I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
Comic books and outsider art share an unspoken kinship. Both were once reviled as the products of deranged minds, unfit for artistic recognition, but both are finally achieving legitimacy. Outsider art now generally refers to untrained artists working outside the mainstream art market, but it began as a condescending term for the art of children, the insane, and socially marginalized groups–until recently, the supposed readership of comic books. Films like The Soloist and In the Realms of the Unreal make the unhinged, destitute savant a recognizable trope, and Hollywood is discovering that the “graphic novel” end of the comics spectrum can be just as popular as the standard Marvel fare. Alan Moore’s Watchmen was crowned one of Time’s 100 Best Novels, and fine writers like Harvey Pekar, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and Alison Bechdel are getting their due as well.
I hope Mark Beyer’s work will find a place in the canon. His masterpiece Amy and Jordan brings the aesthetic and neurosis of outsider art to comic books. Amy and Jordan is a series of four panel strips that ran in the free paper New York Press from 1988 to 1996. Beyer published a few books, but Amy and Jordan disappeared without a trace (except perhaps for boxes of newspaper clippings saved by devotees), until Pantheon released a collection of 292 strips in 2004. The resulting book is a treasure of the comics medium.
[image source: Pantheon]
Amy and Jordan has only three recurring characters: the eponymous couple and Amy’s sickly son Ba Tilsdale, who dies of neglect but occasionally returns as an ominous statue. Amy and Jordan’s relationship is antagonistic, yet they’re resigned to being stuck with each other–somewhere between Akbar and Jeff and Vladimir and Estragon. They share a decrepit apartment (critics speculate that they live on the Lower East Side) and slog through various mediocre jobs. Each strip chronicles a mysterious or unfortunate occurrence. The minor, disheartening tribulations of urban life–navigating the subway, run-ins with weirdos, vermin–take on monstrous proportions, and the city becomes a horrific carnival of disaster. Amy and Jordan are menaced by “demons carrying carving knives” and gigantic insects, and plagued by poisoned food. Many of the strips combine ordinary annoyance with surreal violence: when Jordan goes outside to ask a crazy man to stop screaming, the man responds unexpectedly: “He’s wrapped his snakelike tongue around my body. I’m paralyzed. I can’t move! Well it’s good. Now Amy can sleep unmolested.” Beyer’s stilted, clunky dialogue makes even the most disturbing events funny, and his characters’ reactions to tragedy are gruesomely pragmatic. Upon discovering that their neighbor’s apartment is full of murdered children, Jordan equivocates: “He’s a mean, spiteful, bitter, ugly old man. When he dies nobody will care. On the other hand maybe I’m wrong. I suppose he has some endearing traits.” Amy and Jordan’s pre-Giuliani New York is full of abandoned babies, suicidal neighbors, and malevolent children. Watching the parade of downtrodden souls trudging past their window, Amy concludes, “The world is a horrible place filled with terrible people.” This is grim stuff, but Beyer’s fantastically inventive artwork keeps his world from sinking into despondence.
Beyer’s artwork pushes the comic strip format in a tradition extending back to Winsor McCay, the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, who distorted and destroyed the panels in his strips. While many comic strip writers simplify their characters into a few recognizable pen strokes, Amy and Jordan’s malleable forms reflect the instability of their world. His work displays many characteristics of outsider art, such as horror vacui, the need to fill every millimeter of space with detail, and obsessive repetition of shapes and patterns. His work is very similar in theme and content to that of Martín Ramírez and Madge Gill, two heavyweights in outsider art. It is also beautiful, exciting work. His bold black and white compositions and bizarre images create an indelible impression on the reader. Beyer is untrained, and can be considered a legitimate outsider artist, but he is unusual in communicating equally well in image and text. Henry Darger wrote the world’s longest book, but his images are more powerful than his text. Beyer balances the tone of his dialogue and depiction perfectly–the ultimate feat for a graphic novel. His cityscapes are oppressively whimsical, their disintegration into pattern creating a mood of menace.
Urban horror is a favorite theme of comic books. The Dark Knight captured the hatred and fear of the city that characterizes “edgy” comics like Transmetropolitan. Although I love Batman, the squalid city always struck me as a dishonest, conservative simplification. Amy and Jordan’s urban hell is free of Manichean dichotomies, and its everyday absurdity is more realistic than Gotham. Rather than battling evil or gleefully embodying it, Amy and Jordan are just as ambiguous as the city. Their moral code is constantly in flux, responding to their situations or capricious urges. Jordan bandages a bleeding stranger with his shirt, and boasts “Don’t ever let it be said that I’m not a great humanitarian!” Later, he tries to sell Amy’s crying son in a pawnshop. The protagonists’ relationship is similarly erratic. Both seethe with resentment, plot against each other, and blame each other for their degradation; yet sometimes they are almost sweet. Jordan brings Amy a teddy bear (unaware that it’s infested by termites), and Amy reassures Jordan, “I don’t think of you as dung, even if everyone else does!”
Beyer’s ghoulish visions turn what is probably crushing personal trauma into art. Most outsider art is a compulsive attempt to maintain the artist’s sanity, and this desperation is palpable in Beyer’s gallows humor and frantic crosshatching. Too many comics coast on manufactured nihilism, but Amy and Jordan feels like an act of exorcism, transmuting real anguish into entertainment. It is a testament to the the survival instinct. Amy and Jordan fly through life on irrational optimism, and it seems that creating them lets Beyer do the same.
In the fall of 2011, as the first protesters began assembling in Zuccotti Park, a different sort of occupation was underway in my apartment. My son had just turned one, and another kid was due in the spring. My life now consisted largely of early-morning adjunct gigs, late-night sessions banging my head against the writing desk, and afternoons measured out in the tiny spoons used to scrape the last bits of Gerber from the jar. Also: NPR. Lots of NPR.
By late September, the top of each hour brought new details about the methods and motives of “Occupy Wall Street.” Here, it seemed, was the cause I’d spent my twenties longing to throw my body behind. But now that it had materialized, there was a catch: mine was no longer the only body I was responsible for. I could take my son with me to the demonstrations, but did I really trust the NYPD to lay off the pepper spray, should he rattle the bars of our protest pen?
Plus who would take care of him if I got carted off to jail? Not his mother, whose nine-to-five job was our primary means of keeping the fridge stocked and the rent paid, and whose sick days would convert to precious maternity leave come the spring. There was always daycare, of course…but, then, as a would-be placard-carrying member of the 99%, I couldn’t even afford the hours of daycare I was already paying for. And here I ran up against the first great fallacy of the mainstream media’s OWS coverage. Of course the occupation as such was heavy on students, the unemployed, and men who looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Wavy Gravy. Stroller-pushing contingent-workers like me were constrained from spending all day and night at Zuccotti by the very conditions that made them want to do so. Thus does insecurity—financial, physical, psychological—become the stick that keeps us on the rutted path of late capitalism. (Consumer electronics being the carrot.)
Then again, another of the things too often glossed over in accounts of Occupy Wall Street is that it wasn’t a top-down program, whose output was a certain number of sleeping bags on the pavement. Rather, it was a piece of tactical hardware designed to execute any app deemed useful by its users—techno-utopian cant made collectivist flesh. This should have been apparent to anyone who spent more than half an hour down at Zuccotti. At first, you’d see the modest size of the occupation, relative to the number of cameras trained on it, and you’d think, Wait: Is this it? Then, out of nowhere, thousands of union electricians would appear, or affordable-housing advocates, or undergraduates, or, more likely, all of the above, and another drive or meeting or march would whir into motion. (As Michael Greenberg has noted in The New York Review of Books, those circuits would be reactivated after Hurricane Sandy to channel vital aid to the Rockaways.)
By October, my son and I had found our own way to take part. With his mother’s blessing, we pursued a sunshine policy, steering clear of martial-sounding or geographically marginal events in favor of those well-publicized enough to ensure my small comrade wouldn’t become another casualty on YouTube. We marched on Citigroup. We marched on JPMorgan Chase. We repaired to Zuccotti for pizza and purée, and then we marched some more. Well, I marched; he rode.
One memorable afternoon, in the company of a whole holy host of freaks and straights, aging lefties and juvie anarchists, friends from other events and perfect strangers—plus, this being a Saturday, my wife—we even took over Times Square. It was the same rainbow coalition I’d observed a decade earlier, marching against the Iraq War. In 2002, though, in the streets of D.C., everyone seemed to recognize that the switches on the war-making machinery had already been thrown. You could sense the inertia in the way the message decayed into calls for the abolition of the WTO and the World Bank, the liberation of Palestine and Mumia. Those chants that managed to break through the discord rang hollow off executive buildings emptied for the weekend.
By contrast, the message of Occupy Wall Street was so clear and so obvious as to subsume any ancillary concerns. Obviousness, in fact, may be why Occupy Wall Street proved such an effective counterweight to the Tea Party movement, with only a fraction of the money and organization and time. It takes great resources of all three to persuade Americans that Keynesian deficit spending is the source of our ills, because it’s total horseshit, whereas it takes very little to remind people of what they’ve already discovered in the most grinding, empirical way to be true: As an allocator of resources, our economic system is needlessly unjust, and getting more so by the day. And when the hoary old cry went up from Times Square—”We are unstoppable; another world is possible”—this, too, felt self-evident, assertion and evocation in a single stroke. For here was a halter-topped woman with frizzy hair leading thousands of people in social democratic chants from atop someone’s shoulders, and here was the commercial center of the world coming disobediently to a halt. Here were tourists taking buttons from engagé tweens and affixing them to jackets that would soon travel back to every corner of America. And here it all was again, up on the giant news screens overhead, the peak of a “high and beautiful wave” (to crib from Hunter S. Thompson). Under all those lights, we seemed to be waking, however briefly, from a long bad dream.
Notwithstanding the Monday-morning harrumphs of the commentariat, that autumn of idealism has left behind consequences of the most solid, realpolitik kind. The ongoing debate over whether creditors—i.e., capital—or borrowers—i.e., you and me—will bear the losses of the Great Recession has been permanently rebalanced, to the great annoyance of the business class. (Last December’s $43-million PR push was not so much about how to “Fix the Debt” as about whom to affix it to.) On its own terms, though, the Occupy project remains incomplete. When we argue over whether to set top marginal tax rates at 35% or 39.6%, or what to do about the sequester, or the class politics of Girls, we have turned from debates about an unjust system to debates within it. And though the possibility of “another world” has been preserved from total eclipse, it now seems hazy again, as if glimpsed from the far side of sleep. We need some outside force to jolt us back awake.
All of which is a very roundabout way of trying to explain why It’s No Good, the first major English-language publication of the writing of Kirill Medvedev, is so necessary, and so timely. Medvedev is a Moscow-based poet in his late 30s, and the book, the latest entry in Ugly Duckling Presse’s redoubtable Eastern European Poets Series (and the first to be published jointly with N+1), assembles English translations of his most important “poems/essays/actions” from over the last fifteen years. This was a period of radicalization for Medvedev, and the work amounts to a guerilla attack on the stagnation of Russian cultural life in the new millennium. By itself, this would make It’s No Good an invaluable document. But for readers beyond the old Iron Curtain, there’s a further twist of the knife: as with the best science fiction, the outrageous world Medvedev brings so vividly to life starts to sound awfully like our own.
An introduction by editor Keith Gessen sets the scene for Medvedev’s evolution. In “the years of mature Putinism, between about 2003 and 2008,” he explains, the atmosphere in Russia was one of “boredom, suffocation, and surrender…”
Nothing happened. No one wanted anything to happen. “Stability” was the word of the day and in service of this stability people were willing to give up a great deal. The liberal opposition that still made appearances in the New York Times not only had no real presence…[but was] also permanently discredited.
In the texts that follow, Medvedev will link this surrender to two mutually reinforcing phenomena, one political, one aesthetic. On one side was a problem of ignorance: Members of his generation, the first to come of age after the fall of Communism, “spent the 1990s not really knowing what politics was,” he writes. “We lived outside it; we never believed it could affect our private lives.” On the other side was a problem of sophistication: literature, which might have enlarged those private lives, had become content merely to reproduce them.
An exemplar here was the poet and impresario Dmitri Kuzmin, who published Medvedev’s early poems in his magazine, Vavilon…and who hovers over It’s No Good as a sort of Oedipal-Hegelian father figure, to be rebelled against and absorbed. A long, valedictory “essay-memoir” two-thirds of the way through the book may put some readers in mind of McSweeney’s circa 2003:
The central literary tendency of Vavilon was the so-called “new sincerity”: the appeal to personal experience (childhood; romantic and sexual encounters; family life) to the exclusion of social and political experience, justifying this by appealing to its authenticity (personal, emotional, etc.)
Of course, Russia’s liberalizing culture industry had no more difficulty assimilating Vavilon’s “authenticity” than the Politburo did assimilating social realism. As Medvedev sees it, this was art as gesture, as narcotic, as commodity, “a series of irresponsible infantile games and so-called independent intellectual proclamations – covering the terrain specifically assigned to such proclamations.”
The poems that make up the bulk of It’s No Good burst out of that terrain like bombshells. Superficially, their debt to Kuzmin is obvious. Medvedev’s voice, as translated by Gessen and others, is resolutely direct, colloquial, and personal. At times, it sounds like a Muscovite Frank O’Hara. “I don’t know why / I decided to work / at the nightclub Sexton / when I was eighteen,” begins one poem. Says another: “I really like when / a series of arches in moscow run /one after the other /creating their own kind of tunnel / out of arches.” As with O’Hara, the specificity of reference almost overwhelms argument; viewed from a certain angle, Medvedev’s poems might seem merely a catalogue of people, buildings, and foodstuffs signifying life for a young cosmopolite. Yet read him at any length (the poems are rarely under three pages, and sometimes swell to dozens), and it becomes impossible to confuse his urbanism with urbanity, or, as he puts it, “dignified aloofness” to the wider world. Medvedev complains, of one Vavilon-affiliated contemporary: “a person in his poems is always / returning from work / moving around the glaring twilit / cityscape / given shape by information streams.” His own Moscow resists such streamlined shapes. It is “glaring” in a different sense, made discontinuous by eruptions of frustration, pessimism, and rage. One moment, it’s true, we may be among the office towers, cruising through a catalogue
of everyone who turned out to be a computer genius
of everyone who became an assistant
or a designer
for major fashion magazines….
But then suddenly, we are hearing
of all the half-drunk and stunted intellectuals
who (unlike me)
matured too early,
then burned out,
of everyone who found work in the morgue
of everyone who did time in jail
then died of an overdose
of everyone who worked at
the politician kirienko’s campaign headquarters
and then joined his permanent team.
The closing descent from threnody back to sarcasm bespeaks the scale of Medvedev’s loss of faith in that distinctly Russian class formation, the “intelligentsia.” These were the people who were supposed to lead his country out of its slumber and instead discovered a taste for Ambien. But the dramatic expansion of the point-of-view, the deepening of emotion, and the Beatnik anaphora holding it all together produce a countervailing movement: One feels the quickening of an almost spiritual belief. Medvedev wants his poetry not only to “appeal to personal experience,” but to transfigure it, to break it open, to disclose what is underneath. And what is underneath, he insists, is always already political. The meticulously name-checked fruits of bourgeois existence—parties, nightclubs, careers, and even much of contemporary art—are underwritten by exploitation, militarism, and a more nebulous brand of postmodern unfreedom. Reader, you are hereby called to consciousness. Or at least deprived of an alibi.
Alongside Medvedev’s messianic streak runs a notable impatience with the formal strictures of Russian lyric poetry—the elegant prosody of Anna Akhmatova or his beloved Joseph Brodsky. Gessen’s introduction presents these tendencies as merely coincident. But really, I think, one compels the other. Trained at Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute, Medvedev has a considerable, if well-disguised, capacity for artifice—for finding Pushkin in the punkish. Still, his conception of poetry is one of vision, rather than of craft. This helps explain the porousness (some might say sameness) of these largely untitled poems, which tend to flow together into a single Poem. It also helps explain their peculiar rhythms, and their general aversion to beauty. They gather force not by rhetorical turns, but by incantation, as Medvedev strains “to see without distortion by one’s social position, without limitations by one’s artistic milieu.” The results are frequently startling:
we dance around others’ misfortunes like mischievous wolves like some sort of
lascivious bats in a frenzy
we make our way toward them by the light of bonfires on the outskirts of town
through desolate fields of garbage
we fall on them swoop down throw ourselves at them with all of our might oozing
the syrupy poison of empathy.
Which isn’t to say that the artist-monk can’t be funny, because Medvedev’s puckish streak runs deep. It surfaces sometimes at the expense of others (“as a janitor / I was always beyond suspicion”), but more often at the expense of his own ambitions. One of my favorite poems in the collection concludes on a note of perfectly serious ridiculousness, or ridiculous seriousness:
misha is going to do everything right
in this life,
whereas I’m going to continue sitting here
deep in shit
with my principles.
In 2004, Medvedev’s principles led him to make an unusual move: he renounced copyright to his own oeuvre. Henceforth, he declared in his “Manifesto on Copyright,” his poems would cease to be grist for the culture industry. They would appear on his website, and on facebook and LiveJournal, but reprinting them “in any anthologies, collections, or other kinds of publications” would be “consider[ed]…a disgusting manipulative action by one or another cultural force.” They were to be published
ONLY AS A SEPARATE BOOK, collected and edited according to the desires of the publisher, released in a PIRATE EDITION, that is to say, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR, WITHOUT ANY CONTRACTS OR AGREEMENTS.
The “Manifesto on Copyright” marks a hinge moment in the book, and in Medvedev’s career. Immediately before comes the longest, finest poem in the book (“Europe”) and an incendiary essay called “My Fascism.” The poems that follow the manifesto are thinner—at times they feel like Medvedev doing Medvedev—but the critical essays, by way of compensation, grow richer and more prophetic.
In the piece on Kuzmin and especially in “Literature Will Be Tested,” from 2007, Medvedev begins to articulate a dialectical vision of a new global humanism. Its acolytes, he argues, must preserve “postmodernism’s irrepressible critical outlook.” At the same time, Medvedev departs from the main body of post-’68 critical thought by insisting on the value of “grand narratives and global concepts.” To forego them, he says, is to accede to “an idealized consensus between the goals of ‘diversity’ and the interests of the global marketplace.”
And as he pursues the links between the stagnation he’s been confronting in Moscow and the larger, global situation, parallels that have heretofore been sub rosa become explicit. For Russia isn’t the only place where the notion of a life beyond politics gained traction after the collapse of Communism. “The end of history,” we called this period in the U.S. And what were the results? Open-ended war, accelerated environmental destruction, and the further consolidation of class power. History, history, and more history. Meanwhile, “the idea of ‘contemporary art’” grew ever more attenuated, as every imaginable gesture of “authenticity,” literary or otherwise, became a fungible commodity—one whose sale or purchase gets broadcast to your social network. “You can’t change the world that way,” Medvedev reminds us. “You can’t rise to the next level of existence that way.”
After the bracing cynicism of some of the poems, this formulation might sound preachy. But as a craftsman and as a human being, Medvedev knows he must make the political personal, even as the arrow also runs the other way. Taken as a whole, then, It’s No Good is less a sermon on change than a narrative enactment of it. In aesthetic terms, the distinctions among poems and essays and actions come to seem as provisional as those subtitular backslashes suggest; there’s criticism in the poetry, poetry in the criticism, and action in all of it. And in political terms, we get a portrait of the poet’s awakening to futility where he’d thought there was power, and vice versa. The thing might as well be a Bolaño novel…albeit one with a happier ending.
In another of his more unguarded moments, Medvedev confesses
I think it was genuine contact–
when two completely different people
begin to understand one another
in my opinion this
is a real event
in art and in life.
It’s No Good is just such an event. It awakens us to the contingency of contemporary reality’s ceaseless argument for itself, and to what might still be possible outside it. Archimedes famously said something like, Give me a place to stand, and a long enough lever, and I’ll move the world. Kirill Medvedev and his translators have given American readers another place to stand, a kind of Zuccotti of the mind. Now if only we can keep our grip on the lever.
Bonus Link: Four poems from It’s No Good
I approach any novel set in Istanbul with trepidation, ready for overbearing references to the sights and sounds of the city: bazaars, minarets, East-meets-West platitudes. I started reading Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic the same week I had been watching a new screen adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager: a story partly set in Istanbul and a production that ticks every single orientalist trope on the list. But Wood’s captivating novel is not set in Istanbul proper; it opens in Heybeliada, an island half an hour from the old town by ferry, where the usual visual shorthand for Istanbul’s exoticism may not be readily available. And in fact, after the Heybeliada opening, most of the novel takes place in London and Scotland, where our narrator Elspeth Conroy’s character and artistic sensibilities are formed. The shifting landscapes are the first of many disorientations that Wood sets up for his reader in this haunting narrative. Plot lines unravel; characters appear and disappear — the minute you think you’ve pinned them down, they turn out to be changelings.
The action is set in a remote artists’ colony called Portmantle; Elspeth is a muralist who has sought refuge after suffering acute artists’ block. Thwarted artists are accepted to the Portmantle sanctuary through a very secretive, highly vetted process of recommendation. They are told to get rid of their watches, burn their passports, and hold on to a single ferry token that will take them home once they have completed the artwork they have come to the island to finish. These are measures to try to defeat time; there is nothing as destructive to the creative process as a ticking clock. Wood is already luring us in: The artists have left their worlds behind, dear reader — escape into my fictional world and make time stand still for a while. Writing and painting have often been used as metaphors for one another; in The Ecliptic, painting is not the metaphor but the signified. The novel is above all concerned with the creative process, and the real and imagined obstacles artists struggle against.
From the very start Elspeth’s magnetic voice draws us into this space where time stands still, with elliptical sentences and vague references to the present day. Wood is very deft at establishing a sense of timelessness on the island; only after a dozen pages do we learn that that the story is set in the 1960’s. ‘The year I arrived was 1962, but since then I had watched so many winters frost the surrounding pines that they begun to blur into one grey season, as vast and misted as the sea,” Elspeth tells us. The novelist prudently avoids placing too many signposts to give period detail, a fallacy we see often in historical fiction. Wood is more interested in intricacies of human character, the artistic process, and the way we perceive time. When it comes, detail is very evocative in its subtlety: the indented ferry tokens, international calls that you have to put through an operator, the kind of tinned food that people had to make do with in London, transatlantic passages on ocean-liners as viable alternatives to flying.
Similarly, the setting is muted. A group of artists is working on an island which happens to be off the coast of Istanbul; the author is more interested in the demons they are fighting than he is in the skyline, and Wood is very good at painting artistic death-drive through the artists at the sanctuary. The conversations on the island are fueled by a Turkish beverage called sahlep, one of the few concessions that Wood makes to the setting. We hear the staff speak Turkish; there is backgammon playing, and some references to the food (and a blasphemy: some of the artists detest ayran, a national yogurt drink). The head of the community is a Provost speaking perfect English—the sort of person into whose making the whole of Europe seems to have contributed, like Conchis in John Fowles’s The Magus.
Everyone at Portmantle has a code name, so that expectations attached to real names, like passports, can be left behind. There are long-timers and short-timers on the island, and Elspeth, aka Knell, is one of the close-knit group of long-timers. These are all artists who have known success, many of whom believe that the best of their work are already behind them. Asking one another about the nature of their work, and particularly about “progress” is the highest taboo in the colony. Conversation are a strange, dreamy mix of expressions of desire to leave the island and fear of the real world beyond. At times it is unclear, even, whether they are on the island of their own volition.
Elspeth explores the pinewoods on the island and discovers a kind of mushroom that glows blue in the dark, adding to our sense of enchantment. Wood gives us an elaborate description of Elspeth’s trials and errors trying to make paint from these mushrooms, a commentary on an artist’s need for precision when it comes to the ingredient and medium. The paint she eventually produces helps her make a breakthrough with the mural project she’s trying to finish, a representation of the constellations commissioned by a planetarium. The book takes its name from the apparent trajectory the sun follows in the earth’s horizon, and Wood takes us on a beautiful diversion on astronomy, navigation, and movement. Elspeth’s voice when telling us about the ecliptic is dirge-like and incantatory, inviting us to feel like sailors who tell their positions by the stars, putting their trust in a virtual path. Taken with the ecliptic’s overall bearing on the story, the narrative becomes a poem about the different forms of traveling and staying put.
Into this odd, charged mix comes a young artist for whom Elspeth develops protective instincts. One night, she discovers him naked and semi-unconscious in the cupboard where she keeps her magic mushrooms. He is there and in that state not because he has sampled the flora but because he is a sleepwalker, a condition complicated by the nightmares he has when he wanders around the sanctuary half-asleep. This is a novel in which the novelist is always more than a few steps ahead of the reader, and by the time Wood reveals the identity of the mysterious boy, I had hatched all kinds of improbable theories.
But I seem to be marooned on the island myself– that’s the kind of place it is. Although the novel opens there, Elspeth soon turns the story to her formative years in Scotland and London. We see her defy the art school establishment with a little help from a professor, and become apprenticed to painter James Culver, a reluctant mentor who will become a life-long obsession. She starts life in London in an attic — we see what you did there, Wood — in the studio owned by Culver, a painter of the Francis Bacon school (picture empty chairs in glum rooms). We hop on the bus with Elspeth to run errands on the Marylebone High Street. It is a joy to travel on London buses with Elspeth as she describes the scenes before her, and talks us through how she transcribes her impressions onto the canvas. Shortly after she is commissioned to put on her own show through Culver’s influence, he disappears from the London art scene, and her life, leaving her without her father figure and muse.
‘Though all artists strive for recognition, they cannot foresee how it will come to them or how much they will compromise to maintain success,” Elspeth pronounces as she tells us about her days without Culver. We see her once experimental and visceral art become commodified in the London art scene. Despite her commercial success, the lack of an immediate, intimate relationship with a truthful fellow artist leaves her lost. Her descent into despair is precipitated by an unfortunate adventure with the critic Wilfred Searle, whose observations cut too close to the bone: “You need critics like me,” he says “or nobody will notice what you paint.” Not long after a night of “love” which neither of them enjoy, and a subsequent scathing review by Searle, Elspeth has a breakdown on an ocean-liner en route to New York, where she hopes she may find Culver. She is saved from utter destruction by a psychiatrist on board, Victor, who is the most benevolent character in the novel and who, from the moment he opened his mouth, I imagined as being played by Hugh Bonneville. Much as I appreciated Victor’s calm voice, it did feel like Elspeth was being passed from one man to another, from art school professor, to master/muse, to critic, to shrink.
Elspeth gets a second chance with Culver. After a brief period of happiness and clarity, the ellipsis and the ecliptic make themselves felt again: there are holes in both Elspeth’s and Culver’s stories of the time they were apart; the oblique trajectories they narrate to one another don’t quite seem to add up as they head for another separation. Their time together remind us that the mind is really a lonely hunter, how it builds whole worlds out of fragments chanced upon in disparate places. When the narrative returns to Portmantle we also see how, inadvertently, people can become the stuff of one another’s nightmares.
Elspeth’s narrative carries the reader effortlessly from Heybeliada to Scotland to London to New York and back to Heybeliada again. Her cadence goads you on to the next sentence, makes you loath to put down the book and break the melody. Her voice reminded me of Serena Fromme in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (perhaps there is a particular manner in which male authors assume female voices that draws in the female reader). Like an artist working toward some final, perfect expression, the novel’s incantatory tones make you believe that if you persevere with the tale, it will reveal to you the secret at its center. But the secret turns out to be one we already know: that sanctuaries that we seek out or build for ourselves are vulnerable to the demons we take with us wherever we go.
Tom Wolfe’s 16th book, The Kingdom of Speech, begins with the author “surfing the net” (he was born in 1931) and discovering a highly unusual article in which the world’s experts on the study of language evolution announce that they don’t really understand language evolution at all.
This small book is written in Wolfe’s trademark New Journalism style, which has lost none of its lip-smacking pep, its wild associative leaps, or its fondness for exclamation points. But this time, the author never leaves his chair. Anyone with a Wi-Fi connection could have conducted all of the research in The Kingdom of Speech. If you want close encounters with Merry Pranksters and Black Panthers and daredevil astronauts, you’ll have to try Wolfe’s other 15 books.
The Kingdom of Speech is a dual portrait of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, with special attention paid to the two little Davids who (in Wolfe’s telling) felled those Goliaths. If you don’t already have a strong opinion of Darwin, Wolfe will happily give you his. Wolfe thinks Darwin was a fraud, a snob, a cheater, and an asshole. And he doesn’t like Chomsky much better.
The trouble starts when Darwin (in Wolfe’s telling) steals the idea of natural selection from another man, Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin can do this is because he is a proper English gentleman, with an impressive education and wealthy friends, whereas Alfred Russel Wallace is a mere naturalist, a “flycatcher” spotting bugs and taking notes in the Malaysian jungle. Darwin and his wealthy friends are “in a position” to take Wallace’s research and give all the credit to Darwin. So they do. What a bunch of snobby cheaters, right? Wolfe certainly thinks so.
Even their blandest comments piped out UPPER CLASS! UPPER CLASS! without bringing up the subject of class at all.
According to Wolfe, Darwin was not so much a scientist as a religious figure, preaching his own personal “cosmogony.” A cosmogony is a Theory of Everything that unlocks the secrets of the universe, like the Navajo creation myth, or string theory. Although his ideas captivate London’s upper crust and storm the ivory tower (thanks to his influential friends), Darwin basically pulled the evidence for evolution out of his ass. When his students ask him to explain where the first “cells” came from, Darwin pauses for a long time before giving his feeble, tautological response: “probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.”
In this respect, Darwinism was typical of the more primitive cosmogonies. They avoided the question of how the world developed ex nihilo. Darwin often thought about it, but it made his head hurt. The world was just…here.
Are you wondering how Wolfe is able to report that Darwin’s head was hurting during this particular historical moment? You should try not to wonder about such things when you read The Kingdom of Speech, because Wolfe makes a habit of turning all the “great men” of history into straw men. Here’s how he depicts Sir Charles Lyell conspiring with “Charlie” Darwin to steal the glory from Alfred Russel Wallace:
Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie…said Lyell, shaking his head. Who was it who warned you two years ago about this fellow Wallace? Who was it who told you you’d better get busy and publish this pet theory of yours?…So why should I even bother, this late in the game?
But…we are Gentlemen and old pals, after all…and I think I know of a way to get you out of this predicament. It so happens there is a meeting of the Linnean Society, postponed from last month in deference to the death of one of our beloved former Linnean presidents, coming up thirteen days from now, July 1. Unfortunately, we don’t have any way to notify Wallace in time, do we. But that’s not our fault. We didn’t schedule the meeting. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. We’ll bring our good friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the botanist, in on this. All three of us are on the society’s council. We can make the whole thing seem like the most routine scholarly meeting in the world.
Am I the only person who pictures Lyell, in this scene, as Gargamel, the villain from The Smurfs, rubbing his hands together in a dark forest while he plots his next evil scheme? It seems profoundly inappropriate for Wolfe to write a book about scientific research in which most of his arguments are based on invented scenes, biased characterizations, and witty insults. New Journalism was about the author asserting himself in the story by becoming a part of it. But when Wolfe stays in his chair, he becomes just another elderly man shouting at his computer. This is not entirely a bad thing — nobody shouts at his computer quite like Tom Wolfe.
By the time Noam Chomsky appears, The Kingdom of Speech has established its pattern. Chomsky is Darwin — the brash, beloved intellectual whose singular epiphany lights up the intellectual world. Daniel Everett is Alfred Russel Wallace — the lowly “flycatcher,” hunting for linguistic evidence among isolated Amazon tribes.
Before he turned into the grandpa of the American left, Chomsky rose to fame for his pioneering work as a linguist. His boldest and most influential claim was that all humans are born with the ability to learn language encoded in their brains. It’s biological. Decades of linguistic research took Chomsky’s assertion as truth, and countless careers were built upon exploring it. Then Daniel Everett, the “flycatcher,” found a tribe in the Amazon whose language didn’t match any of Chomsky’s predictions about the shared structure of language in our brains, and all hell broke loose. Now it seems that the ability to learn language is not biological; instead it is cultural, a tool that humans create together, like a broom or a toaster oven. Decades of linguistic research are going down the drain.
If you’re interested in this story — and you should be, because it’s fascinating — you should check out John Colapinto’s New Yorker article and Daniel Everett’s book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. That’s what Wolfe did — long passages of The Kingdom of Speech are mostly summaries of those two sources.
The publishing company behind The Kingdom of Speech describes it as “a captivating, paradigm-shifting argument that speech — not evolution — is responsible for humanity’s complex societies and achievements.” That’s bullshit. Wolfe doesn’t even begin to make an argument about the role of speech in human society until page 163 of this 169-page book.
Bango! One bright night it dawned on me — not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.
Bango! What’s insane about Wolfe’s climactic epiphany is how hypocritical it is. For the past 163 pages he has accused Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky of being frauds because their grand scientific breakthroughs were (in Wolfe’s telling) just a hunch. Wolfe compares Darwin’s writing, unfavorably, to Rudyard Kipling’s stories of the jungle — but at least Kipling had the decency to call his work fiction. As for Darwin’s theory of evolution, “it was still a story. It was not evidence. In short, it was sincere, but sheer, literature.” When Wolfe calls Darwin’s The Descent of Man “a real tour de force of literary imagination,” he means it as an insult. And yet here is Wolfe, at the conclusion of his own book, announcing his own grand scientific breakthrough with nothing but Bango! as evidence.
What the hell is going on here?
Is Wolfe aware of the irony that he, a noted literary figure, is faulting Darwin and Chomsky for being literary figures? Does he really believe that science has no place for personal epiphanies and leaps of faith? Has he ever heard of a “hypothesis?” Will he refuse to believe in black holes until some intrepid writer gets sucked into one and returns to Earth with a cosmic shard of New Journalism?
Honestly, I don’t know. The Kingdom of Speech never blinks, never reveals a coherent motive. It’s either a clever, two-faced provocation, or the dumbest thing Wolfe has ever written.
If he were so inclined, Wolfe could have used The Kingdom of Speech to ask colossally interesting questions like, “What does Everett’s claim that language is cultural, not biological, say about our understanding of humanity?” Or, “Even if Chomsky is wrong in saying that language evolved in our bodies, what other, valid discoveries did his theory inspire?”
The Kingdom of Speech pretends to be a treatise on language evolution, but it’s really just an old-fashioned underdog story. Wolfe puts intellectual giants in a boxing ring with hard-working little guys, and then he cheers like crazy for the little guys.
[Everett] was an old-fashioned flycatcher inexplicably here in the midst of modern air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts.
Bizarrely, that’s not the only time Wolfe mocks Chomsky for having air conditioning, as if it’s the source of all weakness and corruption. From its wildest accusations to its smallest details, The Kingdom of Speech turns “the intellectual status battle” between entrenched theories and upstart discoveries into a wild spectator sport.
And I loved it! I loved reading it. Where else can find a whole paragraph of pyrotechnic prose about how Darwin was such a lazy writer that he based all his metaphors on the family dog? Maybe I wasn’t born in 1931, but I’m pretty sure The Kingdom of Speech is what used to be known as “a hoot.” Never have I been so entertained by such a shoddy argument.
And somehow, that effect feels brilliant. Whether it was Wolfe’s intention or not, The Kingdom of Speech offers strong evidence that fiction and sheer personality always win in the end.