William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
He left us with this book.
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August.
The Carrying by Ada Limón
For a book metered by grief, there’s a lot of love here—that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Limón’s stylistic control and skill. Poems like “Almost Forty” appear next to “Trying,”; in the former, narrated by a couple, loud birds are “insane // in their winter shock of sweet gum and ash.” They look at each other and wonder if the birds’ screams are a warning—but don’t say a thing. Their silence extends to the end of the poem, when they “eat what we’ve made together, / each bite an ordinary weapon we wield // against the shrinking of mouths.” In “Trying,” they are again together. He is painting in the basement; she is “trellising / the tomatoes in what’s called / a Florida weave.” And then, “we try to knock me up again.” The day passes, the sun begins to set, and she checks the plants, her “fingers smelling of sex and tomato vines.” She doesn’t “know much / about happiness,” and yet “some days I can see the point / in growing something, even if / it’s just to say I cared enough.” Growing, caring, surviving: There’s a hymn at play here, and Limón is very good at pacing her poems to leave us satisfied but also curious. Elsewhere she writes, “Perhaps we are always hurtling our body towards / the thing that will obliterate us,” and that sentiment feels like a central truth to her poems. Her satirical poems sting (in “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual,” she roasts empty attempts at inclusion: “Will you tell us the stories that make / us uncomfortable, but not complicit?”), yet so many of these poems are simply about how to stay alive. “I lost God awhile ago,” she ends one poem. “And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them, / in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered / in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt / that’s been turned and turned like a problem / in the mind.” One of the best books of the year.
Perennial by Kelly Forsythe
Forsythe’s debut collection is about 1999 and now, the personal and the projected, villains and victims. Writing about high school is never easy—those hyper, hyperbolic years—but Forsythe is open and patient as she reconstructs life at Columbine High School. “Call us rebels,” begins one poem. “We’re making movies, / we’re making a plan, we’re / following each other // around basements.” As if the poem wants to nudge our assumptions about the infamous identities of these poem’s speakers, we see: “Will you set up a dynamic // that is also an obsession? / Will you discuss patterns?” Perennial shows how the violence of Columbine—a violence that has reverberated on campuses across America—creates an endless cycle of worry, fear, regret, and guilt. The narrative bounds between Colorado and Pittsburgh, where a young narrator is forced to accept the pain that now scars the mundane walls of such schools. Forsythe delivers precise lines of pain—“We are so small & red, red, collapsing,” ends one poem, holding the reader’s breath—but what also appears is the dizzying sense that even in these banal spaces, humanity remains. In “Homeroom,” “It felt strange to return to this space / the next day, or rather this concept: // a room meant as a home / for small enlisted selves.” In that weird, boring world, “we noticed the color / black, we noticed each other’s / hands, we noticed each other.”
If You Have to Go by Katie Ford
“The mind is full of mistakes as we set out to write the poem. We have flawed thoughts, collapsing systems, rotten boards and corroding anchors that make up how we think through a morning, through a day, through a love, and through a life. It is a crushing art.” Written after her second book Colosseum, Ford’s description of the poetic experience feels equally apt to her excellent new book. If You Have to Go is dedicated to the theologian Gordon D. Kaufman, one of Ford’s mentors at Harvard Divinity School. Her new book is part threnody, part longing, all song. The book is anchored by an extended crown of sonnets, which feel like pained and punctuated addresses to God, herself, and “Desire, that zealous servant / who won’t stop tending.” The speaker has had enough and only wants some rest. “Let me stand plain, undone in this room. / I never asked desire to be so rich.” The recursive sonnet crown pushes the reader deeper into the book, and deeper into the narrator’s woes: “I make my bed every morning. / I don’t know where to start / so I start with the bed. / Then I fall to my knees against it.” Her habit, or perhaps her condition, of seeking divine solace creates only more worry: “Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord / I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored.” Ford’s lines are impassioned, full of the terrible desire of doubt: “I don’t know what I mean, / but I mean it. I don’t know what to want, / but I want it. And when I say God / it’s because no one can know it—not ever, // not at all—. It’s a wall. / And it drops to the floor as I fall.” This book is a journey, particularly moored to “Psalm 40,” a robust poem that looks inward and upward: “I am content because before me looms the hope of love.”
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
Asghar’s debut mines past and present, Pakistan and America in poems that are driven by a penchant and talent for storytelling. She begins with “For Peshawar,” an elegy that considers the 2014 Taliban attack on schoolchildren: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” The narrator moves from questions to frustrated requests: “I wish them a mundane life. / Arguments with parents.” A life should have moments of mundane, not mortal, pain: “Blisters on the back of a heel. // Loneliness in a bookstore.” As her poems move to other settings and moments, Asghar returns to this theme: Wounds are inevitable, and much of life is looking to story for closure, or at least comfort. In the poem “Kal,” the narrator says “Allah, you gave us a language / where yesterday & tomorrow / are the same word.” Then, “If yesterday & tomorrow are the same / pluck the flower of my mother’s body / from the soil.” There’s an energy to her sense of elegy, so much that it permeates other poems, like “Old Country.” A family goes to a buffet “on the days we saved enough money.” Kids carry “our rectangle / backpacks brimming with homework, calculators / & Lisa Frank trapper keepers, for we knew this was a day / without escape.” That space becomes a fantasy of play: “Here, our family reveled in the American / way of waste, manifest destinied our way / through the mac & cheese, & green bean // casseroles, mythical foods we had only / heard about on TV where American children rolled their eyes in disgust.” Hours of freedom pass, but as with many of Asghar’s poems, there’s a tinge of melancholy—an awareness of what permeates this world.
The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand
Every ars poetica is a conversation, an attempt at meaning and purpose. The Blue Clerk is a collection of such attempts—a meandering, metaphorical, sometimes mystical collection—and the result is a developed, inventive book. Brand is also a novelist, and her reach is showcased here in a book that begins with a curious premise: a clerk, dressed in blue, waits on a wharf. A ship is supposed to arrive soon. She is “inspecting and abating” the “bales of paper” that surround her. These are “left-hand pages” from a poet, “benign enough pages,” ones “you can’t use right now because the poem moved in another direction. Pages that are unformed, or pages that, at whatever moment, she did not have the patience or the reference to solidify.” Brand tells this unfolding story in prose poetic verses. Some sections are of indiscriminate authorship—the clerk is the poet, the poet is not the clerk—suggesting the drift of our poetic identities. Brand’s lines are unique and quite comfortable to get lost in. The cleaved personality, and person, between the poet and clerk brings us to places where poetry is birthed: “Living that little fissure between scenes of the real. Everyone lives that everyday but we quickly seal the fissure for whatever pleasures are in the so-called reality, or we give up on being on this side of the fissure because it is too lonely there. It is a chasm. It is a choice available to anyone, and apparent to everyone, but unfortunately my job is…I wish I couldn’t see that chasm.” The work of the clerk is curation. The work of the poet? “I am not really in life, the author says. I am really a voyeur. But the part of me that is in life is in pain all the time. That’s me, says the clerk. You watch, I feel.”
feeld by Jos Charles
“Why do we say that the word ‘tree’—spoken or written—is a symbol to us for trees? Both the word itself and the trees themselves enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the ‘tree’ as for the word to symbolize the trees.” Alfred North Whitehead’s schema of language seems relevant to feeld, the second book by Jos Charles. Although Charles’s method has been compared to Chaucer, I think Stephanie Burt’s allusion to James Joyce is even more apt. feeld, in its mode and method, lives in the same world as Finnegans Wake—both books force us to reconsider how language transfers (and hides) meaning. “i a lone hav scaped 2 tell u this,” Charles writes, of various scenes from a “female depositrie room,” but also images of fields, unearthing metaphors and ways to think of identity: “i muste // re member / plese kepe ur handes / 2 urself / i meen this // ontologicklie // nayture is sumwere else.” Language is a place of skepticism but also necessity, and feeld builds toward a sense of resignation: “a lief is so smal / the nut // off a thynge / the trees // ive wetd / & wut weeve throne // inn 2 a stream / ull never kno // wut was here.”
How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach
Rather than wonder or worry about poetry’s larger, idealistic goals for society, Longenbach’s volume is a careful guidebook that sticks to the poem itself: its reading, its writing, its revision. “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to feel unconstrained by ourselves,” he writes, and he proceeds like a good teacher through many of poetry’s essential modes: diction, syntax, voice, figure, rhythm, image, tone, and more. What I especially like is that he uses time-worn classics as sources of instruction. He draws from poets like Blake, Crane, Dickinson, Donne, and Keats for good reason: “Because they hold our attention as repeatable events, the best-known poems may seem wonderfully strange, especially after long acquaintance.” With healthy quotes from poems that demonstrate the technical and metaphorical values he lauds, Longenbach creates a book that is not literary analysis, but an explanation of how poems work—which might just be enough to get people writing verse.
I met Guy and Harriet Pringle in the winter of 1987. In those days, Turkish public television had a rather ingenious arrangement with public radio; they would show the dubbed series, and the radio would play the original soundtrack. I do not remember who had alerted me to the fact that a new series called Fortunes of War was to go on air that week, but there I was, placing the radio right under the TV set, turning down the volume of the latter, and shushing the whole family who had gathered in the one stove-heated living room for the winter evening.
I must have been learning English for a couple of months. Being a diligent student and wanting to get ahead in class—I was at the language prep year of a high school that had most of its curriculum in English—I did all I could to fill my head with English words. British Council Library (now defunct), BBC World, and BBC series on Turkish Television. I was doing this “for school” and so my family indulged me as I watched Guy and Harriet Pringle travel through the Balkans and the Middle East. It was a very strange feeling, traveling with them to places that I had been taught used to “belong to us.” What kind of connection could a British couple possibly have to lands where songs began with “aman” and the men played backgammon? This, to me, was the central mystery of the plot, and with its very delicate hands Fortunes of War would lead me through the history of the British and Ottoman Empires, in a language that I was only newly beginning to understand. The characters I got to know through its seven episodes have stayed with me, and I still come across their avatars both in England, and the places where the English like to travel. Guy Pringle, Prince Yakimov, Dubedat, Aidan Sheridan…Watching the series again to write this piece, I am once again struck as to how perfect and lean the production is—the acting, the dialogue. (Also, how sweet Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson playing the young Pringle couple are—I still resent their divorce).
Fortunes of War was adapted from a series of novels written by Olivia Manning under the titles The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80). The books were in many ways fictionalized accounts of her travels with her husband Reggie Smith, who worked in the British Council. The story starts with Guy Pringle, having just been married in London, returning with his wife, Harriet, to his English Literature post at the University of Bucharest in 1939, as Nazis are advancing in Europe. We first see a shot of a train traveling through Mitteleuropa, with a beautiful arrangement of a Romanian song in the background that becomes the series’ theme tune, a tune that has accompanied me on the pilgrimages I have made to the Pringles’ various posts. I don’t remember how much of Fortunes of War I understood back in 1987, but I know I absorbed the whole thing like a sponge, and to this day I have déjà vu moments when a place, a song, a bit of a conversation will take me back to the story of Pringles. This could of course mean two things: that Manning was a brilliant observer of character and situations, and/or I have actively been seeking the company of Pringles’ reincarnations and their milieu. In fact, I have managed to do almost all the legs of Pringles’ journey except for Bucharest, where it all begins.
After the shot of the train going through the Balkan countryside, the camera goes inside a compartment where Guy Pringle is sharing a German joke with another, elderly passenger, and Harriet Pringle looks on bemused, setting the tone of their relationship. The atmosphere of camaraderie dissolves when soldiers come into the compartment and ask for the passengers’ papers. The old man claims he has lost his, along with his wallet, and is forcibly removed from the train. Guy gives him all the money in his purse as Harriet looks on incredulously. When Guy explains that the old man is probably Jewish and without papers, Harriet asks what will become of him. Guy’s “What is to become of any of us?” now rings a bit “all lives matter” but I am constitutionally incapable of finding fault with Guy Pringle.
Fortunes of War is, at its heart, a story about people trying to find a safe place to live—only, in this story it is Europeans going eastwards, looking for a place where the war has not yet arrived. The Pringles are hounded by the Nazis through Bucharest, to Athens, to Cairo. But of course, they are among the lucky few who can actually leave. There is a scene that I had not thought about much in 1987 but that has come back to me in recent years. Europeans scrambling to get on a ship from Athens to Cairo to face a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, threatened by German submarines. The Nazis almost catch up with the Pringles towards the end, and the ship Harriet is supposed to have been on from Cairo is torpedoed while she is safely sightseeing in Damascus.
In Bucharest, the Pringles get a flat in one of those turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that haunt world literature like The Yacoubian Building and The Flea Palace. We are in ex-Ottoman territory after all—a fact that the book, but not the series, fleetingly touches upon—and the aesthetic stretches all the way to Bucharest. Like the Yacoubian Building, this Levantine apartment has a rooftop with a shed, which becomes the hiding place for Guy’s Jewish student Sasha, whom they manage to protect only for so long. It is also in Bucharest that we meet Dobson, head of the British Legation, played by the perfectly cast Charles Kay; the stiff upper and lower lip, forever the face of British Foreign Office for me. Guy spends most of his time with his students and rehearsing for Troilus and Cressida, and when we see the poster hanging from the National Theatre in Bucharest, I learn my first (and hitherto only) Rumanian word, “şi,” meaning “and.” After the performance, dressed as they are in togas, and in heavy stage makeup ready to party, the British contingent in Bucharest learn that Paris has just fallen to the Germans.
The foreigners are leaving Bucharest fast, and one of the more persistent among their number is Prince Yakimov, the embodiment of that class of people that get stranded after the collapse of Empire. A general worldliness of having seen better days, frayed at the edges, almost certainly with an alcohol problem (this will forever link him in my mind with Charles Stringham of A Dance to the Music of time and Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano). It is, however, not quite certain which Empire once claimed Yakimov, rumored as he is to be of Russian and Irish extraction. Yakimov comes to represent “old Europe” and when he hears Paris is fallen looks wistfully and says “Such times we had in Paris,”as if he’s had one of Proust’s madeleines. You want an entire series based on his adventures as a young man. Yakimov, slow on the uptake when it comes to geopolitical awareness, asks all the questions we want to ask and becomes the vehicle for background information. While other Europeans are fleeing, he travels to the countryside to pay a visit to one of his old friends who now works for the Germans, pretending he has information he can sell him.
On his way back to Bucharest, a rich lady in a fur coat tells Yakimov “I go to Istanbul. In Bucharest they shoot you.” Yes, I once thought, here is my moment come, they will come to Istanbul, they will have to acknowledge that I live in the centre of the world. “Lush and Dubedat (two disreputable English teachers) have run away to East-anbul” we hear Pringle say, despairing. They’ve probably done a stint teaching at my high school, I fantasize. Even Yakimov leaves: “We had a letter from Turkey this morning. Yaki says he’s weighed down with loneliness and kebabs.” But Pringle will not let go of his castle. “We represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideal,” he says—a remark my 11-year-old self would have taken as par for the course, but watching in 2018 tastes sour. Back then, I am only interested in seeing them come to Istanbul.
Instead they flee to Athens, and I am heartbroken. But then Harriet goes to the Acropolis and considers whether she can be unfaithful to Guy, who has repeatedly preferred other people’s company to hers through the first three episodes, and her melancholy communes with the Parthenon’s perfect columns. My 11-year-old self vowed to visit the Acropolis one day. And I do. In 2014, after I pay my respects at the Parthenon I look for the Zonar’s Café, and find it is under renovation. Another “site” that is etched in my memory—which I didn’t try to locate—from the Greece episodes is the villa of Gracey, the head of the British School. The Pringles visit this mysterious man in his villa to ask for a job for Guy. The building is perched on a promontory and seems to be populated by life-sized statues. So much of the furniture in my literary imagination has been laid there by Fortunes of War. This villa was the inalterable décor when I read The Magus many years later.
Guy does manage to get the job, but the Germans advance and so the Pringles leave. Surely to Istanbul this time. Or at least to Izmir, which is right across the water. The journey takes forever as Pringle reads John Donne on deck in the inviolable silence as everyone else is terrified about passing German U-boats. The fourth episode finishes. The fifth opens with the sound of the adhan, surely now we’re home, surely now I will see them walk the streets that I walk. But the minarets look wrong. The camera zooms out and we see camels. They have bypassed Istanbul and made straight for Cairo. I feel cheated. People are wearing fezzes, the street vendors are calling out “bordogal” but it gives me no joy.
Then, Rupert Graves appears, in uniform and with long vowels that seem to have several Rs in them. He is playing Simon Boulderstone, a young officer just posted to Cairo. Harriet explains the lie of the land to him when he protests that he is there for something akin to Kurtz’s redeeming idea:
Boulderstone: We’ve brought them justice, prosperity…
Harriet: Prosperity? Nothing’s changed for them for a thousand years.
Boulderstone: But we’re protecting them now
Harriet: We’re protecting the Suez Canal. The route to India. Clifford’s oil company.
All the discourse you need to know about the Middle East in a nutshell. The liberal position of understanding the political aims of Empire, but remaining blind to any local transformation that might have occurred between the time of the Pharaohs and the British protectorate. But I understand the impact of this much later. In 1987, I only admire the graceful way Harriet climbs the pyramids, making another promise to self to climb them just as she did. By the time I arrive in 2008, tourists are not allowed to climb them at all.
It wasn’t all geography, colonialism, and the erasure of the traces of the “receded Ottoman Empire,” as Manning puts it in the book, that I learned from Fortunes of War. It also taught me a lot about a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of man. “When we first met, you made me feel I was the centre of the universe,” says Harriet as they are having a conversation about an affair Guy may or may not have had with a Rumanian woman. “And so you are,” replies Guy. “But you make everyone feel like that,” answers Harriet. This conversation has often come back to me in the intervening years, when I found myself in the company of a Guy. I think often, also, of the conversation between Harriet and one of Guy’s friends from Cambridge in a café in Alexandria, where Guy is teaching Finnegans Wake at the university, to the two remaining students. Finnegans Wake is a title that would’ve meant nothing to me at the time, but now I think, Alexandria is the perfect Levantine port to teach it, as Trieste was the perfect Levantine (okay, Balkan, if you insist) port that inspired it, with their Babel of languages.
Aidan: Are you waiting for Guy Pringle?
Harriet: Usually, yes.
Aidan: My name’s Aidan Pratt. I’m on leave from Damascus.
Harriet: Damascus? How do you know Guy?
Aidan: Last time I was here somebody told me a story. Two men were shipwrecked on a desert island. Neither knew the other but they both knew Guy Pringle
You know who he’s talking about. Yes, him. The one everyone’s besotted about. The one who organizes the parties and is great in a crowd. Also he whose magnanimity gets him or those around him into trouble. The two Palestinian Jews that Guy recruits to teach at the American University of Cairo turn out to be assassins. I wonder if I paid any attention to the identity of the assassins when I was watching in 1986, but now the subplot seems to be that they might have been related to the Irgun. This is how the Pringles discuss the event:
Guy: The whole thing’s ludicrous.
Dobson: This is the Levant after all.
Harriet: You used to say that about the Balkans.
Watching now, this conversation seems like the coda to the series, a sentiment that falls in line with my initial reaction to seeing these people that really belonged in a Merchant-Ivory production traipsing about in my lands. From Bucharest to Alexandria, I am or know every “native” they speak to. From the demurely made-up middle class women around the dinner table in a banker’s home in Bucharest (several aunties come to mind), to the wistful man in Damascus trying to explain to Harriet the meaning of hijab…When the latter happens, I am at the edge of my seat, thinking, “He’s botched it,” as I often do nowadays, not least when I am the one trying to explain. I was 11 when I watched the scene, and I would have years, a decade to think about it, to work out the perfect explanation, before I would be released upon the English speaking world:
Harriet: You can’t make men chaste by keeping women out of sight
Damascene Man: You are an unusual lady, you have a mind of your own
Harriet: Where I come from it’s not unusual
“But I have a mind of my own too,” my 11-year-old self shouts. “Just you give me time and I’ll come to England and talk to you about how it is not unusual where I come from, either.”
Everyone has their demons. Watching the series again I realize I have spent my entire life writing back to the Pringles.
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
When I started running, I was stately, yes, but too plump, and I took to the roads in the morning to take in the crisp air and give myself a bit more margin of error to drink beer. About half a decade later — a year ago now — I found myself waving goodbye to my wife on a chilly, wet October morning as she drove out of the empty parking lot of Mount Vernon, once George Washington’s estate on the banks of the gray Potomac River, back to our warm home, 19 miles away, and our kitchen, and two cats, myself left with just a bag of water on my back, an MP3 recording of an Irishman reading seeming gibberish for 35 hours — i.e., James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness dirge Finnegans Wake — and a GPS watch to track it all. And, of course, space-age sprays and pastes slathered on my peaks and valleys to prevent chafing.
I was training to run my first marathon — 37 and falling apart, bald and still too fat in most places, but human adaptability is a glorious thing, and somehow after training all of the hot summer it seemed the old meat machine would be able to finish the race. Knock on wood. Trust your training. Never trust a fart. Etc. I’d made it through the acute brutalities of a DC summer (85% humidity at 5:45 am, and hot) with just one long run left. After this last monster, the worst that remained would somehow be just a non-issue 12 miler, then taper taper taper (for non-runners: heal up) and ta da, the race, and then done. I would get my body back, and my weekends, and my mornings.
Forget the aches and the pains and the miles. The time commitment alone was real and grueling: Almost three hours of weekday mornings spent running before work, and then a long run on Sunday of another two and a half to three hours.
A month or so into the 18-week grind, though, I found that the gift of this training was the gift of reading. Hours and hours of long runs, just get those miles in, and after a while music is too complicated, the rhythms — too often the slightest bit off — make feet fall wrong. So: audiobooks. That summer I “read” better and more by listening than I had been able to in years. As a younger man I had swallowed whole catalogues of author after author. Since 2004 or so, though, I hardly read a book or two a year.
I’ll spare you and myself the excuses — this problem (like so many other things) was my failing and not the world’s. But eight miles on a Wednesday morning, or a Sunday 15…that’s real time, for real “reading,” available nowhere else in my life. And God bless it. Over the course of the summer I “read” story after story from a Haruki Murakami collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and all of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, and a good lot of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.
So back to that Mount Vernon parking lot morning. I had reached the emotional (if not literal) end of my training. One more long run and I‘d be done. All that would be left would be to stay loose and rest up for the marathon. But things had gone too well, and I wanted more. The running books I’d read said not to push past 20 miles in your training runs, certainly not for your first marathon. The reason: there’s no gain to be found in pushing into or through the awful last six miles, where your body and soul leave you with nothing but the one, two of foot in front of foot dragged by acid-soaked muscles and the thought that there is beer and something else at the end but I forget what. For the sake of your emotional wellbeing, just do that once. Save that unique joy for race day.
Like I said, I felt things had gone too well. So, for this last run, I wanted to up the mental game somehow, maybe simulate the brutality of the last six miles without running them. What better way to test my fortitude than by hammering my head with the legendarily impenetrable Irish jibberish of Finnegans Wake? If I can run 20 yammering nonsensical miles, then an extra six with folks cheering most of the way instead: easy, right? Maybe easier.
It seemed a good morning for my project, I thought, as my wife and I drove to Mount Vernon, cold and gray and wet. Irish weather, maybe, myself having never seen Dublin. And, frankly, good running weather too. Better a chill and a wind you can fight with the fire inside than the crushing of the sun and heat.
I stepped out of the car into the dreary Mount Vernon parking lot and put on the silly safety-vest-looking backpack full of water. My wife took the wheel and drove quietly out of the parking lot, a full and sane day ahead of her. I waved to the tail-lights as they dimmed in the mist and, trotting off towards home, I pressed play.
The running was fine and predictable, the first couple miles just working through the accumulated tightness of the preceding months and past each joint’s initial grumbles. The book pushed quickly through the first page or two that had punished me repeatedly for daring to start reading it a couple times over the years. As the minutes passed, a sort of awareness of scene filtered through the earbuds, if only barely. Early on, for example, a museum guide walked us (the readers) through what must have been pages of exhibits of I’m not quite sure why it mattered. For example:
“This is the flag of the Prooshi- 11
ous, the Cap and Soracer. This is the bullet that byng the flag of 12
the Prooshious. This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang 13
the flag of the Prooshious.?”
This is Derek’s sullen resignation.
But then we moved on through the miles, the book and I, past the museum, and…
Not as bad as I thought. Somehow, easier? Easier even than a narrative book? I’ll admit there were times over the hundreds of miles this summer when I was not laserbeam focused on the intricacies of Murakami’s blind willow dream, or, in Flamethrowers, the Moto Valero slipping turning tumbling across the salt flats, or men of various ages, nationalities, and levels of familial relation leering at Franzen’s Pip. Moments when I’d catch and hold an image then let it envelop me as my feet kept hitting ground, caught frozen smiling in the wave before it broke and rolled back, my attention and any context washed away with it. Or the realities of the run took over: when stop lights or carb packets or blessed cold water was king, the audiobooks slipped to Charlie Brown teacher sounds and rhythm in the background. But here was a book that was all a waterfall of images sound and rhythm and yes on some level so much more, but on a run it could be just sound and rhythm, and if you catch a bit in English here and there all the better. And if not, it just enveloped me as I swerved along that last long run by the river, beating the bending path back to my castle.
Other than the museum guide, the first surprise of Finnegan’s Wake to wash over me was the rap music. Multiple times in first five miles (at my pace, the first hour of the book) I found myself thinking back to “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious. And I could swear that Joyce namechecked at least a couple lyricists in the first 100 pages: Black Thought, and Meth. I was surprised somehow to not hear the names Raekwon or Ghostface Killah, even though the book’s random access style shares more DNA with the Chef and Ghost than with Method Man. But one does not get greedy when writing a paragraph about anachronistic name dropping. Run on.
In college I read Ulysses with and for and because of the secondary texts and concordances and the desk and time big enough to hold it all. Peek under the page and see the scaffolding made of strings. Pull a string and pull into your lap The Odyssey or Shakespeare or the intricacies of then-contemporary Irish politics. Delight in the architecture and in your own appetite for a “difficult” book. Impress your friends and wow (bookish) lovers. On the run two decades later, however, my ears were just big enough to hold the dance of syllables, if that, but in that: liberation. I could not be expected to figure it out. And to be clear, I didn’t. No place for concordance here. No strings or scaffolding.
Here’s what happened (I think) in what my MP3s call the first 100 pages or so: the world was created, as were people, as was Dublin. People had a lot of sex. People did a lot of drinking, and got drunk. At least one person, and likely more, peed, seemingly (hopefully) outdoors. I’m pretty sure I may have secreted to the bushes myself in the course of those pages. Men stood trial for their offenses. Maybe the peeing was the offense, or one of them, or maybe not. I faced no censure myself for peeing into the bushes. Not even a judging glance.
And a few miles on, after the rap, there were other echoes, this time literary. First, of Joyce. There was a cyclops in Ulysses and a guy named Bloom, and both, or the sound of both, in the Wake. And did I hear Dedalus? Like Ulysses’s Bloom, another Joyce avatar. But then echoes of other books, as I passed other stretches I’d run before training for this race. Here, on this stretch of path near the parkway, was where Pip rode the bus out to see her mother, and here next to the airport I remember the dinner where it became clear that Valero’s mother in Flamethrowers was truly awful. And later on, foot after foot, echoes too outside of the other books even, because here on this bridge earlier in the summer it was too hot and my water ran out in 87 degrees and I started to get deep chills in the beating summer sun, which I’m not a doctor but I took to be a bad sign. Hard not to flash on that.
Exactly halfway through, a pub. “Stop,” the sirens wail.
Many miles on, deeper echoes too of my life before all that. I grew up here and once back up over the bridge into the city I’m seeing that little stage near the Washington Monument where I swear I conducted a marriage of two women in front of thousands of people before a Fugazi concert in 1995. So many Fourth of July chaos evenings chasing explosions of fireworks friends and beer. The parades and inaugurations I cheered or screamed at (W. Bush and Obama, both — just align my reactions with yours, and read on). All of this, and every heaving sweating awful summer run coming back with every step across DC soil. So deep in, but almost home. Riding the rhythm of the Wake but long past the words.
And then, the gutpunch realization that I owed the gods 20 miles but home was just over 19 from where I started. With three miles left the legs were tightening, and the red light stops more frequent, and with the tank so low how to push on when home was just a left turn away? But one of the few things I think I remember from Ulysses and The Odyssey is that one is not home until it is earned, that physical proximity was not enough and it was the extra that makes it real. So once at my house, 19.4 miles from Mount Vernon, and .2 from a ferociously needed shower, I kept on straight and not left, looping the park by my house in a stumble, and pushing a bit more, to get somehow to 20 miles, legs barely there, stopping immediately once the last decimal turned, and
done. and stop this Irish mumbling, phone. I want my brain back. Just a block or two to the door. My wife had mentioned breakfast of bacon and fruit, even though it was past noon. And there was leftover pizza as well. And there, my door, my house. Home.
I stumbled to the door, legs aching but still my heart was going like mad. My wife opened the door, and I saw the bacon and pineapple and pizza warming in the oven, and she asked me would I go clean up while she poured me a beer and yes I said yes I will Yes.
And that was last year. I ran the race, the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon, and finished, although I was not fast. My wife made signs and popped up five places along the way and passed me a dry pair of socks halfway through. They were magic, those socks, and now I know to pack a pair or two for this year. As I finish writing this, I’m wrapping up training for the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon. One 20-mile training run down, and the second this weekend. I ran the first with a friend. I may run the second with Joyce again for old times’ sake. My wife and I have (lovingly and amicably) separated, and my training runs now also echo the many morning miles we had shared over the last few years. And I cannot wait for it all to be over, the training, and then for it all, next year, to begin again just right where it left off.
Image Credit: Flickr/daniMU.
“This will be very hard for you.”
— Alan Moore, Jerusalem (spoken by an angel)
Jerusalem, the new novel by Alan Moore, sits on my desk, thick and foreboding. At 1,279 pages, it’s a behemoth compared to the author’s last prose work, Voice of the Fire, a relatively scant 304.
One doesn’t just dive into a novel this size without testing the water. So I hold the book in my hands (it’s heavy, as expected, like a dense loaf of bread). I flip through the pages (the resultant breeze feels nice on this soupy summer day). I read over the marketing copy (vague, as expected). I think back on other Alan Moore works I’ve enjoyed (Watchmen, of course, but also his true magnum opus, the Jack the Ripper study From Hell). I wonder why I’ve taken up the task of reading this novel when my shelves are a graveyard of similarly sized ones, finished (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day) and unfinished (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) alike.
I think: Alan Moore’s an imaginative storyteller. Despite Jerusalem’s intimidating size, it should be fun.
I also think: Maybe I should be reading this book on a Kindle.
There’s no clear way to approach Jerusalem other than to plunge in, so I do.
I’m a little over 200 pages in and already getting a sense of how Jerusalem is less a “mere” novel and more a grand literary project: an ambitious attempt by Moore to encapsulate the soul of his hometown of Northampton, England. The city was the same setting for his first novel, in which its spirit was captured by polyphonic voices speaking to us from 4000 B.C. to the end of the 20th century.
So far, Jerusalem is a novel the conceit of which (chapters told from different characters’ perspectives at different historical moments in different literary styles) has more strength than the story. I’m briefly introduced to Mick and Alma Warren, modern-day sibling residents of Northampton on whom the rest of the novel’s events (both past and present) supposedly hinges. I’m more excited to be thrown back into the past in chapters the disparate subjects of which seek to cast Northampton as the omphalos of England; the nexus of existence in which can be gleaned the entire story of humanity.
This is an obvious Joycean undertaking, and it goes a long way toward explaining (and perhaps justifying) Jerusalem’s generous length. Moore’s writing is nothing if not hyper-descriptive; baroque, even. One wonders if this is compensation for the lack of visuals that accompany his similarly grand, tangled comic book narratives. These early chapters cross the point into self-indulgence. But just as I’m about to give up, Moore casts me into a different time frame and I’m enthralled.
One moment, I’m peering over the shoulder of a fresco restoration artist in St. Paul’s cathedral hallucinating (or not) a conversation with an angel. The next, I’m following a drug-addled sex worker walking Northampton’s streets in 2006. If there’s one thing uniting his characters here, it’s their station as members of the working class. They live and work in The Burroughs, Northampton’s lower-class area and the site of frequent tension with the forces of redevelopment.
Is there some kind of equitable justice above these streets? Some cosmic force that can set things right? Knowing Moore’s work, I’m sure these questions will have not just metaphoric answers, but literal ones as well.
I decided not to bring Jerusalem with me on a three-day vacation. So now I’m back at home and hunkered down in Alan Moore’s Northampton. My new goal: read around 150 pages a day.
I carry Jerusalem with me everywhere. I take the novel on public transportation to and from work, where it sits open in my lap like an infant. I try to read it on the elliptical machine at the gym, an awkward task that means I’m switching to a reclining stationary bike for the next week or so. I dip into the novel during my lunch break, after dinner, before bed.
This is heavy reading in more ways than one. The density of Moore’s prose forces me to constantly come up for air. And yet, I’m never tempted to stay above water for long. I’m intrigued by the characters: a Benedictine monk making a spiritual stop in medieval “Hamtun;” “Black Charley,” an American transplant and one of Northampton’s first black residents; the struggling modern-day poet Benedict Perrit, doing what all us struggling writers do best (namely, beg friends for drinking money).
Some characters, like the aforementioned poet, we follow from the moment they wake up to the moment they return to bed at close of day. Moore pays particular attention to mapping the city streets his characters wander. I’m reminded of a similar scene in From Hell, where Dr. William Gull’s calculated perambulations past London landmarks ultimately reveal the shape of a pentagram. I’m also reminded of W.G. Sebald, whose semi-fictional wanderers uncover the psychogeography of particular places; the secret histories trapped in landscapes and buildings.
There is true world-building going on here. Whitmanesque, these pages contain multitudes. And I’m starting to realize these disparate voices aren’t that disparate at all; in fact, they’re delicately interconnected. Figures from the past and the present, alive and dead, bob and weave and brush up against one another.
This book, I’m learning, is haunted by history.
One of the most striking things of Moore’s best work over the years: his focus on the nature of space-time; of time as a fourth dimension; of past, present, and future all happening at once. Time, in his Weltanschauung, is an architectural dimension that can be mapped and explored. It’s the same philosophy that haunts Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and that propels Jack the Ripper’s legacy through time in From Hell.
Jerusalem is a startling expansion on these ideas. While ideas of space-time have appeared in nearly every chapter so far, they’re concentrated in one marvelous section I’ve just finished. Snowy, a member of the Vernall clan (of whom the siblings Mick and Alma Warren are present-day descendants), hangs off the top of a building while below, in the gutter, his wife gives birth to a daughter. During this moment of suspended time, Snowy explores the idea of the world as an “eternal city” — one in which everything has been preordained.
There’s something frightening (and oddly comforting) about this philosophy, which borrows from the poet and mystic William Blake (an influence on Moore’s work), Friedrich Nietzsche’s myth of “eternal recurrence,” and the ideas of like-minded thinkers. We’re meant to see this idea as not a curse but a kind of hope.
If it’s true, it means, in a sense, I’ll be reading this book forever.
I’m now over 400 pages in, and I’ve just discovered that Jerusalem is also available in a three-volume slipcase edition. My wrists ache.
While the economy of reading an enormous book in more manageable, digestible “books” are a comfort (see a similar edition for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666), I’ve convinced myself that by reading Jerusalem in its uninterrupted, single-bound version, I’m getting the more authentic reading experience.
The 2016 Olympics are on in the background. Indeed, there’s something Olympian about reading Jerusalem as one entire text. I feel strong.
I’m also glad I’ve opted out of reading Moore’s novel on an e-reader. I’d most likely miss out on the physical sense of accomplishment that comes from feeling the weight of this book gradually increase in my left palm and decrease in my right: one page, then 10 pages, then 50 pages.
The second hefty part of Jerusalem finally lays bare the vast supernatural cosmology Moore’s hinted at in previous pages, with all their angelic visions and ghostly hauntings. What he’s created: a three-tiered universe of Northampton: the Burroughs (in our everyday reality), Mansoul (a sort of astral plane from which all time and space can be seen, the name borrowed from John Bunyan), and a mysterious Third Burrough.
For more than 300 pages, we follow Mick Warren on an odyssey through this landscape, the result of a near-death experience as a child in 1959. During the few moments where Mick’s body loses consciousness, we travel in and around this “world above a world.” We meet angels (known as “builders”). We meet demons (former “builders”). We meet a ragtag gang of ghost children called The Dead Dead Gang, some of whose members can literally dig through time. We’re flung back to seminal moments in Northampton’s history, spending the night with Oliver Cromwell on the eve of a decisive battle in the English Civil War and watching two fire demons, salamanders, cavort through the city and bring about the Great Fire of 1675.
There are some indelible images in these pages, including the ghost of a suicide bomber who’s eternally trapped in mid-explosion (the rules of this afterlife being that the form you occupy is the form you had during your greatest moment of joy) and a serpentine ghoul that haunts the River Nene and plucks newly dead souls into her underwater purgatory.
It’s unfair to expect perfection from mammoth books. Yet the longer a novel runs, the more unforgiving a reader becomes about moments in the story that could be tightened, or excised altogether. Great Big Novels bring out the editor inside us all.
I’ve spent three days trapped, so to speak, in the otherworldly realm of Mansoul. I’m starting to long for the voices of the humans back on three-dimensional Earth. Moore’s too talented a writer to waste his time (and ours) with much of this rambling middle section. You’ll get an important episode told from one perspective, then a shift in perspective in the next chapter that requires a recap of earlier events. This means pages go by before the narrative moves forward.
Twelve days after starting this book (holding at bay, for the moment, the deluge of other reading materials in my life), I round the halfway point of Jerusalem. It’s the moment where the spine finally cracks and I can read the book on a desk without the use of my hands.
I like to think I crack the spine out of necessity, not vindictiveness.
Moore, you sadist.
I’m back on the human plane of existence, back in the polyphony of voices that is Jerusalem’s strength. And then, on page 900, I’m dropped into a 48-page narrative from the perspective of James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter, Lucia, a patient at Northampton’s St. Andrew’s Hospital.
These pages are written in a mock-Finnegans Wake word salad built on puns and double meanings. It feels a little sadistic, placing such a passage here. It’s an inventive idea that’s fun at first, but, like a lot in this novel, it goes on for longer than it should. Also: I’m frustrated at being impeded so close to the end by having to sort through this linguistic playground.
So here is where I make a confession. I skimmed. With a copy of the original Finnegans Wake looming over me on my bookshelf (similarly unfinished), I quickly stopped trying to parse the logic of each sentence. As soon as I got the idea — al fresco assignations with men who may not really be there, painful memories of childhood abuse — I moved on.
Perhaps one day this section will be worth revising and translating. As of now, I’m rabid for Jerusalem to end.
Moore, you genius.
A few chapters after my troubled date with Lucia Joyce, I come across one of the more brilliant, transcendent sections in the novel. It’s composed of a pivotal character’s final earthly moments interspersed with a fantastical journey in which his essence (along with that of his deceased granddaughter) travels into the future. Together, the pair witness the evolution of the human race, its eventual demise, the resurgence of giant crabs and land-walking whales as the new lords of the earth, the heat death of the universe, and the last spark of light before eternal darkness.
It’s a lovely, touching moment that rewards my investment in this novel. Arriving on the heels of a farcical play (featuring the ghosts of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare), it’s a testament to Moore’s skill at genre juggling, at cultivating a sense of awe at the universe’s frightening expanse and its beautiful mysteries.
Sixteen days later, making the final lap of a noir-ish detective story, a poem from the perspective of a drug-addled and ghost-haunted runaway, and a somewhat anti-climactic gallery opening, I arrive at the last page.
I close Jerusalem and drop it on the floor at my feet. I don’t need to do this; it’s a purely dramatic gesture. The resultant thud is a satisfying testament to my accomplishment.
I’m drained. But I’m also grateful. And a little sad.
It’s a paradoxical feeling I get after finishing big books like this one. The quiet thrill of having been completely submerged in an author’s vision. The feeling of finally coming up for a merciful breath of air. The longing to read flash fiction by Lydia Davis.
I’m still thinking about this fascinating mess of a book and its countless allusions (both major and minor): the art of William Blake, episodes of the U.K. version of Shameless, comic books, modern art and poetry, the time theories of Charles Howard Hinton and Albert Einstein, the hymns of John Newton, demons from apocryphal books of the Bible, H.P. Lovecraft, Melinda Gebbie (Moore’s wife), Tony Blair, Jack the Ripper, Buffalo Bill, billiards, global warming, the Crusades, the War in Iraq, the end of the world. A cacophony of material that doesn’t always coalesce perfectly but that, fittingly, creates what one character describes as “an apocalyptic narrative that speaks the language of the poor.” And the mad. And the sad. And the frustrated, the lonely, the lost.
In a sense, all of us.
My wrists stop aching.
James Joyce discarded Catholicism, but he religiously observed Groundhog Day. February 2 was his birthday, and Joyce took his birthday seriously throughout his adult life. He didn’t look for the groundhog’s shadow, however. He looked for his own, and believed he’d found it in the person of another, lesser-known Irish writer who he came to consider his spiritual twin. Joyce claimed the other man had also been born on Groundhog Day in Dublin in 1882, just like him, though scholars have been unable to verify the exact birthdate of this other, lesser-known scribe. Little of the other man’s biography is in fact known with certainty.
The man may have been two years old when his father died and possibly six when he entered a Dublin orphanage, never to return home. It’s all a bit unclear; a fog of rumor hangs over his origins as it does over John Henry or Jesus Christ. This much is known: he was very small as a child; when he grew up he was still so short that one journalist said he was no taller standing than sitting; others called him a leprechaun, and he didn’t much like that; he told a cartoonist, “Eh, you want to caricature me, eh? Well, the Almighty beat you to it.” This too is known: notwithstanding his diminutive beginnings, great men would come to worship at his feet.
The Irish playwright Seán O’Casey called him “the jesting poet with a radiant star in his coxcomb.” Eugene O’Neill asked him to name his children and so Oona and Shane O’Neill got their names. James Joyce asked him to complete Finnegans Wake should Joyce himself go blind. He published plays, novels, stories, and poems, including a series of them in The New Yorker in 1929, and his voice once pervaded the Irish airwaves like rainbows south of Skibbereen. This so-called leprechaun with a voice “nimble as a goat’s foot,” as one commentator puts it, was called James Stephens.
Some evidence suggests Stephens was born not on February 2, 1882 like Joyce, but rather on February 9, 1880. Perhaps Joyce asserted they were twins because he regarded Stephens as a particularly worthy rival, and because Joyce conquered his rivals by appropriating them — and because, after being enemies, they became good friends. In a letter dated May 31, 1927, Joyce reports that for years he carried three portraits in his pocket: one of his father, one of himself, and one of James Stephens. When Ulysses was published on February 2, 1922 — on Joyce’s 40th birthday, by his own design — he inscribed a copy to his poetical twin. Stephens in turn wrote a theosophical poem called “Sarasvati” for Joyce’s birthday and for the rest of Joyce’s life gave him the kind of respect that Joyce demanded of every animal, mineral, and vegetable. Stephens called Joyce a king, encouraged him to carry on with Finnegans Wake, and when it was published, told Joyce that its last chapter was the “greatest prose ever written by a man” — praise that deeply moved Joyce, and with which he surely concurred.
But the two men didn’t like each other at first, and one senses that their rivalry forever chafed at Stephens, beginning with their first meeting in 1912, when Joyce feared and envied Stephens. In 1907, Joyce had published a small volume of poetry called Chamber Music that garnered its author little attention; Stephens’s poetry meanwhile had so impressed the famous Irish poet AE (a.k.a., George Russell) that in 1907 Russell adopted Stephens as his protégé. Stephens had by 1912 furthermore upstaged Joyce in prose. When the two first met on Dawson Street in Dublin, Stephens’s second novel The Crock of Gold was already at the printer, while Joyce was still struggling to publish his first prose work, Dubliners. According to Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann, Joyce dumped his publishing frustrations on Stephens, the writer whom Joyce described to his brother as “my rival, the latest Irish genius.” Stephens had of course faced trials and difficulties himself, but Joyce neither knew nor cared. Stephens says that Joyce gazed down at him in Pat Kinsella’s pub with blues eyes so magnified by his spectacles as to be “nearly as big as the eyes of a cow” before commencing a verbal assault. Stephens narrated the meeting thus on the radio in 1946:
He turned his chin and his specs at me, and away down at me, and confided the secret to me that he had read my two books; that, grammatically, I did not know the difference between a semi-colon and a colon: that my knowledge of Irish life was non-Catholic and, so, non-existent, and that I should give up writing and take to a good job like shoe-shining as a more promising profession.
I confided back to him that I had never read a word of his, and that, if Heaven preserved me to my protective wits, I never would read a word of his, unless I was asked to destructively review it.
Stephens had had the upper hand in 1912, but by 1946 Joyce had thoroughly overshadowed his old rival. The word “non-existent” in the foregoing passage calls out the name of another of Stephens’s wounds, a possible turning point in the Stephens-Joyce rivalry. It was in a 1915 essay in The New Age entitled “The Non-Existence of Ireland” that Joyce’s influential champion Ezra Pound dismissed Stephens as “a mild enough writer.” It enraged Stephens, who wrote a bitterly funny letter to The New Age deriding Pound in doggerel form. Stephens concludes that having written Pound’s name, he had to go “fumigate” his sullied pen.
Such injuries were perhaps fresh in Stephens’s mind when, in a 1917 letter, he conceded to his American publisher that Joyce was “a clever, competent writer, but…by no means a great writer.” Stephens went on in that letter to slag Joyce as “a disappointed, envious man” and Joyce’s work as “unpleasant” and “thin.”
In later years, after Stephens and Joyce had become close friends, and after Stephens had affably accommodated himself to Joyce’s international fame, he repented of those criticisms and praised Joyce at every opportunity. And the two friends celebrated their shared birthday together. On February 2, 1933, Stephens wrote from Paris to thank his children Iris and Seumas for their birthday wishes. His letter calls February 2 “that most noble of dates.” “Tis Candlemas,” he writes, “and it is also the end of most things, and the beginning of everything…[W]ill go thence at 8.30 to the Joyces where a party of some kind is to be held to celebrate our mutual birthday…It was bitterly cold here until three days ago, and I had a cold — your mother has it now, but I didn’t need it anyway.”
Stephens was famous for his wit, and Richard Ellmann and others have observed that his humor depended on his modesty and self-deprecation. Being under five feet tall, he identified with the little guy. An editor of Stephens’s letters, Richard Finneran, asserts that Stephens celebrated his birthday on February 2 long before his acquaintance with Joyce; if so, perhaps that’s because, as Ellmann speculates, “Stephens was invariably sympathetic to the intrusions of small creatures into the universe.” Those sympathies are plainly evident in Stephens poems like 1924’s “Little Things” in which Stephens writes, “Little things that run and quail, / And die in silence and despair. / Little things that fight and fail, / And fall on earth and sea and air.”
Ellmann notes that unlike Joyce, Stephens “often chose to appear as elfin.” He was unlike Joyce in his temerity before the possibility of oblivion. David McCord wrote in 1962 of Stephens: “the man put his books out the way one would plant a tree, each to grow to its own size, each to gather in its shade those who have traveled a long way through the mire, the dust and the anxiety of the world.” There is something sagacious and honorable in Stephens’s retiring attitude to posterity, but one sad outcome may be that “the readers of Joyce — a big lot of them too — have overlooked a fellow genius,” as McCord says. Stephens is for one thing much funnier than Joyce, McCord contends, and it’s impossible to disagree with him. “The surrealist in Stephens is always spacious,” McCord goes on, “his hells and heavens (for me at least) have both an altitude and depth that I do not find even in Finnegans Wake.”
Could it be that the shabby, out-of-print volumes that keep custody of Stephens’s legacy are, as McCord argues, “vintage wine in a rain barrel?” Could it be that underneath a homely title like Irish Fairy Tales, which Padraic Colum notes was “never sufficiently praised” and which is now mislabelled as children’s literature, there lies a work of true genius?
Having read Irish Fairy Tales, I add my voice to those who sing in praise of the long-lost leprechaun of Irish literature. For Irish Fairy Tales is more than good. It’s a work of genius on the Joyce and W.B. Yeats level, though stylistically different in almost every way from that of his taller and more famous peers. Stephens writes in that work:
I became the king of the salmon, and, with my multitudes, I ranged on the tides of the world. Green and purple distances were under me: green and gold the sunlit regions above. In these latitudes I moved through a world of amber, myself amber and gold; in those others, in a sparkle of lucent blue, I curved, lit like a living jewel: and in these again, through dusks of ebony all mazed with silver, I shot and shone, the wonder of the sea.
No wonder no one ever wrote Stephens a fitting epitaph; no one could say it quite as well as him! But perhaps what Stephens wrote of the king of the salmon is good enough for himself. He is brave, skilled, honorable, and as unconcerned with either fame or revenge as his hero Fionn.
In “The Boyhood of Fionn,” a piece of magical realism in Irish Fairy Tales to stand aside Gabriel García Márquez and Franz Kafka, Fionn encounters a wise poet sitting on the bank of a wild, remote river. He asks the poet, “Why do you live on the bank of a river?” The poet answers:
‘Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind.’
‘How long have you been here?’ was the next query.
‘Seven years’ the poet answered.
‘It is a long time,’ said wondering Fionn.
‘I would wait twice as long for a poem,’ said the inveterate bard.
Retiring into Joyce’s shadow, Stephens remarked that Finnegans Wake is both “unreadable” and “wonderful.” His own works are readable and wonderful. Groundhog Day seems a fitting time for Stephens to step back out into the light after a long winter of oblivion in Joyce’s shadow. Or, if that’s not to be just now, later then. However long it takes. Stephens would wait twice as long for a poem.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I hope you had your Wheaties this morning, because this one is a doozy. Scientists at Poland’s Institute of Nuclear Physics have discovered complex “fractal” sentence patterning in classic works of literature that is nearly identical to “ideal” mathematics. Maybe Finnegans Wake does make sense, after all.
“I’m a writer through and through, but the art world—to a large extent—provides the arena in which literature can be vigorously addressed, transformed, and expanded.” Frederic Tuten interviews Tom McCarthy about the overlap between the visual arts and literature, the importance of reading, and living, voraciously, and the power of Finnegans Wake for BOMB Magazine. Pair with our own Nick Ripatrazone’s review of BOMB: The Author Interviews.
This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.
(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)
There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.
The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.
Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.
Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”
Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.
Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.
Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.
Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.
I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!
See? It’s easy.
Now everybody —
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
We’ve written before about various rare recordings of authors reading that occasionally surface on the internet (a sample here) but today we add a new author: James Joyce. Open Culture has posted two recordings of the author reading from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and while the audio quality is exactly what you would expect for recordings made in the 1920s, we still recommend listening.
“Who would not sing for Lycidas?” asks Milton in his famous elegy. And who, indeed, would not sing for the Novel, which has once again been declared dead?
Epitaphs for the Novel
In Everlasting Memory of The Novel (1605 – 2014)
Wandering knight, Shipwreck survivor, Whale hunter, Homebody
The Novel (1719 – 2014)
Into the Great Omniscience
In Remembrance of The Novel (d. 2014)
Who after supplanting the Epic
Enduring that “damned mob of scribbling women”
And surviving Finnegans Wake
Finally succumbed to the Internet
The Novel (RIP)
“I couldn’t relate to you either.”
Here lies The Novel (1000 – 2014)
Multilingual polymath, Baggy monster, Repeat Booker Prize Winner
The Novel that is born of other narrative modes hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. It cometh up and is cut down, like the tree from which it was made.
Cherished Memories of The Novel (d. 2014)
“The most spectacular implosion of any genre you’re likely to see this year.”
— Gary Shteyngart
May your next chapter be free of critics and unhappy families
May you haunt those readers who left you unfinished
May you at last have time to read the Russians
And catch up on House of Cards
The Novel (1455 – 2014)
“I had a great print run.”
“I weep for the Novel — he is dead!”
Loving son of Calliope, faithful husband of Clio, devoted father of the nouveau roman, stream of consciousness
and movie tie-ins
Here lies, within this narrow pit,
A novel, the last one ever writ.
Disturb not its pages free of crease,
Lest you come to read in peace.
Image via Grabstein/Flickr
There is perhaps no more fitting summer job for a writer than processing books in the basement of a university library. To get up before the real heat of the day begins and descend into the air-conditioned cool of the dimly-lit basement archives is a particular kind of atmospheric trick, but emerging after a full day’s work into the thick evening is even better, since it mimics the way writers feel when they get up from a long grapple with a manuscript; your eyes are bleary, your head is half-dazed, and the hot summer night feels overly sharp, hyper-real, cluttered with shouts and sirens.
(I highly recommend an archiving job as a remedy for the effects of writer’s block, since it’s easy enough to pretend that a pile of close reading is a substitute for your own literary production. Your verbal overload is no less intense for being totally vicarious.)
All of this describes the job I worked last summer, in the rare books section of a local university library. I was assigned to a basement room nicknamed “the cage,” because most of the shelving was set off behind a wall of wire mesh, accessible only by a carefully guarded key. I did my work at a small desk in the corner, and when I wanted to enter the cage I had to ask for this key, and return it to its appointed hook straightaway when I was done.
The project that I was hired to work on is somewhat difficult to describe. Sometime in the early aughts, a famous bookstore in New York — I can’t tell you which one, on conditions of job-related secrecy — closed its doors forever, at which point several wealthy patrons banded together to buy its entire inventory (distressed periodicals and all) and hand said inventory over to a local university library. This inventory consisted of thousands upon thousands of volumes: some rare, some middling, some eminently forgettable. They had early editions of Finnegans Wake, nestled next to paperback Modern Library editions of the collected works of Thackeray, propped up against a stack of 25 cent magazines for teen movie lovers of the 1950s.
I am not a rare books specialist; I am not capable of making fine distinctions. I do not know a first edition unless it is clearly marked in the front of the book, preferably in large type, all capitals. Thus my job consisted only of logging the books, regardless of content or merit, into the computer system: name, title, ISBN, and relative condition.
There have been moments of excitement. I have shelved books from the personal libraries of Anaïs Nin and Joseph Mitchell. I have learned terms which include, but are by no means limited to: bastard title page, bumped corners, colophon, ex libris, flyleaf, foxing, worn boards, and gutter tear. I have held William Gaddis first editions and signed versions of nearly every title in Joyce Carol Oates’s massive oeuvre.
But the actual function of my day was repetitive, nearly robotic.
Name, Title, ISBN
worn board edges
gutter tear in front flyleaf, board corners slightly bumped,
dj (short for “dust jacket”) worn
owner’s signature on front flyleaf “(illegible), Chicago, 1923”
inscription on front flyeaf: “To Brenda, for the memories, Cape Cod, 1932”
A New Yorker cartoon, featuring a man pushing a massive cube up a featureless hill, was taped to the wall above my supervisor’s desk. The caption: Extreme Sisyphus.
Common themes in books, 19th to early-20th century:
Detailed author portraits on the title page, covered in thin, almost tissue-like paper (to prevent blotting?)
Inexplicably small, but also thick, multi-volume editions of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, of which multiple volumes are missing
Inscriptions from fathers and uncles in said novels, in loopy, almost illegible cursive, along the lines of: may this add to your education
When one thinks of libraries in literature, the most famous reference point has to be Borges’s The Library of Babel, in which the Argentine writer (in a joking mood) conceived of an infinite library, composed of a series of hexagonal rooms, and posited (half-ironically) that the library was a stand-in for the perfect divine creation: “the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god.”
Often, during my summer in the archives, I would reflect on the fact that all my work was only the reconstruction or (to be more accurate) weird vivisection of an already existing bookstore. The books I catalogued came to me in numbered trays, with each section number corresponding to a section of the now-departed bookstore, and on days when my mind really wandered — which was a higher percentage than I would have admitted to my immediate superiors — I considered the possibility of reconstructing the bookstore in my head, using the section numbers and the books I’d processed, recreating a sort of bookstore-of-the-mind.
Usually, however, I was interrupted from my reverie by one or another common typo:
Worn bards, utter tear.
And, even if I managed to keep my mental concentration long enough to maintain one section of this library-of-the-mind, the idea of trying to juggle multiple sections ended up being too much, and I was forced to give up the whole project, having only completed one of Borges’s hexagons.
Which reminds me of another quote from The Library of Babel:
“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure.”
By the time I arrived at my archiving job, the project had already been going for nearly seven years, and over half of the books had been catalogued. Of course, each volume would still need to be judged and sorted by minds more discerning than mine, which meant that, like many projects conceived at the university level, it might last for much longer than the scope of ordinary human patience.
There is something strange about doing a job that you will never see finished, like Kafka’s Great Wall of China:
“Five hundred meters could be completed in something like five years, by which time naturally the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the building, and in the world.”
Common themes in books, early- to mid-20th century:
Books of obscure poetry inscribed by nuns
Books published under the auspices and regulations of the U.S. Military
Mass-market book plates with bucolic scenes: cows, dogs, and/or roosters
As a fiction writer, I am perhaps unusually interested in what makes a book last. Much of this I ascribe to pure ego. During my stint in the university library, I happened to come across the great English critic Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, which is a very odd and very vain book; it begins as an investigation of this very question, “why does a book last” (Is it prose style? Content? Political conviction?) only to devolve into a self-pitying investigation of why Cyril Connolly himself couldn’t write such a lasting book.
I assume that most readers of books do not engage in this sort of absurd behavior. Fiction writers have such high regard for themselves that they can’t see why they shouldn’t be immortal. Keeping their work in print is the next best thing available.
(An addendum: during my work in the archives I logged several thousand copies of Horizon, the British literary magazine which Connolly edited. Of the many names inside its covers, I recognized two.)
Still, if one puts pure vanity aside for a moment, the process by which a book survives more than a century is a fascinating thing. When I held a copy of Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, or an early American edition of Wuthering Heights, I’d sometimes reflect on the many deaths the book had to avoid on its way to me. It had to be bought, first of all, and not left to linger on a bookstore shelf, and later pulped — or, as is sometimes the case, burned. Then someone had to keep it after the first read, keep the bindings dry, move it from house to house, and later, after that person died, the book had to be inherited, or else sold, instead of thrown away; at the very least it had to be packed in such a way that the book block didn’t warp and the pages didn’t go moldy: all the little deaths to which a hardbound book is vulnerable.
There is a certain kind of immortality to a passed-down book — the sense of having outlived many human lives.
So what makes a book last — not just in the minds of critics and readers, but also as a physical object? What’s essential here is a combination of initial popularity, physical hardiness, and a sterling reputation. There were more copies of The Moonstone in circulation than a host of other Victorian mysteries, so it had a good start, and the hardback edition I handled one summer morning seemed to have lasted pretty well, but nobody reads Wilkie Collins anymore (my apologies, Moonstone aficionados, bless your cosseted Victorian hearts), and so I have my doubts about what will happen when the library higher-ups finally handle the archive’s copy.
The local university library can’t possibly hold all of the books I archived, much less the whole of the departed bookstore; many of the books will be sold at sidewalk sales, to readers much less scrupulous about their storage.
Some, I’m sure, will simply be pulped — or burned.
Common themes in books, mid- to late- 20th century:
Signed copies of books which immediately go out of print, their authors forgotten
Male poets with sideburns who write poems about driving
Poets of any gender with sad, searching eyes who write about cancer
Long biographical notes which expose their authors’ desperate search for respect
There’s no keeping ego out of the conversation entirely, though. What fiction writer could work for a whole summer handling old novels without wondering about the fate of any book he or she might manage to publish in their lifetime? Based on even the slightest research, the percentages are bad. Is the work you’re producing destined to be recycled — or, now that everyone’s crowing about e-books, erased from the world’s collective hard-drive?
(As if it wasn’t worrying enough to get published in the first place.)
Or, if you’re the type to raise your concerns to the highest power, you can occupy yourself with a larger existential question: why, once you’ve witnessed a pile of words beyond human comprehension — when you’ve personally catalogued more books in a single day than it would be possible for you to read in an entire year — would you ever go on writing novels in the first place?
Forget about the death of the novel, for a moment — that old saw — and consider, instead, its terrifying, zombie-like nature. Old novels never die; they walk among us, tattered and moldy, neither living nor totally destroyed, giving off an offensive fungal stink that can best be described as a cross between rancid dust and damp feet.
Worse still, these zombie books have a way of infecting the living volumes which sit next to them; for every book is only a year’s neglect away from turning undead itself, a victim of time and circumstance, one more body for the undead legions.
From The Library of Babel: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.”
Common trends in books, early-21st century:
Total lack of clarity
Despite all overarching existential concerns, I usually left my job at the archive feeling exhilarated. Part of this was just a matter of getting off work; like I said before, the job itself was rote and methodical, an amazing combination of repetitive stress and screen fatigue. Just being able to walk free in the summer evening was a glorious feeling.
But, during the best days — when I could leaf through a whole stack of 19th-century French poetry in translation, or the collected prose of William Carlos Williams, or all the books Joseph Mitchell owned concerning Gypsies — I experienced a more than bodily thrill at having run my eyes over so many odd and obscure titles, so many volumes that had survived years and chance to arrive in my hands — a feeling that was only increased by the possibility of the books’ destruction, despite my careful cataloguing. I was there to log books, not to save them.
It was a feeling I can only compare to the narrator of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a man whose work consists of pulping books into a paper compactor, which he describes as “holy work,” and whose responses to the avalanche of words echo my own:
…inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself… When my eye lands on a real book and looks past the printed word, what it sees is disembodied thoughts flying through the air, gliding on air, living off air, because in the end everything is air…
At times it felt as if I was swimming in sentences, with the sense of Heraclitus, dipping into the river over and over and coming up with new books, new iterations of language, as if by taking the job I’d turned on a continuous flow of literature. Here, individual work seemed frankly meaningless, reminding me that intertextuality is not some new thing — for language is always in conversation with itself.
Thus I spent my summer vacation: building a library of the mind.
Image Credit: Flickr/austinevan
The Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed Xujun Eberlein, a “China-born and now Boston-based” short story writer, essayist and blogger about recent literary happenings in her native country. The first question they asked has to do with Finnegans Wake, which is selling surprisingly well in Chinese bookstores.
Are you still not following Pentametron, even after I urged you to do so last week? (And even after New York Magazine added it to its Approval Matrix?) Well, if that’s the case, I shouldn’t even share Earwickr with you. You don’t deserve to read Finnegans Wake spelled out on your Twitter timeline, 140 characters at a time. (Bonus: Michael Chabon reviews James Joyce’s final work for The New York Review of Books.)
James Joyce taught briefly at the Clifton School in Dalkey, a seaside suburb of Dublin, during the spring of 1904. To commemorate the centennial-plus-eight of that schoolmasterly interlude, attendees at this summer’s ReJoyce Jubilee―a smaller, less abstemious version of Bloomsday― were asked to compose a sample test question in the gleefully subversive spirit of the wizard of wordplay. The following is a selective compendium of those inventions, transcribed from boggy cocktail napkins and edited with wild(e) abandon. Please scroll down to the end for selected answers.
What did Leopold Bloom drink with his famous Gorgonzola sandwich?
a. Cantrell & Cochrane Ginger Ale (Aromatic)
b. A mug of Murphy’s Stout
c. O’Connell’s famous old Dublin ale
d. A glass of burgundy
e. Whiskey falling into a glass
f. A sybaritic sip of Celtic coffee
g. Rich white milk from dewsilky cattle
Where did that postmeridian repast take place?
a. The Bird & Baby
b. Basil’s Bar
c. Davy Byrne’s (a moral pub)
d. The Pale Vampire (a crepuscular café)
e. Earwicker’s (a tavern in the town)
f. The Moon Under Water
Pick (or invent) a name for an imaginary Irish pub band.
a. Icarus Surf Wax
b. Signed, Céilidh, Delivered
c. Giggle Pending
d. X. K. Ottis
e. Sugar Parrots
f. Pennywhistler’s Mother
Circle each essential ingredient of Irish whiskey.
f. Lacrimae rerum
Select one substance to sweeten your Irish breakfast tea.
a. Honey soit qui mal y pense
b. Glucosi fan tutti
c. Treacle-down economics
d. Crushed crystal, at threepence per pound
e. A spoonful of siúcra
f. Nice beet . . . but can you dance to it?
What type of sugar is preferred by Sikh pastry chefs?
Underline all the recipients of degrees from Trinity College, Dublin.
a. James Augustine Aloysius Joyce
b. Dominic West
c. Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell
d. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde
e. Courtney Love
f. Narcissus Marsh
g. Basil Fotherington-Thomas
Which academic honors are offered at York University?
a. Cum laude
b. Magna cum laude
c. Summa cum laude
d. Summat cum laude
e. All of the aboon
How did you spend your summer vacation?
a. In media res
b. At a seaside music hall
c. Hiking the Ballyhoura Hills
d. In Ibiza, with Tabitha
e. In media rays
Why did the Slovenian cross the border into Northern Italy?
a. To enroll at the Berlitz Language School
b. To order a caffè lungo molto macchiato
c. To keep a tryst in Trst
d. To get to the other side
e. Deus ex macchiato
Zinc carefully, then circle all the names of Montparnasse cafés.
b. Le Coeur Brisé
c. Au Chat Noir
d. Le Rotonde
e. Closerie des Lilas
f. La Coupole
g. Beaux Sartres
Fill in the blanks, using squid ink and a porcupine quill.
You will receive 3.1415+ pointillions for each correct answer.
~ In the old song, who awoke at Tim Finnegan’s wake? __________________________
~ In another old song, what was in the jar? ___________________ What proof? ______
~ Who recorded the “jar-o” song: The Dubliners, Thin Lizzy, Metallica, or The Pogues?__
~ When is a pun not a pun? _______________________________________________
Which of the following sounds most appealing to you, right now?
a. Venusian lovephiltres
b. Nettles and rainwater
c. Birdseed and desuetude
d. Some ripe shamefaced peaches
e. Whiskey in the jar
f. A glass of burgundy
In Ulysses, only one of these remarks was not attributed to “the pussens.”
f. “Prr. Scratch my head.”
What is the must-have fashion accessory for dapper young swans?
b. A down vest
c. An extra-long ascot
e. A cygnet ring
Choose some words to live by, just for today.
a. Carpe diem
b. Carpe noctem
c. Ex chaotis pulchritudo
d. Se non è vero, è bel trovatore
e. Gaudeamus igitur
f. Kindness is the bottom line
g. Making it up as we goes along
Now go forth and party like it’s nineteen-aughty-four. And remember: Always polish your glosses with what you know.
Q: What did Leopold Bloom drink with his famous Gorgonzola sandwich?
A: A glass of burgundy.
Q: Where did that postmeridian repast take place?
A: Davy Byrne’s (a moral pub).
NOTE: The official name of the Dublin establishment is Davy Byrnes, minus the possessive apostrophe that Joyce added in Ulysses. (But: Finnegans Wake!)
Q: Circle each essential ingredient of Irish whiskey.
A: Water; barley; time.
Q: What type of sugar is preferred by Sikh pastry chefs?
Q: Underline all the recipients of degrees from Trinity College, Dublin.
A: Dominic West; Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde; Courtney Love.
Q: Which academic honors are offered at York University?
A: Cum laude; Magna cum laude; Summa cum laude.
Q: Zinc carefully, then circle all the names of Montparnasse cafés.
A: Le Rotonde; Closerie des Lilas; La Coupole.
Q: In the old song, who awoke at Tim Finnegan’s wake?
A: Tim Finnegan.
Q: In another old song, what was in the jar?
Q: What proof?
A: Possible answers: (1) Any appropriate number between 80 and 120.
(2) “Aromatic residue in the bottom of the bottle” (or other evidentiary wordplay).
Q: Who recorded the “jar-o” song: The Dubliners, Thin Lizzy, Metallica, or The Pogues?
A: All of the above, brilliantly.
Q: When is a pun not a pun?
A: Every second Shatterday in Jejune, but never on sundaes.
Q: In Ulysses, only one of these remarks was not attributed to “the pussens.”
Copyright © 2012 by Deborah Boliver Boehm, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
Image source: konradfoerstner
The house was packed to bursting. It was a simple enough premise, yet I had never been to a reading structured the same way: favorite passages delivered by a long list of participants, both published authors and anonymous enthusiasts. Nobody occupied the podium for significantly longer than five minutes. Covered in the panorama: the opening of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the introduction of mathematically intricate Everything and More (about getting out of bed in the morning), self-loathing reflections on the cruise-ship hypnotist from essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a few pages of “Good Old Neon,” a good deal from the diving board in “Forever Overhead,” one of the more fiendish relationship monologues in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an introductory, in-flight sequence from The Pale King (its then recent release, the ostensible spark for the event) and several selections from Infinite Jest, including, most memorably, Don Gately’s dialogue with the specter from his hospital bed and the footnote on the fate of Avril Incandenza’s beloved dog.
The David Foster Wallace Memorial Readathon spanned three to four hours in the basement of Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Not everyone saw it through; the crowd thinned just a little for the latter half. Now and again my own attention took trips around the block and back.
But can I say this? You could feel the love. Here was a group turned out to commemorate the brilliance of one guy’s colossal strivings, his dogged humility, the beautiful nuance and intricate recursions of a mind pushing past the simple given, which mind was everywhere and nowhere in the spaces between those of us gathered to follow his words as they were given life, and enlivened in turn, by each speaker, the glittering humor in their eyes, a sense of having been found. What experience the author mined at extremes of individual solitude gained in the audience a forgiveness, a redemption, a gentle receptivity of spirit. That feeling belonged to everyone.
The point, it became enormously clear, was not that David Foster Wallace stepped wretchedly into the inky hereafter, leaving us only to mourn, to puzzle the question of his life, or to take heed by seeing around his work to “The Depressed Person.” It was that he first succeeded at writing volume on volume of powerful prose, fiction and non, the concentrated, interwoven achievement of which we could feel, supersedes — present tense — the fragmenting wonder-farm telenexus in which every last one of our imaginations dissolve on the descent to wherever it is we will land in our desire to pass on whatever it is we will pass on.
And by “us,” zooming out now in my longing from that one room in Greenpoint, I mean, people. Everyone.
To anchor a marathon reading an author must have created a singular story. As it happens, the Wallace reading at WORD registered among the first in a decided upswing in recent marathon literary events. In the past year, New York City has seen and heard readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, to bend genres, which the marathon reading inherently does, Elevator Repair Service’s productions of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby.
As these things usually go, lit marathons happen during the holiday season and June 16th AKA Bloomsday. The New York City marathon reading in longest standing is actually not of fiction but poetry: the St. Mark’s Church New Year’s event during which scores of poets give breath to their own verse and that of others. It dates to the ’70s. When they opened a new community space in Greenpoint, editors at lit journal Triple Canopy were well aware in choosing to organize a reading in late January (duration: 53 hours) that a motley group of NYC artists had once gathered every New Year’s Day at the Paula Cooper Gallery to orate Stein’s The Making of Americans; the practice began in the ’80s, going on hiatus with the new millennium’s arrival. On both the East and West Coasts, Bloomsday inspires numerous lit marathons around Joyce, whether the text is Ulysses or, for the more fearless, those willing to snatch beauty and truth from the mouth of nonsense, Finnegans Wake. With the holiday in mind, the Housing Works in Soho stages a four-hour reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In response to popular sentiment, the same organizers played a part last November in bringing to fruition a reading of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” near what was then occupied Liberty Square.
As well, the novelist Jonathan Lethem undertook, with help, a marathon reading of his own Chronic City over several nights in the fall of 2009.
Lynne Tillman, author most recently of novel American Genius, A Comedy and story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, has participated in several recent marathon events. When asked what might illuminate the trend, she spoke to an unlikely source of interest: “The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading” conducted initially in 2007 and subsequently reenacted annually at MOMA (see the current video installation, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War”). As the prison camp at Guantanamo continues to operate, a collective of artists bring unedited transcripts of U.S. military tribunals to the public eye.
Another source from the art scene is performance artist Marshall Weber, who, since 1994, has delivered solo lit marathons of titles ranging from William Vollmann’s The Rifles to Homer’s The Odyssey to The Bible. As for what might spur such a marathon into being, Weber writes on the Brooklyn Artists Alliance’s website: “The cycle is an evocation of the hope contained in human literature and the joy of street reading as well as an exorcism of the demonic forces of illiteracy, fundamentalism and textural literalism.”
Regarding the marathon reading, poet Barbara Swift Bauer offers by e-mail: “I think what’s important is that it is a way of publicly honoring the writer.” There is something wonderful about how a great author’s voice refracts through a reading audience gathered for such an observance. Writing is a solitary activity; writing a novel especially so. Just imagining the effort required is enough to make many readers, or reading attendees, go pale. We think of novelists almost as advertisements of individuality, exemplary studies of what a person can achieve in solitude. In a marathon reading, something of the division between individual and collective is closed: see anonymous members of the audience glow as the author’s individuated voice carries through them. Not coincidentally, such readers’ own individuality stands out all the more: which passage of the author’s work did the reader choose? How does the reader deliver the given passage that so many of us looking on have read before?
In Constantine’s Sword, his epic history punctuated by memoir, novelist and historian James Carroll envisages the birth of Christianity unfolding. In the chapter called “The Healing Circle,” he correlates how he and other loved ones grieved the loss of a friend with the methods those nearest to Jesus might have followed in commemorating his passing:
Lament. Texts. Silence. Stories. Food. Drink. Songs. More texts. Poems. We wove a web of meanings that joined us…Our circle was an extended American version of the Irish wake, of Italian keening, of African drumming in honor of ancestors. It was a version of the Jewish custom of ‘sitting shiva,’ from the Hebrew word for seven, referring to the seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one…To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be.
With its immersive, beatific reach the lit marathon stands in funny relation to organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. At a time when church attendance in many parts of the country is down, even as the voting power of the evangelical bloc stands in ever sheerer relief, children of the heartland and of the South continue to head for the coasts, where lit marathons multiply.
There exists a definite likeness with organized religion’s governing impulse in the reverence inherent to the marathon reading. In one sense, carrying on to an audience like a non-ordained minister is the height of Christian heresy (though, certainly, most fiction is less offensive than, say, your average goth rocker’s sacrilegious imagery); in another, a novel might be the brilliant lived sermon that found no root in organized religion as currently composited. Faith and doubt exist in dialectic, after all. It is difficult to believe the person who claims to know one while having no experience of the other.
Perhaps it is the seeming disproportion of a full novel’s demands that gives readers in the heartland pause. On his having steered clear of the lit marathon phenomenon, one Midwestern-based novelist writes, “People here don’t seem to think that they should make a lengthy claim upon your attention.” Another, raised in the South, reflects that perhaps he has never participated in a lit marathon for the simple reason that he has “always been inclined toward an early bedtime.” A veteran of many a writers’ conference and their attendant readings refers to the marathon variety as “a perfect storm of not-likingness.”
In that inclination for avoidance, we can recognize that the work of an artist must remain a thing apart. Tillman shakes off religious connotation in describing the pull of the marathon, even as her language borders it: “There’s so little ritual in our lives, or at least in my life, and there is an aspect to these marathons that’s ritualistic. It’s about as close to ritual as I get. Myself, I don’t use that kind of language, but there’s something, I would say, about participating in a reading in a room full of people, most of whom you don’t know, and being part of an event that is one of reverence for books, and love of books. There isn’t all that much love of books in our culture anymore—not the larger culture.”
The marathon reading usually gives fair indication of that intra-fictional divide between the canonical, the career-driven, and the striving — even as any feeling of great division melts away over the marathon’s immersive course. In the latter hours of a long reading, it can feel that the story being told is the only story there is to tell, or at least the only one that could bring together the group with whom you as listener or reader have now weathered so many hours.
“There were maybe 40 people around for the conclusion near midnight Sunday night,” wrote Sam Frank of Triple Canopy. “People kept coming in to this room full of cult members, the Church of Stein, consecrating our new space with half a million words.” Said Amanda Bullock, director of public programming at Housing Works (she dubbed their reading of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol “a 5k”): “It’s fun I think for the readers to read the work of someone they admire, in tribute, and to all hang out.”
Of participating as both reader and listener, Tillman muses, “The distribution of pleasure is greater. You have a more comradely feeling with your fellow readers, and since it’s not your own work, it’s less nerve-wracking. I mean, you want to do a good job because you want to do a good job; but it’s not your work. When I was a kid, I got a lot of pleasure being read to; if you can get into that mood, and because a marathon is so long, maybe it allows you to get there, you can feel more dreamy. Also there’s something about it that may be very comforting, like watching the same movie again.”
Seizing something like a movie’s active engagement, recent years on the West Coast find theater groups such as Word for Word trying on for marathon-size new titles like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, while, out east, the Elevator Repair Service ushered in theatergoers by the hundreds to experience their rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As imagined by Elevator Repair Service amid the boredom of weird modern office-place pastiche, Fitzgerald’s novel takes possession of the workers and whatever unspoken ambition brought them there: the slump-shouldered drone at the outmoded computer takes on the role of Nick; the janitor becomes Tom, the well-dressed sales rep, Daisy. The distant, slow-speaking boss assumes the guise within the guise of Gatsby himself. The story never leaves the one room.
This particular marathon’s focus is not a novel to the exclusion of all else, but the manner in which we bridge Fitzgerald’s words with our present being. The actors win laughter by calling attention to how their own unique features do — or do not — match the ideal of those described on the page. Jim Fletcher, who plays Gatsby, tilts his head to show a pronounced bald spot as Nick reads of his host’s exemplary head of hair. An antic hive of allusiveness (rarely have sound effects been so integral to a marathon reading), Gatz owes much to the sensibility of a show like The Simpsons: the modernist classic spruced up by myriad post-modern threads. The woodenness with which Fletcher speaks Gatsby’s lines underscores the character’s dubious identity; it also hints at how a novel, that which aspires to stand outside time, cannot but recede, adopt layers of age that will either diminish or augment its resonance. In this way, those famous closing lines of Fitzgerald’s seem to rattle the limitation of their own artifice (“boats against…”), a flair that would ripple outward in the later work of such authors as Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Carter, Coover, DeLillo, Pynchon — and Wallace.
If it has happened yet, no one told me, but to imagine a marathon reading around Infinite Jest makes for an entrancing pause. (Make it in summer when teachers are free; encourage costume; start working on those pharmaceutical pronunciations.) Few novels parade an aesthetic of such exhaustive intelligence, the humor of All Too Much; the characters on its pages grapple with their own slides and recoveries in the way of All Too Much. The book’s addictive depths were built to give ballast.
Where Fitzgerald casts feeling across the brow of novelistic self-consciousness, Wallace revels in oiling and refashioning the squeaky wheel of novel-ness, to arrive at what the enterprise represents at its core, the entire literary lineage. The lit marathon tempts a similarly immense question by bringing the reader out of seclusion. Of the way it wraps around us, exhausts our capacity to pay attention while also abiding our coming and goings — we can drop in, drop out, and when we get back, chances are good it will still be there — the poet Susan Terris, echoing Tillman, reflects, “I guess the singular joy of the marathon reading is being read aloud to, which most of us love — exactly in the same way we did when we were children.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
When I was 17, I registered my first copyright. Unofficially. My three dearest friends and I were ready to share the recordings our rock band had made, but had some reservations about uploading them to the social media sites which were just then being retooled for independent musicians to self-market. Naïve about the system — and hopelessly naïve about ourselves — we expected that, without precautions, rogue musicians could present our songs as their own and claim for themselves the glory we were due.
It turned out that we owned the copyright to our songs when we wrote them, but had to register that copyright in case of dispute. So I did what is called a Poor Man’s Copyright: I self-addressed an envelope, placed one of our CDs inside, mailed it and, when it came back to me, put it away, unopened, for safekeeping. This document proved that we had created what was sealed within before the postage date.
I still have that envelope stashed away, and under current US law, that copyright will likely endure well into the 22nd century. And yet, it is hard to say what “copyright” will mean by then. Intellectual property is a dynamic concept, legally and culturally, one that is always being reshaped on one hand by changing methods of creation and distribution, and on the other by markets scurrying to catch up. The abstract line between public and private ideas — the line that intellectual property tries to police — is the very same line the Internet blurs so well.
This January, copyright witnesses a simultaneous push and pull, a drive for greater stricture on one end, and a graceful unknotting on the other. While Congress resumes deliberations on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — the latest legislation meant to address the rise of social media, streaming services, and file sharing — scholars in the UK and most of Europe are rejoicing the entry of James Joyce’s corpus into the public domain. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have been in the American public domain for many years, but due to differing laws, certain editions of Ulysses and the entirety of Finnegans Wake remain protected for nearly another quarter century in the US. Hypothetically, under a SOPA regime, European websites publishing text of these newly public later masterpieces could find themselves dropped off of American search engines, or starved for funds if they rely on American companies like Google’s ad service and PayPal to generate revenue.
The copyright status of Joyce’s work has been of particular interest to scholars and fans on both sides of the Atlantic, due mostly to the stubborn and sometimes egregious permissions policies set forth by Joyce’s sole heir and executor of his estate, his grandson, Stephen James Joyce. But this month, the Joyce copyrights enter a new twilight period made all the more striking by a history of differing national laws. In the 1970s, the US went from a publication-based copyright system to a European “biological” one, with a copyright term of the author’s life plus an additional 70 years in most cases. But the US Copyright Office set up certain benchmarks by which older works would be grandfathered in. Works published before 1923 would be in the public domain, while those published in the window between 1923 and 1978 would enjoy up to 95 years of copyright protection from the date of publication. And while the first edition of Ulysses dates back to 1922, the 1934 Random House edition (the first officially published in the US) enters the public domain in 2030; and Finnegans Wake in 2035.
It is likely that the American copyright in the Wake will outlive Stephen James, an old man now without an heir of his own. And yet, despite the recent lapse of the copyrights in the EU, it is just as likely that Stephen James will fight to enforce that remaining American copyright to the very last. In 2006, D.T. Max profiled the heir for The New Yorker. In the brilliant piece, Stephen James revels in his antagonistic execution of the estate, believing he is complying with Joyce’s wishes: “I am not only protecting and preserving the purity of my grandfather’s work but also what remains of the much abused privacy of the Joyce family,” he once said. “Every artist’s born right is to have their work . . . reproduced as they want it to be reproduced.” For Stephen James, great works of literature (even those as dense as the Wake) are meant to be enjoyed singularly, without critiques, analyses, or guides. He has used his rights to the fullest in preserving his grandfather’s integrity and deterring the academy, which for too long, he believes, has piggybacked on Joyce’s genius. He once requested a $1.5 million permissions fee from a scholar hoping to make a multimedia version of Ulysses. When the scholar refused, Stephen James told him, “You should consider a new career as a garbage collector in New York City, because you’ll never quote a Joyce text again.”
It is not easy to say what exactly Joyce would have wanted to happen to his work. He was at times an eager self-promoter, asking friends like Samuel Beckett and William Carlos Williams to write essays in support of the unfinished Wake and admitting to filling his books with enough puzzles to keep professors busy well into the 21st century. But he was also, throughout his life, strapped for cash, and spoke out for “Author’s Rights” when American publisher Samuel Roth began circulating unauthorized copies of Ulysses (the book was originally deemed obscene in the US; Joyce could claim no copyright in it, since it had been “stricken from the mails”). Indeed, with the Internet reshaping how we think of intellectual property, we might learn a lot from Joyce’s ambivalence, as his body of work begins its march into the public domain.
In many ways, the attitude of Stephen James Joyce resembles that of the Stop Online Piracy Act, stodgy and clinging to old ways. Introduced last fall, SOPA would have expanded the arsenal of cease-and-desist tactics that the entertainment industry has been deploying ineffectively for the last 15 years, starting with the crackdowns on file-sharers. Copyright holders would have been able to create an embargo against websites allegedly violating their copyrights by compelling payment processors and ad networks to suspend their services, with very little recourse for contesting the accusation.
Congress was set to vote on SOPA before the end of month, but shelved the legislation last week following an internet-wide protest that included daylong blackouts of sites like Wikipedia, which opposes any restriction on the flow of information. Google and Facebook, also in protest, would have been asked by the attorney general to redirect users away from sites (particularly foreign sites) engaging in “piracy,” a policy that The New York Times, in a recent editorial, likened to China’s policing of the Internet. Besides, there is little reason to believe that outwitting the SOPA measures would not have become standard behavior for many Internet users, just as torrenting and streaming have.
So how is it that we are not finding more secure ways to remunerate artists and thinkers? This is after all the most benign reason for reinforcing intellectual property laws. It seems to me that since the veritable explosion of the Internet, and since the economic collapse of 2008, the dialect movement of culture and economics has been accelerated and re-codified, plunging people on both sides back into an age-old confusion about art and money.
In November, I attended a panel discussion on the “Creative Economy,” a concept elaborated over the last decade by such economists as John Howkins and Richard Florida, who argue that knowledge will become an increasingly important economic resource in the 21st century. At one point, a woman from a major media conglomerate spoke approvingly of the imminent crackdowns and lawsuits SOPA would have brought about. I was so irked when the rest of the panel agreed that, during the Q&A, I posed a troublemaking question:
The internet is an incredible force for creativity, allowing people to share work freely, outside time and space. And yet the rhetoric around this exchange is extremely negative, invoking piracy and theft. To what extent, then, is the creative economy just another name for the capitalist economy?
That last part, of course, was meant to inflame. But it didn’t. It was evident to one gentleman, a city official, that “creators” should be compensated: “How else are they supposed to make a living?”
The Internet is at once one of the greatest products and one of the greatest drivers of a creative economy, though probably not the one that the panelists had in mind. Given the activities that it enables, it promises to drastically change the way culture is produced and consumed.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation is also how we learn, and how we align ourselves with the styles and ideas we find meaningful, and thus build community. Innovation for Joyce lay precisely in imitating the “open-source” texts available to him: his access to the public domain and his ability to play with the ideas and language he found therein allowed him — at the height of modernism when art was meant to be self-referential — to wink at the knowing reader with a spoof of Homer, Vico, or Shakespeare, and to change that same reader’s conception of all the great works that came before. The difference is, without web access, Joyce had to go to the library or bookseller for his material; and Joyce had to fund the publication of his books.
But the Internet also threatens to do away with those terms (production, consumption) and the commodification of culture entirely, and this is where it gets tricky. Proponents of SOPA need only point to the act’s subtitle to defend it: “To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.” All the buzzwords of creative economics are there. And yet the concerns of Stephen James Joyce (propriety and privacy) are not.
It feels like the “Creative Economy” encapsulates two opposing economies, creativity and consumerism, and copyright law is the locus where the conflict is most evident. And yet, this conflict is more than one between abstract entities: it’s a practical and emotional dilemma for any writer who has ever tried to make a career of his or her craft. Even Joyce, who borrowed famously, claimed his work as his own, and expected due compensation.
The conflict between the openness of the creative process and the restraint of good business acumen is one embodied by Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post, the sons of HCE and ALP in Finnegans Wake. In the “Shem the Penman” chapter, Shaun scolds his brother for squandering all of his good stories in the pub:
Comport yourself, your inconsistency! Where is that little alimony nestegg against our predictable rainy day? Is it not the fact […] that, while whistlewhirling your crazy elegies around Templetombmount joynstone, […] you squandered among underlings the overload of your extravagance and made a hottentot of deulpeners crawsick with your crumbs? Am I not right? Yes? Yes? Yes? Holy wax and holifer! Don’t tell me, Leon of the fold, that you are not a loanshark.
According to Shaun, Shem will inevitably go broke because he was too much in love with telling stories, gave them out for free, has made people almost sick of hearing them. And yet Shaun senses that Shem is not naïve. He may in fact be something of a loan shark, and by giving easily up front, Shem can demand more later, when selling his book to the very people who have long enjoyed his yarns.
Joyce was commenting on a very real and persistent phenomenon, one that even my friends and I in high school had some inkling of when we thought it wise to “register” our songs: it is necessary to self-promote up until the point where one is entitled to charge admission to one’s work. The Internet illuminates this threshold between ruthless self-promotion and entitlement, while greatly enabling the former and destabilizing the latter.
None of us today will ever live to see our creative work become public domain, but Joyce lived in a time when his books were not guaranteed legal protection. In a speech he gave to the International PEN Conference in Paris, summer of 1937, Joyce reflected on the Ulysses piracy debacle and the successful international protest he organized against Samuel Roth:
It is, I believe, possible to reach a judicial conclusion from this judgment to the effect that, while unprotected by the written law of copyright and even if it is banned, a work belongs to its author by virtue of a natural right and that thus the law can protect an author against the mutilation and the publication of his work just as he is protected against the misuse that can be made of his name.
Joyce had a sense of propriety when it came to literature, that even if writers could not make their work lucrative, their visions should be respected. It’s true this did not always extend to the texts he spoofed and lifted from. And yet, author’s rights are an idea on which many of us would think favorably. This should by no means be interpreted as a mandate for his grandson’s obstructionist policies, nor for greater policing of the Internet. Rather, we are going to need a completely new online framework for supporting creators, and to get there, we might have to move beyond a tired notion of “copyright” and towards “author’s rights.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Horia Varlan
I have two items to mention.
1. I have long enjoyed the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, owner of the most prodigious imagination of the twentieth century. The reader probably is familiar with that body of work; if not, I suggest laying hands on “Funes the Memorious,” or “The Library of Babel,” or any of his other short stories. In the likely event that you find them delightful, you might become interested in spending additional time in the company of Borges to learn what he had to say when he wasn’t writing those remarkable tales. For that purpose I recommend a book that I enjoyed immensely this year and that is a bit less familiar: his Selected Non-Fictions.
The book collects more than 150 essays, biographical sketches, book and movie reviews, and other miscellany that Borges wrote over the course of about sixty years. Every piece is short. The range of his curiosity and knowledge is astounding. There are comments on Virgil, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Melville, Henry James, William James, and dozens of other writers and thinkers, many famous and many obscure. There are his contemporaneous reviews of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and of King Kong and Citizen Kane. He writes about the history of the tango, and about the blindness that overtook him in middle age. There is an essay on the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, another called “The Art of Verbal Abuse,” and another on sixteenth-century projects of John Wilkins that would be at home in a Borges short story. And on and on; these hints only start to suggest what is here (and what is here is but a sampling of his gigantic output).
Borges is provocative, eccentric, ingenious, peremptory, and often funny. He leaves the impression of having been one of the best-read people ever to walk the earth, with an ability to deploy all that he knew on short notice and with a light touch. I don’t find every one of the entries interesting. Perhaps nobody would. But open to any page and you are in brilliant company, with an excellent chance of being edified and amused.
2. I’ll bet few readers of this site have heard of John Jay Chapman, let alone read anything by him; in any event, I had not until this year. He deserves better. Chapman was one of the finest American essayists of the early 20th century, and a very singular character; after starting an unjustified fight as a young man, he punished himself by putting his hand into a fire until the skin burned off, forcing its amputation. Fortunately he did his writing with the other hand, and was prolific with it. He wrote with learning, passion, moral energy, and rhetorical skill about all sorts of topics, most related to American political and cultural history. An excellent example is his piece on William Lloyd Garrison, the great anti-slavery agitator. Garrison might sound like a dull subject; I only bothered to read the essay after much badgering by a friend. I’m glad I did, though, because Chapman’s fascination with the man, his work, and his place in history is sufficiently intense to infect the reader from a great distance. Unfortunately most of Chapman’s writings are out of print, but many can be found online. Here is the one I just mentioned.
If I am fortunate enough to count you as a reader of Classical English Rhetoric, you are especially likely to enjoy Chapman’s work. He writes very clearly, but in an older tradition; he makes vigorous and skillful use of figurative language. Chapman merited inclusion in the rhetoric book, and I am sorry not to have provided it. He will certainly appear in any sequel.
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When I was growing up, there were few books on my parents’ bookshelves and most of those were in Greek or French, with a smattering of volumes from the Time-Life series (the ones on jazz and opera). But among the very small handful of books in English, there was one with a thick spine of military green and one word printed in a thin, elongated font: Ulysses. When I was about ten, I first took the book down from the shelf. I’d been raised on my father’s bedtime stories from The Odyssey and a family-cultivated belief that the heroes of ancient Greece were my ancestors. I flipped to the first page, but I couldn’t make anything of it at all. That first sentence looked like normal English. It had no words I didn’t recognize. But something about it was off (was “Buck” someone’s name or a noun? And what was a “Stately plump”?). And as I moved on deeper into that first page, I became more confused.
I don’t remember now whether I paged through to the other sections I would come to know as “Laestrygonians,” “Oxen of the Sun,” or “Circe”. If I had, I would most certainly have had even more reason to do what I did then, at age ten: put the book back, shaking my head and vowing to try again in a few months. For years afterwards, I would pull Ulysses off the shelf every few months or so, start reading, become confused, and replace the book, deciding that I was still not ready to understand it.
The funny thing is that the only reason my father owned the book in the first place was that he belonged to the Book of the Month Club and he had chosen this particular tome, instead of his usual crime novels, thinking it was about the Greek hero. Which it is, in a way, but not in the way my father expected. So that made two of us who couldn’t understand Joyce’s masterpiece. My father’s Greco-chauvinistic book-buying was as far as he got into Joyce’s oeuvre. But I eventually went on to study Joyce in college and graduate school, and to spend one summer reading every page of Finnegans Wake, watching the words flicker into meaning every now and then as I prepared to write my dissertation.
For many years, June 16, Bloomsday, found me in cities ranging from Monte Carlo to Milwaukee, at the annual Joyce conferences that were my scholarly bread and butter. The conferences spanned several days, and depending on the calendar each year, it wasn’t always possible to set the keynote address on the 16th itself. This meant that, for all the intense focus on Ulysses and Joyce’s other works during the days around Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses’ narrative often got lost in the more general hubbub of the conference. Someone would invariably exclaim, while in line at the cash bar or to see that year’s Derrida protégé, “It’s the 16th!” and the rest of us would beam with pleasure for a moment.
I never happened to be at a Joyce conference in one of Joyce’s home cities—Dublin, Trieste, or Zurich. Mine were Copenhagen, Venice, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Monte Carlo, a nice mixture of the exotic and the mundane (no offense to Philadelphia or Milwaukee, but Venice they’re not). Monte Carlo is where I missed the sighting of Princess Caroline, but did witness one of the most memorable scholarly Joyce spats of the 90s, over the publication of a new edition of the sacred tome. But the geography never mattered. Even if we weren’t in Dublin where people dressed as Leopold and Molly, Stephen Dedalus, and Buck Mulligan decorated the streets, we brought the world of Ulysses to, say, the Tivoli, or the Grand Canal, or the Art Museum and the Rocky statue. We clambered into a gondola making jokes about Gertie MacDowell’s exposed drawers, and we circled the Tivoli Ferris wheel over and over, commenting on Joyce’s confirmation that there is nothing new under the sun.
Does this mean that Ulysses has a universal reach and a universal appeal? That it applies to all of us everywhere and anywhere? Well, ok. But who makes jokes about James Joyce in the real world, anyway? I mean, you had to be there. But most people aren’t, and with good reason.
The Joyce conferences were, in a way, the wrong way to celebrate Bloomsday, since they required you to be surrounded by people with rarefied intellectual concerns. We were all Stephens then, with not enough of us taking Leopold’s approach to life, mixing rumination and delight. So this Bloomsday, I’ll open one of my copies of Ulysses and I’ll start out with stately plump Buck Mulligan. I’ll touch down briefly in the melodious bar of “Sirens,” and I’ll let Molly’s long sentence carry me from Gibraltar to Dublin to Howth and to that lovely final affirmation that could be in any city at all. And I’ll think of my father, whose loyalty to his country and his culture opened the door for his daughter to enter into a new world.
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.
Joshua Cohen’s mammoth (“Gog, Magog, Goliath”) Witz is the new 800+ page novel to vie for your entire summer reading schedule; to make half your book club drop out; to inspire annotations, wikis, lexicography cults. It will be the ire of the lazy reviewer. Dybbuks of lazy reviewers past (perhaps the ones responsible for the reception of The Recognitions) will ascend from Gehenna, boring into the bodies of our current critical ilk, to make right the horrible aesthetic sin of their mortal life. But will the spirits succeed? Or will our arbiters of questionable taste quote from the first hundred leaves and take a nap?
The ground is ripe for high praise. Cohen has proved adept at handling his image and early reception. He’s young (29, and he already has three novels and three story collections out, mostly through tiny presses that do well for his street cred), attractive, and knows how to draw attention. The barbs thrown at Chabon and Safran Foer in the New York Observer alone were enough to get the ball rolling. The buzz is the rare combination of both existing and deserved.
Witz (Don’t make a fool out of yourself: the “W” is a “V”. It’s Yiddish for joke.) is the tale of the extinction of all Jews save the newborn grown man (with beard and glasses) Benjamin Israelien (ben Israel Israelien). 18 million Jews die on Christmas Eve 1999. America reacts by rabidly embracing Benjamin’s religion (Its name unmentioned, the book conspicuously leaves the word “Jew” as a void, the same one where Witz’s God is hiding.) even as he continues in his apathy toward it, eventually fleeing from his handlers and crossing the country and back, finding his way into Polandland where lies Whateverwitz, Whywald, Nohausen, where the few remaining gentiles are sent for their refusal to convert. The plot is simple and linear, a steel skeleton supporting Cohen’s otherwise omnidecadent Babel tower.
Cohen recently remarked in The Daily Beast that he found his father’s friend’s assertion that Witz was the Jewish Ulysses to be an insult. “Problem is … Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses.” I predict (well, I’ve already seen) a lot of Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow referencing as well, and while they aren’t too Jewish, so there could be a Jewish them, Witz isn’t at all a Jewish them either. It’s not a Jewish anything other than a Jewish Itself. It’s big, it’s difficult, and it’s stylistically shooting off a salvo of fireworks the whole way through, but other than those similarities to our other favorite modernist or postmodern bricks, readers of Witz will find out right away that Cohen is doing his own thing.
Cohen’s sentences cascade on and on, with clause after clause snaking down the page. Then a lone period allows you a rest and the next sentence attacks, a sensory assault. If I had to compare Witz to anything it would be to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ll explain. A few sentences in each chapter move the plot forward. A change occurs in Cohen’s world (a few more Jews die, a few more “Goyim” convert, Ben is in favor, Ben is out) or Benjamin moves to a new location. Sometimes this change even occurs off the page. Then the rest of the chapter is dedicated to the landscape that these small advances in plot create. Roll in the canvasses. There are cityscapes (New York; Miami). There is reservation land and the Mormon stronghold of Utah (the Mormons are notoriously hard to convert). The bulk of the final sixth of the novel takes place in (and here the Bosch is obvious) the hellscape of the aforementioned Polandland: “…A ram ensnared in a thicket, look, and missing its horns; sheep sheared naked, then garbed in the Skin of the Unicorn, see; locusts, my God they’re Locusts, Samuel … storks on parade; geese born of barnacles, grown from a remained grove of trees, hemiformed, varibirthed, the progeny of Ziz or from zat; deer sniffling the most streaks of snails; gelatinous worms splitting earth; ostricheggs boiling on the back of the salamander, slithered from flame; an ass without rider talking its own tour to itself…” it goes on.
If you think you would enjoy pages of that, Witz is it. I’ll admit that there are not a few times where the reader may strain to comprehend what is happening. The last 30 pages in particular go from Jewish Ulysses to Jewish Finnegans Wake. Not that it’s just this mass of difficult-to- relate descriptions, but at times the amount of detail can be so overwhelming as to make the reader feel like she is wading in nothing but a swamp of combinationwords and faux Proper Nouns.
Here I also note that this novel is beyond bleak. Forget Pynchon’s ultimately optimistic humanism (yes, I would say it overwhelms even his paranoia), or David Foster Wallace’s you-could-call-it-religious outlook, or Alexander Theroux’s you-should-call-it-religious outlook. I could still enjoy the novel, but it was difficult for me to see through Cohen’s beautiful brown eyes at times. Cohen doesn’t imagine a way out of his nightmare world, only eternal return. Post-catastrophe most people remain born into “professions and marriages already vetted by their Parents, your Parents’ Friends, our Stockbrokers, and God, becoming Fathers and Mothers they’ll never kill because that would mean above all their own destruction.”
I’m talking a lot about style and saying little about content. I think it will be a while before we get some good analysis. Who will be the first to read this thing three, five, eleven times? Probably not this reader of modest pace. To the first person who reads Witz and even looks up every word they don’t know, let alone makes notes toward a Unified Theory, I wish you luck. Let us pray Witz secures Cohen his due in his own time.
Of the half-dozen or so fellow readers I know who have attempted to scale the 800-page Matterhorn that is Dhalgren, none have succeeded. Still, when I tackled it myself last month, I kept encountering people in parks and coffee shops and on the subway who would glance down at the jacket, blurt, “Great book,” and then vanish into the urban landscape. It is the kind of oddity to which Dhalgren attunes us: the protagonist whose name we may or may not learn; the abandoned city as densely populated as a Victorian novel; the story-within-the-story that is at the same time the story-outside-the-story.
Dislocations, discontinuties, and ontological entanglements are clearly central to Samuel R. Delany’s design. The novel’s setting (and, arguably, main character) is a bombed-out Midwestern metropolis called Bellona – a spatial, temporal, and psychosexual labyrinth in which our Theseus, an amnesiac poet-adventurer known as Kid, will or won’t find himself. And as it embodies the instabilities of institutions, identities, and power relations, Bellona may be the metaphor par excellence for the 1960s. Indeed, though the book sold a million copies as science-fiction, it seems at many points no more distant from our own reality than that other trippy whopper from the mid-’70s, Gravity’s Rainbow. For Bellona, read Detroit.
The comparison to Pynchon is not made lightly. On the surface, Kid’s wanderings in Bellona look as loosely strung together as that other Kid’s wanderings in Purple Rain. His poetics tend toward the Beatnik, his observations toward the dreamy and spontaneous: the flashbulb-red that keeps appearing in the eyes of certain characters; the holographic exoskeletons in which the book’s street gangs armor themselves… But in the monologues by various Bellonians that punctuate and comment on the action, we can feel Delany synthesizing history, mythology, aesthetics, epistemology, systems theory, and the philosophy of language into a singular vision of the human condition on the cusp of postmodernism. It should also be said that Delany’s sinuous prose, by turns fragmentary and efflorescent, is a major attraction.
Elements of his conception, however, will prove difficult for the casual reader. First, there is the purposeful, high-modernist obscurity of the stream-of-consciousness voice that periodically recurs. The book opens with a half-dozen pages written in the mind-voice of an amnesiac, possibly schizophrenic Kid; the thought of eight hundred more pages of this may lead some readers to jump ship. The novel quickly modulates, however, into the more straightforward third-person that is its main register.
A more persistent difficulty is the book’s pointed pointlessness. My favorite of Dhalgren’s seven sections, “House of the Ax,” has an actual plot, as does, broadly speaking, the first half of the novel. But in the back half, as the context Kid has constructed for himself begins to crumble, the narrative devolves into sketchy, repetitive vignettes of kinky sex and random violence. Delany may be posing important questions about mimesis and perception, but “Palimpsest” and “Creatures of Light and Darkness” tried my bourgeois patience.
Finally, after so much work, the novel doesn’t resolve, but folds back into itself. It is famously a circular text, in the manner of Finnegans Wake. And yet, unlike that book, Dhalgren generates a fair amount of suspense out of questions of “what really happened.” That answering those questions would compromise the book may not excuse the omission – at least, in the eyes of my friends who never finished. For those Dhalgrenites in the cafes and subways, however, the novel’s radical open-endedness seems to have been a virtue.
The best analogue I can offer for the singular experience of reading this novel is a video game where any teleology, any notion of progress or levels to be mastered, has been stripped away. Dhalgren is pure world, and as such, it represents an enormous disruption on the generally orderly map of postwar literature, as Bellona does to the orderly map of the 20th Century U.S. The scale of the disruption alone will not justify it to everyone. Then again, it’s not a novel that cares to justify itself. I can think of no better way to honor its ambitions than to invoke that koan-like and recursive New Yorkism, “It is what it is,” and to encourage you to give it a try.
Lawrence Weschler has observed, astutely, that writers tend to move from Romanesque to Gothic. The early work will be thick, solid, even heavy; only with decades of experience does the writer learn to chisel away excess, as the builders of Notre Dame did: to let in the light. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, however, the converse seems to obtain. Of the major edifices he erected in English, his last, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), is his most excessive, both in its difficulty and in the pleasures it affords the (re)reader.
That excess begins with sheer length. At 589 pages (plus endnotes!), Ada is twice the size of your average Nabokov paperback. Nor would it be fair to call Ada a page-turner; even as it hews to the plot of the “family chronicle,” it elaborates on the textual gamesmanship of its immediate predecessor, Pale Fire (1962). Riddles, anagrams, and puns abound. This is not to mention the density of intertextual allusion, which makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran.
What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness. With Ada, however, if you aren’t playing along at home with your Nabokov decoder ring, you’re probably missing something. And the anagrammatic annotator “Vivian Darkbloom” has left us a set of valuable hints in the end matter. (A brilliant, if half-complete, online annotation offers further assistance. Would that one of these sites existed for each of our Difficult Books!)
Ada’s greatest puzzle, in all senses, is its setting. The opening line – a misquotation from “Anna Arkadievitch Karenina” – signals that the world of this novel will be a somewhat garbled translation of our own: an “anti-Terra.” In place of Borges, Anti-Terra has Osberg. In place of French Canadians, it has Russian Estotians. It is sometimes called Demonia. “Our demons,” we are told, “are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils.” In short, Nabokov has thrown us into the deep end, and expects us to stitch our own life preservers.
Doing so means reconstructing the history and geography not only of anti-Terra, but also of “Terra” – the mythical “sphere” alluded to above. This mirror-world turns out to be, from our standpoint, nearer to reality, but from the perspective of of anti-Terra, as far-out as Zembla. Who but those wacky New Believers could possibly credit the existence of Athaulf the Future, “a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform…in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country?”
The novel’s other key dyad is Van and Ada Veen – the first cousins-cum-siblings (long story) whose love lies at the heart of the book. The incestuous nature of their affair would seem to present readers with yet another difficulty. But Ada is “about” incest only in the way that Lolita is “about” pedophilia, or Moby-Dick is “about” fishing. Which is to say, it isn’t. In his wonderful book The Magician’s Doubts (which prodded me to pick up Ada in the first place), the critic Michael Wood proposes that the novel’s subject is in fact “happiness” – generally felt to be the hardest thing to write about. And in the face of Nabokov’s superheated imagination, even Wood’s generous reading feels a little reductive. Ada is also about freedom, writing, desire, passion, and what time and distance do to all of the above.
Ultimately, Nabokov manages a kind of Proustian magic trick: he recovers, through evocation, the very things whose losses he depicts. His exquisite, synesthetic sentences render the past present, the time-bound timeless. And they bring this author, not noted for his sympathetic disposition, so close to his hero that the difference disappears. Van Veen’s peculiar ardor becomes universal; to read the description is to share in the experience:The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end.And:After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin had been established – high up in that dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping – nothing seemed changed in one sense, all was lost in another. Such contacts evolve their own texture; a tactile sensation is a blind spot; we touch in silhouette.Aesthetically, intellectually, and even morally, this is a Difficult Book par excellence. It demands a lover’s patience. But sentences like these are our steadfast consolation for submitting to the wiles of Ada.
Stoner, by John Williams, is not only the best novel I read this year, but it’s among the best I’ve ever read. It is also, I think, the sort of book that people aren’t writing right now. It’s a life, from the moment when its protagonist Bill Stoner really comes alive in a sophomore English class at the University of Missouri through his career as a professor of English there. About halfway through the novel is one of the best scenes I’ve ever encountered in a book. I don’t want to describe it too much here, as discovering it is one of the pleasures of the book, but I think they should teach it in writing classes everywhere, as it really is a perfect scene. In fact, Stoner is a perfect novel.
My requirements for non-fiction are pretty high: I want the book to challenge my worldview, or my view of something, at least. Few books have done that as thoroughly and marvelously as Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. A book about “organizing without organizations,” HCE (literary types will catch the reference to Finnegan’s Wake) chronicles the changes taking place across media, politics and social interactions as a result of the internet. From protest movements to software engineering to newspaper reporting, Shirky shows how much things have changed in the last ten years, and more importantly, why. The book is so smart and so successful because, at its heart, it’s a work of sociology rather than a book about technology. As Shirky states, “Technology doesn’t get sociologically interesting until it becomes technologically boring.” Here is a book that made me rethink many aspects of how I do my job and also about how the some of the things I value in this world — good books, for instance — might be produced in the future.
(As an addendum, 2009 marks the first year that I read an ebook. I read Here Comes Everybody entirely on my iPhone. My suspicion is that I’m not alone in venturing into the ereading frontier for the first time.)
Well, Wyatt Mason beat me to it. Over at his blog, Sentences, the Harper’s critic has registered a couple of cavils with D.T. Max’s powerful, fascinating New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace, “The Unfinished.” First, Mason suggests, Max makes his case for The Broom of the System at the expense of what may be a better book, Girl With Curious Hair. Second, Max might have profitably spent more time on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, and the nonfiction. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me to find Mason anticipating, more eloquently, my own response to “The Unfinished”; I find him to be our most astute critic of Wallace (by which I mean, of course, the one whose thinking most resembles mine).It’s important to note, as Mason does, that these are minor quibbles, mere footnotes to Max’s achievement. (In my case, think of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy pontificating from the front row.) But they also betoken the immense, almost maternal protectiveness some readers feel toward Wallace’s reputation. We feel about Infinite Jest as William H. Gass does about Finnegans Wake: “Not to have been… influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time.” Our underlying anxiety is that the Kakutanis of the world will deprive our grandchildren of the beautiful thing we ourselves have been blessed to witness. And so, with an eye toward posterity – toward those who have not yet experienced Wallace’s writing first-hand – I humbly submit three additional footnotes to “The Unfinished.”1) It seems to me that there’s an assumption in certain passages of the article that writing fiction posed a “risk to [Wallace’s] mental health,” without sufficient evidence to discount the possibility that the causal arrow might have pointed the other way. In general, Max exhibits an admirable tact on the subject of Wallace’s depression and addictions; he wants to extend to the author the dignity that is his due. It seems important, therefore, that we not turn “The Unfinished” into an explanation of Wallace’s suicide. In particular – for the sake of reading the forthcoming The Pale King with a clear head – one wouldn’t want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge. Writing is a form of daily frustration; it can also be, as Max shows, a source of daily grace.2) Because “The Unfinished” suggests that Wallace “began to develop a taste for journalism” in the wake of the publication of Infinite Jest, rather than in the early 1990s, it skirts a more thorough examination of the relationship between Wallace’s fiction and his nonfiction.3) Perhaps most significantly, Max summarizes a bit too approvingly Wallace’s sense that he had never “hit his target.” Indeed, Wallace’s attempt to do so becomes the narrative hinge of the article. But many who have read Infinite Jest will feel differently.On the subject of his own creations, the novelist is, at best, an unreliable witness. As Robert Musil writes in that other unfinished monument, The Man Without Qualities:He loves creation as long as he is creating it, but his love turns away from the finished portions. For the artist must also love what is most hateful in order to shape it, but what he has already shaped, even if it is good, cools him off; it becomes so bereft of love that he hardly still understands himself in it, and the moment when his love returns to delight in what it has done are rare and unpredictable.It is seemly for an artist to never be satisfied with past achievements, as Wallace no doubt knew, but it’s readers who get the final word. As time passes, Infinite Jest looks closer to Wallace’s stated target – “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” – than any other English-language novel of its era. I felt this way before Wallace’s death, and I still do.(P.S.: You got me, Andrew.)Bonus link: Sam Anderson’s take on “The Unfinished,” from New York Magazine
I’ve got an affinity for diagrams. I find the books of Edward Tufte fascinating, and my interest in such things extends even to the “infographics” contained in most newspapers. I like the idea of distilling something complex down to a visual representation.And what is more complex than Finnegans Wake, which was the subject of a dense and mysterious-looking diagram from the book Vision in Motion by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Richard Kostelanetz highlights the diagram in an essay about Moholy-Nagy, about whom he writes “Need it be said that no other modern artist wrote as well about literature?”Kostelanetz goes on to write “What Moholy established in Vision in Motion was a model of writing about all the arts as a single entity, to be called art, whose branches (literature, painting, etc.) were merely false conveniences conducive to specialization and isolation.” (via)This multi-discipline approach would seem to be of particular use in our multimedia world. It’s brings to mind another creative attempt to parse a complex work of literature via non-traditional means: the Pynchon wiki.