Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This 1979 classic novel of time travel and slavery could not be published today.

Imagine it, imagine Octavia Butler temporally jumped to the present and trying to put out Kindred in the current media climate. Assume, because it’s so good, that the novel even finds an agent and a publisher. Then a science fiction press, banking on an excited reception for this relevant, suspenseful, original, and provocative narrative, releases advanced copies to online reviewers. Perhaps the publisher advertises the novel’s plot teasingly, but a bit vaguely: “A modern African-American woman involuntarily travels back in time to the early 19th century, where she has to live among her enslaved ancestors.”

But the advanced readers begin to leak the novel’s true premise on Goodreads and Twitter. Kindred is really about a modern African-American woman forced to travel back in time to save the life of the white man who enslaved her ancestors. What’s more, she also has to ensure that he rapes one of those ancestors over and over again, because if she doesn’t, she herself will not in the course of time be born from the lineage founded by that assault.

The heroine, furthermore, is married in the narrative present to a white man, and is clearly and avowedly motivated by an obscure attraction, at once maternal and sororal, to the white rapist and slave-owner who will become her distant grandfather. Their fatal dance is the novel’s emotional core, even as the other black characters, all enslaved on the man’s plantation, accuse her of collaboration with white power, an accusation she often finds difficult to deny.

The reaction would be swift and shocking. Before anyone but a handful of self-appointed guardians of literary safety had even read the manuscript, Butler would find herself accused of promoting “tropes”—the acquiescent slave, the violated woman who secretly desires her abuse, etc.—whose mere presence in a work, no matter how ironized or contextualized or ramified, have the power to “harm” the audience through some unspecified mechanism formerly known only to fundamentalist preachers in the Satanic-Panic 1980s.

To attempt to defend Butler would necessarily be to perpetuate this tropological harm. To attempt to remind her attackers that their attitude toward the arts is not socially just, as it descends directly from the ideologies legitimating Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to say nothing of Winthrop’s Boston; to attempt to inform them that their censorious quest is also not resistant to white-male authority (as they will claim it is) since its premises come more or less straight from several grand old men of the European canon, such as Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, and Tolstoy—all of this would take too long for Twitter.

Considering these obstacles, most influential writers and critics would only privately express their discontent as they do nothing to defend their beleaguered colleague in public, while a few bestselling authors and celebrities will even opportunistically amplify the inevitable hashtag campaign: #kancelkindred.

A cringing, scraping, self-humiliating apology, a promise to “listen better” and “do better,” would be demanded of the author. Her publisher, convinced that 20 self-selected tribunes of the oppressed on social media represent some massive groundswell or any genuine constituency at all, would indeed and inevitably #cancel publication of this great novel. Its author, now construed as a sad victim of internalized racism and sexism and certainly not a responsible purveyor of true and positive representations to the polis, would be sent back to clerical work or manual labor.

And the world of literature would be the poorer, because Kindred is as superb as it is disturbing. Butler’s science-fictional rewriting of the classic slave narrative from the viewpoint of a contemporary black woman allows her to question every bit of received wisdom we have on the topics of progress and modernity, of race, gender, and class.

The plot, alluded to above, is as follows. A California writer named Dana has just moved to a new house with her husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, albeit older and more established. One day, Dana finds herself mysteriously transported back to the early 19th century to save a drowning white boy, Rufus Weylin. Over the course of about a month in the summer of 1976, Dana—sometimes accompanied by Kevin—is summoned back five times to save Rufus’s life. While with each trip she is only gone from the present for seconds, minutes, or hours, she spends months at a time over a two-decade period in the early 19th century.

Gradually, she grows accustomed to the life-rhythms of the Weylin plantation and begins to grapple with the quotidian ethical complexities of slavery, its way of corrupting everyone it touches, from Rufus Weylin himself, a white man of some moral promise who debases himself as a rapist and human trafficker because his society enables him to do so, to the more privileged among the enslaved, who themselves uphold the system, often by harshly ruling over those lower than themselves in the hierarchy.

Butler deglamorizes the past, giving us not a splendid plantation, not moonlight and magnolias, but a squalid semi-mansion run by whites who are themselves barely literate. As we might expect of a writer devoted to science fiction, she emphasizes the past’s material and technological deprivation, its bodily reek and lethally primitive medicine.

Critics who read the time-travel trope through Toni Morrison’s Gothic lens of slavery haunting the present (as in Beloved) might think Kindred argues that life has changed little between the antebellum period and now. And the novel does make such thematic gestures, most notably through its frequent doublings of Dana’s present-day white husband, Kevin, with the slaveholding white male characters in the past setting, as if to suggest that certain psychosexual patterns of attraction and repulsion between white men and black women were perennial and inevitable:

I scrambled away, kicking [the slave patroller], clawing the hands that reached out for me, trying to bite, lunging up toward his eyes. I could do it now. I could do anything.


I froze. My name? No patroller would know that.

“Dana, look at me for Godsake!”

Kevin! It was Kevin’s voice! I stared upward, managed to focus on him clearly at last. I was at home. I was lying on my own bed, bloody and dirty, but safe. Safe!

Kevin lay half on top of me, holding me, smearing himself with my blood and his own. I could see where I had scratched his face—so near the eye.

“Kevin, I’m sorry!”

“Are you all right now?”

“Yes. I thought. . . I thought you were the patroller.” (Butler’s ellipses)

Butler’s numerology also references the Faulknerian theme of the past’s not being past. Dana’s penultimate trip to the 1800s, which she thinks will be her last, ends on June 18—on the eve, that is, of Juneteenth. But this emancipation proves to be short-lived when she is called back a final time on July 4, 1976, not only Independence Day, but the U.S. Bicentennial. These dates emphasize the fragility, impermanence, and incompleteness of African-American freedom when considered in the light of slavery’s legacy.

But Butler’s focus is psychosexual more than it is political. It is about the dynamics of libidinal push and pull that ensue with the proximity of free white men and enslaved black women. (Black men and white women play little role in the novel: the former suffer nobly on the sidelines of the action, while the latter are portrayed as one-dimensionally, if bathetically, villainous.) Kindred hints that only partnership and collaboration between black women and white men can save the nation, despite the many pitfalls of their relation:

“But stay close to me. You got here because you were holding me. I’m afraid that may be the only way you can get home.”

Butler deals little with the economics of enslavement, and is if anything anxious to emphasize the distance between contemporary capitalist arrangements and slavery, a message I assume she derives from Douglass and Jacobs’s 19th-century narratives, both of which argue for the moral and practical superiority of wage labor:

I was working out of a casual labor agency—we regulars called it a slave market. Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn’t have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered. They always had more job hunters than jobs anyway.

If Dana’s and Kevin’s recourse to low-level, low-wage labor to support their writing careers is sometimes enervating, it is at least a choice they make, a practice of freedom that may be circumscribed by economic necessity but is at least not forced upon them as chattel. Both the white man and the black woman are subjected to it equally, even if Butler hints at prevailing racial and sexual inequalities in Kevin’s greater success as a writer.

Butler’s interest is less in freedom, in triumphant individualism, than in survival. Among the classic science-fiction texts she revises is Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—,'” a time-travel paradox tale whose protagonist is his own father and mother. While Heinlein suggests the loneliness and solipsism of such white self-making, Butler adds the moral twist that a black person descended from the enslaved who wished to be the true author of her own life would have to ratify what was done to her ancestors.

Butler was famously inspired to write the book upon hearing a black student say that he would have violently rebelled had he been enslaved. In Butler’s view, this is misguided, not only because—as The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go also insist—the vast majority of people are not heroic revolutionaries, but also because the mere act of survival under any system of oppression is morally compromising. Dana’s reflection on Sarah, an enslaved who has carved out a space of freedom and authority on Weylin’s plantation and who finds many abolitionist ideas incomprehensible, makes this point:

She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. […] I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow.

Dana can hardly afford moral superiority, however. As she understands early in the novel, Rufus is her distant ancestor, and her mission is not only to save his life, but to ensure that he sexually coerces Alice, an enslaved woman with whom he is obsessed. If he does not do so, then, in a time-travel paradox, Dana will not have been born and will thus cease to exist.

We can detect Butler’s overall philosophy in the fact that Dana never seriously considers sacrificing her own existence so as not to participate in such a moral atrocity. Apparently, we are all driven by a ruthless will to persist, at anyone’s expense. Dana’s awareness of this potential within herself makes her, as well as her husband, “kindred” to the men who survived on the stolen labor of her ancestors—she, no less than whites, is heir to the crime.

The novel bleakly intimates that we all exist, insofar as we do exist, by consuming the lives of other people. Kindred, then, can be added to my little canon of tragic-nihilistic American novels that find in the brutal inequalities of race, gender, class, and sexuality not occasions for moral regeneration à la Harriet Beecher Stowe or James Baldwin or the Twitterati, but rather evidence of evil’s omnipresence and redemption’s absence: Quicksand, Nightwood, Sula, Corregidora.

Finally, Kindred may subtract the putative glamor of the past, but its very filth and danger become a perverse attraction, as Dana reflects:

I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse . . . Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch. (Butler’s ellipses)

If inequality persists it in the present, it often does so impersonally, through the practices of institutions for which no one person can be held responsible. In the antebellum south, on the other hand, the forces that victimize Dana require her to rise to their occasion and even provide a physical target for her wrath or revenge. Such a nostalgia for a past that was more brutal but more alive is, I believe, the hidden motivation for the troubling phenomenon of the hate-crime hoax, lately in the news: like Dana, the hoaxers may wish that the real hate to which they feel themselves subject could be a nameable actor in their own lives rather than an effect of abstract social and political arrangements.

I began this review with an imagined illegitimate complaint about Kindred: that its ruthlessness and amorality of vision would render it unfit for the politically-conscious reader. I want to end with a legitimate criticism of the novel I’ve encountered. I have known some readers, usually academics, who picked up Kindred because they heard it discussed in the context of literary science fiction or great novels about slavery; and they put it down disappointed not by its themes but by its style. They thought Butler would be a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin or Toni Morrison, but she has nothing akin to their dense literariness, their investment in style and psyche. She wrote books for mass-market genre publication; in consequence, her prose is expertly engineered for clarity and suspense, while her characters exist to carry out the plot rather than being case studies in modernist depth psychology.

While I disagree with the poptimist argument that literary fiction’s stylization is just a pretentious status signifier—for reasons best explained by the Victor Shklovsky passage quoted in my review of Milkman—I will nevertheless defend Butler’s superficial simplicity of composition. By carefully rendering language transparent rather than opaque, she compels our attention to the novel’s animating dilemma. As in Dostoevsky or, closer to home, Philip K. Dick, the novel becomes an experiment in philosophy rather than an art object.

Admittedly, as a partisan of literary fiction, I would have preferred fewer conversations about the whys and wherefores of time travel; it’s not as if the Samsas dwell at any length on the pragmatics of Gregor’s metamorphosis. But when popular fiction is written with the emotional intensity and theoretical verve of Butler’s—and she is certainly better than Dick, in my view—it is as valid a way to write a novel as is Morrison’s or Le Guin’s comparative aestheticism.

In sum, all you should #cancel are your immediate plans to read anything but this most viscerally dispiriting and intelligently alarming of novels.


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Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

But was I wrong, in “In Praise of Semicolons,” to be so severe in my judgment of Kurt Vonnegut, to castigate him for infantilism? I decided to find out by reading what is regarded as the author’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s sixth novel, and includes characters from many of its precursors and successors. Part of the charm of his books, I imagine, is that each feels like an episode in an ongoing conversation with the author; with each visit, readers receive an update on this fascinating man’s struggle with his preoccupations and obsessions. And what I like best in Slaughterhouse-Five, what still seems original half a century later, and what moreover still seems useful and usable, is Vonnegut’s mix of two modes considered wildly incongruous: memoir and fantasy.

He begins with a chapter about his writing of the novel, the qualms and researches involved in converting into fiction his most notable wartime experience: the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. (The novel takes its title from the slaughterhouse in Dresden where Vonnegut was held prisoner.) Will he glamorize war, as an old army buddy’s wife worries?

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

He promises that he will do no such thing: that he will write an anti-war book, that he will represent himself and his fellow soldiers as “babies.” Hence the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, and hence Vonnegut’s emphasis that he made the novel’s outline on the back of a roll of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.

But Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-satirical fable, not a realistic autobiographical war novel in the manner of All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Its main plot concerns an American everyman named Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck in time”: as he slips between all the moments of his life, we are treated, non-sequentially and in brief bursts of narrative, not only to his youthful experience as a prisoner of the Germans, during which time he survived the firebombing, but also to his middle age as a rich optometrist living an American life of “quiet desperation” and to his time as an exhibition in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.

The Tralfamadorians’s perception of time helps to explain the novel’s structure. For them, time is not a linear flow but an object in space. They liken the past to the part of the landscape you can see behind you and the future to the objects ahead of you. Their fiction, then, reads to Billy like Slaughterhouse-Five reads to us:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out-in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of-symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene, We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

This idea of all space and time compressed into one art object is a modernist ambition, from Pound’s Chinese ideogram to Benjamin’s dialectical image. And as Pound’s and Benjamin’s desire to fuse word and picture suggests, the ideal format for such a perception of spacetime is less prose than comics: each page of a comic represents a time-sequence as a spatial array of images. Perhaps the best artistic treatment of spacetime, then, is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, which I have to imagine took some leads from this novel.

Seemingly aware of this temporal theory’s need for pictures, Vonnegut includes a few cartoons throughout Slaughterhouse-Five; I very much could have done without them, particularly the climactic middle-schoolesque drawing of the banal serenity prayer hanging between a pair of crudely-rendered breasts. But the novel’s simple telegraphic style itself moves away from narration, from literacy, and toward the juxtaposition of images. It is a graphic novel avant la lettre.

But if the novel’s form sides with the Tralfamadorean desire for fiction with “no moral,” how does that square with Vonnegut’s avowed intention in the first chapter to produce anti-war fiction? The best answer is “uneasily.”

Without a plot, exactly, Slaughterhouse-Five is structured by its verbal refrains and motifs, from the depiction of “blue and ivory” feet to signify death to the repetition of a dying colonel’s poignant declaration, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The most insistent of these motifs is “So it goes,” the phrase with which the Tralfamadoreans greet news of a death; the novel’s narrator repeats it any time he has to tell that anyone has died. If death is unimportant because a person’s life persists elsewhere in the solid structure of time, then what does it matter if anyone is killed in a war?

Opposed to the Tralfamadorean quietism and aestheticism (their recommendation is to “spend eternity looking at pleasant moments” rather than dwelling on such unpleasantries as war) is a countervailing anger in the novel at all forms of cruelty and injustice. This anger animates Vonnegut’s satirical portrait of upper-class Americans’ empty, privileged, self-satisfied lives, and his frequent mockery in particular of the political right.

Billy reads a novel by the (invented) science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout which traces injustice to an ethical flaw in the Biblical narrative of Christ’s life. Because the story tells us that humanity erred in “lynching” a man who was really the son of God, it allows us to go on thinking that there are people, not sons of God, whom we may legitimately lynch. The story should be revised so that the Christ-figure really is powerless, as Trout imagines an alien’s new gospel revealing:

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had.

Trout’s alien is anti-Tralfamadorean; those amoralists don’t care at all about Jesus:

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.

I’m not sure that is a fair summary of what Darwin taught, and I’m also not sure we should judge scientific theories by moral criteria; nevertheless, Vonnegut several times inveighs against a cruel social Darwinism that upholds the brutal calculus of those who make war, those who regard human lives as expendable in the name of profit or power. This theme comes out especially when Billy encounters the wealthy Air Force historian Rumfoord in a hospital:

The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them, in one way or another, that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.

The moral of the novel is clear enough, then, but the form of the novel works directly against it. This is not only because the kaleidoscopic narrative structure endorses the fatalism of Tralfamadore, but also because Vonnegut won’t, and perhaps can’t, create characters of sufficient depth to validate his crypto-Christian humanism, his sense that we are each inherently worthwhile and irreplaceable and so ought not to be oppressed or slaughtered:

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.

Because humanity is no more than a pawn of inhuman forces, the old way of writing novels, rich in character, is out of date. In a mental hospital, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim turn to science fiction to help them “re-invent themselves and their universe,” a task at which older fiction can’t assist them:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Even leaving aside the problem of how to “re-invent” self and universe in a deterministic cosmos, though, Vonnegut’s taste for cartoons over characters contradicts his humanism even more directly than does his novel’s fatalistic structure. As James Baldwin wrote of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Franz Kafka wrote of Charles Dickens, sentimentality is often an overcompensation for cruelty. Consider two of this novel’s characters. The first is a mean and pitiful soldier whose stupidity leads to Billy’s capture by the Germans:

Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood spent
mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unpopular in Pittsburgh. He had been unpopular because he was stupid and fat and mean, and smelled like bacon no matter how much he washed.

The second is the woman Billy will marry:

His fiancee was out there now, sitting on the visitor’s chair. Her name was Valencia Merble. Valencia was the daughter of the owner of the Ilium School of Optometry. She was rich. She was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating. She was eating now. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. She was wearing trifocal lenses in harlequin frames, and the frames were trimmed with rhinestones.

Their grotesquery, their selfishness and foolishness, is never mitigated or explained. They are never given any deeper background than this: they are simply detestable, and Valencia’s death in particular is played for laughs.

Stowe and Dickens at least would have imagined them as fantastic, visionary gargoyles even if they would not have depended their characters with pathos, as, say, Chekhov or George Eliot might have done. But Vonnegut seems incapable of even the highest level of caricature: the likes of Uriah Heep or Miss Havisham are as beyond him as are three-dimensional characters in this novel that claims to represent the fourth dimension. We are left with cruel cartoons against cruelty, fat Americans who stand in for American greed and meanness, and Vonnegut performs the artistic equivalent of firebombing them.

So for all this novel’s originality of design and thought-provoking fabulism, I conclude where I began with Vonnegut: his artistic simplicity is not an indirect route to depth but rather over-simplification. As for Slaughterhouse-Five‘s quarrel with itself over fatalism and humanism, amoral vs. anti-war fiction, I see a lazy indulgence of confusion passed off as complexity. I will keep faith with Dostoevsky and semicolons.


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!

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.


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Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.


By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

Art: John Totleben

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Grant Morrison, Sebastian O | The Mystery Play

Sebastian O/Mystery Play by Grant MorrisonSebastian O / The Mystery Play by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the one hand, the best audience for this book might be Morrison completists, those willing to hack through the wilds of the author’s varied oeuvre to find rare specimens and paths not taken.

The 1993 Vertigo miniseries, Sebastian O, originally conceived for Disney’s never-realized adult-comics Touchmark imprint (along with Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s similarly queer-themed masterpiece Enigma), reimagines Oscar Wilde as a super-assassin in a steampunk setting. The literary style is an amusing pastiche of fin-de-siècle Aestheticism and Decadence, the amorality of the narrative faithful to its Wildean and Huysmanian inspirations. The art by Steve Yeowell is magnificent when it comes to architecture, but an artist who could have done a tribute to Art Nouveau, similar to what Morrison does with late-Victorian literary style in the narration and dialogue, might have served the project better. All in all, very entertaining, and recommended for all lovers of Wilde and Co.

Grant Morrison and Jon J. Muth, The Mystery Play

The somber 1994 graphic novel The Mystery Play could not be more different in tone and style. An early Vertigo graphic novel reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s collaborations with Dave McKean, The Mystery Play features a Yorkshire town trying to revitalize by staging medieval mystery plays until the actor playing God is murdered. Enter Detective Frank Carpenter (his flagrantly allegorical name is typical of Morrison’s lack of subtlety here), who begins a hallucinatory investigation into the death of God within the postmodern world. Jon J. Muth’s spectral watercolors are perfect for this graphic novel’s tenuous grip on reality. If Morrison’s allegory is far too transparent (“The house is empty,” says Carpenter, peering into a replica church on a miniature golf course) and his tone too dour, his slowly-paced script and Muth’s haunted paintings are unforgettable, to me anyway. Not subtle enough? Not as zany as Morrison’s other work? Well, I first read this book at some excessively young age, 13 or so, and I fear it permanently affected my sensibility. Zaniness and subtlety are overrated.

So, to finish the thought with which I began, the question of audience: on the other hand, these two projects might work best not so much for fans of Doom Patrol or The Invisibles, but rather for those curious about experimental approaches in the comics medium to the classics of the literary canon.


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Grant Morrison and Chris Weston, The Filth

The FilthThe Filth by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is full of life—not like a man, but like an ant-heap.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (trans. Peter Winch)

Wittgenstein was a bit of a Tolstoyesque puritan in matters literary—Shakespeare was too wild and dream-like for him—so I imagine he did not mean the above as a compliment. He also lived before developments in microscopy revealed “a man” to be “full of life…like an ant-heap”: the human body is a biome for bacteriological processes constituting much of what we think of as life. In the delirious and ingenious graphic novel The Filth (2002-3), writer Grant Morrison and artist Chris Weston have one of their villains spell it out to the protagonist:

[W]e are only angels weighed down by filth, free of guilt[.] The bacteria in our bellies are responsible for the farts which shame us, tiny monsters shitting in their billions all over our pure skin create the acid reek of “our” sweat. And Slade: when the “inner voices” tell us we’re unworthy or instruct us to “love” and “hate,” despite our best instincts…are these incessant distracting thoughts our own? Or do we only hear the voice of the eternal germ screaming in our heads?

The Filth, like most of Morrison’s work, is essentially impossible to summarize because the story itself is left open to so many interpretations and moreover occurs in multiple realities, at multiple scales, and in multiple genres.

An attempt at a summary would begin like this: a middle-aged English bachelor named Greg Feely lives a lonely life caring for his cat and addicted to porn. One day, via a literal seduction in his bathroom, a mixture of sexuality and scatology that will characterize the book, he is suddenly taken into the world of The Hand. The Hand is a secret police force based in The Crack—a bizarre locale made of toxic landscapes littered with the remains of modern culture and overseen by grotesque science-fictional architecture (“Think of it like you just got swept under the sidewalk of everything you ever knew”).


The mission of The Hand, with its many occult divisions and its crew of odd personae including communicative dolphins, is the protection of Status Q, or the stasis of health, from the invasion of antigenic disruption in the form of anti-persons: “Ours is the hand that wipes the arse of the world, remember?”

Feely, in his Hand persona as Ned Slade, goes on a series of adventures against these anti-persons, but he remains obsessed with his sense that Feely’s commitments, especially his love of his sick cat Tony, are his real life. Complicating matters further is a sequence of attacks on the Hand by a figure of many guises named Spartacus Hughes, who is devoted to corrupting ostensibly utopian communities (notably a nanotech biome of experimental healers called I-Life and a libertarian seasteading ship) to draw out our heroes.

Is Hughes part of a rebel force that once included Feely? Is Feely’s persona a cover inside a cover for a radical subversive trying to overthrow The Hand’s authority? Or is the whole thing the sick hallucination of a desperate man dying from an overdose on his kitchen floor and envisioning his immune system as a sci-fi body horror nightmare?

Plot-wise, then, as well as in publishing chronology, The Filth picks up where The Invisibles left off. The Invisibles concludes by revealing its anarchist heroes to be involved in a mission not of revolutionary violence but of holistic healing. By the turn of the millennium, Morrison had come to believe in the futility of an adversarial political radicalism that only incites polarization and creates spiraling vortices of violence.

With his cosmic-occult perspective, and inspired by the pop-Hegelianism of Ken Wilber, Morrison advocates an englobalizing perspective that seeks to advance the consciousness of society as a whole by integrating all of its elements, including those considered disgusting, regressive, reactionary, etc. Morrison pursues this insight through the metaphor of inoculation: rather than seek to avoid illness or injury (or their sociopolitical corollaries), he instead sees all evils as necessary goads to immune response and thus future health. Accordingly, in this book, he shifts perspective: we now look out through the eyes of the status-quo defenders rather than the anarchist attackers.

Here Morrison ably exploits the several meanings of the word “filth.” “Filth” includes not only literal dirt and detritus but is also, by conservative social application, a label for society’s and morality’s refuse, both commodities and persons—porn and pornographers, the drug and the dealer.

But “filth” is also, as many commentators note, British slang for “police.” On the one hand this ironic label is linguistic turnabout, a transvaluation of values: the policed—considered “filth” by those tasked with rounding them up—return the compliment by calling the police filthy (cf. “pigs”). On the other hand, labeling the police “filth” is a recognition of the familiar problem in political philosophy—and superhero stories—that to enforce the law might necessarily imply inhabiting a position outside the law. In practical terms, the police and the criminals are drawn from the same social class and, perhaps more importantly, the same personality type, a principle that applies at every level from the beat cop who busts his drug-dealer cousin to the global meetings of the criminal sovereigns who rule the planet.

So it is in The Filth, with the police who populate The Hand coming from the very classes of anti-person they are set out to neutralize. They appear as a company of artistic, sexual misfits somewhat resembling the incipient counterculture prosecuting psychological warfare in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

By taking this socio-political quandary of law’s extralegality to the biological level, Morrison reminds us of the necessity of dirt and disease to the production of health. But “Status Q” should not necessarily be understood as the social and political status quo, as if Morrison wished to preserve forever British life in the early 21st century. In fact, he portrays early 2000s society as deeply damaged, a paranoid and judgmental surveillance state addled by a debilitating mix of permissiveness (that is really exploitation) and an answering puritanism (that is really hatred of the other), each feeding on its opposite.

The Hand exists not to perpetuate this society but to keep it from being destroyed so that the pockets of potential it contains can grow; likewise, The Filth, with its own unsettling tone of cruel comedy and pornographic violence, exposes us to these cultural pathogens only to immunize us against them so that we come to value kindness and beauty instead. (Which isn’t to say that Morrison doesn’t have an enormous amount of illicit fun riffing on porn and its increasingly gonzo 21st-century configurations: “Hear Caroline scream as Mike shoves his eleven-inch dick in…her dad,” Greg reads in a magazine at one point.)

As for utopianism, which by definition rejects ecosystemic wholeness by trying to exaggerate one social element over all others, it takes a thematic beating at the hands of The Filth. Morrison mercilessly mocks libertarianism with the Ballard-like tale of the Libertania, a ship whose crew and passengers are devoted to libertarian principles, that decays first into violent anarchy and then into cultic collectivism. 1960s-style sexual utopianism, of the kind advocated in the nearly contemporaneous (porno)graphic novel Lost Girls written by Morrison’s magical nemesis Alan Moore, is shown to be a thin veneer over a misogynistic reign of terror in the disgusting story of Tex Porneau and his attempt to “fuck Los Angeles.” Marxism appears in the guise of a Hand member named Dmitri, a nihilistic talking money cosmonaut who assassinated JFK and who speaks an amusing patois of scatology and midcentury Soviet jargon; this is perhaps an allegory of a debased materialism, though another way to read it from animal-lover Morrison’s POV is as a destructive distortion of animal life.filth3

It is The Filth itself that circumscribes and transcends all these reductions; they are parts of a whole no one of them can perceive alone. The Filth is moreover a metafiction. Among other things, The Hand is involved in harvesting ink from a pen grasped by a giant severed hand in The Crack; with this ink, they create a Paperverse, a 2D micro-world based on superhero comics, which they use as a concept farm by cruelly manipulating the the characters. One of the heroes escapes into the 3D world of The Crack, but is deformed, mentally and physically, but the pressures of the transition. We, too, of course, are reading a 2D ink universe characterized by cruelty, and Morrison asks to reflect on what damage may ensue in turn.

Toward the end of The Filth, the hand holding the pen appears to be that of Greg Feely, fallen in an overdose to his kitchen floor and seeing as he dies not The Crack but the microword of bacteria in the scum of the garbage can he knocked over. The Crack is just our world, reproduced by the hand of the artist.

More promising, as the foil of the Paperverse, is the nano-tech world of the I-Life at first manipulated to dystopia by Spartacus Hughes but by the end of the book a force of healing and regeneration. Morrison clearly points, by counterposing the enlightened I-Life to the superheroic Paperverse, toward a more humane conception of comics’s most characteristic genre and of the arts in general. Just before the book’s beautiful ending, when Greg, bearing the I-Life, walks around his neighborhood, suddenly overrun with flowers, as a healer, we read in a mysterious word balloon:

Only humans could make something kinder and better than themselves that makes them smarter than God in my opinion

But Morrison is clear that the way to make a kinder and better world is not through the path of world-making historical violence posited by the revolutionary cell that created Spartacus Hughes. It is rather Greg Feely who points the way:

Greg takes care of the little things; he feeds the birds and buries them when they get hit by buses. He gives them a bit of dignity.

The meaning is encoded in their very names: Spartacus vs. Feely, or the revolutionary vs. the sentimentalist. Orwell, contrasting Dickens with Marx, lays out the conflict in his essay, “Charles Dickens”:

I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. […] Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved.

It still does. But precisely because Morrison urges us not to take sides and only to “take care of the little things,” it is clear which side of the moralist vs. revolutionary debate he takes. Around the time he was writing The Filth, Morrison was discussing the attractions of what he called “Zen Fascism” (see his graphic novel Marvel Boy); but that was, I think, just a shock tactic. His politics might be more aptly defined as (while we’re inventing labels) “sentimental anarcho-moderation.”

filth4Or “sentimental atheist-feminist anarcho-moderation,” because, when Greg finally takes his complaints to the top of The Hand and confronts its boss, Mother Dirt, another dimension of meaning appears. The orchestrator of The Filth‘s universe, pictured as a columnar tangle of egesta and tendrils and tumors, is not the transcendent and bodiless male intelligence posited by monotheism (arguably the source of all global radicalisms from Marxism to libertarianism) but rather the material and in this case fecal female body monotheism has always scorned, as in Augustine’s famous encapsulation of maternal anatomy: “We are born between piss and shit.” When Greg holds up a pile of excrement to her and asks the oldest question of theodicy, this dialogue ensues:

GREG: What am I supposed to do with this?

MOTHER DIRT: Spread it on your flowers, Greg.

The Filth is a brilliant work, a self-contained and tonally-consistent fictional world with all the authority and confusion of a dream even as its manifold relevance to our own world is clear. Weston’s meticulous art and Morrison’s idea-laden dialogue holds attention to each panel and page despite the puzzlement of the plot, which never quite comes clear even after several readings.

A formalist analysis of the storytelling style would note that Weston’s layouts, full of bleeds, images overrunning panel borders, and panels overlapping other panels, literally fails to contain the story; it is a riot of imagery bursting out of the frames that would encompass it. Every inch of the pages is full of ink, full of life. Form meets function.

But this dizzying style of narration makes the book all the more difficult to read, if in an amusingly and dazzlingly disorienting way. The Filth is not meant to be clear: it is a defense of mess and murk, a brief for their necessity if we want to build up our strength, and the artistic/literary corollary of mess and murk might just be difficulty. Morrison and Weston create a number of readerly obstacles, from flagrantly nasty content to confusingly non-linear form, but they, in making us run this obstacle course with them, hope to make us healthier. The introduction to the graphic novel edition is written as a parody of prescription instructions; it contains this admonition, which might be the motto of every serious artist and writer:

Metaphor is one of a group of problem-solving medicines known as figures of speech which are normally used to treat literal thinking and other diseases.

“Scale’s the next big frontier,” we read in the final chapter. The Filth is all about scale. Faithful to the occultist’s axiom, “As above, so below,” Morrison pursues the story and its themes at every level from the infinite to the infinitesimal. Taking leave of the postmodern problem that we don’t know what’s real, The Filth treats everything as real, and every real thing a metaphor for every other real thing, and all necessary to the whole. That is the essence of its intelligence, why it might be, as the blurb from The Comics Journal on the back of the book says, “the best thing Morrison has ever written.”

Unlike The Invisibles or Doom Patrol, though, The Filth doesn’t really contain characters. Plenty of archetypes and stereotypes, but no rounded personalities for us to fall in love with or care for. Our affection, like Greg’s, mainly goes toward the cat. This needn’t be seen as a flaw; not every “graphic novel” has to be a “novel” in the conventional sense. The Filth is a spy and superhero adventure story infected with body horror and black comedy and told as a luridly-lit porno-cum-modernist-poem. When it ends by praising humanity for being able to transcend itself morally through its creations, even as we are the creations of the germs that populate us, it elevates kindness and care by demoting humanity as such. The Filth is alive like an ant-heap, and so are we.


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Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books are so famous, so ubiquitous in the culture, that you feel you have read them well before you ever read them. You feel, in fact, that you don’t need to read them. This is what kept me from reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) for so long. (And I should note that I’ve seen neither the 1990 film nor the recent series.) Then, as with so many other famous books, I read it and found it to be very different from what I was expecting.

Often summarized as a dystopian/feminist riposte to the rise of the Christian Right in 1980s America, and moreover a riposte with ongoing relevance as this movement remains a potent political force in U.S. life, The Handmaid’s Tale is in fact a defense of liberal culture and as much an entrant in the so-called sex wars dividing the feminist movement in the 1980s as it is an attack on conservatism. It is, as well, a recursive and unreliable metafiction rather than a straightforward narrative, though this is not made clear until the conclusion.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person narrative of a 33-year-old woman who serves as a conscripted surrogate mother to an elite family in a near-future America, rechristened Gilead, and ruled by an authoritarian fundamentalist regime called the Sons of Jacob. Now named Offred (“of Fred,” signaling her possession by the Commander in whose house she serves), our heroine has vivid memories of life before the country’s takeover. Through her eyes, we see the new world of Gilead, with its ordered hierarchies of class and gender and its organized violence, and we also see the old world—our world—defamiliarized through her recollections of her husband and child, her gay best friend, her feminist mother. In a move that likely influenced Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Offred is an avowedly normal person, one without exceptional reserves of heroism:

I’ll say anything they like, I’ll incriminate anyone. It’s true, the first scream, whimper even, and I’ll turn to jelly, I’ll confess to any crime, I’ll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall. Keep your head down, I used to tell myself, and see it through. It’s no use.

Her observant passivity, as well as exhibiting realism about most people’s capacity for heroism, also makes her an ideal guide to the landscape Atwood wants to explore, and her sardonic, lyrical monologue, full of wordplay and symbolism, makes what could be a one-note narrative of misery more emotionally various.

Offred’s narrative ends ambiguously, in media res, but an epilogue, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” set at an academic conference two centuries in the future, both contextualizes her narrative and makes us doubt its reliability. We learn that we have been reading a future (male) academic’s transcription and organization of an audio recording of Offred. The text is presumably colored by his own—and his time’s—bias and agenda, which, Atwood carefully hints, is not at all free from the misogyny informing Gilead.

From its Chaucerian title and Swiftian epigraph to its Orwellian afterword, then, The Handmaid’s Tale places its main narrative—an impassioned, intelligent monologue associated with the realist novel and akin to those of Moll Flanders, Pamela Andrews, or Jane Eyre—within a tradition of satire (of which the dystopian, with its caricatural extrapolation of bad present-day tendencies into a future defined solely by them, is a subgenre). Of satire, Atwood’s teacher Northrop Frye observes in The Anatomy of Criticism:

The satiric attitude here is neither philosophical nor anti-philosophical, but an expression of the hypothetical form of art. Satire on ideas is only the special kind of art that defends its own creative detachment. The demand for order in thought produces a supply of intellectual systems: some of these attract and convert artists, but as an equally great poet could defend any other system equally well, no one system can contain the arts as they stand. Hence a systematic reasoner, given the power, would be likely to establish hierarchies in the arts, or censor and expurgate as Plato wished to do to Homer. Satire on systems of reasoning, especially on the social effects of such systems, is art’s first line of defense against all such invasion.

In other words, satire is literature’s immune response to religious, political, and philosophical encroachments on its autonomy. Frye sees this autonomy as beginning with Homer, who in the Iliad describes both Greeks and Trojans with sympathetic understanding, thus turning the poem into complex, dialectical art rather than a propaganda tract that speaks for only one side. It is this vision of literature, which arguably came to fruition with the dialogism of the realistic novel, that Atwood is protecting within the carapace of her satire. In the high tradition of the twentieth-century dystopia—a basically liberal genre—Atwood is warning us against extremism, totalitarianism: in a word, ideology.

This admonition accounts for the elements of the novel that I was not expecting: not only the anticipated critique of religious patriarchy, but also Atwood’s accusations of complicity directed against second-wave feminism. Early in the novel, Offred recalls attending a book-burning with her mother and her mother’s feminist friends; their immolation of pornography seems of a piece with the novel’s other images of women abused and tortured for sexual transgression:

I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.

Likewise, the language of the “aunts,” those who instruct the handmaids in Gilead’s ideology, echo certain strains of feminist complaint:

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Offred even at one point addresses her absent mother with the accusation that feminist separatism is adjacent to female subordination:

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

Atwood is here not only at one with the dystopian Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also with Orwell as the inner critic of his own party, the Orwell who wrote in “Inside the Whale,” “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”

With the novel’s floral motif (“They’re the genital organs of plants”), Atwood announces that nature (a vital feminine force) is on the side of her heroine, even if this sacred feminine, this real Holy Grail, is presently in thrall to man:

The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.

Nature, like Offred’s own complicated inner life, itself often moved by love and desire even in the most atrocious circumstances, suggests that there is always an outside and an underside to ideology, a nature and a human nature that surges up, that expresses itself in literature and art, despite all attempts at repression.

The novel’s argument, therefore, is only locally against American fundamentalism; it is more broadly directed against any and all reductionisms, whatever their alibi (right or left, Christian or feminist), taking the helm of the state, controlling culture, and subduing the individual. She specifies the female individual not only to advance feminist ideals but to take a stance within the broad and various field of feminism. This stance no doubt accounts for Atwood’s controversial objection to what she sees as the potentially totalitarian excesses of today’s #metoo movement:

If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

Writing in the Guardian, Moira Donegan observes that this debate about the #metoo movement reveals a divide in feminism between individualist and social visions; I think it is fair to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is a consummate work of the individualist imagination. In any case, the apparent longevity of these cultural debates, and the political context that necessitates them, mean that The Handmaid’s Tale will retain its relevance for some time to come.Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 8.38.07 AM

Because Atwood does seem to believe in the autonomy of art, its inability to be reduced to ideology, I would like to pay her the compliment of concluding with an aesthetic evaluation of her work. My ideological analysis aside, did I, do I, like The Handmaid’s Tale qua novel? Well, I have mixed feelings, some of them unrelated to this specific book.

I increasingly distrust dystopia as a genre, on grounds both aesthetic and political. It just makes everything too easy, I think: yes, if [X] in contemporary society were magnified times 100 and [Y] diminished times 100, it would be a terrible thing. But in the world I live in, [X] and [Y] (let us say liberal cultural norms and the conservative backlash thereto) exist in a precise and complex interrelation, and if this relation were to shift, everything would be so different as to have little relevance to my actual existence right now. Why not write about [X] and [Y] in all their present-day singularity, Henry James’s “present palpable intimate”? Aren’t the oversimplifications of dystopia for children, a moral pedagogy for those not yet equipped with the tragic awareness of competing goods? This will be a too-extreme argument in the present atmosphere of total aesthetic relativism, so let me move on to some more specific observations.

For one, Atwood is uninterested in the theology of Gilead; she seems to regard it solely as the alibi of power-hungry brutes. But the novel would have been much more interesting had it contained any element of ideological debate or awareness, something comparable to Goldstein’s tract in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And while Atwood amusingly sets the tale in Cambridge, MA, and bases her theocracy on the Puritans, her novel gives no flavor of the most interesting aspect of Puritan culture: its incessant and paranoid inwardness—the self-scrutiny, self-doubt, and self-torment of John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, a quality of interiority from which the liberal individualism Atwood seems to celebrate took some cues. An Offred who actually begins to doubt herself, to search herself, would be a richer character, and the novel would thereby be deepened. Or what if her oppressors—the Commander and his wife—were wracked with Puritan self-consciousness, and a defiant Offred were able to turn it against them? Evoking Puritanism without doing its specificity any justice seems a missed opportunity for inner and outer conflict in a novel that sometimes plods along with its passive protagonist.

Meant to be a statement on America, a warning that “it can happen here,” The Handmaid’s Tale actually evades cultural specificity. Would American fundamentalists really rename the country? They love America—real American fundamentalists would dress Offred in the flag! Gilead, by contrast, resorts to quasi-Orientalist stereotype: it just looks like the Iranian Revolution with more Catholic iconography—veiled women and sinister Gothic ceremonies. Moreover, the American experience that most resembles what Atwood describes is slavery rather than Puritan theocracy. In fact, it would be useful to know when Atwood first read Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a book whose themes—and whose problems of textual transmission and verification—are echoed in and by Offred’s own narrative. Such resemblances account for charges that Atwood perpetuates “white feminism.”

Offred as narrator, too, never comes into focus for me. Her trauma is often implied—she has lost not only her freedom, but all of her loved ones—and I suspect Atwood intended the sarcastic tone of her narration to come across as a compensatory avoidance of feeling. Yet Offred often sounds too much like, well, a satirical novelist, like Margaret Atwood. As Mary McCarthy complained in an early review:

But the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of ”A Clockwork Orange” – the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed. The writing of ”The Handmaid’s Tale” is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality.

I agree with McCarthy when she finds Atwood’s science fictional imagination wanting; as Jennifer Helinek wittily observes of the novel’s “compubanks” and “compucounts” and the like (not to mention its “prayvaganza”), “the people in charge of pre-Gilead America appear to have been underpaid Fisher-Price employees.” As for the novel’s lyricism—McCarthy dryly refers to the book as “a poet’s novel”—it sometimes “dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry,” to quote Zoë Heller’s actually rather unfair comment on a better novel that treats Atwood’s themes, Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory. I become the earth I set my ear against, for rumors of the future. Each twinge, each murmur of slight pain, ripples of sloughed-off matter, swellings and diminishings of tissue, the droolings of the flesh, these are signs, these are the things I need to know about.

But there is also much to admire in The Handmaid’s Tale. Its rich and allusive imagery turns it into a summa of and a metacommentary on the novel of female experience; Atwood so often implicitly asks us to think of Hawthorne’s red letter and Brontë’s red room that her book gives us another view of a vital literary tradition.

Further, the intense irony introduced by the epilogue, with its snickering sexist and relativist professors in a multicultural far future, undoes the oversimplifications of dystopia and practically enjoins us, as Gerry Canavan argues, to read the novel again and again with different perspectives and possibilities in mind. Atwood so brilliantly alters her tale in its last 20 pages that its preceding 300-some pages become bewildering complex, an interpretive labyrinth, whereas they had appeared on a first reading to be almost transparent.

To say that a novel remains relevant because the themes it treats are still with us is to say nothing about the quality of the novel. The quality of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to me mixed—as befits a defense of impurity and ambivalence, of the liberal imagination—but I believe its textual richness and intelligence will keep it alive, as alive as Chaucer or Swift, even after the likely disappearance of its polemical targets from the earth.


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Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Pynchon’s freewheeling narrator of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) tells us, “Well, and keep in mind where those Masonic Mysteries came from in the first place. (Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you will ever find here.)” Similarly, the underground cult classic compendium of conspiracy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy (an important influence on both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) opens with this epigraph from Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo: “Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.” Anyone seeking the crossroads where modern or postmodern literature, the occult, and fringe politics converge should acquaint themselves with Reed’s strange and brilliant book.

Mumbo Jumbo is set during the 1920s, “[t]hat 1 decade which doesn’t seem so much a part of American history as the hidden After-Hours of America struggling to jam. To get through.” America is experiencing an outbreak of the phenomenon (“an anti-plague“) called Jes Grew, essentially Reed’s name for the culture of the black diaspora, especially as expressed through music, whether ragtime, jazz, or blues (the name derives from an epigraph attributed to James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry: “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew,'” both an ironic appropriation of a racist artifact [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] and a refusal of individualist proprietary attitudes toward culture). As in the 1890s with its ragtime vogue, the Jazz Age threatens to overwhelm “Western Civilization” with a pleasure-loving and peaceable way of life opposed to the sterile and exploitative lifeworld of, locally, “neuter-living Protestants,” or those whom Reed more broadly calls Atonists, or monotheists (worshippers of the sun):

The Atonists got rid of their spirit 1000s of years ago with Him. The flesh is next. Plastic will soon prevail over flesh and bones. Death will have taken over. Why is it Death you like? Because then no 1 will keep you up all night with that racket dancing and singing. The next morning you can get up and build, drill, progress putting up skyscrapers and…and….and…working and stuff. You know? Keeping busy. [Reed’s ellipses.]

The novel, though relatively short, tells the labyrinthine story of the agencies trying to advance or stop the spread of Jes Grew.

On the pro side, there is the novel’s hero, the Harlem houngan PaPa LaBas, proprietor of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral. He teams with a cadre of magicians from Haiti—itself under U.S. occupation—stationed on a Marcus Garvey ship in New York harbor as they strive to recover the fragmentary text or scripture of Africa’s diaspora magic, dance-dictated in the night of time by Osiris to Thoth. In the absence of this book, Jes Grew is only an aural, oral, and bodily tradition and is therefore at a disadvantage under monotheism’s textual onslaught, its Bibles, Korans, Constitutions, Interpretations of Dreams, Communist Manifestoes, academic treatises, high literary traditions, and yellow journalism. Similarly, the novel also bears a significant subplot about a group of art “thieves” who strive to liberate the works of the global East and South from Europe’s and America’s museums; in his portrait of this multicultural group, Reed charts some of the fissures and fractures among people of color, noting that, for instance, a common enemy in European empire does not necessarily make for frictionless comity between black and Asian peoples.

Against Jes Grew’s supporters is the Wallflower Order, who are in their time of Jazz Age extremity forced to call in white intellectual and ageless Knight Templar Hinckle von Hampton (Reed’s satire on white Harlem Renaissance impresario Carl Van Vechten), who plans to defeat black insurgency by coopting it. He starts a little magazine called The Benign Monster, the title itself suggesting the intelligentsia’s gentrification of radical energies, and seeks a “Talking Robot”—i.e., a black intellectual who will mislead black audiences back to the monotheistic path of Atonism. Hinckle’s pathetic struggle is actually portrayed with some sympathy amid the satire—I got the sense that, racial polemics aside, Reed knows he has more in common with a modernist literary intellectual than with a Voodoo magician. Nevertheless, Reed unsparingly excoriates European literature from Milton to Freud to Styron:

John Milton, Atonist apologist extraordinary himself, saw the coming of the minor geek and sorcerer Jesus Christ as a way of ending the cult of Osiris and Isis forever. […] It is interesting that he worked for Cromwell, a man who banned theater from England and was also a hero of Sigmund Freud. Well the mud-slingers kept up the attack on Osiris, a writer Bilious Styronicus even rewriting Osirian history in a book called the Confessions of the Black Bull God Osiris in which he justified Set’s murder of Osiris on the grounds that Osiris made “illicit” love to Isis who, he wrote, was Set’s wife. He was awarded the Atonists’ contemporary equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for this whopper.

In fact, an overhasty reading of Mumbo Jumbo might lead one to expect that its ideological conflict is a matter of black vs. white—because in modern Europe and America, it is. But Reed’s most ambitious joke is delivered in a climactic thirty-page summing-up that parodies detective-novel exposition resolutions, conspiracy theories, and religious revelations all at once. PaPa LaBas, attempting to arrest Hinckle von Hampton, explains to a Harlem society gathering that, “if you must know, it all began 1000s of years ago in Egypt.”

The conflict between Jes Grew and the Atonists dates back to the fraternal quarrel between Set and Osiris in the Egyptian pantheon: Osiris learns the arts of peace and plenty at college from Ethiopian and Nubian students, and he disseminates this gnosis throughout the world, particularly to Native Americans. Set, by contrast, is “the stick crook and flail man,” advocates for discipline and thus eventually ends up worshipping Aton, the transcendent sun god, and beginning the monotheist cult that in various iterations—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and capitalist—would war throughout history on Jes Grew and the liberation it stands, or dances, for. Moses himself is revealed to have effectively swindled the secrets of Osiris for himself, which resulted in his getting only the negative side of the magic; this negative side became monotheism as we know it, everything that “the people of the book” have wrought.

In other words, all human culture, like the human race itself, comes out of Africa: European cultures are without autochthony or autonomy and are only offshoots, even where they are most racist or conservative, of one or another side in an intra-African quarrel, the latest round of which is presumably Kanye West vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.[1]

Which brings us around to the perhaps less salubrious politics of the novel. Mumbo Jumbo is not really “woke” or “PC” or whatever we’re calling it now. For one thing, it expresses sufficient quantities of anti-Islam sentiment to get Reed brought up on hate speech charges in Europe, as he seems to think that Islam is, no less than any other form of religious or secular monotheism, an attempt to repress the authentic black mysteries. It is the black Muslim intellectual Abdul who comes into possession of the scripture that is the novel’s quest object, and he burns it: “Censorship until the very last.” And despite the attractions of Reed’s emancipatory occultism, what does his displacement of Hebrew religion with Egyptian magic, his execration of Moses, Marx, and Freud imply? A reader can surely be forgiven for detecting a classically anti-Semitic subtext here. And, as befitting the work of a male author who has been known to worry that feminism is a tool of the white power structure used to disarticulate black and brown traditions and scapegoat men of color, the novel’s female characters tend to be either helpmeets or harridans (or both), even the goddesses Isis and Erzulie.

On the other hand, the lessons of Mumbo Jumbo might well be applied to today’s cultural appropriation debate. Reed’s position is quite subtle: he mocks and derides cultural exploitation and co-optation at the level of production, which is the point of his satire on modernist literary culture’s attempts to capture and neutralize the energies of black rebellion; on the consumption side, however, Reed seems to see the diffusion of Jes Grew as humanity’s only salvation—to see black culture as a force that, at the level of the dancing body, takes over whites rather than being taken over by them. The novel, I therefore take it, counsels against castigating every white person who takes a selfie while wearing an item of non-western origin, even as it also takes aim at corporations, universities, and other institutions profiting from the creativity of populaces they exclude and exploit.[2]

Finally, I have not yet mentioned the novel’s form. I have made it sound too linear, too much like a thriller with philosophical weight. But it is rather a collage and a montage, written in telegraphic prose, splicing in quotations and images, doing without quotation marks, transitions, or the pretense of God-like objectivity. One of its dedicatees is “George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat,” and the novel’s style of radical juxtaposition and teasing polyglot wordplay is a fitting homage to Herriman’s brilliant Jazz Age achievement in comics. Reed’s ludic style protects his conspiracy theory from seeming like the work of a mere crank, though I’m sure he believes the spirit, if not the letter, of it. The novel promotes play and humor as against the droning solemn seriousness of monotheistic religion and literary culture:

LaBas could understand the certain North American Indian tribe reputed to have punished a man for lacking a sense of humor. For LaBas, anyone who couldn’t titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian connoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation. Nowhere is there an account or portrait of Christ laughing. Like the Marxists who secularized his doctrine, he is always stern, serious and as gloomy as a prison guard. Never does 1 see him laughing until tears appear in his eyes like the roly-poly squint-eyed Buddha guffawing with arms upraised, or certain African loas, Orishas.

So, if you are looking for a serious laugh, I highly recommend Mumbo Jumbo.

[1] Note that, by the terms laid out in Mumbo Jumbo, Coates, despite a superficially Reedian invocation after Zora Neale Hurston of “the bone and drum,” is arguably the authoritarian Atonist, promoting the traditional cypto-monotheist political left as the black man’s salvation in a white man’s magazine, while West disseminates magickal-musical thinking far and wide in a popular idiom on a populist platform, even quoting Carl Jung’s contemporary avatar Jordan Peterson just as Reed approvingly quotes Jung. My point is not to side with West over Coates or Reed over the western world, but to get the tally correct; I will say that “left” and “right” are becoming ever less reliable guides to cultural politics, though the comrades tell me that that is itself a right-wing position. “[A]s gloomy as a prison guard” indeed.

[2] Speaking of appropriation, Ted Gioia notes all the elements E. L. Doctorow seems to have lifted from Mumbo Jumbo for his own Ragtime, published just three years later. It’s not for me to judge who has the right to what; I will only suggest that Reed’s novel is about a hundred times more interesting than Doctorow’s.


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Grant Morrison, The Invisibles

The InvisiblesThe Invisibles by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This will be a pitch. You should read The Invisibles. Certainly those of you who have been reading some of the other things I write about here: not only Alan Moore, but also Herman Melville, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Grant’s alt-universe sister, Toni Morrison.

I had not read The Invisibles all the way through since about 2001 or 2002. I assumed, because it was so timely, almost reading at moments like a journal Morrison was keeping about 1990s cultural trends, that it could not possibly hold up. But rereading it over the last month, I was surprised to find that its time has come round at last. So what is The Invisibles? Why should you read it?


First, its author: Grant Morrison, a Glaswegian working-class magician, punk, and failed pop star, became one of the most notable writers of American comics during the late-1980s British Invasion. He wrote a metafictional treatment of Animal Man and an avant-garde superhero saga in Doom Patrol; most consequentially on the material plane, he wrote the delirious Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, which, coinciding with Burton’s Batman movie of 1989, made him rich. He traveled the world, took all the drugs he had theretofore avoided, got abducted by aliens in Kathmandu in 1994, had the secrets of the universe explained to him, and began a new creator-owned series for DC Comics’s adult Vertigo imprint about a cell of anarchist terrorists called The Invisibles who war against evil insectoid Archons bent on controlling the world.

Morrison’s series begins when The Invisibles need to add a new fifth agent to their cell, which consists of the glamorously violent Englishman, King Mob; the fragile psychic waif Ragged Robin; the former New York City cop, Boy; and a trans magician from Brazil, Lord Fanny. This quarter tries to recruit a Liverpudlian teenaged delinquent named Dane MacGowan, who may be a new Buddha.

The 1500+ pages of the series narrate how Dane’s becoming an Invisible coincides with the mounting crises leading first to the millennium and then to 2012. On this date, humanity is due to ascend into what Morrison calls “the Supercontext,” or a matured experience of spacetime as an integrated simultaneous totality to which terms like good and evil will not apply. invisibles2.pngEarly in the series, Morrison reveals that what looked like a “war” in the first few chapters, a cliched fight between rebels and empire, is in fact a “rescue mission.” Images of medicine and midwifery abound: our heroes aim not to kill but to cure and to convert the enemy, to turn the enemy into a friend. Evil is just misrecognized good, usually misrecognized by itself.

While The Invisibles is, in practice, about as didactic as I’ve made it sound, its moral is nonetheless dramatized through a compelling and often very moving story: it is the tale of Dane’s growth from aimless violence to supernal serenity; of King Mob’s seduction by and then weaning from the habitual practice of brutality; of Boy’s quest for revenge against the racist powers-that-be who murdered both of her brothers and her slow realization, like Dane’s and King Mob’s, that force is not the solution; of Fanny’s endless initiation into her family’s matriarchal magical practice; and of Ragged Robin’s (bear with me here) composition of much of the tale we’re reading in a sensory deprivation tank in 2005 and her subsequent (or is it?) travel through time. invisibles3.png

(Time travel is an important image for Morrison, since the time-suit Robin uses to navigate the temporal rapids is just a picture of ourselves as we would look sub specie aeternitatis, not only an extensive body but an unfolded life.)

There is more to the story even than the above, though, since Morrison creates an expansive and global story with a multitude of characters. He affectingly tells villains’ tales. The rueful story of a foot soldier shot by King Mob in the first chapter even becomes a kind of moral compass for the series and is the first episode in which we hear, albeit garbled, the crucial advice to call on the Buddha of compassion. Then there is Sir Miles Delacourt, an occultist who succumbs to the lust for power and control precisely because he, as he belatedly understands, lacks the compassion urged upon us at intervals throughout the whole epic.

Most movingly is the story of Quimper, a character who first appears as a nightmare villain; I might compare him to Robert Blake’s character from Lynch’s Lost Highway. Yet we learn that he was originally a kind of angel fallen into our dimension of matter and tortured and abused until he became evil. His plaintive whisper, “Once I was a little light,” is for me the most moving line in the whole series (because weren’t we all?), and the climax of his tale, wherein he is redeemed by a kiss, saved by love, is the climax of Morrison’s evolving ethics.

Morrison recommends an evolution beyond politics, beyond violence, beyond us vs. them. This, like postmodernism in general (or even Romanticism in general), might be described as the internal conservative critique of the radical left: a warning of where the way of Robespierre and Lenin leads. (Hence the unsoundness of now-fashionable pronouncements that postmodernism is “cultural Marxism.” It would make far more sense to call it “cultural anti-Marxism”!)

Early in the narrative, The Invisibles travel back to the French Revolution and meet the Marquis de Sade as Byron and the Shelleys debate freedom and necessity. Sade is the hero of this tale insofar as his epics of degradation allegorize reason at its limit and thus tell the truth about the revolution’s sadism, while Percy Shelley’s idealism is humbled by the suffering of his family. At the end of the book, Sade reappears as a kind of Wilhelm Reich figure, trying to engineer sexual liberation, and he is rebuked in his turn for what we can only assume is a lack of love by another of the series’s heroes, Lady Edith Manning. Edith is an occultist of the modernist era who meets King Mob in 1988 and then later (yes, later: time travel, remember) in 1924. Morrison historicizes his own aesthetics when he shows the future to have begun with modernism, even though he already showed it to have begun in 1792. Every era that opens itself to change prepares the way into the supercontext. King Mob tells Edith to tell Robin to call on Buddha, a message intercepted in infancy by the soldier King Mob kills, a plea for peace echoing through time and unheeded until the conclusion.


My pitch so far has been narrative and thematic, but what about aesthetics? How is this as a reading experience? I won’t, like other ad-men, lie to you: the quality is uneven, for reasons that have everything to do with the exigencies of comic-book serial publishing. The Invisibles has a revolving cast of artists, wildly distinct in quality, and even two different letterers, one of whom is the comics legend Todd Klein and the other of whom is, putting it politely, not.

Because Morrison writes in such various tones and moods, from Pythonesque farce to Lovecraftian horror, and even parodies with Joycean aplomb a host of comics storytelling styles, it is not necessarily a problem to have multiple artists. It only detracts from the book when they are not all as good as Jill Thompson, Phil Jimenez, and Frank Quitely, who are the standout artists of the series’s three main divisions. Thompson’s sketchy somberness matches the brooding tone of the first third, Jimenez’s superhero art via fashion spread echoes the middle third’s themes of the temptations of glamor and violence, and Quitely’s lived-in Eurocomics futurism makes for a plausible conclusion in 2012. The rest of the many artists aren’t bad, and in fact Chris Weston is in his way positively good (though more appropriate, because disgustingly inappropriate, for Morrison’s later work, The Filth); but they aren’t quite up to realizing Morrison’s extraordinary literary ambition.

The narrative, as well, is spread too thin in places: whatever anxiety of influence Morrison is working out with regard to British detective TV shows of the 1970s is lost on me and feels like an absurdly lengthy digression, for instance, though maybe it works better for British readers. In general, Morrison writes in a kind of cut-up style, raining content down on readers’ heads in what sometimes feels like random order, much of it cynical and ugly, and half the addictive pleasure (and I’ve always found Morrison a very addictive writer) is sorting through it all to find the moving lyrical grace notes that occur and then recur: the story’s threads, heart-red, binding it internally even when it seems to be a meaningless collage. Hence my recommendation for fans of Pynchon and Joyce. For all that, though, a tighter narrative might not have been amiss, especially when without it great characters like Boy and Robin disappear for far too many pages.

All that said, I will, speaking only for myself, never understand people who think the recent spate of “literary” graphic novels from Chris Ware to Richard McGuire is the best the medium has to offer when they don’t seem aware that something like this, which recreates the whole universe to explain it anew, even exists. The Invisibles has not been without influence, but its influence has been too confined to an in-crowd and coterie, and their recent productions (I have sampled some of the Young Animal material as well as the works of Aleš Kot) seem to me like the attempts of a later generation to recapitulate an artistic revolution without having thought through whatever made it necessary in the first place and without trying to make their own advance; Victorian poets in relation to Romantics, for example. Whatever the equivalent of The Invisibles in the present or future will look like, it will probably not look all that much like The Invisibles, except that it will be audacious and irresistible and a mess. But maybe this is too harsh; I leave it to you to decide.

Let’s end with politics. The Invisibles is a story about the necessity and irrelevance or immorality of revolution. It is also about conspiracy theories. I have not emphasized the latter enough yet, but Morrison does explain in the course of his book what crashed at Roswell and why the establishment killed Princess Di, among other things. Perhaps “this hasn’t aged well,” as the Twitterati like to say. Aren’t conspiracy theories the province of the MAGA/Brexit crowd nowadays? Doesn’t the present state of things necessitate a redoubled attempt at revolution?

One Youtube personality who began on the left and who now retails exegeses of QAnon flatters his audience by hailing them as “the conspiratorium clerisy.” He is friends, moreover, with Roseanne Barr, herself an adept of the same baffling oracle. On Roseanne in the mid-1990s, an Invisibles poster hung on Darlene’s bedroom wall, just as one was taped to my own. Who could have foreseen where we’d all end up? Then again, The Invisibles hasn’t aged a day, give or take a Kula Shaker reference; it is odd to read a book prophesying a future that is now past, when its depiction of the past as a time of befuddling and agitated complexity still feels like the present, only a bit heightened, a bit degraded, and, for now, less optimistic. “Future proves past” after all.

invisibles7What if the comrades are correct and the simultaneity of time is not a timeless philosophical proposition but just a description of cultural arrest under the reign of the corporation? At the conclusion of The Invisibles, King Mob prepares the way for our ascension to the supercontext by the release of a game that is, transparently, The Invisibles itself. The allegory is plain, and Morrison in interviews made it clearer: we can get free not by fighting the power but by becoming the power. While the Battle of Seattle raged, our author told us to enter the boardroom rather than fighting in the street. He was surely wrong—I think we see this now—to imagine liberation through the counterculture’s seizure of corporate control, to bank everything on feedback rather than opposition; this countercultural control is what has happened, and the results are mixed to poor, with liberal democracy hollowed out by Silicon businessmen and frightful insurgencies rising in reaction. DC Comics, in any case, isn’t publishing any new stuff this interesting, unless I’m missing something.

invisibles8On the other hand, the comrades must be wrong, or else shooting one’s way out of this problem would have worked the last hundred times it’s been tried. If you fight the forces of repression, you become repressive; this is not a childish moral equivalence but a description of reality. War itself is the ultimate force of repression. Promulgators of salvation-through-arms from Marxists to neoconservatives rage so fiercely against “moral equivalence,” in fact, because acts that are phenomenally equivalent often are morally equivalent. It isn’t better or more justified when we do it, unless there is no such thing as universal ethics and/or unless they are not people. (This need not be a strictly pacifist credo, just an ethically rigorous one when it comes to violence of all kinds.) Despite superficial dissimilarities, Albert Camus is an author very like Morrison in that both oddly end up redescribing anarchism as the essence of political moderation; as the philosopher explains in The Rebel, once you have embraced a politics that postpones the ethical until after the millennium you are, for all practical purposes, already committed to the guillotine and the gulag.

Morrison makes this point not didactically, but through narrative structure: he first incites the reader to swoon at King Mob’s reign of terror by having it surrounded by pop culture and erotic imagery, all conveyed through Jimenez’s deliriously slick linework. But eventually we are repulsed and learn to love the arts of peace: King Mob becomes defined as Robin’s lover more than as a lone assassin, and we thereby find ourselves rooting for love not war. Such an investment in the personal pries us from our desire to be members of anybody’s clerisy. Horizontal, not vertical relations. “Once I was a little light.” How to be so again? Morrison mistook the economic for something other than war by other means (and I am sufficiently non-doctrinaire to think the question remains open, though I am also hostile to corporate monopolies and see no salvation whatsoever coming from that quarter). But he had the end (as in purpose) right, and was moreover correct in his warning that violent means will corrupt the end itself.

“Edith says to call on Buddha”: the moral buried in the heart of this vast, exhausting crypt and cryptogram, like those similarly encoded/entombed in the labyrinths and pleas for peace crafted/coded/cried by Joyce and Pynchon: “Love, says Bloom”; “They are in love. Fuck the war.” If that does not make you want to read The Invisibles, I don’t know what will.


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!

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1)All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All the Pretty Horses is apparently to Cormac McCarthy’s corpus what The Crying of Lot 49 is to Thomas Pynchon’s or The Ghost Writer to Philip Roth’s: it is the appealing vestibule to an oeuvre of appalling heights and depths, a prolegomenon to any future metaphysics.

McCarthy’s bestselling 1992 novel is a romantic latter-day Western about a 16-year-old boy named John Grady Cole. It is 1949 in West Texas, and the Western dream is dying, not only because of all the oilmen buying up the land: Cole’s ranch, which has been in the family since the 1870s, is about to be sold due to the death of his maternal grandfather, the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, the mortal illness of his veteran father, and his urbane actress mother’s dissatisfaction with country living.

A preternaturally gifted horseman, Cole faces the prospect of a world that has no use for the only man he knows how to become. So, like a line of superfluous men in novels before him—I owe this application of that term from Russian fiction to a student—Cole lights out for the territory, riding to Mexico with his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, and a younger boy named Blevins they pick up along the way.

At first—in the second of the novel’s four divisions—they find in Mexico a promising terra nullius wherein to act out their obviously movie- and pulp-derived cowboy dreams. But then they are, due to Cole’s horses-taming prowess, recruited to work at La Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción (Estate of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception), a large ranch in Coahuila owned by a man named Rocha. While taming the wild horses they drive down from the Mexican mountains, Cole finds time to fall in love with the rancher’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra. Warned away from the girl by her regal great aunt, la dueña Alfonsa, Cole again pursues his romantic dream—this time an erotic one.

When the lovers are discovered, Alejandra’s father allows Cole and Rawlins to be arrested for a scrape they had earlier gotten into with Blevins. The novel’s third part is a scarifying account of their time in the prison at Saltillo, replete with tense interrogations, brutal beatings, remorseless shootings, and—climactically—the most intense knife-fight I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

Eventually, Rawlins and Cole are bailed out by Alfonsa, and, in the novel’s concluding section, Cole returns to the hacienda to ask for Alejandra. He finds instead la dueña, and she delivers to him an extraordinary long speech, Dostoevskean in its political and spiritual amplitude: she narrates her youthful disillusionment by the murder of her lover by the people, though he was a leader in the Mexican Revolution, an event that taught her to distrust all vague yearnings and any optimism for Mexico or mankind.

Her speech should disabuse Cole forever of his romantic dreams about the land to which he has ridden in quest of a simpler life, but he still rides out in search of Alejandra and then for revenge on the men who’d imprisoned him before returning to the United States in time for the funeral of his surrogate mother, la abuela, a Mexican worker at his family’s ranch who had raised him in the absence of his father (at war) and his mother (on stage). The novel concludes with another escape on horseback—this time that of a man, not a boy, initiated into the sorrows of the world.

While my outline suggests something of the novel’s appeal—its suspense and adventure, its erotic raptures and fight-scene thrills, as well as its archetypal structure as a Western, a Bildungsroman, and a picaresque—McCarthy still introduces some of the same complications that trouble so difficult and repellent a work as Blood Meridian. Consider the opening paragraph:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

Like many great opening paragraphs, it contains the book in miniature. As a novel about a boy trying to live up to an ego-ideal handed down to him not only by his rancher forefathers but also by dime novels and popular films, All the Pretty Horses persistently probes the distinction between a thing and its image, whether flame or cowboy. Most of the precise description is external, miming the emotional reticence of the protagonist and evoking the artform most responsible for the Western myth (cinema), but the paragraph ends with a disarming and moving stammer of free indirect discourse that dramatizes Cole’s painful encounter with destructive realities. Finally, the leaning lilies in the “waisted” glass introduce us to McCarthy’s rather Gothic pantheism, the sense his novels give that everything is alive, and thus deadly or killable, an original metaphysic that challenges the human-centered heroism of both Western and Bildungsroman.

Despite the complications, the novel does expect us to take Cole’s heroism seriously, and for three reasons. First is his almost superheroic way with horses, on which the whole plot hinges; second is the epic quality of McCarthy’s descriptions of his action, sincerely raising the novel into legend:

They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

Third is Cole’s morality, a basically Christian commitment to doing right no matter the circumstance, as here in a dialogue with Rawlins about whether or not they should rescue Blevins:

What if it was you?

It aint me.

What if it was?


I wouldnt leave you and you wouldnt leave me. That aint no argument.

You realize the fix he’s in?

Yeah. I realize it. It’s the one he’s put hisself in.

Note how Rawlins makes pragmatic and even Darwinian claims—he argues that you shouldn’t help people to whom you have no personal commitment, and that moreover you shouldn’t help people who have gotten themselves into trouble through their own inadequacy—while Cole simply hews to the Golden Rule: love others as yourself.

Nevertheless, Cole’s epic and Christian heroism will be tested in the novel by the trials of love and death he encounters in Mexico; Gail Moore Morrison argues in an influential essay, “All the Pretty Horses: John Grady Cole’s Expulsion from Paradise” (found in Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, revised edition, eds. Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, 1999):

For this novel is fundamentally a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story in the great tradition of Hawthorne, Twain, Melville, and James, that archetypal American genre in which a youthful protagonist turns his back on civilization and heads out—into the forest, down the river, across the sea, or, as in John Grady’s case, through desert and mountain on horseback—into the wilderness where innocence experiences the evil of the universe and risks defeat by it. This invitation tale is also imbued with the uniquely American variation on the theme of the fall from innocence into experience so aptly explored by James in particular, but also by Hawthorne and Twain, in which the American naif with his straightforward, unsophisticated notions of right and wrong, his code of honor and his simplistic conception of good and evil, is challenged by the moral relativism of an older, more complex civilization to deepen that vision.

This archetypal arrangement irritates some critics, not unreasonably. They see the novel’s clear lineaments of morality and typology of place as merely replicating stereotypes. For example, Daniel Cooper Alarcón claims in his essay “All the Pretty Mexicos: Cormac McCarthy’s Mexican Representations” (found in Cormac McCarthy: New Directions, ed. James D. Lilley, 2002), that the novel simply presents us with an old tradition wherein Mexico is a land of violent contrasts, a hell-heaven or Infernal Paradise:

A preliminary assessment of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses in terms of action, characterization, and structure easily allows that novel to be located within the Infernal Paradise tradition. As in the works of his predecessors, McCarthy’s Mexico functions as a symbolic backdrop, juxtaposing the paradise of the hacienda with the hell of the prison at Saltillo. The Mexican characters, although fleshed out most more than in most novels of the tradition, are also fairly standard. […] Thus, a cursory reading of this popular and highly acclaimed novel offers little evidence that would allow us to position it outside of the Infernal Paradise tradition.

Both of these readings fail to account for the novel’s actual nuances though. It is the archetypal critic who sees the hacienda, where Cole makes love to Alejandra, as a paradise, and it is the political critic who accepts that interpretation but faults it as a racist trope. When we turn back to the actual novel, though, we find that ironies abound: this ranch consecrated to the purity of the Immaculate Conception is a locus of sex, whether among humans or horses. Moreover, it is a place less of lovemaking than of breeding: both Rocha and Cole are trying to breed a better horse, even as Alfonsa wants to keep the family bloodlines pure by preventing Cole from marrying Alejandra. The paradisal rhetoric itself is a bit too purple to be sincere, even granting the need for some Romeo and Juliet lyricism at that point in the narrative:

She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in a darkened wood. That burned cold. Like the moon that burned cold. Her black hair floating on the water about her, falling and floating on the water. She put her other arm about his shoulder and looked toward the moon in the west do not speak to her do not call and then she turned her face up to him. Sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh, sweeter for the betrayal. Nesting cranes that stood singlefooted among the cane on the south shore had pulled their slender beaks from their wingpits to watch. Me quieres? she said. Yes, he said. He said her name. God yes, he said.

John Grady Cole’s own position as horsebreaker—his first job on the ranch—is represented as a positively dystopic one from the perspective of the horses themselves, who regard him as a colonizing god:

By midmorning eight of the horses stood tied and the other eight were wilder than deer, scattering along the fence and bunching and running in a rising sea of dust as the day warmed, coming to reckon slowly with the remorselessness of this rendering of their fluid and collective selves into that condition of separate and helpless paralysis which seemed to be among them like a creeping plague. The entire complement of vaqueros had come from the bunkhouse to watch and by noon all sixteen of the mestenos were standing about in the potrero sidehobbled to their own hackamores and faced about in every direction and all communion among them broken. They looked like animals trussed up by children for fun and they stood waiting for they knew not what with the voice of the breaker still running in their brains like the voice of some god come to inhabit them.

His own speech to one prize horse casts him as precisely the master of sex and lineage and women that Rocha, who has him expelled, will prove to be:

He’d ride sometimes clear to the upper end of the laguna before the horse would even stop trembling and he spoke constantly to it in Spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law. Soy comandante de las yeguas, he would say, yo y yo solo. Sin la caridad de estas manos no tengas nada. Ni comida ni agua ni hijos. Soy yo que traigo las yeguas de las montanas, las yeguas jovenes, las yeguas salvajes y ardientes.

In the Spanish dialogue, Cole as lawgiver proclaims himself commander of the mares, and threatens the horse that if he does not obey, Cole will not give him food, water, or children. He treats the horses the way Alejandra’s father and great aunt will treat him. Nature and culture—which are not distinct in McCarthy—are alike places of violence, oppression, and exploitation. We are not far from Blood Meridian here, nor are we in this remarkable if incidental passage wherein nature as demented gardener (indicated by the word “espaliered”) crucifies birds on cacti:

Bye and bye they passed a stand of roadside cholla against which small birds had been driven by the storm and there impaled. Gray nameless birds espaliered in attitudes of stillborn flight or hanging loosely in their feathers. Some of them were still alive and they twisted on their spines as the horses passed and raised their heads and cried out but the horsemen rode on.

Criticism is always schematic, whether it derives from archetypal thinkers or political ones; we need such schemata to help us think about life and literature, but novels, which thrive both on a recreation of intractable realities and on an irony that shows all perspectives to be partial and relative, are rarely as reducible to such criticism as they seem on the “cursory reading” Alarcón proposes yet never gets beyond.

Rocha expresses to Cole his skepticism toward rational political solutions, in contrast to the revolutionary generation that preceded his own (this conversation happens over pool, as an earlier conversation between Cole and Alfonsa happened over chess, each game a sublimated war):

People of my generation are more cautious. I think we dont believe that people can be improved in their character by reason. That seems a very french idea.

He chalked, he moved. He bent and shot and then stood surveying the new lay of the table.

Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.

He looked at John Grady and smiled and looked at the table.

That of course is the Spanish idea. You see. The idea of Quixote.

Obviating any neat distinction between a Latin and an Anglo-American culture, McCarthy gives us the cowboy as Quixote—who is more in tune with the “Spanish idea” than the knight-errant, the “gentle knight,” John Grady Cole? A concern with racial or national difference should not prevent the observation of identities and affinities on other grounds: McCarthy is not only enough of a postmodern novelist to be always aware that nature and culture are interpenetrated, but he is also a Catholic novelist—sometimes a despairing one, sometimes a believing, it seems to me—thus sympathetic to “Spanish ideas” that might look excessively pessimistic or decadent to the Protestant eye (and even at that, Melville and Twain were themselves consciously writing in a Cervantine tradition).

In the same volume where Alarcón’s essay appears, Timothy P. Caron writes an article recounting his use of All the Pretty Horses in a multicultural literature class and comes to a conclusion that emphasizes the novel’s brooding but hopeful cosmopolitanism of spirit, signaled not least by its frequent recourse to untranslated Spanish dialogue:

How much of that map [carried by Cole into Mexico], and ours, has to be filled in with historical and cultural knowledge? Isn’t that what the dueña is trying to tell Cole as she explains to him why she will never allow Alejandra to marry him by telling him about the Mexican Revolution? Last, what limits and chauvinisms would an “American” novel with so much Spanish in it force us to confront and, we hope, move beyond?

Alfonsa tells Cole what she learned in the Revolution, with its assassination of her idealistic lover: all beautiful ideals will ultimately be defeated.

In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.

The last sentence can be read as an injunction, a road out of despair: the world lies waiting for those who take action despite their disillusionment, a sane Quixote. Is this Cole by the novel’s end? His ending would seem to be despair:

He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

Yet he is still on horseback, still on the road, when we leave him. The next two parts of a trilogy, and the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre, is waiting. All the Pretty Horses, in the meantime, is a compromising novel about compromise, in contrast to its extremist predecessor, Blood Meridian; yet it is, in its mastery of description and incident and its tortured equanimity of attitude, equally worth reading.


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