Lust drove men to greatness

Below, Marilyn Chin’s probably most anthologized poem. Chin is one of the most interesting contemporary American poets. I recommend specifically her 2002 collection Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

Marilyn Chin: How I Got That Name

an essay on assimilation

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse–for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn’t pronounce the “r.”
She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the “kitchen deity.”
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash–
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
in Piss River, Oregon,
with bootlegged Gucci cash.
Nobody dared question his integrity given
his nice, devout daughters
and his bright, industrious sons
as if filial piety were the standard
by which all earthly men are measured.


Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
how thrifty our sons!
How we’ve managed to fool the experts
in education, statistic and demography–
We’re not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.
Indeed, they can use us.
But the “Model Minority” is a tease.
We know you are watching now,
so we refuse to give you any!
Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!
The further west we go, we’ll hit east;
the deeper down we dig, we’ll find China.
History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach–
where life doesn’t hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a “bitch.”
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!


Then, one redolent spring morning
the Great Patriarch Chin
peered down from his kiosk in heaven
and saw that his descendants were ugly.
One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge
Another’s profile–long and knobbed as a gourd.
A third, the sad, brutish one
may never, never marry.
And I, his least favorite–
“not quite boiled, not quite cooked,”
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices–
too listless to fight for my people’s destiny.
“To kill without resistance is not slaughter”
says the proverb. So, I wait for imminent death.
The fact that this death is also metaphorical
is testament to my lethargy.


So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
granddaughter of Jack “the patriarch”
and the brooding Suilin Fong,
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
and G.G. Chin the infamous,
sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,
survived by everbody and forgotten by all.
She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry–
when one day heaven was unmerciful,
and a chasm opened where she stood.
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
it swallowed her whole.
She did not flinch nor writhe,
nor fret about the afterlife,
but stayed! Solid as wood, happily
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
by all that was lavished upon her
and all that was taken away!

Intimacy / is like hard liquor.

J.V. Cunningham: Interview With Doctor Drink

I have a fifth of therapy
In the house, and transference there.
Doctor, there’s not much wrong with me,
Only a sick rattlesnake somewhere

In the house, if it be there at all,
But the lithe mouth is coiled. The shapes
Of door and window move. I call.
What is it that pulls down the drapes?

Disheveled and exposed? Your rye
Twists in my throat: intimacy
Is like hard liquor. Who but I
Coil there and squat, and pay your fee?

This is the second poem from the sequence “Doctor Drink” (1950). It’s taken from the marvelously edited The Poems of J.V. Cunningham. It’s a slim book that contains all of Cunningham’s poems and they are all amazing. Cunningham is one of the best poets of his time, and yet not nearly well enough known.

Paul Auster: Sunset Park

Auster, Paul (2010), Sunset Park, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-25878-9

Given the fact that I have written a few unflattering reviews of Paul Auster novels, in particular of The Brooklyn Follies, In The Country of Last Things and Invisible, I was personally quite surprised that it was still possible for any new book by the graying Brooklynite to disappoint me. In his last novel, Invisible, though up to his usual tricks, Auster managed to wring some new and interesting effects from his writing, thus producing his best novel in a while. In some ways, it could be described as a return to form, especially after dismal showings such as Man in the Dark or Brooklyn Follies. If a return to form was, indeed, a correct description, there’s no doubt that Sunset Park, his most recent novel, marks an immediate loss of said form. To repeat: it’s not just that this is a bad novel overall, it’s substandard even for an entry in Paul Auster’s severely underwhelming oeuvre. Sunset Park is, vaguely, the story of a college dropout, and his family, both his immediate family, and a kind of adopted or associated family of friends and acquaintances. Like much of his recent work, especially Travels in the Scriptorium, this novel is crammed with allusions to and echoes of books from better days; additionally, Auster uses other people’s work as a crutch for his narrative to work and to lend it depth. What power the book has is exclusively due to the way Auster makes use of texts like Beckett’s play Happy Days, and William Wyler’s movie The Best Years Of Our Lives. Between his old work, and the work of Beckett and Wyler, Auster hangs a wispy thin story, with forgettable and clichéd characters, and a pervasive melancholy reminiscent of the weakest of Philip Roth’s recent books. It’s an old man’s pessimistic look back at books he liked, books he wrote, a sentimental gaze into the abyss of age. Auster’s voice is so strong and distinctive in Sunset Park that we keep forgetting that the book’s protagonist is a 28 year old man, because the voice, outlook and resigned pathos that most marks this character is that of a man several decades his senior. If this voice wasn’t deadeningly dull, the incongruity could have given rise to interesting readings. On the other hand, this distinctive voice is the novel’s main selling point.

Dull it is, yet Auster seems additionally committed to giving the whole proceedings an air of creepiness by having his protagonist engage in anal sex with a very child-like looking minor. When Miles Heller, Sunset Park‘s central character, meets the girl, Pilar Sanchez, he thinks that

she was even younger than sixteen, just a girl, really, and a little girl at that, a small, adolescent girl wearing wearing tight, cut-off shorts, sandals and a skimpy halter top.

Granted, these are just appearances, since Miles met Pilar the month she turned seventeen, but that difference is a legal difference only. Not only does Miles see Pilar as a young girl, he also plays games with her that his father played with him, and the decision (suggested by Pilar) to not have vaginal intercourse is never framed in explicit terms like these. Instead, Pilar offers to have sex up the “funny hole” and not up the “mommy hole”, and

he has abided by her wishes, restricting all member penetration to her funny hole and putting nothing more than tongue and fingers in her mommy hole.

The whole affair is, from the start, clothed in terms of childhood, of paternal relations and the like. Miles teaches Pilar about the world, about literature and tells her stories about baseball. Miles is a man who matured prematurely, who left his own home before he would have needed to, and his paedophiliac attraction to Pilar clearly stems from this aborted childhood and the resulting feeling of being ensconced in exile. In some ways, his relationship to Pilar is a re-enactment of the relationship he had with his father. Yet there’s never even a shred of doubt that the two are engaged in a deeply intimate and sexual affair, one that eventually leads to a proposal of marriage. Miles knows that what he does it at least illegal, he has “qualms and inner hesitations”, and he is afraid “some riled-up busybody” could denounce him. Everybody else is fine with it, really, including Miles’ family, most of Pilar’s, and the few friends Miles manages to acquire in the course of Sunset Park. This is somewhat sordid, or, as I said: creepy, and yet there’s nothing gratuitous about it, since the book’s structure, which keeps repeating similar motifs and tropes, completely absorbs it. Readers not used to Auster’s brash non-committal attitude and his pervasive use of misogyny (cf. especially my reviews of The Brooklyn Follies and In The Country of Last Things) may be put off by it, yet since the book is very much geared towards Auster fans that’s not going to be a common problem.

Also, the affair with Pilar takes up comparably little space in the 300 page strong novel. After Miles is threatened with exposure, he leaves Miami (where he met Pilar) and moves, as is to be expected of an Auster novel, to Brooklyn, more specifically, to Sunset Park. In Auster’s work, Brooklyn has, long since, ceased being a real place, and has become a theater of Auster’s various selves, its streets, history and residents used as literary more than as topographical markers. There are multiple ways in which this, too, is the case in Sunset Park as well, most obvious in the fact that Miles puts his affair to the Latino girl on hold and moves to a neighborhood that is predominantly Hispanic. This distancing act, which for Auster is often part of a strategy that disowns commitment and putative ideals that might be part of the novel’s discourse, actually has a positive effect in Sunset Park, where it puts Miles and his creepiness at some remove from us and the author. That said, there are a lot of things that are at a remove from us as readers, mostly because as Auster gets older, he seems to draw more from his own work than from his imagination or thinking which wasn’t exactly bountiful to begin with. Now, though, Auster’s work reads like a catalogue of past Auster. Most of the similarities are, however, restrained to Miles Heller’s story. As we enter the book, we find Miles working a job that involves cleaning out abandoned houses, remove objects and trash from them. The description of the job, which extends over the first four pages, contains undoubtedly by far the best writing of the whole book, yet draws inspiration (or offers homage) to In The Country of Last Things (cue Baudrillard reference). Miles’ mind, adolescence and education, as its offered up to us, in turn, corresponds closely to almost any other male character of the same age Auster has ever written, to Moon Palace‘s Fogg, for example, but especially to The Brooklyn Follies‘ Tom. Sunset Park is like a museum of Auster artifacts, and since Auster has written a few decent books before and quite generally has been writing actively and intensely for decades now, Sunset Park doesn’t go under completely. Like the dullest of vampires, it feeds on the cardboard carcasses of Auster’s past fame, as Auster himself does.

For all that he borrows from his own work, however, this time he didn’t bother to come up with the clever structures that have almost become a trademark of his writing. Brazenly, he copied only what was easy enough to copy. Apart from the intertextual links and mirrors, the book is remarkably straightforward, yet if we’ve learned anything from Auster’s past work, it’s that he’s strongest whenever structure and tricks play a large role. The more he relies on sentimental, emotive, realistic narrative, the more his lack of fundamental novelistic skills shows. And as the book’s plot unfolds, so does our disappointment with Auster’s structural restraint. In more than one way, the book feels like a first draft, some aspects fully worked out, some things half-baked, not even tentative or sketched, but executed in a bored, uninterested way. Most of these unfinished, tedious sections are about Miles’ friends, specifically about Bing Nathan and his housemates. Miles, as we soon learn, fled New York in the aftermath of fratricide, moving to various cities all over the US, settling finally in Miami, keeping it all secret from his parents. Bing Nathan (yes, another Nathan) is the only person with whom he kept in touch, relying on him for news of his family. Bing, we eventually learn, has been a double agent, supplying Miles’ parents with information just as he kept Miles in the loop. Given Sunset Park‘s preoccupation with various kinds of intertextuality, Bing’s double role as informant can certainly be read poetologically as a way to describe how texts feed into other texts, or as a model for the interaction of readers and writers, etc., ad nauseam. But such a reading would lend complexity to a simple set-up and an even more simple, perfunctorily executed, character. To return to the story: Bing has moved into an abandoned building in Sunset Park, wherein he squats with two other housemates. Among them, a woman writing a dissertation on the aforementioned Wyler movie (which apparently every single character in the book knows and loves) and a female painter, who spends a great deal of time sketching her fellow housemates, especially Bing Nathan. Neither woman is more than a rough sketch, an assortment of well-known clichés, used to make a specific point in Auster’s narrative of personal growth and each woman adds a mirror to Auster’s blunt funhouse of 1980s cleverness.

The main character remains Miles Heller, and he’s the only character who has any kind of depth. Or rather, him and his father, Morris Heller. Miles’ father mostly serves as point of reference for the author. His voice is identical to Miles’, but in him, there’s nothing incongruous about his age and his points of view. And while we sense an authorial wistfulness and sentimentality in Auster’s Miles/Fogg/Tom characters, Morris is clearly a grown-up duplicate, who represents the author within the novel’s framework. Quite apart from his role as the complementary listener/source in Bing Nathan’s duplicitous career as Miles’ and Morris’ informant, Morris is also depicted as an investigator of sorts. With Bing Nathan’s information in tow, Morris clandestinely follows his son around. More than once we are reminded of Auster’s New York Trilogy, as we become privy to Morris’ odd tactics that involve inventing undercover personas. The threefold way that Morris controls the flow of information (informing Bing, listening to Bing, and finally investigating on his own), his usurpation of Auster’s familiar tropes of detection, all this is evidence of a kind of authorial representation. But it’s not just Miles’ father. It seems the closer we move in on Miles, the more influence characters have on structure and writing of the book (without becoming less of a cliché). Miles’ mother Mary-Lee is almost as significant as his father, although she’s accorded less time onstage. Miles’ parents are divorced and as Miles returns to New York, so does his mother, preparing to appear in a production of Beckett’s Happy Days. Beckett’s text is scattered all over Auster’s in several ways, one of which is an obvious parallel between Winnie and Mary-Lee, as far as certain aspects of characterization are concerned; as the book draws to a close, her influence becomes even more marked, as the text, as text, directly mimics Happy Days by including descriptions of Mary-Lee’s actions in parentheses, written to resemble Beckett’s fastidious stage directions. This is, of necessity a brief sketch of a plenitude of intertextual tools Auster makes use of, and I haven’t even explained any of the ways that The Best Years Of Our Lives is worked into the text.

All these are the games of a tired old man, coasting on past successes, making use of the same characters and the same tools for the millionth time, with radically diminishing returns. His writing remains as unremarkable as ever, and his characters as flat as ever. As always, the book might make a very nice movie, but fails utterly as a literary work of art. Auster demonstrates again, as if we needed to be reminded, that, despite his travails, elbow-grease and obvious cleverness, he’s just not accomplished, smart, talented or committed a novelist as he would need to be to pull off his ambitious writing. Although, actually, Sunset Park isn’t even ambitious, it’s as if he’s given up on himself, given up on creating work that is at least up to his own standards. And this he shares with his hapless protagonist. While many Auster novels end on a note of hope, suggesting a fresh start, new beginnings, the sun sets in Sunset Park without leaving a glimmer of days and suns to come. The final chapter, while brimming with sentimentality, is rather impressive, and the ending is comparably strong, and if Auster was a better writer, the end could have a tragic, powerful impact. As it stands, we have nothing, not even routine Auster. This is sub-Auster. Here’s this: if you believe The Brooklyn Follies to be a good book, chances are you will enjoy Sunset Park, as well. If you are a fan of Auster’s better work, you might still enjoy Sunset Park. Anyone less than a fan should stay away from this book. Don’t buy it, don’t read it, don’t make a gift of it. If fewer people read Auster’s books, he might write less. It’s a win-win scenario all round.


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


Here is a trailer for a German documentary about Swetlana Geier, who translated Dostoevsky and other major Russian writers into German and whose translations have a status comparable to the one enjoyed by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translations into English. Sadly, Geier died Nov 7 2010.

Expert and Desperate

Thom Gunn: The Feel of Hands

The hands explore tentatively,
two small live entities whose shapes
I have to guess at. They touch me
all, with the light of fingertips

testing each surface of each thing
found, timid as kittens with it.
I connect them with amusing
hands I have shaken by daylight.

There is a sudden transition:
they plunge together in a full-
formed single fury; they are grown
to cats, hunting without scruple;

they are expert and desperate.
I am in the dark. I wonder
when they grew up. It strikes me that
I do not know whose hands they are.

The Crazy Woman

As I might have said before, one of my favorite poets.

Gwendolyn Brooks: The Crazy Woman

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I’ll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I’ll wait until November
That is the time for me.
I’ll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly.

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
“That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May.”

I am a dry man whose thirst is praise

Wendell Berry: Water

I was born in a drouth year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.

via, via

Our lives, half gone

Wendell Berry: Kentucky River Junction

to Ken Kesey & Ken Babbs

Clumsy at first, fitting together
the years we have been apart,
and the ways.

But as the night
passed and the day came, the first
fine morning of April,

it came clear:
the world that has tried us
and showed us its joy

was our bond
when we said nothing.
And we allowed it to be

with us, the new green


Our lives, half gone,
stay full of laughter.

Free-hearted men
have the world for words.

Though we have been
apart, we have been together.


Trying to sleep, I cannot
take my mind away.
The bright day

shines in my head
like a coin
on the bed of a stream.


You left
your welcome.

via, via


Elizabeth Bishop: The Unbeliever

He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”

Damon Galgut: In a strange room

Galgut, Damon (2010), In A Strange Room, Atlantic
ISBN 978-0-85789-157-0

Damon Galgut is one of those writers who, despite being successful and acclaimed novelists, have never really captured my attention and so it wasn’t until this year that I had an opportunity to read this incredibly accomplished writer. Galgut, a South African novelist and ardent traveler has set his earlier successful novels in South Africa, working through historical and moral issues connected to South African history and culture. This is different in his seventh novel In a Strange Room, or at least it’s different in large parts of the book. In A Strange Room is, broadly speaking, a book about love and loneliness, about desirous dependencies and deathly despair. At the same time, it’s quite obviously a book about travel, about the way that Western mythologies of the self are often connected to travels through culturally rich exotic locales, about the way that modern day tourism follows historical routes of imperialism, but refracted through a personal, and individual lens. This is a deeply moving, devastating book that I can’t still think about without getting chills down my spine, written in a lyrical yet sparse language that is often close to trite phrases reminiscent of Coelho, but rises ultimately far above such trivial fare. The closeness in style or language to the terrible Brazilian hack can be chalked up to the fact that Galgut attempts to engage the sentimental, without falling into the morass of weepy trash; the book provides three comparably straightforward narratives of love and loss, written in a way that suggests honesty and unvarnished directness. If Galgut provides the occasional hokey adage, it’s because the plausibility of the voice demands it: the narrator of In A Strange Room is embattled and emotionally abused and consequently triteness surfaces as a way of reasserting authorial power and authority over events and, ultimately, his own life. As for the author: producing as marvelously clean and precise a book as this is a bravura achievement, and judging from this novel alone, Damon Galgut is a master of his craft.

In A Strange Room consists of three parts, called “The Follower”, “The Lover” and “The Guardian”, respectively. They are at best tenuously connected, more or less exclusively through the narrator, in whose life all three episodes take place. There’s also a thematic connection, since, as the book’s subtitle has it, it’s about “three journeys”, and lastly, they refer to one another obliquely, usually in small ways, as when the second part begins with the phrase “A few years later…”. It is not until the end of the book that we can suddenly see how In A Strange Room works as a whole. Thus it’s not surprising to read that the three section have been separately published in the Paris Review, since none of the three sections is really dependent on any of the others. In a way, both through their length and their narrative structure, it would even make sense to read In A Strange Room as a collection of novellas, but read in one piece, it’s clear that the three sections are part of one cohesive text. Each section is about 60 pages long and all three are about one formative journey and one important personal encounter. While the first two sections/parts are about homo-erotically charged (but unconsummated) relationships involving the protagonist, the third section is centrally concerned with friendship rather than love. In each of the sections the protagonist (who is also (arguably) the narrator), is a South African male called Damon, who is very young in the first story and middle-aged in the last. Given the obvious similarities to Galgut himself (including of course the shared first name), it’s safe to assume that the book toys with the idea of autobiographical writing, yet Galgut has not committed, in Philippe Lejeune’s oft-quoted terms, to the autobiographical pact:

Pour qu’il y ait une autobiographie, il faut que l’auteur passe avec ses lecteurs un pacte, un contrat, qu’il leur raconte sa vie en détail, et rien que sa vie.

Instead, the similarities and the shared first name serve to establish a close rapport with historical or biographical truth, a sense of authenticity and, implicitly, plausibility.

This concern is one that keeps coming up in the way the book is written. One other such instance is the book’s prefatory quote “He Has No House”, attributed to Vojislav Jakić, which returns within the book when the protagonist “spends a day in a gallery of outsider art”, “and from this collection of fantastic and febrile images he retains a single line, a book title by a Serbian artist whose name I forget, He Has No House.” Unlike Damon the narrator, Damon the author knows who the Serbian artist was, yet using Jakić’s book title as an introductory quote for the whole book suggests that Galgut himself found the quote (and found it significant). Jakić is significant in still other ways: Jakić, who died in 2003, is known for having made art of his life, and what’s more, he’s explicitly introduced to the reader as a creator of outsider art. Since Galgut’s novel works with the vocabulary of the intensely personal, and alludes to (auto)biographical truth, and since it, additionally, presents a narrator in various states of emotional distress, it’s hard not to think of the whole book as being, as Leo Navratil famously put it, “zustandsgebundene Kunst”, i.e. art which is derived from a very specific emotional or psychological state. Since the book is introduced to us with a quote by a well known outsider artist, these seem to be self-evident connections. Moreover, Galgut is pretty insistent we understand what that psychological state is. To that end, early in his book, he quotes a passage in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which same quote is also the source of the title of Galgut’s book:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you were filled with sleep, you never were.

This brief quote, one that Galgut’s narrator remembers from a distracted reading on a campsite after an exhausting day of walking, is continued by Faulkner like this: “I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not.” and end, after a short deliberation, affirmatively: “And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room.” By eliding all these thoughts from the quote, Galgut retains the doubt, the vague, insecure atmosphere that pervades the whole book.

The quiet question “what are you” haunts Damon throughout In A Strange Room, and giving the book this title suggests that it describes the process of working through existentialist doubt, not with the goal of arriving at a satisfying philosophical conclusion, but merely with the modest seeming goal of calming down enough to sleep, i.e. to be comfortable in the “strange room” that is the world. Uncomfortable and insecure, Damon falls in love twice, and blows it both times because he fails to grasp the situation completely, to take control of his life and the things and people that are important in it. In the first section, “The Follower”, he tries, at least, by striking up a friendship with Reiner, a raven-haired German whom he meets in Greece and eventually invites to visit in South Africa. Damon and Reiner are both perfectly aware of the sexual tensions and attractions between them although neither speaks of it. In Greece and in the letters, as well as at the beginning of Reiner’s South African stay, the two men circle each other carefully, and although we can see a power imbalance developing, it doesn’t flare up until the two decide to undertake a hiking journey through South Africa. Reiner repeatedly displays his independence, both financially and emotionally. One night he sleeps with a middle aged prostitute, an action clearly designed to antagonize Damon. Reiner (whose name contains the German word ‘rein’, meaning clean, pure) is oddly aristocratic. He can afford to travel the world without thinking about money, yet he withholds from Damon any information as to his professional or financial background. It is inferred that Reiner doesn’t have to work, or if he does, he works little. The same lack of need or professional necessity can be found in his emotional life initially. He is distant, and in fact breaks up with women if they demand too much in the way of closeness of commitment. It is Damon alone who is sullied by desire, by sexual need, by financial difficulties and emotional dependencies. This imbalance leads to Reiner taking emotional advantage of Damon, which dooms their unspoken and unfulfilled love affair. As their relationship deteriorates, Galgut hands us that Faulkner quote in order to demonstrate whence Damon’s discomfort and alienation.

The alienation is also stressed by the seemingly loose way that Galgut has with pronouns. Much of the book is told in a third person perspective, limited to Damon’s point of view and Damon’s knowledge. Frequently, however, the third person is switched to a first person, sometimes within the same sentence. Invariably, when the narrator reflects on the time that has passed between the events and his telling of them, he uses the first person; yet when he recounts events, he does not always use the third person. Unless I am mistaken, the first person turns up whenever the narrator closes in on events, when things come to a head or when emotional states climax. Thus, the unstable self that we are presented with in terms of characterization, can also be found in the way Galgut constructs his book’s language. This instability, this unease is further developed in the second section, set “a few years later”. This time, Damon meets a group of (again) European travelers en route to Malawi. He is immediately attracted to a young Swiss national named Jerome. His name, which etymologically means “sacred name”, is not the only similarity to “pure” Reiner. Their careful, unspoken attraction is another. Jerome is considerably younger than Damon has become, and financially dependent on his parents and friends. Theoretically, this should give Damon an advantage, it should help him take the reins in this particular relationship, but once again, he fails to do so. Between Damon and Jerome, a power vacuum develops, and for weeks and months, the two men keep meeting each other, keep (though occasionally) traveling with one another. As Reiner visited Damon in South Africa, so Damon visits Jerome, yet he does not manage to seize the situation as Reiner has. Loneliness and a tragic sense of impending loss permeates every page of this section; tragic because both want it to be different, yet Damon’s obstinate discomfort stands in the way of true happiness. Damon is too confused, too insecure to transform his and Jerome’s desire into more. To watch Damon abandon his life like that is saddening and deeply frustrating. The third section, then, switches situations again some more.

Although in the third section, Damon is the narrator as well, his is no longer the life that we watch breaking apart, being abandoned and mistreated. Instead, Galgut offers us Anna, the homosexual lover of a friend of Damon’s. Anna suffers from manic-depressive illness, and during her trip to Goa with Damon, she keeps taxing his patience, but at first in a mostly harmless way. In this section, it’s Anna who falls in love, and Anna who hands over the control of her life, heading for a disastrous end. In many ways, Anna’s psychological disintegration is the realization, the bodily mirror of Damon’s own destructive emotional life, and in her fate, Damon finally finds his own, he sees himself in the reflection of other people’s terminal self-destructive acts, and he comes to terms with it. As “[l]ives leak into each other”, Damon suddenly sees his own predicament clearly. The book as a whole, then, serves as a demonstration of his insights. The titles of the three sections, echoing Tarot cards, or rather: archetypes, imply a deep understanding of the roles he’s played in his life so far, and how each of them is connected to the man he has become and the lives he’s led. I’m sure a Jungian reading of the book can be undertaken profitably, yet as I close this review, it seems important to stress yet another point: this book is not all self-absorbed interiority, although I have put a lot of emphasis on this aspect of In A Strange Room. It’s really a testament to Galgut’s craft and intelligence that every chapter, every section, every page of the book is shot through with a thorough awareness of the places he sets his book in and their history, especially their recent history. We are always reminded of the fact of imperialism, both the historical phenomenon and its contemporary counterpart, as we are always reminded of the way that sexuality, gender or color of skin frame situations and encounters. Yes, the book is full of haunting evocations of places, but these evocations are never an end in itself. Galgut’s novel is a marvelous book that succeeds at everything it attempts to do and if it feels a bit ‘minor’, it’s because it’s meant to be. In A Strange Room is a breathless self-examination, a small but potent book, and one that will lodge itself in the reader’s brain for weeks.

John Fante: Ask The Dust

Fante, John (2002), Ask The Dust, Canongate
ISBN 978-1-84195-330-4

“Either I paid up or I got out”, this is the decision that Arturo Bandini, the protagonist of John Fante’s Ask the Dust is faced with as the book opens. And he doesn’t do either: “I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.” This is quite symptomatic not just of Bandini’s behavior in general, but also of the way the book as a work of art, operates. Although Fante is respectful of the general rules of ‘proper’ writing (such as they are), his book often takes oddly original decisions, and fascinating flights of tone to arrive at a point in literary history that no other book quite occupies. Originally published in 1939, Ask The Dust is singular in that it has acquired a huge amount of fans, is found in many well-stocked bookshops, yet has appeared to be flying under the radar consistently. The novel has been re-discovered a few times now, most notably when it was reprinted by Black Sparrow Press in 1980, with an introduction by Charles Bukowski which pointed out how much of a debt he as a writer owed to the example of John Fante and Fante’s original and surprising work. Today, despite still being reviewed and perceived as underrated, Ask the Dust, John Fante’s second novel, is actually quite well known, and almost universally liked. As it should be.

Ask The Dust is humorous, entertaining, moving, and written with a careful pen and an alert mind. A book about a writer struggling to get published and to get by, it’s also a very clear-eyed view of the strictures and possibilities in the craft of writing prose. Actually, apart from writers like Joyce, it’s quite rare that a writer can exemplify in the structure and rhythm of his own prose the aesthetic demands that he has a character or the narrator make within the novel itself. At best, there’s a contrast involved, as with Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (cf my review here) which featured a ‘knowledgeable’ protagonist, whose knowledge was limited and curiously slanted. Contrasts like these are much easier to accomplish, which tritely explains why far more writers make use of them than there are writers who go down the way Fante chose. Based on this book alone, Fante is a creator of perfect prose. Not in the way that every sentence of his sings or is particularly quotable or poetic. No, his achievement is larger than that: Fante writes an exquisitely calibrated prose that is perfectly tailored to the subject matter, mood and register of the book. It’s lean, not spare. The language is not simple, but it’s draped snugly around the muscles of the narrative and Fante’s swirling thoughts. Ask The Dust is an excellent work of art, well made and moving.

Fante’s protagonist is young Arturo Bandini, who has recently published a short story in “J.C. Hackmuth’s journal”, a publication that’s never explicitly named (but bears a striking resemblance to H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury), and is very proud of this achievement. The story is a simple love story, as Bandini falls in love with a waitress, who’s not just in love with another man, but who also takes drugs and is sexually attracted to men who treat her badly. Although Fante develops the plot in a straightforward enough fashion, one can’t help but feel that it’s not very central or important to the book as a whole, which is more about Bandini and his writing. He appears to suffer from a dry spell of sorts, although he is overflowing with an almost manic creative energy, it’s just that he doesn’t appear to be able to sit still enough for long enough a period of time to compose a story. Bandini is well aware of how to compose prose well, he’s not waiting for inspiration to just flow out of him. True, he does need (and currently lacks) a spark to set off his writing, but once underway, he works hard on his prose. He’s a tough reader of prose, both his own and that of others, an attitude that is also evident in the way he’s writing. This is one of many interesting incongruities in Ask the Dust. While it’s written with many of the usual markers of Romanticism, presenting, for example, a hero torn by desires, emotions and his (self-)destructive urges, there’s actually a rather distinct sense of form and tradition in the novel, both explicitly, through Bandini and his thoughts, as well as implicitly, through John Fante’s excellent and balanced writing.

While we do hear echoes of the Romanticist poet who is tortured by a white page, and suffers from hunger, madness and one or two debilitating diseases, the substance of the book is untouched by this. And it’s not even just the fact that Bandini does not suffer from any problematic illness or the fact that he isn’t mad. Bandini’s mind is clear and remarkably focused, as far as his work is concerned or that of others. He is a writer, someone who makes use of the world that happens around him, someone who reads the world in certain contexts and transfigures his reading into art, and the novel is soon suggested to be a means by which Bandini goes about his task: the book is narrated in the first person, by Bandini, and although it’s never made explicit, the novel as a whole doesn’t just loosely exemplify Bandini’s poetics, it is his book, written by him, or at least that is the underlying suggestion. Fante, in 1939, doesn’t need the crutch of postmodern self-referential games for this. There is, I think, a tendency in much postmodern prose to externalize thought. External to the central narrative that is. Framing, wrapping, packaging the book in explicit self-reference allows especially weaker writers (one thinks of Paul Auster) to simplify the central narrative, to seek complexity by assembling one’s book from simpler parts, without ever really making the thought work through the resulting mosaic of simplicities, an aesthetic that seems to have become rather popular these past decades (although of course better writers can take the same method and be tremendously successful with it. Adam Levin’s recently published debut novel The Instructions is a good example of this).

Of course, an L.A. native might read the book much more realistically than I did: Fante’s language is realistic, transporting a vivid sense of place and time, making us feel, directly, unmistakably, Bandini’s despair, confusion, his hunger, or, for example, his delight at holding in his hands two cold bottles of milk. Yet at the same time, the book has its sights on much more, and achieves more, as well. The book is about romanticist ideals just as much as it depicts them. Arturo Bandini, the hungry writer, is mirrored in another character, Sammy, the untalented (but gainfully employed) writer, and the disdain and rejection that Bandini suffers at the hands of society is mirrored in the character of a Latino waitress called Camilla Lopez, whom even Bandini himself now and then attacks with racist slurs. Although we know little about Bandini’s first short story (called “And the little dog laughed”), we do know quite a bit about his subsequent fictional endeavors. His very next story is derived from a letter he wrote to his editor, a letter that Bandini toiled and worked over for a long time, that ran to several pages and through several drafts. His editor, J.C. Hackmuth himself, decides to cut off the salutation at the beginning and the end and print the rest as it is. There’s a whiff of Hunter S. Thompson in all of this, but the amount of work that Bandini spends on his letter, and the amount of work that Thompson claimed to do on his post-Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas publications couldn’t be further apart.

Like Thompson, however, Fante’s novel is propelled forward by a strong and distinctive literary voice, clear and musical syntax. Starting with the first chapter, there always seems to be a sub-clause more than usual, a turn, quirk, lilt of voice. Right from the start, we are served a narrative voice that is easy to read, yet not simply constructed, and as the book continues, the prose perfectly adapts to the exigencies of the story, injecting false pathos into it when praising America. The prose is one of the reasons why the book is better than it may sound at first. A book about a starving writer in the depression is not a subject matter that seems awfully original, and so it’s not here, either. Fante elevates the dour themes of his story by writing a book that is a fun, quick read, and that, at the same time, comments on the fact of its being a book about a well-trodden topic. The idea of epigonic writing is used in the book quite a few times, in different ways. There is, for example, Sammy who writes odd, derivative Western stories, there is Bandini who adapts a stanza from a poem by Ernest Dowson (another mirror: Dowson, too, was, for much of his life, a hungering poet, who eventually died penniless) to impress a girl (a stanza, by the way, that is the source of the title of Margaret Mitchell’s gargantuan epic Gone with the Wind, published four years earlier), and many more. Fante answers the Romanticist concept of originality with a writing of repetition.

Although the plot of the book is pretty direct, ideas keep circling and repeating. For example in its basic use of place. Many depression era novels talk about migration of one kind or another and that is true to an extent of Ask the Dust as well. Bandini has moved from Colorado to Los Angeles and has been living in hotels ever since. Yet as far as the novel is concerned, the picture is slightly different: Bandini may travel to various places in the book, both in memory as well as in the book’s present, but the novel starts in Los Angeles and ends with Bandini’s return there (which, oddly, is another repetition of his first move to California). More examples of repetition can be found in the uses the book makes of characters who mirror other characters, and in the way that racism makes an appearance. Racism is depicted (as it commonly is) as a vicious circle. When Bandini arrives in California, the Italian-American writer is subjected to racist looks and comments, and is almost thrown out of a hotel because its owner thought Bandini looked Mexican. The fear and the poverty at the time bred a racist response to newcomers (as it always does) and Bandini, in his interactions with the beautiful waitress, reproduces it. Some critics have taken the book to task for being racist, but it merely depicts racism that was prevalent at the time. The fact that some of the xenophobia is related to us in Bandini’s voice directly, without the qualifying frame of dialogue or comment seems to aggravate the problem for some.

But here is where the metafictional structure of the novel becomes important. See, in Bandini’s work, his own life and his writing are entangled, and so, implicitly, in the book itself, as well. His second published story did not start out as fiction, and wasn’t framed or worded to be fiction, yet Hackmuth (and presumably the readers of his magazine) saw it as fiction and re-framed it as such. Another instance of life being turned into art is Bandini’s first novel, based on an affair he has in the course of the book, and published towards the end of the book. Given his literary proclivities, it’s not a stretch to read Ask The Dust as a later novel authored by Bandini, as I pointed out earlier. And Bandini is very self-obsessed, yet artfully so: many of the book’s circles and repetitions revolve around its maudlin protagonist, a method that is not explicitly referenced by the book since it appears to be all Bandini’s; as a creation by Fante, however, the book directly comments on the limitations of its narrator. It’s not that Bandini is in fact an unreliable narrator, but the text is an extension of his character, an expression just as revealing and important in any reading of Bandini, as individual lines of dialogue are. The more one ponders the book, the more it unfolds like a precious flower. Ask The Dust is a very good book about a budding writer, which uses the historical context well and precisely and while it shows itself conscious of various clichés and problems with a genre too often marred by self-importance, it doesn’t fall prey to any of them.

Fante maneuvers his book expertly between the dangers of his chosen mode of writing. He is accessible without becoming cheap, and nuanced without losing any readability. Additionally, apart from one or two outdated lexical choices, the book seems, to use that dreaded cliche, timeless. Comparing it to books clearly influenced by it, and published 30 or more years later (am I wrong in seeing a strong reflection of Ask the Dust in John Barth’s debut novel The Floating Opera?), I daresay one would be hard pressed to decide, deprived of information, which was published first. Its topics range far wider than this review has been able to show. There are whole slates of topics, from Catholic sexual guilt to gender issues, that I haven’t been able to touch upon despite their importance for the book. And at the end of the day, centrally, there’s Los Angeles, the heat, dust and air of which permeates every page of the book. It’s hard to imagine the reader who would not be taken by this book.


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

James Merrill reading

full poem below the video

James Merrill: A Renewal

Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

William Empson: Villanelle

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

The infection slept (custom or changes inures)
And when pain’s secondary phase was due
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

How safe I felt, whom memory assures,
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.