China Miéville: Dial H

Miéville, China; Mateus Santolouco, Riccardo Burchielli et al. (2013), Dial H: Into You, DC Comics
ISBN 9-781401-237752

Wood, Dave; Jim Mooney et al. (2010), Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2648-0

Pfeifer, Will; Kano et al. (2003), H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities, DC Comics
ISBN 1-4012-0168-7

DSC_0613   So, while I am a fan of comic books and do read quite a few of them, I am still frequently overwhelmed by the incredible amount of characters and complicated back stories. DC Comics is especially infamous for not just having complicated stories, but even multiple realities and universes, which they then attempted to collapse in amazingly readable and fun but convoluted “events”. Then, suddenly, DC decided to do away with all the accrued history and complications by relaunching all of its titles in 2011, calling the new set of books “the new 52”. This reset the stories on all their major titles, giving them new origin stories, and new slants. It also turned the DC universe somewhat more male, due to the fact that female creators were vastly underrepresented among the slate of amazing writers and artists, and also due to the fact that a lot of female characters either completely vanished, like fan favorite Stephanie Brown, or were declared dead, like Renée Montoya. Other female characters were revived as weaker or “sexier” versions of their old selves. And it’s not just female characters. The first waves of comics to come out seemed to have a decidedly conservative slant in how they were positioned vis-a-vis recent character history. One example is Judd Winnick’s Catwoman run, as compared to the more recent history of the character in the hands of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and others. However, DC also did something very interesting: they decided to use the bright lights of public attention in the wake of the relaunch in order to relaunch a bunch of much less well known characters, some of whom were pulled from DC’s more alternative imprints Vertigo and Wildstorm.

DSC_0628Frankenstein, for example, last seen in Grant Morrison’s book Seven Soldiers of Victory, was given his own title (written by the great, great Jeff Lemire), as were Animal Man and Swamp Thing, both of whom had iconic runs with Vertigo. The characters thus revived are not all equally well known. While Swamp Thing is probably one of the best known ‘alternative’ properties of DC, they also offered much less well known characters and titles a spot in the limelight. One of these characters/properties is Dial H for Hero, a decidedly odd kind of title, with a very inconsistent publishing history. His revival could have gone either way. DC, however, asked China Miéville to write this title, and the result is incredibly good. I have been reading quite a few comic books during the past year, and some extremely good ones among them (I’ll probably review some of them in the near future), but Miéville’s Dial H is easily one of the best, if not the best among this crop of really excellent comics that have been coming out. If you have been following Miéville’s career (as I have), this will likely not have come as a surprise to you. Miéville has established himself as one of the leading contemporary writers of science fiction, and probably one of the better novelists in the UK regardless of genre. Even considering the regrettable duds like Kraken, his bibliography is full of inventive, smart, extraordinarily well written novels. The news that he would be turning his attention to comic books in order to write a title of his own had me giddy and excited for a year. I spent part of that year reading up on the history of the character or characters that would be featured in Miéville’s book. And as I found out, that is a peculiar history.

DSC_0606(1)Limited as I am to trade publications, I will focus on only two books centered on the “Dial H”-property. There were small instances of the title resurfacing in between, they were not, however, collected as trades. The first time comic book readers came upon the Dial H for Hero stories was in 1965, in the pages of “House of Mystery #165”. The stories featured a boy called Robby Reed who finds a strange apparatus that “looks like a dial…made of a peculiar alloy….with a strange inscription on it”. The “young genius” decipers the inscription running along the side of the apparatus and finds that it asks its user to “dial the letters h-e-r-o”. Intrepid young Robby Reed does just that and, lo and behold, he turns into a superhero. His whole physical appearance is transformed: he has become a giant, complete with a superhero uniform (that even has letters on the front) and somehow he knows that the hero he transformed into is called “Giantboy”. Using the powers of the character, he thwarts some evil villains, and returning home, dials o-r-e-h in order to transform back into his bespectacled mild mannered self. The boy turning into an adult superhero is highly reminiscent of DC’s Captain Marvel, which is a boy called Billy Bateson who turns into the superhero Captain Marvel by saying “Shazam!”. However, as far as I know, Captain Marvel (sometimes also just named “Shazam”) is always more or less the same guy. Robby Reed’s dial, however, turns him into a different superhero every time he gives his dial a spin. There is so much that is bad about this title, from the casual racism (at one point he turns into “an Indian super-hero – Chief Mighty Arrow” and is even issued a companion, “a winged injun pony”. When he is upset, he shouts “Holy Massacre” and wishes he could “scalp” a monster) to sexism (Robby’s love interest find the dial, dials “h-e-r-o-i-n-e” and turns into “Gem Girl” despite Robby’s warnings that the dial is not a toy, and he ends up forcing her to dial herself back into a girl “before she gets any more ideas”), and overall ridiculous writing. However, it’s some of the most incredibly inventive work I have ever seen.

DSC_0607Robby transforms into heroes that make sense, like Giantboy or The Human Bullet etc., but in one issue he transforms into geometric shapes with arms and legs, for example. Coming up with new heroes (although you can dial up old ones too, it’s basically a randomized selection out of a finite, but large pool) forced the writer of the books, Dave Wood, to dig deep. And Jim Mooney’s art perfectly realizes Wood’s wacky vision. It’s just so much ridiculous fun, and the Showcase volume is well worth your while. If you want an idea of the silly fun on offer, click here to see a selection of covers. After a while the Dial H for Hero stories petered out. There were various small scale revivals, including one in the 1980s by the great Marv Wolfman, also called Dial H for Hero, but since none of them have been published as trades, I can’t really comment on them. They introduced more characters spinning the dial and further enlarged the pool of super-heroes. I’ve had a look at the Wiki summary of Wolfman’s run and it seems delightfully insane, and it seems to have more of a coherent plot than the Wood/Mooney version, which is basically a gonzo one-off kind of thing in each issue.

DSC_0611Even more coherent (and initially at least considerably more down to earth) is the 2003 incarnation called H-E-R-O, written by Will Pfeifer and beautifully illustrated by Kano. That run went on for 22 issues, but for some reason, only issues 1-6 have been collected as a trade (called H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities). Pfeifer’s run features different people finding the dial and examines what happens to their lives when you add the opportunity to transform into a superhero. There is a young adult mired in a mediocre life, “making sundaes at minimum wage”. In order to impress a girl, and more generally as an attempt to “be someone”, he uses the Dial to unimpressive and even disastrous effect. A business man finding the dial becomes obsessed with it. A girl uses it to become popular at her new school, etc. The book was a bit of a letdown, even though the writing and art was just so much better than the Wood/Mooney version. But Pfeifer got rid of the ridiculous fun and inventiveness and infused the whole book with a dour morality, mostly lectures about being content with who you are and knowing your limits and being nice and industrious within those limits. Much more than the original book, the dialing device becomes a metaphor for situations that we all face in our lives etc. etc. I’m boring myself just describing it. For all the good writing and wonderful art that went into this book, it’s hard to recommend, because Pfeifer so consistently underwhelms. The idea of the dial is one of the most liberating literary devices I have ever seen, and to see it used in this pedestrian, moral, middle-class way was disheartening. If that was the direction that the Dial H for Hero story was going, I was worried about Miéville’s run presenting more of the same. Silly me. China Miéville blows Pfeifer’s run clean out of the water.

DSC_0626Miéville renames the series Dial H, and provides a spin on it that is equal parts original and respectful to the Silver Age original. The protagonist of the first trade is called Nelson Jent, and he’s an obese unemployed middle aged man, who, one night, is almost beat up by a group of lowlifes and, attempting to call the police from a phone booth, transforms into Boy Chimney. From that moment the reader knows that this is something else than the other titles in the Dial H for Hero series. And it starts with small details: Mieville, like many writers, offers us the thoughts of the characters that he focuses on. And as Jent transforms into Boy Chimney, his thoughts seem to transform, as well. Strange fragments enter them, and as Boy Chimney proceeds to beat up that gang, he appears to have a dialog with the consciousness of Nelson Jent. Additionally, Boy Chimney is very clearly not a super hero, as all the previous titles imagined them. He is a strange creature that has uncommon strength and unusual powers and abilities, among them the ability to use and command smoke. But it’s only Jent’s consciousness that keeps Boy Chimney from outright killing the brutal assailants in the alley. It feels less like Jent is genuinely transforming into a super hero, and more like a kind of symbiosis. And there is another basic difference: Jent doesn’t have to transform back by dialing the letters in reverse. He automatically returns to his normal self, “into the worst identity of all”, after a certain, variable amount of time has passed. Apart from this, the book’s early parts seem to be fairly straightforward. There’s a villain with a secret plan and he and Jent’s super heroes keep meeting and fighting. And then, the book quickly goes off the rails into the most incredible insanity. The villain, it turns out, is a “nullomancer”, a kind of wizard of nothingness, able to conjure and control nothingness, and her plan involves channeling an ancient beast called the Abyss, a strange thing composed of nothingness, but at the same time, containing universes.

DSC_0625(1)If this sounds absurd, I can assure you that Miéville makes it work on the page, and in his origin story, which closes out the trade, he offers a brilliant explanation for what the dial basically does. It’s hard to give you more details without spoiling the book, so I won’t, but the upshot of it all is that Miéville managed to tell a story that makes use of the incredible artistic liberties that the material has to offer, and yet it’s a book very determined to make sense, in multiple ways. What’s more, the art is not a let down. Would it have been a better book with JH Williams III at the helm? Possibly. But Mateus Santolouco, of whom I have never heard, does an excellent job. I was especially impressed by his work on the super-hero identities invoked by the dial. They are the most crucial visual element of the book, as they have to appear both plausible and iconical – and absurdly odd at the same time. As Boy Chimney leaps from the phone booth he is instantly alive on the page, as a scary, off the wall character. Almost as important are the colors, and Tanya and Richard Horie have done a simply magnificent job throughout the book. In my review of Brian Wood’s DMZ I have lamented the fact that the art seemed but a servant to Wood’s writing in the book, making for a less than great reading experience. That is not the case with Dial H. Even though Miéville is a famous award winning novelist, Santolouco brings a very distinct artistic vision to bear. The sketches in the back show how he worked on and tweaked the look of various superhero identities. Santolouco’s achievement is thrown into even starker relief by issue #0, which presents a kind of origin story, and is included at the back of the trade. Riccardo Burchielli valiantly tries to do justice to Miéville’s amazing script, but it’s an overall disappointing effort, compared to Santolouco’s work that came before.

DSC_0631The book has so many ideas, and one of them is an obsession with identity. With superheroes, we talk a lot about identities, secret and public ones, but that is usually a naming issue: what name do I use? What mask do I wear. Alternative takes on superhero narratives (cf. Millar’s Kick-Ass) suggest that wearing masks is liberating, but they don’t really discuss or problematize the core issue of identity. Miéville, as all his work so far has also shown, is very aware of how identity is tied up in physical forms and in cultural and social ties. The characters that Jent turns into appear to have their own memories, and while it turns out to be an issue more of colonialism and appropriation than of sociology and psychology, Miéville opens wide the doors for these discussions. In doing so, I think, he goes beyond even writers like Morrison, as he uses the iconicity and language of big publisher super-hero comics and examines it carefully. This is not another one of those books critical of ‘superhero myths’, and it doesn’t offer a grimy reality based taken on super heroes. There are enough of those around. No, Miéville embraces a lot of the central qualities of the genre and uses its language in order to interrogate it and tell an absorbing story at the same time. The best news? There is much more to come. For all the density of this book, it merely collects the first issues in an ongoing run. The next trade is due in January 2014. You should be reading this book.


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Jeff Smith: RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light

Smith, Jeff (2011). Rasl: Romance at the Speed of Light. Cartoon Books.
ISBN 978-1-888963-33-5

This is going to be a short review, because it’s a review of the third volume of a series that you shouldn’t start in the middle. You should start at the beginning. If you click here you can find my review of the first volume, as well as general comments on Jeff Smith’s remarkable work, and if you click here, you can find a review of the second volume. If you need a summary of all my reviews, here it is: RASL is one of the best creator-owned comics we currently have, and if you haven’t yet, you should start reading it as soon as possible. Jeff Smith is one of the best graphic novelists of our time. Read him now. The whole RASL project has been, from the start, a fascinating undertaking. In its mixture of myth and science fiction, it resembled Terry Moore’s extraordinary (recently finished) Echo (see here my review of the first Echo trade), but with a much darker and twisted core. Readers coming to find a second Bone will be disappointed. This is no warm, full, engaging fantastical tale. The richness of Bone’s woods, mountains and ravines is in stark contrast with the desolate stretches of desert we’re offered in the RASL books. It’s really hard to believe that the same writer who gave us the gorgeously detailed rat monsters and fantasy foliage in Bone is the same that creates vast expanses of white emptiness in RASL. While I’m obviously commenting on a work in progress, it seems clear that there is less consolation in Smith’s most recent work than in his most famous books. The warm heart of Bone was palpable in its protagonists, the cartoonish Bones, and the lovably odd villagers. Even the monsters threatening to destroy the idyllic life are drawn with a playful love for furs and twinkles and the humorous moments of epic adventuring. True, there was much drama as the story of Bone unfolded, and a serious tragedy at the center of it, but it was all part of a much brighter, more colorful whole. RASL, on the other hand, starts off on a bleak note in volume one and maintains that mood throughout the second and this one, the third volume. Even the glimpses of love and sexual relations are shrouded in the anticipation and memory of loss and impending doom. By the third volume, sex is presented less like a loving act, and more like a desperate way to be less broken, less alone, less adrift in a multitude of worlds.

RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light is the best installment so far, as expected. It is the first time the plot and its characters really come together. I admired the way Smith took his time with the plot, without offering his readers easy satisfaction. The first volume, RASL: The Drift, is full of mysteries, full of beginnings and ideas, and it’s not an easy book to figure out. There was never any doubt that the end result would be magnificent, but the exact direction was unclear, as we readers were left impatient asking for more. And just as the first volume was full of beginnings, so the second volume, RASL: The Fire of St. George, was clearly transitory. Instead of whispered hints and intriguing settings, we were offered more muscular developments and a great deal of information was injected into the book. It seemed as if Smith tried to make up for the vagueness of the first by being extremely specific in the second volume. As a read it was much different, but every bit as brilliant. In it, Smith treats us to the (by now well known) story of Nicola Tesla and fleshes out most of the principal characters and their relationships with one another. Additionally, we are offered more background on the protagonist, and how he came to be this disturbed traveler between worlds, haunted by guilt, and driven by something dark lodged deep inside. Finally, we are introduced to the book’s MacGuffin, Tesla’s journals, which contain some powerful, brilliant secret that Rasl, as the books’ protagonist is called, endeavors to hide from his friends and the government. Tesla’s brilliant ideas have often served as pivotal elements in science fiction or steam punk culture. One of the most recent examples is Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige, where Tesla’s near-magical science provides the mechanics of one magician’s attempt to reproduce another magician’s magic trick (which, as it turns out, was achieved in a much more profane and simple (though not easy) way).

Indeed, The Prestige is a fitting reference because of how the RASL books are perched at the divide between magic and science. In fact, we might be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law, stating that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In Smith’s work, magic is replaced by religion and myth, but the basic question remains: if something extraordinary happens, is it a scientific success or a miracle in a religious sense? The third volume puts considerable emphasis on this part of the book. As our memories of Tesla’s historical experiments slowly recede, we fall back into the protagonist’s attempts to fully make sense of what’s happening in his rapidly expanding world. Government agents are added, and questions of self and reality are invoked again, but most importantly. Smith evaded providing a faux-scientific explanation for the dimension-jumping. Instead, he confronts his readers with the bleakness of a man lost between multiple copies of the woman he loves and the multiple worlds that woman lives on. Rasl has no great plans: when he jumped into another dimension, he did so impulsively, and ever since, his actions have been less driven by careful deliberation than by impulsive acts. The first of the (so far) three books gave off a strong noir vibe, which is more expounded upon in this volume that affords more space to Smith’s protagonist. Like a character straight from Hammett’s pages, Rasl drinks in order to deal with the labyrinthine world around him (although in Smith’s work, the effect the world has on Rasl is a palpable, violent one as dimension-hopping exerts a heavy price on the person doing the hopping), he is quick to threaten and execute violence on other men, and his sexuality doesn’t lead to happiness or peace, au contraire, it’s as desperate and violent as everything else in his new life.

Like all extraordinary works of science fiction, Jeff Smith’s RASL books use the freedom afforded by the added and changed vocabulary in order to tell a story about the world that discusses issues on the fringe of knowable and expressible facts. Tesla’s scientific work proves to be a red herring, as it is his journals, which contain a secret discovery that makes sense of the scientific and metaphysical puzzles of the books, journals which are treated just like sacred texts. In Smith’s art, we are also presented with technically advanced objects that look like mythical or ritual artifacts. With every new issue, Smith continues to put the screws on what we feel can be easily said. He works within the languages of masculinity and violence, but at his hands, they blossom into possibility. Jeff Smith is a very good writer who, so far, had written two vastly different masterpieces, Bone and Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil. RASL, still a work in progress, is ready to join their ranks. When it’s finished it might well be his finest achievement yet.

A short personal note (January 2013). 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.

William Attaway: Blood on the Forge

Attaway, William. Blood on the Forge, NYRB
ISBN 9781590171349

Blood on the Forge, originally published in 1941, is an interesting read. Its author, African-American novelist William Attaway, is perhaps best know today as co-writer of Harry Belafonte’s “Bananaboat Song“. His only two novels have deeply sunk into the obscure chasm of American literary history, much less successful than those by contemporaries like African-American novelist Richard Wright. Lucky for us, Blood on the Forge was rescued from oblivion by the invaluable NYRB Classics imprint. It’s not a perfect book by any means: for a short novel, it has quite a few dull stretches, and oftentimes, its author seems more interested in the story he’s telling and its political and historical contexts than in the telling itself, which is never a good sign. Despite all this, it’s a novel well worth reading, because Attaway crams it full of ideas and tangents and fragments. As a novel, there is a lot wrong with it, but as an overall reading experience, it’s a trip worth taking. When it was published, Attaway was all of 30 years old, and upon finishing it, his desire to create long-form prose narrative seems to have been finished with it. The rest of his career was spent by writing song-books, songs, and screenplays. Blood on the Forge, like Wright’s and fellow realist novelist Upton Sinclair’s work, is very much of its time, and aesthetically it’s hit-and-miss, but the fact is, it’s a damn remarkable book to end one’s career on, and fittingly, it contains enough details, energy and conviction for several more novels. I’ve never read a novel quite like it, and it feels more knotty and interesting than many more highly praised and well known novels of its era, which is enough reason to recommend it. Read it, dammit, and maybe NYRB can be persuaded to publish Attaway’s debut novel, as well.

Meanwhile, this is how Blood on the Forge begins: “He never had a craving in him that he couldn’t slick away on his guitar. You have to be native to the red clay hills of Kentucky to understand that.” We as readers are plunged straight in the middle of a heartbreaking tale of poverty and hunger. A family of African-American farm-workers, consisting of three brothers (called Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown), their mother, and Hattie, a strong and opinionated woman married to the oldest brother, is struck by tragedy as the mother dies while plowing the fields. In a fit of rage, Big Mat kills the mule pulling that plow. Now, however, the family, poor to begin with, finds itself completely unable to pay its debts, let alone pay for food or seeds or a new mule. As the desperate foursome attempts to somehow salvage the situation, events spiral out of control and the three brothers end up having to flee their home. It’s quite remarkable how well and densely woven this initial situation is. The novel never really looks back on “the red clay hills of Kentucky”, telling a story of steel mills in the North, but like so much of Attaway’s book, the setting and scene are incredibly rich with meaning, resonance and context. As Big Mat kills a white overseer in a fit of rage, we might forget what century we’re in. It’s like a tale straight from the late Middle Ages, where a peasant fights back against his lord and ends up having to flee the place he’s from. The contrast to the industrialized setting of the bulk of the novel is striking. The steel mill tell us: this is modernity, greasy, violent, dirty modernity, but the three brothers come from a world closer to the Middle Ages in social structure and outlook than to the 20th century.

This is significant, because the period the book is set in is a very specific historical period, the so-called Great Migration (1910-1930), and there are multiple stories of the Great Migration, two of the most well known (apart from Blood on the Forge) being Black Boy, Richard Wright’s absolutely extraordinary autobiography (originally published in 1945), and Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove’s Pulitzer-winning 1986 collection of poems about her grandparents who came to the North during that same period (a book that seems to be inspired in part by Attaway’s novel, by the way, Thomas and Melody sharing significant similarities). Attaway’s medieval brutality and feudal structure isn’t found in either of these books, and it seems to make a very specific and pertinent point about the society that Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown escaped from by making us aware how many degrees of civilized development co-existed within the same country in the 20th century. The man Big Mat killed might as well have been their liege lord for all the difference it would have made in this tale. But there is even more to this short early section of the book. We are, within the first three pages, made aware of the horrific misogyny of that society. It’s not just the fact that women, throughout the book, seem one-dimensional vessels to be used by the men, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. It’s also the absurd hatefulness with which all the book’s men seem to treat all the book’s women. As Hattie makes a cogent point, albeit in simple language: “We jes niggers, makin’ the white man crop for him. Leave him makin’ his own crop, then we don’t end up owin’ him money every season”, the novel imparts on us Melody’s perception of the situation, describing it this way: “Hattie kept at Big Mat, driving him crazy with her talk, blaming him for everything.”

This ‘hysterical screaming woman’ stereotype is used fairly often in Blood on the Forge and one would be tempted to see this as reflective of the author’s or at least the novel’s bigoted attitude towards women. It’s the densely packed beginning of the novel, however, that tells us this is not the case. Very clearly, the author shares Hattie’s disdain for wanting to obey the basic social and economic structures in place. Hattie, like other women later in the book, is a sensible character in an impossible situation. It’s interesting that Attaway seems highly aware of the fact that African-American women are oppressed in at least two different ways, both as African Americans and as women. The novel, largely channeled through Melody’s perception as it is, repeatedly offers us male misreadings of situations. As the novel hurtles towards its end, it’s the ravaged and desperate female characters that stood out most for me, although eventually, all women tend to fall by the wayside in this tale of three brothers. Their masculinity is not an asset, although at times it may seem like it. The novel contrasts Hattie’s sensible observation with this grandiose assertion of Big Mat, who (having murdered a man, and hopelessly in debt and with no way to pay for food) is in the process of convincing himself that leaving Kentucky is a good idea:

Ain’t nothing make me leave the land, if it good land. The hills bigger’n any white man, I reckon. Take more ‘n jest trouble to run me off the hills. I been in trouble. I been born in trouble. Shareworked these hills from the bad land clean to the mines at Madison. Now the land done got tired. (…) The land has jest give up and I guess it’s good for things to come out like this. Now us got to give up too.

Compared to Hattie, Big Mat is a silly sentimental fool who arrives at the correct conclusion by way of a strange and archaic process of reasoning. This, too, will be repeated in the rest of the book in various guises. There is no sympathy with Big Mat, whose obsessive but dispassionate relationship to a prostitute later in the novel is described like this:

Big Mat had slapped her around. He had made love to her tired body. It had not responded to either. He had gone to work twice and come home twice. Everything remained the same.

You can spent ages unpacking just this beginning of the novel, which isn’t more than a prelude, and introduction to the characters before putting them on a train north. At the same time, Attaway states most of the book’s concerns in an incredibly precise and concise although not always aesthetically pleasing way.

The rest of the novel develops and examines concerns that are already embedded in the early sections. The three brothers move north, and find work in a steel mill. Various disasters happen to them, and not all of the three will make it out of the ensuing tumults and turmoils. Big Mat meets and falls for the aforementioned prostitute. He is accepted by the Irish workers because of his strength (to quote one of his co-workers “He’s got some Irish in him somewhere […]. Lots of Black fellas have got Irish guts.”), but accidents, fights, depression and their fellow men wear all three brothers down in a book that always feels oppressive and dark. You’re not surprised by any bad turns because you sort of expected them to come. All this is not as simple as it sounds. The whole novel is as densely packed as the beginning and offers a multitude of ideas to work with. These things alone make it a novel worth reading. But there’s more.

It’s a novel about the Great Migration that turns into a book about industrialized oppression and the evils of exploitative capitalism; true, novels by more famous writers on the same subject, like Upton Sinclair’s 1906 masterpiece The Jungle are still in print, and are reprinted in multiple classic editions. But Blood on the Forge offers a vital antidote to the racism prevalent in many of these books. Sinclair and many of his contemporaries depict strikebreakers in labor conflicts as being black, which wouldn’t be so bad, if strikebreakers were not usually described as a villainous mass of people. In The Jungle, Sinclair speaks of “a throng of stupid black Negroes”, and feels obliged to offer this assessment of this group of people he just demonized in a few brushstrokes:

The ancestors of these black people had been savages in Africa; and since then they had been chattel slaves, or had been held down by a community ruled by the traditions of slavery. Now for the first time they were free,–free to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves.

William Attaway’s novel offers us the other side of the story. When he has someone tell us early on: “[People] always hate new niggers round here [because] the company bring them in when there strike talk. Keep the old men in line.”, it is an obvious reference to the long history of radical American prose with black strikebreakers playing the role of henchmen to the company bosses. This is remarkable in and of itself, but what’s more striking (no pun intended) is the fact that he doesn’t sacrifice a more general awareness in the process, which elevates his novel beyond those of writers with less generous empathies and more narrow awarenesses. And there’s so much more. I haven’t even touched on the two other brothers and their (significant) roles in the book, including most prominently, Melody’s music and Chinatown’s limitations, I haven’t begun to touch on the nature/culture rift discussed by the novel. You could write books and books about this novel. And this is its biggest weakness. With all the stories and ideas, there’s not much room for the slow business of literary perspicacity. But the riches the book offers more than make up for any of its shortcomings. Read this book.

A short personal note (January 2013). 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.

Hunter S. Thompson: Hell’s Angels

Thompson, Hunter S. (2009), Hell’s Angels, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-141-04187-2

Hell’s Angels, originally published in 1966, holds up remarkably well these days. It’s a wonderfully readable piece of journalism, exhibiting a singular literary voice finding its bearings and its author, Hunter S. Thompson, stands today as one of the most astonishing American literary figures of this past century. His vast work is yet to be collected and properly editorially assessed, but at least it’s out there, in many great editions, and almost annually something new is added. The most recent publication was a selection of his interviews, published as Ancient Gonzo Wisdom (highly recommended), and in 2012 the third and last volume of his letters, which has been delayed for a few years now, will hopefully be published. His work is political, it is both loud and tender, the work of a sensitive literary talent driven to the brink by a disintegrating country and the oppressive forces of the ‘silent majority’. Within less than ten years after seriously taking up journalism Thompson exploded onto the literary scene and evolved more and more into the brash, whiskey-swilling, gun-toting madman known the world over. Thompson traveled through his own and other countries, trying to assess the madness, the violence and hate that seemed to crop up everywhere; as a reaction to that he developed his signature style, ‘Gonzo Journalism’, or, as he called it “Total Subjectivity, as opposed to the bogus demand of Objectivity”. He is often carelessly lumped in with Mailer, Wolfe and Talese and the rest of the reactionary ‘New Journalism’ pack, when, in fact, his brand of genius is completely, unmistakably different. Thompson belongs to distinct literary tradition that includes writers like those of 19th century German romanticism. He does it, however, with an added strong dose of resentment and, well, loathing. Additionally, Thompson was, at least for a sizable portion of his literary career, an incredibly sharp and sober observer of the world around him, and a valuable commentator on culture and politics.

His best books are probably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In these two books he honed both his observations and his mastery of language and registers to a fine point. These are extraordinary achievements, among the finest achievements in journalistic writing in the 20th century, written with urgency, clarity and fantastic stylistic instincts. However, Thompson’s madcap persona with all its idiosyncrasies (immortalized as Uncle Duke by Garry Trudeau), the drugs, girls, and the later pressure of having to be the oddball, drinking whiskey, shooting his dozens of guns and making mad statements, all this fell back on his work and harmed its precision and even the urgent tone of much of it. The rest of his work, although it contains standout masterpieces like The Curse of Lono (1983) and Kingdom of Fear (2003), is less consistent, less overall fantastic. It really is those ten years between 1965 and 1975 that Thompson was at the top of his game, producing work that has entered the American literary canon long since. Hell’s Angels, his first book in that decade, is clearly the work of a writer still learning to use his voice, but it’s still a hell of a read, worth reading and rereading, worth thinking about and discussing. There’s a reason why this book keeps being reprinted in dozens of editions, and it’s not (or not only) its sensationalist subject matter. The book finds Thompson mingling with the infamous motorcycle gang, accompanying them on runs, following them to one of Ken Kesey’s legendary parties, hanging with them at bars. The central epiphanies, the turning points of the book are all buttressed or informed or even prompted by events witnessed by Thompson, although he has not participated in most described events in a book that is as more a history of the Hell’s Angels as it is a first hand account of their dealings. That said, Thompson’s use of his own experience is strategically placed to provide a sound, personal foundation to a slightly meandering narrative.

Hell’s Angels consists of four chapters and a postscript. The first chapter and the postscript are introductions and conclusions to the story of Thompson’s encounter with the gang. Technically speaking, the first chapter in particular is wonderfully done, conveying at once a general impression of the men on their bikes, their particular impression on Thompson and in his life, and a sense of cultural context. This first, short chapter, titled “Roll em, boys” contains in nuce much of the structural complexities and themes of the book to come; it feels like a finished, painstakingly crafted text. This, incidentally, is true for the entire book. It wasn’t until around 1972 that Thompson abandoned his careful drafting. This book is amazingly well wrought, merging disparate elements like newspaper articles, experiences and historical excurses into a rollicking, coherent narrative. If you come to this book looking for the slightly mad Thompson of his later work, you’re not going to find him here. The author of this work is a thoughtful, ambitious and thoroughly talented young man walking a thin line between outrageous experiences and sober research. There is no element here that feels accidental, nothing out of place; every description and every phrase is purposeful and effective. There is something excessive about Thompson’s post-1972 work, which is part of an attempt to provide a non-reductive view of the world, a reporting that contains all the chaos within the limits of an essay or a whole book. That is not yet the case in this book. The author of Hell’s Angels clearly worked from the assumption that you can impose a frame and a narrative on something like “[t]he Menace, […], like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with fiery anus”. The language is impassioned, literary and sober, depending on the section or chapter. Except for the postscript, every chapter is a mixture of lived events and cultural and historical criticism. The two-page postscript describes the event that put an end to Thompson’s close association with the gang (this is expounded upon in this unforgettable TV interview). The longest of the chapters in between first chapter and postscript, “The Hoodlum Circus and The Statutory Rape of Bass Lake” is the most impressive and has remained the most controversial section of the whole book.

It’s the most impressive because, 100 pages into the book, this is the first extended description of Thompson’s year with the biker gang. At its center is the annual 4th of July run, a “run” being a mass outing of one or more motorcycle gang on a particular weekend of boozing, playing and fighting. The impression of a horde of bearded, black-clad motorcycle enthusiasts descending on some small Midwest town is fearsome, and in 1964, when the 4th of July run takes place that Thompson took part in, the locals in Bass Lake, where that year’s destination was, are forewarned, and were armed to the teeth. The run allows Thompson to explain the group mechanisms active in the Hell’s Angels and also to show how at that time regular people, cops and the gang members interacted. As everywhere else in the book, this chapter is only roughly linear, jumping to different events that happened before and after the run, explaining cultural backgrounds and specific prejudice. One of those explanations, and probably the most extensive one, as well as the one that made the book controversial, is centered on the topic of sex and rape. The Hell’s Angels are portrayed as insatiable purveyors of sex in various forms. They are casually sexual in contact with one another, but what’s an issue is that they regularly gang rape women. It is uncomfortable to read through a long, repeated account of abuse directed at women, and to have to listen to the Angels’ ridiculous self-important defensive explanations. What’s worse is that in many cases, Thompson appears to be standing close by, his tape recorder turned on, his journalist’s ears twitching, doing nothing. The book itself also contains no condemnation of this sexual practice. All this is difficult to read, but it is, critics often assure us, somewhat cushioned by the general air of disapproval that swathes the whole book. Thompson makes it clear that he does not agree with the vaguely right wing, misogynist, violent attitude that defines much of what the Hell’s Angels stand for. But he doesn’t condemn them except in some strategic instances, because they are not the (only) enemy in his sights. This trade-off of ‘real’ enemies vs. actually observed victims is itself violently misogynist in structure and makes this book, like many other instances in Thompson’s work, deeply disturbing to the reader.

Unlike a lot of his later work, and despite the impression that the past two paragraphs might have conveyed, the participation of the author in the events described in the book is actually much less central. At its heart, Hell’s Angels is arguably less about the havoc wrought by the bearded, carelessly violent gang members, than it is about the narrative, the evolving legend of the Hell’s Angels, engineered by lazy and bigoted journalists and lazy and bigoted local politicians. This is not to say that Thompson approves of the methods of the gang he observes. He does not. But the intellectual focus of the book is still on the distortion created by the national and local press, and the effect this has on local communities and the Hell’s Angels themselves. At one point, late in the book, he writes

I was not surprised that the eight articles gave eight different viewpoints on the riot, because no reporter can be on every scene and they get their information from different people. But it would have been reassuring to find a majority agreement on something as basic as the number of arrests; it would have made the rest of the information easier to live with.

This passage, and others like it, displays a disappointment with his colleagues that provided fertile grounds for the journalistic cynicism that completely pervades his book about the 1972 presidential campaign, wherein he gleefully recounts facts and rumors he made up and spread through the newsroom. By contrast, Hell’s Angels is conscientious in its use of facts and numbers, and frequently compares public and journalistic rhetoric with the facts on file, a concern that was front and center in his work as early as 1965, when he published a newspaper article in The Nation (read part of it here) about the gang and their alleged exploits. In his book, Thompson quotes Kierkegaard, who said that “[t]he daily press is the evil principle of the modern world“, and yet the book itself is a masterpiece of journalism; this is not a contradiction. The attack on the ‘daily press’ is of course not an attack on all journalistic endeavors, but an attack on the outrage machinery that is fueled by politicians and journalists alike, a machine that enforces a strict (and sometimes irrational) moral code on everyone by steering public opinion in the right direction. Thompson shows how politicians and journalists support each other in building a narrative that has surprisingly little connection to the world of facts and figures. This is impressive, and always well done. But he doesn’t stop there.

It’s the peculiar nature of the Hell’s Angels that allows him to show how these narratives then influence the world outside, not just by turning the population against the invading motorcyclists. They also affect the Hell’s Angels themselves. In an early chapter, Thompson points out to what extent the Hell’s Angels were a product both of scaremongering journalism and of popular culture. Apart from the influence that films like Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels had, a veteran gang member is quoted as saying “We were all Marlon Brando”, describing the effect of the 1953 film The Wild One on early 1950s motorcycle groups. That film itself is based on the so-called Hollister riots, a 1947 motorcycle rally that got out of control. The Hollister riots were greatly exaggerated by the press, in particular Life magazine, and were thus turned into material befitting a sensationalist movie. But here is where Thompson’s definition of his own work and of journalism enters the picture. Journalists like the ones working for Life, who pretend to present a sober account of the facts, can and should be held up to these standards. After all, there’s a whole poetics of journalism writing based around the use of tenses and phrases that create just that impression of objectivity. Thompson’s take on this has two aspects. On the one hand he points out how so much of mainstream journalism supports political narratives, pursuing a narrow agenda, instead of being ‘objective’. On the other hand, he rejects the basic idea of journalistic objectivity e vestigio and instead pursues a very subjective kind of journalism, one that is open and honest about the place of the writer within his narrative and the wider framework of truth and objectivity. Something that he would manage more seamlessly in his later work is still a very obvious affair in this book: he takes pains showing us not just where he was in events he describes. He also turns the use of sources into a narrative, discussing his tapes, his research and talks with outlaws. There is no information in this book that isn’t accounted for and completely tied to its author. There is no pretense of an objectivity beyond what limits the author has.

And yet, this is no weakness. The example of The Wild One is instrumental here. In the same section that I just mentioned, he closes by saying that the movie,

despite an admittedly fictional treatment, was an inspired piece of film journalism. Instead of institutionalizing common knowledge (…), it told a story that was only beginning to happen and which was inevitably influenced by the film.

In all of Thompson’s written output, there is really no better summary of his poetics than this. It well describes what he was to focus on from then on: telling a story that is bigger than the event actually described, a story that tells a larger truth, and a story that does not just repeat the same old mendacious narratives. The exaggeration that he often uses is not a deviation from truth, but it serves to put what’s really true into sharp focus, which probably reminds most of us of Adorno’s claims in his classic “Kulturindustrie” essay. Within the searing pages of Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson isn’t yet the genius writer that he would turn into a few years later, but he’s damn close. The book is a fantastic read of course, written and constructed by one of the biggest and smartest literary talents of his time. But it also shows the direction that his and others’ work would be taking soon. It contains the beginning of an age in its beautiful and clear pages. There are so many reasons to read this book. Pick one. Read it.


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Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

McCarthy, Cormac (2005), No Country for Old Men, Picador
ISBN 0-330-44030-6

This is just it: a novelist who has produced several incontestable masterpieces, who is generally regarded as being one of the foremost artists of his craft and his generation, that novelist is bound to be subjected to a less forgiving critical glare than the overall mediocre writer. Cormac McCarthy is one of the former, a writer regularly named in discussions of possible Nobel Prize candidates, a writer who, in Blood Meridian and Suttree, has produced two of the best novels of his age. After his last major achievement, the “Border” trilogy, which ended with the beautifully elegiac Cities of the Plain (1998), he waited for almost a decade before publishing his ninth novel, No Country for Old Men, which is so dull and mediocre that it almost seems a different writer’s pale imitation of McCarthy’s celebrated style and tone. Less like an inspired and inspiring work of art, this genre hybrid is more of a routine exercise in a style that McCarthy can pull off by now with comparable ease. As in the somewhat operatic late novels of other old novelists like Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Günter Grass or John Updike, this novel leaves us sure of the author’s competence, his basic ability to fuse knowledge and insight into a reasonably original prose artifact; as in those cases, we leave the book largely unmoved, witnesses to an author’s languid self-examination. But however little I liked books like Exit Ghost or Indignation, they still shone with stylistic polish, written in the dazzling prose that these writers have become famous for. There’s precious little of that in No Country for Old Men. On the contrary, the novel makes painfully clear on every single page why McCarthy’s great novels are as great as they are: because everything fits perfectly. In his books, the writing doesn’t enhance the structure or characters or the plot, it is inextricably connected to these elements, and in his ninth novel we realize almost instantly that as soon as something is out of place in McCarthy’s wondrous literary architecture, the whole building collapses into a malformed heap. This is not to say that No Country for Old Men is a bad novel. It’s not. For most other writers, it would certainly be regarded as a great success. The finicky complexities of structure and ideas, the ambiguous moral landscape, and the nimble way he fuses several genres and modes of writing would be admirable in many other writers, but his name on the cover of the book mostly highlights the flaws of his (so far) penultimate novel. As a reader, I can’t help but see these flaws on its every page, so it’s hard for me to recommend it. Nevertheless, whatever its deficiencies, No Country for Old Men is, at the very least, an entertaining romp through a modern day western, part reality, part allegory. If you enjoy humorous, well-paced and atmospheric crime novels, you’re likely to enjoy it. Just try to forget that this is the same man who brought us Blood Meridian and Suttree.

No Country for Old Men is a crime novel/western hybrid, set in modern day Texas. It consists of three different kinds of short chapters. The first kind of chapter (and the first chapter of the book) is reserved for Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who is the most dominant of the book’s three protagonists. His chapters are printed in italics and are narrated by Bell himself, in the first person. Thus, the very first sentence of the novel we hear is one spoken by Bell: “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville” and the last sentence is also his: “And then I woke up.” One would assume that he is, in fact, the narrator of the story, but he’s not, or anyway not in any obvious way. He does, however, frame the story in several ways. His chapters (or section if you like) are both part of the story and outside of it. As a man involved in the action, we can follow him through the story and learn more about what happens. On the other hand, as a grizzled old sheriff, with decades of experience at this game, he infuses his sections with two kinds of outside commentary. One is his memory of his years and years of work. Through Bell’s voice, we see the unfolding events in a historical context, and we quickly get a good idea of how the cultural landscape is connected to the violent and desperate individuals playing a game of cat and mouse in it. McCarthy’s sense of history is always very strong in his prose, but this time it’s more heavy-handed as we listen to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell ramble about the past and the present. Although ‘ramble’ may be too negative: the choice of words, the phrasing, syntax, everything in Bell’s chapters is endowed with the cadences of the wise old storyteller. McCarthy places accentual deviations from grammatical rules judiciously. As with the other factors, too, this is done in as heavy-handed a manner as possible. This is not oral speech taken down, thus lacking the refinements of writing, despite the dropped ‘g’s in gerunds and participles. Instead it is speech carefully crafted to resemble oral speech, most obviously by the fact that the apostrophe in words like ‘won’t’ and ‘didn’t’ is usually left out. Now, this deviation cannot be heard, it’s nothing but a signal to the reader: listen up, this is traditional storytelling. I go on about this at length because for whatever reason, McCarthy, in this late period of his work, starts to rely on crutches overmuch. The dropped apostrophes are one aspect. Many more follow in the pages to come (The Road, only marginally better than No Country for Old Men, is similarly full of them). McCarthy needs these sections to be clearly identifiable as oral, however, since he expects the reader to extend the local historical tradition that Bell outlines and read the whole book in connection with a local literary tradition, the tale told in the evening at the campfire or on the back porch.

As I pointed out in this review, the oral storyteller often has a moral and epistemological authority, and it is this authority that the novel wants, no, needs to invoke here. As the novel progresses, so do Sheriff Bell’s culturally and historically based pessimistic murmurings. This is the other kind of outside commentary, and it’s worth distinguishing it from the first one; in part certainly because one is backwards oriented (assessing the past, establishing a historical landscape wherein the novel’s events can be situated) whereas the other is looking forward, in the sense that Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium” is, which lent McCarthy’s novel its title. Both poem and novel end on a vision, but while Yeats’ poem ends on a phantasmagorical vision of “the holy city of Byzantium”, McCarthy’s ends on a symbol of the past that has slipped away, a past that has been replaced by shootouts and drug deals in the desert. In this sense, the novel isn’t, as I claimed earlier, a crime novel/western hybrid. It’s a Western that’s been taken over by the mechanized, brutal reality of our time. The basic elements, given enough abstraction, are still there, the landscape is still the same, and the Texan drawl of Sheriff Bell that frames the whole thing is also still there. Within all that, however, a new story takes place, and we are to feel the loss that it represents to the world Bell used to know. Now, the novel’s grasp of reality and of a dependable moral compass is a bit tenuous since Bell’s sections are so clearly marked as objects. There is no inherent support for these sections within the novel; on the contrary, the very first sentence of the novel could be said to undermine Bell’s sections completely, since according to Jim Willett, the director of the Texas Prison Museum, the state of Texas has never executed anyone in a gas chamber. This inaccuracy, placed prominently at the very beginning of the story, is an important sign post if we look for instructions as to how to read Sheriff Bell’s chapters. The other two kinds of chapters are written from the (third person) perspective of two other central characters, most frequently from that of Llewelyn Moss, Vietnam veteran, and professional welder. It is he who kicks off the novel’s plot when he comes across what’s left of a shootout in the desert: three vehicles, filled with dead (and almost dead) men, as well as several million dollars in cash. After a brief deliberation, he decides to take the money, since, after all, no-one appears to be still alive to lay claim to this particular pot of gold. This is where things get a bit dicey. The money has owners, who send killers in to get it, but more dangerous is a freelance killer, who’s also the third protagonist. Of these three characters, Moss is the most accessible one, he’s an everyman, caught in the crosshairs of bad luck, trying to first save the money and later on just his life, from the relentless pursuit of the professionals in hot pursuit of him.

Moss is unlucky, but he’s also remarkably stupid, making a few crucial mistakes that lead to his having to flee across the Mexican border and back. We become so invested in his story (although he’s only a cardboard character, really) that after a while, we may consider him the protagonist, but the last third of the novel quickly disabuses us of such illusions, if we ever held them. In fact, as it turns out, Moss is merely the human interest meat in an allegory sandwich, although he and his chapters do take up more space within the novel than the other two. Of the two, I already discussed Sheriff Bell, a stand-in for the history of the landscape, for the oral storyteller and an ambiguous moral authority. The other one is the aforementioned freelance killer, Anton Chigurh (which adventurous surname is pronounced similar to ‘sugar’). Chigurh’s chapters take up the least amount of space and yet his importance in the overall structure of the novel is equal to that of Bell. Where Bell provides a framework and perspective, Chigurh is the evil ghost in the machine. He is a cold-hearted murderer, but like Bell, he likes order, and his killings can be seen as a way to restore order. Like Bell, he has a rigid moral and ethical code that governs his actions. In many ways, he is the modern day counterpart of McCarthy’s earlier creation Judge Holden, the main villain of Blood Meridian and one of the best and most harrowing villains in recent literary history. To readers of that earlier book, it’s probably clear that Holden is representative of a more archaic, ancient evil. He isn’t merely a wrongdoer or a bad person, he’s evil, in the full sense of that word. The same, almost otherworldly, impression is left by Anton Chigurh, but while Judge Holden, a historical figure, was anchored to his time and place, this isn’t quite true for Chigurh, except in one sense: technology. McCarthy’s use of weapons in No Country for Old Men is close to fetish, the way he caresses names and processes, the way he offers to us a precise and accurate idea of every weapon used, and of the uses of these weapons. In many ways, I believe one could read Chigurh and the use of violence and weapons as a warped, disjointed, patriarchal take on theories like Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg. The book never qualifies this take on technology, it doesn’t offer a position on the progress of modernity outside of the flawed stances of its protagonists. But the fact that the sections that seem most normative are undercut by Chigurh and by the author himself leaves the novel as a whole in a state of uncertainty. McCarthy, as in his good and best books, reaches towards myth and tradition, but the novel itself collapses at the end. There is unfinished business in No Country for Old Men but McCarthy is no longer able or willing to take care of it. It is this twilight of two modern narratives that is the most brilliant thing about McCarthy’s overall unsatisfactory novel. But too much of this is obnvious, too much of this is presented in broad daylight, as an empty gesture to an empty stage. What’s left is murder and suspense, and a taciturn narrative about violence and modernity that could have been worse. It could have been better though.


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Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

Hustvedt, Siri (2011), The Summer Without Men, Picador
ISBN 978-0-312-57060-6

Here is something that is said far too rarely: Siri Hustvedt is undoubtedly one of the best novelists of her generation. In the past decade she has slowly built a body of work that has become more impressive with each new novel. Her fourth novel, The Sorrow of an American, may be a her crowning achievement so far, a perfectly sculpted examination of loss and memory, of identity and history. In less than 400 pages, Hustvedt offered us an intellectual novel that was considered, careful and driven by the urgency of the born novelist. It felt necessary, it was moving, and thanks to Hustvedt’s stunningly nimble pen, it was written with a precise and effective yet poetic style. Although she writes intellectual prose, her work does not resemble the ones of the likes of Paul Auster, Michael Cunningham, Haruki Murakami or Richard Powers, and not only because of her superior style. No, it’s the fact that Hustvedt’s work always seems necessary, well-rounded and complete. The point is especially obvious if we compare The Sorrow of an American with any novel by Richard Powers, for example The Echo Maker. Powers, a writer of gaps, of jumps and associations, has always put ideas before style; in his work, this has often meant relying on cliché plots and simple characters, reaching for a simple emotionality that is at odds with the sophisticated nature of the scientific and philosophical background of his work. Even his prose betrays his preferences, by slipping by turns into stock phrases and a slouching writerly gait on the one hand (as in The Echo Maker), or into a style marked by a sophisticated vocabulary crammed into a simple (sometimes even awkward) syntax, which makes for an unpleasantly bloated style (as in novels like The Goldbug Variations). However, there is a visionary air to the best of his books, and a highly insistent handling of the subject matter that keeps us reading, and that is responsible for the lavish critical praise he’s received over the past decades.

Hustvedt’s books are ostensibly more private, small-scale affairs, but no less visionary and a great deal more accomplished as literary works of art. She writes small dramas, employing her considerable insights into philosophy and science only as and when they are necessary for the story at hand. That, and the incredibly readable style of her novels might have obscured the fact of how extraordinary a writer she’s become, besting many of the male writers frequently regarded as ‘major’ writers of our age. There is bound to be a certain frustration with these matters, with this critical glass ceiling that many excellent female writers face who do not (or nor predominantly) write about the plight of their female characters. Most of Hustvedt’s characters are male, and her novels lack the shrill cry of canonical importance. As if we needed any further example, it was recently pointed out that Jonathan Franzen,yon bright beacon of self-satisfied canonized mediocrity, is reaping laurels writing the kind of domestic drama that female writers were always marginalized for doing. As I said, this state of matters is bound to create a certain degree of frustration, and I think that part of the astonishing energy driving Hustvedt’s slender, but magnificently dense new novel The Summer without Men is due to just that kind of frustration.

Of course, it’s easy for me to claim this since the book contains a plethora of rants and bitter and hilarious exhortations that touch on just these kinds of subjects. Indeed, The Summer without Men contains surprisingly little in the way of plot or characterization, especially when compared to Hustvedt’s other novels. The book takes off when Hustvedt’s protagonist, Mia Fredrickson, rents an apartment near where her mother lives after her husband Boris has left her for a French woman “with limp but shiny hair” and she suffers from a temporary psychological breakdown, which leads to a short hospitalization. The book doesn’t dwell much on the temporary insanity that gripped Mia, and dwells even less on her husband’s decision to call it quits after 30 years of marriage (although the novel does contain memories of happier times in their marriage). The rental she moves into is at the edge of town, and although there is no reason why it couldn’t be crawling with men, we perceive the area as a kind of female community, since those are the people that Mia keeps in touch with, both privately and professionally. Privately, she gets to know her mother’s circle of friends, a group of women who have made both happy and unhappy experiences in the company of men, and have drawn different lessons from it. The focal point of the group for Mia is the ninety-four year old Abigail, who has lived a life hiding in the embroidered folds of propriety. Literally. In her vast repertoire of embroidered objects, she has hidden images that would have clashed with the idea of what was proper for a woman of her time. Gleefully, she unveils her secrets one object at a time to a rapt Mia, who, talking to Abigail, her mother and the other older women, regains a firm sense of self. Her professional contacts mainly include a class of girls she starts to teach.

That class of girls starts to pick on one of their own, making her an outsider, a process that eventually leads to bloody tissue on the teacher’s desk, tears in the class room, and an extended exercise in writing intended to raise the self-awareness of everyone concerned. Even if we the readers had not been told of the extensive similarities that connects this group of girls with the group of girls surrounding Mia when she was their age, we would see that this is the obvious literary function of this part of the plot. In Mia, the old women and the mean girls in class, Hustvedt presents us with three generations of female experience. This is complemented by essayistic elements that discuss art, culture and science in almost acidic tones; this is done plainly, clearly and obviously. No attempt has been made to assimilate the various the plot strands, rants, comments, reminiscences and poems. They cohere only when we look at the whole of the novel as a long, coherent work. This is strikingly different from her earlier work which was always written in one voice, aperçus, remarks and various plot elements smoothed into one story. While her other novels are frequently novels of idea clothed in the sheep’s wool of a rich and engaging story, her most recent work is a much more obvious affair. Its story is more an excuse to develop a series of ideas about science, gender and relationships, and the author doesn’t attempt to hide the fact.

Although The Summer without Men is written from the perspective of her distraught and temporarily confused protagonist, the novel always keeps us at a remove from her by introducing a shelf-bending amount of other writers and thinkers by way of references and explicit quotes. Discussions of Emily Dickinson, behavioral psychologists and gender issues are woven into what is basically a long stream of thought that contains outside events as well as the the slow gestation of thoughts in the protagonist’s mind. Mind you, The Summer without Men is not a nonfiction essay merged with a novel, although the essayist fragments that swirl around in it are frequently brilliant. The book it most closely resembles is Nicholson Baker’s recent masterpiece The Anthologist, a meandering essay on modern poetry as channeled through the mind of its third rate poet/critic protagonist. Baker’s book is obsessed with its protagonist, molding the comments on poetic form and poetic tradition to fit his slightly unhinged mind. The effect would have been claustrophobic, if not for Baker’s light style; a book turned inward, its logic starting and ending with the limits and limitations of the eponymous assembler of anthologies. There is a similar web of connections that spans from Hustvedt’s protagonist to her elaborate musings on art and culture and finally even to characters and events that turn up in the novel. The effect is not at all claustrophobic, however, since Hustvedt’s novel looks outward, scans the ridges and valleys of culture and presents a woman protagonist who suffers both from a specific, individual fate, as well as from being part of a society that still fosters misogynist myths and stories.

This seems to be a somewhat common kind of narrative, but unlike canonical works of feminist literature (like Margaret Atwood’s scintillating, similarly slim masterpiece Surfacing), Hustvedt eschews essentialist symbolism. Her focus is not on the body and symbolism, or on locating ‘the feminine’ within loci and narratives thought of as male. Instead she hands us a story that could have been written by one of many mediocre postmodern novelists, but infused with a self-reflective awareness of how her protagonist is held and changed by her place in various discourses of power. It serves as a corrective mechanism to an American literary canon, where male narratives like Baker’s are perceived and read as universal. Books like Hustvedt’s point out how many things within such novels change if the gender of the protagonist, and the attendant contexts, change. If her earlier novel has easily bested those of Richard Powers at their own game, then this one takes on, and makes mince meat of, a different canon. This canon is led by writers like Paul Auster, whose work increasingly resembles that of the aging Philip Roth in that both contain sentimental plots that are garnished with a reasonably erudite discussion of literary and cultural contexts, all of which come to bear, in one way or another, on the sentimental education of his/their (male) protagonists. Women jump in and out of the books, mere foils for the protagonists to project their desires on. The sad climax of this development can be found in the lesbian fantasies in Roth’s The Humbling (2008, cf. my review here) and the pedophiliac fantasies in Auster’s Sunset Park (2010, cf. my review for details).

Hustvedt counters these stories with a doubting heroine, an angry, questioning woman stranded on what might as well be a planet without men, where women discuss and exhibit the problems incurred by living in a world where casual (and not so casual) sexism pervades science, criticism and everyday relationships. But her main hobby horse is literature. And it’s not just some odd obsession of Mia’s. One only needs to read one of the many put-downs of NYT book critic Michiko Kakutani’s writing; the tone and vocabulary of most of these petty criticisms (regardless of their overall accuracy) is frighteningly revealing as to the degree of misogyny of the writer of the negative assessment in question. One also might want to follow discussions of Jane Austen’s work, or read reviews of female poets. Whereas male poets are often just ‘poets’, female poets are ‘female poets’, more likely to be compared to other female poets, however close they may be to their male contemporaries. Mia Fredrickson is a poet and a teacher of literature, and acutely aware of these kinds of biases; what’s more, she’s aware of them in other areas, as well, pointing out again and again that the cultural and social center of gravity is predominantly male. So much so that, in fact, the “summer without men” is really a summer that contains a lot of men in absentia. Despite the female community and the female protagonist and the feminist topics, Hustvedt’s heroine doesn’t try to reclaim (as Atwood tried) a strong, separate female identity. These have, like all vaguely essentialist theories, weak points, reproducing identical biases, with the positions merely reversed.

In her brilliantly precise story, Hustvedt tells a story of a female experience that’s female not because of inherent biological factors, but because this sort of experience is forced on Mia and some of the women of her circle by the way society around them works. Lacking her exquisite precision, I find it difficult to pinpoint how fine a point Hustvedt and Mia put on this. In a discussion towards the end of the book, Mia argues for the primacy of experience over theory, but the whole of the novel is governed by a very clear view of the philosophical and theoretical foundations upon which the novel’s structure, from the individual events that happen, to the way the novel is assembled, is founded. There is none of the murky slough of despond like the one that takes center stage in the novels of the aforementioned aging Americans. Instead, Hustvedt’s book is driven by an almost crystalline clarity, which could also be seen as its main weakness. To some readers it may seem emotionally remote, an effect that derives from the fact that the novel depicts a mind thinking. Mia’s mind is working its way through various sets of knowledge; sets of things she knows and cares about: poems, lists of writers, stray memories. In the process of making sense of a radically changed emotional environment, even other people and events have to fulfill the role of objects about to be cataloged. The overall effect is mesmerizing, and The Summer without Men, while not Hustvedt’s best, is a powerful achievement. One hopes that she’s eventually accorded the place in the canon of major contemporary American novelists she deserves.


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Paul West: Rat Man of Paris

West, Paul (1993), Rat Man of Paris, Tusk/Overlook
ISBN 0-87951-502-3

Paul West is one of the least well known of major American postmodern novelists. Born in 1930, and still at it, West has written an incredible amount of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, none of which I noticed until Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. And I don’t seem to be alone in that. A quick jstor search for mentions of this novel, which, after all, is one of West’s most well known books, came up almost empty. Whenever he is mentioned, the tone is reverent and adulating, but the dearth of academical studies on West appears to me to be quite symptomatic of the shroud of oblivion that has sunken over Paul West’s vast literary endeavors. And, as so very often, this is completely and totally undeserved. Rat Man of Paris, originally published in 1986, is my first West novel and it’s an extraordinary literary success. To say it’s a well-written novel would be an unfair understatement, it’s a book that thrives on style, without ever being offputtingly obvious about it. At the same time, Rat Man of Paris is a moving and disturbing novel about a survivor of the horrors of the Second World War, and a book that is intelligent enough not to get lost in feigned gestures of witnessing and authenticity. West writes extremely well about the vagaries of an unbalanced mind trying to come to terms with a horrendous past and a confusing present. In this endeavor, West’s protagonist mirrors the European society he lives in, a society that is also still trying to come to terms with the terrible events of 20th century’s murderous first half. In order to make this work, West presents numerous tropes of talk, speech and memory, seamlessly integrated into a quick-moving (and frequently extraordinarily funny) narrative that contains sex, attempted murder and Nazi regalia. Paul West’s Rat Man of Paris may not be for everyone, but I can’t but recommend this powerful, very well written work of art. It’s a quick enough read which invites numerous re-reads, a book by a writer who, from the evidence of this, deserves to be much more famous than he is now.

The book’s maudlin protagonist is Etienne Poulsifer, roughly middle-aged, who wanders the cobbled streets of Paris shocking tourists for a living. He has a whole act, he’s the titular Rat Man of Paris, it’s his brand and has become his identity. There are vast variations in the way Poulsifer (or Poussif, in short) performs his act, although its basic rules stay the same: it is a highly formalized demonstration. He sidles up to a group of tourists, in a café or elsewhere, steps up closely and then reveals an object, a rat usually. Sometimes, especially as the novel’s events develop, he exchanges the rat for something else, a fox fur, for example. The means of presentation often change, but they always revolve around the moment of shock. Shock, that is, that is then tempered by recognition and humor. I’m dwelling on this a bit because it’s central to the way West structures his book. He uses the Rat Man’s act as a miniature model of themes and structures central to the rest of the book. Poussif doesn’t always actually shock people on the street. When the book opens, he is famous enough that people know that they are supposed to be shocked. He’s going through the motions of shocking people, in a very elaborate manner. And a formally strict one: we are told that Poussif has a very precise idea of how his act should be performed. The steps involved have to be followed exactly, and any changes are deliberated heavily and slowly. When you see the Rat Man of Paris, you know what to expect. There is certainly, even from those who know him well, a kind of pleasant frisson, encountering the sudden display of rat, but on the whole it’s a grotesque of sorts, an entertainment, removed from historical context or more conventional frames of reference. It’s an oddity, unexplained and unexplainable. A rat: c’est tout. Yet that rat, and his presentation of it, is not a job, it’s an integral part of his identity. This is what the book opens with, Poulsifer and his act. And as we read on, his future and his past start to unfold before us.

His future, that’s his relationship with a woman called Sharli, a geography teacher who gets involved with Poussif for somewhat unclear reasons.

Something in him appeals to her. [...] Affectopath, she sometimes calls herself; she hungers for affection, hungers to give it, and he has sensed this, as well as the tang and glint of her.

It is not entirely plausible that this would be enough to get involved with a freak like Etienne Poulsifer, but the book doesn’t care whether we think it’s believable. She falls in love with him, and their relationship proves sturdy enough, surviving several of Poussif’s manic episodes, his rapidly disintegrating mental sanity, a gun shot and slowly transforms into something even more durable and complex. We don’t get a lot of characterization as far as Sharli is concerned; from a certain point on, she’s just present, offering comfort and lodgings to the Rat Man. On the other hand, Poulsifer isn’t drawn in great detail either. We know him through his acts, through the things he says and the manner in which he behaves: towards other people, towards his own past, and with his own person. There are many things about this book that show the careful reader what an extraordinary master Paul West is, but one of the most obvious ones is the way he presents his characters through their actions. There are a few thoughts now and then, but they are, at best, thoughts in preparation of deeds, or thoughts functioning as actions. People are not described as much as they are displayed by the things they do. West’s characters are like the Rat Man’s rats, and his art as a novelist is the art

[h]ow to expose the snout, how to make it seem to move, how to tuck it out of sight and have to wrestle with it under one or two layers of clothing.

Exposing the rat does not, as we remember, mean describing the rat, it’s showing it in an elaborate way. In writing novels, arguably. description does not directly correspond to ‘showing’. West’s characterization through action, though, does. This is not new, by all means, nor is it rare. What is, however, is the fact that West manages to combine what in many writers engenders a simpler style, with an almost feverish language. West changes rhythms like trains, from sentences front-loaded with participial constructions, to longer, more supple sentences and truly simple short phrases. Sentences can stiffen or loosen up within a single paragraph, becoming more or less formal, for example. None of this ever seems chaotic, which is also why none of this happens at the expense of readability. West is in control of his style which marries narrative economy with syntactical gluttony.

I should admit at this point that my enthusiasm for West may stem from the fact that this is the first book I read of his, but that does not make his achievement less of an achievement. Thus, while it may be sensible to subtract some hyperbole from what I say, the core point, West’s fundamental excellence, should remain untouched. And while style and literary finesse is the most obvious sign of that excellence, his treatment of the dark subject at the heart of the book is another, arguably more important one. The book’s cover in my edition, a collage by Ellen Weinstein, shows part of a photograph of the infamous Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, ‘the Butcher of Lyon’. The novel’s time-frame falls straight into the period when Barbie was incarcerated after having been extradited to France from Bolivia in 1984; Rat Man of Paris was published just before Barbie’s trial began in 1987. In the novel, it’s Barbie’s face in the Parisian newspapers that awakens Poulsifer’s madness. As it turns out, he is a survivor of a village massacre by German troops in WWII, a catastrophe that has shaped his whole adult life. He seems to have managed, however, to sublimate the fears, anger and the horrific memories; there’s no doubt that the formal exigencies of his rat act helped him to achieve this. If at all, he remembers his past empty in “dribs, drabs”. He has, one might say, struck an uneasy détente with his past, forgetting just enough to stay reasonably sane. When the pictures of Barbie turn up in the newspapers, memories rush back at him. Although Barbie was probably not present at the village massacre (the book isn’t completely clear on this), seeing this SS-Hauptsturmführer seems to force him to remember his childhood trauma, however spottily. He remembers all the central SS officers present at the massacre, except for the commanding officer, who forms a hollow, unnamed hole at the heart of his memories.

This hole Poussif fills with the images of Klaus Barbie. Entering a downward spiral of rage and obsession, he starts dressing in a Nazi uniform as part of his old act. He never abandons his formal rules, doing everything according to his own code, which, as I mentioned, even includes rules for how to adapt and change his act. Thus his act constantly evolves, getting stranger and stranger, and losing the element of shock, becoming more historically charged. At the same time, he becomes more famous by the day, plastering Paris with posters advertising his act and accusing Barbie of heinous crimes he committed and of many he did not commit, maintaining that guilt of collectively committed crimes of such magnitude falls on each individual. Thus, he enlists a variety of media to tell his story. Additionally, he is followed around by a mysterious Spanish novelist, intent on telling the Rat Man’s story. There is, in the way West portrays Poussif’s changing acts, a very clear comment on the empty, ritualistic nature of public remembrances today. Just as people gather patiently around the uniform-clad Poussif to enjoy his droll act for the few minutes that it takes, thus we also gather around our places of remembrance for the rituals of remembering. Poussif doesn’t aim for entertainment anymore. He rages against the conventional limits of street entertainment, attempting to actually shock people, incite them to action against Barbie and all the other nameless and faceless Nazis he represents. West is not actually trying to provide testimony, or to fake it. On the other hand, he does not go down the road of books like John Boyne’s unbearably sanitized Boy in the Striped Pajamas (cf. my review of that book) either. Of course, individual testimony matters. Of course accuracy matters. However, in Rat Man of Paris, we also see the need for public remembrance, public outrage, a public sense of history. Paul West takes on a difficult territory and he doesn’t cut corners. He knows the limits that separate the things he can say about history and those he can’t. Plus. there is almost no gore, no violent, shocking imagery in his book; instead, his readers are upset finding that someone has scrawled “Forget” on a sign that originally said “Remember”. Rat Man of Paris is an attempt to sort out issues of guilt and memory in a masterful way.

By displaying such care and precision in matters of history, Paul West’s harrowing little novel is an example of a postmodern novel powered by an intelligent conscience as well as style. Of course, if we look at the means employed by West, we can immediately see that he makes use of ye olde postmodern toolbox. We encounter, for example, all kinds of narrative media in the book. Television interview, newspaper articles, we find reporters, Poussif himself, and a mysterious novelist, all helping to reflect and mirror Poulsifer’s rage and indignation. The book offers to its readers a protagonist who enlists a whole city as a canvas on which to tell his story of 20th century horrors. All this is naturally part of a toolbox which has been used by all kinds of writers far inferior to West. The most egregious case is probably Paul Auster, who has reaped success for presenting a diluted, anodyne version of powerful novelists like Paul West. In West’s work, we are always aware of the weight of words and actions; in it, playacting is more than just a smart literary version of Find The Lady. Acting is a reflection of everyday acts, and is rooted in the quotidian. On every page of Rat Man of Paris, a deep affection shines through, for his characters and the possibilities inherent in them and in their language. Paul West is a humane writer, an intelligent writer and a deeply gifted stylist. Read this book.

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.


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Gene Luen Yang: American Born Chinese

Yang, Gene Luen (2006), American Born Chinese, Square Fish
ISBN 978-0-312-38448-7

American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, created only five years into his career in comics, won several prizes and deservedly so. Among several honors it was the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for a National Book Award; additionally, it won the coveted Eisner award, the Reuben award, and the Michael L. Printz award. However, being a NBA finalist (in the YA fiction category) is especially interesting and significant: Gene Luen Yang, who is both writer and artist, didn’t just produce a superior graphic novel, one of the best books of the non-superhero comic genre I’ve recently read, but a surprisingly complex young adult novel, within whatever convention. At 233 generously-margined pages, it’s not a big book, yet the story it tells, of Asian-American identity in a predominantly white(seeming) culture, is told with the scope of a larger, more epic book. Told not just through the writing: Yang’s art work (and Lark Pien’s colors) is simple, cartoonish, yet it delivers its points with aplomb; American Born Chinese is a serious book, one that makes concise and important points about second generation immigrant experience; but Yang’s art, as well as the light, humorous but never farcical dialogue, make this an entertaining, an amusing read. Yang creates indelible characters, although he doesn’t need all of them to be realistic, three-dimensional representations of reality. Instead, he weaves together myth, stark media criticism and a emotionally moving story of an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy growing up, and not just with what seems like effortlessness. As we read through the last pages of the book we can’t help but realize that Yang has managed to tie off the various strands of his story with a sophisticated flourish that is (to be honest) quite unexpected from comic books written for children.

These strands mainly consist of three stories told separately, in alternating chapters. All three are drawn in the exact same style, differing only in small respects, if at all, which helps bring home the idea that all three stories are really only about different aspects of the same story, i.e. what it’s like to be an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy. These three stories, similar though they look, draw on different traditions, and reference different media, different ways of telling a tale. This absolves Yang from having to be openly preachy or lecturing in the most ‘realistic’ strand of the book, because he can rely on our knowledge of these modes of writing and storytelling. He knows that in our heads, all this comes together and makes sense in an obvious yet not obtrusive way. The conventions and lines of thought and plot are so clear and move the book along so quickly, that, at the end, as all three stories finally collapse into a single one, we are even slightly taken aback. This moment of explicit synthesis at the end poses more of a challenge than the separated strands did in the bulk of the book. All these aspects show that Yang is an artist both with a profound knowledge both of the extent of our knowledge of cultural termini, tropes and markers, and with the ability to use this knowledge in a way that is accessible and rewarding. American Born Chinese is a book for young adults, and it continues a trend in recent YA fiction of creating art that does not talk down to its pimpled audience, but involves them both emotionally as well as intellectually in surprising ways. The most surprising way of them all is Yang’s decision to make the final tweak, the last part, less about shock, less about hammering a moral stance into its readers. No, the final section is about art, it asks its readers to really think about the function of each of the three story lines. This is easily the most elegant, smart, self-reflexive ending I’ve read in a book targeted at young adults in a long, long time.

Much of the complexity of this derives from the first of these story strands, a re-telling of the story of the Monkey King from the Chinese classic Journey To The West. This is a novel about a monk’s pilgrimage through China to India, accompanied by his three protectors, three mythical helpers. Among them: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. The monk barely makes an appearance in the book, which rather looks at Sun Wukong’s life before he became the monk’s protector. It tells us about how Wukong became one of the most powerful demons of his time. We see how he learns the “Arts of Kung Fu”, including the “Four Major Heavenly Disciplines”, yet when he tries to enter a dinner party for demons, spirits and gods, he is thrown out by the scruff of his neck on account of his merely being a monkey. Sun Wukong then proceeds to throw the heavens into Chaos, defeating heavenly armies, beating up Gods and so on. The diminutive monkey seethes with anger, trying to force the Gods, spirits and demons of the heavens to acknowledge him as an equal. Eventually, he uses his skills to change his shape, making himself taller and stronger of body; this change marks a difference even to his fellow monkeys, and places him, as a queer mixture of monkey and humanoid demon, between two worlds without being able to belong to either. It takes the Buddha himself to take him down a notch: after losing a challenge posed to him by the chubby deity, the Monkey King finds himself trapped for several hundred years under a mountain, until the monk comes and frees him. The story, as sketched out here, is canonical. There is little that Yang actually changed about it, it is straight myth, though told with a lightness of tone befitting the book’s audience. What is interesting is the visual aspect of it all: on the one hand, Yang’s panels crawl with a slapstick-like humor, on the other hand, his representations of demons and Gods are clearly rooted in traditional imagery, containing echoes of traditional Chinese theater masks.

In as smart a book as this, depictions of traditional masks and looks are not merely there to display ethnic roots or connections. Yang also uses them because they conform to Western readers’ expectations of how Asian cultures look, and of how traditional Asian stories would have to be told visually. The implicit light satirical criticism is enhanced by the other non-realistic story, which is introduced to us with a TV title card saying “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”, accompanied by a stereotypical/racist picture of a Chinese person with buck teeth, a long black braid, a cap, sallow skin and slanted eyes. On the bottom line of the frame the word “clap” is printed several times, suggesting a clapping audience. As this first panel makes abundantly clear, we’ve entered the territory of contemporary myth here, so to say. This story is told in the form of a sitcom, with the prerequisite laughs (“ha ha” printed several times on the bottom of the ostensibly humorous frame in question), and the typical looks, postures and narrative build-ups of the genre. While Wukong’s tale was genuinely funny, this one isn’t, at all; it is a rather intense (yet not preachy) criticism of the way we represent immigrants in the media, our easy way with racial and cukltural stereotypes. While the example of “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” may seem exaggerated, characters like Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali from the hit TV show Big Bang Theory (or indeed the brand new sitcom Outsourced) show that Yang is not far off his mark with this satire. More importantly, however, it sets the ‘traditionally Chinese’ masks and pictures from the Monkey King story in a context of how Asian narratives are told and framed in general. Also, the themes of belonging (or not) to groups that discriminate based on looks, of the imperfection of not being quite Godly enough in one case, or not being All-American enough in the other, these themes are raised and presented in two related, but very different ways.

All of this sets the stage for the main story, the story of Jin Wang, whose parents immigrated to the US from China. Jin Wang grew up in San Francisco first but his parents soon move to an unnamed different city, where Jin has to attend an elementary school with just one other Asian-American student. As a scrawny, differently-looking kid, he is picked on by many of the other students but seems to find a place for himself within the complicated hierarchy of school life, an achievement that is threatened when one day a first-generation immigrant boy (whom Jin calls an “F.O.B.” as in “Fresh Off the Boat”) enters the school. To survive in that school (sarkastically named “Mayflower Elementary”) means for Jin to be -or at least seem- less different than the majority around him. The new student, who speaks Chinese, and looks and acts much less like a regular American boy, is in danger of reminding the others of just how Asian (as opposed to Asian-American) Jin actually looks. But, his initial hostility eventually wanes, and he strikes up a friendship with the new boy that will even carry over into his high school years. All this is just preamble, told in a quick, almost matter of fact way. What follows is much more typical of the ordinary teenage experience and yet contrasts starkly with how the ordinary American teenager might have experienced it. Jin falls in love and, shamed by his different looks, tries to change himself into a more regular kind of teenager. This story is warm and readers of the same age group can easily relate to the woes and worries of Jin, yet unlike most of the readers, Jin runs into a wall of racism and prejudice now and then in a way that white Americans won’t. There are no easy answers for his problems and questions, and to his credit, Gene Luen Yang doesn’t try to provide them.

Instead, he uses the “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” show and the Monkey King narrative as parameters of what complicates the usual American romantic high school experience (falling in love, courting, being shy and euphoric etc.) for Asian-Americans like Jin. There is tradition, in the form of tales told by grandparents, and in texts and movies one is expected to read or watch, and there is the racist incomprehension of the vagaries of ethnic (or religious) difference. Make no mistake: Yang doesn’t throw his hands up in the face of it all. The complexity of the problem is his point, and the potential that is hidden in this chaos. American Born Chinese is everything at once. An entertaining read, an insightful deliberation on immigrant experience in the US, and a seductively crafted comic. The simplicity of the forms Yang uses turn out to fit each story as if they were created especially for them. And in a way, they were. The two contextualizing stories of American Born Chinese are, at basically allegorical, and not retellings of old stories qua old stories, but modern re-creations that just contain old proper names. In this, Yang follows the tradition of books like Journey To The West, which is itself a complicated set of allegories, pretending to retell the monk’s story but really providing an intellectual and spiritual mirror for its own time. What Yang offers us are three stories of being challenged by difference, wrapped in a book that might, read by avid children all over the country, just make a difference. Read the book, buy it for others, and follow Gene Luen Yang’s career. I expect great things from him.


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Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura: I Kill Giants

Kelly, Joe; JM Ken Niimura (2010), I Kill Giants, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1-60706-092-5

Yes, it’s a cop-out to assail those who don’t like a book you love with claims that they didn’t really open up to it, didn’t really engage with it, yadda yadda. Yes, it’s true to say that it’s probably not really a good book, if it only works for the very emotionally open reader. But, preemptively, that’s exactly the argument that brewed in my head when I finished I Kill Giants and thought about a review. It’s a simple fact: you are not allowed not to love this book. There is much in the book that is excellent, especially the artwork which is just stunning. The writing is, except for exactly two panels near the end of the book, always at least solid, more often great than not. But as a whole, I feel it needs the reader to respond to the way it tugs at his or her emotions in order to cohere and deliver a finishing wallop. This is an amazing book, yet as I finished it, I feared that not everyone might think so (although no-one in their right mind would call it a bad book per se). This is something that is true of a lot of fantastical, young adult or romantic literature: unless you accept their terms and read them with an appropriate openness, they won’t work. But even if you happen to not love this book as much as I did (and everybody should), you cannot fail to recognize all the excellent qualities of the book. I Kill Giants is a graphic novel, published as a limited miniseries with seven issues from July 2008 until January 2009. A collection of all issues was then published by Image Comics in 2009, which runs to 184 pages and is a gorgeously designed object. The writer is seasoned comics veteran Joe Kelly who has written all kinds of stuff, from mainstream Marvel issues (Spiderman, JLA and others) to I Kill Giants and the similarly original and odd Four Eyes. The artist is the extraordinary JM Ken Niimura, who’s relatively new to the industry. This, in fact, is his first published full graphic novel, I gather from an appended interview. The result of their cooperation is a magnificent, marvelous book that I cannot praise highly enough and that you are not allowed to dislike.

Graphic novels are always the result of both a writer’s and an artist’s input and a change of artist can mean a change in style. Writers can control the look and feel of a graphic novel only to an extent, and when they do dominate the artist, as Brian Wood does in his DMZ series of books (see my review), the result is often weak. And a writers’s efforts, as Millar’s in the early Ultimate X-Men issues, can be weakened by an artist who’s a bad fit or second-rate. On the other hand, a great artist can save even sagging, sentimental writing by transforming it into a great, affecting visual narrative. This is, in part, what happened with I Kill Giants. Joe Kelly is not a bad writer, and much here, especially the dialogue, works very well, but the novel’s concept isn’t, to be honest, terribly original and Kelly grapples with the difficulties arising from trying to keep artless sentimentality as far as way from the book as possible. This book, without giving too much away, deals with a kind of grief, one could say. In the appended interview, Kelly tells us that he experienced a somewhat similar situation himself, and it shows. Roughly two thirds of the book are intent on finding and exploring an apt metaphor for the protagonist’s emotional duress, but the closer we get to the end, the more loose Kelly’s reins are on the explicitness of the emotions his books discusses. This culminates in two positively cheesy panels full of well-meaning, daft, life-affirming advice. Niimura doesn’t complement Kelly here, he saves him from his worst instincts. All that said, I have to repeat and affirm that I was very moved by the book. Joe Kelly undertakes a balancing act here, as far as his writing is concerned, and throughout most of I Kill Giants, he pulls it off. The protagonist’s journey away from fear and into the light of day, friendship and family is always convincing, and, at certain points, truly powerful. Stories like this have been told before, but it’s Kelly’s achievement that we care enough for this specific pointy-eared protagonist in order to read this story nor as one of many but as a special story, the moving story of Barbara Thorson.

Indeed, Kelly’s skill at evoking his protagonist Barbara Thorson, bringing her to life before our eyes, is the most praiseworthy aspect of his writing, and the only place where he is not dependent on Niimura’s art to make it all work well. Kelly assembles a broad array of scenes, dialogue and juxtapositions that help us to see Barbara not merely as an oddity, but as a very specific, flesh-and-blood person, a girl that life has dealt a harsh hand and that decides to batter away at the dark force that invaded her home and her heart. As we meet her, she sits, hidden behind a bed-sheet, on which she has drawn violent mythical fight scenes, planning her imminent fight against the giants. Because Barbara Thorson, as we learn a few pages later, is a giant-killer, carrying a hammer with her in a pouch, reading books on giants and conversing with invisible angels. Always ready to pounce and defend the world against giants or, even worse, the fearsome titan. Barbara is a natural storyteller. She has no difficulties inventing giant-killer stories and planning the upcoming fight against oversize opponents, in part because even before she was entrusted with this mission, Barbara was a storyteller of heroic battles: Kelly’s heroine is a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) Dungeon Master. D&D is a fantasy role-playing game that requires a high degree of imagination. A group of friends sits around the table, each of them an actor in a story that is completely concocted by the dungeon master. They act and react, but the environment, the monsters, quests and rewards are invented by the Dungeon Master. D&D has a thick rule book, but it’s the Dungeon Master’s reading of these rules that ultimately counts. He or she is the highest authority as to the specifics of the story, the world and the mechanics of fighting and living in that world. One very telling episode has Sophia, friend of Barbara, look for her in a comic book shop, where Sophia learns that Barbara commands a deep respect among fellow fantasy devotees. These skills, this kind of commitment to narrative and imagination is then transferred into real life and Barbara’s fight against giants. But Kelly is smart enough not to disparage and minimize her mission by treating it as pure invention.

Instead, he projects her obsession onto the real world, like a second, diaphanous layer. In this, Niimura’s art is more than a great help. Niimura’s vision of Barbara’s world, both the one she seems to inhabit alone and the one she shares with others, is stunning in its poetic power. The art does several things. There are, on the one hand, transparent objects, small little winged critters, like chubby little fairies, which appear to be scrawled onto the real world. They are related, the reader soon realizes, to the millions of sketches and drawings that Barbara has undertaken, not just on the bed-sheet of the first panel, but later, as well. The giants that Barbara sets out to kill do not make an actual appearance for most of the book, there’s no need for Barbara to invent or imagine them. For us they only exist as actual drawings, the accuracy of which is hard to judge. So in Niimura’s depiction of Barbara’s worlds, drawings as inventions and imaginary (or not so imaginary) beings and forces coexist uneasily, and each often intrudes on the other’s turf. As part of a graphic novel’s discussion of art and the imagination, Niimura offers a powerful plea for the strength of imagination to infuse our daily lives with, well, life, due to changes in perception. Barbara’s imagination is her own, the drawings and sketches are her own. She doesn’t trade cards or paint figurines, she draws from scratch, and the insights into herself or life that she gains are her own, strong convictions, scooped from her own plentiful source. Very early in the book, she stands up, derisively, to a motivational coach, because she doesn’t need his narrow, dull, restricted grandstanding. This is not to deny that she has problems that she needs to deal with, but listening, waiting, encouraging turns out to be the best way to help her. Barbara doesn’t need an educational fiat, a psychological, medical or pedagogical sanction of her way of dealing with things. Both Kelly and Niimura stress this aspect, but it’s really Niimura’s art that impresses it most on the reader who might skip some of Kelly’s overwrought language, his hokey, ‘meaningful’ dialogue near the end. A lot of panels, or even whole pages, would have worked better with no words at all. Almost the whole last fourth could have been easily shorn of dialogue and would have been much improved upon.

There is one last aspect of Niimura’s art that is worth mentioning. I talked about how he mixes drawings and a perception of the world. But he also mixes imagination and reality. In the interview in the back, he tells us that in working out a version of Barbara Thorson that he liked, he suddenly started adding hats and large rabbit ears. Kelly kept his manuscript as it was, despite the added ears, so that the dialogue or story never reflects Barbara’s odd hare-y ears, which has the effect of adding a constant level of surrealism to the book. There is no clear division between what’s real and tangible and what’s imagined. There are rationalizations, and explanations aplenty, especially for the more outrageous phenomena, but I think (and some people I know disagree) that the book never really takes sides. Motifs and explanations are fragmented and scattered all over the book, as rivaling mythologies, such as the many different evocations of meteorology. In fact, some scenes appear to make this point almost explicit: it is not about some vaguely objective facts of nature, but about how you read them, within which cultural and personal context you situate certain phenomena, what you are prepared to accept as explanation and what you are not. Niimura works heavily with visual hints and clues and it’s been awhile since I read a graphic novel that used the resources of its genre this exhaustively, that made it so clear that this is not a deviation from ‘regular novels’, that a story like this needs the images Niimura provides, that it is completely dependent on its visual aspect, and what’s more, Niimura’s highly successful in doing so. But not to downplay Kelly’s work. He does his part in adding layers of dream and imagination, for example in casting the whole story in a mythical light. You see, Kelly manages to both present the events of I Kill Giants as an episode in Barbara’s life, as well as a kind of destiny, a mission that her life is formed around. Even her name, designing her a son of Norse God of Thunder, Thor, is connected to that mission (and to the weather/myth ambiguity near the end)

In fact, Kelly assembles a whole subset of items and references that connect Barbara’s story to Norse mythology. Thor fought giants, as well, and he did it with his trusty hammer Mjöllnir, which was, like Barbara’s weapon, of variable size. I suspect that some of the intrigue, traps and upheavals in Barbara’s story have a parallel of sorts in one of the various versions of Thor’s story. This is all very plain but effective, as is another parallel established by Kelly: the American myths, like Baseball history. Barbara’s hammer is named after Harry Coveleski, a Major League Baseball pitcher who, during his time on the Phillies, earned himself the nickname of “The Giant Killer”. The mythical qualities of the American obsession with Baseball have been pointed out quite a few times, most recently perhaps by Michael Chabon in his book Summerland. Baseball, Thor and Barbara’s art and appearance are all mixed in this heady, emotionally powerful book, which shows us a person, enmeshed in cultural, mythical and social contexts who draws on her imagination, on her art to cope with personal problems. This is a very strong recommendation. You may not be as moved as I was, but you can’t miss the craft of Niimura’s art and the overall strength of the writing. Niimura’s work here stunned me, and it will stun you, however you react to Joe Kelly’s sadly uneven writing. This is a very, very good book, made by two masters of their trade. Given the fact that Niimura’s career has only just begun, this book is also a promise of great things to come. In my opinion, I Kill Giants is a masterpiece, but even if you disagree, you’ll still be admiring a lot of it.

James Welch: Winter in the Blood

Welch, James (2008), Winter in the Blood, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-310522-0

Books about Native Americans, especially books written by Natives are often prone to simple sentimentality. There’s absolutely none of that in James Welch’s starkly astonishing debut novel Winter in the Blood (1974). Welch is both of Blackfoot and Gros Ventre ancestry, as is his narrator. His previous book, the poetry collection Riding the Earthboy 40, was set in the same area, a vaguely unpleasant, loveless place. As Winter in the Blood opens, this narrator, who will stay nameless throughout the novel, has just come home, but this homecoming to his parents’ house is harshly described as “a torture”. And in the novel that follows, there is little fun to be had for the narrator who wrestles his own demons and his family’s secretive history in order to regain a sense of self. The reader, however, is well served by James Welch’s immense literary talent. James Welch was a poet and novelist who, upon dying in 2003 at 63, had only published five novels and three collections of poetry. This appears to be a meager output considering the fact that most of the novels, just like Winter in the Blood, are short books. Since I tend to prefer longer books, it took me awhile to get around to reading anything by Welch. This was the first book of his I tried, and I highly recommend you do the same.

Winter in the Blood is an absolutely stunning piece of fiction, a dense work of art, crawling with an awareness both of western and Native fictional traditions, of political and economic necessities and it’s written by a master of prose. Welch has managed to write a book about a Native experience without ever becoming maudlin or sentimental. His book is hard as rock, yet it’s welcoming to readers. The softness of myth, of oral history, of Native tragedies informs every page of the book, even as we follow a narrative that seems fractured, harsh, bleak, even. People hit each other, contemplate murder or deceit, they distrust one another almost constantly, and this is just those who are welcome there, who see one another on a daily basis. Welch’s narrator is a visitor, and, broadly speaking, a loser, who can command neither love, nor respect or fear. He’s just there, fending for himself. Yet at the same time, any accusation of bleakness must fall short since Welch’s book describes a hopeful trek towards, not away from a firm sense of identity. As you see, even a rough description of the book is complicated and apparently contradictory, yet one of Welch’s many achievements in the novel is its utter unity, its strong, coherent voice.

Originally published in 1974, a reader of the Winter in the Blood today, especially one who is not a Native, is probably far removed from its immediate cultural and geographical contexts. While I can read and appreciate its literary and cultural contexts for what they are, readers like me have to believe critics who assure him that the geography of the book is absolutely accurate, that bars and houses and farms like that really exist in real life Montana just like they do in the book. It seems that the author took great pains to be fair and clear in how he treats the landscape that he abandons his narrator in. We never learn much about the narrator’s life outside of his homeland, the city he lived in, the people he met daily and the pressures and contexts that shaped his life outside. Instead, Welch drops his narrator into a landscape that is rife with historical and cultural contexts, a landscape that tells its inhabitants about the tragedy of its tribes, and the foul events that led them to their present state. As many Native critics, discussing this book, have pointed out, all or most tribes have a story of hardship, a special event in their more recent history where the tribe’s survival was threatened and the members of the tribe had underwent trials and tribulations to make it through the wayward historical storm.

Native sob-stories often use that tragedy to underscore the present tribe’s troubling situation, and there are undoubtedly millions of troubling situations to be handled as stories, but Welch deviates from this pattern. His narrator’s troubles are not primarily due to his tribe’s tribulations, they are, first and foremost, personal issues. It is his connection to his tribe that ultimately helps him resolve a psychological imbalance, without any of his real world problems being resolved by it. His tribe’s story of hardship is the mythical story at the heart of the remnants of his family, his connection to his family history, and like in a detective novel, or a Rashomon-like story, he uses the malleable, viscous quality of the storytelling to find out a hidden family secret. This uncovering is not, however, something that we are expecting or thinking about, it’s a sudden, almost epiphanic revelation that has as much to do with the nature of traditional Native storytelling as with any careful thinking about the story itself. Winter in the Blood is four things at once. It tells the story of his tribe’s past in three different ways, it tells the story about the narrator’s present and the awakening of his identity, it tells us about a formative experience in his youth (a personal story of hardship) and it tells us stories about telling stories.

It would be easy, as I initially did, to foreground the book’s use of traditional Native narrative techniques and patterns, and its narrative reflection of those same techniques. In fact, although Native storytelling does turn up at a crucial point of the book and although it does indeed contribute to a central revelation, it is not the most important or even the most central literary touchstone of James Welch’s magnificent little book. One of Winter in the Blood‘s most important forebears is arguably Ernest Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River”, the final story of Hemingway’s collection of stories In Our Time. “Big Two-Hearted River” is one of Hemingway’s numerous Nick Adams stories, this one focusing specifically on Nick Adams’ return from war and a fishing trip he undertakes. In Hemingway’s typical style, Adams’ only partially successful attempt at fishing and his accompanying ruminations on how and where to fish take the place of sentimental complaints about Adams’ harrowing experiences on the battlefield. Fishing, for Welch’s book, plays an almost identical role. Absurdly funny discussions about fishing take the place of meaningful human interactions and the success of fishing, and knowledge thereof is used as a social and economic signifier.

Given that the topics of the book include life, death and procreation, it’s hard not to also see in Welch’s narrator a hapless variation on Eliot’s Fisher King. In fact, such is the structure of Welch’s places and images, that it’s both a Hemingwayesque realism, plumbing the abyss between the unsaid and the undone, and a symbolist landscape to do Eliot proud. In these qualities, Winter in the Blood reflects the fact that the land where the narrator and his tribe live is both a place where rituals could take place or have taken place (some of the narrator’s actions almost have a ritual bent), and a real place to live in, a place with problems and history. This creates a kind of tension, a tension that has the book’s readers constantly on their toes, both trying to parse a vibrant web of human relationships and a confluence of literary and cultural signifiers. The tantalizing thing here is that both Eliot and Hemingway write densely, elliptic, allusive literature, and drawing on both of these traditions only heightens the density of Welch’s own novel, which is at no point inferior to its predecessors, and handles both kinds of literary speeds with admirable ease. It is quite humbling to read a book that is so in control of its material yet isn’t difficult reading. Granted, one should keep one’s eyes on the page, but the book is actually a good read, a funny one, too.

In fact, at times, the novel attains a comedic level of absurdity that will have many of its readers laughing out loud, with odd images and zany dialogue that seems to come straight from a Marx Brothers movie. One set piece in particular has this effect. Welch uses the fictional convention of the mystery man from elsewhere, rich and inscrutable, who visits a village or town with some secret motive or errand or mission, and turns it inside out. His mystery man, though clearly and efficiently set up to resemble his conventional counterpart, has no such thing and seems, in fact, somewhat confused and bewildered by the town he ends up in. He intends to go fishing, and all kinds of patrons in the bars he visits give him advice on when and where to fish, including the narrator, but he never seems to be motivated to go fishing. Indeed, the more often he crosses Winter in the Blood‘s narrator’s paths, the more we start seeing his function as being primarily that, someone to cross the narrator’s path. This is part of the tension I mentioned earlier. On the one hand, everything appears to be described in a very realistic manner, on the other hand, all devices and descriptions seem to be geared towards the narrator, rising up wherever he walks, and disappearing whenever he leaves.

The protagonist himself seems oddly unreal. On the one hand, he is highly believable, a character crafted with sublime skill. On the other hand, he seems to be more than that. He is, we are led to believe, of mixed blood, and personally, I chalked up his slightly unreal quality to the figure of the ‘mixedblood’ as Gerald Vizenor describes him, a trickster figure that Vizenor calls “mixedblood” or “crossblood”. Without wanting to imply an influence either way, I think James Welch operates, in a way, with similar ideas. It’s the trickster’s influence that warps the mystery man’s motivation, and it’s the trickster’s influence that shapes the two tragic events involving cows that met with an accident. Winter in the Blood‘s narrator is hard up or else he would not have returned to his home, and however cataclysmic the novel’s events will eventually prove to be for him, they do not change anything as far as his financial circumstances or personal relationships are concerned. What he does, is, and I’d argue it’s the trickster’s spirit that partly imbues the narrator, to re-arrange the family myths, to re-shuffle his childhood trauma and to re-align himself with a certain tribal history. To do that, the narrator dons the cloak of literary tradition but keeps changing and inverting it. The bits I mentioned are but a few of the many traditions he uses. There are also traces, for example, of the noir, among other things.

Most important, however, is the way that the narrator fuses the serious and humorous elements. The trickster’s hand becomes visible in a kind of mock-up of creation stories near the end, and, more strikingly, in a queer kind of epiphany that starts with the sentence “Bird farted”. Bird is the narrator’s horse and its fart appears to make the narrator realize some hidden family truth.

Bird farted. And it came to me, as though it were riding one moment of the gusting wind, as though Bird had had it in him all the time and had passed it to me in that one instant of corruption.

This is unabashedly comic, yet the revelation, the new knowledge that comes to him in that very moment, is momentous, and life-changing. Winter in the Blood is full of these moment, yet this specific moment is special. It exemplifies the author’s mastery of both the tragic and the comic, and shows, like the rest of the book, why contemporary novelists like Paul Harding (see my review of Tinkers here) fall so short of the mark. James Welch is both a committed writer and reader, one who takes his readers seriously, his own life history, and the literary tradition he makes use of. In many ways, he’s as much of a regional writer as his teacher, the master poet Richard Hugo, and this is not derogatory. Winter in the Blood is filled with a thorough understanding of a landscape and the economic ties that hold it together. It is not, like Harding’s novel, set in some fantasy version of reality. At the same time, his command of the spiritual, the mystical, the prayerful moments is also superior to a kitsch artiste like Harding, because he grounds its needs and necessities in the real world. The result of all this is that Winter in the Blood is a great novel, and James Welch is a great, great writer.


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Jeff Smith: Rasl: The Fire of St. George

Smith, Jeff (2010), Rasl: The Fire of St. George, Cartoon Books
ISBN 978-188896322-9

Jeff Smith is an extraordinary writer and artist. Ever since he started publishing the Bone comics on his own imprint Cartoon Books, he has been consistently brilliant and fun. The whole of Bone, now available in one indispensable, addictively readable volume is one of the best graphic novels of the past decade. Since the completion of that series, he has undertaken a few smaller projects, all of which are highly recommendable, but many readers have been waiting for another epic work to approach the narrative scope and power of Bone. Two years ago, Smith did just that when he published the first volume of his new project, Rasl (pronounced like dazzle). I reviewed that first volume, which collected Rasl issues #1-3, on this blog (click here), and recommended it unreservedly. Rasl: The Drift is a fascinating work, a take on an ensemble of topics and literary traditions, from the noir to time travel books; it showed us a rough, unshaven young man, the eponymous Rasl, who travels through different dimensions, to find out he’s being hunted by a lizard-faced villain in a trench-coat who can travel the dimensions with as much ease as Rasl himself, and threatens his girlfriends in several dimensions. Does this recap confuse you? Well, it is confusing, as is the book. Rasl: The Drift is a dense introduction to what promises to be one of the best contained graphic novel series of our time. Jeff Smith introduces us to a plethora of plot strands, ideas, and lots of other suggestions. The Drift is a dazzling display of the range of Jeff Smith’s mind, and at the same time, it raises very high expectations for the rest of the series. When I picked up the followup volume, Rasl: The Fire of St. George, which collects Rasl issues #4-7, it wasn’t without hesitations. The expectations that The Drift raises are almost impossible to fulfill. And yet, The Fire of St. George is a deeply satisfying read, both following up on ideas and suggestions of the first volume, as well as further raising expectations for the next volumes.

Rasl: The Drift told us little about the protagonist. We learned that Rasl has a lover, and that there’s a version of her in every dimension he travels to, which is true for other people, as well. We find out that Rasl is a nickname of sorts or a pseudonym. His real name is Dr. Robert Johnson and he used to be a physicist, working with a friend, Dr. Miles, and a female co-worker (who eventually became a lover) on an exiting but obscurely dangerous new project. We infer that their professional relationship has gone sour and that this demise is connected to his current existence as a dimension-hopping art thief. This aspect comes somewhat late in the book and the overall topic of (serious) science was but one of a multitude of tangents that The Drift proposed to us readers. Instead, while we were busy trying to make sense of all this, Smith offered us several other kinds of explanations. Masks and symbols suggested myth and religion to us, while the lizard-faced man, the variations between the different worlds and the rough-and-tumble manner of traveling between dimensions had a strong whiff of the paranormal, with its implications of X-Files-like intrigue. All this appeared to be part of the tangle of Rasl. I say ‘tangle’ because The Drift makes no serious attempt to explain anything, it just piles reference on reference and plot on plot and character on character, stringing its readers along, offering but small clues here and there. This is is stark contrast to the new volume, which at times almost seems earnest, as it slowly, carefully and patiently explains a few of the allusions and suggestions of The Drift. The aspect Smith decided to shed light on first is the science bit, but he doesn’t explain what exactly is happening, scientifically speaking. Instead he has Rasl tell us the story of how he and his friend came to make a momentous discovery; at the same time, he tells us about Nicola Tesla’s life and his discoveries, his scientific genius and his eventual downfall.

Tesla has become a touchstone of geek-culture these past years, especially since the advent of steampunk fiction. On TV, Tesla has featured prominently in shows like Sanctuary, and the steampunk-fest Warehouse 13. In literature, apart from the use Alan Moore makes of him in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the perhaps most prominent appearance of Tesla is in Thomas Pynchon’s masterful Against The Day. Tesla appeals to a certain demographic because he’s just the right amount of anti-establishment, mixed with a dash of unorthodox genius. His attraction for writers is also due to the fact that for every invention that was eventually realized and used, there is an obscure, unfinished, rumored invention. And because we don’t really know, writers are free to imagine anything, and so Nicola Tesla, whatever the facts about the historical Tesla, has become some kind of real-life Jules Verne character, just as outrageous and mysterious as Captain Nemo. In The Fire of St. George, Smith even proposes that Tesla was the inspiration behind the Frankenstein in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein movie that deviated quite strongly from Mary Shelley’s novel. This idea is then followed up by a short re-telling of Tesla’s life as a scientist. For anyone even remotely familiar with the man, these sections of the book will seem a bit tedious, a reiteration of what seems to be common knowledge. Telling one’s readers about some relatively well know historical fact is something that many lesser writers do in order to manufacture some fact-related credibility for their far-fetched plots. The most annoying example of this is probably Dan Brown, but these days, that’s all the rage, from Kostova’s Historian to Mosse’s Labyrinth and the books by Preston/Child, bookshelves groan under the weight of annoying, simplified knowledge. Smith, however, isn’t a lesser writer, and his use of these historical sections may seem similar, but they are in fact far more complex and intriguing than that, but they don’t wear this difficulty on their sleeve.

In The Drift, readers knew they needed to look for clues to find their way around the bewildering events of the book, and so most will have read the book with care, parsing the panels for hints and subtleties. The tone in The Fire of St. George appears to be very different, the narrative far more clear and conventional. The X-Files reference has become stronger, with a mixture of unexplained phenomena (in the 1940s, a ship vanishes in the middle of the ocean), sober scientific explanations and the beginnings of a governmental conspiracy or cover-up operation. Jeff Smith, however, is a talented and insightful writer, and so even simple-seeming stories have unexpected depths. There is, for example, the absence of mysticism or religion from this volume (with a few eerie exceptions) although the first volume strongly hinted at these issues. But in the retelling and the images thereof, there are ellipses, and smaller nudges that one could almost have overlooked, from the fact that Rasl tells us about the creation scene of the Frankenstein movie, but omits the line “In the name of God! Now I know what it’s like to be God” that is one of the central lines of the movie and is, I think, one of the underlying themes of the whole Rasl story, that will be talking about issues like the creation of dimensions and the question of the humanity of people in other dimensions. Smith’s art contributes to this, by abandoning what feels like a dark, hollow black-and-white style for an almost flat iconicity in his biography of Tesla (except for a few panels where the Tesla bio bleeds into Rasl’s disturbed own life. This is but one example of countless others. Smith has abandoned the nested detail of Bone for a style, both in the writing and in the art, that seems more simple, dominated by large swathes of black and white, with sweaty, scared, hunted Rasl aka Dr. Johnson trying to make sense of the trench-coated man who follows him everywhere, making ominous threats. For all the explanations, we are doing the same, because every answered question opens up another pack of questions.

To the mysterious symbols introduced in the first volume, a mysterious silent child is added. The symbol tied into a whole discussion about native American myths, and its speculative connections to mysticism and extraterrestrial life. Since the symbols only appear in the ‘new’ dimensions, i.e. dimensions different from Rasl’s original one, questions about the nature of chronology and the laws of cause and effect are raised. Also, skeptic doubts about the validity of referring to any world as the ‘original’ one. The child, as well as Rasl’s multiple lovers add to this questions of the body, and of its connection to intra-dimensional energies. If this makes it sound as if Smith were engaging in weird esoteric speculation, he isn’t. Instead he is using common scientific knowledge (there’s a very short bibliography appended if you happen to not know some popular books on the subject (I’m betting all of you know at least 80% of them, so common is this knowledge)) and his own inspiration as writer and artist to launch questions and suggestions at his readers, nudging them, egging them on, raising expectations again and again. To be honest, there’s so much build-up even in this second volume, that it’s hard to see how on earth Jeff Smith’s going to make good on his promises, but experience tells us that he might manage. After all, if we remember all the things that happened between the first Bone volume and the last, we might almost be confident that it works out to the best. If it does, the Rasl narrative might turn out to be one of the best graphic novels of our time, similar to writers like Grant Morrison or Thomas Pynchon, but more grounded than the former and just plain different than the latter. Already, an announcement of a new Rasl volume is a great bit of news, but so far, all we have are teasers. If Smith follows up on them, we are bearing witness to a great work in progress. Already, Rasl: The Drift and Rasl: The Fire of St. George are excellent reads, intriguing, well written, fantastically penciled and inked. I recommended the first volume in my review of it, and I do so again. Read Jeff Smith, and read Rasl. The next volume will be called Romance at the Speed of Light.

Paul Harding: Tinkers

Harding, Paul (2009), Tinkers, Bellevue Literary Press
ISBN 978-1-934137-12-3

Published in 2009 by the tiny Bellevue Literary Press, a press run by the NY School of medicine, Paul Harding’s debut novel Tinkers was undoubtedly the major surprise of this year’s literary awards when it first won the 2010 Pulitzer, out of the blue, one might say, and garnered its author a Guggenheim fellowship later on. Harding, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, and a creative writing teacher at Harvard, has been inundated with praise ever since. After reading Tinkers, one can’t help but feel that part of that praise is not caused by the book’s brilliance but by professional critics’ guilt at overlooking this book, and at their delight at the narrative that its author’s rags-to-riches story lends to their pages and reviews. It seems fashionable to praise Harding, and the excessive praise seems a bit undeserved, which is regrettable inasmuch as Tinkers is a truly remarkable book, and its quiet qualities have been swamped a bit in the shouty acclaims of brilliance. To be honest, I felt a stab of disappointment a few pages in: I hoped that ‘small press’ and ‘lots of rejections’ pointed to an original, unusual, maybe even difficult book, but it’s none of these. What it is is a very competently written, very sentimental, very moving little book about a family history, a book about father-son relationships, about the mechanics of modernity and about the shock of spiritual enlightenment. It is a book that seems to appeal to everyone, from pensive teenagers to mellow grandparents. There is just the right note of formal rigorousness and theological thoughtfulness to keep it from becoming completely trite and banal. Tinkers, it must be said, is just an enormously likeable little book, tinged with melancholy and its heart in the right place. That’s all it is, but isn’t that enough, sometimes?

Harding’s novel is, one might say, nicely old-fashioned. With much skill and effort, he created an ars moriendi that could well have been written a few decades ago. There isn’t even a hint of self-conscious deliberation, of careful irony, and maybe that is one of the reasons for its broad appeal. Tinkers tells us of a family history with a melancholy seriousness, with Harding never once wavering from his project, never attempting to include the unsavory or the difficult. This is not to say that Harding’s literary skills are lacking. In fact, structurally and stylistically, there is much that is remarkable here, and much to suggest that he may be a better writer than Tinkers makes him out to be. The book may be sentimentally and morally straightforward, but Harding’s accomplished writing has led him to tell his story in a more fractured way, skillfully weaving three generations’ memories into a tapestry of personal histories. It’s very rare that you find books like this one, books that manage to employ the tools of modernist and postmodernist fiction with great expertise, but that are at the same time very easy to read and understand. In this you can see Harding’s profession and his educational history. Tinkers is always, above all, deliberate and effective, a realization which can cool down considerably the soft emotional warmth that Harding tries to evoke. One would think that a book which its author had spend years working on in his spare time, which he had been defending against a spate of rejections, that such a book would feel more necessary, more incisive, more interesting, but it merely feels cute and cozy and comfortable. So, yes, Tinkers is a sad feel-good book, the likes of which regularly make the reading group circuit (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a recent example). But on the other hand, potentially, Paul Harding is a better writer than that, and a more educated reader.

This is important: Paul Harding is less of a storyteller, less of an observer or thinker, and more of a reader. Tinkers is a novel that exudes the aroma of centuries of literary history, but it’s written by an author who spared little time to make creative use of that. Instead, Harding appears to have picked a couple of serviceable tropes and images and funneled the family history through them. Additionally, there’s an ill-advised attempt to write a pastiche or parody of 18th century tracts (as in excerpts from a book called “The Reasonable Horologist”), which isn’t creative, just inept. Actually, these pastiches are more than that: they are indicators that Harding’s reading of 18th and 19th century fiction is lacking a certain amount of insightful thinking. What thinking he does is almost exclusively focused on prose craftsmanship, whether his own or other people’s materials are concerned, which is why Tinkers is so good in that department yet so poor in others. The most obvious example of all this is his use of the clock as a central metaphor in the book, which is easily one of the most tired metaphors in all of literary history, having been used constantly throughout the centuries, in different cultures and different languages; and he’s really having at it: clocks are the obsession of George Washington Crosby, one of Tinkers‘ protagonists; they are also used in the traditional sense, with clockwork as a stand-in for the complexity of life. Lastly, the book’s preoccupation with the mechanics of clocks is additionally reflected in its complex (but not complicated) structure, where different periods, and different protagonists are taking turns etc. The book’s three protagonists are not all of them obsessed with or interested in clocks, but they are all tinkers, and Crosby’s clock-affinity is ultimately suggested to be a legacy of this odd family.

Tinkers is a novel about three generations of New Englanders. The book opens with an image of George on his deathbed, thinking about his life and remembering his father. His whole family, members of which are scattered all over the US, has gathered to accompany him on his final journey. The house is crawling with clocks but they have been silenced, to George’s chagrin. Harding doesn’t just latch on to a narrative method like Proust’s (which would result in too complicated a book for Harding’s liking anyway, one suspects, given how much priority he accords to cheap palatability), diving in and out of memory. Instead, the whole book is neatly cut up and compartmentalized. It consists of four chapters each of which tells one person’s story and intertwines it with another’s. This is quite significant: the memories that we learn about are not only or even predominantly those of the dominant narrator. Instead they often appear to be independently told pieces. In the first section, where George ‘remembers’ his father, Howard, for example, Howard’s pieces sometimes retell events that George cannot have witnessed. Other pieces are more straightforwardly connected to George’s memories. That first chapter is George’s, and sketches his comfortable situation, his friendly family, their patience with his illness, their loving care and attention. He lives in a house he built with his own hands, he had a good education, and worked as a teacher, teaching maths and mechanical drawing. His chapter tells us a lot about his life, although in bits and pieces, in small lists of information. It also introduces his father, Howard. Howard’s life is in direct contrast to George’s. Howard was a salesman, traveling the Maine countryside to sell and fix pots and pans, accessories and soap. With a wagon drawn by a mule (called Prince Edward), he spent all day in the open, often helping with a plethora of other tasks. Finally, the first chapter also introduces us to the problem of remembering and writing down one’s own life in a worthwhile manner.

In an early scene, George attempts to record his life onto tape, but he is put off by the way he sounds, “not very well educated”, appearing like “a bumpkin” who is asked “to testify about holy things”, but asked in mockery because “not the testimony but the fumbling through it” are the reason for his appearance. George’s disgust with this has him break off the attempt. In an ironic turn of events, Paul Harding’s novel itself sounds as if it were the product of a similar resentment, over-correcting the flaw and focusing on the sleek delivery and caring very little about the ‘testimony’, i.e. the content of the book. There is more to that scene than that, however. The failed attempt at autobiography I described leads consequently to George lying in his bed, wanting to remember, but not being able to do so in a controlled manner. Many of Howard’s pieces appear to be editorial insertions to provide a context and history for George’s impressions of Howard. The narrator appears to be a kind of literary executor of George, trying to make as much sense of George’s life and memories as possible, ‘tinkering’ with them, fixing them. This is the source of the aforementioned seriousness: for the narrator, George is Important, and his life deserves this monument. The book’s mechanics and narrative are then shown to be the means with which that task is undertaken. This is admirable, but it makes for very unsurprising and uninteresting reading. None of Tinkers‘ readers will have been surprised when they realized that George’s fixing of clocks and tinkering, building, repairing things is a reaction to his childhood, when he grew up with a ‘broken’ father, and, ultimately, a ‘broken’ family. The second chapter talks at length about Howard, who is suffering from violent epileptic fits, and whose lack of professional success appears to exacerbate this condition. He hides this illness from his children, but by and by, family life disintegrates.

The third chapter is narrated by Howard, and it is the only part of the book that is delivered by a first person narrator. There are well-wrought changes in the various third person narrators before and after that chapter, some personal, some not so much, but this chapter is the first first person one. This is significant in several ways. In this chapter, which tells us about Howard’s youth, and his own father, we never learn the father’s name. To young Howard, he is only ever “father” or Dad”. Howard’s father was a Methodist minister, that much we’re told, a profession which in the book serves to contextualize the errant wanderings and thoughts of both Howard and George. Young Howard’s family life, too, falls apart, and it, too, fails due to the family illness, one imagines. Although the fathers in Tinkers ultimately seem to leave their sons, the book has an almost foundational nature, telling its readers about an American family, with an American faith, living in New England. Accordingly, the countryside plays an important role. It is a rough rural landscape that seems to have strolled straight over from Thoreau’s rustic meditations. Harding does an excellent job describing the nature that surrounds his characters, the trees, lakes, the grass. Almost immediately, we have a feeling for the landscape, and just as quickly, we see how Harding’s descriptions of his characters tie in with that landscape. It’s a testament to his skills that he is able to conjure a whole world, complete with curious objects and a very peculiar atmosphere, in just a handful of pages. But these skills are not that of an attentive observer. Instead, Harding constructs his nature from the rich reservoir of American literature. His New England might be inspired by memories or observation of actual natural vistas, but the result is clearly not connected to reality as much as to descriptions found in the work of writers such as Robert Frost, Emerson and the aforementioned Thoreau, charged with an almost clerical faith.

Fevered visions of heads looking out of a lake, catching fish with their mouths alone, of teeth in trees and other oddities carry more than a whiff of a Christian literary tradition, with traces of Dante, Augustine and Milton disseminated over the small pages of Tinkers. But while these writers invested their work with some heavy-duty thinking and an enormous intelligence, Paul Harding, and this is the book’s major shortcoming, is merely a highly skilled version of Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt or Paolo Coelho, inasmuch as their opinions on life and death are concerned. This reader needed a break from the book whenever the author decided to wax lyrical in what seemed to be the most banal way possible, as far as the content was concerned; what’s worse, it gets more and more obtrusive and annoying as the book comes to a close, although the writing is excellent throughout Tinkers. Even as the neatness of the book’s layered structure, the power of its emotions, as these start to really impress the reader, Harding spoils it all by keeping to try and ‘meaningfully’ discussing the “unknowable” and describing preparations for the end while having his protagonist clean one of the damn clocks. I’m not saying it’s something he can’t do, because Tinkers gives off the impression of him not even having tried to invest his extraordinary writing with a modicum of intelligence.

Hidden in this book is a spare meditation about the burdens we inherit, about the power we have to start anew, hidden also is a fine, considered, traditional ars moriendi, with a dying man’s last thoughts, breathing a last, dignified breath. Hidden, too, is a book about the changes that Americans underwent these past years, about the role that acceptance and commitments play in the treatment of illnesses, and a book about the epiphanies of adolescence. All this is in there, but hidden behind a large smoke screen of likeable effects and cheap sentimentalities. It is downright depressing. Thoreau, in a letter to Emerson (July 8, 1843, if you must know), wrote

It is the height of art that, on the first perusal, plain common sense should appear; on the second, severe truth; and on a third, beauty; and, having these warrants for its depth and reality, we may then enjoy the beauty for evermore.

Harding took a shortcut. Instead of “severe truth” he opted for sentimentalities and instead of severe beauty he chose a hokum cuteness. I assure you, there is an excellent book hidden here behind the complacent, brainless tear-jerker that Tinkers turned out to be. Whatever its flaws, it is a nice read, and Harding, as a writer, is highly skilled, and his instincts are frequently excellent. This is not a very good book, yet it’s also not a bad one. It’s a disposable, but ultimately a moving book. It’s short, and a quick read, and imbued with the elegant serenity of Christian traditions. It doesn’t approach Aquinas’ claritas pulchri, but why should it have to. A very decent book, and miles above the tripe that Moore, Auster et al. keep publishing. You might point out that I read and enjoy a lot of tripe (watch out for a review of Twilight at this blog sometime soon), why am I so hard on a book that is clearly so accomplished? Because it could have been much better. Stephenie Meyer can’t write good prose to save her life. Tinkers is held back by a measured complacency, its author has actually remarkable skills and good instincts. This book, it bears repeating, could have been much better.  The result is artistically mediocre and politically problematic. However, the prizes awarded to this book are not a shock, as they appear to express a longing for the 19th century qualities Harding emulates, and his very modern, taut writing and structure, well-schooled and effective may just have clinched the deal. Why his mass-market-ready book was repeatedly rejected by publishers does puzzle me. The bottom line is: I wanted to like this book, I didn’t. Is is worth reading? Given the amount of extraordinary books out there, I have to say no. But if you look for a quick, competently executed, cute read, by all means, go ahead.

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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William T. Vollmann: Whores for Gloria

Vollmann, William T. (1994), Whores for Gloria, Penguin
ISBN 0-140-23157-9

William T. Vollmann has acquired a reputation for writing thick, elaborate novels with an broad historical scope. Writing Seven Dreams (starting with The Ice Shirt,1990), a series of 7 novels about American history, and Europe Central (2005), a novel about art and the second World War, focusing on figures such as Dimitri Shostakovich, Roman Kamen and General Paulus, has been a large part of that. In these, as in other books of his, Vollmann’s purview has always been enormous. He’s not content to muse about violence, for example, instead he writes a seven volume dissection of the phenomenon (Rising Up and Rising Down, 2003), the same applies to his reports from the fringes of the world, whether it’s Afghanistan (An Afghanistan Picture Show, 1992), the borderlands between Mexico and California (Imperial, 2009) or the down-and-out life as a hobo (Riding Toward Everywhere, 2008). Vollmann’s work, whether in short stories, novels, nonfiction books or short essays, is remarkably consistent. The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred, mostly, I think, because Vollmann’s interest in nonfiction isn’t analysis or clarity, it’s storytelling and rhetoric. In his fictional work (as in most fiction) we find strong characters, strongly molding the world in accordance with their perception of it. We see things through their eyes, and the same applies to nonfiction where Vollmann, far stronger than journalistic practice usually mandates, sets himself up as a character, a narrator for the world he shares with us, although he never segues into gonzo journalism.

Beyond facts or analysis, Vollmann’s work, through storytelling and rhetoric offers us a feel for a topic, an indelible impression of a landscape or the people in it, and his strong moral concerns further buttress our understanding of them. In those respects and several others, Whores for Gloria, originally published in 1991 as Vollmann’s third novel, is fairly representative of his work. Its length is the only aspect of the book that makes it stand out among his oeuvre, given that it is a remarkably short book. The similarities of Whores for Gloria to Vollmann’s general aesthetic are perhaps most significant where the book’s attitude to fiction and reality is concerned. In the short first chapter, the author informs us that the contents of what follows are “fictitious”. However, he goes on to tell us, “all of the Whore’s-tales” in the book “are real.” This is beyond discussions on the nature of reality and fiction, or on the amount of truth that an invented tale can carry. Discussions like these are well known by now and can frankly be somewhat tiresome. Like many excellent writers, Vollmann manages, in all his books, to hand us a sliver of truth, an impression of it, seen through the vapor of his admirable passions. There is an insight, if not into reality, then into the workings of certain coherent world views. We see how elements of knowledge, and a perception of the hard cobblestone groundings of reality can congeal to a kind of certainty, perceptual and moral. What we as readers learn is how things could be connected, what connections are possible, and how we might arrive at an understanding of them.

Seeing connections, listening to others’ making sense of the world, enriches our own understanding of it, or so I always thought. Learning, to me, means listening, and puzzling, and bumbling our way through the oddities of our environment or of texts, images, sounds. But here, we are not talking about these common elements of reading. Vollmann’s claim here is explicit and must be read as part of the text, it’s hence to be taken with a large grain of salt. There is even an informative appendix to Whores for Gloria, which, while seeming to support the nonfictional elements of the book, the essentially journalistic parts of it, the parts that “are real”, are curiously readable, soft-bellied profiles of “the Tenderloin street prostitute”. Lists of “Street Prices for Hair, Sex and Other Things” are similarly best read as enhancements, elements of style, filling in blanks in the tapestry of his fiction. We know that this is the case because the stories that make up these profiles are scattered throughout the novel, and within the context of the plot, we see how the stories adapt to the circumstances, how they mirror aspects of the narrative as a whole in general and the listener’s situation in particular. Its impossible not to assume the same for the stories told in the appendix, because there is, within the stories themselves, no marker that differentiates one kind of “Whore’s-tale” from the other. This is significant, because it adds an important element to the reading of the narrative, a bracket, so to speak.

The author’s persona, visible already in the first chapter, becomes a visible and meddling presence even in the rest of the novel which seems to be wholly restricted to the protagonist’s point of view. In a novel that charts a search for meaning in a darkly violent world, Vollmann’s persona is staged as another seeker for truth and resolution. This is not to dismiss the protagonist and apparent third person personal narrator. Although the Vollmann persona adds a subjective level to the book’s structure, this is not, while reading Whores for Gloria, the predominant impression, or the world-view that most preoccupies the reader’s imagination. That is the role of the protagonist, Jimmy, a Vietnam veteran, who spends his SSI checks in the dirty streets of the San Francisco quarter called “Tenderloin”, in the company of pimps and prostitutes, moving from bar to bar and from whore to whore. In Jimmy, Vollmann has found a way to talk about veterans from the war without engaging in a long and sentimental discussion of their problems and issues. In what’s a typically meta-fictional hint, Vollmann includes a character called Code Six, who has been so broken by the war and its aftermath, that he now lives on the street, having lost everything else. Code Six is a stereotypical, though marginally moving, character; the likes of him fill shelves full of books and movies. I take his role, in part, to be a suggestion where Jimmy, as a character, might have ended up, in the hands of a different writer. The contrast between Code Six and Jimmy is a kind of bragging about the fictional subtleties Vollmann is able to pull off.

It is not until the very last chapter and its very last sentence that the importance of the Vietnam war background of Jimmy’s biography and the connections he has to Code Six become crystal clear and obvious. Just as with the appendices, we need to wait until the end of the book to be informed about a conceptual structure spanning the whole of Whores for Gloria. While reading it, we’re following just one long conceptual arc, Jimmy’s search for Gloria, who, we are led to believe, is an old lover or girlfriend of his, maybe a whore, maybe not. I think the book is, intentionally, less than clear about this. Jimmy himself doesn’t have a strong concept of who Gloria is. Gloria, to him, is more like a phantom, the ideal girl, and his search doesn’t involve a scouring of his world for a trace of her bodily presence. Instead, he has several prostitutes, some of whom he has sex with and some of whom he hasn’t, tell him stories from their lives, their childhood, their experience on the streets of the Tenderloin, hawking their bodies for small amounts of cash. Listening to these stories, taking them in, and shuffling the different stories and his knowledge of the world as well as his fragmented memories of Gloria, he revives her, to an extent. He creates a vision, a disembodied presence of her, which, for him is enough. He imagines her with him in his rooms, with him in his bed, he is happy imagining her with him, but this is a fleeting illusion, one that needs to be constantly fed by the stories the whores tell him.

Jimmy can be sexually fulfilled without engaging in a sexual act: that’s how strong this illusion is. He will tell others about Gloria, he will share details of his illusion without making it apparent to others that it is actually not true. But then, for him, the illusion is true. He is living a lie, but it makes him, whenever he manages to create it, happy or at least content, for however short a while it lasts. Jimmy, unlike Code Six, is relatively healthy and strong, his body is fit, while his mind is broken. But in many ways, Whores for Gloria is a ballad of broken bodies. Despite the copious amount of sexual intercourse that is described in the book, none of it is enticing, nor is it meant to be enticing. Nights spent with Gloria, presumably sensual encounters, are not described. We don’t know how immersive Jimmy’s illusion is, and whether it manages to fake a sexual act for him, but the fact of the matter is that this, the only potentially positive sexual act, is not described. All the other sexual encounters in the book are harsh, exploitative, brutalized encounters. With a sure eye for the exact detail, Vollmann describes the horrendous conditions of life as a Tenderloin street prostitute, and the unappetizing circumstances of sexual services rendered on those streets. There is a dark loneliness, a deep need that Vollmann suggests to us to be the main motivator to have sex with a hooker on her grimy floor. Granted, Jimmy himself isn’t driven, not explicitly, by lust, but his observations of the prostitutes he consorts with show how unpleasant a sight these whores might offer to a prospective customer.

Their bodies are riddled with needle marks, they are either bone thin or ridiculously fat. This passage exemplifies the tone and visuals of the novel’s descriptions of its prostitutes

There were three pimps or dealers sitting on the steps by the garbage can and Peggy said to them would you mind taking a little walk while I do my business? When they left, Peggy pulled her dress up above her waist and knelt down in the filth of the street and stuck her ass out with her cunt bulging down beneath it as if only its matted and sticky hair kept it from bursting out between her legs; that stinking bush of hers really resembled a black spider lurking there and clinging here, and Peggy’s legs were covered with dark ovals and boils and there were scabby bumps on them as satisfying to the touch as the pleasure-dots on a french tickler, the sorii on a fern-leaf, and Peggy raised her ass high and dry to make it easy for Jimmy to get into her cunt and she buried her face in her crossed arms on the highest step. (…) When he was done, Peggy wiped herself (.)

Sex on the street is a constantly improvised act, the book tells us, and while there is a kind of hostility to matters of the body, as the extended allusions to the Plague show, Jimmy detects and reports a certain attraction to ugly details. The body as an object regulated by society and its invasive and often violent norms is replaced here by another body: the body as a serviceable entity where function is bother over- and under-emphasized. Additionally, there is a strong role that transsexual prostitutes play in the book, who are refereed to both by male and female pronouns, blurring distinctions. Although bodies are there to fuck and be fucked, the book has little in the way of restriction in the form of norms, such as heteronormativity. When Jimmy rejects the advances of a transsexual, whose erection is visible and obvious, he does so by invoking taste, not his putative heterosexuality. Although the idealized relationship at the book’s center is (presumably) a heterosexual one, it’s also an illusion and ultimately doomed. This profound ambiguity on matters of normativity and sexuality reflects one of Vollmann’s biggest strength, which his best work displays: to use observations, stories and literary tools to create ambiguous scenarios, dissolving easy oppositions. In his weakest works, like Europe Central, he opts instead for moral simplicity and narrative clarity, simply reproducing traditional oppositions and narrative trajectories.

That clarity in Europe Central is achieved in part through his use of short chapters, shuffled and arranged like stories. These short chapters are a kind of trademark in Vollmann’s work which he also makes use of in Whores for Gloria, but they do not always serve the same narrative goals. In the book under review, instead of enabling clarity, the short chapters emphasize the fragmented nature of the story offered to us. They also underline the heavy debt owed to the work of Lautréamont. What we find in these chapters is a smattering of stories, not arranged hierarchically. While the strict arrangement in books like Europe Central puts an emphasis on order, Whores for Gloria opts for careful disorder. Jimmy’s story is told chronologically, but his fantasies, things he may really have experienced, and the whores’ stories are mostly given their own chapters, taking away, to an extent, the reader’s ability to tell fact from fantasy. There isn’t a privileged narrative. The white male Jimmy comes to listen to the stories. Although he takes notes, we don’t get to see them as written documents, they are integrated as voices into Jimmy’s story, itself a voice. Jimmy doesn’t put a spin on the stories, and they, not he, begin to shape the image of Gloria. Although earlier, Jimmy insists that a particular story can’t be Gloria’s “because he wasn’t in it”, this presumptuous attitude leaves him as his quest continues. Truth, for Jimmy, isn’t up to him, but up to the whores and the extent to which they cooperate with the narrative frame he would like them to adopt.

From this precarious balance of narrative power, various complex implications arise, complexities that are exacerbated by the persona of the author, which reflects this discussion on the novel as a whole. The status of this novel as an artifact worth creating or reading is questioned, as is the integrity of Vollmann’s voice and the accuracy of his reports and facts. Indeed this cuts both ways, creating an ambiguous situation, balanced between doubting journalistic accuracy and pointing out inequalities in narrative voices. The book is, I think, not providing us with a suggested solution for the non/fiction truth quandary, but it does put a great emphasis on individual voices and stories. Hence I think, as mentioned earlier, that listening, hearing the gospel truth, that this is what Vollmann projects as an ideal (an odd ideal for a writer maybe). This ideal is, however, affirmed by the epitaph for the book, drawn from Loyola, which, from the start, asks us to read Whores for Gloria as a perverted kind of doxology. Gloria as a character thus becomes an angelic presence of sorts and the book as a whole comes to tell us not just Jimmy’s quest for the vanished whore, but, at the same time, the author’s quest for epistemological certainty. As Roland Barthes points out in the marvelously readable Sade, Fourier, Loyola, it isn’t until the advent of modernity that seeing was privileged over hearing, and modernity brought more ambiguities, more insecurities to accompany that change. The firm, unwavering clarity of pre—modern beliefs, the strength of religious, philosophical and scientific faith, this is what the author’s persona in Whores for Gloria pines after. The result, however, is a small masterpiece, a brilliantly executed, searching novel, often strikingly beautiful and sad. It’s regrettable that the mind behind the book has spent the following decade accruing more certainty and abandoning doubt in favor of a secular, moral faith.


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John Wray: The Right Hand of Sleep

Wray, John (2001), The Right Hand of Sleep, Knopf
ISBN 0-375-40651-4

There are so many books around that most of the time we barely manage to read what we really feel we should read or have to read, and reading a book for a second or third time is often just too much. At least that is my stance, and the reason why I rarely re-read books. In some rare cases, a second reason enters the picture: if I’m afraid a book won’t hold up, won’t be as good or interesting the second time around. This was the fear that I had upon re-reading John Wray’s debut novel The Right Hand of Sleep after reading and reviewing his excellent most recent book, Lowboy (my review here). Now, I was right about one thing at least. It really is not as good a novel as Lowboy, but I was wrong about everything else: it’s a very good book, a very smart and clever one, too, and a moving work of art. The Right Hand of Sleep is a very, very good novel and an astonishing debut. It radiates assurance, and displays a rare comfort and agility with the tools of fiction, but even this description feels inadequate. In his debut, Wray introduces here many topics that will resurface in later books, but they have a disturbing, haunting quality here that they don’t have elsewhere. Haunting is maybe the best word to describe this book, which occupies an odd place between memory and history, between an emotionally wrought tale of a village in decline, and a clever play with history and narrative. Its chief fault is a certain lack of decisiveness. In his debut, Wray is too often content with sketching something, hinting at it, instead of developing it in a more satisfactory fashion.

This is in part, certainly, because the topic and the setting is infinitely rich; in The Right Hand of Sleep, Wray is basically trying to tell us three to five stories at once, but at the same time he’s writing a very tight, controlled, technically impressive novel. These two aspects of it, the sprawling, wide, sumptuous fabric on the one hand, and the well-ordered, scintillating strictness of literary craftsmanship on the other, clash and struggle to cohere. Ultimately, craftsmanship wins the day in The Right Hand of Sleep, but the final result is too magnificent, too well made a novel to complain. I understand why some readers have criticized the book for being boring, too conventional, uninteresting, even, because it is really a very conservative book, written under the banner of traditional narrative. In those parts of the story that are set in a nostalgic, sentimental version of a rural Austrian valley, there is no parody, no irony or other postmodern devices to break up or challenge traditional notions. But Wray is a subtle writer and adds other kinds of layers that move beneath the surface of the narrative, tectonic plates beneath a seemingly placid ocean. The Right Hand of Sleep is a book that only seems easy to categorize, easy to assign and confine to a place on the shelves of genre. I am under the impression that the book withdraws as soon as you scrutinize it, that in place of clear and unambiguous stories, it leaves our hands full of paradoxes and tricky situations.

However, it’s hard to imagine any novel written by a competent writer that would be set in the period and place Wray chose and not be full of tricky situations. This comes with the topic. The Right Hand of Sleep is the story of a man called Oskar Voxlauer, who returns home to his village in Austria after decades of exile. The year of his return, 1938, is a year of changes for Austria: its fascist leader, Dollfuss, had been murdered four years earlier and the current dictatorial chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, under threat of violence, basically agreed to a takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 11th . The next day, when German troops marched into Austria, they were greeted by joyous Austrians, who, the day before, had celebrated the announcement of the takeover in a tumultuous fashion, which led Carl Zuckmayer, a major German playwright, to refer to the public displays of national socialist hate and rage as a veritable “Witches’ Sabbath of the mob.” On March 15th, tens of thousands cheered Hitler as he gave a speech on the Heldenplatz in Vienna. That day and the horrendous public reaction to what happened have been re-told and recounted multiple times, most famously by Thomas Bernhard in his play Heldenplatz. Its a curious fact about Austrian post-war history that Austria, a fascist state long before Hitler´s takeover, has always seen itself as an innocent victim of German aggression, on a par with France and Poland. It took writers like Bernhard or Innerhofer in the 1970s to destabilize that national narrative.

Both Bernhard and Innerhofer are important references here because, even though occurrences such as the one described by Zuckmayer and the Heldenplatz speech took place in Vienna and other large cities, these two writers were fascinated by and obsessed with the rural life, the ugliness in would-be bucolic landscapes. Bernhard’s first published novel and many shorter pieces that followed examine the cold, the heartlessness, the violence and mob-mentality of the rural population. Innerhofer’s disturbing debut, Beautiful Days (1974), does something similar. A book about a boy raised on a brutal farm it coined the expression “Bauern-KZ” (~ Peasant Concentration Camp). There is opportunistic behavior, emotional apathy and unthinking and vicious brutality and neglect and this is just a small sample of the issues with which Innerhofer confronts the myth of a bucolic rural Austria. In Wray’s invented village, Niessen (possibly modeled on Friesach, where his mother is from), we find a similar mob mentality and similarly ugly thing happen or are hinted at, but Wray doesn’t develop any of these in detail. However, he clearly relies on our reading of Niessen as a hateful small backwater village, where a crowd of citizens stands by or takes part, as enraged Nazis demolish a restaurant owned by a Jew, but he also mentions and makes use of other, more interesting nuances. Voxlauer is returning home, but he isn’t the only one to do so. Nazis are returning, too, and I’m not talking about the German troops.

In his brief dictatorial reign, Engelbert Dollfuss (and his successor Schuschnigg) strove to destroy any left-wing opposition by means of raids, incarcerations and murder, they encouraged and tacitly supported Antisemitic violence, but they also tried to eradicate any National Socialist movements in Austria. Austrian fascism was modeled on Francoist Spain more than anything, and a revulsion of Hitler’s mobs fueled not just Dollfuss’ opposition to the Nazis, but also that of other famous antisemitic fascists like Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. With some justification, the Dollfuss regime saw the Austrian Nazis as subversive and dangerous elements in their state, a danger that needed to be curbed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. When a group of Austrian Nazis tried to overthrow the government in the so-called “Juliputsch” in 1934, this fear was vindicated, but too late for Dollfuss, who was murdered. Many Nazis were banished or had to flee in these years of upheaval only to return triumphantly after March 11th,, 1938. In The Right Hand of Sleep Wray makes use of the fact that these individuals are a mixture between being victims and being perpetrators, of being persecuted by a dictator, but originators of a different, worse dictatorship. As we see them return to the village and its environs, we see how estranged they are to what used to be their home, as well. Simple inside/outside dichotomies, useful to describe the narrative behind antisemitic rallies and hate in Germany, don’t work here.

The Jewish inn-keeper, at the receiving end of discrimination and violence, is a native, he is from the village and part of the village in a way that neither Voxlauer, nor the Nazi who develops into a kind of antagonist of Voxlauer’s, Kurt Bauer, are. Questions of blood and heredity, so central to the National Socialist narrative, are subtly subverted by an association with inbreeding on Bauer’s part, and a sterile sexuality on Voxlauer’s, just as social hierarchies, “the architecture of things” are upset by similar associations. And in the midst of this, Wray places the local landscapes. His powerful evocations of nature, the use of amazingly precise metaphors, they establish nature as something independent from humans and their stories. Voxlauer, who., upon returning, is offered the job as a gamekeeper, never really does what he is paid for. He’s an awful hunter and a perennial drunk, stumbling through the wildness like a harmless, vaguely vegetarian animal. Fittingly, the only thing he does shoot is himself, by accident, halfway through the book. And when some riled up villagers rough him up, break his ribs and try to kick his head in, he’s as helpless as the animals he’s paid to hunt. This helplessness, though, isn’t new to him. As a young soldier in the Kaiser’s army in WWI, he was just as help- and hapless and when he, almost accidentally, deserts after being forced to murder another deserter, he drifts through Eastern Europe like a leaf in the wind, or a lost animal. This we learn in the frequent flashbacks.

Structurally, the book consists of the main story, which follows Voxlauer’s experiences in Neißen between March, 4th, 1938 and October the same year, with flashbacks added. First flashbacks of Voxlauer’s own experiences as a deserter, and then flashbacks of Kurt Bauer’s past. These back stories are not written like historical accounts; they read like feverish visions of two person’s troubled past. Both are guilty of something and both feel the guilt weigh heavily upon them, I’d say, although Bauer appears to be somewhat sociopathic. What’s more, these visions or accounts are shot through with dreams and hallucinations. Not all of them visible and clear as such, but historical truth or accuracy is certainly not the aim of these sections. What they are meant to accomplish is twofold. On the one hand, they need to place the story of Voxlauer and Bauer in a broader historical context, and on the other hand they do the same for Neißen as landscape and lieu de mémoire. Taking a different tactic than Nora, Wray focuses less upon buildings and other man-made monuments to shared memories. Instead, he has Voxlauer stumble through a European wildness, over fields, through woods and end up at a Ukrainian farm. Subsequently, he falls in love with the farmer’s widow, is denounced as a kulak and lands himself in a Soviet camp. At this point he is a Communist or shares at least the basic emancipatory ideals with them. Fear, disappointments and the harsh daily life leads him to drop his “belief in things”.

The Voxlauer who returns to Neißen is an empty shell of a man, hollowed out by guilt, loss and sadness. The landscape is the only (or last) reliable thing for him, it doesn’t require his belief, it is content with the fact of his body. In Neißen, an odd love story develops, but it draws heavily upon clichés and seems, within the fabric of the book, less important than Voxlauer’s education. Yes, education, because Voxlauer, returning, re-learns the world. Lowboy‘s protagonist is haunted by his body and his problems with reading the world, which makes the most sense to him when he’s confined in the well-ordered world of the underground tunnels of the subway. Voxlauer’s predicament is similar, not just in this respect. Like Lowboy‘s Will, Voxlauer isn’t mentally completely sound, and as in Will’s case, this runs in the family. The oddities of memory, and the vicissitudes of violence create, here and there, an interesting discourse about the limitations of the body and of the mind. Voxlauer’s body and mind don’t work as he wants them to, they work in starts and fits, and they capitulate not only before the onslaught of fascism and nature, they are also inferior to the limbs and brains of people of comparable strength. Voxlauer’s main limitation is his unwillingness to take action, not even to run away. He bides his time, while the world as he knew it, crumbles around him. His last action was the murder of an innocent man, as sick of the war as himself, and this crime he cannot forgive himself, and it blinds him to the ethical and political necessities of the present.

The development of Wray’s protagonists, from the apathetic and guilt-ridden drunk Voxlauer to the idealistic, driven, resourceful Will is fascinating, especially in light of the fact that Voxlauer’s crime (desertion) has consigned him to the margins, while he was actually born in privilege. Will’s situation, of course, couldn’t be more different. Kurt Bauer’s memories, meanwhile, place him at the center of world history. I’m loath to divulge more but Wray has used one of the less well known parts of history, and adapted it to his purpose, exchanging names and characters, swamping the scene with references en masse. For a book set where it is, many of these references, in this scene or in others, intended or not, are pretty obvious, like Joseph Roth or Thomas Bernhard. Others are more sly but important ones, such as Camus’ famous novel L’Étranger. The connection of Voxlauer’s inaction with that bible of secular existentialism adds one more layer to an already rather complex book. If anything, this is its main fault. The book, while technically taut and controlled, is philosophically indulgent, it’s filled with ideas and it points in many directions at once, without allowing the plot to reciprocate. That we don’t feel this failing as readers, that we still enjoy this book, is due, most of all, to Wray’s fantastic writing. More elaborate than in Lowboy, Wray completely dazzles his reader.

In an almost arrogant display of skill, Wray shows us that he can do anything. He slips into German and out again, slows down and speeds up his syntax at will, makes it bulky in one place and sleekly efficient in others. The way he can retard meaning in a paragraph by using a sluggish, slow syntax, mirroring German constructions, is extraordinary. There’s nothing in here that doesn’t work, and so the evocation of a country at the abyss, of a continent about to plunge into one of its darkest periods, is pitch-perfect. The plot and the characters are not yet as fleshed-out, believable and palpable as in his two other books, but The Right Hand of Sleep gets so much right, that it’s hard to dwell on the things it doesn’t. Highly recommended.

Brandon Sanderson: Mistborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tobias Wolff: Ugly Rumours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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John Wray: Lowboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant Morrison: Batman: The Black Glove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Don DeLillo: Point Omega

DeLillo, Don (2010), Point Omega, Scribner
ISBN 978-1-4391-6995-7

DSC_0626I’m not a slow reader, not usually, especially not with regard to fiction, but it took me ages to finish Don DeLillo’s slim new novel Point Omega. It is a short, intense burst of literary fireworks by a living master, a writer, indeed, that some consider to be one of the best (if not the best) prose writer of his generation. Like many other writers of his generation, that praise has not been universally strong, like Pynchon, Barth or Roth, he has always had his detractors (most famously, perhaps, James Wood and the insufferable B.R. Meyers), and in the past decade, they seemed to gain the upper hand in the critical discourse. With no major (and canonical) novels like The Names, White Noise and Libra forthcoming, his output seemed to concentrate on plays and thin novels, with the exception of Underworld, his longest novel so far, and the one that could be said to contain the broadest and most sustained statement of his artistic vision. Mao II (despite winning the PEN/Faulkner award) and The Body Artist both failed to garner the attention, praise and respect that his earlier books won, and his 2003 novel Cosmopolis arguably represents the nadir of his oeuvre. There is a blandness to some of his late work, an indulgence of means and thought that ill befits a writer of DeLillo’s power and that does not really fit in with his ability to draw the utmost tension from a setting or situation. All that is different in Point Omega. There is not much plot, or memorable characters in the book, but then, that’s not the game it engages in.

DSC_0627Point Omega is one of the most concentrated, dense, focused novels I have read in a while. I think one of his problems in his late work, even in books that I enjoyed greatly, like Mao II, is a lack of will to decide upon a mode to write the book in, and nothing in the books mediates, controls or explains this lack. Mao II, for example, is, on the one hand, an explication of crowds and the cultural ties of various ideas about and views of crowds to the American culture and its self-image. As usual, DeLillo’s novel toys with idea, with slogans mentioned only to contradict them on the plot level. On the other hand, it’s an almost classical, traditional ars moriendi. There is no tension between these two elements, no gain that enriches the novel, these two parts just sit uneasily next to each other, sometimes connecting, more often not. I mention this specific novel and its problem, because in Point Omega, DeLillo sets up a similar situation, but this time his craft, his marvelous abilities as a novelist, prevail and mold the two elements into one coherent whole. Sadly for many of his readers, he sacrifices a readable plot, and believable characters in the process. But, the book still works, because DeLillo’s decision to focus on a wholly cerebral structure and narrative, to craft a book that is about speaking, seeing, writing, reading, a book that is, unlike much of his earlier work, about uncertainty, a book that questions authorial control and power, pays off big time in this book which I read carefully but breathlessly, slowly, but compelled to read on by the sheer avalanche of thought.

DSC_0628That thought, it should be added, isn’t DeLillo’s. One of his major strengths in this book is to write micro-pastiches, small set pieces, and set up a maze of reflective and repetitive devices, content to let the reader find his way through this. The static quality of this and other good recent DeLillo books often derives from the fact that DeLillo sets up situations rather than developing them in detail. His work, and especially Point Omega, frequently reads like a carefully constructed stage design, one that leaves the actors little wriggle room, but still one that depends upon the audience to animate it. His earlier work has practiced some healthy skepticism with regard to the long diatribes of the self-important narrators and protagonists populating its pages, but that skepticism was never as strong as in this book, which undercuts all attempts to establish any kind of authority. Unceasingly, the reader is confronted with readings and statements that sound definitive and certain, while becoming more and more certain that what he’s chasing after, what DeLillo denies him, is like the Kantian noumenon, independent from his perception but unknowable. This is not about the conditio humana, it’s not a broad and sweeping statement about human perception. It would be an incredibly dull and useless book if it were. No, what DeLillo does is examine his own art by putting it through the grinder of doubt. Point Omega is utterly self-contained; although it does offer references to culture, politics and science, it uses these as texts, as tools to make sense of itself.

DSC_0631Many of these tools appear in the monologues and brief remarks made both by the narrator, a filmmaker called Jim Finley, and by Richard Elster, an aging intellectual that Finley desperately wants to conduct an interview with. Or rather: whom he wants to be the subject of a documentary that is supposed to feature only Elster in front of a wall. In the most recent of a series of attempts to convince Elster, Finley visits him in his home in the desert (doubtless a fitting setting for a man who helped provide the intellectual framework for the Iraq war). Jesse, Elster’s visiting daughter, completes the set-up. As tensions between the odd trio develop, fissures start to show in the facade of their acts, as behaviors and speech seem to adapt to shifting dynamics. Finally, as the daughter vanishes without a trace, the situation breaks down, establishing a new hierarchy and new priorities for all concerned. What may sound exciting when summed up in a few sentences, isn’t actually exciting in the novel, or, not exciting for the reasons that one would expect. DeLillo takes care not to create a narrative that thrives on speed, on a simplistically coherent narrative thrust. Instead, he selects bits and pieces, small narrative chokepoints which are not structured by the characters and their emotional concerns, but rather through speeches and observations made by one of the three participants in that curious desert session. More often than not, these speeches focus on abstract issues, such as Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the “Omega Point”, on political, and philosophical considerations. The exigencies of film-making come up, as well as personal relationships in general.

DSC_0625In fact, it’s Point Omega’s treatment of the latter topic that best exemplifies not just it’s concerns but more to the point: what it’s not concerned with. In these discussions of marriage, we are offered two bland, cardboard cutout characters who talk about their marriage with less passion than an accountant will discuss his occupation with. Two things are especially remarkable about these passages, both to do with literary references. One is the fact that DeLillo borrows, possibly for the first time in his career, the maudlin tone of Philip Roth’s most self-absorbed and most self-pitying works (The Humbling, for example). It utterly, however, lacks the emotion, the sentimentality that Roth lathers his narratives up with. This is because these are pastiches, recognizable as such by the distance they keep to the reader and to other other sections of the book they are in. As the book draws to a close, these elements become stronger and stronger, but DeLillo keeps delaying the payoff, the gratification that we expect of some of these elements. In what is a very old-fashioned move, he presents us with possibilities, only to never work through their details. Whereas much of his other recent work allowed his old men to be as whiny as they wanted to be, DeLillo’s method here checks what, from the evidence of this other novels published in the past decade, is clearly an artistic instinct of his. This is one of several elements that he offers up for inspection and criticism. That he does it by borrowing the tone of a writer like Roth is not a sign of cowardliness. I think it’s a combination of wanting to exaggerate the tendency in his own work by comparing it with Roth’s vastly more indulgent use of the same device, and of trying to step away from the plate, of trying to set a stage but let the reader hit the ball. The various reviews that made different use of this element of the book are an indication of sorts of the success of that method.

DSC_0630The other thing that is remarkable about this passage (but also about the rest of the book) is how it clearly demonstrates an alienation, of the sort that has been amply expounded upon by fiction writers of all stripes. Two books seem particularly pertinent here. One is Albert Camus’ La Chute, with its protagonist Clamence whose disillusion, whose ‘fall’ provides a blueprint for how Richard Elster’s life develops, not in most of the details, but certainly in the sentiment and general direction. Some aspects are even rather close, as Clamence’s predilection for heights and loneliness which corresponds to Elster’s move to the desert. The other book, which seems more a spiritual forebear than an actual explicit reference, is Peter Handke’s odd little masterpiece Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (translated into English by Michael Roloff as The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). In this book, published in 1970, Peter Handke proposes an idea of alienation that far exceeds a feeling of simple estrangement from people and situations. His protagonist, Joseph Bloch, even finds himself unable at times to hold on to the conventions of language, the relationship between things, words, and himself, which is usually taken for granted. At a particularly chilling moment in the book, even Bloch’s language breaks down, dissolving into small pictorial icons. While such a breakdown isn’t experienced by the narrator, it’s suggested that Elster may suffer from something like that, and the very framework, the novel’s central metaphor, engages a disbelief in the viability of conventional solutions to perceptional coherence.

24hour spychoThat framework is film, more specifically, Douglas Gordon’s installation 24 Hour Psycho, “first screened in 1993” and “installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the summer of 2006”, as the author tells us at the back of the book. And it is in late summer 2006 that the frame narrative of Point Omega is set, in the darkened room where the project is installed. 24 Hour Psycho is a projection of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but slowed down to about 2 frames a second, so that a screening of the whole movie takes up exactly 24 hours. Finch spends days in that room, watching the long version several times, and through his encounter with it, we are offered film as a metaphor for perception. The fact that our stories change when we see them enlarged, slower, faster, or from a different angle. Finch tries very hard to be smart and insightful and peppers his narrative with references to the installation, but his remarks are frequently ridiculous, and clearly serve as a reproduction of Elster’s speech. Elster, as a teacher, and someone who helped shape governmental policies, represents the discourse of power, but the novel weakens the link of that kind of discourse with the character of Elster, extending it to the narrator first, and, implicitly, to the authorial discourse itself. This deliberate weakening of the dominating discourse of the book is at times buttressed by a fuzziness in the writing, small ambiguities, inexact phrasings which destabilize a clear reading of these passages, without offering an alternative. While its true that its cerebral nature distances the reader, giving him everything at a remove, offering him emotions as objects, objects as language and language, in turn, as objects, it also distances the author. When a writer like Auster disavows his characters, it’s a sign of weakness, a difference which is compounded by books like this which are driven by an intense self-awareness that arises not in a disquisition about self-awareness, but in a steady and fine undercutting of the author’s own grasp of the novel’s discourse.

DSC_0629Any payoff that the book offers is in the exhilarating ride that it provides as literature, the plain joy of reading, of becoming, for minutes, hours, part of the book’s enterprise. It declines the opportunity to use characters and a story as an easy in for the reader, it does not reach out to him, it expects him to climb down into it on its own terms, read it, understand it within the limits that it offers. There’s no pretension of openness, of availability, and this is surely a quality that will put a lot of people off who like some comfort with their art, the coziness and warmth, not of ‘real’ human emotion, but of the conventional charade that is verisimilitude. DeLillo makes demands of his readers, and more than any other writer I read these past months, he isn’t open to or accepting of a broader, less interested readership. It wants you to care about its issues. If you don’t, this book won’t work for you. In its harsh look at convention, its rejection of simple solutions, it’s actually, while not open to other kinds of readers, open to other voices. Don DeLillo can seem like a writer who hogs the attention in his books, which can lead critics and readers to falsely equate the opinions of his protagonists with his own opinions. What’s true, however, is that DeLillo’s taut fictional nets do not allow for other voices, they are strict and restrictive in that regard. Point Omega, while possible DeLillo’s most taut book, disowns these narratives and suggests an opening up of new possibilities. We’re not there yet, neither we as readers, nor DeLillo as a writer, but Point Omega is a breaking point, a frontier post, as Stevens put it, “at the end of the mind, / beyond the last thought.” There is space, and as a writer, DeLillo lays no claims on it. He doesn’t even map it out, he only demonstrates the limits of his work, of his reach as writer and artist. That’s why Point Omega, his most claustrophobic, most densely constructed novel, also feels like a liberation, and his bravest book in decades.


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Robert Olmstead: Coal Black Horse

Olmstead, Robert (2008), Coal Black Horse, Algonquin
ISBN 978-1-56512-521-6

First and foremost, Coal Black Horse is a beautiful book. It’s smart, fascinating, complex, but above all, especially in the first half, it’s beautiful. I admit I have never heard of Olmstead before, although he won several prizes and authored an oeuvre that gained him the respect and praise of writers as famous and talented as Richard Ford, but I’m glad I chanced upon Coal Black Horse, his fourth novel, set in the American Civil War. The reader enters the book and follows Olmstead’s protagonist as if through an enchanted wood, but at the same time he is led through the waste land of American History. The novel makes judicious use of both registers, with allusions and references all over the board, playing with genres without ever developing a postmodern ironic distance. Coal Black Horse is a serious book, and is using tradition in order to gain more precision without losing the traction, the pull of traditional narratives. It’s my first novel by Olmstead , who appears to be a fine writer, and I urge everyone to read it. If you give the book the attention it deserves, it’ll take you away to a strange country, which is at once part of common history and part of a small, personal history, which is both about one boy’s coming of age, and about a nation’s. Olmstead is a bit of a narcissist, he knows he’s good, and he knows what he can do, and this leads to passages and story-lines that are just a bit too much of a good thing. In a few places, Coal Black Horse reads like a debut novel, by an enormously talented, but impatient young writer, who wants to serve up his delicious dishes as soon as possible, but who threatens to overwhelm his guests. However, his successes clearly outweigh his failures in this, his fourth novel, making it an intriguing and engrossing read.

This is true despite the fact that it seems possible to level charges at Olmstead for merely riding the coattails of the traditions he writes in, for only using topics and themes that have been used ad nauseam in American fiction, and which, moreover, seem to lend themselves suspiciously easily to ‘deep’ literature. If we only look at obvious markers of genre, Coal Black Horse, the story of a boy, Robey, leaving his home to bring his father, a soldier in the Confederate army, back home, is either a coming of age tale, or a American Civil War novel; Olmstead makes much use of the sentimental possibilities, especially with regard to pathos, that both of these genres offer. As we experience emotional upheavals in the book it’s natural to wonder how much of that is due to Olmstead’s craft, and how much is created by the competent use of common tropes of the genres, and especially the setting, with the attendant props. The horror of dead people, the sadness of losing a father, finding him and losing him again, the prickling of a first love: reading experience tells us that you don’t have to be a talented or smart writer to (re)create these for your audience. A sad example of this is the public (and sometimes even critical) reaction to John Boyne‘s atrocious and irresponsible soi-disant “fable” about the Shoah (another topic that can make it “easy” for the writer), and it’s seductive to shelve Olmstead, who didn’t opt for an innovative point of view (like Alan Gurganus), or attempt to implode the genre from within (like I think McCarthy does with Blood Meridian), with Boyne, but that would be a mistake. Olmstead is a better writer than that, and while he certainly relies a lot on what’s basically prefabricated emotion, the true strength of Coal Black Horse is not in its setting or the genres it aligns itself with.

Instead, Olmstead uses what I read as a fairy tale kind of mood for the whole book. Part of this may be due to saddling the story with a 14 year old boy as protagonist, who isn’t interested in politics, and wanders through the Civil War waste land like Candide. Unlike Boyne’s book which uses a similar focus to deflate the political and historical context of its setting, opting instead for a bloodlessly generalized statement, Olmstead’s never abdicates his responsibility to his material. By de-emphasizing some political aspects, he gains enough perspective to take on a broader, but not a jot less politically and historically incisive, point of view. And if we take a closer look, it turns out that Robey’s observations are strange and surreal with or without an immediate understanding of the politics of his time. As he visits a smithy, where the kind resident smith gives him the titular hoofed mammal, he sees one of the smithy’s workers and describes him thus:

A boy, not much younger than himself, was walking across the porch floor on his hands, the unhitched galluses of his denim overalls clicking across the boards. An upside-down pocket was sewn into his pant’s leg and stems of black licorice sprang from it.

Without denying the existence of boys walking on their hands, passages like this one tell us that this is not a strictly realist novel. Towards the end, the book contains a plethora of accidental meetings that strain one’s credulity, and presents scenes saturated with symbolic significance rather than sober realism. In a historical novel, these are odd elements; this is one of many examples demonstrating the book’s indifference to historical precision. Indifference may not be the right word maybe resistance is a better word, resistance to cheap historical folklore, often marked by “authentic” dialect. There isn’t any of that in Coal Black Horse, which only contains deviations that mark one character’s low level of education. Real, actual historical places play a very small role. Gettysburg is named, true enough, but as Robey follows the Confederates, trying to reach his father as soon as possible, any other possible points of reference are glossed over, smudged, by referring to written accounts and records, such as Newspaper articles, as mere accumulations of rumor and sensationalism. Robey drifts along more than he pursues a set path, and it’s the horse, more often than not, that is smarter than he is.

The horse is a curious character. It turns up at one point of the story, leaves a few chapters later, and alights again still later in the book. It’s very strong-willed, and much smarter (street-smart, you might say) than Robey as he sets out on his journey:

He was alone with the horse and as he studied it, he understood the horse to be making decisions about him, as well. He’d not known such a horse as this had ever been made and could not help but feel inferior to the animal.

Associations to Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty are bound to arise. While Sewell’s horse is “bright black”, its intelligence, its understanding of its environment, and the lessons it teaches its readers with regard to cruelty and violence are all apt points of comparison here. We never ‘hear’ the horse in Olmstead’s book, but while Sewell postulates a respect towards animals, implicitly urges her readers to see animals as being like human beings, and deserving of the same esteem and care, Olmstead’s protagonist has already implemented these lessons. Although there is a limit to the similarities, the association with a book conceived for adults but also read by kids (mostly kids, now) is fitting in a book that works so much with the images and language of children’s literature.

There is, for example, as already mentioned, the fairy tale mood that much of the book has and which leads the reader to view the coal black horse in a similar light. It is a kind of silent guide, but it also means danger and has little to do with Robey’s growing up, learning about life’s hard lessons, it’s like a ghost, fading into the background some times, becoming more obvious at others, it’s accompanying the protagonist, nudging him in the right direction but leaving him the choice to go down the right road of his own will and accord. The coming-of-age-tale aspect of the novel isn’t the Salinger kind, with a young, jaded protagonist calling all grownups “phoneys”. This is more the Grimm’s Tales kind, a boy, thrown into a strange adventure, who’s struck with bewilderment, horror and wonder by the world around him.

He […] held a boy’s fascination for how light penetrates darkness, how water freezes and ice melts, how life could not be all and all at once. How some things last for years without ever existing.

In the course of the book the experiences and witnessed violence and its lessons shape Robey’s future life, and within weeks, he has lost his innocence. Insecurities and possibilities will have coagulated into sureness, conviction and necessity. Small men, dressed in women’s clothes, awash in lice, who cook gorgeous meals and steal your horses used to be encountered with surprise, but the older Robey will shoot before asking, because it’s survival and that’s what you do. The aftermath of one of western history’s bloodiest wars leaves an emotional desert, and fairy tale oddities have turned into dark symbols. In the black last pages of the book, we find that a boy’s coming of age tale has turned into a nation’s. And it is the way that this aspect of the book unfolds, not by engaging history, but by evoking an ahistorical, devastated landscape, and the arid landscape of a soul darkened by violence and loss, that moves Coal Black Horse close to the genre of post-apocalyptic novels.

I have been reading and rereading lots of post-apocalyptic novels recently, with a handful more to come (including Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood which sounds wonderfully irresistible). One thing is remarkable especially about the American variety of the genre: the closeness of its images and tropes to literature of and about the American Civil War, or about even earlier periods of American history. Even in middling achievements like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or, worse, in Marcel Theroux’ Far North, post-apocalyptic tales appear to be less a criticism of how things will turn out to be, as a reminder of the cultural roots of our contemporary American society, of the basic elements in place in its structure and reasoning. Creating their future by taking stock of our known world and subtracting comforts and of popular monuments of consumerism from it, many of these writers manage to remind their readers upon which foundations (and illusions) their society is built. Granted, all post-apocalyptic novels do something like that, but the interesting point here is the connection to American history. These books make a specific point about the promise and problems inherent in the American premise, which is often worshiped in the form of an ideal.

The evocation of “American energy, initiative and freedom“ (to quote a dully disapproving review of Morris Dickstein’s most recent book by British critic John Gross) has become a mantra; American history and historical documents, which are often obsessively read, reread and analyzed with a hermeneutic fever are a rewarding quarry for inquisitive writers. In a way, many of the post-apocalyptic novels of the kind I described above are like historical novels stripped of direct and precise references. And this works: even in the work of writers who do not appear to apply overly much thought or talent to their efforts (Marcel Theroux or Paul Auster would come to mind), the mere fact of taking a piece of American history and removing the teleological push of the American narrative seems to serve to dismantle some illusions, exposing the raw flesh of history. That last metaphor is not out of place in a review of Coal Black Horse, in which amply, and in uncomfortable detail, the aftermath of one of the most famous and gruesome battles in American history is described, as Robey moves among the dead of Pickett’s Charge. Like many of the other novels that share Olmstead’s focus on American history, Coal Black Horse divests the setting of the American narrative, but only in part. Yes, Robert Olmstead did not write a post-apocalyptic novel, it’s a historical novel, but it’s reading experience is closer in spirit, and surprisingly many details, to post-apocalyptic novels than to its historical brethren, from Stephen Crane to Shelby Foote and Charles Frazier (although it’s not dissimilar to Russell Banks’ massive Cloudsplitter).

Historical novels, much like Science Fiction novels on the other end of the spectrum, frequently talk about the present by discussing the past and mirroring in it our morals, prejudice, and general attitudes. Some are more detailed than others, but all find some way to evoke some image of the past, the past as a cohesive unit and place. Props, language, places, the list is long. Much like McCarthy in his aforementioned Blood Meridian, Olmstead manages to do without a lot of these things. Coal Black Horse leads the reader through a landscape stuffed with symbols and signifiers. Even the historical references elude Robey, as he keeps missing the army, and only catches up with it at Gettysburg, when it’s destroyed and its rests scattered along the roads leading away from the slaughter. History slouches off, but what stays behind, and creates the structure, the meat of the book, is Robey’s process of maturing, which takes place in a landscape that is not shaped by history, and which maps out a continuity of an idea of civilization that is born from a violent place. Rape, murder, self-defense and fighting for survival. Coal Black Horse speaks eloquently of the roots of modern America, and it’s not alone in this. There are quite a few books that manage to do this, and do it rather well, I think, but this observation does not take away from the power of Olmstead’s novel.

As Coal Black Horse‘s story concentrates, closes in on Robey, it’s focus actually pans out. Coal Black Horse is decidedly not a novel about history, it’s about the present, about our own motivations. In its harsh education of Robey, it’s pointing out what’s been part of our education all along. It’s a call to look at ourselves, deep and hard, to re-examine what I called the American premise. With today’s talkingheads repeating hogwash about what’s ‘American’ and what’s not, this book (maybe along with Hannah Arendt’s curiously idealistic but brilliant On Revolution) provides an antidote. In this effort, Olmstead frequently overdoes the pathos, to such an extent that he sometimes slips stylistically, into strangely awkward phrases. It’s, ultimately, a very hard book, and too earnest for its own good, but it is a great read, a compelling, marvelous book, one which I recommend fully and completely. I may have reservations, but ultimately, I loved this book, and so will you.


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Padgett Powell: The Interrogative Mood, a Novel?

Powell, Padgett (2009), The Interrogative Mood: a Novel?, Ecco
ISBN 978-0-06-185941-0

When I heard about this book in bookblogs, I was skeptical. See, American bookbloggers have a tendency to elevate stern genre distinctions to fetishes, creating such a strong image of what a genre is supposed to be like, that they happen to hail a surprising number of recent and not-so-recent publications as major breakthroughs in the genre in question. From an “Alternative History” of the novel to Lydia Davis’ work, the unexciting string of ‘shocking’ breaks with convention is long and dire. So when Padgett Powell’s most recent book, The Interrogative Mood, was received along similar lines, lines that the subtitle “a novel?”, with the pointed question mark, only served to deepen and emphasize, I almost regretted getting it. I wrote down a few remarks for this review concentrating on the ludicrous straw men of some reviewers, tying in this book, without having read it. Yeah, I do that sometimes. As I got into it, however, I became genuinely excited about the book and its writer. It’s quite astonishing that Powell really manages to pull this off: an experimental book that does play intelligently with genre notions and conventions, that’s an engaging read, quite moving, frankly, yet also challenging and consistently interesting. Pick up this book. You will not be disappointed. And while you’re at it, pick up also his debut novel, Edisto (review forthcoming). Padgett Powell is one of the most genuinely exciting writers I’ve discovered in a while.

The Interrogative Mood is an interesting kind of novel (and why not run with it and call it that). On the surface, there is no plot, there are no characters, there are just questions. 164 pages of unceasing, unflagging questions, one after another. When I heard that the book consisted solely of questions, a few ideas came into my head about how a plot might be constructed through questions, but I didn’t expect this. The endless stream of questions appears to be a barrage of non-sequitur inquiries, some humorous, some not, some political, some not, many very silly, many not. The second question of the book is “Are your nerves adjustable?”, third question “How do you stand in relation to the potatoe?”, fourth question “Should it still be Constantinople?”, sixth question “In your view, do children smell good?”. And so on. The wealth of questions is quite overwhelming, but in a good way. When Powell set out to write a book composed solely of questions, this is exactly what he did, unlike other writers, he didn’t cloak a cheaply traditional, sentimental book with experimental cloth. He really wrote an experimental book that is truly unlike any book I’ve read so far. What makes it so unique is the fact that these questions appear to form an incoherent stream of impromptu ideas, a rambling book with, at best, novelty factor, but that in Powell’s hands, they acquire a subtle coherence, a voice, direction and meaning. The book is both coherent and rambling at once, depending upon the degree of care which one applies to the text. It’s a text glittering with subtleties.

It’s also an addictively readable book. The flow of questions is exhilarating, challenging and fascinating. Some questions provoke you to raise objections, some ask you to dig into your memories, still others, and those are a large portion of the whole, are goofy and funny, some of those more like cheap comedy quips, and some as finely wrought as a Dr. Seuss book. There will be questions that surprise you, questions that will touch upon some memory that’ll move you, make you rev up your memory. It’s hard to imagine a reader not swayed by the titular ‘moods’ of Powell’s book (I’ll mention other meanings of the title in awhile), at least to some extent. These questions are well crafted and it’s admirable that Powell is able to use them as he does. But on the whole, as you turn the pages, the questions lose importance and you answer fewer and fewer of the, just coasting along on the wave of words, as the small units of questions coalesce into something larger. Something, yes, that I would call a novel.

Definitions of the novel abound, and since, to riff on a phrase of Jarrell, a definition is a short text that has something wrong with it, I won’t try to define the novel here, it’s been done, with varying levels of success. Try your local library. It’s difficult to come up with a list of “must” elements in such a comprehensive and fluid genre like the novel, which isn’t defined in a non-ambiguous way through any element. There are novels in verse, brief as well as long novels, expansive historical novels and dense, action-packed novels. Novels can feature any kind or amount of characters and are composed in all kinds of structures. While it’s easy to determine if a book is ‘clearly’ a novel, the borderline cases are far harder to pinpoint. One such case is Padgett Powell’s fine book, which explicitly asks the reader to consider whether it’s a novel, and indeed it shares enough properties with the mainstream novel to justify calling it one, or at least considering it as one as a valid mode of reading the book (among others). The first, most basic properties are these: The Interrogative Mood has two characters (a very basic requirement) and a narrative. One of the characters is the narrator, the interrogator, the one asking the questions. He definitely experiences a change of character as the book progresses, and as we hear to him ramble, we notice that some questions are more personal than others.

There is an urgency in some questions, and some explicit biographical background worked into others. The very nature of the questions used suggests a personal spin. The kind of questions, their sequence and recurrence, among other factors, help map out a kind of personality. It’s actually quite remarkable how precise a writer Powell proves to be in this regard. For example, there are quizzes, i.e. detailed questions that are about general knowledge. The vast majority of these have to do with nature, which suggests a preeminent importance of the topic for the asker of questions. This fact is firmly impressed upon the reader, as names and images of animals and plants are threaded through his head as he tries to follow the book, keep up with its dodges and feints. These quiz questions are fair and open, and only revealing in terms of sheer quantity and focus of topic. There are also other questions, less fair, but also still more revealing ones. In personal and political matters, Powell’s narrator has the tendency to ask leading questions. He confronts his counterpart with false dichotomies, or he asks what is at best a rhetorical question. It is with these questions that he’s really tipping his hand. These questions, whether it’s his use of false dichotomies or of rhetorical questions, they tell us what the narrator believes or at least what he wants to make his counterpart think he believes. There is, however, no indication of subterfuge in the book, despite the tricky surface. The unnamed narrator appears to be quite earnest and straightforward, within the limitations of the form he has chosen, of course.

So when he gives his opinions away they don’t develop into a new game, they lend resonance to the book, imbuing it with a voice that is singular and unmistakable. As you read on, engrossed by the entertaining surface, you enter into a kind of intimacy with the narrator, listening for his voice, for personal issues even in perfectly innocent questions. This is a work that the book expects you to do. It relies firmly upon our instincts to look for and draw connections even between seemingly unconnected events and statements. By looking closely at the text, listening to it, we find that, far from random, the book is composed, and structured. While one reading wasn’t enough for me to puzzle out that structure, it’s worth noting that the narrator has a few subjects he’s obsessing about, subjects that keep recurring, often in different contexts. It’s not, from a first reading, obvious how these subjects and themes work, in what way they are stacked and repeated, but the enormous amount of them assures that we are made aware of structure, and together with the changes in tone and direction that we see in the personal questions, we have an immediate sense of narrative. Make no mistake, there is not an overt plot, a story that we can follow and retell. To claim that would be absurd. Yet it would be equally absurd to deny the fact of structure, hidden though it is in the folds of this complex book, structure that, indeed, amounts to what can meaningfully be called a narrative.

As for the counterpart, the listener to questions, the answerer of them, little is known about him. The interrogator addresses him in the second person singular, an address that is purposefully fuzzy. The reader naturally assumes that he or she is meant by the questions, and immediately starts formulating answers, thinking about the questions. Not until quite a few questions in, the interrogator refers to answers that he has received. Not from the reader obviously. How we read these references and asides hinges mostly upon the question of whether we are prepared at all to read this as a novel. If we’re not, the putative answers will only be seen as a rhetorical device to further engage “you”, i.e. the reader (who would be the prime suspect for the role of the “you”), in the book’s discussion. If on the other hand, we are open to seeing The Interrogative Mood as fiction, a listener, a counterpart emerges that could (or not) motivate the speaker to ask more and more personal questions. Reading the book with a hypothetical listener/answerer in mind, questions that are pointed and focused, questions that we thought referred to the interrogator and his situatedness, could be his way of riffing upon his counterpart. All these, while they may seem like idle speculations, are legitimate questions, and I think that from the subtitle to some of the details, Powell fuels this kind of debate.

It’s hard not to think that Powell is very aware of how our thinking about genre conventions in the arts has changed, from Wayne Booth’s groundbreaking work on the novel (there is a point to make about Booth’s treatment of James’ narrators and the way Powell’s narrator is set up) to Nelson Goodman’s astonishing distillations in the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t, by the way, the only theoretical consideration that underlies the book. The title refers us to another one which I can but briefly sketch. “Interrogative Mood” is a grammatical term, referring to a way to express interrogativity in some language, though not in English. That is remarkable for a book written in English and suggests that the book is concerned with the wider modes of interrogativity. In semantics, interrogativity holds a special place. It’s a repository for doubt, a marker of ambiguity (ambiguity of reference, for example. Interrogatives are often highly dependent upon context to be clarified, yet it is this context that Powell, slyly, denies us), of epistemological uncertainty. It is a mode that doesn’t just raise questions, it also puts things into question. But in the case of The Interrogative Mood, this isn’t a coldly calculating questioning, not an intellectually bracing search. Powell’s narrator is clearly calling not just aspects of his knowledge of the world, and his interlocutor’s, into question, he puts himself up for discussion. The very form and shape of the book is designed to be elusive, to allow the narrator to hide in a mirror cabinet of questions. Questions seem to be propelled outward, demanding answers of people elsewhere, but we can, as I said earlier, follow these questions back to their source, Powell’s narrator.

When you come down to it, The Interrogative Mood is a very small and personal book, yet through its engagement with the reader (the ambiguity of reference is a big part of that), it’s also a very open book, open to the world without. Many definitions of the novel, especially German ones, have stressed that the novel is the one genre that contains the fullness of life, the smörgåsbord of the everyday, containing often disparate elements, from human psychology, to public events and the richness of bodily experience, in short, “life in its allness”, to quote from Lucács’ classic Theory of the Novel. And in the stupendous amount of kinds of questions and sectors of knowledge that Powell’s book draws on and uses, it does just that. It’s a slim book, a simply written book that is teeming with life. Yes, the two characters’ lives, but also ours. Powell introduces the book with a quote from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Does the Daylight astonish?” Whitman asks. And the very first question that the book has for its reader is “Are your emotions pure?”. That wonderment, that tender sensitivity, the careful voice of the narrator expecting, no, hoping, for something beyond the fog that crawls all over us. Yes, the questions are a kind of fog themselves, but if we let them, they can clear some of the other fog away. Padgett Powell has written a wondrous book, a light, musical read, that is formally brave and beautiful in terms of its emotions. It’s not a generous book, but the heart of it is hardened by distress. Read The Interrogative Mood. You won’t be sorry.


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Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man

Isherwood, Christopher (2001), A Single Man, Minnesota University Press
ISBN: 0-8166-3862-4

A Single Man is a great novel. Read it. It is the first book I read by Christopher Isherwood, a multi-talented writer who was born in Britain, lived for a while in Berlin among other places and finally died in California. I haven’t read anything else of his work, or about his life, except for the portions of it that he shared with Auden, whose work, in contrast, I know quite well. Isherwood wrote novels, stories, memoirs, screenplays and a disturbing amount of tracts on Vedanta and, with help from Swami Prabhavananda, produced Hindu translations. In Isherwood’s work there are a lot of tangents, and in this light, it’s astonishing how brief, slim and purposeful A Single Man, which was originally published in 1961, is. There are no doubt numerous allusions, meanings and reflections in it that touch upon Isherwood’s rich life and work, but the book wears these lightly. It is, first and foremost, a great read and an inspiring, elegiac novel about one man’s life passing through one phase into something else. But, although is admirable on almost every level, it will not appeal to everyone. Like Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, (click here for my review) this novel is highly dependent on the voice of its protagonist. It’s his thoughts, feelings, disturbances that reel you in, but these same concerns could put you off. I don’t, however, think it will. It’s that good.

The plot follows George, a professor at a California university, during an apparently wholly ordinary day. We start with an image of him shaving and leave him as he slips into a deep sleep. George is relatively old, and is living in California after having grown up in the UK. He’s ‘a single man’ after the death of his partner Jim, which he hides from his neighbors. A Single Man can be read as one long exploration of the exigencies and contradictions of his character, the complexities of his identity. The day in George’s life that the book depicts is a working day, and as George ambles through what’s left of his life after Jim’s departure, we see how much his everyday reality, his everyday habits, how all this is shrouded in lies, illusions, subterfuges. George his hiding from the people around him, but he’s also hiding from himself. The novel brilliantly unsettles the well-wrought construct that George set up for himself, by focusing with an unusual intensity upon gazes. From the very first section, where we encounter a kind of camera, or rather: we follow a tracking shot that zooms in on the character, until the narrative finally settles on him, snug like an expensive tailored suit, we are averted to the importance of gazes. In fact, it is this section, written in a voice and a tone that we will not see again until the last pages of the book, that puts the rest of the narrative into perspective.

All novels have a gaze they work with, a vantage point, the difference is the amount of reflection that writers invest in the tools they use. A mediocre writer like Paul Auster with his fixed, incredibly normative, moralistic, simplistic points of view appears to be unable or unwilling to engage them in his small pubescent literary games. A different case is China Miéville, whose work evinces a strong awareness of situations and the way he’s situated himself within frameworks of centers and peripheries, narrative and cultural norms, and can even find striking images within his books to exemplify these issues (most brilliantly maybe in his most recent, The City & The City, which is a long disquisition about gaze, perception and performativity post-Derrida). Isherwood’s choice here is different but no less effective or ingenious. As his camera-like narrator settles into the story, a personal third person narrator takes over the reins. Suddenly we ride in George’s head, although we don’t. There are tweaks here and there that disrupt the narrative illusion and ask us to look at the narrative from the outside, swivel the camera around, so to say, and look at this guy, as he walks down a street, as he gets heavily drunk twice in one night, bathes in the nude and is hit on, twice. And as the book progresses, this reader’s gaze, made a part and a reflected requirement of the narrative, is accompanied by other gazes.

There are the neighbors, his students, a pretty boy in a bar, an old friend. George is obsessed with his appearance, “he looks – and doesn’t he know it! – better than nearly all of his age-mates at the gym”, but also with appearances in general, obsessed with maintaining the fiction about himself that he decided to invent earlier in his life. His obsession doesn’t show through meticulously maintained obsessive thoughts about this, but in the fact that his thoughts keep returning to the same worries, that he keeps telling us about the cover stories he presents, but that commentary is so sparse, that we are left wondering how many of the stories he tells others, such as the wonderfully sentimental plan to buy a pub and retire to a life as an innkeeper, whether these stories, although he doesn’t disavow them explicitly, are untruths as well. Or whether he’s even capable of being honest to himself. But these recurring thoughts share one more characteristic: many of them have to do with the fact that he’s homosexual, a lifestyle that his neighbors disapprove of. It’s not that he hides his sexual preference. On the contrary, his relationship with Jim was pretty well known, and among his students it appears to be common knowledge that he frequents a specific gay bar.

But in the way George looks at himself, in his convoluted narratives, we find what W.E.B. Du Bois, in writing about the black experience, famously called the “double consciousness”, which describes a very simple perceptual mechanism that is active in many people that belong to groups that are not part of the general, restrictive and restricted norm. It has been applied to women, and it can also be profitably applied to homosexuals. People in these groups often have conflicting identities. As part of their nation-wide culture, they see themselves with the same gaze that the white, male, heteronormative society trains on them. But there is also one’s own, personal part of identity, the part identifying as someone who isn’t necessarily part of the set that is described by the general norm. Between those identities, or: those parts of his identity, conflicts turn up, naturally. From these conflicts, different problems and anxieties can arise. In every look, thought, stifled word of George, this kind of consciousness is visible; I think George is a man haunted by his identities, and somewhat oppressed by the roles he is supposed to inhabit. To quote the book, he “knows what is expected of” him. At the same time, there is no heaviness in his character. His voice isn’t dark, brooding or moping. Isherwood manages to raise issues like these without bogging the book down in them.

George is “oppressed by awareness”, but his voice is light, he’s a very humorous, likable guy, or he’s presented to us that way. Isherwood isn’t the first to attempt or to succeed in mixing the heavy and the light in this way, there are countless other writers doing this, but this isn’t a mark of unoriginality on Isherwood’s part. Isherwood is content in presenting a fully fleshed-out and original character to his readers. As for the echoes of other books, they are clearly intended, as Isherwood places A Single Man firmly in several literary traditions, and then makes ingenious use of the reader’s recognition of these traditional stories and structures. The most obvious reference is to the modern line of novels that are set in a single day and show a character coming up and to terms with his time, his life, his culture. From Ulysses through Ivan Denisovich and Seize the Day, the number of books that deal with this theme are legion, and Isherwood was clearly counting on his readers’ knowledge of books from this genre (among some others) when he wrote A Single Man. In each of these novels the inner conflicts of the characters or the petty, mundane conflicts that these characters may have with their immediate environment have an almost allegorical status, bespeaking the state of humanity, the fate of man in the modern world.

These broader implications are true, as well, for George. Isherwood’s skills both create a highly believable, specific environment and story for his protagonist, as well as a matrix that would work for anyone. We are all George, to a degree. His cowardice and his bravery are ours. The pain of his desire and the dulling ache of his loss, they are ours, as well. This is what elevates the book from merely ‘good’ to ‘great’. And all through this, we are swayed, we are moved along by Isherwood’s impeccable language that can make the elegiac throb of guilty desire just as palpable and incisive, as a scene where a man hurries from the toilet to pick up the phone with an unwiped ass. Isherwood’s ability to pull off a description of the latter kind of activity with such aplomb, to make it part of a generally smooth and musical book is just one aspect of his skills. Within his style, different registers and kinds of reference merge. Scene by scene, this is stunningly realized, and one of the reasons why it all coheres so well is, I think, that Isherwood writes with a notion of, well, “unrealism”, you might call it (yes I stole that word from Lowell). His protagonist, going off on a rant, gives a great explanation of how that might work, when he rebukes a student for attacking American motels for being ‘unreal’:

Unreal. American motels are unreal! My good girl-you know and I know that our motels are deliberately designed to be unreal, if you must use that idiotic jargon, for the very simple reason that an American motel room isn’t a room in an hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period. […] And it’s a symbol […] for our way of life. And what’s our way of life? A building code which demands certain measurements, certain utilities and the use of certain apt materials; no more and no less. Everything else you’ve got to supply for yourself.

In an odd way, this is also a perfect description of the book which uses the realist elements as parts of its “building code” which is, at the end of the day, part of Isherwood’s unrealism, as so many other things.

And Isherwood’s breadth and appetite for texts and myths to incorporate in his work seems endless, without letting any of this show in a very obvious manner. I’ve hinted at a few things, but there’s so much more. He works both with what seems to me a very modern notion of the grotesque (Bakhtin would come to mind), and a slightly older contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements (Nietzsche, anyone?). His use of travel as an image, and a recurring metaphor, and a structural device, too, is fascinating. And there’s so much more, but none of this is burdensome. It’s not baggage that the reader has to deal with, it’s a bonus that he can access if he wants to. But even without all this, it’s a great, if brief ride through one day full of hope, desire, disappointments and, finally, hope. George battles with decay, with dark shadows on his soul yet he, deeply, rejoices in life. He is incredibly smart, fully capable of making strong and intelligent choices in his life, yet, like all of us, he’s also propelled, moved, driven along by the obscure river of his life, and the big events of this life of his, they crash through the fabric of his stories, like large rocks, redirecting the river, and hurtling him elsewhere. But he walks upright, making his choices, wielding his mind. George’s dignity, which is what much of the book is ultimately about, humbles us. This is a great book. This is a great writer.


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Ishmael Reed: The Free-Lance Pallbearers

Reed, Ishmael (1999), The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN 1-56478-225-5

Called “a great writer” by none other than James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed’s reputation always had to contend with accusations of misogyny and with the barriers that a career of writing difficult-to-place novels involves. His writing, in all his books, straddled the divide between the experimental and postmodern fiction of Burroughs, Coover and Pynchon, and the strong political convictions and concerns of Ellison, Baldwin and Morrison. Between Coover and Morrison, there never was any real room for a writer like Reed, although his talent, his gift for writing is beyond any doubt. Reed is a black writer who does not cozy up to the expectations of topics or treatment of these same topics. His acidic style eats into both white and black narratives. There are various ways this works out in his work, but in his debut novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, published in 1967, he strikes all these chords, in a simple, almost crude way. He juxtaposes images, caricatures, quotes and screams of pain in one flame-hot bugger of a novel, which is far from flawless, but it is its numerous strengths that keep Reed’s boat afloat here.

And what a boat this is. On finishing the book, you will be both exhilarated and confused. Exhilarated because it’s a grand trip, calling up literary, cultural and political references with a surprising ease, dispatching real-life politicians and writers, as well as the debris of a whole culture in quick, tossed-off surreal snapshots of an inner-city waste land. The book sings, screams and hums with voices, music and noises, and moves from one sketched, unstable location to another. It demands your full attention, and it sets your brain in motion, constantly. This, however, especially the instability of its places and characters, leads to a good deal of confusion. There is nothing that interests Reed less than providing a realistic setting, realistic characters, living an unexamined life chartered by conventions. In his attempts to break free of these shackles, however, he has in his first novel thrown the reader into a largely unstructured sea of signs and symbols without giving him any kind of dry land to stand on.

The Free-Lance Pallbearers is the work of a jittery writer, one who burns with ideas and this book is a kind of explosion of those ideas. The plot is clearly a parody of the established plots of well-received black fiction, like Ellison’s searing Invisible Man, Wright’s Native Son or even some books by Baldwin, and it’s generous with criticism of different kinds of narratives, but it doesn’t offer a counter narrative, which has the effect of setting the reader adrift in Reeds thoughts and obsessions. At the same time, we, the reader, are not allowed to seek dry land outside of the novel, reading it dispassionately, drawing up schemes and lists, foot- and endnoting it all. If we do that, we lose much of the intended impact of the book.

It is meant to confuse the reader, it is meant to confront him with his reading habits, with his easy expectations of what a ‘black novel’ could or should be. It’s confrontational, which we see right at the beginning, in the very first paragraph which gives us an idea of the novel to come:

I live in HARRY SAM. HARRY SAM is something else. A big not-to-be-believed out-of-sight, sometimes referred to as O-BOP-SHE-BANG or KLANG-A-LANG-A-DING-DONG. SAM has not been seen since the day thirty years ago when he disappeared into the John with a weird ravaging illness.

These lines are spoken by the novel’s protagonist, Bukka Doopeyduk, who narrates the whole book until its bitter end. He lives in a country that is named after its fat white dictator Harry Sam, who refers to his own country as “ME”. Harry Sam resides on a toilet, and the state of his bowels, the consistency of his excrement, and the quality of the sewage water below him are constantly debated in the book, they are a matter of political faith, and careers, lives even, depend on the correct replies to the political catechism active in Harry Sam (the country). I never claimed that Reed’s criticism was subtle, it mostly isn’t, especially not with regard to politics. Overt recreations of political actions, debates, “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS”, are among the least subtly satirized targets, but they are also mostly a smoke-screen for the other targets and re-enactments.

Like many writers of his time, Reed seeks to locate the political in the private and expose the workings of the former by scrutinizing the structure and functions of the latter. He does not, however, try to imagine a ‘normal’ household and use the resulting images and situations as a source. Instead he staggers, no, he jumps ahead, and projects parts of everyday life onto the grotesque canvas of politics, showing one within the framework of the other, but both seen very clearly. And vice versa: what, in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, remains of regular relationships, is blown up with Reed’s satiric lens and corroded by his political thinking. It is this aspect of his work that has earned him the accusations of misogyny, because his invariably male protagonists find in relationships, especially in marriage, the mark of repression, the yoke of societal control.

The same applies to homosexuality. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reed uses homosexuality as a negative trope, it denotes sleaziness, dishonesty, and, like women, is depicted as profoundly threatening to Bukka, Reed’s hapless protagonist. This kind of depiction is not an accident, it doesn’t happen, like so many other things, in passing, no, it’s the culmination of the book’s most powerful, and arguably most important scene in the whole book, Bukka’s confrontation with Harry Sam (the person) himself. This changes the speed and tone of the book, and it is this section that gives the book its shape, that determines what the book is ‘about’. That the negative depiction of (male) homosexuality is a central part of this section seems especially problematic.

However, to read Reed like this is to overlook the use he makes of Bukka, Bukka’s language, and beliefs and what these things say about Bukka’s relationship to his fellow black men, and about The Free-Lance Pallbearers‘ relationship to other novels dealing with ‘the black experience’. Reed purposefully eschews clever writing, or rather: writing that’s clever for the sake of being clever. Reed published this novel the same year that Pynchon published his Crying of Lot 49, which is a nice little tale, but considerably less well realized than all his other books. Interestingly, it’s major flaw, i.e. the bland, and obvious sequence of symbols, of allegories and tropes, is one of Reed’s main objects of ridicule, while at the same time they both make heavy use of some very similar tropes, symbols or images, for example waste, garbage, excrement.

The difference is that in Pynchon, it is a trope, one symbol in a series of them, one allusion of many, whereas Reed, as I just explained, uses it as a direct mirroring of real excrement, real shitting, one of the most private acts of them all, an act that even some married couples hide from each other. All this has an additional metaphorical layer, but it works first and foremost on a direct, almost literal level. His confrontations rely on the brute impact of his caricatures and parodies, not on an intellectual analysis of its symbolic structure. At the end of his book, no dog hangs from meat-hooks, it’s a human being, visited by his parents who demand to given their due. Bukka, as a character, is the only one who doesn’t fit all that; he’s clearly artificial, a literary ghost, a black Candide “cakewalking” through this waste land.

In Bukka, Reed has created a character that is both a reflection of the books, culture and society criticized, as well as the means to criticize them. Just as the book as a whole can be read as a send-up of the traditional black novel, the awakening of a black man to the social and political reality around him, the state he is in and the society that is the reason for this state, so Bukka Doopeyduk is Reed’s send-up of the idealized black protagonist, and of the clever, fashionable black writer at the same time. Parts Candide, parts Malcolm X (including, I think, direct quotes from the Autobiography), Bukka isn’t like Wright’s Bigger, because he is more than that, he’s Wright, so to say, himself. Bukka is the narrator of the book, but his language differs strongly from the language of everyone else in the book and he’s accordingly being made fun of. Bukka is straining to speak ‘proper’ English, full, well-turned sentences, devoid of dialects or sloppiness. He does not, of course, succeed, at least not completely; we notice this partly through a slightly deviant grammar, and partly through orthographical errors.

It is the latter that create the most direct link to the writers made fun of, since these mistakes are often silent ones, mistakes of writing, not of speaking. Bukka the writer is sometimes, fascinatingly, at variance with Bukka the protagonist. While Bukka the writer is in control of everything, since he tells it all, Bukka the protagonist is frequently silenced, even made to mouth speeches that he didn’t write and wouldn’t approve of. Bukka the writer wants to be clever but what he mainly does is suck up to the structure that is currently governed by Harry Sam. It is his distaste that we find in the depiction of homosexuality, of women, even of Bukka Doopeyduk himself. Indeed one could say that Bukka is betrayed by the narrator, in effect by himself. This is an ingenious mirroring of another kind of betrayal in the book, that of Bukka by some of his fellow black men, who have entered into “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS” with Harry Sam (the person) and give up their brother at the drop of a dime.

This is maybe Reed’s most powerful criticism, and his most well made point: how control is not just control of the body with punishment à la Surveillir et Punir, but how it’s also control of one’s own narrative, and how that isn’t a “choice” that we consciously make, but that that’s a narrative that’s written by a different writer, like us, but unlike us (to mangle a line by Wallace Stevens). Bukka is trying to order, to give shape to the life he encounters, but he, like the reader, is swept away by the waves of ideas that Reed blasts at us. There is no life except in a distanced, processed way here, but the tumble and chaos of Harry Sam (the country) could be a better attempt at conveying the exigencies, the contradictions and the cultural problems of that life. In an essay from 1970, Reed once related this joke:

I have a joke I tell friends about a young Black poet who relies upon other people’s systems, and does not use his head. He wears sideburns and has seen every French film in New York. While dining at Schrafft’s he chokes to death on nut-covered ice cream and dies. He approaches the river Styx and pleads with Charon to ferry him across: ‘I don’t care how often you’ve used me as a mythological allusion,’ Charon says. ‘You’re still a nigger – swim!’


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Nicholson Baker: The Anthologist

Baker, Nicholson (2009), The Anthologist, Simon & Schuster
ISBN 978-1-4165-7244-2

Poetry is damnably difficult to write about. As Mary Kinzie has pointed out in her excellent  Poet’s Guide to Poetry, poetry criticism often turns out to be a “sort of paraphrase”, and poetry is perhaps the one genre that can bear paraphrase and even translation least of all. Poetry critics abound, who do an injustice to the genre they write about, and this whole mess has all kinds of uncomfortable links to academically reared poetry, that has resulted in poets who learned their craft at universities and returned to teach there, a closed circle of a kind, certainly. So, even poets sometimes, and critics who earn their livelihood writing about poetry don’t necessarily do well at this game. Knowing all this, I was cautious, skeptic, even, approaching Nicholson Baker’s new novel which is written from a poets point of view and it’s about poetry:

Let’s have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it’s a poem, because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows that it’s a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they are saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good.

Baker has accrued quite a following, different prizes and a sizable reputation, in several languages, but not as a poet. Baker has written and excelled both at writing novels and nonfictional prose, and he has been known to blur the lines between these modes of writing, most recently in his strange paean to pacifism, Human Smoke, which is structured and narrated like a novel but consists of an enormous amount of documents and documented quotes and statements. A similar kind of mixture can be found in The Anthologist, his new novel, which is an enjoyable, intriguing and multi-layered read, written with a sure and accomplished hand.

It’s a pleasure to read, a book that you are soon loath to put down, which draws you in and, for me, didn’t really let up until you’ve finished all of it. The appeal, its draw, cannot be chalked up to its plot since there’s no plot to speak of, small things happen, but much of the interest stems from the protagonist’s strange and inconsistent voice that drives the whole book. The book starts with the protagonist introducing himself. “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” And it’s an able description of the book that follows. Where a text like Human Smoke introduced fictional elements in order to tell a story, The Anthologist contains a strong streak of nonfictional elements; in fact, the nonfictional sections could be argued to provide the bulk of the book. Baker’s protagonist is a poet and teacher, who is currently trying to assemble an anthology. He professes a strong dislike for teaching, but he’s what is usually referred to as an unreliable narrator, and his distaste for teaching turns out to be one of many inconsistencies in the book. See, although he claims to dislike it, when he runs into trouble writing the introduction to the Anthology that is supposed to be called “Only Rhymes”, he imagines himself in the midst of giving a lecture, a task that appears to help, calm him, and that usually helps him to give a shape to his slightly disjointed thoughts.

This episode is a small-scale depiction of how the whole book works which contains longer slices of an imaginary lecture about meter and rhyme in English poetry, embedded in a disjointed, largely associative narrative. Paul Chowder is making up his mind. His life is falling apart and he sits down and considers it all, as it is, his current relationships to women, relatives, and to his own art. The book is written, for the most part, in the present tense, and as Chowder thinks about his life and lectures us about poetry, we can see his life change, we see how it is transformed into something different. Not radically different but slightly. It shifts, in its rhythms and emphases, and the book charts this development. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much room for the enormous amount of development and characterization that is taking place here, since so much of the book is taken up by Chowder’s lectures. And they are lectures, not just essayistic diversions. Chowder directly addresses the reader (or hearer) of the book, talking to him, reasoning with him, and above all, constantly asking him to do something, try to keep a beat, speak something aloud. I have had a terrific teacher of contemporary poetry, and Chowder’s passionate but eccentric way of teaching reminded me of him. Chowder jumps from one end of his subject to another, drawing connections, associations, in short: making a case for his thesis.

His thesis, or rather: his attempt at a coherent statement is a restitution of rhymed and strictly metered poetry to its proper place, at the vanguard of poetry. In one of many derisory statements he refers to free verse as “pretend stanzas of chopped garbage” or “plums”. His interesting but unusual ideas on meter draw on brilliant scholars such as Derek Attridge, in fact, I was tempted, at times, to pull Attridge from my shelf to check whether some of Chowder’s raves and rants weren’t taken verbatim from his work. It’s probably not particularly riveting nor, in and of itself, helpful, to recount the specifics of Chowder’s thesis here, but it’s worth pointing out that it is based on a disdain for the conventional wisdom that would have the pentameter as the ‘natural’ English meter. Open any current introduction to the art of English poetry, from Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance to Timothy Steele’s All the fun’s in how you say a thing and this will jump at you, probably in an introductory chapter and will be repeated throughout the book. Chowder will have none of this. Not only does he propose a completely different meter as the normal or natural meter for English poetry, he also proposes a notion of rests. None of this is original, mind you, but it is unorthodox, and I’d suggest that much of it, while certainly learned and most certainly not without educational value, could be read more profitably as a symptom of Chowder’s emotional states than as something that strives for objective instruction.

This is one of Baker’s many admirable achievements in the book: he’s done an enormous amount of research, on a topic that he probably wasn’t intensely familiar with at the outset, but the results feels completely organic, so much so, in fact, that we believe the book’s premise, i.e., that the whole of it isn’t Baker’s research but Chowder’s original thought. This is different from Human Smoke, where Baker caught a lot of flak for the odd political opinions he quoted. This success in The Anthologist is partly due to the immensely passionate tone that Chowder brings to the table, his fits and quirks, his bouts of anger, his long rants about Filippo Marinetti, Ezra Pound and an assortment of modernists, and his equally long raves and tributes to writers such as his cherished Sara Teasdale, Theodore Roethke (for my own comments on Roethke, see this review), Louise Bogan and Mary Oliver, amongst others. Having the ear, or having at least the willingness to apply one’s ear to a poem, or a whole poet’s work, to look for a tone, moods, for ripples on the surface of the poem, as well as a certain reluctance to jump ahead to what a poem “really means”, this has become rare, and poetry criticism (and, arguably, poetry itself) is the poorer for it. Without criticizing theoretical approaches to poetry, the utter lack of sympathetic readings of poems, the kinds of reading that used to be called hermeneutic in Schleiermacher’s days, this, I think, really hurts the whole field, draining it of a necessary energy, making poetry less of a viable and vital force than it could, no, than it should be.

Poetry isn’t made of messages, it’s made of language, and among the major modes of literature, poetry is arguably the one that is most directly, purely even, concerned with language, and with the thinking that precedes, I think, consciousnes, envelops it in folds of language; it is, I think, uniquely equipped to describe, or deal with, “the fiction that results from feeling” (to quote Stevens) and even with what spiritual content is washed ashore. I could point to a couple of poems that make this point, but novels? By non-poets? Few and far between. The Anthologist, an extended ars poetica, is one of them. Like many of the best works of literature, it achieves this through a complex mixture of direct disquisition and subtle indirection. We are never allowed to forget that the passion isn’t Baker’s, it’s Paul Chowder’s, and the form and tone he adopts is indicative of his character and related issues. His attraction to the unorthodox, is part of a general anxiety, not Bloom’s overused “Anxiety of Influence”, but a real anxiety that Chowder understands to be part of the poetic endeavor; to highlight this, he uses the image of long ladders reaching up into the skies with every poet and critic hurrying up the rungs, up, up, up, and Chowder confesses of a feeling of exhaustion, a tiredness, in the face of the arduous ascent and the competition below, beside and above him.

This anxiety, and a heavy feeling of defeat, certainly drive his expansive remarks just as powerfully as his passion for poetry. Although his voice is always strong and present, Chowder himself appears to slip in and out of his own story, as he layers it with inconsistencies. There are things that sound false, like the poetry convention hailing the arrival of Paul Muldoon, as if Muldoon was the singer of a mildly famous rock band. There is Chowder’s obsession with the question whether he will or will not get printed in the New Yorker. More to the point, there are his gaps or contradictions inasmuch as his art and his convictions as they relate to that art are concerned. He extols rhymes, but admits to write unrhymed (not necessarily free verse) poetry himself, and among the 20th century poets he seems to admire most are poets like Elizabeth Bishop and especially Mary Oliver; Oliver is particularly interesting in that she can safely be classed as a fee verse poet, a major, complex poet making brilliant use of line and meter, but she produces just the kind of poetry he seems to spurn in other poets. On a related note, for an anthologist who claims to be well read in rhymed and metered poetry, there is his dismissal of James Merrill as merely a pretty face

She would say her heroes’ names in her gorgeous juicy accent, holding her fingers together: “Mark Strand – he is simply the top.” And I would say, Okay I’ll have to check him out. Later I did check him out, and I thought, he was fine but not great. But he was exceedingly good-looking, I could see that, a real Charlton Hestonian face, one of those hellishly handsome poets. James Merrill was another and back then I lumped W.S. Merwin in with them. But that’s not right, because Merwin has genius as well as looks.

This is profoundly baffling, since Merrill is arguably the best, most dexterous and complex American writer of formal verse in the second half of the 20th century. If you are well read enough in this area to attempt an anthology of poets and poems, you wouldn’t overlook that.

But this oversight is necessary, it’s Nicholson Baker’s way of demonstrating to us the superficial nature of Chowder’s lecture; this does not mean that Chowder doesn’t, in general, know what he’s talking about, but the whole lecture, the diversions and asides, these are red herrings, facades behind which Chowder hides his hurts, fears. Early in the book Baker, in another poetologically laden scene, tells us, that Chowder is easily distracted, that he will embrace distraction, even, in order not to deal with the task at hand: rebuilding his life. He’s constantly evading his life, dodging responsibility, putting off standing up for himself as a poet and lover. Instead, he makes a big show of fighting for his literary critical convictions, proposing and defending an unorthodox theory, and he doesn’t even wait for us to ask, to think, doubt, he launches into full teacher mode. As a teacher, his explanations are marvelous, but the contradictions, the diversions, they should make us suspicious of his actual qualities as a teacher. We are his audience but we don’t really exist, for him, there’s nothing to confront or deal with, so he can talk freely. There is no voice that halts him, that checks him, forces him to double down and think, it’s just him and his game. Baker’s incredible skill makes us understand how Chowder’s mind works, but the lack of balance in the voice and the very loose and light plotting make this an easy, a light read.

The Anthologist is in love with its narrator and although it’s written by a master stylist, the indulgences that result from this affection, serve to weaken the whole book considerably. There is too much tentativeness, too much indirection, the book is content with Chowder’s little spiel. This could have been a masterpiece, but it’s not. It’s a short book that should have been even shorter, a sarcastic book that should have been more sarcastic, a bitter book that lacks bitterness. However you look at it, it’s not enough. But, and hear me right, this is a great, great read. It’s an incredibly well written, light book about poetry, and it’s a very good book about poetry. Read it, you will not be disappointed. Judging from this book alone, Nicholson Baker is a stunning novelist.

Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things

Auster, Paul (1987), In the Country of Last Things, Faber & Faber
ISBN 0-57-122730-9

Post-apocalyptic novels have know quite a success this past decade. Most recently, there was Theroux’ so-so Far North, Cormac McCarthy’s ok The Road and Maggie Gee’s brilliant The Flood, as well as Margaret Atwood’s efforts Oryx & Crake and this year’s The Year of the Flood. Although Paul Auster’s fourth (or second, depending on whether you count the New York Trilogy as one or three novels) novel In The Country of Last Things, was published in 1987, I could not help but to contextualize it with its more recent brethren and draw a comparison with these books, an undertaking that isn’t likely to produce a result that shines a favorable light on Auster’s book. In 1987, with some of his most famous books still to come, like Moon Palace or The Music of Chance, he’d already published the one book (or books) that will secure him a place in the American canon, The New York Trilogy. It consists of three short pieces, variations on a variety of themes, an unease with reality, with names, naming, being, identity. Although I’m not sure it’s a success, it’s definitely a powerful artistic statement, this is a man stepping out into the world and stating his intentions as a writer, it’s the one text in Paul Auster’s work that works like a key to his whole oeuvre. It may not be fully artistically accomplished but we as readers are left with Auster’s shadow in the door, his wild gaze. Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders. You may not like the book, but it’s also the one point in Paul Auster’s whole work where you can feel a kind of authenticity, a hunger, a need and a talent to write. It’s all there and we as readers can’t but admire the result. But sadly, Auster didn’t stop after finishing the trilogy.

In the Country of Last Things is, in many ways, a huge step forward, or away, from the writing that created the New York Trilogy. It is a bleak, post-apocalyptic novel about a woman called Anna Blume, who is in search of her brother William. In order to find him, she enters a dilapidated city where hunger and horror reign. Quickly she learns that finding her brother in the mess of that city would be difficult at best. The city, cut off from the rest of the country by a barrier that Anna soon learns is meant to keep people in, not to keep people out, is a total waste land. As in all the rest of his work, Auster is profoundly uninterested in depicting the place in a full-bodied way, but he does something interesting, he defines it through the actions that you have to undertake in order to stay alive there and through the book’s central metaphor: hunger. Mainly, there are two important ways to earn your keep in this merciless country, both involve scavenging. You can either hunt for anything, these are the so-called “Garbage collectors”, who purchase a license in order to roam a certain area on the lookout for anything resembling garbage that can be sold off; and there are also the ”object hunters”, who are specifically out to hunt rare, more valuable objects. These two occupations demand different kinds of skills, but the basic way you go about them, with a cart that you keep leashed to your waist, stays the same. In a way it’s impressive how nakedly and quickly Auster mounts his construct here.

The genre he sets this book in can be considered Science Fiction, an attribution that has been often contested, most recently in the spats between Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood about the question whether it is viable or even useful to call some of Atwood’s work SF. But Auster’s book, in contrast to most of the recent post-apocalyptic explorations I mentioned earlier, shares some interesting properties with the SF genre that go beyond questions of technology and believability: Auster writes badly. This is not to say that SF is badly written in general, but even among the classics of SF you would be hard-pressed to find finely crafted prose or exquisitely drawn characters. This is offset, in SF, by the enormous amount of ideas that crowd even mediocre works of the genre. For various reasons, writing SF enables writers to present a plethora of daring and interesting ideas that your common, booker-shortlisted book would take hundreds of pages to develop and then present in a careful, often veiled fashion. SF often don’t bother with all the hoopla that’s expected of the mild-mannered contemporary novel. Writers such as Tobias S. Buckell, Nebula Award Finalist in 2007, in novels like Ragamuffin, can produce solidly written yarns that crawl with concerns from freedom to identity and perception. Idea-driven literature like satire quite often forswear complex characters and careful writing in order to deliver a punch. Tova Reich’s cartoonishly garish (but amazingly brilliant & bitter) My Holocaust is perhaps the best recent example of this genre, but Maggie Gee’s aforementioned The Flood is also a very fine specimen. Examples of this writing can be found all through literary history. One of the most fascinating examples of this is perhaps John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a novelization of the progress of the spirit, which is less concerned with providing a gripping and credible story than with putting its everyman hero in a series of situation that are significant in terms of the spiritual lessons Bunyan wants to impart on his readers.

It is interesting, in this context, that In the Country of Last Things has an epitaph from Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Railroad”, a modernized take on Bunyan’s tale. It is this tradition that Auster writes in, and his cold oeuvre can be read as an effort to be both a schoolmaster as well as a storyteller, but he often ends up just being a drag (incidentally, the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s novel of poetics and poets, The Anthologist, seems eerily like Paul Auster). There are many similarities and dissimilarities to Bunyan’s line in In the Country of Last Things; of the latter, I think that Auster’s reversion of Bunyan’s thrust figures most strongly. Whereas Bunyan’s Christian leaves the “famous City of Destruction” (to quote the epitaph) to get to the Celestial City, Auster’s Anna Blume travels to a city of destruction. While Bunyan finds a series of images for a spiritual journey that everyone could be argued to be on, Auster found images for the violence, the hunger that is part of our everyday lives. Auster inserts those cleverly into situations that sound and look as if they had been transported straight from our time to that dire place, which makes for an uncanny effect. Auster’s embracing of the Bunyan line allows him to make his case and present his ideas simply and directly. There isn’t a shortage of ideas in In the Country of Last Things: in the book we have, for example, a discussion pitting ‘need’ against ‘consumerism’. If I may take up the concept of garbage collectors and object hunters I mentioned earlier: as people start to rethink what to throw away (which in turn hurts the garbage collectors), we see how use, or the lack of it, can change something into garbage. Dead people’s clothes, for example, quickly, unclaimed, unworn, become garbage.

The object collectors seem to be based on a school of thought which is clearly meant to echo (and does), classic works of sociology such as Jean Baudrillard’s highly readable Le Système des objets. How we read objects, how we construct and make use of our interiors, of the objects that make up our lives, how we experience the quotidian, this is a recurring theme in Paul Auster’s novel and he uses the brash surface of the city to shine a light on that which we recognize to be ours, to belong to our world, not just objects, but also behaviors, structures, people. The whole book is made up of small pieces, of these kinds of, well, narrative objects which can pop up sudden in the book, but for the reader, each of them is like a small, dense island of reference. Just as Bunyan, Auster ushers his heroine from one densely symbolical situation to the next, each imparting one important point that contributes towards Auster’s larger image of how close that city of literal destruction is to our metaphoric, Bunyanian City of Destruction. For example, there is a small apartment where two people live, leading a dysfunctional marriage. Auster goes out of his way to make this, although an exaggeration, a thoroughly clichéd depiction of a typical bourgeois marital household. The violence that imbues it is chilling, especially if we connect it to the general violence in the town and recognize one as being related to the other. The chill is generated through the recognition that the household could have been part of the reader’s own world, it seems transplanted to the criminal city in order to highlight connections. The details that power this recognition are all there, from the objects, to the behavior (hobbies, for example), it’s enough to build and keep a strong connection to the reader’s present.

These connections make us realize how close we may be to what happened in Auster’s unnamed country, or how we may move in that direction, but only at a first glance. In fact, reading, appreciating and understanding the first of many of these set pieces, will, for most readers, be the point where they’ll realize for the first time in the book with striking and absolute clarity, that Auster is profoundly non-committal. Hunger, a violent social force in the book, makes people less political, In the Country of Last Things claims and the whole conception of the book tries to support the point. Less political? The book could be read as an attempt to highlight the pervasiveness of politics, the fact that anything we do is politically fraught and subject to violence and fear. But Auster balks from that kind of conclusion and by cutting off the city from the main country, Auster has also bracketed off politics, or so he tries to convince his readers in the book. The intent is clear, this is about individual lives only, but in doing this, he has done his constructions, his ideas a disservice, as he’s done his source texts like the one by Baudrillard, which are highly, highly political. It’s disturbing to see him bottle all this violence and redirect the flow into less significant channels. Auster has, in his books, brought up hunger a few times, most famously probably in the book of his that I enjoyed the most, Hand to Mouth, a gloriously self-aggrandizing memoir of his early years. Hand to Mouth is swimming in righteousness and self-pity, but hunger as a need to write and the actual hunger that resulted from his lack of success, this was a combination that made for a good read. In In the Country of Last Things, his point is actually a similar one, equating actual hunger, and an actual search with an intellectual hunger and a quest for meaning in a desolated city.

Instead of reading the hurt and the need as something that exists between human beings, he chooses a radically individualist, solipsist, almost, path. In this he is both similar and radically dissimilar to Bunyan. Words, Auster tells us early on, can sustain us, if we give ourselves over to them with a strong enough belief, a deep enough dedication. Failure may lurk, and all communities that surface in the book are doomed to perish, and most, indeed, do, but one person and her writing can save herself and, in the writing, maybe, everybody else with her. A writer’s progress, we might quip. This is how the book is set up, with regard to narrator and structure. The book seems to be a letter from Anna Blume to her brother, but it isn’t completely given over to the epistolary genre. Like the Brooklyn Follies, but more explicitly, In the Country of Last Things is framed by an unnamed narrator, who narrates the writing of the letter. The book, in a way, contains the letter and thus, to a degree, also its ideas. This makes for a lot of distance, and presents yet another instance of Auster disavowing his own characters, but it also serves as a cradle of sorts for Anna Blume’s letter, which doesn’t fall into a black hole of unknowing. Who will read the letter? Will anyone? These questions are not foregrounded, although the last chapters of the book act out that kind of gesture. The narrative bracket, or cradle, cushions this, however, making the gesture visible, as a gesture, and not allowing it to affect the careful reader. This is a book written in the 1980s, in a century where we have seen many letters and diaries written into the void of the Shoah, the Gulag and similar catastrophes, with no hope or thought of future readers. Millions and millions of people had been murdered by totalitarian regimes and sent to their deaths by democracies not without trying to write down what they felt needed to be said. There was a sudden, unusual rupture between the writing and the reading (part of this, I think is what Shoshana Felman nicely described as “the crisis of witnessing” in her marvelous book Testimony) But in the 1980s we already knew these texts, we’ve read them, footnoted and edited them, we contextualized the gap that opened up at their end.

Of all the destructive events that caused these ruptures, the Shoah is probably central. And in all the disrupted narratives connected to the Shoah, Anna’s namesake, Anne Frank, surely figures among the most well know writers. The book itself suggests this connection, by including yet another piece, another object, this time about a Jewish community in a large library. Many people live in this library, which is an interesting microcosm, and yet another location created in the spirit of Bunyan. As we meet them, Jews are only tolerated there, and later in the book, we’ll see them deported, thrown out into the cold and bitter city. Anna Blume is herself a Jew and carries in her name both literary echoes (her name is pronounced ‘Bloom’, like Leonard) and dire forebodings (“gloom, tomb”, the narrator jests). Their expulsion, her identity and the general context of the book are thickly interlaced. The event of the city’s destruction, it’s ongoing process of coming even more undone, Auster connects it to the hate of Jews that is recurrent in Western civilization. His Jews are caricatures but it isn’t Theroux’ brand of racism (see my review of his book here), it’s still the satiric, Science-fictional impulse to quickly, succinctly present ideas and themes. All through the book, Auster is remarkably constant in this, but it’s always clear that he sees himself more in the line of Bunyan and Hawthorne than in SF’s tradition.

In Auster’s case, the sad fact is that his abilities cannot keep up with his ambitions. A writer like Buckell or PK Dick may not be a great stylist, not a superior crafter of prose, but these writers often work with their limitations, writing a simple, very readable style that often eschews literary flourishes for sappier phrases that, however, do deliver. Buckell may not have a wonderful sound, but he doesn’t sound awkward either. If there is one word that perfectly describes Auster’s prose, however, it’s ‘awkward’. Auster, who astonishingly started out as a poet, labors to create literary prose but his tin ear and willingness to accept cliché turns of phrase make for pages that drag on and on. He shines, now and then, but every dog has its day and I guess Auster deserves it for trying so hard. Also, much more damningly, his espousing of Bunyan/Hawthorne exposes his weak thinking and his prejudice. Ideas, in SF have become gestures, almost, and to question identity has become de rigeur, which makes SF much more predictable, but at the same time elevates even weak thinkers to a decent level if they keep to genre conventions. The SF subtext is so strong that even writers or thinkers with questionable convictions can compose books and texts that are much saner, much more in line with thoughtful and laudable concepts. Since Auster’ll have none of this, he bares himself in a way that can be worrisome.

Of the prejudices mentioned, I’ll pick just one (I mentioned others in my review of Invisible, here) which surfaces in his choice of protagonist. Now, a strong woman is a wonderful heroine in any novel, but Auster’s focus on ideas instead of characters highlights the fact that he chose Anna Blume because she is a woman, because of the weaknesses and fads, because of things like that which he could hang on her. In a really astonishingly reactionary way, he underlines difference, as the most central fact about her. The above-mentioned connections to the everyday run on a rail that is composed of a very strict sense of gender roles. He never questions it, in fact, he needs and exploits the difference between the roles and undercuts every single instance that could be read as emancipatory. Anna writes a book but it is TO her brother and contained IN a narrative that seems to be ‘the author’s’ (at least we have no better indication). A strong woman who leads a charitable home needs to be saved by men and Anna Blume just stands by and watches events unfold. Feminity is almost a defect, it’s a weakness that exposes her to male violence (but she isn’t helpless). The survivalist tone of the city highlights Auster’s misconceptions about so-called basic differences between genders. Auster uses Anna Blume as a woman, but at no point does he actually display any concern for her situation as a woman, in her culture and in this new non-culture. Almost maliciously, the book mentions at one point that a depletion of razor stocks meant that Anna and her lover needed to decide whether his beard or her legs would get shaved, and quips humorously “the legs won, hands down.” This low, old-boy’s club kind of humor is all over the book, unchecked, unreflected, strong.

Earlier, I talked about hunger as being one of the most important, even the central trope of the book. I realize I haven’t cited much evidence for this, but I’d like to briefly return to it. See, with Auster there is real hunger and intellectual hunger and while his disdain for the former smacks of a strange kind of normative thinking, the two sides of the idea of hunger have been presented before and Auster does do his own presenting cogently and engagingly, even in this book. But mentioning Hawthorne and Bunyan calls attention to a third kind of hunger, one which stays with you all through the book: spiritual hunger. I find Auster’s lack of commitments, of investment in some of the ideas he throws around exhausting, because there is nothing, ultimately, that will sustain the reader, not even Auster’s belief in words manifests itself in gorgeous prose. No, for me, it’s too draining to read writers like Auster, who ask much of their readers, but give little back. Their texts are laced with the gestures of literariness, but are executed with a willful disdain for the medium they write in or its possibilities. They write from a well established vantage point, and use materials and provisions of others without, I think, paying back in commitment and strength. Paul Auster’s novels are like black holes, and they should be read fleetingly, glancing, without looking overmuch at their details and implications. It is, I think, thus that they can be best enjoyed, as a vaguely competent romp. A friend of mine scoffed at my reading of the Brooklyn Follies, claiming it to be a warm, funny novel, her reading clearly a cursory one, and thus, fitting for a reading of an Auster book, Auster being similarly cursory with his own readings and engagements. As that book, In the Country of Last Things will make a great movie, I think, if the images can be made to carry some of the weight, and transform the literary pretensions into genuine storytelling. It’s good to see Auster doing more movies this past decade. Auster is a screenwriter manqué, and I would have much rather seen the movie than read the book.

A short personal note (January 2013). 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.

Colson Whitehead: Apex Hides The Hurt

Whitehead, Colson (2006), Apex Hides The Hurt, Anchor
ISBN 978-1-4000-3126-9

DSC_0625Although all of Whitehead’s books seem to be genre bastards, Apex Hides The Hurt is difficult to categorize even by Whitehead’s standards. This is both a weakness and a strength of this novel. On the one hand, the book is so well written, so well structured, so intelligently built that it’s hard not to be awed by Whitehead’s capabilities as a writer. There is nothing that escapes his eye, no detail, word, turn of phrase left unattended, the whole book is like a finely crafted work of art, that uses genre as one of many tools to give his ideas shape and form. On the other hand, Whitehead has, for whatever reason, forgotten the story, the life, an energy that is not cerebral, something that moves the reader through the story. In this book. Whitehead turns out to be a bit of a solipsist. In my last review I mentioned that some writers are supervising their readers. Well, the author of Apex Hides The Hurt seems barely aware that he has any readers.

There are several attempts at building a story, three kinds of suspense built in, but Whitehead is not able or willing to follow through on one of them and fashion the necessary drive for his book. His meddling with genres is one of the reasons why that’s the case. Apex Hides The Hurt shares many of the characteristics of his debut novel; The Intuitionist, however, had a noir-ish mystery plot to hold on to while Whitehead wielded his ideas and concepts. There is none of this here. This is not to say that this novel is utterly devoid of suspense. In a sly manner, Whitehead withholds two kinds of information from us, both of which create a mild suspense. These two kinds of information come at the end of the two narrative strands that are intertwined in the book. One is taking place in the present, charting the nameless protagonist’s arrival in a town called Winthrop. He has been hired by the town’s council to advise them in the matter of re-naming the town. Why they would hire him is revealed in the second strand. The protagonist is a nomenclature consultant, that is, he’s someone who is paid to give a name to products, people, campaigns, and he is naturally gifted at what he does. In this second strand we follow his career to its end.

DSC_0622And here we have the two kinds of information withheld from us. The future name of the town is the first: not until the last pages are we apprised of the name that the protagonist chooses for the town; the second is this: although, in the narrative that takes place in the present, we are told that his career has abruptly ended, it is not until the end of the book that we find out why. For good measure, Whitehead throws in a few thriller elements, as his protagonist digs through the town’s history and discovers long lost secrets. These three kinds of suspense (name, reason, archive), however, are pursued halfheartedly; Whitehead constantly saps the energy, the blood, from the book by turning every potentially riveting element into yet another spire in his construction. It’s amazing how much disinterest he displays in these parts of the construction of a novel. Despite all I said, the novel, make no mistake, is still a great read and it still draws you in, but it does so solely on the basis of his ideas, his commitments and his writing, not because of the plot or even the flimsy characters. None of the characters in Apex Hides The Hurt exist because of exigencies of the plot, or because the psychology of one of the characters demanded it, every single character can be read to “stand for” something.

In the narrative that takes place in the present, we have the trinity represented in the town council: there’s Regina Goode, the town mayor, a direct descendant from one of the two founders of the town (named Goode and Field). She wants to change the town’s name to its original name, Freedom. There’s Lucky Aberdeen, a successful entrepreneur who wants the town to be named in a snappy and attractive way that will pull business to the town, the name he came up with is New Prospera. And then there’s Albie, the slightly mad last scion of the Winthrop family, who wants to retain the town’s name. His family originally pressured the founders into changing the name in the first place. The Winthrop family had a very successful barbed wire business and the town that was called Freedom paid with its name for the opportunities that having the business settle there would have afforded them. Clearly, the situation thus mapped out contains a wealth of ideas. Most directly, perhaps, ideas that pertain to American history. See, as it happens, Goode and Field were freed slaves, so the fact that they founded a town and called it Freedom is interesting; even more so when considering that the town of Winthrop, as the protagonist encounters it, is predominantly white and Regina Goode the first black mayor in ages. Additionally, no reader will be able to refrain from associating the name of “Winthrop” with the most famous Winthrop of early American history, John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who was immortalized in Hawthorne’s searing masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. Winthrop is a dominant figure in Apex Hides The Hurt, although always somewhat indirectly. There are a few way that the historical Winthrop ties into the novel.

DSC_0623One of the ways is through the city of Winthrop, Mass, a town that is actually named for the governor. In Apex Hides The Hurt, there is a fictional university that is clearly supposed to be Harvard, but is called “Quincy”. Is it a coincidence that, at the other end of the Massachusetts Bay, there is another small town called Quincy? Quincy is the more famous town of the two, being the city where John Adams, John Quincy Adams and John Hancock were born, thus, when Albie exclaims “But then Lucky told me you were a Quincy man, and I knew I would get a fair shake. A Quincy man is a man of his word.”, it takes on a wider significance. Now, I realize that this is a lot to infer from just the two names “Winthrop” and “Quincy”, because “there are a lot of rich white people named Winthrop”, but, as Whitehead goes on to say, “with names there is no coincidence.” So, to sum up, Whitehead presents to us both slavery, and a rough sketch of the black political experience in the US, as well as the man who first legalized slavery in the Colonies and was part of quite a few developments that shaped the United States and still do. It’s not, however, a small-scale depiction of American history, since the chronological order is mixed up.

But in Apex Hides The Hurt references are always a bit slanted. Another reference to John Winthrop might, for example, be through the title, which is a brand name our protagonist came up with for a cheap line of adhesive bandages and the slogan that accompanies it. It’s hard not to associate “Apex” (you are not told, until you’re a good deal into the book, what the title of the book actually means) with John Winthrop and his phrase “city upon a hill” (from his sermon “A Model of Christian Clarity”), that has long since become part of the American self-image, and it is indeed to Winthrop, this city, this destination that the protagonist comes and where, in a sense, his new life begins. This city seems to carry a certain promise for him, as it had for Goode and Field. He has never led a life that demanded choices, struggles of him, this changes in the town of Winthrop. The choice of a name that he’s been asked to make, mirrors a choice that he needs to make with respect to his own self, to his own identity. A weary traveler, as he arrives, he is subsequently increasingly committed to not ‘deal falsely with his self in this work he has undertaken’ (to paraphrase Winthrop’s sermon), to do right by the town and himself.

DSC_0624Indeed it is the protagonist’s self that seems to be at stake in this mission, and if we look more closely at the symbols and structures, it’s easy to see that it all revolves around him. The protagonist is, which we haven’t mentioned yet, an African-American, and the fate of the black town that turned into a white corporate town, is, in some ways, his fate as well. He rose quickly to the top, didn’t suffer any discriminations and would fit well into the select group of Black Republicans. He’s the ‘Black friend’ all racists seem to be able to marshal in a matter of minutes. He has dedicated his life to camouflaging things, making them look and sound attractive. It’s no surprise that he, in his detached, highly ironic voice, mentions the marketing campaign for the adhesive bandages in passing at best, that is to say the brilliant idea of making colored bandages. Whitehead offers us one of the most frequent examples used in Whiteness studies, the normative use of words like “flesh” in phrases like “flesh-colored”. “Whose flesh?” a savvy ad man asks. Whose flesh indeed. And so, the company starts to produce bandages in all hues and colors, so that everyone can have a flesh-colored bandage. The hues are so well done that the bandages are no longer conspicuous upon the injured body. You can forget you were ever injured, Apex, as the bandages are subsequently named, “hides the hurt”. This is the insanely successful slogan that Apex runs on and they go on and sell huge amounts of bandages, targeted to minority groups and the poor in general.

There is more to this, of course, than just a curious story about marketing and a plot device. In the story, people lose their toes because they forgot the toe was injured because the bandage hid the hurt. I read this as a reference to cosmetic politics that make things seem sound and proper, when they are actually not. What the right disparagingly calls “political correctness” and which is actually nothing but respect for your fellow men, is used, in many cases, as a cosmetic tool. As if racism went away, if we just call people by better names. Cosmetic politics, if we look at newspapers and polls, often make people believe we are living in a post-feminist, post-racial age, and any complaint about discrimination is suddenly reactionary, backwards-looking. Leave the past alone! Germans whine, we are enlightened now, don’t you see, we have days of remembrance. How dare you! They howled as Holder, Attorney general of the US, called his country “a nation of cowards”. But below these bandages, these nice-sounding names and offices (a black president! How’s that for Apex?) hide the rot. Understanding the town, and understanding yourself, in Apex Hides The Hurt, means looking below the surfaces, looking at the rot. There are those who believe that to be too critical is inconvenient, almost a character flaw, but Whitehead’s point is: it’s necessary and urgent! Things that rot eventually die off and may maim the rest of the body. In one of the most fascinating tensions in the book, though, this urgency does not translate into urgent writing.

On the contrary. The writing, as I said, is predominantly ironic and detached. The writing is very deliberate, but cold and frequently almost dull. This is not Auster’s ‘dull’, this is an aesthetically thrilling ‘dull’ because these sentences betray the art with which they have been constructed. There is a stiffness, but it’s also the protagonist’s stiffness. He is used to look down upon people, to dismiss them and their petty issues. Hence also the fact that all kinds of interesting and important issues come up but they barely make a dent in the narrative. These things are just not significant for the protagonist or rather: not yet. The style and, at the beginning, the ubiquitous witty stories about brands and re-brandings, are, partly, a satire of consumerism and advertising. But that’s a surface phenomenon, it’s the Apex. Below this surface, the protagonist’s true hurt hides, and as the book progresses, it breaks through more and more, without ever completely exploding the surface.

DSC_0625The style, and the ad culture it signifies, is important in yet more ways: while racism is frequently regarded as a purely political phenomenon, Whitehead, in this book, proposes that economics might play an important role in the establishment of repressive societies. Winthrop, in this book, is not a politician, he’s an entrepreneur and he exerts economic pressure to make Goode and Field change the name of the city. Or the matter of the normative power that Band-Aid, the leading adhesive bandage, exerts. Each time the book grazes political matters it deflects. I just suggested it may be on account of the protagonist’s disinterest. Another reason might be that they are, each time anew, packaged as economic situations, thus bleeding the concern and the problem from the situation, effectively ‘hiding the hurt’. But, just like any of the other suggested readings of the characters and situations in the book, this, too, is not a definite reading. Whitehead is too brilliant a writer to try to pound home one point and make everything in the book subject to that one point, that one reading. Apex Hides The Hurt is a multi-facetted romp through America, past and present, a realistic allegory that focuses on a small microcosm without ever losing sight of the broader context. You might find it boring sometimes, but you shouldn’t. This book can sustain several rereads without ever stopping to glitter with possibilities. Colson Whitehead is an awesome writer and this is a great book.


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Paul Auster: Invisible

Auster, Paul (2009), Invisible, Henry Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-9080-2

It’s not as awful as I thought it would be. Paul Auster’s most recent novel, Invisible, frequently billed as a return to form, is, indeed, much better than what I read of his recent fare, especially when compared to his dismal Brooklyn Follies. This is not a good book but, in many places, it turns out, it’s a readable one, and while Auster is up to his usual tricks, at least they are well-rehearsed ones. Invisible teems with postmodern feints, with metafictional jabs and intertextual hooks, but like every single book of his I’ve so far read, it delivers a very weak punch. This is baffling in a book that not only takes up or references important issues like racism, but, on a very direct narrative level, throws a story at the reader that contains murder, great quantities of sex, incest and even, possibly, one (or two) secret agents. And there isn’t much else to distract the reader. Invisible displays an obsession with these themes, and it utilizes quite a few of the tricks of the trade to create enough suspense for the reader to read on and on, no matter how much other aspects of the book may annoy him. There are sudden surprises, a revelatory ending and each of the book’s sections ends on a cliffhanger. There is a definite connection of Invisible to many other specimen of the thriller genre. Sadly, this is true for Auster’s writing as well.

Stylistically, a good deal of Invisible is just a little better than reviled genre writers like Dan Brown. This is not to deny the fact that there are many many aspects that set Auster apart from the likes of Dan Brown (who, incidentally, is much better than the smug cliché would have you believe), but the staggeringly low quality of Auster’s prose, especially in his more recent work, has always been a surprise to me, especially considering the far more sophisticated nature of the constructions and ideas that populate his fiction. There’s also a certain skill involved in even the most terrible prose sections, due to the fact that Auster’s prose isn’t uniformly bad. In my review of The Brooklyn Follies I argued that some of the awfulness of his style was part of an unfavorable characterization of the protagonist, narrator and ‘writer’ of the book. Auster does something very similar here. Again, in the character of Adam Walker, there’s an unlikeable protagonist, again, he writes part of the book, again, these sections are remarkably badly written. As the protagonist gradually loses control of his writing, he slips first into a less introspective and then into a syntactically far more reduced style. With each change and reduction, the quality of the writing improves dramatically (though not to a good level). Jim, a famous novelist, who acts as the editor of Walker’s writing, is also using a language that is a cut above Adam’s. Thus, it’s hard to make blanket statements about the book’s writing, although no amount of goodwill will make Invisible a well-written book.


I will inject a warning now. The rest of the review may contain SPOILERS. I will not disclose the final revelation, but since I will definitely comment upon the book’s structure, this may spoil the ‘surprise’ of the reader as certain aspects about the narrative are, suddenly, revealed. I don’t think it’s much of a problem but I just want to be careful here. If you are bent upon reading this book, despite everything I said so far, stop reading this review now, and read the book first. If not, continue, but don’t complain afterwards.


Invisible is consits of four sections. The first is the only one with only a single narrator, un nommé Adam Walker. He tells us a story about meeting a slightly warped Frenchman called Rudolf Born, who draws Walker into a maelstrom of sex and violence. Born, we learn, is highly seductive. Intent upon not missing a single cliché, Auster/Walker constructs that seductiveness as being composed of fear, desire and greed, as Born baits young Walker, an unsuccessful poet/student, with his attractive companion, his funds and an undefinable kind of implicit violence. As the story progresses, he offers Walker a piece of each of the three. He offers him to sleep with Margot, his beautiful girlfriend, he offers him money to set up a literary journal and he embroils him in violence by trying to make him complicit in a murder. These, of course, are all established tropes, usually used to signify ‘decadence’ (throughout the book, there’s also more than just a whiff of Dostoyevskyan disapproval directed at Born). Walker’s stumbling prose, these well-worn ideas and images, together with Auster’s continuous barrage of intertextual references, never lets the reader read this story as believable, but always oddly, coldly constructed, despite the insistently confessional tone that the narrative develops. This is confirmed as the second section starts, where we find that the narrator has changed, and the first section has turned from a narrative that sounds confessional to a ‘confessional story’.

Now, the story is narrated by Jim, who is a famous novelist (I will not start to discuss autobiographical feints in Auster’s prose. It’s a well-explored topic in Auster criticism, and I am, to be honest, not well-read enough in Auster’s work to make a meaningful comparison here. Auster’s, however, clearly toying with these kinds of facts in this story, part of the overall ‘clever’ peregrinations through the modernist and postmodernist toolbox) and who, one fine day (Spring 2007) is sent a manuscript through UPS. The accompanying letter tells him that the manuscript was written by a former acquaintance of his, a fellow student at the time, called Adam Walker, who, as he contemplates his past life on his death bed, has decided to write a story about a particularly fateful year. The story, like Auster’s novel, is supposed to be in four parts, one for each season of the year, and in each of Invisible’s four sections we encounter the corresponding part of Walker’s manuscript (although the last section, in a neat twist, exchanges Walker’s unwritten close of his book with a text by a different character, marking the manuscript’s presence through the absence of actual words by Walker). This change of narrator is one of the surprises I mentioned. All of a sudden, Auster’s camera pans out, seizing the previous chapter’s narrative as an object, ejecting the reader from it and making him evaluate it from the outside.

The second section also contains the next part of Walker’s story, sent to Jim at his own request. We learn that Walker had had a brief sexual episode with his sister, when he was still young and that, that fateful summer, this episode was picked up again, as he and his sister Gwyn launched into an impassioned but secret incestuous affair. This is the major point of the second section. Walker’s writing here is different. On Jim’s advice, he drops the first person narrator and uses, interestingly, a second person narrator – an immediate improvement, since it helps curb Walker’s obsession with poorly phrased introspection. Walker’s story itself is, or could be, hot and sizzling; there’s a certain powerful energy here, but the writing inhibits us from being caught up too deep in it. Sometimes, it reads like the paraphrase of a different, genuinely hot and erotic story. This absence is, in a way, symbolic for a different absence, Walker’s: as we learn in the third section, Walker has died shortly after sending the pages that comprise the second part of his manuscript to Jim, so while Jim is reading the story not as a literary artifact but as the confession of a friend, as part of a specific kind of communication between two living people, he is actually mistaken about the nature, not necessarily of the text, but of his reading, which he only finds out after having drafted and composed (but not sent) a response to what he assumes is Walker’s part of the exchange.

In fact, Walker’s death ossifies the story into, well, literature and as the book progresses, it becomes subject to the tools that we use on literary (whether fictional or nonfictional) texts but not normally on letters or everyday talk. From this, we launch into the third section of Walker’s story, which contains the last extant part of walker’s manuscript, handed over to Jim by Walker’s grieving sister. In this part, we accompany Walker on a trip to Paris, where he will meet Born again, Margot and Born’s new fiancé (and her daughter). He will leave Paris in disgrace which is where the manuscript breaks off. This part of the manuscript is written in the third person, and the more it progresses, the more reduced Walker’s style becomes. Soon it’s almost exclusively paratactic, later, Walker elides even the names and uses one letter only to designate the persons. Walker’s life is running out, he’s in a hurry to get the story out, not stopping for sentimentality or even introspection. As his manuscript nears its end, more and more of Walker’s authorial persona is wrung from the book, and suddenly Walker’s story becomes highly readable. For all the sorrow, fear and intrigue that Walker has, heretofore, tried to inject into depictions of Rudolph Born, it is only in these last pages, wrested from his death-bed, that Born actually does become intriguing.

To Invisible‘s detriment, as Walker’s persona retreats, cedes ground to the story, Auster’s persona becomes more prominent. It is impossible not to see Auster’s overeager hand at work in the book up to this point. It’s all so obviously constructed as a discourse on themes like memory, reality and narrative. Unlike genuinely clever but subtle writers like Brian Evenson, Auster always loved to flaunt his cleverness, express it in the most obvious and plain way possible, and so it is here as well. There is Rudolph Born, who the narrator said reminded him of Bertran de Born, a Provençal poet, immortalized by Dante in the Inferno

Now you can see atrocious punishment,
you who, still breathing, go to view the dead:
see if there’s any pain as great as this.

And so that you may carry news of me,
know that I am Bertran de Born, the one
who gave bad counsel to the fledgling king.

[...] Because I severed those so joined, I carry–
alas – my brain dissevered from its source,
which is within my trunk. [...] (Inferno, Canto XXVIII ll 130-141, here in the Mandelbaum translation).

Born is a complicated reference. A writer as well read as Auster will have read him first in Ezra Pound’s translation, and will have found a very violent, grandiloquent poet singing songs in praise of war. Auster retranslated a well known poem of his (which Pound also translated!) and diverges from Pounds rendering of the text: Auster’s translation is more cautious, less euphorically bellicose, and with the specific context that violence had in Pound’s work (and let’s not forget Marinetti and other futurists), Auster’s translation is in itself a commentary on what Rudolf Born represents. In a related way, Born and Margot’s relationship can be read as a clever reversal of the marriage of le bon roi Henri and Marguerite de Valois. Or take Adam Walker, whose story reminded me both of Henry Roth’s story as depicted in Mercy of a Rude Stream (with another clever reversal) and that of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, as depicted in Exit Ghost. Both of those suites of books and their main characters, additionally, engage ideas of biography and autobiography, both, Henry Roth’s more closely than Philip Roth’s, are autobiographical in inspiration and gesture. If we accept the Roth/Zuckerman reference, is the diary (the form, not content of it) at the end a reference to Amy Bellette and Roth’s Ghost Writer, and Zuckerman’s fantasy in that book connected to the dubious epistemology status of parts of Walker’s narrative? There are hundreds of college term papers buried in this book, which reads as if Auster decided to take a basket of ideas and throw them at a wall to see which will stick.

But, at the end, with Walker fading, Auster’s ego (or Jim’s) rises once more and he/Jim decide to make everything just a bit more obvious. I’m as much of a fan of Lacan’s work as the next man, but Auster’s plain use of Lacan’s three orders in constructing the various levels of reality in the book (the book’s narrative always clearly, boringly, as narrative, declining reliability and directness) is not interesting, partly, certainly, because Auster clothes this in his ham-fisted language that has a hard time being subtle anyway. After 200+ pages of indirection, of playing hide and seek with biographies, truth and memory, Jim tells us that he changed every name upon publishing Walker’s story. But not just that, he mentions to us every name he changed. We’re talking about almost a page of names he changed, and it’s not just plain exchanges of names, these are transpositions. There are connections between the names, these relations he professes to have kept in place, thus acknowledging the immense amount of interpretation that has gone into his editing of the book. This is very obvious, very plain, and very, very dull. Auster saps every bit of creative thinking on the part of the reader from the book by forcing these passages on him. Again, feel free to imagine the tens of term papers to be spun from this premise alone. All this is potentially interesting, as is his comparison of sex and violence, as tropes of human interaction, gendered & all; it’s not even just Auster’s writing that ruins it all for me. See, if we’re honest, there are plenty of bad stylists who write breathtaking books as far as ideas are concerned, but Auster isn’t one of them.

Mostly, because Auster’s main problem is elsewhere. Bertran de Born may be a meaningful reference in more ways than the one I outlined. Dante has him describe himself as having a”brain dissevered from its source”. This describes Auster’s situation stunningly well. Auster, in this book and others (though not in all) is a profoundly noncommittal writer. While his book, through the, uh, deconstruction of autobiography and complex use of incest, sex and violence, criticises legitimizing discourses and pointing out the construct behind what is perceived as reality, Auster’s book also expresses a yearning for the réel, and he constructs his own book actually with just these same assumptions that he, on a formal level, criticizes. His strength was never one of commitment or convictions. His characters are frequently felons, liars or deviant in other ways but in Auster’s books these issues are formalized, turned into literary issues.

There is, I grant you this, a certain appeal in that, but Auster distances himself obsessively from the sources, from actual issues, his work transforms issues that matter into clever things. This is exhausting sometimes and, frankly, annoying at others. There is one example near the end where two observations of black workers frame a pivotal event. In a different writer’s hand, these observations would have shed light on the power structure that underlied that event, and Auster has presented everything necessary for it, but all of this, in the end, dissipates into a rhythm, a sound, abstract music. The more one invests in Auster the more frustrated and tired one becomes. The formulaic and distanced style of the first section should be a warning to skim this book, glance at it. It is, in a very superficial and quick reading, that the book yields most. It’s like a clever movie, throwing all kinds of ideas and plots at you and you should enjoy the two hours, but be prepared for an immensely cold, impersonal work, utterly devoid of any commitment except to the author’s ego.

Here is my review of In the Country of Last Things and here of Brooklyn Follies.


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Marcel Theroux: Far North

Theroux, Marcel (2009), Far North, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23777-7

Had Marcel Theroux’ latest novel not made the shortlist of the National Book Award, I doubt I would have looked twice at the book, which seemed to me rather unremarkable, a book in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s decent The Road and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (recently recommended by a friend), to name just two of the many post-apocalyptic books published this decade. It’s not that the book is horrible, it’s not. It’s dull, but as a whole decent enough not to throw into the garbage right away although it’s sure as hell not a good book. Its saving grace is not the actual writing or storytelling but its protagonist. Makepeace, who is the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a fascinating character, and, what’s more, a very well drawn one, whom the reader gladly follows across the rickety bridge that is the novel’s construction and writing. It’s a surprise, really, that, after putting this book down with almost a sigh of relief, I felt a vague but definite yearning for another story featuring the jolly heroine of Theroux’ mediocre novel.

By calling her a ‘heroine’ I have given away a ‘surprise’ that Theroux reveals some twenty pages into the story. As we enter the book, we encounter a lonesome figure, patrolling an empty town. The first sentence of the novel ably conveys the atmosphere of that part of the book: “Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.” That sentence could well belong to a western, but the story is set ‘Far North’, in the vast emptiness of the Siberian tundra. It’s also set in the future, in a world after natural catastrophes have destroyed civilization as we know it. The explanation how the catastrophes came about is, let’s say: interesting.

The planet had heated up. They turned off smokestacks and stopped flying. Some, like my [Makepeace’s] parents, altered the way they lived. Factories were shut down […] As it turned out, the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. He said that in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on. The droughts and storms that came in the years after put in motion all the things that followed.

Theroux, however, isn’t a scientist (although, in 2004, he did present a TV show on climate change on Channel 4) and Far North isn’t a scientific essay on the topic of impending ecological doom. In fact, the ecology of the story, the science, takes a back seat, almost as much as in The Road, where we have no idea what happened, we’re just confronted with the brute facts of post-apocalyptic reality and how to deal with it. In contrast to The Road, Theroux does express an interest in history, both the general history, for example, of the US, and the particular history of Makepeace’s family and people in her time frame.

All this history is so important in the novel because of its overriding interest in Makepeace’s character. Makepeace is an odd character, who dresses like a man and behaves like one. Due to a disfiguring accident she suffered as a girl, she can also quite easily pass for a man, without actually aiming to deceive. This is because she dresses in the most practical fashion possible and that kind of dress is usually, in our time, as in Makepeace’s, read as masculine. Theroux toys with our expectations a bit at the onset of the story, letting us buy into the idea of this tough male frontiersman who, in the opening pages, shoots a thief for making away with some books. During the rest of the book, the revelation accorded to us, the readers, is likewise accorded to several groups or individuals in the novel who find out what or who that man is who can prowl the woods and hunt caribou with the best of them. He could have revealed Makepeace’s sex at the end of the book, but he didn’t, and some of the reasons for his decision go a long way towards explaining why Far North is such a weak book. One of the reason sis that Theroux is a weak writer.

Not just a weak writer in the sense of a mediocre writer. He is weak in the sense that, instead of working through his ideas and assumptions, instead of engaging more fully his concepts and the world he built, frequently opts for easy, weak solutions. The ecological science might be one of them. Another is the world. People, places and objects flit in and out of focus, without anything that is really endowed with depth. Apart from Makepeace, all characters are caricatures, cardboard cutouts, like the Bad Priest, the Evil Corporate Boss, and a few characters which are even tinged with racism. There is The Muslim, but most importantly, the indigenous peoples of the area, whom Theroux called the Tungus people. These days, these people are called the Evenks, the ‘tungus’ moniker gained currency when the Russians conquered and colonized Siberia, but apparently, it will be popular again in the future (here’s an interesting factsheet about the okrug where most of them live). Theroux places them, and this is what’s problematic, as a group, clearly racially defined, into the ideational structure of the book where they represent the opposite of civilization, an Other of sorts, living in a natural state devoid of ‘civilized’ morality, but also devoid of hypocrisy.

Here, as in other places, Theroux holds back, not ready to doff the overcoat he’s brought with him, spread on the floor for the reader to inspect. The Tungus people are not better or superior to civilized people, they’re just not as bad, and regret drips from Far North‘s pages where Theroux extols their practical morality. The book, in the end, ends up with the image of someone cuddling up in a nest of books while the world outside is slowly reclaimed by nature. Books are good and nature, while not bad, is, in more than one sense of the word, outside, as are the Tungus people. Sex and gender are subject to a very similar kind of indecision. On the one hand, Theroux’ heroine flaunts traditional gender roles, she shoots from the hip, rides horses, can catch and corral several caribou at once and is generally badass. She wears men’s clothing, doesn’t care much for so-called feminine wiles and never expresses an interest in make-up or jewelry. Diamonds are not, in fact, her best friends, but the bullets that she herself casts are. A writer herself, she is thus also shown to be at the beginning of a new tradition, with the whole of Far North the self-narrated manuscript she leaves to posterity, thus usurping a role traditionally accorded to men. But, to see it this way is to dismiss the reason why she behaves as she does. It’s the absence of men.

Granted, Makepeace can better all the men she meets, but it’s still their absence that has her fill in for them. And as for looks and the maintenance of them, men, again, have fouled up her looks which has set her on the masculinized path that we then, in the opening pages of the book find her on. And this is not enough. Additionally, Theroux surrounds her narrative with images of birth and rebirth, in such an emphatic manner that I was under the impression that he strained to smooth out any irritation caused by the first passages. Look, she’s a woman after all, he appears to say. Although I did find another, far more subtle reference I thought I saw in the ties of Theroux’ book to Canadian literature. Nothing in his biography or in explicit references supports this, but hear me out. On the one hand, his construction of the landscape is in keeping with a lot of well-known clichés about the north, which have been particular well explored with respect to the Canadian north. In her 2001 study on the topic, Sherrill E. Grace ends an enumeration of typical elements (a disconcerting number of which turn up in Far North) with the sarkastic exclamation: “and…Voila! A northern novel!”

But Grace mentions another novel about the north, Margaret Atwood’s haunting Surfacing, which is also an appropriate reference here, in a more positive way. Atwood’s novel of contacts with nature and awakenings, replete with images of birth and rebirth, too, might be an antetype, conscious or not, to Theroux handling of issues of sex and gender. His cliché idea of female experience. however, demonstrates how sorely, in this, too, his book is lacking. He mentions an idea but doesn’t really follow through with it. This is what I called weakness and holding back. Tentatively, Theroux shows us what you can do in such a radically altered social landscape, the possibilities in such a narrative, but he quickly smooths things over. The impulses I just described culminate in the last fifth of the book, where he tacks on an impossibly saccharine, contrived and far-fetched ending that would not be jarring in any of the hundreds of telenovelas that crowd daytime television in most countries, and that is a fitting conclusion for a messy book that consists of odd pieces and ideas, some of whom work and some don’t. Makepeace, the protagonist, is one of those that work. She’s such a good character that she can almost make the book work and cohere all on her own.

Almost, I said. Of the other ideas, so many are lame or dull that I caught myself pitying Makepeace as I watch her being shoved through Theroux’ story, in effect running the gauntlet. The most interesting of Theroux ideas is his use of early American history. These are not hidden references: after the aforementioned catastrophe, American Quaker families and similarly minded communities move to the Far North, to start anew, to establish communities in the wilderness, on a different continent. Their fate in general and a cartoonish but surprisingly effective depiction of a particularly pious settlement (Makepeace’s encounter with this community really sets the story in motion) will remind any student of American history of the reports and stories that tell us about that time. No-one who’s read sermons from the time of the Great Awakening can be deaf to the echoes of that rhetoric in the sermons and speeches of Far North‘s Christian preachers and believers. It is, of course, part of Theroux’ essentially conservative tropes of rebirth that keep cropping up in the novel, but as a motif, and an idea it is remarkable, and solitary in the novel in that it is complete and satisfying. Using frontiersmen and puritan-like communities appears to me to be quite a common motif, almost de rigeur, in SF, but I have rarely come across a rendition of that particular theme as interesting as this.

An equally well known but infinitely less well wrought motif is that of the ‘Zone’. In the novel we will encounter prisoner camps, with men used as working slaves and other men employed to scout out ‘the Zone’, a huge abandoned city that was used by the Russians, before the catastrophe, as a scientific and intellectual center. Now, however, no-one is alive or reachable who knows its secrets but maps have survived, and rumors of dangers and treasures hidden in it. Not gold, but odd and inexplicable objects created by a science that the scavengers roaming the city can neither understand nor really make use of. The nature of some of the objects recalls Clarke’s famous bonmot (actually I think it’s one of his three rules) that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If that reminds you of the Strugatzki brothers’ classic science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, or the movie or even the video game that has been made of it, it reminded me, too, and not in a good way. Again, Theroux is content with spreading this coat, too, on the floor, not really committed to wearing it. Theroux dips in and out of the theme, suggesting loads of interesting ideas but following up on few of them. There is a strong undercurrent that is concerned with myth and modernity, and the Zone is part of that, but, as far as its execution is concerned, it’s sketchy at best.

I’ve left the writing for last. Far North is written in what seems to me to be an American idiom or, alternatively, a simple English based upon the American variety of English (I may well be wrong, since Theroux lives and works in London and has barely any connections to the US, according to his wiki). However, although it needs to be stated that Theroux enjoys making Makepeace say trite and trivial aphoristic sentences far too much, the writing is solid throughout the book. The contrast to a book like Paul Auster’s most recent novel Invisible, which is similarly built with a great deal of grandstanding remarks, but written less well, shines a favorable light on that aspect of Theroux’ book, although, by itself, the writing’s not actually good. The simple language and even the flat aphoristic sentences are even put to good use in characterizing the simple mindset and education of Makepeace. As a reader I may have wished for more, for at least an attempt to use language in an interesting way, but you take what you get and with the slim pickings that the book otherwise provides, I’m fine with the writing. But, with all the coats tried on and spread on the floor for inspection, the novel feels quite bare. Not naked in any sensual or interesting sense, more like a mannequin robbed of its clothes. The face may charm you, but the body, in a bland color, with screws and joints visible, is a turn-off at best. Much to Theroux’ credit, the basic idea, the scenario, is a winner, it’s, as Grace would have said, a case of “and…voilà! a postapocalyptic novel!” and while his world-building is perfunctory and cliché-ridden, Theroux is competent enough not to ruin this solid foundation altogether. Far North‘s certainly no recommendation but it won’t make you chop off your own hand either in an attempt to forget the book. It’s really ok.


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Brian Evenson: Last Days

Evenson, Brian (2009), Last Days, Underland Press
ISBN 978-0-9802260-0-3

Writers like Brian Evenson are a rare breed. As I’ve already noted in my review of his novel The Open Curtain, his writing draws both on the strengths of genre fiction, which include a certain reduction of means and a suspenseful story that draws the reader in, the kind of book that blurbs on the jacket will label “addictive”, and on the strengths of literary fiction, which include a high precision of style and an economical but powerful use of tropes and symbols. In Last Days, his latest novel, he manages to do the exact same thing and the resulting book is a completely satisfying, if gruesome and amazingly bloody read. In what I have, so far, been able to read (other reviews forthcoming), Evenson seems to specialize in different varieties of what is commonly labeled ‘horror’, but his work is so complex and theoretically aware that it works just as well as a book of quote regular literature unquote. Also, as several excellent reviews by individual bloggers from the Franco-belgian Fric Frac Club collective have shown, Evenson’s work is wide open to readings employing, for example, Deleuzian philosophy. This is not necessarily a good thing since the kind of writing that can easily be read with theoretical tools, well used in academical contexts, frequently has its detractors. However, while certainly highly aware of how the genres he uses are structured and how they function, Evenson doesn’t burden his work with extraneous, ‘clever’ information. He doesn’t write for academia or for a fringe group of elite readers. Although Evenson’s books are published by smaller presses, like Victoria Blake’s Underland Press, Earthling Publications, Coffeehouse Press or FC2, an imprint of the University of Alabama Press, his writing isn’t any more ‘niche’ than any other novel of the genre.

Last Days hasn’t been written or even been published in one piece before. It consists of two parts of almost equal length, the first of which, “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”, was published in 2003, in a limited edition of 315 copies. It wasn’t until years later that Evenson decided to continue the story of that small but trenchant and brilliant novella, and wrote another novella, this one called “Last Days”. Now, in 2009, it was finally published, together with its predecessor, as one novel. And what a novel it is, a perplexing ride that can leave you breathless, a book about bodies and spaces, about religion, doubt and a detective you’d better not mess with. That detective is called Kline. “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is about Kline’s introduction to a sect which practices the voluntary amputation of limbs and the more limbs you’ve amputated, the higher you are in the hierarchy of the sect. Ideally, this amputation is being done without any anesthesia. The pain is integral here, as well as the extent to which the amputation disables you in your everyday task. You can’t have your arm amputated at the shoulder and claim to have amputated seven limbs: five fingers, one hand, one arm. You have to cut off the fingers one by one in order for it to count. In the same spirit, amputating toes isn’t regarded as highly as amputating fingers, because losing a finger is much more of a handicap in your everyday life.

At the same time, there is, in the mutilates’ microcosm, in a bloody denial of the functionality of the body (which also implies a blind and strictly normative concept of a perfectly functioning body, one of many exclusionary tactics pursued by the brotherhood), a strangely functionalist thinking involved. Cleavers, knives and scalpels are almost glorified and occupy a central place in their rituals. Function is transferred from the body and split two ways. Part of it is now given over to machines. The aforementioned cutlery is one aspect of this. Gun prostheses are another. The other part is handed over to an immaterial power structure.  The curious power structure in the compound, where the man who has the least means of moving is the most powerful, is another. I called it curious but it’s more: it’s a sign of the modern age where power is not enforced by brutes with nightsticks and bullets, where power is that which we accept as we behave according to its exigencies. German blogger, musician and novelist Daniel Kulla wrote a song (Der Tausch) the refrain of which, loosely translated, starts like this: “nobody needs to force you / if you join in of your own accord”. If we make excuses for our sloppy thinking, we give in. If we don’t fight because we’re too comfy here, we give in. That list could go on for ages. Brian Evenson presents us with a whole compound full of people who have followed that logic to its extreme: the power structure they subscribed to leads to them lobbing off parts of their own bodies, of their own accord. None of them is forced to do it and the longer Kline stays among them, the more likely he is to succumb to their power structures himself.

But let’s return to Kline: prior to Last Day‘s events, he had a harrowing encounter with a “so-called gentleman”, who hacked off his hand with a cleaver. Kline then turned on a nearby oven, cauterized his hand himself, turned around and, calmly, shot his attacker in the eye. In a previous review I mentioned how interconnected the hard-boiled detective genre and the western are, and an incident such as this one suggests a very similar connection. But Kline isn’t looking for a fight and when the fight comes looking for him, he isn’t really equipped to win it. In contrast to many noir detectives such as Philip Marlowe, Kline isn’t likely, either, to be verbally abusive, snarky or clever. For someone who must have had quite a heady life, Kline, the character, is remarkably blank. This is important because in subsequent events different groups of people, among them the brotherhood, start to project hopes and ideas onto him.

In accordance with the brotherhood’s strict but unusual application of logic, Kline is widely admired in the brotherhood for cauterizing his wound himself. It’s both painful and dangerous to one’s long-term health to do so, risking inflammations and other problems, which is all the more reason for members of the brotherhood to adore someone’s undertaking of such an act. However, Kline’s amputation of his hand couldn’t actually be more at odds with the brotherhood’s beliefs: he was attacked in order to literally diminish him, to take away a part of his body, to make him less capable, as well as making him, simply, less. The pain he suffers isn’t positive in any way, instead, it’s intended to be almost punitive. Kline’s self-inflicted pain is similarly goal-oriented, meant to buy him time, to prepare himself to stall his opponent in order to be able to shoot him afterward. The brotherhood reads his motivations in a slightly different way, mostly because they assume that all amputees, on some fundamental level, share their beliefs. They appear to believe that there is something metaphysical that is inherent in the very act of mutilation.

As the novel sets in, Kline is called, or rather: abducted, to the premises of that strange brotherhood in order to clear up a murder. The plot is full of absurdities, dead-ends and similar noir staples, including a large array of colorful characters, who tend to speak in a short, humorous manner, their dialogue frequently reminiscent of Marx Brothers movies. The horrific nature of the brotherhood’s customs and the often very funny dialogue of some of its members makes for fascinating reading. In “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” Evenson combines basically three kinds of registers. Horror, humor and a kind of paranoia and claustrophobia. When nobody talks, the whole narrative sinks into a gloomy mire as Kline attempts to understand what happens to him, who these people are, and who committed the murder. The moment he enters the compound of the brotherhood, he has trouble leaving it again. He’s shut in with all these zealots and his situation appears to be increasingly desperate. As the novella comes to a close, the tension mounts to an almost unbearable degree until the reader is almost relieved at the end, horrific though it may be. That tension is twofold. One the one hand, Evenson’s plot is forceful and as we see Kline stumbling through the maze of irrational madness, we start to share his desperation. Questions are answered in riddles, and every action is transformed into a kind of indirectness, that makes it almost impossible to solve the crime.

This indirectness, not just in “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”, but also in “Last Days”, is significant. I mentioned Kafka as a point of reference, for many reasons. One of them is that Kafka’s “Kleine Fabel”, that marvelous tiny aphoristic story, seems like a perfect description of the situation that Kline repeatedly finds himself in in Last Days. The other is that the hierarchies of the brotherhood and its customs create an environment that is reminiscent of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Kline, the man who had his arm cut off and still shot his opponent in the eye, is reduced to a pawn, jostled here and there, lost among a community whose logic he barely comprehends. Yes, to a large extent, this is about religion, also, clearly, about Mormonism in particular, but Evenson’s scope is larger.

The religious references are obvious. The quote that precedes the novel is from :

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee…And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee…

This is interesting. In religious contexts, acts like the brotherhood’s are frequently viewed as sacrifices, but sacrifices have a goal, while these particular ‘sacrifices’ are not for anything. At best they purify the soul of him who loses a limb. Mutilation, paradoxically, is regarded as an edifying experience. The more pain and discomfort you have inflicted upon yourself, the more highly regarded you are. In the novel, this is grotesque and even horrifying. In real life, this is far more common. There is an ongoing war of most of the major Christian churches upon the body, in favor of the soul. Asceticism, renunciation, abstinence, celibacy are still regarded as laudable goals by most churches, and even by regular, non-religious people. A very similar parallel structure can be seen in the eschatological thinking of the Pauls, another brotherhood of mutilates, which references different eschatological concepts in actual religions. And were I to do a more thorough and more detailed reading, I would find all kinds of other religious references. No detail in Evenson’s book feels extraneous, to the extent that I was tempted to make a table of all the body parts curt off and find out how they are arranged within the book. But the religious references are more than games, and more than swipes at the quirks and madness of actual religions.

I think there’s a very different point there in respect to religions, and the constant indirection is part of it all. For one thing, there’s precious little successful communication between people who are not part of the same community. The first part of the book finds Kline trying to read his environment which is saturated with signs and which rings with the sibylline pronouncements uttered by the man who summoned him. The second part, again, finds people speaking, but also people listening to Kline speak, hanging on his every word, but Kline cannot make himself understood even to them. I think the situation that I have called Kafkaesque earlier, demonstrates the problem that religions and other communities who use logic just like everyone else, but use it with so strongly different premises that we may find ourselves unable to communicate with them at all. Especially if we read them as alien and grotesque, and I would suggest that Kline’s encounter with the Brotherhood, at least in part, can and should be read as an overreaction by someone fundamentally alienated by what he regards as Other.

In a book that deals so much with indirection, Evenson himself achieves a miracle doing the same. Everything in his plot has a false or double bottom, everything works on several levels at once. Just as the bloody mess of the brotherhood directly mirrors actual religious practice, so do other aspects of the book, such as its use of space: most of the book takes place in rooms or compounds, whether in a hospital or elsewhere. After a while, Kline starts searching rooms and environments for signs of difference, since many elements start to repeat themselves. He is, geographically, de-centered, drops from the world into a sequence of spaces constructed by certain kinds of thinking. These are spaces that, more and more, become his spaces, as the outside world is increasingly dangerous to and suspicious of him.

Here’s where the Kafka reference is important again. While The Open Curtain was mostly about a culture and its religion, I would suggest that ‘religion’, could be but a trope in Last Days. The world doesn’t become more rational, more sane once Kline leaves one of the two brotherhoods which have set their eyes on him. While their specific kind of religiosity is shown to be at odds with people in the ‘real world’, the basic structure of their thought isn’t. Especially since it’s possible, after all, to completely exchange the religious reading of the two sects with a political reading, which could focus on a contrast between a more collectivized, communistic ideology and a pseudo-individualistic ideology like capitalism. That, however, is a whole new can of worms that I’m not prepared to open just now.

I haven’t talked much of the second half of the book, because I don’t want to give too much away. “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is much more dense, more focused upon its issues and the calamity that waits in the wings. “Last Days” bears all the weight of not just being a good book on its own, but of tying its own story and “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” into a single novel, so naturally, it’s different. Not worse, certainly, and the whole of Last Days is a marvelous achievement by a writer who’s currently producing awfully many good books. Brian Evenson’s writing isn’t prohibitive, it doesn’t crowd out those who lack the time or money (having enough leisure to read thoroughly and attentively is, indeed, a financial issue, to an extent) to pay the books as much attention as they would need to or bring an elevated enough reading horizon to that reading. His books can be disturbing, both on a visceral and on an intellectual level, but then that’s what he’s paid to do, it’s a distinction of the genre he works in. It’s both a joy and a challenge to read Evenson’s books, and they are all highly recommended.

Terry Moore: Echo: Moon Lake

Moore, Terry (2008), Echo: Moon Lake, Abstract Studio
ISBN 978-189259740-3

I’ve been meaning to review this graphic novel for ages, but, as with many of its colleagues, I am frequently puzzled as to what, exactly, to say about it. Well, to cut to the chase: Terry Moore’s Echo: Moon Lake, the first book in an ongoing series, is very interesting, certainly worth reading, but so introductory that, without having read more books in the series, it’s hard to say anything definite about it. It’s self-published in Moore’s own imprint “Abstract Studio”. The book is rather brief and barely manages to introduce all of what I assume to be the major characters. Unlike other brief first volumes such as Jeff Smith’s Rasl: The Drift (my review here), it doesn’t throw you into the hot action immediately. The overall storytelling is very old-fashioned and the present volume is basically an exposition. Make no mistake, it’s certainly not boring and lots of things happen, there’s an enormous amount of actual, well, action, but the tone and the speed of the whole enterprise is, so far, leisurely. There is much that is intriguing about the setup, but, and this is really strange, the series could now go either way. It could turn out to be horribly tedious or marvelously enchanting and/or suspenseful. It’s impossible to tell and this kind of ambiguity is not necessarily a good attribute of any book.

In my recent attempts to read up on classical and contemporary comics and graphic novels, I had come across Terry Moore’s name before but hadn’t actually read any of his books yet. He is most famous for being the creator of the well-known and critically successful series Strangers in Paradise, a series that combines a look at the mundane affairs of a group of women, among them lesbian and bisexual characters, the portrayal of which won Moore a GLAAD award in 2001, with a Mafia-style thriller plot. The accurate portrayal of the interpersonal relationships won Moore a following far beyond the reach of the genre. Plots and dialogue were especially praised for their verisimilitude and lack of clichés. Personally, I can verify none of this but I do see traces of this kind of writing at work in Echo: Moon Lake, as well. Actually, his new series appears to be fundamentally similar in several respects to his earlier books, and Moore’s vision of his art is intact, or maybe even expanded in all the best ways. Moore is both the artist and the writer of both series and both aspects are very well done, at least as far as craftsmanship is concerned. By now, I’ve read too many graphic novels not to be thankful for someone with Moore’s skills at work.

The story, set in and near the California National Park, is about some new hightech battle suit, which looks like latex, but is actually some sort of metal. It’s both a suit of armor as well as a weapon. We’re not explained what it is, exactly, but these are properties that quickly become obvious (personally, I was reminded of Donna Haraway’s cyborg here and if and when I’ll discuss more books from this series I might return to this). As we enter the story we watch a woman in that suit take flight. This is apparently an effort to test that suit and during those tests she’s shot at from planes. Attached to the suit is a kind of jet pack and she uses it to escape a pair of sidewinders launched at her from an airplane. That escape, however, goes awry as the sidewinders finally catch up with her and kill her. The ensuing explosion sends thousands of small suit-particles down, like viscous metal rain. Julie Martin, the book’s protagonist, is driving through the area and a few hundred of those particles slam through the roof of her car and onto her. She tries to flee them but to no avail. Eventually, those particles that landed on her attract some of those that are lying on the ground and on the back of the car and together they form a suit-fragment, all on their own, like a thick second skin around her shoulders and over her large breasts (I will return to that aspect). This is when the story takes off. In the subsequent chapters, the military starts tracking her down, the dead woman’s boyfriend starts asking questions and a homeless man, who was also struck by some particles, is using the suit’s potential for aggression in his own way.

He’s a bit cracked and imagines that God has blessed him with a weapon and proceeds to shower people with lightning. He wears a long, white beard, has wild black eyes and his face appears to be trying out different kinds of snarls. I dwell on him a bit because it is his portrayal that lifts the book onto another level. The whole pace of the storytelling is slow, the military functions the way it always does, especially in visual media, it’s corrupt, greedy and somewhat mean. Julia’s personal history is very much foregrounded. As in Stranger than Paradise, Moore is most successful when he attempts to convey to us how Julia feels about all this. She lives alone with a dog, her husband, a pretty cop, has just sent her her divorce papers, waiting for her to sign them, and now this. A doctor she consults thinks she’s playing a practical joke on him, her husband thinks she’s trying to confuse him and stall the divorce proceedings and this new suit is completely alien. She didn’t ask for it and she can’t get it off either and she can’t even seem to control its powers, since it appears to randomly zap people who touch it. That story is interesting and the suit clearly works as a trope as well as as an interesting object, but the hobo puts a spin on the whole thing, a kind of urgency. His control of the device and Julie’s passivity are in sharp contrast, causing us to read the book in terms of gender. But there is more. His portrayal, especially the visual portrayal, recalls certain superhero tropes.

Generally speaking, the art is, in a way, old-fashioned, a very clean and bright black-and-white look that seems to always achieve what it sets out to do. Violent, expressive scenes are just as convincingly rendered as intimate interiors. Unlike artists such as J.G. Jones, Moore is not very careful with background details when focusing upon people in the foreground of the panel, although, now and then, he draws whole landscapes by panning away from the action, and he’s excellent at that as well, with an interesting mixture of detailed and sketched detail in there. His main strength, that part of his work, where he most appears to come into his own, however, are faces and facial expressions. In keeping with his kind of storytelling that focuses on characters and interpersonal relationships, his art is very intent to be accurate, precise almost, to show us facial expressions. Faces, even in the background, are not left unattended, which incredibly animates the art. Although, as in any work of the genre, facial expressions are conventionalized, Moore’s commitment to his characters shines through. Now, this kind of animated use of facial expressions isn’t new to comics, but the mixture in Moore’s art is rare. The animated, conventional but lively faces are in contrast to the black-and white art, reduced to significant details (although nowhere as near as reduced as, for example David B.’s work), frequently panning out and in again. Moore has a cinematographer’s eye for good frames, and good, even epic shots. He can be artful when he wants to be and he is also capable of seamlessly slipping into the visual language of superhero comics.

Now, on this blog and elsewhere I’ve frequently pointed out that one of the strengths of the superhero genre are iconic visuals. Moore’s main strength, drawing convincing characters, isn’t normally found nor necessary to that genre. However, Moore heavily borrows from it. Several shots and details clearly evoke superhero tropes. There are Julie’s breasts, which are above-averagely large; this is an important fact, Echo: Moon Lake, after all, repeatedly draws our attention to that fact, not least by placing the suit-fragment squarely there. The use of female proportions in the genre has frequently been remarked upon and it has been amply discussed, so there’s little need for me to do so. I do want to remark on the fact, though, that it’s, as so often, interesting that this focus on female breasts is not accompanied by a heightened sexuality in the story. Quite the contrary, in fact. If anything, the book leans towards a morality based on a Christian understanding. One of the book’s topics seems to be the hubris and danger of scientific positivism (the individual issues ( Echo: Moon Lake collects Echo issues 1-5) are all prefaced by a cautionary Albert Einstein quote), which is balanced by a very intriguing set of religious allusions or underpinnings. The basic fact of religious irrationality isn’t so much acknowledged, as exoticised, in the way that irrationality becomes a subset of religious thinking, with ‘normal’ people being both at the same time.

This, however, is very tentative, guesswork, impossible to verify without reading more. Another ‘apparent’ blind spot is patriotism, which plays a very weird role in the book. Again, it’s impossible to judge, from the evidence of this book alone, but. Another superhero trope is found in the visual representation of the hobo. Every panel featuring him and his new powerful glove, basically screams super-villain. He isn’t ‘the’ villain, in fact, he appears to be somewhat delusional and pathetic, but the visual representation tells a slightly different story, reminding me, personally, of Marvel Universe staple Thor (especially of the slighty mad Thor re-invention by Mark Millar in his Ultimates series). In his depiction and Julie’s are numerous stories. About power, strength and gender inequality. About convictions and weakness. And ultimately, the destructive power of the atomic bomb and similar devices, as they are related to crazy people like the hobo, and to male and patriarchal power structures in general. Moore tosses a lot of ideas around, but without reading more, this is all I can say. I enjoyed reading it and will be picking up volume two (Echo: Atomic Dreams, collecting issues 6-10) soon. Volume three  (Echo: Desert Run) was just published this month, it collects issues 11-15. I haven’t read either but on the strength of the first volume, I will read both,because Echo: Moon Lake is a highly original, highly professional and an intriguing read.


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Philip Roth: The Humbling

Roth, Philip (2009), The Humbling, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224087933

The Humbling is Philip Roth’s 30th novel, an impressive number of works for any writer, but for a writer like Roth, who has been putting out masterpieces at a surprising rate, it’s even more impressive. Philip Roth, who, currently, is probably the preeminent American novelist, has written so many books and won so many prizes that for many, he has been the forerunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature (which is awarded this Thursday) for the past ten years, and each winner during that period has been greeted with whines of regret of the literary critics who have been rooting for Roth, a reaction that tended to be especially vitriolic whenever women won it. Roth himself is said to be campaigning heavily for the Nobel, and I would argue that his recent publications are part of these campaigns. It’s not just that, after Sabbath’s Theater, he’s predominantly written ‘important’ novels or career-summarizing ones, like Everyman (which reads at times like a pastiche of Roth) or Exit Ghost. It’s also the fact that he, who’s published four novels during the 1980s and five during the 1990s, has published a whopping seven during the ‘noughts’, the last four of which have been appearing at an annual rate, with a fifth (Nemesis) scheduled for 2010. It’s hard not to read this almost frantic productivity as a transparent attempt to prod the Swedish Academy to recognize him.

This frenzy is also accompanied with a slight decline in quality. Whereas the 6 novels published from 1995 (Sabbath’s Theater) to 2004 (The Plot against America) are arguably among the strongest ever published by Roth and constitute an astonishing run of masterpieces, the same cannot be said of his output since then. I realize that not everyone will agree with me on my low assessment of Everyman but both Exit Ghost as well as Indignation have at best met with a lukewarm critical reception. They are also all rather short, which I assume is due to the schedule Roth has enforced upon himself. At 140 pages, The Humbling is even shorter than the last three novels, but as far as quality is concerned, I would rate it slightly higher than those although it’s still well below that which Roth has shown himself capable of. It is an interesting book and certainly worth reading. Whatever weaknesses his late books may possess, Roth never lost the magic of his writing. As a stylist, Roth is still a master. The Humbling is written with a deft pen; Roth dazzles his readers with the elegance and the consummate control he exhibits over his creations. There isn’t one misplaced word or phrase. It’s impossible to read this book and not be profoundly impressed by Roth’s writing, if not, sadly, moved.

The writing’s main job is to make The Humbling‘s protagonist, Simon Axler, a failed actor, plausible and this it does well, so well indeed that, personally, I was gripped with a fundamental dislike for Axler who is a grandiose egomaniac, with strong misogynistic tendencies and a strong elitist bent. As the novel sets in, Axler recalls the end of his acting career. Throughout his professional life, he was an talented actor, slipping into his roles instinctively; acting was never, if we are to believe him, work, it was never difficult. But suddenly he lost his instinct for acting, his “magic”, he immediately stopped being a brilliant thespian and became mediocre, that’s how dependent he was upon his gifts. For a while he tried to work at being a better actor, to try to achieve through toil what no longer came to him naturally, but nothing worked. This disaster seem especially catastrophic to him because “[h]e’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful”. He falls apart completely which is where we meet him. His wife then leaves him and, afraid to commit suicide, Axler commits himself to a psychiatric hospital where he stays for all of twenty-six days. He then retires to his home in the country, rejecting all offers at re-starting his career as an actor. It is in this state that Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of old friends of his comes visiting and ends up being his lover.

She is 40 years old, 25 years younger than Axler and has “lived as a lesbian since she was twenty-three.” She was named after Pegeen Mike Flaherty, the protagonist of John Synge’s 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World. Any thorough analysis of the book would need to dwell on the multiple connections Roth’s novel shares with that play. This isn’t just true for this play, it’s a characteristic of The Humbling: almost obsessively, Roth has his protagonist recall plays and roles, thus creating a rich cultural context for this slim novel. Interestingly, just as Axler is a grandiose egomaniac, who needs everything to be about him, the book, too, doesn’t use these explicit references as a means to broaden its perspective. Instead, it is almost gluttonous in the way that it appropriates these references, using them as hermeneutic tools to deepen the reader’s perception and understanding of Axler and his relationship with Pegeen and himself. In the end, it is these references, or rather the most central one of them, Chekhov’s The Seagull, that brings the book to a close, that serves as a catalyst for Axler’s final breakthrough, his final, almost, epiphany. Structurally, the book’s ending is a return to the beginning. The Humbling has three sections, two of which could be said to be Axler sections and one which one might call the Pegeen sections.

Generally speaking, Axler has a hard time relinquishing narrative control. The whole book is written in a third person personal narrative, telling us Axler’s story, through his own point of view, basically. Other people’s voices and stories are only allowed representation as quotes in his own unending monologue. At times, the only difference between the narrative voice and direct speech of Axler’s appears to consist of a change of pronouns, from ‘he’ to ‘I’. In what I called ‘Axler’s sections’, the protagonist, as so many of Roth’s creations, spends much of his time bouncing questions and propositions back and forth in his skull, getting lost both in self-pity and short-lived hopes. The visit of his agent in the first section, come to offer him a part in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, especially highlights the self-pity. In this part of the book we are made aware of the stasis that Axler has slipped into, the lack of options available to him due to his depression and the resulting self-deprecating act he puts on. This is important. Simon Axler isn’t truly self-deprecating, or humble, even. He is driven by self-pity and this means that he needs to act in a self-deprecating enough manner in order to convince himself. All of this is so transparent and pathetic that we have no problem believing him when he said that he lost his magic, his talent for acting.

Axler is one of the least perceptive characters in recent fiction. His constant self-absorption also means that other people only enter as a kind of censored and distorted side-show. These characters, as well as Axler himself, will remind the reader of other characters in Roth’s oeuvre, just less forcefully drawn, created in a considerably less inspired manner. If some of that material wasn’t so disappointingly thin, one could dismiss The Humbling as ‘more of the same’. Instead, it’s sort of ‘less of the same’, if you get my drift. Pegeen is an exception. A dominant, powerful character in her own right, she resists Axler’s greedy narrative grasp now and then, either insisting on telling a story as a third person personal narrator or even withdrawing the sought-after information from his narrative completely, leaving behind only the bare fact of having informed him. In Roth’s exceedingly well written novel, this is of course indicative of her character, of the role she is to play in their relationship and in the narrative and ideational structure of the book. In fact, the discourses on gender and sexuality that the book engages are almost all centered around Pegeen; she is the active force propelling the book forward, snapping it out of the meanderingly self-absorbed narrative of Axler’s, just as she snaps Axler out of his own depressions.

Although Pegeen and Axler do not really argue, there is, in fact, a struggle going on, behind the happy facade. Axler is used to being top dog, and I would argue that Pegeen’s homosexual history threatens him, even as her apparent relinquishment of the homosexual life style may tickle his self-image as a potent man. Axler’s and Pegeen’s relationship is almost exclusively sexual and it is in bed where Axler has to cede control first. An old man, with all the frailties that old age implies, he isn’t actually capable of being on top any more, which necessitates Pegeen’s taking over of that role. This may sound like an unimportant detail but as their relationship progresses, her climbing into the saddle, so to say, proves to be but the first step of many until, at the end, she completely controls the sexual part of the relationship. However, we might need to add a caveat here. Since all this is filtered through Axler, we should consider the whole story as being part of his incessant self-pity. With all his ailments, losing his sexual potency and dominance may be one of the most important fears preying on his mind, but there are actually no indicators of having an unreliable narrator on our hands, no contradictions, just his annoying and pompous voice leading the way through the story.

Axler is a misogynist, with a very low opinion of women and an even lower opinion of their capability of forming an opinion of their own. When Pegeen discusses her relationship with her father, Axler accuses her of being dependent upon his paternal opinion, of trying to get back in his good graces, an accusation that he will continue to level at her throughout their strange and dysfunctional relationship. He is also vaguely homophobic although I would suggest that the evidence for his homophobia may be an offshoot of his misogyny. There is a very revealing phrase in the book when a customer winkingly suggests that Axler, in the process of getting her an expensive haircut, is her ‘sugar daddy’. Axler, indignant, thinks

All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.

The focus, correctly, is on what “he would want”, for instance losing that “mannish” haircut of hers. Everything that he has to say about her and her lesbian relationships is dismissive and, as I said, vaguely homophobic. Behind this, however, I’d argue, isn’t homophobia at all. Instead, Axler’s clearly confused by a woman who doesn’t need a man, who takes matters into her own hands; what more important to him is that, sexually, she is still more independent and even straps on a makeshift dick and gets to work. Arguably, this is what awakes a desire in him to sire children with her, as a means to tie her to the old roles he’s used to. As an actor he completely slipped into his character’s roles, living them, and so it is in real life as well, where he is, similarly, trapped in roles and subterfuges. He is so trapped in his roles that he need to will himself to enact a role from a play by Chekhov in order to have a certain freedom of actions. This conflict, between traditional and modern roles, as well as between the attractiveness of soft-spoken women and the danger that is posed by the possibility of them stepping out of the narrow lane that traditional roles accord them, this conflict is a topos that keeps resurfacing in the book, sometimes through the literary references, sometimes through minor characters that appear onstage and disappear again like Sybil van Buren, who is torn between killing herself and killing her husband.

It is interesting that a novel with such an arrogant protagonist would be called The Humbling. You’d expect him to get his comeuppance, wouldn’t you? But with an ego like that this can’t, of course, work. The book is not called ‘Humility’, it is not about someone being humbled and attaining humility. Rather, its title is focusing on the process of humbling. George Bosworth Burch, in his introduction to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s The Steps of Humility, sums up the latter by focusing on three steps: “humility, love and contemplation. They lead respectively to knowledge of truth in yourself, knowledge of truth in your neighbor, and knowledge of Truth itself.” It’s not hard to see how St. Bernard’s scheme could well be the one Roth based his novel’s structure on, but with a twist. His protagonist is an actor, and he en-acts these steps, but the deeper level of recognition, of knowledge, is closed off to him, and the contrast between what is enacted and what lies below that informs much of the book’s tension.

In moments like these, we see why Roth is such a highly regarded writer, but his tricks and games and erudition don’t save the novel which never quite takes off. In many places it reads like a draft. Well written, but flaccid, out of shape. Roth doesn’t deliver the punch the way he used to. What’s worse, ever since Everyman he seems to draw mainly from his own work. Axler, the old actor, is less an original and vivid creation than an inside look at some of the old and cranky artists that have always populated his work. At times, he reads like the voice of Ghost Writer‘s E. I. Lonoff, but as an artist, Axler’s less exacting, less careful. Still, all said and done, The Humbling is certainly Philip Roth’s best and most readable novel since The Plot Against America. It’s certainly worth buying and reading if you enjoy Roth’s work in general. If you don’t like him, this book won’t sway you.

A short personal note (January 2013). 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.

Brian Wood: DMZ

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2006), DMZ: On the Ground, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1062-5

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2007), DMZ: Body of a Journalist, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1247-6

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2007), DMZ: Public Works, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1476-0

Sometimes I’m confused. Sometimes, a book will come along that confuses me for one reason or other. I recently finished Erwin Mortier’s novel Marcel which I really wanted to like but which is actually bad, I think, for various reasons, but my heart is still with it. Another kind of confusion is caused by books like Brian Wood’s DMZ series of graphic novels/comics. Really, they are excellently written, well conceived and all three artists that I’ve so far encountered within the pages of DMZ did an excellent job, nuanced, expressive, precise. What’s more, they are eminently readable, it takes restraint not to go out and read every volume that has so far been published. But when I stacked the books on my desk a moment ago and decided to write a review, I was confused, confused mostly by the fact that I find myself dissatisfied with the whole enterprise, and it’s not something that is likely to improve in later volumes. For me there is something deeply unsatisfactory in what Wood attempts here. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

DMZ: On the Ground, the first volume, introduces the characters and the basic problem they face. Matt Roth, a young man, filled with the ambition to make it as a journalist, has a father with enough influence to get him onto a helicopter that flies Ferguson, a famous TV journalist into a New York, which has become a front in a new civil war between the United States of America and the Free States, who rose against the US, leading a guerrilla warfare all across the country. Since the Free States appear to operate in cells, there is no steady front line, except for New York, i.e. the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, adjacent both to the Free States and the United States. The DMZ, as its name suggests, contains no soldiers, just civilians, except for the occasional hostile action by one or the other party. As we learn in a story in the second volume, “Zee York”, events that led to the establishment of the DMZ happened so quick that those who stayed did not necessarily do so intentionally. So what happened was that a microcosm was created containing civilians committed to New York, crooks, and terrorists. Due to the constant shooting and the dangers of living there, no journalists are living there as DMZ: On the Ground sets in, which is the main reason for Ferguson to want to go there.

Once they arrive there, however, the helicopter is shot down; Matt Roth barely escapes with his life and some of the equipment that Ferguson and the crew were carrying. Henceforth Roth is the only photojournalist in the DMZ, with exclusive access to the people and events in one of the hottest zones of conflict in the world (at one point, we are told about the international reactions to events taking place there, which reveals just how important and central the DMZ is to the historical narrative outside). In the three books I read, he learns to survive, he learns about both parties involved, is confronted with corruption and the limits of freedom of the press in times of war. We get to know some of the people living in the DMZ and the motivations that make them get up in the morning and go about their business. At its heart, it is an ode to New York, because much that is said to distinguish the DMZ has already been said in praise of New York, of the particular kind of people who live there, the atmosphere. When I read an article about gardens created along a on old, unused railway in New York, images of that intriguing place meshed in my head with similar gardens on roofs among the rubble, overseeing the ruined remains of the once-proud city. The pride is still there, but it feels as if New York is just one big neighborhood, where people care for one another and try to make life worth living.

Zee, Roth’s first friend and constant ally, who was a med student when the war broke out and is now a slightly rougher, tougher version of Florence Nightingale, says at one point that the people in the DMZ are no longer Americans, but something new, which is a nice thought, but wrong in an interesting way. While the two parties fighting each other each claim true “American-ness” for their side, their definition of what it means to be American is the partisan, McCarthyite definition many right (and left-) wingers hold today. It’s the definition on the basis of which the likes of Glenn Beck start enterprises like his “9/12 Project”, seething with self-righteousness, despising each and everyone who is even slightly different. But there is a different kind of positive self-image that pervades American culture, it’s the one that has engendered the term “Melting Pot”. The United States, a country where different kinds of people from different kinds of nations and backgrounds come and are welcomed, where they forge, together, a new identity. That kind of place is the DMZ, which appears to be, in fact, the most American of the three parties we’ve met so far. And Wood develops this idea not without issuing it with its own batch of righteousness, noticeably in the way that he paints the United States, especially, as cold, corrupt and callous, which is confronted with the warm, helpful and positive depiction of the DMZ citizens.

Clearly, when Wood wants something to count, when he wants to make a point, he isn’t above resorting to cliché and eschewing subtlety, something that is common to the genre he works in but that’s not necessarily in good taste or appropriate with regard to the topics he tackles. It’s weird, but although the DMZ is not-America, the closeness of descriptions of the spirit of the DMZ to praise of America, well-known and culturally ingrained, produces a kind of underhanded patriotism, which, in nuce, isn’t really that different from the one that bogged down Cory Doctorow’s otherwise fine YA novel Little Brother (my review). That is a problem for a book that is basically a sustained critique of nocive contemporary developments, because it stifles the possibilities of the criticism, instead of making people understand the subject of the criticism, this form of critique throws them back into oppositions, I think, which is also lazy thinking. Woods does a far better job of portraying smaller details of photojournalism. Yes, there are good and bad journalists, so far so boring, but then, especially in the first volume, but intermittently in the others as well, Woods raises concerns about the limits of a lens, the way things are selected, presented.

I said this is done best in the first volume and not just because it throws lots of different aspects of this idea of identity and visibility at the reader. There are, unforgettably, two marksmen, looking at each other through super-powerful spy-glasses, from one end of NY to the other, who fall in love. There is the danger Roth suddenly finds himself in when he loses his press jacket, with the letters PRESS printed visibly on the back, so that he is suddenly, without a role, easy bait for sharpshooters and scavengers. And there are all the things Roth sees and photographs for the first time, things we, too, see for the first time. And Roth frames the images in order to send them to his bosses, just as the artist frames the same images, but one level removed, for us. And we see both more and less than Roth. In the first volume, we are frequently made aware of what detail Roth focuses on, with a panel of the comic following his gaze, highlighting the image for us, as well. This was one of the reasons I was so drawn to this series, but little of this survives in the next volumes, reflexiveness is pretty much out the window, supplanted by old oppositions and a rebellious sentimentality, for lack of better words, which has its advantages but it is a step down.

The weird patriotism has to do with the writing but generally, writing is this series’ strong suit. DMZ‘s major weakness, however, is the artwork. Not that it’s not, generally speaking, good. Burchielli is wonderful as main artist, Brian Woods’ own covers are great and the one guest artist so far, un nommé Kristian Donaldson, adds a fascinating and well-executed angle to the story he drew and inked. But compared to the writing the art just doesn’t keep up, it fails to add anything, that’s just it, all it does is hasten to present, it illustrates, never illuminates. It’s best in the first volume, which contains inserts penciled and inked by Wood himself, panels that are drawn in the style of the cover art and enhance the stories. No, really, it’s not fair to Burchielli who really does a great job, who is as comfortable and accomplished with sweeping, epic scenes as with dynamic action sequences, but as a whole it left me shrugging. It is well done, and the gritty look certainly fits the story, but the visual aspects of the comic are here always and clearly secondary to the writing.

Anyone who has ever publicly talked in a positive manner about comics or graphic novels will have met their share of people convinced that graphic novels are a parasitic form of literature, basically unnecessary, adding little that could not be included in a novel. Generally, this approach is easily fought off. Millar’s work with the Marvel canon (Millar’s work wouldn’t, largely, even work as novels. As I said elsewhere, Millar’s work is highly dependent upon the artists he works with) or Moore’s exploration of the Swamp Thing, or Moore’s meditation on space and time in From Hell, all these things make ample use of their medium, in a way that would not work as a novel.

Now, DMZ, that’s a different case altogether. Take the marvelous third volume, DMZ: Public Works. It has a spellbinding story, contains interesting ideas about class and identity, and is wonderfully drawn, yet as a novel it would lose nothing. It doesn’t need to be a comic, it just happens to be one. In a way Woods/Burchielli are like novelists whose writing displays little sensitivity to or interest in language. So, to return to the review’s first paragraph, there you have it. This is good on multiple levels, but the apparent arbitrariness of its choice of medium is disappointing although its hard to say why. You wouldn’t reproach a novel for not being a movie, after all. Maybe it’s the fact that I expected more, that I expected author and artist to care more about their creation, that there would be a different rationale for the artwork than just competence. That said, it is a great series, so far, and I love so many things about it. But, well, it could be so much better. Wood and Burchielli settle for too little here. Far too little, and it leaves a bland aftertaste.


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Madison Smartt Bell: All Saints’ Rising

Bell, Madison Smartt (2004), All Souls’ Rising, Vintage
ISBN 1-4000-7653-6

This is the way of the world. Those who write the history books keep getting accolades. If we discuss leadership and success, 90% of the time we’ll discuss people like Napoleon Bonaparte or Margaret Thatcher but not Olaudah Equiano or Toussaint Louverture. It doesn’t matter that during the past decades we have learned more, we have grown as a culture, it doesn’t matter that we’ve dredged people up from the fringes of history and learned to look at the dark aspects of success stories; if you look at sources of inspiration, those who identify with the norm will still come up with Napoleon and Thatcher, it’s enough to make you sick. But once in a while a book comes along that does right by people like Equiano or Louverture. Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising (1995), the first novel in a trilogy that charts the slave revolt on Haiti that started in 1791, is, despite its flaws, such a book. Let’s start with this: All Souls’ Rising is an excellent novel that leads you into a strange world full of memorable characters and dark and troublesome stories, and into the swamps of history, where easy judgments are thwarted but moral conscience and commitment is never abandoned.

That was maybe a bit much as a lead-in to a review of an outstanding but not necessarily great novel, one which is, after all, frequently caught up in the nooks and crannies of its plots and rarely finds time to come up and breathe and provide further perspectives or contexts (something that may come in the two other novels); this is, however, at the same time one of its strengths. Bell’s writing here resembles a wave of ideas, plots, voices, it’s an onslaught of creative energy and we cannot help but think that this novel could easily have been three times as long without losing that sense of necessity, of economy, even. Every image, plot strand or change of perspective feels needed, nothing is superfluous; Bell demands much of his readers, he presents them with a historical novel that tries to read the history on hand on its own terms, handing it enough room for contradictions, confusions and reversals, unlike much of E.L. Doctorow’s historical prose, for example. Although I consider novels like Doctorow’s The March superior to All Souls’ Rising, it is undeniable that Doctorow reduces historical complexities to simple situations that can easily be used to extract a message; intellectually, they have a pamphlet-like quality, which has its advantages and is maybe more honest than the equilibrium that Bell aims for.

Nevertheless, Bell’s endeavor is admirable. He wants us to understand the scenario in all its complexities. In order to achieve this, he takes several measures. One of these is issuing us with a plethora of material that helps us to contextualize the novel’s events. There is both an explanatory preface as well as a thorough time-line of the revolt on Haiti that encompasses all of the revolt, not just the events of All Soul’s Rising. The second measure may seem to contradict the goals the first measure achieves but is, in fact, complimentary: as the novel proceeds, Bell is depriving us of a broader context by plunging us into the stories of small people who are so caught up in their worlds that none of them can see the broader picture; things happen around them, as they try to survive in the maelstrom of history. Unlike Doctorow in The March, Madison Smartt Bell completely refrains from telling the leaders’ stories from their perspective. Leaders, people with political power walk on and off the stage but we never see things from their point of view. We are never partial to political reasoning, to political intrigue, to the usual trappings of many historical novels. Although Bell’s not the first nor the last to do this, I find his utter refusal to lend a voice to those in power and explore the stories of those near it or even those far from it, remarkable and it makes for peculiar effect.

The angles and voices he does choose come from different strata of the society on the island and they are not all accorded equal amounts of air time, so to say. Some of the most interesting characters, despite staying an integral part of the story, get their say only once or twice, such as the creole wife of a landowner, who murders one of her slaves first and then leads a group of women to safety through a burning, violent, apocalyptic landscape. She sort of fades into the fabric of the novel later, but doesn’t vanish either. True to the efficient manner of storytelling that I claimed earlier, Bell focuses on those characters that can serve multiple functions: they are all highly active, moving all over the island, thus being ideal instruments to efficiently chronicle the tumultuous events of the revolution without dividing the reader’s attention between too many personal histories. After the first hundred pages, we learn to recognize the voices and know what to expect from each of them. Besides various smaller roles and voices, there are three characters who fairly dominate the narration. They are a black writer, a liberal doctor and an officer in the French army.

These three characters are well chosen. The officer in the army is low enough in the ranks that he’s just as struggling with the small tragedies of his life as the others, he has no elevated position from which to regard political developments. When disaster strikes -and it’s one of this novel’s peculiarities that disaster strikes not once but several times- he’s frequently in the middle of it, not overseeing the situation but ducking an enemy’s bayonet, more often than not. Although we have different characters that can offer us insight into the white population, the officer is important in showing us along which lines loyalties divide, because each party is anxious, as could be expected in a situation like this, to get the support of the army. The white population, huddling together in the two large cities, confronting the bands of former slaves who roam the island, is, indeed, far from united. The French Revolution, the state of the mulattoes, i.e. the so-called “gens de couleur”, the rights of slaves, and class conflict between poor workers in the city and the rich landowners, leads to outbreaks of violence between whites. Thus it’s, somewhat literally, not a black-and-white conflict that we witness. Instead, this is an island full of people struggling, trying not to drown in the heat, trying to create room for survival. The violence stems from the fact that all of a sudden everybody is clamoring and demanding rights, a voice, room. It’s a sudden explosion that plunges the island into a decade of war.

All that is not to deny that race is one of the most important issues and areas of conflict here. But, again, it’s not being duked out between the “white” and the “black” race. There are five distinct groups although not every character can tell all of them apart. There are the rich white landowners who are the whitest of all, mostly because they wield economic and political power. Then there are poor ‘whites’. They insist upon their own whiteness in the course of their rivalry with the third group, the mulattoes, but they are not necessarily seen as ‘white’ by the rich whites, they have to fight for acceptance. Mulattoes, in contrast, are almost accepted. Having black blood separates them from the whites but as it turns out they can attain positions that allow them to order poor whites around. They are only attacked as non-white by those who are their rivals, poor whites on the one hand and, interestingly, women on the other, because many men keep themselves a mulatto mistress. And then there are the slaves, who, in turn, split into two groups. Slaves that come from Africa either themselves or in the previous generation and slaves that are descended from a longer line of colonial slaves. Just as whites are very conscious of the distinction between real, i.e. rich whites on the one and poor whites on the other hand, so are the slaves conscious of the distinction based on descent. In a more general way, it could be said that while these distinctions are multicausal, the color of the skin is one of the least important factors, with mulattoes who could easily pass as white and similar details crowding the book, breaking up certainties.

The question of color and power and voice becomes even more apparent in the second of the three characters, Riau, who is Bell’s nexus for comments upon storytelling. Riau is one of the few literate slaves and becomes for a time Toussaint’s secretary. Just as the officer is our window into the city population and the forces that compel and disturb that group of people, Riau is our insider witness to the slave revolt. There are three significant ways in which he fulfills that function. The first is recounting things that happen, of course. It is not until two thirds of the book have passed that Toussaint gains dominance among all the black leaders on the island. Some of those leaders have been able to take power because they were the most outspoken, most ruthless, most violent among the slaves; some, like Toussaint are natural leaders, they were part of the original power structure, having had responsibilities on the farms, and they don’t want a revolution either, their goal’s a reform. Through the hurricane of events they are then thrust into a role they don’t like but are immensely qualified to fill out.

It is maybe here that I should mention the intense amount of violence that permeates the whole book. Early on in the book we see someone shoot a dog and it is this shot that is like a hint of the darkness to come. Later, on the same plantation, a woman kills in a cold rage verging on madness the black mistress of her husband, making a bloody mess of it all. A short time afterward the revolt begins and we the readers are treated to pages of carnage, pages and pages of descriptions of slaughter, but these are not the images that will stay in your mind. Bell is nothing if not goal-oriented, precise and so he creates a series of images that each encapsulate a complex of issues. The most striking image is that of a white woman, leading a trek of female refugees to the city. Upon being held up by a group of evidently bloodthirsty rebels, she offers them her ring, but doesn’t take it off, instead she slowly, calmly cuts off her whole finger. This display of bravery or madness turns the rebels away, thus saving her and her companions (Its way with female characters is the novel’s most glaring flaw. Women are curiously flat, almost like caricatures.). Despite the restraint that comes from using the force of single images rather than overwhelming the reader with rivers of blood, the amount of violence is stunning, as is the destruction wrought by the angry former slaves.

This is part of conflict between structure and destruction, as it is mapped onto the different parties in this war. Rich whites are violent as well, but they destroy nothing for this, their violence is achieved with (and even: through) the structure. Reading the book, one cannot help but feel that Bell denounces all violence, even what is frequently called ‘necessary’ violence to uphold central elements of the structure, because Bell demonstrates how quickly it can all spill over into madness (although ‘madness’ would put you into a very specialized part of the structure, but that would go too far now I think). Riau does not reflect upon all this, but he is perceptive, it is through his perceptions that we gain insights into the revolt, especially into the role of religion. The book is full of French and Creole phrases, not all of them directly or obviously significant, except for one sort, words from the voodoo cult. Riau is a devout adherent of voodoo, and keeps tabs on how rituals and beliefs support and undermine the efforts of the revolt. The danger of irrationality is plain at all times and Bell doesn’t shy away from making it obvious that Christianity is not better than religions like voodoo which can appear to be sectarian and obscure.  There are several priests making an appearance and only one of those is painted in a positive light, a Jesuit priest with a black wife, and his endeavors are shown to be doomed.

I could go on like this for ages, I have notes on gender, linguistics, Paul Gilroy and some more on structure, but this is, after all a review. Suffice to say that this is a novel rich with ideas and that each and everyone works. The writing is good, bordering on sumptuous. It’s clearly more than adequate to its subject but then, it doesn’t really add much. Bell works through structure, characters and images, not language; his language is clean and poetical, but really not above the level of any good historical novel, although he does avoid the trap of faux-high-brow writing that is so ubiquitous in the genre. All Souls’ Rising is a very good book that draws you in, it makes for compulsive reading, and at the same time, as I said in the first paragraph, Bell should be credited with giving a voice and a story to those, as Carribean poet Martin Carter put it, “who had no voice in the emptiness / in the unbelievable”, those who “heard [...] the iron clang”. He presents Toussaint as a hero who takes up the anger and hate and prejudice of the past and transforms it into an orderly revolution, but as a hero whose time has not yet come. Toussaint’s ideals and commitments show him to be an early proponent of the movement that, two hundred years later, Aime Césaire called “négritude”. In this sense, perhaps, Madison Smartt Bell is, after all, like Doctorow, hunting for the lesson, the lecturing line that is threaded through history.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind

Rothfuss, Patrick (2008), The Name of the Wind, DAW Books
ISBN 978-0-7564-0474-1

Once every few years, a new star rises from the murky depths of the fantasy mainstream. His or her work is subsequently hailed as original, new, groundbreaking, mostly inaccurately. In 2007 the rising star was a young man named Patrick Rothfuss. His debut novel The Name of the Wind made a deep impression upon the scene and had success far beyond the usual circle of fantasy readers. However, while the book is certainly an outstanding read, a huge amount of fun, and quite smart, much of the hype that has aggregated around Rothfuss’ novel, the first in a projected series of three (we know how that usually works out…), is not due to any specific excellency of his but to the dire and formulaic writing that dominates this genre. Even writers such as Tad Williams, who have a lot of talent, a great imagination and energy to spare, spend much of their time coasting along on the gentle waves of a genre the closeness of which to Romance writing (I’m currently making myself read a Sandra Brown novel, hence, perhaps, the association) betrays the conservative bent of the thinking that fuels much of it. Writers like Samuel R. Delany or China Miéville are the exception, not the rule in the field. Before embarking upon the proper review, let me tell you that Rothfuss does not break much new ground, if any. He does, however, rise above many of his colleagues, since his is a smart and self-reflective take on well-worn material.

The protagonist, a man by the fetching name of Kote, runs a bar in the middle of nowhere, as we enter the book. Strange things happen the origins of which are not explained (yet), but in the course of which we learn that Kote is anything but a measly barkeep. He has certain powers. When a man who calls himself Chronicler, apparently a, well, a chronicler, a collector and teller of tales, turns up at the Waystone Inn, Kote’s auspiciously named bar, we find out that Kote used to be a hero and a legend that went by the name of Kvothe, or to give his full name: Kvothe the Bloodless. Kvothe vanished and Chronicler hunted him down to write down his story. Kvothe demands full control over the result and subsequently dictates his life story to the writer. They agree to take three days for this. Hence the full title of Rothfuss’ novel: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One: The Name of the Wind. The present, wherein Chronicler and Kvothe and a mysterious friend of Kvothe’s sit and create stories, keeps butting in, providing commentary but mainly disrupting the reading in a most pleasurable way, drawing attention to the telling. That is, generally speaking, something the book keeps doing, in different ways. It’s quite remarkable how consistently Rothfuss flaunts his concern with signs and narrative and how much this dominates the book. Basic genre assumptions of telling and authority are thus interrogated, if in a nice and gentle way. Rothfuss makes it easy to overlook many of these things by making them basic construction principles not objects of debate, but any good reading of the book would need to focus on these things, I think. His world is completely and utterly convincing, even now as I think back on it the smells and sounds and looks of his world rise before me. This is because he owes a large debt to Dickens, I think, at least as much as to his fellow fantasy wroters. But we’ll return to that.

Now we’ll return to Kvothe and the Chronicler. The full control Kvothe demands is not easily granted. Chronicler is used to be the storyteller, the shaper, the framer of stories, the man who writes and in writing constructs, creates an artifact that contains the basic, the salient facts of what people tell him orally. In Rothfuss’ vaguely medieval world, writing and reading is still a province of a few elite scholars, stories are proliferated by storytellers and singers. Songs especially are important. The connection between fabulation and truth-telling is a close and interesting one here. Rothfuss far exceeds most of his colleagues who, like him use songs both as described objects and as reprinted songs in the books, but, unlike him, use them for decoration mainly. Yes, Rothfuss uses them as decorative elements as well,but songs have a deeper significance, too. Most revealingly in a section early in the novel. Kvothe is part of a traveling troupe, a highly decorated and accomplished one; at the same time he is of a people called the Edema Ruh, who are but a thinly veiled allusion to Roma. All this is related in a series of nice vignettes, anecdotes, it’s all rather cozy and nice to read. Until, well, until Kvothe’s father decides to find out the truth about the Chandrian, a mythical figure that’s said to cause senseless massacres now and then. No one knows why exactly. Thousands of stories and songs about the Chandrian exist and Kvothe’s father listens to a slew of them in each village or town they pass.

He’s like a one-man Grimm brothers, but he is just interested in the story. By and by he assembles a mental library of tales and starts reading them closely, applying hermeneutic methods to these texts (which are at no point actual texts) and extracts from them a version of the truth which he then starts to turn into a song. The proof that the song is actually and emphatically true is in a gruesome event that ends Kvothe’s happy childhood. The Chandrian appears and murders the whole troupe, only Kvothe’s life is spared. Don’t come running and complain about spoilers. It is one of the book’s most interesting aspects that it constantly tells you what’s about to happen, its suspense is of a different kind. So, early in the book, Rothfuss rubs our noses into the fact that in his book, legends, fairy tales and songs can be made sense of within the limitations of truth-telling. Clearly, it suggests a similar reading might be applied to The Name of the Wind, too. I’m a bit befuddled tonight so the only thing that directly occurs to me is the Sinti and Roma tangent. See, traveling people such as the Roma always had a hard time, and today it’s getting worse again. Stories are told by all sorts of people but they are written down and kept and filed by authorities and in turn they help stabilize and reinforce them. The Edema Ruh just as the Roma do not get to write their stories, they sing songs, but when they die the songs die with them. Kvothe’s father’s song is forever lost. He was able to raise his voice but not to record it. So when Chronicler turns up at Kote’s bar and expects to exert full control over the material that Kvothe has to offer, Kvothe, with a lifetime of experience, stops him in his tracks and turns him into a tool. He’s using the writer, but controls him, checks what was written and decides what will be told and what won’t. His song will not be lost. His is a tale of disenfranchisement and of rising to the top despite of that. And it’s not just or even primarily about race, it’s also to a large extent about questions of class and power.

After his parents are killed, Kvothe travels to the next town where he lives on the street for the next three years, living the life of a street urchin. Far from having Gavrotte’s sunny demeanor, his experience in the streets is darkly Dickensian. This episode and much of what happens in the academy later is ‘realistic’, but in a critical manner. These early episodes of living on the street are about fear, first and foremost, about relearning one’s place in society. The trope Rothfuss is using to exemplify that are Kvothe’s feet, which he cut up during his first weeks and months, but which healed and grew thick and strong, sturdy enough to serve as shoes in the absence of money for those. Rothfuss’ gift is visible in the fact that he doesn’t merely use the trope to show Kvothe’s process in his time on the street, to be abandoned once shoes become affordable again. No, he returns time and again to his trope, refining it, proving it to be an apt metaphor for adaptive development. In fact, Rothfuss seems to use the three years in the wet and the cold, hunted by policemen and fellow urchins, sleeping in cellars and on roofs, as a launching point for his exploration of class. As I said, Rothfuss is rather mild-mannered about these issues, but his world isn’t Jordan’s where class is used a decoration, at best. The Name of the Wind returns to class as a factor in answering the question of What will I eat? Where will I sleep? Who will listen to my story? Most impressively in the events after Kvothe leaves the town that has raised him and decides to enter the academy to become what other colleagues would have called a wizard.

A school for people who want to become proficient in magic? Right. J.K. Rowling’s books clearly must be part of the frame of reference here. Harry Potter‘s become so inordinately famous that it needs to be considered and it’s the closest comparison that I could come up with. Usually arcane academies are less hands-on, contain less descriptions of what we would consider normal school routine. What’s more ,a comparison would be profitable, because Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts is so thoroughly different from Rothfuss school, and the main difference is probably this: Rowling’s books, especially the first one, are a paean to consumerism. Without being the least bit critical, she provides, more or less, a series of low-key fantasy examples for what Marx called the Warenfetisch, and constructs a consumerist wonderland. Yes, even in Harry Potter, there are poor people such as the Weasleys, but their poverty is exoticised, it’s cute and all in good spirits. They are jolly people who can’t always afford new brooms so younger kids have to take older siblings’ old brooms, etc. even though it’s a horribly outdated model. Compare this to Kvothe’s bloody feet. No-one, to my knowledge, is really threatened with having to leave Hogwarts on account of poverty, and is thus barred from knowledge. This, however, is the constant threat that hangs over Kvothe’s head and the academy takes steep rates, and is not in the habit of handing out scholarships, thereby ensuring that the skills and the arcane knowledge that can be gained in the academy stays in a certain circle. Kvothe has to fight and scramble to stay in the university and not starve. It’s just as realistic as necessary, but it is fantasy, after all. The mixture makes for addictive, sumptious reading. Kvothe’s struggle dominates the rest of the book, which also contains his quest to find out what exactly happened to his parents, the first beginnings of his legend.

Kvothe is a hero, as exceptional (compared to the common man) as any within fantasy. He’s almost supernaturally smart, agile and talented. But here’s exactly where he differs from the Rand al’Thors (and Harry Potters): his main superpower are his smarts. Rand al’Thor is thick as a brick basically and so are Goodkind’s and a good deal even of Hobb’s heroes. Kvothe is a born scholar, able to hold incredible amounts of knowledge in his head and break a cypher within minutes. He is more brain than brawn, although he fares well on that as well. But there, again, not something that he was born with (one of the most problematic constants in fantasy) but something that he acquired through his family business first and fighting for survival in the streets later. With this, Rothfuss cedes to a demand of the mainstream of his genre, as he frequently does; not without putting a twist to it. Rothfuss, as I mentioned before, is adamant in handing us key pieces of the plot beforehand. We know what will happen to the hero. He channels the reader’s suspense into his curiosity about the world, about its secret, its workings. To do this, one the one hand he uses and repeats certain tropes; on the other, he sends his hero off on a search for the Chandrian, fattening up the narrative with mysterious children’s songs like this

When the hearthfire turns to blue,
What to do? What to o?
Run outside. Run and hide.

When your bright sword turns to rust?
Who to trust? Who to trust?
Stand alone. Standing Stone.

See a woman pale as snow?
Silent come and silent go.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian.

Just as this song, the book as a whole is rather simple, it wears its complexities lightly, it’s first and foremost a good fantasy read. I read it in all of two days, and enjoyed it every step of the way. Rothfuss writing is not remarkable in any way, not in a bad, as in Goodkind’s case, or in a good way, as Miéville’s. The book is a solid read, but Rothfuss proves himself a smart writer, who is aware of many undercurrents of his genre and turns that awareness into constructing devices of his book. If you like fantasy, you can’t really bypass this book. If you don’t, I guess you could be unhappy with many genre trappings that Rothfuss kept and reproduced. The Name of the Wind is, perhaps, not a very good book, but a very enjoyable one. It’s very much worth reading. I hope this review has made a good case for that.


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Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice

Pynchon, Thomas (2009), Inherent Vice, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224089487

Ah, Inherent Vice. So. Right, why don’t I start at the beginning. Here’s what I won’t talk about so much. Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s eighth novel, is, as all his books, saturated with references. Unless I am completely mad, there are references to all his books, smaller and larger ones, but I don’t have the memory or the time to chase them all up or at least a presentable portion of them so there’ll be none of that. I do have to mention it, though, mostly because Inherent Vice, even more so than his other books, spends a great deal of time giving shout-outs to other books, writers and pop-cultural references in general. These references, and I am referring only to those of an explicit kind, get so that it becomes a kind of rhythm, a melody of its own within the book, but it’s never obtrusive or annoying. What’s most important: it’s never ‘clever’. To be honest, it felt to me as if he were mopping the floor with peers and epigones like Don Delillo and Bret Easton Ellis, who have perfected the enumeration, the cataloging, even, of American consumerism, into an art form, a sub-genre of its own, even. Unless my memory plays tricks on me, this is the first time that Pynchon goes all out on us in that way as far as explicit references are concerned, and he does it in a way that is so light-handed yet precise, that he puts whole shelves of other writers to shame.

Actually, this is true about many aspects of Inherent Vice. The language in general is light and accessible, so that I have heard many people who could not finish Gravity’s Rainbow, declare their joy and relief at finding the master’s new novel ‘readable’. However, appearances may deceive. I took quite some time reading the book the first time around, for two reasons, both language related. The first is that Pynchon, especially in the first third, employs a subtly rhythmical language, the sounds of words slap into each other, merge, a phrase at the end of one page may echo another at the beginning of the same page, alliterations abound. A few times, after reading half a page I noticed that I hadn’t actually read it, in the sense of understanding it. I just followed the sounds in leaps and bounds. That took a while adjusting to. Overall, the point of this use of language is, I think, that Pynchon deliberately used that light register and I mean, he used it, as a tool if that makes sense.

Typically, light language is used to ferry the reader from plot point to plot point, without taxing him overmuch. Many of these writers could have made a movie for all they care about the actual language employed. What I think I noticed in Inherent Vice is the fact that Pynchon is aware of the register of the language he uses and that he doesn’t use light language to get somewhere in terms of plot, but he uses light language in order to use light language. I’m not sure that all the playfulness is intentional, I think it’s a side effect of the attention that Pynchon lavishes upon his language. There are few other living writers who are so invested in language without stiffening up the text. Because this is the most beautiful thing about this: it IS a light read, not just a “light read”. People resistant to his pyrotechnics do enjoy the book. It takes a master like Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. to do both of these things at the same time.

The other element is also important for Pynchon in general and quite dominant in his latest novel, as well. It’s his, well, let’s call a spade a spade and Pynchon an obsessional writer. He’s obsessed with names, and I’m not just about people’s names or place names either. It would be easy and superfluous to recount all the inanely funny puns that Pynchon has turned into names for his characters, most famously, probably, Crying of Lot 49‘s Oedipa Maas. As I said, this book is full of them, as well. But it doesn’t stop there. It didn’t in his past books and it sure as hell doesn’t here. Pynchon textualizes his landscapes, by turning every word that could carry references to the real world into a name with a symbol system attached to it. Places etc. are far more important in the way that they can be dismembered and made sense of within the textual logic of the book at hand or, indeed, the broader oeuvre. Yes, like much of this review, this is banal, because if you’ve ever read Pynchon, this will be bloody obvious to you, but I found that quite a few people started to do stupid maps blending the California novels and certain known places of residence of Pynchon himself, which, uh, but let’s not go there.

Let’s just return to the business of names and naming. Instead of compiling a list which could go on for at least a paragraph or two, I’ll close this paragraph of mine by mentioning one of the most insistent instances of Pynchon’s use of names. It’s “The Golden Fang”, which, to not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the novel, is basically some shadowy organization. You’ll see. The point is that this name crops up every so often, with all sorts of things changed. The signifier changes, by having that name in translation or in paraphrase, and the signified as well, as the organization keeps appearing differently depending on context and plot position; we will also encounter actual fangs or fang-like objects, and, in one of the book’s best moments, Pynchon actually anatomizes not the ‘fang’ part of the term but the golden by discussing different alloys and the copper contingent in it (which, to turn this process of morphing the term partly around, is a pun again, of course, since cops and mobsters are not necessarily antagonists in the society depicted in the book.

Since I’ve now hinted at the plot, I might as well talk some more about it, to the extent that that’s possible without spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book yet. It’s basically a noir novel with a hippie sleuth as protagonist. As is customary in that genre, as far as I know, he uses a third person personal narrator. The private eye in question is Doc Sportello, and one day an ex-girlfriend of his, Shasta, comes to visit him, telling him about a criminal plan in which she is enmeshed. She wants out but instead she disappears and a very rich, famous and important man, her lover, disappears with her. Sportello has a few run-ins with the police, suffers from loss of consciousness and loss of memory, meets beautiful ladies and grim fellas as he stumbles on along the wondrous yellow brick road of a very typical noir plot. There are important and salient ways in which Pynchon departs from the genre but the book is remarkable in that it does follow genre conventions rather closely, more so than in any other Pynchon novel that I can remember. The plot and hapless Sportello within it, gives off a distinct Chandlerian smell, it’s enough to send one back to the source.

But to that smell, the sweet smell of dope attaches itself very early on. Sportello is a hippie. The book may be a noir but for the most part, it’s suffused by the light and the sun in southern California, and by no stretch of the imagination can the novel be called “hard-boiled”. There’s not much that’s hard about Sportello, although he isn’t stupid or easy prey. He does carry a weapon and in crucial situations is even known to hide one in his shoe, unobtrusively. I called him hapless, but that’s just because the typical noir plot tosses its detective around like a storm a small boat. Actually, and surprisingly, Sportello, as the book repeatedly reveals, is smart and a very capable detective. The softness of him is more a kind of hippie mentality. He is trustful and a gentle soul overall. When he finds out something about the company that the major police officer assigned to the case is keeping, Bigfoot Bjornsen (“named for his entry method of choice”) he isn’t jaded, or cynical. He is personally offended and angry. When people do things that he considers morally wrong, he becomes angry. His deliberations, resulting from that kind of thinking, can sometimes seem a tad childish (and Sportello constantly has to refrain from making quips and jokes. He’s a trickster by nature. Just the honest kind.) but they aren’t.

Doc Sportello is a wonderful creation, he is the book or rather: he’s its warm, beating heart. This book could have been a cold, annoyingly clever mess, brainy but emotionally empty, but Sportello is the reason why that isn’t the case. Sportello is committed. Things are important to him, it’s why he’s such a good sleuth. Everything. Start with drugs: in Sportello’s world, drugs can enhance your mind, and disable you at the same time, which may sound banal, but consider: Sportello does not take drugs as a novelty act, his attitude towards drugs reflects the importance of drugs to many people in his time, the great potential of taking something that would open your mind to new possibilities, grander vistas. Again, banal, maybe, but it’s important to this book and to Pynchon and to Doc Sportello. I am not saying that Pynchon isn’t having a huge amount of fun at Sportello’s expense, he certainly is, but it’s not malicious and it’s fun that Sportello would have appreciated. And this fun saves many parts of the book from a dour earnestness that looms over sections where Sportello ponders how similar he’s become to a policeman. It looms but it never breaks out. Pynchon’s mastery and his use of the light register keep everything smooth and humorous. He’s not necessarily ‘zany’, it’s a much more controlled and versed brand of humor.

Another element of the genre that Inherent Vice belongs to is its treatment of women. As has been pointed out ad nauseam, the hard-boiled novel is focused on masculinities, affording women usually second-rate treatment, structurally even undercutting strong depictions of women. It’s a broad field of study, and any quick perusal of the MLA will point you to a few texts that may satisfy your appetite for information. Anyway. What Pynchon does is very interesting. I think he is intent upon reproducing the feminity as it would appear in any book of that genre. Its women are one of the very central aspects of the hard-boiled novel and Pynchon’s dedication to genre this time around means he can’t do anything about it at this point. However, in his usual fashion, he proceeds and attaches a multitude of mirrors to the walls of the novel, so that the problematic women of noir novels, while not usually explicitly vindicated, are vindicated through all sorts of little devices. One of the most blatant ones is, of course, a series of ties. These ties have been painted for a very rich man and each tie bears the likeness of one of the man’s many ex-lovers. Not their faces, mind you, but their whole bodies, in all their naked glory. What’s more, they are usually depicted in sexual poses, submissive more often than not. This whole tie business is a powerful trope for different kinds of power issues in the book and one could tie a whole, coherent reading of the whole novel around those ties and their connections within the novel.

Yet another central concern of Inherent Vice are oppositions, north and south, for example. In an aside, we learn of a migration of hippies north to where Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland is set, with people like Larry Sportello basically left behind in South California. This particular opposition is, for example, mirrored in one of the most powerful sections, as far as landscape and imagery is concerned: pursuing a lead, Sportello gets on the road to Vegas, where we learn that there’s a prosperous south, the part of Las Vegas where the “Strip” is found, and a more dilapidated north, which has not achieved a comparable popular success. The decay in a casino in north Vegas seems like straight from a movie, with lonely singers performing to no audience; that scene also has a dreamlike, a wistful quality, of a failed vision, squandered energies, a disappearing era. Building projects of the failed variety abound as well in Inherent Vice, repeatedly reinforcing another opposition, that of success and failure. As has been pointed out, the detective in the hard boiled novel shares qualities with that other grand cultural archetype, the cowboy. Frontiers, successes, masculinities, there are countless issues all bound up in this and this is not the place to anatomize them.

I have mentioned a few issues in this review and I assure you that these are but a fraction of what’s going on in Pynchon’s grand new novel, which alludes to heavy linguistic topics like Korzybski (the ‘inherent vices’ of language, so to say), and others like Schrödinger’s Cat. But most of all, it’s a quick, fun read that bears the traces of a lifetime’s experience and development as a writer. Any allegation of repetition severely misses the point. Pynchon has honed his skills to a fine point, he frequently falls back on past books, but every word in this book reveals the mastery that Pynchon has, by now attained. Elements are used in different contexts, are serenaded by a different music. There will be those who apply an autobiographical reading to the book, which I would resist. The book has its hooks firmly in the web that has been created by his past books. And, of course, in other books and texts, movies, songs. Pynchon is greedy, an omnivore, that has always been true for his work and it’s true for this one. And we the readers profit from this. We ride shotgun on his tours through America, and if there’s a similarity in his books, that’s to be expected. As I mentioned, he’s an obsessional writer, who has tried out different tools to get at the sweet nut in the shell that American pelts him with. And yes, he uses similar tools as well. But he works on his tools and develops them further just as he works on the cultural representation of America. He is a great writer, committed to his vision and to his writing. Inherent Vice is an amazing book.


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Theodore Roethke: Straw for the Fire

Roethke, Theodore (2006), Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, Copper Canyon Press
Edited by David Wagoner
ISBN 1-55659-248-5

Before I started to write this down, I spent quite a while thinking about how to describe this book. What is it? On the surface of it, a few things are clear. The edition I own and review here is the 2006 reprint of a book that has actually been published first in 1972. The reprint has been published in the commendable “Lannan Literary Selection”, to which I also owe my copy of Rexroth’s stunning Complete Poems and Geoffrey Brock’s rendition of Pavese’s poetry (Disaffections). Apparently, Straw for the Fire is a selection “From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke”. Roethke is one of the best American postwar poets; the editor of the volume, David Wagoner is a good poet in his own right, all in all, this sounds interesting. Leafing through it, the book appears to contain a few poems and selections of prose, as well as a handful of facsimile reproductions of pages from those notebooks. This is the premise that made me buy the book. I have long adored Roethke’s poetry, poems like “The Waking” and “In a Dark Time” have constantly haunted my life as a writer and reader of poetry, however much other writers dropped in and out of favor. Here’s the second stanza of “In a Dark Time”:

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

So. I was overwhelmed to discover that there was more work of Roethke’s around. But, though the book is indeed „from the Notebooks“ of Roethke, to a large extent, it’s also from the brain of David Wagoner. According to Wagoner’s introduction, what happened was the following: as a former student and friend of the poet, he knew about the wealth of material buried in these notebooks. So he chose almost at random 12 out of the 277 notebooks saved by Roethke’s widow. After that, he chose passages that he considered publishable. Then he did what irritates me most of all. He sorted the pieces he extracted from the notebooks into ‘poetry’, by looking for coherence and arranged them in accordance with the ‘typical’ structure of Roethke’s poems. In the introduction Wagoner spends considerable time explaining to his audience what that structure looks like. I admit that this is frequently insightful but that does not vindicate his project. Indeed, there is so much wrong with the assumptions behind Wagoner’s project that I don’t even know where to begin. What struck me most, however, was the disrespect towards Roethke the poet that this method shows, since it suggests that Roethke, as a poet, is little more than an algorithm of sorts: string together a few ideas, slap on a title and presto! a poem! I can’t begin to tell you as how strange an enterprise this strikes me.

As a poet, Roethke has developed a very distinct style, sounding the drums of tradition yet couching all of this in a language that seems hewed from a very strange and unique tree. In the slim but really indispensable book that is his Collected Poems, not everything is a success, not everything works as well as it should, Roethke never makes it look easy. Roethke is almost always dry, a very earnest poet, who can be witty, but it’s a scholarly wittiness, a learned, dour, bookish wittiness. His writing explores a limited range of themes, but within that range, he has written some of the best poems to deal with those themes. Madness, sadness and spirituality, one could describe them; he’s one of the better modern writers to put religious experience, doubt and ecstasy into poetry. For my money, he’s also one of the best postwar poets to write about love and desire. And, in his masterpiece, the amazing “North American Sequence”, he has proven himself to be one of the best landscape poets of his generation. That sequence of poems, which everyone interested in modern poetry is herewith encouraged, no, urged to read, charts a spiritual journey, but at the same time also an actual journey through the US, through different landscapes and weather conditions, all of them committed to paper by a writer with an eye for the strange and miraculous in nature.

In his best poems he is heads and shoulders above writers like Ammons when they work on similar themes. One major difference to a writer like Ammons is economy. All of Roethke’s poems are studiously worked into shape; although he is a moving, beautiful writer, he is never sentimental in a way that is not contained by artifice and learning. Roethke is careful, he prunes his poetical language with great circumspection. I have always been drawn to him because he suffered from depression and in his poetry I recognized the temptation to look for easy shortcuts, cheap connections that can present a quick, effective rendering of the blackness that can choke one’s soul. And Roethke, in contrast to many other writers, managed to get this under control and make it work for him. And he never, as I said, makes it look easy. Exactly how difficult this was is showcased by Straw for the Fire, which contains little that Roethke would consider publishable, I’d wager; most of it has rolled straight off his tongue onto the page. To publish it the way Wagoner did I find unbelievable. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box, this book nowhere near meets the poet’s own standards. The probability is high that both would be deeply uncomfortable, dismissive, even, with the results. Neither editor (in Bishop’s case, that’s Alice Quinn) does right by the poet whose material they use. That does not, however, mean the book is not readable. In fact, I recommend it.

Why do we read and write poetry? In Straw for the Fire we are witness to someone’s exhibition of the sheer joy in writing, putting words together to make sense of things. Wagoner’s selection, reprehensible though I think it, does have its advantages at times, especially in that it helps us see how Roethke ruminated, obsessed even, about certain subjects, it helps us see how certain phrases and ideas bounced back and forth in his mind; some of them turned up later in published poems, some didn’t, but, overall, the relationship with the published poems is rather subdued. Wagoner refrains from offering us multiple drafts of finished poems (assuming such were to be found in the mysterious notebooks), the texts in this book are exclusively short ideas, frequently just one or two lines of verse or prose (and it’s an indicator of Roethke’s abilities to shape the rhythm of a line that this division is both possible and plausible), so any repetition is more an iteration of a certain idea than a revision of something already written. There are personal and spiritual elements battling in these fragments. Fear on the one side and certaintly, hope on the other. I said that the book demonstrates the joy in writing. But that’s misleading, in a way. It rather shows us the necessity of writing.

One passage proclaims that, “[b]y singing we defend ourselves from what we are.” Poetry as a defense mechanism from our darker selves, from our bad instincts, our depressions. In one of his most memorable poems, “Dolphin”, The Bostonian Robert Lowell called his poetry “an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting“. The slippery nature of what Roethke wants to contain isn’t lost on him either, so he makes numerous attempts, hence the motivation, the necessity. Many writers have talked of this, of the urge to write, the need to put pen to paper, to give vent to a voice or a song that blooms within yourself. In Straw for the Fire you have Roethke’s urges, his poetical needs preserved. The things, tiny ideas and phrases that you jot down to get something off your chest, to preserve a fragment of song before it flutters away, pin down a thought, fix an image. Looking at the facsimiles, I wish someone would publish them as they are, jumbled together, unsorted, full of a strange energy. There are thing written down and left like that, and then there are passages that were worked on, with crossed out words and boxed-in sentences, which is very fascinating to see, but all that is lost in the final book. Yes this is something to lament, but on the other hand the fact remains that what we have in Straw for the Fire is still moving, beautiful, inspiring. It’s less like a collection of poetry and more like a journal but that’s not too shabby now is it.

In “The Longing”, the second poem of the “North American Sequence”, Roethke wrote: “Out of these nothings / – All beginnings come.” The texts in Straw for the Fire are the beginnings, the wellsprings of Roethke’s wonderful poet’s mind. They are warm, tender objects, fragments, “flowering out of the dark”, to borrow a phrase from the last poem in the sequence. This book is as much Wagoner’s as its Roethke’s, but it’s Wagoner’s part that drags the book down and Roethke’s part of the book that makes it worth reading. So, while the whole enterprise is shadowy at best, we would not have been able to read these fragments at all if not for Wagoner’s meddling. Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. And in this case the good is really good.

William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow

Maxwell, William (1997), So Long, See You Tomorrow, Harvill

The gravel pit was about a mile east of town and the size of a small lake, and so deep that boys under the age of sixteen were forbidden by their parents to swim there. I knew it only by hearsay. It had no bottom, people said, and because I was very much interested in the idea that if you dug a hole straight down anywhere and kept on digging it would come out in China, I took this to be a literal statement of fact.

This is the first paragraph of William Maxwell’s marvelous novella So Long, See You Tomorrow, published in 1980, in its entirety. I could close the review now with a few notes on plot, and have done with it in time to catch a nap, because much of this great book’s properties can be found, in nuce, in these few lines. Maxwell proves himself to be that rare breed of novelist: truly concise and precise. I tend to say that this or that short book could have been longer at the hands of a different writer, but that does not seem to be the case here. Maxwell does not make it look easy, he makes brevity look necessary. So Long, See You Tomorrow is like a coiled spring, but all the parts are so well calibrated that I left my lecture with the impression that it would not work in a more expansive mode. This book needs to be short, and I am unable to conceive of its parts as being part of a longer work. The craftsmanship here is impeccable but Maxwell is more than that. He impresses, but at the same time, he also moves us, leads us into a landscape most of us have never visited, makes us part of a story that revolves around love, adultery and murder, the whole nine yards, so to say.

But, for now, let us return to the bit I just quoted. In the paragraph that follows, we learn about a sound that “sounded like a pistol shot”, or “a car backfiring”, but no, “a farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed”. This is no mystery. We learn quickly who killed Wilson and why, this is not where the suspense arises from. That back story concerns two neighboring farmers, who were close friends, both married. Suddenly, one of the farmers falls in love with his neighbor’s wife and embarks upon an affair with her. This disrupts, as could be expected, both of the families and ultimately leads to the cheated husband’s abandoning his farm and leaving. Later, he returns with a shotgun, hides in his old barn and shoots Wilson first thing in the morning, flees and drowns himself in a river. That seems like a heavy story to hang on such a short book, but, as I said, So Long, See You Tomorrow wears its story lightly, and one of the reasons for that is its use of a distancing frame narrative, so to say. The story is related to us not through one of those involved, but through a boy who lived nearby. His best friend was Cletus Smith, the son of Wilson’s murderer and their friendship is the impetus behind telling that story.

And, indeed, it is, as it is so often, the telling which is important here, at least as much as that which is told and the first paragraph sketches the lines along which this telling will take place. The narrator tells us about information that he has not verified himself, that he knows only from hearsay, from what “people” tell him, it’s quite a strange piece of information, to boot, but he believes it, on the authority of people and because it fits other strange ideas already active in his mind. And we the readers are left with this, like this. Take it or leave it. Clearly, we know that the lake is not literally bottomless, but we have not verified it either; our knowledge of the absurdity of that belief is based on similar factors as the protagonist’s. There are other, similar issues there, but this is what I felt to be the most basic element, and the most helpful in reading the whole book, too, since we, quite explicitly, have to trust hearsay as well; after the protagonist shares details of the murder and the ensuing investigation that ended with the aforementioned suicide, after he tells us about his friendship with Cletus Smith and an awkward meeting in a school hallway, many miles from the village they once lived in, after he explains to us exactly who he is and why he’d doing this, he proceeds to tell us the story of the two neighbors from the beginning.

And he introduces this part of the book by asking us to imagine the landscape, the bare, rough rooms, the simple colors and the rich air that envelops and shapes these characters. Imagination, and belief. The protagonist has not been a witness to the events and he does not deny it, but, he maintains, this is not a problem, per se. He suggests to the skeptical reader:

If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it. I would be content to stick to the facts if there were any.

Yes, he offers the reader the opportunity to dismiss unbelievable parts, but what this means, in the context of such a book, is a commitment to a writing that is not unconvincing, that is less vérité and more vérisimilitude, in other words a writing that creates the impression of being true. In a way, he both draws on and creates what Maurice Halbwachs (in his classic La Mémoire Collective) called “collective memory”. The fabulous Jan Assmann, who developed Halbwachs’ theory further in by now canonical books like Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis, differentiates between “communicative memory”, which is, as the term says, communicated, and “cultural memory”, which is written down or stenciled in, which can be dug out, found, be stumbled upon. So Long, See You Tomorrow’s protagonist draws on both to tell his story, which we know since he is transparent about where he procured his information. For the protagonist, though, cultural memory is restricted to police reports and newspaper accounts of what happened. However, in his role as framer of the story, he creates a piece of “cultural memory”, which is the book at hand, more or less.

At the same time, the narrator is also a reflection of the audience. Much of the story is told to make sense of it for himself and to explain to us his reaction when he meets Cletus in a hallway. Thus, Maxwell created a system that frames the story very strongly, maintaining a fierce grip on connotations and reactions to the story by channeling pre-reading expectations as well as post-reading judgments through the mind of his protagonist. His voice is highly suggestive, but all that does not of course mean that Maxwell’s writing is anything but subtle. These obvious, explicit elements work frequently like a smokescreen, to hide the moving, emotional core of the book behind, a profound sadness that follows the events like the cloud of stale perfume that follows an aging diva on her itineraries through her house. Cletus loses his whole family, his life is completely destroyed and dismantled, he’s dropped into an abyss and what’s more, if the narrator didn’t exist, his plight would at best be a footnote in histories. I’ve mentioned Halbwachs and Assmann, but perhaps the most appropriate reference here is Pierre Nora, who differentiates between memory, which is basically the direct memory of the facts as they happened, and history which is basically storytelling. The narrator frequently tries to flit back and forth between these two, drawing on his memory to push people into history who would not normally have found their place in there.

Apart from these two elements, the moving story and the clever narrative, a third element should be mentioned that is just as important as these two and explains why So Long, See You Tomorrow is such a satisfying, gratifying even, read. It’s the book’s ideas. This is, after all, a novel(la) of ideas. There are two that I found particularly interesting. The first is about the economic aspect of the events. In one of the book’s most inspired sections, the narrator discusses the “Emotion of Ownership” or rather the lack of it. The problem’s this: none of these farmers owns these farms, they all merely tenants there. They own nothing, not even, as we realize towards the end, the family dog belongs to them. When they leave the farm they leash the dog to a stake in the yard for the next tenant to use. The actual owners are not big corporations or kulaks but elderly, reasonably wealthy widows and colonels, people who are friends with their tenants, visiting them now and then, taking an interest in their lives. The tenants are poor but Maxwell’s point isn’t social realism of the Tobacco Road or Grapes of Wrath variety. They are poor but not destitute. They manage, every day. Yet they lack the ‘emotion of ownership’, they are alienated. They just produce, they don’t have anything, really, emotionally, to do with the finished product. It is, perhaps, this which drives the characters to behave as they do. When Cletus’ father loses his wife, he breaks down, because all that remains, for him, is the farm and it’s not his, so when his wife deserts him, he is completely and utterly alone, deserted, without any resources that would make his fate bearable. He is pushed away from society, outside of it, and what is it he does? Enforce one of the oldest moral codes of that society of his, with an Old Testamental glint of revenge in his eye

And here’s where the second concern comes up. So Long, See You Tomorrow contains concepts of sin and virtue and certain tensions between the Old Testament tradition and the tradition of the New Testament, which is often read as more humane, forgiving, although this depends upon the reader, of course. Preachers of hate, such as Billy Graham, would, I suspect, disagree, but many people find a light and a solace in the New Testament that is more bearable than the harsh glare if the old. Wilson is a nice guy, no, more than that, he is selfless, ready to help at the drop of a dime, most of the people in his town owe him thanks for help and support tendered. He is friendly and open, and Mr. Smith is lucky and happy to have him as a neighbor. Until, that is, Wilson falls for Smith’s wife. He literally covets his neighbor’s wife, and the punishment befits the offense, in a way. An eye for an eye. Wilson destroyed Smith’s life and Smith takes Wilson’s. The goodness of Wilson wafts away in the wind. We know of it, but in the chain of events it’s of no consequence. It’s as if that part of morals is like surface varnish, and the other is the ugly, darkly beautiful underbelly of morals. Tit for tat. An eye for an eye. You take my wife I take your life. It is a testament (no pun intended) to the excellence of Maxwell’s writing, though, that these elements do not take over the book, which is sad but not dark. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a perfectly balanced novella that is, after all, about two friendship, both doomed, and about the arid air that settles, in the end, over the landscape. We are all only tenants of the landscape we inhibit and Maxwell is an accomplished chronicler of the transient nature of our tenancy, and the nature of our sins. This is a moving, smart, and extremely well written book. Recommended to every- and anyone.

(I have read the book two weeks ago. My memory is really awful. I apologize for all and any misrepresentations of this wonderful book.)

Dana Spiotta: Eat the Document

Spiotta, Dana (2008), Eat the Document, Picador
ISBN 978-0-330-448229-1

One of James Merrill’s best and most affecting poems is “18 West 11th Street“, a poem where he mourns the destruction of the townhouse in New York where he once lived as a kid. His family moved away and eventually the house came to belong to a family called Wilkerson. Unfortunately for that family and the house, their daughter, Cathlyn Wilkerson, was a member of the Weather Underground (or just: Weathermen), an organization of the American radical left and used the house to gather and build bombs. The Weathermen specialized in bombing buildings and statues without harming people. On march 6, 1970, they accidentally blew up themselves; three of the Weathermen died. Reading scholarship on Merrill’s poetry can be quite amusing with regard to this specific poem, with eminent scholars such as Stephen Yenser misreading the text in order to extract a condemnation of the Weathermen from it. Yenser is such a profound reader of Merrill’s work, why the gaffe here? The simple answer is that left wing terrorism is still divisive, causing people to react strongly, revealing their convictions and biases in the process. And books dealing with the period are no exception. In Germany, the past year had seen a wave of contentious books about 1968, some praising, some damning the movements of the time. In English speaking countries, too, the amount of recent books consecrated to that time is remarkable. Three novels in particular stand out. Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, which I’ve yet to read, Hari Kunzru’s remarkable My Revolutions and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.

This upfront: for much of the book I was thoroughly bored. The first fifth and the last are very readable, but the book is at least a hundred pages too long. That said, this is not a bad book. Eat the Document is the tale of two terrorists, Bobby and Mary, lovers, who, after a bombing designed to destroy an empty house kills someone, go underground, zigzag across the states, and finally assume new identities, living for years undisturbed. The bombing itself is not described until the end of the book, which is largely concerned with the aftermath of the revolutionary violence. Eat the Document is set in two distinct periods. One part of the book takes place in the present, which is 1998-2000, the other charts Mary’s getaway and her attempts at constructing a new identity for herself. These two building blocks are interlaced, so that actions and events in the present reflect on and are in turn illuminated by events and actions in the past. This structure means that the author does not need to directly comment upon the ideologies that led to the bombings and the destruction of the lives of the two terrorists, she can leave it to the events in the present. This sort of device recurs a few times in this novel which is too clever for its own sake. It frequently mistakes cleverness for smartness, without having a writer deft enough to make all the subterfuges and mirrors work. I may mention some of them subsequently. Some are subtle, some are more heavy handed; the two time levels is one of the latter.

In the chapters dealing with Mary’s odyssey through the 1970s and 1980s, Spiotta spreads before us a compelling portrait of a left underground that is rife with conflict, with jealousies, with hopes and fears. Fear, especially, seems to be a commanding factor. Since all this is channeled through a personal narrator which means, in this case, through Mary’s point of view, the fear could be Mary’s, but there’s no indication within the narrative that this would be the case. Instead, Spiotta delivers a few convincing, if slightly satiric characterizations of people active in different leftist communities, spinning the aura of fear from their personal anxieties. This has been done before and probably better. What’s really worth noting here is that this portrait is of a female left. It’s no accident that Spiotta has chosen to follow Mary rather than Bobby. The left project has always been one of emancipation, one of giving voice and lending power to the voice and powerless; it’s failures can often be charted on this exact point. The extent to which left movements have failed to live up to their intentions and ideals are numerous.

Spiotta spends quite some time showing us these ideals. She doesn’t explore anything, in-depth, since she drags her protagonist out of these situations soon enough but through the aforementioned juxtapositions and her miniature portraits she does manage to demonstrate to the reader a landscape of female utopias. What is most striking, and most damning about the communities depicted, is to what extent they are dominated by authoritarian figures and structures, nipping true equalities in the bud and reinforcing harmful tendencies of the larger society around them; also, the dependency on the monied establishment, by having much of it funded and supported by daughters with rich parents (Ms. Wilkerson comes to mind), undermines claims for autonomy and illustrates the dependency on the vilified US society. As standalone chapters, these parts of the book would read like harsh, and sometimes unfair criticism of what was, after all, a movement with enormous potential; unfair because it’s done with hindsight, it’s the typical criticism of the comfortable writer in the 00′s, looking back on a movement that failed in its larger designs, using that failure to attack the designs themselves.

The fact is, however, that these are not standalone chapters, that they are interspersed with sections that deal with the present. The present is divvied up between four (later: five) persons, who alternate in telling their story. One of these characters is Nash, a left-over leftist from the 1970s, who heads an ‘alternative’ bookstore, where he allows and encourages local kids to hold rebellious or subversive meetings. In his chapters we get to know how the present day left scene works, how young rebels think and work in the present, and suddenly, the 1970s chapters begin to glow. Suddenly, the perseverance of many women portrayed in these sections becomes admirable, and suddenly, too, having coherent, forceful ideals is something that is valuable instead of ridiculous. All this is interesting yet it is all done rather heavy-handedly. These points are made through very simple parallelisms (which do make an interesting, further point about psychogeography, but I can’t go into that here). To Spiotta’s credit, she doesn’t usually smack her readers about the head with the points she makes. Frequently she hands him an interesting chunk of something and leaves him to draw conclusions. This is the case with Jason. Jason is the son of Louise (who is another of the contemporary voices), a suburban widow, who is calm, friendly and boring. Jason’s chapters are the only ones narrated in the first person singular; they are different in other ways, too, most significantly: they are sections from his journal. Expressly written accounts.

These chapters, headed “Jason’s Journal” represent the core of the book, in two ways. The most simple one is this: Jason starts to hunt down all knowledge he can get at of Bobby and Mary’s whereabouts. His frantic search brings about the eventful climax and finale of the book, he is the catalyst that helps bringing together the two time levels at the end. He is probably the least political person of the whole book, mostly what he represents most is a narrative device. Not just in terms of plot. The novel has not been called Eat the Document on a whim or because that phrase sounded so nice. “Eat the Document” is the name of a 1966 movie about Bob Dylan’s UK tour with the Hawks, shot by D.A. Pennebaker, capturing, as Pennebaker’s infinitely more famous “Don’t Look Back” movie does, a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career as Dylan moved from acoustic to electric guitar, from performing alone on the stage with his guitar, to being backed by a full band. “Eat the Document” is a rarity, a so-called bootleg, circulating among fans, without seeing official publication. Bootlegs are interesting, in that they are part of the knowledge created by a society, but the means of diffusion are different; bootlegs are usually deviations, that sometimes but not always or most of the time violate some important aesthetic or political norm. I think the central issue here is decentrality, deviation. Bootlegs circle the center of knowledge, I think, most of the time they do not contradict or attack the norm that structures or dominates the center, they rather reproduce it with slight variations. The deviation is important not because of the content, but because of what that means for the diffusion. A deviation opens up spaces for opposition, and underground channels of diffusion of knowledge, while not necessarily transporting oppositional content, open up the opportunity to do so, create space for voices where none before existed.

Jason is addicted to bootlegs, even those where the bootlegged music is redundant and worse than what was officially released. It’s the aura of bootlegged music and films that draws him in, and his desire to collect everything that can be collected of a given artist’s works. He’s a collector, and in a further sense, an archivist, who assembles a library of odds and ends; I said that bootlegs are not part of an alternative knowledge but that they are paraphernalia of the main body of knowledge, providing not a different lens but contributing to and refining the dominant lens. And true to this, it is Jason’s archive that helps him uncover the present identities of Mary Wittaker and Bobby Desoto, the terrorists. But Spiotta’s project goes further, I think. By presenting an American culture that functions as a set of iterations, of repetitions with subtle and not so subtle deviations, she textualizes her history, stressing textual mechanisms such as narrative. Thus, Spiotta emphasizes, I think, history both as something made and as something picked up, found on byways and in dark alleys. Like “Eat the Document”, Dylan’s slightly jarring movie, Eat the Document provides an account of a tour that catches a country and a culture as it changes, as it grows up, shedding illusions. This passage near the end is illustrative of how much has changed:

A commune and a corporate community are not all that different. A corporation is merely a commune with different vales. But like a commune, everything is organized around a collusion of interests. It creates an inside and an outside. And let’s not forget, all communities are exclusive. By definition you exclude all that is outside the community. A corporation has rights and privileges that are distinct from its individual owners’, just as a commune has collective interests that supersede each individual’s interests.

And there are many more mirrors and tricks in the book. There’s a discussion of cultural memory that runs through it, of Jungian ideas, of punishment and guilt. But you never get the feeling that Spiotta’s heart is in it, and her writing is not good enough to balance all that coldly clever structure. A blurb on the back of my book compares her to Delillo, but here’s where they differ. I hold Delillo to be a consummate writer, a bit too caught up in his obsessions, so that he falls into self-parody now and then, but generally, he has the language he needs to make his cleverness work, at least for me. Spiotta doesn’t, and what’s worse, in her attempts to lend feeling, authenticity and power to her book, she frequently lapses into sentimentality. As I said before, this book reminded me a lot of Hari Kunzru’s stunning 2008 novel My Revolutions (which I herewith recommend to any- and everyone). Kunzru gives his protagonist quite a lot of leeway to speak and worry, as well. It frequently borders on sentimentality, as well. But Kunzru focuses on commitments. Kunzru politicizes sentimentality, he points out how people can be driven to action, how one’s experience of a society, everyday, embodied experience, can rally a person, can make concepts make sense. Kunzru defends political action and political commitment. He does not accept anger and action as a given, he shows where that may come from, how it might work, and the sentimentality is instrumental here, in order not to lapse into cold analysis, into anatomy, which My Revolutions isn’t doing.

Dana Spiotta, however, is different. She cuts out the personal commitment, her discussion of revolutionary ideals stays on a general, anatomical level as outlined earlier. Basically, she de-politicizes the movement, using sentimentality as a way to just show human frailty (blah), human troubles, human hopes, dreams and fears. To do that she indulges in short phrases and sentences and effectual ends to chapters and paragraphs. As one, where an old man tells his younger lover-to-be: “Be careful”, goes on to mention a possible interpretation of that sentence and ends the paragraph like this: “But what he meant was be careful with me. Please. Please.” The italics are Spiotta’s. In a way, Spiotta is an archivist like Jason, she’s as removed from the revolutionary fervor powering groups like the Weathermen as he is from the experience of hearing “Pet Sounds” when it appeared. He listens to it as a curiosity, and this is how he treats his bootlegs, too. And the feelings are just odds and ends found in the archives, as well. It’s a bit like that poet (clearly meant to be Merrill) in a novel by Edmund White, who “forgets” to put some feeling in his poem, heads upstairs and then writes a truly moving passage. Only Spiotta does not have the chops to make this work. Frequently the book drags with dreary conventionality, and quite often it is slow-going, and this despite all the clever tricks of the book. It’s her writing that makes it so dull (see, like this review is dulled by my writing), which is a disappointment in a book that is clearly full of good thinking.

In the end, the simple act of choosing a name, that is part of the novel’s interest in texts and textual gadgets, may be one of the most significant acts of the book. Eat the Document is to a large extent about identity, and while not as committed, as My Revolutions, it takes its topic seriously. Whatever you think of Spiotta’s writing, her characters stand by their convictions and they say it aloud. Even when you’re in hiding, sometimes you just need to bare yourself, when you can’t bear the subterfuge any longer. Like you real name. This is one of the best passages in the book:

“Cheryl,” she said aloud. No, never. Orange soda. “Natalie.” You had to say them aloud, get your mouth to shape the sound and push breath through it. Every name sounded queer when she did this. “Sylvia.” A movie star name, too fake-sounding. Too unusual. People might actually hear it. Notice it, ask about it. “Agnes.” Too old. “Mary,” she said very quietly. But that was her real name, or her original name. She just needed to say it.

Grant Morrison: Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul

Morrison, Grant; Paul Dini, Peter Milligan et al. (2008), Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2032-7

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I am not well read as far as graphic novels are concerned, and I find the vast universe of DC and Marvel to be somewhat confusing. However, a few of my favorite writers in comics have written for DC and Marvel, and worked with some of the most famous characters, so I keep dipping into their books. The fact that the major characters have a history that is decades old, can be among the most confusing parts. While reading Mark Millar’s two excellent Ultimates books, I constantly felt left out, suspecting hints and allusions that were totally lost on me (which is why my review on these books is still on hold…) everywhere. I met many characters which were clearly not new to the universe for the first time in Millar’s story, trying to keep up as best as I could. This, at least, is not a problem in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, which contains a short list of nine of the most important characters with a brief sketch of their recent history and main characteristics. Wikipedia provides further help. This feature is nice in that it allows the reader to just let yourself fall into the supple folds of this story that is so action packed that I had to read parts of it on the edge of my seat. It presents good writing, an engrossing story, huge amounts of kick-ass, and even some great artwork. I greatly enjoyed it and will definitely read more of Grant Morrison’s work on Bob Kane’s leather-clad icon. At the same time, it was my least favorite of all the graphic novels I read this year, possibly because I expected so much more of it.

One thing I expected, when I bought the book, was that it would actually be written by Grant Morrison and Paul Dini, two excellent writers in the genre. The cover, bearing both writers’ names boldly, may have misled me there. Now, I know that what I buy as a book continues several thinner issues that were published separately and collected into the book I hold in my hand. And I know that a story arc contains stories written by other writers. But Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul contains three ‘preludes’ and seven more ‘proper’ chapters, ten all told. Of those, only two were written by Grant Morrison, two by Paul Dini. The rest is divided among Peter Milligan, who penned three chapters, Fabian Nicieza, responsible for two, and Keith Champagne, who wrote one. That means less than half of the chapters were written by Morrison and Dini. Yes, they are pivotal, important chapters, but it’s a fairly long book as far as this genre goes, and all these authors make for very uneven reading. There are dozens of recent Batman titles out, if I wanted a title written by a staff writer of some kind, I could have bought one. I wanted a book by Morrison because I’ve long admired his work. Incidentally, if you ever wondered why some comics writers become superstars and others don’t, you might want to pick up a book like this one, which contains some stunning chapters and some, let’s say: less stunning ones. Grant Morrison’s writing is always great, and Paul Dini’s is good as well, but the others are a mixed bag, to be honest. Most annoying and ultimately disappointing was Peter Milligan.

I do know that Peter Milligan has done some courageous and well-received work in the past, from what I know; he’s done work with Marvel’s controversial X-Force, and he’s garnered a certain fame with mid-1990s graphic novels such as Enigma. So, no, he’s not an unknown, even for me, but, from the evidence provided in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, he’s clearly a second-rate writer, competent but not more than that. His chapters were originally published in issues of Robin, and they contain a focus on Tim Drake, the current Robin. Drake is a teenager and Milligan, by way of red thought-boxes, lets us know that Drake’s an annoying teen, to boot. This is very well done, and Milligan does have a way of driving the story forward, creating tensions between some central characters. Apart from that, his writing is stiff, especially the dialogue which is almost always awkward and badly written. At times, Milligan even appears to be attempting a parody of the much-maligned dialogue of early superhero comics, except that there’s not a trace of humor in his chapters. No, his chapters are just a huge let-down, although the extent of my disappointment varied greatly depending on the artist he worked with. For his worst chapter he worked with David Baldéon; the result is the most annoying chapter in the whole book and a huge waste of time and space and ink, and what’s worse, it does a great disservice to the marvelous story.

In Batman and Son, one of the story arcs that directly preceded The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, Grant Morrison presented to us Damien (I know), Batman’s son with Talia, the daughter of Batman’s sworn enemy, Ra’s Al-Ghul. In a different story arc, Batman killed Ra’s Al-Ghul. Talia and his son now lead a band of evil ninjas, working together with an old assistant and loyal follower of Ra’s, who only goes by the name of White Ghost. This is where the story sets in. Apparently, Ra’s’ spirit has survived but he needs a new body to live on. Ra’s uses a mysterious reservoir with a green liquid, the so-called Lazarus Pit, but it is not enough, this time. This time he needs a full body, and it can’t be anyone else but a male relative, which means: Damien. Early in the book, Talia saves Damien from his grandfather’s greedy clutches and sends him to Gotham City for Batman to take care of him. That doesn’t quite work, as Batman has suspected that his adversary might have survived and follows up hints that lead him straight to Ra’s Al-Ghul’s den. Meanwhile, Damien arrives at Bruce Wayne’s manor where Batman’s friends try to keep him safe. Those friends are Dick Grayson, who used to be Robin but is called Nightwing now that he’s grown up, and the new Robin, Tim Drake. If all these names and titles sound confusing, they are a bit, but what the book does is take a few of them and lend them a voice, thus imbuing the characters with a life all their own. Thus, apart from Milligan’s two Robin chapters, we also get two Nightwing chapters written by Fabian Nicieza, and a most wonderful Damien chapter written by Keith Champagne.

How is all of this significant, you may ask, bewildered. Well, the book is basically a series of chases, of people being hunted, caught and saved, it takes place on several continents and several actions take place at the same time. One writer and one basic point of view may not have done justice to the scope of this book. What’s more, in between the non-stop action (someone is always fighting someone else), the writers manage to fit a surprising amount of thoughtful scenes and difficult decisions. The fact that I needed to look up on Wikipedia why Robin’s not Robin anymore and ephemera like that did not stop me, for example, from feeling Tim Drake’s torment as he is handed the opportunity to bring his dead family back to life. This is no mean success in a book that appears to be mainly about fighting ninjas. But, much more than its more highbrow brethren, even those that work within the DC/Marvel canon, Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul demonstrates the basic strengths of a genre that is among the oldest and strongest of modern literature. It needs to provide thrills and action in order for people to buy copies of the original issues that appeared in publications such as Detective Comics # 838 and Batman Annual #26. And it succeeds marvelously (no pun intended) in that area. At the same time, comics always had an educational, moral aspect to it, something that, in a way, justified their existence. Rather than scoff at the high brow literature that it was always contrasted with, it kept borrowing from that, paying homage to it, and, in some cases creating works that have since been accepted into the ivory towers all around the country. You can expect a collection of this length to raise a few weighty questions about memory, about death, but mostly, in this case, about family.

The basic team of crimefighters that Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul focuses on, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dick Grayson/Nightwing and Tim Drake/Robin, they are all orphans, they are all victims of disasters and they are drawn to each other, creating a new family, the identity of which is not determined by blood or tradition, but by what they do. It’s a modern identity, full of potential and change, especially within the narrow frame works of their society. In his relationship to his society, Batman, as the book frequently assures us, is a detective, someone who keeps up the basic order of his society, who looks for solutions within a given framework and who has no intent of widening that (China Miéville has a lot of fun with these conventions in his incredible novel The City & The City). In his dealings with the larger society, Batman is bound to the nation state and other conventions. Thus, in his person, he unites both an almost violent traditionalism and an interesting potential for change, or at least subversion. The same can be said about Ra’s Al-Ghul, the book’s villain, except that his angle is completely different. His insistence on blood relation, his need, even, for keeping up family relationships structured by blood bonds, is in stark contrast with Batman. Although both Batman and Ra’s have a strictly hierarchical family, with leaders and followers, Batman’s is built on free association, on free will, as the book makes unmistakeably clear. Ra’s Al-Ghul’s family, in contrast, seems to work like a feudal society, and you cannot disagree with the head of the family except by fighting the whole family and leaving it completely. But whereas Batman is a child of his nation, and bound and pledged to it, Ra’s has lived for too long to be bothered by that. By way of the Lazarus Pits he has kept himself alive for centuries. He has had already centuries of experience when the nation state rose and may have even influenced that process, as we learn in a few flashbacks at the beginning of the book.

These complexities make for good reading, but they are largely inherent in the material, the writers have just competently executed it, which is quite decent, often enough, especially when you have the art to match that. However, if you find five writers a bit much for one novel, brace yourself for the fact that the book is pencilled by seven different artists. These are, however, much better than many of the writers. The book’s art shines. Tony S. Daniel, for example, who also collaborated with Grant Morrison on Batman and Son, does a fine job, but I have to confess I particularly enjoyed Ryan Benjamin’s pencils and Jason Pearson’s art.

Ryan Benjamin, for me, is a discovery. The way he renders action scenes, finds just the right angle, the right spot, focus and light to make a scene work, to squeeze the most effect out of a single panel is astonishing. All other fight scenes in the book are by contrast completely static, boring, wasted panels. I’ve sometimes flicked through chapters illustrated by one of the other guys and wished that they’d been done by Benjamin. I’ve never before heard of the man, but I’m sure keeping my eyes open now. His pencils are really excellent, the raw instinct he brings to basic elements of comics is stunning (you can check out recent work, including the excellent webcomic Pancratia, at his site here).

For his chapter (which was written by Keith Champagne), Jason Pearson, of Body Bags fame, did both pencils and ink. Pearson’s work stands out, his art is less intent on details and more on the power of broad swathes of color, idiosyncratic rendering of facial expressions and other moods. Keith Champagne’s brief prelude does not directly tie into the main story; Champagne and Pearson took the resultant liberty to create a short ghost story that is creepy, exciting and the only convincing exploration of Damien’s character in the whole book.

Much, really, is excellent here, and the whole of Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul is a great read, but it is not on a par with many of the other books I have recently reviewed or read, not even with Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man series. Much of that is due to the inclusion of second rate writers, much also to the relentless barrage of fight and other action scenes. After the fifth time that the good guys get attacked by a horde of ninjas, you just want to get it over with. The end is less than satisfactorily, mostly because Grant Morrison’s pivotal chapter is in the middle and is clearly the culmination of much of the book, which makes much of the rest read like an afterthought. The final showdown somehow fizzles away and then, suddenly, everything is over. However, you have to think of this book as one among an ongoing project of Morrison’s. Not only was this novel preceded by Batman and Son, it was followed by Batman: The Black Glove and two of the most highly anticipated stories of the past decade: Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. For various reasons, mostly financial, I will have to skip Batman R.I.P., but I do own Final Crisis and look forward to reading it. I know this review was a bit taxing, after all it was too long, too digressive and too boring, but here’s the thing: I do recommend Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul if what you want is a great, fun Silver Age read, especially if you like ninjas and the occasional Great Question thrown at you.

A.L. Kennedy: Original Bliss

Kennedy, A.L. (1998), Original Bliss, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-09-973071-2

A.L. Kennedy is one of my favorite writers, quite possibly my favorite living prose writer, but that ranking of writers is a shadowy business at best, anyway. I have been an avid and admiring reader of Kennedy’s work for years now, and my favorites among her books continue to shift. As a new collection of stories is about to be published, I took the opportunity of rereading one of her old ones. While Indelible Acts is my favorite collection of short stories of hers, Original Bliss, published in 1996, s not far behind. As much of Kennedy’s work, this book, too, explores the alleys and byways of human relationships; this time, she stresses the role of sex in all of this, the things we do, the lengths we go to in order to attain and maintain physical relationships with another human being, as well as the ways that our own psychological state influences and indeed often determines our performance in the arena of sexuality. Performance here does not, of course, mean the quality of one’s participation in the sexual act, the sexual prowess, so to say. No, it’s rather question as how much, for example, the sexual act has to do with intimacy, what physical contact with a different human being means to you. The answers that Original Bliss suggests to these questions are sometimes moving, sometimes disturbing or at least irritating. A.L. Kennedy has an uncanny knack for exploring the cracks in people’s perceptions of themselves and others. Although quite a lot happens in Original Bliss, perception is the true pivot for her masterful stories.

In Kennedy’s work, there are certain constants, obsessions, images that recur. She is a very funny writer, and she keeps writing about fundamentally dire situations or setups, but she never abandons her characters there. Her work is imbued by a warmth, a light; Kennedy understands her characters, she doesn’t present us their stories as anomalies to stare at: she gives her characters an opportunity to raise their voices. In my favorite novel of hers (keep in mind, as of today, I haven’t read Day yet), the wondrous, marvelous Everything You Need, this principle becomes the major topic of the book, which is as much about writing, that is: about finding and losing your voice, as it is about father-daughter relationships and other connections between friends, family and total strangers. Kennedy almost always opts for a personal narrator, because that offers her the opportunity to let her characters speak for themselves and not letting the whole thing veer off into confessional sob stories. The skill with which Kennedy navigates between objectivity or rather: restraint, on the one hand and subjectivity on the other, is remarkable. And you can’t usually tie her down to one mood or technique. As a writer of short prose, she’s extraordinarily inventive (within the constraints of what she considers worth telling). Her story collections usually glitter with moods and formal games, as well. In this sense, Original Bliss is very different. The whole book has a strongly claustrophobic feel to it, it is very concentrated upon its issue and its manifestations in different situations. It’s also Kennedy’s longest collection of short fiction so far, mostly because it not only contains ten short stories but also a novella (“Original Bliss”). Take care: the American edition of Original Bliss (and the German translation Gleissendes Glück) contains only the novella, for whatever barmy reason.

The ten stories function, intentionally or not, as a preparation of sorts for the novella which is uncharacteristically dark for a book of Kennedy’s. The first story, “Rockaway and the Draw” introduces many of the novella’s topics, but with a humorous twist, a lighter tone, which becomes obvious in passages such as this one:

At other times and in another country, that space had been her cunt. Ben called it his beaver. She supposed beaver was a nicer word than cunt. Ben’s beaver. She didn’t mind it being a beaver, she only found it odd that it wasn’t hers. Ben’s own genitals were quite attractive, but nothing on which she would stake a claim.

Suzanne, the story’s protagonist, keeps having dreams and visions of “a place called Rockaway where there is nothing but an old gas station and a man who waits.” For Suzanne, the sexual act does not mean or cause intimacy, it’s a “mutually agreeable overhaul”, actually well done on the part of Ben, who appears to do everything right that a partner should. He’s sensitive, intelligent, he listens to her and “[e]very single thing she liked: he remembered them all.” None of this, however, translates into intimacy for Suzanne, whose dreams and visions are often violent, and are marked by a desire to be elsewhere. We see how she’s, in her relations with Ben, alienated, distanced. Neither sexual acts nor what is commonly accepted as communication are helpful. Ben fails to break through to her inside, into her thinking process. Worried, he tells her “You think more than anyone I know” and she answers “I really can’t help it. That’s how I am.” Sexuality as immediate experience is juxtaposed with thinking and dreaming; her behavior as learn-able, perceivable, in other words: her performance is in conflict with her inner truth. Suzanne suffers from a divide between spiritual and carnal needs, which is at heart a split into two truths, none of which is privileged over the other; that conflict creates the unhappiness that pervades this collection. Most of the stories that follow and the novella, as well, evoke these two areas and place their characters’ needs and problems on one of them.

Suzanne’s lack of intimacy despite being physically intimate with someone is iterated in the next story, “Animal” which is about a TV actor who drops out of his TV show. The story shows him talking to the woman who’s responsible for wardrobe and make-up, talking to her for the last time, minutes before his last appearance on the set of the show. The animal of the title is the TV show and the apparatus that powers it:

I always think it looks as if the booms and cranes and cameras are all part of…I don’t know…an animal and sometimes it lets people inside amongst itself so they can play. It’s very beautiful.

Playing, assuming roles, performing, these are wildly important elements of human interaction as we know, and in Kennedy’s stories, these actions are tied up with sexual performance (or the lack of it). Thus, she can make pertinent observations about a very specific aspect of our everyday lives, without getting caught up in the nooks and crannies of sex. In “Rockaway and the Draw”, Ben, Suzanne’s beau, can only react to her visible performance, but her perception of her own self, which manifests itself in her dreams, is hidden from Ben and, presumably, from the rest of the world. This closes her off to intimacy, as I maintained earlier. Mark, the actor in “Animal”, is similarly hiding from the world; he, too, presents a performance of himself; a false one that does not correspond to his self-perception. He does not have any sex, but this is not the problem. Just like Suzanne he cannot really open his truth to others, he’s somehow closed off. In a way, his onscreen sex as Dr. Barber (that’s what his role is called) is the equivalent to Suzanne’s competent but ultimately empty sex life. Between these two stories, Kennedy has shifted the particulars by making the performance part an actual performance, but has kept the basic parameters without creating cliché characters. Both Mark and Suzanne are highly believable characters, thanks to her masterful use of their voices.

We witness a complete change in a different story, which is called “Groucho’s Moustache”, the story of an extremely gullible woman, who admits to her flaw without resentment. It’s just who she is. She cannot see through other people’s truths, for her, the performance is all there is. She appears to be incapable of seeing a role as a role, a lie as a lie; at the same time, this devalues truth for her, because she is well aware of her problem. She knows that what she thinks is a truth might well be a lie, even a transparent lie. Her distance is the opposite of Suzanne’s – it’s the spiritual side of things that’s somewhat shady, as far as she’s concerned; while Suzanne tries to get closer to her spiritual truths through her dreams and visions, the main character in “Groucho’s Moustache” needs the fixed, touchable truths of physical contacts. As she becomes enmeshed in an affair, she tells the man she’s with, “I want”,

And for one complete moment, ‘I want’ was the absolute truth.

And she’s far from being the only one in Original Bliss who hunts for physical truths. In “Breaking Sugar”, arguably the single most tender and beautiful story in the collection, breaking a sugar cube with a hammer in the darkness, in order to release a violet burst of light, is used as a metaphor for sex, for reasonably violent physical contact, which releases a different kind of truth than the standard, spiritual, kind. In the story that moved me most, “Far Gone”, a man travels to New York to pursue a woman he loves. He travels to NY in order to have sex with her. As the story progresses we learn that she’s taken, married, even, but he persists, he knows about her husband but he still comes over. He has absolute, complete faith in their future as a couple, there’s not a second of doubt; at the same time, he has already projected the anticipated sex act as a full success, which, in turn casts doubt upon his ‘knowledge’ of their future. His is a hunt for physical truths because he looks for sex to close the deal, to disperse her doubts, or to even convert her, so to say. He wants sex to transmit to her that which he holds to be true, his inner truth, sex is his means of opening up, of performing that inner truth; but here’s the kick: within the story, he never actually has sex, we just follow him on his journey, we don’t follow him to his destination, thus everything that pertains to the physical aspect remains within the realm of dreams, of his inner truth, including his resolve to really proposition her once he arrives.

I could go on this way for ages, since there are a few more stories I haven’t even mentioned. Kennedy’s nuanced and complex writing merits more than the quick readings, heavy on catchphrases, I have just offered. I cannot, however, talk about the book and not talk about the novella. As I said, the stories, in many more ways than I sketched above, feel like preparation for the novella, or rather: the novella appears to sum up many themes in the preceding stories and provide, at the book’s end, a kind of synthesis. The plot is as simple as it is weird. Mrs Brindle, a housewife, thoroughly unhappy at home, loses her ‘Original Bliss’, her ability to believe in God; this loss hits her like the loss of a close relative would. Devastated, in mourning, she comes upon the self-help books of Edward E. Gluck, a self-help guru, who tours the world, sells millions of books and may even be in the running for the Nobel prize. On a whim she travels to Stuttgart, where he’s having a talk. Their complicated relationship that develops from this is the topic of the novella. These two are both, in a way, in search of spiritual and bodily fulfillment, but they come from different situations. Bodily contact helps her free repressed portions of her self (à la Reich!), whereas contact with her spirit helps Gluck tackle his porno addiction. Gluck is completely desensitized, he’s thoroughly in thrall of the vices and temptations of the physical world.

These two strange characters subsequently attempt to help each other; the novella charts their successes and failures in this undertaking. It’s mostly dark, and powerful, full of twists and turns; all its events are basically pushed forward by the woman’s quest for happiness, or rather: bliss. It chronicles is a quest for regaining her capacities of belief, her original bliss. Kennedy’s spare writing and her wry humor do their utmost to convey the urgency of Mrs Brindle’s search. Neither Mrs Brindle nor A.L. Kennedy opt for easy solutions, which is one of the many strengths of Original Bliss. Kennedy creates completely believable characters in strange situations; unhappy characters who sometimes opt for strange solutions to their problems. Many of them just want to believe. In love, in friendship, in God. They crave that original bliss, that Urvertrauen. So they enter their respective stage, trying to find a role that works for them. Some manage, some don’t. Original Bliss, which offers us their stories and voices, always manages to find the right pitch, the right phrase, to make their stories work. If it is more claustrophobic than her other collections of stories, it’s because its even more coherent thematically than her already very coherent and rounded other collections, more passionately pursuing answers to basic questions, focusing on one aspect rather than on a buffet of human melancholy. Who are we? Why do we love? Who are we when we love? This is an extraordinary book.

Leonard Gardner: Fat City

Gardner, Leonard (1996), Fat City, University of California Press
ISBN 978-0-520-20657-1

Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic novel, originally published in 1969, is a grimy, powerful masterpiece about a few lost souls in the Californian province. What makes it a masterpiece is not the basic idea. Writing about sad people, who are out of luck, forever chasing their dreams, that is a well known and well worn concept. A brief glance at my shelves tells me even I own more than a dozen novels and story collections that focus upon this issue or constellation. The same glance, however, also tells me that there are many great books among them. This is actually trite: yes it depends upon the execution, the way you do it, the words and the actual characters you develop and spin around on the page until they come to life. And if you groan, you’re right. This applies to most books, since most books are written in some kind of traditional mode of writing; the truly original, innovative works are few and far between (but, as Lydia Davis’ example shows, this doesn’t keep reviewers from attaching the “innovative” badge on everything that moves). So what is all that blather about? It’s a roundabout way of telling you that Leonard Gardner’s craftsmanship here is incredible. This work, short though it is, seems complete in so many ways that it seems to ask to be read not as some specimen of its genre, but as an exemplary model of the same.

Fat City is about the boxing scene in Stockton, California in the 1950s and focuses especially on two boxers and their manager. The two boxers are chosen to represent the beginning and the end of a career in boxing; one of them is a young man who is lured into becoming a boxer, and the other one used to be a boxer but is now a manual worker and drinker. Their story is told in 24 short chapters, some of which focus on Billy Tully, the older man and some on Ernie Munger, the younger man, some focus on other people in their environment, their manager, a woman, another boxer. Each new chapter effects a change in perspective, we are not left long, continuous narratives, Gardner skilfully swirls us around in his world, takes us by the senses, lets us smell the dirt, the sweat, the blood, he lets us see the bruises on the men’s faces, the hunched, defeated set of their shoulders, and lets us hear their yells of victory, their moans of sadness, their groans of fatigue. As we are whirled through the streets and boxing rings of provincial California, the story sometimes jumps ahead days, weeks, months; enterprises that we have seen develop over a few chapters are suddenly regarded with hindsight, as lost battles or surprisingly won skirmishes. Leonard Gardner’s characters are all convincing, but he doesn’t care whether we are convinced, he spends little time on explaining motives and sudden changes of mind. He gave us a world. It is up to us to fill out the blanks.

Fat City is about three characters, as I said, but one of them clearly takes center stage: Tully, the damaged former boxer, who, at the onset of the story, thinks about starting to take up boxing again. He used to be quite good in his time, boxing against a vastly more famous man, but losing to, as he claims today, manipulations. He lost by technical knock-out, a common reason to complain. According to this, a “technical knockout, or TKO, occurs when a boxer is judged physically unable to continue fighting. Such a judgment may be made by the referee, the official ring physician, the fighter himself, or the fighter’s assistants.” I have heard a few complaints so far, some more weighty, some less. Tully’s was new to me. His corner crew, in the break before the last round, cut the skin beside both of his eyes with a razor so that he was bleeding profusely, as if from a cut received in the fight. The symbolism of this act of sabotage is interesting, aesthetically, but also in that it demonstrates to what extent the boxer can be or feel isolated during the fight. For all the talk about managers and trainers, boxers often hear little of what they say during the fights. They need to cope with the situations that arise best they can, keep their head down and work their hands in a way that ensures their survival. There is no glorious floating like butterflies not stinging like bees. As many fights amongst boxers of lower ranks, boxing is often like a bar brawl. You get punched in the face often and try to punch the other guy more often or harder.

Fat City gives us a few bar brawls as well. Gardner does not construct boxing as some kind of clever metaphor for life or male gender roles or sex; instead he hands us a handful of characters, some boxers, some not, with boxing just one occupation among many others. As a character says early on: “I don’t claim to be nothing more than I am. You maybe can fight, I’m an upholsterer. […] One man got muscles, another got steel. It all come out the same.” This is not the Wrestler (easily my favorite movie from the past Oscar season). Life between the ropes is not a magic calling, it’s not special, it’s just a job, although, when successful, a better-paying one than many other jobs Tully, for instance, is forced to do. Among these is a particularly exhausting stint as onion picker. You put your body on the line and are paid too little to be satisfied, but too much to give up the job. This occupation is remarkably like boxing. It’s exhausting, it wrecks your body and the pay depends completely upon your day-to-day performance. Bodies, sexuality and boxing have often been connected in books. The fascination with well-muscled, half-naked sweaty men having a go at themselves is understandable, but separating that part of life from the rest has always narrowed the power of boxing as a motif. Adding farm work changes all of that. There is a long and venerable tradition of writing about low-pay farm work, especially in California. Novels like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (remind me to review it one of these days) are about human dignity and power, poverty and power, etc.

Fat City
‘s main protagonist Tully is a talented boxer, and his eventual return to boxing seems auspicious at first, but the desertion by his corner crew in the above mentioned fight and the desertion by his wife have broken him. He’s bested in boxing and he’s bested in crop picking. Small wonder he turns to alcohol for comfort. More successful but similarly broken is Ernie. His encounters with women are an unsuccessful attempt to keep the power balanced in his favor. Where, in describing Tully, Gardner offers us farm work as a complementary aspect of his life and character, he pairs Ernie the boxer with Ernie the lover. Ernie is successful with women, but almost despite himself; the same applies to his career as a boxer. He wins sometimes, loses at other times, but his life, both his private and his professional one, shows a clear tendency towards solidity, towards positive progress, although Ernie does not recognize it. It may have been Tully whose eyes were filled with blood by treacherous coaches, but it’s Ernie who is blind, who navigates through his life by ear. Ernie stumbles into boxing as he stumbles into marriage and fatherhood. Both of these men are at the bottom of the barrel, but at the same time, their manager points out that they still occupy a position of privilege. He bills them as white boxers, announcing Ernie as “Irish Ernie Munger”, although Ernie does not have a drop of Irish blood in him.

Fat City, in a very interesting sense, is about race. The aforementioned advantage that being ‘white’ gives Ernie and Tully is restricted to the small padded square between the ropes. Boxing, though it may be a job like any other, is acting, too. And on the small bloody stage that is a box ring, a white boxer, in Tully’s and Ernie’s manager’s opinion is a role that is worth playing, worth highlighting. Calling Ernie Irish in order to underscore his whiteness is ironic, surely, if we remember for how short a while the Irish were then regarded as properly white at all. As Matt Wray writes in the concluding remarks of his very readable study Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, “lubbers, cracker and white trash have been excluded from the category white. […] The social domination that whiteness enables is of many different kinds of social difference.” And both Ernie and Tully, but especially the latter, cannot be said to exercise any kind of dominance in their lives, they buckle down and work alongside black men, they lose fights and women to black men, and even earn less than they, in the few cases where pay and individual characters are focused upon. They are white trash, and the only one who does profit from their ‘whiteness’ is their promoter, who can be said to be the one who invented it. The dark alleyways of life are numerous in this beautiful, enigmatic novel, but it is not without hope. Repeatedly it praises the power of individual resolve, the will to win. On the other hand, it’s the single most powerful character in the novel who keeps voicing these nuggets of wisdom. Tully and Ernie just tumble into the night, as we all tumble, stumble, drop until we are crushed, tired slabs of meat.

Jeff Smith: Rasl: The Drift

Smith, Jeff (2009), Rasl: The Drift, Cartoon Books
ISBN 978-1-888963-20-5

I have been seriously reading graphic novels for a short time now, slowly developing a taste and favorites. The first book I fell head over heels in love with was Jeff Smith’s Bone, a huge graphic novel fantasy opus, sprawling, epic and strikingly beautiful. I have not encountered the balance it strikes between humor, drama and pathos anywhere else. It’s also, for a fantasy opus, surprisingly devoid of the politically questionable tendencies of, for example The Lord of the Rings, which is fed from different kinds of right wing ideologies. Bone is a book, the cuteness and tender romanticism of which appeals to children of all ages; at the same time it is a serious, aware feat of storytelling. In the different peoples, Smith reflects upon issues of alterity, the tourist gaze, different tropes raised by the fairy tale tradition and much, much more. Jeff Smith is not just the writer of Bone, he’s also its artist, and much of the pleasure of that book is derived from Smith’s art. In Bone, Smith shows evidence of a unique way of dealing with his material.

In one and the same book he demonstrates vastly different skills, depending on the character he draws, most impressive for me way the way he handled the bodies of the rat creatures, fluffy yet gruesomely cute monsters. On the same page, when he handled the Bones, a group of cartoonish, simple white creatures that look like, well bones, he adapted his style to a simple, yet expressive way of drawing reminiscent of Kelly’s Pogo or even Disney characters (but the depth of awareness that pervades every page of the book puts Bone miles beyond the realm of Disney cartoons). The ten original Bone books, as well as the 1300 page one volume edition (which I own) were first published via Jeff Smith’s own “Cartoon Books” imprint. As Bone grew to be a huge success, it was picked up by Scholastics. Smith’s next project was to reinvent Captain Marvel (the DC Comics character, yes, it confuses me too) in Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, written for and published with DC Comics. As many independent comic writers turn into major publishing house staff writers given the chance and success, many people expected Jeff Smith’s career to take that turn, as well.

Instead, it’s now a year later and in my hands I hold Jeff Smith’s latest book “The Drift”, the first installment of a new series called Rasl (an acronym, pronounced razzle), self-published again at Smith’s own Cartoon Books imprint. Rasl: The Drift collects issues #1-3 of the individually published Rasl comic books. It’s oversized, 10×12, and completely wonderful. If Bone appealed to kids and adults both, Rasl is an adult only graphic novel, containing violence, sex and inter-dimensional travel. The main references in Rasl are, instead of fairy tales and fantasy narratives, noir novels and movies. The book’s protagonist, Rasl, is an art thief who used to be a scientist, as we find out. He’s no normal art thief, though, he steals artworks from parallel worlds, from different dimensions. He travels with a big device that he carries around in two large bags and assembles when necessary.

We do not yet know what happened to him, why he embarked upon this course and why he started to steal works of art. Instead, the book plunges us directly in medias res, as Rasl materializes in a dimension where Bob Dylan puts out his music under the name Robert Zimmermann, but this time, his art heist goes wrong, as a lizard faced man wearing a black trenchcoat pursues him, and is even able to jump dimensions as Rasl does. How? Rasl must leave a residue of a kind to enable the lizard faced man to follow him. These and other questions are raised in the book but few of them answered.

Rasl: The Drift is surprisingly long at 112 pages if we look at the actual plot related to us. This is because Jeff Smith is using cinematic techniques, making a walk through a desert as exciting as as the chase after the heist, by lavishing many panels on small details, changes of angle, changes of light. This generous handling of space on the page seems to contrast with the thrifty use of actual details in the individual panels, which can seem sparse, penurious. Where a panel in Bone was able to concentrate an enormous amount of kinetic energy in gestures and bent bodies, Rasl: The Drift is full of rigid drawings which acquire speed and agility by each others company on the huge, black-and-white pages of this great book. The atmosphere is that of Humphrey Bogart’s great movies, caught almost perfectly, down to and including small details from these movies.

The main topic of the series, the dimension hopping, has only been hinted at so far. We only know that it works, that it is tiring, depleting; we also know that the different worlds resemble each other strongly, except for small details, and all these people exist in everyone of these worlds, except for Rasl and a few others (raising questions of identity and what it means to be human). In this short book, Smith hints at many issues, from gender roles to naming and even the idea of the trace, know from Derrida’s work. Smith juxtaposes the quantum mechanics with a spiritual discussion of ancient native American symbols, he also seems to hint at issues of race and culture, but at this point, my impressions are rather vague. After all, he is only spreading hints here. This first volume succeeds in being a perfect, intriguing introduction to the series as well as an action packed, suspenseful read.

Rasl: The Drift is a short book that dazzles. It’s drawing upon a set of pop cultural sources (and quantum theory has been consumed by pop culture a long time ago) and yet it reads completely fresh and original. I cannot recommend this book or indeed anything by Jeff Smith (although, apart from Rasl, I’ve only read Bone) highly enough. I am eagerly awaiting the second collection, titled Rasl: The Fire of St. George. As issue #6 is going to be published in July 2009, I realize it’s going to take a while. As a reader of George R. R. Martin’s work and a huge admirer of Lawrence Norfolk’s, I am used to waiting, especially if the book seems so worth waiting for.

Griddy Realism: Ander Monson’s “Other Electricities”

Monson, Ander (2005), Other Electricities: Stories, Sarabande Books
ISBN 1-932511-15-6

I have thought for a while about how to review Ander Monson’s collection of stories, Other Electricities. It is at the same time a very original work of fiction, and a book of stories that seems to add little to the postmodern American canon. If Lydia Davis’ collection of short prose, Varieties of Disturbance, has had little to say that has not already been said in past works of fiction, Monson’s work can be said to do the same, but drawing from a far smaller (in several ways) pool of sources. There are two distinct kinds of sources, though. One is the American short story in the vein of for example Richard Ford, who explores landscapes of desolation and the people in them, in a language that is as simple and fittingly rugged, as it is elevated and elegiac; the most important reference in this kind of source must be Sherwood Anderson’s magnificent Winesburg, Ohio, although, as far as quality is concerned, Monson never approaches either of those two writers (I’m not sure he wants to). The other source is the postmodern American story à la Barth and Barthelme, and especially its contemporary equivalent, Mark Z. Danielewski’s intellectually bland but thoroughly entertaining House of Leaves, a novel that attempts to enrich traditional storytelling by turning his book in a maze of ideas, a disquisition about storytelling that is as self-congratulatory as it is, ultimately, tiring. I’m sad to report that, with this description, much of this story collection is well and even sufficiently described.

Ander Monson’s stories are of varying length, but all of them short: none shorter than two pages and none longer than twenty. These stories are concerned with life in a provincial town (an explanatory section mentions Fargo as point of reference) and the loneliness and despair of its denizens. At the heart of these stories and the main motif that all the stories appear to come back to or at least circle, is a personal tale of loss. The stories are narrated by different characters and focus on different characters, too, characters which leave and return to the stage as Monson’s world turns around its sad center, the only first person narrator, named, in the table of contents, “Yr Protagonist”. This structure suggests that the omniscient narrator that relates most of the other stories and even the third person subjective narrators that relate some key episodes, are really “Yr Protagonist” as well, who is, in the titular story, suggested to be Ander Monson himself. In my notes, I have really obsessively applied the term “Other Electricities” to all sorts of elements and stories in the book, because the term so obviously asks to be read poetologically. In that vein, I’d suggest that the other stories, the other characters, those that do not concern “Yr Protagonist”, are other electricities, too, other voltages that transmit small mirror images of Yr Protagonist’s feeling of loss and desperation.

The titular story of Other Electricities, to which I assign so much significance, is a disjointed tale of familial alienation. After the loss of their mother, Yr Protagonist’s family drifts slowly apart, with all members embarking on a search of some kind. The father turns more and more to amateur radio, broadcasting at night. You have to “tune in right to listen”, “find his frequency”; even his sons are reduced to guesswork, printing out lists of names and frequencies. They do not search and find a single name, they allow for variations or completely different ones. These children who live under the same roof as their elusive father, search for him, for “the rhythms of his voice” in the air. Above, I have not equated the protagonist with Ander Monson, because, although the suggestion, by citing a list of possible names that are “Monson” or end in “-monson”, is clearly there, this story suggests a general indirection, a tropical way of speaking, not just in the way of names (If this was Pynchon, I think most reviewers would read this technique as an application of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), but also in a broader sense:

On the radio, they speak in code. Words that are not words. Words that are words but not the words you think they are. That displace language. Shift it back and forth like light across a room as the day changes. Charge up the air. Charge right through it. Make it opaque.

Interestingly, although much of the story is concerned with the broadcasts, the title doesn’t, not overtly, anyway, refer to them. Instead it is about mysterious lights that just appear somewhere in Michigan, with “no power source, no explanation, no obvious cause”.

Lights appear and seem to rock back and forth. My brother had never been there before. This was another electricity, I told him. Watch that thing.

Most likely, Yr protagonist tells us, it’s “some anomaly along power lines”. This is very fitting in a story that explores the way that lonely people connect to each other over the radio, or, as in other stories in Other Electricities, in bars or in schools. The connection to Ford’s work is most significant here, in that Ford explores and even dissects damaged people and their failings, but not as anomalies. Instead, he proceeds to lift them onto a pedestal which allows him to comment upon the conditio humana. This tension between grimy particulars and elegiac generalities is important not just for his work but for many other writers in the same vein, whether they be called Updike, Anderson or Carver. Monson just states their ills, he makes no attempt to explain it or connect it to a general feeling or anything like that. Instead, he just looks at them, regarding them as inexplicable lights in the distance, in other words, as “other electricities”.

Formulated like that, the stories seem much more readable, more immediately enjoyable than they really are. Monson’s decision to not explore his characters or the community where everything takes place, is mirrored in a prose that clearly seeks to create the impression of sadness, of loneliness. The effort to create an impression, is often very annoying, very palpable, and it drains many stories of the subtleties they might have developed. The examples for the obvious and calculating writing of his are all over the stories, such as when, in a story called “Intermittence”, the third person objective narrator (aka “Yr Protagonist”?) talks about a bank robber who will be “sentenced to years in jail where at least he will not be in need or out of work anymore, or drunk, where at least he will be fed and -sort of- loved.” Other writers are also plain and obvious in their attempt to sadden the reader in compassion, but the level of overt calculation that Monson reaches is remarkable. What’s more, Monson does not possess a prose powerful enough to make up for his weaknesses. Monson’s writing is extraordinary in that it is unremarkable. It’s professional and functional, but bland, which makes the stabs at feeling stand out all the more especially when in some stories, after three pages of plodding prose, the reader is suddenly up against a poetical, no, a “poetical” passage.

And the stories in Other Electricities, (i.e. characters and plots) do their best not to let any surprises come up. There’s a story about a lonely woman driving a snow plow who is wearing a business suit because she will go to a job interview afterward, but her hopes are implicitly dashed by the pervasive pessimism and deterministic sadness that envelops her, her who drinks her coffee alone at bars. It’s not as if the narrator or narrators are caught in a certain point of time, and we can point to possible hope. No, the whole book describes events that have taken place awhile ago and the omniscient narrator frequently fast-forwards and tells us what could or will happen, “the future [is] approaching like a father with a belt.” What happiness we see is projected back. Sometimes Monson happens upon a nice idea to express this. One is the story “Piñata” in which a character who takes the plane back to his home town, has to think of a piñata at his “seventh birthday party”. It may be “unclear” to him why he’s thinking of piñatas just now, but for the reader it has a pleasurably gruesome imagery especially since the character is nicknamed Jelly. On the plane he meets a pretty woman and they proceed to lie to each other about their past while the plane flies them towards their homes. This whole brief story had, for me, strong overtones reminiscent of Stephen King’s work, especially sections like the first half of It. This also means that a good amount of not just the uncanny, but also the simply creepy and weird is associated in this story, but also in others.

So, any happiness in the stories is clearly marked as past happiness, and in most stories it is contrasted with a dire, inevitably dire, future, with all the people in the stories “becoming story, warning beacon.” That last phrase is important. While all the characters in the book are caught in a hopeless maze, future generation may perhaps evade this; not, incidentally, by doing some positively good work, but by “reducing your murderability index.” So what we have are cliché stories, featuring cliché characters in the most overtly manipulative writing possible, but they may not be what they seem. Like the “words that are not words”, these may be characters that are not characters and plots that are not plots. Yes, they may be, as I said above, extensions of Yr Protagonist’s depressed psyche, but reducing the book to that would mean selling the book short. The other function is, as we’ve seen just now, that of a “warning beacon”, and the whole book could be seen as a manual to good behavior and a manual of how to cope with loss, while disavowing any faith in actual manuals. Other Electricities contains a good many stories that either feature excerpts from manuals (from a teacher’s manual: “You students will die on you”) or are called manuals themselves. Those that are called manuals aren’t real manuals, they are basically stories just as corny and soggy as the others, which very lightly mimic the form of a manual, and the manuals that are cited are shown to not be very helpful. Thus, I suggest that Other Electricities is a manual that could succeed on account of it not being an actual manual, if you see what I mean.

It remains to be said that, however much we tweak and fiddle with our readings of the stories, the originality of Other Electricities is not in the stories themselves; the postmodern stories have been done, and far better, by Barthelme, and the more conventional stories far better by Ford and Anderson. Rather, it’s in the connections between them and especially in the mechanism Monson uses to connect the stories. Instead of a framework story or just a thematic continuity, Monson adds notes, tables, explanations and even an index to his book, as well as a series of depictions of electrical grids. His table of contents is a real table, containing all of four columns, rather like Ulysses‘ famous table. It tells us not just the titles of the stories and the pages where they can be found, but also provides us with a list of protagonists and themes for each story. Both of these are curiously incomplete. If we look at the ‘themes’ column as well as at the list and explanation of symbols he includes later, we can see at a glance that it is not meant to be helpful. In the themes especially the level of abstraction tends to be so high as to make it all rather meaningless. Perusing the symbols list, after finishing the book, can be confusing. If we read Other Electricities as a collection of stories and the notes and explanations as extraneous to the book’s ‘content’, the symbols’ explanations would need to be read as misreadings that project meanings onto the book that just are not there.

If, on the other hand, we view these materials as a framework story of sorts, we see that these ‘explanations’ are not elucidating meanings in the stories but instead they add meanings, meanings that need the context of the whole book, that would not be present of the stories were published separately (which they actually were…). And I can only begin to guess at the meanings of the electrical grids. There are dozens of them, schemes, in black and white, of different shapes and sizes. What’s certain is that storytelling is likened to such schemes, as the book not only contains a four column table of contents but also a huge diagram of “Characters and their relationship herein”. People and their stories are like the power lines in the titular story, producing regular narratives and, from time to time, anomalies, other electricities, which the book, in turn, presents and puts into a relationship to another. If people and their narratives are like electrical grids, can they also be repaired, controlled and analyzed like them? To be sure, there is much in this book that makes it worth reading, but, sadly, Monson does not have the writing to match it. He hits us with ideas, with people in strange situations, with potentialities, but follows up on too little of what he outlines.

In a way, his stories are what Sherwood Anderson called plot stories, cold, constructed stories that Anderson contrasted unfavorably with his own, which are “the result of a sudden passion.” And Monson does not have the chops to write good prose, and neither does he have the passion to make up for it. Instead we get a bunch of plot stories, drawn up on charts that we also get to see. Considering the searing pain that we sense in some stories, the loss that is described but not conveyed, the cold could be a protective mechanism, protecting “Yr Protagonist” from the devastation that surely awaits him. Some stories stand out, the titular story, for example, because they have several registers to work with, because they present some novel situations; the fact that the last story is one of them is the main reason why this book is, after all, as enjoyable as it is.

“Unhusbandly Cock”: Micheline A. Marcom’s “The Mirror in the Well”

Marcom, Micheline Aharonian (2008), The Mirror in the Well, Dalkey Archive.
ISBN 978-1-56478-511-4

A few months ago, I reviewed a slim little book on this blog, Menis Koumandareas’ Koula. It’s an austerely told tale of a middle-aged woman’s attempt to break free from the corset of her society by engaging in an affair with a younger man. The affair is doomed, and Koula returns into the rank and file of her society. The telling of the story somewhat reflects this, in that it is highly traditional, dry, almost prim. Another tale about “unhusbandly cock” (quote from the book) is told in Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel The Mirror in the Well, which is somewhat longer than Koula, in terms of pages, but is also vastly more expansive in the way it treats its subject. It’s both simple and highly complex, it’s both a delightful, ecstatic postmodern fun-house and a tiresome “clever feminist novel”. One thing is clear: Marcom is a good, no, a very good writer. With that burden of ideas, a lesser writer would have collapsed midway, or produced a thoroughly dull exercise in dutiful thinking. The Mirror in the Well stays the course and even, towards the end, ups the ante, as the novel launches into a crescendo of voices and ideas that, in the final chapter, quietly implodes. Is it a good book? I don’t know.

As I look through the book now, I notice that it depends on my mood whether the good or the bad elements dominate my impression. See, the novel could be right up my alley. I love passionate, exciting books that are also clever and full of ideas. On these counts, the novel delivers. It tells us the story of a married woman’s sexual awakening, in a way that impressed me immensely. In contrast to the solution many writers choose, of letting the social expressions of the affair, like changed behavior, or inward expressions, like longing, desire (in a rather abstract way), jealousy etc. tell the story. In those books, the invariably erratic behavior of the cheating housewife points to her mixed up inner life, and various metaphors, hints, and even one or two chaste depictions of the sexual act are all that we are provided with when it comes to deeper descriptions or examinations of the woman’s motivations, of what it is exactly that ‘sexual awakening’ signifies. Make no mistake, I am not panning these books, there are many of them that are well worth reading or even masterpieces. I was, however, glad to see Marcom take a different tactic.

From the second page, we are not just talking about “a blurred picture of Eros”, we receive detailed descriptions of the sexual act and of the importance of that act. What we see is a woman’s first experience of cunnilingus, as she gets “her cunt licked and sucked”. The importance of having the man lie in front of her, prostrate, eating her, because “she doesn’t want to fuck”, but that act is far from an ersatz fuck; on the contrary, her lover’s mouth upon “her nether mouth” enables her to enjoy herself, opens up new vistas for her. It liberates her, or rather: it opens up a path to liberation for her. As she sways to and fro between her lover(s) and her husband, between different kinds of love, the fact that her lover will perform cunnilingus on her, and her husband will not, is an important and, in the end, decisive difference. On the contrary, as we learn in an aside, when they still had sex, she had to suck him off and have anal sex with him. Marital sex, we’re told, was all about him and not about her at all. Her lover, however, displays a great capacity for serving her needs, putting her wants and desires before, presumably, his.

All of this is not hid between flowerbeds of description and metaphor; although Marcom’s landscapes and other exteriors are highly sexualized, her depictions of the sexual act are descriptive, plain, detailed and highly explicit. We do not just read that he eats her, we are also told, in detail, how. Metaphors, when they are used at all, do not serve to illustrate the act, but to add other elements to the explicit descriptions already in place, such as is the case when the woman, dangling her cunt in front of his face, imagines her labia hanging down, “slapping” his face like the “hull of a ship”.

There are two things this image evokes, in the context of the novel. One, her shame as far as her own body is concerned. At that point, she has come a long way, from being “ashamed of her desires, her stink” to enjoying the “scent of her cunt” later in the book, so much, indeed, that, at one point, she rubs it under her nose for it to keep her company in the daytime. But her unease with the flesh never goes away. To Marcom’s credit, too, her lovers are never beautiful fashion magazine models, into which many writers are wont to turn objects of desire in their books. Instead, Marcom almost revels in the folds of the flesh, in the fat of bellies, in smelly breath, in piss and cum. For her female protagonist, it’s less a question of reveling than a constant struggle. Her acceptance of others’ flesh is, as with most of us, tied to her acceptance of her own flesh, this, however, is subject to constant changes. Whenever she feels guilty, when society digs its claws deeper in her psyche, she develops a revulsion for bodies, she even dries up, so that, at times, she ends up with a “desiccate and moral cunt”.

The other thing that the ship imagery evokes, is myth, in this case especially the tales surrounding and including the Odyssey and especially the complex relationships between wives and the returning husbands therein, the two most pertinent examples probably being Agamemnon and Odysseus. Myth can be hampering in books like this: feminist novels tend to contain a horribly tedious, well-meaning but ultimately hokey web of mythical stories that emphasize the Feminine, which, in terribly essentialist manner is taken to mean the creative principle, as opposed to the destructive, male principle, etc. etc. etc.. We all know the drill. This book, too, is a spendthrift where spiritual or mythical references are concerned, we even get a creation story which, for me, is the low point of the book. There’s just no way to employ these myths gainfully, or at least in a way that doesn’t suck completely (if there is, I haven’t yet encountered it). And, in The Mirror in the Well, it’s all over the place. The least obtrusive but ubiquitous way that it surfaces is in the way that, from a certain point on, the woman starts to refer to herself and her lover: as Gods. Although this, too, is somewhat hokey, it’s also the only reason why the myth-making doesn’t completely ruin the book:

See, at the end of the day, the novel is, in the (by now) traditional postmodern manner, about telling stories. From the first, the reader is on his toes, as far as narrative techniques are concerned, because of the way that references and address swivels around. For 4/5ths of the novel, the lover is referred to as “you”, except in phrases that have the woman as subject, where he turns into a “he” or “the lover”. The woman, too, has changing names. Sometimes she’s “the woman”, sometimes “the girl”. As these descriptions change towards the end of the book, we learn that it has to do with self-possession and control, which, by what feels like a very cheap meta-fictional ‘conceit’ (very chichi), is revealed at the end to include narrative control, which is all I’m prepared to divulge at this point. Yes, this strenuous cleverness is another weakness of the book, but the two weaknesses, myth and meta-fiction, provide support for each other, because they illuminate aspects that would not be clear otherwise. On the one hand, myth is not just a story that we tell ourselves, in the case of the woman, the power relations inherent in religious tradition are put to good use to illustrate the importance of cunnilingus in this novel, by showing, explicitly, how the telling of this story and its content are intertwined, which then lends a heightened significance to the meta-fictional devices.

In closing, I want to remark, however briefly, upon the writing. Marcom uses an extremely simple style, in the sense that I had the impression that she used a strongly limited vocabulary, evading any synonyms to words previously used. Thus, words resurface so often that they create a kind of music, really. This effect is amplified by the idiosyncratic punctuation, which does not primarily follow rules of grammar, but rather breathing patterns. Like a good poet, Marcom controls the speed with which the reader reads certain paragraphs or phrases. The resulting musical pattern is so close to ecclesiastic music, that I was not surprised to see poems from the Sufi tradition quoted in the book and quotes from, among others, the great Martin Buber, precede the novel. In connection with the celebration of her cunt and the spirituality, this can appear tacky to some readers. I enjoyed it, because it provides the novel with an almost manic energy.

Sure, this novel is not for everyone, but it’s certainly worth reading, if you can stomach the tackiness. Marcom fills her short novel with so much: class, race (I have remarked upon neither, but they are wildly important, too) and gender; her approach to sexuality is remarkable in that it’s neither prude nor cheaply pornographic, and her energy can be riveting. Sometimes, though, I can see myself hating the novel, because its faults do carry a certain weight, in my eyes. Yet, whatever the (de)merits of the book Marcom is clearly an excellent writer. Her reluctance to resort to easy solutions is praise- and noteworthy. That, in the end, in The Mirror in the Well, liberation may come at the cost of freedom, is perhaps the most remarkable, but not the only consequence of Marcom’s work as a thinker.

Fools: Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children”

Messud, Claire (2007), The Emperor’s Children, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-307-27666-7

In 2007 Susan Faludi published her most recent collection of essays, The Terror Dream, focusing on the effect that 9/11 had on feminism. The thesis she was putting forward in that book was that 9/11 set feminism back whole decades by making the nation revert back to more traditional patterns of thought. The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s third novel, published in 2006, ultimately explores a similar issue, although most of the book is over by the time the Twin Towers are hit by a pair of kidnapped planes. Faludi focuses upon the way that post 9/11 marketing effected these changes, how people and the mechanisms that people put into motion hurt whatever progress was achieved during the past decades by propagating “the consolations of a domestic idyll”.

Faludi looks upon the cultural aftermath of 9/11 more than upon what preceded it, which accounts for a few blind spots in her thinking and constitutes the major structural difference to Messud’s novel, which allows little room for the aftermath. Instead, it provides a masterful portrait of what a segment of society looked like in 2001, what it actually was that was supposed to have changed. And Messud does not care for broad sociological assessments, she directs her gaze at the individual level. The results are moving, striking and immensely readable. Not particularly insightful or enlightening, but then the novel does not, I think, attempt to be either.

The Emperor’s Children‘s strengths and weaknesses are rooted in the same quality of the book, which is its focus on characters. The book is spun around a handful of men and women in New York, all of whom, in one way or another, are part of the intelligentsia. Central in the tangled web of relationships is the Thwaite family. The head of that family is Murray Thwaite, a left-wing journalism legend who has made a name for himself as well as quite a large amount of money in all the years Thwaite spent publishing and teaching. His most recent collection of essays having been well received, he is now planning his future and deciding what to do with what he considers his opus magnum, “How To Live”, which, as a project, reminded this reader of Grady Tripp’s 2000 plus page novel (in Chabon’s Wonder Boys). The major similarity is that both books seem to have no restraints and no direction, they just accumulate pages and ideas and grow steadily.

Another unpublished book is the one that Marina Thwaite, Murray’s middle-aged daughter, has promised her editor to finish. In contrast to her father, her problem is not too many pages but too little. Although she has already done all her research, she cannot make herself start work on this book that explores the interrelationship between clothes and, basically, the conditio humana. Marina, like her father, is a well-drawn character, in the sense of being drawn in great and telling detail but, like all the characters in the book, ultimately, she remains a caricature: a former model and still endowed with stunning looks, she is not as smart as many of her friends, blinded by her beauty and charm, think. Messud makes this clear by, cruelly, providing us with a piece from Marina’s book later on. Her most defining trait, however, is the stupendous extent to which she’s self-absorbed, arrogant and egocentric. She is driven by a vague desire to be special, mostly because she is her father’s, to wit, the Emperor’s daughter.

The Thwaite household, and the father-daughter relationship, although not taking up the biggest part of the novel, which accords each of its five main characters roughly the same space, is central to the novel’s construction. All the plot strands intersect now and then in Thwaite’s house, and the two Thwaite family members often act as catalysts for the story. Additionally, the father-daughter relationship provides a foil to look at the smallest social unit, the family, in a way that evokes mythical stories told and retold through the ages. Although the novel appears to have been written in an upper-class social realism, Jamesian, one is almost tempted to call it, the fact that its characters are almost never anything else but caricatures points into a different direction. Every character appears to be a conglomerate of other literary characters and traditions, reaching up into contemporary popular culture. But, like Murray and Marina, where a mythic substructure is merely suggested, the other references, too, are rather low-key.

One of the few direct and strong reference, and possibly the most important one of all, is found in the description of an overweight college dropout called Frederick Tubbs, nicknamed Bootie. Bootie Tubbs is an autodidact who appears to be the spitting image of the Toole’s character Ignatius J. Reilly from his masterful debut novel A Confederacy of Dunces (the surname of a major supporting character in both books is Minkoff, another clue). Ignatius is as grandiose as he is rotund; he is possessed of an impeccable literary taste (as far as the classics are concerned) which is balanced by atrocious taste in other things, not least of which is fashion. Bootie Tubbs, too, neglects his appearance in favor of what he sees as his self-education, spurned by Emerson’s philosophy (In Messud’s novel, Emerson takes the role that Boethius has in Toole’s). The reader of both novels quickly suspects that both Ignatius and Tubbs, respectively, are not as smart, insightful and well-read as they may think, both are thoroughly unlikeable and loveable characters at the same time. Tubbs, more or less accidentally, changes everyone he touches, on a personal level. This is interesting, since Tubbs defines himself on the basis of his intellectual appetite, but is shown to be of no consequence in this regard. Here’s the first significance of the Toole reference: Ignatius, who considers himself a thoroughly cerebral creature, is constantly shown up by, for lack of better words, life, which happens to all of the five major characters in The Emperor’s Children, as well. And we see how bodily reality is resistant to vapid and fashionable theorizing. When one among their number is grievously wounded and scarred for life, he insists upon the autonomy of his experience, he resists his friends’ making sense of it in the terms of their way of reading the world.

If I haven’t mentioned yet what actually happens, it’s because it’s not very important. The usual, so to say. One woman marries the man she loves, another is engaged in an illicit tryst. We see some people’s fortunes rise, some fall; we see some writers being published, others not. These things do not seem to actually happen; on the contrary, Messud appears to be constantly quoting or paraphrasing traditional plots, deriving her effects from similarities and contrasts with her predecessors. But here’s where 9/11 steps up to the plate. It serves, like the scar, as a corrective to the life of the mind that the characters have been leading so far, which is not necessarily a good thing. We see a return of most characters to the fold, we hear that Murray Thwaite’s empty, but grandiloquent philosophy that he has been sketching in that mysterious manuscript, “How To Live” is probably going to succeed, and that a critical newspaper will not be launched in the foreseeable time.

A Confederacy of Dunces is titled after an epigraph by Jonathan Swift, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” and truly, throughout that book, Ignatius is convinced that he is the victim of such a confederacy. In Messud’s book, we are, at first, led to believe that everybody is such a dunce, until everything crumbles like the Twin Towers, and we see the dunces emerge victoriously. It’s Murray and his daughter. That image, of the powerful head of the family rising above it all, and his daughter, returned, in a way, to him, rising, too, is an indictment of the state of a society at least as harsh as Faludi’s, but delivered in a much softer voice. Murray is the Emperor in more ways than one; the other way that the term is used is in the sense of the “The Emperor has no clothes” expression. This novel shows how a patriarchal society works, how it supports intellectual laziness, how its structured by a general sense of entitlement that’s strongest the closer one gets to the center.

Messud’s novel is dominated by light banter, and she’s an incredible prose writer. However, she amasses so many details, builds such complex, soapish plots, that the power of her ideas is somewhat lost now and then. It is still a very good novel, but digging through a huge pile of well-written but empty, because ultimately self-referential, sentences, can be taxing at times. Some readers may find the effort not worth it.

Catafalque: William H. Gass’s “Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife”

Gass, William H. (1989), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Dalkey
ISBN 1-56478-212-3
Orig. published as TriQuarterly Supplement Number Two in 1968

William Gass is an excellent writer. His debut novel, Omensetter’s Luck, published in 1966, is almost frighteningly good. It is the work of a confident and amazingly capable writer. It plays effortlessly on the claviature of culture, evoking the weight of religion, the confusions of the quotidian, and presents an array of thoroughly unforgettable characters. Despite of using narrative innovations, the make-up is somewhat traditional. Two years later, he published both his first collection of short prose, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and this, his short book Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, to which “somewhat traditional” clearly doesn’t apply, at least not what you generally refer as tradition; you can see that even without reading it. See, I have trouble convincing some friends to buy some of the more difficult books I read or review. Not so with this one, which has a unique selling point. Pictures of naked women – or rather: pictures of one naked woman. Lots. Also, funny typography. Lots. Also always a great selling point. Amazon sales rank #844,486 must be solely due to bad marketing.

So, apart from boobs, how’s the book? Short, for one thing. It’s not a novella, more like a slightly longer story, with pictures and quirks. Although, come to think of it, ‘story’, well, maybe not the right word either. A slightly longer short piece of prose. I’ll stick to that now, make of it what you will. The piece of prose is about Babs Masters, the eponymous wife, who is telling this story. Or is she? As the previous lines of meaningless banter have suggested, this is no ordinary story. In a way, this is an experiment about the possibilities of telling stories. The book never just sticks to one kind of text. There’s the stream of consciousness, parts from a play, copies from a different book, coffee stains, and, finally, a more traditional first person narrative, where, for instance, we learn of Babs’ bosom:

There was never any doubt about my bosom, buddy; breasts as big as your butt there, nipples red and rubbery. A regular dairy, my father always said. Babs’ sweet buttery.

In a quote like this, two things stick out. One’s the poetical language, and by this I don’t mean truly poetical language, but language that signifies ‘poetical’ and alliteration’s one of the easiest methods to produce this effect. The other thing’s the way that, even in this short quote that contains rather precise references to all sorts of issues, situating this bawdy comment in a social/cultural context. Not a word wasted here and so it is with the rest of the short book, as well, which is surprising in a book that seems, on the other hand, so wasteful: one page is simply mirrored, the font gets bigger, sometimes for no clear reason, at times the text appears to drop off the page; as I mentioned, the book contains a tiny comic play which is copiously annotated. But, again, nothing wasted, Gass allows himself no indulgencies, the book reads almost austere, grave, monkish, in its efforts to create Art.

The book is one big performance that, of course, raises the question to what extent writing is a performance. The book appears to make fun of the reader, telling him

you’ve been had

but the seriousness of its Art undercuts any such effort. So it’s a performance, an artsy spectacle, a display of craftsmanship and experimentally minded brain, yet at first it does not appear to be a case of l’art pour l’art. The photographs of a naked woman, mostly displayed without a face, tie in well with, for example, the play, which is a play that Babs Masters performed in, and the title connects both these things to more general concerns like gender performance. Again, the book is very earnest about this, carefully making use of jokes and puns, which lose all humor when employed in as clinical a fashion as in this book. You have to read it at least twice, better still, three or four times. This short book can overwhelm you because all the disparate elements are collected in a point that appears to be outside or behind the text, or hidden in a corner or in a particularly fancy letter somewhere. What is that point? Babs Masters? Her body?

A word that is used quite a lot and in different fonts, too, is catafalque, and this is really fitting, too. The whole book is a catafalque of sorts, a bier to support a coffin; more to the point, according to this,

following a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, a catafalque may be used to stand in place of the body at the Absolution of the dead.

So it is with the text as well. For all the concern about bodies and performance, it withdraws the body from the construct, so that the pictures are shown to have a “ceci n’est pas un pipe” effect, and the writing about bodies is just that, writing about bodies, about a female body. As Sigrid Weigel has shown, the connections between writing about women and about foreign continents are strong, as both writings can carry similarly exploratory and colonizing signatures. But this is not part of the conscious train of thought of the text. The book, I think, dead serious from start to finish, merely appears to weigh concerns other than aesthetic, but dismisses them as it goes on.

In the end, this text could be called almost masturbatory, if it wasn’t so joyless, so controlled, so awfully dry, because, as I said, all the humor, all the lust, all the wonky games are mere gestures, they are part of the text as “humor”, “lust” and “wonky games”, drawn up on a drawing table. But, and this may surprise you, I highly, highly recommend the book. It is entertaining, less in a Zizek way and more in a Kant way, to use an inappropriate analogy (that doesn’t work on most levels), but it’s still entertaining. It is awfully well done, William H. Gass is a wizard of a writer, who can achieve any effect at will, completely in control (within the limits etc.) of his material. He is a postmodern experimental writer who is interesting and entertaining and Lord knows there are little enough of those. Colonizing the female body, and conducting a purely aesthetic parlor game, but he’s among the best at that game; plus, it bears repeating: there’s boobs. To quote A Chorus Line: “Tits and Ass, Tits and Ass, have changed my life” (clip is in Italian, but the song’s in English. Starts at 2:13)

James Baldwin: Go Tell It On The Mountain

Baldwin, James (1980), Go Tell It On The Mountain, Dell
ISBN 0-440-33007-6

DSC_0653A few days ago I’ve finished James Baldwin’s first two novels and I’m still reeling from the impact. Baldwin is an extraordinary writer. Although, at least in his early work (which is all I know), he is at best a competent stylist, moving the story along without unnecessarily clunky prose, the energy that pulses in these relatively short novels is imposing. It is not hard to see why Baldwin has become such an important and influential writer, leaving traces all over the American novel, not least in the work of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Subject and structure of these two novels is drastically different. One, Go tell it on the Mountain (1953) is about the ‘black experience’, telling us about the plight of an African-American family in New York and its history that includes the aftermath of slavery in the South. The novel is highly charged with religious fervor and personal desperation and manages to sum up an experience in a few episodes that border upon magical realism sometimes, reminding me of similar novels, such as Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, where revelation plays a similar role. The other, Giovanni’s Room (1956), is about an unmarked American man’s experience in Paris who, while separated from his girlfriend, engages in an affair with a young man, the eponymous Giovanni, which ends in denial and murder. This story is told in so straightforward a manner that a possible reference, and not just because of the setting, is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

DSC_0656Go tell it on the Mountain is three books at once. It’s a depiction of the struggle of an African American family in the 1950s, of the historical struggle between slavery and what for the book was the present time and a vision of the future or rather: a soft-spoken rallying cry, an entreaty to ‘go tell it on the mountain’ that a new generation is born. Despite the different lines of impact, the novel as a whole coheres wonderfully and this is largely due to the structure. It’s cut into three parts. The first, “The Seventh Day”(taking place on a Sunday) introduces the family, and the tensions therein: the protagonist, John, is constantly slighted by his stepfather, Gabriel, who does not accept his stepson as a son at all, focusing instead his love and energies upon his ‘proper’ son, Royal. Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth, mother to both of the boys and to two more daughters, suffers his anger and moods helplessly, as often victimized as John himself. John is a quiet and frail boy, who is repeatedly described as ugly. The lack of love from his stepfather is mirrored in the lack of affection that the world has to offer an unmanly, shy and ugly boy. Royal, in contrast, is strong and boisterous. His father’s attention, far from making him attached to him, appears to him to be well-deserved. He gets into scruffs and arguments with his father now and then, as with the world at large. As the story sets in, he is brought home with a gash on his head, inflicted by a couple of white boys, who felt provoked by him. The section closes as we enter a revivalist church (the “Saints”) with the family, which includes Gabriel’s sister Florence.

DSC_0657The second section, “Prayers of the Saints” switches back and forth between the service as perceived by John, and the memories of three family members that tell us the family history and explain the tensions that we witnessed in the first section. These memories, formally designated as prayers, but taking the form not of prayers but of regular third person narratives lead us all the way back to the south and to the aftermath of the civil war and what it entailed for African Americans. The climate is doubly oppressive. The situation for blacks has not improved immensely; add to that the oppressive force of religion that seems to have the black community where Gabriel and Florence live, in its thrall. The way it’s described, it amounts to internalized oppression, which can be said of much, especially evangelical, religion. The complex relation of evangelical religion to freedom has been often pondered and is, I’d argue, at the heart of the novel. Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) , one of the most important thinkers of American evangelical religion, has repeatedly stressed the harm of slavery, and the fact that before God, race, gender, class is not important. Before God, everybody is equal, not separate but equal, but completely, unreservedly equal. The allure of this thinking for marginalized groups cannot be underestimated; nor, alas, the ineffectual way that this thinking has worked on the reality of marginalized groups.

DSC_0655The idea of an equality in the afterlife appears to have freed many from trying to achieve that equality in the real world (although with Edwards, the spiritual world is more real than the real world. A conundrum), religion has often served the function of the “opiate for the masses” (credit where credit is due), literary traces of that function are all over the record, including Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The allure and the promise of that thinking, however, stayed active and dominate the present of the novel’s events as well, but I’ll return to that. For now, we’re in the community that is dominated by an oppressive brand of religion. Florence, at the first opportunity, flees the south and moves north. It is remarkable how the north, even after slavery and the civil war, is more than a simple destination, it’s a promise of something different, of an absence of racism, of a secular way of life, of an absence of gender oppression. Characters in the novel hope for all of these, one time or another, but are disappointed in one way or another. Gabriel, converting after his sister leaves, marries an older, barren woman in a gesture of renunciation of pleasure, takes himself a lover after a while and sires a child. Since he rejects woman and child, the pregnant lover moves north to Chicago but dies soon. The illegitimate son returns, is troubled by the climate in his mother’s home community and leaves again for Chicago where he, too, dies.

DSC_0654The fact that leaving and staying amounts to the same thing, as far as the character’s future happiness is concerned, is important for the claustrophobic overall feeling that pervades the three memories. Interestingly, writing this book from within an oppressed minority allowed Baldwin to focus upon oppressed groups within that group. Privilege isn’t a gift that the privileged can bestow upon a class of oppressed, privilege is, I think, a relative value, the center/periphery dichotomies are constantly at work, which Go Tell It On The Mountain beautifully illustrates. The strength of the patriarchal and able-bodied center, that disdains women and anything perceived as weak or bodily deficient is chilling in that we find Gabriel, as husband and stepfather, continuing the patterns of oppression that he’s suffered as a black boy in the south, only in a system where he is the center. Royal’s boisterousness and brashness needs to be read from that angle as well: he suffers from racism in the north, but he doesn’t actually ‘suffer’ it, he resents it, he expects to be kowtowed to and does not like being oppressed and marginalized in a different system. But the novel is adamant in not giving a voice to white people or Royal, instead, most of the time, we hear John’s voice (the whole book’s written in a third person subjective, just the person changes).

DSC_0657In the second section we get to hear both Florence and Elizabeth, who offer the first and last prayer/memory respectively. The middle (center?) memory is Gabriel’s, but it serves less as an affirmation of his worth; we witness instead the problems that Gabriel suffers, we see a torn and conflicted man, who tries to be everything at once. A man, a minister, an African American etc., but who comes to grief repeatedly. After the death of his first wife he travels to the north, only to find out that there is racism there, as well, although these aspects of the story are not narrated in his prayer. Gabriel’s identity is thoroughly contradictory, but he fails to understand this; Gabriel doesn’t have a single insight throughout the whole book. He is pummeled by society and lashes back at those that he’s allowed to hit. Later, in Elizabeth’s prayer, we are apprised of Robert, John’s father, who has been falsely accused of robbery; Robert has been jailed and humiliated.  After his innocence had been proven in court, and he’s been released from prison, we find that the punishing apparatus has completely broken him. Within weeks he crumbles and finally commits suicide. In the end, Elizabeth and Gabriel marry, but both the unresolved issues within Gabriel and John’s existence continuously trouble their marriage. John is especially problematic since he is both a reminder of Gabriel’s lost illegitimate son and of the persistence of sin, since John was conceived and born out of wedlock. With the marriage, the second section ends, having basically described the situation that John, in the present, finds himself in.

DSC_0653The third and last section is called “The Threshing Floor”, referring to the space between the pulpit and the pews, where in revivalist churches people are allowed and encouraged, to fall into a trance, to talk in tongues, in short, to experience conversion. All of a sudden, John is seized by a vision, the minutiae of which are too complex to discuss, but as a whole, it’s the most impressive piece of writing in the whole novel. In his conversion all the strands of the novel are gathered together, especially the role of religion as an emancipatory/oppressive instrument. John is clearly freed by the conversion, or rather: enabled. It is more than acceptance by a community, it is a general, so to say: divine acceptance. The importance of it is not reducible to his future role in the community as “one of them”. On the contrary, it affirms him as an individual, it gives him the strength necessary to go ahead. In a way, it even sunders him from his community, by stamping him with a seal, symbolized by another man’s kiss on his forehead; I read this seal or mark as taking up the damaging myth of Cain in a way much like Hesse did in his dark, flawed and prophetic novel Demian, taking it up, that is, in order to reverse the value judgment that accompanies it. His final words are “I’m coming. I’m on my way.” and these words are more than a simple statement of what he’s doing. They are a statement of intent; indeed, as much of this novel has shed light upon the ‘black experience’, so does this last sentence. He’s coming, indeed. As he’s one of my current preoccupations, I’ll return to Jonathan Edwards for a second here. Edwards maintained that conversion isn’t a revelation in the narrow sense, you are not revealed new knowledge. Instead, conversion makes you see clearer, understand better. So if I say that this book is a revelation, this is the sense of the word I use. It is a revelation and its power cannot be overestimated, the tangents that it’s writer’s thinking is pursuing are far too numerous to mention. There is a whole world, a simmering explosion within the pages of this book. You can’t not read it.


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Transformer: Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day”

Bellow, Saul (1996), Seize the Day, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-141-18485

Saul Bellow is a great writer and his novels never disappoint; on the contrary most of them belong to the best that this century has to offer in the form. Plots, however, are not his forte, most of his books feel somewhat too long; after all, all of us remember the labored ending of the otherwise stunningly excellent Humboldt’s Gift. His insights into his culture and the (male) human beings in it, are valuable throughout, and his prose is a joy to read. Thus, it is no surprise that Seize the Day, his fourth novel (published in 1956), which is extraordinarily short, in my edition just 119 pages, is a success from start to finish. It doesn’t follow a convoluted plot: instead we accompany its protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, Adler, on a trek through New York, on one single day. By now we the readers are well acquainted with the device of having a novel take place within the narrow confines of twenty-four hours, but, since Seize the Day, structurally, resembles a short story rather than a ‘proper’ novel, reaching into the dustbin of literary history for Joycean analogies is, perhaps, inappropriate.

This single day is a special, a peculiar day, this we know early on. Tommy Wilhelm has reached the end of his rope. He isn’t the smartest of men, nor the most adept at making the best out of a bad situation. He is divorced and financially on shaky grounds yet he pays his former wife far more than he would have to, at least according to his father. But Tommy Wilhelm gladly pays the money, as long as he’s able to, presumably because that gesture of generosity offers him a sort of redemption, a meaning in his otherwise empty and luckless life. He can’t admit to this, of course, and he doesn’t need to: Tommy is a pro at self-deception. When, many years ago, a grandiose Hollywood agent told him that he should be in the movies, he believed him, moved to Hollywood and overstayed his welcome. Even as all the signs suggested that this may not be the best place for him, he persevered, until circumstances (i.e. failure) made it impossible for him to continue deluding himself.

This proves to be a pattern in Tommy’s life: slipping into a habit of self-deception until circumstances shake him up and awaken him to the state he’s really in. Although we are deprived of details of his marriage, it is quite probable that he noticed its failure only after his wife left him (or a comparable scenario). He notices too late that he is on his way out in his job as a salesman, and, in an effort to correct his tardy recognition of the fact, overreacts and quits, which puts him in a precarious financial situation. Tommy appears incapable of planning or spending his money responsibly. Paying his former wife hand over fist, stumbling in and out of a career as a salesman is one aspect of this; the other, far more damaging aspect of his myopia is the fact that, as his money starts running out, engages in a dubious financial operation with a strange, suspicious man who turns out to be a con man. The day that we accompany Tommy on his errands in NYC, he signs over his very last money to that man, Dr. Tamkin.

Dr. Tamkin is easily the most intriguing character of the book. Tommy’s father and his respectable friends, who know Tamkin by name, have long suspected him of being a crook; in fact, his behavior is so dodgy and smooth at the same time that even Tommy, who isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, repeatedly considers severing his ties to that curious man. Bellow’s portrayal of Tamkin is another one of his justly celebrated Dickensian character sketches:

What a creature Tamkin was when he took off his hat! The indirect light showed the many complexities of his bald skull, his gull’s nose, his rather handsome eyebrows, his vain mustache, his deceiver’s brown eyes. His figure was stocky, rigid, short in the neck, so that the large ball of the occiput touched his collar. His bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagoda-like points. At mid-body he was thick. He stood pigeon-toed, a sign perhaps that he was devious or had much to hide. The skin of his hands was aging, and his nails were moonless, concave, clawlike, and they appeared loose. His eyes were as brown as beaver fur and full of strange lines. The two large brown naked balls looked thoughtful – but were they? And honest – but was Dr.Tamkin honest?

Dr. Tamkin, by the way, professes to be a psychologist, quite a successful and rich specimen of his guild, too, who likes to hazard his money in speculations now and then, although, as he makes clear, the danger’s rather small. As we all know, we who have been subjected to at least one enthusiastic salesman who tried to sell us a stock or a stock depot or some other very clever investment, these investments are always almost ‘risk-free’, until we are broke, that is. And we are talking about honest brokers here. The risks suddenly multiply when we add a con scheme to the scenario. So, Tommy keeps suspecting Tamkin of being a crook, to the point of paranoia, but at the end of the day, he trusts him with his money.

Part of the reason for that is, most likely, the fact that Tommy’s not on best terms with his father, as we could have expected once we found out that Tommy took a gentile name, rejecting the paternal “Adler” for the more majestic “Wilhelm”. Turns out, Tommy’s father is a retired rich man and could be said to hate his son. Fathers who are dissatisfied with the way their sons have turned out is an old topos in literature, but Mr. Adler’s feelings are remarkable in that he’s frequently almost disgusted by his son. Interestingly, much of his disdain focuses upon the physical aspects of his son. Not only does he not like the way his looks have turned out, he also considers his son dirty, literally feculent and filthy. In one of the few passages where we hear Mr. Adler think, he’s almost obsessively considering his son’s grimy fingernails. Clearly, this father has no love to offer his son, consequently the scorned 40 year old junior is constantly foraging for people who would be able and willing to show him affection and respect, so he ends up with Dr. Tamkin.

That crook is not just the only person throughout the whole novel to show Tommy affection, he is also the one who gives him valuable advice on how to make his life worth living again: seize the day (ahem), dare to grasp an opportunity, live life to the fullest as long as you’re able to. On the one hand, it describes Dr. Tamkin himself, who is not afraid of grabbing his opportunities whenever they present themselves, including the opportunity to take Tommy’s money and disappear; on the other hand, he follows up his advice with a bit of practical help. As if he’d sensed that Tommy would continue to bumble through his life even with miserable financial prospects, he deprives him of the opportunity to do so by taking all his money, forcing our sad protagonist to change his game. The novel ends with a cathartic epiphany. We do not get a clean conclusion, Tommy’s life is still hanging in the balance, but he has been transformed, we feel. He has broken through his behavioral pattern and stepped free of his self-deception.

Earlier I said that this novel bears the marks of a short story. Now, as a conclusion of sorts, I want to propose a different genre affinity: the Bildungsroman. The very name of the protagonist, Wilhelm, made me think of Wilhelm Meister, quite possibly the most famous ‘Wilhelm’ of literary history. Franko Moretti, in his interesting (if flawed) international study of the Bildungsroman, The Way of the World, claimed that there are two kinds of Bildungsromane: the classificational and the transformational kind. The first one encompasses all the classic German Bildungsromane, including Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre (In order to fit it into that category, Moretti severely misreads the book, but that’s beside the point), that is novels that are carefully structured, that are didactic and that depend upon a clear and meaningful ending that shows us the protagonist’s progress from child to youth to adult and demonstrates how he’s grown as an intellectual/artist/… and adapted to the society around him.

The other kind of novel, which Moretti sees exemplified in Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale, focuses on the process of transformation. Although Seize the Day takes place during the course of a single day and features not a child or a teenager but a middle-aged man, I think it could well be regarded as a transformational Bildungsroman, or at least as a parody of one. The very structure of the plot fits this idea quite well, since it starts with the father and his good advice, after which the son leaves his home (or his father’s hotel) to pursue his path. He will encounter various people, he will fail at least once, and he will receive advice. All of these things transform him so that, at the (open) end, we have a changed, even grown, Tommy Wilhelm, who could turn his life around. This is an extraordinary novel, full of hidden, and not so hidden, riches. The characters are all delightful, if not lovable, and the writing breaks your heart every other page.