slow Bones’. He is obsessed with chairs and quick to wreak violence, with a special predilection for biting fingers. He has trouble reading or understanding maps and is very quickly lost in any kind of urban setting. But his apparent slowness and supposed mental deficiencies are much less pronounced in the book than they seem in this summary.

This is because Hugh and Michael narrate the story in alternating chapters. The chapters don’t overlap, there’s no cute ‘alternative view’ of events. Turns out, Hugh’s part of the narrative is not more obtuse or simple-minded than Michael’s. It’s different, but not in a “slow” way, if anything, it’s more complex and nuanced. Michael’s narration is maudlin, self-obsessed and a bit depressed. He uses low and high brow language both, equally at home in talking about art, talking to buddies or relating “shitty stuff”. These chapters do most to advance the story because they are conventional and told in a linguistically lean way, quickly stringing together events, except for the occasional monologue. Hugh, in contrast, uses a more sophisticated language that contains insights about art, about personal relationships as well as blunt retellings of events. Michael, exasperated over his brother, exclaims once “[w]ho could explain the dark puzzle of Slow Bones’ folded brain?” This sentence, meant to disparage his brother, to show impatience with his being too slow, not functional enough, is, however, revealing and helpful in understanding Hugh and through him, much of Theft.

See, Hugh’s language is much more careful than his brother’s, it displays a much greater awareness of words and syntax. Instead of relating linguistic platitudes like Michael, common in conventional speech, he tends to quote platitudes, not by using inverted commas or other markers (although he does capitalize words now and then, a fact that emphasizes the ‘written’ quality I mentioned earlier), but by speaking/writing in a pastiche of the person, book or statement quoted. Hugh’s chapters are the most fun to read, they are open and almost without guile. Evil and suspicions are quoted, distanced, looked on askance. Now and then he displays cunning, but its never terribly clever. Yet a comparison of Hugh’s and Butcher’s credulity shows us two people almost equally likely to be duped, made fun and taken advantage of. Hugh’s cunning, his naivete and wisdom are not that of how we often suppose the mentally impaired to be, but that of child’s literature. Personally, I’ve long considered the best prose work written for children to have qualities that approaches very good poetry or the work of a writer such as Samuel Beckett.

In all these cases one is likely to find a certain delight in words and an independence of simple conventionalisms, as well as a mixture of lightness and bleakness, which in Beckett’s work is often mistaken for absurdity. I think it’s a paying of close attention to the cog wheels of language, thought and of the structure of images and an awareness of the difficulty of unmooring our actions from conventional patterns and a false implicitness of common sense judgments. Much of that kind of thinking is implicit in those of Theft‘s chapters which are narrated by Hugh. Butcher’s difficult brother has, as Michael said, a “folded brain”. To most readers, this will immediately recall Deleuze’s concept of the fold, elaborated upon specifically in the marvelous book-length essay Le Pli: Leibniz et le baroque (1988) and his book on Foucault (1986). Hugh’s narrative is actually the revealing, clear one, in it you can find the outside and its sounds and shouts folded into his own meandering ruminations. The end result of this is a narrative that seems at times like adult child’s patter, straight out of some strange, slightly surreal tale.

The fact of the matter is, Carey puts quite a strong emphasis on the genres of folk tales, fairy tales and child’s literature. Evidence of this is, for example, his foregrounding of Norman Lindsay’s classic children’s book The Magic Pudding (1918). Several characters in the book self-identify with characters from the book. Hugh especially uses other people’s knowledge of The Magic Pudding as an indicator of their soundness of character and taste, and it should have been a warning to him (and us) when a new acquaintance expresses sympathy for the book’s villains, the pudding thieves. The Magic Pudding is a book about three friends who walk through the world, dining each evening and each morning on a steak-and-kidney pudding which is not only alive, but can also never be depleted. Regularly they are set upon by a pair of pudding thieves, who manage, with the help of trickery and cunning, to steal the pudding a few times. The three friends manage to get them back due to the fact that one among them is equally cunning and devises clever plans to steal the pudding back. The other two then proceed to punch the thieves “on the snout”.

It is significant that Hugh is adamant that he and his brother are “like Barnacle Bill and Sam Sawnoff”, the two punchers of snouts. Clever people around them tend to outwit them and it is pure strength and stubbornness that propels the Bones forward through all the complications, the crimes and the occasional bout of misery. But, unlike Headlong, Theft never really gives in to that misery, the darkness of the noir genre. The subtitle of Carey’s novel is “A Love Story” and, in an oddly satisfying way, it is, in fact, a love story. The love interest here is Marlene, an art connoisseur who’s married to the son of the widow of a famous mid-century artist. In the time-frame of the book, the artist (Leibovitz) is long dead, so is his widow Dominique. Her son, Oliver, has inherited precious little, but one important thing he does own: the right to authorize Leibovitz pictures. He has the right to say which picture is a ‘real Leibovitz’ and which isn’t. The twist is this: Dominique proceeded, immediately after her husband’s death, to hide unfinished canvases, and doctored them later on to make them more expensive. Marlene, an ambitious but provincial woman with a criminal record, refined Dominique’s methods and acquired connections to art dealers all over the globe.

She meets the Bones when she visits the countryside to try and steal a Leibovitz original from one of the Bones’ neighbors. A nimble weaver of intrigues and tricks, she quickly draws the Bones into her machinations, seducing both of them: Michael sexually and Hugh emotionally. As she drags them into her plans, plans that finally result in murder, we can’t help but be fascinated by this amazing woman. Like the pudding thieves, her resources seem endless, her energy and dedication to the task is undeniable. Marlene is not a criminal who happens to do art scams: after decades of doing what she does, she has become a lover of art and an expert not just of the work of Leibovitz, but of modern art in general. Marlene is a self-made woman, an incredibly strong female character and while both narrators have limitations and weaknesses, fixed and slowed down by the narrative attention and tasks, Marlene glides through the story, stronger, and far more magnificent than either of the brothers.

On the one hand, Theft belongs to books like William Gaddis’ momentous The Recognitions. Its treatment of art and originality is rather similarly inspired and strong. There are similarities, too, to noir art tales like Headlong. But the heart of the book is staggeringly different from either of the book. These elements are additional elements on a dish that has a very peculiar, unique taste, because, when you get down to it, the Bones brothers, simple, and successful due to sheer patience and endurance finally seem to represent Australians. Not because Australians are necessarily simple or patient or stubborn, but because at the end, their art is shown to endure. It doesn’t triumph, it doesn’t vanquish other art, but it is equal to other cultural productions. In a way the book mellows out at the end. The first half throws ideas, references and places at us, but as soon as we catch our breath and have caught up with the book, it kind of peters out, but not in a bad way. Peter Carey wrote a book with an Australian story, with Australian means and references, but it’s a book that takes place all over the world, a world that accepts the odd antipodean couple into their midst.

The book (published in 2006) is set in the 1980s, and this historical purview, this gesture towards the archival dimension suggests a broader significance of the story. How far off the mark would it be to read this book, in a way the story of a convict redeeming himself through his own hard, original work, as a metaphor for the rise of the Australian nation? That may be going too far, I don’t know, but fact is, the book’s power is such that this kind of reading might just be possible. Peter Carey is an amazing novelist, if this book is any indication. With a frightful ease he weaves different, disparate threads together to weave a distinctly Australian story that has meaning and relevance for all his readers, and his prose is never less than superb and controlled. Read this book.


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Oh yeah? Yeah!

“Ellis” of The Barbaric Document fails to understand something.

Atwood is well known as an outspoken campaigner for human rights, the environment and social justice

gushed Green MP Caroline Lucas in last Saturday’s Guardian.

Oh yeah?

Neither the Tel Aviv University that developed the DIME bombs used against civilians in Gaza, nor the state of Israel whose commitment to cultural openness does not include allowing Atwood’s books into Gaza, were taken to task, but the letter campaign asking her to refuse the prize was the target of her moral outrage. How noble!

The answer to the question in the middle is: oh yeah. Follow Ellis’ links and you end up on the homepages of people who want to abolish Israel, who want an Arab state to take its place. Thankfully neither Atwood nor Ghosh ceded to their pressure. Atwood’s own statements, which I only found on a page I will not link to, are remarkably clear-headed, careful and nuanced. They show a moral writer who has not ceded to today’s hot climate of fanaticism. The same writer you also find in her marvelous novels and good poems, which I fully recommend to any and all of you.

démystification mystificatrice

Il faudrait interdire les bios d’écrivains. Rien de bon ne peut en surgir. C’est un parasitage en règle de l’œuvre, une démystification mystificatrice, une supercherie, un dévoilement du voile de l’artifice. Une horreur.

Je mens.

Je mens parce que. Parce que eh bien parce que la biographie de B. S. Johnson par Jonathan Coe est très bonne et même très bizarre. Mais je lui en veux : elle m’a fait voir des choses que je ne voulais pas voir, aussi bien sur Johnson que sur mon moi de lecteur.

Thus starts François Monti’s fantastic review of Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s really excellent bio of the grand B.S: Johnson. All three of them are heartily recommended, The biography, the extraordinary work of B.S. Johnson and the review by M. Monti, a member of the Fric Frac Club, one of the very best literary resources on the interwebs, in any language.

Heaven is not like flying or swimming

I’ve spent quite some time with this poem today. Isn’t it marvelous?

Elizabeth Bishop: Seascape

This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels,
flying high as they want and as far as they want sidewise
in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections;
the whole region, from the highest heron
down to the weightless mangrove island
with bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings
like illumination in silver,
and down to the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots
and the beautiful pea-green back-pasture
where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wildflower
in an ornamental spray of spray;
this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope:
it does look like heaven.
But a skeletal lighthouse standing there
in black and white clerical dress,
who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,
that that is why the shallow water is so warm,
and he knows that heaven is not like this.
Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare
and when it gets dark he will remember something
strongly worded to say on the subject.

Mark Millar: Kick-Ass / Wanted

Millar, Mark; JG Jones, Paul Mounts (2008), Wanted, Top Cow
ISBN 9781582404974

Millar, Mark; John Romita Jr. et al. (2010), Kick-Ass, Titan Books
ISBN 9781848565357

This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that I confess my admiration for Mark Millar’s work. I consider Millar’s books to be among the best published in comics these days, although at least half that admiration is owed to his artists. His comics have pencils by major artists as J.G. Jones (Wanted), Brian Hitch (The Ultimates) and John Romita Jr. (Kick-Ass). I try to read as much of his work as possible, even when, as in Ultimate X-Men, it appears to be slightly sub-par. In books like Kick-Ass or Wanted, it isn’t. Mark Millar is known to publicly overemphasize his importance and brilliance, but sometimes, his material just works perfectly. On the other hand, Millar keeps bothering me in different ways. In comics, the fact that every character and action comes with its visual representation, the fact, too, that you can’t bury essentials in pages of text, can create problematic depictions of various issues. Many comics touch upon some of these issues,, and Millar is no exception. However, while a lightweight series like Y: The Last Man provides a quietly reactionary soap opera, Mark Millar, clearly enjoying his role as provocative writer, dishes up a densely narrated drama in his books, where all the elements are so well posited and constructed that they heighten the importance of each individual element, including the troubling ones. The Ultimates, for example, is a clever and sparsely told disquisition about military power and its relationship to basic elements of culture, from the treatment of women, to chauvinism, racism and much more. Every character, every line, every panel in the comic seems to be designed to work that angle. The Ultimates is almost flawlessly executed.

Both great writers like Grant Morrison and bad ones like Jeph Loeb tend to use the serial nature of mainstream comics to write expansive, associative work. There’s a line threaded through a series of books like Morrison’s fantastic run on the New X-Men, but images and characters tend to touch on many issues and moods. In comparison, Millar is uncommonly obsessed with the same topics and ideas within one book or one run. Although Millar’s run on the Ultimate X-Men pales beside Morrison’s work with more or less the same characters (more in a few weeks on this blog), it’s still strong, and most of all: it’s a taut, concentrated genre exercise. Millar reconstructs the X-Men from the bottom up, he re-introduces them and their themes for a new audience; in their case it makes for a certain dullness, because we know the X-Men by now, we’re familiar with their themes. Additionally, his X-Men work was largely penciled by Adam Kubert, who, despite his fame, is clearly not a very good fit. Millar, as the X-Men stories, or, to an extent, his work with the Fantastic Four has shown, is a writer with a limited palette. He’s excellent in what he does best, but remove a few of the variables, or change them, and his work can quickly seem dull and uninteresting. But if the artist, the material and the setting is right, as in the aforementioned Ultimates, his writing is incredible: it’s hard to deny the perfection of The Ultimates. On the other hand, two of his more original graphic novels, Wanted and Kick-Ass, seem very divisive. In my opinion, both of these books compare well to the best ‘regular’ literature I’ve read this year, but their highly violent content has not gone over very well with all their readers.

Kick-Ass is especially violent, both in terms of actual, depicted violence, and in terms of emotional violence. It’s a borderline-surreal tale that seems to be premised on the idea of what super heroes would look like ‘in the real world’, but, as any closer look will immediately reveal, is anything but that kind of book. Kick-Ass and Wanted are books soaked with decades of superhero (or supervillain) history. Not just the history that surfaces in explicit and implicit references to canonical works, but the whole idea of superhero comics, their iconic and intellectual function in our cultures. Not even Morrison is so obsessed with the minutiae of comics and comics references alone. Millar’s books seem to have soaked up heaps and heaps of comics and internalized them, and seem to develop their ideas further and further. Millar’s work on The Authority is similar to The Ultimates, grappling with similar themes, but it lacks the incredible polish and concentration of the later work. Plot-lines and concepts seem to complete or prolong questions raised in the earlier work. In the same way, Kick-Ass, while not a regular superhero comic, is a continuation of an earlier Millar book, and is best read in that context, I think. That earlier book is Wanted, published in 6 issues between 2003 and 2004. Wanted is the story of Wesley Gibson, a frustrated young white man, who finds out his father was an extremely talented killer and takes up with a gang of super-villains. Given that the main character is a super-villain-in-waiting, its not surprising that the comic deals with hate a lot. The narrator is the protagonist, who, in the fourth panel, complains that he’s “taking shit from my African American boss”.

The word “boss” is helpfully printed in bold to point out Wesley’s incredulity at having to take flak from someone who is not as nicely white as he is. This line of thinking continues throughout the comic, which glories in mass shootings, rape and other distasteful actions. Apart from calling him a villain, the book never once breaks through that mood, effectively providing an appraising account of one of the least likable characters in fiction. At the end of the book, Wesley turns even on the readers of the comic, accusing them of weakness. The penultimate panel has, however, a striking image. While telling us that we’re “going to close this book and buy something else to fill that big, empty hole [they]’ve created in [our] life”, we see the hand of a customer buying a couple of comics. One of them is an issue of Wanted. I’d argue that that image short-circuits the book, inviting us to read it in terms of comics and iconicity. J.G. Jones’ clear and highly detailed art creates an extremely realistic world that houses an fantastical story. The contrast between the narrative, characters, the voices, and the visual representation of them turns a ratio upside down that tends to dominate graphic novels. If we take, for instance, Vaughan and Guerra’s Y: The Last Man, we find a regular Science Fiction story, clearly intent upon finding out “what would really happen” if all men died, and “what really could have caused it”. Vaughan, as in much else of his work, strains to find a believable voice, and dialogue that sounds “real”.

Pia Guerra’s pencils, in contrast, while depicting a realistic setting, indulge in iconicity. Every depiction of humans is extremely idealized and refers not to a sketch of an actual person (however they were actually created) but to a culturally developed idea of a shape. The female form, the depiction of pregnant women, of militant women, of black women, all the details of the eponymous man: this is superhero comics material, just without the spandex. JG Jones’ far more sophisticated work aims for more realism while reflecting a discussion of issues of iconicity in countless details of the depiction of the characters. Jones’ art is so detailed it slows the story down, scattering it into a series of tableaux. There is a tension between the superhero aspects, like the glossy poses that many of the uber-cool villains assume, or the odd, surreal accessoires they wear, and the wrinkly realism of the artwork itself. The results are intriguing, and absolutely stunning. While none of this is Millar’s art, he did write the content for Jones to fill in, and the very choice of Jones (who is, after all, famous for his style, cf. Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman run) as artist was inspired. In a book like Wanted, which, as I pointed out, thrives off the kind of tensions that mark J.G. Jones work, nothing seems off. Everything here fits like a glove. The problem with this is, from a reader’s perspective, that it naturally reinforces any troubling issues raised in Millar’s script. However, Wesley is such an exuberantly bigoted character that the book makes more sense in a reading that assumes it to be a satire, than a reading that takes the opinions and ideology of its characters at face values. It’s a satire, and a sharp-tongued one at that, drawing on more than just media criticism. In a time-honored comics tradition, from the Skrulls to Morrison’s and Moore’s masterpieces, it questions conventional narratives and perceptions.

There is still more to it, though. The criticism it contains isn’t really new or spectacular, following lines established by the comics I mentioned and movies such as Natural Born Killers. Millar’s dense and focused way of telling and constructing his story is fairly rare, however. Additionally, at least for me, it’s hard now to disregard Kick-Ass when reading and commenting upon Wanted, which is much enhanced when assuming that it is part of a narrative or intellectual trajectory that includes Kick-Ass. On a surface level, the two books couldn’t be more different. Kick-Ass‘ art is almost the exact opposite of Jones’. While Jones did both pencils and inks in Wanted, John Romita Jr. only did the pencils in Kick-Ass. Its inks are handled by Tom Palmer, and one feels an odd disconnect here. This is worth noting, since Palmer is one of the most legendary inkers in the business today. His inks in Byrne’s X-Men run (although I’m not partial to Byrne’s pencils) are nothing short of stunning, for example, and his influence in the industry is hard to overestimate. But in Kick-Ass, his work and Romita Jr.’s are a bad fit. The point is that J.G .Jones’ art is of a piece and hits you straight in the face. It overwhelms you, lets you examine the world of Wanted in full dark detail. None of that here. It’s not just the inks, however. Romita Jr.’s art is low on details, and the few panels that contain many can seem almost sloppily done. In Romita Jr.’s art, objects and people merge, and objects in different states of matter (liquids, gases, solids) start to resemble one another. The effect is both disconcerting and cartoonish. So, on the level of the art, you have a focused, detailed, fully coherent book, and a book where the different elements don’t quite fit, where the art in general is always slightly out of focus. But the connection is, of course Millar. The two novels’ art is similar in the sense of perfectly fitting the writing. The changes in the art correspond directly to the changes in the narrative.

Instead of reveling in super-villains, Kick-Ass looks at super-heroes. Wanted‘s super-villains were created as amalgams of more traditional villains, with references hidden in slogans, details in costume or bearing. The villainy was established by creating a vile protagonist, and making his fellow super-villains even worse. The writing told us what to look for, and the art scattered hints and clues all over the gorgeous pages. Kick-Ass is different. It’s reference to comic antecedents is far more specific and less playful. It doesn’t allow us to distance ourselves from the writing and its implications. A few lines earlier, I called some of Wanted‘s panels “tableaux” – the implied act of leaning back and contemplating a panel or a whole page, this doesn’t quite work for Kick-Ass. The art doesn’t ask you to stop and look, instead its completely immersive, attracts you into its haze of idealism, fear, anxiety and hate. Hate is one of the things that you’ll notice very early on. The narrator doesn’t vocalise his prejudice quite like Wesley, but the art draws your attention to a similar mind-set. In Wanted, the narration needed to be fueled by hate, because the art, due to its detailed realism, suggested impartiality, showing things as they were. Romita Jr.’s art doesn’t even pretend to be impartial. Instead you get sucked into the maelstrom of the protagonist’s teenage mind from the very first panel. Like Wesley, the eponymous Kick-Ass (his mild-mannered name is Dave) moderates the first few panels, telling us what we’re seeing. Unlike Wesley, he abandons narration rather quickly. He doesn’t need to keep it up, however, because the art is clearly doing it for him now. Hate is less expressed and more implied. For instance by the fact that all the villains of the book, and I do mean one hundred percent, are non-white. Latinos, African-Americans, Italian-Americans (for the whiteness of Italian- and Irish-Americans I recommend reading select works of Whiteness Studies (Roediger and others)). The protagonist, on the other hand, is blond. What’s more, he’s ethnically unmarked. As in his best work, Millar uses everything to full effect. We’re never in doubt about the ethnicity of people in the book. Language, color, clothes, all adds to the basic impression: a white blond boy, constantly victimized at school, and, by extension, in his world as well, has enough and fights crime.

Fighting crime in Kick-Ass means fighting all the ethnically marked rabble. There is a plethora of critical writing on superhero comics that addresses this question of marked and unmarked actors, and the use and import of wearing a costume, as well as the racial and sexual fault-lines in a tradition that focused on and even expanded notions of masculinity and manliness. Dave is a perfect representation of the fear and anxiety of white males in this new century, afraid to lose privileges and calling frequently for an emancipation for men and accusing people of being racist towards white people. Phenomena like the American Tea Party movement are symptoms of that growing feeling of being threatened by a wave of otherness. And Dave is fighting back. Brilliantly, Millar creates an ambiguous motivation for his protagonist. Dave is beset both by local and global fears, and the local fears are mostly connected to his being a teenager and grappling with the process of growing up. There isn’t enough bile or strength in him to call the adults out, calling them ‘phoneys’. Instead he retreats first into his imagination, and then into violence. In his imagination, as a scrawny comic geek, he learns the symbolic language of comic which works largely through displacement and metaphorical representation. The rhetorical flourishes of right wing attacks, constructing scapegoats, using ideas of purity and evil, Dave has learned all this from comics, in short: he’s perfectly equipped to be a small hateful thug with ideals. There isn’t a patchwork of allusions and references here. There is just one big paradigm in Kick-Ass: it’s Batman. Mostly Frank Miller’s Batman, but Millar uses small details that suggest other Batman-related characters, too. Dave corresponds in many details to the Batman in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. The trajectory, from the unsuccessful first bout with criminals which ends with the superheroes-in-waiting bleeding profusely, to the successful second fight and the subsequent establishment, is similar, but what’s more important is that the criminals and the heroes conform to a normal/other dichotomy.

The other canonical Miller text on Batman relevant here is his masterful The Dark Knight Returns. In this book, Batman has turned into a hateful muscled old man, disdainful of political correctness and leniency towards criminals, and largely dismissive of democracy. In Kick-Ass, Millar creates the characters of Hit Girl and Big Daddy to reflect that side of being Batman. Like the Cassandra Cain-incarnation of Batgirl, Hit Girl was trained by her father (as Cassandra was trained by hers) to become an excellent killer at a very young age. The rigorous and excessive training has produced a killing machine without many social skills. Without even blinking, Hit Girl slices through hordes of criminals. Neither she nor her father care whether someone is actually guilty of a crime. Being a criminal means being guilty by association. So they kill not just a drug dealer, but also his mistress and all his friends. The utter disdain for human lives and the violent, bracing righteousness connect these two to Miller’s old Batman. Between David, Hit Girl and Big Daddy, Millar has gathered many of the facets of Gotham’s crime-fighter. He has picked up on Miller’s reading of the character as a reactionary, fascist madman, and made a book that reflects that attitude. There is no lee-way in Kick-Ass that would allow for a critical or satiric reading. On the contrary: Mark Millar has, as he does in the best of his books, created an incredibly focused book where every detail is put in the service of one idea. Here it’s right wing hatred. Not criticism of it, but depiction of it, with a clarity and assiduity that makes it almost an anatomy of that attitude. Nothing here is extraneous, everything, the art, dialogue, and the story is extremely focused on one thing and one thing only. In fact, I think that Kick-Ass might well be his best book, because despite the strengths of his other work, this one might just be the most focused and densely told of all his tales.

This is not to deny that his method has its problems. Depicting hate and violence, without even attempting to contain or criticize it, is a risky business and just as The Dark Knight Returns affirms its protagonist’s reactionary values, so does Kick-Ass provide an apology for the dark dreams of Dave. In his review of Haneke’s US remake of Haneke’s own Funny Games, New York Times critic A.O. Scott writes: “voyeuristic masses are implicated in the gruesome spectacle of senseless cruelty. Are we, though? What if the guilt trip never takes off? Or, even worse, what if the American audience, cretins that we are, were to embrace Mr. Haneke’s vision not for its moral stringency but for the thrill of, say, watching Ms. Watts, bound at the ankles and wrists, hop around in her underwear? Who will be implicated then?” This moral ambiguity is characteristic for much of Millar’s work, and while reading him is always an awesome experience, his readers may feel increasingly uneasy. The divide between being a moral writer and an excellent craftsman is not often as wide as it is in Millar’s case. Millar’s work is often problematic and often difficult to stomach, and if we look at the way his oeuvre develops, it seems that there is much more to come. His clean work with the Ultimate X-Men eventually lead to the fascist ambiguities of Civil War, his playful game with hate and villainy in Wanted turned into unfettered racism and violence in Kick-Ass. I am both excited and afraid of what’s to come next from Mark Millar’s busy pen.


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The bleak sunshine shrieks its chipped music

Allen Tate: Death Of Little Boys

When little boys grown patient at last, weary,
Surrender their eyes immeasurably to the night,
The event will rage terrific as the sea;
Their bodies fill a crumbling room with light.

Then you will touch at the bedside, torn in two,
Gold curls now deftly intricate with gray
As the windowpane extends a fear to you
From one peeled aster drenched with the wind all day.

And over his chest the covers in the ultimate dream
Will mount to the teeth, ascend the eyes, press back
The locks while round his sturdy belly gleam
Suspended breaths, white spars above the wreck:

Till all the guests, come in to look, turn down
Their palms, and delirium assails the cliff
Of Norway where you ponder, and your little town
Reels like a sailor drunk in a rotten skiff.

The bleak sunshine shrieks its chipped music then
Out to the milkweed amid the fields of wheat.
There is a calm for you where men and women
Unroll the chill precision of moving feet.

Allen Tate is, these days, an enormously underrated poet. If you look at this year’s big literature awards and look at the poetry shortlist, chances are, most (in some cases: all) the poets there are a far cry from Tate’s poetic sensibility. Not to mention Tate’s quality, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. If you have any interest at all in formal poetry, you cannot, you absolutely cannot miss Allen Tate’s Collected Poems 1919-1976, reprinted by FSG. A short but deeply, deeply impressive books. Some of the poems there are among the best written during the past century, for example The Swimmers. Read Tate. He’s a marvelous, tremendously important poet.

Superheroes instantly make a story more interesting

Mark Millar (whose work I admire) is infamous for his grandiose and less than brilliant interviews. This odd interview in The A.V. Club is no exception:

I just think adding superheroes to something instantly makes it more interesting. I have a friend who says every movie should either be a Spider-Man movie, or at least have Spider-Man in it. [Laughs.] I thought it was such a brilliant quote. It kind of is true, in a weird way. Have you watched a low-budget British movie, you know, about a guy who’s unemployed trying to make ends meet, and how does he feed his family now that the coal mine’s closed? If you suddenly had Spider-Man in it, you’d be a little more interested. [Laughs.] If that guy had super powers or a costume or something. On some craft level, I think there’s an element of truth to that. I just find that superheroes instantly make a story more interesting.

Cracking the shell of the world

The artist’s problem is to make life show itself. Homer, Aeschylus, Vergil, Shakespeare – a great deal of Western art has made life show itself by dramatizing crisis and disaster. (…) Again and again, insight is dramatized by showing the conflict between what is ordinarily seen, ordinarily understood, and what is experienced as real. Cracking the shell of the world; or finding that teh shell is cracking under you. The unrealizable ideal is to write as if the earth opened and spoke. I think that if the earth did speak she would espouse no one set of values, affectations, meanings, that everything embraced would also somehow be annihilated and denied.

this is from Frank Bidart’s stupendous book In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90 (more precisely, from an appended interview with Bidart) Bishop has praised Bidart’s first volume, and almost every poem in this book is very good, some are really great. One of the very best living poets.

Tell me I’m an idiot

Today a commenter on my blog, in response to my review of Hwang Sok-Yong’s “The Guest”, wrote

Did you really read this book? The christian characters in the story are protestants, not catholics, and this has a very important significance in the korean historical context.

THis is an exceedingly stupid mistake to make, and a huge one at that. I have not, I think, made mistakes of a similar magnitude before, but since I write most of my reviews from notes, with the books not at hand and my poor memory as sole guide, I am prone to make mistakes like that.

So here goes: if I’m being an idiot in my reviews, please tell me. You win…something. I’m asking this because I know that some people have read the review in question and read the reviewed book. I would really appreciate a head-up next time. I’m an idiot. I need your help.

For really helpful comments I offer used books. Good ones, too.

As for this review, I’m waiting for my sister to return me my copy and I will then rewrite the whole review. Until then, it stays, shameful as it is.

J.P. Donleavy: The Ginger Man

Donleavy, J. P. (2001), The Ginger Man, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-3795-1

J.P. Donleavy is an excellent writer, but a comparatively badly known one. His extraordinary early novels, published in rapid succession in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, received a moderate (but decent) amount of attention when they came out, but there has been precious little of that attention in the decades since. Unlike other writers of with a similarly miserable quality/attention-ratio, there has been no Donleavy revival. With Johnny Depp tipped for taking the lead role in a movie adaptation of one of his novels, that could change, though. The book (that may or may not be filmed) is The Ginger Man, Donleavy’s debut, and still his most famous novel. The Ginger Man is a major achievement, not just one of the best books I read this year, but one of the best American novels I’ve ever read, period. The plain facts are these: in The Ginger Man, Donleavy manages to create a book that uses and comments on the music and language of a literary tradition, all while inventing a very original, singular use of language. His originality is not jarring, not difficult. On the contrary, reading The Ginger Man is like watching a virtuoso have fun with the tools of his trade but with the added pleasure of being immersed in an intoxicating narrative stream. A funny, wild obsession with death and life, it’s both clever and stirring, and should be a staple at universities as well as on the shelves of avid readers. The fact that it’s neither is disappointing, and should be corrected as soon as possible. Buy this book and, if you have the opportunity, write about it. In the trajectory of American canonical prose, Donleavy is a singular writer whose role and importance has yet to be fully recognized. But most of all: read it, read it. It may fill a gap in you that you didn’t know you had, and its protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield, will never again leave your imagination.

I’ll just say it: in the character of Sebastian Dangerfield, John Patrick Donleavy has created one of the most stunning characters in modern fiction. Donleavy draws on many sources, voices and registers, but the fact of the matter is that Dangerfield is at once a bitter everyman, das ewig Männliche, so to say, and a finely tuned individual character. Dangerfield’s choices, his attitude, they distinguish him from characters that might seem similar, such as Henry Miller’s scabrous portfolio of protagonists. He’s a multifaceted character, who invites identification, derision, humor, sadness and revulsion. Despite the sheen of realism on his actions, he seems to have fallen out of time: Dangerfield is not a historical character, representing a time long gone, nor is he properly of his time, which would be the 1950s. Actually, The Ginger Man was published in London and Paris in 1955, but not until 1965 has Donleavy seen a publication of an unexpurgated version of his marvelous novel in the United States. That delay mirrors in a way two levels within the novel, its overtly Irish setting, and its American sensibility, if one can call it that; two layers which seem to come naturally to a writer like Donleavy, an American who has lived most of his writing life in Ireland, an American with Irish roots to boot. It may be that specific genealogical mixture that creates the high level of believability in the book. Notwithstanding the fact that The Ginger Man is highly artificial, Donleavy appears to completely inhabit his material. I already mentioned the musicality of the book, and reading The Ginger Man, we have the impression of a folk or blues singer, reaching deep into tradition, into the voluble core of culture to extract an essence that he then turns into his art.

Sebastian Dangerfield, his wife, mistresses and friends, appear to be realistic creations, faithful to observed and artistically cleared reality. The plot of The Ginger Man is easily enough summarized. Dangerfield, an American, is, at the beginning, a married man, living with his English wife Marion, whom he married for her impressive bosom and her fashionably bucked teeth, in a squalid apartment. The fact that the house they live in is adjacent to an abyss (and slowly dropping into it) might even be read as a minor symbolical fancy. Subsequently, the small family will move into two other houses, eventually even taking in a boarder, until Marion leaves her insufferable husband. Dangerfield is a horrible husband to have: he sleeps with every woman that would have him, is out drinking almost every night, and incurs debts in order to finance his vices. He doesn’t work, in fact, he expresses horror at the idea of working regularly. Instead, his small family lives off the small check from the G.I. Bill that arrives weekly; what’s more, Dangerfield’s father is rich, and Sebastian hopes for a substantial inheritance that will wipe out all his debts and allow him to live comfortably. Marion is reticent, no match for Dangerfield’s vigorous libido and his gluttonous ways, and it’s not until the last third of the book that Dangerfield takes up with a woman who is just as mad and wild as he is, he, “the wild / Ginger Man.” All this seems straightforward enough, but it’s hard, really, to describe the book without giving away the symbolic and metaphorical underpinnings of a great many aspects of the novel, or of its use of cultural and literary cliché. In fact, this reader had the impression that every seemingly realistic aspect of The Ginger Man could be footnoted and referenced.

Donleavy, born in 1929, is, ultimately, a writer of exile, greedy for the voice and feel of his new Irish home, with the eye and ear of a poet or musician. He writes with the heart of an exile, lacing his symphony of sex, violence and religion with just enough distance, thinking and commentary. See, overall, I think, there’s a tension in The Ginger Man between form, or maybe artifice, on the one hand, and the basic music of the book on the other. It’s in his role as a novelist, that Donleavy seems to me a very American writer, best read in a group with writers such as Robert Coover or John Barth rather than with writers such as James Joyce or Joyce Cary, although the voice in The Ginger Man owes a lot to the Joycean model. Donleavy navigates between these poles with such a deftness of hand and sureness of mind that it’s actually rather stunning that The Ginger Man could be his (or anyone’s) debut novel. It’s so fully formed, finished and powerful an achievement that many writers would be hard pressed to produce anything of comparable quality in their whole life. The most impressive and stunning aspect of The Ginger Man is its language. I would argue that J.P. Donleavy is first and foremost a creator of language. Ideas, characters, references, structure, they are all second to the actual language employed by this extraordinary writer. Or rather: his control and use of language is such that it creates the web of ideas and especially the character of Sebastian Dangerfield as we find it in the pages of The Ginger Man. The impoverished ideas (if we can even call them that) of recent critics such as David Shields would be blunt and useless tools when dealing with a writer and a book like this.

The Ginger Man, though the work of an American writer, is peppered with English and Irish phrases, mimicking the melodies of both languages, and, as with almost all its details, reflects its artful use of dialect, linguistic variation and slang in the plot. Dangerfield is a classic ne’er-do-well, up to his ears in debt, but constantly racking up new debts and liabilities. His puzzling success in doing so, his apparent ability to always continue whatever nocent habit he happens to have acquired, are shown, in the book, to be only vaguely connected to his winning personality or his rhetorical skills. Instead, it’s his versatile use of various dialects of English, whether Irish English, RP/Queen’s English or American English, Dangerfield makes able and ample use of them all, depending on what effect he hopes to achieve. We as readers follow his tongue down these wild alleyways, spellbound by his music as his various lovers are, and the merchants, barmen, and landlords, of course. But the actual dialogue isn’t even the best or most fascinating aspect of Donleavy’s use of language. The narration is sometimes third person, sometimes first person, but it’s always personal, focusing on Dangerfield, channeling his voice. Donleavy stretches and shortens syntax at will, littering his writing with ellipses, skillfully controlling speed and melody of the story that is being told. At times we find almost a Joycean stream of consciousness, as actions, observations and emotions vie with each other in the bubbling cauldron of Dangerfield’s story. This invokes an immediacy that underlines the perennial hurry, the progressive push that is evidenced in Dangerfield’s character. Whereas Joyce’s work used that same intimacy and immediacy, gained through its use of language, to make a meaningful observations about day-to-day life and its mythical underpinnings, Donleavy’s interests lie elsewhere.

The forward thrust of the language pushes through the chronotopical boundaries of modernism, although, as a novel, the book is closed, rounded, a text that is as much about beginnings as it is about endings. Like many old texts, in the manner, for example, of Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, Donleavy incorporates small poems within the text or, more often, at the end of a chapter. These small poems are, like Bashō’s, dense little bullets of meaning, and are part of his overarching formal and intellectual structure of the novel. They provide both a link to the modernists, as well as to the Beat movement that was influenced by many Asian poets, including Bashō. They also create a distance between The Ginger Man and Joyce’s Ulysses. While Joyce, in the end, passed up the opportunity to name his chapters in the printed text, and added the famous table of symbols and references that structure his novel not until after publication later, Donleavy’s text explicitly insists upon its artificial nature. The inserted poems and letters as well as the recurring poetically distant paragraphs ask the book’s reader to see the book more as an object: it is this method that makes the stream of consciousness visible. Instead of a retread of Joycean language, it uses it as Joycean language, as a connection between the Irish setting and the ‘Irish style’. It is an artfully struck note that Donleavy knew would resonate with his readers’ memories of Joyce, but at the same time, he never limits the Joycean register, boxes it in or restricts it in any way. There is no attempt to sunder the reality of Dublin (which feels very real and is probably accurately described) from the literately mirrored images of Dublin.

Instead, Donleavy lets all these aspects coexist, as several worlds within the same book. The book doesn’t force its reader to decide upon any one reading, any specific, ‘true’ frame. This postmodern ambiguity is also evident in the images and symbols used and evoked in the novel. The Ginger Man carries associations to the gingerbread man from the fairy tales (chased by a hungry crowd of peasants and animals, escaping them all, only to be, woefully, eaten by the fox), as well as, loosely, to the figure of Jesus Christ (after all, Dangerfield frequently assumes the pose of savior, and his seduction of women often takes the form, almost, of a conversion), and to various traditions and tropes of satire. Between the surreal, fantastical setting of fairy tales and the strict, harshly melodious structure of the Catechism, Donleavy spins a tale that seems to aim for radicalism, for an obscene modernity, but is actually far more inclusive. Yes, The Ginger Man is a satiric work, taking its cue (and the protagonist’s hair color) from such antecedents as Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where it says that “[i]t is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.” In its depictions of the material limitations on life in Ireland, its descriptions of the strictures and sorrows that poverty means for those who suffer from it, Donleavy uses the sharpness and precision of image and metaphor that distinguishes most acute satire, but as a whole the novel lacks the intellectual discipline or the focus of good satire. Instead, satire turns out to be yet another of the many notes woven into in the musical tapestry of The Ginger Man.

It is impossible to do justice to the many complexities of The Ginger Man, but I should mention the morality or immorality of the novel, since it’s not an unimportant aspect of a novel that has been banned for immorality and that still has to stave off accusations of immorality. Sebastian Dangerfield is an awful person. He abuses his women, is disloyal and unfaithful to all his friends and all the women he sleeps with in the book. And there is not a shred of regret in him, not an ounce of repentance. Dangerfield just continues on and on and on. The novel makes no attempt to stop him, explain him or disapprove of him. In fact, a case of abuse at the end turns a difficult situation in his favor, and overall, he’s maddeningly successful. It is to the use of religion that we must look to make sense of this, I think. Ireland, which “has a great capacity for hatred” is “not a place for women”, a character exclaims. In his sexual exploits, Dangerfield makes use of established patterns of behavior of the people around him. Just as he knows when to appear American and when Irish, so he can manipulate women by deciding upon the correct use of force. The society he lives in is one that repels him, alienates him and the cold application of implicit rules is his reaction to that society. We don’t have to like him, but his hurt and harried soul is something that many people will recognize in their own heart.

Dangerfield is frequently beset by a nostalgic yearning for the rural landscapes of his home, which come close to epiphanies, causing him to mutter “God must be female”. At one point he says about Ireland “this country is foreign to me.” He wouldn’t, however, every really return home, because home is his father’s country. The alienation he feels is the conflict with a male-oriented culture, that he can’t escape within or without his self. The language slows down, becomes careful, tender and languorous only (but not always) when describing sexual acts or other acts of intimacy with women. There isn’t an all-out attack on fathers in the book, after all, Dangerfield is not only a father himself, but an alpha male to boot. On the level of language and reference, too, this is not the modernist impulse of ‘making it new’, with the Freudian impulses described in Harold Bloom’s only good book; its attitude towards patriarchy is similar to the one that manifested itself in canonical American prose works such as Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor or Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father. That last book is maybe the most relevant comparison. The alienation Dangerfield feels isn’t one between the world and him, it’s caused by the fact that he represents much of the world outside within him, and its dying off is mirrored in his own prolonged process of dying. In one of the best of these small poems he tells us: “my heart / twisted / with dying”. With his life at stake, its a small wonder that he flees into life, procreation, intoxication.

Hence, Donleavy’s irreverent, even blasphemous use of religious references is not a simple satiric attack on religion. It reflects rather an unease with a certain form of religion, because Dangerfield’s pursuit of happiness is strongly religious. The fear of death that permeates even the funniest pages in this hilarious novel is not a Freudian or existentialist fear. It is a religious fear, fueled by closeness of the Dionysian abyss. God isn’t dead, he’s a deus absconditus, an absent, a hidden God. In this reductive, but (I think) correct reading, form, and language become parts of ritual. This seems to be an oddly heavy note on which to end a review of a light, funny, wild novel, but the vastness, the rich nature of Donleavy’s spectacular debut invites readings like this. It is a book of countless treasures, but primarily, it provides a ride like few others can. If you trust me, read the book.


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