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Apr 052014
 

leslie-ullman_09
I’ve found a guide and companion for this season and country in the poet Leslie Ullman and her new collection of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity. I have been enthralled with a book of poetry that by its title alone seemed to promise a journey of intensity and possibility, of questions both philosophical and spiritual, and of movement toward insight and understanding. The book delivers on those promises — more than one could imagine setting out. —Summar West

Ullman
Progress on the Subject of Immensity
Leslie Ullman
University of New Mexico Press
Papeback, Online Price $13.27

 

Iam writing from the edge of winter, from a landscape where the weather has refused release despite the seconds ticking toward spring. The cold and the expanses of snow in Vermont have set me pondering questions that arise when a person repeatedly confronts forms of vastness. I’ve found a guide and companion for this season and country in the poet Leslie Ullman and her new collection of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity. I have been enthralled with a book of poetry that by its title alone seemed to promise a journey of intensity and possibility, of questions both philosophical and spiritual, and of movement toward insight and understanding. The book delivers on those promises — more than one could imagine setting out.

Ullman explains her subject of immensity in some detail on her website; the poems began during a leave-of-absence from teaching, and she says they

…found themselves questioning, lightly at first, the efficacy of the human mind…this spirit of inquiry nudged subsequent poems into larger questions—an exploration of spaces inside us as well as outside us: the rhythms of seasons, the earth suspended in its matrix of space, the life of the body, the limitations of conventional Western religion, the nature of desire, and the pleasure—often the sensuous pleasures—of inquiry itself.

We should not be surprised by the ambitious nature of this subject matter, the level of skilled craftsmanship and the depth of feeling in the individual poems; this collection marks the fourth book (previous collections include Slow Work through Sand, Dreams by No One’s Daughter, and Natural Histories) by this poet, teacher, and artist whose writing career spans over thirty years. Ullman has much to say, and to those poets, writers, readers, and daydreamers—anyone who goes out to the edge—we would do well to take heed to a directive in one of the poems at the heart of this book:

at dawn, a telegraphy that fills the morning
too full for one pair of ears—
one might as well listen with the whole body.

Progress begins with the poem, “Abrupt at Dawn,” where the speaker is awakened by a sound.

I was sure the sound
of engines came from
inside me, thrum of labors
that had driven me
in and out of sleep.
And then coyotes, scores
of them, sent out
ribbons of sound strangely
close to the house—something
disembodied, metallic,
the high, shrill gears
adding to whatever the sun
was using to ratchet itself up.

Later, we hear this sound of the machinery of the mind in “the cogs and wheels of dreams” in the poem “Night Opens the Foothills,” and in the poem “The Guises of the Mind” the relentless mind that “pounds and pounds…running on fumes.” But in these short, rhythm-pumping lines above, the words sonically wrap around us (a technique used in many of the poems where the poet relies on short-syllable lines and the pleasing sound devices of alliteration, euphony and sibilance; this is notable in the poem “A Visible Life” that begins, “The mind is a small city / whose street signs show me / what I already know” and in the poem “Mudra” where we hear “How was I like the pinecone / that outlived me? / Shingled, yes, with / aspects of a singular life— / certain wounds and the impulse / to cover them, a preference / for winter…”); the sound the speaker hears and questions is both external and internal.

This type of juxtaposition is seen throughout the book in poems where we go in and out of our speakers’ bodies and minds, the past and the present, silence and noise, realities and dreamscapes. In “Zone by Zone,” for example, we experience noise as light in the technological and the natural, where “coffeepots blinked on, small eyes, / as each day arranged itself into blocks” and where “…the new leaf / on a begonia cutting unfolded visibly / in a cubicle window…”; one of the most compelling examples of Ullman’s use of juxtaposition and doubling of meaning is in the poem “Ice Apples” where the apples that are “locked in ice” remind the speaker of her own memories of love, both the falling in and out of it as seen in these haunting lines: “…We drift in and out / of memory that is less event / than atmosphere—the alertness, / a pastel wash with bold strokes / of umber when love first arrives, / and the greater alertness—burnished / gold behind the eyes, dark grooves / celebrating the texture—when it leaves / yet again, innocence and experience.”

One of the recurring images that Ullman uses to achieve movement through these spaces is the wind. In the last stanza of this first poem, the speaker tells us:

Now, winter sage outside my window
trembles, bends and springs back
and bends again, and I realize
the first sound I heard was wind
blowing in a front. The machinery
of real weather. And I am simply
in its path like any creature,
not wrongly placed,
though the day, like a boat
in hard sea, churns
so fiercely beneath me.

The wind here is not pretty nor delicate nor is this just another nature poem. When the wind and other elements occur, as they do so throughout the book, they are always as forces that command attention. In a poem like “And My Life Wandered On,” “a strong wind has found / its way into these woods, where it / rarely goes,” and transports the speaker into a memory of another life and landscape in Bolivia; equally important, the wind as seen in the concluding lines of the poem “Hole in the Mind Filling with the Present” is the essential element that moves through us all as we’re told, “…Your body, now / clothed thinly  / in skin, filling with / holes—only something / porous like this can feel / what has always been wind.”

Feel the way light enters in the poem “Equinox”:

Water, black water
has turned to ice and lulled
the long valley into a doze—soon
we’ll all sprout gills, drifting
in a sleep beyond memory,
beyond the residual lung,
beyond the spent coals.

of desire. But that first
drop of juice—so
sweet-startling—a sacrament—
light in a throat from which
song has nearly faded—
could it guide me back
to shore? An orange, small sun
dawning from the inside
to resurrect the mammal body

Light as sacrament, as resurrection—Ullman’s metaphors are big, and in her small lines they startle us into awareness of how and where they live inside us.

As an important footnote to the book, this poem begins with the question,

Who will buy me an orange
 to console me now?

The lines are from a translation of José Garostiza’s poem “Who Will Buy Me an Orange?” and Ullman borrows these and other lines from several Latin American poets, giving us still further spaces of entrance in the collection.

We also go inside the subject of the mind in Progress in a series of poems scattered throughout the three sections. The poet excels in her use of personification with these poems and uses it to question the mind’s constructs, limitations, patterns, quirks and eccentricities, and experiences both harrowing and profound. My favorite poem of the mind series falls into this latter category. Listen to these heart-wrenching lines in the last stanza from “Guises of the Mind”:

How they clomp through the wild flowers and thick
grasses of August—they might as well be crossing
hot asphalt against traffic. They can’t remain
still enough to feel the slow ripening that could
be theirs—the nectar turning, beneath a thickened
rind, its stored sugars to the late October sun.
They’ve never let grief spear them and have its way
before moving on; every one of them pounds
and pounds at the door of the one house
that won’t accept them, the one heart, the one
indifferent ear—willful, running on fumes,
they throw themselves against that hardness.

While we may leave that poem feeling powerfully slammed against the pavement or door, we have the contrast of a poem like “Water Music” where a more pleasurable and surprising form of movement emerges. The poem begins with the speaker telling us,

I have fashioned a miniature fountain
from scraps of dream…

Those two lines alone could be enough to carry the rest of a poem that might simply describe the dream or the fountain or both in an aesthetically pleasing way, but as with so many other poems in the collection, it turns toward something larger; we go to the past through

a sound
that makes me long to be touched by upheaval. History
bearing me somewhere I haven’t been.

In second stanza, we’ve made it to the realm of a perceived separation and barrier between the sexes, a realm where the speaker tells us

                       Yet when I read the great
poems written by men who lived
before me, I find myself peering through
museum glass, waiting to be allowed
inside. Then outside. Against the rigors
that might forge and pound into shape
a significant life, there is something else
I crave—maybe grace, a sense of my feet
caressing the ground…

By the third stanza, the speaker who began by looking at her fountain made “from scraps of dream” imagines men and women joining to dance in a form where the weight of the past has been let go, where the body gives way to music, and we’re left with this question:

when their hips give in to the music
and I can see in their faces the world’s business
has loosened its hold, how can I not love them,
how can I think my minor note
unaccompanied?

In this poem where the speaker has imagined, speculated, and dreamed her way to this question-as-conclusion, we arrive at a place of love and gratitude; whatever the method of movement—and prepare yourself for a multitude of forms—in Progress, that is often the place of arrival though it is not the only one.

With a book of this scope, it seems reasonable to ask where we arrive by the end, what answers Ullman ultimately gives to her questions. Here’s a hint: the final poem involves subjects as large as absence and the sky, what we lose and what we find. This poem, like so many in the collection, turns in a way that is both surprising and down right breathtaking. I urge you to take the journey with this book; maybe you’ll start with that last poem and find your way to what the poet as companion and guide has been telling us to do all along, “Consider Desire.”[1]

—Summar West

 Summar shot

Summar West was born and raised in East Tennessee. Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, including Tar River Poetry, Ellipsis, Appalachian Heritage, and Appalachian Journal. She currently resides in Montpelier, Vermont.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See a selection of Leslie Ullman poems, including “Consider Desire” earlier published in the magazine here.
Feb 032011
 

haijo-sailingHaijo Westra sailing on the Strait of Juan de Fuca

 Adam-Westra1Adam Westra

Here is an amazingly perceptive essay about dg’s novel Elle, written by a University of Calgary classics professor, Haijo Westra, and his son, Adam, who is currently living in Berlin while pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the Université de Montreal (NC readers will remember Adam’s earlier contribution to the magazine here). Haijo sent dg an earlier version of this essay cold three or four years ago, just to try it out on the author. Subsequently it was published in French (“Elle de Douglas Glover: Une satire ménippéene,” by Haijo Westra and Adam Westra, Littoral, Numéro 5, autumne 2010). What is really impressive, if not to say brilliant, about this essay is the intuition that Elle follows the ancient model of the Menippean satire, which, in fact, it does—hard to credit, yes, in this day and age, but dg was thinking of Menippean satire, mixed form, and so on when he wrote the novel. No one has ever noticed this before (while dg’s apparent post-modernism is often remarked upon). Actually, these formal ideas lurk behind much of his fiction after the first two novels. It took a classics professor and a Kant philosopher to notice this (thus the currents of literary criticism can always do with a bit of refreshment from the ancient past). It’s a great pleasure to give the English version of this essay a home at Numéro Cinq.

Haijo Westra teaches Latin and Greek at the University of Calgary. Adam Westra is now working on his Ph.D. in Philosophy in Montreal and Berlin on the role of analogy in philosophical thinking, with a particular emphasis on Kant. (Coincidentally, or not, dg wrote a chapter on Kant’s use of analogy in his thesis at the University of Edinburgh.)

dg

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The tradition

The report of a French woman, identified as Marguerite de la Roque, abandoned on an uninhabited island of the Harrington Harbour Archipelago in 1542, has only the slightest basis in fact.[1] Yet the story of how she was caught in flagrante delicto with her lover and how she was subsequently marooned by her Calvinist uncle, Sieur de Roberval, the leader of the first expedition to bring permanent settlers to Canada, and how she (barely) survived for three summers and two winters, spoke to the European imagination from the sixteenth century on. It is a story of passion, involving transgression of social boundaries, punishment, expulsion, and exile. It is a story of colonization, turning into a trial of survival and a threatening loss of identity through colonization in reverse by a dystopia of screeching birds and polar bears. It is also a story of gender about a young woman both victim and hero, and of gender role inversion, as she outlives her lover and takes over the traditional role of the (male) hunter. In Douglas Glover’s prize-winning novel Elle, translated under the title Le pas de l’ourse, the situation of the protagonist in between Europe and Canada becomes the locus for the exploration of the contemporary crisis of identity.

Arthur Stabler has surveyed the various literary treatments of the legend of Marguerite in literature from the sixteenth to the twentiethcenturies.[2] Since Glover has woven many of the motifs of earlier versions into his novel and uses the tradition to link his nameless main character Elle intertextually with Marguerite as well as to redefine her in opposition to her legend, I will review them briefly with an eye to the role of the female protagonist in other genres, before analysing the novel Elle as a Menippean satire and positing the suitability of this Centaur-like genre of inversion for Glover’s novel and the appropriateness of the North Shore as a site for examining the contemporary crisis of identity.

The first version of the story is by Queen Marguerite de Navarre in her Heptameron (1558), a woman’s answer to Boccaccio’s Decameron.[3] In Stabler’s summary, the Queen of Navarre, a Protestant sympathizer and an early feminist, has the abandoned woman survive through God’s mercy as well as her greater ability to survive the rigors of an uncouth diet. She even takes over and uses her dead husband’s gun (arquebus) to defend his grave against the wild animals, so his body will not become carrion meat. At the same time, in spirit, she lives an angelic life of prayer and meditation while reading the New Testament, all of which makes a great impression on her rescuers and on the ladies of La Rochelle, who send their daughters to her upon her return to France to teach them to read and write, in which honourable profession Marguerite spends the rest of her life. The Queen of Navarre turns the story into an exemplary tale of fidelity, Protestant devotion, and hardiness, as well as a triumph of a literate identity over the dispiriting nature of the wilds, turning the main character into a self-employed professional woman who was clearly strengthened by her experiences and acquired an identity and fame along with a profession. (In Elle she conducts a letter-writing business for illiterate merchants: 196). This first elaboration is an exemplary tale in which Marguerite is not a wanton delivering herself to sexual passion, but instead a faithful married wife, who saves her craftsman-husband’s life by a plea to have his death sentence commuted to being marooned, voluntarily joining him in his exile. This treatment of the story inscribes itself in the narrative tradition of examples of virtuous women, the ancient, medieval, and early modern answer to the denigration of womanhood.[4] As such, it is quite different qua genre and social milieu and outcome from subsequent elaborations of the story.  Glover actually has Elle comment on this version in a self-conscious protest against her own legend: “I became the parable of the pious wife … who shoots bears with an arquebus”.[5]

In 1570/72, a second version appeared, written by Nicholas de Belleforest in the form of an histoire tragique[6], an extremely popular genre at the time, with its own requirements for character and action. Marguerite is cast as a beautiful, spirited, and passionate young noblewoman, curious to see foreign lands, who falls in love during the journey with a young gentleman, lusty and hale, who wins her affection by writing verses and playing the lute (Elle observes that Canada is a place inimical to literature and books: 42-43). After appropriate resistance and agonized reflection the young lady finally consents to an informal wedding ceremony and is persuaded by her lover that they are man and wife in the eyes of God. De Roberval finds out and tricks both of them by marooning them on the “Isle of Spirits” off the East Coast, thickly wooded and inhabited only by wild beasts. Marguerite’s tears and laments fail to sway her cruel relative’s heart and she is left lamenting her loss not unlike Ariadne abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, the model of the  woman abandoned by her lover in classical literature, most famously in the Roman poet Catullus, poem  64. Glover actually uses a different story from classical antiquity, namely that of Iphigenia (32-33) sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, for the greater ‘good’ of the expedition to retrieve Helen from Troy, to point to the epic theme of revenge: De Roberval, like Agamemnon, “must have known that this would come back to haunt him” (33; 198-201). In Belleforest’s version, the lovers’ initial stay on the island is idyllic but the child that is born, as well as her lover, die within a year. She is reduced to inhuman appearance and worries about being eaten by wild animals when she expires, a recurring motif of atavistic horror in the tradition. Finally rescued after two years, she is told by her rescuers that her cruel relative has perished.

The differences with the Queen of Navarre’s version set the tone for subsequent treatments. From this point on, Marguerite is a noblewoman, a requirement of the genre of the histoire tragique, as is the courtship, seduction, and transgressive sexuality, and the generally operatic character of the tale. Yet Marguerite is not a mere victim. She is characterized by Belleforest as unusually brave, begging her relative to take her on the expedition. Her passionate nature makes her yield to her lover’s seduction, yet in the end she is more vigorous than him. (It is Elle who pursues her tennis-playing lover Richard in France: 20). After his death, hunting is her only pleasure; hunting, then, is related to aristocratic leisure as well as survival. The motif of Marguerite killing bears with a large gun in this version became very influential. The image of the armed female hunter inscribes itself in the traditional topos of the upside-down world, combining an exotic setting with a temporary inversion of European norms, rules, and gender roles. Canada has this effect on European culture and cosmology (58, 67).

The third version, by André Thevet, dates from 1575, expanded in 1586.[7] Thevet was a cosmographer and reports the story as fact, explicitly naming Marguerite for the first time and claiming as his sources both Marguerite and her uncle, the Sieur de Roberval. In Thevet the love interest takes on an even more trangressive character with the introduction of a Norman maid, Damienne, a cunning bawd who holds watch while the lovers disport themselves onboard ship, turning Belleforest’s genteel operatic tale into a fabliau or a bawdy farce. She is clearly the model of Glover’s Bastienne (39), a name that also occurs in the legend.[8] There is a woodcut in Thevet’s Cosmographie depicting Marguerite as holding an arquebus over two dead bears.[9] She is said to have killed three of them in the Cosmographie, four in the Grand Insulaire after the death of her husband, child, and maid. She is rescued after two years and five months by Breton fishermen, but at this point she is seized by a desire not to leave the place where her dear ones had died; back in France, she wishes she were still in Canada.[10] Glover explicitly borrows this detail (115) suggestive of a first, problematic Canadian identity expressed as nostalgia for the place of exile and loss, a recurring motif (157, 164, 176, 190) used to define a strange and equivocal attraction to Canada as the “Land of the Dead”(167), or as “a place that teaches us yearning and grief” (164), or as a version of the myth of the “Fortunate Isles” where St. Brendan’s companion asks to be left behind alone (157), or as an incomprehensible attraction to a savage place, or as a form of melancholy affecting old Canada hands (176). Glover also invokes the explorer Jacques Cartier’s characterization of the North Shore of the St Lawrence as the accursed, infertile land of exile God gave to Cain (159), east of Eden (Gen. 4.1-16).[11] As a character in the novel, Cartier is unable to textualize his memoirs of Canada on account of a similar melancholy.[12]

Subsequent literary treatments come in a variety of genres: as an exemplary tale by the seventeenth-century Dutch Calvinist Jacob Cats who presents Marguerite’s plight as the just rewards of premarital sex;[13] as an eighteenth-century French novella by Feutry; and as part of a nineteenth-century collection of tales about shipwreck and adaptation under the title Les vrais Robinsons, adding the detail that Marguerite returned mad to France.[14] Feutry writes about a young woman with a charming face, a sensitive soul, and a firm spirit by the name of Elise who is adaptable and hardy and who learns to hunt and whose daughter is raised in Rousseau-esque fashion. Together mother and daughter develop a “superior philosophy of life” due to their unconventional experience outside the artificial constraints of society.[15]

The first Canadian version is in the form of a dramatic monologue delivered by Marguerite who has retired to a convent, written by an Irishman, George Martin (1887).[16] Initially, the lovers are depicted sentimentally as living in an earthly paradise, where the wild beasts do not attack them, “…as if they felt/Love’s universal breathing melt / Their savage instincts”.[17] Out of necessity, Marguerite learns to hunt; the theme of gender inversion is intensified through her disguise as a male naval officer designed by her uncle -unsuccessfully- to keep her out of trouble, as she was “volatile and gay”.  The association of the female with a weapon almost seems to call for transvestism to reify the gender inversion.[18]

The first dramatic treatment in Canadian literature by John Hunter-Duvar (1888)[19] has Marguerite rescued by a Native woman, the first time a Native person enters the story, clearly as a cultural intermediary and saviour, since she also averts a massacre of Sieur de Roberval’s men because of her love for the unlovable Roberval, a construction suggestive of Elle’s rescue by Itslk, the Inuit hunter. However, the native man’s encounter with Elle and their cohabitation is presented by Glover as a manifestation of the destructiveness of European contact for native culture.

Finally, in 1899, the first, full-length treatment appears in a Canadian historical novel by Thomas G. Marquis.[20] During the winter, a she-bear and her cub arrive on the island riding on an ice berg. The mother bear is shot by Marguerite and her male companion but the cub is tamed.  When madness threatens the lonely Marguerite, she finds comfort in her pet bear, François, who is abandoned and returns to his natural ways instantly by killing a seal when Marguerite is rescued.

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Glover, Atwood, Engel: Of  bears in novels

As Glover indicates in his Author’s Note (8), these earlier versions brutally summarized here were known to him from Stabler’s book. Taken together, they present the encounter with the New World as a complete inability to come to terms with the natural environment other than through the ultimate imposition of European firearms. Nature is a place to die in and the essential task of the European in this savage land is to survive until rescued and returned to Europe, a quintessentially Canadian motif identified by Margaret Atwood in her guide to the Canadian literary imagination, Survival.  Emblematic is the relationship with wild animals, either as mortal threat or as superficially domesticated pet in the story of Marguerite. In the literature of the second half of the twentieth century this opposition of culture versus nature changes, most notably in Atwood’s Surfacing and in Marian Engel’s Bear.[21] There are several obvious reasons: the return to nature and the prominence of the Great Mother myth in the sixties and seventies; the importance of Jungian ideas in Canadian literature, in particular the role of animus and anima manifesting as animals, as in Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy; and the inclusion of Native mythology where the boundary between human and animal, nature and culture, is more fluid, with myths of women disappearing into the forest to have children with a bear or other (totemic) animals.[22] Atwood’s protagonist, rejecting a failing marriage and the return to city life, is imagined as taking on some of the physical characteristics of a she-bear at the end of the cottage season; Engel’s main character even tries to initiate sexual contact with a captive bear, only to be sharply reminded of species boundaries and her place outside nature. In Elle one finds the most far-reaching identification of the female protagonist with the bear, but with a very different emphasis and outcome, introducing a new, post-colonial phase in the reception of the story. Glover uses the motif of theriomorphism to thematize the problem of identity and loss of the self (165, 167) through an imagined process of colonization in reverse, of a European woman, the anonymous Elle, by Canada.

Initially, Elle is saved from starvation by a starving old she-bear that  collapses on top of her (94), like a deus ex natura. In clear opposition to the tradition, she never kills a bear (181), and her lover’s arquebus remains “rusty and useless” (69). From the first encounter Elle identifies with this old mother bear that is skin and bones like herself. She talks to it like a companion, an alter ego. Behind Elle’s identification lie the humanoid appearance and habits of bears, which make them actors in Native mythology, where bears and humans take on each other’s shape. In Glover’s novel this identification is profoundly ambivalent. At its best, the mythical co-existence of human and bear encompasses a spiritual world of wisdom (93) and a vision of the ultimate oneness of humans and nature; eventually it becomes a nightmarish obsession for Elle, a loss of self. Yet, initially the bear is a saviour. Elle even takes shelter from the cold inside the gutted stomach[23] of the bear and is so reborn as it were to the Native hunter who has been following the bear on a vision quest (93). To him, the white woman has acquired the polar bear’s power. She now dresses in the bear’s skin and dreams of a bear lover (95). By contrast, her uncle, de Roberval, has grown terrified of bears (140). Yet her bear-ness becomes a dangerous obsession of which she has to be ‘cured’ (120, 145) by an old Native shaman, whose own identity switches back and forth from human to she-bear, both self and other, both cure and disease. Elle becomes a changeling herself with physical symptoms of bear-ness:  barely recognizable, she is ‘rescued’ by a European ship of fools who relate her appearance to the character dressed as a bear in a charivari, an inversion ritual of medieval Europe (161: hence the Lords of Misrule, 107). She is returned to France and builds a camp outdoors together with a Native Canadian girl, Comes Winter, brought to Brittany by the explorer Jacques Cartier.  Elle dreams and pines for Canada while walking the captive bear brought back from Canada as a cub, equated with her lost child (167), on a leash, dog-like. Leon, the dog that went to Canada with her, has shed his domesticity and refused to leave Canada, but the wild bear, brought to France, is pathetic in its domestication, bondage and decay, an image of the colonized self. Elle is said to have returned “infected with savagery” (183); physically and mentally she is in an in-between place, “in a state of being neither one nor the other” (167). Conversely, the Native girl, Comes Winter, has become “infected with Christianity” (183) and is thoroughly alienated from her own culture, a condition reified by the mortal European disease she has contracted. All three of them are exiles, alienated from their homelands, Elle doubly so.[24] Comparing colonization with lovemaking (119), Glover suggests the intensity of the relationship between Old and New Worlds as well as the inevitability of human isolation and alienation (108).  Glover refuses, however, a possible reading of the novel as an allegory of the (failed) ascent of the soul to mystic union (116). The locus for the discovery of this permanent alienation is Canada, the “Land of the Dead”, but also the land that signifies but itself (134), that is pure otherness, since both nature and culture connote.  The status of the bear, from salvation to obsession to captivity, marks Elle’s passages as she moves from Canada back to France. The gothic ending of the novel suggests an ultimate redressing of the balance between captive nature and savage culture in a final, violent act of revenge against de Roberval in which Elle becomes indistinguishable from the captive bear.

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Genre

The introduction of a thinly disguised Rabelais as Elle’s partner in the second half of the novel invites reflection on its generic structure and how this relates to its content. In Bakhtin’s analysis, the work of Rabelais is associated in particular with the carnivalesque impulse in ritual and literature and with Menippean satire as a basis for the novel as a literary mode.[25] Little remains of the work of Menippus (second half of the third century C.E.) who received a unanimously bad press in antiquity as a philosopher who went over the top by mocking philosophy and its claim to truth – too much of a mad dog, even for his fellow Cynics, who aimed at shocking their audience by questioning conventional moral assumptions in their diatribes. Menippus drove this critique to its ultimate conclusion by making it nihilistic and self-parodic. In the second century C.E., the Greek satirist Lucian actually casts Menippus as a character in his dialogue Bis Accusatus (The Double Indictment)[26] in order to define the genre as a biting satire and as a comic mixture of literary elements, “like a Centaur”. The ambiguous state of the Centaurs in between humans and animals is emblematic of Elle’s situation. In classical mythology the wise Chiron is a teacher of natural medicine and a helper of heroes, but the other Centaurs run wild.[27] At the same time, Glover’s novel is strongly reminiscent of the genre as analyzed by Bakhtin, presented below in its reformulation by Anne Payne.[28] As the genre and Glover’s novel are fond of catalogues (86, 105, 196)[29] or ‘anatomies’ as Frye would call them, I shall use this device to try and ‘capture’ some of the elements of  the novel. Ultimately, the generic form has significant bearing on the interpretation of the novel.

Generally, Menippean satire is characterised as a mixed bag, a potpourri or farrago. The Latin satura (not to be confused with Greek satyr) actually refers to stuffed sausage. These terms all connote an unconventional mixture of genre, style and tone, and an absolute absence of inhibition on freedom of speech, the Cynic ideal of parrhesia. Classical and neo-classical theory of genre was highly hierarchical, so the combination of comedy and philosophy, high and low style and serious and burlesque was a shocker.[30]

Paraphrasing Bakhtin, Payne notes the following[31] specifics of Menippean satire:

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1. Character

There is often an investigation of unusual psychic states: insanity, split personalities, unrestrained daydreaming, strange dreams, suicidal thoughts. These phenomena destroy the epic-tragic integrity of man and his fate; in him the possibilities of another man and another life are revealed; he loses his “finalizedness” and singleness of meaning.  He ceases to coincide with himself …. [T]hese traits … afford a new vision of man.  The dialogical attitude of man to himself also destroys his “finalizedness.”

With a change of gender, we have the precise situation of Elle. The state of mind invoked on almost every second page is that of the dream, along with nightmare, vision, obsession/possession and madness. Occasionally Elle contemplates death as an escape from the Canadian condition. There is no return to her unreformed French-ness after her return to France: she has become permanently split between Old and New, both bear and woman, permanently double. The narrative takes the form of a dialogue of the main character with herself, constantly examining alternative or opposite positions, echoing the split personality and the double point of view. This affords a “new”, essentially tragic view of “man” as permanently alienated, inauthentic selfhood.  Not mentioned by Payne is the characteristic of the fumbling, bumbling author/main character of Menippean satire, who learns basic things about existence the hard way, allowing for survival lessons in the wild and making the Canadian setting an existential one, both physically and symbolically. Dream visions are typical in which the main character is transported from everyday reality to an exotic location (heaven or hell) and so obtains a glimpse of other worlds and ultimate realities. Elle becomes a dreamer as she acquires her second, Canadian self; for her, as for Native people, dreams are real (139)

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2. Subject Matter and Plot

[Menippean satire] is characterized by extraordinary freedom of invention in philosophy and plot …. The purpose of the fantastic is “to create extraordinary situations in which to provoke and test a philosophical idea”.

The extraordinary setting of Elle allows for an almost continuous series of reflections on her existential situation, i.e. alienation through colonization in reverse. This condition is explored through the drastic motif of theriomorphism as well as through a continuous, obsessive dialogue of the self with the self. Her ironic wit (131) and self-mockery, recurring features of Menippean satire, are symptoms of that divided self. The philosophical problem of the self is approached semiotically. Canada is said to signify only itself (134): it does not connote, i.e. it is empty of any association whatever and therefore constitutes utter emptiness/otherness. Similarly, Elle in the end has no home, no self, no soul (167). Her existence has lost all meaning.  In literary terms, hers is an anti-quest, her return is that of the anti-hero (167). In fact, “instead of returning you find yourself frozen on the periphery, the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other” (167). Her counterpart is the Native hunter on the ever smaller ice floe drifting across the Atlantic towards Europe, never to reach it. She is said to be “infected with otherness” (157), reified by the physical symptoms that correspond with bearishness: hirsuteness, polythelia or supernumerary nipples, and claw-like hands (117).  There is slippage from the mythical to the medical and vice-versa in Elle’s metamorphosis. Conversely, the New World has been infected by the Old (166). Linguistically, she is a “garbled translation” (147), culturally an exile (159), outsider (151) and intruder (162) in not one but two cultures. Menippean satire likes to confront two irreconcilable points of view, here an interminable dialectic of Old and New Worlds (141-2, 167, 178, 193-4), and is in effect aporetic: there is no comforting, mediatory solution, no compromise.

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3. Genre, Style and Tone

“Menippean satire is frequently an organic combination of free fantasy, symbolism, and mystical religious elements with … extreme, crude underworld naturalism.”

The combination of theology with the sensual and the bawdy is evident from the first episode of the novel. Philosophical reflection is combined with elements of fantasy, fabliau and farce: the ridiculous and the sublime meet and clash. Elle’s dream journey into Native myth, magic and religion has its own bearish symbols and feverish mystic visions. Her bear-ness is an equivocal symbol of divinity, difference, and even the inauthentic self (144, 147).  Learned reflections and references alternate with low life observations. Characteristically, there is display of learning and a ridicule of it in the same breath. Rabelais is a fountain of encyclopaedic knowledge (a favourite butt of Menippean satire) but he treats knowledge as a game and a joke: he is the rhetorician of ironic reversal (173, 179).

European literacy is confronted with Native orality as an expression of knowledge. Books are valued intellectually and erotically (30, 31, 33, 59, 65) but eaten for physical sustenance in Canada (42). Generically, Glover’s Elle has elements of the writer’s diary, travelogue, exploration narrative, philosophical tract, religious broadsheet, satire, encyclopaedia, allegory and myth.  The novel presents a version of a myth, and at the same time, provides a self-conscious commentary on that myth: therefore, it combines, in Frye’s terms, both first and second-phase writing.[32] The procédé is to break all formal conventions of literary expression as well as the entire aesthetic canon of classicism, and to deny grand narratives and unequivocal solutions. There is no idealisation of nature in Elle. The story of Elle, her extreme dislocation correlated with utter alienation of the self, finds an appropriate and convincing expression in Menippean satire, a genre that mocks conventional answers to fundamental questions.  It is also essentially rebellious, as is Elle (and Rabelais), “a headstrong girl” and a heretic, and characterized by a total freedom of speech, the parrhesia of the Cynics who deliberately affected a savage life style, living on the margins of society, in a barrel and dressed in rags or animal skins, in order to point out their fellow citizens’ hypocrisies, biting the bourgeois like the dogs after which they were named.  The broad humour and burlesque serve to turn the world upside-down in carnivalesque fashion, to shock the public out of its comfortable assumptions through inversion (62, 66, 67, 77, 115), a process that characterizes the New World. The Old World is based on a dream of order which is undone in the New (107). The setting of the novel, Quebec’s North Shore, is the crucial site where the crisis of contemporary identity is examined through the imagined experience of the first European woman settler in a landscape where the problems of human existence manifest themselves as starkly as the features of the natural environment. The North Shore represents Canada metonymously as well as the archetypal experience of Canada as a place that signifies only itself. , the scene of confrontation of a human being with total Otherness, where the drama (and the comedy) of the search for identity is enacted to this day. In Glover’s words: “The Côte-Nord is part of the country of my imagination.”[33]

—Haijo Westra & Adam Westra

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In his Author’s Note (Douglas Glover, Elle: A Novel [Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2003] 8 ) Glover states that he first came across the story in the history of New France by Francis Parkman, who gives the version by Nicolas Thevet (see below, n. 7). It is reproduced by Samuel Eliot Morison in The Parkman Reader (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1955) 82-84. Although the earliest versions by Marguerite de Navarre (see below, n. 3) and Thevet differ significantly, the report is held to be historical: see the entry “La Roque, Marguerite de”, in Dictionnaire Biographique du Canada, vol. 1 (Montréal:  Université Laval, 1966) 437.  The island is variously called Ile de la Demoiselle or Ile des Démons.
  2. Arthur P. Stabler, The Legend of Marguerite de Roberval (Seattle: Washington State University, 1972).
  3. Simone de Reyff, Marguerite de Navarre: Heptameron (Paris: Flammarion, 1982) 458-460; Stabler, Legend 3-4.
  4. Cf. Emily Wilson, “Loves Unseen”, TLS 22 & 29 August  2008, p. 12.
  5. Elle, p. 114. All subsequent references to the novel will be given in the body of the text in parentheses.
  6. Stabler, Legend, 5-11; for the genre of the histoire tragique see ibid.  p. 6, n. 5; see also his “The Histoires Tragiques of François Belleforest: A General Critique, With Special Reference to the Non-Bandello Group”, diss. University of Virginia, 1958.
  7. Stabler, Legend, 11-24; 37. For Thevet’s sources of the story of Marguerite, see Roger Schlesinger and Arthur P. Stabler, André Thevet’s North America: A Sixteenth-Century View (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986) xxii-xxiii.
  8. Stabler, Legend, p. 37.
  9. Stabler, Legend,  213.
  10. Stabler, Legend, 17.
  11. Robert Melançon,  « Terre de Cain, Age d’Or, prodigues du Saguenay : représentations du Nouveau Monde dans les voyages de Jacques Cartier » , Studies in Canadian Literature / Etudes en Littérature Canadienne 4 (1979) 22-34.
  12. The account of Cartier’s third voyage is no longer extant: see Schlesinger and Stabler, North America, xxxvii.
  13. Cf. Donald Haks, Huwelijk en gezin in Holland in de 17de en 18de eeuw (Utrecht : HES Uitgevers, 1985),  70-72.
  14. Stabler, Legend, 33-42.
  15. Stabler, Legend, 42-45
  16. D.W.S. Ryan, ed.  The Legend of Marguerite by George Martin (St. John’s: Jesperson’s, 1995).
  17. Stabler, Legend, 45-49, here p. 47.
  18. Similarly, in the Memoir of a Basque Lieutenant Nun Transvestite in the New World of 1599 by Catalina de Erauso, the female protagonist is associated with a sword that is unsheathed at every possible (and impossible) opportunity.
  19. John Hunter-Duvar, De Roberval, A Drama; also The Emigration of the fairies and The Triumph of constancy, a romaunt (St. John, N.B. 1888; rpt. Toronto: J & A. MacMillan, 1980); Stabler, Legend,  49-52.
  20. Thomas G. Marquis, Marguerite de Roberval (c. 1899; Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1986) ; Stabler, Legend,  52-57.
  21. In Shirley Barrie’s play, I Am Marguerite (Toronto: Playwrights Union of Canada, 1996), she shoots three bears and kills a deer with a knife.  Anne Hébert’s play, L’ île de la demoiselle, in La cage, suivie de L’ile de la demoiselle (Montréal: Boréal, 1990), features the screeching birds of the legend as told by Thevet and adds a black raven which Marguerite would like to kill in order to adorn herself with its feathers (p. 229).
  22. See Gary Snider, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990) 155-61 for a version of this myth that thematizes the problems of cross-species co-habitation.  See also Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders, The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985) and Stith Thompson, Motif Index of Folk Literature, rev. ed., vol. 1 (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1955), p. 461, # B 601.1 and p. 465, #B 632.
  23. This is turning into a peculiarly Canadian motif: see the opening scene in Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing.
  24. Double displacement (in England and Nigeria) is the theme of  The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2005)
  25. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. R.W. Rotsel (N.p.: Ardis, 1973)  87-113.
  26. A.M. Harmon, Lucian, vol. 3 (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University and William Heinemann, 1921, rpt. 1969)  84-151.
  27. Geoffrey Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1973) 152-162.
  28. F. Anne Payne, Chaucer and Menippean Satire (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981)  3-37 is the best short introduction to the genre.  See Joel C. Relihan, Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1993) for late antiquity and W. Scott Blanchard, Scholars’ Bedlam: Menippean Satire in the Renaissance (Lewisburg, London and Toronto: Bucknell University Press and Associated University Press, 1995).
  29. Cf. Bruce Stone, “Douglas Glover”, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 24 (2004) 1-55, at p. 46.
  30. Blanchard, Scholars’ Bedlam, 33-36: Dryden did not approve.
  31. See Payne, Menippean Satire, 7-9 for the next three quotes and  Bakhtin, Problems, 92-97.
  32. Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press Canada, 1982) 5-16.
  33. See the epilogue, “Elle, Sept-Iles, 2003, pp. 203-205, and  http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2010/06/10/gens-dici-gens-de-paroles/

2014

 

Vol. V, No. 12, December 2014

Vol. V, No. 11, November 2014

Vol. V, No. 10, October 2014

Vol. V, No. 9. September 2014

Vol. V, No. 8, August 2014

Vol. V, No, 7, July 2014

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Vol. V, No. 6, June 2014

Vol. V, No. 5, May 2014

Vol. V, No. 4, April 2014

Vol. V, No. 3, March 2014

Vol. V, No. 2, February 2014

Vol. V, No. 1, January 2014

Masthead

 

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Capo di tutti capi
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Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe MurailleDouglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, was published in 2013.

Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, two books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son and Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.

Glover has taught at Skidmore College, Colgate University, Davidson College, the University at Albany-SUNY and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Lethbridge, St. Thomas University and Utah State University. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.

See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online;A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail;Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief

 

Senior Editors

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Book Reviews

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.
Contact: jasondeyoung@numerocinqmagazine.com.
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Numéro Cinq at the Movies

R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. His most recent book, a short story collection entitled Entropic, won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award in 2016. Additionally, he is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton..

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Editor-at-Large

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males, a story collection, and Shetlag: una novela acentuada. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Translations

WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, Spartan, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and essays have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.
Contact bwoodard@numerocinqmagazine.com.

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Poetry Editors

aizenberg-thumbnailSusan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award. She can be reached through her website, susanaizenberg.com..

gillisSusan Gillis has published three books of poetry, most recently The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), and several chapbooks, including The Sky These Days (Thee Hellbox Press, 2015) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Volta (Signature Editions, 2002) won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is a member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, whose work appears regularly in print and online, and is collected in Rhinoceros (Gaspereau Press, 2016) and Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013). Susan divides her time between Montreal and rural Ontario..

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Managing Editor.

Deirdre thumbnailDeirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.

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Chief Technical Officer/Internet Security

Jonah Glover is a twenty-three-year-old human male. Jonah was hired into a technical role despite a long history of shoving chalk into the Glover family VCR. His tenure as CTO is a brazen act of nepotism by DG, so he says. In truth, he has rescued the magazine from malware attacks and hosting issues over and over again. He also designed the logo (many years ago). He works as a software engineer in Seattle and is completing a degree at the University of Waterloo.
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Contributing Editors.

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Riiki DucornetThe author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

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Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

HeadsJulie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.

Sydney Lea2Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.

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Special Correspondents

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Victoria Best small photoVictoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).

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Jeff BurseyJeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Garvin thumbnailGary Garvin lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at genesegrill.blogspot.com.

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JasonJason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Bruce Stone4

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he edited a great little book of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His own essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He currently teaches writing at UCLA.
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Trimingham_Julie

Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

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Production Editors

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Alyssa green backgroundAlyssa Colton has a PhD in English with creative dissertation from the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her fiction has been published in The Amaranth Review and Women Writers. Her essays have appeared in Literary Arts Review, Author Magazine, Mothering, Moxie: For Women Who Dare, Iris: A Journal about Women, and on WAMC: Northeast Public Radio. Alyssa has taught classes in writing, literature, and theater at the University at Albany, the College of St. Rose, and Berkshire Community College and blogs about writing at abcwritingediting.
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Nowick GrayNowick Gray writes fiction, essays and creative nonfiction that likes to bend boundaries and confound categories. He also works as a freelance copy editor and enjoys playing African drums. Having survived American suburbs, the Quebec Arctic and the BC wilderness, Nowick is now based in Victoria, frequenting tropical locations in winter months..

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Nic Leigh has had work published in Juked, The Collagist, UNSAID, Atticus Review, Requited, Gobbet, and DIAGRAM. A chapbook, Confidences, won the Cobalt/Thumbnail Flash Fiction contest and is forthcoming from Cobalt Press. Leigh is also a fiction reader for Guernica.

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CaptureKathryn Para is an award-winning, multi-genre writer with a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Grain, Room of One’s Own, Geist, Sunstream, and Vancouver Review. She is the 2013 Winner of Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest with, Lucky,  her first novel, which was also shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2014. Her stage play, Honey, debuted in 2004. She has also written, directed and produced short films.

Daniel Davis Wood is a writer based in Birmingham, England. His debut novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of Frontier Justice, a study of the influence of the nineteenth century frontier on American literature, and the editor of a collection of essays on the African American writer Edward P. Jones. He can be found online at www.danieldaviswood.com..

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Assistant to the Editor

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mary-brindley2Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born copywriter living in Boston. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction, performs improv, and is about to move to London.

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Contributors

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Anu2A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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dylanbrennan-croppedCurrently based in Mexico City, Dylan Brennan writes poetry, essays and memoirs. His debut collection, Blood Oranges, for which he won The Patrick Kavanagh Award runner-up prize, was published by The Dreadful Press in 2014. His co-edited volume of academic essays Rethinking Juan Rulfo’s Creative World: Prose, Photography, Film is available now from Legenda Books (2016). In addition to his work as Mexico Curator for Numéro Cinq, he regularly contributes to the online Mexican literary site Portal de Letras. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan.

jeremy brungerJeremy Brungeroriginally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.
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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Laura Michele Diener author photoLaura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine..

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Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).

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A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.
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OgburnCarolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Paddy Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

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Frank Richardson lives in Houston where he teaches English and Humanities. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Mark SampsonMark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Natalia SarkissianNatalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications..
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Joe SchreiberJoseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.

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captureDorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Authors & Artists of Numéro Cinq

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Ryem Abrahamson • Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix • Alejandro de Acosta • Caroline Adderson • José Eduardo Agualusa • Susan Aizenberg • Laurie Alberts • Ramón Alejandro • Taiaike Alfred • Gini Alhadeff • Abigail Allen • Steve Almond • Darran Anderson • Trevor Anderson • Jorge Carrera Andrade • Ralph Angel • A. Anupama • Guillaume Apollinaire • Jamaluddin Aram • Fernando Aramburu • Louis Armand • Melissa Armstrong • Tammy Armstrong • Glenn Arnold • Miguel Arteta • Adam Arvidson • Nick Arvin • Kim Aubrey • Shushan Avagyan • Steven Axelrod • Elizabeth Babyn • J. 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Aug 052017
 

George Saunders

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Reading, around the same time, Pastoralia (2000) by George Saunders, “Money” by Douglas Glover (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015), and “The Evil Gesture,” by Russell Working (Numéro Cinq, 2017), I have the sense that each of the stories could have been written by either of the other authors. What is it about these stories, characters, and prose styles that makes them appear to have come from the same hand?

I have to answer, verisimilitude—a word that appears in Saunders’ title story, when the guy playing caveman in the theme park gets a memo from his boss:

In terms of austerity, it says. No goat today. In terms of verisimilitude, mount this fake goat and tend as if real. Mount well above fire to avoid burning. In event of melting, squelch fire. In event of burning, leave area, burning plastic may release harmful fumes.

In terms of verisimilitude, indeed. Saunders in the earlier story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” features a narrator whose job (at another theme park) is “verisimilitude inspector.” Which I suppose is what I want to be in this essay.

While Saunders’ premise is typically absurdist—a middle-American couple has a precarious job at a theme park playing cave people, a kind of kitsch Flintstones—the lens of the characters is our given anchor in that sketchy reality, and so it comes across with a convincing punch.

In Glover’s “Money,” a miserable con-man named Drebel is painted faithfully, without fanfare, just as he is (“His favorite words were liquidate and fester”). Even as Drebel imagines himself (at the end) as “a demonic messenger, an immense black figure towering above a smoking, lifeless plain,” we have seen him from the inside out, knowing him, for all his self-serving crimes, as fellow human.

Russell Working’s protagonist, a boy named Jordan, invites us to inhabit his existence for a spell, fixated on his quest to go trick-or-treating, thwarted by the funeral of his uncle Aaron, beheaded in Afghanistan.

Russell Working

In each of these stories our immersion in the characters is so complete that we become them, and in that merger the larger themes of exploitation, evil and violence are absorbed in our experience: not so much cogitated but integrated.

Other masters of ironic realism come to mind. Thomas Mann launched a career with his unstinting recreation of bourgeois life in Buddenbrooks; wherein all the weaknesses and limitations of the society and its citizens are exposed to full view. Invited to see the unforgiving truth of our commonplace nature, we can smile with scorn, yet earn the gift of distance from such foibles. We emerge with a larger capacity to see the failings not only of others around us, but then also ourselves, because the muscle of discernment has been well toned.

Thomas Mann

In the case of Mann’s last work, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the verisimilitude of character works to earn the roguish con-man our sympathy because we have been so hospitably welcomed into his, yes, confidence. In this merger, again, comes sympathy, empathy, forgiveness of sins—because he and we are one.

The verisimilitude is achieved with a recreation of the culture, whether in the manner of Saunders’ (or Glover’s, or Working’s) fabrications of superficial Americanisms, or Mann’s faithful rendering of the furnishings and fixations of the German bourgeoisie. Along with the convincing setting, whether elaborate or sparse, the diction of the characters and narration is organically suited to convey the same conditions and values, exposed to the witnessing eye.

Realpolitik and the Moral Imperative

In his own essays and interviews, Saunders notes that an early influence was Isaac Babel, and he also cites Tolstoy, particularly Resurrection. Babel’s Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003) offers the war correspondent’s firsthand depiction of the Polish front under the assault of the murderous Cossacks—the leading wave of the Bolshevik Revolution trying to export itself by force upon its western neighbor. This unnecessary campaign, presented with complete reportorial objectivity, is at once horrifying and galvanizing. In response I feel with vicarious rage and repulsion the contrary of this bloody senseless human history—rather, the necessity to shout the moral imperative, to love one’s fellow human. But first we must taste the fresh blood of murder.

Between battles, Babel rides with the Cossack horsemen across fields of rye littered with corpses, sparkling in the sun. They find lodging in ruined villages, each with its churches desecrated, its women raped, its foodstocks looted, its prisoners shot point-blank or slashed with sabers, its livestock slaughtered summarily for the single pleasure remaining for the syphilitic soldiers: eating.

These men so degraded by war inveigh to their superiors about injustices concerning ownership of horses; they stumble in bloodsoaked rags, insisting on slogans of the people’s party; they sleep when they can on piles of louse-ridden hay; they gnaw at green meat, awaiting the next village to plunder. And they long, like Babel himself, for home and the peaceful life.

Babel’s war, like every war, is hell on earth. The enormity of its suffering stands in contrast to the comfort of our privileged existence, apart from such madness and strife, coercion and fear. Yet our private fate, in war and peace, is compromised just as it is in the collective evil of war. In Babel’s pithy phrase, “To save his own goods and chattels a man will gladly set fire to another man’s hide.” (Glover’s Drebel stands as exhibit A of this uncomfortable truth.) And regardless of one’s own circumstances and moral choices, the arrival of hell looms in the chaotic demise of one’s own body, subject to the nonpetitionable torture of decay, that universal finality of death.

Literary realism, to be complete, it seems, must, like Saunders in his latest work, the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, bravely make a centerpiece of death. The frequent theme and device of Saunders’ short stories, complete with likeable zombies and unfortunate Asian women strung on wires as lawn ornaments, is precisely that dark heart of reality, giving us the gut punch that will wake us past the corporate-speak and juvenile pablum that passes for speech in our day. Death is a wakeup call for all.

Luckily we get to try it out first, while we have the luxury of living, if we try on the world as it is according to Babel, or Tolstoy, or the characters of Saunders’ world. That world, so truly painted and finely drawn, in spare lines, yet in details and phrasing so breathing and alive, is none other than ours.

In the face of human depravity and suffering, if one fully identifies with its victims and perpetrators, one is moved to the moral imperative of human love, instead. Saunders quotes Tolstoy to that effect:

“If once we admit—be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case—that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds…. Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances.”[1]

Yet, Saunders qualifies the temptation to assign too much moral or thematic impulse to the creation of the story.

The assumption trickles down that artists have this viewpoint we want to ram down your throat.… I’m not really trying to say anything. Most people assume you have an intention and then you execute. There are some writers like that. But for me, I’m trying to not have an intention. I just have a little fragment and start working with it to see where it goes. When I’m done, sometimes I go, Wow, I said that? I didn’t know I thought that.[2]

In the end, the purpose is more “literary” (Babel), objective in the sense of Buddhist “witnessing,” and  “simple… almost invisible.” [3] The morality is not expressed but felt, in the successful literary rendering of reality, no matter how disturbing: “Love, at least in the fictional sense, is… clearer sight.”[4]

Praxis and Witness

In Babel’s notes published with the Red Cavalry stories, I’m struck by certain phrases that seem like a manifesto for minimalist realism:

Simply a story… Very simple, a factual account, no superfluous descriptions.
No continuity… Pay no attention to continuity in the story.

Short chapters saturated with content.

[and from the concluding remarks by his daughter, Nathalie]: “Babel’s ultimate aim in the stories … was literary effect.”

What can we make of this confluence of realism and literary effect? If the aim is verisimilitude, then it seems almost as if writers achieving that aim would sound the same as each other: as indeed the school of Raymond Carver spawned a generation of barebones writing, lean of telling and laconic of both narrative and dialogue… or Hemingway before him, another primary influence Saunders cites in a New York Times Magazine interview.[5]

Yet intrinsic to the “literary effect” of the realist is each writer’s given praxis. For Saunders, that means stylistic devices such as the use of extra question marks; jargon such as “due to,” “plus,” and “per”; speech authentically bastardized from media and corporate tropes; the use of capital letters for the iconic branding of everyday aspects of mundane American life. And there is that particularly American flavor to the thoughts, actions and speech of the characters. Parroting trends in the superficial culture, steeped in bureaucratese, fearful of stepping out of conditioned roles.

Compared to Babel’s graphic tapestry of setting, elemental in its rye fields full of corpses, its ruined churches and commandeered farmhouses, Saunders’ settings are stage sets for the play of the characters in dialogue or monologue; outlines constructed only for context, as the real world that is created resides in the characters themselves. The character is the world, and herein lies Saunders’ spiritual depth of compassion for any and all personalities enacting the divine and wacky human (or animal: dog, fox…) experiment.

In the absence of elaborate framing of setting, or any kind of authorial interpretation offered, there is allowed on the part of the reader a complete identification with the character/subjects. The monologues in the form of letters, reports, columns, or diaries all immerse the reader in the world of the character, richly rendered to allow us to experience fully the living of that life.

Saunders has said, in a recent CBC interview,[6] that it is detail which, because it makes the character come alive, earns them sympathy from the reader. Thus Saunders distinguishes between realistic description, and “nondescript” writing.

In terms of irony, it is the humor which flavors the reader’s final evaluation, knowing that no malice is intended, but only truth—which is understood dispassionately, or compassionately, as we are invited with Saunders to simply witness all that is—in the Buddhist way that Saunders is known to subscribe to.

Absurdist Therapy

A key dimension of Saunders’ realism is the absurdism embedded within it: a natural discovery given the inherent absurdities of American culture (“America has always been nuts.”[7]). And it is the absurdist dimension that gives free reign to the writer’s unique imagination, that sets him apart from contemporaries who might strive only for a more limited realistic approach.

The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to “real life”—he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.… Our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.[8]

The absurdist imagination allows not only the distinctive style of the writer to emerge; it encourages us to question everything. In this more profound state of decoupling from a reality that is at once both transparent and weird, we are jarred from our own comfort zones of self-satisfaction and denial.

“If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it… then the possibility exists that you can convert it.”[9] The truth will set us free: or at least, it gives us the possibility of freedom, if we so choose.

Does George Saunders translate this stance from its spiritual, aesthetic and moral grounding into any kind of real-world political action imperative? Or is it left for each of us to find our best way forward, better attuned to the lives of others?

The latter course is pointed to by

the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities.[10]

—Nowick Gray

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Cited and Selected Works

Douglas Glover, “Money” (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015)

Russell Working, “The Evil Gesture” (Numéro Cinq, 2017)

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003)

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901); Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954)

George Saunders:

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) (short stories and a novella)

Pastoralia (2000) (short stories and a novella)

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) (novella)

In Persuasion Nation (2006) (short stories)

The Braindead Megaphone (2007) (essays)

Tenth of December (2013) (short stories) 

Fox 8 (2013) (novella)

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) (novel)

George Saunders Interviews

“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year”, Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.

2014 George Saunders interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.

“Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” George Saunders, NPR, January 6, 2013.

Radio Interview with George Saunders on “Read First, Ask Later” (Episode 27).

“George Saunders: On Story,” by Sarah Klein & Tom Mason, Redglass Pictures, The Atlantic, December 8, 2015.

CBC interview, Q, 13 April 2017.

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Numéro Cinq production editor Nowick Gray is a writer and editor based in Victoria, BC. His writings span an eclectic range of themes, structures and styles in fiction and creative nonfiction. Educated at Dartmouth College and the University of Victoria, Nowick taught in Inuit villages in Northern Quebec, and later carved out a homestead in the British Columbia mountains, before finding the “simple life” in writing, travel, and playing African drums. His mystery of the Arctic, Hunter’s Daughter, was published in 2015 by Five Rivers. Visit his website at nowickgray.com or Facebook page at http://facebook.com/nowickg

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Tolstoy quoted in Saunders, “Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” NPR, January 6, 2013.
  2. Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star, January 11, 2014.
  3. Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.
  4. CBC Radio, Q, 13 April 2017.
  5. “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.
  6. CBC Radio interview.
  7. CBC Radio interview.
  8. New York Times Magazine interview.
  9. New York Times Magazine interview.
  10. Joel Lovell, New York Times Magazine interview.
May 062017
 

My Back Pages is the closest Moore will ever come to completing his massive study of the emergence and development of the novel —Jeff Bursey

My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays
Steven Moore
Zerogram Press, 2017
$30.00, 767 pages

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Introduction

In the mid-1980s, while doing research for my thesis on Henry Miller—a person and subject not popular within Memorial University of Newfoundland’s English department, the choice solidifying my dubious reputation among conservative professors from England and Newfoundland—I read Frederick R. Karl’s critical survey, American Fictions: 1940-1980 (1983). Apart from a few generally dismissive remarks on Miller, indicating a lapse of judgment, this work introduced me, in one giant, dual-columned flow of crackling prose and sharp observations, to authors that I never heard about in university classes. One of them was William Gaddis, whose two published novels (at that time) were discussed at great length. What I read intrigued me, but thesis writing and an imminent marriage, as well as a subsequent move, occupied my mind. In 1986, shortly before leaving Canada, I ordered Gaddis’ three works (a new one had come out the year before) and they accompanied me to London, England, where my then-wife’s studies took us. I resisted reading them as the final draft of the thesis required attention. At some point I needed a break, and soon found myself 600 pages into The Recognitions (1955) with 300+ to go, my spirits uplifted by Gaddis’ monumental first book, a reminder of how genius trumps talent, a salutary blast of corrosive satire and humour in a bleak time (little money, grey weather, England under Thatcher), a rebuke to the palsied minimalism of the 1980s that infested magazines and publishing lists—and suddenly Karl’s term for Gaddis, “tribune,” made sense. With the thesis finally sent to MUN, I turned to the remaining pages of The Recognitions, then to J R (1975), whose technical brilliance and humour helped preserve my sanity while I worked in a warehouse, and then the less impressive Carpenter’s Gothic (1985).

Back in St. John’s in September 1989 I came across a segment from another Gaddis novel in a 1987 New Yorker—what would be published in 1994 as A Frolic of His Own—and also, for the first time, read critical books devoted to his work. There weren’t many. At a guess, 1990 marked the year I first encountered Steven Moore (b. 1951) through his invaluable guide to The Recognitions. For 27 years, in one form or another, my Gaddis reading has been deepened and expanded by Moore. A recent example of the continued efforts at explicating Gaddis, who Moore considers “the greatest American novelist of the 20th century,” and how that can lead to a profounder understanding of his literary worth—and the worth of literature itself—can be found here in a joint review of books by Moore, and Joseph Tabbi, another Gaddis scholar who completes, for me, the triumvirate of Gaddis’ best critics.

In the early 1990s, Steven Moore worked for Dalkey Archive Press, home of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (RCF) and one of the most eclectic publishers around. From 1988-1996 he reviewed for RCF and eventually, as an editor, helped bring into print, among others works, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Reader’s Block and several Rikki Ducornet novels. Behind the scenes, and in front of my eyes, Moore shaped some of my reading (and I daresay that of others). There aren’t many critics so tireless in fighting critical indifference, small sales, and much more for high-risk writing.

There are reasons for this autobiographical introduction. While My Back Pages contains much about Gaddis that, as a fan, I appreciate seeing either for the first time or between covers at last, in this immensely readable, encyclopedic, and essential work there are almost 400 pages of concise reviews, published between roughly 1975 and 2016, of short-story collections, novels, and nonfiction, followed by almost 350 pages filled with meditations on key figures in Moore’s life, including his friend David Foster Wallace, Alexander Theroux, and W.M. Spackman. In these pages—revealed incidentally when its contents were first printed and forming a more than rough sketch when collected—is a partial intellectual autobiography that reveals, now and then, and almost always unexpectedly, his beliefs, his likes and dislikes, his confrontations with ideas and people, and reversals, criticisms, and disappointments in his career and personal life.

Certain figures recur: apart from Gaddis, Markson, Ducornet, and Theroux, there is much on Ronald Firbank, the Beats, Malcolm Lowry, Gilbert Sorrentino, and James Joyce. Certain predilections are as numerous: metafictional and/or experimental works, with occasional excursions into other forms. “It’s the books I write about, many of them forgotten by now, more than the pieces themselves, that deserve to be remembered,” he states outright, though that note of humility goes against the many years in service to literature exemplified by the length and depth of this book (indeed, the length and depth of each Moore book). In individual pieces he is not as shy in taking credit where it’s due.

One of Moore’s best qualities as an explicator is in communicating complex or complicated material in the clearest possible terms, and with humour when possible. Not all is sunshine, though, since every book is written, implicitly and explicitly, against something. There is even the presence of a dark figure that, while not a villain, is an adversary. And there’s sex. How-to guides to crafting correct fiction by James Wood or dreary musings on the uselessness of writing by Tim Parks aren’t going to offer this combination of features.

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I.

My Back Pages is the closest Moore will ever come to completing his massive study of the emergence and development of the novel: The Novel, An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010), and The Novel, An Alternative History: 1600–1800 (2013). (In 2014, the second title won the Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism.) “Rethinking the History of the Novel,” an essay placed near the end of the new book, supplies several reasons why he didn’t proceed with a third volume. Partway through the second volume his self-appointed task “became more like a chore, which is exactly what I had hoped to avoid when I began… by the time I wrote the last page of the second volume, I had no desire to go on to the third volume that I had been planning on from the very beginning.” Further:

Even though I had planned to narrow my focus at that point and concentrate only on innovative, experimental novels, I realized it would take me another five years at least working full-time and another thousand pages to cover 1800 to the present, and I finally had to admit that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Now I understood why no one had written a comprehensive, universal history of the novel before, and also understood why such things are only attempted in multi-volume university press series overseen by general editors with troops of contributors at their command.

Moore states he had no grand plan in mind when he began his labours, and yet, thanks to perseverance, missionary zeal, and an enthusiasm buoyed, I suspect, by ceaseless reading, this full-time independent scholar completed what only university presses could achieve. Perhaps it’s best that writers unthinkingly create their own follies. He felt provoked by “the conservative Bush [the Younger] administration of evil memory”—how those years must now seem, while in no way golden, less terrible than the present Republican government—that allowed “a corresponding reactionary backlash against the innovative, unconventional novels I love…”

Considering the fatigue factor, then, My Back Pages might be a better work than the never-realized third volume. Its content differs from that of the Novel works, which together are a magisterial, yet colloquially spoken, introduction to hundreds of fictions from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, on to Ireland and Iceland, then Mesoamerica, Japan, China, Europe, and North America. Moore’s new work comprises spirited defenses, campaigns, and hosannas for the lineage of “unconventional” writers he has long admired. The tempo is that found in breaking news, in Ezra Pound’s sense, excited but not sensationalized. (I’m reminded of what Sven Birkerts says in Changing the Subject [2015]: “I recognized at that moment that if art really is an act of concentrated attention, then it is also at the same time a power, not only carrying its messages, the content that is its pretext, but also storing—and making available—an enormous compacted energy. I’m talking about the energy that made the vision and expression possible in the first place.” Substitute criticism for “art” and that suits Moore’s energetic prose.) Instead of plot summaries devoted to the literary output of one country, we are provided with brief summaries of works and essays focused on single topics. After the Introduction and Acknowledgements, the sections are: Reviews; Miscellaneous Nonfiction; and, in three parts, Essays (“William Gaddis and Friends”; “Significant Others”; “Personal Matters”).

Set out alphabetically, the reviews (sometimes single entries, at other times sequences devoted to the same author), to provide a brief list, are of works by Djuna Barnes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Mo Yan, Severo Sarduy, Arno Schmidt, and Marguerite Young. In addition to what Moore has written for Rain Taxi and the Washington Post, among other places, most of the reviews appeared in RCF. He is most often a polite and eager reader, inclined to treat with the greatest respect metafictional works and meganovels that display erudition and contain recondite language used in a playful way, works that emphasize style over plot (or character) and that break the constraints of the novel. The “anemic stories” of minimalists rarely capture his attention, but in considering Stephen Dixon’s Frog (1991) he does concede that this book “represents an interesting new hybrid: a long novel made up of short episodes, a maximalist meganovel written in a minimalist style.” So he can be won over if the writer has done something original. A writer can also be a “vixen,” but only if they write well, like Mary Butts or Karen Elizabeth Gordon. (He doesn’t offer an equivalent term for males.)

Moore’s enthusiasm is contagious, as it’s often combined with casual displays of his wide and deep reading. Plucked almost at random are three samples of his writing style. The first is the opening to a review of Nicola Barker’s Darkmans (2007):

’Tis the season of huge literary novels. Those of us for whom size matters welcome with holiday cheer Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, James McCourt’s Now Voyagers, two new translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Paul Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor, Alexander Theroux’s Laura Warholic, and the 900-page Adventures of Amir Hamza, an old Urdu novel (by way of Arabia and Persia) newly translated for the Modern Library. Crashing this boys’ club from England comes Nicola Barker’s 838-page Darkmans, her seventh and longest novel, and a finalist for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize (which went to a much much shorter novel).

After reading a 3,300-page work by William T. Vollmann, Moore concludes:

Rising Up and Rising Down is a monumental achievement on several levels: as a hair-rising survey of mankind’s propensity for violence, as a one-man attempt to construct a system of ethics, as a successful exercise in objective analysis (almost nonexistent in today’s partisan, ideological, politicized, spin-doctored, theory-muddled public discourse), and a demonstration of the importance of empathy, whether in writing a book like this or simply dealing with fellow human beings. It can be an exhausting, depressing read, but with the ever-growing role of violence in our lives, it is an essential read. And the amazing fact that during the 20 years he spent writing Rising Up and Rising Down Vollmann also published a dozen extraordinary books of fiction—many in the 700-page range and packed with historical research as deep as that on display here—elevates this achievement beyond the realm of mere mortals.

Though Moore generally prefers those whose language sparkles with new thoughts set out in long sentences, he can appreciate other styles, as shown in this review of the first volume of Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow:

The amount of detail here is staggering; Leader apparently left no stone unturned, and succinctly summarizes all the cultural upheavals surrounding Bellow in those heady days. (The biography doubles as a primer on the intellectual climate of the times.) But the details never become too dense or overwhelming, thanks largely to Leader’s clear, brisk style.

This compliment applies to Moore. Apart from providing readers with a long list of titles to look for, his reviews are models of how to balance an examination of style, a short summary of salient points, and a decision as to a book’s worth.

The Miscellaneous Nonfiction section contains essays and reviews ranging in subject from critical works on literature and postmodernism to human anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While of varying interest and engagement, this section offers further proof of the diversity of Moore’s taste, which is, incidentally, also shown in the music citations that appear now and then.

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II.

In Essays, Part 1, under the section “William Gaddis and Friends,” Moore brings together previously isolated pieces on Gaddis (and those who knew him), including Pynchon, Markson, and Chandler Brossard. Particularly noteworthy is “Sheri Martinelli: A Modernist Muse.” She was an artist-model in Greenwich Village who Gaddis and Anatole Broyard (author of, among other books, Kafka Was the Rage [1993]) pursued romantically, “a protégé of Anaïs Nin,” friends with H.D., Charles Bukowski, Charlie Parker, and the Beats. She later entered into a hazily defined friendship or relationship with Ezra Pound when he was at St. Elizabeths Federal Hospital. (This is the stuff of a biopic.) The concentration of influences and animosities (Broyard versus Gaddis, Pound versus almost everyone) that congregated in this almost unknown artist is fascinating.

Part 2, “Significant Others,” deals with, among others, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Dahlberg, Brigid Brophy, Leopoldo Marechal, and Wallace again. Barring Wallace and Vonnegut, Moore is paying close attention to the obscure, the out-of-print, and the forgotten, something that other critics could seek to imitate. Firbank, one of “the more recherché modernists” who is invoked often and gets connected to Francesca Lia Block and Alan Hollinghurst, as well as many others, is looked at for his playwriting. While I can agree with Moore on many things, we part ways on Firbank, who he admits is a writer “so idiosyncratic that one instinctively likes or dislikes [him], and no amount of critical persuasion one way or another is going to change anyone’s mind.” This may be a blind spot of mine, just as Moore’s low regard of a fellow Modernist, Henry Miller, is inexplicable considering his influence on and way with language, on issues concerning freedom of expression, and as a figure who supported Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans, about whom Moore has much to say (as he does on other Beat writers like William Burroughs and Alan Ansen).

Theroux is both reviewed and the subject of an in-depth description of his second novel, Darconville’s Cat (1981), “a dazzling 700-page satire… that surely will soon come to be celebrated as the finest example of learned wit ever produced in American literature.” As Moore mentions in the Introduction, he sometimes wrote with an “optimism” that was misplaced. Theroux’s work matches Moore’s taste for length, wit, language, digressions and allusions, and several modes of presenting material (“poems, fables, nightmares, a diary, an abecedarium, a blank-verse playlet…”), and he offers a persuasive set of reasons for the importance of this novel. What also arises is one of those welcome contradictions that spring up in any person’s record of literary commentary if they do it long enough. In expressing fervent enthusiasm for and belief in Darconville’s Cat—“I want to be buried with this novel clasped to my heart”—Moore has to restrain from commenting negatively on Theroux’s Catholicism. Critics of the Novels volumes, such as Steve Donoghue and Roger Boylan, noted the evident anti-religious stance, the latter saying that Moore “seems constitutionally incapable of finding any redeeming value in the 2,000-year history of Christianity that has been so much a part of Western culture.” This sentiment extends back to when Moore reviewed Lawrence Durrell’s Livia: or, Buried Alive in 1979: “Denis de Rougemont, to whom Livia is dedicated, is the author of the classic 1940 literary-theological study Love in the Western World (still in print and still worth reading in spite of its Catholic bias).” If we didn’t muzzle ourselves now and then when faced with a work that leaps over our convictions we’d hardly be human, so I’m not going to fault Moore for his surprising moderation.

The third section of Part 3, “Personal Matters,” contains “Nympholepsy,” “Rethinking the History of the Novel,” and “Publishing Rikki Ducornet.” The second has been referred to already; the third details Ducornet’s history with Dalkey—who published her books The Fountain of Neptune (1992), The Jade Cabinet (1993), The Complete Butcher’s Tales (1994), and, both in 1995, Phosphor in Dreamland and The Stain—and her and Moore’s author-editor relationship, of which he is clearly proud. As to “Nympholepsy,” that will be dealt with below.

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III.

As already noted, Moore wrote his two Novel books to stand up for the kind of fiction he saw under assault from 2000-2008, and in his introduction to the first volume he addresses, with withering scorn and an abrasive tone, the narrow-minded criticism that Dale Peck, B.F. Myers, and Jonathan Franzen dealt out to writers of so-called difficult fiction. In My Back Pages there are literary theorists to argue with for their instrumental use of texts “as a springboard to explore socioeconomic/political issues, theories of reading… drifting further and further away from the actual words on the author’s page,” and attempts to redress the “little critical attention” and “critical neglect” experienced by authors like Rudolph Wurlitzer and Richard Brautigan. That’s not to say Moore doesn’t admire this or that critic (full- or part-time); he praises Tom LeClair, Marilyn R. Schuster, and Samuel R. Delaney. Yet the chief foes are those who use this or that text for their own ideological thoughts, and the review outlets that are indifferent to writers, in English or in translation, who present new visions.

One individual does stand out. Those familiar with Dalkey know that John O’Brien is its founder and main force. In the Index there are references under his name, but when the pages are consulted he is identified most often as “boss,” “editor,” and “Dalkey’s publisher.” The Introduction provides context for later remarks:

While at the local warehouse buying stock, I noticed a recently published novel with an irresistible title, An Armful of Warm Girl, read it, and became a devoted Spackman fan thereafter. Shortly after he died in 1990, I began planning an omnibus edition of his complete fiction; it was typeset and ready to go by 1995, but was continually postponed by Dalkey’s boss until a year after I left. (During that time, he moved my introduction to the back and called it an afterword because, as Spackman’s daughter told me, “he felt the length of the introduction might discourage less scholarly readers from starting to read the book.”) The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman (1997) was very well received, and I was especially flattered that John Updike referred to my piece as “excellent” in his New Yorker review (but disappointed when he dropped that adjective in his More Matter collection a few years later)… At that time I also prepared a collection of Spackman’s essays that I wanted to publish as a companion volume, but my exit from Dalkey (and the boss’s indifference to Spackman) made that impossible.

The grinding of the axe is audible. Pitting Updike against the “boss” provides pleasure and vindication. Another note airs a different grievance:

I wanted to publish this book [Five Doubts] when Mary [Caponegro] submitted it to Dalkey Archive in early 1996, but the boss adamantly rejected it: “I will not publish this book,” he declaimed in a memo. Upon publication two years later [by Marsilio Publishers], it was very favorably reviewed by Robert L. McLaughlin in Dalkey’s journal, the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Once again, “the boss” is set up against someone whose opinion dovetailed with Moore’s.

Two final peeks into the workplace demonstrate the toll this took: “Working with Karen [Elizabeth Gordon] was one of the few bright spots during my final dark year at Dalkey Archive.” Lastly: “My years at Dalkey Archive were depressing and frustrating, but Rikki and a few other writers kept me sane and entertained.” The theme here is that Moore felt his editorial instincts were often acute, but that he, apparently, had to wage combat within Dalkey every day. At a future time the full story of the Moore-O’Brien relationship will come out; it won’t be a pretty sight. Without adversaries our lives might be easier, but they do provide fuel for the kind of cold fury that allows a snap to enter one’s sentences.

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IV.

Above I mentioned this book contains sex. While there are reviews that touch on that, to be accurate I should say that frustrated desire is more often present.

In “A New Language for Desire: Carole Maso’s Aureole,” one of the essays in “Significant Others,” Moore appraises the author’s 1996 novel: “rarely in literature has desire been explored with the intensity Maso brings to Aureole: a pyrotechnic display almost reckless in its abandon, daring in its subversion of literary propriety, and voracious in its erotic hunger.” He goes on to say that Maso

exhibits the kind of bravado and self-exposure that I associate more with rock music divas than with her literary sisters. She has something of Courtney Love’s swagger, P J Harvey’s erotomania (both are mentioned on page 81 of her book), Liz Phair’s bluntness, Kate Bush’s bookish romanticism, Siouxsie Sioux’s dramatic flair, Jane Siberry’s wit, Liz Fraser’s mellifluousness, Shirley Manson’s aggressive sexuality, Tori Amos’s introspection, and Lisa Germano’s heartbreaking insecurity.

This eight-page analysis of a Sapphic love story takes us through each chapter of what Moore considers “Maso’s most innovative book to date.” He adds: “Maso goes further than any writer working today to create a style that does justice to the polymorphously perverse energy of eros.” As literary analysis, it is at the usual high standard of Moore’s criticism, showing sensitivity to language use, to how themes reverberate and parallel other content, and exhibiting deftness in locating outside sources (literary, musical) that contribute to an understanding of the text under investigation.

What interests me most is the curious verdict rendered on a psychological condition mentioned in the novel: “Lust here isn’t the devouring hunger of ‘Anju’ or the sexy games of ‘Make Me Dazzle’ but ‘sex addiction’…, that dreary concept from 1980s pop psychology that seems to have some validity here.” Sex addiction is considered a mental condition that, according to some opinions, is a form of compulsive sexual behaviour. It has at times been labelled nymphomania or satyriasis. Moore, who as far as I know is a medical layman, offers begrudging acceptance of the possibility this condition exists. Present as well is an appreciation for the sexual content of Maso’s novel. For me, this 1996 essay ties into the very personal “Nympholepsy” (2001) from “Personal Matters,” which outlines Moore’s self-diagnosis of a condition brought about by his everyday interaction with Morgan, a female fellow employee at a Borders store. Both deal with lust/love, and both reveal an aspect of the critic that heretofore has not been revealed. To say it comes as a surprise is an understatement.

Listing the three “factors… [that] had led to the attack,” Moore gives as the third: “the realization that soon I would turn 50, and that I was still alone—never married, no long-term relationships—and in all likelihood I would die alone without every knowing what it is like to love and to be loved.” He assesses the qualities in Morgan (not her real name) that attract him:

But she was more than just a pretty face (there were other teenage girls working at Borders, as attractive as Morgan): she was quiet, a bit shy, introverted, bookish, artistically inclined—qualities I shared and that led me to regard her as a soul mate, despite our age difference, qualities I had always looked for in a girlfriend but had never found. And of course she possessed numerous lovable qualities I lacked; I could fill the page with them. I had been waiting all my life for someone like this on whom I could lavish all my dammed-up care and affection, and thus Morgan became the unwitting victim of this flood of emotion.

In time he terms his ache nympholepsy, and consults Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for a definition. (In addition to having himself as a client, he is getting a second opinion from a literary work.) Moore being Moore, he can’t resist a joke: “Taking down my hardcover copy of Alfred Appel’s annotated edition, I fumbled beneath Lolita’s tight white jacket for a few minutes until I found what I was looking for.” The rest of this poignant confession involves consulting dictionaries, poetry, music, several bouts of self-criticism and misery, and much else. In the Introduction he says this about the essay: “It’s my favorite largely because its subject inspired me—which was what nympholepsy originally meant—to open up my style, one that I’ve used ever since whenever possible. (You can see that style develop over the course of the essay, which begins in a flat, documentary voice that turns more lyrical, scholarly, and fanciful as it goes along.)”

We can, indeed, look at this admission primarily as a style issue. Yet this is sensitive ground. The essay is surprising and touching in its discussion of desire and loneliness. Consequently, I’ve decided that even though Moore’s life has been filled with words he’s read and words he’s written, a literary review wouldn’t pay proper respect to this piece, and also that every reader will want to arrive at his or her own interpretation.

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Conclusion

People wonder why criticism exists and what its function is. When voiced by writers this can be unsubtle code for these thoughts: “What’s the point of it if not to get the good news out about my work?” and “Why do I care what some critic I dunno thought? And what’s exciting about reading a review for a book I haven’t read?” There is also a disdain for those who judge art. Moore doesn’t hesitate to discriminate the good from the bad—he has choice words on Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son (1997)—based on a simple criterion that he finds also expressed in the works of Spackman: “The content of his novels, and his characterization of women especially, will always create problems for some readers, but not for those who agree that style is what a writer is to be judged by.”[1] For some people, this will come across as elitism that verges on canon making. As well, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out, there is often a “prideful disdain for anyone who attempts to articulate the fascinating void, which actually reinforces respect for this aspect of art it is supposed to be dismissing…” We are fortunate to have a handful of astute critics who bring us reports gathered from the outskirts of the familiar literary world about innovative authors busily deepening our collective literary heritage. Steven Moore has been at the vanguard of criticism and publication of outliers and explorers whose artistic visions reinvigorate the capacious form of the novel and the short story, and we are in his debt.

—Jeff Bursey

N5

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In Rebecca Swirsky’s review of Danielle McLaughlin’s short-story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets, titled “Something else entirely,” the first sentence reads: “Good writers rely on style. Even better writers rely on empathy.” If, as a writer, you prioritize empathy, seek a counsellor; if you prefer writing, look for a stylist who has the ability to show empathy if he or she wishes. Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 2016, Issue No. 5902, p. 22.
May 042017
 

Bell hath wrought here a tremendously ubiquitous fever dream. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s seeing what or whom. —Linda Chown

Behind the Moon
Madison Smartt Bell
City Lights Press, 2017
$15.95; 280 pages

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.Behind the Moon is through and through a magical encounter and a novel of mystery, but then what should one expect being taken there behind the moon, that emblem in the sky of love, of unknown loneliness, and uneasy inaccessibility? The position of the reader is crucial here. Approach this novel like an academic hunting symbols and what these ostensibly might “mean” squeezes out the juice. For instance, common reader sense should have told me that what comes first has to stand forth first as core axis. What comes first is a page with a circle and then this sentence: “The eye was on her first—the first thing she knew.” This opening says to pay attention to eyes, to seeing, to being seen and to watching, who and what are being seen and how, the width of image and the curve of distance. In the first of three readings, I came upon what I experienced as a holy wildness, what could be at one level a hip narrative of adventure and/or a relative of seductive Eleusinian Mysteries from classical times. The words and images spin about each other like silkworms sticky-hot in a summer sky. Actually, here, the reader is everywhere every time with multiple clues to everything in this scintillating book. But then, of course, time isn’t here. Space is and circles are. Spawned in fever dreams which might or might not be dreams, Behind the Moon is the grandest cosmic adventure on earth and also an account of lost women who learned to go elsewhere through solid surfaces, who came to know complete. Just about everything in this book is seductive and deliciously uncertain, once you let go of the silly matter of interpretation and finalities. A book about losing your way, it is foremost of coming through and twinning, of getting closer. As Julie knows: “she wanted to go deeper into the rolling feeling, warmth and openness, cuddlesome.”

It is also a seamlessly sophisticated book in which words as signs, scene and image weave over centrifugally, inexplicable at first. Writing of Julliet Fleming’s Cultural Geography: Writing after Derrida, Gill Parrington reminds that “words are burrows, tunnels, funnels, passages, expanding territories and folding stars. It’s a wonder that any of us can read.” This wise suggestion helps us to get closer to this book’s circular shapes and physical marks everywhere. In another comment fitting Bell’s at first far-fetched, untethered, yet meticulously composed novel, Jacques Derrida once admonished, “We need to stop thinking in wholes.” Well, Behind the Moon takes us rather astoundingly out of any world of stories and wholes and certainties to become a novel behind, not just the hypothetical moon of the title, but also behind the certainties of story, becoming thus, its own shimmering, transparent narrative aporia. Madison Smartt Bell knew that his book was singular to the point of strangeness, far reaching on the verge of sheer undecidability. In a Granta interview, he deemed it an “indescribable novel.” In 2013, he went a step further: “Behind the Moon is a novel just too weird for New York (even I eventually admitted that).” Remember when reading, that our book, this Behind the Moon is a novel explicitly taking place behind the regularity of what we consider story. We have to read it otherwise. Julie the character who fell, disappearing forever into a cave, grieved about the limitations of the story she felt stuck with:  “There had to be another way to tell herself the story. Jamal should tell it to her another way.” She re-affirms her sense of another way: She was seeing what she saw in some other way.” This is not so much a novel with a story within, as a stage setting through which transfuse many mysteries, sexual, mythical, and conceptual.

Once, years ago, a young girl (mainly me) sat in a plush chair in the silent dark of Hayden’s immaculate Planetarium in New York City. She looked upward, mutely waiting like the rest were in the chilly air for what was going to happen overhead. It was going to happen as a mystery at some distance, she discerned then in all her girlish inexperience. And so also did I (as she) immediately know that in Behind the Moon something important was going to present itself to be seen somehow. With my planetarium memory in mind (in hand?), It was a thrill reading to discover that Julie, the main character, had stars overhead on her ceiling at home like in a planetarium, a seething image which recurs six times: “the phosphorescent plastic stars stuck to the ceiling above her bed at home. . . . On the ceiling above the fluorescent green stars lit up. . .They seemed to have been arranged in constellations.” In another visual conundrum, the issue of looking, being watched or seen, became instinctively, intransigently important, remaining somewhat nebulous. ”She was seeing with the same eye that saw her” and “The yellow eye looked through her as she looked through the eye.” This novel bakes and sizzles these visual moments, keeping them warm, although almost unengendered.

Since this novel grows revolutionarily behind the traditional story, chronological time lines don’t apply. Many readers say that this novel is “about” about the attempt to rescue Julie, with the help of shamans (or whomever) from the cave into which she once fell. No, it’s not about that story. It’s not a story at all. Actually, Julie rather defiantly doesn’t want to come back; if anything she wants to get further in, into the cave, to go through the walls, to get closer to what inside is. My review hopes not to seem to provide answers but rather to furnish openings, to animate living in the cross thatched scenes, to adumbrate the eloquent patterning of the pages, thus to coordinate familiar worlds, the people in the hospital and the city and the others, with the unknowable’s, people/animals in caves full of paw marks and illustrations, so as to open the windows of your first and second readings of this exquisitely mysterious book, whose every word, sound, and pictogram constitutes what it is. I will use three frameworks: what I am calling 1) Setting, 2) Summary, and 3) Infiltration, so that by the end you can re-read this Contemporary Eleusinian Mystery your way.

1) First, what could be called setting of Behind the Moon includes both its physical self as textual artifact, as well as the places which the characters and animals inhabit. This most physical book features multiple hand and paw prints and circles throughout, eye-catching fonts and blank pages which accentuate its inter-continuities. It has 79 chapters, but these as such are not the significant markers. There appear, more compellingly, thirteen irregular sectional pages each with one more “circle” on it than the last such page. Thus, the final circle page has thirteen circles or prints scattered upon it. These circles vary on each page as to size, position and color, from a nearly invisible gray to a stern black. Occasionally, there are textual pages with vitally palimpsestic over-markings of different fonts, shapes and densities, letters and phrases, most of which have appeared in some way previously. These over-markings and prints bring about, albeit mysteriously, a kind of continuity of recognition. Sometimes, there are as many as two adjacent blank pages. Sometimes, rather inexplicably, when a person you think you know very well speaks, their thoughts or words get italicized much like in Modernist fiction. Other times, speech may become bolded once, and then other times, a particular word like “wrong” gets bolded many times such as when Marissa says wrong or will. Six what I call “duet or couple chapters” repeat each other in terms of dialogue or action. Some text is in Latin and others in Wingding font, which appears initially as some ancient unspoken language. The physicality of these markings be they hand or paw prints physically influence the book’s fore edges, which are noticeably and unevenly splayed with the dark of them.

Here I will not pretend to fake objectivity, to furnish a list of the setting there or here behind the moon. The physical “settings” involving people and places remain as fluid and episodic as the hand prints, about where and how people are, where they sleep, dream, wander, wonder, make love, fight, come through and vindicate themselves. Take it from Julie who says “she seemed to know where the walls were, but she couldn’t see them.” Much like in Virginia Woolf’s most open novel, The Waves, everything just is as it is in some cloudy relation to the waves and the sun. Much as in The Waves, too, there is no omniscient narrator or any guiding third person over voice. Setting as we have known is here a collective radiant dissonance with pools of darkness and eruptions of light. It’s that there simply is no one stable fixed physical reality or backdrop. Consistently, then, that repeated pattern of dots is “drawing toward each other but never quite touching,” much like the disparate parts of the setting being such as it is where it is.  However, first of all, and unsurprisingly, the moon is perhaps the one constant that remains and reclaims magic in different ways, almost defiantly and seductively present: “the great moon-shape of time” or “Time is not straight but round like the moon.” The moon is the collective presence of this book. Everyone and thus everything is also somehow ruffled by change here, by a warp in their proprioception, that inchoate understanding of how one’s body fits in space. Hence, Marissa, Julie’s birth mother, “got the legs to start walking toward the house. Something was wrong with her proprioception: she could feel her heart rhythm but not her feet striking the ragged pavement.” For part of the book, “we” are in the desert near St. Mary’s Hospital somewhere near a “coven” of caves which Julie inhabits in some way; the prepositions in the following passage indicate how indeterminate position and place are: “she looked down into it, holding it cupped in the palm of her hand, but in the dark of the cave there seemed to be no gravity, and this cup of light might just as well have been beside her, or above, impossibly distant, like that frayed wafer of daylight moon, faint in the washed colors of the evening sky.”

The book begins in medias res with Julie in the cave with the bear after she fell. Then, on the next page a voice is heard “hauling on her, dragged at her.” These taut, compelling opening pages chart the mysteries we face reading and considering. Then, we flashback seemingly objectively to before Julie’s fall when on her trip with bikers and possibly a dose of molly. At the book’s end, Jamal and Marissa revisit this cave of the beginnings to try to get closer to what happened before. What is setting “slip-shifts” from houses (Julie’s former home with Carrie Westover, her adopted mother), to the hospital where Julie is in a coma and not, because she is quite conscious to herself and sees herself in the cave, to Marissa and Jamal’s mother in The Magic Carpet Restaurant and their intimate moments, to scenes with each one of the men, Jamal, Ultimo, and Marco, to driving on the streets, driving into danger, that meth explosion, on the edge of or inside of caves with hawks, bears, great dark walls, and shamans nearby. Getting through this, Marissa breaks free of herself, her divisions, to feel “no difference between the inside and the outside of her head, Marissa wanted to say.”  Real places dissolve fast so that you the reader have to start splicing on your own or cutting your own cross section to look more carefully at more. Multiple shots of Julie’s star ceilinged bedroom and cameos of her hospital room with her trying to pull off her ventilator, her “muzzle” enhance the mystery of this tenuous place behind the moon. Sometimes great knowledge occurs in the caves: “such a stampede of bison as she had never seen (even if she was really only seeing them projected on the lids of her closed eyes)” Bell hath wrought here a tremendously ubiquitous fever dream. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s seeing what or whom. Julie: or is she the eye, that sees herself as another Julie or is it her mother Marissa who observes her daughter, or is it Julie in the hospital knowing herself in the cave feeling her fingers softening, merging into the soft clay? The cave scenes are warm, swarming with reverence for another way of getting through, for paintings on the walls and their chance for intimacy. Any tedious verisimilitude is deliberately fractured. The action is elsewhere.

2) What is to summarize in this bold novel of uncompleted or cross-relating actions? Once, affected by the collapse of reigning ideas about action, D. H. Lawrence is said to have responded with his question, “You see, it was really George Eliot who started it all. . . . It was she who started putting all the action inside. Before, you know, with Fielding and the others, it had been outside. Now I wonder which is right?” At the end of the nineteenth century, many felt quite the same about narrative action: Henri Bergson shuns focus on those (to him) anachronistic inner or outer divisions. He postulates that: “All action aims at getting something that we feel the want of, or at creating something that does not yet exist” (Creative Evolution, 297). Francis Fergusson, esteemed drama critic, once specified that “. . . by ‘action’ I do not mean the events of the story but the focus or aim of psychic life from which the events, in that situation, result” (The Idea of the Theatre, 36). According to Fergusson, “action (praxis) does not mean deeds, events, or physical activity: it means, rather, the motivation from which deeds spring.” Margaret Butcher puts it this way: “The praxis that art seeks to reproduce is mainly a psychic energy working outwards.” She sees that previously stable notions of action had imploded and perhaps “psychic energy working outwards” has taken its place. In the novel form, in English anyway, the effects of this implosion have still to be assimilated. Behind the Moon responds to it appropriately and fractures the action, dividing and doubling up the characters, rendering the surfaces of life and things penetrable, sometimes nearly invisible. As we read, one of the goals is “to get to wherever there was to here, whatever that is.”

Butcher’s phrase “psychic energy working outwards” perfectly suits the parallel engagements of the two main women characters, Julie and her mother Marissa, two women simultaneously strangers and intimates. Remember this behind the moon novel takes place behind the traditional story with its plot and tangible consequence. It is compelling that the three important male figures, Jamal, Marko, and Ultimo, remain rather autonomous, tinged with strangeness and a turbulent wildness. Readers know more of the women, particularly Marissa and Julie who go beyond the moon to what is called make a commitment without a chance for returning. Julie literally falls into a new life while Marissa acquires one in dramatic, painful stages. She goes all the way to get there, getting raped, crying, growing horns and then moving into a consolidation behind the safety of moon, going over the edge so as “to get where you want to go you have to pass through it and risk that you might not return.” Marissa’s skull cracks open and the antlers’ come out, leaving her body relaxed, “buoyed up in a warm sparkling fluid—an ascending helix whose glittering motes were revealed as eyes of the animal persons, looking at her—thousands of eyes regarding her but benignly as if she was one of her own. Their horns fit comfortably on her brow.” At the end, all come together in a yearning magnetic energy:  “In the third spiral was Julie herself, eyes open and trained on Marissa, reaching out her hand. Marissa responded with the same gesture. She could feel the warmth of Julie’s hand. Julie was ascending as Marisa was sinking. In passing their fingers graced with the faintest feathery tingle of a touch.// Then there was nothing left but the bright wall of light, with the power blue sky at the top of the shaft, and the moon so frail and tattered—how could there be anything behind it?” Of course this is the overwhelming question of this novel which significantly has the women coming together and “getting through.”

3) What follows is Infiltration. not interpretation because as reader I am also getting through, making marks and finding, not passing judgment from outside. The novel is subtitled “fever dream.” Characters are continually seeing behind closed eyes and wondering was this only a dream? At one point Marissa remembers, no, “Not dream. That other reality.” Behind the Moon thins the lines between the two and lives longer in “that other reality.” The phrase behind the moon appears exactly that way five times. First, it comes from Julie about Jamal: “Jamal said one of those weird things that charmed her: I wonder what it’s like behind the moon.” Once Julie ponders how it would be to be with Jamal, behind the moon. The moon is that untrespassable limit beyond which one can’t go apparently. Similarly, language as accessible medium often becomes full of stone limits: “There was something hidden behind the words, inside them.”  Julie perceived this when she was on the edge of the ledge ready to fall off. This sense of limits and edges fuses this daring, elliptical adventure. At book’s end, of course, they have left the behind of the moon behind: “and the moon so frail and tattered—how could there be anything behind it,” Marissa questions somewhat rhetorically?

Characters like setting are different in this book; they no longer have a distinctive inside and outside. Perhaps they become all inside and assess thus according to how completely they can get through it and themselves. On one level, this novel overwhelms, erases and fractures Cartesian divisions between inside and outside, as well as splits between physical and mental, men and women. Earlier, I rather dramatically mentioned the Eleuysian Mysteries. Woman becoming passionately and quietly intimate cracks into these fixed limits and gives way to a particularly soothing unity. On various occasions, with Jamal’s mother and with Carrie and also with Julie, Marissa develops a new knowledge which obviates her battering self-questioning and debilitating sense of guilt and division: that “wordless something between Marissa and Jamal’s mother as if the smooth fluid regard of the other was melting something inside her.” There is a passionate life-lovingness about these many moments which allow for a completeness prefiguring Julie’s fingers melting into the walls and “getting through,” and also her deliberate insensibility to the pressures of nurses and of Marissa, her mother. The novel concludes in a radiant moment which I’ll include for its sheer pleasure: “So the two halves made a whole: a squashed sphere like the gibbous moon. She was back to back with herself and facing both realms at the same time, curving outward into both realms, but falling or floating from one into the other….So she raised her own hands, toward the other two hands that closed around hers. Now she did know these voices calling her name, which belonged to the ones she had loved, or was going to.”

Behind the Moon is an astounding achievement, to be read with an equally astounding freedom. As with any groundbreaking book, which this is, the way into it is altogether new; hopefully you will read with excitement of literary virgins and not dreary meaning makers. I hope this review gives you breadcrumbs to taste, however, in your reading. Would that I could say everything here, not just pieces. Virginia Woolf voices here a writer’s searching and her lingering dubiety about story. I conclude with her thinking about stories since Behind the Moon takes place mysteriously behind the story: “I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found the story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?”

—Linda Chown

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Linda E. Chown has published three books of poems, Buildings and Ways, Inside In, and All the Way up The Sky, also a critical book, Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Works of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. She spent 18 years living, writing, and teaching in southern Spain where she was betimes a Fullbright professor of America lit, one year at the University of Deusto, one year at the University of Salamanca. Subsequently, she taught for many hears at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has published a multitude of talks and papers on the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, Oliver Sacks, Albert Camus, Susan Glaspell, and many others. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from from the University of Washington. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, did creative writing at San Francisco State University, and worked in the fabled Poetry Center. She now lives in Michigan. Her newest poems were recently published in Poethead.

Apr 122017
 

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In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s 1915 story The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakens not as a cockroach struggling to escape his bed but as an interpellated black man struggling to escape the Western hemisphere. I preface my interpretation with an admission that I offer the critical reader a conceit to rival Kafka’s own, the enduring weight of which has, in peculiarity of both interest and insight, propelled his writing from his century into ours. Consider  the human Gregor according to what he becomes: a dark-carapaced, living symbol of decadent biology, hidden away from and by the dominant culture, victim of an original sentence, mere animal bereft of the speech act, an innocent much abused by his social relations. Even Gregor’s heterosomatic blood is brown. For blood is the site where all racism makes its nest in the biological episteme of 1915[1] . I contend that Gregor goes to sleep a white bourgeois “commercial traveler” and wakes up a lumpenproletarian black man (Kafka 75).

Subaltern, for he cannot speak to authority without “a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, which [leaves] the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then [rises] up reverberating around them to destroy their sense, so that one [can] not be sure one [has] heard them rightly” (77). Lumpen, too, for he cannot engage in industry, Gregor the cockroach reveals in relief the relationship of productivity to whiteness and of the parasitic to blackness. This fallen, racialized modality of being I term Homo vermes, the most maligned product of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that physical arm of ideological racism which is a racism without a human face at all.

Interpellation as a method of metamorphosis: to the specific mechanism of his fictive, anti-humanist-by-other means interpellation of the body that enforces Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Kafka pays no textual attention. In the text Gregor simply wakes up on his fateful day and that is it. Gregor’s “hard, as it were armor-plated, back” as “he lift[s] his head a little [so] he [can] see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments…His numerous legs, which [are] pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, [wave] helplessly before his eyes” (Kafka 75). Gregor’s body, nearly dead, is also newly racialized, reborn under the domination of racism. There exist subtle hints in Kafka’s story which refer to the racial dimension as that which separates the real life of men from the fatal myth of cockroaches along racial, existential, and class grounds, which I examine in turn.

Upon his metamorphosis, Gregor develops a sort of rash on his carapice, an “itching place which [is] surrounded by many small white spots,” discolored manifestations of the racial apparatus imparted by whiteness onto a white man no longer white, “the nature of which he [can] not understand” (Kafka 76). I consider Kafka here at his most anti-racist and as one such thinker par excellence. In his story, the evaluative site of race assumes the form of a radical anti-humanism which he, desperate to impart to the reader the insidious effects on body and mind of the racial apparatus, equates to a dehumanizing force so enormously powerful it abolishes the whole charactery of human species-being.

Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa, the man become less than nothing, is less than that if he is not the twentieth century’s prime conceit of the dehumanized person in literature. Here Kafka’s depiction ad absurdum of the descent of man from the racial to the carapacial exemplifies his understanding of contemporary anti-humanist and anti-Semitic propaganda[2] , which advised white people that other people were subhuman or of a different species entirely. That such a radical interpellation could overcome a hard-working commercial bourgeois, a devoted employee who supports his whole family by his labor alone, whose material practices prior to metamorphosis repeat the demands of capital willingly and slavishly, whose family surname, a Hungarian derivation of the the Hebrew Shemu’el, means literally “the name of God,” reproofs interpretations of The Metamorphosis as an undifferentiated  allegory for alienation. The “name of God” here does not refer to the ancient tribes of Israel whose descendants lived, like Kafka, in a diasporic state in Prague. It refers to a formerly white man failed by counterfeit humanism.

The Metamorphosis is not, then, a literary example of the process of alienation in a vacuum; it is not a springboard for discussing the concept of alienation in itself, for Kafka wrote the other majority of his ouvre in regards to alienation qua alienation. Such is why we still read even the isolated paragraphs of Kafka today, in which his left and right hands have a wrestling match, and men become sensuous, hunted beasts. Which striking image, plot twist, or characterization of the unfortunates in the narrative of Gregor Samsa beyond Kafka’s whispered lacuna of the racial could possibly alienate the well-adjusted, self-sufficient salesman prior to his transformation? Gregor’s metamorphosis is representative of alienation, but it is representative of a specific type of alienation coded primarily by the racial apparatus of which the ethnically Jewish Kafka was, beyond a doubt, all too well aware[3].

Racial anti-humanism is that theory of the human which denies all humanism owing to race. The carapacial is that subject-position which has fallen below the sunken threshold of mere, familiar racism, as deadly as it is. The carapacial is that ontological status below the most maligned victims of the most vicious racism imaginable. My argument that Gregor becomes a Western black man may meet with the counter-reply that he devolves from a Jew into a vermin of popular racist caricature and so contextualizes a commentary not on blackness but on the so-called Jewish problem from below. Criteria of the alienation of Homo vermes from the social and familial totality for both demographics at the time were, admittedly, similar in tone, and both were certainly thought of as subhuman, which criterial dehumanizations feature, I think, important exceptions in their discursive contours.

The Jewish and the black man alike were, by and large, despised in Kafka’s century. Jean-Paul Sartre writes in Anti-Semite and Jew that “there is a disgust for the Jew, just as there is a disgust for the Chinese or the Negro among certain people…it is not from the body that the sense of repulsion arises…rather it is something that enters the body from the mind. It is an involvement of the mind, but one so deep-seated and complete that it extends to the physiological realm” (11). But that involvement of the mind “only serves [the anti-Semite] as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man of yellow skin” (54). Although alternate translations of the term Kafka uses to describe Gregor Samsa, Ungeziefer, render forth the words insect, cockroach, and vermin differently—vermin may be insect, rats, or other pests—a rat does not have feelers, nor can a rat crawl on a ceiling how Gregor does in latter parts of the story. Neither does the black man as an object of racist criticism possess enough use-value to satisfy the anti-humanist racial apparatus (for he is always and obviously human, too): he must become ever lesser until he is something which even moral men may stomp upon beneath their feet, something so abject and carapacial no one in Gregor’s family cares about him once he plunges into physical grotesquery, something to be first looked after and then eventually discarded.

The viciousness of anti-humanism stretches throughout the centuries. Voltaire, the anti-Semitic idol of the Enlightenment, writes in his Philosophical Dictionary that “I have never been in Judea, thank God! And I never will go there… Frederick II, when he saw this detestable country, said, loudly enough to be distinctly heard, that Moses must have been very ill advised to conduct his tribe of lepers to such a place as that” (263-64). The premier derogatory stereotype of the Jewish persona contemporary to Kafka’s time was that of a rat—such an anti-humanist theme would later rage forth in the propaganda of the Nazis but is, in fact, much older a theme than Hitler’s doctrine[4]— rather than a cockroach, while stereotypes of the black man in the margins have long riffed on elements of the pestilential and the insectal. Kafka admits he wrote of an Insekt[5]. For instance, compare the brutalization apparent in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Prioress’ Tale,” in which Jews living in their isolated ghetto slit the throat of a Christian child, to the historical likes of Cotton Mather’s treatment of the human status of “The Negro Christianized” or his sermon on the state-ordered death of the slave Joseph Hanno he entitled Tremenda: The Dreadful Sound with Which the Wicked are to be Thunderstruck.

Discursive themes on black pestilence have a history in the West almost as long as that of the facts of anti-Semitic pogroms[6]. It predominated even in the New World discourse of the seventeenth century, when Cotton Mather penned execution sermons like Tremenda  in efforts to convert the condemned and “miserable African” before his summary hanging, while conflating via his fundamentalist religion the diseases spread by unplanned urban living prior to germ theory with the possession, if not its proprietary ownership, of black skin enslaved under the regime of whiteness[7].

Frantz Fanon

The black and insectal appear in reaction even in the exploding bombs of anti-colonial discourse. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon offers a tantalizing image of the racial, in which Fanon, “little by little, putting out pseudopodia here and there, I secreted a race” (92). If Kafka wanted to write about an alienated Jew in Europe, he would have written about such a subject-position without insisting on its silence. Instead, Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, a story about a white man become black who, in consequence of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, becomes inhuman and carapacial.

The prevailing ethno-racism of the social thought of Kafka’s brief life, were he to reflect it back on itself in the ethical mirror of literature, would have bade him write Gregor as a character who sniffs the air of his apartment with his large, furry nose and who literally squirrels away fresh cheese, if Gregor were merely the caricature of the socially problematic Jew in Kafka’s critical imagination—not as a character radically alienated by the racial, who naturally consumes a diet of the rotten and degenerated food his sister Grete scatters to the floor of his bedroom, whose epidermis is replaced entirely with his uncanny carapice (Kafka 95). Interpellated Gregor has feelers but has neither a tail, fur, whiskers, nor any teeth at all. He is a carapacial rendition of the final product of the dehumanizing, hierarchizing discourse of racism, an animal ontologically beneath the lowliest of mammals under the regime of Western racism, a black man whose subject-position is more subordinate than that of the Jew less than a decade after the conclusion of the Dreyfus Affair and within a year of the Great War, which eventually unfolded its various crimes against humanity into Hitler’s racial doctrine writ gigantic.

The carapacial hide that covers Gregor’s racialized body bears little of the historical assaults on the chosen people or the propagandistic, bitter taints of blood libel. What constitutes his body is a reflective criticism—the shining carapice of a cockroach is itself reflective of the racial gaze—of those who criticize the humanism of blackness from the standpoint of whiteness weaponized entirely against blackness, whose author is ethnically Jewish, but who does not take here in The Metamorphosis the specter of Jewishness in particular as his urgent object. For here Kafka writes urgently. How, and why, does Gregor Samsa, if not quite his subjectivity as his capacity for sentience is not immediately impacted by his metamorphosis, become a cockroach? Kafka provides no specific explanation. The answer to this riddle of the racial apparatus, I think, lies mid-way between Martin Heidegger, who published his Being and Time in 1927, thirteen years after the publication of The Metamorphosis, and the 1970 theory of interpellation put forth by Louis Althusser. Kafka read neither Heidegger nor Althusser as he wrote his story, of course, but he was not unaware of the themes they would bring up as to how the human agent is summoned to become the living form of its opposite.

Martin Heidegger

Kafka’s story can be understood in the light of Heidegger’s investigations of “the call” and Althusser’s conception of material interpellation via ideology. Happy, normalized Gregor is called—interpellated ideologically and thus materially—into his overnight devolution from one life-form of existence to another. Below I examine the mechanism of his metamorphosis via two philosophical anti-humanists, one a Nazi and the other a Marxist, and posit the universal significance of that mechanism for Kafka’s engagement with the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that wicked arm of the ideological which continues to haunt our culture as much as it haunted Kafka’s. In The Metamorphosis, even the universal is problematized as descending from the racial to that which produces and reduces Homo sapiens to Homo vermes, in whose body a virulently racist episteme comes home to roost.

Being and Time seeks to interpret two axes of universal experience. It is not Gregor’s notion of time that is appealed to by the racial apparatus; for all his newly-grown limbs and abilities to crawl upon his ceiling and consume degenerated food, his time spent among the social remains a grinding constant for him, however much his apartment becomes prison-like as his body becomes heterosomatic. His time remains very much the time of the family, though his phenomenology slides downward into ignorance—he forgets even that the seasons pass in the world beyond his apartment. Rather, it is his very being that is called to become carapacial by the appeal of the racial apparatus. I iterate how, via Heidegger, one can understand Gregor’s position. He falls into being by being called as a white man into the insectoid nether-realm of a racist society. How some people experience the call—as though awakening with one’s face in a water basin—Gregor falls ontologically, his face become, toothlessly, quietly, a symbol of the anti-human whose every social relation denounces him.

Heidegger writes in Being and Time that the “call ‘says’ nothing which might be talked about,” and which “gives no information about events,” much how Kafka is silent about Gregor’s devolving mechanism, and which “points forward to Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being,” that is, being another species below even what the racists refer to as the lowest race, “and it does this as a call which comes from [the] uncanniness” of “thrown individualization” (325). Is this not Gregor’s real instantiation of the racial, thrown into being a cockroach, in his uncomfortable, uncanny carapice? Gregor did not study the hardy texts of existentialism to become a cockroach; nor did he proof the ancient Heraclitus against his thesis that all things exist in fluxual metamorphosis. But Heidegger continues:

When the call gives us a potentiality-for-being to understand, it does not give us one which is ideal and universal; it discloses it as that which has been currently individualized and which belongs to that particular Dasein… Whatever the ways in which conscience is experienced or interpreted, all our experiences ‘agree’ on this ‘Guilty!’. Because Dasein has falling as its kind of Being, the way Dasein gets interpreted is for the most inauthentically ‘oriented’ and does not reach the ‘essence’; for to Dasein the primordially appropriate ontological way of formulating questions remains alien… this ‘Guilty!’ turns up as a predicate for the ‘I am’” (326).

Enough ink has been spilled about the relationship between Kafka and affective guilt—his father has probably been written about more than any other father excepting the celestial father of Christianity. “’Being-guilty’ also has the signification of ‘being responsible for’—that is, being the cause or author of something, or even ‘being the occasion’ for something,” according to Heidegger (327). Gregor’s metamorphosis is Kafka’s occasion to discuss guilt but it is also an occasion to discuss something else.

Of more importance is his relationship with Homo vermes, those who come to be defined by not the affect of guilt but the very ontological status of being-guilty of being Homo vermes. Cockroaches, after all, are guilty of nothing: they act on the world solely according to their nature. But the nature of men is manifold, capable of every emotion, and capable likewise of every dehumanizing transformation. So, too, with those assaulted by the ideology of the hardcore racists like de Gobineau and his followers. The Metamorphosis can be understood not as offering a projection of universal doom to those called into racial hierarchy but as a universal state of being, Homo vermes, who are not taken as the subectal object of the hated Jew but rather as the black man. It is at once a place for all to fall into the uncanny inhuman and a specifically designed reservoir of those most hated by the hegemonic sphere of culture. “In uncanniness,” writes Heidegger, “Dasein stands together with itself primordially. Uncanniness brings this entity face to face with its undisguised nullity, which belongs to the possibility of its ownmost potentiality-for-Being” (333). Gregor becomes a nullity where previously he was a full man integrated into the social life of the industrial West. This generous interpretation of the family, the productive enemy of all uncanny individualism, also has its problematic, which even through Kafka does not deliver freedom to those haunted by blackness.

So-called existential freedom under the umbrage of race offers stranger miseries than are usual in the course of human life. “Freedom, however, is only in the choice of one possibility—that is, in tolerating one’s not having chosen the others and one’s not being able to choose them” (Heidegger 331). The call to the carapacial is not universalist in scope, according to Heidegger: it calls only the absolute minority. Of course, the most absolute minority is “that which is individualized,” that is, the individual who “has falling as its kind of Being” (326). Every man is potentially and thus universally such material for metamorphosis, and so every calling develops into the universal via particularity. Every person is potentially Homo vermes according to one’s particular regime of episteme, depending on which kind of persons it casts aside and which kind it lets live; but every person is not individually threatened by being called into such a state of being as Homo vermes in Kafka’s episteme.

This horror of being Homo vermes is reserved for the black man in Kafka. “’Making oneself responsible’ by breaking a law…can indeed also have the character of ‘coming to owe something to Others’. This does not happen merely through law-breaking as such, but rather through my having the responsibility for the Other’s becoming endangered in his existence, led astray, or even ruined” (Heidegger 327). A more complete ruin than that of Gregor Samsa has not been written about except perhaps for the ruin of Job. The specter of racism, which always already references the most inauthentic mode of being human (the racial misrecognition of biology) to which humanistic critique is completely opposed, does not threaten everyone, at least not in Kafka’s sense. It threatens the carapacial who once upon a time were racial. In short, the human being, as utterly human as any other example of the species, becomes utterly less than that once he is called into being an example of Homo vermes.

The absolute minority is the individual Gregor Samsa who falls—I might term this waking up—into another level of species-being. I shall say more of his race and carapace. Gregor the salesman is white, but Gregor the cockroach is not: he has fallen into being a black man, the lowest scale of being according to the racist evaluation of his time, whose missionary impact Kafka seeks to deflect and re-humanize from head to hue. That is, Gregor transforms from the white universal into the black particular, whose instance must necessarily exist in a state of guilt so profound he grows insectal feelers, the uncanny ability to crawl on ceilings, and the capacity to put like with like in his diet of consumption—a rotten body able only to enjoy rotten food. Human beings typically do no such thing no matter their race; nor should any of us, save the racists, ever live in such a state of guilt. Only interpellated Homo vermes can exist in such a state, and at that, only when imagined by an author consumed by the notion that race dehumanizes a man called by anti-humanist racial apparatus.

But Homo vermes here is an imaginary object. No human being is a vermin. Racists rarely know they operate in the realm of the imaginary, that Homo vermes offers hope for humanism even when Gregor’s abused, humiliated body flattens unto his death, when he dies unmourned in a  story written onto paper by the anxious fingers of a Prague Jew writing of the black man as an epitomic object of humanist criticism, or when the failed strategies of racists aim to build a master race but only offer posterity a long and painful laughter. Racial hatred is as absolute and boundless as the human. For the racists who developed Nazism, Kafka could be hated twice; the problematic Jew thrice over; but the black man has been hated ad infinitum even by those who offered theories that rendered humanism solute and replied still in 1915: but, he, the human, is still the aspect of the “miserable African.”

Kafka’s racists hated the Jew who wrote of blackness and so indirectly produced, via the medium of Kafka’s agency, the narrativa exemplum of anti-racism that defined their own century, equal in misery as the plodding century which howled of the plight of Cotton Mather’s “miserable African.” Yet this newer pessimism was confined to the domain of the racist, whose thinking was also novel for all its destructive faults; for, I think, the first true racist was born alongside the first cosmopolitan (consider the sea-faring Portuguese entry into the slave trade). Kafka, anti-racist, prevails against the racial apparatus all the more hopefully because he disproves the critical field of racist attention as living on fallow soil. We see more of Kafka’s defense of Homo vermes in the light of Althusser’s long essay On the Reproduction of Capitalism now that the race-thinking Heidegger inverts himself.

Louis Althusser

For Althusser, every man, woman, and child alive and active in modern society is recruited by that ideology which reproduces the status quo—“the State”—which “recruits them all” to its immanent demands (190). The state is not co-incident with the figureheads of government. It is co-incident with the state of economy and culture which rules a particular society. In other terms, what nineteenth-century Marxists called false consciousness is consciousness itself defined by material practice imposed from birth onward by the directive, reproductive needs of how things always already are and need to keep on being. It is this form of consciousness which, for Althusser, “recruits them all” into being subjects. But Gregor is not recruited into the economistic mold of the state, which tells its workers what to do and when to do it. He is recruited into a debased subjectivity even while maintaining sentience of such, which apparatus tells the racialized worker how to labor (or, in this instance, how not to labor); and more importantly, how to perform that lacunic labor which compares a dignified man to a man who relinquishes all dignity of the self. “We,” writes Althusser, “know what that means: these apparatuses operate apparently ‘all by themselves,’ without recourse to violence. In fact, they function thanks to means other than violence, namely, on ideology, or rather, ideologization” (79).  The status quo of which Althusser writes needs people to die quietly. One such ideologized person is Gregor, who becomes an instance of Homo vermes, a vermin incapable of any speech act in consequence of the racial apparatus.

Kafka’s observation proves true as it metamorphoses from the realm of pure idea to the realm of materiality, material repetition, and material embodiment of which the recruited Gregor is a short-lived example. “We shall go on to suggest ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way to ‘recruit’ subjects among individuals (it recruits them all) or ‘transforms’ individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) through the very precise operation that we call interpellation or hailing” (Althusser 190). If guilt becomes an Insekt then Homo vermes is personal false consciousness become blackness entirely assumed. “This is a strange phenomenon, after all, one that cannot be explained by ‘guilt feelings’ alone, despite the large numbers of people with ‘something on their consciences” (Althusser 191). Prior to Gregor’s racial guilt, who, as a former bourgeois white man, did not know he could interpolate into blackness, and so was never aware of a false consciousness which is not false at all, Gregor was only a white man engaged in labor. In fact, it seems Gregor did very little else but work for the capitalist system prior to his metamorphosis; and prior to this event, Gregor was not carapacial and was probably not even racial in the sense that he was blind to his whiteness by virtue of being white. I say more of Althusser’s theory of interpellation before I say more of Kafka’s most tragic and carapacial character.

In his essay on ideology, Louis Althusser, in explaining his theory of material interpellation, rarely concerns himself with false consciousness, for such is the orthodox form of the enslavement of the workers with which he takes especial issue. Neither does Kafka much concern himself with false consciousness, for he, like the later Althusser, understands that the concept of the human is at odds with theories of the racial, the biological misrecognition of man, and those dehumanizing theories of the carapacial which he depicts at their harshest materialization in The Metamorphosis. For Kafka, the metaphorical is material. False consciousness is as false as race—the black man under realism’s regime is never Homo vermes and is always as human as Kafka, as you, or as I—but it does offer local criticism of the gigantic monster of the racial apparatus, whose form of praxis is racial anti-humanism.

That a Nazi like Heidegger or a Marxist like Althusser offer a fresh locus of criticism for Kafka’s work, even from the standpoints of two opposing totalitarian tendencies, exclaims his righteous demonization of all that is racial and all that tends towards the monstrous and the carapacial, which, as evidenced by his story, are exactly identical in critical orientation. Kafka supports the universal as much as anti-humanist thought supports the merely particular. The racial apparatus is as “repulsive” and “bound to go on being repulsive ” as Gregor (Kafka 101). A well-adjusted man like Gregor should worry that he might become, in the course of one dark night of the soul, an “Insekt.” Materially successful by Kafka’s account, keen on his nuclear family, happily individual, Gregor  awakens, via no recognizance of his own, in the being-toward-death of a cockroach who loses his job, who slaved for capital and family through his own will and becomes a parasite without will, who integrates the sin of knowledge into a wound in his back—a book could be written about the apple lodged into his carapice and the sort of horrible knowledge its imposition represents as it rots—who whistles through his jaw, for he no longer has access to the Logos which is universally constitutive of the human being.

Gregor is the first cockroach who has a neocortex but no tongue. He dies as black and fallen as the Fanonian[8]subject whose will to revolution is killed under colonialism. Fanon writes of the colonized subject that “in plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal. And consequently, when the colonist speaks of of the colonized he uses zoological terms. Allusion is made to the slithery movements…to the hordes, the stink, the swarming, the seething, and the gesticulations” (7).  Kafka seems to have noticed such a process in his own time, writing of Gregor that “hardly was he down [from his formerly upright posture] when he experienced for the first time this morning a sense of physical comfort; his legs had firm ground under them; they were completely obedient, as he noted with joy; they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand” (89).  If Gregor wakes up in the bed he has peacefully slept in all his life as a cockroach against whom society must be defended[9], so may anyone, for such caprice of the carapacial “final relief” informs Gregor with the knowledge of that insidious operation by which the awful genius of anti-humanism operates its racial apparatus.

…Gregor realized that the lack of of all direct human speech for the past two months together with the monotony of family life must have confused his mind, otherwise he could not account for the fact that he had quite earnestly looked forward to having his room emptied of furnishing. Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background? (104)

The racial apparatus reduces everyone to Homo vermes not collectively but one by one. It reduces them all from a human background to a background that must not be spoken of in polite company, which reminds one of the rotten, the degenerate, and the dying whose death is not even a human sort of death.

I hope here to write the obituary of Homo vermes although Gregor’s death warrants no funeral. No one cares that he has died where in boyhood he used to sleep in peace—indeed, his family cared much more about Gregor when he paid all their bills. Kafka writes, “They had simply got used to [his employment], both the family and Gregor; the money was gratefully accepted and gladly given, but there was no special uprush of warm feeling” (98). Now that he is black and poor, no one fixes for him the final funereal suit which clothes the dead until they look as they were at their best in life, replete with rosy cheeks, meditative features, and business attire. Born Homo sapiens, Gregor exits this world Homo vermes, nuder and somehow more vulnerable than the day he was born. The Samsa family’s charwoman, a simple proletarian not much removed from economic slavery, sweeps away his carcass, now “completely flat and dry, as could only now be seen when it was no longer supported by the legs and nothing prevented one from looking closely at it,” as though his carapacial body were as ephemeral as his memory (Kafka 125). What use does the capitalist society of 1915 Europe, edging into the long race war whose end we refer to as World War Two, have for the racialized and the socially damned?

The West’s current multiculturalism, which is both historically nascent and yet already dissolves in its hopeful adolescence, is a long reaction to the parasitic specter of Kafka’s Homo vermes. Western thought thinks of black men and vermin as occupying the same ontological territory: one of “streaks of dirt stretched along the walls” and “here and there” “balls of dust and filth” (Kafka 114). It considers these categories of the anti-human under a dismal gaze that identifies eternally the black with the pestilential and announces that this foul identity is acceptable, required even, for the maintenance of the social whole. The West needs its cockroaches as upon a century it needed its slaves. Kafka writes, “The decision that [Gregor] must disappear was one that [Gregor] held to even more strongly than his sister…The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath” (124). Gregor, worn down by the slow death of his metamorphosis, wants at last to die, and finally, quietly does. He can bear no longer his interpellation from a happy man into a hated brute, of living a grotesque rendition of social death, removed from all possibility of communication with those who formerly shared even his blood, of being called into being poor and black.

Western society, a fantastically brutal example of the battle between the human and the racial in which the racial is often victor, must be defended against the carapacial specter. I declare this warning admittedly as a white man who is recognized as such by our society and who has largely escaped the suicidal call of the racial apparatus. For, we in the West, whether we adhere to the liberal register or the fascist, continue to think in terms imposed by our defining history of anti-humanism. We who defend the liberal imperative reproduce these categories and their moral lots as a matter of course, whose real and active course of thought we tend to neglect because it often does not affect our bodies or our subject-positions. For even Gregor’s sister, Grete, who loved him deeply before his metamorphosis, winds up declaring to her family that Homo vermes, once her brother, so thoroughly dehumanized he crawls around in his own filth, is not a victim of larger circumstance, but a “creature” who “persecutes us” (122). Franz Kafka, whom the social theorist of Theodor Adorno once called “the solipsist without ipseity,” is a hero to match the villainy in his stories and, indeed, a hero to counter our own hypocritical villainy which calls the very victims of the hegemonic racial ideology of whiteness our persecutors in turn (237). We persecute those who have been persecuted when we say, “Look, a cockroach!”

We have failed to enact in practical terms our ideals of the essential equality of Homo sapiens. Our failure does not surprise me, for even the heirs of Hitler think of themselves as heroes of the social order. Fascism, I suspect, is the insectal answer to our failing liberalism. Everywhere, Homo vermes lives outside of our sight, and everywhere he lives within our borders: who cannot think of one’s neighbors as potentially harboring some miserable Gregor Samsa, right next to one’s own house, looking forlornly beyond his window at those who have abandoned him in his hour of need?

Western abuse of world history and subsequently of every individual living within its course, if by this point the West still has a course, is a moral lesson against our anti-humanism, which we continue to reproduce even in our most liberal praxes. No one loves Gregor at his most vulnerable. Those who should be kindest to him throw him away as though he were the same trash they fed him. Race is where the hopeless go to die; it is the ontological means by which they are disposed of. It is my hope, now that we know its embodied horrors from our feelings to his feelers, that anti-humanism is selfsame with the realm of the racial, and that its meanest imposition onto blackness is the carapacial imposition, finds its grave-site sooner rather than later, and, furthermore, that this deadly manner of thinking and acting alongside our fellow human beings is buried near wherever it was the devitalized Ungeziefer found his resting place, as the word “nigger” was buried, if Kafka ever did bury Gregor.

—Jeremy Brunger

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Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “In nuce.” Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005. 236-238.

Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Verso, 2014. 74-191.

Bernofsky, Susan. “On Translating Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.” New Yorker, 2014.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Prioress’ Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. Penguin, 2003. 170-76.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 2008.       89-119.

—. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, 2004. 1-62.

Foucault, Michel. “Eleven. 17 March 1976.” Society Must be Defended! Picador, 2003. 239-264.

Frasetto, Michael. “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” Misconceptions About the Middle      Ages. Routledge, 2009. 76-82.

de Gobineau, Arthur. “The Meaning of Degeneration” and “Racial Differences are Permanent.” On the   Inequality of Human Races. 1853. 23-140.

Haraway, Donna. “Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture: It’s All in the Family. Biological Kinship     Categories in the Twentieth-Century United States.” Modest Witness @ Second Millennium.        Routledge, 1997. 213-315.

Heidegger, Martin. “Understanding the Appeal, and Guilt.” Being and Time. Harper & Brothers,1962.          325-35.

Herman, Arthur. “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism.” The Idea of          Decline in Western History. The Free Press, 1997. 53-60.

Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Collected Stories. Knopf, 1993. 75-128.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. Schocken, 1995. 1-54.

Voltaire. “Judea.” Philosophical Dictionary. Barnes & Noble, 2006. 263-64.

Wiener, Mark. “Let Us Make a Tryal.” Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste. Vintage, 2006. 33-50.

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Jeremy Brunger

Jeremy Brunger, originally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Donna Haraway’s article in which she delineates the genealogy of race-thinking according to a temporal, triadic conception of social thought, beginning with the thinking of the “blood,” passing through “population” theory, and ending with an account of the “genetic” cognizance of the human (219). Kafka wrote his story in 1912, three years prior to publication, but this period of writing is congruent with the “blood” episteme of contemporary social thought on race.
  2. Such propaganda was inspired to the last by the declinist racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau who, to his small credit, did not think such a degeneration as Samsa experiences was possible. For the anti-bourgeois de Gobineau, the differences between races—for him these differences were very real and world-historically meaningful—were permanent and immutable. The Inequality of Human Races explicitly denounces two progressive ideas: the improvement of the races towards equality, and the mutable nature of race. A minority race could not actually descend to the level of the insect even for this hardcore racist, albeit his curiously ill-informed observations made little impression on the half-educated racists of Kafka’s era, who took the theories of de Gobineau to their extreme logical conclusions. See Arthur Herman’s “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism” in The Idea of Decline in Western History for Herman’s account of the nineteenth-century transition of race meaning lineage to race meaning biology.
  3. See Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, in which the infernal machine, a literal apparatus, inscribes one’s sin on one’s skin.
  4. See Michael Frasetto’s article “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” He writes, “In the thirteenth century, the blood libel emerged, which held that the Jews killed Christians and used their blood in Passover ceremonies. The notion that they were subhuman also developed. Jews were depicted in animal forms, with horns and tails, crooked noses, and were thought to give off a foul odor” (79). Black Death Europe, it seems, had no cockroaches, but plenty of rodents.
  5. See Berfosky’s New Yorker article on the difficulty of translating Kafka’s German “hazy focus” into English.
  6.     Even the hyper-egalitarian Karl Marx, himself of Jewish origin, was not above referring to another man, Lassalle, as “the Jewish nigger” in private correspondence, a contrary apotheosis of race-thinking if ever there was one.
  7. See Mark Wiener’s chapter “Let Us Make a Tryal” from Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste in which he examines the conflation of the black with the parasitic in the discourse of Cotton Mather.
  8. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon has nothing to say about Kafka’s story but much, I imagine, to say about its outcomes regarding Hegelian recognition and the suicidal diminution imparted by racism. He does not often touch on the theme of anti-humanism and cannot be characterized as such a thinker; his criticism tends always to focus, like a rounded glass beneath the sun, on those most in agreement with him whose theories on race and Africa disagreed with his own. Hegel famously writes that Africa has no history; Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, hated Hegel’s dialectics, and yet Fanon synthesizes both in a clinical diagnosis of the racial apparatus. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” even resembles the description of the concept of interpellation in Althusser: “Look! A Negro!” (89).
  9. See Michel Foucault’s Society Must be Defended!, his 1975-76 lecture on the development of racism in Europe and in particular his theory that the state requires the racial apparatus in order to go on functioning (254-58).
Apr 032017
 

Nance van Winckel

 

In Book of No Ledge, one of her new collections, poet and writer Nance Van Winckel brings together poetry and visual collage in a series of brilliantly reimagined encyclopedia entries and maps that are a pleasure to read. Witty, both lyrical and satirical, beautiful to look at, and wonderfully inventive, the collection lives up to poet Mary Ruefle’s description of it as “a book of wonder.”

rsz_bookofnoledge

Recently Nance Van Winckel spoke with U.S. poetry editor Susan Aizenberg about Book of No Ledge in a series of emails. Numéro Cinq is thrilled to present here two of the collages from the collection, together with a summary of their conversation, and a third, more recent piece of what the poet calls “wall writing.”

Susan Aizenberg (SA): I love your charming Introductory note, in Book of No Ledge, in which you describe a child first infatuated with a handsome door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, and then in love with the books themselves. Though there was no handsome door-to-door salesman in my experience, I remember feeling as a child a similar fascination with encyclopedias and illustrated guides of various kinds. I’m wondering if you would talk a little about your childhood experiences as a reader as they relate to this book.

Nance Van Winckel (NVW): Well, I was a reader as a kid and I was very interested in the sciences. Because my family moved frequently, I was often the new kid in school, and I read in the lag time it took to make new friends. Books were a “constant” in my life. I liked the diagrams of how things worked— especially bodies and body parts. Early on in life I wanted to be either A.) a spy or B.) a laboratory scientist. And perhaps becoming a writer/poet was a sort of melding of those two professions.

SA: I love the idea of writer/poet as a melding of spy and scientist. I’m particularly drawn to your vivid description, in the intro, of the point of view and voice of the encyclopedia, wonderfully personified as “Mr. Explainer,” and how they change over time as Mr. Explainer realizes the “you” has become a much older woman with “nice sharp scissors and even X-acto blades” – another image I love – who questions his authority. This idea of voice or voices seems important throughout the book, which is rich with wordplay, satirical humor, puns, and seemingly effortless shifts in diction. I’m wondering if you would speak a bit about voice in your work, and how the idea of being in dialogue with Mr. Explainer shaped (if it did) the series of photo-collages.

NVW: Yes, exactly! Talking back to Mr. Explainer from a future quite different from the one he (Commandant of the Past) posited so definitively, so upbeat and full of happy endings—that was very much the tone, which for me is a kind of fuel. I have to get the stance before almost anything else. The attitude. If only as an adult I could again be the imp-kid, the sassy girl, I was when I was ten. That girl got smacked sometimes or sent to her room. I squashed her down. But hey, apparently she ain’t dead yet!

SA: Clearly, and thankfully, she is not! Can we talk a bit about the conception and creation of the book, which seems to me equally a work of literature and visual art? It is, first off, a lovely physical object; the pages are silky (like encyclopedia pages?) and the collages quite beautiful. There is so much to look at and read and consider on every page – I love the richness of it. I don’t think I can overstate what a genuine pleasure it is to read. Would you talk a bit about your process?

NVW: I worked on these pages over the course of about five years. The encyclopedia I altered is actually 13 volumes, and at about a sixth grade level. As I paged through it, it brought back those memories from girlhood and reading, and I fell back in love with all the graphic elements. So I mainly used pages that had a lot of visual material on them. My method was to work on these very “visual” pages, which were all in black and white, and part of what I was doing was teaching myself—as I most always am these days—new techniques in colorizing, cut-and-paste, and many other things available from my old friend, Photoshop. (I’ve been noodling around with that program since back when I was a magazine editor [of Willow Springs] and designing the magazine with a program called PageMaker, which evolved into Photoshop.) As I worked on the visual layout of a page, I would often write new text to replace the old text. Sometimes I just carried printouts of the pages around with me in their waiting-for-text states, i.e. big blocks of space where text would go. I liked this method because I could work on other projects simultaneously—linked stories, other “regular” poems, etc.—and these encyclopedia pages would wait patiently for me and, as I mentioned above, I sort of knew the persona to slip into when I returned to them.

SA: You’ve generously shared with us two of the pieces from the collection. Would you speak a little about them?

NVW: One of the aspects I’m drawn to in this work is how the visual material can interact with the text—fill in gaps in the “story,” provoke a nonlinear kind of logic, or suggest a larger worldview/context than the text alone permits. This page, now titled “He Who? She When?”, was originally called “Advancements in Medicine.” I don’t feel in any way obliged to stick with the original subject matter of a page. For me, it’s all about the interplay of words with images that have “tangential” connections, thread-like, or tonal. The sense the pieces make, I hope, is more intuitive than conscious and rationale.

He Who, She When?

I haven’t said anything about the maps, and I’d like to. Most of these were not part of the encyclopedia I altered. Rather, they were from an online website (from New York Public Library’s “digital collection”) of public domain “rare” maps. I used these in the book a little like section dividers, and I am forever grateful to Pleiades Press for allowing them to be double-page spreads and displayed so well. (I’m grateful to Pleiades for so much! The support of the editors and designers there has been extremely helpful to me.) Here, my little bit of text—”We were in a boat and we were in love and we maybe made you in the blackest moments of this sea”—is spread out upon a map of The Black Sea, a place I’ve actually been. The text is stamped around into the sea with all sorts of variations on the arrangement of these words. This felt like a kind of homage to ancestry, not just mine but “ours.”

Map

SA: Thanks so much, Nance! Can we end with you sharing with our readers what you’re working on now?

NVW: Yes, my eighth book, Our Foreigner, received the Pacific Coast Poetry Award and is just out from Beyond Baroque Books. I’m working on a book that’s primarily a memoir; it has many sorts of hybrid forms going on in it, including some visual black and white collages.

Our Foreigner book cover

And I continue to do a little wall-writing. This is a recent piece.
I have a website for examples of this work.

Wall Writing example

 

Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreignerwinner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017), Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016), and Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2014). She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). She is on the faculties of Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers and Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing Program. The recipient of two NEA poetry fellowships, the Paterson Fiction Prize, Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Poetry Award, a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance lives with her husband Rik Nelson in Spokane, Washington.

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Susan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award.

 

Mar 022017
 

J P McEvoy image 37 J.P. McEvoy portrait by James Montgomery Flagg, from a 1951 print

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The 1920s saw a surge in experimentation with the form of the novel. In Ulysses (1922), James Joyce used a different style for each chapter, including the play format for the notorious Nighttown episode. Jean Toomer’s “composite novel” Cane (1923) consists of numerous vignettes alternating between prose, poetry, and drama. John Dos Passos in Manhattan Transfer (1925) abandoned traditional narrative for a collage of individual stories, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and prose poems. Taking his cue from European Surrealists, Robert M. Coates likewise deployed newspaper clippings, along with footnotes, diagrams, and unusual typography, in The Eater of Darkness (1926). Djuna Barnes’s novel Ryder (1929) includes a variety of genres—poems, plays, parables—and is written in a pastiche of antique prose styles. William Faulkner scrambled chronology and used four distinct narrative voices in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and later even added a narrative appendix. These were all serious novelists who disrupted nineteenth-century narrative form to reflect the discontinuities, upheavals, and fragmentation of the early twentieth century, a time when many new media emerged that would rival and in some quarters supplant the novel in cultural importance and popularity.

But literary historians have overlooked a novelist from the same decade who deployed these same formal innovations largely for comic rather than serious effect, adapting avant-garde techniques for mainstream readers instead of the literati. Between 1928 and 1932, J. P. McEvoy published six ingenious novels that unfold solely by way of letters, telegrams, newspaper articles, ads, telephone transcriptions, scripts, playbills, greeting card verses, interoffice memos, legal documents, monologues, song lyrics, and radio broadcasts. Ted Gioia described Manhattan Transfer as a scrapbook, which could describe McEvoy’s novels as well, and in fact a reviewer of his first novel used that very term.[1] Given their concern with a variety of media (vaudeville, musicals, movies, newspapers, greeting cards, comic strips, radio) and their replication of the print forms of those media, they might better be described as multimedia novels. But perhaps the best, if anachronistic, category for McEvoy’s novels is avant-pop,  that postmodern movement of the late 1980s/early 1990s which (per Brian McHale, quoting Larry McCaffery) “appropriates, recycles and repurposes the materials of popular mass-media culture, ‘combin[ing] Pop Art’s focus on consumer goods and mass media with the avant-garde’s spirit of subversion and emphasis on radical formal innovation.’”[2]

Since McEvoy is all but unknown, a brief biographical sketch follows.

An orphan, Joseph Patrick McEvoy told the Rockford Morning Star later in life that he didn’t “remember where he was born—but he has been told that it was New York City and that the year was 1894.” Newspaper comic historian Alex Jay, who records that remark in a well-researched profile,[3] gives a number of possible birthdates ranging from 1894 to 1897; the consensus today is 1895. Possibly born Joseph Hilliek or Hillick, the boy was adopted by Patrick and Mary Anne McEvoy of New Burnside, Illinois. The same Rockford Morning Star piece reports him as saying “he didn’t go to school—he was dragged. This went on for a number of years, during which time McEvoy grew stronger and stronger—until finally he couldn’t be dragged any more. This was officially called the end of his education.” In the contributors’ notes to a 1937 periodical, he wrote (in third person): “While he was still a guest in his mother’s house, J. P. McEvoy started his writing career at the age of fifteen as Sporting editor of the South Bend Sporting-Times.”[4] He later admitted (in first person), “I remember my first assignment as sports editor for the News-Times [sic] was to cover a baseball game. I was a descriptive writer. I became so interested in what was going on that I omitted the detail of scoring the game. I had to call The Tribune (a rival newspaper) to get the score.”[5] In 1910 he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, which he attended until 1912.

In 1920, a stationery industry journal called Geyer’s Stationer gave this account of his early career (again from Jay):

It is interesting to take a peep into Mr. McEvoy’s past. He early acquired the art of hustling—perhaps that is why he is able now to do the work of two or three men. At Christian Brothers’ College in St. Louis he was the star bed maker. One hundred and fifty a day was his regular chore. Later, at Notre Dame University, he was a “waiter” at meal times and a newspaper man in the evenings. He worked on the South Bend News from six in the evening until two in the morning. When pay day came he required no guard to protect him—$4.00 constituted his salary!

When he came to Chicago, after graduating, he obtained a position as cub reporter in the sporting department of the old Record-Herald.

McEvoy in the 1920sMcEvoy in 1920 (l.) and 1922 (r.)

He created several comic strips there beginning in 1914, and moved on to the Chicago Tribune in 1916 for further strips before joining the P. F. Volland Company, which published books, postcards, and greeting cards. McEvoy published two illustrated books of sarcastic verse with Volland, both in 1919: Slams of Life: With Malice for All, and Charity Toward None, Assembled in Rhyme—with a postmodernish introduction in which McEvoy refers to himself in the third person as “his favorite author”—and The Sweet Dry and Dry; or, See America Thirst!, a mélange of poems and strips protesting the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Slams of Life in particular trumpets the linguistic ingenuity that enlivens his later writings. The mostly comic poems are bursting with wordplay, slang, raffish rhymes, typographical tricks, and flamboyant diction: the first sesquipedalian word in one poem is “Absquatulating,” and the opening stanza of “The Song of the Movie Vamp” reads:

I am the Moving Picture Vamp, insidious and tropical,
The Lorelei of celluloid, the lure kaleidoscopical,
Calorific and sinuous, voluptuous and canicular,
And when it comes to picking pals, I ain’t a bit particular.

Many are quite literate, even erudite: “That’s a Gift” namedrops the historians Taine, Gibbon, and Grote, while another ranges from “the Ghibelline and Guelp” to “Eddie Poe.” The latter’s “The Raven” is parodied in “A Chicago Night’s Entertainment,” and “Lines to a Cafeteria or Glom-Shop” is a takeoff on a canto from “Kid” Byron’s Don Juan.[6] A poem with the baby-talk title “Bawp-Bawp-Bawp-Bawp-Pa!” acknowledges the ancient Greek orators “Who slung a mean syllable over the floor / Isaeus, Aeschines, Demosthenes, too,” and McEvoy seems to have been au courant with the latest poetry and art as well, for another one is entitled “An Imagist Would Call This ‘Pale Purple Question Descending a Staircase.’” He introduced Sinclair Lewis at a talk before the Booksellers’ League in Chicago in 1921; reporting the event, Publishers Weekly identified McElroy as the author of Psalms of Life, a sanctification of his Slams that probably amused him.[7]

McEvoy wasn’t happy at Volland, despite his lavish salary ($10,000 a year, equivalent to around $130K today) and the prestige of being “the first writer of greeting-card sentiments to be admitted to the Author’s League.”[8] In the author’s note at the end of his Denny and the Dumb Cluck—a 1930 novel satirizing the greeting-card business—he writes:

For many years I was editor and poet laureate of P. F. Volland and Co. and the Buzza Co., leaders in the manufacture and distribution of greeting cards, and among other minor atrocities I have compiled 47,888 variations of Merry Christmas. Also I have sat in on art conferences without number, where we met such important crises as “Shall we face the three camels east, or would it be better to put one of those Elizabethan singers out on the doorstep, holding a roll of wall paper?”

Until he resigned from Volland in 1922, McEvoy continued to write for the Chicago Tribune. It ran a serial called The Potters in 1921, illustrated by a friend he had made at Notre Dame named John H. Striebel (1891–1962), with whom he would later collaborate. The Potters was described as “a new weekly humorous satire in verse on married life in a big city” and was later turned into a successful play and published in book form  in 1924.

By then McEvoy had left Chicago and was living in New York City, leaving behind both greeting cards and comic strips to write for the stage. First he wrote a revue called The Comic Supplement (1924), which was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and starred W. C. Fields.[9] McEvoy wrote the original “Drug Store” sketch, one of Field’s favorites and reprised in some of his later films. Ziegfeld forced unwanted changes on McEvoy’s script, but later repented and invited him to begin writing for the Ziegfeld Follies. McEvoy cowrote the 1925 production (with Fields, Will Rogers, Gus Weinberg, and Gene Buck), and continued to contribute skits and songs until 1926.

In 1926 he wrote a two-act revue entitled Americana,[10] a smart but zany show that Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack describes in terms that anticipate McEvoy’s novels: “Americana . . . satirized American life, including an after-dinner speech at a Rotary Club and an awkward attempt by a father to talk to his son about sex; it also took aim at opera (‘Cavalier Americana’) as well as Shakespeare by way of [composer Sigmund] Romberg (‘The Student Prince of Denmark’). Critics welcomed the show as refreshingly clever—a ‘revue of ideas,’ as the Times headline stated. . . .”[11] His other revues—No Foolin’ (1926), Allez Oop (1927), and New Americana (1932)—were less successful but provided plenty of backstage material for his novels.

It was at the Ziegfeld Follies that McEvoy met the inspiration for his first novel. Louise Brooks (1906–1985) was a featured dancer in the 1925 edition, and caught the eye of Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a five-year contract later that year. McEvoy thought the wild-living Brooks would make an attractive heroine for a comic novel, and after naming her “Dixie Dugan” began writing a fictional account of her madcap adventures in show biz. Show Girl—made up of letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and so forth—was serialized in Liberty Magazine from 14 January to 14 July 1928, illustrated by his Notre Dame classmate John Striebel, who modeled Dixie on Brooks.

J P McEvoy Showgirl illus by John H StriebelJohn Striebel illustration, Liberty serialization of Show Girl

It was published in book form by Simon & Schuster in July of the same year, and was an immediate success, going through five printings in two months for a total of 31,000 copies in print—not to mention reprints by two other publishers, two British editions, and a German translation (Revue-Girl, adapted by Arthur Rundt). Show Girl deals with Dixie’s zigzagging path to success on Broadway; in its sequel, Hollywood Girl, Dixie (like Louise Brooks) travels out to Hollywood for further risqué adventures. Like its predecessor, Hollywood Girl was first serialized in Liberty (22 June–28 September 1929), then published by Simon & Schuster in book form later in 1929. Both were quickly made into movies, Show Girl (1928) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930); it was initially reported that Brooks would play Dixie, but she didn’t get the part, possibly because she was under contract to another studio (though she had been loaned out before). Both films starred Alice White instead, who resembled It girl Clara Bow rather than the vampy Brooks. Stills from the films were tipped into later printings of both novels, an early example of media synergy.

In 1929, McEvoy’s former employer Florenz Ziegfeld, who appears as a character in Show Girl, produced a musical entitled Glorifying the American Girl with a script cowritten by McEvoy, and then staged a musical version of the novel, on which Gershwin again collaborated.[12] The lamest but longest-lasting spin-off of Show Girl is the comic strip Dixie Dugan, which McEvoy and Striebel began in October 1929 and which ran until October 1966, long after both had died.[13] The show-biz premise was soon dropped for a series of light romantic adventures, and today the strip is held in low esteem by most comic book historians. As Jay notes, McEvoy appeared in the 17 October 1939 edition of the strip, metafictionally depicted arguing with Dixie over money made from the franchise. A forgotten movie version, also called Dixie Dugan and starring Lois Andrews, was released in 1943.

J P McEvoy in Dixie Dugan comic stripMcEvoy in Dixie Dugan comic strip

Dixie Dugan comic stripLater Dixie Dugan strip

McEvoy followed Hollywood Girl with four more novels in the same multimedia format. Denny and the Dumb Cluck (Simon & Schuster, 1930), is about a greeting-card salesman named Denny Kerrigan, who was first introduced in Show Girl as a long-distance love interest of Dixie’s. (The “dumb cluck” of the title is Denny’s new girlfriend, Doris Miller.) In the same author’s note quoted earlier, McEvoy admits

The truth is Denny and The Dumb Cluck is a grudge book. It was I who originated the most famous Christmas Greeting of all—Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. You have probably used it yourself, not knowing—nor caring, which is worse—that it was stolen from me, that I have not received one cent of royalties for it.

I was robbed of that beautiful sediment [sic: a pun often used in his novels] and I swore that I would bide my time and some day I would get even. Denny and The Dumb Cluck is my answer.

McEvoy’s fourth novel, a satire of the comic-strip business entitled Mr. Noodle: An Extravaganza, was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post from 15 November to 20 December 1930 (a little too elegantly illustrated by Arthur William Brown) and published in book form by Simon & Schuster in April 1931. In the fall of that year they also published Society—serialized as Show Girl in Society in Liberty between 30 May and 8 August, again illustrated by Striebel—which picks up the Dixie Dugan story where it left off at the end of Hollywood Girl and, after a satiric view of high society in both Europe and the U.S., brings her zany story to an end.

Striebel illustration from Show Girl in SocietyJohn Striebel illustration, Liberty serialization “Show Girl in Society”

McEvoy’s final novel, Are You Listening?, was serialized in Collier’s Weekly between 17 October and 12 December 1931 (illustrated by Harry L. Timmins) and quickly made into a movie with the same title before it was published in book form by Houghton Mifflin in August of 1932. McEvoy’s last two novels apparently didn’t sell well, for they are nearly impossible to find today.

In 1930, at the height of McEvoy’s success, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky ticked off some amusing if questionable trivia about him:

His first piece of writing appeared in the South Bend News. He inserted a job-wanted advertisement.

For some unknown reason he is afraid to enter a laundry.[14]

Lives at Woodstock, N. Y. Is the proud possessor of two blessed events and a St. Bernard dog. The two children are now attending school in California. The dog, dying of loneliness, is to be shipped there next week.

The only jewelry he wears is a black opal ring. Wears this because everyone says it is unlucky.

Is very fond of people who resemble him.

He saves unused return postal cards.

Never actually writes a play or story. He dictates everything. Always has two secretaries working. Never revises any of his manuscripts. Show Girl has fourteen chapters. It was dictated at fourteen settings.

He is unable to part his hair.

Believes there should be a law against bed makers who never tuck in the sheets at the foot of the bed.

As far as comedians go he starts laughing if he’s in the same city as Jimmy Durante.

Always buys two copies of a book. One to read and one to lend.

His full name is Joseph Patrick McEvoy. His mother named him Joseph. His father named him Patrick. Not caring for either, he became J. P. McEvoy.

He has a picture of his wife in every room.

Still receives royalties on some of the greeting cards he wrote. His favorite is the following:

Eve had no Xmas
Neither did Adam.
Never had socks,
Nobody had ’em.
Never got cards,
Nobody did.
Take this and have it
On Adam, old kid.

He was once an amateur wrestler. Gave it up because he didn’t like being on the floor.

He hates to see people in wet bathing suits.

His first book to be published was a volume of poetry titled Slams of Life. He has the names of those who bought it. Two more sales and he could have formed a club.

Smokes a cigar from the moment he turns off the shower in the morning until he puts on his pajamas at night.

His pet aversions are women’s elbows, chocolate candy all melted together, fishing stories, fishermen, fish, Laugh, Clown, Laugh; radio talks on how to make hens lay, buying new shoes, mixed quartets, Laugh, Clown, Laugh; runs in silk stockings, three-piece orchestras, waiters who breathe down his neck and Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

When in New York he puts up at the Algonquin. If working on a story or play he and his wife occupy separate rooms.

His first writing for the stage was a vaudeville sketch. Out of the Dark, written with John V. A. Weaver. It played only two performances in a four-a-day vaudeville house.

His favorite composers are Tchaikovsky, and George Gershwin. His favorite conductors are Toscanini and Frank Kennedy of the Fifth Avenue bus line.

Has two mottoes. One for the home and one for the office. The motto hanging in his house is: “Let No Guilty Dollar Escape.” The motto hanging in his office is: “Watch Your Hat and Coat.”

Dislikes all the Hungarian Rhapsodies from number one to twelve.

His idea of a grand time is hearing Paul Robeson sing anything, going to Havana, being petted by any brunette not over five feet five, depositing royalty checks from Simon & Schuster, throwing pebbles into a lake, reading anything by James Stephens, eating kalteraufschnitt mit kartoffelsalat and attending a Chinese theater with a Chinaman.

He once got sick eating a sandwich that was named after him.

After he quit running a column in the Chicago Tribune the circulation of the Tribune dropped from forty thousand to a million.[15]

McEvoy continued to work in movies and publishing throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He appears in the opening credits of the 1933 film The Woman Accused as one of the ten authors who wrote a chapter each of the serialized novella (in Liberty) from which the screenplay was adapted; he collaborated again with W. C. Fields on the latter’s 1934 films You’re Telling Me! and It’s a Gift; wrote nonfiction accounts of his life in upper New York State; published a children’s book called The Bam Bam Clock (Algonquin Publishing Co., illustrated by Johnny Gruelle); and he wrote a humorous advice column called “Father Meets Son” for the Saturday Evening Post (published in book form by Lippincott in 1937).

J P McEvoy with W C Fields 1934McEvoy with W.C. Fields at a Paramount banquet, 1934

He coauthored the screenplay for Shirley Temple’s musical Just around the Corner (1938), along with an article on her (“Little Miss Miracle”) in the 9 July 1938 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which reproduces a photograph of the author sitting next to the ten-year-old actress. He wrote the book for Stars in Your Eyes, a 1939 Broadway revue starring Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante (the latter had a cameo in McEvoy’s first novel). Other notable magazine contributions include an interview with Clark Gable about Gone with the Wind in the 4 May 1940 issue of the Saturday Evening Post (there’s a photo available of a tuxedoed McEvoy dancing with Gable’s co-star Vivien Leigh), and a profile of Walter Howey, editor of William Randolph Hearst’s Boston American, in the June 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan. He was famous enough to be featured in magazine ads for White Owl cigars, “just off the plane from Havana” (reproduced by Jay).

J P McEvoy with Shirley TempleMcEvoy with Shirley Temple, 1938

J P McEvoy dancing with Vivien LeighMcEvoy dancing with Vivien Leigh, 1939

J P McEvoy White Owls Havana cigar adMcEvoy in White Owl  cigar ad, 1940

McEvoy spent the rest of his life contributing to Reader’s Digest as a roving editor, travelling with his third wife, and entertaining a veritable who’s who in America. Visitors to his large estate near Woodstock included members of the Algonquin Round Table, Frank Lloyd Wright, Clarence Darrow, Rube Goldberg, and avant-garde composer George Antheil. “One hectic weekend,” a local newspaper reported (per Jay), “almost the entire membership of the American Society of Artists and Illustrators attended a fabulous weekend party.” In 1956, McEvoy published his last book, Charlie Would Have Loved This (Duell, Sloan and Pearce), a collection of humorous articles. He died on 8 August 1958.

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“Get hot!”: The Dixie Dugan Trilogy

Show Girl cover image

For most readers in 1928, Show Girl looked utterly unlike any novel they had ever seen. Preceding the title page is a teaser with some hype from the publisher’s Inner Sanctum imprint,[16] and the title page itself is an elaborate cast list “In the order of their appearance,” as in a theater program or the opening credits of a silent film. Each “performer” is followed by a saucy descriptive line, beginning with “Dixie Dugan: The hottest little wench that ever shook a scanty at a tired businessman.” The novel proper begins with a dozen pages of letters—familiar enough from epistolary fiction—which are quickly followed by a cavalcade of telegrams, Western Union cablegrams, newspaper articles (in two columns and a different font) and letters to the editor, playlets in script form, police reports (IN SMALL CAPS), poems and greeting card verses, a detective agency log, various  theater materials (ads, reviews, notices, house receipts), one-sided telephone conversations, a dramatization of a business convention, radiograms, even a House of Representatives session reprinted from the Congressional Record.

Show Girl title pageTitle page for Show Girl

All of this narrative razzmatazz supports a screwball-comic Broadway success story that occurs over a six-month period in 1927. (Nearly every document is dated, from May 1st to October 22nd.) The first half of the novel tracks Dixie’s hectic rise to notoriety. As this 18-year-old Brooklynite explains in a letter to her long-distance boyfriend Denny Kerrigan, she’s hell-bent on joining the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies.[17] He, on the other hand, writes that he wants to “get married and get a little apartment in Chicago, and I’ll come home to you every Saturday night after my week on the road selling mottoes and greeting cards in Indiana” (98).[18] Failing her Ziegfeld audition, Dixie instead becomes a specialty dancer at the Jollity Night Club, where she attracts the smoldering glances of “a tall, dark-haired, black-eyed tango dancer” named Alvarez Romano, who turns out to be the son of a South American president. (She enjoys making out with him: “And when he kisses—well the kid goes sorta faint and dreamy and don’t care-ish and can barely get through the front door and slam it shut” [19].) She also attracts the attention of a 45-year-old Wall Street broker named Jack Milton,[19] who one night after the show invites Dixie and other dancers to a party with his Wall Street buddies. He gropes and mauls her, only to be interrupted by Romano, who stabs him.

The New York Evening Tab turns it into a salacious scandal, and as a result Dixie is deluged with job offers, endorsement deals, and marriage proposals. The Evening Tab begins running Dixie’s first-person life story, ghostwritten and completely fabricated by reporter Jimmy Doyle, whom Dixie describes as “cute as a little red wagon and writes beautiful and I think he’s hot dog” (98). Fairly literate (though he confuses Swinburne with Browning), he describes his “bogus autobiography” to a Hollywood friend as follows, in a representative example of McEvoy’s jazzy style and his contempt for tabloid readers:

Well, I’m still Dixie Dugan and my contribution to the Fine Arts is monastically entitled “Ten Thousand Sweet Legs.” Boy, it’s hot. With one hand I offer them sex and with the other I rap them smartly over the knuckles with a brass ruler and say “Mustn’t touch. Burn-y, burn-y.” Then I sling them a paragraph of old time religion and single standard and what will become of this young generation. (I hope nothing ever becomes of it. I like it just the way it is.) And then another paragraph like the proverbial flannel undershirt that is supposed to make you hot and drive you crazy, and presto! the uplifted forefinger, “But this is not what you should be interested in, children.” And then a little Weltschmerz and then the old Sturm und Drang—a Sturm to the nose followed up with a Drang to the chin—the old one-two. So, as you may gather, this opus is the kind of love child that might result from an Atlantic City week-end party with the American Mercury and True Stories[20] occupying adjoining rooms. So much for literature! (77–78)

Spying on Dixie one night outside the theatre of her new show, Jimmy sees Romano abduct Dixie (to take her back to “Costaragua” to marry her), abducts Dixie himself when their limousine crashes, and then convinces her to lay low while his newspaper milks her disappearance for weeks. The recovering Jack Milton hires detectives to find her, offers to underwrite a musical for Dixie, and enlists Jack to write the book and lyrics for it.

Show Girl sample pages 1Pages from Show Girl

The second half of the novel documents the progress of the musical from its contentious beginning—Milton hires show-biz producers who rewrite Jack’s script and bring in outside contributors[21]—to its disastrous out-of-town opening, to its eventual success after Jack takes charge and restores his original conception. Retitled Get Your Girl, the musical makes Dixie a star, and Jimmy realizes he loves Dixie as much as she does him: “Besides being cute and all that she’s got a quick mind, a keen sense of humor and says just what she thinks,” he writes to his Hollywood friend. “And she really thinks” (195). Meanwhile, Dixie’s three suitors come to different ends: she rejects the marriage proposal of her sugar daddy, Jack Milton. Denny Kerrigan, still pining for Dixie, makes a big splash at a greeting-card convention in Atlantic City (where he catches Dixie’s show), and heads home with a promotion if not with the girl. On a darker note, Alvarez Romano returns to Costaragua to help his father lead a counter-revolution, is captured, and  sentenced to death. He escapes, but all his fellow prisoners are slaughtered, as a two-page article from the Evening Tab reports in gruesome detail. McEvoy places that tragedy near but not at the conclusion of the novel in order not to spoil the happy ending: Dixie finds success and love, conveyed by some clever parodies of notable theater critics of the day (Percy Hammond, Alexander Woollcott, Alan Dale, Walter Winchell) and a flurry of giddy radiograms.

Aside from the novelty of its format, the most appealing aspect of Show Girl is its language. Often sounding like a risqué and snarky P. G. Wodehouse, McEvoy offers a fruity cocktail of slang and flapperspeak, most of it from Dixie herself. She slings words and phrases such as “into the merry-merry” (show biz), “a good skate” vs. “a wet smack” (a fun vs. dull person), “gazelles” and “gorillas” (young women and nightclub predators), “butter and eggers” (theater audiences), “ginny” (tipsy), “static” (unwanted advice), “goopher dust” (a legal loophole), “blue baby” (a dud play), “clucks” (dumb people), “crazy as a brass drummer,” and exclamations like “Tie that one,” “skillabootch,” and “Get hot!” (encouragement shouted at a good dancer). Glib Jimmy Doyle has already been quoted, and throughout McEvoy inserts some clever song lyrics, parodies, and greeting-card verse; he even has Denny quote and praise a song from his own musical Allez Oop. There are times when the insider theater lingo becomes hermetic (“the old comedy mule stunt . . . an easy hit in the deuce spot . . . an unsubtle comedy team in ‘one’ with Yid humor and soprano straight . . . novelty perch turn in four . . . the choice groove next to shut” [52]), but all the slang and shoptalk is a constant delight. One reviewer said “Five years from now Show Girl and Hollywood Girl will need a glossary.”[22] Dixie agrees: she starts a diary in the latter for the benefit of her future biographers:

I can refer them to you Diary and they can see for themselves I’m not handing them a lot of horsefeathers. I suppose too Diary we should keep posterity in mind because when they came across a word like horsefeathers and didn’t know what it meant we should have it defined somewhere, so for the sake of posterity horsefeathers means a lot of cha-cha and cha-cha means what diaries are usually full of. (Hollywood Girl 35)

Dixie is the first of many independent, untraditional young women in McEvoy’s novels. She is a self-proclaimed representative of “flaming youth” (a 1923 novel and silent movie), and at times sounds surprisingly 21st-century: “The real ambition of our young generation . . . is to be cool but look hot” (7). At a time when most young woman wanted to get married as soon as possible, Dixie tells Denny, “I don’t want to marry you or anybody else. . . . I’m young and full of the devil and want to stay that way for a while” (94)—a sentiment that will be voiced by many of McEvoy’s young heroines.

Show Girl sample pages 2Pages from Show Girl

In Show Girl McEvoy introduces other themes that will run through all of his novels, dark undercurrents beneath their playful surfaces. His contempt for the general public has already been noted in Jimmy’s condescending remarks on his newspaper readers, an attitude that McEvoy will later extend to theater audiences, greeting-card customers, comic-strip fans, and radio listeners. When Jimmy meets with the Broadway producers who want to dumb down his play, we get this exchange:

DOYLE (bitterly): I suppose if you got “Romeo and Juliet” you wouldn’t produce it unless you could buy a balcony cheap.

EPPUS: “Romeo and Juliet”? Pfui! I seen that once. There wasn’t a hundred dollars in the house.

KIBBITZER: That kind of play don’t make money. You got to stick to things people understand. (112–13)

Kibbitzer later makes a pass at Dixie, and sexual predation in show business is another recurring theme. Dixie breezily dismisses that incident—“Well, that’s what a female gets for having Deese, Dem and Doze” (118)—but along with her earlier sexual assault at Jack Milton’s party and the lascivious advances of club “gorillas,” McEvoy dramatizes how dangerous show biz is for “gazelles” like her.

The mendacity of the media is mostly played for laughs here, with the joke on the dumb clucks who take celebrity gossip as gospel and actually believe the “sediments” expressed in greeting cards, but corruption is handled more seriously. When the police arrive at Milton’s wild party and arrest Alvarez, Dixie notes that one of the guests, “Wilkins his name was, a big politician I found out later—got the cops off to one corner and gave them some sort of song and dance” that keeps their names out of the papers the next day (30, 32). Near the end, Alvarez’s father travels to New York and promises Milton the oil concession in Costaragua in exchange for financing his revolt; Milton gets a few of his Wall Street pals together and decide “that would be the patriotic thing American thing to do. Our country may she always be right,” Dixie remembers him saying, “but right or wrong we’ve got to have oil.” Milton enlists an Alabama congressman named Fibbledibber to convince his fellow representatives via patriotic rhetoric that America’s honor depends upon &c &c &c, and sure enough Congress authorizes the Marines to intervene in the South American country. These darker elements add depths to what would otherwise be a light entertainment—depths that were drained by the producers of the 1928 movie version (no doubt of the same mindset as Kibbitzer & Eppus), according to those who have seen it. The novel is dark and daring, like Louise Brooks; the movie is blonde and harmless, like Alice White.

Scene from movie Show Girl starring Alice White 1

Scene from movie Show Girl starring Alice White 2Alice White in 1928 movie version of Show Girl

Show Girl’s reviews were as boffo as those for Dixie’s performance in Get Your Girl. Marian Storm quite rightly praised it as “a show-case of language. Whirling, whizzing, dizzying—a bombardment upon eye and ear of monotonous, accurate, faithful ugliness, of snappy similes.” Proposing a new criteria for literature, the Springfield Republican said, “If making ‘whoopee’ is one of the aims of literary art, Mr. McEvoy has scored a literary success.” Ziegfeld himself reviewed it for the Saturday Review of Literature—despite appearing in Show Girl as a character!—and described it as “show business ‘hoked up’ to the saturation point. . . . The action races by and every typographical ingenuity is used to emphasize and amplify the ‘punch stuff’”—slinging slang as deftly as Dixie, but perhaps not entirely comfortable with seeing his profession mocked.[23]

***

Hollywood Girl cover image

Published a little over a year later, Hollywood Girl is one of the first and still best satires of Hollywood—a clichéd subject today but a novelty in 1929, when the industry was still young and making the transition from silent films to talkies. It begins seven months after the conclusion of Show Girl, and ends a year later (i.e., May 1928–April 1929), and features a similar story arc. Get Your Girl having run its course, Dixie is back in Brooklyn looking for work while Jimmy tries to write a new star vehicle for her, vowing to marry Dixie as soon as it is staged. When Dixie learns that flamboyant movie director Fritz Buelow[24] is in New York casting his next epic—Sinning Lovers, based on “The Charge of the Light Brigade”[25]—and is “hot for a jazz-mad baby that could make yip yip and faw down in a new squeakie,” as Dixie puts it (14), she finagles an interview and passes a screen test, on the basis of which she’s given a tentative contract and sent to Hollywood. She gets only bit parts at first, and then none at all, and learns the studio will not be renewing her contract.

At this low point, nearly halfway through the novel, Dixie delivers an emotional, 18-page interior monologue modeled on Molly Bloom’s at the end of Ulysses, at the end of which Jimmy calls her and vows to help. (He too is now in Hollywood as a screenwriter.) He feels a publicity party is what she needs to attract work, which results in a remarkable chapter entitled “Hollywood Party: A Talking, Singing, Dancing Picture with Sound Effects,” another 18-page tour de force that ends with the suicide of an “aging” actress. (“I’m thirty two,” she tells Dixie, “and in this business if you’re [a woman] over thirty you’re older than God” [124].) While the party rages, Dixie goes off with Buelow to another party and is nearly raped. All this Sturm und Drang is heightened by troubling rumors that a Wall Street syndicate of bankers, including Dixie’s old admirer Jack Milton, will be merging the major studios, eliminating jobs, and moving the whole business back east.

Hollywood Girl sample pagesPages from Hollywood Girl

At about the same structural point in Show Girl where Jack regains control of his musical, Dixie learns she has been given the lead in Sinning Lovers, once again thanks to Jack Milton. (Ironically, the studio had decided to give the role to the aging actress the same night she committed suicide.) Dixie is tempted to accept Milton’s marriage proposal after she and Jimmy have the last in a series of fights, but after the preview version of the movie flops, she drops him because he wants to give up on the film (and on her career). She is shocked at his philistine views: “Jack says so far as the bankers are concerned if it doesn’t make money it’s not a good picture and I says what about Caligari[26] and he says I never saw it and from all I’ve heard of it I never want to see it . . .” (205). Fortunately, another producer and director step in, save the film (retitled Loving Sinners under pressure from the censorious Hays office), and the movie makes Dixie a star, as attested by another raft of rave notices (more real-life reviewers, this time representing Los Angeles).

But this is where the novel takes a surprising turn. Unexpectedly, Jimmy Doyle is not called in to save the screenplay, make up with Dixie, and marry her at the end. Instead McEvoy lets fame and riches go to her head: Dixie starts hanging out with silly rich people, indulges in trivial pursuits, and only two weeks after meeting Teddy Page, a “New York millionaire sportsman and young society aviation enthusiast” (227), she elopes with him in Las Vegas. She’s aware he’s a binge-drinking, hell-raising skirt-chaser, but she’s convinced she can change him. “It’s only because he hasn’t met the right kind of girl” (235). (Cue reader’s rolling eyes.) The penultimate page of the novel features a tipped-in wedding photo of the couple (with a dead ringer for Louise Brooks as Dixie), followed by an announcement in the New York Times that Page’s wealthy family has cut ties with him.[27] This unexpected ending is a daring subversion of the wedding bells convention typical of most romantic books and movies, but Hollywood Girl is not a typical novel.

Final pages of Hollywood Girl (book)Final pages of Hollywood Girl

Final pages of Hollywood Girl (serialization)Final pages of Hollywood Girl, Liberty serialization 

In addition to all the narrative bells and whistles of Show Girl, the sequel sports a publicity release, cast lists and shooting schedules, the morality clause from an actor’s contract, interoffice memos, six drafts of the opening sentences of a letter, screenplays (complete with camera directions), a full-page ad in Variety, and some unpunctuated, modernist-looking dialogue. Plus there’s a parody of Edgar Guest (reminiscent of the poems in The Sweet Dry and Dry) and that Joycean monologue. Dixie starts and abandons a diary, which feels like a narrative crutch on McEvoy’s part, but Dixie is so entertaining that it would be churlish to complain. There’s another slew of slang: “maddizell,” “laying down a few flat arches” (dancing), “belchers” (talking pictures), “dog house” (a bass violin), “sitzplatz” (sitting place=ass), and “Hot cat!” (expressing excitement). Jimmy is as glib as ever, as when he is asked by a reporter for his first impression of Hollywood: “Offhand, it looks a little bit like Keokuk [in Iowa] on a Sunday afternoon, except that the houses and vegetation seem to have been retouched by one of those disappointed virgins who go in for painting china” (67). But he can’t top Dixie on the difference between the Big Apple and the Windy City: “New York is a jazz-band playing diga-diga-doo but Chicago is just a big megaphone with an overgrown boy hollering through it: Look at me, ain’t I big for my age” (40).

Like the first novel, there are a few celebrity cameos, including Dixie’s counterparts Louise Brooks and Alice White, aptly enough, and Aimee Semple McPherson via the radio airwaves. Von Stroheim is seen working with Gloria Swanson on Queen Kelly, a production as costly and strife-ridden as Sinning Lovers, and fans of old Hollywood will revel in all the namedropping, tech talk (UFA angles, lap dissolves), and insider dope.

Sexual predation is even more prominent here than in McEvoy’s first novel, and creepier: Show Girl is PG-13, Hollywood Girl R-rated. Director Buelow is a letch who indulges in Trump/Bush “locker room banter” and seduces the Evening Tab reporter who interviews him near the beginning of the novel (and who begins dating Jimmy at the end, when he returns to his job there), and plans to do the same with Dixie. (First, she has to fend off his manager with a joke about pedophilia.) Warned by Jimmy that Buelow “was on the make for me,” Dixie tells her diary “of course he’s on the make and what of it, all men are, only some are sneaky and don’t admit it . . .” (42). Jimmy tells her she will have to put out to be put in Buelow’s movie, which causes their first spat, but Dixie sees plenty of that after she’s been in Hollywood a few months. She keeps saying no to all the men who hit on her, including Jimmy’s Hollywood correspondent, unlike those who say yes: “that’s how you get along say yes talk about yes-men you never hear of the yes-girls but they’re the ones with the Minerva cars and three kinds of fur coats I guess I could get there too if I said yes . . .” (81).[28] The novel is frank about the sex appeal of movies. The aging star says of the latest starlets,

they’ve got one thing I haven’t got—youth. They’ve got young necks and young legs and young eyes. And nice slim, soft young bodies. And you can’t fool the camera when it comes to those things. And that’s what they want out here in this business. Youth. Young flesh. And they feed it into the machine and out comes thousands of feet of young eyes and young legs and young bodies. Reels and reels of it. And that’s what people want to see. Men go there and watch them hungrily all evening and then go home and close their eyes when they kiss their wives. (124)

McEvoy would have used a different verb if he thought he could get away with it. A month later Dixie is almost raped by Buelow, and after her success she speaks of budding actresses in terms of prostitution:

Hardfaced mothers from all over the country dragging their little girls around to studios ready to sell them out to anyone from an assistant director to a property man just to make a little money off them. Agents with young girls tied up under long term contracts at a hundred a week leasing them to studios for ten times that and pocketing the difference. Hundreds of pretty kids from small towns, nice family girls, church girls, even society pets going broke and desperate, waiting tables, selling notions, peddling box lunches on the street corners—I could tell you stories that would curl your hair. (223–24)

Passages like this are what make Hollywood Girl closer in tone and intent to Caligari than Singin’ in the Rain.

These intimations on immorality in show biz perhaps account for the curious number of biblical allusions in the novel, beginning on the first page, when Dixie blithely answers an imaginary interlocutor: “Where’ve you been? On Broadway, sez I. Where on Broadway, sez you. Up and down, sez I—up and down, between Forty-eighth and Forty-second, looking for a job”—the final word punning on the source of Dixie’s diction, Job 1:7: “And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.” Over the next few pages there are allusions to the twelve apostles, Jonah and the whale, the book of Genesis, Noah’s ark, and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Though based on Tennyson’s poem, Sinning Lovers inexplicably begins with the Garden of Eden (with Dixie in Eve’s role), and when Dixie resignedly decides to marry Milton, she says, “sometimes I feel like that bimbo in the Bible who sold out for a mess of pottage” (cf. Gen. 25:29–34; “bimbo” is used of men and women in the novel).

Show Girl in Hollywood pagePage from Hollywood Girl, Liberty serialization

The most sustained biblical allusion is the radio broadcast Dixie and Jimmy endure while in a restaurant: from L.A.’s Angelus Temple Aimee Semple McPherson delivers a hokey sermon on Daniel in the lion’s den, spread over four pages in small caps (174–77), exhorting her listeners to tune out “all the jazz bands and the frivolous things of this world” and to sing along with her (to the tune of “Yes Sir, She’s My Baby”):

Yes sir here’s salvation
No sir don’t mean maybe
Yes sir here’s salvation now
Goodbye sin and sorrow
Welcome bright tomorrow
For we’ve got salvation now (177)

This is too ludicrous to take seriously, and though Dixie occasionally refers to herself in terms such as “a devil on wheels” (231), she is hardly Satan, much less Eve, Esau, or Daniel, and her thoughtless elopement at the end makes a mockery of finding salvation. Nor is McEvoy calling for readers to renounce “the frivolous things of this world” like Broadway musicals and Hollywood epics; for his purposes, the Bible is no longer a moral guidebook but a source of wisecracks, but the recurring biblical references add one more unexpected level to the novel.

As with Show Girl, the reviewers ignored the dark depths and stayed at the bright surface of the novel, which they found a little dimmer than its predecessor. “The book is amusing, filled with Hollywood madness and Hollywood slang,” said the New York Times, “but it lacks the easy, hilarious fun of ‘Show Girl,’”[29] not considering the possibility that McEvoy was aiming at something more than “easy, hilarious fun.”

***

Society cover image

Two years later, McEvoy concluded Dixie’s sassy saga with Society, which picks up the same day Hollywood Girl left off.[30] The first half of the novel documents the first few months of Dixie and Teddy’s impulsive marriage: honeymooning down in Mexico and then up in Monterey, Teddy continues drinking and chasing after women, which soon drives Dixie to Hollywood to resume her career. But they make up, and Dixie begins learning more of Teddy’s rich family: his 18-year-old sister Serena, whom he calls “a wet smack and dumb as a duck” (6), who is preparing to make her debutante debut that fall; his 16-year-old sister Patricia, a hellion already wearing heels who has seen Dixie’s film and runs away from private school to pursue a similar career in Hollywood; and Teddy’s predictably stuffy mother and father; in order to trace his daughter, the latter hires the same Open Eye Detective Agency that searched for Dixie in Show Girl. Mr. and Mrs. Teddy Page, as they are called—Dixie loses much of her independent identity after she marries: “Teddy is my career now” (42)—then  sail to France to continue their honeymoon, but during the crossing Teddy lusts after an Apache dancer called Le Megot—“cigarette butt or a snipe,” as Dixie translates, and described as “one of the sexiest little devils I ever saw with a wild shock of hair, a slim lazy body, big black eyes and a red mouth that must drive men crazy” (70). Upon arrival in France, Dixie sends a telegram wittily announcing “LAFAYETTE I AM HERE” (74), but no sooner is the honeymooning couple settled in Paris than Teddy sneaks off to London “on business” to catch Le Megot’s act at the Kit Kat Club. Meanwhile, Dixie is escorted around Paris by an Italian gigolo who had tried to seduce her during the ocean crossing. After another big fight—Dixie throws “a complete set of Victor Hugo at [Teddy], all of which he managed to dodge with the exception of Volume II of ‘Les Miserables’” (109)—they make up and head down to the Riviera.

At that point, halfway through novel, the plot takes a metafictional turn: we learn that Jimmy Doyle is in Paris, working for Colossal Pictures again and “gathering material for a high society movie” (105–6). Excited to learn that Dixie is also in France, he telegraphs his producer with a revised idea: “COULD COMBINE EUROPEAN ANGLE SOCIETY AND DIXIES POPULARITY” (108, sic)—which sounds like a note McEvoy made to himself after finishing Hollywood Girl. Dixie continues to party with the idle rich and tells Jimmy she’s having fun, or “fun in a way. But it’s no pleasure—if you know what I mean. We’re all so bored—Teddy’s friends and their friends—and they work so hard to be amused—and nothing really makes ’em really laugh—only when they’re full of champagne and are their real selves but don’t know it” (123). Dixie is excited to learn she’s pregnant, but just then Teddy gets involved in a sex scandal and both have to sneak back to New York. As the Page family prepares for Serena’s obscenely expensive coming out ball at the Ritz-Carleton on Thanksgiving Eve ($50K, around $750K today), Patricia reconnects with the young communist radical she had met while en route to Hollywood, and attends a rally in Bryant Park at which he speaks the night of Serena’s ball. Learning the cost of the ball, her Red beloved leads a protest march to the Ritz, which is broken up by the police—or as the headline in the communist Daily Worker puts it (177):

TAMMANY COSSACKS DEFEND SACRED RITZ
FROM CONTAMINATION BY STARVING WORKERS
THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS FOR ORCHIDS
WHILE MILLIONS CRY FOR BREAD.

Early the next year, Jimmy returns from France, manuscript completed, and tracks Dixie down in Palm Beach, where she is drinking to excess, experiencing cramps, and having doubts about becoming a mother: “I’m so tired of this silly empty life and realize the baby is going to tie me down tighter than ever” (188). On the next page we read a news account of an explosion on a yacht, in which Dixie was seriously injured. When she learns she has lost the fetus, she declares herself through with it all. Her decent father-in-law arranges a quickie Mexican divorce (and a generous stipend for life), and Dixie agrees to star in Jimmy’s movie Society Girl, “A Sensational Expose of the Haut Monde At Play” as a full-page ad on the penultimate page describes it. The movie is a “smashing hit” (with more fake quotes from real reviewers of the time), and Dixie and Jimmy decide to rest by sailing together for France. Meanwhile, Teddy is already on to his next showgirl, who Walter Winchell informs us (in a tidbit from his column) is “the third gel from the left in Earl Carroll’s Fannyties” (205).[31]

Though Society lacks the hellzapoppin’ energy and jazzy lingo of its predecessors—which in fact would be inappropriate for the leisurely pursuits of the rich and fatuous—the novel is more ingenious than the average satire of high society due, once again, to the novelty of its materials. The title page resembles a formal invitation, set in a copperplate font and even blind-stamped.

Title page of SocietyTitle page from Society

In addition to the usual letters, telegrams, playlets, and news clippings, we’re treated to Dixie’s ocean crossing diary, shipboard schedules and announcements, formal invitations and cards of introduction, menus, invoices, legal documents, a Junior League report by Serena on “A Trip through a Biscuit Factory,” and best of all, several chapters from The Memoirs of Patricia Page (To Be Opened Fifty Years After Her Decease),” an amusingly self-dramatizing, misspelt account of the 16-year-old’s runaway adventure. There are self-conscious narrative winks from McEvoy, as when the stage direction in one playlet describes the head of the Open Eye Detective Agency as “one of those fiction detectives who can only be found in real life” (33), and when Jimmy remarks on the coincidence of booking a hotel room next to Dixie’s: “If a fellow wrote that in a book they’d say he certainly had to reach for that one” (118). As Jimmy adapts his film plans to fit Dixie’s life, and even asks her to supply background material on debutantes (which she does in snarky fashion), it becomes obvious that his Society Girl is a metafictional mirror image of McEvoy’s Society, a film of the novel/novel of the film.

Pages from Society

Pages from Society 2Pages from Society

The darker themes in the first two novels are lighter here: sexual predation takes the forms of handsy gigolos and rampant adultery. As early as page 3 Dixie reports that one of Teddy’s rich friends “went right on the make for me—didn’t seem to mind I was on my honeymoon. Teddy didn’t either. Seemed flattered if anything.” A dozen pages later he shacks up with his ex-fiancée, and his tomcatting ways result in the suicide of one betrayed husband. Prostitution imagery is used for both debutantes—their coming out balls are sales displays for the marriage market—and for “society girls who are poor as church mice and yet have to keep up a swank front and be seen everywhere in the swellest clothes and what they won’t do to get by would put a Follies girl’s gold digging into the ‘come into the drug store with me while I get some powder’ class” (18). Patricia’s communist friend reprises Alvarez Romano’s role in Show Girl to introduce political elements in the novel, railing against the decadence of capitalist society in America and aristocratic privilege abroad, which McEvoy records in garish detail.

He also slips homosexuality into the novel. In a brilliantly rendered playlet set in a Paris nightclub called Le Fétiche, two Harvard boys “doing post-graduate field work in abnormal psychology” marvel at the lesbians. “A rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed contralto in tweeds” sings three new stanzas of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” (1928), another opportunity for McEvoy to show off his gift for parody:

Bugs do it—
Slugs do it—
Evil-looking thugs in jugs do it—
Let’s do it—
Let’s fall in love.
In holes the nice little mice do it—
Tho they are pariahs—lice do it—
Let’s do it—
Let’s fall in love.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Infusoria in Peoria do it—
And the better classes in Emporia do it—
Let’s do it—
Let’s fall in love. (93, 98)

This scene is followed by a letter from a Variety reporter describing the sights to be seen on the way south to the Riviera, including “a little hideaway tucked between [San Rafael and Toulon], entirely populated by the most delightful pixies, male and female, but you’ll never find it unless you meet one of three people, names enclosed here in sealed envelope. They’ll take you there if they like you” (103). In a trilogy about show business, it’s about time McEvoy mentioned the gay element, though it was a daring move for a commercial novelist in 1931.

Though Dixie takes up with high society, she’s never taken in by it. She mocks as she learns “society patter” and affected enunciation, yet can still deliver snappy similes such as “he closed up like Trenton on a Sunday night” (89; i.e., stopped talking). As she occasionally reminds people, she’s still just an Irish “punk” from Brooklyn, and despite a number of poor choices throughout the novel, she retains her best qualities. Teddy’s father praises her “spirit and independence in refusing alimony or settlement” (202), and the news item that concludes the novel indicates she’s single: she has reunited with the love of her life from Show Girl, but she hasn’t married him. Perhaps McEvoy merely wanted to leave the door open for another sequel, but it’s more likely that he intended Dixie to follow in the dance steps of his original model, Louise Brooks, who except for two very brief marriages spent most of her life single. (We can only hope that Dixie doesn’t wind up like our Miss Brooks did.)

Society is blander than its predecessors, but together the Dixie Dugan trilogy is an endlessly inventive portrayal of female independence as well as a damning indictment of show business, politics, sexual attitudes, and society at large. “To those who have followed him since ‘Show Girl,’ Mr. McEvoy has always meant humor and bite,” wrote the Saturday Review of Literature of Society. “The ridiculous and the sharply ironical were always blended,” and though the reviewer felt “the irony has wilted and the humor become worn” in the third novel, it’s that blend of humor and bite, of ridicule and irony—shaken and stirred with linguistic and formal ingenuity—that makes the trilogy as a whole a mordant, madcap masterpiece.

x

Fade to Black: The Final Novels

McEvoy’s 1930 novel Denny and the Dumb Cluck is a spin-off from Show Girl, which documented the failure of greeting-card salesman Denny Kerrigan to convince Dixie to abandon show biz and move to Chicago to marry him. Denny gets top billing in this novel, which begins two years later with a letter dated 11 May 1929 and ends about a year later, and which marks McEvoy’s turn toward darker, more bitter satires of American culture.[32] The novel is festooned with greeting-card verse, whose saccharine sentiments are undercut throughout by the vulgar businessmen who peddle the stuff and the “dumb clucks” who fall for it. Although marketed as a humorous novel,[33] the novel contains attempted suicides, mental breakdowns, divorce proceedings, Chicago mob slayings, and concludes with the murder of the president of Denny’s card company. Even the Hollywood happy ending, in which Denny regales his bride (the “dumb cluck” of the title) with the story of that murder during their honeymoon near Niagara Falls, is undercut by signs of what a terrible husband he will be. The novel is dedicated to Santa Claus.

Denny and the Dumb Cluck cover image

Like McEvoy’s earlier novels, Denny is an assemblage: letters, press bulletins and newspaper clippings, company memos (some shouting in ALL CAPS), telegrams, divorce papers and trial transcriptions, a hotel bill, two lengthy monologues, and selections from a lonely hearts newspaper column penned by “Carolyn Comfort”—actually a “white-haired [male] tobacco-chewing reprobate” (148).[34] It differs from his earlier novels in its structure: they proceeded chronologically, with their multiple story-lines interlaced, but Denny is divided into eight semi-independent sections that focus on specific story arcs. Part 1, dated from 11 May to 12 June 1929 concerns Denny’s modus operandi to selling the Gleason Greeting Card Company’s wares to the female owners of card shops (all with twee names like “Ye Arte Moderne Snuggery”); as he writes to his supervisor Al Evans, this entails “taking out the lady buyers and getting them all warm and confused so they’ll overstock themselves and have to work like hell making profits for you and me eh Al?” (22).[35]

Pages from Denny and the Dumb CluckPages from Denny and the Dumb Cluck

At loose ends one Sunday in Chicago, he meets “the dumb cluck”: a young woman named Doris Miller, estranged from her rich family in Indiana because she moved to Chicago “to make her own way” as a singer—another of McEvoy’s admirably independent young women. But when Denny recites one of his company’s lovey-dovey greeting cards and passes it off as his own spontaneous creation, Doris falls for him. “Poetry always gets dames,” he smirks to Al (15). But after she spots the poem in a greeting-card shop window, she attempts to drown herself. She is rescued, then explains her reason for the attempted suicide to a reporter who gussies it up for a human interest story for the Chicago Herald Examiner (reproduced on pp. 23–25), which leads to a spike in sales for the “Heart Throb” card Denny quoted. Denny hears about the sales but is unaware of his role in the spike.

The next section, however, begins with a letter by Al dated more than two months earlier (3 March) instructing his salesmen to make a big push for the new idea of a Father’s Day card, and concludes with a newspaper report dated 17 June 1929 noting Al’s admittance to a sanatorium for a nervous breakdown, the result of his stress-inducing sales efforts.  This section features heart-rending letters from his wife to her mother on the disastrous effects of his work on their marriage, and also introduces the Gleason Company’s “staff Poet Laureate” (3), Terence McNamara, a hard-drinking party animal (obviously a stand-in for McEvoy himself) whose marriage is likewise troubled. Section three is undated but apparently takes place in April, for it deals with sales plans for Mother’s Day cards. Denny gets nowhere with the proprietor of Ye What Ho Gifte Shoppe, “One of those long legged short-haired Greenwich village gals that wear batik bloomers and talk about their complexes” (60). She has eyes only for a milquetoast customer who shops frequently for cards to send home to mother. (In an ironic twist typical of McEvoy’s novels, he turns out to be a hired assassin.) Denny reports to Al about a crime wave in Chicago, and passes along his (and apparently his creator’s) doubts about his profession and his country: “Boy, you and I picked a piker’s game when we decided to spread cheer throughout the land. It’s nothing to cheer about if you ask me” (69).

Section four documents McNamara’s divorce proceedings, dated between 14 September and 5 October 1929.[36] His wife testifies to his numerous drinking binges on greeting-card related holidays and irresponsible behavior, including the time when McNamara flipped out when his kids recited a Valentine’s Day greeting-card poem to him. But when the poet takes the stand, he wins over judge and jury by answering entirely in greeting-card “sediments” (as it is often spelled in this and other McEvoy novels).

Pages from Denny and the Dumb Cluck 2Pages from Denny and the Dumb Cluck

The final four sections are undated. Section five apparently takes place later in October 1929, for greeting-card president George Gleason is in New York City looking for a replacement poet after firing McNamara for bad publicity. This startling section is a 23-page monologue delivered by Gleason to a Ziegfeld showgirl in his hotel room—she is currently dancing in Whoopee!, which closed 23 November 1929—whom he plies with liquor and tries to seduce until she panics and attempts to jump out the window. In section six, which seems to take place in late October or early November (though there’s no mention of the Wall Street crash during the last week of October), Denny searches for Doris, while the dumb cluck pours her heart out to Carolyn Comfort’s lonely heart column. Section seven must be set in late January of 1930, for football season has just ended and Denny is peddling Valentine Day cards. He’s having a difficult time making a sale to the owner of Ye Merrie Lyttle Nooke in South Bend, Indiana, “a little pug-nosed Mick” who is distracted by unrequited love for a theology student at Notre Dame, and is secretly contemptuous of her wares: “There is a card lying here on the table before me as I write, a sample Valentine given me by that fool salesman, Denny Kerrigan, who sells the Gleason line. It says ‘Love is bright as sunshine, love is sweet as dew’ and a lot more. But it isn’t anything like that at all, darling. Love is bitter and dark and cruel beyond all the cruel dark and bitter things of this world” (177). Her heartbroken letters to the student express true emotions in stark contrast to the false ones offered on greeting cards. After reading a newspaper announcement of her beloved’s ordination into the priesthood, clueless Denny writes to the woman about his new idea for a line of cards: “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR ORDINATION.”

The final section jumps ahead a few months to Denny and Doris’s honeymoon, and is mostly taken up by Denny’s account of George Gleason’s murder the previous February by a disgruntled customer. There’s no explanation for how Denny found and made up with Doris, for since Denny is talking to her (another one-sided monologue to a silent woman), there wouldn’t need to be. Doris obviously knows how it happened, but the reader doesn’t, who might be excused for thinking McEvoy grew impatient and didn’t want to write a penultimate section on their reunion and courtship. Denny had suffered some sort of accident in section six that entailed a hospital stay with his face in bandages, and unbeknownst to him Doris nursed him and took dictation for his letters to Al about his search for “that dumb cluck” (156). They obviously reconnected, so McEvoy apparently felt he could cut to the honeymoon and wrap it up.

Despite the ostensibly happy ending, this is a harsh novel, which is to be expected from an author who set out to write a “grudge book” to “get even” with the greeting-card industry, as he admits in the author’s note at the end. It was too harsh for some reviewers: “The book is American in the same way that chewing gun, comic supplements and loud speakers are American,” complained Edwin Seaver in the New York Evening Post. “It is a violent, noisy book.” Contemptuous of the publisher’s attempt to market the novel as light humor, V. P. Ross wrote, “It is too ugly to be delectable, too grotesque to be tragic, and too longwinded to deserve the laurels of humor.”[37] But it is precisely those qualities that give Denny and the Dumb Cluck its edge, its Voltairic clash between ideals and reality, its anticipation of the irony-clad black humor of 1960s novels. A standard boy meets-loses-marries girl novel taking jabs at greeting cards would be too simple. McElroy used that sideline to stand for American business practices in general, many aimed at persuading “dumb clucks” to purchase their goods and services. He even hints that the New Testament’s promises of immortality are as false and hollow as greeting cards when Denny flips through a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room.

The language isn’t as slangy as that in the Dixie Dugan novels, though there are some amusing euphemisms (“you illegitimate sons of Rin-tin-tin’s mother”) and synonyms for drinking binges (“out on a bat”). There is also what appears to be McEvoy’s self-conscious defense of his “humorous” approach to writing versus that of “serious” writers, many of whom flocked to Paris in the 1920s. Denny writes to Al about the old drunk who writes the lonely hearts column:

For years he has done everything in the newspaper racket and found that nobody cared, so now he runs the Lonely Hearts Corner and hopes to save enough money to retire and go to Paris to write a novel. He says he needs a couple of years off from the job so he can gather material. I says, what about all these letters you get from the Lonely Hearts? I should think that would be swell stuff for a writer. A lot of hooey! says he. Now, take that story you were telling me about that girl you tried to find—you know, the one you picked up in a restaurant and took for a lake ride. She jumps off a boat because she thinks you wrote those bum sediments you’re always quoting! Well, I don’t blame her. I’d jump off myself to escape you. Now, I suppose you think there’s a story in that? Sure, says I. Crazy, says he. That just proves you’d better stick to peddling cheer. You’d starve to death if you tried to write. Now me, for instance, I know how, but I’ve nothing to write about and I can never save up enough to get ahead and settle down for a couple of years to do serious work. You know my dream, says he. I want to get a little studio in Paris near Montparnasse, and just sip wine, nibble cheese, and observe life and write about it. (150–51)

You can imagine what that novel would be like, if the old sot ever got around to writing it. But McEvoy did find “a story in that” attempted suicide, a polyvalent one that expands to indict all of American society at the bitter end of the Roaring Twenties when it all came crashing down, and didn’t need to take a few years off in Paris to write it.

***

Having settled his score with the greeting-card business, McElroy turned next to the comic-strip industry. The first half of Mister Noodle takes place in Chicago, where McEvoy got his start in strips, and I can’t improve on the plot summary provided by James A. Kazer in The Chicago of Fiction:

The story of Charlie “Chic” Kiley from Gum Springs, Illinois, is told through letters to his mother, news clippings, telegrams, and transcripts of conversations. Kiley takes drawing classes at the Art Institute and works in the art department of the Chicago Star. Overnight he becomes a nationally known comic strip artist when he introduces Mister Noodle, a strip composed only of profiles (since that is all Kiley can draw). He also effortlessly achieves social status, receiving memberships in the Chicago Athletic, Forty, and Midday Lunch clubs. With his newfound security he is able to marry his girlfriend and he soon has a one hundred thousand dollar per year contract for his syndicated strip. However, when he relocates to the syndicate’s offices in New York City he succumbs to the temptations of beautiful women, nightclub entertainments, and drink. When an actress falls from the balcony of his penthouse the scandal fills the Midwest with moral indignation and his comic book gets cancelled. Only when he returns to Chicago and reconnects with his small town does he get the inspiration for a new comic strip and rediscover success. This satire of the syndicated comic book industry makes pointed comparisons between Chicago and New York to the detriment of the latter.[38]

Illustration of Mr. Noodle from Saturday Evening Post 1Arthur William Brown illustration, Saturday Evening Post serialization of Mr. Noodle

It’s important to note that the novel satirizes only certain aspects of the comic industry, specifically the undeserved success of certain hacks and low-brow taste of many readers. The first time Kiley submits his poorly drawn strips to the editor of the Chicago Star, his boss tells him, “This paper has printed hundreds of questionnaires and prize contests for the correct answers on the simplest subjects, and we have found by experience that the average person knows only three things. . . . He knows his name; he knows his parents; and he knows where he lives. And that’s all he does know. Remember that if you’re going to be a comic-strip artist. . . . Always tell ’em something they already know. The better they know it the better they like it” (41). Talentless hacks pandering to the lowest common denominator is what irked McEvoy, not the genre itself; later in the novel, when a Russian director named Ivan Stalinsky sails to America to make a movie of Kiley’s strip,[39] the director expresses what might be McEvoy’s own views during a gangplank interview with the New York Evening Tab (the same rag that figures so prominently in Show Girl):

“The comic artist is the real modern artist. Comic artists were the first expressionists, and the colored supplements in your Sunday papers, with their vivid reds and greens and blues, are brutal and frank as the life they underscore, and it is only because I have always made pictures with real people rather than actors that I welcome this opportunity to come to your America and make a new comédie humaine, using the real Noodles of American life to reënact and interpret the salty humors of everyday existence. . . . You can say for me,” he added, “that the Supreme Author is a Humorist, and Life is a mad comic supplement He created to amuse the angels.” (125)

McEvoy placed the final sentence upfront as the epigraph to the novel, but then again, the entire statement may only be a swipe at the lofty claims sometimes made for the genre. The author definitely has his tongue in cheek when Kiley’s editor tells him, “Don’t forget the last frontier of old-fashioned virtue is the comic strip” (47).

Unlike the previous novels, the documents that make up Mister Noodle are not dated, except for a clip from Vanity Fair on the last page dated 1932, a year after the novel was published. Apparently the events occur between 1929 and 1930—a character on page 71 recites lyrics from “Just You, Just me,” a hit song introduced in the 1929 musical Marianne, though again there’s no mention of the Crash of ’29—and everything happens at a more rapid pace than in the previous novels, effectively conveying the “overnight-success” aspect of Kiley’s career. This is a deliberately unfunny novel about the funny papers, featuring one of McEvoy’s most despicable protagonists. Not only is he talentless, but he owes his success to others: his girlfriend Dorothy—whom he meets at the Art Institute and later elopes with—gave him the idea for the strip in the first place, which Kiley then adjusts to his boss’s low view of comics (which Kiley later parrots as his own). After he becomes successful, he has a team produce the strip for him while he gallivants around New York City, and even when he returns to Illinois in disgrace at the end, he has learned nothing. Kazer’s description of the conclusion is misleading: Kiley returns to Gum Springs to recuperate, but is subjected to a brilliantly rendered monologue by his ignorant Irish Catholic mother about murders, mayhem, and madness out in the sticks: hardly the stuff of inspiration. When Kiley then meets with his former Chicago Star editor and claims he has ideas for a new strip, he junks them as soon as his boss feeds him an idea for a new strip called Mister Whoosis, which Kiley claims for his own creation when he boasts to his New York syndicate boss of his imminent return to the big leagues. The novel ends with another hick comic artist arriving in the New York and getting carried away at the idea of living the high life, obviously on course to repeat Kiley’s fall. Or not: the last page of the novel reproduces a clip from a future issue of Vanity Fair stating, “We nominate for the Hall of Fame, Willie Timmerman, because—“ (186).

Illustration for Mr. Noodle from Saturday Evening Post 2Arthur William Brown illustration, Saturday Evening Post serialization of Mr. Noodle

The Chicago Star editor’s final lecture to Kiley is a cynical but informed overview of the comic-strip business, especially its lack of originality, and undoubtedly represents McEvoy’s conclusions after fifteen years in the business. When Kiley tells him that he has an idea for a strip that has never been done before, the editor (named James P. Mason) cuts him off:

Worse. Doomed to failure. The most successful strips running today were always successful, long before they were strips. Mutt and Jeff was a big hit when it was called Weber and Fields, and it’s a bigger hit now when it’s called Amos ’n’ Andy. Same idea. Big dumb guy picking on a little smart guy. German dialect, colored dialect, Brooklyn dialect—same thing. Little Orphan Annie is Cinderella. Bringing Up Father—Abe Kabibble—every burlesque show for the last fifty years has had a Jiggs and an Abe. The Gumps? Mr. and Mrs.? Any family comic? Has anything ever happened in any of ’em that hasn’t happened a million times in a million homes?

CHIC: I know, but they aren’t funny.

MASON: They don’t have to be funny. Did you ever watch anyone read a comic page? Did you ever see him laugh? Was there ever a laugh in Little Orphan Annie? One of the most successful comic strips running. People don’t want to laugh so much as they want to feel superior to somebody else. (179–80)

There are discussions like this throughout, with references to many strips and comic artists, which should make Mister Noodle valuable for comic historians, written by someone who was there at the beginning. For literary historians, Mister Noodle is valuable as a demonstration of how to take an unoriginal story-line (rube seduced by the big city) and make it new by way of formal and linguistic innovations. In addition to McEvoy’s usual documents, which as always provide a you-are-there immediacy to the proceedings, there are some amusing parodies of the gossip columnists of the time. Kiley’s arrival in New York is announced by a word-drunk columnist reaching for the literary stars:

AVE! MISTER NOODLE!
An Inquiry into the Irrefragable Tenuities
(From the Editorial Page of the New York World)

Swims into our ken a new planet—the algebraic mystification of orbital aberrations, the torturing ellipse of tortured ellipses, the Theseus before the throne of the Minotaur, half bull, half man, quaint Cretan symbol of American ideology—Mister Noodle—planet X—crying in the wilderness, eating the wild locusts of ephemeral fame, preparing the way for a greater-than-he, forsooth, or peradventure, if you will quibble—but I shout “Gold! Gold!” as did wild-eyed Sutter long ago—and mayhap I will grant you, a Fool’s Gold, but your Au may be my FeS₂, and who will bid me nay, for fool’s gold is the guerdon of fools—always the king on the throne has paid the fool on the stool stones for bread, darkness for light, the louring brow for the laughing lip—and so, in like manner—Measure for Measure, said the Mortal Poacher with immortal finality, or vice versa—we too long and too smugly, I fear, have been paying Mister Noodle of the earth earthy—Punchinello Redivivus!—with Jovian frowns from our high, crystal parapets, remembering not that Jove walked with the sons of men by day and talked with the daughters of men by night—Danaë? Shower of gold? FeS₂? Why not?—and from the little despairs of men, brewed by an alchemy lost to us the great courage of the gods against the cosmic crepuscle of the Götterdämmerung. (Ya sagers, all, shouting in the terrible twilight that finally swallowed warm, shining Olympus and cold, dread Erebus alike.) Vale, Great God Pan! Ave, Mister Noodle! (97–98)[40]

Columnist Walter Winchell is parodied twice, once upon Kiley’s arrival and once after his disgrace: “A certain cocky alien from Chicago, who was King Fish in the ookie-ookie racket a few months ago, and then faw down on his you-know-what with a big phfft is out of the camphor again and trying to merge a meal ticket on a local rag . . . no soap” (163). On the train from Illinois to New York, Kiley makes the acquaintance of “The Boop-a-Doop Sisters,” two nightclub chippies who provide an sassy stream of slang throughout the rest of the novel, even some pig Latin.

As in his previous novels, McEvoy takes the faults of a minor—some in the 1920s would have said trivial, even disreputable—medium of pop culture as a metonym for the faults of America at large. He presumably wrote Mister Noodle in the gloomy months following the Wall Street crash, which perhaps justifies the New York World columnist’s despairing evocation of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods. Reviewers used to the fizzy fun of the Dixie Dugan novels were shocked at the novel: one complained “Its humor is cruel,” another that “There is a great deal that is coarse and unnecessarily realistic,” and a third that it “is hard, brittle, cruel almost to literary sadism”[41]—which sound like the reviews Faulkner’s Sanctuary received the same year. Neither Mister Noodle nor Society (also published in 1931) sold well, and perhaps for that reason McEvoy changed publishers for his final novel.

***

In contrast, reviewers were very impressed by Are You Listening?, and quite rightly so. It is his most compelling performance, his most technically ingenious “stunt” (as one reviewer called it), his grittiest and most realistic novel, and his most powerful dramatization of the impact of new media on the public. The media in question is commercial radio: only a decade old by 1932, “The invasion by this sort of blah is now history,” one of the novel reviewers lamented (William Rose Benét, he who labeled it a stunt):

One hears it not only in every apartment but on every street corner. It has turned any imaginative life that exists for the man in the street into a mixture of ballyhoo slogans, thickly syrupy sentiment—usually about all the wrong things—and sensational thought images. . . . [T]he industry in its infancy has so far managed to spread more blatant vulgarity on the air than one would even have suspected. This is probably what a democracy loves. It is certainly what it continues to listen to without noticeable protest.[42]

McEvoy’s “noticeable protest” puts it even more dramatically: a broadcaster describes radio as going “into every home, every factory, every story, every place where men and women meet to eat, sleep, drink, work or play; this tremendous voice from which there is no escape; this modern jungle drum beating from coast to coast . . .” (236). For some lonely souls in the novel radio provides companionship—“Turn it on in the morning and let it run. Keeps them company” (143)—but one character who can’t escape it lambastes radio for “babbling all day like a half-witted relative” (129).[43]

Are You Listening ColliersAre you Listening?, Collier’s serialization, illus. by Henry L. Timmins

The main story-line concerns the three O’Neal sisters, who have left Middletown, Connecticut, to try to make it in New York City. The eldest, Laura, went there to become a concert singer, but now performs for Radio WBLA (pronounced blah, as Benét notes). She shares an apartment with her younger sister Sally, who works as a receptionist at WBLA all day and parties all night. Their airhead kid sister Honey, nearly 18 when she moves in a little later, is “trying to crash Broadway” (40) but has to settle for bit parts on the radio, and eventually for a gig as a celebrity gossip reporter for the New York Morning Tab. All three have trouble with men, none more so than Laura, who is romantically involved with Bill Grimes, a continuity writer for WBLA. He’s stuck in a hellish marriage with a shrew who won’t grant him a divorce until he can afford to pay a huge alimony; near the end, he accidentally strangles her to death, then flees with Laura as WBLA, in cahoots with the police department and the Morning Tab, livecasts the manhunt for them. Because of the radio reports’ reach, the couple is ID’d and arrested in Florida, Bill is convicted of manslaughter, and is sent to Sing Sing (which was recently wired for radio). The novel ends with all three sisters listening, from different locations in different moods, to a live radio broadcast of Cab Calloway and his Joy Boys singing “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” from the Cotton Club.[44]

The novel elapses over about a year’s time—undated, but apparently from May 1931 to spring 1932—and and is partly conveyed by way of radio broadcasts, set in boldface italics: announcer palaver, jingles, speeches (including one from the Vatican by the pope), skits plugging ludicrous products, musical interludes, and live shows from various locations, including the notorious Nut Club in Greenwich Village. (There are also some short-wave police bulletins near the end.) The broadcasts alternate with the main mode of the novel: unpunctuated dialogue, one-sided telephone calls (with unspaced Célinesque ellipses …), monologues, and italicized shouting in a larger point size. The earthy dialogues are often interrupted and undercut by the airy nonsense of the broadcasts, usually for darkly ironic purposes. (Saccharine love songs provide musical background for spats between couples; a noted judge delivers a speech praising Prohibition hours after his all-night, booze-filled yacht party; peaceful Christmas hymns are interrupted by the barked police reports on the manhunt.) And as in all of McEvoy’s novels, there is extensive behind-the-scenes dramatizations of putting a show together, especially the frustrating attempts of creative people to meet the needs of their commercial sponsors. WBLA’s producer regards radio as “a theater of the air. The advertising is incidental, but so far as the public is concerned, a necessary evil” (90). The sponsors, of course, feel precisely the opposite: one client, after hearing a Shakespearean skit created for the Eureka Exterminator Quarter Hour, wonders “if some of it won’t be hard to understand. Of course I understand it, but then you know how the average person is—especially when it comes to words like—like—like well, some of those words the girl used. . . . Seems we use a lot of time on the air without saying something about our product. Couldn’t we mention that it comes both in liquid and powder form, or something like that?” (184). The frequent time-of-day announcements are called M-O-R-I-S-O-N WATCH TIME after its sponsor, which anticipates the subsidized years in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

McEvoy’s reliance on dialogue to carry the narrative is reminiscent of other novelists of the time such as Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Evelyn Waugh (Vile Bodies), and Virginia Woolf (The Waves). In the radio bits, he demonstrates his gift for satire and pastiche, but the dialogue is impressive for its unvarnished realism from a wide variety of characters, from radio personnel and sponsors to Wall Street investors to speakeasy owners and gangsters. (Just before he strangles his wife, Grimes tells her that her psychologist “just wanted to lay you” [219], perhaps the first appearance in fiction of the vulgar verb.[45]) By way of dialogue McEvoy ingeniously conveys everything that a third-person narrator in a conventional novel would—appearances, actions, settings—putting the reader in the same position as a radio listener creating visual images from dramatized scripts.

Pages from Are You Listening 1

Pages from Are You Listening 2Pages from Are You Listening?

The best lines are delivered by McEvoy’s female characters, most of whom reveal how difficult it is to be a woman, especially in what Sally O’Neal calls “this man’s town” of New York. When station announcer Buddy Law tells her he can’t see how girls stand it, she answers, “Buddy, when you’re a girl you learn to stand almost everything. That’s what being a girl means” (15). Both Sally and Honey party hearty in defiance of their conventional, religious mother, who visits and lectures them on a woman’s place in the world (safely married at home in an apron), while older sister Laura is so exasperated by her failed career and troubled relationship with Grimes that she attempts suicide. She complains of her neighbor Mrs. Peters, who turns on her radio “in the morning and never lets up until two o’clock the next morning,” but her mother tells her she does so because “She’s lonesome and sad. How would you feel if you used to be a famous actress, and now because you’re not young any more you can’t get a job and have to sit home and listen to the radio.” Laura replies, “Well, that’s just tough if she grows old and gets out of step. Who can help that?” (129). Later, Mrs. Peters offers some sound advice to Honey, who can’t decide whether to accept a rich man’s invitation to attend a football game in Chicago: “Remember, it’s always the woman who holds the key to any situation like this. It can be any kind of situation she chooses, and the man must abide by her decision. If I haven’t learned anything else in my fifty years, I’ve learned that men accept a girl on her own valuation of herself. If she wants respect for herself, she must have it for herself first” (167). As in his other novels, McEvoy portrays independent women in a positive light, but in Are You Listening? he poignantly captures the despair of women trapped in hopeless situations. The psychologist who treats, “lays,” and then abandons 50-year-old Mrs. Grimes doubts his smart secretary’s diagnosis that she’s dangerous: “Why? Just because she’s emotionally starved, repressed, and somewhat inclined to hysteria? What of it? Most married women of that age are.” “True,” his secretary responds, “but she’s a potential manic-depressive, starved, thwarted, on the edge of her menopause and fixed on you. You know that’s a bad spot” (195; like “lay,” this may be one of the earliest appearances of the word “menopause” in fiction). Both Laura and Alice Grimes suffer psychotic meltdowns, Sally and Honey fend off near-rapes, and in another scene a gangster Sally is dating knocks a woman unconscious. The plight of women alternates with the ubiquity of radio both formally and thematically in this gender-sensitive novel.

Despite its grim theme, there are some amusing bits. Answering the phone while the station’s broadcast blares overhead, Sally wisecracks, “If there’s anything that’s good for a hangover, it’s German on a loudspeaker” (45). There are clever Gilbert and Sullivan parodies that recall the McEvoy of Slams of Life, and the listening audience is treated to musical performances by such groups as the New Art Plumbing Symphony Orchestra (under the direction of Arturo Garfinkel) and the Beau Brummell Dandruff Dandies’ Jews’ Harp Trio playing the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. (His Tristan and Isolde is incorporated into an ad for bathroom fixtures.) But as in McEvoy other late novels, the humor is black.

Even though the aforementioned William Rose Benét called Are You Listening? a “‘stunt’ novel” and stated “There is nothing a bit ‘literary’ about the book,” he praised it to the skies, pompously concluding his review: “Mr. McEvoy has been ere this a champion of the comic spirit. He has also, however, seen the cruel significance behind all the moronic chatter now burdening the ether, and has praiseworthily evoked it in this novel for us to see. Underneath all the japery, it mutters in our ears like the ghost of Hamlet’s father!” Hollister Noble, in a rave review for the New York Times Book Review, praised the “consistent balance between the serious delineation of character and the mocking irony of [the radio station] environment,” and complimented McEvoy

for two distinct achievements. He has re-created with amazing fidelity, through the rapid-fire conversation of his characters, the very breath and life of the studio. And at the same time he has skillfully handled a great variety of characters, each of them early delineated and definitely individual. All of them have the full flavor of reality, and Mr. McEvoy is most adept in depicting their collisions with the fantastic complexities and whirling enigmas surrounding them.[46] Perhaps heeding the show-biz advice of always leaving them wanting more, McEvoy ended his performance as a novelist on that high note.

***

The final line of McEvoy’s final novel is “Are you listening?,” which would be echoed 43 years later in the final line of William Gaddis’s multimedia novel J R, spoken into a telephone: “Hey? You listening . . . ?”[47] McEvoy resembles Gaddis in many ways: both have a caustic sense of humor and dim view of America; a high fidelity ear for dialogue and the vernacular; and a penchant for the comic-ironic juxtaposition of public statements vs. private sentiments, high art vs. low entertainment (in J R Gaddis uses Wagner much the same way McEvoy does). Both use documents in fiction—J R has several, and his novel A Frolic of His Own is filled with legal documents, a play script, letters, newspaper clippings, brochures, even recipes—and both satirize the frivolous uses of technology in the arts: like the Russian director in Mister Noodle, Gaddis in his final, posthumous novel Agapē Agape stares agape at “the lavish opulence of American technical resources and at the same time secretly frighten[ed] and depress[ed by] the remorseless rhythm of this great machine, spawning and spewing in callous complacence an endless flood of elegant marshmallows” (Noodle 136–37). Three other innovative fictions of the 1970s that come to mind are the vaudevillian skits, speeches, and news reports that make up Philip Roth’s Our Gang (1971), Jerome Charyn’s novel in the form of a literary quarterly, The Tar Baby (1973), and Robert Coover’s use of show-biz tropes to indict American culture in The Public Burning (1977), another novel comprised of documents, monologues, poems, and parodies. Whether regarded as a covert avant-gardist of the 1920s, as a harbinger of the Black Humor of the 1960s and certain multimedia novels of the 1970s, or as an avant-popster avant la lettre, J. P. McEvoy deserves to be rediscovered and reprinted.

J P McEvoy still from Woman Accused 1933Still from Woman Accused, 1933

—Steven Moore

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STeven Moore

Steven Moore is the author of the two-volume study The Novel: An Alternative History (2010, 2013), as well as several books on William Gaddis. His new book, My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays, is forthcoming from Zerogram Press.

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Manhattan Transfer: The American Novel as Scrapbook,” http://www.fractiousfiction.com/manhattan_transfer.html. T. S. Matthews, New Republic, 25 July 1928, 259. The most famous predecessor for the “scrapbook” novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897); for a literal example, see The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston (2011).
  2. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 83.
  3. “Ink-Slinger Profiles: J. P. McEvoy,”<http://strippersguide.blogspot.de/2015/06/ink-slinger-profiles-by-alex-jay-jp.html>, posted 8 June 2015. This treasure trove of research is the source for many of the biographical details that follow.
  4. North American Review 244.1 (Autumn 1937): 206.
  5. Quoted in Ray Banta, Indiana’s Laughmakers: The Story of over 400 Hoosiers (Indianapolis: PennUltimate Press, 1990), 115.
  6. The Sweet Dry and Dry includes a parody entitled “The Boobyiat of O Howdri Iam.”
  7. “Lewis Talks to Chicago League,” Publishers Weekly, 19 March 1921, 914.
  8. James Curtis, W. C. Fields: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2003), 157.
  9. For details, see Curtis (157–64) and especially chapter 23 of Simon Louvish’s Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields (London: Faber and Faber, 1997). Louvish says they had a lot in common, physically and temperamentally, and concludes, “McEvoy’s influence on Bill Fields was profound and long-lasting” (254). They appear together in a photograph on p. 255.
  10. It was registered with the Library of Congress as Americana: A Novel Revue—an inadvertent (or not) pun setting the stage for the revue-like novels McEvoy would soon write.
  11. George Gershwin: His Life and Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 377. Gershwin wrote a song for the show (“That Lost Barber Shop Chord”). McEvoy was assisted by Morrie Ryskind and Phil Charig, and worked with composers Con Conrad and Henry Souvaine on the score. Conrad (1891–1938) writes the music for the musical in McEvoy’s first novel, Show Girl.
  12. See Pollack 451–61 for a detail account of the musical, who notes that the script “lost much of the charm of the original novel” (453). Ethan Mordden agrees: “Very little of McEvoy’s satirical view of how scandal and crime sell fame came through” (Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008], 268).
  13. Jay records McEvoy’s remark that he stopped writing the strip around 1936 and turned it over to his son Denny and Striebel. See the feature story on the origins of the strip in Modern Mechanix, April 1934, 57, 143–44 <http://blog.modernmechanix.com/dixie-dugans-fathers/#mmGal>.
  14. For the reason, see McEvoy’s “A Jeremiad on Laundries” in Slams of Life (58–59).
  15. Times Square Tintypes (New York: Ives Washburn, 1930), 245–48.
  16. Show Girl was what The Inner Sanctum calls a Life Saver. Part of it showed up on a gray afternoon and promptly ran away with the working day of our staff. It was read and accepted in twenty-four hours. Laughter is an irresistible salesman. A number of other customers fell in line. Liberty laughed and bought Show Girl for serial publication. First National is filming it and a musical comedy is in the offing.”
  17. Her age is not given in the novel, but in the sequel set a year later, Dixie writes: “As for me I am nineteen years old and what is technically known as a virgin although I have been most thoroughly and thrillingly mauled on many occasions . . .” (Hollywood Girl 37). She also states “I am now five feet two inches tall and weigh 110 pounds” (36)—Louise Brooks’s stats.
  18. Barry Shank offers some informed observations on Denny and his profession in A Token of My Affections: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 148–51, one of the only treatments of McEvoy in recent criticism (though he gets some plot details wrong). Of McEvoy’s Slams of Life, Shank writes, “As an attempt at satire, the book fails to sustain a critical viewpoint. But it functions quite well as a document of the cheap cynicism that seemed to haunt those who produced culture on demand for commercial purposes in the first half of the twentieth century” (147).
  19. His formal name John Milton is given a few times; apparently McEvoy liked the idea of naming a horny Wall Street broker after the Puritan poet.
  20. American Mercury was the leading literary journal in the 1920s; True Story [sic] featured sleazy “sin-suffer-repent” confessions by women (often male ghostwriters).
  21. Real-life Broadway veterans Con Conrad (music), Sammy Lee (choreography), Herman Rosse (scenic design), and Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn (additional songs). Several celebrities make cameos in the novel, including Florenz Ziegfeld, Jimmy Durante, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and many others are namedropped.
  22. Saturday Review of Literature, 30 November 1929, 491.
  23. All quoted from the 1928 edition of Book Review Digest.
  24. He is called Fritz von Buelow only on the cast list in the front of the book, and is apparently based on McEvoy’s friend Erich Von Stroheim, who also makes a few cameos in his novel under his real name.
  25. In 1929, the idea of making a romantic movie out of Tennyson’s 55-line poem was absurd, but in 1936 there appeared The Charge of the Light Brigade, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
  26. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1919 German Expressionist masterpiece.
  27. The final page of the Liberty serialization (28 September 1929, 73) is much more elaborate: the Times announcement mimics the paper’s actual display and text fonts, and the extended photo includes several wedding guests and a caption, not just the wedded couple as in the published book.
  28. This is occurs in Dixie’s monologue, echoing the closing line of Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses: “. . . and yes I said yes I will Yes.” Like alcohol, Ulysses was prohibited in America at this time, but McEvoy managed to obtain both.
  29. Quoted in Book Review Digest for 1929.
  30. However, there is an inexplicable dating discrepancy: Hollywood Girl ends in April 1929, but Society begins in April 1930. A few references in the past tense to the Crash of ’29 indicate the novel is indeed set in 1930, the bulk of it from April to December, and concluding around the time of the book’s publication in the fall of 1931. Cf. note 33 below.
  31. A pun on Carroll’s stage revue Vanities. “Known as ‘the troubadour of the nude,’ Carroll was famous for his productions featuring the most lightly clad showgirls on Broadway” (Wikipedia).
  32. Thus the novel occurs during the inexplicable 1929–1930 gap between Hollywood Girl and Society, which is perhaps what McEvoy intended by re-dating the latter, hoping nobody would notice.
  33. The novel was published by Simon & Schuster’s Inner Sanctum line, an experiment at pricing new novels at $1.00 (instead of the usual $2.00) and using stiff paper rather than cloth covers. They were color-coded: blue for “books in a more or less serious vein,” green for detective and mystery novels, and red for “books of a lighter nature” (ii). Denny was classified as red.
  34. Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts was published three years later in 1933.
  35. Al and a few other characters from the greeting-card subplot in Show Girl reappear here.
  36. McEvoy drew upon his own 1922 divorce trial for this section. Jay quotes from a news story in the Portland Oregonian (27 August 1922), in which McEvoy accused his estranged wife of failing to take proper care of their children despite a generous alimony and “of gay ‘carryings on’ in her home at late hours after the children had been put to bed.” She countercharged “that McEvoy was too friendly with other women.”
  37. Outlook 155 (27 August 1930): 667. Seaver’s review appeared in the 9 August issue of the Evening Post, p. 5
  38. The Chicago of Fiction: A Resource Guide (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 236–37.
  39. When Stalinsky finally visits a Hollywood movie lot, a scene rendered in play form, the stage directions state he is shown around by a studio exec “overawing him with the lavish opulence of American technical resources and at the same time secretly frightening and depressing him with the remorseless rhythm of this great machine, spawning and spewing in callous complacence an endless flood of elegant marshmallows” (136–37), which can be read as McEvoy’s final verdict on the movie industry.
  40. This sounds like Percy Hamilton, who is parodied near the end of Show Girl (212).
  41. All quoted from the 1931 edition of Book Review Digest.
  42. “The Ghost in the Radio,” Saturday Review of Literature, 20 August 1932, 52.
  43. This recycles a stage direction in a restaurant scene in Hollywood Girl: “Above the clatter of dishes and the bumble bumble of voices a radio loud-speaker, pleasantly ignored, drools and cackles with the idiotic insistence of a half-witted relative at a family dinner” (168).
  44. There are footnoted permission acknowledgments for this and some other songs quoted in the book. McEvoy hadn’t done so in previous novels and may have run into legal problems.
  45. The earliest example recorded by the OED is John O’Hara Appointment in Samarra (1934).
  46. “Tuning for the Moonstruck Static of Radio land,” New York Times Book Review, 28 August 1932, 4.
  47. J R (New York: Knopf, 1975), 726. There’s no evidence Gaddis knew McEvoy’s work.
Feb 102017
 

Dan Green

When these pieces were isolated in space and time of publication they meant one set of things; placed alongside each other they assert themselves more pointedly. In the culture wars Green refers to throughout he is a combatant, if an unwilling one. —Jeff Bursey

Ebook-1563x2500

Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism
Daniel Green
Cow Eye Press, 2017
$14.95; 150 pages

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Introduction


Many readers of critical writing and attendees of literary conferences will have been either treated or subjected to this or that paper where the literary tail of theory wags the dog of an abject author. The image is more apt when it’s changed to theory having between its slavering jaws the corpse of a work of art, or the corpus of an artist, that will be softened by Gallic or Slavic salivary glands, masticated by deconstruction, postcolonial or queer theory until it becomes digestible matter, followed by its voiding. It’s uncommon in books of criticism nowadays to not encounter references to some or all of the following: Adorno, Althusser, Bakhtin, Barthes, Benjamin, Blanchot, Cixous, Deleuze and/or Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, le Man, Shklovsky, and Wittgenstein. What these figures focus on, as do those who cite them, dispute with them, rely on them, and build upon their foundations, is theory, not literature, which has become a resource to provide examples that upholds the Weltanschauung of the theorist. “To the extent that the kind of focus on the ‘literary’ qualities of poetry and fiction, that is, on those qualities that make them first of all works of art,” says Daniel Green in Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, “for which I advocate has been dismissed as old-fashioned or superficial, new books are in danger of receiving only the most cursory notice, the most uncritical celebration or ‘takedown,’ otherwise left to fade into future obscurity.” Without dwelling on the experience of my own reviewing, I’ll simply say that I recognize his spirit as the mark of someone conscious he is writing outside the mainstream as embodied, for Green, in such venues as New York Times Book Review, The National Review, and New York Review of Books (regardless of their political leanings), but not in The Quarterly Conversation (or, I would add, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and Rain Taxi, each offering alternative points of view of little-discussed books or fields of study).

At times that first group of journals—one could include the TLS and the London Review of Books—“regard contemporary literature simply as material, sometimes ammunition, sometimes a target, to be employed in the ongoing culture war.” (66) A pirate navigating waterways ruled by this or that thalassocracy, Green nails his colours to the mast:

Readers and critics are perfectly entitled to regard literary works in any way they want, of course, but to deliberately avoid initially engaging with them for their artistic value—the value with which their creators presumably most resolutely attempted to invest them—seems hardly in keeping with the animating purpose of literature as a form of expression. Perhaps readers need not seek out what Nabokov insisted on calling “aesthetic bliss” (although why not?), but that a work of literature might in fact produce such bliss would seem to be a fact about it that a literary critic, at any rate, should need to account for.

The method Green has found that best brings out the literary aspect of a work, and what, in part, makes him think he may be “old-fashioned,” is New Criticism. Not a blind adherence to it, however, for he has the flexibility to modify it and allow other approaches, but as he says, “…I am inclined first of all to read fiction the way the New Critics read poetry, for the integrated effects of language, for the way the parts of the text make a whole and how the parts interrelate. Ultimately, of course, you can’t avoid discussing such things as characters and point of view, but those are themselves the textual artifacts of language.” That will appear untoward or restrictive, refreshing or niche, depending on how well Green defends and advocates for his position.

Beyond the Blurb is set out as follows: Introduction; Part 1: Critical Issues; Part 2: Critical Failures; Part 3: Critical Successes; Bibliography. (There isn’t an index). The Introduction is a concise explanation as to why Green has assembled this book, where the pieces have appeared, what its purpose is, and the rationale behind his thought. He offers six “core tenets” that emphasize that reading a book is the way to get to its meaning: “The experience of reading is the experience of language,” goes one tenet. Part 1 has essays on such topics as close reading, the authority of criticism and critics, and blogs. (Green has his own well-written blog.) Part 2 addresses those critics found wanting, such as James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, and academic criticism. Part 3 focuses on Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, and William Gass, among others. Each section is packed with argument, generous quotations, and fair-mindedness.

As usual in books of this type that offer up criticism that has appeared on blogs or in the Los Angeles Review of Books there is a certain strain of modesty: “While I do not argue explicitly in these essays that reflection on such issues might be especially important in the critical discussion of current/contemporary literature, nevertheless this is a necessary and underlying assumption.” Sometimes the implicit is much stronger than it appears. When these pieces were isolated in space and time of publication they meant one set of things; placed alongside each other they assert themselves more pointedly. In the culture wars Green refers to throughout, he is a combatant, if an unwilling one.

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I.

The essays comprising Critical Issues (as with the other parts) generally use one person to centre the argument. Daniel Mendelsohn, in “Close Reading,” comes under the gaze of Green for leaving out one vital feature of a critic: “the ability to pay attention.” This allows for an explanation as to how opinions are only that unless they are backed up by evidence taken from the text, not from such a thing as “taste,” which is a code word used by “guardians of literary culture.” Disliking or liking Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith is insufficient. Critics need to argue from the evidence of the work, not from a theory that embraces (or smothers) the work while speaking about anything but its language. This is a mild essay to lead off the book, to my mind, but things pick up with “The Authority of Criticism,” wherein Ron Silliman, whose views are rooted in Marxism, is praised for his “pragmatic perspective” on criticism, and for fitting himself along the Pound-Olson-Creeley axis, one that viewed New Criticism with caution. We are given a thumbnail sketch in literary history (which, like military history, has its own share of pointless wars), a grounding in the work of someone Green respects who challenges New Criticism from a learned perspective, and a rebuttal that takes on board Silliman’s negative comments on New Criticism with poise.

Johanna Drucker is the lightning rod in “Aesthetic Autonomy.” By quoting her right off Green gives readers a taste of her work: “Fine art, artists, and critics exist within a condition of complicity with the institutions and values of contemporary culture,” Drucker says in Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity. Green responds: “I am ultimately fine with this argument, although it’s unfortunate that a defense of aesthetic value in art has to in effect make common cause with mass culture in order to ensure that ‘art’ survives as a viable endeavor to begin with.” Here we have the commodity argument: a painter has truck with commerce (in the purchase or rent of supplies, studio space, models, and then on to labour and selling the finished product). Green’s well-reasoned objection is that this is not a new idea or particularly revelatory, for it is the interpretative framework that supplies the commodity argument, not the art work itself. Through Drucker, Green is able to address the notion of art in service to ideologies as weapons, when, for him, “their refusal to submit to the expectations of ordinary discourse” signifies the autonomy many would deny them.

“The Authority of Critics” is a title that should make us pause. We rarely think of our critical writing as authoritative, especially when it’s spread over a variety of journals that have specialized and small audiences. Yet we maintain the belief that opinions, interpretations, and eisegesis sway the hearts and minds of an unseen multitude. John Carey is the subject of this essay, and Green shows how confused his thinking is in What Good Are the Arts?, classifying it as “absurd in the extreme, essentially inane” after demolishing its principal ideas: that art doesn’t exist, but that it does and that it “does some people quite a lot of good.” It would, perhaps, have made the book stronger to leave Carey out and to focus instead on someone dismissed in the Introduction, Jonathan Franzen, due to his malign and lingering impact on how the literary world divided itself according to his Status and Contract notions. While no more valid than Carey’s, they were more pernicious and, since they drew in various figures, such as Ben Marcus, this could have widened Green’s consideration of classes of fiction.

“Blogs and Alternative Literary Criticism” sets out some arguments for and against this venue of art commentary. It begins with Richard Kostelanetz’s view, from The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America (1974), of the “‘New York Intellectuals’” of the 1960s and 1970s as “agenda-setters [who] influenced critical discourse to the extent that challenges to their critical principles (and to their liberal anti-communism) were summarily dismissed when not simply ignored.” From the journals discussed—Partisan and Commentary—it is a short step to academic criticism, which Green once thought would be a suitable place for him. “Academic journals were much more likely to feature experimental and unconventional writers… and gave them more than the cursory treatment afforded by most book reviews.” Times changed, however, and soon academic criticism cared more for “context—historical, culture, theoretical—than with the text, the latter serving only to illuminate the former.” The result is we must find less theory in the hodgepodge of book reviews found in a handful of newspapers that are all too eager to waste column space to the same top 10 titles per season.

Green misses those earlier days, and is dismayed, too, about the online contemporary scene. Once, literary weblogs offered the possibility of “a plausible alternative to print book reviewing,” but this promise never became widespread. It should be said that his blog is substantial and varied, with much long-form writing. But The Reading Experience, as well as Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space and Litlove’s Tales From the Reading Room, to name two others, are numerically swamped by other blogs that present “…book business gossip, pseudo-literary trivia, and the establishment perspective.” As with print journals, weblogs are haphazardly interested in books, but rarely those that are older than ten months to a year unless it’s an undisputed classic. There’s no hope on the Internet, then, for a renaissance of critical thought.

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II.

It is beneficial to Green to write against something or someone that irritates him. In Part 2 he targets James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, Morris Dickstein, Hershel Parker, and Joseph Conte for particular failings. Two essays stand out above the others.

I agree with Green, in “James Wood,” that the subject of this essay is “a particularly pernicious influence on contemporary criticism” whose “obvious biases” towards his favoured mode, realism, exclude most fiction that does something else, especially if such works “challenge orthodoxy…” Like Green, when reading Wood I’m conscious that he is reducing the world of literature down to one preferred method of approach, that this is ungenerous to those who think in alternate ways, and that the aim of making anything different conform to a critical perspective rather than choosing to learn something new is to limit oneself needlessly. Quoting Wood on how readers analyze characters, Green states the obvious: “Why would we want to regard characters in a novel as if they were actual people, people with minds and motives and a ‘consciousness’?” This is a common thought, not a special insight Wood has; many publishers still insist they want manuscripts with characters their readers can warm to. But the common reader invoked by Wood might find it unhelpful to use their interpretation of the characters in Bleak House or The Ambassadors to negotiate with colleagues at their workplace. Figures we encounter in books are solely marks on a page, not living beings. (How a champion of realism can’t distinguish between a book, just another object in the world, and the rest of the world is not a subject that troubles Wood much.) In Green’s judgment:

Wood’s account of “how fiction works” is prescriptive, not descriptive: he wants to convince his common readers that the way of reading he presents in his book [How Fiction Works] is the one proper way of reading and that the kind of fiction that most directly satisfies the specified readerly requirements is the only kind really worthy of our attention.

Essentially, Wood regards books primarily as instruments to understand the so-called real world and that therefore impact moral decisions.

In conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard in The Paris Review, Wood attempts to classify the Norwegian author’s six-volume My Struggle, a tremendous and deliberately unwieldy amalgam of confession, dialogue allegedly recalled from years and years ago, metaphysical conceits, realism, contradictions, airy pontifications, miserable muttering, self-lampoons, artistic manifestoes, wretchedness and hilarity, as realism of a newer kind:

I think it is a general problem. One of the interesting things that’s been happening—in Norwegian literature certainly, but also in British and American fiction—has been an insistence on breaking the forms, not because there’s a postmodern rule that one has to break the forms, but for almost the opposite reason, out of a desire to achieve greater verisimilitude, and a belief that the only way to get there is to break the grammar of realism precisely as you’re describing. In Book Two you say that you’re sick of fiction, you’re sick of the mass production of fictions that all look like the same. You write that the problem was “verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant.” I think this is well put, because it doesn’t rule out fiction-making. It just makes fiction-making harder.

You can sense the strain as Wood tries to squeeze Knausgaard’s epic into a box labeled Realism by appealing to some mythical “greater verisimilitude,” as if there are levels of reality. If there are, then there’s no need for the words greater and, by implication, lesser, but if reality isn’t the same all the way through, then Wood is in serious epistemological trouble. One could also make much of how he feels supremely at ease reading the minds of writers in three countries. That’s just breathtaking.

Green has much more to say about Wood in an essay that he worries might go on for too long, but such is the general obeisance to him and the value of his imprimatur that a considered, and well-mannered, close reading of his words is welcome.

For some reason, Christopher Hitchens was considered to be a worthwhile literary critic and commentator, a low-grade Orwell. In his examination of Hitchens, whose criticism is rarely “non-political,” Green summarizes his contribution to literary criticism this way:

The poets and novelists Hitchens writes about are important to him for what they represent, for the way in which they illustrate historical movements and political ideas, for their beliefs and their habits of mind. Presumably, from Hitchens’s perspective about the most praiseworthy thing that might be said about an author is that he “conducted himself ” as a writer particularly well, not that he (or she—although Hitchens considers very few if any women writers in any of his reviews and essays) actually wrote something especially admirable.

The remainder of this cast of failures, out of one motivation or another, obscure literary works with other matter, although Green finds things to appreciate and regret in the work of the academic Joseph Conte:

If Conte’s discussions of Barth and Sorrentino illuminate qualities of their work that have not previously been as clearly identified, his chapters on White Noise, The Universal Baseball Association and Gravity’s Rainbow to some extent retrod old ground in the critical consideration of these novels. Conte uses information theory, systems theory, complexity theory, and the ideas of the mathematician Benoir Mandelbrot to map the design and debris strategy at work in these iconic postmodern texts, and while the readings that result seem perfectly cogent in elucidating that strategy, nothing very fresh is really added to the commentary on the novels themselves beyond what has already been offered in the voluminous existing criticism of them.

Conte’s final remarks on a move from print to digital reading are briefly mentioned. Green believes in the possibility that “…academic criticism will turn to electronic forms as the subject of ‘advanced’ analysis,” and it’s odd he doesn’t mention that this kind of study is going on at Electronic Book Review.

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III.

Part 3: Critical Successes presents the literary aesthetics of Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, William Gass, Michael Gorra, David Winters, and S.D. Chrostowska. (It’s a Parallel Lives of the Ignoble and Noble Critics, you could say). Green repeats the well-known encapsulation that Bloom’s thoughts on Shakespeare, the canon, and much else emphasizes “the evidence of influence” over the “formal or stylistic features” of a work and downplays the use of language. “There is still much to be learned from Bloom’s provocations, but probably his kind of reading can’t really be done by anyone else,” Green concludes, and this remark applies equally to Gass, whose idiosyncratic essays will find appeal for anyone who is already a proponent of this very different writer. As for Poirier, an academic critic, Green praises him for his work on Emerson and on style: “…unfortunately there are now few critics like Richard Poirier around to return us to the significance implicit in the reading experience itself, where the reader’s struggle to make the most of the text mirrors the writer’s struggle to allow language to make what sense it can.”

Susan Sontag occupies the polar opposite position in this section from James Wood. Her words are quoted at length, especially from the essay “On Style” that appeared in Against Interpretation. Daniel Mendelsohn’s criticism of Sontag clashes with Green’s own views on her work in a fruitful way as Green examines her theory of writing as erotic and containing a “‘sensuous surface.’” From the following Sontag quotation, it’s easy to see why a current proponent of New Criticism would find her ideas compelling:

To treat works of art [as statements] is not wholly irrelevant. But it is, obviously, putting art to use—for such purposes as inquiring into the history of ideas, diagnosing contemporary culture, or creating social solidarity. Such a treatment has little to do with what actually happens when a person possessing some training and aesthetic sensibility looks at a work of art appropriately. A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world…

In keeping with his independent streak, Green is not wholly satisfied with Sontag either, for she “can’t finally unburden her argument of the criticisms of aestheticism made by the moralists she otherwise castigates.” By speaking of moral aspects to art she diminishes her own response. “‘Art is connected with morality,’” she says, and this is a needless connection in Green’s eyes. She also doesn’t spend enough time on style—linking her to Hitchens and others—which is another fault. As with Wood, he spends a great deal of time teasing out her thought, and these twin pieces are, to my mind, the best in the book when read in tandem.

Gorra and Winters come in for different types of praise, for their positions on the role criticism can play—paying attention to the art, as Winters does, through “meticulous description and analysis,” and less to the person behind it—while refraining (especially in Gorra’s case) from indulging in the personal:

Of course, very little that is actually offered to general readers in book reviews, magazines, or trade publishing could be called academic criticism. Via the latter, the only attention given to literature is through biographies of writers, which in turn become the prompt for what passes as literary criticism in periodicals such as the New York Review of Books, noodling essays in which the reviewer makes sweeping statements about a writer’s work, often simply repeating the conventional wisdom, while otherwise mostly recapitulating whatever biography is under review.

Both writers earn Green’s respect for devising refreshed approaches to literary works.

Concluding Beyond the Blurb with a sustained and enthusiastic review of S.D. Chrostowska’s Matches: A Light Book, Green takes comfort in how this collection of sharply worded and compact aphorisms is “less a specific model of what criticism might become in the digital age than simply a challenge to seriously reflect on what Matthew Arnold called ‘the function of criticism at the present time.’” It is certainly a way to bring attention to stale methods, yet to some extent I have to disagree. In the same review Green writes:

[C]ertainly readers expecting conventionally realized critical essays, close readings, or historical analyses, the kind of book Chrostowska describes in her introductory “Proem,” in which “the words, erect, line up in columns and salute from every page,” will have to adjust their assumptions about what “criticism” properly entails.

The language in “Proem,” and throughout Matches, comes from a poetic sensibility aligned with a finely tuned critical mind. Most works of literature that we consider personally important—our own canons, not a list of books we’re told we should read—contain revelations and social criticism. They can affirm what we believe in better language than we possess or upend our complacency, even if only temporarily. They undercut long-held beliefs in what can be talked about and what kind of language can be used to get across ideas. Matches is the agonized, at times wry, lament of a liberal mind watching as a general deterioration of the world is leading to a final darkness, and the liberal narrator’s mind becomes inflexible and grim. Without distortion, Green’s “conventionally realized critical essays” can be seen as a set of assays in story-telling forms: the dialogue, the homily, the lecture, the fantastic tale, the pensive meditation on the mundane, the humourous quip, and so on. While not wholly new, the form of Matches confidently includes academic criticism and novelization. “Indeed, it would not be wholly implausible to regard Matches as itself a novel of sorts,” Green admits. What is dispensed with is scenery, character (except for the persona), plot, and so on, and what is most prominent is the attention to form and language; these are hallmarks of much postmodern fiction. Matches is a Janus-faced work.

With this review we come to the abrupt end of Beyond the Blurb.

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Conclusion

There are some questions raised by the contents of Green’s book. I wonder why Steve Moore, a critic who has redefined what the novel is, and written on many current books, is not the subject of an essay instead of (or in addition to) Michael Gorra. The same goes for Stephen Mitchelmore, whose own excellent collection of essays, This Space of Writing, came out in late 2015. Green does review that book on his site, along with others, and in that review Green describes Mitchelmore’s book as follows:

After reading the entirety of This Space of Writing readers will likely have an adequately clear understanding of what Mitchelmore means by “silence” (and why it’s missing from most conventional literary fiction) and why its lack of “horizon” makes literature uniquely rewarding, but I confess to finding his critical language at times somewhat impalpable or cryptic, at least according to my own admittedly more buttoned-down approach to criticism.

There is a definitely a restraint in Green’s language—though certainly no hesitation to point fingers when required—and it’s only a minor quibble, a matter of taste (a word I use hesitantly here), that some might prefer a more free-wheeling style. The omission of essays on Moore and Mitchelmore strike me as a missed opportunity.

If it appears that I’ve gone on rather long about a book of criticism, it’s partly because in Beyond the Blurb Daniel Green has written an accessible and contrary-minded work that is at war or in agreement (mild or strong) with prevailing trends of critical writing, and the incorporation of so many strands of thought warrants due space. As he writes about a subject that some writers would be thought to have a vested interest in—how their works are received and, potentially of less significance, used—this book can be recommended to them, as well as to the general reader who may be less and less inclined, and with good reason, to rely on the book pages in their local papers (if such a section even exists) for guidance.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Feb 042017
 

Nancy, Jean-Luc

In this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure?     —Melissa Considine Beck

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Coming
Jean-Luc Nancy with Adele Van Reeth
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Fordham University Press, 2016
168 pages, $22.00

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In this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few.

Nancy made the suggestion of using the infinitive, “To Come” for the English title of this book but Charlotte Mandell thought that the gerund “Coming” would be a better choice to capture the continual nature of movement associated with jouissance. Included in the edition published by Fordham University Press is a beginning note that Nancy writes himself in which he explains the problem with rendering jouissance into an appropriate English title:

In English, sexual orgasm is expressed by the verb “to come.” This has no corresponding noun. What is shared by both lexical registers is an idea of accomplishment. In French, we say venir (to come) for “reaching jouissance,” but the word is mostly used between sexual partners (“viens!” for example.) In choosing the gerund “coming,” Charlotte Mandell aptly brings out action or movement, something that is in the process of occurring, which, in fact, is attached to jouissance and to jouir; that is, precisely, what remains irreducible either to a state or to an acquisition, to an accomplishment or to an appropriation.

It is interesting to note that throughout the text of Coming, jouissance is simply translated in brackets as “pleasure” or is not translated at all, a constant reminder of the elusive nature of this word that has no equivalent translation in English.

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Defining Jouissance: What the fuck does this French word mean?

Nancy is a master at speaking about the nuances of language and uncovers, unpacks and explains specific French words, with their etymological roots in Latin, that are closely related to jouissance. He begins the discussion with an examination of the French verb Jouir, which means “to enjoy” and “to have an orgasm,” and is derived from the Latin verb gaudere, “to rejoice,” and therefore has no etymological relationship to sex or sexuality. At some point there is a shift in meaning of jouissance from property to sexual pleasure and orgasm. Nancy speculates that this shift begins with the middle French use of joie (joy) which denotes the sensual or sexual feelings of the troubadour poets; these poets have a joy of love that is sensual but jouissance, in the sense of reaching orgasm, is avoided. Nancy exclaims, “One of the ordeals of courtly love even consisted of the knight sleeping with his lady without making love!”

He further explores this shift in meaning by comparing the French words jouissance [pleasure] and joy [joie] and how they are different. Nancy argues that jouisssance corresponds to what Kant called pleasant—when something is pleasant it is something that is felt inside of me because something suits me. Joy, however, is outside of me and carries me towards something else. Nancy goes one step further in the etymological connections of various words to jouissance and explains réjouissance (rejoicing), whose root and meaning are very close to jouissance. Nancy points out that réjouissance is not used very often today and when it is used it describes something that is public such as popular festivities. Nancy concludes about the etymological connection between réjouissance and jouissance:

The idea of festivities, réjouissances, refers to festive excess, to a certain suspension of everyday activities, but also to obligation and finality. That is where we find jouissance, in the sense of joyful acclamations greeting the arrival of an important person, like the jouissance of the people at the arrival of the king.

We can say, then, that joy and réjouissance are like jouissance in that they all denote an excess. The idea of excess and its association with jouissance will be a topic brought repeated throughout Coming. Jouissance is an experience of excessive sexual pleasure in the form of orgasm which experience we seek over and over again.

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Jouissance as a shared experience: Is it possible to fuck alone?

The style of interview works exceptionally well for Coming because not only does Van Reeth adeptly sum up Nancy’s complicated thoughts, but she also asks him precise questions which elicit more of his ideas; Van Reeth is able to challenge Nancy to expound on his positions and she keeps the dialogue moving forward rather fluidly. In this part of the interview that deals with the subject and the object in the context of jouissance, Van Reeth begins:

Jouissance as experience implies a dissolution of the subject as well as the impossibility of appropriating its object. How then can we define what makes us enjoy [jouir]? And above all, since the question of object goes back to that of the subject: Who is it that enjoys [jouit]?

Nancy insists that jouissance has no specific subject because I am not the owner of my jouissance. How can it be possible for a person to own an orgasm if his or her sexual climax involves another person, another body. What I take pleasure from is just as much my pleasure as it is the pleasure of the other with whom I am engaging in a sexual relationship. Nancy brilliantly anticipates his critics who would argue that masturbation disproves the nonexistence of subject and takes his argument a step further by stating that when pleasuring oneself the other is still present in the form of a fantasy. So when we fuck, we are never fucking alone even if there isn’t another physical body in the room.

It during this part of the discussion that Nancy brings up Lacan and his exploration of jouissance in relation to the pleasure principal. Lacan believes that a subject attempts to go beyond, to transgress the pleasure principal and this brings about pain. It is with this excess, with this reaching of pleasure beyond a limit that Lacan defines jouissance. Although Nancy has been critical of modern psychology throughout his career, he credits Lacan with his effort “to try to find the meaning of jouissance, beyond the fulfillment of satisfaction, into a sortie, outside oneself, into exuberance, ecstasy….”

Van Reeth’s importance in this philosophical exchange is underscored in this section as she further presses Nancy on Lacan’s examination of jouissance:

How do you understand Lacan’s phrase asserting there is no sexual relationship? If there is no sexual relationship, there is no sexual jouissance. But wouldn’t it be truer to understand not that jouissance is impossible, but that it is inconceivable? Just as the fact that there is no sexual relationship would signify that there is no thinkable relationship. It would be a way to preserve the space unique to jouissance as experience.

Nancy’s insight into Lacan is a starting point for his thoughts on jouissance as a shared experience and it will also serve as a prompt from which to discuss the links between aesthetic and sexual jouissance in the next section of the interview:

That is probably what Lacan means. ‘There is no sexual relationship’ can be understood in several ways: There is no proportion, no commensurability, no conclusion either. The sexual relationship cannot be written down. The implication is: there is no account of it, no ‘report’ [rapport, which also means ‘relationship]’ But it is precisely to that extent that there is a real rapport, which demands incommensurability and a form of non-conclusion. A relationship is maintained [s’entretient]. It is not completed. A completed, accomplishment is either a breakup, or a fusion. And in fusion there is no longer any relationship. It would be truer to say, then, that jouissance is inconceivable, not impossible.

In sum, pleasure comes down to a matter of shared meaning whether there is a sexual partner or not. At the end of this section dealing with subject and shared pleasure, Nancy makes one of the simplest, yet thought-provoking statements in this entire volume: Where does sexuality begin and where does it stop? He concludes, “Perhaps it begins very, very far from the sexual act itself.”

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Aesthetic and Sexual Jouissance: Fucking in motion

Even though Nancy argues that jouissance is never a solitary experience, he also explains that pleasure is unshareable, much in the same way that aesthetic pleasure is a singular experience, unique to each individual.  As he opens thoughts on the link between sexual jouissance and aesthetic jouissance, Nancy points out that it is Freud who first establishes the transfer of aesthetic jouissance to sexual jouissance. Nancy’s criticism of psychology becomes apparent as he disagrees with Freud on his speculation that there is a specific order in which seduction happens—gazing, hearing, touching, must happen first, Freud argues, and only at the end of this progression does Freud finally come to the genitalia through which the tension in the form of orgasm is released.

This part of the discussion in which Nancy brings his reader to understand the connection between sexual and aesthetic jouissance is typical of his very dense, erudite, and multifaceted writing. He references various texts of Freud, he dissects more Latin words via Spinoza, he mentions the young Chilean philosopher Juan Manuel Garrido, he quotes David Hume, and he reaches all the way back to the ancient texts of Plato to make a point about pleasure. As I carefully read his text which is thick with history, philosophy and literature, I take notes, I read or reread authors whose books are sitting on my shelf to whom Nancy has referenced, I search the Internet for authors unknown to me, which laborious activities sometimes feel like a feeble attempt to absorb the full scope of his genius. But all of a sudden, at the end of a complicated series of thoughts, Nancy composes a short, simple, beautiful, concise paragraph that grabs me so forcefully that I pause my frenzy of research:

What we enjoy in an aesthetic form is the movement of this form, even though it ends up being completed. What’s more, an aesthetic form is probably never exhausted and, on the contrary, does not stop enjoying itself (jouir d’elle-meme).

And a bit further on in the same discussion:

In jouissance, they [bodies] become almost formless. Which is radically opposed to that call to eroticism, in advertising or movies, always summoning beautiful, perfected forms. Whereas in eroticism, in eros, these forms become undone.

Nancy reveals in these two simple yet erudite statements that in art there is no formula for what is considered beautiful. Furthermore, we can carry this over to jouissance in which there is no formula to be followed; each person experiences beauty, art and sexual jouissance in his or her own unique way this experience is impossible to share. In a relationship there are no accepted forms or defined forms of beauty, these forms are uniquely decided by the persons within a relationship.

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The Creative Power of Jouissance: Is There an Art to Fucking?

Nancy’s discussion of the link between sexual and aesthetic jouissance, with a particular emphasis on the art of writing, is the most accessible and interesting piece of this interview. Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again. “The artist,” he argues, “is in action in his work, and he also takes pleasure [jouit] from being in the process of working. He suffers too, it’s always laborious.”

Nancy is a prominent and well-known contributor to the studies of art and his cultural writings have covered the topics of literature, poetry, theater, music and film. Nancy has written books on the subject of art and has also written pieces for international art journals and art catalogs. He has a text from a lecture given 1992 at the Louvre displayed with the painting ‘The death of the virgin’ by the Italian painter Caravaggio. It is fitting that Fordham University Press has used a Caravaggio painting for this edition of Coming thereby reminding us of Nancy’s interest in the Italian painter.

In order to lead Nancy into elaborating on the similarities between the pleasure of art, specifically the art of writing, and sex, Van Reeth reads a passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in which the author asserts that writing and sexuality bring about the same pleasure. In a letter dated April 13, 1903 from Viarregio, near Pisa, Rilke writes:

And in fact artistic experiences lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight.

Nancy picks up on the idea that Rilke is speaking of writing as working toward the unknown, without a goal, which is also true for artists who work with music or paint. The art passes through the artist to the spectator who experiences the work of art through a plethora of senses. In the end the artist has no real understanding of how his or her work is received, of the various ways in which someone experiences pleasure through his or her art. The pleasure that is experienced by the spectator as a result of interacting with his work is unshareable just as the experience of sexual jouissance. When we speak about sexual pleasure and orgasm, is there really a word or phrase that captures a good fuck? How can we truly and accurately describe the best fuck we’ve ever had? The experience is unshareable when we make any attempt to put it in words.

The true brilliance of Nancy’s dissection of language comes with his elaboration on the verbal similarities of art and sex. Artistic media such as color and rhythm are used to describe both art and sex. Rhythm, for instance, is present in an art’s use of color and can also be applied to the lover’s caress of the body. The best sex is enjoyed when lovers find a rhythm and Rhythm is a coming-and-going, a constant movement a repetition. Nancy concludes about rhythm:

Rhythm in general is born from what is never definitively there, from what does not stay in place and causes us to return, what leads to jouissance. Rhythm is fundamental for humans, bur for nature as well; think of the rhythm of the stars.

Art and sex cannot exist without movement. It is the seduction, the process, the rhythm that leads to artistic and sexual jouissance

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Suffering and Fucking—Christianity’s Influence on jouissance

The fourth part of the book, dealing with Christianity and its influence on jouissance is the shortest and the least stimulating part of the dialogue. Nancy has been interested in and critical of Christianity throughout his career and we get a cursory survey of his thoughts in this section. Throughout their dialogue on pleasure, Nancy and Van Reeth both tangentially bring up the close relationship between pleasure and suffering. Nancy sites the works of de Sade as an example of jouisssance being the result of pain inflicted on another or on oneself. Pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful. Van Reeth uses the example of Proust’s narrator who, in the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe, describes the very noisy sexual encounter between Baron de Charlus and Julien as akin to the sound of a man having his throat split. The narrator concludes, “if there is one thing as loud as suffering, it’s pleasure.”

Nancy begins the section by arguing that Christianity was the calming solution to the disintegration of the theocratic regimes, the loss of which political system caused great anxiety and unrest. Christianity brings to mankind the idea that life is simply a passage to another spiritual side, a passage that is marked by suffering. It is the Passion of Christ that provides us with a redemptive kind of suffering and suffering is specifically attached to life on earth. One must pass through suffering in this life in order to attain salvation. As a result there is a definitive break and distinction between heavenly joy and human joy. Because of Christianity’s condemnation of the flesh, earthly pleasures such as human joy and jouissance become evil and separate from heavenly joy and jubilation. It is fitting that their discussion on Christianity and suffering, even in relation to jouissance, is the most somber part of Van Reeth and Nancy’s dialogue.

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From Consummation to Consumption: Do we give a fuck about anything anymore?

Nancy explains that Christianity was an attempt to organize people into one community, but the appearance of a modern state served to divide individuals until the invention of capitalism. “which would insert the individual subject into the circuit of a new jouissance: no longer the jouissance of excess, but that of accumulation and investment. It’s a jouissance that can no longer bear that name.” Van Reeth asks Nancy what, exactly, has changed to cause the meaning of jouissance to shift once again.

It was Communism, Nancy argues, that provided the connection between jouissance and profit, which political theory believed that everyone’s hard work will produce profits that can be equally shared by all –this sharing of profits would be a source of jouissance. But nowadays, people are working harder than ever and the profits are accumulated by a very small percentage of the upper classes. Nancy argues that jouissance has now come full circle to be associated with its legal meaning which is that of possession and acquisition.

Today, jouissance has become confused with and associated with profit as well as property.   Excess has now taken on a quantitative definition in that we must possess the greatest possible number of things that we can. Nancy concludes: “It has left heaven, joy, to land again on earth.” With the ubiquity of things that we consume that push us to the brink of addition—little blue pills, a plethora of opiates, internet pornography—jouissance today has evolved into a kind of greedy consumption in which excess has become the norm. With the disappearance of excess what is left that gives us pleasure? Have we landed in an epoch of post-pleasure?

In this final part of the dialogue when Nancy brings up modern ideas of consumption and their relation to jouissance he shows that he has continued to think about philosophical topics and how they can be applied to current social and political situations. Orgasm, masturbation, sexual pleasure, addiction, and jouissance itself are topics that seem more fitting for the field of psychology and have not been explored by philosophers. Despite his years of suffering through grave illnesses and his advanced age, Nancy proves in the publication of Coming that he is as relevant and progressive as ever in his field.

Although Coming is a short book, some might be intimidated by the breadth and depth of Nancy’s thought. It is, however, an excellent and thorough introduction to the wide range of ideas on which Nancy has expertly written and a scintillating discussion of pleasure, sex, orgasm, fucking, desire, pain, and how we experience these things with our bodies. The interview style of the text in which Van Reeth summarizes Nancy’s main points and propels the conversation forward with her questions makes Coming one of his most accessible and fucking enjoyable books.

—Melissa Considine Beck

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Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy..

Dec 122016
 

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To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine. —Melissa Considine Beck

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

American Philosophy: A Love Story
John Kaag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016
272 pages; $26.00

 

O Wild West Wood, thou breath of Autumn’s being.
Thou, from those unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed.

—“Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Shelley

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Holden Chapel, at first glance, is a small, unassuming, forty-foot, Georgian style, brick building on the campus of Harvard University. But it has a rich and interesting history as the third oldest building at Harvard and as one of the oldest college buildings in America. In December of 1741, Harvard accepted a generous donation of 400 pounds sterling from Mrs. Holden, widow of Samuel Holden, and her daughters to build a chapel on campus. The building was erected in 1744 and from that year until 1772 morning and even prayers were held for students in the quaint building and it also served as a place for intimate and engaging lectures. On April 15th, 1895 the American Philosopher William James delivered his famous “Is Life Worth Living?” essay to a group of young men from the Harvard YMCA.

William James, known as the Father of American Psychology, was the son of Henry James, Sr., the Swedenborgian theologian, and the brother of the famous American novelist Henry James. William James contemplated becoming an artist, but in 1861 he enrolled in medical school at Harvard where he eventually graduated with an MD. But James never practiced medicine and was instead drawn to psychology and philosophy and became a pioneer in both of these fields. During his young adulthood James suffered from long bouts of depression which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia. His depression and anxiety, which he calls his “soul-sickness” led him to contemplate suicide and he even overdosed on chloral hydrate in the 1870’s just to see how close he could come to death without actually crossing that threshold. It was the exploration of philosophy and his attempt to answer the question “Is Life Worth Living” that brings him out of his malaise and inspires him to compose some of the most important philosophical pieces that make up the American school of pragmatic philosophy.

John Kaag’s philosophical and literary memoir American Philosophy: A Love Story, begins with the young philosopher’s own “soul-sickness” and his frequent visits to the site of James’s famous lecture, Holden Chapel, in the Spring of 2008. Kaag is on a postdoc at The American Academy of Arts and Sciences when his crumbling marriage, the death of his alcoholic father and the stagnation of his research push him to contemplate what he believes to be William James’s most important philosophical question: “Is Life Worth Living?”

I was supposed to be writing on the confluence of eighteen century German idealism and American Pragmatism. Things were progressing, albeit very slowly.

But then, on an evening in the Spring of 2008 I gave up. Abandoning the research had nothing to do with the work itself and everything to do with the sense that it, along with everything else in my life, couldn’t possibly matter. For the rest of my year at Harvard I assiduously avoided its libraries. I avoided my wife, my family, my friends. When I came to the university at all I went only to Holden Chapel. I walked past it, sat next to it, read against it, lunched near it, sneaked into it when I could—became obsessed with it. James had, as far as I was concerned, asked the only question that really mattered. Is life worth living? I couldn’t shake it and I couldn’t answer it.

Kaag’s clipped and pithy sentences which employ asyndeton for maximum dramatic effect make this book about so much more than philosophy and literature. He is not afraid to reveal his darkest thoughts or lowest moments and he is also not above using profanity or embarrassing stories about himself to get his point across.   The style of deep, private reflection mixed with philosophical dialogue is reminiscent of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But, unlike Pirsig, who wrote computer manuals for a living, Kaag’s book is a great personal and professional risk for a philosopher whose two previous books are for a very specific, academic, Ivory Tower audience: Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition and Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism: The Philosophy of Ella Lyman Cabot.

holden_chapel_harvard_universityHolden Chapel, Harvard University

American Philosophy is aptly and cleverly divided into three main parts which recall the journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory and Redemption. Kaag’s journey starts in Part I, in “Hell,” on his way to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for a philosophy conference on William James at the Chocorua Public Library, but he gets sidetracked for the first of many times throughout the book. There is a sense of wandering and loneliness that punctuates American Philosophy and in this instance, the first real instance of meandering, Kaag can’t even bring himself to his end point which is a professional conference. Instead of going to meet his colleagues at the Chocorua Library, he stops at a German bakery where he meets Bunn Nickerson.   This kind, ninety-three-year old, local gentleman tells Kaag that William Ernest Hocking, the prominent 20th century American philosophy professor from Harvard, has an estate which is nearby and contains a unique library. Bunn offers to take Kaag there to have a look around.

The family still used the Hocking estate, which was named West Wood, in the summer, but in the fall of 2008 all of the buildings were empty of any human inhabitants and the library appeared to be utterly neglected and abandoned. A copy of The Century Dictionary from 1889, a first edition encyclopedic dictionary with more than seven thousand pages and ten-thousand wood engraved illustrations, catches his eye through the window and his decision to enter this library, even though it was trespassing, completely alters the course of Kaag’s life for the better.

Kaag stumbles upon an opportunity to heal his soul in the form of West Wood’s stone library which, upon entering, he discovers is home to more than 10,000 books. The books that Kaag finds inside this unlocked and unheated building, especially the number of first editions, are the stuff of dreams for any bibliophile. Among the rodent droppings, porcupines, termites, various other bugs and dust Kaag finds Descartes’ Discourse on Method–first edition from 1649, Thomas Hobbes’s Levithan-first edition from 1651, the complete, leather-bound volumes of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, John Locke’s Two Treatise on Government from 1690, Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft from 1781, Emerson’s Letters and Social Aims–first edition, 1875 and on and on. To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine.

William Ernest Hocking, the owner of this vast personal library was, like his teacher William James, also a pragmatist who believed that philosophy could have an effect on real life. His personal library was a collection of not only European thinkers and philosophers, but he also amassed books that contained the thoughts of Eastern philosophy. Hocking studied with James at Harvard as well as other American thinkers such as Royce, Palmer and Santayana. In 1908, Hocking moved from his home on the West Coast to accept a teaching position at Yale and in 1916 when his mentor, Josiah Royce died, Hocking took over his chair in philosophy at Harvard. Hocking would go on to spend the next forty years at Harvard making a name for himself as one of the prominent scholars of American pragmatism. Kaag discovers that many of the books in Hocking’s library were once owned by Hocking’s famous teachers and colleagues at Harvard and some of their signatures, notations and inscriptions inside the books were just as valuable as the leather bound books themselves.

hockingWilliam Ernest Hocking

Throughout the course of Part I, Kaag’s “Hell,” he comes to the painful decision that his marriage is a mess and not capable of being saved. He leaves his wife in Boston and spends more and more time at West Wind where he becomes acquainted with Hocking’s granddaughters, Jennifer, Jill and Penny. The sisters are “surprised and releived” that someone is interested in the books and Kaag begins to catalog the massive collection and attempts to save the oldest, most vulnerable books by moving them to dry storage. As he works his way through the books he continues on his deeply personal and lonely struggle with his own purpose and existence. He writes:

In the following months I started cheating on my wife with a room full of books. I made the trip to New Hampshire repeatedly. My wife and mother—in a unison that always infuriated me—demanded to know where I was going. I could have told the truth but instead I chose to lie, making up conferences that needed to be attended and friends I wanted to visit. Up until that point my life had been so routine, so scripted, so normal, so good—but my brief encounter with my dead father the previous year had brought that life to an unceremonious end. Nothing about life is normal. And nothing about life has to be good. It’s completely up to the liver. The question—Is life worth living?—doesn’t have a scripted, public answer. Each answer is excruciatingly personal, and therefore, I thought, private.

One of the greatest strengths of Kaag’s narrative is that he is not afraid to show that his attempt to escape his wretched existence by means of the library at West Wind was not always noble or dignified or pretty. He skips meals, he neglects his hygiene, he drinks excessively, he begins to prematurely age and he sleeps out in the woods behind West Wind where he catches a nasty case of Lyme Disease. Who among us hasn’t hit a low point in our lives to which we can look back and trace our gradual ascent out of the abyss? The stark honesty of Kaag’s narrative is brave, especially for someone who is an academic philosopher, because he includes all of the ugliness of his journey from Hell to Redemption which details he could have just as easily skimmed over or avoided altogether.

The ideas and themes of American philosophy and literature which are unfolded within the pages of Kaag’s book mimic the philosophers own process of discovery as he unpacks and unfolds the wonders of Hocking’s library. One encounters James, Emerson, Thoreau, Coleridge, Camus, Royce, Whitman, Peirce, Frost and Dante just to name a few. Many readers never give much thought to American philosophers, or as Kaag notes, American philosophy is regarded as “provincial” and “narrow in its focus.” Kaag, however, delves into the pages of American philosophical writings with unbridled enthusiasm that is enhanced by his literary ability to tell interesting and engaging stories about the real lives of these great American thinkers. As one example of this, Kaag summarizes the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s struggle with the idea of freedom and the impact chance has on our choices. Peirce took issue with the emphasis of orderly design over chance and freedom that Darwin and the evolutionists promoted. The philosophical theories of Peirce’s Design and Chance are discussed by Kaag in the context of Peirce’s struggle in his personal life with romantic love. The anecdotes and stories about Peirce’s real life struggles makes what could be a dry recounting of Peirce’s philosophical pragmatism into a gripping story about a great thinker who is attempting to make sense out of his confusing and chaotic world.

Kaag spends the next year in the woods at West Wood with Hocking’s books and continues to contemplate James’s important question. As he works his way through the library he reads countless volumes of American philosophy and literature, with a few Europeans mixed in, that help him through the different stages of his emotional and spiritual journey. The most significant turning point in Kaag’s Hell is when he begins reading Thoreau and reflecting on that writer’s own retreat to the woods. Kaag becomes frustrated with Emerson’s idea of self-reliance which he feels is unattainable and unrealistic. Instead he embraces Thoreau’s example of simplicity, cultivating the earth, and turning off and tuning out all of the modern amenities that distract us from searching for real meaning in our lives.

At one point Kaag takes a break from sifting through books in the library asks Hocking’s granddaughter, Jennifer, the least “intellectual” of the sisters, if he can help her clear a field by scything. As he takes in the simplicity of the landscape at West Wood and tries to deal with this very physical task, Kaag comes to realize through this experience of scything that the process of self-discovery needs to happen for him outside of the walls of the stone library and that this process would be slow and couldn’t be forced; he learns to stop and look around him and be mindful of his surroundings and this becomes his first, significant step from Hell to Purgatory.

william-jamesWilliam James

In Kaag’s Purgatory, the subtitle of “A Love Story” is further explained through the first glimpses and descriptions of Carol whom the author confesses he should, by all accounts, have hated. By this point in the book he is divorced and his ex-wife is remarried and moving out west, but Kaag’s loneliness and isolation linger. He continues to spend hours and days and weeks at West Wind and to catalogue Hocking’s library and to save the most precious volumes from the elements. One weekend he invites Carol, a colleague of his from UMass Lowell, a Kantian feminist, who is also his rival for a tenure track academic job, to join him in sifting through the library at West Wood. Carol is married, but her husband lives in Canada so their long distance relationship gives her plenty of freedom and independence to travel with Kaag to New Hampshire on this as well as many occasions.

While sifting through the pages of Hocking’s library and taking hikes through the White Mountains together, it is evident that Kaag’s feelings for Carol become more than friendly. There is a hint in the text that Kaag, in the tradition of Dante, wants to find his inspiration, his Beatrice and he has found just such a companion in Carol. But her marriage and his general uncertainty about the direction of his life makes for an unexpected element of suspense in the midst of the book as he debates how or when he should reveal his true affections for her. Thoughts of American philosophy and James run through his mind as he is mulling over his decisions:

Shall I profess my love? Shall I be moral? Shall I live? These are the most important questions of modern life, but are also questions that do not have factually verifiable answers. For James such answers will be, at best, provisional. There are no physical signs that one is emotionally ready to become a lover or husband, auguries that suggest one will be any good at any of it. In fact, there is often a disturbing amount of countervailing evidence. But human beings still have to choose, to make significant decisions in the face of uncertainty. Love is what James would have called a “forced option”—you either choose to love or you don’t. There is no middle ground.

Kaag deliberately chooses to exclude the details of his development of an intimate relationship with Carol. The decision to keep this part of his personal life between himself and Carol is worthy of great admiration and respect—he knows that an author can cross the threshold into the type of salacious writing that is meant to sell books and Kaag stops just shy of veering into the realm of romance. Kaag simply remarks about their decision to choose love and to choose one another: “Some things are better left unsaid, and others can’t be said at all.”

But we do get a glimpse of their life together in the final part of American Philosophy which has the hopeful title of “Redemption.” Kaag finds happiness, true love and companionship and Hocking’s books find a safe haven in the library at UMass Lowell. But despite the happy ending for all persons and things involved in his journey, Kaag is still all too aware of the ephemeral nature of our existence and he acknowledges that we are responsible for making our own meaning in life with what we are given.

Kaag concludes with a reflection of his time at West Wood and how far he has come from those lonely days in 2008 when he was obsessed with Holden Chapel. In 1780 religious services ceased to be held in Holden Chapel and in 1800 it was converted into a chemistry and dissection lab for the students of Harvard medical school. Bones that were the remains of medical dissections were discovered in the walls of the chapel when it was renovated in 1990. Nowadays Holden Chapel reverberates with the sweets sounds of music as it is used by the Harvard Glee Club for practice. Kaag notes that in the Middle Ages it was not uncommon to bury the bones of the dead in buildings for apotropaic purposes but also because they were good for the acoustics. This strange mix of the sounds of the living occupying the same space as the bones of the dead in this small, historical chapel is reminiscent of the opening lines of Yves Bonnefoy’s Ursa Major:

What’s that noise?

     I didn’t hear anything….

     You must have! That rumbling. As if a train had roared
through the cellar.

     We don’t have a cellar.

     Or the walls.

     But they’re so thick! And packed so hard by so many

centuries…

—Melissa Considine Beck

N5

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Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy.

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Dec 042016
 

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Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to a few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinion of many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court to appeal to, one looks to the end. So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar . . .      — Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe

He remains hidden, even from a good height, completely hidden by stooped bodies. Hidden, too, from below by figures advancing on all fours. One sees only a great many arms swooping down from above like a flock of surgeons, or else the pack nosing in underneath, like famished dogs.

At a distance, the athletic mass, skin taut and glistening, is a picture of harmony. Zooming in, however, disorder becomes unmistakeable. Everything slithers and twists, strains and reaches, gaps no sooner open than are filled with muscle. A lock here, a grip there, the combat of calves, the tension of jaw and sinew. Limbs sliding and slapping, weight bearing down relentlessly. A tremendous struggle. Clash, flexure, friction. Welts, contusions, concussions. And, rising from the thick of it, a smell of intimate aggression.

They are coming in from all directions just to touch him. Though they have not laid eyes on him, they carry with them some image and know the principles he is to embody. Whether he appears real or ideal, he attracts them just the same, as a magnet does metal filings, or a sweetmeat does ants.

What I can see from the observation tower erected for foreign observers I describe for you. The occasion of my visit to the Republic of Opferling is, as you know, the induction of the prince-elect. My movements have been closely monitored since my arrival. Security is on maximum alert for the length of the ceremonial. All other government functions are suspended. Citizens cannot be interviewed at this time, no officials are available for comment, and we handful of reporters are strictly proscribed from comparing notes. I am thus left to my own devices, and nobody here seems to care what ideas I come away with.

In such conditions, with so little to go on, reporting stretches the imagination. Before we know it we have also stretched the truth. My report will of necessity be a short one.

It is the local tradition that the new prince receives a public “blessing” from the electorate before taking office. The custom, representing an archaic form of republicanism, is widely known and notoriously misunderstood. To an outsider looking in, it is even more cryptic for being conducted entirely out in the open.

The confirmation ceremony extends over many days, and takes a most bizarre form: tactile accolade. A tangible connection is sought by each and every member of the polity. Should the prince die from exposure to all this physical attention, which is almost to be expected, the Opferlingen simply choose another, repeating their rite until, eventually, a survivor is installed as ruler.

Even stranger than this primitive business of rubbing the body of the prince is the way the multitude goes about it. There is no procession, no filing in and taking of turns. They press forward in the most confused fashion, stripped to the waist on account of the heat. Their numbers swell and ebb depending on the hour—all the regulation I can discern.

On the other hand, the crowd’s focus and dynamic make a stampede unlikely. Contact with the future leader is clearly with them a matter of contest. But it is a fight from which but one man can emerge as either winner or loser, and that is the prince.

From the great heaving jumble comes a soft moaning. The occasional whimpering cry merges, if my ears do not deceive me, with distinct sighs of pleasure. Do they belong to him? Finally a brief parting of the masses reveals something—a nude torso that can only be his—horizontal upon a kind of altar. I am allowed only this glimpse.

Everyone craves to feel it, all want a piece of it. And as long as they want it, it is there. They have their hands all over the supine idol. In a casual onlooker who stumbles upon the scene by accident, the lustful noises could easily produce disgust. But to a reporter, whose job is to get beneath the skin of these people and track what is going on, their undulating motion soon seduces, their energy becomes irresistible, and the urge to join in can barely be repressed.

By this point, the incumbent offers no more resistance to their caresses. As the sun dips low on the horizon, those nearest the center of the fray appear blood-red, their bare chests and shoulders smeared with some kind of pigment.

The prince’s body, on view now beneath the sloping sky, bathed in the sun’s waning glow, looks beatific. I find the thought of running my hand across it, of pressing against it, strongly arousing. Touch has in the body one great organ; can the senses of sight, hearing, smell, or taste boast as much?

There is of course more of him I cannot see. I imagine my palms gliding slowly over the mounds and bulges, exploring valleys and hollows, fingers tracing orifices, probing them… Should I be embarrassed by these fantasies? Is it not my place to participate, if only imaginatively? I stand with my notepad conscious of the guard, who like the Capitoline Brutus looks both watchful and eternal; he has seen it all before: the concourse below, the foreigner with notepad in hand and eyes transfixed, pulse accelerating.

I see clearly now: those thronging about him are smeared with his blood. There he lies, the sacrifice, limp and ruddy, like something flayed or badly burnt. I look away as the spectacle begins to turn my stomach. There is a clear limit to being a mere observer, unable to go down among them.

The more flesh is fondled the more it chafes. Even caresses eventually draw blood. These are not the manicured feelers of aristocrats, but the rough paws of workers and warriors. In this constant turnover of hands, no scab can form on the raw skin of the prince. The experience must be quite painless—except when a drop of sweat falls on the vast wound that is his body, sending through it a visible shiver. When this happens, in a sympathetic reaction everyone encircling him convulses as well.

The ambiguity of the sounds coming from the direction of the prince owes much to this saline sting. Pain articulated upon bliss, articulated upon pain… Truly, I have little pity for the man. His is only an exacerbation of what we all feel, his potential reward much greater.

Will anyone put an end to this senseless orgy? Has it not gone on long enough? But it is obvious it will take as long as it does. Each must get their share.

None of it is really surprising, I must say. I heard tell of the cruelty of these people more than once. In person they do not disappoint: clustered like vultures around their prey, hardly any meat left on him to satisfy their voracious appetite. Is this the community of brothers descended from the primal horde? Is it really all a re-enactment of the founding of civil society? The “prince” here is little more than a carcass, an inanimate object—not a credible stand-in for a despotic patriarch, whose children gang up to kill him for denying them sexual satisfaction. The old account is unilluminating and I am forced to discard it.

Everything is permitted. There are no rules, no stroke is too indecent. All of it is equally obscene. The Opferlingen are unusually strict in everyday sexual mores. To me the prince might be a living relic, a martyr worthy of public veneration, but he is subject to treatment normally beneath the dignity of his “subjects.” Let me be clear: this is no carnival, with merriment and overturned hierarchies, presided over by the Prince of Fools. They are acting out the lowest human urges—possibly to exorcize them, but without a doubt to make a political point that still remains obscure.

I bring back the following explanation, pieced together from snatches of overheard conversation and the intelligence I received from you. With only the rudiments of lingua opfer, I was engaged more than anything else in guesswork.

The Opferlingen do not regard their ritual primarily as a collective endurance test. Competition for access to the desideratum merely affirms their commitment to the common good. The whole event is above all a symbolic measure against the abuse of state power. It is meant to immunize the people against idolatry and the prince against corruption. The carnal experience of submission, the total surrender of will, is to act as a moral brake on the head of state. Has not everyone in the realm seen him naked with their own eyes and, moreover, ravished him with their hands? It is that same flesh he displays to the public; there is no separation, no other body. It is through and through a res publica, a public thing (the art of governing needs the whole man). This all-too-natural body must shudder at the memory of its humiliation at the hands of the multitude. It must internalize that sensational vulnerability as transparency. In this new nakedness, it is as though the prince wears nothing at all. The least attempt to conceal the truth, the merest deceit or malfeasance, would be plain to anyone from the bearing of a ruling body that has undergone such radical exposure. At once penetrating and superficial, the words of this body require no interpretation. It speaks a language the prince cannot command. Its compromising truth is felt throughout the body politic; his deposition is swift, and followed by execution.

Alas, I had no occasion to verify this explanation. A new prince has been proclaimed and must have assumed by now the duties of government. I, however, cut short my visit, unable as I was to shake off the impression of what I had witnessed, from which the subsequent inauguration would have been an unwelcome distraction. After all, it is not often one sees a sovereign bleed through his robes like meat wrapped in paper! But this, I hope you will forgive me, was not an image I wanted to take away with me.

Let me conclude with my own thoughts on what, in the end, is so unique to Opferling. Was ever another monarch as violated, let alone molested, in the name of legitimacy? The disgrace of the Charleses and Louis pales in comparison to the lawful use of this prince by his people. If all touch power, does it gain luster, is it polished to a higher gloss? Or is it, to the contrary, eroded? What sort of popular sovereignty is at work in Opferling? Does it really express the general will of its people? We know that warfare is with them the highest principle; their attainments in all other areas of culture may be undistinguished, but their art has reached an apex with the citadels. This instinct for domination, the wanton group abandon I have described, seem to support the view that the Opferlingen are brutes.

And yet, are we not more implicated in grasping after power? From the butcher to the artist, are we not after it in some way? Compared with us, are the Opferlingen really after it? Are they not, perhaps, before it? Their odd and disturbing custom is, as I learned, the fruit of revolution, an overturning of centuries of state barbarism. The people of Opferling were once the victims of tyrants, at least in the official record. The sound-walls lining the main road into the city tell the story in murals: scenes of torture, slavery and degradation, each indistinguishable from the next. On the inside, it is reversed: miles of graffiti depicting leaders in shameful poses while a jubilant populace goes at them with unspeakable relish. In my country, the perpetrators of such acts would be summarily put to death. But in Opferling, one can easily imagine the greatest perverts as close advisors to the king.

Tonight, I shall sit down to dinner with friends and tell them about all this. They know I was away, but would not believe me if I told them where I had been, let alone what I had seen there. Few have imagination for the truth of reality; most prefer strange, mythical countries and circumstances they know nothing of. By these their imagination is not merely stretched, but expanded. Yet one suspects that their capacity for truth must suffer a proportionate loss.

And even if I wanted to tell the truth, you do not allow it. I am forced, once again, to tell the truth as fiction, as one might a journey among headhunters. And what use, I ask, is hearing the truth in this way, without the faintest credit for its veracity—what use other than to reduce truth to the unimaginative? This I must accept if I am to say anything at all.

So I will relate my mission to my guests as a nightmare, after which we will laugh and drink to you, O Lady and Master. And for your sake, as well as ours, we shall not think of it again.

—S.D. Chrostowska

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S. D. Chrostowska is the author of Literature on Trial (2012), Permission (2013),  and Matches: A Light Book (2015).  She teaches at York University in Toronto.

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Nov 052016
 

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Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes. —Jeff Bursey

novel-explosives

Novel Explosives
Jim Gauer
Zerogram Press, 2016
722 pages, $15.95

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Introduction

For a long time, writers have been advised to be economical in their speech; to exercise restraint in the use of adverbs and adjectives (if they were compelled to use them at all); to show, not tell; to keep in mind that consumers want (or can only handle) friendly texts that are easy to grasp, mentally and physically; and to not mix genres overmuch for fear of sowing confusion. Exceptions to these rules include the works of Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, Richard Powers, and Joseph McElroy, living exponents of the encyclopedic novel. (Past members range from Gustave Flaubert through James Joyce and Robert Musil to William Gaddis, Roberto Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace.) After reading Novel Explosives, with its rich vocabulary owing much to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Marx, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and others, to armaments manuals, to oenology, and to the inner workings of Mexico as well as the geography of Ciuldad Juárez, among many other apparently unrelated groups and sub-groups of knowledge, I consider Jim Gauer of the United States a member of that select group. I also feel, foolishly and falsely, that, at various times in my reading of his long, but never too long, first novel, I would be able to identify guns despite never seeing or touching them in real life, to know the purpose of different scalpels, and to slow down the world so as to notice everything, from the perspective of a turkey buzzard or a child astride a garbage heap.

What I mean to say is that in his novel Gauer, self-described on the back cover as “a mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist,” gathers together facts and data, transforms them into knowledge about systems that are then distributed among his main characters, and through this understanding of how things work, the author creates a narrative that indicts his home country for, at best, and only in some instances, willful blindness, but more often for serious and long-standing morally criminal activity concerning drug use and commerce in weaponry. It is also a performance that expresses deep anger, and possibly loathing, for his country, authority, and human behaviour. Those emotions are not plentiful enough in our better-known contemporary novelists, and may be considered impolite, unseemly, undisciplined, and not easily aestheticized. Yet this book is not a rant or screed. Alongside the anger, and not contrarily, it is playful, replete with narrative ingenuity and a command of form. It has a middle finger unflaggingly raised against the rules described in this review’s opening sentence. Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes (“Even characters in books deserve an evening now and then… [to] laugh at the creations they’d somehow been ensnared in, and the mind-numbing narratives they’d been forced to adhere to…”), and the threat or use of violence, though for anyone who’s seen The Counselor or Sicario (let alone the Saw movies) this novel is sedate, in its way.

I.

Set out in three parts, the action takes place from 13-20 April 2009, mostly in cars, hotels, houses, and buildings in El Paso and, primarily, Juárez and Guanajuato, Mexico. The book begins with an amnesiac trying to figure out who and where he is. A “United Kingdom driver’s license, with an address in Scotland,” identifies him as Alvaro de Campos, one of the many heteronyms[1] created by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), with an 80-year-old photo of Pessoa to match. The amnesiac isn’t taken in, and later on becomes Probably-Not Alvaro for a short while. Underlying the surface calm in the presentation of his situation is an edginess of mood when faced with no idea who he is, how he came to occupy his hotel room with a crude photo card, an ATM card with no PIN, and a large bump on the back of his head, or why a FedEx package with clippings showing mass graves relates to his life.  The second narrator is the nameless capitalist who provides a brief summary of his early life, mostly from the business angle, leaving out the identities of his first and second wives, but eager to discuss his financial successes, aside from a venture involving Dacha Wireless. The third narrative thread follows two gunmen, Raymond and Eugene, as they search for the venture capitalist whose financial gain from Dacha bothers their Mexican cartel drug lord boss, the Shakespeare-quoting Gomez. There are a few ancillary men and women whose lives intersect, briefly or longer, with these figures.

Despite Alvaro’s understandable bewilderment as to his own identity, he has a great deal of knowledge about money, poetry, and a host of other things; the nameless venture capitalist, who comes to be called Douchebag, understands computers, the stock market, wines, resorts in other countries, and more; while Raymond, whose thoughts we are privy to more than Eugene’s, is a veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore equipped with combat experience. Alvaro and VC narrate their (partial) lives; an omniscient third-person narrator describes the gunmen’s adventures and misadventures.

What will strike a reader early on in this book, apart from the fact that no one really goes by his or her name (in addition to Alvaro and Douchebag/VC, Raymond and Eugene are often called Ray and Gene), is the vocabulary each character has. Alvaro is aware his alleged name is a Pessoan invention, and that he can explain “how Riemannian geometry laid the foundations for General Relativity…” As well, his “meditation on wealth and irregularity, while seated on the Cathedral steps, personifying the streets, viewing them as sentient beings, reminded me once again that I still had a tendency toward poeticizing reality.” VC speaks in the language of hedge fund managers:

We’ve structured the deal as a Redeemable Preferred, with a 40% slug of cheap Common, with $4 million going in at $2 million pre; assuming the company cashflows on plan, we’ll get our Redeemable bait back in 36 months, and own 40% of the company with nothing at risk. If the company sells before the redemption, we’ll be holding a standard Participating Preferred, with a 4X liquidation preference, so even a real fire sale, at $20 million, leaves us with just under $18.7 million of the proceeds…. We set the Protective Provisions at a two-thirds supermajority, and have dragalong rights on the 28% of common held by the Founders, so we can block a sale even if we’re holding common, or force a sale under either scenario.

Ray and Gene, while negotiating a drug deal, think in their own terms:

The Russians, or Montenegrins, or Bulgarians, or whatever, were waving around oh shit not-this-again Micro Uzi’s, apparently intent on speeding up the process, a use for which the Uzi is an excellent selection: not only does it fire at 1,200 rounds per minute, but its grip-mounted 50-shot sheet-metal magazine gives it a highly distinctive and memorable profile, while the telescoping overhung bolt, wrapping as it does around the breech end of the barrel, makes for a nice clean compact well-balanced weapon, ideal for clearing bunkers in a timely fashion; the only real drawback, out here in the open desert, was that the Uzi has the exact same open-bolt blowback-operated who-gives-a-shit design that made the TEC-9’s prone to firing parabellum rounds almost anywhere in the world but where they were intended.

It might be concluded, from the second and third examples, that the usual language of the novel form has been abandoned in favour of prospectuses and Jane’s military publications, as if Guar had pasted in dry chunks of inert technical prose to pad out a long novel. (Anticipating objections to the length of this book and/or charges of logorrhea, Gauer has Alvaro say early on: “To make a long story short, before once again beginning the process of making a short story longer…”) The unfamiliarity of the terms can slow the reading down, but if the language is allowed to wash over one then a general sense of what’s going on gradually becomes clear.

For some, these may remain as serious obstacles to enjoyment, and bring up the questions: Why? And how is this literary prose? Years ago, someone I once knew came up with a handy triad (or else appropriated it from goodness knows where) that can be applied in diverse situations: esoteric—knowledge of which you approve; arcane—knowledge of which you are afraid; anachronistic—knowledge of which you are ignorant. It is no less intrinsically worthy to read about “Redeemable bait” than a description of a park or a character’s haircut. What matters most is that these distinct vocabularies assist in presenting and thickening the milieux the characters’ thoughts spring from. What at first look to be unwieldy fragments of language are entirely germane to the worlds inhabited by VC and Ray. As Ludwig Wittgenstein—a definite touchstone for Gauer—says in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922): “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Of course, nothing says those defining limits are claustrophobically confining.

II.

Novel Explosives itself is not restricted in theme and import simply because it is set in the United States and Mexico. Life in this novel, like life in any society—for example, a camp in Calais, pre-Brexit Great Britain, US cities where at any moment a uniformed individual will shoot a citizen, a leaking boat in the Mediterranean—is filled with terrifying precarity. There’ll be more blood, decapitated corpses, and gruesome backyard and desert graves due to cartels fighting over turf and riches than most of are likely to see, but that’s a matter of scale. Many people—to use shorthand, the 99%—are one blow (to the head, or wallet, or from snorting cocaine or partaking of another drug) away from losing their livelihoods, memories, and identities. This novel—an aspect not hidden by random and premeditated acts of mayhem or the specialized language—is built on connections: VC and Alvaro need each other, Ray and Gene are friends, the drug leaders feed off each other as well as their customers; one world crosses over into other worlds, not so much disregarding Wittgensteinian limits as never having heard that theory.

Very near the end the narrator speaks to us: “We warned you all along to stay out of Juárez… What were your [sic] even doing in Juárez in the first place? What’s that you say? That wasn’t you? You had nothing to do with any of this? We should leave you out of it? It’s a little late now to be protesting your innocence. It’s as if you think the world is somewhere else, somewhere far away, without you in it.” The connections are drawn more sharply a little later:

…fortunately for all of us, this [mass and indiscriminate killing] is a Mexican problem, the Mexicans, while lovely, are evidently quite a violent people, and through it has nothing at all to do with us, and the $30 billion in drug profits we lend to the cause, much of it repaid in armaments purchases, we are, let’s say, concerned for their health, which is why we read these stories with such avidity, since the moment the last true Mexican dies, we’ll feel totally bereft of violence pornography…. You’ve been wandering around Juárez like a zombie in a thought experiment, an experiment in collective guilt, where the zombie is shown the morgue-slab photos, and responds by saying I’m truly sorry, and making out a check to Amnesty International…

III.

Almost 700 pages in, an extraction or confession that rings a change on E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” is demanded of us, a charge that we should accept that our participation in the world’s ways—through drug use, support of governments that deal in arms, passivity, short-sightedness, and greed, however we might like to describe it—have led to the condition of present-day Juárez, as it has before to the detriment of countless other places. The omniscient narrator refers to Germany before the Second World War: “How, after Auschwitz, is beauty even possible?… Brecht’s warning to the world, and those born later, about the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and we, those born later, having already been warned, why do we act as if we haven’t heard the news?” (Yet in a puzzling omission, at no point does the omniscient narrator refer to the famines, purges, dispossessions and mass population movements in the USSR that killed many and destroyed in other ways the lives of others; or even to Mao or Pol Pot.) What is our response to another story about bodies spread across the Mexican landscape? The narrative calls on us to be aware of our actions and to take on the burden—not the guilt, Jim Gauer isn’t Graham Greene—of the ramifications of those actions.

Novel Explosives ends twice, in two registers, but it would go against the skillfully wrought architecture of this fizzy, fierce, maximalist, encyclopedic, allusive and word-drunk book to give away the conclusion. It deserves to be read and connected with.

—Jeff Bursey

N5

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A heteronym is something like an alter ego to which Pessoa, the originator of this device, gives characteristics that set it apart from his or her creator, and it lives an independent existence.
Aug 032016
 

1968Milwaukee, 1968. Milwaukee Journal photo.

Dorothy Day images courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries.

1968

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Reading Dorothy Day makes me want to write radically, according to the Latin definition of the word, meaning from the root. Everything she wrote—novels, articles, letters, diary entries—was rooted deeply in her political, social, and spiritual beliefs. And she lived the way she wrote—freely and richly—eschewing convention, however society happened to define it. As Victorian norms still enshrouded America, she moved alone from Chicago to New York to live and work and find love where she might. Yet during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when a whole generation was challenging traditional marital values, she upheld them firmly. In terms of social justice, her inclinations tended to be years ahead of most of her contemporaries. She fought on the cusp of practically every crucial social movement of the twentieth century—against the war in Vietnam, against the Atom Bomb, on behalf of Civil Rights, labor, and suffrage. She didn’t just live as a Catholic, she lived according to Gospels, stripping herself of her possessions because Christ had commanded it, loving the poor—truly loving them, which was an act of will, because the poor, up close, can be horrifying. As I read through her published works, her type-written notes, and her scribbled manuscripts, I can find nothing that she didn’t do with passion. She lived passionately, again, going to the root of the word, meaning to suffer, and she suffered in living and loving. Dorothy suffered as a lifelong habit, because she believed that to suffer was to understand Christ, and like all mystics, she dreamt of crossing through the mirror and meeting her God face to face. She wrote long rambling letters that journeyed the world and back and always ended with love of God and man alike. “The final word is love,” she copied over and over in her works.

1930sDorothy Day, 1930s.

Before I began this project I was most familiar with the famous Dorothy, the post-conversion Dorothy, the one she wanted us to see, the woman who landed in prison at the age of seventy-five for protesting alongside Cesar Chavez and the California grape workers. I knew less of her earlier commitments to causes and quandaries that have since fallen out of fashion or have, in some sense, been resolved such as socialism, anarchism, free love, New Womanhood. The first time I read The Long Loneliness, her 1952 spiritual memoir, I understood that she had always been radical and had always written with and about passion. When I read her first novel (now out of print) I was shocked at its transgressive nature. Who described the physical effects of abortion in the 1920s? Who even admitted to having one, a fraught subject even today? I resolved to write with honesty, to embrace the uncomfortable, to write as a whole person, both flesh and spirit, but most of all to write passionately, from the root.

Dorothy radically invested herself into every action, whether it was motherhood, journalism, farming, or prayer. Yet she was also a radical in the conventional sense, throughout her life belonging to multiple fringe groups who advocated for extreme social change. After leaving home in 1916 at the age of nineteen, she moved to New York and embarked on an adventurous career in journalism. Her jobs writing for the socialist paper the New York Call and The Masses introduced her to Greenwich Village intellectuals like John Reed, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, Crystal Eastman, Eugene O’Neil, Emma Goldman, Neith Boyce, and Louise Bryant. In their company as well as that of lesser known cohorts, Dorothy experienced Communist sympathizers, the suffrage movement, Margaret Sanger’s birth control campaign, and wrote, protested, and debated about them long into the night. She wrote her first novel in 1924 and began another (never completed) in 1932.

Her family raised her to be nominally Protestant, but they never practiced or attended services. She converted to Catholicism in 1927 while living on Staten Island, shortly after giving birth to her only child, Tamar Batterham. Her conversion irrevocably changed the trajectory of her life, as it enforced a separation from her partner and father of her child, Forster Batterham, an anarchist who hated organized religion. In 1933, she encountered Peter Maurin, a French peasant philosopher with radical notions about returning the worker to the land, opening houses of hospitality in the cities, and spreading these ideas through a newspaper. And thus the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper was born. The first Hospitality House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side fed, clothed, and housed the poor and unemployed who languished in New York during the depths of the Great Depression.

While she herself maintained a pre- and post-conversion narrative of her life, the values of the Catholic Worker were every bit as radical as those of the Greenwich Village set. Through the newspaper, public appearances, rallies, and protests, Dorothy Day and the other CW members advocated pacifism, non-violent resistance, opposition to capitalism, and support for labor. What she wanted was not just better wages and more reasonable working hours, but an upheaval and transformation of existing society, an entire revolution, but one carried out with love, the only weapons being education and mercy.

Although she remained a committed journalist throughout her life, she never wrote another novel after The Dispossessed and focused instead on spiritual memoir, including her most famous work, The Long Loneliness. Despite the shifts in genre, her writing continued to be informed by radicalism and feminism as much as by orthodox Catholicism. She beautifully articulated contemporary social problems through the tropes of Christian mysticism. She continued to concern herself with the place of women within the family structure as well as with the centrality of sex in human interactions. Moving on from her earlier explorations of free love, she employed the language of desire to articulate her search for the divine that embraced both the spiritual and sensual.

1925ca. 1925.

,ca. 193.

Bohemian Romances

While other cities, including Dorothy’s native Chicago, were experiencing a similar renaissance in gender relations, in the nineteen teens, New York was truly the radical heart of American modernity. Greenwich Village, in particular, attracted intellectuals fascinated by the lure of change, whether it was in the arena of politics, labor, or sex. They wrote novels and plays and started newspapers to disseminate their ideas across the country. Some of the leading figures were immigrants from Eastern Europe like Emma Goldman. Others were scions of prominent families who had attended Harvard and Vassar like Crystal Eastman, Hutchins Hapgood, and John Reed. Most of them found inspiration in the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements in Russia and envisioned the day when a similar revolution would sweep America. If people wanted to write, express themselves, and generally experience life at the turn of the century, they dreamed of Greenwich Village.

Dorothy’s arrival in New York coincided with “a world in which modern women were encroaching on the formerly all-male turf of college, office, and street.”[1] Women were visible in ways their mothers had not been, and at least in Greenwich Village, several of their male colleagues welcomed that visibility as part and parcel of a new social order. Sexual equality was integral to the values of the Bohemian set. As Christine Stansell writes in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, “Throughout the left intelligentsia, the emancipated woman stood at the symbolic center of a program for cultural regeneration.”[2] Financial independence, free speech, and political activism were all tenets of early-twentieth century feminism. Many of the women Dorothy met in New York were supporting themselves as journalists, playwrights, editors, novelists, artists, and political advocates. She remembered that “everyone on the city desk was writing a play or a book.”[3] Louise Bryant also worked for The Masses and during the war would move to France to work for the wire services. She would publish several books on Russian politics as well as plays. Ida Rauh, the wife of Dorothy’s editor Max Eastman, was a trained lawyer and active suffragist, as was his sister, Crystal Eastman. After the government shut down The Masses, Crystal Eastman would edit a new paper, The Liberator, for which Dorothy would work. Neith Boyce was another journalist who interacted with Dorothy socially at the Provincetown Players, where they were both involved in amateur dramatics.

Sexual freedom was part and parcel of New Womanhood in the teens. Dorothy’s experience was thus different from that of late Victorian female freethinkers and activists like the settlement house workers and the first female college professors. Husbands and children represented the horrors of domesticity they had longed to escape. Marriage and a career were seen as incompatible.[4] “But with the supposed emergence of a sphere where men and women mingled in all sorts of all sorts of meaningful ways, work no longer obviated the possibility of heterosexual love.”[5] For Dorothy and her contemporaries, true equality meant the right to socialize with male coworkers at the end of the day with the possibility of romance later in the evening. As Dorothy remembered of those years, “No one ever wanted to go to bed, and no one ever wanted to be alone.”[6]

The Greenwich Village radicals were tight-knit to the point of being incestuous. Men and women formed passionate friendships and collaborated on artistic endeavors. Dorothy’s co-workers on The Masses, John Reed and Louise Bryant, were the quintessential Bohemian power couple, living together and later marrying. Louise Bryant also had an affair with the playwright Eugene O’Neil. Reed, for his part, had been involved with Mabel Dodge, another writer on The Masses, who had also been romantically linked with Hutchins Hapgood, a prominent writer in the Greenwich Village circle and husband of journalist Neith Boyce. Terry Carlin, a friend of Dorothy’s and Hapgood’s muse for his novel An Anarchist Woman (1909), lived for a time with Eugene O’Neil.

Dorothy formed attachments to various men both inside and outside these circles. She developed a deep friendship with Eugene O’Neil as he was recovering from his tormented relationship with Louise Bryant. He would drunkenly recite poetry for her at a bar nicknamed the Hell Hole, and in The Long Loneliness she credits him with stirring the already deep wells of spiritual hunger in her.”[7] After staying up late all night with him she would occasionally run into a church for a morning mass. Later she fell deeply in love with the adventurer and occasional journalist Lionel Moise. He arrived in New York at the end of World War I having worked as an editor on The Kansas City Star alongside Ernest Hemingway, who described him as a hardbitten and fearless man’s man with an air of legend surrounding him.[8] Hemingway wrote about Moise in 1952 that “what impressed me most in him was his facility, his un-disciplined talent and his vitality which, when he was drinking, and I never saw him when he was not drinking, overflowed into violence.”[9] He furiously countered the argument (originating in Charles Fenton’s The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway and repeated in multiple biographies) that Lionel had taught him how to write while simultaneously mythologizing him. “I remember him as a sort of primitive force, a skillful and extremely facile newspaper man who had his troubles and his pleasures with drink and women.”[10]

Lionel Moise’s rough attractions beguiled Dorothy, who later wrote in a letter to her partner Forster Batterham that “I’ve never loved anyone but you and Lionel.”[11] She remained involved with him on and off through the early 1920s. Although still in love with him, in 1920 or 1921 Dorothy married Berkeley Tobey, the business manager for the socialist paper The Masses. Dorothy’s biograper Robert Coles referred to Tobey as “a strange man about whom little is known beyond gossip.”[12] I found a listing for him in a compilation of notable characters of Haworth, New Jersey, hilariously describing him as “a Greenwich Village rogue and bon vivant, married somewhere in the neighborhood of eight times.”[13] His last wife was the well-known California architect Esther McCoy. The photograph I saw shows a jovial man with a white walrus mustache, and is very much in keeping with the little I know of him, as he was posing next to three much younger attractive women, including Theodore Dreiser’s wife. His marriage to Dorothy lasted less than a year. She rarely mentioned him in her writing and never mentioned her marriage in The Long Loneliness, her memoirs of these years. By then, she had become a public figure due to her activism and was deliberately vague on the specifics of her romantic life before Forster Batterham. She always expressed her disapproved of Emma Goldman’s “tell-all” memoirs that named each of her lovers and recalled being “revolted by such promiscuity.”[14] But while she later insisted upon her personal privacy, her writing in the 1920s quite openly explored the new sexual freedom she was living.

In terms of its honesty about sex and relationships from a female perspective, Dorothy’s novels The Eleventh Virgin and The Dispossessed were very much in sync with the work of her fellow writers and intellectuals, Louise Bryant, Crystal Goodman, Neith Boyce, and even, despite her dislike of her, Emma Goldman. They wrote sexually independent heroines into their novels and plays and they explored its real-life implications in treatises and articles. In her 1908 novel, The Bond, Neith Boyce chronicles the first stormy years of the marriage of Basil and Theresa. Theresa, a sculptor, struggles to maintain her artistic freedom despite the obligations of motherhood and household. She also refuses to accept Basil’s double standard regarding fidelity. After he has an affair with a wealthy widow, she insists on open flirtations with other men, although she never allows them to become physical. She employs the phrase, “balancing the account,” to counter Basil’s anger. Despite their mutual misunderstandings and jealousies, Theresa and Basil remain in love and enjoy a sexually satisfying relationship.[15] Boyce’s 1921 one-act play Enemies picks up these themes. A husband and a wife, named simply “She” and “He,” argue back and forth about the inconsistencies and unhappinesses of their marriage. He complains she cares nothing for housekeeping and pays no attention to his interests. She retorts that he intrudes on her inner space and reveals her anger at his inability to remain faithful. In return, he insists, infuriatingly, that a husband’s infidelity means nothing, although a wife’s fidelity must remain paramount. At the end of the play, the two embrace and declare their mutual love and desire, although they admit they will continue to quarrel over these issues for years to come.[16]

Theresa and Basil’s fictional marriage, as well as the anonymous marriage in Enemies mirrored several key questions of the day for feminists—double standards regarding fidelity in marriage, the availability of birth control, female independence within a marriage, and the possibilities of balancing household responsibilities with domestic duties. Crystal Eastman explored these issues in a series of articles and essays for a variety of periodicals, including Cosmopolitan, The Birth Control Review, Equal Rights, and her own The Liberator, for which Dorothy would also write in the late 1920s. Most notably, in her 1923 Cosmopolitan article “Marriage under Two Roofs,” she proclaimed the merits of wives living apart from their husbands, a practice she insisted upon in her own marriage.[17] She advocated as well for husbands who took on housework, and for short hair, short skirts, legalization of prostitution, and ready access to birth control. As she wrote in a 1918 article for The Birth Control Review, “We want this precious sex knowledge not just for ourselves, the conscious feminist; we want it for all the millions of unconscious feminists that swarm the earth, —we want it for all women.”[18]

Neith Boyce, Crystal Eastman, and other Greenwich Village women writers were exploring untrodden territory. As Christine Stansell explains,

American Victorian culture had bustled with sex talk in its own segregated, covert ways. But nineteenth-century women’s ability to speak as sentient sexual beings had been limited by a melodramatic vision of decent women’s victimization by men’s lust. Outside pornography, the words were literally lacking to speak of female desire. Now, the garrulous exponents of free love broke with the asymmetrical pattern by according women a voice and transforming the male soliloquy into a conversation between the sexes.[19]

Dale Bauer terms this language as sex expressionism. “As sexuality became more public, the rhetorics of both the body and language could express sexual desire . . . women writers began to treat sex, once considered an urge or impulse, as a conscious act and a choice, deliberated, enacted and embodied.”[20] Dorothy employed “sex expressionism” to describe both the chaotic internal life and the free-spirited external life of her heroine in The Eleventh Virgin.

The Eleventh Virgin chronicles the sexual awakening of June Henreddy. It begins with her first feelings of desire as a teenager for an older married neighbor and ends with her abortion and the painful end of an affair in her twenties. June’s body stirs, shivers, and shudders with desire. Later it spasms in pain while rejecting the fruit of those desires. The discourse surrounding desire is just as important as the act itself. June is only sexually active in the ending chapters; but the expression of her desire permeates the entire book. First comes the adolescent crush on a neighbor. The relationship exists entirely in June’s imagination, but Day is clear about the physical effects on the young girl. “Her mind had never seemed to be connected with her body and it was strange and wonderful that a thought, a glance, could make a little shower of delight run through her.”[21] The delight is both emotional, physical, and entirely welcome, as June admits that “she loved to be bitten by fierce emotion.”[22] All nature seems to June to be in harmony with her desires. “A breeze sprang up as the sun settled on the sky line, and stirred the wisps of hair around their [June’s and her sister’s] hot faces. It was like a caress and June thought of Mr. Armand’s long fingers.”[23] Mr. Armand’s presence awakens June to the sensual possibilities of her body, but the experience is isolated and predictably, goes nowhere.

Over the next few years, June enjoys platonic friendships with any number of men at college and in the newspaper offices where she finds employment. She even moves in with three jovial co-workers, to the horror of her mother. Despite the constant male companionship, however, she is quite clear that she feels nothing to compare to the physical effects of Mr. Armand. She avoids romantic relationships, insisting that sexual attraction as well as emotional sympathy be present. June is a quintessential New Woman, in that her relationships with men are solely a matter of preference. Since she supports herself through writing, marriage possesses no financial incentive for her and thus she literally can afford to wait.

When she does meet a man who attracts her, Dick Wemys, she is frank about her sexual hopes. “He gave himself three months to stay in the hospital. June gave him three months in which to seduce her.” Dick works as an orderly at the hospital where June trains during the influenza epidemic. With no intentions of marring June, he would have been termed a rake had the book been written fifty years before. In the frank sexual expressionism of June’s world, however, he admits his devious plans up front. “”I love you, June. I love you more than anything in the world, today. But I can’t say how I’ll feel tomorrow.”[24] June accepts his lack of commitment and plunges ahead with the relationship. She doesn’t just love, she flirts, engaging in playful talk about sex. “I’m a demi-vierge,” she informs Dick coyly.[25] When they discuss the future, it is in terms of her physical submission to him, rather than any plans for marriage, children, or future adventures. After he announces he is leaving the hospital, he invites her to live with him temporarily—the temporary is emphasized, as is the physical nature of the request, when he shoves a card with his address in between her breasts. June’s arrival at his apartment signals to both of them the end of her virginity, which is subsequently lost discreetly, but clearly, in a break between two paragraphs.

He looked as though he were suffering. If he would only take her, push aside this barrier of sex that was between them, he could grip hold of himself again. And [she,she] could     breathe easily once more and her heart wouldn’t ache so in her breast. To get the first pain over with! She bit his neck contemplatively.

He shook her so suddenly that she cried out, started, and then noticed that it was very still and quiet. When he turned town the lamp there was only the painful thumping of her  own heart.

Later in the evening, June sat cross-legged on the bed in a pair of pajamas which were far too big for her and ate with a great deal of relish an anchovy toast sandwich and stuffed olives. She felt very young and childlike.[26]

Despite the frankness of June’s sexual enjoyment, the book harbors no illusions as to the nature of their relationship. June’s sexual freedom does not translate into sexual equality. For the first time since leaving home, she stops working, at his direct request. “‘While you’re mine, you’ve got to be all mine, so you needn’t have any interests outside of me.’”[27] Dick’s love is violent, possessive, and controlling. June finds herself lying to please him, “You’re nothing but a damn little fool so don’t you dare tell me Conrad knows how to write a story. I tell you he doesn’t so you might as well shut up.”[28] She wasn’t even allowed to look as if Conrad could write novels. She secretly goes ahead and reads all she pleases. While it had been up to her to yield her virginity, he dictated the subsequent terms of the relationship, reserving the right to decide alone when it would end. He also warned her that he would leave immediately should she become pregnant, which indeed, he does, even though she has an abortion. Christine Stansell notes, “Paradoxical, self-deluding, sometimes harmful: without question there was a dark edge to sexual modernism.”[29]

June’s abortion is rendered in graphic terms. Day is as frank about June’s bodily reaction to pain as she had been about its receptivity to pleasure.

One pain every three minutes. How fast they came! It seemed that the moments of  respite could be counted in seconds. The pain came in a huge wave and she lay there writhing and tortured under it. Just when she thought she could endure it no longer, the wave passed and she could gather up her strength to endure the next one.[30]

There were few literary precedents for such a description, although the topic was proving to be incredibly popular among young writers, including Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy’s friends Floyd Dell and Eugene O’Neil. Mr. Durant, a story by Dorothy Parker appeared the same year (1924) as did the incredibly successful novel The Green Hat, by Michael Arlen.[31] Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy was published in the following year. Over fifty more novels and short stories would tackle the controversial subject before 1945.[32] While The Eleventh Virgin remains one of the least known of these works, it proves that Dorothy was at the forefront of the significant literary discourse surrounding illegal abortions, a discourse that privileged female bodily experience. The Eleventh Virgin ends shortly after June Henreddy’s abortion, so Dorothy allows her little time to reflect upon it. The morality of abortion nevertheless remained a significant theme in her later essays and articles, as I will discuss later.

Historian James Fisher writes that “The Eleventh Virgin showed that Day was not a novelist,” and Robert Coles calls the plot “wretched.”[33] I actually found The Eleventh Virgin highly enjoyable, if somewhat immature. The most charming aspect of the writing is Day’s own bemused attitude towards the melodramatic excesses of her heroine: “‘I’ve got to have you,’ she [June] told him [Dick]. ‘I love you. I do love you. It’s a fatal passion.”[34] There is a sense of fond reminiscence over June’s willingness to throw everything to the winds in the name of love, tinged with a growing bitterness as Dick’s behavior grows more untenable.

Coles, Fisher, and historian of American Catholicism Jim Forest frequently refer to it as her autobiographical novel and glean its pages for details of her early years. It is certainly tempting to read The Eleventh Virgin as a thinly veiled autobiography of Day’s early years in Greenwich Village, although I am loathe to place experiences in Dorothy’s own life on the sole evidence that they appear in the novel. Certainly June’s adventures in writing and politics mirror Dorothy’s own as she described them in The Long Loneliness. The book also embarrassed her after she became a well-known public figure. “There was a time that I thought I had a lifetime job cut out for me—to track down every copy of that novel and destroy all of them, one by one.”[35] At least some of the book did echo her own experiences. She revealed in letters and diaries that she did have an abortion during her relationship with Lionel Moise and preceding her marriage to Berkeley Tobey. As she related in The Long Loneliness, she sought spiritual solace during this time, and there are also hints of a kindling religious interest in the adolescent June, who rebels against the coldness of her parents by a passionate devotion to God, although once she leaves home she grows absorbed in other pursuits.

The Eleventh Virgin, however, documents sensuality rather than spirituality, and the heroine, at least, sees a clear separation between the two. As the adolescent June writes to a friend,

All these feelings and cravings that come to us are sexual desires. We are prone to have them at this age, I suppose. [The fifteen-year-old intoned piously.] But I think they are impure. It is sensual and God is spiritual. We must harden ourselves to these feelings, for God is love, and God is all, so the only love is of God and is spiritual without taint of earthliness.

Given that the subject of religion is then dropped in the novel, there is no sense that the author had reconciled them either.

1932With her daughter, ca. 1932.

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Conflict and Conversion

Dorothy’s next novel explores both the sensual and spiritual. She wrote the first chapters during 1932, when she had moved back to New York after working briefly in Hollywood as a screenwriter and then traveling for a year in Mexico. She had already converted to Catholicism although she had not yet met Peter Maurin and begun the Catholic Worker. Most of her time was spent writing for Catholic newspapers and magazines and working on the novel she would term both The Dispossessed and This Dear Flesh. As she describes those months in The Long Loneliness:

I was writing a novel. I have always been a journalist and a diarist pure and simple, but as long as I could remember, I dreamed in terms of novels. This one was to be about the depression, a social novel with the pursuit of a job as the motive and the social revolution as its crisis. There was to be the struggle between religion and otherworldliness, and communism and this-worldliness, replete with a hero and a heroine and scores of   fascinating characters. I put my own struggle and dreams of love into the book and was very happy writing it.[36]

The Dispossessed documents the conversion to Catholicism of a young girl named Monica as well as her love affair with a Communist she knows she can never marry. As with The Eleventh Virgin, Day frankly explores the physicality of Monica’s desire. Monica has loved Nick ever since she moved into the apartment next to him as a little girl. But as she reaches adolescence, her love assumes a physical dimension. She doesn’t just love him; she desires him.

At this time Monica began to be obsessed with desire for him. When he was away, she saw him everywhere, in the line of head, the attitude of some stranger. She heard him in a   sudden soft laugh. The river noises and the heavy damp smell of the city those early spring days reminded her of walks they had taken, long wordless hours they had spent  together.[37]

Day employs metaphors of heat and hunger. Monica feels “hot within herself” and is “hungry to love.”[38] Her sexual awakening coincides with an equally passionate religious awakening. The only thing in her life that evokes the same level of emotion and physicality within her is Catholicism, which ironically means that she can never succumb to her desire for Nick. Her experiences of the depths of her faith resonate physically in her body, and Day employs similar language. One morning, Monica impulsively follows a young woman to Mass:

It was almost every Mass in the Italian Churches, and Monica sat during the Gloria in a maze of happiness. She did not know why she was happy, why this sudden glow of joy had come into her life. She felt waves of exalted thankfulness flooding her heart,a sudden intense consciousness of an all-loving God, and the need and hunger of the human   heart in its desire to serve Him to worship Him. The Mass satisfied her as it never had before. And somehow all this sudden realization was linked up with that girl, so still, so breathlessly still and radiant.”[39]

The two desires are intricately connected and spur each other to greater heights. “Monica’s love for Nick made her realize her faith, because young though she was, she recognized that a choice was being put up to her. She could not have him and her Church too.”[40] It is difficult for the reader to form an opinion one way or another regarding her choices, since each option stirs her equally to physical and emotional frenzy.

Monica sought refuge in her religion now, but she distrusted the softness of religious emotion during these hard times. It went hand in hand with the melting tenderness she was apt to feel at the thought of Nick. The joy and the faith which made it forbidden were too closely linked at these times in her mind. She was as unstable as a reed.[41]

Her torment expresses itself in the language of illness as well as yearning. “She felt that she was a woman with a sickness who had to cure herself.” To love is to experience passion. Passion, literally and figuratively equals suffering. It is impossible not to love and thus, not to suffer.

Unlike June Henreddy, Monica is a virgin and never speaks in terms of seduction. Marriage is the forbidden but desired outcome of her relationship with Nick. Although they cling to each other in dark corners, neither proposes going any further. Yet she is caught up in concerns about sin that June never experienced.

There came with this knowledge of her deliberate choice, the question of mortal sin. Even the thought of bodily desire (forbidden as it was in connection with Nick) was an act of unchastity in the sight of God and as such was mortal sin. Yet to have committed mortal sin . . . (it was that, – Oh God – it certainly was that) but it was not due deliberation or full       consent of the will. For blindly she had fought and struggled, praying daily, walking through the misty, fogbound streets, and how could it be full consent of the will when her lips were numb at the remembrance of his kiss, and her lips were stiff as she forced them on in a mechanical round of walking.[42]

Politics also stands in the way of the young couple’s happiness. Nick also desires Monica but feels an equal calling to Communism and believes he cannot distract himself with a wife and family. He dreads the thought of prison but is equally convinced that he must end up there. The two engage in mutual torment. “’Oh, Nick, Nick, I’m so glad to see you,’ Monica cried, her hands behind her back to keep them from clutching at him. He took hold of her shoulders and his hands were trembling. ‘

“‘You know how I feel, and I can’t stand it.’”[43] It is a love that cannot be born but equally cannot be ignored.

In Monica’s yearning for an unattainable love, Dorothy articulates the mystical longings that she would explore later in her spiritual writing. According to the brief plot summary she had drawn up for potential publishers, Dorothy had planned a happy ending for the pair, each with more suitable spouses. Nick would marry the Russian emigre Natasha while Monica would fall in love with and eventually marry Raoul, an upstanding architect and a friend of Nick’s. “All would be happy according to their lights.”[44] It is fitting, perhaps, that she never composed this ending, dropping the novel in 1933 when she began the Catholic Worker. The desire that coursed through Monica’s body could not be stilled in a contented marriage. The only cure for such desire was a lifetime committed to seeking, following the trail of an elusive lover into dark nights and lonely mornings.

Towards the end of the unfinished narrative Dorothy brings in another woman as a rival for Nick’s affections. The Russian emigre Natasha, unlike Monika, is a sexually experienced woman desperately in love with Nick. Despite his earlier disavowal of marriage, he proposes to her, as her loyalties are compatible with his politics. She relates a sad tale of a promiscuous past in Russia with uncaring lovers more devoted to the Revolution than to her, and then in New York living a hand-to-mouth existence working at a cabaret (which seems to be a euphemism for a brothel). Despite her experience, when it comes to desire, she and Monica speak the same language. Her love is starvation, misery, and desperation. Even in love and engaged, she experiences torment. Nick accuses her of enjoying her misery, and she responds in explanation, “It is difficult for a passionate woman to get over the habit of being passionate.” By passion, she means not only love, but the suffering that must accompany it. Monica must renounce Nick and Natasha will marry him, but to truly experience the weight of their choices, they both must suffer in love. We don’t know how the characters will develop but love as suffering and joy in renunciation are both themes that will inform the rest of her work.

19341934 (original in New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection, Library of Congress).

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Love as Mystical Yearning

Dorothy’s post-conversion politics led her to conservative stances on issues such as abortion, birth control, divorce, and pre-marital sex, all of which she firmly condemned in her writings. These attitudes seem to represent a complete break from her earlier radical days when she had attended Margaret Sanger’s speeches, worked for Crystal Eastman, and stayed up nights discussing the merits of free love with John Reed and Eugene O’Neil. They also seem to contradict her own first writings which had expressed sexual desire freely regardless of marital ties and whose heroines had expressed regret only at the loss of love, not the loss of virginity or reputation. Her subsequent writing certainly appears to advocate a more traditional femininity in line with the Victorian family structure against which she had originally rebelled.

Her conversion seemed abrupt to those who knew her, but it followed years of seeking. In the years preceding her conversion, she felt increasingly drawn to the life of the spirit. In The Long Loneliness, she writes, “It seems to me a long time that I led this wavering life . . . . I felt strongly that the life of nature warred against the life of grace.”[45] She had also expressed these anxieties in The Eleventh Virgin when June Hendreddy declares that “the only love is of God and is spiritual without taint of earthliness.” Even though she was happily in love with Forster Batterham, she experienced emptiness and longing. They lived together in her cottage on Staten Island. It was the greatest happiness she had ever experienced but she still felt dissatisfied. In The Long Loneliness (1952), she articulates the idea of God as lover who drew her away from her Forster. She presents her struggle as a love triangle between herself, God, and Forster Batterham, Tamar’s father and the man she refers to as her common-law husband. “I wanted to die in order to live, to put off the old man and put on Christ. I loved, in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united to my love. Why should not Forster be jealous? Any man who did not participate in this love would, of course, realize my infidelity, my adultery.”[46]

On a practical level, her conversion meant sacrificing a life that brought her much delight as well as stability after years of searching. Although Dorothy liked to refer to Forster as her husband, they were not married in the eyes of either the state or the church, and he refused to take those steps. A self-identified anarchist, he abhorred the institutions of both religion and marriage. As a Catholic, she could not live with him outside of marriage. Neither would yield. “To become a Catholic meant for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in love. It got to the point where it was the simplest question of whether I chose God or man.”[47] It is hard not to read Monica’s struggle with a love incompatible with a burgeoning faith as a reenactment of Dorothy’s own. Monica and Nick had begged each other to relent; in similar ways, Dorothy and Forster argued back and forth for almost ten years. She left him and moved to Hollywood and then to Mexico and then to Florida. He visited her occasionally to rekindle their relationship but refused to marry her. She begged him in tones alternating between seduction and despair to marry her and accept her Catholicism. In 1929 from California: “I wish you would give in. I can assure you that I would not bother you and your own opinions as long as you granted me religious liberty—that is, me and the numerous other children we’d have.”[48] In 1932: “Aren’t we ever going to be together again, sweetheart? . . . I do not see why you can’t let me and Tamar be Catholics and be happy with us just the same. You know I love you, and I always think of us belonging together in spite of us being four years apart.”[49] She didn’t give up until she met Peter Maurin and threw herself into beginning the Catholic Worker. When she wrote to Forster in December, 1932 that “I have really given up hope now, so I won’t try to persuade you any more,” she meant it. She wouldn’t write to him again until the 1950s.[50]

After she gave up hope of reconnecting with Forster, she politely but firmly put a stop to any romantic attentions and declared herself a celibate. In the 1940s, Ammon Hennacy, a former Mormon turned Catholic anarchist who had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the Catholic Worker movement became captivated by her. She fended off his advances, writing, “I have a great love for you of comradeship but sex does not enter into it.” [51] And later: “When one is celibate, one is celibate. There is no playing around with sex.”[52] He evidently still thought of her in terms she considered inappropriate when in 1953, he sent her a copy of his memoir (later titled The Book of Ammon) which she returned with pages cut out of it, pleading that such thoughts did not become their age. “It is next to impossible to write about such love of people in their sixties without either seeming ridiculous or revolting.”[53] It is unclearly exactly why she turned towards celibacy, especially considering that she still lived very much in the world. She is clear that she did not do so out of a distaste for sexual love. “It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God. Radical friends used to insinuate this. It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.”[54]

1938Day at Maryfarm, Easton, PA, ca. 1938.

Although certainly after her struggles with Lionel and Forster, it is conceivable that she could have been fed up with noncommittal men. In 1947, she wrote angrily to a disgruntled Catholic Worker volunteer: “I should be used to men failing me. I’ve had to bring up a child alone and I’ve certainly seen more than my share of the gross and selfish in men. I’ve had many men love me but few protect me.” Although she never explicitly states this, possibly she felt the need to atone for what she considered her early promiscuity. Guilt over her behavior, especially her abortion, haunts her diary entries.

Robert Coles asked her why her she had chosen to end her romantic life at such a young age. For one who positioned sexual pleasure in the heart of the Catholic marriage and who eschewed what she termed Jansenism (a manichean distaste for the physical), why give up such a part of herself and her past? She answered him in a series of roundabout conversations. “When I fell in love with Forster I thought it was a solid love . . . that I had been seeking. But I began to realize it wasn’t the love between a man and a woman that I was hungry to find. . .”[55] In a similar vein, she wrote to Ammon Hennesy that “the whole direction of our thoughts should be to increase in the love of God. It is only in giving up a thing that you can keep it; it is only by such a sacrifice on your part that love can be beautiful and holy.”[56] In much of her post-conversion writing, love becomes directed entirely towards God in a complete mysticism. For Dorothy, nothing but God’s love would suffice.

Yet desire never loses its place in her language, describing both a longing for physical contact as well as the presence of a transcendent force. After her conversion, she reinterpreted her understanding of humanity to include both body and soul conjoined together, per God’s design. Hence the sacral nature of sex: “One cannot properly be said to understand the love of God without understanding the deepest fleshly as well as spiritual love between man and woman. The two should go hand in hand. You cannot separate the soul from the body.”[57] She devoted her whole self to seeking God as she would a lover, and that search took the place of romantic human love. She told Robert Coles: “My conversion was a way of saying to myself that I knew I was trying to go someplace and that I would spend the rest of my life trying to go there and try not to let myself get distracted by side trips, excursions that were not to the point.”[58] A husband or lover would be beside the point in her mystical journey.

In Dorothy’s spiritual writings, she beautifully articulates the sacramental nature of marriage and the centrality of sexuality in marital relationships as “a foretaste of the beatific vision.”[59] “The intense pleasure and delight in the act itself may be like a sword piercing the heart.”[60] Sex is the actual sacrament embodied in matrimony, as opposed to the vows. “It is not the promises that make the marriage. The vows are exchanged at the altar; the marriage is the embrace itself.”[61] On a practical level, she argues, then, that the church needed to emphasize the significance of marital relations and to avoid the “Anglo-Saxon Jansenism,” that caused people to shy away from such discussions. “ . . . It is time indeed that there should be more talk on the subject of sex and marriage on the part of Catholics.”[62] She refused to read the Kinsey report but was nonetheless fascinated by its willingness to bring sex into popular conversations, an inclination she argued that contemporary religious writing lacked.

It is because sex is “the most deeply wounded of all our faculties” since the Fall. In sex, body and spirit are so interwoven, so attuned, so single-minded, so concentrated, and so alive. It is in sex love that people catch glimpses of harmony and peace unutterable. That is why thwarting sex, unfulfilled marriage, is a tragedy often dealt with by physicians and psychiatrists. If the act, which is called by St. Paul “the marriage debt” is not paid generously and to the full people are warped and nerve-wracked, curiously  askew.

The language of desire occupied a permanent place in her writing, but in her post-conversion writing the force of it was directed back to divine union. In On Pilgrimage, The Long Loneliness, and her many letters, diaries, and articles, she explores the theme of Christ as lover, a literary path previously trod by Dorothy’s favorite saints, Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux as well as other great mystics whom she admired. In Dorothy’s voice, the image takes on a modern and realistic meaning. The joys are not metaphorical, and the bodily effects speak to actual memories. For the medieval mystics, the language of sexual ecstasies only existed on a metaphorical plane. For Dorothy, it as the realistic humanity behind the words that renders them meaningful—“It is because I am not now suffering that I can write, but it is also because I have suffered in the past that I can write.”[63] It was precisely because she had known the sweetness of a whole love, body and soul, that her act of renunciation was so precious. “The best thing to do with the best of things is to give them to the Lord,” she wrote in her diary decades after her conversion, “and note that fleshly pleasure if not isolated from mind and spirit is not here labeled sin, but called ‘the best of things.’”[64] So her bridal mysticism loses the morbid aspect of the medieval saints that she admired and appeals to a twentieth and twenty-first century sensibility. It makes sense that in Augustine of Hippo, another great lover of the flesh who nevertheless turned his heart to God, she found great inspiration and quoted frequently in her Catholic Worker articles. Sexual desire between humans was both a piece of and a reflection of God’s love, not divorced from it. Human love was the overflow of God’s love.

Religious historian James Fisher declared that she “came to espouse one of the most abject brands of self-abnegation in American religious history,”[65] and referred to her religious interpretations as “bleak.”[66] His interpretation denies the joyful earthiness of her spiritual writing. Dorothy never turned away from the reality of flesh, delighting in her body even when it sickened and aged, so that she could write on Valentine’s Day, 1944 in her diary:

But this aging flesh, I love it, I treat it tenderly, but also rejoice that it has been well used, that was my vocation—a wife and mother, I gave myself to husband and children, my flesh well used, droops, my breasts sag, my face withers, but my eyes and lips rejoiced and love and laugh with happiness.[67]

Flesh was both her “enemy” and her “dear companion on this pilgrimage.”[68] Her acknowledgement and appreciation of bodily realities represents one of the strongest continuities throughout her writing. At the age of eighty-two, she declared firmly in her diary, “I am a sensual woman.”[69]

1951Day serving soup to Franciscans at Detroit Catholic Worker, ca. 1951.

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An Unwilling Feminist

She never retired, writing articles until her death at the age of eighty-three. Her continuing engagement with current affairs required her to confront the changing social mores of the 1960s and 1970s. The Catholic Worker could not remain static if it wanted to remain relevant. As its original members aged, the organization relied on a steady influx of younger volunteers. Dorothy treated these younger colleagues with the same mixture of amusement, concern, and bewilderment, that she showed her nine grandchildren. The young girls of the CW attended Woodstock and excitedly reported back to her. “They had a weekend of rain. Sounded like a nightmare to me,” she wrote dismissively. Her perplexity was frequently softened by outpourings of compassion, as she found her bohemian youth reflected in their untempered idealism. “Aside from drug addiction, I committed all the sins young people commit today,” she wrote in 1976.[70] She disapproved of priests who approached the drugs and sex of youth culture with a lack of understanding. “No compassion for the young,” she dismissed an otherwise good sermon that had ended with a censure of Woodstock.[71] The anti-war demonstrators of the 1960s were near and dear to her heart, as they picked up the pacifism the CW had espoused since the 1930s. In 1965 she spoke at Union Square in support of men who burned their draft cards. In 1967 she attended the trials of anti-war demonstrators and helped raise money for their defense. She differentiated them from the young men and women she deemed to be “hippies,” whom she dismissed as spoiled rebels without any causes other than non-conformity. “I felt in view of the blood and guts spilled in Vietnam the soldiers would like to come back and kill these flower-power-loving people. . . . Middle-class affluent homes, they have not known suffering.”[72] In her warmer moments, she judged them foolish but lost, as she had been and as she knew her own progeny to be. “These are my children too, my grandchildren. Having so many grandchildren, I love . . .”[73]

Dorothy firmly maintained during the 1960s that she was not a “women’s-libber,” but she did conceive of marriage, motherhood, and the position of a woman in a family in radical ways, not unlike her Bohemian companions of the 1920s. She meditates on motherhood and marriage in On Pilgrimage, a book based on a journal she kept in 1948. She spent most of the year on a farm in West Virginia with Tamar who was pregnant with her third child, and her writing reflects her domestic setting. “Meditations for women, these notes should be called, jumping as I do from the profane to the sacred over and over. But then, living in the country, with little children, with growing things, one has the sacramental view of life.”[74] On the farm, dealing with no running water, no electricity, no stores, and two small children, she found herself beset by household cares and unable to write, pray, or even think. She writes frankly about the lack of intellectual and creative stimulation mothers endured. On January 20, she writes despairingly, “What kind of an interior life can a mother of three children have who is doing all her own work on a farm with wood fires to tend and water to pump? Or the grandmother either?”[75] In a similar vein, she complains on March 8, “If you stop to read a paper, pick up a book, the children are into the tubs or the sewing machine drawers. . . . Everything is interrupted, even prayers, since by nightfall one is too tired to pray with understanding.”[76]

She compares the relative constraints of young mothers and fathers. Enviously watching her son-in-law exploring the woods, she admits “one cannot help but thinking that the men have an easier time of it. It is wonderful to work out on such a day as this, with the snow falling lightly all around, chopping wood, dragging in fodder, working with the animals. Women are held pretty constantly to the home.”[77] In On Pilgrimage, she raises a theme that would haunt her writings for years to come—Tamar’s isolation and frustration as a young mother with a new baby practically every two years (nine children in eighteen years of marriage) and no intellectual outlets. “It is a lonely life for a woman with many small children. It is a life of solitude in city and village anyway, since a young mother cannot get out, but in town neighbors and friends can at least drop in.”[78] Her correspondence with Tamar is rife with comforts and reassurances that rarely seemed to work. When Tamar longed to move back to New York so she could have more company, Dorothy warns her away because of the polio epidemic and the high rents. “Oh dear. I do know how lonely you are, but I do assure you that a mother with small babies is always lonely.”[79] She titled her book The Long Loneliness in part as a reference to the shared solitude of humanity. But she also meant to pay specific homage to the particular loneliness of women, both as young mothers isolated by the burdens of childcare and then later as older mothers bereft of their children. “Tamar is partly responsible for the title of this book in that when I was beginning it she was writing me about how alone a mother of young children always is.”[80] Dorothy realized, of course, that loneliness and anxiety were the bitter but necessary fruits of motherly love. “It is right for us to love our families, but oh the heartaches. But it is the cross, the saving Cross. We cannot have Christ without His Cross.”[81]

Tamar’s experiences, both her loneliness and her restlessness, paralleled Dorothy’s own as a young mother. She remembered herself as a young mother traveling from New York to Hollywood to Mexico and back again. “I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others.” That loneliness can stem from specific circumstances—Dorothy knew almost no one in Hollywood and likewise, Tamar lived in the country miles from a neighbor. But it also derives from social pressures and biological realities that isolate women in households. In a statement that stunningly echoes Betty Friedan’s work of the following decade, she continues by declaring that, “ A child is not enough. A husband and children, no matter how busy one may be kept by them, are not enough.” Women needed to create and seek outside the family structure. Even flush with love for her new baby, she had still been driven to write. Back in her cottage on Staten Island, still with Forster, her Catholic sponsor Sister Aloyisia had scolded her for sitting at her typewriter while the breakfast dishes piled high. Dorothy’s own conversion, for all that it that it represented a more conservative social stance, actually entailed an assertion of autonomy, radical in every sense.

Dealing with birth control, abortion, and free love were the most troubling aspects of the 1960s and 1970s for her, both because they conflicted directly with Catholic family doctrine and because they reminded her uncomfortably of her own youth. Her disapproval of birth control brought her into conflict with her sister Della, who volunteered at Margaret Sanger’s clinic and openly declared she would only have children she could afford to bring up and send to college. Dorothy writes in Della’s obituary: “When she went on to exhort me . . . that I should not urge, as a catholic, Tamar, my daughter, to have so many children, I got up firmly and walked out of the house, whereupon she ran after me weeping, saying, ‘Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, We just won’t talk about it again.’”[82] Her advocacy of marriage without birth control continually warred with her championing of female independence. Had she remarried and given birth to more than one child, her ability to travel the country and write would have been greatly curtailed. In 1973 she wrote to Sidney Callahan, a professor of psychology at Mercy College, “I feel badly at seeing formerly happy women friends bitter and angry at all they have suddenly discovered they have suffered. And they get angry at me for not being angry.”[83] Yet even though she disliked the label of feminist, she continued to be attracted to the ideals they championed. She disapproved of bishops who were “more concerned about [birth control] than war.”[84] By 1979, after hearing Dr. Marian Moses speak, she admitted there was validity to the feminist critique of the papal stance on birth control and abortion. “She is a strong feminist. I am not, tho I can see all the problems.”[85]

Interestingly enough, while her disdain for birth control seems like mere unquestioning acceptance of Catholic dogma, on a few occasions she expresses her belief that birth control harmed women in particular, as it allowed men to escape marriage and responsibility. “Sex is a gigantic force in our lives and unless controlled becomes unbridled lust under which woman is victim and suffers most of all.”[86] The sexual revolution seemed to give men license to leave their wives, which she witnessed frequently in the CW. Divorced women with small children took refuge as part volunteers and part boarders. “Dear God, help me not to judge people harshly. But men certainly take advantage of women more than ever these days.”[87] Her critique of the sexual revolution sounded a familiar feminist note. As Ruth Rosen explains in The World Split Open, men happily exploited women’s newfound sexual availability. “If sex was free, where did you draw the line?” She related the tale of one woman in a Washington D.C. consciousness-raising group who lamented that “the sexual revolution is making me miserable,” because “I’m not supposed to be jealous” when her husband cheated on her with “everything in sight.”[88]

Thirty years prior, Dorothy had angrily accused Forster of just such flippancy in their relationship when he refused to marry her.

You have always in the past treated me most casually, and I see no difference between     [our] affair and any other casual affair I have had in the past. You avoided, as you admitted yourself, all responsibility. You would not marry me then because you preferred the slight casual contact with me to any other. And last spring when my love and physical desire for you overcame me, you were quite willing for the affair to go on, on a weekend basis.[89]

In a roundabout way, she argued that birth control allowed for promiscuity, which created an easy escape from marriage, which was the ultimate sacrament. Given her experiences with Forster and Lionel Moise, perhaps Dorothy assumed most men would avoid marriage if offered sex and most women would choose it. The legalization of abortion after Roe v. Wade in 1973 struck close to home. “Does the changing of laws—the Supreme Court decision—do away with this instinctive feeling of guilt? My own longing for a child.”[90]

The separation of love and sex troubled her, not only because it led to the dissolution of marriage but because of its ubiquity, even in the sanctuaries of the Catholic Worker homes and farms. It overwhelmed impulses for pacifism and charity that she tried to hone in new workers. “What to do about the open immorality (and of course I mean sexual morality) in our midst. It is like the last times—there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed.”[91] She worried that contemporary thought urged people to succumb to their desires. “[They say] why does God implant in us these instincts and then punish us when we satisfy them? God made all things to be enjoyed. Enjoy! Enjoy!”[92] Her conversion was based on denial of instinct; she relied on discipline and prayer to strengthen her resolve when old temptations beckoned. She had renounced love only to find a deeper love and a greater life. She found something vacuous about those who searched without sacrifice. “My heart aches for them, they are so profoundly unhappy. Their only sense of well-being comes from sex and drugs, seeking to be turned on, to get high, and to reach the heights of awareness, but steadily killing the possibility of real joy.”[93]

Yet Dorothy believed in love, even if it was free. Despite her adherence to Catholic moral teaching, she couldn’t condemn a relationship in which love had sprung up between two people, even if the love lacked sacrality. “Birth control, abortion, free love—all in the name of love. . . . The hunger for human love, how beautiful in marriage and renunciation, too. But it is always to be respected, even in all these free unions, even in all these sad searchings . . .”[94] As the seventies crawled on, her own and the century’s, the world continued to change, and she insisted on reexamining her priorities and values. Old friends and colleagues started coming out as gay and she strove to understand what the church condemned. When two of her female friends confessed to her they were lesbians, she sought back into her past to remember moments of similar feeling—again, she strove to co-suffer—she remembered a girl in high school who inspired her—”I never knew her name or anything about her but in a way she cast a light about her.” She also recalled a young Polish woman who reminded her of the Virgin Mary whom she met when she first went to Communion (a scene that appears in The Dispossessed). “How contemplation of that Polish girl deepened my faith!”[95] Could love ever be wrong? Without the grace of God, it could lead to temptation and temptation, but that was just as true, she argued, for any kind of love. “Unbridled sex, practiced today in every form or fashion,” was certainly worthy of censure, but love itself could only deepen understanding. “I mean that one must be grateful for the sate of ‘in-love-ness’ which is a preliminary state to the beatific vision, which is indeed a consummation of all we desire.”[96] She seemed to take a particular dislike to drugs, probably because they were unfamiliar, possibly also because they reminded her of her own drinking days, which embarrassed her. Maybe because both of those things were forms of escape from the sorrows of the world, but sorrow was suffering and suffering was love. It was only when she embraced suffering that she found joy. It had happened once, at the great moment of her conversion, and it continued to happen every day in moments of struggle. “To love is to suffer. Perhaps our only assurance that we do love God, Jesus, is to accept this suffering joyfully! What a contradiction!”

1958With grandchildren ca. 1958.

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The Hard Work of Loving

While Dorothy worked out her ideas on feminism, women, sex, and love in her writing, she was also putting her ideas on charity into action. She viewed herself as a writer, frequently declaring that writing brought her the greatest joys in her life. But very little of her day was actually devoted to writing. It couldn’t be. She was the heart of a network that fed, clothed, and sheltered hundreds of people every day. The Catholic Worker was a unique organization in that it operated as a newspaper, a soup kitchen, and a shelter, all within the same few rooms. “The trouble with the CW is that one is so busy living there is no time to write about it.”[97] Dorothy and the other CW volunteers lived and ate alongside the alcoholics, the prostitutes, and the unemployed whom they sheltered. She wrote to support them as much as she did for personal fulfillment, and even then, she wrote only in moments stolen from brewing coffee and boiling soup for the lines of men and women that wove around the block even years after the Depression had ended, not to mention lending them a sympathetic and non-judgmental ear when necessary. She frequently found the latter task the greatest challenge. As she chronicled in her diaries, the poor can be incredibly unpleasant. They vomited in the stairwells, stole money for drugs, swore, cursed, and sometimes screamed late into the night. This indeed was the hard work of loving she wrote about. How to love the unloveable? She knew the answer—she had to see Christ in each one of them. But how difficult that was in practice. She admitted that at times she found the poor “repellant.”[98]How could you look into the dull eyes of an alcoholic or a schizophrenic raging in madness and see God inside them? How could you summon a vision of Christ when you dwelt in Hell? “. . . To be present, to be available to men, to see Jesus in the poor, to welcome, to be hospitable, to love. This is my need. I fail every day.”[99]

She was rarely rewarded, but the moments when she received gratitude must have been incredibly perfectly sweet. Edward Breen was an especially hard case who could and (should Dorothy’s canonization process prove successful) literally did try the patience of a saint. In 1935, she wrote to her friend Catherine, “Will you please pray real hard for a Mr. Breen who is at the present moment my greatest and most miserable worry? . . . He won’t be comfortable . . . and he, after all, is Christ.[100]” He yelled racist epithets at the staff and insisted he hated them all. But he stayed at the house until his death in 1939, and she persisted in her attentions to him. When she went traveling, she wrote him affectionate letters telling how proud she was of his improved behavior.

…..Dear Mr. Breen, This is but a note to tell you to be good and to be happy even though it means a great effort of will. I know you haven’t been feeling well, you poor dear, but take care of yourself, and try to keep calm and peacable in mind, and you will make me happy. I know things become very hard and disagreeable at times, but just offer it up for my intention.”[101]

And the difficult Mr. Breen was just one person of the hundreds she dealt with in the 1930s. Dorothy interacted with his equally stubborn sucessors every day until her death at eighty-three, because she never stopped living at the Catholic Worker shelter. Throughout those years, she frequently gave up even her room to people in need of shelter. She ate whatever they ate, however plain, and found her own clothes in the donation bundles so that she could devote her income to them. From her diary in 1944:

I darn stockings, three pairs, all I possess, heavy cotton, grey, tan, and one brown wool,    and reflect that these come to me from the cancerous poor, entering a hospital to die. For ten years I have worn stockings which an old lady, a dear friend, who is spending her declining years in this hospital, has collected for me and carefully darned and patched.   Often these have come to me soiled, or with that heavy hospital smell which never seemed to leave them after many washings. And the wearing of these stockings and other second-hand clothes has saved me much money to use for running of our houses of hospitality and the publishing of a paper.[102]

Perhaps because of my own love of new clothes, and perhaps too because I know Dorothy shared it, this passage affects me greatly. Whenever I face the hard work of loving, I think about Mr. Breen and the mended stockings and the sacrifices they represented for her. Dorothy’s anguish is my salvation, because if the woman who created the Catholic Worker Movement sometimes found people unendurable, how much hope is there for the rest of us!

DD0049aDay Day reading at farm, ca. 1937 (TIF)Reading at the farm, ca. 1937.

Some of Dorothy’s writing disappoints me. I have wished I could write an essay about how her feminist convictions strengthened over time and only became more radical, in the commonly accepted sense of the word. That she strode seamlessly from New Womanhood to Women’s Liberation. I admire so much her refusal to live her life on any one else’s terms. To me, it is such a shame that she condemned her own courageous behavior as sinful and glossed over everything that didn’t fit into her Catholic moral narrative. She had defied convention by living with Forster Batterham without marrying him, yet later she conveniently decided they had been “common-law” married. That the “common-law” marriage was a later invention is made clear in letters from the 1920s when she described Tamar as his illegitimate daughter. It seems like she was a radical before the world was ready who then retracted by the time the world caught up with her. I suppose my acknowledgement of her faults is important because otherwise I would be limited to hagiography in writing about her. I would rather approach her as she was, which was human, and therefore, flawed. Even in her flaws, however, I find her appealing, because for all her harsh rhetoric, she was uniquely flexible in her ability to adapt, forgive, and accept. Her sister Della, who remained her best friend until the end of her life, worked for Margaret Sanger. Tamar’s marriage ended in divorce and she and most of her children rebelled against Catholicism, so that several of Dorothy’s great-grandchildren were born out of wedlock and most never baptized. Dorothy accepted all of these blows to her faith, sometimes with sadness, but never withdrawing affection. She continued to act as a loving mother and grandmother, supporting Tamar emotionally and financially. And remarkably, in the 1950s she reconnected with Forster and helped nurse his live-in mistress (he had stubbornly adhered to his anti-marriage stance) through cancer. What touches me most is a letter Dorothy wrote in response in 1973 to a young girl in distress because of an abortion:

I’m praying very hard for you this morning, because I myself have been through much of what you have been through. Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me thru that darkness . . . My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with    bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure.

But God has been so good to me—I have known such joy in nature, and work—in writing, as you must get in your painting—in fulfilling myself, using my God-given love of beauty and desire to express myself. . . .

Again, I beg you to excuse me for seeming to intrude on you in this way. I know that just praying for you would have been enough. But we are human and must have human contact if only thru pen and paper. I love you, because you remind me of my own youth, and of my one child and my grandchildren.

When I read how tenderly she responded to others, I realize that she reserved her harshest criticism for herself and that the only sins she refused to forgive were her own.

In complicated situations, I actually do ask myself, what would Dorothy do? I don’t mean this in a sentimental way and I certainly don’t think she was perfect or would have all the answers even could I magically commune with her. I ask this question precisely because I know that she was flawed and that she understood imperfection to be the human condition. When I waver in faith or love, I think she would tell me to forgive the flaws in my fellow humans as well as myself and to treasure those flaws as the mark of the divine. A friend of mine, in the process of an unpleasant divorce, told me he had begun to forgive his wife for her years of cruelties, because he started to recognize aspects of her in his daughter, whom he loved wholeheartedly. If he loved the weaknesses of one, how could not love them in the other? Our flaws stem from our creator, and if we love him we must love his designs, which is to love each other. “The final word is love,” Dorothy declared, over and over, in articles and letters. She loved with passion, a habit she could never cast off. “We should be fools for Christ,” she also wrote frequently. Dorothy formed a foolish and passionate love wide enough to embrace the entire body and creation of God. She loved the poor, the tormented, the almost unloveable. She even, bless her heart, loved the non-believers, which includes myself. “For those who not believe in God—they believe in love.” I don’t know if I believe in God but I know I believe in Dorothy—her message, her words, her acts of charity in a dark world.

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Works Cited

Bauer, Dale M. Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Print.

Boulton, Agnes. Part of a Long Story: Eugene O’Neil as a Young Man in Love. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

Boyce, Neith and Hapgood, Hutchins. Intimate Warriors: Portrait of a Modern Marriage, 1899–1944, Selections by Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood. Ed. Ellen Kay. Trimberger. New York: The Feminist Press, 1991.

Coles, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1989. Print.

Costello, Virginia. Revolutionizing Literature: Anarchism in the Lives and Works of Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, and Bernard Shaw. Diss. Stony Brook University, 2010. Print.

Day, Dorothy. Dorothy Day. The Dispossessed. 1932. Series D-3, Box 1. Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection. Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI.—. The Duty of Delight. Ed. Robert Ellsberg.  New York: Image Books, 2008.

—. The Eleventh Virgin. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1924.

—-. From Union Square to Rome. (New York: Orbis Books, 2006). Print.

—-. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day. New York: Harper and Row,  1952. Print.

—-. On Pilgrimage. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999. Print.

—-. “Reflection during Advent—Part Three, Chastity.” The Catholic Worker 10 December 1966.

—-. Therese: A Life of Therese of Lisieux. Springfield: Templegate Publishers, 1960. Print.

Dearborn, Mary. Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Print.

Eastman, Crystal. On Women and Revolution. Ed. Blanche Wiesen Cook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. Print.

Falk, Candace Serena. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984. Print.

Fisher, James Terence. The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933–1962. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Print.

Forest, Jim. All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011.  Print.

Gillette, Meg. “Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence,” Twentieth Century Literature 58:4 (2012) 663–687. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 March 2015.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1931. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. Selected Letters 1917–1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner, 1981. Print.

LaBrie, Ross. The Catholic Imagination in American Literature. Columbia, MO: University of  Missouri Press, 1997. Print.

Miller, Nina. Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York’s Literary  Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread – the Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in  America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. Print.

Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.

Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

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Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Miller 8.
  2. Stansell 225.
  3. Long Loneliness 53.
  4. Stansell 249.
  5. Stansell 249.
  6. Long Loneliness 84.
  7. Long Loneliness 84.
  8. Forrest 51–52.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Hemingway 774–775.
  11. Day, All the Way to Heaven 38.
  12. Coles 3.
  13. “Haworth’s notable characters.” http://www.haworthnj.org/index.asp accessed 2 March 2015.
  14. Day, Long Loneliness 60.
  15. Boyce and Hapgood 39–132.
  16. Boyce and Hapgood 186–195.
  17. Eastman 76–83.
  18. Eastman 46–49.
  19. Stansell 275.
  20. Bauer 19.
  21. The Eleventh Virgin. The Dorothy Day Collection/The Catholic Worker. n.d. Web. n. pag.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Stansell 267.
  30. Ibid.
  31. I found this website on abortion in American and British literature immensely helpful: www.lesleyahall.net/literaryabortion.htm along with Gillette, Meg. “Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence.” Twentieth Century Literature 58.4 (2012): 663–687. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
  32. Gillette 666.
  33. Coles 6 and Fisher 13.
  34. The Eleventh Virgin. The Dorothy Day Collection/The Catholic Worker. n.d. Web. n. pag.
  35. Coles 37.
  36. Long Loneliness 161&