Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain (The Border Trilogy, #3)Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cities of the Plain began life as a screenplay, and it shows. For most of its length, it is bare description and dialogue. While its scene-setting is often concisely vivid and its cowboy conversations laconically witty, it lacks either the lived-in quality of a successful realistic novel or sufficient stylization to justify such mimesis’s absence.

This third volume of the Border Trilogy is the opposite in every way (except for its epilogue) of the second volume. We could even understand them as McCarthy’s divergent responses to having had such a popular and critical success with the Border Trilogy’s first volume, All the Pretty Horses—a masterful novel that, unlike McCarthy’s more difficult prior books, persuasively combines mass appeal with literary seriousness. The 1992 Western gives us a hero’s journey and a tragic romance, complete with passionate love scenes and brutal combat sequences, while also probing the boundary between nature and culture and the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

If All the Pretty Horses is less despairing than its 1985 predecessor, the notoriously ultraviolent Blood Meridian, it nevertheless earns its sincere praise of heroism by confronting its hero with truly hopeless odds in an indifferent universe. (And I read Blood Meridian itself as a humanist and perhaps even Christian novel, dissenting from those critics who see its gnostic, war-worshipping villain, Judge Holden, as the author’s mouthpiece. Even if the world as McCarthy portrays it is evil, his novels still suggest that humans have a capacity, neglected as it is, to be good.)

But The Crossing, the 1994 sequel to All the Pretty Horses, reads almost like McCarthy’s apology for having written a popular novel. It is long, plotless, dense, and full of visionary if nihilistic disquisitions, a Western hallucination equal parts Beckett and Dostoevsky. It returns to the mode of Blood Meridian, but lacks even that novel’s liveliness of nihilation. The cinematic Cities of the Plain, on the other hand, is an apology for the apology: a briskly-written pop Western that rewrites All the Pretty Horses‘s tragic love story and gruesome knife fight sans any complicating thematic and ideological gestures.

The plot is as simple as it gets. It is 1952, and John Grady Cole (from All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (from The Crossing) are working together on a ranch near the border run by a kindly man named Mac whose beloved wife has just died. The young John Grady’s preternatural horsemanship continues to marvel all who know him (he tells a colleague, “A good horse has justice in his heart”), and, despite Mac’s grief, the lives of these vaqueros seem idyllic, all the more because of their bittersweet awareness that their territory will soon be requisitioned by the state and that the cowboy way will soon vanish forever.

The novel’s own particular catastrophe, standing in for the closure of the West at large, comes when John Grady Cole falls in love with a teenaged prostitute (or, really, captive) in a Juarez brothel over the border. Her name is Magdalena (get it?), and she has epilepsy, which makes her even more vulnerable to the attentions of the pimp Eduardo (we are briefly told of her horrifying background, which begins when she “had been sold at the age of thirteen to settle a gambling debt”). A blind pianist informs Cole that Magdalena is too good for this world—

My belief is that she is at best a visitor. At best. She does not belong here. Among us.

Yessir. I know she dont belong here.

No, said the blind man. I do not mean in this house. I mean here. Among us.

—but the boy hero, ever Quixotic, is undeterred and sets out to rescue her from the cruel Eduardo. It is possible to be too cynical about the adolescent male rescue fantasy at work here, especially when combined with the title’s Biblical judgment against corrupt carnality; but McCarthy’s critique of sex trafficking and his commendation of attentive love over transactional lust seem like worthy enough moral priorities for a novel, if not totally uncontestable. And the naïveté of John Grady’s plan is defeated most brutally by McCarthy’s tragic narrative design.

The problem, however, is that the characters are almost completely emblematic, to the point of stereotype. They might as well have labels as names—Kindly Old Rancher, Cruel Mexican Pimp—and Magdalena’s name is a label. I am not even sure this is good screenwriting, let alone good fiction writing, though perhaps actors would flesh out the thin characterization in performance.

This actor-enhancement is arguably what happens in McCarthy’s 2013 film (with director Ridley Scott), The Counselor, which I find a more satisfying narrative than Cities of the Plain. Penélope Cruz adds to a Magdalena-type abused innocent a winning charm, and Cameron Diaz’s blonde beast of a villain is far more interesting than the campy, oleaginous Eduardo—not least because McCarthy is, in The Counsellor, at least reversing a stereotype rather than upholding one when he shows the white norteamericana to be the predator battening on a good Latina. With presumably anti-racist intent, McCarthy here flips the old, bad tradition in the Anglo-American novel of contrasting a good woman who is fair and blonde with a bad woman who has dark hair, eyes, and even skin.

In my review of All the Pretty Horses, I criticized the critics who found its depiction of Mexico simplistic and dualistic, but Mexico really does appear in Cities of the Plain as a hell-heaven of endemic violence coupled with inexplicable goodness. Billy Parham recalls the hospitality he’d found in the country on his titular crossing:

You could see that the revolution hadnt done them no good. […] They didnt have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I was never turned away. Not a time.

But it is not only the brothel where Magdalena is imprisoned but also the Revolution itself that testifies to the land’s senseless brutality, as Mr. Johnson, Mac’s father-in-law, recalls:

There were thousands who went to war in the only suits they owned. Suits in which they’d been married and in which they would be buried. Standing on the streets in their coats and ties and hats behind the upturned carts and bales and firing their rifles like irate accountants. And the small artillery pieces on wheels that scooted backwards in the street at every round and had to be retrieved and the endless riding of horses to their deaths bearing flags or banners or the tentlike tapestries painted with portraits of the Virgin carried on poles into battle as if the mother of God herself were authoress of all that calamity and mayhem and madness.

McCarthy, a believer in incorrigible nature and individual (not collective) goodness, can be expected to distrust revolution on classically conservative Burkean grounds, but All the Pretty Horses showed a greater political acuity than the above. As for Eduardo, who claims to speak for Mexico as against the overweening north, the less said about his sleek and oily head and his silk shirt, the better. On the other hand, it is undeniably fascinating to read a trio of U.S. novels that represents the Mexican Revolution—a blank for most Americans—as the germinal event of the 20th century.

There are moments throughout Cities of the Plain that recall its predecessors’ glories, not least when it comes to McCarthy’s reverence for the dramatic landscape with its

pictographs upon the rimland boulders that bore images of  hunter and shaman and meetingfires and desert sheep all picked into the rock a thousand years and more.

And there are affecting grace notes throughout, especially at the novel’s tragic conclusion. When Billy finds John Grady dead, we read a plangent, simple line worthy of Tolstoy:

The boy lay with his face turned away from the light. His eyes were open. Billy called to him. As if he could not have gone far.

I mentioned that Cities of the Plain does not resemble The Crossing until its epilogue. There, McCarthy recapitulates the narrative mode of the earlier novel. The novel jumps into the future: it is 2002 and Billy Parham, now 78, is drifting in and out of homelessness, when he meets another drifter who tells him an obscure story about a dream he had about a traveler’s dream. The drifter’s complex narration inspires Billy to protest, in a line that reflects the screenplay-mode of the rest of the book:

I think you got a habit of makin things a bit more complicated than what they need to be. Why not just tell the story?

But this narrator has philosophical ambitions. The point of his recursive tale seems to be twofold. First, the world is a fated and fatalistic place, and we cannot escape our destiny (the implication is that John Grady was always already fated to die for his idealism):

Each act in this world from which there can be no turning back has before it another, and it another yet. In a vast and endless net.

Second, the stories we tell about the world are also part of the world and help to weave the fabric of its fate. We are punished for our idealism, but it is also our strength, our glory, our justification:

These dreams reveal the world also, he said. We wake remembering the events of which they are composed while often the narrative is fugitive and difficult to recall. Yet it is the narrative that is the life of the dream while the events themselves are often interchangeable. The events of the waking world on the other hand are forced upon us and the narrative is the unguessed axis along which they must be strung. It falls to us to weigh and sort and order these events. It is we who assemble them into the story which is us. Each man is the bard of his own existence. This is how he is joined to the world. For escaping from the world’s dream of him this is at once his penalty and his reward.

This fatal metaphysic of narrative, which explains McCarthy’s suspicion of such modern writers as James and Proust, takes us back before the novel to the aesthetics of Greek tragedy. Yet there is a danger in treating the complexities of modern fiction as merely disposable in a climate where oversimplification is the hallmark of stultifying popular entertainment: you may strip away Jamesian or Proustian obliquity and find that you have created not a Sophoclean tragedy but a schlocky B-movie. For this dubious achievement, success is at once McCarthy’s penalty and his reward.


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Nick Drnaso, Sabrina

SabrinaSabrina by Nick Drnaso

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Around the time this acclaimed graphic novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, I read it and wrote a somewhat glib, very short review. The review briefly restated my distaste for the artistic tradition within comics to which Drnaso adheres—not because I think this tradition lacks all intrinsic merit, but because it seems to have become the sole stylistic signifier of “seriousness” in comics to the outside literary world, even though it hardly exhausts the potential of the form. I deleted that review as too mean-spirited and shallow. On the other hand, I don’t believe in Auden’s old axiom that a critic shouldn’t write bad reviews. Bad reviews allow for the clarification of values; they give a great opportunity to say, I believe this and not that. To that end, a more substantive explanation of why I cannot esteem this celebrated graphic novel:

Nick Drnaso works in a stylistic idiom that goes back from today’s “literary” graphic novel to the ’80s/’90s alternative comics scene to the ’60s Undergrounds. This style bases itself on the ironic appropriation of supposedly more innocent art of early-to-mid-20th-century cartooning, both to point out the disavowed perversity that underlay mainstream culture before the revolutions of the ’60s and to lament our regression from a society that at least had ideals, however flawed. The paradox of an irony-poisoned nostalgia is not itself the problem. Spiegelman raises it to high and anguished art in Maus and Clowes finds its emotional core in Ghost World. But it bespeaks a limited social analysis, a lament over lost childhood, and also limits aesthetic amplitude. Such a style, because its irony covers everything in a patina of deniability, repels any emotion except a numb, rueful, and self-conscious sadness, even as it leaves us politically uncertain as to whether we are to mourn the past or be glad it’s gone.

Drnaso, like Adrian Tomine, comes late into this tradition. He seems to adopt it automatically as the house style of the literary graphic novel without recognizing its ill-fit with his subject matter or ideological outlook. He puts his figures, reminiscent of Chris Ware, through their agonizingly slow paces—tiny panels full of meticulously-recored banalities—to condemn our world as an inferno where we have no real relations with each other and consequently have to jolt ourselves awake with Internet sensationalism, conspiracy theories, and violent video games. Drnaso’s precise ligne claire leaves not a line out of place, while his colors are flat and institutional, like office or hospital walls. The aesthetic is all of a piece, which is admirable only to a point.

The plot itself indicts our civilization as lonely, violent, and hysterical. Sabrina narrates the aftermath of the title character’s random murder by a fame-seeking Internet troll. Her grieving boyfriend, Teddy, goes to live with an old school friend named Calvin, an Air Force cybersecurity expert whose own marriage has broken up. The depressed Teddy slowly becomes convinced, by an Alex Jones-like radio host, that his own girlfriend’s murder was a false flag committed to spread panic by the global elite, while Calvin becomes enmeshed in the viral Internet version of the same conspiracy theory.

Mass shootings abound as everyone downloads Sabrina’s leaked murder video. No one is immune from the contagion of inhumanity—though the novel suggests that men are particularly affected, as even the best of them lose themselves in shooter games while, in counterpoint, Sabrina’s grieving sister reaches out to others and escapes into nature, successfully mourning without the need of digitally-enabled masculine self-assertion. As social media rages, daily life is banal and anhedonic, the 21st-century condition one of empty exchanges and passionless endurance. In the dialogue, Drnaso persistently misspells “yeah” as “yea,” like in the King James Bible, which is perhaps ludicrously apt for this jeremiad of a book.

With its tone of slow, flat affect and its political polemic against fake news and toxic masculinity, Sabrina more than earned its plaudits from the mainstream. But I am left with more questions than answers. For one thing, the book’s style is, as fashion critics say, too matchy-matchy. Is there no language any character can speak above the level of unintelligent, empty conversation? Is there any way to provide imagery in this mode of drawing and coloring that would act as a counterweight to the oppressive normalcy the novel showcases?

When Sabrina’s sister escapes into nature, the trees and bushes are as flat as the office walls elsewhere depicted. When Teddy discovers Calvin’s daughter’s children’s books and allows their playfulness to put his pattern-making faculty to better use than conspiracy theorizing, the picture-book art, meant to be playful, is as dull as anything else in the novel. When the characters break from their anomie long enough to care for each other—as, for instance, when Calvin feeds a cheeseburger to a grief-defeated Teddy—the style is unable to let the moment float free of ironic comment on all action.

Everything, even those things we are supposed to understand as redemptive, comes off like Peanuts seem through a cynical, depressive haze. Such a style long ago spent its critical force, and it hangs around only as a sign of artistic integrity even though it no longer possesses any intellectual content. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Drnaso’s political intention, but his sheer inertia of style cannot even hope to depict the salvation through nature, art, and kindness that his narrative arrangement commends. It used to be called the fallacy of imitative form: Drnaso tells us that we’re bored and depressed in a boring, depressing way.

sabrinaFurthermore, is Drnaso’s trendy political analysis really so unimpeachable? It was instructive to teach this book to students who were not familiar with comics, because I had to fill them in on the form’s history before addressing Sabrina itself. This history lesson offered the ironic juxtaposition of Drnaso with Fredric Wertham: here is an art form over which midcentury parents and professionals quaked with moral panic, and here is a contemporary comics creator who is himself quivering over today’s threats to public order: social media, fake news, conspiracy theories, toxic masculinity, and all the rest (everything but Putin). Is it possible that these contemporary fears will one day come to seem as quaint as Wertham’s sub-Frankfurt-School warning that Batman would turn kids gay?

Not that Wertham and Drnaso weren’t and aren’t pointing out some real problems. Wertham was correct to say that midcentury comics were often crude, brutal, and illiterate, and Drnaso is on solid ground when he advises us to get outside more and treat each other better. But is the Internet reducible to the most egregious of its uses? Are we really all in danger of being mowed down at any moment by attention-seeking shitposters who can’t get over their anomie in any other way? And is the legacy media not exaggerating social media’s dangers for its own purposes, to distract from its own panic-inducing culpability in extremist violence, and is there not a sad irony in a comic book artist, of all people, going along with such scaremongering? There is also the problem, all too common among liberals today, of using the most stupid or cynical forms of conspiracy theory to discredit any social criticism that strays an inch to the right or left of wherever the Democratic Party’s leaders and their mainstream media allies tell us to be. We shouldn’t throw Noam Chomsky out with Alex Jones and thus pretend that liberal civilization offers no grounds for reasonable critique.

All in all, then, Sabrina is a precision-crafted product of its time; it is almost a time capsule. This is an achievement of a sort, but the best art does more than parrot the platitudes of its period; rather, great work rises above its era through imaginative force. Drnaso is unwilling or unable to do this—and even associates a drive for transcendence with dangerous male aggression in a classic instance of “male feminism” (AKA chivalric sexism). Such moralism and timidity likely dooms his work to rest in the epoch it so thoroughly condemns.


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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.


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Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: StoriesWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A character in this iconic collection’s final story thinks of her daughter’s truancy as “another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies.” This 1981 book, which perhaps more than any other made its author’s name as a figurehead of minimalist fiction, might be subtitled “low-rent tragedies.” In content, it tells stories of working-class and lower-middle-class white American life, usually in the west or northwest. It is about men and women struggling with work and poverty, adultery and domestic violence, divorce and alcoholism. Anyone who ever experienced or witnessed any of what’s described in these stories—and alcoholic desperation in the 1980s was the background, though happily not the foreground, to some of my own earliest memories—will be able smell the stale cigarette smoke molecularly bonded to the pages.

A writer can use several authorial strategies to save such subject matter from exploitation or artless severity. Carver himself tended to prefer what we might call the Chekhovian tactic of sympathetic amplitude: giving us his characters from the inside, allowing them, even in the third person, their own voice and language and sensibility with which to tell their own stories. Carver’s later fiction, his work of the mid-to-late ’80s before his death in 1988, exhibits such a classic style of story-writing.

The fiction in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, though, reflects a different aesthetic: that of its highly interventionist editor, Gordon Lish. For Lish, as I understand it, fiction was less about the mimesis of consciousness than it was about intensive semiosis. If Carver descended from Chekhov’s humanism, Lish comes down from that other and much different instituter of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, with his almost mathematical philosophies of composition and his proto-camp approach to sentimental subjects. Lish was a reader of Shklovsky, Barthes, and Kristeva; he was a friend and companion of DeLillo. He believed literature was the arrangement of sentences for maximal effect rather than the expression in language of some pre-linguistic, self-sufficient essence popularly called the self.

Lish’s approach to Carver, then, was to delete anything that might seem extraneous, often paring down Carver’s stories by 30% or even 50%. He excised over-explanation and lopped off discursive conclusions, favoring rather the stark dialogue, the incised image, and the abrupt ending.

A classic example is the story “The Bath” (appearing in What We Talk About) in contrast to its earlier/later iteration, “A Small, Good Thing” (appearing in Cathedral). Lish’s version is a brief and benumbed account of a couple’s grief and terror after their son is struck by a car on his birthday. Carver’s text, by contrast, lets the emotions find utterance rather than evoking them by their verbal absence. Lish, faithful to writers like Joyce, Hemingway, and O’Connor, tries to induce readers to feel by withholding all feeling from the story’s own tone:

The father gazed at his son, the small chest inflating and deflating under the covers. He felt more fear now. He began shaking his head. He talked to himself like this. The child is fine. Instead of sleeping at home, he’s doing it here. Sleep is the same wherever you do it.

But there is a problem of means and ends here: Joyce wanted to show his fellow citizens the ugly reality of their political and cultural paralysis, Hemingway was trying to craft and communicate a stoic ethic that could replace modernity’s vanished traditions, and O’Connor was trying to make us recognize the necessity of the divine by presenting us with its absence. Their story-writing styles of what Joyce called “scrupulous meanness” had serious political, ethical, and religious purposes. They contrasted their cold forms with their warm contents for a reason, and their intended effect on the reader was more than a sensational one.

What purpose did Lish bring to Carver when he killed his darlings? Carver wanted to tell the stories of the world he knew in a language that was not over-stylized but rather naturalistic and discursive. Lish, by contrast, wanted those stories to be objects he could find aesthetically interesting according to his own theories. This disjunction leads, in my experience, to the curdling of modernist irony into postmodern sarcasm. Lish turns Carver’s stories into near-cartoons of curtailed emotion, as if to mock the idea of feeling at all. In his hands, Carver’s fictions end with anti-epiphanies, shock tactics, as in “Tell the Women We’re Going,” with its calmly-stated last-paragraph double-murder ( which had developed into a full-fledged suspenseful scene in Carver’s earlier draft):

He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.

I derive much of my information about Carver’s drafts and Lish’s interventions from Brian Evenson’s recent book-length appreciation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Evenson, though better known nowadays as a fiction writer, was one of the first scholars to study the Carver/Lish issue, precisely because as a college student he had so fallen in love with Lish-phase Carver, and particularly with this collection.

Evenson admits that Lish’s dealings with Carver verge upon, or even cross into the territory of, the unethical. Added to that is the political question of the high-powered editor’s not allowing stories from the provinces into circulation until he’d shorn them of all that the jaded metropolitan would regard as overly sincere or sentimental. Yet Evenson wants to defend What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a cohesive collection that communicates an authentic nihilism. On this reading, we might say that Carver was trying for Chekhov but reaching only Dreiser, so Lish was right to use a few deft excisions to turn him into Kafka instead.

Kafka is Evenson’s own comparison: “So when I got to Carver, I had Beckett and Kafka as models for what literature could do. Which probably made me see Carver in a very eccentric light.” Despite the self-mockery in the word “eccentric,” Evenson is, I believe, trying to rescue Carver from his own reputation by making us re-evaluate his style. Later in the book, Evenson notes that his older classmates, hipper to the literary journal scene in the ’80s, were able to place Carver among the other minimalists and dirty realists of the time: “people like Richard Ford or Bobbie Ann Mason or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolff.”

To put it somewhat unkindly, though, readers who don’t have MFAs do not necessarily care for these “crafty” short story writers who tend to feel as mannered and formulaic as “genre fiction” is supposed to be. This increasingly common observation is in fact one source, beyond his obvious gifts, of Evenson’s own success as a writer who works in the mode of the weird. There has been in this century a turn in literary fiction away from artisanal realism to artisanal fabulism, which does indeed descend, among other writers, from Kafka.

Evenson’s slyly polemical originality is to offer us the Carver of What We Talk About as an inhabitant of this fantastical lineage rather than the realist one, of seeing him as the companion less of the dirty realists than the magical realists: the explorer of a slightly different type of bloody chamber, but a bloody chamber nonetheless. The Carver of Lish’s invention, no less than Lish himself, is a child of Poe more than of Chekhov.

All of the above is literary sociology, but what about literary criticism? Are these stories, taken at face value, worth reading? Read all at once, What We Talk About is too much of a good thing (which sounds like a be-Lished Carver title). As I read them, I could only admire their compression and concision and the often brutal punchlines these artistic priorities allow. But this is a limited aesthetic, and the effect of reading one story after another in this mode is slapstick. The less up-to-date, less polished instrument of Carver’s own style, though it can do less with a single page, can probably accomplish more in a story or a book. I hardly remember a character from these stories, because they come as vivid images but don’t stay long enough to impress, still less to ramify. What I remember is a tone, an unforgettable one.

The title story is justly famous for its non-communicative dialogue and darkening tone. “The Calm” is a surprising study in homoeroticism, “After the Denim” an almost sweet and definitely scary paean to marriage under the stresses of illness and age. “I Could See the Smallest Things” has a loopy, Lynchian slug-killing suburban surrealism. My favorite is “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a true affront, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d quote from it, but you need to read the whole thing; I doubt Andrea Dworkin herself ever wrote with such cosmic pessimism about men, women, and sex.

Such a story validates Evenson’s claim that Carver, under Lish’s influence, attains true originality: he gives us, or they give us, lower-class American life seen under the blacklight of a meaningless eternity. They are a chortling, bleak poetry preferable to the second-rate humanism of Chekhov’s mere imitators.

“Our moods do not believe each other,” said Emerson; in one mood, I want Lish’s Carver, and in another mood I want Carver unLished. Which Carver is better? I leave it to you, but if you want to see what Poe or Kafka might have written in the 1980s about my aunts and uncles and my parents’ friends, then you should read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.


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!

Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

The Crossing (The Border Trilogy, #2)The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Crossing (1994) is the follow-up to All the Pretty Horses (1992) and the second part of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, three novels focused on young American men coming of age in the early-to-mid-20th century on the border with Mexico.

Unlike its popular precursor, The Crossing is a long, dour, and largely plotless novel. It tells the story of young Billy Parham’s three crossings into Mexico from New Mexico.

The first crossing comes when he is a teenager: he captures a she-wolf that has itself come up from Mexico and that has been marauding near his family’s property. Instead of killing the wolf, though, he captures it and tries to return it to its ancestral Mexican mountains. While Billy does form a tense communion with the pregnant wolf, she is eventually made the object of commerce and then of bloodsport when they reach Mexico.

In the course of this first adventure, which forms the novel’s first quarter and works as a standalone novella, Billy is disabused of his apparently romantic notions; he sacrifices his innocence as he is forced to sacrifice the wolf lest both continue to be degraded and abused by what the novel, in what we might by application call an Orientalist idiom, implies are the endemic corruptions of Mexican society, here explained in essentialist rather than political terms, though the latter predominated in the more realistic All the Pretty Horses.

In the novel’s second part, Billy wanders north and encounters the first of several of the odd tutors he meets on his journey. In perhaps The Crossing‘s most impressive passage, Billy hears out a hermit, a nihilist who was once a Mormon convert to Catholicism. This hermit has in fact, it is implied, taken the place (in a ruined church) of a prior nihilist hermit who lost most of his family to political and natural violence. The hermit’s lengthy sermon in the theology of meaninglessness is magnificent, obviously meant to serve as this novel’s “Grand Inquisitor” or “Whiteness of the Whale”:

What was here to be found was not a thing. Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what was to be found here. The corrido. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.

Yet The Crossing lacks Dostoevsky’s or Melville’s ideological architecture. Billy is not articulate enough, like Ishmael, to quarrel with any of his tutors, and all the articulate characters speak the same McCarthyite language of grand spiritual exhaustion, languid Ahabs without whales to hunt, or Ivans without even the passionate residue of faith that leads them to hand back their tickets.

What little plot there is comes in nearly a third of the way through the novel when Billy returns to his family farm and discovers his mother and father have been murdered by horse thieves. He rescues his younger brother, Boyd, from his foster family, and they cross to Mexico again to recover the horses.

This quest makes up the especially aimless middle of the novel; the taciturn brothers’ dialogue is a pale shadow of John Grady Cole’s with Lacey Rawlins in the prior book, and the trauma of their loss is evoked as little as was Billy’s motivation in going to Mexico with the wolf in the first place. Wolves, by the way, drop entirely out of the narrative after the first quarter, just as the parents’ murder, despite its melodrama, is little more than a McGuffin. So too is Boyd’s falling in love with a young Mexican girl, another inadequate echo of the much stronger plot of All the Pretty Horses.

The Crossing gains more interest after Boyd is wounded in a skirmish with authorities that causes him to become a kind of folk hero. In the meantime, Billy encounters another grand speechifier: a blind man whose eyes were literally sucked out of his head by a sadist during the Mexican Revolution and who delivers sermons on the truth of blindness:

He said that the light of the world was in men’s eyes only for the world itself moved in eternal darkness and darkness was its true nature and true condition and that in this darkness it turned with perfect cohesion in all its parts but that there was naught there to see. He said that the world was sentient to its core and secret and black beyond men’s imagining and that its nature did not reside in what could be seen or not seen. He said that he could stare down the sun and what use was that?

The scenes where the workers on a cooperative farm care for Boyd, and especially wherein he is attended by a kind and expert physician, are the novel’s most affirmative moments. Throughout The Crossing, McCarthy supplements his high Faulknerian lyricism with precise and even jargon-heavy descriptions of labor; this is most noticeable in the early passages on wolf-hunting, but in the later scene of the gentle physician’s care for the wounded boy, McCarthy comes near to pronouncing a humanistic credo that honors honest labor in a fallen world:

He took up the bulb and gently washed the wound and swabbed it and took up the silver nitrate stick and gently touched it in the wound. He worked from the top of the wound downward. When he had removed the last hemostat and dropped it into the pan he sat for a moment with both hands over Boyd’s back as if exhorting him to heal.

Eventually, Boyd absconds with his lover and Billy returns to the U.S., where he is refused enlistment in the army during World War II due to a heart murmur. After working for a while in America, he returns to Mexico to find Boyd, which journey quickly turns into a quest for the boy’s remains as he was cut down in battle. In a mordant development, Boyd is remembered by ordinary Mexicans, somewhat erroneously, as a champion of the people.

Based on his public utterances, McCarthy is, politically, some kind of Burkean conservative, but he is plainly fascinated by Mexico as a country where revolutionary and populist hopes remained alive well into the 20th century; that he shows radical memory to be a faulty one, creating heroic episodes from chapters of accident, reads to me less as a bitter satire on the radical imagination than as the wistful lament of a disappointed idealist.

On the note of memories and stories, in the novel’s final quarter, Billy meets a party of gitanos carting a plane out of the mountains. While they pause to help him heal his father’s horse, wounded in yet another skirmish, their leader, like the hermit and the blind man before him, instructs Billy that efforts to impose meaning on the world are futile, that the world is its own meaning, that our stories are not an ideal pattern we impose on them but are simply the movements of our wandering over the face of the earth:

From a certain perspective one might even hazard to say that the great trouble with the world was that that which survived was held in hard evidence as to past events. A false authority clung to what persisted, as if those artifacts of the past which had endured had done so by some act of their own will. Yet the witness could not survive the witnessing. In the world that came to be that which prevailed could never speak for that which perished but could only parade its own arrogance. It pretended symbol and summation of the vanished world but was neither. He said that in any case the past was little more than a dream and its force in the world greatly exaggerated. For the world was made new each day and it was only men’s clinging to its vanished husks that could make of that world one husk more.

The novel stops more than ends, back in America. It ends, after a vision of a misshapen dog that at long last reprises, most bitterly, the wolf theme, when Billy finally, after hundreds of pages of suffering, weeps.

All the Pretty Horses is a perfect novel of its kind, structurally anyway, so it is perhaps unfair to compare The Crossing to it. Yet so much that is there in the first novel of the trilogy is missing from the second, including character motivation, thematic coherence, and historical grounding.

Despite the mentions of the Mexican Revolution and of World War II, The Crossing is a kind of neo-medieval romance set in a dream landscape. Such an aesthetic gesture can work, but cannot, to my mind, be effectively stretched over 426 pages. Why does Billy leave his family anyway? John Grady Cole set forth because his was no country for young men, because his grandfather was dead, his father was dying, his mother was about to sell the ranch, and the age of the cowboy had ended. But Billy has no such historical significance; he has only a family who loves him. His obscure romance with the wolf is never really motivated, and the fact that wolves as materia and as theme disappear from the novel early on only makes his initial motivation all the more inexplicable.

Billy is himself of partial Mexican descent on his mother’s side, so the novel is perhaps implying, with a somewhat conservative emphasis on what runs in the blood, that the intenser landscape of Mexico is where our hot-blooded hero really belongs, the landscape to which he is native, but, again, this is not developed (and is perhaps better not developed). The Parham family murder is a plot contrivance and an over-emphatic thesis statement on the cruel unknowability of the world.

McCarthy’s insistence in this book on the inadequacy of imposed meanings, of stories that are abstractions of events rather than events themselves, is obviously an anticipatory criticism of my own critique. In fact, McCarthy almost seems to be recoiling in disgust at having written such a well-made crowd-pleaser in All the Pretty Horses, as if he wants to rub in his new and enlarged readership’s face the truth that life is not a well-made novel. “Every representation was an idol. Every likeness a heresy,” the gitano, sounding like an avant-garde painter, tells Billy. All the Pretty Horses, though, from its first sentence forward, warns us not to confuse a thing and its image; it is possible to do this, to tell a great story and comment on its terrible limitations. You don’t have to punish readers by taking them on a half-random and half-illogical sojourn whose only resting places harbor garrulous preachers of oblivion.


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!

Back to School: Literature Springs Eternal


Most of my reading matter for the spring semester is above. (You can find the syllabi here.) As with ordering from a new and affordable menu, the digestive organ may be too small for the appetite: in other words, perhaps too many books! Extracurricularly, I am currently reading a long, dense book, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953). In the midst of it, Bellow’s hero, acquainting himself with literature, history, philosophy, and science, dispenses with forced reading, such as school might require:

I never blamed myself for throwing aside such things as didn’t let themselves be read with fervor, for they left nothing with me anyhow…

You’ll never get too far into an immense, plotless, sometimes even aimless, willfully stylized, and at times utterly wearying (also at times breathtaking) picaresque novel like Augie March with that attitude! Yet the passage is complex: “let themselves be read with fervor.” The implied metaphor (a disturbingly timely one) is sexual consent. The metaphor is not so inapt: there is no such thing as forced reading, not really; you can always put any book down, even one on the syllabus, as every student (but don’t tell the teacher!) has done from time to time. In reading as in any type of relation, once the relation is consented to (“let”) by the other, the fervor on your side is up to you. If you decide to keep reading, you (we, I mean) have to bring something to the books if the books will give anything to us, as one tutelary spirit of the Bellovian enthusiasm advises in his manifesto for American scholarship (the following, with reason, appears as the epigraph to my early American literature syllabus):

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

But because a syllabus is a list of books you are required (at least notionally) to read, it fills you with the overmastering desire to read something, anything else. Please let me, then, make my semiannual appeal: if you want to go AWOL from the prescribed texts, to play literary hooky with a novel intended, over and above its other intentions, to be absorbing, to give pleasure, I recommend what else but my very own Portraits and Ashes.

A relevant excerpt: one of my protagonists, an unemployed architect in a broken marriage wandering the public library during his empty days, decides (just before an erotic assignation for which he will be paid) to do some serious reading, a mission I both strongly believe in and lightly mock:

Self-improvement, then. When he wanted to read something serious, Mark mostly read non-fiction, books about architecture, history, science, or philosophy, books that would make him more intelligent and knowledgeable, while he only perused fiction very occasionally, without taking it at all seriously, for the sake of entertainment or consolation. He had once heard an old professor on TV holding forth to the effect that an acquaintance with the classics of literature fortified the mind and disciplined the passions by subjecting them to the scrutiny of controlled intelligence, as manifested by all the historical varieties of rhetorical eloquence mastered by the great authors. The graybeard had gone on to observe that nothing in popular culture, still less in so-called new media, could match this passion-regulating function of the best that had been thought and said. While this old man, with his wisps of white hair at the sides of his head and his wrinkled chambray shirt, which looked as if years’ worth of pipe smoke must have been caught in its folds, had obviously gone on TV to promote some conservative agenda, Mark, a pragmatic liberal who thought it worse than useless, even cruelly obtuse, to scorn the needs of one’s own time and to protest or try to resist historical change, and who could moreover only imagine the professor emeritus’s scornful reaction to [his wife] Melissa’s web series with its zippy sarcasm and outbursts of profanity and proliferating pop-culture references, nevertheless saw the benefits in his present circumstance of both acquainting himself with a variety of passions and learning how they might be controlled.

He went in search of the classics. In the literature section on the third floor, he found many guides to them, some advertised for resentful truants and morons, others for solemn aspirants to high culture. He noticed that the former usually had some kind of school motif on the cover, the title made to look as if it were written in chalk, for example, while the latter tended to have reproductions of Michelangelo or Vermeer or Waterhouse on the front, some rippling-muscled Biblical hero or attractively pensive and stolid Dutch bourgeoise or perishingly sad-eyed English waif, all suggesting what literature might do for your sensibility if only you’d follow the guidance of the books’ authors.

Happy reading to all!


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!

N. J. Campbell, Found Audio

Found AudioFound Audio by N.J. Campbell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Who is the Biblioteca Nacional de Investigación de Buenos Aires?”

I can tell you without in any way spoiling N. J. Campbell’s Found Audio that this is the novel’s final sentence. It is an odd question on two grounds. First, there is no such institution, as far as I can discern—the official name of Argentina’s national library would appear to be La Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina. Second, “who” is the wrong part of speech: who—that is, what person—could possibly be a research library? But let me not belabor the obvious. The national research library of Argentina is, for the purposes of world literature and its writers and readers, obviously the erstwhile Argentine National Library director himself, Jorge Luis Borges. He is the patron saint of this new novel by debut novelist Campbell. As in Borges’s work, so in Campbell’s, we are in the realm of sublime and oneiric infinities, but mediated ones, ones possibly impossible but for the mass media age, and even then, or now.

I heard of this novel from The Book Chemist and could not resist the implicit promise of a novel that might be a less annoying or pretentious House of Leaves and a more literary or less trashy Night Film. I enjoy narratives that locate primordial fear within the mass communications technologies that were supposed to banish the night forever; they create a frisson of metaphysical disquiet that is authentic to my, or our, experience of everyday life in the way that other venerable horror personae and tropes are not. A demon crawling out of a screen is much more frightening to Internet-addicted city-dwellers or suburbanites than a demon crawling out of a forest. Still, such narratives generally seem better suited to cinema, from The Ring to Lake Mungo, than to literature. Prose fiction, as in Danielewski’s cult classic, often has to strain too hard to create the effects of haunted media when its authors do not learn the lesson of Borges (or Poe or Lovecraft) to keep fear-and-fabulism brief.[1] Found Audio‘s publisher, Two Dollar Radio, acknowledges the novel’s cinematic roots in this slightly mortifying image[2]:

Which is my cue for a plot summary: Found Audio casts itself as a found manuscript narrative. In a foreword and afterword, N. J. Campbell himself tells us that he received this manuscript when working as a reader for a small press; publishing it under his own name as fiction, however, he assures us it is authentic. What is in the manuscript? It is the record and transcript of sound historian Amrapali Anna Singh of the University of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, who found herself in a receipt of a strange set of audio tapes that originated in the aforementioned Argentine national research library. The tapes are the recorded narrative of a nameless travel journalist who explains his long quest for “the city of dreams,” an authentic experience of otherworldly extremity-in-place. His quest begins almost by accident with a hallucinatory tour through the swamps of Louisiana with a snake hunter, then leads him to a walled city in China, a village in South Africa, a possible mirage in the Gobi desert, and a chess game in Istanbul. He both does and does not find what he’s looking for—his experiences are mysterious, even supernatural ones, but also possibly dreams or hallucinations. In the midst of his narrative, he also reflects poignantly on the loss of his life’s great love, a woman named Bianca, who left him for a colleague of his—and not just any colleague, but the one who sets the narrator off on these doomed adventures. While the narrator is telling his tale, he is often interrupted by noises and voices—as the sound historian Singh informs us in her footnotes—that do not seem likely to belong to one place, time, or group of people. Are the narrator’s experiences real? And to what weird tribunal is he reporting them? Moreover, why does everyone who seeks to publicize the tapes go missing?

Found Audio is a literary novel rather than a genre one: by that I mean pragmatically that it is more interested in mood, theme, and psychology than plot. Thus it is no surprise that the questions above—and their philosophical implications—turn out to be much more important than the answers. As its media motif of analog recording in our digital age should suggest, Campbell’s novel is about nostalgia, about yearning for a time when the mysterious could still be imagined as a place in the world. The novel informs us three times that “hysteresis” is the name for a certain distortion that magnetic recording is prey to. There is no etymological relation between “hysteresis” and the return of the repressed itself, “hysteria,” but the punning poetic imagination does not know this. The narrator’s drive to experience the mystery, to go on the outward journey that is the inward journey that is yet again the outward journey, the voyage to and through the oneiric utopia, marks him as the novel’s hero, along with Singh and Campbell, who also refuse to give up on the transmission of the tapes. But the city of dreams remains elusive, and the novel is perhaps also mocking the desire to locate it outside the self—especially when the self is, in the persons both of the novel’s narrator and its author, a white American, and its outside, as depicted in the book’s far-flung settings, is the African-American or African or Chinese or Turkish “other.” (Some readers will almost certainly not find such satire evident or overt enough and will therefore, I assume, provide more of a postcolonial dressing-down of Found Audio‘s colonial tropes than I have.)

As to an aesthetic evaluation of the novel: Campbell has said in interviews that he wanted to experiment with a voiced narrative, hence the recording of the protagonist. Voice, however, can cover a multitude of sins. While the narrative is mostly convincing in its conversational tone, Campbell’s pursuit of speakerly verisimilitude does drain the novel of a certain descriptive vitality. For a tale of such exotic locales and supernal goings-on, there is little evocation of place beyond bare notation, vague metaphors (“His silence carried a weight in its midst”), and even cliché (“dead of night,” “like a dog with a bone,” “all bets are off,” etc.). There is also the occasional distracting solecism, as when both “tenents” and “tenants” are given in place of “tenets” in the space of a single page, for example, or “forth” for “fourth.” Self-parody, like verisimilitude, can furnish fine excuses, but when the sound historian Singh writes that the audio tapes’ narrative is “cliché, undeveloped, and hackneyed,” or when Campbell in his own afterword calls the foregoing story “undeveloped, inconsistent, and insufficiently detailed,” the reader may admire the knowingness without quite forgiving the prose. Though Borges is the novel’s overt sponsor, with his pioneering of the modern writer’s journey through media and language to the infinite heart of mystery, Campbell might have followed Borges in the construction of a more “literary” narrative persona—or perhaps, befitting the narrator’s adventuresome spirit, a more literarily tough-guy one, like those of Hemingway or McCarthy. Otherwise, the novel’s language is sometimes just too slack to induce the unease or vertigo Found Audio is so often striving for.

Nevertheless, the premise is intriguing, the narrative addictively readable, and the themes relevant and ultimately moving. The novel is even informative. One of Campbell’s jokes, I take it, is that his fiction’s mundane locales—such as the University of Dutch Harbor and the Biblioteca Nacional de Investigación de Buenos Aires—are wholly invented, while its Walled Cities and Bayou mysteries are based on solid research. And some scenes are as eerie and memorable as anything in this literary tradition:

Now it’s extremely unnerving when a blind man narrows his eyes at you. If it had been in some other direction, if it had felt like he had been looking to the left or right of me—even by an inch—I would have felt something less than primal fear, but he just stood there with his empty eyes leveled at my eyes. He stared at me for maybe three or four seconds and then he walked out in front of his stand, bent down, and picked up a handful of dry earth. Then he stood up and stared right at me again and held out his other, empty, hand. I thought he was gesturing for me to give him my hand and I guessed correctly, because as I gave it to him, he held the earth over my palm and let it slip through his fingers. Before a single grain of sand touched my palm, it had scattered in the wind.

A fascinating and promising first novel; I look forward to the second.

[1] Staging the return of the repressed at length via printed text—which is to say in literature—tends to work better in a comic rather than horrific mode, from Cervantes to Sterne to Joyce to Nabokov. Insofar as both comedy and horror are the unconscious’s disordered revenge upon the ego’s rational designs, we can still see a kinship between both modes of meta-media narrative.

[2] Saturated in advertising as we are, we naturally think of books, possibly including our own, in such marketing terms; when I first started writing Portraits and Ashes back in 2013, I joked that it was “Lena Dunham meets José Saramago” (forgive me: Lena still seemed relevant then)—but I don’t know if I would actually want it advertised that way!


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!