My Year in Books, 2018

springbooksLooking back, I see that I did a lot of rereading in 2018. Some of it was out of necessity (teaching), and some for pleasure. Some of it showed up in the reviews I post here, while some of it was devoted to books I’ve already written about in the last five years. I was glad to have an opportunity to write about some old favorites, like Hamlet:

Hamlet, the son who cannot fill his father’s armor, the poet and playwright who would rather compose a play than plot revenge, the inward emigrant who sniffs something rotten in the state, the maddened misogynist whose abuse compels his spurned lover to become a mad artist in her turn—it is Hamlet that and who taught the Romantics and the modernists, the Marxists and the feminists, everything they know. Unless we are satisfied that the social, political, and metaphysical world in which we find ourselves makes sense and can appease our desires, we are all the children of this prince who died before he could reproduce anything but his skepticism, disgust, and spoiled faith, which are his bequest to us.

I was also glad to revisit The Crying of Lot 49, Watchmen, and White Noise (all the action in that review is in the footnotes, an old academic trick), to update my sense of Ernest Hemingway and, especially, Gore Vidal.

In my most sustained act of re-reading, a project started in the summer of 2017, I re-immersed myself in the work of Grant Morrison, a comic-book writer I’ve been struggling with since my age was in the single digits, since I was puzzling over the grim psychosexual psychedelia of Arkham Asylum as the cheaply-bound hardcover came apart in my hands in the year 1989. Is he a genius trickster-author, a postmodern prophet, or just a charlatan with an ear for invigorating ad copy? The answer varies from project to project, I think, but the question gets at the true purpose of re-reading, which can feel like such a waste of time when there are so many unread books in the universe: we reread to measure the changes we’ve undergone.

The cliché is that a book changes each time you read it; but, honestly, the book doesn’t change (though it may fall apart). The drama of rereading is rather your encounter with your old self over the selfsame object. Cold pastoral!

I did read a number of books for the first time too, though. It’s hard to discern much of a theme in that haphazard quest for novelty. Much of my fiction reading was devoted to American writing: not only Pynchon, DeLillo, Hemingway, and Vidal, but also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, Jerzy Kosinski, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Jenny Offill, and Lisa Halliday. Even Margaret Atwood—a Canadian novelist, no doubt, but her Handmaid’s Tale, which I finally got around to reading, is in its way an American novel.

As for American nonfiction, I was bemused by or dissatisfied with everyone from Tom Wolfe to Richard Rorty to Maggie Nelson, but Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues came like a shower to our drought-dessicated culture:

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

Likewise, I praised the bold aesthetics of William Giraldi’s American Audacity and the bolder politics of Wesley Yang’s Souls of Yellow Folk, and I also found I still admire Susan Sontag enormously, less for any one text she wrote than for the shape of her mind and life:

I recently gave a lecture on the development of Sontag’s ideas, aesthetic and political, her advance and retreat, her many recantations. A student asked why we should read an author who never made up her mind and who never seemed to say anything usefully final. I suggested that we should read Sontag, or any powerful author really, not to find conclusions but to behold the mind in motion.

These critics bring me out of American literature to the world of criticism and culture at large. I essayed on an unlikely pair of world essayists: Samuel Johnson

Johnson prescribes work as an antidote to what we would call anxiety and depression, and he insists that it is necessary to achievement. He is also canny about how we delude ourselves with busywork without actually accomplishing anything (“no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours”), and about how we propose impossible tasks for ourselves as a form of self-sabotage, excusing our failures by making them inevitable.

—and Theodor Adorno

If the conservatives who rail against “cultural Marxism” were to rise to the challenge of reading Adorno’s mind-bending prose, they might find an ally rather than an adversary. Adorno judges socialist utopianism vulgar, merely a power trip that can only produce images of the good life out of experiences of the bad life, leading inexorably to totalitarianism; faithful to Proust, he finds sustenance in the past, in the old bourgeois world eliminated by leveling mass society and fascist politics, and even in the domestic realm from which images of peace and freedom come…

Speaking of Marxist critics, I explained what was wrong with Terry Eagleton, just as earlier in the year I took Adrienne Rich’s landmark collection of polemical poetry, Diving into the Wreck, as an opportunity to explain where and why I differ from the radicals promoted by academe and official activism:

While Rich was writing, more literal ideologues of her anti-civilizational persuasion dispensed with the myths in the customary fashion as they burned books and Buddhas and crushed the hands of pianists. Rich is not responsible for the crimes of Mao, anymore than, say, Eliot is responsible for those of Hitler, and the Cultural Revolution doesn’t answer for Vietnam—and I am certainly not denying that Rich writes about very real problems—but it does go to show that immolating the works of human culture is no solution to war, rape, and exploitation. Such destructiveness usually gives rise to war, rape, and exploitation themselves, albeit with other, perhaps more hypocritical, justifications.

Which doesn’t let liberalism off the hook, as I explain in my review of Frances Stonor Saunders’s amusing, frightening The Cultural Cold War, nor does it absolve the far right of their ideological depredations, for which see my summer post on QAnon and the literary imagination.

I offer an alternative to these reductive politics that insists instead on the irreducible complexity of great art, an inviolable density of thought and feeling upon which I suggest we model our selves and societies. This is why I wrote both “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” in January—

Bad politics and bad personal behavior may indeed be bad, but from the Inquisition to the Cultural Revolution, public efforts to purify political and moral behavior have often been just as bad if not worse. Another reason to read great books by bad people: as a reminder of what humanity is capable of and a caution against self-righteousness. We could all be bad people and not even know it.

—and “In Praise of Semicolons” in December—

The pseudo-democratic argument that complex thought and expression are fit only for the social-economic elite is bigotry disguised as enlightenment, like so much of what is today called “identity politics” on the left and “populism” on the right, both of which uphold marks of deprivation as signs of authenticity or superior perception, and both of which regard so many of humanity’s treasures and pleasures as the property only of “white males” or “the global elite,” as you like; whereas my credo is not Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” but Borges’s “the universe is our patrimony.”

Not to mention a comparison of Joyce to Woolf in June.

Speaking of irreducible complexity, then, I went head-to-head with a few monuments this year. Anyone who thinks there is anything like a settled “dead white male canon” that promotes some kind of conservative values should disabuse themselves by taking a look at Goethe’s Faust, especially Part Two:

Likewise, the poem’s vision of femininity is a complete one, more complete than any male archetype Goethe here presents. In fact, Faust itself is structured according to, or modeled upon, its female presences: it is as ethereally beautiful and aristocratic as Helen, as sentimentally soulful and bourgeois as Gretchen, as transcendental and mystical as the Mary to whom Gretchen prays; and ultimately as chthonic and formless as the Phorkyads, as incommensurable and incomprehensible as the Mothers in the very night of time.

The best novel I read this year was almost certainly Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Whatever controversies may exist over what Bellow became in his later years, this life-riot and word-riot of a bildungsroman will make you forget them:

Praising and thereby recommending heroism used to be a function of fiction. And not only in the superannuated genres of epic and romance. Certainly not only in the superhero saga, whether devised for throwaway pulp with fantastic enterprise by men of Bellow’s own background or else captured and rebroadcast as narcotizing spectacle by the multinational corporation. But rather in Bellow’s and Balzac’s own field of action, and that of Stendhal and Dickens and Tolstoy and Charlotte Brontë too: the grand old “realist” novel, not that it was ever as realistic as reputed, and never less realistic than in this book.

Let me also put in a word for another Jewish-American novel of the 1950s, one with aesthetic priorities at the opposite pole from Augie‘s: The Assistant, Bernard Malamud’s bleak, moving moral drama, a novel that deserves to be far more widely read than it is.

Speaking of moral and midcentury fiction, I finally read Iris Murdoch this year with The Bell. I was impressed and disturbed in equal measure by her theory and practice of fiction, but what a pleasure to encounter such a formidable philosophical intelligence among novelists, which is perhaps where a philosophical intelligence belongs. I suspect I will be struggling with her thought, even as I am entertained by her dazzling plots, for the rest of my reading life. Coming toward the present, I made the uneasy acquaintance of Gerald Murnane and, by contrast, easily delighted in Anna Burns’s Milkman, a contemporary novel so superb in every way that my cynical heart still can’t believe they gave it the Booker or that it made the American bestseller list.

I began with rereading, so I’ll conclude with some new discoveries. Aside from Burns, Murdoch, and Albert Murray, not to speak of Jens Peter Jacobsen or Anna Kavan, my best finds came in the field of world comics.

I didn’t have time to write about Joann Sfar and The Rabbi’s Cat, but if you think as I do that comics should be as intellectually weighty as prose fiction, as dense with disquisition and as wise with fable, then you might like it. Not for nothing did I discuss Sfar in the company of Malamud. Sfar’s fellow practitioners of the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, also delighted me with four volumes of their surreal and beautiful Les Cités obscures series. From Latin America comes José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s vicious but heartfelt classic Marxist noir, Alack Sinner, which I recommend in case you feel any stirrings toward the banal blandishments of “hopepunk.” I also read some manga classics. Moto Hagio’s pioneering boys’ love masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas, allowed me to address our current heated bafflement over sexual ethics, while Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk saga Akira gave me a chance to dilate upon the 1980s as our culture’s lost golden age, both in and out of comics.

Finally, I will put in a word for a new book by an author as old to me as is his occult nemesis Grant Morrison. A little over a week ago, I finished Alan Moore’s latest graphic novel, the Lovecraftian Providence, and while I have so many criticisms of it that I don’t know where to start (nobody picks up a comic book wanting to read that much prose! two scenes of gruesome sexual violence are at least one, maybe two, too many!), I also have not been able to shake its nightmare haze, its disquieting ambiguity over the very nature and purpose of art. Just what is it that we bring into being with these readerly and writerly imaginations of ours? I look forward already to rereading it in a decade or two, to see what I and its author used to think, who we once were.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

William Giraldi, American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring

American Audacity: In Defense of Literary DaringAmerican Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring by William Giraldi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though better known as the novelist who wrote the now-Netflixed Hold the Dark, William Giraldi has over the last decade been amassing a mighty corpus of literary criticism.

Two tendencies set Giraldi’s essays apart from those of his peers. First, he pays close attention to style, his own and others’, taking pains to point out the beauties and infelicities of the writers he reviews and to flaunt his own gift for alliteration, allusion, and irony. Second, Giraldi’s attitude toward literature could not be more unfashionable, since he insists on artistic quality, visionary capacity, and moral seriousness rather than obvious political relevance or pop pleasures.

He quotes the critical giants of yesteryear (Blackmur, Trilling, Tate, Hardwick) and values the canon for its strenuous example to the living writer. While he rejects any religious mission for the writer in an essay on “the problems of the Catholic novelist,” he does insist on the novel’s spiritual telos:

A novel should indeed be groping after some form of the metaphysical, a benediction to unseen powers, the upholding of the mysterium tremendum, those insistent inklings of the numinous.

A thick collection of Giraldi’s essays, then, is especially welcome this year, when it seems we will never be freed from the reduction of all literary and cultural commentary to “fascist, Nazi, Hannah Arendt, age of Trump” etc.: in short, all politics, all the time.

This compendious collection includes learned appreciations of canonical figures (Poe, Melville), reviews of or introductions to contemporary writers (Giraldi has a particular affinity for Southern authors: see his mammoth, novella-length profile of Allan Gurganus), tributes to precursor critics (Trilling, Bloom, Epstein, Ozick), and impassioned or tart comment on contemporary phenomena from the 2013 terror attack in Boston (Giraldi’s hometown) to the Fifty Shades of Grey craze.

It also contains what must be the most judicious assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird I’ve ever come across. Today, commentators treat this novel either with treacly piety or acid cynicism, but Giraldi persuasively argues for its fine, even superlative prose and its faults of ethical construction. It is an evocative reanimation of a Southern childhood told in the voice of a sharp, sardonic adult woman who remembers what it was like to be a girl (“Harper Lee has always deserved more applause for the smooth stride of her style”); but it is also fatally marred by its passive saint of a hero who delivers airy nostrums rather than possessing moral fiber:

He has all the right motions of the principled man but none of the fervor, the fed-up disgust required to assault the toxic tropisms of an entire segment of our society, those entrenched inequalities that cause the innocent to suffer.

As that final phrase indicates, we shouldn’t let Giraldi’s love of the canon or insistence on a literature irreducible to politics give us the wrong idea about his politics. That American Audacity‘s title echoes a famous Obama slogan is perhaps no accident: despite the occasional tilt in the direction of neoconservatism (as in an appreciation of  Joseph Epstein, originally published in The New Criterion), Giraldi’s belief in the separation of transcendent art from quotidian ideology disguises no right-wing agenda. Rather, Giraldi seems to see himself as belonging to a broad liberal tradition encompassing such obviously non-conservative figures as Hazlitt, Whitman, Wilde, Baldwin.

In a great essay on the latter, Giraldi emphasizes Baldwin as a severe (Giraldian) reviewer who didn’t hesitate to damn all manner of left-wing or gay or black fiction as ill-written or propagandistic. Giraldi quotes a thesis you might not hear from Baldwin’s most ardent admirers today: “all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.”

(Along these lines, the only two capital-P political statements I counted in these essays are impeccably left-of-center: one is a lament over the police killing of black citizens and the other a scorching call for gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre: “Your right to play with and profit from utensils of mass murder does not exceed our right to keep our kids alive.”)

Giraldi’s is a liberalism of the individual, backed by his belief that literature is the urgent expression not of an ideological cause or a group identity but a singular style of perceiving the world. He is not, for that reason, a pure aesthete, even though he maintains that “the right words matter.” “Right” here implies goodness as well as precision. In a judgment against Carl Van Vechten, the white impresario and bon vivant of the Harlem Renaissance, Giraldi writes:

Van Vechten’s true sin was not the crimes for which propriety would condemn him—from boozing to buggery, all that windy worship of Bacchus—but rather his blindness to the fact that beauty presupposes morality, that aestheticism is empty without ethics.

Hence the possible overkill in his denunciation of Fifty Shades of Grey, which he charges, along with other romance novels, of teaching “a scurvy lesson: enslavement to the passions is a ticket to happiness.”

These views also inform his contempt not only for popular fiction but also for contemporary academe, which I found to be about a generation out of date. While he writes with well-researched fairness about Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish in these pages, he also blames the English department’s anti-aesthetic sensibilities (and he’s perhaps more right than wrong about that, at least as far as published research goes) on “Derrida’s and de Man’s cynical rhetoric against meaning.”

But even a decade ago when I started graduate school, Derrida and de Man were as superannuated as Lionel Trilling or Irving Howe, and the only people who still quoted them were the eccentric aesthetes. Deconstruction, that last stand of Romanticism, which found the sublime in the abyssal unmeaning of the text, has been supplanted in this century by variants on a technocratic historicism of which perhaps the alleged rapist Franco Moretti, with his polemics not against meaning but against reading itself, might be taken as the figurehead. In other words, I don’t disagree with Giraldi’s literary values, only his choice of targets: he is fighting the last war.

Somewhat apologetically, Giraldi defends the distinct Americanness of his attitude toward literature and life in this book’s introduction: “America began in audacity. We’re a nation of escapees toiling toward our own authenticity.” But those who have followed Giraldi’s career as essayist may feel that the collection’s Americentricism leads to the exclusion of weighty Euro-themed pieces (on Tolstoy, Freud, Brecht) in favor of slight reviews devoted to more minor U.S. figures.

Speaking of the latter, I don’t see why Giraldi’s 2012 New York Times review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction—the essay that made his name, and made it notorious in some quarters—should have been left out of these pages. (See my review of Hold the Dark for a defense of Giraldi’s critical severity in that infamous instance.) Did Giraldi or his editors omit Ohlin to avoid controversy? If so, such a decision can’t be called audacious.

Like all enthusiasts of the canon (and I know this because I am one), Giraldi sometimes has a tendency to make of the past’s great works a single-voiced chorus shaming the present, even though he shows in other places that he knows better (as when he mocks “false golden-age nostalgia”). Yet the Victorian sages and the Victorian aesthetes were at odds, the New York Intellectuals and the New Critics were not the same—even if they tended to write better prose than we do. Likewise, I started at this parenthetical proposal:

(While Baldwin doesn’t mention Wilde anywhere in his work, you wish that he had: it’s hard to find two cutting minds more kindred than theirs.)

Wilde and Baldwin would have found one another insufferable! It’s the stuff of odd-couple comedy: imagine Baldwin pronouncing Wilde a frivolous fop, and Wilde judging Baldwin a dull sermonizer—and neither of them would even be wrong, exactly, only right according to each of their particular sensibilities. It may be in the nature of “cutting minds” not to be “kindred,” which poses a problem for the proposed marriage of art and morals.

Nevertheless, I don’t fault Giraldi for such statements, even though I may disagree with them. They are the products of wide reading, fierce intellection, and contagious enthusiasm. It’s one of the virtues of argumentative essay collections that there should be something stimulating, even or especially stimuli to thoughtful quarrels, on every page. American Audacity is a worthy candidate for the tradition it courts: that of the great public critics in English, from Johnson and Hazlitt to Bloom and Ozick.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

My Year in Books, 2017

But let’s start with movies. Ten years ago, the Scottish musician and critic Momus observed that one of the most acclaimed films of 2007, Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-Civil-War fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, was morally and politically simplistic and (or because) artistically complacent. He gave ten objections to the film; I will quote the first two:

1. The film bore all the hallmarks of COG screenwriting. COG screenwriting is the opposite of personal vision, the opposite of imagination. It’s screenwriting as taught by “experts” in screenwriting class, a kind of brutal, plot-advancing writing style based around a Centre of Goodness (COG) who wins the audience’s sympathy (usually by pure genetic superiority — ie a very good-looking actor is cast — but also by a series of sufferings overcome throughout the narrative). It takes no prisoners — and no risks. COG screenwriting is the filmic equivalent of modern managerial techniques. It’s brutally efficient — yes, it can and will make you laugh and make you cry — but the difference between a film made by a COG director like Guillermo del Toro and an artist like Jodorowsky or Arrabal is like the difference between a house designed by a Project Manager and one designed by an architect. I will not let del Toro pass for an artist. I’m sorry, critics. He is a cinematic Project Manager.

2. The film’s moral universe is one that was decided by the events of the 1930s — the once-and-for-all template, apparently, for all clear moral distinctions. There’s a Manichean division — hammered home to us by means of graphic depictions of brutal violence — between the good characters (Jews, resistants, children) and the bad ones (cartoon Spanish Nazis). Needless to say, in an age when the worst politics trades on exactly this sort of Manichean division, this is in itself a problem. The film teaches us to hate the baddies (its own violence-justifying “Axis of Evil”) and long for their deaths, “richly deserved”. In other words, the film brutalizes its audience (in a way that, for instance, the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki has resolutely refused to do, to his enormous credit) by making us long for certain human deaths. The film becomes, in its own way, totalitarian for this reason, although it doesn’t seem to realize it.

Momus’s decade-old critique comes back to me at the end of 2017 because I recently saw del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a film that is if anything cruder than Pan’s Labyrinth. Depicting a cartoonishly oppressive past—in one scene, a straight white diner worker berates a gay man and then literally leaps to his feet to eject some black customers while he’s at it—the film uses its fairy tale armature as an excuse to arrange easy moral and political binaries that at first seem in line with contemporary liberal thought. The villain is another straight white man, inexplicably and totally malign, and the heroes are all outsiders (female, disabled, queer, and/or black). But uncritical stereotype replicates like a virus irrespective of good intentions, and The Shape of Water has some of the direst clichés of race, gender, and sexuality I’ve seen in a supposedly artistic film, from the repressed whimsical mute white girl (Amélie by way of The Piano) to the sassy black girlfriend (I would allude to The Help, but del Toro makes The Help look like Quicksand).

A film I did like in 2017, one no less monster-ridden than del Toro’s, is Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. I smuggled an essay on it into what was nominally a review of César Aira’s extraordinary novel, Ema, the Captive, since I saw both narratives purposefully manipulating myths and stereotypes toward the end of befuddled sublimity rather than moral clarity:

I went to see Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant this weekend; I was surprised to discover that its villain, aside from various iterations of H. R. Giger’s monstrous xenophallus, was Oscar Wilde: or rather, David, self-named for Michelangelo’s sculpture, an android become an omni-cultured aesthete, cultivator of monstrous lifeforms for their own sakes, explicitly queer seducer. Condemning nature and himself artificial, spawning new life not through insemination but through the ideological organization of organic matter (including the forced insemination of others and the gender-disordering conversion of men into mothers, i.e., incubators for the aliens of the title), the film’s antagonist is a flagrant allusion to the Wilde archetype: the Platonic idealist as dandiacal aesthete, sexual antinomian, threat to public order, and, eventually, martyr.


Though Aira wrote [Ema, the Captive], according to its subscription, the year before the first Alien film’s release, this coincidence is not exactly an accident, as both the avant-garde novel and the pop-culture film franchise are playing variations on the same coupling of narrative genres: the imperial romance with the gothic romance. Both narratives show colonizing missions derailed by inhuman assault. The difference is that Aira’s audience is a minuscule fraction of Scott’s, so he is allowed his indifference to public life—allowed, that is, to openly side with the inhuman.

The piece on Alien/Aira is my favorite of my own essays of the year.

Why, anyway, is complexity important? Why should artists be allowed to “side with the inhuman”? Why not sit back and enjoy a rousing tale of good vs. evil? Momus, recall, was writing at the end of the Bush era, when an aggressive war that claimed millions of casualties was launched with the stated aim of fighting evil. That war’s devisers have by and large been rehabilitated in American public life, their worldview now seen as progressive, if slightly errant, and mainly on the right side of history. (On this topic, see Jackson Lears in the most recent London Review of Books.) 

While the most successful piece I wrote this year—it was quoted in the Washington Post; though, in a sign of the times, Facebook drove far, far more traffic—argued for aesthetic criticism as opposed to political criticism, aesthetic criticism itself bears a politics. It is a politics of circumspection and ambiguity, a suspicion of action, even a deferral of judgment. The politics of no-politics, the comrades used to call it, and no, it will never be popular; it doesn’t have to be, so long as it is at least able to inform popular or activist or pragmatic politics. This used to be the job of the arts and humanities: not job preparation or ideological indoctrination, but training in, for lack of a better word, irony. “Negative capability,” as the poet called it.

Though I didn’t plan it as an antidote to the social climate, I read a lot of lyric poetry this year: John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Virgil, Claudia Rankine. And two epic poems: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Derek Walcott’s Omeros.

Walcott, who died in 2017, exemplifies the difficult question of what to do with the beautiful art when the artist’s behavior was ugly. My thesis on that question will displease some, but I think it will prove durable as moralism falls short of answering every cultural question:

And why would we even attend to such art if not to recognize not only our ideals but also the corruptions of those ideals, in the probably—but not quite certainly—vain hope of transcending them to become a better person in a better world tomorrow? We like our poets scarred and wounded, but perhaps we should learn to appreciate them no less—strictly as poets, not as people (as people, they are and should be subject to ethical and juridical law)—when they are wounding and scarring, unless we think we are always and only the victims in our own stories and never the perpetrators. If we claim to be unmarred by the so-far endemic evils of human nature, why should anyone believe us? Your fave is problematic; you wouldn’t want it any other way.

In Dante, who lived so long ago and in such a different place that it hardly seems worthwhile to criticize his morality or politics (you might as well criticize him for not having had a smartphone), I found a politically and spiritually totalizing imagination complicated by the will to poetry:

God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.

I spent an appalling amount of the summer reading a prose epic (or mock-epic) that speaks uncannily to the paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that characterizes so much of the American imagination today, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: 

Pynchon emphasizes that we common people are also, in a sense, Them: “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains,” we read toward the novel’s conclusion; our own manias and psychoses, our own dreams and desires, draw us into the quest for power that puts us in Their hands.

Another perverse American classic I read and will remember was Melville’s beautifully bizarre Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, whose subtitle states my whole agenda:

Pierre is a domestic, sexual Moby-Dick; it shows that you do not need to be at sea to find yourself shipwrecked on your own reckless journey toward the reality you intuit behind reality.

Other great novels were read or re-read and will have to go unmentioned, though re-readings of The Scarlet Letter, My Ántonia, Quicksand, The Ghost Writer, and Paradise stood out. Speaking of novelists, I was pleased that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize and not even too displeased that Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker. For more, you could always see the review index.

If it is not too much of a sin to be pleased with oneself (Dante understands that he will spend time on Mount Purgatory for pride), I enjoyed writing an unofficial trilogy of essays this summer on Angela Nagle, Grant Morrison, and Boris Groys. By reading these three very different writers together, I began to understand more about the central dynamic of western art: rebellion against anything that seems official, established, middlebrow, and boring. Nagle, for all the controversy occasioned by her book, grasps this better than anyone, even if I question her belief, in this hour of reactionary rebellion, that old-fashioned Marxist politics offers much of any solution:

Readers of my essays on writers as various as Georges Bataille, Boris Groys, and Grant Morrison will know that I sympathize with [Nagle’s] downgrading of the avant-garde and the counterculture. Yet the revivified Marxism for which Nagle stands has never shown sufficient psychological awareness of the human necessity for revolt expressed by the ideology of transgression. In seeking to eliminate transgression as a cultural ideal in the name of collective peace and freedom, Marxism and related traditions (Nagle seems likewise drawn to a second-wave-style feminism) have often created the kind of repression that makes someone like Bataille look more convincing than perhaps he should.

How to express what Whitman praised as our “latent right of insurrection” without destroying the world, rebelling against life itself? For answers to that difficult question, I had to leave the realm of criticism: 2017 was the year I ventured upon independently publishing a literary novel, Portraits and Ashes. In that book, I entangle a cast of characters from murderous avant-garde artists to militantly normal suburbanites in a plot about art and apocalypse. A paragraph, to whet your appetite:

At first, she’d tried to write poetry, but she found soon enough that she lacked the strength to strip words of their merely descriptive function, to transform them into events in their own right rather than just labels for events. She wanted to make something happen, not chatter about something that had happened. When she reached high school, she turned to sculpture. Her art teachers recognized her talent and seriousness and allowed her to use what materials she wanted and to sculpt during study hall and lunch and the hour after school. A gallery of men and women, a veritable town full of people, emerged, moist as newborns, from her labor, before she fed them into the kiln’s fortifying fire: naturalistically detailed and geometrically abstract, nude and clothed, suffering, luxuriating, reclining, leaping, dancing, singing. She liked to work in wet clay, to feel the body she intuited taking shape beneath her hands. It made her feel as if she had chanced upon a person in the dark and were palpating him or her for vital information with her sensitive fingers. She won awards; she received a scholarship to the most prestigious art college in the state; she came in second for Most Likely to Succeed in the senior yearbook but won Most Unique.

If you wish in any way to support my work, I would urge you to buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes (or even just pledge to review it publicly in exchange for a free ebook). I hope 2018 contains more reading, more writing, more complexities, and more ambiguities. Happy New Year and thanks for your time!

Elizabeth Hardwick, Herman Melville

Herman MelvilleHerman Melville by Elizabeth Hardwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A review with, or in, digressions:

Elizabeth Hardwick, who died a decade ago at 91, is having a literary revival. Her collected essays are due later this year; articles abound, and will abound. Sentences are offered for our delectation. Sarah Nicole Prickett gives us this observation of Bloomsbury: “Certain peripheral names scratch the mind.” Having written a dissertation chapter on Virginia Woolf while persisting in total indifference even to Leonard and Vanessa, to say nothing of Lytton and Duncan and Dora and Thoby and Ottoline and Roger and Julian and all the rest, I know exactly what Hardwick means. Yet I find the phrase empty, adding a mere simulacrum of the sensuous—the mind, in distinction to the brain, lacks any skin to scratch—to the venerable abstract cliché (“vex the spirits”) it so theatrically revises. Brian Dillon gives us this, on Billie Holiday:

In her presence on these tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.

Perhaps one “of” too many, but I see how the sentence drifts off into polysyllabic abstractions as the singer dispels them with her disbelief, on waves of sound amid clouds of smoke. A stylist, no doubt. Dillon attempts a general characterization:

How exactly to describe Hardwick’s singular style? For sure, it is a kind of lyricism, a method that allows her as a critic to bring the reader close to her subject via the seductions first of sound and second of image and metaphor.

The lyric as a mode is the expression of sensibility and self, so a lyric style must be a personal one, hence the cultivation of any style at all (plenty of authors, insensible to lyric, do not cultivate style as such). But the essayist on literary and political matters wants to express more than just her self. Literary and political argument cannot be private: they aim at suasion, imagine interlocutors. This is why sentences, no matter how original or arresting, are not enough: why, as Aristotle said, the poet is a maker of plots before a maker of verses.

Prickett contrasts Hardwick on just these grounds to Kate Zambreno, who champions subjectivism and gender exclusivity (I confess I somewhat contemptuously ceased to read Zambreno’s Heroines somewhere around the place where she pronounced that Woolf and Stein, because they succeeded in their literary aims, were “men”):

Zambreno’s revisionism is separatist, making claims to equality specious. She believes that to take “the self out of our essays is a form of repression,” but I have to confess that while Chris Kraus’s epistolary I Love Dick matters hugely in a Moby-Dick world, I no longer care who loves dick. I care that Hardwick spent her life loving Melville and made her study of him, published in 2000, her excellent last work, careful by then to find the feminine in her hero as a better way of saying that there can be heroines—if we are given the time and the space, but also the covert, exacting generosity of higher standards.

Which brings me around to Hardwick’s little Melville study, an entry in the short-lived turn-of-the-millennium Penguin Lives series and yet not quite a biography. I read it for two reasons: because I’m both reading and teaching a great deal of Melville lately, and because I want to see the Hardwick revival for myself, whether as spirit-moved congregant or skeptical reporter.

I like the old Penguin Lives books. They are the right size for literary biography, in my view. I avoid door-stopper biographies of novelists and poets. Once I have been apprised of the basic Freudian and Marxian data about who any given writer slept with and how, and the way he or she made money and how much, the rest is intellectual history. Writers’ lives are in their reading and writing; what lives on writers’ bookshelves is more important for their work than what happens in bedroom and bank account. Hardwick knows this. Of Melville and the frustrations of biography, she writes:

And then, it is unsettling to have Ishamel in Pittsfield coming down to dinner at night when the talk will be of money. More dislocating to find him retiring to the bedchamber to produce, after Malcolm and Stanwix, his daughters, Elizabeth and Frances. The assembled family cannot have had any idea of this reluctant head of the household. Nor can the graduate students with their theses, the annotators, the eyes searching passages marked in his books, the critics, the biographers in long, long efforts and short ones. It must be said about Melville that he earned the mystery of hi inner life.

But let us give the Kate Zambrenos of the world their due. Identity—or in the slightly more useful academo-pomo formulation, “subject position”—matters, at least until you insist that it does not. Censuring ressentiment and separatism in others, I feel it in myself, like Dostoevsky dismissing the writing of Tolstoy and Turgenev as “landlord literature” or even Junot Díaz, in the now-obligatory racialist idiom, declaiming that “that shit was too white.”

All of the above to say that I approach Hardwick, at this stage of my reading life, with a bit, just a hint really, the proverbial soupçon, whatever that means, of suspicion— with apprehensions of fatigue. These days, for me, somehow, the New York Intellectuals, The New York Review of Each Other’s Books, have lost their luster. If I don’t care about Bloomsbury, why should I care about this even less generally relevant coterie? Their organs have been disintermediated, their politics obsolesced, in the thresher of the twenty-first century. The problem with ressentiment and separatism, though, is that you miss too much of relevance to yourself, because you have artificially constricted your own soul too far in advance of experience. Lady Ottoline Morrell, Barbara Epstein—sure, if you’re not in the club, who cares? But you would not want to miss a Virginia Woolf, not even in the twenty-first century: so to Hardwick’s Melville I go.

Anyway, Hardwick was no more indigenous to that world than I am, and (I do not say “so,” my overture to the identitarians two paragraphs above notwithstanding) she is good on the Marx and the Freud of Melville. Melville’s family was the American equivalent of decaying aristocracy: they had the names (both Melville and Gansevoort, burnished at the Revolution), but periodically found themselves without the money: “In life it is common,” notes Hardwick with irresistibly worldly mordancy, “to find persons in truth absolutely broke, and yet there they are the next day buying the newspapers; and so it went with the Melvilles and their hanging on, bleeding.”

On the Freud of it all, she admits her interest in and focus on “gay Melville” in her afterword:

I admit I have found it of interest and have marked the notes in the various places they are heard. What it means we cannot know. The fair young men have their dreamlike quality that fades at the break of day. And there we leave them.

The academics scorn the belletrists because of this “cannot know.” I have my academic side. Hardwick, whose bibliography is midcentury-focused and ends with James Wood, can perhaps be excused from the labor (she was then in her ninth decade) of parsing the prose of the late Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick, but all the same, I am broadly persuaded that Sedgwick is right when (if I understand her rightly) she assigns to Melville, as to Wilde, the historical task of re-orienting sentimentality for the later nineteenth century around the figure of the beautiful boy rather than the sweet girl—from Little Eva to Billy Budd.

Hardwick is better on Melville’s marriage. Her descriptions of Lizzie Shaw, braiding severity and sympathy, are superb:

In The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy would write of marriage as “two convicts serving a life sentence of hard labor welded to the same chain,” which led the Countess to threaten to jump into the pond. As Elizabeth Shaw labored on a weary evening to bring the skewered, cramped handwriting to legibility, she could read of “the disenchanting glasses of matrimonial days and nights.” Well, pass on in the manner of a court stenographer clicking away about heads severed with a hatchet.

Eventually—at a mention of Robert Gould Shaw (as perhaps related to Mrs. Melville) that concludes a chapter—I recalled that Hardwick was married, largely unhappily (if I am not mistaken), to the author of “For the Union Dead,” (not to speak of “‘To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage'”) a tormented genius not entirely unlike Melville, and that Hardwick, like Mrs. Melville, went by “Lizzie.” (Making a trio with Lowell and Melville, I am also married to a Lizzy—note the y—but will try not to dwell on the implications.) With Sarah Nicole Prickett above, I admire the feminism that sees the heroine in Melville rather than the feminism that would, to no great purpose at this late date, censure him.

This book is less a biography, Hardwick admits, than a “reading of the work,” and the reading is impressionistic and appreciative rather than interpretative. This makes for some spells of summary or redescription that seem dithery and perfunctory. Yet those sentences stand out. A useful generalization—

Throughout Melville’s writing there is a liberality of mind, a freedom from vulgar superstition, occasions again and again for an oratorical insertion of enlightened opinion.

—or this more specific rendering of Billy Budd, just for example—

Garden of Eden before the Fall, sunlit, happy-go-lucky, blissful ignorance; there lies the brute human temptation to bewilder confidence, to test, like Claggart, the defensive powers of the beguiling, androgynous athlete.

She is beautifully withering on Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, even though I think I love it, while she seems not even to like it:

The windswept Wuthering Heights had been published in 1847, five years previous to Pierre, and it could be wished, if Melville were drawn to exorcising demons, that he had read Emily Brontë; he had not.

And Hardwick renders the greatest service a critic can render: adding a book to one’s reading list. I probably never would have even gotten around to the autobiographical Redburn, but she makes it sound irresistible, essential.

What did I ever want from New York intellectuals before ressentiment overtook me? What do I want now that I know the literati is not necessarily any more reliable than they were when they, alongside dollars, damned Melville—damned him for a lunatic or a heretic? John Leonard, reviewing his New York Review of Books colleague in where else but The New York Review of Books, praised her thusly, while she lived, almost two decades before she got her posthumous revival:

So superior are these sentences to the churlishness that passes for criticism elsewhere in our culture—the exorcism, the vampire bite, the vanity production, the body-snatching and the sperm-sucking by pomo aliens—so generous and wise, that they seem to belong to an entirely different realm of discourse, where the liberal arts meet something like transubstantiation. […] She sends up kites; she catches lightning.

When I was a teenager, I would set an alarm on Sunday mornings so I could wake up to watch Leonard deliver his own enthusiastic sentences, all incantatory litanies of incongruities, on some network show, reviewing books, reviewing TV (before the golden age!). It was also before the ubiquity of the Internet; such things as learned men and women on TV were needed; he sent me to Rushdie, to Morrison, to DeLillo. What was it I wanted? Not so much the lightning, not from the urbane belletrists. For the lightning, you need the isolatos, the crazies, the Melvilles, the ones who will not be in the club.

After his few years at sea in his twenties, Melville lived among decent, well-bred men and women, all the while knowing much of life they could not have known.

And what, we men of resentment, is so great about not being in the club as such? Whence this desire to kill all normies, to take it upon ourselves to judge the landlords’ literature (as if Tolstoy were not a genius) and pronounce that shit too white (as if the sentence would not read just the same if one substituted “Jewish” for “white”)? The worldly-wise, even the worldly-wife, knows that once or twice one must blame the self-anointed victim:

His intelligence and remarkable talent for self-education would have opened any door for him if he had wanted doors to open, as perhaps he did not.

I did not just want “oratorical insertions of enlightened opinion” from the New Yorkers either—though Leonard was a past master at that—but something, as well, a bit more jaded, rumpled, a sign, in a word, of experience. No, to the New Yorkers one goes for higher gossip, gossip in the best sense, Jamesian or Proustian or Saint-Simonian (whoever Saint-Simon was; I scarcely know), the efflorescence of the inner life as it bends toward the light of the outer without any Melvillean need for transcendence or ultimacy. The very rhythm in the cultivated sentences of secularity itself:

Critics, noting the lonely study of the philosophical questions of the mid-nineteenth century, are too quick to rob [Melville] of a melancholy atheism, the moral intransigence of one acquainted with those damned by life.

Whatever form literary culture will take after the disintegration of the culture the NYRB addressed or thought it did, this “moral intransigence” praised by and found in Hardwick is well worth reviving, however one judges this sentence or that.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen RossGlengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Look. Look. Are you LISTENing to me? I’m not some Brooklyn beggar, okay? I’m not some fucking Oberlin grad with a hunnerd fucking grand in fucking debt and rent a coupla grand a month. I’m not some fucking slave in the clickbait content factory, that’s the God’s truth, okay? You think I read this fucking play because it’s in the fucking news? No. No. NO! I didn’t go to fucking Sarah Lawrence and I don’t write for fucking Vice, you got it? My reading isn’t dictated by the fucking news…I don’t have to mention fucking Trump in every review for them sweet resistance clicks, okay? Okay? I had personal reasons…don’t ask…you don’t want to know…trust me.

So how is it, you’re wondering? There’s craft here, that’s for damn sure. Guy could craft a fucking play. They could do it in those days, man…not like now. Three short scenes for set-up, then a tour-de-fucking-force, FORCE, I’m fucking telling you, when it all comes together in Act Two. Goes off like fucking fireworks…take that to the fucking bank…everybody coming and going and getting what’s coming to them.

What’s it all about? Real estate guys, if you can believe it. Older guys at the end of their fucking rope, upstaged by the younger guys and the newer way of doing things…getting so desperate they start to think about fucking larceny, man. Themes? Look, listen, pay some fucking attention for once in your life…if you think this play is a put-down on capitalism you really got another thing coming to you. It’s nostalgia, okay…Death of a Salesman shit. Once upon a time you had to go out there and talk to people and know how the world worked to sell some fucking real estate. You were a warrior…you were a knight. And now it’s all smooth talking business guys…enough to make you sick.

Roma: “Always be closing…”

Levene: That’s what I’m saying. The old ways. The old ways…convert the motherfucker…sell him…sell him…make him sign the check.

Ellipses in fucking original, you know?

Anyway…subtext? Subtext? Something ethnic, I think. Touchy fucking subject, I know. But look at the last names, okay? Who’s the fucking boss, fucking up our heroes’ lives? Williamson. WASP name, you got it? And our heroes: fucking Levene, fucking Roma. Might as well get Scaramucci in here, if you know what I mean. Italians, Jews. Immigrants’ kids, strivers. The by-their-fucking-bootstraps crew. That whole scrappy generation. Getting wiped out of the business. Out of business. Gentrified, they call it these days. GENTRIFIED. Enough subtext for you?

Finally, how’s the style? It’s a fucking style. Way the fuck too much of one, probably. Easy to parody. PARODY, okay? It’s a cheap fucking shot, I know. Below the belt. Kick in the balls. Easiest trick in the book. But still. Still. It’s like fashion…you get this much style, you’ll get imitators. Sincerest form of fucking flattery. Anybody can use the italics. All CAPS. And the ellipses…don’t get me started on the ellipses…and then put in the fucking F-word every other fucking word. But there’s style and there’s style. Mamet can do things with it. Fucking lyrical, I’d call it. Listen. Just listen:

Roma: And what is it that we’re afraid of? Loss. What else? (Pause.) The bank closes. We get sick, my wife died on a plane, the stock market collapsed…the house burnt down…what of these happen…? None of ’em. We worry anyway. What does this mean? I’m not secure. How can I be secure? (Pause.) Through amassing wealth beyond all measure? No. And what’s beyond all measure? That’s a sickness. That’s a trap. There is no measure. Only greed. How can we act? The right way, we would say, to deal with this: “There is a one-in-a-million chance that so and so will happen…Fuck it, it won’t happen to me…” No. We know that’s not the right way I think. (Pause.) We say the correct way to deal with this is “There is a one-in-so-and-so chance this will happen…God protect me. I am powerless, let it not happen to me…” But no to that. I say. There’s something else. What is it? “If it happens, AS IT MAY for that is not within our powers, I will deal with it, just as I do today with what draws my concern today.” I say this is how we must act. I do those things which seem correct to me today. I trust myself. And if security concerns me, I do that which today I think will make me secure. And every day I do that, when that day arrives that I need a reserve, (a) odds are that I have it, and (b) the true reserve that I have is the strength that I have of acting each day without fear. (Pause.) According to the dictates of my mind. (Pause.) Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate. Now: what are they? (Pause.) An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To “indulge” and to “learn” about ourselves? Perhaps. So fucking what? What isn’t? They’re an opportunity. That’s all. They’re an event. A guy comes up to you, you make a call, you send in a brochure, it doesn’t matter, “There’re these properties I’d like for you to see.” What does it mean? What you want it to mean.

You call it a crook selling real estate…I call it American fucking literature. We could be standing at Walden Pond with this shit…”according to the dictates of my mind.” I’m talking about self-reliance, okay? Okay. You call it cheating, I call it art. I don’t know about you, but I am SOLD.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Gilead (Gilead, #1)Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), to be literally stunning. That is, every time I picked it up to read a few pages I would become dazed with boredom or would even fall asleep, knocked out by the novel’s descriptive vagueness and tonal self-effacement. This is a beloved book, a contemporary classic, as we are told, so I’m sure this reaction marks me out as a bad person—but if you’ve been reading these reviews for any length of time you already knew that about me. Anyway, this novel is not against bad people per se; it even quietly argues that, in unheroic times, bad people might be the only people with spirit enough to be heroes. This is an insight pursued in major Christian fiction from Stowe and Dostoevsky to O’Connor and Coetzee, but Robinson’s choice to narrate this tale of sinning one’s way to Jesus in the voice of a quietly good, heroically unheroic man mutes the paradox and weakens the irony.

Gilead is set in 1956 in the eponymous Iowa town (Robinson’s invention) founded by Christian abolitionists before the Civil War. Its narrator is the Congregationalist minister John Ames, an old man nearing death. Ames has found romance and marriage with a young woman late in life and Gilead takes the form of a letter for his son to read when he comes of age. Given this structure, Gilead is a very expository and seemingly even aleatory novel, its narrator following chains of association as he writes every day to an imagined interlocutor—his son as he will be as an adult. Ames details his daily life, reminisces about his past, tells stories about his family and friends, and vouchsafes his thoughts on theology.

Gradually, though, the novel reveals itself to be less Ames’s story than the story of two other, more active characters: his long-deceased grandfather, a fiery and fanatical prophet-like old preacher who helped to found the town and who was the comrade of John Brown, and Ames’s namesake and godson John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the prodigal son of the old man’s best friend who has returned to Gilead from a long and mysterious period of wandering. While Robinson certainly invites readers to admire Ames’s humility, his diffidence, his reticence, his devotion to the commonplace, his readiness to praise others, his gratitude for his good fortune in having found the love of a good woman in the twilight of his life, his humane religiosity, the novel remains an elegy to the vanished heroism of his grandfather’s generation, who fought to free the slaves, and a paean to the rising generation represented by Jack, who risks all, we learn at the novel’s climax, for interracial love.

Like Robinson’s nonfiction, such as the drubbingly tendentious and self-righteous essays collected in The Death of Adam, Gilead presents us with a moral history of the United States whose collective protagonist is the Puritan diaspora of Calvin’s Geneva and Winthrop’s Boston, those Christian radicals who founded the Midwest as a bulwark against slavery and built modern liberalism from Calvinist doctrines of individual perfectionism and mutual aid.[1] It is almost too easy to complain about how much is left out of this story—Catholics and Jews, as William Deresiewicz points out; or the agency and independent political thought of black people, who figure in Robinson’s historiography largely as index and object of Calvinist morality; or even the inner complexities of Puritanism and its legacy themselves, Jonathan Edwards’s assurance to his fainting congregation that God hates them or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s need to abandon the pulpit. For the purposes of literary criticism, though, Robinson should be granted her historical and political donnée. The problem with Gilead is not necessarily its message, which seemed so timely in 2004, but its message’s vehicle: prose too devoted to the Protestant plain style, to my mind, to bring a fictional world alive.

It is not that the novel simply argues a thesis; it is as irony-rich as any serious fiction needs to be. For one thing, Ames is clear enough that the moral fanaticism of his grandfather came at the cost of any practicable or peaceable social life, and also that the white abolitionists’ quest had an element of quixotism in it—a comic episode in the novel, wherein one of the abolitionists’ underground railroad tunnels collapses under a horse, leading the only black man in Gilead to flee for fear of his would-be saviors’ incompetence, makes the latter point. Ames’s father speaks up for pacifism, and Ames himself laments that, since the Great War, “we have had war continuously,” thus calling into question his grandfather’s belligerence even in a good cause.[2]

Similarly, we are led for much of the novel to see Jack Boughton as a menacing, Stavrogin-like figure, a charming atheist and predator: his youthful mischief is described with hints of sociopathy and, after Ames reveals that Jack fathered a child on a very young and impoverished woman whom he later abandoned, we begin to worry with Ames about what is portended by Jack’s attention to Ames’s young wife and son.

In short, it is precisely because Ames’s grandfather and his godson were and are so ill-adjusted to the ordinary—unlike the supremely quotidian Ames himself—that they were and are able to advance, however problematically, the causes of justice and faith. Abraham and Isaac are alluded to, just so we know what story is being avoided, what Kierkegaardian existentialism and extremity are being evaded. There is no sense here, as there is in The Idiot or Wise Blood or The Schooldays of Jesus, that faith might be inhuman, desolating, shattering.

I even dallied with the idea that Gilead should be understood as a Nabokov-like or Ishiguro-like novel of morally unreliable narration, a Browningesque dramatic monologue whose speaker stands inadvertently self-condemned: Ames the impotent, too well-behaved to be good and so obscurely evil, contemptible in comparison to the Civil War generation:

They had been to Lane and Oberlin, and they knew their Hebrew and their Greek and their Locke and their Milton. […] Still, they were bodacious old men, the lot of them. It was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather’s grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.

I gather that Robinson’s later novels in the Gilead saga, which I do not care to read just now, make at least a gentler version of such an interpretation available.

But Gilead is too rhetorically invested in Ames’s praise of the everyday for readers to come away with anything other than conviction that Ames is right: the evidence of grace and the warrant for faith is the beauty of the ordinary rather than any extravagant gesture of nonconformism or annihilating experience of the divine. The problem is that this beauty is asserted more than it is described in the novel. While Ames does not really write like a man of his age, background, and time period would write such a letter to his son—he writes, in fact, like a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in fragmentary epiphanies destined not for family but for a literary journal—Robinson’s concession to verisimilitude is that Ames is no shimmering stylist. If I am to be convinced, though, that the loveliness of the world is justification enough for faith, I am going to need prose more precise and intense and alive than this:

Sometimes the visionary experience of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature. I believe there are visions that come to us only in vision, in retrospect. That’s the pulpit speaking, but it’s telling the truth.

Gilead has far too much of this abstract pulpit language for a novel ostensibly about beauty. There are memorable descriptions throughout—fireflies rising from a field, a stream near a farm, the baptism of cats—but Ames’s tone is so rambling and ingratiating, the language so bereft of any dazzle, that I just never became absorbed in the novel or persuaded by it.

Gilead felt urgent upon its publication, hence the gratitude in its reception, evidenced by the breathless blurbs that adorn the paperback. Robinson implicitly promised nothing less, in the midst of what Philip Roth once called “the ministry of George W. Bush,” than a reclamation of Protestantism or even Christianity itself from the preachers of the prosperity gospel and the masters of war. Whether or not the novel’s polemical calm in the midst of crisis can survive its moment, though, I for one tend to doubt. Gilead defends the local from the imputation that it is parochial, and its concluding benediction—”I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country”—makes of Gilead the microcosm of the nation; but prose as plain, a voice as muted, as that of John Ames may not be saved even by such authorial self-defense. Maybe reading Home and Lila, if ever I do, will change my mind, but I found Gilead, thirteen years after its publication, unable to transcend its place and time.

[1] Now that the first accounts of alt-right thought are being written, it is worth noting that the thesis of contemporary American liberalism’s direct and linear descent from Calvinism is the key historical claim of neoreaction as elaborated in the political philosophy of Curtis Yarvin and Nick Land. Marilynne Robinson and Mencius Moldbug: strange bedfellows, to say the least.

[2] When the novel was published, fanaticism for freedom leading to emancipatory war would have been associated in the minds of the liberal literati with George W. Bush’s destruction of Mesopotamia, hence the political need for Robinson’s irony about the quixotic abolitionists. It was only during the Obama administration that the myth of the good war was redeemed for liberalism by a shift in the focus of historical memory from World War II, tarnished by its constant rhetorical use as a war-justification from the 1980s through the 2000s, to the American Civil War, understood as the second American Revolution and absolute sine qua non of African-American freedom. One need not hedge about the justice of defeating both the Nazis and the Confederacy, however, to allow that the question of whether democracy can or should be brought to recalcitrant territories at the point of a gun remains open.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Vladimir Nabokov, The Enchanter

The EnchanterThe Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

VN’s first pass at the Lolita subject matter, The Enchanter was written in 1939—making it one of the author’s last works composed in Russian—but not published until 1986, in this translation by Dmitri Nabokov, who details the novella’s origin and complex textual history in a long afterword to this book.

The novella is written in third person but from the close POV of its nameless protagonist (all the characters are nameless, in fact, except for one domestic servant called Maria who appears only briefly); the protagonist is a well-to-do pedophile approaching middle age who spends a great deal of time attempting to rationalize his desires—his tortuous ruminations take up the first three pages, to no persuasive effect, lacking even the faux scholarship or mythical veneer of Humbert’s later nymphology. But when the protagonist meets a 12-year-old girl in the company of her temporary guardian, a woman caring for the child due to her mother’s ill health, he spies his chance to realize his dream of enacting his evil desire. In due time—the novella spans 11 months of an unspecified two years, from July to June—he marries the girl’s ailing widowed mother and, after the mother’s death, becomes the girl’s legal guardian and takes her to the south of France. There, in a hotel room, he masturbates over her while she sleeps; but when she awakens and screams loudly enough to summon everyone in the vicinity, he flees and throws himself under a passing truck.

The Enchanter is beautifully written and translated, and Nabokov’s delicate patterning of motifs is evident, from the references, titular and otherwise, to fairy tales, suggesting that European civilization has long posed a danger to adolescent girls, to the image of the anti-hero’s clock-without-hands, its blank face an index of his own emptiness, its timekeeping evocative of the force he rebels against (by literally fetishizing youth) and which, as the conveyance of fate, will crush him in the end. The Enchanter is also surprisingly sexually explicit, perhaps overly so in its long descriptions of the girl’s body, a pattern that comes to a head, as it were, with the description of the protagonist’s ejaculation (“senselessly discharging molten wax”) in the final pages. The novella’s several forays into surrealism also work well, most notably when the protagonist recalls a young girl who had shown him “some black salad devouring a green rabbit,” as well as at the conclusion, when the delirious anti-hero, on the point of guiltily consummating his desire, experiences the hotel as a labyrinth or warren, a kind of nightmare space. Manipulating sensationalist material into a more ambitious subjective disarrangement of the real, Nabokov is at the point where Poe meets Kafka.

Yet The Enchanter obviously lacks the weight of Lolita. While the novella suggests, with Nabokov’s characteristic social, political, and ethical indirection, the disposability of children that allows them to become prey, and pursues Nabokov’s theme of art as both danger (because illusion and obsession may colonize the real) and redemption (because art is the proper vehicle for illusion and obsession), its social ambit is much smaller than its successor’s, which encompasses not only Europe’s history of violence but also America’s 1950s culture of coarse modernity. Combine that with its lack of the later novel’s tact—sometimes the novella seems to indulge the pornographic interest it otherwise seems to want to contest—and we have a minor work, distinguished on its own merit, but mostly renowned as a sketch for a masterpiece.


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Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine

Love Medicine: Deluxe Modern ClassicLove Medicine: Deluxe Modern Classic by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Browsing in a library the other day, I came upon a reference—in I don’t recall which book by I don’t recall which author—to the idea of a real novelist, as opposed to a novelist whose primary interests are moral or ideological (I believe the examples of the latter were Camus and/or Baldwin). I would not want to make a hard rule out of this, because it would too decisively separate intellect from art; while maybe Camus or Baldwin (or Orwell or Kundera) could be said to write novels whose thick themes are imperfectly joined to the thin fiction meant to realize them, you could not say the same of, for example, the best novels of Eliot, Dostoevsky, Mann, Ellison, Bellow, or Ozick, in which art and idea are all of one piece.

Even at that, though, I know a real novelist when I see one, and Louise Erdrich is a real novelist. Switching my metaphor, the genuine novelist breathes in her element, can live forever in her imagined universe, and never need surface to a higher medium of justification—politics, morals, religion. Which is not to say that Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (1984; revised edition 2009), has no politics or religion; it has plenty, but they are wholly immanent to the story she wants to tell. They are visible in the lives of the characters instead of being insisted upon by the narrator or overtly wrought into an allegorical plot by the author.

To summarize Love Medicine would be pointless, as I would have to explicate the family tree adorning the spread before the novel’s first page, and to fully explain the family tree, I would more or less have to rewrite the whole book. (As I once noted of Elizabeth Bishop, one of the tricks literature likes to play is to cause us to think we are reading the map when we are actually traversing the territory; this makes sense if you consider literature to be a form of expression that is constitutionally hostile to abstraction, a lapse in which hostility may be the definitive feature of the ideological as opposed to the genuine novelist.) Suffice it to say that Love Medicine narrates the complex interrelations, from the 1930s to the 1980s, among several families (the Lamartines, the Pillagers, and the Kashpaws) on an Ojibwe reservation and environs in North Dakota and Minnesota. But “narrates” might be the wrong word, as the novel’s characters mostly narrate their stories for themselves in a set of linked short stories that make up the book, itself only the opening episode of what the jacket copy calls Erdrich’s “Native American series.”

The novel-in-stories (what Ted Gioia has called “the fragmented novel”) has its potential pitfalls—done poorly, it so disperses our attention that no one character or story stands out, thus diffusing the entire novel. But its advantage, shown superbly by Erdrich’s performance here, is that it can allow the novelist, especially if she is writing a family saga, to forego reams of plodding explanatory narration, of the kind that afflicted the nineteenth-century novel with its longueurs. Erdrich instead keeps the characters in constant motion while requiring the reader’s attentive participation in constructing the whole pattern of relation suggested by the fragmented plot. That may sound like an arcane description of technique, but it just an attempt to explain (abstractly, that is, non-literarily) why Erdrich’s stories are both exciting and discrete narratives in themselves—often wildly varying in tone, style, and theme—even as they add up to a coherent novel, and, I assume, even a mega-novel formed by the other books in the series.

Erdrich organizes Love Medicine around an absence: the novel begins with the last night on earth of June Morrissey, as she meets her death by walking into a snowstorm back toward the reservation after a loveless assignation with a trucker that marks the culmination of failed escape to city life. June’s death is the vortex the novel swirls around, as Erdrich, after the first chapter, goes back to the early twentieth century to tell the whole story of the family matrix in which June was formed before ending with the coming-of-age of June’s son.

Love Medicine‘s absent-center construction embodies its theme, as the novel is a lament over the passing of a more intense and spiritual age, which it only partially identifies with traditional Ojibwe culture. The older generation who were immersed in that culture, represented by the characters Rushes Bear and Moses Pillager, are somewhat distant spiritual authorities and guides for a younger generation adrift in an ugly, impoverished post-Vietnam and Reagan-era America. The novel has a strong Catholic presence as well (reflecting Erdrich’s dual heritage), and, while the Catholics are portrayed more ambivalently than the older generation of Ojibwe—the second chapter features a sadistic nun who makes the priests in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man look like models of enlightened thinking—Catholicism itself is ultimately honored as a source of visionary experience and spiritual energy. In mode, the novel tends to alternate between passages of romantic intensity, often associated with the past, and passages of very 1980s “dirty realism,” though often leavened by gritty comedy, used to describe the narrative present of persistent poverty, incarceration, and alcoholism, as David Treuer, censuring overly identitarian critics of the novel from his own doubled perspective as modernist aesthete and Ojibwe scion, points out in Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual:

The metaphoric language…provides a metaphoric wash that is applied liberally over the past, giving it a special antique tint. The past becomes, not larger than life, but larger than modern life, which is crabbed and cramped and impoverished.

Unlike some other great writers in the era of high multiculturalism, such as Heaney, Morrison, or Walcott, Erdrich does not seem to trade in a politics of nation, race, ethnicity or even cultural exclusivity. The novel’s main white character, Marie Lazarre, marries into the Kashpaw family and becomes one of the narrative’s central moral authorities; she seems to gain the respect of her mother-in-law, Rushes Bear, in part because she has since childhood been a kind of Catholic visionary. Not only that, but the “love medicine” of the title is ambivalently and somewhat farcically portrayed in the book’s second half, as if Erdrich wished to hedge on authentic magic’s capacity to survive in the degraded present, for anyone, Indian or otherwise. Finally, the novel often emphasizes the class of its characters, white and Indian, as they are left impoverished in the upper Midwest by distant, hostile economic and political forces.

I could criticize Love Medicine. Like all novels-in-stories, it probably does not impress its characters on us sufficiently, as they make fleeting impressions without being present to us over a long duration. Like much fiction that relies on the quirky voices of first-person narrators, it can at times feel forced or gimmicky. It also sometimes descends, in trying to represent states of religious transport or sexual ecstasy or incipient madness, to a vague and portentous lyricism that for too many readers has come to define “literary fiction”:

Her look was black and endless and melting pure. She looked through him. She saw into the troubled thrashing woods of him, a railing thicket of bones.

Erdrich’s fictional world, though, is large enough to dissipate objection. In command of the novelist’s demiurgic power, she has her people up and walking around in a three-dimensional landscape and, for the most part, you will just want to listen to what they say and watch what they do. More than that, Love Medicine, though often comic, beautifully expresses the longing of its characters to escape its own grim confines. Rising above realism without the aid of outright fantasy, it hints at a fourth dimension above—or suffusing—the three of “reality.” It is more ecumenical about the modes of escape—including sex and death, as well as traditional Catholic and Ojibwe lifeways (though not the false exit of alcoholism)—than its reputation as a particularly “ethnic” novel would suggest. It is, because and not in spite of its commitment to the local, a twentieth-century novel through and through: it demands that there must be more than what the modern world has left its characters with when it confiscated their gods, but unable to believe fully in what that more might be. The narrative is the movement the characters—and the author—make when they stretch toward the beyond of a squalid realism:

How come we’ve got these bodies? They are frail supports for what we feel. There are times I get so homed in by my arms and legs I look forward to getting past them. As though death will set me free like a traveling cloud. I’ll get past the ragged leaves that dead bum of my youth looked into. I’ll be out there as a piece of the endless body of the world feeling pleasures so much larger than skin and bones and blood.

Perhaps all genuine novelists, when they are unencumbered by the weight of conviction, are able to make this movement. Such more-than-realism is as close as we can get to isolating the real of the real novel.


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Paul Pope, 100%

100%100% by Paul Pope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synthesizing romance comics with the sexy global dystopias popular since the early 1980s, this 2005 graphic novel was aptly described by one Goodreads reviewer as “a cyberpunk Love, Actually.” 100% charts three love stories through a future New York City. It began as a set of linked short stories and is more episodic than heavily plotted, though Pope creates tension and emotion by rapidly cross-cutting between the three plots.

The action centers on a strip club where the women dance “gastro”—that is, they not only take off their clothes, but display to the throng a digital projection of their throbbing innards as well. A nomadic sex worker named Daisy gets a job there and ends up in a fraught and doomed relationship with the club’s dishwasher, John, a slumming former grad student in medieval literature. (John supplies the book’s title early on when in his inner monologue he vows to accept experience “come what may, one hundred percent.”)

Meanwhile, Strel, who also works in the club, has to deal with the absence and then the sudden return of her estranged husband, a boxer who “fights gastro” in the masculinist counterpoint to the spectacle the strip club offers. Strel has in the course of things introduced her artist cousin, Eloy, to her friend Kim, and the two begin to fall in love; they particularly bond over Eloy’s quixotic quest to get funding for his conceptual art project, about which more below.

Thematically, 100% celebrates the mysterious core of the individual—the thing that is loved in a love relationship—against all present and future attempts to know fully, much less to coerce, the self. The narrative shows both gastro stripping and gastro fighting to be cruel and inhumane, a mechanical substitution of technological exposure for genuine personal relations, one so brutalizing it leads to the grotesque violence of the fights and even murder:

We want to touch…we just can’t figure out how to do it. We lost the words for it. Then we forgot the question.

The novel begins, perhaps somewhat gratuitously, with the body of a murdered young woman, her upthrust bare leg resting on boxes labelled “whitemeat chick” and “breasts and thighs” in what Pope must have intended as a feminist protest against objectification rather than a somewhat tasteless, heavy-handed gesture (albeit one, admittedly, borrowed from feminist art).

Pope invokes the threat of murderous violence but it never comes to pass in the novel, because all of our main characters are struggling for love and art—struggles that, when pursued as such, make unnecessary and absurd any use of physical force. Daisy falls in love with John when he refuses to read the diary she left behind at the club, despite his temptation to do so; rather than seeking to expose her insides, to inspect ocularly her corpus, inside and out, he gets to know her through conversation and, eventually, lovemaking.

Allowing others their inner life, the space to cultivate their selves, is the essence of the ethic portrayed here. Whatever you think of Pope’s politics as a guide to policy—he is, or anyway was, a libertarian—this is its valuable and utopian ethical core. To recur to a theme running perhaps too insistently through my recent reviews, it may even be a more reliable ethic than the contemporary literati’s equally insistent appeals to empathy, which tend to imply everybody’s right to everybody else’s affectional innards through the medium of feeling—a right easily twisted by the powerful into imperial dominion over others, including the right to bombard or poison them, in the name of alleviating whatever real or imputed suffering the empath presumes to share with them.

As for art, it is the graphic novel’s subtext, while love is its text. Eloy needs to apply to a funding council made up of dire hipsters to finance his rather improbable art project: he proposes to set off 100 tea kettles, all whistling in the same key (“for one hundred percent sound”), to create a multisensory event of unity, a symphony. But the council demands, as a condition of funding, that he set off the kettles in different keys to create discord and disharmony: “A symphony! That’s not how the world is!” Pope here satirizes an art world that has so bureaucratized subversion that the only true subversion left is the bold and independent re-creation of beautiful forms—Pope’s aesthetic is less cyberpunk than a punk classicism.

Signaling awareness of tradition—there is an elaborate retelling of Tristan and Isolde in the middle of the book—as well as a fervid technological and futurological imagination, Pope nevertheless insists through his freehand style of gestural brushwork and his fluid storytelling, along with lyrical monologues and poetically compressed duets, on the right to art as a personal, handmade, and idealizing expression of the present moment. His polemic against an exhausted but dominant avant-garde establishment would amount to little if he could not provide a counterexample with his own work—and he does it beautifully.

The future in 100% is ostensibly dystopian—Pope implies that genetic advancements have gotten out of control, that war and militarization are omnipresent, and that an oppressive global government is in control (the libertarian artist pointedly shows U.N. currency, issued by “le banque du monde,” with Che Guevara’s face on it, while another subplot implicitly decries gun control as an abridgment even of the individual’s moral right to choose not to bear arms). As in much cyberpunk, the seeming dystopia is largely left off-stage so that the spotlight can fall on the vibrant anarchic bohemia growing in its niches: this, and perhaps its genre per se, is a belated modernist urban pastoral.

Like many modernists, Pope pits his own version of order against the chaos of a society run by and for those who care more for money and power than for love and glory. The modernists also tended to lift their vision beyond the nation and the ethnos, to see the possibility of new forms, new beauty, and new love in a cosmopolis on the horizon.

100% ends when one character wishes to flee New York; he hurls a dart at a map, promising to move wherever it lands. It lands on the spot on the map where he is standing, his own neighborhood: wherever you are right now is the beachhead of the new world. In the author bio at the end of this book, Pope’s goal is described as the creation of “world comics, 21st century comics, stories in the comics medium which can reach and speak to people everywhere.” Take out the specified century and the word “comics,” and you find an old dream—one that has never yet been realized.


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Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“They pay brisk money for this crap?” Raymond Chandler asked of the science fiction genre. His rhetorical question followed his lively parody of the genre’s trappings (“I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop”), but can Chandler’s own hard-boiled revision of the detective genre, as in the landmark 1939 novel The Big Sleep, not be parodied with similar ease?—the gender archetypes or stereotypes, the air of sexy seediness, the sudden violence, the impossibly convoluted plot that comes to you as a blizzard of forgettable names and relations, the verging-on-silly metaphors (“She brought the glass over. Bubbles rose in it like false hopes.”), the tough-talk dialogue (“‘You ought to wean her. She looks old enough.'”) and period slang (“‘A Chicago overcoat is what it would get you, little man.'”), the paradoxically showboating understatement (“She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. […] She wasn’t wearing anything else.”). They call this crap literature?

These days, they do. They are not quite wrong. For one thing, the English-educated and well-read Chandler was a conscious aesthete. In giving a jolt to the polite detective novel with the hard-boiled attitude that had characterized so much 1920s and ’30s fiction—and not just in pulps but also in Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, and West, among other now-canonical writers—Chandler was deliberately undertaking an exercise in style. He was no naif about the effects of popular culture or the impossibility of originality, either; at one meta-moment in The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe observes that a criminal he’s dealing with, like all the other young criminals, has been inspired in his demeanor by the movies: “His voice was the elaborately casual voice of the tough guy in pictures. Pictures have made them all like that.” While the style Chandler crafted, like Hemingway’s, is easily imitated and parodied, it did prove influential and unforgettable. Not only did it become the signature literary evocation of Los Angeles, it became a global aesthetic means of experiencing the modern city. Even people who have never read Chandler walk down rainy urban streets with a Chandler monologue in their heads.

At seven the rain had stopped for a breathing spell, but the gutters were still flooded. On Santa Monica the water was level with the sidewalk and a thin film of it washed over the top of the curbing. A traffic cop in shining black rubber from boots to cap sloshed through the flood on his way from the shelter of a sodden awning. My rubber heels slithered on the sidewalk as I turned into the narrow lobby of the Fulwider Building. A single drop light burned far back, beyond an open, once gilt elevator. There was a tarnished and well-missed spittoon on a gnawed rubber mat. A case of false teeth hung on the mustard-colored wall like a fuse box in a screen porch. I shook the rain off my hat and looked at the building directory beside the case of teeth. Numbers with names and numbers without names. Plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous. Painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled there to die, mail order schools that would teach you how to become a railroad clerk or a radio technician or a screen writer—if the postal inspectors didn’t catch up with them first. A nasty building. A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odor.

But The Big Sleep—the title refers to death—offers more than just the city. From the early passages set in the General’s greenhouse to later episodes where we leave L.A., there is a beautiful nature idiom, a sense of immensity and overgrowth, associated with the novel’s depictions of femininity and sensuality, that I was not expecting:

We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.

All the same, I cannot for the life of me tell you the plot of The Big Sleep. I read the novel with the Wikipedia synopsis at my side and was still barely hanging on. In short, the elderly General Sternwood, whose family is wealthy from oil, has hired the P. I. Philip Marlowe to investigate some matters related to his wild young daughters, Vivian and Carmen. The thematic upshot of Marlowe’s long and confusing consequent misadventures is the following: squalidness and corruption are the underside of wealth and glamor, money is always marked by the dirt of its origins in earth and labor, the modern breakdown of social norms has set young women morally adrift and left decadents and degenerates in charge of the city. Against these ugly realities, such rumpled men of honor as Marlowe might—like the knights and generals of yore—remediate this corrupt world by acting with as much selflessness and rectitude as possible. This summary of the novel’s moral thesis is accurate as far as it goes; Chandler makes sure we are thinking of courtly knights on the book’s first page through his description of some faux-medieval decor in the General’s house, and the association of the modern detective with the knight-errant of romance goes back to Sherlock Holmes.

But Chandler—a stylist, remember, an aesthete—uses this moralism as a basis or pretext for his real narrative interest, which is precisely the glamorous description of “decadence” and “degeneracy.” All the other Goodreads reviewers are right in observing the novel’s overt sexism and homophobia, but to leave it at that is to miss the novel’s—and the genre’s—real affective force: Marlowe may be our Virgil in the underworld, the one righteous man in a stew of filth, but Chandler is behind him making the filth sound fun. The pleasure of being in Marlowe’s righteous company is the experience of spending time or identifying with vamps, queers, gamblers, and smut-peddlers. Ostensibly a conservative tract, The Big Sleep is really a bohemian tourist brochure: Visit scenic Babylon! I think noir is always a hymn to Babylon hidden in a denunciation of it (this may even be true of medieval romance itself: what if the quest is the true grail?). Here is an exchange between Marlowe and Vivian:

“I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust.”

“Who’s he?” I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.

“A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn’t know him.”

Sure he would. Less than twenty pages later, he is being frisked by a tough and “turned around for him like a bored beauty modeling an evening gown.” A hundred pages after that, we find him telling another woman, who might be going to kill him, “‘[D]on’t scatter my ashes over the blue Pacific. I like the worms better. Did you know that worms are of both sexes and that any worm can love any other worm?'” If Marlowe—and Chandler—aren’t connoisseurs in degenerates, what are they doing here? And if we aren’t, why are we reading this book? The novel’s moralism, its sexism and homophobia, are the regrettable feints of a showman trying to pass off as respectable the downright queerness of his entertainments.

Having said all that, I did not find reading The Big Sleep an unmixed pleasure. Fictional prose is best at giving us the human interior, but Chandler just gives us exteriors—impressive though they may be. I am partial to this genre in pictorial form, with its images, its projections from the unconscious, standing free of the language that would circumscribe and censor them. Going even further, I like the extremity and grotesquery of such romantic narratives to be loosed from the real world entirely; not only do I prefer my hard-boiled tales, my noir narratives, in pictures, but I prefer them in science-fictional or fantastical settings too. I like Alphaville, The Long Tomorrow, Blade Runner, The Dark Knight Returns, Transmetropolitan, Strange Days, et al.—if it has to be non-fantastical, let it be Chinatown; if it has to be in prose, let it be Neuromancer.

Finally, the ramifying structure of such romance narratives—with their knights/detectives sallying forth to encounter a succession of weird people and places—can be a wearisome bad infinity as compared to the forms of complex closure promised by more traditional literary genres (tragedy, comedy, bildungsroman, etc.). It is this infinite openness, demanded by the prospect of further profit, that marks the detective genre as a commercial form. At the end of the novel, after it has already ended and re-begun several times as the case seemed to be closed but then re-opened, Marlowe has a nightmare that may indicate his awareness of his aesthetic predicament:

My mind drifted through waves of false memory, in which I seemed to do the same thing over and over again, go to the same places, meet the same people, say the same words to them, over and over again, and yet each time it seemed real, like something actually happening, and for the first time.

What successful fictional P.I. or detective (or super-hero or soap heroine) could not have the same nightmare? This novel about the grim underbelly of wealth and commerce also is the grim underbelly of wealth and commerce, the porn front or gambling den where art transacts with the underworld. Here may be the secret of Chandler’s nostalgia for older forms of order—it has nothing to do with a censorious attitude toward sex and everything to do with a wish for the kind of artistic integrity that the pursuit of “brisk money” cannot help but violate.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!