Shining a different sort of light on The Luminaries

I have Real Things I want to write about. Serious things. Mostly involving the centenary of the Great War, and how my greatest intention for the year is to completely kick the ass of that never-actually-done project, not to mention re-reading Parade’s End. The first four chapters, by the way, are so good I’m almost afraid to keep going. I may end up in an infinite loop of reading Some Do Not and watching the first episode of the miniseries, over and over again, before I even get to the second volume. (what do you want, when they case the most beautiful man in the world to play the role of the best man in the world?)

But since I just can’t seem to struggle out of my alternating sense of awe and retreat into Dorothy Sayers mysteries in order to write something halfway worth reading, I thought I’d dip a toe into the water with something much easier: a hatchet job. Oooh, I’m rubbing my hands together already!

catton luminariesThe victim, this time around, is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries—that’s right, it’s last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, and the subject of my most recent Read This Then That column (hint: the Wilkie Collins is way better). As I read this doorstopper—and I read it voraciously, too, I should add, because it’s that kind of book—I found myself marking here, there, and everywhere, the kind of thing that makes me ask: “Was this copy edited? And, if so, who should lose their job?”

I’ll ignore completely the narrator’s propensity to tell rather than show as a matter of taste (and part and parcel of the faux-Victorian package). I’ll ignore the fact I’m skeptical of that faux-Victorian package to begin with, because problems only arise if it isn’t skillfully done (of course, this one isn’t). I’ll even ignore the strange and seeming hackery that turns the opening of the novel into a series of bizarre references to “profit,” “trade,” and other commerce-related points designed to pin at least one character as a crass “libertarian” (in a usage which was, at best, questionable in the alleged time period of 1866). There are so many bigger gaffes to fry.

“Welfare is the very proof of civilization!” cries a politician, also in 1866, clearly referring to things like “almshouses” and “convents,” places where a woman on her own could have gone in a time of need, rather than turn to whoring. This usage corresponds with the OED’s 4(a) sense of the word—not attested in the OED until 1918, some 52 years after Lauderback allegedly says it. To try to fit this usage into an earlier-attested sense of the word would require remarkable charity.

Later, the main character, Walter Moody, addresses the audience in the hotel smoking room: “‘Gentlemen,’ (though this collective address sat oddly, considering the mixed company in the room).” My research into the phrase “mixed company” has been less thorough, but all definitions I’ve found have referred to gatherings of men and women—not men-only gatherings that cross class or racial lines.

Here, again, I’m willing to be told otherwise, but it also appears a finer historical touch is missing from Lauderback and Balfour’s shooting party. Lauderback goes out “across the Kumara wetlands at a great pace, with a Sharps sporting rifle propped against his shoulder, and a satchel full of shot in his hand.” In 1866, a Sharps would have shot linen cartridges. According to my research, falling-block rifles (like the Sharps) that used manufactured cartridges might have used cartridges manufactured full of shot rather than a bullet, though I’m not sure these existed in 1866. Regardless—that is to say, even if they were shooting linen cartridges full of shot (which would produce a doughnut pattern in the air, probably not so hot for killing birds)—they wouldn’t also have had a bag of shot with them. I can only wonder about this.

In a different type of gaffe, Moody is on one page described as having “never taken a lover, and did not know a great deal about women, save for how to address them properly.” Just two pages later, he thinks that “[t]he truth was that he had never spoken two words together to a woman of Anna Wetherell’s profession or experience, and would hardly know how to address her—or upon what subject—should the chance arise.” And both lines spoken by the narrator! Well, perhaps Moody is simply a fool.

When “Saturn in Libra” rolls around, “Harald Nilssen has just brewed and steeped his four-o’clock pot of tea,” and while it may be a nitpick, I really wanted to find a sense in which “brewed and steeped” wasn’t redundant. And I failed.

In a flashback to a murder trial at Sydney, “Margaret Shepard flatly refused to corroborate with the prosecutor’s line of questioning.” Simple typo? More probable than a bizarrely incorrect preposition with a transitive verb (in an otherwise awkward construction, to boot). But did I mention this won the Man Booker Prize?

Ah, and finally time for the odious Mrs. Wells. Playing the widow, dressed in weeds, including a “black bodice [that] had been embroidered with vines and roses, stitched in a glossy thread, so the designs winked and flashed upon her breast; she wore another black rose upon a band of black that was fitted, as a cuff, around the plump whiteness of her forearm, and a third black rose in her hair, pinned into the hollow behind her ear.” But aren’t that second and third really the x+1 and x+2, where x=however many are on her black bodice, explicitly noted as plural?

If these issues sound petty, it’s because they largely are. I have bigger problems with The Luminaries, and I cannot say whether I will write about them. But these are small, discrete, tangible. Will further research or other readers explain why some of these are really okay? Perhaps, and if they do, I will not be upset. But Catton had challenged my assumptions of good faith on her part early in the novel, and this kind of sloppiness deserves to be mentioned, especially amid the widespread praise this book has received.

Update: Thanks to David Hebblethwaite for alerting me to at least one other error. The name of the Tasman Sea was used anachronistically.

An adventure of ice and fire

Now, one thing you may have noticed if you are such a glutton for boredom that you’ve still been checking my “currently reading” or “read in 2013″ lists is that I tackled the ginormous (truly) epic George R.R. Martin series A Song of Ice and Fire. I have a friend to blame or thank for this, in addition to my own enjoyment of HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation. I never really intended to go past the first volume, but spent several months ensconced in all five of the current books.

I don’t really know if I come across here as a genre snob; it’s certainly possible. Folks in the know know I do like my mysteries, though (not to mention my Wodehouse). But fantasy—high, low, epic, whatever you want to call it—has been a stranger since childhood, though Tolkien re-reads are known to continue from time to time. So before explaining what actually spurred me to continue through many thousands of pages of this stuff, I’ll complain about what I didn’t like, which I expect are largely generic conventions unfamiliar to me, and thus somewhat unforgiven by me.

As I noted in my BookRiot post comparing A Game of Thrones to Ivanhoe, the world of the books is actually not all that different from our own—at least not at the beginning. To be as spoiler-free as possible, I will simply say that the structure of the series seems to be one of renewing a once-magical place turned mundane into something of its former self—not unlike, come to think of it, The Lord of the Rings. Anyway, point being: at the outset, at least, nothing much is going on that would be terribly unfamiliar to fans of the medieval.

But since this is fantasy, it seems we need to differentiate, in ways I found…well, infuriating is too strong a word, but let’s say there were some family-unfriendly hand motions involved in my descriptions to the consumption partner. My “favorite” example is that knights, who are in all relevant respects identical to the knights we know from history and literature, are called “Ser” instead of “Sir,” as if the inaudible change in one letter…does anything but make me roll my eyes. Women get “moon blood,” and drink “moon tea” to make sure their moon blood comes again if they weren’t particularly careful that month. People are named Eddard instead of Edward, but they’re still called Ned for short. Martin insists on writing “amongst” instead of “among,” despite being American. I understand there’s an important element of ambiance here, but for me these things grated again and again despite my otherwise almost complete enjoyment of the novels.

Of course, I know there are equally silly and quasi-formulaic things done to differentiate the worlds of my mysteries and noir from the real world, even from accurate historical ones. My working assumption is that, for whatever reason, those genres are familiar and compelling to me in a way that makes me accept these trifles—in fact, they are at least to some extent what I like. But what appear to be the common trappings and patterns of fantasy, for whatever reason, grate rather than comfort. I can easily see it as an acquired taste. At the same time, though, I wonder if I would ever actually acquire it.

More later this week on stepping outside of my generic comfort zones with these books, and why it was most definitely worth doing. And that has nothing to do with “sers.”

Everything and nothing

Where has she been, what has she been doing? Perhaps there are people out there who wonder these things. For better or worse, their possible existence is not why I have ever really written this blog, so I am allowed to reappear without really caring whether anyone else does. But amid a fair amount of “nothing,” I have indeed been reading, and there are far too many things that have gone un-written this year. I need to catch up, lamely as will inevitably be the case with things read without a post always in the back of mind. I’ll use the holiday week for some light catch-up work before getting to “the good stuff,” and the holiday itself for the lightest of the light.

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. This is one of those books that make me want to warn people: it’s not really a novel. It’s fiction, it tells a story, but we must not forget the idea of “romances” and other pre-novelistic fictions when we pick up a book like Ivanhoe. Of course, in a sense it is very important as a novel: an early historical one. But it’s so historical that all the chivalry and quasi-mythical or -archetypal figures make it something a little different. Read it, read it by all means. It’s extremely engrossing.

Rebecca and Rowena, by W.M. Thackeray. Read this, absolutely, but only after Ivanhoe. Well, I suppose you could read it as a standalone, and it would still be biting and funny, but it really is better paired. For the record: Thackeray is totally right about Rebecca and Rowena.

Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa. Ogawa’s “eleven dark tales” are pure Ogawa and very good. If you know her from The Housekeeper and the Professor, read me on The Diving Pool for a better idea of what Revenge is like. Ogawa deserves more from me, truly.

The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith. It’s kind of a travesty I did not write about this for real-real, but it’s also the sort of thing that begs for re-reading. I have wronged you as well, Mr. Goldsmith.

Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata. I will say only that Kawabata has shot to the top of my list of Japanese writers I have not really read yet that I will be reading a lot more of.

Minotaur, by Benjamin Tammuz, was my first try of Europa Editions’ new world noir imprint, and a book I would actually write about if it hadn’t started making the rounds from me to my consumption partner to his father and likely now to parts beyond. Tammuz is Israeli and the novel is worth reading both as compelling, spy-oriented noir as well as for the very interesting (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am) mid-twentieth-century view of Israel’s coming into being.

“[B]eing productive in a low-level manner,” or, thoughts on Taipei

I’ve never had a very long list of living authors I liked well enough to reliably read their books on publication. Even Haruki Murakami, faithful as I was to him since high school, has fallen by the wayside, an unread copy of 1Q84 on my shelf. These days, it seems, Tao Lin is the only such writer left.

I never expected to like Lin’s work; when Shoplifting from American Apparel first came to my attention I assumed it was all annoying hipster gimmick that might be fun to make fun of. I believe I was wrong about that, but two novels later, the Lin-hate can seem almost reflexive.

Lydia Kiesling’s review of Taipei in The Millions, for example, makes clear her total revulsion at Lin’s writing right in the lede:

When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?

This was Kiesling’s first experience with Lin, and she did not like it. After a brief summary of some of the hipster-annoyingness in the novel, she gets down to business: she hates Lin’s style. Which is good for me, because it’s what I love.

I say this novelist hates words, because the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting words as possible. Tao Lin seems to aspire to a prose I can only describe as “affectless.” When an adjective is required, and sometimes when it is not, Lin often adds a “y” to a noun (see: “soil-y”). Some traditionally formed adjectives and adverbs are enclosed in quotation marks; I believe to communicate the overarching theme of the book, which is that the majority of Paul’s powers of observation are absorbed in the business, not of something so studied as introspection, but of prolonged self-gazing from an external vantage. His quotation mark tactic achieves this effect, but it also communicates an embarrassment about words and what they can represent or mean.

The idea of a novelist writing under “strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest” is hardly a bad one to me—or the members of Oulipo. Admittedly, not everyone appreciates formalism, but we realize it is a thing to appreciate, if you want to, and not a sign that you “hate words.” (It seems to me there’s a good chance formalists would argue they do what they do because they love words.)

Kiesling correctly identifies these strict parameters as affectlessness—something past readers of Lin will find familiar. But it’s far more than just the affectless words and phrases that Kiesling objects to: it’s the ideology that style represents, affectlessness itself. The review becomes a clash of ideologies. Kiesling believes that “really great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Her reaction to the bleakness of Taipei is to be made

to want to hug your lover, have a baby, go to work, call your mom. But maybe you’ll rethink that novel, that personal essay. In the cold ruthless scheme of things, that might not be such a bad thing. But it makes me look upon this novel as dangerous and threatening to life, like as the anti-choicer looks upon the abortionist.

It’s hard for me to imagine a surer sign of Lin’s success than the existence of a review like this. As Kiesling states, in summary, she is “aesthetically or philosophically opposed to” the novel, which means she should hate it if it’s done well. If it’s done poorly, she might not even know how thoroughly they disagreed, after all.

tao lin taipeiIn a way, I think, Kiesling’s review takes the novel more seriously than the more positive (though not exactly positive) piece in the LA Review of Books, “The Drugs Don’t Work: Tao Lin’s ‘Taipei’ and the Literature of Pharmacology.” Audrea Lim presents an engrossing history of the treatment of drugs in literature and popular culture, and where exactly Taipei fits into this (though she also notes that “[i]n fact, Taipei is only incidentally about drugs”). Lin’s novel neither condemns nor glorifies drug use; it is “conspicuously blasé” on this point. But this focus on whether the drugs “work,” on whether Paul (Taipei‘s narrator) and his friends are hedonists, presupposes that it would mean something for them to work. To call Paul’s lifestyle hedonism is to reduce hedonism to something just above oblomovshchina, Bartlebyism, anhedonia even. When Sam and his friends in Shoplifting from American Apparel Gchat to each other, “We are fucked,” they’re talking about everyone, about pure existential bleakness—and what Amateur Reader describes in Oblomov as “a protest against existence.”

This condition of Lin’s narrators makes life into an activity they are aware of doing—they don’t simply live. Deciding what to do with your life is no different from deciding what to do with your afternoon. Taipei‘s Paul

gradually began to view the months until September, when his second novel would be published and he would go on a two-month book tour, as an “interim period,” during which he would mostly be alone, “calmly organizing things”….Until then he would calmly focus on being productive in a low-level manner, finding to-do lists and unfinished projects in his Gmail account and further organizing, working on, or deleting them, for example.

Paul may be an artist, a real one, but the planning, the approach is that of one to dead-end nine-to-five drudgery.

That’s not to say Paul actually keeps such promises to himself. If you’re making plans for something that doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter if you break them. So when Paul does go to parties, or doesn’t work, or does or doesn’t do anything else he initially intended, it’s just the way things go. How glamorize or moralize about drug use in such a world?

As to whether the drugs “work,” Lim comes closest to what I see in Lin’s work when she describes Michel Foucault’s outlook on the matter. For him, drugs are

“technologies of the self” — techniques that individuals enact upon their bodies, minds, and behavior in order to transform themselves. Drugs can help us to adapt, to be more productive, and even to excel within our circumstances, to make our lives more bearable, and in some cases, to radically reconfigure our subjectivity, if not the world.

After a conversation with a man who “had sounded ‘really drunk’ on the phone but had sent witty, insightful, elaborate texts of mostly long, elegant sentences,” Paul describes the event to the man’s girlfriend. She explains simply that “Daniel was like that when on Klonopin.” Cause, effect, simple. Later in the novel, Paul is on another such technology—several, I’m sure—and as he freaks out, even inhabits the cause and effect at once: “‘I think I am where you were twenty minutes ago, so you need to console me,’ he said while thinking ‘that’s exactly what I would tell a projection to do if I were dead’”—simulataneously realizing he is freaking out on drugs and also thinking it further proof that he is dead. Earlier, the narrator made Paul’s thoughts on it all pretty explicit:

Paul tried, with Erin, who agreed with him, he felt, to convey (mostly by slowly saying variations of “no” and “I can’t think right now”) that there was no such thing as a “drug problem” or even “drugs”—unless anything anyone ever did or thought or felt was considered both a drug and a problem—in that each thought or feeling or object, seen or touched or absorbed or remembered, at whatever coordinate of space-time, would have a unique effect, which each person, at each moment of their life, could view as a problem, or not.

That last paragraph is radical. The average person believes that the hard drugs Paul does should be prohibited, and Paul thinks there is absolutely nothing materially different between such substances and every single thought or feeling that same average person has throughout the day. And as Lim points out, that’s not because Lin comes out on the hippie-dippy side, saying life is a beautiful bacchanal—that would be sympathetic, if countercultural. Taipei is, instead, “haunting,” just as Lim admits.

While Lim ends on a note more sympathetic to Lin’s style, calling Taipei “undoubtedly beautiful,” she believes the novel suffers a “failure of imagination”—basically, Kiesling’s ideological rejection in other terms. Calling it that, though, seems to be a failure of imagination itself, and a failure to see the style of the novel as more than superficial.

Last Friends by Jane Gardam

In the June issue of Open Letters Monthly, I review Last Friends, the third of Jane Gardam’s Filth novels.

Interlude: well of course Agatha Christie is political

José Rodrigues dos Santos asked in The Guardian whether Agatha Christie was political—as a novelist, presumably—a question I already had my own ideas about. My interest piqued, I waded into what turned out to be a curious column loaded with bizarre assumptions. Rodrigues dos Santos begins by mentioning three novels, including one by Christie, that he determines (with no explanation) “are not political.” Rodrigues dos Santos does, helpfully, define politics, as “an activity related to the management of societies,” but after mentioning a few more novels that are political, including 1984 and The Grapes of Wrath, he asks whether this second list should be considered superior to the first because they are political. What?

Apparently, “[t]hese are not easy questions, but they do point in different directions and help us clarify things a bit. A novel can be literary without an obvious political message. And the fact that the novel has a political message is not tantamount to a quality novel.” Did anyone ever think novels couldn’t be literary without an obvious political message, or that political novels are higher-quality? OVertly political novels run a very real risk of being didactic rather than artful. I felt like I had accidentally stumbled into a Socialist Realist time warp reading insights about how “[a] literary work can be political or not political, and yet be a literary work.”

Rodrigues dos Santos ends by saying that Christie is indeed a political novelist because the message of a work like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is “thou shalt not kill.” I won’t argue that this isn’t a political message, but it misses too much of Christie’s politics for me to let this pass unnoted. Christie was a political novelist in two ways.

The first is related, as Rodrigues dos Santos points out, to the murder investigations themselves. Both Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple not only investigate crimes but decide what to do about what they find out. They make decisions about what to keep secret, from whom, for how long, even in some cases letting the criminal “get away with it” (usually via suicide, however). Both detectives also have frequent religious references in their stories.

But there’s another bit of politics in Christie’s work. In The Hollow, a young cousin makes a fool of himself spouting socialist bromides to a salesgirl he takes for idle rich. In 4:50 from Paddington, the ridiculously charitable doctor who will only work for the still-new NHS is a particularly depraved murderer. In A Murder Is Announced, Christie makes another young Communist look foolish.

This second bit is funnier, though the first is more important—but it’s also much, much more than “thou shalt not kill.” Every reader of mysteries knows that detectives are ethical beings who make different choices about right and wrong, in both solving and disposing of the crimes they investigate.

The marvelous misadventures of the good soldier Švejk

svejkThe Good Soldier Švejk is a picaresque novel of The Great War. Its title character is a Czech everyman, slow-witted, cunning, or most likely some combination of both, who wends his way very slowly from a Vienna bar to the Eastern Front, taking turns as the batman for a few people slightly more important than himself, and in prison for various misdemeanors and misunderstandings (and often for some combination of both). In episode after episode, nothing can really touch Švejk, though he rarely ends up any better off, either.

I tend to have what seems like more tolerance than average for picaresques; I rarely care too much about plot anyway, and my favorite picaresques have an overarching structure to their episodes that gives them form without subjecting them to many of the conventions of a more traditional novel-length plot. Švejk may be missing such a structure because it is unfinished, but in fact the way the episodes bounce around chaotically also serves one of the novels most important themes: the absurdity of pretty much everything. The war, certainly; also the Austro-Hungarian Empire; also its army and perhaps all armies; certainly the law and bureaucracy.

And the episodes tend in themselves toward the abusrd—especially when Švejk does have his run-ins with the law. Almost inevitably, Švejk displays to the authorities “the godlike composure of an innocent child,” “radiat[ing]” “unconcern and innocence…from the whole of his being”—and putting them right off their game. As Cecil Parrott notes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition:

He is a complete match for any of the soldiers or N.C.O.s who are unlucky enogh to be his escorts. He is capable of reducing Lieutenant Dub to a state of speechlessness. At the same time he has a disarming way of attracting the admiration and approval of some stupid general or colonel. He has ‘a way with him’. Few people, not even stern judge advocates, can resist his good-natured but unflinching blue eyes.

He appeals to his superiors by unrelentingly agreeing with them, even about his own stupidity. And with episode after episode showing how absurdly the system works—and the Austrian bureaucratic military is certainly a “system”—it’s hard to imagine respecting such a system, the empire it supports, or anything at all about the war it’s fighting.

So what’s wrong with that picture? More on that tomorrow.

Cannon fodder: food for thought

Last week, Sam Sacks wrote in The New Yorker on criticizing the classics and how the canon is selected in today’s world. Contrasting the current, primarily American, state of the canon with that of the past, when the gatekeepers of the ivory tower and the salon determined not just which books were classics but the very definition of the concept, he argues that the classics are now determined by democratic and pragmatic tastes:

What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.

In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics. That’s why prose-toilers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are securely fixed in the canon while masters such as Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty could easily be left out. “1984” and “Brave New World” are embedded in the weave of language and history, but what does Welty have going for her apart from stylistic perfection? Henry Miller survives—and will continue to survive—because the country once found him shocking enough to censor. (Likewise, D. H. Lawrence might very well be a footnote if not for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”) There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.

I hardly consider myself a literary critic, so it’s hardly surprising I wouldn’t feel the same kind of “freedom” or “exhilarat[ion]” Sacks attributes to today’s critics, who can have at many of these classics, spitting into the Grand Canyon (to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates) because, as it turns out, much of the Grand Canyon isn’t all that grand.* Still, I spend, I think, a fair amount of time doing just that. Great truth and beauty, such as they are, are what move me, but my curious nature draws me as well to the works of “cultural significance,” the important in addition to the great—not to mention the so-called great (since that’s what so many of these “classics” turn out to be). And while I rarely take any joy in savaging such works, or even savage them at all, I find it interesting and even a little bit important to explore the good and the bad, whenever there is any of either to be found. And I may just turn out to be halfway decent at doing it, too.

Even before reading Sacks’s piece (which is, I should say, one of the few written about the idea of “classics” that didn’t make me roll my eyes a single time), I had planned on writing this week about one such work: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Admittedly, Švejk is hardly a part of the canon the way Orwell and Huxley are; I doubt many American high school English classes assign it. But it’s well-known enough to be the namesake of a popular house blend at my local coffee shop, where quotes from the novel sometimes appear on a blackboard, and has enough cult status to have been recommended to me by a “real-life human.”

Švejk is the story of a Czech soldier swept up by the currents of the First World War, fighting for an empire that systemically oppresses his own people. A note at the end of my Penguin Classics edition explains that it was “one of the most famous and widely-read novels published after the First World War,” and that Hašek died before he could complete it. It’s possible that some of my criticisms would have been mooted by a less abrupt ending, but we have what we have.

*This should not be taken as any slight on the actual Grand Canyon, which I have not yet seen, and my experience thus far of natural wonders suggests it really is that grand.

Bring on the drama

As others are haunted about not reading enough women,or enough YA, or enough world literature, I frequently torture myself over how little I read that is not prose (among many, many other things, of course). It’s bad enough the way I read fiction at the expense of nonfiction, the share of the universe of excellent essays and criticism I neglect, but the amount of space in my reading life accorded to poetry and, especially, drama, is pretty pathetic.

I’ve gotten somewhat better in the poetry side of things, and on the nonfiction side as well, though these are both things I find difficult to blog about so you often miss them here. It’s something I’d like to rectify. But to even things out in the drama department (and initially inspired, truth be told, by a Netflix marathon of Kenneth Branagh on recent weekend, along with other similar influences), I recently decided I would finally get around to reading all of Shakespeare’s plays (and finally Ocford Word’s Classics has editions that are actually attractive)–in my own sweet time, of course–as well as get into some Jacobean drama.

The most notable experience of reading the play was noticing how very many lines have become common references or clichés. It’s not just “mine eyes dazzle!”; I basically felt like I knew somewhere between a third and half the play. This is not to denigrate reading it in any way–quite the opposite. It was an enlightening experience, as well as entertaining.

The funny thing is, just as with poetry, and with short stories if I’ve stayed away from them a long time, I was also quickly noticing how much I enjoy reading in the form and wondering why I don’t do more of it. I’ll get to Shakespeare separately, as King Lear certainly deserves its own post, but if you’ve got any Jacobean suggestions I’m all ears.

Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

Alphabetical AfricaAs much as I always love New Directions, it’s rare for me to actually read three of their titles in a row, as happened quite by chance with Robinson, Alphabetical Africa, and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. Though I’d call B.S. Johnson’s novel the most avant-garde in the bunch, Abish is no stylistic slouch, and Alphabetical Africa is, say, the most Oulipian.

The formal conceit of the novel is that the first chapter contains only words beginning in ‘a’, the second only words beginning in ‘a’ or ‘b’, and so n, until the middle of the book, when all words are available, and then, chapter-by-chapter, begin disappearing from its lexicon in the reverse of the order they entered it (FILO, for the geeks out there).

Even for those willing to accept the premise that one can write a reasonable novel omitting the more common letter in the language (c.f., Georges Perec, La Disparition), this probably seems like it must inevitably seem nonnaturalistic and extremely formal. There’s no doubt that Alphabetical Africa isn’t a typical novel, but it is a novel—it distinctly tells a story, and fairly clearly—and the strategies Abish uses to fulfill his constraints are varied and successful. It opens thus:

Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement…anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Are ants Ameisen?

“Ameisen” is the German for “ants.” While far from natural speech, this is also impressively well put together considering the words all start with one letter, and that letter is one that prevents access to some of English’s most important (the, he, she, they, etc.). By the “G” chapter, even though we’re still missing all those, it sounds pretty normal:

Back at Angola, Alex and Allen are buying an expensive chart containing clear directions for finding certain gold amulets. Chart covers four acres. Contemplating chart both are attacked by African ants, forgetting gold amulets and Alva, both flee following African army’s flight also from a determined attack by fierce ants. Author despairs. Abandoned chart carried away by ants. Alex calls Allen: a fucking ant fleeing coward.

The language is still clipped, to deal with those pesky definite articles and personal pronouns, but again, impressively normal I think.

Beyond the formal experimentation, how much value is there in a novel like Alphabetical Africa? Well, as the narrator notes, “Africa is a favorite topic in literature, it gives license to so much excess…” And here, we could look on this entire exercise as excess: is it pure mental masturbation to write such a book? I personally take these works as experiments (as they are) in what language and literature can do. This one did something I thought was possible, but better than I thought possible. Did I mention there’s a real story here? It’s a thriller, by the way. A bizarre, avant-garde, obscene, sometimes ridiculous thriller. But probably more of a curio for me than anything else in the end.