1.One of the most poignant of all passages in English literature occurs in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, serially published between the years of 1759 and 1767, when its author Laurence Sterne wrote: “████████████████████████████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████” Such is the melancholic shade of the 73rd page of Tristram Shandy, the entirety of the paper taken up with black ink, when the very book itself mourns the death of an innocent but witty parson with the Shakespearean name Yorick. Said black page appears after Yorick went to his doors and “closed them, – and never opened them more,” for it was that “he died… as was generally thought, quite broken hearted.”
Tristam Shandy is more than just an account of its titular character, for as Steven Moore explains in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, the English writer engaged subjects including “pedantry, pedagogy, language, sex, writing, obsessions… obstetrics, warfare and fortifications, time and memory, birth and death, religion, philosophy, the law, politics, solipsism, habits, chance… sash-windows, chambermaids, maypoles, buttonholes,” ultimately concluding that it would be “simpler to list what it isn’t about.” Sterne’s novel is the sort that spends a substantial portion of its endlessly digressive plot with the narrator describing his own conception and birth. As Tristam says of his story, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”
Eighteenth-century critics didn’t always go in for this sort of thing. Dr. Johnson, with poor prescience, said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last,” while Voltaire gave it a rather more generous appraisal, calling it “a very unaccountable book; an original.” Common readers were a bit more adventuresome; Moore records that the “sheer novelty of the first two volumes made Tristam Shandy a hit when they were reprinted in London in the early 1760s.” Sterne arguably produced the first “post-modern” novel, long before Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Central to Tristam Shandy are its typographical eccentricities, which Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography describes: “mock-marbling of the paper, the pointing hands, the expressive asterisks, squiggles, dingbats…the varying lengths of dashes.” None of those are as famous as poor Yorick’s pitch-black page, however.
It’s easy to see Sterne’s black page, its rectangle of darkness, as an oddity, an affectation, an eccentricity, a gimmick. This is woefully inconsiderate to English language’s greatest passage about the blankness of grief. Sober critics have a tendency to mistake playfulness with lack of seriousness, but a reading of Tristram Shandy shows that for all of its strangeness, its scatological prose and its metafictional tricks, Sterne’s goal was always to chart the “mechanism and menstruations in the brain,” as he explained, to describe “what passes in a man’s mind.”
Which is why Tristram Shandy’s infamous black page represents grief more truthfully than the millions of pages that use ink in a more conventional way. Sterne’s prose, or rather the gaping dark absence where prose normally would be, is the closest that he can get to genuinely conveying what loss’s void feels like. What’s clear is that no “reading” or “interpretation” of Yorick’s extinction can actually be proffered, no analysis of any human’s death can be translated into something rationally approachable. Sterne reminds us that grief is not amenable to literary criticism. For anyone that has ever lost someone they loved, seen that person die, you can understand that there is an inability for mere words to be commensurate with the enormity of that absence. Concerning such emotions beyond emotions, when it comes to “meaning,” the most full and accurate portrayal can only ever be a black hole.
2.Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors. Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.
Their extremity is what haunts, allowing either only absorption or only
reflection, the two colors reject the russet cool of October and the blue chill
of December, or the May warmth of yellow and the July heat of red. Black and
white are both voids, both absences, both spouses in an absolutism. They are
singularities. Hardly anything is ever truly black, even the night sky awash in
the electromagnetic radiation of all those distant suns. Black and white are
abstractions, they are imagined mathematical potentials, for even the darkest
of shades must by necessity reflect something back. Save for one
thing—the black hole.
As early as 1796 the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace conjectured the existence of objects with a gravitational field so strong that not even light could escape. Laplace, when asked of God, famously told Napoleon that he “had no need for that hypothesis,” but he knew of the black hole’s rapacious hunger. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that another scientist, the German Karl Schwarzschild, would use Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to surmise the existence of the modern black hole. Physicist Brian Greene explains in The Elegant Universe that Schwarzschild’s calculations implied objects whose “resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close… will be unable to escape its gravitational grip.”
Black holes were first invented as a bit of mathematical book-keeping, a theoretical concept to keep God’s ledger in order. However, as Charles Seife writes in Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, though a “black hole is practically invisible, astronomers can infer its presence from the artifacts it has on spacetime itself.” Formed from the tremendous power of a supernova, a blackhole is a lacuna in space and time, the inky corpse of what was once a star, and an impenetrable passage from which no traveler may return.
A black hole is the simplest object in the universe. Even a hydrogen atom is composed of a proton and an electron, but a black hole is simply a singularity and an event horizon. The former is the infinitely dense core of a dead star, the ineffable heart of the darkest thing in existence, and the latter marks the point of no return for any wayward pilgrim. It’s at the singularity itself where the very presuppositions of physics breakdown, where our mathematics tells us that reality has no strictures. Though a black hole may be explained by physics, it’s also paradoxically a negation of physics. Obvious why the black hole would become such a potent metaphor, for physics has surmised the existence of locations for which logic has no dominion. A cosmological incognito if you will, where there be monsters.
God may not play dice with the universe, but as it turns out She is ironic. Stephen Hawking figured that the potent stew of virtual particles predicted by quantum mechanics, general relativity’s great rival in explaining things, meant that at the event horizon of a black hole there would be a slight escape of radiation, as implied by Werner Heisenberg’s infamous uncertainty principle. And so, from Hawking, we learn that though black may be black, nothing is ever totally just that, not even a black hole. Save maybe for death.
3.“Black hole” is the rare physics term that is evocative enough to attract public attention, especially compared to the previous phrase for the concept, “gravitationally collapsed object.” Coined by physicist Robert H. Dicke in the early ’60s, he appropriated it from the infamous dungeon in colonial India that held British prisoners and was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In Dicke’s mind, that hot, fetid, stinking, torturous hell-hole from which few men could emerge was an apt metaphor for the cosmological singularity that acts as a physical manifestation of Dante’s warning in Inferno to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Dante was a poet, and the word “black hole” is a metaphor, but it’s important to remember that pain and loss go beyond language, they are not abstractions, but very real. That particular Calcutta hole was in actuality an 18-foot by 14-foot cell in the ruins of Ft. William that held 69 Indian and British soldiers upon the fall of that garrison in 1756, when it was taken by the Nawab of Bengal. According to a survivor of the imprisonment, John Zephaniah Howell, the soldiers “raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” On the first night 46 of the men died.
What that enclosure in Calcutta signified was its own singularity, where meaning itself had no meaning. In such a context the absence of color becomes indicative of erasure and negation, such darkness signaling nothing. As Lear echoes Parmenides, “Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.” There have been many black holes, on all continents, in all epochs. During the 18th century the slave ships of the Middle Passage were their own hell, where little light was allowed to escape.
In Marcus Redicker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, the scholar speaks of the “horror-filled lower deck,” a hell of “hot, crowded, miserable circumstances.” A rare contemporary account of the Middle Passage is found in the enslaved Nigerian Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Penned the year that French Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Equiano’s account is one of the rare voices of the slave ship to have been recorded and survived, an account of one who has been to a hell that they did not deserve and who yet returned to tell tale of that darkness. Equiano described being “put down under the decks” where he “received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experience in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat…I now wished for the last friend, death.”
There’s a risk in using any language, any metaphor, to describe the singularities of suffering endured by humans in such places, a tendency to turn the lives of actual people into fodder for theorizing and abstraction. Philosopher Elaine Scary in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World argues that much is at “stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language… a project laden with practical and ethical consequence.” Any attempt to constrain such experience in language, especially if it’s not the author’s experience, runs a risk of limiting those stories. “Black hole” is an affective metaphor to an extent, in that implicit within it is the idea of logic and language breaking down, and yet it’s all the more important to realize that it is ultimately still a metaphor as well, what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago described as “the dark infinity.”
David King in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia provides a chilling warning about what happens when humans are reduced to such metaphor, when they are erased. King writes that that the “physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” What’s most disturbing are the primitively doctored photographs, where being able to see the alteration is the very point. These are illusions that don’t exist to trick, but to warn; their purpose is not to make you forget, but rather the opposite, to remind you of those whom you are never to speak of again. Examine the Damnatio memoriae of Akmal Ikramov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, who was condemned by Stalin and shot. In the archives his portrait was slathered in black paint. The task of memory is to never forget that underneath that mask there was a real face, that Ikramov’s eyes looked out as yours do now.
4.Even if the favored color of the Bolsheviks was red, black has also had its defenders in partisan fashion across the political spectrum, from the Anarchist flag of the left to the black-shirts of Benito Mussolini’s fascist right and the Hugo Boss-designed uniforms of the Nazi SS. Drawing on those halcyon days of the Paris Commune in 1871, anarchist Louis Michel first flew the black flag at a protest. His implications were clear—if a white flag meant surrender, then a black flag meant its opposite. For all who wear the color black certain connotations, sometimes divergent, can be potentially called upon; including authority, judiciousness, piety, purity, and power. Also, black makes you look thinner.
Recently departed fashion designer, creative director for the House of Chanel, and noted Teutonic vampire Karl Lagerfeld once told a Harper’s Baazar reporter that “Black, like white, is the best color,” and I see no reason to dispute that. Famous for his slicked-back powdered white pony-tail, his completely black suits, starched white detachable collars, black sunglasses, and leather riding gloves, Lagerfeld is part of a long tradition of that fabled French design firm. Coco Chanel, as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand and Euan Cameron, explains that “All those gaudy, resuscitated colors shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues.” Chanel explains rather that she “imposed black; it’s still going strong today.”
Black may be the favored monochromatic palette for a certain school of haute couture; think black tie affairs and little black cocktail dresses—but the look is too good to be left to the elite. Black is the color of bohemians, spartan simplicity as a rebellion against square society. Beats were associated with it, they of stereotypical turtlenecks and thick-framed glasses. It’s always been a color for the avant-garde, signifying a certain austere rejection of the superficial cheerfulness of everyday life. Beats like Allen Ginsberg in his epic poem Howl, with its memorable black cover from City Lights Books, may have dragged himself through the streets at dawn burning for that “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo,” but his friend William S. Burroughs would survey the fashion choices of his black-clad brethren and declare that the Beats were the “movement which launched a million Gaps.”
Appropriated or not, black has always been the color of the outlaw, a venerable genealogy that includes everything from Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in The Wild One to Keanu Reeves’s duster in The Matrix. Fashionable villains too, from Dracula to Darth Vader. That black is the color of rock music, on its wide highway to hell, is a given. There is no imagining goth music without black’s macabre associations, no paying attention to a Marilyn Manson wearing khaki, or the Cure embracing teal. No, black is the color of my true love’s band, for there’s no Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or the members of Bauhaus in anything but a monochromatic darkness. When Elvis Presley launched his ’68 comeback he opted for a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit.
Nobody surpasses Johnny Cash though. The country musician is inextricably bound to the color, wearing it as a non-negotiable uniform that expressed radical politics. He sings “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, /Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” Confessing that he’d “love to wear a rainbow every day,” he swears allegiance to his millennial commitments, promising that he’ll “carry off a little darkness on my back, /’Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” Elaborating later in Cash: The Autobiography, cowritten with Patrick Carr, he says “I don’t see much reason to change my position today…There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Cash’s sartorial choices were informed by a Baptist upbringing; his clothes mourned a fallen world, it was the wardrobe of a preacher. Something similar motivates the clothing of a very different prophetic figure, the pragmatist philosopher Cornel West, who famously only wears a black three-piece suit, with matching scarf. In an interview with The New York Times, West calls the suit his “cemetery clothes,” with a preacher’s knowledge that one should never ask for whom the bell tolls, but also with the understanding that in America, the horrifying reality is that a black man may always need to be prepared for his own funeral when up against an unjust state. As he explained, “I am coffin-ready.” West uses his black suit, “my armor” as he calls it, as a fortification.
Black is a liturgical, sacred, divine color. It’s not a mistake that Cash
and West draw from the somber hue of the minister’s attire. Black has often
been associated with orders and clerics; the Benedictines with their black
robes and Roman collared Jesuits; Puritans and austere Quakers, all unified in
little but clothing. Sects as divergent as Hasidic Jews and the Amish are known
for their black hats. In realms of faith, black may as well be its own temple.
5.Deep in the Finsterwalde, the “Dark Forest” of northwestern Switzerland, not far from Zurich, there is a hermitage whose origins go back to the ninth century. Maintained by Benedictine monks, the monastery was founded by St. Meinard. The saint lived his life committed to solitude, to dwelling in the space between words that can stretch to an infinity, a black space that still radiates its own light. In his vocation as a hermit, where he would find the monastery known (and still known) as the Einsiedeln Abbey, he had a single companion gifted to him by the Abbes Hildegard of Zurich—a carved, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, who was himself clutching a small bird as if it was his play companion.
For more than a millennium, that figure, known as the “Lady of Einsiden,” has been visited by millions of pilgrims, as the humble anchorage has grown into a complex of ornate, gilded baroque buildings. These seekers are drawn to her gentle countenance, an eerie verisimilitude projecting some kind of interiority within her walnut head. She has survived both the degradations of entropy and Reformation, and is still a conduit for those who travel to witness that material evidence of that silent world beyond. Our Lady of Einsiden is only a few feet tall; her clothing is variable, sometimes wearing the celestial, cosmic blue of the Virgin, other times in resplendent gold, but the crown of heaven is always upon her brow. One aspect of her remains unchanging, however, and that’s that both her and Christ are painted black.
In 1799, during a restoration of the monastery, it was argued, in the words of one of the workers, that the Virgin’s “color is not attributable to a painter.” Deciding that a dose of revisionism was needed alongside restoration, the conclusion of restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher was that the Mary’s black skin was the result of the “smoke of the lights of the hanging lamps which for so many centuries always burned in the Holy Chapel of Einsideln.”
Fuetscher decided to repaint the statue, but when visitors saw the new Virgin they were outraged, and demanded she be returned to her original color, which has remained her hue for more than 200 years. Our Lady of Einsideln was not alone; depictions of Mary with dark skin can be found the width and breadth of the continent, from the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Our Lady of Dublin in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church; in the Sicilian town of Tindari, to the frigid environs of Lunds Domkyrka Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Depending on how one identifies the statues, there are arguably 500 medieval examples of the Virgin Mary depicted with dark skin.
Recently art historians have admitted that the hundreds of Black Madonnas are probably intentionally so, but there is still debate as to why she is so often that color. One possibility is that the statues are an attempt at realism, that European artists saw no compunctions about rendering the Virgin and Christ with an accurate skin-tone for Jews living in the Levant. Perhaps basing such renderings upon the accounts of pilgrims and crusaders who’d returned from the Holy Land, these craftsmen depicted the Mother of God with a face that wasn’t necessarily a mirror of their own.
Scholar Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has her own interpretation of these carvings in her study Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. For Birnbaum, the statues may represent a multicultural awareness among those who made them, but they also have a deep archetypal significance. She writes that “Black is the color of the earth and of the ancient color of regeneration, a matter of perception, imagination, and beliefs often not conscious, a phenomenon suggested in people’s continuing to call a madonna black even after the image had been whitened by the church.”
China Galland in Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, her account of global pilgrimage from California to Nepal, asks if there was in the “blackness of the Virgin a thread of connection to Tara, Kali, or Durga, or was its mere coincidence?” These are goddesses, which as Galland writes, have a blackness that is “almost luminous,” beings of a “beneficent and redeeming dark.” Whatever the motivations of those who made the statues, it’s clear that they intended to depict them exactly as they appear now, candle smoke and incense besides. At the il Santuario della Madonna del Tindari in Sicily there is a celebrated Virgin Mary with dark skin. And just to dispel any hypothesis that her color is an accident, restorers in 1990 found inscribed upon her base a quotation from Song of Songs 1:5, when the Queen of Sheba declares to Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.”
6.Very different deities of darkness would come to adorn the walls of the suburban Madrid house that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved to 200 years ago, in the dusk of the Napoleonic conflicts (when Laplace had dismissed God). Already an old man, and deaf for decades, Goya would affix murals in thick, black oil to the plaster walls of his villa, a collection intended for an audience of one. As his biographer Robert Hughes would note in Goya, the so-called black paintings “revealed an aspect of Goya even more extreme, bizarre, and imposing” than the violent depictions of the Peninsular War for which he was famous. The black paintings were made for Goya’s eyes only. He was a man who’d witnessed the barbarity of war and inquisition, and now in his convalescence he chose to make representations of witches’ sabbaths and goat-headed Baphomet overseeing a Black Mass, of Judith in the seconds after she decapitated Holofernes, and of twisted, toothless, grinning old men. And, though now it hangs in the Museo del Prado, it was painted originally on the back wall of the first story of the Quinta del Sordo next to one window and perpendicular to another, was his terrifying depiction of a fearsome Saturn devouring his own young.
In the hands of Goya, the myth of the Titan who cannibalized his progeny is
rendered in stark, literal, horrifying reality. For Goya there is no forgetting
the implications of what that story implies, his Chronos appears as shaggy,
wild-eyed, orangish monstrosity; matted, bestial white hair falls uncombed from
his head, and past his scrawny shoulders. Saturn is angular, jutting bones and
knobby kneecaps, as if hunger has forced him to this unthinkable act. His eyes
are wide, and though wild, they’re somehow scared, dwelling in the darkness of
I wonder if that’s part of Goya’s intent, using this pagan theme to express something of Catholic guilt and death-obsession, that intuitive awareness of original sin. It makes sense to me that Saturn is the scared one; scared of what he’s capable of, scared of what he’s done. Clutching in both hands the dismembered body of a son, whose features and size are recognizably human, Chronos grips his child like a hoagie, his son’s right arm already devoured and his head in Saturn’s stomach, with the Titan biting directly into the final remaining hand. Appropriately enough for what is, after all, an act of deicide, the sacrificed god hangs in a cruciform position. A fringe of blood spills out from inside. His corpse has a pink flush to it, like a medium rare hamburger. That’s the horror of Chronos—of time—emerging from this undifferentiated darkness. When considering our final hour, time has a way of rendering the abstraction of a body into the literalism of meat. Saturn Devouring His Son hung in Goya’s dining room.
His later paintings may be the most striking evocation of blackness, but the
shade haunted Goya his entire life. His print The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters, made two decades before those murals in the Quinta del
Sordo, is a cross-hatched study of the somber tones, of black and grey.
Goya draws himself, head down on a desk containing the artist’s implements, and
above him fly the specters of his nocturnal imagination, bats and owls flapping
their wings in the ceaseless drone that is the soundtrack of our subconscious
irrationalities, of the blackness that defines that minor form of extinction we
7.The blackness of sleep both promises and threatens erasure. In that strange state of non-being there is an intimation of what it could mean to be dead. Telling that darkness is the most applicable metaphor when describing both death and sleep, for the bed or the coffin. Sigmund Freud famously said of his subject in The Interpretation of Dreams that they were the “royal road to the unconscious.” Even the laws of time and space seem voided within that nocturnal kingdom, where friends long dead come to speak with us, where hidden rooms are discovered in the dark confines of homes we’ve known our entire lives. Dreams are a singularity of sorts, but there is that more restful slumber that’s nothing but a calm blackness.
This reciprocal comparison between sleep and death is such a cliché precisely because it’s so obvious, from the configuration of our actual physical repose to our imagining of what the experiences might share with one another. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene writing “For next to Death is Sleepe to be compared;” his contemporary the poet Thomas Sackville referring to sleep as the “Cousin of Death;” the immaculate Thomas Browne writing that sleep is the “Brother of Death;” and more than a century later Percy Shelley waxing “How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!”
Without focusing too much on how the two have moved closer to one another on the family tree, what seems to unify tenor and vehicle in the metaphorical comparisons between sleep and death is this quality of blackness, non-existence of color the same as non-existence. Both imply a certain radical freedom, for in dreams everyone has an independence, at least for a few hours. Consider that in our own society, where our totalizing system is the consumerism which controls our every waking moment, that the only place where you won’t see anything designed by humans (other than yourself) is in dreams, at least until Amazon finds a way to beam advertisements directly into our skulls.
Then there is Shakespeare, who speaks of sleep as the “ape of death,” who in Hamlet’s monologue writes of the “sleep of death,” and in the Scottish play calls sleep “death’s counterfeit.” If centuries have a general disposition, then my beloved 17th century was a golden age of morbidity when the ars Moriendi of the “good death” was celebrated by essayists like Browne and Robert Burton in the magisterial Anatomy of Melancholy. In my own reading and writing there are few essayists whom I love more, or try to emulate more, than the good Dr. Browne. That under-read writer and physician, he who both coined the terms “literary” and “medical,” among much else besides, wrote one of the most moving and wondrous tracts about faith and skepticism in his 1642 Religio Medici. Browne writes “Sleep is a death, /O make me try, /By sleeping, what it is to die:/And as gently lay my head/On my grave, as now my bed.” Maybe it resonates with me because when I was (mostly) younger, I’d sometimes lay on my back and pretend that I was in my coffin. I still can only sleep in pitch blackness.
8.Far easier to imagine that upon death you go someplace not unlike here, in either direction, or into the life of some future person yet unborn. Far harder to imagine non-existence, that state of being nothing, so that the most accessible way that it can be envisioned is as a field of black, as being the view when you close your eyes. That’s simply blackness as a metaphor, another inexact and thus incorrect portrayal of something fundamentally unknowable. In trying to conceive of non-existence, blackness is all that’s accessible, and yet it’s a blackness where the very power of metaphor ceases to make sense, where language itself breaks down as if it were the laws of physics at the dark heart of the singularity.
In the Talmud, at Brachot 57b, the sages tell us that “Sleep is 1/60th of death,” and this equation has always struck me as just about right. It begs certain questions though: is the sleep that is 1/60th of death those evenings when we have a pyrotechnic, psychedelic panoply of colors before us in the form of surrealistic dreams, or is it the sleep we have that is blacker than midnight, devoid of any being, of any semblance of our waking identities? This would seem to me to be the very point on which all questions of skepticism and faith must hang. That sleep, that strangest of activities, for which neurologists still have no clear answers as to its necessities (though we do know that it is), is a missive from the future grave, a seven-hour slice of death, seems obvious to me. So strange that we mock the “irrationalities” of ages past, when so instrumental to our own lives is something as otherworldly as sleep, when we die for a third of our day and return from realms of non-being to bore our friends with accounts of our dreams.
When we use the darkness of repose as metaphor for death, we brush against the extremity of naked reality and the limitations of our own language. In imagining non-existence as a field of undifferentiated black, we may trick ourselves into experiencing what it would be to no longer be here, but that’s a fallacy. Black is still a thing. Less than encouraging, this inability to conceive of that reality, which may be why deep down all of us, whether we’re to admit it or not, are pretty sure that we’ll never die, or at least not completely. And yet the blackness of non-existence disturbs, how couldn’t it? Epicurus wrote as an argument against fear of our own mortality that “Death… is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
Maybe that’s a palliative to some people, but it’s never been to me. More of
sophistry than wisdom in the formulation, for it eludes the psychology of being
terrified at the thought of our own non-existence. Stoics and Epicureans have
sometimes asked why we’re afraid of the non-existence of death, since we’ve
already experienced the non-existence before we’re born? When I think back to
the years before 1984, I don’t have a sense of an undifferentiated blackness,
rather I have a sense of…. well…. nothing. That’s not exactly
consoling to me. Maybe this is the height of egocentricity, but hasn’t anyone
ever looked at photographs of your family from before you’re born, and felt a
bit of the uncanny about it? Asking for a friend.
In 1714, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz asked in the Monadology “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and that remains the rub. For Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, that issue remained the “fundamental question of metaphysics.” I proffer no solution to it here, only to notice that when confronted with the enormity of non-existence, prudence forces us to admit the equivalently disturbing question of existence. Physicist Max Delbrück in Mind from Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology quotes his colleague Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, as having once said that the “hallmark of any deep truth [is] that its negation is also a deep truth.” Certainly, the case with existence and non-existence, equally profound and equally disquieting. If we’re to apply colors to either, I can’t help but see oppositional white and black, with an ambiguity to which is which.
9.If there can be a standard picture of God, I suspect that for most people it is a variation on the bearded, old man in the sky trope, sort of a more avuncular version of Michelangelo’s rendering from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such is an embodied deity, of dimensions in length, breadth, and width, and also such is the Lord as defined through that modern heresy of literalism. The ancients were often more sophisticated than both our fundamentalists and our atheists (as connected as black and white). Older methods of speaking about something as intractable as God were too often pass over in silence, with an awareness that to limit God to mere existence was to limit too much.
In that silence there was the ever-heavy blossom of blackness, the all-encompassing field of darkness that contains every mystery to which there aren’t even any questions. Solzhenitsyn observed that “even blackness [can]… partake of the heavens.” Not even blackness, but especially blackness, for dark is the night. Theologians call this way of speaking about God “apophasis.” For those who embrace apophatic language, there is an acknowledgement that a clear definition of the divine is impossible, so that it is better to dwell in sacred, uncertainties. This experience of God can often be a blackness in itself, what St. John of the Cross spoke of in his 1577 Spanish poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Content with how an absence can often be more holy than an image, the saint emphasized that such a dark night is “lovelier than the dawn.” A profound equality in undifferentiated blackness, in that darkness where features, even of God, are obscured. Maybe the question of whether or not God is real is as nonsensical as those issues of non-existence and death; maybe the question itself doesn’t make any sense, understanding rather that God isn’t just black. God is blackness.
10. On an ivory wall within the National Gallery, in Andrew Mellon’s palace constructed within this gleaming white city, there is a painting made late in life by Mark Rothko entitled Black on Grey. Measuring some 80 inches by 69.1 inches, the canvas is much taller than the average man, and true to its informal title it is given over to only two colors—a dark black on top fading into a dusty lunar grey below. Few among Rothko’s contemporaries in his abstract expressionist circle, that movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York, had quite the sublimity of color as he did. Jackson Pollock certainly had the kinetic frenzy of the drip, Willem de Kooning the connection to something still figurative in his pastel swirl. But Rothko, he had a panoply of color, from his nuclear oranges and reds to those arctic blues and pacific greens, what he described to Selden Rodman in Conversations with Artists as a desire to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
Black on Grey looks a bit like what I imagine it would be to survey the infinity of space from the emptiness of the moon’s surface. These paintings towards the end of the artist’s life, made before he committed suicide by barbiturate and razor blade in his East 69th Street studio, took an increasingly melancholic hue. Perhaps Rothko experienced what his friend the poet Frank O’Hara had written about as the “darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions.” Rothko confirmed that his black paintings were, as with Goya, fundamentally about death.
In a coffee-table book, Rothko’s work can look like something from a paint
sample catalog. It does no justice compared to standing before the images
themselves, of what Rothko described as the phenomenon of how “people break
down and cry when confronted with my pictures.” For Rothko, such reactions were
a type of communion, these spectators were “having the same religious experience
I had when I painted them.” When you stand before Black on Grey, when
it’s taken out from the sterile confines of the art history book or the
reductions of digital reproduction, you’re confronted with a blackness that
dominates your vision, as seeing with your eyes closed, as experiencing death,
as standing in the empty Holy of Holies and seeing God.
With a giant field of black, the most elemental abstraction that could be
imagined, this Jewish mystic most fully practiced the stricture to not make any
graven image. He paradoxically arrived at the most accurate portrayal of God
ever committed to paint. For all of their oppositions, both Infinity and
Nothing become identical, being the same shade of deep and beautiful black, so
that any differences between them are rendered moot.
Image credit: Unsplash/David Jorre.
The logic of novice programming goes something like this:
Run function (x, y)
If x is greater than y:
Else if y is greater than x:
Something else happens.
I quickly learned that computers don’t like choice, and they don’t like the unexpected. If you fail to anticipate every scenario or condition—say, that x and y might be the same number—it will shout at you and stop working. If you tell the computer that x is A and y is 6 it will shout at you and stop working. As a bad novice programmer, I know this from experience. Treat the computer like someone you don’t trust to turn off the lights and lock the door without careful instructions. Be that micromanager who tells his employee what font to use and how to stack the coffee cups. Forget all you’ve heard about AI and machine learning and algorithms. Novice programming is a bit like running army drills. First do this, then that. Then loop back and do it again.
I have a humanities brain, or at least it’s trained that way. I told myself I was a bad programmer because I was trained in the logic of fiction. I could easily understand that Jane Eyre could seduce Rochester because, contrary to appearances, the meek governess was strange and strong-willed and had a psychedelic imagination. And I could accept that she finally married him because the power relations between them had shifted, or he was metaphorically unmanned, or because Charlotte Brontë could not resist a touch of Victorian sentiment. The marriage was not simply a logical consequence of the death of the first Mrs. Rochester. First this, then that.
Of course, there are novels that behave differently. Tristram Shandy explodes all illusions of psychological realism and narrative closure. It turns itself inside out and makes explicit all the possibilities that are open to the writer. But I spent my teenage years reading Victorian novels that were heavy with fate and determinism. Even where protagonists appeared in control of their destiny, the presence of an omniscient narrator whispered that we were in good hands. Choice, agency, and free will were illusions. But Laurence Sterne will have none of it. His story lurches backward and forward, forever mixing up causes and consequences. He demands interactivity; here is a blank page for the reader to draw his own impression of the sex-obsessed Widow Wadman: “as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as conscience would let you.” Tristram Shandy irked me. It was not for a lazy reader.
By the time I found Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds I’d loosened up a bit. “Every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end” says one of its windy Dubliners. “I like to know where I am, do you know.” But the novel flouts every one of the rules of fiction. There is no “this, then that” in At Swim: “A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.” The novel begins with a story within a story within a story, but the nested narratives spill into each other. Disorder is its organizing principle. Yet the real oddities of At Swim turn on the question of choice. Characters rebel because they don’t like the roles assigned to them, so they take over the writing of the novel. At Swim-Two-Birds may one day read like a fable about the triumph of AI over its creators.
Still, a reading life can be a bad preparation for the logic of code. That is, unless you go back to the beginning. A fairy tale might be read as a collection of functional elements populated by variables. There are stories that open with banishment: A younger son is sent away to find his fortune; Hansel and Gretel are left in the forest; a new stepmother drives a girl away from home. And then there are magical interventions: A fairy godmother appears to Cinderella; an enchanted fox instructs a hero how to capture a golden bird; a horse warns his huntsman against picking up the feather of the firebird. In a fairy tale, there is no psychological depth or complex chain of cause and effect to complicate matters. Event quickly follows event.
And there are few surprises. If the glass slipper is lost, the prince will find it. Good behavior will be rewarded and bad behavior will be punished. Whatever the storyteller’s skill (or lack of it), the ugly stepsisters will hobble themselves and Rumpelstiltskin will be defeated. The taxonomy of the fairy tale is closer in spirit to the narrative logic of the computer program than it is to the sprawling complexities of modern novels. Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale has been adopted by legions of game designers for good reason. If you can classify all the narrative functions—the building blocks—of Russian tales, and if you can reduce all those princes and witches and holy fools to just seven character types, maybe you can imagine the conditional branches and loops that can handle their permutations.
A confession, though: Reading fairy tales has not made me any better at writing code.
So I turned to Twine. Created by Chris Klimas in 2009, Twine is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories.” In other words, it is an open platform descended from Choose Your Own Adventure stories and text-based parser games like Zork—the kind of games where choosing to turn left instead of right can mean a quick death at the hands of an unfriendly ogre. You don’t need to understand code to write and publish a Twine story. But you do need to think in terms of conditional logic. Easy. I would use interactive fiction to trick myself into learning how to think like a programmer. That was a bad idea. My Twine stories soon had all the molten spaghetti structure of my Python code.
Better Twine writers get control of those loops and conditions. They play around with the reader’s freedom to change the story, or rather, with the reader’s illusion of choice. If interactive writers can create dozens of paths through inventive and intricate worlds, they can also exploit the reader’s entrapment in them. Repetitive gameplay can seem like purgatory, but how else can you explore an interactive story only by going back to the start and playing again? The best storytellers make the most of these conditions, understanding game mechanics just as well as they do narrative structure. And the very best Twine stories engage with the peculiarities of the form—not least that the protagonist is often the reader or player herself.
A case in point is howling dogs by Porpentine, a California-based new media artist and one of the most celebrated writers of Twine fiction. Howling dogs opens with you, the reader, in a cell, “a room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling.” You have access to food and water, a toilet, a shower, and a garbage chute; you have access to a “sanity room” with calming pictures, and a photograph of a woman you once loved. A counter reads 367 (days? weeks?). Your only escape is to put on a virtual reality visor that brings you to vivid and strange worlds. But each journey ends with you back in your cell, the counter climbing and your surroundings growing more filthy and neglected. You can put on the visor again, but first you must eat and drink—repetitively going through the same pathways to access water or unwrap a nutrient bar. Howling dogs is a bleak parable: Each time you escape, reality returns. You must eat and drink and wash, do the bare minimum to keep yourself alive, and each time you leave the virtual world your situation seems more grim and more hopeless.
You can stay in the cell, but nothing will happen. You can strap on the visor—peering through a slit at a beautiful garden or finding yourself in the middle of a bloody battlefield. You might be a woman about to be executed, like Joan of Arc, or an empress with a bone foot who is destined to be sacrificed. But in exercising your choices, you become complicit in the designer’s plan. A woman is deciding whether to kill her lover: “Would you help me kill him? Yes. No.” Choosing “no” offers no escape: “Very well. But you must watch.” Similarly, you can refuse to take part in the horrors of battle, but if you do, you will find yourself sipping tea with a socialite as others die. The actions you take only exacerbate your sense of powerlessness.
And that is one of the most interesting conjunctions of code and story. A programmer and a storyteller delimit possibilities. They model scenarios. A good writer of interactive fiction has the programmer’s skill for breaking down a problem or a scene into its smallest parts. From those tiny elements come branching stories. But the choices they offer are necessarily limited, which has implications for the kinds of tales you can tell. Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler cleverly exploits this aspect of interactive fiction to dramatize the experience of depression. As the protagonist you have many choices in the early part of the story: You can talk to a friend, go out to a party, take a shower. But as depression grips more strongly, these options begin to appear on screen crossed out. You are put in the situation of someone for whom it is becoming harder and harder to act.
So choice can be an illusion, and it is no accident that many Twine stories play on a sense of entrapment. Kevin Snow’s Domovoi gives that feature a metafictional slant. A visually lush staging of a Russian folktale, Domovoi is narrated by a folklorist who invites you to advise how the story should unfold. But the storyteller is not always happy with your choices. As the folktale progresses a testy conflict can break out between the narrator and the reader. What emerges is a cautionary tale—one inspired by the Russian folklorists of the 1930s who twisted traditional tales into the service of Soviet ideology. Domovoi is a story about the politics of telling stories, and with its folktale trappings it is also a reminder that interactive storytellers have been around for a very long time.
Twine taught me one thing: Some of the problems of code are the problems of writing. Often it can feel like there are too many possibilities. It is only when you have already started to write your story or design your code—wrongly or clumsily, perhaps—that you can draw the way ahead into focus. And then you see it is the wrong way, and you start again.
I still cannot write code. But I like the fact that Agile software development is predicated on stories, of a kind—the user stories that predict how code might work in the real world, the problems that it’s there to solve. I know I’m no developer; I can’t imagine all scenarios and anticipate all consequences. I cannot model everything that will happen if I begin writing in one way and not another. But I like to imagine, at least, that thinking about code is also thinking about stories: about a labyrinth of possibilities, a Scheherazadean abundance of tales. But that might just be my humanities brain talking.
Image: Homestar Runner, Thy Dungeonman 3 screenshot
Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).
Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.
As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.
Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).
Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.
Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”
Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.
If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”
When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”
Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.
Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.
Several years ago, I spent a summer traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to visit the Ralph Ellison papers stored at the Library of Congress. I had long been enthralled by Invisible Man, Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel of race and identity in the waning years of Jim Crow. But I wasn’t taking the train into the nation’s capital twice a week because of anything he had published during his lifetime. I was there to immerse myself in the26 folders containing the thousands of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel Ellison had spent 40 years writing but never completed.
Ellison began work on the untitled novel (long excerpts of which were published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) less than a year after the publication of Invisible Man. He had envisioned it as a sweeping tragedy of race in America centered on the story of a boy named Bliss, whose skin appears white but whose parentage is ambiguous. Adopted by a former black jazz trombonist turned preacher named Alonzo Hickman, Bliss would eventually discover the protean power of racial ambiguity and reinvent himself as a white, race-baiting United States Senator from Massachusetts. Years after his ascent to political prominence, he would deliver an improvised speech on the Senate floor that would be cut short when his estranged son attempted to assassinate him from the balcony. After being shuttled to a local hospital, Bliss would confront his own tragic past alongside the man who had raised him.
Shortly after Ellison died in 1994, his wife, Fanny, implored Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, to tell her whether her late husband’s second novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Callahan sifted through the reams of writing that filled Ellison’s home office, he found only fragments, some of which were virtually novels unto themselves.
As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.
The duration and singular focus of Ellison’s work on his second novel seemed to me without parallel in literary history. Even Robert Musil, who had spent two decades laboring over The Man Without Qualities (still only half the time Ellison spent), managed to publish two volumes of the work during his lifetime. Ellison’s failure to finish his novel struck me as something for the record books, unintentional though it may have been. The thrill I felt in living in Ellison’s unfinished world—where a scrawled note or a stray revision could shuttle me down a new intellectual rabbit hole—was distinct from my experience with completed novels. It was more collaborative, more free-wheeling, more alive with—for lack of a better word—novelty. And it led me to wonder if unfinished novels constituted a genre of their own and, assuming they did, whether it would be possible to assemble a canon of literary catastrophes.
After scouring archives and bibliographies in search of this canon, it became clear that not all unfinished novels are unfinished in the same way. The most familiar type, I discovered, were those left unfinished at an author’s death that would have almost certainly been completed had the author lived a year or two longer. This is especially true of unfinished novels from the Victorian era, a period known for prolific writing. Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters are just a few examples. Later in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert died while writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. And more recently, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño managed to produce a fair-copy manuscript of his masterpiece, 2666, before he died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50.
Some novels left unfinished by authorial death are also haunted by mortality, which makes their unfinishedness feel more fitting. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, about a group of hypochondriacs languishing at an English health resort, is such a novel. Its obsession with illness infects the narrative, enervating the central courtship plot. According to the critic D.A. Miller, the novel’s prose is similarly depleted, which led him to quip that Sanditon is the sole Austen novel to feature a death, that of the author as inimitable stylist.
There are occasions, too, when an author, anxious about the fate of their unfinished work, seeks to destroy it before it can be made public, incineration being the preferred method. Franz Kafka asked this of Max Brod in the 1920s and Vladimir Nabokov of his wife and son in the 1970s. Nikolai Gogol took it upon himself to burn most of the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in 1852. In 2016, the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett told his friend Neil Gaiman—in what I take to be a wry commentary on this trope of literary obliteration—that he wanted all his unfinished projects “to be put in the middle of the road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” This request was executed last fall in Salisbury, England, by a steamroller named Lord Jericho.
But the most interesting unfinished novels, to my mind, are those whose authors strived tirelessly to complete them but who, finally, couldn’t.
The term we often hear used to describe this vague condition is “writer’s block.” This pseudo-psychological diagnosis is so common as to be immune from critique. Yet it profoundly mischaracterizes the turmoil and energy that are elemental to literary failure. It implies immobility and obstruction when, in fact, unfinishedness is often a consequence of overflow and excess. Mark Twain wrote multiple iterations of his unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Nathaniel Hawthorne aborted three romances in as many years at the end of his life, and David Foster Wallace generated heaps of prose for The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.
A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.
Ralph Ellison’s agony was visible in the ebb and flow of his writing process. Periods of concentrated forward momentum were followed by periods of furious revision and, occasionally, of inertia. What he produced is a work that stretches both up (via his obsessive rewriting of episodes) and out (the sequences he wrote in his later were sometimes hundreds of pages long) as he ceaselessly searched for a coherence that ultimately evaded him. Although Ellison continued to assure even his closest confidantes that he would complete his novel, certain episodes he composed late in life betray his own suspicions that the work might, perhaps, be unfinishable.
In a particularly poignant sequence from the 1980s, the elderly preacher Hickman spies a tapestry depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. Breughel’s original painting imagined the grand tragedy of Icarus’s hubristic flight to the sun within a medieval world whose daily rhythms of commerce and labor reduce the boy’s fall to insignificance. The painting is so alive with the mundane activities of normal folk that Icarus is but a dot in the distance, unacknowledged by the painting’s occupants and barely visible to the viewer. As Hickman ponders the tapestry and teases out its many meanings, Ellison seems also to be reflecting on how his own novel had become a picture frozen in time, its central tragedy overwhelmed by the elaborate world he had built around it.
Although Ellison never capitalized on this insight into his own work, one can hypothesize an alternate universe in which he had embraced the unfinishability of his novel and published it as a fragmentary narrative without conclusion. Such a decision wouldn’t have been without precedence either.
In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
One of the most famous examples of this kind of work is also among the earliest. Laurence Sterne’s rollicking 18th-century comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, begins with its titular narrator declaring his intention to relate the story of his life only to get hopelessly lost in digressions that derail any narrative momentum. Like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, he writes to defer death, every digressive thread extending his life by a few pages. Sterne published the novel in parts between 1759 and 1767 (about two volumes every two years) with the hope that he would never stop. “The whole machine,” observes Tristram, “shall be kept a going [for] forty years.” The fact that the ninth and final volume ends four years before its narrator’s birth proves just how long Sterne could have kept this up. He died in 1768.
Ellison never wrote an ending to his second novel. In the four decades he worked on it, he jotted only a few scattered notes hinting at the aftermath of his tragic hero’s death. As it stands, the novel abruptly ends in a small hospital room in Washington, D.C., with the old preacher resting beside the nearly lifeless body of his adopted son as the latter prepares to draw his last breath. That he never does leaves readers on a narrative precipice with neither catharsis nor resolution to comfort them.
That Ellison never finished his novel does not diminish his achievement, but it does alter our view of it. Unfinished novels prod us to relinquish conventional approaches to reading and to seek literary pleasure elsewhere than narrative unity. They demand that we attend to dead ends as well as to false starts, to charged silences as well as to verbal excesses. They ask us to see what meanings can be gleaned from a process that has not yet hardened into product. Though their plots may be arrested, this fact does not make them any less arresting.
Image Credit: LPW.
It’s tough being a novelist of ideas these days. Just ask Scarlett Thomas. Her newest novel, The Seed Collectors, is laugh-out-loud funny for pages at a time. As British reviewers noted, it fits securely into the great tradition of the modern British comic novel represented by P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, and Terry Pratchett, and offers considerable further satisfactions. The blurbs are from William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. And yet it looked like the book would not even come out in North America until it was picked up by the venturesome but tiny Soft Skull Press. Far worse British novels have been published in the United States and Canada; far worse British novels have won the Booker Prize. So why did the best novel yet from the most ambitious novelist in the United Kingdom almost fail to get published in North America?
The Seed Collectors is the saga of an extended family the members of which are (un)happy in their own ways; Anna Karenina updated by both Amises. That saga starts with the death of Aunt Oleander. Oleander has bequeathed a mysterious seed pod to each of her Gardener grandnephews and nieces — Clem(atis), an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker; Charlie, a botanist at Kew; and Bryony, a part-time real estate broker and graduate student — and to Fleur Meadows, her longtime factotum at Namaste House, her New Agey retreat. It seems that the seed pods, retrieved from a Pacific island by the vanished middle generation of Gardeners, confer enlightenment — but also death.
Fleur is the only major character to reach enlightenment; she consumes her seed pod and — shades of The Master and Margarita — finds herself capable of astral flight, able to see all things at once as if she’s become Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph. For the rest, sex will have to do. “There is quite a lot of sexing in it” — a comment on the journal of one of the vanished pod seekers — applies to the book as a whole. Little wonder that the family tree at the start of the book needs to be revised by the end.
The Seed Collectors is a departure for Thomas. Her three most recent novels, PopCo (2004), The End of Mr. Y (2006), and Our Tragic Universe (2010), were first-person narratives about young, unattached women on knowledge quests, all told with humor and inventiveness, but broadly similar. In The Seed Collectors she widens her canvas to encompass at least seven major characters including a child and a bird, a gallery that showcases her mastery of “free indirect style.” Consider the Namaste House pet robin, Thomas’s tribute to Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina, who thinks — don’t all robins? — in a quasi-medieval dialect:
Through the bedroom window he can see that Fleur is nesting, Fleur often nests. But she never lays any eggs. That man in her nest has made it yblent. Did he make Fleur put out the firedangerfish? Did he eat the other macarons? Did he make her cry out in the night, as she so often does now?
But Thomas’s real comic masterpiece is Bryony. Thomas has never written a character remotely like her before. Surrounded by the ascetically inclined, Bryony is all id and no superego: fat, spendthrift, alcoholic, shopaholic, able to resist anything except temptation, and dedicated to ludicrously self-defeating schemes for self-improvement. She is all these things, and she is magnificent. Her 15-page rampage through Selfridge’s onto Oxford Street and the train home (starting with extreme shopping, escalating through way too much wine, eating the children’s candy, inappropriate flirting with hooligans, and ending with toilet masturbation — yes, there’s a lot of sexing in this book) is the novel’s tour de force; her progress from one appalling yet hilarious act to the next is a high-wire act on Thomas’s part, requiring a virtuosic command of tone and structure. If there is anyone in greater need of enlightenment yet less susceptible to it, they are not to be found in this book:
There are 165 calories in this glass of wine, but Bryony won’t log it in her food diary later because it isn’t very nice and she didn’t really mean to have it. When she gets home she’ll have 250mls of Chablis and she’ll log that instead…Fuck it. She just won’t fill in her food diary at all today. She’ll start afresh tomorrow. That means she can drink all the Chablis when she gets home.
More important, Bryony does monstrous things to her family out of self-absorption (pulling her daughter Holly from tennis camp out of pique, choosing wine over her husband, James, when he gives her a foolish ultimatum), No wonder Holly develops an eating disorder. No wonder James pours a kettle of boiling water over his head. But, but …We’ve all reached for that last glass of wine or Twinkie while saying to ourselves “I’ll start cutting down tomorrow.” Bryony is no different, except that she takes self-indulgence beyond comedy into the realm of menace to those closest to her. We may laugh at her or we may cringe, but she’s never uninteresting.
Why did it take this book almost a year to find a publisher? I believe that a combination of industry-specific reasons and more significant cultural attitudes are to blame. The state of American publishing is a problem for any writer without a preexisting mass following. Certainly with the death of the mid-list, an idiosyncratic British writer can expect trouble with American audiences (though Paul Murray’s similar The Mark and the Void at least got published in the United States—and reviewed, with an interview, in The Millions). And in a tweet on June 29, 2015, Thomas summarized some of the reasons publishers gave for rejecting the novel: “Too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much…” We can only take Thomas at her word here, but “too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much” could once have been part of a rave reader’s report on, say, Money, or (“British” apart) Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. It’s impossible not to notice that these are books by male authors centered on powerful male voices. Would Thomas have had less trouble if she were male and her main character had been Bryan rather than Bryony? I’m inclined to think not in this particular case; Thomas doesn’t mention the issue, and her defiance of literary convention is extreme enough to make an American publisher nervous. (This issue deserves a full discussion, which might begin by noting that Bridget Jones is a less extreme version of Bryony in many ways, but her self-deprecating first-person voice and the Jane Austen–derived structure of Bridget Jones’s Diary, promising a happy ending, ensure that Bridget is reader friendly. Thus, a very different woman writer achieved worldwide success with a fairly similar female character; there are lessons here.)
In fact, Thomas’s unconventionality, perhaps her greatest literary virtue, has paradoxically diminished her appeal to some of the very readers who should love her. Readers seem to have particular trouble getting their heads around her notion of the “storyless story” (as a character in Our Tragic Universe calls it, “a vagina with teeth”). For example, in a piece ostensibly arguing for the publication of The Seed Collectors, Laura Miller opined that the book’s difficulty in finding a U.S. publisher was largely due to the failure of Our Tragic Universe to engage Miller and her friends as much as its predecessor, The End of Mr Y. (The friends’ opinion: “Nothing happened.”) Where Mr Y was a science-fiction thriller that featured a lengthy chase through a Victorian, computerless cyberspace, Our Tragic Universe deals with a young writer of sharecropped science fiction (think the Star Trek series) living her coincidence-inflected life on the Devonshire coast. It is, Miller complains, “a book about stories that tries mightily to avoid telling a story,” one that “deliberately avoids introducing the sort of mechanical crises, complications, and adventures that would make the proceedings more conventionally exciting.” A succinct statement of the idea of the storyless story; but it’s hard, Miller concludes, “to see why masses of people would want to read it.”
Although this is exactly the kind of book I want to read, Miller seems to align herself with Jonathan Franzen’s statement that “fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” But Franzen’s assumption is optional, and Thomas’s signature strength as a novelist is showing how. From her early novel Going Out — where the young protagonist Julie observes, “In real life nothing means anything. Stuff just happens and there is no structure…Not all events are stories.” — she has acknowledged that “stories give events meaning” (as Luke, the other protagonist of Going Out, responds) while battling the distortion of meaning that results from formula, cliché, and convention.
Meg in Our Tragic Universe is depressed that her own writing is the equivalent of “flat-pack furniture,” screwing pieces together according to a recipe “in exactly the way anyone would expect.” The storyless story is a protean concept in Thomas’s hands, but the reader will find Our Tragic Universe much more tractable if it is defined as the rejection of the flat pack: non-IKEA writing.
The Seed Collectors may appear less storyless — it has a beginning, middle, and end, and teems with stories the way a forest teems with trees — but look closer. Along with conventional stretches in “free indirect style,” the book contains voiceless elements such as lists and elements the voice of which comes from nowhere, such as a series of metaphysical puzzles for the reader akin to koans. At least one of the lists is Charlie’s and at least one of the puzzles is Fleur’s, but neither can be the narrator, because so much happens that they could not know. The Seed Collectors may not have an identifiable narrator, confirming Edward Champion’s insightful suggestion that “the novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along.” If so, the plot itself would mirror one of the book’s principal themes, the exuberant unstructured living mess that is nature, specifically the plant world. Whatever else it is, The Seed Collectors is not flat-pack writing, and is all the more exciting for it.
Somewhere James Wood claims that “broadly speaking, there are two great currents in the novel: one flows from [Samuel] Richardson and the other from [Henry] Fielding.” Among many other inadequacies, this distinction ignores the current that flows from Laurence Sterne, the patron saint of non-IKEA writing. Tristram Shandy is more than the fount of postmodernism and metafiction. By using these techniques, Sterne reminds us that fictions are made out of words and therefore rejects a crude Richardsonian realism. Sterneans are above all playful; at the same time, they create characters readers can care about: Tristram Shandy, Leopold Bloom, Bryony Croft. As a Sternean, Thomas is more interested in rubbing words and ideas together and seeing what sparks they throw off than in telling stories that reinforce what we already think and end happily for likeable characters.
Not so long ago, a novel like The Seed Collectors would have been enthusiastically received in North America. What is a writer like Thomas to do in the Age of Franzen? Kudos to Soft Skull Press for the courage to bring out The Seed Collectors — but such a small press, however estimable, just doesn’t have the resources to ensure mainstream success. Thomas may have to resign herself to cult status on these shores.
But at least The Seed Collectors is finally available in the United States and Canada; you can judge for yourself. And if you don’t like sophisticated work that makes us laugh and think at the same time? There’s always Purity.
Mark de Silva wrote his debut novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio) between the hours of five and eight a.m., before day jobs at such revered publications as The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New York Times. For the first five years, he showed it to no one, sparing friends and colleagues the awkwardness of false encouragement.
Contrary to the literary pedigree in which he steeps, de Silva comes from philosophy (he has a Bachelor’s from Brown and a PhD from Cambridge). He doesn’t want to be Jonathan Franzen or even Jonathan Lethem. He questions the rise of absorbing, familiar “memoir fiction,” and insinuates that J-Franz dumbed down for his audience to double his dollar. In a sprawling 3:AM Magazine essay from last December, de Silva writes:
Consider how many novels of agreed artistic merit — Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Man Without Qualities, To the Lighthouse, or, to take Franzen’s chosen status-model exemplar, The Recognitions — make no attempt to hold us in a continuous state of absorption. Their authors could not have failed to understand, in writing them, that it would have to be the ravenousness of the reader’s mind that drove him through these books, if anything did.
The ravenousness of the reader’s must drive him or her through Square Wave. By the author’s own admission, his is a strange, unflinching work that almost defies explanation. It takes place in the future, and the past, but it’s really about the present. It is equal parts discursive and destructive, philosophical and textural. His is a sci-fi novel of ideas — the former term a pejorative by literary standards, the latter one by de Silva’s.
I appreciate de Silva’s ideas, and his sentences, and his time, and his candor, but I won’t pretend I grasped the bulk of his book.
The Millions: You’ve said that the Square Wave writing process was deeply intuitive. Did you map out the plot beforehand?
Mark de Silva: Definitely not. I used index cards, but they were bits of sense memory, like the gleam of a knife or something. That would be enough to trigger a scene. That’s all I wanted from the index card. I didn’t want a fixed idea because I was writing what I knew would be regarded as a novel of ideas. I was especially wary about the wooden kind of book that comes out over-determined. It almost seems like a kind of allegory or parable; I was very concerned not to do that. It seems like such a waste both of philosophy and of literature: it’s the worst of both worlds. It’s not rigorous philosophy and it’s not glorious or imaginative literature.
I was wary of thinking about it too much. But I had had no real creative writing background since my undergrad days, when I had done a few fiction pieces and a couple of workshops. So I was doing this research and taking these notes and just hoping I could summon capacities that I had no real knowledge I could.
TM: Did you run into doubt?
MDS: When I applied for the Paris Review internship — you have to do these analyses of pieces and suggest what’s wrong, whether this belongs in the Review or not — my dad said, “How would you know anything about it?” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, I read a lot. Why does the world have to be this credentialized thing?” So I was starting from that outsider’s point of view from the beginning, even getting that job. I thought, I’m just gonna build from scratch, without an idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. And that was true of the entire book; it was a seat-of-the-pants thing. It was scary to do, but it was also like, look man, you’re not part of that creative writing world, you’re gonna have to find your own terms. Because I didn’t want to write a standard literary novel in the way that we have, you know, good novels by people like, say, Maggie Shipstead. I knew that wasn’t me, because I wanted to draw on all the philosophy and all that I had done. I knew there was not going to be a great template for what I was doing, so I said fuck it, I’m just going to run with it, see where my instincts take me.
TM: How did the work you read at the Paris Review and Harper’s affect that outsider’s mentality?
MDS: Being at The Paris Review was wonderful in the sense of — first of all it’s a great operation, a very interesting place with very smart people. But it was also teaching me that I was not going to write a Paris Review story. It’s just not who I am. We had a story run by Claire Vaye Watkins, another by Alexandra Kleeman, and Jonathan Franzen. It was a nice time to be there; we caught a lot of these big things. And Lorin Stein was just taking over, so there was a new regime. Lorin Stein plays a big role in shaping New York sensibilities; I think that’s fair to say.
I was seeing that, as much as I respected what was in the magazine — like I get why it’s in the magazine — I also did not feel an intuitive bond to it. These weren’t the stories I wanted to tell. It almost steeled me against becoming a hack Paris Review writer, like a bad version of Alexandra Kleeman. I figured, draw on your strength — your strength is your difference. Your strength is that you’re not one of these people. You’re not a Yale English major who has dreamt all their life to write for the Paris Review. You’re this weird philosophy guy who’s trying to find some way of harnessing his idiosyncratic sensibilities, and maybe it’s literature.
TM: Square Wave is a challenging book. Did you worry at all about its marketability?
MDS: I knew from the beginning that this was gonna be a difficult book to sell. [Laughs.] I wasn’t totally surprised when a lot of agents — who were nice enough to read, you know — just sort of shrugged their shoulders, saying, “I don’t even know how to criticize what you’ve done.” They didn’t say, “I didn’t buy that motivation;” that’s not the kind of criticism I got. It was more like, “I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what kind of market exists for something like this.” [Laughs.]
But I was inspired by people like Tom McCarthy. I also remember reading Javier Marías, who has become for me a very important writer because he’s very discursive, very philosophical. But also his language is very, very literary, and he refers to his work as a mode of literary thinking. In other words, thinking and literature, thinking and scene and sense detail are one thing — not two things. It isn’t pretty language mapped onto thinking, or taking rigorous thinking and finding a way to turn it into literature. It’s trying to do both at the same time. I took great inspiration from Marías, because I saw this guy and thought, Oh, some people do this.
TM: One of the themes of the book is that violence is inevitable and often unfathomable. If that’s the case, what should we do? How should that truth shape our philosophy and/or our politics?
MDS: I think the book…Thinking about it now, the book is an attempt to grapple — without that distance that’s normally part of academia — to grapple in a real life, textural way with just that question. It would be nice to believe that all our social problems or moral dilemmas could be resolved through mechanisms that became part of the culture as far back as the Glorious Revolution. From that point on, there’s a rejection of monarchy, the sovereign as an absolute, and the people are in charge of a parliamentary system. From that point on, we’ve believed that the parliamentarian system of consensus-building amongst discrete points of view is the best mode of governance. I don’t think the book is necessarily a rejection of that, but the book is a revisitation of the question, like, how certain can we be that these Enlightenment mechanisms can lead to a stable society?
In a community that’s so fractured — the way obviously America is, as well as many other parts of the world — is a simple taking of votes the way to solve those problems? Where the state is simply a managing agent, a sort of referee. We tabulate votes, and whoever gets the most, we’re gonna live that way. And the rest of the people are gonna have to learn to live with it. That’s our system, now, you know, and that 49 percent who lost end up feeling really, really unhappy. It’s the consequence of a certain kind of democratic, almost legalistic-democratic thinking, of poll-taking, vote-taking. Where the losers just have to live with it. Like suck it up, you lost.
TM: In our defense, that competitive streak does seem very American.
MDS: And now we’ve come to laugh at the half that lost! We’re not even trying to connect with them anymore. Like, “We have Congress now. You’ll live like us now.” And then the next election, “Oh, now we have Congress.” Or, “We have the President.” We’re not communicating anymore. I don’t think so. We just want to win. We want to win, and the book is about that idea of factional winning, right, ’cause there are all these competing factions — and how it seems the driving force for many of them is simply, “I wanna come out on top so that I can dominate the rest of the players. As long as I can hold on, then I don’t have to take the rest of the players seriously.” I think that’s how the book proceeds in a certain way. It’s frightening, but I do think it’s true to a certain kind of neutered conception of democracy.
Parts of the book suggest that the state itself has to take a stand on this. A community has to have shared values. It’s not enough to say, “We vote, and if I win, you’re gonna live like me,” or, “If you win, I’ll live like you.” That’s not a good agreement. That’s the contract theory, right? A contractual view of politics maybe is not as good as a communitarian view, where we say, “Tell me why living the way you want to live is a good idea. Just tell me.” Let’s have moral debates rather than vote-taking debates. I think a lot of our politics now is about who can get better numbers at the poll, rather than actually reaching out and trying to convince someone of a way of life.
TM: I’m assuming the current election season reinforces that notion for you?
MDS: Absolutely. I mean look at the way the elections are covered; we’re not even interested in understanding. We want to ridicule the Tea Party, but is that really productive, for even a leftist? I actually don’t think that’s productive. I think we have to ask what is motivating these people. After 9/11, for instance, the original reaction was, “We just need to kill a bunch of the people from the Middle East.” I mean, let’s face it, there was a bloodlust. Later people starting thinking very systematically — I think Susan Sontag said very shortly after, and very controversially, “We need to ask questions. Why would anyone be driven to do such heinous things, and to throw away their own life?” Like, these are suicide bombers. Something must be going on. These people are not insane. They don’t need to go to a psychiatrist. But that’s how we portrayed them: monsters.
They’re people who somehow feel betrayed. And I feel, in a different way, that with the Tea Party — from a solid, liberal-leaning citizen, which I feel like I am, essentially — that our obligation is to say, “What could drive someone to a Tea Party view?” Not to say, “Let’s rally troops and win, because these guys are nuts.” I don’t like that, and I don’t think that’s productive.
I’ve said this in a very roundabout way, but that’s my feeling about politics, and I think that comes out in the book.
TM: You’ve also said that you like the idea of stretching people’s brains a bit, and making them read something they wouldn’t normally read.
TM: You called these kinds of books — your kind of book — an “acquired taste.”
TM: If your book is an acquired taste, what is it?
MDS: [Laughs.] It’s like a 140-proof, barrel-strength whiskey. It doesn’t go down easy. In terms of the reading experience, it has to be consumed quite slowly. We’ve gotten used to immediacy and absorption and rapidity. We expect books to just pull us in and run with it. This is a book that you should probably not try to read 100 pages of in a night.
I like literature, and experiences in life, that — rather than cater to our existing intuitions about how life works, or about how literature works — expand our understanding of common sense. I hope a book like mine will strike someone as violating a lot of common sense ideas about literature. I know it will. It violates my common sense about literature, and I wrote it. I had to follow my intuitions to this strange place. I know it’s kind of crazy and unstable and uncomfortable: that’s how I felt writing it. So you could say, in the weird way “memoir fiction” is all the rage now, that’s the way that autobiography figures in mine.
Kelly Link and I go back a long way. We met in the MFA program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro when I arrived there in 1994, and soon found out that we were kindred spirits in terms of fiction — we were both working somewhat outside the bounds of realism at a time when realism held sway, and we sometimes shared material outside of workshop to get one another’s opinion. We continued our friendship after leaving the program. Kelly has twice been a visiting writer at Clemson University, where I now teach, and we’ve done readings together and a panel at last year’s AWP conference (along with the fabulous Danielle Evans). With my novel Travelers Rest just out from Little, Brown, and Kelly working on her first novel and looking forward to the paperback publication of her latest story collection, Get In Trouble, we thought it might be a fun time to sit down and chat (via e-mail) about the writing process, the novel vs. short story dilemma, dreams, haunted houses, and whether it’s a good idea to have a beer while working.
Kelly Link: I guess first I’ll start off by saying how much I love Travelers Rest. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by you, let’s be clear, but the ending of Travelers Rest just about killed me. Did you know the end when you sat down and wrote the first page? I ask because I almost always know the ending of a short story when I start it.
Keith Lee Morris: First, thank you. I’m happy especially that you liked the ending. And I’m surprised to hear you say that you almost always know the ending to your stories, which I’ll get back to in a minute. I usually know the endings, too — in fact I’ve blamed myself in the past for being too rigid about maintaining my initial story structures. I started writing stories based on dreams as a result — I would take a piece of an actual dream and then start weaving a story around it without thinking about where it might be going — and that’s the method I used when I started writing Travelers Rest. So, no, I didn’t know the ending until more than halfway through. What’s funny, though, is that once I knew the ending, I was right. With my previous two novels, I thought I knew the ending the whole time and then I turned out to be wrong. Characters sometimes do things and say things that you don’t expect and then the story can’t go back to being what it was before, the way you’d conceived it. But I would never have suspected that you’re the type of writer who plans out stories ahead of time. Or maybe that’s not true — in some of your stories, like “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” or “Vanishing Act” (which you know I’ve always loved), there’s a kind of architecture in place that, if you took it apart carefully, you could probably see as something that was intricately planned. But other stories — “The Summer People” and “Stone Animals” and “Travels With the Snow Queen,” for instance — seem kind of enviably “free” to me, loose and comfortable in a way that shows the author is confident enough not to have to know where she’s headed. Or I guess maybe they just give that impression.
KL: Well, if I know what the ending of a story should be, then the beginning is often the most difficult piece to write — and I’d describe writing the middle, actually, as pretty loose and comfortable. Or at least flexible in terms of play. There’s a lot of play in the middle and I mean that in both senses of the word play. Because I often know what the ending is going to be, I spend a great deal of time trying to lay false trails that feel plausible and engrossing to the reader so that they won’t see where we’re headed. It’s funny: I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a novel — a series of novels, maybe, and within a couple of days of thinking about the premise, I knew how I would want to end one book, and then a second book, and then the ending of the last book. It seems like a big project, but I’d really like to get to all of those endings.
Oh, and I remember your dream stories! I didn’t know that’s how you started Travelers Rest. What was the dream? And which character was the biggest surprise to you?
KLM: The dream that it started from was completely different from the novel it turned out to be. The dream was actually about a beach house we go to each summer in St. Simons Island, Ga., and all it involved was a window seen from outside the house that I knew wasn’t anywhere inside the house, and two people, a man and a woman, talking in this nonexistent window. The whole thing morphed weirdly from there. I don’t know which character in the novel was the biggest surprise, but I know what moment regarding the characters was the most surprising. It was [spoiler alert] when I found out that Stephanie was Hugh’s sister. I didn’t know until Hugh literally opened his mouth and said it. That’s the second time I’ve mentioned that — characters doing things I didn’t expect them to or want them to, completely without warning, and ruining all my plans. Sometimes writing is almost like raising teenagers. What about you? Does that ever happen to you? Can you remember a character who suddenly got unruly and started acting out without your permission?
KL: I love Stephanie so much! Let’s see. Unruly characters. I think the most surprising thing a character ever did was in a story called “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” The central character, called Soap most of the time, ends up in a bed with a girl at a party. She falls asleep and it turns out that her little brother is hiding under the bed — I didn’t know until I got to that point that there was a little brother and that he’d be under the bed. Soap leaves the house and the party and he takes the little brother with him. As soon as I thought of it, I knew that was how the story ended. I was on a plane on the way to a workshop when I finished that story — a friend of mine was heading out to the same workshop and he was also finishing up his story. We’d walk by each other in the aisle of the plane and say: Have you finished your story yet? No. You?
KLM: I’ve gotta throw in here that my favorite all-time character(s) of yours are the Loolies in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”–lumpy, soft, hairless, babyish undead creatures who subsist entirely on a diet of marshmallows, if I’m remembering correctly. Love those Loolies.
KL: Thank you! I still remember meeting you in the MFA program at UNC-G — specifically a conversation we had with our friend Margaret Muirhead. We were talking about writing and you mentioned that you did a lot of writing in bars. I was really thrown by that — I couldn’t imagine working in a room with other people. And now, of course, I work in cafes and restaurants and in other people’s houses, preferably with as many other writers as possible. It turns out I get more done when there’s a lot of stuff going on around me. Anyway: do you still work that way now?
KLM: Apparently we switched places in that regard — I now write almost exclusively at home in my little windowless office, although I will occasionally still have a beer while I’m in the process. But I’ve always loved writing in bars — all the noises just drown one another out and I don’t hear a thing after a while. Of course that could also be the beer.
In the interest of informing our readers, we should probably say that we both attended the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro, Kelly one year ahead of me (although I’m infinitely older, let me make it clear). Looking back on that time now, what are your favorite memories of being an MFA student? And what do you regret, if anything?
KL: I don’t do it often, but I love to have one or two beers while I’m writing. I don’t even have an office at home. I work on the dining room table, which we only use for eating on a couple times a year. Mostly it’s just a stack of books and manuscripts. As for UNC-G, my favorite thing was working on The Greensboro Review. Margaret Muirhead was the fiction editor and I was the assistant fiction editor. I loved reading the slush, and I loved proofing the stories that we published. One person would read the story out loud, including the punctuation marks, and the other would sight read the proofs to make sure everything was clean. Oh, and reading Tristram Shandy. I guess my biggest regret was that I lived about a mile off campus — everyone else seemed to live all on one street near campus. I missed a lot of spontaneous parties and a lot of conversations. You?
KLM: Bartlebying! That’s what Jim Clark [Greensboro Review editor] called the kind of proofreading you’re talking about. I wonder if that’s an actual term or if Jim just made it up: it makes sense — that’s what Bartleby did (or was supposed to do), after all, make exact copies of things, and the goal was to make sure that the manuscript and the page proof were exactly the same — but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term used after that. Speaking of Jim Clark, he was one of my favorite things about the program — he made it fun to come in to work every day. I loved the people in the program — we were a really tight-knit group. Like you, I lived kind of away from the action (close to you, actually), but I had a wife and a two-year-old. I think being in an MFA program was absolutely crucial for my development at the time — I needed both that kind of structure and the opportunity it afforded. Do you think you would be the same writer you are now if you hadn’t attended an MFA program? And I’m interested in hearing whether your recollection is the same as mine — to me, at the time, you and I were both writing weird, absurd stuff that left everyone else kind of scratching their heads. Almost everyone was writing more or less straight realism at the time. I sometimes went that route, but I was playing around with a lot of different modes of storytelling. You seemed to have already had your mind pretty firmly made up in terms of the direction you were headed.
KL: Jim Clark is a marvel; UNC-G always felt like a family because of him. I was waitlisted when I applied. He called and said that he liked my stories, but that I was young and unformed and ought to get married and divorced a couple of times and maybe do a stint in jail before I went to an MFA program. So I sent him a picture of me dangling from a rope over a bridge — bungee jumping — like a literal depiction, I guess, of The Fool on the Tarot card — and Jim was so tickled by this that he let me into the program.
I hadn’t written a lot before UNC-G. Maybe four stories in all. Every story that I wrote for workshop at UNC-G, I would think: Am I allowed to do this? Will this work? I think the first of those stories was “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back.” I’d applied to UNC-G because I hoped it would be okay to write weird stuff there (Fred Chappell taught there and I knew his fantastic Lovecraftian story “The Adder” and Orson Scott Card had gone for a little while, so there was at least a tinge of genre.) But yes, everyone else wrote realism and then you would turn in these weird gem-like pieces and stories, and I did whatever I was doing. I only wanted to write stories that were, more or less fantasy, science fiction, ghost stories. I couldn’t think of a story that I wanted to tell that didn’t tend in that direction. What UNC-G taught me as a writer was that I loved workshop. I loved hearing people argue about, and take apart, and defend stories — hearing writers talk about language and the architecture of narrative, and what they anticipated in stories, and what surprised them.
When I teach, I always ask my students: What do you read that you love and admire? And what do you read that you love but you don’t know why? What do you read that you love that embarrasses you, just a little? Because all of that is useful to you, especially the things that you love where maybe you don’t understand why you love it — that you love in spite of feeling that other people might not understand or approve.
You’ve been at Clemson for a long time now. I have a couple of questions about that — what do you read and love that is farthest from the kind of fiction that you write? What kind of stories or narratives? (For example: one of my students a while back ago, when I asked, said he read D&D manuals. He’s a poet. Greg Purcell.) And what do you like about teaching? What don’t you like? And do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
KLM: Hmm…what do I love to read that’s furthest from what I write? I guess the easy answer to that would be the sports page. I spend a lot of time every day perusing basketball statistics and the outcome of tennis matches on ESPN.com. My father was a football and baseball coach and sports are pretty deeply ingrained in my system, even though I was never that great an athlete. That probably explains in part why I gave 10-year-old Dewey in Travelers Rest outstanding athletic ability along with his curious existential angst — it was something I always wished I had. You know how people always ask what superpower you would choose if you could? I would choose to be able to drain 30-foot three-pointers at will. Another answer would be that I love big, sprawling, ambitious 19th-century novels — I wish there were a way to write Middlemarch or War and Peace or Germinal today. Some writers try to match the scope, the structure, even the laconic pacing — Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt come to mind as authors who’ve done so successfully — but even The Goldfinch is still a very different novel from Great Expectations or Sentimental Education. I’m reading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country right now. It’s probably not one of her better books, but the feeling I get when I start reading is something that I really miss in most contemporary literature — the feeling that neither of us, the author or myself, is in any kind of hurry. There’s so much emphasis on getting in an early “hook” now, something dramatic and captivating at the beginning of the story. That’s nice, of course, to be able to draw the reader in from the outset, but it also gives you less room to expand, less opportunity to create something that keeps building and building momentum until the tension becomes almost unbearable — the adrenaline rush is already there from the start a lot of times now. With Travelers Rest, I probably pushed my affinity for the slow burn about as far as I felt I was able to. And yes, I love teaching but I don’t like grading. And despite all the years I’ve spent in the South (including being born in Mississippi), I still don’t feel I know the South well enough to call myself a Southern writer. I mostly stick with the Pacific Northwest.
KL: What a useful conversation this is for me, here in the early throes of novel-writing. I take your point about pacing and scope. One of my favorite novels is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which signals right from the first sentence — “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — that it’s going to be about domestic concerns, but also about the strange accommodations and bargains that everyday life and relationships require. I Capture the Castle isn’t necessarily long, but it feels expansive. In the same way that you feel big, ambitious, contemporary novels don’t quite have the same enveloping appeal as Middlemarch, I will always feel a vague sense of disappointment in how much of contemporary realistic fiction works and instead yearn for strangeness, whether it’s the lurid flourishes of Gothic novels, the worldbuilding of science fiction or fantasy, the irresolution of ghost stories, or the peculiar and elliptical language and structure that you get in Kathryn Davis’s novels.
In other words, there are so many novelistic modes that I do like that I’m finding it very hard to make the most basic decisions about the way to tackle a novel. There are so many appealing options! I’m drawn to all of them! I’ve spent over 10 years now working with novelists as an editor and it’s become increasingly easier for me to see the questions that I can usefully ask a novelist during the revision process. But I can’t do that for myself. What’s revision like for you? Did Travelers Rest go through multiple drafts? Are there alternate ghostly versions (which seems appropriate for this particular book — the writer Howard Waldrop says that every book or story works as a metaphor for the way in which that writer wrote their book, by the way)? Do you save the versions as you go? And finally, I’ve heard any number of novelists say that figuring out how to write one novel doesn’t necessarily help you figure out how to write the next one. That each book is its own set of problems. Has this been true for you?
KLM: I agree that the sense of freedom you experience when starting out on a novel can be daunting. The field seems so wide open, and yet you realize that if you make poor decisions you could be wasting months, even years of your time (and I’ve got a “drawer novel” to prove it). At the same time, the process can feel more restrictive. I found that I had to do some things I normally wouldn’t do in writing short stories — make an outline, for instance, write character sketches in order to try to maintain consistency, especially with characters’ backstories. And yes, each novel feels like a completely different excursion, so that the lessons you learn one time don’t necessarily offer you any assistance the next. But even though Travelers Rest was a much different kind of novel in some ways than the ones I’d written before, I did find that there was a substantial amount of carryover. My previous novel, The Dart League King, employed a rotating third-person POV, and I used the same technique in Travelers, which made things seem more familiar even though the story itself was very strange and difficult to navigate. And regarding your question about multiple drafts, I wouldn’t say that there were a whole lot of drafts but a single draft that kept constantly shifting and flowing and resettling itself into new shapes and formations. Chapters moved around, scenes expanded and contracted, narrative sequences popped up out of nowhere while others disappeared. It was kind of like a pot set at a rolling boil. My editor, Ben George, really put me through my paces on every level, and the novel is much better because of his efforts. Here’s something I’m interested in asking you. First, Get in Trouble is your fourth short story collection — do you see any clear differences between your early stories and the stories in this book? And, now that you’re working on a novel, do you see it as an entirely new endeavor or a simple extension of the ideas you’ve already been working with in your short fiction?
KL: I’m not the best judge of my own stories. There are a couple in Get in Trouble that I like as much as anything that I’ve ever written, and I truly hope that they don’t feel like I’ve been treading water. My Israeli translator, Debbie Eylon, who is much smarter than I am, said that these were harder stories to translate because in the earlier collections, the metaphorical language was more loosely attached to the characters and ideas and descriptions. This time around, she said that it was more of a pain to figure out replacements when there was no exact match in Hebrew for a particular word or phrase, because the relationship of the metaphorical language to the matter of the story was more enchained. She seemed pleased by this, although it meant a lot more work for her. As for the novel, I’m of two minds. With a story, I usually come up with a piece of structure or misdirection that seems difficult to pull off successfully, and most of the fun in writing comes from achieving something that I wasn’t sure how to do before I sat down to do it. For example, I wrote “The Lesson” from the ending backwards for about three or four pages because I was curious about whether or not I did know the ends of my stories before I began — and because it seemed to me that it would change the way I wrote the beginning. With a novel, though, the thing that I would most like to achieve is a long-form narrative that has a conventional and pleasurable shape in which the reader gets to spend a couple of days with interesting people. I have no idea whether or not I can pull that off.
KLM: What do you mean by “writing from the ending backwards for about three or four pages”? I’m fascinated. Please explain.
KL: I wrote the last sentence of the story first, and then the next to last sentence, and so on for as long as I could — maybe I could have done it all the way back, but at a certain point I got really interested in figuring out how it started.
KLM: [Deep, deep sigh.] I can’t even bend my mind around that. I’m not even going to try. It sounds like an impressive thing to be able to do on a level at which I would be completely incapacitated.
KL: Let me ask you a couple more related questions before we wrap this up — you can do both things. Short stories and novels. Are you more drawn to one than the other? When you get an idea, do you know if it’s a short story or a novel idea? And what are you working on at the moment?
KLM: As I get older, I’m increasingly drawn to novels. I like waking up every day and knowing that I’m working on the same thing I was the day before, and it almost makes me sad when I get to the end of a draft. For that reason, I think, my ideas these days tend to take the shape of novels. I almost have to force myself to think in terms of short stories, and I write short stories now, mostly, as a way to fill up the time in between book projects. That said, I still find short stories really satisfying — I just finished one called “Sleigh Bells for the Hayride” that I feel very good about. And I’m not working on anything new as far as novels go — I like to let one thing completely play out before I start on another. One last question for you — do you want to tell us anything about the novel you’re working on, give us readers a sneak peek?
KL: Well, I had been thinking about that particular story for a couple of years and hadn’t figured out any other way to write it. Furthermore, this ending wasn’t a plot driven ending, more of an emotional capstone. And what a persuasive argument to make for the novel. I’ve been married for 15 years now. I’ve lived in the same house for almost a decade. I like the same thing for breakfast every morning, so maybe it will be comfortable to settle into a novel and stay for a while. I’d been wistfully thinking about how science fiction writers in the pulp era used to knock out a novel in a couple of weeks, and wouldn’t that be fun to try? But already I think I’ve spent too much time wrestling with this book. So far it has a bunch of ghosts in it and a high school music room. I badly want to put some haunted houses in it too — not the real kind, but the fake kind that you pay a lot of money to be chased through.
KLM: Haunted houses are fun, real or fake. I guess part of the fascination is with that time in our lives when we can’t tell the difference. I remember going into the haunted house at Disneyland with my sister when we were kids. I saw my dad buy the tickets, but that didn’t convince me I wasn’t about to die. I suppose that was the impulse behind Travelers Rest, too — I wanted to put an average, everyday family in an old, abandoned hotel and see what happened to them. So I hope you find a place to include the haunted houses, and I’ll look forward to reading the book.
There’ll always be a place for the sad sack in fiction, heroes of topsy-turvy Bildungsromans who regress or stall rather than develop. Call them protagonists of the comic or the failed coming-of-age tale, which has its obvious forbears in a work like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy but also in the merciless irony of Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. In the classic version of the Bildungsroman, the hero seeks to define himself in a variety of ways — personally, educationally, professionally, romantically, or creatively if he happens to be an artist. The hero of the comic Bildungsroman tends to resist, or fail to achieve, these definitional ends. It is full of outsized characters who never quite fit into the narrative bounds imposed by the form: “Where will you ever end?” Ignatius Reilly is asked in The Confederacy of Dunces, a question that homes in on the particularly expansive comic spirit that refuses to conform or be confined to established conventions.
The same question could be put to Aldo Benjamin, who at one point in Steve Toltz’s Quicksand pleads, “My kingdom for a terminus!” Aldo is one of the two failures in the Australian novelist’s latest, an eminently successful novel about “the pilgrim’s frustrating lack of progress.” There’s a touch of Reilly in Aldo, but given Aldo’s mixture of libidinousness, thanatos, and linguistic virtuosity, Philip Roth’s priapic puppeteer Mickey Sabbath comes to mind as a closer precursor. Like all good comic characters, Aldo, a hapless entrepreneur, proves difficult to contain or circumscribe, not only because of the profusion of his misadventures but because he fancies himself as a real-life Tithonus, a “poor deathless, imperishable creature.” After a string of failed suicides — “suicide’s block” he calls it — Aldo thinks he has inadvertently caught a case of immortality: “In the face of forever, the contours of one’s life slacken and become not just poorly defined, but permanently resistant to definition.”
This indefinition proves a challenge for his friend Liam, an incompetent policeman — “I hit the siren. It startled me, as usual” — and failed novelist who is writing a book about him. Liam, noting that “[Aldo’s] existence needed room” and that “[h]e can’t tie up all his loose ends because he has an odd number of them,” eventually “[comes] to terms with the fact that there may be no place for every random anecdote and strange story about Aldo in my book.” There is a Whitmanian copiousness to Aldo evidenced in his “absurd” endurance despite and through “forty years of death throes” or in the host of oddly specific phobias he believes he has inherited from his ancestors:
…fear of unraveling rope bridges, fear of causing an avalanche by sneezing, fear of accidentally procreating with a half sister, fear of being shot in the face by a hunter…
Those fears never materialize, but pretty much every other nightmare scenario does as he is shuttled between the prison and the hospital, “two overpopulated hells.” (As he wryly reflects in the midst of one of his ordeals: “Even my subconscious hadn’t the temerity to go so far as to render me paralyzed at a rape trial.”) And yet like Mickey Sabbath, Aldo persists. He is a man of stubborn, and occasionally exhausting, exuberance. “My charm wears off like a local anesthetic,” he concedes after delivering over 140 pages of riveting, mordantly funny, and self-pitying testimony-cum-autobiography — the “short version” — to a beleaguered jury of his peers.
In her review, Lionel Shriver oddly objected to this bravura section by saying its “length strains credulity,” as if courtroom scenes have ever had more than a passing resemblance to realism. (I bet she’s fun to watch The Good Wife with.) Shriver’s critique ignores the novel’s logic of excess, which is established in the very first scene. We first see Aldo, paralyzed from the waist down after his latest accident, drinking at a beachside bar with Liam. Aldo has just come up with one of his idiosyncratic business ideas (e.g., peanut-allergy divining wand), but won’t, or can’t, tell it to Liam without first surrendering to his patience-testing compulsion to riff:
‘You know how we are such optimists that even out Armageddons aren’t final?…You know how people used to want to be rock stars, but now they just want rock stars to play at their birthday parties?…And how when someone’s coping mechanism fails, they just keep using it anyway?…And how businesssapiens are always having power nightmares?…Bad dreams during power naps…You know how when people talk of First World problems they forget to mention Alzheimer’s and dementia?…You know how unrequited love has no real-world applications?…’
These are selections from about 25 “you know” questions, all leading up to the final unveiling of his grand idea: disposable toilets, a fitting invention for a master bullshitter who always finds himself mired in the muck.
The toilet invention provides one clue, and the title a more obvious one, that Quicksand is a story of precipitous decline. Aldo is “not just the falling clown, but the falling clown who other falling clowns fall on,” a man whose life only gets worse after being erroneously charged with rape when he is still a virgin. From then on, he is constantly on trial (another dubious sex crime, murder(s)), in debt, or recovering from suicide attempts, my favorite being the “irreproachably considerate” plan he devises to take sleeping pills and slide himself into a hospital morgue drawer. Liam is slightly discomfited by watching “…a man on a decline from so low a starting point,” but also recognizes the narrative potential: “The only people worth watching are those who have reached rock bottom and bounced off it, because they always bounce off into very strange orbits.”
Aldo may be “a disaster waiting to happen, or a disaster that had just happened, or a disaster that was currently happening.” However, to be singled out for such a fate is its own kind of election. Etymologically, disaster means ill-starred, the empyrean heights determining the trajectory of mortals spiraling downward. Whether he is a modern-day Job or a tragic Greek hero who “locked eyes with the wrong god,” Aldo is a marked man both figuratively and literally. The history of his scars reveals a partial record of his singularly bad luck: “…motorcycles, skinheads, wrong turn, stray billiard ball, ambush by a part of thorns, Molotov cocktail, car antenna, gravel rash, cigar.”
Liam, on the other hand, is unmarked, a man whose own sad tale is eclipsed by that of his brilliantly inauspicious friend. Both lost sisters during adolescence, both have been “dodging success with drone-like precision for nearly two decades,” and both have not been “changed by [their] life-changing experiences.” However, Liam’s quiet desperation is ordinary. When Liam visits Aldo in the hospital after one accident, the latter instantly sees that he has the upper, or rather lower, hand: “His sad face conceded that my downward spiral had crushed his downward spiral. Ah, the pyrrhic victories of old friendships.” They spar with, aid, use, or bore one another during a friendship that is unbreakable despite, or rather because, there remains something “permanently unexpressed between” them.
We learn less and less about Liam as the novel focuses on its “natural subject,” Aldo, so that when Liam is surprised to discover that “people in general think I’m a ridiculous human being,” we do not know enough either to doubt or credit this general view of him. What can’t be called ridiculous is his devotion to Aldo, which is the only thing that keeps him from being a cipher: “You’re a good friend to Aldo,” his former teacher tells him. “That doesn’t make up for what you lack, but it’s not nothing.”
Which isn’t to say that Liam is selfless in his devotion. Like every other artist who comes across Aldo in the novel, he wants to “cannibalize” his life. An inveterate manipulator, Aldo is also an inveterate muse and obliging model; he lets himself be painted and photographed by Liam’s “copious rivals,” a group of bohemians residing in an artist’s colony, even describing his own features to a police sketch artist just for the fun of it. Portraitists circle him like vultures, sensing that his rotten life will provide artistic sustenance. “If they are artists, the truly unfortunate have a wealth of material,” reads an aphorism from Artist Within, Artist Without, Liam’s and Aldo’s vade mecum written by their old high school teacher, Mr. Morell. But what of the “truly unfortunate” supplying the material?
“Unused talent exerts downward pressure on the spirit,” is another of Morell’s nuggets. But squandered talent isn’t quite what drives Aldo, and consequently Liam, down to the level “where things get primordial.” Rather, it’s precisely by deploying his talent, which happens to be for erring, that sends the “King of Unforced Errors” back to the elemental: a barren rocky island at a remove from the society in which he was so incongruous. This tragicomic Bildungsroman fails as it should, spectacularly, its “half-human, half-crustacean” hero devolving in splendid isolation as, back on shore, the world goes calmly on.
Put yourself in her shoes. She is a performer. She is slim and poised and recondite insofar as her comportment seems to withdraw her from the rest of us, who are mortal and dim in contrast. I am fixated on a shred of almond skin wedged between my teeth. I am worried about a flap of cuticle come loose from my nailbed. I am in the audience at the New York Public Library for a celebration of the director Robert Wilson’s 70th birthday. The performer is joined by other luminaries — Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed. Each has something hagiographic to say about Wilson. Lou Reed previews his collaboration with Metallica, citing Wilson as its impetus. Wainwright is forced to sing a cappella when the audio system craps out, proving that his voice really is that good. The performer recites a passage from Wilson’s collaborative opera with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach. She has the text in front of her, but she does not need it; she’s had this part memorized for years. Her recital is lovely, and the lilt and cadence of her voice are mesmerizing. But then halfway through, something happens that gets me thinking about artistry and solipsism and the fallout of one marrying up with the other.
What happens is: A giant fly begins to circle the performer’s face. She is wearing a bone microphone, which amplifies the buzz as this fly alights on her forehead. Her nose. Her eye and even on the microphone head, itself. The buzzing is so loud, it feels like this fly is in my own ear canal. So. Put yourself in her shoes and what would you do? Swat the fly. Ten out of ten of you swats the fly. Gets up. Stops reciting. What none of you do is carry on as if unaware of the fly. As if possessed of such composure, you are the most unflappable person on earth. The very essence of the show must go on. Lucinda Childs finished reciting without having acknowledged the fly in any way. The library might have caught on fire — hell, the entire city might have caught on fire — but Childs would carry on. Unperturbed. Impregnable.
I have thought about this moment in the library with pathological intensity since then. I have told the story of the Artist and the Fly many times, but always with the same awe. Awe and anxiety because the degree of professionalism on display in Childs’s refusal to admit the fly into her dispatch of Einstein on the Beach seemed to encroach on a category of behavior that doesn’t, for instance, concede the fly exists at all.
Now, I am not claiming that Childs is, herself, a solipsist (if you watch the video, you can see her flinch ever so slightly) but that she performed a brand of solipsism that is anathema to what art does so well, which is to engage, however obliquely, with the fraught stuff of our lives. Art that does not do this — art that cannot see past itself — is gospel. Propaganda. It is removed and distant and wholly ineffective when it comes to providing us with a chance to take shelter in each other’s humanity.
I left the library feeling uncomfortable. And a little depressed. After all, Childs was just doing her job. Childs was just doing what most of us artists are taught to do, which is to preserve what John Gardner has famously called the “fictional dream” — the sustained and vivid universe of a novel or story that is successful only if it resists puncture. The “fictional dream” does not acknowledge itself; it does not acknowledge us. Ninety percent of fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. My fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. So what, exactly, is the problem?
Well, okay, perhaps I can best answer this by thinking through our romance with bloopers. Turns out I have a friend who watches blooper reels with some frequency. On YouTube, where a search for “bloopers” turns up 11,900,000 results while a search for “cats” — and who doesn’t love a cat video? — turns up a mere 11,400,000 results. Bloopers appeal to people because they are genuine. And more importantly, they are genuine precisely because they break form. They expose artistry as a sham and, in so doing, relieve the anxiety of distance that attends all our experiences of art. My friend watches bloopers when he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He says they orient him. That they remind him people are real and he is real, which is by way of tethering us to each other.
Naturally, then, many artists have decided that one solution to the problem of art and artifice is to recreate the effect of a blooper. Hence the long tradition in the arts of breaking the fourth wall on purpose. Shakespeare did it with aplomb. I’m thinking of Henry V (and of course a Midsummer Night’s Dream) where Henry and Puck, respectively, apologize for the plays’ shortcomings or at least beg for our indulgence. I’m thinking of Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, which are overtly aware of themselves as art. I’m thinking of the Muppets, whose “Pigs in Space” skit always had the astro-swine shocked whenever the skit’s theme music played (which trope was picked up and amplified by the lyrics of the theme song for “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: “This is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry’s show, this is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.”) I’m thinking of the many many novels that toy with themselves as novels, which is all by way of foregrounding how deficient art must be when it comes to representation.
More recently, I am reminded of House of Cards, which I watched obsessively over three days a couple months ago. Do the math, that is four+ shows a night. Kevin Spacey, whom I last saw play Richard III at BAM, plays Francis Underwood, who is Richard’s equal for monomania and malice. And just like Richard, Underwood frequently breaks the action to soliloquize the audience. He tells us what he’s thinking. He tells us who everyone is. He makes us accomplice to his plans just for being privy to them. To start his first address to the audience in episode one, he looks at the camera and says, “Oh!” as if startled to find us there watching him or perhaps startled to have forgotten we were there. The gambit is designed to immerse us more completely in his universe, though it actually has the opposite effect of reminding me that his universe is not real.
You’d think, given my reservations about the fictional dream, that I’d find comfort in these metafictions. That I’d feel closer to these works for being acknowledged by them. But I don’t. On the contrary, I generally find them ridiculous. Whenever Francis soliloquizes the screen, it seems ridiculous! When Shakespeare enacts what the academics call “medium awareness,” it feels too clever by half. And if I read one more novel that pokes fun at its being a novel, I might cry. Look at me, I am art! I am foregrounding problems of representation! Work like this often feels more egocentric and solipsistic than art that just leaves it alone.
My friend who watches bloopers thinks the problem here is about responsibility and distance. The fictional dream allows us to abdicate responsibility: we can turn ourselves over to a knowing authority and check our incredulities at the door. But the dream, for being a dream, can also distance us from the very thing the dream depicts, no matter how seamlessly it is done. Alternately, the bloopers reel and self-reflexive fiction feel intimate though perhaps onerous for burdening us with evidence that our lives are real, and that real life is hard.
And so, a problem that can be recast as a debate about the efficacy of art. One the one hand: art has an asymptotic relationship with “truth,” with the world, so that to be an artist necessarily means to be a failure. Always and only a failure. On the other hand is an idea advanced by Tim O’Brien, who is endlessly quoted in this context — “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth” — and hailed for his notion that “story truth” is a highly manipulated version of the real deal that equals and often exceeds the real deal’s power of effect.<
O’Brien neuters the problem of artifice and remove by recasting them as assets in the project of isolating and dramatizing what is powerful in our experience of life. Who needs to see someone swat madly at a fly when you can better experience its pathos (e.g., an elegant woman accosted by the humdrum) in a play or novel that will do it better? Such, at least, is what Tim O’Brien might say.
And what I say, too, thanks to the following experience I had at the Metropolitan Opera, where I saw Don Carlo a few months ago. In the first act, Don Carlo and his betrothed sing of their love. They are in a forest and Don Carlo, being the gentleman that he is, makes a fire. A real fire, on a flammable stage at the Met. Ten minutes later, a man in jeans and T-shirt marched onstage with a fire extinguisher. He didn’t look at the audience, he even seemed bored, but in front of a full house, while the singers were performing, he blasted the fire and walked off. At first, I thought he was part of the production. Don Carlo finds out his fiancée is actually intended for his father (ah, opera), at which point some guy destroys the emblem of their love. It seemed apt. Quickly, though, I realized this was not part of the plan. The audience started to laugh. I was sitting three rows from the pit, so I could see the conductor (full disclosure, the conductor was Lorin Maazel, who is my father) carry on as if nothing had happened. Meantime, the stagehand, whose intentions were good, did not actually manage to put out the fire. Instead, he left it smoldering, so that the stage began to fill with smoke. How can you sing when your lungs are filled with smoke? But the performers sang on, though the soprano had to turn her back to the audience (possibly to stifle a laugh) while the tenor seemed less than committed to the moment. They did not swat the fly but they did acknowledge the world’s intrusion on their art.
The upshot? I felt badly for the singers. I felt badly for my dad. And I felt somewhat self-conscious about being at the opera, whose pretensions and artifice were made uppermost thanks to the stagehand. But mostly, for that moment, I felt cheated of the magic that is Don Carlo. A three-hour disquisition in song on the big, human feelings: love, grief, rage, despair. Which is when I began to feel good about art that refuses to concede I am alive.
From Einstein on the Beach: “These are the days my friends and these are my days my friends.” So long as art continues to record those days, why should it have to acknowledge my days in particular? I don’t need to be noticed in the moment, just in the main. I am, after all, but a fly. One among many. So, yeah, don’t mind me. Carry on.
Image via Ali Arsh/Flickr
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about attention atrophy and the Internet. And I mean a lot of talk. If you haven’t noticed, it’s because some of the trend pieces are really long (like, 2,000 words long) and your gchat may have been buzzing at a clip that precluded sustained focus on what a given writer for the The Atlantic, Slate, or The New York Times had to say about the latest UCLA study on how Google can affect your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Entering freshmen at the university where I teach are required to read Nicholas Carr’s Pulitzer-finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It clocks in at 280 pages, and most students will not finish it.
I’ve got nothing against the hand-wringers — idle hands, etc. — but I’d like to advance a modest defense of the good that can come from the browser’s mindset, and from inattentive dilettantism. Indeed, let me suggest that we can find solace for the dilemma not in studies showing that video games make you smarter, but rather in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a long, obstreperous 18th-century work that Virginia Woolf (author of short, prismatic 20th-century works) called “the greatest of all novels.” Shandy makes the Cervantes/Fielding/Dickens picaresque look like a straight walk down a well-lit road. It is both a challenge to read and a sustained work of jumpy, distracted hilarity. Attention deficit, for Sterne, is not something to be feared in the reader — it is the basis for his process of composition.
A précis of Shandy is more or less impossible, and tempts Shandean distractions of its own. Nonetheless: the title character wishes to write his memoirs. (The why is unclear, though an encyclopedic impulse runs in the family — Shandy senior has written tracts on the naming of children; pseudo-Descartian meditations on the pineal gland; a discourse on the importance of proper balance between “radical heat and radical moisture” in the human animal — you get the idea.) Along the way, everything goes wrong, both in the writing and the living. A mis-wound clock distracts his parents at the moment of his conception; a scullery maid’s malapropism results in his absurd, medieval first name; the memoirist himself becomes so distracted that he does not emerge from the womb until the novel is one-third done. Sterne writes a chapter on buttons; he writes a chapter on knots. Many of the chapters are shorter than a page. The author’s preface arrives in chapter 20 of the third volume. The novel’s most endearing character — besides the garrulous autobiographer himself — is Uncle Toby, a veteran of the French wars who returns with an embarrassing wound to his groin and, post-convalescence, spends his days in the backyard building scale models of various theaters of battle, the better to relive his glory days. Transitions between high, anarchic comedy and sustained passages of sentiment can be sudden and vertiginous. Shandy is accidentally circumcised by a falling window sash; Shandy falls in love with a “nut-brown maid” in France; a heartstring-yanking obituary for a jolly priest named Yorick is followed by a wordless, all-black page; an inveterate bore named Phutatorius (Latin for “Fucker”) has the misfortune to catch a burning chestnut in his breeches. (Genitalia in general do not fare well in this book.) And an alleged act of bestiality leads to the iconic final words of the novel:
‘L–d!’ said my mother, ‘what is all this story about?’ —-
‘A COCK and a BULL,’ said Yorick —- ‘And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.’
I could go on, but that’s the point — Shandy’s project is telescopically expandable, as he notes with less anxiety than glee: “At this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write.” Days are more easily lived than written, at least with the narrator’s level of detail and errant whimsicality: “I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good.” Hamlet saturates certain volumes of Shandy, the Dane’s inability to take action here spun into a structural literary motif: the fullness, absurdity, hilarity, and pathos of life outpace man’s ability to take stock of them — and man, in turn, responds by dragging his feet, gazing at his navel, and losing focus whenever a new and shiny object is presented to him.
Let’s not mince words: this is all deeply silly. And that, of course, is the point. On trial in Shandy are the masturbatory elements of scholarship; distractible humans and their whimsical hobbies; the proliferating literary phenomenon of “biographical freebooters”; and self-involved males who can argue (with a Voltairean antilogic) finer points of causality while, upstairs, poor Mrs. Shandy lies in excruciating, protracted labor. Few novels — even few early novels — have less believability in them. And yet Shandy, in all its digressive, distracted, ADD glory, captures something of life that narratives of linear focus rarely can.
The characters who labored in service to the early novel — the fictional memoirists of Defoe, the virtuous letter-writers of Richardson — told tales semi-intended to be taken as true, and which sometimes were: after the massive success of Gulliver’s Travels, Arbuthnot wrote to Swift, “Gulliver is in every body’s hands…I lent the book to an old Gentleman, who went immediately to his map to search for Lilliput.” The idea of readerly enjoyment was a vicarious identification with characters we might, in an idle moment, fancy to be real. (Richardson coyly dubbed himself the mere “editor” of Clarissa; Fielding, in proto-Sternean mockery of Richardson, insisted on Tom Jones as a “history.”) Sterne took this early and enduring premise of fiction and extended it to its illogical conclusion: a book that seeks to mimic “reality” will, in fact, smack of distraction and madness.
When people talk about Shandy nowadays, it is in the context of the postmoderns. In the inventive and charming 2006 film, Steve Coogan intones: “Shandy was a postmodern classic before there was a modernism to be post about.”
Sterne indeed anticipated many of the tics and preoccupations that came to define (and oversimplify) postmodernism as inherently “self-conscious.” A text is a text, and there is an author behind it, whatever Roland Barthes may say, and somewhere in the 20th century the dominant premise of fiction — the suspension of disbelief, of our knowledge that these characters aren’t real — was no longer enough. The Wizard had to emerge from behind the curtain; metacritical comment became de rigueur. Books of fiction had to declare as such, and to remark, speciously or otherwise, on the process of their own composition.
What is lacking in the more paranoid of the postmoderns is a Shandean sense of textual play as total entertainment. Did Sterne agonize over the “constructed” nature of his opus? No; he reveled in it. His footnotes were not self-lacerating interrogations of the potential dishonesty of the enterprise — they were postscript punchlines to jokes that already had you splitting your sides and getting weird looks in terminal D at O’Hare. The book is a total funhouse, full of toys, surprises, and regressive loops. Volume IX leaves two chapters totally blank, where the author sees fit to introduce the events of chapter 25 before returning to numbers 18 and 19. In lieu of describing the toothsome Widow Wadman in Volume VI, Sterne allows you an empty page on which to draw your conception of the perfect woman: “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—-as like your mistress as you can—-as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you–’tis all one to me.”
‘Tis all one to us, as well. Sterne invites us to skip passages that bore, forget passages that displease, to hop and jump between chapters, and to reimagine scenes to our own liking. In elevating to muse-status his own fickle fancy, Sterne indulges ours, creating a book that is less a novel than the longest sustained joke in the English language.
And yes, it is long. But here’s the secret: you don’t really need to finish it to get the joke. Just follow the big F, if you prefer — you’ll miss the climax between Toby and the Widow, but so did Coogan et al. in the film. (There was just a lot happening on the set, see, and they got distracted.) Information overload is not a new phenomenon — it’s sort of just part of being alive. Our current objects of distraction may be somewhat newer and shinier, and fewer of us read Latin and French, but the Shandean truths abide. If Sterne can teach us anything, it is to enjoy the flightiness of our mortal minds — not to lament, but to laugh.
When it comes to adapting serious fiction for the screen, John Huston has few peers. But the English director Michael Winterbottom continues to burnish his reputation as a master of this maddeningly slippery art at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which is featuring the American premiere of Trishna, Winterbottom’s daring re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Today, by way of exploring the difficulty of transporting stories from page to screen, we’ll look at three Winterbottom adaptations of three very different novels from three different centuries.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Trishna is not Winterbottom’s first foray into Hardy’s fiction, nor the first time he has lifted Hardy’s characters from fictional Wessex and plunked them down in a faraway place. Winterbottom adapted Hardy’s most controversial novel, Jude the Obscure, in 1996, and followed it four years later with The Claim, a retelling of The Mayor of Casterbridge set in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains during the gold rush.
But Trishna, set in contemporary India, is by far Winterbottom’s most daring – and successful – adaptation of Hardy. The conventional reading of Hardy is that he was a forward-thinker who railed against the two most confining straitjackets of life in Victorian England: the pressure to conform to social conventions and the stark boundaries imposed by class and gender. Winterbottom offers a much subtler reading. As he told The Guardian recently by way of explaining his decision to set Trishna (and, he might have added, The Claim) far from England: “Hardy’s novels are often about modernity and speed and energy. But it’s hard to get that sense of a dynamically changing world if you set one in this country [England]. Here the problems are more to do with a lack of mobility rather than an excess of it.”
That’s smart, but it carries a risk. While contemporary India offers an abundance of photogenic modernity, speed, and energy, it is also a gargantuan cliche: the gaudy colors, the cows, the slums and traffic and noise and dirt, those nearly visible smells. It’s worth remembering that two of the biggest international hits to come out of India recently, Slumdog Millionaire and Darjeeling Limited, were avalanches of these very cliches.
Winterbottom, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids this trap by streamlining Hardy’s story and using the frenzied urbanization and changing class structure of contemporary India as tools to tell his story, never as mere eye candy. The title character is played by Freida Pinto (who had her breakout in Slumdog Millionaire), a poor girl in the rural northwestern state of Rajasthan who catches the eye of a wealthy hotel owner named Jay (Riz Ahmed) when he passes through her town with a freewheeling gang of rich tourists. Smitten, Jay offers Trishna a job at his hotel in the capital city of Jaipur, which her family pushes her to accept. Inevitably, a romance will bloom.
A composite of the novel’s two love interests, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare, Jay spirals from seduction to genuine love to fatal cruelty after the lovers move to Mumbai. There are other deft echoes of the novel. Instead of giving birth to her illegitimate child and losing it to illness, as happened to Tess, Trishna deals with an unwanted pregnancy by having an abortion. And in a moment of extreme need, Trishna goes to work in a dehumanizing food-packaging factory, just as Tess was nearly crushed by a ravenous new invention called the threshing machine. Hardy’s fiction, as Winterbottom noted, was suffused with the tension in an urbanizing society – the seduction of modern inventions even as they brutally obliterate old ways. A rural English train depot perfectly captures this tension. It is, Hardy writes, a place where “a fitful white streak of steam at intervals upon the dark-green background denoted intermittent moments of contact between their secluded world and modern life. Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.”
By bringing this tension to life in contemporary India, Winterbottom has captured the spirit of Hardy’s novel without being slavish to its letter. As a result, the movie manages the difficult trick of being both faithful and new, less a reproduction than a rich act of re-imagining.
Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
If ever a work of literature deserved to be called “unfilmable,” The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is surely it. Laurence Sterne’s great bawdy romp of a novel – a man named Tristram Shandy is talking to the reader about the story of his life he is trying to write as he writes it – is so disheveled, so plotless, so self-referential, so sprawling and messy and repetitive and hilarious that it almost dares a filmmaker to take a whack at it.
For his 2005 adaptation, which he called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom worked from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also wrote the scripts for Winterbottom’s The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, and Code 46. This time out, Boyce cleverly solves the conundrum of the source material by turning it on its head: if Sterne wrote a book about writing a book, then let’s make a movie about making a movie about that book. The cast is led by two more Winterbottom regulars – Steve Coogan playing himself playing Tristram Shandy and Rob Brydon playing himself playing Tristram’s uncle Toby.
The movie they’re fitfully making is at times surprisingly faithful to Sterne’s novel. We get Tristram’s botched conception, his botched birth, his botched nose, his botched, nearly disastrous circumcision. Also, as in the novel, we get countless throwaway lines, such as when Coogan tries to gently fend off the advances of a horny crew member with this left-handed compliment: “Your knowledge of German cinema is second to none.” There are snide swipes at Kevin Costner’s interpretation of Robin Hood and a moment when Coogan looks at a copy of Sterne’s novel and marvels, “Can you believe that a book as thick as that doesn’t have an index?” But the best of the lot is when Coogan, who knows how movie stars act and who obviously hasn’t read the novel, describes it to an interviewer as “a post-modern classic written way before there was any modern to be ‘post’ about.” Sterne surely would have approved. After all, he offers this defense of his tendency to digress, to talk to the reader, to leave pages blank, to write chapters out of chronological order and otherwise break every rule of conventional novel-writing: “All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world, ‘to let people tell their stories their own way.'”
While spoken in jest, Coogan’s remark about “post-modern classic” backs up my beliefs that this 18th-century novel is indeed one of the earliest exercises in post-modernism, that Don Quixote was the first, and that Flann O’Brien, not Joyce or Beckett, was the 20th century’s first practitioner of the form. In other words, the novelist’s willingness to expose the creative process, play structural tricks and be shamelessly self-aware was not an invention of the 20th century. Virginia Woolf believed Sterne “is singularly of our own age” and “the forerunner of the moderns,” while Italo Calvino anointed Tristram Shandy as “undoubtedly the progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century.”
Along with the David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I say Winterbottom’s brilliant Tristram Shandy is final proof that the overused word “unfilmable” should be banished from the lexicon.
Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me
Jim Thompson’s noir novels and stories have been turned into more than a dozen movies. Most filmmakers have latched onto the obvious cinematic allures of Thompson’s fiction – the intricate plots, the stunning double-crosses, the lavish violence – while shying away from what goes on in the dark recesses of the human mind, which is where Thompson did his real work. Maybe this is to be expected since fiction has an unfair advantage over film in this regard. It isn’t forced to rely so heavily on images; it’s freer to explore interiority; it is, in a word, more psychological. Just the sort of material for a filmmaker as smart and literary as Michael Winterbottom. And yet, this time he stumbles.
In 2010 Winterbottom directed a second version of Thompson’s breakthrough 1952 novel, The Killer Inside Me. The first version, a half-baked disaster directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Stacey Keach, came out in 1976. While Kennedy and his screenwriters, Edward Mann and Robert Chamblee, blithely butchered Thompson’s novel, Winterbottom and his screenwriter, John Curran, remain almost slavishly faithful to the text. It’s a lesser sin, but still a sin and not at all characteristic of Winterbottom, as we have seen. It’s hard to tell if he was suffering from a surfeit of reverence or a rare failure of imagination and will. But what’s on the screen is far too literal – more transcript than interpretation, more homage than distinctive work of art. As a result, the movie feels frozen in amber, oddly lifeless considering what the characters are doing to each other on the screen.
As the story unfolds, we learn that a small-town Texas deputy sheriff named Lou Ford is fighting not to have a relapse of “the sickness,” an adolescent sexual fascination with little girls that morphed into a scandalous, violent liaison with a much older woman. Lou’s step-brother took the fall for Lou years ago and ended up getting murdered for it. Lou has waited six years to get back at the killer, the construction tycoon Chester Conway, because he understands that revenge is a dish best served cold. He’ll exact his by murdering his prostitute lover, then luring Conway’s son to the scene and shooting him, making the mess look like a double murder between illicit lovers. The Conway family name will be ruined. We’re deep in Jim Thompson country here: the novel is less a straight crime yarn than an unflinching tour of a sick mind.
Lou Ford himself serves as tour guide, speaking in the first person to the reader in a voice that gives new meaning to the word unreliable. Sometimes he stands in for Thompson, who enjoyed his first big success with this novel but never apologized for his lack of highbrow aspirations. Here’s Lou Ford delivering a very Thompson-esque piece of literary theory:
In a lot of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He’ll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can’t figure out whether the hero’s laying his girl or a cornerstone. I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff – a lot of book reviewers eat it up, I notice. But the way I see it, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything.
Atmosphere is critical in any noir, and Winterbottom tries to capture the novel’s moral aridity through verbatim dialog and voice-overs from the novel, but it never quite gels. Much more successful at capturing atmosphere is the movie’s cinematography – those bleached colors, stark stretches of desert, and brooding mountains. It’s an extreme place where extreme things seem almost destined to happen. Another strong point is a killer soundtrack that includes works ranging from Enrico Caruso and Gustav Mahler to Hank Williams, Charlie Feathers, and the Western swing fiddler Spade Cooley. (Cooley, in an apt twist for these surroundings, was convicted of beating his wife to death in 1961.)
Best of all is the cast. Elias Koteas, who always looks like he was just dipped in dirty motor oil, plays a deliciously smarmy union boss. Ned Beatty is serviceable as the porcine tycoon. Bill Pullman has a nice little cameo as an unhinged defense attorney. Jessica Alba as the doomed hooker and Kate Hudson as Lou’s doomed fiancee both do fine jobs of living hot and dying (or appearing to die) hard. But the key gear in the works is Casey Affleck’s deadpan portrayal of Lou Ford. His smooth cheeks, lidded eyes, monotone drawl. and correct manners are a mask, his way of convincing the world he’s decent and a little slow, no threat to anyone. Affleck is not capturing the banality of evil; he’s uncovering the evil that can hide behind blandness. He did the same thing in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This is true creepiness, and true art.
So creepy that Lou is capable of beating two women to death with his bare hands while murmuring, “I’m real sorry…I love you…goodbye.” Many viewers and critics had a hard time watching this graphic violence, which begs the question: Is domestic violence supposed to look pretty? Only if you’re in the fetishistically stylized world of a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino movie, where getting your head blown off can look so cool. Thompson – and Winterbottom – are making the point that such violence is both horrible and horrible to look at, and, what’s way worse and way more important, there’s a bit of Lou Ford inside every one of us. The only person who doesn’t get this is Lou Ford. He believes, rightly, that he’s sick, but he also believes, wrongly, that this sets him apart from the rest of humanity, that he’s one of the evil “us” who live in the midst of the sane and good “them.” As Lou puts it, “If the Good Lord made a mistake in us people it was in making us want to live when we’ve got the least excuse for it.” Later he adds, “Our kind. Us people. All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad.”
Winterbottom’s portrayals of violence in this movie have been called everything from “misogynistic” to “feminist.” They’re neither. They’re valid artistic representations of an abiding fact of human life, especially when the humans are damaged goods. Thompson and Winterbottom never exalt Lou Ford or other monstrous characters, the way, say, Oliver Stone did in the execrable Natural Born Killers. I watched The Killer Inside Me with a friend who is a staunch opponent of the Guantanamo Bay prison and the death penalty. Unable to watch Lou Ford beat a second woman’s face into hamburger, my friend muttered, “I’d like to torture that sonofabitch to a slow death.” Then she stormed out, halfway through the movie. I took her revulsion to be a barometer of Thompson’s and Winterbottom’s success. They loosed my friend’s monstrous yearning to torture and kill the monstrous Lou Ford. In doing so they proved that there is, indeed, a bit of Lou Ford in all of us.
It wasn’t until I’d re-read all three novels and watched Winterbottom’s adaptations that I came to understand what ties these three movies together and what sets them apart. First, of course, they were all directed by a man with a high literary sensibility who is a master at casting actors and drawing quality performances out of them. Production values are uniformly high. Marcel Zyskind served as cinematographer on all three films, giving each a look appropriate to the story’s mood and message.
Then came the realization why these movies are so uneven: each had a different screenwriter. In Trishna, Winterbottom’s script shrewdly updates a story about a rural society’s traumatic urbanization; Boyce’s script of Tristram Shandy perfectly captures the antic, self-referential spirit of its source material; and The Killer Inside Me falls flat because Curran’s script treats Thompson’s novel as a blueprint rather than a springboard.
In other words, the hardware of a movie – its direction, acting, cinematography, editing, makeup, music. and wardrobe – can carry it only so far. It turns out that in movies just as much as in books, the writing is, always and forever, the thing.
Gaming in literature tends to come in two varieties; the high-brow and highly abstract, and the demotic and irredeemably nerdy. Look to puzzles in Perec’s Life, A Users Manual or chess in Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense, for the former, and sci-fi literature for the latter. Historically-based wargaming has largely fallen through the gap; there is Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim’s effort to recreate the siege of Namur in Tristram Shandy but otherwise it is a hobbyist corner given little literary attention. Until, oddly enough, Roberto Bolaño’s latest exhumed English translation, The Third Reich. This novel, to be clear, takes its name not from that short-lived empire, but from a multiplayer strategy game depicting its span, of which the book’s protagonist is an avid devotee.
Udo Berger, vacationing on the Catalan coast with his girlfriend Ingeborg, is not particularly given to sunshine. He spends much of the novel in his hotel room, unfurling scenarios for “The Third Reich” and soon launching into a fraught match with a local. Reviewers of the novel, written in 1990, but released in an English translation late last year, seem to be at some loss to describe just what, in fact, Berger’s wargaming constitutes, with most quickly settling upon the notion that it is “obsessive.” That’s not inaccurate, but it’s a sort of obsession rendered by a clear kindred spirit, with a detail of gameplay description impossible to anyone who wasn’t deeply familiar with the topic. Bolaño, a known enthusiast for these very games (which also cropped up in his Nazi Literture in the Americas), clearly was.
The novel offers a deep look into a pre-electronic world of dizzyingly complex and varied historical boardgaming, in an age when games depicting the Zulu Wars, the Six-Day War, or the hunt for the Bismarck did a brisk business, whether around a table or in elaborate games by mail. The company Avalon Hill, creator of “Rise and Decline of the Third Reich,” spent four decades creating willfully arcane games, with diffuse efforts to simulate the diving speed of a Sopwith Camel, the morale of American Civil War units after a march, and the particular effectiveness of chainshot (two cannonballs chained together) when fired at a sailing ship’s rigging. It should come as no surprise that turns can require more than an hour to complete, even when all players are around the same table. A mail-in card in my copy of “Richtofen’s War: The Air War 1914-1918” reads, pre-printed “Please send me your colorful brochure describing all Avalon Hill games and Play-by-Mail kits and your exclusive gaming magazine. I swear that I have the necessary grey-matter to enjoy your games.”
It wouldn’t be unfair if this brings to mind the minutiae of role-playing gaming, with one crucial difference: the referent for historical gamers, however quixotic in practice, is history itself, not, say, the Star Wars C-Canon (the third level of verisimilitude in the Star Wars universe). Games invariably include design notes about historical accuracy and many feature separate simply historical accounts of the events depicted. In early years, Avalon Hill advertised a beribboned military advisory staff (featuring Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, of “Nuts” fame at the Battle of the Bulge) and provided a forum for heavily footnoted historical arguments on gaming accuracy in its monthly magazine The General. There, arguments over scenarios, tweaks, and historical fealty unfolded, issue after issue. If sci-fi gaming offered countless occasions for spiritual and factual improvisation, board wargaming is a realm for high-church scriptural literalists.
The Third Reich’s protagonist, Udo Berger, is not merely a gamer, but a participant in these very arguments: a contributor to The General and several of its peers, and a holder of spirited opinions on real-life magazine contributors (it might please Michael Anchors, genuine wargaming author, to learn Berger’s opinion that he is “original and full with enthusiasm.”) Berger’s contributions run in the range of gameplay, “obliterating essays by Benjamin Clark (Waterloo #14) and Jack Corso (The General, #3, vol. 17) in which each advises against the creation of more than one front in the first year.”
Berger’s projects entail substantial hours spent in solitary indoor play, an admittedly curious direction for a beach vacation. As the hotel owner’s wife comments “A winter sport; at this time of year you’d do better to swim or play tennis.” His gameplay reveries stretch considerably into the technical:
In any deployment the strongest hex will be the one where the English armored corps is located, whether P23 or O23, and it will determine the focus of the German attack. This attack will be carried out with very few units. If the English armored corps is in P23, the German attack will be launched from O24; if, on the contrary, the English armored corps is in O23, the attack must be launched from the N24, through the south of Belgium.
And so on. Much of this must sound like shorthand for “obsession”, yet this sort of thinking is precisely what is required in playing a game such as “The Third Reich.” You need not necessarily abandon the outside world entirely (and Berger does not) but a commitment of time and thought is essential to any sort of viability in the game. Just as Nabokov’s Luzhin undertakes:
At first he learned to replay the immortal games that remained from former tournaments — he would rapidly glance over the notes of chess and silently move the pieces on his board. Now and then this or that move, provided in the text with an exclamation or a question mark (depending upon whether it had been beautifully or wretchedly played), would be followed by several series of moves in parentheses, since that remarkable move branched out like a river and every branch had to be traced to its conclusion before one returned to the main channel.
Luzhin’s father, aware of these locked-up hours, comes to suspect that Luzhin is “looking for pictures of naked women.” Undistracted calculations of such sort are essential to any complex game; it is a solitary vice which would no doubt be more easily understood were it lubricious.
Berger, though, as indicated, is more than an ordinary player, and while he plots inside, his girlfriend, Ingeborg, takes up more conventional frolics, in the company of another German couple, Charley and Hanna, and itinerant Spaniards known as the Wolf and the Lamb. Soon Hanna shows up with a black eye, suffered at Charley’s hand, and Charley simply disappears. In the aftermath of the investigation of his disappearance both Ingeborg and Hanna depart; Udo stays on beyond the term of his vacation, in a morbid wait for Charley’s corpse, intensifying a flirtation with the wife of the hotel’s owner, growing increasingly curious about the reclusive ailing owner, and drifting into a game of “The Third Reich” with El Quemado, a laconic and severely burned beach paddleboat renter.
Udo, unsurprisingly, first routs the amateur El Quemado, “He doesn’t know how to stack the counters, he plays sloppily, he has either no grand strategy or one that is too schematic, he trusts in luck, he makes mistakes in his calculations of BRP, he confuses the creation of units phase with the SR.” And yet soon this formerly abstracted game takes on a very personal charge, as Udo’s macabre wait for a corpse continues. Udo, along the beach one evening, overhears someone providing El Quemado advice on the game; a figure he suspects is the hotel owner, who he suspects is opening a second front, as it were, in response to Udo’s flirtations with his wife.
Thus, Frau Else’s husband has news of me from two sources: El Quemado tells him about the match and his wife tells him about our flirtation. I’m the one at a disadvantage; I don’t know anything about him, except that he’s sick. But I can guess a few things. He wants me to leave; he wants me to lose the match; he doesn’t want me to sleep with his wife. The Eastern Offensive continues. The armored wedge (four corps) meets and pierces the Western front at Smolensk, then goes on to take Moscow, which falls in an Exploitation move.
It needn’t be explained at this point that the only conceivable drive on Moscow would originate with the Axis player — Berger, of Stuttgart, which raises a second crucial aspect of the game and its role in the novel. Perhaps lost in the myopia of the board, I hadn’t considered, for years until reading the novel, the implacably strange appearance of spending countless leisure hours in order to achieve victory not for say, Team Red, but for Nazi Germany, and in The Third Reich several characters wonder about this very reasonable question. A hotel maid asks Udo, “are you a Nazi?” The question acquires increasingly dire weight as, over time, the fall of Berlin looms in the game itself. As the hotel owner observes: “Ah, my friend, in that poor boy’s nightmares the trial may be the most important part of the game, the only thing that makes it worthwhile to spend so many hours playing it. A chance to hang the Nazis!”
In fact, Berger declares that he’s “more like an anti-Nazi” and we’re given no reason to doubt him whatsoever; that said, it’s no surprise that the enthusiasm of a German for steering Germany would raise eyebrows. This brings to the fore the aspect of gaming that Bolaño exploits most deftly: the almost unavoidable historical romanticism that attends most wargaming.
Despite the profusion of novelty chess sets, a chess piece seems most frequently a blank signifier, a store of potential for movement; a Knight rarely seems imbued with the qualities of Lancelot or Gawain. Historical wargaming, however, tends to inevitably accentuate links between a subject and its representation. Berger fantasizes about “symbolic figures with the ability to storm into your dreams,” recalling favorite maneuvers, “Rommel’s ride with the 7th Armored in ’40. Student falling on Crete, Kleist’s advance through the Caucasus with the First Panzer Army, Manteuffel’s offensive in the Ardennes with the Eleventh Army.”
Is this something only a German would do, a sign of some latent crypto-fascism? No, it’s something that countless wargamers do, and nothing unusual in a recreation reliant upon the approximated capacities and skills of very real former generals, units, and armies, about whom there are countless very specific monographs published each year (conduct an Amazon search for upcoming history books; the number of volumes on military history is typically only slightly below the number on American history). Ambrogio Spinola’s actual function in a battle might be to provide an outflanking factor of 6, but he’s also the victor depicted in Velazquez’s “The Surrender of Breda.” Albrecht Von Wallenstein may prove functionally inferior to Gustavus Adolphus in leadership points, but he’s also the subject of three Schiller plays; background that one does not simply forget. Berger, of course, takes this a bit father.
If El Quemado had the slightest knowledge or appreciation of twentieth-century German literature (and it’s likely that he does) I’d tell him that Manstein is like…Celan. And Paulus is like Trakl, and his predecessor, Reichenau, is like Heinrich Mann. Guderian is the equivalent of Jünger, and Kluge of Boll.
Is this typical? Well, no, it is mildly absurd, and yet a sense of just where Berger’s enthusiasm rests offers a captivating puzzle; is this crypto-nationalism or is it merely gaming ad absurdum? At one point, Else asks “And what does it mean to be German?” Berger responds, “I don’t know exactly. Something difficult, that’s for sure. Something that we’ve gradually forgotten.” Is this an effort to construct some untroubled national identity through fantasy, to reconstruct devastation into art, reducing war to its tactical essence and leaving out anything that is unsavory? Perhaps. Whatever the case, it’s been a pursuit with essentially no consequence — until the game with El Quemado begins and Berger begins to suspect that darker consequences may loom.
It’s clearly not unusual to append dire consequences to the outcome of a game; one can always play chess with death. It is unusual to align these antagonists with any sense of national identification; most games do not lend themselves to the practice. A German playing Germany in a World War II simulation makes for a far different landscape, however. And whether Berger’s fears are those of a fantasist recluse imagining threats or of a suppressed recidivist realizing that refashioning history might have some consequence is a tantalizing question, all made possible through Bolaño’s superb exploration of just what conflating these two tendencies might produce. An attack on Moscow might merely involve a roll of the dice, but it might involve quite more.
Image Credit: Flickr/Bien Stephenson
“The drop is a small ocean.”
“When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.”
Describing, let alone reviewing, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost forbiddingly daunting. Probably for this reason, critical reaction has been decidedly garrulous. A vast majority of reviewers have invoked some kind of “higher” culture to signify the elusive mood or feeling it evokes. Just skimming down the list, one picks up earnest references to Emily Dickinson, Tristram Shandy, Picasso, 2001: A Space Odyssey, W.B. Yeats, The Passion Of The Christ, the Sistine Chapel, and The Museum of Natural History. It’s been referred to as “beautiful“, “baffling“, “magisterial”, “unbearably pretentious” and putting the viewer at risk of emerging from the theatre “with a pretzel for a brain.” All of this is fair game, I think. Oscar Wilde‘s droll dismissal of controversy wraps it all up nicely and points the way forward: “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”
In some postmodern milieux it’s common to judge a work of art sight unseen and only by the reactions of others (you’ve done it before, admit it). The Tree of Life lends itself to this vulnerability, for sure. It was alternately booed and cheered by the discriminating cineastes of Cannes, ultimately winning the historic Palme d’Or. Robert De Niro, the head of the prize panel, explained in a very Robert DeNiro way that the film had “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” Roger Ebert wrote a lovely and moving piece about it, the first sentence of which calls it “a form of prayer.” This would be pretty decent praise from anyone but considering Ebert himself has been struggling with his own mortality for several years now, and doing so with grace and dignity, the accolade is especially poignant.
I don’t usually mind getting spoilers before I see a movie for the first time, which probably has more to do with my tendency to be easily confused than a need for surprise. Not to worry – it’s almost impossible to give anything away. Part of the wonder of this film is that the visual style and narrative undulation (the term “arc” just doesn’t do it justice) not only allow for but encourage emotional and intellectual responses which are ultimately the viewer’s own. Certain moments in the film were vivid enough to sting me with recognition and tears came to my eyes. It felt like moments of my childhood reappeared, unbidden, and not the most obvious ones. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Several people I know well admitted to a similar reaction. There is comfort in that. One of the things which is often asked of art, if not cinema itself, is that it move us, give us grandeur, something of the ineffable. This can be done with either massive, panoramic vistas or with detailed, minute shifts of insight. The Tree Of Life, to Malick’s abiding credit, offers us both.
The narrative centers around a small lower middle class family in east Texas. There are three brothers, one of whom is revealed to have died in unexplained circumstances. Brad Pitt sinks so deeply into his role as the stern, frustrated, ultimately helpless father that you can see what Freud termed “the family romance” flickering behind his thick glasses and masculine scowl. Jessica Chastain’s mother is ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures. This dialectical conflict is subtly set up early on: one side of the parental wall is earthly, ambitious, occasionally brutal in word or gesture, brittle and seething with balked ambition. The other floats in midair in her children’s daydreams, enveloping all the struggle of life with a luminous, beneficent glow. Blessings are all, she suggests, by her mere presence. The boys are boys, pointy of ear and baby fat faces, reflecting the confusion and energy that comes with the humid rush of pre-adolescence. Sean Penn isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the middle aged son mourning his long deceased brother amid the modern-day glaze of skyscrapers in New York but he makes something happen nevertheless. The rest is, well, the rest is the world – a glimpse at the totality of creation itself. The editing is timed to the rhythm of memory – moments simply occur, evolve, glimmer, fade, and disappear. Trying to describe this film’s visual range is like describing a waterfall or a rainbow or the sparkling light cast for a moment on the wall: it can be done, but why not see it for yourself, and on the big screen while you’re at it?
Terrence Malick has often been considered a spiritual director. This is not say he has a particular creed, or even necessarily a belief system, at least none that comes readily to mind. He has a degree in Philosophy from Harvard, taught it at M.I.T, and translated the notoriously dense and mystical Heidegger before going into film. The influence must have stuck with him. There really is something Heideggerian going on in his work. One could sum up the two major themes of his films with just the title of Heidegger’s magnum opus: Being and Time. Malick’s characters inhabit a landscape more than a frame. Their presences register over the looming, incandescent indifference of the world they inhabit. They build, they dwell, they think, in Heideggerian vocabulary. Language is a scattered thing in his films, a groping towards meaning. This aesthetic comes out memorably in Days of Heaven and Badlands, his still- astonishing debut. Accounts of the making of these films reveal years of the director’s prosaic research as well as on-set instructions to spontaneously just drop everything and follow a stream of rippling birds suddenly taking flight.
There’s something mysterious about having been a filmmaker for over thirty years with only a handful of films to your name. Actors beg to be involved and sign up by the dozen for ever-expanding bit parts. Producers are sometimes driven crazy by his relentless perfectionism and visionary drive. His movies can be an experience unto themselves. You walk out with that strange, sober buzz a good film gives you, and inhabit the world of the film’s perception for a little while. Light is more like light, the earth below more compact, and the sky above the buildings is vaster than you ever quite noticed. Every reader is bound to come to any work of art with her own set of tastes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions. Naturally, she leaves with them as well. Hopefully something has happened in between which causes (at least) a subtle, insistent, almost insubstantial change in the consciousness of the audience. All movies are in some way about seeing, of course, but no one making them or attending them ever sees them in quite the same way. It’s very rare that anything is seen in the way Terrence Malick sees it, which says more about Malick than it does about anyone else.
In the end, watching “The Tree of Life” is best done in a spirit of generosity, curiosity, care, and a healthy dose of plain reverence and awe. Not a bad way to go through life.
Lest you fail to detect the skeleton of historical fact that gives shape to Daniel Kraus’ unsettling, baroque, and surpassingly lurid new young adult novel, Rotters, I begin this review with a short history of the resurrection men, vulgarly referred to as grave robbers or body snatchers–the ignoble offspring of the European Enlightenment. While the Enlightenment era is bedecked with many marvelous achievements in human thought and practice—the Rights of Man, the idea that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” an explosion in literacy rates and books and newspapers, coffee houses and salons, a vast increase in the circulation of ideas, the advance of natural history, navigation and exploration, chemistry, scientific classification, mathematics, microscopy, medicine (the circulation of the blood, inoculation) and anatomy—like any revolution, the Enlightenment had its less savory side.
The resurrection men offer us a glimpse of the maggoty underbelly of the Scientific Revolution: As the idea of the body as a rational system, a machine of sorts, took hold in Europe, so the numbers of students eager to learn the science of anatomy increased–along with the demand for fresh corpses for dissection. And with this rise in demand, a new class of professional grave robbers was born: the resurrection men. These men disinterred buried corpses not for jewelry or clothes, but for the bodies themselves, which they sold to medical schools and anatomists. Poor medical students were known to moonlight as resurrection men in order to pay their medical school tuition—in dead bodies. And when corpses were in particularly short supply, a few very enterprising resurrectionists were known to turn to murder to meet the medical schools’ demand (most famous among these: Brendan Burke and William Hare, who were tried in Edinburgh in 1829 for the murders of more than a dozen prostitutes, beggars, and boarding house lodgers—all of whose bodies they had sold to an anatomy professor. Burke was hanged and his corpse, as was usual in capital cases in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, was given to a medical school for dissection).
Out of this gruesome prehistory, comes Kraus’ Rotters. Kraus’ novel imagines (and I say imagines reservedly—perhaps such men do live among us) a modern breed of grave robbers: the Diggers, proud self-proclaimed descendants of the eighteenth and nineteeth-century resurrection men. Kraus uses this unwholesome sub-culture as a setting for one of the darkest, wildest, most unsettling adolescent novels I’ve ever come across. The novel’s scenes contain a superabundance of maggots, necrotic flesh, “coffin liquor,” and rat kings (masses of coffin rats whose tails have become entangled such that they move as a single entity)—there’s plenty of all, but these are actually the least of the book’s horrors. More sinister is the loveless, punishing fate that Kraus inflicts on his hero, 17-year-old Joey Crouch, whose story begins when his mother dies and he’s sent to live with his father, a man’s he’s never met, in Iowa.
Ken Hartnett, Joey’s father, is a Digger who lives in a hovel surrounded by onion beds on the banks of the Big Chief River. Initially repulsed and enraged by his father, who is brusque, negligent, often drunk, and smells like rotten meat, Joey is gradually drawn into his underworld. Joey becomes entranced by the varieties of decay available to human corpses, relishes his own prowess with a shovel, his ability to leave a grave plot looking pristine, even after he’s excavated the coffin and taken the corpse’s jewelry—because while Joey’s dad proudly claims the resurrection men of Scotland and England as his professional forebears, he and his kind, the Diggers, are actually just old fashioned grave robbers: sawing off fingers for rings, prying out gold teeth, pocketing watches. But they take great pride in what they do, how quickly and tidily they’re able to do it, who they’re able to do it to (Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, John Scott Harrison, the son of President William Henry Harrison): Once you’re in the ground, you’re just an anonymous rotter, no matter who you were in life.
What draws Joey to the rotter world is more mundane: Once in his father’s care, Joey’s destined to become his small-town high school’s untouchable. Forced into his father’s quasi-savage way of life, Joey begins to look and smell feral—sometimes worse than feral. He’s brutalized and humiliated by the jocks, taunted and blackmailed by a sadistic teacher, and ignored by everyone else. This is adolescent misery of a most exquisite variety. I’m actually not sure why or how Joey is standing at the end, between the high school horrors and the more exotic, Digger-related horrors that he endures. Kraus shows Joey’s isolation, humiliation, loneliness, and hopelessness drawing him into the world of the Diggers. The less life offers him, the more he wants to dig—the more he wants to be among the dead, where pain and sorrow are finished forever. Digging is an art and Joey’s got his father’s gift. And among the strange, death-scented old men who compose the Diggers’ union, Joey is cherished and admired, a wonder and a last hope for a dying profession.
Somewhere around the middle of Rotters, though, things start to feel a little unhinged. The plot begins to unfurl at an unnerving speed: grotesque demented vignettes are heaped on grotesque demented vignettes in an alarming, precarious array (example: Joey lures the king of the high school jocks into the weight room at school where he knocks him out and then entwines his victim among several naked female corpses in an orgy-like configuration). At this point, I began to imagine the structure of the book as something like the interior of the Kostnice, the bone church outside of Prague whose interior is decorated with tens of thousands of interlocking, piled human bones. Though, Rotters is less beautiful, more genuinely grotesque, more alarming—and not necessarily in an aesthetically useful way.
I am not squeamish–not at the sight of blood, nor in contemplating the hideous things that people can and do do to each other. I’m also very fond of the grotesque: Goya’s Disasters of War and Los Caprichos, most of Swift, Archimboldo, Tristram Shandy, Lewis Carroll, Edward Gorey —but I found Rotters hard to take. It felt sometimes—beautiful though some of the writing is and beautifully conceived as some of the scenes are—as if the novel was a manic exercise (…here’s yet another scene in which the crazed, drug-addled clown-dwarf-digger loses a body part–an eye, now a foot, now his face is cleft with a shovel, now coated in slick black mud—now he falls face first into a pile of jewels and comes up with a diamond where his eye used to be—as he floats out to sea on a coffin…in the middle of a hurricane). This stuff was too baroque for my taste—it was sensory overload. Mind you, in a world rife with oatmealy workshop-cookie-cutter fiction, Kraus is absolutely original—which is what kept me reading—even when I started to feel like the novel itself felt a little poisonous, unwholesomely keen on human misery, failure, and despair (and I’m quite fond of human misery, failure, and despair as literary themes–what else is there, really?).
It also seemed that (perhaps?), taken as he was with the minutia of the Digger and high school life, Kraus lost sight of the ultimate shape he wanted his book to take—what it’s supposed to mean. Though the novel seems intent on destroying Joey for about 400 pages, it gives him a kind of bland happy-ish-but-not-really-happy ending that I couldn’t make sense of. And looking back from the last page, I’m not sure I know what the book’s larger vision was.
What did it all mean? I’m not sure I can say. But there’s something to be said for taking a dose of such wildness–such tumbling, aggressive, unkempt fiction–every now and again.
I’ll do you the favor of summarizing all the major plot points of the second volume of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Jia Bao-yu, the eccentric adolescent heir of the phenomenally wealthy Jia family, has a crush on his cousin, Lin Dai-yu, and she has a crush on him. He unintentionally slights her, and they have a fight, which is quickly resolved. Bao-yu’s flirtation with a maid inadvertently leads to her suicide; as the result of the maid’s suicide and his friendship with an escaped slave of the Imperial household, his father beats Bao-yu brutally, leaving him bed-ridden. However, he eventually recovers, and starts a poetry club with his sisters and cousins. They have a poetry contest. At the matriarch’s insistence, the family throws an extravagant birthday party for her granddaughter-in-law, Wang Xi-feng. The party ends poorly when Wang Xi-feng catches her husband cheating on her with a maid. More cousins come to visit, and to honor them, Bao-yu’s sister invites them to the poetry club, which holds another meeting. The family celebrates the New Year festival. That’s more or less all that really happens, and that story takes some 560 pages of tiny, dense text to tell. It’s also only the second volume of five, each about the same length.
At the beginning of the summer, I set out to read the entirety of the David Hawkes translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Its author, Cao Xueqin, was the scion of one of the wealthiest families of early Qing China. He was also unfortunate enough, as a child, to be a witness to its dramatic downfall–a result of political purges and property confiscations. Cao spent most of his life in dire poverty, writing and re-writing the semi-autobiographical Dream of the Red Chamber continuously until his death in 1764. Dream of the Red Chamber–circulated in coveted hand-copied manuscripts until the first print edition in 1792–was an almost instant success. The novel has had a profound impact on the Chinese literary tradition; scholarly studies of Red Chamber are so numerous that there is a minor field of study dedicated to the novel – hongxue, literally, “redology.” Red Chamber serves as an invaluable record of the lifestyle of a wealthy Chinese family at the beginning of the eighteenth century, faithfully portraying the Neo-Confucian conservatism of the newly established Qing dynasty and the anxieties that preoccupied its governing scholar bureaucracy. Its doomed lovers, Jia Bao-yu and Lin Dai-yu, are as iconic in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the West. It’s also notable for its staggering length. At about twenty-eight hundred pages, Dream of the Red Chamber is about twice as long as my copy of War and Peace.
What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.
I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties. I love this single sentence, for example:
It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants – those who had served the parents of the present masters – with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs. Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.
I cannot remember where I last saw the relationships between servants and their masters so concisely described. This sentence (particularly the parenthetical) perfectly captures the way a master’s gesture of apparent humility and gratitude can end up as nothing more than the ultimate expression of power.
The novel is filled with these diamonds in the rough. In fact, the overall technique of the novel is that of an elaborate shell game, as if the narrator were attempting to hide something behind every description of a meal. Surrounded by reams and reams of meaningless detail, the sudden dismissal of a maid jars us as an unconscionable cruelty. We come to understand the magnitude of the Jia family matriarch’s vanity and selfishness by carefully reading between the lines. And only by trudging through each and every poetry contest can the reader absorb the tremendous depth of the regret that suffuses the novel; with each innocent poem written about transience, with each second idly wasted, the young residents of the Jia family mansions unknowingly signal their own doom.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novel is dead. Heck, forget the novel; the short story is dead. It’s all about flash fiction now. Not only is this a foregone conclusion, everyone knows how it happened, too. Television, or video games, or the internet, or Twitter destroyed our attention spans. For one thing, nobody reads anymore (a sentiment expressed exclusively, it should be noted, by people who read a great deal). And besides, nobody’s interested in fiction anymore (again, a statement that is only ever written by people who love literary fiction).
Myriad and ever-emerging like cockroaches, those essays that would pronounce a final sentence on the novel rely on a gross misperception of how culture works. The logic behind most of these arguments is that readers are only willing to read works that reflect their direct experience; thus, a faster paced world demands shorter stories, or an image-obsessed world eschews text altogether. “Death of the novel” essayists would condemn the art form to the dustbin of history like the telegraph, the typewriter or some other piece of outdated machinery. Theirs is a brutally determinist view of the world; they seem to believe that culture can only reflect–and never influence–the societies and people that produce it.
However, that’s never been my experience. I have continually been shaped by books. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me what courage is. Beowulf taught me about death. Swann’s Way taught me how to let go of love. And I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will teach me to pay attention. For as much as life is made out of Joycean epiphanies, it seems that a great deal more of it is composed of lunches and dinners, awful parties, boring family get-togethers, and countless, idly-watched episodes of Law and Order. There seems to be a great deal of value in learning how to find the beauty that lies in this “wasted” time. Not to say that we can’t also have quick beach reads. But we don’t only read to consume; we also read in order to learn and maybe even in order to change and to grow.
Since the beginning of time, there have been long novels and there have been flash fiction–though, back then, flash fiction pieces were called epigrams. I’d argue that the first post-modern novel was Don Quixote. I’d argue that the first anti-novel was Tristam Shandy. The same modes of expression have always been around, albeit with different names and different styles. Their use has only been limited by the mind, which has generally proved flexible enough to find new meaning in the old forms and come up with new forms to talk about those same old universal human experiences.
Through books–both sweepingly long ones and dramatic short ones–we’ve come to terms with the staggering impact of science, the economic traumas of capitalism, the dislocations of globalization, and the unique nightmare of modern war. I think we’ll figure out a way to deal with Twitter, too.
Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist (there are passages in this book that I love as much as anything Baker has ever written–which is saying something)
Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest (I reread this book seemingly monthly, attempting–futilely–to figure out how he managed this brief, perfect magic trick.)
Joe Brainard, I Remember (I’m very late to the party on this book, but it’s an extraordinary assemblage of seemingly unconnected–in fact, profoundly interconnected–sentences)
Albert Camus, The Fall (see The Mystery Guest)
Robert Clark, The Angel of Doubt (an as yet unpublished manuscript; a gorgeously written, deeply felt, and relentlessly smart sequence of intereconnected essays about religion, art, and sex, not necessarily in that order)
Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave (see The Mystery Guest)
John D’Agata, About a Mountain (a beautiful embodiment of what is to me a
central principle of great nonfiction: it’s not remotely about what it purports to be about)
Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist’s Mate (see The Mystery Guest)
Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries (4 volumes of diaries; read together, they dwarf his plays and are commensurate, I swear to god, with Proust)
Spalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night (see The Mystery Guest)
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street (very late to the party on Kirby, too; I love his work; “poetry as well-written as prose,” as good ole Ez said)
Phillip Lopate, Notes on Sontag (I disagree with Lopate’s assessment–in my view, too generous–but I love the book)
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (one of the least sentimental and most deeply emotional books I’ve ever read)
Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain (see above)
Maggie Nelson, Bluets (utterly brilliant)
Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour (the screenplay; the best book she ever wrote)
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (where it all started and ended)
Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady (1747-8): The difficulty of Richardson’s masterpiece lies almost exclusively in its length: the outsized Penguin Classics edition (9×5.5×3) is 1,500 pages and weights nearly three pounds. I’m not sure it’s the longest novel in English; Richardson’s own Sir Charles Grandison might be longer, and surely the likes of Pynchon, Wallace, and Bolaño have overtaken Clarissa by now—but she is certainly among the longest. Other possible sources of difficulty: the eighteenth-century diction and syntax of Richardson’s masterpiece may seem a little strange or prim at first, as may the social mores of eighteenth-century England, and some readers find the plot insufficient to the length of the book (“if you were to read Richardson for the story,” Samuel Johnson noted, “your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.”) Many readers, however, are ultimately drawn in by Richardson’s hero and heroine and the incredible psychological depth with which he draws them (Johnson again: “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart”). The nature of the relationship between the beautiful, virtuous, otherworldly Clarissa Harlowe and her lover/tormenter, the aristocratic libertine Robert Lovelace is entrancing. For emotional and psychological complexity, you will not find a more impressive novel in English.
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767): In the words of Steve Coogan (playing himself playing Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom’s film version of Sterne’s seemingly unfilmable novel), Tristram Shandy is “a post-modern classic before there was any modernism to be post- about.” Sterne’s 1759 masterpiece is an anachronism—a case of modern, even post-modern, literary sensibility springing up almost two hundred years before either aesthetic became widespread. The difficulty of the book is primarily structural: the novel’s jumbled, non-linear chronology is frequently interrupted by hero/narrator Tristram’s taste for digressions, pre-history, and recounting the doings of minor characters instead of his own life story (he does not get around to narrating his own birth until the third volume of the novel). Tristram patches into his text seemingly unrelated tales, letters, and images as he pleases, and (maddeningly) begins recounting events only to stop short of their denouement (a sort of writerly/readerly coitus interruptus). Some readers just don’t enjoy the novel’s intense consciousness of the chaos of real “life and opinions” and the near-impossibility of representing them accurately in literary form (Samuel Johnson, for one: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”). Sterne’s artful literary approximation of the associative, digressive messiness that is the real mode of human thinking and life plots, his attention to the difference between real time and narrative time, and his constant attention to the author’s determinative and problematic role in the story he tells, are not for everyone. But for those willing to mount their hobbyhorses and give TS a go, I recommend watching Winterbottom’s film (a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book) as a warm-up. Also, as one of our readers testified in the introductory post for this series, “Tristram Shandy is laugh aloud funny. I picked it up a few years ago with no prior knowledge–just wanted a novel from the eighteenth century. It’s a real treat. At one point, Sterne gets 8 pp. out of a piping hot chestnut falling into a guy’s breeches. This is lofty stuff.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; Or, The Whale (1851): This is one of my favorite books and my choice for the great American novel, but I know others to have found it tough sledding (which, in a Shandian vein, reminds me of Moby Dick’s Nantucket sleigh rides…). The trouble with Moby Dick, as I’ve gathered, is twofold: First, it’s structurally odd, an anatomy more than a novel: a mix of novelistic narration and plot, reverie and essay, a quasi-scientific treatise on whether the whale is a fish (the dreaded ceatology chapter—which I recommend skipping altogether the first time through), dramatic monologues and dialogues, technical descriptions of the craft of whaling, a miscellany of quotations. Second, I have a feeling with Melville (as with his sometime friend and contemporary Nathanial Hawthorne) that the allegory at work in the novel is a little out of my league as a contemporary person (the allegorical habit of mind is rarely evident in contemporary culture—perhaps in Lars von Trier’s Dogville), that I might not have the wherewithal to construe properly: What does the counterpane represent? The whiteness of the whale? The doubloon? Unlike, say, Pilgrim’s Progress whose allegory is totally transparent (Obsinate, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman…), Melville’s symbols have an indissoluble ambiguity, a lingering feeling of disparate possible meanings. But this is how it’s supposed to be, I think, and speaks more to Melville’s genius and his slightly mystical taste for signifiers with multiple signifieds. As with Milton, I recommend hearing this book. Moby Dick is really funny—occasionally verging into slapstick (Ah, the meeting between Queequeq and Ishmael! Oh, the shark sermon!)—and its prose is magnificent from start to finish (though heavy on dialect speech, which can be hard to read). With a recording, someone else (I recommend Frank Muller at Recorded Books) has the trouble of doing the dialect and you just have the pleasure and the beauty. For those averse to audiobooks, I am particularly fond of the Norton edition with illustrations by Warren Chappell and notes and commentary by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.
More Difficult Books
Whether scholars, creative writers, or citizen book lovers, most readers agree on a canon of certain legendarily difficult books—books that are hard to read for their length, or their syntax and style, or their structural and generic strangeness, or their odd experimental techniques, or their abstraction. This post inaugurates a new Millions series devoted to identifying and describing these most difficult books: ones we’ve read/wrangled with ourselves, ones we’ve known students to struggle with time and again, ones that, more simply, “everyone knows” are hard to read—those works whose mere titles glisten with an aura of rarefied impenetrability.
There will, doubtless, be those readers who look scornfully on our choices (“Psh. These aren’t that hard, you’re just not smart enough to read them”). Indeed, for myself, that is probably true. And to those so brilliant that not a one of these tomes challenged or vexed them more than a People magazine, we tip our hats. This list is for the mere mortals among us—who have found themselves reading and rereading the same paragraph of James Joyce’s Ulysses to no avail, who have been reduced to tears by Faulkner’s one-line chapter, “My mother is a fish,” in As I Lay Dying, who may have spitefully broken the brittle spine of her first used copy of Tristram Shandy, who use a volume of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a doorstop and eye it with a wary distrust when she walks past it (for it is fond of stubbing toes).
But this is also a list for those who, after breaking the spine, picked up the wounded volume, taped it back together, and finished that infuriating chapter, and another, and another… until, triumph!, it was finished at last. And, perhaps, now that we think on it again, having finished, could it be that it was worth the struggle? Could it be that in the pain of it was a tinge of pleasure, of value (not to mention pride)?
The hope is that our series will eventually be exhaustive, and because this is a series and so on-going, we welcome your suggestions. Where we can, we also offer our advice to aspiring readers of a particular difficult work. Our descriptions aim to be modest primers for those about to embark on the reading of a difficult book, as well as small, memorial essays on these (by many measures) great books. Titles will come from many eras and genres—the Renaissance, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the high Modernism of the early twentieth century, and finally our own time, and we include fiction, poetry, philosophy, and critical theory. Titles will be primarily those written in English, but in some cases we include translations. Future posts will cover works by Immanuel Kant, G.W. F. Hegel, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, William Vollmann, Thomas Pynchon, Jacques Derrida, David Foster Wallace, Joseph McElroy, Donna Harraway, William H. Gass, William Gaddis, and others.
1621: The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
1667: Paradise Lost by John Milton
1704: A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
1747-8: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
1759-67: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
1851: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
1922-62: The Cantos by Ezra Pound
1927: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
1964: The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan
1969: The Dream Songs by John Berryman
1969: Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
1974: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
The intellectual history of modernity is in one sense the story of specialization. In the 16th Century, Descartes imagines writing a magnum opus called The World; by the 21st, it takes 500 pages just to cover Salt. Nor has the novel, that mirror dragged down the road of the culture, been immune to the proliferation of specialties and subspecialties. James Wood may posit two novelistic bloodlines, extending from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, and Zadie Smith may see two paths going forward, but to stand before the Barnes & Noble fiction tables circa 2009 is to be asked to choose among thrillers and literary fiction, psychological novels and novels of ideas, novels driven by plot and novels driven by language, novels hailed for their imagination and those hailed for their accuracy.
What the fiction writer in me loves about Mortals is that Norman Rush writes as if none of these distinctions exist. He does all of the above not just well, but wonderfully. The story of hapless CIA functionary Ray Finch’s midlife unraveling in Botswana is uproarious and deadly serious, ruminative and suspenseful, psychological and philosophical. Think Graham Greene as written by Saul Bellow. Or Thomas Mann as written by Jonathan Franzen.
Yet Mortals doesn’t feel like a mere showcase for the various novelistic virtues. Rush is downright radical in his refusal to pass judgment on his characters or to let the reader settle into a comfortable ironic distance. You have to learn, in the first 100 pages, to read through Ray’s blustery self-presentation; as with people in real life, you have to learn to love him. And the reader in me loves that. More than any other fictional character to appear in the last 10 years, Ray Finch is alive.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
Recently there’s been a ruckus regarding the blatant pursuit of literary fame, especially where the n+1 editors are concerned. In the current issue of Poetry, Adam Kirsch plumbs the depths of literary ambition and the desire for personal recognition, and classifies Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as “a chemically pure example of the kind of literary ambition that has less to do with wanting to write well than with wanting to be known as a writer.” Kirsch uses Gessen’s blatant ambition, both the theme and the generating force behind his novel, as the springboard to consider the writer’s desire for acknowledgement. While Kirsch criticizes Gessen’s “naive directness,” it becomes obvious that if Gessen’s work is a vehicle for recognition and status, he has done well for himself. Not only was Gessen lauded at the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 soiree recently and a co-host of the New New York Intellectual series at the New School, but he continues to write for esteemed periodicals like the New York and London Review of Books and receive acknowledgement, if not praise, from established critics, Kirsch included. Gessen is certainly not the first writer to wear his ambitions on his sleeve. He follows in a long line of writers, including Laurence Sterne. Sterne claimed he wrote Tristram Shandy, “not to be fed, but to be famous.” And become famous he did. Not only did he have a race horse and a country dance named after his novel, but he became a celebrity. His popularity did not wane with the less favorable reviews of the later portions of his serialized work, because, according to the Columbia History of the British Novel, his fans “wanted not just the book but the man behind the book (one reader said ‘I’d ride fifty miles just to smoke a pipe with him’).” Perhaps if Gessen were more honest about his ambitions, we could find something humorous, or at least endearing, in it all. Perhaps then his readers would write in that they’d want to have a smoke with him too.And yet, despite all odds, there are the writers who seem indifferent to fame. Edward P. Jones is one of those. In his essay, “We Tell Stories,” he divides writers into two groups: those who aspire to “be invited to a lifetime of cocktail parties” and those who write because of some “bizarre compulsion.” If Gessen falls into the first group, Jones (by his own admission) falls into the second. This was apparent on Thursday evening, when Jones read from an enclave on Tenth Street known as the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, in what by appearances was once a living room, replete with a fireplace and mantel, a multi-paned front window, and a crowd of attentive readers sitting on folding chairs. From his second book of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Jones read about temptation (in the form of the Devil himself, appearing at a Safeway off Good Hope Road) and transformation (going blind, literally, in the blink of an eye).In person, Jones is humble and unassuming, and he sounds calm and wise, if not quite comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. His voice came alive when reading the scene from the bus in “Blindsided,” where Roxanne first goes blind, a scene that deftly combines compassion, humor and desperation. One senses that Jones’s imaginative generosity would be constrained if he paid more mind to increasing his literary status than developing his characters and telling their stories. While speaking about writing The Known World, he posits that if he’d read forty books to research his novel as he’d initially planned, “the characters may have taken a back seat.” And this, to Jones as well as to his readers, would have been detrimental, because “the research doesn’t matter if the characters aren’t there.”Jones’s humility and lack of ambition were enough to make the man sitting next to me comment in disbelief. Perhaps it is precisely this long gestation – Jones’s long periods spent growing and developing his characters – his willingness to stand back, and his lack of desire to conquer literary heights that has made his work so remarkable and the lives of his characters, even in his short stories, stretch far beyond, one feels, the pages they’re written on. While Jones hinted at currently searching for new characters, the only thing he admitted to working on was “getting back to Washington in one piece.” He spoke a few times of a woman in the desert, as if he’s tilling and planting the seeds for his next crop. We can wait.Jones tramples the idea of literary celebrity. If Gessen worships at the altar of literature, and through writing hopes to elevate himself, Jones hopes to deflate such notions of becoming a literary chosen one. To Jones, writing is an act of compassion and communication, and his process not so different from any other task: “And we are not noble, just human. We get up to our day, however wonderful, however horrible, as they have been doing since there were white blank pages, before the blank computer screen, when there were only grunts and hand gestures, and we tell stories.”Besides, good writing is timeless, and literary celebrity is often short-lived. There is backlash, capricious fashion, and the the vicissitudes of time. The quest for literary renown isn’t new, nor is praise from the literary world consistent. A little article entitled “Literary Fame,” appearing in the Buffalo Courier and reprinted in the November 12, 1890, New York Times, speaks of fleeting fame, specifically Herman Melville’s, and how easily one can slip from favor. A year before Melville’s death, so little was said of him that most people already thought him dead:Forty-four years ago, when [Herman Melville’s] most famous tale, “Typee,” appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day! Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in the country laughed recently at me statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two blocks. “Nonsense!” said he. “Why, Melville’s dead these many years!” Talk about literary fame! There’s a sample of it.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review ofBooks, among others.I’m a big advocate of the test of time – often I’m favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I’m going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there’s a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children’s hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn’t – Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian’s an amazing talent, and for more info, read my review of this book.A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book is too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this – so, please, just read it.At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolano simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won’t bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about “nothing.” Some have said that this is Queneau’s gloss, in novel form, of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau’s prose is continually fresh and entertaining. In my blog, I wrote a little about it.At 36 is Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths and tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there’s a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it’s highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew, this is about as good an attempt as you’re going to get.After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has a completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It’s a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Vila-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him.After that there was Iris Murdoch’s masterful The Sea, the Sea, which I blogged about. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross’s fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I can’t recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun – Boccaccio’s swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.More from A Year in Reading 2007
A very cursory beginning!”Lillubulero,” in Lawerence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy“La ci darem la mano,” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, in James Joyce’s UlyssesThe “Hoffmann Barcarolle” of Jacques Offenbach “played” by Sherlock Holmes on the violin in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Mazarin Stone” (the piece itself comes from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, a musical rendering of some of the German Romantic writer, painter, and musical composer E.T.A Hoffmann’s tales)Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch becomes “Venus in Furs,” by the Velvet UndergroundBeethoven’s 5th Symphony features prominently in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (&, on a more scholarly note, Forster’s use of “the rainbow bridge” imagery, in the furtherance of the “only connect” theme, is taken from Richard Wagner’s Das Reingold, wherein the rainbow bridge appearing at the end conveys the gods to their paradisical new home Walhalla, see John Louis DiGaetani’s Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel)The Beggars’ Opera by John Gay becomes “Mac the Knife” by Bobby Darrin, et al.”Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles becomes Norwegian Wood by Haruki MurakamiE.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, the fantastical autobiography of a literate cat interspersed with the autobiography of his musician owner, Kapellmeister Kreisler (a fictionalized self-portrait of Hoffmann, himself a musical composer (as above); Tomcat Murr was the name of Hoffmann’s own tabby cat – and performs some katzenmusik himself in the novel)Alexandre Dumas (fils)’s novel La Dame aux Camelias becomes Giuseppi Verdi’s opera La TraviataAnd finally – though I come by this disingenuously because I haven’t read it – Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: I hear tell that it’s got some very funny discussions of pop music, including the assertion that Genesis was the greatest British band of 80’s…