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:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Golden Rule of Storytelling (as exemplified by Breaking Bad)

Here is the only necessary law of successful narrative fiction, the Golden Rule of Storytelling: The only law is the law of unintended consequences. This is how good stories proceed: from the unexpected through the unforeseen to the utterly unpredictable. Good narratives move through a series of major actions and the ramifying unintended consequences of those actions. It's the unexpectedness of the consequences that sustains a reader's interest, keeps readers reading and wondering what the hell will happen next. A story in which actions have only their expected consequences is a dull, unimaginative thing.

I could exemplify this rule with any good narrative from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to Chabon's Wonder Boys, but because I'm of the opinion that the most cogent criticism of contemporary American literary fiction is the inarguable fact that no American novel of the past 13 years has captured the insanity of contemporary life in this country as effectively as two cable series, Breaking Bad and The Wire, I'm going to make my argument with reference to the tale of Walter Hartwell White. The overall five-season arc of Breaking Bad can perhaps best be described as a study in increasingly severe unintended consequences. White's initial decision to cook meth has the almost immediate consequence of forcing him to turn his RV into an improvised mobile gas chamber for the defensive killing of two drug dealers. (This detail from the pilot dovetails perfectly with Walter's final incarnation, five seasons later, as an inadvertent fundraiser for neo-Nazis. His first Nazified killing foreshadows the man he will become.) This act has the unintended consequence of failing to kill Krazy 8, which leads to him being treated like an Abu Ghraib prisoner in Jesse's basement and plotting to kill Walter with a pottery shard. His theft of the shard has the consequence of convincing Walter, who had decided to free Krazy 8, to instead murder him, slowly and brutally. And so the series continues, through unintended consequences large and small, the most apocalyptic of these being the Wayfarer 515 disaster at the end of season two. This was the ultimate unintended consequence of Walter's attempt to rouse Jesse, which accidentally knocked Jane onto her back, a position in which she choked to death, a death which impaired her air traffic controller father (memorably played by John de Lancie, a character actor almost as ubiquitous as Bryan Cranston) and caused the disastrous midair collision that was the Breaking Bad world's September 11. Only in the series' very last episode, dedicated to fan-pleasing and loose-end tying, do the characters' actions have always and only the predictable consequences. This was of course a structural exigency--unintended consequences would have kept in motion a narrative machine the finale was required to shut down--but it produced a final hour that (for me, anyway) swerved away from the unpredictable spirit of the series and left me feeling rather unsatisfied.

A Thought on Sade, after reading Justine and Philosophy in the Bedroom

Like many thinkers who mistakenly think themselves 'radical,' the Marquis de Sade possesses a worldview stalled in the first moment of a deconstructive dialectic. He is stuck in the rut of moral inversion, revaluing evil as good and then moving on to revalue evil as good in another anecdote. This is his only trick, and like a mentally-challenged magician he performs it again and again and again... Sade simply inverts the traditional good/evil moral binary and then prematurely arrests the dialectic at this point, failing to appreciate the instability of the inversion and further failing to conclude that both the binary and its inversion depend upon and perpetuate an ideology that they serve to conceal, patriarchy. (In this way, Sade is very much like a fatuous academic feminist trapped in an intellectually moronic "women good, men bad" worldview. Lest you think this is a caricature, I can assure you that I have known more than one academic feminist who actually thinks this way.) Sade's texts can be easily deconstructed, but they fail to deconstruct themselves (in the way, for a contrasting example, that Paul de Man argued Rousseau's texts deconstruct themselves, obviating the need for Derrida). The Undivine Marquis's thought, in short, is facile and immature, his prose is mediocre, his artistry deficient. Finally, I can read him only as a silly satirist with a nastily misogynistic streak.

On Foreign Fiction and Ours

American literary journalism (to the extent that such a beast still exists in our decidedly post-Edmund-Wilsonian America) continues to follow its bizarre ungraven commandment about non-English language fiction: Thou Shalt Admire Only One Foreign Writer at a Time. In recent years this single slot in our national literary consciousness has been filled by W. G. Sebald, then Roberto Bolano, then Javier Marias, then a quartet of Hungarians who slid past faster than bad goulash through a colon (Marai, Esterhazy, Nadas, Krasznahorkai--I ask admirers of these four apocalyptic horsemen (estimable writers all) to pardon my excremental simile), and now the overrated critic James Wood is easing Norway's Karl Ove Knausgaard into the slot. (I haven't read him yet, but his stuff looks potentially interesting, and I've already mis-Englished his funny name to "Charlie Oily Noseguard.") So despite the fact that our intubated, respirator-attached, heart monitor-beeping literary establishment only notices one etranger at a time, this phenomenon still evinces a hunger for foreign fiction. The outlanders give us something that our domestic product fails to provide.

In the case of Sebald, the powerful attraction many American readers and writers feel toward his fiction may be directly comparable to the attraction British writers of a century ago felt for the nineteenth-century Russian novel. Against the comforting, overstuffed palisade of our safe, middle-class literature, these foreign works hurl existential cannonballs. As Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did when read by the Bloomsburyites against the background of Trollope and Bennett, Sebald and Bolano insist upon the importance of the "big questions" in an age when our fiction has become narrow and domesticated. Foreign writers somehow haven't learned to fear the huge themes that invigorated the best American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries: the fundamental matters of existence and its opposite, meaning and meaninglessness, good and/as evil, the absence of the supernatural, the presence of death--themes that can perhaps be encompassed in a single, packed phrase: the terror of nothingness and the wonder of being. In a word (or two), existential anxiety is the quantity missing from our academicized fiction. While American literary fiction focuses on issues and identities (the family, feminism, the environment, minority rights, racism, identity politics), foreign writers such as Sebald, David Grossman, Peter Nadas, Laszlo Krasznahorkai insist upon that Melvillean "little lower layer" that obstinately refuses to be dissolved in the ironic acids of so-called postmodernism. (That last word fires off an extended parenthetical digression: Postmodernism is less 'post' than 'posthaste;' at its most dogmatic, it's a frenzied, hysterical flight from the concerns of Modernism that becomes, in our ivy-covered halls of mirrors, a monstrous parody of Modernist narcissism. Who among writers, after all, was or is more tormentedly self-imprisoned than David Foster Wallace? In an amusing but too-influential essay, he nicknamed Updike, Roth and Mailer--three phallic pillars of American late Modernism--"the Great Male Narcissists." One might reply that Wallace, the So-So Suicidal Solipsist, wasn't much of an improvement upon his elders. My current view of Wallace is that while he wrote some very good stuff (most of it hidden deep inside Infinite Jest), as a writer--that is, as an artist in prose--he rarely approaches the level at which William Vollmann and Annie Proulx comfortably cruise. Nor, it must be said, does his prose compare well with that of Updike, Styron, Roth, Gass, or most of the other Old White Narcs. And now I slam down the closing parenthesis:) After half a century of postmodern American novels, of prurient parody and paranoid pastiche, of mutating metafictions and mutilated meditations, we find ourselves gazing abroad for signs of writers still concerned with those archetypal "modern themes" that the coiner of the word 'metafiction,' Big Bad Billy Gass, carefully listed in his early essay on E. M. Cioran, a set of bullet points sharp enough to make any corporate Powerpointer proud:
  • alienation
  • absurdity
  • boredom
  • futility
  • decay
  • the tyranny of history
  • the vulgarities of change
  • awareness as agony
  • reason as disease
We could doubtless find all of these themes in Infinite Jest (and certainly in Gravity's Rainbow) if we looked hard enough, and finding them there would support my old contention that postmodernism is neither more nor less than late Modernism, the Modernist movement's later phase rather than its dialectical antithesis. Nonetheless, this list reads like the beginning of a litany of the 'missing pieces' we seek in Sebald and his international contemporaries.

Don DeLillo and those he has influenced (about two generations of MFA writers, by now) try to sound these themes, but their playing is too deliberate, too academic, too terribly technical and not nearly musical enough. The reader (this reader, anyway) suspects that these mostly middle-class American writers are concerned with these themes not because they've felt the claws of these realities digging into their flesh, but because they read a list of these themes in an essay by Gass and learned that this was the proper stuff of serious fiction. (In a very similar way, young Dave Wallace learned his MFA lessons well and became a postmodernist in the postmodern era, a highly conventional act of unconventionality.) What the Americans mostly lack is what some foreign writers still possess, the authenticity of lived experience. Over the past 50 years, Europeans have experienced everything from totalitarian terror to revolutionary ecstasy (the political experience, not the club drug--although that can be an experience too) while Americans sat on their couches and watched these events on TV ("Ooooh, the Berlin Wall's coming down!... Pass the picante sauce.") An old argument states that U. S. 'serious' fiction tends toward suburban realism as a function of America's economic and geopolitical position as an isolated, affluent, secure, imperial superpower in which every citizen from Bill Gates to the housekeeper who mops the pee stains off Bill Gates's bathroom floors considers himself 'middle class.' We Americans have been terribly overdetermined to produce bourgeois fiction in the manner of Anne Tyler and Joyce Carol Oates.

But that situation is, tragically, changing before our eyes. Now that the United States is in undeniable economic decline, now that we have become a site of terrorism both domestic and foreign, now that the existential fear of violent death and the paranoid psychosis of the far right have become central elements in our nation's political discourse, now that grinding poverty exists a street away from spectacular wealth and the formerly comfortable middle class feels itself sinking faster than the Titanic, the former social determinants no longer apply. By all rights, 21st-century Americans should produce a 19th-century Russian literature. The America of our time is finally, terribly, a Dostoevskyan place. We are all foreigners now.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Proustian Simile

Proust provides the best introduction to any Proustian topic, so let's begin this brief note on the Proustian simile with three increasingly complex examples from A la recherche du temps perdu:

As the spectrum makes visible to us the composition of light, so the harmony of a Wagner, the colour of an Elstir, enable us to know that essential quality of another person's sensations into which love for another person does not allow us to penetrate. -- The Captive

Faced with the thoughts, the actions of a woman whom we love, we are as completely at a loss as the world's first natural philosophers must have been, face to face with the phenomena of nature, before their science had been elaborated and had cast a ray of light over the unknown. Or, worse still, we are like a person in whose mind the law of causality barely exists, a person who would be incapable, therefore, of establishing a connexion between one phenomenon and another and to whose eyes the spectacle of the world would appear as unstable as a dream. -- Within A Budding Grove

As, from a long way off, the sight of the jutting crag from which it dives into the pool thrills with joy the children who know that they are going to see the seal, so, long before I reached the acacias, their fragrance which, radiating all around, made one aware of the approach and the singularity of a vegetable personality at once powerful and soft, then, as I drew near, the glimpsed summit of their lightly tossing foliage, in its easy grace, its coquettish outline, its delicate fabric, on which hundreds of flowers had swooped, like winged and throbbing colonies of precious insects, and finally their name itself, feminine, indolent, dulcet, made my heart beat, but with a social longing, like those waltzes which remind us only of the names of the fair dancers, called aloud as they enter the ballroom. -- Swann's Way

The Proustian simile is a perfect example of how Modernism "makes it new" by taking its methods from the oldest archaeological layers of the Western tradition. For Proust's trademark similes are merely modernizations of the epic simile, a stylistic hallmark that descends from Homer through Virgil to Dante and onward to the Renaissance epicists and their Romantic descendants. As 19th-century archaeologists dug through the Turkish dirt to bring before modern eyes the ruins of a city Andromache knew and Agamemnon burned, so Proust descended to the birthing place of Western literature and from that hillside still stinking of putrefying python pulled forth such similes as this classic comparison of young girls to flowers from Within A Budding Grove:

...these young flowers that at this moment were breaking the line of the sea with their slender hedge, like a bower of Pennsylvania roses adorning a cliffside garden, between whose blooms is contained the whole tract of ocean crossed by some steamer, so slow in gliding along the blue, horizontal line that stretches from one stem to the next that an idle butterfly, dawdling in the cup of a flower which the ship's hull has long since passed, can wait, before flying off in time to arrive before it, until nothing but the tiniest chink of blue still separates the prow from the first petal of the flower towards which it is steering.

This is an especially complex example, beginning with a metaphor that likens the band of girls strolling along the shore to "young flowers" before modulating, at "like," into the epic simile that consumes the rest of the passage. Proust (or should we say Moncrieff?) departs here from the classic "" form he uses elsewhere, but conceptually there is little difference between Proust's comparison of Albertine's "little band" to a bouquet and Homer's comparison of doomed warriors to falling leaves. The major, specifically Modernist difference lies in the way the vehicle subsumes the tenor. The roses all but erase our readerly vision of the group of seaside girls. Albertine and her friends are lost behind an image of flowers that reads very much like a close description of a canvas by Monet or Cezanne. (Proust's painter Elstir, whom the narrator meets in this volume, seems a composite of Monet, Whistler and Cezanne.) The radical flattening of space in Proust's image--the vastness of the sea contained in a flower garden and a tiny insect placed in parallel with an ocean-going steamship--is as much a stylistic signature of Cezanne as the epic simile is of Proust. It fairly screams Modernism. But the writer is not content to relax into the echoes of this exclamation. He pushes things further and animates the image, showing us the moving tanker, the flying Nabokovian blue (for what else could it be?), and in so doing he trades the brush of Monet for the camera of Lumiere. Perhaps unintentionally, the way genius often follows its muse, Proust brings his text of memory (both personal and literary) forward into the cinematic century of its composition.

More could be said about this passage. Most obviously, one might comment upon the butterfly as an image of the narrator's erotic desire, floating promiscuously over the group as a whole before coming to rest on Albertine--a desire that might feel subjectively like the 'buzzing blooming confusion' of an insect but look to an outside observer more like the lumbering progress of an oil tanker... And even more could be said. More can always be said about great art. That's why any acceptable commentary on the entire Recherche would surely run to at least 14 volumes. Better to just read Proust and puzzle it out for ourselves.

List No More : Ten Reasons Why I Will Post No More Lists On This Blog

  1. Every lame-ass blog in the imaginary electronic universe is cluttered with nonsensical lists.
  2. The decontextualized data imparted by lists exemplifies the valorization of information and the parallel devaluation of knowledge that are two of the most salient intellectual consequences of our current technological revolution. (The ongoing transformation of formal education into vocational training is a much more important manifestation of this phenomenon.) 
  3. Justin Bieber.
  4. I asked myself, "What would Faulkner do?" (and a Snopes replied, "No more a yer goldarn lists, ya carpetbaggin' varmint!")
  5. I need more time to work on my arrangement of Tristan und Isolde for single banjo.
  6. If Norman Mailer were here, he'd be head-butting me right now.
  7. Emily Deschanel's eyes.
  8. I've spent far too much time at the downward-spiraling Huffington Post paging through all those useless "literary" lists that exist solely to amplify HuffPo's hit count and thus increase corporate ad revenue.
  9. Will Shakespeare told me to stop.
  10. Vita brevis.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Prolegomena to Any Future Discussion of the Nobel Prize; or, The Only Nobel List You'll Ever Need

Now that the annual suspense is a month behind us and the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the impressive and deserving Canadian short story writer Alice Munro rather than (to name a few equally deserving North Americans) Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, William Kennedy, Don DeLillo, John Ashbery, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Albee, William Gass..., this is perhaps a good time to cast a colder-than-Canadian eye on the Nobel by composing a list of non-Nobel laureates that is even more distinguished than the well-known list of winners. Granted, Beckett and Mann and Faulkner and Hemingway and Sartre and Camus and Grass and Coetzee and many other major, deserving writers have all won the Nobel, but check out the undeniably major writers to whom the Swedish Academy awarded a Hemingwayish nada:

Leo Tolstoy.

Joseph Conrad.

Henry James.

Emile Zola.

Mark Twain.

August Strindberg.

Henrik Ibsen.

Anton Chekhov.

James Joyce.

Marcel Proust.

Virginia Woolf.

Franz Kafka.

Robert Musil.

D. H. Lawrence.

E. M. Forster.

Carlos Fuentes.

Chinua Achebe.

Arthur Miller.

Henry Miller.

Tennessee Williams.

William Carlos Williams.

Jean Genet.

William Gaddis.

Allen Ginsberg.

Jorge Luis Borges.

Andre Breton.

Paul Eluard.

Louis Aragon.

Antonin Artaud.

Federico Garcia Lorca.

Julio Cortazar.

Italo Calvino.

James Baldwin.

Danilo Kis.

Bertolt Brecht.

Mikhail Bulgakov.

Vladimir Nabokov.

W. H. Auden.

W. G. Sebald.

Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Louis Ferdinand Celine.

Ezra Pound.

Simone de Beauvoir.

John Dos Passos.

Paul Celan.

C. P. Cavafy.

It appears as though Tom, Don, Philip and Ol' Cormac are going to be in excellent company either way.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Rest of My Sixty-odd Literary Pillars

(I'm bringing this series to a close now with some shorter takes on the rest of my Gassean 'pillars'.)

Vertigo by W. G. Sebald. I can't choose just one of Sebald's four major fictions. Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz are four books I hold more closely than any I have read in the past decade. I've flown across the Atlantic many times and spent many hours, days, weeks in the galleries of Europe standing in front of paintings and sculptures and looking and thinking until I began to understand them. I discovered Sebald on one of these trips, bought a copy of Vertigo at Waterstone's Piccadilly (Europe's Largest Bookstore, the sign outside boasted most unBritishly), read it, then read it again, then read Emigrants, Saturn and Austerlitz in quick succession (all three in a single week, as I recall), and soon found myself identifying deeply with the narrator of Sebald's books. Rarely have I so closely identified with a fictional character. His bookishness, his aestheticism, his intellectuality, his wanderlust, his haunting by the horrors of history: these were all aspects of my personality before I knew Sebald existed, so finally reading him was like gazing deeply into a mirror that reflected through my face and showed me the shapes of my mind. Reading him was and is an unsettling and troubling experience. That's why I value it.

The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. Very few books possess the power to change the way you read everything else. For me, The Anxiety of Influence was one of them. Reading this slim but Borgesianly enormous volume altered my understanding of the shape of literary history. No longer was it trapped in chronology and historically delimited isms. Now an Elizabethan writer could be seen to reach across the centuries and decisively influence a Modern; and even more startlingly, the Elizabethan could now be re-read as a writer impossibly influenced by the Moderns, the way Blake sometimes reads like a disciple of Yeats, and Cervantes like a brilliantly wayward student of Barth. My understanding of Melville and Sterne as postmodernists, my notion that the novel since Cervantes (hell, since Petronius, if we want to press the issue) has always been a 'postmodern' form, these ideas were licensed by the freedom Harold Bloom granted to my reading mind. And another thing (there's always another thing when you're writing about great books): Somewhere in Anxiety, Bloom states that the meaning of a poem is always another poem. He's speaking of literary influence, but I creatively misread the line to license a truly aesthetic form of criticism, an as-yet purely hypothetical school in which criticism will be as beautiful as the objects it attempts to apprehend. In our publish-or-perish, jargon-or-die world, that would be a refreshing change.

Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia. Paglia suicided her credibility a few years back when she slipped off the rightwing deep end and started making birther noises, but back in the first half of the 1990s, she was the most dynamic, most media savvy, and most intelligently provocative scholar in America. Sexual Personae is another book that transformed me as a reader--and also, to some extent, as a human being. I read it at just the right time, as a college student during the P.C. early 90s, a time when many ideas that had formerly been genuinely revolutionary--feminism, the subversion of gender and sexual roles, the liberation of desire--were becoming institutionalized and hardening into Foucault-influenced academic dogma and kneejerk puritanism. (In a graduate seminar ca.1995, I remember a professor mentioning Paglia as a 'pro-pornography feminist'--a description Paglia herself would've endorsed--and this phrase brought one Women's Studies student to a state that could only be described as 'flabbergasted.' She shook her head in disbelief as she said, "Wait, wait, wait a minute... There are pro-pornography feminists?!") I was looking for a way to understand art that neither reduced it to ideological exemplarism nor treated it as a sacrosanct, quasi-religious object. Reading Paglia during the summer of '93 validated my nascent intellectual aestheticism by giving it a name. Her book introduced me to Walter Pater, showed me the connection between Michelangelo and sadomasochism, and taught me the true and wondrous meaning of decadence. Sexual Personae could only have been written in the late 20th century, but in many ways it's a nineteenth-century book, a throwback to an age when scholarly ambition was still encyclopedic, before the shades of the prison house of overspecialization closed upon our culture. 

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The Waste Land is the only poem that has ever made me cry. That's not literally true; there were a few others, but this poem by a man whose public persona was reserved to the point of mummification brought me to a place so nakedly emotional that I wept--no, not the 'copious tears' of schlock fiction, but at least one or two authentic ones. The part I found so emotional was Part One, lines 35-42, the 'hyacinth girl' passage. By a strange alchemy, this sketched scene of emotional strangulation set my emotions free in a way that mere words have rarely done, before or since. No reader of this blog will be surprised to learn that today I'm fascinated by the homosexual erotics of The Waste Land. I find something very cruise-y and Whitmanesque (and Cavafyesque, too) in the Thames-side workingmen's pub where the poem pauses (lines 259-265) for a few lines before escaping to the aestheticized interior of a church--a poor escape strategy, for the aestheticism of the image invokes Pater and Ruskin, two men of decidedly non-normative sexuality, the former gay and the latter a pedophile. The crux of any gay interpretation of The Waste Land, however, must be a passage near the end of the poem (lines 402-405) in which the speaker addresses a 'friend' (a possible allusion to the 'master-mistress' male friend addressed by the speaker of Shakespeare's sonnets, the greatest gay poem in the language), speaks of the blood shaking his heart, and invokes the memory / fantasy of "the awful daring of a moment's surrender," saying, "By this, and this only, we have existed..." And what is "this"? This, quite simply, is what this always seems to be: the main thing, the Edwardianly unspeakable thing: white-hot homosexual amour, gay sex hotter than poured steel. That'll set a seal on your bowler-hatted life, Mr. Eliot. These lines are as close as the proper and prudent T. S. E., OM, will ever come to what jacket copy writers like to call "sulphurous gay confession."

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I spent the second week of June, 1990, reading War and Peace cover to cover. That's right: I read the whole thing in one week. I'm still not entirely sure how I pulled that off, but it was probably a combination of youthful energy, 21 year-old eyes, and the absolute lack of a life. (About this same time I read McMurtry's Lonesome Dove in five days--not quite so impressive, but still...) This marathon immersion in early 19th century Russian life reminded me (at a time when I needed a reminder) that great novels have the power to bring us into contact with vanished lives, gone worlds, and to make those worlds, for the duration of a reading, more vital than the world we inhabit. We return from such an experience with an unexpected boon, a revitalized vision of the wonder of living. (This all sounds very Romantic and naïve to me now, but that's because I've become jaded in my middle-age.) The fat Signet Classic that inked-up my thumbs 23 years ago still sits on my bookshelf next to the Signet Anna Karenina I read a few months later. It's time to read them again; I've been away from Tolstoy for far too long.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I read it in the spring of my depressive, neurotic, Raskolnikovian twenty-first year. I remember sitting in a metal chair amidst the warped and creaky floorboards of my parents' front porch and losing myself in Dostoyevsky's fever dream of a warped and spooky St. Petersburg. While I read it, the novel held me like a nightmare from which I couldn't awake. I often find myself re-reading books that impress me this deeply, but in the case of Crime and Punishment, I stayed away for more than twenty years--my punishment for the crime of enjoying it, I suppose. When I re-read it a few months ago, it seemed written in the jagged lines and glaring colors of Expressionist painting. It is surely the greatest crime novel of its century.

The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser. In any good secondhand bookstore (shouldn't it be 'secondbrain'?) you should be able to find the four Vintage paperback volumes of Hauser's Social History of Art. Don't pass them by. Hauser is where any modern understanding of history's effect on artistic expression should begin. Shortly after reading them, I traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago and spent a day walking around the European painting galleries and spotting example after example of sociopolitical change affecting the forms and contents of art. Some of these examples were obvious: the effect of Protestant iconoclasm on the subject matter of 17th-century Dutch painting: the triumph of still life, landscape and portraiture over "papist" religious scenes. Others less so: the flattened, wind-up toy-like figures in Seurat's Grand Jatte as a response to an industrialization and mechanization that escaped the factory floor to inf(l)ect all of life with its inhuman rationality.

Fiction and the Figures of Life by William Gass. Gass's essays are a recently discovered love. I started reading them (and re-reading them, compulsively) within the last ten years. Even when I disagree with Willie-the-G(and I do, profoundly, on the importance of story and plot in novels (negligible, he thinks; I say, essential)), I read his incomparable sentences with, to coin a phrase, mindful pleasure.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. I remember reading Henry Miller's obituary in the newspaper when I was twelve years old and thinking that these scandalous Tropic books sounded like hot stuff. A decade later, I devoured Cancer in two days and discovered one of the most deeply European and philosophically pessimistic of all American novels. (Perhaps only Djuna Barnes' Nightwood exhibits a more cosmopolitan sensibility.) It's also the most iconoclastic of them all, a surrealist-influenced tearing down of aesthetic idols, a Dadaist gob of spit in the face of artistic pretension and Jamesian elegance. (Stylistic warning: the next sentence begins with an ironic pastiche of Henry James's stuttering qualifications. Unlike Mr. James, I can't control myself.) Additionally, and not least, Tropic of Cancer is, at times, quite beautifully written, an aspect of Miller's work that finds an echo in the eloquent ranting of Philip Roth's iconoclastic characters. (Which reminds me of a little example of the decline of American culture. A few years ago, one of the cable 'arts' channels produced a series titled Iconoclasts. In each episode, two wealthy celebrities interviewed each other. All of the interviewees had one thing in common: not a single one was any kind of iconoclast.)

Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was one hell of an iconoclast. It's too bad that he's misread in schools as an official philosopher of Americanism, because he's much greater and much, much more dangerous than that. To read "Experience," "Self-Reliance" and "Circles" is to put yourself inside the mind of a man who writes, "The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is." and "People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."

The Atlas by William T. Vollmann. This is the book in which Vollmann invites us to wander the world alongside him. It's a breathtaking journey, written in some of the finest prose of his generation. The Atlas is one of the best recent books I've read since the turn of the millennium, a real "you gotta read this" book.

The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche. To my mind, Nietzsche is the first Western philosopher to get the God stuff absolutely right. Not only is the Transcendental One dead, He only ever existed as a symptom of human weakness. "...[A] poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want anymore: this created all gods and afterworlds" (Thus Spake Zarathustra). If I must choose a single essential book by Nietzsche--and there isn't one; great stuff is scattered all over his oeuvre--my candidate would be The Gay Science.

Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Larkin's poems pull off the neat trick of being both exquisitely crafted and bracingly direct. "Church Going," "An Arundel Tomb," "The Old Fools," "The Trees," "Aubade," "Deceptions," "Mr. Bleaney," "Dockery and Son," "Ambulances,"... there are so many good ones. He's such a fine poet that one easily forgets he was a reactionary doofus. That's the way it should be.

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann. I am an existentialist, and Sartre is my philosopher. It's been fashionable for a while to dismiss him as a chicly radical commie stooge, but like the parallel dismissal of Heidegger as a Nazi (and, for the record, Heidegger's Nazism was much more egregious than Sartre's communism; anyone who fails to distinguish between being a communist in De Gaulle's France and being a fascist in Hitler's Germany lacks the ability to distinguish anything; it's the difference between opposing the power structure in one's country and licking its jackboots), but, as I was saying before that parenthesis, the contemporary western elite's ideological dismissal of Sartre is a convenient way to avoid the hard work of reading and thinking about his writings. The best introduction to Sartrean existentialism is the lecture "Existentialism is a Humanism," included in this exceptional volume. The other selections from Sartre here are also very good. Being and Nothingness, which I've been reading in a piecemeal way for many years, is a quite difficult book that contains scattered passages of beautiful lucidity. It was written for a professional philosophical audience, and no one should confuse it with an introductory text. The several volumes of his translated essays and interviews (in English under many titles from many different publishers; New York Review Books has just published a good selection in one volume) and the novella Nausea are other good places from which to leap into the Sartrean world. I also enjoyed Ronald Hayman's biography of Sartre, a good enough and highly readable popular bio.

Novels and Other Writings (A Cool Million, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, etc.) by Nathanael West. This Library of America book brings together the complete works of the almost-forgotten father of the American dark comic novel. I discovered West when Harold Bloom mentioned him in passing in one of his books as an important precursor of Pynchon, an opinion I found amply confirmed when I read West's four novellas. He's not a Faulkner or Hemingway, but he's easily the equal of Flannery O'Connor and deserves to be as widely known and read. A Cool Million, published in 1934, is the Great American Political Satire. The demagogic rhetoric of West's American fascist leader, ex-President Nathan "Shagpoke" Whipple, will ring eerie bells in the minds of readers who've been paying attention to the Tea Party 'movement.' (In this context, that last word must carry its full complement of scatological overtones.)

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Beckett or Genet? Well, Beckett was more important to me in my formative years. (I recall once telling the Russian  playwright and translator Sergei Task that my three favorite writers were Joyce, Beckett and Nabokov. Now, two decades later, I wouldn't be able to choose just three.) But today I'm leaning more toward Genet. A Parisian lowlife who can write like Proust trumps a terminally exhausted Irishman any day. It's too glib, but perhaps true nonetheless, to understand the dour Irishman as the end of something (Modernism) and the queer Frenchman as the beginning of something else (Postmodernism). When I was 20, though, and I first read Godot, it was like opening a door onto a world as bizarre and funny and bloody awful as the one I lived in. My reaction to that first reading of Godot bore a family resemblance to the effect of the films David Lynch was making during these same years: Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart. There's a similar irrational strangeness in the two men's works, a Kafka-like quality that makes it difficult to draw any hard distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism. The latter is perhaps best seen as the late, late stage of the former, an analysis that can be analogized to contemporaneous developments in capitalism--but that's the stuff of Fredric Jameson's and David Harvey's works, not Beckett's, Genet's or Lynch's.

Collected Plays and Prose by Oscar Wilde. I will now attempt something completely original: I will write about Oscar Wilde without quoting him. The Wilde One is the most quotable writer of the past 200 years. He's even more quotable than Nietzsche (and that's saying a lot). He also wrote the funniest English play of the 19th century (The Importance of Being Earnest) and the most exquisite horror novel of a century that also gave us Frankenstein, Dracula and the bifurcating Dr. Jekyll. But he has been remembered as a wit, and that would likely have been his preference. For the Wildean paradox is not merely a game of words; it is a carefully crafted act of social satire, a verbal timebomb  elegantly tossed into the gaudy drawing rooms of late Victorian England. No wonder they destroyed him.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Relax, Ayatollah. It's only a dream. Several of them, actually, all amazing. Rushdie brought magic realism into British literature in a huge way with Midnight's Children, but Satanic Verses was the first of his novels to cross my stateside reader's radar. (A dubious thanx to the extreme hatchet-jobbers in Tehran for alerting me to this great novel by giving it the ultimate bad review.) Verses was the first magic realist novel I ever read, so of course it impressed me enormously. As a college student at the time, I even became something of a minor evangelist for the book, trying to convince professors to add it to their syllabi. Like all evangelists, I was ineffectual.

Close Range by Annie Proulx. Annie Proulx kicks ass. She kicked mine when I picked up this book and read "Brokeback Mountain." She kicked it again with "The Half-Skinned Steer." And several other tales herein left my posterior battered and bruised. She is one of the major American prose artists of our time.

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. For some reason, I put off reading Flaubert until my 30s, and the first book I read was Steegmuller's edition of his travel journals and letters, Flaubert in Egypt. Then came the beautiful Bovary, the brilliant Trois Contes, and finally the magnum opus, Sentimental Education. It's probably the greatest of all 19th-century French novels. It's no Sharknado, but it's good enough.

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Like Walt Whitman and Michael Herr and (arguably) David Foster Wallace, Sterne was a one-book writer (Sentimental Journey is a comparatively slight and forgettable performance), but his one book was a mind-blower. Kundera writes somewhere that all novels descend from either Fielding or Richardson. I want to trifurcate that paradigm and propose a third line descending from Sterne and running straight on through Joyce and Pynchon to the infinitely jesting Mr. Wallace.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Speaking of Kundera, I think I'll let Kundera's novel speak for itself: "The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own "I" ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become."

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. He died so obscure that one obituary writer misspelled his name and another titled the obit "Death of a Once-Popular Author." Too bad he was dust before the opportunity for a last laugh arose. I think we should take a cue from Spanish writers who refer to Cervantes' masterpiece as 'the Quixote' and start referring to Melville's as 'the Dick.' For me, the Dick is one of the two greatest novels ever written by an American. Absalom, Absalom! is the other.

Great Short Works of Herman Melville. None of Melville's other novels have impressed me as much as the Dick, but much of his short fiction is brilliant--and often deeply weird, another quality I value in fiction (and life). Bartleby, Billy Budd, "Benito Cereno," and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" especially impress me.

Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath. I haven't read Plath for years, but there was a time when she was the only poet for me, and Dostoyevsky was the only novelist. A bad time. Now I compare her to Van Gogh, another artist who achieved true originality, whose work became most vital, lucid and crystalline, while his life rushed toward self-destruction. This is the most dangerous aesthetic game. No one should play around with it.

Complete Poems by Anne Sexton. After Plath, I discovered Sexton, the second of the suicide sisters who presided over the 1960s American poetry scene. I preferred Sexton because her work was crueler and funnier; her deathwork was full of life.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Yes, she stole the novel's basic idea from Ulysses, a book she snobbishly derided. (Usually a fine and discerning critic, she allowed personal prejudices to get the better of her here.) And yes, To The Lighthouse is probably more beautiful and formally adventurous. But I find myself repeatedly drawn back into Clarissa Dalloway's day, maybe by Woolf's rather outrageous decision to counterpoint her prim and proper title lady with the shellshocked and impoverished suicide Septimus Warren Smith. The book has become so canonical by now that we've lost the sense of just how radical a choice this was.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I seem to be on a suicidal roll here, so let's not leave out the most recent inductee to this most dubious of literary societies. Infinite Jest is DFW's one great book (relatively few writers have written even one truly great book); there are very good things in the others (Bombardini, the Great Ohio Desert, the 'Brief Interviews,' "The Depressed Person," "Octet," "Good Old Neon," much of the journalism in Supposedly Fun Things... and Consider the Lobster), but much of Wallace's writing now reads like either preparation for or reaction to that one great book.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It took me several tries to finally read Blood Meridian. My first attempts were waylaid early by the violence and stupidity of the characters and the general ugliness of the tale. I repeatedly returned it barely read to my bookshelf, but the beauty of McCarthy's prose lingered in my mind, and I repeatedly picked it up again. When I finally read the whole thing, it was like a bomb going off in my brain. For two or three days after finishing Blood Meridian, I wandered aimlessly around the crater it had blown.

Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings by Jonathan Swift. Swift is the secret English father of Voltaire. Swift is a Rabelais who knows when to stop. Swift is a satirist whose irony indicts us all. Swift is seriously funny, and major-league filthy. Decades ago, a scatology-free Gulliver was cartooned for the kiddies. That's too bad. Swift without shit is like Joyce without Guinness, Shakespeare without sack, Nabokov without little girls. "I like obsessions," Luis Bunuel has written, "my own as well as other people's, because they make it easier to deal with life; I feel sorry for people who don't have any." Don Luis was a foot man; Swift's obsession aimed higher.

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell). Solely in terms of his facility with images, Rilke was a poet of Shakespearean power. There are precious few of those; they are rarer than Vladimir Putin's smiles; they happen about as often as Kim Jong-Un says something sane. Rilke, at his best, is an inexpressibly beautiful poet. Death-obsessed, he imagines metaphors that leap into life. Rodin and Cezanne taught him to see, and he is their equal in words.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. How's this for a slick segue: One of Rilke's mistresses, Baladine Klossowska, was the mother of the painter Balthus, one of whose trademark nymphets adorned the cover of an early paperback of Lolita. I first read the novel in Alfred Appel's annotated edition, which was a great initiation into the parallel universe of Vlad the Inscriber. It might be interesting to read Lolita in terms of Nabokov's conflicted relationship to homosexuality. His brother and (if I recall correctly) one or two of his uncles were gay, and it seems clear that one of the targets of Lolita's satire is the rhetoric of homosexual apologetics, as refracted through the prism of Humbert's self-serving rationalizations of pedophilia.

Seven Plays by Sam Shepard. In our overspecialized society, where a person is permitted one function and one function only, most people know Sam Shepard only as a character actor who often turns up in westerns, the thinking man's Sam Elliott. Alternatively, those who know him as a playwright tend not to rate his acting too highly. Like most people outside theater circles (and those are very small circles indeed when set against the vastness of America), I knew him first as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Five years later, when I read Buried Child and True West, I learned that he was one of American theatre's few true geniuses. These two plays don't deserve comparison with O'Neill or Miller or Mamet; they deserve comparison with Faulkner and Melville, the two titans at the top of the American mountain.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This short novel is one of my Bunuelian obsessions. I reread it every two or three years. Everything that needs to be said about Gatsby has already been said by Lois Tyson in her highly readable textbook Critical Theory Today, which submits Fitzgerald's novel to readings based on all the major schools of criticism. So I'm going to take this opportunity to write about the Robert Redford / Mia Farrow film, a fine adaptation that everyone seems to hate. I've found very little to dislike in the movie: Redford, Farrow and Waterston are as good as can be expected, and Dern is great; it's a faithful adaptation; the cinematography is memorable if a bit too gauzily sentimental (but that was a 70s stylistic tic; it's in all the period films of the era). I suspect that so many people claim to hate the film because the negative opinion gained currency early and makes the criticizer feel culturally superior. It's a lazy opinion that has fossilized into general wisdom.

How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong. Erica Jong was one of the first writers to take me inside a woman's life, so she's tremendously important to the development of my literary mind. I had read Alice Walker earlier, and later I read Austen, Bronte(s), Eliot, Porter, Cather, O'Connor, Oates, H.D., Dickinson, Bishop, Sexton, Plath, Woolf, Rich, Morrison, Nin, Proulx, Murdoch, Sontag, Barnes, Hobhouse, Colette, Jelinek, Paglia, Lessing, Dove, Forche, Carter, Dworkin, O'Brien, Cixous, Atwood, Le Guin, Beauvoir, Gaitskill, Minot, Carson, Sappho, Kempe, Holmes, Welty, Roiphe, Irigaray, Olds, Wharton, and on and on... I'm surprised by how many women writers I've read, because I don't think of them as 'women writers;' I stopped making that distinction a long time ago. At the beginning of my adulthood, I read Jong's Isadora Wing trilogy (Fear of Flying, How to Save Your Own Life, Parachutes and Kisses), and the second one seemed the best: the smartest, funniest, and sexiest of the three. For a long time now, Jong has been paying the penalty that our literary establishment enforces upon writers who achieve phenomenal success: academic ignorance of her work, which is officially considered as weak and ephemeral as most other bestsellers. This is simple snobbery. And in the case of a writer as bookish, as unabashedly literary as Jong, it is also simple stupidity.

l'Assommoir by Emile Zola. Zola's greatest novel is insufficiently known to English-language readers, perhaps because its title obstinately resists easy translation. Penguin Classics avoided this problem by publishing it under the French title. An assommoir is a lower-class drinking establishment, a low dive, a boozer, a beer joint, and English lacks a single word to clearly signify both the establishment and the nature of its clientele. One English publisher called it The Dram Shop, which just sounds odd. Under any title, it's the defining novel of 19th-century naturalism. It will show you many things, and it will break your heart.

United States by Gore Vidal. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, before he became a television creature, Larry King was the best thing on American radio. He was the Mutual network's late-night man, hosting a talk show that broadcast live (live!) from midnight to 5:30 every weeknight. The guests ranged from politicians and pundits to writers and musicians to comedians and conspiracy theorists, and King kept every guest on the show for three full hours, usually an hour of interview followed by two hours of listener questions and Kingly follow-ups. Then, after the guest made his drowsy exit, the host threw open the phone lines and spent two more hours fielding unscreened calls on any topic anyone awake at 4am wanted to talk about. If this sounds insane, well, it was insane--and it was also great entertainment. (I still remember King 'conversing' with an anonymous numerology fanatic from Winnemucca, Nevada, who thought he could prove using numerical equivalents of the letters in Gary Hart's name that Hart was the Antichrist. When the caller finished his crazy spiel, King asked calmly, "Okay, now can you tell me who's gonna win the second race at Aqueduct next Saturday. 'Cause that's some information I can really use, ya know?") The King show was popular liberal radio (something virtually unknown today), and it attracted Washington insiders and Tonight Show-level celebrities. During the early Reagan years, it was the little bit of late night sanity in my young life. It introduced me to Erica Jong and the concept of zipless fucking; it was where Dr. Ruth informed me that masturbation was perfectly natural (a big load off my tweenage wanker's mind); and it was the place where I first encountered Gore Vidal. The Greatest Gore circa 1982 was Mr. Savoir Faire. I delighted in his haughty voice, polished periods, withering wit and suave sparring with the krazy callers. His appearances on the King show led me to his novels, which led me to his essays, which will Horaceanly instruct and delight me until the end of (my) time.

The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany. Who will be the Melville of our time? What great writer presently living will the future use to indict us with blindness, the way we look back on the late 19th century and want to scream, "Open your eyes, you dolts! There's this great book called Moby Dick by a great writer named Melville, and he's still living among you and you don't realize any of this because you're too busy memorizing 'Thanatopsis.'"? What rough and incomparable literary genius exists among us all-but-unacknowledged outside a small coterie? My candidate is Samuel R. Delany. Science fiction fans have known him for a very long time, but most of them know him the way aficionados of sea stories knew Melville--as a writer who did important work in the genre many years ago. Delany continues to write big, important books, but he now writes in the genre called 'literary fiction.' The Mad Man may be the most amazing of these.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I've said it before, and it's worth saying again: Upon finishing The Master and Margarita I thought, "This is it. This book is the reason writing was invented." Surely the Sumerians didn't go to all that trouble just so we could read Danielle Steele. The Master is the greatest Russian novel of the Soviet era written inside the U.S.S.R.. Given that Bulgakov worked during the Stalin terror, it's amazing that he died of natural causes. If he were writing today, Putin would imprison him.

Selected Essays by John Berger. One of John Berger's books is titled Just Looking, and that's how some of his best essays begin, with Berger standing before a work of art and just looking at it, letting it trip him into thought. Berger is that rare and necessary thing, a politically engaged aesthete. His work should be paradigmatic for all leftist criticism of art and literature. Like Arnold Hauser, Robert Hughes and Robert Herbert (and unlike the equally perceptive but less talented T. J. Clark), Berger combines a perceptive mind with an admirably agile pen. His criticism is literature.

(There are of course many other books that have rewired my intellectual circuitry, but they're not specifically literary pillars: Noam Chomsky's works; Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States; the complete works of the art critic Robert Hughes; Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul; Inwardness and Existence by Walter A. Davis; Joseph Campbell's Jungian flights; The Parallax View by Slavoj Zizek; John Richardson's multi-volume biography of Picasso; David Cook's History of Narrative Film; Schopenhauer's
The World as Will and Representation; many others...Lewis Carroll's Alice books should've been included on the list of 'pillars;' they're two of the most subversive works to emerge from Victorian England, and I hold them closer than anything by Dickens.)