I have no idea what just happened to me as I finished this book. I have very little idea what happened in the book. The plot is there, seemingly rightI have no idea what just happened to me as I finished this book. I have very little idea what happened in the book. The plot is there, seemingly right in front of you, and yet. . . and yet, it is still, a week after finishing it, almost completely indiscernible. More importantly, it is seemingly entirely unnecessary. I keep saying seemingly, I think, because a) I am trying to evoke a feeling I got that, while things may seem to be this way or that, or saying this or saying that, that they are not this or that, or they are not saying this or that; and b) I'm excusing my nebulous non-understanding of the book. The characters are there. They come up, out and right at you, and yet. . . and yet, I don't know who among them, if any, this book is about. I did not develop lasting attachments to any of them, at least not while reading the book. There is one that now, seemingly at least, has branded himself into my head, busted his way into the gallery of characters from fiction I've read over the years, a real rogues gallery of people like the Misfit from A Good Man is Hard to Find, or Gene Harrogate, the 'defiler of melons' from Suttree, or Ned Pointsman, Lazlo Jamf, Brig. Gen. Ernest Pudding, Blodgett Waxwing, or any number of major characters but not co-protagonists of Gravity's Rainbow, or Belacqua Shuah from More Pricks Than Kicks and Dream Of Fair To Middling Women, who is, without a doubt, the main character of his tales and yet. . . and yet; I could obviously go on with this list seemingly forever without making the point I'm trying to make. But that's kind of the point. Getting back, for one second, to the character I was referring to though, a certain Cap Leech, doctor, midwife, medicine man, among many other things, seems to be, by the end of the book, for lack of a better word, the protagonist of The Beetle Leg. The novel ends with some sort of confession from Leech, a short italicized ramble with his name as a heading, maybe one of the only really clear indicators of anything throughout the whole book. But what it meant was lost on me. Further, I have no clear recollection of his entrance into the story, but I'm pretty sure it's at least over halfway through, and though, for me at least, his thoughts, in many ways, dominate the story from the moment he appears, there is so much happening elsewhere that I can't, or don't know how to, put any of it in any kind of perspective. And that gets me to as good a place as any to say why I loved this book so much. It doesn't fucking matter! The writing itself is so purely perfect that the fact that reading the book made me feel like I was coming out of a heavy anesthesia, or that I was viewing everything through the filter of some trick you play on your vision by mashing your thumb into your eyeball works in a way, obviously entirely intentional on the part of Hawkes, so perfectly that to imagine seeing it without that eclipse-like detachment would make it. . . well, fuck if I know. How could I if I don't really know what it was the way that it was?
That unnameable point one comes to in any book you end up really loving, that moment you no longer notice you are reading a book and are just witnessing the story, or even the moment you notice you no longer notice that. . . Sometimes it comes 5-10 pages in, sometimes 350-500. Other than the first 20 or so pages I read before putting it down for over a month before picking it back up, I have no idea where that unnameable point in The Beetle Leg was, and it's not like I didn't go back and try and find it, either. And the book is a trim 159 pages total.
Let me say a couple of things on the other side over here that might make some of you want to actually read this. The back of my New Directions Paperback edition tells us that it was Hawkes's second full-length novel, first published by ND in 1951, and that apparently it spent 'more than fifteen years of underground existence' before 'emerging as a classic of visionary writing'. Newsweek referred to it as a 'surrealist Western,' and Albert J. Guerard called it a violent and poetic portayal of 'a landscape of sexual apathy.' And, S.K. Overbeck writes in his essay John Hawkes: The Smile Slashed By a Razor from Contemporary American Novelists:
The mixture of pity and exhilaration in the human condition is recreated with chilling authenticity by Hawkes. His is a search into the pit that stops at no amount of terrifying discovery. Admitting everything, rejecting nothing, Hawkes writes from a viewpoint of few American authors.
Overbeck also writes:
While it is true that Hawkes writes like, sounds like, no one else at all, it is equally true that his fiction "shares a birthmark," as he puts it, with a body of writing that might arbitrarily be represented by authors such as Faulkner, Kafka, Conrad, Lautréamont, Djuna Barnes, Flannery O'Connor, Nathanael West and Kraft-Ebbing.
When trying to understand or explain my thoughts on what writers came to mind as I read this, certainly Faulkner was one, and to a lesser extent O'Connor. But while her characters occupy a similar emotional landscape as do those in The Beetle Leg, she is intentionally as clear as one can be about the outcomes they suffer as Hawkes is intentionally. . . shit, I can't think of a word loaded enough to capture what he does; perhaps obtuse, but only if using some kind of secondary definition that eliminates reference to lacking intelligence or wit, like say, 'not sharp, pointed, or acute in form; blunt,' or 'not distinctly felt.' Of Hawkes's The Lime Twig, O'Connor stated she felt an intense sense of suffocation when reading it. I'm obviously out of my depth here, as usual, but the writers I mostly felt, while at the same time restating that Hawkes has a stamp all his own, were, sort of oddly I guess, Beckett, as a precursor, but mainly in the areas of detachment and isolation coupled with a fondness for grotesque humor; and, as someone who I simply can't imagine was not influenced by Hawkes, and even particularly The Beetle Leg, Cormac McCarthy. Beckett is Beckett, and somewhat incomparable to almost anyone in my opinion, but the main glaring lack of similarity here was the obsessive self-involvement of the characters/narrators in the works of Beckett I thought of while reading this, particularly First Love and Other Novellas. With McCarthy, again it is an almost eerie, bizarro-type feeling I get. While the language and dialogue could at times be lifted from one and dropped into the other without noticing it at all, Hawkes's book seems completely bereft of any of the literary and biblical allusion McCarthy's work is rife with. McCarthy also seems to be able to keep the reader in the loop as far as the plot goes even with the density of language and ideas he is throwing at you. Where McCarthy seems to fit somewhere in the scheme of retelling or re-interpreting myths as old as language itself, there is no parable or archetype or anything of the type to be found in The Beetle Leg. On a somewhat less profound note, it is interesting to me that Hawkes creates a world in which women live, move and do, and in ways equally as simple and complicated, as good and as bad, and as incomprehensibly bat-shit crazy as the men do, and that is something I don't think McCarthy does, or, as is totally his right and really not to the detriment of his work, have any interest in.
So this is way too long and I've lost any thread of what I might've been trying to say, but I'm gonna try to anyway real quick and then include a couple of passages just to show the utter twisted beauty of Hawkes's actual writing. First, there's this great, true story about a dinner Donald Barthelme hosted, not too long before his death, in New York where he contrived to bring together a group of his peers, most of the greatest, at the time, living North American postmodernist fiction writers. There was no great purpose or agenda for the event, just a dinner. Apparently Barthelme deliberated with great concern over the guest list, consulting a somewhat baffled Walter Abish, who felt out his league even giving his opinion on the subject. In the end, included were folks like Kurt Vonnegut, William Gaddis, William Gass, Robert Coover, John Barth, Susan Sontag (oddly the only woman writer invited), Abish, and John Hawkes, maybe a few others. Thomas Pynchon had politely declined, claiming to be caught between the coasts of Montana and Arizona. My point in mentioning this story is that apparently the only two people who had a good time were Barth and Hawkes, which was generally no surprise as they both liked a tipple and were of an outgoing nature. That was pretty much all I knew of Hawkes other than many, many titles from shelving his books over the years. To say the least, The Beetle Leg was not at all what I expected, and yet. . . and yet, I could've expected just about anything and it would not have been at all what I got, which is a book almost unlike any I've ever read before. And I've read a few.
A couple of excerpts. . .
The desert filled with women. They swarmed within sideboards of beaten wagons, staring ahead for sign of well or a shade in which to dismount and shake. Three cartloads plied the desert. Banded warm members, they traveled free of the farmer and cattle driver, chopped to the roots stray outcroppings of slate colored grass. These were women who rode unwatched on the dry bottom of the lake with empty breasts and nameless horses, and even the oldest unsnapped heavy collars and soured the passing miles from the tail boards where they sat and dangled their weak legs. They nodded to the thrust, the side slapping of the wheels.
“But I believe there’s trouble.” Again Luke climbed to his sod post and waited. Narrowly he glanced at Ma. “Yes, sir. Them women don’t have no water. Not a drop.”
“That’s all right.” Ma passed quickly with the basket. “You don’t draw such things to my attention.”
“Well,” Luke pulled on his hat, “I reckon they’d survive about anything.” He walked away, sat down and watched her.
And those women were roughly able to sing songs of the skewered lamb and waters driven back by faith or oath. They were dry. The boards on which they sat, scraped of fodder, might have burst aflame if the sun were caught briefly in the eye of a watch glass. They traveled in three lifeless dories with dead oarlocks and rotted sails; they sang stiffly, managed to hold the reins. They backtracked, chewed the sand and made their way over weary, salty miles to see one woman their own age brought to bed.
Every one of them made the trip. There was not a woman in the desert who had not left the animal pens, truck garden patch and particular gully of the home to sit all day in the sun, breathe the air of ancient lying in and love. For hours, under a never swaying skirt, a bare ankle remained chocked against brake iron or plank. The desert gave them up and they advanced; they might have died of thirst. But open-jawed and black, with matted and twisted cuts of hair, they crowded wagons taken from the farm.
They drew near, and Luke for the first time saw women’s faces. Once again on the sod hut, a thin scout in the sunlight, a bent marker limp through standing, his own face worked, pursed and dripping as he watched. Bonnets, ribbons but no curls, skull-blackened and thirsty they stared back above the slick fronts of horses plodding low, stepping singly, flat and without wind away from the wheels that were nearly locked. Instead of three wagon loads he would have liked to have seen just one face cleansed of the sun and that had not been formed and set long ago to the sudden bloody impression of a coffin bone. A few could not hear the meek but steady notes of their sisters’ hymns and pushed their ears with hand that had been raised trembling three days and nights. “I want to see one,” he searched among the tucked and tired wives, “before she’s learned to keep shut. And outlive a man.”
He did not wave.
On impulse, throwing off his coat, Cap Leach, in the days when he could shave a cow’s heart thin as glass and determine with one look beneath the sheets the span of the stricken, dared to extract the secret of a dead woman; on a wintry morning, having arrived according to the law too late, he attended the birth of Harry Bohn. The mother, dead but a moment, gave up the still live child in an operation which, hurried and unexpected, was more abortive than life saving and, when the doctor drew back, lapsed into her faintly rigorous position. the son, fished none too soon from the dark hollow, swayed coldly to and fro between his fingers. Leech left his scalpel stuck midway down the unbleeding thigh, buried the wailing forceps in his shiny bag, stepped outdoors with the infant and disappeared, thereafter, through all his career, barred from the most fruitful of emergencies.
But attendance at the surrounded bedside was not his special pleasure, he was not keen to treat night after night the umbilical cord like a burnt cork. He did not care for the sight of a swelling that decreased and felt no duty to bring relief to a woman lying in a shaft. Her only discoloration was for a purpose, and Cap Leech believed in the non-usefulness of burst organs; no good could come of it.
In the days following his clandestine operation upon the corpse, days of smooth cheeks and high collar, he teetered between the whiteness of a hall and the spotted robe tied behind the sufferer’s back. His training had begun with a set of wired bones in a dry box--he had clicked the teeth--and ended with poppy leaves smoldering in a pharmaceutical brash dish. Unguentine on the tip of his finger, reference to the tight page of a textbook, a limb swaddled in lay wrappings of bandage, the count of clear blood cells like constellations; with spectacles and shaved temples he took to searching coal bins for the wounded.
Cap Leech was no longer a midwife. A family of one son and one unborn had been abandoned for earaches and faeces smuggled in milk bottles when he set out with a few sticks and powders for thirty years practice among those without the chance of recovery, doomed, he felt, to submit. With him went the child whose features he had touched off by a slight grazing of the tongs.
He wandered the fields and lifted, dropped arms. At times, appearing starved and old, he answered questions and advised upon the description of a sore or at sight of a smoking specimen. He cauterized, poked, and painted those abrasions and distempers which, when healed, were forgotten or which, at their worst and sure to enlarge, brought a final shrinking to nameless lips.
The box grew brown with age. Once, in the empty frenzy of a cold night, he flung the bones across a whitened plain. But, always in time, he discovered the marble counter, the revolving fan, and jugs of pills. He crawled jerkily across the gumwood floor, stethoscope pressed upon the shell of a beetle sweeping hurriedly its wired legs. He mixed a foamy soda draught in paper cups, dust in water.
An old obstetrical wizard who now brought forth no young, losing year after year the small lock-jawed instruments of his kit, chalking black prescriptions on the leaves of a calendar, he was reduced to making the little circuits of malignant junctions, in conversation only now and then with a crafty druggist. His skills became an obsessive pastime and he looked even at the hobbling animal with a heavy eye. Warts appeared on the medicine man’s hands.
Many people will say Ficciones. Others will say The Aleph is their favorite work by Borges. You could hardly go wrong either way. For my money though,Many people will say Ficciones. Others will say The Aleph is their favorite work by Borges. You could hardly go wrong either way. For my money though, it has always been Labyrinths. Perhaps it is because it was my introduction to him. Perhaps I am just correct. Those things do not matter. The only thing that does is that you read this book and everything else the man ever wrote. I suppose he's not for everyone. But he absolutely should be. The truth is, you can talk about his writing with others who enjoy it, or write about it, but reading him is really the only justice that can be done to his work. Here's a couple of passages from Labyrinths...
Out of the darkness, Funes' voice continued. He told me that in 1886 he had invented an original system of numbering and that in a very few days he had gone beyond the twenty-four-thousand mark. He had not written it down, since anything he thought of once would never be lost to him. His first stimulus was, I think, his discomfort at the fact that the famous thirty-three patriots of Uruguayan history should require two signs and two words, in place of a single word and a single sign. He then applied this absurd principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the cauldron, Napolean, Agustin de Vedia. In place of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a kind of mark; the last in the series were very complicated... I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers. I told him that saying 365 meant saying three hundreds, six tens, five one, an analysis which is not found in the "numbers": The Negro Timoteo or side of meat. Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me. Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible language in which each individual thing, each stone, each bird and each branch, would have its own name; Funes once projected an analogous language, but discarded it because it seemed to general to him, too ambiguous. In fact, Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. he decided to reduce each of his past days to some seventy thousand memories, which would then be defined by means of ciphers. He was dissuaded from this by two considerations: his awareness of the task was interminable, his awareness that it was useless. He thought that by the hour of his death he would not even have finished classifying all the memories of his childhood. -from Funes the Memorious from Labyrinths
Centuries and centuries of idealism have not failed to influence reality. In the most ancient regions of Tloen, the duplication of lost objects is not infrequent. Two persons look for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but closer to expectations. These secondary objects are called hronir and are, though awkward in form, somewhat longer. Until recently, the hronir were the accidental products of distraction and forgetfulness. It seems unbelievable that their methodical production dates back scarcely a hundred years, but this is what the Eleventh Volume tells us. The first efforts were unsuccessful. However, the modus operandi merits description. The director of one of the state prisons told his inmates there were certain tombs in an ancient river bed and promised freedom to whoever might make an important discovery. During the months preceding the excavation the inmates were shown photographs of what they were to find. This first effort proved that expectation and anxiety can be inhibitory; a week’s work with pick and shovel did not manage to unearth anything in the way of a hron except a rusty wheel of a period posterior to the experiment. But this was kept in secret and the process was repeated later in four schools. In three of them the failure was almost complete, in the fourth (whose director died accidentally during the first excavations) the students unearthed- or produced- a gold mask, an archaic sword, two or three clay urns and the moldy and mutilated torso of a king whose chest bore an inscription which it has not yet been possible to decipher. Thus was discovered the unreliability of witnesses who knew of the experimental nature of the search… Mass excavations produced contradictory objects; now individual and almost improvised jobs are preferred. The methodical fabrication of hronir (says the Eleventh Volume) has performed prodigious services for archaeologists. It has made possible the interrogation of and even the modification of the past, which is now no less plastic and docile as the future. Curiously, the hronir of second and third degree- the hronir derived from another hron, those derived from the hronof a hron- exaggerated the aberrations of the initial one; those of the fifth degree are almost uniform; those with ninth degree become confused with those of the second; in those of the eleventh there is a purity of form not found in the original. The process is cyclical: the hron of the twelfth degree begins to fall off in quality. Stranger and more pure than any hron is, at times, the ur: the object produced through suggestion, educed by hope. The golden mask I have mentioned is an illustrious example. -from Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius from Labyrinths
The occasion for the review is I am finishing up rereading Labyrinths for the third time....more