Autobiography of a long walk enjoyer

After a health setback and adjusting to new medication, I effectively stopped reading or writing for nearly seven weeks.

Unable to think clearly or concentrate on work, I needed a way to fill the time. So I looked at pictures of crime scenes and accident victims: the aftermath of a killer who chopped a young person’s head off, a man who’d been run over by a truck so that his innards had burst through the apertures of his face. I couldn’t digest or even comprehend narrative in any form, so instead of movies I watched YouTube and videos: a satanic ritual to reanimate a corpse; a shirtless man seated at a table with a bowl of soggy ramen, holding oversized chopsticks, held in captivity by two life-sized and malicious Funko Pop figures, taunting their victim as he sobs between slurps; endless footage of ‘Karens’ disturbing the peace; a couple of good police car chases.

After a great deal of sleeping, my capacity for fiction gradually came back, first with mysteries and whodunnits, then Kobo Abe’s WOMAN IN THE DUNES and Kafka’s AMERIKA: THE MISSING PERSON. It was also an occasion to get reacquainted with graphic novels and manga, which I used to read voraciously, much more than Literature. I finally read MAUS, which was absolutely stupendous—such a bold choice to have animals represent European nationalities, with the mouse as unassimilable(?) Jews, which is absolutely courting controversy, as the epigraph by Hitler confirms, but I love what Spiegelman does with it when, halfway through the story, we go to the world of the making of the comic, where people wear animal masks.

Also the first three volumes of the MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM ORIGIN manga, drawn by the animation director of the original show. The mechs and ships look more imposing and less like toys in monochrome panels, and in general the artwork is a very crisp update of the 70s style. I read a manga adaptation of Lovecraft’s MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS as well, and while it was what you want from a visual adaptation, the drawings were a bit lacking.

I took numerous long walks, up to five miles sometimes, till the weather got too cold. These walks confirmed that my feet were indeed on the ground. I learned that I don’t really care for any of the holidays except new year’s. I don’t even wanna guess how many times I listened to “Cotton Eye Joe.” For a little while I drove a Jeep.

I seem to have bounced back to a more or less stable state, and my activities and aspirations once again involve more than sleeping for 13 hours, so to make up for my posting drought, here are selections from the last three months of my longhand journal:

October 3. WAVES. The first one came from the west. It crashed on those islands initially. But it was a big wave and it sloshed right across to the mainland. It landed on the basin with a big Crash! Water sprayed in innumerable beautiful droplets and the wind carried them further east, but not south. Then it looked like the business was done. However, from the east this time, another huge wave! SMASH! Onto the driest parts of the land, that had never gotten a fleck of the last one. These waves took two and a half centuries to do their thing. No sign of rushing water in many years. You think another rip tide is coming? If it happened before it can happen again, no?

October 9. EVENING, after a day out in Manhattan.

A comet hangs in the sky above me like my weekly assignments. The dirt path ranged over obsidian fields like a ribbon of caramel. Praise the lips of NANDINI, glossy as the Milky Way and pink as bubblegum, and of KUNDAVAI the proud feline of the river. Please allow me to remove the clinking bangles from your wrists, the rain of jewels from your olive-skinned necks. Yellow medicine rims the labial fleshwounds of the heroes. Mary Reufle and Kalki tried to explain stochastic processes to me over philly cheesesteaks and sweet potato fries.

October 13. Jack and some other friends and I arrived on a campus of old red brick buildings one afternoon, the sunlight bathing the grass lawns for now but with some rain clouds approaching in the distance. There were folks in our group I didn’t care to see and I sprinted across the quad to the next building as the drizzle began to fall and darken the paving. I went through an old fireproof door. I texted Jack to tell him where I was hiding and looked around. The floorboards creaked beneath my tread. The halls went on forever. I flipped through deckled pages as the rain pattered on the winter windows. This was my idea of a place!

October 14. [After a viewing of TAR] How do we know we are in the world of high art? Because a hazy strip of Klein International Blue hangs over Berlin, over New York City, over any place where the children enjoy Monster Hunter.

November 22. Fourth day on Z[oloft]. Saturday I took to mustering the strength to read. Read nothing. Sunday morning I managed to read some poems by Marguerite Young. Then some Marx in the evening. Brain fog. Lethargy. I slept for hours on Monday. Food makes me drowsy (but tastes GREAT).

December 24. One foggy Xmas Eve! 

The dialectical operation at work in literary history. Sterne is the greatest ‘experimental’ novelist, everyone agrees. But he laid down the blueprints for 19th c. realism, see BALZAC and TOLSTOY. Then at the end of the century the Russian masters summated realism and in many senses cleared the ground for modernism and surrealism in the next century. Kafka loved Dickens and many of his scenarios originate as pastiches of the English writer. Tendencies toward opposing states.

Systemic eczema rashes on arms, torso, groin. Feels itchy!

December 26. Boxing Day. In addition to CATS, we put on another cursed “film”: 1973’s HANZO THE RAZOR.

When corruption threatens Edo Japan, only one samurai is horny enough to answer the call. He bellows his catchphrase: “Time to destroy my shit!” Hanzo is a mountain of integrity. Incorruptible, he doesn’t even take his officer’s oath, for then he would stoop to the level of his dissipated peers. A sado-masochistic freak, he uses his implements of torture on his own flesh before inflicting them on his criminal prey, to test their efficacy. His blood runs thick as cranberry jam off the thigh-crushing machine. He rises. The impression of blood remains on the spiked seat—but it seems there is a sizeable area of dryness where his genital region had once been. Yes, Hanzo the Razor gets sexually aroused by his own degradation. Don’t worry about it! He takes a wooden mallet spiked with nails and brings it down repeatedly on his titanically turgid member. He pours a kettle of boiling water over his immense penis, laid out on a wooden pedestal like a meatloaf dinner. A cloud of steam and the water cascades to each side like a parted sea. His dick now thoroughly worked upon, he makes a little hole in a sack of rice and proceeds to pump into it, plowing the rice, turning the grains over like white virgin soil. Now that’s what I call compression!

So much for the duty-conscious Hanzo the Razor.

December 28. But the worst part of this “film” I haven’t talked about. This scene is the chestburster of the movie, the true shocker set piece. So HANZO THE RAZOR is a most effective interrogator. When he needs information he simply rapes it out of women. During one such procedure, we see a shot presenting three overlapping images, one, Hanzo’s sweaty grunting mug, two, the woman screaming first in pain then in pleasure—everyone enjoys being SA’d by Hanzo the Razor in the end—and three, what seems to be the camera positioned in a moist tunnel and pushing its way back and forth like a piston. The image says, “POV: you are HTR’s dick!!!” Horrendous movie.

Lightning round: book reviews in Haiku

Nothing like the condensed elegance of the haiku to clear our heads for the new year. Below are mini reflections on some great books read toward the end of 2020.

Pierre Senges, tr. Jacob Siefring
Sublunary Editions 2020

More Kafka-esque than
the man himself. Here is a
master of self-strife.

Gary J. Shipley
Apocalypse Party 2020

Psycho plus British
SF on PCP is
my negative muse.

Jeremias Gotthelf, tr. Susan Bernofksy
NYRB Classics 2013 [1842]

God punishes us
for dissing feudalism.
This is “Dark Pushkin.”

Amos Tutuola
Grove Press 1994 [1954]

You had to English
your unlettered culture
thru this masterpiece.

Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell
Riverhead 2017 [2014]

Don’t drink the water
in which the horses have perished.
Meh, I’ve forgotten.

Enrique Vila-Matas, tr. Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes
New Directions 2019

What if I reviewed
my older shitty novel
as my new novel?

Dialogic of Enlightenment: books read in February

Here’s a beautiful thought: Karel Capek and Franz Kafka were drinking buddies in Prague, two of the greatest contributors to literary modernism in such distinctive ways.

In case you didn’t know, Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R. is the first appearance of the word “Robot,” which comes from the Czech, and is pretty much the OG rise of the machines story. The first act of three is played broadly for laughs, a parody of contemporary movie melodramas. We’re at Rossum’s robot factory complex set on a remote island. Initially we get some corporate espionage, where Helena Glory infiltrates the island, causes some discord, and marries the boss.

The robots themselves are fascinating. They are not really mechanical people or androids but assembled organisms, not unlike replicants in Philip K. Dick. They’re kneaded out of dough, their nervous system and entrails are wound up–we don’t have Fordist conveyor belts or a Taylorist quota system. Robot production has a distinct handicraft character to it, even as it runs along the track of an imperialist monopoly firm.

One of Kafka’s late parables says that it was laziness that got humanity kicked out of Eden, and it is laziness that will keep them out. The revolt of the robots (with a League and a Manifesto) in this play suggests that work and toil all along was the Eden; that productive activity is simply part of our internal nature, which has been alienated since these gigantic productive forces have started to administer the world—real Horkheimer and Adorno stuff.

Spoilers. The robots triumph, humankind is extinct, and the robots evolve to become more than human. Though they are missing Rossum’s blueprints for robotkind that would allow them to reproduce. As an SF reader, it’s a weak story point; if one person discovered it someone else can. But it has a nice mystical tinge, like the script that brings the golem to life.


Having watched PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE and having read JACQUES THE FATALIST by Denis Diderot over the six days proceeding that momentous experience in the cinema, I have turned instant francophile—again.

Seriously, both Sciamma’s film and this quintessential novel of Enlightenment have an intellectually sumptuous quality: a direct and unapologetic paean to the harmony of freedom and dignity, of reason and passion.

Stylistically the book has no rules, it seems to randomly go back and forth from prose text to play text, and it will even switch to present tense for action scenes. It’s dialog driven, like MIST by Miguel de Unamuno which I read in January, but in the latter novel speech and dialog are foregrounded as the fundamental way to reach a construction or understanding of self. In JACQUES the focus is more on the political dimension of “dialogical” novels, the striving for democracy.

In its blunt way it’s more of an anti-novel than anything Robbe-Grillet could do:

How had they met? By chance, like everybody else. What were their names? What’s it to you? Where were they coming from? From the nearest place. Where were they going? Does anyone really know where they’re going? What were they saying? The Master wasn’t saying anything, and Jacques was saying that his Captain used to say that everything that happens to us here below, for good and for ill, was written up there, on high.

The “plot” is that Jacques and his Master/literary foil want to share their love stories with and get love stories out of each other, but mishaps and distractions keep happening: there are other stories to tell and everyone else they run into has their own story. Many of these stories involve doubles. Even the narrator is divided, so that it openly refuses to narrate this novel like a conventional romantic or gothic affair.

What couldn’t I make of this episode if the fancy took me to reduce you to tears! I’d make the woman someone important: I’d make her the niece of the curé of the nearest village, I’d rouse all the men in the parish, I’d get ready to show lots of fighting and sex, for, truth to tell, the girl was very shapely under those nether garments, as Jacques and his Master had noticed. Love never wanted a better opportunity! Why shouldn’t Jacques fall in love a second time? Why shouldn’t he turn out a second time to be the rival—even the preferred rival—of his Master?

You mean it has happened once already?

You’re always asking questions! Don’t you want Jacques to go on with the tale of his loves?

PORTRAIT OF A LADY left me convinced that its setting—three women of three classes on a private island (Capek is on this Utopian/satirical social experiment wavelength as well) on the Brittany coast at the end of the 18th century—is where deep sexual love between two equals can come into full flower. (And the banter and occasional drama between Jacques and his passive Master is intoxicating in its own way.) It’s that notion of freedom, that principle whose development is the upshot of capitalism’s expansion. We buy and sell as equals on paper. This is not the age for following someone else’s rule set. Religion is part of this world but neither text is focused on faith or sin as impulses or obstacles; it’s really about consciousness and understanding the world around you and dealing with life’s cruel ironies.



Because it happens to be on my shelf and because I’ve thought about reading more novels that are currently being adapted into movies this year, I read THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London and it’s a fine episodic adventure story. Shame about the movie’s bloated VFX, going by the trailer—suppose it could have been traditionally animated, the first from 20th Century in 20 years! Then Buck’s exaggerated animations and snap poses might have made sense. As it is, now that 20th Century Fox has been devoured by the Mouse, it appears it may be an outlet for Disney’s live action productions that seem to provide what the older conception of blockbusters used to offer but inevitably wind up so off-putting.

As with everything else of London that I’ve read, the phonetic dialog was rough going but otherwise his style is heavy yet tight. There is some vicious dog fighting and dog abuse going on in here, and London chooses great, heartrending moments to go subjunctive, so that in the single process of a battered and overworked sled dog dragging himself to his spot on the pull team, he uses “would” to describe it in all these specific ways; like little time portraits of ragged misery.

Reading for the movies would be a great excuse to revisit Austen’s EMMA, and some H.G. Wells classics. But the prospect of reading things like DUNE and JCO’s BLONDE is daunting, even this early in the year.


As for non-fiction books, I read quite a few about economics and the workplace. I did *not* read CRASHED by Adam Tooze, a long work of economic history after the 2008 crash, which has sparked a lot of discussion, from the Financial Times to Perry Anderson in the NLR.

But for an assessment of the Great Recession, I can recommend THE LONG DEPRESSION by Michael Roberts. Roberts is a Trotskyist, seems to have been an autodidact, without an academic background in econ, and subscribes to the Kondratiev long cycle theory, which is a bit crankish. But he is a committed supporter of Marx’s law of profitability and its tendency to fall as the organic composition of capital rises—THE LONG DEPRESSION substantiates this with a lot of current empirical data. This book is a very concrete explanation of how the last crisis happened, why it should be considered a depression like the ones in the mid 20th century and the late 19th century, and why crisis is an intrinsic part of the capitalist mode of production.

Even when stock markets fluctuate or bottom out (and the Coronavirus panic has triggered a steep drop reminiscent of the financial meltdown), the ultimate low-lying tie to the production sector is the key. Falling profitability means finance capital won’t invest in new productive forces because the returns are not worth the risk in an economy that has so much overhanging debt. So they hoard their savings or gamble at the stock market. Which is why world capitalism skates by on bubbles of fictitious capital. The economy is pretty good on the immediate short term for businesses, but the world capitalist system’s growth is contracting. There is a great takedown of Keynesianism in this book too.

Meanwhile, student activists are watching the grad student strike wave taking place at UC in these weeks. I have already noticed ideas and rhetoric being voiced that follow from anti-work theory and politics. THE PROBLEM OF WORK by Kathi Weeks, almost 10 years old, has become surprisingly relevant again, with its discussion of universal income (proposed by the Nixon administration!) and workplace despotism. It retreads a lot of classic economistic deviations, from the Autonomist movement to Federici’s wages for housework campaign. Weeks’s reading is insightful for framing the resurgence of utopian socialism (a future with no work and all Individual flourishing, a nation of Oscar Wildes) as a third way escape from the debates of the second international, between revolutionary Bolshevism and evolutionary Bernsteinism.