Thursday, September 22, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Not at Home (on Alois Hotschnig's Maybe This Time)


NOT AT HOME
by Douglas Messerli

Alois Hotschnig Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2006), translated by Tess Lewis from the German as Maybe This Time [read in manuscript]

Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig's 2006 collection of short stories titled Die Kinder beruhigte des nicht (That Didn't Reassure the Children) is filled with empty people, shadow-images of life who haunt seemingly ordinary worlds, where no one seems to notice if these figures are present or missing.

In the first story, "The Same Silence, the Same Noise," a man rents a lakeside home, becoming entranced by the never-ending blandness of his neighbors, who each day sit peacefully on their deckchairs, staring into space. It is as if they have no other life, and he becomes so transfixed by this emptiness that watching them becomes a kind of mania. A first he watches out of the corner of his eyes or unseen from a window like a voyeur. But even when one of them turns to catch him at the act, there seems to be no recognition on their part. Gradually, accordingly, he becomes more and more open about his interest in their timeless stares into space, at one point boating out to their sundeck, struggling ashore with the intention to sit in their chairs in order to better understand the passivity of their lives.

Of course, in his mania, he too has become isolated and useless. He no longer sees friends, talks to few, and like his neighbors, leads an idle life. When he finally grows disgusted with his actions, he discovers the previous tenant of his house has returned, like him intently staring at the couple, just as if he has been hypnotized. The current renter suddenly discovers a new focus of attention:

He sat there now, in my place, and I watched him from the house, which
soon I no longer left and I didn't take my eyes off him, but saw how he
stared over at them, as they stared into the water, and I looked over at them
every day, every night, always, until now.

In the eerie tale "Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut," Karl, a man on his way to visit friends, is lured into a neighbor's house, where a woman keeps a vast collection of seemingly hand-made dolls. She shows him some of the dolls before she begins to talk about someone in the house who has been waiting for Karl, waiting evidently for years for his arrival. The him is a doll, also named Karl, who is the spitting image of the man, and strangely, meeting this doll, a feeling of piece comes over him; they become, somehow, friends.

Karl returns to the house several times, soon beginning to recognize some of the dolls as replicas of people of the village. The neighborhood children, who the woman also tries to lure into her house, all fear her—with good reason. For, after several visits, the woman begins to make love to the doll Karl in front of the man, licking him obscenely. But as he watches the woman with the doll upon her lap, he grows more and more peaceful, reminded of the joys of his childhood. His relationship his own wife begins to fray as he becomes more and more "used to the old woman's idiosyncrasies."

One day, however, he discovers in a cabinet different costumes for the dolls, shockingly coming across shoes, sweaters, pants, and other articles of clothing that he, too, wore as a child. And ultimately the man himself becomes one of her dolls, and through the doll is petted and cuddled.

Eventually, the licking, cuddling, petting is transformed into the woman's consumption of the doll:

She kept licking tenderly and sucking, and now put the entire hand
into her mouth, which also melted and vanished. ...She ate and relished
it, and, again and again, I sat there before her, watching as I disappeared
into her and as she deteriorated more and more right before my eyes.

She begins to consume all the dolls, and when he returns, her eyes are no longer directed at him, but towards all. She has devoured her world.

Perhaps the best tale of this short but spell-binding collection is "Maybe This time, Maybe Now," from which the translator has selected her English-language title. Here the numerous family members seem to be quite normal, gathering at holidays, birthdays, and other family events regularly in seeming joyfulness and celebration. Yet we soon learn that there is always one person missing, their Father's brother Walter, who, although he often promises to attend, never appears. As the tale progresses we gradually learn that the family eternally forgives Walter his absence, but the children's parents and other brothers and sisters still are convinced each time that "this time" Walter will appear. The narrator even attempts to skip these events, realizing that no one at these family gatherings is really important; only, he who is the focus of everyone's attention, really matters. Yet the narrator finds it hard to stay away, and returns to the pattern. Occasionally, Walter's wife visits, but never her husband, as she hurries away to discover what happened to him.

Walter, it gradually appears, is less a person than an unspoken desire, a desire different perhaps to everyone, but wished for always. While the family is surrounded by love and fulfillment, their focus remains on their emptiness. In short, the very reason for their gathering betrays their failure to live fully and love.

In the Kafkaesque "The Beginning of Something," a person discovers in the mirror "a stranger's face," and believes he is dreaming. But each time he arises to wash his face and rid himself the dream's residue, he has more and more difficulty in returning to his own past, his own life. He has, in short, "escaped himself," and is unable to return to reality. He feels he has done something terrible, but realizes that those that seek him will never come; that he has become a living lie, an unreality.

Similarly, in "You Don't Know Them, They're Strangers," a man is called by another name and discovers things in his apartment that do not seem to be his. The neighbors, who he does not know, suddenly seem to know him, a stranger telephones, claiming to be a friend, arranging a meeting. But he doesn't know this "friend" either, who speaks knowledgably of the man's past.

The next morning he goes to work, but there he also is greeted by people he does not really know; although he goes through the actions, he not sure what he is expected to do. A woman arrives at his apartment, "She'd come to pick him up as he was bound to have her waiting again or not to have show up at all."

These events begin to happen regularly, and the man begins to wonder whether or not he has memory lapses or is totally distracted. But after a while, the pattern becomes familiar; his job changes daily. He never knows the people around him who claim his friendship. At least the apartment remains the same, but then it too begins to change, and a random visiting of other addresses surprises him with people who know him, or strangers and even enemies. Once, he is even mistaken for the man he was before all the changes had taken place.

Soon he begins to travel to other neighborhoods, even other cities, his key fitting into the lock of any door he chooses. He is greeted by people in other apartments as if he has arrived home. His own previous life, whatever it might have been, no longer exists. Like Woody Allen's Zelig his being has become a part of everyone else's experiences.

In each of these nine nearly flawlessly-crafted tales, the ego shifts or disappears, and with it people become something other than they were or are revealed to never have been who thought they were in the first place. Identity in this rapidly shifting world, the author seems to suggest, no longer means anything. As everyone quickly adapts to become another or each other, no one is any longer "at home" and children can find no safe place in which to survive.

Los Angeles, March 1, 2010
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (March 2010).


Douglas Messerli | Selling Out (on August Strindberg's The Red Room)


SELLING OUT
by Douglas Messerli

August Strindberg The Red Room, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves (London: Norvik Press, 2009)

Although Strindberg had already published one of his major dramas, Mäster Olaf in 1872, his long fiction, Röda rummet (The Red Room) of 1879 was his first great success, and is often described as the earliest modern Swedish novel. In noting that, however, one should not expect the kind of psychologically-based, well-made fictions of such modernists as Joyce, Woolf, Proust, and even fellow Scandinavian writer Knut Hamsun. The Red Room can hardly be said to have any coherent structure, and, as a social satire of the whole Swedish culture, it has little concern with character. Rather, it resembles in odd ways, as translator Peter Graves suggests, the kind of overview of society that occurs in Dickens' novels. Yet even here the similarities quickly disappear, since narrative is at the heart of the great English writer's fictions, whereas Strindberg relies on a series of comically imagistic sketches to capture his much beloved and obviously much hated Stockholm.

To tell his story, Strindberg relies on what might be described as a single thread in the figure of a young idealist Arvid Falk, following the vicissitudes of his life along with tracing loose strings through the various figures he meets along the way. Strangely, however, because of Strindberg's buoyant comic timing and the large palette from which he paints his doctors, lawyers, actors, artists, philosophers, journalists, do-good philanthropists, publishers, carpenters, prostitutes, street urchins, misers, ministers, and just plain drunks one doesn't, ultimately, feel the lack of coherency in this work. Strindberg sets this whole world so a-whirling already in the second chapter that by the last page the reader is dizzied enough that he has had little time to realize that the merry-go-round upon which he has just careened should have sent him wobbling off into chaos. That sense of dislocation, perhaps, is why this work does seem, despite its numerous set pieces, so modern.

Moreover, as anyone who has read of Strindberg's life up until the time The Red Room's creation realizes, most of the various figures of satire have to do with careers with which he himself had suffered and failed. Accordingly there is, at times, a biting edge to this work that will find its fulfillment in the author's later domestic dramas and autobiographies of madness. But here, despite the constant sense of the injustice and meaninglessness of the society at large, we do not ultimately feel, as Graves puts it, the "disillusion and pessimism" that seem to be "at the heart of the book."

The satire is ebullient and hits home with an open, almost
Pythonesque, glee which is, however, remarkably free from
bitterness....

Although The Red Room received mixed reviews from the critics and was turned down for newspaper serialization, the work quickly sold out and went through four editions in the next year, allowing Strindberg at least a short period of economic relief.

From the very beginning of the book we quickly come to realize that poor Arvid Falk is a kind of holy fool, a gentle, even bashful man, seldom able to stand up to friends or enemies in his defense of goodness and meaningful social involvement. His own brother has chiseled him out of some of his inheritance, and others throughout the book will hit him up for money and even his suit and overcoat whenever he is able to accumulate anything.

At work's beginning Falk has a respectable job, even if low-paying, as an Assessor. But he can no longer bear to work at a place where no one shows up until hours after starting time, spending most of their remaining hours in countless meetings where nothing gets settled save the pettiest of decisions. Despite no training in writing, he is determined to quit the government and become a journalist. The ridiculousness of this decision is apparent to anyone who has read Hamsun's novel Hunger, published eleven years later, whose journalist hero nearly starves to death. Falk similarly undergoes nearly every kind of deprivation possible. To start with, even before he can raise a pencil to paper, he is accused by the press of having attacked the government—a terrible blow to his socially-concerned brother. Falk is innocent; the man to whom he has told his story and revealed his decision returned home to immediately write a piece for one of the most disreputable newspapers of the day.

The rest of Strindberg's work is centered on the assignments given Falk and the individuals he meets along the way. A visit to a publisher lands an immediate assignment to rewrite a German documentary, The Guardian Angel, about the surviving children of a couple drowned in a shipwreck; fortunately they were insured, but as they rush to claim their inheritance they discover that the boat that carried their inheritance had also sunk, and their parents had failed to pay the insurance premium due on the day their death! Falk wisely rejects the assignment.

A visit to a religious charity portrays a mad man sitting behind a churchlike-organ shouting messages to various employees through the trumpet while pulling out its stops. A visit to a local field uncovers artists living in shanty-like constructions, one painting landscapes, the other religious subjects, while nearby two friends spend the day reading philosophy. For supper they quickly gather up anything that might sell (including each other's prized possessions), speeding them off to the pawnbrokers, and gathering at a local bar to fill their bellies. It is the room in the bar, nicknamed the Red Room, that gives Strindberg's work its title. And it is in this room where Falk feels most a home, surrounded by seedy Bohemian-like types.

I will not list every societal situation Falk must endure—he meets up at various moments with a theatrical troupe, a beautiful prostitute, an entire household of unemployed workers, and a disgusting-looking and profoundly boisterous man of the medical profession; he visits the Swedish Riksdag (parliament), attends a labor meeting, and finally, in complete despair, travels with the doctor to the countryside for a few weeks of rest. Upon his return he is seen as being a different man, a being who now has now sold out to the barren and destructive society he has fought. Becoming a teacher of Swedish Literature and History at a Girl's School, he smilingly attempts to keep a bird's-eye view of the society. Strindberg writes:

But when he is tired of family life and the falseness of society he
goes down to the Red Room and meets that dreadful man Borg [the
doctor], his admirer Isaac, his secret and envious enemy Struve...and
the sarcastic Sellén....

Of Falk, Borg writes:

He lives for his work and for his fiancée, whom he worships. But I
don't believe all that. Falk is a political fanatic who knows it would
destroy him were he to let air reach his flame, so he smothers it
instead with these strict, arid studies. I don't believe he will succeed
and however much he controls himself I fear there will be an
explosion at some point.

Strindberg suggests, as I read it, that there may be hope for some in Swedish society despite the impossibility of their cause. It is the possibility of those explosions that promise change, and in allowing their potential Strindberg appears to look ahead to the Futurists and other literary movements of the new century.


Los Angeles, August 27, 2010
Reprinted from Rain Taxi (Winter 2010/2011).
Copyright (c)2010 by Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review of Prieto Gonzalez' Nocturnal Butteries of the Russian Empire, by Nicholas Birns


José Manuel Prieto Gonzalez, Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas and Carol Christensen (New York: Grove Press, 2000)
by Nicholas Birns

Prieto tells the hidden story of the cold war’s frantic swan song. Like Nabokov in Sebastian Knight, he gives us a V. and a quest; like Pynchon, he searches amid literary burrowings and apocalyptic agitation. Going from Cuba to Novosibirsk in 1986, the author can report on what, for American readers, is the other side of history. Prieto renders the incongruous into the irresistible. The narrator wanders through ruins, looking for his lost love and the shards of his own consciousness.

The woman is no longer there, and when she was there she was clouded by Leilah, a third term, a specter of the night. The narrator scans people who have spent whole lives under tyranny, searching for signs of hope. His sole activity is “crossing the membranes of states (borders), taking advantage of the different values between one cell (nation) and another.”

Anchored in the mournful Crimean seaside palace of Livadia, the narrator transverses a de Chirico dreamscape. And when the butterflies? They are rarities made commodities, objects of mass desire for their obscure aura.

The narrator, a foundling of the new world scavenges among the detritus of the old. Competently translated by Thomas and Carol Christensen, Prieto’s prose keeps us interested even as it keeps us wondering. Quests take place across landscapes, but what happens when the political contours of landscape shift so drastically? And how does the receding object of the quest, in her alluring elusiveness, affect the perceiver’s “lines of transmission”? Post-Soviet, yet more than omni-America, Prieto’s butterflies bypass usually traveled cultural itineraries and flutter their way toward a new route for globalization. [Nicholas Birns, Context]

John Ashbery on his and Schyler's A Nest of Ninnies

For a discussion by John Ashbery about how he and James Schuyler came to write the fiction A Nest of Ninnies, click below:
http://jacketmagazine.com/33/wallenstein-ninnies.shtml

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Writers from the Diaspora of Truth (on Davenport's The Jules Verne Steam Balloon and Sorrentino's Rose Theatre)


WRITERS FROM THE DIASPORA OF TRUTH
by Douglas Messerli

Guy Davenport The Jules Verne Steam Balloon: Nine Stories (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987)
Gilbert Sorrentino Rose Theatre (Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1987)

Over the last two and a half decades, Guy Davenport and Gilbert Sorrentino have come to be recognized as two of the leading postmodern fiction writers, that is as fiction writers working against the normative patterns of psychological realism established by authors of the 1940s and 1950s such as Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Cheever. Of course, even 20th-century fiction has always included far more than the psychological novel allowed, as Davenport and Sorrentino are well aware. In this sense, perhaps, it is a disservice to confuse these writers with something standing entirely apart from the modern tradition. For Davenport's interconnected stories, The Jules Verne Steam Balloon owes more to the high modernist collage-fictions of Max Ernst and to the pre-modern philosophical treatise-fictions of Søren Kierkegaard than to the self-referential modes of much of contemporary writing. And Sorrentino's Rose Theater is, as is all of his fiction, deeply steeped in the modernist novels of Flann O'Brien and James Joyce.

Indeed, Davenport's story-series might be best illuminated in the context of a modern masterwork of interrelated tales such as Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples. True, where Welty and writers like her use myth and history as symbols to reveal the psychological complexities of the lives of ordinary characters, Davenport employs outlandish figures who inhabit a world in which myth and history are demeaned, forgotten, or downright dangerous. In "Pyrrhon of Elis" the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrhon levels all meaning—in an ironic reversal of Descartes—by doubting the existence of everything around him, including himself: "I may not be, I think." In "We Often Think of Lenin in the Clothespin Factory," the characters speak nostalgically of art and artists from Pushkin, Canaletto, Rilke, and Robert Walser to the Aleksandr Deineka paintings, “Workers' Summer Vacation Pool” and "Lenin Taking a Walk in His Car”—as if all were equal. And in “Bronze Leaves and Red,” Davenport approaches the unforgivable in writing a tale in which our century's monster, Adolf Hitler, is represented as living in an idyllic world of social calls to Wagner's widow, chess games, music, macaroons, and metaphysical discussions. These stories present, in short, exactly that world which Welty and so many other great modern writers feared for us.

But these are purposeful intrusions of possible evil in a world that otherwise is as idyllic as that of Welty's King/Zeus figure, while Davenport's Hugo Trevmunding romps in a world alive with sexual excitement and desire. Through the interleaving of botanical descriptions and the actions of his various Scandinavian pan-sexual lovers, Davenport's Sweden literally throbs with an adolescent agitation of its sexual parts. Brother and sister, brother and brother, sister's lover and brother, brother and sister's lover's students—everyone gets into the act in Davenport's panegyric to free sex. And indeed, living as we do in an AIDS-conscious culture, Davenport's liberated 1960s Sweden becomes as mythic, as magical and desirable, as the Greek myth embedded in Welty's 1940s small Southern town.

And as in Welty's world, the worst dangers to the boys of Hugo's NFS Grundtvig lie not in the past-in outmoded laws or in parental displeasure-but in a loss of the present made meaningful by dreams of the future and understood through the past. The villains of The Jules Verne Steam Balloon are those levelers of meaning as exemplified by Hugo's mysterious bicycle rider, a young man he encounters, falls vaguely in love with, and attempts to teach. But the bicycle rider, lost in neural hallucinations of LSD, marijuana, cocaine and the promises of a fraudulent Transcendental Meditation Group, will not be taught. In that throbbing world of the living, the bicycle rider experiences nothing but the phantoms of his own non-acts. It is Hugh, like Welty's Virgie Rainey, who can see clearly the signs of the heavens, who has the vision to transform his acts into meaning in life. For Virgie, the vision is represented in the image of Perseus severing the head of Medusa; for Hugo, it is a wonderful contraption of the 19th-century, the stream balloon, inhabited by creatures of some science-fiction future: here the present truly meets the future in its past.

One wonders how these "stories" read apart from each other; together they make perfect sense.

Gilbert Sorrentino's Rose Theatre explores similar terrain. Focusing on issues and characters that appear in several of his previous books, Sorrentino also attempts to uncover truth. But like Davenport's Pyrrhon, the author strongly doubts whether it exists; or perhaps one should say that he is intensely sensitive to how it can be manipulated. For Sorrentino does not have the faith of a Davenport or of a Welty in the human race. As our most brilliant social satirist-censorious and vituperative as Rabelais—the most he can do is to demonstrate our follies and forgive them. But in a society that separates myth even from its religions, that is no mean feat. Try as they might, the shallow women and sadistic men of Sorrentino's world can find no way out of either the fictions of their own making or the fiction of the book. Trapped in language, they can merely speak, aping the linguistic society that has created them. But what hilarious verbal portraits they serve up!

Giving a real voice to the “less than zero world,” Sorrentino wakes us to our own inanities. We feel we do "sort of know" all about our culture's easy assimilation and acceptance of everything from new cuisines to kinky sex. In Rose Theater, as in his other fictions, sex seldom results in either pleasure or propagation of the species, but is a tool of domination and destruction. Sex for Sorrentino's ten ladies, trotted out in the Roman sunlight, is a spiraling vortex into what his character Joanne Lewis dreams is the mouth of Hell opened for her.

These may seem like trivial questions, but put within the context of thousands of small and large lies, misunderstandings and contradictions, they become important clues in the diaspora of truth. Rose Theatre is the second volume of Sorrentino's projected trilogy, and what he has done here is to bring into question nearly all the information of the first volume, Odd Number. Thus, he makes apparent how impossible it is to comprehend reality, let alone to believe in it.

Perhaps Sorrentino summarizes this predicament best in his fable of the seven wives who marry seven husbands. Upon their marriage, the sisters decide to secretly nickname each of their seven husbands; the husbands, in turn, secretly nickname their seven wives. It so happens that these wives each acquire lovers whom they also nickname: And the husbands, having evidently uncovered their wives’ secret names for them, insist their seven lovers call them by the same nicknames. Who is who? If even the name—that which ancient cultures held sacred and eternal—changes from instant to instant, how can language, which after all is the way we think, be expected to reveal anything but itself, its own shifting and slippery track? The chapter in which Sorrentino tells us this tale is titled "Tree of Golden Apples." The tree, which for Welty (through W. B. Yeats) represented truth, the ideal of human experience, is mocked in Sorrentino's satire as sticking in the mind of his character because he liked “images.” No steam balloon appears in Rose Theatre as a sign—vague as it might be—of meaning. For Sorrentino's fiction does not reveal a world of sense, of reason, but portrays with equal brilliance our fall into nonsense, into the babel of our everyday lives.

Los Angeles, 1987
Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times Book Review (Sunday, December 6, 1987)

Douglas Messerli | Runaway Moon, or The Duchess of Lust (on Sorrentino's The Moon in Its Flight)


RUNAWAY MOON, OR THE DUCHESS OF LUST
by Douglas Messerli

Gilbert Sorrentino The Moon in Its Flight (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004).

As a long fiction and short story writer, an essayist, poet, and teacher, Gilbert Sorrentino has several personas; and in his short stories he uses many voices, but there are two opposing voices I’d like briefly to explore.

In about half the works of The Moon in Its Flight, Sorrentino, creates short linguistically focused tales in which characters are basically, as Martin Riker, writing in The Review of Contemporary Fiction has described them, “wooden puppets whose possibilities of movement and/or choice are confined within their small worlds to the predictable words and gestures available to their narrators.” Indeed, in these works—“The Dignity of Labor,” “The Sea, Caught in Roses,” “A Beehive Arranged on Humane Principles,” “Pastilles,” “Sample Writing Sample,” “Lost in the Stars” and others—the emphasis in not on character but rather on language itself organized around definitions, descriptions, lists and other various structures. “Pastilles,” for example—a satire, in part, on New York School poetry guru Ted Berrigan—is structured around several recurring figures and images: Napolean and his battles, including his defeat by Lord Nelson; optical illusions; and lemons, to name three. “The Dignity of Labor” recounts four incidents between management and employees that reveal the necessary desperation of the latter:

You will discover that the stationery on the shelves is nothing, really,
other than good American paper and nothing but; nothing to be in
awe of, letterheads or no. And you would do well to ignore the rumors
suggesting otherwise. Rumors of all sorts are born and circulate in a
large and virtually omnipotent corporation such as this one. They emanate,
for the most part, from the “creative” divisions of the firm, the Professional
Trash-Fiction Division, the Memoir Division, the Hip-Youth Division, the
Sure-Fire Division, the Dim-Bulb Division, the Texas School-Adoption-
of-Everything Division, the Devout-Christian Rapture-Mania Division,
the Unborn-Child-Series Division, as well as those divisions that support
what the company likes to think of as its old soldiers—those editors,
publicists, accountants, and lunch-eaters who have made their lives into
one long testament to their belief that they have done their best to make
real for all humankind the kind of book that is both an exciting read
and a contribution to the general culture of regular Americans….

In these pieces, which are so sharply satirical that there is no attempt at mimesis, the author empties his tales of any remnant of humanity, going straight for the jugular vein in these short works, or centering his language on Oulipean-like devices that call attention to form over matter. There is no question that these works are tours de force of writing, but ultimately they entertain more than they evoke any substantial emotional response outside of laughter, even though we might recognize ourselves at the periphery or even at the center of the stories themselves.

I prefer, however, what I’d describe as the “other” Sorrentino, a writer who, despite his often caustic demeanor and hard-boiled attitudes toward life in general, at heart, is a poet who detests while being attracted to sentiment, a kind of wise fool who desires to believe what he himself has determined is not worthy of belief. It is almost as if Sorrentino has never recovered from the recognition that many of his early childhood ideals were revealed to be false, an apparently devastating realization that he summarizes in a poem, “Razzmatazz,” the first the stanza of which reads:

Young and willing to learn (but what?) he was the boy
With the sweaty face the boy of the Daily News
The boy of bananas peanut butter and lemon-lime
Who read Ching Chow waiting for the punch line
Who watched the sun more often than not a bursting rose
Swathe the odd haze and clumps of the far-off shore.

The poem ends, in part, where it began, but the tone has moved from one of possibility to cynicism:

Young and willing to learn (but what?) he was the boy
Who found that the fabled dreams were fabled
In that their meaning was their own blurred being
Who suddenly found his alien body to be the material
From which could be made a gent or even life. Life?
Young and willing to learn oh certainly. But what?

In the long, final story of The Moon in Its Flight, “Things That Have Stopped Moving,” Sorrentino covers similar ground in a beautiful description of the narrator’s Sicilian father—clearly with autobiographical overtones—who, dressed in his white Borsalino suit and snap-brim fedora, bets his fellow ship-cleaning workers that he can walk through a Norwegian freighter—in those days Norwegian ships were known for their filthy conditions—“without getting a spot or smudge or smear of oil or dirt or rust on his clothes or hat.” To his then-young son’s amazement, he puts down a wad of cash and proceeds to walk through the Trondheim without a spot. In the context of a tale in which the narrator presents himself as a self-loathing slave to his lust for his friend Ben’s wife, Clara—so well-known for her sexual escapades with men that the narrator himself describes her as “a duchess of lust”—this dream-like image stands in opposition to what his father might have desired for him but which he, in his own generation, cannot obtain—a kind of sureness of self and grace in living. Cast out of Eden, perfection for the son has no appeal; it is the squalid, “filthy” little lives of him and his friends that drive him forward in what he himself describes as a “dementia.”

In “In Loveland” the narrator tells the story of his collapsing relationship with his wife, a perfectly petite doll-like figure of a woman, who ultimately has an affair with the husband’s empty-minded former-employer and friend, Charlie, who finishes off their marriage, with the narrator’s wife’s encouragement, by imitating his friend in costume and manner—in short, by becoming and, symbolically, “replacing” him. In the middle of this typical story of failed love, however, Sorrentino posits a stranger, Hawthorne-like tale concerning an accident that occurred to his wife just before their marriage. Falling down a flight of subways steps—accidentally or on purpose—his fiancée is temporarily scarred with a huge scab over one side of face. The appearance of this scab somehow makes her appear almost as a stranger and, accordingly, increases the narrator’s lust for her. Indeed, from the marriage until the healing and disappearance of the scab, he is sexually aroused by her “new” face, so perfect on one side and so flawed on the other. As the “scar” disappears so does his fervor dissipate. Like the narrator of “Things That Have Stopped Moving,” this narrator is more attracted by the flaws of the woman than by the perfection his wife will later seem to represent to other men.

In some ways Sorrentino is our most “American” writer, cataloguing as he does the psychoses of the child-adults of our society. Like Scott Fitzgerald, Sorrentino seems effortlessly to present a world where men and women merrily delude themselves with art, literature, alcohol and drugs that they are living “happy” and meaningful lives, while in truth their dreary lives are almost completely empty. The author’s most Fitzgeraldian stories in this volume, “Pyschopathology of Everyday Life” and “Land of Cotton,” clearly present the phenomenon.

The self-deluded characters of the latter story, Joe Doyle—who transforms his family name for Lionni or Leone to Lee, ultimately claiming he is a descendent of Robert E. Lee—his wife Hope and mistress Helen, whom he ultimately jilts as she lays dying of cancer, are obviously all self-deluded beings seeking a reality to match.

The first story is representative, once again, of Sorrentino’s fascination with a seemingly Edenic world suddenly revealed as disastrously fallen. The two characters in this fable, Nick and Campbell, represent two aspects of American culture, the ordinary working man represented by Nick and the moneyed WASP, Campbell, living in what appears as an enchanted world. The tale reveals the growing friendship between the two office workers as Nick guides his friend through the lunch-time and after-work dining and drinking establishments of the city, of which Campbell seems to have no prior knowledge and is now fascinated to encounter each day before returning to his Connecticut home or his New York rendevouses at the Plaza, the Pierre, the Blue Angel, or Carnegie Recital Hall.

The friendship flourishes until one day Campbell invites his friend to visit them in Connecticut, shortly thereafter presenting him with a stack of photographs of himself and his wife Faith, one of her which is nearly pornographic. Nick perceives the photo as a sort of tease, a direct assault upon his sexual desires, and is disgusted by what he senses is the husband’s attempt to use his wife as a lure to bring him to their home. Doubting, however, what he has imagined, he soon forgets it until another photograph, even more pornographic than the first is delivered to him, whereupon he recognizes that he is being encouraged to think of Campbell’s wife as a sexual companion. He is quite obviously aroused by the possibility, but continues to delay his visit until it is finally clear he will not make good on his promise. Campbell is depressed and reveals that, after a fight with his wife, he has met a young man who “sucked him off.” Nick’s decision to take a job in another city drives his friend into further despair which reaches its peak on the day of Nick’s departure, when he reveals his love for Nick and attempts to plant a kiss upon his lips.

Sorrentino presents a world, in short, where love is not only impermeable and fleeting but is impossible, a world where passion is unfulfilled and even a kiss is potentially a dangerous event. Perhaps none of Sorrentino’s short tales reveal these facts more thoroughly than my favorite story of the book, “The Moon in Its Flight.” Unlike so many of the later works, trapped in a post-Edenic reality, Sorrentino allows this story of a budding love affair between a nineteen-year-old young man and a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl, Rebecca, to develop in a “summer romance,” when “The country bowled and spoke of Truman’s grit and spunk,” and the whole nation “softly slid off the edge of civilization.” As in Aberration of Starlight, the author here allows youthful clichés into his work, this time, not just for the purpose of artful satire, but as a support for the lovingly naiveté they reveal:

The first time he touched her breast he cried in his shame and delight.
Can this really have taken place in America? The trees rustled for him, as
the rain did rain. One day, in New York, he bought her a silver ring,
tiny perfect hearts in bas-relief running around it so that the point of
one heart nestled in the cleft of another. Innocent symbol that tortured
his blood.

And later:

Stars, my friend, great flashing stars fell on Alabama.

Reality, nonetheless, will not allow these lovers to exist; they have no place to which they might escape in order to fulfill their desires. In one of the most beautiful narrational intrusions he has uttered, Sorrentino cries out passionately (despite being equally mocking):

All you modern lovers, freed by Mick Jagger and the orgasm, give them, for
Christ’s sake, for an hour, the use of your really terrific little apartment. They
won’t smoke your marijuana nor disturb your Indiana graphics. They won’t
borrow your Fanon or Cleaver or Barthelme or Vonnegut. They’ll make the
bed before they leave. They whisper good night and dance in the dark.

No apartment is available, and the couple, a mismatch when it comes to their families, drifts apart, only to meet again years later when they are both married to others. Only now can they finally culminate their love in sex, but despite the tears of joy and shame, they will never encounter one another again.

I don’t think Sorrentino is arguing through these somewhat exasperatingly dreary tales that love is impossible. It is merely the false ideas and notions that surround the vision of oneself and the other that make it so difficult. It is clear that Sorrentino heartily longs for that “spotless” innocence of the past, but that he recognizes, just as surely, that that desire for “innocence” is the cause of the current emptiness and squalidness of his subjects’ lives. It is almost with a cry of despair that Sorrentino asks, “Who will remember // the past is past?” The furious frown he casts upon his characters can be seen as a stern warning to all that is doesn’t help a damn to invoke a childhood vision of innocence: life is not perfect, there is no “dream” to be found, no “rainbow” at its end, no coherent “America” even to be had. It is no wonder his narrators often struggle in their attempts to tell their stories and admit that something is missing in their revelations of the awful truths they find difficult to accept.

Los Angeles, May 25, 2006

Douglas Messerli | Seeing Red (on Sorrentino's Red the Fiend)

SEEING RED
by Douglas Messerli

Gilbert Sorrentino Red the Fiend (New York: Fromm International, 1995).

The son of an absent drunk of a father and a passive-aggressive mother, Red is offered up as the scapegoat for all of his Grandmother's rage. Smacked, whipped, systemically humiliated and degraded while his cowed Grandfather stands by, Red's anything but idyllic childhood mirrors the hardships his Irish-Catholic Depression-era family suffers. Grandma's frustrations stem from a lifetime of disappointment. Before she was consumed by bitterness, life held promise for her. Now someone must bear the burden of blame for the failure of her hopes, and Grandma is ingenious at devising methods to inflict the pain on Red, turning the boy from victim into monster, Red the Fiend.

On one level this is a painful book, as Red is tortured through childhood in various ways. But Sorrentino's work also functions almost as a fable of American fears, akin to our terror of the political kind of “Red,” directed toward those who seemingly stand in our way of a better life. And on that level, observing the various punishments directed at the enemy, Sorrentino's short novel is hilariously absurd.

Los Angeles, 1995

Douglas Messerli | The Novel Against Itself (on Sorrentino's Aberration of Starlight and Mulligan Stew)


THE NOVEL AGAINST ITSELF
by Douglas Messerli

Gilbert Sorrentino Aberration of Starlight (New York: Random House, 1980).
Gilbert Sorrentino Mulligan Stew (New York: Grove Press, 1979)

In relation to his earlier fictions—Imaginative Qualities, Splendide-Hôtel, and Mulligan Stew—Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight is perplexing, not in terms of linguistic style or content, but in its unabashed use of modernist structures and other narrative techniques. His three previous works—representing such genres as the mock-essay, the fantasy, and the anatomy—were explicit declarations against the novel and its domination of prose literature in the twentieth century. Yet Aberration of Starlight not only announces itself as a novel on its dust-jacket (although, one must admit, that the generic differences of which I am speaking have little to do with what the publisher chooses to call a work), but within its pages it generally behaves as one. Except for one section in each of its four perfectly balanced “acts,” this is a story which presents, primarily in objective narration, the viewpoints of four different characters, mimetically grounded in a specific time and place, whose interactions precipitate thematic dichotomies—“love and separation,” “youth and age,” “innocence and knowledge”—similar to those of the majority of works of twentieth-century fiction. The book, in fact, is imbued with a sense of ironic nostalgia that Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren—those doyens of modern narrative theory—might applaud.

It is not that this fiction is “modern” as opposed to “postmodern,” or even “retrogressive” as opposed to “advanced,” that troubles one; it is just these kinds of categorizations and their mindless devotees which Sorrentino so brilliantly satirizes in Mulligan Stew. Rather, the problem is that in the context of the modern novel, Aberration of Starlight is not seemingly an very original work. In such a genre, Sorrentino’s literary fortes—his stunning leaps of logic, lists, litanies, and mimicries—for the most part are missing, and by the reader are missed. This is not to say that the book is without its obvious pleasures. The white-starched, sunlit world which Marie Recco, her son, father, and would-be suitor inhabit, superficially is as loving and longing a portrait of America as are Edward Hopper’s canvases. Like Hopper, Sorrentino captures the spirit of a people so splendidly naïve that, poised on the edge of World War II, they fail to comprehend their own potential to isolate and hate. The very similarities between Sorrentino and Hopper, however, point to what appears to be the novel’s failure. The reader has been here before, and, on the surface at least, Sorrentino has nothing new to say of it. Describing its characters as boorish and banal, Paul West correctly observes that the novel presents literary figures who,

Instead of discovering or inventing compensations that
would free them as characters, from the anonymous pattern
of libido and denial, …back off into the twaddle that surrounds
them. Their heads, and what little is in them, dominate the
narrative, and keep on coming through direct, without much
of the narrational intervention that could render shades of
feeling they feel but can’t express. Indeed, the narrator, who
shows up rarely, seems even more buried in the stuff of their
lives than they are. (The Washington Post Book World, Sunday, August
31, 1980).

With regard to objective narration and its inherently closed structures, it is as if in Aberration of Starlight Sorrentino has attempted to outdo the moderns. It is not that one necessarily demands a more “contemporary” fiction; it is simply that one is less satisfied by an anachronistic one.

If such comments sound contentious, it is the result of Sorrentino having set up certain expectations in his previous fictions, which appear thwarted in this new book. But that very fact encourages one to speculate that this “novel” is not all it seems. There is, after all, that one section in each of the four portraits that does not conform to the prevailing structure of the book, that, in fact, in the prose romance as practiced by the majority of moderns, is clearly out of place. In each of these passages, the narrator intrudes upon his fiction, not only asking direct questions about his characters, but answering them with authorial knowledge not implied in the book’s other parts. For example, the plot of Sorrentino’s fiction gives the reader little indication whether Tom Thebus, the salesman to whom Marie is attracted, is a rakish Romeo “out to get a lay”—as Marie’s father describes him—or whether his interest in Marie is sincere. In most objectively narrative novels such information is conveyed through denouement or is left purposely ambiguous for the reader to piece together from what he or she has gleaned of the characters through their words and acts. But in Aberration of Starlight such impersonal methods are circumvented. “Was Tom indeed a maker of cuckolds?” the narrator asks.

If rumor is to be given credence, the answer is “yes.”
Three men putatively so served were: Lewis D. Fielding,
a junkman of Ossining, N.Y., through his wife, Barbara;
Alfred Bennett Martinez, a plumber of Ozone Park, N.Y.,
through his wife, Danielle; William V. Bell, a shop
teacher of Paterson, N.J., through his wife, Joanne.

Similarly, the reader is told outright that Marie is sexually afraid of men (p. 67), that her father “had energetically conspired in his own defeat” (p. 175), and numerous other pieces of trivial and useful information that radically work against the objective point of view which dominates the rest of the book.

More important, in these four sections, Sorrentino occasionally permits himself the lists and litanies he scrupulously avoids elsewhere in the text. Concerning Marie, for example, the narrator asks:

The names of some of her favorite poets?

Ella Wheeler Wilcox; Blanche Shoemaker Wagstaff; Captain
Cyril Morton Thorne; Burelson St. Charles MacVoute; Dinah
Maria Mulock Craik; Edgar A. Guest; Josiah Gilbert Holland,
Lorna Blakey Flambeaux; H. Antoine D’Arcy; Emma Simpere
Furze; Alaric Alexander Watts; Mary Artemisia Lathbury;
Blanche Bane Kuder; Jean Ingelow; Carruthers Sofa-Jeudi;
Maltbie Davenport Babcock; Nixon Waterman.

This is the stuff of Mulligan Stew and other earlier fictions. Not only are some of the names the same (an entire sheaf of poems by Lorna Flambeaux appears in Mulligan Stew), but the structure of such a listing is of the same kind of pattern that controls Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities.

One understandably is surprised in encountering such structures in the midst of a novel; and, accordingly, one is brought to question whether such passages are simply lapses in what is otherwise a carefully composed novel, or whether they are purposeful intrusions, and, if so, to what effect? I do not pretend to have answers to such questions of authorial intent; but it may be helpful to explore some of the implications of such structures, which, in turn, may suggest why Sorrentino uses them.

The following is a typical listing from Mulligan Stew:

What cannot God do?

A number of things, the more prominent among which are:
make the pivot, shoot the rapids, differential calculus, speak
Spanish, hit in the clutch, carry a tune, get a job, say not, walk
a crooked mile, swim, hold his liquor, support his children,
write a poem, play tennis, pay his bills, trim his beard, shine
his shoes, take a shower, use capital letters, keep his sex life
private, be proud, speak to an angel, take a little walk, boil
lobsters, open clams, like women, cut it out, grow up, move
to Yonkers, cease and desist, jump over the candlestick,
act his age, fly a kite, go two rounds, catch a fish, make a
salad, write a check, wash the windows, eat crow, crack corn,
fly the coop, take a powder, go anywhere alone, bunt, write
a play, stop the shit, cut the comedy, know Brooklyn, mind
his business, sharpen his ax, make an apple pie, honor his father
and mother, be a Jew, shoot crap, make a list, see himself as
others see him, play pool, be joyful and triumphant, take
off his hat, wash a glass, deck the halls, mix a Sazerac, be a
clown, sing in the rain, jump with Symphony side, make ‘em
laugh, stand a ghost of a chance, button up his overcoat,
love a mystery, get started, and shudder….

The immediate purpose and effects of such a list are quite obvious. In this case, the narrator, punning on a cliché, transforms the thing, gold, into a person incapable of actions, triggering a series of new clichés, common expressions, song titles and idioms signifying acts. A listing such as this—this one is from a character’s scrapbook—has little to do with plot, character, place, or theme as readers of twentieth-century fiction have come to think of them. Attempts to relate these actions to characterization, to understand these things of which the character Gold is incapable, would miss the point: Gold has no substance as a character, he/it is merely a thing of language, a pun. There is an “idea” behind this combination of words: that of inaction, which Sorrentino expresses quite concretely; but one recognizes that this “idea” is far less important than the structure it takes. One might suspect, knowing Sorrentino’s writing, that there is a kind of Oulipean logic to this list. But, although one might contrive to find a thematic link in the passage, the very order of these verbal constructions work against any such attempt. For these do not represent a particular kind or even context of acts. “Sing in the rain” may relate to “deck the halls,” “be joyful and triumphant,” “be a clown,” “button up his overcoat,” and even “carry a tune,” but such musical references have little in common with “mind his business,” “sharpen his ax,” or “make an apple pie.” It quickly becomes clear that the focus here is on verbs and little else, on their everyday and idiomatic usages (“shine his shoes” and “stand a ghost of a chance”), on their rhythms and other patterns of sound (“wash the windows, eat crow, crack corn, fly the coop…”) and their syntax. And while there is a beginning and ending to this list of verbals (it opens with the clause, “A number of things,” and closes with the conjunction), one understands it as something akin to a catalogue, as something that, while complete in itself, retains the potential for continuance. The reader, therefore, does not experience the passages as something whole, as organic, even as developmental, but recognizes it as a linguistic sequence capable of being repeated indefinitely, as a pattern of language which—although operating within certain organizing principles—inflects no subordinations upon its constituent parts.

The controlling mechanism of such a passage is not repetition, therefore, but progression. And one need only compare Sorrentino’s list with a passage from the work of another contemporary, William Gass, to understand the significance of this. In In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Gass writes,

The sides of the buildings, the roofs, the limbs of the
trees are gray. Streets, sidewalks, faces, feelings—they are
gray. Speech is gray, and the grass where it shows. Every
flank and front, each top is gray. Everything is gray: hairs,
eyes, window glass, the hawkers’ bills and touters’ posters,
lips, teeth, poles and metal signs—they’re gray, quite gray.
Horses, sheep, and cows, cats killed in the road, squirrels
in the same way, sparrows, doves, and pigeons, all are
gray, everything is gray….

Superficially, Gass’s writing here seems to have much in common with Sorrentino’s; it is a list of things that share a syntactical relationship, that of noun to adjective, with the color gray. But a closer look reveals that Gass’s list functions in a very different structural context. Although they may seem potentially infinite in number, Gass’s nouns are made finite because they are secondary to repetition, are subordinate to the word “gray.” These nouns all point to the word “winter” (mentioned one sentence earlier in the passage) and refer the reader back and forward in each sentence to their adjective. The listing, accordingly, reveals itself as developmental, organic, and whole. Because the list is self-referential within Gass’s work, it is finite and complete. One experiences it less as a catalogue than as an inventory or compendious description. In other words, while progressive structures such as Sorrentino’s may contain repetition, structures of repetition such as Gass’s are not necessarily progressive.

The structure of Gass’s listing, in its organicism and self-referentiality, is perfectly at home in the novel. In its potential of continuance, the structure of Sorrentino’s catalogue points away from its type; it is a sequence of a kind of construction; and, in that fact, it directs the reader’s attention from the temporal context of narrative towards space, towards the world of things he himself inhabits. Mimesis, the heart of modern prose, is undermined as the imitation is transformed into a thing itself: a catalogue of actions, a syntactical grouping of language.
When such catalogues appear in profusion in a fiction, as they do in Mulligan Stew, the effect is devastating. Mimesis and its attendant hand-maidens, character and place, seldom survive. And that is just what Anthony Lamont, the character-novelist central to Mulligan Stew, encounters. Like many moderns, Lamont, an avowed “experimentalist,” manipulates style and content, while tying his fiction to organic structures of character and place. Unlike the great moderns, however, Lamont is what Pound calls a “diluter,” a follower of the inventors and the masters of a tradition, who produces “something of lower intensity, a flabbier variant” (“How to Read”). So inane is Lamont’s writing, so constraining his setting (a mountain cabin wherein the narrator, musing over the body of his murdered friend, awaits the police) that his characters rebel and attempt to escape their fictional confines. Unable to “master” his creations, and faced with what he sees as an increasingly valueless and hostile environment outside his fictional one, Lamont declines into paranoia.

In a 1980 review of Mulligan Stew I suggested that Lamont’s insanity was a negative thing that left the reader with a vision of the world in which language is so denigrated that it brought into question his or her own existence. In a response to that review, Sorrentino wrote me that his intention had been to show that “as Lamont gets crazier he gets better.” My mistake had been to look at the fiction more in terms of content than of structure; I had made presumptions which had less to do with the fiction than with lived experiences. But it is in the structure, not in plot that Sorrentino reveals his concerns. As Lamont moves towards insanity, he gradually embraces the very catalogues, lists, indexes, technical manuals, and other enumerations that—while obsessing both his society and him—are seen as signs of the culture’s decay, and thus separates him from his fiction, from his idealized representation of life. As he embraces these, bit by bit, his fiction is invaded by the progressive structures inherent in his scrapbook. the following appears in the fourth to the last chapter of his novel Lamont’s novel, Crocodile Tears:

In the meantime, our sinisterly slick magicians were
extracting gouts of applause by a series of tricks that,
so I assumed, were designed to “warm up” the audience,
a large moiety of whom, I assure you, were drunkenly
blasé, and replete with doubts and cynicalities of varying
potency. These tricks were, according to Madame
Corriendo, “wand inspired,” and, surely enough, in her
long fingers she held a curious wooden rod of maybe
a foot and a half long, atip at both ends with pointed
caps of a metallic substance, perhaps metal itself! In
some shape or other, I mean alloy, if you are with me.
At the sight of this innocent-appearing chunk of wood,
Ned Beaumont, his eyes watering in loathsome pusillani-
mousity, and his fingers, how do you say it? “plucking”
on the tablecloth, breathed heavily and began to sweat
onto the rather tasteful silverware that had been placed—
and with inherent correctness, too—before him.

Although this passage may at first seem to be descriptive, it actually has very little in common with conventional descriptive narration. What the narrator describes as a “series of tricks,” functions as a sequence that resists a coherent presentation of reality, that works against mimetic relationships. Although it is at first connected with the character Madame Corriendo, the phrase “wand inspired,” for example, directs one’s attention away from character or even action to a list of things in space: her long fingers, a “curious wooden rod,” and its metallic tips. The tips, in turn, permit the narrator to pun on “alloy” (a mixture of metallic substances and “to debase, to impair”); the object of the second meaning, is accordingly the subject of the next sentence, Ned Beaumont, whose actions, once again, point the reader away from the character and his actions to other objects: to the table, the tablecloth, and the “rather tasteful silverware.” Whereas the Gass passage continually refers the reader back to its subject, the writing here moves ceaselessly forward in what Gertrude Stein describes as the sequence of counting “one and one and one and one” rather than “one, two, three, four” (“Poetry and Grammar”). By the time Lamont reaches his last chapter—significantly titled “Making It Up as We Goes Along”—the progressive structure has taken over entirely. There is little difference between its sequence of dialogue and the list of “what Gold cannot do.” Both point to the world outside the fiction, and, in that sense, both create something “new,” something that follows its own language into being rather than merely using language to express the known or preconceived. And Lamont, in this regard, does become a better writer, an inventor of sorts. Yet he too, obviously, is a thing of words; and Mulligan Stew thus ends not with his writing, but with a three and a half page “will,” one final grand listing of the disposition of things. As in the works of Samuel Beckett, both characters and characters’ characters all are subsumed into the flow of words, are sacrificed to the endeavor of naming the imagined as things of sound and space into reality.

In light of these concerns in Mulligan Stew it is almost unthinkable that such structures in Aberration of Starlight are unintentional “lapses” or even mere intrusions upon what is otherwise a conventional prose romance. The effects of such interruptive and progressively structured passages are too deleterious to the mimeticism inherent in the 20th-century novel to be disregarded in a fiction that appears to be imitating it. Let us imagine that in The Sound and the Fury—a novel organized as is Sorrentino’s around the viewpoints of four characters—Faulkner suddenly asked of Caddy, as Sorrentino does of Billy, “How did [s]he feel when [her] grandmother died?” and answered, “[s]he was frightened that she was not really dead because of how she looked in the funeral parlor.” Upon climbing the tree in her muddy drawers (the image Faulkner described as central to his novel), Caddy, in fact, is frightened by what she sees: her dead Damuddy laid out on the bed. But the reader is never told that. Faulkner’s reader must come to his or her conclusions based on Caddy’s later actions, her amoral commitment to things of the world. One is forced to evaluate her, in other words, as one would a living being, and the character is made to seem more real by that fact.

Faulkner represents an extreme of objective narration. An omniscient narrator might simply tell the reader in passing how Caddy or Bill felt. But even so, by first asking the question, Sorrentino draws attention to himself, to the author, or, at the very least, to some imagined narrator of the work; and, in so doing he reiterates the fact that his character is merely a creation, a thing of words. When this is done several times, as it is in Aberration of Starlight, the whole begins to function as its own progressive sequence, as a series of authorial intrusions which, like the list of Gold’s inactions, point the reader away from any reality that the fiction is attempting to imitate, towards the world which reader and author cohabit outside the book. The fact that some of these particular questions and commands also are progressive in structure further helps to undercut the organicism and mimesis of the prose romance.

Yet one must recall it is the extreme objectivism of Faulkner to which the rest of Sorrentino’s book seems to aspire. Such extremes are too radical merely to be sloughed off by calling Sorrentino, as Guy Davenport has, a “Late Eclectic Modern.” For these are reconcilable systems; as the fiction itself demonstrates, one cannot serve God and mammon both. Made conscious of his or her own world through the progressive structures, faced with knowledge that lies “outside the book,” so to speak, the reader gradually is placed in the role of voyeur in relation to Marie Recco and the other characters in the book. Sorrentino accentuates this feeling by framing several of his scenes as if in a photograph. The fiction begins, indeed, with the photographic image:

There is a photograph of the boy that shows him at
age ten. He is looking directly into the camera, holding
up a kitten as if for our inspection, his right hand at
her neck, his left hand underneath her body, supporting
the animal’s weight. The sun is intensely bright, and he
squints at us, smiling, his white even teeth too large
for his small face.

When, moreover, the author alternates such framing techniques with personal letters, interior monologues, and descriptions of intimate sexual encounters (“He pulled his fly open and yanked his hard-on out of his pants, then grabbed her hand and told her to look at him…”), the result is almost pornographic. Peering down from Gulliverian heights, the reader begins to comprehend how completely such techniques—all perfectly at home in the modern novel—close the fiction’s characters within a claustrophobic structure to which there is no direct access, only resemblance to real life.

Such an impenetrable world is Lilliputian, a world inhabited by the near-sighted and small-minded. Each of the fiction’s characters, as Paul West notes, is unable break out of his or her behavioral patterns. But that is just Sorrentino’s point. As do his narrative techniques, his characters represent the extreme of the Romantic dichotomy of self and world; and, as such, they have fallen into solipsism. Those outside the self are transformed from individuals into cliché and epithet. A single paragraph must serve as example in a fiction pervaded by racial epithets, euphemisms, and exaggerated similes and metaphors.

Dare I call you, Marie darling? Or should I address
you, you swell thing, as Mrs. Recco, prostrating my-
self before your tiny feet in formality. Like a monkey
in a tuxedo on a chain held by an old dago? And of
course I beg you to forgive that terrible word knowing
you, dear princess and Queen of sweetness were once
married to a dago and so got your name. But I don’t
hold that against you, not on your life, darling!

Such writing may be funny, but its implications are horrifying. There is little possibility that anyone might escape from such a “prison-house of language.” In so solipsistic a vision, love and communication cannot exist; at book’s end, Marie, her father, son, and would-be lover are as frozen in time and place as the photograph with which the work began.

It becomes apparent that what was first perceived as a bittersweet presentation of post-World War II America, is, in the end, an indictment of the modern novel and the vision inherent in its structures. By exaggerating those structures and juxtaposing them with the progressive structures of contemporary fiction, Sorrentino clearly demonstrates the dangers of any closure. In short, in Aberration of Starlight Sorrentino uses the novel against itself; the organicism of the modern novel turns in to swallow its own tale. Like its predecessors, this fiction explores, through its own telling, the nature of art, which, ultimately, Sorrentino seems to argue, is all any fiction can hope to accomplish. Imitation and ideas, he makes clear, have little to do with art. Writing in The Washington Post Book World, Sorrentino recently argued,

For some reason, incomprehensible to me, [the]
mimetic concept has all but defined the “important”
novels of this country. We love our novelists to be
seers, to have Important Ideas…. (February 13, 1980)

The structures of Sorrentino’s fiction seldom stand for the world, but pointing outward, define and become one with the world; like the last chapter of Lamont’s Crocodile Tears, Sorrentino’s works make up the world as they go along. In his fiction it is as with starlight, what appears to be traveling at an angle to the direction of the observer—what appears as an aberration—actually travels in a straight line between the observer and its source.

Philadelphia and College Park, Maryland, 1980
Portions of this essay reprinted from “The Role of Voice in NonModernist Fiction,” Contemporary Literature, XXV, no. 3 (Fall 1984).

Douglas Messerli | A War Against Death (on the works of Marianne Hauser)


A WAR AGAINST DEATH
by Douglas Messerli

Marianne Hauser Dark Dominion (New York: Random House, 1947)
Marianne Hauser The Choir Invisible (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958)
Marianne Hauser Prince Ishmael (New York: Stein and Day, 1963); reprinted by (Los Angeles:
Sun & Moon Press, 1989)
Marianne Hauser A Lesson in Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964)
Marianne Hauser The Talking Room (New York: The Fiction Collective, 1976)
Marianne Hauser The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986)
Marianne Hauser Me & My Mom (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)
Marianne Hauser Shootout with Father (Normal, Illinois/Tallahassee, Florida: Fiction Collective 2, 2002)
Marianne Hauser The Collected Short Fiction (Normal, Illinois/Tallahassee, Florida: Fiction Collective 2, 2004)

All year long I’d promising myself to read Marianne Hauser’s Collected Short Fiction, and here it was nearly the end of June and I’d still not picked up the book. I loved Hauser’s writing as much the woman herself, and anticipated the reading as a pleasurable experience; but other more pressing commitments kept me from attending to the 2004 collection. I had hoped when I finished the book and had written something about it, to send it to Marianne as a kind of apologia—my Sun & Moon Press had published three of her fictions, The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (1986), Prince Ishmael (originally published by Stein and Day in 1963, and reprinted by Sun & Moon in 1989), and Me & My Mom (1993), books, except for the latter, now out of print on account of the press’s demise—and a simultaneous testament to her literary contributions. I knew she was aging, and her silence haunted me, but when I’d last seen her in her late 80s she was spryer than a 60-year-old—which I will become in another year—with an athletically wiry body that promised to house her comfortably for decades to come.

What a shock, accordingly, to receive an e-mail from Marianne’s son, Michael Kirchberger, about her death at the age of 96 on June 21. “We knew she was quite ill,” Michael wrote, “but we thought she was recovering and doing well.” Even her family, apparently, had been misled by Marianne’s seeming robustness.

I remember her sitting upon her couch in her tiny New York apartment (apartments that at one time at least were—and perhaps still are—leased primarily to faculty and staff at New York University), dressed entirely in black, long before it became fashionable to dress that way, both legs hiked up under her buttocks like a new kind of Buddha, lithe and, with those glittering eyes (were they green?), ready to spring up, panther-like and embrace any new task.

Ray Federman recalls her smoking pot—I am sure he is correct, although she never did so in front of me—her joints stashed away in “an antique silver cigarette box.” I have never seen such a box, nor can I imagine Marianne owning the object. For she was stunningly sleek, all moderne, in the old meaning of that word, a kind of ur-beatnik (whose mirror-opposite was the slim, well-groomed early 1960s executive, epitomized by young president Kennedy) dressed in a turtle-neck sweater and leotards. Later she might wear a brown or white silk blouse, but her taste in dress could never have diminished into the garish colors, loopy beads, and granny gowns of the hippies or the later shoulder-padded blazers that characterize the costumes worn by powerful women like Hilary Clinton today. I believe she was a vegetarian—although I can’t swear to that fact; in any case she clearly ate healthfully.

Federman also calls her an “outrageous lesbian,” but I was somehow oblivious to that possibility. She had after all been married to the great German-born pianist and music teacher, Frederic Kirchberger, whose books, including Let Them Sing in English! (a compilation of “over 200 German Lieder with singable English translations”) is still advertised on the internet. Truman State University in Missouri notes with pride, moreover, the Kirchberger scholarship for the study of piano “established by Dr. Frederic Kirchberger and friends” in 1983, the year of his retirement from the institution where he had come in 1951. I knew only that she had long ago divorced him—understandable, I felt, given the restrictions that must have been placed upon her as a faculty wife (who, not to mention, was a sophisticated Alsatian who had traveled to Egypt, India and China as a journalist before settling in 1937 in the United States) ensconced in the small, Midwestern town of Kirksville, a community brilliantly and often satirically portrayed in her 1958 novel, The Choir Invisible. I also knew that she had some years before been part of a circle centered around Anais Nin and that she had met, if I remember correctly, Djuna Barnes—although, given Barnes’s hatred of Nin, it would have had to have been apart from that circle of friends. By the time I met Marianne, she had already written four English-language novels and one collection of stories. The fact that one of them, The Talking Room, had been a work about lesbian life seemed to me beside the point. Her major characters were always outsiders battling the dominant culture, class values, and sexual mores. These, indeed, were the major issues of most great European fiction, to which, despite her intimate understanding of contemporary American life, Hauser would throughout life have close ties. The first book of Hauser’s I published, The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley, moreover, was written from the viewpoint of a married, New England man, a closet homosexual, whose relationship with an American-Hispanic hustler is shockingly revealed to his family and friends with his sudden death. Despite the distance in manner and time from own experiences with gay life (I was the first of generation of new gay openness), I found the work totally believable. Marianne was clearly a writer who wrote less from experience than from her brilliant imagination.

I might rather have called Marianne “omnisexual,” particularly given her statements in the introduction to her stories, where she describes her new lover as a vibrator. “Touch is the key. When I make love and come to the perfect climax, it may well be the key to paradise. Now in my nineties, arthritic joints easily hurt, I feel safest to be my own lover, alone in bed. The paradisiacal orgasms have become rarer. But they still happen. And when they do, their intensity and beauty are beyond words.” Marianne glorified “eros,” and that included not only the enjoyment of every part of body, but of being itself. She was in love with life!

Her Collected Stories, accordingly, meant far more to me than just another book. Sun & Moon was to have published that collection, along with her other recent title, Shootout with Father, both scuttled in the closing of the press. Nine of these stories appeared in her 1964 collection, A Lesson in Music, a book I remember from my high school days sitting for several months on the “New Books” shelves of the Marion (Iowa) City Carnegie Public Library, my home away from home for much of my young life. Its dark blue cover beckoned to me for months—although I never read it nor Prince Ishmael, which also temporarily appeared upon those shelves. In those days, I loved books but seldom read them; I was in awe of them, I suspect, for the potential experiences that awaited me between their covers. It was not until my senior year in Norway that I began to read with any regularity and only in college did I begin reading in way that would come to define my daily life. Now, once more, I was faced with that childhood potential, the older collection interleaved with newer tales by the same author. With Marianne’s death that potential joy seemed to come crashing down upon me, representing a failure on my part; I had missed my opportunity to return a favor, to send Marianne a personal response in return for the great imaginative journeys she had provided me throughout my life.

These stories, like her novels, witness a life lived at war with ignorance, complacency, stupidity. One didn’t need to have a long afternoon conversation with Marianne—as I had—to know that she was impatient with many of society’s most beloved values. “A Lesson in Music,” like the novel The Choir Invisible recounts a frightening encounter with death. But the story’s young heroine is not as aware or as expressive as the young wife of the novel. This story’s narrator tells of her piano lessons with an elderly spinster, Miss Stoltz; as time progresses, and the young girl’s abilities regress, the teacher becomes more and more distressed. The student arrives early each week, listening to the near-perfect renditions by a young boy, Manfred, before her inadequate performances. The girl practices arduously, but without being able to convey any improvement. One day, in a near hysterical frenzy of laughter, the girl admits that her behavior is in response, in part, to the way Miss Stoltz nods in time to the music, the result, probably, as Manfred later perceives, of “nerves” or what today we might describe as Parkinson’s Disease. The lesson is cancelled, and on her way home, her young pianist friend reveals that Miss Stolz will soon stop teaching, that she is too old to go on with the lessons. This surprising and now painful information helps the young girl to pinpoint the real problem of her piano playing, that what most troubled her was not the nods but what those nods perhaps symbolized.

There was the whistle of the evening train. A red glare hit the clouds
and vanished. “Maybe she’s too sick to go on teaching. Or maybe she’s
just too old,” he said in his clear, untroubled voice.
His footfall resounded evenly from the wet pavement. I did not dare
touch his hand. “Old,” I said. “Yes, very old.” And unthinkingly, as though
some other person whom I had never seen was making me say the words,
I added, “She reminds me of death.”

While “A Lesson in Music” shares the psychological intensity of stories by Eudora Welty, other psychologically framed works in this volume such as “Allons Enfants” and “My Uncle’s Magic Machine”—works that recount childhood experiences during World War I (Marianne was just six years of age by the end of the war)—seem, understandably, much more embedded in European literature, with slight nods to Mann, Gide, Céline, and particularly the European-aligned American writer Henry James.

In some senses, it is difficult to reconcile the Hauser of these psychological portrayals—her greatest effort in that direction being the remarkably epic-like story of Casper Hauser (the young boy who mysteriously appeared at the gates of Nuremberg in the early part of the 19th century) presented in Prince Ishmael—with her more postmodern fiction (what I’d prefer to call “nonmodern,” if by “modern” one means the kind of psychological realism practiced by James, Conrad, Woolf, Proust, Faulkner, and the early Joyce) particularly given her jabs at Freudian psychoanalytical studies in Dark Dominion, wherein the characters are hilariously forced each morning to recount over breakfast their night-time dreams. As early as “The Sheep” of 1945, Hauser had shifted her concerns from psychological perceptions to social and class interactions that betray the absurdity of situations and characters. “The Sheep” of the title are a mother and her daughters caught up in the courting of the eldest, Elizabeth, by a charmingly intelligent, knowledgeable, and solicitous Greek named Alcibiades. The imperiously bourgeois mother is horrified by the intrusion of this exotic outsider into her waspishly organized home, but his conversations prove so amusing and his manners so polite that he charms all three women—against the increasing objections and resulting ostracism of the father. When the Greek suddenly disappears for an entire season, the women become as despondent as if the couple had been married and divorced, and the mother gives up her artful reorganization of her furniture and careful tending of her house. Like Odysseus, this Greek one day returns, but is now rejected; soon after the mother discovers that he is married with children, merely an everyday shopkeeper living in the nearby town.

“The Cruel Brother” of the same year has important psychological implications, but is more evocative and absurd in its assumptions. A respectable salesman refuses to pick up a woman hitchhiker, observing that the car behind him has taken her in. The car soon passes him, the girl waving in apparent spite. Several miles later, however, the woman reappears sitting on her suitcase in the middle of the highway. The other man apparently made a pass, and she is determined to catch a new ride. Once again on the road, she begins to endlessly chatter about anything and everything that crosses her mind. The salesman suffers her until they reach a small town, where the two have a long and increasingly drunken lunch, while she flirtatiously praises his silent sensitivity, perceiving he must have a mean older brother. Returning to their journey, she has no perception that they are traveling in the direction from which they have just come. Stopping before a small, decaying corncrib he had previously spotted, he points out the hut which she willingly enters as he pulls the fragile walls down over her body. He turns the car around and speeds off in the original direction of his voyage. The cruel brother is, obviously, himself.

The New Jersey housewife of “The Other Side of the River” (1948) is happily married with a child, while secretly in love with an adventurer named Brooks, whose photographs and stories recounted in a travel magazine have been her solace for years. In her youth she had known the world-renowned traveler and temporarily lived a bohemian life with him, before leaving for a more conventional and safer existence. Now that he is returning to New York, she is determined to cross the river into Manhattan and regain the link to the world of adventures she had regretfully forsaken. Terrified, she travels into the city to reencounter the life she has left behind, only to discover that her Brooks is not the same as the one in the magazine, but is a photographer of babies, living for all these years in a squalid home in Greenwich Village. As in the previous two stories, Hauser suggests that these women are deluded not so much by their men as by their own romanticized desires. The comedy—and nearly all of her tales are ironic comedies—is primarily a social one, not a tale centered upon psychological insights.

“Peter Plazke, Poet,” originally published in 1955, is a hilarious study in cultural pretension. A petty pickpocket seeking to outrun the police joins a group of people filing into an Manhattan apartment; once inside he discovers himself among a strange, incoherent party of individuals who, after scooping up drinks and appetizers, gather into groups speaking a language he can hardly comprehend. A somewhat elderly but beautiful woman explains that they are all writers and this is a weekly salon where they gather to steal each other's plots for new stories and subjects for poems. The thief is described by the woman as a poet, and given his disinterest in and naiveté of the scene around him, he quickly becomes the subject of deep gossip in several conversations. Itching to find out how much money the wallet he has stolen contains, he retreats to the bathroom, after which he is ready to return to the party and accept their adulation. The party-goers, however, have all suddenly disappeared, taking his legendary status with them. He has no choice, if he wishes to regain his new-found identity, but to return the next Thursday, when, presumably, he will shift his activities from stealing wallets to stealing ideas.

The dominating mother of “The Dreaming Poseidan” of 1961 somewhat foretells the mother-daughter relationship of Hauser’s 1993 novella, Me & My Mom. Only in the short story the daughter speaks through a letter that infuriates the nouveau riche mother, whose offspring is determined to remarry, this time to an “underpaid research professor” from Missouri. Despite her wealth and pretensions, we gradually discover the course and nefarious background of the mother who has used men sexually before suing them through her lawyer/now lover.

The father appears to be at the center of Hauser’s story, “The Island,” in which Homan Waterlow Hatchetson Boman the Fifth has inherited a booming construction business to which he now is slave. As in Hauser’s 2002 novella Shootout with Father, the father is both hated and beloved. In the story, however, the mother’s love for her son and their time away from the father in summer vacations on a remote island far outweigh the son’s relationship with his father. Upon the mother’s death, he determines to place her ashes on their beloved retreat, only to discover that it, like the city from which has escaped, has been transformed by his business’s cheap constructions, and, that despite his futile attempts to destroy the new cottages and break his ties with his father and company, his efforts will be futile. He is too weak to control his own destiny, because, Hauser hints, corporate worlds control even those seemingly in charge.

In the most recent of Hauser’s stories, such as “The Seeksucker Suit,” first collected in the 1986 Fiction Collective anthology, American Made, Hauser has nearly abandoned any psychological realist conventions. Caught up in a clearly abusive and criminal life with a man identified as R, his wife suffers his fits of temper, beatings, and long disappearances, feeling herself blessed by the gift of a fur stole, which quickly transforms into a dog dressed in a seersucker suit, whom she suddenly recognizes as her son, Karl. Entertained by the “talking dog,” she attempts to raise money for herself, R, and their new son by offering the scientific wonder to the local university, which at first dismisses the tongue-tied animal, but then takes him away for further studies. Days later—and only after her insistent entreaties—the laboratory delivers up his dead body. Here the satire, cloaked in the guise of an absurd fable, is broad, aimed at once at various institutions—marriage, the subservience of women, and the university. But in its absurd, Ionesco-like transformations of human and beast, is one of Hauser’s best short works.

Each of these stories, in retrospect, presents us with individuals wounded, if not yet destroyed, by their own inability to relinquish absurd social conventions as well as by the corrupt society at large. Almost all of Hauser’s characters, in both her short fictions and longer works, are trapped by dominating figures and their own ready subservience. Nowhere is that more apparent, in fact, than in “Conflict of Legalities,” wherein a lawyer—formerly a grammar-school student of his client—attempts to engage his former teacher in her own defense against a murder by poisoning to which she has admitted. After years of rape and other abuses by a local farmer to whom she consigned her life in return for financial protection, the teacher is just “too dead tired” to go on, and placidly slathers a dose of rat poison on the ham sandwiches she prepares for his picnic lunch. The woman, however, refuses to participate in her own defense, knowing that she has been a victim, but perceiving that in the murder she has freed herself from further victimization. She conceives of her imprisonment not as punishment, but as a strange reward—for she now has a room (however humble) and sufficient food without having to serve as a slave to a cruel master. Now, she can peaceably sleep.

The characters of “Heartlands Beat” cannot comprehend why their son, lover, friend Johnny Upjohn, Jr. has, on the night of the prom, committed suicide. But through their revealed conversations, diary entries, and letters we quickly discern that not only is the small town in which he lived without any cultural or social diversions, but that his life has already been determined by the various battles between his unexpressive, insensitive father and his near-incestuously doting mother. In his death, he has finally escaped a more horrifying living death the others keep within themselves:

What can I say? It’s been a bad, bad trip….Yes, I could use a shot.
But first scoot over, willya, honey? I’m so godawful dead inside. Hold
me.

(Mary-Sue May [Johnny’s girlfriend] tells it “like it is” to Eddy,
chance acquaintance, instant confidant & psych major at
Munich U.)

If the young girl of “A Lesson in Music” is terrified in her subconscious realization that, despite the transformative power of art, death ultimately rules, by the end of Marianne Hauser’s writing career, her characters have come to comprehend that life itself is a war against that death we all carry within ourselves. Hauser herself demonstrated that tenacious will, not only to survive, but to prevail (as Faulkner put it) against all the enemies of living life to its fullest, whether those forces come from within or outside of oneself.

If Hauser has a grave—I presume, however, like the dead narrator of her The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley she willed herself to the fire*—the words upon Casper Hauser’s tombstone, the hero of her great Prince Ishmael, might equally serve her:

You call me what you will, angel or liar, I may yet live forever,
mark my word.



*Hauser’s body, I was later told by her son, was cremated.


Los Angeles, August 13, 2006
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, IV, no. 2 (April 2007).

Douglas Messerli | Our Wonderful Lives (on Mathews' My Life in CIA and The Journalist)


OUR WONDERFUL LIVES
by Douglas Messerli

Harry Mathews My Life in CIA (Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005).
Harry Mathews The Journalist (Boston: David R. Godine, 1994); reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.

I have long felt that Harry Mathews is one of the best American fiction writers who came of age in the mid-twentieth century, and his newest fiction confirms my opinion. Mathews’s 2005 work, My Life in CIA, might be said to represent a late-career shift in style and subject, imbuing his work with a new accessibility not unlike that of Gertrude Stein, whose late-life The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has generally been represented by critics (including myself) as a simplification of her previous bravura techniques. Like Stein, Mathews appears in this work to be writing an autobiography, strange as that lived experience may seem, a work very different, for example, from his earlier convoluted tale of an obsessive journalist (hero of The Journalist) who uncovers shockingly “secret” information about his family and friends.

For one personally acquainted with Mathews as I am, the facts of this seemingly experiential recounting of his illusionary life as a CIA agent at first seem almost plausible. The tall and trim, often behatted Mathews—whom many individuals also mistakenly perceived as being gay (in part because he had several gay friends, John Ashbery among them) and as a man of “independent means” (even I presumed this, since he had, it appeared, two addresses in France, a Key West abode and an apartment in New York)—seemed almost to match the image one might conjure up of a CIA operative (although one must admit Mathews dressed, when I met him, far too foppishly to fit the mold.) In Paris of the early 1970s, accordingly, friends and strangers alike suspected that he was an agent, and the more he attempted to deny it the firmer they grew in their beliefs. The fact that he had a diplomat friend who became ambassador to Laos in the midst of the Viet Nam War and that Mathews visited him in Laos in 1965—information leaked, unknown to him, by real agents and perhaps members of the French Communist Party—gave credence to the gossip.

Understandably, Mathews—in reality an experimental author sympathetic with several liberal and leftist causes and the only American member of the French-based group of writers, mathematicians, and scientists called the Oulipo (Ouvrior de literature potentielle) who employ a wide range of formal constraints in their literary endeavors—grew increasingly distressed by these rumors. In 1972 Mathews met two Chileans, Silvia Uribe and Enrique Cabót, who encouraged him, along with other French friends, to enjoy his unwanted celebrity by embracing it, to pretend he was an agent, a game which might also give him entry to different elements of French society and, if nothing else, provide him with an entertaining avocation.

Part of the great fun of this “fiction” is Mathews’ recounting of how he goes about—often unwittingly—to establish his CIA identity, reasserting the rumors with more concrete evidence. Since most agents hide their activities behind fabricated employers, Mathews creates a mythical travel agency (named after his real avant-garde journal of Locus Solus), listing himself among other non-existent directors. The company, amazingly, attracts the interest of some who ask him to lecture and, others, ultimately, who hire him for covert deliveries of documents. Most of his efforts to establish his “CIA connection” are ridiculously ineffective: observing that someone appears to be following his footsteps, the author takes absurdly convoluted walks, marking his tracks in chalk upon certain buildings along the way, even renting a car to stage an imaginary “drop.” But when he meets a supposed businessman, Patrick Burton-Cheyne—a new acquaintance whose employment involves him in activities seemingly in synch with that of an undercover agent—Mathews is educated in new ruses which grow increasingly complex, ending in attempts to make contact with the French Communist Party and other organizations.

At this point, the reader also begins to realize that the seemingly plausible “adventures” of the author begin to move into the realm of marvelous fabulation, as Mathews describes various escapades, including several sexually unconsummated encounters with a beautiful woman and an interrupted sexual episode with a weaver of Turkish rugs, which ends with him being rolled up in the rug and his accidental delivery to a party of right-wing conspirators who, after a lavish dinner, play an Oulipean-like game of Squat in which he is forced to improvise lyrics rhymed with words such as swastika, haddock, jonquil, plectrum, gardenia and farthing while he and others dance.

As the story moves forward, Mathews—without completely perceiving the extent of his involvement—is caught up in a vortex of coincidental assumptions and events inevitably leading to his attempted assassination by individuals from both the political right and left. His advisor and friend Patrick disappears, and after failing to gain access to the Communists, he is warned for his own safety to leave France. His final escape reminds one of something out of a James Bond movie, as he seemingly kills one of his adversaries and apparently eludes his enemies by joining up with a family of sheep-herders.

Just as the author-narrator finds himself moving from what might be a very real dilemma to a fantastically absurd series of events, so too do we, as readers, experience a shift from a very plausible autobiographical tale to an entertaining invention. By book’s end we no longer can separate the “real” (his life in Paris, his friendship with the noted author Georges Perec, his involvement with Oulipo, etc.) from completely fabricated situations. Just as Stein weaves real events into a fictional autobiographical story with herself as the center of grand adulation, so too does Mathews present himself within the context of a great adventure worthy of being filmed by a major American studio. Even the author believes what he overhears in an East German café, that he has been “terminated with extreme prejudice”; for the prejudice emanates, perhaps, not only from some unknown outsider, but from the author himself.

Like Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Mathews represents his life through the voice of a being that is as fictional as any reader’s representation of his or her self. While it may be wonderful if others could perceive how exciting each of our lives has been, we might also find ourselves, like the hero of Mathews’s fiction, in great danger. For, if nothing else, our lies and selfishly coincidental participation in villainous acts would turn everyone against us, perhaps even our own consciences. Are not all Americans, for example, covert agents behind the war in Iraq? Were we not all, as political activists argued, somehow involved in the atrocities of Viet Nam? Perhaps that’s why so many Americans resist all attempts to describe and reveal the events of our own lives; for only those who remain ignorant of their involvement in the world can pretend to the innocence to which most of our countrymen seem to aspire.

Los Angeles, August 1, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 5 (November 2006).