samuel r. delany, “the mad man”

The_Mad_Man_(Samuel_R._Delaney_novel_-_cover_art)Samuel R. Delany
The Mad Man
(Richard Kasak Books, 1994)


The Mad Man seems to be more neglected than most of Delany’s books, perhaps because, like his more recent Dark Reflections and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, it’s fiction but with the science fiction kept to a minimum. The Mad Man‘s protagonist, John Marr (named, presumably, after a sailor remembered by Melville in one of his poems) is a grad student living in New York from the late 1970s to the early 1990s; he’s attempting to write a biography of a brilliant (and imaginary) Korean-American philosopher somewhat reminiscent of Wittgenstein whose work came to a premature end when he was stabbed to death in a bar frequented by hustlers. John Marr’s life inevitably comes to resemble that of Timothy Hasler; his biography never really happens, though he does solve the mystery of what happened to Hasler. In its broad outlines, the literary detective story seems overly familiar, though perhaps this wasn’t quite the case in 1994.

While the plot does provide a comfortable framework for The Mad Man, there isn’t quite enough of it to hoist the novel’s 500 pages; for most of that, it seems incidental to what’s actually going on in the book. Though it’s written well enough, this book isn’t easy to read because of just how graphic it is. Marr has a taste for extreme behavior, particularly with homeless men; there are extended descriptions of urolagnia and coprophilia. While the book is certainly prurient, its pornographic aspects would appeal to a presumably small audience, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s written primarily to titillate. Nor does Delany’s aim seem to be to shock: the situations described might arouse repulsion or disgust in many readers, but that isn’t really a reaction that can be extended for twenty pages at a time, as frequently happens here.

What Delany seems to be doing, rather, is to use fiction as a method of presenting ways of living and behaviors that are unfamiliar to many in his audience. This didactic aim is shown early: Marr writes a long letter to Sam, a sheltered ex-girlfriend married to a professor who gives up his work on Hasler out of disgust. Sam has written Marr a letter of concern about AIDS (the year is 1984); Marr finds her response tokenizing, but rather than angrily calling her out, he writes her a letter of 72 pages narrating his sexual life as he lives it. Sam tokenizes because she doesn’t actually understand anything about how John Marr lives his life; if she is to change, she needs to know what he’s going through rather than sensationalized accounts in the news and inadequate depictions of gay life in the media that she’s seeing even in an educated context. As a method of attaining realism, the epistolary strategy quickly strains credibility (as it has in fiction since Richardson); but Sam is a cartoon of a character. She serves more as an idealized stand-in for the reader: against all odds, Marr’s stratagem works, and five years later she replies noting that she’s ditched her creepy husband for a female lover and apologizing for her heteronormative views.

What comes through to the reader is Delany’s capacity for empathy. Marr’s desires seem extreme: the men that he is sexually interested in tend to be homeless and in rough shape, drunk priapistic exhibitionists coated in a staggering variety of bodily fluids. To someone who doesn’t share Marr’s desires, this seems almost ludicrous: there are the sort of people everyone moves away from on the subway because of their smell. Marr gives away little of his back story; we can’t psychologize a motivation for his desires. (At one point, indeed, he resists this: a bartender at a gay bar claims that he, like many of his patrons, is gay because he was molested as a child; Marr says that nothing like that happened to him.) What’s left to the reader is to judge Marr and his companions based on their acts: and while these are presented in a way that suggests degradation, Marr’s narration makes it clear that he feels a great deal of affection for his partners; his urine-soaked relations with one man even blossom into domestic contentment at the end of the book.

While this is a gritty book in many aspects, presenting a street view of the ravages of AIDS in New York in the 1980s, there’s also a strongly utopian aspect to it. Marr and his lovers genuinely care about each other; the sexual adventures almost uniformly end happily. Almost everyone Marr runs into turns out to share his predilections, which almost certainly also defies the laws of probability. (One notes, of course, that Marr’s letter to Sam points out that he withholds a great deal whenever he presents himself to others, even in the explicit letter that he’s writing; this theme is echoed across the book.) But one of the things that comes across most strongly in the book is the sense of community that sexual contact brings about: Marr’s encounters with strangers cut entirely across the lines of class, society, and race. In a way, they’re ideal citizens, even if they inhabit a less than perfect society.

Aspects of this book might seem overly familiar to those who have read Delany’s non-fiction: John Marr’s reaction to the AIDS crisis seems similar to Delany’s as presented in 1984: Selected Letters, and the descriptions of porn theaters is much the same as in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, including the rhetorical device where Delany patiently explains what goes on in the porn theaters to a straight woman. Delany insists here and elsewhere that oral sex doesn’t transmit AIDS, and complains that serious studies haven’t been done on the sexual practices responsible for spreading the virus. For what it’s worth, I read the first edition of this book; a revised edition came out in 2002, though I’m not sure what the changes were, and I’d be curious on what Delany thinks of this book now. (The particular copy I read came from the library of the Center for Fiction; if the library card’s accurate, it’s never been checked out, though Delany signed the copy in a shaky hand in 2011.)

thornton wilder, “theophilus north”

theophilus-northThornton Wilder
Theophilus North
(Avon, 1974)

The recent Michael Dirda piece in Harper’s, occasioned by a couple of Library of America volumes, encouraged me to pick up a couple of Thornton Wilder novels I hadn’t read; I’d read Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth and The Bridge of San Luis Rey when I was in high school, and I’d written him off as being a simple sentimentalist, which seems to be the general opinion of him. But he does pop up in odd places – as a good friend to Gertrude Stein, as well as a serious enthusiast of Finnegans Wake, which doesn’t easily mesh with the standard picture of his Rotarian fiction. Thus far, I’ve read The Ides of March and Theophilus North; they’re easily read, and seem to be aimed squarely at a mass audience, but they’re not without interest.

The Ides of March is an epistolary historical novel published in 1948; like I, Claudius before it and Gore Vidal’s Julian after it, it tells the life of a Roman emperor (the title is a bit misleading). It’s presented as a collage of documents, somewhat in the style of Dos Passos’s U.S.A.; however, the order in which it’s presented is not strictly linear. The book is divided into four parts, each of which starts before the previous part and extends further into the future, culminating, finally, in Caesar’s death, taken directly from Suetonius. In an introduction, Wilder admits that some historical rearrangement has taken place to accommodate his structure; historical fact is not a primary concern here. Caesar is presented as a benevolent dictator and a mastermind, arranging, finally, his own assassination; his primary interest is the well-being of Catullus, an empire’s poets being, in Caesar’s mind, its most splendid accoutrements. It’s a strange book.

Theophilus North, Wilder’s last novel, is also strange, not least because it came out in 1974. It boggles the mind a little to think of Wilder putting out a novel the year after Gravity’s Rainbow appeared; or to think that Wilder very well could have read Pynchon’s first three novels. Theophilus North couldn’t be more different: it’s a retrospective portrayal of a summer in the life of the narrator, Theophilus North, when he was a young man. The year is 1926; the setting is Newport, Rhode Island. Some of North’s particulars coincide with those of Wilder (both grew up in Wisconsin, California, and China; both spent a year post-college in Rome; both taught in a boarding school in New Jersey; both spent a summer in Newport), which lead to accusations of this being an autobiographical novel. Maybe it is; I am not an expert on Wilder’s life, and certainly couldn’t assign characters. But while there’s certainly something mawkish about the book’s portrayals of the halcyon days of youth (along the lines of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine) and the crazy cast of characters, there are also enough clues that something else is going on here.

The first odd note is sounded by North’s programmatic setting out of his early desires for a career: he could think of nine different ambitions for himself (to become a saint, an anthropologist, an archaeologist, a detective, an actor, a magician, a lover, a rascal, a free man). In the second chapter, he describes how the city of Newport can actually be divided into nine separate cities (following Schliemann’s description of Troy): some of these are historical (the seventeenth century-village, the eighteenth-century town) and some more sociological (the military presence nearby, the very rich, their servants). North describes his theory of the nine cities of Newport to many of those he meets; inevitably, he interacts with all nine cities, and ends up playing roles based on all nine of his ambitions. The mapping isn’t perfect (there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between cities, roles, and the stories that North describes), but it’s explicit enough to seem suspicious. The narrative style is also odd: although the story is ostensibly written by North in old age following his journals, there’s repeated doubling back. The novel takes place over three months; but the sequence of time isn’t always clear. The book isn’t quite interlocking short stories, though it’s close to that.

The setting of Newport allows Wilder to bring in the philosopher George Berkeley, who lived in Newport from 1729 to 1732. North is engaged reading Berkeley’s work to James Bosworth, who has the idea of buying Berkeley’s Whitehall and building an Academy of Philosophers in Newport, where the world’s leading philosophers will live. The idea comes to nothing, of course, but Berkeley’s ideas are injected into the text:

Newton’s friend Edmund Halley (of the comet) had mockingly spoken of the “inconceivability of the doctrines of Christianity” as held by Bishop Berkeley, and the Bishop replied that Newton’s infinitesimal “fluxions” were as “obscure, repugnant and precarious” as any point they could call attention to in divinity, adding, “What are these fluxions . . . these velocities of evanescent increments? They are neither finite quantities, nor quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we call them the ghosts of departed quantities? Crash! Bang! The structure of the universe, like the principles of the Christian faith – according to the Bishop – were perceived only by the intuition. (p. 93)

The universe, for Berkeley, exists only in the mind of the perceiver; it’s hard not to suspect that Wilder is covertly making an analogy to fiction. In the novel, North moves from person to person, fixing everyone’s problem; though his given name is Theophilus (“lover of God”), he asks people to call him Teddy, usually short for Theodore, meaning “God’s gift”; it is the way that he acts, repeatedly, like a divine intercessor that draws the reader’s suspicion. North makes it repeatedly clear that he doesn’t actually believe in God; it’s Wilder’s narrative ingenuity, more than anything else, that allows him to solve problems. While the book does appear forced and sentimental, Wilder consistently undercuts it. Though North’s final aspiration is to be a “free man,” as a character, he’s anything but that.

michael allen zell, “errata”

zellerrataMichael Allen Zell
Errata
(Lavender Ink, 2012)

The end of the year is in sight, and with it the urge to clean up everything left undone. I’ve done a poor job of writing about my reading here, largely from lack of leisure; but I also haven’t felt compelled by that many books this past year. This one probably goes on that short list. Errata arrived in the mail as comb-bound ARC some time over the summer, chiefly notable for how amateurish it looked. I’m not sure why I received the book, as I’d never taken notice of Lavender Ink’s books (although Bill Lavender did pop up in the news shortly thereafter); but I put the book in my bag and, after a while, ended up looking at it while on a cross-town bus delayed in traffic, hoping that I could decide that it wasn’t worth bothering with, toss it, and thus accomplish something with what seemed to be a wasted day. The book, it soon became clear, was interesting; the alternating alliterations of cs and vs in a sentence on the first page was enough to stop and take notice:

I crave calming veins of vicarious titillation, the caricature of civilization kept viciously certain by every scanner burst, its randomness cutting through this vexing cloister. (p. 7)

There’s prolixity there, maybe worrying, but controlled rhythm as well, so I read to the next page, where there was a smart consideration of Nabokov, discovered that page to be the end of the first chapter already; a second chapter, almost as short, started the narrative again and revealed the name of the narrator to be Raymond Russell. There wasn’t much that I could do to stop myself at that point; and this is a short book. I don’t think that I was stuck on public transportation that day long enough to read the whole thing, though that’s not outside of the realm of possibility.

What happens in this book is easily laid out: the bookish narrator drives an unlicensed cab in New Orleans in late 1984. He becomes involved, glancingly, in the life of a woman, Hannah Spire; they are mixed up in the death of a corrupt police officer, the Pelican. The book’s twenty-two chapters are subsequent attempts at writing what happened for posterity. The story is simple (though with nice details); but it’s how the story is written (or, as the narrator announces, “how I’ll tell the story around the story”) that makes this book especially worthwhile. Zell’s literary references deserve special: the book swims in Bruno Schulz, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Herman Melville, Josef Váchal, tools that the narrator uses to think through the problem of addressing his problem. His house is slowly sinking; he props up the foundation with stolen and read books, almost an image of Neurath’s boat. Harry Mathews pops up – this book is related to The Journalist – as does Mallarmé’s Livre and Valéry’s style of dialogue. Roussel is hiding in the background, making the occasional appearance:

More recently, I’d also been told rumors from faves about the 5th District cop who literally pistol-whipped out the teeth of neighborhood men, collected them, and then, referring to his nickname Half and Half, wrote 1/2 as a teeth mosaic in the dirt of empty lots by their sidewalks to remind the residents of his brutality. A civil servant who wore his ethics the way buildings wear rain. (pp. 45–6)

Textual puzzles litter the book. One of the epigraphs, for example, comes from a “P. Reyval”; rearranging the letters reveals Valéry, the reason the quote seems familiar; but on scrutiny, what P. Reyval says is rearranged from what Valéry said. The reader is rewarded for paying attention, though there’s also easy pleasure to be had from the surface of the book. Consider this paragraph-long discussion of Melville and facial hair:

Many men have many minds, so shouldn’t many men also be permitted an assorted masquerade ability to wear several varieties of facial hair or none? The first clause of the preceding sentence references a chapter title from The Confidence Man by Herman Melville, which is appropriate because his writing wasn’t always appreciated throughout his lifetime, but his beard certainly was and is, what with the iconic photographs of the bearded Melville remaining his prevailing visual impression. He knew the power of sporting one’s own Spanish moss during an exceptionally hairy era, using over two dozen different words or phrases of beard description in the novel White Jacket, published when he was barely into his 30’s and his writing career was waning, requiring him to pursue another line of work. (pp. 33–34)

Excerption doesn’t quite show how beautifully this paragraph’s precise deployment of trivia wraps up the narrator’s discussion earlier in the chapter of his own problems with work and shaving as a correlative for that; it foreshadows a point later in the book where the narrator becomes a beard. The Confidence Man hangs over the book; we are reminded that the steamship in that book is sailing for New Orleans.

In a sense Zell’s novel is perfectly common: a literary young man attempts to explain a story with reference to his personal history, his reading, and his education. It’s told in the first person. But this is a book which is always deeply conscious that it is a book, and that the act of writing is fundamentally at odds with living:

Life is not a document. Life cannot be documented. Documents cannot be lived. The writing process is at odds with reconciling life and living sensibly. All I can do is immerse myself and write with abandon to make sense of the situation, and literally try to scrawl myself to sleep, the errata notebook a line to grasp onto for the sake of saving my neck and to be pulled back to my previous reality. (pp. 22–3)

By itself, this philosophizing might become tiresome; attached to a swiftly moving narrative, it works well. Halfway through the book, a chapter is mostly devoted to a consideration of the place of dialogue in fiction, with the narrator supporting the position that dialogue in fiction functions to the detriment of fiction itself, which becomes an argument for telling rather than showing. This sort of explaining shouldn’t work; usually when I come across this sort of thing, I react badly. Zell makes it work.

This isn’t a perfect book; we’ve seen the female characters before, though it’s entirely possible that’s intentional. But the greatest defect of this book is a strange one: it’s not long enough. It’s not that the form isn’t correct for the size; 116 pages wraps the book up perfectly. But like the stories of Kleist, one wishes for more. A book so enjoyable to read shouldn’t be so short, though it does lend itself to re-reading. I’m curious to see what Zell does next.

paul scheerbart, “lesabéndio”

paul scheerbart, lesabéndioPaul Scheerbart
Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel
(trans. Christina Svendsen
(Wakefield Press, 2012; originally 1913.)

I’ve done a regrettably poor job of keeping up my reading this year, to say nothing of writing about what I’ve read; I feel bad about that, as there are a small handful of books that I would like to have written about in some depth. Too much work, not enough time, the eternal refrain. I’m breaking my silence with this, which I can’t pretend to review impartially: the translator has been a dear friend for years, and when she sent me a chapter wondering if I knew anyone who’d be interested in it I suggested Wakefield Press, who ended up publishing it. (I think I also passed her a copy of the first Scheerbart novel to appear in English, though I might be misremembering that.) Even so, it’s sat on my desk for a month before I could slot in time to make my way through it. But: this is a strange and interesting book, which should be clear from the publisher.

The strangeness of this book starts with genre: Lesabéndio is a science fiction novel from 1913 with strong architectural elements that might be more accurately described an architectural fantasia with a science fiction overlay. There’s probably more similarity to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili than there is to Jules Verne or H. G. Wells; the science is almost entirely fantastical, though it does take place on an asteroid in our solar system, and mention is made of one historical scientist. The protagonists are of two species, neither of them human; the physical laws of our universe don’t entirely seem to apply to them. A portfolio of illustrations that Alfred Kubin did for the novel’s initial publication is included in the back of this volume, but Odilon Redon’s floating eyeballs and natural intelligences almost seem more appropriate to the cosmology of this book, where planets and planetoids quite literally have a Weltgeist.

What happens in this book is fairly straightforward, if bizarre. The setting is the asteroid Pallas, which is inhabited by a species of unisexual beings who appear to be primarily engaged in architectural endeavors. The asteroid is barrel shaped, though it has been turned into a torus by means of two inverted cones at the north and south poles, the points of which meet at the center. Lesabéndio gets it in his head to create an immense tower around the rim of the northern inverted cone; it will reach into the cloud that hovers over the north end of the asteroid which provides, by its motions, day and night to the planet. Lesabéndio’s motivations for constructing this tower vary across the novel; eventually, he seeks to pierce the cloud (made of living beings) to reach the unseen body that hovers past the cloud, which is seen as the head to the asteroid’s torso. Connecting the asteroid’s head-system to its body will achieve the planet’s destiny; Lesabéndio is taken into the head-system and becomes one with the planet.

Much of the book is concerned with the process of building the tower and the various impasses that the builders face, chiefly among them keeping Pallas’s population in agreement with the idea of building a tower. There are a handful of main characters, who have different aesthetic beliefs: one believes that the planet should be polished and crystalline, one prefers irregular and round forms, one is most interested in growing plants. These wills are eventually subsumed into that of Lesabéndio – quite literally, because when a Pallasian dies, he disintegrates and is sucked into the open pores of whichever person he chooses to be taken into. (Pallasians are all male in gender; they spring from walnut-like eggs which are dug from the metal core of Pallas and hammered on until opened. Before hatching, they live in a dream-world, communing with the universe. Who hammered open the first Pallasian nut is left unexplained.) They live in a sort of socialism, where all decisions are made by consensus; public opinion seems to shift very quickly though, and there are any number of setbacks before Lesabéndio’s building plan ineluctably succeeds. Most notably, there’s a conflict between those who think the enormous tower should be built and those who would like to create art; while something of a middle way emerges (parts of the tower are made beautiful), engineering wins out in the end.

The politics of this book are unsettling. Lesabéndio is the great man who will lead the race of Pallasians to their destiny; there is the unbending faith in progress, seemingly religious in nature, that could only exist at the start of the twentieth century. Doubt is never expressed that building a tower to heaven could lead to something bad or even to something desirable; there is only doubt about whether or not this is possible. When Lesabéndio begins constructing his tower, he does not even know that the head-system of Pallas exists; when he discovers it, this is mapped on to his pre-existing plan. It’s a strange book to read now: as trained readers, we keep expecting everything to go terribly, terribly wrong, but that steadfastly refuses to happen. There are technical problems, but those can be surmounted. It’s essentially a Futurist novel; as with Italian Futurism, fascism lurks, though in 1913 one could be happily oblivious.

It’s a strange novel as well in how hard it is to pin down; it’s reminiscent of many things, both before and after. The hollow planet looks backward to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Symzonia, as well as forward to Ringworld or the wooden planet that Lebbeus Woods designed for Alien 3. Lesabéndio’s ecstatic oneness with the planet seems like the end of 2001, though, as I mentioned before, it feels aesthetically closer to the drawings of Redon. Though I’ve meant to, I haven’t actually read Thea von Harbou’s novel for Metropolis, the film she wrote with Fritz Lang. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scheerbart’s influence turned out to be apparent: Lesabéndio‘s emphasis on the head-system and torsos of stars (and the desirability of their successful merging) feels strongly akin to that film’s emphasis on mediation between head and hands. My knowledge of early science fiction is spotty; but this should be very interesting to those who know more.

anna maria ortese, “the iguana”

Anna Maria Ortese
The Iguana
(trans. Henry Martin)
(McPherson & Company, 1987; originally 1965)


When I was young, I had a great love of books that eschewed realism: the predictable science fiction in junior high, followed by Kafka, Vonnegut, Borges, and García Márquez in high school. The reasons behind this aren’t particularly hard to ferret out: when you’re growing up in an environment as dreadfully prosaic and generally deprived of stimuli as the rural Midwest was then, any offer of escape is tempting. It’s exciting when Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds himself turned into a beetle when you’ve woken up thousands of times and that never happens: the pull is that something different might be possible. Dalí’s soft watches, Redon’s floating heads, Magritte’s flaming tubas were attractive because they weren’t what you saw in the boring world. Baudelaire’s “Anywhere out of the World” might be a credo for this sort of thinking. This wasn’t, of course, the only reason that I found value in those writers or artists; but it was a not insignificant part. And in part this was a reactive impulse: narratives in which anything could happen were more entertaining than the Dickens or Hawthorne we were presented in class as examples of serious literature.

As time went on, I found myself less drawn to this sort of writing: re-reading Moby-Dick in college, I finally realized it wasn’t a book about hunting a whale; re-reading Ulysses, I finally understood that style could be as interesting that what you were taking about, no matter how boring it might appear. The world became interesting in its own right. And with this turn came the thinking that the fantastic was a little cheap, perhaps lazy: a crutch to be inserted when the regular story wasn’t interesting enough on its own. Inventiveness became less valuable than ability. There’s nothing to stop a writer who’s broken the bounds of the ordinary world from continuing to do so, deflating all tension. If you’ve decided that angels are going to float around your hospital, there’s not really anything to stop them from winding up your plot for you. Constraint of some sort is necessary. Kafka still works because the one moment of strangeness he inserts becomes the absent center of his story; The Metamorphosis isn’t about insects.

I don’t know that this is a general principle of my reading; but when there are more books to be read than I can feasibly read, it’s a useful principle for pruning. I don’t think there’s any sort of dichotomy between the realistic and the fantastic, and I’m not by any means attempting to mount a defense of realism, whatever that might be construed as. But all of this brings me to Anna Maria Ortese’s The Iguana, which has ignominiously sat on my shelves along with two volumes of short stories since I bought them from a McPherson booth at a book fair a few years ago. Henry Martin is a fantastic translator & the co-author, with Gianfranco Baruchello, of two of my favorite books, and McPherson’s taste is next to impeccable; I have, really, no excuse for taking so long to read this. Better late than never, I suppose.

From the beginning of this book, the reader is unsettled. The book is written in the style of a fairy tale; an immensely wealthy Count, sometimes Aleardo, sometimes Daddo, lives with his mother in Milan. Technology is absent; the date is difficult to pin down, though there’s criticism of the Milanese (too property-oriented, too in love with business) that comes from a recognizably southern Italian perspective. One assumes that because of the persistence of nobility, we are sometime before the creation of the Italian Republic in 1946, maybe the late nineteenth century; but one also remembers that Italian nobility does persist, though it’s no longer legally recognized. That we are in the present becomes apparent in a description of Daddo’s best friend:

[Daddo] had not yet married, and had no marital intentions, even in spite of the pressures of his mother the Countess, who had already paid visits to several prominent Swiss families. He felt marriage would have limited him, yet one couldn’t say how. He led the simplest life conceivably, the almost monotonous life of a monk. He spun out his days in the studio, drawing houses like a child, and his sole evening amusement was the company of Boro Adelchi, a young publisher of the nouvelle vague, extremely ambitious, but with still garbled finances. We’ll add, parenthetically, that Daddo was careful to keep mother in the dark about constantly backing his friend with notable amounts of cash. (p. 3)

Adelchi seems to be created in the mode of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, discoverer of Doctor Zhivago and The Leopard; The Iguana was published seven years before Feltrinelli wound up dead, but Adelchi’s desires to publish the new (which he hopes that Daddo can discover in his travels) are very much in his form:

Here we have to offer a few words about a strange confusion that dominated Lombard culture at the time, thereby setting the tone of publishing – a confusion concerning the character of oppression and consequent revolt. Perhaps attempting to polemicize against the menaces of Marxist ideology, the Milanese saw oppression and revolt as no more than a question of feelings and the right to express them, forgetting that not even feelings survive – neither feelings nor any desire to express them – when people have no money (given the world’s time-honored conventions), or where money can buy everything, or where penury cohabits with great ignorance. Briefly put, the Milanese were persuaded that some world of oppression had something to say, whereas the oppressed don’t even exist, or can’t, at least, have any awareness of being oppressed when their condition is authentic and a legacy from a distant past. The only thing left is the oppressor, who likewise has no knowledge of what he is, even while sometimes, out of habit, aping the stances and behavior that would legitimately befit his victim, if any such victim had escaped extinction. But these of course are sophistries that could never have assuaged the publishers’ hunger for things with which to whet the public’s languid appetite. Such arguments slow the rhythms of production. But to turn the issue upside down – an issue very fashionable at the time – and to see oppression in frankly traditional and therefore reassuring terms, gave a fool-proof guarantee of approval, excitement, good will, and finally sales, coming again full circle to much-loved money. (pp. 4–5)

This lengthy excerpt presages, in certain terms, what will happen in the book. Daddo sails from Genoa out of the Mediterranean, in hopes of finding islands to buy for his mother and narratives to buy for Adelchi to publish. Somewhere off the coast of Portugal he finds the unmapped island of Ocaña. (An otherwise useful online biography of Ortese – embarrassingly, the English Wikipedia lacks a page on her – explains that “Ocaña” is the name used by Stevenson in Treasure Island, which doesn’t seem to be the case: an Italian translation of that book used “l’Isola dello Scheletro,” a straightforward version of “Skeleton Island.” There’s an Ocaña in Colombia, and an Ocaña in the middle of Spain – site of the Battle of Ocaña in the peninsular war – but neither of those seem to have anything to do with Ortese’s narrative.) Ocaña is inhabited by impoverished Portuguese gentry; conveniently, Don Ilario has both poetry that might be published, and it seems possible that Daddo might be able to convince him to sell his island. Again to quote from the beginning of the book, Daddo suggests to Adelchi what he might want:

“What you need are the confessions of some madman, how about the story of a madman in love with an iguana?” came Daddo’s playful reply, and who knows how such a thing managed to enter his head? In fact he quickly turned silent and felt ashamed of himself for making fun of illness and the innocent lives of animals. Like so many Lombards, he felt enormous compassion for both, despite never having had anything to do with them. (pp. 3–4)

This is, of course, exactly what ends up happening in the book. Don Ilario and his half-brothers have as their servant an iguana named Estrellita, whom they pay with rocks as they maintain that she is not human. Daddo sees this injustice and wants to relieve it; he falls in love with the iguana, who remains in thrall to Don Ilario. Complications ensue; theology comes into play; a bunch of people arrive who shouldn’t be there, and it appears that machinations have been set in place for Don Ilario to regain his fortune by marrying an American, a scheme which the existence of the iguana will foil. This builds and builds to a feverish pitch; a few chapters before the end of the book we learn that Daddo, from whose perspective the book has been narrated, has gone mad and has been imagining an old peasant woman to be an iguana; he dies, his mother cleans everything up, and the narrative is brought to a close.

What is this book about then? It’s not about the etiology of madness; Daddo’s madness is his fundamental approach to the world, which is wrong and untenable. Daddo has tried to live justly; his view of the world as something that can be bought makes that impossible and causes him to break down. Ortese presents Daddo sympathetically, which is what makes this book so haunting; but it is always clear that her sympathies are elsewhere, in a harder-edged world.

raymond roussel, “locus solus”

Raymond Roussel
Locus Solus
(trans. Rupert Copeland Cuningham)
(OneWorld Classics, 2008; originally published 1970)


An uncommon amount of Raymond Roussel is in print in English: Mark Ford’s retranslation of New Impressions of Africa from Princeton, and Mark Polizzotti’s version of Impressions of Africa should be out soon from Dalkey Archive. Rounding out the trilogy of Roussel’s big books is a reissue of the Cuningham translation of Locus Solus, originally published by John Calder in 1970, brought back into print by OneWorld Classics, which seems to have enough American distribution that I could buy a copy in Brooklyn. I loaned my original copy of the book out years ago, so I can’t compare the original printing right now; the text has been reset, but no changes are noted to Cuningham’s translation. It’s fantastic that the Calder line is coming back into print, and OneWorld’s books have attractive covers (this one, unfortunately, seems to have been made from a JPEG); however, one always wishes that they’d do a little editorial work.

(One wonders, incidentally, who Rupert Copeland Cuningham might have been: as far as I can tell, this book seems to be the only thing his name was ever attached to. His name appears to be somewhat in flux: more often than not, there’s an extra “n” in Cuningham when he appears in bibliographies (where his translation is praised). There’s no discussion of Cuningham or Cunningham in the Ford or Caradec biographies; while I don’t have the special issue of Bizarre on Roussel, I have most of what’s available on Roussel in English, and it’s odd that the translator never reappears, as almost everyone else connected with Roussel seems to. One might imagine that R. C. C. never actually existed and is a pseudonym; the translation of Chapter 1 of Locus Solus by Harry Mathews that appears in the Exact Change How I Wrote Certain of My Books is decidedly different, John Ashbery must know the answer to this question.)

An introduction wouldn’t hurt; the omission of notes (aside from five by Roussel and two by the translator) seems like a fairly substantial mistake with a book like this, not least for the diction, which remains somewhat extraordinary. What exactly a paving beetle, also known, splendidly as a punner, might look like (especially in Cantarel’s modified form) is not going to be clear to the general audience of today, though they certainly might have been a century ago. One wonders (especially with punner) how the French that Roussel used would compare. The word subtunicle (not subtunical, something very different), only manages to get five hits on Google; it doesn’t make it into the OED, although tunicle does; while Roussel explains what he means by this, annotation would help. The same for colombophile: the OED says the word is French for “pigeon-fancier”; did anyone but Roussel use it to mean a specially thin kind of paper used to write messages to be carried by messenger pigeons? A cursory search of the Internet doesn’t turn it up; a good editor would find this out.

The typesetting is, unfortunately, shoddy. Italicization is applied (to, for example, aqua-micans) capriciously; a more severe error is found in the name of Martial Cantarel’s Siamese cat, “Khóng-dek-lèn,” which has a diacritical over the e in dek of Roussel’s own invention, half of an open semicircle, has been changed into ẵ (Unicode 7861), an e with a breve underneath a tilde, which is a character used in Vietnamese. The Calder edition did this correctly; a recent French edition presents it as a breve under a macron, which is better than a breve and a tilde. As both biographies point out, Roussel wanted an unpronounceable character, not one that might be pronounced by someone who could read Vietnamese; he went to the expense of having the character made specially for his book, and it would be nice if his example could have been followed – five minutes in Fontographer would have done the job. Roussel demands more attention than he’s been given here; probably best to stick with the older edition if you’re looking to buy an English Locus Solus.

That said: it’s fantastic to have Locus Solus so easily accessible in English again. Roussel’s writing remains intractably bizarre, down to the very structure of the book: in each of the seven chapters, Martial Canterel shows his visitors something inscrutably strange, described in exhaustive detail; then Canterel explains how entirely logical the tableau actually is, showing followed by telling. His audience remains entirely passive; even when they are allowed to interact with the tableaux in the case of the seahorse race, Cantarel explains that the results are entirely preordained. The sense of stillness in this book is almost oppressive: the scenes will go on being reenacted again and again, regardless of an audience. Perhaps this is so unnerving because we know that this is what happens every time we re-read a book or re-watch a movie. The house in Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating would seem to be deeply influenced by Locus Solus; I don’t know if anyone’s written about the influence of Roussel on Rivette, though IMDB falsely claims that 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup is a biopic about Roussel. But Céline and Julie is warm – repetition is a game – while Locus Solus almost radiates coldness, to borrow an image from the book. When Harry Mathews rewrote Roussel in The Conversions, the result is funny; but Locus Solus is deadly serious, even if the situations described are as ridiculous as those in Mathews’s book.

A paragraph near the center of the book might be excerpted for its almost metafictional turn. Here, Cantarel’s process for revivifying the dead is being described; the dead, when brought back to life, re-enact the same scene over and over, and an environment must be made to accommodate them:

During this phase of the investigation Cantarel and his assistants closely surrounded the animated corpse, watching his every movement in order to assist him from time to time when necessary. Indeed the exact reproduction of some muscular effort made in life to raise some heavy object – now absent – entailed a loss of balance which would have caused a fall, but for their prompt intervention. Furthermore, whenever the legs, with only flat ground before them, began to ascend or descend some imaginatry staircase, it was essential to prevent the body falling either forwards or backwards, as the case might be. A quick hand had to be held ready to replace some non-existent wall against which the subject might be about to lean his shoulder, and he would have tended to sit down on thin air from time to time if their arms had not received him. (p. 99)

One imagines Roussel laboriously constructing the situations in this book to fit the results of his procedure; did he expect the reader to guess? Or again at the end of the eighth section of Chapter 4, where François-Charles Cortier hides his confession to his crimes using codes; his son, having deciphered the code and found the confession, feels the word “son of a murderer” branded on his forehead. The reader who knows nothing of Roussel must suspect that something’s up; the informed reader sees Roussel’s breadcrumb trail.

Because of the lack of critical apparatus around this book (aside from the hint of “Roussel’s own uniquely eccentric principles of composition” on the back cover copy), it’s possible that readers are finding this book without any idea of how Roussel wrote his books. It’s difficult to imagine what such a reader might make of this book. It comes off almost as science fiction in the style of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Eve future: but it’s essentially static. Nothing is being promised for the future: at best, the future seems to be endless replay of the past. The text of this book feels almost like being in the company of the insane: the hyperdetail about subjects that makes no sense to the outside world; the sense that the story’s being told regardless – maybe in spite of – whoever might be listening. Henry Darger’s scenes of girls and endless battles and over-regard for the weather aren’t that far away, in some sense; reading Locus Solus one can’t help but notice how many casually insane people are involved. But Roussel’s work is so intricately put together: although a scene in first description appears to be entirely random, every element is shown to be there for a reason. The precision is almost machine-like; there’s a coldness to this book that still chills. Even if one didn’t know about Roussel’s procedure, it might be sensed: something still pumps away deep inside this book.

sergio de la pava, “personae”

Sergio De La Pava
Personae
(Amante Press/Xlibris, 2011)


Certain things immediately remind the reader of Sergio De La Pava’s second published novel of his first book: again, it’s published by Xlibris; the covers are even more garish than A Naked Singularity; again, those covers are entirely devoid of blurbs. I don’t know that there’s necessarily any reason for those three things as there might have been with De La Pava’s first book, as that attracted much more attention and praise than one would expect from a self-published book. Now these details more clearly signify the author’s choice to stay outside the mainstream, a decision that seems entirely reasonable when the stream is as murky as it currently is. What De La Pava’s doing with Personae, however, is decidedly different from A Naked Singularity. Sticking to the externals, this is a notably smaller book: 216 pages, and flipping through one notices that the middle hundred are taken up by a play. De La Pava isn’t repeating himself here, for better or worse.

A Naked Singularity was the narrative of a heist grown gigantic, told in a single voice; while there are elements of the police procedural to this book, De La Pava’s up to something very different in Personae. The book is made up of ten chapters, told by a number of different voices in various registers. The frame story, such as it is, is told in the first, the seventh, and notes at the beginning of the third and ninth chapters. The majority of the book is made up of various sorts of documents found in or commenting on the frame story. It’s a considerably more skeletal arrangement than was the case with A Naked Singularity: the characters are harder to grasp, and the plot is more elliptical. The arrangement of the various pieces of the book is left to the reader.

There’s a lot going on in this book. We start, as noted, with the bare outlines of a detective story: a man is dead in a room; he is a very old man, 111, but Helen Tame, the sometime protagonist of this book and the narrator of the first chapter, thinks that he was murdered. Antonio Arce, as the old man turns out to be named, is also a writer: in his apartment is found a box containing a notebook, a short story written in the margins of TV Guide (“The Ocean”), a play (Personae), and what might be called a novella (Energeias: or Why Today the Sun May Not Rise in the East, Set in the West), which tells two stories in alternating sections of numbered paragraphs. These are included in the book, as are a pair of obituaries and three excerpts from an essay written by Helen Tame – who was, before she became a detective, a musician and a musicologist – on Bach, Glenn Gould, and “aconspiratorial silence.” Along the way there’s also a pretty good pastiche of David Markson’s aphoristic novels as well as a critique of the Rabassa translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. And there’s an enormous play in the middle that reminds me of what I remember of Sartre’s No Exit, which isn’t very much.

Personae isn’t the easiest book to read, simply because De La Pava isn’t trying to make an easy book. The reader, for example, is trusted to know the relevance of Aristotle’s energeia to the paired narratives that close the book. The elephant in the room is the play in the middle of the book, which shares its title with the book (“Writer displayed zero reticence about using others’ titles as will be apparent to the discerning reader upon further development”). It’s hard for me to know what to do with this. I feel certain that there were references in the play that passed me by while seeming to point at something (some of the names of the characters, for example, seem to refer to Virginia Woolf, Wittgenstein, and the house of Atreus). Five characters wandering the stage for one hundred pages argue philosophically before their violent deaths; but it’s hard to know what the reader is meant to take away from this, in no small part because it seems to have little play on the rest of the book. It’s possible there are connections; however, it’s also hard to be convinced that a third reading of the play would be worthwhile. The play’s importance to the novel might be guessed from the fact that an excerpt is used in the place of a blurb on the back cover; does it matter than the section of a speech excerpted on the back cover changes gender? It could be a simple typographic mistake, a “she” becoming a “he”; in the play, a he becomes a she, but this might simply be coincidence. But it’s hard to imagine that most readers of this book will dig deeply.

De La Pava has a gift for voice; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to carry over here. It’s frustrating that the play doesn’t work because much of the rest of Personae is entertaining, not least the game of playing spot-the-references. A Naked Singularity made me think of A Frolic of His Own, and there’s still the feeling of Gaddis here – Personae the play feels a bit like the insertion of Once at Antietam, Gaddis’s failed play, into Frolic, while the sections on Gould and Bach feel a bit like the tortured narrative of the life of Mozart that threads through a section of J R, a book also called to mind with a quick aside on player pianos. I also found myself thinking of Felipe Alfau’s Chromos, another story of elderly immigrants (from Spain, not Colombia) trying to make sense of New York by telling stories. And there’s not a little of David Foster Wallace in De La Pava’s voice; usually I count this against writers, but De La Pava seems to have some of the same mix of virtuosity and empathy that makes Wallace work.

Personae doesn’t really work, though it has some very nice pieces. It’s hard for me to disentangle the problems with this book from the problems with publishing; and that’s because the book is in large part about the problem of authorship and the place of the writer in the world. A passage from chapter 3, a short story called “The Ocean” (written by the dead Antonio Arce in the margins of a TV Guide with Dynasty on the cover) might serve as an example:

Sand, he knows, is essentially finely-degraded rock. Degraded by Life plus Time and if that formula can work this on that imagine it on the less sturdy. To build on sand is to deny all that in a deluded way. To build properly and for posterity use concrete. Concrete as in The Pantheon with its eighteen hundred years and counting. No less a personage than Brunelleschi saw that and largely followed suit to create art like Il Duomo that centuries later allows people like our professor to center their lives not on emulating him but on discussing exegetically what he produced. (p. 33)

The narration starts from the perspective of a professor floating in the ocean, though the “our” suggests that we’re moving outside of Professor Tenrod. What’s interesting here is how clearly the text is written from the perspective of a writer: it’s better to follow the example of Brunelleschi did than to talk about what he did, and the professor is found lacking. It could be a stretch, but this comes across as a credo for the book, or the reader’s imagined figure of De La Pava, in something of the spirit of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” This seems to be what De La Pava’s doing: in Chapter III, for example, he recapitulates Markson’s style; and a page after the quoted passage, there will be unreadable messages written on a beach (Wittgenstein’s Mistress); there’s also mention made of a “Writer” throughout.

After the play, Helen Tame explains that the dead Antonio Arce, subject of their case, can only be understood when he is treated as a writer:

A writer is someone who writes, Tame had patiently explained to Furillo when he objected that no agent, no prizes, no editor, no book deal meant to writer. Similarly, see if you can follow, an artist creates art. (p. 148)

It’s hard not to see the author himself in this definition. Arce’s writing is found in a cakebox; unpublished during his life, it has a transformative value to Helen Tame, the other protagonist of the book. Later in the same chapter, sitting in his apartment she considers his work:

Is the artist cursed, blessed, blessed to be cursed, or cursed to be blessed? Just plain cursed Antonio came to believe. How else to characterize an activity that in no apparent way benefited its creator but rather functioned more like a just-shy-of-mortal injury every time it was engaged in? There was simply no way to tell, and yes that included speaking to the actual writer, whether Energeias was unfinished or not and it was that uncertainty that had confounded Helen and initially tainted the rest of her enquiry. (pp. 153–5)

De La Pava’s wrestling with big concerns here, concerns that play out in the final section of the book, Energeias, which tells two parallel stories that seem to be retellings of different portions of the earlier life of Antonio Arce. Writing kills writers in this book; but it is necessary for its own sake.

This is maybe my problem with this book as a reader: De La Pava is writing for his own sake, outside of any system of publishing, and certainly he has no requirement to please me. But I wonder if an editor might be useful: not only to sprinkle the book with commas, but to argue with the writer for the sake of the reader. An editor as smart as De La Pava could make an excellent book from this one. But while writers will happily exists free of the world of publishing, I don’t know that editors will. De La Pava’s a very good writer, and one more people should be reading; but the total faith in the power of the author than self-publishing allows might be working to his detriment.

zachary mason, “the lost books of the odyssey”

Zachary Mason
The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel
(Picador, 2010; originally Starcherone)


I wish I liked this book better than I did; it’s possible that I didn’t give it a very fair reading, as most of my first reading took place on a plane full of screaming babies which I attempted to drown out with Basic Channel. Some smart people whose opinions i trust (Michael Silverblatt, Tim Farrington) like this book and Mason comes off as sharp in interviews; but even re-reading it’s hard for me to be convinced that this book successfully manages to get past Homeric pastiche. Rewriting Homer isn’t such a new thing: there’s Joyce, of course, and Christopher Logue’s translations and Kleist’s extrapolations (in Penthesilea) if you want to go to the Iliad, and things like the second and third sections of John Barth’s Chimera aren’t tremendously far away from where this book ends up; nor, in another way, is Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Just looking at versions of The Odyssey besides Joyce’s, there’s Lucian and Kazantzakis; there’s Godard’s Le Mépris; there’s O Brother Where Art Thou; Samuel Butler’s re-imagined backstory and author; and this list could go on and on. When there’s company like that, it’s hard to get overly excited about the concept of this book: there’s a lot to measure up to that’s already out there, much that isn’t especially obscure and plenty that’s familiar.

First form. In what sense is this a novel? Is the subtitle Mason’s, or is it the publisher’s, hoping the book won’t be confused with The Lost Books of the Bible or the classics section, if it exists? There’s a whiff of the paradoxical (or oxymoronic) to books being glossed as a novel. The original Odyssey isn’t a novel, of course, it’s an epic in verse; it’s composed of books, but those books function differently than the books here. If one isn’t looking for a novel in it, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, unapologetically prose, appears to be a collection of short stories, many of them mutually exclusive. While the stories are connected thematically, there isn’t the sense of development (or even the consistent sense of chronology) that one expects of a novel; if it a novel, it’s in the maddeningly all-encompassing sense that Steven Moore uses the word in. The stories that make up this book can seemingly be read in any order with no loss. In this, it might be compared to the shuffleable innards of B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates or Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars; the aforementioned Calvino or Queneau’s Exercises in Style might be seen as forebears of this type of book. Pavić’s novel seems to be designed to point out how mutually exclusive different accounts of history are: the strategy works there because he’s ostensibly telling stories from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim perspectives; religious conflict is something that we all understand (if perhaps not from a Serbian perspective). Mason seems to similarly be arguing that history is untrustworthy, but the argument feels a bit old-hat: even if we’re not textual scholars, we all know that the four Gospels, for example, tell stories that sometimes conflict. Maybe I’m jaded and this is inherently interesting in Mason’s book: but I would have liked it to lead somewhere beyond this. Maybe I’m reading this book for the wrong reason.

The footnotes of this book keep nagging me: they seem trapped between two forms, first, explaining the broader frame structure (along with a very brief preface, which assures us that these chapters are all lost books of the Odyssey), and second, providing basic background information on Homer’s poems for an audience that isn’t assumed to know anything. This is a bit problematic: the frame work is brief enough to not need to be there – the reader is quickly lost in the world of the Odyssey, not considering the archaeological pretense that would have been needed to bring these books to paper – and further mentions of the frame story unnecessarily jolt the reader out of that world. This might be good if it were more thorough; but the notes offer only a fragmentary history, not enough of one to maintain a suspension of disbelief. The ostensible audience also bothers: we are repeatedly told things that anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Odyssey should know; the assumption seems to be that the reader has not bother to read the original, but somehow wants to read the Lost Books, which might be better. This is strange, and I don’t really understand who this reader might be.

I’m circling around the content of this book, and that might not be fair. The 44 stories that make up this book are pleasant enough: Mason takes the characters of the Odyssey as readymades and moves them through his own plots or interpretations, using their voices as necessary. The plots might be conveniently described as Borgesian. This as well throws off the framework of the book: something that’s ostensibly been lost shouldn’t be sounding so much like Nabokov. Finding the postmodern in Homer is something: but is that enough to surprise anyone any more? Certainly this is a well-worn academic trick.

Perhaps I would have done better to track down a copy of the original Starcherone version of this book: I’m not sure what the differences are, but I suspect that Picador-supplied smoothness isn’t helping the book in my mind. As it is, I have a hard time liking it. It’s reasonably well done, and I think Mason is probably worth attention in the future; but I’m left wanting more.

renee gladman, “event factory”

Renee Gladman
Event Factory
(Dorothy, a publishing project, 2010)


It’s hard to know what to make of Event Factory, a short novel that’s the first offering from Danielle Dutton’s Dororthy, a publishing project. The book starts off with an epigraph from Samuel Beckett’s posthumous narrative “The Calmative,” which might offer a clue where Renee Gladman is coming from. Another clue comes in the thanks at the end of the book, which end “and most especially to Samuel R. Delany, for Dhalgren.” Event Factory might be seen as somewhere between Beckett and Delany (the later Delany, of Dhalgren and the Nevèrÿon books).

While Gladman’s book might be read as science fiction, there are none of the usual signifiers of science fiction: no novelties, no space ships, everything taking place in a universe that seems to be our own. Except that it’s not: the first sentence announces “From the sky there was no sign of Ravicka.” Ravicka is, we’ll learn, a city: the reader knows of no city named Ravicka, but might suspend disbelief even for fiction that is not science fiction – has any city ever been more prosaic than Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith in the state of Winnemac? But a sentence later we find this:

The city was large, yellow, and tender.

City refers, presumably, to Ravicka – although three sentences into the book, this isn’t entirely clear to the reader: “Ravicka” could have been any geographical object that can be seen from the sky. Attaching a proper name to it that isn’t a proper name that we know signals that we are outside of our usual space: but how far outside? A city can easily be large: there’s no problem there. Yellow gives pause: this isn’t one of the colors that a city is usually described at. It’s easy to imagine a gray city. A yellow city could conceivably be some sort of tourist destination – walls painted yellow in the way that Marrakech is sometimes called a red city. But the word yellow is functioning differently than large: we’ve stepped, to some degree, into the metaphorical, because, presumably, the city is not entirely yellow, only parts of it is. Or maybe it is: an emerald city suggests fantasy. In science fiction, Delany notes somewhere, there’s a looseness of language: what’s usually seen as metaphor could conceivably be entirely descriptive inside the mode of science fiction. Tender, the third adjective, pushes us in this direction. Even if a city can be yellow, how can it be tender? This adjective, of course, points us to Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons pointed out the possibilities of using words in ways they weren’t intended. (Certainly someone must have by now suggested a science fictional reading of that book?)

Science fiction is inevitably disappointing to me because you often get an opening paragraph like this: one where you can’t understand how the words fit together, which is then defused: over the course of the narrative, you learn exactly what those words mean and why they’re being used in the sense that they are. A second reading is inevitably very different from the first, because the reader has already learned how to read the book. (Perhaps this is why one finds so many trilogies in science fiction?) Event Factory does not work this way. By a second time through – I have now read this book three times, which isn’t that much of an accomplishment, as it’s not very long – this paragraph does not make any more sense. Estrangement is continual in this book. While the proper nouns at the start seem recognizable – there are characters named Simon and Mrs. Madeline Savoy and Timothy; there’s a 32 bus; Simon sings from the Gospels, which could conceivably be the Gospels we know – but soon we find characters named Zàoter Limici, Ulchi Managua, and Dar which might almost be recognizable. (Diacritical marks, as in Delany’s Nevèrÿon, function as a signifier of difference: we look at a name on the page like “Zàoter” and realize that we have no idea how it might be spoken aloud, only that its a is almost certainly not our a.) As the book progresses, recognizable proper nouns almost disappear entirely. It comes as almost physical relief when Kecia Washington reappears toward the end of the book.

What does happen in this book? The narrator, a linguist, goes to the city of Ravicka for reasons left unclear. The air of the city appears to be yellow, though it’s hard to be sure about this, and what exactly this means: perhaps its only smog, maybe its something more fantastical. People seem to be leaving or to have left the city, though why and where they’ve gone is left unclear. The narrator speaks Ravic, the language of the city; she seems to understand the gestural components of communication in Ravicka, which are many. But she still seems to be on the outside of something, mirroring the position of the reader with the book. Because there are the signifiers of science fiction, we keep expecting that something might be explained that will make everything snap into place or to explicate what the ground rules are; perhaps the narrator is expecting the same thing, but it never does. The effect is of taking a long trip in a country that you don’t understand as well as you’d hoped. Again and again there’s the sense of linguistic breakdown:

The woman interrupted, “Yes. We know all of that,” and nodded compassionately. Then continued, more upbeat, “My name is (then gave a puff of air). Will you come with me?”
     And that was what I had feared: she was not Ravickian and, what was worse, she used air instead of hard sound for speech. (pp. 56–7)

There’s more than a hint of metafiction scattered through this book (on the next page, they eat what seems to be “shredded paper, which seemed to have been stewed in various dark and spicy sauces”): one wonders if “hard sound” could mean written or printed letters, since we already know that the air of Ravicka is not quite the same as the air we know. Or we might read this passage as the narrator having become estranged from language: that spoken language turns into only “a puff of air”. This is left unresolved: perhaps it’s both at once.

This book feels like Dhalgren might if that book were more linguistically turned in on itself. There’s the same sense of inscrutability: I think that’s a lot of why I like Dhalgren, and that largely works here as well. Event Factory is supposed to be the first book of a trilogy; I’ll be interested to see where Renee Gladman goes.

daniel hernandez, “down & delirious in mexico city” / sharifa rhodes-pitts, “harlem is nowhere”

Daniel Hernandez
Down & Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century
(Scribner, 2011)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
(Little, Brown, 2011)


Two books this time, one that I’ve taken a very long time to read – I started Harlem Is Nowhere in February if not sooner – and one which just arrived and I read quickly. These books are superficially similar in that they consist of essays about a place – a neighborhood in the case of Harlem Is Nowhere, a nebulously defined city in Down & Delirious in Mexico City – but they’re different in tone and effect. The form is familiar enough, if possibly dangerous: Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City might be a useful example. Reading that book a few years ago, I found myself realizing that I’d find the book immensely fake if it presumed to tell the story of New York rather than of Bombay. The idea of making a city fit into a book is inherently problematic, as tempting as it might seem.

Maybe it’s easiest to talk about Down & Delirious first. Hernandez’s book is both helped and hurt by the existence for David Lida’s First Stop in the New World, from a few years ago; Lida’s book presents a well-written introduction to various facets of Mexico City for an American audience that doesn’t tend to think about Mexico City at all. Lida’s book is cited numerous times in the notes to Down & Delirious; one has the sense that Lida paved the way, and gave Hernandez the freedom to not write about many aspects of the city. Lida’s perspective is perhaps easier for the average reader to related to: he’s an Anglo who moved to Mexico City. Hernandez was born into an assimilated family in San Diego of Mexican descent; though he visits Mexico City for the first time as an adult, it’s easier for him to slide into the youth culture there. This is the real subject of Hernandez’s book: it’s a good one, and he arrives at the right time to chronicle it. The book founders a bit when he tries to draw larger conclusions about Mexico City, simply because it is so vast, and he’s consciously only dealing with a circumscribed part of it. Lida’s book – more considered, running the risk of being impossibly broad – is almost certainly a better introduction to the city for a general audience.

That said: Hernandez’s book is very pleasant to read. His prose conveys how vibrant the city is right now: for all its flaws, Mexico City seems much more alive, more full of possibility, more creative, than New York does right now. It’s a city full of strange wonders, and Hernandez has a great deal of fun tracking them down. His account of the Mexican emo riots of 2008, or example, carefully and empathetically takes apart what seems to be a ridiculous subject, finding in it a great deal of interest. He backs off, however, when the subject threatens to overflow the essay form: the homophobia he detects at the heart of the story isn’t interrogated at length.

Maybe that’s a problem with the form of this book. There was a recent piece by Paul Maliszewski that expertly anatomized the problem with magazine-writing as it currently exists in American literary culture. These are problems that bother me; the pieces of this book feel, to me, too much like magazine pieces, and while they’re good at that, I keep feeling like there could be something more made from them. Hernandez bounces from encounter to encounter; each piece more or less stands alone, though there are, of course, some common threads that carry through the book. This makes the book easy to digest; but it almost makes it too easy to digest. The last chapter, in which Hernandez attempts to build up to a resolution, falls flat, in part because his distributed form works against him.

Harlem Is Nowhere is by contrast a book more turned in on itself. It’s a record not so much of a neighborhood as it is of an encounter with a neighborhood’s extensively documented history. This isn’t to suggest that Hernandez’s book isn’t well-read: a tremendous amount has been written about Mexico City, and his copious notes document his reading. His reading, however, seems instrumental, something to be used as a means to an end; in other words, research. For Rhodes-Pitts, there’s the sense that Harlem exists to end in a book: it always has, but what that book is has changed over time. Where Hernandez talks almost exclusively with young people, Rhodes-Pitts seems to only talk with the old.

Harlem Is Nowhere makes it clear early on that it doesn’t pretend to be a definitive history: it’s more the record of an engagement with a neighborhood, wrestling with the problem of a sense of place in the manner of Geoff Dyer. It’s a considerably more pessimistic book that Down & Delirious: Rhodes-Pitts is writing about Harlem, buy she might be writing about the terminally bourgeois state of New York City in general. Rhodes-Pitts frames the book with problems of real estate: from present-day developer schemes to gentrify and destroy Harlem to the older black arguments (from Marcus Garvey on) tying cultural autonomy to land ownership.

Rhodes-Pitts is a cagey presence in her book: born in Texas, she moves to Harlem and looks intently at it, trying to map what she sees to what she’s read. She’s constantly being buttonholed by those who would be her elders, people who have ideas for her and her book, ideas that she questions more often than not. The stories she’s told often don’t hold up when subjected to scrutiny; but the same is often true of the books she reads.

There’s maybe a quiet echo of Don Quixote to her project: everybody knows that Harlem, like chivalry, is, if not gone, at least in a bad way by the time she gets to them, but maybe her book will get it right. She spends a great deal of time in libraries, attempting to square what’s outside with what’s inside: she moves from the book to the street to the book, sometimes more immediately, as when she is accosted in libraries by old people with their own theories. She’s good at listening; she’s good at digging up stories.

But this is, finally, an elegiac book, focused squarely on the past, with it’s corollary, how the past informs the present. One wishes the present could do a better job of speaking for itself; but this isn’t Rhodes-Pitts’s fault. She’s made a beautiful book out of it.