The clamorous Texan

First off, the great Misery Tourism observed Flag Day by publishing a piece of historical fiction, based on a certain president and premise I’d been kicking around for a few years. It was delightful to hear that readers have indeed learned something from this work. Folks oughta learn things from fiction I say.

Meanwhile, it’s been an eventful summer (a bout of Covid infection, a fulfilling visit west to see friends, a neat museum trip) with some excellent movies—but this post will focus on a couple of old masters I felt the need to revisit, to kickstart myself out of a midsummer reading dry spell.


I’ve been underrating Raymond Carver.

I’d meant to write about this for a few weeks but every time I tried, I would just read another poem or story.

It started with grabbing his later collection of poems A NEW PATH TO THE WATERFALL. Carver has been there for virtually my entire literary upbringing, yet I’d never read his poetry till now. It has the same starkness as his prose, but he also permits more weird stuff—some of these lyrics approached James Tate territory.

A large amount of these poems were actually just epigraphs, passages of prose from the 19th century or earlier cut up into lines. A lot of it by Chekhov.  And a great deal of these are about fishing. 

His lineation of the Oliver quote helps to bring out the driving rhythm you can find in early 19th century prose, compared with the syllabic austerity in the 17th century epigraph on the opposite page in the image above. The former has the self-assured tenor of a teaching pamphlet, while Chetham’s text, while expressly the same purpose, feels like a spooky recipe.

I’ve used the past month to go through the stories collected in the amazing Vintage Contemporaries selection called WHERE I’M CALLING FROM. Reading these masterfully crafted pieces altogether, you get the sense that they are about the same lower middle class heterosexual couple, somewhere in the American west, sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, drinking too much, smoking pot occasionally. The stories unfold like a garden of forking paths, different jobs, different housing situations, different struggles, different processes of breaking up. But other elements remain constant: fishing, coffee in a thermos, taking the phone off the hook. (This is I think the content of Carver’s “minimalism,” if he has it.)  Beneath the placid phrasing on the surface is an ever-winding tension. One feels like disaster could strike any moment, but instead of drama you get lines like these:

“Jesus,” he said. “Jesus, Eileen. I don’t know what to say to that. I really don’t. I have to go now. Thanks for calling,” he said. (“Fever”)

I feel as if I’ve come to a place I never thought I’d have to come to. And I don’t know how I got here. It’s a strange place. It’s a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation. (“Whoever Was Using This Bed”)

She sits there waiting, her dainty fingers poking her hair.

It is August.

My life is going to change. I feel it. (“Fat”)

Wes, it’s all right, I said. I brought his hand to my cheek. Then, I don’t know, I remembered how he was when he was nineteen, the way he looked running across this field to where his dad sat on a tractor, hand over his eyes, watching Wes run toward him. (“Chef’s House”)

Just the simple “I don’t know” in the middle of that last example before the memory has that mini blast of pathos; the phrase lends a whole atmosphere to the narration, and the occasion for her telling this story and who her “audience” could be coming around the edges.

In the multiple fictive worlds of this typical-Carver couple, these narratives end up staging certain epiphanies, never quite directly related to the sometimes odd encounters they experience, but such experiences trigger the same kind of realization (like at the end of “Fat”), that is precisely expressed in the epigraph from Milan Kundera (another favorite of Carver’s):

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.


Graham Greene’s THE QUIET AMERICAN was a terrific shred, a story that feels like an emotional disaster in slow motion, seething with pain. The hero is an aging British journalist who mostly hangs out with a prostitute named Phuong, smoking opium in his Saigon apartment while filing war correspondence (it is the final years of the French Indo-China war). But then a young and high-minded American named Pyle comes through, with ideas of a “Third Force” between the colonists and the Communists. He wants to intervene despite Fowler’s discouragement. And worse, he has fallen in love with Phuong and wants to marry her, while Fowler isn’t even formally divorced from his wife in England, and can’t compete with Pyle economically.

This is my second foray into Greene’s kind of fictive world after END OF THE AFFAIR. I was struck once again by that voice full of generic, pronounciatory utterances, and a capacity for self-reproach that can only come from a Cathlolic upbringing or an equal kind of parental cruelty. “We are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation.” Fowler says this after reading a letter from his wife in England refusing him a divorce. Lines like these are peppered through the narrative, including towards the end, when Fowler confirms that Phuong has left him for Pyle, he becomes reflexively anti-American, which is understandable, but in his description he also says: “It was as if I had been betrayed, but one is not betrayed by an enemy.” Which speaks to the human ties that exist between these two men, who indeed go through quite a bit together—even a book taken as a keepsake has a charge of “friendship” to it.

I loved Fowler’s denigration (tinged with pity and caring) for Pyle’s bright-eyed liberal naivety, striving for a “third force” that is neither Communism nor colonialism, relying on spurious bourgeois “analyses” that were indeed very prominent in the mid 20th century (think of Macnamara’s empiricist fetish of statistics in the American war to come). I suppose many of us are in a reflexive anti-American mood at the moment, so it was appropriate.

Suddenly I saw myself as he [Pyle] saw me—a man of middle age, with eyes a little bloodshot, beginning to put on weight, ungraceful in love, less noisy than Granger perhaps, but more cynical, less innocent; and I saw Phuong for a moment as I had seen her first, dancing past my table at the Grand Monde in a white ball dress, eighteen years old, watched by an elder sister, who had been determined on a good European marriage. An American had bought a ticket and asked her for a dance; he was a little drunk—not harmfully, and I suppose he was new to the country and thought the hostesses of the Grand Monde were whores. He held her much too close as they went round the floor the first time, and then suddenly there she was, going back to sit with her sister, and he was left, stranded and lost among the dancers, not knowing what had happened or why. And the girl whose name I didn’t know sat quietly there, occasionally sipping her orange juice, owning herself completely.

Holiday reads, sayonara 2021

The Trial: A New Translation Based on the Restored Text (The Schocken Kafka  Library) - Kindle edition by Kafka, Franz, Breon Mitchell. Literature &  Fiction Kindle eBooks @

The last month of 2021 saw another review piece for FULL STOP, this time on the latest novel from the great Rikki Ducornet. I made some spicy remarks in this one (at least they might be), and they don’t have to do with Steely Dan trivia.


On my way back from one of the rallies for striking grad workers at Columbia, I picked up JESUS’ SON at a curbside book sale for four bucks. Denis Johnson was a great writer. TREE OF SMOKE was utterly engrossing (in a dark period), TRAIN DREAMS and SEAMAIDEN also excellent. But this collection from the 90s was an absolute knockout. The language is so clean and precise while still making all kinds of irregular choices in words and phrasing. When the speaker says he is a “whimpering dog inside” and nothing more, I felt it instantly. With Johnson there’s always this immediate connection so that you feel something for his cast of gentlemen losers. It brings to mind an image from Bruno Schulz of the writer and reader secretly holding hands under the table across which they face.

Every story in this cycle is a brief episode in the speaker’s drifting, dreg-filled life (the only name he goes by is Fuckhead). At the same time each story often breaks down into fragments that can read on their own like prose poems. Here’s one from “Emergency.”

Georgie and I had a terrific time driving around. For a while the day was clear and peaceful. It was one of the moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before and after. The sky is blue and the dead are coming back. Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breasts. A champion of the drug LSD, a very famous guru of the love generation, is being interviewed amid a TV crew off to the left of the poultry cages. His eyeballs look like he bought them in a joke shop. It doesn’t occur to me, as I pity this extraterrestrial, that in my life I’ve taken as much as he has.


I couldn’t have asked for a better companion on a long plane ride than ZONE, a selection of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry translated by the great Ron Padgett. This book is the “fruit of [his] fifty-year engagement” with Apollinaire, and it’s hard to imagine a better fit between two poetic temperaments. Both are playful yet frank and unpretentious. Apollinaire’s lines are clear, even without punctuation, yet also have a capacity for avant-gardism that punches through every now and again, like in “Il pleut” and “The Little Car.” Padgett himself has a deadpan diction the majority of the time (BIG CABIN was a favorite read of last year) but he’s also written the most successful Oulipo text ever, in the form of a haiku that describes how a haiku works within the form of a haiku.

Many of Apollinaire’s poems are made of snatches of everyday conversation, and others are like stories or newspaper articles cut up into lines. And while they’re stuffed with references to mythology, religion, and ancient western literature, his poems are often funny. In “Annie,” the speaker sees a woman walking down a tree-lined road in Texas. This could be the easy occasion for some flaneur-like address to the eternal feminine, or to serendipitous encounters on the street; instead he finishes the poem like this:

Comme cette femme est mennoite
Ses rosiers et ses vêtements n’ont pas de bouttons
Il en manque deux à mon veston
La dame et moi suivons presque le même rite

(Since that woman is a mennonite
There are no buds or buttons on her clothes
Two of them are missing from my coat
The lady and I follow almost the same rite)

This project has become a new favorite book, and I speak as someone who thought he was over the romance of French bohemianism and all that early 20th century business. I was won over by how Apollinaire via Padgett can conjure that opium-addled atmosphere with such beautiful linguistic simplicity.



THE TRIAL by Kafka was ideal holiday reading. I may judge books by their covers after all. For a long time I avoided these new editions from Shocken Books because of their slick minimalist covers, whose bold colors and obvious eyeball iconography rubbed me the wrong way. I took them to be lazy and trendy reskins of facsimiles of older translations, similar to Vintage’s monochrome covers for Camus books. I was ignorant of Shocken’s publication history with Kafka in the 30s, in the context of a pro-Jewish cultural assertion against Nazism, and that in the case of THE TRIAL the new cover came with a new translation by Breon Mitchell, one that, according to his preface tries to preserve both the foregrounding of, one, legalese and other professional idioms that are woven in the text (for example, the opening line uses the word “slander” as opposed to the mundane “telling lies”); and two, the general rough character of Kafka’s prose, with its irregularly placed subordinate clauses and massive unbroken paragraphs. These aspects were eclipsed in the translation by the Miurs.

THE TRIAL opens with an absurd scene that from the beginning is presented in a theatrical way (and theatre jargon is used throughout the novel along with legal terms). Every dramatic beat is a comic reversal: K. rings for food, and his arresting officer enters the room, saying, “You rang?” When K., sitting in bed, explains that he wanted the landlady’s cook Anna to bring him breakfast, the stranger goes to the door, opens it a little, and calls into the next room, “He wants Anna to bring him breakfast,” and “a short burst of laughter” comes in response. Ever agitated, K. wonders if what’s happening to him is a joke by his coworkers for his 30th birthday, and worries he’ll come off bad for not taking a joke. He tries to cooperate by offering his papers, but the men in his home take this as an obnoxious play: “you’re behaving worse than a child. What is it you want? Do you think you can bring your whole damn trial to a quick conclusion by discussing your identity and arrest warrant with your guards? We’re lowly employees who can barely make our way through such documents, and whose only role in your affair is to stand guard over you ten hours a day and get paid for it.” But then when K. protests his innocence (to a charge that is never made explicit), they chide him for making a claim in ignorance of the Law. 

K. is in a game with no correct moves. Such is the atmosphere of dread and anxiety in Kafka’s fictive worlds. It is not a “totalitarian” or absolutist bureaucratic society that is the host of this arbitrary, inconsistent, pervasive and petty legal antagonist. It is in the Family structure where such oppression comes into play. The court of THE TRIAL uses the homes of its employees and defendants, in a series of running gags where furniture is being constantly shifted around the room, like stagehands preparing a scene for a play. But lest we get carried away with all this laying bare of the devices of fiction, the priest slash prison warden in the cathedral reminds us to respect the basic narrative integrity of the texts we consume. When K. imposes his reading of the parable of the Law and the door that climaxes this book, the priest critiques him with this remark: “You don’t have sufficient respect for the text and are changing the story.” This line could be addressed to all who say THE TRIAL is simply a dream, or an allegory, and not a story of an individual man, one who, for all intents and purposes, is real. And he really is guilty.



M. John Harrison wasn’t even on my map until 2020 when his latest novel, THE SUNKEN LAND BEGINS TO RISE AGAIN, took the Goldsmith Prize. It’s funny that I’d never heard his name in the same breath as Sturgeon or Le Guin, because he is another fantasy writer with excellent prose. Really, he is another great British master from the 70s I didn’t know about in my typical American ignorance.

PASTEL CITY is about and is another name for VIRICONIUM, a city/statelet in a world that has seen better days. This civilization sits atop layers of detritus from earlier, more advanced societies, so like pulp operas or like Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, you get swords and sorcery in a landscape full of SF gadgetry.

We follow Lord Cromis, a warrior-poet who sets out to regroup the posse of knights called the Order of Methven, who defend the young Queen Jane, currently in a civil war for the throne of Viriconium with her half sister Canna Moidart. It’s like a western, only the landscape is one of rusted metal. And there are mechanical birds.

The “Lord of Birds” who created these cybernetic familiers resides in the tower of Cellur, an Orthanc-like obsidian structure in the marshes of Cladich. Harrison’s writing is like Le Guin’s in the sense that the quality of the prose isn’t flashy or ostentatious, but simply in the satisfying way in which the words “snap” together. The first book of the VIRICONIUM cycle is a straight ahead SF novel with all the proper western plot beats, but there’s still an extra layer of elegance in the phrasing and word choice. Here’s the description of Cellur in PASTEL CITY:

They reached the tower of Cellur in the evening of the second day. Cresting a ridge of pitted dolerite, they came upon the estuary of one of the unnamed rivers that ran from the mountains behind Cladich. Luminous in the fading light, the water spread itself before them like a sheet of metal. High black escarpments dropped sheer to its dark breaches; the cold wind made ephemeral, meaningless patterns on its surface.

Set in the shallows near the western bank was a small domed island, joined to the mainland by a causeway of crumbling stone blocks. It was barren but for a stand of white, dead pines.

Out of the pines, like a strong finger diminished by distance, rose the tower. It was five-faced, tapering: black. A tiny light shone near its summit, a glow that flickered, came and went. Birds wheeled about it, wailing mournfully, dipping to skim the water—fish eagles of a curious colour, with wings like cloaks in a gale. 

Now check out this romanticist, picturesque, more Tolkein-leaning description of the same locale 80 years later, that is also the opening paragraph of the sequel book A STORM OF WINGS:

In the dark tidal reaches of one of those unnamed rivers which spring from the mountains behind Cladich, a small domed island in the shallows before the sea, fallen masonry of a great age close faintly under the eye of an uncomfortable moon. A tower once stood here in the shadow of the estuarine cliffs, made too long ago for anyone to remember, in a way no one left can understand, from a single obsidian monolith fully two hundred feet in length. For ten thousand years wind and water scoured its southern face, finding no weakness; and at night a yellow light might be discerned in its topmost window, coming and going as if someone there passed before a flame.

Other reads from December: more Ashbery, early poetry by W.S. Merwin (some epic fantasy in its own right), and Tolkein’s THE FALL OF GONDOLIN for the LOTR Holidays of 2021.

See ya later, doppelgänger! October summed up

First things first.

I had a new story published in Passages North at the beginning of the month, inspired by Olaf Stapledon but really more in the manner of A. E. Van Vogt. Neat! I read it out loud at the open mic in the cafe where I wrote it. There were so many stand-up comics doing sets at the show that even I got heckled. Laugh-a-minute. I put cinnamon in my coffee every day till I saw DUNE in theaters.

More reads: Anne Carson’s SHORT TALKS | Paul Curran’s LEFT HAND| Thomas Mann’s MAGIC MOUNTAIN (whew!) | Stevens’s PARTS OF A WORLD | Ashbery’s CAN YOU HEAR, BIRD | 

And a press copy of my most anticipated novel of the year, for two years in a row: WARNING TO THE CROCODILES by Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated by Karen C. Sherwood Solentino, from Dalkey Archive.

If you’re at all interested in translated literature then I urge you not to sleep on this great Portuguese novel from 1999. Lobo Antunes is a living grandmaster of literary modernism, and even all my personal hype did not prepare me to realize that this translation is very important, as this work is a summation of the tendencies in his 90s output, in the same way FADO ALEXANDRINO (perhaps his masterpiece) works as a summation of the 80s. A review to come, probably next year. As for the cover, I like the palette, and when you look past the fractal floral pattern and see that it is masking a strange image with pixelated faces, which is suggestive and fits as a depiction of the Lobo Antunes literary experience, with its ultra-subjective haziness. But my reflexive tastes definitely prefer the monochrome with red accent minimalism of Dalkey’s typical covers. Perhaps uniform covers are on their way out more generally.

Now for my trip to Norway via Fosse.


During the day I wrote the opening of Septology. I just started with my laptop on my stomach in bed. I write easily. Something comes to me when I sit down to write. I have never had writer’s block. […] What I experience when I write has as great an impact, if not greater, than what I experience in life. To write is to dream while awake, to place oneself in a controlled dreamlike state where one advances by listening.

Jon Fosse, interview in MUSIC AND LITERATURE

SEPTOLOGY follows a painter named Asle, seemingly from one day to the next. Every morning he imagines or “sees himself” looking at his latest picture, made of a purple and brown line that cross diagonally; and every night he ends the day with his rosary, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in latin, slowly, till it comes one or two words at a time as he inhales and exhales. Which encapsulates nicely the extreme down-tempo nature of this literary experience. Each day begins and ends the same way, with slight variations on what crosses Asle’s mind when he contemplates his picture, will he sell it, will he gift it to his neighbor Åsleik’s sister named Guro but is called Sister, will he stow it away in his crawl space, will he give up painting all together? And in his closing prayer sometimes he wonders if he really believes. “…then I say Ave Maria and that usually helps, I think and sitting there in my car I take my rosary out from under my pullover and I think now do I really believe in this, no, not really, I think…” (Part V) 

I fell in love with this bleak and beautiful fictional world, a world of habits, routines, grieving (for his late wife Ales), and the peculiar human sight made possible in complete darkness, which is how Asle prefers to look at his pictures to make sure they’re truly good and finished. But that’s not all. When we follow Asle heading into the town of Bjørgvin in the first book, he finds his double passed out on the snow: another Asle, also a painter. This Asle is an alcoholic, while our narrator Asle has gone sober; the narrator was devoted to Ales and it was love at first sight, while the double is twice-divorced with distant children; the double has a dog while the narrator doesn’t (though he’d like one); the double’s life is considerably more fucked up, and he spends much of the story recovering in a clinic after the narrator drops him off. Everyone takes the doppelgangers in stride (and there’s another doubling in Åsleik’s sister and a local woman of the same name who bumps into the narrator a few times). The biggest point of tension in the first book is who will take care of the dog Bragi. I found all of this to be profoundly beautiful.

Most of the novel’s space is taken up with the narrator’s almost clairvoyant visions of his life, childhood, a sexual attack by The Bald Man, attending Art School, falling in love with Asle, sneaking cigarettes in those slate roof boat houses that dot the west Norwegian coast. It read to me like he was seeing pictures in his mind not unlike what he paints, and we are reading the “language of pictures,” in the narrator’s phrase, especially since he seems to experience them as compulsive images that wash over whatever he’s doing in the present moment the same way his ideas for paintings do. “I have all these pictures inside me, yes, so many pictures that they’re a kind of agony, yes, it hurts me when they keep popping up again and again, like visions almost” (Part II?). The phrase “I see myself” that heads every part, mantra-like, so perfectly condenses Fosse’s procedures, a narrative act that arrests narrative time in the same moment of its expression.

SEPTOLOGY’s landscape is overwhelmingly darkened snow: the narration so telescoped on individual acts and objects, the pace so languid, the tone so even and gentle, it puts not a movie but a black box play in the mind’s eye. Fosse is a highly mature child of Beckett and Bernhard, but not so caustic as either, taking the former’s absurdism and the latter’s music.

and I grip the edge of the table tight and then I look at Bragi standing there and looking at me with his dog’s eyes and I think that dogs understand so much but they can’t say anything about it, or else they can say it with their dog’s eyes, and in that way they’re like good art, because art can’t say anything either, not really, it can only say something else while keeping silent about what it actually wants to say, that’s what art is like and faith and dogs’ silent understanding too, it’s like they’re all the same, no now I’m getting in over my head with these thoughts, I think, because I’ve never been a thinker, and the only language I’ve so to speak mastered is the language of pictures, I think and I look at Bragi and maybe he’s hungry or thirsty… (Part V)

The last book really threw me in for a loop. First of all, it seems several weeks have elapsed before the beginning of Part VI. I’d thought the seven parts naturally lent themselves to a week (they’re collected in three volumes, just like LORD OF THE RINGS’s seven books, incidentally). But that’s not all, Asle’s schedule changes, as he spends most of this section at night staring out his window at some landmark in the darkness over the Sygne Sea. Asle seems to have been a gifted painter from the beginning. He’s so talented he can start Art School without finishing high school, and after that the Art School runs out of things to teach him. There’s no resistance to his artistic upbringing. It’s God’s grace. I loved the intense mixture of modes in this gentle transformation of the story at the very end.

Mann’s MAGIC MOUNTAIN was three months of delectable reading. I may have enough to say about it to make a proper essay, though the didactic allegory and the ironized bildungsroman conceit Mann employed so masterfully here have been rendered transparent by scholars already. The experience itself is like climbing a mountain by stages, first unrolling slowly until around the sixth of the big chapters, things develop faster, the narrator starts summarizing more, the tone gets funnier and more deranged as we go along, and before you know it you’ve careened over the finish line in a runaway toboggan. 

I read a hard copy of the Lowe-Porter translation, pictured above, but also ended up reading large stretches of it electronically through the more recent John E. Woods translation. This was interesting if irresponsible. They are quite different, with Woods overall being very smooth to read, as I expected after his DOKTOR FAUSTUS, while Lowe-Porter goes for an antiquated pastiche with lots of idioms and untranslated French. Which approach is more faithful to the German I can’t say; the two translations read to me as trying to get to Mann’s sense of humor in different ways. In the first chapter, Hans Castorp laughs his head off at a particular word used by his cousin and asylum resident Joaquim. In Mann, the word is “Seelenzergliederung” which means psychoanalysis, but literally can mean soul dissection. Lowe-Porter translates this to “psychoanalysis” which in the scene made me laugh, while in Woods it’s “psychic dissection.” Is Wood’s more literalized choice a way to make the concept as bewildering as it might be to Castorp’s perspective?

It’s probably because I’m still high from finishing it, but the very best comparison sentence for me is the very last one. 


Out of this universal feast of death, out of this extremity of fever, kindling the rain-washed evening sky to a fiery glow, may it be that Love one day shall mount?

And Woods:

And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around—will love someday rise up out of this, too?

I originally went to Lowe-Porter because, being a hopeless aesthete, I’d previously found Woods suspiciously accessible, but I prefer the Woods formulation here. The fever is more concrete with its “ugly rutting,” and while “feast of death” and “kindling the rain-washed evening sky” have an old macabre ring, “festival” and “inflames” seem more precise. And Woods adds some structural redundancy with the repeated prepositional phrase “out of this” while Lowe-Porter’s sentences are much of the time extremely heavy on either the front or the back end in terms of what you have to keep in mind about the subject while reading through these long sentences. Putting the main verb mount at the very end felt awkward, no doubt because of my modern American ears.

So if I had to recommend the best translation on the market, I don’t know, I’d probably say go with Woods then Lowe-Porter on a possible reread.

Next read: a trip with Mr. Lowry to Mexico, on All Saints’ Day, and something about a dead dog?

Confucian comedy


The astounding avant-garde daily Babel Tower Notice Board kindly published my short story “Fifteen Family Sagas” last month. I’m fascinated by multi-generational epic novels, not least because they get a lot of attention on the prize circuit. I told a friend this was going to be my claim to fame, but I messed up since I’d forgotten the family tree.

It’s not that original, granted–it’s a set of riffs on old Chinese tales about filial piety. But it is very, very personal so I remain proud.

This goes out to everyone unfortunate enough to believe they had a happy childhood!