- William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
- Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
- Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
- We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
- I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
- When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
- “I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
- “Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
- Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
- He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
- We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
- Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
- Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
- He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
- His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
- He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
- He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
- In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
- Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
- What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
- What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
- “Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
- While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
- Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
- He left us with this book.
Words fall a bit short when describing Christopher Boucher’s debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. I have to imagine that trying to explain this book — its complexity, its brilliance, the way it manages to make perfect emotional sense even though almost everything about it is, on the surface at least, absurd — must pose a significant marketing challenge. I’ll admit to some skepticism when I first got this thing in the mail: “If you think raising a kid in today’s world is hard,” the jacket copy reads, “imagine how tough it would be if your child also happened to be a Volkswagen Beetle.”
You read that correctly. The book, which had arrived out of nowhere, was placed in the unpromising stack of books, notebooks, and Random Pieces of Paper that daily threatens to take over my entire desk. It stayed there for weeks. I think I forgot about it. Until a day not long ago when it fell out of the stack — as things sometimes do, because the entire pile collapses every time a cat jumps on it — just when I was looking for a book to take with me on the subway. Fine, I thought, a Volkswagen Beetle. The premise didn’t grab me, but on the other hand, the book is published by Melville House, which is one of my favorite presses. I thought I’d give both book and publisher the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did. I was hooked by the end of the first page.
Boucher’s strange and dazzling novel concerns a young man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. She finds this more troubling than he does and quickly flees the scene, leaving him to raise a fragile young VW while coping with the aftermath of his father’s death. His father was killed by a Heart Attack Tree who came slinking down out of the woods in dirty jeans, having heard the father’s heart beating from afar; the Tree slunk up to him where he sat in the country market building at Atkins Farm and took his heart from his chest. Then the Heart Attack Tree, realizing that his crime had at least one witness, got behind the deli counter of the Farm, revved the engine, and drove the farm away down the highway with the man’s dying father and a number of Atkins Farm employees still inside. I want to say he used the farm as a getaway car, but, well, he didn’t. It was a get-away farm.
A great many things in Boucher’s world can be driven. (Farms, for example, and also musical riffs.) If you open the hood of your car, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll find either an amateur theatre production in progress or an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Phrases that are clichéd and dead in our world — time is money, music transports you — are literal and alive in the world of the book: time really is money (the narrator is nameless, because he took his name to a pawnshop and got twenty-two hours for it), and music really does transport you; some of the new tunes on Route 16 are exciting, but it’s an impractical way to travel, because time passes differently inside the music and by the time you get out of the tune and back on Route 16 a couple weeks might have gone by in the outside world. The narrator gets yelled at by his boss for this reason.
Everything in this world is alive and animate. Take, for instance, the moment of the VW’s conception:
“Shit,” I said. I sat up. “Look, look,” I said, checking for breath, for a pulse.
There was nothing. “I think it’s gone,” I said.
“What?” she said, and turned on the light.
“The condom. It’s dead. It’s not breathing.”
They give the condom a proper burial in a little matchbox coffin outside in the sparkling cold. The narrator breaks down when the coffin is lowered into the hole. Later, back in the apartment, “we got into this conversation about what happens when you die. I wanted to know: Why did it happen? What had the condom (or my father, for that matter) done wrong in its life? And where did it go?”
The narrator is a writer at a newspaper. His editor is a block of cheese. His best friend is a chest of drawers; they go hiking together. The VW comes too, sometimes, but he’s a delicate child/car and often too sick to keep up. A ratchet starts crying and has a meltdown while the narrator’s using him to try to fix the VW; the narrator’s not about to just give up a ratchet that he’s spent good time on, so he takes the ratchet to a local therapist. The session deteriorates when the therapist asks the narrator to come into the room:
Then the ratchet began to sniffle and a tear ran down his cheek. The therapist turned to him. “Harold?” he said.
“Ask him about his project — about his son,” said the ratchet. “Ask him how he runs and where it goes—”
“Listen,” I said. “None of this is very complicated.”
“Not complicated!” the ratchet said.
“I’m a single parent trying to raise my son — that’s all.”
“A car that runs on stories!” shouted the ratchet.
The VW does run on stories, mostly. It also requires a certain variety of chai tea in large quantities, and also love. When it breaks down, it has to be fed new narratives; when the Love Pressure gauge drops below a certain level, it’s sometimes necessary to drive into the nearest populated area in search of acts of kindness before the car stalls altogether. These procedures are explicated at some length in the sections of How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive that are modeled after the 1969 Volkswagen handbook of the same title, where the narrator describes the chaotic and beautiful workings of the VW. These are the sections, incidentally, where the momentum of the book occasionally falters, particularly near the beginning.
But for all the surrealism, there’s nothing glib about the book. The narrator’s beloved son, the VW, is ill throughout and getting sicker; he’s prone to breakdowns and struggling with rust, since the novel’s set more or less in the present and the VW is, after all, a ’71. What we’re left with, through all the insanity and dizzying leaps of logic that make up Boucher’s world, are a series of absolutely human and recognizable truths: it’s unspeakably sad when a parent dies. It’s really scary when your kid’s seriously ill. It can be comforting to avoid change, to stay close to home (“Want to know where we are geographically? Take a look at Gauge Fourteen: It should say ‘Northampton.’”) We spend our lives trying to understand the world, and understanding the world means telling ourselves stories about it; which means, of course, that we all run on stories, whether we’ve thought about it in those terms or not.
Before I say anything about Kenneth Slawenski’s compelling but adoring biography of J.D. Salinger, I have a question: does anyone really, really understand just why Seymour Glass blows his brains out at the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? The editors of The New Yorker didn’t, although they eventually published it. John Updike didn’t, but that didn’t keep him from calling the story a classic. Vladimir Nabokov thought it was an “A-plus story” but never said why. The story was published in 1948, three years before The Catcher in the Rye, and it’s been confounding readers ever since.
You remember what happens. A married couple, Seymour and Muriel, are vacationing in Miami. Muriel, pretty but vapid, sits alone in a hotel room, drying her nails and talking on the phone to her mom, who wants her to come home. The mom thinks Seymour is crazy. She cites instances, says something about the army releasing Seymour from the hospital too soon. Muriel shrugs it off and talks about fashion. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach talking to Sybil, a little girl he has come to know. They talk about Muriel, whom Seymour doesn’t seem like. Apropos of nothing, Seymour quotes T.S. Eliot. Seymour and Sybil take a raft and hit the waves. He tells her about bananafish, which crawl into underwater caves, eat so many bananas they can’t get out, and die. Sybil claims to see such a fish and Seymour suddenly decides to go back to shore. He heads for his hotel room. On the elevator up, he accuses another guest of staring at his feet and being a God damned sneak about it. He goes to his room, sees Muriel asleep on the bed, puts a gun to his head and fires. End of story.
WTF? Critical analysis seems to turn on the little girl’s name: Sybil, therefore Sibyl, the mythological seer. Slawenski, a good if somewhat stiff reader of Salinger, offers an even more complicated theory that suggests Seymour spent too much time reading Eliot and Blake. Both ideas may be perfectly correct, but they ignore the fact that Seymour packed the gun to begin with, beside which Eliot and mythology just seem like so much literary filigree. Presumably, Seymour feels trapped, like the bananafish, but the events of this day offer less than perfect motivation. It’s not clear even Salinger knows why Seymour killed himself, because he keeps coming back to it in subsequent stories, as if there’s something he forgot to say, some detail he meant to add.
The story is the kickoff to Nine Stories, a classic collection distinguished by ambiguity and ellipsis. It was also the beginning of a long journey. In the 25 years of Salinger’s publishing life, Seymour was his constant companion, evolving in seemingly autobiographical ways as the author became more immersed in Eastern philosophy. He’s the brilliant spiritual loner, too preoccupied with the next world to connect with this one, and in death he becomes a ghost his family cannot exorcise. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour’s little sister has a nervous breakdown on the road to spiritual perfection. In Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, a hilarious social comedy, brother Buddy recalls the disastrous events of Seymour’s wedding day. In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy circles around his memories of Seymour, trying to make some sense of him. It’s Salinger’s most direct effort to say who, what or why Seymour is, and it’s a numbing experience; little more than an endless ramble, and quite the longest novella ever written. Buddy mentions a short story he wrote in the late forties, where Seymour “not only appeared in the flesh but walked, talked, went for a dip in the ocean, and fired a bullet through his brain in the last paragraph.” But the Seymour of the story, he says, was actually more a reflection of Buddy himself, written not long after Seymour’s death, after the both of them had “returned from the European Theater of Operations.” The story, he says, was written using a German typewriter.
In other words, Seymour (or Buddy, who seems to be channeling him, even though he gets little more than static) was tormented by what he saw in the war, as Muriel’s mother suggested, specifically in Germany. That seems like it should be the last word, except that it’s not. We still have Salinger’s bizarre final testament to Seymour: “Hapworth 16, 1924“, which landed with a thud when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, taking up a whole issue and marking Salinger’s final publication.
It’s composed of seven-year-old Seymour’s impossibly brilliant 65-page letter home from summer camp, in which we learn that he has already died and been reincarnated several times. It was a strange, unbelievable prequel: the young man who killed himself in a Miami hotel room was actually a homegrown Dalai Lama! As character development goes, it feels desperate. It was also a retread, as the young Seymour isn’t all that different from the title character of Salinger’s story “Teddy,” another child genius touched by some kind of Zen-like divinity.
After that, the clock stopped. Salinger was dead as a writer but, in his Seymour-like way, lives on. His books have never gone out of print, and his earliest and best work remains distinct, irreplaceable, and influential. By the time he got to Hapworth, alas, he had eaten his last banana. He was 46, holed up in a remote house in tiny Cornish, N.H., living off royalties that by the mid-1980s were bringing him about $100,000 a year. He devoted what turned out to be the next half of his life to saying nothing and saying it loud enough for all the world to hear. Rumor had it he still wrote and even completed a few novels, but that remains to be seen, or not seen.
Reading Salinger’s biography is a little like reading the fiction: the more time you spend in his company, the more anxious you are to leave. As far as telling the story, this book has a lot of merit. Slawenski collates all the known facts, tracks his movements over the years, and shows how his art was shaped by both World War II and religion. He does an especially good job of putting Salinger’s experiences in context, particularly where his military years are concerned.
On the other hand, he lacks detachment. He doesn’t hide the warts, but he doesn’t always notice them. To paraphrase Updike paraphrasing Salinger, he loves the author more than God does. He does a very thorough job, however, and it’s not his fault that his subject turns into such a fusty, frosty, petulant bore.
The book starts off quite interestingly, as Slawenski presents a young man who was a little like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of Salinger’s most famous novel: born to an affluent Manhattan family, he attended prep school, and was a bit of an outsider. Far from being a self-loathing manic-depressive, he was arrogant and cocky. The family called him Sonny. He was tall, lanky, affable enough to serve on the entertainment staff of a cruise ship, and he got dates. Among his early conquests was Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright, whom he found attractive and classy but also vain and dull. When she dumped him for Charlie Chaplin, he turned her into Muriel Glass.
Readers know Salinger on the basis of the four slim books he allowed into print, which together give the impression he’s never been anything but mature and polished. The 22 stories that make up Salinger’s apprentice work apparently tell a different story; as described here – and Slawenski makes one wish they don’t stay uncollected forever – they were largely commercial fiction that showed promise and occasionally impressed the right people.
When the story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker in 1941, Salinger was poised to enter the big leagues. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the magazine postponed publication for five years; the story of a rich kid on a date in Manhattan, where he does a lot of drinking, talking and crying, suddenly seemed irrelevant. While the delay was a crushing blow, it probably helped Salinger in the end. He joined the Army and took his character Holden with him. He would see extensive action in the war and participate in key events: he was in Normandy on D-Day, when a full two-thirds of his division was wiped out, spent a bleak winter fighting off Nazi forces in the Hürtgen Forest and, thanks to his command of the language, even worked in counterintelligence as his regiment moved into Germany.
“The notion of J.D. Salinger rushing from house to house, seizing villains, and grilling them under naked lightbulbs might appear absurd to us today but that is exactly what happened,” Slawenski writes.
After thinking he had seen the absolute worst the war had to offer, he helped liberate Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later said, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.” In the end, he would receive five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor.
Through it all, writing in barracks and foxholes, he was finding Holden’s voice. What began as a series of stories would eventually be shaped into one long picaresque tale about a troubled kid with a messianic complex, wandering through Manhattan, pondering society at its most phony and the city at its most vomity.
“I know this boy I’m writing about so well,” he told an early editor. “He deserves to be a novel.“ The story took on a tragic dimension; the specter of dying young – like Holden’s brother 10-year-old brother Allie, who remains forever innocent — hangs over the novel. The novel’s famous final lines were Salinger’s own answer to why he would later find the war so hard to talk about: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
The novel that resulted, The Catcher in the Rye, is a masterpiece of narrative first person voice: self-observant but not always self-aware. Holden reveals himself in ways he fully intends – cynical, smart-alecky, funny, romantic – and ways he doesn’t, exactly; he’s immature, annoying, and at times a bit of a phony himself. He speaks in a jazzy, rhythmic argot of goddam, moron, “like a bastard,” “kills me,” “depressed the hell out of me,” and ”sexy,” which can mean either attractive or horny. It’s a voice as genuine as Ishmael, Huck Finn, Humbert Humbert, or anyone else you care to name.
The war affected other Salinger stories as well. Like Sergeant X in “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” Salinger suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, in a strange life- imitates-art-imitates-life twist, he supposedly fell in love with his first wife, Claire, because she embodied his imaginary war orphan, Esme, and would serve as the inspiration for Franny Glass.
During this time, Salinger, who was raised in a joint Catholic-Jewish household and had embraced Zen Buddhism, studied the 1,000-plus pages of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, which completely changed his game. It was the book that proclaimed the gospel of Vedanta, a monotheistic religion that absorbs a lot of religious traditions, “accepting all faiths as being valid as long as they lead to the recognition of God.” As Slawenski explains: “The aim of Vedanta is to see God, to become one with God, by looking beyond the shell and perceiving the holiness within” – all of which he started working into his fiction from that point, most successfully in Franny and Zooey.
The two long stories that make up this novel have a fascinating publishing history, as both were published separately in The New Yorker and one almost didn’t make it. Fiction editors William Maxwell and Katherine White couldn’t stand “Zooey” and rejected it. Editor William Shawn not only overruled them, but also worked on the story with Salinger for months. Both stories were a huge success with readers; much less so with critics, who found both characters a couple of preening, self-absorbed, condescending ninnies – views which Norman Mailer suggested “may come from nothing more graceful than envy.”
I think the novel is the best exposition of Salinger’s own religious quest, and in a curious, roundabout way reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; it erases the line between “religious novel” and “novel about religion.” It’s also very energetic. Slawenski ably digs away at the novels Vedantic ideas, but he misses the fact that it’s so dramatically, irrepressibly alive. He misses Franny, the greatest college girl in American Literature, with her spiritedness, her “irreproachably Americanese” figure, and her thoughts running a mile a minute as she burns through one cigarette after the next.
Speaking of which, it’s one of the greatest cigarette-smoking novels ever written. Everyone smokes like a freight train; every cigarette has character, every puff has an idea. Smoking is what releases the torrent of thoughts between the two characters as they thrash out the possibilities of praying without ceasing. Zooey drags on his stogie “as if it were a kind of respirator in an otherwise oxygenless world.” It may also be the first novel where there really is such a thing as chicken soup for the soul.
If Slawenski doesn’t always feel the verve of Salinger’s fiction, he does feel his pain, which is considerable. The man was besieged by enemies from every corner. Over and over in this book, I found myself wondering: how it is that a brave, dedicated Nazi-hunter, a genuine inglorious basterd, could get so completely sidetracked by editors who make suggestions to his precious copy or reject it, or publishers who want to pimp out his books with crass covers, or a crummy Hollywood adaptation of a story, or media invaders or readers showing up on his lawn. For a veteran of Hürtgen and Dachau, it seems like small potatoes, and nothing unusual for anyone bent on being a successful writer. But J.D. was simply not the kind of guy to weather the frustrations and get back to his typewriter. He lived in a small world that demanded unswerving loyalty. If you’re an agent like Dorothy Olding, who protects his privacy with your life, or an editor like William Shawn, you’re on the side of the angels. If you’re Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, who bungled an anthology that Salinger was banking on, or his English publisher Jamie Hamilton, who made the mistake of letting a bad paperback cover slip his notice, you’re alienated forever. Slawenski is so quick to take Salinger’s side in all this that at times he sounds like a posthumous enabler.
As far as the facts go, I found little to question outside of one: the news that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948, inspired Lolita would likely come as a surprise to Nabokov, who was writing his masterpiece at least as early as 1947 (longer than that if you include the early draft from 1939).
Anyone looking for clues to Salinger’s lost years is going to be disappointed: 40 pages covering 45 bland years of marital battles and legal troubles. Perhaps that’s all there is. Maybe, as Buddy Glass once said, “where there’s smoke there’s strawberry Jello, seldom fire.”
László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below has been hailed as a book about the sacred. For the fictional artists described in the collection, transcendence comes through the act of creation. In one story, a Japanese theatre master takes the stage and feels the goddess Seiobo coursing through him. In another, a maskmaker’s chisel moves nearly of its own accord, fashioning a series of wooden faces that are almost alive. But Krasznahorkai also turns his attention to another genre of protagonists: average people who encounter the sacred, completely unequipped to contend with its impact. While the book’s artists find transcendence, other protagonists experience utter bewilderment — and their crisis is the focal point of the 17 stories in Seiobo There Below.
Seiobo translator Ottilie Mulzet notes in her interview with Krasznahorkai that he addresses what has effectively become taboo: “The question of ‘sacred’ in a world which has no need for it anymore.” The Hungarian author’s works are known for their promise of higher meaning and their tendency to approach, but never quite reach, resolution. Krasznahorkai’s previous titles in English (War & War, The Melancholy of Resistance, and Satantango) earned critical recognition from Susan Sontag and James Wood for their strange, apocalyptic impression. Rife with peculiar characters and sealed into sophisticated structures (Satantango adopts the form of the tango dance, while Seiobo There Below, though billed as a novel, presents distinct stories numbered by the Fibonacci sequence), Krasznahorkai’s fiction makes contact with the otherworldly.
But the stakes are higher in Seiobo There Below. For one, the global nature of the collection is a marked departure from Krasznahorkai’s former English-language releases. The novels that earned him his reputation in America were texts with deeply Hungarian roots. The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango were both set in crumbling Hungarian villages; War & War featured a Hungarian protagonist newly moved to New York City. Seiobo, in contrast, spans locations from Kyoto to Persia and Perugia. Its narrative voices are equally diverse; we hear from a nascent murderer, a fanatic lecturer on Baroque music, a Parisian museum keeper in love with the Venus de Milo. Moving beyond localized meaning, the stories challenge us to examine the psychology of our moment, a time in which our inability to understand the sacred paralyzes us in its presence.
This bewilderment manifests itself in several narratives of Western European travelers knocked spiritually unconscious by the impact of sacred art. In “Christo Morto,” a traveler is drawn into Venice’s Scuola de la Roca to revisit a painting of Christ he had seen 11 years prior. He witnesses the image of Christ opening his eyes and is frozen by disbelief:
BUT HE IS OPENING HIS EYES, he registered within himself; then again he tried to muster the courage to fix his gaze onto the two eyes of Christ, BUT HOW DARK are these eyes, it was spine-chilling, as although NOW THEY REALLY WERE ALMOST COMPLETELY OPEN, you could hardly see the pupils, and nothing in the white of the eyes, it was completely clouded, a dark obscurity lay in these eyes…and here is Christ REALLY AND TRULY
The capitalization, the quick cadence of thoughts, the terror in beholding the eyes: this man’s franticness is palpable in the text. Bewildered, he sits and stares, then decides to turn away from the painting and leave the Scuola in hopes of dismissing such terrible thoughts. But the last line of the story — “For him there would never be any exit from this building, not ever” — reveals the inescapability of his new, disoriented state.
The next story, “Acropolis,” reiterates this feeling of bewilderment. The protagonist of the tale journeys to Athens fulfill his lifelong wish of visiting the ancient site. He arrives at the site only to find the limestone so bright that his eyes ache and tear. Unable to bear its radiance, he stops his ascent in pain and bitterness, asking himself why no travel guide, no art historical account, had warned him about the blinding light. His bewilderment grows from the expectation that he could have foreseen, let alone overcome, this trial. How could he have known the luminosity of this place?
Not all characters in Seiobo There Below reveal such blatant bewilderment. Several try to understand the sacred by cycling through methods tried and true: scholarly intercourse, scientific inquiry, mathematical analysis. Ironically, the characters who pursue answers down these clear pathways are among the most disconnected. At intervals throughout “Christo Morto,” for instance, we learn about an art historian who had tried to restore the Scuola’s painting of Christ. She brings the painting to a chemical restoration workshop in hopes of discovering the original artist, a mystery over which the board of San Rocco holds its breath. When the chemical restorer X-rays the image and examines the gesso, he finds an underwhelming signature. The painting is left half-forgotten in a small corner display. The art historian is so focused on the work’s scholarly evaluation that she misses the essence of the painting.
This intellectually fueled oblivion percolates through the stories. When a European scholar tries to study the rebuilding of Japan’s Ise Shrine, she misunderstands the tradition to such a point that she obscures the rite’s actual meaning. When a group of travelers camps out in the Carpathians to foster creativity, they grow so preoccupied with their routine that the true artist among them — an elusive man who carves an enormous earthen sculpture — becomes a spectacle.
As one bewilderment follows another, the repetitions themselves start to hold higher meaning. The arrangement of narratives into the Fibonacci sequence is no coincidence. Like the mathematical series, the stories in Seiobo There Below evoke a spiral, both recursive and unexplainable. Plots reoccur, protagonists resemble each other, and narrators repeat phrases as they circle around the topic at hand, always one inch short of final revelation. As one narrator remarks, “Not to know something is a complicated process, the story of which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.” This is the philosophy of Seiobo There Below. László Kraznahorkai has given us a work that shimmers under a prism of hidden meanings. Our task is to connect the dots, experience the mystery of the text, and embrace moments of bewilderment with patience, openness, and preparation for a deeply meaningful encounter.
Tragedy, horror, and war demand a different sort of art. Writers who take up such subjects cannot be concerned only with beauty. They must balance aesthetics against ethics, and ask questions like, How do I write about someone who is dead? What gives me the right to tell his story? The literature of witness, concerned with the fate of the victims, can sometimes even seem to be stealing their narratives.
Daniel Alarcón’s new novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, seems to wonder about the power of theater. During blackouts, in pitch dark auditoriums, throughout the long nights of military curfew, war-weary audiences listen to “the spectral voices of the actors emerging from the limitless black.” Are these the voices of the dead? The magic of performance seems almost capable of summoning up angry ghosts, personal and collective, for a much needed reckoning. But then the lights come on. The actors on the stage are all human, some portly, others aging, but no more ghosts than you or I, and the spell is broken. Alarcón’s novel tells the story of a largely forgotten troupe of actors, called Diciembre, that revive a classic production, a piece of subversive political theater entitled, The Idiot President. During the civil war in a nameless South American country, a period nicely euphemized as “the anxious years,” the play’s author and star was imprisoned and called a terrorist. But times have changed, 15 years have passed, and now the troupe is organizing a tour of the highlands, a three-man show playing in village squares, homes, school auditoriums, and just about anywhere else they can find an audience. These are the same small towns, presumably, where rebels were once active. But the shared ghosts of the nation, now deluded by “the narcotic effects of peace,” are not the only specters that haunt The Idiot President. The play was last performed in a notorious prison and all but one of those involved, both actors and spectators, died soon after, when whole sections were “razed, bombed and burned by the army.”
War and its lingering traumas have been Alarcón’s subjects before. Both of his previous books, Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight explore the emotional and psychological after-effects of a similarly described civil conflict. Lost City Radio follows a radio program that hosts callers searching for information about missing loved ones. Mass displacement and migration to the capital during the conflict have left countless refugees adrift, and the show often manages to reconnect families. There was a program like this in Peru, in fact. But the novel turns displacement into more than just a political problem. The host, Norma, lost her own husband under mysterious circumstances. The trope of the missing person, of the loved one who has vanished without any explanation, describes the malaise of an entire country, mired in uncertainty about its past and unable to move on. The metaphor is apt; several South American countries still suffer from a legacy of desaparecidos, conflict victims whose stories remain unknown. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been marching for more than 36 years now, a powerful symbol for human rights advocates in the region. Moving on is not really something you can expect from them. How do you move on when it’s your husband or your son who is missing?
Displacement troubles the characters of At Night We Walk in Circles also, but the circumstances have changed. Now, not all the missing people are war refugees. Throughout the novel, the protagonist struggles with the temptation to follow his brother to the United States, where he has more or less disappeared. In the small mountain towns the actors visit, there are no young men. They have all moved to the city to look for work, leaving behind mothers and sisters who remember them fondly, cherish their belongings, and sometimes don’t ever hear from them again. This kind of economic displacement is common all over Latin America, though here in the United States we tend to think of the immigrants themselves more often than the families they have left behind. The central episode of At Night We Walk in Circles — when an elderly mother struggles to grasp the truth about her missing son, whom she believes has been living outside of Los Angeles for 15 years, working as an auto mechanic — will strike a chord far beyond countries recovering from war. Estrangement from our loved ones is hardly a rare predicament. With the character of the abandoned, grieving mother, Alarcón gets at the heart of the drama, the emotional core of the displacement problem. Because, even if a son sends money home every week, he still isn’t there. His clothes still sit in the drawers, eaten by moths, his bedroom covered with dust.
That’s where Alarcón’s troupe of actors takes us, into the missing man’s home, to sit with his mother at the dining room table, look at the family photo albums, and even spend the night in the son’s long empty bed. Perhaps they can even help her grieve, just as they hope that taking The Idiot President on tour might perhaps help a troubled nation face its painful history. Political theater has often set out to awaken its audience, to curtail their lethargy, apathy, or amnesia, using performance to spur reflection. Diciembre’s free-wheeling production would doubtlessly have appealed to Bertolt Brecht, particularly on the night when the lead actor paused partway through the performance to take questions from the crowd, in an impromptu “presidential press conference.” But Alarcón doesn’t seem to believe in the “therapeutic” potential of art, and he contrasts this kind of idealism with an alternative approach; the narrator is unable to break away from a rigid commitment to journalistic fact. He would have us believe that every scene happened just so, that he is only reporting on real events. Every conversation is supposedly a careful transcription, recounted to the narrator by the various characters during a series of interviews done after the fact. The entire narrative is presented as testimony, no matter how implausible it seems. The problem is that a novel is not testimony. Aesthetics might not be as weighty a concern as ethics, but a balance must be struck. And the narrator interjects snippets from his interviews into the action ad nauseum, as though readers would hesitate to believe him otherwise. Novels don’t need to establish sources, they produce a different kind of truth. This narrator, however, would have you believe that only journalists can be trusted to tell a story.
But when the narrator arrives at his final interview, and we expect to hear the testimony of the protagonist, conspicuously absent throughout the rest of the novel, the journalist fails just as spectacularly as the actors did before him. Alarcón’s artists seem incapable of satisfying their obligation to the truth. Though At Night We Walk in Circles seems to be a novel about the ways in which art can confront social and psychological trauma, in fact, it is about the ways that art fails to do so. Henry, the formerly imprisoned actor and writer, has refused to write about his prison experience for more than a decade. The memory of his prison companions still haunts him. His friends all tell him he should write about it, “‘It will be therapeutic,’ these friends of his argued. To which Henry could only respond: ‘For whom?’” By the end of the novel, he claims he is ready to start writing this play, the “prison story.” But his co-author is gone, and his pleas for help resound with desperation. “Just ask him,” he said. “Will you ask him?” The reader knows better than to believe a masterpiece is coming.
This is perhaps not cynicism so much as realism. How can a performance help a grieving mother overcome the loss of her beloved son? Art is not therapy, Alarcón’s novel suggests. Writing is not a form of healing, ambiguously defined. Respect for the dead, and for those who still mourn them, should keep us from uttering such sentimental banalities. In the end, the entire project of this novel is made to seem suspect, something like theft. So what are we to make of its enigmatic title? In “Collectors,” the prison referred to constantly, like a mirror image of the capital city, and of the entire dysfunctional society, the inmates walk circles in the yard for their nightly exercise. The art of witness, too, must forever keep circling back, confronting the past, trying to establish the truth of what has happened. This is the form of grief and recovery. And in Alarcón’s novel it is a Sisyphean labor, repeated each night, forever, because you can never go anywhere but in circles.
There is no greater way to spend your summer than flat on your back on the hot sand or in a chaise lounge by a pool (preferably with nearby waiters serving adult beverages). So while you’re laid out and baking this season check out these books whose landscapes and characters are bone-dry, desolate, charred, or wasted. The relentless emptiness, absence of morality, and anesthetized and vacuous characters will provide a different kind of “trashy” beach read. The ennui will be a perfect complement to your cocktail.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Play It As It Lays follows the trajectory of Maria Wyeth, a burnt-out actress bouncing between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert. The lovers, ex-husbands, and friends in Maria’s orbit take opiates and gin for menstrual cramps, rent apartments when the plumbing in their Beverly Hills mansion backs up, and wash up in motel rooms in the desert on the edge of movie sets.
Play It As It Lays is precise, highly controlled, and, at least on the surface, utterly devoid of emotion. Her narrators report, they do not emote. What distinguishes Didion’s work is the polarity of that highly controlled narrative voice set against the utter disarray — “disorder was its own point” — of the worlds her characters inhabit. In other words, Didion composes scenes of excess, disintegration, and violence using a voice utterly devoid of all three.
Polarities are Didion’s specialty — vulnerability and toughness, exposure and privacy, detachment and emotion, despair and hope — and her utilization of them injects her work with an extreme sense of pressure.
The emotional weariness of her characters and their sense of doomed fatalism belie not just a wicked survival instinct, but also a sense of hopefulness – albeit a hopefulness whose origins and presence they themselves do not understand. It is Maria, the infamously detached protagonist of Play It As It Lays who says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing. Why, [her friend] BZ would say. Why not, I say.”
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
Cassandra Edwards, a brilliant, intense Berkeley grad student, is hell-bent on sabotaging her twin sister Judith’s wedding, and returns to her family’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to do just that. Cassandra’s first person narration is utterly spellbinding and it takes no effort for the reader to understand how Judith falls for Cassandra’s manipulative charm over and over again once we so easily do the same (think verbal pyrotechnics).
Cassandra is at once conniving, self-aware, frantic, irrational, despondent, lucid, adoring, and shockingly sympathetic. Her neurotic attachment to her sister as some extension of herself, their lush-of-a-retired-philosophy-professor father, and their willfully oblivious grandmother make for a family story like none other. As Cassandra discovers that that her force of will is not enough to keep the people she loves in orbit around her, her sense of order and ties to reality begin to crumble.
Baker’s writing, like her protagonists, is vivacious and funny as hell and the dialog is as good as it gets. Cassandra is totally nuts and incredibly sympathetic — and you will be completely enraptured by her.
Another Country by James Baldwin
Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, Another Country centers around six people who are all, in some way, connected to Rufus Scott, a jazz drummer in New York City. Baldwin’s cast of characters leads us into the weeds of their lives, and we are privy to things that we should never see and won’t easily forget. Another Country is haunting and the pictures Baldwin conjures are searing.
Thematically, it touches on pretty much everything: race, sexuality, gender, class, passion, love, loss, grief, friendship. You name it, it’s in here. It’s a book about how we hurt and need each other in equal measure; the ways in which we entwine ourselves into the lives, and the bodies of the people we love. The things we pay for, and how we pay. The Washington Post dubbed this book, “An almost unbearable, tumultuous, blood-pounding experience.” And really that sums it up perfectly.
A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
Born to movie star parents in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the unnamed narrator of A Way of Life Like Any Other grew up in the (kitschy) lap of luxury on the family estate, Casa Fiesta. “Was there ever an ass so pampered as mine,” he wonders at the outset of the novel? But the glory days are over. His parents’ careers have disintegrated and their marriage has come apart. In the wake of his former life this man-child struggles to make a path forward for himself.
A deadpan, cutting, and catty comedy of manners, O’Brien uses a razor sharp and devastating wit to talk about the world and the family his narrator came up in. A surprisingly moving coming-of-age story laced with a healthy dose of glitter and camp.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The only book on this list that has a sort of cooling effect, The Summer Book is an unsentimental series of vignettes that opens a window onto the lives of six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother who are spending the summer on a small island in Finland after Sophia’s mother dies. Pretty much nothing happens in this book: attention is focused on minutiae and things are handled from an emotional remove that we’ve come to expect from the Swedes. The writing is crisp and somewhat distanced and experiences are observed rather than felt; to wit:
Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. The can of kerosene is brought up from the cellar and left in the hall, and the flashlight is hung on its peg beside the door.
According to The Independent (London),” The Summer Book manages to make you feel good as well as wise, without having to make too much effort… [it] says so much that we want to hear in such an accessible form, without ever really saying anything at all.” If that’s not the perfect summer read, I don’t know what is.
Image via Stewart Butterfield/Flickr
China Miéville has been publishing speculative fiction for close to two decades, beginning with King Rat in 1998. In the course of this career he has become known as the foremost exponent of the New Weird, rivaled only by Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, brought the existence of the fledgling subgenre to the attention of a wider reading public with The New Weird, the anthology they edited in 2008. In his introduction, VanderMeer maintains that the (Old) Weird, which is epitomized by H.P. Lovecraft and includes the likes of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, is characterized by the combination of supernatural unease with visionary sensibility. By contrast, the New Weird characteristically involves the triple combination of complex urban settings, surreal or transgressive horror, and covert or overt political awareness. Miéville has prioritized the last of these in his critical work, describing the New Weird as a form of resistance against neoliberal globalization and rejecting the more inclusive definitions of the term. This concern with the political in general and the relationship between art and politics in particular is conspicuous in The Last Days of New Paris, where it receives a singularly subtle treatment.
It is difficult to avoid appreciating Miéville’s novella in one of two misleading contexts. The first is as an Axis victory alternative history along the lines of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 The Man in the High Castle or Len Deighton’s 1978 SS-GB, both of which have been released as popular television series, the former in 2015 and the latter in January of this year. The Last Days of New Paris weaves two narratives together – one set in a recognizable France of 1941 and the other in an unrecognizable Paris of 1950 — and populates each with a mix of real and fictional people, but it does not invite one to ruminate on the possible consequences of, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assassination (Dick) or a Luftwaffe victory in the Battle of Britain (Deighton). Instead, the geopolitics that led up to and followed the “S-Blast” (presumably “surrealist blast”), the explosion that both created living manifestations of surrealist works of art and opened the gates of hell, are for the most part circumstantial. The second context, which may be related to the first, is to see the novella as a response to the global rise of nationalism, often in extreme forms, in the second decade of the 21st century. The phenomenon is no doubt of grave concern to Miéville, who is a left wing political activist, a founding member of the Left Unity political party, and a Marxist academic. His third book on Marxism, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, is due for publication in May and has been praised for historical accuracy as well as effective storytelling. In her review in the London Review of Books, Sheila Fitzpatrick writes of Miéville’s enthusiasm for the concept of revolution, and while his history may well be an artistic call for political revolt, The Last Days of New Paris is neither a call for resistance nor a naïve allegory of art’s revolutionary power.
The novella consists of nine chapters, with the odd numbers devoted to events in the 1950 present and the even numbers to events in the 1941 past. The story is followed by an afterword and notes section and my only criticism of the work concerns the inclusion of this supplementary material. The afterword is subtitled “On Coming to Write The Last Days of New Paris” and constitutes a curious and anachronistic conceit in which Miéville claims to have met Thibaut, the fictional protagonist of 1950, and to have merely edited the manuscript passed to him. This was a common device in Victorian fiction, a hangover from the novel as a literary form derived from history rather than poetry, and was supposed to enhance narrative verisimilitude. Contemporary readers require no such faux guarantees, however, and the superfluity is exacerbated by Miéville’s reference to the sketches he has included. The only illustration inside the book is a black and white frontispiece, a reproduction of the color cover which is in turn a reproduction of the exquisite corpse (a composite drawing or collaborative collage) created by André Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Jacqueline Lamba in 1938. Miéville may be alluding to an illustrated edition that was either planned and abandoned or has yet to be published, or making a recondite joke, but the apparent slip is disconcerting for the uninitiated. The notes are explanations of the artworks referred to in the narrative and feel gratuitous in an age where reader research is almost effortless, a glimpse behind the curtain that risks debasing the magic. Miéville’s textual representations of these works are a seamless merging of the realistic with the oneiric and his expert evocation of the pervasive sense of the strange that is New Paris equips the reader with all he or she requires to experience the intense pleasure afforded by the novella.
New Paris is Paris after the S-Blast, which occurred in 1941. In Miéville’s alternative Europe, Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) — the German drive to the Channel in May 1940 — was sufficient to cause the collapse of France, making Fall Rot (Case Red, the push west and south the following month) unnecessary. The S-Blast transformed Paris from a city of occupation to a city of resistance, with various French factions rising up against the Germans and the “battalions from below” rising up to join the chaos. The resistance includes the Free French, led by Charles de Gaulle and backed by the United States, and the Main à plume, the surrealist irregulars, some of whom — like Thibaut — have been able to harness the power released by the detonation. The most significant effect of the S-Blast was not the release of hell’s minions (who show only a passing interest in the city), but to create the living manifestations of surrealist artworks, “manifs,” that roam the streets either on their own or under the less than perfect command of surrealist or SS handlers. By 1950 the Germans have sealed the city, which has become a “free-fire zone and hunting grounds for the impossible” and are attempting to destroy the resisters by all available means, including the control of manifs and devils and the creation of manifs of their own, using the work of National Socialist artists like Arno Breker. The S-Blast has of course given literal meaning to metaphors such as art coming to life, having a life of its own, and being a form of life. Similarly, this is art that wields power physically as well as through the imagination and emotions.
The Last Days of New Paris is an extraordinarily original work that foregrounds Miéville’s considerable ingenuity and innovation. The opening scene is wildly fantastic, a suicidal charge by the Vélo — the manifestation of Leonora Carrington’s “I Am an Amateur of Velocipedes,” a bicycle-woman centaur — against the German lines. There is also a satisfyingly overdetermined symmetry in the work’s design as the onset is bookended by the appearance of “Fall Rot,” a Panzer III-giant man centaur, in the first stage of the story’s tripartite climax. The symmetry is superbly complex: in the same way that science and the supernatural are the dual interests of Jack Parsons, the real-life protagonist of the 1941 narrative, so Fall Rot has been created by the combination of the biological experimentation of Josef Mengele and the perverted faith of Robert Alesch. In a further parallel, both of the plots begin with the arrival of an American on the scene, Parsons in Vichy Marseilles in 1941 and an American photojournalist named Sam in the free part of Paris in 1950. Sam is researching her own book, The Last Days of New Paris, a photographic essay-within-a-novella that pays homage to Dick’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy novel-within-a-novel.
Miéville is too sophisticated a writer to promote a conception of art as essentially opposed to oppression and his mention of Breker and the second part of the climax (which I shall not reveal) shows that he is well aware of the variety of ends art can serve. While Breton’s surrealism provided a Marxist opposition to European fascism and American Fordism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s futurism provided active and enthusiastic support for Benito Mussolini, and the fascist sympathies of many prominent modernists are well documented. Miéville is concerned with surrealism in particular over and above art more generally because movements like surrealism (and the New Weird in his own definition) resist nationalism and neoliberalism in virtue of being politico-artistic movements in the first instance. Surrealism is not an artistic movement in the service of Marxism, but a Marxist artistic movement. As such, The Last Days of New Paris calls for a revolt in art rather than a revolt in politics, for integrating politics into art rather than employing art as a means to political ends. The link from New Paris to the contemporary world comes in the perfectly-pitched anti-climax with which the narrative concludes, as Thibaut takes it upon himself to write his own book, to start “from scratch, redo history, make it mine.” In Thibaut’s return to the fray to write his revolution, Miéville urges readers to artistic revolt, to the reconception of art as essentially rather than circumstantially political and the New Weird as essentially rather than instrumentally resistant to nationalism and neoliberalism.