Category: Uncategorized

Funding Evil and Its Foes

Dracula: it might seem odd to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake plowing through its last hundred pages, but that’s exactly how I came to the end of a tale that’s somehow managed to maintain its place in many a cultural imaginary for the last hundred-plus years. And overall, it was a good beach read (though perhaps better suited to a colder, cloudier time of year), made even more satisfying by the fact that it didn’t reach its climax on Halloween, as I’d feared it would. The only other surprise was the story’s extremely abrupt ending, largely free of the suspense-prolonging mishaps and false turns that populate a lot of horror literature and film.

Let’s face it: only a rich guy could get away with looking like this and waging centuries’ worth of evil. Via Wikimedia Commons.

What the book did make me consider, though, was just how much it had to say in mostly covert fashion about class and wealth, and what the latter especially can make possible. For instance, this group of friends– two doctors, a lawyer and his wife, a nobleman, and an adventurer– don’t even have to think about getting time off from work or making their excuses to employers et al to go on an international chase after the undead and solve what amounts to an unconventional healthcare situation– nor do they have to worry about the ridiculous outlay of cash the whole thing entails. Admittedly, the threatened Mina does mention in one diary entry, “it made me think of the wonderful power of money!… I felt so thankful that Lord Godalming is rich, and that both he and Mr Morris, who also has plenty of money, are willing to spend it so freely. For if they did not, our little expedition could not start…”(1) But the recognition ends there, and we’re plunged right back into the action.

I’d love to see a story where it’s the poor who have to fight off evil(2) – but my guess is, if it had to entail all the travel and vacation hours required in Stoker’s tale, the search for funds would be pretty brief and futile, and instead of being left with a thrilling adventure with which the protagonists could regale their friends after dinner, everyone would quickly end up dead or damned, with not much of a plot worthy of the name.(3)

But that admonition about necessary wealth also applies to the villain himself; in spite of his super strength and cunning, our man had to shell out quite a bit of coin to get all his boxes of earth, as well as himself, shipped back and forth and housed in multiple properties. Had he been some poor street urchin whose transformation into a vampire hadn’t also elevated his financial or social position in the world, I’m guessing an army of villagers or urban block captains could’ve made pretty short work of someone unable to dismiss fears and/or crimes via bribes, much less afford a room for the night.

And the count’s prosperity is important here in another way. We learn that Dracula originally made his name fighting the Turks and going out in battle for territory, both securing and expanding his realm of control. So sure, he had plenty of funds stashed up over the centuries. But all that money and influence weren’t amassed in order to secure a very long and comfortable retirement feeding off forgettable villagers and waifs; nope, Dracula is a weird part of the colonial project, sailing off to London to plant a flag and propagate his own kind from there. The heart of British imperialism finds itself prey to its own practices, to an entirely different sort of colonizing endeavor– a subplot and/or critique I’m not sure Stoker saw or intended. But if we want to look at how empire is built by sucking resources (and hence, life) from others, vampire tales provide a pretty good analogy.

Of course, there’s the question of Christianity as the (one) force able to defend against this sort of evil, a topic or theme that’s been so hashed and rehashed, it’s not really worth talking about– except for some brilliant comedic queries I’ve witnessed over the years. Probably my favorite was dropped into a Mexican vampire spoof, one of those eye-rollingly bad b-movies you somehow find yourself watching on a Saturday afternoon and wondering what you’re doing with your life. But on this occasion, right before total despair set in, the hero, convinced of his victory, shoved a ridiculously large crucifix into the vampire’s face– to which the latter responded in triumph, “Ha ha! I am Jewish!” and advanced without a hiccup. The hour of my life I’d wasted up until then was suddenly redeemed.(4)

Whether in its pulp varieties or not, after dwelling for 400-plus pages in the world of horror, I’m ready to move on to– I’ll say it– more elevated matter. If the couple of wonderfully weird Elizabeth Bishop poems I read last night are an indication of what’s to come, things are about to take a more authentically poetic turn.

 

(1) Bram Stoker, Dracula, Barnes & Noble Classics (New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2003), 418.

(2) I’m talking authentically poor– not (upper) middle class, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Lost Boys. Those settings of suburban comfort may not have been able to draw upon ridiculous wealth, but their locally based struggles were staged within healthy financial situations.

(3) I have a feeling that, had he wanted to treat less urgent subjects, Gil Scott-Heron might’ve done an amazing job with both the question of wealth and race in tales of horror and adventure. Someone needs to take Blacula one step further, under the guidance of “Whitey on the Moon.” But the mere suggestion is sounding offensively frivolous; we’ve got much more pressing matters to address, after all, than fictional creatures’ social arrangements.

(4) It doesn’t have to do with vampires, but in The Muslims Are Coming, Dean Obeidallah’s fantastic skit on ghost-hunting shows is apropos enough to include in a footnote to this piece. A fellow fan of this TV genre, Obeidallah wonders why families burdened by some supernatural presence are always Catholic. After asking why ghosts apparently don’t enjoy dropping in on Jews and Muslims, he goes on to ponder how his own co-religionists would probably have just gone on and welcomed the specter right in.

Final Questions without Answers

And so, gentle readers, I have done it: in spite of pillows and comforter and the need for sleep fighting me every step of the way, I completed Pack of Lies last night. Maybe not since John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake before that) have I felt such satisfaction at coming to the end of a collection of words. But while those predecessors resembled intriguing sacks of lead, this prolix head-trip never felt like a deadweight.

After this post, I’m guessing I’ll leave the trilogy’s mysteries to themselves,* maybe wondering at stray moments

“Sneering and Defiance,” from The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia Commons.

1) what the intention was behind riffing on my beloved Ethan Frome. I don’t exactly enjoy pondering the long and ruined lives of Edith Wharton’s couple maimed for love. Maybe that was precisely Sorrentino’s purpose: a smirking way of calling out much literary tendency to give a glimpse of something terrible and let us think we’ve really understood it or absolved ourselves of the necessity truly to grapple with its implications. I can envision the author enjoying our despair at being confronted with logical, if absurd, extremes– especially when they deal with just how sour the plight of sweethearts can turn, and when they’re tossed in among a whole sweep of frivolous humanity.

2) what the weird demons who drop in on the scene every now and then were meant to do, beyond just being included for the hell of it. An update on Greek tragedy’s divine interventions– or maybe the result of being left without heroic (or any overarching) ideals: the gods become as tawdry as the people they toy with?

3) what Buddy and Dick and their caricatured Hardy Boys-type ramblings were meant to accomplish. Parody, sure– but to what end, inserted into this particular crowd of characters?

4) whether there was any real plan behind the alphabetizing that took place in Misterioso. My baseless speculation is that Sorrentino was just trying to see who’d notice it, and at what point– and maybe, who’d go back to figure out what the non-existent hidden message was within this arrangement. Again: tossing in a wrench just to see how the works respond?

5) finally, whether Sorrentino was as hostile in real life to John Crowe Ransom as his digs at the poet would seem to indicate– and/or whether said poet/his poem “Janet Waking” was a convenient foil for one of the book titles, Sheila Sleeping, that keeps popping up throughout the trilogy. At any rate, Ransom would probably have been disgusted by this cast of characters and their antics– and they probably would have laughed at his.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned John Milbank, bless his angry and exacting heart. While having to soak up his thunderings for a doctoral exam, I became convinced he’d imprisoned a closet-full of grad students, hopeful noses to the grindstone and racing to be the first to find the most obscure fact about orthodoxy, along with all of its imaginable variations. I could envision Sorrentino having his own horde of willing literary servants working on Pack of Lies– but in this case, they, along with their chief, would all be high, and just tossing index cards pertaining to the characters they’d been assigned into a pile. Had this weird party taken place twenty years after the actual book’s publication, I’m sure Milbank himself could have made a delightful appearance in all these goings-on, railing against the post-modern mischief he’d never deign to acknowledge.

 

* To bypass all my queries, just see my reviewlette on Goodreads and/or LibraryThing, viz., “Not a clue how to rate this. Did I get it? Is there anything to get? I have no idea– but I never felt burdened, and often cheered on Sorrentino’s frequent jabs at a variety of cultural/academic/societal/publishing world/literary practices.”

Legacy Labels and Literature

It might be advisable to sit and think for a bit, instead of heading straight for the keyboard after finishing a book. But I just completed Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature?, and am full of excited thoughts needing further organization, clarification, and exploration. In other words, this extended lecture (given at Pomona and Harvard) has done exactly what a good book should do.

Very basically, Warren argues that African American literature was only an identifiably cohesive category when shaped by, responding to, and resisting the realities imposed by Jim Crow. The Harlem Renaissance, the New Black Aesthetic, work by contemporary authors– they’re something else, not defined by the characteristics of what he calls “instrumental or indexical expectations” (1): producing literature that simultaneously strove to bring down Jim Crow and to prove (largely to white audiences) that said literature was just as sophisticated as the best the Western world had to offer. In a post-desegregation, post-Voting Rights Act United States, the output of black authors no longer contains the “belief that the welfare of the race as a whole depends on the success of black writers and those who are depicted in their texts.” (2)

Phillis Wheatley: not part of African American literature because “the mere existence of literary texts does not necessarily indicate the existence of a literature”? (3) Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Warren isn’t trying to deny the uniqueness or worth of black American writing outside this period, nor is he denying that its authors continue to address– indeed, may not be able to avoid addressing– race in one way or another in their work. But he’s trying to grapple with the fact that literature of the period he’s discussing in some sense grounded itself in and simultaneously worked to deny the inherent existential difference of a particular group from others, or at least from the dominant others, in a given society. Once the belief in that inherent difference largely (so Warren) crumbled, what was there to make this body of literature, maybe even black American experience in general, unique?

I can’t possibly cover all the details of Warren’s argument, in which questions of intra-group class and educational hierarchies are prominent. Nor have I reached anything like a point of dis/agreement with his assertions. But in addition to the specific body of literature it addresses, I’ll argue that the book is also relevant to other so-called “minority” groups and their artistic output. What does it mean to be representative of one’s group, to have authority to speak as a member of it? How do you– either as an insider or a dominant (or not) outsider– define that population itself? To be considered authentically part of that collective, must one include in one’s writing themes and characteristics associated with it (history, stereotypes, etc.)? If Louise Erdrich suddenly started writing about life in Paris, or Amy Tan about sledding in Sweden, would people be up in arms that they weren’t authentically “Native American” or “Chinese American”– and to whom would it matter?

And because I’ve gone straight from Warren’s final page to this post, I haven’t done any research that might be able to answer the question of how the author’s argument might have changed since the book was published in 2011. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the heightened awareness among the general public of race-related police brutality and other forms of structural racism, and/or the increasing use of the phrase “New Jim Crow” (especially regarding mass incarceration), might there still be, if in altered form, an African American literature– or a need for it?

While I’m leaning towards his saying yes to the second question, I think Warren would still say no to at least the first, largely due to the recognition that 1) it’s not original, or really controversial, to claim today that racism exists, and pervasively so; and 2) that black elite writers can’t necessarily claim to be representing or speaking for the entirety of a population that has of course never been homogeneous in its tastes or opinions. As evidenced in a pointed allegation about those elite writers holding onto the idea of African American literature, Warren asserts they might write out of a “need to distinguish the personal odysseys they undertake to reach personal success from similar endeavors by their white class peers.” (4)

So, where does that leave us now? I’d be interested to hear what contemporary powerhouse writers such as Claudia Rankine or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Teju Cole or Octavia Butler– and black readers of black writers– have to say about Warren’s argument. I guess that’s my project now– and of finding out whether I could have avoided spewing out at least a few of my questions to the general public before doing my research. Off to the the forking paths, then, left to explore in the wake of a truly engaging book.

 

(1) Kenneth W. Warren, What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 10.

(2) ibid., 139.

(3) ibid., 6.

(4), ibid., 139.

The Need for (Traditional) Narrative

As previously discussed, I’m enjoying Gilbert Sorrentino’s Pack of Lies, even if the third volume in the trilogy, Misterioso, is starting to feel a bit like overkill. And much as I can get down with some well-wrought experimentation, this round of innovative boundary-busting has left me with the need for some old-fashioned verbal grounding– something with a more solid, identifiable flow. What could be more appropriate than some 19th-century horror to satisfy that craving– meaning, in this instance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

Having seen and been unjustifiably scared out of my mind by multiple film versions,(1) I’m sort of amazed it’s taken me this long to read the book, prone as I am to finishing written originals before checking out their adaptations in other media. Part of it may have been due to the fear of wasting time on Romantic(-ish) cheesiness; witness copious amounts of eye-rolling, for example, at The Woman in White. Film adaptations of old tales of the supernatural, especially more contemporary ones, can often eliminate the treacly clichés of gender, honor, true religion, and so forth, found in the texts– and although it’s rare that I enjoy movies more than the books on which they were based, those freak cases usually come from the horror or sci-fi genre.(2)

Maybe it’s because I was expecting so little that I’m enjoying Dracula so much. Oh, sure, Lucy is the exasperating epitome of sweetness and light, and her tenderly spurned gentleman callers harbor suspiciously little resentment towards her chosen beau. But Stoker has arranged the many journal entries and letters that make up the novel in such a way that it really does resemble a well-ordered case study, so that the reader can almost believe the format involves no pretense. Along with the story, in other words, I’m enjoying how Stoker is telling it, seeing how he’s orchestrating and organizing what might initially have been a simple idea, so that an originally generic thought about a folk monster was transformed into a tale of many working parts. Admittedly, it’s no hyper-Dickensian world akin to that of Infinite Jest,(3) but there’s something to be said for a quality easy read.

Carl Jung was noted for talking about synchronicity, or meaningful coincidences. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate my calling him into service for the following, but the display I came across on my way home seemed to be a perfect encapsulation of my reading Sorrentino and Stoker at the same time. I’ll end, then, by using one of the good Romantics to caption the picture I took, even though he would also probably be offended. “Look on my Works, [then,] ye Mighty, and despair!”(4)

 

 

 

(1) At this point, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 production is hands-down the most terrifying of all– and that despite my easy ability to laugh at what a friend called the castle-bound vampire’s “butt hair,” as seen in the film still below.

(2) For instance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris blows Stanislaw Lem’s book out of the water. And whichever low-budget adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw I saw as a teenager was so delightfully creepy, I’ve been afraid to spoil that memory by reading the story itself– a probably erroneous move I think I’ll soon correct.

(3) (Best book ever– among other reasons, because how in the world did David Foster Wallace not only come up with, but also keep straight, so many brilliant, complex, enormously textured lives and entanglements?!!?)

(4) That’s from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Maybe I’m All Wrong– But Sorrentino’s All/Right

I suppose I should be more circumspect than I am about my own ignorance. For instance, it probably doesn’t sound all that sophisticated to admit that I snatched a lovely copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s trilogy, Pack of Lies, off the remainder shelf only because 1) I was aware Sorrentino was a Big, Important Name; and 2) the book is put out by Dalkey Archive, which must mean I’m supposed to be reading it for my own enculturation and cocktail-party bragging rights. I will also freely admit to the fact that, two-thirds of the way in, I often have no idea whether I’m missing something significant, whether my instinctual joy in this carefully designed mess is legitimate, or whether Sorrentino has pulled one over on a lot of literati eager to expound upon all the hues and shades of brilliance in his experiment.

There’s also probably some sense in refraining, at least before the more methodological among us, from admitting that my enjoyment of this tome is mostly grounded in sheer good feeling. Of course, that doesn’t exclude admiration of Sorrentino’s deadpan analyses of certain clichéd literary practices. I wish I could cite the entire section from which the following comes; instead, I’ll taunt you with an exemplary snippet:

Blow, an interesting, depressed person with an awareness of life in our time… packs up his personal, annotated copies of [some non-existent titles], and leaves to save a civilization worth saving from the barbaric hordes. Many of his poems are about the headstrong virility of youth and the slow, dark wisdom of age.
For a change.*

Sorrentino also manages to maintain superb variations on weird image-threads throughout the book. Right when you think you’ve forgotten, say, about lighthouses being brought in as mood descriptors, up pops a new inflection of that theme, as in “Buddy’s smile beamed like a demented lighthouse.”** If you don’t approve of the notion of inanimate objects expressing emotion, you might not share in my love of what the author’s doing here. I’ve never seen a demented lighthouse– but I get it, I totally, lovingly get it.

Then again, I’ll make a final admission about my amateurish approach to Pack of Lies: plowing through at least a couple hundred of its complex pages while flitting through eight time zones in an austere economy seat probably contributed nothing to understanding this thing “correctly.” Diving into a work that should be confronted with all one’s mental acuity, there I was grooving on this stuff through the lens of sleep deprivation and a week’s worth of inept stuttering in a language not my own. But in the end, if anything, whether the work itself or the way you read it, can make you forget about your numb derrière and the oaf in front of you who’s reclined his seat into your face– well, whatever’s going on, I’ll call that a win.

 

* Gilbert Sorrentino, Pack of Lies (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997), 306.

** ibid., 387.

Few Words

I really have nothing substantive to say in this post; both jet lag and the brain-taxing involved in communicating in my very bad Russian mean there’s not much verbal there there right now. Until I’ve emerged into the land of capable thought, here are some literary photos from Moscow.

Gogol graces his own park– and lent his name to the street where I’m staying!

DSC04360

 

I’ve also come across two likenesses of Pushkin.

DSC04371  DSC04414

And then I have to appreciate dedicating a sculpture to an “academician.”DSC04419

I Love Chris

In my supremely dorky universe, one of the best forms of joy is encountering a deliciously addictive book right after having dragged around a real literary ball-n-chain for a while. I’m happy to report that, after having conquered Mating midway through the holiday weekend, I jumped directly into Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick– and barely put it down until wrapping it up last night.

I waited a good long while to be in the right mood for what I thought I would encounter with Dick; months ago, a review had me thinking I’d be delving deeply into the inane intricacies of romance, and even though its approach sounded alluring, I didn’t feel as if I could deal with all that tension that somehow never gets beyond adolescence.

Admittedly, the narrator’s (Chris’) infatuation with a person she barely knows takes her down some weird paths. But as we go along with her, something amazing emerges, something I’m still not at all sure how to describe or even approach investigatively. Because this book turns into an exploration of what it means to be and be viewed as a woman (or maybe even just a female human body), particularly in the worlds of art and/or academia up through 1990s America. Yes, it was published twenty years ago, and no, my naive college self did not inhabit the often-risqué and -risky environments in which the narrator found herself. But in spite of the differences in concrete situations, some sort of shared, connection-inducing Thing (experience? emotion?) resulted in my feeling as if Kraus had my back, and I, retroactively, hers– that this disembodied volume of words on paper was an offering of support and understanding across a the space of a couple of decades.

Part of that affinity may lie in the fact that Dick is a (mostly) epistolary novel; fan as I am of letter-writing, the genre alone meant we were probably off to a good start. So much of this account is purely about expressing oneself to and before a beloved other– a phenomenon I’ve touched on before, especially in relation to Kafka. Some of Chris’ hints (or declarations) about why she continues this seemingly delusional exercise hit exactly at my own desires just to be heard and known by another person: “But I wanted to tell you how exhilarating it felt to step out of the truck and feel the cold dark air around Stony Creek’s four corners…”(1) Just to be able to share the littlest spark in an uneventful day, to share your wonder with someone– it’s a desire the writer acknowledged in her previous letter on the part of her husband, who, she says, “was eager to share something, so he shared her enthusiasm for the Adirondacks and two days later they bought a ten room farmhouse…”(2)

But even as she offers up her impressions to (or forces them upon) the object of her affection, unlike Kafka, Chris openly admits the sort of futility, or at least disconnect, in what she’s doing: “I’m torn between maintaining you as an entity to write to and talking with you as a person. Perhaps I’ll let it go.”(3) As she continues writing, though, and even as one bubble after another is (sometimes heartlessly) burst, Chris realizes that the image of the reader she’s (mostly) created has provided her a sort of sounding board, maybe even a source of permission, to understand herself, her history, the histories and situations of so many others in her own place/s and time/s. It’s a sort of self-knowledge and -determination that can even confront and overcome, though not without pain, the book’s brilliant ending, which scraped out my insides with its perfect cruelty.(4)

I’ve got a couple of pages’ worth of notes tucked into the book– and plan on going back to them and really trying to ferret out how Kraus did what she did, and what exactly it is that makes me feel so strongly about this novel, or extended letter, or whatever it is. It’s OK if I never solve that mystery– but chasing it around is bound to be heartening.(5)

 

(1) Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), 93.

(2) Ibid., 92.

(3) Ibid., 130. It’s not clear whether “it” refers to a potential phone conversation, (the pursuit of) Dick himself, and/or the entire letter-writing project altogether.

(4) Not since the original Twin Peaks series have I witnessed a more unfair, yet beautifully apt, ending.

(5) I also haven’t seen the new series based upon Kraus’ book, and only recently found out it was in the works. My guess is it’ll be a while before I check it out; I want to let the appreciation of the original linger for a while, before I compare it to anyone else’s interpretation of it.