“[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

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Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

As 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,

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War vs. war

The Tournament of Books kicked off this week with a preliminary round featuring three books about the Iraq War. You’ve probably seen this list dozens of times by now so forgive me for noting once more, they are The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.

I have yet to read the first of these books, and at this point the likelihood of my doing so is pretty low, but before completely burning out on the subject mentally (because, of course, I’ve written hardly anything on it—primarily this discussion) I wanted to respond to the selection of Billy Lynn as the round’s winner (and, less specifically, as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction).

Billy Lynn seems to be a general favorite among the three books, and in many ways I can see why. Billy himself is a likeable protagonist. His fellow soldiers are fun, and their relationships genuine if not untroubled. These kids are real; they have been through the real shit; and they are going to keep it real at the positive madhouse that is a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.

US army officer and writer Nathan Bradley writes at the ToB that he “want[s] to know what the ‘road meat’ thought, what they felt and feared when, limbs still attached, eyes still bright, they were deployed to a country gone unhinged and blood-crazed. Neither Fobbit nor The Yellow Birds does so.” Billy Lynn certainly does, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not a bad place to start. But I’ve been left for a while wondering what exactly Fountain’s novel offers beyond this. The end of the novel, which is supposed to offer some kind of

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Kiwi Bigtree, immigrant

Ava Bigtree is the undeniable star of Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia!, and with good reason. She narrates at least half of the book, and her painful move toward acceptance of her mother’s death is clearly its centerpiece theme. But Swamplandia! is also a novel very much concerned with work. As a sort of veil of feminine mystery is lowered over Swamplandia! itself and Kiwi literally disappears from its realm, he seems to drop under the surface of the novel as well despite the fact that his story takes up the other half of its pages. And Kiwi is the biggest nexus between the novel and work.

Ava Bigtree’s older brother Kiwi never loved Swamplandia! and the cult of the Bigtrees the way she did; he wished they lived on the mainland so he could go to a real school and then college and have a good, white-collar job—not dress up as fake Native Americans to impress dopey tourists. And now that their mother has died, their grandfather has been sent to an assisted living facility, and their father has clearly abdicated all attempts at keeping a normal life going for the children, Kiwi emigrates.

On the mainland, he goes to work for The World of Darkness, the grotesque theme park that has ruined Swamplandia!’s business and attracts seemingly even more grotesque tourists. As an immigrant, he realizes that he doesn’t speak the language of his fellow employees, who quickly take to calling him “Margaret” because of his geeky social ineptitude. He is quick to find out that his SAT-word flashcards are not doing him any good in this environment, and he does his best to blend in, though he is constantly messing up. Just as Ava is back home re-learning how to live without their mother, Kiwi is doing

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McDonald and the Missouri bachelor

This will certainly be my most spoilerific Butcher’s Crossing post, so, fair warning.

I mentioned earlier in the week that Will Andrews had gone out to Butcher’s Crossing because a family friend was based there, working in the hide trade. This man, McDonald, is a trader and outfitter of buffalo-hunting trips. Most of the hunters in the town work for him, and he pays them for their skins before sending them back East, where they are in demand.

McDonald makes another connection to Melville, and to the book cited in the epigraph—The Confidence-Man. My best overview of that novel is here, but I am most interested in a particular character: the Missouri bachelor, Pitch.

Seen in one light, the Missouri bachelor could be Miller. Possibly modelled on James Feminore Cooper, he is a man of the West (or at least the Midwest). He is cool and calculating, and recognizes that the forces of nature are more often arrayed against man than not. But these are, I think, superficial resemblances, and it is at the end of Butcher’s Crossing that McDonald comes to channel him most.

The Missouri bachelor enters the scene of Melville’s riverboat of the damned after witnessing the confidence-man, here and herb-doctor, sell an old man one of his remedies. “Yarbs and natur will cure your incurable cough, you think,” he sneers to the old man.

“Think it will cure me?” coughed the miser in echo; [165] “why shouldn’t it? The medicine is nat’ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me.”

“Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?”

“Sure, you don’t think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?”

“Natur is good

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The monomania of Miller

Trevor’s podcast gave me one idea that truly—and somewhat shockingly—had not occurred to me before at all: the idea of Miller as Ahab. The signs are all there, and there is no question of Ahab’s same extreme monomania in Miller’s pursuit of the buffalo in the valley. But the parallels to Moby-Dick are rather extensive.

First, we can start with Andrews. He may not leave home with quite the level of ennui expressed by Ishmael in his opening chapters, but he certainly abandons what he sees as stagnation in favor of adventure and growth. The West is an excellent replacement for the sea, beautiful and terrible as they both are, subjecting man to the wonders and brutality of nature. The pacing of the novel is also similar. It takes a long time to reach the valley—nearly half the novel passes before they set up camp there. And this pacing is fast compared to the length of time Miller has spent obsessing about this particular herd, his “one that got away.”

And this time, he will not let it get away—not one scrap. The party initially intends to stay for just a few weeks, perhaps a month, and be back safe at Butcher’s Crossing before winter sets in. But even the best “stands” of his life are not enough for Miller. When the weather begins to turn, the buffalo sense it and try to make their way out of the valley, to their winter feeding grounds. Despite the dangers of staying longer, Miller cannot allow this, and enlists Andrews and Schneider to help him prevent it. The group spends a day turning back stampede after stampede when the unthinkable happens: it begins to snow.

This is everything short of complete disaster for Miller, Andrews, Schneider and Charley. The first snowflakes waste

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“[A]s the pain of his body increased, his mind seemed to detach itself from the pain, to rise above it, so that he could see himself and Miller more clearly than he had before.”

Will Andrews, the protagonist of Butcher’s Crossing, is a young man who heads West, leaving behind Harvard and everything else familiar to him to do so. He is one of the yarb-doctor’s “sick spirit[s],” sent “to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs.” Will the yarb-doctor make him an idiot?

He arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, a hide town in Kansas, looking for work—but not just any work. A family friend is ready to have him as a bookkeeper, but paperwork is just the sort of thing he has left the East to avoid. He wants nature; he wants to meet the hunters. Heedless of his friend’s warning, he does so, seeking out a man named Miller who is supposed to be the best of the bunch.

Miller easily convinces Andrews to fund and participate in, at best, a difficult trip. A decade earlier, Miller found in a high valley in Colorado and untouched herd of buffalo—one of the few remaining large herds, and still with luscious coats, which the plains buffalo now lack. It is a valley untouched by humans other than Miller, or at least it was ten years earlier, and Miller convinces Andrews, Miller’s companion Charley, and an experienced skinner, Schneider, to go along treasure-hunting. And thus begins Andrews strange experience of the West, and of work.

The work begins long before the party reaches the valley. Andrews discovers it is work simply to ride so long and so far—never has he spent more than a couple hours at a time before on horseback. He finds for the first time what it means to be bone-tired, and as they progress through Kansas to Colorado, what it means to be hungry, and viciously thirsty. The traveling alone is dangerous

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Why is Butcher’s Crossing not more widely read?

Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes has, along with his brother, begun a podcast on NYRB Classics with John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing. The first episode was particularly timely for me, as I planned on writing about the novel this week. I will be cribbing some topic ideas from their excellent discussion, including this first one.

But before I get around to answering that question, I must recommend in the strongest possible terms that you read one of Tom’s posts on the book from last year. These epigrams—and it’s not just because one is from Melville—I do believe they tell the whole story. I said it then, not having read it, and I say it again now, after the fact. Okay, maybe not the whole story, but rarely have I seen epigrams so wisely chosen. (And good on John Williams for reading The Confidence-Man.)

On to answer the question in this post’s title. Trevor and Brian posit a few reasons why Butcher’s Crossing is not so widely read, specifically in comparison to John Williams’s other NYRB-published novel, Stoner. Trevor suggested, as I did when I wrote about that book, that Stoner probably carries especial appeal for the lit blog crowd, concerned as it is with literature—with “the tower of literature,” as he well puts it. And I don’t think it is a mistake to pay more attention to Stoner, which I suspect is the “better” book, but it does give me pause that that is the reason.

The other answer has to do with Butcher’s Crossing itself. Trevor and Brian wonder whether it’s relatively neglected because it’s a Western, a genre in decline since the 1960s. I’m not sure that Butcher’s Crossing is a “Western” so much as “a novel of the West”—and please, don’t ask me to

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The second unnamed character in The Virginian

In The Virginian, you find out both a lot and almost nothing at all about the title character. You get numerous details about specific events, from trips into the backcountry to romantic rides with Miss Wood, and you don’t even find out the Virginian’s name, or much in particular about his life before he met the narrator, for example. And our knowledge of the narrator works the same way—from his telling, we find out a lot about him, but there are still many missing pieces to the puzzle.

At the beginning of the novel, he arrives from the East at Medicine Bow, Wyoming to go to Judge Henry’s ranch, which he is only just finding out is nearly 300 miles away. This is his first trip to the West, and after the Virginian picks him up and brings him to the ranch, the cowboy becomes his babysitter (at the judge’s request), taking him hunting and fishing and making sure he doesn’t break his neck or get bitten by a snake. The narrator is a tenderfoot, but a self-aware one, and he realizes quickly that he must appear very unimpressive to the Virginian—though he gamely continues to try to kindle a friendship with him.

After a while, the narrator returns East, but the story goes on. This is one of the open questions of the novel: how does the narrator know everything that he knows? He has direct knowledge of some events, but nowhere near all; sometimes it is explained how he found something out, but in other cases the source of the story remains a mystery. (Who is going out on all those dates the Virginian has with Miss Wood? Or does one of them tell the narrator about their courtship later? I can’t see either doing that.) In any

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“I reckon I am looking for you, seh.”

Yesterday I talked about how the Virginian (in case you are wondering by this point, he is never named otherwise) is more prototype than stereotype. I illustrated a bit what it is he typifies—and of course you can guess that it is The Western Ideal Man—but I didn’t directly address that ideal or the finer points of the Virginian’s character. Because, while stereotypical, or protostereotypical, Wister’s portrayal of the Virginian is not un-nuanced.

Who is the Virginian? At the beginning of the novel, the narrator describes for us:

a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures. His broad, soft hat was pushed back; a loose-knotted, dull-scarlet handkerchief sagged from his throat; and one casual thumb was hooked in the cartridge-belt that slanted across his hips. He had plainly come many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon, as the dust upon him showed. His boots were white with it. His overalls were gray with it. The weather-beaten bloom of his face shone through it duskily, as the ripe peaches look upon their trees in a dry season. But no dinginess of travel or shabbiness of attire could tarnish the splendor that radiated from his youth and strength.

No question of what he looks like; I can see him on the train platform now. And what he acts like? As the narrator observes him, he is giving a man he calls Uncle Hughey a hard time about going off to get married, chaffing him gently and giving the narrator a decent entertainment, all the while looking absolutely grave. But when Uncle Hughey leaves, this gravity is enough to make the narrator worry that he might be “invited to dance on the platfor mto the music of shots nicely aimed.” The narrator is, of course, at this point a complete tenderfoot, and

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