No, It’s Not a Bait Shop

January 30, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Good Omens.

Here’s an unexpected delight: Newton Pulsifer and Anathema Device (great names in this book) in the car, desperately trying to figure out how to avert the Apocalypse:

“….They say that Armageddon will come about because of the Antichrist being good with computers.  Apparently it’s mentioned somewhere in Revelations.  I think I must have read about it in a newspaper recently…”

Daily Mail.  ‘Letter from America.’  Um, August the third,” said Newt.  “Just after the story about the woman in Worms, Nebraska, who taught her duck to play the accordion.”

Nebraska is actually mentioned a number of times in the book–surprising, for the work of two Brits–but Worms?!  Worms is a tiny, unincorporated town in central NE, kind of near Grand Island.  Named, I believe, after the town in Germany where Luther defended his criticisms of the church–the famous (ahem) Diet of Worms.  It is home to one of the world’s most delightfully named bars: the Nightcrawler.  Jaime and I once attempted to visit, but we went on a Saturday night and, believe it or not, the place was packed.  I think it was Prime Rib Night or something.  Anyway, it’s supposed to have great bar food.

I could only wildly speculate on how Gaiman (or Pratchett–but I suspect Gaiman) came across this bit of American arcana.  Delightful, though, to imagine the pasty, black-clad Brit drinking PBR with the locals at the Nightcrawler on a Husker game night, is it not?

Horsemen, Bikers, and Psychopaths, Oh My!

January 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Good Omens, Gaiman and Pratchett.

The apocalypse nears: the Four Horsemen have met at a roadside diner and are riding their hogs toward Armageddon. Now, I was reading this in the Carolina Theatre here in Durham tonight, waiting for There Will Be Blood to start. Something about the setting bounced a pinball around my head; the chain of thoughts was nicely completed by TWBB itself. Indulge me:

The jokey treatment of the Horsemen in Good Omens–War, Famine, Pollution (taking over for the prematurely retired Pestilence), and Death as bikers of the Hell’s Angels variety–reminded me of one of my all-time favorite movie villains, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona. That dude–you probably remember; how could you forget? Tex Cobb as Leonard Smalls, a snarling, ugly bounty hunter–was a kind of half-joke, like a lot of Coen Bros. characters. GO was published in 1990, merely 3 years after RA‘s release. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to posit a lineage there.

The Coens used the Lone Biker as a half-joke, but the dream sequence in which he is introduced is no joke. Brother, what a dream sequence! Hurtling through a desert landscape; delicate flowers catching fire in his wake; picking off jackrabbits with his sawed-off from his bike; going faster and faster, driving up to the Arizona mansion, right up the wall, into the nursery.

The virtuosity of that sequence–Nic Cage’s earnest declaration that nothing could survive in its path, the brilliant, wild angles and the quick cuts to a fevered, panicked H.I. in bed–leads me to see the Lone Biker as a precursor to the Coens’ depiction of Anton Chigurh, in No Country for Old Men. He’s the only character remotely like Chigurh in the Coens’ work (well, except for maybe Peter Stormare’s character in Fargo, but he was really more of a golem with a bad creator than anything). Nothing can survive in his path, either–unless the coin says it can.

And then the movie started; and without being a total spoiler, I’ll say that the phrase “I am the Third Revelation!” led me to think of a certain someone as the Lone Oilman of the Apocalypse. Arid, windswept landscapes; lone figures of pure (or nearly pure, in Daniel Plainview’s case) malevolence; intimations of existential despair and political allegory. The end times are certainly on our minds, these days (although, as far as the current cinematic variants go, these films seem a little eight-months-ago to me; I’m too jazzed about Obama now to completely buy into the circa Winter 2007 bleakness that seems to be captured here).

Now, as a side note, none of these are my own personal favorite depiction of the Horsemen. That would have to be reserved for the utterly terrifying, utterly unexpected Four Mannequins of the Apocalypse dangling from the ceiling at House on the Rock in Wisconsin.  Some might say they seem out of place at an amusement park-cum-museum-cum-funhouse; I say, if you’re an eccentric millionaire who’s built weird collections of dolls, instruments, models, and other bric-a-brac, and who’s built his own building to house them, using no architectural plans, then you’d be crazy not to leave your visitors with the sense that the end is nigh.

Nabokov’s Games

January 28, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Okay, that’s a lie: I finished this a few days ago.  But, well, I was on the road while reading most of it and find it still on my mind.  Plus, while I could write my thoughts on the interesting view of history in Good Omens, or on that book’s kind of new-agey religion (and–beware!–I may just yet), I’m more compelled to get down the parts of Invitation that I want to think about more, before I forget them.

a) In the second paragraph of this book, Nabokov drops this perplexing little passage:

“So we are nearing the end.  The right-hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left (and our fingers were always gladdened by the placid, faithful thickness) has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager: a few minutes of quick reading, already downhill, and–O horrible!”

In retrospect, once you’re acclimated to Nabokov’s shifting in and out of first person (both singular and plural) to take us in and out of Cincinnatus’s mind (or at least mindset; N being N, he plays very tricky games with perspective and voice), you can pass this off as simply a metaphor for the death sentence just handed down: the novel is life, about to end.  But, see, it doesn’t read like that when you first experience it.  When I read it, I grasped the metaphor for C’s death, but it felt much more like an authorial interjection–a (here comes the M-word) metafictional device to make us feel as though we were reading the end of a much longer novel–a heap of phantom pages in our left hand, barely used to the feel of the physical book we’ve just started.  And it does seem, throughout this book, that the reading experience is very much on N’s mind.  C’s reading the newspapers in the morning, and the “ancient” magazines with their pictures of automobiles from the fortress library, for instance.  There must be some scholarship on this.   I need to look into it.

b) Two of Nabokov’s “Easter egg” stories-within-stories also caught my eye (minifictions, rather than meta-).   First, there’s the novel Quercus, a 3,000-page monster telling the story of an oak tree and, through that story, the historical events it may have been party to.  It’s pretty clear N hates this idea, even though C calls it the best his age has produced (backhanded praise, surely).  But, of course, N being N, I wonder if something else is going on here.  Why Quercus?

Then there’s  the photo album compiled by Pierre, called a “photo-horoscope,” a “series of photographs depicting the natural progression of a given person’s entire life.”  The album C looks through contains images of Emmie, the director’s young daughter, in various costumes and with appropriate makeup as she becomes a woman, until her “death” at age 40.  It’s another instance of the fakery of this world, but seems such a compelling one.

Buggre Alle This for a Larke…

January 27, 2008 § 1 Comment

Shall be the title of my first album, should I magically become a musician.

Now reading: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

About halfway through this book, and the title of this post is the line that made me laugh out loud on a flight from NYC in a plane full of grumpy New Yorkers.  It’s a transcription of the beginning of a fake verse inserted as Ezekiel 48:5 by a disgruntled typesetter for “the London publishing firm Bilton and Scaggs” in 1651–thereafter known as the “Buggre Alle This Bible.”  (It’s funny because it’s true: bibliographers and collectors do tend to refer to weird variants like this by whatever glaring error identifies the variant.)

What made me laugh out loud, I think, was the combination of archaic spelling and type (Gaiman and Pratchett insert the “f” for “s” in the appropriate places) with the anonymous typesetter’s old-timey insults.  What is it about 17th-century spelling that makes the funny funnier?  For some reason “Buggre Alle this” strikes me as much funnier than “Bugger all this.”  Somehow it helps me imagine this young man longing to be outdoors, putting together his type in a fit of extended pique–then to imagine the look on Master Bilton’s face when confronted by the first angry buyer.  It doesn’t hurt, I suppose, to imagine a dry British voice in your head while you’re reading, as I find myself doing throughout this book.  I’ve seen Gaiman read in person and I find his voice creeping in during the funnier bits.

Reading at 30,000 Feet

January 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’ve been traveling by air quite a bit lately–home to Nebraska, on business to Minneapolis and New York. It’s funny: for all the hackneyed comic routines about air travel (“What’s the deal with those peanuts?”), examinations of the experience itself, once you’re in the air, seem rare and, when you do find them, superficial. (A notable exception: Ron Rosenbaum’s hilarious but thought-provoking analysis of SkyMall products, in Slate.)

What we’re talking about here is one of the great marvels of modern life, an utter miracle that has become so mundane that I can, without batting an eye, use the word “hackneyed” in descriptions of comedians’ complaints about the experience. Flying out from LaGuardia on Friday night, my plane was stuck in the queue to take off for half and hour and everyone on the flight was getting restless, annoyed, fidgety. And then, finally, it was our turn; we hurtled into space; and, thanks to the enormous air traffic of NYC, we were directed to circle around for a while before heading south. The night was wind-swept, clear, crisp. We were treated to a 360° view of Manhattan–this country’s nerve center, the apple of the world’s eye, radiant and golden, its entire length and breadth and height encompassed in the view from my window. The other boroughs sprawled to the horizons, the Statue of Liberty stood with ships passing on all sides, other aircraft whizzed and angled below us. I looked around: maybe ten people were looking out the window. The rest were trying to sleep, preparing iPods for the moment they could be switched on, reading printouts or magazines or books.

Don’t get me wrong: air travel is definitely a pain in the ass, and there are countless things wrong with it. A good book is a godsend for a flight, if only so you can look preoccupied to the chatterbox sitting next to you. But I wonder if we appreciate that many of us now routinely view things in a way that, only a few generations ago, a large percentage of the population would have thought reserved for the eyes of God and his angels.

But I digress. It’s a great pleasure to glance up from your book to the sight of an ephemeral cloud-continent, a sun on the horizon obscured from the ground, or a vast snow-covered plain, a quilt of roads, acreages, towns, and rivers. Dickens or Tolstoy might be the perfect reading for air travel: their all-encompassing social landscapes nicely counterbalanced with the individual, the specific, the episodic and anecdotal. You look out the window and imagine all those lives, down below: the beehive of the world, all of those individuals on their various paths, about their various tasks, bound together in ways you’d never be able to see from the ground. (Not to mention all those lives on the plane with you, with their varied destinations, motivations, inhibitions, and phobias.)

Of course, you can go the opposite direction, as well: the writers of the OuLiPo group, with their emphasis on the innumerable possibilities to be found within rigorous restraints, read very well in mid-air. Life: A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec, is recommended here, as is The Conversions, by Harry Mathews. The mixture in both of these of surrealist incident, wordplay, and human futility is especially compelling when dangling six miles above the earth in a metal tube at high speed, entirely dependent for the continuation of your life on the workings of many, many intricate machines. I’d imagine Beckett is also interesting–I mean, the absurdity of it all!–but I’ve never partaken.

In any case, a flight provides an excellent opportunity to focus, reflect, and ruminate on literature in what passes these days for a distraction-free environment. Get a window seat, rest your eyes on the landscape or the cloudscape, and think about the connections among things, the distances between things, the spaces above the earth that the gods alone used to inhabit.

The crime of Cincinnatus

January 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov. Edition: Capricorn Books, 1965.

Invitation to a Beheading was originally published in its original Russian in Paris in the 1930s, under the pseudonym Sirin. It is nothing so much as a phantasmagoria; a nightmare with beautiful, dreamy interludes. It’s also a dystopia, although Nabokov would surely despise this categorization (in his 1959 Foreword to this edition, he encourages his readers to disregard the significance of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions to the work, and heaps scorn on the “illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction” of Orwell).

Cincinnatus has “a certain peculiarity” which, so far as I can tell, is his crime, for which he is sentenced to death and locked away in a fortress to await his beheading (the date of which his guards refuse to reveal). The peculiarity is described:

“He was impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another… In the midst of the excitement of a game his coevals would suddenly forsake him, as if they had sensed that his lucid gaze and the azure of his temples were but a crafty deception and that actually Cincinnatus was opaque…

“In the course of time the safe places became ever fewer: the solicitous sunshine of public concern penetrated everywhere, and the peephole in the door [of C’s cell] was placed in such a way that in the whole cell there was not a single point that the observer on the other side of the door could not pierce with his gaze.”

The crime of Cincinnatus is opacity. A reluctance to be utterly “transparent,” open with fellow citizens. Reserve might be a word for it; so might individuality. We, today, in the free world, are utterly basking in “the solicitous sunshine of public concern.”

This is no brilliant analysis, I’m afraid. But the crime struck me as a remarkably contemporary concern, and documenting it occurred to me as a lovingly ironic way to open this utterly public, utterly opaque discourse.

As a footnote: Mikhail Bulgakov, in his brilliant The Master and Margarita, allegorizes Stalin as the sun. Coincidental, surely, but interesting nonetheless.


January 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Greetings and salutations.  I’m starting this blog to help me think through my reading more effectively: so often I feel the need to think more deeply or broadly about literature on a daily basis, but don’t seem to have any incentive to do so.  My hope is that this blog will serve as that incentive, and perhaps like-minded souls will stumble across it when thinking about similar issues.

My reading is fairly varied, but there will be a preponderance of experimental literature, Melville (hence the blog’s name), and English lit.  Also quite a few general posts on literary topics, I’d suspect, and maybe some things on movies, art, music.

Where Am I?

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