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.

Any Welt that I’m welcome to

Arms disarmed and explaining themselves
—Brenda Shaughnessy

That was quite a hiatus. I ended up putting most of my energy in the April/May to finishing my thesis for my masters program, which centered on Jameson’s ideas about allegory—and “national allegory”—and Althusser. I’ve talked about the connection here before. Then immediately after, the George Floyd protests and urban rebellions directed my activities elsewhere (including writing activities).

I read a lot of great literature in this period, including Baldwin, O’Connor, Anne Carson, and a full catch up is beyond me, but I can share notes on a few texts recently finished. I am also eager to blog through THE TUNNEL by William H. Gass. I haven’t dug into this great writer on this platform yet, and after another two years of graduate (over)education I think I have more of the tools needed to crack into the concepts that manifest themselves “behind” the dazzling and terrible prose style.

For the lightning round of this post I’ll start with the SF.

I gotta admit, this is the first Delany fiction that I actually finished. It helped that this a nice novella that basically reimagines Goethe’s WILHELM MEISTER’S APPRENTICESHIP, transposing the bildungsroman formula onto a planetary opera with metafictional anagrams and time manipulation. I found this early 60s work enjoyable and compelling in ways that the post-DHALGREN novels I’ve attempted (STARS IN MY POCKET and TRITON) were not.

Delany also mentions Theodore Sturgeon in EMPIRE STAR. A Sturgeon story is also talked about at length in Bolano’s SAVAGE DETECTIVES. Sturgeon has commanded so much respect–I liked the tributes to him in this book from Bradbury and Wolfe. I’ve been an intense admirer ever since I read those brilliant opening lines of MORE THAN HUMAN.

I rooted around through this first volume of the collected stories, from North Atlantic Books. Most of these are short newspaper syndicate and pulpy stories, pretty hacky, but well written. It turns out Sturgeon doesn’t hit his stride till 1940, and I love his account of bashing out “Brianna’s Hands” in one of those urgent situations that distract a writer from assigned work–I know the feeling well, and there’s a parallel dynamic with reading books too, perhaps. That story is dark and twisted, in a kind of timeless setting, like Shirley Jackson or some of Robert Aichman. Brianna is a woman with no consciousness or volition except in her hands, which literally drag her body around the house. There is a gothic pulp formula here, but all it does is support really fucked up situations and a great style.

Then there’s “It,” which is a solid monster thriller, also apparently written in a white heat of inspiration on the writer’s honeymoon. But it’s an important work–the elements for Swamp Thing, Incredible Hulk, and other giants without emotion, or a surplus of only one emotion, in comics.

An honorable mention is “Helix the Cat,” which goes on for a little while, but is a diverting exercise in rationalizing the idea of the immortal soul (with a lot of mechanics introduced).

What opens up Sturgeon’s work is not only a new market for those weird tales that can surpass the rigid conventions and cheap O. Henry twists of the newspaper story, and allow him to stretch out his prose style beyond hard boiled narrators and 30s dialog, but also these kind of basic philosophical concerns about perception and being in the world: A moldy mud golem that investigates and analyzes things (quite literally, to grisly effect); it has perception and interests, without any feeling. “Helix” has some early discussions about the sense perception of “souls” too. (I’m afraid this will be an obsession of mine for a little while as I’m going through classical subjective idealism, like Berkeley and Avenarius and all that; it will also be very useful for Gass!)

Just as useful will be this hard SF Cartesian fable from hell, available for free

I remember being terrified by this episode of LOST IN SPACE, which my dad taped off the Sci-Fi channel in the 90s. 

Consciousness, the realm of the thought, the mind, that’s the thing that creates our mental images of the world, our ideas and feelings and reflections, what would we be without it? Well, what if consciousness and self-awareness is just a vestigial object, an evolutionary glitch, a burden on our capabilities to survive, an energy sink. Maybe we’d be better off without it, and maybe the “intelligent” life that exists out there is far more likely to be without it. The aliens of this novel can do higher logic and mathematics as instantaneous reflexes, but without any thought for themselves. They operate in a vessel giving off insane electromagnetic fields that completely disturb the human astronauts, like convincing you to the core that you are in fact dead. It’s a very classical idealist notion, that you are only your perceptions, that the world you experience is something modeled from sensory inputs, the permeable membrane between self and matter. The novel explores other aspects of consciousness in a fun way: half of the narrator’s brain is cybernetic, leading to trouble with relationships, and a generally isolated kind of life.

This is an amazing book. Frank Lentricchia in the 80s produced a solid, astoundingly well-written survey of American literary theory in the second half of the 20th century. He portrays this sequence—so convincingly—as a series of formalist polemics against the New Criticism, from Frye to existentialism to the American phenomenologists to the structuralists and post structuralists. Harold Bloom along with Hirsch and others get individual chapters, and even Bloom is so busy countering the NC’s attack on Romanticism that the multicultural interventions and the canon wars must have struck him as an attack on the rear. Here is Lentricchia on Heidegger’s language of earth and world:

The work of art “sets up” a world, but it “sets forth” the earth: “The work lets the earth be an earth” is the way Heidegger phrases it. What he means by this is not that the work is realistic in its portrayal of nature, but something far more familiar to readers of neo-Kantian aesthetics. In “The Origin of the Work of Art” earth is a reference to the aesthetic medium: the sculptor’s stone, the painter’s pigment, the poet’s language, the architect’s rock and wood. The aesthetic handling of medium is in brilliant contrast to the handling of medium as equipment: “Because it is determined by usefulness and serviceability, equipment takes into its service that of which it consists: the matter. In fabricating equipment-e.g. an axe-stone is used, and used up. It disappears into usefulness …. By contrast the temple-work, in setting up a world, does not cause the material to disappear, but rather it causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the Open of the work’s world.”

So we have the familiar formalist distinction of utilitarian and aesthetic values, of a medium which must remain unobtrusive if it is to be useful, if it is to mediate, and of a medium cherished for its own sake, set forth in its irreducible sensuous reality, as good in itself, thrusting itself upon our attention.

The whole book holds to this level of solidity, of careful argumentation and quotation. The type and design of the book is so nice too. One of those rare experiences of a theoretical text that is also just really delightful to read.

Somewhere along my insane drive to finish school I also finished up the new novel by Ellmann. I heard a lot of excitement about it toward the end of last year (plus it took home the Goldsmiths prize). Among the more core vanguard crowd of readers it might be getting a slight backlash now. I admired what this book was doing. It’s not at that supreme level of innovative fiction, but it draws on that tradition, on Stein, Lessing, Richardson, Young. It’s not that experimental or demanding, despite the form. I don’t think it’s a “river book” in the “stream of consciousness” sense (though Ohio’s rivers are important), but a spiral book, both a mental downward spiral and a compulsive circling of recurring thoughts around some absent center with no end in sight…till one reaches the unthinkable.

Basically, the form of the book is a single sentence that expresses the inner monologue of a white middle aged suburban housewife making baked goods for some extra income. She has a loving second husband and a few kids. The monologue is broken up with the lyrical story of a mountain lioness in the greater area who embarks on a quest to find her lost cubs–this is actually the A plot. There is something of a writing constraint. The Oulipo had an exercise called “Starter Text,” where every sentence of a work has to begin the same way. George Perec’s “I Remember” is the classic example, and there’s also le Tellier’s book A THOUSAND PEARLS where every sentence starts with “I’m thinking about…” DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT is driven by “the fact that.”

That idiomatic phrase is meant to point to the significance of something. But when it’s used as the main connecting points for wall-to-wall language, containing almost everything the middle classes have been worried about in the pre-Covid society, then the problem becomes the pure lack of significance or the ability to draw out significance in this flattened landscape of thought (Ellmann runs a risk in making historical tragedies seem trivial when they poke out among a collage of pop lyrics and clickbait article titles, though perhaps that is the point made about our daily lives now). Sometimes the “fact” is definitely an opinion, or a memory, or a question–”the fact that why do I remember that Amish woodshop and not my mother…” As a result a lot of the language is generic in that classically novelistic way (the fact that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife).

And the details of her life and history come through, her concerns with her eldest daughter, her ex-husband, the daily chores, skeevy neighbors, financial worries, family history, US politics, etc. There’s still plenty of plot, maybe even too much. I admit I found the ending disappointing for this reason, though I liked the story with the lioness very much.

Some jottings on Don César

César Aira, tr. Nick Caistor
New Directions, 2017

Exhaustion. In his interviews, Aira seems to take seriously an idea from Ortega y Gasset, that literature is like a mountain, and its practitioners are mining it. Which makes literary art a finite resource that can be exhausted. And that’s why his books are so lean, not just because he likes to be elegant, or respect his readers’ time, or that his Louis Aragon or dada-like fantastic narratives are hard to sustain for long, but simply that this mode of production is on its way out.

It’s edgy to elegize for the novel, but believing or pretending to believe that art is dead is the right position to be in for creating. And besides, it had a beginning; surely it has an end. Literature could have died in its sleep a generation ago, and  now carries on in an afterlife, much like liberalism.

Infantile disorder. The tonal whiplash and narrative switchbacks in Aira’s work remind me of the way kids tell stories, a storytelling that’s hardcore diachronic: and then, and then, and then. Just as it’s said somewhere that Picasso once visited an exhibit of art by children, and remarked that it took him years to learn how to draw like that. This return to a more naive space is in keeping with surrealism (between automatic writing and OuLiPo’s input-based creation) as well as Utopian SF or fantasy (Olaf Stapledon).

The commitment to high modernism remains, but there’s no more desire for grand, solemn mega novels that strain to capture the totality of bourgeois or monopoly capitalism. The Joyces and Musils and Prousts and Manns that amount to secular religions.

Absolute Formalism. Aira’s books are so overwhelmingly about themselves, about their own aboutness in the way the formalists wanted them to be. Their content is a projection of their form, of the elements selected to build the story. It’s most obvious in VARAMO, while MIRACLE CURES OF DR. AIRA presents a mystified version of the creative process. As with Kafka, there’s a risk of turning his stories back to realism by reading them as social parables. On the other hand, the weirdness of Aira’s books, as I read them, are about renewing our own perceptions of literary theory.

Which is why I felt that THE LITERARY CONFERENCE is a jab or at least an elbow nudge against Carlos Fuentes. The giant blue silkworms that lumber down the hills and attack the city, are they not like that writer’s mega novels and others like his? The threat is overcome by the narrator’s device that was a prop for one of his plays — a retreat or regression to fairy tale logic. (Fuentes giving the Nobel to Aira in one his stories is no less of a backhanded compliment.)

How to apply the word novel vs. novella is really inconsistent these days. Novellas were more easily distinguishable in the 19th century institution of the triple-decker novel that allowed library systems to loan out the same work to three people. But now most novels aren’t that long, besides the few middle-brow prestige pieces that come out in the US each year. Novels can be any length these days, and Aira’s output then addresses, not formalism, but the redefining of the novel form itself. Perhaps they aren’t novels at all.

Revolutionary break. I’ve never totally loved an Aira book right away, except for EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER and HOW I BECAME A NUN. Other than those two, I finish them thinking it’s second-tier Aira and wait for them to grow on me over the weeks till I know it’s a new favorite. THE PROOF’s own narrative switchback into a genre of surreal ultra-violence has tyrannical reign over both that story and the whole book. But that’s also appropriate.

Two young women named Mao and Lenin hold up a supermarket in the name of love, as the Love Brigade. It’s amusing to read this under Cold War liberal programming: revolutionary situations as a terroristic surge led by hopeless Utopian romantics. But then again, was Marxism not a product of Romanticism, if only as a rebellion against it? Forget thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Real dialectics means appearance-reality-appearance again.

Aira never respects the reality principle, but even then the very end of THE PROOF goes beyond unreal. As the store catches fire, we read about one woman whose body melts until she’s like a Modigliani painting on crack. It appears this mundane “revolutionary” act (all the world’s a supermarket in globalization) has torn the fabric of reality apart and anything is possible, is aesthetically legitimate.

Which is why Aira’s work I think speaks so earnestly to our historical moment. It’s a different tack from Roberto Bolaño, who usually stays close to realism in order to show us why such a commitment is no longer truly possible. The liberal consensus in the last couple of decades has become more authoritarian as per the needs of the ruling class. In our own country, NFL workers taking a knee during the anthem is unacceptable, let alone taking to the streets in a serious stance against white power and its servants in the police force. That’s just one example of the hard constraints on political imagination (insert the obligatory quote of capitalist realism and imagining the end of the world here). Thinking also of the appalling repression on J20, and the situation in Argentina today.

I won’t say that Aira’s is the authentic realism for today. Just that his way of producing stories do the urgent work of presenting any and all alternatives to what we have. It’s hard to see exactly how his work upholds the historical perspective of the proletariat. But that may be precisely it: such a historical perspective has been lost in the wake of the end-of-history 90s (9/11 not being a wake up call for the global metropolis but the trigger for denial), as well as the disembodiment and amnesia that makes up the spectacle, the culture of late capitalism.

Around the same time I was flying through Aira’s translated ouvre, I read an incredible insight in Jameson’s POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS. It may well have been what permitted me to start writing fiction again. What he said made me realize that it wasn’t realism that bothered me. Realism is noble, difficult to do, and, if the Marxists are right, the plebian weapon of choice against aristocratic form. What I couldn’t stand in today’s literature was the reification of realism. So there’s a new notion of what is realistic, aside from the reality principle and character psychology: that which simply keeps the historical dialectic going in its own representations. Those books are to be prized, especially as our own literary darlings seem hellbent, more often than not, on stopping it.

Memoir’d out

Guðbergur Bergsson, tr. Lytton Smith
Open Letter Books, 2017

I am recommending a novel from the outfit Open Letter Books, which is having a fundraiser at the moment.

In the film SE7EN the detectives find and search John Doe’s apartment, and he doesn’t live well to say the least. In a notorious piece of production design, Morgan Freeman’s character leafs through one of many composition notebooks, which were all actually filled up with deranged writing. If someone went through 18 such notebooks and typed them up, you’d get something like this Icelandic novel.

In the 60s, memoirs are all the rage, as they are today. A senile, pervy petty-bourgeois man, who worked as an accountant and also rents out rooms in his house, wants in on the market, and combines his notebooks to form his own memoir, a certain bestseller.

Of course it’s actually an avant-garde mashup of trivial thoughts, strange tales, a passport for his dick; a composition method closer to Kathy Acker than to Lena Dunham. I returned it to the library a while ago but you can read the opening paragraphs HERE.

It’s the aesthetic end point outlined by the early formalists, and followed through by Walter Benjamin and others: a literary work, to bring forth the repressed truth that discourse is always made up of other pre-existing pieces of language, would have to itself become a bricolage of found textual material.

Moreover, these handwritten notebooks, which are inconsistently titled in a funny way, are being typed up, if I remember right, by one of his tenants. And he also makes choices in preserving the formatting and punctuation — sometimes there isn’t any. As I read it, it made me think about how language intervenes, prism-like, into the speech we try to convey in practical living. It doesn’t take too many adjustments to actually de-familiarize the most basic and familiar forms of personal writing.

A few weeks later, though, what’s fascinating about this book is that it highlights that particularity of first-person narration. On one hand, you have the clarity of the most celebrated personal essays, with I guess E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” as a ur-text. The valorization of personal non-fiction at this moment, generating a lot of discourse, indicates a market for lucid gut-spilling, indeed, the most fruitful outlet for black women, women of color and other marginalized subject positions, at the cost (I worry) of folding literary culture into the inspiration industry.

(There’s a lot more to say. I’ve read powerful arguments that these books are super commercial and are not created the kind of breakthroughs that cultural production is starving for under neoliberal capitalism. At the same time the personal essay is less white than ever, which is of course a good thing. In NY you can go, as I have sometimes, to panels organized by We Need Diverse Books. The slogan may imply that certain forces or counter-forces must be created to break open the door. What of the existing forces that are keeping the “diverse” voices out, except for through certain texts produced in a certain way?)

On the other hand, for writers like Nabokov and Gass, who whip up language in a way that sometimes overwhelms the speech (the language/speech distinction is crucial for me), rely on the first person as well. The pyrotechnics of their prose styles come off better if the narrator is unreliable and probably insane. The centralizing power of the voice of the I-pronoun is the promise of a subjective truth and the most elaborate of rhetorical masks, all at the same time.

It’s this contradiction that TJ,BS brings forth with a dry irony. It’s constantly reshaping itself too. Even the title changes, with sometimes a colon or a comma or nothing at all. It’s obsessed with the material body, which is the only significant link that makes it the “Icelandic ULYSSES” the cover blurb says it is. But it’s full of modernist games. And like the best satire, it clearly shows that the issues it provokes have not gone away.

I only took down one quote: “What’s literature but mental masturbation for the emotions?” (42).