“A tale of a tale,” to cite Delany’s own characterization, thus situating his text within the tradition of self-reflexive literature associated so clo“A tale of a tale,” to cite Delany’s own characterization, thus situating his text within the tradition of self-reflexive literature associated so closely with Borges; declaring it a phallus-obsessed Ficciones is inevitably reductive but sketches out the general textual landscape. Just like the Argentinian master, Delany unapologetically takes it as a given that literary esoterica and other epistemological pursuits can be just as thrilling as an adventure yarn or mystery story. For Phallos is indeed a mystery at heart, albeit unconventionally so.
A brief opening note outlines the experience of a young potential reader who, after failing to track down a copy of an obscure erotic novel called “Phallos” by an anonymous author, is forced to resign himself instead a lengthy synopsis posted on the internet by an obscure academic residing in Moscow, Idaho. This summary is what constitutes the main text of Phallos, though other layers of narrative become intricately intertwined with this ostensibly "straightforward" explanatory text.
Despite the fact that all of the explicit sexual material has been edited out (the author worries over issues of hosting sexually explicit material on a university website), I found much of Phallos to still be a surprisingly sexy read. Delany is masterful at titillating solely through inference...
I also ended up being quite touched by Neoptolomus’s constant discovery and affirmation of the polymorphous quality of love, sex, and desire: “with each of my adventures,” he muses at one point, “I had thought I’d learned a lesson about love, only to discover, with the next, I’d merely learned a lesson about a lover.” And to claims Neoptolomus as a democratic lover would be an understatement: his bedfellows encompass all races, ages, nationalities, and takes no mind of class status, level of education, sexual proclivities, or even orthodox standards of attractiveness. It’s constantly a pleasure to encounter how our protagonist discovers beauty and sexual fulfillment simply by being open to their possibility.
I’m not sure if the novella of Phallos is republished here in its original form, or has been altered in this “enhanced and revised edition,” which is essentially a scholarly edition of the text. Addended at the end is an “Afterward” as well as three scholarly essays—they’re all very academic in nature (that is, highly theoretical and employ the terminology of the academy), and I found lots of interest while perusing them without getting too caught up in the intricacies of their arguments. I’m glad they’re included as they affirm that a text like Phallos merits such close scholarly attention, though I also think it would have been nice to also include at least one analysis immediately accessible to the casual reader.
In the end what I found so wonderful about Phallos is that it essentially invites the reader to embrace the text as a kind of sophisticated variation on the “choose your own adventure” formula. Delany seems to intentionally avoid ever dictating how the text should be read or understood, placing that control (literally) into the reader’s hands. Skip over the extensive footnotes, or dig into the minutiae. Ponder over the broad philosophical questions that are slyly invoked, or simply be entertained by a quick-paced erotic adventure tale. Admire the intricate narrative construction, or marvel at the meticulous historical detail. In the end, it’s all up to you.
[The full review can be found on my blog Queer Modernisms. Apologies for the inconvenience, but as posting a review on Goodreads is to "expressly grant" full license to the content, it's my small attempt at maintaining some control over my writing.] ...more
The truncation of Geryon’s name to an astringent, almost elemental “G” seems to me rather indicative of Carson’s underlying strategy in the transitionThe truncation of Geryon’s name to an astringent, almost elemental “G” seems to me rather indicative of Carson’s underlying strategy in the transition—“continuation” doesn’t seem quite the right term—from Autobiography of Red to Red Doc>; if there was an impulse to humanize the mythological in the earlier text, here there is a movement back toward the stark, unexplicative outlines of myth noted from somewhere afar. To some degree I expected this, for as Daisy Fried has rightly noted “each new Carson project comes with new parameters,” and as a longtime Carson admirer I’ve become accustomed to forcibly acclimating to the unique terrain each text presents (never moreso than when I saw her in person, where she read in quiet monotone a longform prose short story that was something of a riff on a suburban true crime/mystery narrative—indeed?).
But it’d also be disingenuous to claim that this inevitability didn’t still leave me a bit disappointed: Autobiography, as my user profile will attest, is one of my most beloved books, and I really was hoping for some new insights into Geryon and Herekles’s chronically—and poignantly—tangled relationship. And while Red Doc> does unveil additional nuances, they weren’t exactly of the type I nonetheless hoped for. To my great regret, there's not much that can be considered queer, which is all the more frustrating because I think the Autobiography is one of the most insightful representations of the puzzling and arduous aspects of the coming out process and a first crush/love that I’ve ever encountered.
But at one point G is asked about happened to that autobiography he was “always fiddling with” back “in the old days,” and he resignedly admits he “gave it up” because “nothing was happening in [his] life.” That offhand admission ended up being key for me, for no longer are we dealing with the autobiographic form with its associations of intimacy and revelation, but something drastically different, something instead more dispassionate and objective and remote. This dynamic is rendered visible via the austere structure many of the poems take, though rather than creating a sense of stasis, it is consistently a surprise and a pleasure to see how Carson deftly uses language to embellish and rend the architectonics of her chosen poetic forms.
In the end my feelings after a first reading of Red Doc> can be summed up by Parul Sehgal’s ultimate assessment that it is “a slender offshoot of a major work.” Which in my mind isn’t at all a knock: the pleasures of minorness can be and often are multitude. And while I suspect this will not be a volume taken off of the bookshelf for repeat readings nearly as often as its predecessor, I do look forward to returning to it sometime in the future to chip away some more at its many mysteries and riddles....more
“There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless.” -from “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
The reader of Ficciones must have a “There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless.” -from “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
The reader of Ficciones must have a love for literary and historical esoterica and minutiae to get some type of pleasure out of most of these stories–if they can even be called "stories," that is. And how one feels on this issue makes all the difference in how the quote cited above is regarded: not interested in reading a fairly lengthy description about say, a typological error in the footnotes in a second edition of a book by an obscure 13th century Dutch alchemist and it comes off as a truism; delight in such archaic trivia and it is instead a tongue-in-cheek quip perfectly at home in the funhouse of reflexive literary mirrors Borges cheerfully constructs throughout Ficciones.
I definitely fall in the latter camp–intellectually, few things gets me going more than an enigmatic reference, a stray footnote, or something of the like–and so I found a great deal to enjoy in the seventeen stories collected here. Not that every word is enthralling; indeed, long stretches can be quite dull. But what kept me intrigued from the first page to the last is the question Borges implies with his title: what exactly does constitute fiction? The term “fiction,” of course, is opposed to the facticity of “non-fiction,” and conjures up associations of narrative, of plots, of stories. And there definitely stories in Ficciones that adhere to such expectations, but they are definitely in the minority. Borges, however, employs the term “fiction” literally, and seems most interested in exploring what “fiction” can actually entail, particularly in regards to form. Because Borges uses a variety of forms traditionally associated with non-narrative modes of writing: history, testimony, the literary or scholarly review, etc. And as he proceeds to demonstrate, why can’t these forms be used to create stories just like any other? And really, isn’t everything we do here on this site–this very review, in fact–create little fictions?
The amazing “The Garden of Forking Paths,” undoubtedly and justifiably the most famous story in Ficciones, incorporates both of these dynamics, combining a quick-moving plot with his more literary obsessions, but a story like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which details Borges’s "research" (how many words with what seemed stable meanings be called into question here?) into a mysterious entry in an old encyclopedia is a wonderful example of how a “fictional story” can take on unexpected forms, and be quite exciting in their own right. In this inaugural story, as in the aforementioned “Pierre Menard,” as well as “Three Versions of Judas,” “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain,” and several other stories, literary analysis is revealed to be stories in and of themselves. As I alluded to earlier, it’s not that every single sentence of Ficciones makes for enthralling reading, but I found the literary terrain and textual frontiers Borges constantly forces himself into and start exploring to be endlessly fascinating, if not actually astonishing in a very tangible, active sense....more
At first it just seems like simply a gossipy good time, but it also functions as a fascinating mise en abyme (the author speaking about herself througAt first it just seems like simply a gossipy good time, but it also functions as a fascinating mise en abyme (the author speaking about herself through the voice of her partner, etc).
It's a thoroughly delightful portal through which to slip into 1920's Paris. I'd wager that Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is generally preferred, but I am definitely Team Stein. ...more
Not my favorite novel by Woolf—not by a longshot—but as the unanticipated terminus for one of literature’s great oeuvres it strikes an incredibly poweNot my favorite novel by Woolf—not by a longshot—but as the unanticipated terminus for one of literature’s great oeuvres it strikes an incredibly powerful and poignant note, its deliberate, hard-fought expansiveness resisting any sense of finality or closure (indeed, the end is revealed to be just another beginning). On this reading I was struck with how the novel itself feels positioned at a stylistic juncture, an attempt to fuse together the gorgeously abstracted soliloquies of The Waves with the more intimate representation of inner consciousness showcased in Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and most particularly, To the Lighthouse I’m not convinced everything attempted actually works—it all sometimes feels like a fascinating experiment rather than a full expression of mastery—but it also feels like the kind of creation that retrospectively turns out to be a threshold to other things. Of course in this case we’ll never know what those other things could possibly have been; as Leonard Woolf’s prefatory note acknowledges, its author was dead before the inevitable final revisions could be made.
So just to get my critiques out of the way: the quotation of long passages of text being performed at the pageant just don’t ever feel fully integrated into the overall narrative—I’m not inherently against the idea of extended quotation but they almost felt like place cards intended to hold place for something else. Also the various characters seem to function more as archetypal “types” than individuated “people,” and though they signal their various concerns and struggles and thought processes but they feel more like, well, a cast performing lines rather than embodied entities.
That said, the distancing effect was certainly Woolf’s intention, as the narrative itself not only sets out to blur distinctions between the generic markers of fiction and drama, but is just one of many boundary lines Woolf plays with: those separating audience and performer, and even author and reader when it comes to generating meaning. There’s a wonderful moment towards the pageant’s climax when a mirror is produced on stage and the narrative voice shifts pronouns, shifting from “them” to “ourselves:” “a burst of applause greeted this flattering tribute to ourselves.” It’s a subtle alteration, but the effect is jarring, and it immediately begs the question of who exactly “ourselves” refers to. The audience watching the pageant within the text, of course, but the reader also is being intentionally imbricated here, and I imagine the author is including herself as well.
In my first status update during my reading I also noted how queer this book struck me at this time around; during my first reading some ten years ago I was not in the place to detect alternate meanings to William Dodge’s silent confession that he’s “a half-man” or Miss La Trobe’s complaint that “she was an outcast” and that “nature had somehow set her apart from her kind.” But apart from covert queer representation—and rather depressing ones at that—there’s also something weird, and rather queer about the way Woolf attempts to present time throughout Between the Acts, with the constant, sometimes startling crash between the historical past and the tenuous present (with rumblings of upcoming war wafting nervously in the air). Time cycles restlessly throughout the text, always refusing to march linearly forward, instead trying to slip into more ambiguous temporal spaces.
As well as impending war there’s also the long shadow Woolf’s death casts across the text—would the text seem quite as elegiac as it does if Woolf had lived and written more texts after it? An impossible question, and one undermined somewhat by the text itself, which continuously waves off the past and even the future to place the emphasis instead on the present moment. This moment. “The hands of the clock had stopped at the present moment” the narrative trumpets. “It was now. Ourselves.”
And when exactly is “now?” The “now” of the text? The “now” of the words first written upon a piece of paper? The “now” of the reader reading the words? For the briefest of instants, the present moment manages to contain them all. [Second reading.] ...more