Thursday, April 30, 2015

DOG YEARS by Gunter Grass

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

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

AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS by Flann O'Brien

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

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

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

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

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

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

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

THE BOOK OF KELLS Complete Text now online

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Two Vernal Verses for the Turning of the Year

Here's a pair of poetic fragments for everyone shiveringly awaiting the arrival of meteorological spring:

Gone is the winter of my misery,
My spring appears; O see what here doth grow!
                  --Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella, no.69

If it's ever spring again,
       Spring again,
I shall go where went I when
Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen,
Seeing me not, amid their flounder,
Standing with my arm around her;
If it's ever spring again,
       Spring again,
I shall go where went I then.
                                          --Thomas Hardy

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

BEOWULF, translated by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was one of my favorite contemporary poets, and I've long considered his 'bog people' poems of the 1970s ("Punishment," "Bog Queen," etc.) among the strongest English-language poems of the past 50 years. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I finally read his translation of Beowulf and found it largely unimpressive. Oh, there are some very good lines, some places where Heaney pulls marvelous modern poetry out of the old Anglo-Saxon. Heaney's "havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere"(l.594) probably can't be bettered; there's a wonderful harsh music in the alliteration, and the vowels seem to gasp at the carnage they signify. Similarly, Heaney has his horde of slaughtered sea monsters "...sleeping / the sleep of the sword..."(l.565-6), a phrase that sings like sunlight on calm water, despite its surely deliberate echoing of a modern cliché, "the sleep of death." But elsewhere in Heaney's translation, this sort of thing ceases to be an echo and becomes a blatant tendency to translate Anglo-Saxon verse into contemporary American cliché. At lines 26-27, for example, Heaney tells us "[Scyld] was still thriving when his time came / and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping." Questionable Christianization aside, that 'when his time came' is a vapid 20th-century funeral home euphemism, and Heaney's 'crossed over' is even worse, making the Beowulf poet sound like a Californian guru of the afterlife. Later, Heaney has Hrothgar refer to Aeschere as "my right-hand man"(l.1326), a truly jarring anachronism, akin to having Hrothgar call him 'my main man' or 'my soul brother.' These examples leapt out at me, but Heaney's text is riddled with flat, uninspired, and/or clichéd lines. So I can't agree with Andrew Motion's blurbed contention that Heaney "has made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece." At times, in fact, Heaney has taken the first major work of English literature and turned it into a bit of a mess.

What is the best modern translation of Beowulf? This is not a rhetorical question; the four translations I've read over the years have failed to impress me as poetry, and I would sincerely like to learn of a better one. I've sampled Tolkien's, but it seems too pedantically literal, a donnish crib. Maybe now, almost a generation after Heaney's attempt, it's time for another poet to try her hand. Someone needs to build a better Beowulf. Famous Seamus seems to have left the job undone.

THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville

China Mieville (he's a Brit; the name signifies French ancestry, hippie parents, and a guarantee that Americans will think of Moby Dick the moment they see his name on a dust jacket) possesses one of the most impressive imaginations in contemporary SF. Anyone who has sampled even a bit of his Bas-Lag trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) will not soon forget his weird inventions and uncanny ability to leap inside the perceptions of nonhuman characters. In The City and the City--best pigeonholed as an SF police procedural, the subgenre that includes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Soylent Green ("It's PEOPLE!")--that imagination is wonderfully displayed in the central conceit, two mutually antagonistic cities occupy the same physical space and citizens of each are socialized to 'unsee' buildings and people in the other, even when those buildings abut their own or those people pass them on the sidewalk. It's a fantastically suggestive idea, worthy of Calvino or even Kafka, and Mieville milks it marvelously. This conceit is also by far the best thing about the novel, and therein lies the work's weakness. In sharp contrast to the originality of its setting, The City and the City's characters are flat, its plot formulaic (and as such, a bit too predictable), and its prose rarely rises above the average level for its genre(s). There were several sentences in which an obviously tortured syntax left me wondering if Mieville was writing deliberately 'badly' in order to defamiliarize the language of his text as a parallel to his defamiliarization of our world in his topolganger (his coinage, and a good one) cities. This may have been his intention, but my margin of readerly doubt measures the distance between intention and execution. If linguistic defamiliarization was his target, he didn't quite hit it here. But it's clear that Mieville is damn good, and his writerly craft is still on the up escalator. When he reaches the top, watch out.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Three Kinds of Imagination

A few months ago while I was skim/skip-reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, that 1980s nerd favorite now almost forgotten (even I, once a card-carrying 80s nerd, had all but forgotten that I still owned a copy), it occurred to me that we might classify imaginations, specifically artistic imaginations, into three categories. Loosely analogizing these categories to art-historical periods, I will call them Classical, Baroque, and Mannerist.

Classical imaginations tend toward simplicity, austerity, elegance. Think of the exquisitely balanced compositions of Poussin's Madonna of the Steps or The Judgment of Solomon, the supersmooth abstraction of Brancusi's Bird in Flight, the stripped-down staccato prose styles of Hemingway or James Ellroy (in Hemingway's case, stripped-down from the lush baroque overplus of Henry James's prose), or the epiphanies of beauty teased out of ordinary pots and pans in Chardin's still life paintings.

Baroque imaginations tend toward complexity, contradiction, even hysteria. We find this tendency in the style of Henry James's fictions and in the matter of Thomas Pynchon's, in Picasso's wildest cubist and surrealist flights, in the overwhelmingly elaborate Capella Sistina in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, in the enormous, mind-boggling ceiling painting on the vault of St. Ignazio di Loyola (also in Rome), in the impressive authorial outpouring of imaginative gusto in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.

Mannerist imaginations tend toward paradox, frustration, impasse. Here we find the inescapable nightmares of Kafka's Metamorphosis and The Trial, the ice-blue untouchable eroticism and interpretive impenetrability of Bronzino's Allegory with Venus and Cupid, David Foster Wallace's "The Depressed Person" and much of Infinite Jest, M. C. Escher's inescapable etchings, and the impossible paintings of Rene Magritte.

These are but three kinds of imaginative tendencies. There are many more possibilities (depressive, comic, tragic, etc.), and none of these categories should be taken as anything more than a fuzzy, loose, contingent kind of intellectual shorthand. Powerful imaginations tend to dissolve such categories and set all pigeonholes aflame.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

An academic article on W. G. Sebald's untranslated academic writings

Here's a link to James R. Martin's very interesting 2013 Cambridge Literary Review article, "On Misunderstanding W. G. Sebald." Martin, who seems to have read the entire corpus of Sebald's as-yet-untranslated academic writings, argues that while the author's transformation from Frankfurt School-influenced academic to Kafka-, Nabokov-, and Bernhard-influenced writer of fiction was accompanied by an intellectual modulation in his understanding of the Shoah, there are also important continuities between the 'two Sebalds'. While I don't entirely agree with Martin's article and find his concluding paragraph a bit harsh, I highly recommend the article for the glimpses it provides of the large amount of Sebald still available only to German readers. I eagerly await the English translations of Sebald's complete critical writings, so I can attempt to judge these matters for myself. (Unfortunately, I may be waiting a very long time.)

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Books that Choose Us

On this 133rd anniversary of the birth of James Joyce, I'm thinking about my conviction that I didn't choose to read Ulysses. It chose me.

The line has been repeated so many times it's almost a cliché: We don't choose the books that are important to us; they choose us. I've experienced this phenomenon at several moments in my life, when Ulysses or Austerlitz or Sentimental Education seemed to choose me as their reader, seemed to solicit my interest and compel me to read them. But this solicitation in the library stacks or bookstore aisle, like the outward signs of Hamlet's grief, merely seems, and it is important that we not let be be the finale of its seeming. For we, of course, are the ones who choose. We choose to read certain books for reasons we do not understand. We choose them for unconscious reasons. And into the oblivion of our motivation, to fill the gap our repressions create, we pour the illusion of an inanimate object choosing a subject. We spontaneously grant the book an illusionary agency because the roots of our actual agency must be prophylactically disavowed.

But this can't be the whole story. The idea that books choose us is a retrospective construction. It occurs to us only after we have read and been deeply impressed by a given book, after we have been emotionally affected by its power. And works of art possess powers we do not grant to them. Something in their representations solicits us also, captures us in its sticky web. And we respond, for reasons often disavowed, in an interaction much like erotic attraction. We say we "love" this book, we speak of "falling in love" with it, and part of our classic overestimation of this particular desired object is the harmless delusion that it chose us, not the factually accurate vice versa.

All of which brings me back to my old intuition that art and love run off the same circuit. The aesthetic and the erotic are profoundly interrelated, intricately knotted, inextricable. As Proust's Swann knew (and little good the knowledge did him), we can love a woman because we love a work of art, and anyone with the least amount of aesthetic sensitivity has experienced the opposite effect (attraction to an art object that reminds us of a loved one). Maybe this erotic motivation is exactly what we are repressing about the books that (seem to) choose us. Does something in these books provoke or solicit a desire that we must disavow? Think about this, and think about the deeper, potentially embarrassing reasons why you chose the books that 'chose you.' We may be trespassing onto dangerously private property here. I hope so.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Few Thoughts on THE GREAT GATSBY

Three of the greatest American novels--Moby Dick; Absalom, Absalom! and The Great Gatsby--can be easily interpreted as variations on a single 'deep' narrative: the failed quest for an obscure object of desire. In the cases of Melville and Fitzgerald, this is quite obvious, while for Faulkner's novel the interpretation would be more complex, as the book contains multiple questers and objects (including Quentin Compson, seeking a truth he can only create in the telling--somewhat like Nick Carraway during his last-page rhapsody, perhaps).

The tragedy of Gatsby, as I reinterpret it now upon my umpteenth reading, lies in the fact that the self young James Gatz creates is a pure subject of desire for a single object. His desire for Daisy is obsessive, fanatical, and as he attempts to mold himself into the object of his (mis)understanding of her desire (like all infatuated lovers, he assumes her desire to be the mirror of his), he creates a self so single-mindedly object-oriented, so inhuman, that it inevitably shatters--not, as Nick thinks, on the brutal hardness of Tom's personality, but on the human complexity and contradictions of Daisy's messy self.

Aside from these more 'theoretical' concerns, it must be noted that Gatsby is, of course, a fantastically well-written and extremely well-constructed novel. (Because it's so often read in U.S. high schools, these qualities are usually taken for granted; they shouldn't be.) The first chapter is a nearly perfect opening: a brief prologue establishes the narrative voice and teases us into desire for the story to come; the next section admirably sets the geographical and social scene; the dinner scene introduces all the major characters and many of their conflicts; and the ending shows us Gatsby as the self he has constructed, a pure subject of pure desire, beckoning toward the desire of his object, willing Daisy  to turn her desire permanently his way, like the green light on the end of her dock. This is what nearly perfect narrative fiction looks like. As Hunter S. Thompson, who shared a language and an addiction or two with Fitzgerald, appreciated, The Great Gatsby is a great course in novel-writing. And it's one hell of a lot cheaper than an MFA. One of the book's principal lessons is "shock the formula." One wouldn't guess from Gatsby's opening that this Jamesian / Horatio Alger narrative would transmute into a melodrama of gangsters and bootlegging and multiple killings before modulating into pathos and tragedy. But that's the winding road Fitzgerald speeds us down. After many re-readings one loses the shock of the Fitzgeraldian new, but for its first readers, Gatsby must have been a deeply surprising novel, a high-speed collision of Whartonian rhetoric and Jamesian irony with the blood-drenched gangster stories of the gutter press. It is a measure of Fitzgerald's artistry that he can, with seeming effortlessness, turn such an unlikely collision into a novel both moving and beautiful.

Ontological Dream, Metaphysical Nightmare

Last Christmas night I had the ontological dream, the metaphysical nightmare. I dreamed I awoke in the middle of the night and felt my way blindly through the coaldark house to the brightly lighted kitchen. The incongruity of a ceiling light burning sunlike in the middle of the night, while the silent house slept, unsettled my dreamself to the extent of setting off a fit of metaphysical anxiety. Like so many Nabokov characters, I began to suspect the hyper-reality of my seamlessly mimetic world. Maybe I'm not awake, I dreamthought. Maybe this is a dream. To test the oneiric nature of this 'reality,' I reached up to the lightswitch chain, thinking, If this is a dream, the light won't turn off. I pulled the chain. Nothing happened. I pulled again. Nothing happened. The house around me, to the horizon of the light, rested in absolutely convincing mimesis. I pulled the switch yet again. No change. A frenzied panic flowed into me as I repeatedly jerked the chain to no avail. I was trapped in a dream from which I could not awake, even as I madly told myself, This is a dream! This is a dream! and continued pulling the lightchain. My memory of the dream ends here, trapped in terror.

The dream was horrifying in its simplicity, unbearable in its banality, unheimlich in its utter familiarity. As Kafka knew, the familiar is the place from which terror most effectively erupts.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Only Paul Thomas Anderson Interview You Will Ever Need...

After New Year's resolving to waste less time online, I spent nearly two hours yesterday evening listening to Marc Maron's marvelous WTF interview with director Paul Thomas Anderson. (In my own defense, I've contracted a respiratory virus and have been a Dayquil zombie for the past few days, so I wasn't really capable of doing much beyond veging in front of the intertube.) Among the surprises revealed: while Anderson was a student at Emerson College (Boston) in the early 1990s, one of his English teachers was the not-yet-Charlie-Rosed David Foster Wallace (that's one for the 'Small World' file); Anderson's father was Tim Conway's straight man in the early 1960s, and Anderson grew up around the cast of the Carol Burnett Show; the elder Anderson was also a Cleveland, Ohio local TV personality who hosted horror movies under the name of 'Ghoulardi'; the reason why Anderson's first feature, Sidney, was released under the title Hard Eight (a good movie by any name); Anderson speaks at length about Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice, and he pointedly refuses to say anything about any personal contact he might have had with Thomas Pynchon. He also mentions that if he had a time machine, he would use it to travel backward a few decades and work with Sterling Hayden.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

And one more hit o' the old Maileriana for the road...

The back cover dust jacket of my prized first edition of George V. Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle boasts a blurb from Norman Mailer that could only have been written in the early 1970s:

"What dialogue! Higgins may be the American writer who is closest to Henry Green. What I can't get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz."

The fuzz. How quaint that word seems in this era of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and militarized police forces that act like occupying armies. Like 'honky' and 'spade' and 'groovy,' fuzz is a linguistic artifact of late-60s-early-70s American Hipster English. Another notable usage occurs in the Woodstock documentary when Arlo Guthrie speaks from the stage about "rappin' to the fuzz" that the New York State Thruway is closed, man.

But Mailer's usage is perhaps not entirely correct. When he published the book, Higgins was an Assistant U. S. Attorney, and before that he worked organized crime cases in the Massachusetts State Attorney General's office. (Or as one of his characters might've put it: Oh yeah, he knew Whitey. You bet he knew Whitey. He knew Whitey before Whitey was Whitey...) So, to be precise, the late great George V. wasn't merely the fuzz, he was the superfuzz.

Also, I wouldn't have pegged Mailer as a Henry Green fan, but I guess he was. This must be the only thing Norman and John Updike had in common--aside, possibly, from a literary groupie or two.

Monday, October 27, 2014

More Mailer Stuff

Continuing a Mailer theme from the previous post, here are a couple of Norman Mailer-related YouTube items that might be of interest. First, his 1970 film Maidstone, a mostly failed experiment in improvisational filmmaking that is memorable only for the late scene in which a young and stoner-eyed Rip Torn physically attacks Mailer while the camera rolls. Neither of these gentlemen is exactly a brawler. To say that they fight like little girls would be an insult to little girls. The whole movie is worth watching once, though, the way a time capsule is worth opening--but only once. (The fight begins at about 1:34:00.)

Second, and considerably more entertaining, is this mid-1980s clip from The Tonight Show in which the late Joan Rivers attempts to interview Mailer (who's plugging Tough Guys Don't Dance) while Shelley Winters interrupts with a fantastic (in all senses) 'memory' of Mailer meeting Marilyn Monroe at a Henry Wallace rally in 1948. Mailer's response is pretty good, but Rivers is, of course, funnier.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Harold Bloom on Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings

I just discovered that Harold Bloom's highly enjoyable and erudite 1983 review of Norman Mailer's endless Egyptian novel, Ancient Evenings, is available in its entirety on the New York Review of Books website. Click here to read it. I remember devouring Ancient Evenings like Zero Mostel at an all-you-can-eat buffet when it was paperbacked in '84 (I was fifteen and already a literary hipster; big books aren't a problem when you're young enough to think you're immortal), and Bloom's old review encourages me to give Norman's Big Book of Bumbuggery another look.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Belated Bloomsday 2014: They Do Joyce in Differant Voyces

The commodious vicus of time's recirculation sped me past this year's Bloomsday without a blogpost, so here's this year's delateful Joycean ejaculation, exactly four months late.

This year I'm thinking about the vast diffusion of Joyce's influence over the literature of the last hundred years. Let's take our cue from T. S. Eliot's early title for The Waste Land and imagine a survey of the past century's literature under the title "They Do Joyce in Different Voices." Consider the Joycean debts owed by these landmarks of the modern literary mind:

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The most influential English-language poem of the first half the 20th century was decisively influenced by Joyce's deployment of mythology in Ulysses, which Eliot read chapter-by-chapter in little magazines before its 1922 book publication. Of course, if we wish to take the ironic, deflationary deployment of myth and history as the defining rhetoric of Modernism, we should gaze back behind Joyce and seek Modernism's genesis in two paintings by Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. In the spring of 1863, Manet was painting the latter in his studio while hordes of philistines were savaging the former at the Salon. Accordingly, I arbitrarily cite May 1863 in Paris as the time and place of Modernism's birth.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf leveled a few unimpressive and snobbish criticisms at Ulysses, but that didn't stop her from ripping off Joyce's central idea (a day in the inner lives of urban characters) when she wrote Dalloway. Woolf's novel, read from our present distance in time, seems as much a complement/compliment to Joyce's novel as an implicit (if rather obvious) critique.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. By the time she wrote this later work, Woolf had internalized Joyce's techniques, combined them with Proust's, and made them her own.

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien. In this monument to one Irish writer's monumental anxiety of influence, O'Brien imagines a Joyce who survived the war and lived on to absurdly disavow his literary achievements.

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien. Joyce liked and praised this proto-postmodern work that rises directly from the soil of the 'Cyclops' and 'Circe' episodes in Ulysses.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett. Joyce reportedly memorized the closing lines of this, Beckett's first and most clearly Joycean novel. Beckett once said that in fiction Joyce tended toward omniscience and he, Beckett, tended toward ignorance. The impressive range of reference in Beckett's early prose suggests he was still decisively under the Joycean influence when he wrote Murphy. It is arguable that he never really fought free of the influence, that he spent his entire career dialectically propelled by Joyce, like a moth repeatedly approaching then fleeing from a dazzling flame.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Miller was merely the most audacious of the American expatriates who learned from Joyce's work. The urban stream-of-consciousness style of Miller's horny-man-on-the-street rhapsodies descends directly from the early chapters of Ulysses.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. It's probably not too much of a stretch to call this an American answer to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Faulkner's representation of Benjy's fragmented consciousness would have been impossible without Joyce's experiments in the first half and last chapter of Ulysses.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The darkest of the Dubliners stories lie somewhere behind much of Hemingway's best work. To take just one example, read "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in the light of Joyce's "Counterparts."

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. The best parts of Barnes' experimental novel (which seems stranger to me with every re-reading; it's that rare book that becomes more difficult the better you know it) are the chapters dominated by Dr. Matthew O'Connor, an Irish-American monologuist who sounds like Joyce's Buck Mulligan on a roll.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. No writer more clearly desired to be dubbed the 'son of Joyce,' and this is perhaps the only novel in English that has succeeded in doing something both original and interesting with the linguistic techniques pioneered in Finnegans Wake.

Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Joyce's reduction of narrative point-of-view to the thoughts in a single mind, his consequent expansion of the representation of individual consciousness, his epiphanic elevation of the mundane to the level of the symbolic--all of these characteristic Joycean strategies fed into the radical reductions of the French nouveau roman.

Night by Edna O'Brien. Directly influenced by Molly Bloom's monologue, this is the next generation's and the other gender's reply to Ulysses. Every Irish writer must wrestle with James Joyce (if only, like Roddy Doyle, to petulantly dismiss him), and O'Brien did so at length in her very good, concise book on Joyce for the Penguin Lives series.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. In his most formally original work, that noted Humbutterfly Hunter Professor V. Nabokov (AKA several sirenical pseudonyms), who taught Ulysses to undergraduates at Cornell, twisted Joycean formal experimentation to his own comically obsessive ends.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. The definitive Californian queering of Ulysses. Isherwood takes the original idea for Ulysses--the thoughts of a single man on a single day--and creates a pioneering masterpiece of what I suppose we must still call 'gay fiction.' I'd prefer to call A Single Man 'great fiction.'

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. In his greatest and most difficult book, Pynchon rewrites Ulysses for the age of aerial bombardment and nuclear warfare. Tyrone Slothrop is what happens to Stephen Dedalus after the Bomb.

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. Joyce is a spectre haunting Irish poetry. Heaney evokes him beautifully in the last section of "Station Island."

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Joyce's influence on Borges might almost be called 'spiritual.' Joyce showed Borges that the transcendent might reside at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin and suggested to him that an Aleph might exist on an ordinary basement stair, that infinity might be found among the dusty volumes of a library, that a book might be the most dangerous labyrinth of all.

Couples by John Updike. As soon as the novel's first couple sexlessly hits the sack, Updike shifts into a few pages of Joycean pastiche. Joyce's influence on Updike was huge, and he may not have successfully assimilated it until Rabbit got rich.

The Tunnel by William H. Gass. Gass's prose owes much to the musical stylings of James the Joyous, and Gass's formal experiments and titanic streams of consciousness clearly descend from the Joycean precedent. It would be a mistake, though, to call The Tunnel a 'stream' of consciousness novel; this is no sibilant stream, no burbling brook; it's a Mississippi River of consciousness roaring toward its oceanic mouth. Don't drown in it.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. Sal the Man takes Joycean linguistic exuberance back to Bombay. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Joyce's languages derive ultimately from Indo-European.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin. Doblin's best-known work is the Berliner Ulysses. It exercised a decisive influence upon Gunter Grass, among many other writers.

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Bloom uses the Viconian structural paradigm of Finnegans Wake to organize this collection of insightful, idiosyncratic essays on Western literature.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth. The freedom claimed by Joyce and enlarged by Henry Miller and Jean Genet bears strange, darkly comic fruit in Roth's greatest (and probably funniest) novel, a book that explicitly references Ulysses.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. After 40 years, it's time for this book to start receiving the respect it deserves. Forget anything you might have heard about it and read it. It's a major, serious and seriously funny work of literary fiction in the long comic tradition that begins at Aristophanes and reaches one of its peaks on Mount Joyce.

Saturday by Ian McEwan. This post-9/11 'one day in a Londoner's life' novel contains multiple Joycean allusions that are much more subtle than the book's obvious structural debt.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. Even James Wood is sometimes capable of astute criticism. When he remarked that Wallace deliberately threw open his prose instrument to the degraded languages of the American present, he identified the deepest debt Wallace owed to Ulysses (especially the strategies of the 'Eumaeus' episode and the first half of 'Nausicaa'). The bandannaed one seems to have gotten his Joyce at secondhand, via the American academic postmodernists (Barthelme, Barth, Coover) who hoed their various rows in the satirical-pastichey ground broken by Auld Blind Jim.

The House of Ulysses and Larva by Julian Rios. If Joyce had not existed, would Julian Rios have a career? Would he be known, even ever so slightly, outside a tiny Spanish-reading coterie?

The Surrealists. Joyce's relation to Surrealist literature closely parallels Picasso's relation to Surrealist visual arts: he was an older, already accomplished master who both influenced and was influenced by the artists of the Surrealist group.

Ulysses Gramophone: Two Words for Joyce by Jacques Derrida. And just for the hell of it, let's throw the Old Derridadaist into the mix. (For anyone interested in the critical connections, all of Derrida's writings on Joyce have been collected in English in the book Derrida and Joyce, edited by Andrew J. Mitchell and Sam Slote.) It seems to me that one of Derrida's unacknowledged projects was the introduction of Joycean linguistic play into philosophico-critical discourse. Regardless, Joyce remains the more entertaining philosopher--by far. (Readers of Derrida will understand why the penultimate word in this post's title is not misspelled.)

Slacker and the Before films, directed by Richard Linklater. And just for the unholy Joycean hell of it, let's end this post at the movies. Richard Linklater's deeply Bunuelian film Slacker signals its Joycean influence with a reading from Ulysses, but the Ulyssean influence is more subterranean (and thus more effective) in the wonderful series of Before movies starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Joyce and Eric Rohmer seem to stand side by side somewhere behind all three of these conversation-driven, single-day tales.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Additional Adversaria from the Summertime Notebook

In a novel, originality of form and language are fine and necessary, but in the absence of an interesting story they are frosting without a cake.

In the words of biologist J. B. S. Haldane, "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose." I would say the same of Henry James.

Having just re-read J. G. Ballard's "The Garden of Time" and "The Drowned Giant," I find myself agreeing with Anthony Burgess that these two stories should surely be considered canonical. They exist on a level with the best of Kafka, Borges and Calvino. (Any writer who convinces me to compare him with Kafka is a master worthy of the highest respect.) Ballard is one of the very few 20th-century writers whose work can be as good and strange and cutting as Kafka's without also being derivatively 'Kafkaesque.'

Certainty is a vice of fanatics and fools.

Neal Stephenson's late (1992) cyberpunk novel Snow Crash begins promisingly, oozing supercool attitude and Tom Robbins-y metaphors. But the novel founders about 100 pages in, when Stephenson loses his cool, dials down the hyper-troping, and falls into a narrative rhythm of clumsy, repetitive exposition interrupted by increasingly ridiculous action scenes. Snow Crash may not have been intended as a parody of cyberpunk, but that's how most of the novel reads.

In the reverently silent cathedral of the tragic I give myself cramps trying to stifle a fart.

Picasso's relation to Surrealism, like Joyce's, follows the paradigm of Manet's relationship to Impressionism. He is the 'outside member,' part of the group yet apart from it, influencing it yet also influenced by it.

It is a fact of American life, exemplified again and again, that high school geeks become cool adults and high school coolios become mindless conformists and assholes.

This morning I gave myself an object lesson in the decline of American literary prose. I read the first page of Mary Gaitskill's Veronica (2005) and then the opening half-page of Stanley Elkin's The Franchiser (1976). One might expect at least a faint family resemblance between two works of literary fiction by two well-reviewed American writers, but these books differ in ways more fundamental than can be satisfactorily explained by the 30-year age difference. They spring from different aesthetic worlds. Gaitskill's prose is tediously typical of contemporary litfic: that lame, tepid, unadorned, faux-naïve bullshit that MFA students, editors, agents, etc. have all been brainwashed into thinking excellent. It is a prose that excels in nothing, except perhaps slavish conventionality (and this from a writer with a reputation for 'transgression'!) What a contrast flashes from Elkin's first page: he's manic, word-drunk, smart, witty, perceptive, a little loopy; he's fun and generous, and his prose sets off strings of linguistic firecrackers like New Year's in Chinatown. You can almost nose the hazy gunpowder. Elkin's prose makes me want to leap up like a pentecostalist at a revival meeting and holler, "Yea-yess! I can feel the spirit!" Next to Elkin's energy, Gaitskill seems constricted, her prose constipated, a slow, painful extrusion of strings of similar syllables. (Get her some stool softener, please!) She's shooting for insinuation instead of exaltation, but that's a conventional, academically-approved (and, today, positively old-fashioned) gambit. We need novels that grab the reader at sentence one and don't let go. We need to put some life back into our language--and from that living language build a literature that lives and laughs, loves and lusts, and leaves us wanting more.

No one will ever admire your fasting. Get busy.

Disease is the body's way of telling the mind, "Check it out, motherfucker, I'm in charge here." The body is very Al Haig.

In my most pessimistic moods I think of the human race not as nature's botched science experiment--that's too kind--but as a sixth-grade science fair project that got way out of hand. We're a baking soda volcano that won't stop erupting.

A negative reaction to a given book may signify nothing more than an inopportune reading moment. Encountered at a more appropriate time (for the book and the reader), the same book might blow us away. To be impressed by a book, we must read it at the right time. This is the unspoken element of contingency in all criticism. The positive or negative valence of a critic's first reaction to a book--the 'gut reaction' that his review will attempt, unconsciously, to rationalize--arises from a vast number of factors mostly unrelated to the text in question.

Art is life punching back at death.

"Every writer creates himself as best he can, all by himself, following no one's advice. And that's excruciating, but there's no other way." -- Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

Jonathan Franzen writes the kinds of books Anne Tyler might have written had she been an English department grad student during the 1980s. Franzen is Tyler plus postmodernism.

The reason almost all pornography is both grimmer and less awkward than actual sex is that pornography is fundamentally an elaboration of pre-sexual fantasy, the sexual fantasies of 13- and 14-year old boys.

The greatest American literature is a controlled madness. It's a thing of great formal beauty built out of bad craziness and apocalyptic visions. The greatest American literature has always 'worked the dark side' of our national consciousness, the side that D. H. Lawrence saw and imagined so well one hundred years ago in his little book on American lit. The great American artists burrow into those lightless caverns cut by genocide and slavery, by capitalism gone insane and madness in the name of gods. From Captain Ahab to Judge Holden is but a step, and those two points sufficiently define the main line of our literature. It is a line carefully sidestepped, avoided like a third rail, by the tepid suburban social realists continuously churned out by the MFA machine. Poor writers will always be with us, but good writers need not notice them. They should ponder instead the darkness that is their inheritance as Americans, the darkness without and the darkness within. (Written immediately after reading August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.)

The novels of Russell Banks are the works of a literary Naturalist who thinks he's a Great American Symbolist. He may think he's writing in the tradition of Melville or Faulkner, but his imagination runs in a groove closer to Cather or Dreiser. In novels such as Affliction, his obvious Symbolist ambitions are constantly frustrated by an overly Naturalistic imagination.

The trouble with Nabokov as critic: He was a literary Mikey who hated everything.

"I am on the side of angels and dirt." -- Stanley Spencer.

In case the name doesn't ring Hector Salamanca's bell, the painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was one of the great originals of 20th-century British art. His range encompasses Blakean visions, WWI military scenes, Lawrencian nudes, Riveraesque industrial murals, attractive landscapes, and the only truly impressive religious paintings of our time. (Check out his late Crucifixion (1958) or any of his bizarre and unheimlich Resurrection paintings.) The 2001 exhibition catalogue Stanley Spencer, edited by Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright, is the best introduction to the full range of his work. Be warned, however, that too many of the illustrations are unfortunately printed across the gutter between pages, and parts are inevitably lost.

The art critic Leo Steinberg on Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, from his 1972 essay "The Philosophical Brothel": "The picture is a total wave of female aggression; one either experiences the Demoiselles as an onslaught, or shuts it off." Good luck shutting it off. I've spent a lot of time at MOMA being stared at by Pablo's women, and even when I turn my back on them and walk toward another gallery I can still feel their eyes drilling into me.

Critics allegorize; artists imagine.

Our culture of overspecialization has assigned Marxism to humanities professors so that two birds can be more economically murdered with a single stone.

The best songs by The Band, like many of Bob Dylan's best, seem to have been built out of baling wire and old tractor parts and held together with secret spells. They're as American as Grant Wood and as Gothic as Edgar Allan Poe.

"...dreaming is another kind of remembering..." -- Sigmund Freud, "Wolf Man" case history

In his American Masters documentary, Philip Roth speaks of Chekhov's idea of the duty of the writer: "the proper presentation of the problem." The problem, not the solution. Solutions are for fanatics and math teachers. Problems are more interesting.

Belief is much more dangerous than doubt.

I'm attracted to the idea that the fearsome void of nothingness can be understood dialectically as the origin point of authentic being. The void appears hellish only to those who see it through glasses ground by Paul, Augustine & Aquinas, lensmakers to the Lord. The fear of freedom is theirs; it need not be ours.

Alienation is out of style. If it weren't, it wouldn't be alienation.

In the end, as in the beginning, making art is about trusting yourself and following your vision, your imagination, your worldview. But the vision must be yours. Mine, perhaps the only thing besides my body that I can truly call mine, is my vision of reality as a place where maddening nothingness alternates unpredictably with intoxicating beauty; my idea that art and sex, aestheticism and eroticism, run off the same circuit of desire; my knowledge that corporate dominance, like religious and state hegemony in the past, is devaluing and degrading individual human life; my idea (stolen from science and Sartre but now mine by long possession) that all of life is meaningless, a product of pure chance, a lucky coup de des of astronomical and biological variables, but that individuals can produce meaning in their lives by acting in freedom. And the first act must always be the act of freeing oneself--first, last, and lifelong. Freeing oneself is a fight to the death.