Whether introducing a charming essay or slim monograph, a witty epigram or stately sonnet, on is the most accommodating of words: the eternal handmaiden, the chivalrous cicisbeo, the dutiful emcee welcoming the main topic on stage. Though it plays this obliging, some might say servile role impeccably, it is high time that on emerge from the syntactical shadows to bask in the light of its lapidary splendor. To be on is to be alive, energetic, aflame, to display one’s best self. Similarly, on is language’s best self, demonstrating how much can be done with so little. Compact, suggestive, manifold, on is the preposition that launched a thousand idioms. Derived from the Proto-Germanic ana, on conjures up Iron Age images of unruly beards and makeshift encampments: the terse utterance of a culture hardened by the elements. These rude forbears, emerging from their mist-shrouded forests to rampage across Europe, were not prone to reflection. No Teutonic Hazlitt composed his lucid thoughts in essay form (e.g., “On Pillaging”). Rather, these restless warriors were in thrall to their wanderlust. On, on! we hear their guttural voices echoing through the millennia. And yet we would be neglecting on’s suppleness were we to focus solely on its muscular genealogy. In its imperative form -- on! -- it is certainly a spur to action, but when reversed, a brake: no! Moreover, on displays a nobility of spirit, charitably lending its services to other nouns (onlooker) or prepositions in need, either supporting them from behind -- “onto” -- or lighting the way forward—“upon.” It can introduce the most heartbreaking of topics, such as Ben Jonson’s elegy to his son, or, from the same pen, a Rabelaisian bibelot: “On Gut.” (The poet was even said to have written a jeering missive to a deceived husband, “On Thy Wife,” but that bit of doggerel has been lost to time.) A preposition wrapped in an adverb wrapped in an enigma, on is a tiny word, yet it contains multitudes. Its deceptive modesty could even be said to conceal the most fundamental of our drives. After all, what is the coupling of one vowel and one consonant but a chaste replication of the sexual act? And lest I be accused of overanalysis -- as I often have been by blinkered partisans of under or beneath -- consider on’s entanglement with the mating ritual: courtship is initiated with a come-on, which, if accepted, leads to both parties being turned on, and, if all goes well, a hard-on, and then…but enough. In the interests of decency, I won’t go on. Any scholar of Shakespeare’s sonnets will gladly explain the equally bawdy potential of on’s chief rival, in, which the perceptive reader has noticed I have avoided mentioning till now. While the two words do occasionally tolerate proximity -- e.g., come on in, in on it -- tolerate is all. How it pains me even to type those shoddy combination of letters, so similar and yet vastly inferior to the virtuous one under review. Replacing on’s lovely o, a perfect form, with i, that impudent, egotistical erection, in is boorish, vulgar, so denotatively and connotatively crass that the mouth seems to resist pronouncing it. Compare the generous, open pronunciation of on, the mouth expanding to greet the world -- all its marvels and follies -- in blissful communion. “Come one, come all, and feast,” it seems to say, “dinner’s on me.” On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves. Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not -- and one of them is currently incarcerated -- so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them: Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few Athens and Rome in better Ages knew. Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon. Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?” Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego. The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded -- or so his detractors quipped -- after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.) Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original. Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction. And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go. Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections -- “I read it in one sitting” -- which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley -- White Teeth perched on the handlebars -- in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.” The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature. Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser. Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.” Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.” Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines -- or progressive causes truth be told -- but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins. Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify -- and many a review confirm -- that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso? Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]” He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.) Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy. His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him. “I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece. As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.” Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead: To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself. Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.” A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Take: Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand Quite. Ergo: “How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…” Und so weiter. To conclude: "It was a silver knife." Sharp. A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count -- or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book. Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard -- a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question. For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems. Valerie Plume: Critical Agency Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.” Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission. And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her. Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets. Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years. Epilogue: Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards. Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.
“Running, friends, is boring,” to tweak a line from John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. I’ve been boring myself -- that is, running regularly -- for more than 20 years now, competitively, then somewhat competitively, then by-no-stretch-of-the-imagination competitively. It’s a generally invigorating but lonely endeavor. Gone are the days when I hit the trails with boisterous teammates, and only rarely do I jog with running companions (otherwise known, somewhat euphemistically, as friends). And as for musical accompaniment? Never, not so much for purist reasons -- “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” etc. -- but because I fear that if I rely even once on an up-beat song to get me through a run, I’ll never be able to lace up without an iPod again. Thus deprived of the pleasurable distraction of conversation, as well the pulsating beats of pop music, I’ve had ample time over the course of thousands of runs to think. Or not to think. Or, as I’ve started doing over the past couple years, reciting poetry to pass the time. There is a tradeoff involved. Moving fast is surprisingly difficult while sputter forth spondees between gasps for air. Some verses, though, causes me to drag my feet more than others. Reciting the metaphysical poets costs me about a minute per mile, not to mention attracting some strange looks from passersby, especially when John Donne is involved: “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,/ And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” Gerard Manley Hopkins easily trips up the tongue and brings all progress to a halt: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” Wallace Stevens lifts my spirits but lowers my speed: “Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one/ And bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” Hard to dip under seven-minute pace reciting that. (Then again, the record for running a mile while chugging a beer before each lap is currently 4:39, so anything’s possible.) But speed and prosody can go hand in hand, or rather foot over foot. Extolling the beauty of a bonnie lass in ballad meter (Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose”); or giving oneself over to the pulsating majesty of William Blake’s “The Tyger” or the laconic stoicism of Robert Frost’s traveler (“And miles to go before I sleep”); or eulogizing A.E. Housman’s young athlete in sprightly tetrameter -- “Smart lad to slip betimes away,/ From fields where glory does not stay” -- only costs me about 20 to 30 seconds per mile. (Still too slow, sadly, to win my town the race.) I reserve John Keats for long runs on secluded trails, when I can take my time with the great odes. What pleasant running companions are satiated (if a tad lethargic) Autumn, “sitting careless on a granary floor,/ Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;” the cheerleading nightingale, “pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy!”; alluring Melancholy, whose “sovereign shrine” is in the “very temple of delight;” and the frustrated Attic youth in his perpetual mad pursuit: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss/ Though winning near the goal...” I give a little performance of “La belle dame sans merci” as well, usually at the end of a 14-miler when, haggard and woebegone, I most resemble those “pale kings and princes too/ pale warriors...their starved lips in the gloam/ With horrid warning gaping wide.” I should clarify that both to avoid attention and the psych ward, I generally mutter rather than sing the words. Only rarely do other people notice the impromptu plein air reading they are unwittingly attending. Yet at times I do unleash my inner scop in all his stentorian glory. I generally restrain the juvenile urge to taunt a runner I’ve passed with a nonsensical reworking of George Herbert’s “Love (III)” -- “Sit down and taste my meat!” -- but I can never resist hamming it up in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” specifically when the speaker plunges from the serenity of the “gardens bright” and “sunny spots of greenery” down into the darksome sublime: But Oh, that deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! A savage place! Such lines demand to be read with the same intensity as woman wailing for her demon lover. And once, when caught in a terrifying summer thunder storm -- the kind where you frantically try to remember whether you should seek shelter under a tree, as far away from a tree as possible, or just sprint through the ankle-deep puddles as fast as possible and hope that your sneakers will absorb any electric charge -- I bellowed Lear’s heath speech: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks! You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head! The performance slightly mitigated my terror, though, unlike Lear, I taxed the elements with plenty of unkindness. In calmer climes, my recitals are more private affairs. A little Richard Lovelace gets me into the questing spirit and out the door: ...a new mistress now I chase, The first foe in the field; And with a stronger faith embrace, A sword, a horse, a shield. Settling in to my pace, I shift from a martial to pagan mindset, indulging in Andrew Marvell’s pastoral visions or William Wordsworth’s flash mob of daffodils: “Ten thousand I saw at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” In colder months, Thomas Hardy (“The ancient pulse of germ and birth/ Was shrunken hard and dry”) strangely invigorates the bleak landscape. If Hardy's frail warbler can “fling his soul upon the growing gloom,” then I can drag my blast-beruffled ass over a barren hill. Returning home, I usually cover a roughly 400-meter stretch reserved exclusively for Emily Dickinson poems. If I’m feeling in a good mood, “I taste a liquor never brewed;” burdened, “There’s a certain slant of light/ Winter afternoons/ That oppresses like the heft/ Of cathedral tunes;” or hurting, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I call it the Dickinson quarter-mile, and the world record is 1:49 with three poems recited. More impressive, in my view, than the beer mile. Speaking of beer, I wish I had some poetry memorized in college, especially during that transition from the shorter distances and weaker fields of high school cross country. One quickly learns that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Perhaps Sir Thomas Wyatt’s bitterly erotic reverie, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” would have been à propos, or more to the point: Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, But as for me, helas, I may no more. The vain travail hath wearied me so sore, I am of them that farthest cometh behind. One especially fitting occasion for a dramatic poetic recitation would have been my first 8K race in Van Cortland Park, during which I collapsed on the top of the aptly named Cemetery Hill and, like Dante Alighieri upon hearing the pitiful tale of Paolo and Francesca, “caddi come corpo morte cade.” Given, however, that I was in no state to channel a foreign tongue, a terse bit from The Waste Land would have been more realistic: “And down we went.” That head-thumping fall might explain why these days I forget poetry as quickly as I memorize it. Short lyrics vanish just as suddenly as longer pieces like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” whose lines I lose and regain as regularly as the waves “draw back, and fling” the pebbles on the shore. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,/ I summon up remembrance of things past,” I can’t always summon up that remembrance. Despair not, though, for time flies when you are sifting through memory’s bric-a-brac and trying to reconstruct a poem. I once ran a three-mile stretch on a canal path while reassembling William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” By the time I had seized it once again, I felt some of the poet’s pleasure upon viewing Coole’s mysterious, beautiful creatures return Unwearied still, lover by lover, They paddle in the cold Companionable streams of climb the air; Their hearts have not grown old; Passion or conquest, wander where they will, Attend upon them still. That pleasure was tempered by the melancholy realization that I myself would awake some day to find that the lines, like the swans, had flown away. (A brief interpretive water stop: Having a poem by heart lets one explore its construction in a looser, less dutiful way than close-reading. After repeated recitals, this particular poem’s spatial dynamics rose to the fore. “The Wild Swans at Coole” is the first, and most oblique, of the three consecutive poems eulogizing Maj. Robert Gregory, an Irish fighter pilot killed in WWI. In the first two lines, we move from the treetops to the woodland paths; then from still sky to the “brimming” water. “Under” and “upon” (used five times throughout) begin lines in this first stanza, and the rest of the poem dramatizes the constantly shifting relationship between the earth-treading poet, weighed down by his loss, and the nine-and-fifty swans, either drifting on the still water or climbing the air. The action, imagery and even prepositions reinforce the latent symbolic connection between the departing swans, “wheeling in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings,” and the departed fighter pilot, once aloft and now, tragically, underground. And off we go again…) Many of the poems I have floating around my head in various states of repair are amorous, memorable instances of courtly and not-so-courtly love. These naturally come to mind when passing, being passed, or crossing paths with other runners. I wouldn’t describe myself as a lecher necessarily -- “Down, wanton, down!” -- but then again, few people would. So I’ll simply grant that from time I notice the female form in motion and fiddle with my stock of verse accordingly: “Whenas in performance fabric my Julia goes, / Then, then (methinks)/ How sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” Or if I’m feeling more romantic, some altered Lord Byron: “She jogs in beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies.” Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew A Woman,” however, needs no such tinkering: “Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: The shapes a bright container can contain!” During one run, I stumbled upon two ardent lovers in flagrante delicto within what they thought was a secluded grove. These encounters are just as embarrassing for the discovered as the discoverer. The pair looked to be doing a perfectly fine job, but annoyed by being thus importuned, I grumbled A.R. Ammons’s aspersive lines: “One failure on/ Top of another.” That could just be the bitterness of middle-age talking. I am now in the middle of life’s journey. I’ll only get slower, and, if the last five years are any indication (three ankle sprains, calf heart attack -- it’s a thing -- bad hamstring, plantar fasciitis), I can look forward to new and exotic running injuries. But if you should ever come across me on the path and see in my halting stride and grim-faced muttering a defeated man, know that the “viewless wings of poetry” are transporting me and my aching feet to a better place: And altogether elsewhere, vast Herds of reindeer move across Miles and miles of golden moss Silently and very fast. Image Credit: Pixabay.
According to a recent Washington Post article on so-called Twitter “cyborgs,” political activists are increasingly using automated “schedulers” to blast out wave after wave of pre-written posts, allowing a single user to tweet thousands of times a day. “My accounts will be tweeting long after I’m gone,” one such “cyborg” said. “Maybe in my last will and testament, I should say, ‘Load up my recurring queue.’” Hell is other people’s tweets. The visionaries Mark O’Connell profiles in his latest book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, would not be satisfied with so modest a version of immortality. Adherents of a movement called transhumanism, they dream on a grander scale, marshaling technology in their “rebellion against human existence as it has been given,” an existence constrained by physical and intellectual limitations and needlessly curtailed by death. O’Connell travels to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryopreservation facility in Arizona that houses Ted Williams’s head -- take that, Cooperstown -- where the CEO informs him that “cryonics…is really just an extension of emergency medicine.” He chats with Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, who argues that “biomedical cognitive enhancements would facilitate improved acquisition and retention of mental ability.” (Making the world a little less dumber one upload at a time!) A gerontologist seeking to radically extend lifespans describes aging as “a human disaster on an unimaginably vast scale,” and a Buddhist transhumanist prepares for the Singularity by practicing “mind-filling…a daily techno-spiritual observance, whereby you upload some measure of data about yourself.” Finally, O’Connell views the scars of Tim Cannon, who implants technological devices into his body and espouses his deterministic views in a memorably paradoxical way: “The problem is, most people make the mistake of anthropomorphizing themselves.” Fascinated, charmed, and occasionally repelled by these characters and ideas, O’Connell tries to make sense of a world in which humans are becoming more robotic and robotics more human. The Millions spoke with O’Connell, a Millions staff writer and Slate book critic, over Skype. TM: What are the goals of the transhumanist movement? MO: Their goals are blindingly simple, almost farcically simple. They want to never die. They want to be as powerful intellectually and physically as it’s possible to be within the limits of the technology of the future. They want the same thing that we, as humans, have always wanted, which is to find some kind of a release valve for our mortality, some idea for a way out, which is obviously what religion provided, and still does for most people. They want it all, but the difference of course for them is there’s the distinct possibility that this might be achievable through technology. That’s the interesting thing to me. You can’t really dismiss it as complete nonsense, because there’s always the logical possibility that it could happen. I spent a lot of time when I was writing and reporting the book being really stuck on this idea that nothing that I was hearing was completely illogical. Everything seemed to satisfy basic demands of rationalism, and yet the end result was always completely insane. TM: You call their philosophy the “event horizon” of the Enlightenment, the reductio ad absurdum of rationalism. MO: Well, you’re familiar with Beckett, so you know that rationalism is often the handmaiden of complete insanity, a tool of madness in its own way. TM: Didn’t Hugh Kenner translate a Beckett passage [from Watt] into Pascal? MO: I didn’t know that! I wish I had this conversation while I was writing the book. TM: Then there’s Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot. MO: Exactly, I kept thinking of that. I actually made several attempts to work Beckett and Flann O’Brien into the book, and I kept thinking there was something uniquely Irish about this idea of rationalism as a means towards insanity. But I could never quite figure out what that meant, or if I was merely being jingoistic. TM: How does a mere user of technology evaluate these claims that technology can be used to direct human evolution, improve the “suboptimal system” of human existence, and achieve “longevity escape velocity,” that is, defeat death? As you point out, the claims are both perfectly logical and perfectly lunatic. MO: That’s another thing I spent quite a lot of time thinking about, because, as made apparent early in the book, I don’t have a background in science. And I was tormented for a while that I didn’t really have grounds to judge the lunacy or otherwise of this stuff. I could approach it on a gut level -- This can’t be true. What this man is telling me is insanity -- but didn’t have the skill set to rationally pick apart these arguments. To use computer language, hopefully this is a feature of the book rather than a bug. I was fascinated by the topic, but part of me felt that I was the last person who should be writing this book, that it needed someone more scientifically literate. It took me a little while to come around to the idea that, well, maybe actually I’m the best person to write the book because I don’t know anything about it. It sounds slightly self-serving, but perhaps a more literary sensibility is what that topic needs. TM: If only to push back against the mechanistic or deterministic caricature of humans and human consciousness, which, as you point out, is generated partly by language, “a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasized into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.” To what extent does language shape how we conceive of the human? MO: I think it’s always metaphors. All of language is metaphorical, and any way that we can conceive of ourselves and who we are is unavoidably going to be through metaphor. So in one sense, the idea that we are a machine or a computer is as good as any we have of thinking about ourselves. Even the “human spirit” is a kind of metaphor. One of the ideas I touch on is that our latest or most pervasive technology is what serves as the metaphor for our minds. For example, in the Renaissance with clockwork, or the Victorian period with steam engines. Psychoanalysis was full of steam metaphors… TH: Releasing pent-up pressures and all that. MO: Exactly. And those might not make sense anymore, but even if we don’t necessarily subscribe to that way of thinking about ourselves, we do tend to accept certain notions of the brain as computational. I instinctively reject those ways of thinking about what the mind is, but at the same, time, I’m obsessed with notions of productivity and getting the most out of my time. Even though I’m a really inefficient mechanism, I can’t help thinking of myself in that way. TM: You bring up [the Swedish philosopher] Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment about a computer tasked with producing paper clips most efficiently. The computer turns the entire universe into one giant manufacturing facility -- a nightmarish vision of productivity. MO: If we’re going to think of ourselves in that way, if we’re going to measure ourselves computationally, think of ourselves as having value in so far as we can compute info and figure things out and be “intelligent,” then we’re always going to lose to machines in the end. And I think that is part of why the logic of capitalism is so disturbing. That idea is not front and center in the book, but it’s running in the background. There’s another computational metaphor. TM: I’m keeping a running tab. MO: It’s a tab that’s open, I’m sure. TM: While the transhumanists speak in utopian terms, there is this dystopian aspect to a ruthlessly efficient, techno-capitalist future. MO: That is a dystopian idea, but I’m not a prognosticator of the future. The book’s message is not, We have to prepare for this. But it seems to me inevitable that the automation revolution is coming, and it’s going to be much bigger than the original Industrial Revolution where machines were obviously replacing a lot of workers. I think that artificial intelligence, when it comes -- and it will come, I believe -- is going to displace huge numbers of workers. And that’s a crisis, but it’s also a crisis that’s inherent in the logic of capitalism. That’s one of the contradictions of capitalism, that it’s striving for the replacement of labor with mechanization. The ownership of the labor force and the means of production seems to be what capital wants, to put it in a slightly mystical way. I don’t see anyone trying to prevent that politically at the moment. Watching your election in the States, it’s apparent to me that the whole idea of bringing jobs back to America, industrial jobs -- it’s so obvious that’s not going to happen. Or if does happen, production will come back from China eventually, but only when automation allows for cheaper labor. TM: To pivot away from economics to aesthetics, in the book you describe some of the artistic efforts of computers. If poetry is that which can’t be paraphrased, can it (or other art forms) be coded? MO: My instinct is that no computer can make art, but I don’t necessarily trust that instinct because there are so many suppositions. What do we mean by art? If we define art as something made by humans, then no. But have you heard any music or the Google AI art that came out a year ago? Google made this machine-run algorithm that was able to make pictures of dogs and various standard scenes, and they’re incredibly weird. They’re like nothing else you’ve ever seen in terms of imagery. You’re obviously looking at a picture of a dog, but they’re deeply uncanny. And the same is true of the music that’s been created by AI. There was a musical that came out in the West End in London, and the lyrics and the music were both written by a machine. And it wasn’t terrible, but it was just off. The same is true for any music I’ve heard composed by a machine. I would’ve expected music composed by computers to sound like Aphex Twin or something, but way more austere. But it doesn’t sound like that at all. It all sounds like ad jingles or radio stings. The music reflects some cheesy vision of ourselves back at us in a way that’s deeply unsettling. But could a machine can ever make art? Who knows? Would you want that? I’d be interested, but I don’t know if I’d want to read a book written by a machine. TM: Or literary criticism generated by a machine? Franco Moretti has claimed that the only way to understand the novel is to stop reading them. We don’t have the computational power to get the full picture. MO: Yes, stop wasting time reading novels! TM: As a literary critic, which contemporary novels do you think fictionalize the human condition vis-à-vis technology most astutely? MO: Most of what I read that fed into the book was genre stuff, sci-fi, which is not an area I was that familiar with. Weirdly the book that clicked that I read close to the end of writing the book is Zero K, which is amazing. Obviously, DeLillo’s a genius, but he’s 80 and not immersed in technology in the lived sense. But I think he gets this stuff in the way that so few contemporary writers of so-called literary fiction anyway do. And I also read White Noise while writing the book. TM: Some of the transhumanists express lyrical visions of immortality in the Singularity. They want to exist as pure consciousness, “a being of such unimaginably vast power and knowledge that there was literally nothing outside…[part of] an interconnected system of interlocking nodes.” MO: Such a weird thing to want. I could never get to the point where I could really emphasize with it, which was one of the challenges in writing the book. I didn’t want to just have my skepticism borne out. I wanted to be won over. And in some ways, these people seemed way more human to me than they were at the start, but I never got to the point where I could say, yeah, I could see why you would want to be data, disembodied information in the cloud. That seemed to me a fate literally worse than death. TM: Especially if you don’t like your disembodied neighbors. MO: Right. We’ll be dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with now. TM: The characters do come across as human, especially a questing soul like Roen, a monkish rider on the “Immortality Bus,” [a coffin-shaped recreational vehicle touring the U.S. and spreading the transhumanist message]. He abstains from alcohol and sex to preserve his body for future bliss. MO: Roen, yes. If I were writing a novel, and he were a character, I’d probably want to tone it down a bit. Too on the nose. But that’s something you don’t have to worry about as a nonfiction writer. Who cares if it’s too ridiculous? The more ridiculous the better. TM: What did you make of this devotional aspect to the movement? MO: That is a huge dimension to the book. And weirdly, when I was writing, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with Catholic priests in Ireland for a different project that never saw the light of day. I guess because I was doing this other project at the same time, I saw the connections between the two. TM: And then in contrast, you have the “practical transhumanists” at Grindhouse Wetware outside of Pittsburg, who implant devices into their flesh to livestream their vitals, open car doors, etc. MO: Those guys are intense. And that’s why I think what they’re doing, as fascinating and grotesque as it is, is a gesture, a provocation about the future of ourselves and technology. What they’re doing is actually really low tech stuff. What it allows you to do is fairly minimal. I guess I can see the use value of not taking my keys out of my pocket [to open a car door] and having an implanted ID chip, but it’s minor stuff. In a way, it’s closer to screen body modification than actually becoming a cyborg. But their endpoint is the Singularity. Becoming a cyborg is only a step along the way for them. I could never really figure out whether that is a viable future for humans. Most people would not want that or anything close to that, but there are ways in which tech is already very much under our skin already, metaphorically. TM: It’s interesting how transhumanist goals are often framed in the broadest of humanitarian terms, that we all need fixing and thus are all in a sense “disabled;” that we are all trapped in the wrong bodies because all bodies are fundamentally wrong. One transhumanist even attempts to find common cause with the transgender movement using that logic. MO: Yes, though transgender people would look at the claim differently. TM: As would a disabled person. MO: For sure. TM: Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist presidential candidate whom you profile, suggested that the money allotted to make Los Angeles’ streets more wheelchair accessible would be better spent on robotic exoskeleton technology. MO: And Zoltan got into pretty hot water over that. It was a slightly dumb thought experiment that I don’t think he thought through the implications of, but was happy enough with the backlash because it got people thinking through his ideas. And in a way, there’s a weird blinkered rationalism to it. Yeah, if you’re going to look at things in a completely, rigorously rational way, then maybe we should be improving all of our bodies and not spending money putting wheelchair ramps around L.A., but that’s not how the world works. That might be how a computer network system might approach it, but it’s not how humans work. TM: There also seems to be a fascist element to this thinking, which reminds me of the slightly creepy spectacle of the DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Robotics Challenge, “Woodstock for robots” as The New York Times called it. It’s the military industrial complex as family-friendly spectacle. MO: That was one of the must fun things I did on the trips. I went with a friend from Ireland, and the experience itself wasn’t creepy. It was weird and interesting. But it was only thinking about it seriously after that it did seem to say something quite disturbing about America and American’s sense of itself in regards to power and violence and technology. TM: You mentioned earlier that there might be something Irish about logical absurdity, but is there a distinctly American aspect to transhumanism and its audacious drive toward self-betterment. MO: I can’t ignore the fact that so many of the prominent transhumanist are European or Russian, but I also can’t ignore the fact that so many end up in the Silicon Valley. In a way, then, there’s something uniquely American about it, but unique in the sense of America as welcoming of eccentrics and dreamers from all over the place. But there is also a connection culturally to American’s strange optimism about the possibility of technology and progress and individualism. TM: And what about transhumanism’s politics or ideology? MO: There are various strains politically within transhumanism -- various liberal and socialist bents -- but it seems to me that is a fundamentally individualistic, basically libertarian philosophy. And that maps very clearly onto America’s sense of itself, I think. It’s not coincidental that it’s taken hold so firmly in Silicon Valley. It did feel to me when I was writing that I was writing a book about America as much as anything else. In a very oblique, quite idiosyncratic way, it was a way for me to come to grips with how strange I find America. I didn’t put my foot down about a lot of things, but when my American publisher was doing the audiobook, they had initially suggested a bunch of American actors to do the narration. I was very specific about not wanting an American voice to do my narrative voice, because I think a huge dimension of the reader’s experience is my bafflement [as an Irishman] about transhumanism specifically but also about American culture in general. And I think that would not come across in an American accent. TM: I’m hearing Stephen Fry in my head. MO: Perhaps too British, but there is a whole tradition of specifically British writers and being comically baffled by American stuff. And that is an element of the book, but I also wanted to avoid that, “Hey, look at that American. He’s fucking weird. Bunch of lunatics over here.” TM: Like Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One in his satirical take on American death culture. Speaking of death culture, or death avoidance culture, when maverick multi-millionaires describe death as a humanitarian crisis, is this just a Silicon Valley spin on their own desire for immortality? MO: The whole project grew out a kernel of identification with this idea. I started becoming interested in transhumanism 10 or 12 years ago when I wrote about it for a little magazine in Dublin called Mongrel after college. I talked to Steve Coll, who is a New Yorker staff writer, and he told me about this party he was at in Silicon Valley with a bunch of people who had been in on the ground floor of Google and were multi-gajillionaires in their early 30s. They had made all their money and were wondering what to do next. And they all said some version of, “Well, the thing we all want to do is to figure out how to stay alive long enough to spend all our money. So the next frontier for technology, as we see it, is immortality or radical life extension.” That really got me interested in this, because, as I write in the beginning of the book, becoming a father made me start to think about the frailty and precariousness of life. They’re right, it sucks that we have to die! That’s what almost everything is about. Almost all of human culture and religion is a channeling or a sublimation of this fear of death, which we’re all thinking about in one way or another all the time. I know I am, anyway, not directly thinking about it all the time but… TM: Oh, it’s usually in the back of my mind. MO: So I totally identify with that. It’s bullshit that we have to die. Who designed this? TM: Right, this a crisis! MO: So I get it, but I also feel like it’s a really a strange way to approach death, to roll up your sleeves and say, we’re going to sort this. We throw enough man hours and intel units at this thing, and we’re gonna solve it. TM: Or show up at Google HQ with a sign, “GOOGLE, PLEASE SOLVE DEATH” as one transhumanist does. MO: One of the things I didn’t go into in the book was all the potential problems that would arise from solving the central problem of death. Obvious things, like overpopulation, what do you do with your eternal life. I did think about that stuff, it just didn’t make it into the book because it wasn’t what I was most interested in. TM: One of the things you were interested in was how transhumanism -- with its instrumental view of the human -- made you aware of your own body, your own flesh as a “dead format.” MO: Jesus, that’s horrible. TM: Sorry. MO: Yeah, all the reading and grappling with mechanistic ideas and talking with people who thought in that way definitely had an effect on how I experienced my fleshy humanity. I’m not sure how differently I feel about being a human now. I’m not sure I have an answer now about what it means to be a human, but I do think it has something to do with not being a machine. That’s not a great answer to arrive at after two or three years of writing a book on the topic, but I know I don’t want to be a machine. TM: Not even a little? MO: I may change my mind. It’s funny, I’ve noticed that younger people see the immortalism of transhumanism as an out-there, whacky idea, whereas older people find it fascinating. I remember talking to my dad about it, and he said, “Well, I think maybe they’re onto something.” He’s 73 now. Life extension doesn’t seem so crazy when you’re up against the limit of your own natural lifespan. But I fundamentally don’t think Peter Thiel is going to save us.
1. I awoke one morning inside of a giant oyster shell, dimly made out a treasure chest overflowing with precious jewels, then turned to see a pair of comely mermaids beckoning from the wall. I briefly thought I had dreamt myself into "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea...”), but soon realized that I was in a much stranger place: the Sea-Cave Suite in a Pocatello, Idaho, hotel. I suppose it could have been worse. Gay Talese’s necktie could have dangled through one of the heating -- er, hydrothermal vents -- indicating that he was on the case of yet another voyeuristic ethnologist-cum-motelier. Or one of the mermaids could have emerged from the wall and exacted her revenge for some past depredation of her ocean realm. As Colin Dickey puts it in Ghostland, his sharp, enjoyable study of the repressed past expressed in American ghost stories, “...all hotels are haunted. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t see this, if you don’t recognize that you sleep with ghosts.” If all hotels are haunted, they are also all strange, even if less outwardly so that the Sea-Cave Suite. Again, to quote Dickey: “There’s something uncanny about the very nature of a hotel, its endless, involuntary repetition of home-seeming spaces, rooms that could almost be home but are always somehow slightly off.” After a nice long think in the grotto shower, I resolved, once back on dry land, to conduct a survey of recent, or recently reissued, novels that make their home, so to speak, in hotels. 2. “It’s an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving doors the same as when he came in,” writes Vicki Baum in Grand Hotel, the 1929 novel (and basis for the famous 1932 film) reissued last year by New York Review Books. This maxim may or may not hold true for guests of limited duration, but it certainly does for the Russian Count Alexander Rostov, who in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is sentenced to house (or rather hotel) arrest at the Metropol Hotel. Beginning in 1922, he stays there for over three decades, though this confinement is not as restrictive as it initially seems: “Within the Metropol there were rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors.” Grand Hotel depicts the exhaustion, loneliness, and alienation of the luxury life. “The whole hotel is only a rotten pub,” scoffs its most cynical habitué. Even the guests’ footwear seem to be tortured souls: “Some wedded pair of boots and shoes that stand outside the doors at night wear a distinct impression of mutual hatred on their leather visages." Its most memorable character, the aging dancer Grusinksaya, wears “trodden-down slippers” covering “weary, unutterably weary” feet. Adventures galvanize the vigorless cast, but the enlivening enchantments, in an out of the “mass-produced” beds, are always fleeting. What remains once the revolving door turns once more is a nightmarish scene of soulless luxury: “an endless perspective of hotel bedrooms with double doors and running water and the indefinable odor of restlessness and homelessness.” A Gentleman in Moscow, by contrast, demonstrates indefatigable wonder at the variety and whimsy of the grand hotels. Towles’s novel, as if protesting of its own straitening conceit, resolves to be big. The six-foot-three-inch hero, Count Rostov, cannot stand up to his full height in the attic room to which he is assigned, though his spirit is not similarly cramped. In Soviet Russia size doesn’t necessarily matter: “For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then that which exists in secret can, regardless of its dimension, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.” The novel contains delightful touches worthy of inclusion in the feuilletons on interwar hotel life filed by Joseph Roth (collected in The Hotel Years). The barbershop is “a land of optimism, precision and political neutrality...the Switzerland of the hotel.” The hotel restaurant, the Boyarsky, wages an epic struggle to maintain its standards, “a battle that must be waged with exacting precision while giving the impression of effortlessness, every single night of the year.” And the bored international journalists congregating in the hotel bar devise ploys to attract summonses from the ever-vigilant Commissariat of Internal Affairs. One conspicuously drops a letter “that included descriptions of troop movements and artillery placements on the outskirts of Smolensk.” He is called in by the authorities, only to explain that he has copied out the description of the Battle of Borodino from War and Peace. Rostov conspires with the restaurant staff against a villainous hotel manager; becomes enamored of a silent film movie star; roams the hotel with an adorably precocious girl; scares off a young man sniffing around his adopted daughter in a typically mannered way (“So that’s your game, is it? Seducing young women with jitterbugs?”); is enlisted to school a Red Army Colonel in the cultural traditions of the West; and chuckles approvingly over the farcical scene of three geese scurrying about and terrorizing a Swiss diplomat, Uzbek fur traders, and a Vatican representative (“How I love this hotel”). It’s all very light -- even the Count’s momentary resolution to hurl himself off his balcony doesn’t dampen things terribly -- but after nearly 500 pages, the airiness becomes curiously stifling. I found myself in odd sympathy with the Soviet interrogator at the beginning of the novel, who is somewhat exasperated by the Count’s winning archness. “History,” the Bolshevik chides the nobleman, “has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.” 3. If A Gentleman in Moscow is a big novel that ultimately feels small, Yusuf Atilgan’s reissued Motherland Hotel is a small novel that feels big. Motherland Hotel, originally published in Turkey in 1973, is the story of a private space made public, then made private again when its clerk unravels and shut himself, and the hotel, off from the outside world. The sign directing passersby “points downwards giving the impression that the hotel lies underground,” thus inadvertently indicating the trajectory of the novel’s protagonist. “Son, when I’m dead and gone I don’t want you giving this room to just anyone who comes along. Every hotel needs a room like this.” Zeberjet, the phlegmatic clerk “of not quite average height” -- compare another taller, but still deficient hero, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, “an inch, or perhaps two, under six feet” -- follows this paternal advice. He reserves the special room for special guests, like the glamorous woman from Ankara, whose arrival wakes Zeberjet from his sleepy existence. We learn that the hotel was converted from a manor house, one of the few structures standing after the fleeing Greek army set fire to the town in 1922. Its name, The Motherland Hotel, is a relic of the “shamefaced patriotic zeal encountered, during the years just after Liberation, in those towns and cities where very little had been done about the enemy.” The gesture gives the modest establishment a slightly ridiculous air, and adds to the sense that for the unanchored Zeberjet, the town and nation are similarly full of bluster. The transformation from manor house to “true hotel” takes years, not until “that small-town-hotel odor seeped into walls and woodwork.” But to someone who was born in one of its rooms, that transformation can never completely take place, no matter how many travelers, businessmen, couples, or prostitutes find lodging there. The hotel is a domestic inheritance, having come down to Zeberjet from his well-to-do merchant ancestors. That family, with its Faulknerian history of madness and suicide, is a ghostly presence in the novel. The room in which Zeberjet’s lecherous, senile grandfather was locked up in is now the third-floor bathroom, and tales of the sexual escapades between and among masters and servants work their way into Zeberjet’s erotic imagination, as do tantalizing overheard snatches from the hotel’s guests. (Zeberjet is an auditory voyeur, as it were.) Motherland Hotel, which depicts the gradual disintegration of a mind, begins in a relatively orderly fashion. After a mildly disorienting opening passage, the narrative resets and proceeds with a series of labeled sections (“The Hotel,” “The Town,” etc.), as if to stave off the coming chaos. The principal actors are similarly introduced: Zeberjet, who carries out his duties in zombie-like fashion; the languorous maid whom he accosts each night in her sleep (“Sometimes he’ll be a nipple and she mumbles ‘Ow’ or ‘Scat’”; the glamorous woman from Ankara, who stays for one night and whose room Zeberjet keeps free in the hopes that she will return; and the mysterious “Retired Officer” who loiters for days on end in the lobby and seems as obsessed with the Ankaran woman as Zeberjet. Even the cat and a pair of bath towels -- one belonging to the hotel, one left by the woman from Ankara -- are included in this dramatis personae. In a novel full of somnolent characters, inanimate objects become charged. Zeberjet fetishizes the traces of the woman from Ankara, keeping her room as a shrine, one which he honors, or profanes, with masturbatory visits. But he seems to take a greater sensual pleasure in the commonplace words uttered in their brief interaction (“Never mind the change”) or in calculating the number of cups she poured from the tea kettle he brought to her room, how many lumps of sugar she used. When he breaks her teacup one night, the accident shatters the sanctified atmosphere and his hopes for her return: “The room had been violated. Now she would not come back.” No matter. The nameless woman (she claims to carry no ID) spawns nameless desires, setting off an unpredictable chain of reactions in the affectless man for whom the hotel has become a kind of prison over the years. (Zeberjet hardly gets out more often than Count Rostov.) He shaves his moustache and buys new clothes; turns away new guests; thrillingly, but timidly, flirts with a young man; and roams aimlessly about the small town. Once out in the world again, he witnesses a world of action and contests starkly different from the purgatorial torpor of the Motherland Hotel. He watches a cockfight in which one of the birds (sporting the same color as the towel left behind by the woman) is killed in the ring, to the dismay of the onlookers: “Maybe they were afraid of going all the way. Of seeing the end.” He sees a movie, a typical Western in which a lone hero takes on corrupt town bosses. It rings false to him, though he grants that “it gave the illusion that something could be accomplished single-handed, and you went along.” Finally, he attends the murder trial of a young man who, for reasons he doesn’t divulge, strangled his wife on their wedding night. The hunger for a motive exasperates him: “Why a motive at all they need a story either insult or a slap silence or obedience something to fit a little box...” These scenes of violence -- ritualized, heroic, inexplicable -- foretell Zeberjet’s own surrender to his darker impulses, a necessary surrender, according to him: “He felt embarrassed, ashamed actually, before all those people who thought of themselves as innocent, who failed to realize that only crime -- some kind of crime -- could keep you alive on earth.” Such half-baked Nietzschean sentiments are less indicative of his madness, though, than the cooly rational, and illogical, summation of his own crack-up: Basically the running of a hotel was no different from running an institution, managing a large business, or governing a country. Just when you began to know yourself and understand what the means at hand might be, that’s when you slipped and broke down. Luckily the managers of government didn’t realize this, or they could do much more harm than the manager of a small hotel. Here is the madman’s tendency to see his particular condition as universal. All the word’s mad, and the center cannot hold for the motherland’s statesmen and hoteliers alike. Image Credit: Pexels.
In honor of -- or in dismay at -- Oxford Dictionaries announcing “post-truth” as the word of the year, I thought I’d highlight books that dove headlong into fiction, books that are set, quite literally, in the land of literature. In Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows, a work comprising 34 sections, the narrator resides in an upper story of “the house of fiction” along with like-minded writers. Henry James’s name naturally comes up frequently in their conversations, but, as the narrator dryly notes, another subject is avoided: “The word plot is seldom heard in the sporadic discussions that take place in the upper corridor of this remote wing of this building that remains largely unfamiliar to most of us.” A Million Windows is, among other things, a primer on narratology, though when the narrator looks at a chart produced by a renowned German narratologist, it brings to mind an “inscrutable calendar or sky-map from a civilization long since vanished.” The narrator’s primary contention, however, is far from inscrutable: There is an unbridgeable divide between the real, or “visible,” world and the fictional, or “invisible,” world -- each operating under an incompatible set of principles. Both sets of principles are mystifying to the narrator, but “I could never doubt that those in the one differ greatly from those in the other and could never consider any writer claiming otherwise to be anything but a fool.” There are many such fools. The narrator has little patience for social novelists, “the paraphrasers of yesterday’s newspaper headlines: those who write, often with what is praised as moral indignation or incisive social commentary, about matters that none of us in this building has ever understood, let alone wanted to comment on.” Confessional novelists, whose works “might have passed for documentary films, with themselves as subject-matter,” don’t impress him either. (No Karl Ove Knausgaard on his Christmas list.) He shows a grudging respect for a writer like Charles Dickens and the “control that [he] and others exercised over their characters,” yet views his own lack of control as liberating, admiring Evelyn Waugh’s remark that he had never entertained the least interest in why his characters behaved as they did. The principled narrator technically cohabitates with romance novelists in the house of two or three stories, but late night assignations are unlikely: “Somewhere in this building is a colony of writers of this sort of fiction, although none of us has sought to learn where.” The narrator distrusts easy mimeticism, railing against the “faulty fiction” that draws on filmic techniques to set the scene: “What happens in the mind of the reader of true fiction is richer and more memorable by far than anything seen through the lens of a camera or overheard by an author in a bar or a trailer park.” Dialog is a no-no for a variety of reasons: because it makes the text look like a “filmscript;” allows the writer to avoid “struggl[ing] with a report of elusive or abstruse matters;” and, crucially, is a device that “most readily persuades the undiscerning reader that the purpose of fiction is to provide the nearest possible equivalents of experiences obtainable in this, the visible world where books are written and read.” As a result, the narrator and his ilk react with palpable disgust opening dialog-heavy books, “the sight of quotation marks looking like swarms of flies...” An Ivy Compton Burnett novel would thus be a festering carcass. What, then, distinguishes “true” fiction from “faulty” fiction? A Million Windows answers this question by defining and then exhibiting what true fiction looks like. First the definition -- or rather one of many: We sense that true fiction is more likely to include what was overlooked or ignored or barely seen or felt at the time of its occurrence but comes continually to mind ten or twenty years afterwards not on account of its having long ago provoked passion or pain but because of its appearing to be part of a pattern of meaning that extends over much of a lifetime. A certain Keatsian receptivity is required, the willingness to obey the apparitions delivering the following command: “Write about me in order to discover my secret and to learn what throng of images, as yet invisible, lie around me.” There are tantalizing snippets of these “haunters,” or “ghosts above the pages,” or “casters of fictional shadows” -- all terms used to emphasize the absolute otherworldliness of the fictional realm and its inhabitants. Primary among these is the narrator’s mother, who “for reasons that he could never afterwards recall...was not to be trusted.” (Trust -- in narrators, people, readers -- is a main theme.) The mother is the first in a series of dark-haired haunters who bewitch him. In some cases, a brief glimpse of a stranger is enough: “A few strands of hair and a small area of skin of a certain colour had started him on a detailed mental enterprise that occupied much of his free time for two years.” (With so little else to grasp onto, colors become almost more important than characters.) There are two ways to read A Million Windows. One would be to recoil at the narrator’s ostentatiously recondite, and rigid, vision of fiction and stubbornly defend the meticulously choreographed plots, intense identification with characters, genre fiction, film, and prestige television. Or, as the “discerning reader” mentioned throughout the novel, you could marvel at the narrator’s ostentatiously recondite, and rigid, vision of fiction, then, before picking up another Murnane -- say, Inland -- treat yourself to a cozy mystery, perhaps set in a house of two or three stories with numberless windows. And now for something completely different...yet another work of the fictional landscape made manifest: Christopher Boucher’s Golden Delicious. The novel takes place in the town of Appleseed, Mass., or rather in the pages of Appleseed. Plentiful stories used to grow in the once fertile soil, and “wild language” ran through the streets, prompting parents to enact “no language-in-the-house policies.” But a blight has struck Appleseed, and the ground is filled with “dead language...commas, semicolons, fragments, wordbones, and other carcasses.” Meanwhile, bookworms, with their unparalleled “ability to metaphor,” have infiltrated the town and spread their rot into language, rendering sentences incoherent and threatening to destroy the lifeblood of the economy: meaning. The narrative world runs riot with personifications. A certain War is said to have died after a truce, though rumors persist that he lives on. The narrator loses his virginity to the Appleseed Community Theater: “The scene happened so quickly; soon it was one spotlight, then several, and then all the light, bright hot white, and then curtains and applause, and darkness.” And the description of an automobile as “a strange metaphor of a vehicle, assembled from pieces and parts of others cars” reminded me of a friend’s elegant, turnpike-inspired simile that forever solidified for me the distinction between a metaphor’s tenor and vehicle: “My love for you is like a truck.” Yes, the novel is clotted with whimsy, and some readers won’t find its wit, or scenes of non-whimsical menace, sufficient to counteract the glut. But for me the fanciful novel managed to walk the tightrope, stumbling but never falling into the cloying abyss. And now for something even more completely different...I’ve been paging through an edition of The Voynich Manuscript (Beinecke MS 408), a baffling 15th-century book of “herbal, astrological, balneological (relating to healing baths), and pharmacological” drawings accompanied by an impenetrable text that has never been decoded. The manuscript was once purchased for the low price of 600 ducats by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who thought it to be a work by Roger Bacon; centuries later, a shadowy rare books dealer and revolutionary by the name of Wilfrid Michael Voynich got his hands on it. Yale University’s Beinecke Library has the book now. The Voynich MS is not a work of fiction -- though it very well may be a hoax -- and yet there is something of the fictional imagination at play, a commitment to a private truth expressed in a private, indecipherable way. The sui generis manuscript contains a world unto itself. In one section, a series of nude women bathe in green water, in blue water, in communal or private tubs, posed in foot baths or sticking their arms in an octopus-like contraption of pipes and funnels. What Whitmanian raptures, or hygienic tips, does the surrounding text reveal? We will probably never know. William Friedman, “the world’s greatest cryptologist” who led the U.S. effort to break Japanese codes in World War II, tried to solve the riddle over many years. His final statement on the matter expressed “the futility of searching for anagrammatic ciphers,” and the statement itself concealed a coded message: “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type—Friedman.” That doesn’t mean I won’t give it a try. After all, in the past year I’ve successfully completed Escape the Room -- twice. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? 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Three recent works, an updating of a Franz Kafka story, a rambunctious saga, and a cautionary tale about the home-wrecking potential of home-buying provided my reading sustenance this summer. Each is predominantly about appetite -- for food, sex, fame, money, adventure -- and its potential wasting effect on the human soul. 1. By making the narrator of his first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a talking chimp -- and an orotund one at that -- Benjamin Hale pushed the boundaries of the human. He does the same, quite literally, in the title story from his new collection, The Fat Artist, in which a man attempts to become the fattest -- or rather, heaviest -- man alive under the glare of Guggenheim museum-goers. The artist, Tristan Hurt, is “blessed with the gift of bullshit” and, in thrall to the “fame drive,” has made a name for himself through a series of “ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman” installations. Or as he succinctly sums up his aesthetic: “I lived as if my parents were dead.” And that’s before he plants himself in a glass box, vowing to eat whatever is brought to him by visitors attracted by the ghoulish spectacle. Hale’s glib showman doesn’t register with the same intensity as Kafka’s starving artist-saint, or even the “young panther” that replaces him, but Tristan, blessed with a liberal arts education, is by far the best theoretician: ...in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self-abnegation no longer retains this primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first-century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior. How often have you heard a woman describe a rich dessert as “sinful”? To eat is to sin—in secular society, the body replaces the soul. Good and evil are no longer purely spiritual concepts—these words have been transubstantiated into the realm of the flesh. Aquinas, who laid out five specific kinds of overindulgence, might have raised an eyebrow at the claim that eating has just now become a moralized behavior. Tristran’s is a facile argument for a facile character, but that doesn’t mean the provocateur hasn’t stumbled on the culminating project of his career, in which his ego and self-loathing swell in equal measure. 2. Something of a “fat artist” makes an appearance in Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table as well: Willy the Whale, a carnival act who dies after eating “half a hogshead of raw crawdads in an hour.” Willy the Whale’s is one of many prodigious appetites in the lusty novel, which could hardly find a more fitting epigraph than Ben Jonson’s “On Gut:” “Gut eats all day and lechers all the night/so all his meat he tasteth over twice….” (Pollock’s debut collection of stories, Knockemstiff, also had its share of lust and gluttony, their connection highlighted in a brief portrait of two women “who, out of sheer loneliness, end up doing kinky stuff with candy bars, wake up with apple fritters in their hair.”) Early on, we meet a hermit preaching the virtues of asceticism and waxing rhapsodic on the “heavenly table” awaiting us in the afterlife: “Won’t be no scrounging for scraps after that, I guarantee ye.” The rest of the story is about how that celestial vision is translated, or mistranslated, in the earthly realm where human appetites run amok. I say “human” appetites, but one of the more chilling scenes involves a satiated intestinal worm working its way out of a corpse. The Heavenly Table opens on the Georgia-Alabama border in 1917 as a white sharecropping family shares “a bland wad of flower and water fried in a dollop of leftover fat.” When one of the widowed father’s three sons makes a wisecrack he doesn’t appreciate, a swift chokehold dislodges even that meager repast from the offender’s throat. The father soon dies, and with his passing the novel’s atmosphere of hardscrabble abstemiousness dissipates. The novel shifts tone from eerie Southern Gothic to Rabelaisan picaresque, and the feast, “pork chops thick as a bull’s cock, beefsteaks the size of wagon wheels, buttered biscuits as hot and fluffy as...tits,” begins. And with the feast, a lot of shit -- a scrupulous latrine inspector is among the central characters. First, the three sons gorge on a sick hog: “People most always have a big feed after a funeral, don’t they?” They gorge again after murdering their employer, an exploitative landowner who spends “comfortable evening[s] alone drinking brandy in the dark and idly thinking of all the women he had molested over the years.” The crime commits them to a fugitive life as semi-competent bank robbers -- the “Jewett Boys” as they are known in the tabloids -- a journey taking them north towards Meade, a southern Ohio town catering to the various needs, and vices, of a nearby army camp preparing soldiers to go overseas to fight in the First World War. Along with a memorable meal -- “eight lobsters, along with boiled potatoes and slaw, an entire plate of macaroons” -- Meade offers them an opportunity to whet other appetites. “Shit, I could have gone five or six if I’d known what I was doing at first,” says one brother after a visit to the local brothel, the Whore Barn. Along with books, women, and booze, books are avidly consumed. The brothers have memorized one of their few possessions, a pulp novel called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. It is “filled...with every act of rape, robbery, and murder that [the author’s] indignant syphylitic brain could possibly conceive.” (The elder, and most refined, brother covets more refined fare, fantasizing about a well-lined bookshelf rather than a well-fed stomach.) Another character partly blames his son’s dissolution on getting his hands on a copy of Tom Jones, a similarly rollicking episodic adventure. In the novel’s most hamfisted scene, it suddenly dawns on an army officer trained in classical literature that he is gay. His harrowing, ill-fated attempt to lose his virginity to a ravenous hotel maid is less revelatory than a flashback to his college reading syllabus: “After all, his revered Greeks and Romans had written so much about it. Buggery. Pederasty. Homosexuality.” The Eureka moment brings tears to his eyes, and the formally staid lieutenant is indulging in drug-fueled orgies by week’s end. L’appétit vient en mangeant... In brief, passions, and portions, are outsized in The Heavenly Table, which gives it an indigestible quality. The fast-moving adventure and gallery of grotesques consistently entertain, but as one shovels down the novel’s 72 chapters, the concentrated flavor of the exquisite opening becomes a distant memory. 3. Faintly audible behind all the novel’s noise is an elegy for a world threatened by the “ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of twentieth century capitalism.” A ravenous economic system produces ravenous subjects, and jumping to the ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of the 21st century, we meet two such subjects in Joe McGinniss Jr.’s Carousel Court. Carousel Court takes place close to the present, during the recent housing crash, yet it feels post-apocalyptic, Flip This House meets The Road. Nick and Phoebe have relocated from Boston to California, planning to rent in Los Angeles and renovate a house in Serenos, Calif., an inland development. The young couple spare no expense in their “virtual homebuilding” -- an hourglass pool, Italian marble bathroom, and an indoor climbing wall, which, as events spiral downward, stands as a mocking reminder of their upwardly mobile aspirations. Nick loses his job, the economy tanks, and the 30-something pair are marooned among “rotting five-bedroom corpses,” their desolate neighborhood visited nightly by “mountain lions and bobcats, pit vipers, and Latino gangs trolling for new turf.” They have bitten off more than then they can chew, and are now at risk of the “barren landscape fold[ing] in on itself, this patch of earth swallowing” them whole. Their underwater mortgage is actually less disastrous than their caustic marriage -- an epistolary novella could be constructed entirely out of their hostile text messages -- which from the start is threatened by a mismatch in drives. Try as he might to satisfy it, Nick recognizes a hunger in his wife he can never satisfy, “an appetite that seemed to border on compulsion.” The most pronounced, and intoxicating, feature of her beautiful face is “that jaw of hers,” seductive and menacing, even more so as it juts out more prominently from her emaciated face. Phoebe’s hunger is entirely figurative; indeed, her diet consists primarily of booze and Klonopin, and her budget-busting trips to Whole Foods are less about eating, or feeding her child, than restorative glimpses of paradise: “She’ll linger in the wide, bountiful aisles, the cool air, the welcoming faces, and mist will cleanse fresh-cut kale, and time itself will stop.” Allen Ginsberg saw the ghost of Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California; Phoebe has had her own, distinctly yuppie vision of the heavenly table. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. Florence King, author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, died this January at the age of 80. She was a humorist, columnist for the conservative journal National Review, literary critic, onetime smut writer, and misanthrope who “dwelled in that 14th Amendment of the human spirit known as ‘Everybody stinks.’” (Her words.) Humans may have been unworthy of her respect, but language was sacred: “I don't care what people do to each other but I care passionately about what they do to English.” King was an expert categorizer of people: Southern ladies and gentlemen (“other people enter houses but Southerners surge in on the wings of speech”); “that many-splendored thing called a good ole boy”; High WASPs, whose priorities can be gleaned from their grocery lists (“Alpo, 9-Lives, Harper’s, tomato juice, Worcestershire, Tabasco, vodka, food”); the New Hypochondriacs, who “want to skip both illness and health so they can get to prevention and recovery, co-dependency and enabling;” and William "Bill” Fletcher, the embodiment of the regular American guy. He is a loud, importuning “self-proclaimed expert at spotting arcane lubricious distinctions across a crowded room” who subjects women to lecherous bonhomie: A woman is wise to shriek with laughter over [his] bon mots. If she merely smiles wryly she is effectively announcing that she has experienced mild pleasure but not orgasm. In William “Bill” Fletcher’s world, “Did I make you laugh?” and “Did I make you come?” are interchangeable questions, so he keeps pumping away, repeating the punch line and elbowing her in the ribs in a symbolic attempt to send her over the top. Fake the laugh. If you don’t, he will put a comforting arm around your shoulders and say, “You’d be a great gal if only you’d develop a sense of humor.” Woe to him who finds himself the object of King's withering gaze, be he a boorish flirt or the male Southern author of dynastic novels: He must show a long line of men, each of whom was half as good as the daddy before him, until he gets to the autobiographical character who, by definition, has undergone the most complete mathematical reduction of all. What an elegant way to call someone a zero. King labored over her crisp, epigrammatic prose -- “Some women primp; I rewrite” -- and used it gleefully to mock what she saw as the excesses or shortcomings of liberal culture: its fulsome praise of multiculturalism; conviction that well-funded government programs can fix all societal ills; sanctimonious outrage; fatuous buzzwords; and a leveling tendency that deprived the world of its heroes and its once noble breed of “hussies.” Waxing nostalgic for the old “hierarchies that once made life colorful and provocative,” she laments in a 1992 essay that “hussydom, by definition an elite sisterhood, has been democratized.” Her flimsy argument: Whereas once verbally dexterous libertines like Nell Gwynne, who calmed an anti-Catholic mob surrounding her carriage by explaining that she was Charles II’s Protestant whore, filled the annals of gossipy history with their bon mots, today “egalitarianism has replaced the arch wordplay of sexual tension with the soporific drone of equal partners.” King's essays are rife with controversial opinions and slopes plunging towards phantom precipices. “Will incestist make it to the majors?” she wonders à propos of the burgeoning culture of universal acceptance: “Anything is possible in a madhouse, even a very small madhouse, and the one I’m talking about stretches from sea to sea.” This is King doing her best right-wing radio host impression, and indeed, her relentless insensitivity, however wittily expressed, can be tiresome and unpalatable. So can relentless sensitivity, she would surely rejoin. Satire pollutes even as it cleanses, and King’s is no exception. Her Juvenalian derision blazes a trail through a thicket -- make that a forest -- of liberal pieties: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians,” reads her most notorious line about the culture war’s arms race. King’s sneering dismissal of anything that smacked of liberalism is perhaps surprising given the sexism and bigotry she faced as a bisexual woman coming of age in the 1950s. At her freshman college orientation, the president welcomed the incoming class by avowing that he’d “never seen a prettier collection of females in all my days…You’ve got a fine supply of heifers for the barbecue tomorrow, fellas.” King entered into her first lesbian relationship while a graduate student at Ole Miss in the 1950s. The menacing anonymous calls her lover received clues her into “the Deep South’s exquisite balance between hatred and hospitality.” But King was at heart a Randian libertarian, seeing identity politics as antithetical to her sacred sense of individualism and thus worthy of scorn. She conceived of feminism, for example, as an elite rather than universal sisterhood, as: …the freemasonry that exists among intelligent women who know they are intelligent. It is the only kind of female bonding that works, which is why most men do not like intelligent women. They don’t mind one female brain if they can enjoy it privately; it’s the idea of two or more on the loose that upsets them. Some icons don’t merit entry into this freemasonry. In her criticism, King disparages Erica Jong’s “sow-in-heat prose style;” calls Gloria Steinem the “divine afflatus of feminism who has made a career of leading the herd to trendy saltlicks;” and describes Betty Friedan’s case histories as having “the dreary gusto of public service announcements and television commemorative minutes.” She is vicious on scholars who have a “penchant for dragging the rivers of deserved obscurity for third-rate neurotics,” and equally vicious on the supposedly third-rate neurotics themselves. Sylvia Plath, “feminism’s patron saint,” comes in for particularly harsh treatment, particularly her decision to undergo psychotherapy: Now she became a shrink’s pet, intent on having the best anxieties, the neatest dreams, the sharpest memories; striving for straight A’s in penis envy, gold stars in schizophrenia, and the Electra Complex honor roll. The handwriting was on the wall and it said Phi Beta Kaput. One could justly call this callous and unfair, but as invective it approaches perfection. 2. King wrote many Regency romances and bodice rippers (The Barbarian Princess) under pseudonyms, her writing career beginning when a true confessions magazine accepted one of her stories, “I Committed Adultery in a Diabetic Coma.” Her first and only “Florence King” novel, When Sisterhood Was in Flower, features a young writer, Isabel, being “shanghaied into the feminist movement” in the 1970s. “You may as well know, before you get any further into this,” says the narrator early on, “that my politics were and still are Royalist; I believe in absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. One thing I like about Bloody Mary: she never said a word about lung cancer.” When Sisterhood Was in Flower is a comic novel about literal and figurative walls -- between rooms, people, philosophies. A bomb goes off in the narrator’s Boston apartment building, bringing down the wall separating her apartment from that of her neighbor, Polly. A member of the Bradshaw clan, “leaders of Wasp America’s loony left,” Polly has a Richard Nixon dartboard, hosts a feminist talk show on PBS exploring alternative child birth methods (e.g., the “birth bucket, used for centuries by women before male physicians conspired to make us give birth in a prone position”), and volunteers at a local Self-Sufficiency Center, solemnly explaining to Isabel that “[t]hey need all the help they can get.” Thus are the odd couple, “two people in search of a wavelength,” thrown into a communal living environment. Each benefits from the situation. Polly wants to help everyone she meets, while the narrator wants material for a satirical novel. The compulsive activist and the chain-smoking, agoraphobic misanthrope become partners of sorts. They eventually head out West to start a women’s commune at a sprawling house in Los Angeles. (Its walls are in danger too, from termites.) By then their group has swelled to include a woman fleeing her survivalist husband and a reticent medieval music historian obsessed with the gruesome death of Edward II, supposedly killed by having a “hote spitte” inserted into his rectum. Without revealing exactly how King works the sad tale of “Poor Ned’s Burnyng Bunghole” into the plot, suffice it to say that the women mount a spirited defense of their castle when it comes under attack from an abusive male. In his essay on comedy, Henri Bergson identified mental as well as physical rigidity as a central feature of the comic. Polly is the ultimate Bergsonian figure, inflexibly pursuing a "ruthless humanitarianism" with little understanding of the human. Opposing her is the reclusive, and equally inelastic, ironist: [Polly] would never understand that agoraphobia was my quirky armor against a gregarious America, and a tool that had helped me to acquire the inner resources and private space she wanted for all women. Polly’s crusading energy puts a chink in that armor, and Isabel’s resistance forces Polly to become marginally more flexible. But this comedy is more about acceptance than conversion; the novel concludes on a utopian note, but still makes it clear that walls crumble more easily than firmly held convictions. 3. Sisterhood is a diverting satire; Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is a minor masterpiece of autobiography. Like all coming of age stories, its central drama revolves around self-definition. Will the memoir’s heroine turn out to be a Southern gentlewoman, as her grandmother, a “frustrated ladysmith,” would like? Or a “malkin,” her father’s term for a pusillanimous non-entity? Or a “virago,” which as her first female lover explains to her, is “a woman of great stature, strength and courage who is not feminine in the conventional ways”? The Education of Henry Adams is a key text, particularly Adams’s theory that puritan America deprived its women of any feminine ideals: “An American Virgin would never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist.” (King’s grandmother objects to his theory on the grounds that Adams is “just some old foreigner who doesn’t understand our ways;” King’s mother repeatedly refers to him erroneously, and contemptuously, as John Quincy Shitass.”) King grew up in Washington D.C. with her ribald dynamo of a mother, bookish father, a British jazz musician, and her grandmother, one of the great comic creations in American letters. She is an endless source of information about “female trouble,” delivering endless monologues on troublesome wombs -- “The Ovariad” King’s father calls them. Later, an African-American woman, Jensy, joins the household ménage, famous along the U Street corridor for her moral rectitude. She returns letters from insufficiently pious relatives by scrawling “Return to Sinner” on the envelope. “The three women who raised me all behaved like freewheeling, slightly mad Popes,” writes King. The education of Florence King begins with her reluctant schoolchild: “I wasn’t used to children and they were getting on my nerves. Worse, it appeared that I was a child too. I thought I was just short.” She later becomes enamored of French literature, specifically Jean Racine, whose taut dramas open up her world: “Once exposed to the neo-classical restraints of Bérénice, I began to resent males for their power to distract me from the life of the mind I craved.” Confessions is also a story of King’s sexual education, and she is, predictably, very funny on sexual miseducation. One of her classmates, presumably a malkin, fears that she must be a nymphomaniac because she had a clitoral orgasm: The source of her woe was an author whose theory of the subcontracted orgasm read like a directive from the Interstate Commerce Commission. He said that while the clitoris was not licensed to operate independently, it was a spur line of female pleasure that helped carry the delirious consignment to its final destination. Her frank accounts of her own sexual adventures are equally funny -- during one she worries about disrobing because “in the fifties, tits weren’t up to snuff unless they could be used to put out Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear” -- but they also allow King to show just how well she could write in a more introspective mode. This she does in the latter part of the book, wherein she coolly assesses heartbreaks and tragedies while displaying her flinty comic resilience. 4. I should reiterate in closing that this exceptional American humorist was also a bit of a crank. Consider “Two Kidneys in Transplant Time,” an entertaining, if slightly unhinged, essay in which she performs a linguistic analysis of “transplantese:” what we talk about when we talk about organ donation. King was an expert, making a habit of collecting articles on the subject. A sentence from such a clipping strikes her as particularly menacing: “A donor heart was located and flown to the hospital.” The passive voice, “the voice of Sneaky Pete,” puts King on alert. Just what are medical professionals and their journalistic boosters up to? Her hackles raised, King turns her Orwellian glare on the phrase “donor heart:” People who tailor words to suit their own needs will tailor anything to suit their own needs. The originator of that 'donor heart' phrase snatched the noun out of its proper place and put it in where it was needed. See what I’m getting at? By transplanting the noun “donor” into the adjective position, the conspirators have inadvertently laid bare their perfidious plans: …somebody out there in Democracyland is getting ready to render some of us organ-free for the benefit of the organ-deprived…I have visions of mad dash of Nice Guyism gone awry. The lugubrious pleas for a kidney here, a liver there, a heart in Sheboygan that descend like a sledgehammer on a neurotically friendly nation could easily inspire an organ Robin Hood to kill healthy people just to be able to arrive at the hospital in the nick of time with the needed part. Behold the paranoid style in American politics in fine form, the scheming Papists of yore replaced by scalpel-wielding good Samaritans. I’d like to add my own, more uplifting vision to accompany King’s dystopian one. In a sick ward, an uninspired humorist of this “neurotically friendly nation” is slowly wasting away. Then a miracle occurs… A donor spleen was located and flown to the hospital.
Hercules, as Mark Braude tells us in his sprightly history of Monte Carlo, was supposed to have stopped in Monaco en route to completing his 10th labor. This feat involved stealing a herd of cattle from Geryon, a six-limbed giant who was assisted in his shepherding duties by a two-headed hound, and ferrying the herd back to Greece as various gods, including Hera, sought to sabotage him. All told, he had better odds than the average visitor to a Monte Carlo casino, the wealth of which is, as Evelyn Waugh put it, “derived wholly and directly from man’s refusal to accept the conclusion of mathematical proof.” Unlike even the most powerful and vindictive of Greek gods, the house always wins. In Making of Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle, Braude describes how savvy impresarios actualized an illusion of their own devising: Monaco as a glamorous oasis in which “sun-kissed lives played out on clay courts and under canvas sails.” Monte Carlo was a creation of modernity and myth. Braude writes early on that his book is about “how we create places largely through the stories we tell about them, and about how places can in turn be made to suit those stories.” The original casino-resort, which began to take shape after Monaco legalized gambling in 1855, depended on new forms of mass advertising -- color posters “featur[ing] fast men and fast women doing fast things in fast machines” -- to entice visitors and new rail routes to deliver them to the casino entrance. But as Braude wryly notes, the real Monte Carlo only began to resemble this fantasy land of careless pleasure when “enough people had passed through and lost enough money.” To tweak the famous line from Field of Dreams, if you pretend to build it, they will come. Braude outlines Monaco’s ancient history as a Phoenician, then Grecian, port and the importance of its fortress, constructed on its cliffs in 1215 to deter pirates. In 1297, an exiled Genoan clan, the Grimaldis, who disguised themselves as Franciscan monks, gained entrance to the fortress and slaughtered its guards. Monaco had its new ruling family. Skipping ahead several half a millennium, the Revolutions of 1848 left the Grimaldis hurting financially. Mentone and Roccabruna had declared their independence from the barren Monaco, taking with them 80 percent of the principality’s territory and, with it, considerable agricultural revenue. (A local saying: “I am Monaco upon a rock. I neither sow nor reap. But all the same I want to eat.”) The reigning monarch’s wife, Princess Caroline, heard of the profits generated by German spa and gaming towns such as Bad Homburg and urged her husband to legalize gambling. In 1855, the SBM, or Société Anonyme des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Étrangers à Monaco (the Sea Bathing and Foreigners’ Circle of Monaco Company) was created, its namers taking great pains to obfuscate its central mission: “to oversee the gambling concession in Monaco.” There were some hiccups. Because Princess Caroline wanted the casino far from the palace, a site was chosen at Les Spélugues, a secluded network of grottoes: Bandits were spotted there from time to time, holed up in the dark caves, coming out to rob anyone foolish enough to wander into that wild stretch of land, where the normal rules didn’t apply. Should a foreigner wish to be robbed by these cave-dwelling brigands, or by the fledgling casino for that matter, he would have to endure a “nauseating three-hour carriage ride from Nice along the narrow Cornice mountain road, littered with highwaymen, followed by an hour’s walk down rocky hills.” No wonder then that Les Spélugues casino opened in February of 1863 “with little fanfare and to near-universal indifference.” In the early days of Monaco’s gaming industry, customers were so scarce that croupiers “install[ed] a telescope in their smoking spot so they could check every so often to see if any player came down the road, which sent them scurrying back to their posts.” Even a loafing employee can keep his eye on the prize. Shortly after its opening, the rumor that a bank-busting gambler, Thomas Garcia, was headed to Monaco caused the SBM to panic. They reached out to François Blanc, the man who had turned Bad Homburg into an immensely profitable resort. François was a cardsharp-turned-stock trader who, operating with his twin brother Louis, made his first fortune through illegal machinations that seem almost quaint by today’s standards. Operating from Bordeaux, the Blanc brothers would bribe officials along the telegraph route from Paris to pass on coded messages about the day’s bond activities, thereby giving the provincial traders an edge. François then apprenticed in gaming management in the clubs, called enfers (hells), lining Paris’s seedy Palais Royale -- the arcaded palace once belonging to the Duc D’Orléans. When François was approached by Monaco’s SBM to take over its gambling concession, he deployed a curious strategy to maintain the upper hand in negotiations: “He acted aloof and irritable, blaming his mood on a nagging boil that made it impossible for him to sit, due to its unfortunate placement.” Whether the boil was real, or he was merely bluffing, is a mystery the old gambler took to his grave. Blanc was responsible for transforming the sleepy outpost into a world-renowned luxury resort. Thereafter Monaco became a kind of dual monarchy: “True power in Monaco dwelt not in the House of Grimaldi but in the House of Blanc.” Blanc urged Prince Charles to rename the resort to give it a loftier name, which he did, naturally, after himself: Les Spélugues became Monte Carlo. Blanc also exoticized Monaco, importing vegetation “from Africa and the Americas, turning this gambling town at the fringe of Europe away from the continent and toward the Mediterranean and the New World.” His well-trained staff kept out all the undesirables -- criminals, prostitutes, French and Italian officers, priests -- and enforced a strict dress code, though some superstitious players managed to sneak in their preferred talismans, including live pigs, cooked pigs, bat’s hearts, and turtles. Blanc also mobilized the press, “pay[ing] newspapers to present whatever they wanted publicized within the guise of a regular article.” The SBM, Braude calculates, “spent...roughly one franc on publicity for every two francs spent on wages.” As Blanc and his successors would realize, the “tourist trade...was just another form of storytelling,” and Monte Carlo naturally produced great ones: lurid tales of crime; aristocratic extravagances; and “morality tales” involving “the ruin of the beautiful young bourgeoisie, or the seemingly contented patriarch, or the promising and dutiful officer.” (Stefan Zweig’s typically wonderful story, “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” tells of one such fall.) Blanc peddled the myth that social mobility was only one roll away for anyone who dared chance it, all the while taking pains to emphasize the exclusivity of its clientele -- “equal parts access and intimidation” is how Braude glosses this mix of populism and elitism. Braude is excellent on how Blanc used “culture in the service of commerce,” welcoming guests to enjoy free concerts at the first-come, first-seated Salle Garnier: Such seemingly populist strategies actually lent the performances an air of exclusivity. No money changed hands, freeing some people to believe they’d come to the casino only out of a genuine love of music, and that by doing so they’d be accepted as equals among fellow amateurs of culture Las Vegas has done away with that pretense. (Of Atlantic City, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.) During the 1920s, Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes took up residence in Monte Carlo, “developing new works in the resort [that] built anticipation for their metropolitan debuts.” Monaco, jarringly, was now an incubator of avant-garde, if kitschy, culture. Braude devotes a chapter to a work written by Jean Cocteau and performed by the Ballets Russes, Le Train Bleu, named for the luxury train, equipped with a live eel tank, that ran from Calais to the Cote d’Azur. Coco Chanel dressed the dancers, Pablo Picasso supplied the overture curtain, and the “frothy score” was written by Darius Milhaud. Braude describes the confection spun out by these luminaries as a ...collection of moments, an onrushing flood of pleasures, of posing and of being posed for, of showing off one’s body and the things it could do, of getting into and out of dangerous and brief liaisons, of being entertained by the sight of something shiny and new rushing by and then running off to be distracted by the next novelty. This is excellent, and strikes me as equally descriptive of Braude’s book, the strength of which lies in a similarly diverting “collection of moments” rather than a sustained narrative. Making Monte Carlo's short, punchy chapters are usually broken into short, punchy sections with a self-contained anecdote or two, most of which are sufficiently contextualized. The only time Braude missteps is when he attempts to raise the stakes by adopting a sensationalist tone, for example setting up one chapter by intoning that “these same golden years were also marked by scandal, violence, and tragedy.” That may be true, but it is all so breezily recounted that the portentous set-up rings hollow. The primary pleasure in Making Monte Carlo comes from watching the various eccentrics, lowlifes, high-rollers, and famous artists stroll in to take a seat at the table. Edvard Munch uses his government scholarship money, generously provided to help pay for art classes in Paris, though he did have the decency to produce a painting from the experience, “At the Roulette Tables in Monte Carlo.” Karl Marx, following the advice of his doctor, who espoused the benefits of “heliotherapy,” finds himself frequenting the same resort as sybaritic Russian royals who, “after growing bored with their caviar tasting, made a game of smashing champagne bottles” against the walls. Elsa Maxwell, the American publicity maven known for trotting out trained seals during the fish courses of her parties and traveling with 14 trunks for her press clippings and one hat box for a change of clothes, swoops in to reinvigorate Monte Carlo in the post-WWI years. Francois Blanc was a rather colorful figure, but he pales in comparison to Sir Basil Zaharoff, an international arms dealer living in a Parisian apartment fortified by bullet-proof glass. Known as “The Merchant of Death” and fictionalized as Basil Bazarov in the popular comic Tintin, he wrested control of the SBM in 1923 for mysterious reasons, then refused ever to set foot in the casino. When one guests interrupts his sun-bathing session to ask for gambling advice, he curtly obliges: “Don’t play.” Zaharoff brought in his friend Réné Léon, who was terrific at running the casino but had the unfortunate habit of occasionally running over pedestrians in his car. And then there’s this little bit of tax-shelter trivia: In a bid to ease tensions with his perpetually poor Monégasque subjects, who resented the influx of foreign casino workers, Prince Charles abolished the income tax in 1869, a move that “unknowingly set Monaco on the course to becoming the world’s first modern tax haven.” Perhaps we could call this trickle-up economics? Braude aptly concludes with the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix in 1929, a motor race that wound its way through the principality’s streets, an account chosen for thematic rather than dramatic reasons. The race was relatively uneventful, but Braude sees in the speedy cars circling round and round an “endless loop of self-regard” typifying Monte Carlo’s strenuous commitment to dizzying frivolity.
Donald Antrim is perhaps the master of the novel in which men are crammed into confined spaces -- a group of psychotherapists in a pancake joint (The Verificationist) or 100 brothers in a library (The Hundred Brothers). Chris Bachelder contributes a gem to the genre with The Throwback Special, in which a football team's worth of men descend upon a hotel to conduct an annual ritual based on a football game that occurred 30 years ago. The men loiter in “concentric arcs” around the hotel’s lobby fountain as they wait to check in, “not unlike the standard model of the atom;” they gather to eat pizza in a cramped room smelling of “sweet tomato sauce and warm meat;” and when they find another group of hotel guests descending on the continental breakfast station, they “[lurk] at the boundaries of the dining area, anxious about resources.” All this clustering is a prelude to the formation of a football huddle, “a perfect and intimate order, elemental and domestic, like a log cabin in the wilderness...they could perhaps sense in the huddle the origins of civilization.” (Zog, you go deep while Durc and Plarf sneak up on the mammoth from the blind side.) Bachelder’s portrait of middle-class, middle-aged males revolves around football, in which we find a unique combination of brute force, obsessive strategic organization, and improvisation. Full disclosure: In my version of hell, scowling football coaches pace up and down the River Styx, their steady barking of martial commands only interrupted to consult their laminated sheets on which every possible variation on the off-tackle running play is written. My distaste for the sport’s phony militarism notwithstanding, Bachelder’s “football” novel is an eerie, witty work dissecting a modern-day sacrificial (sack-rificial?) ritual. Though the curious rite described herein takes place in a “two-and-a-half-star chain” hotel off of I-95, it taps into our ancestral roots; the novel’s epigraph is taken from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, a treatise on the “primacy” and “sacred earnestness” of play across cultures. The group of men meet to recreate a famously disastrous, and violent, football play. (Bachelder’s first novel, Bear v. Shark, was structured around a more absurdist agon.) During a 1985 game against the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins attempted a flea flicker -- quarterback hands ball to running back, running back tosses ball back to quarterback, who looks to pass the ball downfield. The trick was clumsily executed, the defense wasn’t fooled, and quarterback Joe Theismann was carted off with a career-ending compound fracture courtesy of the Giants' Lawrence Taylor, the fearsome outside linebacker who seemed shaken by the bone-crushing damage he has inflicted. The TV commentator Frank Gifford warns his audience before cutting to the replay: “And I’ll suggest if your stomach is weak, just don’t watch.” These men did watch as boys, and something about the play’s cataclysmic failure, the collapse of the best-laid plans of mice and offensive coordinators, lodged in their adolescent psyches. The novel opens on the 16th year of the men reenacting the snap. We don’t find out how these performers, who lead relatively humdrum lives devoid spectacular drama, established the group or found each other; illuminating the society’s origins, it seems, would dampen its mystery. The men are not really friends; socialization is confined to the reenactment weekend. Some of their familial or professional troubles are recounted, and Bachelder does flit in and out of their psyches, but in general the men, partly because there are so many of them, remain purposefully flat. It is the ritual that matters -- the men’s role in it and their behavior leading up to it. The description of one man breaking in his new mouthguard tells you everything you need to know about him. At times, The Throwback Special has the feel of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which itself explores the transporting thrill of re-creation. This pleasure lies in the chance to asymptotically “approach perfection” by getting closer and closer to the historical model; or in submitting to the play’s “choreography of chaos and ruin;” or in the suspense that all great drama, even when we know the outcome, generates: “He had liked the sense that anything at all might happen, even though only one thing could happen.” A blend of comfort and tension lies at the heart of this ritual, faith in its power and anxiety about its stability. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga mentions the fragility of play, the ease with which its sustaining illusion can be shattered or its cordoned-off space violated. Though the men have at it for nearly two decades, one worrywart has the “anxious sensation that the ritual, seemingly so entrenched, was in fact precarious.” The conference room in which they usually conduct the lottery has been usurped by a vaguely-named company, Prestige Vista Solutions. (“They just despoil the environment and establish tax havens and seize conference rooms,” gripes one of the deposed reenactors.) The hotel fountain is initially dry. A jersey, and a player, is missing. There are murmurs that this will be the last year, which opens up the “ancient wound of seclusion” in some of the more insecure men. Each wrinkle contributes to a disturbing sense of impermanence, the fear that the mythic ceremony they have devised is not eternal. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how the ritual at once reveals and promises to assuage male neuroses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lottery scene, in which the men draw lottery numbers from a giant drum to determine the order in which they will select their roles. Bachelder shrewdly anatomizes the various psychological types: those who find “nobility in ruinous failure” tend to choose a Washington player who is “essential to the calamity,” a member of the crumbling offensive line for example; others are drawn to the Washington offense “out of a keen, if unrecognized, identification with disappointment and culpability and bumbling malfunction;” the “aesthetes” opt for players based on some aspect of some sartorial accessory or distinctive posture; men who “craved the familiar comfort of anonymity and insignificance” yearn to play an insignificant role in the recreation -- a retreating Giants cornerback for instance -- but “overcompensate for their shameful desire by choosing the most significant player available.” Regardless of one’s temperament or build, it would be almost sacrilegious not to pick Lawrence Taylor first. Derek, the one black man in the group, simultaneously yearns for and dreads the prospect of winning this first selection, which would force him to “[wade] into the psycho-racial thicket” of picking the star linebacker. In past reenactments, men have played him as a “with a kind of wild-eyed, watch-your-daughters primitivism,” profiting from the reenactment to indulge in a “transgressive racial thrill ride.” Derek wonders how his pick will be interpreted by the other men, and whether or not he could change things by adding some depth to the character: Selecting Taylor -- it was so clear -- would not be an opportunity for racial healing and gentle instruction, but an outright act of hostility and aggression. He, Derek, would not control the meaning and significance of Lawrence Taylor’s sack. Centuries of American history would control the meaning and significance of Taylor’s sack. (That one of the teams still clings to its offensive name adds another element to the “charged racial allegory.”) Derek's ethical dilemma vanishes when another man wins the first pick and selects L.T., “beating his chest with his fists” and thereby signaling the kind of nuanced portrayal he is likely to produce. Taylor’s partner and antagonist in the consummating sack is Joe Theismann: “By tradition the man playing Theismann and the man playing Taylor stayed away from each other, like a bride and groom before a wedding.” While failing to pick Taylor would signal weakness, no player is allowed to pick Theismann; the honor falls to the man with the lowest number. The quarterback is a kind of pharmakos, a sacrificial victim at once polluted and holy. While the other men share beds, “it was customary for the man playing Theismann to sleep alone...[a] mildly punitive...form of exile or symbolic estrangement.” Theismann himself, we are told, described his injury in Christ-like terms, his shattered leg bearing the sins of his bumbling linemen; the men who have played him all testify to the intensity of voluntarily offering up themselves to the rushing horde. Theismann submits to the group’s channeled violence, which is a concentrated form of the scattershot, hostile humor that defines certain kind of male relationship and the “typical masculine joke, a crude homemade weapon that indiscriminately sprayed hostility and insecurity in a 360-degree radius, targeting everyone within hearing range, including the speaker.” One man arrives to the hotel and circles the parking lot in his car, “blasting his horn and shouting community-sustaining threats and maledictions.” This aggressive bantering masks an underlying sincerity: to insult is to love. As Bachelder writes, ...each man...was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary. That this passage happens to refer to the men’s feelings for an inanimate object -- the much-maligned lottery drum -- makes the men at once more ridiculous and more poignant. If describing the admittedly silly ritual in such elevated ways seems bombastic, that is partly the point. Serious play depends on a complete adherence to the arbitrary nature of its established rules. Therefore, the reenactment seems puerile to anyone looking in from the outside, including the several Prestige Vista Solutions employees who witness it. These outsiders adopt an ironic stance, but their irony, along with the reader’s, fades when we finally witness the men’s solemn play.