Monday, May 12, 2014

Your Summer Reading List, 2014

Here is our first annual Mindful Pleasures summer reading list, a handful of books not necessarily light, but definitely enlightening. Read 'em at the beach. (Click on the titles to shop for the books at Jeff Bezos' humble little website.)

  1. Fado Alexandrino by Antonio Lobo Antunes
  2. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
  3. A Sport and A Pastime by James Salter
  4. Crash by J. G. Ballard
  5. Birds, Beasts and Flowers by D. H. Lawrence
  6. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Why these books? I put Lobo Antunes' dazzling novel at the beginning of summer because it's the most difficult novel on the list--and also the most beautifully written. (The last book on the list is neither a novel nor difficult--it's sui generis and impossible.) Lobo Antunes, Portugal's greatest living novelist (and, in my opinion, Europe's), is a marvelous, provocative, original writer with a gorgeously metaphorical prose style and a musical understanding of novelistic form. Fado Alexandrino, which can be described as a Portuguese Sentimental Education combined with a Portuguese Ulysses, is probably his masterpiece. It's time for the English-reading world to discover him. Likewise, we need to (re)discover Delany, who might just be the unacknowledged Melville of our time (with the endless, legendarily difficult Dhalgren as his Moby Dick). Babel-17 is earlier and much shorter than Dhalgren, but also outstanding, a classic of 1960s New Wave science fiction that says interesting things about language, consciousness, gender and sexuality. James Salter's Mad Men-era expatriate novel is a surprisingly lyrical combination of Hemingway and Henry Miller. At first the prose seems almost too spare, but once you become accustomed to Salter's style you begin to appreciate its poetic, painterly effects. This novel also features one of the most unreliable narrators I've ever encountered, a compulsive fantasist whose unacknowledged homoeroticism (and, in one scene, racism) crucially inflects his perceptions, thoughts and elaborate erotic fantasies. Thus, Salter admirably brings to the surface of his narrative the unreliability and homoeroticism that Fitzgerald keeps implicit in the Nick Carraway-Jay Gatsby relationship. After Salter, we take a hairpin turn at 120mph and slam head-on into one of the strangest erotic novels ever written, Ballard's magisterial meditation on the eroticization of technology and the technologization of eros. David Cronenberg's film was good, but Ballard's book is both more disturbing and more beautiful. Today, when we seem to be losing the ability to think of technology as a problem, to question its effects upon us, Ballard's novel is more necessary than ever. As a kind of antidote to the world of Crash, we next turn to some of the most erotic nature poetry in English, Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers (also available in the big Penguin Complete Poems, which is pricey but worth it). At this point in my reading life, I prefer Lawrence's poetry to his prose, and Birds, Beasts... is probably his most impressive group of poems. Finally, summer's declining days bring us to the impossible sixth of our list. But how better to fall into fall than with a book that 'begends' with the fall "of a once wallstrait oldparr"? Come on. You've put it off long enough. It's time to finally plow through this monstrosity so linguistically complex that almost every word is a labyrinth of meanings and so lyrically composed that it can almost be sung. And perhaps that's the best way to approach the Wake. Think of it as the wordy music to the weirdest opera you'll never see. Think of it as Ovid with a lot more dick jokes. Think of it as the book that took the free play of the signifier to its ultimate limit at a time when Jacques Derrida had not yet outgrown his pedal car. Think of it as the alpha and omega of postmodernism. Just don't think too much about each individual word, or you'll never make it past page one. Read it aloud and let the music be the meaning. You'll be surprised by how much you understand--and how often you laugh (if you think something in the Wake might be a dirty joke, you are almost certainly interpreting it correctly). And if for long stretches you fail to understand Joyce's text... well, join the freakin' club. No one, I repeat, no one really understands Finnegans Wake. No one can. Academics chew at its edges and offer advice to potential diners, but the full meal would turn anyone into Mr. Creosote. Satisfactorily interpreting Joyce's linguistic smotherlode would take several lifetimes. Fortunately, the book is filled with local pleasures. On every page there's something funny, witty or beautiful. So relax. You'll make it through.

If you decide to accept my challenge and read all six books, please post your reactions to them in the comments section below. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Harold Bloom once called Holocaust fiction an "all-but-impossible genre." Georges Perec, who lived much closer to the violence of Nazism (his father died fighting the Germans; his mother died in a concentration camp), seems to have experienced this impossibility as a fracture at the core of his being. For Perec, history was a very personal trauma, and the writing of history could only be an X-ray of his shattered self.

Or perhaps we should call it a W-ray.

The French pronunciation of the letter 'W' (double-ve) puns with double-vie, 'double life,' and the shape of the letter diagrams the doubled structure of Perec's book, separated into two parts that internally alternate between Perec's fragmented autobiography and the description of a imaginary land called W. (The W narrative itself also bifurcates, the first part written in a thriller or adventure novel mode and the second part in the rhetoric of ethnographic description.) At the same time, W signifies the two Vs/vies, two truncated parental lives, that conjoined to produce the writer who can barely remember them. They exist only in memory traces and faded photographs, their reality concealed behind the very signs that evoke them.

Those last words take us to Derrida-land, an appropriate place from which to read this book. For Perec's Shoah fiction arises not from the intellectual milieu of his parents' generation, the era of Occupation, Collaboration, Deportation, Sartre, Camus, Resistance and Liberation. No, Perec was a boy then, and he can gaze into the darkest of backwards only through the intellectual spectacles of his own generation, the writings of Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault. W or The Memory of Childhood is thus a kind of book I have heretofore considered impossible, a great, readable, tragic French novel fundamentally informed by poststructuralist thought. The influence of Levi-Strauss is most obvious in the second part of the W narrative, where Perec pastiches structuralist anthropology to describe, in chillingly deadpan language, a tyrannical state organized according to the ideology of the Olympics. (This is also, of course, an implicit Popperian critique of the Greek/Platonic roots of authoritarian government.) Likewise, Derrida is paradoxically 'present' whenever Perec writes of the slipperiness of the signifier, as in his memory of misreading a Hebrew letter or the passage in which he plays, somewhat hysterically, with the shapes of letters. (This latter passage, on page 77 in the hardcover, at first seems to be a great example of the jouissance of the liberated signifier, the shape of the letter X metamorphosing over an abyss of meaning. But meaning simultaneously insists. The slippery signifier slips into signs of Nazism, and the passage becomes more Dali-esque 'paranoid critique' than Derridean play.) Jacques Lacan's thought impinges upon the overall structure of Perec's text, in that Perec writes around an almost unspeakable loss, a loss that tragically defines the consciousness that constructs both the factual and fantastic narratives. Finally, Foucault comes to the fore when the land of W is revealed as a society controlled through the careful deployment of ultraviolent public spectacles, a terrifying realization of the Great Gallic Cueball's Discipline and Punish.

Perec's slow, steady unveiling of the horrors of the land of W brings the two narrative lines to a final conjunction that can be described in Lacanian terms. We realize by book's end that the land of W is the univers concentrationnaire of Nazism transferred out of the unimageable Real and into the Imaginary register. The horror that killed Perec's parents resists representation in the Symbolic register of language and memory, but it can be approached by the liberated play of the imagination. And this play is, paradoxically, always and inevitably a construction of language, a tragic game of words. We can represent the Real only through a medium that also protectively conceals it, just as the W of Perec's title both represents and conceals the two crucial V's, the two parents, the two lives, the two deaths.

An Amazon search shows that this novel is currently out of print in the United States. This is unfortunate. Perec's W or The Memory of Childhood deserves to sit on the short shelf of truly great Holocaust literature, alongside such titles as Elie Wiesel's Night, Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved and his Auschwitz trilogy, Jean Amery's At The Mind's Limits, Paul Celan's poetry, David Grossman's See Under: Love, W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story. Here's hoping Perec's novel becomes available again soon.


I had high hopes for Machado de Assis, but a reading of his best-known novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (earlier translated into English under the title Epitaph of a Small Winner), leaves me less than enthusiastic. The most immediately impressive and surprising thing about this novel is its publication date. The book is structurally so Modern, so Postmodern, so bizarrely and specifically and impossibly Nabokovian, that a reader is constantly forced to remind himself it was published in (gasp!) 1880. Even more than Moby Dick and The Confidence Man, Bras Cubas reads like a 20th-century novel written 75 years ahead of time. The intrusive, hyper-self-conscious narration; the 'magic realist' matter-of-factness toward impossible events (such as a narrator who begins writing only after he dies); the cavalier compression of space and time; the persistent provocation of readerly disbelief (the 'I am a book' gambit that produces a proto-Brechtian effect)--all of these characteristics signify literary modernity to modern readers. But we should probably remind ourselves that these same devices were likely seen by the novel's earliest readers as old-fashioned provocations, atavistic Tristram Shandyisms in an age of Realism. Machado's novel is as much a throwback to Sterne and Cervantes as an anticipation of Nabokov and Fuentes. Furthermore, if we look beyond the admittedly amazing formal experimentation, we find at the book's core a fairly conventional novel. Machado's aesthetic radicalism is a largely technical overlay upon a rather standard linear narrative that plays with the same golden balls of eros and inheritance that Balzac batted around, juggled, and sometimes dropped. The core of Bras Cubas is a story we've read many times before. (The narrator seems aware of this, but he can do nothing about the fact that his life is commonplace. He is, after all, dead.)

One aspect of the novel that will certainly shock and alienate modern readers is the matter of factness with which the characters view human slavery. This is surely Machado at his most realistic. The upper-class white inhabitants of 19th-century Brazil portrayed in this book see slavery as an unproblematic fact of life; they accept it implicitly and speak of it without a hint of anxiety or critical consciousness. This touch of realism, rather than Machado's much-discussed experimentation, may be the most mind-bending thing about his novel today.

More Great Movies You Probably Haven't Seen

Life's too short for stupid movies. Here are some intelligent ones you might have missed. All of these are rentable from Netflix.

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche), 2013. A stunning, smart, complex, realistic, beautiful, erotic film--and also the best cinematic love story of this century, so far. Love on the border of adulthood has never before been so intelligently dramatized on film.

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray), 1956. One year after Rebel Without A Cause, Nick Ray made this undeservedly obscure study of an American high school teacher who undergoes a frightening change. Attentive viewers will see parallels with the series Breaking Bad. (The water heater in James Mason's kitchen, for example, looks like the same one Walter White replaced in season two.) The Criterion disc features an excellent brief discussion by writer Jonathan Lethem.

Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman), 1975. This long, deliberately static and repetitive film is a slow, sustained assault upon the viewer. Stick with it and it will take you to a place beyond boredom. It also contains one of the most shockingly unexpected denouements I have ever seen.

Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat), 2004. A very, very French erotic film. Imagine Eric Rohmer, Marguerite Duras and Georges Bataille collaborating on an extremely disturbing feminist erotic fairy tale. The dialogue sometimes slips into dry intellectual discourse, but the film's cinematic intelligence overcomes this flaw. It's one of the smartest erotic films ever made.

Examined Life (Astra Taylor), 2008. Speaking of smart, here's a film that consists of a handful of very smart people speaking. It's a collection of brief, cleverly filmed monologues by philosophers and critical theorists (Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Zizek, Avital Ronell, Cornel West, several others). Taylor films and edits the piece like a long jazz composition in which each philosopher takes a highly intellectual solo.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Sophie Fiennes), 2010. An amazing documentary on the recent work of German artist Anselm Kiefer--who is, in my opinion, the only living artist to whom the word 'great' can be unhesitatingly applied.

Patriotism (Yukio Mishima), 1966. Kudos to the Criterion Collection for releasing Yukio Mishima's notorious 1966 short film. This 27-minute silent film is a work of sublime and almost unbearably violent cinema.

Poison (Todd Haynes), 1991. Todd Haynes' early masterpiece of Queer Cinema remains his most formally original feature, dialectically intercutting three independent narratives that implicitly comment upon one another. It's an affecting, campy, bizarre and unforgettable work.

House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello), 2011. An impressively realistic look at life in a fin de siècle Parisian brothel as seen from the prostitute's point-of-view. This is the feminist flip-side of traditional, hedonistic, customer-centered depictions of upscale prostitution.

Satantango (Bela Tarr), 1994. Bela Tarr's 7-hour epic of rural Hungary in the 1980s (based on a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai) is a film you will either love, hate or turn off after two hours. On my third try, I made it all the way through and fell in love with it. Forget everything you think you know about cinema and allow yourself to drift into the total immersion experience of Satantango. Yes, it's deliberately static, but most of those static shots are as beautifully composed as 19th-century paintings.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami), 2010. This recent film is the kind of movie that made me fall in love with European art films of the period 1955-75. It's Kiarostami's homage to Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard. But more than that, it's an original, highly-intelligent and always challenging exploration of art and authenticity, performance and reality.

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas), 2008. Another brilliant French art film in the Rohmer tradition (a tradition that now includes the three Before films of American director Richard Linklater), this one plays contemporary globalized capitalist reality against an older, more aesthetic, pastoral vision represented by two Corot paintings in the home of a family matriarch played by veteran French actress Edith Scob.

Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan), 2011. One of the best American films of recent years. Its release was delayed for several years while everyone involved sued everyone else, a controversy that sadly overshadowed the movie. Forget about that and watch the film. Scene by scene, performance by performance, it's absolutely wonderful.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Judging Books By Their Covers, part deux

Sequeling a post from 2012, here are some more scans of favorite and/or interesting book covers from my collection. Some are vintage, some relatively recent, all are cool. (And yes, 'sequeling' is a word; necessity mothered the sucker two sentences ago.)

The author photo on the back of John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality has long been a classic of 1970s gay geek-chic. Has any scholar's author photo (Camille Paglia's aside) more boldly invited campy commentary?

Vintage SF covers, as everyone knows, often feature truly stunning artwork. Here's a 1970s Ace paperback of Le Guin's classic.

And here's the first paperback edition of Disch's wild ride.

For the 334 cover, Disch's publishers went for more of a Robert Crumb vibe, but it's a cleaner, technologized Crumbiness.

The front cover of Gaitskill's best-known book is fairly obvious, but the back cover (below) contains the author photo that made her every litgeek's imaginary girlfriend back in the late 80s. This is the straight male/lesbian equivalent of the John Boswell pic. 

Vintage Contemporaries hit a home run with this lovely evocation of American emptiness. And that bus with laser taillights is a truly weird and chilling machine in our wasted and paved-over American garden. A perfect match of cover and text.

The cover of my well-read and heavily taped paperback of Gass's chilly collection wears a psychedelic rainbow and conceals in its innards a handful of literary hallucinations that go deeper than anything induced by Owsley's Best.

Oxford chose a caressable Canova for this appropriately and beautifully restrained cover.

This vintage Kerouac cover goes all Orientalist on our asses while attempting to appeal to a "sex, drugs and long novels" demographic that I wish still existed. That and Jimi Hendrix's life are just two of the things about the 60s that should've lasted.

This is how Bantam tried to market Pynchon's hyperintellectual drunken sailor novel back in the 70s. I love the cover, but you'd never guess from it that two of the novel's best scenes involve a nosejob and an alligator hunt in the NYC sewers. Instead, this cover suggests a feminist Dune.

This 1958 paperback of Crane's poetry is a book that has traveled many miles in my carry-on bag, been read at 30,000 feet and halfway up a New Mexican mountain and, of course, in a plane soaring over the Brooklyn Bridge on the approach to La Guardia

I love this great American photo that someone at Scribners chose for Annie Proulx's first novel. Cover and text are studies in rural desperation.

Check out the marvelously suggestive still life photo on this Penguin edition of Salter's late, late expatriate novel.

 The very attractive minimal front cover of Sontag's first essay collection is outshone by the absolutely gorgeous, quietly charismatic author photo on the back (below). It looks like a still from an Antonioni film.

That great arm intruding across the foreground of Stephen Barker's cover photo perfectly parallels the narrative within, positioning us as the voyeurs and partial creators of the scene we think we are seeing. Fabulous.

Faulkner's dogs seem to have been bred and posed to illustrate the title of Irwin's study.

And here's my nominee for the creepiest cover ever glued to a work of literary scholarship. Be afraid, be very afraid...of the art department at Vintage Books.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Goodbye, Gabo : Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1927-2014

Genius. It is the most grotesquely overused word in the English language. Bill Gates is a genius; Taylor Swift is a genius; Steven Spielberg is a genius; Eminem is a genius; Thomas Kinkade was a genius; even, gods help us, Dan Brown has been called a genius. It should not be necessary to point out that none of these people is a genius. They are, respectively, a shrewd and ruthless businessman, a sexy pop musician, a technically accomplished filmmaker, a successful rapper, a painter of crap, and a talentless hack. The word 'genius' in American English has become synonymous with wealth and fame. (Gore Vidal observed this phenomenon long ago when he called Andy Warhol "the only genius I've ever known with an IQ of 60.") Real geniuses are rarer than sunbathers in Point Barrow. They are rarer than gold, and many times more valuable. When we recognize true genius, when we feel its power and learn to love it, we hold it to our hearts until its rhythms become the beating of our blood. And when genius dies, we feel the loss like a wavelength of color suddenly removed from the spectrum. Yesterday we saw the full Roy G. Biv, but today the tropical green has gone away.

Yesterday we lost the maker of Macondo. The final, fatal whirlwind spun invisibly through the noise and smoke of Mexico City and plucked Gabriel Garcia Marquez out of life. So it goes (as one of his gringo contemporaries might have said). The indescribable color that yesterday disappeared from our spectrum was the sign and signature of true genius. Like Kafka and Faulkner, his two most important influences, Gabo produced works that were so powerfully and stunningly original, and yet so uncannily familiar, that they held us enthralled from first line to last and blew our minds a hundred times along the winding road to that final heartbreaking period. Like Picasso and Pollock, like Sebald and Cervantes, he created works that were so shockingly new we didn't have words for them yet, and to indicate them it was necessary to point. Like all the great geniuses of art, Gabo outran our critical clichés. He sped out ahead of us and left our minds gasping in his sweetly-scented Colombian dust. 'Magic realism' is the pigeonhole critics constructed for Gabo, but I prefer to think of One Hundred Years of Solitude in the context of its time. It is a great--probably the greatest--novel of the Sixties. And as such, it is yet another answer, along with The Crying of Lot 49 and Slaughterhouse Five and The Joke and The Armies of the Night and Portnoy's Complaint, to the ignorant neoconservative charge that the Sixties produced no great novels. Yes, Cien Anos de Soledad is the greatest novel of the Sixties, and if you think you remember it, you probably need to read it again. Gabo's great novel is the history of Colombia as marijuana dream, historical materialism as acid trip; it's a hallucinatory experience, and it should ideally be read while Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced plays softly in the background. Likewise, Gabo's second masterpiece, The Autumn of the Patriarch, is one of the great novels of the Seventies and should be read to the accompaniment of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Gabo's impossibly long sentences are like flamboyant guitar solos flying all the way to Kashmir before returning, at long last, to the novelistic melody. He was a writer of and for his times, and to ignore the times is to ignore the substance of his works. As an artist and public figure, Garcia Marquez was as politically engaged as Jean-Paul Sartre, but unlike Sartre or Toni Morrison or any number of engage writers, he wrote politically engaged fiction that was so artistically brilliant it never felt programmatic--and he achieved this almost unprecedented feat with an apparent effortlessness that never fails to astonish me. This illusion of effortlessness is a good note to end upon, for it's one of the defining characteristics of Gabo's singular genius. His best works are profound, poetic, intelligent, technically masterful, and as elaborate as baroque cathedrals, but when we read them, they seem to have been composed as naturally as breathing. Gabo's sentences seem not so much written as exhaled. They seem to have been discovered rather than created. Did a human being actually write the first chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude? Did an actual human man with a scratchy mustache and intestinal gas and bowel movements actually sit at a typewriter and pound out those sentences, one letter at a time, pausing at the end of each line to return the carriage? Yes. Yes, he did. Goodbye, Gabo, and good luck to the rest of us.

(A Crazy Afterthought: Surely I'm not the only one who sees something suspiciously Garciamarquesan in the timing of Gabo's death. He died the day before Good Friday, so the third day after his death will be Easter, the day of resurrection. I have a vision of Gabo climbing out of his coffin Sunday morning with a bottle of tequila in one hand and a big burrito Jalisco in the other and shouting to the assembled mourners, "This death shit is for assholes like Pinochet. Let's party!" It won't happen, but it's good advice nonetheless.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

DANCER FROM THE DANCE by Andrew Holleran

Here is an American novelist who, at the very least, is refreshingly unafraid to advertise his literary ambition. Holleran takes his title from Yeats, opens and closes his novel with epistolary exchanges a la Les Liaisons Dangereuses, alludes to Gatsby in the first paragraph of his narrative, and rarely misses the chance to toss in a classical allusion (Xerxes, anyone?). Perhaps the most surprising thing about Dancer From The Dance is that it almost lives up to its grand allusions. Holleran attempts to write The Gay Gatsby, a novel that will do for gay life in 1970s New York what Fitzgerald did for a somewhat 'straighter' variety of life fifty years earlier. He wants to immortalize it with a defining romantic tragedy. Amazingly, he pretty much succeeds. (The fellatio pun on that last word is entirely appropriate.) There are minor flaws--a few unnecessary repetitions, an emphasis on atmosphere at the expense of narrative, an annoying confusion of Dionysus with Dionysius (I can't tell if the mistake is Holleran's or the narrator's; either way, an editor should've caught it)--but these are indeed minor flaws, if flaws at all. Dancer From The Dance is an excellent novel. Formally original and beautifully written, it deserves to be promoted out of the gaylit ghetto and into the American canon. It deserves to dance with the works it intertextually engages: The Great Gatsby, Mrs. Dalloway, "The Beast in the Jungle," many others. It's not only good enough to play in those big leagues; it's good enough to win.


I always enjoy the surprise that comes when a novel fails to live up to its bad reputation. For years I've heard dismissive criticisms of Vidal's The City and The Pillar: it was supposedly mediocre, poorly written, self-hating, decidedly minor, badly dated, a trashy melodrama, an undeserving succes de scandale... Ignoring this chorus of criticism and finally reading the book, I find it a fascinating, highly-readable, picaresque tour of the continent-size closet that was gay America in the 1940s. While certainly far from flawless--there are a few jarring inconsistencies of tone and point of view, and Vidal had not yet found his distinctive prose voice--the novel is not bad at all and remains well worth reading. Indeed, it's essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the state of American sexuality (and not just homosexuality) at midcentury, during the Kinsey years. (Vidal knew Kinsey, and somewhere in a locked room in Bloomington, Indiana, there is a coded form detailing Gore's earliest erotic escapades... There's also a home movie of the almost forgotten novelist Glenway Wescott masturbating with a dildo in his anus, but that, decidedly, is another story.) From literary New York to cinematic Hollywood, from frozen Alaska to the sultry Yucatan, Vidal's protagonist moves with Candide-like speed along a taut narrative arc that begins in Virginian (and Virgilian, perhaps?) gay pastoral and ends in violence and guilty oblivion. To criticize the ending today is like criticizing the book for being conceived and written during the forties. It's better to appreciate Vidal's novel, like Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, as a valuable window upon a darker time.

Some of my surprise is surely due to the fact that I read not the original 1948 edition of The City and The Pillar (the notorious edition to which most criticisms refer) but Vidal's 1965 revision, now the standard text. He changed the climax from a murder to a rape and might have made a few other alterations (which may have caused the tonal inconsistencies already noted). It would be interesting to compare the two editions page by page to see exactly what Gore changed and try to guess why.

NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood is not so much a novel as an arrangement of exquisitely written notes for a novel.

Better, Nightwood is the libretto for an opera that can never be performed.

Even better, Nightwood is a novel in which the story is rendered as prose-poem rather than plot.

Nightwood is so self-consciously avant-garde, so hardcore an experimental performance, that writing my usual blocky paragraph-or-so of critical thoughts would be almost a betrayal of the text under discussion.

Nightwood is a book I've read 3 or 4 times, but shortly after each reading the book mysteriously erases itself from my memory.

This makes Nightwood rather difficult to criticize.

Nightwood is an experiment, but for me the experiment fails. Even the grand, bawdy monologues of Dr. Matthew O'Connor, which most critics consider the novel's crown jewels, become tiresomely monotonous after ten or fifteen pages.

The chapters dominated by the doctor, however, are the only ones with the stink of the real upon them. The rest of Nightwood smells too much of the literary laboratory and too little of life.

Nightwood is beautifully written, though.

Nightwood is a phenomenon I can only fail to explain.

GIOVANNI'S ROOM by James Baldwin

Yes, it's a hopeless, despairing novel from and for the homophobic 1950s, but Giovanni's Room still seems to me a fairly bold book for its time. Although Gore Vidal's The City and The Pillar beat Baldwin to the subject matter by a handful of years, and Jean Genet had already laid definitive claim to the French gay underground in his seminal spurt of novels from the late 1940s, Baldwin's book still carries an impressive charge of literary daring. Giovanni's Room is the gay novel Dostoyevsky might have written had he been seduced by Henry James: it marries lurid melodrama to moral soul-searching, the whole written in a beautifully polished prose. Of course it has its flaws--inconsistent characterization, clichéd dialogue, a melodramatic denouement that exists more to close the narrative than to deepen the characters and themes--but for me all of this is outshone by Baldwin's triumphant invention of David, the narrator. Here is the tragic portrait of a self-loathing gay man whose puritanical horror of his desires leads him to self-dissolution, a sort of soul-suicide, at novel's end. David's alcohol-fueled 'dark night of the soul' (the intense 'present tense' of this flashbacked novel) concludes when he dissolves his love for Giovanni in the grim, flesh-eating acid of Christian spirituality. This is David's final 'conversion experience' and, as the explicit parallel with Giovanni's execution makes clear, it is a strategy as tragically life-denying and life-ending as Giovanni's murder of Guillaume. I suppose the ending could be interpreted more positively, perhaps neo-platonically, as the promise of spiritual union to two souls sundered in the sullied flesh. But the text seems to privilege neither of these interpretations. Rather, however we might read the rhetoric, it leaves us with a vague sensation of death-in-life. To criticize this ending as too despairing, as some have, is simply ahistorical. We must remember that unless you were rich and/or Gore Vidal, the Fifties were not a particularly positive decade in which to be gay.

This seems the place to add that Baldwin's better first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, also concerns itself, albeit less centrally, with the nexus of Christian moralism and homosexual desire. For anyone wishing to deeply understand the attraction of fundamentalist religion to millions of Americans, even today, Go Tell It On The Mountain is the book to read.

"Paul's Case" by Willa Cather

A note in the back of Reed Woodhouse's surprisingly good, informative, readable and, yes, entertaining critical study Unlimited Embrace led me to Willa Cather's 1905 short story "Paul's Case." This century-old tale of an alienated young man's brief criminal career and its tragic end (a precursor to Salinger's less tragic Catcher in the Rye) remains of interest today largely because Cather's text is a veritable compendium of fin de siècle homosexual signs. The old gay gang's all here: a red carnation in the buttonhole, dandyish dress, opera, theatre, urban sophistication, outsider status, alienation, criminality, juvenile delinquency, violation of the 'work ethic,' social bounding, a Huysmanian preference for the artificial over the natural, personality as performance, etc., etc., etc. Given the strict censorship that reigned over American magazine fiction 110 years ago, there is of course no explicit mention of sex in the story and hardly a hint of homosexuality, but the semiotic texture of the tale fairly screams Paul's gayness from the top of a Met-worthy soprano's lungs. At one frenetic point in the tale Cather even, rather unfortunately, says of her protagonist, "He burnt like a faggot in a tempest." To our post-Larry Kramer eyes, that looks like a comically obvious wink, but Cather's 1905 usage might have been at least partly innocent. Maybe. Still, we must ask: in a story so drenched in homosexual innuendo, can the word 'faggot' truly be used to mean a stick of wood and only a (phallic) stick of wood? Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, as Sigi said, but not in this story.


If you're looking for a work of literary criticism that is provocative, original, and eschews the jargon of academic 'theory,' Unlimited Embrace is a book you will want to read. It's the book Edmund Wilson might have written had he been born later and gayer, a kind of Axel's Castle of postwar gay male literature in which the author performs close readings of 18 works, from Giovanni's Room and Myra Breckenridge through A Single Man and Faggots to The Mad Man and Martin and John, readings that together delineate a canon and illuminate its essential characteristics. And unlike most of what passes under the label of 'gay studies,' Woodhouse's work spends no time genuflecting before the Great God Foucault. In fact, the Gallic cueball's name doesn't even appear in the index--not because the author is innocent of theory but because, it seems, he has moved beyond poststructuralism into a place both more aesthetic and more humanistic. His chapter on Samuel Delany's The Mad Man is especially pleasing, as this little known and very strange and dangerously beautiful novel richly deserves the kind of critical attention that will gain it readers and save it from oblivion. (A mildly narcissistic aside: It was a blurb extracted from this chapter and printed on the back cover of my copy of Delany's book that led me to seek out Woodhouse; otherwise I would likely never have read one of the most readable and enjoyable critical works of recent years.) There are illuminating chapters on Edmund White's fiction and James Purdy's Narrow Rooms (which I must, must, must read; if Cormac McCarthy is William Faulkner on acid, Purdy sounds like Faulkner on poppers, Benzedrine, Jack Daniels and PCP, with an Ecstasy chaser). Woodhouse even gives us fair-minded considerations of writers he doesn't particularly like, such as Larry Kramer and David Leavitt. Unlimited Embrace will send you back to books you've already read and encourage you to read a few you've probably never heard of. All in all, this is a very impressive critical performance that deserves to be widely read.

FYI, here are the 18 books/authors Woodhouse considers in-depth:
  • Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
  • short stories by Tennessee Williams
  • Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
  • Straight to Hell by Boyd McDonald
  • Frisk by Dennis Cooper
  • Narrow Rooms by James Purdy
  • Faggots by Larry Kramer
  • Dancer From The Dance by Andrew Holleran
  • The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt
  • A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
  • A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
  • short stories by Ethan Mordden
  • The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket by John Weir
  • The Mad Man by Samuel Delany
  • Valley of the Shadow by Christopher Davis
  • Martin and John by Dale Peck
  • Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett
  • the fiction of Edmund White

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dennis Cooper on the Fine Art of Rimming

In his very interesting Paris Review interview, writer Dennis Cooper tells us that "one of the highlights of my life is that the great Avital Ronell wrote an essay on the theme of rimming in my work." Cooper continues:

To me, rimming is the most charismatic sex act. Something about combining the face, which is the body’s most telling and detailed part, with the ass, which is a similarly compelling body part but for opposite reasons—given its plainness and inexpressiveness, its lowly status as a seat cushion and waste-disposal machine, contrasted with its high status as a sex object and aesthetic high point on the body—fascinates me. The way the face and ass affect each other physically and technically during the act of rimming has an emotional charge and is choreographically interesting. In the moment of exploring someone’s ass, you know things that the recipient can’t know because, due to the way the body is constructed, the ass and asshole are hardly available to their owner. You can handle and finger them, but even to see them properly requires the use of mirrors and awkward poses. When you rim someone, you’re getting to know him intimately in a way he can’t know himself. You can be entirely alone with him, unwatched, his judgment unknown and abstract. You have power over him and, at the same time, the act has subservient associations—“you can kiss my ass,” et cetera—so you’re worshipping him as well.
Also, for all the charisma that rimming has, as an idea and from a third-party perspective, it’s quite a simple act in practice. There’s only so much a face can do to an ass and asshole, so it’s an act that happens largely in both parties’ imaginations, and that makes it very interesting and challenging to write about.

Not long ago, I wrote in my notebook that a truly useful vade mecum for success in American corporate life might be titled A Field Guide to North American Analingus.

If Cooper's work is unfamiliar to you, have a taste of his novel Closer, the first volume in a now-completed five-book cycle. He's an unapologetically avant-garde writer and perhaps the most profoundly Francophile American literary figure of our time (not a bad thing at all in our post-post-post-Emersonian age). He also has a remarkable blog on which he seems to spend altogether too much time. (His blog is good enough to trigger a BlogSpot "Content Warning." Just click through it.) It includes a list of his 50 favorite novels, upon which I was pleased to find Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene and Calvino's Invisible Cities.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Laugh Your Ass Off (Intelligently)

A while back, I resolved to post no more lists on this blog. Because resolutions are made to be broken, here's a list of seriously funny books from the Greek beginnings of Western literature to its present globalization. It is also an attempt at a genealogy of Western literary comedy from the ancient Greeks to today, implicitly arguing that the main line of development of the European novel is comedic and that the 'high seriousness' of the Victorian novelists was a 19th-century aberration resulting from the cultural insecurity of a rising bourgeoisie...yeah, yeah, yeah, but really it's just a list of intelligent, original, laugh-out-loud funny books. Read them all (in no particular order), enjoy them, and do what the title of this list suggests.

  • The Complete Plays by Aristophanes. 
  • The Satyricon by Petronius.
  • Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches by Lucian
  • The Golden Ass by Apuleius. 
  • The Decameron by Boccaccio.
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. 
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais.
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. 
  • Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
  • Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot.
  • Candide by Voltaire.
  • Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding.
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
  • Don Juan by Lord Byron (or as I like to call him, Gorgeous George)
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain.
  • Pudd'nhead Wilson by Mark Twain.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Complete Works by Oscar Wilde.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce.
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.
  • The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien.
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
  • All About H. Haterr by G. V. Desani.
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.
  • The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
  • Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.
  • Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
  • The Complete Enderby by Anthony Burgess.
  • Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth.
  • Our Gang by Philip Roth.
  • Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth.
  • Fear of Flying by Erica Jong.
  • How To Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong.
  • Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
  • Money by Martin Amis.
  • Time's Arrow by Martin Amis.
  • Live From Golgotha by Gore Vidal.
  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
  • Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
  • The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self.
  • Grey Area by Will Self.
  • pretty much anything by Tom Robbins

To end with a comic non sequitur, here are two of my favorite literary typos:

In an essay by Edmund White about novelist James Jones, one of Jones' novels is listed as Go To The Windowmaker. (As that great Homer of our time would say, "D'oh!")

In an article on William Carlos Williams, one of his best-known lines is quoted as "No ideas but in thongs," a perfect sentiment for spring break.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Walking London in My Mind (for Roger Ebert)

Damn, I miss Roger Ebert. I never met the man, my sole contact with him was a few exchanges of comments on his blog, but he broadened my appreciation of the art of film more than any person I ever have met. And now, on the first anniversary of his death, I'm thinking of him again, wondering what he would have made of Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Counselor, wishing I could read his Great Movies essay on Blue is the Warmest Color, trying to decide if he would have loved or loathed Nymphomaniac. Back in 2010 Ebert wrote a blog post about walking in London (a favorite pastime I shared with him, although our paths never crossed). I was inspired to reply with a long comment based on a walk I took in central London about ten years ago. Ebert gave my comment the equivalent of a 'thumbs up,' instructing his readers to "clip and save" it. Here's what I wrote:

In my mind I've just stepped out of the front door of the Regent Palace Hotel on the north side of Piccadilly Circus. I walk across the circus, glancing up at Eros hovering above me and turning my head to the right to see the great curve of Regent Street turning north toward its eponymous park. I walk due south down Regent Street, past the clubs of Pall Mall, until Regent ends in a waterfall of steps beyond the bankrupt Duke of York's really rather ugly column. I cross the Mall, cut through St. James Park (Horse Guards is on my left and beyond it the horizontal spire of a construction crane makes a perfect tangent with the upper half of the London Eye). Just past the park, on Storey's Gate, I pause at Old Queen Street for the best view of the towers of the Abbey glowing in the June sunlight. I continue walking, cross the busy street curving into Parliament Square, and enter the Abbey, proceeding immediately to the Henry VII chapel to look up at one of the most beautifully labyrinthine ceilings in all of England. (For me, the three best ceilings in London are the Henry VII chapel, the library at Kenwood House [which is like standing inside a piece of Wedgwood pottery], and Rubens's ceiling fresco in Banqueting Hall). When my spirits have been sufficiently lifted, I pass back through the nave to the cloister and then, rather than following the tourist trail around the large cloister and back to the nave, I walk through a turning series of corridors to the Abbey Garden. (I'm always surprised at how few visitors make it back to this lovely spot, a pretty piece of pastoral within shouting distance of the Houses of Parliament). When I reach the middle of the main path across the Garden, I turn around and see my second-favorite view of the Abbey exterior: the great transept window and the bright cathedral roof seeming to float above the mellower brown brick buildings on the north side of the Garden. After ten minutes or so sitting and wandering around the Garden, I walk back through the Abbey, pay my respects to Chaucer and Rare Ben Jonson in Poet's Corner, and then walk back out into bright sunlight (it's like leaving a movie theater; I shade my eyes for a few seconds). I walk up Whitehall as Big Ben tolls ten behind me, Virginia Woolf's leaden circles still dissolving in the same air Clarissa Dalloway breathed. I pass the Cenotaph, pop into Banqueting Hall to see that Rubens ceiling and reflect that it was one of the last things Charles I saw before he stepped out of the window onto a scaffold and lost his bloody head. Then I continue up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, scaring pigeons into flight as I walk across to the National Gallery. I go through the revolving door at the Sainsbury Wing, up the massive, glassed-in stairs, and turn right toward the older part of the Gallery. The large Venetian Renaissance room opens around me, and I see on the end wall Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne with its blues that redefine the color and greens that are like seeing green for the first time. I linger here for a long time, studying the painting, thinking about it, enjoying it. When I leave the gallery I walk around behind it and try to get lost in the narrow streets back there, eventually finding myself in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where Sir John Soane's museum beckons. I enter and walk slowly, lingeringly, around Soane's crazy house, ending up in the basement room directly below the picture gallery (the room with the skull in the middle of the table). I meet a woman there, and we agree that Soane was a very weird guy, then we walk together up to the top floor, go into the back room and look out the windows overlooking the roof of the 'museum,' a gorgeous crazy quilt of domes and skylights. She thanks me for showing her the view and I say, "Have you seen the view from the top of St. Paul's?" This walk has only begun...

Thanks for the Proustian rush, Roger.

Manhattan's Loveliest 'Ghost': the abandoned 1904 City Hall subway station

Even in a city as densely populated and widely photographed and palimpsestically overwritten as Manhattan, there remain places of breathtaking beauty that are almost unknown. Take, for example, the 1904 City Hall subway station, a closed 'ghost station' since 1945. It is the work of master builder Rafael Guastavino, now the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Martin Filler has written a beautifully illustrated article about the exhibition on the New York Review blog.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Curley's Glove: Interpreting a Sexual Symbol in Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN

In addition to being a near-perfect novella with only two noticeable flaws (Steinbeck's sexist failure to characterize Curley's wife as anything other than a stereotypical Thirties 'bitch in heat' who spends much of the novel delivering Mae West and Jean Harlow lines (when not threatening to have people lynched) and his decision in the last chapter to ridiculously externalize Lennie's superego as the voices of Aunt Clara and a rabbit), Of Mice and Men is also a profoundly, even dogmatically, Freudian work. Sexuality plays just below the surface of virtually every page and frequently pops its phallic head above the waterline. Lennie's erotic fetishism, his ultimately fatal desire to touch fur and velvet, is a textbook example of a sexuality fixated in one of Freud's early, 'immature' stages, a retardation of erotic development that parallels Lennie's intellectual deficit. So Lennie's mouse, his puppy, the dress of the woman in Weed, and finally Curley's wife's hair, can all be understood as substitute objects for a libido that is socially forbidden discharge in the psychoanalytically approved orifice. This is a fairly easy interpretation, although it probably still flies over the heads of most high school students. (I was too immature to understand most of the novella's sexuality when forced to read it in high school.) A more difficult and original sexual symbol is introduced about 20 pages into the tale, when Candy tells George about Curley's "glove fulla Vaseline." How are we to understand this image? The standard, high school-approved interpretation is that Curley is keeping his hand soft so that he might more tenderly caress his lovely wife. This interpretation is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. Curley is a vile little son of a bitch who touches no one with tenderness, and his wife may be an even worse human being. No, the image is much more explicitly sexual, even pornographic, and it is immediately understood as such by George, who calls it "a dirty thing to tell around." To understand exactly what's so dirty about it, consider first the sexual symbolism of a hand in a glove. One need not be Viennese to see this as representing a penis in a vaginal caress. Next, add the ingredient of Vaseline, widely used in the Thirties and later as a lubricant in both heterosexual and homosexual intercourse. The two elements sum to an image of Curley's vaselined hand penetrating his wife's vagina. That's the "dirty thing" George sees in the image. Curley is 'fisting' her. Curley's glove is Steinbeck's version of Faulkner's corncob in Sanctuary. It's a symbol that eludes the literary censorship of its day by suggesting what could not be explicitly stated: just as Popeye raped Temple Drake with the notorious corncob because he could not sustain an erection, so Curley penetrates his wife's glovelike vagina with his lubricated hand because he, too, is impotent. Curley's impotence (at least with his wife) is the unspoken detail that lies at the root of his rage, which, we are told, has worsened since his recent marriage. It is also the cause of his wife's sexual frustration. As a one-dimensional 'bitch in heat,' she requires a real man with a working penis. Her search for the proper tool leads both to her demise and the death (much more tragic, from the author's point-of-view) of her final unfortunate object of desire. Curley's glove, redolent of fisting and impotence, may be the book's single most important symbol, the secret sexual key that unlocks the motivations of its most destructive characters.

A brief addendum to the previous post: Petyr Baelish as Stanley Fish

Having, in an aside in my last post, compared postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish to the Game of Thrones whoremaster Lord Petyr Baelish (played by Aiden Gillen), I was surprised and delighted by the penultimate scene of episode 3.6, which I just watched on DVD from Netflix. Baelish's Machiavellian "Chaos is a ladder" exchange with Lord Varys is a concise, eloquent and unapologetic statement of the postmodern theorist's will to power:

Varys: I did what I did for the good of the realm.
Baelish: The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It's the thousand blades of Aegon's enemies- a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it's a lie.
Varys: But what do we have left, once we abandon the lie? Chaos? A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
Baelish: Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

The imagery and sentiment is very Nietzschean (and the ending is spoken over a visual of Jon Snow summiting the icy Wall, a prototypically German Romantic image), but the speech might also have been written by Derrida and vulgarized by Baelish/Fish into a manifesto of academic/courtly careerism.

Monday, March 31, 2014

MFA vs. NYC vs. Reality

When I heard about the new book on contemporary American literature titled MFA vs. NYC, I thought, "Are those my only choices?" Surely our collective literary imagination has not so atrophied that we can straightfacedly envision the literature of this vast and heterogeneous nation as existing solely within a few blocks of Brooklyn and on the scattered islands of the Academic Archipelago (a wintry prison that still awaits its satirical Solzhenitsyn, Richard Russo's Straight Man being not nearly good enough). The tunnel vision encapsulated in the title is a parodic publishing company executive's Manhattan-centric view of America, that New York provincialism that thinks the country ends a few miles west of the Hudson and that LA and San Francisco are two islands sprouting Hawaii-like from the far Pacific. New York centrism and academic careerism may be realities of corporate publishing and literary writing, respectively--most major publishers are, after all, based in New York, and even the rock stars of literary fiction rarely sell enough books to support themselves without an academic dayjob (one of the most shocking details in D. T. Max's too-summary biography of David Foster Wallace is the statistic that in its first ten years of publication Infinite Jest sold a mere 150,000 copies; respectable numbers for experimental fiction, but Stephen King (a writer Wallace read and apparently liked) has probably had days on which he has sold that many books between breakfast and lunch). But these two phenomena--traditional publishing and literary careerism--are an infinitesimal part of the contemporary American story. If one reads only novels written by Iowa City graduates now resident in Brooklyn, one might acquire a vision of America much like the one adumbrated in the HBO series Girls, and one would have little notion that for much of the United States, Game of Thrones, The Wire and Breaking Bad are considerably closer to the 'pointy end' of things--closer, that is, to the America most of its citizens know, a place of money woes, death fear, sudden violence, delusional paranoia, and the everyday surrealism of living peacefully in a time of horrendous war. The limited literature of MFA and NYC (maybe we should call it the academic-corporate complex) has definitively captured none of these realities; indeed, many of its most highly regarded products seem strangely stuck in the last century.

To take a more or less random example, Nicole Krauss's Great House should have been a brilliantly cosmopolitan, mindblowing masterpiece, an American cousin of Roberto Bolano's extraordinary 2666 and W. G. Sebald's even more impressive Austerlitz. At least that's what the cover blurbs would lead one to expect. The reviewer from Elle tells us that this novel "reminds us what it means to be alive." And lest we dismiss that as typical reviewer's hyperbole, the book opens with seven pages of blurbs. That's right. Seven almost-solid pages of praise. Now, I know blurbing has gotten completely out of hand in recent years, but this is ridiculous. A law of diminishing returns kicks in when before I even reach a title page I've already turned through seven pages of effusions from everyone from Sam Tanenhaus to!). Methinks, I think, the publisher doth protest too much. Krauss's Great House is not, alas, a great novel, but it's not exactly a bad one either. Rather, it's a typically competent, highly readable, quickly forgettable product of the academic-corporate publishing complex. While I found some things to admire in the book and thought it interesting enough to finish, it left me with the sense that I'd just consumed a sort of Duncan Hines literary confection: one cup DeLillo, one cup Sebald, two tablespoons David Grossman, a pinch of Bolano, add high seriousness and stir. It's an A-student's novel, designed to satisfy her relatively small circle of readers the same way successful students' papers are tailored to the tastes of their professors. (I too was an A-student, so I know the signs.) Seven pages of blurbs suggest that this limited goal was achieved admirably, but will the author ever leave the MFA program in her mind?

The main ingredient in Krauss's stew of 1990s influences is the writer who seems to have replaced Raymond Carver as the paradigmatic literary hero of the MFA-NYC school, Don DeLillo. He seems the perfect hero for a young writer: prolific, uncompromising, artistically successful, caustically critical, admirably intelligent, and to put the cherry atop the sundae, he was David Foster Wallace's penpal and father-confessor. But unfortunately there is another, less positive side to his influence. (Full disclosure: I've loved some of DeLillo's works (Running Dog, Libra), liked others (parts of Underworld, Mao II), disliked some (Americana, other parts of Underworld) and absolutely hated the one that most people seem to love (White Noise), so my attitude toward DeLillo, while mixed, is not necessarily negative.) The most serious problem with DeLillo's MFA apotheosis is that he is, relatively speaking, a rather limited writer. It's not that he repeats themes and ideas from novel to novel--of course he does; all writers do that--nor even that most of his characters, from Americana through Underworld and beyond, seem to speak with the same voice (I will never understand critics who praise DeLillo's ear for American speech; the dude's ear is stamped out of tin). The biggest problem is that of the major living older American novelists--DeLillo, Roth, Morrison, McCarthy, Pynchon, Gass, Matthiessen--DeLillo seems to have been chosen for canonization precisely because he presents the least challenge to academic assimilation. The academy can swallow him because his works bear the fewest thorns. He has neither Roth's political incorrectness nor Morrison's fiercely dark vision of America, neither McCarthy's repulsive violence nor Pynchon's prurient pornography, neither Gass's juvenile limericks nor Matthiessen's CIA past. We might almost say DeLillo won the nomination because he's the Mitt Romney of American literature, the debater with the fewest demerits. Oh, he's a fierce critic of capitalism and all that, but his critiques are sugared with a heavy enough dose of irony to make the medicine taste sweet. Having elevated such a writer to paradigmatic status, we should not be surprised when novelists influenced by him create a limited and relatively safe literature, a literature more Franzen and Lethem than Morrison and Wallace.

But wait, there's more bad news from the aesthetic asphyxiation front. In addition to setting up Don DeLillo like a cardboard calf for younger writers to worship, our universities also encourage artists to strangle themselves upon the knotty cords of fallacious 'theories.' The academically generated idea that seems to have hogtied David Foster Wallace and certainly ruined the ending of Ian McEwan's Atonement is the ludicrous notion that because something called 'Modernism' has been superseded by something called 'Postmodernism,' works that could be described as 'modernist' are no longer possible. The ideologues of pomo would be as gods (or popes, rather) and make all artists the prisoners of their hypostases. The idea is multiply fallacious. First, as stated, it asserts that there was something called Modernism which existed the way an oak tree exists, in the space between its 19th-century roots and 20th-century branches. This idea becomes exceedingly problematic when one notes the range of works that shelter under the Modernist canopy, from Howard's End to Finnegans Wake, from "The Jolly Corner" to "Hills Like White Elephants," from Proust's Recherche to Woolf's Orlando, from Yeats to Dada... If Modernism be a single tree, where is its blossom, where its bole? Second, it asserts that something called Postmodernism can be distinguished from Modernism in the way cardinals are distinguished from sparrows. In fact, each and every characteristic of Postmodernism can be found in the canonical works of Modernism. (Try to think of one that isn't; if you know the Modernists well enough, you won't be able to. Even post-Shoah consciousness is arguably prefigured in Kafka.) Mo is always already Pomo. Third, the notion of Postmodernism succeeding Modernism is based upon an organic metaphor that silently likens literary history to a growing plant or animal that passes through various stages of life, leaving earlier stages behind like fallen flowers or shed skin. This is probably the fundamental fallacy of literary (and art) history. Artistic processes simply do not adhere to the implacable chronologies of organic time. Literature 'lives' differently. The literature of the past obviously determines that of the present (even writers like Sebald who seem sui generis usually only seem so), but the present is the inevitably distorting lens through which we view the literature of the past and take from it the works that continue to serve (as Sebald took Stifter and Keller and set them in the literary pasts of readers who might never have otherwise known them). The literary present determines the past as much as the past determines the present. To assert that we must all write postmodern novels because we live in postmodern times is to misunderstand the porous nature of literary time and to make oneself the monk of a new religion, to subject oneself (like all early adherents) to the overwhelming power of one's own projections. But writers, and artists generally, need feel no imperative to adhere to any rule except the Polonian: to thine own self be true. If so-called Modernism is the literature that most answers the call of your consciousness, then write Moddy novels and let the theoretical Gradgrinds go grind themselves.

Modernism is not some superseded doctrine like the phlogiston theory of fire. The concerns of Modernist literature are at least as valid today as they were a century ago: alienation, anxiety, the technologization of life, the mediation of knowledge, consciousness of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life, the precariousness of existence, the absence of transcendence and the insufficiency of utopianism, the death of gods and the birth of the material world, the redemption of this falling world in the act of crazy love that turns it into art. None of these ideas is in any way outdated. Add the triumph of corporatism, the pauperization of the working class and the proletarianization of the bourgeoisie, and you have a set of themes for an ideal 21st-century fiction. Indeed, the idea that Modernist fiction is outdated might be a defense mechanism--just as "Postmodernism" is a defense--against the terrible relevance of the Modern. It's an idea that protects writers from the overwhelming power of Modernist art, from the anxiety-inducing achievements of a period that produced Picasso, Proust, Pound, Paterson, Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, Woolf, Conrad, James, Colette, Gide, Bulgakov, Kafka, Miller, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Welles, Dali, Man Ray, Mandelshtam, Duchamp, Matisse, Artaud, Schulz, Mann, Rhys, Nin, Faulkner, Anderson, Stein, etc., etc., etc. ... As I type this list, I sadly laugh at the thought that today's MFA programs have set up Don DeLillo as their paradigmatic novelist. Such a polestar assures at least a generation of superhip prose technicians, bloodless tellers of bloodless tales where the only thing that really flows is irony.

Art is the only form of redemption I trust. So let me close by dilating upon two of those Modernist themes implied above: the ideas that art is the only redemption we can trust and that sex is as much of transcendence as we can know. It is perhaps not overly Romantic to consider these ideas at least potentially revolutionary in our increasingly banal and frightened world. Ignoring religion as unnecessary (at best), these ideas ground transcendence in material reality. This is to suggest that the proper path of art is not that of unlimited ironic play but the messier, muddier, dirtier road where writers must blacken their hands with the inkdark realities of our world. Postmodernism, from Derrida to DeLillo (and especially in the work of their followers), seems increasingly an ironic Game of Thrones where artists and thinkers putter and plot in King's Landing while cowering from the assaults of the real (Derrida as King Joffrey, Stanley Fish as Lord Baelish, Fredric Jameson as Varys the court eunuch). The truly subversive act, today, is to leap those pasteboard walls and investigate the realities of material existence. The needful act is to hurl one's imagination against the terror of nothingness, the wonder of being, the redemptions of art, the transcendence through eros. Enough of theory, let us live.

Here's the good word: Blogrant

Blogrant \blog-rant\ n [blog personal internet journal + rant to ramble on at ridiculous length] (ca.2008) : an extended and highly polemical essay posted on an internet blog site - usu. considered pejorative.

I've been responsible for a few of these, and another is coming in a few minutes.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"The Pedersen Kid" by William H. Gass

Like anyone else who constantly reads and has read hundreds or thousands of books (I never began to count them, but surely I've read thousands by now: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, art...), I sometimes find myself in a reverse 'Buridan's ass' dilemma resulting from my disposition toward hypercriticism. I begin reading, say, a novel by William Gass, but the author's pathological hatred of narrative turns my reading into an arduous drive up a rocky mountain, so I jerk on the parking break and turn to a genre novel--Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King, let's say--only to be repulsed by the stylistic anemia of generic prose. I usually end by reading neither book and scrawling a few lines in my notebook about the null place where constant criticism has stalled me, all the while still intensely desiring that mindblowing experience of fiction, that nearly ideal novel that marries prose of Gass-level beauty and intelligence to the ineluctable structural logic of the best genre fiction.

Why has this become an either/or in our literary world? Why can't the plot/prose duality be a both-and? Why can't we have both witty, beautiful, lyrical prose and a cracking good story? Why can't a literary novel also be a page-turner, and vice-versa? The combination of artful prose and tight plotting (even melodrama) is certainly not a new idea. Dickens did it, and Nabokov, Faulkner too, and Fitzgerald. The 'new' and bad idea is the notion that these two things mustn't go together, that a tightly-plotted, swiftly-paced work must be written in stripped-down sentences (or Ellroyan fragments) while lyricism is expected and permitted only in 'serious' novels written by people who live in Brooklyn and/or teach 'creative writing' (a phrase that should be redundant, like 'leggy pants' or 'well-hung pornstar'). Writers today need to break down the imaginary wall between plotting and lyricism and rediscover the old synthesis, not as nostalgia but as rejuvenation. This seems urgently necessary today, as genre fiction hardens into pared-down repetitions of structural formulae and 'literary' fiction, that ostensible game reserve for stylists, is often blandly written, with little or no attention to the music of words. Too much of our 'art prose' is being written silently, whereas prose should always sing.

That last sentence brings me by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to William Gass and environs. Call him Bulbous Bill, Big Billy Boy, the Alliterative BHG (his rap name), just don't call him a plotter of plots. He loves sentences, hates plots. Plots make him plotz. But this wasn't always so. Witness his first published fiction, 1958's "The Pedersen Kid" (collected ten years later in his essential book of short fiction, In The Heart of the Heart of the Country). This 80-page story is one frozen hell of a debut, an instant American classic. It's a brilliant, gorgeously written exploration of the homicidal hatred that festers inside families, and it boasts an ending even more "zero at the bone" than its wintry setting. And it is also a 'story' in the traditional sense of the word, a deliberately (even elegantly) plotted work of narrative fiction. This story and parts of Omensetter's Luck mark the young Gass as a direct descendant of William Faulkner and suggest that he might have become a more Cormac McCarthyesque kind of novelist had he not fallen under the baleful influence of the stony Stein sisters, Gertrude and Wittgen, and metamorphosed into the postmodern wordplayer who's still playing even now (and beautifully) as ninety nears. If Gass hadn't made a 'linguistic turn' down the tunnel to Academic Ghettoland--and if he hadn't grown to despise narrative with the same superflux of spite with which Ruskin roared against the Renaissance or divines denounce the devil--he might have become, well, John Hawkes... But we already had one of him, and he did the job well enough for two, so Gass went digging elsewhere and turned up what is surely the strangest and most unexpected oeuvre of his literary generation.

But in this post I'm supposed to be opposing Gass, not burying him with blurbs. It's time to go contra on Gass's ass. Contra Gass (sounds like a 1980s CIA-owned Central American petroleum company, n'est-ce pas?), yes, contra Gass (who, I suspect, was attempting to elevate a personal weakness (the inability to plot at novelistic length) into a prescriptive law), yes, yes, contra Gass, narrative, that old inextricable intertangling of story and plot, and character, those bugbears of psychological complexity and realistically multiple motivation, should be valued at least as highly as the linguistic fabric of a work. When either side of this supposed duality is overly privileged, the novel will either freeze in a frost of 'white writing' or fizzle out in wordy displays of narcissistic fireworks. Instead of seesawing overcompensations, we require Hegelian synthesis and Aristotelian balance. The errant Clement Greenbergism that prescribes a medium's material as its only valid message (an aesthetic ideology for which Finnegans Wake and The Tunnel might stand as the defining Pollocks and De Koonings) is already the dustbreath of ghosts and deserves to be blown away by books that are elegant in both prose and plot. The works of Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Chabon are fine examples of such syntheses in the American grain. We need more books and writers (and readers) like them.

A Length of Links

If you're feeling like Don DeLillo's Nicholas Branch and would like to lose yourself in the vast compendium that DeLillo, in Libra, called "the Joycean Book of America," the entire 26 volumes of the Warren Commission hearings and exhibits on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy can be found online here. But beware: these volumes are a paranoid's paradise.

Voices and Visions, the very good 1980's PBS documentary series on American poetry, can be viewed online here. Click on the poet's name and then the 'VoD' link on the next page to watch the entire episode.

That unfortunate 16th-century traveler Cabeza de Vaca might, at a stretch, be understood as the true and unacknowledged father of America's 'Southern literature' (which, as Garcia Marquez has admirably observed, is really 'northern' literature, the literature of the northern Caribbean basin). The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, one of the earliest extant accounts of travel in the area now known as the American South can be read online here.

Another of American literature's disavowed founding texts, The New English Canaan, by that long-notorious anti-Puritan Thomas Morton of Merrymount--he of the Hawthorney May-pole and many merry mountings--can be read online here.

Arthur Golding's classic 16th-century English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the translation Shakespeare would've known, can be read online here. I have long contended that Titus Andronicus can be best understood as a Bloomian revision of Ovid's great tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela.

Herman Melville's letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne can be read online here.

Finally, here's a fascinating video of British SF/Fantasy writer China Mieville in leftist public intellectual mode. He's discussing the nexus of Halloween and Marxist theory, and the whole thing is more interesting than that dread word 'theory' makes it sound: