Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, December 31, 2012

Gore Vidal, _Point to Point Navigation_

THE LIBRARY OF America is planning a Vidal volume, surely? I suggest there should be at least three.  One volume for the essays, of course, to me his greatest achievement--United States plus The Last Empire and the later pieces. One for a selection of the novels--which were not so consistently strong as to justify republishing all of them, as they did for James and Faulkner and intend to do for Roth, but imagine a collection including The Judgement of Paris (the first novel in which Vidal sounds like Vidal), Burr (the best of the American history cycle, animated by Vidal's intuitive understanding of the founding fathers), Julian (Vidal the classicist at his feistiest), Myra Breckinridge (Vidal as gender/sexuality provocateur), and Two Sisters (not so famous as the others, but every key strand of Vidal is braided into this short novel).

For the third volume, let's have the autobiographically-inflected books--Palimpsest, Screening History, and this one.

Point to Point Navigation is subtitled "A Memoir, 1964-2006," suggesting it is a continuation of Palimpsest, and at times it almost is, but it is less a narrative of those years (which would have been amazing to have, for Vidal's accounts of his encounters with Buckley, Mailer, and Midge Decter, or of his California senatorial campaign, or his correspondence with Timothy McVeigh) than a tour of the contents of Vidal's capacious mind, circa 2005, conducted in the episodic fashion suggested by the title.

A lot of it is about the dead--dead friends, dead enemies, dead frenemies (e.g., Tennessee Williams), dead loved ones, especially his grandfather, his father, and Howard Auster/Austen, Vidal's longtime partner.  ("Partner" is a word Vidal handles with tongs--despite The City and the Pillar and "Pink Star and Yellow Triangle," he was never the spokesman the gay activist community thought it wanted--had he been, he might be on more syllabi now.) Quite a bit of it is about what the authors of books about him got wrong or, occasionally, right. Quite a few of the book's stories he has told before--as he himself  notes.

His last book, in effect--Snapshots in History's Glare is technically the last, I guess, but witty as its captions are, it is not a book in quite the sense that Point to Point Navigation is.  What a voice Vidal's prose had--the last of a kind, one would say, except that he was always one of a kind.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Julian Gough, _Jude: Level One_

THE BLURBS ON my copy compare Gough to Flann O'Brien and J. P. Donleavy, which comparisons I am guessing are meant to convey that he is male, Irish, and funny. He reminds me less of those two writers, though, than he does of a certain 1960s-ish vein of anarchic satire--Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Southern, Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!--in his gleeful embrace of implausibilities and impossibilities as it skewers every pomposity that hoves into view.

Á la Rasselas or Candide, we follow a naïve, likeable, and luckless young man on a picaresque journey from Tipperary to Galway to Dublin (later installments will take him, I gather, to England and then to the United States), in the course of which he gets a series of upsetting (but hilarious) lessons in the idols of this world--wealth, power, love--in the peculiar manifestations they took on in Ireland during the real-estate bubble years of the mid-1990s.

Some familiarity with Ireland will help the reader, such as knowing about such personalities as Eamonn de Valera and Charles Haughey, and such entities as the Irish Times and Fianna Fail. It will help, as well, to be able to recognize the contours of Irish nationalist ideology, for Jude: Level 1is as incisively funny about that animal as are Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore and (going way back) Denis Johnston's The Old Lady Says No.

It may all be a little too Irish for many, but I laughed out loud a good dozen times reading this--and it takes a lot to get me to laugh out loud.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

More mystifying pronouncements from the NYTRB

MY ANNOYANCE AT Martin Amis had not entirely dissipated when the Thomas Mallon review of Tom Wolfe's latest (NYTBR, October 28) began this way: "Tom Wolfe's move from the New Journalism to fiction writing, undertaken a quarter century ago, now seems on a par with Babe Ruth's shift from the pitcher's mound to the regular batting order."

Pardon me--it seems nothing remotely of the kind. Ruth abandoned pitching, something at which he was quite good but not extraordinary, and became one of the very greatest--arguably the greatest--hitter in the history of baseball.

For this analogy to work, Wolfe has to be, as a novelist, on a par with Tolstoy or Proust.  He is not even on a par with John Updike. John O'Hara, perhaps. Perhaps not.  Too close to call.

To say nothing of Mr. Mallon's grave disservice to Wolfe's earlier work. I still meet 20-somethings who have read or plan to read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and you know what?  They should read it.  Better that than yet another volume of Bukowski. Its status as a classic, like that of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is peculiar but secure.  Ditto for Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Right Stuff, "The Last American Hero," "The Me Decade," the pieces on Hugh Hefner, Marshall McLuhan, Phil Spector...anyone hoping to understand the American 1960s has to read Tom Wolfe. This amounts to Babe Ruth's pitching career?  Please.

The novels?  No one has to read or ever will have to read the novels. A Man in Full was a bit less interesting than the only moderately interesting Bonfire of the Vanities, and I decided a short ways into I Am Charlotte Simmons that I was not going to bite the baited hook next time.  Excuse me, I think I am going to go enjoy that description in The Right Stuff of landing a plane on an aircraft carrier one more time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Martin Amis, "The Shock of the New"

I HAVE DEVOTED more time than I should have to trying to parse the final paragraph of Amis back-page essay for the September 2 New York Times Book Review.  His ostensible subject: the 5oth anniversary of Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.  He concluded so:

In his 1973 book on Joyce, “Joysprick,” Burgess made a provocative distinction between what he calls the “A” novelist and the “B” novelist: the A novelist is interested in plot, character and psychological insight, whereas the B novelist is interested, above all, in the play of words. The most famous B novel is “Finnegans Wake,” which Nabokov aptly described as “a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room.” The B novel, as a genre, is now utterly defunct; and “A Clockwork Orange” may be its only long-term survivor. It is a book that can still be read with steady pleasure, continuous amusement and — at times — incredulous admiration. Anthony Burgess, then, is not “a minor B novelist,” as he described himself; he is the only B novelist. I think he would have settled for that.

The B novel is defunct? I have to presume Amis is aware of the work of Harry Matthews, Paul Auster, Anne Carson, Ben Marcus, Tom McCarthy, Selah Saterstrom, Blake Butler, Miranda Mellis, Laird Hunt, and quite a few others, so he must be saying that even though such novels are being written, they somehow do not count. 

And if A Clockwork Orange is the only B novel that still "survives," among the non-survivors, apparently, are the entire oeuvres of Samuel Beckett, William Gaddis, Thomas Bernhard, David Markson, David Foster Wallace...not to mention Woolf, Joyce, and even, as I reckon things, Amis's  beloved Nabokov.

So he can't really be saying that, can he?

Or is he just a thick idiot?

I suspect that the only Amis novels with half a shot at intriguing posterity are precisely those in which he most nearly approaches "B"-ness: London Fields, perhaps Success or Money. I think he may end up his generation's Wyndham Lewis--there are always going to be people (including myself, to be honest) drawn to his distinctive style, bristling and envenomed, but there's just not enough oxygen in his (or Lewis's) novels for anyone to read them for any other reason.  And here he is pissing all over the Bs. Who does he think he is?

Well, he thinks he's Martin Amis, obviously.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

César Aira, _Ghosts_

WHO REMEMBERS THOSE wonderful little Avon paperbacks of the South American Boom years--those ubiquitous copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands, Infante's Inferno, and so many others, with their surreal cover paintings in jungle-bloom colors?  I don't even know whether the imprint is still active--seems like years since I've seen one anywhere but in used book stores. But what a debt we owe it.

All praise as well to New Directions for making it possible for us monolingual norteños to have some idea of the riches of contemporary Latin American writing--Bolaño, Evelio's The Armies which I read just a few weeks ago, and this, translated by the apparently indefatigable Chris Andrews, a Gregory Rabassa de nos jours.

Ghosts inhabits the liminal.  Set at twilight on New Year's Eve (when one year is ending and another beginning), at a nearly-finished apartment building (about to cease being a construction site and become a place of residence), with Chilean characters working in Argentina, some recently engaged or pregnant (not yet but about to become wives, mothers), Ghosts is above all about the gauzy, permeable borderlands between the living and the dead.

Patri, a teenaged girl, gradually absorbs the largest part of our attention, as she is trying to decide whether she wants to be in the world of the living or the world of the dead. As a perfectly ordinary family New Year's celebration circulates around her, with food, drink, conversation, eventually fireworks, we realize the momentous goings-on that can occupy a young person's mind while nothing is going on around her. Patri's choice took me by surprise, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Evelio Rosero, _The Armies_

ON THE NOVEL'S first page, a retired teacher gathering fruit from the trees in his back yard takes advantage of the occasion to peek over the wall at the woman who lives next door, who is sunbathing nude in her garden. The serpent will always find its way into Eden, we may conclude, and just so do narco-guerrillas, the paramilitaries trying to destroy the narco-guerrillas, and the national army find their way to the teacher's Macondo-like town, storming, raping, killing, kidnapping, to the point where there is no saying which army constitutes the greatest danger, the worst plague.

It cannot be easy for Colombian novelists to escape the shade cast by the rainforest canopy that is GGM; Rosero deals with it by conjuring up an utterly Marquez-ian village and its villagers and then letting in the most demonic elements of contemporary Colombia to visit unshirted, unredeemable hell upon them.  Not that Garcia Marquez concealed or shied away from cruelty or violence or suffering--but in Rosero, the cruelty and violence and suffering fill the sky, inescapable.

Who will protect these people from the people that are supposedly protecting them? No one, so far as we can see.  I hope things in Colombia are not actually this bad, but they may well be even worse.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Claire Tomalin, _Jane Austen: A LIfe_

I HAD ATTEMPTED an Austen biography or two before this, but had found myself bogged down in chronicles of the cousinage or minute accounts of life in Hampshire circa 1780.  Doesn't Austen, of all people, deserve an intelligent, shapely biography capable of nuanced distinction between what we care about and what we do not?  Turns out there is one--Tomalin's.  Tomalin knows everything a biographer needs to know about the cousins and about Hampshire, but knows how to get through it swiftly, amusingly, and illuminatingly. She has a novelist's instinct for character. She is conscientious about signaling what we can know and what we can only guess.  Above all, she gives Austen's intelligence and achievement their full due.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Per Petterson, _I Curse the River of Time_

 THERE IS NO sad like the Scandinavian sad. Soren Kierkegaard, Ibsen and Strindberg, Knut Hamsun, Ingmar Bergman...all that hard, clear light that illuminates every detail yet brings so little warmth. Yes, Henning Mankell and the dragon tattoo guy have detected capacities for ultraviolence and hate crime under the stoic endurance, the low expectations, the habit of disappointment, but even so....  How much of our Midwestern taciturnity, our evasion of confrontation, our willingness to put up with being overlooked, our repeated failure to rise to the emotional occasion comes down to our own iteration of the Scandinavian Sad, established as our regional ground tone by the immigrations of the last half of the 19th century?

Per Petterson does sad here not quite as memorably as he did in Out Stealing Horses, but still convincingly.  It is 1989.  In the 1970s, Arvid, our narrator, threw over his university scholarship and its ticket into the professional class to get a factory job and become a Communist Party organizer. But now the Berlin Wall has just come down, so that choice is looking like a dead end.  His wife, several years younger, who as a teenager found his Maoist politics exciting, is preparing to divorce him.  Their two daughters love singing Beatles songs in the car with him, but their days of doing that are numbered. His mother is dying.

Most of the novel is about Arvid's trying to reach some kind of understanding or closure with his mother, but he has no knack at all for bringing this about. As we learn from a variety of flashbacks, he is a person who never quite hits the right note in any human interaction.  He means well, he has deep and true feelings, he loves his mother and his family and his party, but he seems wholly without the necessary instincts. He recalls showing up at his mother's birthday party, prepared to make an eloquent speech in tribute to her, but instead getting drunk, finding he had left the notes for his speech somewhere else, nonetheless clinking his glass for attention and rising to deliver what turned out to be a woefully inadequate speech. He sat down, apologizing to someone he had taken to be his uncle--

    "Sorry," I whispered, "I don't think that went very well."
    "No, it didn't," he said.  "But next time I'm sure it will be better."
    I turned to look at him.  Suddenly I couldn't recall the last time I saw him, or if I ever had seen him.
    "You're my uncle, aren't you?" I said.
    "No," he said, "but that's all right."

Arvid would make a kind of poignant comic relief in most novels, or in a play by Chekhov. Here, he's the center of things, and his inability to express what he feels seems like a tragedy.  In the novel's final paragraph, he tells us, "I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it."  He fills his mouth with pieces of straw and chews them ("they were hard and sharp and cut my tongue") and sits, "waiting for my mother to stand up and come to me."

There is no sad like Scandinavian sad.

Friday, August 10, 2012

William Deresiewicz, _A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter_

WHEN I ENCOUNTER the name of WIlliam Deresiewicz at the top of a book review, I perk up and expect something lively, incisive, and perspicacious. I don't always agree with his conclusions, but I know he will get to them in a way that will both delight and instruct.

Deresiewicz does not mince words. This is from a review of several recent books on higher education:

You’d think departments would respond to the Somme-like conditions they’re sending out their newly minted PhDs to face by cutting down the size of their graduate programs. If demand drops, supply should drop to meet it. In fact, many departments are doing the opposite, the job market be damned. More important is maintaining the flow of labor to their domestic sweatshops, the pipeline of graduate students who staff discussion sections and teach introductory and service courses like freshman composition and first-year calculus. 

When he feels he needs to, he'll get out the saber. After a well-developed and a well-informed discussion of the most recent novel by of Javier Marias, he lets go with this:

There is one problem, however, and like the novel itself, it is not a small one. For all its intellect and erudition, and despite its occasional flashes of feeling, Your Face Tomorrow is an incredibly boring book. A crushingly, demoralizingly boring book. My overwhelming emotion, as I read it, was one of an immense, hopeless, enraged sadness, at what the author was putting me through. The first two volumes were largely a heavy slog from one oasis of incident or interest to the next, through deserts of Deza's interminable reflection. The final one was a death march to the finish.

So, when I saw this in the book store last year, I thought--Deresiewicz and Austen, can't miss, love 'em both. But...

...as the subtitle suggests, the book is a kind of memoir-through-Austen, covering Deresiewicz's grad school years up to the time he meets the woman he will marry, making the case that studying Austen's novels during those years made him a better person: less selfish, more attentive, more generous in spirit, grounded in better values, more prepared to love and be loved. 

In making this case, he of course has to mind his ethos, and sound like the reasonable, considerate, willing-to-be-amiable person Austen has led him to become. There's the rub. Reasonable, considerate, and willing-to-be-amiable is not exactly Deresiewicz's wheelhouse. For all I know, in "real true life," as my daughters used to say, William Deresiewicz is a sweetheart, a perfect host, a walking ray of sunshine--but in his reviews, he's not. As I read this often wonderful, charming, and insightful book, I kept thinking, "Who are you, and what have you done with William Deresiewicz?"

After all, Austen was far from gentle herself. As a diagnostician of shallowness, hypocrisy, vanity, selfishness, oafishness, you name it, she can hardly be surpassed. But it's as if Deresiewicz decided he had to be on his best behavior throughout, except when talking about what a jerk he was in his pre-Austen days. Then he's like a born-again going on and on about how depraved he was before he found the Lord. You don't quite buy it.

Mildly disappointing, then, I guess. Worthwhile, though. And likably old-fashioned. Deresiewicz isn't much interested in unmasking ideologies, or pointing out slavery in the background of Mansfield Park, or paralleling Marianne Dashwood and masturbating girls, or anything remotely academically fashionable. The book's premise is that Austen is smarter than we are, and we can learn a lot from her. He's putting the Author back on the pedestal authors were tumbled from at the dawn of theory. I don't expect many academic critics will be following his example, but for what it's worth, I too think that Austen is smarter than we are, and that we can learn a lot from her.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tony Tost, _Complex Sleep_

I PICKED THIS up after enjoying Invisible Bride, but it has taken me a while to get to it (it was published all the way back in 2007)--and who would have guessed that it would seem perfectly congruent with Jacques Rancière, who I was reading at the same time. Mute Speech, as I was laboring to explain yesterday, is partly about the struggle to figure out what the "literary" is after the eclipse of belles lettres (genre, decorum, rhetoric) in the early 19th century, a local instance of the struggle being the figuring out of what "poetry" was after the eclipse of traditional versification. One answer, Rancière writes, was Artaud's, who in correspondence with NRF editor Jacques Rivière (who had turned down Artaud's poems) argued that the poetry of Artaud's poetry was not in the poems, exactly, but in the peculiarly constituted sensibility that created them. Artaud's poems were poetry because Artaud had written them...in a way.

In the longest poem in the volume Complex Sleep, titled "Complex Sleep", Tost writes (sorry about bollixing his spacing, can't be helped):

I am ideological necessity : according to such and such a set of
the poem can no longer justify its existence  ergo it should have
                                 ergo it is dead
                        ergo it is death
                                 ergo it is me.  I am an obituary :
      a site where dying is reported and performed.  I am entirely
by this art walk. I am going to be the best part of this feeling
                       that we're not trying to manage the afterlife
but letting it happen all by itself. I am produced.  I am too old for
             I an attack on art have become art myself :
                      flop.         flop.         flop.

"I an attack on art have become art myself" -- could Antonin himself have said it better? A perfect take on one of the more striking points in Mute Speech...

...made all the sweeter by knowing that  "Complex Sleep" is the product of a procedure by which Tost collaborates with the aleatory. He began with a variety of sentences from a variety of sources (e.g., the Beatles, Guided by Voices, Ronald Johnson, himself), then subtly or radically transmuted each sentence, then (!) sorted the sentences by alphabetical order, then added line breaks and spacing.

So the many brilliant passages (like, I submit, the one quoted) of "Complex Sleep" have everything to do with Tost's sensibility, but none of them could have been wholly foreseen in the process of composition. In the passage quoted, we are in the "I" section, which by virtue of alphabetical order becomes an artist's confession; we will later hit a "She" section, where we seem to be getting an extraordinarily nuanced psychological portrait of a complex woman, having already hit "A" and "An"
sections that recalled Whitmanian catalogues, and "As" and "For" sections that seemed to draw almost liturgically on the figure of the anaphora.

"Complex Sleep" the poem occupies about a third of Complex Sleep the volume and is the strongest thing in it, but the other seven poems offer their own pleasures. As the title poem benefits from the examples of Stein (in its transmutation of sentences) and of Cage and Ashbery (in its embrace of the aleatory), "Imaginary Synonyms" and "Timeless" deploy a move I associate with Jorie Graham and Ron Silliman (say, Demo to Ink) in which individual lines sometimes seem enjambed, forming part of a continuously unfolding thought, while at the same time, in a wave-or-particle? way, to be autonomous, free-standing, at most politely acknowledging their adjacent neighboring lines.

Stein, Cage, Ashbery, Silliman, Graham...derivative, do you say?  No.  I say, the good guys are winning. Tost never really sounds like anyone else, although he sometimes uses recognizable procedures. The procedures are as buried in the poems as Euclid is in Wyndham Lewis's portraits.  "Can we hear / the chance operations // equations summoning / precision." We do hear them, faintly, throughout Complex Sleep, but the main impression is of the uncanny riches of the precision thus produced.

"Squint" even suggests that Tost would have made a skillful metrist, back in the belle-lettristic day; each of its lines arranges four highly scannable phrases, creating the old English iambic music but in a 21st century way.

And then there is "An Emperor's Nostalgia," a suite of love poems that is just plain hauntingly lovely:

holy work of
our hereabouts

our harmony is
the pines

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rancière, _Mute Speech_, part two

ONE MORE COMPLAINT about this Columbia University Press edition: no index?  What's with that?  No bibliography, either.

OK, let's see whether I can do this argument any kind of justice. First, Rancière sees a shift, as the eighteenth century moves into the nineteenth, from the literary being representational and mimetic to being expressive; the work does not reflect its subject so much as it embodies, incarnates it.  Subject, in early modernity, dictated literary genre; each genre had its own decorum; the great object of literature was to say true things well. With the shift, the idea that the topic dictates following certain conventions, that some topics are worthy and some not, evaporates. The work does not re-present a phenomenon so much as it becomes a presentation itself, mysteriously faithful to the quiddity of the phenomenon.

Out of this, the idea that literature is "mute speech": losing its old affinity with rhetoric and oratory, it says what it has to say in ways other than saying it. Rather than plainly speaking its meaning, it makes that meaning manifest. Furthermore, phenomena themselves have "mute speech"; the landscape speaks, folk culture speaks, the cultivated field speaks, the urban street speaks, but not in audible conventional language. The literary text re-creates the non-linguistic utterance of the phenomenon in its own particular carefully crafted language (even though, ironically, this special language is at bottom the same language that we use for conversation and commerce--it has to be wrought upon in some way).

One consequence: all subjects are now OK. Another: the novel, the genre that is not one (the one whose conventions and traditions are vaguest, most malleable), becomes the indispensable genre. A third: kinds of writing we think of as inflexibly opposed, the autotelic and inward (the evanescent, self-absorbed symbolist poem) and the utterly externalized novel-as-document (brutal, burly naturalism) share a root-system.  Both go back to the jettisoning of genre, both attempt to re-create rather than simply mirror. The projects of Mallarmé and Zola have more in common with each other, shall we say, than either's has with those of Corneille or Voltaire.

A fourth: as poetry was the art that other arts took as exemplary in the 17th and 18th century, music (or ballet) is the exemplary art of the 19th.  Music is "mute speech"--expressive, but not by means of explicit referentiality. Meaningful, but unparaphraseable. It utters, but does not speak.

(It seemed to me odd that Rancière fails to quote Pater's "School of Giorgione" on this point--"All art constantly aspires to the condition of music." For that matter, he also neglects to note that the Rivière-Artaud correspondence, to which he devotes a few pages, was brilliantly discussed in an essay by Samuel Delany, in ways quite congruent to R.'s argument. Sometimes it seems, does it not, that the French basically ignore us?)

With the vanishing of genre, decorum, and all the rhetorical baggage of belles lettres at the dawn of romanticism, the question becomes: if we have concluded that literariness does not reside in genre, decorum, etc., in what does it reside? Hegel, as Rancière sees it, decided that literature was basically over and done with, but the bulk of Rancière's book is about how a succession of great writers from Balzac to Proust framed and responded to this question. The question was never settled once and for all, but the attempts generated some of the pinnacles of world literature. I found this approach to literary history novel, persuasive, and exciting.

It would be tricky to show how this same process worked it way out in Anglo-Hiberno-American lit, whose history is bushier, crankier, more loaded with dead ends and excrescences, but I could see someone smarter and less lazy than I doing it. Rancière's argument applies uncannily well to Yeats, for instance, who both militantly insisted on the autonomy of the poetic imagination yet also wished to articulate the spirit of the Irish nationalist struggle; for R., this seemingly self-contradictory dual aspiration was bound to appear once literature sought to become "mute speech."

The argument also could help make sense of 20th century American poetry. Once Pound, Eliot, Whitman, H.D. (okay, and Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and many other less dazzling lights) gave iambic pentameter the heave-ho in the early years of the century--once versification, that is, was no longer what made poetry poetry--they thereby opened the enormous question of what does make poetry poetry. In the enormous spectrum of answers to that question, we have the enormous spectrum of 20th century American poetry, from Creeley and Oppen and Silliman and O'Hara and Moxley to Lowell and Bishop and Merrill and Graham and, God bless her, Gjertrud Schnackenberg--an extraordinary plenitude. Once poetry is no longer a courtier, depending on mastery of certain presentation skills and sharing an understanding of what the king will be willing to listen to, what is it? Weakened in many ways, but stronger in some ways as well.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Jacques Rancière, _Mute Speech: literature, critical theory, politics_

MY THIRD GO of the summer at getting a bit more current in critical theory, and the best yet.  This is an absolutely stunning, staggering book, the smartest book I've read on literature in...I don't know, a long time.  It examines the break between (neo-)classical literature and romanticism (a parting of the ways that has already gotten some definitive treatments; old schooler that I am, I'm fond of Octavio Paz's Children of the Mire, Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity,  and M. H. Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp), then analyzes how romanticism's aspirations played out dialectically in 19th century French literature.

I suspect that one reason I began reading less critical theory is that such a great deal of it comes from philosophy, or the social sciences, or some marshy terrain in between, like psychoanalysis, and I never feel like I'm playing on my home field, so to speak. The crit-theo folks that meant the most to me--Benjamin, Barthes, Sedgwick, Jameson--started from literature, so I tuned in on their wavelength much more delightedly. Foucault, Adorno, Irigaray...bit more effortful, for me, though certainly worthwhile.

(Speaking of Jameson, what Rancière does here with Le Curé de Village is the most stimulating reading of a fair-to-middling work by Balzac since Jameson had at La Vieille Fille in The Political Unconscious.)

Rancière's primary academic field is philosophy, apparently, but the book proceeds from the German Romantics to Balzac, Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Proust, with brief discussion of Hugo, Artaud, Valéry... after Zizek and Agamben, this was like coming home.

Which makes me wonder what kind of audience there is for this book among American crit-theory types. In my experience, they tend to get most excited about gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity--anything but literature, almost--and would prefer reading an analysis of women's gymnastics, or Iranian cinema, or Victorian legislation against prostitution, or Oprah's final season, or just about anything to reading one of Á la recherche de temps perdus.

So, looking at our cover from Columbia University Press: a young woman's face dominates, cropped right at the philtrum, so what draws the eye is her wide, plump, lusciously-lipsticked lips. Placed as a bar across those lips is the book's subtitle: "Literature, Critical Theory, Politics." Turns out, though, that the book's subtitle in French (it was published in 1998) was "An Essay on the Contradictions of Literature."  Not too sexy, huh? Not as sexy as "literature, critical theory, and politics," to be sure, to say nothing of a pair of yummy lips.

The introduction, by Gabriel Rockhill, begins by describing the big cannonball splash made by Foucault's Les mot et les choses in 1966, and goes on to say La parole muette probably ought to have made such a splash, even though it did not, since it "offers one of the most acute critical reworkings of Foucault's historiographical methodology[...]." Sigh. I guess that's how you sell a brilliant reimagining of western literary history in the USA nowadays (the English translation was published last year): politics, lips, and Foucault.

This has gone on rather too long already. I'll have to get to the book's argument next time.

Friday, August 3, 2012

David Foster Wallace, _The Pale King_

STRUCK BY THIS is in the "Notes and Asides" section Michael Pietsch appended to the text:

Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss--a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious--lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredome. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you've never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it's like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

Shane Drinion is the Asperger's-ish character who listens so intently to the story of how Meredith Rand met her husband, becomes so rapt in it, that he levitates an inch or two. His intuitions about other people's behavior and communication are so faint and unhelpful, his interpretations of what people say to him so starkly literal, that he has to pay rigorous attention to every nuance of even an idle conversation in a bar if he is to hold up his end. All of Meredith's other co-workers, we are told, have learned to avoid her, as once she gets on the topic of herself and her circumstances, she is monomaniacally boring. But Drinion--paradoxically enabled by his disability--breaks through to bliss.

Is Drinion Wallace's Prince Myshkin?  Hold it, Mario Incandenza is already Wallace's Myshkin.

The Pale King, as was already the case for some of the stories in Oblivion, asks that you the reader become a Myshkin--to so fully enter into the meandering, repetitive, endlessly-self-interrupting monologue of "Irrelevant" Chris Fogle (chapter 22) that you step into its color. "David Wallace" the character gripes about Chris Fogle's inability to self-edit, but then launches into his own even more meandering, repetitive, microscopically detailed account of the entrances, exits, and grindingly slow right-of-way delays involved in getting from Self-Storage Parkway to the Peoria REC parking lot. There is no way to make this interesting--unless you break it down atom by atom, micro-second by sweaty, sun-in-the-eyes micro-second as Wallace (the author) does--then it deliquesces into a kind of nirvana.  As for the ennui-inducing Ms. Rand and her involuted tale of the tragedy of prettiness, Wallace had me levitating right along with Drinion.

What a loss.  But I am grateful, grateful, grateful to have this much of what he left unfinished.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, _The Lifespan of a Fact_

JOHN D'AGATA IS an excellent writer (Halls of Fame, About a Mountain), a superb anthologist (The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay), and the leading evangelist for the literary essay as a form of art (that is, emphatically not journalism).  Jim Fingal was D'Agata's fact-checker (a job that sounds like a punchline, as in "Richard Nixon's joke-writer" or "Mitt Romney's charisma coach") for "What Happens There," an essay that forms the core of About a Mountain and was published by The Believer in January 2010.

The Lifespan of a Fact reprints both that essay and the (I assume) email exchanges between D'Agata and Finley over the many, many facts about Las Vegas and the suicide of teenager Levi Presley that D'Agata revised, rearranged, streamlined or otherwise altered in order to get at what he wanted to get at; true to his calling, he grants himself the same latitude with fact that a poet, playwright, or fiction writer routinely enjoys. Fingal, true to his own calling, calls him on every single revision, rearrangement, streamlining, unattributed statistic, fudged number, and so on. He suggests a variety of qualifications, exceptions, rephrasings, all of them so plumply doughy (e.g., "in certain circumstances") that they would sink D'Agata's sentences without a trace. D'Agata curtly nixes them all. Eventually things get testy, then ludicrous. Are bricks red or brown? Is it okay to say a pink car was purple?

Lydia Davis's blurb calls this exchange a "fascinating and dramatic power struggle over the intriguing question of what nonfiction should, or can, be," but for long stretches it's just a good old fashioned pissing contest. Author and fact-checker sometimes take the high road (D'Agata: "If a mirror were a sufficient means of handling human experience, I doubt that our species would have invented literature"; Fingal: "Basically it sounds like you're saying that an essayist can write things with arbitrary truth-value and make quotations out of whole cloth that are attributed to real people who live in the real world. Is that right?").  Sometimes, they just get down and dirty (Fingal: "OK, so now I understand. The rules are: There are no rules, just as long as you make it pretty"; D'Agata: "It's called art, dickhead.")

Typographically, The Lifespan of a Fact resembles the Talmud, a block of D'Agata's essay centered on the page, surrounded by a moat of rabbinical hair-splitting in a smaller font, Fingal's challenges to the essay's claims and D'Agata's responses to those challenges in red ink.

As so often with the rabbis, you come away with the feeling that, impossibly, both are right, especially in chapter 9, which covers the final section of "What Happens There."

In that section, D'Agata reconstructs where Levi Presley may have walked and what he may have seen on his way to the top of the Stratosphere Hotel, from which he jumped to his death.  Consistent with his own convictions, he pays more attention to overall effect than to literal accuracy.  Fingal protests: "You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi, and so every detail you choose to do that with will become significant because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him."

This comment moves D'Agata pass the snarky condescension into which he too easily slips and he lays out as carefully as clearly as he can what he is trying to do; Fingal understands, but disagrees, and gives his own candid, articulate response. For both men, one senses, what matters is the truth about Levi, but they have opposed ideas of how that truth could be conveyed--opposed ideas that, if Rancière is right (I'm four-sevenths through Mute Speech, to be Fingalianly precise), share the same root in the Romantic overturning of classic representation.  But we'll have to get to that on another day.

Chapter 9 justifies the publication of the book, I think. It's well worth reading the whole thing to get to it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mark Davis, _Left Behind and Loving It: A Cheeky Look at the End Times_

I WISH I could be confident that this book would find its way into the hands (and minds) of the millions who have gobbled up the Left Behind series, The Late Great Planet Earth, and all the other volumes that have led so many self-described Christians to contemplate with equanimity the imminent  bloody slaughter and eternal damnation of whole populations of their fellow creatures. But...like free ice cream Fridays or open-to-all polkas on the White House lawn, bestsellerdom for Left Behind and Loving It is delightful to fantasize about but unlikely to happen.  More's the pity.

Mark Davis's book is smart but accessible to the ordinary reader, its scholarship deep but lightly carried.  And yes, it is, as its subtitle announces, cheeky--but not gratuitously snarky. For instance, Davis's chapter on the eschatological chapters in Matthew and Luke is called "Victorious Secret," evoking the famous naughty lingerie emporium and catalogue. Cheeky, to be sure. It begins by juxtaposing Davis's accidental internet discovery of a "Society of Christian Nudists" with the familiar image of the "raptured" leaving behind a neatly-folded pile of clothes. But then Davis steers this into a not-at-all-cheeky reminder that, at least according to Matthew, what separates the saved from the damned is that the saved clothed the naked (and fed the hungry, visited prisoners, nursed the sick) and the damned did not.  That is, the Son of Man coming in clouds does not ask anyone, "OK, did you accept me in your heart as your personal savior?  Yes?  For real?  All right, you're in." The Son of Man wants to know what you did for the least advantaged of your fellow creatures.  That's the victorious secret.

Davis quickly (the book is under 120 pages) tours the Book of Daniel, the relevant chapters in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and of course the Book of Revelation, emphasizing that the writings have an original historical context that we need to keep in mind, and that poetic texts (such as the second half of Daniel and large swathes of Revelation) were never meant to be read literally. He illustrates the problem with "homotextuality" (cheeky! he means treating scripture as if it were all the same kind of text) by presenting three texts on Lincoln's death: the autopsy report, grisly and clinical; a letter by one of the attending doctors, describing his emotions at the loss of the great leader; and a passage from Whitman's magnificent elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." All are about the same event; their perspectives, though, and their use of language and their scope vary tremendously.

Daniel certainly matters for us today, Davis argues, but not because we should be looking around to speculate over what contemporary phenomenon we can identify as an "abomination of desolation," but rather because he responded to his own historical moment in so powerfully visionary a way that we can draw courage and hope from his vision.  What mighty empire today, brothers and sisters, has feet of clay?  They all do. They all always do, from Daniel's day unto our own. That's why we should still be reading Daniel.

I very much liked the chapter on Revelation, where Davis counterposes the Jesus of the gospels to "Ahnold," having some good serious fun with the Left-Behinders' apparent relish for the idea that when Jesus comes again he will not be a weedy semitic carpenter full of enigmatic utterances, easily humiliated by a squad of centurions, but instead will be buff, nordic, and packing some awesome weaponry.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Yvor Winters, _In Defense of Reason_

I READ SOME of this in graduate school--Winters still enjoyed some currency in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at least at the university where I did my graduate work; that may have been because our chair had been a student of Winters, though. You certainly hear little enough about him these days. I wanted to look at this again, however, owing to Winters's figuring in Kathleen Ossip's The Cold War (LLL 6 June 2012).

In Defense of Reason collects three separate volumes of Winters's criticism: Primitivism and Decadence, Maule's Curse, and The Anatomy of Nonsense. Although as a young man he had published some modernist-inspired poetry, he was famous as a critic for explaining what was wrong with the modernist poetry of, e.g., Eliot, Pound, H.D., Stevens, and Hart Crane (even though he was quite good friends with Crane, at least for a while).

Skimming through it again, I recalled why I hadn't liked it at that time and feel disinclined to revise my opinion upwards now.  Here's a taste: "The doctrine of Emerson and Whitman, if really put into practice, should naturally lead to suicide: in the first place, if the impulses are indulged systematically and passionately, they can lead only to madness; in the second place, death, according to the doctrine, is not only a release from suffering but is also and inevitably the way to beatitude." In the margin of the library copy I am looking at, someone has pencilled a big "?". "?" indeed.

Winters thought that "every line or passage of good poetry, every good poetic phrase, communicates a certain quality of feeling as well as a certain paraphrasable content." It was that "paraphrasable content" that tended to be elusive in modernist poetry.  Often it was not to be found; when it could be found, as when Winters found "the doctrine of Emerson and Whitman" in Crane, it was often worthy only of being condemned.

Winters had a term for a poetic phrase that seemed to have a "paraphrasable content" that it did not, upon examination, truly have: "pseudo-reference." He even anatomized the ways a phrase could promise such content and fail to deliver: "grammatical coherence in excess of, or in the absence of, rational coherence"; "Transference of Values from one field of experience to another and unrelated field"; "reference to a non-existent plot." A good creative writing assignment, I think, would be to ask student writers to create one example of each of Winters's varieties of "pseudo-reference." Taken together, they almost constitute a poetics. Ashbery's Girls on the Run, for instance, seems a sustained instance of references to a non-existent plot.

Winters died in 1968, before Ashbery became famous, but Winters's predilection for expecting poems to make clear propositions, which were then to be evaluated as propositions, suggests to me that he would have found Ashbery's ascendancy as exasperating as James Fenton did.

(Reviewing Ashbery's Selected Poems in 1985, Fenton wrote, ''"The critics always get everything wrong,'' Mr. Ashbery remarked in the interview just quoted. Yet one feels that the work is designed precisely in order to insure that they will not get it right. There is no 'getting it right.' Just as I would be arrested if I tried to find out what eminent thing my old friend was up to, so I shall be stopped at the gates if I try to penetrate an Ashbery poem. Look! The camera has already been activated and the dogs let loose in the grounds. Let's just scramble back over the electric fence.")

My catching-up-with-theory program was taken me to Jacques Rancière's Mute Speech, and Winters's approach to poetry seems very like that Rancière describes as prevailing before the Romantic era: "...it is not only a matter of pleasing by means of stories and discourses, but of educating minds, saving souls, defending the innocent, giving counsel to kings, exhorting the people, haranguing soldiers, or simply excelling in the sort of conversation that distinguishes men of wit.  The system of poetic fiction is placed in the dependence of an ideal of efficacious speech, which in turn refers back to an art that is more than an art, that is, a manner of living, a manner of dealing with human and divine affairs: rhetoric."  Which adds up--Winters seems to have really, really disliked Romanticism.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Téa Obreht, _The Tiger's Wife_

THE MAIN PLOT of The Tiger's Wife is simple. A young doctor from a country resembling Serbia has come to an orphanage in a town in a country resembling Bosnia to administer immunizations, a sort of atonement/reconciliation mission.  Her grandfather, to whom she was close, has recently died while on a trip to another town nearby; she drives over there to inquire about his death and pick up his effects. A group of people from yet another village happens also to be in the town with the orphanage; they are digging around, trying to find the corpse of a townsman who died and was buried without due ceremony there during the war twelve years ago. They find the body, and the young doctor participates in a peculiar ritual designed to ease the dead man's soul. Recurrent theme: things we do for the dead, which simultaneously are things we do for ourselves.

More of a short story, really--what bulks the story out to a novel are the interpolated tales.  Two in particular are thoroughly developed, both about the grandfather: first, a series of encounters over many years with the "deathless man," who has the power of knowing when a person's time is up, but cannot himself die; second, the story of the woman of the title, the deaf, mute, and abused wife of the butcher in the grandfather's boyhood village, who forms an unlikely alliance with the grandfather (nine years old at the time) and a tiger who escaped from the zoo (destroyed in a WW II air raid) and made his way into the neighborhood.

Beyond that, we get the back-stories on many of the minor characters, including some of the characters in the interpolated story of the tiger's wife.

What with the accumulation of embedded stories providing some of the texture of a traditional, mainly oral culture, and the additional whiff of the supernatural (a man who cannot die, a woman who has formed a pair-bond with a tiger), we are discernibly in "magical realism" territory. Given the august examples already in circulation (Grass, Garcia Marquez, Morrison, Rushdie), it would be hard for this novel to avoid having a studied, slightly second-hand air. That is exactly the air, I think, it has.

Matters are not helped by Obreht's tendency towards superfluous description, e.g.:

The highway narrows into a single-lane road and begins to climb--a slight incline at first, forest-rimmed pastures, bright flushes of green that open up suddenly as you come around the curves. Cars heading down the mountain toward you are small, crowded with families, and sliding into your lane. Already your radio is picking up news from across the border, but the signal is faint, and the voices are lost to static for minutes at a time.

Hmm. Apparently rural driving in the Balkans is a lot like...rural driving.  I thought MFA programs were supposed to wean young writers away from this sort of thing. Someone needs to step up and be Obreht's Gordon Lish.

There are some good things, though, too--the tiger is described at one point as appearing "carved in sunlight"--nice one. Obreht is audacious enough to write a few passages from the tiger's point of view, in one of which he spotted something and "his instincts slammed open"--nice one again.  On page 279 there's a convincing description of a city being bombed:

...she watched a missile hit the old brick building across the river, the vacuum of sound as the blue light went down, straight down, through the top of the building and then blasted out the windows and the doors and the wooden shutters, the bronze name on the building, the plaques commemorating the dead....

The building does not fall, but stands "like a jawless skull."

Obreht has thought a lot about hate, too, and the story of how the village turns on the tiger's wife is grimly compelling and feels true.  Her story, separated from the contemporary frame, would have made a good novella all by itself, I think. She has a palpability that neither the young doctor nor her grandfather, even though they are the main characters, quite attains.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Giorgio Agamben, _Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life_

PART OF MY summer catch-up-with-theory program--Zizek mentioned this, so it seemed a good place to go next. It is not that new--published in Italian in 1995, in English in 1998.  Both Agamben and Zizek, I was interested to note, bring into their discussions Walter Benjamin's "Critique of Violence," which was Derrida's subject the one and only time I heard him, in 1990. I ought to find out where that was published; I understood about a third of it at the time, and these days I might be up to understanding half of it or more.

Homo Sacer is an astonishing, revelatory book which will severely tax and ultimately, I suspect, defeat my powers of summary. Helpfully, Agamben summarizes some of his key theses in the book's final chapter. First, "the original political relation is the ban." Following Schmitt, he sees the primal moment of sovereignty not as a contract somehow arrived at between ruler and ruled, but as the ruler being able to say who (or what) is in and okay and who (or what) is out and not okay, and make those pronouncements stick. To enforce its pronouncements, authority makes itself exempt from them; it enforces laws against violence by committing violence against those who commit violence.

Authority also can make exceptions of certain individuals.  The book's title comes from an ancient Roman law: someone who committed a crime was declared homo sacer ("sacred man," in a way, but the meaning of "sacer" is a discussion all of its own), which meant that (a) he could be killed with impunity and (b) he could not be used as a sacrifice. The homo sacer is thus excluded from the civil polity and the religious polity.  He's one of us that is not one of us. Killing him is not murder. His is a life that is life and life only (to inappositely quote Dylan); he is human, but stripped of all protections and privileges that go with being in the community.  He is "bare life."

The "production of bare life as originary political element and as a threshold of articulation between nature and culture" is "the fundamental activity of sovereign power," claims Agamben's second thesis.  In one intriguing chapter, Agamben aligns homo sacer, bare life, with the werewolf: too animal to be part of the community, too human to be allowed loose like an animal, he has to be isolated and killed.

Along come the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions and the idea that even "bare life" may have rights--that is, simply by being human, prior to any belonging to a community, you have some rights. Sounds promising, but Agamben goes on to note that these turn out to be slippery to define. Once we are in the process of defining "human rights," human life itself comes within the purview of the state, we have all the familiar Foucauldian developments--the human sciences, norms, surveillance of the body, biopolitics--and the Enlightenment turns out to have merely done the spadework for the totalitarian regime, and the homo sacer has matured into the concentration/extermination camp. Agamben's third thesis: "Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm."

A crude and inadequate summary, but this is a powerful book, worthwhile reading especially in this US election year when so many of the buzziest issues--health care, abortion and contraception, immigration, gay marriage--have to do with bodily life and drawing lines, with what bodies the state "sees," recognizes, chooses to protect, and what bodies it simply subjects to its power.

Friday, July 13, 2012

_The Pale King_, interim notes ii

(5) As someone who lived in Chicago in the late 1970s, I vividly remember the January 1979 blizzard that paralyzed Chicago (yet did not deter Chris Fogle from getting to his appointment with the IRS hiring officer), but do not at all recall Illinois experimenting with a progressive sales tax in 1977. Turns out Wallace made all that up, as he did the bit about IRS employees having special Social Security numbers.  This and other points germane to the history/fiction distinction I gleaned from a piece by Lawrence Zelenak in, of all places, the Michigan Law Review: 


Mr. Zelenak may also hold the distinction of being the Wallace commentator whose name sounds the most like one that could have been invented by Wallace.

(6) I've been reading Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer alongside The Pale King. Agamben begins by elaborating Carl Schmitt's idea that sovereignty is founded on the power to decide on exceptions.  For instance, Weber's idea of the state's monopoly on force--the state's ability to punish violence lies in its excepting itself from the ban on violence. The state forbids that I imprison people against their will; if I do such a thing, it will except itself from that prohibition and imprison me against my will. These exceptions (and other kinds) define sovereignty.

That taxation is the most routine, most familiar, probably dullest example--the state forbids me to appropriate some proportion of another's wealth, but excepts itself from that prohibition. Part of the strange appeal of The Pale King is its willingness to take as subject this part of our lives that is as common as dirt, as ubiquitous as dust, and unfold its arcane universe.

Chapter 21, in which someone (Glendenning?) takes advantage of a stalled elevator to lay out the philosophy of taxation, and in passing quickly and persuasively map the course of American culture since World War II, contains as elegant and succinct an encapsulation of Tocqueville's Democracy in America as I have ever come across:

"De Tocqueville's thrust is that it's in the democratic citizen's nature to be like a leaf that doesn't believe in the tree it's a part of."

(7) The sections on the previous lives of the IRS employees at the Peoria REC remind me of the similar sections that introduced the inhabitants of the halfway house in Infinite Jest, which is to say that they are as astonishingly compelling as contemporary fiction gets.  The almost hundred pages of Chapter 22 all by themselves justify the publication of The Pale King. The painful struggle of the not-all-that-educated, not-all-that-articulate Chris to tell the truth about himself and what he has come to realize... the sustained un-writerliness of his voice while nonetheless giving so fine-grained a portrait of a fictional character (new suit from Carson Pirie Scott--dead on!)... the weird dignity Wallace is thus able to lend a cliché like "play the hand you're dealt"...all this is why the novel, even though unfinished, even though it will no doubt fail to All Come Together into an Unified Aesthetic Whole, is among the best fiction I have read in these past few years.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thomas Frank, _Pity the Billionaire:The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right_

THERE IS NO American writer on contemporary society and politics that I read with more relish than I do Thomas Frank. Katha Pollitt I read with, I would say, just as much relish--ironically, she seems to hold his theories in a certain disesteem--and perhaps Jill Lepore, but no one else comes close. Well-shaped sentences, historical depth, originality, a born satirist's instinct for the jugular--that is Mr. Frank.

His books map different parts of the same terrain. A Midwesterner by origin, he has a plains-populist-progressive's instinct that the business elite's main objective is to make as much profit as possible, and that its secondary objective is to create and sustain the political conditions that will enable it to keep making as much profit as possible.  Hence his previous book, The Wrecking Crew, described how lobbyists for various corporate and financial interests have undermined the foundations of federal regulatory oversight, using campaign contributions as leverage.

But, in a representative democracy, how get the voters to elect representatives who will so willingly lend an ear to lobbyists whose interests are inimical to those of the large majority of voters? That was the topic of What's the Matter with Kansas, which argued that the Republican party uses family values/social stability issues (abortion, gay marriage, whip-cracking school reform) to attract the votes of middle America, then uses the legislative power thus gained to advance the corporate agenda.

His latest, Pity the Billionaire, asks why, in the wake of the finance industry's spectacular 2008 demonstration of its proclivity to shit in its own and everybody else's nest, when circumstances seemed at their ripest to re-tooth the SEC and revive Glass-Steagall, did the Republicans run the table in 2010, filling Congress with Tea Partiers who made Goldwater look like a New Dealer?

Well...they moved very quickly and very astutely, it seems.  The real problem, they claimed, was the opportunistic people down the street who borrowed on the (inflated) value of their home to add a too-fancy bathroom. So a pox on them, those awful people down the street who should have known better, but for God's sake, let's not punish the entrepreneurs, the visionaries, the hard-working small-businessmen or geniuses like Steve Jobs, no, no, let's keep the top tax rate low, keep dismantling regulations, keep reducing government spending...and so on.

Is the Right that quick, that smart, that intuitive in reading the minds of the largest swathe of American voters?  Well, maybe.  Frank makes an awfully persuasive case. He's particularly good, for instance, on the cult of Ayn Rand and the push to promote Atlas Shrugged as a prophecy. Pity the Billionaire connects back to his (I think) first book, The Conquest of Cool (and to a film with a comparable point, Tim Robbins's Bob Roberts) and its argument that resentment against the Man can be quickly transmuted into resentment at the government; that resentment at the government, he shows here, can be quickly transmuted into a massively pro-corporate legislative agenda.

Frank is always, to me, persuasive on the mess we're in, and I sometimes wonder if he ever envisions a way out.  This book came out just as the Occupy movement was making news--did he see any grounds for optimism there?

Friday, July 6, 2012

David Foster Wallace, _The Pale King_, interim notes i

I made a sort of resolution to read this, Peter Nadas's Book of Memories, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, and Roberto Bolaño's 2666 this month. My chances of actually pulling this off are vanishingly slender. But if I'm going to keep buying cinderblock-sized novels, I really ought to try to read some of them, no? This one, it turns out, is not even that long, under 600 pages, despite its considerable heft.

1) How do I feel about posthumous publications of this, or Hemingway's Garden of Eden, Ellison's Three Days before the Shooting, or Elizabeth Bishop's working drafts, or other work its author did not regard as finished?  I know it presents an ethical quandary--I've read Kundera's Testaments Betrayed. It might be a disservice to the author. But the Canterbury Tales weren't completed, either, nor Michelangelo's slaves, nor The Faerie Queene, nor Wives and Daughters, nor The Cantos, but does that amount to a case for keeping them out of circulation?  Obviously, no. I am confident Michael Pietsch did as conscientious job as anyone could have. Besides, The Pale King so far (I'm on page 103) is awfully, awfully good. Astonishingly good.

2) For one thing, there is Wallace's unsurpassed ear for American discourses. Besides his pitch-perfect evocation of American bureaucratese, seen in the IRS chapters, chapters 6 and 8 show how completely Wallace could inhabit the linguistic universe of the relatively inarticulate, and how the cadences of the King James Version are integral to the True American Gravity (Whitman, Melville, Lincoln, King) and the True American Weirdness (Joseph Smith, Bob Dylan, Howard Fenster); Lane Dean and Toni Ware  are perfectly suspended between those two poles. Quite a contrast to Franzen's Patty Berglund--every once in a while he has her deliver a clunker sentence, as a gesture to authenticity, but in the next paragraph her prose is swooping with the elegance and grace of an Olympic figure skater. Wallace can stay heartbreakingly close to the language his characters would know and use.

3) Did Wallace, as an undergraduate, really write papers for fellow students for extra income, did he really get caught and suspended, did he really spend 1984-85 working for the IRS? Apparently not, though chapter 9--the "Author's Foreword"--insists he did, even while insisting that "the very last thing this book is is some kind of metafictional titty-pincher." Oh? So then why are my titties sore?

4) Sylvanshine passes through Midway airport on his way to his new post in Peoria and sees "thirty-year-old men who had infants in high-tech papooselike packs on their backs, their wives with quilted infant supply bags at their sides, the wives in charge, the men appearing essentially soft or softened in some way, desperate in a resigned way, their stride not quite a trudge, their eyes empty and overmild with the weary stoicism of young fathers" (13). My God...in 1985, when the novel is set, I was thirty-one, living in Chicago, and often used Midway. Our older daughter was born that year, and we did have a papoose-like carrier and a quilted diaper bag. I probably did look pretty tired--we weren't getting much sleep, and so on. Soft or softened?  Well, yeah. Not a flattering snap of me at at time, true, but at this juncture it seems an inexpressibly cool thing that I am in The Pale King, something of an honor even though it is populated entirely by the anxious and desperate and hopeless.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Alison Bechdel, _Are You My Mother?_

WHAT CAN ONE do, in the end, but worship at her altar?

Which is the last thing she would seek or desire, I imagine.

I started Are You My Mother? with that mixed eagerness and reluctance one has when the author's last previous work was sublimely, superlatively good. Could this possibly be as good as Fun Home?

It represents a greater challenge, I think. Bechdel's relationship with her mother comprehends a greater span of time than did her relationship with her father, is ongoing rather than essentially completed, has a looser and less dramatic narrative arc, and is just more complicated. The episodes touching on Bechdel's own life are not from childhood and adolescence, which have a kind of natural vividness, but those of muddled and compromised adulthood, which are much harder to make compelling. (By the way, should I be surprised that Alison's girlfriends bear a strong resemblance to Mo's?) Everything about this project makes  it all but inevitable that it will not have the same kind of immediate impact that Fun Home does.

Yet it may represent an even greater success. What Bechdel does with Woolf, especially To the Lighthouse, here is even more persuasive than what she did with Joyce in Fun Home, and there is nothing in the earlier book to compare to her incorporation of the life and theories of Winnicott. The extraordinarily subtle handling of time and narrative architecture that distinguished Fun Home are every bit as strong here, but again the earlier book has no equivalent to the way Are You My Mother? integrates reflection on the processes of its own creation.

How many novels published this year will be this intelligent, this inventive, this brave, this nuanced, this real?  Damned few, my friend--damned few.  Maybe none.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Chad Harbach, _The Art of Fielding_

JUST AS ONE knew that at least one of the cast of Friends was bound to have a viable film career, it figured that one of these guys had to have a really good first novel in him; likable as it was, Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision was not it, nor was Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, likable as it was. But The Art of Fielding is not only likable, but also a really good first novel.

Not a great novel, perhaps. Too many superfluous modifiers and lame verb choices, for one thing. Do editors still edit? Maxwell Perkins, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

The characters are quirky, flawed, but well-intentioned, capable of change, and ultimately lovable, as if several of John Irving's characters had married several of Anne Tyler's characters, and these are their offspring. The novel is heavily plotted, à la Irving, with Irving-out-of-Dickens cliffhanger chapter endings (and proper names: Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight). When not just one, but two crucial plot turns involved serious head injuries from flying baseballs, as in A Prayer for Owen Meany, I began to suspect an homage to the master.

One of the plots involves a Death-in-Venice relationship (in this instance, consummated) with a gay mixed-race baseball-playing intellectual prodigy as Tadzio, a scholar of 19th century American lit turned college president as Aschenbach...although the crucial precursor here may be not Mann but Mark Merlis, whose American Studies fictionalized the tragedy of F. O. Matthiessen, a brilliant scholar of American literature who was double-ambushed by homophobia and McCarthyism. When The Art of Fielding calls such texts to mind, one realizes that no, it's not exactly great--it's a little too quick to turn on the sentimentality tap, a little too willing to stick to the shallows. But it's as good a baseball novel as I have read since Eric Greenberg's The Celebrant.

By the way, is Mark Merlis ever going to publish another novel? A cursory web search suggests he has moved on into policy wonkery. We need policy wonks, to be sure, but not at the sacrifice of one of our best novelists.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tom McCarthy, _C_

MUCH ANNOYED BY the dismissive review of this in n+1, right on the heels of an issue which contained no fewer than four (!) gushily flattering pieces on Franzen's Freedom. When the reviewer, Amanda Claybaugh, was identified in the contributor notes as "professor of English at Harvard and the author of The Novel of Purpose," I suspected a necronautical prank in the vein of Nabokov's John Ray, Jr., but no--turns out Amanda Claybaugh and her book are quite real. Someone whose day job is explaining the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin seems like a peculiar choice to review McCarthy, it seems to me, but a writer can't get the kind of praise McCarthy has without a bit of backlash.

McCarthy seems to me one of the very best American fiction writers of his generation.  True, I recommended Remainder to about half a dozen people and only one of them liked it, and I assigned it to a class and none of them liked it, so I know most readers are immune to his charms.  But I think he will eventually do for American fiction what Ashbery did for American poetry, liberating it from what seemed obligatory assumptions.

The obligatory assumption I have in mind--I respectfully follow Zadie Smith here--is that of the psychological-realist novel, that we can take what a person says and does and with the right map, or the right code, discover or decipher the coherent interiority that produced that behavior. For the realist novel, as for psychoanalysis, the surface indicates the depths, if you have the map to the treasure room, if you have deciphered the message.  As Claybaugh notes, in signaling his interest in maps and codes to the secrets of his characters by his references to crypts (e. g., the treasure room of a pyramid) and encryption, McCarthy seems to allude to Abraham & Torok's famous reading of Freud's "Wolf Man" case history.

What irritated my students and all but one of my friends about the unnamed narrator in Remainder is that we never do arrive at what would pass as a "coherent interiority" for him. My students' highest praise for a novel is that one "cared about the characters," and to attempt to care about the narrator of Remainder is to smack against a blank wall.

So too with Serge Carrefax, the protagonist of C, whose circumstances are closely modeled on those of Freud's Wolf Man. He is covered in code, in signs and indications and allusions: the Wolf Man, Hans Castorp, the "Burial of the Dead" section of The Waste Land, British Great War memoirs, the London of the early novels of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, the North Africa of Paul Bowles. (I wonder if McCarthy had a list of elements [incest, insects, crypts, flight, narcotics, codes] and hit on some way of randomly creating new combinations, as Harry Mathews might have done in Cigarettes.) The patterns accumulate, thicken, entwine, always asymptotically approaching resolution, but never, ever reaching it. For many, this would mean McCarthy has reneged on the fiction writer's contract with his reader. I think he is renegotiating it, and in an extremely fruitful, exciting way.

Ashbery continuously brings the reader of his poetry to the challenge, "You may think that poetry depends on the coherent interiority of a presumed speaking subject, but it doesn't, really.  The poetry is every bit as much in this... and this... and this." McCarthy brings the challenge, "You may think the novel depends on the construction of believable coherent interiorities whose destinies you participate in vicariously, but it doesn't, really." Take away that illusion, and you nonetheless still can have the eerie verisimilitude, the vivid evocation of imagined experience, the sumptuous prose. The "novel" is as much in that everything else as it is in those coherent interiorities. At least when McCarthy is writing it, it is.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tracy K. Smith, _Duende_

I WAS WEIGHING whether to read last year's Pulitzer winner for poetry, Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars (which I hope is named for the David Bowie song), when I noticed this on my shelves. I tend to buy more books than I read, unfortunately; I must have picked this up in 2007 or 2008, when it won the James Laughlin Award.  I read it over the last two or three days. Does it make me want to read Life on Mars?  Well...not so much.

The longer, more ambitious, more engagé poems do not work, in my view. "'Into the Moonless Night'." a 9-page poem in dramatic form about some of the victims of Joseph Kony, is perhaps more tonally sophisticated than Invisible Children, but only just. The book's opening poem, "History," a 10-page, multi-section poem about colonization and slavery, includes these lines:

Elsewhere and at the same time,
Some sentient scrap of first flame,

Of being ablaze, rages on,
Hissing air, coughing still more air,

Sighing rough sighs around the ideas
Of man, woman, snake, fruit.

We all know the story
Of that god.

Oh, dear.  Yes, I believe I have heard that story. Perhaps too often, really.  Why does this sort of thing win prizes while Mathias Svalina's Destruction Myth does not?

The choices "flame," "ablaze," and "rages" make the whole passage sound a bit too much like high school journal poetry, really. I sense the same problem in a line from "Slow Burn," a poem that seems to be about outcasts of several kinds--"Minds flayed by visions no one can fathom." The idea that marginalized people are tormented by unutterable truths...I don't know...too romanticized, perhaps? And the image of a vision that peels the skin off people's minds while also being too deep to be measured...does that work?  Or did Smith just like the poetic pizzaz of "flayed" and "fathom"?

There are some good things, though.  There are some darkly intriguing poems about the end of a relationship in Part II.  In one of them, "One Man at a Time," one of the men is described so:

He carried himself like the leader
Of a small nation whose citizens
Whispered about his extravagant wife

And brewed their own beer
In basements hung with forbidden flags.

The ex- as a tinpot dictator is not new, but to let the image run on from there to imagine the domestic lives of his people--Smith gives the image room to take on a life of its own, relinquishes a bit of control, with happy results. If Life on Mars has more of this sort of thing....

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides, _The Marriage Plot_

THE NOVEL'S TITLE refers to a common plot in the favorite 19th century novels of the novel's heroine, Madeleine Hanna: the courtship (with usually at least two leading contenders), the choice, the consequences of the choice. The heroine usually has to balance the claims of a Mr. Seems-Right-Maybe with the real Mr. Right: Wickham and Darcy, St. John and Rochester, Edgar and Heathcliff, Casaubon and Will Ladislaw, Grandcourt and Daniel Deronda, Lord Warburton and Gilbert Osmond.  Sometimes, a bad call is made, and we see how Isabel Archer, or Dorothea Brooke, or Gwendolen Harleth soldiers up in the wake of disaster.

It's the contention of one of Madeleine's professors at Brown that the Marriage Plot won't work in the context of the later 20th century, pre-marital sex and access to divorce having dramatically diminished the urgency with which the decision to marry is made.  Thus, Eugenides throws down the gauntlet at his own feet. Can one write a contemporary marriage-plot novel?

OK, we'll need a young, attractive, intelligent, but fallible heroine--check, Madeleine Hanna. We need two contenders--check, Leonard Bankhead (brilliant, good-hearted, bi-polar) and Mitchell Grammaticus (near-brilliant, clear-headed, a bit obsessive).  If we choose the George Eliot/Henry James model, the heroine will make a choice (check) that reveals itself as a mistake (check) and leads to a radical self-inventory and a chastened but still worthwhile future (check).

On the narrative level, though, The Marriage Plot does not at all feel like a 19th century novel. The long first section (about a third of the book) uses extensive and skillfully-deployed flashback, folding Madeleine's and Mitchell's whole college careers into an account of their graduation day ceremonies. The whole novel relies on style indirect libre and so is saturated in point of view in ways no 19th century novels save Flaubert's are. In the first section especially, Eugenides lays on lots of great Updikean period detail, what music college students of 1978-82 were listening to, how they talked, what movies they watched, what TV they grew up with, what books they read (one character is reading New French Feminisms, a madeleine that zapped me back immediately to 1982). As an updating of a classic novelistic archetype, I'd say it's a success. It's smart, funny, moving.

What's really interesting, though....

...is that Eugenides borrows several traits for Leonard Bankhead (as many reviewers noticed) from David Foster Wallace: big bear of a guy, genius, long hair, bandanna, mental health problems, medication dosage issues. Moreover, Mitchell Grammaticus has a few traits of Eugenides himself: their names are a metrical match, they both come from Detroit, both from Greek-American families.

So The Marriage Plot has a certain weird congruence with that awful (I thought) essay by Jonathan Franzen putatively about the Galapagos Islands but actually about Franzen's dis-ease with Wallace. Like Franzen, Eugenides has great sales, prestigious awards, offers from Hollywood, legions of loyal readers, but nothing like the adoration Wallace inspires.  Eugenides (and Franzen) may be wondering...why?

So, in The Marriage Plot, the Passionate Reader (Madeleine) falls in love, naturally, with Wallace. The Passionate Reader marries Wallace, the way passionate readers marry Joyce, or Pynchon, or Austen. But Wallace flames out; Wallace disappears.  Will the abandoned Passionate Reader then, at last, fall in love with Eugenides (or Franzen), who has courted and dreamed of her for so long?

To his credit, Eugenides knows she will not.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Juliana Spahr, _Well Then There Now_

I PICK UP a Juliana Spahr with a certain eagerness and a certain trepidation.  Eagerness because she is, after all, a worthwhile writer, even arguably an important writer (I wonder exactly how she would go about dismantling the notion of "an important writer").  I even assigned one of her books for a class I am teaching this coming fall. Trepidation because she is almost certainly going to want me to think about things I would rather not have to think about.

Spahr is like that valuable-but-tiresome, tiresome-but-valuable friend who is always asking you to sign a petition or come to a demonstration or make a few phone calls or...your phone rings, you see the number, you don't wholly want to answer, knowing as you do that you will wind up with some duty or another, but you do answer, because if you don't, what have you become?

The acknowledgements in the front of the volume record not only where the poems and essays first appeared, but the street address at which they were written, including the zip code. The zip code?  Does Spahr imagine we want to write to whoever now lives at that address?

Probably not--but Spahr cares about names, cares about exactness, and furthermore cares how naming, marking, and identifying reveal the history and processes of power. "2955 Dole Street, Honolulu, Hawai'i 96822" marks the spot where the text "Dole Street"was written, first of all, but who is the Dole for which the street was named, and how did the place happen to be tagged by the U. S. Postal Service? Both questions are relevant to the text, it turns out.

 In the book itself, the titles of the texts are accompanied by maps showing the spot in the world where the text was written, including its latitude and longitude--not because the reader will be undertaking to sail there, presumably, but as reminders that the places Spahr is writing are parts of the history of western imperialism, which devised this system of keeping track of where it had gotten to, where to go next, and how to get home.

In an end note to the poem "Things of Each Possible Relation Hashing Against Each Other"(the process for which poem, as one can glimpse in its title, involved translation software), Spahr writes:

And I was also thinking at the time about how poets need to know the names of things and I didn't really know the names of lots of things that grew in Hawai'i.  I also didn't know where they came from. I knew that when I looked around anywhere on the islands that most of what I was seeing had come from somewhere else but I didn't know where or when. I was not yet seeing how the deeper history of contact was shaping the things I saw around me.

Some of the poems in Well Then There Now were composed during roughly the same span of years Spahr wrote about in her innovative memoir The Transformation (LLL January 14, 2010); that "deeper history of contact" she seeks to uncover begins with her finding herself in Hawai'i, but doesn't end there. Even when Spahr gets Wordsworthian, recalling her intimacy with the landscape of her childhood and the rivers that ran through it, that deeper history announces itself: she recalls too the factories that polluted those rivers, and the closings of the factories, and LBJ's War on Poverty and the possibilities it created for her to leave.

Spahr is the goad of conscience, the agenbite of inwit, but not just that.

For one thing, there's her formal inventiveness.  Adrienne Rich sometimes left the impression (e.g., "Blood, Bread, and Poetry") that she found concern for form a distraction in her pursuit of truth and authenticity, but for Spahr (with an assist from Stein) form always seems a way to get there.

For another, Spahr knows as well as you or I how beautiful and pleasurable the world is--the struggle is always to stay mindful even as we take in the beauty, experience the pleasure.  This is from the end  of "Sonnets," one of the texts about Hawai'i:

But because we were bunkered, the place was never ours, could never really be ours, because we were bunkered from what mattered, growing and flowing into, and because we could not begin to understand that this place was not ours until we grew and flowed into something other than what we were we continued to make things worse for this place of flowing and growing into even while some of us came to love it and let it grow in our hearts, flow in our own blood.

That morphing of self-accustaion into a confession of love--that's when you know you're always going to read the next book Spahr publishes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Heather Christle, _What Is Amazing_

LLL's HIGH REGARD for the work of Heather Christle is already established (see July 9, 2010 and March 22, 2012) and her new collection What Is Amazing bumps it up a couple of notches.

The book is divided into three sections, which seem to me formally and thematically distinct.  The poems of the first section tend to longer lines and do almost entirely without punctuation (there are a few ampersands). In the second section, the lines are shorter, two or three beats, still largely punctuation-less, but the shorter lines quicken the rhythm a bit.  The last poem of the second part--the title poem, as it happens--switches to couplets, and periods and question marks start cropping up. Couplet poems dominate in part three, with one or the other line occasionally stair-stepped.

This was lovely.  The formal unity of The Trees, the Trees was enjoyable, but it's good to have some variety, too.

I do not think the poems were grouped strictly according to formal characteristics, though.  The first section's poems most frequently find themselves regarding the natural world (not exclusively, mind you), the second section's most frequently address other people (ditto), and in the third section the poems seem to be about...phenomena, we might say: people, plants, skies, air, celestial events, all at once.

This is a bit loony, but I almost think there's a Blakean tri-partedness going on as well.  The first group of poems have a songs-of-innocence quality, partly from a somewhat childlike use of repetition ("when X is small X is very very very / very small") and the breathless, unpunctuated momentum of the rhythm.  The speaker's attitude towards daffodils, dahlias, trees, moss, et al. is not all that naïve but is  quizzical ("but nature why don't you say something / it scares people when there's dead air") and at some points even like Maurice Sendak's Max: "As captain of the flowers I tell the flowers Look alive / and they listen [...]".

Part two--songs of experience.

and I come to you
with bark in my throat
and crime on my sleeve
and I come to you
full of my bones

I come to you, that is, liable to have rough, abrasive stuff come out of my mouth?  Capable of wishing and inflicting harm? Carrying the baggage we all carry by virtue of being born animals?

"And what if I love the wrong thing / You can't take it back / It can't be recycled / Not like paper / Not like this dark glass".

Or-- "But I still want to tell you a story / This one time I lived in the forest / It was magic I cried on my feet".  Things have happened to this speaker.  "Ten years later I was a woman."  Yep.

Northrop Frye writes of a "second innocence" in the visionary Blake, an experienced innocence, and something like that state we glimpse from the corner of our eye in the third section.  As with all visionary poetry, "What I can say represents what I cannot" (46).  We veer into the ecstatic ("what caterwauls, what loops the world // gives us, gives us eagles!"), into the obscure ("A person is layers of instants / covered in dirty blue feathers"), into sentences we want to write on the sky--

You are the ruined thing
and the world is what loves to repair you

--the second innocence of the repaired.

This is going on too long, but I would also like to praise Christle's ability to come up with tradition-invoking syntactical inversions in wholly surprising places and in wholly effective ways.

For instance, the last line of "An Activity": "and quiet like a prison yard when breaks the afternoon".

And the last two lines of "And Then We Clap Ourselves Together":

Oh sweet is the rain not arriving
and green is my overdrawn heart

And the "hum"--why all the humming (3, 31, 49)?

And oh, how I hope and pray that the Henri of "For Henri" is Bergson: "we live in the middle and so little in fact / seems to end."

Friday, June 15, 2012

Slavoj Zizek, _Violence_

ONE AFTERNOON IN 1980 or 1981, when I was in a graduate school, another graduate student and I were outside University Hall chatting with an assistant professor--or he  may have just become an associate.  The other student and I, no doubt hoping to impress, were batting around our ideas of Foucault.  The professor said, "You know, I actually haven't read Foucault."

This pulled us up short. We must have looked puzzled.

"Oh, I tried...what is the English version of Les Mots et Les Choses called?"

"The Order of Things."

"Right.  Well, I got about a hundred pages in and just thought, life's too short."

The other student and I exchanged a "dear god, what do we have here?" look and plunged on into our thoughts on Discipline and Punish and the first volume of History of Sexuality, hoping to convince the professor that he was missing out on something.  I remember resolving to never, once I was a professor, let myself get that lazy.

So thirty-odd years later, here I am not having read much in the crit-theory line in about a dozen years. My excuses? Well, the whole scene began to seem ossified, I suppose; once there is a Norton Anthology of something, the élan vital of whatever it is has likely leached away into the ether. Nothing seemed to have the skull-opening buzz of Gender Trouble or Epistemology of the Closet. And then, you know...life's too short.

Well, I am going to try to do better. I have now actually finished Zizek's Violence (which I started about fourteen months ago and put aside because life's too...).

I had read a couple of his books before, and this one made an impression similar to that of those two: memorable less for its argument than for its brilliant asides, illustrations, jokes, obiter dicta.  Zizek, I imagine, has more cool ideas while brushing his teeth than I will have in a lifetime.

He does have an argument here, of course, usefully summarized in the first paragraph of his epilogue.  The book responds to discussions of the "violence" of certain groups in much-covered episodes of 2005: the looting after Katrina, the riots in the Paris suburbs, the demonstrations against that Danish cartoonists's anti-Islamic cartoons. We see and condemn that violence, he argues, but fail to see the exclusions and coercions to which it responds, exclusions and coercions that are themselves a kind of violence even though we do not not know them and name them as such.

Fundamentalism and liberal tolerance tend to bring out the worst in each other, each bringing its own kind of violence to bear on the other, each blaming the other for its particular violence. Violence is probably inevitable, but there's violence and then there's violence. The final chapter on Benjamin and "Divine Violence" is Zizek at his scary best.

Again, though, it's the things he says along the way that stick with you.

"Science and religion have changed places: today, science provides the security religion once guaranteed. In a curious inversion, religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today's society.  It has become one of the sites of resistance."

Huh? But sure enough, as it was free scientific inquiry that undermined the ancien régime's claim to legitimacy in the 18th century, while the church stoutly supported that legitimacy, today technical expertise (military, diplomatic, psychological, as well as the natural sciences) is the authority that may not be questioned, while a few stubborn nuns or Quakers keep dissent alive.

Not that Z. has become a religio-phile.  His solution to the Israel-Palestine question is for everyone to just forget about their religion for a while.

Or this:

"The key moment of any theoretical--and indeed ethical, political, and, as Badiou demonstrated, even aesthetic--struggle is the rise of universality out of the particular lifeworld.  The commonplace according to which we are all thoroughly grounded in a particular, contingent lifeworld, so that all universality is irreducibly coloured by and embedded in that lifeworld, needs to be turned round. The authentic moment of discovery, the breakthrough, occurs when a properly universal dimension explodes from within a particular context and becomes 'for-itself,' and is directly experienced as universal."

Page 152--emphasis Zizek's.  Again, huh?! What?! Back when I was reading a lot of this sort of thing, "universal" was a roundly scorned concept--ditto "timeless."  It was all about difference. Who is this Badiou?  Do I need to read him?  Life's too short! OK, obviously, my investigations need to continue.

What you have to love about Zizek are the examples he pulls out of nowhere that become the perfectly apposite illustration of a point. G. K. Chesterton, Alfonso Cuarón, Ben Hecht, Nip/Tuck, Rob Reiner, and Dorothy Parker rub shoulders in this book with John Rawls, Peter Sloterdijk, Walter Benjamin, and Alain Badiou, whoever he is.  And William Butler Yeats!  Quoted not just once, but twice.

Even the index is brilliant.  I wonder if he compiled it himself. Consider:

"Sloterdijk, Peter  22-3, 55, 59;
  denounces every global emancipatory
  project 194; proposes an alternative
  history of the West 186; Rage and 
  Time (Zorn und Zeit) 185, 188, 231n8,
  231n9; supplements philosophical
  categories with their opposites 186;
  on the true meaning of the events
  of 1990 185-6."