(6) Nightwood, Djuna Barnes. Read at 20-21 yrs. I was assigned to read this in college for a Modernist Lit course and was immediately told by the professor (the formidable Louis Chude-Sokei) that almost everyone would despise it. I took this as a challenge, and went home to read it. I got halfway through the first chapter before despising it, and tossed it down on the ugly little communal coffee table, littered with oily fragrant pools of beer, brownly-corroded bongs, and scientific papers. Frustrated, I picked it up again half an hour later and skipped ahead to the second chapter. It was as if I unhinged my jaw and swallowed the book, only to find myself choking on it in delight and confusion. Spittle streamed down my neck and ran down my shirt front. I was abashed; a snake that had tried to swallow too large an egg.
The text of Nightwood is a decorative egg cobbled with jewelry, studded with aphorisms, adorned with asides and observations and digressions to the extent that the novel is almost a digression generator, a clockwork device ringing out witticisms in measured periods. Aphorisms break out like tiny cracks over the text, characters expel them like sonorous belches, slip them out amidst sips of cocktails and inarticulate whines of despair. The conversation is as unnatural as Marlowe and Shakespeare and as packed and tinned with speeches, every sentence glistening and silvery with a wit that denigrates itself in such lines as: “Love is the first lie, wisdom the last.”
When Barnes’ egg is cracked with a spoon, the insides leak out all velvety and chewy, like a liquefied silk glove. One can only take a bit at a time, storing in the refrigerator for later use. The taste lingers in the throat and stomach like a strong mustard. A man obsessed with nobility, a trans Irish black market doctor whose oration bedevils him like indigestion, a romantic buzzard of a woman who can only love those who are already taken, and two doomed women who circle around each other like dogs making their beds in the night. These are brought to the palette by the vinegar of Barnes’ tongue, and once tasted, the reader’s palette never quite returns to normal. Difficult as it begins, slow and encumbered with the weight of what is to come, it becomes enjoyable in the same way sour Flemish beer does – something that dances, tingles, and pricks, then sinks downwards into the cellar of the gut, where it ages like a cask of Amontillado. Nemo me lectito lacessit.
(7) The Dark Tower series, Stephen King. Read at 15-17. I grew up reading King. As soon as I was old enough to graduate from Goosebumps and regional folklore books for adolescents, I began amassing his paperbacks. The comfortable working and middle class world of Maine, with its roster of truck-driving characters plowing through the snow and listening to classic rock, became more familiar to me than any other setting. My first experience with Lovecraft came through King’s Lovecraftian novella, “Jerusalem’s Lot” (not the novel Salem’s Lot). At a time when I was emigrating to more and more so-called literary fiction, King ensured I tarried in the field of horror and the weird awhile longer, and in this way ensured that the literary-fiction I read was often of a fantastical, macabre bent. This was, I’m sure, one of the few instances where King helped to get someone into the likes of Paul Leppin and Gustav Meyrink.
All of the faults associated with King appear in this series. The tendency to bloat, the execrably bad sense of humor, the heroically obvious allusions, etc. But it is, in its way, some kind of triumph of the imagination and quite an accomplishment of epic fantasy. It is unique on several levels: its origin in a Robert Browning poem; its cross-genre melding of Spaghetti western cinema (not so much American western lit itself), the fantasy epic, and horror; its meta-fictional elements; its ability to be dark and gruesome without achieving the maligned ‘grimdark’ quality of pulpy fiction that buries its head in bloodied sand and moans tediously; and its Ouroboric structure, of which I will say no more here. In addition, its protagonist Roland Deschain is directly modeled off Clint Eastwood’s man with no name character, whom I loved ardently at the time.
Every text you read drips down into the imagination’s cistern. Some texts are more fecund than others, and others are just read at the right time. With The Dark Tower, I think both apply. Sections of it still bring a small thrill when I think of them, such as the episode of the monster in the crumbling house, the booby-trapped city of Lud, Roland killing an entire town of bewitched people, the more overtly Western episodes of young Roland and his gunslinger friends. As compared to a more slickly realized fantasy such as Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, King’s work is relatively impoverished on the level of prose and sheer invention. Yet opposed to Gene Wolfe’s cold churning of theme and archetype, King is superior in terms of feeling. His characters may be archetypes and some of them may be quite flat and others directly modeled off Clint Eastwood, but he nonetheless succeeds in inducing the reader into rooting for them and re-visiting, from time to the time, the world they lived in.
8) Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino. Read at 21. Like Burrough’s novel in this list, Calvino changed my notion of what a novel could be in terms of structure. Cities consists of a conversation between Kubla Khan and Marco Polo, wherein the explorer describes the many cities that encompass the Khanate and which Kubla will never visit, because they are so many and his empire so extensive. The two do not even speak the same language and appear to hold their listener/speaker roles for different but converging ends. In some ways, this mirrors the relation many readers will have with Cities’ writer.
Lacking narrative as such, the novel is more of an inscription than a progression, most explicitly in that the book’s section titles outline an oscillating sine wave. If nothing else, it is a beautiful meditation on what makes a city a city, and attempts to open up the possibilities in urban design and geography. The cities suggested by Calvino remind me of those modeled by speculative “paper-architects” Aleksandr Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. In one of their sketches, a city is built as a jagged upside-down U-shaped bridge across a body of water. Another is filled with haphazard wooden skyscrapers, and yet another teeters perilously on top of an inaccessible mountain, allowing no commerce with the outside world.
In addition, the book is endlessly quotable:
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
Is it surprising that I was completely stoned the entire time I read this book?
9) À Rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans. Read at 23. I first heard of Huysmans in a little essay written by Bruce Robinson included in an early Criterion edition of the film “Withnail and I.” Robinson said that his drunken thespian friend Vivien, the inspiration for the character of Withnail, recommended the novel to him. Robinson referred to it as “the funniest book I’ve ever read.” Seeing this praise from the writer of Withnail, I decided I had to read the novel. While I did not find it the funniest novel I’d ever read, it was a heady distillation of a lot of the elements of fin de siecle decadence I enjoyed: the theatricality, the thick, solid language brought to bear on sensual things, the seemingly anachronistic Catholic mysticism*, the splenetic hatred of philistine commercialism, the love of art and the grotesque. Certain aspects of the aesthete protagonist Jean des Esseintes came to influence later drafts and edits of a novelette I had written featuring a house whose historical contents are all fakes.
As to that protagonist himself, a more odious, self-absorbed, narcissistic upper-class prick has never been invented. He is everything the literary dandy would come to be: “dissipated,” (i.e. fucked half to death), venomously elitist, pickled in privilege, the benefactor of a comfortable inheritance, and yes, very misogynist. De Esseinte spends the entirety of the novel in the stately country home drawn up to match the contours of his ego, sipping and smacking at wines, examining his expensive Redon prints, impulse buying a litany of expensive knick-knacks, inadvertently killing-a-tortoise-by-jewelry, and generally luxuriating in the exceptional qualities of his own farts, cosseting them in the folds of his lamb-skin robes like a mother duck warming her young. He goes to the dentist to have a tooth pulled and his wrath is hilariously outrageous, the narrow caterwauling of an intellectually advanced baby. He attempts to write a symphony using different flavors of sweet liqueur. He installs a garden of rare and fatal plants. He lectures to himself on obscure medieval Christian theologians. At the end, he returns to the city. And that’s it! (Plotless works seem to be a theme in this batch.)
As a sample of Huysman’s prose, here he is describing Rodolphe Bresdin’s 1854 lithograph, “The Comedy of Death”:
Bresdin’s Comedy of Death was one, where in an impossible landscape, bristling with trees, coppices and thickets taking the shape of demons and phantoms, swarming with birds having rats’ heads and tails of vegetables, from a soil littered with human bones, vertebrae, ribs and skulls, spring willows, knotted and gnarled, surmounted by skeletons tossing their arms in unison and chanting a hymn of victory, while a Christ flies away to a sky dappled with little clouds; a hermit sits pondering, his head between his hands, in the recesses of a grotto; a beggar dies worn out with privations, exhausted with hunger, stretched on his back, his feet extended towards a stagnant pool.
* Is it even possible for the famous Barbey d’Aurevilly binary of choosing “between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the cross” to have any less significance or relation to the contemporary Western intelligentsia?
And frankly, I’m not doing a tenth book because I lost interest in this crap weeks ago. More (and more interesting) posts will be forthcoming, once I can find the cord to plug my brain back in.