Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Dostoyevsky Problem - A Confession

For me, Dostoyevsky is Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, two of the most impressive works of fiction I've ever read, the former a formally and stylistically original novel written in a voice that reverberates through the next 150 years of world literature, and the latter a hallucinatory, proto-Expressionist, proto-Freudian, proto-Kafkaesque fever dream of guilt, paranoia and murder. These two books, and maybe The Double, are the Dostoyevskys that impress me most. The later, longer Dostoyevsky I find considerably less compelling. The unquestionably canonical Big Late Three--The Idiot, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov--have never successfully captured my reading mind. Oh, I've read parts of them, of course. Over the years, I've begun each novel multiple times and have read the first quarter of The Idiot, the first 150 pages and the "Stavrogin's Confession" chapter from The Possessed/The Devils/Demons, and from The Brothers K the opening chapters, "One Onion" and, of course, "The Grand Inquisitor." But none of these--sometimes impressive, sometimes intriguing, sometimes annoying--excerpts has appealed to me with sufficient force to send me plowing through the whole ponderous, reactionary, Russian Orthodox shebang. Maybe Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment is Dostoyevsky enough for me. As for the other three, maybe I'll finish them next year, maybe the year after, maybe...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Rushdie's Top Ten: A Video Lecture

Here's a video of a lecture in which Salman Rushdie introduces a classroom of apparently catatonic students to ten of his favorite books: the soi-disant Arabian Nights, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gulliver's Travels, Great Expectations, the tales of Borges, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, Calvino's Our Ancestors trilogy (The Baron in the Trees, The Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount), and The Master and Margarita. One heavenly hell of a reading list. (No word on whether the spirit of Oliver Sacks was summoned to 'awaken' the students...)

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Thought on Jung, Freud, and Oneiric Hermeneutics

Jungian dream interpretation, as evidenced by the doctor's long essay on dream symbolism and alchemy ("Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy" in The Portable Jung, Joseph Campbell, ed.), seems more a tribute to Jung's cleverness as hermeneut than to the validity of his hermeneutic. All the presented dream fragments could be interpreted by Freudians, according to their hermeneutic, with equal validity and likely greater material interest.

A distinction: Jung's mysticism leads him into a kind of dogmatism which Freud's scientism serves to counteract. Freud, whom Jung rejected as too dogmatic, turns out to be the less dogmatic thinker, likely due to his grounding in empirical, self-corrective, falsifiable science.

Also, Jung's hermeneutic is given a false air of validity by his suppression of the dreaming subject. Having no information about the dreamer, no material facts to act as a check on Jung's interpretations, we are given the false choice of either accepting Jung's obsessive, repetitive pronouncements or not reading the essay. Compare the rich contextualization of Freud's dream analyses and case histories, which sometimes compare favorably to tales by Balzac and/or Kafka, and which provide more than enough information for later readers to radically reinterpret Freud's evidence. Compared to Sigmund, Carl Gustav looks like a quaint Victorian spiritualist riding his bouncing table.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


George Steiner, proud diasporist, once lamented (in an interview conducted, unfortunately, by a woman who seemed intent on pressing into Steiner's hand a one-way ticket to a settlement on the West Bank; Steiner, courtly old-world gentleman he is, politely and repeatedly (and thus rather comically) demurred) that although the Greek word xenos means both 'foreigner' and  'guest'  (elsewhere in the interview, he quotes Heidegger, "We are the guests of life."), it survives in English only as 'xenophobia,' not 'xenophilia.' The latter is an idea the world desperately needs right now. Speaking as a narcissistic xenophile, one who loves being a foreigner, who has never felt more heimlich, more 'at home,' than when traveling in a foreign country, blurring the 'other' line among all the other lines, I think it would be an excellent idea to counter Trump's fascist xenophobia not with the tepid, wishy-washy corporatist liberal xenophobia of "We must secure our borders, but..." but with the xenophilia of "Hello, refugee from Central American terrorism. Welcome to the richest country in the history of the world. How many IHOP pancakes would you like?....No, no, of course we're not going to rip your children out of your arms and put them in cages. What do you think we are, a bunch of crazy fascist assholes!?"

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Harold Bloom on the death of Philip Roth

As far as I know, Harold Bloom's sole public statement on the death of his friend Philip Roth is this paragraph posted on the Library of America's website:

"Philip Roth’s departure is a dark day for me and for many others. His two greatest novels, American Pastoral and Sabbath’s Theater, have a controlled frenzy, a high imaginative ferocity, and a deep perception of America in the days of its decline. The Zuckerman tetralogy remains fully alive and relevant, and I should mention too the extraordinary invention of Operation Shylock, the astonishing achievement of The Counterlife, and the pungency of The Plot Against America. His My Life as a Man still haunts me. In one sense Philip Roth is the culmination of the unsolved riddle of Jewish literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The complex influences of Kafka and Freud and the malaise of American Jewish life produced in Philip a new kind of synthesis. Pynchon aside, he must be estimated as the major American novelist since Faulkner." -- Harold Bloom

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Philip Roth, American Atheist

Here's a quote from Philip Roth that I don't recall reading in the last month's crop of obituaries and memorial essays:

"When the whole world doesn't believe in God, it will be a great place."

Roth said this in a 2010 interview on CBS Sunday Morning:

Here and elsewhere, Roth also remarks that he doesn't have a religious bone in his body.

Note the self-evident, matter-of-fact quality of Roth's atheism. He's neither an angry, embattled atheist raging against gods nor a backwards preacher sermonizing the deity's nonexistence. He comes across as someone for whom religion does not matter. He is secular and personally indifferent to it. He has matured out of it and put away its childish things and wishes the rest of the world would do likewise. I find this position wholly admirable.

The Cycladic Harpist

Harpist. Marble. Late 2000s BCE. Height: 8.5 in.
From the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The Cycladic Harpist transfixes me. It may or may not be a figure of Orpheus, but its soundless song nonetheless holds me spellbound. A sublime, ecstatic image of artistic inspiration (remember the breathy etymology of that word and look at the harpist's head, upturned to the enlightening glare of the seabright sun, inhaling the breezy Aegean air through that geometric nose (and inhaling with it the mysterious, Orphic, god-like power of artistic creation (a meaning that calls out to be hidden, like a mystical secret, inside a parenthesis within a parenthesis within a...))), the figure is rendered even more mysterious and poignant by the loss of its hands. The object becomes an image of time's dissolution and imaginative man's necessarily incomplete attempts at reconstitution, recovery. Just as the missing head of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" energizes the poet's imagination to fill the void (and Rilke promptly fills it with an image ("...sein unerhortes Haupt, / darin die Augenapfel reiften."; "his legendary head / where the eye-apples ripen.") inspired by an Arcimboldo painting hanging in another gallery of the Louvre), the harpist's timelost hands, like his unseeable harp strings, become absent images of his unheard music, negative spaces powerfully charged with potential meaning, like that masterful space between the Virgin's dramatically foreshortened hand and the Christ child's head in the London National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks:
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the Rocks. Ca. 1500.
National Gallery, London.
(This space is cluttered in the more rhetorical Paris canvas by the inclusion of the angel's unnecessarily pointing hand:
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the Rocks (detail). Late 1400s.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.)
The harpist's missing hands engage the viewer's imagination in an almost Modernist way (the greatest works of art are always already Modernist: Homer is packed with Joyce-style allusions to mythologies even more ancient), permitting/allowing/forcing the viewer to complete the artwork, to hear its unimaginable music. The harpist's mystery licenses our imagination. It is an image of inspiration that inspires us. Breathe it in.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Summer Reading Recommendations, 2018

Summer is coming (even to Westeros, eventually), so it's time for some non-light but highly enlightening summer reading. This year I'm suggesting a handful of books from other languages in translation. (But if you read the other languages, then by all means read 'em in the original.) Click on the titles to buy the books at Bezosworld.
Okay, second things first. I know The Tale of Genji is enormous and because I'm challenging you to read Royall Tyler's unabridged translation, it will take up most of the summer. But relax. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. The other five books are much shorter; all of them are under 200 pages. So it's a challenge, yes, but not an impossible load. Back to the beginning. And it is indeed a beginning, for the four non-Orestean tragedies of Aeschylus lie close to the origins of Western literature. Reading them is like witnessing a literary primal scene. After our extended excursion to Lady Murasaki's Heian Japan, we cross the continent to Iran and read Hedayat's Blind Owl, a horrifying fever-dream of a novella that's widely considered one of the greatest works of 20th-century Persian literature. Next we speed to Pinochet's Chile for Bolano's nearly perfect novella in the form of the interior monologue of a dying Opus Dei priest. Then it's back to Europe and our own time to end with a pair of German-language jewels, Sebald's verse triptych After Nature and Ledig's panoramic WWII combat novel Die Stalinorgel, 'the Stalin organ' (the German Army nickname for the Red Army's mobile Katyusha rocket launchers), published by NYRB as The Stalin Front.

Bloomsday 2018 : Streaming/Screaming

...yes and I'm streaming straight from my cuntsciousness Mollyblooming on this bluetiful boomsday (shifting out of mockwakish into my natural tongs) when the state of the arts in America shares the general mood of crisis and stupidity unbound yes as the leftish side of America responds to that Ringling Brothers embodiment of repressive desublimation in the White House by tightening its own ass, slapping a buckled hat on its head, and witchburning Junot Diaz (who is, ironically, a full-on, true believing, academic identity politics writer, and whose offenses, as far as I can tell, amount to a couple of failed passes and, horror of horrors, publicly arguing with a woman at one of his book signings...) Bad days... If I could give a Bloomsday gift to every leftist in the country, it would be a Xerox of two essays, Herbert Marcuse's "The Aesthetic Dimension" and Adam Phillips' "Against Inhibition". Introduce them to the idea that there is also a liberating desublimation, that it's a force behind and within works of art (late Picasso spurts it like come), and that when it's blocked, art dies. (Check out that 16th-century dumbshow, The Murder of the Renaissance, as performed by the Council of Trent. Ungod knows what might've happened if that murdering sodomite Caravaggio hadn't come along to shake things up ca.1600.) Yes, art dies. It dies into kitsch (American translation: 'happy horseshit') and propaganda, exactly the functions of art our p.c. academics most prize, valuing only those books that don't offend them, reinforce their ideologies, and/or provide positive images of people like themselves--the last a laudable goal, for kitsch and propaganda... Harold Bloom, a better prophet than Jeremiah, decried all of this 30 years ago--and was treated like a portly Cassandra... And now I see that publishers have begun adding morality clauses to writers' contracts. That's a fine way to kill the novel. Who amongst the Modernists would've 'scaped whipping? Let's see: Joyce (living in sin!), Pound (unspeakable spokesman for fascism), Eliot (terrible reactionary), Wharton (anti-semite), H. Miller (ditto and sexist), Papa Hem (double ditto), Picasso (abusive), Woolf (classist and racist), Lawrence (abusive), Stein (racist), Lowry (violent), Faulkner (drunken corncob fetishist), Genet (bum, burglar, and bumburglar), Proust (obsessive control freak), Hitchcock (ditto and poster boy for morbid obesity), Welles (triple ditto), Griffith (white supremacist), Riefenstahl (Nazi bitch), Cocteau (collaborator).... If the Modernists had had morality clauses there would've been no Modernism--and that's exactly the point of moralistic 'criticism' of the arts. As the woefully underrated Jack Klugman would've said, "This isn't art criticism, Sam. This is murder..."

Such is my thoughtspew this second Bloomsday of Trumptime, Year Two of the reign of Dear Leader Kim Jong Don, that 'Biblical' pornstar fucker and 'good Christian' destroyer of families (or is it the other way around?), a fake president so stupid he probably thinks stupid is spelled with two O's. (May his reign be short and quickly undone.) And I'm also reminded of this little list, slightly amended from an old blogpost:

A Thirteen-Step Cure for Political Correctness:
  1. The Satyricon by Petronius
  2. The Metamorphoses by Ovid
  3. The Decameron by Boccaccio (Musa/Bondanella unexpurgated translation)
  4. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia
  5. The London National Gallery's collection of paintings by Titian
  6. Dialogues by Pietro Aretino (Rosenthal translation)
  7. Shakespeare's plays and poems
  8. The Dunciad by Alexander Pope
  9. The paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and pottery of Picasso
  10. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  11. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
  12. The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany
  13. The director's cut of Lars Von Trier's film Nymphomaniac

So, HAPPY BLOOMSDAY! to all and to all the wish that by this time next year Americans will have regained their senses at least as far as art is concerned. I'm not optimistic, but neither am I immune to hope. The future is, as Phillip Roth said, the domain of the great unforeseen. Maybe in twelve more moons, the left's moralistic anti-orgy will have run its course and they will be able to focus on the real problem facing America: defeating Trump and discrediting Trumpite fascism, making the ideology so toxic that not even a brain-dead asshole with "Wite Powr" tattooed on his forehead would touch it. The left must pull itself together and focus on the one true opponent: not Harvey Weinstein, not Junot Diaz, but Donald Fuckface Trump. Send the person packing (preferably to prison) and perhaps the cult of personality will dwindle and die. It's possible.... It's hope.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

SAND IN THE WIND by Robert Roth

Add one more title to the list of undeservedly obscure American novels. Robert Roth's Sand in the Wind, the first major American literary work to emerge from the Vietnam War--before Dog Soldiers, before Dispatches, long before Tim O'Brien went after Cacciato--was a Book of the Month Club selection upon publication, but then both novel and author slipped into obscurity. (Perhaps the novel was a victim of its own precocity: in 1973-74, who wanted to spend 600+ pages in a war the U.S. had only yesterday extricated itself from? If Sand in the Wind had been published a few years later, it might have become canonical.) A Google search turns up more than one "Robert Roth" who might be the author of this novel but does not definitively connect any of those men to this book, so I can't answer the question "Whatever happened to Robert Roth?" He seems to have laid this one amazing book on us and promptly Houdinied himself out of the literary scene. Whatever and wherever its author is today, Sand in the Wind is a remarkable novel punctuated by scenes of astonishingly assured power. Fitting his combat experience to Edmund Wilson's textbook definition of Modernism, Roth synthesizes the Naturalistic war novel of Crane, Hemingway, Mailer and Jones with a sometimes sneaky Symbolism that looks back to Melville and Poe. This synthesis holds until about halfway through the novel, when a gruesome act of group cannibalism by an American platoon, depicted as an event of giddy, obscene enjoyment in the darkest Lacanian sense of the word, bursts the book apart in a manner akin to the breaking of the film in Bergman's Persona. After this central traumatic scene, the aesthetic of the novel seems to shift from Modernism to a kind of Postmodernism. The narrative attempts to re-establish itself, but cannot overcome its fragmentation into various types of pastiche: Heller pastiche, Altman pastiche, James Jones pastiche, etc. All of which can be easily interpreted as a flight from the unassimilable knowledge of that descent into cannibalistic horror. After such knowledge, no forgiveness--only the attempt to deny the past by leaping manically aboard any available fragment of narrative that seems to offer a moment of sense and sanity. Above all: don't look back. The novel thus uncannily predicts its own oblivion: given the chance to look back upon the trauma of Vietnam by reading Roth's book, most readers turned away and reached for a copy of Carrie. A (re-)discovery and re-evaluation of this complex novel is long overdue.

Two by Updike

Can something be made of the fact that John Updike's most explicitly religious, even theological, novel, 1975's A Month of Sundays, is also his most experimental and--in tone, style and narrative form--his most Nabokovian? Largely ignored today, a joker in Johnny's deck, this may be Updike's freest and most exuberantly playful work of fiction. It's a bit long at just 271 pages and Updike pads it with golf and poker near the end, but the first half of this novel is typically dazzling and very funny.

The Centaur, published in 1963 and written at the end of the author's twenties, reads like an A-student's exercise in the rhetoric of High Modernism. Updike, perhaps 20th-century American literature's consummate professional, our buttoned-down, 9 to 5, civil engineer of fiction, here designs an interesting textual trolley that pauses at just about every stop on the Modernist line: ironic mythological parallels, surrealism, scatology, stream of consciousness, flashbacks, literary allusions, sexuality, etc. And Updike's masterfully competent deployment of other writers' innovations is, in its way, satisfying. And his natural lyricism, the beating heart of his talent (Who in his generation wrote better lyrical descriptions--of just about anything--than John Updike?), is impressive, as always... But in the end, for me, the mythological aspects, at their most explicit, disappointed by failing to satisfactorily mesh with the realistic narrative, the most lyrical parts of which are the novel's best moments. As in all of Updike's works, there are impressive scenes and sentences (as well as a few outdated passages apropos race and gender sure to send P.C. contemporary readers into fits of apoplectic rage), and the central character, based on the author's father, is an accomplished portrait in pathological self-deprecation (one gets the feeling that this guy has spent his whole life kicking his own ass), but the novel as a whole seems more a deliberate technical exercise than a necessary work of art. Young Johnny gets his gold star, but the novel is not top drawer.

The Author of the Crime

My Collins paperback Italian-English dictionary informs me that while the word autore is, unsurprisingly, Italian for 'author,' the phrase autore del furto (literally, "author of the theft") means "person who committed a robbery." This Italian usage appeals to me, and I wish it were operative in English. For just as every Platonic poet is a liar, every autore is del furto. Jean Genet, career criminal, metaphysical wanker, and author of novels that read like the works of a raunchy, proletarian Proust (read Swann's Way and then Our Lady of the Flowers and you'll see exactly what I mean), is only the most obvious example of a general type. Every author is a thief. He steals from his predecessors and calls it influence, from his life and calls it recherche, from his family and calls it Patrick Melrose, from his country and calls it Ulysses, from his birthplace and calls it Lonesome Dove, and from all the claptrap coating the caverns of his mind he mines more volumes of formulaic genre fiction than anyone would care to count. A writer will steal anything from shit to Chopin--to paraphrase that lyrically stercoraceous klepto, Henry Miller--so writers' relatives and friends, lovers and haters, should hardly be surprised when it happens to them. As Czeslaw Milosz once said, in a line Philip Roth liked to quote, "When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished." Or maybe 'finished' is too extreme, too melodramatic, too...final. Maybe they're merely stolen. Like the Gardner Rembrandt, they'll turn up eventually. You might see them a couple years from now in the window of your local pawnshop--or, more tragically, in the bargain bin at your favorite remainder bookstore.

Roth, to whom my thoughts still return as obsessively as Portnoy's circle back to his childhood (That's the 'secret' psychoanalytic structure of Portnoy's Complaint. Everyone knows the novel takes the superficial form of a psychoanalytic monologue, but that's only the manifest form; Roth was smart enough to also give his novel a latent form mimicking the shape of Portnoy's infantile obsessions.), wrote about this phenomenon at great and comitragic length in the Zuckerman Bound books and The Counterlife, his major works of the 1980s.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Hemingway Daiquiri

I find it perversely pleasing and queerly appropriate that Ernest Hemingway's signature alcoholic beverage is a daiquiri, which I've long considered the quintessential "old white lady" drink. (Probably because it's the only thing harder than Pepsi that I ever saw my Mom drink.) Websters informs me that the word daiquiri entered English from Cuba as recently as 1921, so in Hem's day the drink still had an aroma of avant-gardism about it. It was still a Modernist and not yet a Mom-ist beverage. Here's Hemingway's recipe:

Single serving:

3 3/4oz Bacardi White rum
juice of 2 limes
juice of 1/2 grapefruit
6 drops of maraschino liqueur

Add ingredients to blender 1/4 full of shaved or cracked ice. Blend on HIGH until mixture turns cloudy and light colored. Serve cold in a large glass (preferably not Marcel Duchamp's).

On the Great American Novel

Philip Roth wrote one back in the seventies, a big baseball novel for the decade of Quaaludes and 'caine. He even called it The Great American Novel, just so we'd know. And in an irony he surely lived long enough to appreciate, it stands alongside Letting Go and When She Was Good as one of Roth's least read books. Even I haven't read it, but I have an almost irrational suspicion that it might not deserve its oblivion.

The hoary old notion of the Great American Novel--a concept originated by the now very obscure 19th-century American novelist John W. De Forest (What, you haven't read his Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty? It's a Penguin Classic.)--seems to be taking over my mind this first afternoon of June. For all its rebarbative nationalism (why must literature respect borders? why shouldn't we privilege cosmopolitan novels over national ones?), ideological jingoism (everyone knows America's the greatest country in the history of the universe (cue a groping group of drunken frat boys shouting "WE'RE NUMBER ONE! WE'RE NUMBER ONE!" while acting like so many number twos), so it must have great novels too), and unproblematic use of Dickassface Donald's favorite adjective (stolen, unsurprisingly, from a cartoon tiger who pimps sugar to pre-diabetic children: "Fascism, it's GRRRRRR-eat!"), the idea of the GAN still attracts me. More, it exerts a kind of Einsteinian gravitational influence on my imagination, curving my mind around its shadowy shape. This is likely due to my long-held contention that any American writer who isn't aiming in the general direction of Melville and Faulkner (in terms of artistic achievement, not crude imitation) is aiming too low.

There are several online lists (as ridiculous as most) of 100 or even 200 supposed GANs, and the best that can be said of them is that all the listed titles are in fact novels and were written by Americans. About the Trumpian adjective, most readers of these lists will harbor doubts. Regardless, any three- digit number is absurd. There are at most 25-30 novels that deserve to be called GANs (by my criteria: novels of the highest aesthetic value and international stature dealing with America and/or Americans). Stretching a bit, I can list about 50 (after the first three, in no particular order):
  • Melville, Moby Dick
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
  • Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
  • Wharton, The Age of Innocence
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • Melville, The Confidence Man
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
  • Dos Passos, USA
  • Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  • Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  • Faulkner, Go Down, Moses
  • Toomer, Cane
  • Barnes, Nightwood
  • West, A Cool Million
  • West, The Day of the Locust
  • Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
  • Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
  • Pynchon, Against the Day
  • Roth, American Pastoral
  • Roth, The Human Stain
  • Morrison, Beloved
  • DeLillo, Libra
  • C. McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  • C. McCarthy, Suttree
  • Mailer, The Executioner's Song
  • Kerouac. On The Road
  • Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  • Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Warren, All the King's Men
  • Styron, Sophie's Choice
  • Updike, Rabbit is Rich
  • Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • Gass, The Tunnel
  • Gass, Omensetter's Luck
  • Nabokov, Lolita
  • DeLillo, Underworld
  • Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner
  • Roth, Sabbath's Theater
  • Oates, You Must Remember This
  • Yates, Revolutionary Road
  • Proulx, Postcards
  • McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
  • Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
  • Johnson, Angels
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
  • Banks, Continental Drift
  • Baldwin, Go Tell It On The Mountain
  • James, The Ambassadors
  • Gaddis, The Recognitions
  • Franzen, The Corrections
I don't necessarily think all of these novels are perfect, but as a list of GANs I think mine is pretty much argument-proof.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Humanism and Liberalism -- A Pair of Definitions

I can agree with Clive James' general definition of humanism while disagreeing with the fogeyish particulars of his argument in Cultural Amnesia:

Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it.

Note how this chimes with Lionel Trilling's definition of liberalism in The Liberal Imagination (in a fragment from a 1974 lecture printed as a foreword to the 1976 edition): "...liberalism was...a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty." He goes on to identify literature, "especially the novel," as "the human activity which takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, complexity, difficulty--and possibility."

We can thus understand the novel as the artistic expression of liberalism, and liberalism itself as the political expression of humanism. But all three constructs also point toward an even more fundamental idea that grounds them all: pluralism. Pluralism is the fertile soil in which these ideas grow, the garden where humanism bequeaths liberalism which begets Middlemarch and Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow and Howard's End.

It is tragically telling that both these definitions are matters of "was," past tense epitaphs for ideas gone. In a fascisizing, Trumped-out America that neither writer could have predicted (imagine how it would've horrified Trilling), the past tense seems especially disheartening. For pluralism, humanism, liberalism are exactly the medicines America needs today. We need them in gigantic surreal syringes out of William Burroughs' wettest dreams. We need megadoses to flush this fascist psychosis out of our country and make America recognizable again. For in America in the middle of 2018, the yes-or-no question many African-Americans are asking themselves--"Have white people lost their damn minds?"--solicits one obvious answer--and it's not the comforting one.

Against Literary Eulogies

Damn it. I just did it again.

As is my wont, after telling myself not to do something (in this case, writing yet another "brief eulogy" for Philip Roth), I immediately did it.

As one of my personal mottoes is "Fuck Death" (It currently stands right behind "Fuck Trump" on my hit parade.), I refuse to turn Mindful Pleasures into a literary graveyard. This blog was intended to focus on works of art, not deaths of artists. So I hereby refuse to publicly mourn the passing of any more writers. (And a great many will be passing soon: check out the ages of most of the world's greats; they're a coterie of septuas, octos and nonas. That grating sound you hear is the literary reaper sharpening his scythe.) In lieu of eulogies, in place of pathetic "thoughts and prayers"--a phrase that needs to be expunged from American English--let's resolve to remember the writers by reading the books.

I vaguely recall a passage in Amos Oz's autobiography where he recounts a childhood wish to achieve immortality by physically becoming a book. This is exactly the Ovidian transformation every great writer pulls off. So in a sense, the writer's cadaver is the corpse least in need of eulogy. When the last breath leaves his body, he metamorphoses into text: wild whirling words, worlds of words, better than yours or mine.

The rest is reading...

On Roth

In Claudia Roth Pierpont's lucid, informative and sympathetic Roth Unbound, the titular boundless one is quoted as saying that if he were dying and had time to read one last thing, he would choose Thomas Mann's "Mario and the Magician." This is a wonderfully weird little parable of fascism from 1929, an example of Mann at his most Stephen King-like. (I hope that comparison doesn't give Harold Bloom a coronary; we've already lost too many literary figures in the past year.) And as a German literary-political allegory involving a magical hunchback, the tale must have influenced the young Gunter Grass. I don't know if Roth was able to re-read it before his death last week, but giving it a read this week would be a good and original way to remember him.

Sam Shepard, Denis Johnson, William H. Gass, John Ashbery, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth--the big dominoes are tumbling now; great and good American writers are falling faster than courtiers in the last act of a Jacobean tragedy. Time, as it periodically does, is wiping out a literary generation. The best of them will, hopefully, die into their books; the rest will rest deservedly unread and unremembered. (Time's blade is cruel, its judgment harsh, and it spares no one--just ask Booth Tarkington.) Roth understood this process well, and he was surely the person least surprised by his demise. Shostakovich once said, "All my symphonies are tombstones," and Roth could've said the same of his later novels. Every one of them, from Sabbath's Theater through Nemesis, is written in and around the prospect of death. If the contemporaneous novels of W. G. Sebald (a decade younger than Roth, he somehow seems older...) body forth what Susan Sontag called "a mind in mourning," the best of Roth's late works, equally mortality-soaked, equally death-haunted, play a similar theme in a jazzier tempo and a spikier key, creating a sound so different from Sebald's that few readers would consider the two men kindred. Roth was facilely compared to Lenny Bruce at the beginning of his prominence and to Woody Allen a few years later, but I prefer to see late Roth as a Robin Williams figure, his marvelously manic improvisations a tightrope walk over the inevitable abyss. Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, The Dying Animal are marvelous examples of a good, concise general definition of art: Art is life punching back at death. Late Roth is like Ali coming back after a long rope-a-dope to deliver a single, crushing, downing blow--and he does it while dancing as smoothly as Astaire.

He's been dead for over a week and I can't write about him in the past tense. The perpetual present ineluctably intrudes. I hope it always will. His books will always be alive, ferociously alive. We should all live so wildly.

Friday, April 13, 2018

On English Epics (and English Names)

The polymathic writer, critic, and translator Guy Davenport (whose essay "That Faire Field of Enna" (in The Geography of the Imagination) may be the best thing ever written about the work of Eudora Welty) remarks in one of his essays that the three great English epics are The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I like the idea of Gibbon--who deserves to stand alongside Fielding, Johnson and Sterne as one of the master prose stylists of eighteenth-century English--as the British Enlightenment's grand epicist, and I want to continue Davenport's list forward, adding Wordsworth's 1805/1850 Prelude as the epic of Romanticism (or perhaps, my inner libertine subversively suggests, that slot should be amply filled by Byron's bulging Don Juan...), Middlemarch as the epic of the bourgeois era, and.... but where's the epic of English Modernism? If we were speaking of Irish Modernism the answer would be obvious, but no Englishperson wrote a Ulysses. Is the epic of English Modernism one of those heaping, dusty doorstops that languish largely unread today even by the most serious readers, something like John Cowper Powys' Wolf Solent or Glastonbury Romance, or Ford Madox Ford's Tietjens tetralogy or Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time...? Or perhaps we should propose Frazer's Golden Bough as the epic of the late Victorian era and David Jones' In Parenthesis as its Modernist successor... (And that poet's name fires off a digression: England needs more names. There's simply no excuse for a country to have at least three prominent David Joneses (the Modernist poet, the man from The Monkees, and David Bowie, who had the eminent good sense to rename himself after a knife); two Francis Bacons (Renaissance writer and postmodern painter) and a Roger Bacon, medieval philosopher of science; two Richard Burtons (explorer of the world; explorer of Elizabeth Taylor) and a Robert Burton, anatomist of melancholy, a mild form of which might be induced by extended reflection upon the paucity of British names.) Anyway, one possible English epic line might be drawn thus: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon), The Canterbury Tales (Middle English), Morte D'Arthur (late Medieval), The Faerie Queene (Renaissance), Paradise Lost (Baroque), Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Enlightenment), The Prelude (Romanticism), Middlemarch (mid-Victorian), The Golden Bough (late Victorian), In Parenthesis (Modernist), The Golden Notebook (Postmodernist), The Satanic Verses (Cosmopolitan).

As with all such lists, this one becomes more arguable as it approaches the present. The Nobel committee was correct to identify Lessing, in their citation, as an epicist, but a fashionable focus on feminism in the critical discourse of her work tends to slight the vast thematic range and profound psychological depth of The Golden Notebook. If British postmodernism produced an epic, this is it. As for my final choice, Rushdie's most impressive, most complex, most outrageously imaginative novel seems a logical choice for the English epic of our time. A book by an immigrant writer born an imperial subject, it also reminds us that immigration will be, among many other things, the solution to that dire cognominal deficiency deplored in the above David Jones-inspired parenthesis. England's most recent Nobel laureate, for example, bears a decidedly non-Jones, unBacony name. Neither a David nor a Francis he.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

ZEROVILLE by Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson is one weird dude. I mean, of course, the implied author of his novels and not the actual LA-living, movie-reviewing, flesh-and-blood author, of whom I know nothing save those two facts and the third, gleaned from photographs, that he wears enough hair for three men his age--for which I salute him from the shiny top of my Louis C. K.-like middle-aged baldness. After finally getting around to Erickson's weird Hollywood novel Zeroville (the one about the idiot-savant-like genius film editor with a two-shot of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor tattooed on his shaved head--yeah, weird), I found myself enjoying the book despite (or because of?) its overreliance on Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, despite (and certainly not because of) its third act regression to now-gray-haired postmodern novel clichés, and even despite its dire predictability. Instead of that surreal sense of 'anything can happen' expertly achieved by Erickson in his very impressive debut, Days Between Stations, Zeroville gives us exactly the elements we expect in a postmodern Hollywood novel. It's a good example of a kind of ultrahigh genre fiction in which hyperliterate, hyperintellectual clichés substitute for the pseudoliterate, pseudointellectual clichés that inform the works of, say, Dan Brown. So yes, while I enjoyed Zeroville, I enjoyed it the way I enjoy some of Quentin Tarantino's movies: as highbrow cheap thrill rides. From Steve Erickson, I expect more.

Monday, April 9, 2018

LIONEL ASBO by Martin Amis

Martin Amis doesn't appear to have spent much time on Lionel Asbo. It's a slight, careless, phoned-in performance that shuffles distractedly through several years of narrative time, distractedly shuffles a few insufficiently imagined characters, and evinces a writer who seems, more than anything else, bored with his job. Indeed, Amis fils, one of the premier prose stylists of 1980s and 90s England, here seems hardly to be writing at all: the prose is weak, limp, repetitive, and rarely rises more than a notch above good commercialese. A critical defender of the novel--and Amis does have defenders, although these days they mostly limit their 'defenses' to trolling Amis-haters on the Guardian website--might say that Amis has 'opened' his prose to the degraded, dumbed-down discourse of the tabloid-ridden, tabloid-raddled world he represents. If that's the case, Amis detractors might charge him with an excess of suck-cess. Lionel Asbo is minor Martin, Amis at his most forgettable.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Long, Long, Long Sentence: An Interlinear Elegy for William H. Gass

We best remember a writer by reading him. And by thinking about what we've read. And arguing with it in our heads.

Gass was a sentence man, so I'll remember him by reading one of his early epics, an astoundingly accomplished, lung-emptyingly long sentence that constitutes almost an entire paragraph in his early essay "Even If, By All the Oxen in the World" (in Fiction and the Figures of Life). The words in plain text below are Gass's original paragraph, anything but plain; the italicized impertinences are my graffiti-like interlinear commentary. Consider it a what-do-I-know? elegy.

"Must we be drunk or doped or mad, must we be dunced and numb to feed our animal halves? (Listen to the music of this not-at-all rhetorical question: those three thumping adjectives like bass drumbeats in the opening phrase, the way the vowel of 'Must' is picked up by 'drunk,' repeated after the caesura, then tub-thumped by 'dunced and numb.' Notice that 'feed' reprises the repeated 'we be' vowel just before the whole sentence mellows into the short a's of 'animal halves,' a phrase that seems soporific until we notice that it picks up the vowel of 'mad' and seems to leave us at interrogative's end in a kind of catatonic trance, the suspense of an unanswered question.) So it appears. (Three little words, nothing like the old showtune (although its dominant vowels do harmonize with the 'doped' and 'feed' of the preceding sentence). But this simple sentence only appears to be an answer. Nay, an appropriately Baroque reader might ejaculate, this Shaker-spare plank of a sentence might reply, but it does not conclude. It's but a diving board from which Gass springs into the long, long, long, long sentence that comprises the rest of the paragraph.) The average man does not want to know how he looks when he eats; (A simple contention which one need not read the 'Lestrygonians' section of Ulysses to confirm. Have you ever eaten a big, sloppy hamburger while facing a mirror? It's enough to convince you that the characters in Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty were right when they decided to shit communally around a table and retire to a small room at the end of the hall to grotesquely consume their food.) he defecates in darkness, reading the Reader's Digest; (A darkly musical lower GI movement that only Beckett might have bettered. Listen to the Latinate excrements alliteratively emerge into medieval darkness; hear reading, that most intellectual of activities, rhymed with the commodified shitpaper of 1960s America's favorite toilet mag.) his love has an awkward automatic metal brevity, like something sprayed from a can, (The first phrase is a mini master class in when not to use commas; by cramming those three adjectives together without a pause, the sentence imitates in its own form the awkwardness that is its topic. Awkward fucking makes awkward rhythms. The simile likewise does double duty, both comparing the average America's ejaculate to a manufactured, environment-destroying aerosol and slangily comparing the man's unlovemaking to the scatology on the other side of the last semicolon: diarrhea is also 'something sprayed from a can.') and any day his present sex might be replaced with plastic; (Yikes! That very 60s intellectual horror of plastic, satirized in The Graduate, issues in a Ballardian vision of castration and mechanization, every man an Eveready dildo attached to a mindless body.) his work is futile, his thought is shallow, his joys ephemeral, his howls helpless and agony incompetent; (There's a mini master class in prose rhythm for you. Watch Maestro Bill elegantly conduct this syntactic gangbang, beginning with complete clauses and ending with the multisyllabic adjective agonizingly jammed up the ass of the appropriately Greek-derived noun. Gass's average man is buggered by life.) his hopes are purchased, his voice prerecorded, his play is mechanical, the roles typed, their lines trite, all strengths are sapped, exertion anyhow is useless, to vote or not is futile, futile... (It's not too outlandish to compare this passage immediately before the sentence stutters into its only ellipsis--a kind of syntactic breakdown--to the vision of Modernist life in Eliot's Waste Land, especially the "At the violet hour" section (lines 215-256). But just when the repeated futility of it all throws his voice toward suicidal silence, Gass remembers his Beckett and, unable to go on, goes on:)  so in almost every way he is separated from the centers of all power and feeling: (Yes, just as this passage stands apart, alienated from the power and feeling that infuses the rest of the superlong sentence. Here Gass's voice is in recovery: bland, depressive, sedated. But he won't linger long.) futilely he feeds, (In a moment of genuinely Beckettian irony, Gass finds in yet another repetition of futility the energy he needs. Now he rocks and rolls:) he voids, he screws, he smokes, he motorboats, he squats before the tube, (Need I remark that squatting before a tube--more precisely, atop one--is exactly what we do when we defecate to the accompaniment of "Humor in Uniform"? Television, to Gass, is nothing more than visual Reader's Digest--a title, I only now notice (!), that conceals a wildly scatological double entendre: the mag is full of shit that other readers have already digested.) he spends at least a week each year in touring and a month in memorizing lies--lies moral, religious, and political--he beats the drum or shouts hurray on cue, (A little indictment of midcentury American middle-class conformity that should be classed-down for today's America to include the Trumpified portion of the working class. Today's conformists waste no time touring, so they have that many more months to memorize lies--lies fed to them by the fucks at Fox.) he wears a neon nightie, swallows pills, and chews his woman's nipples now because a book he's read has told him that he ought to; (He's a tad kinky, our average man, but even his sexuality is safely commercialized, commodified, conformist--sanitized for his protection. Note also that Gass's voice is losing energy again, as though the stupidity of the life he describes has infected his prose. About the rebarbative, patriarchal anonymity of "his woman," need anything more be said? Objects objectify: it's what they do.) my god, he jigs, he swigs, he sings the very latest tra-la-las and sends his kids to scouts and all-white schools, (The patriarchal militaristic frontier kitsch of scouting meets de facto educational segregation at the end of a wordburst that begins with Gass gearshifting from relative lethargy to hysterically stomping monosyllabic frenzy. Our author is back on his game, jazzing it up again, singing hard bebop to drown out the tra-la-las of simpering commercial pop--always a weasel, in the opinions of Gass, Adorno, et al.) he rounds his bottom to a pew, loves pulpitry, and contributes yearly to a cause; (I too love Gass's word 'pulpitry,' which sounds borrowed from his beloved Baroque era. And there's the lovely sculptural perfection of that first phrase: the man molding his ass to fit the pew as he molds his thoughts to fit the conventional dogmas of pulpitry (which puns with puppetry), a self-mutilation that issues in the banal charity-talk cliché of the final five words.) with splendid sexlessness he breeds--boards receive their nails with greater sensitivity-- (Has the word 'splendid' ever seemed less splendid? Gass drains the adjective of meaning just as Mr. Average's inept fucking strains all human meaning out of sex. The surreal carpentry comparison is unforgettably disturbing: sexuality as a dehumanizing act.) he kites the lies he's learned as high as heaven where they sing like toads in trees, (Gass's prose now ascends kite-like to a level of complexity and compression usually reserved for poetry. The word "kites" functions as both verb and metaphor while also suggesting the carrion bird (Gass's deflated angel) and the kiting of checks (religion as monetary fraud: "Gimme ten percent of your income or go straight to hell and tell 'em Reverend Todd Dodge sent ya!") This metamorphic, multifaceted kite flies the average man's average prayers to a heaven several notches below Dante's on the beauty scale, where the songs of Rilke's angels have descended to the lonely blorping of a lowly, warty tree toad.) yet he sickens just the same, and without reason, (After that inexultant rise to degraded heaven comes the slow decline. The pace of the prose slackens as he sickens; the music modulates to a minor key.) for he's been to bridge and bingo, said his rahs as well as anyone, never borrowed on his insurance, kept his car clean, and put his three sons twice through Yale; (This life wasted in the Cheevery suburbs of Updikeville is as banal and hollow as its dominant short vowels: a minor mournful monotony, all as meaningless as sending anyone, let alone three ones, twice through Yale. That 'through' is a nice, subtly scatological touch: Yale, like an anus, is a place the shit goes through.) but age, which is not real, (Of course not. In America we're eternally 25--until we're eternally 75; the only true eternity, the death that eats us all, is one of the things popular culture comes to deny by distracting from distraction with distractions.) hangs like a dirty suit inside his freshly pressed tuxedo; (Gass's variation on Yeats' image of a scarecrowish old man, "a tattered coat upon a stick"; of course, this American variation must characteristically dissemble physical decline, concealing it in a elegant package that reads ambiguously as both upper-class formal wear and the gauzily tasteless attire of a high school prom.) thus he fails, (Like a cashless business, like a Trump casino, he dies not, merely fails; religion then becomes a bankruptcy court offering a second chance after the business has bellied up.) assumes another slumber, (This ass assumes the sentimental sleep of our culture's customary death denial. The verb here takes a double meaning, both the making of an assumption (with overtones of a specifically Catholic denial of death) and the act of pretending, as in 'assuming an air of confidence' (my dictionary's example). Listen to those sibilants sending him slumbering home--more of those to come:) and dies like merchandise gone out of season. (The only possible end to a meaningless, commodified life is a meaningless, commodified death. Listen to the sounds of the sentence mimicking the dying fall of a heart monitor, those three spiky i's declining to an almost flat line of mournful o's... Stick a fork in that motherunfucker. He's done. No escaping this Gass attack. It's worse than World War One.... But wait. For a few years, there have been rumors of rat-like scrabbling at the gravestone's base, and now that Easter's here I can bring the Bad News that He has risen--in fact, he rose a year and a half ago, just in time to vote for Trump.)

Later in this essay, when he shifts to the topic of art, Gass writes: "Art does not, I hasten to say, have a hortatory influence; it's not a medicine, and it teaches nothing. It simply shows us what beauty, perfection, sensuality, and meaning are; and we feel as we should feel if we'd compared physiques with Hercules."

After several hours deep inside Gass's long sentence, I feel a dire need to hit the gym.

Gass's Good Opinion on Opinions (the adjective is my opinion)

The compulsively quotable William Howard Gass, American author and word magician (and, in the interstices of that vocation, a professional philosopher), died a few hours before last Infamous Day at the age of infinity (or 93, close enough). The man is four months gone but the books still speak and sing (and now I'll Gass up and go for baroque) like so many Ovidian Orpheus heads scattered across the globe. Here, in a single short paragraph from his late essay "Influence" (collected in A Temple of Texts), Gass delivers an unsettling warning to anyone who reads and thinks. (Folks named Trump need not apply.)

"If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay too late and drink all the whiskey."

Friday, March 30, 2018

Adorno's Optimism

Adorno's Optimism... Yes, it sounds like the title of a book thinner than Trump on Kant or When Coetzee Smiles or Complex Sentences in Raymond Carver, but anyone who has read even a bit of Adorno has likely come upon passages of surprising optimism--or at least the possibility of optimism--that flash out of the general pessimism like a jagged lightning strike against the blackness of a stormy night. Here are five such moments from Adorno's last book, Aesthetic Theory, an epigram mine of near-Nietzschean richness:

"Aesthetic splendor is not just affirmative ideology; it is also the reflected glimmer of life free of oppression: In its defiance of ruin it takes the side of hope." (Read that again, and remember that it's Adorno, not Ernst Bloch.)

"Only when play becomes aware of its own terror, as in Beckett, does it in any way share in art's power of reconciliation."

"Every artwork, if it is to be fully experienced, requires thought and therefore stands in need of philosophy, which is nothing but the thought that refuses all restrictions." (Those last six words just became my favorite definition of philosophy.)

"If art, as Valery once said, wants to be indebted only to itself, this is because art wants to make itself the likeness of an in-itself, of what is free of domination and disfigurement."

"The making of every authentic work contradicts the pronunciamento that no more can be made." (This statement should be read in the light of Adorno's famous remark about poetry after Auschwitz and his later embrace of the work of Paul Celan. )


Colson Whitehead's fine first novel, The Intuitionist, announced the arrival of an impressive allegorical imagination. Here was a worthy heir to Ralph Ellison who wrote of race and class and the contemporary world with cool cleverness and theoretical savvy; here was Don DeLillo with a hip-hop beat; here was a writer to watch. So when The Underground Railroad appeared, with its magic realist conceit of a literal subterranean rail line transporting slaves to freedom (or not), I thought that here at last would be Whitehead's Gravity's Rainbow, his big, ridiculously ambitious, Hurricane Katrina-strength mind-blower of a novel. I expected this book to ram me down the cannon's throat, stuff my butt with gunpowder, touch flame to fuse, and blow my ass away.

Reader, it didn't.

The Underground Railroad is good enough to keep me reading, even though Whitehead is no prose stylist and his language is standard litfic stuff. It's an appropriately brutal allegory of African-American history that occasionally--but only occasionally--exhibits startling artistic power. The 'South Carolina' satire of separate-but-equal paternalistic cant and the 'North Carolina' nightmare of genocide and the American fascist carnivalesque (which Cora witnesses through a tiny hole in her coffin-like attic hiding place) are wonderfully accomplished; the other sections are less so, and the whole is dogged by narrative predictability and creaky, cartoonish melodrama--a 'Perils of Coraline' rhythm of danger and rescue, danger and rescue.... (Positive criticism might 'rescue' this aspect of the novel by pointing at Pynchon and calling it postmodern irony, but thus indicating the novel's unoriginality would be a strange defense strategy.) And the end of the story, with Cora boarding a wagon heading west, signifies two things, both rather dismal: either Whitehead is capable of thinking Cora out of slavery but not out of the imperialist, racist mythology of America's westward expansion, or he is Spielbergianly setting up a sequel, The Underground Railroad Two: Cora Kicks Californian Ass.

I closed The Underground Railroad deep in the embrace of an intentional fallacy. Surely, I thought, this little 300-page thing was not the book Whitehead intended to write. And it's certainly not the best novel he is capable of writing around these ideas. From blatant internal evidence, Whitehead appears to have intended a Gulliver's Travels-type panoramic satire of the entire African-American experience, from Middle Passage to Michael Brown. Maybe if Whitehead's publisher--or his internal editor, every writer's punishing superego--had permitted him to stretch out and write an 800-page epic a la The Sot-Weed Factor or Pynchon's big ones, he might've accomplished a mind-blowing masterpiece. This, unfortunately, isn't it. And I almost mourn the missed opportunity.

THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones

Like Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (a novel with which it otherwise contrasts in virtually every way), Edward P. Jones's The Known World seems like a 700-page novel that has been severely pared down to a more commercially viable length. It remains, however, a good and powerful novel with flashes of startling originality and even brilliance. The tale of the escaped slave mailed in a packing crate to New York and freedom is worthy of Garcia Marquez or Rushdie at his 1980s best; the confrontation scene between Henry and Augustus (Augustus, striking Henry with a walking stick: "Thas how a slave feel"; Henry, snapping the stick over his knee: "Thas how a master feels.") possesses a primal tragic power and a visceral, gut-level greatness. Most stunning of all, though, is  Augustus's kidnapping near the middle of the book, a scene in which the modulation from dark comedy to violent tragedy captures something of slavery's sadistic, absurdist evil that I've never before seen in American art. And even the novel's flaws are, for the most part, errors of ambition, 'positive' flaws: Jones tries to cram the whole history of his imaginary Virginia county into a single 388-page novel, and through judicious use of his signature flash-forwards, he almost convinces us; but the consequent thinness and uncertainty of his characterizations shows that William Faulkner chose the better road, spreading his Yoknapatawpha over an entire career's worth of books rather than stuffing the Snopses and Joe Christmas and Caddie and Temple Drake into a single seriously magnum opus. The Known World is not the second coming of Faulkner or Morrison, but it is very impressive for a first novel (more impressive, indeed, than the first novel of Faulkner and at least on a par with Morrison's The Bluest Eye), and hopefully it won't be this slow, deliberate writer's sole novel.

Richard Ford, Mediocrity

I don't like Richard Ford. Don't like the novels, and probably wouldn't like the guy. If I met him tomorrow I'd hock a loogie on his cheek and say, "Colson Whitehead says hello." (For those unacquainted with the feeble feuds of America's amazing shrinking literary culture (Where have they gone, the Mailers and Vidals of yesteryear?): Several years ago, Whitehead wrote a negative review of a Ford book, and when the two men met some time later, Ford displayed his usual level of maturity and savoir faire by literally spitting in Whitehead's face. Yep, the guy sounds like a total fucking asshole.)

To adapt the recently late, greatly lamented William H. Gass's line about the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Richard Ford is a novelist who sets his sights on mediocrity and always scores a bullseye. His prose is bland, dull and tin-eared, his imagination slim to nonexistent, his novels repetitive, monotonous and burdened by clichés. Contra the book-reviewing extablishment, he is not "one of the great American novelists of his generation" (Washington Post Book World, where they should know better); nor has he "forg[ed] a new way of writing fiction about, and out of, American life that is as revolutionary as Proust's..." (John Banville, who certainly knows better). Richard Ford is an average, conventional, grossly overrated writer whose rather dumb novels have been overpraised for decades and whose overinflated reputation, ballooned to Albuquerque Festival size by critical hot air, is ripe for criticism's corrective pen-prick. I ascribe his currently high literary reputation to a number of factors, among them critical inertia and MFA program canonization. Ford writes directly, even cravenly, to an audience of white, upper-middle-class academics, MFA students, and English majors past and present; and he gives this audience conventional novels to which they can painlessly apply the conventional critical clichés. As a dollop of whipped cream atop the smarmy sundae, he gives them characters with whom they can unproblematically identify. And as the maraschino on top, he gives them prose in which the few ambiguities result from authorial insecurity rather than intellectual complexity or aesthetic daring. Ford's novels challenge neither author nor readers. As a writer he plays basketball with a hoop the size of Taft's bathtub, and his readers enjoy a lukewarm bath in lives no better written or imagined than their own.


Largely owing to the second word in its title, linguistic relic of a much more racist time, this novel is rarely read today, and that fact is even more unfortunate than Korzeniowski's titular N-bomb (which was problematic even in its day: the first US edition was re-titled The Children of the Sea (lose the first definite article and you have a name under which Star-Kist would sell tuna to cannibals), not, apparently, because publishers deemed the N-word offensive, but because they feared white readers wouldn't buy a book with a black title character--to which someone might've objected that many, many white readers purchased copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin...). It's unfortunate--as I was saying before that rudely interrupting parenthesis--because The Nigger of the Narcissus, while not one of Conrad's greatest works, is a thoroughly enjoyable, sometimes beautiful, sometimes cleverly ironic, ultimately enigmatic tale of the sea. The novel's showpiece, a long storm scene in which the boat nearly capsizes and the crew must lash themselves to the tilted deck, is realized with near-hallucinatory vividness, demonstrating the aesthetic goal stated in Conrad's much-quoted preface: "...to make you see." Elsewhere in Narcissus, Conrad's rhetoric tends to get in the way of his representations, a criticism that might also be applied to Heart of Darkness, but there the rhetoric is so beautiful that any objection seems almost churlish. In Narcissus, Conrad has not yet brought his prose style to the Wagnerian symphonic grandeur it would achieve just a few years later. Here the lyrical passages seem self-consciously 'grand,' and he annoyingly overuses the adjective 'resplendent.' The Heart of Darkness comparison points out another weakness of Narcissus that the author would very soon overcome: his failure to characterize the narrator. Conrad's invention of Marlow as the ridiculously long-winded tale-teller of Darkness and Lord Jim both grounds and complicates those narratives in ways that Narcissus, with its seemingly arbitrary shifts from third-person point-of-view to a collective 'voice of the crew' to an invisible first-person singular (an "I" who never appears as a character), fails to achieve. The Nigger of the Narcissus often reads like a tale told by a Marlow not yet birthed from the Conradian brain.