Thursday, September 30, 2010


Jim Tully (1891-1947) was the most successful writer ever to emerge from the train towns and cornfields of rural west central Ohio. A prominent American novelist and journalist from the 1920s through the 1940s and an acknowledged pioneer of the 'hardboiled' school of American writing, Tully has become so obscure in the decades since his death that I, who grew up in the Ohio town named in the last word of the first chapter of Beggars of Life, knew nothing about Tully until earlier this month. Now some of the fog around Jim Tully seems to be lifting. Some of his books are coming back into print in handsome editions with forewords by the likes of Harvey Pekar and John Sayles, and they can be purchased at (Older editions are also available at reasonable prices from online booksellers.)

I have just finished Beggars of Life, Tully's 1924 autobiographical hobo picaresque (the title will ring a bell for film buffs; this book inspired the 1928 film of the same name starring Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen), and I found it an interesting but very uneven book. An episodic, first-person account of life on the rails in the early years of the 20th century, the book is a valuable portrait of a lost American subculture and an invaluable record of its language. In the hobo world, a 'glim' is a lamp; a 'yegg' is an itinerant professional thief; a 'jocker' is an older tramp who dominates a younger and weaker 'punk.' This last pair of terms intrigues me. Is 'jocker' a derivative of 'jockey,' thus designating one who 'rides' a punk, in every connotation of 'ride'? In the discussion of jockers and punks, Tully goes about as far as he can, given the censorship of the day, toward the delineation of a little-known but not uncommon form of same-sex relationship inside the early 20th-century hobo subculture.

Tully's prose, however, impresses me considerably less than these sociological or anthropological aspects of the book. While he does score the occasional pointed epigram (a lawyer is described as "more polished...possibly from long having been used as a tool") and one almost surrealistically apt simile ("seventeen years have staggered by like wounded drunkards in the rain"--a simile so bad it's brilliant!), Tully is for the most part an uninspired writer here. And for a guy with a hardboiled reputation, he can write pretty flabbily at times. Here are two consecutive paragraphs that exemplify Tully, fat and lean:

I lived much among the women of looser sex in my youth because I was able to obtain a certain amount of understanding from them, and as understanding is near to sympathy, the latter also.

Rabbit Town was that section of St. Mary's where men only went at night. It consisted of some frame houses furnished with tawdry attempts at finery. Edna lived in one of these houses.

I called this book 'uneven,' and this is a good example of what I mean. These consecutive paragraphs sound as though they were written by different writers. The first is baggy, vague and circumlocutious (it had to be vague, of course, given the censorship under which Tully wrote); the second is as plain and direct as the frame houses it describes. The second paragraph was written by the Tully who can be mentioned in the same breath as Hammett, Chandler and Cain, if not Hemingway. (And it must be said that even at his worst here, Tully is a better writer than Theodore Dreiser. But then, Dreiser's reputation would plummet severely if anyone actually read his books.)

There are good things in Beggars of Life, enough to make it worth reading, but I ended the book wishing it had been better written and constructed. In addition to the spotty prose, the book rambles tramp-like from episode to episode, one damn thing after another (to cite someone's definition of novelistic fiction), without any real narrative arc tying the pieces together. This is especially problematic at novel's end, when the story peters out disappointingly. And while some of the chapters are very good (chapter 28, "Happenings," is a miniature masterpiece with a fine, chilling last line), others go by faster than a mail train on the Plains and leave the reader's memory as soon as the page is turned. Beggars of Life is not a great or even a very good book overall, but it is a damn interesting one.

WITTGENSTEIN'S MISTRESS by David Markson (a parody)

Yesterday I found it amusing to parody the style of Wittgenstein's Mistress, actually.
This is probably because ten years ago I was mad and ate the green canvas webbing from the seat of the last lawn chair.
I mean the novel by David Markson, of course, and not the mistress of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was probably Philosophy.
And the lawn chair, that was after I ate the dog, or possibly before.
Rembrandt painted a dog in the bottom left corner of a vast canvas at the Rijksmuseum, or was that a Van Gogh in Otterlo, I don't remember.
And the lawn chair, that was before I ate the dog, or possibly after.
Wittgenstein's brother Paul, a noted pianist, lost an arm in the First World War, I think, and thereafter played with the left hand alone.
I don't recall who noted him, but I'm sure he was noted.
The dog was named Pisanello.
Wittgenstein's Mistress, the book, not the person, who may or may not have existed, the person, not the book, is like the late paintings of Philip Guston in its deadpan accumulations of cultural debris.
But unlike Guston's late paintings, Wittgenstein's Mistress fails to enthrall me.
The book, I mean, not the person, who might also have been quite an enthralling accumulation, for all I know, unless it was merely Philosophy.
Paul Wittgenstein never composed a sonata inspired by the paintings of Pisanello and never played it with either hand. So I find it difficult to explain my ecstatic response to the sonata's thundering final bars.
The sonata was not pressed into a vintage vinyl LP with a scratch that caused the needle to jump the groove twenty-two seconds into the second movement.
So when I listened for the jump while eating the dog, I must have been mad.
At the National Gallery I studied Pisanello's St. George and never thought of Wittgenstein who lived nearby, but was dead.
Not nearby, actually, but in the same general region of the country.
My cousin Heliogabalus once remarked that Wittgenstein resembled Frankenstein's monster as portrayed by Boris Karloff.
He meant Ludwig, not Paul, who looked like nobody.
This happened either before or after I read the book by David Markson.
The canvas webbing emerged soggy and green from my rectum. So I wove it back onto the lawn chair, because I was mad.
I don't much like Wittgenstein's Mistress, the book, not the person, though I might not have liked the person either, really. Even if she was Philosophy.
Sophia is a pleasant name for a dog from Philadelphia.
I have replaced the Pisanello print above my desk with a portrait of Paul Wittgenstein, or possibly Ludwig, I can't see the arms.
Later today I will possibly masturbate.
Or re-read Wittgenstein's Mistress.
It's a toss-up, actually.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Readers of Mindful Pleasures might want to know that my 2008 novel The Degas Manuscript can now be purchased as an Amazon Kindle e-book. (I've also added a link in my "About the Blogger" box.)

The Degas Manuscript is a tale of art and murder in the Paris of the Impressionists. Narrated by the painter Edgar Degas, the novel tells of the mysterious events surrounding the death of a young ballet dancer in 1867. In that year, the Second Empire of Napoleon III is at its height, the emperor's powerful prefect, Baron Haussmann, is rebuilding and modernizing Paris; tourists are pouring into the city for the Universal Exposition; and a small group of painters centered around Degas and Edouard Manet are envisioning the art we now know as Impressionism.

The story begins with Degas walking across central Paris one spring day to visit his friend Manet's one-man show. When the two artists' conversation is interrupted by screams from a nearby bridge, Degas goes to investigate and sees the body of a young girl floating motionless on the surface of the Seine. Instinctively, he leaps into the river and hauls the corpse back to the riverbank. The next day a police detective tells him that the girl's death was likely a suicide, so Degas tries to forget about her and returns to his work. But the image of the dead girl still haunts him, and he feels compelled to investigate her death.

His investigation takes the reader from bohemian artists' cafes to upper class salons, from the secret world backstage at the Paris Opera to the spectacle of the 1867 Universal Exposition, from a shabby working-class brothel to the mansion of Paris's most notorious courtesan. Along the way, the veil of Second Empire frivolity is lifted to reveal the dark side of the world's most modern city. We see the Opera as a sexual marketplace where wealthy men exploit young, working-class dancers. We witness a repressive imperial government systematically expelling poor people from the city center and forcing them into slums on the outskirts. We watch as rampant capitalism transforms Paris into a city where even human beings are in danger of becoming commodities to be bought and sold. As Degas wanders into the labyrinth of the girl's life and death, he learns of a second murder and witnesses a third. Finally, after a series of surprising twists and turns, all the suspects are brought together and the killer unmasked at (where else?) a masked ball.

With a cast of characters that mixes fictional and historical figures (Degas, Manet, Berthe Morisot, Baron Haussmann, a psychopathic Bonaparte prince, a reactionary Russian count, a quixotic left-wing journalist), The Degas Manuscript is my attempt to write an intelligent, politically engaged work of genre fiction that is miles away from the poorly-written, schematically plotted works of Dan Brown and his imitators.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

ANGELS by Denis Johnson

Here's a big, ten-years-too-late "Thanks, dude" to David Foster Wallace for recommending Denis Johnson's Angels. This is one hell of a first novel. It's a debut so consistently excellent, a performance so perfectly pitched and paced and modulated, that at times I could hardly believe it was a first novel. Johnson published three volumes of poetry before Angels came out in 1983, and that probably accounts for the care and control that characterizes his prose here. He writes a poet's prose, and the book he builds with it is a deeply impressive synthesis of Raymond Carver-like realism, American noir, and a mystically-powered poetic lyricism that's uniquely Denis Johnson's. How good is Angels? It's this good:

It was all right to be who he was, but others would probably think it was terrible. A couple of times in the past he'd reached this absolute zero of the truth, and without fear or bitterness he realized now that somewhere inside it there was a move he could make to change his life, to become another person, but he'd never be able to guess what it was. He found a cigaret and struck a match--for a moment there was nothing before him but the flame. When he shook it out and the world came back, it was the same place again where all his decisions had been made a long time ago.

And Johnson is also blessed with an ear for American speech that almost never errs. I spotted a few false notes: one character says "it doesn't" when he should probably be made to say "it don't"; another character makes an entirely out-of-character allusion to Henry James. But these are minor things that don't detract from such triumphs as the voice of Dwight Snow, a man whose rhetorical style can best be described as "lower-class white American aspirational circumlocution." He says things like "So I made the acquaintance of a fence by the simple expedient of contacting an individual who's just been fucking busted for B-and-E" and "Prospects would be considerably enhanced if I could see to the financing myself." He talks like a poor white trash William F. Buckley. (The real Bill Buckley was, of course, rich white trash.) His voice will not soon leave my head; nor will I soon forget this book's stand-out scenes and images and even minor characters: the red-suited monster who calls himself Ned Higher-and-Higher; the arrest of Burris to the tune of "Like a Rolling Stone"; Miranda looking at herself in the airport mirror near the novel's end. Angels is marvelous, and anyone interested in a grim and beautiful ride into America's depths should climb aboard this bus.

That said, I also want to mention one element of American life that Johnson seriously underplays in Angels: white racism. The segment of American society in which almost all of the novel's characters are trapped--the white criminal underclass--may be the most openly and vocally racist part of our society. I know from personal experience that when these people are in all-white company, the racist remarks fly fast and furious. Many poor white Americans are incapable of speaking for any length of time on any subject without launching into some sort of anti-black, anti-Mexican, anti-(insert Other here) tirade. (This is not to say, of course, that racism is limited to the lower classes. I've heard much the same shit spewed from middle- and upper-class mouths, but the discourse of political correctness has taught the mids and uppers to be more discreet racists.) Angels reflects none of this, and it's a troubling omission in a book that is otherwise highly observant and gets so much else so right.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


The paper book is dying. Everybody says so. The publishing industry seems to consider its demise a fait accompli and is struggling to retool for the age of electronic books, the Kindle era. (Couldn't have thought up an e-reader name less redolent of Nazi book burnings?) The future's coming, and it's going to kick the publishing industry's ass and deliver the coup de grace to an already moribund bookselling business. A few Borders and Barnes & Noble megastores might survive as middle-class 'literary cafes' in the metropolitan suburbs, but the small, independent bookstores that used to dot the American landscape like so many Audenesque lightpoints from Provincetown to Portland are going, going--you get the picture.

I know, I know...All these ominous warnings were sounded 15 years ago when the villain was that evil "internets," but the web turned out to be, at least for a while, a boon to the book business, connecting buyers and sellers all over the world and facilitating transactions that would've been impossible only a few years earlier. (I know a book dealer in Ohio who actually sold Korans to Saudi Arabia. No joke.) But the situation for the book as we've known it is much more desperate today. In the not-too-distant future, all new books (and all new editions of old books) will be disseminated and read electronically. Now is the time to think about the consequences of this change and try to alleviate the most negative ones. Everyone has heard the 'pro' side of the e-book conversation--it mostly boils down to portability and (that Great Corporate God) efficiency--but here are a few 'cons' that haven't received sufficient attention:

Ease of Censorship. If some powerful entity wishes to alter or destroy my copy of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," their agents would be forced to break into my home and search my non-ordered bookcases and stacks for several hours until they accidentally happened upon my Modern Library Walden and Other Writings. They would then have to either mutilate the book and replace it or confiscate it and tiptoe smugly into the night like so many triumphant Boris Badinovs. And even after all that effort, power's triumph would be only partial, for they would've failed to notice my Bantam Classics Thoreau in the almost inaccessible back row of a double-rowed shelf in another bookcase. (Damn, I just told them about it. Gotta move that book.) By contrast, electronic books are a Stalinist's wet dream. Any future totalitarian government--or the current totalitarian capitalist Chinese government, to pull an example out of thin air--that wishes to censor my electronic edition of Thoreau's essay need only politely ask a compliant e-book corporation to do the dirty deed. The next time I download another purchase to my reader, my copy of Thoreau will be silently altered or erased. Imagine how Stalin would've used this against Trotsky's books. No need for scissors, glue and incinerators; just press delete and the funny-bearded Frida Kahlo-fucker's history of the Russian Revolution is gone, gone, gone. More efficient than Mercader's ice axe.

The End of Lending, or, You Can't Always Get What You Want (And We'll Find a Way to Make You Pay Through the Nose for What You Need). Paper books can be easily loaned and borrowed. I'm speaking not of libraries (which if they continue to exist will be sites where members of the public can download e-books free of charge--and that's exactly why they will not be permitted to exist in a future Corporatist state), no, I'm talking about the types of transactions that happen between friends. The breathless "Dude, you gotta read this," accompanied by the act of passing a book into your friend's hands. The age of e-books will mark the end of this lit-geek bonding ritual:

"Dude, you read Against the Day yet?"
"Here. Catch." (Massive Pynchon novel sails across room toward slacker cowering on sofa)
"Ooops!" (Shattering of glass followed by heavy thud)
"S'alright dude. I never liked that lamp much anyway."

Try doing that with a Kindle. No, in the future such heartwarming scenes will no longer be possible. An electronic reader on which one's entire library has been loaded is hardly a lendable device. No reader will part with his entire library so a deadbeat friend too cheap to buy his own damn Kindle can read one lousy book. So this medium, despite its trumpeted portability, also makes books a less portable, more private, thing. As one might expect from a corporate product, it makes private property even more 'private' than before. In an ideal corporatist state, every book will be purchased, and those without purchasing power will have no access to books.

Environmental Impact. It seems a no-brainer: the death of the book is the rebirth of the forest. No more big green leafies going to the blade for the greater glory of J.K. Rowling's boy wizard and Dan Brown's goofball "symbologist." Hooray, right? Not so fast. More trees and more oxygen are certainly a good thing (I enjoy breathing as much as the next fella), but we don't know much about the real environmental impact of electronic reading devices. (A good resource for the current debate is the Eco-Libris website.) How recyclable are they? How and where will they be recycled? Will any of their components end up polluting the water table in 2075? Maybe good news for the forest is bad news for the ground. The one inconvenient truth we can count on is that corporations will do anything to maximize profits, even if it hastens environmental catastrophe.

And What About Oversize Books? It should surprise no one that the paper vs. pixel conversation is weighted heavily toward the types of books moved in large numbers by big commercial publishers--genre fiction, narrative nonfiction, Oprah-friendly lit fic (yes, that means you, Jonathan Franzen)--but it's unfortunate that other kinds of books seem already to have been written off. As an aesthete and art obsessive with a large collection of oversize art books and exhibition catalogues, I fear for the future of the quality art book. This is one niche genre that seems headed straight for the technological guillotine. The Kindle screen, like most computer screens--is simply too small to accommodate a good-sized painting reproduction. A work that in a large paper book can be viewed in full and in detail on a single page requires scrolling and scrunching and squinting on most computer monitors. On a Kindle screen, Janson's standard History of Art would be a nightmare of tiny illustrations. Unlike unillustrated books, oversize art books resist translation to the new medium. They are doomed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent Vice is minor Pynchon. I reached that conclusion before page 100, and nothing in the subsequent 269 pages altered it. I enjoyed the novel, but its pleasures are of a considerably lower order than those of Gravity's Rainbow or Against the Day--or even (a more appropriate comparison) The Crying of Lot 49. If I were to rank Pynchon's novels in order of excellence--omitting the one I have (inexcusably) yet to read, Mason and Dixon--I would put Vice near the bottom, above Vineland but below Lot 49. (Rainbow and Day would be at the top of the list, Crying and V. in the middle.) There are very good passages hidden here and there in this too often pedestrian performance--and the final two pages are absolutely marvelous, Pynchon finally writing full tilt--but there's not a single scene or imaginative flight in Inherent Vice that equals the brilliance of Esther's nose job, Benny Profane's alligator hunt (both in V.), Tyrone Slothrop's journey down the toilet of the Roseland Ballroom, the Schwarzkommando, the biography of Byron the Bulb (all Gravity's Rainbow), or Against the Day's Vormance Expedition. Inherent Vice is lighter fare, Pynchon that reads like Elmore Leonard. And some passages read more like Pynchonian self-parody than Pynchonian noir. If TP wishes to parody the paranoia of his oeuvre, that's certainly his prerogative, but as I read the book I had the uncomfortable feeling that Pynchon was descending into self-parody as a result of imaginative exhaustion. That would explain the reliance on a genre form that he fails to definitively explode (compare the deconstruction of novelistic form (and everything else) at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, or Lot 49's deconstruction of the mystery formula), and it would also account for such arbitrary but surprisingly unfunny character names as Trillium Fortnight, Scott Oof, Mickey Wolfmann, etc. Surely the namer of Benny Profane and Tyrone Slothrop (not to mention movie mogul Genghis Cohen) could've done better than this.

All the same, Inherent Vice doesn't disappoint me too much--probably because my expectations were not particularly high. Early reviewers, as I recall, dubbed this novel 'Pynchon lite' and thought they were paying it a compliment. Here at last, crowed the literate middlebrows, is a Pynchon novel that doesn't force its readers to work too hard, that doesn't ask us to (heaven forfend!) think deeply about its meanings. Even the book's deepest level, its simultaneous criticism of and elegiac nostalgia for the southern California of the late Sixties, is merely a more explicit statement of ideas implicit in Pynchon's other books. The whole of Pynchon's oeuvre since Lot 49 is, if read carefully, a highly critical meditation on America during and after the 1960's. Inherent Vice is a superior beach book, a thoughtful, occasionally funny genre novel. It's OK, but TP is capable of much, much more than just 'OK.' If I were asked to recommend one novel that would demonstrate why I consider Pynchon one of the best novelists writing today, that book would not be Inherent Vice.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Henry James's late style pulls an exact reversal on the rhetoric of Realism. Where realistic writers of his day focused on creating a believable representation of the material world outside the text (contra Derrida, il existe), James takes great metaphorical pains to render emotions, ideas and psychological states physically palpable. At the same time, the material world his characters inhabit slips into relative ineffability. Consider, for example, how Lewis Lambert Strether's nominal progenitor, Honore 'pseudo-de' Balzac, would have handled the Jamesianly delicate matter of the product manufactured in the Newsome family factories. James pointedly refuses to name the vulgar item. Balzac would've brazenly named it, minutely described it, and included a capsule history of its various methods of manufacture. Zola would've given us a guided tour of the Woollett factory and a glimpse at the degraded lives of its exploited workers. Dreiser would've blathered on for unreadable pages about the product and its production. For James, by this late date in his career, the object at the base of the book's fortune becomes a mini-McGuffin. He tantalizes his readers for a few pages early in the book, repeats the performance near its end, but permanently withholds the fundamental realist act of naming the object, specifying it. The "product of Woollett" is a deliberately empty sign, a signifier without a signified, and it cannot be coincidental that this null signifier 'represents' a commercial product. Strether's refusal of signification is a Jamesian judgment on the null products of capitalism, a judgment delivered--and James surely intends this irony--from the Olympian heights of Mount Capital, where Strether lives comfortably off the proceeds from the product he cannot name. The emptiness of this sign also indicts every one of James's carefully chosen words with a similar emptiness. In other words, this passage is a site for deconstructing the Jamesian text. But that's no big deal. Late James is full of such places. Indeed, the late style might be said to be built around a series of "subjects for silence."

The phrase "a subject for silence" appears in book one, chapter two of The Ambassadors, immediately after a passage in which the uncharacteristically gossipy narrator has been anything but silent on the subject of Waymarsh's unspeakable wife. (A character who might have been central to this novel, had it been written by Edith Wharton.) Tellingly, the narrator leaves Strether's own 'subject for silence' much more vague. This 'subject' seems not to be the deaths of Strether's wife and son, for that subject enters his consciousness on more than one occasion over the novel's course. No, Strether's unspeakable thing is something else, something much more deeply repressed, some truly unmentionable (and thus unmentioned) subject that functions as the figure in The Ambassadors' carpet. And as in that great short story, the authorial suppression of the signified opens a gap into which interpreters can foolishly rush, dragging their fashionable hermeneutics behind them. Out of these strategic Jamesian nothingnesses might be magically fashioned (in roughly chronological order): an exquisitely Aesthetic James, a New Critically paradoxical James, a dialectically Marxist James, a Deconstructively aporistic James, a closeted and coded Gay James, and last but surely not least, a flamboyantly Queer Henry. All of these interpretations have something valuable to offer. James's works are large enough to contain these multitudes. But before applying any of them to the blanks in James's texts, we should ask a Sontagian question: does this interpretation do anything more than reductively allegorize a deliberately complex text? And a more difficult question: What would a truly non-reductive interpretation of James look like? (My hunch: It would look like James's text, leaving us back where we began. All interpretation is reduction. So let's get to work on that 'erotics of art.')

Something interestingly opposite to these empty signifiers occurs in book two when Strether sits in the Tuileries Garden and gazes toward the Louvre:

The palace was gone, Strether remembered the palace; and when he gazed into the irremediable void of its site the historic sense in him might have been freely at play--the play under which in Paris indeed it so often winces like a touched nerve.

The old Tuileries Palace, left a gutted shell after the suppression of the Commune and finally demolished by a republican government's desire to erase the monarchist/imperial past, is a signified without a signifier, a meaning without a word. The meanings the palace connotes are brought to Strether's mind not by the building's presence but by its absence. Is James here giving the reader a direction for reading The Ambassadors? Pay attention to the blanks in this text, he seems to say, read the silences.

In book three, James writes the reader into his text in the guise of a Strether "at sea" in Miss Barrace's conversation:

...but he was in fact so often at sea that his sense of the range of reference was merely general and that he on several occasions guessed and interpreted only to doubt. He wondered what they meant, but there were things he scarce thought they could be supposed to mean, and 'Oh no - not that!' was at the end of most of his ventures.

This passage foregrounds the hermeneutic difficulty of the book and demonstrates that James knows exactly what he's doing, that the difficulty of the late work (and The Ambassadors is probably the least difficult of the late books) is entirely deliberate. My supposition is that James developed the late style by retreating inward in the face of commercial failure and by exaggerating those aspects of his style that critics most often derided. It's as though he's flinging this style in the faces of his critics, saying, "So you think I'm a mandarin? Well I'll show you a mandarin..." While I admire this stance and respect the late style, I find it exceptionally difficult to love. Oscar Wilde famously remarked that "Henry James writes fiction as though it were a painful duty," and Wilde was speaking before the late works appeared in all their obscure, convoluted glory. For me, too much of The Ambassadors feels like a painful duty. Late James is more pleasant to write about than to read.

So I'll write about one more passage that knocks me out. Sarah Pocock's parting shot to Strether at the end of book ten is likened to a phallic arrow penetrating the feminized/Europeanized man:

...the manner of her break, the sharp shaft of her rejoinder, had an intensity by which Strether was at first kept in arrest. She had let fly at him as from a stretched cord, and it took him a minute to recover from the sense of being pierced.

Note that James, like a good Symbolist, suppresses the literal name of the figured object (that refusal to name, yet again!), allowing "sharp shaft," "let fly," "stretched cord" and "pierced" to add up to "arrow" in the reader's mind. It's an image of great, self-deconstructing complexity--and not only in the gender reversal. The echt-American Mrs. Pocock is, at her most typically and unforgivingly American moment, implicitly figured as Diana the Huntress, a European goddess. Thus do the Old World roots of the New World confound any attempts at strict demarcation. (An alternative reading of the image might see Sarah Pocock figured as an American Indian warrior shooting her arrow, a reading that collapses the civilization/savagery dichotomy so important to early American literature. This line of thought also reminds me of early (Euro-)American painter Benjamin West's legendary remark upon first encountering the Apollo Belvedere: "How like a young Mohawk brave!" The Atlantic is a highly porous border.)

To end with a brief digression on The Naughty Names of Henry James. I'm hardly the first to wonder what the hell was going on in Henry's noggin when he created character names like Barrace (bare ass), Pocock (enough said), and that piece de resistance of naughty naming, The Golden Bowl's Fanny Assingham, a triple entendre surely signifying a butt bigger than Battersea. What's up with this? Is the repressed sexual content of the novels expressing itself in the arbitrary names of secondary characters? This censored sexuality does expresses itself similarly elsewhere in the text: during Strether's first meeting with Chad, he's impressed by the heir's "massive young manhood," a double entendre guaranteed to induce giggles.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fourteen Undeservedly Overlooked Books

In response to David Foster Wallace's 1999 list (included in my previous post), here's my list of fourteen books that deserve to be much more widely known and read:
  1. Downriver by Iain Sinclair
  2. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. Selected Essays by John Berger
  4. A Cool Million by Nathanael West
  5. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes
  6. Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot
  7. Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch
  8. On The Yard by Malcolm Braly
  9. All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry
  10. Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano
  11. Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard
  12. Inwardness and Existence by Walter A. Davis
  13. The Mad Man by Samuel Delany
  14. The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos

Downriver is one of the greatest London novels of the 20th century, a vast, surreal, dystopic document of the Thatcher years. Autumn of the Patriarch, unfortunately overshadowed by the more popular Solitude and Cholera, is Gabo's prose masterpiece. John Berger's essays are beautiful, evocative examples of the best kind of leftist criticism--the kind that values art over dogma. A Cool Million is a delightful 'Horatio Alger Goes to Hell' story set against the background of the 1930s wacko far right (eerily similar to the 2010 wacko far right...) Camera Lucida is a provocative theory of art disguised as an extended essay on photography. Diderot's Jacques is far superior to his Rameau's Nephew; it's the French Don Quixote AND the French Tristram Shandy (and it's more readable than either of its precursors). Frisch's Man in the Holocene is an unforgettable study of modern anxiety and alienation, comparable Sartre's Nausea and Camus' The Stranger. Malcolm Braly's On The Yard may be the greatest American prison novel ever written; it's also a late classic of American Modernism. All My Friends is Larry McMurtry's best contemporary novel and has an amazing, unforgettable ending. The three volumes of Galeano's Memory of Fire are a masterpiece of poetic historical writing. The Bernhard novella may be the finest book ever written that takes place entirely inside an art museum. Davis's Inwardness and Existence, a major work of philosophy first published in 1989, has yet to receive the attention it deserves (although the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has been influenced by it). Delany is best known as a writer of classic 60s and 70s science fiction, but he hasn't written SF for years now; Mad Man is probably the raunchiest literary novel ever written; it makes most other supposedly 'transgressive' fictions look decidedly tame. John Dos Passos, a giant of American Modernism, seems to have slipped almost entirely into oblivion by now (and Thomas Wolfe probably isn't far behind); the titanic Modernist energy of Dos Passos' USA is lacking in contemporary American literature, which is more akin to the rearrangement of deck chairs on our cultural Titanic.


In April 1999, Salon magazine published David Foster Wallace's list of "five direly underappreciated U.S. novels since 1960." His selections (in chronological order):

  1. Omensetter's Luck by William H. Gass
  2. Steps by Jerzy Kosinski
  3. Angels by Denis Johnson
  4. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  5. Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson

I haven't read the Markson and Johnson books (but I probably will, and soon), and McCarthy's Blood Meridian is by now a widely acknowledged modern classic--a fact that surely owes more to Harold Bloom's endorsement than to DFW's--so I'll limit my comments to the first two books on Wallace's list.

Steps is a remarkable work of fiction. Of the three books by Kosinski that are still worth reading (The Painted Bird and Being There are the others), it's probably the best and certainly the most original. (Although his last book, the almost unknown Hermit of 69th Street, has a great deal of formal originality.) Over the past 30 years, Kosinski's reputation has suffered from tales of plagiarism (perhaps true), unacknowledged collaboration on novels attributed to Kosinski alone (absolutely true; the young and then unknown Paul Auster was one of K's 'assistants' and writes about the experience in his memoir Hand to Mouth), and even a smear campaign directed by the old Polish Communist Party. None of this changes the fact that Steps is one of the most bizarre, surreal, original, horrifying works in all of American literature. Anyone who hasn't read it should definitely check it out.

My praise of Omensetter's Luck is considerably more qualified. While I consider Gass one of America's best essayists and most eminent prose stylists, I've always found his fiction fatally uneven. There are some stunningly beautiful passages in Omensetter's Luck, there are many gorgeous sentences, and the book's second section, "The Love and Sorrow of Henry Pimber," reads like the work of a Sherwood Anderson who has been deeply influenced by James Joyce, but for me the novel goes seriously off the rails when Gass turns his narration over to the consciousness of Rev. Jethro Furber. The bad reverend's interior monologue is too much under the shadow of the "Proteus" section of Joyce's Ulysses, and Gass's little book is swamped by the implicit comparison. Omensetter's Luck is a beautiful book, yes, but it's not nearly so great as Gass wants it to be.

Note added Sept. 30, 2010: I have now read Angels and Wittgenstein's Mistress. My rave about the former and my parody of the latter can be read in later posts on this blog.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


The essays of William Gass are required reading for anyone interested in American writing. Irrespective of subject matter, Gass's essays are so well written that they can be re-read multiple times solely for the beauty of their prose. (Agreement with the often irascible author is not required.) This puts The Alliterative B.H.G. (his nom de rap) in rarefied company indeed: Bacon, Browne, Johnson, De Quincey, Emerson, Ruskin, Pater (limiting ourselves to pre-Modernist Englishers). I could easily spend the length of this post gassing on about Gass's writings. I could discuss, for example, how the form and content of his essays tune a reader's consciousness to appreciate the internal architecture of sentences, thus altering the way we read. I could encourage, persuade, hector, browbeat you until you run off to the nearest good library or bookstore and obtain a copy of Fiction and the Figures of Life, because if you haven't read it, you have no idea how beautiful and boisterous and reckless and rambunctious and witty and wise and pithy and pointed essayistic prose can be. But it's probably best to let Gass's words speak for themselves. So here are a few quotes from this first of his six volumes of collected essays:

The soul, we must remember, is the philosopher's invention, as thrilling a creation as, for instance, Madame Bovary. So I really should point out, though I shall say little more about it, that fiction is far more important to philosophy than the other way round. However, the novelist can learn more from the philosopher, who has been lying longer; for novelizing is a comparatively new, unpolished thing. Though philosophers have written the deeper poetry, traditionally philosophy has drawn to it the inartistic and the inarticulate, those of too mechanical a mind to move theirs smoothly, those too serious to see, and too fanatical to feel. All about us, now, the dull and dunce-eyed stool themselves to study corners.
--(From "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction")

It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smooth sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes. Still, we cannot be too simple at the start, since the obvious is often the unobserved. Occasionally we should allow the trite to tease us into thought, for such old friends, the cliches in our life, are the only strangers we can know. It seems incredible, the ease with which we sink through books quite out of sight, pass clamorous pages into soundless dreams. That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years, the fears...from sponge.
--(From "The Medium of Fiction"; for a possible source of Gass's image, see Tommaso Landolfi's tale "Gogol's Wife")

Although no one wonders, of a painted peach, whether the tree it grew on was watered properly, we are happily witness, week after week, to further examination of Hamlet or Madame Bovary, quite as if they were real. And they are so serious, so learned, so certain--so laughable--these ladies and gentlemen. Ah well, it's merely energy which might otherwise elucidate the Trinity.
--(From "The Medium of Fiction"; it must be said that contemporary social historians of art probably have wondered about the agricultural conditions of Cezanne's Provence)

The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility, so that while you read you are that patient pool or cataract of concepts which the author has constructed; and though at first it might seem as if the richness of life had been replaced by something less so--senseless noises, abstract meanings, mere shadows of worldly employment--yet the new self with which fine fiction and good poetry should provide you is as wide as the mind is, and musicked deep with feeling.
--(From "The Medium of Fiction")

Characters in fiction are mostly empty canvas. I have known many who have passed through their stories without noses, or heads to hold them; others have lacked bodies altogether, exercised no natural functions, possessed some thoughts, a few emotions, but no psychologies, and apparently made love without the necessary organs.
--(From "The Concept of Character in Fiction")

It is the principle function of popular culture--though hardly its avowed purpose--to keep men from understanding what is happening to them, for social unrest would surely follow, and who knows what outbursts of revenge and rage. War, work, poverty, disease, religion: these, in the past, have kept men's minds full, small, and careful. Religion gave men hope who otherwise could have none. Even a mechanical rabbit can make the greyhounds run.
--(From "Even if, by All the Oxen in the World"; the phenomena Gass warns against in this essay written decades ago--one of the greatest of all polemics against soi-disant 'popular culture'--have now succeeded beyond his nightmares, rendering his certainty about social unrest retrospectively naive; the rise of Sarah Palin is but one of the consequences of the cultural Triumph of Ignorance)

We live in ruins, in bombed-out shells, in the basements of our buildings. In important ways, we are all mad. You don't believe it? This company, community, this state, our land, is normal? Healthy, is it? Laing has observed that normal healthy men have killed perhaps one hundred million of their fellow normal healthy men in the last fifty years.
Nudists get used to nakedness. We get used to murder.
--(From "The Artist and Society")

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


George Saintsbury's classic A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912), one of the books James Joyce referred to while writing the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter of Ulysses, can be read online free of charge by clicking here. Thanks to for making this available, since the book is hard-to-find, relatively expensive, and an interesting artifact of an age when scholars wrote prose rather than technocratic jargon, an age long since lost down the dark backward and abysm of tenure. Consider this: two of the greatest prose styles in late 19th-century Britain belonged to a pair of mutually antagonistic academics, Ruskin and Pater. A century earlier, one of the best styles was commanded by a historian, Gibbon. What historian today commands a style as powerful as Gibbon's, what art critic writes a prose as beautiful as Pater's, what cultural critic one as magisterial as Ruskin's? Where has it gone, the prose of yesteryear?