The logic of novice programming goes something like this:
Run function (x, y)
If x is greater than y:
Else if y is greater than x:
Something else happens.
I quickly learned that computers don’t like choice, and they don’t like the unexpected. If you fail to anticipate every scenario or condition—say, that x and y might be the same number—it will shout at you and stop working. If you tell the computer that x is A and y is 6 it will shout at you and stop working. As a bad novice programmer, I know this from experience. Treat the computer like someone you don’t trust to turn off the lights and lock the door without careful instructions. Be that micromanager who tells his employee what font to use and how to stack the coffee cups. Forget all you’ve heard about AI and machine learning and algorithms. Novice programming is a bit like running army drills. First do this, then that. Then loop back and do it again.
I have a humanities brain, or at least it’s trained that way. I told myself I was a bad programmer because I was trained in the logic of fiction. I could easily understand that Jane Eyre could seduce Rochester because, contrary to appearances, the meek governess was strange and strong-willed and had a psychedelic imagination. And I could accept that she finally married him because the power relations between them had shifted, or he was metaphorically unmanned, or because Charlotte Brontë could not resist a touch of Victorian sentiment. The marriage was not simply a logical consequence of the death of the first Mrs. Rochester. First this, then that.
Of course, there are novels that behave differently. Tristram Shandy explodes all illusions of psychological realism and narrative closure. It turns itself inside out and makes explicit all the possibilities that are open to the writer. But I spent my teenage years reading Victorian novels that were heavy with fate and determinism. Even where protagonists appeared in control of their destiny, the presence of an omniscient narrator whispered that we were in good hands. Choice, agency, and free will were illusions. But Laurence Sterne will have none of it. His story lurches backward and forward, forever mixing up causes and consequences. He demands interactivity; here is a blank page for the reader to draw his own impression of the sex-obsessed Widow Wadman: “as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as conscience would let you.” Tristram Shandy irked me. It was not for a lazy reader.
By the time I found Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds I’d loosened up a bit. “Every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end” says one of its windy Dubliners. “I like to know where I am, do you know.” But the novel flouts every one of the rules of fiction. There is no “this, then that” in At Swim: “A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.” The novel begins with a story within a story within a story, but the nested narratives spill into each other. Disorder is its organizing principle. Yet the real oddities of At Swim turn on the question of choice. Characters rebel because they don’t like the roles assigned to them, so they take over the writing of the novel. At Swim-Two-Birds may one day read like a fable about the triumph of AI over its creators.
Still, a reading life can be a bad preparation for the logic of code. That is, unless you go back to the beginning. A fairy tale might be read as a collection of functional elements populated by variables. There are stories that open with banishment: A younger son is sent away to find his fortune; Hansel and Gretel are left in the forest; a new stepmother drives a girl away from home. And then there are magical interventions: A fairy godmother appears to Cinderella; an enchanted fox instructs a hero how to capture a golden bird; a horse warns his huntsman against picking up the feather of the firebird. In a fairy tale, there is no psychological depth or complex chain of cause and effect to complicate matters. Event quickly follows event.
And there are few surprises. If the glass slipper is lost, the prince will find it. Good behavior will be rewarded and bad behavior will be punished. Whatever the storyteller’s skill (or lack of it), the ugly stepsisters will hobble themselves and Rumpelstiltskin will be defeated. The taxonomy of the fairy tale is closer in spirit to the narrative logic of the computer program than it is to the sprawling complexities of modern novels. Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale has been adopted by legions of game designers for good reason. If you can classify all the narrative functions—the building blocks—of Russian tales, and if you can reduce all those princes and witches and holy fools to just seven character types, maybe you can imagine the conditional branches and loops that can handle their permutations.
A confession, though: Reading fairy tales has not made me any better at writing code.
So I turned to Twine. Created by Chris Klimas in 2009, Twine is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories.” In other words, it is an open platform descended from Choose Your Own Adventure stories and text-based parser games like Zork—the kind of games where choosing to turn left instead of right can mean a quick death at the hands of an unfriendly ogre. You don’t need to understand code to write and publish a Twine story. But you do need to think in terms of conditional logic. Easy. I would use interactive fiction to trick myself into learning how to think like a programmer. That was a bad idea. My Twine stories soon had all the molten spaghetti structure of my Python code.
Better Twine writers get control of those loops and conditions. They play around with the reader’s freedom to change the story, or rather, with the reader’s illusion of choice. If interactive writers can create dozens of paths through inventive and intricate worlds, they can also exploit the reader’s entrapment in them. Repetitive gameplay can seem like purgatory, but how else can you explore an interactive story only by going back to the start and playing again? The best storytellers make the most of these conditions, understanding game mechanics just as well as they do narrative structure. And the very best Twine stories engage with the peculiarities of the form—not least that the protagonist is often the reader or player herself.
A case in point is howling dogs by Porpentine, a California-based new media artist and one of the most celebrated writers of Twine fiction. Howling dogs opens with you, the reader, in a cell, “a room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling.” You have access to food and water, a toilet, a shower, and a garbage chute; you have access to a “sanity room” with calming pictures, and a photograph of a woman you once loved. A counter reads 367 (days? weeks?). Your only escape is to put on a virtual reality visor that brings you to vivid and strange worlds. But each journey ends with you back in your cell, the counter climbing and your surroundings growing more filthy and neglected. You can put on the visor again, but first you must eat and drink—repetitively going through the same pathways to access water or unwrap a nutrient bar. Howling dogs is a bleak parable: Each time you escape, reality returns. You must eat and drink and wash, do the bare minimum to keep yourself alive, and each time you leave the virtual world your situation seems more grim and more hopeless.
You can stay in the cell, but nothing will happen. You can strap on the visor—peering through a slit at a beautiful garden or finding yourself in the middle of a bloody battlefield. You might be a woman about to be executed, like Joan of Arc, or an empress with a bone foot who is destined to be sacrificed. But in exercising your choices, you become complicit in the designer’s plan. A woman is deciding whether to kill her lover: “Would you help me kill him? Yes. No.” Choosing “no” offers no escape: “Very well. But you must watch.” Similarly, you can refuse to take part in the horrors of battle, but if you do, you will find yourself sipping tea with a socialite as others die. The actions you take only exacerbate your sense of powerlessness.
And that is one of the most interesting conjunctions of code and story. A programmer and a storyteller delimit possibilities. They model scenarios. A good writer of interactive fiction has the programmer’s skill for breaking down a problem or a scene into its smallest parts. From those tiny elements come branching stories. But the choices they offer are necessarily limited, which has implications for the kinds of tales you can tell. Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler cleverly exploits this aspect of interactive fiction to dramatize the experience of depression. As the protagonist you have many choices in the early part of the story: You can talk to a friend, go out to a party, take a shower. But as depression grips more strongly, these options begin to appear on screen crossed out. You are put in the situation of someone for whom it is becoming harder and harder to act.
So choice can be an illusion, and it is no accident that many Twine stories play on a sense of entrapment. Kevin Snow’s Domovoi gives that feature a metafictional slant. A visually lush staging of a Russian folktale, Domovoi is narrated by a folklorist who invites you to advise how the story should unfold. But the storyteller is not always happy with your choices. As the folktale progresses a testy conflict can break out between the narrator and the reader. What emerges is a cautionary tale—one inspired by the Russian folklorists of the 1930s who twisted traditional tales into the service of Soviet ideology. Domovoi is a story about the politics of telling stories, and with its folktale trappings it is also a reminder that interactive storytellers have been around for a very long time.
Twine taught me one thing: Some of the problems of code are the problems of writing. Often it can feel like there are too many possibilities. It is only when you have already started to write your story or design your code—wrongly or clumsily, perhaps—that you can draw the way ahead into focus. And then you see it is the wrong way, and you start again.
I still cannot write code. But I like the fact that Agile software development is predicated on stories, of a kind—the user stories that predict how code might work in the real world, the problems that it’s there to solve. I know I’m no developer; I can’t imagine all scenarios and anticipate all consequences. I cannot model everything that will happen if I begin writing in one way and not another. But I like to imagine, at least, that thinking about code is also thinking about stories: about a labyrinth of possibilities, a Scheherazadean abundance of tales. But that might just be my humanities brain talking.
Image: Homestar Runner, Thy Dungeonman 3 screenshot
Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which marks Martin Riker’s first book-length foray into fiction, is a book that I imagine has been simmering for a long time, and one that likely has taken a back seat to Marty’s many other pursuits. As one of our most perceptive critics—I’ve made it a rule to read books he reviews favorably—and publishing do-it-alls (at Dalkey Archive and now, with his wife, novelist and publisher Danielle Dutton, at Dorothy, a Publishing Project), Marty has been one of the great champions of daring, innovative fiction. This, of course, leaves little time for other things.
And so it was with great excitement and pleasure that I read Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which is characteristically subtle, funny, and well-seasoned. To say it’s a novel about identity or parenthood or our collective fixation on television may be partially true, but as with all significant works of fiction, those descriptors may be in the ballpark but miss the game entirely. For the game, you’ve got to read the book.
The Millions: As I was reading Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, I couldn’t help thinking of the television show Quantum Leap. The differences between the time-traveling, body-jumping hero of that show and the eponymous character of your novel are vast and in that gulf is a world of possibilities, which you mine to great effect. What is it about the trope of inhabiting another body or consciousness that appeals to you?
Martin Riker: I actually don’t know that show! In fact I’ll admit right out of the gate that even though the novel contains a whole narrative history of television programming, I don’t own a TV. Growing up I was a TV kid, not a book kid. In the eighties I loved network television with all my heart. But I stopped watching in the early nineties and didn’t look at screens at all for 10 or 15 years. Having a kid of my own brought TV back into my life, but our son doesn’t watch much. I mean, we Netflix. We’re not hermits.
Anyway, the trope: The logistical answer (there are two answers) is that this novel was originally conceived as a modern retelling of Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1836 Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, which is a picaresque novel narrated by a man who’s died and whose soul travels from body to body, uncovering the reality of lives across the socioeconomic spectrum of early America. I loved the playfulness of that premise, its expansiveness, but beyond that I loved its democratic ambitions, the Whitman-like project of trying to sing America from the inside out. My own version took some pretty radical digressions from Bird’s original; for example, I abandoned very early any attempt to be “representative” of the diversity of modern America, which is just too broad, and instead focused on points of commonality and difference, themes that define life for all of us (media, family, solitude).
The more general answer is that I am a lifelong admirer of the Menippean satire, a 2,000-year-old literary genre the particulars of which I won’t go into here except to say that one of its 13 attributes (according to Mikhail Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics) is the transgression of boundaries between this world, heaven, and the underworld. Starting around the “Myth of Er” in Plato’s Republic, there’s a long line of writers playing with these boundaries, and specifically with the idea of metempsychosis—the transmigration of the soul through bodies. The point, from an art perspective, is that it allows the writer (and reader) to step back from everyday life and look at our human experiences from a distance. The pettiness of human endeavor is revealed for what it is, etc. The oddity of my narrator is that, despite how separated he (mostly) is from the world he witnesses, he can’t seem to attain anything like a comforting objectivity. Death gives him “perspective,” but that’s almost all it gives him. It doesn’t free him from human concerns. He’s still as frustrated and petty as anybody.
TM: I suspect rendering one of those consciousnesses almost helplessly passive was a great challenge. Did you set yourself any formal limitations in the composition of the plot?
MR: Yeah, that was what made me want to write the book in the first place, that challenge. For years I had been thinking about how to write an adventure novel in an age when modern transportation and telecommunications have left us with pitifully few unexplored places and when a life of “action” feels like a movie cliche. You could set it in space, or inside the earth, I guess. Cyberspace feels more Kafkaesque than adventurous to me. So what I saw in the premise of Sheppard Lee was the possibility of an adventure story in which the protagonist lacks agency—a passive action novel! And then immediately I realized it would be a book about media culture as well.
As for plot composition, I have an almost embarrassingly specific answer for this. Edgar Allan Poe reviewed Sheppard Lee when it first came out. He liked it, but cited among its problems that Bird couldn’t seem to decide when or to what extent his protagonist (Sheppard Lee) should control the bodies he inhabits. My interest in writing about media sort of solved this problem for me—my protagonist would have as much control over what he sees as you or I have over a television program—but it raised a different problem, which was how to make that into an interesting book. I wasn’t excited to write something boring and hopeless. My Samuel Johnson had to be able to (and forced to) make decisions with moral consequences, even if he tended to make very bad ones. So I had to have a narrative device by which my protagonist might gain control of his existence (under certain circumstances), and the invention of that device is another reason my novel took a very different direction from Bird’s. The device itself, and the emotional possibilities it opened up, took me to unexpected places, and that element of adventure (compositional adventure) was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. Fortunately, sticking to the plan was never part of the plan.
TM: There is perhaps no way of answering this, but I’m going to ask to see where an answer might lead: Could you have written this novel before becoming a father?
MR: I don’t think I could have, but not for the obvious reason (that I now know what being a father is like). The actual reason is much more personal, and I doubt I can articulate it very well. It has to do with how having a kid changes what you care about, where you invest your emotions and your aspirations. I’ve written fiction for many years but not much of it was very sharable, because I was constantly getting in the way of myself (don’t ask me what I mean by that). One of the biggest changes for me, in becoming a dad, was that I stopped caring very much about myself. I like myself just fine, but my emotional attention is now directed elsewhere, toward my son and my wife but also outward more generally. And for some reason that change in myself had a tangible impact on my ability to craft sentences and paragraphs. It’s not the only change that mattered for writing this book, but it’s maybe the most interesting.
TM: Am I correct in reading SJER as a satire?
MR: Not in the conventional sense. I’m not out to attack anyone. There’s no target. I mentioned Menippean satire earlier, and one of the funny things about that genre is that despite the name, it isn’t really satire as we think of it. Where satire attacks one point of view from the perspective of a different point of view, the Menippean satire is all about copia, plentitude, the diversity of ways of seeing the world. The only thing it attacks is the presumption that any single worldview might constitute “truth,” and this it often attacks viciously, if comically. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, for example, or Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. Bakhtin admires menippea (as he calls it) because he’s all about polyphony and the idea that a novel is not a political statement but rather a space in which many different voices and ideas and ways of seeing are constantly mixing and contending with one another. This is what I like about it as well.
TM: When we met, you were still at Dalkey Archive Press, and you are now the publisher, with Danielle, of Dorothy, so I must ask the question of influence. Which writers and/or schools influenced this novel? Who are you reading or what excites you in contemporary fiction?
MR: I don’t know about influence, but I start to salivate at the opportunity to make book recommendations. But first I’ll try to answer about influence.
Aside from Bird’s novel, it’s hard to say precisely what influenced SJER. I was rereading Dickens when I started writing it, and I’m sure he’s in there somehow—the voice, maybe. Georges Perec is probably the most important, and in some ways that influence is clear: the mixing of an adventure story with other genres, the almost schematic breadth of subjects, Perec’s passion for telling tales. There’s a lot of linguistic parody in SJER, and some of that might be coming from Fran Ross’s Oreo, which is in my all-time top five. Ross’s parody has more satirical punch, though. I’m just interested in all the cool things language can do (so was she, of course). More generally, I think my ideas about art and literature were shaped from a very early age by the Beastie Boys, whose work I see as fundamentally about friendship, first, and, second, about the endlessly various ways a bunch of stuff can be thrown together to make something wonderful. That’s the quality William Gass meant when he called Donald Barthelme—quoting Barthelme himself—“the leading edge of the trash phenomenon.” It was a compliment.
Lately I’ve been rereading a lot—for my classes and for fun—and it’s been a great joy to revisit Flann O’Brien and Nikolai Gogol and people like that. After the fact, I saw a lot of Dead Souls in SJER, even though it wasn’t in my mind while writing. In fact, I find that writing a book causes you to see your own book in every other book you read, or at least in a lot of them. Other books I’ve been loving but that have nothing to do with SJER include everything Dorothy is publishing (!) and quite a number of the books I’ve been reviewing. Best in Show goes to Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, which I think you and I both liked a great deal. McCormack’s novel made me feel loose and ready, like a boxer. It made the question of “the novel” feel suddenly up for grabs again, which for me is the best thing a book can do.
TM: You mention that when writing a book you start to see your book in every other book. This is such a simple but revelatory statement! It also speaks to something apparent in the novel: a current trend (that’s too light a term for it, but it’ll stay for now) that is all about the… if not the dissolution, then at least the fragmentation or break-up of the idea of a concrete individual who is bound by gender, age, demographics. I love how SJER’s shifting forms reflect this pivotal moment in Western culture. All of which is to ask: What good is the individual in fiction? Does he/she have a future in literature?
MR: I’m not sure he/she even has much of a past! Or at least that past is admirably patchy. It seems to me literature’s been ahead of the curve when it comes to complicating or fragmenting or subverting received ideas about the cleanly coherent self for at least a couple hundred years. Maybe not so much in the outwardly visible ways we’re seeing now in the culture, not until books like Orlando, or Brigid Brophy’s 1969 In Transit, or Anne Garréta’s Sphinx—but those books seem to me natural extensions of the novel’s essential polyphony. Once the menippean values I mentioned earlier got mixed up with the idea of character, which was happening at least by the time of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew in the mid-18th century, the instability and multiplicity of identity became what novels—some novels—were all about. Dostoevsky, whole swaths of modernism, etc.
In comparison to that stuff, my Samuel Johnson is pretty simple. He starts off without much self to speak of, so he’s relatively unpresumptuous, and comfortable in the role of sponge. What interests me most is that even though he inhabits all these other lives, and forgets himself and “becomes” these others, still he doesn’t often feel that he knows these people very well. He knows them as well as you could possibly know someone, but that turns out to be: not that well! In part because they don’t know themselves, or are too human-messy to be easily defined, but mostly because he doesn’t have access to their thoughts, and so there’s this invisible wall, consciousness.
I do get put off (this is a different way of answering your question) by writing that doesn’t allow room, formally, for experiences of instability, possibility, surprise, change. A lot of commercially successful fiction makes me feel constricted in that way. It takes itself too seriously, or doesn’t take me (reader) seriously enough. But maybe that’s just a way of saying that uninteresting books aren’t interesting. Whereas identity as a site of possibility or contention, the individual as an ongoing dialogue—those ideas I hope have a future, because literature would be pretty dull without them.
TM: Your reference points for the book are, for the most part, 19th century and earlier, though of course there are more modern influences. What is it about these forms that allows them the plasticity to be continually reinvented and to feel so fresh?
MR: You are my dream interviewer. I think all literary forms have the plasticity you’re talking about. Forms come with some basic characteristics (e.g., a “list” contains “items”), but they don’t come with any prescribed values or freshness potential—that’s all in what you do with them.
If I were going to really do this question justice I would go on a longish rant about friendship. I would talk about the sense I have in reading certain 18th-century works—for example, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist—that they were written long before the idea of the “professionalized author” was even conceived. I would then attempt to describe the pleasure I get—with Diderot—from feeling that what I am reading is written not by a “professional” but by an incredibly smart and interesting friend. Wayne Booth makes the argument, in his The Company We Keep, that the idea of friendship as a literary value falls off somewhere in the 19th century. In fact, he says the idea of friendship as a subject worthy of critical attention falls out of intellectual life entirely, even though for the longest time the notion that books were like friends was the primary way of seeing them. He doesn’t mean we’ve lost friendship itself, even in books; he just means we don’t really think or talk about books in those terms.
I’ve noticed that the books I feel the greatest friendship toward tend to resist the veneer of professionalization in one way or another. I mentioned earlier Fran Ross and Georges Perec. Alasdair Gray is another. Also Joanna Ruocco, whom I publish, though I don’t know her personally very well. Not long ago I interviewed her, primarily because I wanted to confirm for myself that she was actually as cool as I thought she was (she is). There are others, but not very many. It’s a specific feeling, not a common thing, more a recognition of shared values than “liking” or admiring or even loving the work. For example, I don’t feel this way about David Foster Wallace’s work, even though David was my real-life friend, someone I cared about quite a lot. I love his writing, too (well, I love about half of his writing), but I don’t have that “friendship” feeling toward it.
All I mean to say is that I’ve always wanted my own writing to be friendly, approachable. Meaningful, but in a manner completely in step with everyday life. My favorite writers read like they might easily live next-door to you. You can go over and borrow their lawnmowers, plus they write these wonderful, interesting things. And maybe 18th- and 19th-century storytelling devices appeal to me—to try to loop this back to your question—because things like conversational narrators and tale-telling and “then fate took an unexpected turn!” are very approachable and are as likely as anything else to produce interesting art.
TM: I really like your take on the question about fatherhood. That fatherhood provides an out from yourself that opens up a whole set of possibilities that open up whole avenues previously untraveled or at least infrequently visited is a refreshing take—especially for a writer, since so many male writers have been aloof or absent from the lives of their children. I wonder if the passivity of the narrator is a reflection of what must feel like occasional helplessness in viewing the life of a child.
MR: That’s a really ideal way to read it. The book thinks a lot about feelings of helplessness, both with regard to parenting and more generally to life. The idea that we are stuck in our own heads and there’s little we can do for one another has been a staple of existential comedy since Beckett at least, in addition to being a painfully obvious fact of every parent’s daily reality, and I like seeing those two seemingly distinct anxieties—one existential, the other mundane—as not so different.
As far as my narrator goes, I would stop short of saying his passivity is caused by his helpless-parent feelings. He is modern man! He’s passive from way, way back.
TM: I don’t want to talk about the ending, but I do want to ask, in a general way, one of those craft questions about the structure of the novel and how it came to you. Were you writing toward that ending? At a certain point, the narrative picks up momentum and you can see where it’s going, and my hunch is that it was lurking there all along, but I’m curious to know if that’s accurate.
MR: When I first conceived of the book and had written the opening two chapters, I had a particular ending in mind. Danielle wanted to know what it was, but I wouldn’t tell her, and she said “Well, I just hope that…” and then said the thing she hoped would happen, which was not the ending I had in mind. I wanted my wife to be happy with my book—it was quite possible she would be the only one reading it—so I thought, maybe I can have both endings? It took me a while to figure out how to make that work, but the result is that the book really has two endings, and this is essential, I think, to how and what the story “means.” We talk of stories having happy endings or sad endings and I very much dislike those being the options. I’ve always loved the start of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, where the narrator says a good book ought to be allowed to have three entirely different openings. I didn’t want entirely different endings, though; I just wanted the ending to “mean” in several directions at once. I can’t say more without saying too much. But if there’s anything I’m particularly proud of in this book, it’s those last two chapters.
I had the good fortune of writing, for a week this past year, at a place called the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. On the trip, I wanted to read something Irish. I wandered around a bookstore in Dublin, paging through the possibilities, trying to predict the perfect book, which I would have with me on buses, at the residency, in pubs. I considered Samuel Beckett, William Trevor, and Colm Tóibín — then saw Flann O’Brien. I chose his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939).
To begin describing this book, it seems I have to use the words metafiction and parody, words bound to elicit as much alienation as interest in prospective readers. If those terms don’t appeal to you at all, you probably shouldn’t try it. But if they do, or if you’re not the type to rule books out on the basis of “what you are and are not interested in,” you will have a reading experience almost impossible to define through comparison.
I read the book under a tree in the Irish countryside, laughing out loud at rhyming couplets about the undying friendship of a pint. I read it in a pub in a seaside village, marveling at a climactic 20-page stretch in which fictional characters physically torture their creator (himself a fictional construct) in a tone of slapstick horror that suggests a Buster Keaton movie directed by Eli Roth. And as I sat under that tree and rain fell suddenly from what had just been a sunny sky, or when I’d had one too many beers and the words began to blur, I would realize that the book — more than pyrotechnically crafted and darkly entertaining — was making me sad, too: reminding me (even as it had been making me forget) that the writing life is a cruel and painful one.
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I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that
The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
And I’ve read it maybe five or six times at this point: first as a teenager, then again as an undergraduate when I was supposed to be reading other much less funny things, and then again another couple of times while writing a Masters thesis – a terrific wheeze of a Borges/O’Brien comparative reading. And I’ve just now revisited it afresh, partly to reassure myself before writing this piece that it is just as funny as I remember it being. (It is, albeit with the slight caveat that it’s possibly even funnier.) The first time I read it, I was in school, and I remember being confounded by two facts: 1) That it was originally published in 1941 and 2) That it first appeared in Irish as An Béal Bocht. And if there was one thing that was less funny than anything written before, say, 1975, it was anything that was written in Irish.
To fully understand this, I think you would probably need to have some first-hand experience of the Irish educational system. This is a country in which every student between the ages of five and eighteen is taught Irish for several hours a week, and yet it is also, mysteriously, a country in which relatively few adults are capable of holding a conversation in the language in anything but the most stilted, self-consciously ironic pidgin. (After almost a decade and a half of daily instruction in the spoken and written forms of what is officially my country’s first language, just about the only complete Irish sentence I myself can now speak translates as follows: “May I please have permission to go to the toilet, Teacher?” I don’t think I’m especially unusual in this regard, although I’m aware my ability to forget things I’ve learned is exceptional.) I don’t want to get into this too deeply here, except to say that part of this has to do with a kind of morbid cultural circularity: the reason so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms is because so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms, and that there would therefore be few people to speak it to if they did. Also, very little literature gets written in Irish, partly because (for the reasons outlined above), relatively few people are capable of writing it, and also because, if they did, the readership for it would be correspondingly small. And so the stuff that gets taught in schools tends to be a combination of (as I remember it) unremarkable contemporary poetry and psychotropically dull peasant memoir.
The great canonical presence in the latter genre is a book called Peig, the autobiography of an outstandingly ancient Blasket island woman named Peig Sayers, which was dictated to a Dublin schoolteacher and published in 1936. Successive generations of Irish students were forced not just to read this exegesis of poverty and misfortune – over and over and over – but to memorize large chunks of it, later to be disgorged and explicated at the intellectual gun-point of state examination. The memoir begins with Peig outlining what a rigorously shitty time she had of it growing up in rural Ireland in the late 19th century, and this unhappy existence is narrated with a signature flatness of tone that is maintained throughout the whole grim exercise:
My people had little property: all the land they possessed was the grass of two cows. They hadn’t much pleasure out of life: there was always some misfortune down on them that kept them low. I had a pair of brothers who lived — Sean and Pádraig; there was also my sister Máire.
As a result of never-ending flailing of misfortune my father and mother moved from the parish of Ventry to Dunquin; for them this proved to be a case of going from bad to worse, for they didn’t prosper in Dunquin no more than they did in Ventry.
For a teenager, of course, the only appropriate reaction to this stuff is the most inappropriate one, somewhere between stupefaction and manic amusement. As real and as comparatively recent as the history of grinding poverty and oppression in Ireland is, it’s still hard to read this with a straight face – particularly if, as a youth, you had to commit great thick blocks of it to memory. There’s something about the improbable combination of sober causality and delirious wretchedness (“As a result of the never-ending flailing of misfortune”; “a case of going from bad to worse”) that comes on like an outright petition for heartless juvenile ridicule. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as Nell puts it in Beckett’s Endgame. We should take this point seriously, coming as it does from an old woman who has no legs and lives in a dustbin.
Beckett’s contemporary Flann O’Brien understood this, too: unhappiness is the comic goldmine from which he extracts The Poor Mouth’s raw material. He is parodying Irish language books like Peig and, in particular, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s memoir An t-Oileánach (The Islander); but in a broader sense, he’s ridiculing the forces of cultural nationalism that promoted these books as exemplars of an idealized and essentialized form of Irishness: rural, uneducated, poor, priest-fearing, and truly, superbly Gaelic.
O’Brien’s narrator, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, is not so much a person as a humanoid suffering-receptacle, a cruel reductio ad absurdium of the “noble savage” ideal of rural Irishness promoted by Yeats and the largely Anglo-Irish and Dublin-based literary revival movement. A lot of the book’s funniness comes from its absurdly stiff language (which reflects an equally stiff original Irish), but that language is a perfect means of conveying a drastically overdetermined determinism – a sort of hysterical stoicism which seems characteristically and paradoxically Irish. The book’s comedic logic is roughly as follows: to be Irish is to be poor and miserable, and so anything but the most extreme poverty and misery falls short of authentic Irish experience. The hardship into which Bonaparte is born, out on the desperate western edge of Europe, is seen as neither more nor less than the regrettable but unavoidable condition of Irishness, an accepted fate of boiled potatoes and perpetual rainfall. “It has,” as he puts it, “always been the destiny of the true Gaels (if the books be credible) to live in a small, lime-white house in the corner of the glen as you go eastwards along the road and that must be the explanation that when I reached this life there was no good habitation for me but the reverse in all truth.”
Like many of the best comedians of prose, O’Brien is a master of studied repetition. Again and again, unhappy situations are met with total resignation, with a fatalism so extreme that it invariably proceeds directly to its ultimate conclusion: death. Early on, Bonaparte tells us about a seemingly intractable situation whereby his family’s pig Ambrose, with whom they shared their tiny hovel, developed some disease or other that caused him to emit an intolerable stench, while at the same time growing so fat that he couldn’t be got out the door. His mother’s reaction to this situation is simply to accept that they’re all going to die from the stench, and that they therefore might as well get on with it. “If that’s the way it is,” she says, “then ‘tis that way and it is hard to get away from what’s in store for us.”
Individual hardships or injustices are never seen as distinct problems to be considered with a view to their potential solution; they are always aspects of a living damnation, mere epiphenomena of “the fate of the Gaels.” It’s a mindset that’s both profoundly anti-individualist and cosmically submissive. The cause of suffering isn’t British colonialism: it’s destiny. On Bonaparte’s first day of school, his teacher beats him senseless with an oar for not being able to speak English, and to impress upon him the fact that his name is no longer Bonaparte O’Coonnassa, but “Jams O’Donnell” – a generically anglicized title the same schoolmaster gives to every single child under his tutelage. When Bonaparte takes the matter up with his mother later that day, she explains that this is simply the way of things. The justice or injustice of the situation doesn’t come into it:
Don’t you understand that it’s Gaels that live in this side of the country and that they can’t escape from fate? It was always said and written that every Gaelic youngster is hit on his first school day because he doesn’t understand English and the foreign form of his name and that no one has any respect for him because he’s Gaelic to the marrow. There’s no other business going on in school that day but punishment and revenge and the same fooling about Jams O’Donnell. Alas! I don’t think that there’ll ever be any good settlement for the Gaels but only hardship for them always.
The assumption that nothing can be done about it, though, doesn’t mean that ceaseless meditation and talk about the suffering of the Gaels is not absolutely central to the proper business of Gaelicism. True Irishness is to be found in the constant reflection on the condition of Irishness. (This is still very much a characteristic of contemporary Irish culture, by the way, but that’s probably another day’s work.) O’Brien’s characters think and talk about little else. Bonaparte, at one point, recalls an afternoon when he was “reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them)” when his grandfather comes in looking even more decrepit and disheveled than usual.
– Welcome, my good man! I said gently, and also may health and longevity be yours! I’ve just been thinking of the pitiable situation of the Gaels at present and also that they’re not all in the same state; I perceive that you yourself are in a worse situation than any Gael since the commencement of Gaelicism. It appears that you’re bereft of vigour?
– I am, said he.
– You’re worried?
– I am.
– And is it the way, said I, that new hardships and new calamities are in store for the Gaels and a new overthrow is destined for the little green country which is the native land of both of us?
O’Brien uses the term “Gael” and its various derivatives so frequently throughout the book that the very idea of “Gaelicism” quickly begins to look like the absurdity it is. This reaches a bizarre culmination in the book’s central comic set-piece, where Bonaparte recalls a Feis (festival of Gaelic language and culture) organized by his grandfather to raise money for an Irish-speaking university. The festival is, naturally, an exhaustively miserable affair, characterized by extremes of hunger and incredibly shit weather. (“The morning of the feis,” Bonaparte recalls, “was cold and stormy without halt or respite from the nocturnal downpour. We had all arisen at cockcrow and had partaken of potatoes before daybreak.”) Some random Gael is elected President of the Feis, and opens the whole wretched observance with a speech of near perfectly insular Gaelicism:
If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.
This is followed by more speeches of equal or greater Gaelicism, to the point where a number of Gaels “collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most Gaelically in the midst of the assembly.” From a combination of malnutrition and exhaustion, several more lives are lost in the dancing that follows.
O’Brien’s reputation as a novelist rests largely on the postmodern absurdism of The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, with their mind-bending meta-trickery and audacious surrealism. But the essence of his genius was, I think, to be found in his extraordinary mastery of tone, in his skillful manipulation of a kind of uncannily mannered monotony. Repetition and redundancy are absolutely crucial to the comic effect of his prose, and it’s in The Poor Mouth that these effects are most ruthlessly pursued, not least because they are crucial elements of the kind of story he’s parodying here – a life of unswerving and idealized tedium, in which basically the only viable foodstuff is the potato. (Breakfast is memorably referred to as “the time for morning-potatoes.”) There’s a feverish flatness to the narrative tone throughout, a crazed restraint, and a steady accumulation of comic pressure that is like nothing else I’ve ever read. Bonaparte’s recollection of his first experience with alcohol – in the form of poitín, which is of course the potato fermented to the point of near-lethality – is one of the stronger examples of this in the book. It’s also, I think, probably the greatest of O’Brien’s many great comic riffs:
If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life.
The effort to identify the comic operations of any given piece of writing – what its technology consists of, how its moving parts fit together – is essentially a mug’s game. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for just accepting that something is funny because it makes you laugh. But there’s something about the flawlessness of this passage’s mechanism that makes me want to take it apart and lay out its components. Obviously, repetition is the primary engine here – just the sounds of the words “misadventure” and “misfortune” in such close succession is powerfully amusing. And, as with the spookily O’Brien-esque passage above from Peig, there’s the mix of sober causality and delirious wretchedness. Accumulation and enumeration is, as always with this writer, an irresistible comic force. But I think the real stroke of genius here – the element that really elevates it to the level of the sublime – is how he keeps going well past the point where the joke has done its job. The funniest word here, in other words – the word that always tips me over into literal LOLing whenever I read it – is “Then …”
And maybe this is funny precisely for the least funny of reasons: because misery and misadventure rarely stop at the point where their work is done. Even when misfortune – or life, or history – has already made its irrefutable point, there’s never anything to prevent it taking a quick breath and starting a new sentence: “Then …”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction. It was the first time they had done so since 1977. The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book.
The three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide.
Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.”
When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle.
Ann Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.”
Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb.
I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view.
There was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC.
The difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them.
All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time.
A book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles.
Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)
Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table. Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much.
Historically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good).
However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides.
The next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy.
Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two… The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville.
Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.
The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”
This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it.
All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.
Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.
It’s time again for spring cleaning, as well as the more enjoyable spring reading. Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading is gearing up for Your Face This Spring, which will read the entire 1200 pages of Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. And Big Other is orchestrating a group read of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. After you finish a closet, open a book–both start next week.
To write this installment of Modern Revue, I located and reread the copy of To the Lighthouse I had in college. The shock that the novel delivered to my booze-sodden collegiate nervous system is demonstrable. My copy looks like a creature, bristling with orange post-its. Obscure marginal notes abound, many of which are enormously insightful. My favorites include: “father castrates his lighthouse,” “a sexual woman, all the children = all the sex,” and “what will he put in her ‘bag’?” There is a liberal sprinkling of “vagina” and “phallus,” and one “oh dear,” presumably the moment when I called for my smelling salts. The class, naturally, was Introduction to Literary Theory.
I can remember writing a paper on this novel, and thinking myself into a hole (and a headache) trying to assert what Virginia Woolf’s position was on Scimitars and Fountains, The Phallus and The Lighthouse and The Vagina. But I can also remember being astonished by the novel’s beauty, which astonishes me still. It is perplexing and crowded with saucy imagery, but it is full of true things. I wonder if there is a book more packed with truth, one that carries as much weight per word. I know there is no other book that caused me so fervently to say “There it is!” and mean, “You know, like, life.”
It surprises me that I do like this book so much. I am very sensitive to experimental narratives. There are, of course, a vast number of exceptions to this prejudice. Usually, though, if I pick up a book and the story runs away from me, I feel intensely irritated and pained. The Sound and the Fury? Agony. At Swim-Two-Birds? Agony. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men? What the fuck.
To the Lighthouse walks a remarkable line, I think, forging ahead with art, but preserving clarity, and my sanity. There are a lot of characters. And there are confusing moments, especially if you are reading too fast. I had to return to the parenthetical deaths to make sure I had read correctly. But that was an amazing device; the deaths, parenthetical as they are, feel so unreal and so shocking, and then so real and so sad, much like they do in life. And before you know it, the story continues and the dead are gone, also like life.
I shudder to say this, but this is a book that meant a lot to me as a woman. I liked Edan’s description of the “mom book.” I think her “mom book,” is something I usually think of as the “lady book.” Lady books are different than “chick lit” – they don’t have shoes or poodles on the cover. They are also different from books that are by women, which can be any kind of book at all. Lady books feature heavy feelings with a chance of magic and sparkles, and, like Edan said, little irony. They also have no jokes whatsoever. The once and future queen of the lady books is, in my opinion, Alice Hoffman.
After a high school love affair with these books, I largely renounced them. For one, many lady books sound like many other lady books. I’m not sure how to describe it, but they all have exactly the same cadence, and it’s creepy. For another, I feel enough of life is dictated by one’s parts that one’s books needn’t be. As a result of this renunciation, I hesitate to admit that I like a book for a reason directly pertaining to my sex. So many books are marketed to me as my kind of book, because they have sea anemones and clasped hands on the front. And I hate it, so it makes me wary of saying “I, possessed of a certain chromosome pairing, feel this work is important,” when I do find a book that makes me feel that way. And To the Lighthouse is that kind of book, and it’s a shame that I feel icky saying it.
I see the novel, to some extent, as documenting an evolutionary stage in womanity (and thus, humanity). Mrs. Ramsay – beautiful, mother of eight – dies and goes, while Lily Briscoe, unmarried and “puckered,” lives and stays, and finally gets to finish her damn painting. That’s the story. Woolf doesn’t create such a hammy, obvious dichotomy as I’ve done; Lily and Mrs. Ramsay (and Cam, and Prue, and Minta, and Mrs. McNab) share between them a hundred facets of the “feminine experience.” That’s not to say that all women must love the novel or agree with me about the feminine experience, or that men are peripheral to the novel, and that they can’t “understand” why it’s great (not to say either, of course, that all men are the same). That’s nonsense. But it amazes me how true some of the passages feel to me personally eighty years later. I’ve felt so many of the things described in the book, particularly the ones that are ascribed to the female characters. I have had those “infidel ideas,” imagining
A life different form hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, or ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother’s eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy…
But I have also felt the “code”:
…It behooves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames…
Unlike the lady book, this isn’t a book for women. It is a book that describes certain elements of women’s lives and collective history. It’s a book that should make any person think about gender and society and life and what it’s like and how Woolf’s vision does or does not pertain to him or her. The “code” is a two-way street after all. I’m sure there’s a man out there who doesn’t much feel like giving up his seat on the raft.
One still encounters the Mr. Ramsay-esque artesian well of masculine need. There are still wicked, winsome Cams who grow into sullen teenagers with daddy issues. People still die in wars and childbirth and suddenly in the night. Life is still complicated and silly, for men and women alike. When I finished To the Lighthouse this time, I wished so much that Virginia Woolf was around to do the hard work for us again, that she was here to use her painful sensitivity to to the world and to take the world and set it down so we could say “There it is!” (again). But I should just be grateful that she lived to do it the first time, and that she did it so well then.