Tuesday, April 27, 2010

THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon

I re-read The Crying of Lot 49 recently and found it even better than I remembered. The Jacobean revenge play parody (which anticipates by 40 years the over-the-top sadism of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ) is both more gruesome and funnier than I had recalled; and Oedipa's descent into madness and lucidity (the madness of lucidity, the lucidity of madness) is accomplished with wonderful economy in the book's brief space-time. (My only real criticism is directed at the book's prose. The Pynchon of Lot 49 wasn't yet the recklessly beautiful writer of Gravity's Rainbow. The margins of my copy of GR are studded with 'WOW's inked whenever I came across a sentence or paragraph that could simply not have been better written. There are precious few such passages in Lot 49.) I was especially impressed on this reading by something I had failed to fully appreciate when I read the book a decade ago: the beautiful and hermeneutically crucial image that ends the first chapter. Oedipa recalls a painting by Remedios Varo that figures the world as a tapestry woven by prisoners in a tower. It's an image of reality as both social construction and imaginative projection, a tapestry in which we are trapped, a cage we've built around ourselves. I call this image 'hermeneutically crucial' because the entire novella can be understood as a slow pulling back of this tapestry. Lot 49 is a game of "Strip Botticelli" that culminates (like every Freudian or Lacanian striptease) in the revelation of a void, a lack: the vast meaninglessness that the absurd surface of American reality attempts hysterically to conceal. (In this sense, James Wood's designation of Pynchon's novels as "hysterical realism" is a kind of bullseye. But Wood is only criticizing the absurd surface; he doesn't read the books closely enough to realize how right he is.) The novella's multiple images of constructed realities, radical uncertainty, textual interpretation, and a void of meaninglessness underlying and inciting all discourse--all of this encourages a contemporary hermeneut (or should we call him a 'hermeneunuch'?) to whip out his big postmodernist guns and start blasting away, riddling the Pynchonian text with Derridean bullet holes. But any attempt to assimilate the void Oedipa Maas glimpses to the linguistic aporias of Derrida and de Man only introduces another level of delusion. Such interpretation is a hasty repair job on the tapestry Pynchon so elaborately rips; it's another discourse that defangs the book so it can be safely displayed in the Postmodern Monkey House of the American Academic Zoo. This is a way of conveniently avoiding the most disturbing things the novel has to say about American life, insights that cut through the usual bullshit the way gasoline eats through the bottom of a styrofoam cup. Such is the bind Oedipa finds herself in at novel's end:

"Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of a legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia."

The Crying of Lot 49 was strong stuff in the mid-1960s, and the intervening 45 years have hardly diluted it. (It blows my mind to think that we will soon be marking this book's 50th birthday.) Anywhere in America today you can turn on a TV, flip to a news channel, and watch the Paranoids blow out all the lights.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

NIXONLAND by Rick Perlstein

First, a few voices from Nixonland:

"Sing one more freedom song and you are under arrest." -- policeman's warning to a group of schoolchildren in Selma, Alabama, 1965

"You'll never make it in politics, Len. You just don't know how to lie." -- Richard M. Nixon

"Can anyone tell me what's in my legislative program?" -- Gov. Ronald Reagan, during a press conference

"[John] Wayne might sound bad to people in New York, but he sounds great to the schmucks we're trying to reach through John Wayne. The people down there among the Yahoo Belt." -- Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips

"Nothing would bring the real peaceniks back to our side unless Hubert urinated on a portrait of Lyndon Johnson in Times Square before television--and then they'd say to him, 'Why didn't you do it before?' " -- one of Hubert Humphrey's advisors, 1968

"Those hippies...were wearing beards, and anybody who wears a beard, he deserves to get beat up." -- a Connecticut factory worker, speaking of the 1968 Democratic Convention

"It would have been better if the Guard had shot the whole lot of them that morning." -- a resident of Kent, Ohio, after the Kent State murders

"If I ever find out you're a Communist, Jane, I'll be the first person to turn you in." -- Henry Fonda, to his daughter

"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending fifty thousand young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood." -- Sen. George McGovern, in a speech to the Senate on Vietnam

"The nuclear bomb. Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ's sakes!" -- Nixon to Kissinger

"Is there anything braver or more noble about burning up children who live north of the seventeenth parallel or who live in Cambodia or Laos? They all feel pain. They're all children of the same God. Those it seems to me are the kind of conditions we have to recover if we're going to save the soul of this nation." -- McGovern on the campaign trial, responding to a question about the famous photograph of a South Vietnamese girl running from an American napalm strike, 1972

"Goddamn it, forget the law!" -- Nixon to Attorney General John Mitchell

Nixonland is a great book. It's 748 pages long, and when I reached the last page, I didn't want it to end. I hope Perlstein plans to continue his narrative history of American conservatism with a volume focusing on Ronald Reagan and the Republican party's hard right turn after the Watergate wipeout. (A turn that was nothing compared to what's happening today: the Republicans openly embracing the most psychotic and delusional elements of the American right. Today we're living through the not-yet-written fourth volume of Perlstein's project.) Perhaps the best way to state the difference between Perlstein's and every other history of America in the period 1964-72 is to say that Nixonland is the best book Thomas Pynchon never wrote. This is history as a Pynchon novel, with all the absurdity, black comedy and paranoia of The Crying of Lot 49 or even Gravity's Rainbow. (And isn't Richard Nixon the shadowy, almost unseen presence haunting Pynchon's entire oeuvre, from V. to Vice?) Perlstein also shares Pynchon's drive to recapture events that have been lost to history--and the recent past is always in the greatest danger of oblivion, since it bears more directly upon the present. All the usual landmarks are here, of course (Watts to Woodstock, My Lai to McGovern), but even more impressive are the events Perlstein rescues from the rabbit hole of the recent past: his coverage of the Newark riots, which is as good as Howard Zinn at his best; his account of the media's quick change from criticizing the Daley regime to parroting the Daley line on the 1968 Democratic Convention; his revelation of the now conveniently forgotten fact that millions of Americans wanted to kill Martin Luther King (and his somewhat more doubtful assertion that millions of others would've been willing to die for him); his balanced account of Jane Fonda's antiwar activities. Probably most important for future studies of the late 1960s New Left is his demonstration of the fatal flaw in that pet doctrine of radical Marxists, "heightening the contradictions." The leftists failed to take into account one fact that Nixon knew very well: when state violence is provoked by nonconformists, at least as many Americans will cheer the cops as will support the protesters, and the pro-fascist cheering will be amplified by the megaphones of power. This is why when Nixon received a memo warning him of upcoming campus unrest in 1970, he scrawled across it a single word: "Good."

One obvious criticism: Perlstein overuses the Orthogonian/Franklin dichotomy. Even though he builds a convincing case that it's a defining factor in Nixon's worldview, it remains too simplistic a sociology to build a history upon--a fact evidenced by Perlstein's own description of the Hard Hat Riot (another important event he draws out of the rabbit hole). During the riot, 'Orthogonian' construction workers and 'Franklin' Wall Street stockbrokers joined forces to brutalize antiwar demonstrators. The American class structure defies easy dualisms, as do the various Republican strategies for keeping the different classes at each others' throats. America since Nixon has been like the '72 Democratic primaries: the classes set against one another by right-wing rhetoric while the Richard Mellon Scaifes of the world laugh all the way to their offshore banks. Yes, Tricky Dick ratfucked America--and that's nothing compared to what he did to the people of Southeast Asia.

Perlstein does a marvelous (and wonderfully readable) job of reminding Americans of their recent past, but Nixonland is still just one monkey wrench tossed into the Great American Amnesia Machine. We need many more. May 4 of this year is the 40th anniversary of the murders of Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller and Sandra Lee Scheuer at Kent State University. Let's see if anyone notices...

Friday, April 23, 2010

DANUBE by Claudio Magris

Anyone who loves the work of W.G. Sebald, especially The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, should check out Claudio Magris’s Danube. The account of a 1983 journey along the eponymous river from its multiple Black Forest sources to its mind-bogglingly multiple Black Sea mouths, Danube is to travel books what Moby Dick is to fish stories. This ain’t no lightweight Paul Theroux trip. Magris’s travel narrative is but a framework upon which he hangs the multiple digressions, the intellectual sidetrips, that form the real heart of the book, Danube’s radically decentered center. These digressions–on topics ranging from the theme of the sonderling in German literature to Heidegger’s philosophy to the Mauthausen concentration camp to the cafĂ© architecture of Vienna to the perpetually marginalized history of the Slovaks--are sometimes brilliant and almost always interesting. They transform the book from a travel narrative into an intellectual portrait of Danubean culture, Magris’s academic specialty. In a review blurbed on the back cover, John Banville writes that Magris "seems to have read everything," and that statement encapsulates the book’s greatest strength and most important weakness. Magris does indeed appear to have read everything and to remember it all verbatim, and he punctuates his text with a nearly constant stream of quotations and paraphrases. Many of these are wonderful and apt, but I often had the desire to reach into the text, grab the author by the lapels and say, "That quote was great, Claudio, but what do you think?" In the book’s weak spots, its dry patches (all books over 200 pages have them), Magris’s voice is more professorial than poetic. (The contrast between Danube and Sebald’s books is most obvious here; Sebald is more poet than lecturer, even though he, like Magris, paid his bills by teaching at a university.) At times, this book feels like a tour of the Danube basin conducted by an obsessive bibliographer. But the rest of Danube is interesting and well-written enough to overcome these weaknesses–and even to incorporate them. Throughout the book, Magris gently mocks his own encyclopedic pretensions. He's aware that the book’s overemphasis on literary culture betrays both the author’s academic bias and, more importantly, the anachronism of his project, the impossibility of encyclopedicity in an age of overspecialization. Near the end of the book, Magris explicitly laments this limitation, but he also slyly generalizes it, transforming his academic handicap into the dysfunction of Modern Man, whom he likens to a Ulysses who no longer needs to be tied to the mast because "the song of the Sirens is entrusted to ultrasonic waves which His Majesty the Ego cannot discern." (I think ‘His Majesty the Academic’ would’ve been more accurate.) The ending of the book remains extremely beautiful, though--beautiful enough to compensate for the occasional longueurs.

(Readers of Danube might also want to check out the documentary The Ister, a meditation on Heidegger's WWII-era lectures on Holderlin's hymn "Der Ister" that retraces Magris's journey in reverse, taking the viewer from post-Cold War Romania through post-1990s wars Serbia to the Black Forest. The film is beautifully photographed, but it is intellectually weakened by an overreliance on French Heideggerian interviewees, the worst of whom, Lacoue-Labarthes, reveals himself as a cynically disinformational apologist for Heidegger's fascism.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau

When spring comes, and a gauzy veil of green throws itself over the budding trees, I always feel compelled to read Thoreau.

"I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough." -- Walden, "The Village"

We can safely assume from the above quote that Sarah Palin and her ignorant ilk would not consider Thoreau a "real American." He's obviously a socialist, communist wealth-redistributor, and he pals around with terrorists like John Brown. But seriously, while reading the long Montaignesque essay on "Economy" that uneconomically opens Walden, I reflected that it would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine the America in which Thoreauvian economics would be taught in business schools. That America would be a Jeffersonian agrarian utopia, a pastoral democracy, the kind of garden that America never really was and will never really be. Contra Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," we'll never get back to the garden; we've built too many highways to take us away from it.

I suspect that the contemporary popular imagination sentimentally casts Thoreau as a 'naturalist' in order to avoid the disturbing implications of Thoreau's early and implacable opposition to what would become America's hegemonic ideology, corporate capitalism. Regarding the textile industry of his day, he writes: "I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing....the principle object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched."-- Walden, "Economy"

The last two paragraphs of section two, "Where I Lived...", exemplify Thoreau's prose at its very best, poetically beautiful and poetically intricate. It is necessary to resist the impulse to subject Thoreau's rhetoric to de Manian deconstruction, and not just because such an interpretation would be almost too easy, but also because it would be beside the point. We should instead attempt the much more difficult task of understanding Thoreau's wildest rhetorical moments, his 'fishing in the sky'--understanding them not as one understands Kant (or Derrida or Rorty), but as one understands Yeats, or tries to. Such understanding can be the work of a lifetime.

Reading Thoreau after Lawrence, I note similarities and differences. Both men are a type of cracker barrel philosopher, but H.D.'s barrel is better built than D.H.'s. Lawrence's barrel is seriously warped and has at least one hoop missing.

One aspect of Walden many readers seem to miss is Thoreau's humor, his sarcasm, irony, wit. Lawrence could've learned something from Thoreau in this area. For example, the mock-epic Homeric description of hoeing beans (a bean field Iliad) and Thoreau's bitterly sarcastic reaction to martial music coming from Concord--a bitterness that's reminiscent of late Mark Twain and also does sound a bit like DHL. (Both passages are in the chapter "The Bean-Field.") While recognizing Thoreau the naturalist and Thoreau the radical, we shouldn't discount Thoreau the humorist. There's probably much more irony in Walden than most readers have ever suspected.

The passage in "The Ponds" where Thoreau loses and rescues his ice-axe from the frozen lake is, for me, strangely beautiful, powerful, and even haunting. I think it's one of the greatest passages in the entire book. There is a hallucinatory vividness about it, and it's achieved with remarkable economy.

As for Thoreau the Romantic philosopher of Nature, in "The Ponds" he interestingly revises Emerson's "transparent eyeball" image, projecting the eyeball outside the self, into nature, and aiming it inward, toward the self. "A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature...." But does Thoreau really measure the depth of his own nature in Walden? It's highly arguable how well he succeeds in being the Columbus of his self (to borrow the rhetoric of Walden's "Conclusion"). He's certainly the Columbus and the Cortes and the Balboa of Walden Pond and Woods, but consider how little he tells us about his life outside the woods. By book's end, a Thoreau known only from Walden would be a rather mysterious figure.

Running through the book, and especially noticeable in "The Pond in Winter," is a tension between Thoreau's Enlightenment rationalism and his Romantic "Natural Supernaturalism." The tension is present in the "Realometer" paragraphs that end "Where I Lived..." but it comes into stark relief in "Pond in Winter" when Thoreau acts according to classic scientific method: he sounds the depth of Walden Pond, constructs a hypothesis from this data, and tests his hypothesis in a neighboring pond. This scientific Thoreau, probing and testing, sits uneasily alongside the Thoreau who insists upon the essential mystery of Nature, of that mystery as the premier site of imaginative play, a source of tropes, a motive for metaphor. Thoreau is aware of the mutually antagonistic character of these two positions, and over the course of the book he attempts a synthesis of "the bays of poesy" and "the dry docks of science." We can read Walden as that attempt and argue about its success, but I suspect that Thoreau's "dry docks" image points to a deeper and more agonistic project: throughout Walden, Thoreau is swamping the discourse of science in the language of poetry. This isn't synthesis; this is war.

"And so the seasons went rolling on into summer, as one rambles into higher and higher grass."


Lawrence's Sea and Sardinia begins with what is surely one of the best first lines in all of travel literature: "Comes over one an absolute necessity to move." That's an absolutely perfect first line. The inverted syntax (a rhetorical device Lawrence proceeds to dilute by overuse over the course of the book) begins the narrative with an active verb, setting the story and reader immediately into motion. Syntax becomes semantics. The words travel out of their customary positions into unfamiliar territory. The very language hurries us along, grabbing the reader with a verb and thrusting him forward toward the nouns that will make sense of this strange linguistic place he has found himself in. Here reading is very like traveling. (It's probably also safe to assume that this beginning is Lawrence's writerly reaction to the opening paragraphs of Ishmael's narration in Moby Dick. An absolute necessity to move comes over Melville's protagonist too, from time to time.)

Sea and Sardinia is much better than Twilight in Italy, but it's not a great, surprising book. It is exactly the kind of travel book one would expect D.H. Lawrence to write, neither better nor worse. Passages of great beauty alternate with dubious generalizations; poetic descriptions give way to earnest invocations of 'maleness' that bring to mind early-1990s Robert Bly. The most significant improvements over Twilight are twofold. First, Lawrence keeps his sermonizing impulse in check much the time. Second, his prose keeps this book in constant motion. This is an account of a whirlwind trip from Sicily to Sardinia, across the island from south to north, and back to Sicily via the Italian mainland, and the narrative moves as steadily as its characters. This is a book that travels, and that's probably the most impressive thing about it. Anyone seeking reliable information about Sardinia should look elsewhere. DHL spent only a few days on the island, so his account is necessarily superficial. He's more tourist than traveler here.


The Italian travels of three great writers have all failed to satisfy me. Goethe's Italian Journey is a desultory hodgepodge which even its translator/editors admit could've used a better original editor. Henry James's Italian Hours is as intoxicatingly beautiful as one would expect a volume of the Master's travel writings to be, and therein lies the problem: the collected pieces read more like transcriptions from the exquisite, oh so exquisite, Jamesian sensorium than accounts of Venice, Rome, etc. It is often difficult to 'see' Italy clearly through the shimmering beauty of James's prose. And now Lawrence's Twilight in Italy likewise fails to ignite. There are flashes of brilliance in Lawrence's book (the great image that ends the opening chapter, for example: a roadside crucifix high in the Alps with the body broken off and the severed arms still nailed to the crossbar and swinging in the wind), but this wheat is buried under far too much chaff. Lawrence's sermonizing tendency gets completely out of control here. Lawrence as narrator becomes the sort of character who might have been satirized by Dickens or Trollope: a pedantic Midlands know-it-all who will never miss an opportunity to preach a sermon at you. Twilight in Italy suffers fatally from Old Herb's half-baked primitivism, dubious anti-modernism (in the broadest and most Catholic sense of the term), and his ubiquitous Tiresome Transcendental Tangents. That said, I'm not giving up on Lawrence. Sea and Sardinia is the next book in my Penguin D.H. Lawrence and Italy, and it looks a bit livelier (and brighter) than the disappointing Twilight.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

AN AMERICAN DREAM by Norman Mailer

An American Dream is The Notorious NKM's most notorious novel, and both notorieties are richly deserved. Even those who haven't read it know that this is the book in which Mailer's alter ego murders his wife, sodomizes her maid (a scene that contains the novel's best/worst unintentionally comic line: "...there was canny, hard-packed evil in that butt..."), severely beats a jazz musician , slugs a titan of industry, and walks away unpunished and pretty much unscathed. Madness beckons, but Riker's Island does not--as it surely would for anyone who committed only the last of these offences. (I'm reminded of Morgan Freeman's best line in Unforgiven: after Eastwood tells him that he's traveling north to kill a couple cowboys, Freeman asks, "What'd they do, spit on a rich fella?") So American Dream is a fantasy novel, an American Fantasy of sex, violence, crime, wealth, power and fame--all turned rancid and rotten at the core. This is America become Cancer Gulch. And the book is written in a prose so highly ornamented and syntactically archaic that I'm tempted to call it Baroque or even Rococo. Mailer lets his talent for metaphor run wild in this novel, and the effect--as usual when Norman lets himself go--is uneven overall. Some passages and phrases are strikingly apt and beautiful, while other paragraphs and pages are overwritten in a way that brings to mind not Faulkner, but Robert Penn Warren at his most florid. The narrative also has its problems, especially in the book's second half, leading me to suspect that Mailer didn't quite know how to wrap things up, so he killed off two characters in offstage bloodbaths and sent Rojack west. The ending is weak and the epilogue self-pitying, but there's just enough good writing here to make the book worth reading--once.

Maybe the most interesting thing about American Dream is that this is the novel in which Mailer makes brutally explicit his lifelong struggle to both embody and overcome the spirit of Ernest Hemingway. The novel might almost be titled The Long, Unhappy Vengeance of Stephen Rojack. Mailer's antihero quickly succeeds where Hemingway's most interesting men fail: he kills the Great Bitch, murdering her in a scene that's explicitly compared to a bullfight. All this leads to a question that every reader must answer for him- or herself: Is Mailer diagnosing a Hemingwayish psychosis at the heart of American life, or is he merely indulging his penchant for super-Hemingwayish excess? He's clearly attempting both, but I think the balance finally falls on the side of self-indulgence. The duality of the book, however unbalanced, reflects Mailer's Oedipal love-hate relationship with the writer sycophants called 'Papa,' a writer whose 1962 suicide, unmentioned in the novel, might be the ultimate 'dog that doesn't bark' in Mailer's fiction.

Readers might also ask to what extent this Hemingwayan interpretation is a self-protective swerve (on the interpreter's part) away from what's most genuinely frightening about this novel: the spectacle of Mailer, just a few years after stabbing his wife, writing a novel in which he makes deep contact with the wife-murderer inside him.

I would also like to take this opportunity to warn readers away from the botched late-1960s movie adaptation of this novel. It's a real piece of crap. Enough said.

FOUR HOURS IN MY LAI by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim

Bilton and Sim's Four Hours in My Lai is an important and sickening book that should be required reading for anyone who still nurses delusions of glory about the events American historians quaintly refer to as 'the Vietnam experience.' This is a shockingly direct and brutal account of the war's most notorious American atrocity. It is as difficult and necessary to read as, say, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian for readers who wish to appreciate (I won't say 'understand') the terrible nihilistic psychosis that under the 'proper' conditions can erupt out of otherwise 'ordinary Americans.' Essential and definitive, this is one of the Vietnam books everyone should read. It belongs on the shelf with Herr's Dispatches, O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, Stone's Dog Soldiers, Wright's Meditations in Green, Karnow's Vietnam: A History, and Young's The Vietnam Wars.


Anna Balakian's now-classic work on Surrealism is a useful introduction to the movement--and the chapter on "The Surrealist Image" is very good--but the book suffers from the author's personal and intellectual proximity to the magnetic personality of Andre Breton. Even when one allows for the fact that Balakian's book is over 50 years old, her view of Surrealism still seems excessively Bretonian. Georges Bataille's name, for example, doesn't even appear in the index, and Bataille's circle, the focus of much recent writing on the movement, is entirely ignored. The book also has a pronounced literary bias: very good in its coverage of poetry, it flounders in a too-brief discussion of Surrealist painting, arguably the movement's most important legacy. One might correct Balakian's bias by reading her book in conjunction with the 2001-02 Tate/Met exhibition catalog Surrealism: Desire Unbound, a book worth owning for its illustrations alone (the text is a bit too Lacanian for me).


Pinter's Proust Screenplay is a good read, and it would probably have been a marvelous film had it ever been produced--a better and more satisfying film than either of the best-known partial adaptations of subsequent decades, Volker Schlondorff's Swann in Love and Raoul Ruiz's Time Regained. While the latter is fascinating and beautiful (and casts the fascinatingly beautiful Catherine Deneuve as Odette), the filmmakers' decision to view the entire work through the lens of the final volume does too much violence to the structure of Proust's narrative. Pinter's screenplay, by contrast, extracts and preserves the Proustian architecture for a film that's a remarkable adaptation of all of Proust. While formal constraints obviously force him to leave much out, I found myself marveling at how much Pinter was able to get in. He retains the shape of Proust's work by shifting its rhythm into overdrive. Compared to the slow, oceanic rhythm of the Proustian text, Pinter's adaptation speeds past in half an eyeblink. Pick up a copy and screen it in the cinema of your mind.