Saturday, November 12, 2011

Douglas Messerli | "Life in Duluth" (on John Ashbery's and James Schuyler's Nest of Ninnies)

life in duluth
by Douglas Messerli
John Ashbery and James Schuyler Nest of Ninnies (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1969)

Ashbery and Schuyler begin their fiction in what seems, at first, an almost conventional mode. Two people, Alice and Marshall, sit at the dinner table, gently arguing, a conversation that appears to be between husband and wife. He, quite obviously, goes to the city every day to work, while she, a 1950s housewife, it seems, is dissatisfied with life in a New York suburban community, "fifty miles from a great city."

Fairfield Porter: John Ashbery and James Schuyler

   Alice seems bored, languid at the very least, disinterested in the leftovers that Marshall has pulled from the refrigerator for their supper. Poutingly, she refuses to eat, wanting to go to the city. Marshall himself is described as sulking, seeking a missing bread basket in which serve hot bread. Indeed, pouting, sulking, wounding seems to the major activity of these two, until they are interrupted by a woman, Fabia, from next door, at which point Marshall seems to come alive while Alice retreats to the basement to shake their furnace into action. Before long a fuse has blown and a snowstorm has begun, the three heading off to a hardware store and to a nearby Howard Johnson's for a drink.

     Throughout Nest of Ninnies, in fact, storms—both meteorologically and emotionally—are abrew. None of the characters might be described as emotionally stable, and the weather, no matter where these figures go, is generally filled with rain, snow, ice, and wailing winds. And many of them are perpetually drink.

     In this first chapter, moreover, we quickly discover that whatever one might think are the facts have nothing to do with reality—if there is reality in their world to be found. Language, in particular makes no true connections. In the first few pages I've described above the characters speak more by association than through any attempt to truly communicate:

                 "We of course made no attempt to alter this old place when we took
                 it over, beyond a few slight repairs," Marshall seemed aware of the
                 young woman for the first time. "I wanted to have the fireplace bricked
                 up because it cools the house, but so many people commented on it
                 we decided to leave it."
                      "You don't seem to see so many people."
                      "Look, snow is coming down it now."
                      An especially loud clang from the basement caused them both to
                 start. "You sit down and I'll get you a cup of coffee. I'll put on the lights
                 and call Alice," Marshall announced.
                      Alice's dim form appeared in the door. "I think I've just blown a
                 fuse. Hello, Fabia."
                     "That's very funny. The fuses at our house blew out too. It must be

     As we move forward into this strangely charted territory, we gradually begin to meet other characters, Fabia's brother Victor, who has just dropped out of college, her parents, The Bridgewaters, while we discover that the quarreling couple of the first scene are not husband and wife, but sister and brother, Marshall being somewhat attracted to Fabia, while Alice is interested in the wayward Victor.

     As these characters (types more than flesh-and-blood figures) are established, we begin to suspect that the fiction will be a kind of domestic story of their interchanging relationships and lives. But after a few chapters, in which the characters half-heartedly attempt to settle down (Marshall is the only one, it appears, who has a job), Ashbery and Schuyler take the work in an entirely different direction.

     Just as we grow used to the small cast of figures he has presented us, they quickly begin to gather others around them as they move forward in space, first to Florida, then to Paris, Italy, back to New York, and away again, floating in an out of their original home while adding more and more figures as they go.

One might argue that, after the first few scenes, Ashbery and Schuyler pick up on Henry Green's marvelous Party Going just where it ended, with a large party of figures finally ready to move on. That group of ninnies is perhaps more British than is this American grouping, but there are enough French acquaintances, Italian pickups, Pen Pals (does anyone remember when young men and women had Pen Pals?), school girls, and numerous others to create a hilarious international "nest" into which and out of which the figures come and go, just as in Green's fiction.

     If the language these characters use is absurdly associative and self-centric, so too are their actions. Time and again characters meet and accidently reencounter each other as if the whole of Europe and the US were just as small as the suburban New York community in which the work begins and ends.

     Just as absurdly, in the latter part of the book, the figures pair off in odd combinations we might never have expected, Alice marrying an Italian pick-up, Giorgio, who together open a restaurant; Irving Kelso, a mama's boy and Marshall's co-worker, marrying a French woman the group has met in Florida, Claire; while Claire's sister pairs up with Victor.

     Victor's Pen Pal, Paul, meanwhile, arrives at novel's end with Marshall, the two having evidently traveled to Duluth and South Bend! As all the other figures move off in the various directions their lunatic behavior leads them, Marshall announces that he may move to Duluth; Duluth, he reveals, is big in plastics, and his company (evidently producing or using plastics) wants to open up a new branch in that Northern Minnesota City.

                      I have eyes only for Duluth. That's a place where they really
                      know how to relax and get the most out of life. I could even
                      live there myself. You never saw such steaks.

 Paul announces, in turn, that he likes the US and may not return to his home in France.  Both speak of the delights of South Bend.

                     Meanwhile Fabia was saying to Paul, "What was there in South
                     Bend, anyway?"
                         "You won't believe this," Paul said, "but it's true: a Pam-Pam's!"
                        "Oh," Fabia allowed.

The cryptic reference to the international bar and restaurant chain suggests far more that it appears, perhaps even hinting how to read through the characters' scatter-brained references.

     Bar Pam-Pam's was a kind of early bar and coffee house scene somewhat in the manner of Starbucks today, except that several of the Bar Pam-Pam's operations played cool jazz and catered to special audiences.* Cartoonist Joe Ollmann writes in The Paris Review about a local Pam-Pam's in New York which he describes as an "old man bar," suggesting to me that its clientele are elderly gays. What Ashbery and Schuyler seem to suggest, accordingly, is that suddenly Marshall and Paul are an couple who perhaps may be the first to escape the loony nest into which the dozens of characters have fast settled.

     After having just feasted on Giorgio's special courses, Victor suggests in the final lines of the book, perhaps hinting at the new relationship between the two men:

                    "I'm so hungry I could eat a wolf. Why don't we go over the Gay
                    Chico and have some refried beans?"

      And so these "cliff dwellers" bid their goodnights, moving off toward the parking lots and shopping plazas of their empty lives. Life in Duluth might be just the tonic.

*Steve Fletcher describes a Bar Pam-Pam in England on the internet:

The refectory in the college had about as much atmosphere as a cemetery with lights, so a girl student with whom I was highly smitten, Diane, suggested we go to the Pam Pam. A coffee bar.  
     It was just across Oxford Circus at the junction with Hanover Street and Hanover Square and the exterior had a South East Asian look about it which was continued on the inside with low lighting, bamboo and palm trees in jungle browns and greens.
    The Pam Pam was quite small; it had about half a dozen very low tables and behind the counter was the first coffee machine I had ever seen. (There was a small upstairs section too over the counter with no more that three tables).
     Scandinavian open sandwiches were the house speciality (and the only ones on offer) consisting of a piece of rye bread topped with a piece of lettuce, a tomato and a hard boiled egg or a sardine - very exotic.
     A bit pricey too, I seem to remember. But the owner, a Spaniard, was never in a hurry to get rid of poor students. He also played music: jazz. Not on a juke box but on a Dansette 78 r.p.m. record player behind the counter.
     He had great taste and I was always asking him what the records were, his favourites being the boogie inspired piano pieces by Oscar Peterson. Cool sounds in a cool place.
     The Pam Pam was different and quite unlike the other coffee house I was now also frequenting - the infamous French coffee/newspaper shop near the corner of Old Compton and Charing Cross Road, and the Gyre & Gimbleat at Charing Cross.
     There one could rub shoulders with hookers, villains and dealers - plus the likes of Victor Passmore, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and demi-monde characters like Quentin Crisp and Ironfoot Jack.
     Because it was just outside Soho and on the edges of Mayfair, which was relatively quiet at night, the Pam Pam seemed a bit exclusive to the art students of RSP. I hung out there for about a year and became an ardent modern jazz fan.

Los Angeles, November 8, 2011


Monday, November 7, 2011

Christopher Leise | Review of Richard Kalich's Penthouse F

from Electronic Book Review

Richard Kalich, Penthouse-F
by Christopher Leise

Richard Kalich is a failed novelist.

At least it is the case that Richard Kalich, the protagonist of the recent novel Penthouse-F, is a failed novelist. This fictional Kalich cannot compose his protean ideas on what he feels could be "the definitive novel of our time"(18)-ideas about the decline of language in the face of an increasingly image-dominated world, and which was to be titled Transfiguration of the Commonplace-into an actual, readable text. Over the course of twenty-five years, his once-prescient projections become banal realities, and the once-profound insights of Transfiguration simply become commonplace observations blithely reported in newspapers and television commentary.

In response to his writerly inability, the imaginary Kalich attempts to will his failed fiction into actuality, inviting a boy and girl that resemble his ideal characters into his beloved penthouse. He develops a mediated relationship with his characters-cum-cohabitants, watching them on closed-circuit cameras, almost as if trying to keep up with a world in which relationships are increasingly mediated by technologies of surveillance and surrogacy. But even those efforts fail, as the boy and girl commit conjoined suicide, opting out of Kalich's penned-up penthouse by leaping to their deaths.

The sense of an artist's frustration to fail in staying ahead of his time recalls William Gaddis's posthumously published Agapē Agape, wailing that Thomas Bernhard had "plagiarized my work right here before I've even written it!" (Gaddis 13). And although Kalich's style is markedly minimalist in contrast to Gaddis's rant-infused maximalism, both books are similarly fragmentary in their presentation of the writing process. But whereas Gaddis's final work is an admission of the inevitability of the decline of process into pure chaos (although the underlying ideas remain coherent), the fictional Kalich of Penthouse-F continually longs for control he cannot attain, in both his process and the product it yields.

The facts of Penthouse-F are revealed in a series of shards of a broken whole: many of which take the form of an interrogation led by an unidentified-or should I say unauthorized?-inquisitor; interrogations of Kalich's neighbors; lists of rules; self-analysis on his mother-son relationship; typescript pages of the unwritten novel, scribbled over with illegible marginalia; and musings on the failure of Transfiguration of the Commonplace to transfigure itself from idea to iteration.

It is, in a way, a mystery: is Kalich responsible for the death of the young lovers? But the mystery is also ontological, as it is generally unclear if the boy and girl truly "exist," even within the story-world of Penthouse-F. It is unclear if the inquisitor exists outside the character Kalich's own head, or if the worried writer simply invents a mechanism through which to work out the fact that he "murdered" his characters by failing to write them into something that is "not merely another would-be novel [he] was planning to write" (37).

In a word, Penthouse-F is absurd. But it's a new take the European absurdist tradition it so lovingly lifts from, yoking to it an Auster-esque indeterminate self-reflexivity.

And so it can also be said: Richard Kalich is a successful novelist.

This is determinately verifiable given the very existence of Penthouse-F as a novel. As a well-received author of three prior novels, the successful writer Kalich has added another installment to a career that is as distinguished as it is consistent.

Then again, perhaps one should reconsider the matter: is Richard Kalich a failed novelist in the specific case of Penthouse-F's artistic effect, or a successful one? This determination cannot be subjected to the normal praxis of empiricism, because understanding Penthouse-F requires one to ask questions of categorization and of tone. As Warren Motte has already remarked in his review of this book, the novel-as-inquisition is "a topos so broadly exploited in contemporary literature, from Kafka to Volodine, that it is now ripe for parody" (62). Parody, however-like other categories and like tone-cannot inhere in a novel. These elements reside in the space between text and reader, between the codes given by a text and the choices readers make in interpreting those codes. At times, the writing of Penthouse-F signals a kind of literary seriousness, in prose that attains to the tradition the book so clearly cherishes. Describing an act of warmth and contact with his captives (a foot massage), Kalich muses, "An even greater sense of power and erotic command enveloped me as I observed the girl's imploring, pleading eyes begging that I do the same for the boy, asking nothing for himself, but rather only for the girl" (178).

Yet the text undermines itself farther down the page through repeated and clichéd language and arguably purple prose:

Two images kept recurring in my mind. The boy's stoical refusal of myself and the girl's imploring, pleading eyes that had her lover's welfare more selflessly in mind than her own. At such moments in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat that made my skin stick to the sheets ... I kept hearing for the second time in my life a little voice emanating from deep inside me saying: Who's going to love me? Who's going to love me? Along with the added proviso-like Romeo and Juliet love each other? (178)

If this is read as un-ironic, serious, literary fiction, we could reasonably conclude that Richard Kalich is a failed novelist. Because, at least from my perspective, the repetition and melodramatic elements are really funny, despite the possibility that it is a sincere effort at expressing exasperation. At the same time, read as parody, it is also really funny . . . for precisely the same reasons. Taken alongside the fact that the story is so improbable, the protagonist so seemingly impossible (does he have a job?), the character of the inquisitor's questions often so impertinent to the matter of the suicides, Penthouse-F begs the question: does it matter if we're laughing with or laughing at?

So allow me to offer another statement, the truth-value of which is questionable but is nevertheless an expression I stand behind: Richard Kalich is a successful novelist, one who has succeeded in consistently producing perplexing fictions that fail to categorize themselves and escape the warping influence of authorial intent. For by so emphatically inserting himself into the fiction of Penthouse-F, questions about the real Kalich's intentions are thrust far into the realm of the inscrutable. Kalich's newest novel is either risible for being a weak inheritor of Kafka or it is hilarious for being the most piquant appropriator of absurdism, given your stance as a reader and the choices you make in receiving its tone. I think it is overwhelmingly the latter, and a joy for that.

Thus there is no denying that the work of Penthouse-F is important. It is important because it makes plain the choices by which we approach fiction. And this is something that Kalich's metafiction does distinctly well. It holds up authorial intent to the effect of effacing it. It questions where literary categories originate from in the first place: writers? texts? publishers? readers? It foregrounds tone by deadening tone so subtly as to leave one unsure how seriously we should take the book's argument about what Baudrillard called "The Precession of the Simulacra," now so thoroughly axiomatic as to make a rear-guard observation into an avant-garde artifact.

So in the end, forget about the Richard Kalich the living man, and whether he is successful or not. He probably doesn't want you thinking about him anyway. But read Penthouse-F, because this is a book that will throw you back into an energetic relationship with the process of reading fiction, and force you to ask as many questions about how you read as it asks questions of itself, its characters, its reality, and ours. And you'll probably laugh despite the severity of the novel's inquisition.

Works Cited

Gaddis, William. Agapē Agape. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Motte, Warren. "Book Review of Richard Kalich's novel: Penthouse-F." World Literature Today 85:2 (March-April 2011): 61-62. Print.

Christopher Leise is assistant professor of English at Whitman College. He is most recently the co-editor of Pynchon's Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim's Guide (U Delaware P, 2011) and William Gaddis, "The Last of Something": Critical Essays (McFarland, 2010).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kajii Motojirō | Underneath the Cherry Trees

Motojirō Kajii
Underneath the Cherry Trees
Translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

Underneath the cherry trees cadavers are interred!

I don’t deny I had to be persuaded.  Nevertheless isn’t it incredible how the cherry trees flourish so splendidly?  I was restless, those days, because I hadn’t been able to believe in such beauty.  But now I have at last understood:  underneath the cherry trees cadavers are interred.  I don’t deny I had to be persuaded.

Why is it that, each evening, when I get home, among all the objects in my room, it is a thin object like the blade of my safety razor which steals over my spirit, as if by telepathy?  You say you know nothing?  Neither do I.  But why should it matter?  In the end, it’s all the same.

The trees in flower, having attained full bloom, lavish all about them an aura of mystery.  This resembles the impression of perfect immobility given by a spinning top or the hallucination which always accompanies a good musical performance:  the illusion of fervent procreation, of self-perpetuation emanating like a halo.  It is a strange beauty full of life, which cannot fail to move the beholder.

Yet, yesterday and the day before, this was the very thing which rendered me so frightfully sad.  This beauty appears to me something scarcely believable.  On the contrary, it makes me feel uneasy, melancholy, empty.

Try to imagine that a cadaver is interred under each of the cherry trees flowering with such swarming luxuriance.  I believe that you have grasped my malaise.

Cadavers of horses, cadavers of dogs and cats, cadavers of human beings, all these cadavers in putrefaction, teeming, swarming, crawling with worms, emitting an insupportable foulness. 

Nevertheless, they ooze, drop by drop, a liquid resembling fluid crystal.  The roots of the cherry trees enlace like the arms of rapacious octopi and pump this liquor while wriggling their radicles like the tentacles of sea anemones.

Of what are these petals made, of what are the hearts of these flowers composed?  As in a dream, I seem to see myself climbing, in a silent cortege, to the interior of some stalks or stems, borne along by the current of this sap resembling crystal which their roots inhale.

Why do you affect that air of suffering?  Isn’t there much to be admired in this act of second sight?  Now I am capable of gazing for hours, staring fixedly at the cherry blossoms;  I have been freed from the mystery which tormented me yesterday and the day before.

Once or twice, I descended to the bottom of the gully and skirted the torrent, stepping from stone to stone.  Borne everywhere from powdery clouds of water, like Aphrodite, were ephemerids which lifted themselves dancingly towards the sky where they celebrate, as you know, their beautiful nuptials.  After having walked a ways, I encountered something truly singular.  It floated on a little puddle sunk in the bank of the stream in an otherwise dried-up spot.  Its entire surface flashed and shimmered with an unexpected brilliance like that produced by an oil smear.  What was it, do you think?  It was the glare from the corpses of an incalculable number of ephemerids.  Their crumpled wings which covered the puddle, shriveled into the sunlight spreading an oily glow.  That was their cemetery over there, beyond the bridge.

When I saw that, I had the impression of receiving a direct blow to the solar plexus.  I tasted the sadistic joy of a maniac who violates sepulchers and loves cadavers.

In this gully, there was nothing in which to delight.  The nightingales, the tomtits, the white light of the sun which the buds of the trees absorbed in a bluish blur – all that formed nothing more than an image hazy and vague.  It struck me as tragic:  for it was only by virtue of this counterweight that my mental pictures were able to take shape and clarify themselves for the first time.  My heart is thirsting from melancholy, like a demon’s;  to be appeased, it must attain its plenitude.

Do you find yourself sponging under your arms?  You have cold sweats?  So do I.  But there is no reason to find that displeasing.  Try to consider how this stickiness is exactly like that of sperm.  Then our melancholy shall attain its plenitude.

Ah!  Beneath the cherry trees cadavers are interred!

I truly don’t know from where this illusion came to me but now I know that these cadavers and the cherry trees must be considered as one.  I have duly shaken my head;  they cannot undermine unless I stay away.

From now on I have earned the right, like the villagers, to picnic beneath the cherry trees.  I believe I shall sample the sake in anticipation of the feast.
English language translation copyright ©2011 by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert and EXPLORINGFictions.

Born in Osaka on February 17, 1901, Motojirō Kajii wrote several fictions, described by the Japanese as masterpieces of poetic quality, including "The Lemon," "Winter Days," and the above, "Underneath the Cherry Trees." Although his work was highly appreciated, and praised by Kawabata, Motojirō remained unknown for much his life. In 1932 he wrote a novella, The Carefree Patient. The same year, the writer died of tuberculosis. His work Lemon appeared in English translation.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

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

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)

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

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

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

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:

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)

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)

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