July 26, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright.
Reading next: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
Raymond Queneau is the reason I want to learn to read French. I will read anything he wrote. Coming across Witch Grass a few years ago was like finding an unexplored tropical island. (Of course, he’s a legend in Europe; so maybe it was more like a native of an unexplored tropical island discovering the existence of France.)
Loving Raymond Queneau means loving Barbara Wright, who translated much of his work into English. Translating Queneau, who thrives on puns, portmanteau words, idiomatic and colloquial expression, and literary allusion, is impossible in some respects (hence the desire to learn French). So Wright (who died earlier this year) is something more like a co-author, or adapter. Interestingly, she says in her introductions to both We Always Treat Women Too Well and Witch Grass that, with Queneau’s blessing, she would insert her own allusions to English literature and English idiomatic renderings to correspond to Queneau’s untranslatable French equivalents. Without looking at her papers (at Indiana’s Lilly Library), we can’t know what delightful quirks of language are hers and which Queneau’s. (Something to do if I ever find myself in Bloomington.)
All of that being said: what the hell is We Always Treat Women Too Well? Not having delved into 1940s French pornographic pulp fiction, I can only take the word of some person named Valerie Caton when, in the introduction, she insists that this work is only masquerading as pornography; that it is actually a parody of the kind of book published by Editions du Scorpion, and not itself pornography. Now, while there’s clearly a parody happening here, this is also fairly disingenuous, especially since the book was published under the pseudonym Sally Mara, by a publisher of “erotica” and straight-up porn. It was a joke, certainly, but a joke the original audience was not in on.
However, it is fairly amusing to imagine pervy French dudes trying to get their postwar jollies from this deeply weird book. Maybe the bar was just set really low for titillation; like I said, I just don’t have comparables here. (The book was not a success. Shocking!) There’s certainly kinky sex and gory violence and nymphomaniacal behavior; but there’s also typically Quenovian (?) etymological wordplay, hilariously tangled and repetitive dialogue, deliberate anachronism, philosophical subtext, scholarly footnotes by the book’s imaginary translator (from the imaginary English original of the imaginary Irish lass Sally Mann) Michel Presle, and, throughout, allusion and homage to and satire on Ulysses.
So, yes: the book is really a perverse joke, on many levels, and I can imagine Queneau making himself giggle throughout. He loved Joyce: it must’ve given him great delight to write the stream-of-consciousness monologues of Gertie Girdle, using the ladies’ room as Irish rebels take over the post office where she works, alluding to both Leopold Bloom’s own use of the w.c. and Molly Bloom’s grand soliloquy. And to give the subordinates of his band of IRA fighters names of tertiary Ulysses characters and/or similar alphabetic structure: Gallager, Kelleher, Callinan, Dillon, Caffrey (the consonant-vowel-double consonant pattern). And to make the rebels’ battle cry “Finnegan’s wake!” And to invert the repressed sexuality of Joyce’s Dublin, to give a crazy plot to the prurient urges of that book’s characters.
Valerie Caton argues in the introduction to this edition (the 1981 New Directions paperback) that Queneau intended the scenes of sex and violence to be “disquieting and absurd,” and that the book is an act of “literary sabotage” upon the fascism inherent in both black humor and pornography. Sure, if you’re reading it as pornography; if “disquieting” means you can’t get off. I’m sure it was an act of sabotage upon some of its initial readers. (In this sense, it’s kind of a book meant to be left unread: did Queneau really expect his porno readers would do anything but toss the book aside?) Maybe 60 extra years of hilarious violence and kinky sex both literary and cinematic have jaded me beyond the point of being “disquieted” on any deeper level by some s&m action (note the initials of Sally Mara). But the book also seems like a goof, plain and simple: “why not write a porno set in Joyce’s Dublin?” I can definitely say it’s the funniest book I’ve ever read that also features a coital dismembering.
July 20, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Only Revolutions.
Okay, enough attempts at coherent thought: let’s do some lists on this soggy, boggy monster!
Five favorite things about the book that I haven’t discussed yet:
-The call-and-response of plants and animals, coming to life in the first half of each narrative and dying in their turns (boldface turned to gray). The pronouncements about them maybe forming a kind of Whitmanian choral voice of “the land,” and an ecological message. This is also one of the elements that seems to indicate that Sam and Hailey are more than human: symbols, but also perhaps gods — of nature and technology?
-The 10th section, p. 73-80, S&H’s adventure in New Orleans. I love any epic poem which makes room for two different lists of pies. Also love how this section leads us into the roaring ’20s in Sam’s narrative, and through ’68-’69 in Hailey’s: the mix of debauchery and darkness, plus the voodoo sexuality of The Creep (see below).
-HONEY. I love honey. When I worked for a food broker in Chicago, I got to know about the different grades and varieties, and totally fell in love with the stuff. (As I told Jaime the other day: people should care less about wine and beer and more about cheese and honey.) Here, it functions as something like ambrosia: the food of the gods, powering Sam and Hailey’s love. Its gold color, the fact that it is one of the only foods which never spoils, that it is a completely natural product which requires husbandry rather than slaughter, and of course its relationship to stinging bees: it all seems perfect. (I must say I’m baffled as to why they always have a half-jar left in their stash, though.)
-The mindbending, slapstick St. Louis center. Especially the use of St. Louis’s awesome street names like Chouteau (although I was sad he didn’t use Kingshighway). And throughout, the poetry of American place: “Mishishishi” (the S&H-centric spelling of Mississippi), Nauvoo, Hannibal, Keokuk.
-The language itself, with its loose poetry of rhymes and rhythms and portmanteau words, is often amazing. A (less than amazing, but representative) example, from a random opening, and incorporating those place names I love: “Confined to no loss. Beyond stops we all/ toss. Because we’re emergent. Allways divergent./ Down shifting only when we reach La Crosse.” (As a footnote, I also really loved the use of allone and allways: allone, especially, really added something to the meaning of alone for me.)
And then five things I’m fairly baffled about:
-The Creep. The villain of the piece, and I guess it’s possible to just see him/her/it as something like the twirly-mustache-black-cape figure of melodrama, but there actually is something creepy about him. The book felt most like House of Leaves to me in his sections: the purple-pink in which his name appears somehow leaving you with this dread akin to some of the colored words and typographic effects in HoL. He is described in such mysterious ways: he might be simply a concentrate of dark American impulses towards taking what we want when we want it, or a sort of “dark side” of Sam and Hailey, or something else entirely (in my brief dabbling on the OR forums on Z’s website, I came across a thread suggesting Creep might be the destructive aspect of Sam/Hailey in the other’s narrative. Interesting, but I remain baffled.)
-“Flash, searing lime to wide.” Wha? I guess it’s the lightning to the “ThUuuUuunder” on the opposite side of the page. But why lime? Why wide? And why the lightning/thunder at all? I appreciate the assonance, and the attempt (maybe?) at the effect of really bright lightning on the backs of your eyelids. It just seems so out of context whenever it appears.
-The small circles in the corners of a few pages. These are black circles with gold or green “irises”, or near the end of each narrative, the book’s symbol of two lines in a circle. Never really got my mind around what these were meant to indicate, except (perhaps) a restarting of the narrative for the two-line-circle symbol.
-The Leftwrist Twists. Either watches or bracelets, made of materials from “Shit” to “Gold”; since the book itself is a timepiece of sorts, these are perhaps just a reflexive way of pointing to that fact. Again, though, the frequent references to these are dropped into the narrative in a jarring, seemingly random (but surely not) way of which I could never quite seem to grasp the full significance.
-The marriage and consummation. Somehow I’ve gotten through all this without discussing the sex. It seems so out of step with the whole tone of the rest of the book that Hailey only comes, and Sam only refrains from withdrawing, after their marriage. Why is this marriage necessary? Is Z actually trying to say something about responsibility, abstinence, “safe sex,” or is it a contrivance to discuss prohibited forms of marriage in America, or a way to link to Romeo and Juliet, or what? I think it does have to do with S&H committing to each other — valuing the other over the self — but for some reason the marriage bothered me, in such a heightened, stylized, idyllic work.
July 19, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Only Revolutions.
I feel like I’ve been rather too crabby about the book in my previous posts. It undeniably gets bogged down after the escape from St. Louis, around p. 220, after the truly amazing and hallucinatory effect of the center of the book, when both sides of the narrative on each page mirror each other as well as mirroring the other half of the narrative retreating away into the other half of the book — it’s really wonderful, a genuine delight. (It made me giggle.) From 224 or so to p. 312, it’s a slog.
But from then on, it’s a bloody miracle. (You should probably stop reading this if you want to go into the book without knowing how it ends.) The urgency and passion of the language in those last 8 sections is astonishing. Somewhere along the line you realize you’ve been reading Romeo and Juliet again, only it’s as if Shakes had written R&J after King Lear. Just… heartbreaking.
And theoretically, at least, we’re unsure what has happened in the end, but then we’ve been bludgeoned over the head with the fact that the book is a circle — so conveniently it’s right there, on the flip-side of the final page. And those mysterious first lines begin to make a kind of sense.
For Sam it’s “Haloes! Haleskarth!/ Contraband!” “Haloes” neatly combines circularity with death-imagery and saintliness; “Haleskarth” is an obsolete word meaning “free from injury” (thanks, OED); “Contraband” is a tricky one with an obvious meaning which doesn’t make much sense. Since Sam’s narrative starts in the middle of the Civil War, “contraband” has a very specific slang meaning at the time: a fugitive slave was contraband. Is Sam “contraband” in that he’s escaped from the enslavement of death, or in that he feels himself as “smuggled” out of the grave into a new life? Or is he (also) an actual fugitive slave — is that his role at the book’s opening?
Hailey begins with “Samsara! Samarra!/ Grand!” (Notice each begins their narrative with the other’s initial, and that second-line cross-narrative rhyme.) “Samsara” is, in Indian philosophy, “the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound” (thanks again, OED). “Samarra” is a kind of garment to be worn by those burned at the stake during the Inquisition, but it could also be a reference to An Appointment in Samarra: a commonplace for the inevitability of death. “Grand!” could have some meaning of which I’m unaware, but I think it’s mostly just an exclamation of delight and surprise.
From these obscure meanings and their place at the beginning/rebeginning of the narratives, we can reread the early sections as a kind of reimmersion in life for both reborn characters: from these early indications that they know they’ve been reborn to their early characterizations as deities or earth-spirits of sorts, to their reimmersion in human life, to their conjoined lives and their love of one another, their placing another’s needs before their own. Is it this that allows rebirth?
July 18, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Only Revolutions.
Reading next: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau.
Here’s a fact smuggled into the copyright page of Only Revolutions: the book has a descriptive subtitle. It is The Democracy of Two Set Out & Chronologically Arranged.
The Democracy of Two: and right away, we are invited to view the work as an American allegory, something like The Pilgrim’s Progress. (Side note: as a kid, when I first heard of that work, I thought it was funny that its author was named Bunyan, like Paul Bunyan.) Plus one of the characters is named Sam, as in Uncle Sam. And Sam and Hailey refer to themselves as “US,” in caps, throughout.
Then there’s one of the more compelling motifs in the work: the phrase “Everyone [verb]s the Dream but I [verb] it.” The first time it appears in each narrative, in the fifth line, it is “Everyone loves the Dream but I kill it.” And so we’re led to believe that “the Dream” is the American Dream.
But what’s the American Dream? The meaning and its application are as fluid as everything else in this book, but Sam and Hailey, these apparent stand-ins for America, are constantly framing themselves as in opposition to it or outside of it: they’re eternal teenagers, after all (“allways sixteen,” in the book’s phrasing), with teenagers’ typical reflexive insistence on “individuality,” on rebellion against whatever’s there to rebel against, with no real examination of whether the status quo is worth rebelling against, or whether their rebellion takes worthwhile forms.
Then again, America is supposed to be the place where you are free to pursue happiness whatever it may be: the status quo is there precisely to be challenged, to be shown that definitions of liberty, happiness, and reasonable conduct as codified in such things as laws, business practices, and the arts become ossified and need constant reevaluation. One of the most expertly executed facets of this book is the interplay between the real-world events in the chronological sidebar and the lyrical word-collage of the narrative thread. Danielewski gets just right the allegorical import of Sam and Hailey’s adventures and the amount of period detail in the main narrative — such that in the two narrations of Sam and Hailey’s attempts at marriage, the 1990s attempt is equated with a homosexual marriage, the 1950s attempt with an interracial marriage. (That these two marriages, like all of the book’s events, take place in precisely the same place in their respective narratives, thereby reflecting upon each other, is one of the payoffs of the book’s circular structure and repetitive style. Personally, I found the dual marriages one of the more heavy-handed uses of this pseudo-historical technique, not to mention quite confusing in terms of S&H’s character development, but it works really well as agitprop.)
Freedom is what the Dream often comes down too, and the trickiness of negotiating the limits of that freedom. Another of the book’s strategic misspellings comes into play: the word fear is here feer, a rearrangement of free. The progress of Sam and Hailey is fascinating in this light: they are supremely “free” at the book’s beginning, insisting on their abilities to do whatever they want, to destroy and create, to impose themselves on the World: “I’ll devastate the world,” says Sam (Hailey uses “destroy”), “I will sacrifice nothing./ For there are no countries./ Except me. And there is only/ one boundary. Me.” But as they come to know and love each other, this rhetoric softens: there is more “feer,” more concern for the other, less braggadocio and posturing (although it’s interesting to consider whether it is posturing, at the book’s beginning: or are Sam and Hailey also two aspects of a destroyer/creator god: a SHiva, of sorts?) Freedom is the freedom to fear.
July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.
I will get into the specifics of what this very strange book might be about and how it might work soon, but first I can’t resist talking about the book itself: its physical form, its extravagant typography and layout, and the experience of reading it. And in fact, as in all books, but especially in this strange one, that experience is a very large part of its subject and function.
Only Revolutions is a Choose Your Own Adventure: there is no set way of reading it. Although there is a publisher-recommended way, the reader has to make many choices based simply on the book’s unusual presentation. There are two title pages, one for the “story” by Sam, the other for Hailey. The Sam-story and the Hailey-story start from opposite ends and meet in the middle, then go back the other way: the story you’re not reading is always upside-down on the page. From the jacket flap: “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam and Hailey, reading eight pages at a time.” They rather strongly suggest that — or, I suspect, Danielewski does — by introducing every ninth page with a large initial letter, intimating a break at the end of the previous page. (And yes, I’ve followed this suggestion.) But of course, you can start from either end. And you can certainly disregard the advice and read all the way through one story, then all the way through the other.
But further, there is also more than one section of text on every page: there’s a main body of varying size and layout which looks suspiciously like verse, but always mostly right-justified on versos and left-justified on rectos. In the gutter of each page is a sidebar, in small (different) font: a chronology of real-life national and world events, from 1863 to 2005. (There are also empty sidebars up to 2063.) These sidebar snapshots can be rather cryptic, given the space restraints and the author’s stylistic preferences: a typical line from World War II reads “6 German saboteurs go” (go being a multivalent word in the book, but very often meaning die). Many are even less descriptive: a simple number, the meaning of which is only revealed (or not) after later repetitions. (I hate to do this to someone as cool as Danielewski obviously is, but the device is reminiscent of nothing so much as the wildly popular but, in retrospect, horribly embarrassing Billy Joel boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)
You can choose to read these and attempt to decipher them or just skim for a sense of time and zeitgeist or utterly ignore them as annoying contrivance, simply acknowledging their perceived use in the book. But if you do pay attention to them, you can also choose what kind of meaning you wish to assign to them: are they summarizing events contemporaneous with the personal events in the main body of text? Are they only a kind of symbolic anchoring of the themes of the text in the history of the “real” world? What is the purpose of the bizarre but rigorously uniform phrasing and syntax and style evident in the sidebars — a cipher or code, or (dare I dream?) a kind of Oulipian game, or merely a sort of literary ticker-tape, or what?
But wait! There’s more! The letter “o” and the number zero always appear in green ink in Sam’s narrative, gold in Hailey’s. The page numbers — two for each page, one for each narrative — appear on the side of the page, in two circles within a larger circle; the numbers rotate 360 degrees around each other through the course of the book. The sidebar dates appear in a kind of deep magenta. And the word “creep” (and character The Creep) also appears in a kind of reddish-purple (which may or may not be the same as the date-magenta — I really can’t tell if there’s a difference, because of the different sizes and fonts). Also, characters’ names (and some important objects) besides Sam and Hailey appear in small caps. Names of animals in Sam’s narrative, and plants in Hailey’s, appear in boldface (gray boldface in the second half).
Beyond all that, the book features across its boards a gorgeous photographic collage of plants and animals in green and gold and earth-tones, and on its two dust jacket covers extreme close-ups of a green-flecked gold iris and a gold-flecked green iris. Plus two slightly different jacket blurbs — one for Sam, one for Hailey. Also, gold and green ribbons, for keeping your place. And a “concordance” of many overlapping circles of words on both sets of endpapers, to be read in a mirror.
If you’ve read his first book, House of Leaves (a book I utterly adore, and a real candidate for my favorite book of the decade), this is not exactly a surprise — but Jesus, what a load of paratext! It is tempting to read it as a conceptual poem: more like Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work than Joyce’s, even though Finnegan’s Wake is what first springs to mind as a comparison, in that its existing is as much or more the point as anything it actually says.
That’s an overstatement, because documentation of the process is certainly not the end point of Z’s work, but it leads me to one of the things I find so interesting about the book’s format. This is a book, published in 2006, and very much about cosmic themes of birth and death and renewal and obsolescence, which is also very much about being a book published in 2006, about what a book might be. I don’t know how much Z actually thought about the book’s publication/marketing during its composition — while I think writers don’t much like thinking about publishing, I think Z is perforce an exception — but I think the folks at Pantheon/Random House must’ve thought of the book as a way to make “the book” hip again. I think they had to think of it as futuristic/avant-garde/cutting-edge, for promotional purposes. And perhaps it is; it certainly would’ve been utterly impossible to commercially produce 20-30 years ago. But it also strikes me as, possibly, a kind of death-knell: a really remarkable piece of decadent bookmaking, an example of digital typography and layout and contemporary cheap-but-flashy binding run amok, the kind of thing that gets designed and pushed by a really very respectable publisher and nominated for the National Book Award when “the book” is going through a massive identity crisis.
In some ways the book is very book-specific, in that the look of it and the rotation of the book 360 degrees to read the other narrative and the thematic import of its typography and layout are meant to be quite profoundly part of the book’s meaning — its “content.” In other ways it’s very hypertextual: one of those works moving past the book, which only feels constrained when it’s moved from a screen where it can more fully interact with a reader or “user” to a page.
None of which I mean to detract from the work itself, which is really quite remarkable in many respects. It just strikes me, when I look at it on the table, and when I hold it in my hand, and when I read its overflowing pages, as being simultaneously a very exciting and very sad thing. And even though I’ve just spilled a lot of language about it, I’m still not sure I’ve quite captured why that is.
July 10, 2009 § Leave a comment
Finished a while ago: The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford.
Jeffrey Ford is another of those “new fabulists” or whatever you want to call them: he writes good, weird stuff. He’s more of a straightforward fantasy writer than someone like Kelly Link, but he’s also doing really interesting things both within and between genres. This is a solid story collection, a thoroughly enjoyable read. My favorite stories were the title story (a great story about synesthesia which made me wonder why I have never read any other stories about synesthesia), “Botch Town” (actually a novella, and a great one, something like a blend of Stephen King’s “The Body” and Bradbury’s Green Town stories, but creepier), and “The Green Word” (which I happened to read right before seeing Hellboy II; the awesome Elemental in that movie is very reminiscent of this story).
But the story that’s going to stick with me the most is probably “The Weight of Words,” which is an utterly ingenious satire on advertising. A savant named Albert Secmatte has cracked the pseudo-mathematical code by which language functions, enabling him to manipulate words in such a way that hidden messages can be smuggled in plain sight into any kind of missive. Inevitably, a powerful businessman places his faith in Secmatte, who begins to write feel-good flyers encouraging people to enjoy life, be kind to others, etc., hiding advertising messages therein. These messages prove utterly irresistible; even the narrator, who assists Secmatte in his endeavor, finds himself smoking the brand of cigarettes Secmatte is writing copy for. All of this is set in motion by another, more personal, kind of advertising: the narrator’s desire to win back his wife, who’s left him for another man. He takes as his payment for assisting Secmatte a letter which contains the wordsmith’s wooing magic.
The advertisements here are effective, we are led to believe, because of Secmatte’s powerful word-equations. But they’re also effective because they are unavoidable, unobtrusive, and associated with powerful messages: subliminal advertising doesn’t work, but this story’s found a way to imagine that it does. And of course, advertising is always trying to be subliminal: always trying to make us forget it’s advertising, and always trying to be noticed without making us think too much about the negative aspects of what it’s selling.
I find this story so interesting because the nightmarish scenario it posits is not a nightmare at all: it’s more or less the current state of affairs in the real world. We all think we’re immune to advertising; we all think there’s too much of it; we all think ads are crass, exploitative, manipulating fears and lusts and unhealthy urges. (Okay, maybe not all of us; but most, at least.) And yet it continues to work, continues to function, continues to do exactly what it wants to even when it’s in our plain sight. It wraps itself in pretty pictures and pleasing phrases and somehow it works.
You should read the story yourself, but I think the key to the satire — the critique — imbedded in the story is the letters to the narrator’s wife. Advertising is always trying to be about love, and yet it never understands it.
July 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Finished long ago: Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.
Reading now: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.
I’ve been traveling a lot this spring and summer (hence my very, very intermittent posts) — some for work, some for fun. Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a great travel book, although it’s made me itch to do the kind of travel I rarely get to anymore: the unhurried, meditative, purposefully digressive kind. (Only Revolutions, which so far as I’ve been able to glean is more or less a centuries-long allegorical road trip to no particular place, is not really helping to ease this itch, either. Come to think of it, The Savage Detectives was also singularly unhelpful.)
In Autonauts, Julio Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlop spend a month in a VW camper van driving down the French “autoroute,” stopping at every rest stop along the way, two per day, and doing nothing else — seeing “the other autoroute,” the one that does not exist for those who just use it as a means of quickest-possible transport. It’s the book’s playful, idiosyncratic, and finally bittersweet tone that makes it such a great read. It’s made up of photos and captions, “travel logs” of meals eaten, “observations” made of the rest stop flora and fauna, short essays on the nature of travel and time and dreams and their journey, and flights of fancy in the style of a scientific expedition.
(A digression: I’ve always wanted to travel around the country and live out of a homey little camper. When I was maybe 13 or 14 I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley mostly because I found the idea of traveling around in an apartment-truck with your dog more or less irresistible — and the section of the book about Steinbeck getting his truck ready is one of the few things I still remember about it. That was before I — or most people, really — thought about MPGs or carbon offsetting.)
It’s a book purporting to document the science of travel, but really it’s very much about an art: the art of memory. If we think of the historical art of memory as Frances Yates examined it, with its imaginary theatres and palaces filled with rooms of memories, travel is like a kind of very elaborate landscaping: the decoration upon which the inhabitants of the palace gaze. Isn’t travel a kind of device for making and recovering memories? We all remember vividly our favorite vacations, road trips, destinations. And while we’re traveling, can’t we see more perfectly than when we inhabit them our homes, and don’t we recall incidents from our lives with greater clarity?
I don’t know about you, but I also remember what I read when I travel much better than things I only read at home. It must be something about being mentally absorbed in a different place, in unusual surroundings. Some of my favorite memories are of reading something I love elsewhere: Ray Bradbury on a boat, Tom Jones in a Danish restaurant. My choice of reading material always seems more important to me if I’m going on a trip.