Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On the Birth of Writing, Out of the Asshole of Censorship (as Fertilized by the Risen Christ); or, A Memory of Childhood in One Damn Long Sentence

When Mrs. Trieb, our fearsome harridan of a second grade teacher, who was faster with a paddle than Jack Palance with a six-gun, and who, out of a sadistic rage more obscurely sourced than the Danube (somewhere in the Black Forest of her mind, a man in lederhosen was constantly pissing on her), cracked the ass of at least one student per day for the same reason that guards on a chain gang would flog a random prisoner each evening, to perpetuate an atmosphere of general terror, pronounced her edict henceforth forbidding the production and/or dissemination of KISS pictures in her domain (because, as she informed us, her minister had presented her with a cassette tape (this she produced from her purse and displayed as ocular proof) on which a second minister’s disembodied voice (like that heard by Abraham, by Moses, by Saul-become-Paul, by many other schizophrenics) had revealed that the band’s initials were an acronym for Knights In Satan’s Service, that their name rhymed with ‘hiss’ (the deceiving word on the serpent’s tongue), and that their music was a tool employed by the Evil One to lure little boys and even girls into battle against the One True Lord Our Father God Who Are In Heaven Jesus Christ Redeemer Save Us Poor Sinners urgathok narlypok turgathock ragnok (here Mrs. Trieb spoke briefly in tongues)), I, the principle creator and distributor of such images, obsessively drawing, in pencil, ink, and/or crayon on any available paper, representations (reminiscent in their naïve flatness of the lesser works of Henri Rousseau) of Gene, Paul, et alii in flame-spewing concert, and regularly presenting said drawings, as tokens of my courtly love, to pigtailed Patty the irresistible tomboy, was forced under threat of oaken spanking to cease production of these pictures and retreat, beneath the totalitarian eye of Frau Trieb, into the anal banality of landscape (geometric houses with facelike facades set between ballooning trees and triangular mountains under an ever-smiling sun, all but the solar silver dollar baselined on a ground as flat as Deaf Smith County, Texas), but the mind that mechanically produced such sub-sub-Grandma Moses pabulum, far from ceasing its darker explorations, channeled them immediately into the medium of speech, thus avoiding dictatorial regulation via the ur-samizdat of the oral tradition, recreating image as the Sinaitically blasphemous Word that was with God and impossibly was God, telling epic tales of KISS and Friends to envious and rather incredibly credulous fellow students every afternoon on the playground, a subversive strategy that eventually returned to paper when my narrative desire discovered the outlet of writing, that inky onanism, that black ejaculation spurting fertile words across the page, the transformation back to ink forcing the endless improvisations of speech into the rigorous mould of sentence form, the beginning-middle-ending shape of rise, climax, and fall, all falling into bathos like the confetti around red Patty’s head when I proudly presented her my inaugural endeavor, “KISS In Space” (it was the September after Star Wars), and she, mini-Michiko Kakutani, eagerly tore my unread pages into tiny pieces and tossed them into the air.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

THE OTHER VICTORIANS: A STUDY OF SEXUALITY AND PORNOGRAPHY IN MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND by Steven Marcus

Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians was a groundbreaking work upon publication almost 50 years ago. In an America that was still in the process of busting the 'mind-forged manacles' of literary censorship, this serious, sober, scholarly study of a few volumes from the vast library of Victorian smut effectively demonstrated the 'redeeming social value' (as sociological and/or psychological records) of works considerably less aesthetically accomplished than the judicially impounded literary artworks of Lawrence, Miller, Burroughs and Selby. If a scholar can demonstrate the value of The Lustful Turk or Rosa Fielding, it becomes very difficult for anyone to argue that Naked Lunch has none; and après Burroughs, le deluge. The literary critical passages in The Other Victorians, especially the extended discussion of My Secret Life, remain valuable and interesting half a century later. Indeed, Marcus's two chapters on My Secret Life are probably still the best pages ever written about that unreadably long and talentlessly-written Victorian monument. And his concluding discussion of 'pornotopia,' a word Marcus coined here to denote the fantasy world where all pornographic fiction is set, has deservedly become a locus classicus in all serious discussions of pornography. Marcus's other attempts to generalize or theorize, however, run up against a serious, perhaps fatal, methodological problem. He tries to make general statements about pornography, everywhere and at all times (he seems to imply), on the basis of a relatively tiny sample of works from the same country and century. Furthermore, he stacks the deck against porn by drawing a solid line between the categories 'pornography' and 'literature' and giving works of high aesthetic value to the latter category, thus ensuring that the former category will be a sump of easily dismissible filth. And this points to a further problem with The Other Victorians: Marcus doesn't much like his subject matter, and it shows. Repeatedly while reading the book I found myself wondering how Leslie Fiedler might have written it, or even how that porn fangirl Camille Paglia might have handled this material. Marcus too often comes across as a dogmatic Freudian moralist who repeatedly uses Freud's highly questionable schema of sexual development to indict pornography as a symptom of arrested development. In the world of 2015 this idea seems as archaic as the walls of Troy and Marcus seems an oddly mild-mannered Puritanical scold. (Marcus's few glancing remarks about homosexuality are equally outdated and off-base, artifacts of the Don Draper-era world in which he lived and wrote.) The Other Victorians was a necessary book and needed to be written. If it hadn't been written by a midcentury American Freudian moralist--if it had been written, say, by an author of libertarian or anarchist tendencies--it might have been an even better book. Sex, after all, and thus pornography, is naturally anarchic; even at its grimmest (in Sade, for example) it's a topsy-turvy twisting turning thing, blurrer of lines and dissolver of hierarchies. These are probably the only tenable generalizations one can make about sex and porn. To say anything else in general, as opposed to speaking of individual sexual works and acts, is like trying to nail semen to a wall.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Brief Interview with a Disturbingly Honest Man

Is there a specific ‘type’ of woman you find particularly attractive?

Like Ike, I like dykes. (During World War Two, eggheaded Eisenhower verbally countermanded an order that would have initiated a witchhunt of lesbians in the WACs. (As everyone knew, finding a dyke in the WACs was only slightly more difficult than finding a sailor on a battleship.)) One of the great tragic facts of my erotic life is my overwhelming attraction to hardcore butch lesbians: Steins and Toklases, leather women, dykes on bikes, bulldykes with buzz cuts and labrys tattoos, really mannish women, businesswomen with strap-ons in their carry-on bags, they’re all irresistible. And the fact that they, pretty much by definition (not to mention natural selection), have no sexual interest whatsoever in me ensures that they will always remain irresistible--always the tantalizing pussy-flavored fruit hanging just out of reach. Well, miles out of reach, actually. It is the safest imaginable form of sex because it can always and only be imaginable. The moment a dyke fucked me, I would cease to desire her, because she would cease to be the object of my desire. Ideals can only disappoint us.

Have you attempted to requite this desire?

Your terminology is delightfully archaic.

It’s yours.

Just so.

The Question…

Ah yes, have I ever fucked a dyke…Rather difficult, by definition, no? I have had ample opportunities for friendships--some brief, some extended, some continuing to the present--with women who prefer the aqueous grotto to the rigid jade. It is to remembered images of the closest of these friends that I masturbate every morning in the shower between 6:48 and 6:51 a.m., a fact that would surely surprise none of them, given that at least a few of them seem to consider the penised of the species to be descended from a sub-branch of Neanderthal that never satisfactorily evolved. Which would be another reason I love them.

Have you speculated as to the etiology of this desire?

It started on the elementary school playground, where all love begins. A short, fat, unathletic, nerdy, geeky, glasseswearing sissy boy, I eschewed boyish things and played with the girls. I swung on the swings with them, slid down the slide, jungled on the gym (which I’ve always thought of as a ‘Jungle Jim,’ as though it were named after some forgotten Mungo Park with a sideline in tubular construction). I was especially drawn, for reasons that will be unsurprising to dialecticians of eros, to a pair of boyish girls, best friends, named Hannah and Kate. They were tomboys, their jeans scuffed from rough play, their shirts stained from tree-climbing, their conversation weighted toward tractors and combines and firing their fathers’ firearms. I envied them; I suppose I wanted to be them even more than I wanted them, whatever ‘wanting’ might mean in the third grade. They were carefree and independent and fearless and many more now-forgotten things that I desperately wanted to be. They were more thoughtful, more mature, than those silly boys arguing over kickball on the grass. (The boys were the children we other children disdained.) I loved all the tomboys on that playground (and since it was a rural area fertile with farmgirls, there were many to choose from and no need to choose), yellow and brown and tawny ponytails bouncing behind them as they ran in rowdy gangs across the gray pavement, leaping all cracks to avoid maternal chiropracty; or whirling in a girly blur when they spun the old wooden roundabout, chips of blue paint (lead-based, surely; brain damaging as all bejesus) raining to the ground below their kicking feet; or hanging upside down on bent knees from the monkey bars, their pigtails flying back and forth as they swung simianly through the crystalline winter air. Oh, I loved them with an unspoken, unthought purity of love that can never die and never has. It has merely matured along with my mind: the girls giving way to tomboyish teens and eventually to the dykes of the present day. There have been feminine men too--transvestites, chicks with dicks--but these were brief excursions, daytrips off the highway of pure desire. Call it fixation if you wish; I’ll call it love.

So there is an element of pedophilia in your desire.

Is that a question?

If you wish…

‘Element’ is a useful word. Covers a host of unspeakables, n’est-ce pas?: the element of hatred in love, the element of Oedipal revenge in filial identification, the element of infantile incest in adult attraction, the element of masculinity in femininity and its elemental vice versa, we’ve more elements than Euclid. Yes, there is an element--a radioactive one, deadly if mishandled. Let me be clear--

Please.

--There is an element of pedophilia in everyone’s erotic desires, from mine to Caligula’s to Pope John Paul II’s. As children, we were all pedophiles. We were powerfully attracted to other children. And the memory of that desire remains in a disavowed portion of the adult mind--like the pornographic backroom of a family video store (a simile that dates me, I fear, to the ancient PreNetflixian Era), a special backroom that, when finally entered, will be found to contain nothing more scandalous than a shelf of Disney films. But as adults we bar ourselves from that mental room. And therein lies our rage at the adult pedophile (who for his crimes deserves every beating he gets; I‘m not in the apologia business, you see, except for myself): he is a classic scapegoat upon whom we project the desires--yes, the elements in our desires--that disturb us unspeakably. We despise the pedophile not because he is alien, but because we know him all too well. We understand his desire because we formerly shared it. He is our most secret sharer. A different fall of the dice, and it could have been any of us parked beside a playground and masturbating against the steering wheel when Barney Fife rapped his flashlight on the window and sent us to hell. This is all rather obvious, isn’t it?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The N-word in My Life

The sole similarity between Huckleberry Finn’s childhood and mine was the frequency and ease with which people in both children’s lives used the word ‘nigger.’ Here's a list of typical statements I recall hearing from the white people among whom I grew up during my 1970s childhood and 1980s youth in a mostly white, mostly working-class, very conservative, very Republican, very religious part of the American Midwest. (If you don't find at least some of these statements deeply offensive, there's something seriously wrong with you.):


Look at that big fat nigger woman.
I don’t want my kids goin’ ta school with no niggers.
He’s a nigger, so of course he drives a big Cadillac.
I ain’t livin’ next to niggers no matter what the goddamn gover'ment says.
That’s the kinda shit happens in niggertown.
Them niggers’ll steal ya blind.
Ah ’member this lil nigger boy, oooooh doggies, he sure could dance.
I may be poor but I ain’t no nigger.
Look at that, a white woman with a nigger.
That’s nigger music, change the station.
She’s just a nigger-lovin’ lunatic.
Niggers an’ queers an’ women libbers an’ fairies an’ bleedin’ heart lib’ral nigger-lovers, that’s all this country’s got anymore, I kid you not. Ain’t a man’s country, not no more, not since Martin Luther Nigger and the nigger-lovers took over; that’s why I’m celebratin’ James Earl Ray Day, hee-hee, get it? James Earl Ray Day.


Sometimes the usage was more descriptive than derogatory ( e.g.,“I was talkin’ ta this ol’ nigger man in Bob Evans other night…”), but this is not to suggest that the user was not a racist. Of course he was a racist, they were all racists, my entire family and just about everyone we knew, brain-dead racists from before the Flood, antediluvian creatures slogging through twentieth-century life with a worldview that would have embarrassed the nineteenth. In the world of my childhood, ‘nigger’ was a shibboleth, a password by which racists positively identified each other. All racists assumed that all other white people were equally racist, because racism was, in their minds, simply common sense, like the knowledge that the sun rises in the east (which it doesn't, of course; the Earth turns). But certainty about a stranger’s worldview could only be attained by hearing him speak those two magic syllables. White liberals offended by the word were despised as cowards who concealed their racism behind a façade of smarmy compassion. ‘Nigger’ was the ‘open sesame’ to labyrinthine caverns of stupidity as yet unexplored.


Somehow, for reasons I can't explain, I understood from an early age that the racism of all these people around me was fundamentally ignorant and false. Maybe this realization had something to do with the cultural contradictions on display in my home. My racist family enjoyed Good Times, Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons; my honky brothers and I funked-out to Soul Train (preferring it to that whitebread staple, American Bandstand; I also perceived very early that Dick Clark was as phony as a Nerf football and probably lived up to his first name when the cameras were off); I stared longingly at glossy color magazine photos of the Funkadelic stage show, which looked way, way cooler than anything Led Zeppelin ever did; and Benny Morris, the only black kid in my second-grade class, was neither better nor worse than any of my other classmates. And there was also the matter of my childish crush on Christina Cortez, the daughter of migrant farm workers (the ‘tomato pickers’ my family placed a micro-notch above ‘niggers’ but still well below ‘white trash’ in its system of all-American apartheid), who was the smartest girl in the first grade, and whose turquoise bracelet, blue as a cloudless sky on a thin gold chain around her brown wrist, was possibly the first art object I ever admired.


So I was viscerally convinced of the stupidity of racism long before I learned (not from any of my teachers (who tended to be as racist as all the other resentful adults in my petit bourgeois milieu) but from a James Michener novel) that skin color signified nothing more important than the place where one’s ancestors happened to have lived in a time beyond history, that disliking someone because of the color of his skin was even less rational than imprisoning a man because his 40-greats-grandfather accidentally trespassed on the king’s land in the 8th century. In adulthood, I came to consider this knowledge one of the great revelations of my life. It would have meant little, however, had I not used the knowledge as a pick to dig into the densely packed earth of myself, breaking off the hard chunks of racist opinions and patterns of thought that I had drunken in my mother’s milk and learned with my father’s language. This was the difficult and essential task, to eliminate the racist implantations from a personality that already, at age 12, appeared coherently formed. I had to interrogate myself, tie my thoughts to the rack and twist them until their racist cartilage came into view. Only then could I knowingly and finally reject them. Today I am uncertain as to how consciously performed this process was, but I remember that by age 14 I was able to look at strangers without mentally identifying them by skin color and automatically applying to them all the racist bullshit I had imbibed since birth. This was a minor, private victory, but I allowed myself to be proud of it.


Racism is learned behavior--there's no gene for it; it's not encoded in our DNA--and therefore it can be unlearned. Each of us can educate him- or herself out of the racism into which we have been miseducated. And an important part of this education must be the scientific explanation of 'race.' That is, American public schools need to teach, beginning at the youngest possible age, the evolutionary explanation of variations in human skin color. It boggles my mind that this knowledge is reserved for undergraduate college courses in Physical Anthropology. Most Americans don't attend university, so the information must be taught in public primary and secondary schools. The fact that it is not, that most Americans even today have no idea that evolutionary theory has elegantly and compellingly explained the question of why some people are white and others are brown, is yet another dubious triumph of the right-wing anti-evolution movement. Their kneejerk opposition to anything Darwinian in our schools has had the unintended effect of perpetuating the miseducations of our racist culture. This shit needs to end, and the tools to end it are in our hands. We need only the intelligence and the courage to use them.

Eye to I: A Memory of Childhood

I, a most troubling pronoun. Both the loneliest letter and the most distressingly multiple, I is a tragically alienated case of dissociative identity disorder. Contra Rimbaud, I is not merely an other; it is a host, a myriad, a convention of others more vulgar than Shriners and wearing even funnier hats. Not the simple sum of the series zygote, fetus, infant, child, boy, adolescent, man, I enlarges to include father, mother, uncle, cousin, aunt, grandfather, and all the branches and roots of not-so-greats worming down the miry dark backward of every I’s forgotten past. I is born from nothingness and to nothingness returns, and the interval between is defined by what I lacks, what I needs to take inside to fill the void that frightens with its overwhelming freedom. I is each of the shattered, scattered fragments of a mirror in which I may have seen I complete, once, in the corner of my eye.


When I was a child I despised the nametag I was forced to wear for the first few days of school each year until the teacher learned our names. (Why did I not end that sentence with ‘my name’? Because I is the greatest dissembler, much better than ungrammatical me.) That rectangular piece of paper stuck to my shirt above my left nipple annoyed, offended and angered me beyond my understanding, beyond anything that could have been occasioned by the ‘Brian O.’ carefully teacher-printed inoffensively thereon. It was as though I hated my name like a traitorous friend and wished no further association with it. I was George Washington and my name was Benedict A. These six letters written on my chest (five in the fourth grade when a sudden dearth of Brians dropped the differentiating 'O') were the runes of a sinister magic, an Arabian Nights spell that would trap me like a bottled genie in this life, this family, this bag of skin, where every moment was a new anxiety or another, graver fear. I resented this linguistic fixing of my self (not yet knowing the word ‘fix’ as a euphemism for genital surgery, I understood the naming process already as the ultimate castration), this freezing of my fluidity into a single name chosen by my enemies. I, I somehow knew, was other than Brian O.; I was something seen in pictures, outside words; I was a river of selves swiftly flowing and Heracliteanly unrepeatable; I was a jewel cut into so many facets it looked different from every angle of the 360-degree round; I, I knew, was a clamoring crowd, not a random collection of curves and lines signifying a sound that grated in my ears. At the end of the first week of fourth grade, I ripped the nametag from my shirt and threw it into the bathroom wastebasket. I stood there and spat on it until the letters disappeared, spat and spat on it until it was pulpy and darkened and smeared.

The Invisible Child

Invisibility is a survival strategy sometimes observed in victims of childhood abuse. In their earliest years, many children, probably due to a generalization of subjectivity arising from imperfectly or incompletely formed self boundaries, believe themselves invisible whenever they close their eyes. In abused children, this belief may never be completely overcome. The magical eye-closing of childhood modulates into a more realistic desire to render oneself invisible to potential abusers (i.e., the world) by concealing oneself or ‘hiding in plain sight.’ Strategies of concealment include hiding behind furniture or curtains, closing oneself inside closets, crawling under tables, beds, etc. More subtle techniques of ‘plain sight’ concealment include standing near or against the walls of a room; rarely speaking, even when spoken to; walking quietly, rarely gesturing, refraining from expressions of emotion, etc. In general, the child avoids any action or activity that might draw attention to himself. He keeps his gaze lowered or unfocused and often ‘freezes’ his face into a neutral, inscrutable mask. If these symptoms become fossilized and persist into adulthood, they will tend to ensure social failure in mature life. This is a classic example of the ‘winner loses’ phenomenon, in which a successful childhood adaptation enables the child to survive into an adulthood of abject failure caused by that same adaptation. The former ‘invisible child’ will tend to be an extremely alienated adult with few or no friends or intimate relationships and limited economic prospects. (His inability to ‘project himself’ in job interviews, for example, will often lead him into a life of underemployment and its consequent frustrations.) A ‘successful’ strategy of invisibility will also commonly provoke episodes of silent infantile rage whenever it functions ‘too well’: when people accidentally bump into the victim, for example, and excuse themselves by saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.” The invisible adult will attempt to control his resultant rage at an unseeing world by turning the anger inward. Nothing is more visible than an indignant, self-righteous ranter, so the invisible man silently swallows his anger and smolders inside, burning away more of himself every time the world bumps against him. The invisibility that arguably saved him as a child thus becomes the adult's living death; the years that should have been his life pass by as a long, slow suicide. Life provides many paths to hell-in-the-mind; this is one of them.

THIS BOY'S LIFE by Tobias Wolff

Am I the only reader whose credulity is strained to the breaking point by Tobias Wolff's 'memoir'? I'm not saying that Ye Olde Toby Mug is a fabricator of James  ("Howdya like my prison tattoos?") Frey proportions; I'm merely politely suggesting that Wolff's book deserves to be subjected to a radically skeptical reading. This reading would simply treat the narrator as the kind of person he tells us he once was: a sometimes highly successful deceiver, a liar both big and good. This is essentially the same as saying we should read the book as the work of the person Tobias Wolff was when he wrote it: a professional writer of fiction, an imaginist, someone who might feel no qualms about harmlessly inventing a reality when the real thing is less than satisfactorily dramatic. In short, a bullshitter, just like Papa Hemingway and Big Daddy Dostoyevsky. Isn't Wolff's book, after all, exactly about this kind of invention, this self-invention, the extent to which our selves are fictions perpetually in the process of revision? (The answer is "Yes.") Such fluid selves, however, are in practical terms more often the exception than the rule. Most selves are ill-fitting, hand-me-down things guaranteed to bequeath their bearers a lifetime of neuroses--which the bearers will bear, because doing the Rilkean / Wolffian thing and rewriting your life is one of the hardest things anyone will ever do. Only the truly exceptional can hope to be, like the "I" of this book, the unreliable narrators of themselves.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I'm talking about when I talk about porn...

My use of the word 'pornography' on this blog and elsewhere is purely descriptive, implying no moral or aesthetic judgment. It describes a genre of art, in literature, cinema, theater, painting, sculpture, etc., that focuses upon human sexuality--just as the word 'romance' denotes a genre that focuses on sentimental love and 'mystery' one that focuses on crimes and their solutions. The genre of pornography is vast and multimedia, and as in any genre, the majority of its products are unimaginative, formulaic, and of low aesthetic value. In porn, due to its connection to masturbation and the natural state of excess that is human sexuality, the ratio of 'crap to cream' is probably higher than in most other genres. But this shouldn't deter us from identifying and evaluating the cream. Indeed, it makes that critical effort even more necessary.


I prefer the word 'pornography' to the more polite 'erotica' because the latter term reminds me of the use of the phrase 'graphic novel' by people who are ashamed to admit they read comic books. (Yes, Maus and Fun Home are great works of art, and part of the shock of their new is the realization that they belong to the same genre universe as the works of Stan Lee.) I also second the sentiment of Samuel R. Delany (author of several pornographic volumes), who said in an interview that use of the word 'erotica' suggested that there was something shameful about writing 'pornography,' and he felt no shame. Also, the word 'erotica' (which I sometimes use as an interchangeable synonym for porn) introduces an unnecessary bifurcation into the form of the genre. Rather than evaluating sexual artworks and then calling the best 'erotica' and the rest 'porn,' why not simply call it all porn and evaluate it for artistic quality just as we evaluate the objects in all other genres? We have no separate category called "good mysteries," and we need none for good pornography.

Erotic Cinema: An Unzipped Canon

As a companion (a fuck buddy of sorts) to my recent post on 'high porn' literature, here's a highly personal, top-of-my-head list of canonical 'high porn' films, the best of the best 'erotic cinema.' These undeniably artistic explorations of eroticism render meaningless any discussion of 'pornography vs. art,' for they are clearly both. The order is roughly chronological.
  • Pandora's Box (Pabst)
  • Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel/Dali)
  • The Blue Angel (Sternberg)
  • L'Age d'Or (Bunuel/Dali)
  • Ecstasy (Machaty)
  • Queen Christina (Mamoulian)
  • Fireworks (Anger)
  • La Ronde (Ophuls)
  • Vertigo (Hitchcock)
  • Psycho (Hitchcock)
  • Peeping Tom (Powell)
  • Persona (Bergman)
  • Vivre Sa Vie (Godard)
  • Hour of the Wolf (Bergman)
  • Belle de Jour (Bunuel)
  • Blow-Up (Antonioni)
  • Fellini Satyricon (Eponymous)
  • Murmur of the Heart (Malle)
  • Pink Flamingos (Waters)
  • Cabaret (Fosse)
  • Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci)
  • The Trilogy of Life: Arabian Nights, Canterbury Tales, The Decameron (Pasolini)
  • In The Realm of the Senses (Oshima)
  • Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini)
  • Eraserhead (Lynch)
  • The Man Who Loved Women (Truffaut)
  • Querelle (Fassbinder)
  • The Draughtsman's Contract (Greenaway)
  • The Belly of An Architect (Greenaway)
  • Blue Velvet (Lynch)
  • 9 1/2 Weeks (Lyne)
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kaufman)
  • Drowning by Numbers (Greenaway)
  • Henry and June (Kaufman)
  • Wild At Heart (Lynch)
  • The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover (Greenaway)
  • My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant)
  • Poison (Haynes)
  • Damage (Malle)
  • The Crying Game (Jordan)
  • The Piano (Campion)
  • Exotica (Egoyan)
  • Bitter Moon (Polanski)
  • Heavenly Creatures (Jackson)
  • Naked Lunch (Cronenberg)
  • Total Eclipse (Holland)
  • Kids (Clark)
  • Mighty Aphrodite (Allen)
  • Wilde (Gilbert)
  • Lost Highway (Lynch)
  • Boogie Nights (Anderson)
  • Crash (Cronenberg)
  • The Pillow Book (Greenaway)
  • Happiness (Solondz)
  • Your Friends and Neighbors (LaBute)
  • Breaking the Waves (von Trier)
  • Time Regained (Ruiz)
  • Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick)
  • Mulholland Drive (Lynch)
  • 8 1/2 Women (Greenaway)
  • Romance (Breillat)
  • Kinsey (Condon)
  • The Dreamers (Bertolucci)
  • Bad Education (Almodovar)
  • Cowards Bend The Knee (Maddin)
  • Anatomy of Hell (Breillat)
  • House of Pleasures (Bonello)
  • Shame (McQueen)
  • Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche)
  • Nymphomaniac: Extended Director's Cut (von Trier)

The Real F-Word

Fragment from a failed roman d'essai:


The Pequod shivered to planks, Gatsby dead as autumn leaves, Daisy Miller going down in Rome, Holden in the nuthouse, Rooster Cogburn still a mean-ass drunk, Slothrop dismantled like a Nazi rocket, Sylvia ovened like an English muffin, Compson drowning with a condom in his mouth, Pound not making it cohere, Moriarty losing paradise when the car runs out of road, Eliot going to church, Whitman descending into epigrams, Sabbath descending to the cemetery, Sophie and Nathan dead in their bed, Rabbit running to a premature rest, Jake Barnes with nothing but a gash between his legs, so there we are.


The fact that our culture of Trumped-up success has generated a stellar literature of failure did nothing to assuage the permanent depression through which Our Nameless Protagonist suffered his adulthood (about which, the less said…). Nor was this constantly hovering cloud, this unshakeable knowledge of the nothingness of anything he might try to do, the nullity of anything he might dare to think, alleviated to any noticeable degree by his understanding of the dialectical sense of Our American Situation: we are perversely attracted to failure for the same reason that attracted Eve to the serpent’s testicular fruit. Failure is our one truly forbidden sin (we stand on line like Nooyawkers to commit all the others), it is the worst of all F-words, the unspeakable unthinkable, the abyss of capital, the void of value, the thing Horatio Alger (secret pedophile) warned us about (while inappropriately touching our great-great-grandparents; hey, the book ain’t called Ragged Dick for nothin’). So of course failure can only be the fear that haunts every second of our lives, a presence so constant we don’t notice it anymore, like the sound of our tires on a long highway drive. It is the whirlpool sucking us down and the threat that keeps us flailingly afloat. It is both the Great Unmentionable and the only word corresponding to a letter grade in our educational system: A doesn’t mean absolutely great, nor does B mean better than average, nor C coulda done better, nor D dumbass, but F now always and forever means Failure with a capital you know. And Failure, gentlemen, is not an option.


So is it any wonder that our country produces more lunatics than Hershey bars? With an ideology that demonizes failure married to an economy designed to maximize it, how could things be otherwise? For capitalism produces failure much more efficiently than wealth. The Forbes 400 can’t compare to the Failure 299,999,600 (though Malcolm’s baby is admittedly more euphonious). Measured even by capitalism’s own 24-carat yardstick, failure is the deepest truth of all of our lives. You’ll never, never, never ever, get rich. And even if you do, you’ll still have Bill Gates’s pseudo-Kermit voice or Donald Trump’s wilted lettuce hair. (So stop wasting money on lottery tickets and buy something useful, like crack.) If America is imagined as a bell (call it Liberty, appropriately cracked), even the few who successfully cling to its thin outer skin are in danger of slipping under the bottom edge and ending up inside, in that vast hidden void of failure where people packed more closely than Jacob Riis subjects struggle through forgettable lives in constant danger of being clobbered by the clapper. The unspeakable truth about America is that almost all Americans are, by their own implicit evaluation, unspeakable, and the successful are the worst of all. As F. Scott Fitzgerald might have said, The very rich are different from you and me; they can afford to be unspeakable in unthinkably extravagant ways.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Yuri I. Ablonovsky (1885-1949?)

From The Encyclopedia of Imaginary Persons, an unwritten work by Brian A. Oard:


ABLONOVSKY, YURI I. (1885-1949?) Russian psychoanalyst and stage magician. Born into a St. Petersburg merchant family and educated at Cambridge and Vienna, he was a student and (for a brief time) patient of Sigmund Freud (see Freud’s “A Case of Delusional Paranoia Arising from an Anal Fixation Unusually Resistant to Analysis,” S.E. X, 112-134; see also, Oliver Sacks, “The Comrade Who Mistook His Penis For A Turd: Neurological Musings upon a Freudian Failure,” It‘s All In Your Head: Uncollected Writings, 75-89). Ablonovsky earned the lifelong enmity of Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka after receiving manual pleasure from Alma Mahler atop the Prater ferris wheel. (Kokoschka’s portrait of Ablonovsky, praised by Robert Hughes as “a psychological masterpiece: the smoldering, barely animate ruin of a human being, like a Marsyas who after his flaying has been cut down and electrocuted,” currently hangs in the Berezovsky Collection, London.) Returning to Russia in late 1916, he participated in the February Revolution and supported the government of Alexander Kerensky, an affiliation that forced him into exile after the Bolshevik takeover. He practiced psychoanalysis in Berlin and Dresden (1920-33) and Paris (1934-40), concurrently investigating the condition that would come to be known as ‘Ablonovsky’s Syndrome,’ the radical inability to distinguish between waking and dreamed ‘realities.’ To the sufferer, memories of his waking life seem no more ‘real’ (and often less so) than memories of his dreams. Ablonovsky returned again to Russia shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. Abandoning psychoanalysis, he pursued a career as a professional magician, performing in Moscow under the name ‘Yabo the Great.’ His hugely popular performances during and after the war, which usually climaxed with his ‘cutting a fascist into eight pieces and juggling them’ illusion, came to an abrupt end after he reportedly said to a friend, “They call me the greatest magician of all time, but I am no match for Comrade Stalin. He can make even Trotsky disappear.” KGB records released in 1991 show that Ablonovsky died in custody shortly after his 1949 arrest. Multiple witnesses, however, have reported encountering an elderly man claiming to be ‘Yabo the Great’ in various Siberian prison camps as late as 1978.

Bratton's Head: A Very Short Cautionary Tale by Brian A. Oard

Men who cling to the backs of garbage trucks, utility workers repairing roadside lines, official pavers, pounders of guardrail posts, surveyors eyeing transits positioned like mad painters’ easels in the middle of the road, all are required to wear yellow reflective vests because of what happened to Hank Bratton. “What Happened to Hank Bratton” is the cautionary tale ritually repeated to all new employees at Stevens Services, the largest (because the only) waste disposal company in our middling-size town. Mr. Bratton, a happy-go-lucky sanitation worker who identified deeply with Johnny Cash and accordingly dressed always and entirely in black, walked around the back of his truck one workday morning and stepped directly into the path of a very quietly oncoming Plymouth Fury. Bratton was thrown several feet into the air, his unscheduled flight prematurely concluding when the back of his neck collided with a telephone pole. The Furious driver, certain he had killed the garbage man, metaled his pedal and tried to disappear down the curving suburban street, but he was apprehended that evening at his sister’s home in the next county, where police found him hiding at the bottom of a large toy chest in a children’s playroom, weeping and begging the officers not to beat him with their belts.


Against every examining physician’s expectation, Bratton survived. He was completely paralyzed from the neck down, but his head bounced with life on the hospital pillow, joking with visitors and begging the nurses for beer as though the rest of his body was not prematurely mummifying below close-fitting sheets. After two weeks of relative jollity, Bratton’s mood began to change. Within a month, he was begging and then angrily demanding that the nurses end his life: Nicholson him with a pillow, Morrison him on morphine, bag his head and rubber band his neck like Jerzy Kosinski, speed dial Jack Kevorkian for an emergency consult, anything to release him from the cramped cage his head had become. Nurses ignored him; doctors sedated him. His head was eventually transferred to a nursing home (everyone in the ambulance assured him the body was attached, but he had no reason to believe them after the pretty nurse with the big dark sad eyes refused to open the back door and slide his gurney into highway traffic) where a new team of nurses ignored and different doctors sedated and during rare lucid moments the head demanded decapitation, release from its ragdoll body, and to a psychiatric resident it said, “How can it be suicide if most of you is already dead?” The man spoke of antidepressants and all life had to offer. The head replied, “Even licking pussy gets old after a while.” Its requests unacknowledged, the head lived stubbornly on and is probably still alive today out at the nursing home past the refinery, where everything smells like a bad car engine. But no one visits it anymore, no one mentions its former owner except to tell the tale. Bratton has died into fable.

Monday, June 22, 2015

An 1887 Photo of Vincent Van Gogh has been Discovered


Everyone knows the Van Gogh of the great self-portraits, but the recently discovered photo above is the only known image purporting to show his face during the final years of his life, the period in which the great portraits were painted. Van Gogh is the man seated in back, third from left, staring directly into  the camera. The two men in front are Van Gogh's then-intimate friends the painters Emile Bernard (left) and Paul Gauguin (right, in fez). Experts have also identified the other men, and details about them and the photo will likely be forthcoming. There will, of course, be disagreements among the experts, but the photo convinced me almost immediately. I have compared the figure in this photo with the photo of Van Gogh at 19, and to my unprofessional eye, this appears to be an older version of the same face (with a beard trimmed to square-off the jawline). Yes, this Kris Kristofferson-looking 19th-century dude is probably Vincent Van Gogh. Here's a blow-up:

STILL LIFE WITH OYSTERS AND LEMON by Mark Doty

To call a book 'readable' is to say nearly nothing about it. Little Golden Books, Dan Brown novels, and the collected ghostwritten works of Sarah Palin are all 'readable,' at least theoretically. The real test, the acid test for aesthetic value, is re-readability. Does a given book demand to be read again? That, not the hammy man's hoary to be or not..., is truly the question. And Mark Doty's Still Life with Oysters and Lemon answers it with a resounding affirmative. It's a short book about still life paintings, but to describe it thus is to reduce it to unrecognizability. Doty's is 'a book about still life' in the same way John Berger's great "A Story for Aesop" is an essay about Velazquez. In his book's brief but packed 70 pages, Doty does indeed adumbrate a theory of still life as a vision of the material world seen in the light and against the darkness of mortality and transience, but his meditation also vibrates outward from aesthetics, embracing reflections on recollection and representation, memory and mortality, life and death. This is a book as compressed as a poem and written in a lovely poet's prose. And like a good poem*, it demands re-reading.


*I'll point out footnotedly that Doty, an accomplished poet, has written some very good poems indeed. I recommend his volume of selected poetry, Fire to Fire.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Yet another "I am one cultured muthafucka" moment...

The barbarians do in fact arrive near the end of Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians" (aka "Expecting the Barbarians," not exactly the same thing; you pays for your translation and you takes your chances), but they are merely "people...from the frontiers," recognizable and nonthreatening because an historical process, fossilized by reactionary fear in the city, has been continuing on the margins, in the outlands, transforming the 'barbarians' into 'civilized' peoples--much like those in the city who define their lifestyles in opposition to a 'barbarism' that exists only in their xenophobic fantasies. (Or as a T-shirt seen at a biology conference once put it, "If you outlaw evolution, only outlaws will evolve.")


I'm reading Cavafy and listening to Donizetti's Elixir of Love while paperwhite moths flit above the grass in a luminous Van Gogh landscape of lawn and field and trees framed in my western Ohio window. It's a beautiful day, a day like a Monet. The bel canto is silly, the poetry sublime, the natural world green, glistening and glowing after a gentle morning rain. Summer nears, and the world is in the midst of life. If a mind of summer wasn't good enough for Wallace Stevens, that was his problem.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

High Porn : An Unbuttoned Canon

The passing reference to "canonical High Porn" in my last post might have raised a Nimoyesque eyebrow or two, so perhaps I should expand upon it (dilate upon it, tumesce upon it...always bearing in mind the lovely impossibility of writing about sex without unintended double entendres). Here's an informal, top-of-my-head, roughly chronological list of some works I would include in an informal canon of High Pornography. The list is by no means encyclopedic (it's too Eurocentric for that; except for only a few books, it's an entirely 'western' canon) and does not imply that I like all of these works (although I recommend most of them).
  • Aristophanes, Plays
  • Plato, The Symposium
  • Ovid, Love Poems, The Metamorphoses
  • Martial, The Epigrams
  • Petronius, The Satyricon
  • The Arabian Nights
  • The Fabliaux
  • Boccaccio, The Decameron
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Pietro Aretino, Dialogues
  • William Shakespeare, Sonnets, Pericles, Troilus and Cressida
  • Lord Rochester, Complete Poems
  • Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders
  • John Cleland, Fanny Hill
  • Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
  • Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, Justine, Juliette, 120 Days of Sodom
  • William Blake, Poetry and Prose
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Christabel"
  • Byron, Don Juan
  • Honore de Balzac, "Sarrasine," The Girl with the Golden Eyes
  • Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  • Anonymous, My Secret Life
  • Emile Zola, Nana
  • C. P. Cavafy, Complete Poems
  • James Joyce, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake
  • Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
  • D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover
  • Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Nexus, Plexus
  • Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
  • Anais Nin, Delta of Venus, Little Birds
  • Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye
  • Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, Funeral Rites, Miracle of the Rose, Querelle
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  • Pauline Reage, The Story of O
  • William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  • Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems
  • Stephen Vizinczey, In Praise of Older Women
  • Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
  • Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint, Sabbath's Theater, The Dying Animal
  • Erica Jong, Fear of Flying, How To Save Your Own Life, Parachutes and Kisses, Fanny
  • Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckenridge
  • Norman Mailer, An American Dream, Ancient Evenings
  • W. H. Auden, "The Platonic Blow"
  • Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, Forbidden Colors
  • Junichiro Tanizaki, The Key
  • Yasunari Kawabata, House of the Sleeping Beauties
  • William H. Gass, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife
  • J. G. Ballard, Crash
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
  • John Updike, Rabbit is Rich, The Witches of Eastwick, Roger's Version
  • Edmund White, A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty
  • Robert Coover, Spanking the Maid
  • Harold Brodkey, "Experience," in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
  • Renaud Camus, Tricks
  • Mutsuo Takahashi, A Bunch of Keys: Selected Poems
  • Dennis Cooper, Closer
  • Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior
  • Alasdair Gray, 1982 Janine
  • Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher
  • Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Immortality
  • Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of the Stepmother
  • Norman Rush, Mating
  • Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming Pool Library, The Line of Beauty
  • Pat Califia, Macho Sluts
  • Samuel Delany, The Mad Man
  • Robert Olen Butler, They Whisper
  • David Lehman, ed. The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present
  • Annie Proulx, "Brokeback Mountain," in Close Range
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores
  • Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet
  • Catherine Millet, The Sexual Life of Catherine M
  • Mark Doty, School of the Arts

Monday, June 15, 2015

Your Bloomsday To-Do List

Back by popular demand (well, one member of the populace demanded it), here's a repeat of the 'Bloomsday To-Do List' I included in an eponymousday post several years ago.


Your Bloomsday to-do list (one item for each chapter):
  1. Start the day with rich white milk, not hers
  2. Try to awake from your historical nightmare
  3. Telephone Eden on your navelcord
  4. Discuss the works of Paul de Kock.
  5. Stupefy them with Latin
  6. Plant Paddy Dignam and watch him, Bloom
  7. Kiss Molly's Royal Irish Arse
  8. U.P.
  9. Prove by algebra that Hamlet's father was his mother's uncle's brother's cousin's mother
  10. Stalk Father John Conmee SJ from central Dublin to the hill of Howth
  11. Tunefully tup Mrs. Bloom
  12. Explain by science the hanged man's erection
  13. Come
  14. Read Saintsbury's History of English Prose Rhythm
  15. Visit a Surrealist brothel and be as bad as Parnell was
  16. Buck yourself up in orthodox Samaritan fashion
  17. Insert long round end
  18. ...and yes I said yes I will Yes.

I will also take this Bloomsday opportunity to debunk a Joycean meme currently worming its memelike way around the interwebs. People who should know better have recently been alleging that Ulysses is not all that dirty, that it is in fact rather tame by the standards of 2015. Having recently re-read the novel, I hasten to demur. (That murmuring sound you hear is the sound of me demurring.) Anyone who has read and understood the 'Circe' section could not possibly call Joyce's novel 'tame'--not unless such activities as forced transexualism, manual rape, and watching through a keyhole and masturbating while another man fucks your wife are par for your particular course. No, there's nothing tame about Ulysses. It's as outrageously extreme as any work of canonical High Porn from Petronius to Philip Roth. Don't call it tame and give the uninitiated another reason to skip it. Instead, let's insist that it's scandalous. Let's call it filthy, raunchy, surrealistic in its perversity... Dude, you gotta read it!

MERRY BLOOMSDAY!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

DOG YEARS by Gunter Grass

The recent death of Gunter Grass sent my left arm skyward toward the shelf where my paperback of Dog Years has sat unread for at least a lifetime's worth of its title. I took it down, snorted its vintage 1960s paperback scent (true madeleine for the bookish), and began reading Grass's big black shaggy hund of a novel.


My reaction to Dog Years is as tripartite as the book's structure: the first section grabbed me, the second nearly lost me, and the third impressed me deeply. (Perhaps interestingly, this mirrors my reaction to The Tin Drum, where the first section knocked me out, the second impressed me less, and the third least of all--although, as in Dog Years, there are some very good scenes throughout.) As that parenthetical comment implies, any reading of Dog Years takes place under the inescapable circular shadow of Oskar Matzerath's tinny drum. This novel was clearly Grass's attempt to make lightning strike twice, so it's not surprising that it almost fizzles out. (I suspect that many readers don't make it through the overlong 'Love Letters' section--I came close to bailing out there.) The first two-thirds of Dog Years largely tread upon soggy ground already footprinted by Oskar and his family (who make Hitchcockian cameos here), and while the sections are mostly enjoyable and the prose adventurous, there's little sense of the author pushing himself beyond his literary past. The 'Materniads' section, however, affords Grass the opportunity for a more extensive and pointed satire of postwar Germany and the 'economic miracle' than is found in the earlier novel. This section also seems imaginatively and linguistically superior to the rest of Dog Years--it's as though Grass spends 350 pages cranking his literary engine and here the sucker finally fires and we're off. Matern's picaresque journey of Rabelaisian revenge, the 'mealworm prophecy' satire of the Springer press empire, the ultra-high satire of Heidegger and Habermas, the long radio play section that satirizes the West German fetishization of 'discussion' and 'conversation' and in which Grass has a character say, "We discuss in order not to have to soliloquize"--all of this is angry, funny, bitter, brilliant; it's Grass at his best. And the 'Materniads' ends with perhaps its most impressive section of all, an extended tour de force tour de mineshaft in which Amsel's infernal underground automata Swiftianly satirize virtually every aspect of the surface society. If all 600 pages of Dog Years had been as brilliant as its last 200, the book would've blown more minds than LSD.

AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS by Flann O'Brien

When At Swim-Two-Birds was published in 1939, James Joyce was encouraging, calling the young author "a real writer, with the true comic spirit" (a spirit in short supply in the war-birthing world of 1939), but Dylan Thomas won the battle of the blurbs when he said of this novel, "This is just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl." Decades later, Anthony Burgess called it a "funny, vital, shocking" masterpiece, Updike wrote of it admiringly, and even John (no relation) Wain climbed down from his horse, shot bad Jack Elam right between the eyes, and drawled that O'Brien's novel was "just about the only real masterpiece in English that is far too little read and discussed."


Having just finished the book, I find myself in only partial agreement with these distinguished blurbers. At Swim-Two-Birds is indeed a good, funny book; it's engagingly written, formally original and playfully experimental, a highly amusing and even more highly literary entertainment--and most importantly, it's not green. (One of O'Brien's Irish eccentrics considers all books bound in non-green covers to be a priori heretical, a surprisingly complex authorial swipe at both Irishist kitsch and the banning of Ulysses in its original more-blue-than-blue-green Shakespeare & Co. wrapper.) A good case could be made for ASTB as the first truly postmodern novel; it's so proto-pomo that it often reads more like a descendant of Barth, Barthelme and Vonnegut than one of their precursors. (Or as an old American novelty song once put it, "I'm my own grandpa...") It's at least 30 years ahead of its time. But, alas (hear the gears clunk as I shift from laudatory to critical mode), it's also quite uneven and ill-paced; it sags in the middle, some scenes go on too long with too little humor, like those tedious Saturday Night Live sketches that don't make it into the edited one-hour reruns. O'Brien probably couldn't have written a more original novel, but he could've done a funnier one. The book also has a major 'anxiety of influence' problem: the lengthy pastiche scenes (the book's most tedious sections, to me) pale before their obvious precursors in the 'Cyclops' episode of Ulysses; and the most often remarked-upon aspect of the novel, the trial scene in the final third, is too close for comfort to Joyce's 'Circe' episode. So I wouldn't call At Swim-Two-Birds a masterpiece; it's more of a minor but very amusing tour de force, the impressive early work of a Joyce-smitten young man.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Wrong on Wright : Google Autocorrect 'Erases' Novelist Stephen Wright

I just googled the American literary novelist Stephen Wright, and even though I spelled his name correctly, Google mistakenly autocorrected my request and produced a results page for the comedian Steven Wright--homophonous name, very different guy. (The novelist has more metal on his face.) I'm a fan of both Wrights, but it's damned annoying to go looking for info on an extraordinary novelist and be channeled to stand-up comedy's deadest pan. One must type the phrase 'Stephen Wright novelist' to find information on the author of Meditations in Green, Going Native and The Amalgamation Polka. Type just the man's name, and you'll find yourself staring at Gilbert Gottfried on horse tranqs. Were I in a grumpier mood, I'd call this yet another sign of cultural decline, literary apocalypse, Brunnhilde riding a horse made of Penguin Classics into an unrefining, unregenerating fire--but it's simply another example of the most powerful search engine on the web erasing literary culture and replacing it with the Jimmy Fallon kind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fifty Other Great 20th-Century English-Language Books: A Less-Than-Obvious List

Having recently annotated the Modern Library's list of the greatest 20th-century novels and having linked to Larry McCaffery's excellent list composed in response to the ML list, I here present my own list, in no particular order, of 50 great English-language works of fiction that appear on only one or neither of the above lists. I will avoid obvious choices (Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Absalom, Absalom!), not because they are not deserving (they deserve all the praise they have received), but because they tend to appear on everyone's lists, thus taking up space that might be better used to name great titles many people haven't read.
  1. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
  2. Cane by Jean Toomer.
  3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (trans. by C. K. Scott Moncrieff).
  4. Babel 17 by Samuel Delany.
  5. Steps by Jerzy Kosinski.
  6. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski.
  7. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter.
  8. On The Yard by Malcolm Braly
  9. Downriver by Iain Sinclair.
  10. Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett.
  11. Crash by J. G. Ballard.
  12. Money by Martin Amis
  13. Time's Arrow by Martin Amis.
  14. Angels by Denis Johnson.
  15. The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst.
  16. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.
  17. His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) by Philip Pullman.
  18. Lanark by Alasdair Gray.
  19. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth.
  20. The Human Factor by Graham Greene.
  21. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth.
  22. Postcards by Annie Proulx.
  23. Why Are We In Vietnam? by Norman Mailer.
  24. Lincoln by Gore Vidal.
  25. A Cool Million by Nathanael West.
  26. The Atlas by William T. Vollmann.
  27. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.
  28. Running Dog by Don DeLillo.
  29. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone.
  30. Children of Light by Robert Stone.
  31. Sula by Toni Morrison.
  32. Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov.
  33. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.
  34. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
  35. All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry.
  36. Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer.
  37. Rabbit, Run by John Updike.
  38. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
  39. The World According to Garp by John Irving.
  40. The Field of Vision by Wright Morris.
  41. How To Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong.
  42. Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver.
  43. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth.
  44. Omensetter's Luck by William H. Gass
  45. Murphy by Samuel Beckett.
  46. The Beautiful Room Is Empty by Edmund White.
  47. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (trans. by Gregory Rabassa).
  48. Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner.
  49. The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien.
  50. The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

THE BOOK OF KELLS Complete Text now online

Get your Irish up! Trinity College Dublin has digitized the complete Book of Kells and made it available online in zoomable high-resolution images. It can be viewed here. As far as studying the text goes, this is much better than traveling to Dublin, because at TCD only a few pages are displayed at a time--in a crowded, darkened room. Now we can look upon it at leisure, lose ourselves in its labyrinthine twists and breathtaking inventions. In the name of Joyce (the Fokker, the Sun, the intoxicating spirit), ecjoy it...


(For a quick taste of the wonders to be found herein, click on the link and scroll down the left sidebar to 'Folio 114v.' Check out the top half of this page. Zoom in on it. Keep zooming in. It's better than acid. This is the shit Joyce was smoking when he wrote Finnegans Wake.)

The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels List: An Opinionated Annotation

Back in 1998, the Modern Library board (whoever they might be...) released the following list of their picks for the 100 best novels in the English language since 1900. Below, I argumentatively annotate their list. (I was surprised at the number of these novels I haven't yet read... Life is short, lit is looooong...)
  1. ULYSSES by James Joyce. Well...what remains unsaid about the great U.? Perhaps that it's a tiresomely obvious choice for best novel of the century? Not that I disagree with the Library. Non, pas du toutUlysses tops my personal 'top shelf' of great novels; it's the Rosetta Stone of modern literature, and I'll be re-reading it for the rest of my life.
  2. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Another novel I find myself re-reading every two or three years, with every new look revealing another facet of Fitzgerald's nearly flawless gem. My re-readings of Gatsby, if they could somehow be graphed, might resemble a fever chart of my intellectual obsessions: my early moralistic interpretation of the novel spiking into an angry Marxist interpretation that mellowed somewhat into a more Foucaultian understanding of the social construction of Gatsby's self, which in turn spiked again in a fever of Lacanian dialectical desire, only to mellow once more into an aesthetic appreciation of Fitzgerald's art that owes much to Bloom and Gass.
  3. A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce. Of course I identified with Stephen Dedalus. Every young litgeek identifies with Stephen Dedalus. Every glasses-wearing bulliedboy can't help but see himself reflected in little Dedalus's lost spectacles. Another book I've read multiple times, the Portrait is a more perfect work than Ulysses, a finer work of art (in the sense that Vermeer is a 'finer' painter than Rembrandt, while not a 'greater' one), but choosing between them is like choosing between the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection: why force an either-or when the only sanity-preserving answer is both-and?
  4. LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov. Surely one of the most beautifully-written books of the century, a masterpiece of lyrical modernism and bottomless irony. Lolita was the first and possibly greatest of the black comic novels America produced as a disturbing counterpoint to its midcentury high noon of political and economic power. The great beauty of Nabokov's novel may be the most tragically ironic thing about it.
  5. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley. Now comes my first quarrel with the Modern Library. BNW is without question a landmark in the subgenre of dystopian science fiction and a fairly successful Swiftian satire of 1920s-30s trends, but it didn't impress me as a 'great' novel on a par with the first four ML choices. It wouldn't have made my list. 
  6. THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner. No quarrel here. Faulkner's novel is unforgettable, eminently re-readable, and audaciously original. I'm haunted by that early moment when Caddy holds a piece of ice to Benjy's cheek and he feels its chill. Looking around at American literature today, I wonder: Where have all the Faulkners gone?
  7. CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller. American readers had to wait until he Sixties, with Heller and Vonnegut, for World War Two to produce a literature equal to its consciousness-shattering historical force. Heller's mad farce helps illuminate the tragic rabbit hole we all Aliced into after Auschwitz and Nagasaki.
  8. DARKNESS AT NOON by Arthur Koestler. A powerful portrait of totalitarianism, yes. But one of the century's best novels? Non. Unlike, say, Orwell's 1984, it's too much of a period piece, and today it seems largely of historical rather than artistic interest.
  9. SONS AND LOVERS by D.H. Lawrence. Too Hardy-ish for my taste. Lawrence wasn't yet entirely DHL when he wrote this, but the writing was surely a crucial step in becoming himself.
  10. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck. The opening and final chapters are amazing, some of the non-narrative alternate chapters invent 1960s New Journalism long before Tom Wolfe donned his first white suit, but this is also a deeply uneven novel that can shift from corny to heartbreaking in the space of a single page. The Grapes of Wrath also risks collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions (an ironically fitting fate, perhaps, for the great literary landmark of American Thirties leftism). Steinbeck's repeated warnings--or are they incitements?--about a coming revolution sit uneasily alongside the ultimately reactionary, patriarchal, anti-modern agrarianism of much of his text.
  11. UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry. Like all novels of more than 250 pages, it has its weak spots, and upon first reading it, I couldn't get past them. A second reading a few years later left me deeply impressed by the book's dark beauty. It's a great one, and Geoffrey Firmin one of the century's greatest characters.
  12. THE WAY OF ALL FLESH by Samuel Butler. I haven't read it yet. (Mea maxima culpa...May a Robert Culp-a...)
  13. 1984 by George Orwell. It's been about 25 years since I last read this, and my intervening reading of Zamyatin's We, which enormously influenced G. O.'s novel, has taken a bit of the bloom off Orwell's originality in my mind. Still, 1984 is a damned haunting work and--goddamn it--still tragically relevant.
  14. I, CLAUDIUS by Robert Graves. Oddly, I haven't read this one yet, either. I can't imagine why not, since both of Graves' Claudius novels have been sitting on my bookshelves for over a decade. I'll get to them soon.
  15. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf. An astonishingly beautiful novel. Like the rest of Woolf's beautifully troubling works, it needs to be rescued from the simplified, ideologically-driven interpretations imposed upon it by Woolf's self-appointed academic eulogists. Pay no attention to those professors behind the curtain; just read Woolf's novels; swim in them, float in them; try not to drown.
  16. AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser. Here I have a major quarrel with the Modern Library. If their list purported to present 'important' novels, then the inclusion of this one would be justified by its status as a landmark of Naturalism and an influence upon such later works as Mailer's Executioner's Song or even Capote's (overrated, I think) In Cold Blood. But Dreiser's big, bloated, badly-written novel doesn't belong anywhere near a list of 'best' books. Pick a page, any page, and you'll probably find prose bad enough to induce chuckles, giggles, even peals of laughter.
  17. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers. Another one I haven't gotten around to reading yet.
  18. SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut. Wildly original. Any reader who forgets it has probably suffered a severe brain injury and is in danger of coming unstuck in time.
  19. INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison. Another obvious choice. Ellison's only finished novel is a staggeringly impressive work of art and perhaps the greatest first novel I've ever read. Who cares if Ralph never completed another. We have a volume of very good short stories (Flying Home), a thick collection of essays, and a cinder block-size edition of the manuscript of his second novel (Three Days Before the Shooting); but even if we had none of that, Invisible Man would have been enough. Most writers never come within a hundred miles of writing a novel this good.
  20. NATIVE SON by Richard Wright. In this list and in my mind, Wright's impressive novel withers under the retrospective glare of Ellison's masterpiece. Wright's more of a Dreiserian naturalist--although he fortunately wrote better than the 'master'--and thus less to my taste than the Melvillean and studiously Modernist Ellison. In the 'cutting session' of my mind, Ellison blows Wright away, but Native Son is still, on its own terms, a hell of a book.
  21. HENDERSON THE RAIN KING by Saul Bellow. Sigh. I'm not a Bellow fan. Saint Saul and Dapper Don DeLillo are the two most highly regarded American writers of my lifetime who don't appeal to me. I'm not apologizing for this. All readers' tastes differ, and Bellow is not to mine. That said, I must add that, like all other readers who don't like Bellow, I almost loved Seize the Day. Henderson, on the other hand, didn't much impress me.
  22. APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA by John O’Hara. Late in the 20th century there was a mini-groundswell around this novel, and now it's generally considered canonical and O'Hara's best. My opinion: It may well be O'Hara's best, but the best novel by a middling writer is still a middling novel, and this one doesn't rise above mediocrity.
  23. U.S.A.(trilogy) by John Dos Passos. Unfortunately unread today and in serious danger of being forgotten, Dos Passos' big-as-America trilogy of experimental novels richly deserves to be rediscovered. Maybe some young writer in America today will find in them a way out of the academic cul-de-sac into which our literary fiction has wrongly turned.
  24. WINESBURG, OHIO by Sherwood Anderson. The ML board is cheating here. This is a collection of related short stories, not 'really' a novel. It is, however, an excellent story collection and well worth reading. I grew up in this region about 70 years after Anderson, and the neuroses of his Ohioans seem eerily, dismally familiar.
  25. A PASSAGE TO INDIA by E.M. Forster. The only major Forster I haven't yet read.
  26. THE WINGS OF THE DOVE by Henry James. This is a long, long symphony of a novel. Longer than Beethoven, longer than Mahler. Reading it, I fall into the same sort of aesthetic trance I experience when listening to a great symphony. Late James enchants me.
  27. THE AMBASSADORS by Henry James. Another of those astonishingly beautiful novels that Americans seem to have lost the ability to write and/or the will to read. May every nonexistent god damn the MFA programs and the publishing industry for making our literature so little--and damn us readers too, for not demanding more.
  28. TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even I can't believe I haven't read this. Maybe I fear discovering that FSF was a one-book author. Or maybe I'm unconsciously following the dictum of Jeff Daniels' odious character in Noah Baumbach's fine film The Squid and the Whale: "Tender is the Night is minor Fitzgerald," this bearded, arrogant nonentity repeatedly growls.
  29. THE STUDS LONIGAN TRILOGY by James T. Farrell. Nothing little about Jim Farrell. He writes better than Dreiser (not to damn the man with the faintest praise) and his Lonigan novels, which were still popular about 50 years ago, deserve rediscovery. Of course they're 'dated,' whatever that means. Everything from the past is dated. Everything from the present is dated too. Its date is 'today.'
  30. THE GOOD SOLDIER by Ford Madox Ford. Critics have long loved Ford's novel, but I think they're overestimating it. It may have been new and innovative in its time, but that time has past, and I found it an overly obvious novel and its much-lauded unreliable narrator a bit of a dunce.
  31. ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell. A good, clever little satire, but can we really call it one of the best novels of the century? I wouldn't.
  32. THE GOLDEN BOWL by Henry James. I'm holding this late James in reserve, along with The Brothers Karamazov and Mann's Joseph novels. they'll be the 'new' books of my old age.
  33. SISTER CARRIE by Theodore Dreiser. I tried. Yes, I tried. But Dreiser is a prose artist of such astounding ineptitude that I couldn't get through the first chapter without volcanically erupting in derisive laughter.
  34. A HANDFUL OF DUST by Evelyn Waugh. I don't like Waugh. Vile Bodies turned me off; Scoop did not sufficiently amuse; I doubt he deserves a third chance.
  35. AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner. Oxford Bill's great tour de force novel. A marvelous work of art. Faulkner, especially Thirties Faulkner, is so damn good I find it nearly impossible to criticize him. You don't touch the Torah.
  36. ALL THE KING’S MEN by Robert Penn Warren. Lush is the word for Warren's prose here. He writes in a luxuriant, bourbon-lubricated, magnolia-scented Southern voice that may be at times too lush for his subject matter. The lyrical prose often bigfoots over the political melodrama to create the effect of a massively overwritten noir novel, like a Walter Pater rewrite of The Postman Always Rings Twice. But too much beauty is a fault I can love.
  37. THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY by Thornton Wilder. Another candidate for my to-read list. One of the best uses of 'best of' lists like this is to find potentially great books one hasn't yet read.
  38. HOWARDS END by E.M. Forster. I loved this novel. The best Forster I've read, and surely one of the century's best English novels. It's a multifaceted jewel.
  39. GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin. Anyone looking for the great American novel of evangelical religion need look no further. Baldwin 's powerful book is American literature's greatest examination of Christian fundamentalism. It is our Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
  40. THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene. I've read and liked several other Greenes, from The End of the Affair to The Human Factor, but I haven't gotten to the heart of his matter yet.
  41. LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding. It didn't exactly overwhelm me, as a 'great' or 'best' novel should, when I read it about 15 years ago. In fact, Golding's instant classic left me rather indifferent.
  42. DELIVERANCE by James Dickey. Here's an ML choice that makes me want to grab the mysterious board by the lapels and say, "Oh, come on..." Dickey's little post-censorship exploitation novel doesn't deserve a place here. It's minor. Its inclusion makes me want to bend over and squeal like a pig.
  43. A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (series) by Anthony Powell. Here's another big work I'm holding in reserve for my old (or at least older) age--the winter of my readerly content, I hope. I've spent many pleasant  moments in the Wallace Collection gazing into the lovely Poussin that gives Powell's four volumes their collective title.
  44. POINT COUNTER POINT by Aldous Huxley. Haven't read this Huxley and don't know if I ever will. Well, I probably will, now that it's on my mind...
  45. THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway. It's the usual critic's choice among Hemingway novels, the best of a group of novels that constitutes a lesser achievement than his incomparable short stories. The exception to that judgment, The Old Man and the Sea, isn't actually an exception at all: it's more a long story than a novel. This 'round up the usual suspects' aura aside, The Sun Also Rises is quite a good novel, and while it doesn't rise to the aesthetic level of his best stories, I can't quarrel with its inclusion here.
  46. THE SECRET AGENT by Joseph Conrad. Sorry to say I haven't read it, even though a copy of it sits almost literally at me feet in a giant Conrad anthology.
  47. NOSTROMO by Joseph Conrad. Ditto. And I'm even sorrier. I seem to be quite the Conradian slacker, n'est-ce pas?
  48. THE RAINBOW by D.H. Lawrence. Sons and Lovers struck me as too much under the shadow of Thomas Hardy, and The Rainbow likewise seemed a little too 19th-century to me, as much or more a backward look toward George Eliot than a leap into literature's future. All literature wears this Janus mask, but The Rainbow left me feeling that Lawrence hadn't quite achieved himself yet.
  49. WOMEN IN LOVE by D.H. Lawrence. Here's the novel where Lawrence becomes Lawrence--for better and for worse. It's a lovely, disturbing prose poem of a book; and it also contains passages of dialogue so arch and unnaturalistic as to provoke a most un-Lawrencian laughter. Unintended comedy aside, it's a killingly humourless book, like all of Lawrence. The only time DHL had a funny bone in his body was when Groucho Marx fucked him in  the ass.
  50. TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller. I love it. I've loved it for a long time. Happy Henry's Parisian romp, uneven and in need of editorial trimming though it is (like this sentence), remains American literature's first and least abashed full-bodied embrace of European Modernism. Miller is a literary Man Ray: an American writer who went to Paris and went completely native, became a weird mixture of Dadaist, Surrealist and Brooklyn Celine. Henry Miller, there's nobody like him. If Groucho Marx had ever fucked him in the ass, he'd have said, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?"
  51. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailer. The Norman was a very young writer and too much under the influence of Dos Passos when he wrote this, and he went on to write much better books that never appear on 'best of' lists because they tend to make critics uncomfortable. The extremely discomforting An American Dream, for example, is better written; Ancient Evenings is much more original and audacious. And The Executioner's Song is the kind of book Dreiser might have written had he had an ear for prose.
  52. PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth. Roth's breakthrough book, in both the popular and aesthetic senses of the word, Portnoy remains, in the long vista of Roth's career, one of the high points. But it's only one. Any number of Roth novels might have filled this slot. Portnoy's here simply because it's the first Roth title that comes into most readers' heads. (I'll let stand the entirely appropriate pornographic double entendres in those last two sentences.)
  53. PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov. If you're looking for a novel unlike any other in American literature, this is the novel for you. Told in the form of a mad commentary upon a long poem (also written by Nabokov and, rather surprisingly, quite a good poem), Pale Fire is a darkly comic labyrinth in  which Dedalus-Nabokov traps himself: the whole can be read as a parodic reflection of Nabokov's own mad commentary on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
  54. LIGHT IN AUGUST by William Faulkner. It has its flaws, but it's still Thirties Faulkner, a great product of his best period. Still, why this instead of Absalom, Absalom!, a novel I consider one of the two greatest ever written by an American? (Moby Dick is the other.) Is Absalom too difficult for the board?
  55. ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. Glad to see at least one Beat book on this list, even if the one they chose is the most obvious and nearly canonical of all possible choices. It's a very good book, but its position on the list probably owes more to its being the only Kerouac novel most readers have read.
  56. THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett. This choice is not necessarily the middle-to-highbrow Modern Library throwing a bone to a mid-to-lowbrow genre. Hammett's black bird is an excellent detective novel that deserves a seat at the canonical table.
  57. PARADE’S END by Ford Madox Ford. Ford's WWI tetralogy and his historical novel The Fifth Queen, are still on my to-read list. Something tells me I'll probably enjoy them more than The Oversold Soldier.
  58. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Edith Wharton. Great novel, truly great. I remember reading it over a weekend about 20 years ago and being surprisingly enthralled. Wharton's narrative voice is a witty wonder.
  59. ZULEIKA DOBSON by Max Beerbohm. I haven't read this, but it just jumped to the top level of my to-read list. Sounds pretty good.
  60. THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy. Percy's National Book Award winner failed to grab me; it didn't hold my attention even for its short length.
  61. DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather. Another one I haven't read...
  62. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY by James Jones. I read this so long ago that I can barely remember it. It must not have greatly impressed me.
  63. THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLES by John Cheever. The Wapshot novels are not Cheever's best. I suspect that the board felt obligated to include something by Cheever and, since they couldn't list the stories, decided to list this. The big red book, The Stories of John Cheever, is the Cheever to read.
  64. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger. Someone said that the worst thing you can do to J. D. Salinger is read him in adulthood. From experience, I tend to agree.
  65. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess. A brilliant, clever, utterly original novel. One of the few subsequent works to do something truly interesting with the linguistic freedom Joyce claimed for literature in Finnegans Wake.
  66. OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham. I'll read it one of these days.
  67. HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad. Finally, a Conrad I've read! It's a great, beautiful novel and an obvious choice. I'd like to hear a recording of Orson Welles reading this one.
  68. MAIN STREET by Sinclair Lewis. I don't think anyone reads Lewis anymore. I haven't read Main Street.
  69. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton. It's well-written, of course, and probably a great novel, but Lily Bart's sad tale failed to hold my interest. I was also irked by Wharton's typically WASP-Modernist anti-Semitism (on display early in this novel), an odious little prejudice she shared with Hemingway, Eliot, Lawrence, Miller and (most egregiously) the unspeakable Mr. Pound. I can usually read past a great writer's antiquated bigotries, but I stalled out over Edie's.
  70. THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET by Lawrence Durrell. As I type, a four-volume boxed set of the AQ stands atop a high bookshelf almost directly above my head. It's been there for several years. I'm often tempted, but I haven't read it yet.
  71. A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes. Haven't read this one  either. (Aren't my annotations wonderfully illuminating?)
  72. A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS by V.S. Naipaul. Hey, guess what?... That's right, I haven't read this novel either.
  73. THE DAY OF THE LOCUST by Nathanael West. A great novella, as are Miss Lonelyhearts and A Cool Million. If not the Great American Novel, Locust is certainly the Great Los Angeles Novella.
  74. A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway. Not as good as The Sun Also Rises and not even comparable to Hemingway's great short stories, the Farewell is a novel I found quite easy to forget.
  75. SCOOP by Evelyn Waugh. Sadly, I was not amused.
  76. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by Muriel Spark. Good enough, but not great. I thought Spark's novel was a rather thin, insubstantial piece of work.
  77. FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce. Kudos to the ML board for choosing the most densely woven, linguistically adventurous and well-nigh impossible English-language novel of the 20th century. Every portmanteau word, every weird spelling, implies so many meanings that it would take several lifetimes to adequately plumb the depths of this text. Even most Joyce scholars stick to Ulysses and the earlier works.
  78. KIM by Rudyard Kipling. This is one I must read. Really.
  79. A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E.M. Forster. A very good Edwardian social novel. Forster's novelistic skill overcame even my distaste for good manners, a quality I find much more desirable in life than in fiction.
  80. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Evelyn Waugh. Finding his comic novels not to my taste, I've thus far avoided Waugh's more serious endeavors.
  81. THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH by Saul Bellow. As stated above, Bellow's style doesn't grab me and his novels fail to appeal. Martin Amis thinks Augie is the greatest; Mr. March has never meant much to me.
  82. ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner. Another book that stares down at me from a bookshelf even as I type this and mocks me with the fact that I've not yet read it.
  83. A BEND IN THE RIVER by V.S. Naipaul. After a strong beginning, Naipaul's African novel lost my interest somewhere in the jungle.
  84. THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen. Except for a single book (not this one), Bowen is a writer unread by me.
  85. LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad. To me, this one reads like Conrad's version of a Conrad novel, a too self-conscious performance with nothing unexpected in it. Beautifully performed, though.
  86. RAGTIME by E.L. Doctorow. A great American novel by a writer too often overlooked today. When Doctorow dies, we'll begin to appreciate him; until then, we'll continue taking him for granted.
  87. THE OLD WIVES’ TALE by Arnold Bennett. This one is also on my to-read list.
  88. THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London. I missed Jack London. In late 20th-century America he was considered a writer of boys' adventure stories, and when I was a boy at the London age, I was already reading John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum and ready to begin the leap to 'serious' literature with Updike and Cheever. I was much too precocious to read Jack London.
  89. LOVING by Henry Green. Green's distinctive prose style, although loved by many, leaves me cold. Like Bellow, like Waugh, like DeLillo, he's not to my taste.
  90. MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN by Salman Rushdie. Yes, it's derivative of The Tin Drum. So what? Rushdie's artistic exuberance quickly overcomes the debt and repays it with enormous interest. This novel is a mind-blower. It deserves all its awards. 
  91. TOBACCO ROAD by Erskine Caldwell. Another novel I read 20 years ago and quickly forgot. Caldwell seems to have slid into a similar obscurity: he's all but unread today.
  92. IRONWEED by William Kennedy. Here's a selection I can whole-heartedly endorse. Kennedy's Albany novels are marvelous, and the grim, tightly-focused Ironweed reads at times like the work of an American James Joyce who has been decisively influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's fantastic. It also, incidentally, gave Jack Nicholson his best film role of the 1980s.
  93. THE MAGUS by John Fowles. Really? They chose this over The French Lieutenant's Woman? I wouldn't have.
  94. WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys. This is one of those novels I've always meant to read but haven't yet. I have all of Rhys's novels in one volume, and one of these days I'll crack it open and dive in.
  95. UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch. A good novel, but a curious choice. Why this early and rather atypical Murdoch instead of one of the later, longer, more Romantic novels (The Sea, The Sea; The Good Apprentice) or a mid-career Nabokovian one like The Black Prince? It's not as though Under The Net is some kind of novelistic Citizen Kane that Iris was never able to equal.
  96. SOPHIE’S CHOICE by William Styron. Again, kudos to the ML for recognizing the excellence of Styron's late masterpiece. A lot of people hated this novel when it was first published, but I've admired it deeply for more than 30 years. It's one of the Great American Novels, a tragedy that stands beside Gatsby and a meditation on the narrative construction of self and history that rivals even Absalom, Absalom!
  97. THE SHELTERING SKY by Paul Bowles. The great American existentialist novel--probably the only great one--and a marvelous psychological horror story, it's a completely successful mélange of Camus, Gide, Henry James, Conrad, and the gothic novel. Bowles fits these disparate influences together with seeming effortlessness as he takes Kit and Port through the darkest heart of desert light and all the way to the end of the line.
  98. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain. From first line to final twist, this is an exceptional noir novel, but is it really one of the century's best novels? I can think of quite a few better books that didn't make this list. For example: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!; Toomer's Cane; Morrison's Beloved, Martin Amis's Money; James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime; Alasdair Gray's Lanark; Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; McCarthy's Blood Meridian; Mailer's Ancient Evenings; West's A Cool Million; Denis Johnson's Angels; Malcolm Braly's On The Yard; William Vollmann's The Atlas; Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, Annie Proulx's Postcards...
  99. THE GINGER MAN by J.P. Donleavy. It's been on one of my bookshelves forever, and I don't know if I'll ever read it. It looks like a dismal period piece, vintage narcissistic whine from a time long gone. 
  100. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS by Booth Tarkington. No, I haven't read it, and I doubt that you have either, whoever you may be. Booth T., once a very well-known writer, is almost entirely forgotten today. This novel, however good it may be, is now better known as the basis of Orson Welles' second film.
After the Modern Library released this list, superhip literary critic Larry McCaffery responded with his own list of 100 books, a useful correction to the predictability, tameness and truly bizarre oversights (What, no Absalom, Absalom! !?!) of the ML list. You can read McCaffery's list here.