nothing but mammals



[CN: abuse, alcohol abuse, anorexia, bulimia]

im pathetic, so the weeks im spending off school for the holidaze and off the blog for a while is the same period in which ive been consciously reading more books by women, and so far only white women at that. i havent failed to notice that the diary has been overrepresenting the white dude center, which inevitably happens when i try to round out the literary canon out of a phony sense of guilt. at the same time, i want it to be easy to step away from the blog whenever it feels too much like an obligation.

anyway, ive been reading more women since the term ended. Alexievich’s VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL was fascinating and dark. Keith Gessen’s translation is done in precise and minimal english — his reading emphasizes the sense of fatalism and a more elusive sense of there being two worlds after Chernobyl; Alexievich suggests the world of irradiated Chernobyl is that of the future. the “monologues” are stitched together and often have unique forms.

ive been picking up essays from Siri Hustvedt (from her collection on painting) and M.F.K. Fisher (collected work) now and again. i jumped on the bicentennial bandwagon for Austen’s EMMA, very enjoyable so far. but what i do have for this post are notes for two shorter novels.

NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes was so beautiful and strange, and i read it so long ago (the beginning of this month) that i wont be able to do much in giving the bigger picture about it. i heard a lot about this novel, like you do about many cult favorites: it’s a twisted anti-love story, more of a poem than a novel, it all takes place at night, the opening fifty pages is boring but soon you’ll be in it. i cant think of anything else like it that ive read except Burroughs’s Nova trilogy. sure, a great deal of the time i was not comprehending what i was reading, but the prose itself just felt alive, the same way i described THE SOFT MACHINE. Barnes has an incredible gift for surreal imagery: unsettling, poetic, and deeply erotic all at once. moreover she has an extra layer of reflection, because the lives of the novel’s characters are conditioned by spectacle. This was her seedy alternative lens on the bohemian, lost generation, US expat culture that’s usually presented so enchantingly.

in the late twenties, we hang out with a phony baron Felix and a fraudulent doctor Matthew O’Connor. O’Connor is the novel’s chorus of sorts and has a secret side i’ll get into later. These dudes get a lot of page space, especially the doctor and his bizarre monologues. The meat of the story, although it is presented loosely and elliptically, is a love affair between Nora Flood and a rich beautiful woman named Robin Vote. Vote’s beauty radiates in all directions. she’s not that charming but she just enraptures every human being’s attention. she leaves a trail of destruction and broken hearts. perhaps you’ve met a Robin Vote type of person in your life: a guy with a face like John Cassavetes’s, whose belt you instantly know you want to be another notch on; or a lady so at ease, bubbly, stunning, could bag any guy or gal she wants. they’re so unattainable that you get in your own way of finding out what their real stories are. “a loved thing that he [Felix] could never touch, therefore never know.” worse, it’s so obviously unhealthy to get infatuated with these unreachable people, but sometimes you cant stop. and Nora cant stop, and eventually she’s through the whole emotional wringer. this is the space of dejection, of love is poison and the world means nothing, that the novel inhabits.

notice the imagery as well as the narrator’s pictorial angle to describing how Felix sees Robin for the very first time:

The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a “picture” forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger. Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey.

the last line seems especially illegible to me, but the notions of nursing, the bestial undertones, connect this rich early passage to the opening of one of the central chapters, “Watchman, What of the Night?” Nora visits the doctor at his room for the first time. it’s really late at night, she’s really distraught over losing Robin, and she’s surprised at how poor O’Connor is. she goes through the door and we pan over the bedroom:

A pile of medical books, and volumes of a miscellaneous order, reached almost to the ceiling, water-stained and covered with dust. Just above them was a very small barred window, the only ventilation. On a maple dresser, certainly not o European make, lay a rusty pair of forceps, a broken scalpel, half a dozen odd instruments that she could not place, a catheter, some twenty perfume bottles, almost empty, pomades, creams, rouges, powder boxes and puffs. From the half-open drawers of this chiffonier hung laces, ribands, stockings, ladies’ underclothing and an abdominal brace, which gave the impression that the feminine finery had suffered venery. A swill-pail stood at the head of the bed, brimming with abominations. There was something appallingly degraded about the room, like the rooms in brothels, which give even the most innocent a sensation of having been accomplice; yet this room was also muscular, a cross between a chambre a coucher and a boxer’s training camp. There is a certain belligerence in a room in which a woman has never set foot; every object seems to be battling its own compression — and there is a metallic odour, as of beaten iron in a smithy.

“battling its own compression” — compression from social forces, maybe, and also the tense, agitated atmosphere of the book. we learn without any sensationalizing that O’Connor wears women’s clothing and has sex in it, or maybe jacks off into it? it’s a great moment set up by the wonderful pan over the book piles to the “very small barred window” which throws slats of light back to the dresser with the medical equipment. But the clothes “suffered venery,” venery having two main definitions in the OED: sexual indulgence from the Latin venus, and hunting from the Latin venari. This conflation of human and animal is a core strain the novel, and gets a final shock at the very end before you’re thrown out.

NIGHTWOOD is a modernist masterpiece, not even two hundred pages long, and still it’s not as widely read or remarked on as Joyce, Proust, or Mann. Why cant Barnes be included? it may be an accurate observation, but perhaps not the right question. the academe puts attention on texts that contain a lot of stuff, especially if it’s material from its own mastications: Joyce and Pynchon left calculated puzzles for scholars and students, and now they’re canonized and the beneficiaries of sprawling, bureaucratic, critical industries. the scholar boundary leaves NIGHTWOOD more dangerous. it might be closer to Deleuze and Guattari’s minor literature; a text that eludes conventional critical mastery or even the reader’s mastery; a fricative, primitive howl of misery in such exquisite language. talk about becoming animal.

The vast bulk of this is indebted to Erica Nicole Bellman’s dissertation. i just barely riffed on her insights.


in a word, id describe NIGHTWOOD as inspired. for BINARY STAR by Sarah Gerard, the single-word descriptor is contemporary. i was interested in this novel because i like astronomy and the author is an alum of the same program im in. the narrator is a young woman struggling really severely with food and doing grad work in astronomy while also teaching. she’s in an unhealthy, partially long-distance relationship with John, an alcoholic trust fund baby getting into militant veganism. Together they are a binary star system, in which the narrator is the white dwarf that accretes the material of the sister star’s. two opposing disorders, one of consumption and the other of starvation: but i was gratified that the text doesnt push the metaphor or allegory too hard. it’s more like Pamela Zoline’s style, the astronomy is embedded in her consciousness along with the rest of her life.

the first forty pages are not numbered. the text is all italics, and some pages only have two or three lines. like an overture it contains all the elements that get played out later, the astronomy factoids, body dysmorphia, really messed up kink sex. then the main part of the book is divided into three “dredge-ups,” the transition points in a star’s lifetime as it exhausts its nuclear fuel. no quotation marks, so we cant be sure what’s attributed to speech or inner monologue. the short, often abrasive lines flow by poetic logic. i didnt expect to enjoy this carved down style so much. im not as interested in minimalist prose as i am in minimalist films, but Gerard’s narration was incredibly relatable — a word i dont want to abuse. but she captures the perfunctory, sanitized, middle-class moment. early on the narrator and john meet her friend in Oakland and they head out to a bar:

On our way to the bar, my friend asks me if we’ve eaten dinner. I tell him not to worry, that we’ll have something small when it’s convenient.

Budweiser, Sam Adams, Coors, Corona, Bass, Grolsch, Modelo, Yuengling.

i love it. a whole discreet social moment reduced to a litany of brand names. i dont know ale that much, so i can only wonder what others would read into these brands. of course Strunk & White opposes the use of brand names, DFW’s resistance to “image fiction” is well known. but the use of it here creates this effect of honesty to me. they are the signs of our lives, and Gerhard’s narration is so radically sparse that it makes one feel cut off from the rest of the world, threatening to sever us for good into abstraction.

there’s more like it too, like this incredible wall of text made out of headlines that works as a found poetry piece:

7 Diet Tricks That Really Work. The 25 Best Diet Tricks of All Time. Retro Diet Tricks That Work. 8 No-Effort Diet Tricks. Strange Diet Tips and Tricks. Wicked Little Diet Tricks. Cosmo’s 5 Super-Simple Diet Tricks. Joy Bauer’s 8 Clever Diet Tricks From Weightloss Superstars. Diet Tricks the Pros Tell Their Friends. The Official Best No-Gimmicky Diet Tricks. 7 Stick-to-Your-Diet Tricks You’ve Never Heard Of. The 20 Best Diet Tricks of All Time. 

and so on, with the right placement to make all the Diets and Tricks pop in this numbing repetition.

I have taken too many laxatives before the meal. I nearly pass out in the bathroom and sit on the toilet with my head against the door, trying to see the tile. Everything is black.

My legs are weak. My heart is pounding.


I vomit and feel better for having done it.

John, help me.

I try to stand and collapse.

I spend the rest of the meal drinking water. By the time we leave, John is talking in his sleep at the table. This is how he wins every time.

On the way home, I buy a bag of pretzels at Walgreens. I eat the whole bag while John is sleeping and then I throw it up. The bile gets stuck in my nose and burns. I swear I’ll never eat again.

I lie to myself.

I walk away from the mirror. I look back.

I walk around in circles before the mirror.

The next day, John’s face is slick and heavy in the morning light and he says that he doesn’t want to drink anymore. I put my head on his chest and kiss his neck.

I’m so glad.

Oh, Jesus. Your breath smells horrible, he says.

I’m sorry.

It’s worse than just normal morning breath. Go brush your teeth.

In the bathroom, I look up pictures of bulimia teeth on my phone.

yeah, these are damaged people. the binge and purge is so harrowing in its clinical delivery, and the final thing with the bulimia teeth is such a veracious detail. it’s a painful book but Gerard makes really beautiful sounding language from such an austere diction. and like Djuna Barnes, there’s a great deal of irony and humor, especially with the militant vegan business (still feels surprising to be reading so many familiar things in a work of fiction). it’s very short, especially considering all the line breaks. but it’s heavy, and like the biggest stars it burns fast.


One thought on “nothing but mammals

  1. Really enjoyed your review of Djuna Barnes here. Your insights are sharp and the vocabulary and writing style you use to express them make for an enriching read. Thanks for sharing. I’m inspired to read Barnes at your recommendation and look forward to reading more of your reviews.


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