Archive for the ‘greater writers than me’ Category

Beckett’s novel, How It Is, makes a lot of our supposedly contemporary experimental literature* seem decades behind. This dark (much darker than his other long prose–there are no comic gags here) book may be seen as an addendum to his trilogy. If the narrator of The Unnameable exists in a limbo or purgatory, this narrator may have been returned or shipped off to an earth stripped to mud and sacks of food no one needs to eat. The prose features no capital letters, no indentations, no punctuation of any sort. It reads almost like a series of prose poems, though it is a highly structured novel. You must read these passages slowly and carefully.

The narrator, sometimes named Bom and sometimes named Bem, has prosecuted a relationship with Pim, who has since left him. Now he records three distinct phases of life and loss: before Pim, with Pim, and after Pim. But are these really memories? His voice operates beyond his will: “I say it as I hear it” and “murmur[s] it to the mud.” This sort of compulsion to speak haunts Beckett’s work. Here that compulsion seems an interesting play on his generally maximal subjectivity. What demand is there to speak, to make words of experience? But it’s also too much to say that the narrator would rather lie in the mud. Want and desire seem disconnected from the brain or soul.

This becomes clear when Bom encounters Pim. Really, Pim just ends up glued to him. Pim can sing. Beyond that, he is a kind of doll whose anatomy the narrator can bend and shake however he likes. Bom trains Pim to sing and shut up, among other things, by what I might call behavioristic if it were calculated and what I might call sadism if he gained any pleasure from it. I cannot even call it cruel, because the narrator has no particular moral sense. He merely operates according to his lights, digging his nails into Pim’s armpits to prompt a song and stabbing his “arse not the hole” with a can opener to make him speak. For the most part, their relationship is a description of these tortures and their purposes. But something interesting happens toward the end of this section: the narrator begins to have intimations of another world “up there” in the “light.” In this world, he has a wife that he confuses with Pim. In another theory, his life is being observed by Krim and Kram, who are interested for reasons he cannot divine.

His theories take on new importance in the third section. Pim’s gone and the narrator seems to spin out the metafictional dramatization of loss. Loss apparently cannot have a purpose unless it edifies or at least speaks to the world above. Otherwise, he really is a pathetic creature

fallen in the mud from our mouths innumerable and ascending to where there is an ear a mind to understand a means of noting a care for us the wish to note the curiosity to understand an ear to hear even ill these scraps of other scraps of an antique rigmarole

At the same time, he gets an inkling of both his past and his future: Pim and Bom (or, sometimes, Bem) constantly exchange roles, the one time victim will become the torturer. Having just been a torturing Bom, he is now a Pim waiting for someone to come and train him. He is certain that most Pims and Boms in this world have no inkling of this repetition. Their between-relationship times are like blank spaces in which nothing can be remembered. All this plays well with the narrator’s brainless compulsions, but, left alone, seems like the baldest allegory for human relationships. Beckett will have no bald allegory. Indeed, as soon as the narrator works carefully through the implications of such a purely circular history, he curses its stupidity.

Now I can speak of a compulsion common to all Beckett’s narrators: the compulsion to make the world intelligible. Some of this novel’s greatest moments come when Beckett allows the narrator to fully articulate his theories and calculate just how many Bems, Boms, and Pims there might be in the world. But Beckett recognizes that this compulsion, while common, may never be satisfied. No theory can explain why we do what we do, and we are left to regret the loss of our Pims, and fear our future Pim selves.

*especially the cold psycho sexuality being plumbed in many quarters.

You may have heard that Ms. Flannery O’Connor is one of the great lights in our fiction. Lately I’ve been rereading her essays and letters, taking down the hard truths, and trying to make sense of them. Problem: she offers too many truths for one blog post. (Note: I can imagine how much use she might have for a blog post.) Anyhow, right here I just want to note and respond to some ideas in her essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” It’s in her book, Mystery and Manners, which you should own.

Some background: Ms. O’Connor is writing in response to a vapid fool who would like contemporary writers to describe 1950’s USA in a more complimentary manner. She dismisses him curtly but takes the opportunity to elaborate her own relationship to storytelling as a Christian, Southerner, and artist.

“The country that the writer is concerned with in the most objective way is, of course, the region that most immediately surrounds him, or simply the country, with its body of manners, that he knows well enough to employ.”

Generic but fine writing advice: be specific. Be specific about what you see, what you know, what you hear. The greater your specificity, the more your vision of the real comes alive. This vision of the real is not the same as what is real. It is also far removed from the generality, either good or bad, of a nation of some hundred millions of people. Do not try to capture all. Please, God, kill the whole idea of the Everyman, especially the one Philip Roth wrote. Kill his Everyman so dead that I cannot remember it. Hey, I love Roth. I’m trying to pray off my man’s mistake.

“The anguish that most of us have observed for some time now has been caused not by the fact that the South is alienated from the rest of the country, but by the fact that it is not alienated enough, that every day we are getting more and more like the rest of the country, that we are being forced out not only of our many sins, but of our few virtues.”

The racial system of the South through and after desegregation was monstrous. This is not arguable. But Ms. O’Connor foresaw the modern flattening suburbanizing unpleasurable decadence made cheap by Visa and Comcast, cheered on by our political non-leaders. It has reduced much of our lousy character, but perhaps it has reduced all character. This may be the challenge of the fiction writer: how to make characters in a time of general characterlessness. Alienation is also distinction. The specifics of our alienation are the meat of fiction.

I’m not sure this is entirely true. I think that mass homogenization is more a perverse desire than a fact. Maybe it’s just an illusion. We live in an age of mass individualism. No people has ever been more often alone—and lonely—than we are now.  Subjectivity has increased to levels we cannot quite calculate. The problem now is how to simulate that subjectivity in a manner many of us can understand.

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural … to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

I want to say that David Foster Wallace said that realism’s new task it to make all this reality strange. He may not have. Someone almost certainly said it, and if it was him, then Ms. O’Connor said it before him. Anyway, I agree. If a writer is to communicate his vision, it is through these distortions, these tweaks of what is all around us. The world must be and must not be recognizable. In 2013, these distortions may come—and are coming—in all sorts of ways: twisted forms, wild syntaxes, unsuspected descriptors. Check out the recent works of Jenny Boully, Padgett Powell, and Blake Butler for three different, wonderful approaches. The artist is never making the world. He is ever re-making the world.

“Where the artist is still trusted, he will not be looked to for assurance. Those who believe that art proceeds from a healthy, and not from a diseased, faculty of the mind will take what he shows them as a revelation, not of what we ought to be but of what we are at a given time.”

This sort of revelation is produced by the distortion. The distortion is not the thing to be resisted. It is not a barrier to understanding. Understanding is not the point. Distortion makes a mystery of the mundane, elevates all that to the realm of the beautiful. It is essential to the aesthetic.

“When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him.”

This relation of inner to outer country is most important in a time of increasing subjectivity—especially when in the midst of that subjectivity we are more joined than ever by our technology. Our aloneness is strangely evolving: we can speak or play with hundreds of people without leaving the house, without ever knowing their manners, looks, and hearts. Our ways of feeling and understanding one another are changing too rapidly for us to keep up. A modern writer must try to describe this relationship between the personal country of our minds and the increasingly borderless world.

“To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.”

The last part describes beautifully the writer’s position vis a vis the inner and outer country. To find a vantage point requires an increasing ability to detach oneself from the world. If that detachment is done well, the writer will necessarily create the distortions of reality so that, for a time, the reader can be exiled. In that wonderful exile, we can know ourselves in a new way.

Here are some other books I’ve read. Keep in mind that some of these books (Hint: Rome) were finished last month, not read in their entirety.

The Poetics (Aristotle)—One of his most readable and essential works, The Poetics breaks down the form and effects of tragedy. If you want to be a writer, you must read this.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Gibbon)—I read the abridged version, a blunt murder weapon. Gibbon is insightful and sarcastic. Some readers might want to quit after the Western Empire falls, but the later sections are masterful. They explain the impact of Asian invasions by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane upon not only the Byzantine Empire but Europe as a whole. His dissection of Christian heresies and disputes, as well as the corruptions of the Roman Church, are brilliant and sarcastic.

Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men (Padgett Powell)—This book accomplishes the interesting and astonishing feat of making Nathaniel Bedford Forrest a nearly sympathetic figure. Forrest, however, is the perfect emblem for the ambivalent, trapped-in-the-nightmare-of-history South. He is both shady founder of the Ku Klux Klan and respected, beloved leader of men. He “was the purest of foolish heroes.” Also, there is an old woman writing a grocery list that explodes into a novel about Mr. Forrest and several lovers, one of whom is named Rape. She is visited by media titan Roopit Mogul, who wants to craft the New Southerner. She wants love. NPR and Volvos are bashed. We learn that we are “living in stilled and stilted timid toadspawn conformity, afraid of something [we] could not identify except in particulars.” This book is beautiful, man, beautiful.

We Have With Us Your Sky (Melanie Hubbard)—These poems will rock your face. Passive readers will have a difficult time with it: no comfortable messages are comfortably relayed to you. These poems require attention to individual lines and individual words in lines. Hubbard’s work is a joy. Full disclosure: she stayed at our house last weekend when she read at UNF. I like Melanie. Now hold on to your face

The Last Avant Garde

Youth wants

for a long time


that was the year

we were all

vast paper



and classical

designates a place

where everybody is

wiggin in

I grew up


an abyss



Posted: January 25, 2013 in greater writers than me

fjordsi’ve tried several times to write about Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords, Vol. 1, but the long and short of it is that this book does just about everything you can ask a volume of prose poetry to do.

a) simple words are arranged into direct sentences, but that simplicity and directness is all on the surface. dig: “the world is as steady as if it were sewn into the skin of the universe.”  the metaphor suggests that the steadiness is painful. the sibilance underlines the metaphor. nothing is forced.

b) the poems can be enjoyed singly, but this is a definite collection. they’re best read as a volume in one sitting. then read it again in another sitting. you’ll better appreciate the plays on death, free will, and love. you’ll better feel the interconnectedness of the poems, the large themes of death, indifference, free will and love and the repeating images of trees, cats, and Paris.

c) ideas. contemporary literature rarely offers conclusions. in this work, though, conclusions are drawn and then redrawn. in “tiny castle,” we grow up and, afterward, ‘we can never again be swallowed by the enormity of something besides ourselves.” in “miner death,” the speaker is lost in a labyrinth of mines. then “you open your mouth. A bright circle of countryside is out of it.” philosophers are under pressure to resolve or explain contradictions. poets* describe their mystery.

i haven’t discussed his dry surreality. dude, just try this example.

The Donut Hawk

On a long hunt over the ridge, I finally spot the elusive hawk that is made of a donut. It is called the Donut Hawk. It has been a myth in my clan for generations, so I set out to prove its existence, and shoot at it. My first bullet goes right through its donut hole. It lifts off the ground clumsily, wet with sugary glaze, so I shoot again, killing it. When I approach it to bring its donut back to my village, I find that it is not the only donut hawk in existence, that in fact there are millions of donut hawks sleeping peacefully in a hidden valley on the other side of the ridge, each in perfect families of twelve. With my rifle, I kill one whole family. This is where donuts come from.

*include imaginative writers of all stripes, plus, at least, kierkegaard.

an appreciation

Posted: January 14, 2013 in greater writers than me

edistoMy history with Edisto is strange. In college, I quit after twenty pages. This was about the time that Padgett Powell rejected my submission, and I could not take his class. I was not above bitterness. In some cases, I am below it still. But I have read and reread this novel since then and would like now to share a few thoughts on the chapter “Doctor, Duchess, Soldier, Mother.” It suggests the construction of the novel and it warms my heart.

The chapter is a collection of anecdotes that you might call a patchwork or a younger reader (picture me in college, full of weed, hope, and stupidity) might find confusing. At least eight anecdotes make up this six-page section. All of them suggest a view of the narrator’s mother, who has four nicknames. It is perhaps not already obvious that the narrator has been confused about his mother. These anecdotes build toward a final assessment. They include: the Duchess purchasing liquor from the Baby Grand, the poor black bar; the Duchess racing her car to get her husband’s goat; the father (the Progenitor) giving him $20 as an “irregular” tooth fairy; the Doctor as still as a tree on the curve outside their home, smoking cig after cig; the soldier stealing a leatherbound edition of Horace for him; the Doctor kissing a cuckolded woman at a party in front of that woman’s husband and the cuckold himself; and the mother finding a proper husband for her son.

These are described in luscious physical detail. Here Powell is describing how both husband and wife used to run their cars ragged: “He’ll do that ratchet noise with the transmission, and the six-inch skid, and that’s all, while she’ll paint a Darlington stripe from here to Savannah.” Here the narrator sees his mother outside: “Anyway, one day during this time, I got off the bus at the hard road and just as I turned into our road one of the trees we have painted white to mark the curve moved. And smoked a cigarette. It was the Doctor, in white.”

It is the narrator’s mental dexterity and agility, captured beautifully, which tie these scenes together. Some of Powell’s techniques are simple. Comp 1 transitions move us from one anecdote to the next: “Anyway, one day during this time…”; “But I do think that’s when she became the Duchess”; “Well you can live with a Duchess easy, it’s the Doctor part can get you”; and “Also, she stole it.” They lead to a recognition of all his mother has done for him, arranging for him to meet the poor black men at the Baby Grand as well as father surrogate Taurus, finding a suitable father, and stealing that volume Horace outweigh the mom’s other craziness. Even in the kiss, he detects generosity. The theft in particular helps clarify the rest: “There are all these old books that she says will be sold for a quarter in a basement sale one day that she takes as she needs—now, not wholesale, but at need, like Indians and buffalo, which is strictly soldier. Anybody on the outside wouldn’t notice good soldiering in this, he would just see a stage mother in overdrive shoplifting, etc.” But he’s on the inside, seeing her clearly.

All this builds toward a powerful appreciation of his mother: “All through the liquor and leftovers and coroners and mendacity is this other string-pulling shadowy maneuvering of things, mostly for me” and, finally, “I realized now I sort of trusted her as the commander all along, the man in charge…” This trust, not discovered but recognized, is the boy’s real love for his mother, warts and all. People who say that sentiment has no place in fiction ought to read this passage and read this book. Sentiment is not melodrama.

Whatcha Reading, Pactor?

Posted: January 10, 2013 in greater writers than me

Don DeLillo has often bored me. Like everything baseball-related, Underworld’s long baseball passage made me drowsy. Its long ponderous stilted dialogue eventually put me to sleep. Maybe I read White Noise too late. It might have seemed fresh when it was first published, but it felt dated to me in 2004. Mao II’s opening sequence was brilliant. The rest of that book was meh. Libra was probably my favorite DeLillo novel, though I can’t remember much about it at all, and I’m afraid that what I do remember might be what I remember from a late night of History Channel drinking. The Body Artist flat stunk. People say that he is funny. Well, um, okay.

Despite all that and despite a gushing blurb by Jonathan Franzen, I read Point Omega. It has not changed my overall assessment of DeLillo’s work, but I have gained new respect for his abilities.

The novel opens with a viewing of 24 Hour Psycho, an installation at the MOMA in New York. Basically, the artist slowed down Hitchcock’s film Psycho so that you’d view it over the course of twenty-four hours. It heightens the effect of every detail in the movie.

Often the story helps us makes sense of a theme. In this novel, the theme of slowness helps us appreciate a story in which very little happens. IN the desert, time flattens out, days mix with one another, eventually everything becomes landscape. The narrator, Jim Finley, has gone there in hopes of persuading a former foreign policy advisor to go on film and discuss what happened with Iraq. But the advisor, Robert Elster, would rather talk about the desert and human drives for extinction.

His daughter Jessie soon joins them. Her mother has exiled her there because Jessie is hanging out with a shady guy. Jessie isn’t exactly happy to be there, but she is a passive type. The narrator becomes predictably, pathetically attracted to her. It does inspire some of his best writing: “She kept appearing in some inner field of vision, indistinct, like something I’d forgotten to say or do.” The metaphor suggests that desire, the haziness of the desire, the impossibility of the desire, the divorce of the desire from Jessie herself (she a “something”), and the distinction between that desire and the understanding of how to act on that desire. That’s a lot of good work for a single metaphor.

But thank God DeLillo swerves hard and away from all that. Jessie disappears. Finley and Elster presume violence. Regardless, we never hear from her again. The loss tears at Elster in a way the war never did. This is, I think, the most interesting, penetrating part of the novel, and the one that speaks to my understanding of all these intellectual chickenhawks theorizing about war and extinction and what people, which they must picture as a vast smudge of the universe waiting for their hands to guide and assemble into something coherent. That is, Elster’s supposed knowledge, even his rhetorical skill, get wiped out by the personal, singular tragic event. All those dudes talk tough, but when it goes down, they go down as hard as anybody.

But more interesting is the fact that we are all necessarily Elsters, far from war. Even those of us who think the Iraq War stunk cannot contemplate what kind of awful crap went down there. Our appreciation for the deaths of soldiers and civilians is as every bit as abstract and unhelpful as Elster’s theories. That’s why we sympathize with that schmuck.

a beautiful mess

Posted: January 3, 2013 in greater writers than me

DFW’s work has always left me uncertain. A number of individual passages are brilliant. The man’s observational power is second to none. He is basically the most influential stylist (which does not mean he is the best) of the past twenty years.

People don’t talk much about his first novel, The Broom of the System. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have footnotes. It’s still (Is this adverb necessary? Is it actually possible that people don’t find DFW interesting if his work doesn’t offer footnotes? Is it actually possible that footnotes are considered a sign of his mature work? Well, fuck me) worth reading. Much of his trademark brilliance is on display. The combination of humor and philosophical depth suggest a Bellow influence spiked with Roth. Bombardini is the greatest example. His theory about Weight Watchers is that you’re supposed to lose weight to make room for others in your life. When his wife leaves him, he flips the theory around. You should gain weight to make room for yourself. He decides to eat the universe. Beautiful.

Wallace’s great weakness as a writer (besides the annoying repetition of “really”) is that he is a Bombardini. I’m not talking about his navel-gazing tendency, which is more prevalent in other works than it is here. I mean that he tries to swallow the universe. The novel is awash in characters. Brothers and sisters and mothers abound, and while he’s great at stirring the pot, the climax doesn’t quite deliver the hot meal. At the end, a large number of these characters end up inside the Bombardini building. It’s almost Dickensian. Everybody’s yapping and Lenore, the protagonist (you see how much is going on that only now, in paragraph 3, do I get to her), sits in her chair, overwhelmed by events. So are we.

Ostensibly, Lenore is searching for her great-grandmother, also named Lenore. This second Lenore has apparently taken off with first Lenore’s father’s new secret baby-speech-enhancer-speeder-upper formula. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t mind never finding the second Lenore. But these aren’t normal circumstances. I get the sense that at this climax, Wallace himself is also exhausted. That might be why we don’t get a good sense of what actually happens to Lenore afterward.

Well, you probably shouldn’t read DFW novels for plots which are resolved. This novel, in particular, suffers from his efforts to make a resolution. Its real strengths are in the development of character and in the development of ideas. Rick Vigorous is Lenore’s boyfriend. He is maximally insecure. Over the course of the novel, he goes nuts, which is kind of predictable but pleasurable to watch. Even his dreams are cool, and I am a reader who despises dreams. Here’s a fragment of one:

“Lang and I are in my office, in our respective chairs, the translation between us. We are both mysteriously and troublingly nude. It is noon; the shadow is moving. I look down and cover myself with a tea bag, but there is Lenore on the back of the final page of “Love.” It is a stunning, lifelike drawing of an unclothed Lenore. I begin to have an erection behind my tea bag. Lang’s pen is in the shape of a beer bottle; Lang sucks at the pen, periodically. Lenore is there on the page, on her back, a Vargas girl, a V. Lang puts his initials in the side of Lenore’s long, curving leg: a deep, wicked W.D.L.”

The tea bag suggests Wallace’s ability to find just the right suggestive hilarious detail. The dream itself, especially the full dream, tells us everything we need to know about Vigorous’s character.

Idea-wise, Lenore’s family, second Lenore in particular, has screwed up Lenore’s head with words. The meanings and uses of words become important in a variety of ways, as one character after the next tries to find a “thing” (an object or mannerism) which will help them connect to or at least place themselves in the world. All these things are, ways of breaking windows or piercing membranes. Yes, it’s sexual, and yes, it’s Freudian. The “thing” allows you to operate correctly within the human-world system. Your place as a person in relation to other persons is thusly defined.

But which is the more important part of the human system: you or all the others? Wallace plays around with that question throughout the novel, most entertainingly in the phone line fiasco, in which Vigorous’ office receives calls for mechanics and S&M clubs, among others.

This book, like all big books of ambition, is a beautiful mess.