The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destruction after many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being a fact among others.
—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (via sunrec)
The fog was lifting, the homefield very green after the overnight drizzle. The sheep had got into the homefield; nobody bothered to chase them out. There were a few bluebottles at the window. I felt a little queasy after the immoderate consumption of cakes and chicory-coffee. Admittedly I hadn’t managed to finish even the litre and a half the woman had brought me at the first go; but what would she have expected of me if I had emptied the coffeepot twice, as she expected—three litres in all!
There was a bed in the room, certainly, but that was the only piece of furniture there: no utensils or other fittings or articles. Was it the intention that a visitor who had taken three litres of that coffee should use the bed itself, like an infant? Upon closer examination, there was in the corner a rusty washstand of the kind much sought after by folk museums, and that I’m told are still to be found in dwellings in England. It is the kind of stand that accommodates a washbasin, ewer, and soap dish. There is some brownish water in the ewer. Has this water perhaps been used before for washing? How often? Had previous visitors used the ewer for other purposes, after drinking three litres of coffee last winter while the doors of the house were nailed up?
A ragged towel hung from a nail in the middle of the wall; it reminded me of a work of art, albeit highly abstruse, by Duchamp. It gives rise to some baffling riddles. Why this paltry object, so frayed and tattered, given such obvious prominence that one could say it dominates the whole room? Is one to understand this shrieking towel as a gambit directed at myself—a symbol?
I mustn’t forget to mention that the room had been thoroughly scrubbed the day before from top to bottom, scrubbed with powerful washing soda, undoubtedly, which produced a stench of putrefaction very like that of cows’ urine. This stink now mingled with another nasty smell, of rotting wood and musty earth from the turf wall behind the paneling. To this was added the smell of bluebottles, curiously strong but in some way not nearly so offensive as the smell of many a vertebrate. I forgot to mention that I found it quite impossible to open the window last night before I went to bed. How these plump and powerful bluebottles had got in was a mystery to me. One thing was certain—they couldn’t get out again; but perhaps this wasn’t the intention anyway. Was it conceivable that these flies had been fetched in here when the scrubbing had finished? And if so, for what purpose? Were they there as substitutes for art in the house? Or decoration? Were they there instead of goldfish or canaries? Perhaps both. Pictorial art is a delusion of the eye, whereas flies are living ornaments and much more lively than flowers, what’s more, because flowers are languid in their movements and keep silent.
Even goldfish are silent, but the bluebottle is the poor man’s canary, endowed with a singing voice that awakens memories in the minds of visitors. The bluebottles remind the undersigned of the sunshine of childhood, but they also create moral problems that need to be resolved but that have not to my knowledge been fully resolved by moral philosophers and World Teachers. This is the dilemma I have now reached at Glacier. I ask:
1) Is it morally right to kill flies, taking all things into consideration?
2) Although it may in certain circumstances be excusable, for instance if flies are proved to be carrying disease into the house, is it still morally right for a guest to kill these creatures? Would it not be comparable to killing the host’s dog?
Ancient of Days- William Blake (1794)
Recently, I’ve been picking up a lot of the NYRB Classics editions, trying to find some good work by authors I’ve never read, and probably never heard of. These tend to be lesser-known novels with big critical reputations; my understanding is most of these books are out of print (though I saw they published Dead Souls recently—?). I love the covers: sophisticated while simple, evocative, consistent, and above all, very un-graphic designer-y. Another big selling point for me is these tend to be shorter works (I did purchase Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which charts at like 1600 pages, so ‘tend’ is the key word), and because I have the misfortune of living in San Francisco just a little while longer, where I commute on an extremely loud, extremely not-really-even-standing-room bus, I don’t really have too many solid block of time where concentration and space really allow me to absorb long, difficult work, without feeling cheated, or like I am cheating the book.
O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a digestible 150 pages.
After finishing the novel, I felt very little for it one way or the other. It has a kind of Cameron Crowe feeling to it, the coming of age story: narrator is born to silver screen stars, both stars fade, mother is an emotional train-wreck, father is a slowly sinking ship, narrator lives with mother, friends, and finally his father. He grows up.
In his introduction, Seamus Heaney really tries to sell it as an Irish novel written by an American.
Darcy O’Brien will really make [the reader] think of Joyce. Or of Flann O’Brien. Or of what Joyce said of Flann O’Brien: “That’s a real writer. With the true comic spirit”
While the writing is nice enough, it’s funny in a few places, the novel comes off as a Hollywood grotesque, and lacks any kind of center. The narrator is pretty traceless, I couldn’t really tell you much about him other than he hates his mother, pities his father (you know, just like the reader is supposed to, and if you try to resist, boy, O’Brien will get you to feel how he wants with some pretty heavy handed incidents), likes being rich, and doesn’t seem to identify women as, shall I say, human— did I mention he hates his mother? He actually seems to hate women in general. And worst of all, it seems that he feels nothing about any of it. The character has no inner life, outside very knee-jerk, bold stroked feelings. Indeed, the reader seems set up as a kind of yolk for the empty shell to sort of fill in the substance, and provide their own motivation (Well, reader, wouldn’t you do the same thing?). We do not see the narrator struggle. In fact, there is so little movement within the character, that the novel has the strange effect of moving along the years of adolescence as if they were days of the same week, as if almost no time had passed at all. The phrase ‘This really works, but for all the wrong reasons,’ seems to apply here, and maybe that is the best way to sum up the experience of reading the book. Heaney has it right, it’s a lot like Joyce, but only if you go no deeper than: Memoir and fiction intermingled, Young man, Catholic going places, seeing people, things happen, time passes. Comparing this It reads like one might watch an engrossing, pseudo-intellectual, bad film (Avatar), it sort of passes in daze, but within that daze, one cannot look away from the screen, which is why it’s a daze. If that makes sense. It’s only after finishing it, does one realize…wait… I had major fucking issues with that.
An obvious problem, which I touched on above, is the narrator/main character/author/reader stand-in. He’s not interesting, he has no personality, he feels nothing outside of one dimension, he thinks at about the same level. There is a lack of interpretation in his interactions, or the instances that he witnesses. The novel would have been much better served if it followed his parents, which in its strongest points it already does, except that we have been imbedded in the kid/narrator’s POV, so when he is not around his parents for half the book, neither or we, and I found my mind wandering, wondering what his mother and father were up to.
Every woman in this book is portrayed as a disposable, brainless, slut. And if O’Brien grants them any more character development, he places them somewhere on the scale between batty to totally unhinged. O’Brien clearly had some unresolved issues with women, and with his own sexual frustrations. Meanwhile the men are either high-fiving each other after taking turns screwing them, or sad, pitiful, and broken martyrs because they’ve been hurt by a woman, and desperately want them back. O’Brien wants it both ways. To have a character think this way is fine, for them believe that women fit into these cartoonish, misguided, sexist, sad extremes is fine.
To actually confirm their beliefs again and again within the text, to offer no counter point anywhere comes off as petty, creepy, and weird.
The Russian sculptor was only five foot two, but I overheard Maggie say to mother that he was supposed to be the best lay in Hollywood, much as it was said of a certain actor that he had the biggest dick in Hollywood.
During a particularly troublesome period, Mother took me aside and confided that under the circumstances she was finding it difficult “to have orgasm.”…
"He’s a pig," she said. "I think he has Tartar blood."
"I’m sorry," I said.
"He’s at me day and night. What does he expect?"
"It must be very difficult for you."
At the table Anatol was in an expansive mood. He kept putting things down Laverne’s dress. She was attractive but she had one bad tooth in front. Dot was better…She undressed me next to Pan and Syrinx and asked me if I would like her to do that to me. I said sure. She did her best but it was coldblooded.
Alice had the biggest tits at Beverly Hills High. They were so big she had to have a custom made bra. She wasn’t very tall and she was skinny everywhere else, so her tits looked even bigger. She had absolutely spectacular jugs. Jerry had been dying to get his hands on them ever since he had first seen her walking across campus in a sweater jiggling to beat the band…last night he made it, bare titty from Alice Arbeiter at the drive-in movie. There was a rumor that she was a prude but he had found out differently. He had her tits out before the intermission, and they didn’t even sag at all…she went wild when he kissed them…they were so big and full that the light from the movie actually reflected on them…She had actually balanced a coke on them. But she wouldn’t let him into her pants.
Then on the same page, just after the page-long repeTITive description (trimmed down by like 50% above), comes this gem.
Linda went out with guys from UCLA and was probably humping every one of them.
One thinks, no, of course this is an over reaction, a teenage assumption that the author won’t ever confirm. Then the narrator gets a letter from Linda regarding a trip through Europe she is taking, and how many dudes she is fucking about with! It’s just ridiculous.
In Copenhagen…she had met an athletic archaeology student who…was very masculine but had long hands like a woman and she had not been able to resist them…In Vienna, an American diplomat…who was nervous but sweet…and at the Hapsburg palace she had let him put his hand under her skirt…There were these four Princeton boys traveling across Europe…one was heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. They had finally got off alone together and…she went back to his hotel room. She couldn’t remember ever being so hot. She would have done anything…In Paris, she got drunk at a place that had bread in the shape of penises and she had a date and they took a crazy bath together.
What the fuck? I would think that this was made up, a fantasy imagined by the narrator if this kind of stuff wasn’t EVERYWHERE in the novel.
Mr. Caliban had lent his new girlfriend to Jerry…Tanya was every bit as sensational as Jerry had described. It was too bad she couldn’t act, she had star quality.
We were driving through Banning in the yellow Mercury…Jerry was doing ninety.
"Hit a hundred, Jerry, and I’ll come," Tanya said. "I swear I will." He did. Tanya moved her bottom around and I craned to get a look. Her dress slid up her legs "I came, I swear I did. God, you’re a great driver." She put her head in Jerry’s lap and made cheetah noises…In about two miles Jerry cried "Shee-it!" and Tayna asked for his handkerchief.
Get real. If you want to read a great Hollywood novel, read West’s The Day of the Locust.
Been away for awhile working on some other things. Here’s a section from Robert Walser’s The Robber where he talks about coffee, and its greatness in general.
I don’t have any use for milk. Milk I don’t care a whit about. Someone who tries to force milk on me will only annoy me. People should leave me in peace with their milk. I don’t have so much as half a cent’s understanding for it. Pour coffee in my mouth, that’s how to win me over. Coffee enjoys with me unceasing respect, even, yes, I’ll say it loud and bold, a special fondness. I don’t like it when people sneak around behind my back. But if someone sneaks behind me in the noble and friendly intention of providing me with coffee, he can keep his eye on me all year long as piercingly as he likes. If someone refuses to speak highly of coffee in my presence and insists on praising milk, my disagreement with him will be such as to qualify nearly as wrath. Milk is, in my eyes, as dispensable a substance as coffee is indispensable. Away with milk, it simply doesn’t taste good to me, but give me coffee any day, for it’s delicious.
Demetrius Burl (1866-1913)
It was now evening and I came to a quiet, pretty path or side road which ran under trees, toward the lake, and here the walk ended. In a forest of alders, at the water’s edge, a school for boys and girls had assembled and the parson or teacher was giving instruction in botany and the observation of nature, here in the midst of nature, at nightfall. As I walked slowly onward, two human figures arose in my mind. Perhaps because of a certain general weariness, I thought of a beautiful girl, and of how alone I was in the wide world, and that this could be not quite right. Self-reproof touched me from behind my back and stood before me in my way, and I had to struggle hard. Certain evil memories took control of me. Self accusations made my heart deeply and suddenly a burden to me. Flowers meanwhile I searched for and picked all around me, partly in the little forest, partly in the fields. Gently and softly it began to rain, whereupon the delicate countryside became even more delicate and still. It seemed to me that tears fell, and while I was gathering flowers I listened to the soft weeping which rustled down upon the leaves. Warm, gentle summer rain, how sweet you are! “Why am I picking flowers here?” I asked myself, and looked down pensively to the ground, and the delicate rain increased my pensiveness till it became sorrow. Old, long-past failures occurred to me, disloyalty, hatred, scorn, falsity, cunning, anger, and many violent unbeautiful actions. Uncontrolled passion, wild desire, and how I had hurt people sometimes, and done wrong. Like a packed stage of scenes from a drama my past life opened to me, and I was seized with astonishment at my countless frailties, at all unfriendliness and lovelessness which I had caused people to feel. Then there came before my eyes the second figure, and suddenly I saw again the poor, weary old forsaken man whom I had seen a few days before, lying on the ground in the forest, and he looked up, so pitiful, deathly and pale, lamentable, so sorrowful and weary to death, that the sad sight of him had terrified me and choked my soul. This weary man I now saw in my mind’s eye, and a feeling of weakness took hold of me. I felt the need to lie down somewhere, and since a friendly, cozy little place by the lakeside was nearby, I made myself comfortable, somewhat tired as I was, on the soft ground under the artless branches of a tree. As I looked at earth and air and sky the melancholy unquestioning thought came to me that I was a poor prisoner between heaven and earth, that all men were miserably imprisoned in this way, that for all men there was only the one dark path into the other world, the path down into the pit, into the earth, that there was no other way into the other world than that which led through the grave. “So then everything, everything, all this rich life, the friendly, thoughtful colors, this delight, this joy and pleasure in life, all these human meaning, family, friend, and beloved, this bright tender air full of divinely beautiful images, houses of fathers, houses of mothers, and dear gentle roads, must one day pass away and die, the high sun, the moon, and the hearts and eyes of men.” For a long time I thought of this, and asked those people whom perhaps I might have injured to forgive me. For a long time I lay there in unclear thought, until I remembered the girl again, who was so beautiful and fresh with youth, and had such soft, good, pure eyes. I vividly imagined how charming was her childish, pretty mouth, how pretty her cheeks, and how with its melodious sweetness her bodily form enchanted me, how I had asked her a question a while ago, how in her doubt and disbelief her lovely eyes had looked away, and how she had said no when I asked her if she believed in my sincere love, affection, surrender, and tenderness. The situation had obliged her to travel, and she had gone away. Perhaps I would still have had time to convince her that I meant well with her, that her dear person was important to me, and that I had many beautiful reasons for wanting to make her happy, and thus myself happy also; but I had thought no more of it, and she went away. Why then the flowers? “Did I pick flowers to lay them upon my sorrow?” I asked myself, and the flowers fell out of my hand. I had risen up, to go home; for it was late now, and everything was dark.
Just like in Moby Dick and The Gospel of John, in the beginning there is only that voice. I am an invisible man. That phrase puts into motion the creation of a vivid, often nightmarish world of this novel– the Invisible Man’s life story, and ends where it begins, in a underground, metaphysical world inhabited by a man both terrified of and resigned to, a world that exists and passes like a dream he cannot control, and rather, as it often seems with nightmares, a dream that controls the dreamer. The introduction is truly dazzling, the 1,369 bulbs with which the Invisible Man has made his basement full of light serves the obvious, biblical beginning purpose as well as a tool of self-vitalization, as long as he is stealing energy, he is alive, he is asserting his aliveness, and also, the light drives away the darkness, in which he would return to his horrible dream, the horrible dream of living. The beginning of this book is very strange, and very memorable. It sticks out at first, as one reads through the rest of the book, as a section that was clearly written separately from the rest of the novel, meant in some way to stand alone, to justify itself by itself. It is known that Ellison wrote it first and very quickly as a kind of homage to Notes from Underground. Things move in a sort of dream time, with very evocative, somnambulant imagery through a bit of marijuana smoke. The book mellows into a pretty straightforward structure (like Moby Dick and The New Testament), before falling off into a bleak, apocalyptic fever dream ending (like Moby Dick and The New Testament), that suddenly puts the structure of the book into perspective, and makes the weird, metaphysical beginning seem a totally believable status quo to follow the novel’s nightmarish end. In the beginning, the narrator describes the world’s movement as a boomerang, and by the end, he has made good on his claim.
I don’t really shock easily, at times the violence in Blood Meridian (1985) was a lot to handle, I found Kosinski’s Steps (1968) made me very uncomfortable more often than not, and Gravity’s Rainbow (1974)can get a bit full on at times, but mostly in a humorous, if not cartoonist way (Harold Bloom must be correct in his estimation, by the way, that Pynchon was enraptured by Ellison’s opening scene enough to pay tribute to the 1,369 constantly burning light bulbs with his Byron the Bulb in GR). Invisible Man consistently shocked me in 2012. I cannot imagine what this must have been like to read in 1952, sixty years ago, pre-civil rights, pre-television (let alone the ultra-violent, numbing, television of today), pre-postmoderism, pre-Lolita. When put in that context, when viewed through that lens, one can only begin to appreciate how brave a novel this was and is, how insanely large Ellison’s balls were and are. What disturbed me was how real the shocking parts felt, how human and true I knew they were. This is what makes the novel such a great work of art–– it is confrontational. It confronts the deep brutality and beautiful resilience of the self, the human character, the soul. Chapter one includes a Battle between the young black men of the narrator’s home town for an audience of the white, male elite, after a white woman dances naked in front of them. There are tragic instances of incest, where a man sleeps with his daughter next to his wife, and the daughter has the father’s child. There is a white woman acting out rape fantasies through the narrator. People burn to death, the police shoot a man essentially just for being black. Yes, the narrator is used as a symbol and exploited by the other characters again and again to promote or accomplish various goals and objectives, therefore he is invisible because people refuse to see him, but he is hardly alone. There are countless examples of white exploiting black, and, more tragically, and perhaps more bravely, of black people exploiting black people. Again, this book is incredibly courageous. Read it.
I came out of the subway, weak, moving through the heat as though I carried a heavy stone, the weight of a mountain on my shoulders. My new shoes hurt my feet. Now, moving through the crowds along 125th Street, I was painfully aware of other men dressed like boys, and of girls in dark exotic-colored stockings, their costumes surreal variations of downtown styles. They’d been there all along, but somehow I’d missed them. I’d missed them even when my work had been most successful. They went outside the groove of history, and it was my job to get them in, all of them. I looked into the design of their faces, hardly a one that was unlike someone I’d known down South. Forgotten names sang through my head like forgotten scenes in dreams. I moved with the crowd, the sweat pouring off me, listening to grinding roar of traffic, the growing sound of a record shop loudspeaker blaring a languid blues. I stopped. Was this all that would be recorded? Was this the only true history of the times, a mood blared by trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums, a song with turgid, inadequate words? My mind flowed. It was as though in this short block I was forced to walk past everyone I’d ever known and no one would smile or call my name. No one fixed me in his eyes. I walked in feverish isolation. Near the corner now a couple of boys darted out of the Five and Ten with handfuls of candy, dropping them along the walks as they ran with a man right behind. They came toward me, pumping past, and I killed an impulse to trip the man and was confused all the more when an old woman standing further along threw out her leg and swung a heavy bag. The man went down, sliding across the walk as she shook her head in triumph. A pressure of guilt came over me. I stood on the edge of the walk watching the crowd threatening to attack the man until a policemen appeared and dispersed them. And although I knew no one man could do much about it, I felt responsible. All our work had been very little, no great change had been made. And it was all my fault. I’d been so fascinated by the motion that I’d forgotten to measure what it was bringing forth. I’d been asleep, dreaming. (p. 443-444)