There are thicc books in this house

It’s here!!! My review piece on Cartarescu’s SOLENOID ran in the spring issue of Asymptote magazine!

This essay is the product of the whole publishing shebang: pitch, draft, editor’s notes, revision, proofreading, galley edits. It was such a pleasure.

But before I can take a victory lap, it’s on to the next review project—actually one of three—which is another modernist meganovel: this time Iberian rather than eastern European. It’s Miquel de Palol’s GARDEN OF SEVEN TWILIGHTS, newly translated from the Catalan by Adrian Nathan West. I’ve come to enjoy these large post war novels and their descendants more and more, surprisingly. They’re certainly not for everyone, and not just for the esoteric qualities. Indeed, I’ve come to think of these meganovels as somewhat akin to video games in that 1) they’re immersive and require a similar investment of time, and 2) they tend to have core loops rather than traditional narrative arcs. (I’m thinking in particular of the shifting between the daily drudgery of Bucharest to the otherworldly buildings in the Caratescu.)

SOLENOID and GARDEN make for an interesting foil of large books. Their translations came out six months apart, from Deep Vellum and Dalkey Archive, respectively, which have significant overlap as publishing houses at the moment. Both have ambitions to reflect on and in many ways summate the history of western literature—though the Cartarescu focuses on modern aesthetics and philosophy, while the Palol dives into the superclassics with its fundamentally Boccaccian conceit. Both dwell a great deal on surreal built environments. Structurally, they’re complex and non-linear while still offering the leisurely drift you want from great novels; SOLENOID is made of several notebooks stuffed with memories and reflections, while GARDEN cycles through a group of storytellers, with narratives nested into each other—at one point up to 8 levels of recursion!

At this time SOLENOID is done and dusted of course, and I’ve only just started on GARDEN, but I already sense that the books have very different thematic projects, despite their modernist commitments. SOLENOID is mystical, it has the same experience of getting lost in the colonnades of subjectivity. But so far GARDEN seems more grubby and materialist, embarking on a grand search for unity in spite of the chaos, while Cartarescu’s hero seems to resign himself to dispersal.

In short, it’s been a season of big, intellectual Literary reading.

Yours truly is excited, and in a moment of self-indulgence he says to himself: AI agents can’t do this yet! I put a lot of time and some effort into delivering rich and complex ideas in a clear and entertaining way—including prose with a decent rhythm and cadence. That kind of flow and shaping, seems to me, remains a human initiative.

I’ve been fooling around with AI-generated Natural Language Processors (NLPs) since 2020. Before ChatGPT and some smaller projects, there was AI Dungeon. While it was decent enough at producing a dungeon exploration gaming experience, it could in practice be used as a chat bot that would offer all sorts of goofball, hallucinatory opinions.

The blunt application of AI to creating commercial science fiction has only led to a glut of garbage. In the arts, AI still only seems to produce chimeras, weird collages of existing elements without a “human” understanding beneath them. My friends in the copywriting industry don’t get the hype; AI-generated content is still transparently inferior. AI excels at chess and other relatively abstract practices, as well as complex operations like flying a simulated fighter plane with perfect reaction times. AI can process cyclopean corpuses of data, but when it comes to real intellectual labor, it can’t really go beyond its internal statistics, vast as they are. What exactly does AI’s “thinking” correspond to? How does one go from ponderable matter—the back-and-forth of salt and potassium in our neurons to make electrical charges—to consciousness, thoughts, feelings, imagination? This is an age-old riddle of dialectics. ChatGPT is familiar with Marxism, as far as I’ve quizzed it, but it doesn’t know how to think like a Marxist. Truly good writing, not only mechanically good, but a meaningful, deep, and true reflection of reality, is always concrete. And for that reason I think human intellectual labor is still safe from the deskillage for the time being.

But perhaps the technology will improve in a couple months!

The other day I heard some striking defenses of using AI in higher education. It makes writing easier, it can proofread, it spares the drudgery of doing your own thinking and formulating. That’s right, writing IS drudgery. It’s intellectual labor.

Along with this rationalization of AI agents for writing is the victory lap taken by some about the supersession of the humanities, those “useless degrees” that only teach you how to write, which AI has so obviously (to these people) displaced. The only impression I get from these corners is 1) they don’t know what serious writing or reading is, and 2) they never took the life of the mind seriously.

At a time when AI content’s mediocrity is still glaringly apparent to the professionals—in copywriting and elsewhere—and many are caught in the disclosure that so many people really don’t know what it takes to write and express yourself well, and have lost contact with the accumulated knowledge of human societies (in part because bourgeois academia took a mystical turn at the 20th century, and now resembles a stomach digesting itself), I am supposing—really just hoping—that those of us who bothered to master these things that AI was supposed to shortcut, will have some scarcity value. Few people around me know how to do the things I do in the particular way I do ‘em!

And now, some brief AI fiction prompted by the blogger in ChatGPT:

Buzz Lightyear stood at the bathroom mirror, his eyes wide and frenzied. He had ingested a most peculiar substance, known as “bath salts”, and the effects were beginning to take hold. Woody the Sheriff, his trusted companion, was nowhere to be found. Buzz could hear the faint echoes of a strange melody drifting down the hall, and knew that Woody must have found something equally strange to indulge in.

Buzz stumbled out of the bathroom, his movements unsteady and uncoordinated. He made his way down the corridor, his senses awash with a riot of colors and sounds. As he reached the end of the hall, he saw Woody swaying back and forth, his eyes half-closed, a small vial of ketamine clutched tightly in his hand.

“Come on, Buzz,” Woody said, beckoning to his friend. “Let’s explore the universe.”

And so, high on their respective drugs, Buzz and Woody boarded their spaceship and set a course for the unknown. As they traveled through the cosmos, they encountered strange creatures and visited alien worlds. But none were as eerie as the planet they stumbled upon by accident.

The planet was shrouded in mist, and the air was thick with the stench of decay. As they descended to the surface, Buzz and Woody saw that the planet was populated by the undead. Zombies roamed the desolate landscape, their eyes empty and their flesh rotting.

But as they explored the planet, they found something even more unsettling. A group of cultists, dressed in black robes and chanting in a language that Buzz and Woody could not understand. They were attempting to summon a demon named Loab, a creature of unspeakable evil.

Buzz and Woody, caught up in their drug-induced haze, decided to join the cultists in their ritual. They danced and chanted, their bodies moving in time with the rhythm of the words. And as they danced, the ground beneath them began to shake.

A rift opened up in the earth, and a figure emerged. It was Loab, the demon they had summoned. Its eyes glowed with a sickly green light, and its mouth twisted into a grin.

“You have summoned me,” Loab said, its voice a deep rumble. “And now, you shall be my servants.”

Buzz and Woody were terrified, but before they could react, the cultists all collapsed, their bodies turning to dust. Loab turned its attention to Buzz and Woody, but before it could strike, something strange happened.

A nearby building began to morph and twist, its walls pulsing like a living thing. And from the midst of the chaos emerged Bo Peep, Buzz’s long-lost love. She had been transformed into a being of immense power, capable of bending reality to her will.

With a wave of her hand, Bo Peep banished Loab back to its own realm. And with another gesture, she restored Buzz and Woody to their senses. They found themselves back on their ship, their adventure over.

As they looked at each other, Buzz and Woody knew that they had experienced something extraordinary. And they knew that they would never forget the strange planet, the undead, and the demon they had summoned. But most of all, they would never forget Bo Peep, and the incredible power she had wielded.

And another:

Tony was a timid boy, with a small frame and a shy disposition. He had always walked to school with his mother, but one day, his mother fell ill and couldn’t take him. Tony had no choice but to take the bus, and he felt his heart pounding with fear as he stepped onto the bus. The other children on the bus looked at him with cold, hard eyes, and he could feel their cruel stares piercing his skin.

Tony felt the sting of their words as they taunted him, calling him names and laughing at him. He was afraid and felt like he didn’t belong. But then, as the bus was traveling down the road, something unexpected happened.

An escaped horse ran out into the road, causing the bus driver to swerve and lose control. Tony suddenly realized that he had mind powers, and he could control the bus driver’s actions. He concentrated all his energy and commanded the driver to hit the horse in the head, killing it instantly.

The other children on the bus were stunned and shocked. They couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed. Tony looked around at their faces and felt a strange sense of satisfaction. He enjoyed their reactions, and for the first time, he felt like he had power over them.

The rest of the bus ride was silent as the children stared at Tony in fear and amazement. Tony basked in the attention, relishing the newfound respect he had earned. He had always been an outcast, but now, he was the one in control.

When the bus arrived at school, Tony stepped off with a newfound confidence. He no longer felt like a victim; instead, he felt like a conqueror. The other children looked at him in awe and fear, and Tony knew that he would never be bullied again. He had found his power, and he would use it to protect himself from the cruelties of the world.

Edgy enough for ya?

New publications, if you are interested~ My story “Blue Hour” in now live in Issue 18 of Scissors & Spackle, the experimental supplement to Emerge Literary Journal, and the ever-excellent Full Stop has published a review essay of WARNING TO THE CROCODILES by Lobo Antunes that I had mentioned working on back in my November 2021 post. Oof, those paragraphs looked shorter in the manuscript. Bah, paragraph breaks are overrated. Right?

And now for the blog

I do miss going to museums. I remember seeing Barnett Newman’s VIR HEROICUS SUBLIMIS in the flesh 12 years ago. Just your usual abstract expressionism, a big—massive color field. A simple composition, five lines before a pure red space, that might reach toward a hazy alien landscape, or a graph of the spectra of visible light.

However, being able to get up close to the painting, more things can be brought to your attention. There are subtleties in how these zips were applied to the picture.

The passage of one’s gaze over one of these lines brings out differences not just in color, but in the texture of the paint layers, and the nature of the edge, whether it is hard or rough. If you read cognitive linguistics and poetics, then at a conceptual level, you can talk about all of these definitional aspects of the painting as edges. It was convenient of Newman’s pictures to be concerned with the arrangement of edges as such. Edges and edgework (I wish they’d call it edging) are essential to the perceptual process. Edges bind the forms of objects in our vision, and distinguish these objects spatially through foreground and background. It’s in the processing of the edges that we process the imagined worlds presented by works of art. Changes in edge-processing reflect changes in artistic texture.

Any form of conceptual transition in any artistic medium, as well as our own physical experience, can be thought of as edges. Moving your hand over wood and glass and feeling the qualitative tactile change of the surfaces, seeing the grain of the wood become the smooth transparency, is an experience of edges. And so is moving your eyes over a line of normal text that suddenly becomes italics. Mr. Lanz would also have us know that switches in point of view, in the reference points for the grounding of figures, also qualify as edgework.

It’s interesting how fundamentally visual the concept is (based in part on gestalt psychology, with principles like in the above illustration), but that appears to be the orientation indicated by modern research into human consciousness. The “movie in your head” metaphor for reading fiction may be quite unavoidable. 


Edges abound even in literary texts. And it was edges I had in mind while reading my third Jo Nesbø thriller. PHANTOM is Harry Hole novel #9. It was hearing about this one that got me to check out the series starting with SNOWMAN, so that I could get here. I was told this one is a deeply sad, slow burn, that it even reaches the realm of Literature. It’s certainly an intimate and dark scenario: the detective returns to Norway to clear the name of his sort-of adopted son Oleg, who is accused of murdering a drug dealer. There are painful scenes of Harry facing Oleg’s addiction problems. It’s a slow burn, and not that suspenseful, mainly because of a dead man’s testimony that interrupts Harry’s detective work.

To go back to edgework: most everyone knows spontaneously how storytelling works. You set a sequence of events, then it’s just a matter of how detailed you want to get. Novels and short stories by professionals aren’t fundamentally different. But where mastery and command come in is the way good writers can establish a story world while directing your attention around and through it. The opening paragraph of PHANTOM is a good example. There’s a general hierarchy of figures that attract readerly attention, with active human agents at the top and abstractions at the bottom, and the narration can brighten these figures or dim them, make them large or small, loud or quiet, bring them near or far away—like a conceptual black box theater. What happens when a text opens without any humans strictly speaking? The main “attractor” in his passage will be an animal, and a human being won’t appear till the end:

Amid the noises of the night in downtown Oslo—the regular drone of cars outside the window, the distant siren that rose and fell and the church bells that had begun to chime nearby—a rat went on the hunt for food. She ran her nose over the filthy linoleum on the kitchen floor. The pungent smell of gray cigarette ash. The sugary-sweet aroma of blood on a piece of cotton gauze. The bitter odor of beer on the inside of a bottle cap, Ringnes lager. Molecules of sulfur, saltpeter and carbon dioxide filtered up from an empty metal cartridge case designed for a nine-by-eighteen millimeter lead bullet, also called a Makarov, after the gun to which the caliber was originally adapted. Smoke from a still-smoldering cigarette with a yellow filter and black paper, bearing the Russian imperial eagle. The tobacco was edible. And there: a stench of alcohol, leather, grease and asphalt. A shoe. She sniffed it. The obstacle lay on its side with its back to the wall blocking the entrance to the nest, and her eight newly born, blind, hairless babies were screaming ever louder for her milk. The mountain of flesh smelled of salt, sweat and blood. It was a human body. A living human being; her sensitive ears could detect the faint heartbeats between her babies’ hungry squeals.

As readers we’re fixed in a place but not necessarily with a point of view (it’s there but it’s delayed, put at the end of the sentence). It’s like a movie whose first shot opens on an empty set before a character enters the frame. In this place there is a regular tone in “the drone of cars,” a faint sound in the “distant sirens,” and a new sound in “the church bells,” that come through a window in a room, placed in an interruptive clause that delays the appearance of the rat, who must be perceiving these things. A familiar scene of urban squalor is established through a defamiliarized POV (to use a keyword from Russian formalism, now a post-“Marxist” term of art). Linguists talk about “impersonation,” which can boost the “attractor” status of a given figure by lending it human qualities. Anthropomorphism is only the most visible form of this strategy: give a bear clothes and he immediately becomes more human, as many English authors understood. In this case, this rat is not just a rat but a momma rat (a mother is a mother), whose way to her hungry babies (not “pups”) has been blocked, not by a human being, but the shoe being worn by one.

The writer could have let us follow the rat until she runs up against “the body,” or “the dead man,” as a kind of readerly jumpscare, but that would miss the point. It is by obscuring the human, the figure that “should” be the most attractive to us, behind the shoe and the smells of a fresh crime scene, by blending him into the setting, that the rat retains our POV alignment. It’s all capped off with the faint heartbeats of the dying man woven in with the cries of the rat’s pups. Guiding readerly attention in this way, amplifying animals and downgrading humans as per the needs of the story, is the novelist’s bread and butter.

Motherhood is not the only thing applied to this rat that contributes to the “impersonation.” This is one attuned rat, who can pick out the smells of “wet cigarette ash,” blood on cotton, the residue of beer on a bottle cap, and she even knows the brand name. And what about that sentence in the middle, beginning with “molecules,” which might lead back to the animal’s smell, good enough to perceive the molecules “filtering up” from the bullet casing, but goes into a full forensic register about gunpowder and Makarov bullets. Is it the rat or the third person narrator demonstrating this ballistics knowledge? Maybe it’s the still-dying man, whose first testimony is about to begin. Maybe it’s what Harry Hole would have observed, if he could have.

Actually, in fiction there’s always a narrator and a POV, even when the first person is employed, and both sides supply language to the text in tandem. 

As cool as the above passage was, I dunno, this entry in the HH series isn’t doing it for me (I’m 75% done). It feels slower than previous books even though it’s shorter. The crosscut structure with the dead man’s testimony dampened things down. The writing style is beginning to annoy me (Don Bartlett also translates Knausgaard’s books). I don’t know what writers and readers see in these clipped sentences that leave out verbs or agents. “Alex set his americano on the table next to his laptop. Took a small sip. Opened the laptop and got to writing.” It brings to mind a very narrow open door frame, and only one thing can ever come through it at a time. Perhaps it’s the intensively monotrack mentality of a detective. 

One example is this passage where Harry Hole falls off his horse into the water. Because Harry’s been knocked out of his senses, this disintegrated experience from his POV gives us essentially a walkthrough on how edgework works in literature:

Harry swam toward the light, toward the surface. The light became stronger and stronger. Then he broke through. Opened his eyes. And stared straight up at the sky. He was lying on his back. Something came into his field of vision. A horse’s head. And another.

The edges mark the transitions from water to air (a literal edge of surface tension), darkness to light (and the light brightens). How much more basic can it get? An undefined shape, a “something,” resolves into a horse’s head, joined by an additional identical shape.

If you count the full stops, there are nine sentences. But I prefer to think that there are four sentences, and that two of them have four and three full stops, respectively.

And I may prefer to read about a rat detective than the next Harry Hole.

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.

The utterly scuppered summation for November


Read in November: Nesbo’s THE LEOPARD (much more violent, and more of a whodunnit than the dark motive-searching of Snowman; I’m glad Nesbo is willing to mix it up in this series) | Ashbery’s WAKEFULNESS.


An early book that has Lobo Antunes channeling Malcolm Lowry—and to better effect, since unfortunately I find UNDER THE VOLCANO disappointing in some respects (haven’t finished it yet). It’s hard to put a word on the fault I find with it, but it’s obscure. Even though the writing is clear for the most part, though it does slur in its rhythm. The novel’s landscape and characters remain shadowy from start to finish. Whenever we’re in the Consul’s point of view a kind of deranged yet pure-hearted and idle wordplay takes up the foreground, a semantic drift that serves as a kind of touchstone of the shitfaced: katzenjammer becomes cat’s pajamas, katabasis into cat’s abysses, then Cathartes atratus and so on.


This is a wonderful collection of prose pieces and notes. There’s such whimsy coming round the edges of these aphoristic constructions.

Cuando un órgano ejerce su función con plenitud, no hay malicia posible en el cuerpo. En el momento en que el tenista lanza magistralmente su bola, le posee una inocencia totalmente animal.

Lo mismo ocurre con el cerebro. En el momento en que el filósofo sorprende una nueva verdad, es una bestia completa. Anatole France decía que el sentimiento religioso es la función de un órgano especial del cuerpo humano, hasta ahora desconocido. Podría también afirmarse que, en el momento preciso en que este órgano de la funciona con plenitud, el creyente es también un ser desprovisto a tal punto de malicia que se diría un perfecto animal.

(When an organ carries out its function fully, there is no possible malice in the body. At the moment a tennis player masterfully tosses the ball, he is possessed by animal innocence.

The same occurs within the brain. At the moment the philosopher discovers a new truth, he is a complete beast. Anatole France said that religious sentiment is the function of a special organ of the human body, yet to be discovered. One could also affirm that, at the precise moment that this organ of faith functions at its peak, the believer is also a being so devoid of malice that he could be called utterly animal.) 

I had a reading of these lines, but my booster shot for the Covid vaccine obliterated it, so that I can no longer understand what I had thought.

Vallejo is someone you want to follow as a disciple, what a scary authoritative presence. This book includes fragments from his notebooks, and just the single mention of Knut Hamsun compels me to put him at the top of the TBR. Also: “El arte según Marx: reflejo de la economía (Art according to Marx: reflection of the economy).” And “Poetas según Marx, que deben ser políticos militantes y conocerlo y vivirlo todo (Poets according to Marx, should be militant politicians who know it all and live it all).

Lately I’ve been thinking about the opening shot of SICARIO, where the federal troops creep into a view of suburban America. A story I once read in PLOUGHSHARES (I can’t seem to locate it) opens with a similar image, armed cops on the rooftop of a family home to stop a mass shooter. The same vibe is achieved in THE GHOST SOLDIERS by James Tate, a poetry collection that creates the impression that all these pieces take place in the same small town in the Midwest that is constantly disrupted by warfare, with bombs landing in cow pastures and tanks blowing away farm houses. I’m increasingly drawn to this conceit of massive, mechanized violence brought to bear on safe and idyllic places where such things aren’t supposed to happen, but of course the comfort of the latter rests on the former taking place elsewhere.

The first 30 pages of WAR OF THE WORLDS makes this point again, as ground zero for the Martian invasion is the peaceful northern London suburb of Barnet. A Sci-fi war bursts into a scene of bourgeois domestic bliss:

About six in the evening, as I sat at tea with my wife in the summerhouse talking vigorously about the battle that was lowering upon us, I heard a muffled detonation from the common, and immediately after a gust of firing. Close on the heels of that came a violent rattling crash, quite close to us, that shook the ground; and, starting out upon the lawn, I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down into ruin. The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished, and the roof line of the college itself looked as if a hundred-ton gun had been at work upon it. One of our chimneys cracked as if a shot had hit it, flew, and a piece of it came clattering down the tiles and made a heap of broken red fragments upon the flower bed by my study window.

I’m pretty sure the first time I read this book was shortly before 9/11, and perhaps the longer you wait before a reread, the more empowering it may feel. It goes by fast. I was moved to revisit it by the 83rd anniversary of Welles’s radio broadcast last Halloween weekend. And to my surprise the modern film and TV adaptations are pretty faithful to Wells’s original plot, but with faster pacing and other adornments.

Unfortunately I seemed to have entered a trough toward the end of November, and in the middle of producing this post, I have forgotten how to read and write.