anthony burgess, “earthly powers”

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Anthony Burgess
Earthly Powers
(Vintage; originally 1980)

I don’t know that this is a particularly good book – the 650 pages of tiny type in the recent Vintage edition seem like far, far more than that – though it is compellingly strange, in part because it’s very hard to imagine who the imagined readership for this book might be. It’s a thoroughly Catholic book, with a great deal of attention to dogma; but the main character is gay. Certainly there’s a gay British Catholic novel tradition – hello Fr. Rolfe, mentioned dismissively here – though this does not fall into that at all, feeling confident in its ability to make up a tradition of its own from scratch. I don’t remember who first pointed out that Michelangelo’s sibyls in the Sistine Chapel look a great deal like male nudes with breasts added on, but that could possibly be said about the imagined homosexuality of this book. It’s not at all far from taking Marcel and Albertine’s relationship in the second half of Proust as a realistic portrayal of fin-de-siècle heterosexual behavior.

That said, there are attractions of this book, part of them based on the premise. Kenneth Toomey, the narrator and main presence of the book, is fairly transparently modeled on Somerset Maugham, a writer of popular fiction who’s now mostly forgotten. Maugham wrote a lot of short stories, not a few set in colonial southeast Asia. The Razor’s Edge, turned into a film in 1946 and 1984 (with Bill Murray), spawned a thousand Westerner goes to India for sacred knowledge plots. His travel writing is interesting for what it leaves out – in The Gentleman in the Parlour, for example, he presents himself as wandering alone through the wilds of southeast Asia, when in fact he was traveling with his boyfriend. Native people are almost entirely absent, or wildly imagined; Maugham’s world is populated by Europeans. Burgess arrived in Malaya at the point where it was clear the British empire was not long for the world; his trilogy of books on Malaya (and one following based on his time in Brunei, which is moved, for legal reasons, to Africa) are consciously a rewriting of Maugham’s colonial narratives. Burgess bothered to learn Malay; while the books are very much of their time, they can be profitably read. The idea of fictionalizing Maugham’s life is not a bad one (and nicely mirrors Maugham’s own fictionalization of the life of Aleister Crowley in The Magician) – although maybe 1980 was too soon to do it, as Maugham wasn’t as eclipsed as he would yet be, and Burgess’s attitudes were more colonialist than he probably realized.

That’s part of this book. Another tension between Maugham and Burgess was Maugham’s status as a middle-brow writer and Burgess’s high-brow taste. Burgess’s Toomey is set out as being a high-minded writer of trash that he knows is trash, though it pays the bills. This is slightly confusing in today’s world: the one thing we have over the rich is our taste, but the rich steadfastly fail to recognize that, being of the not unreasonable opinion that their tastes are correlated with their wealth. Despite his unending success, Toomey keeps putting out competent material that he thinks is beneath him; this continues until his end. Toomey’s tastes seem to mirror those of Burgess; he is born at the right time so that he can be in Paris in the right time, and while he is friendly enough with Joyce to refer to him as Jim, Toomey’s taste for Joyce doesn’t translate to artistic production influenced by Joyce. He refuses to defend Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness on aesthetic grounds. As the book progresses – Toomey’s life seems to span from around 1890 to the 1970s – his taste leans to misoneism: he hates the youth, but has nothing to show but a series of productions that made the middle class of previous generations entertained.

It’s smashed, however, into another novel – almost in the way Herschel Parker argues that Melville self-sabotaged Pierre. – by the decision to make Toomey (and most of the other characters) Catholic. The young Toomey can’t reconcile his homosexuality with his family’s Catholicism; he declares himself to be not of the church, but remains a fellow traveler, declaiming on the Church’s definitions of marriage and divorce, as well as periodically declaring things to be (with apparent seriousness) blasphemy. His sister, whose most serious relationship is a lesbian one, likewise remains in the Church. Toomey’s sister marries into a Milanese family; her husband, a musician, is written off early because his music is like George Antheil’s and because he has affairs, which violate the sanctity of marriage. Her husband’s brother is the other main character of the novel; he is a priest who eventually becomes Pope in the late 1950s, a strange combination of John XXIII and a character from The Exorcist. Toomey manages to be everywhere in the twentieth century, ending up at a version of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple which comes to a bad end in the Mojave Desert rather than in Guyana; this unlikely occurrence is the culmination of a strand of the novel concerned with morality and the way in which Satan acts in the world, ending up being a bizarre argument for turning back to the Latin rite.

It’s very hard to know what to make of this. Maybe this is a great conservative novel, though almost everyone in this comes off as a buffoon. It is narrated in the first person by Toomey; we are always in his perspective, and although it is clear that he is not the most reliable narrator, it seems like we are meant to respect his aesthetic judgments (which take up a good portion of the novel). Toomey’s judgment and tiresome fondness for word play seem extremely similar to Burgess’s. There are a few nice things in there, but there’s a lot not to like: non-white characters is uniformly cringe-inducing, women come off very poorly, other gay people come off poorly.

The book is reminiscent, in its focus on the intersections of creation and belief, of Gaddis’s The Recognitions, though that book, flawed, it has to be said, by the homophobia of its times, is explicitly secular and a great deal more guarded. There’s also a certain similarity to Gore Vidal’s memoirs, written years after this; those books are also narratives of a peripatetic life spent wandering through the highlights of the twentieth century with some amount of fabulation – I believe Burgess turns up in there. James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz cycle is more authentically musical and Joycean than Earthly Powers wants to be, though more geographically circumscribed. Earthly Powers loses something from being read after those books, and after Burgess’s own autobiographies, from which the reader realizes that much of what transpires in the novel has some correspondence to Burgess’s own history or enthusiasms – it is hard to imagine Toomey’s adventures in rural Malaya or his run-in with Maltese tax authorities playing a part in the novel if they hadn’t in Burgess’s own, and they feel tacked on.

Maybe I’ll change my mind with this given time. Burgess is an interesting writer, though he always feels like a smart person who has never met any other smart people and doesn’t know how to behave because he assumes everyone is stupider than he is; this ends up feeling like a text for a church of one. He’s gifted with language in a way that few are, though the puns never reach Joycean levels; of his books, I would only really say that I like the autobiographies and ABBA ABBA, though I do keep coming back.

ray johnson + william s. wilson, “frog pond splash”

Frog Pond Splash

Frog Pond Splash
Collages by Ray Johnson
with Texts by William S. Wilson
edited by Elizabeth Zuba
(Siglio, 2020)

It’s hard for me to know what to make of this book.

This is a book that will be picked up by most people because of one of the names on the cover – Ray Johnson – and it is indeed an attractive compilation of some of his work. I don’t have a sense of where Ray Johnson is in the cultural pantheon of the moment; the newcomer might be advised to start with John Walter’s documentary How to Draw a Bunny, which captures something of Johnson and his world. The Johnson pieces in here are mostly familiar to me; the value of this work comes from the text about the images, excerpts from the correspondence of William S. Wilson. (His With Ray: The Art of Friendship is the other place I’d start thinking about Johnson’s work.)

What’s confusing to me about this book is entirely subjective: I was a friend of Bill Wilson’s from soon after I moved to New York until his death. Bill sent me mountains of correspondence, both by mail and email, easily hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pages. I am not particularly special in this — Bill corresponded with many, many people, most more interesting than I. The fragments of letters that make up this book could have been pulled from letters he sent to me; reading through this is an odd experience, like overhearing a conversation and not knowing whether you should be or not.

I met Bill at the launch party for Joseph McElroy’s Actress in the House – my roommate at the time had met him on a bus coming back from an anti-war march in Washington, and was surprised when I knew his work. Bill was the first person we met at Joe’s party; he was pleased I’d read his book of short stories, Why I Don’t Write like Franz Kafka, claiming, probably facetiously, that he’d never met someone who’d known him from his fiction. Bill was soon deluging me with correspondence; I dropped by his house in Chelsea on a semi-regular basis for show-and-tell sessions, where he’d show me art, talk about his writing, and invariably loading me down with books that he thought I might be interested in. Sometimes he’d throw parties and you never knew who would turn up – Carolee Schneemann and Alison Knowles, of course, sometimes Dorothea Rockburne, occasionally Billy Name, once a rather wrecked Ultra Violet. Bill was a bridge to a lost world: Nam June Paik and Lee Lozano had lived in his house. He’d shown Christo around the city when he first arrived. His mother, living in the Chelsea Hotel, had kept Valerie Solanas’s gun under her bed. Ray Johnson had brought Marcel Duchamp to visit.

But this is to the side. Bill had a Ph.D. in Chaucer, though he’d taught fiction writing (at the party when I met him, Rick Moody, a former student, suggested he was a malign influence); in the time that I knew him, however, he wrote about art: sometimes about his mother’s work, mostly about the work of his friends Eva Hesse and Ray Johnson. A key part of knowing Bill – from within a week of meeting him – was getting mail from him (with emails alongside mentioning that something was in the mail, often elaborating on mail that couldn’t have been received), and the sudden vertiginous feeling that one had been inserted into a complex network of nodes and edges that wasn’t entirely comprehensible. Part of this was being sent large pieces – ten or twenty pages at a time – of writing that he was working on, refining his thinking on Johnson or Hesse, never from the beginning, always in medias res; making sense of this was compounded by the inclusion of forwarded commentary on his previous writings by other correspondents, who might not be introduced. Part of this was Bill’s method: he wouldn’t explain something, opening it up as a space for discussion, something to be questioned and then explored.

And so the fragments that are in this book feel very familiar – I don’t think any of the particular texts were sent to me, though any of them might have been, and many of the themes feel familiar. Bill reworked ideas over and over, wringing them out: his interactions with Ray Johnson in particular, from their first meeting to his death, were reimagined and rethought again and again. Part of this is that Ray Johnson’s life was inextricable from his art: a piece of art could never be separated from the context in which it came into the world, the people or things referenced in it, and the interactions around it.

But there is a key difference here in seeing letters from Bill to other people excepted in a book and seeing letters to other people excepted as part of correspondence from Bill. A letter is usually sent to one person: it has a recipient in mind (though it may be waylaid, or passed along, or shared). A book is different: while it may be difficult to acquire a book for whatever reason, a book is (generally speaking) designed so that anyone may read it. (Analogously: email versus the open web.) A key point in communication with Bill was that a communication was valuable in proportion to the specificity of the recipient: something that could be said to everyone wasn’t as interesting as something that could only be said to one person. Bill was interested in the meaning that the person he was communicating with could uniquely convey to him – and he assumed conversely as well.

This isn’t dissimilar, of course, to what Ray Johnson was doing with mail art: he was interested in investigating the connections between people more than the people themselves. His collages read differently to different people: picking up one of Ray’s pieces, Bill could pull out endless chains of association because he was close to the maker; meaning that dissipates when the works are seen on a gallery wall — unless two people are standing in front of the work. One could put the collages in a book and provide a key to the meanings; but this is a very different kind of experience than direct connection with another person. A letter can’t help but reach its destination, Bill was fond of noting – then invariably encouraging me to read Derrida’s The Post Card, a book he had talked through with Ray Johnson.

I knew Bill for the last fifteen years of his life; in all that time he was writing furiously, working through the problems he had set himself. Every once in a while he’d publish something small – essays for catalogues, usually – but there was always the sense that these were fascicles of a greater whole. Certainly Bill could have written many books if he had wanted to – he wrote thousands of pages while I knew him. He didn’t, and I’m not sure how to read that – I’ve wondered about this since his death. Bill would invoke Harold Brodkey as the great writer in his life, and it’s temping to read Bill’s silence as fear of ending up where Brodkey did with The Runaway Soul. I think, rather, that Bill – as bookish a person as you can imagine – might have moved past the book as a form, finding the meaning that others would take from the publication of a book in the give and take of correspondence about his writing. Looked at this way, Bill’s correspondence is his great work; the hundreds of personal connections he had with the people he wrote back and forth to. (The book that more than any other gives a real idea of Bill is his friend L. S. Asekoff’s book-length poem Freedom Hill, a set of monologues in Bill’s voice.)

Everything exists to end in a book, Mallarmé said, and now more than ever the book is inevitable. The book is how knowledge makes its way across time; that isn’t something to be dismissed lightly. But a book, at the same time, is something frozen: snapshots of a life, of thoughts, of communication. None of this is to say that this isn’t a good book – it is that, and I’m glad that it’s in the world. But at the same time it’s not the book that Bill would have written – this is very much Elizabeth Zuba’s book, and she deserves credit for it – and its existence can’t help to remind me of the book that was to come and will never come, something like Mallarmé’s book.

And it’s a book that makes me think, ultimately, of Bill and my relationship with him inevitably colors my relationship with this book. Early on in talking with him, still full of received ideas from school, I ventured the opinion that he couldn’t write objective criticism about people that he had known, that there was no critical distance. I was, not for the first time, missing the point and saying something foolish.

brad fox, “to remain nameless”

To Remain Nameless

Brad Fox
To Remain Nameless
(Rescue Press, 2020)

The narrative of the outside world in American writing is historically teleological in character, an attempt to answer thorny questions that might cast doubt on the American project: What is the non-American world for? Why should it exist? What does the rest of the world have that we do not, and does that mean that we are morally lacking in some way?

In nineteenth-century travel writing, the writing of the American abroad largely serves to emphasize the perfection of America itself. For Hawthorne and Mark Twain, Europe can be a helpful mirror for Americans, reminding the elect of the future of the preterition of the past. (Melville looks more deeply and sees not a mirror but a vertiginous abyss, the realization of how arbitrarily and shoddily constructed American assumptions were; the reading public was not pleased.) Another model might be found in Henry James, who found in Europe better subjects for himself: social complexity and aesthetic sensitivity lacking in America. He was more perceptive than anyone else and became European himself, followed by Gertrude Stein, who held on to her citizenship, thinking that she could remake Americans.

The most lasting book of the American abroad is one which goes entirely unread and unremembered except for its title, The Ugly American, which will never go away. Those who pick up Eugene Burdick & William J. Lederer’s book might be surprised to realize that the ugliness of the title is very literal: the hero of the novel is a rough-hewn American engineer living in an imaginary country in southeast Asia who — while the diplomatic corps are busy enjoying cocktails and servants and failing to understand anything at all — impresses the locals with his homespun ingenuity and common sense. We don’t have to be Communists, think the locals; we can live like this splendid ugly American man. And he can get rich! This book is why they started the Peace Corps.

The ugly Americans that followed were those of Eat, Pray, Love, My Crazy Year Abroad, seeing the rest of the world as objects for consumption for personal betterment, a way to self-definition. Then came Instagram, and then global travel ground to a halt. This comically oversimplifies the narrative, but the American narrative of the outside world has always been oversimplified. And now Brad Fox’s To Remain Nameless appears.

To Remain Nameless is a book that draws a period when the contours of twenty-first century geography had come firmly into view – cheap flights that went everywhere – but had not yet been fully subsumed by the Internet, the time before Google Maps on a phone promised to make the most exotic location immediately accessible – only a decade ago, but unreachable now. The time is soon after the Arab Spring, and there are presentiments of the world we live in now: Erdogan is consolidating power in Turkey, and Syria is heading towards collapse. Laura and Tess have been working with refugees and displaced people in the Balkans, Turkey, and Egypt, heirs to the mission of Lederer and Burdick, but working out their destinies for reasons entirely unrelated. They have been at their work to know that it can be hopeless, but they’re not quite jaded enough to give up. The novel is structured around Laura giving birth – back in New York to care for her dying mother, she unexpectedly becomes pregnant and asks her friend, based, at the moment, in Istanbul, to attend. Tess lets her mind wander over the long period of the birth, going over her history with Laura and the other lives that have intersected with theirs.

Laura’s giving birth is described in graphic detail and at length: while Tess’s attention wanders – perhaps 24 hours goes by in total – it returns, as it must, to her friend’s physical struggles in the delivery room. Tess thinks of other births that she has been present at; of her past with Laura; her own family, mostly her half-brother Max, her occasional companion in the Balkans before worryingly dropping out of touch at a monastery in Syria; and the people she has spent time with since leaving America. There is no climactic interaction between Laura and Tess: they are, at the moment, impossibly separated. But there is a shared experience: and shared experience is key to this book.

Shared experience is also a reflection of their work, repeated attempts to dive into the lives of those they are working with and living with – time spent laboriously learning the ins and outs of languages, and openness to cultural specificity, the overlap of cultures possible in the dawning years of the twenty-first century: a man born in Mexico of Syrian descent speaks words in Serbian over a computer in Beirut. The world they work in is full of pain, but also full of opportunities for those who open themselves up to it. Tess leaves the hospital looking for a meal and finds herself savoring terrible New York diner food, noting, while she waits for her takeout order, the young cook’s Greek, the story of travel across half the world that ends with her coffee, terrible in the way that only New York coffee can be. Back in America for a short visit, Tess can see more than she could before.

The individuals seen through Tess’s vision have an unintended dignity that’s not unlike what’s found in John Berger’s fiction. Or one might connect this book back to another nineteenth century American, Walt Whitman, who never managed to leave the country. Whitman’s ideas about democracy what America was or was not don’t come into play here. Rather, it’s his idea of adherence that comes into play: families make an anemic showing in this book (a dead mother, a half-brother), but there is a richness in elective affinities across cultures. The world of Laura and Tess is a social network of coworkers, friends, lovers before the dead hand of that idea reified brought the world we live in a decade later into being. Again this feels like a dispatch from a lost world where Facebook hadn’t yet abetted pogroms against the Rohingya.

Read now, To Remain Nameless is a book unexpectedly adrift in time, a book about Americans and their construction of identity through engagement with the wider world reaching readers at a time when an American passport is as close to useless as it has ever been. But a book structured around a birth – there are not so many – is inherently optimistic. Tess, in a moment of crisis:

To serve others, Tess thought. To live for others. To despise them, to have been disappointed, and still to work for them. To disbelieve in progress, in benefit, to think that everything backfires. So why do anything? (p. 23)

To Remain Nameless might be seen as a thinking through of this problem. Work as if you lived in the early days of a better country urged the late Alasdair Gray. Fox’s book might seem like a dispatch from an alternate history, one of better, more engaged people in a world less fraught than the one we live in now, a world dominated by ugly Americans who fail to understand anything for their gain and everyone else’s loss. But it is still our world.

mok zining, “the orchid folios”

Mok Zining
The Orchid Folios
(Ethos Books, Singapore; 2020)

I periodically read the fiction and poetry of Singapore, trying to be a good resident, ever hopeful that I will find something that I think is interesting. There’s a thriving literary industry, if not a profitable one, in Singapore (in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay as well as English, though there’s not much cross-translation); it’s generally competent, though most isn’t that inspiring, though that’s true of anywhere. But having read all Singaporean poetry, say, is still an achievable goal, if one has the desire to be so thorough. As an outsider making one’s way through the mass of Singaporean writing, it becomes possible to see why, for example, certain works would have been important historically; the contours of scenes present and past become visible. This type of reading is sociological rather than specifically aesthetic; that’s fine for my purposes, as one can read the literary productions of a culture as a way of coming to understand that culture. But what one ends up noticing when reading this way is the quirks: there’s a strong inclination towards science fiction over realism in contemporary Singaporean fiction, and Christianity – as subject and as a quarry for metaphor – shows up with astonishing frequency. These are books that are important to certain readerships and have their uses, though I’m not sure that I find them useful to me as a reader. In a world where a staggeringly high percentage of books are available nearly anywhere nearly instantaneously, there’s almost always something that seems more important for me to be reading.

I could, if pressed, come up with a handful of Singaporean books that I would recommend to non-Singaporean readers. I wish this number were bigger: Singapore is a place that’s probably more interesting than it imagines itself to be. The term that outsiders have a hard time getting around for Singapore is “boring”; much of the country could be mistaken for a well-heeled suburb of Los Angeles with a government that functions. Malaysia and Indonesia, twenty miles away on different directions, do not feel like that. What’s not immediately obvious, however, is that that feeling of boredom isn’t inherent; rather, it’s achieved. People successfully made Singapore boring. For me there’s an analogy to the American Midwest, a place that’s similarly boring. One looks at hundreds of miles of identical fields of corn or wheat or soybeans and forgets that the land wasn’t a terra nullius: there are thousands of years of human history in the Midwest – and a genocide! – that are forgotten, if they were ever remembered, when we look at the land and call it boring. The seeming blandness of Singapore functions similarly, though it’s complicated by colonialism and the struggle for independence. Singapore has done very well for itself since independence, though it’s done astonishingly little reflection on what it means to have escaped colonialism. Walking past police stations, for example, one sees posters congratulating the Singapore police on their two-hundredth anniversary. This is strange: the police spent three-quarters of their history keeping the non-white populations down. But this is not out of character. Stamford Raffles, who signed off on the acquisition of the island for the British Empire, is largely celebrated for having created something out of nothing, that something being today’s Singapore.

Which is all by way of introduction to Mok Zining’s The Orchid Folios, which uses the orchid as a lens to look at the past and present of Singapore, managing by this to present a clearer picture of what the country is like than any other recent volume I can think of. This is a book probably best considered as poetry, though it’s full of historical documents and illustrations, some annotated, and there are sections of what appears to be fiction. The approach wouldn’t feel out of place in the contemporary visual arts world, one can imagine a version of this book presented as an installation; the word hybrid feels too easy but is entirely apt. Susan Howe in “Sorting Facts” gets at the sort of language this is, mutatis mutandis:

. . . I am an American poet writing in the English language. I have loved watching films all my life. I work in the poetic documentary form, but didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.

(in The Quarry, p. 94)

It might be easiest to start by looking at how The Orchid Folios deals with the structure of history, which isn’t dissimilar to Howe’s investigations into American literary history. One of the book’s narrative threads starts in 1893, when Henry Ridley, director of the Singapore Botanical Garden, sends a new orchid hybrid back to London where it is acclaimed. That orchid, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, would become Singapore’s national flower in 1981; the orchid has been embraced by the country as a symbol, and Singapore has gone on to create hybrid orchids for any number of visiting dignitaries. (Margaret Thatcher was given her own orchid.) Mostly occluded in this telling is the person who was actually responsible for the initial hybridization – not Ridley, but one Agnes Joaquim, a woman of Armenian descent, who has, aside from her name, almost entirely vanished from history. Glory goes to the structures of power; one remembers that the Singapore Botanical Gardens, one of the glories of the country, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, was started not to be the pleasure garden that it’s become, but rather to find ways for the Empire to exploit the vegetation of the tropics. Now it’s the national center for orchid breeding.

Besides this narrative, Mok excerpts documents concerning the founding of Singapore. The official narrative can be found inscribed on a plinth under a statue by the Singapore River in four languages:


Although this feels like a colonial relic, a note points out that this monument was actually added in 1972, after the country had become fully independent. This is a narrative complicated by actual history: in a letter from Raffles to his patron in 1819, Mok blacks out a phrase describing the situation of the island and places it on the facing page, pointing out that Raffles didn’t think of Singapore as an “obscure fishing village”:

the site of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays, and within the walls of these fortifications, raised not less than six centuries ago,

Four years later, Raffles, temporarily triumphing over death, again writes to his patron and again Mok excerpts a bit of his letter:

where, if my bones must remain in the East, they would have the honour of mixing with the ashes of the Malayan kings, and the result has been, that instead of dying, I have almost entirely recovered.

In between Raffles’s correspondence, he has been laying out a plan for the city he imagines, where different ethnic groups will be carefully segregated; he is angry at William Farquahar, his lieutenant – and the man who did most of the actual work involved in founding the colony – for neglecting his plan. It is not exactly novel, of course, to be pointing out the racism and wrong-headedness of the British colonial project. What Mok is more interested in is how things can be selectively forgotten; in Singapore’s case for seemingly pragmatic reasons. Another quotation, from government minister S. Rajaratnam in 1984, where he explains that Singapore’s history before 1819 is lost to the mists of time:

. . . from our point of view, to push a Singaporean’s historic awareness beyond 1819 would have been a misuse of history; to plunge Singapore into the kind of genocidal madness that racial, communal and religious imperialism is today devastating so many underdeveloped and even developed countries.

Neocolonialism succeeds colonialism; what can be preserved and what is forgotten are powers reserved to the state. Raffles wasn’t actually in Singapore long enough to do anything terribly bad – his time in Java is another story – so he can be kept around. On another level, contemporary Singapore takes from the British Empire the core of its legal code; it also takes (and upholds) the Empire’s Victorian racial distinctions, slotting everyone into the CMIO (Chinese/­Malay/­Indian/­Other) framework that the British used, dumping those that can’t fit into a named category – or those that go in between – into “other.” Something similar happens with Singapore’s linguistic policies, which also come under scrutiny in this book.

At the same time, Singapore does celebrate – at least on paper, at least with orchids – the idea of hybridity as being central to the identity of the nation. There are tensions here on multiple levels, a biological messiness pulling against official urge to structure. Using the orchid, Mok casts this in botanical terms: growth can be defined in a monopodial way, which notates the plant growing from root to flower:

[root] [main stem] [leaf] [inflorescence]

A few pages later, however, the sympodial model of growth is described, which “allows variation of thought / to coexist as rhythmic / shoots.” The monopodial diagram is graphically complicated: while there is always a root, what were “main stem,” “leaf,” and “inflorescence” in the monopodial arrangement can here be a variety of different things: “leaf / pseudobulb / eye / rhizome / rhizome / new root”. A straight line becomes multidimensional: the growth of an orchid is more complex than the monopodial model allows. In the real world, boundaries are not as clear as we’d like to imagine. A leaf may be a root; the boundaries between plants are nebulous. A statement may be read in multiple ways. Legal categories don’t map on to biological realities. Language will always escape any structures authorities put up for it.

My treatment of this book is blunter than it needs to be, attempting to present it to an audience that might not be familiar with Singapore; I’m giving short shrift to much of the content of the book as well as most of its charms. Mok flips through forms deftly – there’s a page that might be torn from Laurence Sterne – but the result is a book that’s accessible but deep. This is a book that resembles those of Claudia Rankine, Nathalie Léger, and Sven Lindqvist (as suggested above); at the same time, it doesn’t presume knowledge of the literary traditions that it springs from, which might help it find a local readership. It’s also, necessarily, a delicate book: clearly attributed quotations are necessary to interrogate the history of a country that doesn’t have freedom of the press. (Local playwright Alfian Sa’at, who provides an epigraph for the book, was bafflingly demonized in the recent election for not loving Singapore enough; one might argue that one reason for the preponderance of science fiction in Singapore fiction is its useful indirection.)

Mok uses poetry and the placement of words and images on the pages as ways to think through the world she lives in. It’s a valuable book, and I’m curious what the local response will be. But this is a book that deserves an audience outside of Singapore as well, and it deserves attention.

eugene burdick & william lederer, “the ugly american”

the cover of The Ugly America Eugene Burdick and William Lederer
The Ugly American
(Norton, 1958)

This is a book that probably isn’t read very much any more, and if it’s remembered, it’s for the title, which has a common usage that is entirely at odds with what the authors intended. But it is still somehow in print – one would expect more for historical interest than anything else, though the Amazon reviews suggest otherwise. I had seen the not particularly good film version with Marlon Brando, which features the Thai novelist and politician Kukrit Pramoj as a southeast Asian prime minister before he actually became the prime minister of Thailand; but despite now being an American who’s lived in southeast Asia for coming up on five years, I’d never actually looked at the book until I finally got around to reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and started wondering about American responses to that book. Read sixty years later, The Ugly American is more than a little astonishing.

The Wikipedia page gives a reasonable background on the book some sense of its effects on the world: it’s credited there with being the impetus for the creation of the Peace Corps. It might also bear some responsibility for American actions in southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. While it is hard to make an argument for this being particularly good fiction (it is not a “novel,” as Wikipedia confidently declares), it is clearly successful fiction, shaping American perceptions of what southeast Asia was like. (In this, it’s not dissimilar to Anna Leonowen’s The King and I, a deeply fictionalized memoir of her service to Rama IV of Siam; in several further incarnations, must notably the Yul Brynner-starring musical, it continues to shape American perceptions of Thailand. Peal Buck’s The Good Earth, now mostly forgotten, also falls into this category.) And for this reason, it might be worth reading now: not necessarily to inquire whether the book is an accurate depiction or not, but to think about how this book has been read, and what a book can do.

Read historically, this is a somewhat flummoxing book. Most of it takes place in an imaginary country, Sarkhan; geographically, this appears to roughly be a stand-in for Vietnam, though Vietnam also appears in the book. Confusingly there is no mention of colonialism until halfway through the book, when the ambassador to Sarkhan goes to Vietnam to aid the French forces there fighting the Communists. What the French are doing in Vietnam, or why they should be fighting the Communists, is not explained. Nor is Sarkhan’s colonial status explained. One might assume that since Sarkhan has seemingly not been colonized (and is led by an all-powerful king) that it’s modeled on Thailand, the only state in southeast Asia that was not colonized. These distinctions matter a great deal: Communism’s success in southeast Asia was as a direct response to the predations of colonialism. In The Ugly American, Communism is an evil virus, kind of like hoof and mouth disease, that just tends to spring up among backwards people.

It is not a surprise how much racism there is in this book, or how many grand generalizations are made about the seemingly monolithic Asian character. What’s surprising is how unthinkingly casual it is. Here, for example, is a description of two servants of the American ambassador:

Donald and Roger were both elderly Chinese. The only English words they knew were the names given them by their American employers and a few necessary household terms. They had been trusted servants of the Embassy since an American ambassador to Sarkhan had hired them in 1939. They worked with an efficiency, dedication, and kindliness that never failed to touch Ambassador MacWhite. They often helped Molly with the boys. They were both excellent cooks and superb butlers. They were, somehow, a symbol of the decent Asian, and they made the entire struggle in which Ambassador MacWhite was engaged meaningful and important. They represented the honor and morality which had been taught by Confucius. (chapter 9)

It should be surprising to absolutely no one, after this loving description, that Donald and Roger turn out to know English and to be Communist spies; Donald is tortured into confessing by another “good Asian,” an Episcopal representative of Chiang Kai-shek, over to have martinis with the ambassador. Ambassador MacWhite, whose perspective this is from, is meant to be the keyed-in ambassador, replacing the know-nothing ambassador; he’s the one who goes to Vietnam to help to French fight the Communists. His idea that the “decent Asian” should be a servant educated just to the point of usefulness isn’t examined any further. (There are echoes here, as well, of more domestic American attitudes towards race. Later, a black American turns up, having joined the French Foreign Legion, presumably to distance himself from 1950s America; for his trouble, the authors have one of his eyes torn out by the Communists.) Donald and Roger are symptomatic of the portrayal of Asians in this book: except for one at the end, they all manage to betray their American friends.

Structurally, the book is a collection of 17 vignettes, mostly drawn around one character. Some of these are clearly fictionalized versions of real people; some might be recognizable to a reader with more historical knowledge than I have. Those who work for the State Department are almost uniformly buffoonish. I can’t tell how accurate a depiction of the State Department in southeast Asia in the 1950s this is: maybe everyone was getting drunk all the time, not bothering to learn languages, and glorying in having servants. The solutions proposed (not being drunk all the times, learning languages, talking with locals) do seem reasonable, if perhaps obvious. But the cartoonish view of the locals throws the book off wildly: if only, it suggests, someone smarter explained to them that Communism was evil, they would be on our side. This obviously worked out well.

Two more things worth noting about this book. Someone must have noticed that this seems to be the urtext of Thomas Friedman’s style of column-writing, especially the characters who are lauded, caricatures of hard-working Americans trying to press their commonsense ideas on the less fortunate of the world who haven’t been lucky enough to hear their homespun wisdom. Homer Atkins, one of these characters, is a level-headed engineer, the Ugly American of the book’s title. He knows by looking at his hands that he is ugly, but that somehow reminds him of his superior inner qualities. This hamfisted metaphor managed to enshrine the “ugly American” in the English language, but the book’s complete lack of control over its reception is impressive. The ugly American as now understood has nothing at all to do with what the book is meant to convey. It has a lot to do with what the book didn’t intend to convey.

dexter palmer, “version control”

Dexter Palmer
Version Control
(Pantheon, 2016)

I am probably not the person who should be reviewing this book, which is a time travel novel: I’m not especially familiar with how the trope has been used historically in the novel and elsewhere (my science-fiction reading has been nothing if not scattershot), and I’m certain that I’m oblivious to many of this novel’s engagements with past work in the field. It’s abundantly clear that Dexter Palmer is well-versed in the subject, and the reader who isn’t as well-informed is going to be missing parts of Version Control, maybe too much to have a full critical sense of what’s going on in the novel. With that caveat, I’ll continue: it’s an interesting book even for an amateur to think about, and I sense that it’s a book that deserves more critical reading than it’s received.

At the heart of this book, as the title suggests, is a consideration of different models of version control. This is important for understanding what’s going on here – and what’s interesting in the book as a whole. The characters distinguish between two forms. First, fork and merge, where different people can work on different chunks of code at the same time; the inevitable conflicts need to be manually sorted out. Second, lock, checkout, unlock: only one person can be working on the code at a particular time. The first is what is most commonly used when more than one person is involved in creation (this is the method that underlies things like Github); the second quickly becomes a pain and slows development.

In the novel, a government figure – who functions as a deus ex machina in this book – insists that a condition for the government funding the time machine the physicists are working on is that they use lock/check-out/unlock. This restriction is seemingly arbitrary; the characters are unhappy about this, but attempt to deal with this forced linearization of their project. This is also key to how Palmer’s concept of time travel differs from most others: in this version, if a person goes back to a moment in their own past, there would not be two people running around, but only a single one. The possibility of time travel here is frustrating (consciously changing the past is out of the question), though perhaps more useful as a thought device.

The government figure’s name is Cheever. This could be read as a reference to John Cheever; at a slight stretch, one could also point to Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevy,” a drunken man consumed with the past. (An unseen associate who turns up later goes by Sidney, perhaps a reference to the author of the Faerie Queen.) Cheever the character might be better understood as a man behind the curtain pulling the strings of the plot – in a sense, he’s a stand-in for the author, a slight intrusion of metafiction. Without him, there is no time machine; without him, there is no book.

A central condition of prose as we generally understand it is linearity: one word follows another, building up to form sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books. The reader is forced into linearity: we read words in sequence, building a picture of a world out of that sequence. This constraint of time is more pronounced when you look at how a plot in a book happens as opposed to how a plot in a video game might happen: there the narrative might be different every time the game is played. (One Dickian touch in the book is a CGI President, who says different things to different people simultaneously: he is all things to all people, but has no being as a person who lives a life from birth to death.) Version Control is committed to linearity, even in its model of time travel: the book doesn’t exist in a multiverse of possibilities but in a single line through time. The characters are full of regret: but they can’t go back in time to fix things, only to mindlessly change things.

This isn’t exactly to say that Version Control is straightforward. The reader reads Version Control linearly: but at certain points, one flips back to previous points and re-reads, understanding differently. A dinner party early in the book ends badly; the next day, two characters talk about what happen, and it is directly revealed that one of the characters is black. Reading the scene a second time with that added knowledge, the scene becomes uncomfortably racist; the reader may be uncomfortably confronted with his own assumptions.

The reader, then, has more control than the characters do. But the reader is also consciously stepping into a constructed environment. The reader understands that certain devices that appear early in the book are Chekhov’s guns, and that the plot will have to get to a point where they can be used. (Can one have a time travel novel where the time travel device doesn’t work? I imagine this has been done, but as I’ve said, I’m not as familiar with the genre as I might be.) It’s not incidental that a minor character is a Unitarian minister, agonizing over the minimal possibilities for God’s intervention in the world.

A better-read reader than I would draw more from this book. I was reminded of both of Shane Carruth’s movies – the second perhaps more than the first, though the first is more apropos – and Philip K. Dick (probably inevitable, more for the slightly dystopian universe created here than for the ways that time travel tends to play out in his novels). There’s a certain similarity with Orlando: the sense of continuity across time through biography. Towards the end of the book, a character is reading Ulysses: it seems pointed that the character is not reading Finnegans Wake, with its Viconian cycles, a very different model of the world than is presented here. But maybe the best way to think of this book might be as an exegesis of Mulholland Drive: the narrative splits in the middle; the second half is a variation of the first.

jerzy kosiński, “the hermit of 69th street”

Jerzy Kosiński
The Hermit of 69th Street: The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky
(Zebra Books, 1988, 1991)

I can’t imagine there’s a great demand for the work of Jerzy Kosiński at this point in time: he’s remembered first as a vague fraud and second as the writer of Being There. (Maybe the latter, providentially plagiarized, will lead to a reassessment at the present political moment?) The Painted Bird used to be omnipresent in used book stores and presumably was still finding an audience of sorts; but the decline of used book stores has probably hurt its chances of finding an unsuspecting reader. I suspect there’s an edition of Steps out with a contrarian David Foster Wallace blurb, though I don’t know if even his endorsement would save the book. There’s certainly no demand for Kosiński’s last novel, The Hermit of 69th Street, though it’s been on one of my to-read lists for a while; and I was happy to come across an embossed mass-market paperback (printed a month before the author committed suicide) in a used book store in Los Angeles.

It is hard to imagine a stranger mass-market paperback. Almost every page is footnoted. The subtitle (“The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky”) gives a sense of the conceit: a writer, blatantly a stand-in for Kosiński himself (p. 10: “the year 1966 saw the publication of the unexpurgated edition of his first fictional tale, about a little Gypsy or Jewish toddler during World War II”), is trying to write a book, and (having been accused of citational looseness in the past) is citing everything for his editors/fact checkers/proofreaders. The text is larded with quotations, some real, some imaginary, bolded and italicized at whim; their citations are capricious and often willfully annoying.

I don’t know enough about Kosiński’s life to know exactly how close this matches or doesn’t match his own; the promotional blurb in the front matter of the book says that Kosiński dubbed it an “autofiction” (citation needed, though the word is repeated on the back cover; looking into what the word “autofiction” meant in 1992 might be useful). I’ll also say that I don’t particularly care that much about Kosiński’s hoaxing or status as a fake (not mentioned in the book’s promotional elements, though they would have been well known when this was published), though it’s hard to escape how much this book seems like an apologia: this is manifestly a book about fact-checking and the process of making books. At the same time, the book has a cavalier disregard for actual fact-checking. On p. 23, for example, the narrator (who is not Kosky) reports:

Thus among its newest sex ads, the seven character cryptogram USA-GIRL is, in fact, 872-4475, while the innocent looking 825-5739 can mean ISS-SINS and JKJ-KISS turns into 955-5477.

Looking at a telephone keypad (or even a dial!) would have shown anyone that while the first is correct, the second and third aren’t close to being so. There’s the same looseness with the book’s many citations. A representative passage:

Kosky trusts Dustin’s intuition. It is purely American since, as his name indicates, Dustin comes from a very pure Boston family. Propelled by an inner wind, Reverend Dan Beach Bradley Borell,(4) Dustin’s most revered ancestor, bravely sailed from Massachusetts all the way to Bangkok, where he – a typical Boston Brahmin! – hoped to introduce the Gospel to Siamese Brahmans – the all-time champs of what is latest in the art of meditation – to start a Meditational Church in Siam. (p. 103)

There’s a footnote:

4. The Reverend Dan Beach Bradley, M.D., author of Medical Missionary in Siam, 1836–1873, op cit., was “one of the many proper Boston Brahmins fascinated by the Orient and by its rigorous – almost puritanical – physical and mental discipline.” (Kosky, A Floating Lotus Lecture, 1986).

I choose this passage since Mr. Bradley and his two wives are buried five minutes down the street from me in the Bangkok Protestant Cemetery, which is why I happen to know about him. Today anyone can go to Wikipedia and learn about him; however, when this book was written I suspect he was unknown to almost all of Kosinski’s readers. There are a few odd things to note here. While Bradley studied at Harvard and did sail from Boston, his family was from New York, not Boston Brahmins; and his last name was not “Borell”. (As far as I can tell, this is done so that Dustin, “the nation’s supreme literary accountant,” can be referred to as “Mr. Beach Borell”: there are a lot of puns in this book.) A Floating Lotus Lecture is fictional; Medical Missionary in Siam, 1836–1873 is cited a bit oddly, as it’s probably Abstract of the Journal of Rev. Dan Beach Bradley, M. D. Medical Missionary in Siam 1835–1873 a posthumous collection published in 1936. After the quoted text, Bradley exits the book’s narrative for almost four hundred pages, until he calls the protagonist, who answers “Good to hear from you Reverend Dan” and there’s another footnote:

8. Rev. Dan Beach Bradley, M.D., “had an impressive number of accomplishments: He played a leading role in the introduction of printing to Siam; he was the first person to perform a surgical role in that country, and, after years of futile experimentation, in 1840 he performed the first successful vaccinations for smallpox. His was the first newspaper to be published in Siam, and it was he who printed the first royal decree (against the sale of opium) that came off a press in Bangkok. Most of all, he was a respected friend of the Siamese people, and through his journalistic enterprises in particular, he looked after Siam’s national interest in its relations with France and England.” From William L. Bradley’s Siam Then: The Foreign Colony in Bangkok Before and After Anna (1981). (p. 488)

What, exactly, is Reverend Bradley doing here? I will assume that Siam Then came into Kosiński’s library at some point and was raided for the quotation. Certainly the life and work of Anna Leonowens – whose deeply fictionalized memoirs The King and I were based on – seems more apropos to Kosiński’s project, though she’s only mentioned in the citation. I can’t make sense of what he’s doing here: and in this, he’s not unlike many of the book’s seemingly arbitrary quotations. Kosiński’s citations are willfully capricious and often seem a bit off (e.g. the text refers to “such films as Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)” and a footnote reads “Shoah, an Oral History of the Holocaust, the complete Text of the Film by Claude Lanzmann, preface by Simone de Beauvoir, Pantheon Books, N. Y. 1985”); verifying them wouldn’t be terribly hard at this point in time, but it’s not clear that it would be particularly useful.

There are a huge number of these citations; I can’t tell that they add up to anything, but the effect is that of a massive commonplace book, a sense of what Kosinski the person was reading. There’s a hint later in the book:

His head swimming from the overflow of seminal thoughts (“the brain’s semen” Jay Kay) Kosky takes out from his ever present shoulder-bag a bunch of Plot-Quote cards, “the portable table game of literary invention,” in the words of the nameless inventor. Each card contains a short fragment from a certain novel. The body then becomes, as it were, a Book of Revelation. In it is condensed much of out secret history. In it are latent the necessities of our future. (Gina Cerminara, op. cit., p. 69) (p. 400)

The bold text is of course Kosiński’s. Perhaps this is an admission of the process that constructed this book: quotations chosen at random and assembled to construct a book. Another quote:

Writing is creation. The Hellenistic period saw the birth of the novel. The earliest complete specimen, that of Chariton, is not later than the second century of our era, and the genre is certainly earlier. (A.D. Nock) Kosky cannot write his own story telling story – a full length novel at that – without writing, one way or another, about the very lengths to which a storyteller must go in his various trials of the writing process. Here, don’t confuse process with trial, particularly not the writing process with putting a writer’s writing – worse yet, a writer! – on trial. And writing means to him, skoaling life in the sizzling Swedish fashion since it is the Swedes who, awarding yearly the Nobel prize to a novel (not the other way around printer!) consider fiction – that is, a novel, or even a novella – more powerful than dynamite invented by Nobel. (p. 377–8)

Again, the bolds and italics are Kosiński’s, as is the capricious punctuation; I’ve left out a long footnote that’s another quote from Nock’s book about the recognition plot. Here we almost get an interesting defense of the writer’s ideas about creation and originality before it gets lost in dumb puns and alliteration.

* * * * *

This is a tiresome book. (This is at least partially intentional: pedantry is key to what Kosiński’s trying to get at, though he undercuts himself by being unreliable.) Every character speaks in exactly the same way, using dumb puns, copious and recondite literary quotations, and ending half of their sentences with exclamation points, which, combined with the often randomly sprinkled-in quotations, sometimes gives the reader the impression of stumbling upon a novelization of a particularly depressing Mary Worth. Every female character is a sex object; the male characters all leer or don’t lear because they are gay. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fetishization of copy editors and proofreaders, the book has been sloppily edited. The book’s length appears to be an effort to physically wear out the reader; not much would be lost if this were a tenth of its length.

Part of the interest of this book is its status as a roman-à-clef: a good literary historian could certainly dig through the characters and pin names on them. There’s a lot of score-settling. But at this distance, who really cares that, for example, Kosiński hated Hannah Arendt? At least as much time, if not more, is devoted to a recounting of the protagonist’s handing out of awards at the Oscars (as Kosiński did); there is a spirited defense of polo as a sport, and I will assume that Kosiński was criticized by someone for being a polo enthusiast.

One wonders whether the book was actually meant to be read: it almost seems like an act of self-sabotage in the tradition of Melville’s Pierre, a novel reworked to be about failure in the literary world. (Moby-Dick is mentioned in passing in Hermit, but none of Melville’s other works.) It also seems to prefigure David Markson’s work from Reader’s Block on – if you took out the narrative and only left the literary examples from this book, you’d end up with something very much like a Markson novel, complete with the writer’s overdeveloped sense of self-pity. (I suspect that Kosiński figures into those books, though I haven’t gone back to check.)

There’s the gem of something interesting here: an author accused of literary crimes attempts to defend himself in fictions as the worlds of the protagonist and the author increasingly intertwine. (Late in the book, for example, the protagonist watches the film version of Being There on television.) The protagonist identifies himself with various figures, literary and not – Bruno Schulz, Joseph Conrad (with whom he has a vexed relationship), Cagliostro (!), Chaim Rumkowski (!!!). There’s something unsettling with the way the horror of the Holocaust is presented as being a mitigating circumstance for literary misbehavior.

This is a strange book. It’s hard to imagine that this was pitched at the same general public who were the target of the ads in the back pages (a page and a half on the books from the woman who killed the Scarsdale Diet doctor; a page advertising books about an unfrozen Japanese aircraft carrier full of samurai fighting a Libyan madman; and so on). Certainly it could be read as an extremely prolix suicide note, and maybe there’s a rubbernecking appeal to that. But it feels like the work of a writer who was left to hang himself with his own words.

michael allen zell, “run baby run”

cover250Michael Allen Zell
Run Baby Run
(Lavender Ink, 2015)

The trajectory of Michael Allen Zell’s career is an interesting one; three books in, it’s still not clear what to make of him. I enjoyed 2012’s Errara, a short, sharp reworking of Bruno Schulz and Cabrera Infante set in New Orleans that might have been something the Dalkey Archive published in the 1990s. It was a happy surprise when his followup, The Oblivion Atlas, turned up in the mail here; while one might have expected a more conventionally sized novel as a followup. Zell confounded with a collaboration with News Orleans artists Louviere + Vanessa, who have provided book design and illustration to a book of short stories. That book might be seen as a reworking of Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 Bruges-la-Morte transposed to New Orleans.

Like Rodenbach’s illustrated book, The Oblivion Atlas was hard to classify, falling somewhere between Wisconsin Death Trip and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife: the illustrations and design were integral to the reading experience; like in Gass’s book (and Errata), this was a major subject. The first story, “Port Saints,” reflects usefully on the place of reading and writing today: the narrator, Benjamin Sender, describes a bookshop where the books are stacked in helices; the shopper who pulls out a book risks causing a disaster. This might serve as an oblique commentary on the endlessly proliferating “ten bookstores you have to see” slideshows on the Internet: there’s a fetishization of the object of the book, though one wonders if looking at bookstores is too often a substitute for the act of reading itself. Everyone likes the idea of books (and the idea of writing books); but a decorative book functions differently than a read book. The proprietor makes this understood:

. . . each time the proprietor calmly stating the same gentlemanly good-bye he imparted to me many times, Remember, like Faulkner said, Nobody down here has time for reading because they’re all too busy writing. (p. 14)

The Faulkner quote is from an exchange with students at the University of Virginia in 1958:

Q: Why are you not as well read in the South as in the North?
A: Everyone in the South has no time for reading because they are all too busy writing. (M. Thomas Inge, ed., Conversations with William Faulkner, p. 167.)

When said by a writer, this is a petty complaint, or an attempt to get a laugh. When said by a bookseller, it’s something different. (We learn in the author’s note for Run Baby Run that Zell has “worked as a bookseller since 2001,” which isn’t particularly surprising.) And placed in Zell’s book, it seems significant: these are readerly books, books made from a lifetime of reading for an audience who will appreciate that. This isn’t to say that they’re academic or especially formal at all: they’re not. Rather, they’re books for a small audience.

At the same time, another thread through his books cuts against their readerliness: their determined engagement with the city of New Orleans. New Orleans is never far from the surface in Zell’s books; and that continues with Run Baby Run, which might otherwise be seen as a wild swerve in Zell’s writing. Run Baby Run is crime fiction: it’s obviously the same writer (there is a scene in this one where the protagonist has a pure moment of happiness visiting a bookstore, a moment that promises a future), but it’s consciously aimed at a different sort of audience than Zell’s previous two books. Zell’s avant-garde antecedents aren’t displayed as prominently as in his previous books, though that influence is still there: if ever there was a Schulzian detective story, it’s this one.

But what Zell has set himself to this time is not just a difference in audience, it’s a difference in focus. Zell isn’t only interested in the problems of the artist: he’s also interested in the world and how one must live in it, especially in a world as radically broken as the present moment. (Not being in New Orleans, I haven’t seen any of Zell’s theatrical work, though I suspect it might be a connecting link between his focuses on the reader and the world.) The avant garde isn’t always especially helpful in that regard: the characters populating Run Baby Run are by and large not readers (which is true of most Americans, of course). This doesn’t make Zell less interested in them, though it’s abundantly clear which side he’s on. But his interest now is trying to make sense of a broken world, and fiction’s capacity for empathy is important.

Run Baby Run is a short crime novel; the cover proclaims it part of “The Bobby Delery Series,” which suggests that this is a prelude to more. Bobby Delery is a criminologist from Chicago who returns to New Orleans; for reasons that aren’t clear, he’s asked to join the New Orleans police in an investigation into the unreported theft of a club’s unreported profits. The police, it is clear from the beginning, are corrupt; a world of other criminals circle the theft. Zell’s narration moves easily from person to person; and it becomes clear that he’s interested in how different people lead wildly different lives in post-Katrina New Orleans. There are points of light, in this book at least: in the day that we are with Delery, he appears to be spotless, and a couple of other people come off as well. Some groups (the attendants of a black church) come across better than others (drunken out-of-town partiers). One imagines that this will not continue to be the case with Delery: there are hints of a past that’s not quite finished with him left hanging. The book’s shortness is frustrating: one can imagine more to come.

Zell’s used his shift in genre to start thinking seriously about race in America, and about how it plays out in New Orleans. It’s an important subject and a fine setting; again, it’s a relief to me to see someone putting out serious American fiction that’s not set in the gentrified parts of New York. I can’t say how accurately he portrays the city, though it comes off as real, as do most of his characters and their voices. There’s a similarity to Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity, if not quite in form at least in strategy; as ever, I’m interested to see where he goes.

nick smith/ulillilia, “the legend of the ten elemental masters”

(From January 2010; recovered from­web/­20100616080055/­http://­­2010/­01/­the-legend-­of-the-­10-elemental-­masters, which I’d entirely forgotten about. The content has not been edited, which might be a mistake.)

imagesNick Smith (aka “ulillillia”)
The Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters
(Lulu, 2009)

Nick Smith became well-known on the Internet a few years ago for his labyrinthine website which describes, in excruciating detail, video games that he would like to construct. Smith’s games are largely concerned with physics: characters can jump this many thousand feet at a time, their speed is some extremely large number. Animated GIFs detail his creation; he also has a number of YouTube videos. But his is a beguiling voice: both for its utterly self-deprecating quality (he openly despairs of his programming ability), and because of its rarity. We don’t hear people like this very often: his website has given Smith a voice, and that’s fascinating. Last year, he published his first book, using Lulu. It’s worth looking at as an example of the sort of writing the Internet makes possible. It doesn’t take much poking around to come to the conclusion that Smith is somewhere on the autism spectrum. To you and me, the idea of jumping 10,000 feet in the air is not very different from the idea of jumping 12,000 feet in the air. Nick Smith sees things differently.

The reviews on Lulu give a sense of the perils of dealing with this kind of work: the web has a deeply ingrained culture of making fun of people, back to the Star Wars kid and the man who was Peter Pan. There’s a certain unease as well that comes with dealing with outsider art: it’s hard to go to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and not feel a bit odd at the conjunction of art made by crazy people and what is clearly a thriving marketplace where profit is being made off their creations. Many of the artists whose work is presented there clearly had unhappy lives and made very little off their works. A similar feeling comes from visiting the Mutter Museum of medical curiosities in Philadelphia: there’s little documentation on view of the lives of the people whose remain feature prominently, leading the visitor to wonder what the life of a woman with an immense horn growing out of her head (to take a comparatively tame example) could have been like. I’m reminded as well of going to see a Wesley Willis show a few years before his death, and feeling a little queasy about the crowd of Boston punks and frat boys vociferously enjoying his show. Though it was clear that Mr. Willis enjoyed what he was doing, seemed to be making a living off of it, and was being taken care of by his opening band, he was also a man who had a prominent indentation in his forehead from head-butting the audience: and it was clear that the audience thought this was hilarious. The line between “laughing with” and “laughing at” was distinctly blurry.

Nick Smith is getting paid here: since he’s using Lulu, he’s probably getting around ten dollars every time someone buys a book, so I don’t feel bad pointing out his work. While The Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters is fiction, it’s clear that the author is deeply invested in it. There is the temptation to psychologize from the work; not being a psychologist, I don’t want to focus on the author. Rather, the work is what’s important here. In most of the usual senses, this is not a good novel. It’s worth looking at, however, first because of the strangeness it evokes; and second, because of what it can show us about how fiction works.

* * * * *

We start in medias res high above North Dakota:

Knuckles glides north 1500 feet about Lake Sakakawea at 800 mph following Highway 83. A small thunderstorm is somewhat visible to the south. The sky is 3/8 scattered with cirrus clouds and 1/8 scattered with altostratus clouds. The wind is 15 mph with gusts to 20 mph. A few small patches of snow in ditches, some with water, are visible but hard to see due to the speed. A 40-second pause in speech occurs while credits display on screen.

This is narrative as video game: in the next paragraph, we learn that Knuckles’s fur is “dark-violet-colored (FFA000E0)”; Appendix 5 explains his color system for those unfamiliar with hexadecimal values. I’m not, I should confess right now, a gamer, and as such I can’t really read this book as I suspect it’s intended to be read, a walkthrough of a non-existent game. Rather, I’m reading it as a novel, which, at least on some level it is: the adventures of the aforementioned Knuckles and his three human friends as they battle an evil force who turns out to be named Seth King.

As in all fiction, Smith creates a world and deploys his characters across it. As the first paragraph suggests, this is a massively positivistic universe: everything can be known, and declared. Numerical values are given for everything: the speeds at which characters run or glide; the area covered by flames when Knuckles is attacked by Seth King; the exact amount of time before things will happen; how many different types of soda are in a vending machine; what color everything is. And further: as in a role-playing game, characters can cast spells; they have a wealth of statistics and points of various sorts, and when they fight, damages are calculated by algorithms. This is, then, a very designed world.

While I’m not a gamer, I have, however, spent a lot of time with programmers. One thing about programmers that might be surprising: a lot of them are deeply fascinated with Disney Land. This makes sense when you realize that Disney Land is a deeply designed environment: every detail is there for a reason, and the cognoscenti who know how Disney Land works can stand in unmarked spots to see secret vistas that the common visitor has no idea about. There’s an affinity with the world that Nick Smith has laid out; however, this book isn’t necessarily designed to appeal to a general audience.

This is a world that works like a video game. This is actually extremely strange. Consider this early scene, one of the first bits of action in the book, where Knuckles stops a crime:

Three seconds later, a six-foot-tall, male jail escapee in an orange jump suit comes into view. He runs to the Oldsmobile where a military officer is just starting the car. The escapee arrives and attempts to hijack the car by opening the driver’s door. Knuckles casts “glue4″ on him, a spell with no effects, of which prevents the escapee from changing his position. A gray “4 immobilized” pops out bouncing like a ball three times.

On a computer screen, this would not cause one to think twice; this is how video games work. But when one imagines this happening in the world of fiction, we’re in a different place entirely: this is something strange and new. This is explained further:

These popups very closely resemble that of the Tahoma font at font size 160 in bold face, but 90% as wide extended a half inch back. Gray popups indicate the addition or intensification of a status effect. Appendix 4 explains more about these popups and their meaning and behavior. “Glue” is the name of the spell series, and the “4″ is the spell level. “Glue4″ is the spell name. The spell system is explained in appendix 3.

This explanation goes on; there’s also a diagram showing how characters look when they cast spells which I don’t entirely understand. Knuckles then casts a teleport spell on the escapee to teleport him back into jail. Pop-ups appear above the characters frequently. Knuckles, as the story begins, is the only character who can cast spells and behave in this way; those who see this are impressed, but don’t appear to realize that the rational universe they were used to has disappeared entirely. Knuckles also has a video projection spell: when necessary for exposition, he can create a screen in the air and show something that’s already happened for demonstration purposes. Knuckles is from another planet, but public spirited; he frequently appears on CNN to warn the populace of impending disasters, although he gets paid for “police work and peace negotiations”.

There’s not a lot of narrative tension in this book: Knuckles, being a superhero, can do just about anything. The humans that he brings along – first Ivan and Tu, from North Dakota, then Tyler, who is found inside a “military factory – don’t seem to have much of a function except to watch Knuckles’s astonishing feats and applaud (or, as often, fail to react). In the middle of the book Ivan and Steve wander off to play volleyball when Knuckles is slaying monsters. Ivan does manage to suggest a useful idea once, but one wonders if Knuckles is just humoring him. For the final battle with Seth King, Knuckles summons his friend Speed who is even more powerful than Knuckles. As most of the book to that point has been Knuckles demonstrating that he has no real competitors, the ending is something of a foregone conclusion. An interchange between Knuckles and the evil force halfway through the book illustrates the position of the reader:

Evil force

(one second pause) Wanna play a game?


It’s a near-certainty that I’ll win, but, whatever.

And yet, the reader is kept engaged wondering about the logic that constructs it. One of the first dramatic scenes happens aboard an airplane from North Dakota to Puerto Rico, where Knuckles senses that something will happen; Knuckles takes Ivan and Tu to the airport, where he buys them tickets with money pulled from his chest, in which he can store anything. (He is, he explains, a multi-millionare in every country because he can duplicate and sell objects – not currency, as that would be illegal; also, he charges the government for his security services.) The flight is disrupted by evil forces; Knuckles, of course, sets everything to right. After this flight, however, Knuckles simply teleports himself and his acolytes all over the world. Or again: during a scene during a school party, Knuckles rigs the lottery so that Ivan and Tu both win the prizes they want most, coupons for free pizzas at Pizza Hut. Much later in the book, during a break in the action, the characters decide they would like some pizza, so they go to Pizza Hut. There, Knuckles makes them pay for their pizza with their coupons; magnanimously, he offers to pay for the drinks, as well as rescuing one of the waiters from cardiac arrest brought on by the evil forces that follow him about. It’s hard to understand Knuckles. One is reminded of the vindictive behavior of the child Jesus in the apocryphal infancy gospels.

On another level, there’s a similarity to the familiar high school narrative: the dream of someone coming and taking you away from your mundane surroundings. Knuckles summons Ivan and Tu from high school (in Ivan’s case, by way of a “small three-by-thre-inch bright pink colored (FFFFB0D)) post-it note stating, ‘See me outside as you leave, Knuckles’ in font size 36 Courier New”) for no appreciable reason. There’s an end-of-the-year party at school; Knuckles offers to take Ivan in a scene that’s weirdly sad:


(running) Knuckles! What are you doing here?


You wanted to go to the party, right?


Yes, but I can’t – no money nor transportation. The school is quite far for biking and a bit dangerous.


I can’t drive either, but what sense is there in using a really slow car when a teleport spell goes….

When they arrive at the party, Knuckles solves Ivan’s financial woes by giving him five dollars so he can get into the party, which costs $3.00. He gives a dollar to Tu, the female lead, who already has four dollars; with the extra money, they can buy sodas. The contrast between a figure who can do anything and the modesty of the desires of Ivan and Tu – just to be able to go to the end of school party – is heartbreaking. Later, Knuckles teleports them to his house hidden away from the world where he makes them beds with quilts illustrated with their favorite scenes. They play Uno.

* * * * *

It’s hard to get around this being a boring book: things happen then are recounted, in obsessive detail. The plot having to do with the ten elemental masters is not particularly interesting: there are fights with enemies in which spells are cast back and forth again and again. An immense amount of attention is paid to the character’s stats. The book’s 256 pages are set in large type, and the layout and illustrations mean that there’s not an overwhelming amount of text on the page, but this book can seem interminable: fight after fight, with very few apparent consequences. But this is an interesting boredom: it’s a boredom of a sort we’re not quite used to. Boredom, as Kenneth Goldsmith reminds us, can be a valid aesthetic strategy. And this sort of boredom is a very specific form of boredom: it’s not the mundane that we know, but rather a different species of mundane, the mundane of a different kind of world, a world that isn’t our own.

It’s unreal. But fiction, as we know it, is a constructed form: the tradition of the realist novel in English has its beginnings with Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novels, where the characters need to constantly be writing immensely long letters to advance the plot a few minutes. It’s a patently artificial situation; Henry Fielding pointed out how ridiculous it was in his parody Shamela, and the epistolary form faded away soon afterward. When we look at Richardson now, his work seems contrived: contrived in much the same way that Nick Smith’s world is, and similarly unaware of this. A similar problem might be the way that the camera functions in the American version of The Office: it’s understood that the show is filmed as if for a documentary, and characters give soliloquies for the camera. But no documentary is really being filmed; the camera often follows characters past plausibility. Pseudo-documentary has simply become the style: the viewer understands it, and agrees to believe that a story can be told this way. Background music tends to function the same way in film and television: we can see that there’s no reason on the screen for there to be music, but we understand that it signals emotion. A contemporary reader of Richardson could suspend disbelief and imagine that Pamela was actually writing the letters they were reading.

Nick Smith asks us to suspend disbelief to imagine the videogame as a form in which we can tell stories through fiction. I don’t know that it works: to me, it seems maddening, a repetitious, deterministic nightmare, where an end always seems obvious. But I am not a gamer. (For similar reasons, I find Disney Land unappealing; but there are plenty for whom it works, and some very smart people who love it.) The Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters deserves attention simply because it is so different from anything else: in it, we find a different way to construct a world.

ursula k. le guin, “earthsea”

AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd)Ursula K. Le Guin
A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
The Farthest Shore
Tales from Earthsea
The Other Wind
(originally Parnassus Press, 1961–2001.)

It’s been a while since I’ve taken an intercontinental trip by myself, and I’d forgotten what a useful space for a certain kind of reading that can be. I’d hoped to get further in Henry James (I am bogged down in The Other House, which I’ll get back to eventually), but I had Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books on my phone, and they lent themselves to the kind of distracted reading one does on planes and in airports.

I should start by saying that I didn’t read these books when I was young and probably should have read them. I have read the Le Guin that everyone talks about besides these and I do find myself thinking about The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest (as heavy handed as that book is). She’s an interesting writer and writes the kind of science fiction that I care about – I do still feel guilty about not liking more science fiction than I do for reasons I still can’t quite explicate – and everyone has nice things to say about these books, but I’ve had to drag myself to them, which I think is because they’re about dragons and wizards.

I have not, since young, read many books of dragons and wizards, and I’ve largely felt reticent to read more. I dutifully read Gene Wolfe, which wasn’t really to my taste, and the last book of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth sits unread and unloved on my phone waiting for some future transportation breakdown when I somehow have nothing else available. Smart people like these books, and I wish I could like them, but I don’t. I do like Delany’s Nevèrÿon books, but what he’s doing there seems a little at odds with what other people enjoy about the genre. So it did seem like if anyone could do something with the genre that I would be able to appreciate I might be Le Guin. The results are mixed. Or, more accurately, the results are mixed for me. There are other people who like all of these books: they haven’t failed to find an audience.

The fifth of these books, Tales of Earthsea, is a collection of short stories and novellas that closes with something that might be termed non-fiction: a historical and sociological overview of the world Le Guin created in these books, providing a great deal of background information that might clarify what’s previously been read. This is very lovingly done; it’s also the locus of what makes this kind of work uninteresting to me. Le Guin has created a geography and peopled it; there are some interesting ideas in there (the Platonic-seeming idea of true names, for example, or her characters’ views on race, which aren’t exactly what you’d expect in a white-authored book from the 1960s) which have previously been worked out. As situations for characters to react to, they can be interesting. By themselves, they demonstrate a degree of originality, though also an indebtedness to previous creators of fantastic worlds: I am not the person to draw out the genealogy of Le Guin’s dragons, though at this point in time they seem overly familiar.

The createdness of the world – something that Le Guin’s pocket history amply demonstrates – also gets to another aspect of the work, and maybe all fantastic fiction. Le Guin explicitly declaims religiosity in Earthsea, but the supernatural elements preclude a purely rational creation of her world. Obviously Le Guin made it; but this world operates according to principles that aren’t strictly mirrored by our world, and this makes for frustrating fiction. Dragon or wizard can be deus ex machina as needed. Why do dragons act that way? No one knows, they just are – and this reader can’t help wondering if they are as convenient for the narrative.

With that in mind, I’ll say that the first and third books of the series did very little for me, as to my eye they followed the conventions of the wizardly quest too closely. (Again, perhaps these conventions – including but not limited to goatherds of promise, wizard schools, wizard battles, nebulous darkness, wizard quests, rings of power – became overly familiar after Le Guin; one should not blame an author for her followers, though sometimes one can’t help doing that.) They are not with the the occasional striking image – the brother and sister marooned far out to sea almost without language, for example. The series becomes interesting to me in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, which convincingly describes a young woman growing up as a priestess in an illiterate cult; the prison of belief is described in a way not unlike the work of Brian Evenson. The book becomes less interesting in the second half, when she is rescued by a heroic and long-suffering wizard.

The fourth book in the series was written considerably after the first three and is interestingly revisionist. The first three books are, with the exception of the first half of the second, male dominated. Wizardry is exclusively an occupation for celibate males. The fourth book, Tehanu, returns to the protagonist of the second, now middle-aged and leading a domestic life; we see the world Le Guin has created through different, considerably more interesting eyes. Witches suddenly exist. Men behave badly, and one realizes that life for women and children in a male-dominated pre-industrial world is not all it might be. Wizards can be useful, but they tend to be self-absorbed and not reliable. Much of the narrative propulsion of the fourth book comes from Ged, the lead character of the series, coming to terms with having lost his wizarding power. The fifth book, a collection, continues the revisionist tendencies of the fourth, having mostly women as its protagonists; the damage heedlessly done by men is a primary focus. And the sixth takes on a familiar group quest motif, bringing together a number of characters previously met to bring the series to a comfortable end point. There’s interesting thematic work happening, but it didn’t do very much for me, perhaps because I’d just read the other five books very quickly.

Were I to re-read, I would come back to Tehanu and The Other Wind: Le Guin’s later books have more for me than the original trilogy. The second half of the series, not coincidentally, is considerably more adult than the first. Already existing characters are complicated; the simplistic universe of the original books is rejected and revised. One could historicize: the person writing the later books knew more than she did when she wrote the earlier ones; plenty of well-intentioned people were writing things in the 1960s that haven’t aged well. That revision is what interests me here. I still don’t particularly care about the world-building; maybe if I’d read these books when younger I would have?