February Books

[I’m currently on sabbatical from long-form criticism as a I write a novel. Please follow me on Substack for my weekly literature-and-culture newsletter and (soon) the novel in serial; please follow on Tumblr for occasional squibs, jottings, and polemics. For now, very brief book reviews just to keep track of my reading.]

The Books of Leviticus and Numbers
In these legalistic documents establishing the cultus of the Hebrews after their subjection in Egypt but before their conquest of Canaan, the historian, theologian, and anthropologist will no doubt find much of interest; the literary reader, though, mostly mourns the loss, except for a few verses in Numbers, of the poetic voice that dominated Genesis and Exodus.

Guillaume Apollinaire, The Heresiarch and Co.
Surreal or magically real modernist short stories about religion and magic—and often insightful about their inextricable interrelation, particularly orthodoxy and heresy, Catholicism and Judaism—good for admirers of Kafka, Borges, and Schulz.

Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star
At or near the height of Bolaño’s vogue, I’d read Amulet, By Night in Chile, and the first part of The Savage Detectives; but an anonymous reader prompted me on Tumblr to return to the author and read 2666. Before I do that, I thought I’d try another of his classic novellas. This one, about the commonality between avant-garde poet and fascist torturer, between the drives toward total work of art and totalitarian politics, doesn’t disappoint, with many a memorable set piece—the skywriting poet-torturer’s photographic confession of his misdeeds being the most extraordinary—in service of what I take to be the author’s aestheticized anarcho-Trotskyist politics of permanent revolution.

Anaïs Nin, Delta of Venus
In an essay on John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, I surmised as follows “as [William] Deresiewicz writes, ‘Updike stood between the old and new Victorianisms’—between, that is, the hegemony of Christian sexual morality and the hegemony of progressive sexual morality, when sex was briefly available for amoral examination.” In these crisply and beautifully narrated stories, written as pornography-for-hire by a literary collector, Nin writes in the same moment and gives voice, moreover, to female desire, whereas John Updike, as befits his somehow tumescent name, gave voice to male (though both authors write from male and female perspectives). But she fulfills this supposedly progressive mandate before progressive hegemony, even as she writes after Christian hegemony. This means that we find in these stories wholly unembarrassed portraits, in Nin’s precise and evocative prose, not only of female sexual satisfaction and homosexuality male and female and even intersex erotica, but also of pedophilia, bestiality, racial fetishism, and rape fantasies, reminding us that desire, like literature, makes no moral or political guarantees.

Grant Morrison, New X-Men
Revisiting some of Morrison’s work as a kind of moodboard activity for my novel-in-progress about an occultist comic-book writer (not based on Morrison). When these comics were first coming out, they felt like letters from the future—not only the panel of the sentinel-plane smashing into Magneto’s tower, published just before 9/11, but that too. And so it proved. The whole 2010s woke youth revolt and the moderate liberal critique thereof, the braided revolutions of technology and gender in this century, it’s all here in dizzying, urgent metaphor—ironically, considering Morrison’s recent quasi-capture by today’s young activists. Morrison’s dialogue as sentimental Futurist poetry is at its absolute height here. But Xorn should have stayed Xorn; and Quitely and Jimenez should have drawn the whole thing.

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