The American Book of the Dead, BackwordBooks.com By Henry Baum
Many writers have sailed off on the premise of a writer writing a book which turns out to...moreThe American Book of the Dead, BackwordBooks.com By Henry Baum
Many writers have sailed off on the premise of a writer writing a book which turns out to be the book written—the one that you’re holding in your hands (in this case, The American Book of the Dead). Fiction’s shores are littered with these wrecks of self-indulgence. Henry Baum, who nests more than a few matryoshka dolls inside the concept, pulls it off mostly, in this cleverly plotted, and at times demanding, book.
I didn’t quite roll my eyes when I saw the cover and title of Peter Weissman’s memoir, I Think, Therefore Who Am I? That didn’t happen until I reached...moreI didn’t quite roll my eyes when I saw the cover and title of Peter Weissman’s memoir, I Think, Therefore Who Am I? That didn’t happen until I reached the eighth paragraph on page one and read this sentence, “A certain gradation of light filtering through a window would stir me, propel me back downstairs a few hours later and through the gray streets.” I could hear the author murmuring, “gradation of light, a certain gradation of light.” If I kept reading, it would be to see just how pretentious this memoir could get. But I kept reading and soon I saw the light. There’s a sublime scene in The Producers when Springtime for Hitler is premiering on Broadway. The curtains go up, the play begins and the audience is stunned into open-mouthed silence by the audacity of the bad taste—and then someone laughs, and someone else laughs and the entire audience is howling. The play is FUNNY. Springtime for Hitler is so bad that it’s funny. Two-thirds through the I Think, Therefore Who Am I?’s second chapter, “My Czechoslovak Awakening,” I had my Springtime for Hitler realization. This book is FUNNY and extraordinarily well written.
The narrator’s friend Tom has just told the Peter that he’d just obtained a long awaited drug, but Peter’s excitement is dampened when Tom reveals a couple of ordinary looking pills, “...like those for sinus congestion.” Then Tom discloses their origin: Czechoslovakia.
“Czechoslovakia! The word exploded in my head, stranding the two of us in America, the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, where it seemed these capsules had been smuggled from so we could be free too.”
The incomparable Roger De Bris directed Springtime for Hitlert it was Mel Brooks, writer and director of The Producers, who intentionally made Springtime unintentionally funny. In his episodic memoir, Weissman skillfully calls up from that “Psychedelic Year” 1967, a cast of self-absorbed and self-congratulatory characters who reveal larger truths than the ones they seek in Dope 101.
Peter and his friend Mark’s quest to end war and score drugs, to find truth and get laid, to create Utopia and find a place to crash is authentic. Weissman’s memoir or nonfiction novel is a meticulous recreation of 1967 and its frontrunners. Their cosmic observations, their disdain for muggles (well, HP Muggles), their obliviousness to employment (Maynard Krebs set the stage five years earlier with “Work?!!” but Krebs at least recognized the concept, even if to reject it). “A certain gradation of light filtering through the window...” is well-wrought hip speak/hip thought. As the narrator admits, “Day after day I smoked one joint after the other, inflating the ordinary to the poetic.”
Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, chronicling the lives of several California paisanos during hard times, eventually met with harsh criticism for its portrayal of Mexican Americans, but Steinbeck’s intention was to parallel the lives of his characters with Arthurian legend: Danny, Pilon, Pablo and Jesus were Depression era knights. Weissman has nothing like this in mind in his depiction of Tom, Mark, Leo and himself. This ain't no disco. This ain't no allegory.
A terrific chapter is “Day at the Beach,” when the boys decide to get out of the city and spend a day at Jones Beach. They look forward to an exotic afternoon. When they get there the beach is windy, empty, and hot.
“We’d brought a blanket, which we spread not far from the water, using our sandals to anchor it against the hot wind before sitting down, an oasis of three in a desert of space.
We sat awhile in the bright daze, then Michael, who couldn’t help but fidget , began to play with a handful of sand, and kept at it, transferring the grains from hand to hand, trying not to lose any. Tom, who had no compulsion to do anything, sat with his long legs drawn up, scanning the wide-open emptiness. And I stared at the water, thinking.”
Afraid to go into the choppy water, forgetting to bring lotion, unable to light cigarettes because the wind keeps blowing out the matches, the three sit in the hot wind and sun, enduring, until,
“Eventually we’d had enough, and trudged back across the burning sand to the boardwalk.”
Further down the beach and a few decades into the future Bret and Jemaine are tuning their guitars for an open air concert.
Not all of the book has that comic edge.
One sad episode concerns the arrival of Martha from Minnesota in the chapter of the same name. Martha is naïve, earnest, gentle, generous, giving and hard-working, which is to say totally out of tune with the times. She becomes an embarrassment. Hopelessly unhip, she’s treated badly by Peter, who doesn’t much care that he could hurt her, and never expresses remorse. Honest stuff, Weissman.
In my favorite episode in the book, “Summer of Love,” Peter travels to San Francisco for The Summer of Love. He soon hears about the “Biggest be-in west of the Mississipi! Today! At Golden Gate Park!” With a “bounce in his step” (great detail, great writing) Peter heads off for Haight Street. Nirvana. Hippies everywhere. He moves with sidewalk crowd. “I floated more than walked, enveloped in a bubble of well-being, anointed by the liquid sun, dazzled by the spectacle.
“This is the high point of my life!”
Peter reaches the corner of Haight and Ashbury. He gazes at the street signs. “It brought tears to my eyes, and I imagined a plaque affixed to the building there, in some distant year, “THE FUTURE BEGAN HERE, to which I’d point with pride and tell my unborn children: “I was there, at that moment.”
The best of all possible worlds.
In that same chapter, Peter, ravenous at the be-in and disappointed by the food the Diggers (a SF group that provided free food and clothing to all comers) are distributing, wanders to the margins of the field and there sees an older man on a blanket. Peter’s gaze falls on containers of food spread out across the blanket. The man watches Peter and then offers him food, which Peter wolfs down. When Peter stops eating, the man says, “You must’ve been hungry.”
“I looked at him more carefully now, as he regarded me with mild curiosity. I could see he didn’t expect gratefulness, and some lucid part of me appreciated his indifferent generosity. But seeing the liver spots on his bald head, the crow’s feet at his eyes, the ordinary clothes he wore, I all but dismissed him, because he clearly wasn’t one of us.”
Like Larsson, Peace takes the romance out of incest, sadism and murder. Unlike Larsson, Peace isn't slick. The brutality of his language matches the m...moreLike Larsson, Peace takes the romance out of incest, sadism and murder. Unlike Larsson, Peace isn't slick. The brutality of his language matches the mayhem, and if you like that kind of stuff, which I do, Nineteen Seventy-Four should prove satisfying. I don't hold it against him that he's aiming for Chandler and fails, everyone does. Marlowe and those plots were noumena. There's one transcendent scene involving cops and gypsies that's worth the price of the book. (less)
Pat has no illusions about his wife Leslie's recovering, but he wants to prolong her life, vaguely hoping for a few more silent meals across the kitch...morePat has no illusions about his wife Leslie's recovering, but he wants to prolong her life, vaguely hoping for a few more silent meals across the kitchen table. He doesn’t love her, but he will kiss her despite the vomit and the cancer on her breath. Well, love’s not the point, nor is compassion, but sustaining what we have of the human touch. To continue his wife’s treatment, Pat needs money, lots of money for a guy whose job is picking up rent checks. For Leslie midnight is about to strike, and Pat is clinging with all his existential weight to that minute hand. Wohlrob doesn’t traffic in bright, shiny characters and happy endings. As with his collection of stories in The Love Book, The Metronome Winds Down is populated by the marginal: the losers, the work-worn, the chipper freaks. Despite the grimness of the tale, I was never tempted to turn aside. Wohlrob has neatly layered Pat’s quest with suspense and mystery. (less)
Jess C Scott’s novel EyeLeash/a blog novel (260 pages) chronicles the relationship between 17-year-ol...moreIEDs and IUDs
A Review of EyeLeash/a blog novel
Jess C Scott’s novel EyeLeash/a blog novel (260 pages) chronicles the relationship between 17-year-old Jade Ashton and a young man named Novan over a period of nine months, a portentous time frame and no doubt intentional. Scott is a clever audacious writer, and though EyeLash might first appear as a typical adolescent blog, bloated with self-importance, the novel soon reveals a compelling story, complex characters and wit to spare. Its subtitle “a blog novel” is both accurate and misleading. Though it shares many characteristics of blogs (150 million of them at last count), the “blog” that Jade creates is not meant to communicate. Jade writes, “Blogging awful poetry, daily events nobody really cares about, or ceaselessly complaining/rambling on the same old things, is stupid. Now I blog too, but this is a private one. Unsearchable on Google, and password-enabled. So it’s just me. I can be as boring and mundane as I like, talk to myself if everyone online has the (Away) or (Busy) sign on, and not worry about stepping on anybody’s toes. Let’s see what I’ll record here over this year.” In effect, the blog functions as setting, familiarizing the reader not with street names or land formations, but URLs, IM formats and the abbreviated lingua franca of online chatting. If you’re looking for naturalistic description you won’t find it here.
Blog trappings aside, EyeLeash is a descendent of the epistolary novel, popularized in the 18th Century by Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela and Clarissa, with recent examples being Beverly Cleary’s Dear Dr. Henshaw and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Epistolary novels contain letters (correspondence), but also journal/diary entries, snippets of written documents from other sources, dialogue, etc. Scott makes good use of all these forms (exchanging e-mails or even lines of single lines of dialogue in IM is not congruent to snail mail but comparable) to reflect Jade’s life and her problems. At the heart of the story is Jade’s relationship with Novan, a boy she has known all her life and even dated a few years back. Novan has matured physically (all sources report the dude as HOT), become a musician/artist and is avidly pursuing his career. Jade is trying to come to terms with how she feels about Novan and how he feels about her, especially about her body, a concern that provokes much self-examination, physically and psychologically. Will this budding tentative romance develop? Will they have sex? Forces are at work to disrupt the relationship. All of Jade’s friends are sexual sophisticates. Everyone knows how to “Fuck Like a Porn Star.” Sexual opportunity, whether straight, gay, bi or through virtual reality is readily available (sex falls like the gentle rain from heaven sent). Miraculously, Jade is a virgin (an echo of American Beauty), which within her set seems at best quaint and at worst decadent, an affront to the zeitgeist. Should she have sex with her girlfriends (she tiptoes around this one, and outsiders assume she already has.)? If she had anal sex would that still qualify her as a virgin (a nice point, technically yes, but morally...)? If she has sex with a well-hung dude will it stretch out her vagina out and make her incompatible with other men of more modest endowment? Jade’s adventures in masturbation, which take up much space, would make for an X version of Home Alone. If Eyeleash is starting to sound like Terry Southern’s novel Candy, it isn’t. Scott manages to make all of this less prurient than a prudent send-up of the top ten staples of women’s magazines. Jade is supremely aware of the superficiality of her concerns. This is what separates Jade from her breathless friends and provides the humor. One example: In a discussion with a friend about an engaging sexual position, Jade is lead to believe that her friend had actually read the Kama Sutra, and duly impressed at her friend’s ambitious reading, but her friend, SeXy nAuGhTy BiTcHy Me, has gleaned the info from an article in a recent 100 % Woman magazine.
Jade’s numerous conversations with Novan, which include plans to exchange nude photographs and discussions about BD/DS/SM (if you’re drawing a blank, read the book) are an effort to humanize our contemporary obsession with perfect bodies and perfect sex, a dehumanization ably abetted by the Web. As Jade moves toward her decision regarding Novan (can she no longer trust the boy that she traded coded messages with in grade school?), Scott captures with admirable authenticity the struggle of a young adult to shed the ephemeral for the permanency of an authentic relationship. Although the raw language is a problem, Eyeleash is a love story that will appeal to intelligent young adults and others that were.—Alex Austin (less)
“Buddhism negates Hinduism the way Marx inverts the idealism of Hegel and makes it material.”
If the sentence above makes...moreThe Yoga Party By Douglas Frame
“Buddhism negates Hinduism the way Marx inverts the idealism of Hegel and makes it material.”
If the sentence above makes you tingle then The Yoga Party is the book for you. For me, it’s almost as good as sex (almost): Two religions and two philosophers joined in an analogy. Only connect,” wrote E. M. Forster. In The Yoga Party connections abound.
Douglas Frame has written a frequently accessible but generally demanding book that guides the reader through the Eastern and Western philosophy from which he has drawn to create his own philosophy. His objective is to build a foundation for a universal political/social program, which is quite concrete. The book is under 200 pages but has more than 60 chapters, each one a compact discussion of the philosophical and religious issues that inform his thought. Chapter titles include “Brahmin and the Transcendental and Cosmic Split,” “The American Caste System,” “The Logic of Being,” “Revolution and the Christian Death Cult,” “Why is a New Metaphysical Determinism Important in Western Thought?” and “Is the Infinite Conceivable?” Even those drawn to the book because of their knowledge of one of the schools of Yoga or perhaps of Hinduism or Buddhism, might find much of the book dense if they’re not at least acquainted with Descartes, Kant, Hegel and the big problems they addressed.
In the book’s introduction, Douglas notes that the stepping off point of his philosophy is the Indian political and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo, and in The Yoga Party he returns to Aurobindo’s thought regularly. Aurobindo, whose life spanned the 19th and 20th Centuries, infused Hinduism with his concept of humankind’s evolution, a Darwinism of the spirit, "Man is a transitional being. He is not final. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth's evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner spirit and the logic of Nature's process." Aurobindo believed we were heading toward a “supermind.”
Douglas builds his philosophy and program on Aurobindo’s beliefs, but in the course of the book, he also addresses what he perceives as the flaws in Aurobindo’s system. The critique provides Douglas with the path to his Yoga Party program.
Each chapter provides a wealth of discussion.
To give the flavor of his book, Douglas notes that he’s had a hard time convincing students in the comparative religion courses that he taught that CR is not a religious course. One is not going to “find religion” is such a course. Similarly, The Yoga Party is not aimed at leading the reader to Catholicism or Hinduism. Surveying the world’s major religions, Douglas aims to show similarities and differences, and historical changes in religions. This isn’t to say that aspects of the various religions aren’t woven into his program. For example in “The Triads of Religion,” Douglas says that Raja Yoga is important because it produces a state of oneness, not unlike the trances of the saints, noting this is backed up by research into brainwaves.
Distinguishing between the different forms of Yoga, Douglas notes that Hatha Yoga has become popular in the West because it is used as a form of exercise, but for Douglas’s purposes, Hatha Yoga is more useful because it can lead to the forms of Yoga, such as Raja Yoga, that promote the spiritual evolution that The Yoga Party is aimed at bringing about.
Early in the book, Douglas defines The Yoga Party, which is envisioned as a real, universal political party, and the primary tactic that The Yoga Party should embrace in order to bring about change: the general strike. The Yoga Party is an ambitious, profound and provocative book.
Years ago, a friend recommended Patricia Highsmith as a writer of black and wicked tales. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I had seen the fil...moreYears ago, a friend recommended Patricia Highsmith as a writer of black and wicked tales. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I had seen the film version of one of her books: Strangers on a Train, which I would have agreed was black and wicked. Several years later, I saw The Talented Mr. Ripley. I liked the film and I liked the character, but I came away thinking of Ripley more as a conventional con-artist. On a hunt through a used bookstore looking for Greene's Stamboul Train, unfound, I came across one Highsmith novel, Ripley Underground. I went for it. Now I understand the special category Highsmith is in. She has created an amoral hero who is simultaneously repellent and magnetic. Ripley is capable of anything, instinctively grasping escape as his foul deeds close in on him. Loyal and sympathetic, too. In this novel, Ripley is involved with forged paintings, a collector who is crying fraud, and a forger with soul-troubling misgivings. The plot gets wonderfully complicated as Ripley manipulates everyone on the scene, including death (by the way, I found a copy of Ripley Underground, not the Omnibus picture above, which was all that was available on Goodreads and Amazon). (less)
Wohlrob writes urban folktales that skewer pretentious behavior and slyly capture the offbeat characters who texture the city. In this novella, a Puer...moreWohlrob writes urban folktales that skewer pretentious behavior and slyly capture the offbeat characters who texture the city. In this novella, a Puerto Rican janitor with a genuine passion for art finally gets a painting in a gallery, with unsettling results. (less)
As a writer, I was thoroughly drawn into the novel, which shares some of the paradoxes/absurdities of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Aut...more As a writer, I was thoroughly drawn into the novel, which shares some of the paradoxes/absurdities of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Where do these fictions go after the writer is through with them? Well, they don't go anywhere, and just as they competed for attention with the real world while they were being created, they continue to compete with the disintegrating real world. I like wandering that corridor (Wittgenstein's Mistress, too). I do think he made it too neat with the moebius strip at the end/beginning. Not that I haven’t done it, but should one feel at all guilty at reading an entire book at a bookstore? (less)
The Perfume Factory is an absorbing coming-of-age story set on the gritty coastline of central New Jersey. The novel springs from the corrosive relati...moreThe Perfume Factory is an absorbing coming-of-age story set on the gritty coastline of central New Jersey. The novel springs from the corrosive relationship between a violent, abusive father and his rebellious but powerless son, who suffers from an undiagnosed disorder that renders him physically helpless when taken by strong emotions. The son, Sam, is not without resources. Like others who have found themselves impotent in a hellish environment, Sam has survived by suppressing his feelings and emotions. Sam has deflected a thousand blows by playing it cool.
Sam's father is a monster, a cross between Pat Conroy's hard-nosed Marine Corps officer Santini (The Great Santini), and the sadistic stepfather Dwight of Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life. A perennially out-of-work alcoholic, with a taste for classical music, Frank relives his military glory days by barking orders at Sam and perversely berating his every attempt to fulfill them. Not helping matters is Sam's mother, a good-hearted but wayward and combative woman who can match Frank's verbal outbursts with a fountain of foul language, but whose defense of Sam serves as a red flag for Frank's abusive attentions.
Given his dysfunctional parentage, Sam seems set-up to be a thoroughly sympathetic character, but Austin has avoided making Sam the staple of coming-of-age novels, the "good bad boy." Morally rudderless, Sam is a thief, liar and con man, whose has bankrolled his coolness, street smarts and raw intelligence into a string of lucrative petty crimes, including the most recent, a break-in that has provided Sam the money to escape from his father and a second monster, Sam's hometown.
Port Beach is a faded resort where the children's playground is a polluted bay and a garbage dump that spreads across the town`s marshland like a cancer. Taverns outnumber grocery stores 20 to 1, unemployment is astronomical and hope is in short supply. Most ominous is the town's one source of jobs, the Perfume Factory, an industrial complex that "... spilled out the sickly sweet odors that made Port Beach smell like the bottom of an old woman's handbag," an irony not lost on Sam, who views the Perfume Factory as a mocking reminder of the town's unchanging ugliness, oppression and empty promises.
On the night we meet Sam, he's nearing his 18th birthday, and finalizing his plans for escape, but this night will prove pivotal. Cruising the shore, Sam and Leo, a tough, worldly, middle-class friend, meet Julie, a pretty, vivacious young woman from the city, miles above Sam in sophistication, who takes an unexpected interest in him, heightened by the lies he tells about himself to match Leo's authentic resume. Though the night ends with a falling out between Sam and Julie, Sam obsessively pursues her, setting aside his habitual caution, altering his escape plans, and experiencing his first romantic love and sexual experience, pain and joy in tow. Sam's efforts to keep the world of Julie and the world of Port Beach and his father separate provide some much appreciated comic relief from the dominant, harsher scenes of the novel. It's also through his efforts to move between these parallel universes, that Sam grows as a character, finding a moral compass and discovering his own identity, even as both worlds collapse.
A novel of social realism, in the camp of Frank McCord, Jim Harrison and Pat Conroy, and its subset, dirty realism, a term coined to describe the works of American novelists Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and Jayne Anne Phillips, The Perfume Factory uses a matter-of-fact tone, blunt, realistic dialogue and graphic descriptions of violence and grim, small-town life to reflect Sam's world. But the above are threaded with lyrical descriptions revealing an introspective, poetic streak in Sam that grows with the story's unfolding, like the following description of a night with Julie: "With the darkness came the fireflies, which Julie wanted to catch and put in a jar. We ran around the yard, cupping them and depositing them in the jar until we had thirty or forty. But though they continued to glow in the jar, the magic had gone out of their light and what started as a quest for something extraordinary turned solemn. Julie opened the jar and shook them out. As they spread across the night, I watched her face, lost for a moment in their flight and regained magic."
Numerous colorful, inventive characters inhabit Austin's central New Jersey setting, but Austin shortchanges us with several of them, including Sam's siblings, who are intriguing but not fleshed out or fully integrated into the novel. However, several characters who briefly come on stage leave indelible impressions. Archler, who buys the underage kids liquor, "... smelled of smoke, which had soaked into the two gray sweaters that he took turns wearing. He walked with a limp, favoring his right leg. There may have been a time that he didn't limp, but no one could remember it, nor had anyone bothered to ask how his lameness had come about. The limp didn't reduce his pace, though, and when he walked, he always had his lips set in a smile that never varied, as if it were painted. What he was smiling at was anybody's guess.... After graduating eighth grade, he had gone to high school for awhile, everyone was sure of that, but no one was sure when he dropped out. I followed him out of Jack's, wondering at his hair, which was black as a pocket comb, jelled and parted in the middle and never varied in length, though no one had ever seen Archler at the barber's. Archler was a mystery that nobody cared to solve."
The Perfume Factory's local is specific, the time frame is unspecified. It could be the sixties, it could be the nineties, perhaps a strategy to emphasize the unchanging nature of the small, blue-collar towns in which the story takes place. Against this setting, Sam, disaffected, distrustful, disillusioned, brings to mind the working class youth that have appeared in British fiction, plays and rock music, from John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, to Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, to the songs of British rockers The Clash, Sex Pistols and Squeeze (and closer to home, Bruce Springsteen). The Sex Pistol's Johnny Rotten sang, "No future for you or me," which resonates in Sam's search for employment: ".... After going to a dozen or so places, I saw that no matter how big they [factories:] were or what they manufactured, the offices that you applied in were all the same. Maybe fifteen feet wide, with a little couch and fake wood walls. In the fourth wall, they'd cut a hole to shove the application through and behind the hole a row of women my mother's age tapped out stuff on typewriters. On the walls would always be a couple of government notices in small type and a poster advertising government bonds, as if maybe one wall was given over to the government. A fluorescent light would always be blinking as if it were about to go out. The woman that stuck her hand through the hole to take the application would have horned rim glasses and her hair bunched on top and she'd be smoking. She wouldn't say anything when she handed you the application pinned to a brown board with a pencil, and she wouldn't say anything when you handed it back. The first couple of places I applied to, I asked what would happen next, and they always said they'd call if they thought I was right for the job. I stopped asking after awhile. Sometimes behind the walls, I'd hear noises, lathes running or the sound of a conveyer belt, and I'd imagine what was going on back there, but that was as close as I got to the work." A first novel, The Perfume Factory is notable for its strong sense of place and stamp of authenticity, and timeless in its evocation of monstrous fathers and hapless sons. Sam will navigate through some harrowing seas to leave his father and the Perfume Factory behind. Brave readers will accompany him. (less)
The premise of Patrick Kilgallon’s novel gather the weeds is solid. The physically and mentally handicapped are being rounded up by authorities of an...moreThe premise of Patrick Kilgallon’s novel gather the weeds is solid. The physically and mentally handicapped are being rounded up by authorities of an unnamed state and placed in wards, where they will live and work until the final solution. Guided by the principles of eugenics, something similar to this happened in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, prior to the Holocaust, and perhaps paved the way for the concentration camps where the Jews and other ethnic groups would be exterminated. Eugenics, a mix of Darwinism and pseudo-science, flourished not only in Germany but in England and the United States, where some of its notions for creating a healthier, superior human race, including forced sterilization, were carried out. The circumstances in which Kilgallon’s characters find themselves are not farfetched, and definitely not in need of an alternate universe.
The first 30 or so pages, which introduce the main character, Michael Poole, a deaf 17-year-old, his fellow wards, and the Gate, the compound in which the characters are place, are fairly compelling. The weaving of sign language into the narrative, Michael’s flawed but earnest speech and the bold mix of writing forms (poetry, graffiti, extended footnotes) initially have the texture of experimental fiction. Unfortunately the experiment soon runs out of steam and what follows saps the vitality of those first pages. The writing seems less bold than merely astray.
The great dystopian novels, like 1984 and Brave New World, paint a vivid picture of the society in which the characters are struggling to retain their humanity. In these novels, we get why inhuman things are being done to human beings. Kilgallon tells us almost nothing about the “military-industrial complex” that’s supposed to be behind all this (in fact, though the term is mentioned on the book’s cover, I don’t recall reading it in the text). All we are given is the day to day experiences of Michael and the other wards. Conceivably this sealed immersion into the daily routine could work (Tolstoy’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) if the daily experiences were so horrific, dehumanizing and mind-bending that the everyday becomes the extraordinary. But the experiences of Michael the deaf, Eggy the retard, Sam the epileptic and Paul the wheelchair-bound, play out like the misadventures of bratty kids at a summer camp. They spend most of their time calling each other names, picking or eluding fights and telling dirty jokes—endlessly. Nothing much moves the story forward. Adding to the inertia are devices that work for awhile but drag on the long haul. Michael’s halting speech, for example, and the reactions of others to it, grows tedious. Much of the time, Kilgallon seems intent on making sure we don’t sympathize with his characters, and in that he succeeds. But in the moments when he seems to want us to care (especially the flashbacks), he pours it on so thickly that maudlin is an insufficient label.
All of the above might be surmounted if Kilgallon wasn’t addicted to padding. He’s wordy and imprecise. “His hand rests on the cool knob of the door and turns, the door clicking open.” Why not just, “He opened the door.”? Or “So, alone he wept and wept hard, clean tears from his eyes flowing, nostrils leaving trails of snot on his tattered and tear-stained pillow.” If there are hard clean tears, there must be soft dirty tears, but I can’t conceive of those. Why couldn’t he have just wept instead of wept and wept? And if he’s weeping, what’s the point of “eyes flowing”? Nostrils leaving trails of snot? Ugly and elusive. “Tattered and tear-stained pillow.” Let go of my wrist, Kilgallon.
I’m giving gather the weeds three stars for noble intentions. (less)
A woman who finds herself alone in the world sets down her thoughts.
On page 78 of WM(Dalkey paperback), Kate,...moreWittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
A woman who finds herself alone in the world sets down her thoughts.
On page 78 of WM(Dalkey paperback), Kate, the narrator, writes “The world is everything that is the case,” and then admits that she has no idea of what that means. The statement is a slight alteration from the opening sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The world is all that is the case.” Wittgenstein shifted the focus of philosophy (in many minds of his generation) from the classic search for the big truths to linguistic analysis. One thing that he wanted to clarify was how to judge if a statement was true. A statement can be meaningless or have meaning, but even if it has meaning that doesn’t mean that it’s true. In commenting on Wittgenstein’s work, the philosopher Brian Magee notes, “Not everything that’s possible is the case,” so that the world is not the case of all possibilities, but only those possibilities that are true. I think that much of the narrative of WS explores how that proposition plays out in the severest of circumstances. Kate makes meaningful statements about many things, but not all of which are true. They aren’t the case. Later she corrects the statements or tries to correct her statements, gamely (ultimately hopelessly) trying to restore the world to its case (to its truth). So, for example, on page 43 she writes, “Why did I imply it was Phidias who built the Parthenon when it was somebody named Ictinus?” On page 72, she notes, “Anxiety being the fundamental mode of existence....” She at first attributes this to Kierkegaard and then corrects it to Heidegger.” Freud, in fact, wrote something similar to this.
Or is it just that she’s a crazy old woman, whose ravings aren’t worth following? Shortly after reading WM, I ran across a review of the book, "Words in the Air: The complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell," by Colm Toibin. This is what I read, “Out of the damage done to her in childhood, Bishop produced a body of work filled with meticulous observing. In her poems she often corrected herself or qualified herself, almost as a duty or ceremony. In her first book The Map she wrote the word ‘shadows’ and then immediately wondered ‘or are they shallows.’. In The Weed, she dreamed that “I lay upon a grave, or bed,’ then had to qualify that by writing ‘(at least some cold and close-built bower);’ In The Fist, when she wrote the words ‘his lower lip,’ she had to wonder, ‘if you could call it a lip.’” The point is that all of these corrections and revisions were part of her poems (and Tolbin gives numerous other examples). And what is the thinking behind this poet’s technique? Toibin says,“... in one way a trick of making the reader trust and believe a voice...The trick established limits, exalted littleness, made the bringing of things down unto themselves into a sort of conspiracy with the reader. But it was also a way of noticing the world with something close to terror.” Bishop herself wrote of her work, “Since we do float upon an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way carefully; who knows what might depend on it.” Isn’t this what Kate is doing? Is she not floating on an unknown sea and is it not terrifying? Did Elizabeth Bishop inspire Markson’s Kate?
One other thing that Wittgenstein argued was that words/language meant nothing abstracted from culture, from the interaction of people. In a world without other people, Kate’s efforts to retain meaningful language (of a The World is all that is the case), will fail. All the history, all the art, become a jumble and then nothing.
Markson sets up, maintains, this thought experiment beautifully. Despite all the history, culture and art that Kate references, she remains grounded in bodily functions, frozen wash and kindling.
When we die, the world goes with us. Here’s a glimpse. (less)