“The Dead,” Illustrated by James McNeill Whistler

February 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: Dubliners, by James Joyce.

And so I have read “The Dead” again.

“The Dead” is the best thing to read if you find yourself questioning the whole literary enterprise.  It is full of small miracles of language, character, and structure, and its smallness expands into a sense of the cosmic in the most astounding ways.  Its odd length — a very long story, or a short novella, or another thing altogether — is somehow perfect.  (In this and in “Grace,” the also-long preceding story, it really does seem that Joyce found his rhythm, and that this rhythm was decidedly mismatched to that of the commercial press of the time.) An incredible amount of literary energy has been spent trying to catch up with Joyce’s exploration here of the gaps between even the closest human minds, and the community of even the most deliberately estranged, and the ambiguity inherent in all joy and sorrow.

Both times that I’ve read this story, the following passage has been the first to stop me in my tracks:

Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cool pane of the window.  How cool it must be outside!  How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!  The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a cap on the top of the Wellington Monument.  How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!

This is simultaneously ironic and deeply familiar, this feeling.  It is Christmas, with family; you are intended to feel cozy and happy and glad to be by the hearth.  And you do, in a way.  But the room is close and quite warm; the desire to be alone, by yourself, can be overwhelming, especially if you have a melancholic disposition.

Throughout the story, I kept thinking, in passages like these, of J. M. Whistler’s Nocturne paintings, those gorgeous, proto-Modern impressions of tint and shadow, form and motion.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne in Gray and Gold," 1876

Whistler makes an interesting complement to Joyce.  Both were controversial expatriates, and both were quite self-consciously artists, interested foremost in the form and beauty of their works.  Joyce was, certainly, more political and social in his art, less of an aesthete and decadent.  And yet there is an emphasis on form and aesthetic in “The Dead,” as certainly as there is in Whistler’s most famous painting, Arrangement in Gray and Black:

J. M. Whistler, "Arrangement in Gray and Black," 1871

Use this painting to illustrate the famous passage near the end of “The Dead,” a passage that serves not only as a premonition and insight into Gabriel’s state of mind, but also to give a formal bookend to Dubliners, which began with a wake:

Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees.  The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died.  He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones.  Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

Obviously, Whistler was most interested in the composition and artistry, not the content, of his famous painting.  And yet, one would willfully and needlessly reduce the significance and impact of the painting by ignoring the fact that it portrays his mother; form and content are joined here in a beautiful whole, as in “The Dead.”  Beyond its place in the whole of Dubliners, the story itself hinges on a type of artistic expression: Gabriel’s speech honoring the three Misses Morkan.  The two paragraphs before Gabriel begins are, I think, among the most beautiful I know.  I’ll quote the second here, which is another beautiful, sensuous imagination of snowy night:

Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company.  Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier.  The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door.  People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music.  The air was pure there.  In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow.  The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea," 1871

The oration is a self-conscious piece of rhetoric, and its delivery preoccupies Gabriel throughout the first half of the story.  We see him planning out how he will use the occasion to score points off of a foe, Miss Ivors, and we even get this: “What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?”

And yet the speech works.  It is a moving tribute to the hostesses, to the dead, and to Ireland, both to its fictional listeners and its real readers.  As the work of Gabriel, a writer and lover of literature, married to a woman from Galway, it is possible to read this as a microcosm of Joyce’s own ambiguous and constantly shifting emotions toward his homeland.  If Gabriel had planned to score rhetorical points despite his own reservations about the ignorance or vulgarity of his own people, he ends up meaning it anyway, in spite of himself.

Both the speech itself (and its status as the self-evident focus of the story) and the turn of Gabriel’s thoughts thereafter to memories of he and his wife, young and in love, point to “The Dead” as a work of art about art’s creation, and its power.  The story moves toward its astounding conclusion beginning with this paragraph:

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.  There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.  He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.  If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude.  Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones.  Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

As it happens, “distant music” is also what I hear when I look at Whistler’s paintings: they evoke soft music, sounds of night.  And distant music is precisely what Gretta’s thoughts end up being, to Gabriel: the music of memory, a memory he knew nothing of, and that had nothing to do with him.  As devastating as this is to Gabriel, there remains the power of the “sudden tide of joy” he feels when she sees him; the “proud, joyful, tender, valorous” thoughts she evokes in him; the sweetness and fondness of his memories of moments of their life together.  The ambiguity of being human with another, in the end.  The mingled emotion of a rocket falling back to earth.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne in Black and Gold," c. 1874-75

Conflict (or the Lack Thereof) Through Structure

July 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Reading next: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

I finished it a couple of days ago, but my mind’s still not entirely made up about Cloud Atlas.  Part of me thinks it’s an absolute masterpiece, one of the best pieces of literature in recent years.  Another, smaller part keeps trying to tamp down that enthusiasm, pointing to the sometimes pedestrian prose, the wooden or slightly stilted language occasionally on display (especially in “Half-Lives” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” which also happen to be the sections in which it’s easiest to call these faults intentional), the strange irritation I sometimes feel in the company of Mitchell, and the niggling sense that nothing truly groundbreaking is going on here.

All of that seems relatively minor, though, compared to the brilliance on display in much of the book, especially (in my opinion) “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” and “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After.”  These latter two are some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time, and also manage to transform the rest of the book into science fiction of a sort, as well.  I wished, while reading it, that “Sloosha’s Crossin'” was its own book, not the novella nestled at the center of another.  But that’s part of the brilliance: it’s at the center because of its interactions with the other five parts of this “sextet,” this musical work in literary form.  The central story is very close to being its own story, but it is not: not quite.  Nothing is ever only its own story.  No one is ever only their own self.  That’s the point.

It was while reading “Sloosha’s Crossin'” in the middle of the book that I started to wonder about how one would go about teaching this book, and about that hoary old classroom discussion on types of conflict.  You know: man vs. man! man vs. nature!  man vs. self!  man vs. society!  That whole bit.  (Here come some SPOILERS, of maybe META-SPOILERS, so look out.)  The book’s structure is clever, and elegant: a fragment of five stories, each fragment being read (or at least experienced) by a character in the next, with the complete text of a sixth (“Sloosha’s Crossin'”) in the middle, followed by the completion of each fragment in reverse order, the completions being found in each preceding story.

Remember those graphs of a novel’s structure that you had to draw in middle- or high school, showing the rising and falling action, the varying degrees of intensity of narrative tension and incident?  Here there could be six lines on the graph, each rising, then flatlining (with an occasional bump) as another story takes over, then picking back up after a trough of varying length.  (I loved drawing those graphs.  If I had a scanner I’d draw one and slap it in here right now.)  But here’s the thing: because these six stories, however compelling on their own, appear in the context of their own reading — some presented as fictional within the fiction itself (or are they?) — these graphical depictions would be rather dishonest, or at least incomplete.  The real plot, the real conflict, lies in their conjunctions.  Not to get all John Barth on you here, but the main “conflicts” are Story vs. Story and Reader vs. Text, at both the level of the plot itself and at the metafictional level.

One of the book’s brilliances, though, is the integration (maybe even subordination) of these postmodern conflicts into the content of the book, and the fact that it’s possible to experience the book not as a battlefield of conflicts at all, but more like the piece of symphonic music it explicitly patterns itself after.  You can read the stories as working together like instruments in an ensemble, to tell a larger story of a tension and landscape (rather than conflict) something like “Humanity Struggles” or “Souls Reemerge,” rather than as conflicting across levels of text and comprehension.  (The symphonic aspect of the work is really beautifully done, not only in the structure, but also at the level of metaphor and motif.)  A passage that clarified this for me appears on p. 169, in the comedic “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” in which the titular vanity-press publisher vents on his life in books:

Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led.  Why have you given your life to books, TC?  Dull, dull, dull!  The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction!  Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will.  “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.”

The passage is, I think, the funniest in the book (that last-sentence punchline kills me, especially if you imagine a British comedian like Ricky Gervais or John Cleese delivering it).  Anyone who deals with pedestrian fiction in bulk (as vanity-press publishers surely do, and as librarians do, as well) has thought something similar.  Mitchell includes it (and the entire “Ghastly Ordeal” tale) not only as comic relief, but for its reflection on the whole business of making narrative, making story, and the desire to transcend those archetypal plot types in some way.

What Mitchell does better than many of the arch-postmodernists have done is use this desire to actually convey a story about not only its own telling, but important matters in the worlds of the plot and the “real world” the plot mimics.  He manages to conclude his book with a two-page message, for God’s sake — a moral, even! — without seeming dishonest, pedantic, maudlin, or hokey.  That’s a real accomplishment: a step forward, thanks be, to the past.

Three Readings of “The Mat-Maker”

April 25, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick.

Rereading is a complex phenomenon, involving not only different interpretations of the text, but different interpretations of your past self: you can often end up “reading” your former readings, your former interests and states of mind.  This is especially true when you’ve taken notes during your past readings, and kept them.  You read a kind of palimpsest of text overlaid with memory overlaid with annotations, the things you saw as most important or necessary to remember at the time.

I never write in the margins of my books or underline or highlight or otherwise annotate: if I’m really invested, I write little notes on scraps of paper and tuck those into the book.  I probably set my personal record for number of notes on my first reading of Moby-Dick.  I’m kind of amazed at how much my 20-year-old self noticed in the book that I’ve since overlooked: the introduction of the imagery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burning “unconsumed” in chapter 48, “The First Lowering”; the discussion of “rings” in the frenzied chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” and especially the importance of the line “Why, God, mad’st thou the ring?” to the main themes of the book.  Part of this is the benefit of rigorous reading for a class, and the ferment of learning from other classes.  But Melville also just set my brain on fire in a way very few books ever have.  It was the kind of book I wanted to exist but didn’t know actually did, much less had for 150 years.

On my second reading, a few years later and just because I wanted to, I read from the same copy, rereading my notes, but took far fewer new notes and spent more time trying to observe the book’s overall structure and intentions.  I wrote a brief list on this reading of Melville’s possible intentions: “Entertain (more noticeable), Instruct, Enlighten, Ease His Possession.”  I also noted that the comedy in the book was much more noticeable on the second reading.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading from a different edition on this reading.  It’s a very different edition — a general-reading copy with large type, generous margins, and plentiful illustrations, but no notes, around 350 pages longer than the Norton edition I’d read from before.  It’s already a very different experience just based on the editions.  However, I happened to read chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker,” from the Norton edition.  A note there from my first reading seemed to crystallize my different readings, and different kinds of reading, in the last ten years.

“The Mat-Maker” is a gorgeous chapter, transitional and quite short but very interesting, well-known and thoroughly studied.  I wrote the following about the first section of the chapter: “Chance, freewill, & necessity in the making of a mat: Melville’s way of injecting mythic importance into minutiae, detail: the wondrousness of life”.  I chuckled when I read this note.  It’s a good note, and useful, but it reminded me of how enamored of Paul Auster I was in college.  Of course I loved this section!    It also reminded me of how much I loved (and love) the texture of the book: the close-grained observation, the colorful variation of style and format, the silky, lyrical language and far-ranging philosophical digression.  And how cool it was that this all occurred to me in a chapter about weaving, just as Melville weaved together his story from various threads.  It was dazzling.

My second reading did not focus so heavily on this section.  My second reading was more for pure pleasure, and it was clear that after the first two, philosophical paragraphs, this chapter serves mostly to transition to the first attempt to capture a whale, leading to one of the book’s most exciting, entertaining, cinematic, beautiful chapters, “The First Lowering.”

And on this reading?  I noticed the last words of the note, “the wondrousness of life.”  That’s an interesting observation, I think, and one I wouldn’t have made on my own this time, when I’m more familiar with Melville, with this kind of writing.  I meant that Melville was noticing the wonder of daily life, and its occasional, epiphanic revelation of the “ungraspable phantom” of life’s meaning, and thereby allowing me, the reader, to do so.

With the help of Howard Vincent, I also noticed the first paragraph’s emphasis on selfhood, “each silent sailor… resolved into his own invisible self.”  But what struck me anew is the lyricism of the language, its sheer beauty and the way its rhythm echoes the “cloudy, sultry afternoon” portrayed, lulling you into ruminations on its meaning and significance — thereby heightening the surprise and frenzy of “There she blows!” and all that follows: the first appearance of Ahab’s hidden crew, the thrilling hunt for the whale.  Then there’s the amazing return to quietude and slower rhythms at the end of “The First Lowering” — but deadly dangerous rhythms of possible abandonment and death at sea, this time — and Ishmael’s bookend of philosophical rumination in “The Hyena.”  Language, meaning, structure: this section is just a sterling example of what a phenomenal writer Melville was.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Three: Memory, Music, Tradition

March 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

Finished a while ago: GraceLand.

A quick catch-up post before moving on.  GraceLand is a complicated book in a lot of ways, not least in form and audience.  Its author is a Nigerian exile living in the U.S., and as such the book was first published in the U.S.  (though there may be — probably was — a simultaneous U.K. edition).  I’ve already given some examples of how the book acts as a kind of Baedeker to the Nigerian cultural and societal landscape of the author’s formative years.  It does this in well-integrated, well-written ways.  It does not in the least partake in the sort of anthropological objectification that Elvis would surely despise.

One example to add to the print and film cultural practices already described: near the book’s end, when Elvis hits the road with the King of Beggars and his band, we get a glimpse of how Nigerian concerts worked, and their parallels with past Western practices:

The evening’s show always started with a dance during which the band played all the popular tunes of the day.  The play followed, and then there was another dance afterwards.  For a big audience in a big town, the total number of songs played in one night came to about forty, not counting those played as part of the play.  Most evenings began at nine p.m. and finished at four in the morning.

It’s quite like Vaudeville, in other words.  The band members consider themselves primarily musicians, but must also act and canvass the town “displaying their instruments” to drum up interest.  The plays are mostly “didactic,” somewhat like morality plays or after-school specials.

Totally fascinating.  However, all of this is potentially fraught postcolonial ground — especially in a book that was featured as a selection of the “book club” on Today.  Who is Abani writing to/for: himself, a la Proust, as an act of memory?  The interested folk of his adopted country, who also happen to be the cultural and (in ways) economical hegemons of his homeland, and those of his homeland’s former colonizer, Great Britain?  His fellow expatriates, or those he left behind in Nigeria?

The form of the novel is interesting in light of these questions.  GraceLand is a synthetic novel, by which I mean it is made of different sorts of texts.  The vast bulk is the narrative of Elvis, a tale with incident, dialogue, and language deeply informed by Nigeria but with a form out of the Western canon (as mentioned before, it can be read as a Bildungsroman, with an interesting parallel plot with an Igbo twist in the tale of Sunday’s own possible spiritual maturation and transformation at the novel’s end).  I speculate that it is especially influenced by Invisible Man and Things Fall Apart: one American, one Nigerian.

But there are also interstitial bits of text, loosely connected to the narrative.  Between chapters we get recipes, descriptions and definitions of Nigerian herbs and plants, and pieces of different texts like the Bible and the aforementioned Onitsha Market pamphlets.  Many of these are (or at least could be) extracts from Elvis’s mother’s journal, we are led to infer from the description Elvis provides of the journal.  With this narrative connection, we, the Americans-ignorant-of-Nigeria, can read them as the cultural primer they clearly are, but can also read them through Elvis’s eyes, and/or Abani’s.  They can be read as expressions of  Elvis’s longing for and estrangement from the homelands of his mother and his country, added after the events of the novel.  The formal heterodoxy is a powerful tool to convey information to the ignorant, but also to reveal the novel’s meaning — its soul.

In addition, each chapter begins with two brief passages about the Igbo ritual of the kola nut, a powerful ceremony important in divination rites but also in hospitality customs and religion more generally.  The first of each of these passages, in regular type, is from the Igbo point of view and often contains a kind of mystical or oracular language.  The second, in italics, is rather more anthropological, talking about the Igbo rituals as objects of study and anthropological data.  Again, we see the dual consciousness of the expatriate.  But more than that, these passages are epigrammatic, and often indicative of the content of the chapter to follow.   This could suggest to the reader either that Abani wants to convey that the form of the narrative follows a persistent path in Igbo mythology, or that Abani has deliberately structured the events of the novel to do so.  The dual epigrams, perhaps, allow for both interpretations at once.  Joycean.  Ingenious.

It Takes a Graveyard

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Reading next: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

In the aughts Neil Gaiman went from being a sort of byword for coolness with the literary-fantasy crowd to being the Second Coming of Stephen King.  He’s another one-man industry, generating a remarkable amount of product in any different number of formats and genres.  Now, I’m exaggerating here: Gaiman’s output is not nearly as metronomic as King’s (who claimed to be retiring a few years back — remember that? — but simply could not stop himself from producing novels), nor is his work as repetitive, nor does Gaiman seem as loose as King at lending his ideas and characters out for brand-expansion and remakes and prequels and whatnot.  (Though he is a little more laissez-faire with comics, it would seem, and the idea of him allowing an American Gods comics series without his direct input is not that farfetched.)

But the comparison’s instructive, and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly.  I love Stephen King, warts and all.  He and Gaiman are very different writers.  The remarkable thing about King is the energy with which he still writes, the investment he still has in his work, the raw power of his narrative which can still be quite engrossing long after the (relatively few) patterns of Stephen King story have been established.  With Gaiman, the most remarkable thing has been the quality he’s maintained.  His prose and story construction are fine, his conceits are frequently brilliant, his characters are compelling and diverse, across and between genres and formats.  I don’t think Stephen King’s a hack, but with Gaiman you never even need to worry about mounting the defense.  It’s bloody obvious he’s not a hack.  He’s damned good.

It is impossible to imagine King writing something even remotely like The Graveyard Book: it’s just not in his range.  Nevertheless, part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the Stephen King version of the story, because I find myself longing a little for his approach here.  The book begins with an incredibly dramatic, startling event — the murder of a family and escape of the family’s toddler into the nearby graveyard, where he’s given the name Nobody and adopted by the ghosts of the dead and an undead “guardian.”  The event is presented elliptically, even rather lyrically (the shiny black shoes of the murderer, “the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full”), but is nonetheless gripping: it is right on the fault line between fairy tale and modern horror novel, this beginning.  Amazing, and quite ballsy, in a book for children or at least “young adults” that ended up winning the Newbery Medal.

The tone shifts once we’re in the graveyard, and the book essentially becomes a series of linked short stories about various events in the boy’s childhood, as he comes to know and is raised by the dead.  The murderer, “the man Jack,” drops out of the narrative, to reappear in the book’s second half.  Once you’re into the book, this shocking opening comes to seem a folkloric, almost whimsical origin story, a way to get the boy into the graveyard where he belongs.   But Jack comes up just often enough (including one big near miss) to maintain the reader’s sense that his part in the story is not done, while maintaining his aura of mysterious dread and power.  Again, ballsy, and quite an ambitious narrative structure: Gaiman is gambling that his stories, almost completely disconnected from the framing narrative of the toddler’s miraculous escape from gruesome death, will be entertaining enough to overcome the reader’s annoyance that he’s not getting back to what the deal is with this “man Jack.”

If this was a Stephen King novel, there would be no loosely connected vignettes.  The man Jack’s true nature, motivations, and activities would be given their own sections of narrative to keep the sense of a chase happening behind the scenes, interspersed with the chapters in which Nobody grows up and gets to know the graveyard’s inhabitants, whose back stories would be more fully developed (especially Silas, Nobody’s possibly vampiric guardian).  The book would also be 500 pages longer, and much less beautiful.

The key to understanding why this gap exists is another writer, a predecessor of both: Ray Bradbury.  Gaiman wrote a short story called “October in the Chair” (it’s in Fragile Things) that, in his words, served as a “dry run” for this book: he dedicated it to Bradbury.  The Graveyard Book‘s structure reminds me quite a lot of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s unbelievably gorgeous prose poem about growing up in the Midwest, a book I love beyond expression.  Its conceit, tone, and characters, on the other hand, seem a direct homage to Bradbury’s stories about the Elliott family of supernatural beings, another of my favorite Bradbury creations.  I’m thinking especially of “Homecoming,” maybe the best of those stories: young Timothy, the “abnormal” normal, human kid who doesn’t like the taste of blood and can’t fly or do much of anything to show off at the family reunion.  Here’s a paragraph of Timothy’s mother talking to him right at the end, before the final, gorgeous concluding sentences:

She came to touch her hand on his face.  “Son,” she said, “we love you.  Remember that.  We all love you.  No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day.”  She kissed his cheek.  “And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that.  You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come visit every Allhallows Eve and tuck you in the more secure.”

There, as here, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

Hypertext, Paratext, Metaphor, and My Confusion

January 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Dictionary of the Khazars.

Before moving on, just a few words about this book’s complex structure (you could say, “overly, needlessly complex” — yeah, let’s say that) and how I went about reading it.

Pavic wanted readers to participate as full partners in creating his fiction: he wanted them to skip around in it, picking how they want to read (within certain reasonable patterns), not following a single preordained pattern of linear reading.  This is an analog hypertext, in other words.  The book has “Preliminary Notes,” followed by three dictionaries (more like encyclopedias, actually): Red, Green, and Yellow Books, with entries related to the Khazars from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources and perspectives, respectively.  Then there are two appendices.  So far as I can tell, these are appendices and not incorporated into the entries only because Pavic wanted them to be read after the other entries.  It’s not as though the content of the entries themselves is so overly focused.  The substantial entries are linked stories, for all their trappings as scholarly entries.  There are also two slightly different versions of the book: a “Male Edition,” and a “Female Edition,” differing by one paragraph.

I read the book like so: first, the preliminary notes.  Then I read the four entries included in each of the three books, which seemed fairly introductory to me.  Then I started following links in those entries to other entries, which led to a more or less chronological reading, with a few exceptions: from entries on the historical Khazars of the 7th-10th centuries and their conversions to other religions, to entries on the three characters of the 17th century linked by their dreams and the creation of the destroyed first edition of the Dictionary of the Khazars, to entries on the 20th-century characters studying the history of the Khazars in one way or another.  I read the first appendix after it was linked in the text, somewhere in the middle; I read the second appendix and closing author’s note at the end, since they were never linked anywhere in the text.

The metafictional apparatus by which the book purports to be a reconstruction and expansion of a lost 17th-century original (of which two copies, one written with some kind of magically poisoned ink, survived) never quite worked for me.  Mostly it just confused me.  It’s certainly a good example of the kinds of bibliographic muddles one can get into in researching old books, and trying to understand the sources of those books; and the idea that the sources of the three books of the different religions need to talk to each other to understand the entire story of the Khazars is also an important one.  But the artifice is never convincing.  The entries are, for the most part, incredibly detailed but also somewhat random: the list of entries is much more novelistic than scholarly or lexicographical.  The gaps in knowledge seem convenient. Partly I think this is an epistemological critique, a way of reconstructing a whole race, a people that have been forgotten precisely through such Western exercises as the compilation of historical sources and archival material.  If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s entirely successful.  Somehow it just seems messy.

Part of my problem with the book, I suspect, is also with the often baffling language.  Is this a translation problem, a problem of my lack of knowledge, or a problem of my method of reading — if I’d read the book in another order, would I have caught the meaning behind some of these perplexing metaphors and constructions?  Indeed, in many cases there is a connection to another entry or a recurring character, but not in nearly all cases. Just for three instances chosen at random from many, if someone can fill me in on what might be meant by “She always thought she had three Fridays until dinnertime” or “‘Do you know how many mouth holes the Jews have?’ his mother asked that day as he ate” or “…Cohen had swallowed a soaring bird with his left eye,” I’d appreciate it.  Few of these weird folkloric metaphors and surrealistic intrusions into fictive reality struck a chord with me; mostly they were just frustrating.  (Though at least in the case of Dr. Suk’s entry it seems possible that all or most of the events are taking place within a dream, which lends the tone and language some credence.  By and large, the dreams in the book are more lucid and straightforward than the supposed reality.  Perhaps I’m looking at the book with two eyes when I should be looking with one, as Pavic would have it.)

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.)

Melville Patches His Jacket

August 6, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.

It’s tough to read White-Jacket on its own terms, and not as The Book Before Moby-Dick.  Too much fun, for instance, to see how Melville’s approach to designing his narrative and combining his mini-essays, reminiscences, fictional events, and factual chapters into a cohesive whole changed from this book to his masterpiece.

Moby-Dick is, obviously, much more successful at this, but the earlier book is different in interesting ways.  W-J does not begin with a compelling narrative like the adventures of Ishmael and Queequeg, propelling the reader into the more various and philosophical chapters of the book’s middle; instead, it begins with a mildly humorous description of the eponymous white jacket, made of patches and scraps of fabric.  To the reader accustomed to Melville, the chapter and the device of the jacket are irresistible as a metafiction, a metaphor for the entire work, for his style in general: the patchwork, uncanny (“white as a shroud”), self-made, absorbent jacket is a fine symbol of Melville’s work.  Besides which, that whiteness: already creeping into (or back into, if such a coat actually existed) Melville’s mind, the pariah, mysterious whiteness.

(Also, as in M-D, the beginning of the narrative is not actually the beginning of the book.  Here, there’s a preface (in the English edition) or note (in the American) in which Melville states that he’s used his own “man-of-war experiences and observations” in the book.  Unlike the extravagant legend-building in the paratextual opening of M-D, here there’s an avowal of basis in fact and truth, in real life.  Melville still not over the sting of Mardi‘s dismissal, not yet ready to write another giant piece of fiction.)

After this opening, W-J slips into the kind of observations of nautical life loosely joined to a fictional framework which occupy much of M-D‘s middle — but without doing much of the work of helping us identify with the narrator or the other characters on the ship.  The observations are engaging enough, but the reader is left with a lot of unanswered, nagging questions about the narrator, and about how to read the book (interestingly, the preface in the English edition encourages the reader to read the book as fact-based fiction, while the American-edition note makes it seem a work of biography).

And yet the voice into which Melville is growing — has grown, it seems, by this point in his career — compels.  There’s a great section from chapters 16 to 19, including a furious chapter, full of complex, fascinating rhetoric,  about the injustice of war and worthless preparations for war; an ironic, contrapuntal chapter about the desperate attempts to save anyone fallen overboard on a man-of-war; a smooth segue into a beautiful statement of the man-of-war “full as a Nut,” a kind of floating city or world; and a gorgeous chapter, containing a premonition of the Icarus theme in M-D and a paean to sailors, who “expatriate ourselves to nationalize with the universe.”

Melville said he wrote Redburn and White-Jacket for the money, plain and simple; it’s a gross simplification, of course, because the man was full of interesting thoughts and interesting words, and got himself invested in whatever he was working on.  And yet (even a fraction of the way in, as I am into W-J) the difference is plainly there, between these works and M-D, or even between these and Mardi or Pierre.  To my own surprise, I find the difference is not so much one of sincerity, or deeper thinking, or even of finding a theme worthy of his best work.  No: the difference is one of artifice.  Melville was at his most rigorously artificial, his most fantastical and fictional, when he cared most, when he felt he was playing for artistic and aesthetic keeps.  For Melville, plain speaking could only lead to superficial understanding.

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.

Yes, I’m Paranoid — But Am I Paranoid Enough?

October 26, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Today’s subject: confluence, anti-confluence, paranoia, structure, and accident.

I’ve talked about the structure of the novel before, but of course I left out a couple of things.  For instance, I haven’t even addressed the weird fractal theory, in which every chapter is supposed to replicate the structure of the entire book (and I see this in some chapters, and miss it in others; there does seem to be a pattern in which a chapter, just like the book as a whole, opens at a disorienting end and then works backward to fill in the details, although this isn’t all that unusual, really).  But what I’ve been thinking most about, nearing the end of the book, is J.O. Incandenza’s concept of “anti-confluential” cinema, and how this reflects on IJ.  Is this an anti-confluential book?  A confluential one?  Both or neither?

This ties in with the theme of paranoia, and two of DFW’s great literary father-ghosts: Pynchon and DeLillo.  Pynchon, especially, was a master at ambiguous paranoia: are the characters right to be paranoid?  Are you, as a reader, right to be paranoid, making connections from your privileged perspective?   Or does Pynchon write “about” paranoia, as a phenomenon, gazing coolly at it as from a distance?  However this finally came out in your mind, you couldn’t deny that Pynchon and DeLillo are both masters at tweaking their works to show the connections between things, the systems governing our lives, the ways that it was impossible not to see forces at work, pulling strings.  White Noise is especially concerned with the confluence, with how things are connected.

The Higher Power in IJ is an AA term, typically meaning God or another supernatural force.  DFW is very serious about this in subtle and powerful ways.  Thinking about literary lineages, it’s not hard to see that the “higher power” in Pynchon is typically government, bureaucracy, sinister forces of destruction.  The higher supernatural powers are usually wildly marginalized and powerless, forgotten or neglected.  (See the Yuroks’ woge, in Vineland.)  This is somehow emblematic of the differences between them, I think.

I digress.  Conspiracy and skullduggery play a big part in IJ too, of course.  But the book also jokes with its conspiratorial figures, inserting inconvenient accidents of circumstance and timing that fit the book’s narrative, but not the conspirators’.  Somehow, I think DFW was trying to write a book in which it was apparent that human efforts to control could only go so far, and human efforts to interpret would always remain incomplete.  Somehow both confluence and anti-confluence contribute to his thesis.

Example: the most obvious, Gately’s botched burglary, killing “the anti-O.N.A.N. organizer” DuPlessis.  This event becomes the focus of immense conspiratorial and governmental scrutiny.  It is, to those who knew who DuPlessis was, obviously an intentional message of some sort, or at least done for a reason connected to them: to find the tape of “the Entertainment,” to snuff the French-Canadian terrorist offensive.  But this event, so badly misinterpreted, was an accident.  There was no guiding hand here at all.  Gately and his partner fucked up.  DuPlessis was home when they didn’t think he was.  These events — Gately’s robbery, the search for Infinite Jest — were not connected.  Anti-confluential.  (But then… wait… Joelle Van Dyne, star of the lethal entertainment, comes to Ennet House.  And so does Remy Marathe, looking for Joelle…)

And then there’s Mike Pemulis.  We learn Pemulis’s fate in two somehow heartbreaking footnotes (and I’m still trying to figure out why these sections are footnotes, exactly, and not just regular sections of text, because they footnote nothing but gaps in the text).  Pemulis is the one with the poster of the troubled king with the tagline that is the title of this post.  He’s a street kid, gets in trouble, and the major drug source at E.T.A.  And he always covers his ass, and he is extremely paranoid, and lives in fear of getting kicked out in his last year when he’s so close to getting away from his horrible family and neighborhood and life for good.  But then he is kicked out, and it is because his roommate, Jim Troeltsch, kept some (stolen) amphetamines in a bottle labeled as anti-histamine tablets, one of which John Wayne takes, leading to horrible embarrassment for just about every official at E.T.A. in one of the book’s funniest scenes.  And, Pemulis thinks, Troeltsch ratted on him to save his own hide.  There was some kind of conspiracy to get the kid out of E.T.A. — Avril, Hal’s mom, hates Pemulis, and so do the other administrators, it would seem — but they got him for something he didn’t even do.

But DFW also pulls strings throughout the book, bringing people and events together: Hal seeing Kevin Bain at the horrible “Inner Infant” meeting; Avril and her Quebecois cronies; the purse-snatchings of Lenz and Krause, the meeting of Kate Gompert and Remy Marathe.  Read that poster-tagline again, in its original all-caps: “YES, I’M PARANOID — BUT AM I PARANOID ENOUGH?”  I think DFW saw this as the crucial problem with postmodern literature, and with postmodern readers, and with postmodern thinkers (which is pretty much our culture, and not some kind of hyper-elite subgroup, at least in my opinion): always believing there to be another motive behind the surface, always another layer of secrecy.  And, importantly, always a conspiracy pointed right at you, the king of your universe.  And a seemingly transparent pose about it all: who could really be so cripplingly paranoid who had a poster advertising his paranoia on his wall?

Strange to say about such a complex book, but I think DFW was trying to help us all find our way back into some kind of honest relationship with literature and ourselves.  The footnotes, the complicated narration, the complete or over-complete disclosure and the lack of knowledge in other areas: it is about showing that there are no tricks here, nothing up his sleeves.  He was trying to write a book for adults, about being an adult, part of which is letting your guard down once in a while and engaging.  DFW tried to let us know exactly as much about what happens to these characters as he knew, I think.

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