David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: fiction

The Fable of Captain Scorpion and Frog Cruises

a contemporary retelling

Frog Cruises offered the fanciest and most comfortable accommodations for a journey across the river. Eager travelers signed up to secure a room on the beautiful vessel.

Once on board, however, the passengers were shocked to read on the ship manifest that the notorious Captain Scorpion would be the commander of the ship.

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Oil on Water, by Helon Habila

After I finished Helon Habila’s great Oil on Water, I was disappointed by its reviews. They wouldn’t have convinced me to read the novel, since they treated Oil on Water as only the sum total of its political, post-colonial, and racial content. Bernadine Evaristo, who has nothing to say about Habila’s language or characters, wrote, “Oil on Water brings to light this overlooked story of environmental and human rights abuses.” No, that’s the job of journalism–and perhaps occasionally a novel like The Jungle, but certainly not Oil on Water. Habila obviously has his politics, but he could have written a journalistic article in a fraction of the time had he just wanted to communicate what Evaristo makes of this novel. I was, in turn, relieved to read Habila making the same point in reviewing a novel by NoViolet Bulawayo:

There is a palpable anxiety to cover every “African” topic; almost as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa. There’s even a rather inexplicable chapter on how the Chinese are taking over Africa, and how, as one of the street kids puts it, the Chinese “are not even our friends”…Bulawayo’s keen powers of observation and social commentary, and her refreshing sense of humour, come through best in moments when she seems to have forgotten her checklist and goes unscripted…These moments show what Bulawayo can do when she is enjoying herself – when she doesn’t feel she needs to be both a player and a commentator at the same time. The world is a dark and ugly place, a lot of that ugliness and injustice is present in Africa, but we don’t turn to literature to confirm that. The news is enough. What we turn to literature for is its ability to transport us beyond the headlines.

What transported me most in Oil on Water was the chronology. Our intrepid but callow reporter Rufus heads into the Niger Delta with a very flawed father-figure, Zaq, originally intending to meet up with some rebel guerrillas (under the leadership of the shadowy “Professor”) to negotiate for the return of a hostage. The hostage, Isabelle Floode, is the wife of a bigshot oil executive, and thus seemingly a pawn in the fight between the rebels and the Nigerian military, which is defending the oil interests. By the time they get to the hostage exchange point, it has all gone wrong, and Zaq and Rufus are sent careening around the Niger Delta between native villages, military encampments, rebel camps, and above all the apparent refuge of Irikefe Island, which holds a shrine and a small group of religious worshipers:

We believe the sun rising brings a renewal. All of creation is born anew with the new day. Whatever goes wrong in the night has a chance for redemption after a cycle.

Rufus’ journey from the city of Port Harcourt to the wilderness of the Delta clearly plays on Heart of Darkness, and one of Habila’s main structural feats is completely rearranging Conrad’s schema. Instead of a strict linear trip into “darkness” and back again, Habila uses Irikefe as a fragile balance point dividing two wretched worlds: the Delta in which oil companies and the military wreak havoc while the rebels fight with them, and city life in Port Harcourt where the oil executives sit and make their deals and where Rufus’ sister Boma has suffered tragic events. In the Delta, Rufus and Zaq meet a villager, Tamuno, who asks them to take his son Michael to the city for a better life than the dead-end village in which they live. It doesn’t work out well, as Rufus later reports:

The old man [Tamuno] had served us diligently in the hope that we’d take his son to Port Harcourt and a better future, and instead we had led him to incarceration and being doused in petrol. Now the old man lay faceup in the water, and his son was about to be taken away.

Port Harcourt isn’t the better place Tamuno imagined, at least not in the way he imagined. Rufus makes several trips both in and out of the Delta and back to Port Harcourt, and the novel begins after one circuit has already been completed, with Rufus filling in the past intermittently throughout the first two-thirds of the novel. The Irikefe shrine itself is destroyed by the military over the course of the novel, then rebuilt by the worshipers, and this too suggests a cycle.

Rufus’ chronological travels begin with him on an oil company jetty preparing to leave for Agbuki Island, where the hostage return was supposed to take place. (There are some flashbacks to earlier in the lives of Rufus, Zaq, and a few other characters, but the real action of the novel pretty much starts on the jetty.) From there, Rufus’ main stops are as follows:

  1. Oil company jetty/Agbuki
  2. Irikefe Shrine
  3. Port Harcourt
  4. Irikefe Shrine
  5. Ibiram’s Delta village
  6. Delta military encampment
  7. Irikefe Shrine (destroyed)
  8. Ibiram’s Delta village (destroyed)
  9. Forest rebel encampment
  10. Irikefe Shrine (rebuilt)

The novel starts with (5), however, just as Rufus and Zaq reach the the native Delta village of Chief Ibiram, after the failed hostage return and a return to Port Harcourt and back into the Delta. Here is the non-chronological ordering of those travels in the order given in the novel, along with some of the more significant flashbacks to before Rufus and Zaq set out from the oil company jetty (which are starred).

  1. Ibiram’s Delta village
  2. Lagos Journalism School [*flashback]
  3. Ibiram’s Delta village [flashback]
  4. Delta military encampment
  5. Port Harcourt [*flashback]
  6. Delta military encampment (continued from 4)
  7. Oil company jetty/Agbuki [flashback: chronological start of the novel]
  8. Irikefe Shrine [flashback]
  9. Port Harcourt [flashback]
  10. Irikefe Shrine [flashback]
  11. Delta military encampment (continued from 6)
  12. Irikefe Shrine [flashback]
  13. Irikefe Shrine (destroyed)
  14. Ibiram’s Delta village (destroyed)
  15. Forest rebel encampment
  16. Port Harcourt [*flashback]
  17. Irikefe Shrine (rebuilt)

I puzzled over these sequences for a while, not totally to my satisfaction. The Irikefe Shrine and its community of pacifist, non-joiners constitutes an idyll but also a waypoint, a place that everyone in the novel has to pass through in order to go anywhere. In Rufus’ telling, Irikefe appears even more times than it does in the chronological sequence; it’s a place to which he keeps returning. And as Irikefe comes into focus after the especially jumbled first quarter of the novel, Rufus too becomes more assured and straightforward in the telling of his story.

In the actual present of the novel, Rufus never even leaves the Delta: Port Harcourt only appears in flashback. I read this as suggesting that Port Harcourt-as-civilization is a mirage which Rufus now only holds on to in memories. Reality, such as it is, is encompassed by the sequence of events in the Delta, which envelop the political machinations in Port Harcourt and, indeed, overseas. So the journey from Port Harcourt into the Delta is not part of a linear progression, nor an important structural component of the novel. There are only the pockets of the Delta, the pockets of Rufus’ memory, and the evanescent refuge of Irikefe.

There is much more to the novel (quite a lot, in spite of its short length), in Rufus’ development and Zaq’s dissolute wisdom, and in the odd resolution to the main plot, which seems to come out of a different genre entirely and further distances the novel from its surface similarity to Conrad. But most of all, that structure is what sticks in my mind; even before I sequenced the events, the feel of transience and discombobulation took the raw political material and transformed it into something that I can carry with me in a very different and more subjective way. And that is what you don’t get from the headlines.

The Pale, Quiet, Episcopalian Breast: On a Phrase of Jeffrey Eugenides

The title phrase comes from Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book The Marriage Plot. I probably won’t read it. I read a bit of The Virign Suicides and didn’t care for it. My interest in Eugenides now is because this phrase is a perfect example of a style of “literary” writing that holds a lot of sway in contemporary fiction.

The TLS reviewer Edmund Gordon singled it out for praise:

Eugenides tells this story in a voice of careful anonymity and untroubled omniscience, moving between the perspectives of several of his characters and sometimes getting away from all of them together. The opening paragraph takes the form of an impersonal inventory of Madeleine’s bookshelves; later, we are told (though he himself is apparently unaware of the fact) that Mitchell’s letters to his parents are “documents of utter strangeness”, and (while Madeleine is lying hungover in bed one morning “with a pillow over her head”) that the sun is “shining on every brass doorknob, insect wing, and blade of grass” outside. For a work that employs such a majestic narrative standpoint, though, the touch is light, the tone unusually sweet. Here, for example, is Mitchell, remembering the occasion – as they were taking refuge from a toga party in the laundry room of her dorm – on which he caught a lucky, life-haunting glimpse of Madeleine’s half-exposed nipple:

It was amazing how an image like that – of nothing, really, just a few inches of epidermis – could persist in the mind with undiminished clarity. The moment had lasted no more than three seconds. Mitchell hadn’t been entirely sober at the time. And yet now, almost four years later, he could return to the moment at will (and it was surprising how often he wanted to do this), summoning all of its sensory details, the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music next door, the linty smell of the dank basement laundry room. He remembered exactly where he’d been standing and how Madeleine had stooped forward, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, as the sheet slipped and, for a few exhilarating moments, her pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast exposed itself to his sight.

She quickly covered herself, glancing up and smiling, possibly with embarrassment.

The prose here is relaxed – almost indecently so in comparison to Eugenides’s first two books, and sometimes by any standards to the point of laziness (“the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music”) – but fuelled by just enough hard-working detail to keep it buoyant; take the brilliance of that “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast”, the last two adjectives of which are so unexpected, yet which fit so intimately to religious, callow Mitchell’s perspective.

The trivial objection would be to say that a breast is almost always quiet and almost never Episcopalian, but I have no problem with synecdoche. And in fact “quiet” is not particularly problematic: it may be superfluous or slightly trite (it doesn’t seem so unexpected), but it does not seem to be a distinctive artistic move.

“Episcopalian” is another matter. Superficially, it makes sense in the context of the scene, as Mitchell is apparently interested in theology and comes from a Greek Orthodox background. Yet what work is “Episcopalian” being asked to do? Here are some of the attributions that we could make from that adjective, in rough order from most plausible to least plausible in the context of the scene:

  • Merely a reminder Madeleine’s religion, a salient characteristic to Mitchell
  • Foreign, alien, not of Mitchell’s religion
  • Religious, theistic
  • Forbidden, taboo
  • Sacred, pure
  • Anglo-American, non-Greek, comfortably at home
  • Uptight or upright, proper stiff
  • Parochial, lacking central authority

These are not all entirely compatible, and some are downright unlikely in context. The word “Episcopalalian” could be taken to mean some of these, but not all of them simultaneously. The word is too overloaded. Now, as William Empson tells us, ambiguity can be a passport to richness, but not at the expense of precision. Which attributions did Edmund Gordon make that caused him to praise the choice of adjective?

(I note that “Episcopalian” is not used anywhere else in the novel. “Anglican” is used twice, but both times literally.)

I have read the surrounding text and know what sort of character Madeleine is, and that knowledge does not resolve the matter. If “Episcopalian” is merely meant to show that Madeleine is Episcopalian in Mitchell’s eyes at that moment, then the synecdoche falls apart, because there is no greater whole for which the naked breast can stand: there is no evident reason why Madeleine’s naked body should be more Episcopal than her clothed body. But if the word is meant to suggest any of the other associations, then the matter is terminally ambiguous. Why use such a word then?

“It sounded good,” may be the most obvious answer, and perhaps it is sufficient. But the use of such a word also poses a challenge to readers, forcing them to stop and assess the significance of the word, then derive the intended meaning of it. Normally, the implied meaning is fairly obvious, but Eugenides picked a word that relied on specific cultural knowledge while also being detached from any particular adjectives he might have been intending to imply, making it paradoxically more parochial and more unclear. Yet the reviewer gives praise to the use of the term, taking it as a given that even out of context, the brilliance of the term’s use shines through.

What I want to suggest is that it is exactly this additional indirection, the use of concepts once-removed from the concrete adjectival properties, is taken to be good writing. I am not sure that it is. The ambiguity we should be seeking in writing is that which opens up fissures in the relations of the characters and the progressions of their thoughts. This, however, opens up a fissure between what the writer is trying to say (whatever that may be) and what is actually being communicated.

A challenge is given to a reader by using a word like “Episcopalian,” but the solution is purely formal: figure out what more direct, concrete adjective the word could be substituting for. There is the satisfaction of having done work in reading and trying to understand the sentence, but nothing is learned. Rather, something is taken away; a word was invoked with only part of its meaning having any significance to the matter at hand. Most likely, the superficial sense is all that was intended.

Such an approach to language robs words of their power by invoking them with only a partial, vague sense of their full significance. The result is a narrowing of meaning and a celebration of cleverness over insight. Yet the additional work required may make the work seem more “literary,” all the more so if no definite answer is forthcoming.

It is not a matter of style per se. Both ornamented and unornamented prose can be free of such hollow prestidigitation. Craig Raine highlighted this passage from Adam Mars-Jones’ Cedilla that does not lose clarity in its baroque language:

A Mars bar does indeed have veins, chocolate tubes breaking the surface of the bar, as if caramel was circulating through them, supplying the nougat core with vital nutrients and access to unthinkable sensations. The whole ridiculously penile confection was alive. It was a soft hard-on. It was Cadbury’s Flake that had the fast reputation, and its adverts always portrayed Flake-eaters as oral nymphomaniacs, but the Mars bar was every bit as concupiscent.

On the other hand, the sparse, precise prose of Agnes Owens does not lose evocative power by being direct, as with this bit from Like Birds in the Wilderness:

She said that she was cold and wanted to get home because she didn’t feel well. We walked back through the park in silence. When we reached the gate where she caught the bus I asked her if she would see me the next afternoon at the same place. She sighed and said all right in a sullen manner. She allowed me to kiss her, but her lips were cold.

Both of them are writers who learned through the experience of their imagination, and not, as Robert Musil says, “with the aid of borrowed terms.”

Birthday Notes on William Gass and The Tunnel

The original and best cover of The Tunnel.

Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William Gass got me to thinking back on The Tunnel, which I read at a fairly formative time in my life. (Also at a time of total psychic collapse, for which it turned out to be the perfect companion.)

I had already loved In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I had been introduced to Gass through John Gardner’s repeated recommendations, and Gardner’s professions of Gass’s utter superiority to Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, and pretty much every other mid-century American writer made me feel obligated to track down Omensetter’s Luck, then out of print, and read it.

The Tunnel came out shortly after that, and having not known the history of its long genesis, and not knowing too much of Gass’s quasi-Wittgensteinian ideas about fiction and language (Gardner had mentioned them only to say that Gass’s actual fiction belied his theories), I had no idea what it was going to contain. And, well, it was different.

The book didn’t make much of a splash at the time. I got the sense that it was lumped in with Harold Brodkey’s wretched The Runaway Soul and perhaps even Pynchon’s fine Mason and Dixon as long-awaited Big Books that didn’t meet expectations.

Don DeLillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in contrast, exploded into big events. Both certainly had a certain knowing hipness that was lacking in Pynchon, Brodkey, and Gass. (Pynchon might have had it had he not chosen to write about the 19th century.) But of those five books, there’s no question to me that Gass’s is by far the greatest.

It still retains a devoted set of fans (Stephen Schenkenberg has a representative enthusiasm) and detractors. Stochatic Bookmark’s expression of utter annoyance is a very legitimate response to The Tunnel. There is much in it that is intentionally and unintentionally off-putting. And the book’s hidden organizational structure, which Gass has only mentioned after the fact, is exceedingly abstruse.

In the best essay in Dalkey’s online casebook, Melanie Eckford-Prossor says the irony and metafictional gimmicks make the novel ethically repugnant. This is probably a compelling conclusion unless you see the novel as utterly pessimistic, which I did, in which case the mixture of moral and textual relativism with incessant brutality on all levels has a grim, forceful honesty to it.

But Schenkenberg quotes Robert Kelly’s review, which I still think was about the only thoughtful thing written about The Tunnel when it was published. Kelly is far from adulatory, but he took the novel very seriously and did not stop at surfaces. It was also well-written, one of the best reviews I read in the New York Times Book Review.

So I quote the parts that still resonate for me, even if I don’t agree with them:

“The Tunnel” is maddening, enthralling, appalling, coarse, romantic, sprawling, bawling. It is driven by language and all the gloriously phony precisions the dictionary makes available. It is not a nice book. It will have enemies, and I am not sure after one reading (forgive me, it’s a big book) that I am not one of them. Let me tell you what I can.

There was a little boy, an only child, raised in a bleak Midwestern town by an alcoholic mother and a verbally brutal father. It would not take a Dickens to borrow the reader’s sympathy and show us the little boy’s suffering, his slow escape from that abusive milieu, and to delicately sketch the paths of liberty the boy might find, or the hopeless mire into which he might, reader sighing, fall back.

But that is not William Gass’s way. Instead, he leaps ahead half a century and gives us the sex-besotted, verbally brutal professor the boy becomes, a gross character with fascist views and a taste for sly affairs with his students. He gives us the thick of the man, the dirt to tunnel through. To get, if we get, at last to the truth of him. In fact, it is not till more than 600 pages into the book that we learn anything like the full particulars of the boy’s youth. And when we get there, it is only to doubt that history is any more meaningful when it reveals origins than when it displays the blood and ordure of results.

But here the typographical games seem (unlike those in the novella) playful rather than evocative. And while Mr. Gass uses some devices Georges Perec or Harry Mathews might wield as strategies of composition, or grids of meaning, here the devices seem decorative, not so much claims on the reader’s puzzle-solving faculties as rewards to the writer for going on, allowing himself some smutty doggerel after a night’s hard noveling. [I strongly disagree.]

For the first few hundred pages not one of the few characters says anything at all except about the narrator. They have no selves except what they say about Willie young or old. The narrator has engulfed their reality, made their words his own. [I strongly agree.]

But when in the course of his endless bitter reflections on his failed marriage, Kohler exclaims “I’ve been in bedrooms as bad as Belsen,” we recognize only iniquitous nonsense. There is no bedroom as bad as Belsen, and to say so is to signal that you do not know what Belsen is.

While it is impressive that a novelist can pull off the tricks of creating such a sexist, bigoted, hate-filled character and of making the reader accept his vision of the real, there is a risk, one that every satirist takes. The risk is being believed, taken literally. To this day, we tend to think Jonathan Swift loathed humankind on the strength of Gulliver’s aversion. William Gass takes the risk, and it is no small achievement to make us take our bearings from Swift and Wyndham Lewis and those magniloquent sourpusses Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Samuel Beckett, ghosts who seem to hover, as James Joyce does too, over this novel. But it is not much comfort to lay aside this infuriating and offensive masterpiece and call it a satire, as if a genre could heal the wounds it so delights to display. It will be years before we know what to make of it.

That bit 600 pages in, the birthday party scene, is one of the most conventionally appealing (if pathetic) sections of the novel. It is held back for a very good reason. It’s only by being placed at that very late point that such a sympathetic story can register as an indictment rather than as a comforting avowal of humanity. That questioning of what we take to be our most human qualities is one of the core strengths of The Tunnel: trying to figure out what evil there is lurking in the good.

Demolition Derby: Jonathan Barnes

It stinks.

"This movie gets my highest rating, 7 out of 10."

This is the funniest vicious review I’ve read in a while, from this week’s TLS. I’m excerpting the best bits, but it’s all of a piece. The nastiest parts are…the quotes.

Glen Duncan THE LAST WEREWOLF 346pp. Canongate. £14.99.

by Jonathan Barnes

Bitten by a werewolf when Queen Victoria was on the throne, Jacob Marlowe (just “Jake” to his friends) has grappled with his lycanthropic inheritance for more than a century-and-a-half… “I really can’t stand it any more”, he tells us, “the living and the killing and the wandering the world without love.” Only when he finally accepts the inevitability of his own extinction does he discover a reason to survive – and to take the fight to his pursuers.

So stark a synopsis does little to suggest the considerable pleasures and occasional disappointments of Glen Duncan’s eighth novel, The Last Werewolf. While much of the cheerfully pulpy subject matter is familiar from numerous comic books, roleplaying games, television series and movies, the voice that the novelist assumes is arrestingly original. Told (at least until a late and slightly unconvincing switch) in the firstperson by Jacob Marlowe himself, Duncan’s monstrous narrator makes for memorably rambunctious company.

Nonchalant about his place in the food chain (on people: “when you get right down to it they’re first and foremost food”) and full of macho swagger (“I’d fucked her six times with preposterous staying power”), he is also philosophical (“snow makes cities innocent again, reveals the frailty of the human gesture against the void”), aphoristic (“total self-disgust is a kind of peace”) and topically droll (“two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist”).

…Curiously, he also indulges in some literary criticism (“Graham Greene had a semi-parodic relationship with the genres his novels exploited”)….

…Invention flags in the book’s second half as a series of very similar situations are described in almost identical ways: “it happened very fast”; “then several things happened very fast”; “what happened next happened … very fast”; “what happened happened very fast”. While the conclusion appears to gesture towards the possibility of a sequel, one cannot but hope that Duncan can triumph over the temptation to make The Last Werewolf the first instalment in a series.

I can’t imagine how the sops to the book’s virtues made it into the second paragraph.

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