David Duchovny: Holy Cow

Duchovny, David (2015), Holy Cow, Headline

holy cow 1This year I have stepped up the frequency of reviews a bit (here’s a list), and have reviewed some short/genre books. Still, I admit, this book is maybe an odd choice to pick for a review (rather than, say, read, chuckle and discard). The reason for it being both my great love for the TV work of Mr. David Duchovny, and my utter delight at just reading the plot summary for this, his first novel. So this will end up being my shortest review in years, but I would indeed like to draw attention to this delightfully nutty book. David Duchovny wrote a novel that is uneven, funny, moralizing, way too self aware and profoundly silly. It’s not as good as I hoped it would be but it’s still a great delight and I dare you to disagree. It’s a great joy to see an actor with a serious background turn to fiction and not have the book be a pale imitation of the already tired paradigm of the Serious Literary Effort. The worst example of this is Ethan Hawke’s prose, which is awful, derivative and makes you want to sue the editor. And at the same time, it’s very serious, very considered, very, for lack of a better words, ‘writerly’. Have you ever read a novel that was very obviously an MFA-produced empty, dolled up Literary Novel (I reviewed one here)? Hawke and actor/writers like him produce work like that, only with fewer critical readers involved in the process.

There should be more writers like Vollmann

There should be more writers like Vollmann

I will say that this goes beyond Hawke. I miss writers taking big risks, they don’t have to be big books (although that’s always great), but how many boldly conceived failures do you see on the shelves today? Even the big books, like Dave Mitchell’s work, tend to be on the safe and acceptable side. Writers like William Vollmann have become pretty rare. Even when writers go out and put out a big, juicy chunk of a book, they tend to frame it safely. Take Clemens Setz’ gargantuan new book. As far as I have read it so far (it’s very long), it pays for its scope with restrained, easy, nonliterary language that you’d expect more from a gossip magazine rather than a boldly imagined novel (which, otherwise, it is). So, no, David Duchovny’s novel is not the alternative, it’s not the great, bold literary statement that I’ve called for. It’s a lightweight, not really well written book that pontificates way too much, but it is genuinely silly. This could have turned out differently. You may know David Duchovny primarily as an actor, but he has a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature from Princeton and Yale respectively, and these are not James Franco’s post-fame prestige degrees, this is a genuine education. He even started on a PhD, but abandoned it in favor of a career in acting. If he wanted, I’m faily certain he could have produced a pastiche of The Serious Literary Novel. You know the kind. Short sentences, heavy looks, the kind of stuff only Richard Ford among living American novelists can pull off and even he’s no longer doing a good job of it.

setz ereader

So this is the edition that I’m reading the new Setz in, for…reasons.

So David Duchovny has the background to write a Literary Novel but instead he gives us this silly book. The story summary on the flap gives the entire plot away, and by this I mean the entire plot. There’s a reason for that – and it’s the atrocious pacing of the book. Duchovny was not issued an editor when he published this book, it seems (much as Morrissey’s List of the Lost appears to have come about without an editor), and so he gives himself completely over to the voice of his protagonist, Elsie Bovary (yup), a cow who, upon watching TV one night, discovers the unspeakable things humans do to her bovine kind. I’m not going to discuss this book in terms of its traditions, because, one, that would be unfair to the traditions and the book, which is not written to be set in a literary tradition, and mentions some of the most well known books in various chapters anyway. The second reason for this is that the Orwells of the liuterary world might not actually be its ancestors, properly speaking. If anything, the pontificating on eating meat and factory farming animals seems to fit a popular mode of unthinking veg(etari)anism, with books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals more likely to be an influence on the gestation of Holy Cow. If you have read any of those books, it won’t surprise you to hear that this portion of the novel is easily the weakest part.

holy cow shalom

The book comes with illustrations b< Natalya Balnova

In part, that’s due to the fact that the discussions of animal rights and animal feelings and welfare break with the book’s basic mode of silliness. They are serious, in a book that’s very much not so. The voice of Elsie is a delight, however. She’s spunky, if not very smart, and she is cast as the author of the book (dictating the novel to a certain Mr. Duchovny), relating to us reactions of her editor, toying with form. The novel really takes off when it introduces her two travel companions as she prepares to flee the farm to go to India where cows are revered and not eaten. Those companions are Jerry, a pig that changes its name to Shalom and becomes more Jewish as the book progresses (including a scene of the pig going to a mohel to have a circumcision performed) and decides to go to Israel for similar dietary reasons that convinced Elsie to go to India. The third member of their club is Tom, a turkey who hasn’t read up on the world outside the farm as much as Elsie and Shalom have and is convinced that in Turkey no-one will surely kill a turkey, the bird being the country’s namesake and all. Although he asks for one detail to be observed

Just as an aside, however we get there, can we not go through that country called Hungary? It sounds like a nightmare for all of us. Just the name makes me shiver: Hungary. And all the scary, hungry Hungaryarians that live there.

Again, there are plenty of fairy tales involving disparate groups of animals going on adventures, but the book merely nods to those traditions. It makes no use of allegory, really, except on the most superficial level. What follows is a silly, picaresque adventure through Turkey, Israel and India, in the course of which the three manage to unite Israelis and Palestinians, being hailed as peacebringers.

holy cow 2Look, the book is just a ton of fun, and it’s best read with one eye closed to the occasional pontification. It’s published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a highly reputable house, and according to the acknowledgments at the back, Jonathan Galassi, translator extraordinaire and current publisher of Farrar Straus and Giroux, personally encouraged Duchovny to write it. I have no doubt that this attention is similarly motivated by Duchovny’s pop cultural stature, as Frank Bidart’s endorsement of James Franco is, but at the same time, this is not a bad book for what it is. There are, for example, approximately five pages of punning and very broad Jewish humor just in the middle of it, and the book somehow straddles the divide between having animals behaving like humans, reading books, flying planes etc. and yet not being actually able to speak. Duchovny just sidesteps any inclination to explain anything, make anything more realistic. The primary question in the creation of the book appears to have been “is this funny?” and it really is, most of the time. The lovely black-and-white illustrations by Natalya Balnova and a surprisingly good fit. I will admit, you need to bring a certain sense of humor to the book, an affinity to silliness and sometimes really, really well worn jokes, but all books in a way demand things of their readers. Ultimately, with all its flaws and the silly vegetarianism and the odd pacing, I really enjoyed reading Holy Cow. And for me, that’s enough.


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Angels are undoubtedly hermaphrodites.

I’m currently reading William T. Vollmann’s excellent story collection The Atlas. You can find several of its stories on the Internet, like this one, called “The Prophet of the Road”, printed by the L.A. Times. Excerpt below.

I was drinking from my canteen (which I’d filled at a gas station in Portland) when another hitchhiker came thumping down the road toward me. He was like a prophet from the old times. He wore a long robe and carried a great wooden staff that he slammed down at every step. He was not so old, and yet his beard was long and gray (possibly from dust), and his gray hair fell to his shoulders and his eyes were wild like a bull’s. His face was caked with dust. He licked his lips as he came near me, and his eyes were on mine unwaveringly, so I offered him water and he came closer and closer, continuing to stare into my eyes, and then he shook his head sternly and walked on. I did not live up to his ideals. There was another hitchhiker I’d met in Washington state who’d been crazy and called himself the Angel Michael and whispered to me that he didn’t know anymore whether he was a boy or a girl and I believed him because he was so angelic: In the same way, I believed in the prophet wholly. I could not but admire him for rejecting me.

Editing William T. Vollmann

Here is “An oral history of Rising UP and Rising Down”, a collection of people connected to Vollmann or his publisher McSweeney’s remembering the writing, editing and fact-checking that had gone into publishing Vollmann’s multi-volume treatise on violence. Very worth reading.

Copyediting this book was difficult. Vollmann writes in the voice of a man who’s going to examine every assumption and pursue every thought; he uses all these ornate grammatical constructions and really intricate punctuation. The syntax feels almost seventeenth-century in its crazy rigor; it’s like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy or something.

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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Gettin’ yr morals on

Conversational Reading on William T. Vollmann’s new book, Riding Toward Everywhere

The problem is that he has a tendency to overdo it, as in, for instance, writing an entire book about hopping trains that has no real point to it and tries to play up the hobo life into some kind of American myth.

That’s not to say that someone out there couldn’t write a good book about hobos or whatever, but Vollmann isn’t the guy to do it. He has some kind of soft spot when it comes to whores/bums/etc and his sense of morals becomes way too facile

Why ‘Shigekuni’?

This blog is named after a character in Mishima’s tetralogy. Here is a brief excerpt from a wonderful essay by the awesome William T. Vollmann on that character and Mishima

The reincarnated person can always be identified by a certain birthmark, and the identification gets accomplished by the other protagonist, whose name is Shigekuni Honda and who is a judge—perfect profession for a soul whose task it is to decide what might or might not be true and what existence means. […] Honda never succeeds in preventing anybody’s death agonies. Scrupulous, empathetic, intelligent, aching to understand, and ultimately impotent, Honda might as well be—a novelist. […]

[…] Mishima was ultimately more like Honda […], which is not a terrible thing: while he may be sterile, in the sense that he will not bring about any “great event,” his empathy will endure. Honda’s seeking, his sincerity, his fidelity to that not necessarily well-founded belief in the reincarnations, these are the strands of perception, conceptualization, and devotion which sustain the patterns of reccurrence into something permanent and precious.

The tetralogy’s end […] offers the prospect of something different, something not only as erotic as suicide, but perhaps more elusive, something worthwhile enough to warrant not killing oneself while one tries to uncover it. Very possibly, if The Temple of Dawn is any indication, this something could have been religion or philosophy. I wonder how feverishly Mishima hunted for it in his wood-clad study with its bookshelved walls. He didn’t find it, and that is why every year on November 25, the white-clad Shinto priests lay down prayer streamers on the altar, which resembles a tabletop model of round-towered castles, and the blood-red disc of the Hinomaru flag hangs above them in the darkness beside Mishima’s portrait.