Iris Murdoch, The Bell

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bell is Iris Murdoch’s fourth novel. I had never read the celebrated 20th-century British philosopher and novelist before and decided to start with this 1958 book because it is often said to be her first novel that is characteristically “Murdochian” and also her first that makes a claim to greatness.

The novel has an immediately appealing premise. It is set at a remote Court or country house in England near Imber Abbey, where an enclosed order of nuns has existed since the Middle Ages. The Court has been in the family of Michael Meade for centuries, and he decides, after consulting the Abbess, to set up a lay community of believers and devotees who can live and work for the greater good of the Abbey and exist apart from the increasingly complex and alienating modern world:

…the Abbess imparted to Michael the idea of making the Court the home of a permanent lay community attached to the Abbey, a ‘buffer state’, as she put it, between the Abbey and the world, a reflection, a benevolent and useful parasite, an intermediary form of life.

Michael is one of three characters through whose eyes we see the growth and eventual dissolution of this lay community, as it is riven by the human (above all sexual) frailties of its members and visitors over the course of one late summer and early autumn.

Our other two protagonists are Dora Greenfield and Toby Gashe. Dora is an educated young woman adrift; she comes to the Imber community to follow her overbearing and older husband, the art historian Paul Greenfield, despite her own recent affair and the seeming collapse of their marriage. Toby is a much younger man, an aspiring engineer who intends to live at the Court before going up to Oxford because he wants to find a purer way of life. Whatever salvation Dora and Toby hope to discover, however, proves elusive as the plot becomes a tragic farce of hapless love affairs, misunderstandings, schemes, and accidents.

For one thing, Michael makes an odd leader for the community; less commanding than his lieutenant, James Tayper Pace, he is also a closeted gay man whose teaching career was ruined years before by a student named Nick, with whom he’d had the chastest of affairs. When Nick’s sister shows up at the Court, in order to prepare to join the nuns and enter the cloister, a dissolute Nick follows, and Michael must reflect on how to save the young man from his own addictions and self-hatred. A further complication is that Michael is beginning to have feelings for Toby as well, while Toby, a complete sexual innocent (to a somewhat hard-to-believe extent, in fact), is puzzled by his own sexuality and harbors complicated feelings not only for Michael but also for the alluring and flighty Dora.

While this suspenseful soap opera is transpiring, the titular bell (or rather, bells) furnishes a symbol for the moral problems of the individual. The Abbey’s original bell fell into the lake between the Abbey and the Court in the Middle Ages, as a result of a supernatural punishment for a nun’s sexual transgression. That bell was never recovered, but the Abbey is scheduled to receive a new bell at the end of the summer. In the meantime, Toby, diving in the lake, whose mystery, murk, and beauty also represent the mess of the human condition, discovers the old bell in the water and schemes with Dora to reveal it spectacularly.

The Bell is not just soap operatic, however; Murdoch, a philosopher, liked to use novels as Platonic dialogues, as A. S. Byatt explains in her excellent introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, and this novel’s sometimes over-the-top episodes pose questions about faith and doubt, the nature of morality, and the role of art, sex, and religion in our lives.

The moral question is the novel’s main one. Murdoch provides us dueling sermons, each with the bell as organizing metaphor. The robust James Tayper Pace, a character that Murdoch gives little space as she seems to think he is too strong to be interesting, advocates following simple moral precepts rather than examining the conscience. He preaches thusly:

‘A bell is made to speak out. What would be the value of a bell which was never rung? It rings out clearly, it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons. A great bell is not to be silenced. Consider too its simplicity. There is no hidden mechanism. All that it is is plain and open; and if it is moved it must ring.’

Michael, by contrast, advocates a recognition of human complexity and the exploration of that complexity over simple moralism:

‘I will use here, again following the example of James, the image of the bell. The bell is subject to the force of gravity. The swing that takes it down must also take it up. So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.’

Whereas James, without knowing anything about Michael’s sexuality, had said in his own sermon that “sodomy is not deplorable, it is forbidden,” thus to remove the appealing glamor from sin, Michael reflects inwardly during his own sermon:

He did not in fact believe it was just forbidden. God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many people, the core of their personality.


It was complicated; it was interesting: and there was the rub. He realized that in this matter, as in many others, he always engaged in performing what James had called the second best act: the act which goes with exploring one’s personality and estimating the consequences rather than austerely following the rules.

While Murdoch doesn’t quite use Michael’s homosexuality as a metaphor for generalized outsiderdom, she does seem to suggest that the most moral people are not the best rule-followers or the devoutest believers but are rather those who have distance from conventionality forced upon them and who consequently have to make their own moral way with their own inner resources. This struggle is writ large in the lay community as they argue how much space to keep between themselves and the outer world without regressing into a kind of irrelevant neo-medievalist unreality. That Michael praises this struggle as “interesting” brings us out of the world of ethics and into that of aesthetics, and we can’t help but notice that Michael’s recommendation of the free exploration of personality echoes the priority of the novelist.

The Bell is a very briskly-written series of escalatingly intense dramatic incidents and confrontations (many of which are also very funny), but it is more notably illuminated by Murdoch’s old-fashioned essayistic analyses of her characters’ thoughts and feelings, calling to mind writers like George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. In fact, Murdoch believed in the superiority of the 19th-century novel over the 20th-century novel; modernism, she thought, had in its formalism and nihilism evacuated the novel form of its ethical mission to represent human beings and human society in grounded and granular detail, this so that we may understand our fellows better and, more importantly, treat them better.

In his essay on Murdoch collected in The Broken Estate, James Wood sketches a little literary history that explains Murdoch’s intent for the novel as a literary form:

Of all the postwar English novelists, she had the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigor. She takes her place, however awkwardly, in a tradition of flexible, homemade English Christian Platonism which includes Ruskin and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Woolf, in some ways, was the rebel who had to overthrow her father’s moral Platonism and make the Good an aesthetic category only, and one discoverable only by a highly aestheticized fiction. Murdoch may be seen as the rebel to Woolf’s rebellion, closing down Bloomsbury’s aesthetic mysticism (art is never for art’s sake, always for life’s sake, she has written) in favor of a moral, “hard idea of truth.”

I understand the need to rebel against one’s immediate forebears very well, but still, I am with Woolf here. As much as I enjoyed The Bell for its well-constructed plot, its assured pacing, and its sheer intelligence of analysis, I would have enjoyed it more had Murdoch displayed any greater gift for imagery or description, any richer way with words. So much of the novel is straightforward character analysis. I’m not saying “show, don’t tell” is a rule that came down on tablets of stone (hell, it probably came from a CIA memo!), but I might have preferred more freedom of my own to reflect on the fable without having Murdoch’s interpretation always in front of me. Art requires a little mystery, which fact Murdoch seems to resent, and she seems to resent, too, readers’ potential to miss her point. Given the urgency of her sense of the novel’s mission, I understand her anxiety. Wood quotes her statement of what fiction is fundamentally for:

Art and morals are…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality…. The enemies of art and morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis….Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination…. (Wood’s ellipses)

That this is a paraphrase of Shelley’s own Platonist tract, “A Defence of Poetry,” doesn’t dispel some of the problems with the argument. For one thing, I have always found pain a far more reliable reminder than love that something other than myself is real. Also, anyone who denies that hate is also “the perception of individuals” has never hated intensely enough, and is therefore perhaps to be envied: you study your enemies even more closely than your lovers, because your life depends on it. Love, anyway, relies on a certain saving idealization, lest you perceive too many of the beloved’s flaws too closely.

As for “fantasy,” the plot Murdoch cooks up in The Bell, while it never takes leave of the possible, departs so far from the probable that she obviously had a guiltily-nurtured gift for this most crucial tool of any artist. Without fantasy, reality likely can’t be discovered at all; what would be the motive to explore, except for a fantasy of what might be found? And you don’t need to be a Marx to know that reality isn’t just there to be discovered but also to be transformed. Anyone who has ever cooked a dinner, let alone written a novel, surely grasps this.

Murdoch grasps it too. Midway through The Bell, Dora flees what she sees as the moralism of the Court and ends up in the National Gallery of London where she experiences a revelation before “Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters” (see here for the image):

She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the paintings] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. […] [She] felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before [the painting], embracing it, shedding tears.

The work doesn’t teach her anything in particular about reality, still less morality, but exists itself in reality, as a reality, as an instance of the beauty that is and a promise of beauty that may yet be. This epiphany sends her back to Imber, if only because it chastens her desire for an escape, but it does not necessarily make her more moral, only more alive.

“Revelation,” “epiphany.” Let’s add “incarnation.” Here is A. S. Byatt in her introduction to The Bell:

Her own desire to make a world in which consciousnesses were incarnate, embedded in the stuff of things, might seem to derive from George Eliot, who wrote movingly of her wish to make pictures, not diagrams, to “make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate”. Eliot, like Murdoch, was a European intellectual who had also a very immediate sense of human bodies, encounters and absurdities. They shared a preoccupation with the tensions between the formal complexity and design of the work of art and the need to give the characters space, freedom, to be people, not only to represent ideas or classes. It may be that Murdoch thought that Eliot had failed. She asked me once what I thought was the greatest English novel. Middlemarch, I said. She demurred, looking disapproving, and finally said that she supposed it was hard to find which one of Dickens’s novels was the greatest, but that surely he was the greatest novelist…Eliot began, in English, the elegant patterning with metaphor and leitmotiv that Murdoch, who believed that novelists were first and essentially storytellers, sometimes saw as a trap. (Byatt’s ellipses)

In his classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; English translation 1953), a book roughly contemporary with The Bell, Erich Auerbach writes of how Christ’s incarnation, God’s interpenetration with not only humanity but with common (as in lower-class) humanity, breaks the aesthetic hierarchy of the ancient world and sets in train the cultural process that will lead to the triumph in the 19th century of the realist novel, which confers what Auerbach calls “tragic seriousness” on everyday life. What Murdoch resents in the agnostic Eliot is Eliot’s sense that, with God gone from the picture, art will have to take his place. If the novel becomes a matter of aesthetics, does it thereby lose its capacity for ethics?

Despite that religious quandary, Murdoch does not make an assertion of faith. The Bell is not quite a Christian novel. It ends on the note of a declaration from Michael: “there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.” This, with its echo of Kafka’s “plenty of hope but none for us,” is the opposite of the problem Nietzsche diagnosed in us, whom he addressed as “we moderns,” “we knowers”: we still believe in God, he said, because we still believe in grammar. That is, we are officially secular, often officially atheistic if we are modern intellectuals, but we do not realize how many forms of order we take for granted or wish to preserve actually depend on the tacit presumption of monotheism’s assurance of ultimate significance. Murdoch does understand this dilemma and seeks to circumvent it by writing, in a sense, as if there were a God. “[T]he mass existed and he existed beside it,” we read of Michael at the conclusion. We moderns aren’t ready to believe in the mass beyond its bare existence; still, if it exists, who knows but that its ultimate addressee might exist as well?

A novel this intricately conceived is not to be taken lightly, and I will certainly be reading more Iris Murdoch in the future; but the modernist intuition that a novel must live in its own right rather than just pointing us toward some external source of meaning is neglected to this novel’s detriment. If Murdoch recalls her forebears Eliot and Woolf without equalling their achievement, this painful self-mortification must be the reason why.


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Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 1965 novel is a text so overwhelmed by its various contexts that it is almost impossible to read. It was still ubiquitous as a semi-illicit paperback when I was a child in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reputed to be an overwhelmingly intense and filthy book. I accordingly tried to read it when I was 11 or 12, but couldn’t make head or tail of it; I had better luck with Kosinski’s later novel, the National Book Award-winning Steps (1968). Steps is an episodic novella in the mode of pornographic dystopia, and I read it in one sitting, fascinated and revolted and pool-dazed. It also, famously, made an impression on David Foster Wallace, who should have learned a thing or two from its brevity.

I abandoned any plans I had to read The Painted Bird when I discovered that it was regarded as a sham, that its author (a kind of counterculture celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s) had falsely advertised the novel to his publishers as autobiography, and that many of his works may have been either partially plagiarized or partially written or translated for the author, still uneasy in the English language, by editors.

Once hailed by the literati as an instant classic, praised by Arthur Miller and Anaïs Nin and Elie Wiesel, canonized as a contribution to the literature of the Shoah, The Painted Bird came to be regarded as a mere hoax, notably denounced by Norman Finkelstein as one more piece of false advertising for what he controversially called “the Holocaust industry.” Kosinski, who committed suicide in 1991, seemed by the turn of the millennium to belong not in the literary canon but in the annals of notorious confidence men.

So it is surprising to turn to the actual text of the novel, as I finally have, and to find a carefully composed narrative, delicately written and thematically unified. Scholars and critics differ as to the actual provenance of the text, except to note that the horrors it narrates are decidedly not autobiographical: the Jewish Kosinski spent the war sheltered by a Polish Catholic family, not wandering the novel’s psychosexual nightmarescape version of Poland’s countryside.

In fact, The Painted Bird is so manifestly symbolic, the extreme events it narrates so difficult to credit, that I have a hard time believing anyone could have taken it as an unvarnished memoir. Appearing around the same time as The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the first publication of The Master and Margarita, Kosinski’s book might usefully be regarded as magical realism. Elie Wiesel, to be fair, acknowledges as much in his New York Times review, quoted at length on the first page of my edition:

If we ever needed proof that Auschwitz was more a concept than a name, it is given to us here with shattering eloquence in The Painted Bird, a moving but frightening tale in which man is indicted and proven guilty, with no extenuating circumstances.

I would dispute only the word “proof” there: as befits a work of the literary imagination rather than of the mind in recollection, The Painted Bird gives proof only of its author’s sensibility. Kosinski’s sensibility is neither pleasant nor entirely original, but it is fascinating and bizarre enough, especially as rendered in this novel’s wonderfully economical prose, to commend this novel as more than a hoax—rather, as good fiction, a compelling “tale,” to use Wiesel’s most apt word.

The premise of the tale, as noted by D. G. Myers, who also judges the novel “great” despite the problems posed by Kosinski’s biography, is that Auschwitz is, for those who came after it, the truth of their world:

The Painted Bird is notorious for its horrors: eyeballs are gouged out of sockets, animals are tortured, women are violated with bottles holding manure, men are devoured by rats. “The Germans puzzled me,” the boy says. “Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?”

This is the question that Kosinski’s whole life was given over to answering. That he died by his own hand suggests that his answer, finally, was No. And so Kosinski joined a line of Holocaust writers—Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery, Paul Celan, Primo Levi—who by committing suicide testified that the world was beyond repair. Although The Painted Bird may not be directly about the Holocaust, although it may not be based on Kosinski’s own experiences during the Holocaust, it is nevertheless an indispensable document of the Holocaust.

Another blurb, this one on the back of my old paperback edition, where it is jarringly discordant with the grotesque wraparound cover illustration, compares Kosinski to Anne Frank. Even allowing for Cynthia Ozick’s wise warning not to sanctify Frank, this is highly misleading; The Painted Bird belongs on the shelf with Sade, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Bataille, not with The Diary of a Young Girl.

From the uncredited cover illustration of the 1970 Pocket Books edition.

The novel is the retrospective narrative of a young boy’s journey through rural Poland during World War II after his parents have sent him away from the city to protect him from the Nazis.

In the countryside, rife with anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment as well as with magical folk beliefs about metaphysics and medicine, the narrator encounters a sequence of grotesque and violent incidents, from the fire he accidentally sets that destroys the home of his first caretaker to the brutal gang rape and murder of a later caretaker’s lover. He witnesses incest and bestiality, he is systematically tortured by a peasant with a fearsome dog, he is nearly drowned in an iced-over pond, he is thrown into a pit of manure by an incensed mob, and he is even captured by German soldiers, only to be released in a mysterious act of mercy by a glamorous Nazi officer, whose power and command the boy admires:

The instant I saw him I could not tear my gaze from him. His entire person seemed to have something utterly superhuman about it. Against the background of bland colors he protected an unfadable blackness. In a world of men with harrowed faces, with smashed eyes, bloody, bruised, and disfigured limbs, among the fetid, broken human bodies, of which I had already seen so many, he seemed an example of neat perfection that could not be sullied: the smooth, polished skin of his face, the bright golden hair showing under the peaked cap, his pure metal eyes. Every movement of his body seemed propelled by some tremendous internal force.

Along the way, the boy accedes to folk belief about his status as an evil being (due to his being, in the peasants’ eyes, a “Jew” or “Gypsy”), adopts Catholicism and begs God to intercede on his behalf, decides that Satanic powers truly rule the world and tries to join the side of the evildoers, admires what he sees as the knowledge and power of the Germans who wish to subjugate him, and, finally, when liberated by the Red Army, accepts communism’s promise of the brotherhood of man until the flaws in that ideology, too, with its own trampling of the individual, become apparent.

Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Painted Bird is a bildungsroman that follows its budding hero’s consciousness into wider and wider contexts, each new one revealing the limitations of the previous. Struck mute during his ordeal, the boy regains his voice at the novel’s conclusion; in other words, having passed through these ordeals and ideologies, he becomes capable of telling his story.

But if the latter development sounds like a sentimental anticipation of official multiculturalism’s favorite trope of literature as “voice,” the rest of the The Painted Bird is a decidedly more decadent affair. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, when reading scene after scene of vivid brutality, that the novel’s briskly-narrated phantasmagoria indulges an aestheticization of violence to the point of pornography. The regaining of voice at the conclusion even recalls the pornographer’s old alibi of having told a moral tale, while Kosinski’s deeper account of individualism, in keeping with the boy’s admiration for the Nazi officer and later for Stalin, involves the right of the strong to re-order the world at will according to their own aesthetic designs, precisely the game Kosinski played with history when he passed this off as his autobiography.

To support an interpretation that emphasizes individualism, consider the titular metaphor. The novel’s title comes from an early episode wherein another of the boy’s caretakers, a peasant bird-trapper named Lekh, would regularly choose a bird and paint its feathers in bright colors and then release it; when this painted bird would attempt to rejoin its flock, its fellows, disturbed by its dazzling and artificial coloration, would set on it and kill it. The Cold War moral is clear: individual vs. society.

As A. E. M. Baumann points out in his excellent Jungian reading of the novel, Kosinski portrays all collectivities, from rural peasantry to Soviet empire, as essentially hostile to individuation:

The effect within the book of this continuity between worlds and beliefs works not only on the grand scale but also to the specific. For example, when we meet Lekh the bird catcher, and read of the demise of the bird painted by Lekh, the whole of the scene is likewise brought into the mythic unity of the book. The scene is not an artificially inserted metaphor: it presents an idea already inherent to the world-systems of the Polish peasants, inherent to their belief systems: and as will be seen, inherent to all cultures, even to the “equality” within the new, Russian state. As such, the antagonism between the individual and culture that is the center of The Painted Bird is from the start inherent to the whole of the world through which the boy passes. In turn, through that unity, that antagonism is brought out of the historical and into the mythic.

Fair enough, but the reader also has the right to be disturbed by the total amorality of this mythical version of individualism, with the persecuted painted bird’s wish to join the flock and envy of its most powerful members (e.g., the Nazi officer), even with this myth’s affinity not only for what the boy sees as German style and swagger but also for the Nazis’ imperial view of the Polish populace, which the novel literally dehumanizes (per the bestiality motif).

When contemplating the ideological possibilities of an individualism untethered from morality, it is a relief that such a vision produces in this novel only a version of aestheticism, only the voice to tell the tale, rather than anything more severe. In this sense, Kosinski pits the paint of the painted bird against the violence of the flock; the novel implicitly and ultimately exalts the artist, who represents only his own idiosyncrasy, over the officer who marches on behalf of a collective.

To end on this aesthetic note, whoever wrote The Painted Bird wrote it effectively. (On the authorship question, I observe that Samuel Beckett’s first literary agent, the Irish writer George Reavey, is another claimant; and there is something of Beckett, if not his humane and humorous awareness of universal suffering, in this novel.) Its crisp narrative is a well-paced succession of sensory detail given in a style that is simple without being affected like that of a Hemingway epigone or someone imitating the paratactical style of the Bible; the novel would repay strictly formal study by the student. Orwell’s ideal of prose as a windowpane comes to mind, as long as we recall that the window is really a painting, and that the painted vista is, for better and for worse, almost entirely the product of Kosinski’s imagination.


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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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Gerald Murnane, The Plains

The PlainsThe Plains by Gerald Murnane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gerald Murnane is in vogue. Every few years, it seems, a new writer or handful of writers is coronated in the book reviews, little magazines, and literary coteries of the English-speaking world as a monarch of world literature. So far this century, we’ve had W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, László Krasznahorkai, and the posthumous canonization of Clarice Lispector.

Murnane would appear to be the latest to join this company. True, he writes in English and hails from an Anglophone country, but his style and allegiances, his continuity with certain strains in 20th-century experimental writing, make his fiction a kind of honorary example of literature in translation.

I haven’t looked into Pascale Casanova’s sociological study The World Republic of Letters since early in grad school, but as I recall she argues there that the two readiest paths to canonization in world literature are those blazed by Joyce/Faulkner and Kafka/Beckett—to put it rather brutally, you can be the bard of the local or the philosopher of the void. 

The late 20th century, with its rise of the postcolonial novel, was the time of the Faulknerians: Gabriel García Márquez, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, José Saramago, Arundhati Roy. J. M. Coetzee was a Beckettian outlier in that context, reproved by Gordimer for his social irresponsibility.

But the 21st century so far has been a veritable age of Beckett: novels about time and the body, anhedonia and self-laceration,  the limits of language, the desperation of the writer, the inevitability of sorrow and loss, history as an unrepresentable sublime of suffering. Presumably the collapse of the 20th-century utopias—the communist and liberal variants on the end of history, more or less—has provoked a chastened literary response from the world avant-garde.

Murnane, though praised for his originality, is also clearly in the Kafka/Beckett line, all mysterious landscapes and inner deliberations over truth and representation.

In his 1982 novel The Plains, re-released last year in a beautiful new hardcover from Text Publishing, a narrator from nearer the coast arrives at the titular setting, a fantastical variant of the interior of Australia, with the intention of making a film that would capture its essence.

The novel’s first sentences (praised by Paul Genoni as “the most compelling opening in Australian fiction”) sets its stately, meditative tone and announce its theme of searching apparent blankness and monotony for significance:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.

Genoni oddly but persuasively goes on to compare The Plains to The Great Gatsby; while the idea is evidently to suggest that The Plains is a “national” work akin to Fitzgerald’s perennial candidate for Great American Novel, it is a counterintuitive comparison. The Great Gatsby is, whatever else it is, a heavily-plotted thriller crowded with personalities, dialogue, visual description, and often violent incident.

Murnane wants nothing more than to wean us from all such fictional trappings. His narrator is attracted to the plains precisely because their, well, plainness both invites heightened attention and provokes their habitués to sensibilities of great individuality and subtlety:

I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood. It was the kind of story that appealed to their own novelists and dramatists and poets. Readers and audiences on the plains were seldom impressed by outbursts of emotion or violent conflicts or sudden calamities. They supposed that the artists who presented such things had been beguiled by the noises of crowds or the profusions of shapes and surfaces in the foreshortened landscapes of the world beyond the plains.

The landscape is a correlate or metaphor for Murnane’s ideal fiction, and the word “plain” comes in the novel to signify any rarefied and evanescent ideal.

The narrator, as he waits in a bar to seek patronage for his film from the great landowners of the plains, thinks of the history of dueling artists who once dominated the plains and whose conflict even spilled into political factionalism. One side took as its standard the “subdued yellow” of the plains themselves, while the other adopted the “blue-green” of the horizon; politically, the former wished for the plains to secede from Australia, while the latter wished for the plains to dominate Australia.

In either case, whether valuing the land or its limit, whether separatist or imperialist, the artists of the plains devoted themselves, like the 20th-century avant-garde, to an ideal blankness signifying infinity.

The narrator says as much when making his case to the landowners: “I believed that every man was called to be an explorer.” He is taken on by one of them, and the second half of the novel details his uneventful and gently comic service as resident filmmaker in a great house. Our narrator never succeeds in making a film but only in making notes for one; Murnane, who has stated his dislike for film and for fiction that apes its effects, allegorizes the demotion of film in favor of literature in the novel we are reading, the failed filmmaker’s testament.

If the minimal suspense of the novel’s first half came from wondering whether or not the narrator would succeed in persuading the landowners to patronize his film, the minimal suspense in the second half is generated by the narrator’s interest in the landowner’s wife and granddaughter.

The wife likes to read a genre of philosophy favored in the plains that “most often would perhaps be called novels in another Australia” but that “on the plains make up a well-respected branch of moral philosophy.” These works consist, as the narrator describes it, of their authors’ phenomenology of regret, inspections of their own inner experience of loss. Again, Murnane’s fiction provides an image of its own ideal.

In his essay “In Praise of the Long Sentence,” a defense of compound sentences and  hypotactic prose as the ideal vehicle for a fiction of consciousness, Murnane distinguishes “film-script fiction,” which presents visual scenes to the reader, from “meditative fiction” or “true fiction,” which presents instead the reflections and sensibilities of a narrator.

The distinction does not, to my mind, hold up: fiction that presents visual scenes still expresses through them the sensibility of the author. Moreover, when Murnane says that the film-script-fiction writer “prefers, for the time being, to show me details rather than to impart information,” I have no idea what he means; are details not information? This essay shows Murnane in a “blue-green” mood, wishing to conquer Australia, or world literature, with the sensibility of the plains. I am all in favor of compound sentences, though; there we can agree.

Back to The Plains. When the narrator proposes to end his film with a shot of the landowner’s granddaughter in the landscape, we may recall the landowners’ long colloquy in the novel’s first half about how they visit brothels to enjoy suntanned prostitutes whose brown skin differentiates them from the pale women of the plains. The men sometimes find, however, that “there were always some girls who kept their last inches utterly white.”

Whiteness and idealized femininity are (do I even have to say “problematically”?) the human corollaries to the plains’ metaphysical infinitude of a various blankness. When I say that Murnane is, despite his much-praised originality, in the line of Kafka and Beckett, writing in an identifiable and, if I may, somewhat predictable genre of world literature, I am also thinking of those suggestive remarks scattered through Deleuze’s writings about the continuity between late-modernist fiction of the Kafka/Beckett variety and the quest romances of Arthurian myth, the search for the Holy Grail:

It is sometimes said that the novel reached its culminating point when it adopted an anti-hero as a character: an absurd, strange and disoriented creature who wanders about continually, deaf and blind. But this is the substance of the novel: from Beckett back to Chrétien de Troyes, from Lawrence back to Lancelot, passing through the whole history of the English and American novel. (Deleuze, “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”)

While some assessments of Murnane’s newfound popularity connect his work with the autofiction trend (as attested by Ben Lerner’s introduction to and Teju Cole’s blurb on this edition), The Plains is, generically, more a fantasy than anything else. If every occurrence of the word “Australia” were replaced with the name of a fictional planet or fantastical country, the novel’s metaphysics and politics would be little altered. I was reminded at times of Kafka’s Amerika, Beckett’s Molloy, Borges’s “The South,” Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and Aira’s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but I was reminded equally of Lem’s Solaris.

As for any world-lit Faulknerisms we may observe of Murnane, they come up in his life rather than his work, in his reputation as the local eccentric making extraordinary pronouncements even as he has never left his region of Australia. Shannon Burns* is a good guide to this aspect of Murnane’s reception and the difficulties it has created for his work’s reputation.

I personally dislike the metropolitan condescension, the patronizing indulgence, the “Isn’t he just darling?” that infects the tone of some commentary on Murnane I’ve seen. Many of his “eccentricities,” such as his preference for correct prose or his relative dislike of cinema, seem admirable enough to me, and his seeming arrogance, however tinged with self-satirizing grandiosity—

You mention the craftsmanship of my writing. I wouldn’t dare give myself a ranking among my contemporaries in any field other than craftsmanship. And in that field I’d rank myself first. My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime. The previous sentence is a fair average sample of my prose.

—is almost inarguably preferable to its inverse, the maddeningly faux-humble tweet of Millennial self-promotion: “So um guys I like wrote a thing?”

Even so, the commissars of world literature will have to pack me on to the next train to Philistia (maybe I can sit next to Ted Gioia if he’ll have me), because I am going to need many more sights and sounds and smells and scenes from my fiction than are on offer in The Plains, with its extraordinarily abstract narration. I admire, in theory, the severity and astringency of Murnane’s aesthetic, but my own preference is for a livelier landscape. What can I say? I was reared amid hills, reading Faulkner and Fitzgerald.


* I can’t resist noting that Burns, an Australian academic and writer, also wrote two brilliant essays I’ve enjoyed recently. One is a somewhat illicit piece called “In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class,” which contains these lines, lines I wish I could make any number of people understand:

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of a middle-class life is the extent to which it shields its beneficiaries from fundamental, brutal realities. Most lower class people of all ethnicities quickly learn that universal justice doesn’t exist, and probably never will, yet unbridled fantasies of fairness are continually thrust upon them from above. Don Quixote rides his workhorse, Rocinante, with the same blind abandon.

And he also wrote an appreciation of the late Philip Roth that doubles as a defense of amoral or even immoral fiction:

Some strains of contemporary criticism are driven to weed out the “bad seeds”, writers who are considered morally dubious, and Roth’s reputation has certainly suffered as a result of this critical turn, but I want to suggest that writers who disappoint moral or ideological expectations are as worthy of attention as those who appeal to and reinforce them. Writers are under no obligation to be role models or social engineers, and literature needn’t serve to reassure its readers or confirm their values.

I recommend both essays highly.


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Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar

The City and the PillarThe City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A little over a decade and a half ago, Gore Vidal was one of the most urgent voices on the American left: challenging empire in the era of neoconservatism, challenging religion at the height of evangelical power, he seemed to speak for America’s disaffected left-liberals in the Bush years.

Readers coming to Vidal’s cultural and political essays for the first time today, however, may not necessarily associate them with the political left at all. Politics change with the times. What is progressive in one decade looks regressive the next, and vice versa. If Vidal, who died in 2012, could come back to see Bill Kristol and David Frum hailed as heroes of an anti-fascist resistance movement, he would die all over again. But other changes are more subtle. The leading edge of today’s progressive movement, for instance, is notably religious, its socialism informed by a spiritual commitment to “the least among us.” Similarly, its feminism (having largely dismissed the sexual revolution as the alibi of the male predator) is tempered by an ecumenical avowal of “modesty.” Contrast Vidal’s classic essay, “Monotheism and Its Discontents” (1992):

The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved — Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

In the era of the religious right’s dominance, Vidal was not in the mood to be “inclusive.” When it came to capital-P Politics, matters of statecraft and war, he, in the same essay, remarks upon the resemblances between his own “isolationism” (a word he felt had been unfairly demonized) and that of the populist right:

Meanwhile, the word “isolationist” has been revived to describe those who would like to put an end to the national security state that replaced our Republic a half-century ago while extending the American military empire far beyond our capacity to pay for it. The word was trotted out this year to describe Pat Buchanan, when he was causing great distress to the managers of our national security state by saying that America must abandon the empire if we are ever to repair the mess at home. Also, as a neo-isolationist, Buchanan must be made to seem an anti-Semite.

Speaking of the latter point, Vidal did not place much value on politesse in matters multicultural. His most famous statement on sexual freedom is perhaps 1981’s “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (which you can read at The Nation under its original title, “Some Jews & The Gays”). That essay may be understood as a sequel to Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.” As Wolfe’s 1970 essay charted the late-1960s apotheosis of phony leftism among “the new class” (midcentury media elites), so Vidal’s 1981 essay accounts for this class’s turn to neoconservatism and its accompanying homophobia.

Because so many members of the new class descended from immigrants, Vidal sought to make common cause with Jews on the grounds that reactionary regimes, Nazism above all, tended to target Jewish and gay populations alike. Yet he does not avoid stereotype. In fact, he mercilessly manipulates stereotype, evidently considering turnabout fair play: as if to avenge the vicious homophobia of Midge Decter and Joseph Epstein, he deploys, in discursive revenge, judeophobic tropes: “No matter how crowded and noisy a room, one can always detect the new-class person’s nasal whine.” And the whole essay argues, in the name of a universal humanism, against any exceptionalist understanding of the Holocaust, as illustrated by this memorable anecdote with, ironically, the cadence of a Borscht Belt bit:

In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexualists wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. “After all,” said Isherwood, “Hitler killed 600,000 homosexuals.” The young man was not impressed. “But Hitler killed six million Jews,” he said sternly. “What are you?” asked Isherwood. “In real estate?”

Vidal’s attitude toward sexuality as such was anarchic. He construed human beings as essentially bisexual, denying any such thing as the homosexual identity as opposed to the variably sexual actor, and he saw males in particular as sexually omnivorous. He had a contempt for bourgeois family life, on the basis of whose protection the empire was extended and whose metaphysical warrant was monotheism, with the Hebrew Bible as its wellspring. A coherent and comprehensive worldview, then, not much in evidence on the left today, even if various of its features seemed crucial in the years after 9/11, when Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War seemed (to some) like beacons in a fog of propaganda.

Vidal once semi-seriously appointed Christopher Hitchens his “dauphin or delfino,” before the two men broke over Hitchens’s own post-9/11 conversion to neoconservativism; Vidal ironically outlived his erstwhile successor by one year, which means neither of them crossed into the Trump era. A few commentators have speculated that Hitchens, had he lived, would have warmed, out of sheer contrarianism, to Trump. I highly doubt it, notwithstanding the role played by Hitchens’s nemesis (and Clinton bagman) Sidney Blumenthal in the concoction of the Steele Dossier; I tend to imagine, wrongly perhaps, Hitchens voting for Evan McMullin! With Vidal, on the other hand, one does have to wonder.

Despite all of the above, I do not recommend, as I never do, intellectual biblioclasm. Vidal was a giant of American letters, a brilliant political essayist, and a rebel against orthodoxies whose solidity in their own time it is now difficult to remember. Often the contemporary critics most loudly denouncing historical figures for their “privilege” are themselves unwittingly privileged by their own presentist bias; heirs to the revolutions our predecessors made at great cost to themselves, we judge them from positions of moral security they could not have known.

After that unconscionably long preamble, let me get to the point: Vidal mainly considered himself a novelist. Like Orwell and Baldwin and Sontag, he was almost certainly a better essayist than novelist, but is his fiction any good at all?

His early novel, The City and the Pillar (1948, revised 1965), provides a mixed answer to that question. Historically, it is a crucial text, part of that handful of canonical testaments to 20th-century gay male life before Stonewall, alongside Maurice (1913-14, 1971), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and A Single Man (1964). Of these novels, Isherwood’s is perhaps the only outright literary masterpiece, while Vidal’s is, aesthetically speaking, the slightest. The work of a very young author (Vidal was 21 when he wrote it), The City and the Pillar lacks the moral wisdom of Forster or the sociopolitical acuity of Baldwin, not to mention Isherwood’s late-modernist prose-poetry. Nevertheless, as Vidal mentions in his 1995 introduction to this edition, a reprint of the 1965 revision, he sent the novel to Isherwood and to Thomas Mann, and both men admired it, with Mann reporting in his diary, “An important human document, of excellent and enlightening truthfulness.”

The novel begins with Jim Willard drunk in a New York City bar. From there, a flashback is cued that fills out the bulk of the novel before we return, in the final chapter, to the present. Jim is reared in a politician’s family in Virginia, and is an all-American athlete himself destined for politics. But in high school, he falls in love with a classmate named Bob and they share a tryst in an old “slave cabin” (Vidal again links instances of oppression) by the Potomac:

Now they were complete, as each became the other, as their bodies collided with a primal violence, like to like, metal to magnet, half to half and the whole restored.

Then novel’s prose will rarely be so lyrical again. After high school, Jim becomes a sailor, and then he jumps ship and becomes the kept man of a movie star named Shaw. Life with Shaw gives Jim his introduction into the queer demimonde, which Jim regards ambivalently. Like Forster’s Maurice and Baldwin’s David, Vidal’s Jim is characterized as a “normal” man but for his desire for other men. “Normal” here means “not effeminate.” This is unacceptable to us, no doubt, but these novels tend to express a horror at the feminine, wishing instead to associate male homosexuality with traditionally masculine expressions of gender. As in Giovanni’s Room, the effeminacy of the queer male world is implied to be damage done by the constraints of the closet, and also a cause of the sorrows of gay life.

The City and the Pillar certainly dwells on the sorrows, though they come across more as corruptions given the briskness of the novel’s unsentimental dialogue-heavy and generally anti-lyrical style. Vidal in his introduction says he intended “a flat gray prose reminiscent of one of James T. Farrell’s social documents,” while Brian A. Oard ingeniously compares the novel to Candide. And in Vidal’s pitilessly appraising eye, canvassing in a brief but picaresque text almost the whole of North America as well as London and the sea, there is not a little of Voltaire.

The rest of the novel’s plot is shortly told. Jim leaves Shaw to take up with the writer Sullivan, which gives Vidal a chance to satirize the literary world. After a failed love triangle in Mexico with Sullivan and a woman named Maria, Jim enters the army during World War II and experiences more romantic failure. Though he finds economic success postwar as a tennis instructor in New York, he remains unlucky in love and unsatisfied with the gay subculture, a dissatisfaction that Vidal brings out most brutally in his cruel portrayal of the fatuous and hypocritical party host Rolly: “‘You know, I loathe these screaming pansies…I mean, after all, why be a queen if you like other queens, if you follow me?'”

The novel is plainly moving toward the crisis of Jim’s reunion with Bob, his first love, now married with a child. While Bob had been a willing sexual partner in their youth and expresses ambivalence when he rejoins Jim in New York, he eventually rebuffs his old friend’s advances. Following this rejection by his Platonically ideal male lover, Jim rapes Bob and leaves him face down on a hotel room bed (and in fact, in the novel’s original 1948 version, he kills Bob). After this unforgivable violation, Jim goes to the bar where we met him in the novel’s first chapter. The despairing conclusion finds him in contemplation of the river, water being the novel’s symbol of metamorphosis from the Potomac beside which Jim and Bob make love to the ocean on which they separately set sail:

Once more he stood beside a river, aware at last that the purpose of rivers is to flow into the sea. Nothing that ever was changes. Yet nothing that is can ever be the same as what went before.

As these words imply, The City and the Pillar differs from Forster’s, Baldwin’s, and (to a lesser extent) Isherwood’s novels. The hero’s fundamental problem is not society’s ban on his love for men as it is in, say, Giovanni’s Room. Jim’s tragedy, or fortunate fall, is rather the reverse: his love for men, by freeing him from family life and respectable bourgeois society, discloses to him the essential emptiness of existence, as perceived by the godless Vidal but concealed beneath monotheistic rhetoric and the nuclear family. Like the queer theorist Lee Edelman after him, Vidal treasures queerness for its power to dissolve comforting illusions, its anti-promise of “no future.” (A comparison might also be drawn to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood [1936].)

Like his political essays, then, Vidal’s fiction retains a power to shock and disturb. But Vidal’s wit is better expressed in essay form, where it is wedded to the dissolutely avuncular charm of his voice, rather than to the cold eye of his novel’s third-person narrator. The novel’s grim point, too, could have been made without the climactic act of violence, whether murder or rape, which to me bespeaks a young author’s belief that shock tactics can disguise structural flaws.

The novel’s main structural flaw is Jim. He is too colorless a character, merely a passive observer, his recalcitrant lovelessness and unconvincing obsession with his youthful paramour inexplicable extremisms. (Vidal compares him to Humbert Humbert in his introduction, but where in Jim is Humbert’s idiosyncrasy and perversity?) The novel’s title allies Jim to Lot’s wife: he is destroyed for looking back. But what does Vidal give him to look forward to? I admire amoralism in a novel, but immoralism is moralism’s equal and opposite, just another version of the didactic. Oddly, Vidal’s essays feel less sermonic than this novel does.

Even so, The City and the Pillar is darkly entertaining, historically illuminating, and remorselessly intelligent. Though politics and history have left him behind, as they will leave all of us behind, Gore Vidal remains a writer to read.


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Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short StoriesGoodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

She walked away and around the oak tree. When she appeared again she’d stepped out of her shoes and held one hand on the tree, as though it were a Maypole she were circling.
—Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

Just then, as if a spell had loosened them, down came a little shower of withering rose leaves from the May-Pole. Alas, for the young lovers! No sooner had their hearts glowed with real passion, than they were sensible of something vague and unsubstantial in their former pleasures, and felt a dreary presentiment of inevitable change. From the moment that they truly loved, they had subjected themselves to earth’s doom of care, and sorrow, and troubled joy, and had no more a home at Merry Mount.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The May-Pole of Merrymount” (1832)

Among the nineteenth-century New England literati who form of the core of the classic tradition in American literature, Hawthorne is the patron saint of the second- or third- or fourth-generation writer—any writer whose forebears migrated to this country with one or another stern faith and a ferocious capitalist work ethic, just the combination to make those immigrant ancestors understandably disgusted when they find they have somehow spawned dreamy, perverse sons and daughters who would rather explore the possibilities of human nature and live experimental lives than venerate the household gods or do an honest day’s labor. In “The Custom-House,” the Preface to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne, forced to get what my relatives call “a real job” by economic need, imagines his Puritan ancestors’ judgment on his true vocation, that of novelist and short story writer:

“What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.

At least Hawthorne’s forebears were long dead, and he only imagined their reproach: some of us have to hear it, still, in the flesh. But as the concluding sentence of the quotation allows, such writers as Hawthorne understand that something in their immigrant ancestors’ grim view of life is true, truer than the meliorism of settled, satisfied classes. That, in a sense, our rebellion against them reprises their flight to America, their quest for some other, better way to be.

Philip Roth was, strange to say, a Hawthorne of the late twentieth century. And Roth understood it, as the reference to the maypole in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, demonstrates, along with the name of the rebel daughter, Merry, in American Pastoral. It’s true that nobody in Hawthorne ever fucked a liver or jacked off over his mistress’s grave, but in Roth and in Hawthorne the heroes seek—and invariably find—the limits of our American freedom, shadowed all the while by the gloom of their immigrant ancestry.

The final story in Goodbye, Columbus, “Eli, the Fanatic,” even re-writes “The Minister’s Black Veil.” It is set in a prosperous midcentury suburb populated by Jewish and Protestant professionals steeped in modern expertise from psychoanalysis to all the accoutrements of the ’50s home. At the edge of this community, Orthodox Jewish refugees from Europe have set up a Yeshiva school, and Eli, an attorney, is dispatched by the alarmed suburbanites to use zoning laws to run out those whom they consider unsightly fanatics. But Eli is unaccountably transformed by his encounter with the “blackness” of both the refugees’ traditions and their suffering and ends up donning the black Orthodox garb himself, which renders him a madman in the eyes of his bright suburban neighbors.

Roth, whom you might expect to puncture the conservatism of the Orthodox, here defends them against the merciless philistinism of the middle-minded Americans, one of whom protests against giving his daughter a religious education because the story of Abraham (“‘Today a guy like that they’d lock him up'”) gave his daughter nightmares! Such censoriousness from any quarter and with whatever justification is always disgusting, because it evades the “blackness” that has seeped from the exigencies of history into Eli.

With these ideas in mind, we can turn to the collection’s famous title novella. A work of extraordinary economy and precision—a model to the writing student, as Emily Gould notes—it portrays a failed love affair over the course of one summer between Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin. Brenda’s family has grown rich and moved out of working-class Newark to a better address, while Neil still lives in the old neighborhood with his aunt Gladys. This class conflict is more a subtext than the story’s explicit source of conflict: the Patimkins seem to tolerate Neil, even if they are occasionally knowing about his lower status; Mr. Patimkin even appreciates Neil’s greater proximity to Jewish life:

“Here you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”

“Thief,” I said.

“You know more than my own kids. They’re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”

Brenda, a character of lovable complexity, is never more the spoiled rich girl than in her conflicts with her mother, while Neil at times seems to sympathize with Mrs. Patimkin, as her character was forged by struggles he understands but Brenda does not. Meanwhile, Neil’s aunt Gladys is a beautiful loving comic sketch of a certain type—I don’t think you have to be exclusively Jewish to recognize her, to hear the intonation of her voice in your own head, but you do have to have been around the old twentieth-century immigrant neighborhoods at some point in your life, as I was in my childhood.

Even as Neil enjoys his entrée into upper-class living, he works in the Newark Public Library where he forms a kind of friendship with a black boy who comes in on his summer vacation to look at book of Gaugin’s paintings. The phrase “goodbye, Columbus” has a double provenance in the text: it is intoned on a commemorative record given to Brenda’s brother upon his graduation from Ohio State, but it also appears in a dream of Neil’s wherein he and the black boy from the library are setting out from Gaugin’s Tahiti while the women on shore shout, “Goodbye, Columbus.” The real discoverers of America are not the upwardly mobile and the assimilated, we may take this to mean, but the outcasts, whether on grounds of race or sensibility, the indigenes of art. Art, as all its serious practitioners are aware, is not the same as doing whatever you please; certainly the monkish Roth—a writer all the way down, per Zadie Smith’s tribute—did not think so.

It is sex, which will become Roth’s great topic, that drives Neil and Brenda apart. Roth was and is often mistaken, by censorious sensibilities both religious/conservative and feminist/liberal, for a mere libertine, but he is not, no more than is Hawthorne. In Hawthorne’s great early story about the maypole, two gangs of extremists face off with a newlywed couple between them: the extremist pleasure-seekers of Merrymount and the extremist Calvinists of Massachusetts Bay. Both are mistaken in their exaggerations. Contra the revelers, life is not and cannot be pure pleasure, pure freedom—once you make any commitment, whether to a discipline or to another person, you are necessarily constrained. Contra the theocrats, however, commitments should not be imposed externally but must be freely chosen. Real freedom is when you are at liberty to choose that to which you will be bound.

Neil and Brenda are, on these grounds, ambiguous figures, and Roth is not obviously on the male’s side: the crisis in their relationship comes when he urges her to get a diaphragm, which her mother discovers. If there is a polemic here against the Patimkins’ punitive or puritanical respectability, there is also a disturbing element in Neil’s possessiveness and control. The couple never earnestly and openly discusses the innate difficulties of their relationship, and Neil’s insistence on the diaphragm is his way of finding a shortcut to a premarital commitment. By the end, we don’t know quite what to think, though we have been given much to think about. It is part of the iron discipline of art that the artist not choose sides.

All well and theoretical, but the pleasures of this novella are as much in description and motif as in theme and thesis. Read it for the fruit, the swimming pool, the sweat; read it for Roth’s first attempt to put all of Newark into language. And then read the rest of this book for its controversial short stories, comic allegories of culture clash and individuation, the first works to put Roth in the eye of the censors, who wanted and want a clear statement of virtue from the books they read. But in Roth, as in Hawthorne, the authorial self-control necessary to refuse resolution, to refuse to choose among America’s divided legacies, is the clearest statement of all. The point is to leave readers free to embrace whatever destiny is theirs. It is an honorable tradition to join—certainly the most honorable I have personally discovered in America—and Roth was and will remain a model practitioner of the art.


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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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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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