Sunday, March 29, 2009

THE LIME TWIG by John Hawkes

John Hawkes's The Lime Twig is a beautifully written, imagistically rich, highly elliptical novella that has certain atmospheric similarities to the films of David Lynch. The combination of high art lyrical prose and lowbrow crime genre subject matter creates an interesting tension, and the entire work is an intriguing performance that demands re-reading. I suspect a second reading won't, however, clear up some of the apparent gaps in the story. Hawkes's narrative style is deliberately obscure, intentionally over-elliptical in places. He seems to deliberately leave out too much narrative connective tissue, forcing the reader to 'see' his scenes through a veil, like the fogs, steam, etc. that recur in the story. Narrative is problematized, genre is deconstructed, but more interestingly, a beautiful, original novel is written, and I know I'll return to it. It's good enough.


One of the more amusing British literary dust-ups of recent years began when A.N. Wilson was duped into including in his book on John Betjeman a forged letter purportedly written by the poet. The forgery became known when someone pointed out that the first letters of several sentences in the letter, taken in order of appearance, spelled out the phrase "A.N. WILSON IS A SHIT."

Having read Wilson's memoir of Iris Murdoch, I wonder if the real perpetrator of this hoax was not the spirit of Dame Iris acting from beyond the grave. Wilson's idea of 'setting the record straight' about his late friend is to accuse her of being a Soviet agent, an accusation based on the author's 'feeling' and the hearsay of an unidentified 'friend.' Well, friends don't accuse friends of high treason. (That privilege is usually reserved for relatives.) And with posthumous friends like the twitty, unintentionally comic Wilson, who needs enemas? Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her, a memoir pushingly egotistical even in its title, is wholly scurrilous and would surely have been actionable were its subject still alive. And yet it's also rather enjoyable, albeit in a sleazy, take-a-long-bath-after-reading kind of way. A very strange book by a very odd man about a very interesting woman who clearly eludes his grasp.

COSMOS by Witold Gombrowicz

Gombrowicz's Cosmos is a mercifully short novel that works very well until about the halfway point. When the characters go to the mountains, the author seems to lose control of things. Too many new characters are introduced and too little is done with them; the absurdist eerieness of the first half descends to near-melodrama; the author's repetitions begin to annoy. It appears that by the book's midpoint Gombrowicz had written himself into a corner and couldn't think of a satisfactory way out, couldn't keep up the tension and weirdness much longer, so he simply sent all his characters away and killed one of them off to hasten a denouement. On the positive side, the early 'investigation' sections are quite well done, like a cross between Kafka, Beckett and Robbe-Grillet, an interesting dramatization of the absurdity (or is it impossibility?) of narrative in a world of chaos.

SELECTED STORIES by Saadat Hasan Manto

The stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, which I've been wanting to read ever since reading Salman Rushdie's description of "Toba Tek Singh" in his controversial introduction to Mirrorwork, are not bad, but the Penguin translation leaves something to be desired. Since I don't read Urdu, I can't comment on its faithfulness, but as English prose the translation is simply not very good. The text is marred with ambiguous pronouns and dangling and/or unnecessary prepositions. The latter are merely annoying, but the former throw the meanings of some passages into doubt. This translation needed a little more work before publication. I would've been willing to wait a while longer...

THE TIME OF THE HERO by Mario Vargas Llosa

Vargas Llosa's first novel The Time of the Hero (as the English publishers inexplicably translate the Spanish title La Ciudad et los Perros, literally The City and the Dogs, a much better title) is a good book with some extraordinary individual scenes, but it's weakened by a few errors seemingly endemic to first novels. There are some unnecessary scenes, a certain laxness in the narration, and the desire to say 'too much,' not only about the particular military school at the heart of the book but about Peruvian--and, by implication, modern--society as a whole. The oddest and most perplexing element was my inability to distinguish between the voices (and thus the lives) of a few of the characters. It's tempting to assume that this is the translator's fault, but it may well be the young MVL's. Also, he was capable of inventing well-rounded male characters at this point, but his girls and women are more one-dimensional and kept to the edges of the story. Theresa seems more rounded only because she's the intersection point of three different storylines, a formal choice that, while wonderfully economical, causes confusion in this reader's mind. It's a good book overall, though, an interesting and daring-for-its-day look at Peruvian youth in the 1950s.


(NOTE: The following was written in my notebook in early 2008. A few subsequent events, most importantly the election of Barack Obama, have given me cause for a guarded and probably temporary optimism that I did not feel at the time of writing.)

Scahill's Blackwater is as scary as advertised, like Saw III for liberals (or for anyone for whom phrases like "human rights," "national sovereignty" and "separation of church and state" are more than catachreses). The religious right is building its own private army with bases in the wonderfully named Great Dismal Swamp of NE North Carolina (Did Herman Melville name this swamp?) as well as in Barack Obama's Illinois. And they've already deployed domestically--on the streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. But perhaps the scariest thing of all is the fact that most Americans don't give a damn. Scary, but not surprising. These are, after all, the same Americans who sat on their fat asses while their government was taken over by a far right militarist junta in late 2000, the beginning of eight years of abysmal misrule that seems to have hastened our national decline. But most Americans were too busy watching American Idol to notice the Bush-Cheney administration's repeated use of the Bill of Rights as a handy substitute for Charmin. We're an uninformed, apathetic, anaesthetized people heading straight down the highway to the great dismal swamp of imperial decline. The only question is, Will we run out of gas before we arrive?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

KING LEAR by William Shakespeare

There are a few scenes in King Lear that move me intensely: Lear on the heath, inquiring of the hovel offered as shelter from the storm, "Will it break my heart?"; the "foolish fond old man" speech; Edmund's "the wheel is come full circle. I am here"; and the final scene, which has an atmosphere and power that truly go too deep for tears, a grey melancholy gloom that pervades every line. This finale, perhaps more than any other scene in Shakespeare, is the writing of death. It is a great, shattering dramatization of the haunted, tragic, stricken quality of life lived in the full knowledge of death's presence, the consciousness of nothingness, the awareness of catharsis and afterlife and religious consolation as the nothings that are not there, and of death as the nothing that is.

The final scene is like the playing of one long, sustained chord in the bass. The chord has been there all along, sounding throughout the symphony, but now all the other instruments have fallen out and the dark tone alone remains, the smoky black-blood music, the "black milk of daybreak," the black flowers of death.

G. Wilson Knight famously called Hamlet the "ambassador of death," and he was almost right. The black-biled prince is our philosopher of death and life, the bottomlessly learned professor of our mortality. Hamlet is about death, but Lear is in death and of death. The unbearable gloom of that last act is in and of death to such an extent that we cannot move beyond it. It stands as a touchstone for that rare and sublime thing, the writing of death. And the act is for that reason difficult or even impossible to satisfactorily describe. One must read the play, enter its atmosphere, let it rip and tear and choke you until you feel drained and exhausted at the end. Then and only then will you have really read King Lear.

AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare

I've finally gotten around to reading As You Like It (yes, I'm an incorrigible slacker when it comes to Shakespeare's 'comedies'), and I'm intrigued by the lesbian theme. Surely the Queer Theory crowd has already pointed out the play's construction/deconstruction of gender roles, its dramatization of gender-as-performance, but what captured my attention is the early, passionate love of Rosalind and Celia that seems to vanish (along with Celia, who's essentially written out of the play and conveniently married off at the end) as soon as Rosalind settles her desire on Orlando. A Shakespearean reading of traditional Psychoanalysis might find the (highly dubious) notion of a homosexual phase 'progressing' to 'healthy' heterosexuality to have been influenced by Freud's reading of As You Like It. Some aspects of the transvestite theme aside, it's actually a fairly conservative comedy, tracing a trajectory of desire from immature lesbianism to mature heterosexuality, arriving at a moment in which lesbianism is represented as the impossible, that which cannot be (when a Phebe-Rosalind relationship is playfully and ironically proposed only to be immediately dismissed at the denouement's unmasking). There is much material here for a potentially transgressive play, depending on the director's emphases. Play it, for example, as the 'tragedy of Celia,' sealed into a heterosexual union when her desire for Rosalind goes unrequited.

FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1960S by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is probably the worst writer to have his works enshrined in the Library of America series. The L of A is publishing Dick in 3 volumes, the first of which is the subject of this post. It contains The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ubik. Although Dick's importance to science fiction and popular culture arguably justify his inclusion alongside the 'popular' L of A authors (Lovecraft, Chandler, Hammett) as opposed to the 'literary' members of the club (Whitman, Emerson, Melville, James, Faulkner, Roth), I want to further argue that despite their multitudinous flaws, there is something inherently impressive about each of these four novels. They are, finally, just good enough to read.

A tentative verdict on Dick after reading Man in the High Castle: he's a too fast and sometimes careless writer, but some of his ideas and scenes are very good. What surprises me most is the obvious intelligence behind the story, along with the almost sickeningly plausible occupied fascist America he imagines. The trip Dick takes us on is interesting enough that I'm not overly disappointed by the anticlimactic destination.

Halfway through Palmer Eldritch, I'm enjoying it as a good genre novel and a satirical artifact of the acidhead 60s (the 'good' Sixties, as opposed to the Altamont-Manson-Vietnam 'bad' Sixties; unfortunately, it's impossible to keep them apart). Dick's intelligence is manifested in the witty drug-and-dollhouses corporate marketing satire, and his hallucinatory imagination is on display throughout.

Best known as the basis for the film Blade Runner, Androids is a smart, pulpy, Mickey Spillane-ish ride. (I can't believe I just used the words 'smart' and 'Spillane' in the same sentence.) Dick goes off on an unconvincing spiritual tangent and doesn't always sufficiently imagine the book's world, but as with the other novels, there's almost enough good stuff here to justify a reading.

After a slow start, Dick's Ubik becomes quite good. The wonderfully bizarre time regression stuff and the talking-coin-operated-objects-with-attitudes compensated for the clumsy, pedestrian prose. Toward the end of the book there's even a whiff of Dickish self-consciousness, with Jory as the 'author' of this 'realistic' 1939 world, providing just enough detail for a convincing 'reality effect.'

Having finished the four novels, I can now safely proclaim Dick a 'guilty pleasure.' (How I despise the Puritanism of that phrase!) He's a pulpy, unintentionally funny, occasionally groaningly bad, almost always careless and clumsy writer, but for some reason--most likely the sheer imaginative gusto of his stories, combined with his obvious satirical intelligence--I keep on reading. Even Dick's juvenile double entendres and his dated, reactionary, stereotypical view of male-female relations can today be appreciated as camp, read ironically, and/or understood as artifacts of the pulpy, pop-y past...Dick only seriously stumbles when he tries too hard to write well, straining for metaphor and lyricism. His prose is better stripped-down and Spillane-ish (as in Androids). And personally, I can do without the fashionable 60s California mysticism, from the I Ching to Christian/Gnostic allegory, that infuses his work. We know that by the end of his life, Dick was an L. Ron Hubbard without a church (Dickology?!?!), wasting most of his last years on an 8000-page 'exegesis' of his alleged 'visions,' but this strain of his thinking adds little to the novels under discussion here. It was the 'real' Phil Dick's bad luck to become a character in one of his own books, as paranoid and cranky as his most eccentric creations.


One of the revelations of David Simon's excellent Homicide (inspiration for the best TV show of the 1990s) is how closely police work at the elite investigative level resembles virtually any other kind of corporate work. Office politics is office politics, whether the office contains adpeople, engineers or homicide detectives. Granted, the atmosphere Simon describes is more juvenile than that of the office I worked in during the year chronicled in the book, but mutatis mutandis I recognized a lot of the Marathon Oil Company's operations research department in the Baltimore PD Homicide squad.

One aspect of Homicide foregrounded by my recent re-reading of Thompson's Vegas book is Simon's rather bizarre effacement of his own role in the events described. A newspaperman, he errs on the side of traditionalist caution, writing a work of journalism that, while 'novelistic,' is in no way 'participatory.' Simon, who was apparently present during most of the book's scenes, completely writes himself out of his own book--an act that surely leaves traces somewhere in the rhetorical fabric, and a choice that, while constructing a pretense of 'objectivity,' implicitly calls the very concept into question by suggesting its constructed, artificial nature. In short, perhaps Simon has written a book that deconstructs traditional journalism, but does it unintentionally, as a side effect of its rhetorical construction of that journalism's dogmatic 'objectivity.' Until this moment I hadn't realized how transparently de Manian this book is. In the text's blindness (to the author's presence) lies its most subversive insight: the self-deconstructing nature of journalistic objectivity.

But the best parts of Homicide are all attitude. Cynicism, pessimism, deadpan outrage, sick humor (beyond sick, truly demented). The book's best prose comes in its purely expository/descriptive passages, where Simon monologues on "the job," the autopsy room, the interrogation, and how "they own you" once you've committed an imperfect murder. The Ten Rules of Homicide are also very good, especially the last: There is such a thing as a perfect murder. Perfect murders are not uncommon and detectives hate them. They're filed under the less explosive category "unsolved."


HST's "Vegas book" still rocks after all these years. It's a masterpiece of the counterculture, the ultimate Sixties drug novel, a superb cultural satire, and an all-around excellent example of American prose voice. This last element, the 'American voice,' is one of the great innovations of the period 1955-80 in our literature. Consider the very different voices of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, the Norman Mailer of Why Are We In Vietnam and Armies of the Night, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Michael Herr, etc., etc. I suppose Vegas's version of this 'American voice' descends from William Faulkner via Kerouac to Thompson, who adds generous amounts of LSD and indigenous American weirdness to create one of the strangest--and perhaps one of the best--American novels of the late 20th century. Ultimately a serious (and seriously funny) elegy for the druggy 60s optimism that crashed into a Nixonian bad trip, the book is a riposte (one of many) to the old neoconservative conviction that the Sixties produced no great novel. In fact, as all literate people know, the counterculture gave us far more great novels than the now-bankrupt neoconservative ideology ever will--and writers influenced by the works of counterculture figures continue to appear. (In the Great Comparative Literature Poker Game, I will see the neocons' Ravelstein and raise them a Gravity's Rainbow.)

But what especially impresses me about Thompson's book on this reading is the mixture of beautiful elegiac meditations and drugged-out surrealism, as well as the book's speed, its breakneck pace. It moves like a Vincent Black Shadow through the labyrinthine backstreets of America's most artificial city. And it's all held together by Thompson's wonderful tone. Yes, it all comes back to the voice, that prose style that almost never falters, that hurls us in medias res on page one and propels us through the next 200 pages--even if we only keep reading to see what outrage it will describe next. In this respect, it's a book to learn from.


Klein's Shock Doctrine is very impressive, teaching me some things I didn't know about the theoretical underpinnings of globalization, about Freidman and the Chicago School's involvement with the worst of South American dictators, about Dr. Ewen Cameron and his CIA-funded torture research carried out on unwitting patients under the guise of psychological treatment, and much more. Klein also surprises me with an aspect of her book that initially seems a too-clever linguistically derived rhetorical leap: the connection between electrical torture and economic "shock." But within her first 100 pages, she makes the case that sadistic repression, for which electric shock is often less a symbol than a literal description, is a necessary concomitant of neoliberal policies--or as Sylvia Plath might have put it: every technocrat adores a fascist.

Klein reports elsewhere in the book that mega military contractor Lockheed Martin is acquiring "allied" companies in a macabre pattern of vertical integration. It's buying into the health care companies that treat veterans injured (conceivably) by its own weapons. So we have the spectacle of a single corporation profiting from the sale of weapons and from their use. I doubt that this example is at all exceptional.

In one of her book's most eye-opening passages, Klein tells us about the Maldives, an archipelago near India that's a popular resort for the superrich, who can rent small private islands for their vacations or chill out in $5000-a-night hotels. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes honeymooned there. The dark side of the Maldives (the only side most people who actually live there ever see) is that the country is run by a typically brutal dictator who sends his political opponents, including anyone who writes on anti-government websites, to remote "prison islands" where the accomodations are presumably less luxurious than those enjoyed by Tom and Katie and where room service includes complimentary torture. These are the kinds of places where the big winners in the globalized economy go to play.

Overall, Klein's book is a depressing, shocking (sorry), important work that, like the best of Chomsky's books, presents an alternative paradigm for understanding world events (alternative, that is, to the official propaganda line peddled by American corporations and the politicians they own). It's a paradigm that understands the dark side of globalization not as a collection of aberrent side effects but as the necessary conditions for, and intended results of, the policies. It's a damning indictment of Chicago School market fundamentalism (a paradigm that, despite the current crash, is nowhere near dead) that damns not by arguing against its theory but by exposing its literally atrocious consequences around the globe. A fine and necessary book, it's also a powerful implicit argument for the superiority, in terms of morality, general prosperity and longterm stability, of mixed economies a la Germany and France. The book thus argues for Keynesianism and the Bretton Woods consensus, things that the current Friedmanite managers of the world economy despise with all the passionate, irrational hatred their religious brethren direct at the devil.

EXIT GHOST by Philip Roth

Exit Ghost is pretty good Roth, better than the dismal Everyman (to damn it with faint praise) but not as good as The Human Stain or The Plot Against America, and nowhere near Sabbath's Theater, The Counterlife, or Portnoy's Complaint. It doesn't approach the excellence of the novel it bookends, The Ghost Writer, nor does it really seem intent on trying. The only great moment of Rothian outrage in the book is the incest dream at the beginning of chapter 5, but Roth does achieve something more subtle and (for him) unusual in the tension created between the Jamie that Zuckerman narrates (the 'real' Jamie) and the "Jamie" he imagines in the dialogue scenes. And although the ending is an abrupt letdown, a real anticlimax, Roth saves it nicely by showing us Zuckerman escaping from life into writing--writing that narrates his escape and which he ends by proclaiming himself, in an oddly Updikean cadence, "gone for good." Dommage, I say.


Gore Vidal's rambling memoir Point to Point Navigation is a sad, disappointing reading experience. A follow-up of sorts to one of Vidal's very best books, his 1991 memoir Palimpsest, this book is written in a flabby, occasionally ungrammatical prose that shows evidence of the inevitable decline of one of our modern masters of the complex sentence and the stinging aphorism. (Not to mention the perfectly placed parenthetical aside.) The work's redundancies and arbitrary tangents make it seem curiously unedited, and its frequent recycling of material from elsewhere in the GV canon gives this reader a case of deja lu. Yes, the description of the decline and death of Vidal's partner Howard Auster is one of the most moving things he has ever written (and a rare high point in the book), but most of the rest reads like little more than a depressing testimony to Vidal's writerly decline. I hope he surprises us with another great book before he kicks it, but I won't hold my breath for fear of turning Krishna blue. This memoir is terribly uneven at best, something Gore at his best never was.

GARGOYLES by Thomas Bernhard

Thomas Bernhard's early novel Gargoyles is a schizophrenic work that succeeds until page 81 when Prince Saurau steps onstage and brings everything to a halt with an overly discursive monologue that lasts 120 pages. The problem here is that Bernhard has not yet perfected the lyrical monologue form of his best mature works (The Loser, Old Masters, Yes, etc.), so the Prince's monologue is simply not interesting enough in comparison to the quite original picaresque narrative that precedes it. Gargoyles, in short, is a failed experiment that shows in its failure the shape of Bernhardian successes to come.

UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch's first novel, 1954's Under The Net, is a decent example of postwar BritLit that contains one absolutely beautiful and unexpected scene: the main characters make their way through bomb-damaged central London at night and take a surreptitious swim in the Thames. It's a wonderful early scene that the rest of the novel fails to equal, but this and a few other moments are good enough to make this little-read book worth reading. Murdoch makes the expected rookie mistakes (missed opportunities for clever plot twists, etc.), but her narrative voice is quite convincing and compelling most of the time, and there's enough comedy to keep things lively. Overall, it's a good and surprising--albeit decidedly minor--novel.