Saturday, January 19, 2013


There is much to dislike in The Emperor's Children. Begin with the misguided concept: a realistic New York society novel, a highly conventional updating of Edith Wharton, that attempts to encompass the surreal, world-historical horror of the September 11 attacks. Only the greatest of novelists would have been able to pull this off, and Claire Messud is far from greatness. It is almost unnecessary to note that she fails. A tragic historical event that should have slammed into her text with enough deforming force to wrench it out of realism--at least temporarily--and make it something terribly new (literally, novel) is, despite the novelist's best efforts, almost trivialized into the climactic event of a book that too often reads like an extended episode of Sex and the City. (And to be clear, that last comparison is not a compliment.) Messud even goes so far as to exploit the September 11 attacks to create cheap dramatic irony and tawdry suspense, a pair of grave aesthetic offenses against taste and ethics. Granted, I'm not exactly Mr. Moral Fiction (he died on his donorcycle about 30 years ago, after a delightful little plagiarism scandal tarnished his rep), but I was disturbed by Messud's attempt to subsume the horror of the attacks into the form and techniques of traditional realistic fiction, as though the deaths of 3000 people can be considered simply more grist for the fictional mill. I'm not saying that the attacks should be considered off-limits to fiction. There are ways to write about unspeakable horror that do not tend to degrade or trivialize it: W. G. Sebald, Jorge Semprun, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, David Grossman and Primo Levi are a few writers who have found very different ways to do this. But these writers are Major League, and Messud doesn't even rate a try-out for the Toledo Mud Hens. Her prose is merely competent, her novel's form and tone are typical of its genre (the now highly conventionalized genre known as 'literary fiction') and some scenes descend perilously close to 'chick lit' cliche. The Emperor's Children is basically a middlebrow novel that wants desperately to be considered highbrow; it is a fiction written from and for what Curtis White called 'the middle mind.'

So why am I bothering to write about it?

Surprisingly (not least to me), despite my enormous reservations, I found the novel's characters complex enough and Messud's narrative skills engaging enough to keep me reading for all of her nearly 500 pages. In particular, the characterization of Frederick 'Bootie' Tubb is a marvelous portrait of a young man driven, for reasons that remain mysterious both to the reader and to his deluded self, to repeatedly sabotage his life. Whenever Bootie is on the cusp of any kind of success (as society defines the term), be it acceptance to Harvard, formal education, or his position as Murray Thwaite's secretary, he contrives to forge a mental monkey wrench and tosses it into his own works. At the novel's end, his self-destruction seems on the road to completion: he has taken advantage of the September 11 attacks to fake his death, escaped to Miami, and renamed himself after the central character of Musil's The Man Without Qualities. When last seen he is taking off into the American continent, chasing an unknown but likely dismal fate. He is easily Messud's most original and interesting creation; and he's also an archetypal American figure (and sees himself as such): the self-reliant, autodidactic loner grasping regeneration out of the bone-grinding violence of September 11. Messud's characterization of him constitutes her novel's most disturbing reflection on the psychopathology of American culture, a reflection her novel seems at pains to bury (like Frederick's symbolic body in the last section) beneath the predictable vapidity of the Thwaites' lives. Less Sarah Jessica Parker and more Robert Musil would have served this novel well.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Triskaidekaphobic Flu

This week I'm suffering through a relatively 'mild' bout with the influenza of this Year 13. This bastard of a flu, this bitch of a grippe, is such a body-hammering Tyson of an illness that a 'mild' case can be summarized thus:

DAY ONE: Your bowels become a bowling alley in which liquid waste rolls up and down and up and down and up and down and...until the flu rams its fist down your throat and pulls your guts out through your mouth and your esophagus becomes a howitzer and you learn why it's called 'projectile' vomiting. An hour or two later, you find yourself on your knees before the toilet doing a passable imitation of the Ralph Steadman illustration on page 180 of the Vintage trade paperback edition (1989) of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

DAY TWO: Whatever you ingest becomes another bowling ball rolling mercilessly down your large intestine to score a strike that sends diarrhea spraying out your anus like so many violently downed pins. You are dehydrated; your lips are chapped, the skin on your fingers begins to flake. You have so little energy that you can barely keep your head above the level of your shoulders while sitting in a chair. Walking is an exercise in zombie-imitation. Your tastebuds cease to function, and whatever you eat seems to consist of pressed paper and clay. Unsurprisingly, you have no appetite.

DAY THREE: Feeling much better, you wake to find that your energy and palate have been mostly restored overnight, but your bowling bowels still rumble with the distant artillery of internal farting. (And your muddled mind mixes metaphors (and apologizes alliteratively).) Diarrhea remains a problem, but seems to improve by evening. Dark brown poop soup no longer pours from your pucker whenever you sit on the face of the porcelain god.

One-liner: This disease is like Rabelais without the jokes. Get a fucking flu shot.

Bad Advice For Writers

In art there is one rule and one rule only: Whatever works, works. They could engrave those words on a wall somewhere in Iowa City and close down the Writers Workshop forever. Sometimes I suspect that creative writing programs, seminars, guidebooks, etc. all exist solely to promulgate rules that must be broken. Here are a couple of my least favorite "how to write" rules, a pair of hoary old cliches that are still frequently retailed to aspiring writers:

1. Write what you know. First of all, it's as unnecessary as instructing someone to "fart through your butthole." How can anyone possibly write what she doesn't know? (This is not to say that her knowledge might not be partial (like all knowledge) or incorrect (like the 'knowledge' of the Tea Party); in reality, what we know is always and only what we think we know--I think I know that.) Second, the rule implicitly (and, one hopes, fallaciously) assumes that student writers are unimaginative, ineducable and incapable of research, that their knowledge is a static quantity, an experiential dungheap from which they will fertilize the garden of prose. In fact, as everyone knows, "what you know" changes every day of your life (or should) and includes anything you might learn while researching a book about something you "don't know." Third, as MFA program dogma, this rule has produced a glut of books by writers intent upon parading what little they know, often limited to their own lives as middle-class American former English majors with MFAs in Creative Writing, the "here's a book about me and how I got from Podunk to Iowa City to Brooklyn" crowd. Fourth, to quote The Greatest of All Gores, "write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all." Vidal contrarily counsels writers to "[w]rite what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect..." This is fabulous advice. (Literally: it frees you to write fables, if that's the form that amuses your muse.) Vidal's is a relatively liberating injunction that resounds with the breaking of MFA-forged manacles. (The quotes are from the last paragraph of "Thomas Love Peacock: The Novel of Ideas," in Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992.) Fifth, the rule privileges a kind of social realism that was already a battered Dreiserian fedora in the Thirties and has its roots in pre-Modernist naturalism, so it arguably constitutes a reactionary swerve away from the Modernist formal revolution (which includes postmodernism, magic realism, postcolonialism, Philip Roth's jism, and just about every other literary -ism since 1900). The writer of what he knows and only what he knows is an instantly forgettable Bartleby who would prefer not to engage with modernity.

2. Show, don't tell. The old distinction between showing and telling is multiply bogus. Historically, an argument from authority has invoked Flaubert and Henry James in favor of this rule, but Wayne Booth ably showed us (fifty years ago!) in The Rhetoric of Fiction that both masters violated the 'rule' whenever they felt a violation necessary. Both of them, that is, secretly subscribed to the 'whatever works, works' school. The show/tell distinction also collapses under its own feathery weight, because everything in a story is 'told' by a narrative voice; 'showing' is merely and obviously an illusion produced by competent telling. Another level of bogusity 'shows' itself when we remind ourselves that language neither shows nor tells; language signifies, a much more ambiguous and problematic process that may never escape from a purely linguistic pseudo-reality where the ghosts of Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty dance an eternal homoerotic tango. Showing and telling are both metaphors used to describe rhetorical strategies that, as I have 'shown,' tend to collapse into one another. Both concepts might further be considered manifestations of that very 'metaphysics of presence' that was the bete noir of Derrida and the white-collar deconstruction crew. Both concepts, that is, create an illusion of immediacy that conceals the Derridean differance, the indefinite deferral of meaning that defines language. In short, go ahead and tell, if you want to; telling is fine; telling is all we ever do--or think we do, within the illusion of metaphysical 'presence,' that oblivion of differance where bogusities unite, their lips locked and tongues intertwined in a final, fatal French kiss... And showing is OK too, as long as it works.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A New National Anthem

I hereby nominate James McMurtry's 2005 song "We Can't Make It Here" to be the unofficial American national anthem for the 21st century. It's time for some truth:

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Modernist Journals Project

Anyone interested in Modernism should head over to Brown University library's Modernist Journals Project homepage. They have scanned and made easily viewable the complete contents of a large number of artistic and cultural "little magazines" of the Modernist era, some of which are synonymous with English-language Modernism (Blast, The Little Review, Poetry, The Egoist, The Seven Arts, etc.). Also included are the complete contents of every issue of Scribners Magazine from 1910-1922, the W. E. B. Du Bois-edited NAACP magazine The Crisis from 1910-1922, the legendary radical leftist magazine The Masses from 1911, and much more. I've only scratched the surface of this collection, and it looks like an amazing time capsule of the era of High Modernism.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The 'Last End' of Gabriel Conroy: Some Thoughts on James Joyce, Romanticism, and the Ending of "The Dead"

In honor of today's Feast of the Epiphany, I've excavated a paper I wrote many years ago at university (or as Americans who haven't spent much time in Britain say, 'in college') on James Joyce's "The Dead", and I'm presenting here the one section of the paper that still interests me, a reading of the story's final scene. Students should feel free to plagiarize this post. Just don't get caught, because student plagiarism is taken much more seriously than the professorial kind, as the careers of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Moral John Gardner, et al. have shown.

In "The Dead"'s final section--which takes place almost entirely inside the protagonist's mind--Gabriel Conroy is forced to see himself as a typically paralyzed Dubliner, and his heart is opened to a kind of compassion--"a strange friendly pity"--for his wife, for his relatives, and perhaps for the entire world. There is however, as Peter Garrett has noted, a "balanced ambiguity"  (Twentieth Century Interpretations of Dubliners, 15) to the ending of the story. Having read it, one is tempted to ask the simplest and, perhaps, the most important question: "So what?" Yes, Gabriel is granted a beautiful and sublime vision of the unity of "all the living and the dead," and he is forced to see himself as a "ludicrous figure," but what can he, an established, middle-aged, bourgeois Dubliner, do with such a realization? Will he begin immediately on a journey to a figurative or literal 'west,' or will he wake the next morning having entirely forgotten his tremendous late-night revelation? There are several subversive elements in the story's final section--'subversive' in the sense that they undermine the surface meaning of the text and provide opportunities to deconstruct it--which suggest that Gabriel Conroy's life will not be significantly altered as a result of his vision--and that he may in fact even forget the epiphany. There is, in the story's final lines, a sense that Gabriel is accepting neither life nor Ireland; instead, he is surrendering to the living death of his Dublin existence.

The first textual clue that should cause us to suspect the impact of Gabriel's final vision is the fact that he has forgotten all of the other, smaller epiphanies of the evening. When he reflects upon the possible causes of his "riot of emotions" in the preceding scene with Gretta, Gabriel thinks, "From what had it proceeded? From his aunt's supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merrymaking when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow..." Gabriel remembers everything, it seems, except the most important events of the evening, the series of epiphanies triggered by Lily, Miss Ivors, and Gretta. These were the events which lead, like the steps in a geometric proof, to Gabriel's "riot of emotions," but he has already successfully forced them out of his consciousness. Joyce shows us here that Gabriel's modus operandi is simply to forget any situations which have the potential to puncture his inflated and (thus) fragile ego. Perhaps, Joyce implicitly suggests, he will forget this final one too.

Another textual detail undermining Gabriel's vision is the fact that it occurs while he is staring through a window. As we have seen earlier in the story, the windows of "The Dead" are places of escape from domestic obligations, not of the re-evaluating of those obligations. The fact that Gabriel turns to a window before embarking on his thought-journey across Ireland suggests that he is not facing Michael Furey's ghost but escaping from it. Gabriel's mind-trip takes him both away from the hotel room where Furey is very much 'alive' and psychologically threatening and to the imagined cemetery where Furey lies as cold and dead as Chuck Heston's hand. Gabriel's final revery is, despite the wonderfully lyrical language, as shallow and escapist as his earlier vision of walking alone through the snowy park.

Another, more general, deconstructive element is Gabriel's now-familiar unoriginality. Conroy, the professional critic, is granted this vision of unity, but--as in his earlier "distant music" vision of Gretta on the stairs--he is not creative enough to express it in his own words. Again, as in his earlier "souls" and "stars" revery about Gretta, Gabriel relies upon a host of borrowed words and images--borrowed, that is, from true artists--for the enunciation of his vision. Joyce scholars have detected traces of Homer, the New Testament, and even Yeats's Stories of Red Hanrahan in Joyce's closing paragraph. Indeed, the imagery itself is so cliched and kitschy--"the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried" with its "crooked crosses and headstones" sounds like a setting from a Gothic story by Poe or Lovecraft, Anne Rice or even Stephen King--that there are probably a nearly infinite number of possible sources. My addition to this list is Keats's late sonnet "Bright Star," which contains prominent images of "moving waters" and snowfall ("Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask / Of snow upon the mountains and the moors") and, very interestingly, ends with the couplet, "Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever--or else swoon to death." That last line should set off an associational alarm in the mind of anyone familiar with the final sentence of "The Dead." Gabriel's free use of stock Romantic and Gothic imagery suggests that at the end of the story he is still essentially unchanged. He remains a pretentious faux-Romantic with what L. J. Morrissey calls a limited artistic "vocabulary" ("Inner and Outer Perceptions in Joyce's "The Dead"," Studies in Short Fiction 25.1 (1988)).

Yet another interesting--and possibly even more subtly subversive--textual element is Joyce's sandwiching of Gabriel's final epiphany between two unattributed quotes from Gabriel's cousin, Mary Jane. Gabriel's phrase "snow was general all over Ireland," which he attributes to "the newspapers," is actually an almost exact quote of Mary Jane's statement earlier in the story, " '...I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland.' " (It is multiply telling that Gabriel's memory attributes the line directly to the newspaper and elides the female messenger who brought him the news.) At the end of Gabriel's vision, he again quotes Mary Jane with the jarringly repetitive phrase "...of their last end..." (During the earlier dinner table discussion of the monks at Mount Melleray, Mr. Browne asks why the monks sleep in their coffins, and Mary Jane replies that the coffin "is to remind them of their last end.") The importance of these quotes becomes clear when it is recalled that Mary Jane's only significant act in the story is the playing of what Gabriel calls "her academy piece," a long, virtuosic piano composition "full of runs and difficult passages" to which Gabriel and the other listeners only pretend to pay attention. Gabriel's eyes and mind wander during Mary Jane's tedious virtuoso performance, and four unidentified young men slip quietly out of the room to return only when the piece nears its end. Perhaps, by enclosing Gabriel's revery inside quotes from Mary Jane, Joyce is suggesting that Gabriel's final thoughts, with their flashy borrowed imagery and unprecedented lyricism, are the trills and runs of his own literary "academy piece," a pretentious self-indulgence which the reader should probably not take at face value. It seems true for "The Dead"--but not for all of Joyce's work--that, as Hugh Kenner says, the " 'poetic' passages mean that something is being evaded" (A Colder Eye 231).

The question of what exactly Gabriel is 'evading' in these last lines can perhaps be answered by a consideration of his final action in the story. Most commentators interpret the swooning soul and soft, whisper-like eloquence of the story's last sentence as a representation of Conroy joining his wife in sleep. While this final image anticipates Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, in both of which the same concluding image (but can we really call anything in the Wake 'conclusive'?) symbolizes a tenuous kind of domestic order amidst the chaos of modern life, here in "The Dead" it may represent (with apologies to John Cleese) something completely different. When Gabriel drifts off to sleep while experiencing a vision of the unity of living and dead, he is symbolically taking his place among those dead--the passionless, powerless, living, walking dead of dear dirty Dublin. One is reminded of Peter Garrett's remark that the people of Dubliners "appear as joined both in a kind of community and a kind of living death"(15). Gabriel's final act is his final and ultimate evasion. By accepting his position as a Dubliner, he successfully evades Miss Ivors' Romantic challenge to change his own life, to embark on a "journey westward." In fact Gabriel evades all the evening's Romantic challenges--even Michael Furey's--by accepting the "living death" of Dublin. He sees, and momentarily accepts, himself as a "ludicrous figure," merely another passionless, impotent Dubliner who can only surrender to what Joyce calls the "paralysis" of the city. In response to Michael Furey's passionate Romantic challenge, Gabriel falls safely asleep.

In "The Sisters," the first of the Dubliners stories, Joyce introduces a theme that unites the collection: the physical, psychological and institutional paralysis of Dublin. If Gabriel accepts anything in swooning to sleep, he seems to accept this inescapable paralysis. Why is escape an impossibility for Conroy while for another Dubliner, James Joyce, it was not only possible but necessary? To answer, let us consider the relationship between creator and creation, dancer and dance. We must remember Harry Levin's comment that Gabriel is the kind of person Joyce "might have become, had he remained in Ireland..." (The Portable James Joyce 18). Such a future would have been completely unacceptable to the young, quasi-Byronic Joyce. In this sense, Joyce's embrace of the echt-Romantic principle of flight enabled--indeed, compelled--him to escape Dublin, to flee to the continent, to embark upon a very Byronic-Shelleyan-Keatsian type of self-imposed artistic exile. Joyce's true Romanticism (a phrase that jars upon ears too accustomed to a polemical opposition between Romantics and Moderns) enabled him to escape; Gabriel Conroy's shallow, false Romanticism--a flight from reality rather than a response to it--is probably one reason why he will never escape that "center of paralysis" (Letters of James Joyce 2:134) that is Joyce's Dublin. Where Joyce/Dedalus flies, Conroy is grounded. At the end of Dubliners, as at the beginning, paralysis is as general as the snow.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

THE BLEEDING EDGE by Thomas Pynchon

The first rumors of a new Thomas Pynchon novel, perhaps to be published later this year, have leaked out of Penguin Press. (I've heard that Fix-a-Flat is good for leaky penguins...) The only seemingly credible information we have at this point is the title, The Bleeding Edge. C'est tout, for now.

If this news pans out, 2013 is shaping into a good year for TP fans, as Paul Thomas Anderson also appears to be ready to film his adaptation of Inherent Vice this year.

UPDATE, 2/26: ...Here's the latest: An article in The Guardian reports that "Bleeding Edge, which will be published in America on 17 September this year, will be set in 2001 "in the lull between the collapse of the dotcom boom and the terrible events of September 11", said Pynchon's American publisher Penguin in its 2012 results announcement yesterday."

UPDATE 4/9: A publisher's description of the novel is now available.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Junot Diaz interviewed by Bill Moyers

Last weekend on PBS, Bill Moyers spent a very interesting hour in conversation with writer Junot Diaz. The entire interview can now be viewed online here. (There's also a transcript link on the same page below the video.) Diaz's take on contemporary America is fascinating and seems spot-on, as does his description of Moby Dick:

[It's] kind of a crazy, postmodern book. It's not like an 1800 novel. You know? You put another novel from the time period next to it. And those two books don't even seem alike. I mean, the dude interrupts the flow of his novel to have a play, to have characters talking like a play. He interrupts his novel to suddenly have a disquisition on whales, as told through the size and shapes of books...

This is the first time I've ever heard an academic (Diaz teaches at MIT) refer to Herman Melville as "the dude." It's refreshing.