The Second Person in Citizen: An American Lyric

January 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.

Reading next: Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, by Charles Brockden Brown.

Citizen seems a more or less unclassifiable piece of literature, as you read it, but its genre is right there in the subtitle: An American Lyric. That’s a choice that points in multiple directions. Most immediately we think of song lyrics.  While much of the book does not strike the reader as lyrical in this way — there are (what look like) paragraphs of prose along with sections that use line breaks we associate more with poetry — it’s a perfectly appropriate association for the kind of multimedia, multivocal, multigenre artwork that Rankine creates here. It also hints at the of-the-moment nature of the subject, of the violence that continues to be inflicted on black bodies, minds, and souls — particularly thanks to the book’s cover design, which pairs the title with artist David Hammons’ piece In the Hood, which immediately brings Trayvon Martin to mind (though its creation predates his murder by 20 years).  Lyric can also refer to a certain clarity, lightness, and moderation in a singing voice; I’m not sure I see that definition applying here, but I’d love to hear from someone with more musical knowledge than I have about it.

Then there’s the other definition, less everyday to us now but perhaps more resonant here, of the millennia-old tradition of lyric poetry which is focused on the direct expression of the poet’s emotions and passions. Not epic, not drama: affect, not action.  And a claim to a particularly American version of that tradition. The two valences of the title and its subtitle come together, in a way, in the work’s most famous passage, which is, I venture, the first iconic poetic verse of this century (at least insofar as we’re separating song lyrics from written poetry):

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black people are dying

That was really the only passage I knew from Citizen before reading it, along with the powerful “In Memory of” page it follows, which includes the names of African Americans killed by police in recent years (sadly updated with new names as the book is reprinted).  So I was surprised to find that most of it is written in the second person, from the point of view of a nameless “You.”

This seems to me a bold, brilliant choice.  The “You” narrator places the reader in an uncanny position. On the one hand, the reader is directly addressed, placed in the position of the subject of the work: the one experiencing the emotions, the reactions to the countless slights and aggressions and accumulation of daily “mistakes” that lead to the sense that “You” are something less than a full citizen of the nation.  On the other, “You” has a peculiar distancing effect. Because we are much more familiar with works in the first or third persons, in which we immerse ourselves in the perspective of an “I” or a “he/she/it” with whom we can identify but who is distinctly not us, the narration introduces a kind of dissonance into the reading.  There’s a numbness to narration by a “You,” a flatness.  A sentence like “You are enraged by what you just experienced!” comes off as cartoonish.  It wouldn’t work (or, rather, it works only in very specific contexts, such as text-based video games, role-playing campaigns, and some children’s books).  Another master of the “You” narrator is Lorrie Moore, and many of her stories have a similar deadpan manner that introduces equal parts comedy and grief.

So much of what Rankine writes about here relates to the lived experience of the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and many others, of African-American double and/or dual consciousness: of seeing one’s self through the eyes of the dominant, colonialist society, of the African, European, American parts of one’s heritage and culture leading to a feeling of fragmented identity. (Apologies for this surely gross oversimplification.)  The “You” narrator allows Rankine a particularly powerful tool for expressing her experience across races and genders, and bringing readers into that experience.  How is it received within the body of African-American readers, of African-American women readers? I’m curious.

Postscript: I tend not to read criticism until I’ve written something down, and I came across two wonderful series about Citizen from the L. A. Review of Books after writing this.  All are quite a bit more cogent and fluent discussions of the book than mine and very much worth reading if you’re interested in the book; on the “You” narrator, see especially Evie Shockley’s “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric'” in Symposium Part 1: Roundtable Part 1, Roundtable Part 2, Symposium Part 1, Symposium Part 2.

On the Nickering of Thunder

August 17, 2013 § 2 Comments

Just finished: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell.

Reading next: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.

Right near the beginning of the first story in Karen Russell’s first book, there’s a short sentence like a litmus test:

The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker.

How’s that grab you?  Out of context, at the basic level of language, I would say that it’s lovely: rhythm, assonance, the particular sound and sense of place and time that it evokes, the spice of unusual word choice and the use of the adjective “gentle” as a verb.  Beautiful.

There are complicating factors, however.  There’s that “has.”  We’re in present-perfect tense, and the story as a whole is in the present tense.  And there’s the fact that the story is narrated by a twelve-year-old. The twelve-year-old is not, apparently, any kind of savant, or genius, or literature aficionado.  The twelve-year-old is a twelve-year-old, in a swamp.

So whether or how you can justify to yourself a twelve-year-old’s usage of the sentence “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” will go a long way to determining whether you can appreciate, or even tolerate, the stories in this collection.  Many of them are concerned with and narrated by twelve-year-olds and others on the verge of adolescence, in the present tense.  The situations in which they find themselves are brilliantly imagined and otherworldly, partaking of the “new weird” or new fabulist blending of genres.  There are underwater ghosts and  a sleepaway camp for those with unusual sleep disorders and a minotaur on something like the Oregon Trail and the titular home for the children of werewolves.  And yet it’s hard to focus on any of that when the stories are perversely in the present tense, and narrated by twelve-year-olds who compose thoughts and/or sentences such as “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” but who are not, by all accounts, graduates of well-regarded MFA programs.

A Nabokovian Reading of Ishmael

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Moby-Dick.

Everyone who’s read or even read about Moby-Dick knows that Ishmael is a weird entity, a hybrid of character, limited and omniscient narrator, and authorial representative.  He shows and tells us things he, as a character, could not possibly have seen or heard.  But he came across as even weirder than I remember on this reading, if only because I was able to pick up more of the details than on previous readings, my attention focused on the bigger picture of understanding the novel.

The possibility of reading Ishmael as a Nabokovian trickster-narrator occurred to me on this reading — the possibility of Ishmael as a deliberately duplicitous narrator, a figure who indicates the fictional nature of his own composition and implicates the real-life author, as well.  It’s a half-facetious argument: some of the explanation for Ishmael’s weirdness lies, I’m convinced, in Melville’s being carried away by his passionate composition and his insistence that his text say what he wanted to express, whether or not it meant betraying the verisimilitude of the narrative and the character.  And so his character is given some of Melville’s own backstory and some elaborate incidents of his own, is thrown into situations to move the story along whenever convenient, etc.  But some of this does seem, if not deliberate, at least playfully possible as a legitimate reading, thanks to Melville’s gift for compelling detail, instructive incident, and frequent allusion.

Along with the first line of the book, the famously ambiguous “Call me Ishmael” (“call” you that because it’s not your real name, and you want to protect your identity, or “call” you that because you’re really the author and are assuming a persona?), the linchpin for an argument like this is probably the mention of a Captain D’Wolf in chapter 45, “The Affadavit.”  Ishmael has “the honor of being a nephew of his,” we’re told, and has confirmed with D’Wolf the truth of the whaling incident just described.  Interesting, this sidelight into Ishmael’s family (one of two, the other being the incident in which Ishmael’s stepmother sends him to bed in the middle of the afternoon described in an earlier post), especially considering his self-image as an “orphan” and “outcast.”  But more interesting is the fact that this Captain D’Wolf really was Melville’s uncle: “Nor’west” John D’Wolf.  (See here: as you can see, this message is part of a website about the film Traces of the Trade, about the slave trade, in which the D’Wolf family was heavily involved.  Also interesting, if not quite on topic.)

And so, if you knew Melville personally, or knew the D’Wolfs — and they were a famous family, and America was a much smaller place, so this was not unlikely — this punches a hole right through the mask of the character Ishmael to reveal the face of the author Melville.  This historical, verifiable D’Wolf is not the uncle of any Ishmael: he’s Melville’s.  And we’re suddenly on the unstable ground of nonfiction v. “realist” fiction v. self-consciously unreliable fiction.  And it’s utterly delightful that this mention occurs in “The Affadavit” — this half-serious, half-joking document attesting to the truth of Ishmael’s assertions, in which he relates whaling incidents he’s read about and those he’s “personally known.”

The trickster nature of Ishmael pops up often, of course, in his relation of incidents in Ahab’s cabin, of thoughts and private soliloquies he could not have heard — his apparent transformation into a spirit or god, until his reincarnation as the survivor Ishmael in the Epilogue.  But charting the course of his life after the novel’s close through mentions in the book also destabilizes his characterization.  Mentions of Ishmael’s working as a “schoolmaster” (in the very first chapter) and of his obsessive research into whales and whaling (throughout the heart of the book) lead one to look back on the prefaces to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” and wonder if that “late consumptive usher” and “sub-sub-librarian” are not, in fact, Ishmael himself: if his painting them in such pathetic colors is not a sign of self-loathing or remorse for his wasted life.  But then there are also frequent allusions to the many other voyages he’s made on whalers and other ships, the ports he’s stopped at, the adventures he’s had, the wisdom he’s found.  “The Town-Ho’s Story” is but the most famous example: Ishmael recounting the story he heard during the Town-Ho‘s gam with the Pequod to his Spanish friends in Lima some years later.  There’s also the utterly remarkable incident chapter 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides,” as Ishmael is able to measure a whale’s skeleton which has been converted into an idol.  Here’s the astonishing passage I’d forgotten:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.  But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches…

I mean… wow.  Ishmael, so astounded by Queequeg’s cosmological tribal tattoos at the book’s onset, has become an illustrated man himself.  That he did not mention it earlier surely means that this occurred after the Pequod‘s voyage.

So, to summarize.  We are to believe that Ishmael the composer of Moby-Dick, the lone lucky survivor of the Pequod disaster, is not traumatized by this experience into sticking to the land at all, but instead goes back to the sea constantly, taking many more trips not only on merchant vessels, but on whalers.  He becomes just as obsessed with whales and the white whale especially as much as Ahab ever was; he is a very old, very weathered and wizened sailor, covered in tattoos as surely startling as Queequeg’s once were to him.  The book is written on his body, perhaps, just as Queequeg’s understanding of the universe is written on his.  The book is as much an exorcism of his whaling demons as it is a chapter of his life recollected in tranquility.

All of which is not necessarily Nabokovian, except for the ending.  Provocative statement for discussion and debate: Moby-Dick has the craziest, most ludicrous ending of any great book.  As the ship sinks rapidly in its awful vortex, Tashtego, drowning, all but his arms underwater, still manages to continue hammering a red flag to the mast, and catches the wing of a “sky-hawk” in between his hammer and the mast, bringing it down with the ship.  In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, Howard Vincent somewhat hilariously tries to defend this as “perhaps [Melville’s] masterpiece of style.”  Um, yeah.  Style does not change the fact that this scene is bat-shit insane, and always has been, even by Romantic standards.

Does the vortex scene ultimately destabilize Ishmael as a reliable narrator?  Does it convince us that he, the character who supposedly shipped on the Pequod and supposedly survived its wreck, is making it up, Pale Fire-style?  Has Ishmael the author (or, beyond him, a fictional “Melville”) been driven insane by his whale obsession and his cowardice, driven to compose an overheated narrative about a monster whale, a demonic captain, and his incredible survival of a massive shipwreck — of which he is, conveniently, the only survivor, the tale therefore unverifiable — supported by an overabundance of “evidence” from his many supposed voyages, his years of “wandering,” and his extensive research (but really from just a few printed sources)?

Well, no.  The greatness of Melville’s book does not lie in its destabilization of the author as authority or the intricate interplay between narrator and reader.  But it’s a testament to the expanse, the capacity, of this book, that it can absorb this sort of reading, too.  And it is fun to imagine the book in this alternate-universe sort of way, as a giant hoax, a massive documentation of an unstable mind.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Two: Film Culture

February 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Reading next: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, and Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.

Movies are everywhere in this book.  Just for one memorable example: when 10-year-old Elvis gets hooked on going to the latest Bollywood movies with his cousin Efua, he starts stealing the money his grandmother gives him to mail letters to her pen pals around the world.  But he needs to keep giving her responses so she doesn’t catch on, so “scenes from Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gone with the Wind were rewritten to fit his letters.”  But movies — mostly American — are woven into casual dialogue, the thoughts of the characters, everyday life.

An important scene occurs at the movies in chapter thirteen, when the rebellious, enigmatic King of Beggars (yes, this book involves characters named Elvis, the King, and the Colonel) takes Elvis to the new theater to see a Yugoslavian art film entitled Love Film.  (Possibly this, but then it might not be a real film at all.)  He’s trying to show Elvis an “alternative” to the world of violence and self-interest that threatens to swallow him.  And Elvis loves the movie; he loves its first line, “People are important.”  This qualifies as a major breakthrough in a world as debased, as corrupted, as nightmarish, as his can be.

But the most interesting scene involving the movies comes in chapter fourteen.  Elvis, now thirteen, goes to “the local motor park, where silent westerns and Indian films with badly translated English subtitles were shown after dark.”  These, as it turns out, are “shown courtesy of an American tobacco company” which also gives out free cigarettes “irrespective of age.”  In this case, the film is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  It’s no glamorous spectacle, though: the screen’s a torn, dirty bedsheet and the old projector often eats films and jitters the picture from side to side, for which the crowd has learned to compensate by “sway[ing] from side to side while squinting off to the left.”

But this is not the best part.  The best part is that the films are made into a live performance, based on a kind of new folklore.  The projectionist narrates the action on the screen, creating a whole new story out of the images.  These narrations mostly involve the exploits of a mythological “John Wayne” and “Actor,” the principles in a recurring good-versus-evil storyline across many kinds of films.  As the narrator explains, “John Wayne acting as the villain in a film was Actor, and Clint Eastwood as sheriff was John Wayne.”

I have not yet been able to verify whether this is or was actual practice in Nigeria, but I strongly suspect it was.  It’s not even as simple as it seems, either.   Elvis walks into an argument between teenagers over whether John Wayne or Actor is superior — which is “the true hero.”  And Elvis prefers the figure of Actor, too, as “part villain, part hero,” and explains here:

Women preferred him to John Wayne and men wanted to be him.  His evil was caddish, not malicious, and Elvis knew that though most people dared not step out of the strict lines of this culture, they adored Actor.  He was the embodiment of the stored-up rebellions in their souls.

Actor, in other words, is a trickster to John Wayne’s ideal.  But the narration of the films also allows for audience participation, especially when the projectionist is drunk or annoying or misses something: here, the audience gets going on something and ends up arguing about which person on the screen is Actor and which is John Wayne.  (Particularly appropriate, actually, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)  That this is taking place in the late ’70s, during the emergence of the antihero (and even the black antihero — Shaft is referred to in this chapter) in American cinema, in the Nigeria of corrupt officials and in Elvis’s world with a drunk, abusive father and even worse uncle, makes perfect sense.  And of course, Actor is still alive and well (as one of the debaters argues, he cannot be killed): the Joker in The Dark Knight springs to mind as a prime example.

In Dostoyevskyland

January 26, 2010 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Dostoyevsky, or any Russian writers at all, for that matter; I think the last thing I read was The Brothers Karamazov, maybe six or seven years ago.  I’m amazed at how suddenly the force of his writing came back to me.  Partly this is due to the nature of The Gambler, which begins very much in media res and plunges headlong, with part of the “fun” being to determine what’s going on among these seemingly sordid characters.  But I think it’s also at least in part due to the very distinctive world Dostoyevsky creates in his books.

We don’t hear much about Dostoyevsky the creator of imaginative recreations of the world, of cities and places, as we do with, say, Dickens.  Mostly this is because Dostoyevsky spends precious little time doing any sort of describing or scene-setting.  And yet his focus on psychology, voice, relationship, and character create a kind of claustrophobic universe just as visceral and recognizable as the London of Dickens.  You’re plunged into an alternate reality — or, if you prefer, a fantasy — with Dostoyevsky just as surely as you are in a science fiction novel; it’s just the alternate reality of a mind, usually a mind in serious trouble.

For me, this intense, almost hallucinatory quality to Dostoyevsky’s works makes for an odd reading experience.  I find myself quite involved with the books as I read them, gobbling up chunks of text, catching intricacies of interrelationship and forebodings of coming events, savoring Dostoyevsky’s little flashes of surreality and powerful emotion.  And then, when I finish… they somehow vanish.  I’m astounded by how little I remember of what I’ve read of his.  I remember more of Anna Karenina, read about ten years ago, than any of the three major Dostoyevsky works I read since.  I’m baffled by this.

No one claims The Gambler is Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece; it’s better known for his having to write it in a hurry under great pressure, and for its autobiographical elements, than for anything actually involved in the text itself.  But in a way its subject and setting — a group of nobles desperate for money and love, set loose on the roulette tables of a fictional spa town — are perfect for the fevered tone of his prose (or at least, his prose as it seems in translation).  The most remarkable passage so far is in chapter two: in a single three-page paragraph, the narrator (about whom we know next to nothing at the point) discourses on the “two kinds of gambling: the genteel kind, and the plebeian or mercenary, such as that played by all sorts of riffraff.”  (The translation I’m reading, by the way, is by Victor Terras.)  He ranges over a variety of observations and anecdotes; he is witty and interesting on the various kinds of gambling; and yet the length and intensity of the discussion, and the switchbacks and asides and seeming contradictions and pronouncements such as “of late I have been finding it somehow extremely repulsive to apply any kind of moral standard to my actions and thoughts” contribute to a sense of derangement.  The narrator (and an author?) plunge into their monologue to such a depth as to barely find their way back to the surface, the masterful tics and ramblings giving the sense of a character seriously lost in their subject, betraying a very likely problematic fascination.

Time’s Malcontents

December 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

Dombey and Son was Dickens’ comeback book: H.W. Garrod tells me in the introduction to my Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition that 70,000 people read the weekly serial parts of The Old Curiosity Shop, while “not a third of that number” bought the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, the book prior to this one.  The first few parts of D&S (full title Dealings with the Firm Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, in case you were wondering) brought Dickens’s readership back in full force.

None of this really makes much sense to me.  If I had to bet, based on the first 100 or so pages, I would’ve bet that Chuzzlewit was the success and D&S the flop.  Chuzzlewit at least has some action, some forward momentum.  The first seven chapters of D&S are full of light comedy, characters intentionally defined by their lack of personality, and a central plot focused on a baby.  (Not a talking baby or a dancing baby or a baby genius, either: just a baby.  Little Paul Dombey.)  It’s not really gripping stuff.  But the Victorians did love their comedic busybodies, their precocious tiny tots, their colorful servant-folk, and their little bits of scenery and sketches of personality.  (This stuff is what Dickens cut his teeth on, after all.)  I have to admit that I, too, am loving Major Joe Bagstock, who is constantly referring to himself in the third person as “Joey B.,” “Old Joe,” “J. Bagstock,” etc. — maybe the earliest example of this now-omnipresent phenomenon.

Then comes the eighth chapter, “Paul’s further Progress, Growth, and Character,” and the book comes to life.  Dickens is never a waste of time, even when he’s merely trying to entertain or lecturing.  But he can sometimes seem much flatter, even disinterested in his own work.  That’s how the first seven chapters felt, in part because Paul Dombey Sr. is an intentionally flat, cold, mostly uninteresting character: Scrooge without Scrooge’s fire.  We hate him for ignoring little Florence, his unwanted daughter, but even there Dickens’ narration distances us from our fury.  In chapter eight, however, Dickens is fully engaged, and personally invested, and seems to know he’s working on something great.  And it is personal: this chapter is grounded in autobiography.  In a letter to his biographer, John Forster, Dickens said that “It is from the life, and I was there — I don’t suppose I was eight years old…”

The “there” there is Mrs. Pipchin’s, near the sea, where “nearly five years old” Paul is sent in hopes of improving his health in the fresher air.  Pipchin is a typical Dickens grotesque, an ancient widow known for her expertise on “infancy” who lives in a strange, dank house.  Little Paul really becomes the center of the show here, but I think I will reserve my thoughts on him for my next post.  The foreshadowing in this chapter is deep and dark.

There are any number of fascinating aspects to this chapter, but I’m interested in how it got me thinking about time, and about the arc of a life.  The first paragraph is the beginning of one of Dickens’ smart, compact, and lyrical fast-forwards:

Beneath the watching and attentive eyes of Time — so far another Major — Paul’s slumbers gradually changed.  More and more light broke in upon them; distincter and distincter dreams disturbed them; an accumulating crowd of objects and impressions swarmed about his rest; and so he passed from babyhood to childhood, and became a talking, walking, wondering Dombey.

Dickens is one of the best at this: knowing when it’s time to pull back, take out the wide view, and switch from incident to exposition.  He knows his pace; he knows how to stretch minutes (the agony of Jonas Chuzzlewit comes to mind) or speed years.  In this chapter, he manages to balance his summaries with his scenes, and somehow gives the texture of lived life and the experience of a sick young boy.

As Paul’s innocent questions about money and death endear him throughout the chapter — and really, I suppose dear little dying Paul is the reason the book was so popular — time crystallizes as a major theme.  Paul Dombey Sr. wants time to fast-forward to his son’s adulthood in a way that Dickens will not permit (at least not yet); and his dissatisfaction with day-to-day life is one of the sad subtexts which Dickens has handled beautifully, without explicit moralizing (again, at least not yet).  This is one of the best ways that Dickens uses his typically protean and ambiguous narrator: often seeming to chronicle events in a way consistent with the book’s full title, as a kind of business/family history, and therefore often facetiously arguing from Dombey’s perspective, he lets the reader’s own sense of morality and humanity work against the grain of the words.  This usually only lasts so long before Dickens can no longer resist laying into his villain.

Little Paul and Florence want their mother back; Mrs. Pipchin feels better about her age by sucking the childhood out of children; even Solomon Gills, in the primary subplot, longs for the days when his nautical instruments were in demand.  Future perfect, past perfect: who’s living today, here?  When is a life’s living overtaken by a life’s waiting?

Witching Hours

October 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.

A couple of things early on here remind me of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.  We again have a story of a story being told.  And there are, again, questions of motivation and intention: why is the story being told at all, and why to the person it’s being told to?  There are, also, some hints of artifice, of Carter behind the curtain, relishing her fiction, and of characters with secret identities (most humorously, Lizzie, who seems to be the rare fin-de-siecle Cockney capable of explaining mid-20th-century feminist theory, if Sophie would just let her).  One fascinating flourish is the repetition of the phrase “green hinge,” in reference to Midsummer Night and May 1, respectively.  The first time this is spoken by Sophie herself; then it is repeated in her story by her crazed, phallus-worshiping abductor.  Is this a hint that Sophie is making it all up — a slip revealing her own mannerisms in others’ mouths?  Or did the phrase stick with her when her abductor used it, and work its way into her vocabulary?

However, the most interesting (coincidental) echo of TMFiS is the play with time and the idea of the “witching hour,” when witches, ghosts, and such are most active — typically, 12-1am.  In TMFiS, the witching hour was evoked by the recurrence of a bell tolling midnight right before weird things started happening at the Venta Quemada.  In Nights at the Circus, it’s a little more complicated.  Throughout the first section, there’s also a bell repeatedly striking twelve times for midnight.   But here, the bell strikes twelve over and over again, in one night.  And the bell is that of Big Ben, ringing through London.

Furthermore, the clock in the dressing room of Sophie Fevvers is also stuck on midnight.  Sophie’s telling her story, and she introduces this clock and explains the positions of its hands during her discussion of her childhood in the brothel of one Ma Nelson:

It was a figure of Father Time with a scythe in one hand and a skull in the other above a face on which the hands stood always at either midnight or noon, the minute hand and the hour hand folded perpetually together as if in prayer, for Ma Nelson said the clock in her reception room must show the dead centre of the day or night, the shadowless hour, the hour of vision and revelation, the still hour in the centre of the storm of time.

So throughout the night, time stands still at the witching hour — or, in Sophie’s words, “the shadowless hour.”  And there’s the puzzle of Sophie: is she telling the shadowless truth of how she came to have wings and travel the world as the star of a circus, or is she bewitching her young interviewer?  Is this magic, or truth, or just another aspect of a beautiful, self-inventing con?  Witch itself is surely a quite complicated word for Carter, and it will be fascinating to see what kind of witch she’s created here.

The Mysterious Muslim Babes of Spain

October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts  “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past).  There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words.  They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be  succubi.  Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”?  It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).

So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways.  Though there are many apparently supernatural events  in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it.  On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives….  And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.”  After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you.  Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us.  Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”

Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words.  He believes they are his cousins.  And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.

There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character.  We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment.  His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous.  Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react?  There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.

Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here.  Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted.  Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.

Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read.  In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days.  Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground.  Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins.  They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain.  This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets.  He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez.  The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”

In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day.  The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise.  It was all an illusion.  I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.

(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture.  I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now.  Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)

Savage Detection

June 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: The Savage Detectives.

Reading now: The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford.

Reading next: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Okay, then: after an extraordinarily busy month (without going into too many details, we now have a dachshund and a fence, and I’ve now presented my first paper publicly among special-collections-library-folk), it is high time to catch up on my reading.  (One of the great frustrations of busy times is not having enough time to concentrate on reading; there’s such relief in finding an hour to just read at night.)

A couple of weeks after finishing it, I am amazed at my reaction to The Savage Detectives.  It was a book I was often bored or exasperated with, and yet almost instantly after finishing it and skimming through it to capture my thoughts about it, I felt affectionate towards it, and kept finding sections I did enjoy, until now, when I find myself very glad to have read it, still interested in it, and wanting to read 2666 and Amulet, maybe as soon as next year.

I think this is partly an effect of the sandwich structure of the book, with its short, punchy, “diary” sections acting as the bread around a huge, sloppy, Dagwood-style filling of 20 years’ worth of interview, oral history, monologue, and, presumably, savage detection.  The immediacy and directness of the sandwich-sections pull you in and validate the effort of sifting the mass of detail and story and history in the filling.

But enough sandwich metaphors.  Perhaps this is only interesting to me, but I think another aspect of my reaction is that it’s very similar to my reaction to pretty much anything I write myself: everything is tedious and trite and horrible as I’m writing, but once I get a chance to reflect and revise I find it’s not nearly so bad, and actually seems that it was quite a bit of fun to write.  What is it about this book that makes you feel like you’re part of its creation — that it’s writing itself as you read it?

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling about the book now.  Here’s one of the mysteries I’ve been entertaining myself with: who are the “savage detectives” of the title?  Bolaño is, apparently, often quite cryptic with his titles: I’m told there’s nothing about the number or year “2666” in 2666 (although I think it must have some connection to Cesárea’s prophecy  about events “sometime around the year 2600.  Two thousand six hundred and something”, very near the end of this book).

Nevertheless, it’s such a fantastic, multivalent title (Los Detectives Salvajes in the original) that I’m inclined to explore its meaning.  Here are the savage detectives I see in the book — how they’re detectives, and how they’re savage:

  • The visceral realists.  In the first section, the group seems to be the title’s obvious referent: I think you can see “visceral realist” as a rephrasing of the title, since “visceral” can mean “not intellectual” or “dealing with crude or elemental emotions” (M-W Collegiate, 11th ed.), and both detectives and realists think of themselves as seeking “the truth,” the real state of affairs.  And, indeed, there’s a real sense of exploring the world, and living as a form of detection in (from the US perspective, and ironically/satirically from the Latin American perspective) “savage”/”primitive” Mexico.  But we see them doing little actual “detection” of any but an experiental/metaphysical sort, though they are savage/visceral enough, except for:
  • Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, with the help of Juan García Madero, who go in search, from Mexico City to the Sonora Desert, of Cesárea Tinajero and the 1930s visceral realists of Mexico.  This is certainly a more straightforward kind of detection, as they ask questions, follow leads, investigate libraries and archives, stumble across leads.  There’s also an element of “savagery” in their lack of any social niceties, funds, or apparent clue about what they’re doing.
  • The nameless interlocutor(s) of the middle section.  The section borrows the form of a detective’s notes or audiotapes, each “chapter” beginning with the name, place, and date of the speaker.  You would be tempted to say that this is merely a fictional convenience, a way for the author to get out of the way of the many voices he’s presenting — except that there are times when someone has clearly asked a question to which the speaker is responding, pulling us out of the narrative to wonder what the circumstances are under which the speaker is telling their story.  I wondered, throughout the second section, why the stories were being told: are we to see it as the real-life Bolaño (or fictional Belano) interrogating his fictional creations?  As some obscure academic trying to write the history of the “visceral realists”?  Is it an actual detective or group of detectives, trying to figure out what’s happened to Lima, Belano, Madero, or solve some related mystery?  (The third section does lend some credence to this theory, although it’s impossible to think the thread would be followed for 20 years by a professional.)  At any rate, there’s some savage detection going on in this second section, but it’s impossible to say by whom.
  • Us, the readers.  Reading and writing are forms of savage detection: we work through the narrative, trying to piece together the story, the style, the meaning, the purpose, the theory of the book.  We do so in a kind of primitive state (I felt especially savage in this book, knowing so little about Mexican and Latin American poetry; surely this was unintentional, but it worked), working from incomplete knowledge about the book, its author, its relation to reality.  Somehow, at the end of our investigation, we tell ourselves a story about what happened, and what it meant.
  • Everyone, and especially everyone in this book.  There’s so much travel, so much coupling and recoupling, so much about struggling to find a way to live, a place to live, a way to be in the world: everyone begins to seem a savage detective, steps away from disaster, toeing that hard-boiled line between chaos and order.

So it’s a brilliant title: it works at all the levels of the book’s meaning, and it really resonates long after you’ve read it.

Time, Reality, Authorship, and Other Delusions

March 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.

Reading next: Against Nature (À Rebours), by J.-K. Huysmans, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.

VALIS is more or less the perfect book to read after Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, if I do say so myself.  Like Schreber’s book, it’s a cosmology and exegesis, not primarily a narrative, entertainment, or memoir.  Like Schreber’s book, the most interesting thing about it is the question of how seriously to take it. The question you keep asking yourself, when reading both books, is: Is this a joke? They’re batshit-crazy books.

Of course, there are different standards for VALIS.  Schreber, by all indications, was mentally ill, and both telling the story of his imprisonment and explaining the nature of the universe as he felt it had been revealed to him.  Dick was a novelist; his book was marketed as a novel; and despite the fact that the book is legendarily connected to the experience of “an invasion of [Dick’s] mind by a transcendentally rational mind” in 1974, it is (has to be) a fiction about madness, theology, reality.  It’s kind of Memoirs… turned inside out.

And the book’s main character, Horselover Fat, does have a stint in an asylum, after his miraculously unsuccessful suicide attempt.  Chapter 5, about this time, includes some great insights.  My favorite part of the book might be Fat’s interactions with Dr. Stone, a fascinating character — a “healer,” Fat believes, but possibly a quack and unstable himself.  Stone uses the unusual technique of simply believing his patients.  Stone takes an interest in Fat’s obsession with Gnostic Christianity and his theory that time stopped, kind of, in 70 A.D.: that time since then has been a delusion.  And as they discuss it, Fat seeks validity for one of his ideas.  “‘You would know,’ Dr. Stone said, and then he said something that no one had ever said to Fat before.  ‘You’re the authority,’ Dr. Stone said.”

Dr. Stone wasn’t insane: Stone was a healer.  He held down the right job.  Probably he had healed many people and in many ways.  He adapted his therapy to the individual, not the individual to the therapy.

That’s an interesting idea.  Most of the time we think that the problem with the seriously delusional — the schizophrenic, psychotic, what have you — is that they are too sure of their point of view.  They are sure they know.  This passage, in which Dr. Stone’s belief (real or feigned) in Fat’s theories is applauded as a therapeutic approach, seems to me to indicate that Dick really does want us to take Fat’s — the book’s — cosmology seriously.  Because you do not encourage the delusional to persist in their delusion.  Do you?

Here’s how Dick explains it, in one of the book’s best and most affecting passages:

They — note the “they” — paid Dr. Stone to figure out what had destroyed the patient entering the ward.  In each case a bullet had been fired at him, somewhere, at some time, in his life.  The bullet entered him and the pain began to spread out.  Insidiously, the pain filled him up until he split in half, right down the middle.  The task of the staff, and even of the other patients, was to put the person back together but this could not be done so long as the bullet remained.  All that lesser therapists did was note the person split into two pieces and begin the job of patching him back into a unity; but they failed to find and remove the bullet….  Dr. Stone had a paranormal talent, like his paranormal Bach remedies which were a palpable hoax, a pretext to listen to the patient.  Rum with a flower dipped into it — nothing more, but a sharp mind listening to what the patient said.

But as it turns out, Fat’s not healed after all.  If he was, he wouldn’t exist anymore, as we find out later.  (I think that “note the ‘they'” is PKD’s authorial interjection to tip us off to the fact: Fat’s/Dick’s persistent paranoia.)  So where’s that leave us?

As a novel, I have to say the book’s a failure (not that any PKD fan’s going to give a damn what I think).  It has about 50% too much going on: so many half-explained theories, overheated tracts on the nature of time and space, overreaching attempts to encompass too many very different ideas and religious systems in single symbols, muddled events.  (In this, it also resembles Schreber’s book, which could also be mind-numbingly boring in its minutiae of the workings of an obviously delusional and incomprehensible worldview.)

However, as a document, as an artifact of a mind with a vast capacity for idea- and narrative-generation shucking its habits and trying something vast and self-consciously “important,” it’s fascinating.  I do feel like lately, I keep harping on the narration of events rather than the events themselves.  I hate to keep being so meta in my reading; but it happens to be the most interesting thing about these books, to me.  I mean, I’m sure PKD would rather his readers took the opportunity to reflect on what they actually think about God, the existence of evil, and the connections between the religions of the world.  I’m sure he’d rather we talk about reality and whether our experiences are not often delusional in one way or another.

But the fact is, this is a book in which Philip K. Dick is a character, and so is one Horselover Fat — “Horselover” being the meaning of “Philip” in Greek, and “Fat” meaning “Dick” in German.  And it’s also a book in which Dick says, right up front, that he is Fat, but that he’s going to write as though he’s not.  And near the end of the book, Fat is reabsorbed into Dick.  Fat’s been a fiction all along, even in a fictional world.  Dick has been writing about an alter ego, a fictional version of himself.

You can see the whole narrative of this book as a complex allegory on the creation of fictions — of narratives, of universes.  VALIS is a term for a supposedly rational mind invading our irrational world, ruled by a “God” who thinks he’s the only god — a delusional god.  Is Dick trying to break out, and break his readers out, of the delusion of being the one true “God” of their fictions?  In other words, is the work self-consciously bogus — a hoax, like Stone’s, which really exists to listen and “believe”?

Near the end, Dick and Fat have become one and he and his friends have met the young girl Sophia (wisdom), who may be the “Savior.”  The group believes that Sophia tells them that “The time had come when we no longer had to believe in any deity other than ourselves.”  It’s wisdom shared in people, between people.  Is Dick trying to help us see that truth exists in between — in the communication, not in the interpretation?

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