Sunday, December 14, 2008

SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov

Having commanded Mnemosyne to speak, Nabokov seems unable or unwilling to make her shut up. This work, the least impressive of Vlad the Inscriber's longer prose compositions, is distinguished by a desultory, rambling quality which none of the novels possess. Whenever Nabokov's fictional narrators wander tangentially away from the main line of a narrative, there's always a good reason for--and much of interest in--the digression, but when Nabokov-as-narrator wanders into genealogy, the joys of boys' western novels or the finer points of chess problems, this reader nods. There is too much that is boring and underexamined in this mis-subtitled work. (It's no kind of 'autobiography' at all; it is in fact the last example in the Western tradition of that quintessentially 18th-century literary form, the aristocratic memoir.) And it's surprising that Nabokov, who can ironize anything in his fiction, seems unable to cast a colder eye upon his childhood world. Instead, he gives us, for the most part, beautifully-written sentimentality, an almost ahistorical idyll, a record of a childhood paradise lost to the forces of ideology. Of course, the Nabokovian idyll rested on the backs of those barely seen servants, but Our Memoirist prefers not to notice the politics of his idyll--a repressive strategy as doomed as Zhivago's pastoral retreat... This is an odd, obsolete work, redeemed only by the beauty of its prose; even Nabokov's worst book is better written than the best book of just about any of his contemporaries... The biggest problem with Speak, Memory is the lack of any narrative arc. Rather than being a kind of postmodernism avant la lettre, this lack is better understood as a result of the book's piecemeal production. Each chapter, written at a specific time for a specific magazine, still bears the stamp of its occasion and resists integration into an autobiographical narrative. This is a recipe for boredom and redundancy. Also, Nabokov is simply too sentimental to subject those he loves (and those places he loved) to the burning ironic acid he deploys in Pale Fire and Lolita. This is as 'nice' as Vladimir Vladimirovich gets, and the work suffers for it.

There is, of course, another side to this book. There are sparkles in the Nabokovian mist: a few brilliant descriptive passages; an almost anthropological (or phenomenological) description of the life of the pre-Revolutionary Russian upper class; some passages that appear to have influenced W.G. Sebald who, in a rare critical lapse, pronounced this book (or at least parts of it) 'sublime'. (Maybe not so much of a lapse, if thus qualified.)

HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy by Philip Pullman

I like Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so far (I'm about halfway through vol.2). The Subtle Knife, thus far, lacks the inventiveness and originality of The Golden Compass, but I'm still reading...The anti-theological satire seems more pronounced in book two, a trend which I hope continues, because Pullman has hit upon a fascinating idea for an alternate Earth: What would Europe look like if the Reformation had failed? No schism in Christendom, no Enlightenment, science referred to as 'experimental theology' and priestly spies posted to all science laboratories. This is all marvelous stuff, and Pullman handles it so subtly that only adults or attentive teens will pick up on it all.


Having just finished The Subtle Knife, I'm beginning to appreciate the Romantic audacity of Pullman's project. He is rewriting Paradise Lost in Nietzschean terms, imagining a story in which 'Adam' and 'Eve' bring about the death of God, destroy 'the Authority.' Magnificent. If he can pull this off, I will remove my hat and humbly eat it. This is a Romantic act worthy of his own daimonic Lord Asriel. Upon book three, The Amber Spyglass, rests the question of the success or failure of Pullman's Miltonic rebellion.


Well, Pullman didn't quite pull it off. The trilogy runs very well for most of its length, with few missteps, but then in the last third of The Amber Spyglass Pullman prematurely climaxes his most adventurous storyline, leaving the book to limp toward an anticlimactic, unsurprising denouement. A truly disappointing ending--and damn bad narrative construction. Until the last 100 pages, though, His Dark Materials is superior fantasy, illuminated by flashes of strong, strange greatness that lift it out of the genre bin and onto the literature shelf. Specifically, I'm thinking of the alethiometer and its interpretation, which can be interpreted as an allegory of reading; of the mulefa world, an invention worthy of Calvino; of the 'subtle knife' itself, a Borgesian space-time instrument that cuts like a moviola between different narrative worlds; of the very Borgesian concept of the possibly infinite number of parallel worlds; of Iofur Raknison's grand, gaudy, filth-strewn bear palace; of the dismal 'refugee camp' of the dead. This is all marvelous stuff--intelligent, literary fantasy at its best--and it's wonderful to think that kids and teenagers will read it and perhaps move on to investigate the works alluded to (Milton, Blake, Keats, etc.). Just as Jim Morrison led me to Blake many years ago, Philip Pullman might pull contemporary young people toward the canon. Harold Bloom's fulminations over Harry Potter's success seem overly curmudgeonly in light of the fact that some Harryheads will inevitably become Pullmaniacs and have their appetites whetted for the old books that inform Pullman's new ones. As a bonus, there's some biting anti-Christian satire in these books that simply delighted me.


In this fine, terrible, chilling book, Glover points out an important and compelling distinction between Nazism and the other major totalitarian ideology of the 20th century, Stalinism. The communist genocides (Stalinist and Maoist terrors and famines, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot's 'Year Zero') can be tenuously traced to Enlightenment utopianism, albeit in nationalistically twisted forms. Part of their horror lies in the fact that these governments created hells in the name of building paradises. The Nazi terror was of a different philosophical order. It was a pre-Enlightenment movement fueled by a vision of ultimate German dominance, the 'thousand-year reich.' For the Nazis, the creation of hell on Earth was the end, not the means. Obviously this is a quibble from the point of view of the millions of victims of these regimes, but I think it does suggest a reason for the special horror the Nazi atrocities evoke in us. The Nazis, in the middle of modern Europe in the middle of the Modernist century, prided themselves on their anti-Utopianism. To adapt Martin Amis, they built an autobahn to the animal brain, and millions of people eagerly speeded to the end of that road.

LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov

Upon re-reading Lolita yet again, I'm impressed by Nabokov's modernization of Flaubert in his characterizations of Charlotte Haze (especially) and Lolita. Nabokov (or Nabokov's novel, by no means the same thing) appreciates the extent to which our selves, as we perform them, are imitations of mass media prototypes. Recall the scene in which Charlotte and Humbert can communicate 'deeply' only because his expressions and her consciousness have been cribbed from the same sources: sentimental movies, cheap novels, popular magazines--the massmedia of midcentury America.

There's really nothing new or 'post-modern' about this. It's a concept as old as long-form fiction, and a history of the novel might be written with this theme as its through-line: the novel as a critique of 'the culture of the novel,' the culture in which novels and other media products aid in the production of the self, the process that we over-optimistically call 'socialization.' This is a concern--although not, of course, expressed in these terms--of Western fiction from Don Quixote (driven mad by books) to Madame Bovary (destroyed by sentimental fiction) to Huckleberry Finn (a Cervantine critique of Walter Scottish novels) to Lolita, and then there's The Great Gatsby, that little primer on the construction of the self under capitalism. Nutshelled, the idea is that while only a few human beings make books (or movies or TV shows), books make millions upon millions of human beings. Again, this is hardly a new idea; Oscar Wilde had it more than a century ago. But the persistence of the theme from the birth of the novel in Renaissance Spain to its death(?) in the hypertextual 2000s (Is it death or transfiguration? Calling Richard Strauss... If it's anything, this carping on the death of the novel or the death of reading is a symptom of Western provincialism and intellectual exhaustion; the novel is very much alive and constantly metamorphosing around the world today; the reports of its death emanating from American academic ghettos are all greatly exaggerated.) suggests that there's something in the basic structure and/or ideology of the novel (all novels) that is self-conscious, reflective, self-referential, that the novel is an inherently critical medium, perhaps the only essentially critical narrative form. One aspect of the novel's work is to produce a mirror of that work, reflecting the dangers of its reading back upon the reader. Is this a result of novelists' barely conscious Platonic/puritanical 'bad consciences', their anxieties about the negative results of the representations they struggle so mightily to produce? Or is some other mechanism at work? Is the structure of the novel something like the structure of the mind? The mind, thinking, reflects upon its own thought processes, inventing fictional characters such as Mr. Mind, Ms. Thought, the whole vague Memory Family, in order to better dramatize and comprehend a process that is--according to the best science we have--a business of webby tissues and chemical baths. The structure of the novel mimics the structure of the mind--not to be confused with the brain, creator of both.

Well, as I was saying before my brain fired off that cognitive digression, this 3rd or 4th reading of Lolita revealed a few things I hadn't noticed before, such as the central lag in the book's structure. Part One is very good, but the first half of Part Two disappoints (as I believe it did on my previous readings, but the book's better parts relegated it to oblivion in my memory). The long, Whitmanesque catalogs of motels and roadside attractions that begin the section, while often funny, quickly blur into a gray haze of American white noise, information overload. The section is a Nabokovian travesty of Flaubert's famous "He travelled" passage near the end of Sentimental Education, but the beauty of the source lies in its unrealistic brevity. Humbert's travels, by contrast, are more exhausting than enjoyable. And yet...and yet, even as I write this I wonder if that might not be exactly the point...It may be impossible to definitively criticize a work so endlessly ironic; any critique feels like a foot placed squarely into a beartrap laid by the shadowy V. Siren (or is it the umbral Vivian Darkbloom?)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

THE BLANK SLATE by Steven Pinker

The deafening silence that accompanied the 2002 publication of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (If there was an outcry, I didn't hear it.) was the unmistakable sound of a paradigm shifting. If this book had been published 20 or 25 years earlier, it would have ignited furious scholarly denunciations, critical conferences, even public demonstrations, but it seems that sometime around the millennium a new paradigm slid into place, and the ideas that ignited the 'sociobiology wars' of the 1970s-80s in academe have achieved broad acceptance. This book does seem to be the final and decisive nail in the coffin of a kind of radical social constructionism that creeped from sociology and literary theory into biology in the 1970's-90's. It replaces the concept of mind as a tabula rasa written upon by patriarchal capitalist society with a more nuanced approach to mind informed by recent research in neuroscience, genetics, cognitive science, evolutionary theory, etc. In short, Pinker compellingly argues that genes and heredity and evolutionary history ('biology' in the broadest sense) are more important in determining the construction of the self than any of the current 'star' thinkers in the American humanities have been willing to admit. If the self is likened to a computer, all of the hardware and a significant percentage of the software is assembled and loaded at the genetic factory; culture and society load the rest of the software and tinker with the hardware, but who we are is profoundly genetic. This is a chastening notion for anyone who has come into self-consciousness in an intellectual world dominated by Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and their American disciples--even for someone like me who reads them with a large bag of rock salt--but it's good and healthy (it is meet, as Shakespeare might have said) to be intellectually chastened every once in a while. The nature-nurture debate is by no means over (and I suspect Pinker underestimates the importance of environment), but the massive amount of evidence he marshals from anthropology, biology, medicine, etc. should make it virtually impossible for anyone to argue that the biological component of personality and behavior is negligible or that there is no fundamental 'human nature' shared by all homo sapiens regardless of culture. The book is already forcing me to re-examine my existentialism. Yes, Virginia, there is an 'essence' and it precedes our individual existences by tens of thousands of years. There is, in other words, a human nature, and its existence is powerfully demonstrated by the many columns of cultural universals in the back of Pinker's book (some of which are, admittedly, highly abstract and arguable). So the fundamental principle of Sartrean existentialism is incorrect. Can I 'save' Sartre, save what's valuable for me in existentialism (its godless ethics, its insistence on free will, 'thrownness' and the absurdity of existence)? I think I can, even in the face of the idea that not only what makes us similar but what makes us individual (tendencies toward aggression, melancholy, happiness, etc.) may well be genetically programmed. The key to saving an existentialist outlook lies in the realization that we are hardly the slaves of our genetic inheritance. First, we must appreciate that the genetic inheritance is complex and contradictory. We have evolved frontal lobes, for example, that control and repress the violent impulses in the brain's limbic system. (Incidentally, this is a good example of contemporary neuroscience independently confirming Freud's theories of repression and showing their material basis.). Second, we have developed self-consciousness and the abilities to reason, to empathize, to feel compassion, to love irrationally. All of these may be genetic inheritances, but we have the freedom to put them into play against other, darker inheritances. That's where the crucial existential choices come in.

What are the downsides of Pinker's book? His theories can be easily misused by the far right (and even left) to justify differential social and legal measures, but one hopes this is a characteristic only of the wacko political fringe. There are a few passages in which I think Pinker comes very close to racism, and overall the book does seem to be concealing a neoconservative bias. From a methodological standpoint, Pinker is seemingly oblivious to the dangers of his own 'paradigm creep', even as he decries the creeping paradigms of the 'blank slate' and the 'noble savage'. This is especially evident in the chapter on art, which reads like an afterthought that should have been excised. Pinker is far outside his area of competence here, and it shows.

THE GOD DELUSION by Richard Dawkins

One of the things that has long attracted me to Richard Dawkins--and which is on frequent display throughout The God Delusion--is his intellectual pugnacity. His seemingly fearless straightforwardness comes like a refreshing breeze into a public sphere where too many academics fear offending their colleagues, superiors, the public, the mullahs (Muslim and Christian), etc. Dawkins is not 'nice'; that is, he doesn't tiptoe across the linguistic eggshells of politically correct discourse, trying above all not to offend. The P.C. disease, rampant in the American academy a decade ago, happily never made it to Dawkins's Oxford office. This undoubtedly reflects a cultural difference between the fervid fundamentalist-tending U.S. and the more laid-back relative secularism of contemporary Britain. (These are of course gross generalizations, but I'm thinking out loud one should expect rigor.) This thought leads me to wonder about the hypocrisies of P.C.: wasn't this (isn't this) really conservatism in radical leftist drag? Whatever leftist intentions may have been behind P.C., by the time this doctrine of inoffensive blandness became institutionalized it was already a reactionary conversation-stifler, an attempt to embrace everyone and everything while discouraging incisive criticism in the names of pluralism, multiculturalism and 'respect'. Pluralism is my philosophy; multiculturalism is the reality in which we live; but respect need not be accorded to horrendous ideas and practices (female genital mutilation, circumcision, the suicidal fantasies of David Koresh) in the names of pluralism and multiculturalism. And perhaps we can best show our respect for other human beings (who are more worthy of it than any religion) by giving them a candle and a key, showing them a possible way out, an alternative worldview, another way of living.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Sebald's On The Natural History of Destruction is almost as astonishing and moving as his prose fictions. Beautifully controlled by Sebald's magisterial prose, it's a guided tour of hell that never lapses into hysteria--and is all the more horrible for that. I note a connection between what Sebald works toward in the title piece (a 'natural history' built out of the powerfully evocative images into which history has crystallized) and American philosopher Walter A. Davis's emphasis in Deracination on the power of images to communicate history's horrors. Thinking about this similarity sets me wondering if Sebald might have read Davis's 1989 magnum opus, Inwardness and Existence, a book that seems to be slightly better known in the British academy than the American (the current Archbishop of Canterbury has referenced it). It's possible, but I suspect the similarity is born of the fact that two writers of the same era and age (I think Davis is 2 or 3 years older than Sebald) who read many of the same books may arrive at similar ideas, even if they live a hemisphere apart. Anyway, the Natural History sits as both complement to and commentary upon Sebald's fictions, and as such it evokes a particularly Sebaldian melancholy in this reader when he considers how much was lost in those few seconds on an English highway in late 2001.


This is a very well-written but rather minor novel. It's also tiresomely overwritten in places, with characters commanding rhetorics far beyond their years. While reading it I frequently asked myself, How can a novel this short be this boring? The answer: Musil 'tells' us too much instead of 'showing' us the characters' psyches via observed actions. There's also a certain desultory quality in the narrative structure that drains away intensity. Musil takes about 40 pages, for example, to reach the point at which the book should have begun. But there are consolations in the book: some passages of prose-poetry are quite impressive; and the final interview scene, in which each of the instructors attempts to enlist Torless's thoughts into his own weltanschauung while Torless resists and insists upon the individuality of his experiences (and is consequently drummed out of the institution), is a nice bit of Musilean irony.

A personal note: Upon beginning this book I remembered reading it once before but could recall absolutely nothing about it. I now believe that this must be because I hadn't actually read it. I must have abandoned it after a few pages back in the autumn of 2001, a time when national hysteria rendered the goings-on at an Austro-Hungarian boys' school rather beside the point...(Or maybe the novel's juvenile martial setting cut a little too close to the post-9/11 bone.)

WILL IN THE WORLD by Stephen Greenblatt

Unlike most of his contemporaries in the academy, Stephen Greenblatt writes a clear, attractive prose. His style is illuminated with glimmers of mild wit and carries surprisingly uncluttered arguments. In short, the man writes well, and this makes his book worth reading. As for his arguments, he's too eager to place the young Shakespeare in a world of Catholic conspiracy (probably because it's an entertaining subject that Greenblatt wants to write about), but his identification of Robert Greene as an original of Falstaff is as clever as it is compelling. The biggest problem with Greenblatt's book is its generic classification. This isn't 'nonfiction' at all. It is as much a tapestry woven from authorial supposition and educated guesswork as Burgess's Nothing Like The Sun and deserves to be placed alongside that novel as an imaginative improvisation (albeit by a narrator more sober than Burgess's) upon Shakespearean themes. All Shakespeare biographies are finally historical novels; given the paucity of significant information about the subject's life, they can be nothing else. Greenblatt's book might have benefitted from more self-consciousness in this area.

BELOVED by Toni Morrison

And now it's time for a little heresy:

Toni Morrison's Beloved is not a great novel. In fact, it's not even a very good one. It's too slow, too long, contains scenes of such overripe melodrama that any other literary writer would be chastised for including them, and--now I commit the heresy of heresies--it's not even especially well-written. That's right. Morrison's much-lauded prose doesn't impress me much. Even in her celebrated lyrical passages she seems to be forcing intensity into her lines through obvious rhetorical devices such as repetition (writing "slowly, slowly" when a simple "slowly" would do). There's also one glaring logical problem with the narrative, unresolved at the halfway point: surely one of Paul D's acquaintances or coworkers would have informed him of Sethe's past very soon after his arrival in Cincinnati. Paul's ignorance is simply not credible and exists solely so Morrison can manipulate her readers by slowly lifting the curtain on her murder scene.

INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison

Rereading Invisible Man, I find it even more intriguing and impressive than on my first reading, even though I'm now better equipped to spot its flaws, such as the Faulkner pastiche at the beginning of chapter five (Ellison sounding more like Oxford Bill than KC Ralph, exactly what one would expect of an American working on his first novel ca.1950) and the way Ellison explicitly states the subject of the next chapter at the end of each. Both are rookie errors and should be covered under the slack that readers must always grant a promising first novel, regardless of the reams of praise and commentary it has accrued.

But even with all its flaws--the intriguing minor characters who breeze past us and are lost to the narrative like missed exits on a freeway, the passages that sound too Faulknerian or Hemingwayesque, the rookie mistakes--Invisible Man remains a great novel that contains moments of awesome, astonishing power. Its greatness is on a level with The Tin Drum but not with Ulysses. Upon finishing it, I wonder if the ideology of liberal individualism expressed in the final pages is sufficiently exemplified by the preceding narrative, or if Ellison's flights of imagination lay the book open to deconstructive readings that might push the novel's ostensible liberalism into something more radical and militant (a kind of anarchism, perhaps) or more conservative (considering the novel's condescension toward its female characters). I suspect that the final fiction is less ideologically stable than Ellison intended, hence the explicit statement of ideology in the epilogue.

That said, Ellison's improvisations, his imaginative flights, his surrealism, all of this is marvelous. The novel is a better blend of naturalism and symbolism than Edmund Wilson achieved in Hecate County, and it approaches Kafka in its nightmarish intensity and inventiveness. This is the way to write an American novel.

MY LIFE AS A FAKE by Peter Carey

Carey's My Life As A Fake is surprisingly good, considering the lukewarm-at-best reviews it received upon publication. It's a very enjoyable, original, quite clever literary novel--perhaps too clever for its own good, since it apparently flew over the heads of most reviewers. They failed to appreciate Carey's deliberate, often subtle, sometimes intertextual, provocations of disbelief, his many signals that the text we're reading is, like all the other narratives and texts it contains, a 'fake,' a fiction the validity of which must be questioned and the motives of its teller examined. It's a delicious book, delightful, maybe the most purely enjoyable thing Carey has yet written.

There are so many levels in this deceptively simple narrative that I can only acknowledge Carey's preeminence as the most audacious faker of them all. Carey leads us into his fictional Barnum house, his fabric of potential falsehoods, his narrative of blind alleys, hidden sanctuaries, dubious texts, just as (in one possible interpretation) John Slater leads Sarah Wade-Douglas into the labyrinth of Kuala Lampur in order to use her as the bait in his plot to avenge himself on Christopher Chubb for the Noussette affair, when Chubb successfully 'played' him. This interpretation only came to me in an 'aha' moment a couple of hours after finishing the novel, and I think it's a valid solution--and Carey's failure to reveal it in the text is also justified, since his narrator is unable to see herself as a mere pawn in Slater's malicious plot. She doesn't ask herself the right questions, she fails to appreciate the fictitious nature of her reality--a glaring failure, to the attentive reader. What a wonderful novel!


Reading Morris Berman's almost unrelievedly pessimistic--and, tragically, almost completely convincing--volumes of social criticism, The Twilight of American Culture (2000) and Dark Ages America (2006), I feel as though I'm being infected by Berman's hopelessness, his too-compelling vision of an America already too far gone to avoid cultural death. Surely he's being too pessimistic, focusing too much on the very dark 'dark side' of contemporary America while not recognizing that he can only make his case with information gleaned from the works of those who represent another side, one he slights, the embattled and marginalized but still active left-liberal side of the American sociopolitical spectrum. (Berman would doubtless counter that he doesn't ignore this side at all, that in fact he's a charter member of it.) Also, for all of Berman's pessimism, he still seems to hold onto one last metaphysical guarantee: a dialectical theory of history which ensures that a New Enlightenment will eventually come, a guarantee that ultimately justifies the work of his "new monastic individuals". But what if his structural analysis is wrong and we are in fact just whistling into an endless dark, our best works destined to become exhibits in the Deng Xiaopeng Memorial Museum of Western Decadence (est. 2143)?... The best we can do, I guess, is work authentically for our own sakes and for the work's sake--which is exactly what all artists worthy of the name have always done. Anyway, although I fear Berman is right, I hope he's wrong and that the current darkness will end sooner than he thinks... At least there's this modicum of hope: even when we can't see the light, we can still be the light. (I know, it sounds like Jesse Jackson, but I think W.H. Auden would probably agree with it.)


Mailer's Armies of the Night stands up to a second reading, although it does not demand one. There's a lot of good stuff in the book, all of it dominated by Mailer's greatest creation: his colossally insecure, obsessively self-regarding Self. Mailer (or should I say "Mailer"?) comes across like a pugilistic Woody Allen, a nebbish who has read too much Hemingway. He's willing to laugh at himself, but not too boisterously. His reveries about technology, totalitarianism and American life are often insightful, sometimes original and (unfortunately) still relevant. But the book's greatest value for me on this reading lies in Mailer's voice: that reckless, intelligent, prodigal, American voice, that voice that frequently tiptoes to the farthest border of authorial control and occasionally slips over. This voice is the book's greatest contribution, and when it goes away, replaced at page 240 by Mailer's intentionally dry 'Historian' voice, my interest dwindles. This late change of tone and persona is the book's biggest flaw; it's boring and unnecessary because Mailer has already 'shown' us the kind of history/journalism he is writing against--he has shown it to us by writing its diametrical opposite. There's no need for him now to become what he has just demolished. So pages 240-275 are the book's most skim-worthy...But Norman redeems himself at the end. His analysis of the official violence that ended the final phase of the demonstration is some of the best and most disturbing work of his career.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Ian Hamilton's controversial and legally hampered attempt at a Salinger biography is valuable for illuminating its subject's life and motivations and for tantalizingly suggesting that Salinger has multiple completed manuscripts stashed in his rural New Hampshire home. (If he doesn't burn them, we might be surprised by a Henry Roth-like flash flood of late, late and/or posthumous works.) The most eye-opening part of the book is Hamilton's discussion of Salinger's WWII service. The guy walked through hell (Utah Beach on D-Day, Runtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge) and by the end of the war he may have been driven insane. All of this casts a long shadow over his canonical works (all written after the war; he has tried to suppress his pre-war short stories), which must now be read as emphatically postwar fiction even when, as in the case of Catcher in the Rye, they don't explicitly mention the war. Salinger, it appears, is more Hemingwayish than I have ever imagined.

UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry

Lowry's Under the Volcano impresses me no more on this reading than it has on my previous readings. It still seems overwritten. It's as if during the course of his multiple revisions Lowry wrote the life out of the story. He's also guilty, like his literary godfather Herman Melville, of sledgehammer symbolism (i.e. symbols as subtle as sledgehammer blows), such as the pariah dog that follows the Consul around (and perhaps follows him down the ravine in the novel's last line). All in all, the novel doesn't live up to its reputation, and I don't consider it a great book. It might be the ruin of a great novel, as Lunar Caustic is the ruin of a great novella, but a writer of ruins doesn't equal a great writer. In Volcano's own terms, the book is a Maximilian's palace of a novel, a ruined refuge for its doomed, dreaming lovers.

It almost pained me to write the above, because I want to like Under the Volcano. Like Melville's Confidence Man, it's a work I'm predisposed to admire. But I can't admire it, and the fault, I'm convinced, lies not in myself but in the book. Interestingly, the two novels, otherwise so disparate, seem to have one major fault in common: both read like notebook dumps--padded, overwritten novels filled out with stories from the authors' notebooks. Many knowledgeable readers consider them great novels; this knowledgeable reader regretfully does not.


As an example of how closely Joyce's Ulysses can be read, consider this brief passage from the 'Lotus Eaters' episode in which Leopold Bloom, pausing in a church during mass, misreads the sign on the back of a priest's vestments:
...Letters on his back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in.

The IHS on priestly garments--as Joyce certainly knew and the secular Bloom appropriately does not--is a Christogram, writing that alphabetically signifies Christ, in this case via the first three letters of His name in Greek: iota-eta-sigma. This Christogram is also commonly (mis)interpreted as signifying 'Iesus Hominum Salvator' ('Jesus, Savior of Man') or 'in hoc signo (vinces)' ('by this sign, conquer', from the legend of the vision of Constantine). Read in the light of this last misinterpretation, the only one that explicitly refers to the acts of reading and interpretation that are the concerns of the Joycean passage, these few lines that on the surface seem a mere scene of comic and sentimental misinterpretation become something much more complex. It is both an allegory of misreading (paging Dr. de Man...) and an allegory of the act of reading the Joycean text itself. It opens a series of mirrors, in some of which the reader might see reflected his/her own studious and/or baffled face. Bloom as reader, mirroring and parodying the actions of all nonfictional readers of Ulysses (you, me, Harold Bloom), misinterprets a written sign. But it's not just any sign. It's a sign that is commonly misinterpreted as referring to a scene of crucially correct interpretation. Joyce thus casts a shadow of doubt on the validity even of Constantine's interpretation and places a critical question mark over all acts of reading and interpreting, even of the holy Word. In short, the passage is a deconstructionist's delight, hurling the acts of reading and interpretation into a deManian abyss of mirrors and meaninglessness... This is all too complex for a blog post (it's really academic journal fodder), so let me end it now, delivering a Tristram Shandy-ish coup de grace in the delightfully understated form of a single, terminal period: .

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


The Nobel committee has finally encouraged me to try The Golden Notebook again, and I find it much better than I did on my abortive first reading ten years ago. Lessing is surely the most Lawrentian writer alive--an idea that greatly delights and surprises me. That's probably what Harold Bloom sees in the book: Lessing as a female re-writer of Lawrence, revising Women in Love in an age of self-consciousness.

My verdict upon finally finishing the book? A very good novel. It's too long, of course (a typical Lessing weakness), and there are some boring parts (especially in the first and last 100 pages), but the novel's highs are very high and original and almost unutterably strange. Lessing strikes off some wonderfully poetic images: intense, unforgettable stuff, such as the image of madness as a crack in the self through which the future of humanity might burst like water through a failing dam. Her exploration of human complexity, including but not limited to sexuality, at times surpasses that of her great precursor, Lawrence. Really, I'm stunned at how much good stuff is hidden in the inner sections of this book. There are even some hilarious comic scenes that show us Lessing revising and correcting her precursor's dire humourlessness... And to top it all off, at novel's end Lessing leaves us in a position of deconstructive uncertainty as to the relation of any of the book's narratives to 'reality'. Is Free Women a literary act of controlled hysteria in which Anna tames and suppresses the wild chaos of the later blue and golden notebooks, or are the notebooks artful exaggerations of Free Women's milder 'reality'? Lessing leaves this question and all related ones open, so that we readers ultimately find ourselves in the position of Free Women's 'Anna' during her brush with madness: in a space papered obsessively with texts that have an insolubly problematic relationship to reality. That way Derridean madness lies. The 'solution' found by the narrator of Free Women (whom Lessing in her 1971 intro identifies with Anna) is an ironic stoicism, a very British stiff-upper-lip soldiering on in the face of meaninglessness. It's a position akin to Rortian irony. But this ending is heavily, almost sarcastically, ironic; and the entire final section is seriously undermined by the unforgettably surreal imagery of madness that has gone before... Yes, it's one hell of an interesting book.

THE CONFIDENCE MAN by Herman Melville

Melville's Confidence Man is the literary equivalent of the Big Con. (If you don't know what that is, go to a video store and rent The Sting.) Anyone who reads past page 50 eventually sees that the joke's on him, that the book is tiresomely repetitive and peppered (or should I say 'papered'?) with passages of dry, failed pastiche that are too imitative to be funny. As on my previous embarkations aboard the Fidele, I find myself wanting to like this book but being repelled by its transparently conning nature. Melville makes a serious mistake early in the game when he shows his hand to all careful readers; his narrative voice is so rarely poker-faced that we can't really give him our readerly confidence. The book, in other words, is a failed confidence game at the reader's expense and its narrator an incompetent con man. We don't--and shouldn't--believe him for a minute. The first sentence, with its outlandish 'Manco Capac' simile, is fair warning. The major artistic problem with all of this is that an incompetent con man isn't interesting, just irritating. (By contrast, the expert conmen in David Mamet's House of Games and Glengary Glen Ross interest us because they successfully con us into identifying with them--which is, not incidentally, a pretty good description of the actor's job.) If the narrator were a better con man, we would let him entertain us; as it is, after 60 or 70 pages (or sooner) the only thing we want to do is put the book back on the shelf and re-read Moby Dick or Bartleby the Scrivener or Billy Budd.


"Seeking what is true is not necessarily seeking what is desirable." -- Camus

On this reading of The Myth of Sisyphus I'm thinking about the relative strengths and weaknesses of Camus' absurdist arguments against suicide. In addition to arguing that suicide is 'unethical' in an absurdist understanding of ethics because it 'settles' the problem of the absurd (a rather dogmatic argument that depends on Camus' assertion that living in the absurd is an unquestionable good), Camus argues that an appreciation of life's transience, meaningless and absurdity, far from making life valueless, makes it more worth living. Such a consciousness of absurdity infuses every moment of existence with the aura of ultimate transience: this kiss may be the last kiss, this rose the last rose, etc... It's a compelling argument, but I doubt if it would matter to someone suicidally depressed, someone who has already been living for some time in that curious state of hypersensitive lethargy that is the pre-suicidal consciousness.

A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway

What a surprisingly strange and disjointed book this is! A collection of obviously carefully worked fragments that never quite cohere into an overall narrative, A Moveable Feast is both an occasion for its author to settle old scores (against the dead-by-publication Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein, as well as other lesser names) and a sometimes highly illuminating look at writerly process. The book frequently falls into bathos; indeed, some sections seem to take bathos as a formal principle: beginning with incomparable lyrical description, moving on to an encounter written in strict Hemingwayan dialogue rhythms, then ending in anticlimactic triteness with Ernie and Hadley sharing a typically saccharine exchange.

Two sections especially intrigued me on this reading: the long Fitzgerald section, in which Hemingway devotes a quarter of the book to the project of taking back everything he says in the section's opening elegiac paragraph, and the odd, contradictory, conflicted "Birth of a New School," in which the author puts his own homophobic hysteria on display and then retreats into an image of himself mothering his baby. In other words, he takes a traditionally female role in a domestic space immediately after publically putting down a local queer. Very suggestive and self-deconstructing, the section reveals a bit more, it seems, than the author might have intended.

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

This is a truly great novel, a highly-intelligent, complex work that constantly surprises the reader. Coetzee's lovely, allusive, Modernist prose (justified by his protagonist's literary profession) binds the work into the European tradition, from Goethe and Wordsworth to Kafka, but as I read I also found myself comparing its 'deep structure' to that of a novel Coetzee never references, The Charterhouse of Parma. Like Stendhal's work, Disgrace begins as one kind of book (a 1990s academic PC scandal narrative a la Oleanna, The Human Stain, one of the storylines in The Corrections, etc.) but then unexpectedly shifts gears to become quite another kind of story (an exploration of power, race and sex in post-Apartheid rural South Africa). This conjoined disjunction sets up a powerful series of ironic echoes as each narrative reflects upon the other. It's a profound, very disturbing and unsettling reading experience, a thoughtful book that (like all great novels) demands re-reading.

INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is no better in the $10 tenth anniversary edition than it was in the hardcover I bought remaindered a decade ago for $6.95. To correct a couple of the critical hyperboles of the mid-90's: the book is no Ulysses; nor is it a Gravity's Rainbow, however much it tries to be. No, it's just a big, bloated, unsurprising hodgepodge of elements very much like things we've read before in Pynchon, DeLillo, Nabokov, etc. The biggest problem is Wallace's lazy prose, a language typed rather than written, a prose so weak and, like, hiply inarticulate and, like, condescending to the point of, like, insult, you know... A little of this faux-demotic goes a long, long way. Listening to DFW 'talk cool' is like watching John Kerry drink beer--vaguely painful. After reading 100 pages (a tenth of its length) I've returned IJ to the shelf convinced that I'm not missing much, that the book hasn't aged well (its technology has already been superseded by the internet and DVDs), and that a week spent reading it would be a wasted week... And yet, all other things being equal, if DFW could write like Nabokov I'd read his damned book, no problem, even if it were longer than Proust. And if he were as talented as Vlad the Inscriber and as outrageously funny as Jonathan Swift or Philip Roth, then IJ would be a great book, but DFW sets his sights lower, aiming toward the second-rate academic comedians (sic) of the Seventies: Profs. Barth, Barthelme, Coover--writers no one off-campus ever reads...

THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

Upon finishing The Corrections I hereby retract my earlier characterization of it (in conversation and online) as a 'truly awful, overrated book,' an opinion based on an aborted first reading several years ago. While certainly flawed and too worshipful of the fictions of Don DeLillo, it's a good novel overall. It's good, not great, and certainly not the landmark work of American literature that it was proclaimed by many reviewers. No, what we really have here is a Joyce Carol Oates-type social realist novel (the least adventurous kind of 'serious' American literature) dosed with DeLillo-esque paranoia and spiced with a few scenes that pastiche the 'edgy' pantheon (Pynchon in the 'talking turd' scene; Heller in the 'ship's doctor' scene). This combination creates a few jarring tonal disparities (as though scenes from an earlier, more satirical draft have been spliced into the more somber final narrative) and lessens the novel's impact, making it read at times more like a first novel than a third one. So, while The Corrections is not a masterwork--and is not, I suspect, as adventurous a novel as Franzen is capable of writing--it is still well worth reading.


Mann's Buddenbrooks, which I've finally gotten around to reading many years after buying a copy, is quite good--indeed, it is at times absolutely masterful, completely assured and amazingly good, for a first novel (important condition)--but it's far from beyond reproach. Without further ado, then, my reproaches: the Dickensian grotesques Mann uses to fill minor roles are all equally irritating; after a great beginning and an extraordinary first third, the narrative drags during the book's second half (and second third); the long epilogue-like chapter depicting Hanno's schoolday greatly disturbs the book's overall formal unity and reads like a late addition, an almost-independent fiction employed to pad out the volume. Still, it is a good book, an exceptional family saga with some indelible scenes and characters and a very good business novel that dramatizes the Christianity-Capitalism conflict (thus problematizing Max Weber).

I also noticed that Mann's characterizations become more psychological as the book goes on, as though he taught himself psychological characterization during the act of composition. Further proof of the only real rule of writing: Inspiration and discovery occur during the act of composition, not before. That's one of the things that makes the act so addictive...

THE WAVES by Virginia Woolf

I've finally gotten around to Woolf's The Waves only to discover that it wasn't worth the wait. Yes, it's a beautiful book...but unfortunately it's not a very good one. It's a beautiful failure. The whole thing is simply too overwrought--the prose tries always to overflow, burst its banks, while the author forces it into a stylistic and structural straightjacket. The Waves is a marked artistic falling off from the heights of Dalloway and Lighthouse, a regression to symbolism that negates the symbolism/naturalism Wilsonian Modernist melange of the earlier novels. (That's Edmund Wilson, by the way, not Woodrow. Edmund adumbrates his theory of Modernist literature as the synthesis of symbolism and naturalism in Axel's Castle.) Woolf rejects her earlier Modernism and drowns it in a symbolist tidal wave. (I could be all too playfully clever and call it a 'title wave,' but I do have a small amount of taste.) The novel reads like a transcript of a seance with the author as medium: all the voices are a single voice, all the consciousnesses are Woolf's, and because of this lack of differentiation--worse, this lack of emotion or personality-- the novel fails to solicit our sympathy and even transforms its moments of pathos into laughable Woolfian self-parody. As an unintentional comic novel, it's almost as good as D.H. Lawrence's best/worst efforts.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Although I disagree (sometimes fundamentally) with many of the opinions and interpretations in this collection of James Wood's reviews, I found myself reaching the book's end with the wish that it were longer. High praise indeed for a collection of critical essays. Even when Wood is wrong (as he often is!) he's worth arguing with, worth thinking about, and that's the sign of a very good critic, a Kael or a Vidal or an Edmund Wilson (to use the George Steiner tic that Wood so deliciously mocks). James Wood is not an easy man to ignore.

The fundamental problem with Wood's criticism is his overestimation of Jane Austen. Austen is his touchstone for literary greatness (he even compares Gogol to Austen, for pete's sake!), and this greatly limits his ability to appreciate Modern and Postmodern literature. Analyzing Pynchon or Morrison or DeLillo according to criteria abstracted from close readings of Mansfield Park and Emma is rather like judging sportscars in terms of the design specs for horse-drawn carriages. Wood's carriage of choice may be the finest ever made, but its excellence is beside the point when the subject is Ferraris.

THE NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is not--or at least, not yet--a writer of the first rank. She's with Iris Murdoch in the second drawer from the top. The Night Watch is merely good; it isn't a great novel, and in fact it seems a bit less than the sum of its parts. The novel's reverse chronology isn't really justified by the story and appears to be a rather obvious and artificial gimmick, a means of creating mysteries which the narrative wouldn't otherwise contain, a blatant reader-manipulation device. And in addition to all that, the device doesn't really work: the novel's eventual revelations all struck me as rather disappointing and anticlimactic. I also found myself wondering, as I read this relatively tame and P.C. Waters performance, about the niche Waters fills in the BritLit cathedral. Is she British fiction's 'acceptable' literary lesbian, less disturbing and transgressive than writers sold exclusively at Gay's The Word, more palatable to mainstream (read 'straight') readers who find even Jeannette Winterson a little too dykey? Is Sarah Waters Brit Lit's answer to The L Word, gentrifying lesbian fiction for a bourgeois audience? As the bisexual and very transgressive car crash afficionado Vaughan remarks in David Cronenberg's film Crash, "A case could be made..."

TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE by Bohumil Hrabal

Yet another very good book that few Americans (even literary types) have read, this novella is a wonderful Central European melange resounding with echoes of Kafka, Gogol and Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground. It's a marvelous book full of great ideas and images; it overflows with hope and hopelessness, dark humor and sly satire. (I'm starting to sound like a blurb writer, so I guess it's time to exit. Suffice it to say that Too Loud a Solitude is one of those books that, upon first reading, makes me want to gush.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


While I quarrel with some of Tony Judt's historical interpretations and find him too eager to see in the contemporary world a 'post-ideological age' (contra Judt, I see one ideology--corporatism--achieving hegemony), I still found Postwar a wonderfully informative, engaging, educational book. In short (please!), it taught me some things: the consummate cynicism of Mitterrand, the dual-culture tension inside Belgium between now-prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders and now-poorer francophone Wallonia, the left-wing officers' coup that overthrew the fascist Portuguese dictatorship in the 1970's, the ease with which former Communist strongmen repositioned themselves after 1989 as nationalist leaders (Milosevic was the best-known example, but the trend was international), and much more. I even experienced a permissible amount of Judt's proscibed nostalgia as I read about the fall of the Eastern European dictatorships in 1989, a moment that seems ever more magical as it recedes in time and that great moment of optimism is drowned in the rhetoric of the demogogues, Western toadies and corporate tools who quickly rushed in to fill the Soviet void. What happened to the spirit of 89? It was shot by a sniper in the Sarajevo market.

One major problem with the book (which Judt only addresses in passing) is his frequent--one might almost say 'kneejerk'--conflation of the Western left (a heterogeneous enough group) with Stalinism or Soviet-style Communism. With some hardline exceptions (so powerless that they only hurt themselves), Western, non-Soviet leftism was an altogether different, more libertarian thing, tending toward anarchism. As these tendencies would have been anathema to any Soviet leader (and given that the hardline PCF turned its back on the Left Bank during Mai 68), greater distinctions must be drawn between Western democratic and Soviet totalitarian leftism. Philosophically, it may be the difference between humanistic Marxism and its authoritarian Leninist perversion. (Marxism is a philosophy of revolution from below misinterpreted by Lenin as a justification for terror from above.) In any event, Judt's frequent hamfisted lumping of the 'Western left' into a single group plays along with a very contemporary right-wing tune: the attempt by rightist ideologues around the world to tar the entire 20th-century left with the black brush of Stalinism. This is a cynical distortion of the history of Western political idealism, and it cannot stand. (Because most people know nothing of the nuances of history, however, this particular 'big lie' appears to be headed for the collective mental trashheap labelled 'received ideas', the mental dunghill of cultural decline...Okay, I'll go easy on the metaphors.)

Despite these reservations (or because of them, for history lives by informed argument), I enthusiastically recommend Postwar--especially to American readers, most of whose acquaintance with European history ends where this book begins.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Gunter Grass's too controversial, much-heralded memoir, Peeling the Onion, is disappointing overall. It's not a great Grass book in the way that Palimpsest is a great Vidal book. It's too long, contains too many unsatisfying digressions and shameless plugs for Grass's other books, is too redundant (an age-old Grassian vice: what in Thomas Mann was a musical repetition of motifs becomes in Grass an exercise in mechanical redundancy), and finally doesn't tell us enough about some of the most interesting questions it raises. (e.g., What did Grass and Paul Celan talk about in Paris all those years ago while The Tin Drum was struggling to be born?) One interesting/provocative/troubling aspect of this self-described 'memoir,' this explicit confession, this story presumed to be true, is that Grass repeatedly--indeed, obsessively--provokes our disbelief and even explicitly demands our skepticism. It's as though he wants us to read the story of his life with a greater disbelief than even his most experimental novels provoke. As I read I found myself wondering if this was merely a self-protective device, a way of distancing himself from his own memories (especially those of his time in the Waffen SS), or if it was, rather, Herr Professor Grass's final lesson to us: all propositions should be initially treated as doubtful, especially those presented as self-evidently true. Is Grass constructing for himself in this 'memoir' a new role, that of author-without-authority?


Peter Biskind's fast, juicy, gossipy, readable blockbuster of an inside Hollywood book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, forces me to consider the reactionary nature of many of the great films of the 70's. It seems that the only genuine maverick among the 'generation of '71' is Altman. With all of his complexities and contradictions, Altman is the guy who made the most deeply radical films (and paid a price for it--not in personal wealth but in creative freedom). By turning a deconstructive eye to genres, by making an Altman detective film (The Long Goodbye), an Altman war movie (MASH), an Altman gangster movie (Thieves Like Us), an Altman western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), etc., etc., he also incidentally (and perhaps malgre lui) criticized the ideologies that constructed and informed the conventions of those genres (capitalism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, militarism). This is the way in which Bob Altman, by no means an intellectual, becomes the Derridean anarchist of American cinema, while Billy Friedkin, old friend of Studs Terkel, becomes a creator of reactionary corporate product disguised as transgression--French Connection, Exorcist, etc. ad nauseum.

Biskind's book convinces me that great movies are like laws and sausages (and novels): you don't want to see them being made. By pulling back the curtain on The Godfather, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, and showing us what contingent, jerry-built, cut-and-paste jobs these (and all) movies are, and by showing us the necessary collaboration involved in moviemaking, with its inherent tensions and confusion of creditation, Biskind is really telling me much more than I needed to know. Fortunately (or unfortunately), it's a compulsively interesting book. I only wish he'd concentrated as much on the aesthetic as on the economic side of things. But, as this book constantly reminds me, they don't call it the movie business for nothing.

HOW TO READ LACAN by Slavoj Zizek

I've read enough of How to Read Lacan to be unimpressed by the hyperactive Zizek style, that cool, fast, glib skimming across the surfaces of texts (mixing high and low culture, from St. Augustine's Confessions to Ridley Scott's Alien) that scoops out only what one needs to exemplify one's (Lacanian) theory before moving on to the next text. Zizek writes philosophy for the age of channel surfing. He doesn't linger long enough to let his examples drag him down. If he did, some of them might drag him into a critique of Lacan, as great art always exceeds interpretations. The Slovenian Supernova is an enthusiastic follower, not a leader.

After finishing Zizek's book on Lacan, I think I've learned more about Zizek's style than Lacan's thought. Zizek quotes someone else as saying that Lacan's writings show us how he thinks more than what he thinks. In this sense, SZ (oh, those Barthesque initials are perfect for a poststructuralist!) may be the truest Lacanian of them all (meaning, of course, the phoniest).

STONER by John Williams

John Williams's Stoner is a good minor novel. Not great, but an excellent example of the best aspects of American regionalism: psychological and sociological insight married to an almost poetic lyricism. It's the kind of novel Thomas Hardy might have written had he been a midcentury American academic. (Bizarre thought.) It is a quite well-written novel, but not an extremely well-constructed one. The narrative is too episodic and lacks sufficient integration of the various themes. Also, Williams's physical 'marking' of the antagonist Lomax (and his protege Walker) with a physical deformity seems a bit overdone, the sort of thing we might find in the medieval texts Stoner studies but which strains credulity in the naturalistic 20th-century context in which Stoner appears. There's also a nasty little puritanical implication of homosexuality between the cripples--something Williams fails to explore beyond ambiguous innuendo. Indeed, the Walker character is left hanging as a narrative loose end, isn't he? So, despite a recent NYT rave, Stoner is not a 'perfect' book. It's not one that compels re-reading, either.

Monday, February 4, 2008

ON THE YARD by Malcolm Braly

Thanks to the New York Review's book publishing wing, NYRB Classics, I've discovered another great, unfortunately neglected novel, Malcolm Braly's On The Yard. A prison novel originally published in 1967 and long out of print until rescued by NYRB, this book may be the last great monument of American Modernism. As decentered as an Altman film, with a cast of dozens and no real central character, the novel treats the prison as a Joycean city and takes its structural cues from "Wandering Rocks" and Mrs. Dalloway, allowing the point-of-view to 'float' among the characters without seeming to privilege any one consciousness. This allows Braly to wander at will all over the prison universe, from the warden and the guards to the saddest and the most nihilistic inmates, creating a novel that seems almost too rich for its 300-odd pages. Surely the best and most surprising book ever written on the American prison system, this is a truly great novel, an unfairly overlooked masterpiece of American literature.

IT ALL ADDS UP by Saul Bellow

Bellow's nonfiction collection It All Adds Up leaves me even more mystified by the knee-jerk awe with which St. Saul of Chicago's name is invoked by reviewers and critics. Apparently, in the world according to Bellow, 'it' all adds up to Neoconservatism, accompanied by the hoary claim of all ideologues (usually left implicit by Bellow) that one's own idelogy is not an ideology at all but a description of self-evident, unmediated reality. Why, oh why, do so many people think Bellow is so good? Am I missing something? Okay, I'll admit to liking Seize the Day and being slightly more than indifferent to Augie March, but Herzog? Henderson the Rain King?? Humboldt's Gift??? The Dean's December????? Ravelstein???????????????? You gotta be kidding... And as for Saul's nonfiction (the point of this post), anyone who considers the late neocon disinformation artist Allen Bloom a great political thinker has truly abandoned all critical discrimination and need no longer detain us (to use a favorite formulation of Harold Bloom). To end, I note in passing that after the obligatory funereal encomia a blanket of silence descended over Bellow's work. His posthumous reputation seems headed for a probably deserved oblivion. He's a period piece. The general consensus is, as so often, dead wrong.

Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN and the Kabbalah

I'm attracted to the dialectical and heretical implications of the Lurianic kabbalist concept of tsimtsum. The idea that the proto-creative act is one of deific withdrawal suggests a universe that can be defined as 'the place where God is not.' (This is, I immediately remind myself, an overly dualistic caricature of tsimtsum, an act which, according to Scholem's reading of the mystics, leaves a residue of God in space, a divine Derridean trace.) Strategically ignoring the later stages of the Lurianic creation myth, in which the fallen world is infused with sparks of divinity, I want to linger on this first act, this originary withdrawal in which God creates the void. Dialecticizing, there is 'God' and 'not-God'; both imply and depend upon the other, but the space of creation is 'not-God.' This also seems to be the setting of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. The novel describes a world from which god has withdrawn, leaving only traces and ruins. (Doesn't the novel begin with falling stars, a meteor shower, sparks of light falling out of heaven? "God how the stars did fall," indeed--a kabbalistic image on the first page, which seems intended to be misread as Miltonic.) McCarthy's world is a place in which God exists, but not for us, not here. This is McCarthy's true theology, however Christian he may think he is.

POETICS by Aristotle

One surviving manuscript of Aristotle's Poetics breaks off just as the author turns to comedy. This suggests deliberate censorship, perhaps performed by a puritanical monk during the Middle Ages or later. The lost treatise on comedy would have told us much, of course, but even more importantly, its existence would have granted to comedy the seal of Aristotelian authority that tragedy has always enjoyed--an authority that survives even today in the privileging of 'serious' novels over 'funny' ones. (Count the number of comic novels that have won the Pulitzer prize; you can probably do it on one hand, maybe one finger.)

It's also interesting that even in the most famous passage of the discussion of tragedy, the stuff of comedy creeps in. Aristotle's word katharsis, signifying the supreme benefit of tragedy, also carries the signification of purgation, the action of a laxative. So scatology, the lowest of comedy, invades the heights of tragedy; the generic line is crossed even as it is being constructed.


Updike's Witches of Eastwick disappoints. It's a very well-written and very poorly constructed book, a fact that suggests Updike spent so much time polishing his prose (to an admittedly lovely shine) that he had none left to devote to story construction, narrative arc, sufficient character development, and all the other things that good narrative fiction requires. And Updike can't weasel out of responsibility with a "postmodernist's pass." This is no work of Kunderan or Calvinoesque avant-gardisme; it's a traditional American Romance (infused with a particularly nasty strain of traditional misogyny and Reagan-era anti-liberalism), and it's not built well enough to pass muster. I suspect that the book was well-reviewed and remains highly regarded (this was the one Updike novel included in Harold Bloom's notorious 'canon,' for example) because readers are blinded by Updike's stylistic pyrotechnics--i.e. his highly figurative prose--and cannot see that he has no real story to tell.

MERCIER AND CAMIER by Samuel Beckett

Beckett's little-known novel Mercier and Camier, written in 1946 but not published until the 1970's, is in its own way an even stranger and darker work than Waiting for Godot. Similar themes, images, and even lines of dialogue appear in both works (perhaps the reason for Beckett's sitting so long on the novel), but the novel is more unforgiving, more violent, more brutal and fatalistic, ending with a kind of death that's indistinguishable from life, just as the previous chapters' life was flatly, drily nightmarish. A very impressive book on this 2nd reading.

A quote: "What can be said of life not already said? Many things. That its arse is a rotten shot, for example." A nice Beckettian twist on 'shit happens.' Life shits aimlessly, pointlessly...

On finishing Mercier and Camier my desire is to flip the book over and read it again. High praise.


Flann O'Brien's The Dalkey Archive is far from literary greatness. To use one of the author's favorite words, it's a 'desultory' performance, formless, rambling, seemingly unplanned. It's a poorly edited, ill-conceived book that contains the suggestion of a truly great work only in the Joyce subplot. If the de Selby stuff had been jettisoned as so much melodramatic dead weight and O'Brien had expanded the 'resurrection of Joyce' idea into a full-length novel, then he might have had a genuine comic masterpiece on his hands. But as it is, the book is a fitfully funny mess.

THE FINAL SOLUTION by Michael Chabon

Chabon's Final Solution, though a slight, minor work, ultimately impresses me with its imagined confrontation between Sherlock Holmes, epitome of 19th-century rationality, and the genocidal 20th-century irrationality of the Holocaust. Chabon keeps the Holocaust theme subtle in his text (if not in his title, which terribly gives the game away), treating it more subtly than I would have (and I would've been wrong, overemphatic), touching the terror, in fact, in an oblique, Sebaldian way that preserves its irrationality, that doesn't try to contain the horror within a framework of 19th-century realism--the subtle but serious flaw of most ficitional treatments of the Holocaust. At the end, Holmes, limited in this new and terrible world by his antiquated hyper-rationality, cannot achieve this final solution, cannot quite grasp the horror. It is good, surprisingly so, and I find myself wishing it were longer, more complicated (Chabon can complicate a narrative with more facility than just about any writer alive, as evidenced by the first 80 pages of Wonder Boys), the characters better developed.


Portnoy's Complaint, on what I guess is my 3rd reading, still holds up, still surprises. It's as outrageous, inventive and infuriating as ever, a comedy that crosses all the lines, the first appearance of the Dionysian Roth who will repeatedly rear his phallic head at intervals during the writer's subsequent career--most notably in My Life as a Man, The Professor of Desire, Sabbath's Theater and The Dying Animal. It's a cry of literary liberation that begins as a whine and ends with a scream, and it's all wonderfully (or morbidly, depending on your literary politics) self-conscious. The structure (a psychoanalytic monologue exaggerated into a stream of consciousness novel) is original and free while still following a generally chronological progression, a narrative that begins in the speaker's childhood and ends in his adult present as he begins analysis.

What 'saves' the character of Portnoy for us readers, finally--even after Roth alienates us from the character by showing us his attempted rape of the Israeli girl--is Portnoy's humor, his appreciation of the absurdity, the impossibility, of his situation and his ability to joke about it. Even when language fails and he screams out at the end, he's able to deflate the pathos with a punch line--which is more than that: a statement of beginning at the end, it forces a Joycean curcularity upon the text, a cycling back to the origin of neuroses in childhood, the movement that neatly defines Portnoy's prison. Serious stuff, for a farce.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

BY NIGHT IN CHILE by Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile is a major work, a brilliant, beautiful, poetic novella that demands re-reading (the best criterion for literary greatness). If the translator's prose is faithful to the author's--and it must be, for surely no one would take such license today--Bolano has a lovely, baroque, Faulknerian style (not a rarity in Latin America; Gabriel Garcia Marquez once referred to Faulkner as a writer of the northern Caribbean basin, which is every bit as geographically accurate as calling him a 'Southern novelist'), and I detect in this style a very strong Thomas Bernhard influence. W.G. Sebald may also be behind this book somewhere, or that might equally be a misapprehension caused by Bernhard's influence on both writers. Bolano constructs some great, bitter symbols: the Church's trained falcons attacking doves that shit on churches; Western literature as a decaying bourgeois house concealing a torture chamber in the basement. Wow! I can't wait until the rest of Bolano's works are translated and published.

GREY AREA by Will Self

Will Self's short story "Scale" in his collection Grey Area (that's 'grey' with an 'e' as in Eeeeeeeeeeeengland) is one of his works of sheer genius. Built, bizarrely, out of a series of imaginative riffs on the dictionary definitions of the title word, the story includes a devastatingly funny Monty Pythonesque tax assessment satire and a Kafkaesque series of 'falls' into alternate scale model universes, all wrapped inside a Ballardian freeway satire spiced with Burroughsian addiction. It sounds like a mess, but somehow Self makes it cohere beautifully. This is Self at his best, twisting his influences into something entirely his own, Self himself.

THE ALICE BOOKS by Lewis Carroll

The linguistic theme of Through the Looking Glass, the narrative's critique of signification (e.g. Alice's mention of names as objectifying strategies in the "Looking Glass Insects" episode; "the wood where things have no names"; Prof. Dumpty's discourse on language), conforms nicely to the work's overall mirror theme. For Carroll is criticizing the received idea of language as a reflection of the world, a mirror of nature (to invoke Rorty's title phrase), in a way that uncannily anticipates Saussure, Derrida and even Foucault. This is very high nonsense, indeed. An academic could write an article titled "Disturbing Reflection: Lewis Carroll's Critique of Language"...

This critique of language, while intellectually 'radical,' is considerably less subversive than Alice in Wonderland's Swiftian satire of the structures of bourgeois life in Victorian England, its rules, rituals and characteristics (tea, croquet, trials, the sanctity of motherhood, moralistic poetry, etc.) It's interesting that the movement between the two books parallels the trajectory of academic 'radicals' in the post-1960's U.S., from a fundamental critique of society's material base to the criticism of its texts and language. Lewis Carroll made his own 'linguistic turn,' it seems.

Looking Glass is, on balance, a slightly lesser work than Wonderland, lacking the latter's imaginative exuberance, its sense of 'anything can (and likely will) happen.' Looking Glass is a more deliberately structured work,a bit more labored, seemingly less inspired. It does, however, contain many things equal to the best of Wonderland, and there is probably no higher praise than that. Unfortunately, the weakest point of Looking Glass is its climactic chapter, where only the dinner party is up to Carroll's usual standards of invention. If a short work must have a slack chapter, the climax is its worst possible location; Carroll leads us on a wonderful journey, then spends several static pages boring us near the end. Why? It's damn bad craftsmanship, that it is, as M. Dumpty might say (in his W.C. Fields persona).

Both books deeply, deeply impress me (as they have for years now). They are the most fabulously inventive, intelligent, original books ever written for children; they're also a rare Victorian link in the line that connects Swift and Sterne to Joyce and Rushdie.

ULYSSES by James Joyce (part III)

Ulysses does feel seriously lopsided to me on this reading; it's severely backloaded. The first half moves along at a nice, modern, urban, peripatetic pace, a speed attuned to the Hibernian metropolis. But the second half slows down, stretches out, goes inward, becomes a bit (or a lot) too enthralled by its own techniques. (I'm speaking more of Joyce than the book now. After "Cyclops" Joyce has a tendency to become an Edison in love with his multiple inventions, irritatingly forcing the reader to stare at his electric light, listen to his phonograph, etc.) This tendency slows down all of the later chapters. (Contrastingly, Joyce's earlier inventive forms in "Aeolus" and "Wandering Rocks" speeded things up--perhaps because those forms were put to 'public' use, while the later ones are more 'private.') "Nausicaa", "Oxen" and "Eumaeus" are prime examples of Joycean overkill. "Okay, I get the point already," I wanted to cry out to the elongated Irish spirit hovering among the cobwebs near my ceiling. (Note to self: Must buy broom soon.) Only the surreal circus of "Circe" and Molly's monologue save the second half; in these two sections form neither irritates the reader nor overpowers content. Tedium is held at bay by constant metamorphosis and a rapidly flowing stream of consciousness. These two chapters have much more going for them than merely a highly original style, and that makes the difference between groundbreaking success and relative failure.

Now that I've finished it, I have more reservations about Ulysses than on my previous readings. Perhaps I can see the book more objectively now; I'm no longer blinded by aesthetic/intellectual hero-worship and am now able to both admire (enormously) and criticize (at certain specific points) the craft of the book. I've developed enough independence from Joyce to intelligently critique some of Joyce's choyces. Interestingly (dialectically, even) the book itself has made me expert enough to criticize it, for reading Ulysses again and again is surely one of the things that has made me a better reader. Joyce has taught me enough to take a few good eminently defensible swipes at him. But all of this aside, Ulysses remains the defining Modernist novel, as well as the Rosetta Stone of 20th-century literature, the key to understanding it all. (Joyce went Casaubon one better, creating a Borgesian key to a mythology [Modernism] that did not yet exist.) There are many more perfect Modernist works (one by Joyce [the Portrait]), but none is greater. Here ends my unnecessary defense of what's now received opinion.

There's no need to waste time arguing that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the 20th century. Everyone who hasn't read it is already convinced of that, thanks to an excellent PR campaign ca.2000 and the indefatigable (if almost entirely unread) work of the academic Joyce industry. Rather, what strikes me now is the dialectical movement I have undergone through multiple readings of Ulysses: the book has made me a good enough reader to see its faults; my reception of the text has altered because the text has altered my receiving self. (Of course, the fact that I've written a novel--such as it is--since my last reading is probably a more decisive factor. I'm now much more alert to the craft of writing, to the nuts-and-bolts from which art is built. So I shouldn't load the dialectical/critical theory idea with more weight than it can bear.)

And oh, by the way, did I mention that Ulysses is funny as all hell? Most commentators, critics and profs tend to forget this--yet another example of the literary critical profession's deeply ingrained bias against comedy. (But that's a subject for another post...)

ULYSSES by James Joyce (part II)

On this 6th or 7th reading of Ulysses (I've now reached the point at which I've lost count of my readings, a sign of true Joyceanism), the early chapters impress me with their compression and tightness. Later chapters are more slack. "Wandering Rocks" could afford to lose a scene or two, and "Nausicaa" spends too much time beating beyond death Gerty's cliche-constructed consciousness. I wouldn't have "Cyclops" a bit shorter, though.

Another thing that stands out on this reading is Joyce's absolute mastery of the English sentence. The man can and does achieve anything he desires between a capital letter and a full stop. There's the great last sentence of "Cyclops" in which three different voices are joined; there's a sentence in "Sirens" where the reader's reception of the sentence is anticipated and mocked within the sentence itself (a case of the text reading its readers); and let's not forget the narrator's pissing sentence in "Cyclops," a formal parallel of Bloom's earlier shitting scene in which the act of reading commercial fiction is paralleled with defecation and Bloom ends by wiping his ass with part of the story. Talk about a roman a these.

On this reading I conclude that "Oxen of the Sun" is a failure, a high concept experiment in which Joyce falls in love with his formal idea (a chapter that recapitulates through multiple pastiches the history of English prose) and forgets his obligation to further the novel's themes. It's a triumph of style over substance that seems finally less substantial, less pregnant with significance, than the much shorter, earlier chapters such as "Proteus" and "Lotus Eaters." "Oxen" is the most tedious section of Ulysses (an unforgivable fault), displaying Joyce at his most self-indulgent, flogging his ideas into the ground--and then flogging the ground. It's the same tendency that weakens "Nausicaa," where Gerty's consciousness is displayed in tiresome detail. Fortunately, "Circe" enters to save the second half of the book, while the brilliant "Cyclops" bookends the other side of the two-chapter weak patch. Without "Circe" even "Penelope" would not suffice to raise the second half beyond tedium... It's remarkable (to me, at least) that it took me this many readings to see the weaknesses here, to understand them, to gain a more balanced view of Ulysses as a novel that's not nearly as consistently excellent as many other canonical Modernist works, but which, at its highest points, leaves the others far behind--or better, contains them. Ulysses, at its best, contains and anticipates much of what is most impressive in Modernist literature. It's a far from perfect performance but still the quintessential one, the defining Modernist novel. And even when it sucks, it sucks well.

ULYSSES by James Joyce (part I)

Surely someone among the tens of thousands of academics who have published on Ulysses has noticed that the book begins and ends orgasmically?
Buck Mulligan 'came' to the stairhead. It's an unusual first verb for a story, especially in a situation where 'climbed' or even 'stepped' would've been more descriptive choices. 'Came' is too vague, given that we have no idea as yet where Buck has come from. (Is he ascending the stair or preparing to descend?) I suspect Joyce uses the word solely for its punning sexual denotation and the circular symmetry created when this meaning is juxtaposed against the novel's final words. The first sentence depicts a man in the act of 'coming'; the last sentence is a linguistic representation of a female orgasm, "yes I said yes I will yes". And when I visualize the actual Martello Tower at Sandycove and consider that Buck 'comes' out of a dark opening on the top of a phallic symbol, emerging like semen from a penis, I conclude that the pun can only be intentional. This is all an example of how closely Ulysses can be read and how reading it very closely could conceivably take a lifetime--leaving Finnegans Wake, one presumes, for the afterlife, the waking after the wake.

EVERYMAN by Philip Roth

Everyman is the least impressive Philip Roth novel in years, maybe decades. It may well be the most mediocre work of his entire career. It's a lightweight, decidedly minor performance, seemingly not the work of the American master who gave us that Everest of outrage, Sabbath's Theatre. The elegiac is not Roth's mode, and when he essays it he lapses too easily into banality. Everyman reads like a book any good writer might have written; nothing says 'Roth' here. I sincerely hope this is not the shape of Rothian things to come.


In the surprisingly good Memoirs of Hecate County, Edmund Wilson puts into practice, in an artful if rather programmatic way, the theory of Modernism proposed in Axel's Castle, a theory that can be reduced to the problematic formula: Modernism=Naturalism+Symbolism. Leaving aside the problem of defining one ad hoc critical category in terms of two others, I can see now that for Wilson the formula was probably most important as a goad to writing fiction that would retroactively justify it. This he does in Memoirs, creating an original American fiction with deep American roots (reaching back to the tales of Poe and Hawthorne) and a consciousness of modern European fiction. It's not a great book, but it is a good one, and it's probably (for its time) the most daring novel ever written by an American intellectual. Further proof that Wilson was that very rare American bird, a non-academic intellectual polymath. Where are his successors?

Addendum, one day later:

Upon finishing the Balzacian-titled and obtrusively Proustian long central section, 'The Princess with the Golden Hair,' my estimation of Hecate County swerves downward. It's an uneven book, at best. The central story could have been 100 pages shorter. And it does seem ironic that when Wilson sets out to apply the lessons of Modernism to an American setting, he ends up writing Hawthornean 'romance.' I guess D.H. Lawrence was right: the old American writers were already modern.

RAGTIME by E.L. Doctorow

Upon rereading E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, one of the books that showed me what the modern novel was capable of when I read it many years ago at age 12 or 13, I find it even better than I remembered. It's a great American novel, propulsive and generous, bursting with life and death. Its complex (but deceptively simple-looking) prose style constantly undermines itself with an irony that only rarely flashes into bitterness. The book can be weakly misread as a nostalgic fugue on American themes, but this is to miss the author's (and the narrator's) careful deconstruction of the nostalgic myth he constructs. The deconstructive, subversive ironies don't end until the last page, when characters in the novel become characters in a movie; thus does fictional realism acknowledge its obsolescence in a world of filmed 'reality,' a world carefully delineated, in the novel's closing pages, in terms of corporate power: industrial, military, media. Maybe that's one of the major arcs Doctorow is describing here: the fall of America from an ideology of liberal individuality into one of corporatism and conformity, accompanied by the death or deportation of all rebels (Emma Goldman, for example). Damn, this is a good book...

Another thing I admire about it is the way Doctorow breaks all the accepted rules of modern storytelling. (In the mid-1970's, it would appear, a bestselling novel could still be experimental. Those certainly were the days...) It's a book that more often 'tells' than 'shows.' Indeed, it's an almost obsessively narrated novel, obviously foregrounding its own telling, its status as histoire, a story about history. Doctorow also delays introduction of a major character, Coalhouse Walker, until halfway through the novel, a very strange and counter-intuitive choice if my suspicions are correct and the Coalhouse story was the seed of the entire novel: Ragtime as an Americanization of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. Since Walker is the ragtime pianist whose presence explains the title, my intuition is probably on target.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A THOUGHT ON SPY FICTION (and thriller heroes generally)

The spy's ultimate task is to extricate himself from the web of plot his author has woven around him. A spy is a fictional character trying to become free. Free, that is, of the fiction that is his raison d'etre. His duty is to resolve the plot so he can walk as freely as at the beginning, before the first strands of the web reached out for him--before page one, in fact. The freedom he seeks and finds is the void before birth. (Every successful spy dies a suicide.) There is thus a fundamental circularity to spy fiction (which constitutes its structural similarity to detective fiction): the story returns us to the place where it began, but darkens it.


Marcuse's great late essay "The Aesthetic Dimension" still impresses me as the most dramatic confrontation I've yet encountered between a rigorous Marxist-influenced theoretician and the profound power of the artistic imagination. Marcuse argues, contra the ideologues of social realism, that even art without explicitly 'social' themes (even especially such art) can produce in viewers/readers "a counter-consciousness: negation of the realistic-conformist mind." Provocatively, Marcuse argues that this is more likely to occur in non-social realist works, works whose subject matter is divorced from social realities. This is because those realities have become sublimated in the work, and contact with the work brings about a corresponding desublimation in the viewer, ''an invalidation of dominant norms, needs, and values." "The truth of art," Marcuse writes, "lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality (i.e., of those who established it) to define what is real." These are powerful ideas and arguments for the political potential of aesthetic experience, even of 'art for art's sake', an argument for the revolutionary political potential even of fin de siecle aestheticism. Ultimately, I think, the essay is a passionate Marxist plea for the beautiful, a brief for the efficacy of imagination.


In Richard Wolin's Labyrinths I found a surprisingly good collection of essays on critical theory, illuminating the disturbing connections between ostensibly left-wing postwar thinkers and the ideologues of 1920's-30's German far right and Nazism. The connections, as Wolin shows, go much deeper than de Man's articles in Le Soir or Heidegger's words and actions as Rektor-Fuhrer. The antihumanism that has dominated advanced leftist thought since the decline of Existentialism (in Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Foucault, et al.) has its roots in the pre-Nazi, proto-fascist German right wing antihumanism of the 1920's, a 'conservative revolutionary' movement (shades of Newt Gingrich!) out of which Being and Time emerged. So it's little wonder that Walter Kaufmann, by 1980, was exalting Sartre at the expense of Heidegger. Sartre may have played footsie with Stalin and Castro, but at least he never kissed Hitler's ass. By the same token, the fall of deconstruction (a fairly old story now, dating from the late 1980's) and the hardening of leftist thought into reified 'identity' camps (feminist, queer, African-American, Latino, Latina) suggest that it's high time for an Existentialist rediscovery, a swerve (not a return) toward Sartre and his brand of tough-minded humanism--a 'hard' humanism as opposed to the feel-good brand peddled by the ice cream merchants of the right, an atheistic humanism conscious of the nothingness at the center of our selves, of the absurdity and contingency of existence; a self-conscious and self-critical humanism, an Existentialism that sees freedom not as a given but as a possibility, an achievement, the result of the hard work of rooting out the discourse of the Other in our selves. This is the kind of Existentialism Walter A. Davis is writing towards in Inwardness and Existence, and it's what we need today.


Homer meets Derrida in the tale of Bellerophon, mentioned in the sixth book of the Iliad. At lines 165-6 comes what has been interpreted as Homer's sole reference to writing and thus possibly the earliest mention of writing in any extant Greek text. Not surprisingly to a reader of Derrida, context places the act of writing under a cloud of deception and even murder. Bellerophon, accused of rape by the lascivious wife of his king, is sent to Lycia "bearing a folded tablet inscribed with baleful signs." These 'signs' instruct the Lycian king to murder Bellerophon. I immediately think of Claudius's letter to the English king and Hamlet's substitution of a text that leads Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unwittingly to their deaths. Shakespeare was, knowingly or not, referencing perhaps the oldest writing-related motif in Western literature. The passage also causes me to reconsider Derrida, as it suggests that his 'conspiracy theory' of the systematic devaluation of writing and the privileging of speech in Western thought may have even deeper roots than Plato's Phaedrus. It's interestingly counterintuitive (at least for a writer) to see writing as a technology that makes long-distance deception possible by allowing a messenger to carry a message unknown to himself. Writing thus benefits power by facilitating the objectification of less powerful others as means rather than ends. (The ghost of Michel Foucault bumps into the spirit of Immanuel Kant halfway through that last sentence.) The hapless messenger unknowingly carrying his own death warrant is technologically alienated from his labor, subjected to those who have mastered the technology, and forced to be the unwitting agent of his own death. Baleful signs, indeed. Writing is a dangerous, Kafkaesque business. (Also, the messenger is reduced to a carrier, etymologically a 'metaphor,' a carrier of meaning, a mere figure of speech (or writing)... But this is getting too Derridean, too Derridean altogether.)