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).