Five guys

Research has shown that ballads were produced by all of society
working as a team. They didn’t just happen. There was no guesswork.

–John Ashbery, “Hotel Lautréamont”

AN ATTEMPT AT EXHAUSTING A PLACE IN PARIS. Georges Perec, translated by Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press 2010

Over a weekend in 1974 Perec notated everything he noticed while sitting at certain locales in place Saint-Sulpice, with the aim of capturing “that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”

The translator’s afterword provides an interesting thought about this short book as a “prelude” or “inverted version” of Perec’s magnum opus LIFE A USER’S MANUAL. That great book was written shortly after this exercise, and Perec hinted at an important link between these projects in SPECIES OF SPACES if I remember correctly.

I had read a lot of Jameson for my masters recently and I happened to learn that he thinks about contemporary literature as being made of minimalism and maximalism, two opposite categories based on quantitative difference. They are antithetical techniques but ultimately “one and the same.” Both minimalism and maximalism, he says in ALLEGORY AND IDEOLOGY,

demonstrate the absence at the heart of modern late-capitalist social reality, a hollowness that cannot be the object any longer of mimesis but must now be sought either by the micrological search for the ultimate elements and atomic building blocks of being itself or by the Hegelian bad infinity of a piling on of parts that reaches to the cosmos itself. Both searches are vain, and they mark a profoundly historical opposition that must be read alongside the parallel declarations of simulation and the derealization of the image as yet another variant on our current “peu de realité.”

There are more intricate implications of this antithesis in Jameson’s current allegorical system that is by now a truly unmoored constructivist (in a vaguely Deleuzian sense) method of interpretation—whether the base unit of the text is the sentence or some larger framework, etc.

But it’s interesting to think of ATTEMPT TO EXHAUST and LIFE A USER’S MANUAL as two sides of the same aesthetic effort.

It’s hypnotic to read, putting you in an intensely monotrack mood. You can track which kinds of things impress on his attention across the three days, like bus lines. Of course everydayness and blurring the boundary between art and life has been an important concern in all the avant-garde sequences, and as the translator points out, all this hyper-realism in presentation ultimately reveals an underlying surrealism that may be the result of our own focussing cognition, or defamiliarization. There are some dashes of personality, specifically in Perec’s parentheticals.

(why count the buses? probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they cut up tie, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re foreseeable

The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, ora man to have a bag marked with a big “M” of Monoprix, or a car to be blue or apple-green, or a customer to order a coffee instead of a beer…)

A 96 goes by, almost empty


A little girl, flanked by her parents (or by her kidnappers) is weeping

THE JOKE, Milan Kundera, Harper Perennial 1992

Milan Kundera’s 1967 debut novel is an amazing, almost worked to perfection in the way the characters’ destinies interweave, and on another level, perfect in how the story works as a shaggy dog joke that seems to evaporate at the end of it all. Here is a work that in some ways prefigures the cynical bent of meme communism that you see online (similarly, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES predicted incel culture!). Ludvig is a Czech Party member who comes under criticism for ironically praising Trotsky in a postcard to his ardent girlfriend just to get a rise out of her. He’s expelled from the Party and forced to join a military work brigade, mining and living in a camp.

Early on in the book are reflections on Party discipline and the theology of organized religion, which get taken back up later by another character.

Look back on my state of mind at the time, I am reminded by analogy of the enormous power of Christianity To convince the believer of his fundamental and never ending guilt I also stood (we all stood) before the revolution and its party With permanently bowed head, and so I gradually became reconciled to the idea that my words, the genuinely intended as a joke, we’re still a matter of killed, and self-critical investigation started up in my head: I told myself that it was no accident those thoughts had occurred to me, that the comrades had long been approaching me (undoubtedly with reason closing parentheses for “traces of individualism“ and “intellectual tendencies”; I told myself that I had taken to printing myself on my education my university status in my future as a member of the intelligentsia, that my father, a worker who died during the war in a concentration camp, will never have understood my cynicism; I’ve reproached myself for letting his working man’s mentality dying me; I’ve approached myself on every possible score and in the end came to except in this Saturday for some kind of punishment; I resisted one thing and one thing only: exposure from the Party and the concomitant designation of enemy; to live as the branded enemy of everything I have stood for since early childhood and still cling to seem to be a cause for despair.

This erudite but selfish voice (a lot of asshole narrators in my reading lately) leads to frustrated sexual conquest and a botched revenge fantasy, like a 20th century Count of Monte Cristo or an even more farcical and cynical Stendhal.

I read the “definitive” revised translation supervised by Kundera, which I presume is based on an older translation provided by Michael Henry Heim (between this marketing about the work’s translation hell and an original illustration by the author for the front cover, Kundera has truly gotten the Coppola treatment by the publishing industry). Whatever the case, what he does with sentences here is incredible. You see how so many clauses and phrases are put together in the passage above. That is pretty consistent through the text, and yet it is divided into parts with different first person narrators and they are ALL distinct, memorable, and enjoyable to read.

GALACTIC POT-HEALER, Philip K. Dick, Mariner 2013

Terran Joe Fernwright is at the end of his rope on Earth’s planetwide totalitarian society, when he is summoned by an entity known as the Glimmung along with countless artisans and experts through the galaxy to Plowman’s Planet. Their task is to raise the engulfed cathedral Heldscalla out of the surreal ocean of Mare Nostrum.

Thematically, PDK takes us from the Terran Party apparatus, “the network of tendrils which had penetrated and then in loving convulsion clasped them in a hug of death as great as the entire world,” and the ultimate outcome of Glimmung’s project, which is not unlike what happens in the Evangelion anime. Between these two depictions of a collective destiny, there is the “agnosticism” surrounding the Glimmung, whether he’s a friend or foe; the sufferings of the individual artist; philosophical problems about the thing in itself; and the determinism of the Kalends and their Book of everything. The alien ocean is a place of “radical otherness,” but it also throws up negative doubles of people and things; this was a trippy sequence. The story is handled very lightly; this was like a short novel of lyrical surrealism, climaxing with a straight up miracle, while the science of things is largely in the background. The ending was terrific.

The two women who appear are not well written. The flatness of Joe’s ex-wife is understandable but coral expert and love interest Mali Yojez seems to turn on a dime between mildly smitten and bitchy.

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, John Kennedy Toole, Grove Press 1987

I feel as if I’ve been aware of this title for as long as I’ve been aware of adult literature, but only now have I read it. And boy, was the timing impeccable. At the risk of over sharing, sometimes you come to feel trapped within your relationships–with people you love, of course, the same way the cast of this novel is quite lovable.

But in Keene’s novel, more powerful than his New Orleans setting is the whole gamut, in nuanced detail, of the deranged mind games played by narcissistic people, whose detachment from reality is matched only by their abrasiveness. The novel covers a few weeks of time in perfect linear action, unfolding in reams upon reams of comic dialog. Keene, some kind of fiction Nostradamus, sketched to perfection whatever the 60s equivalent is of the modern phil bro. (“I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he’s found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.”) Ignatius Reilly has all the too-clever-by-half aspects of incel culture plus the brattiness and victim complex that can only be the product of a narcissistic mother, and the misanthropy of a master satirist like Swift, only misfired (but just as politically reactionary). Like other protagonists in classic satire he was “misbegotten.”

Suddenly Mrs. Reilly remembered the horrible night that she and Mr. Reilly had gone to the Prytania to see Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in Red Dust. In the heat and confusion that had followed their return home, nice Mr. Reilly had tried one of his indirect approaches, and Ignatius was conceived. Poor Mr. Reilly. He had never gone to another movie as long as he lived.

I believe I laughed out loud most often in the moments given over to Ignatius’s writings, scrawled on primary school notepads (I had to look up the “Big Chief” brand). Here he is describing the working conditions of the factory of Levy Pants, where he tries and fails to hold a job. (Every locale has its own mini-network of absurd characters.) The workers here are Black.

When I questioned them about wages, I discovered that their average weekly pay envelope contained less than thirty ($30) dollars. It is my considered opinion that someone deserves than that in the way of a wage for simply staying in a place like the factory for five days a week, especially when the factory is one like the Levy Pants factory in which the leaking roof threatens to collapse at any moment. And who knows? Those people might have much better things to do than to loiter about Levy Pants, such as composing jazz or creating new dances or doing whatever those things are that they do with such facility.

It’s hard to break off reading a passage anywhere in the text.

Why can’t Ignatius even sell hotdogs without fucking things up? “You must realize the fear and hatred which my weltanschauung instills in people.” His nervous system blocks him from working (similar to a one Howard Phillips), and he has a problem with his pyloric valve.

Basically, it lived up to the hype well. A comic masterpiece with a bit of class consciousness too, and not because of the Levy’s Pants factory passage, but because Keene has captured so perfectly invariant aspects of the urban petty-bourgeoisie–I’m thinking of the hilarious letters exchanged between Ignatius and his college ex Myrna.

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