Dear Match Book

In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.

1.Dear Match Book,

I
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.

Dear
Anonymous,

My
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.

2.Dear Match Book,

I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!

Dear
Fourth Wheel,

I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)

Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.

What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!  

3.Dear Match Book,

You
up?

Dear
Romeo,

Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.

4.Dear Match Book,

I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.

Dear
Bot,

Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.

I
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
Please advise.

5.Dear Match Book,

A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.

Dear
Voracious Reader,

Barf.

6.Dear Match Book,

Recommending
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.

Dear
Bot Book,

You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!

p.s.
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.

7.Dear Match Book,

I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.

Dear Multitasker,

I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.

There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.

8.Dear Match Book,

I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?

Dear
Michael Chabon,

As I
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
Union
.

9.Dear Match Book,

We’ve
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda
, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.

The
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?

Dear
(Middle)Marching Orders,

Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.

10.Dear Match Book,

I
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?

Dear
Raskolnikov,

N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.

If
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.

11.Dear Match Book,

He
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….

Dear Thrown for a Loop,

Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.

Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.

The Man Who Couldn’t Scan

The poetry community is looking inward after revelations about the treatment of a 34-year-old subject suffering from an extremely rare condition called aprosodia: the total inability to detect poetic meter. The subject’s identity remains undisclosed for privacy reasons, but officials did reveal that he is a college English professor and that his name is trochaic. “It has a nice tripping lilt to it,” said the lead meter scientist at the National Prosody Center, which bills itself as the world’s most stressful workplace.

The NPC had long been aware of the subject’s existence. His high school English teacher queried the center after the otherwise sharp student failed to grasp the basics of iambic pentameter. “The wóods decáy, the wóods decáy and fáll. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Nothing. He would just stare at me in utter incomprehension,” said the teacher.

The subject learned to fake the ability to scan during his graduate studies, nodding sagely when a classmate pointed out an inverted foot or a cheeky instance of catalexis. And yet, because he could not hear any of the metrical effects described, he began to think of himself as the victim of an elaborate hoax. His psychological state deteriorated, and he was finally admitted to the National Prosody Center after accusing a colleague of communicating with foreign agents via his metrical notation of Elizabethan verse.

A subsequent MRI revealed that the areas of the subject’s brain
that normally lit up during scansion remained completely dark. Over the next
several months, researchers devised an audacious plan to rehabilitate him that pushed
the bounds of prosodical ethics.

First, they tried animal therapy. The subject received daily
visits from Donovan the Dactylic Duck, a waterfowl trained to vocalize in a
distinctive pattern: “Qúack quack quack, Qúack quack quack.” He enjoyed these
visits but consistently failed to replicate Donovan’s dactyls on a decoy.

Next, NPC researchers attempted sleep deprivation therapy,
locking the subject in a padded room while piping in Anglo Saxon verse day and
night. By the third morning, he seemed to be grasping the basics of the
alliterative-stress meter, but the experiment had to be suspended after he attacked
an orderly he thought was Grendel’s mother. (“A brief caesura until his visions
subside,” a NPC spokesperson noted.)  

The subject was then put on a diet of limericks, the restorative effects of anapestic trimester being well documented. Indeed, he gave researchers hope when he appeared to have correctly identified a pyrrhic foot, but subsequent tests revealed it to have been a lucky guess. (“An ultimately hollow victory,” admitted a NPC spokesperson.)

Stymied, the brass decided to bring in its heavy hitter: U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. She saw it as her mission not only to spread the love of poetry to the general public, but also to beat the principles of poetic stress into any and all. Meeting the subject in the NPC’s boxing ring each morning, Smith demonstrated flawless pugilistic and poetic technique in pummeling the refractory denier with virtuosic combinations of weak and strong punches—all according to the strictures of various meters.

Preliminary results were promising, as the daily lessons appeared to be penetrating the subject’s thick skull. However, Smith took things too far in one sparring session when, feeling she was nearing a breakthrough, she unleashed a hard thud of a spondee that knocked him senseless.

This time the AMA intervened, calling a halt to any future experiments. Furthermore, the ACLU declared that even mentioning the metrical complexities of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm within the patient’s earshot would violate his civil liberties.      

The failure was a blow to the reputation of the National
Prosody Center, which had earned plaudits for its work with another subject, “The
Ear,” known for her ability to detect over 300 distinct stress levels. (She
currently presides over a metrical review board that resolves disputes between bickering
prosodists.) The controversy also affected the center financially. Owing to the
backlash, sales of the NPC’s footware line, Fresh
Kictus, plummeted.   

The case of the man who couldn’t scan thrust scansion to the forefront of roiling intellectual debates. Some claimed the subject was the ideal poetic reader, immune to the hegemonic structures embedded in both meter and society. “I prefer not to scan” became the rallying cry for those seeking a radical democratization of the heretofore fascistic poetic line. Others took a reactionary stance, arguing that he was a symptom of metrical decadence: His inability to discern the most basic pattern of stresses reflected a larger societal collapse of moral values.

After recovering from his Tracy K. Smith tutorial, the subject seemed baffled by the buzz surrounding his strange affliction and expressed an eagerness to return to his normal life. One sympathetic NPC researcher slipped a copy of Pope’s An Essay on Criticism in his bag as he was being discharged. In the hopes that the shoddy treatment wouldn’t turn the metrically challenged man off poetry for good, she had highlighted the following passage:

But most by numbers judge a poet’s song;And smooth or rough, with them is right or wrong:In the bright Muse though thousand charms conspire,Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire,Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,Not for the doctrine, but the music there.

The subject
has adjusted to life outside the center and resumed teaching. He still has
weekly visits with Donovan the duck.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Memoriam: Anthony “One-Take Tony” Hollander

The audiobook community audibly mourns the passing of one of its giants, Anthony Hollander, or “One-Take Tony” as he was known in the business. Whether narrating an epic, farce, or cozy mystery, his recordings all started the same: a clearing of the throat, a deep breath, and then the gruff-but-good-natured command to Scop, his dog, to vacate the studio. Hollander would then set to work reading, without interruption, one of the thousands of books he recorded over his career.

“I’ve been reading since I was four years old. So why would
I need multiple takes?” he told an interviewer in 2010.

The sound of his gravelly baritone has transported readers from
Hardy’s Wessex to Garcia-Marquez’s Macando. A more controversial figure than
Flo Gibson, his longtime rival (and, some rumored, lover), he will be
remembered not only for his recordings—including the definitive version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but also
for the narratorial intrusions that delighted and frustrated audiences in equal
measure. There was a Rabelaisian energy to Hollander’s recordings, and indeed
his eructations (frequent), flatulence (intermittent) and snores (rare) were as
recognizable to devoted fans as his voice.

Hollander was an unpredictable reader, a narrator-as-critic. He grunted upon reading overwrought sentences, paused to deride mixed metaphors, and, in one particularly infamous episode, launched ad hominem attacks: “Who wrote this crap?” he could be heard on the recording of [redacted]’s latest novel. “Look at this author photo. Figures.”

He permanently alienated David Foster Wallace fans by interrupting Infinite Jest to take a phone call.  “Hello? No I haven’t thought about solar panels. Oh? I can sell my excess electricity back to the power company? That’s interesting. Look, I’m narrating a book right now but can I get back to you? OK, send along the info. Now where I was? Oh yes…”

Hollander once claimed that, had audiobook fame not been thrust upon him, he would have been a detective. Mystery fans did not appreciate his tendency to breezily dismiss clues (“Obvious red herring”) and to identify, often accurately, the killers before they were revealed (“Murderer written all over him”). The Crime Writers’ Association, incensed after Hollander had ruined one too many P.D. James plot twists, sponsored a short-story contest in his (dis)honor: the prize going to the most ingenious mystery imagining his murder.


In Hollander’s defense, he offended across genres. Henry James scholars bristled at his vulgar commentary on Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood, “Just fuck him already,” which earned his recording of The Portrait of a Lady a rare NC-17 rating.

According to his autobiography, Sounding Myself, Hollander discovered the transfixing power of his voice during grade-school reading exercises. “My stentorian delivery put the other toddlers to shame, their snotty fingers inching along the page as they hazarded one quavering syllable at a time,” he wrote in his memoirs, the audio version of which was read by Jeremy Irons. (“The one mortal whose voice I envy.”)


An audiobook talent scout discovered Hollander after hearing him summon a waiter for the check in his local North Carolina diner. His first taping was of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, during which he got up and said, “I’ve got to take a piss” about 10 pages in. The director, feeling the interruption jibed with Wolfe’s freewheeling gonzo journalism, kept the tape rolling, thus ingraining in One-take Tony his lifelong habit.

Hollander was an autodidact, and some critics held it against him. They snottily observed that it was all well and good to record a book in one take, provided one could actually pronounce the words. Though many an author, editor, and listener attempted to correct him, Hollander never could quite master pronouncing “bough” or “draught” in the heat of the moment, and consistently mangled all French words—emboinpoint and décolletage causing him particular consternation. And yet these flubs endeared him to listeners, who saw in Hollander a relatable everyman: “Ama-nu-ensis? What the hell is an amanuensis? I know I’ve seen that word somewhere.”

Hollander’s vocal range could accommodate several character
types—dainty, dangerous, homespun—but differentiation wasn’t his strong suit. Minor
characters confused him. “Wait, who is that guy again? Is that the cousin or
the friend from college? No, the cousin died. Or was he the gardener?”

In a controversy that threatened to derail his career, Hollander could be heard pleasuring himself while reading Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. (Thankfully he was alone in the studio, having long served as his own producer, director, and sound engineer.) The stigma lingered for years. During negotiations to narrate 50 Shades of Grey, he was forced to agree to the humiliating stipulation that he record the erotic thriller with his hands tied behind his back. (“All the kinkier,” he would write in Sounding.)

Certain authors refused to have their novel read by Hollander, especially during his later years, when, having “become allergic to nature scenes,” he started derisively glossing over descriptive passages: “Sky, weather, pathetic fallacy, yada yada yada.”

Hollander died where he belonged, in the recording studio,
narrating a debut novel that, judging from the absence of naps, bathroom breaks,
and crusty asides, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy. Perhaps too thoroughly. On
his final recording, the fatal heart attack—a disturbing, yet still mellifluous,
groan—can be heard in the middle of Chapter 5, right before Jeremy Irons
graciously takes over.

Image credit: Unsplash/Claus Grünstäudl.

In Praise of Urinal Lit

The most confessional thing I’ve ever read wasn’t in someone’s diary, or journal, or their posthumously collected letters. Such writing always has an audience in mind, that audience being the future biographers that will excavate one’s inane reflections and elevate them to their proper place in the English Canon. I know this because I’m guilty as charged: I keep a journal every time I travel, and the writing tends to be both overly grand and protectively dispassionate. No, the most confessional thing I’ve ever read was in plain sight, for all the world to see…or at least all the world brave enough to enter the New Orleans bathroom during Mardi Gras where it was written. Above one urinal, someone had scrawled the message, “Toy Story 2 was ok…”

Toy Story 2 is one of the most highly rated movies in Rotten Tomatoes history. Yet someone had the audacity—and the need—to express this rogue dissenting opinion. If this person had claimed that Toy Story 2 was merely “ok” on social media, he would’ve been the subject of ridicule and disbelief. But to write these words on a bathroom wall and feel the relief of urination and proclamation at the same time—that is to really live. I have been a student of urinal lit ever since and believe it is the most underrated form of modern expression. It turns out that our most private thoughts are safest in public.

What qualifies as urinal lit? Well, technically it’s anything that someone is brave enough to scribble on a bathroom wall. I’ll admit, most of these scribbles are nonsense, as alcohol fuels a tremendous amount of urinal lit (though the same could be said, I suppose, for lit lit). Urinal lit often has a sense of urgency, as well as a clarity typically reserved for a form like haiku. The best urinal lit uses an economy of language that makes Raymond Carver seem positively prolix. The urgency of urinal lit comes from the necessary brevity of scrawling a message in a public place without being seen. Given the amount of graffiti in bar bathrooms, I’m amazed I’ve never actually caught anyone in the act. But after careful study and covert iPhone documentation (taking pictures in the bathroom being frowned upon for obvious reasons), I have unearthed several styles worthy of celebration:

Unsolicited Advice

The advice written on bathroom walls tends to read like the disgruntled work of a down-and-out fortune cookie scribe. It’s advice that sounds hard won, learned at the school of hard knocks (or perhaps hard liquor). These writers know of what they speak. Take, for example, the sage offering written above a urinal in the Cambridge Brewing Company that said, “Follow your heart, stay in school, don’t smoke rocks on weekdays.” Or the simple message that appeared above the adjacent urinal, “Be honest. Don’t be an asshole.” I know not what caused this near perfect maxim to appear on the wall, but I know that if I followed this creed and only this creed, I would lead a life well-lived.

My favorite piece of advice, however, was a message that no one likes to hear, but that we’ve all had to heed at one time or another: “Go home. You’re drunk.”

Bathroom Humor

In an era when everyone wants credit for every idea, the willingness of restroom authors to be anonymous is heartwarming. Although sometimes it’s clear why this anonymity is preferred. Urinal lit tends to skew crass, the bathroom, after all, being a pretty appropriate place for bathroom humor. But there are two kinds of crass: the kind that I would be embarrassed to include here, and the kind that is surprisingly novel. A prime example of the latter is a dictum I discovered in a bathroom stall in a Vermont bar: “Poop as loud as your anus will let you.” I found this message to be both gross and strangely inspirational. It made me feel ashamed of all the times I felt shame in a bathroom. Later, I went into the same bar’s other bathroom stall and found this very same message written again. Someone in Vermont is spreading the gospel of pooping pride.

Quasi-Profound Non-Sequiturs

As someone who majored in philosophy, I appreciate any and all opportunities for reflection. I just don’t typically expect those opportunities to come at 1:00 a.m in the dingy bathroom of a bar. But when someone writes, “What are we doing here?” at eye level, it tends to provoke an existential moment.

Other patrons at various bars in Portland, Maine have written such inexplicable yet indispensable messages as, “The spice must flow,” and “Dead rabbits live forever.” I also once encountered the phrase, “I will not write on the walls,” written 10 times in a row on the wall. Then there was the highly unlikely but nonetheless exhilarating claim I discovered in New Orleans, compete with an arrow pointing down, “Bukowski pissed here.” Such statements can make relieving yourself in a bar feel like an opportunity to discover the sacred in all its forms.

Interplay

Interplay between multiple authors is an exciting form of the urinal lit genre. This kind of layering is reminiscent of Buddhist koan study, in which generations of enlightened masters often leave behind pithy commentary for further dissection. In urinal lit interplay, the commentary may not be enlightened, but it certainly is pithy. The classic sign of interplay is different colored pen strokes. For example, in thick black marker, in the space where a mirror would typically go, I once saw the message, “I love no mirror and getting over stuff,” to which another scribe, using a thinner black marker, responded, “Get over it dude!”

Interplay can often devolve into a kind of debate. I once encountered the rather unremarkable statement, “Fuck the police,” with a remarkably polite series of responses.

“No thanks!” someone chimed in.

“Yes plz!” responded a third party.

Perhaps it’s this very spirit of open dialogue that I appreciate most about urinal lit. The Internet, once seen as a bastion for free-spirited exchange, has become a space where divisions are only exacerbated and the most offensive wheel gets the oil. But there is no tolerance for trolling in the toilet. It warms my heart to know that there is still a place where people not only feel comfortable expressing their true feelings, but that those true feelings are often so sweet. As one dude so memorably expressed on the wall of a bar in Boston, “Love ya motha, ya only get one.”

Ernest Hemingway advised, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Above urinals all across this great nation, his encouragement has found its ideal, if not idyllic, medium. It is commonly expressed that we should not judge a book by its cover. Similarly, I would add, we should not judge literature by its location.

Image Credit: Gabor Monori.

Trapped in Purgatory with Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren

“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters.

Sartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal.

Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren.

If I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books.

Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth.

What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”

I can’t stand him.

This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut.

Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin.

Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth.

Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others.

Who would be your literary torturers in Hell?

Image Credit: Pixabay.

That Glorious Syllable: On ‘On’

Whether introducing a charming essay or slim monograph, a witty epigram or stately sonnet, on is the most accommodating of words: the eternal handmaiden, the chivalrous cicisbeo, the dutiful emcee welcoming the main topic on stage. Though it plays this obliging, some might say servile role impeccably, it is high time that on emerge from the syntactical shadows to bask in the light of its lapidary splendor.

To be on is to be alive, energetic, aflame, to display one’s best self. Similarly, on is language’s best self, demonstrating how much can be done with so little. Compact, suggestive, manifold, on is the preposition that launched a thousand idioms.

Derived from the Proto-Germanic ana, on conjures up Iron Age images of unruly beards and makeshift encampments: the terse utterance of a culture hardened by the elements. These rude forbears, emerging from their mist-shrouded forests to rampage across Europe, were not prone to reflection. No Teutonic Hazlitt composed his lucid thoughts in essay form (e.g., “On Pillaging”). Rather, these restless warriors were in thrall to their wanderlust. On, on! we hear their guttural voices echoing through the millennia.

And yet we would be neglecting on’s suppleness were we to focus solely on its muscular genealogy. In its imperative form — on! — it is certainly a spur to action, but when reversed, a brake: no! Moreover, on displays a nobility of spirit, charitably lending its services to other nouns (onlooker) or prepositions in need, either supporting them from behind — “onto” — or lighting the way forward—“upon.” It can introduce the most heartbreaking of topics, such as Ben Jonson’s elegy to his son, or, from the same pen, a Rabelaisian bibelot: “On Gut.” (The poet was even said to have written a jeering missive to a deceived husband, “On Thy Wife,” but that bit of doggerel has been lost to time.)

A preposition wrapped in an adverb wrapped in an enigma, on is a tiny word, yet it contains multitudes. Its deceptive modesty could even be said to conceal the most fundamental of our drives. After all, what is the coupling of one vowel and one consonant but a chaste replication of the sexual act? And lest I be accused of overanalysis — as I often have been by blinkered partisans of under or beneath — consider on’s entanglement with the mating ritual: courtship is initiated with a come-on, which, if accepted, leads to both parties being turned on, and, if all goes well, a hard-on, and then…but enough. In the interests of decency, I won’t go on.

Any scholar of Shakespeare’s sonnets will gladly explain the equally bawdy potential of on’s chief rival, in, which the perceptive reader has noticed I have avoided mentioning till now. While the two words do occasionally tolerate proximity — e.g., come on in, in on it — tolerate is all. How it pains me even to type those shoddy combination of letters, so similar and yet vastly inferior to the virtuous one under review. Replacing on’s lovely o, a perfect form, with i, that impudent, egotistical erection, in is boorish, vulgar, so denotatively and connotatively crass that the mouth seems to resist pronouncing it. Compare the generous, open pronunciation of on, the mouth expanding to greet the world — all its marvels and follies — in blissful communion. “Come one, come all, and feast,” it seems to say, “dinner’s on me.”

On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Trump in the Bardo

Picture, as a backdrop, one of those primitively drawn 19th-century mourning paintings with rickety white gravestones and age-worn monuments standing under the faded green canopy of a couple of delicately sketched trees. Add…some Edward Gorey-style ghosts, skittering across the landscape — at once menacing, comical and slightly tongue-in-cheek
— From The New York Times Review of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo

It was an uneventful evening, much like any other.
roger bevins iii
Mr. Bevins and I were reflecting upon the sounds the branches made as the night wind gusted through the premises.
hans vollman
Quite dull, really.
roger bevins iii
As we spoke, Mr. Bevins held up a hand, bidding me to fall quiet. A number of his ears seemed to strain. Someone is coming, he said, his voice low. And I, too, heard a visitor’s approach.
hans vollman
It was a man, not young, rambling down the path in a state most aggrieved.
roger bevins iii
It was clear to Mr. Bevins and I that he was from the other place.
hans vollman
Even from a distance, I comprehended that I had never seen a man such as this.
roger bevins iii
As he neared, we were able to hear his diction, such as it was, with greater clarity.
hans vollman
Gotta get out of there, he said, struggling for his wind. Gotta get away from everything. Mr. Vollman and I looked upon one another with bemusement: get out of where? What was meant by gotta?
roger bevins iii
He sat heavily upon the steps of Mr. Carroll’s white stone home, emitting a sound of pained satisfaction.
hans vollman
I heard the commotion and run-skimmed to Mr. Bevins and Mr. Vollman as rapidly as I could manage. When I arrived, they were standing before a most disagreeable creature.
the reverend everly thomas
Even in the gloom, his skin held an unhealthy rusty glow; his hair, if one might call it that, had an aspect of spun sugar, though it did not appetize.
hans vollman
There was the look of the beast about him, but there was little in his eyes.
the reverend everly thomas
Smell of stale perspiration and soured milk.
hans vollman
Necktie so long it seemed an extra shirtsleeve.
roger bevins iii
We regarded him with cautious wonder.
hans vollman
We have witnessed many visitors, but there was something unsettling about this one.
roger bevins iii
From his suitcoat, he retrieved an object the likes of which I had never before seen.
hans vollman
A glowing, black-edged thing, the size of a pocket-Bible, though thinner.
the reverend everly thomas
I’ll tweet at those bastards, he said, and I thought he might commence a little birdsong, right there, on the steps of the white stone home.
roger bevins iii
I moved towards the man, my better instincts failing me. In the light radiating from his — what was it? A hand-lantern of some kind? — in that light, his countenance was positively mad.
hans vollman
Mr. Vollman stood above him, looking down at the queer little lamp, and said, He appears to be writing a missive of some kind — directly upon the light!
the reverend everly thomas
What a marvel! I leaned in, further laying aside my native revulsion, to obtain a more advantageous view. What I saw staggered me: he used his thumbs, it seemed, to rap out a series of words — right upon the glowing pane! How could he hold such an object, I wondered, without burning up his palms?
hans vollman
Given Mr. Vollman’s intrigue, the Reverend and myself dared to gather near, taking care to ignore the rankness of the man’s odor.
roger bevins iii
Though it was difficult to keep my eyes upon the fire-bright band of light, I discerned the following words as they flashed forthwith: When Russia fake news goes away, I will make America great! As promised! President of the people! The man then said Tweet! — again bringing to mind a horrible overgrown bird — and slid the thing into his suitcoat, muttering all the while.
hans vollman
He seemed to be laboring under a great strain. Yet I found I could not pity him.
the reverend everly thomas
His lamp safely stowed, blessed darkness returned.
roger bevins iii
What was that thing? Mr. Bevins asked. And whatever is Russia fake news?
the reverend everly thomas
Something to do with the Emperor Nicholas? I ventured, yet my answer did not satisfy. We watched the visitor, in hopes that he might resolve our queries, but he remained in a sitting position, inspecting a nostril with what I judged to be an unusually short index finger.
hans vollman
Given the overall size of him, you see. Proportionally.
roger bevins iii
After a period of silence, Mr. Vollman whispered, Who would make America great? Who is the President of the people? We mulled this over for a time.
the reverend everly thomas
Zachary Taylor was President; it could not be this man.
roger bevins iii
The President was Polk, of course. Of that much I was certain.
hans vollman
It was then that our visitor drew forth his hand-lamp and, again using his thumbs, pressed more words into being.
the reverend everly thomas
It’s hard to be President, he wrote. President written with two t’s.
hans vollman
The words It’s hard to be President leapt upon his strip of light. I believe he wrote President with an extra t.
roger bevins iii
It’s hard to be President was the phrase I saw. President was misspelled.
the reverend everly thomas
Then he again called out, Tweet! And again slipped the peculiar object into his suitcoat.
roger bevins iii
He lay against the wall of the white stone home and hummed a tuneless little song, again picking at a nostril, this time with his pinky-finger.
hans vollman
Is this man… Mr. Vollman trailed off.
the reverend everly thomas
You don’t suppose, Mr. Bevins asked.
hans vollman
It wouldn’t be possible that… the Reverend said.
roger bevins iii
Our visitor gazed up at the stars, at one point placing the contents from his nostril directly upon his tongue, seeming to savor the saltiness of the morsel.
hans vollman
Plainly, this was a low breed of fellow.
the reverend everly thomas
Could he be… the President? Mr. Vollman said, utterly incredulous. After an uneasy period — the only sounds the water rushing through the creek and the incomprehensible murmurs of our visitor — I replied, with equal incredulity, that it must be so.
roger bevins iii
I gazed at the fool before us, and thought with sadness of Presidents past. George Washington, John Adams. It could not be helped.
hans vollman
Could this man occupy the same lofty position as Thomas Jefferson? James Madison?
roger bevins iii
Why had he, above all others, been thusly elevated?
the reverend everly thomas
Wish I could just go back to my tee vee show, the man moaned.
roger bevins iii
Whatever that meant.
hans vollman
Being the President is no fun, the man said with a petulant whimper.
roger bevins iii
It was thus verified: this was America’s President.
hans vollman
We were thunderstruck.
roger bevins iii
What, by the grace of God, was transpiring in that other place?
the reverend everly thomas
For the first time since I had come to know him, Mr. Vollman’s impressively engorged member began to lose its heft.
roger bevins iii
I understood that when I returned to health and rose from my sick-box, this man would endeavor to be my leader, and the leader of my fellow-men. The sadness went all through me, including my protuberance.
hans vollman
Our visitor sat, the three of us hanging about, for what might have been minutes, or perhaps even hours. He took out his hand-lamp a number of times, as if compelled, staring at it, making shapes move with his thumb. At one point he offered an opinion, aloud, about people of the Muslim faith that I shall not repeat.
the reverend everly thomas
He struggled to his feet, loosing a great burst of flatulence.
roger bevins iii
Back to the G—damned White House, he said. What a bunch of s—t. And then he stumbled off.
hans vollman
I have never been more pleased to witness the departure of a visitor.
the reverend everly thomas
I felt sullied somehow, just having been in his presence.
roger bevins iii
The Reverend, Mr. Bevins and I were at a loss for words. I was again aware of the wind rustling through the trees.
hans vollman
After a time, Mr. Vollman said, If that man is the President, I believe I would prefer to stay on here. To remain within my sick-box, apart from the other place. The Reverend and myself, I am saddened to report, were obliged to agree.
roger bevins iii
 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Guy Who Wants His Friends to Read the Book He Wrote: An Oral History

Jeff: So, yeah, I wrote a novel called Tender Moments — or at least that’s its working title. I also might call it Eternal Remembrance or Hey, It’s Gary Time! But that can be sorted out later, by Random House or Knopf or whoever winds up publishing it.

Steve, friend: I knew that Jeff was working on something, and I knew he liked to write. Like, his Facebook posts are usually kind of funny, I guess. But I was surprised when he told me that he’d written an actual book. He never struck me as the creative type.

Jeff: It took me about seven years to write — you know, whenever I had the time, or whenever I couldn’t find a show to watch. I definitely took a break when Stranger Things started streaming. There was also a couple of weeks when I watched every episode of Chicago Hope. It was pretty weird. But, long story short, it’s finally done! It’s 171 pages long —  y’know, with the double-spacing and the margins and everything.

Amy, ex-girlfriend: He was working on it when we were going out, but I think he was sort of embarrassed by it. Every once in a while, he’d take the laptop into the bathroom, very quietly, that sort of thing.

Jeff: I think I read somewhere that Philip Roth did most of his writing in the bathroom, although I might’ve gotten some of the details wrong. Maybe it was John Updike?

Steve: When he first told me about it, I’d have to say I was…a little bit confused, based on his description of it. I just couldn’t understand what it was about. And I don’t think that he knew what it was about.

Amy: At one point he told me it was, like, a crime thriller? Like Elmore Leonard? But then at another point, it sounded like he was writing a comedy, but with sports in it. And then he said it was an “elegiac meditation on life,” but when he said it, I’m pretty sure he mispronounced “elegiac.”

Jeff: I had a little trouble keeping it focused, sure. But to me, that’s part of its charm. It’s “sprawling” — like David Foster Wallace or something.

Steve: When he was talking to me about it, it just sounded like a fucking mess. Like David Foster Wallace or something.

Jeff: When you get right down to it, the book is about my relationship with my dad. [Pauses, becoming emotional.] We’ve always had kind of a…a difficult relationship. [Gathering himself.] And it’s also about pee-wee football and the government’s abuse of power.

Kyle, co-worker: I didn’t know what to think when Jeff asked me to read his book. We don’t really talk that much, but I guess he’s seen me reading in the breakroom and whatnot. To be honest, I barely know the guy. But I figured, what the hell, you know? How bad could it be?

Amy: Jeff and I are on good terms, even though I broke up with him, so I was happy to read his book. Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right word. “Willing?” Maybe that’s more accurate. “Begrudgingly willing?” That feels right. “Begrudgingly willing.”

Steve: When he told me he’d finished it, I was like, “Hey man, great, that’s awesome.” But the whole time, I was like, Fuck, please don’t ask me to read it.

Jeff: Everyone seemed pretty eager to get their hands on it, I think — y’know, to see what I’d been working on for so long. It was kind of validating.

Brent, Amy’s current boyfriend: I saw it on her nightstand and I was like, “Tender Moments? What the hell is that?” And she goes, “Oh, it’s a book Jeff wrote.” And when she said it, she seemed a little sad.

Amy: Jeff doesn’t have any formal training as a writer, and I know that’s not always a bad thing. But, you know. It’s not always a good thing, either.

Kyle: Actually, the first chapter started off okay. It was about this guy named Gary whose girlfriend had just broken up with him, and he was all upset. And so Gary goes to visit his parents, and then his dad tells him that he was adopted. I think that’s when it started to go off the rails — that was probably around page four.

Steve (reading from book): “‘Gary, you’re adopted,’ his domineering father said harshly, taking a hearty drink of the beer that he always had on hand, due to his alcoholism. ‘And also, this whole time, I haven’t been who you think I am. I’m a CIA agent, Gary. So there’s also that, as well.’”

Jeff: So the hook is that Gary learns that his dad is a secret agent in the CIA. I thought it was a cool metaphor for how, like, people aren’t really who you think they are.

Brent: I read the first 10 pages, just out of curiosity, and…holy shit. For one thing, why was Gary’s response to finding out that he’s adopted — and that his dad is a CIA agent — to start coaching a Pop Warner football team?

Jeff: My elevator pitch when I was first writing the book was sort of, like, Friday Night Lights meets The Bourne Identity — but without all the amnesia stuff. But also, it deals with adoption. And then, obviously, there’s all the deep-sea fishing towards the end.

Steve (reading from book): “And as Gary looked out upon the grassy football field, a tear came to his eye and rolled down his cheek like a liquid raisin of sorrow. A great emotion swelled in his breast, and he thought, ‘What is grass? And why must it be so emerald?’”

Jeff: The grass is a metaphor for his birth parents. It’s kind of a thinker, but it works.

Amy: It’s the…I don’t want to say it’s the worst book I’ve ever read? But at the same time it’s…okay, it’s the worst book I’ve ever read.

Steve: I love Jeff, I really do. I’ve known him for years. But I’d rather undergo a back-alley colonoscopy than have to read that thing again. I’m fucking serious. Even a page of it.

Kyle: He gave it to me two weeks ago, and I’ve only been able to read maybe…I don’t know…30 pages? And the worst part is, I’ve had to avoid him at work. Instead of going to the breakroom, I’ve been eating lunch in my car. I put the sun visor over the windshield, just in case he walks past.

Amy: Tender Moments, or whatever he calls it…it just doesn’t make sense. And not in, like, a cool William S. Burroughs way. It doesn’t make sense in the way that a toddler doesn’t make sense. It just goes from one thing to the next.

Steve: I’ve been avoiding his texts and calls for the past couple of weeks. My doorbell rang the other day, and I had to Army-crawl around my living room because I thought it might be him. It wound up being the UPS guy, but I was still pretty freaked out.

Jeff: I’m really looking forward to hearing what everybody thinks about Tender Moments. I’m sure I’ll have to make a few changes here and there, which is fine — I’m not going to be precious about it. The important thing is that it’s almost done, and I can get it out into the world.

Kyle: I hate to say this, but he should delete the file, burn any printouts he’s made, and start over. Or maybe he could find something completely different to do. My dad used to have model trains in the basement. Maybe Jeff could do model trains. Or woodworking. Or anything besides writing.

Steve: I had a dream the other night where Jeff had both hands bitten off by a shark, and he wasn’t able to write anymore. It was sort of scary, but when I woke up, I was kind of disappointed that it hadn’t actually happened.

Jeff: Right now, I’m just a guy in a cubicle, y’know? But when my book comes out, all that’s gonna change. There’ll be a book tour…maybe a movie or a TV show. To be a published author is going to be amazing. I just need to tighten it up a little, get an agent, and find a publisher. I guess I’ll need an author photo, too. Maybe I’ll ask Amy to take one for me the next time I see her. Although it’s weird: she’s not responding to my texts.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The League of Extraordinary Critics

Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves.

Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not — and one of them is currently incarcerated — so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them:
Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few
Athens and Rome in better Ages knew.

Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound
Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon.

Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?”

Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego.

The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded — or so his detractors quipped — after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.)

Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original.

Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction.

And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go.

Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne
Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections — “I read it in one sitting” — which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley — White Teeth perched on the handlebars — in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.”

The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature.

Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser.

Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.”

Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.”

Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines — or progressive causes truth be told — but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins.

Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name
Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify — and many a review confirm — that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso?

Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]”

He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.)

Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy.

His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him.

“I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece.

As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.”

Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead:
To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself.

Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.”

A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
Take:
Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand
Quite.
Ergo:
“How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…”
Und so weiter.
To conclude:
“It was a silver knife.”
Sharp.
A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count — or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book.

Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard — a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question.

For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems.

Valerie Plume: Critical Agency
Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.”

Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission.

And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her.

Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America  after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets.

Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years.

Epilogue:

Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards.

Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.

Like a Fried Egg Sliding off a Fat Man’s Naked Thigh: 18 Incredible Fair-Use Similes

Writing is hard. Everybody knows that. And one of the hardest things to write — and write well — are similes. So, as a public service, I’m supplying the general public with the following fair-use similes. That’s right: these are 100 percent free to use. Sprinkle them throughout your own writing — your emails, your letters, your ham-fisted dystopian romance novels — and be amazed by the lift in the overall quality of your work. You can thank me later.

1. The sun descended toward the horizon like a fried egg sliding off a fat man’s naked thigh.

2. Her smile was as wide as the Mississippi River, with none of the intractable benzene pollution.

3.They made love as frantically as a weasel trying to escape from a linen closet.

4. The child, in knee socks and culottes, was as carefree as Ed Gein before he exhumed all those corpses to make pajamas from their skin.

5. He felt as hopeless as a fishmonger at a Missouri nudist colony.

6. His love for her was as true as a correct answer on a true/false test about truth.

7. His penis stood at attention like a nervous soldier on his first day of basic training. The penis even wore a tiny camouflage helmet and, somehow, combat boots.

8. “How dare you?” he exploded, like a rotten cassava melon thrown at a passing tram.

9. The dog tilted its head quizzically, as addled as a sleepy toddler in a Yale robotics colloquium.

10. His voice cracked like an egg that would then be fried and inexplicably placed on a fat man’s naked thigh.

11. The room grew as dim as the dark side of the moon, which is also the title of Pink Floyd’s best album, and if you’re going to say Wish You Were Here is better, man, go back and listen to Dark Side. I mean, do yourself a favor and really listen to it.

12. The moment was as disappointing as arriving at the Sizzler hot bar with an empty plate, only to find that the whole damn place is plumb out of corn fritters.

13. His shoes squeaked on the tile, as distracting as a dreadlocked busker playing ska-inflected Dave Matthews covers at your great-aunt’s funeral.

14. Sadness ripped through him like that weird chest pain you always get after one too many gluten-free toaster waffles.

15. He stood tall as he glided confidently across the crowded room, like Manute Bol on rollerblades.

16. It was eerily quiet in the forest clearing, as if God himself had been all, like, “Dude, shut up, I think my parents are coming!”

17. The emotion that filled his heart was as pure as water poured from a PUR 7-Cup Water Pitcher. (This simile brought to you by PUR.)

18. Shaken, she felt as fragile as an egg that would then be cracked, fried, and inexplicably placed on a fat man’s naked thigh.

Image Credit: Pixabay.