administrative things

I owe it to visitors of this blog to explain that this “Ba Jin” project is very much in the rear view mirror. In short, future blogging will appear at a new wordpress linked below.

A blog called The Evan Dara Affinity linked to my blog posts on THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, which I greatly appreciate. It’s crazy to be in a ground-up critical bibliography, and more discourse on the underappreciated and under-analyzed Evan Dara is always welcome, and we still need a lot more.  First read-through blogging is an interesting way to stage the hermeneutic wheel, so to speak, but it’s high time for a second, informed reading.

My activity on this blog disappeared over the last year as I was completing an MFA. I’m ever so slowly getting literary production out there under the name my parents gave me, and I couldn’t find the balance between that and a reading diary.

Till now that is! I will continue to post up the best readings I can of fine literature and SF at my author page, SECOND SLOPE. It will be more of a diary than a reading diary, a kind of open workshop or laboratory.

The readership on Ba Jin was small but devoted and super kind. See ya later, I hope~

poet as witless

Seamus Heaney
FSG 1985

“Chekhov on Sakhalin.”

So, he would pay his ‘debt to medicine’.
But first he drank cognac by the ocean

With his back to all he travelled north to face.
His head was swimming free as the troikas

Of Tyumin,…

Maybe every artist has been there: when the world is full of suffering and violence, isn’t the leisurely activity of producing art an insult to the butchery most of humanity faces, what has afflicted most of humanity for most of history? Fiddling while Rome burns, as they say? Heaney in an essay posed the problem as Song versus Suffering, where the poet is a child of both.

Maybe it’s even harder for Chekhov, age 30, travelling now by steamboat to the far east of Russia, to the Sakhalin penal colony. “His debt to medicine,” doctors are supposed to be healers. This bit of reporting he wants to do is like a debt owed for writing frivolous stories and plays, or a down payment to justify more creative writing down the line.

And Heaney has his own fair share of violence. Not only the world wars and what they did to English verse, but of course the Irish troubles, the bombings, the repression, the hunger strikes, and the decisions he had to make for himself and his family. But much of his work in this collection does not face these events directly, but like Chekhov, his back is turned “to all he traveled north to face.” Chekhov enjoys a glass of cognac, Heaney writes a great little poem about sloe gin.

That far north, Siberia was south.
Should it have been an ulcer in the mouth,
The cognac that the Moscow literati
Packed off with him to a penal colony —

Him, born, you may say, under the counter?
At least that meant he knew its worth. No cantor
In full throat by the iconostasis
Got holier joy than he got from that glass

A little more guilt. The rhyming couplets help the make the connection. His guilt and hypocrisy manifests itself for him as an “ulcer in the mouth.” And there are sound echoes on the front and end of the middle two lines of the first quatrain, “cognac” and “pack,” “mouth” and “Moscow.” But at least he knows its worth, because he was born “under the counter,” a shopkeeper’s son.

Some sexy visions: the glass sparkling like diamonds on a lady’s bosom, but the coldness of the place he has come to brings him back. He chucks the glass onto the rocks (how decadent!) and the sound “rang as clearly as the convicts’ chains.” “It rang on like the burden of his freedom.”

The poem tracks him on the cusp of turning from the Moscow high life to the solemn duty of the writer as a witness. Leftist writers know the feeling too: are you really living your principles if you’re here honing your craft when you could be participating in an armed struggle movement, be it Spain or Rojava?

The last two sentences:

                                  In the months to come
It rang on like the burden of his freedom

To try for the right tone — not tract, not thesis —
And walk away from floggings. He who thought to squeeze
His slave’s blood out and waken the free man
Shadowed a convict guide through Sakhalin. 

“To try for the right tone — not tract, not thesis –” SAKHALIN OBLAST isn’t completely a sociological tract, it’s a literary artifact too. Which speaks to the larger issue, which is that Song vs. Suffering, or Poetry vs. Protest, is beside the point. The debate assumes that poetry is somehow outside of history. No need, then, to put every poem on trial to gauge its usefulness to historical development. It’s Chekhov’s and Heaney’s freedom to try for the right tone, and (continuing the medical imagery in the poem) to squeeze their slave’s blood out. Chekhov came from a family of serfs, but in Heaney’s case I take it to mean the writer’s first responsibility is to her body, her body as a circuit of the common property of language, to shape that language in the ways her body will permit.
And it happens that in the case of Heaney’s body it was a refusal, but never a full retreat, from acknowledging the political violence in Ireland head on. History is there, but like the music of his language, the artful assonance chains in his 10-syllable lines, it isn’t quite manifest. He’s content to look at quiet objects. Restraint. Taste. Language makes ugly things beautiful. That’s art, boy, William H. Gass would say.

notes on a film i saw months ago and not since

I was hoping ARRIVAL would get a nod for best score at the Oscars. The sequence of approaching the spacecraft that looks like a floating almond, a low cloud deck rolling down the mountains, and then entering the thing from the bottom into a brutal corridor with rounded edges and a texture like dead tree bark — the music has low hum with a voice occasionally getting a noise in. And later on these growls from the double-bass, and a steady pizzicato rhythm from the low strings. The crew set down a bird in a cage, back lit by the screen and white fog, the “dank tank.” (Amy Adams gets hot-boxed in a shuttle craft before going behind the screen.) Anyway, this was some memorable surreal cinema business.

It was nice to see a mainstream science fiction film — for real sci-fi, not a violent fantasy set in space or the future, and one that was pretty intelligent and optimistic about the fate of the species.

The yellow peril stuff, with the naughty Chinese PLA, who the current predator in chief can’t stop insulting, was cringe-inducing, but they had to get all that military hardware in camera somehow.

In the Adamic language, word and object are at one. There is no remainder. The language of the heptapods may very well be this Adamic language, or the language of humanity before the tower of Babel. The film goes into the details of its mechanics quite thoroughly, but I can’t forget actually watching the substance come out of their tentacles, appearing both inky and fibrous like hair, and forming the circular calligraphy. Their writing is a natural production — the material body as the sign.

I was kinda disturbed by the end revelation and its implications. The story takes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis seriously, so that the heptapod’s language re-wires the brain so that you can see through time. Amy Adams learns that the universe is deterministic, and that the most authentic act of freedom is to surrender to it, even if it means bringing a child into the world who will suffer and die from illness at a young age.

But I’ve been reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe lately, and in one of his more esoteric mystical pieces there is a notion that death is precisely the place where the Adamic language is grasped, and all that was ineffable disappears, that is, everything can at last be described. So maybe the language mystic Adams knows something her hardcore scientist lover Jeremy Renner doesn’t. Perhaps their love child is an emissary to the truth of cosmic being.

Amy Adams can perceive all events simultaneously, which is conveyed to us in pseudo-flashbacks and surreal visions, and it’s all very fascinating and formal film making. It’s a little cheesy at the climax, but it’s your straight ahead BILL AND TED kind of time travel (which is also what the heptapods are up to this whole time).What I want to emphasize is that viewing history in toto drains it of any consequence, which is also what Poe suggests in this piece happens when you die. So maybe Amy Adams is a living death, which is the inauguration into the language of heptapod. I mean, the design of their spaceship is like Thanatos incarnate.



in defense of something or other and offense of something else

Read this fun hatchet job on John D’Agata’s essay anthologies in the ATLANTIC.

I remember noticing how he mis-quotes the opening of “Once More to Lake.” Other factual glitches made me go, huh? But I chalked it up to some experiment, or alienation devices. After all, he’s got the authority of Graywolf Press and Iowa Workshop behind him. I like being a forgiving reader, even if it means occasionally being played for a sucker.

I identify this upswelling of discourse against playing with fact and fiction, against the “post-fact” landscape, as an effort from the conservative or soft left wing of the humanities against, not so much Trumpism, but against work of critical theory over the last couple of generations.

William Deresiewicz himself couldn’t care less about this conflict. He’s condemned the elite university systems in toto, and I say hear hear to that. But his position here, as I see it, is classically liberal. Postmodernism is an empty signifier; these days I only hear it from old white heterosexual men, like the ones in the comments, too busy defending what little cultural authority they have left to seriously investigate what’s really going on here.

I suppose that is why I’m writing this post. I can’t stand bad (ie liberal) arguments for positions I agree with.

And I take this review as a quarrel within a liberal framework of cultural studies.

See, I’m into playing with the boundary between factual and creative writing. The most interesting of the mainstream writers, like Anne Carson or Laszlo Krasznahorkai, have been writing short story essays and essayistic short stories. Vollmann’s novels are more thoroughly researched than one of D’Agata’s intercalary texts in his anthologies. Blanchfield’s PROXIES is after the same risk of inaccuracy, but in a much more responsible way.

Blanchot misquotes Holderlin in his famous essay. Did he do it on purpose? Was he lazily relying on his memory? Whatever the case, it’s a re-inscription that we have to work with.

Remember that the hard line between facts and fiction is a recent development, a bourgeois development, in the history of writing. We can go way back to the Jewish mystical writers, taking down knowledge from the angelic library in the higher realm in their mystical trances in Catalonia. They freely mixed quotation from the standard medieval literature but also made up other sources without differentiating them. It was a perfectly acceptable idea for centuries that truth can emerge via fictional writing.

Granted, John D’Agata is no Moses de Leon.

The problem as I see it is that D’Agata and many contemporary writers and artists like him go about this respectable tradition the wrong way. (I haven’t read the AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACT project, but everything I hear about it makes it sound like total bullshit.) They do it within the framework of authorship and private property. The old mystics and the classical novelists often elided their own authorship, because it gave their texts more power, in a way. The new guys are just “appropriation artists.” Kenneth Goldsmith’s stuff only seems interesting to the extent of how offensive it can be; maybe CAPITAL is good.

I was struck by Deresiewicz’s hostility toward the more modern and experimental pieces D’Agata picks. Gimmicky? the great Barthelme? The texts that do the most to break out of the conventional form of the essay are “formless, monotonous, self-indulgent, and dull”? D’Agata probably didn’t pick the best examples, going for a personal journey approach, which I kinda admired.

Deresiewicz has a conservative definition of the essay as a genre that fundamentally holds an argument and conclusion. I’m more sympathetic to the definition in the QUARTERLY CONVERSATION’S review; the essay as a representation of the rhythm of thinking. I’d merely define it as the representation of ideas, and they can be conclusive, suggestive, disjunctive, discontinuous, totally scatter-brained.

Why this hostility to the promiscuity that’s been going down in avant-garde writing for the last half century? The boundaries between poetry and prose, between the fiction and the essay, are bourgeois constructs meant to repress the inherent multiplicity of writing — not literature, writing.

“The multiplicity of writing” is the title of a short chapter in Raymond Williams’s amazing book MARXISM AND LITERATURE, and I can’t get over some of its insights. The novel/short-story and the essay are by definition hybrid genres. They can sustain any number of pre-existing prose forms: letters, Socratic dialog, history, biography, Romance, and so on. They do have something fundamentally in common in their mechanical workings, and Williams calls it the “Series.” The Series is specifically a series of conceptual propositions:

what really happened; what might (could) have happened; what really happens; what might happen; what essentially (typically) happened/happens. (148)

You can re-formulate this to talk about existence, what really existed, what could have existed, etc.

When was the last time any critics or theorists talked about the series? I think Williams’s analysis, and his old-school Marxism, deserve a comeback in these times.

Moreover, fiction and nonfiction as fields of writing each hold a paradox in their secret hearts. Nonfiction is conventionally subjective, but we expect it to be factual. Fiction is objective, that is, an objective world created by its author, but we value it for the truth it can reach.

The range of actual writing similarly surpasses any reduction of ‘creative imagination’ to the ‘subjective’, with its dependent propositions: ‘literature’ as ‘internal’ or ‘inner’ truth; other forms of writing as ‘external’ truth. These depend, ultimately, on the characteristic bourgeois separation of ‘individual’ and ‘society’ and on the older idealist separation of ‘mind’ and ‘world’, The range of writing, in most forms, crosses these artificial categories again and again.

So I post this partly as an effort to do better, as W.D. calls for at the very end of the review.

But this is also a basic plea, the same plea that under-girds this whole blog.

Please, folks, don’t hang up modernism just yet!

truth, approximately

Winner of the Ba Jin blog prize for Best 2016 book read in 2017

Brian Blanchfield
Nightboat 2016

Nothing too thoughtful I can say about this fascinating and modern essay collection. It does a lot of thinking about itself already, whether it’s the many senses of the term proxy, or on the curious subtitle {Permitting Shame, Error, and Guilt, Myself the Single Source}. Blanchfield seems to have gone back to basics. On the surface, these seem like old-school, 18th century  essays: short, focused on a single subject (“On this, On that”). There’s only one space break in the whole text. However, the pieces do not use any research; if Blanchfield wants to mention Erich Auerbach or an essay by Berger, he must rely on memory and paraphrase. A 20-page section at the end called “Correction.” (what could the full stop mean?) contains a rolling list of errata.

Each piece starts out innocuously enough, expositional. He gives us the two main meanings of “frottage.” But then the rhythm of thinking takes a dip, and we land in something dark and personal. Some scenes, like a weird physical game between young Brian and his mother, are clearly painful for the author to render. The single-subject format provides an oblique way to account for (reckoning) a life that has been through New York, Boston, Tuscon, and also through Baptist church, academia, the NY gay scene at the tail end of the AIDS crisis. How ontologically multiple an ordinary life can seem.

How about the style? Every so often Blanchfield will build up lovely, sinuous sentences. On being asked why he, a poet, does not write the way he speaks:

Why is poetry pretentious? Is that the question? Certainly to answer “Well, there I was speaking as my representative shepherd” doesn’t help the cause. There are all kinds of ways to answer the question, including to define poetry as yet another art that pulls attention to the medium, language, defamiliarizing it from its usual invisible, directly communicative and expository functions, thereby discovering it afresh, activating and liberating it. But it is in usual, directly communicative and expository language that this explanation is offered, and so seems paltry, and even if one cuts to the chase and says, “You don’t tell a dancer that’s not how you normally move,” the defensiveness concedes the point. What was the point? (25)

The shepherd, evoking the pastorale, the happy place (this is from “On the Locus Amoenus”). In another piece, “On Propositionizing,” he constellates Heidegger, of all people, with Helen Keller’s famous breakthrough. These essays, so modest in tone, are actually flaunting the kind of analysis that is possible without recourse to wikipedia or fact-checking. If anything, our addiction to facticity and accuracy can even block off certain styles of thinking. Is this reactionary? Not at all, just a gentle reminder of the complexity of what we can know, and what we do know. Benjamin and Adorno, working under the failure of the German socialist revolution, were making the same claims. One can’t make do with facts and reason alone. We need to reckon with the irrational, the free-form paths of the mind. There’s a distinction to be made between epistemology and epistemophilia.

(I wonder if it’s a particularly USian thing to want facts, adult education, from all media, including novels and stand-up routines. This isn’t a recent thing either: Melville’s early novels were received like travelogues, and then were disappointing as such.)

Those who would claim that critical theory with its jargon and relativistic nuttiness is responsible for the “post-fact world” (the soft left’s version of the right’s complaints against “cultural Marxism”) are invited to see what an unconstrained thinking mind is capable of in this clever, modest, beautifully written project.

more golden notes

Doris Lessing

Harper Perennial 2007

About the homophobia of these characters. Anna admits in the first notebook set that she’s repulsed by homosexuality and views it as a political fad. Far later on, in the yellow notebook, Ella, the protagonist of The Shadow of the Third, is bothered by how salient the criticism of men has become as the basis of her friendship with Julia; she fears this makes them lesbians, “psychologically,” at least. Anna bases Ella off herself, but Ella is heavily unpoliticized as a person while Julia is still a red. Anna has the political orientation, which she voices in Free Women 1: namely the sexual division of labor. The men in their life coast on a labor-saving household run by a labor-saving wife, and the labor-saving secretaries they fuck. The open secret in this bizarre postwar Britain (where two good friends can share a therapist), is that marriage as an institution leads to affairs while the wife and kids are sequestered in a second house. Given our sanctity debates, this relation between homophobia and marriage was really interesting.

In each of the long dialog scenes in the novel, the narrator can pack in so many different sexualities, which is really apparent is the black notebook’s Colony memoirs. The thoroughness of observation is amazing, even something as simple like how Maryrose, after making a stinging comment against the boys after another unproductive meeting, feels the need to pander to their political thought (they use the jargon, she doesn’t): “I’m not saying it right, but you see what I mean…” (99).

Ella is a novelist who wrote a book about suicide. In part, it’s a sublimation of Tommy’s suicide attempt that blinds him. Mental illness and radicalism across the generation gap are two more issues explored just as resourcefully. Both Tommy and Janet are unsatisfied with their free mothers. The freedom (which they paid a dear price for) these children inherit is scary. It’s the rapid flux of issues, all crying for attention and acknowledgement of the other issues, which in a mental storm show us the limits of knowledge, after which follows collapse. In the Colony narrative, Paul gets blind drunk before his first mission and walks into a propeller. It’s a nihilist sublime, which Anna places near the beginning of the story, which in her memory is dyed with a “nostalgia” for death, a “longing for death.”

A sequence I loved was in later set of the black notebook, where we get a taste of the London literary world, “so prissy.” Anna’s cynicism makes so much sense here; even the most austere Communist Party would be more appealing. Actually it’s the world of TV and film producers looking for adaptations. One of them an American woman, after another stretch of bourgeois postwar conformist tedium (still tons of fun to read), this passage:

‘Are you thinking of visiting the States? I would be so happy if you would give me a call and we could discuss any ideas you might have?’ I hesitate. I almost stop myself. Then I know I can’t stop myself. I say: ‘There’s nothing I’d like better than to visit your country, but alas, I wouldn’t be let in, I’m a communist.’ Her eyes snap into my face, wide and blue and startled. She makes at the same time an involuntary movement — the start of pushing her chair and going. Her breathing quickens. I see someone who is frightened. Already I am sorry and ashamed. I said that for a variety of reasons, the first being childish: I wanted to shock her. Secondly, equally childish, a feeling that I ought to say it — if someone said afterwards: Of course she is a communist, this woman would feel as if I had been concealing it. Thirdly, I wanted to see what would happen. (266)

We’ve all been there, but maybe I shouldn’t speak for us. She reflects on her own inconsistency, one that mirrors her comrades in the Colony, who would physically touch the cook within Mrs Boothby’s sight, but had plenty of patience for working class racists at other instances.

“Of course things are quite different here in England,” the poor lady spits out as she tries to recover. Anna realizes she could be endangering her job. But she also reacts sharply against this being “embodied” by other people, ie embodied in their presence as a communist the moment she outs herself. But what the hell is a communist anyway? In mid-paragraph Anna switches to a memory of a Russian writer she met two years ago. The spoke “the same language — the communist language.” But “The fact was that the phrases of our common philosophy were a means of disguising the truth. The truth was we had nothing in common, except the label, communist.”

I glossed the final blue notebook set, with Anna’s encounter with Saul. The psychoanalytical issues didn’t age quite as well, and the dream sequences were tedious. This was the only spot in 600 pages that was anywhere close to dragging. But Saul, after inscribing some doggerel in the golden notebook Anna buys, gives her the first sentence for writing. It’s the first sentence of Free Women. Now the opening realist novel, taken as the master level of the text’s world, is brought to even keel with the notebooks. Is Anna fictionalizing herself beyond Ella and her name, endless mirrors and such? It’s a way to confront the jaded attitude with everything, with the creative powers of the novel and the political power of the left in its century of defeat — sure, the sixties are coming, but what we are seeing today is still the historical consequence of the left’s defeat. The text is a fixing up of bits and pieces, the remains of the past (modernity blown apart, like after a nuke), but also ominous dispatches from the future of an emptier world.

resolutions and hopes 2k17

Read Marx — actual Marx, not just Marxism.

Read BEING AND TIME, maybe over the summer.

At least 20% of the books you read this year will authored by women. Another 20% by PoC which may overlap.

Read more of the long novels.

Read faster.

Get more than one piece accepted for publication this year.


No hopes. In other words the usual.


it all keeps adding up…

R.I.P. Mark Fisher

Doris Lessing

Harper Perennial 2007

I can’t put down Lessing’s big book. It’s an unpleasant novel filled with unattractive people. I was moved to read it by the political climate (same with CORIOLANUS) and it’s a wonderfully bitter pill for the people of its analogous class and social position and political sympathies. It’s a Nietzschean novel, in that the protagonist Anna Wulf and her lifelong friend Molly are Nietzschean figures, and it’s of a classically nihilist cast of mind. It’s a long and lovely elegy for the left, for feminism, for certain conventions of literature. More deeply, it articulates a tension between desires and the emptiness of the world. For example, there’s a disgust in the tone aimed both at morality and at the amorality of the story’s reality. In its storytelling it argues that the modern novel can’t be moral, and this fact is lamentable. Odd to start here since TGN is only ever mentioned in the context of its Marxist feminism. It’s interesting to read the sharp reactions on Goodreads against this novel from modern decidedly non-communist feminist perspectives today.

I’d heard so much about TGN and never once heard about its structure. A psychologically realist bourgeois English novel unfolds, called Free Women. “Free” as in unmarried. Anna and Molly are single mothers, middle-aged, not the 1% but privileged in the usual social and class ways. It’s 1957; the two women are still leftists if disenchanted, but their friend Richard, who is father to Molly’s adult son Tommy, has grown up into a married liberal business man who serially cheats, leaving his now alcoholic wife with two children. Anna is living off the royalties of her novel, The Frontiers of War. She hasn’t been writing anything publishable. Instead she keeps notebooks, black, red, yellow, blue, and the last one of course. And these unfold, containing drafts for novels, newspaper clippings, memoirs and essays, diary entries, who knows what else could appear in the second half.

The notebook sections split Free Women into five numbered sections. They’re experienced like slow eruptions; the usual modernist figures like the return of the repressed, or a rhizome’s vines running through pavement. It’s as if the modern novel has to hatch out of the realist one. (Lessing’s book invites grand statements like these because it really is that ambitious in its scope and stakes.) But of course, modernism wouldn’t criticize the conventional nature of realism if the two’s desires weren’t the same: to capture an impression of the real. The modernist conventions that replace the realist ones will ossify and be criticized as such soon enough. If the novel of Lessing’s moment must capture an impression of the real, it will have to deny resolution and harmony. The notebooks are Anna’s life fragmented and sectioned off, but still bleed into one another despite all that. The Free Women sections act like lenses for all the far-flung and friction-generating material in the notebooks.

The black notebook is Anna’s writing workbook, in a sense. Its first major part is a long novella about her time in “the Colony,” as a Communist Party organizer in Rhodesia. This is a kind of anti-novel to her single literary hit. She writes a sardonic, satirical synopsis for a film adaptation, which could have been a late 1950’s Douglas Sirk kind of melodrama, with love across the color line.

As Anna writes about what really happened, she interrupts herself by reflecting on her writing:

(I am again falling into the wrong tone — and yet I hate that tone, and yet we all lived inside it for months and years, and it did us all, I am sure, a great deal of damage. It was self-punishing, a locking of feeling, an inability or a refusal to fit conflicting things together to make a whole; so that one can neither change nor destroy; the refusal means ultimately either death or the impoverishment of the individual.) (79)

Anna writes much later in the yellow notebook that literature is “analysis after the event.” These memories of the Colony date around 1944. Communist feelings are at an all time high, but it can’t be helped that Anna’s writing of it captures the bottoming-out of those feelings and all the rest of it.

She’s there with Maryrose, a well off German kid named Willi (they are in a “sexless” relationship), and three pilot boys: Paul, Jimmy, and Ted. While they do Party work they’re also trying to save people’s souls. Ted’s project is an old dude named George, a family man with a black mistress on the side (she’s the wife of the cook of the Mashopi hotel our characters go to for the weekends) open to socialist ideas. It’s when George is introduced that Anna breaks her reflections to wonder why she is quick to think George “nice” and Paul and Willi not.

Heaven knows we are never allowed to forget that the ‘personality’ doesn’t exist any more. It’s the theme of half of the novels written, the theme of the sociologists and all the other -ologists. We’re told so often that human personality has disintegrated into nothing under the pressure of all our knowledge that I’ve even been believing it. Yet when I look back to that group under the trees, and recreate them in my memory, suddenly I know it’s nonsense. Suppose I were to meet Maryrose now, all these years later, she’d make some gesture, or turn her eyes in such a way, and there she’d be, Maryrose, and indestructible. (115)

The death of the personality or the subject is ludicrous in the face of Anna’s own vivid memories. But right away she casts doubt on memory as that which constitutes a personality.

The moments I remember, all have the absolute assurance of a smile, a look, a gesture, in a painting or a film. Am I saying then that the certainty I’m clinging to belongs to the visual arts, and not to the novel, not to the novel at all, which has been claimed by the disintegration and the collapse? What business has a novelist to cling to the memory of a smile or a look, knowing so well the complexities behind them? Yet if I did not, I’d never be able to set a word down on paper; just as I used to keep myself from going crazy in this cold northern city by deliberately making myself remember the quality of hot sunlight on my skin. (115)

These wonderful anxieties trade on representation vs. reproduction. Later on, in a debate with her employer, friend, and comrade Jack at the Marxist publishing firm she volunteers at in the mid 50s, he points out the massive rush of technology in their lives and what it has to do with the exhaustion of idealist hopes and the continuing madness of history after the bomb. I bring it up to highlight that what made writing special from the very beginning was its technical reproducibility. And yet it is photography and cinema that define an industrial age of reproduction at a profoundly material level: a photograph of a smile is neither simply real nor not-real. Writing of the superficial imagery of a smile or any other gesture or any cherished memory is insufficient after these developments. Anna doesn’t want to make a movie that you read. Text has room for analysis and concepts that movies don’t. And yet the last word is the material effects of sensual memories. Her craft depends on this act that seems more hollow than ever.

After many scenes of Anna and Maryrose more or less putting up with the chauvenism of the rest, we find out that their drunken partying, through a chain of events with Mrs Boothby, the hotel’s proprietor, leads to Jackson, the black cook, losing his livelyhood and putting his whole family at risk. These unseemly events get spun up in to Anna’s hit novel. It’s profoundly false, and she is disgusted with herself. It is her personal end to the communist myth, and to that original version of political correctness that gets so grating (no criticism of Stalin or the Soviet Union’s political atrocities allowed) that she leaves the party in ’54.

It’s tempting to be disgusted with the whole thing. Maryrose remarks that there was a genuine hope that she and her comrades could make the world better, which has completely dissipated — and here they are still partying. Dancing and drinking represses the disgust, to be sure, but moreover, what else is there to be done? The disgust with what’s in front of Anna is also a disgust with herself, because there doesn’t seem to (realistically) be anything else for her to do except to “succumb” as the narrator puts it when she plays the parts cast for her in every fraught, micromanaged interaction with men, gay or straight.

And the way all the men treat women in this novel is disgusting; we get example after example with dry, probing, realistic scenes. And Anna reflects in the second black notebook set that this disgust can give way to a certain hysteria. Anna’s novels and the problems she identifies with English fiction make me wonder about her own status in the novel Free Women. The stability of character is also in question. Although we have a rich view of Anna’s past life, she’s born in Molly’s London flat in 1957, in an act of speaking, when she gives the key line: “The point is, that as far as I can see, everything is cracking up.” The British CP, the communist dream in general, the form of the novel, and the human self under capitalist patriarchy.

For a novel to capture reality, it’s no longer enough to pile up details and observations into a coherent character and situation. Things pile up all right, but not into a novel but several novels: The baseline novel Free Women, the anti-novel of Frontiers of War, a novel called Shadow of the Third, in which Anna works through a painful relationship with Michael (Paul in the novel, the names are traded around pretty systematically).

Michael, we learn in this third novel, is a doctor from a working-class background. And we see this political friction unfold. Get out your identity politics scoreboards: Michael is lower class than Anna. But Michael is just as entitled and hurtful as any other man. Anna herself runs into plenty of anti-communist women, women so tainted with liberal bourgeois ideology they may as well be cut off from reality entirely. But can they still like each other or help each other as women under patriarchy? It’s not so easy. (Anna’s political life is for the red notebook, but politics bleeds into all the other colors effortlessly.)

All these novels within the novel occlude each other at least as much as they illuminate the whole picture. The text, in order to be true, has to hold up other texts in the effort to understand itself, is indeed made of other texts so that there is no choice but to invest in a modernist relation to itself. Just as all novels had been doing the whole time.

static shock

Monica Youn
Graywolf Press 2016

A lot of changes in reading life, writing life, thinking life, real life. In fact enough changes to make me repudiate everything I’ve claimed here, if I didn’t feel that way already after posting. I’m reading more poetry, for one. I’m getting over my formalist/aesthete bias against flat, “ordinary” language, which opened up some interesting contemporary poetry, especially by Geoffrey G. O’brien, whose poem “D’Haussonville” describes a 1845 portrait by Ingres of a countess Louise de Broglie. She was an essayist, and the poem is like in essay in its expository function, but the language still de-familiarizes its subject.

It’s been done before; even admitting
It’s been done before’s been done, but not
In Haussonville, where it rains supports
Of all kinds, and variations on blue,
Enough to populate a sitting room,
The single figure richly pauses,
Trapped in what has been called
A rainbow of blues, deep but narrow
Luxury reflected in a mirror
Into which you can and can’t possibly be seeing
Accurately. […]

 Long sentences like these, in pleasantly standard lineation, turning on a variety of end words. There’s a mixture of imagination (the speaker can’t know for sure it was raining when the countess stood for the painting; it’s a “nonfact”) and a voice of realistic pedantry (the reflection in the mirror of the painting can’t physically reflect what it does).

So the speaker moves amongst seeing the painting as the “fictional” scene, a portrait, where it might be raining, where details betray an entire way of living, done in the neoclassical style; and as the product of Ingre’s meaningful work in getting the perfect blend of paints for the countess’s striking blue dress, and the many studies he must have drawn for the job. And while the reader is trying to get their bearings in the poem, perhaps they move the same way between these senses of the work in O’brien’s text.

I read some other stuff too. AVERNO by Louise Glück, Anne Carson’s MEN IN THE OFF HOURS, which had a really exciting sequence of poems called “TV Men”.

But nothing nearly as exciting as Monica Youn’s third collection. BLACKACRE is the best 2016 book I read last year (and probably the only one). The first poem, “Palinode,” before part one, is the lens through which I read the rest of it.

The first part is a single, disarmingly flat line: “a bird / falls off / a balcony / panicked grasping / fistfuls of / air”. These slashes are part of the text; it’s a line with five line breaks written in. “Fistfuls of air” is odd for a bird. Is the bird injured, which is why falling off a balcony induces panic?

Then the second part:

I was wrong
please I was 

wrong please I
wanted nothing please
I don’t want

Here’s the palinode, which is an ode retracting the stance of a previous poem. What do you make of this pleading? Did the speaker really not want something? But then why does she speak, or at least place notations on a page that could’ve been left blank?

Youn captures so effectively a sense of white space as an active counter-pressure. Every line fights to embed itself in place. Each space break feels like the white space snaps off the text, like sausage links, but only creates a seam through which more meaning could emerge. Like Philip’s ZONG! there’s an interest in the visual arrangement of words, using line breaks and space breaks to highlight the words embedded inside words (Youn brings “amen” out of “amenable”). They’re both ex-lawyers, and while Philip worked with the language of law as material, something in Youn’s work invokes that sinister authority and power created by ritual syntax. The Law, the Word.

Going back to “Palinode,” we can take the first part, the first line, as the timid hazarding of a poem. It’s kitschy, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s as if it tries to spit itself out as one line even though it’s five. The frantic retraction recognizes that these words are unworthy of the white space. It’s almost like those first three lines are re-arranging the same four words. The five-line block, resting under the long first line, almost makes the page look like one of Malevich’s suprematist compositions. The two blocks of words almost seem like swatches cut from different material.

Youn’s great at working with conceptual inputs and templates without using them as a crutch. It’s not a suffocatingly rigorous book. The first section’s a cycle of poems inspired from Villon’s “Ballad of the Hanged Men,” but also sustains the Hanged Man tarot card, and paintings encountered at art history talks.

She’s also great at rhythm. For example, in the title poem: ” ‘Therewith’ — a safe word, a strongbox to be buried.” The last half rolls nicely. And “safe” starts as an adjective and then functions as itself, a word as a safe (what does the safe hold?). The insight arrives like a shock, the speaker interrupting herself with a dash. Or: “Rest — the rind of the best, a contoured pod that cradles the shape of what it doesn’t hold.” A little rhyme, which she likes to do, sometimes to an unsettling effect when the language resembles children’s doggerel. Every word’s doing a lot of work here, especially “cradles.”

I have to mention “Blueacre” which is an inventory of 60 items: things seen and heard in a long take of Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER (1975). This was an answer to questions I’ve had of achieving the same effects and experiences in prose that are done in those minimalist art movies I like, an answer I never dreamed of getting from a contemporary writer. And it’s elegantly simple. The camera is the poem, if not necessarily the speaker. This isn’t made explicit until the last line. The form pushes against the linear march of the text until it’s just short of grinding to a halt. It really was analogous to watching this kind of cinema, which indeed, can be “difficult” and “boring,” but that’s the interesting situation of lacking reprieve. To use another great line from the title poem, the task of this aesthetic is “to pit the body in emnity against its own heaviness.” The sheer material and philosophical weight of being an embodied human reveals itself, having been there all this time, the moment the beguiling fictional world of the film, poem, or novel dares to make us wait.

The inputs of the amazing Blackacre poems: coming to terms with infertility (revealed by a miscarriage?), and an exegesis on Milton’s Sonnet 19, “On His Blindness.” Milton is deprived of the thing he needs most to answer his calling to create. The poet can’t procreate. Is she “a bounded resource” and hence exhaustible? Is poetry one too? Fourteen prose sections titled after each end word, which launches fascinating thinking.

The first Blackacre poem, arranged like one of Susan Howe’s text blocks, reads: “one day they showed me a dark moon ringed / with a bright nimbus on a swirling gray screen”. The “they.” There’s always some authority attached to that word. Here “they” are doctors showing an ultrasound. But recalling Foucault on hospitals, schools, airports, malls, and prisons, as well as what Our Bodies Ourselves and the Jane Collective revealed about women’s health care practice, it’s not hard to extend those impersonal forces to the medical people.

These forces are embodied in the “they” and the white space of every page. The formalities of Law demand that one doesn’t speak without permission. Youn may not be practicing but she writes as if one needs permission to stain the silence, if only through the force of craft. Which is great, because her work abjures confession and the exposure of pain in favor of reticence without occlusion. Yet she is such a strong writer, maybe one of the best working, that I wish she didn’t.

what’s outside the window?

Roberto Bolaño Trans. Natasha Wimmer
Picador 2008

Returning to SD after so long, because its lasting impression is of a world succumbing to an entropic darkness. Like Saramago, Bolaño was a writer and a left wing fellow traveler. Say what you will about anarchism, but a majority of the time they strive to make their writings accessible to all. I had bracketed this question: why do my own tastes in literature go to the difficult, experimental, and pyrotechnical styles over simple and direct prose? I was content to have my aesthetic and political interests run as two separate trains, hopefully in the same direction.

Yes, in the rise of Trumpland, even I am wondering about what to do with my art. I’m searching for an alternative to the predictably moronic response of the imploding democratic party and the neoliberal consensus that has been given its biggest rebuffs in a long while. I’ve never been keen on “activist art.” That’s a niche market for commissions. Writing doesn’t change the world; riots do. Bolaño’s novel provides a foothold to come at this issue with a little more dialectical thinking.

First, something from the Paris Review’s interview of William H. Gass:

If you start talking about speech acts, what you are doing is connecting the notion of writing with a concept of performance. I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed. It can’t all have been written by Dreiser, but it sounds like it. Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, J.R. was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write. I can still admire the other—the way I admire surgeons, bronc busters, and tight ends. As writing, it is that foreign to me.

I won’t outright say DETECTIVES belongs in the second “printed page” category, but it’s not interested in doing the things Gass’s prose does. It lights matches, it doesn’t set fireworks. (And as much as I love Gass and believe he wrote some of the finest American literature of the last century, lighting fireworks all the time has its own flaws.)

In a big set piece a little early on in the big middle part of the novel, our section’s narrator Auxilio Lacouture recounts hiding out in a UNAM campus bathroom as the military massacres the students:

Then I took the toilet paper that I’d written on and threw it in the toilet and pulled the chain. The sound of the water startled me, and I thought I was lost. I thought: what a poetic act to destroy my my writings. I thought: I should have swallowed them instead, because now I’m lost. I thought: the vanity of writing, the vanity of destruction. I thought: because I wrote, I stood my ground. I thought: because I destroyed what I wrote they’re going to find me, beat me, rape me, kill me. I thought: the two acts are related, writing and destruction, hiding and being found. (204)

This thematically salient moment comes after many pages of language that is a little more figurative and lyrical — Lacouture’s a poet, the “mother of Mexican poetry.” She clings “like a limpet” to theater groups, and what have you.

We can locate her in that turning point Gass identifies between the performance and printed page prose styles. Bolaño’s kinda making fun of an idiom that is on its way out, but he’s also celebrating it for what it was. I’m less interested in that masculinist notion of the artist as conquerer, or the totally free agent. The more serious I get about writing, the more it feels more like a surrendering. To what? Not necessarily a metaphysical flow of creativity. Just to the material conditions of our time. Certain ways of writing are closed off for good. Classical forms can be used, but usually with a postmodern irony. The legacy of artistic history can weigh down like a nightmare, or it can be the wind in your own sails.

I’m pretty sure there are over fifty different speakers in this second part of DETECTIVES. It really is a tour de force for Bolaño to differentiate among the characters so successfully. Sure there are tics of verbiage and diction: there’s a snob who spits out latinate phrases, and there’s a painter on whom the mystique of the visceral realists is completely lost — for him Belano and Lima were just the gentlemen losers who sold him pot. At a deeper level, Bolaño seems to have thought about each person’s relationship to language. Barbara Patterson, the American gal who swears a lot, also doesn’t have the inner eye of a poet, she sees the “Arab” eyes of her Mexican boyfriend and goes right to kitschy cliches of camels and tents. Is Belano travelling the world with a tape recorder to take down these long yarns of speech?

And then, in the third part, we have Madero’s doodles. They’re riddles, where simple shapes have to be identified. A dot with a tight circle and wide circle with a little black wedge sticking out. It’s a buzzard wearing a cowboy hat. And so on.

They’re related to the one piece we get by Cesárea Tinajero, the object of their quest in the desert (while on the run from Lupe’s pimp). In that poem, called “Scion,” a square is on a flat horizon line, then the line becomes a sine wave, then a distressingly jagged line. The boys “read” it as a ship on the horizon, and behind the title is not only “Zion” but “navigation.” Riddle solutions lock things up, but the meaning of poetry is none the less probelmatized.

I was chilled by the final pages, which devolve into doodles. The riddle is “What’s outside the window.” A triangle sticks in from the left edge. The answer is a star. But that’s not what stars look like: that’s just the formalized convention, or conventionalized form, of a five point star I used to draw in kindergarten.

In the final riddle, the window’s border is a dotted line. Is it gone, with only an outline for where it should be, like in a cartoon? Is the window mutable, able to expand, like Derrida’s discourse, so that there is no “outside” of it?

The novel “gives up” on language in a way, but it’s also magesterial in its range of discourse. You could plunge through all the name-dropped authors and avant-garde movements it touches on, but you could also enjoy the shaggy detective story. There is a dialectical relationship between advanced modern art, arbitrary, artificial, and alienated, so hard-pressed to communicate itself, and a popular mass art produced by the culture industry that communicates too much to too many people. Neither kind is enough by itself; but together they generate sparks. It is mechanical reproduction that conditions us to what the aura of fine art is by showing us the David and the Mona Lisa repeatedly on postcards and TV commercials and so on. It is art that retreats from the world that can generate the utopian space, the conditions for a new world.

What’s outside the window?