Guidelines for Literary Traveling Companions

September 30, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.

Have I mentioned before how important it is to pick a good book for traveling?  Going all the way to Seattle last week (thanks, Spiff!), with a side trip to Vancouver, I really thought hard about what I wanted to take.  I tend to better remember books that I read while traveling — something about the sensory connection of a fresh setting around the page, I think — so I want to pick something I’ll actually want to remember. I came up with this, and if I do say so myself, it was a great choice.  Here’s what I look for in a travel book:

Plot-driven.  You need something that can both take you away from the horror of being trapped in a metal tube miles above the earth for hours and give you a pleasurable read in a coffee shop while everyone else is working (if you’re traveling for pleasure rather than work, anyway).  This book involves demons, cabbalists, possibly haunted inns in the mountains of Spain, bandits, life stories, etc., etc.  It’s plot-tastic.

Episodic.  Partly this is just personal taste, but I also think episodic narratives nicely mirror the experience of traveling on vacation: a variety of incidents, different settings, small experiences.  Plus I tend to get bored with just one book while on vacation, so it’s nice to read a shortish episode and then move on to another book for a while.  TMFIS is divided into 66 days, and those days are further subdivided into stories and stories within stories.

Comedic elements.  No one wants too much angst while traveling, or on vacation.  It doesn’t have to be a laff riot, but a little humor helps.  Potocki has a somewhat peculiar, but very definite, sense of humor; much of this, as I’ll discuss later, is rather complexly self-referential.  There’s some broad humor in the plot itself, as well.

Long — epic, even. Because when else are you going to get around to it?  TMFIS is a doorstop: over 600 densely-printed pages.

Long-awaited.  Something I’ve meant to read for a long time; often a classic nicely fits this bill.  I’ve been drooling over TMFIS for years.

Easy to transport, no big deal to damage. Cheap, easily replaced paperbacks are good.  Expensive first editions, not so much.  What I’ve got here is a Penguin Classics edition which got beat to hell on the trip, but survived.

So I picked a real winner this time.  Judging by these criteria, Don Quixote is probably the all-time champion of vacation lit.  I took Tom Jones to Denmark and that was also great, although not quite as episodic as I might have liked.  This is also full of stories within stories, all within plot-based and form-based framing structures.  Enough to make me swoon.

Speaking of DQ, Potocki clearly loved it, and the book often reads like an amalgam of Boccaccio and Cervantes, with some Ann Radcliffe thrown in (the Gothic was so hot in the 1810s!)  The framing device is strongly reminiscent of Cervantes, with the supposed manuscript of the title being found in a box some 40 years after its apparent writing, then dictated to its finder from its original Spanish into French.  A transcript of a spoken translation of a manuscript of unknown credibility: way to destabilize the text, Jan!  (There’s all kinds of weirdness around Potocki’s own manuscript and the publication of the book, too, which I won’t go into, but which is equally fascinating and destabilizing.)

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Welcome to the Dream-Factory

September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Dangerous Laughter.

Reading next: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki and The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders.

Libraries and their ilk play a surprising large role in this collection, starting with “The Room in the Attic,” maybe my favorite story in the book (either that or “A Precursor of the Cinema,” which is just rad).

The title of this post is taken from “The Room in the Attic,” and spoken by Wolf, Dave the narrator’s super-cool, iconoclastic, book-addicted friend.  Here’s the full passage:

“A book,” he [Wolf] declared, “is a dream-machine.” He said this one day when we were sitting on the steps of the town library, leaning back against the pillars.  “Its purpose,” he said, ” is to take you out of the world.”  He jerked his thumb toward the doors of the library, where I worked for two hours a day after school, three days a week.  “Welcome to the dream-factory.”

Of course, this is not an orthodox argument for the American public library system, or for research libraries, for that matter.  Library administrators, organizations like ALA, and well wishers are forced to base arguments for the importance of libraries on things like early literacy and young adult after-school programs, continuing education, provision of internet access for the poor, and arts programming.  Mostly libraries are getting away from promoting themselves as places that hold books, which seems hopelessly retrograde and static.  (Instead they, especially those that deal with “youth,” are all about ridiculous promotions like hosting gaming nights and making sure they have a presence on Second Life.)  Books?  God, how embarrassing!

And yet, there it is: “Welcome to the dream-factory.”  This plays out in a rather literal sense in many libraries: college kids, preschoolers, the homeless napping and (one would think) dreaming.  We in libraries, for whatever reason, resist the idea that we are places to dream.  We have been singularly bad about instilling a sense of wonder in our patrons about what libraries make available to them.  This is perhaps a self-defeating argument: libraries as public resources are an American concept, and Americans insisted on them because they were efficient means of equalizing availability to information and creating an informed citizenry.

Something in me has always bristled at the idea of libraries as merely information repositories, and, indeed, at the naming of my own chosen field as “Library Science.”  Wolf goes on to make clear that he sees books as his way out of the world he finds boring and worthy of contempt; and yes, there is something subversive embedded in the idea of the library, as it now exists in America.  It is where you can learn whatever you want to learn — not what anyone tells you you must read.  It is where you go to make your own world.  It is where you go for dreams, fantasies, utopias; knowledge and wisdom, not (just) data and information.  Libraries are some of the few places left in America that create and cultivate idiosyncrasy, free thinking, and, yes, dreams and visions.  They deal with the crackpots and the geniuses that will not be dismissed as crackpots for long.  These are valuable services.

At the other end of the collection is “Here at the Historical Society.”  This is one of a handful of rather Borgesian stories here.  Its unnamed narrator explains the recent changes in his Historical Society’s curatorial and exhibition policies: because “the present is the past made visible,” the staff now “go out each day to observe and classify a world that is already a part of the historical record.”  In other words, everything belongs in the Historical Society; and candy-bar wrappers and other bits of trash are equally worthy of curation and exhibition as historical artifacts as are arrowheads and other more traditionally “historical” materials.  This is rather the opposite of Wolf’s “dream-factory.”  (Or is it that idea’s logical conclusion?)

The story is the archival equivalent of the headache-inducing idea of the universal library — Borges’s “Library of Babel.”  And frankly, Millhauser is not far off: there has certainly been a shift toward collecting more of the materials of daily life in special collections and archives.  Where everyone once wanted the papers of world leaders, they now crave the diaries of frustrated housewives and the letters of the few literate slaves.  Where the mission was once seen as documenting history, it is now seen as documenting life.

As someone who tries to make these kinds of decisions — what’s worth keeping?  How much more valuable is a 400-year-old document than a 4-year-old document?  Will anyone care about a current organization in 10, 100, 1000 years? — this is a profoundly frustrating thought.  Millhauser’s narrator talks about the Historical Society’s initiative as a way of seeing the world in full, of being enthralled by the world as its own museum, everything a priceless connection to the past and future; but of course, the story is also a satire, and this is closer to the reaction that many people have to this kind of work: Why in the world would you want to save my papers?

For me, at least, the story comes off as satirical at first, but somehow gets more sincere but also more troubling the more I think about it.  Do archives, museums, libraries help people better understand their world?  Do they function well either as a dream-factory or as a knowledge generator?  Or do they merely present a distorted view of the world — an inevitably and unavoidably incomplete picture of an instantly bygone world?  As a librarian, I’ve obviously made my decisions on these questions, at least at a practical level; they nevertheless need to be kept in mind.  It is always important to remember that we are much closer to knowing (and to preserving) nothing rather than everything.  (See also: Rumsfeld’s immortal “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”)

Unconquered to the Last?

September 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

Had it only been a gale instead of a calm, gladly would we have charged upon it with our gallant bowsprit, as with a stout lance in rest; but, as with mankind, this serene, passive foe — unresisting and irresistible — lived it out, unconquered to the last.  -Melville, White-Jacket

Millhauser’s story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” reminded me of that passage, which had itself reminded me when I first read it of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: the calm “I would prefer not to.”  Of course, the ambiguity of Bartleby’s stand is legendary: it’s a very open question whether he died “unconquered to the last,” firm in his refusal, or died a broken automaton, something less than a human being, or somewhere in between.  But Melville’s statement about the gale here did first bring to mind Bartleby — whatever he might have meant to Melville, he certainly has taken on heroic stature, or at least a kind of grandeur through boredom.

And Bartleby has stayed on my mind after reading Millhauser’s story.  It’s a powerful story, itself like a calm at sea in its implacability and plainness.  The only truly unusual rhetorical flash comes from the use of first-person plural in the opening, which dissolves into a somewhat generic singular.  And it leaves you with the dual mysteries of what exactly happened to Elaine Coleman — who disappears from her apartment with no trace of abduction or escape — and how we should feel about this disappearance.

The story itself conveys an almost overwhelming sadness, and it is tempting to sympathize with the narrator when he finds himself, and the rest of his community, culpable for her vanishing, and for her apparently lonely existence as a wallflower, by their incuriosity about her.  But of course, as with Bartleby, there is another way to see it: perhaps it was a heroic act, this vanishing.  Perhaps it was the ultimate expression of Elaine Coleman’s contempt for her degraded world.  Perhaps it was not a fate imposed on her by the absence of community interest, but a fate chosen, cultivated, and finally acted upon by someone who would prefer not to be seen.  (You could argue that the first-person plural supports this argument, acting as a kind of homogeneous, mundane chorus — “For days we spoke of nothing else” — against which Elaine’s act seems even more radical.)

Ultimately, I think this — and, to a lesser extent, the depiction of Bartleby as tragic hero — is a rather strained interpretation.  Both Melville and Millhauser see the need to be serenely, passively “unconquered to the last” as unspeakably sad.  Bartleby is something singular: a cipher, but a necessary one, whose stand has a kind of meaning and merit that is made apparent even in the story’s bleakness and the pointlessness of his death.  It is possible to legitimately make the argument for Bartleby as a symbol of passive resistance.

Elaine Coleman, on the other hand, is rather like Eleanor Rigby; the story gets much of its strength from her status as a kind of ghost flickering at the edges of the narrator’s vision, as he tries to remember her, incidents he might have shared with her, times he might have engaged her but did not.  It is a kind of horror story, but a different kind than “Bartleby”: to me, at least, it feels more personal.  There’s something horrifying about the idea of being this kind of marginal figure in even your own story — the kind of person that could vanish for lack of popular interest.  I think Millhauser tried very hard to avoid being condescending to his absent creation, Elaine.  Later stories in the collection show the author has deep interest in and sympathy for the Elaines of the world.  It’s hard to avoid being maudlin about lonely people; hard for many people to understand that loneliness is not necessarily thrust upon everyone who lives alone, or that some people prefer not to be sociable (there’s that phrase again).

(Sidebar: is “Eleanor Rigby” maudlin?  I think many people find it so, maybe mostly because there’s the intimation that Eleanor’s a spinster; I don’t know, I still find it more heartbreaking than maudlin.  Hard to argue against it being at least a little condescending, though.)

Two Bluebeards, Four Passages

September 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: A Child Again.

Well, I had grand plans to do a whole comparison of Coover’s Bluebeard retelling, “The Last One,” with Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”  It’s interesting how Coover chose to use the first-person perspective of Bluebeard himself, while the child bride narrates Carter’s early-twentieth-century update; and the treatment of Bluebeard’s twisted psychology in each is worth considering, and their varying depictions of sex and sexuality; and their endings differ in useful ways, pedagogically speaking; but I find it hard to compare anything to Angela Carter.  It’s not really Coover’s fault — just about any other retelling would seem facile by comparison.

So I’ll just say: read “The Bloody Chamber.”  And if you’re going to pick up A Child Again, here were my four favorite stories (besides “McDuff on the Mound,” discussed previously), with favorite passages from each:

-“Punch.”  Yes, narrated by Punch the puppet, going through his show.

It’s not that easy, you villain, says the hangman with a cruel laugh.  Prepare to meet your Maker.  I already know him, says I.  He’s a drunken wanker.  That’s enough now, Mister Punch, just put your head in here.  I’ve never done this before, says I.  I don’t know how.  Show me.  He does and I jerk the rope and hang him.  There’s nothing to it.  He’s dancing on air.  I whistle a little tune.  The mob loves me for it.  I’m a fucking hero.

-“Playing House.”  Which is creepily reminiscent of House of Leaves, and also its own very strange thing, about dark and light, story and reality.

Once there was a house, goes another story we have heard, called the House of Anxiety, in which the corridors all led onto other corridors, provoking ceaseless motion without respite, the rooms all trapped somehow between, if in fact there were any.  The story says there were, but how can a story know?  We suppose these rooms exist in a story where they do not exist simply because a house qua house is unimaginable without them.  We call it the Fallacy of A Priori Judgment.  Still naming things.

-“The Return of the Dark Children,” which I’ve mentioned before: a great story, a perfectly timely sequel to the Pied Piper tale.

And at home, in their rooms, when the children played with their dolls and soldiers and toy castles, the dark children with their mysterious ways now always played a part in their little dramas.  One could hear them talking to the dark children, the dark children speaking back in funny squeaky voices that quavered like a ghost’s.  Even if it was entirely invented, an imaginary world made out of scraps overheard from parents and teachers, it was the world they chose to live in now, rather than the one provided by their loving families, which was, their parents often felt, a kind of betrayal, lack of gratitude, lost trust.

-“Suburban Jigsaw,” a puzzle-story about serial fornication in the suburbs (if you’re going to write about this, might as well make a game of it).

Capricious.  Malicious.  Vicious.  Delicious.  Perverse.  Curse.  Verse.  Or worse.  Gross.  Eros.  Is that a rhyme?  Hmm.  A dose is.  Verbose.  No, she is not verbose.  She’s ribald.  He scribbled.  Improper.  A showstopper.  A whirly girly.  Illicit.  So, kiss it.  Don’t miss it.  Obscene Irene.  Lean and mean.  She’s offbeat.  Indiscreet.  Street meat in heat.  Rick is sitting all alone beside Lily’s pool like the period at the end of a sentence, tripping (ripping? flipping?) on her little pills and searching for the right words (it’s easy, they’re flying all about him) to describe the crazy creature from the corner bar for a lyric he is writing, probably not for the Sunday supplement.

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