Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dear Dennis Brutus,

I took your course in African literature at Northwestern. I know I didn't read the Mongo Beti novel. But I read the Armah. I read the Ngugi. And the hilarious Salih. And . . . I thought I'd read the Achebe. But there I sat this morning, reading this old book from my shelves, and nothing of it seemed familiar. Not a word. Did I skim? Did I read it on the edge of sleep and thus retain nothing but what might return to me whenever I slide near the twilight of consciousness? Or did I simply not read it?

Oh Dennis, it was not my aim to thwart your aims. I was young. And how fondly I recall the way you evoked each writer's alien world merely by the speaking of each name. Your high voice, your South African accent emerging from the halo of hair and beard. So you summon them for me still, these writers of other lands.

I will read the Achebe now. It is so good.

But do not expect a paper.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics, ed. Sean Howe

Riveting, the subject line! (My only falsehood!) Fine work, the book! Especial praise: Aimee Bender on the value of graphic narrative! Geoff Dyer on how comics shaped his aesthetic sense! Geoffrey O'Brien on the wildness of Jim Steranko's art and our world's strangeness (I simplify, I simply . . . )! Glen David Gold on the obsessiveness of collecting (an involving story)! Chris Offutt (sing of his short fiction!) on the marginal comic character with which he connected! Myla Goldberg on Renée French (my thanks for the introduction; her blog now gives me daily weirdness) and Chris Ware! and Andrew Hultkrans's mental excursions prompted by artist Steve Ditko!

Worth noting for meanderingness: Jonathan Lethem's piece. This reader does not find himself charmed when a writer says, in effect, "Actually, I meant to say--" or "Wow, I got off track," as if the essay were spontaneously stepping full-bodied from said writer's skull and could not be altered rather than being a thing the writer actually spent time crafting and was paid to provide. Bogosity!

And whither Krazy Kat!?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Barthelme's The Dead Father, Praising of

So you finished it.

Did. Did indeed. That section, the one I balked at? Turned out, there's where the book kicked into high gear.

These clichés . . . 

The book umped the umpdoodle. It flang me. I was kerflanged. "The Dead Father" himself becomes secondary to the concept of father, or at least an Overfather, the big boss. One--


--gets the sense that Barthelme's own father was a bruiser, thick of word and hand, a man to be, with much difficulty, processed and put behind. And so in the novel they drag his brobdingnagian carcass and take his power bit by bit. I relaxed with the book when I realized I didn't have to parse it all or even figure out who was talking in its non sequitur–packed conversations. The end was beautiful, just beautiful. A fine thing.

You've spoken your speaking.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Unfinished work

Give me a sample.

Of the latest work?

The thing you're planning to work on today.

All right. I'll give you the opening paragraph.

What's it called again?

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down."

Some sort of metaphor?

Well, I don't want to--


I wouldn't--


I forget which one that is.

 . . .

In any case, here's the opening:

When I married, late and surprised, I hadn’t heard from the old man for about two years. I knew his assistants went through fallow periods, only to be summoned back into service from out of the blue. Having heard nothing formal, I considered myself retired rather than dismissed, but in truth I didn’t know what to think. No contact was possible between me and my former peers. From my own time with the old man, I sensed some people had simply aged out of service; others died, of course, and not only because the old man’s career had spanned decades.

What kind of thing is this?

Again, I'd rather not say too much.

How about a line at random.

“No. If he’d died, we’d know. The world,” she said, and waited so long I thought the call had been cut off, but then she concluded, “wouldn’t make as much sense.”

That was at random?

Well. Random . . . . I went to a section that was in decent shape.

So now choose something you quite like. Less random.

It’s true that he never used a gun. For a while there, I carried one. So did Jean. Balder kept a tiny pistol up his sleeve, not the sort of weapon for doing much damage, but that was in keeping with the ethic of the Work The old man didn’t want us killing people, not if we could help it. A master of disabling the most solidly built enemy with a single blow, the old man believed in the nobility of the human spirit but saw the human body as a machine rife with “off” switches. 

That'll do. Now get to work.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Narrative as cake

Will you finish reading it?

This? Barthelme's The Dead Father? I haven't decided.

You're stalled.

I'm stalled. It's true. There's a 30-page section, two-thirds of the way through--and it's not a long book--in which the characters read from another book. It's like one of those chapters in Moby Dick where Melville peels off to talk, inaccurately, about cetaceans. 

You thought about jumping over this section.

True. It's not that long. But the book is like cake. It's turning out to be like cake.


Cake. You eat one portion of it, one decent-sized bite, and you'd know all you need to know about the entire cake. This book is like that. The narrative doesn't have progression. It just seems comprised of the same substance throughout. I could move parts around to no ill effect. It'll end. Something will happen. But it's . . . a riff. I could walk out in the middle of some long jazz improv number and come back in ten minutes later, right? Okay, maybe I'd have missed the greatest improv ever improvved. That's possible. But what if it's the same guy diddling about on a riff, and he's not showing me something new moment to moment? 

Just finish the book. It's short.

My keyboard needs cleaning . . .

Don't change the subject.

I'm growing fond of you.

Don't change the subject.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I'll be better

Really, I'll be better about this than I've been. My old livejournal blog lost its focus. Here I'll talk about what I'm reading and writing. 


And with more consistency.