Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lara Glenum, _Maximum Gaga_

HER SECOND, FROM two years ago. My question as I began reading was, will this be as strange, beautiful, and scary as The Hounds of No? Answer: stranger, more beautiful, scarier.

Glenum puts me in mind of... wait for it... Seamus Heaney. Actually, they have next to nothing in common, but they both love a line full of nice chewy consonants. Heaney, from the title poem his first book, Death of a Naturalist:

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew in clotted water
In the shade of the banks.

And Glenum's "Crash Site," in its entirety:

Dribbling figgity
among cream-slammed oinkers

the Normopath's piglicker

crushes into ham canyon.

Or should we say Glenum is Finnegans Wake without those sweet seductive long vowels?

Anyway, Glenum's a naturalist, too, we might say, a student of the body. In the first section of Maximum Gaga, we witness the development of a biologically intense relationship between Minky Momo and Mino --

My ratty lingua
sound like the snapping
of flightbones
and you do a cunning runtalingus
to the sucking noises
of my blowhole victrola

--which is witnessed by the Normopath (one whose normality is a kind of disease?). Minky Momo seems almost utterly given over to the experience, but she is also intent on holding to her heritage and identity ( "I come from a long line of female seers who had visions of the Barbie-Christ").

The second section of the book seems to be a drama staged for Minky Momo's benefit & edification by Mino, with the collusion, I suspect, of the Normopath. (On p. 9, Mino tells Minky Momo to identify with "Vamp No. 7," who appears on p. 72.)

The drama is not really describable, but I'm going to go with calling it a Jarry-esque feminist version of the myth of Minos, Pasiphaë, the divine white bull from the sea, and the artificial cow created by Daedalus so that Pasiphaë could copulate with the bull.

Minos has become "Minus," Daedalus "Ded," Icarus "Icky," and Pasiphaë "Queen Naked Mole Rat," or usually just "the Queen." In Glenum's version, though, it is not Pasiphaë's uncontrollable lust that compels her into the engine designed to exaggerate all aspects of female animality -- that is, the cow -- but the men, eager for spectacle, anxious for confirmation of their own role as masters of reason and technical accomplishment.

Glenum's Queen is not the cartoon of the myth. She's aware, cagy, also to some extent compromised, but able to teach Minky Momo much more than Mino suspects.

The Visual Mercenaries, a kind of chorus, deliver a "proclamation" that includes the volume's title:

How to rectify this, o dog of language? How to rectify your losses at the hands of your own tongue? Run headlong into Maximum Gaga! Run, now that your own poor words have been crammed back into your torso like guinea pig carcasses & greasy red clouds, now that you face certain doom from all quarters! Seek sanctuary in Maximum Gaga!

So Maximum Gaga is... the white bull from Poseidon? God? The Transcendental Signified? The Panopticon? In any case, you'd obviously be better off seeking sanctuary anywhere else.

Glenum notes in her acknowledgments at book's end that it "paraphrases or appropriates the work of Mary Russo, Delueze & Guattari, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard in certain places." No kidding. Simulacra and bodies without organs abound. But what, no Lacan? (Actually, p. 92 seems more than a little Lacanian to me.)

An amazing book, I think. I read it at one sitting -- it was that compelling, that inventive, surprises on every page. I wonder if any fans of the pop singer will be misled by the title and pick this up... and what might ensue? More visions of the Barbie-Christ?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wells Tower, _Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned_

MUCH-BUZZED, AND deservingly so in this instance; Tower is a talented writer and one to watch. The writing is controlled and witty, the observations of human, especially male, foibles acute.

Which led me to wonder -- would it be fair to say that male writers of literary fiction born later than, let's say, 1960 more or less internalized the second-wave feminist critique of American masculinity as a kind of psychopathology?

Here, as in much else, David Foster Wallace led the way with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Either Lambert brother in Franzen's Corrections could serve as an example. The men in the fiction of Gary Lutz and Ben Marcus often seem wholly alienated from their own emotions, and unnerving as Jane Dark in Marcus's Notable American Women is, one scarcely doubts that the father needs to remain deeply buried in the back yard. On the somewhat more popular front, there's Fight Club. It's as if they all rolled up some Gilligan/Dworkin/MacKinnon in the late 70s/early 80s and deeply, deeply inhaled.

This development seems like and unlike the recent Hollywood guy-movies à la Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, The Hangover, in that those films also seem to have internalized the second-wave critique of masculinity, with the important difference that the films juggle the situations so as to do their best to make the male characters, despite their psychopathology, play out as likeable and lovable. Nothing so redemptive goes on in Wallace, Lutz, or Marcus.

Or in Tower. The point-of-view characters in "Retreat," "Down through the Valley," and "On the Show" are game enough to make an effort to get out of their self-excavated holes, but we see enough to know they too are going to stay buried in the backyard, probably a good thing for everyone.

The final story, which lends the volume its title, is unique in that all the other stories are straight realism while "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" adopts the elaborate conceit of lending a medieval Viking raider the speech of an ordinary contemporary American suburban Joe (or Jason or Jordan or Josh). An ingenious way to make the same point the other, more conventional stories make: what separates the historic forms of male pillage, rapine, and arrogance from the new? Not much.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mark Levine, _Enola Gay_

HIS SECOND, FROM ten years ago. Somewhat lower voltage than Debt, I thought, as though Levine had in the meantime encountered something of ample power to chasten and subdue. A pleasurable read, all the same.

The jacket copy suggests that Wallace Stevens hovers in the background of the book, but I was more reminded of Hart Crane. The combination of ornate but orthodox syntax with bend-y, startling, left-field semantic juxtapositions occurs in both Crane and Stevens, but Levine's forays in this direction made me think more often Hart than of Wallace. Here's Crane:

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

Levine likely would have avoided "slain," and the exclamation points, but he too loves to blend the syntactically clear with the semantically opaque:

I called on the orange
tab to rid me of this shawl, its heaviness.
Its contamination. Its need to be bundled
into silence and tramped with shears
among the skewed roots of industrial hair.

Can one terrace an echo? Can an encyclical be oval? How could an orange tab rid one of a shawl, and why would a shawl need to be tramped with shears? If you're a Crane-ite, as I am, or a Levine-ite, as I may yet become, the music of the poem persuades that such propositions are right and inevitable.

What I was most reminded of, though, was Eliot's "Marina." There's a recurring landscape in Enola Gay, a place of rock, shore, forest, and mist, of salt water and sand, the landscape of "Marina." A crucial difference is that in Eliot's poem some unfathomable blessing has occurred, while in Levine's something unspecified has gone badly amiss, or will soon ("And the stars began to fall, and though everybody is waiting / for a terrible surprise, it hasn't come yet, not just yet"). Yet there is no elegy or lament here, but a kind of stoic, clamped-jaw acceptance, a grim satisfaction in knowing the worst and dispensing with self-delusion.

"Forgetfulness" in particular seems to evoke "Marina," but the landscape and the boat seem to encode guilt rather than redemption:

Beware the dark sea.
What does darkness look like? What does it mean?
My bark is thinking of me, my unhappy bark

is balancing on its hook in the shaken sea
shrinking and sinking and blinking and thinking of the
distant blank blue hills. Where are my tall trees?

But is the landscape meant to evoke not Eliot's New England seacoast, but Japan? Is that why the book and its longest poem are named after the airplane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima --? But why does that very poem bring in clam-bakes and Jew's harps (an allusion to Eliot's Yankee anti-Semitism?) and end by landing us in "downtown Sumer"?

Well, I'm sufficiently intrigued. On to The Wilds.

One doesn't hear Hart Crane mentioned as often as he deserves to be. What's up with that?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Charles Dickens, _The Old Curiosity Shop_

AT THE RISK of being tiresome about William Logan's review of Against the Day, I note his parenthetical observation, "no one has ever wept over the death of a Pynchon character the way thousands wept over Little Nell." Coincidentally, I was reading the Dickens novel in which Little Nell figures, The Old Curiosity Shop, over the same weeks in which I was reading the last 700 pages or so of Against the Day. While I'm glad to have finally gotten around to The Old Curiosity Shop -- I haven't read any other pre-Copperfield Dickens -- I'd have to say Against the Day was a more captivating read, really.

Logan writes that Pynchon's sentence rhythms are those of Dickens, and that Pynchon resembles Dickens in other ways as well: "These are almost the rhythms of Dickens, whose freakish surplus of characters, juddering episodic plots, and teary sentiment Pynchon half imitates, though in each case with a nearly lethal dose of irony." Then there are the amazing names, of course.

It's those "lethal doses of irony," I suppose, that prevent our weeping at the death of a Pynchon character? So is Logan suggesting Dickens's teary sentimentality has the saving grace of having made people cry once upon a time? Is he sneering at Dickens's sentimentality and at the same time sneering at Pynchon for not trafficking in it? A classic Loganism.

I found Nell difficult to appreciate it, actually -- I couldn't quite manage Esther Summerson, either, for that matter. Bleak House is in a lot of way Dickens's best work, but the Esther half of it I found barely readable. Nell and Esther are just too Victorian picture post-card for me, and just about anyone this side of 1914, I suspect. So, no, I did not weep.

Then there's the fact that I knew going in she would die -- Little Nell is famous for dying, after all. Her death most have come as a shock for the novel's first readers, of course -- quite daring, really, of Dickens to not provide the usual happy ending.

Dick Swiveller, though -- there's the Dickens I love.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

_Against the Day_ (IV)

THE TITLE CAN be taken in at least three ways. For one, the novel participates in the same neo-Zoroastrian children-of-light vs. children-of-darkness opposition that figures often in Pynchon, so one may say the novel is about those who are making war on the day. (The principal child of darkness, Scarsdale Vibe, has the best Pynchonian villain-name since Brock Vond.) Second, the resistance, the children-of-light, are in a confrontation with the hegemonic powers, with things-as-they-are, so they are "against the day" in the sense of opposing the prevailing temper of their times. ("'Sometimes,' said Virgil, 'I like to lose myself in reveries of when the land was free, before it got hijacked by capitalist Christer Republicans for their long-term evil purposes...'." Amen.)

Third, we have the idea of providing for the future, anticipating some eventuality, preparations. The novel insists that the 20th century we had was not the one we had to have, that unrealized hopes did not go unrealized because they were impossible, unattainable -- that we need to remain loyal to those hopes, to keep imagining another world is possible. This is uncharacteristically sunny stuff from Mr. Entropy, and William Logan in the VQR got a bit snarky about it -- "The final pages of the novel offer a frazzled sentimental tale of coupling and growing old" -- but I'm old enough or long-coupled enough to have found these pages convincing, even moving. I was moved by this, for instance, the birth of Yashmeen Halfcourt's & Reef Traverse's daughter:

The baby was born during the rose harvest, in the early morning with the women already back from the fields, born into a fragrance untampered with by the heat of the sun. From the very first moment her eyes were enormously given to all the world around her. What Cyprian had imagined as terrifying, at best disgusting, proved instead to be irresistible, he and Reef to either side of the ancient bed, each holding one of Yashmeen's hands as she rose to meet the waves of pain, despite the muttering women who plainly wanted the two men elsewhere. Hell, preferably.

I witnessed the births of both my daughters, and I would say that Pynchon got something absolutely right here. (My daughters were not born during rose harvests, but even that seems utterly spot on.) That bit about the eyes... perfect.

Or take this subjunctive-mood vision of happily-ever-after he conjures up for Kit Traverse and Dahlia Rideout:

May we imagine for them a vector, passing through the invisible, the "imaginary," the unimaginable, carrying them safely into this postwar Paris where the taxis, battered veterans of the mythic Marne, now carry only lovers and cheerful drunks, and music which cannot be marched to goes on uninterrupted all night, in the bars and the bals musettes for the dancers who will always be there, and nights will be dark enough for whatever visions must transpire across them, no longer to be broken into by light displaced from Hell, and the difficulties they find are no more productive of evil than the opening and closing of too many doors, or of too few. A vector through the night into a morning of hosed pavements, birds heard everywhere but unseen, bakery smells, filtered green light, a courtyard still in shade...

Yes, in twenty years the Wehrmacht will be marching into this paradisal Paris -- but we need to keep contemplating that music that cannot be marched to -- it too goes on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

_Against the Day_ (III)

I DID NOT read Against the Day with the slack-jawed wonder at its thematic architecture that I felt in reading Gravity's Rainbow way back when, more than thirty years ago. How much of that is simply due to my own aging? Would I be agog at the complexity of Gravity's Rainbow if I read it now, would I have been astonished by Against the Day had I read it at 25?

No way to answer that, is there?

At the same time, I don't remember being much smitten with the prose style of Gravity's Rainbow. It seemed a convincing pastiche of several pulp-fiction styles of the 1940s and 1950s to me, but neither comely nor graceful, hardly to be savored for its own sake. The pastiche of 18th century prose in Mason & Dixon, however, I often found myself relishing, probably simply because I found the source of the pastiche congenial.

And now -- I don't know whether Pynchon learned a few tricks following the subtle volutes of Gibbon and Johnson or what, but I think the prose of Against the Day is frequently gorgeous. Pynchon is still a pasticheur -- a master, the master pasticheur of our time, greatest since Beerbohm perhaps -- and the source of the pastiche is an unpromising territory bounded by H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, Robert Louis Stevenson, "Frank Richards," and a touch of Zane Grey whenever we're in Colorado. But even while indulging in the winding circumlocutions of turn-of-the-20th-century adventure prose, Pynchon can sound great.

She dreamed, the night she knew for certain, of a hunter arrived at last, a trainer of desert eagles, to unmask against her soul the predatory descent that would seize her, fetch her away, fetch her back, held fast in talons of communion, blood, destiny, to be plucked off the defective Riemann sphere she had been taking for everything that was, and borne in some nearly vertical angle of ascent into realms of eternal wind, to hover at altitude that made the Eurasian continent a map of itself, above the glimmering of the rivers, the peaks of snow, the Tian Shan and Lake Baikal and the great inextinguishable taiga. (891)

"Lake Baikal and the great inextinguishable taiga." Sigh. All right, I know, not for everybody, awfully high in cholesterol compared to, say, Beckett. But one or another Pynchon sentence walks across some such Niagara on a tightrope on almost every page of Against the Day. The prose had me slack-jawed this time.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

_Against the Day_ (II)

BACK IN THE 1970s when I was reading Gravity's Rainbow, it seemed like a lot of other people were as well, or had already read it, or were planning to. When Vineland arrived, I knew at least a few people who read it. I knew one other person beside myself who read Mason & Dixon. So far, no one else in my circle of acquaintance has mentioned taking up Against the Day.

"What's that you're reading there?"
"Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day."
"Whew! Good luck!"

Well, reviews were mixed. And the length is intimidating.

This era of the blog post, the YouTube clip, and the Tweet seems wholly unpropitious for the large-scale 800-1000-page novel -- yet they keep popping over the horizon: Against the Day, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, Joshua Cohen's Witz, and a new one by William Vollmann every six months. Who is reading these? Are even the reviewers reading them (see Jack Green's Fire the Bastards!)?

There is an Against the Day readers website -- , part of a larger Pynchon website -- with acres of helpful annotations and indices, so obviously the book has its devotees, length notwithstanding.

I recall that my daughters were not dismayed as the later volumes in the Harry Potter series grew longer and longer -- if you're reading the book just for the sheer pleasure of reading it, more is better, perhaps, as three scoops of ice cream are better than two. Likewise, Stephen King's readers seem not at all put off by the length of The Stand, say.

But -- when a book is reputed to be complex, ambitious, intellectual, important, and so on, and it clocks in at, say, 1,087 pages, even serious lit folks (e.g., my faculty colleagues) will probably give it a pass.

Yet writers still read them, publishers still publish them... someone is reading them, in some Anti-Terra inaccessible to me.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thomas Pynchon, _Against the Day_ (I)

I BEGAN READING this in January of 2007, a few months after it came out. I got about two hundred pages in, found it interesting enough, but somehow it got to the bottom of the pile, drifted into "dormant" status on my reading list. May 2008, back at it, got another hundred pages further, then the same thing happened. May 2009, another hundred pages and... same thing.

Some time in 2009 I read William Logan's utterly Loganesque takedown of _Against the Day_ in VQR and very nearly lost heart. Did I really want to commit to completing my reading of a nearly 1100-page novel that, if Logan was right, was mainly a self-indulgent, exhausted jumble?

But second thoughts arrived. What, am I taking my cues from William Logan now? Surely things haven't come to that. So, May 2010, back to it -- basically, a hour a day. And I finished today.

And I can certainly say I enjoyed it. Then again, I enjoyed Mason & Dixon while I was reading it, but later found almost nothing of it had stuck with me. The opening section, when M. & D. are in South Africa for the Transit of Venus, seems to me one of the best things Pynchon has ever done, and the account of the changeover to the Gregorian calendar in England was echt Pynchonian, but the rest of it just evaporated, basically. So will Against the Day linger in my mind, or not?

This will have to be continued, I see.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, _Game Change_

A PAGE TURNER, certainly -- hard to put down -- a hybrid of Balzac and _People_ magazine, let's say. As in the _Comédie Humaine_, the fates of nations turn on personalities, temperaments, alliances, betrayals, feuds, and who is sleeping with whom and who knows -- which sounds like _People_ magazine already (or Suetonius), but Balzac has a sense of history and conception of the whole of French society, while _People_ does not -- and _Game Change_ certainly does not.

Heilemann and Halperin certainly knew whom to talk to, and who would be willing to talk -- the whole book is the insiders' view. The view is so far inside that there is no outside, really. The United States and all its messy differences and dilemmas enter the book only when reacting to this leak or that gaffe or some zinger in a televised debate, some lowball TV spot.

As an academic, somewhere I picked up the idea that history is about classes, conflicts, consciousness, dialectic... now and then, a new idea, an emergent possibility... all of that is wholly and utterly absent from _Game Change_. Everything comes down to who said what to whom on the campaign plane, If this book is _the_ story of the 2008 campaign, as its popularity suggests it is, then history is basically _Grey's Anatomy_, with really high stakes.

Obviously there are better analyses out there. But if _New Left Review_ were on hand at your dentist's office, would you pick it up? Or would you rather know what John Edwards's campaign staff was saying about the real Elizabeth?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Heather Christle, _The Difficult Farm_

"PEOPLE LIKE SURPRISES," the poet declares in the first line of "Television," and if you like surprises, as I do, you will delight in The Difficult Farm, as I did. Hardly a sentence, a strophe, or a poem resolves in the way one's half-formed expectations thought it was likely to:

Because my head is a magnet for bullets
I am spending the day indoors. First

I admired the topiary for several hours
and when my eyes began to ache I rang

for lunch. Lunch arrived with injunctions.
I considered my feet. I did not consider

my altitude.

That is the beginning of "One of Several Talking Men," and a few of the poem do seem to be in covert dialogue with various male writers of fiction: Hemingway (wounded and in the hospital) in that poem and in "Wilderness with Two Men," Donald Bartheleme (the fourth of the "Five Poems for America"), Ben Marcus ("Stroking my Head with my Deception Stick"). Certain Presidents also get called in for a brief talking-to: "Come in, Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Adams, / Mr. Didn't-Feel-Obligated-to-Wear-Any-Pants. / Where are your bustling wives?" (That is, Eleanor, Abigail, and, erm, Hilary?).

A few busy, accomplished women enter the picture as well: Florence Nightingale, "the infamous Sarah Morgan, who moved / to town one summer, but never arrived / at school, despite the exquisite sharpness / of the pencils we had readied in hopes / of dazzling our unfamiliar friend," Mother Nature ("Dear nasty pregnant forest. / You are so hot! / You are environmentally significant. / Men love to hang themselves / from your standard old growth trees"), and the poet's mother, despite the difficulty of writing about her ("It is difficult, a good poetry concerning my mother").

If the Delphic oracle ever started doing stand-up, she might sound like Heather Christle.

Keep up the good work, Octopus Books.