Thursday, April 23, 2009

On BLOOM (2004), a film adapted from James Joyce's ULYSSES, directed by Sean Walsh

Like Joseph Strick's 1967 attempt to adapt Ulysses, Sean Walsh's Bloom is not a bad film. It's even a bit better than that faint praise indicates. It's certainly worth seeing, and anyone with an interest in Joyce should head over to and buy a copy. (Despite the fact that a relatively high-profile actor, Stephen Rea, plays Leopold Bloom, the film remains very obscure, so I doubt your local video store will have it on the shelf.) But the impossible task of filming Joyce's Ulysses is enough to hobble any filmmaker. Perhaps only Bergman or Bunuel or Altman (or Eisenstein, with whom Joyce discussed a film version (oh, to have been a fly on that particular wall...)) could have pulled it off. As it is, Bloom is better, edgier and kinkier than Strick's 1960s film, and thus it's closer to Joyce's comic vision. But the film has been edited too aggressively, adapted too telegraphically (so that Bloom's slow burn in 'Cyclops,' for example, appears rather short-fused), and seemingly conceived as a complement or companion to the book rather than a separate work of art. The filmmakers were perhaps too reverent. (And even as I write that sentence I can imagine someone else thinking that they weren't reverent enough.) Hugh O'Conor's performance as Stephen is also hesitant and uncertain, as if he's unsuccessfully concealing the fact that he doesn't deeply understand the role. (This judgment may be unfair. The actor who played Stephen in Strick's film seemed to have the same problem, as I recall. Stephen's epigrammatic laconism doesn't translate well to film.) On the plus side, Stephen Rea is very good in a performance that carries the film, Angeline Ball is a smart and engaging Molly, and the lovely actress who plays Bella Cohen dominates Bloom exquisitely. I can't help but wonder, though, what Ingmar Bergman might have done with this material (aside from insisting that it be filmed on Faro). Bergman's Ulysses would probably have been a darker, moodier film--heavy on the Hamlet, light on the Aristophanes--and Bloom's sexuality would've been more tortured and guilt-ridden than rompily outrageous. Even an artist as great as Bergman, however, would probably have stumbled at 'Oxen of the Sun,' an episode too bookish in form and conception to survive the change of medium. As a general rule, the book's most naturalistic and most surrealistic episodes both translate quite well to film, but those that depend for their effect upon language, sound or the medium of printing (Aeolus, Sirens, Oxen of the Sun, Ithaca) remain firmly bound to the book and resist translation. Of living directors, perhaps only Peter Greenaway could film them, for they insist upon filmic treatment more challenging and avant-garde than either Strick or Walsh could provide.

It now occurs to me that the only possible way to adapt Ulysses with anything approaching faithfulness would be to create a form comparable to Kieslowski's Decalogue or Francois Girard's Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould: a film in 18 'chapters,' each conceived and shot in a distinctive style by 18 different directors working semi-independently--a producer's nightmare. Limit each director to 30 minutes and the final product will be a 9-hour TV miniseries (shorter than Decalogue) or three 3-hour movies. If I were a producer with a bottomless budget and unlimited powers of persuasion, I would match the following directors and episodes:
  1. Telemachus: Kevin Smith. What is Telemachus, after all, but Clerks by the edge of the Irish Sea? And Smith would nail the Catholicism.
  2. Nestor: Francis Ford Coppola, who could imbue the central conversation with all the power and menace of the conversation scene at the beginning of The Godfather.
  3. Proteus: Charlie Kaufman could strike the right balance of metaphysics, comedy, and despair.
  4. Calypso: Philip Kaufmann would do justice to its eroticism, earthy and lyrical.
  5. Lotus Eaters: Mike Leigh could improvise a journey through the Dublin streets
  6. Hades: Woody Allen would be a perfect funeral director.
  7. Aeolus: The Coen Brothers could film it as a 1930's screwball newspaper comedy with the title K.M.R.I.A.
  8. Lestrygonians: Tim Burton could give a Gothic twist to this chapter about the eaters and the eaten.
  9. Scylla and Charybdis: Kenneth Branagh, obviously.
  10. Wandering Rocks: Richard Linklater, who already filmed his own version of it as Slacker.
  11. Sirens: Lars von Trier, who showed us in Dancer in the Dark that he knows how to capture music on film.
  12. Cyclops: Peter Jackson could modulate expertly between fantasy and reality.
  13. Nausicaa: Neil Jordan would film it wonderfully--and I suppose we need an actual Irish director in here somewhere!
  14. Oxen of the Sun: Terry Gilliam may be the only living director who could conceive film analogues for all the various prose styles.
  15. Circe: Since Luis Bunuel and Maya Deren are long gone, David Lynch is the only person for the job.
  16. Eumaeus: I'd like to see what Roman Polanski could do with this episode.
  17. Ithaca: Peter Greenaway has the capacity to transform mundane lists into beautifully surreal film passages. Imagine what the director of Prospero's Books would do with Bloom's books.
  18. Penelope: Jane Campion could nail the sexuality and lyricism.

And so we would have the first Billion Dollar Movie, a sure commercial disaster to wreck the film industry as we know it. But aesthetically it would rock. This is the only way to adapt Ulysses, and it's surely an economic and logistical impossibility.

Postscript: I just thought of another potentially decent way to adapt Ulysses: pay Robert Crumb to design an 18-hour animated version. The trouble with this idea is that Crumb is probably the only big-name artist alive who cannot be bought... As a young Irish member of Joyce's circle once said, Nothing to be done.

"THE OVAL PORTRAIT" by Edgar Allan Poe

I'm dipping deep into the well of American literature for the Euro-American Gothic of Edgar Allan Poe and finding Poe considerably more interesting than I had bothered to notice on previous readings. I notice, for instance, how the form of "Ligeia" mimics the narrator's obsessions in the long, proto-decadent blazon upon Ligeia's face, describing each detail in cinematic close-up. I also notice the clever structure of the brilliant miniature "The Oval Portrait," in which the narrator's narrative is captured by and terminated within the narrative of the portrait, just as the portrait captures the narrator's obsessive interest and ends the life of the sitter. This is a truly great story, a contrast to those like "The Mystery of Marie Roget" where he appears to be writing for payment by the word. It's nearly perfect, unpadded and completely, mysteriously bizarre. It also incidentally fulfills the American literary imperative to impart useful information, in this case how to smoke opium in a 50/50 mixture with tobacco. Amazing the things great literature can teach us.


Watching Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums again, I think I put my finger on the exact comic tone of the movie: it's that combination of absurdity and sentimentality we find in the novels of John Irving. In fact, Tenenbaums probably captures the Irving tone better than any of the Irving adaptations I've seen--perhaps even better than The Cider House Rules. If I were asked to make a list (a few months premature) of the best movies of the 00s, I'd include Tenenbaums, Adaptation, There Will Be Blood, Letters From Iwo Jima, O Brother Where Art Thou, Gosford Park, Mulholland Drive, Amelie, Fahrenheit 9/11, Gangs of New York, Amores Perros, and doubtless a few from '08 and '09 that I haven't seen yet. A tentative Top Eleven list, as absurd as any other. Tenenbaums impressed me even more on this second viewing as an especially rich film, one with enough interesting characters and situations for at least three ordinary movies. And that's undoubtedly another thing that reminds me of Irving: the movie is novelistically rich. Specifically, it's Dickensian in its wealth of eccentric characters and Irvingesque in its combination of sentimentality and dark absurdity. The climactic car crash is an especially Garpian touch.


Anyone who reads Infinite Jest seeking clues to David Foster Wallace's self-murder will be rewarded on pages 695-7 (in the Back Bay Books edition) where he essentially gives us a 12 years premature suicide note, explaining that suicide is the severely depressed person's last and shittiest choice (Wallace likens it to leaping from a high window in a burning building) when all treatments fail--as they apparently did for the author.

Interpolated postdated suicide notes aside, Infinite Jest still doesn't interest me enough to devote a week or two to reading every single page. It remains a boring, overly centrifugal novel with flaws that are not outweighed by its virtues. Unlike Pynchon's longer novels, it fails to grab me and compel my interest; it's an easily putdownable book (in both senses of that neologism); it invites skimming and jumping and tends, like some Pop Art, to really discourage close reading, to deflect the reader's attention from its often banal and mediocre prose. It's interesting, though, when reading the novel today, to note the nearly immediate Tarantino-like influence it exerted on the young writers of the mid-90s. Mark Z. Danielewski and Jonathan Franzen come instantly to mind; Eggers and Lethem aren't far behind. Of all the books those four guys have written (and were any women influenced by DFW??? His fiction seems to be a guy thing, like Star Trek and wanking), Danielewski's House of Leaves takes the most chances and often succeeds. It's certainly a more original novel than Infinite Jest.

Wallace at bottom was not a great writer, as his hit-and-miss short fiction collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men shows. He was a better thinker, perhaps, than a prose stylist or storyteller, and his short fiction "Octet" shows us a writer who has thought himself into a morbidly self-conscious corner. At his best, Wallace is interesting, intriguing (as People magazine might have said the year IJ was published), but he's no Joyce, no Nabokov, no Kafka, no Philip Roth, no Pynchon. I'd put DFW somewhere near Barthelme and DeLillo on the American Literature family tree. He's midrange and might've made it to the upper branches had he been able to live longer.

Wallace's biggest problem, identified correctly by James Wood in How Fiction Works, is his tendency to become the banality he depises. His critically-intended mimetic satires of our debased postmodern language became examples of that very debasement--a kind of conceptual blowback. The fact that despite this (or because of it?) his work inspired cultlike devotion has frequently put me in the uncomfortable position of wanting to tell people that they probably shouldn't like DFW's work all that much, that it's not that good, that even within the last 25 years I can name many novels that kick Infinite Jest's bloated ass: Against the Day, Austerlitz, Blood Meridian, Sabbath's Theater, The Satanic Verses, Coetzee's Disgrace, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Wallace is a poor candidate for literary messiah.

Wallace's work has the same effect on me as too much of postmodern fiction (belying the claims of the author and his supporters that he was markedly different): an almost instant amnesia for the incidents and forms of the stories. If the author doesn't care about narrative and character, why should we? Despite its typical freneticism, most postmodern fiction communicates only the author's boredom and exhaustion--and these it communicates all too well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


British writer J.G. Ballard died Sunday at age 78. The Guardian obituary and links to related articles are here.

This is sad news, but as Bob Dylan says, "now ain't the time for your tears." If you've never read Ballard or haven't read any of his books recently, now's the time to rediscover him or read him for the first time. Often pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, Ballard did indeed begin his career as a member of the British SF New Wave of the 1960s, but he very quickly burst the commercial bounds of genre and began to write formally original, aesthetically and intellectually challenging, transgressive fiction with deep, sometimes imperceptible, roots in the traumas of his early life. The child of British residents of Shanghai, Ballard spent his early teens imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp, an experience explored in his uncharacteristically realistic and (thus) commercially successful novel Empire of the Sun. About the effect of his early life on his work, he once said, "In many ways my entire fiction is the exploration of a deep pathology I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world." For a good introduction to his obsessive themes--techno-nuclear annihilation, the technological death of affect, the mechanization of eros and the eroticization of mechanical things--check out The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (with an intro by Anthony Burgess) and Crash. The former is a collection of works ranging from his early science fiction to the experimental, avant-garde fictions of the 1970s. I especially recommend "The Concentration City," "The Terminal Beach," "The Drowned Giant," "The Atrocity Exhibition," the two brief fictions on the Kennedy assassination, and "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan." His notorious novel Crash, the inspiration for David Cronenberg's film, is probably his most important statement on the theme of technology and eros. It's also surely one of the greatest and most original pornographic novels ever written. Far from shying away from the word 'pornography,' Ballard embraced it in his 1974 introduction to the French edition of Crash: "Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man's life in today's society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way."

In a world of 'producers' and 'consumers' of corporate 'product,' Ballard was an artist. He will be missed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold's novel of transcendental kitsch, The Lovely Bones, teases and manipulates the reader with horror and death but never really engages with the reality of death, treating it as life by other means rather than the end of life, the full stop, finis. The novel thus leeches the true existential horror out of death in a way that can only be called 'religious.' As for Sebold's imagination, she's no Garcia Marquez (to put it mildly). Her otherworld is a Walt Disney Kitschland, an amalgam of recent films (Ghost and What Dreams May Come spring to mind), and its imagery is shopworn, secondhand stuff. Add to this the dud metaphors that plague Sebold's prose like so many stinkbombs, and we have a novel that need no longer detain us, an already dated artifact of the Bush years: faith-based fiction. Rather than confront the horrible reality of the rape-murder she has imagined, Sebold prefers to dissolve it in a saccharine solution of pop Christianity. (And her last name's similarity to that of a truly great writer, W.G. Sebald, annoys me too...)

EDWARD II by Christopher Marlowe

While Marlowe's Edward II is not a great work, it is notable for its matter-of-fact handling of the king's sexuality. As with the lesbian subplot in As You Like It, the homosexual theme exists on the surface of the play. It is the plot; it's not submerged into a subtext and/or coded in symbols and euphemisms that require decryption by Queer Theorists. The king's love for Gaveston is obvious, passionate and real. A comparison with the 'latent,' subtextual gay themes in the fiction and drama of later centuries puts into question notions of progress, at least in representations of this portion of humanity. But that's an obvious point. More interesting is the social context that authorizes such a work, makes it possible (for it would not have been possible to write this play in this way during the later 19th and early 20th centuries). It seems that Renaissance humanism, in taking to heart Terence's maxim, included same-sex love among the human things that were not alien to it, as evidenced also in Shakespeare's sonnets (as if further evidence were required). English literature lost this attitude somewhere between Lord Rochester and Jane Austen. The good news is that we seem to be regaining it today. Yes, there is some good news, even on this blog.

DISPATCHES by Michael Herr

Reading yet again the "Breathing In" section of Michael Herr's Dispatches and trying once more to understand exactly why it works, why it doesn't read like a boring catalog of "one damn thing after another," I'm more convinced than ever that the secret of the piece lies not in its form but in Herr's prose style. The keystone holding it all together is Herr's mastery of language and the range of that mastery, the broad linguistic comfort zone he has carved out for himself, writing sentences that fly and float and swoop and climb among various registers and discourses, from the circumlocutions of press officers to the direct effusions of grunts, from the discourse of Mission to the discourse of Death, from the talk of the Saigon and American streets to the goofy surrealism of cartoons and comic strips. Herr's is an intelligent, political, Pop Art prose, discovering new energies in the clash of registers, the surreal incongruities, the brutally ironic collision of official and unofficial realities via the languages that constitute them. And what energy he finds/creates in the collision! It flies off the page into the reader's mind, rushing like amphetamines in prose so fast, so rock n roll, that he can string memories and vignettes and opinions and stories together in a seemingly spontaneous stream-of-consciousness manner without losing tension. The energy pulls the reader through, in the absence of any strong narrative arc. "Breathing In" doesn't get boring because it doesn't stop moving. It obeys the first and only rule of combat: As long as you're moving, you're not dead.


Bolano's Savage Detectives impresses me considerably less than it did the overly effusive James Wood, who praised (?) it as "amazingly unliterary," as if that's some kind of accomplishment. The vast majority of minds and lives are amazingly unliterary; we read to learn from the tiny minority that are not. Already, at 30 pages into this 500+ page book, it's starting to feel slack, baggy, and I'm finding little of interest in the prose or the form. In contrast to Bolano's marvelous novella By Night in Chile, this book is a less concentrated, less tense work, and the difference shows to its detriment. The ironies of unreliable narration (or more accurately, impaired narration) are of the standard sort found in most literary fiction today, and the deliberately colloquial, antilyrical prose--certainly an intentional riposte to the previous Latin American generation's baroque lyricism--has little to recommend it. I may return to the book in the future, perhaps even the near future, but for now it goes back into one of my book-towers between David Grossman's Be My Knife and an illustrated guide to the National Gallery of Ireland (no, my books aren't arranged in anything approximating order).

A postscript: This book falls into one of the traps set for novelists: the diary trap. While books written in the form of journal entries may be relatively easy to write (and I know from experience that they are, as are books consisting entirely of voices), they are often rather boring to read. The episodic form breaks up narrative tension and makes the book too easy to put down. By contrast, By Night in Chile's unparagraphed form demands and holds the reader's attention from first sentence to last. It's possible that Bolano was better at tour de forces and never really mastered the long novel form, a possibility that lowers my expectations for 2666.

HOW FICTION WORKS by James Wood (not the creepy right-wing actor; that's James Woods)

James Wood's How Fiction Works, while clearly mistitled (it should be called How James Wood Thinks Fiction Works or maybe How Claire Messud's Fiction Works), is a well-written but unsurprisingly narrow work of criticism. The truth is that 'fiction' and narrative in general 'work' in many different ways, some diametrically opposed to the ways Wood's Austenite 19th-century touchstones work. His failure to realize that Pynchon, for example, 'works' tremendously well as a novelist outside the Leavisite 'serious' tradition but inside an older, livelier and more cosmopolitan comic tradition is indicative of a critical blindspot that should really disqualify Wood from commenting on contemporary literature, since most of it will be a priori unacceptable to his carefully cultivated 19th-century sensibility. A case can be made that Wood is the best 19-century critic alive...but that's hardly a compliment.

And just as I'm prepared to let that last sentence stand as my last word on Wood's book, he performs a lovingly detailed, exuberant close reading of a single sentence from Roth's Sabbath's Theater, and immediately I'm prepared to forgive him everything (or most of it). Wood is a wonderful writer, and his naive little book is interesting even when it's wrong. Also, I think I detect a slight softening of Wood's earlier resistance to postmodern fiction, and this paradoxically weakens the book, forcing Wood to argue for a 'realism' so broadly defined that it ultimately morphs into a vague idea of 'truth,' surely a position that needs no defending, even today.


At one point in W.G. Sebald's Vertigo the unnamed narrator, traveling by bus through northern Italy, sees a pair of twin boys who resemble the young Franz Kafka. When he approaches the boys' parents with a request to photograph them, he is immediately mistaken for a pedophile and quickly flees from the bus. In a typical example of Sebaldian understatement, the narrator casually mentions one of the towns the bus passes through: Salo. Sebald gives us only the name of the town, mentioned in passing, but it's just enough to create multiple overtones that harmonize with the concerns of the bus scene and the novel as a whole. We perhaps recognize Salo first as the capital city of the so-called Salo Republic, the pro-Nazi puppet state ruled by Italian fascists in the latter part of World War Two. We might then recall Pier Paolo Pasolini's controversial 1975 film Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom. These overtones deepen the bus scene by sounding notes of fascism, pedophilia, sexual sadism, torture, murder, paranoia--and by sounding them silently (in sharp contrast to Pasolini's film), with the mere mention of a four-letter word: Salo.

Pasolini's film (recently re-released on an overpriced Criterion Collection DVD) is a bizarre and probably sui generis satire, a satire of disgust. It satirizes fascism not by amusing its viewers but by disgusting them. This is probably the only mode in which fascism can be satirized, the only mode that doesn't trivialize its crimes (as they are ultimately trivialized in, for example, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful). Salo is an intellectual tour de force that begins with a reading list (Barthes, Klossowski, de Beauvoir, etc.) and demands multiple viewings and serious thought. It's a film about the repulsiveness of unbridled power that implicates us, the viewers, in the things we see. (Recall Michael Herr's realization in Dispatches: " took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.") Pasolini doesn't provide us with any ironic 'outs,' any easy ways to position ourselves 'above' the characters and their repulsive acts. The terrible literalness of the film's imagery (shit is literally eaten; characters are literally tortured to death) resists interpretive reduction. These images do not represent something else; they are themselves and unassimilable. The implication of the viewer in the characters' crimes is underlined at the film's climax, when Pasolini puts us in the torturers' seat and shows us the climactic tortures from their point of view. Like the fascists, we are spectators distanced from the action by lenses and a screen (the torturers' opera glasses and window stand in for the film projector and cinema screen). Like them we sit in fixed chairs and observe the spectacle from a position of safety. Thinking along these lines, I understand the final scene as Pasolini's final indictment of the audience: we are like those dancing fascist soldiers, delightedly consuming a mass media product--literally, dancing to a mediated tune--while the most horrible things are happening only a few yards--or miles, or countries--away.

And this interpretation I'm grasping at still doesn't take into account the film's conflation of Sade and Dante, its foregrounding of the acts of storytelling and listening to stories, the formal elegance of the sets and compositions, like beautiful boxes overflowing with horrors (also an element of the 'modern' narrative in Pasolini's Porcile). It's a richly disturbing film that's disturbing in its richness.

I like the way Pasolini's best films seem to grow in the mind after viewing. These movies linger; they stick. It's as though the first viewing sows a seed and the plant of meaning grows under the sunlight of reflection (a labored metaphor, I know). Like Resnais, Bergman and Godard at his best, Pasolini is an intellectual filmmaker whose films demand the deep and active participation of the viewer. More than making us see or letting us enjoy, they force us to think--a much more difficult pleasure.

Salo also impresses me as a psychologically 'close' description of fascism. Fascists are people who force others to eat shit. And the theater of cruelty in which this act occurs is a good description of what fascism is, what it must feel like. (If I, who have not suffered under it, can presume to make such a judgment.)

Now I'm thinking of Salo's violence in relation to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. In Gibson's supremely unsubtle film, where a surface layer of verisimilitude conceals an intellectual void, the viewer is repelled, sickened, but never genuinely disturbed. Because the viewer (presumed to be Christian) identifies with the suffering victim throughout, he is never challenged to examine himself, to question his own motives and actions. The American fundamentalist viewer is only confirmed in his (patently false) understanding of his position as an embattled victim in a world of enemies. Hence, Gibson's film is reactionary while Pasolini's is at least potentially radical. Salo reflects back upon the viewer a repulsive vision of himself. Pasolini's film has teeth. And it will bite you.

THE DECAMERON by Giovanni Boccaccio

I'm wandering around inside The Decameron, skipping my way through Boccaccio's world and finding the stories surprisingly good. Readers like myself who while revering the Divine Comedy consider it mistitled (and its title an oxymoron) can take heart at the manner in which Boccaccio sets things right by putting comedy back on its crooked, worldly, populist path. The Decameron is the Profane Comedy, a vast panorama of a still quite recognizable sublunary world. In an important sense, Boccaccio's world is our world, just as Balzac's world is our world, while the worlds of Shakespeare and Zola are--for very different reasons that can be crudely noted by the labels 'genius' and 'scientism'--not quite ours. Boccaccio's world of ordinary and extraordinary human corruption, his cheating spouses and their outrageous stratagems, his vengeful cuckolds, his greedy merchants, hypocritical saints and gullible citizens (reminding us that even in the 1300s intelligent people must have considered unseemly the desire to define oneself as a 'believer' above all, even above questioning the sensibility and morality of one's beliefs)--all these characters and situations show that there's surprisingly little space between the mundane corruptions of Boccaccio's world and those of ours. Just swap the princes for CEO's, the friars for megavangelists, and you have a modern satire, a fact that suggests not an immutable human nature so much as the continuity of Western culture from the late Medieval/early Renaissance era to our own time (whatever historians of the future will call it--the Electronic Era, perhaps?) Yes, we are still 'Western'--and so, these days, is much of what used to be called the 'East'.

The Decameron gives us good evidence of the bawdy humor that must have been current in the Middle Ages: stories of horny monks and randy nuns, cuckolds and cuckoldry, transgression and vengeance. There are some 'gay' characters in Boccaccio's tapestry, and their sexuality is handled in a very matter-of-fact way--it's no big deal, just something else human beings can do. The most 'Medieval' element in the stories, the high percentage of clergy among the characters, both reflects the Medieval theocratic reality and speaks to a popular need to puncture church power, a spirit of Canivalesque mockery that often, to my mind, exceeds the explicitly moralistic 'frames' of the tales. When mockery is placed beside morality, morality will always be mocked. The fact that these tales are more entertaining than exemplary, more comic that moralistic, lies at the root of their genuine subversiveness. Boccaccio's profane and profound unseriousness blasts the schoolmen and their dry treatises to dust--and does so more effectively, perhaps, than Rabelais a century later, for the Frenchman's work seems safely outrageous by comparison. Rabelais' works, however outrageous their satire, exist in a marvelously imaginary, highly aestheticized, Mannerist world; Boccaccio's tales, more often than not, take place in a world that any citizen of the 14th century might have easily recognized. Here is our world, our flesh, and Rustico's 'devil,' all as vibrant and vivacious as a millefiore tapestry and bursting like a pomegranate with all the colors of life. Funny, sexy, human and humane, veined with corruption like a block of flawed granite, here is Boccaccio's human world, and ours. The Decameron is an encyclopedia of (European) mankind, one of those Big Books of Everything that no one writes anymore, because how could an MFA program professor possibly find time to read and grade it?

More readable and ironic than Rabelais, larger and funnier than Chaucer, Boccaccio just became a favorite of mine. Why did I wait so long to read him?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Within the order of capitalism, the greatest transgression, the most subversive obscenity, is voluntary failure. To be a Bartleby who lives. To choose failure, even unconsciously (the way most of us choose most of our lives), to choose it because success is no challenge, is too boringly simple, the conformist path of least resistance that camouflages itself as achievement--this may be the most subversive and unassimilable of choices in our society. And it's why the supremely unsettling Mickey Sabbath, not the relative everyman (or everywanker, the same thing) Alexander Portnoy, is Philip Roth's most transgressive creation by far. Even the fucker's name is outrageous. Abomination! Profanation! A walking obscenity named Sabbath! Remember him and keep him holy.

Yes, I'm reading Sabbath's Theater for the second time and finding it an even better, deeper book, a rare achievement. It's not Roth's most perfect novel (that would be The Ghost Writer), but it's up there with Portnoy's Complaint and The Counterlife among his very greatest works. And as I wrote that last sentence I remembered that I was only able to read this book the first time after two or three false starts in which I abandoned the story after the first chapter. This is a testimony not to the book's difficulty but to its power. It's not a hard book, but it is hardcore; it's strong medicine--exactly the dosage we need today.

Upon finishing this second reading, I'm deeply impressed and convinced that this book is one of the Great American Novels, better than any of the books in Roth's so-called 'American trilogy' (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain) and probably tying Lolita as the most fearlessly subversive G.A.N. It's an amazing, abominable book, big and reckless and blustering and beautiful, like much of the best American art. It's so hilariously and consistently outrageous that I find myself simultaneously laughing and shaking my head in disbelief at something on practically every page. This is one of those books that, except for a few pages here and there, simply does not give up. It's the most deliciously dirty novel ever written by an American--the kind of book Henry Miller might have written, given more talent and intellect. If there's a smarter, funnier, better written and more subversive (and self-subversive) book about the labyrinths of sexuality, I'd like to read it. Sabbath's Theater is one of those books that makes it hard (Stop the sentence there. Sabbath would.) not to gush.

Think back to the publication year. 1995. This novel was a 451-page incendiary device hurled in the face of P.C. America. And one of the things I admire most about the book is its fearlessness. It's so outrageous, so trangressive, so constantly a go-for-broke gambit, that I doubt if anyone other than a living legend like P. Roth could've gotten it published. It's a no fear, no censorship, no second-guessing performance--or at least that's the impression carefully created by Roth's craft. There's a definite feeling here of writing without a net, sitting down in front of the page and cutting loose. And like all truly great novels this one causes another feeling to rise up in sensitive readers, a sensation of the work's greatness that one seems to feel in the Nabokovian 'solar plexus' before any interpretation or analysis come into consciousness. I know this sounds half-baked. But dammit, when I'm reading a great novel or looking at a great painting, I can feel its greatness in my guts. We can feel the greatness of a work before we begin to understand it (this is probably more common with visual than literary artworks), and that feeling is our interpretive goad (I typed 'goat' first, a marvelously Freudian slip of the finger: the interpretive goat, the hermeneutic herm, with overtones of the archaic Greek 'goat song,' the root of tragedy). What an appallingly good book this is, so joyously filthy and so goddamn fearless and wise--yes, wise--about aspects of sex, death and relationships that most people prefer not to contemplate. And of course there's the prose: Roth goes full-throttle from page 1 to 451 with only a few brief downshifts. This is low comedy as high art. Joyce and Chaucer are not far away, nor is Petronius. If I were to make a list of the greatest literary filth, a canon of high porn, it would include: The Satyricon; Boccaccio at his bawdy best; Rochester's erotic poems; Cleland's Fanny Hill; Constance Chatterley and her constantly chatty gamekeeper; Nabokov's Confessions of a White Widowed Male; Portnoy and Sabbath, Erica Jong's first three novels; a book or two by Samuel Delany; White's The Beautiful Room is Empty; pretty much anything by Genet. Hell, I suppose I could even include that ultra-prolix bore who bore the title Marquis de Sade. J.G. Ballard's Crash would be there too. Naked Lunch, obviously. Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet goes in, along with Miller and Nin... Basta! More than Basta! Basta la vista, ba-by...

The best erotic writers, like Roth and unlike mirthless Herb Lawrence, know that sex is seriously funny. It's the subversive, disruptive, anarchic, Marx Brothers side of human beings. Yes, sex is Harpo, Chico, Groucho and even pretty boy Zeppo banging away at each other while Gummo films it. Now I'm thinking like Mickey Sabbath, and that didn't work out so well for him. I'm beginning to understand why after writing Sabbath's Theater Roth felt a need to get away from this character, to get Sabbath out of his head. There's a reason why no one can endure Sabbath: being unendurable is his goal and vocation, to insult life as much as life has insulted him, to insult it even more--this is his insufferable indecency.

Monday, April 13, 2009


"Our culture...desires men who will be willing to be mowed down in anonymous rows if need be, used up in families in farms and factories, thrown away on the streets of sprawling towns, who want to pass through existence so cleanly no trace of them will ever be found." --William H. Gass, Habitations of the Word

American society does indeed desire and shape people "who want to pass through existence so cleanly no trace of them will ever be found." These are exactly the Americans to whom politicians pander and whom they implicitly insult by characterizing them with long strings of cliches: they are 'ordinary Americans' who 'play by the rules,' who 'work hard' and 'do everything right.' They are the docile subjects the system creates to perpetuate itself. But reality is more complex and surprising than any ideological model. People can and do rebel, and when they do so in significant numbers, the system is forced to alter itself. This is very far from revolution, though, and the problem Gass identifies remains rampant in America. The extraordinary pressure to be unexceptional, applied most effectively by and among peer groups in the early grades of our public schools, is an awesome and rarely discussed force in American life. And it's little discussed, I imagine, because it's a side effect of one of the brightest aspects of American culture: representative democracy. A generous and originally radical levelling instinct, the idea that "all men are created equal," has been perverted into an antipathy toward those who display intellectual superiority. Intellectuals are 'book smart' (a phrase always spoken sneeringly), while Sarah Palin's 'real Americans' are 'street smart,' a distinction that implies the latter group acquired its knowledge more naturally, through experience, rather than through the unnatural and probably unAmerican activity of reading books. (The distinction is bogus and won't withstand the slightest amount of real thought-pressure. Anyone who doesn't consider reading an 'experience' has never read well.) Demonstrations of obvious intellectual superiority in an American context will often provoke belligerent or resentful comments such as "You think you're better than me?" The best reply to this would be, "I think I think better than you, which is not exactly the same thing." Rejoinders rarely work, however, when interlocutors are excessively proud of their thickness. The best conversation to have with such people is none.

On the other hand, just as there's much truth in Gass's remark, it conceals the more diverse reality of American society as a place where the overwhelming pressure to conform and be unexceptional tends to force the exceptional to the margins, where they find a (perhaps dubious because marginal) measure of freedom. The pressure to paint oneself in one of the many shades of corporate bland (The corporate world is like a Baskin Robbins with 32 flavors, all vanilla.) can be figured as an enormous leather loafer (a jackboot would be far too gauche for the smiley-faced corporate fascism of our time) bearing down on a flat steel plate that represents the various disciplinary structures of our society (from cradle to classroom to cubicle to coffin--the alliterative through-line of the American Corporate Dream; its resemblance to a nightmare is one of the great unthinkables of the American Now). Almost all of the soft human clay underneath the steel receives the impression of its flatness with minimal resistance. But a few harder clumps of earth, a number of pebbles, some irritatingly persistent weeds will be squeezed out along the edges of the plate, thus arriving by conformist pressure at a position--the margin--from which the mechanism of conformity can be seen entire: corporate foot, societal steel, human clay. Thus does conformity, by a mechanism that woiuld leave Hegel and Marx unsurprised, create nonconformity. This is not a too-clever linguistic game or an essay in moldy dialectical dogma, but a recognition that the same force that turns the mass of men and women toward lives of corporate desperation also creates a minority resistance to itself.

(A brief autobiographical aside. I feel the truth of these ideas in my own life. My experience of the repellent force of corporate conformism predated my readings in Chomsky, Zinn, Marxism, anarchism, etc. Corporatism repelled me first, then I began transforming my mind into a site of resistance [if such rhetoric isn't too delusionally grand, as it almost certainly is]).

The nearly insurmountable problem with marginal resistance lies in its marginality. (Now's the time to say, "Duh!") Anything on the margins of society can be labeled crazy and easily dismissed, labeled criminal and easily silenced, labeled inconsequential and effortlessly ignored. Isolated, alienated, often mutally antagonistic even to the point of violence, genuine outsiders are difficult to romanticize--like the dingy, smelly reality of poverty, something the marginalized know all too well. Powerlessness comes with the territory and is sucked from the mother's breast, so it's extremely difficult for those on the edges to see their position as in any way 'privileged,' to appreciate that they are in a position to see how America really works--a much better position than, say, a bond salesman for Merrill Lynch or anyone else who has become the hegemonic ideology, an embodiment of corporate capitalism, one of the pure products of America who need never go crazy because he has plugged himself into the general madness of the 'new normal.' From outside the structure, its mind-killing madness is obvious; from inside, those on the outside can only be seen, if at all, as targets of exploitation (recall the Enron Tapes, a fleeting glimpse into the uncensored corporate mind that received far too little airplay a few years back). The corporate mind is technocratic and inhuman. Its only morality is the maximization of profit. As the authors/filmmakers of The Corporation argued compellingly, the corporate mind is psychopathic, and we are thus an entire world in the grip of a psychopathy (or several distinct psychopathies: corporatism, religious fanaticism, totalitarianism). And as Marshall Berman reminds us, in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, capitalism is essentially nihilistic, and the nihilism of the powerless is nothing compared to that of the powerful. A fact that must be remembered whenever we hear a representative of power calling anyone else a 'nihilist.'

Let's wrap this up by thinking for a minute about this nihilism. Corporate nihilism, capitalist nihilism, American nihilism, the terrible, tragic darkness at the center of our national life, a darkness we've now exported to the world under the name of globalization. It's the spirit that informs the best and darkest of American literature, from Melville to Cormac McCarthy. The meaninglessness, the nothingness, the terror that arise from a consciousness of the nothingness at the center of American life. This is the true emptiness in our lives. It's an ontological hole, not a God-shaped theological one. It's an aspect of our being, not our thoughts. The self formed under capitalism bears an emptiness at the core, a void over which we perform our selves, an essential meaninglessness identical perhaps to the absence of essence that's the starting point of Sartre's existentialism. (Of course it's not really a ''blank slate" upon which the culture writes. A significant amount of what we are may be inherited, but this is mostly basic stuff common to all members of the species (the cultural universals) or is in the nature of tendencies rather than imperatives.) Our emptiness is ontological, not theological, so religion can't cure it. Religion is only another time-honored way of stuffing the void with garbage. So-called 'popular' culture is a more modern method of arriving at the same shit-soiled end.

That said, Little Richard still kicks ass.


Here are a few ironclad rules for reading:
  1. Trust the tale, not the teller. (Closely paraphrased from D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, a work that despite its flaws remains one of the most thought-provoking books in its field.)
  2. Follow the text, ignore the critic. (Even when the critic's monogram is DHL.)
  3. Trust yourself. (If you think that the critical consensus on a work is dead wrong, you may be right.)
  4. Always remember that every statement written about a major work of art should end with an implied "...or maybe not."
  5. Ignore blurbs. (Even blurbs from great writers tend to be exercises in backscratching, log-rolling and corporate boosterism--the three events in the literary triathlon.)
  6. Don't read more than 50 pages of a book you don't like. It probably won't get better.
  7. If a book blows you away, don't be shy. Tell everyone.
  8. Turn off the damn TV--or as I like to call it, the interpellation machine.
  9. Turn off your cellphone, blackberry, Iphone and all other electronic umbilicals.
  10. When reading Modernist (or so-called 'Postmodernist') works, realize that some passages will be incomprehensible on a first reading. Their significance will only become apparent upon re-reading, when your first reading of the book will constitute your foreknowledge of the text. In other words, don't expect to understand all of Ulysses or A la recherche du temps perdu or The Waste Land or Lolita or Gravity's Rainbow upon first reading them.
  11. Doubt everything.
  12. Apply rule 11 to your life.