March Books

[I continue my sabbatical from long-form criticism as I write my novel, Major Arcana, which I am now serializing in both text and audio format for paid subscribers on my Substack, Grand Hotel Abyss. (The novel’s Preface, not paywalled, is here; it provides everything from a plot summary to an explanation of the paywall logistics to a preemptive defense of the soon-to-be controversial fiction’s ideological character. Also on the same Substack, but for all subscribers, please find my free weekly newsletter on literature and culture. Please subscribe! For now, a brief catalogue of my last month’s reading—an incomplete catalogue, since I’ve spent all of March immersed in Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth and extraordinary 2666. I’m about 175 pages from the end. I will say more at the end of April if not before; I did write a bit about it, when I was around the halfway mark, here.]

The Books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and 1 Samuel
I continue my reading of the King James Bible, in Herbert Marks’s extraordinary Norton Critical Edition. As if half of Exodus, most of Numbers, and all of Leviticus weren’t enough, Deuteronomy lays down the law again—albeit, a slightly or significantly different version of the law, depending on your preferred exegete, and apparently (scholars of the matter don’t agree; I am no scholar of the matter) from the vantage of a different priestly constituency and an ideologically divergent stance. In short, Deuteronomy commends a formalized and centralized theocracy ethically concerned with Israel’s social well-being in general, this as against the more diffuse but also more legalistic and purity-obsessed cultus proclaimed in Leviticus. Despite Deuteronomy’s relative literary dullness for the secular common reader, its authors’ is the ideological perspective controlling the lively blood and thunder of the subsequent histories, which dramatize Joshua’s conquest of Canaan (“the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies”); the often grisly adventures of eponymous warlords (i.e., judges) like Deborah and Samson in the anarchic period when “there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes”; and the fateful institution of kingship in the bathetic tragicomedy of hapless Saul and the charismatic romance of do-no-wrong David in his glorious youth, from his slaying of Goliath to his Platonic amours with Jonathan (“David arose out of a place toward the south, and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times: and they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded”)—all of this like fire-flashing gold foil to cradle in its midst the roseate diamond that is the Book of Ruth, a little Jane Austen novel in four precision pages showing how with sufficient shrewdness and devotion (“for whither thou goest, I will go”) one may have it all: the money and the morals, glory and God, land and, above all, love.


Tatsuki Fujimoto, Goodbye, Eri, and Emily Carroll, Through the Woods
As an experiment I let the students in the two sections of my graphic novel class choose their own final texts. After several rounds of voting and a bit of my own intervention, they came up with these. (I’m not disparaging either class, neither of which ended up loving either book. Democracy rarely answers all contingencies. The runners-up were Bechdel’s Fun Home and Asano’s Goodnight Punpun, both of which would have been better.) Goodbye, Eri is a 2022 one-shot digital manga about love, art, and death, all in the context of our ability and moreover our desire to shoot digital footage of our whole lives from cradle to grave. As a formal experiment, it repays study; I paired it with a lecture on the controversy over whether or not there is an essential East/West divergence in narrative structure (I think mostly not). The puerile shōnen tone, though, is by definition not for me, despite its ability also to convey genuine poignance. To the class, I somewhat unkindly described the lavishly illustrated Through the Woods (2014)—which also began life as a webcomic—as “Angela Carter for tweens.” Its revisionist Gothic and fairy-tale evocations of bleeding femininity seem, not yet a decade later, to belong to a very different age, one when we were still no doubt too confident we knew what words like “male” and “female” meant. That’s an ideological question for another day. More to the moment: these are children’s books, though not really either advertised or, seemingly, even quite read as such. All that heady, breathy struggle to free comics from the stigma of jejune entertainment in the late 20th century, all those headlines: “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” Yet here we are: comics are for kids again, even comics of high shine and prestige, destined, by whatever accident, for the college syllabus. Did Dr. Manhattan swing his Mallarmé-hued dick for this?

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Images: William Blake, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (1795); Tatsuki Fujimoto, Goodbye, Eri (2022)



  1. Hi John. I’ll check out your Substack. I’m trying it out myself. Only one post up so far. How does it compare with WordPress for you? Did you migrate your email list from here to there? I haven’t decided whether to do so or not. I’ll also have to check out the Norton edition of King James. All the best, Deborah.

    • Thanks, Deborah! I like Substack much better than WordPress, which to my mind has become completely non-user-friendly with the conversion to “block editing.” Substack’s interface is, by contrast, very intuitive. They make it very easy to get paid too. Finally, there’s a sense of community and network on Substack that isn’t present here. I didn’t import my email list; I’m not judging anybody who did and I’m not saying people shouldn’t, but, personally, I don’t want to be responsible for anybody getting emails they didn’t explicitly ask for. Thanks again!

      • I didn’t upload the email list either for. the same reason. But getting subscribers is taking some time. Anyway, thanks for your input here.. All the best.

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