Review: Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

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Published in 1962, Morte D’Urban is, in 2019, a pretty unsexy reading prospect. It concerns itself with Roman Catholic Priests. In Minnesota. In the 50s. Morte D’Urban should be a tough sell, and yet I read it in a compulsive rush, finishing the entire novel in less than a week.

Morte D’Urban chronicles a turbulent time in the life of Father Urban, a charismatic Catholic priest walking finely the line between ambitious, (relatively) progressive modern priest and Joel Osteen-esque huckster. Father Urban belongs to the Order of St. Clement, an obscure religious order terminal with mediocrity. Burdened by inertia in the upper ranks and boredom in the lower, the Order is a virtual non-entity in the guilded clockwork of the Roman Catholic Church. Urban, charismatic and ambitious, wants to change that: when we first meet him in Chicago, he’s been traveling, giving guest sermons at churches all over the region, speechifying, shmoozing, networking; hoping to gouge out, through sheer indefatigable enthusiasm, a higher place in the world for the Order and, yes, also for himself. But then Urban, on the cusp of triumph after bagging a major benefactor in the form of millionaire Billy Cosgrove, is sent by a jealous Father Provincial to a Minnesota backwater called Duesterhaus.

Powers’s depiction of Duesterhaus, both on a municipal and a personal level, is, initially, scathing. Pre-decrepit in that frigid way particular to small American towns, forgotten by the distant, metastasizing suburbs and distanter cities, Duesterhaus is dead; there’s one decent restaurant (located in the lone hotel), one train station, and just one taxi, owned and driven by the hardware store owner. The Order’s digs are dire as well: a decrepit mansion on the outskirts of Duesterhaus, its barn was the site of a grisly murder; the mansion itself became a poorhouse and then a sanitarium before it was acquired by the Clementines.

The opening chapters setting up Urban’s predicament also highlight one of the first major pleasures in book: its depiction of bureaucracy. Throughout the novel Powers shows Urban attempting to navigate an ecclesiastical minefield of petty, esoteric church politics. Every priest has a hobbyhorse and an axe to grind, and all the high-ranking monsignors nurtures inexplicable grudges about each other or capable underlings. The hoops Urban jumps through to get anything done are as dramatic as the power struggles that people (wrongly) imagine Game of Thrones to have, albeit on a more mundane scale; but the scope of the novel, filtered through the central consciousness and concerns of Father, give the nearly nonsensical wranglings a grandeur and drama that fuel propulsive reading; a late scene on a golf course has all the desperation and vertiginous stakes of a sword fight between mythic heroes.

For a goodly portion of the book Morte D’Urban comes across as a satire of small town America, and the strange, small-minded people you find there; there’s a dark, knowing lilt to Power’s prose that gives its humor an artistic edge but the tone is still fundamentally pleasant. It’s also genuinely funny. The most hilarious stretch occurs when we meet Father Wilf, rector of the Clementine outpost in Duesterhaus: a cheap, unselfconsciously pedantic know-it-all, Father Wilf is the kind of person who seems to have a single fact about every topic and is unable not to deliver that fact whenever the subject is brought up: an innocent, abominable pest. I laughed out loud at parts, and I don’t usually laugh much when reading.

There won’t be many illustrative quotes from Morte D’Urban, because it is, both in its comic and tragic effects, a novel of accretion: the prose is patient, rarely poetic, workmanlike in a distinguished way; Powers builds scenes and characters line by line, imbuing all with a solidity and convincingness that I found utterly compelling in its faithfulness to life; if, like me, you’re at all concerned with the ability of fiction to generate not just a world, but our world, then Morte D’Urban should appeal to you. Powers rarely lavishes many words on descriptive scenes, but he has a masterly grasp of Midwestern scenery, hitting on its essential character in a clean, compressed way:

“Chester stayed in the boat, bailing it out with a rusty coffee can, which, scraping the ribbed bottom and swallowing the dirty water, made a melancholy sound. The sun was leaving for the day, and when that happened that far north in September, there wasn’t much between you and the night. The lake, a light red wine before, was now black stout, and the air was suddenly dank.”

Jonathan Yardley says that Morte D’Urban, actually, is the great American novel of the workplace. I can see it. Urban’s unflagging devotion to his cause (and again, whether that cause is the Order, Christianity in general, or his own advancement is left somewhat up to interpretation) reflects classic American brain poison about being a Hard Worker and Getting Your Due. And for a long time you might think that Urban’s constant frustrations and the uphill battle he wages in inhospitable semi-rural Minnesota are set up just for gentle laughs, and will ultimately be rewarded.

Whether they are or not I won’t say, but as the novel progresses, events transpire and the novel metamorphoses into something different, darker. It becomes clear, even as the morality and purpose murkify, that there is a limit even to Urban’s seemingly inexhaustible energy. In this way the depiction of the American Drive Forward, if it was ever intended as such, exposes that drive as hollow, potentially damaging. The last five chapters are the strongest in the book and increasingly strange, almost mystic, oblique as a winter lake obscured by driving snow. The ambiguities it builds into the plot are masterful, so subtle that you can, in fact, miss them; so subtle that you can almost second-guess whether they’re there at all.

(They’re there).

A note on the subject matter: moral conservativism, religiosity, the Roman Catholic Church, the ignorance and defensive mediocrity endemic to America but particularly the American Midwest: in 2019, these are all known elements of incipient fascism and tools of control. Morte D’Urban concerns itself with a Catholic priest in Minnesota in the 50s; Father Urban cuts a striking, often sympathetic figure, but he’s also a fundamentally conservative man working in and for a fundamentally conservative system, amongst fundamentally conservative people, espousing fundamentally conservative values.

That’s a problem in this book, without a doubt. For some, the nonjudgmental, possibly even positive depiction of the Catholic Church may be a terminal turn off. In that way Morte D’Urbam reminds me of Silence by Shusaku Endo, another book I loved that concerned itself with subjects I do not love. I reconcile it thus: Morte D’Urban’s fundamental drive is to depict reality, not the Church; its focus is on revealing the desperate boring beauty of life as it is lived, to deliver an ironic delineation of the limits of our minds and hearts, to capture also the weird fluking mystery of being alive and striving and unhappy.

Powers was a Catholic, and obviously fixated on the Catholic world as a theme, and so the characters in his books are Catholics and hold Catholic views (although from what I understand he wasn’t entirely happy with the idea of being labeled a “Catholic Writer”); but the book itself doesn’t espouse an inherently (or at least exclusively) Catholic philosophy even if its characters do. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect reconciliation, and won’t be enough for many would-be readers, I’m sure; but it was enough for me.

So I finished Morte D’Urban and felt completely satisfied with it, nourished by its craft and quiet complexity. But I kept wondering if I would recommend it – or, more to the point, to whom the fuck would I recommend it to? There’s nothing sexy about this book, nothing immediately prepossessing; I loved the comic tone of the first half, loved the political maneuvering, the dramatization of petty bureaucracy, and I really loved the darker, ambiguous second half, but suffice to say I think a lot of folks will have a hard time looking past the inherent dowdiness of the subject matter and the surface-level blandness of the prose. Again, Powers is a gifted writer, but his mastery comes less from any one individual sentence than in the accretion and arrangement of all of them, so that unless you’re tuned in to this novel’s particular frequency it may fall entirely flat for you.

Or maybe not. Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963 after all, beating out stuff like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, perhaps its polar opposite in terms of execution. That’s a book that’s essentially a game, bedizened by rhinestone-encrusted prose that catches a lot of light but doesn’t illuminate much of anything; whereas Morte D’Urban, seemingly staid, is in fact the real deal, the true thing, an object of undeniable, if sometimes inscrutable or hard-to-articulate, maybe even hard to see, beauty. If anything about this review piqued your interest, pick up the book and give it a try. Maybe it’s for you. Maybe it’s for nearly everybody.

If you decide to buy Morte D’Urban on the strength of this review, please get it from an independent bookseller. It’s also available direct from NYRB Classics, who have kept it in print since 2000.

Review: Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

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I bought a copy of Naked Lunch at the most excellent Book Lady in Charlotte, NC, and read it over the course of a few days.

It was sweltering mad hot as I read Naked Lunch; the nightmare of Ohio’s high midwestern summer spun itself out in days of bright, flat light and soaked air, the white sun unwinking in skies cloud-washed and bleared, like half-finished Renaissance paintings; stupid, cruel, brutal days that came one after another, seemingly endlessly, like a fractal growing out…

Naked Lunch, Burroughs says, is not a novel, which is a helpful fib. The book definitely shambles into view with a much different physiognomy than your average novel. A series of episodes are related, concerning a number of umbrageous characters; episodes sometimes stand in coherent or incoherent isolation, sometimes continue stories that have begun elsewhere in the book, and/or elaborate on ideas or concepts introduced before or after in the text.

The plot with which Naked Lunch begins and ends is the narrative of an addict named Lee as he tries to escape a city full of cops, agents, and other squares. The Lee story quickly fractures beyond repair as episodes begin digressing, snaking in characters, locations, and scenes with no direct connection to Lee’s story other than being informed by the same controlling aesthetic and its metaphors, preoccupations, concerns.

None of this is helpful, none of it gives you the slightest idea what Naked Lunch really is; some excerpts, then. Burroughs intended Naked Lunch to be readable in any order you choose: front to back, back to front, scattershot at random. “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point…I have written many prefaces,” he writes near the end of the book; and then later, even nearer the end:

The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement. This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and streets noises, farts and riot yips and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic, copulating cats and outraged squawk of the displaced bullhead, prophetic mutterings of brujo in nutmeg trance, snapping necks and screaming mandrakes, sigh of orgasm, heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells, Radio Cairo screaming like a berserk tobacco auction, and flutes of Ramadan fanning the sick junky like a gentle lush worker in the grey subway dawn feeling with delicate fingers for the green folding crackle…

Burroughs’s prose style: elastic, omnivorous, digestive, panglossal, striking out with a thousand tongues, slipping into different registers at a highwire clip.

Look at that dragontail first sentence, which:

1) Starts with a biblical tang (“The Word”) that 

2) segues into an almost-affectless instructional tone to talk about the book it is a part of (“divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken”) with just a hint of offness in its grammar (“be all in one piece,” “the pieces can be had in any order”), then 

3) flows into a sonic near-free association (“back and forth in and out fore and aft”) before

4) deflating itself with the slangy, lewd, lowbrow (and also still with the torqued grammar) simile of “an innaresting sex arrangement.”

(Note: Burroughs is also capable of straightforward beauty too, plain accessible great writing: “heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells” is frightening, coldly gorgeous; it wouldn’t be out of place in a story from Jesus’ Son)

Naked Lunch is not really a ‘drug book.’ 

But it’s also the ultimate drug book. Characters in it do heroin and cocaine et al., but Naked Lunch shows us drugs and highs that transcend even the degradation of the hardest of ‘real’ drugs; and everybody is an addict of something. Early on there is the case of Bradley the Buyer, a narc so anonymous-grey he can buy from any pusher without suspicion; but eventually Bradley develops strange addictions of his own:

Well the Buyer comes to look more and more like a junky. He can’t drink. He can’t get it up. His teeth fall out. (Like pregnant women lose their teeth feeding the stranger, junkies lose their yellow fangs feeding the monkey.) He is all the time sucking on a candy bar. Baby Ruths he digs special. “It really disgust you to see the Buyer sucking on them candy bars so nasty,” a cop says.

The Buyer takes on an ominous grey-green color. Fact is his body is making its own junk or equivalent. The Buyer has a steady connection. A Man Within, you might say. Or so he thinks. “I’ll just set in my room,” he says. “Fuck ‘em all. Squares on both sides. I am the only complete man in the industry.”

But a yen comes on him like a great black wind through the bones. So the Buyer hunts up a young junky and gives him a paper to make it.

“Oh all right,” the boy says. “So what you want to make?”

“I just want to rub against you and get fixed.”

“Ugh…well all right…But why cancha just get physical like a human?”

Later the boy is sitting in a Waldorf with two colleagues dunking pound cake. “Most distasteful thing I ever stand still for,” he says. “Some way he make himself all soft like a blob of jelly and surround me so nasty. Then he gets wet all over like with green slime. So I guess he come to some kinda awful climax…I come near wigging with that green stuff all over me, and he stink like a rotten old cantaloupe.”

Characters like Bradley are always transforming, mutating, growing orifices, emitting strange liquids in response to their addictions and secret needs – like fucked up renditions of myths, corrupted fables warning against corrupting yourself,  against submitting to the Control that bloods the heart of any addiction big or small.

The plot, the real plot of Naked Lunch is a catalog of horrors. Its aesthetic payload detonates and opens up collapsed shafts in our hearts, ones we’d hoped to keep closed, forgotten or at least ignored. Naked Lunch is a spelunking expedition into depravity and unhappiness; the heightened, hellish scenes of disgusting, demeaning, dehumanizing acts are exaggerations, but still proof of the shuddering dereliction inherent in our sick human souls as we progress through the days, succumbing to addictions more or less quotidian.

Drug addiction is, of course, its own separate thing, an illness onto itself. In some of the ancillary material appended to the text Burroughs makes that clear. But the junky in Naked Lunch is also an everyman, hearkening to the demands of his inexplicable sickness like we all do. I don’t know why I’ll spend an evening paralyzed on the couch, rereading articles I’ve already read on my phone, for hours – but I do it anyway.

Burroughs also highlights the very troubling fact that, when it comes to our secret susceptibility to Control, pleasure and pain are really the same thing.

“I deplore brutality,” [Doctor Benway] said. “It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.”

See Proverbs for Paranoids 3: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” See your own sick heart.

So the ugliness on display is not a shocky, shlocky thing in Naked Lunch. It’s central metaphor, both narrative and textual, for our spiritual sickness. Here’s the central image of a heroin addict Burroughs refers to again and again:

I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room. Empty ampule boxes and garbage piled to the ceiling. Light and water long since turned off for non-payment. I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out. If a friend came to visit – and they rarely did since who or what was left to visit – I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision – a grey screen always blanker and fainter – and not caring when he walked out of it. If he had died on the spot I would have sat there looking at my shoe waiting to go through his pockets. Wouldn’t you?

Yes, you would.

Naked Lunch is about putting things in front of you. Like all great books, it makes you see – which sounds facile but is both true and profound. The ugliness in the plot of Naked Lunch is a metaphor, but its aesthetic ugliness is a drill, the ice pick for breaking up our own frozen seas, a scourge for finding better ways, a disruption pattern from the last free radio tower.

In no direct way is Naked Lunch a depiction of any hopeful aspect of life or reality, but its total commitment to drilling deep, to being unafraid of ugliness in what it says or how it says it, is vital and hopeful. It’s plausible – likely – possibly certain – in the world we live in, to unremember that life can be more than a series of nonconsequential transactions; it’s even easier to forget that this unremembering is, itself, an addiction.

Naked Lunch, bedraggled subway sage, teaches that the only escape from the bullshit is to jump right at it and show expose it, to impale it on the end of a fork. “The way OUT is the way IN…” As always, Art is the only eyes we’ll ever have.

*****

A note on the text: I read the “Restored Text” of Naked Lunch, which purports to make many textual corrections and also includes a pretty sizable annex of outtakes and other material. I read the three postscripts but none of the outtakes; I generally want to hew as close as possible to the text as originally released unless there are obvious reasons why that original text is not optimal.

If you decide to buy Naked Lunch on the strength of this review, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

Review: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

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2666 by Roberto Bolaño, who was born on this day in 1953 and who died 16 years ago, has been the most enjoyable reading experience of 2019 for me so far. It may be matched, but I don’t think it’ll be topped. Bolaño’s body of work has been cracked open for me like a door into a new world, which is not an experience you expect to have all that often as a reader, especially as you get older and your literary polestars have been set in place for years.

What is 2666 about? Primarily, hell. It riffles through reality’s thick dusty grognardian deck of hells: the hell of love, of jealousy, the hell of war and war crime, the hell of violence, the hell of ineptitude, capitalist hell, fascistic hell, hells of forgetting and of being forgotten – and maybe most of all the hell that is our final erasure in death, the only thing, ultimately, to which our ragged souls are inescapably contracted.

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In more practical terms: 2666 is about a dozen or so central characters – critics, reporters, detectives, writers – who are drawn, for reasons arcane and straightforward, to Santa Teresa, Sonora, Mexico, a city cursed with a terrifying crime wave during which hundreds of women are being raped and murdered: primarily young, primarily lower class. Many were workers in the maquiladoras, factories built by foreign corporations that have metastasized across Santa Teresa like cancers and have come to both define and poison the city’s growth. The life and works of a mysterious, elusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi are also an ongoing concern.

It’s also about burned books:

What would those who lived in the tenth dimension, that is, those who perceived ten dimensions, think of music, for example? What would Beethoven mean to them? What would Mozart mean to them? What would Bach mean to them? Probably, the young Reiter answered himself, music would just be noise, noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books.

At this point the conductor raised a hand and said or rather whispered confidentially:

“Don’t speak of burned books, my dear young man.”

To which Hans responded:

“Everything is a burned book, my dear maestro. Music, the tenth dimension, the fourth dimension, cradles, the production of bullets and rifles, Westerns: all burned books.”

“What are you talking about?” asked the director.

“I was just stating my opinion,” said Hans.

“An opinion like any other,” said Halder, doing his best to end the conversation on a humorous note, one that would leave them all on good terms, he and the conductor and Hans and the conductor, “a typically adolescent pronouncement.”

“No, no, no,” said the conductor, “What do you mean by Westerns?”

“Cowboy novels,” said Hans.

This declaration seemed to relieve the director, who, after exchanging a few friendly words with them, soon took his leave. Later, he would tell his hostess that Halder and the Japanese man seemed like decent people, but Halder’s young friend was a time bomb, no question about it: an untrained, powerful mind, irrational, illogical, capable of exploding at the moment least expected. Which was untrue. (Page 666)

The novel is divided into five parts, best thought of as a series of five full-length mirrors. The first mirror is classically clear, perfectly appointed in a tasteful gilt rococo frame; but if you look closer you notice that the subject matter of the carvings on the frame is odd: no oak leaves tastefully curved like ladies’ wrists, but malformed claws holding the edges of the mirror for dear life; and instead of cherubs, knobby-kneed demons laboring gleefully under grotesque humpbacks peek at you from the frame’s corners. The second mirror has a dull sheen to it, but tracks its reflected images faithfully enough. Its frame is dingy and utilitarian, made of nicked-up plastic gone cloudy with finger oil from much handling, as if it has been moved from room to room; it’s the kind of mirror you might buy from Wal-Mart or another minor hell, trying to furnish your apartment on the cheap. The third mirror has no frame at all, just an angled chamfer around its perimeter to designate an edge. Its serene surface is disturbed by a big star-shaped shatterpoint, splayed out from a fist-sized center on the mirror’s right side, about at chest level, like somebody tried to punch whoever they saw there in the heart. There is no fourth mirror. The fifth mirror’s frame is workmanlike, made from unremarkable but sturdy pieces of wood, covered with a lacquer that makes it dark and glossy. And while the frame is clean the mirror itself is filthy, water-stained, with dark unerasable smudges and running topographies of permanent grime, as if it has been recovered from a shipwreck after decades in some cold northern sea’s embrace. It smells briny.

2666 is also about the utter fuckedness of dragging yourself through reality every day, how human life is at the mercy of things we have named but do not understand: fate, fear, hate, love, oblivion. All the bigguns that baffle us until the day we die.

These five mirrors are set up to form a star or pentagram, each corresponding to one of the shape’s five points. In the center of the pentagram there’s a dark hole, big enough to climb down into. So depending on where you stand and where you look, each mirror will reflect portions of the other four mirrors, the spaces between the mirrors, yourself, and the hole, in proportions you can alter by walking right or left, or by crouching or standing on the tips of your toes, like you’re calibrating a tint on a color wheel.

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2666 is the kind of book that makes you want to address it in metaphors and indirection, like a Heian lover; and that’s not only because it is dizzyingly good but also because it is the most haunted fucking book you have ever read.

To that end: is also about Horror, and horror.

Everything in 2666 eventually feeds into the enormity of the Santa Teresa murders, which are Bolaño’s white whale, his Rocket, his Judge Holden. They rise like a bad dream, gnawing at the edges of the scenery throughout Parts 1 – 3. In part 4, “The Part About The Crimes,” Bolaño plunges right into the eye of the storm, cataloging a large swathe of the murders in detail, from their “beginnings” in 1993 up until 1997. They don’t stop then, and ‘97 isn’t even 2666’s ‘present,’ but by then the sheer number of deaths has reached some kind of horrible apotheosis and moved beyond the scope of human comprehension, and although one potential suspect has been apprehended and others named, it is too late, far too late. Indeed, Bolaño presents the murders as having reached a horrible immortality, as being metaphysically unsolvable, an unstakeable Dracula, not only because the Santa Teresa cops are deeply corrupt and inept, nor because the companies behind the maquiladoras interfered with the investigations, nor even because the Mexican cartel seems involved, but because – I think – the central thesis of 2666 is that it has actually been too late ever since mortality first punctured the frail human dream. Too late for all of us, but also these lost women in particular.

Because the murders are also not Bolaño’s at all. For all its cosmological dread and dark reverberation, 2666 is never deaf to the particular unfairness of these deaths, of all this specific loss of life which has a very real corollary in the reality, the more than 300 female homicides in Ciudad Juárez. Part 4 is often described as being clinical, removed, sterile, like a police report. But it reads to me as an act of humane documentation. Bolaño, unlike many true crime writers, never succumbs to breathless fascination with the violence itself, or a fanatic obsession with the (possible) killers, who are presented as terrifying ciphers, nor even as a sentimentalized empyrean to these women, pretending to know more than he can about who they were. It memorializes the inhumanity of their death, the mystery of it, and the mystery of their individual lives all at once. Part 4 is a monument as much as it is a metaphor.

The whole of 2666 is fixated on memorializing, on making obsessively sure that every character who walks on stage gets his share of humanity, a suitable end to his minor story. You already know this, but Bolaño didn’t quite “finish” 2666 before he died. According to those in charge of his estate he came damn close, and I believe that. But I also believe that if Bolaño had his way, 2666 would have just kept growing, like Leaves of Grass, with more characters, more voices, more stories. The novel isn’t so much digressive as it is all-embracing, desperately human. There’s always time for another tale from another far-traveled stranger, and in its dark profusion 2666 isn’t afraid to deliver some of its most beautiful moments in these ancillary/not-ancillary tales. Consider the sad end of the Soviet science fiction writer Efraim Ivanov, who is actually a character in the journal of a another character, a journal that a third character finds long after the journal-keeper himself has died:

In 1937 Ivanov was arrested.

Once again he was subjected to a long interrogation and then they left him in a dark cell and forgot about him. His interrogator didn’t know a thing about literature. His principal interest was finding out whether Ivanov had met with members of the Trotskyist opposition.

During his time in the cell, Ivanov made friends with a rat he called Nikita. At night, when the rat came out, Ivanov held long conversations with her. As one might imagine, they didn’t talk about literature, and certainly not about politics, but about their respective childhoods. Ivanov told the rat about his mother, who was often in his thoughts, and his siblings, but he avoided talking about his father. The rat, whose Russian was scarcely a whisper, talked in turn about the Moscow sewers and the sky in the sewers, where because of the blossoming of certain debris or an inexplicable phosphorescent process, there were always stars. She also talked to him about her mother’s warmth and her sisters’ foolish capers, how she had laughed at those capers, even now as she remembered them they brought a smile to her narrow rat’s face. Sometimes Ivanov let himself succumb to despair and he rested his cheek on his palm and asked Nikita what would become of them.

Then the rat looked at him with sad, perplexed eyes and her look told Ivanov that she was even more innocent than he was. A week after he had been locked in the cell (although for Ivanov it seemed more like a year) he was interrogated again and no one had to hit him to make him sign various papers and documents. He wasn’t returned to his cell. They took him straight out to a courtyard where he was shot in the back of the head and his body tossed on the bed of a truck. (Pages 727 – 728)

Not a word, not a word is out of place here. Ivanov, with the tender ego of all bookpeople, notices his interrogator “didn’t know a thing about literature.” A talking rat is introduced with no fanfare, no pretense or posing. And I want to be clear about this: the correct reading of this scene is that Ivanov meets a real talking rat whose name is Nikita. He doesn’t hallucinate a rat, or hallucinate that a rat talks to him; the way this section is written makes it clear that Nikita is real. Bolaño brings us right into her world with the perfect, uncanny, inimitable discussion of the way the ceiling of a moldering Moscow city sewer can have a sky, to a rat who looks up. Nikita, is as sad as Ivanov with rattish innocence. And that we never see or hear of her again after Ivanov dies…

*Breathless, slamming my podium with open preacher’s palm* I mean, I mean, I mean, brethren, sistren, othren, allren, this is an ending worthy to conclude an entire fucking novel with, and yet in 2666 it is just one of many such moments, each as exactingly, as achingly realized as this’un. The desperation of connection, 2666 indicates, is the only antidote to death. And it’s not an antidote.

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But-but-but 2666 is also about the hell that is your world, the day- and nightlit ugliness you move through everyday: look at the desiccated houses, the sun-baked roads knocking your car’s alignment out of joint, the streetlights exuding their orange pollution like halitosis into the charmless humid evening air; or those cigarette butt nights of sleeplessness or drunkenness that bring you to some struggling lonely 24 hour diner, the only place with lights still on, uglier and sadder than they ever look in the movies, lit up like a malign jewel in the night’s fat velvet palm.

It also contains an extended vampire sequence.

In tone, in theme, in style and concerns, in ambition and achievement, 2666 is my kinda poison. I like it a lot, and I’d like it lot even if it fell short of true greatness. And I need longer to digest it, but 2666 is only one of two novels I can think of off the top of my head published after 2000 (the other being Against the Day, natch, which I haven’t read all the way through) that is immediately a genuine contender for that capital-G Greatness.

It’s also about how Art runs through the falseness of our lives like a river of blood. If that matters to you, go read 2666.

Image Credit: Various versions of Die Toteninsel by Alfred Stieglitz; from top to bottom: Third Version, Basel Version, New York Version, Sixth Version.

Review: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

 

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First: many thanks to the excellent Biblioklept.org for pointing me in the direction of many fine books, most recently and notably 2666 and Jesus’ Son. If you like anything at all about what I’m trying to do with Demilecteur, please go check out Biblioklept, which was one of the primary inspirations for this blog.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is a collection of linked short stories, concerning the luminously turbulent life and experiences of an unnamed narrator, a young man whose life has spiraled off into drug and alcohol addiction. Although each story functions as a discrete episode and can be read on its own (with “Two Men” and “The Other Man” being the only slight exceptions), reading Jesus’ Son front to back turns it into something other than a collection stories, but also other than a conventional novel: a micro-series of nested correspondences, a maze in miniature, a fragmented, distracted picaresque.

I read Johnson’s novel Angels some – maybe as many as ten, Jesus Christ – years ago. I liked it. Scenes from it have stuck with me to this day, and come back to me anytime I think about the novel, are returning even as I write this sentence; but I also recall a vague disappointment attendant upon finishing and processing it. On the strength of Jesus’ Son alone I’d bet the disappointment is my fault, not the book’s. Sometimes you don’t have the right weak spots inside you, yet, for a good book to strike at; I’d like to return to Angels at some point.

Anyway: Jesus’ Son. It’s fantastic. If we lump it in with other famous pieces of drug lit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Naked Lunch (I’ve read the former, but not the latter), and I think that’s one valid avenue of approach, one thing that distinguishes it in that subgenre is its ability to convey, on the structural level, the profound decentralization of a drug-addled, addicted state – not just someone who is high or drunk, but somebody submerged in addiction, whose life revolves around the acquisition and consumption of drugs. In Jesus’ Son, drug addiction is not only a plot point as it is in Fear and Loathing (as I remember it), or an aesthetic conceit as in Naked Lunch (as I envision it), but something that has both corrupted and purified the texture of the book itself. The decentralization doesn’t get in the way – it is the way.

This is a deceptively difficult point to illustrate in a review, because the effect is built up subtle in and across each story. A simple for instance: the narrator gets his chronology mixed up, he jumps backwards and forwards in his stories, altering, amending, noting that maybe he doesn’t have the facts quite straight, that maybe he never will, and that, ultimately, it may not matter. Here’s an example from the story “Emergency,” from just after the narrator has explained how he accidentally sat on and killed a litter of infant bunnies he and his friend Georgie were keeping in a truck; suddenly the exact time in his life that this happens starts to fall apart; he questions whether the snowy day he recalls it happening on was in fact a separate time, and whether the next morning he’s about to relate to us occurred then or elsewhere:

Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them. It doesn’t matter…The bunnies weren’t a problem yet, or they’d already been a problem and were already forgotten, and there was nothing on my mind. (Pages 84-85)

This ingrained, troubling, but also casual disregard for the sequence of events does violence to our perception of the importance of time, and then tells us that neither the violence nor time itself matters. Jesus’ Son isn’t really interested in showing you Your Brain on Drugs. It wants to show you Your Life, Which is So Sad and Shattered That It Doesn’t Really Matter Whether This Pitiful Thing Happened Before or After The Next (Or Previous) Pitiful Thing.

Threading all of these scenes together, each as crisply etched as a face on a coin, is Johnson’s prose, a meticulously disheveled kind of prose that moves without catching a breath between matter of fact, staccato, noir-ish relaying of action to flinging out burning scenes of revelation that blossom in and around the narrator as he moves through these tableaux of despair. Check out this holy hybrid; an example from the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking:”

The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real. (pages 9 – 10)

Some writers go entire careers without pursuing the balance and compression on display in this paragraph. There’s the simple melodic beauty of “the idea /now/ of /how/ really badly broken he was;” the ‘now’ and ‘really’ both not necessary to convey general meaning, but essential to the music of the sentence; and the way “really badly broken” conveys a freight of pity right into your skull. But then it’s all punctured by the horror of describing a dying man’s death rattle as loud, rude snoring (echoes of the sounds of tortured Christians in Shusaku Endo’s Silence). And then the whole thing rides an arc of redemption as a symbol of “the great pity of a person’s life on this earth.” But then that pity is punctured – or made more real, which is the same thing – by not being what we expect (that we all die), but rather that we all live unable to communicate anything, really, to one another. And that we’ll die that way too.

So life is a tragedy of silence, but art isn’t, it can speak when our own hearts souls fail to do so, and the whole of Jesus’ Son is littered with revelation. The book has a numinous quality to it; it’s strangely beatific in a way that feels neither forced nor, ultimately, permanent. In the final story, “Beverly Home,” the narrator is recovering from addiction and working a part-time job writing a newsletter at a nursing home. And whereas the other stories ended in moments of epiphanic despair, a kind of poetically fraught hope, or burning revelation, “Beverly Home” ends in a moment of strangely pedestrian summation – very nearly a cliché:

All these weirdoes, and me getting a little better every day right in the middle of them. I had never known, never even imagined for heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us. (Page 160)

To be clear: it works. It’s supposed to be dumb, because unfortunately the truly tangible things are, often, these dumb things. There’s something evanescent about the narrator’s other revelations, his exalted visions. Something subjective, hermetic, untranslatable. He can’t tell us, really, what he’s dreaming; but in the last story he tries to tell us what’s real. And if – great pity – it’s not much, that’s not his fault.

On the eye-quivering quality of Jesus’ Son I’ve put Johnson’s big Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke, onto my 2019 reading list. Go read this one and you may end up doing the same.

Image Credit: Jesus’ Son cover design by Charlotte Mao.