Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Cerebral Reckoning: Lazy?

August 12, 2011

As a lazy, apathetic man, I seriously hope this isn’t the consequence of my inability to do anything.  I’d seriously hate to have a genocide hanging over my head.  It would be almost unbearable:

If, instead of decapitating his army, he [Stalin] had intellectually prepared it for war, Russia might have defeated Germany in a matter of weeks.  Such a course of action, while no doubt entailing grave consequences of its own, would have saved about 40 million lives, including the vast majority of the victims of the Holocaust.

(Martin Amis, Koba The Dread:  Laughter and the Twenty Million, 2002)


Cerebral Reckoning: A Call To Action

June 25, 2011

Sadly, just as true today as it was 55 years ago…so much for progress:

Young people of America, awake from your slumber of indolence and harken to the call of the future!  Do you realize that you are rapidly becoming a doomed generation?  Do you realize that the fate of the world and of generations to come rests on your shoulders?…Oh ignorant youth, the world is not a joyous place.  The time has come for you to dispense with the frivolous pleasures of childhood and get down to honest toil until you are sixty-five.  Then and only then can you relax and collect your social security and live happily until the time of your death.

Fearfully and disgustedly yours,
John J Righteous Hypocrite

(Hunter S. Thompson, The Athenaeum, 1955)

David Sedaris’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

October 19, 2010

Once, when I was in sixth grade and charged with babysitting my younger brother, I came home from school to find him waiting on our front steps. He’d discovered a small, spongy football by the tire of a parked car and was beaming over the find. I was in a dark mood (my studied scowling act hadn’t kindled a single female heart at recess) and now I was jealous: Happiness for him was something found curbside, found too easily. I snatched the ball from him and, ignoring his protests and pleas, rolled it down the sewer and then we both felt terrible.

If you found this ugly little tale funny, you’ll like Sedaris’s collection of nasty, brutish, and short-short fiction wherein the author has, in the tradition of fabulists and folk tale-tellers, gifted his animal characters with human-strength powers of speech and cognition. Except Sedaris’s, with few exceptions, employ their abilities to relentlessly miserable effect. Most tales open with a character thinking ungenerous thoughts toward another. He or she then emerges from the reverie and, blinkered by a stingy spirit, acts callously or violently or stupidly toward his neighbor and the act succeeds or backfires. It’s like a print version of “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” but with a less winning brand of cruelty. Some didactic message is usually available and so are some illustrations but you’ll likely not bother lingering over either; each tale is so singularly unsatisfying, so insufficiently funny, that I found myself plunging ahead, keeping things moving the way you walk off the pain of a dashed shin, feeling hopeful, then less hopeful, then frowning, then quitting with a quarter still unread.

This is a collection that would not have seen print had it landed on a publisher’s desk with an unknown author’s name beneath its title. If only this were an early work, some scrap of juvenilia that Sedaris’s agent had greedily bullied him into releasing. But I’ve heard no such news. Seems Sedaris expected we’d devour these deadening stories, each as small, hard, and bitter as an acorn, and come away smiling. Me, I’m backing away, shaking my head, wondering what happened to the man whose books used to make me laugh so hard that I wouldn’t let myself read them on public transit. I can only hope the author finds an improving message in the tale of this book’s inglorious and inevitable relegation to last place on lists of Sedaris fans’ favorites.

Imaginary Breadth

October 13, 2010

Encountered this with little context. No, not another excerpt from 2666, but one from another Bolaño novel that I’ve not yet cracked. It’ll be my last quote of his for a bit. Promise. Like I said, I’ve no idea what it’s about; it was a sharp-toed boot landing between my ribs and I’m just now waking and demanding to know who aimed the kick. If ever I write such a stunning trio of sentences, I’ll recline in my chair, park my own boots atop my desk, and from there the undertaker will in time come to collect a most smiling young stiff.

I followed them: I saw them go down Bucareli to Reforma with a spring in their step and then cross to Reforma without waiting for the lights to change, their long hair blowing in the excess wind that funnels down Reforma at that hour of the night, turning it into a transparent tube or an elongated lung exhaling the city’s imaginary breath. Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.

-from Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet

Re: History

October 12, 2010

Know how sometimes you look back on decisive moments in your life and they burn and the only thing for it is to fan the flames? No?! Well, good day sir, and kindly leave off reading now.

For the rest of you, here’s a bitter bit of Bolaño from his novel 2666. Thinks one character, “… history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.”

Sorry to wax maudlin, but on days like today, that rings true. (Understand that at some age immemorial I hocked my heart for a tin tuning fork that returns the cleanest notes when answering dark sentiments like this one. It wasn’t a wise bargain, but the huckster has dashed, taking with him all traces of the flea market he oversaw.) How ’bout a hug? Hmm?

Happy Hour

October 1, 2010

Friday springs into view and stands before me grinning proudly like it’s been here all along, like it hadn’t run out on me a week ago, leaving me to pine for it like a prisoner in an oubliette pines for the retina-searing blast of light overhead. But Friday is sometimes a too-cheerful chum, a beamish brat who needs a cuffing like the one Denis Johnson deals out in his short story “Happy Hour.”

The day was ending in a fiery and glorious way. The ships on the Sound looked like paper silhouettes being sucked up into the sun.

I had two doubles and immediately it was as if I’d been dead forever, and was now finally awake.

I was in Pig Alley. It was directly on the harbor, built out over the waters on a rickety pier, with floors of carpeted plywood and a Formica bar. The cigarette smoke looked unearthly. The sun lowered itself through the roof of clouds, ignited the sea, and filled the big picture window with molten light, so that we did our dealing and dreaming in a brilliant fog. People entering the bars on First Avenue gave up their bodies. Then only the demons inhabiting us could be seen. Souls who had wronged each other were brought together here. The rapist met his victim, the jilted child discovered its mother. But nothing could be healed, the mirror was a knife dividing everything from itself, tears of false fellowship dripped on the bar. And what are you going to do to me now? With what, exactly, would you expect to frighten me?

Friday’s power to liberate is myth, one we give ourselves permission to credit collectively, but one I’d not dispel, even if I could, because a world without a grimy happy hour is world I’d not soon look upon.

Asleep atop a Snoozing Giant, or, Die, Monday, Die!

August 23, 2010

Monday. Like a cursed tribe gone dumb and numb we plod with lowered heads toward the towers where we’ll waste the next eight hours without once stopping to consider the hulking buildings themselves, those pillars like the legs of fog-wreathed colossi who’ve let lassitude root them. In the way of small relief from your woes, I give you Roberto Bolaño’s sketch of a skyscraper in 2666. I think you’ll agree that it’s excellent. It’s for moments like this that I read novels.

At night she slept in the most modern building in Lourdes, a functionalist monster of steel and glass that buried its head, bristling with antennas, in the white clouds that floated down from the north, big and sorrowful, or marched from the west like a ragtag army whose only strength was its numbers, or dropped from the Pyrenees like the ghosts of dead beasts.

I pray the monsters wake. May they shake off their torpor and move on while we spring from them like smiling fleas.

Cerebral Reckoning: “Junky”

August 19, 2010

I had the misfortune of sitting next to an obnoxious, young Irish man during last week’s Liverpool v. Arsenal match.  I’m not a huge soccer fan but I enjoy the spirit of the game…especially the part where you have a legitimate excuse to drink at 11 am on Sunday morning.  While it sure beats church, the fans, particularly in America, can be a brutal lot.  It’s almost like they need you to know & acknowledge their high level of the bar, they’re always the loudest…the Irish guy fit firmly into this category of lout.  I spent the entire first half of the game listening to him explain to me why soccer is better than football.  It was intensely annoying.  For the duration of the conversation, I desperately searched for a way out of this nightmare…fake cell phone emergency call…smash a pint glass on his face…simply run away…I struggled to find the perfect solution, but then, as I finished my fourth Guiness, it finally hit me…the perfect quote to silence an Irishman…I spoke slowly (so he would understand) and deliberately:

“There was a man standing by the jukebox and I caught his eye several times…He looked like one of those terra-cotta heads that you plant grass in.  A peasant face, with peasant intuition, stupidity, shrewdness, and malice.  He couldn’t have been anything but Irish.”

(Burroughs, Willam S.  Junky, New York:  Penguin Books, 1953, p. 61)

His reaction was angry, but it ended the conversation.


August 19, 2010

It’s not often I come across a poem that excites me till I’m itching to grab people by the backs of their necks, push their faces toward the page, and make them read the thing aloud. This one by Anthony Madrid, found in the July/August edition of Poetry, had me contemplating just such acts of exuberant violence. It opens, as you’ll read below, with swagger, mystery, and a charming authoritative tone that I hope will inspire you to click the link to read the rest and then, if you’re feeling grateful, to explain this to me: What’s up with the ants, and why the almonds?

THE unit of wine is the cup. Of LOVE, the unit is the kiss.

That’s here.

In Hell, the units are the gallon and the fuck. In Paradise,

the drop and the glance.

Read the rest here.

Cerebral Reckoning: “Samuel S”

August 13, 2010

Sound advice:

“He took good care of his heart by eating the boiled meats and never let religion rob him of his appetite or sense of humor.  Life was still before him in this strange outpost of a city where the sounds of the rest of the world drifted and one had to tap one’s skull to let them in.  Five years ago he had a plan to straighten himself out and now these many th0usand dollars later he still went, clocking in twice a week to this small rotund doctor who sat askance in the shadows quietly listening and sometimes chuckling.  And at long last he had an insight.  That one grows older faster staying in the same place.”

(Donleavy, J.P .  The Saddest Summer of Samuel S,  New York:  Dell Publishing Co., 1966)

A Mowgli Esquire Exclusive: Jarred Mechanick’s “In Memoriam David Markson”

July 31, 2010

In June, the literary world lost one of its true luminaries with the passing of postmodern novelist David Markson.  Jarred Mechanick, one of Markson’s disciples, had a fitting tribute to offer exclusively to Mowgli Esquire:

At 6’4”, over the age of 26, and lean and sinewy, I come to you, dear readers, full of electricity and a focused, intensfanaticism found usually in junior high school girls’ ceramic experiments.

What has led me to this point is irrelevant; what matters is only my unyielding adherence to the barest of bones, any stillborn kernels caught in the thick miasma of Everyday and its Nonsense (but …you must pay attention to your nonsense…). To monkey my way through the leech blood oozing from everywhere you look.

I may not post much (hell, I may never post again), but rest assured, and Adeste Fideles, that I am never more than a stone’s throw from the frying fat, with at least one eye cast towards and against the Absolute.

In Memoriam David Markson

I was born on April 26, 1979.

Over the course of about two years, I mailed two letters to David Markson. The first one I dictated to my girlfriend, as I had recently fractured my finger playing basketball. I mentioned this in the letter. Markson began his response by stating that he hoped my finger injury wasn’t a result of fouling somebody.

Coincidences imply meaning.

At my best and at my worst, I’m motivated only by sex, death, and Wittgenstein (‘s Mistress).

Hart Crane.

What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

Richard Burton, I am not.

Play a little. With luck a phrase or three worth some lonely pretty girl’s midnight underlining

Evelyn Roak.

When I left the Unitarian Universalist, I got caught in a warm, soaking rain. When I left the Dream House, I got caught in a warm, soaking rain. When I left the school, it was warm and bright, late morning. When I left yet another school, it was warm and bright, early morning September.

The science of the impossibly small.

What should we gain be a definition, as it can only lead us to other undefined terms?

Every goal has its dark corners.

April 25-26, 1979.

There are always questions.


To furnish a crystal clarity daily, living amongst the lichens of the mind, the barnacle and rust, the city bread and the farm haul, while all the same, a deep-seated internal thrust pushes one ever further into extreme alms and barest isolation. Meager means to a not-so-abrupt end. Antagonism and introspection as dull blades stretching late into life. The palace hinders the guards’ dreams; furrow and infinite regression.

In my second letter, I inquired how he was doing and remarked upon his poem ‘Relevance’:

Coincidences undeniably imply meaning.

I am rereading Hart Crane.
I notice the date
On which he stepped off that boat
Was April 26.

Tomorrow is April 26.

The year of his suicide was 1932.
I was four.
I am now fifty-one.
One undeniable implication in this case then
Is that the year, today,
Is 1979.

Afterward, Crane’s mother scrubbed floors.
Eventually, I may or may not
Jump overboard.

Are there questions?

but it’s being held together by something else. And not everybody cares about this. So to recognize their needs would be in opposition to where I’m going. I appreciate what they want and sometimes I want the same things…But there’s no way I can compete.

Cerebral Reckoning: “Darrow Mastery”

July 20, 2010

The times call for conformity…the masses clamor for pathetic apologies on a regular basis…one side of the mouth argues for freedom of speech while the other calls for boycotts and retribution for subjectively offensive chatter…hypocrisy and hubris dance a dangerous tango of insanity…in periods of intensities and extremes, we cry out for voices of reason…often independent of time or place, reason remains constant…logic calms, codifies, and establishes equilibrium…eternally thankful for these ageless voices, we must continue to uphold and recognize their sanity…especially in an epoch of disorder and crisis:

“Gentleman, nature works in a mysterious way.  When a new truth comes upon the earth, or a great idea necessary for mankind is born, where does it come from?  Not from the police force or the prosecuting attorneys or the judges or the lawyers or the doctors; not there.  It comes from the despised and the outcast; it comes perhaps from jails and prisons; it comes from men who have dared to be rebels and think their thoughts; and their fate has been the fate of rebels.  This generation gives them graves while another builds them monuments; and there is no exception to it.  It has been true since the world began, and it will be true no doubt forever.”

(Darrow, Clarence.  Argument of Clarence Darrow In the Case of the Communist Labor Party in Criminal Court.  Chicago:  Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1920)

Cerebral Reckoning: “The Great Gatsby”

July 19, 2010

Sometimes a man needs a vacation…I need a vacation…curse Monday and the never-ending cycle…one day we’ll get away:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound.  And as soon as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh green breast of the new world.  Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of his continent.  Compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder…”

(Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great Gatsby.  New York:  Scribner, 1925)


July 19, 2010

There is something at once delightful and discomforting about finding oneself depicted with photorealism in a work of fiction. Coming upon this bit from Nabokov’s The Defense, I nearly upset my jar of breakfast whiskey.

“Mrs. Luzhin, incidentally, liked him very much, and precisely because of his plainness, the neutrality of his features, as if he were himself only the outside of a vessel filled with something so sacred and rare that it would be a sacrilege to paint the clay. His name was Petrov, not a single thing about him was remarkable, he had written nothing, and he lived like a beggar, but never talked about it to anyone. His sole function in life was to carry, reverently and with concentration, that which had been entrusted to him, something which it was necessary at all costs to preserve in all its detail and in all its purity, and for that reason he even walked with small careful steps, trying not to bump into anyone, and only very seldom, only when he discerned a kind of kindred solicitude in the person he was talking to did he reveal for a moment—from the whole of that enormous something that he carried mysteriously within him—some tender, priceless little trifle, a line from Pushkin or the peasant name of a wild flower.”

(I exaggerate Petrov’s likeness to myself. I can make no claims to plainness, having once won the title of 5th Most Eligible Bachelor in the hamlet of my birth after edging out James O’Shaughnessy, a scrofulous epileptic we permitted to live on the outskirts of town as he proved useful in keeping packs of wild dogs at bay, a’feared as they were of his slavering and sweaty quaking. For a payment of an orange peel he’d lurch about the perimeter all night. Yes, I beat him soundly.)

Passages like this assure me that I am not and will never be a first-rate writer.  A master miniaturist, Nabokov needed only three sentences to stand before the reader a breathing, shuffling character. A nearly unholy power in the man’s pen. It simultaneously crushes my own ambitions and consoles me with the promise that more art of this caliber awaits. Some days, knowing that you get to share the same world with writing like this is recompense enough.


July 15, 2010

Yesterday I finished Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s The Makiokia Sisters, the ne plus ultra of the Japanese postwar novel.  Far be it from me to adjudge a work so canonical, but I couldn’t help but feel let down by the Sisters’ final sentence: “Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth and was a problem on the train ride to Tokyo.”  That’s it: The End.  Now, Miss Yukiko, in her thirty-third year, is on her way to the big city to marry and thereby resolve the novel’s chief concern.  Of course, her diarrhea is symptomatic of the mood disorders that continually thwarted her marriage prospects, and, as this trouble is occurring on the eve of the war, it is symbolic of the woes about to beset Japan, but, nevertheless, I found this last note to be – initially – an unsatisfying one.  Couldn’t Tanizaki have concluded his magnum opus with an image commensurate with its grand themes?

When I lived in Japan, my fellow Western barbarians and I marveled at the local toilets.  The finest of them had self-sanitizing heated seats and control panels which were complex yet elegant.  With these panels, one could employ a bidet function, release a deodorant spray, or simulate the sound of running water, presumably to mask a plop or a grunt.  It was not until I recalled these toilets that I realized that Tanizaki’s ending is a manifestation of his genius for mapping the intersection between the physiological and the historical (e.g. his “The Tattooer”).  Being the Western barbarian that I am, the potty language distracted me from the sentence’s true essence.  To me, the toilet is an excremental confessional of sorts, a place where my gustatory sins are expiated; it should be spare and unadorned, and any reference to it is beyond the pale of seriousness.  In Ulysses, Joyce strives towards an earthy domesticity, but he closes the novel with Leopold Bloom, not on the toilet, as in the “Calypso” episode, but in the conjugal bed.  In any case, Joyce was always something of a petulant schoolboy, what with his overweening desire to thumb his nose at the bourgeoisie.  At the end of “Calypso,” he even went so far as to have Bloom wipe himself with a page of a story by a fictional Victorian author.

While Tanizaki transcends the filth by being serenely honest and open about its existence, Joyce wallows in it as he sniggers derisively at his detractors.  In short, he affirms that the filth is filthy, while Tanizaki, in a zazen turn, escapes the contradictions inherent in Joyce’s abnegation of bourgeois values through a sagacious neutrality.

Cerebral Reckoning: “Songs of the Doomed”

July 14, 2010

The world’s slowly slipping into darkness…we are in the midst of a recession, dangling on the precipice of a potential depression…oil laps against our once pristine shores, while our politicians govern by mercurial polls…American power is waning, her citizens struggling to survive, bitterly divided along party lines…Kristin’s forsaking the Hills, Brody’s all alone, and Whitney’s leaving People’s Revolution…when all hope seems lost, there’s really only one man who can help me to rise above the fray…The Good Doctor…he captured our current vibe more than 20 years ago…it gives me faith in the cyclical nature of the world:

“It has been raining a lot recently.  Quick thunderstorms and flash floods…lightning at night and fear in the afternoon.  People are worried about electricity.  Nobody feels safe.  fires burst out on dry hillsides, raging out of control, while dope fiends dance in the rancid smoke and animals gnaw each other.  Foreigners are everywhere, carrying pistols and bags of money.  There are rumors about murder and treachery and women with no pulse.  Crime is rampant and even children are losing their will to live.  The phones go dead and power lines collapse, whole families plunged into darkness with no warning at all.  People who used to be in charge walk around walleyed, with their hair standing straight up on end, looking like they work for Don King, and babbling distractedly about their hearts humming like stun guns and trying to leap out of their bodies like animals trapped in bags.  People get very conscious of electricity when it goes sideways and starts to act erratic.”

(Thompson, Hunter S.  Songs of the Doomed.  New York:  Touchstone, 1990, p. 13 – 14)

Cerebral Reckoning: “The Brothers Karamazov”

July 13, 2010

I work with a man who loves tuna…I’ve never seen anything like it.  He eats tuna at every single lunch….he loves it sloppy, the more mayo the better…eating with him is a bizarre journey through a world of repulsion…he literally unhinges his jaw to accommodate monstrous bites…he looks like a wild animal…by the time he’s finished, there’s mayo everywhere…sprayed across his face, dripped on his shirt, and splattered on the floor…not a day goes by where I don’t feel the impulse to reprimand this savage…but then I remember…it’s not worth it…as Dostoevskey so aptly stated:

“Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent.”

(Dostoevsky, Fyodor.  The Brothers Karamazov.  New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990)

Keith Gessen’s “All the Sad Young Literary Men”

July 9, 2010

Neither fish nor fowl, neither a short story collection nor a novel, Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men is, according to its cover, “fiction.”  Mind you, that’s not the countable plural “fictions” (e.g. Borges’ Ficciones), not the indefinite article “a fiction,” but simply “fiction.”  Mr. Gessen (or his editor/publisher) proves to be triply ingenious here, as it is with this appellation that he shrugs off the epiphanic duties of the shorter form, the structural incumbencies of the longer, and the ethical responsibilities of the memoir.  (There is a character named “Keith” who, like Mr. Gessen, attended Harvard College and associated with the then-Vice President’s daughter.)  Aside from “Lauren” (Kristin Gore) and “Keith” (Gessen is somewhat famous himself as founder of the journal n+1), other roman a clef personages include “Prof. Lomaski” (Noam Chomsky) and “Morris Binkel” (Lee Siegel).  Otherwise, we are to assume that the characters are fictional, although I suspect that if you went to Harvard in the late 90s or to Syracuse University in the 2000s (as Gessen did as an MFA student) you might recognize some of your classmates in the pages of this “fiction.”

What this fiction is, more precisely, is a book of loosely interconnected stories, each featuring one of three protagonists.  While “Keith” serves as a stand-in for the author, the other two, “Sam” and “Mark,” seem to be more like refractions of Gessen’s identity, the former in his Jewishness (Sam wants to write the “great Zionist epic.”) and the latter in his experience as a divorced graduate student at Syracuse (Mark is writing a history dissertation on the Mensheviks.).  As long as you don’t expect these stories to have the revelatory pop and sparkle of Chekhov and Cheever (The interconnectedness of them won’t exactly blow your mind, either.), you won’t be disappointed, as there is much to be admired in Gessen’s prose.  He writes with unfailing elegance, occasional lyricism and frequent humor.  As a well-educated male denizen of the Boston – D.C. megapolis, I’d be lying if I said this book didn’t charm me into laughing at the quirks of my existence.  It did, very much so, like when, for instance, Keith professes that “my father fervently believed [that] I-95 was so heavily trafficked, so miserable, so corrupt, especially in its Delaware portion, that one should take the long way – up to Harrisburg and then across the great state of Pennsylvania at top speed.”  Or, when Mark reflects in a self-conscious moment that, “[r]ap music was the music of the lonely.”  And then there’s Sam’s concern that “[h]is Google was shrinking.  It was part of a larger failing, maybe, certainly, but to see it quantified . . . to see it numerically confirmed . . . it was cruel.  It wasn’t nice.”

The less favorable reviews of All the Sad Young Literary Men have taken the book and its author to task for navel-gazing.  The reviewers behind these screeds are either willfully missing the point or engaging in embarrassingly regressive criticism.  As I see it, Gessen is chronicling a particularly solipsistic demographic through increasingly solipsistic times, and thus it is only natural that the narrative feel rather ingrown.  Could he have chosen something more ennobling than these young men, with their online dating and their lewd list-making, for his subject (“Sam found similarly that no matter how much he recalculated and recalibrated, took circumstances into account and multiplied by three, there was no avoiding the fact that he hadn’t, in his life, received enough blow jobs.”)?  Certainly.  Should he have?  Of course not.  For the sake of both aesthetics and the historical record, the novelist is not obligated to always write about the extremes of human experience.  While I would not presume to argue that there are too many novels about cancer or the Holocaust, I will say that there are enough of them, but not nearly enough as spot-on and risible as Mr. Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men.

Cerebral Reckoning: “His Songs and Sayings”

July 8, 2010

I was recently accosted by a bearded homeless woman…the confrontation changed my whole perception of reality.  I was walking by, minding my own business, wearing a friend’s stolen Harvard Lacrosse shirt, when she leaped out of a pile of rubbish, and waved an accusatory finger inches from my face.  “You didn’t go to Harvard!” she shrieked, her toothless maw twisted with rage…She had called me to the floor.  I didn’t go to Harvard.  I was a fraud…I should have listened to the old American parable:

“You can hide the fire, but what are you going to do with the smoke?”

(Harris, Joel Chandler.  Uncle Remus:  His Songs and Sayings, 1881)

Cerebral Reckoning: “The Plague”

July 7, 2010

In light of Algeria’s recent accomplishment as the most hideous team in international soccer competition, I was reminded of one of their other modern achievements…still having the plague…Rieux, in his narration, perfectly captures the popular malaise that accompanies times of pestilence…it’s in our nature to plod on…all extremes eventually melt into boredom and routine:

“They seemed to derive fantastic hopes or equally exaggerated fears from reading the lines that some journalist has scribbled at random, yawning with boredom at his desk.  Meanwhile they drank their beer, nursed their sick, idled, or doped themselves with work, filed documents in offices, or played the phonograph at home, without betraying any difference from the rest of us.  In other words, they had ceased to choose for themselves; plague had leveled out discrimination.  This could be seen by the way nobody troubled about the quality of the clothes or food he bought.  Everything was taken as it came.”

(Camus, Albert.  The Plague.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1991, p. 184)

Olga Grushin’s “The Dream Life of Sukhanov”

July 6, 2010

Anatoly Sukhanov exchanged his gift for painting forbidden surrealist canvases for a cushy job cheerleading the practitioners of crapulous Soviet socialist realism.  Now in his late middle-age, the apparatchik finds his comfortable existence impinged upon by odd visitors and dream-like flashbacks.

Throughout The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin exhibits some truly diamantine prose; it’s just that lucid and brilliant.  Kick back and enjoy the following, context-free:

“They feel into an uneasy silence, listening.  The rhythmical liturgy went on and on: ‘Damnation, damnation to her, damnation to her for all of eternity!’  And as the minutes passed, it began to seem to Sukhanov that their warily expectant courtyard was being gradually transformed into the interior of a great, roofless, solemn church.  The Big Dipper swung like an incense holder, spraying drops of stars into the skies above; gilded squares of lit windows all around them turned into jeweled icons, encircled by candle flames, glimmering with blackened lacquer on ancient stone walls – and for an instant he even imagined that the spirit of some fallen angel was truly being cast out by communal condemnation into the chilly August nothingness. . . .”

“Here, in the countryside, the summer still lingered as if charmed.  A rich smell of cut grass rode into the air along with a midday chorus of somnolent crickets; bumblebees hovered with contented weightiness under a sky blue as the brightest faience; orchard trees rippled in the breeze, revealing flashes of the light green of Antonovka apples among the dark green of restless leaves.  On both sides of the path, tumbling branches of blossoming wild roses, red and white, rained petals onto his feet, and their sweet, heavy scent unexpectedly summoned to his memory a delightful tea Valya had occasionally brewed from rose hips.  In a few more strides, the white stone walls of the house gleamed through sun-dappled branches of a young oak, reminding him of some impressionist study of color and light.  Swinging his bag back and forth like an impatient child, he ran up the steps.”

“Infinitely relieved, he returned his glasses to their place, only to discover, upon straightening up, that half of his world was now crisscrossed by a radiant, trembling cobweb: a star-shaped crack, the imprint of someone’s vengeful step, had shattered the left lens.  The crack splintered the light into dozens of cubist fragments and imparted a rainbow-tinted brightness to one side of his vision, granting unwitting haloes to a night brigade of women in orange overalls who were presently illuminated by the flickering beams of their flashlights on a parallel track, and, once the last vestiges of the unknown town had fallen into the darkness, endowing his own reflection in the window with the multifaceted eye of an insect and sending silver waves across that of a strikingly beautiful girl who had just passed behind him in the aisle.”

If you agree with Henry James’ assessment of the Russian novel as a “loose baggy monster,” then Grushin, who was born in Moscow in 1971, has rebuffed her native legacy twice over: first, by writing a novel in English, and, second, by writing one with such painstakingly perfect craft.  As in dreams, even the smallest details in Sukhanov are laden with latent symbolism.  But one fears that for Grushin this writing of novels in a third language is merely an intellectual exercise, a chess problem, as it was for her fellow émigré and literary forefather, Vladimir Nabokov.  It is a piddling criticism, but she might do well to occasionally channel the “loose baggy monster,” and, instead of manicuring her prose after the prim geometry of the English garden, let it overgrow with a superfluity of life like the arbor of a neglected dacha.

Cerebral Reckoning: “The Yage Letters”

July 2, 2010

“To whom it may concern:  Self deciphers this correspodnence thus:  the vision of ministering angels my fellow man and woman first wholly glimpsed while the Curandero gently crooned human in Ayahuasca trance-state 1960 was prophetic of transfiguration of self consciousness from homeless mind sensation of eternal fright to incarnate body feeling present bliss now actualized 1963.  Old love, as ever…Allen Ginsberg ” 

(Burroughs, William S.  The Yage Letters.  San Francisco: City Lights 1963)

Thomas Bernhard’s “The Loser”

July 2, 2010

Men of letters have a long tradition of firing off a parting salvo in their last will and testament.  Shakespeare, who bequeathed to his estranged wife, Anne Hathaway, his “second best bed,” is the most famous practitioner of this art.  While the Bard’s bequest was steeped in a subtle, bitter brew, other writers, such as the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard, have used their final publication to fling straight vitriol in the faces of the living.  Long known in Austria as a Nestbeschmutzer (one who soils his own nest), Bernhard nevertheless managed to shock his homeland after his death in 1989 when this clause of his will was read: “Whatever I have written, whether published by me during my lifetime or as part of my literary papers still existing after my death, shall not be performed, printed or even recited for the duration of legal copyright within the borders of Austria, however this state identifies itself.”  This last phrase is no doubt an allusion to Austria’s 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany, a shameful episode in his country’s history that Bernhard “commemorated” fifty years later in the play, Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square).  I say “commemorated” in an ironical sense because Bernhard, being the provocateur that he was, surely delighted in rubbing Austria’s nose in its gravest mistake.

If “anti-Austrian” is one hyphenated word that describes Bernhard and his narratives, then “death-obsessed” is another.  Upon receiving the Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1967, he told his audience that “everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death.”  The unnamed narrator of The Loser has come to a similar conclusion, having lost his  conservatory pals Glenn Gould (“the most important piano virtuoso of the [twentieth] century”) and Wertheimer (The Loser’s title character, Der Untergeher, which, rendered literally, means “the one who goes under.”), the only “two people in [his] life who gave it any meaning.”  Gould died of a stroke while playing the Goldberg Variations (This is one of many fictionalizations that Bernhard performs on the historical figure of Gould; in fact, the stroke struck while the pianist was in his sleep.), while Wertheimer hanged himself in a spiteful and embarrassing plea for his sister’s attention.  It was Gould himself who, in his “ruthless and open, yet healthy American-Canadian manner” dubbed Wertheimer “The Loser.”  This epithet works in concert with Gould’s staggering virtuosity to wreck Wertheimer’s confidence, sending him to seek succor first in “the human sciences” and later in suicide.  The narrator asserts that the die was cast the moment they heard Glenn’s divine rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  (See and hear for yourself in the clip above.)

Variations, as a formal technique, rely on thematic repetitions, and The Loser is their prose equivalent.  Like a baroque fugue, the novel is polyphonic and maddeningly circuitous; the narrator’s compulsive mind returns again and again to Glenn Gould, Wertheimer, Austria, death and, of course, the piano: “My ideal would be, I would be the Steinway, I wouldn’t need Glenn Gould, he [Gould] said, I could, by being the Steinway, make Glenn Gould totally superfluous. . . . To wake up one day and be Steinway and Glenn in one, he said, I thought, Glenn Steinway, Steinway Glenn, all for Bach.”  The above quotation displays what Jack Dawson, the author’s assiduous translator, calls Bernhard’s “somewhat peculiar orthography and punctuation.”  Another quirk that Dawson faithfully preserves is the novel’s almost complete lack of paragraph indentation.  Joined with dozens of run-on sentences, these features convincingly capture the stream of thought in a consciousness beleaguered by madness.  It is this uncanny verisimilitude to the unhinged mind that makes The Loser a strangely rewarding – and possibly exasperating – read.

Pulp Friction

July 2, 2010

My copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock looks like this:

The black bar of bridge dominating the middle of the photo sweeps the eye from left to right, past the book’s edge and, with any luck, onto a more interesting  scene, such as a blank patch of white wall in your living room .  I challenge you to produce an example of cover art that succeeds in being as boldly boring, as singularly unremarkable. Now, consider the Bantam edition of the same book:

Now that’s the stuff. Sumbitch looks like he’s suffering from an untreated case of reefer madness. Wife ain’t letting him go to any more of those after-work happy hours after this stunt. There’s a lot of room in my heart for art like this. Bring it, please!