Friday, December 11, 1998

Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions (review #1)

A Review of Jorge Luis Borges Collected Fictions

Originally published in Toast Magazine, Winter 1998

Collected Fictions
Jorge Luis Borges
Viking, $40

Ever wonder why American fiction got so weird so quickly in the 1960s? Why the likes of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, William Gass, and Cynthia Ozick started weaving labyrinths that made nascent literary mighties like John Updike and Saul Bellow seem obsolete before their time? Aside from the advent of LSD, it’s almost as simple as this: Jorge Luis Borges got translated into English.

Borges’ world of infinite libraries, cabalistic societies, infinitesimal memories, and apocryphal histories had long been one of the main driving forces behind what came to be known as magical realism, but outside of Latin America, almost nobody knew who he was, and so when his greatest-hits collection, Labyrinths, reached the States in 1962, everything changed.

Over the years, several other volumes of poetry, prose, and essays followed Labyrinths, but now, twelve years after Borges’ death, Andrew Hurley has translated his entire catalogue of stories, prose poems, and parables into English.

Although there are no proper essays in the Collected Fictions, Borges often blurs the line between fact and fiction, frequently calling his essays stories and his stories essays. And he often writes himself and his friends into his pieces so that the reader never knows if what the story relates happened or not. The influence on postmodernism is clear (see William Vollmann’s work), and with the text falling back on itself to examine and question its own authenticity and authority, the reader often ends up getting lost in an ambiguous maze with no center.

But despite the literary games set up to undercut them, Borges’ stories are some of the most vividly imagined since Kafka’s. Take for instance “The Library of Babel.” The narrator describes his universe as an endless (or cyclical) library comprising an innumerable number of rooms, all identical and each with the same number of books. The books are identical in format, and each one represents a unique combination of the twenty-five lexical symbols. It sounds like a wanky philosophical exercise, but in Borges’ hands it’s a thrilling—and terrifying—examination of what happens to individuals when they’re faces with the infinite.

Take also “Funes, His Memory,” in which a simple country boy falls off his horse, hits his head, becomes paralyzed, and is ever after blessed (or cursed) with limitless memory. Borges spends pages recounting Funes’ mnemonic feats but then ends up lamenting how the boy’s infinite memory warps—and ends up replacing—his present.

Hurley’s task as translator is only slightly less daunting than cataloging the Library of Babel, but aside from a few inconsistencies and weird word choices (“gaol” for “jail”), he does an admirable job. The translation is lucid and readable, allowing the reader a clear glimpse into the worlds Borges imagined.

But be warned: Borges’ readers are no less at the mercy of the infinite than are his characters. The man’s awesome imagination and vast erudition are as terrifying as they are entertaining, and too much at one time can induce vertigo. But for the brave reader, there are few pleasures as satisfying as surrendering to such a monumental writer.

—David Wiley

Friday, May 1, 1998

Notes From Underground: American Literature, Alive and Well and in the Hands of Maniacs

Notes From Underground: American Literature,

Alive and Well and in the Hands of Maniacs

Originally published in the Underdog, a journal published by the University of Amsterdams English Department, April/May 1998

Does American literature make you yawn? Are you bored to tears by novels about farms or divorces or the minute workings of the suburban family? Then chances are you’ve been paying too much attention to the New York Times bestseller list, or the recent list of Pulitzer Prize winners. Because let’s face it: Boring sells in America, when it comes to literature, at least. Most readers don’t want to be challenged by alternate views of the world they live in—be they challenges in viewpoint or formal literary innovations. The book-buying public wants stories about an America that doesn’t really exist, a logical, rational place unsullied by the self-reflexive problems—or triumphs—of postmodernity. In other words, we want the world sold to us on television, and we don’t want to question that world—or the conduits through which we receive that world.

But fortunately, there’s a strong undercurrent working against this seemingly monolithic flow of domestic blah—a fistful of young (as well as older) writers not only showing us the America we feared existed, but doing it in ways that challenge the very place—and purpose—of literature. Not satisfied with producing “slices of life” in the conventional sense, our best writers’ work is a complex dialogue with reality—or “reality,” since the way these writers portray the world often dismisses the notion of any kind of objective or capturable truth. Rejecting the sanitized TV world, these writers’ work is like the notion of TV itself—bizarre, choppy, problematic, unsettling, endlessly self-referential and, above all, postmodern.

Leading the pack—or maybe being the entire pack himself—is the thirty-eight-year-old novelist William T. Vollmann. Extending the fictional legacy left him by the previous generation’s literary weirdoes—Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, to name a few—Vollmann stands as one of our most exciting—and disturbing—fictioneers. Having published approximately 5,000 pages worth of material in the last eleven years, Vollmann is charting a literary world that’s as breathtaking in its vision as it is exhausting in scope. Mixing together the fantastic and the ostensibly real, his world is a creepy, ever-shifting confusion of reportage and myth, and his overall effect on the reader—like that of Pynchon or Gaddis or even Melville—is a strange feeling of having journeyed through a parallel universe that only calls itself America.

In 1982, having just graduated from Cornell University, Vollmann crossed into Afghanistan with Islamic commandos, gathering material for what would become The Afghanistan Picture Show, and after that he worked as a computer programmer in San Francisco. I interviewed Vollmann two years ago for The Minnesota Daily, and he says that he wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, while living in his office. He worked for eight hours, slept for eight hours, and wrote for eight hours, and the resulting novel is one of the most astonishingly weird books of our time. Although not as successful in artistic terms as his later work, You Bright and Risen Angels invented a new world of possibility for the novel. Narrated both by someone called “The Author,” a man working in a computer programming office, and by “Big George,” a ubiquitous electrical force that oversees everything, the novel tells the story of a bloody revolutionary war between insects and electricity. With two narrators, the reader never knows who’s speaking or who’s in charge of the text, and with the story jumping between stylized versions of American history and absurd flights of imagination, the novel challenges almost every assumption about what a novel is supposed to do.

Vollmann’s second book, The Rainbow Stories, is probably my favorite of his works, addressing such diverse subjects as neo-Nazi skinheads, prostitution, Islamic assassins, and the Bible. Each story takes up a different color, and the result is a widely variegated vision of Vollmann’s literary spectrum. Vollmann’s most recent book, The Atlas, attempts a similar scope, the stories spanning both the literal globe and the author’s literary globe, and with a palindromic structure holding the stories together, the collection falls back on itself like a book closing itself at its end. Vollmann is also at work on a series called Seven Dreams, which tells the history of America beginning with the first interactions between Native Americans and Norse conquerors and probably taking us up to the present day. He’s published the first, second, and sixth volumes of the series, and he’s sporadically working on the others as we speak. Also highly recommended is his short novel Whores for Gloria, which, like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, presents a brief, bizarre, and endlessly suggestive nightmare vision of the American underworld.

Like Vollmann, our other leading literary lights are the ones who challenge us both textually and contextually, taking up not just new fictional territory, but also new ways of exploring that territory. The biggest standouts seem to be David Foster Wallace, Rikki Ducornet, and Richard Grossman, who are all writing novels as if they were not just reinventing the wheel, but were inventing something completely unimagined. Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest is probably the best example of what I’m talking about; taking on politics, popular culture, family life, and the novel itself, it explores the world of art and entertainment in ways that question their very nature. And at almost 1,100 pages, you’d think he’d be able to come up with some kind of exhaustive lexicon of the states of art and entertainment; but in his most postmodern move, the novel ends about 600 or 700 pages short of resolution. Although it may be somewhat influenced by Vollmann’s first novel, which constantly refers to forthcoming (and nonexistent) volumes and whose table of contents covers about three times more ground than the novel itself, Infinite Jest’s ending suggests new ways for novels to think about themselves. It’s massive and incomplete, and this may be the best we can hope for these days.

Rikki Ducornet, although not as young as Vollmann or Wallace, is still on the cutting edge of what’s going on in American letters. But while those two bring to mind Pynchon or Gaddis, she recalls writers such as Lewis Carroll, the Marquis de Sade, Kafka, and Borges. Unlikely bedfellows, for sure, but in Ducornet’s zany literary universe, absurd juxtapositions are the name of the game. She throws anything she can think of into her books, and what results is a kind of salmagundi that sometimes seems disconnected but invariably adds up to something amazing. Her best book is Phosphor in Dreamland, which is an epistolary novel telling the story of the semi-mythic island Birdland, focusing on its most famous inhabitant, a seventeenth-century poet, philosopher, and artist named Phosphor. When I interviewed her last year, Ducornet cited the late British novelist Angela Carter as a big influence (and friend), and like Carter (and Phosphor), Ducornet is a rare bird who defies all categorization.

The newest writer on my list is Richard Grossman, who’s at work on a series called the American Letters Trilogy, which depicts America as Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, respectively. The first volume, The Alphabet Man, which tells the story of a poet/murderer named Clyde Wayne Franklin, is a crazy mishmash of straight narrative, poetry, disjointed hallucinations, and linguistic experiments. It’s a little like William Faulkner on LSD. The second volume, The Book of Lazarus, is even stranger (and better), weaving letters, photos, epitaphs, aphorisms, and reminiscences into a tale of political and social creepiness and ambiguity. Grossman is working on the third volume at present, so we’ll have to wait a while to get to Paradise.

Of course there’s a lot more great work going on in American literature than the wacky postmodern stuff I’m into. There are plenty of conventional writers, such as Tobias Wolff, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Richard Ford, who are challenging in their own ways; especially recommended are Wolff’s story collection In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Phillips’ novel Shelter, and Ford’s novel Independence Day. But as far as what’s pushing the envelope of fictional possibility, this weird stuff is where it’s at.

—David Wiley

Thursday, April 23, 1998

Debut Novel, by Stefania Procalowska

A review of Debut Novel, by Stefania Procalowska

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
April 23rd, 1998

Debut Novel
By Stefania Procalowska
Manic D Press, $22

The late Kathy Acker wrote in her review of Richard Grossman’s novel The Alphabet Man, “I have dreamt a book, not a book that tells a story, not even one that tells story upon story, all of them intertwining and changing one another’s meanings, but a book that simply is everything.” As amazing as Grossman’s novel is, it’s a shame Acker didn’t live to read Stefania Procalowska’s debut novel, Debut Novel, which although just a slim 193 pages, contains more and does more than almost any of the massive lexicon novels published this decade.

Initially, the most arresting aspect of the novel is that it’s written in first person—from the reader’s point of view. It begins, “I just opened Stefania Procalowska’s debut novel and found that I’m the main character.” Although this recalls Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, which employs a gimmicky second person that doesn’t really do anything challenging, Procalowska uses this innovation literally to project the reader into her novel’s insane world—a world in which not just the reader but the words on the page and the book itself are characters. And unlike McInerney’s gendered “you,” there’s no indication of whether the reader is male or female, and as with Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, it doesn’t really matter.

After a few pages of preliminaries, where “I” become acclimated to being both reader, narrator, and main character, I’m unceremoniously thrust into a quest for certain missing parts of the novel—parts that I as a reader require but Procalowska, who jumps in every once in a while to remind me that it’s just a book and not reality, refuses to furnish. In the course of “my” quest, I end up taking a whirlwind tour of Procalowska’s cracked literary universe, which includes everything from Biblical figures to altered historical accounts to literary characters to television and ’60s and ’70s pop culture. At one point, I find myself thumbing through the pages of Wuthering Heights with Zechariah and Don Cornelius (Jesus’ second cousin and the host of Soul Train, respectively, which makes for an interesting examination of Black/Jewish relations), looking for a narrative structure that could rein in the multi-layered, genre-hopping mess I’ve found myself in.

Certainly, the layer upon layer of storytelling recalls Wuthering Heights, but it does so in a way that recalls the way Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School recalls The Scarlet Letter—that is, in a stylized and bent manner that not just reinterprets the story, but revises it and incorporates it into the story at hand. So after a while, Bronte’s two Catherines make their way into the novel to help me along. And to further complicate the issue, I also find myself sidetracked into reading Joyce Elbert’s 1969 trash novel The Crazy Ladies (which in an utterly amazing literary confluence, I [the book reviewer, not the character in the book] actually read as a kid), and the characters from that book come alive to counter anything the Catherines say.

One of the funniest things about Procalowska’s use of things literary is her treatment of the self-reflexive trappings of the publishing world. In my search through Procalowska’s imaginary bookshelf, I’m as influenced by the book jackets as by the books themselves, so my understanding of my reading—and of Debut Novel itself—is colored greatly by the blurbs on books’ back covers. My favorite is the (presumably real) blurb for The Crazy Ladies, which reads, “Philip Roth, bow your head. Irving Wallace, eat your heart out. Joyce Elbert’s back in town.” So naturally Roth and Wallace enter into the book to debate Joyce Elbert’s literary worth, which of course is colored by the pejorative blurb about themselves. Procalowska’s wackiest blurbs, however, are the ones she puts on the back of Debut Novel itself. Citing such bogus periodicals as The Journal of Masonic History and Bug World, Procalowska both praises herself and pokes fun at the ways novels market themselves. And in a truly cool literary move, the blurbs turn out to be the key to (almost) understanding the novel’s ending. So don’t skip them.

Debut Novel isn’t all fun and games, however. Embedded within the stories-within-stories is a deep concern for the state of contemporary art and entertainment, and consequently for the state of contemporary America. In using both literary and popular references, juxtaposing the decadent with the ostensibly meaningful—or the sacred with the profane—Procalowska creates a vast array of literary and ethical choices that makes “me” explore my role as reader, consumer, and citizen—as well as Procalowska’s role as artist. Because with so much fluctuating and irreconcilable narrative madness, the question arises, is she in control of the text? And do I have any real choices or meaningful work to do as a reader? And is making me ask these questions part of her overall plan, making me think I have some critical power while still asserting her true control over me as the helpless reader? Because, let’s face it, this novel is a page-turner, and I can’t help but keep reading.

The obvious comparison is to an ironic television show that sells me a particular point of view while making me think I’m in on the joke. While watching the show, is there any way I can examine it critically, and is my detached critical view just another layer accounted for by clever marketers to keep me watching? So the ultimate question ends up being, is Procalowska putting one over on me or is she truly making me look critically at what I’m reading? And does it matter? It’s tricky ground she makes the reader tread, and the novel’s ending—if you can call it that—gives few hints at what she wants “me” to conclude about the novel. Maybe this is my only real freedom as a reader, and it comes just in time. The 193 pages that make up Debut Novel, although addictive, are exhausting reading, and even if I come to no conclusions, I leave the book profoundly altered. Let’s hope Procalowska’s sophomore effort (will she call it Sophomore Effort?) continues in this relentless vein.

—David Wiley

A Crackup at the Race Riots, by Harmony Korine

A review of A Crackup at the Race Riots, by Harmony Korine

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
April 23rd, 1998

By Harmony Korine
Doubleday, $14.95

From folks like Pier Paulo Pasolini and Woody Allen to Ally Sheedy and Ethan Hawke, film people love to write books, and that’s not always such a good idea. Granted, Pasolini’s a genius, but when you’re faced with a book of Leonard Nimoy’s love poems or Charlton Heston’s manly aphorisms, you know that something’s wrong with the publishing business. A Crackup at the Race Riots, the new “novel” by filmmaker Harmony Korine (Gummo), seems to fulfill all the best and worst expectations for such an undertaking.

At its best, A Crackup at the Race Riots is a hilarious jumble of half-baked scenes and ideas. And that’s what it is at its worst, too. Tossing together jokes, rumors, lists, vignettes, drawings, and suicide notes, Korine seems out to annoy rather than entertain or move the reader. The suicide notes can be pretty amazing, though, and some of the rumors are downright ingenious (e.g. Jerry Garcia tongue-kissed his older sister on his deathbed), but mostly it’s just silly and juvenile. Pretentious too—he’s constantly making references to folks like Proust and Walter Benjamin, as if he’s really read them. And there’s one section that’s plagiarized word-for-word from Donald Barthelme’s story “Conversations with Goethe.” But if we call it “sampling,” (the ultimate postmodern form), I guess we can let him get away with it. Or better yet, skip the book and go rent Gummo.

—David Wiley

Thursday, February 26, 1998

Postmodern American Fiction, edited by Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy

A review of Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology, 

edited by Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine, February 26th, 1998

Just What the Hell is Postmodernism, Anyway?

Edited by Paula Geyh,
Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy
Putnam, $23.95

Although compiling an anthology of postmodern fiction seems antithetical to the very idea of postmodernism, the folks at Norton have made a bold (if ironic and cynical) attempt at doing just that—boldness, irony, and cynicism of course being three prominent markers of postmodernism. Skimming the cream of half a century of American Postmodernism, as well as including nearly a dozen essays, Postmodern American Fiction tries to capture an aesthetic that by its very nature eludes clear definition, as well as purports to canonize works that were largely written against the idea of the canon. So what we have here is a canon of the uncanonizable.

Once you accept the premise that this anthology isn’t an absurd undertaking, the first thing that proves you wrong is the introduction. Postmodernists generally rail against any kind of objective authority system—especially those that fade into the background to become implicit (see Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, where the main antagonist is the sinister and ubiquitous “Them”). And what does this anthology do? It begins with an introduction without a byline. As if the anonymous essay were the ultimate lowdown on what postmodernism is, not even needing to sully itself with a living, breathing (and biased) author. It’s downright weird.

Aside from that, it’s actually a pretty handy introduction. I guess we’re supposed to assume that it’s written by the three editors, Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy, each focusing on his or her area of expertise. And They seem to cover a lot of the bases. They analyze the impact of the Second World War on literature and culture, discussing the relationship of so-called postmodernity (a cultural term) with the emerging group of writers that critics have labeled the postmodernists (a literary term). Also, They chart some of postmodernism’s influences in the modernist and avant-garde artistic movements, making a compelling and informative summary of how postmodernism evolved.

The most interesting thing in the introduction, however, is the section headed “Postmodern Fiction and Postmodern Theory,” which reads pretty convincingly but ends up eroding the book’s entire authority. The discussion of antifoundationalism begins with the statement, “If any one common thread unites the diverse artistic and intellectual movements that constitute postmodernism, it is the questioning of any belief system that claims universality or transcendence.” Seems pretty accurate, but then when They go on to discuss the impossibility of objective truth on the part of any kind of foundation, or the veracity of “the official story,” it’s like saying “this statement is false.” Postmodern critics are caught in a Catch-22 that nullifies any authoritative statement They could make. And this volume just accentuates the problem.

Nevertheless, this is a really fun anthology. They break it down into six sections of fiction, each one exploring a particular aspect or style that (sometimes) fits into the postmodern rubric, and one section of essays. The first section, “Breaking the Frame,” is kicked off, natch, by Thomas Pynchon. It’s kind of a misleading beginning, however, because while Pynchon is undoubtedly the Big Kahuna of postmodernism, he’s hardly the first one writing in this style. Which brings up the anthology’s biggest problem: There’s no William Gaddis. He’s not even mentioned in any of the sections or in the index at the end. It’s probably attributable to the fact that They want to make the first selection (from Pynchon’s 1996 novel The Crying of Lot 49) jibe with Their idea that literary postmodernism begins in the 1960s. Not True. Gaddis’ 1955 novel The Recognitions lays the groundwork for almost everything that’s covered in this anthology’s pages, and on top of that, it out-mind-boggles even Pynchon.

Still, the selections here are quite good. Including folks like Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Ishmael Reed, Carole Maso, and Lynn Tillman (Women mostly get shunted to the end of the section! And, hey, where’s Cynthia Ozick?), They fairly accurately cover the writers that most challenged conventional narrative styles and forms. Although They do make the cardinal sin of referring to Gass’ story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as canonical. How unpostmodern!

The next section, “Fact Meets Fiction,” seems a bit iffy, despite some fine selections. It includes William T. Vollmann, the reigning idiot-savant of American letters, as well as Theresa Cha and Gloria Anzaldua, which are pretty great choices. But if you want to believe that Truman Capote and Norman Mailer are postmodernists, I guess that’s your business.

The “Popular Culture and High Culture Collide” section would be better served by David Foster Wallace’s wacky “Little Expressionless Animals,” which features Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek as characters, but it’s still a good representation. There’s Laurie Anderson (yes, the musician) and Jay Cantor and Lynda Barry (comic book writers), as well as the obligatory Robert Coover selection.

The “Revisiting History” and “Revisiting Tradition” sections explore alternative versions of the past—both historical and literary. The main gripe here is that, no matter how challenging it is, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is really more modernist than postmodernist. Other questionable (but artistically great) inclusions are E.L. Doctorow and Marilynne Robinson, but the John Barth, Kathy Acker, and David Foster Wallace selections are right on, as are most of the others.

The “Technoculture” section might be the most interesting of the lot. Starting things off with William Gibson and including a big chunk of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, this section explores the looming presence of technology as both subject and tool of fiction. While White Noise delves into the utter creepiness of modern technology, the J. Yellowhees Douglas and Michael Joyce stories embrace it wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the latter selections, because they’re hypertext stories posted on Norton’s website, and my crappy Mackintosh SE isn’t hooked up to anything except the wall outlet (and look who’s calling other people un-postmodern!).

Despite the sheer impossibility of its task, Postmodern American Fiction gives an intriguing overview of what’s been happening in (and to) American literature in this half of the century. With the “Casebook of Postmodern Theory” rounding things out, it offers a comprehensive, if problematic, look at the radical changes in American literature since your professors graduated from college. Along with Gaddis’ The Recognition, this anthology works as a terrific supplement to what you learned in your English classes. Buy them both for yourself as your graduation presents

—David Wiley