the skull’s worm eaten library pt. 2.

(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.

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the skull’s worm eaten library pt. 1.

Having seen several lists of “10 Books that Have Stayed with You,” including Greg Gbur’s and Richard Fox’s, I thought I’d compile my own list of resinously resonant books. Some of these are not conventional in the usual sense of books that you have read over and over again, but they all plastered themselves over my consciousness in one way or another.

(1.) Creepy Classics II. Read at 9-11 yrs old. I realize now how much my interest in horror fiction is based in nostalgia for when I read it when I was young, and the feeling I had when it was almost too intense for me, when I could not block out plot twists that were too horrible to let me sleep. This is at the root of the excitement I feel when I see a battered old paperback, a worn out, broken-apart, buttons flying out, pages like gray hair tousled in wind, soldier of lurid, brain gripping fiction. It is not entirely based in nostalgia, but that is a fundamental component – at least of my interest in early 20th century horror, with its names so redolent with mystery, thick and close with some kind of dark magic: A.M. Burrage, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.F. Benson. These beautiful names of course, remain beautiful only when the authorial creatures behind them are not investigated. The endless march of initials when casting one’s eye down the hallowed, penultimate page – the table of contents – bring their own rhythm, a steady, ominous and beautiful rhythm. They even sound like the rapping of feet on stairs just outside the room. R-H-Mal-den. A-C-Ben-son. And the antiquated first names, when given, have the glamor of burnished pottery and old coins, achieving their alien nature from disuse.

The contexts and signifiers of these names (the conservative and colonial Edwardian era, inheritance and class, spiritualism) were unknown to me. They were the names of beings who were no more alive than they were stuffed into graves or fermenting inside barrels or turning into wax or growing as lichen on red brick. They never went to the bank or had racist thoughts or ate cereal. It was a matter of sophistry whether they even had faces or hands, or if maybe they had written their stories electrically, with long ghostly horns of wire jutting from their wrists because they had lost their hands in beet-processing accidents as children. Were they ever children? Surely not.

In a way, I wished for them to exist only as text, as beings animated only by the opening of the page but also hidden behind it; summoners veiled in incense and smoke. Here were haunted leather funnels, valleys bare except for mounds of animal bone and ash, ectoplasms conjured by séance and pouring across the house. Once I read this collection, the beautiful names faded from the brilliancy of a lantern to a match-stick, but the stories stayed behind. One of the odder sensations I’ve had related to fiction was during my prodigal return to genre fiction when I realized that I’d read the author of the wonderfully fucked up “Caterpillars” over a full decade earlier!

A photo of the first edition of Dubliners, which interestingly contains advertisements for “The Hill of Dreams” and “The House of Souls” by Arthur Machen.

(2). Dubliners, James Joyce. Read at 19. Although I couldn’t reconstruct Dublin from Joyce’s fiction if I even bothered, a jumbled, lacerated, and dreamily and drearily voluptuous version of it exists in some side alley of my mind. Joyce’s Dublin is a place of bustling thoroughfares and squares smeared with equine and avian shit, political offices raining with lint, public houses smelling of  indigestion and dregs of bitter, sexual desires repressed and expressed furtively, a ghostly city with fiddling in the daytime and fogged over rivers at night. Sometimes, thinking back on this collection, I wished that Joyce had written a straight forward ghost tale set in Dublin – a young choir boy returning from vespers meets a figure on a bridge, that sort of thing. But I realize now that this whole collection is filled with ghosts. The people are ghosts, sticks and broom-ends covered with human clothes and given provisional mouths to speak with only in order to shrug off their existence. The young boys playing hooky in “An Encounter” more or less have a numinous experience with a moralizing and masturbating old man in a field. The specter of adult sexuality hangs over the encounter and acts as the typical numinous ‘other,’ the something beyond which they have just enough comprehension of to feel unsettled by, but not enough to perceive in any way more detailed than a hand darting behind a curtain. “The Dead” is a justified classic, although I would rank “A Painful Case” just as high, if not higher. Its ending is one of the most lonely and brutal I’ve ever read in fiction. Mr. Duffy, the pretentious and sad man who reads Nietzsche without understanding him, who is “outcast from life’s feast,” is (in my non-traditional interpretation) a gay man in the closet and an entirely doomed personality. A truly desolate tale.

(3). Cities of the Red Night, William S. Burroughs. Read at 17 yrs. This next book is a novel I never even finished, yet it has stuck to me with dogged persistence. Plots slowly form and, just when they’ve drawn your interest, cleave themselves in two and wander off into the distance. There is an anarchist pirate colony led by a figure, Captain James Mission, who may have been real or who may have been an invention of Daniel Defoe’s. This is a nonsensical novel of ritualistic anal sex, hanged men with tumefied erections, a mythos of gods including one whose face is a mass of squirming entrails, hard-boiled detective spoofs, and a virus that causes spontaneous, painful orgasms. One of my favorite SF authors, Thomas Disch, wrote a scathing review denouncing the book as little more than Burrough’s “curious id capering” mingled with a smattering of “sci-fi of the more brain damaged variety.” This is true to an extent, although dismissive and reductive in my opinion. At the time when I read it, I could hardly believe it was possible to get a book like this published. Burroughs’ id capers, yes, and the novel is filled with attractive, slim young men having sex all over each other, but it’s also filled with harrowing imagery, brilliant ideas which are never elaborated, and biting satire. I never finished the damn thing because its incompleteness and fragmentation irritated me, but it changed what I thought was possible or acceptable to write about – the same thing, I suppose, that Naked Lunch did for many others.

(4). Oxherding Tale, Charles Johnson. Read at 22. A picaresque novel about American slavery and Buddhism, partly based off the famous Ten Bulls pictures by Kakuan Shien (!). A fantastical neo-slave narrative wherein the hero, young Andrew Hawkins, is under the boot of a liberal, waffling slaver of a master. He is given a “John Stuart Mills education” (i.e. all the classics by age seven or so) by a hired tutor who is also a continental philosopher. This tutor is visited by Karl Marx in one chapter, who is drawn in broad and deft strokes as a jolly old man more interested in tippling beer and checking out servant girls than in discussing political economy. Hawkins expands beyond the intellectual confines of his small town and is sold to a widow in a neighboring city, thus beginning the first stages of his adventure (and it can rightly be called adventure, situated as it is in the Spanish picaresque tradition, and seasoned with bawdiness and ribaldry.) This being a neo-slave narrative, Hawkins eventually escapes and moves North, where he manages to pass due to his light skin. At this point, one of the great novel villains I’ve ever read, the slave-hunter Reb Bannon, hits the road to take Hawkins back. Their confrontation is a marvel of menacing fantasy. Bannon rivals another great novel villain – McCarthy’s Judge Holden – while maintaining a number of similarities with him, in that he is an impersonal force, as monstrous as Schopenhauer’s Will, and one also inclined to philosophize, though with less verbosity than Holden: “Ah approves everythin’. Ah approves nothin’.” It should be noted here, also, that Oxherding Tale was published in 1982 to Blood Meridian‘s 1985. One of the more delightful novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most skillfully written. That it is not better known, and does not even have a Wikipedia entry to its name, is truly one hell of a goddamned shame.

(5). The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien. Read at 22. I have never read another novel with quite the same atmosphere as this one, save for perhaps some of the Alice books by Lewis Caroll. It’s a pungent troll’s brew of dread and droll, where the non-sequiturs and marvelous understatements only reinforce the pervasive unease rising up from the page like steam. The narrator is never named. He may have killed somebody. He wanders in a landscape of corpulent policemen quasi-sexually obsessed with bicycles, ditches now and then filled with a corpse, and entirely inscrutable machinery. He is guided by the works of a crank scientist and philosopher, De Selby, who for instance, believes that night is nothing more than a phenomenon caused by the accretion of “black air.” O’Brien’s fake writer is more ridiculous than those of Borges, and is slotted messily but importantly into the novel’s structure, which as a long and senseless joke, only increases the precarity of the unnamed narrator caught inside its punchline. If I were to illustrate the novel’s structure, it would be (in an appropriate, unconventional manner; screw a graph) a ceiling slowly winding its way downward to crush the protagonist. A sampling of its humor:

The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.