Category Archives: Current Reading

Some Critical Thoughts on Nine by Andrzej Stasiuk

Andrzej Stasiuk’s novel Dziewięć (Nine) came to me heavily recommended. Stasiuk is a bonafide celebrity in his native Poland and is one of the few contemporary authors form that country to generate a significant amount of international acclaim. Critics have made favorable comparisons to Sarte, Camus, Hamsun, and even Kafka. The book uses a highly fragmented, highly oblique approach that has generally been hailed as modernistic in the best sense of the word. It is also said to grippingly portray the realities of the post-communism generation in Poland.

I think there is a fair amount of truth to what has been said about this book, but I do not think it is quite as good as some have insisted. I enjoyed it, and it is a strong work, but the book’s method of composition does have some limitations, and I think the author’s goals for Nine could have been broader.

The book is indeed very oblique–quite daringly so–and for the most part this works very well. We begin in media res, and the opening sense of dislocation is potent. Pawel, one of the book’s characters (although none are a true protagonist), wakes up and performs his morning ablutions in a shattered apartment:

He picked up one of the toothbrushes, rinsed it under the tap, scraped some toothpaste off the wall. Then he squatted and chose a razor with a cracked handle. He found the can of shaving cream under the bath. It was dented but something still swished inside.

There’s utterly no explanation for what has happened or why Pawel reacts to it all with such nonchalance. It is both an attention-grabbing start and distancing, as the book implies absolutely no intention of filling us in.

This is Nine’s modus operandi. Again and again it drops us in the middle of scenes that usually bear no relation to what has come before or what will immediately follow. Stasiuk likes to refer to characters by pronouns in order to enhance ambiguity and force us to rely on surface details for orientation. (As I will explain in a moment, this poses its own problems, as the scenes and characters blend in this dirty, snow-gray book.)

Even when sections of Nine loosely form a narrative (stress on the loosely), Stasiuk does what he can to stifle our ability to make connections. For instance, at one point there is a tense chase scene that takes place over the course of about 10 one-page fragments. From fragment to fragment, Stasiuk keeps describing the details of the chase in extremely off-kilter ways. The action is really very simple, two men are chasing another with an intent to batter him, but as we jump from fragment to fragment we are forced to figure out whose perspective Stasiuk is now taking and what has happened in the pursuit in the space that has been jumped over.

Although I did not see Robbe-Grillet mentioned in conjunction with Nine, I think in many ways the New Novelists are a more useful reference point than the existentialists. Certainly there is a Sartrean quality to the emptiness of the characters’ lives and the way in which they are depicted with no sympathy or even regard for their most basic feelings, but the existentialists tended to tell a more or less straightforward narrative. By contrast, Nine, like many New Novels, purposely jumbles everything, forces us to do all the work of narrative construction, only infers to crucial scenes (never actually depicting them), and resists giving much beyond surface detail.

I found this both to the book’s advantage and disadvantage. The advantage is that it lets Stasiuk work with a story that isn’t terribly original or interesting: Nine basically covers a few minor incidents in the life of small-time. Plotwise, Stasiuk doesn’t offer any new takes on this story. (Probably this is by design, as I don’t think he would find Warsaw gangsters all that different from their brethren in other lands). But by telling his story in such an elliptical manner, Stasiuk manages to make this dull plot an inviting place for an active readers to spend several hours.

Much more importantly, this mode of storytelling also allows Stasiuk to ignore what, presumably, doesn’t interest him: the deals and thrills around which a normal gangster story would circle. Instead Stasiuk often leads us off-course into the little details of life in post-communism Warsaw, sometimes as they pertain to the gangsters and sometimes as they don’t. For example, here Stasiuk’s resistance to focusing on his characters and their stories (represented in this passage by a mobster’s Beamer) allows him to dawdle on details that would detract from the momentum in a more conventional novel:

Now, adults, they slowed to a walking pace because the Beamer was lurching over potholes and scraping its belly on the cinders. To their right, a long building roofed with felt. Several of the chimneys smoking. Life was going on in ten one-room apartments. People sitting together and watching television. Women opened doors and let out kitchen smells. Men pottering about in small sheds behind chain-link fences, fixing mopeds or cars that would never drive again. Between chicken coops, old discolored refrigerators, things still kept in them. Objects rarely used or completely unnecessary, but even when thrown out they remained in reach and were property. A crow perched on a satellite dish.

"They probably stil eat rabbits." [from within the Beamer]

The characters’ integration with their surroundings never gets deeper than that dismissive comment, but Stasiuk has nonetheless managed to smuggle in loads of atmospheric detail as to this Warsaw slum. Truly, the environment itself becomes the most interesting and original aspect of Nine, and as the above passage indicates, Stasiuk can write beautifully on it. Notably, Nine pays close attention to mass transit and the characters’ relationship to it (people talk about certain number busses as they would actual people). The book is also very observant of the demarcations drawn between those who can participate in the normal marketplace (and all of its luxury goods), and those who must consume in the gray market that often exists right by its side:

They went down into the underpass, where the neon was like fog, blurring everything. In their place people regained their shape only when they emerged again by the post office and went to catch a 4 tram or a 26 or a 34 and found themselves across the river, where the world was completely different. For decades they’d been getting out of trains and suburban buses at Wilenski station dressed in garish clothing to invade, to conquer downtown with its wonders, glitz, and glamor. . . . It was to tempt them that the Rozyckiego bazaar appeared two streets on. By Brezeska, the smell of the country. White pyramids of heart-shaped cheeses, eggs, pickled cucumbers, bundles of dead chickens, their pale, plucked bodies, live birds in shit-stained cages, carrots, parsnips, . . .

The other advantage with this mode of narrative construction is that it, as I hope can be seen above, gives Stasiuk considerable reason to be creative with his language, a call that I think he answers quite well in the pages of Nine.

The problem with Stasiuk’s structure is that we lose out on character. In some novels, ones that are after other things that realism and character development, this would not be much of an issue; however, it is quite clear that Nine wants to depict a realist world, and that the people who inhabit that world are important. But by so obfuscating our ability to know what is going on, Stasiuk places large barriers to his characters coming across as real and interesting people.

It’s no coincidence that in this novel dominated by men, the two women characters are among the most distinct: with such tangentiality, it’s difficult to develop a sense of the male characters (whom blend together for much of the course of this book), but since there are only two female characters, it’s far easier to determine which of them is being portrayed at any given moment, and so we can more easily develop a sense of each woman as a person.

Eventually, to Stasiuk’s credit, even his male characters begin to develop personas of their own. In fact, once you know who is who, you can go back through the novel and see that Stasiuk has been taking care to define them all along (but you probably didn’t notice on the first pass because you were busy sorting out larger, more fundamental issues). But this process does take a while, and by then we’ve experienced about half of the novel only knowing most of the characters as ghost-like presences.

I think overall Nine triumphs and manages to use its more atypical features to its advantage, although I do think that at times Stasiuk could have been more careful to compensate for his form’s liabilities. Also, although writing in this book is generally a strong point, at times it is lax, enough so to be noticable over the course of the novel. However, I do not mean to be too hard on Nine. I would certainly recommend this book as one that largely thrives on its innovations and wages a successful campaign to innovate while rendering an authentic world. And, my reading of Nine has aroused my interest in future translations of Stasiuk’s work.

Bolano and Imperfection

After breezing through the first hundred pages of 2666, I had the feeling that I’d finish the book in a week. I read By Night in Chile in a single sitting, Amulet in two, and Distant Star in perhaps three at most, so by extrapolating out, a week seemed perfectly reasonable.

2666 turned out to be a much slower read than I anticipated.

I think, probably, if it was like a 1,000-page version of By Night in Chile, I would have read the book in a week; but I’m not even sure what I just wrote makes sense. I’m not sure that By Night in Chile could ever be a 1,000-page work. By Night in Chile is so tightly wound that every word feels like it absolutely needs to be there. It is a book that, though complex, deals with very precise phenomena, and deals with them in a sharp, surgical manner.

I would argue that books the size of 2666 simply aren’t meant to do what books like By Night in Chile do. Books like 2666 take on the biggest themes their authors can imagine, and these themes are so large that it takes serious novelistic real estate to even establish them on paper. They end up being so complex and ambitious that even the best authors can get lost in them. This is all a way of arguing that perhaps there is no way to make a book like 2666 feel as clean as By Night in Chile.

I’m a big fan of imperfection in literature. Although I can admire the tautly constructed small novel for the endless arguability and interpretability offered by its enigmatic clarity–think of The Metamorphosis, for instance–I like the imperfect, large novels for the very reason that I can feel things getting lost and going awry within them. It’s these detached or misshapen pieces that often become the most compelling moments in the novel for me.

In his afterword to the first edition of 2666, Ignacio Echevarria, Bolano’s literary executor, appropriately quotes this passage from the novel:

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to tak eon the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing; they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

I can’t imagine that Bolano wasn’t writing this self consciously; 2666 was his last book, by far his most ambitious. It followed a number of those "perfect exercises" and The Savage Detectives, which seems like his attempt to break out of the short novels into something large and ambitious, a midway station between them and 2666.

2666 is also, as far as I know, the only one of Bolano’s novels that directly deals with Nazi fascism, a matter that is discussed indirectly everywhere in Bolano’s works. I imagine that in writing about this Bolano was engaging in the "real combat" mentioned in the quote.

In addition to the Nazis, 2666 is a book about voids–the void represented by death, by cosmic boredom, by literary insignificance, by senseless violence and death. 2666 engages in real combat with all of these, and now that I have finished the book I want to go back and consider how well Bolano has waged his battles, how well he has added to these concepts, how deeply he has probed them, and how well they function as complements, placed, as they are, side by side in the 5 "books" that comprise 2666. This, I think, will be the true measure of the success of the last book Bolano wrote.

More 2666 on Conversational Reading:

2666: First Impressions

Now that I’ve knocked off a good inch of 2666, I feel like it’s time to say a little about my reactions to it.

At this point, I can’t say I’m very much reminded of The Savage Detectives (other than in terms of some very general themes that seem to be present in every book Bolano wrote); that book was about youth and what happens to youth as it grows old and forgotten. It focused on people above society–by that I mean it was about rendering a certain kind of emotional response to a life gone awry. The book was more concerned with this than making you understand a certain condition, the way Sebald makes modernity palpable. As a result the people in The Savage Detectives almost always felt fresh and read, and the main characters of Ulises, Belano, and Madero remain vivid in my mind.

2666 is, perhaps, precisely the opposite. It is a sprawling book seemingly most concerned with instilling something of the melancholy and isolation of late-late (or maybe post-late) capitalism, and to that end I feel as though the people are being given short shrift in favor of the set on which they perform.

The book it most brings to mind right now is Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Both of these books feel like a sort of requiem towering over and gazing back at their respective subjects. They are both slow reads in which you feel like you’re being taken down more than a few blind alleys, until, tens or hundreds of pages later, you finally see the purpose in where you were taken. Both of these books are immense, sprawling affairs, books full of many
discrete parts that I can somewhat see coming together if I continue
the lines they trace in my mind.

For example. Here are a few of the items I’ve encountered so far in 2666: a book (probably imaginary) arguing that one of Chile’s founding fathers was part  Native American; a philosophical-geometrical tract that a character discovers packed in his moving-box, and then takes out and hangs on a clothesline like a Duchamp ready-made; the text of a sermon of a black preacher who publishes cookbooks to make ends meet; a film whom the possessor claims was the first movie that director Richard Rodriguez ever made. On and on.

The thing about these pieces is that at this point they are by and large more memorable than the characters themselves, which, although they are far from poorly rendered, do not match up to characters from other Bolano books that I have read. Furthermore, these pieces are imbued with a sort of DeLilloesque instability–first they feel like they are about one thing, then another, then perhaps back again. To my mind they remain mysterious and enigmatic, resisting attempts to say exactly what they are about. They also feel startlingly contemporary, as in the case of a radical Muslim sect that marches in New York City under a banner bearing the face of Osama bin Laden.

Some of the writing even sounds, in a way, a little like DeLillo. Here are some quotes that have impressed themselves in my mind:

. . . though not just any nest but a postnuclear nest, a nest with no room for any certainties but cold, despair, and apathy.

. . . the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers.

The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly began to think, in vain.

I suppose Bolano and DeLillo have more than superficial similarities, as they both are innovators when it comes to writing about the political in their books. 2666 is no less political than any other Bolano book I’ve read, but, like them, in this one the political is both omnipresent and non-obtrusive. To see exactly what I mean, look how the political ghosts through this paragraph before finally, momentarily, flaring up into outright palpability:

It goes without saying that most of the attendees of these curious discussions gravitated toward the hall where contemporary English literature was being discussed, next door to the German literature hall and separated from it by a wall that was clearly not made of stone, as walls used to be, but of fragile bricks covered with a thin layer of plaster, so that the shouts, howls, and especially the applause sparked by English literature could be heard in the German literature room as if the two talks or dialogues were one, or as if the Germans were being mocked, when not drowned out, by the English, not to mention by the massive audience attending the English (or Anglo-Indian) discussion, notable larger than the sparse and earnest audience attending the German discussion. Which in the final analysis was a good thing, because it’s common knowledge that a conversation involving only a few people, with everyone listening to everyone else and taking time to think and not shouting, tends to be more productive or at least more relaxed than a mas conversation, which runs the permanent risk of becoming a rally, or, because of the necessary brevity of the speeches, a series of slogans that fade as soon as they’re put into words.

And then we get to the book’s two biggest items, two shadowy images that seem to stand like poles at either end of this book. The first is the author Archimboldi. When the book starts he is an obscure German author–he is nothing. Then a translation, a fortuitous review, some interest from scholars, and suddenly there are Archimboldi symposiums as far as the eye can see, titans of the Archimboldi industry fighting for power of interpretation, willing disciples on each side, and, of course, the perennial Nobel watch.

The Archimboldi part is fleshed out in the novel’s first section, about a hundred pages, and to my mind it’s the most consistent, interesting part of the novel I’d read so far. I don’t know if this relates to the fact that 2666 was never really completed, but the first section feels by far the most polished; there are enormous, page-spanning sentences here that unfurl segment by segment, perfectly paced rocking from comma to comma with their own peculiar logic. And there are many of them in a row. The effect is dazzling,a nd I have yet to see something that compares after the first section.

This part of the book ends with the Archimboldi scholars being brought to Santa Teresa in northern Mexico in a vain, you might say pointless, attempt to finally meet up with the reclusive author, and thus we are brought to the book’s opposite pole, the bit-by-bit murder of hundreds of Mexican women in Santa Teresa. These are ghastly, unsolved murders that have been going on for years, and the residents of Santa Teresa seem to react to them with an odd mixture of outright fear and disinterest. And Santa Teresa seems a little ghastly itself: it’s a huge, ever-growing city made up part of desert, part of sweat-shop style factories. Bolano spends much time evoking Santa Teresa, and I think he does it because in this book Santa Teresa represents something very substantial–I can’t say quite what, but something along the lines of a beleaguered retreat, a final resting place, our collective future.

Still aching for more Bolano? Here are some links to past Bolano coverage:

* Our interview with TSD and 2666 translator Natasha Wimmer

* Our interview with Bolano translator Chris Andrews

* Find out where 2666 fits in to the rest of Bolano’s collective works with Javier Moreno’s awesome Bolano triangle, part of his Quarterly Conversation essay in which he offers a theory of how Bolano’s books fit together.

* Read my own Bolano essay from the same issue of The Quarterly Conversation. In it I take a close look at By Night in Chile and consider how the theme of parents and children works in Bolano’s books.

* Read our coverage of The Savage Detectives as part of Reading the World 2007

* Read my column where I compare two Latin American deathbed confession novels: Bolano’s By Night in Chile with Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz

Friday Column: Mann, Faustus, and the Modernist Morality

(When I decided to discuss Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus on this blog, it quickly became clear that I could expend thousands and thousands of words without nearly exhausting everything there is to discuss in this book. Thus, I’m going to break up my discussion of Faustus into a number of pieces taking on certain of th book’s themes and ideas. This is the first.

Note that all quotes are from the original 1948 translation made by H.T. Lowe-Porter. There is a more recent one made by John E. Woods, which I have some reason to believe is a better translation.)


Perhaps the thing I most respect about Doctor Faustus is Mann’s willingness in this book to leap into intellectually fraught territory and his utter ability to pull it off. Here, Mann takes on some of the most difficult topics imaginable, and he succeeds in discussing them with great rigor, nuance, and originality. Simply put, in territory where many authors would humiliate themselves or simply fall short in trite banalisms, Mann comes through admirably.

Perhaps the thorniest subject Mann gets into in Faustus is to wonder whether art has moral content. Artists, and those who enjoy their work, seem to be generally sensitive to any attempts to mix art and morals; there’s a prevalent idea that to consider a work’s morality is somehow vulgar, dilettantish, beside the point, and I think a lot of people would simply disdain the question if it were raised. Perhaps a few braver souls would delve into the matter and come out simply looking foolish.

But in Faustus Mann is pretty clearly debating whether the compositions of Adrian–our composer who has struck a deal with the Devil–should be considered from a moral standpoint. What makes this all the more striking is that Mann puts on this debate in the context of classical music, the art form that is typically considered most abstract and therefore safe from questions of good and evil.

Adrian’s biographer, Serenus Zeitbloom, puts us on notice as early as page 10, when he defines culture as the "entrance of the dark and uncanny into the service of the gods." Here he’s positing art as something potentially dangerous, something that forces the artist to descend into destructive territory.

But beyond that, Mann is quite consciously placing art into a relationship with the mysterious and with deities, both good and evil. This is important because Faustus is an overwhelmingly theological book, one that not only explores the intersection between art and religion but also takes on a number of long-standing theological questions.

Let’s not let the latter concern us right now, though, or else we’ll be off in an entirely different direction. The point simply is that Faustus is a book that contemplates religion with intellectual rigor and nuance, and it is no coincidence that religion figures so largely in this book that is foremost about classical music and the nature of art.

To return to Zeitbloom’s fine coinage, "entrance of the dark and uncanny into the service of the gods"–I want to look at it in the light of a certain theological discussion that takes place about 50 pages later. Adrian, who as a young man has gone to study theology at university, lays out a Christian responses to the familiar question of why God permits evil in the world. Mann’s argument is complex and intersects interestingly with certain ideas meandering through the novel, but I’d like right now to concentrate on what Mann writes about freedom:

God’s logical dilemma had consisted in this: that He had been incapable of giving the creature, the human being and the angel, both independent choice, in other words free will, and at the same time the gift of not being able to sin. Piety and virtue, then, consisted in making a good use, that is to say no use at all of the freedom which God had to grant . . .

If we consider the dark and uncanny as an essential ingredient of art, then artists certainly don’t make a "good" use of God’s freedom. Rather, they must sin in order to explore the realms required by art, and yet, if we follow the quote to its conclusion, they are nonetheless acting in the service of the gods in doing so.

Mann has implicitly placed art into moral territory–the territory of honoring God and the deal He has made with humanity. Then he steps into altogether different moral territory:

Then freedom was the opposite of inborn sinlessness, freedom meant the choice of keeping faith with God, or having traffic with demons and being able to mutter beastlinesses at the Mass. That was a definition suggested by the psychology of religion. . . . [Freedom now plays a role]–as I write down this description of a life–in the war now raging [i.e. World War II], and as I in my retreat like to believe, not least in the souls and thoughts of our German people, upon whom, under the domination of the most audacious license, is dawning perhaps for the first time in their lives a notion of the importance of freedom. Well, we had not got so far by then. The question of freedom was, or seemed in our student days, not a burning one, and Dr. Schleppfuss might give to the word the meaning that suited the frame of his lecture and leave any other meanings on one side. . . . But he was mindful of them. . . . And his theological definition of freedom was an apologia and a polemic against the "more modern," that is to say more insipid, more ordinary ideas which his hearers might associate with them.

And so the matter of freedom is not just an artistic and religious matter–it is a cultural and political one as well. It is something being hotly debated in early 20th-century Germany; by then, freedom had become a realm that was up for grabs, where the religious interpretation fought it out with what an artist might consider freedom to be, or what up-and-coming radical intellectuals might say freedom was. And, as Mann reminds us, though he need not, from this debate over what freedom would mean to the Germans came the distinctly Nazi definition, one which abetted Hitler’s rise to power and permitted him and his adherents to carry their their evil agenda.

Though Faustus is a book primarily concerned with artistic freedom, Mann argues that a true contemplation of it must include an analysis of the other kinds of freedom as well; thus, he looks at the concept of freedom from all angles: from the religious angle of why God permits it; from a cultural angle of the classic German ideas of freedom butting up again the modern ones developing in the early 20th century; and from the artistic angle of how art relates to free will and what this means for morality in art.

All this talk of God and morality brings up a good question: Is Adrian doomed to hell, or does he ascend to heaven after he dies? The question must be asked, because if we take Faustus as a book about God, the Devil, heaven, hell, and souls, then we must consider where the book’s principal character goes after he dies, and what this implies for Mann’s discussion of morality in art. In other words, we must ask whether Adrian works for the Devil, who it appears is the one that permits Adrian to make his strange, sometimes beautifully disfigured art, or if he is really working for God, who allows Adrian his freedom to stray toward the Devil in the service of ultimate good.

But before all that, let’s ask a more fundamental question: Does the Devil ever actually enter into this novel? I don’t know. All we have of Adrian’s supposed deal is a narration of it written by Adrian, who we know is unreliable, prone to jokes, a frequent exaggerator, and someone who was already well-infected with syphilis and perhaps a little mad when the supposed deal took place.

In fact, as if to further encourage us to question the truth of Adrian’s tale of meeting the Devil (which itself is an opaque, odd document written in old German and difficult to follow), not long after the deal is confessed to Zeitbloom, Adrian tells him an incredible story of how he and a scientist used a submarine to travel to the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps nervously, Zeitbloom takes it all as a big joke,–and maybe it is–but Adrian remains perfectly deadpan throughout the entire narration, never giving an indication that he is joking. (How a recluse like Adrian who scarcely left his country home could find means to accomplish this is never discussed.)

Mann has placed this amazing tale almost directly after Zeitbloom finds out about the deal with the Devil, and I can think of no other purpose for putting it right there (beside letting Mann flex his considerable lyrical muscle as he describes the realm at the bottom of the sea) than to cast doubt on whether the Devil actually made a deal with Adrian, to ask us to please consider the state of Adrian’s mind, or to consider whether this Devil document isn’t another one of his jokes.

Amidst all this doubt, I think that, ultimately, the issue of whether or not the Devil was actually in Adrian’s presence doesn’t matter: what matters is that Adrian has knowingly strayed from God in the service of his art–he has made his own deal, and he knows it–and if the Devil didn’t really appear then perhaps the document is an emenation from his guilty conscience. Regardless, the deal–real or not–colors what music comes out of Adrian. Mann paints the 12-tone system (created in real life by Arnold Schoenberg, but in the novel Adrian’s creation) as a system that could only have come from a descent into the dark and uncanny, and for the majority of his career Adrian creates music that is tinted by the places he had to enter in order to develop his system. He is further tainted by being a purposeful recluse, a misanthrope who needs his anti-humanism to struggle against the grain of the then-dominant (but also hopelessly calcified) strains of classical music. Adrian’s art sends him back before the Renaissance all the way to the earliest stages of modern music, and it is no coincidence that this radical conservatism parallels the very radically conservative ideas that animate the Nazis and their intellectual adherents.

While contemplating the moral content of Adrian’s music alongside religion and Nazi politics, Mann also implies that morality in art is perhaps a concern that only became viable in the 20th century. While discoursing at length on Adrian’s art, Zeitbloom, as he often does, breaks off to expound on an idea about art and nature that occurs to him. He says that in pre-Modernist periods, artists aspired to make their works appear part of the natural world. He says that the works seemed to spring fully formed nature, like Athena from Zeus’s head. In fact, not only were pre-Modernist notable for aspiring toward this; they were also notable for even being able to aspire to it. Zeitbloom contends that in the Modernist period, this is no longer possible.

Artists in the Modernist era and beyond can no longer hope for the naive relationship between art and its viewers that permitted such an idea as the "natural" work because culture has become too sophisticated; we no longer can believe in the work that flows from the pen as if dictated by God; rather, we know what a slow, ugly birth all good art must have. Not only that–also in the Modernist period we begin to interrogate the relationship of the artist to her art, to see the formative process itself as something that art is meant to turn in on itself and contemplate.

This division between natural and unnatural art is a matter of free will–Does the artist struggle and create something herself, or is the art a matter wholly of inspiration, some part of nature that only uses the artist as a vessel?

I think that, in the end, Mann sides clearly on the side of free will. In a rather insidious, telling touch, almost all of the art that Adrian creates while under his deal with the Devil is infected with something of the Devil’s evil. It seems that the Devil will have his cake and eat it too–that is, he will get Adrian’s soul, but he will also find a way to renege on his contract by corrupting Adrian’s work and turning it to his own ends. As proof of the Devil’s success, even Zeitbloom, Adrian’s biggest backer, accepts that Adrian’s greatest masterpiece is a work that is part and parcel of the pre-Nazi sentiment that pervades Germany in the run-up to Hitler. (And Zeitbloom is all too aware that World War II and the Holocaust–as well as the horror of toltalitarian society–will render any art created in the Nazi image unviable after the Germans have been defeated.)

As long as Adrian’s art is controlled by the Devil’s influence, I think we have to side with the view that art is part of nature, that the artist’s free will ultimately doesn’t create the art. But then the very final piece that Adrian writes, the piece that Adrian never actually plays because he spiritually and artistically dies as he raises his hands before the piano–I think in this piece, Adrian succeeds in ridding himself of the Devil’s influence. The piece is called The Lament of Faustus, and it is the moan of a man pained by what he has done with his life. I think that in this piece Adrian has finally succeeded in battling the Devil to his knees, in creating a work that is not infected with the Devil’s evil. It is a lament to be sure, not a victorious trouncing of the Devil but a sort of victory by negation, one that only succeeds insofar as it denies the Devil’s spell. And I think that as a sort of last shot at Adrian, a final stalemate between the two, the Devil deprives him of the chance of ever playing his piece. If Adrian beats the Devil by finally writing something contrary to his influence–a wail that demonstrates his anguish and cautions others against his course–the Devil will at least smite him down before he can take the wail from the realm of the abstract and articulate it.

And so, I think that when Adrian writes this final piece, he writes it beneath the visage of God: that is, Adrian writes it as a godly man exercising his God-given free will. He has finally embraced true artistic freedom, has created a moral piece of art by using his freedom to create music in God’s spirit and not by partnering with the Devil. He has perhaps succeeded in not merely being a vessel but in exercising true artistic creativity. Perhaps then Faustus is telling us that Modernist art, in its struggle to push art into regions it has never before seen, in its Faustian thirst for knowledge that is perhaps different from any that has been felt before the Modernist era, runs dangerously close to courting the Devil, but ultimately can exist in good, moral regions.

In this post I’ve discussed some of the moral and religious themes that Mann brings into Doctor Faustus. In the next I’d like to get into the nature of the art Adrian creates–how it reflects Modernist art at large by radically regressing to pre-Renaissance art to rejuvenate the calcified forms that emerged out of the Renaissance, and how this sentiment, very much a part of Modernist art, mirrored the political ideas animating the fascist movements then overtaking Italy and Germany.

Greek Romances = Action Movies?

I’ve been reading Bakhtin’s long essay on the chronotopic (that’s his word for time and space) in the novel. Basically, in this essay he’s laying out how the use of time and space has changed since the first novel-like books appeared.

As the earliest novel precusors, Bakhtin identifies the Greek romances. What happens here is that there’s a man who falls in love with a woman, but before the marriage can be achieved something happens, leading to an array of adventures which cumulate in the successful marriage.

Now, a lot of other novelistic genres also use this form, but what Bahktin says sets the Greek romances apart is the utter meaninglessness of everything that happens between the failed marriage and the successful one. All the adventures are just trivial events along the way that serve to put off the final marriage–they lead to no character development, to no discovery about the places where they occur; Bakhtin even says that the characters can’t be said to age during these adventures.

As I read this description of the Greek romance and what defines it, it became clear to me that this more or less mirrors the shape of a large number of action movies. Often the movie starts with some kind of incipient romance which is then interrupted by whatever the hand of fate wishes to deal out, the majority of the movie then covers the hero overcoming fate again and again, and finally the romance is successfully completed.

Doctor Faustus

I’ve been slowly making my way through Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Despite recently reading proust, Grass, and Kenzaburo Oe, I can pretty easily say that this is the most challenging read I’ve embarked on in a long time. I’ve found myself retreating to the safe harbor of Bakhtin just to take on something a little less bracing.

Other than a too-early read of Death in Venice, this is the first Mann I’ve read, and I’m wondering if all of his books are this intellectual. By that I mean that here Mann is pretty explicitly working out ideas regarding art and culture (obviously, most pointedly as they relate to classical music) and how they parallel the "renewal" of German society brough on by the Nazis.

I think Mann can get away with this because of the form of Doctor Faustus; that is, the book is a biography of a classical composer penned by his friend (an academic), so it makes sense that this book is going to give character and plot short shrift and be more caught up in the ideas at play, and giving us a surprisingly-often rarified discussion of them.

It’s a kind of strange novel to read. You can’t help but marvel at the level of ideas being brought to the table and how Mann integrates them into the wider plot of Germany in the modern period, but I’m not entirely sure if I feel okay with Mann creating this mock-biography framework to work out his ideas novelistically. I suppose the continuity of the narrator is what holds this book together as a novel (as opposed to just a bunch of ideas strapped onto a fictive body)–that is to say, Mann nails the narrative voice right from the beginning, and he hasn’t lost it yet.

Reading Faustus does make me wonder about some of Mann’s other big books–whether they’re more fundamentally constructed as stories with people, or if the ideas there also predominate to the same degree as in Faustus.

Friday Column: Manuel Puig and the Performance of Ourselves

It has been said repeatedly, and I think correctly, that in this heavily ironized, mediated era we are each method actors performing ourselves. That is, TV, movies, and other mass media surrounds us with role models for any conceivable identity we may want to inhabit, and our well-developed consumer economy offers us everything we need to wear and own to be the person we think we are. From an early age we are sent off on a search to find ourselves—because, after all, postmodern society makes each of us feel the center of the world—and on this lifelong quest we are provided us with all the equipment (both mental and material) that we will need to define our self and then perform it into being.

If this view of things is correct, if it is true that we are all method actors whose greatest role is being our self, then there can be no doubt as to the contemporary author we must read: Manuel Puig. Heavily influenced by the theories of Freud and Lacan, Puig writes as though each of his characters are actors in a movie. His books are all about people who construct their identities by playing roles, and via his plots he deconstructs the ways in which people discover who they are and then learn to act it out.


Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Puig’s clear masterpiece, is the book that most obviously reveals his preoccupation with how everyone is himself or herself an actor. It starts, after all, with the narration of a movie.

Two prisoners, one a homosexual window dresser and the other a young revolutionary, share a jail cell in early 1970s Argentina. To keep entertained during the long hours of their imprisonment, the window dresser, Molina, tells movies to Valentin, the revolutionary.

Already Puig has given us a lot to think about: here we have two people what have taken on atypical, ill-defined identities—if anyone needs roles to play, people such as Molina and Vanentin would be them. Furthermore, these two are talking about movies, a medium in which people pretend to be people who they aren’t; and, in fact, they are discussing the movie not as seen on the screen but as filtered through Molina’s mind.

All this, implicit in the first few pages, is quite a lot to unravel, but the wonderful, dizzying thing about Puig is the way he takes a perfectly intelligent conceit and then he keeps layering it up with levels and levels of meaning.

Take, for instance, the movie Molina is telling to Valentin. It is a fantasy/horror story about a woman who may or may not turn into a ravenous puma when a man kisses her on the lips. As Molina tells the movie to Valentin, the men begin to speculate as to why a woman would concoct such a tale; Valentin thinks it’s something she invented because she’s frigid, the product of a repressed upbringing that has frightened her about sex. After so many years of internalizing this fear, argues Valentin, she’s talked herself into acting the part of a person who believes she’ll turn into a puma if she’s kissed.

So then the very substance of the movie adds a layer to Puig’s conceit—and then another gets added in the form of Molina himself. Genetically a male, he’s a fem gay man who prefers to act the part of a woman, especially as regards to romantic relationships. Quite literally, Molina can be seen as an actor: a man acting the part of a woman to the best of his understanding of what a woman is.

That’s another layer now, but there’s still another, most obvious one: the format of the book itself. Kiss of the Spiderwoman is mostly narrated in unattributed, un-stylized dialog (Puig’s prose is littered with "mmm"s and ellipses). By foregrounding speech, Puig very simply emphasizes the fact that one of the principal ways we present ourselves to the outside world is in fact a very considered, very performed one. Speech, after all, is something we’re continually constructing, and it changes based on the location we’re in, the person to whom we’re speaking, the mood we’re in at the moment, etc.

And yet, though Puig is clearly taken with the idea that our personalities are performances based on who we think we are—that we’re all really actors—the paradox that drives this nuanced, brilliant inquiry is that we’re never quite sure exactly how to act out the personality we want to exhibit. Say you want to act the part of a cool person; well, what exactly does a cool person do? How should you act this out? It’s a hard question to answer because concepts like "cool" are so overdefined, so ponderous with aggregated meaning and conflicting definitions, that it’s hard to know exactly where to start performing them. Watch how quickly Valentin is stymied when Molina asks him what should be a very simple question: What makes a man?

—Well . . . Why don’t you tell me what it means to you, being a man? . . .

—Mmm . . . his not taking any crap . . . from anyone, not even the powers that be . . . But no, it’s more than that. Not taking any crap is one thing, but not the most important. What really makes a man is a lot more, it has to do with not humiliating someone else with an order, or a tip. Even more, it’s . . . not letting the person next to you feel degraded, feel bad.

—That sounds like a saint.

—No, it’s not as impossible as you think.

—I still don’t get you . . . explain a little more.

—I don’t know, I don’t quite know myself, right this minute. You’ve caught me off guard. I can’t seem to find the right words. . . .

This paradox is so intriguing because though Valentin can’t tell Molina precisely what the measure of a man is, he’s generally quite confident that he’s acting like a man.

Most of the time, at least. The crises of Molina’s and Valentin’s lives tend to occur when each is uncertain about how to perform his identity. Thus, for instance, when Valentin falls ill and Molina tries to take care of him, Valentin suddenly flies into a rage (a rage which is acutely felt despite the fact that Puig limits himself to conveying it through about 20 words spread out over a few lines of dialog) because he’s feeling a conflict between how he wants to act, i.e. to let Molina care for him, and how he thinks he needs to act, i.e. the stoic revolutionary.

Though Valentin is certainly a well-felt, fully realized character, Molina’s thoughts and personal crises tend to be richer, perhaps partly because Puig himself was a gay man, but more likely because Molina’s mind entertains more ambiguity than Valentin’s and thus opens itself to us more and wrestles with issues a little more poignantly. The difference becomes most clear when Puig momentarily steps out of the dialog to enter into his characters’ stream of consciousness (another favorite device of Puig’s). Valentin’s stream is abrasively jumpy, enough to prevent him from following a difficult thought to completion, and the way in which his mind constructs the narrative distances himself from his feelings and always leaves the truth of the matter in doubt:

—a fellow with a plan on his mind, a fellow who accepts his mother’s invitation to visit her in the city, a fellow who lies to his mother assuring her of his opposition to the guerilla movement, a fellow who dines by candlelight alone with his mother . . .

Contrast this with the rawness, the directness of Molina’s thoughts, as here when he’s stung by some well-intentioned but nonetheless hurtful remarks Valentin makes about a movie Molina likes:

seen from behind, looking elegant, but from behind of course no way to tell if the faces are beautiful or not, and no one realizing that these two are the protagonists of the story that’s just been told, and mom was crazy about it, and me too, and luckily I didn’t tell this son of a bitch [i.e., Valentin], and I’m certainly not going to tell him another word about anything I like, so he can’t laugh anymore about how soft I am, we’ll see if ever he weakens or not, but I won’t tell him any more of the films I like the most, tey’re just for me, in my mind’s eye, so no filthy words can touch them, this son of a bitch and his pissass of a revolution

What exactly is Kiss of the Spiderwoman inquiring into? The ways in which we construct our identities, for one thing, but also how exactly gender is created and the ways in which men and women interact according to its dictates. (The latter is, if anything, even more of a preoccupation with Puig than the ways we perform ourselves into our personalities.)

The two are clearly related. It’s often far easier to say what something isn’t than what it is, and accordingly, in Puig’s books characters are able to define themselves as men and women most distinctly when interacting with people of the opposite gender. Spiderwoman, like all of Puig’s books, can well be seen as people’s investigations into otherness, that is, people figuring out how to define themselves through extended conversation and interaction with other people who quite obviously aren’t them. Thus you can find odd pairings throughout Puig’s works: fem gay and red-blooded straight; old man and young man (Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages); Don Juan wannabe and earnest provincial; seductress and good daughter (the latter two groupings in Heartbreak Tango). Because of their differences, conflict between these characters becomes inevitable, and yet, though at root this conflict is based in the inner turmoil people feel when they strain to understand themselves, Puig always makes these conflicts the natural outgrowths of perfectly normal situations.

Friday Column: How Should the First-Person Be Written?

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier seems to me to possess precisely those virtues to which the novel narrated in the first-person is best suited. Often in first-person novels, the narrator is magically able to relate her story with the polish and skill of a novelist, and no effort is ever made to address why an otherwise ordinary person possesses such sharp storytelling abilities. The Good Soldier strikes me as such an accomplishment because Ford does not only provide us with a narrator whose storytelling skills are realistically diminished; he also integrates the narrator’s diminished capacity into a portrayal of his character and an investigation into how the memory works and how we draw out memories by stringing them into stories.

A useful comparison: The Good Soldier very much brings to mind the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. As with Ishiguro’s novels, Ford’s proceeds along the winding, backtracking path of a mind mulling over a certain period of life. This kind of storytelling might be called disorganized organization; that is, in its purposeful aimlessness, it attempts to resemble the workings of a human mind as it gives shape to a mass of memories. As such, at many points in both authors’ works the entire basis of the plot changes as the narrator recalls a previously forgotten fact. We jump back and forth in time according to the narrator’s whim. Revelations that would generally sit at the apex of a climax are made here almost casually.

The difference, to me, between The Good Soldier and Ishiguro’s novels is that some of Ishiguro has seemed to me just a bit too clean. His novels are so well-built that one never feels the muddle of a mind trying to reconstruct the past; throughout, the skill of their maker continually belies the fact that the novel is not the product of a mind like ours, but rather that of a master storyteller who has marshaled all his skills to shape a story.

By contrast, The Good Soldier is often a frustrating, amorphous read. Major events and crucial plot points are shrugged at us so casually that it’s easy to miss them entirely. In the event that they are not missed, they often make such a meager impression that they are soon forgotten, or only half-remembered. Seemingly minor details are doted on to such an extent that one begins to lose faith in Ford—why does the narrator bore us with this matter of no significance?—and then, perhaps 50 pages later, we discover the true import of the event when the narrator happens to tell it from a completely different perspective.

This makes perfect sense. When the narrator discusses something, he is in possession of all the facts. He knows exactly what he’s referring to (even if we don’t), so why would it occur to him to spell it out for the benefit of his audience? Only a good storyteller would do that, and Ford’s narrator clearly isn’t one. What makes Ford such an extraordinary writer is that he provides us all the information we need without ever making his narrator seem anything more than the bumbling writer that he is.

In its apparent formlessness, the book loses the narrative drive that characterizes Ishiguro’s novels, and so, The Good Soldier is less of an entrancing read than Ishiguro’s addictive works. I think, though, that Ford’s novel is the superior one, in that he has hidden his construction so well that on a first read it truly does look as though he gave no thought to structure. By its very difficulty the book proves its merit, as attempting to understand another’s mind is never so easy and planned-out as Ishiguro’s novels make it feel.

What might save some of Ishiguro’s novels is that some minds are very simple; they see only in bright, clear tones, and so they might lack the complexity that a less simple mind would see as it looked back into its past. These minds, perhaps, would not be difficult to grasp, and the stories they concocted might be as clean as Ishiguro makes them.

This isn’t the case with The Good Soldier—which isn’t to say that I found the book’s narrator particularly smart or even praiseworthy. The narrator is a man who for nine years was cuckolded in complete ignorance by Ashburnham, a man he quite admired, and then, when he found out after Asburnham’s sudden death, went right on admiring him. The narrator is a man thoroughly aware of his own ignorance (although he attributes it more to a general, existential human ignorance of everything, rather than consider whether others are less ignorant than he in certain matters), and he is possessed by a clear and potent urge to overcome this ignorance, even though he doesn’t seem to really believe it’s possible.

In other words, he’s a lot like you and me; that is, he’s driven by an urge to understand his life, but he’s not really sure that there is any meaning to it. To make sense of it, he is writing down the story of two disastrously failed marriages, his and that of the man who made his wife a mistress.

Rarely does an unreliable narrator so invite us to question his judgment. Partially this is due to his overall tone; the cadences of the narrator’s sentences move with the seesawing vacillations of the wishy-washy and uninspiring, and he constantly cries out for meaning and explanation. But even more, it is hard to take seriously a man who speaks in such a steadfastly positive way about the man who for nine years slept with his wife, who seems so fundamentally innocent of why either partner would engage in the adultery.

We’re tipped off to the narrator’s supreme unreliability early enough on that The Good Soldier amounts to a virtual invitation to participate in the construction of meaning. It is, perhaps as a book like this must be, more documentation than storytelling, as the narrator’s rendition of events is so suspect and so jumbled (and his mind so besotted by his ignorance of everything) that we simply cannot say that the narrator is consciously shaping the meaning of the facts he gives us. What makes Ford’s rhetoric so elegant is that he is shaping our perceptions of each character (and often at cross-purposes with the narrator) while maintaining a narration that appears so purposelessly jumbled. It’s as if we were to listen to static coming out of the radio and nonetheless develop feelings typically associated with hearing music.

What you might say Ford is doing here is hiding the meaning in plain sight. The Good Soldier was published in 1913, and, unlike a lot of books published around this time, the prose style of this one isn’t terribly difficult or experimental. On the face of it, it seems like most close readers could more or less agree on the general shape of the narrative, what it’s rock-bottom "truth" is. But in reality, the closer you look at this book, the more even the most basic points of the plot begin to unravel in contradiction and ambiguity, and you begin to see that you’re no closer to knowing what really happened than if Ford had adopted a purposely opaque, indefinite style of constructing his sentences.

In this end, this may be Ford’s ultimate concession to his narrator. So riddled is he by innocence and self-deception that it simply wouldn’t be realistic to think that any story but a fundamentally unknowable one would come out of such a narrator. Ford’s courage as an author is to face this head-on and to write a book that requires a great deal of perception and faith on the part of the reader. As a result The Good Soldier is a book with affecting moments, but one that in the aggregate doesn’t have the ability that a more conventionally arced plot would to make us feel something; the feeling at the end isn’t anything but uncertainty and a desire to look back and begin to construct meaning. It’s a perfect acknowledgment of the narrator’s repeatedly professed helplessness to understand what this episode in his life means, and it’s a challenge to us to try and do better.

Although I’m far from arguing that all first-person narrators should be like The Good Soldier’s (exceptions that instantly come to mind would include those that are narrating an episode as it happens or those that are recounting an episode that they have gone over again and again in their minds (as in some Ishiguro)), I nonetheless think that a lot of first-person narratives needlessly shun the kind of difficulty that The Good Soldier thrives on. It’s not the easiest book to write or read, but it is honest to reality, and for writers who adopt the first-person that should be an important consideration.

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander


The Ministry of Special Cases is not a great novel. It is, however, a pretty good novel that could have been great and certainly shows signs of greatness. It’s author, Nathan Englander, is worthy of your attention.

Let’s try, for instance, this passage from page 93. Here’s the set-up: 1976, Buenos Aires. The military has just taken power, and in true paranoid style it’s been rounding up teenagers. Kaddish has been having intense arguments with his son, Pato, over burning his books before some Fascist decides they’re subversive. Now Kaddish has up and decided to do what he thinks is best while his son’s out of the apartment.

For Kaddish, the [book]shelves were a sign of what he’d done right with his son. And this is where Pato misunderstood him. The books made Kaddish proud. He loved that Pato was educated. It was Pato’s educated attitude that made Kaddish want to wring his neck. He could dump them all if he wanted, every last book. Simpler. But he wasn’t an animal, he wasn’t being cruel. As always, as forever, Kaddish was trying his best.

First pause on the irony embedded in the two sentences "He loved that Pato was educated. It was Pato’s educated attitude that made Kaddish want to wring his neck." You can laugh at (or pity) Kaddish for thinking he could educate his son and still control his attitude. Or you can simply admire Englander for elegantly making the fine distinction between a son’s education and the resultant attitude.

Alternately, you can step back and note that Kaddish’s thoughts about Pato’s education are tellingly similar to those of the Argentine fascists who Kaddish fears might kill Pato, and whom Kaddish is trying to preempt by burning Pato’s books.

Or simply appreciate the distillation of the paradox that is a father-son conflict into this fine moment: the proud father attempting to protect his son by secretly, guiltily burning the emblems of the very thing that makes him a proud father.

Here, Englander is doing what good authors do: he’s making a story his own. This isn’t the first description I’ve read of a fascist-inspired book burning, but I’ve never read one quite like this. What’s special here is how Englander herds so much of this novel through this tiny flashpoint. The book burning not only encapsulates Kaddish’s conflict with his son; it is also a major point in the development of Kaddish’s tragically sad, try-hard aptitude for failure; it’s also the beginning of the fascist half of this book; it’s also taking the theme of erasing history into a new direction; it’s also . . . well, you get the idea.

Of course, there’s more to this scene than just the above-quoted paragraph. Though I’m not going to quote them to you, the three pages that sandwich this paragraph are equally beautiful. They are characterized by the kind of lean, smart writing that makes our paragraph so thoroughly enjoyable to read into. Together, these three pages mark a definite turning point in the novel, one that follows a certain amount of hard-won optimism on the part of Kaddish, Pato, and Pato’s mother.

You can find many other instances of superior construction like this throughout The Ministry of Special Cases; that’s why I’m calling it a very good book that might have been great. Here’s another good example of Englander’s art:

Lillian stood and leaned her forehead against the window. She couldn’t herself believe it. Her husband with his handsome new nose, the face after a lifetime finally right, and now, the final touch, his proper boundaries had fallen into focus. The man coming toward her was sharper, more defined, more perfectly and painfully her Kaddish than any she’d set eyes on before.

It was the closest to him she’d ever felt, the clearest he’d ever been. Kaddish stepped between cars and onto the sidewalk. He craned his neck to look up into their window, as if remembering something, as if he’d sensed he was being watched. Lillian waved with both hands, sliding them back and forth across the glass. Kaddish gave a sad half smile. He raised a hand and waved back to his wife. He paused for a second before disappearing into the building. Her husband, her dear Kaddish, a perfect fit. Kaddish Poznan, father to a missing son.

Look how Englander calmly sets you up and then drops that last line, neatly reversing everything that had come before. There are hints, that "perfectly and painfully," Kaddish’s "sad half smile," but still, at this point in the story (now that Pato is missing and Kaddish’s marriage is falling apart) you are hoping for something positive. You really do want to read it as praise of Kaddish, and you are believing that perhaps there is some cause for hope that Englander hasn’t revealed yet. But then, that last line forces you to read all of Lillian’s thoughts as sardonic commentaries on her impotent husband and her hopeless situation.

This is what Englander, at his best, is doing in The Ministry of Special Cases. He’s creating nice little labyrinths of prose that take two very familiar plotlines (the father-son battle; life with a Kafkaesque fascist government) and turn them into something that bears a very definite Englanderian style. He reminds me a bit of Michael Chabon—not because they’re both Jews writing about Jewish characters but because The Ministry of Special Cases has a definite genre tilt to it, and also because of Englander’s fantastic plotting and for his somewhat distant yet nonetheless compelling characters (on which more later).

There’s are some things not to like about this book. Though Englander is often wonderfully subtle and intelligent, balancing exactly between "too much" and "not enough" information, at other times he falls into the trap of interpreting his book for you.

Also, though Englander’s book is full of period details about Buenos Aires in the 1970s, I never really got a sense of place. (This is somewhat like Pynchon, who does the same thing with the details, but the difference is that in Pynchon it’s more of a stylistic affect than an authentic attempt to recreate place, all of Pynchon taking place in a wacky, hyper world that no one has yet convincingly named.) Except for a few noteworthy pages narrated from the perspective of a disappeared teen, there’s rarely enough intimacy to the prose to tie it to this particular novel, this particular place and time.

Despite these flaws, I think Englander has done a lot of good here. I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Kaddish. All of Englander’s characters are more described than embodied, and this leads to some problems, but in Kaddish’s case Englander has, by the novel’s end, nonetheless made a compelling character. Kaddish had become one of those tragic, almost epic, suffering characters. Tragic suffering may be Kaddish’s one defining characteristic, and yet, Englander creates a singularly Kaddish version of it, in kind of the way that Pynchon makes Benny Profane’s one characteristic indisputably his own.

I think what makes Kaddish work as a character is that in The Ministry of Special Cases Englander isn’t afraid to follow his novel’s logic right to the bitter end. Englander manages to do this for the book as a whole, and that counts for something. (What also counts for something is that Englander does it without belaboring the point, without feeling the need to drone on for a couple-hundred unnecessary pages.) Englander carefully takes his premise in every direction worth taking it, one by one he leads us down each path, until, at last, he has exhausted them all. In so carefully doing this, Englander’s structure displays a definite taut elegance, and, as with his carefully developed paragraphs, this construction provides much food for thought. By the time Englander has taken us down that final path he has filled us with the possibility of everything else that will happen to Kaddish once the novel ends, he has given us a sense of the absurd questions that resist Kaddish’s best efforts to answer them, and at this point Englander wisely brings his novel to a conclusive but nonetheless troubling end. His story is one that, despite the familiar contours, has stayed with me.

Life A User's Manual

coverSomething tells me Georges Perec would find all this ruckus over plagiarism silly.

From Life A User’s Manual:

. . . and Moriane with its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass, like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath medusa-shaped chandeliers.

From Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

When you have forded the river, when you have crossed the mountain pass, you suddenly find before you the city of Moriana, its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath the medusa-shaped chandeliers.

All we get by way of attribution is a brief postscript: "This book contains quotations, some of them slightly adapted, from works by: . . . "

Actually, Perec’s "thievery" is even worse than the above would indicate since the quote from his book is in the context of a Frenchman regaling an Arab chieftain with stories of his travels. So not only is Perec stealing Calvino’s words but his ideas as well. If the postscript is to be believed (and I wouldn’t put it past Perec that he’s playing some joke on us with it), you’ll also find verbatim lines from Borges, Lowry, Freud, Agatha Christie, Marquez, Stendhal, Nabokov, Melville, and a ton others.

Why is he doing this? I have no idea, but I think it must relate back to the book-spanning central metaphor of puzzles. If I’m getting Perec right, then the bits and pieces of life fit together like a very well-constructed puzzle. As Perec tells us

It’s not the subject of the picture, or the painter’s technique, which makes a puzzle more or less difficult, but the greater or lesser subtlety of the way it has been cut; an arbitrary cutting pattern will necessarily produce an arbitrary degree of difficulty . . .

The art of jigsaw puzzling begins with wooden puzzles cut by hand, whose maker undertakes to ask himself all the questions the player will have to solve, and, instead of allowing chance to cover his tracks, aims to replace it with cunning, trickery, and subterfuge.

Life, Perec seems to be saying, is something where you try to arrange the puzzle pieces into a coherent picture, but which is always tricking you. Why else would so many characters in this book meet unexpected fates? Why else would Perec time and again lead his characters right up to the brink of fulfillment, only to toss them down some unexpected blind alley? It’s like, to paraphrase Perec, to hold the last piece of a puzzle in your hand–a "W"-shape–and to see an "X"-shaped hole.

What does this have to do with quoting from Calvino? Well, Perec’s puzzle metaphor works on a number of different levels throughout the book, and one of them is the level of culture. Perec constructs his novel as a series of vignettes, averaging maybe 10 pages each, that tell the stories of different parts of a Paris apartment building. As you read the book, you can mentally slot each tenant into an expanding schematic picture of the apartment. Likewise, as their lives unfurl before you (sometimes you get the nice meaty middle, other times Perec goes off on tangents and ends up intricately discussing the life of someone the person met for a few moments), you can slot the characters into a thick set of relationships. Assembling these lives together is kind of like assembling a puzzle.

And I think Perec’s point is that literature works in a similar way. All these stories–these texts–have grown together into a certain shape. You can take it as it is, or you, the reader/writer, can come along and arrange them into a picture (or a collage).

The form of Perec’s book itself reflects this. In very large part this book is purely descriptions. Descriptions of paintings, of tables, of lamps, of floor tiles (for goodness’s sake!), of walls, of pens, pipes, silverware, plates, hats, clothes. Many, many pieces of civilization’s detritus are physically embodied here, like brochures, tickets, schedules, shopping lists. (And speaking of lists–this book is a veritable paradise of lists.) As noted before, even when Perec tells a story (and he tells many, very, very good ones) he’s often borrowing from somewhere else. Taken together, the book just seems like so many pieces of late capitalism bound together between two glossy covers.

Yet, all this flatness contains great depth. Although the book is filled with many, many descriptions and rarely delves into a character’s mind, it’s difficult not to read into the vignettes presented here. Perec’s Parisian apartment building is meant to be a chessboard of sorts–it’s a 10 x 10 grid and (if I’m not mistaken) Perec moves around it like a knight: he always jumps two spaces in one direction, and then moves one more perpendicularly. Although at first glance Perec’s chess board appears as razor-thin as the pages of his book, a closer inspection shows that there are depths upon depths.

To describe it, I’ll turn to Calvino in Invisible Cities:

Kublai was a keen chess player; following Marco’s movements, he observed that certain pieces implied or excluded the vicinity of other pieces and were shifted along certain lines. Ignoring the objects’ variety of form, he could grasp the system of arranging one with respect to the others on the majolica floor. He thought: "If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains."

     Actually, it was useless for Marco’s speeches to employ all this bric-a-brac: a chessboard would have sufficed, with its specific pieces. To each piece, in turn, they could give an appropriate meaning: a knight could stand for a real horseman, or for a procession of coaches, an army on the march, an equestrian monument; a queen could be a lady looking down from her balcony, a fountain, a church with a pointed dome, a quince tree.

     Returning from his last mission, Marco Polo found the Khan awaiting him, seated at a chessboard. With a gesture he invited the Venetian to sit opposite him and describe, with the help only of the chessmen, the cities he had visited. Marco did not lose heart. The Great Khan’s chessmen were huge pieces of polished ivory: arranging on the board looming rooks and sulky knights, assembling swarms of pawns, drawing straight or oblique avenues like a queen’s progress, Marco recreated the perspectives and the spaces of black and white cities on moonlit nights.

     Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to comparison with the game of chess. Perhaps, instead of racking one’s brain to suggest with the ivory pieces’ scant help visions which were anyway destined to oblivion, it would suffice to play a game according to the rules, and to consider each successive state of the board as one of the countless forms that the system of forms assembles and destroys.

     Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on distant expeditions: he kept him playing endless games of chess. Knowledge of the empire was hidden in the pattern drawn by the angular shifts of the knight, by the diagonal passages opened by the bishop’s incursions, by the lumbering, cautious tread of the king and the humble pawn, by the inexorable ups and downs of every game.

     The Great Khan tried to concentrate on the game: but now it was the game’s purpose that eluded him. Each game ends in a gain or a loss: but of what? What were the true stakes? At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked aside by the winner’s hand, a black or a white square remains. By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes. It was reduced to a square of planed wood: nothingness . . .

Then Marco Polo spoke: "Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist."

     Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him.

     "Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down . . . This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding . . . "

     The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows . . .

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