Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who begins The Sign of Four with Sherlock Holmes in an opium trance, Dashiell Hammett can’t get his detective novel started without an infusion of aestheticism. The Maltese Falcon, named as it is for an objet d’art, opens with two descriptions that strike several notes of the art for art’s sake and decadent movements of fin-de-siècle England and France, even though Hammett was writing almost two generations later, in 1930, in America, on the cusp of a hard-boiled decade:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

He said to Effie Perine: “Yes, sweetheart?”

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face.

We have the transvaluation of values that gives us Satan as hero, we have the artistic formalism that describes a human face as a geometric phenomenon, we have the queer overtones of a sexily boyish heroine, and above all we have the bored, jaded irony in the narrator’s tone, his blasé patience in physical description, as if he had all the luxe, calme, et volupté in the world.

The Maltese Falcon is, moreover, an artistic experiment—which should perhaps come as no surprise since it was written in the modernist moment, when those other legatees of aestheticism, such as Joyce, Woolf, Stein, and Hemingway, were reinventing the shape of narrative prose. Like the last-named modernist, Hammett strips his novel of anything but description and dialogue. At no time do we enter a character’s consciousness or see through one’s eyes. The narrator is a camera, not metaphorically, as with Isherwood’s contemporaneous experiment in objective (albeit first-person) narration, but literally in that Hammett only reports surfaces and actions; we are left to infer what anyone is thinking or what any of it means.

The complicated plot of this pioneering noir novel is hardly worth recording in any detail. It is a shaggy-dog story about P.I. Sam Spade’s recruitment by the faithless femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy to help her recover the title bird—a treasure that once belonged to a Templar-esque order of former Crusaders, and which is now being hunted around the globe by a rivalrous group of high-end thieves. Three murders and a lot of trouble with the police later, Spade ends up in an almost ritually slow stand-off with the criminals until the falcon proves elusive and Spade proves even colder than frigid Brigid.

Our assembled antagonists include not only the sexy villainess but also a pederastic Levantine named Joel Cairo and an elaborately fat man named Gutman. But the real moral of the story, fired home at the conclusion by the recoil of Effie Perine, the novel’s only decent character, is that the inscrutable, loveless Spade is perhaps the most chilling denizen of his corrupt world. Hammett concludes with a hint of his Satanic hero’s permanent damnation:

[Effie’s] voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

He nodded. “Your Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know—I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

Spade’s face became pale as his collar.

I wish I had read this novel earlier, if only to appreciate how much Pynchon borrows from it for my beloved Crying of Lot 49: the early modern secret society, the absent quest object, the California paranoia, even the aestheticism and modernism (as when Pynchon alludes to Pater and Varo). Yet Pynchon also almost certainly rebukes Hammett when he has Oedipa Maas, a kind of older and wiser Effie Perine, experience a moral epiphany rather than an immoralist betrayal on the nighttime streets of San Francisco. Postmodern literature rises in humanist rebellion against the pop fiction it was supposed to have uncritically incorporated with the late-20th-century collapse of cultural hierarchies.

But how did pop fiction get so decadent in the first place? Didn’t learned literary sociologists assure us that the art for art’s sake or immoralist attitude was the response of elite cultural producers to the popular market’s indifference to their wares? Isn’t aestheticism an elitist last-stand of high literature before its overwhelming by mass literacy and mass media? Didn’t Baudelaire and Flaubert invent decadence to invert the moralistic judgments and easy aesthetics of the mass market? Didn’t they (per Pierre Bourdieu) construct modern art as “the economic world reversed”?

If all that sociology is true, then why do we find such foundational detective fictions as Doyle’s and Hammett’s (and Chandler’s) drawing on tones and tropes of l’art pour l’art? (Note, by the way, that the French intelligentsia got the message, or, more aptly, caught the boomerang, when they argued in the mid-20th-century for the artistic greatness of American detective fiction and film.)

The answer, which I’ve written about before, is one of those observations so simple you can’t make it unless you forget much of what you learned—or unless you never even bother to learn it in the first place, which is my recommendation re: literary sociology. The answer is this: when you subtract external spiritual, ethical, or political determinants from art, you get two precipitates, which themselves can be combined or separated. They are formalism and entertainment: art that obeys only its own inner logic and communes only with itself, or art that exists only to provoke sensation of whatever sort in its audience. The first person to understand this, Edgar Allan Poe, single-handedly invented both avant-garde poetry and popular genre fiction.

Since Poe created modern detective fiction, Hammett is his legatee. And he knows it: the strenuous queer-bashing and Orientalism of his narrative is an unmistakable case of misdirection and disavowal: he’s well aware of his sources. For Hammett, modern literature is, like the object for which his novel is named, a glittering treasure from another century painted black and thrown into the pitiless jostle for wealth and power.

But Hammett’s irony does not stop at such a conservative lament. Gutman explains to Spade that the Crusaders who built the bird themselves wanted only wealth and power; the reputed faith or humanism of the past was a charade, while noir cynicism was always the truth, even in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Furthermore, the only Maltese Falcon we ever see in the novel is a forgery: when Gutman scrapes off the black enamel, he uncovers only lead. In this respect, the object is like the novel is like the hero. The book is a formalist experiment with no philosophical depth. And for most of the novel’s length, we suspect Spade’s Satanic exterior to hide a heart of gold, but no: as Brigid and Effie discover, he’s cold to the coeur.

Plato thought poetry was divine madness, Aristotle thought it was moral mimesis, but Hammett asks a question that provokes even a postmodern pasticheur like Pynchon to blanch: what if art is all surface, a worthless artifice that inspires only mindless greed (when it comes in the guise of entertainment) or false devotion (when it presents itself as formalism)? In which case, why not popular fiction, the worse the better? Not because, as the clown lisps in Dickens, “People mutht be amuthed,” but because trashy bestsellers reveal that the whole enterprise was rotten from the start.


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Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, Providence

Providence Act 1Providence Act 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is with hesitation that I write anything about Providence. This recent three-volume graphic novel—a prequel/sequel to the earlier works, The Courtyard and Neonomicon—represents Alan Moore’s meticulously-researched and carefully-arranged synthesis of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos, whereas I am only the most casual reader of Lovecraft and a mild skeptic of his new eminence in the literary canon (I attempt, in the voice of an imagined devotee, the best case I can make for Lovecraft in my review of At the Mountains of Madness). But I wrote this summer about Moore’s earliest comics opus, Miracleman, so for symmetry’s sake I will essay on his latest, Providence.

Moore is, in any case, skeptical of Lovecraft too. While a number of Providence‘s allusions no doubt wriggled tentacularly over my head, I think I got the book’s point. In this narrative, set mainly in 1919, Lovecraft is the unknowing channel used by an occult conspiracy to influence both popular and high culture so that the immemorial dream-world, vanquished at the founding of human civilization and populated with the creatures envisioned by Lovecraft (and kindred writers like Poe, Bierce, Dunsany, and Chambers), can triumph over the earth again. Not for nothing does Borges appear in its penultimate chapter: as a commenter at the Providence annotations site points out, Moore is in essence retelling “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” only with figures from Lovecraft’s life and work. 

But is it a good thing that Lovecraft’s visions triumph? The final chapter of Providence stages a philosophical debate among the characters—including real-life, living Lovecraft scholar, S. T. Joshi—about just that. As we know, Lovecraft and many of his precursors and successors, from Poe to Burroughs, held illiberal views, while our present literary culture, ostensibly including Moore, is ever-more militantly liberal. 

Moore addresses this question through Providence‘s protagonist: Robert Black. Black is a closeted gay, Jewish journalist from Milwaukee, rather than being the WASP scion Lovecraft was. He travels from New York to New England investigating signs of the aforementioned occult conspiracy. When at the narrative’s first climax he meets the man himself in the eponymous Rhode Island city, he lets Lovecraft borrow his journal, in which he’s both reported on his experiences and written down story ideas and literary criticism. Both Black’s record of what he’s seen in his travels and his theorization of the need for a new kind of fantastical literature inspire Lovecraft to write his most important works. Black, meanwhile, realizes he has been the pawn of the occult conspiracy all along, engineered as the “herald” (in fact, he writes for the New York Herald) to Lovecraft’s “redeemer”—a John the Baptist for the Cthulhu mythos’s Incarnation.

This narrative arrangement leaves us with two possible interpretations of Lovecraftian politics. On the one hand, despite Lovecraft’s own abjection of the non-white, of the queer, and of much of modernity at large, he actually owes his visions to these social forces; much of his own inventiveness must be credited to these prevailing conditions allegorized through the figure of Black (and communicated through Black’s understanding of how much “weird fiction” as theory and practice owes to the various social and artistic avant-gardes Lovecraft scorned in favor of the 18th century). 

By contrast, insofar as the Lovecraftian lifeworld, not only inhumane but inhuman, colonizes culture then its collaborators, including real and made-up marginal figures from Robert Black to Burroughs and Joshi, may have something to atone for. (Moore makes clear the grisly methods of coercion it uses, for which rape, as in so much of his work, is here again the metonym.) Perhaps we ought not to have so hastily thrown the realist novel—the “literary fiction” Black anachronistically complains about to his journal—in the historical dustbin.

Providence never quite resolves this conundrum over the worth of Lovecraft or the weird for which he serves as figurehead. When earth becomes Yuggoth at the novel’s conclusion (or perhaps, per the fictionalized Joshi, realizes that it always was Yuggoth), the violated mother of Cthulhu herself says, “I think we should learn to dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.” Moore makes heavy reference to Freud on the unconscious and Jung on dreams to suggest that such a return of the repressed, such a habitation of the dreamworld, is true and inevitable. Yet it was purchased with lies and bloodlines, wrought on the bodies of prostrate women by metaphysical fascists. Can you have magic and ethics, even magic and everyday decency?

We are back in the dilemma, if dilemma it is, of From Hell: the character who speaks for Moore’s occultism is a misogynist murderer, the character who speaks for his humanism the only victim to survive. But perhaps this Yeatsian tension between spirit and humanity, between the work and the life, is preferable to the fantasies of their resolution that we were getting from Moore a little over a decade ago in the not-entirely-convincing polemics of Promethea and Lost Girls.  

Added to all the foregoing to give it an extra savor: Providence is Moore’s love-hate letter both to comics and to America (and maybe they are the same thing for him). Providence is only part-comics. The comics part is drawn in the painstaking ligne claire of Jacen Burrows, avowedly influenced by Hergé and Otomo. Burrows must have once seen that interview where Eddie Campbell called Bill Sienkiewicz a prima donna for not finishing Big Numbers, because he seems to have devoted his life to doing whatever Alan Moore tells him to do. Yet Moore gives over a third of each chapter to the prose of Robert Black’s diary—too often undistinguished prose, alas. The occult paraphernalia Black inserts is usually better, my favorite being the weekly circular for the church in Moore’s Innsmouth stand-in, written all in piscine puns beginning with a hilarious Gospel misquotation: “I will make you fishes of men.” The book itself, then, is divided between Moore’s devotion to comics and his desire to escape into literature.

Likewise, through Black’s speculations on how to write romances for the modern age, we hear Moore’s tribute to American literature: he carefully roots Lovecraft’s achievements not only in the fin-de-siècle avant-garde but in the American modernity of Poe and Hawthorne. It all made me consider for the first time in literally 30 years of reading him (I read The Killing Joke when I was six!) how odd it must be to be Alan Moore: to have spent so much of one’s career writing for and about a country you don’t live in, a country whose culture has—shades of Providence‘s Cthulhu cult—semi-colonized one’s own, even if part of one welcomed it as a liberation from one’s overly familiar everyday world. Comics, pop culture, America: Moore must love and loathe them in equal measure. No wonder he writes fiction of such tortured ambivalence, in contrast to the sometimes unwelcome certitude of the interviews he gives.

Should you read Providence? You probably have to come to it already caring about Lovecraft and Moore. You should also be willing to deal with the nastiness Moore uses to emphasize the inhumanity of his cultists. Providence isn’t as bad as Neonomicon, with its outright attack on the audience, and its most disgusting scene is partially penitent, as it represents a Moore surrogate assaulting the reader (i.e., a character placed in the reader’s point-of-view position). Still, it’s not for faint of heart. (As for the often raised question of Moore and rape: he writes about it as much as he does for the exact same reason as second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin or Adrienne Rich talked about as much as they did: both think it’s the foundation of all human hierarchy.)

Providence does contain much too much relatively lifeless prose from Black, all given in annoying cursive handwriting. I understand Moore’s goal in dividing the narrative, but I remain convinced the man who often included three strands of narrative in a single tiny panel of Watchmen could have told almost the whole story in comics form. 

Black’s characterization is also seriously flawed. Moore can’t seem to decide if he’s an aw-shucks hayseed or an experienced habitué of the queer demimonde who is au courant with the avant-garde. He’s naive when Moore needs him to be, not when Moore doesn’t; therefore, he never comes into focus as a character.

But for all that, I enjoyed Providence, particularly the time-jump audacity of its last two chapters. For personal reasons I love that the spread showing Yuggoth as it overcomes urban space takes Pittsburgh as its victim city. And the ethical debate at the end—accept sublime change, whatever form it takes; or fight for humanity and for humanism?—is one that our technological condition will never let rest. I admired Burrows’s heroic feats of drawing and Juan Rodriguez’s distinctive grayish-greenish digital palette.

Finally—a test of the most powerful works—for all its flaws, I have lingered in the disquieting mood of Providence for days after finishing it.

Screen Shot 2018-12-24 at 2.08.13 PM
Borges’s appearance in Providence #11

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Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World

How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and MoreHow to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More by Nicholas Mirzoeff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mirzoeff self-consciously updates the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing with a new piece of popular Marxist pedagogy on how to read politics and history into images and how to change politics and history through images. Chapters situating the selfie in the democratizing history of self-portraiture, explaining the three phases of the modern city (imperial, divided, and global) through artistic representations thereof, elaborating the inextricable relation between railroad and cinema (the signal technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively), and expounding on contemporary neuroscience to demonstrate that vision is a process involving the whole body and the whole polis are vertiginous mind-changing narratives in the manner of the best popular nonfiction; they justify Mirzoeff’s claims for the omni-relevance of “visual culture” as a discipline. On the other hand, chapters that range slightly further afield from visual culture as such (not that Mirzoeff would see anything in our represented world as outside its mandate), such as those on war and climate change, fit less readily into the overall narrative. Mirzoeff’s conclusion is also compromised: its almost kitschy “we are the 99%” progressive optimism about “visual activism” has been called into question by the political right’s own relatively successful entry into the digital culture war of images since the text’s 2015 publication. Finally, this book could also use color plates or else just instructions to google the pictures discussed, because its black-and-white and heavily miniaturized image reproductions are often too murky to contribute much to Mirzoeff’s compelling exegeses.

Mirzoeff’s “toolkit for thinking about visual culture” from the Introduction

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César Aira, Ema, the Captive

Ema, the CaptiveEma, the Captive by César Aira

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading and rereading Wilde over the years, I note a fact that his panegyrists seem not even to have suspected: the elementary and demonstrable fact that Wilde is nearly always right.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “On Oscar Wilde” (trans. Esther Allen)

Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

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.

To emphasize the stakes of the conflict, David’s victims are a crew of married couples on a mission to colonize a new planet (in a bathetic attempt to offset the film’s homophobic deep structure, we are provided among the crew a gay-married couple). The film’s emotional core is a scene wherein David attempts to seduce the crew’s own android, Walter. Both played by Michael Fassbender, the scene, notable for the double entendres that had the frat bros in the audience cackling (“I’ll do all the fingering,” David says as he teaches Walter to play a pipe), evokes the Narcissus topos of gay male desire. The seduction, alas, fails, as we might have predicted from the two androids’ verbal mannerism: Fassbender plays David in homage to Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, all insinuatingly nasal cultivation, while he plays Walter with the exaggerated accent British actors always use when their characters are supposed to be salt-of-the-earth middle Americans.

The film seemingly pits family values against its queer Satan, who is more monstrous than the monsters he manipulates, and Scott and co. cynically deploy homophobia (and heterosexual titillation) to keep those frat bro ticket-buyers entertained; but I ultimately hesitate at the judgement that the film is homophobic. Who could demiurgic David represent if not the film’s maker? Who does an artist watching the film have to identify with besides its maestro of mayhem, whether director Scott or Scott’s surrogate droid? Family values, the “good” in good vs. evil, are colors on the palette (or tastes on the palate), but the artist—whether Oscar Wilde or Ridley Scott, David or myself—are in this for the excitement, beyond good and evil.

The laborer in the factory of popular culture cannot publicly advertise amoral aestheticism, however, or not for long, anyway. There is too much money at risk, too many constituencies to please, so values must be affirmed. Hence Alien: Covenant‘s plucky widow, its explicit protagonist, en route to fertilize the cosmos. Even a pop artist who does endorse aestheticism must eventually come back to hearth and home: witness the current public-spirited sorrow of poor Lana del Rey, once our nightingale of sexual nihilism, now so distressed about “tensions…rising over country lines” that she must ask, like a PTA or PSA mom, “What about all of these children?”

In “high culture”—or as Pierre Bourdieu calls it, the “field of restricted production”—you are allowed say, “Well, what about them? And who cares, anyway?” (Which vicious aloofness has this to recommend it: if you can recall being a child, you might remember that this was what you always wanted to say in the face of the adult world’s furrowed brow.) Hence Wilde’s theoretical essays and dialogues, which are forthright in their dismissal of extra-artistic interest from art; hence Borges’s equanimity in contemplating the replacement of reality by fictions, the process he narrates again and again, which politico-moral critics try to recoup as a critique of totalitarianism, like trying to convince yourself that pornography is a moral warning against fornication or, as we now call it, objectification.

By a commodious vicus of recirculation, I return from Ridley Scott’s interstellar jaunt to Argentina—not to Borges, but to his distinguished successor in his country’s avant-garde, César Aira, who candidly tells an interviewer, “maybe all my work is a footnote to Borges” (maybe?). I justify the above digression—can you begin an essay with a digression?—with the statement that Aira’s second novel, Ema, the Captive, now translated into English for the first time, tells the same story as Alien: Covenant, right down to the breeding motif (called by a character “sodomy incarnate”—i.e., queer reproduction). Though Aira wrote this book, 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.

Aira is an avant-garde writer whose rejection of traditional novelistic realism and psychology takes the form of a sort of surrealist automatic writing practice: he writes his novels forward, without planning, research, or revision, inventing as he goes. Ema, the Captive is my third Aira novel, and like the other two, its story is an allegorization of the pleasures and perils of this procedure. Like the other two I have read, Ema concludes that there is in fact no “forward” in this life, nor any separation of art from nature, just an interlocking set of gestures and processes, pursued by animal, vegetable, and mineral alike, in the making and remaking of the world.

Ema, the Captive has roughly four movements. It begins with a military caravan of white men and convicts as they cross the pampas to reach a distant European outpost in the wilds of nineteenth-century Argentina. The hero of this section is a French engineer named Duval who is gradually initiated into Aira’s endorsement of procedure for its own sake:

But he cherished the hope that the task assigned to him would be all-encompassing and absorb his life entirely. He could not, in that state of mind, have found satisfaction in anything less sublime.

We meet the Ema of the title only in passing; she is a “white” convict caring for her child (though Aira mocks the arbitrariness of racial classification by noting that she does not at all look white but functions as white in both European and Indian racial economies because both groups wish her to be so for their own purposes).

She is eventually traded to the Indians, and the second movement details her experiences with her “husband” Gombo in a native settlement near a European fort, where she contemplates the colonel Espina’s introduction of money into native society as a medium of pure and meaningless representation that somehow creates value (one character makes the analogy to art clear: “Money is an arbitrary construction, an element chosen purely for its effectiveness as a means of passing the time”).

Their town is attacked by Indians from the frontier, however, and the third movement, mimicking the first, features Ema only as a side character as it details the languid, melancholy, Huysmans-like pleasure of prince Hual, on an island sojourn with his courtly retinue, including Ema. On this island, he delivers himself of beautifully nihilistic speeches—

“Life,” he said, “is a primitive phenomenon, destined to vanish entirely. But extinction is not and will not be sudden. Destiny is what gives the incomplete and the open their aesthetic force.”

—as the Indians pull a fish like a “very white woman” out of the water, thus certifying the universality of captivity.

In the fourth movement, Ema decides to take some control of her fate by breeding pheasants and thus participating in the complicated and interconnected economies of various Indian nations and the white colonizers—like Espina, like her creator, she too wishes to invent a self-replicating system of arbitrary values. This should not be read as a conventional triumph, however, but only Ema’s own initiation into what the other characters, from Duval to Gombo to Hual to Espina, have come to understand: as Gombo tells Ema, “If it weren’t impossible, life would be horrific.” I take “impossible” to mean, paradoxically, both “unendurable” and “full of infinite potential.”

That was the last and definitive lesson remaining for her to learn. Then everything fell into silence. There was no anabasis.

One could object all day long to this novel on political grounds, from its blasé depiction of the heroine’s rape to its wholly fantastical portrayal of Native Americans, but this would be an external critique and so somewhat beside the novel’s point (Wilde: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming”), which is that all life is a skein of procedures stretched over the void. As this article explains, Aira wrote the novel under conditions of a fascist regime, so his apolitical styling was an evasion worth making. Aira anyway evades the usual stereotypes in pursuit of new ones: his victimized heroine is not the “strong female character” of captivity narratives celebrated from Mary Rowlandson to Ellen Ripley by what critics have called a culture of imperialist feminism, but a novitiate in the aesthetic clerisy, while his Indians are not noble savages but, like Wilde’s Japanese, a nation of exemplary artists:

Imitating them was like returning to the source. Elegance is a religious, perhaps even a mystical, quality. The aesthetics of polite society: an imperative departure from the human. […] But the Indians kept still; their sole occupation was hanging from the blue air like bats.

Ema, the Captive is short, but it took me a long time to read. Aira remarkably recreates the trance-like state of his benumbed characters as they contemplate the impossibility of everything. In Chris Andrews’s translation, Aira’s phantasmagoria comes to listless life, feverishly dreamy, grotesque and sexy, a genuine and difficult pleasure:

They realized that they were, by chance, about to witness the act of mating. The male could barely control his excitement. When he swam upside down, they saw two horns, one on either side of the anus, as long and thick as pencils, with sharp points. The female turned over: her anus was surrounded by bulbous rings of throbbing tissue. The creatures coupled and sank to the bottom. The water made their cries sound distant. They tumbled in ecstasy, still clamped together. A web of white threads spread out around them.

I recommend Ema, the Captive with reservations (it is slow; it is, in its way, didactic), but even the reservations are recommendations—it is as slow as its preponderant mood of entranced nihilism demands; what it propounds is the truth, or one mood or mode of truth, even if we are not usually permitted to admit that we find life meaningless and impossible. To repurpose a line from the novel, Aira’s “words [stand] out beautifully against the ambient strangeness.”

The complete severance of art from life—or the claim that life is art, which amounts to the same separation as it undoes the hierarchy that allows art to be understood as a representation of nature—is the logical terminus of the aesthetic, its becoming free, like the droid-bred alien that menaces the crew of the Covenant. Art is too powerful to remain at large, though; readers of my recent reviews, those on Georg Lukács and Gillian Rose, will know that I fully expect—and in some part of my divided psyche, I even welcome—a forced recapture of art to affirmative values. Maybe it has to be that way, even from the perspective of art’s own interests: Aira is an end, not a beginning, and the paradox of aestheticist art, as I am always saying, is that it is less exciting than art that more urgently narrates the conflict of values. As he writes in this novel of an Indian ceremony, Aira’s work “require[s] the maximum of attention while rendering attention futile.” For now, though, we can say with Borges that Wilde was right whether we like it or not about art’s separation from life, and learn to enjoy, along with Aira’s text and Scott’s subtext, the fact that we are all, in the end, equally alien, and that there is no known higher authority with whom we may covenant as we invent ourselves and our planet.


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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.


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Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the BaskervillesThe Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Today, in honor of Halloween, the Paris Review is running an 1872 epistolary exchange between Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman. Sympathy between the authors of Leaves of Grass and Dracula is not as incongruous as it seems, given certain obvious sociopolitical realities—it makes sense for a budding Irish author to look up to a bard of national freedom, and students of the homoerotic and the onanistic will find much to ponder in Stoker’s letter (“I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea”)—but there is also more of a literary connection than meets the eye.

Stoker affirms Whitman’s values in the letter:

One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours—“the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports,” you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this Walt Whitman—that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts.

But doesn’t he affirm them still more decisively in 1897’s Dracula? This novel’s Victorian heterosexual marriage plot is derailed by the archaic threat of an aristocratic despot who comes out of the mists of the East to menace the metropolis, and who indeed enters the “new port” of modern England on the “weather-beaten”—also vampire-beaten—and eventually shipwrecked Demeter on a journey to the underworld in reverse. But Dracula eventually narrates the defeat of the Old World by a not un-Whitmanian combination of modern science, modern communications, and modernized gender and sexual roles: the New Woman represented by Mina Harker and the cosmopolitan Männerbund of vampire-hunters evoking Whitman’s homophiliac democracy.

I use the Stoker/Whitman connection to introduce my review of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a 1902 Sherlock Holmes mystery by Stoker’s distant relative, Arthur Conan Doyle, because The Hound‘s narrative is superficially similar to Dracula‘s in its effects. In fact, Doyle goes even further than Stoker in that he not only shows the defeat of the supernatural by the powers of reason and progress but also tells us that these powers can expose the supernatural itself as the criminal imposture and sham that it really is. For Stoker, the old mysteries can be beaten by the typewriter, the telegraph, modern medicine, feminism, and the city; for Doyle, ratiocination proves the mystery never to have been a mystery at all, just the self-serving myth of a justly dying social order.

You probably already know the novel’s story: Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead at his estate on the moors of southwest England. His physician worries that he was frightened to death by a supernatural hound, which has supposedly menaced his family since the seventeenth century, when local lore tells of the spectral canine’s dispatch of the rapist Cavalier Hugo Baskerville (“a most wild, profane, and godless man”) after he traded “his body and soul to the Powers of Evil” so that he could kidnap a young female neighbor. The famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson are enlisted to solve the mystery, which brings Watson (our narrator, as is usual with the Holmes stories) from London to the moor to watch over the new heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry, a man reared in North America who plans to modernize his inheritance with electric light and more. Holmes has ostensibly sent Watson to manage the case in his stead, but in the course of time we learn that he has been watching the proceedings from the neolithic huts on the moor; by the novel’s final third he joins the fight to save Sir Henry from whatever menaces him. I will not go into the complicated and red-herring-laden plot (which features an escaped convict, bathetic servants, a Dickensian grotesque obsessed with lawsuits, a scandalous love affair, domestic violence, lepidoptery, and more), but the novel’s upshot is that there is no supernatural hound, only a dog painted with phosphorous by a brilliant but decidedly material criminal intent on having the Baskerville property to himself.

Detective fiction invokes the Gothic only to usurp it here at the turn of the twentieth century; we have nothing to fear but human evil, and this can be contained and controlled by human intelligence (in the person of Holmes) and action (in the person of Watson). Even more than Dracula, with its triumphant modernity, The Hound of the Baskervilles is an anti-horror horror novel.[1]

The rational moral of the story does not prevent the novel from indulging in the atmospheric, however. Watson as narrator is usually only serviceable in his prose, often just conveying informative dialogue in the true anti-aesthetic spirit of genre fiction, but the moor and environs, which include jutting crags and a fatal bog, bring out a strain of lyricism that makes the novel more memorable for its haunted pathos than for its exorcising logos:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. As you look at their gray stone huts against the scarred hill-sides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own.

And how seriously do we need to take Doyle/Holmes’s thesis against superstition anyway? When I say that detective fiction usurps the Gothic, I am saying that we replace one myth with another (unavoidably, as humanity lives on and by myth). The novel is somewhat overt about this fact. Why else is Holmes hiding out among the shades of neolithic man if not to associate his own quasi-mystical powers with the archaic? Holmes’s powers are indeed mystical, because though he claims them to be “deductive,” most commentators observe that he rather works, poet-wise, by flying inductive leaps, like the characteristic fin-de-siècle genius that he is.

Holmes is a kind of white magician[2], dispelling the hound’s dark evil through a primal power of good incarnated in a city detective with a revolver and smoking habit. When Holmes moves in disguise around the moor, like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt or Odysseus on his homecoming to Ithaca, we are in the realm of lordly myth, renovated for serialization and democratic dissemination to the newly literate masses. Holmes is all spirit, Watson all matter, and together they fuse in an alchemical wedding to form the complete man, a new figure for a new age, which I imagine Walt Whitman, had he lived long enough, would have hailed as the fulfillment of his progressive prophecy.

[1] In his sometimes rather Kinbotean notes to this edition (as if I’m one to talk!), Christopher Frayling observes that Watson’s mixed narration—which includes straightforwardly retrospective narration, epistolary narrative when he writes to Holmes, and excerpts from his diary—is a nod to “the convention of presenting horror stories in the form of collections of documents such as letters, diaries and reports—Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, most recently Dracula” which was “a way of dividing the authorial voice into different registers.” It was also a way of containing the horror—or, more broadly, the unconscious and repressed—with rational discourse. By the time of modernism, the repressed returns via textuality itself—comically, not horrifically, in Ulysses—and horror will pick up the hint by the end of the twentieth century, so that recent horror fiction and film, such as House of Leaves and The Ring, show supernatural evil to be transmitted through the texts that were supposed to contain them.

[2] Though the late-Victorian aesthete’s amorality in which Holmes dabbles may trouble my argument a bit; he allows that he endangers Sir Henry to solve the mystery, caring less for lives than for his successful rearrangement of life patterns known as detection. But his benevolent magic’s having something of the inhuman about it also reinforces my claim for its otherworldliness. Of the racial, rather than occult, connotation of “white,” see my review of The Sign of Four, an imperial romance inside a detective novel.


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!

How the Novel Succeeded and How You Can Too

[I post this at Tumblr yesterday in response to an anonymous questioner using that platform’s “ask” feature. I am posting it here because this is generally where I keep longer pieces I’ve written. The questioner asked me if I had any thoughts on how the novel rose to cultural prominence, despite the form’s many critics, and he said that his question was inspired by recent events surrounding Jack Thompson, a notoriously censorious opponent of video games. And this is my reply:]

Had to google Mr. Thompson, but now I think I am on your train of thought. So, how did the novel get taken seriously, and how might other upstart art forms follow suit? Three ways, by my quickly dashed-off reckoning:

1. Constantly reinvent by parodying the prior trashy or unfashionable or outdated genres that have characterized the form. Don Quixote is the textbook case: prose narrative is characterized by stupid romances? Rewrite them to make them seem false and your own version true. And novelists took Cervantes’s hint. Austen does it to Gothic romances and Byronic poetry, Flaubert does it to romantic literature in Madame Bovary, Joyce does it to the domestic realist novel in Ulysses, and postcolonial feminism makes an industry out of it, with Things Fall Apart rewriting Heart of Darkness, Wide Sargasso Sea rewriting Jane Eyre, Foe rewriting Robinson Crusoe, and Beloved rewriting every nineteenth-century American classic in sight. “All those older novels were lying to you, but my novel is telling you the truth.”

2. Nominate yourself avatar of the world-spirit. People are saying your favored art form–in this case, the novel–is just some trash read by bored adolescent girls? Au contraire–it is the education of the heart, the bearer of moral virtue (Richardson, Rousseau), it is the instrument of total social reform and regeneration and redemption (Dickens, Stowe, Dostoevsky), it is the means of apprehending historical development and present society (Scott, Balzac, Tolstoy), it is the modern legatee of ancient epic narrating society’s self-conception and furnishing the means of progress (various theorists from Schlegel to Jameson). “Novels are not just entertainment–they are our world in a book!”

3. Focus on form. Your chosen art is a loose, baggy monster? Go to school with the poets and dramatists, then, whose chosen forms impose prior constraints on structure, from the customary twoish hour running time to the standard verse meters. Your novel must “carry its justification in every line,” says Conrad. Flaubert perspires over every comma, and he is joined by a long train of fellow sufferers; some of us are still sweating. Henry James invents a rulebook about the proper subject matter (the present palpable-intimate) and the proper way to treat it (through a sophisticated manipulation, toward ethical ends, of narrative perspective). And even those who will come along later to play with these deliberately wrought forms can only do so by being equally formalist. “Novels are not just for fun; they are carefully arranged art objects.”

Those are the most salient means by which novelists and partisans of the novel convinced the world that theirs was a sophisticated, serious form of art.

I take it your question implies an analogy between novels and video games, but I don’t know anything about video games, so let me make a lateral move to another contemporary “low” art form in the process of elevation, one I do know something about: comics and graphic novels.

Consider Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, perhaps the most acclaimed of all graphic novels, the only one on the Time 100. It deploys all three techniques I outlined above: it parodies prior super-hero comics to suggest, with Cervantine metafictional devices, that its critical depiction of that genre’s subject matter is the only true one; it casts itself as a meditation on political power in the twentieth century and a thick description of nuclear anxiety, which made it seem politically relevant at the time of its release and makes it seem historical in a pedagogically useful way now; and it seeks and attains a formal closure (through the meter-like constraint of its nine-panel grids, its endless doublings and mirrorings at visual and narrative levels, and its obsessive patterning of a limited set of symbols) never before attempted on such a large scale in comics. And it worked: everybody took Watchmen seriously, and continues to do so.

While I have pledged myself to plod along with the old doddering novel, I recommend that the new forms of narrative art seeking their fortune follow something like the script above. Hope that’s what you had in mind!