Chat with Octavia Butler

This is a transcript of a chat that origninally took place on my Mining Company site in November 1998.

Octavia E. Butler joined us here on the Contemporary Literature site on Thursday night, November 19, to discuss her latest novel, Parable of the Talents, and her career. She sat down for the chat with Miningco Books and Writing editor Melissa Johnson. Miningco Fantasy/Sci-Fi Guide C. Corey Fisk joined us as well, along with several interested readers. Below is the slightly edited transcript of our chat.

Scott: Hi Octavia, welcome to the site.

Melissa: Hi Scott, it’s Melissa and I’m here with Octavia.

Scott: Great. How has your day been?

Octavia: Busy, very busy.

Scott: I tried to make your reading on Tuesday, but got hopelessly lost on the South Side.

Octavia: Ah, boy, we got pretty lost today in Queens.

Scott: So are you at the end of your tour or in the middle of it now?

Octavia: Actually I think I’m a little closer to the beginning than the end.

William: Hi Corey.

Scott: We’re just about to get started here. Hi Corey, glad to see you could make it.

Melissa: Hi Corey, it’s Melissa.

Corey: Glad I could as well, Scott. Hi, Melissa.

Corey: And please give my compliments to the woman sitting next to you, if I understand the setup–she’s one of my favorite authors.

Melissa: Ok, I will!

Scott: The chat is sort of a new thing here, so we might not have the biggest group this time around, but we’ll try and ask some good questions, and post the transcript on the site.

Corey: Well, I can machine-gun questions, but I’m afraid I’m working on very little sleep and a very large To Be Read pile (with a couple of your newer books and a reissue of The Kindred climbing steadily to the top.)

Scott: I think we’re just getting settled in here. Melissa is with Octavia Butler in New York.

Melissa: Anytime you feel you want to start Scott is fine on this end–

Corey: Ms. Butler, may I ask a couple of the standard questions without driving you out of your skull? For instance, I’d love to know who some of your favorite authors are.

Octavia: Corey, I don’t have favorite authors anymore, I have favorite books, like Dune, by Frank Herbert and Perfume by Patrick Suskind and non-fiction: anything by Stephen J. Gould or Oliver Sacks or Timothy Ferris. My current favorite is Walter Alvarez, T-Rex and the Crater of Doom. I like the way it shows scientists working together or at cross purposes or together–I like the discovery.

Scott: Much of your work seems to be concerned with people working together, and what happens when they try, and fail, to build a new community.

Octavia: My characters tend to be very community-oriented–in all my books–if they aren’t part of a community, they tend to assemble communities around themselves, and if they fail they do it again, they don’t seem to give up. And community is also very important to me.

Scott: It seems like the world in Parable of the Talents has a lot to do with the world we live in right now. How much do you base the historical events in your fictional world on real events in the present day?

Octavia: The world in Parable of the Talents is a descendent of the world we live in now–the problems that we don’t pay attention to now are the ones that will grow into full-fledged disasters.

Jim: I believe that!

Octavia: Do you mean how much do I base future events on current events?

Scott: That was one of the things I thought most amazing about the book. It almost seems to be more an unmasking of what’s going on right now than a projection.

Octavia: It’s an extrapolation because things do still work now, even if they don’t work very well, they do still work.

Scott: I guess I was thinking of the rhetoric of the Christian Right, the expansion of our prison population, things like that.

Octavia: Those things exist, but they don’t rule. In the future that I write about, they have a great deal more power.

Scott: What role do you think a novelist should play? Do you see your books as a kind of warning of what could go wrong?

Octavia: Yes, but the two Parable books are cautionary tales, not prophecy. Corey, if you want to ask the questions from earlier that would be fine too.

Corey: I was wondering how you felt about the usual categorizations your work gets. . . Feminist, “literary SF,” africian-americian oriented, etc. . . . and how much of that is actual factors in how you work and write?

Octavia: I assume you mean, do I mind having my work called science fiction?

Corey: No, actually, although I’d be glad to hear the answer to it. (By the way, Thanks! I just finished up Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb. I’ll be sure to take a look at T-Rex, since I enjoy the Alvarezes.)

Octavia: I don’t call it anything but storytelling. Just for myself, the labels tend to be more marketing devices, verbal shorthand or scholarly tools, and they don’t have much to do with me.

Scott: I’m wondering how you got started as a writer–how did you?

Octavia: I began writing when I was ten years old. I had been telling myself stories since I was four. I began trying to sell when I was thirteen, and finally began to have some success when I was 27. The standard writer overnight success story. 🙂

Scott: Wow. So did you actually sell anything when you were 13?

Octavia: Dear, oh, dear. Nothing, that was when I began my collection of rejection slips.

Scott: So did you keep them?

Octavia: No. I’m no masochist.

Corey: I try to think of ’em as free wallpaper.

Melissa: I’m asking Octavia a question now–about the success she had at 27.

Octavia: And that’s when she sold Patternmaster.

Scott: That must have been a great day. When you’re writing, do you have an “ideal audience” in mind?

Octavia: When I’m writing, I’m the audience. If I bore myself, then I assume I’m going to bore other people. If I keep myself interested, chances are I’ll keep others interested.

Scott: Could I ask a little about the way you work–do you have a kind of set routine?

Octavia: Mornings are for writing. Actually I get up early, before dawn and do my morning walk, then I write until late morning. Later in the day I might have another writing period, but my morning writing period is essential. About four hours, maybe a little more. It’s a kind of habit. If I’m not there, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. A good habit is as hard to break as a bad one.

Scott: How do you work your way from one project to another? Do most of them spring from each other? For instance, in this series, do you have a good idea of what will come in the next book?

Octavia: No they don’t. And it is difficult for me to get from one project to another. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project writing about a project instead of writing the story. It’s my way of getting myself out of the old thing and into the new one.

Corey: (Again, folks, feel free to jump in with a question!) (‘scuse, Scott, just doing the cheerleader thing.)

Octavia: In the Parables series I had an idea that I liked, but I’m not sure that I will follow through with it because it’s been done recently. Someone got to it before me.

Scott: Who’s that?

Octavia: Well I don’t want to talk about it because I still might use the idea.

Scott: I can understand that. What kind of advice do you give to young writers?

Octavia: Forget about four things: first, forget inspiration, it’s great if you have it, but if you don’t, write anyway, even if it’s only in your journal.

Forget imagination. If you’re worried about having imagination, obviously you have imagination just to be able to worry about it.

Forget style. You will develop it on your own. Best not to try to use it to dress up thin plots or poorly devised characters.

Forget talent. If you have it, that’s great. If you don’t, don’t worry. If you think talent is essential, take a look at the best seller list and you’ll change your mind.

Jodi: 🙂

Octavia: Jodi, did you have a question?

Jodi: What did you feel when you got word that you had received a MacArthur grant?

Octavia: I thought it was a cruel joke. Either that or that it was one of those horrible telemarketing stunts.

Jodi: 🙂 Did it hold a special significance to be honored in that way?

Octavia: It did, it did. It was something I never expected and something I appreciate very much. Freelancers don’t often get regular checks and the MacArthur provides regular checks for five years, allowing me to write my books without worrying about money.

Z: Wow.

Jodi: Has that allowed you to be more productive? Not having to worry so much about where the rent is coming from?

Octavia: I don’t know that I’ve been more productive, but I’ve been able to be more careful.

Z: Careful how?

Octavia: I’ve been able to take the time that a project required without worrying about money.

Z: Ah.

Z: Which of your books is your favorite?

Octavia: The one I hope to be working on when I get home–it’s the baby.

Z: What will it be entitled?

Octavia: Untitled so far.

Z: Which of your already-published books is your favorite? (that I might find and read?)

Octavia: I don’t choose favorites among my older children.

Scott: I’m interested in what you said about style. The ideas in your novels are sometimes complex, but your stories are told in very direct, unadorned way. Do you consciously try to write in as simple a style as possible, so that the ideas will better get across?

Octavia: Yes, because the whole idea of storywriting is to communicate.

Jodi: 🙂

Scott: So Octavia, do you have any personal goals as a novelist? In your future?

Octavia: I hope to make the next novel the best I’ve written.

Scott: That’s a goal to wake to every morning.

Melissa: Okay, I think we’re going to wrap things up on this end. If anyone has some last questions, now’s the time.

Corey: Just want to say I love your advice to forget, and thank you for stopping in.

Kim: Sorry to have popped in late! Glad you were able to do this, Octavia. 🙂

William: Yeah, thanks

Jodi: Thank you so much for chatting with us, Ms.
Butler 🙂

Scott: Thanks very much for coming, Octavia.

Nancy: Yes thank you.

Octavia: Thank you.

Review of I Married a Communist

I Married a Communist
by Philip Roth
Hardcover, 323 pages.
Published by Houghton Mifflin
Publication date: October, 1998
ISBN: 0395933463
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 10/16/1998

Philip Roth, one of America’s most prolific and talented authors, adds another volume to his subjective, personalized history of the country with his latest, 23rd novel. I Married a Communist is several different kinds of novels at once. On the one hand, it is a historical novel, which tells the tale of an archetypal progressive activist caught in the web of McCarthyite persecution. Ira Ringold, alias Iron Rinn, is a larger-than-life self-educated Communist radio actor/Abe Lincoln look-alike whose career is eventually destroyed by the Red Scare politics that perverted the American social landscape during the 1950s. Roth does an excellent job of capturing the environment of the time, and of illustrating the negative impact of McCarthyism as experienced in individual lives.

On the other hand, the novel is a bildungsroman. The narrator of the novel, Nathan Zuckerman, is the teenage prodigy and protégé of Iron Rinn. The frame of the novel is that Nathan, now an older man, has sought out his old teacher Murray Ringold, through whom he originally met Ira. Murray is at this point 90. Over the course of six nights, the two men piece together Ira’s life, and in the process expose his many human failings. For Nathan, Ira was a second father figure. In a way he is “married” to this hero figure, Iron Rinn. Nathan grows up when he recognizes that Ira, the indestructible, has his own flaws.

The frame gives the novel a somewhat distanced feel. The narration shifts between Murray and Nathan. While Nathan is easy to sympathize with as narrator, neither of the two really surfaces as a very complex character in their own right. The story is focused on Ira, the dedicated Communist who marries into a much different political milieu when he marries Eve Frame, a famous actress and New York socialite. Ira’s family life, which gets much of Roth’s narrative attention, is miserable. He moves in with Eve and her 23 year-old daughter, Sylphid. The three of them get along miserably together. Ira is constantly ruining Eve’s high-society gatherings by confronting well-heeled socialites with Marxist rhetoric, and Sylphid detests her stepfather. An anti-Semitic harp player, she refers to Ira as “The Beast.”

Never exactly accustomed to this kind of family life, Ira carries on a couple of affairs, first with one of Sylphid’s friends, Pamela, and then, rather mechanically, with Helgi, a masseuse who comes to the house to massage the giant and perform oral sex on him. Ira’s home life is essentially loveless. None of the three in that triangle is a particularly likeable personality though, not surprisingly given the narrators, Ira comes across as just slightly more tolerable than the women that surround him.

This novel is also, undoubtedly, somewhat of a roman á clef. Roth’s former wife, Claire Bloom, recently wrote a memoir, which painted the novelist in an unflattering light. I haven’t read that memoir, but its shadow nonetheless obviously hangs over I Married a Communist. I’m not sure if this is a strength or weakness of the novel, but, particularly in the later pages of the book, it is clearly evident that it is payback time for Roth. Eve Frame (pun?) hangs husband Ira out to dry when she publishes I Married a Communist, a memoir that exposes not only Ira but also most of his associates, young Nathan included, as Communists.

What saves this book from being a pure “revenge drama” is that Roth does not make the mistake of writing any of his principle characters as “good.” If Eve Frame is a correlate for his own real-life ex-wife, Claire Bloom, and Ira a partial correlate for himself, then it’s difficult to say that this is any way a one-sided portrait of a marriage gone horribly wrong. Each of the two characters is despicable in their own way. Ira, the man of action, the larger-than-life ideologue, is also a murderer, who took revenge on a bigot as a teen by murdering him with a shovel in the alley. Ira’s is an Old Testament brand of retribution. And he’s clearly also not the most understanding husband on the face of the earth. His biggest strength appears to be as a mentor for Nathan, who is the other partial correlate for Roth, the author. Roth has a history of inviting the reader into these kinds of questions, into asking where “Roth is” in the novel.

There is a definite taste of sour grapes to the way that Eve is handled by Roth, particularly later in the novel. After publishing the I Married a Communist exposé at the urging of two right-leaning friends who use the occasion for their own political advancement, Eve becomes for a while a poster-girl for McCarthyism, and then she is roasted in the media, abandoned by her friends and even her precious daughter. She eventually dies bitter, drunk and alone.

I Married a Communist is a satisfying novel for all the different kinds of books it is. I wouldn’t say that it really hangs together in all parts; sometimes the narrative seems overly tangential and the narrative voice sometimes drifts indistinguishably between Murray and Nathan, but on the whole it is a compelling and worthy read. It can go up there on the shelf with Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman, another chapter in the anxious history of early Cold War America.

Review of Memories of My Father Watching TV

Memories of My Father Watching T.V.
by Curtis White
168 pages, paperback
Published by Dalkey Archive Press

Publication date: June 21, 1998
ISBN: 1564781895
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 6/30/1998

Curtis White is not afraid to take risks. As publisher of FC2, he’s had to fend off attacks from right wing congressmen for his decisions to publish books that other publishers are afraid of, like Samuel Delaney’s Hogg, or the Chick Lit anthology. He’s a champion of high-risk literature, outside of the mainstream. In his writing, as well, he goes where others fear to tread. An intellectual commentator and scholar as well as a fiction writer, White’s books mix narrative, ideology and the stuff of contemporary culture in a postmodern manner. But for White, “postmodern” isn’t as much about abstract concepts as it is about a condition of being. He isn’t just performing a high-wire act of technical wizardy for the sake of showing off, but instead for the sake of trying to describe what it is like to live in his own skin, right now, and also back then, in the omnipresent terrain of memory. He has “grown up absurd,” and he’s seeking out a new epistomology, one that will enable a portraiture of that absurdity. Henry Miller, living in Paris, said that America in 1950s was an “air conditioned nightmare.” In his fiction, Curt White, a native of an archetypal surburban community, San Clemente, California, describes what it was/is like to live inside that nightmare.

In his new novel Memories of My Father Watching T.V., White takes as his central thesis the idea that much of his protagonist’s youth, and of his family life, was mediated by television. The T.V. serves as both an obstacle to, and as a gathering point for, young Chris’s relationship with his father:

The defining childhood memory of my father is of a man (but not just a man, of course; it is my father–young, handsome, capable!) reclined on a dingy couch watching T.V. Watching T.V. And ignoring the chaos around him, a chaos consisting almost entirely of me and my sisters fighting.

While young Chris tries desperately to get his father’s attention by demonstrating his prowess at flipping minature Kraft marshmallows into his mouth, his father mentally lives, almost exclusively, inside of the television set. Once we accept this as “our setting,” White’s next narrative move, putting Chris and his father inside the shows themselves in a variety of unconventional ways, makes a kind of weird organic sense. If all that we know of a person is what he watches on T.V. and how he watches it, it makes sense to describe him in terms of the television shows that he watches.

After the prologue, White’s short novel is divided into two sections “GLOOM” and “GLEE,” and each section is then divided into chapters by T.V. Show: “Combat,” “Highway Patrol,” “Bonanza,” and “T.V. Scandal” in “GLOOM” and “Sea Hunt,” “Have Gun-Will Travel,” “Manic Maverick” and “Saturday Night at the Movies” in “GLEE.”

“Combat,” the first section of the novel, demonstrates right off the bat that White’s not going to do a lot of hand-holding, or kowtowing to the reader’s conventional expectations. Its numbered paragraphs each describe a different aspect of the show as a metaphor for the relationship between the narrator and his father. The father here is neither the hero nor the villian of the episode, but the bridge:

. . . my father was a German pontoon bridge built over a narrow French river. The bridge/my father threatened to provide a means of access for Krauts in order to roll their Wehrmacht machines into an area tentatively held by Americans. Therefore, as a strategic priority of the Allied forces, he had to be “taken out.”

Like Sylvia Plath, White imagines the father as a part of the Nazi war machine. Unlike Plath, however, White examines the father as pure device, rather than an agent. He is a bridge, a static thing that just sits there, and in sitting there, has a non-combatant role. The father as couch potato becomes the bridge our heroes must blow. White manuevers in and out of different frames in his numbered paragraphs, from the “real world” dialogue between father and son:

27. “What are doing? I’m watching that program”
“But Dad, you were asleep.”
“Turn it back.”

to the absurd ongoings of the episode itself, to the philosophical and personal implications of the episode. White hops from frame to frame, both in terms of time frame and of ontological reality. His narrative voice changes from that of the literary critic to that of excited child to that of the clinical psychiatrist:

In later years, during his son’s time, there will be drugs for this disorder. Ativan, Valium. Drugs his son will take with gratitude. But for this moment, there is only this enormous DREAD.

It is as if we are shifting phenomonological layers with each successive paragraph. The shifts in focus and perspective White employs in the “Combat” section are synecdochal of the approach he takes in the novel as a whole — each chapter utilizes a different style, and serves as a different “approach pattern” to the material that the book is really about: the relationships between fathers and sons, and in particular, the ways that those relationship can break down, and cease to function. In each show, the father is implicated in a different way: in “TV Scandal” the father plays both a cheating contestant on an quiz show and a stand-in for Richard Nixon in the “Kitchen Debate.” The fact that White chooses to deal in mythic media events is not an accident: his concern is with particularly American version of “the father myth.” In the Nixon/Kruschev section, after the father objects to a translator who is retranslating what Kruschev just said in English, the translator responds:

Forgive me. I merely considered that American fathers and sons never communicate well. They always speak from mutually exclusive positions, one always wholly out of the view of the other.

The narrator has a lot of issues with his father, but the purpose of the novel does not seem to be to condemn the father for his inaccessiblity. Rather, it is more an account of a painful and frustrating struggle to reach him, in spite of the obstacles. The obstacles are well catalogued: from ideological differences over the war in Vietnam to a variety of Freudian complexes. The narrator reaches a point where he can understand his relationship with his father, if he can’t really explain it or change it. As White writes in “Saturday Night at the Movies”:

One way or another, that was it. We’d had our mythic evening. It was over with the startling and uncomfortable suddenness of emerging from the magic of a darkened theater in the afternoon sun or, worse yet, a suburban shopping mall. We’d shared. We’d talked. I’d discovered things about my father. But Anna’s words kept returning to me: “A person doesn’t change because you find out more.” Too bad.

The narrator’s pain is palpable, moving, and human. Though this book is more lament than joyride (some of the moments in the “GLEE” section of the novel are more painful but gleeful), it also at times verges on hilarity. Not since Don Bartheleme’s The Dead Father has a male writer been able to pull off such an exhaustive comic critique of the American mode of patriarchy and its discontents.

White has turned the memoir genre on its ear in this novel. While his material is deeply personal, he feeds it through his literary apparatus of postmodernism. What emerges is an admixture of psychology and philosophy, of memory and ideology. This book has incredible density, especially given its relatively brief length. In spite of all the language games White successfully plays, this is at heart a very readable and touching account of a boy (and the man he becomes) trying to understand what makes his father tick. If the attempt at understanding is a failure, it is not a failure of the novel, but of a culture which has become so saturated with the stuff of mass media that the signals between people who should care more for each other are too often lost in the static. Nietzsche might say that we are human, all too human, but, as Memories of My Father Watching T.V. might respond, we are also simultaneously no longer human enough.

Review of Hail Babylon by Andrei Codrescu

Hail Babylon!: In Search of the American City at the Close of the Millenium
by Andrei Codrescu
Hardcover, 248 pages.
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: May 1998
ISBN: 0312181078
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg, 6/5/98

If I ever make it back to New Orleans, I’m going to look up Andrei Codrescu. Sure, he’ll probably be out of town, or busy telling funny stories on NPR, but after reading Hail Babylon!, I’m nearly sure I couldn’t possibly find a better guide to the Crescent City. Or, for that matter, a better travelling companion to anywhere else in the country. Why, you might ask, would I want the advice of a Transylvanian poet/intellectual for my journey into the heart of the American experience? Two reasons: he’s got a damn fine sense of humor, and he eats well:

A plate of huge, juicy shrimp next to a swirl of spicy sauce was so delightful I sank into it, completely forgetting my table companions for a moment. When I came out of my shrimp trance, I heard one of them say, “How come shrimp get this big in California? Something wrong with their hormones?”

If I’m ever in La Jolla, the first thing I’m going for is the shrimp. Hail Babylon! is a collection of short essays on Codrescu’s travels in American cities. The book is neither a conventional travel guide nor a heavy sociological treatise. Rather, it is a dizzying tour of some 20 locations here in the U.S.A. Listeners of NPR are probably acquainted with Codrescu’s slightly off-kilter sense of humor. He is a “foreigner” in this land, and maybe for the same reason it worked for De Toqueville, is better than any other writer I can think of at catching the significant details that distinguish one city from the next. It may be his experience as a radio journalist that makes his senses so sharp: he’s used to giving his audience a clear sense of a place within a very short span of time/words. He seeks out the strange in a destination, and uses anecdotes to bring to light the character of a city. From his essay on New Orleans:

The Mississippi, in its journey from the heartland to the gulf, brings here all of America’s sins and secrets. It’s a journey of downflow ethics. A few years ago in Minneapolis they busted a candidate for the city council for distributing Twinkies to an old folks home. They slapped him with two weeks of community service for attempted vote buying. At the same time in New Orleans, Governor Edwin Edwards was handing bags full of cash to Vegas boys in the lobby of a downtown hotel to pay his gambling debts. The governor was registered in the hotel under the name Lee. The Chinese name was part of Edwin’s famous sense of humor. When the citizenry was polled as to the propriety of the governor’s handing cash to Vegas boys in a hotel lobby where he was registered under a Chinese pseudonym, the majority opined that there was no harm done if it was his own money.

Codrescu is efficient, witty, and precise, but simultaneously relaxed about his prose. His paragraphs wind and curve and amble, like the Mississsippi above. Codrescu never talks down to his audience, or worries about offending our proprieties. When reading this book, we are in the hands of a racounteur. His love of New Orleans, his adopted home, springs from the same principles that guide his sense of style in writing: in the French Quarter, anything can happen, and it probably will. Where you have your first Hurricaine is not necessarily where you’ll end up by the time the night is through. You go where it takes you. Contradictions abound in New Orleans, and it is the space in between those contradictions that interests our intrepid reporter so much.

Codrescu occasionally wanders so far off the beaten path that we’re left to wonder if, in fact, there ever really was a beaten path. His quest for “the American City at the End of the Millennium” is not, in the traditional sense, a quest for any particular place or thing or idea. The joy here is to be found in the multiplicity. America, in Codrescu’s estimation, is more gumbo than melting pot. In spite of our retailers’ and our television networks’ best efforts to make us all the same, each of our cities is very different from the others. Place is a real factor in the way that we understand the world, and variety really is the spice(s) of life. Codrescu’s true talent is in locating the strange juxtapositions in our cities and towns: how “Graceland 2” brings Elvis together with Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi, how New Yorkers have to struggle not to love the California lifestyle, how poets are treated in Vegas, how foreigners are apt to give you better directions in New York City than Gothamites themselves.

The details Codrescu highlights in these essays are more often superfluous and trivial, than serious and weighty. There is a definite quality of “kitsch” here. But kitsch as a cultural ceremony:

Cities speak in many languages. To the traveler and the tourist, they speak a shorthand intended to relieve them of their money. In exchange, they experience the frisson of the “exotic.” They carry back a modicum of sentiment and a bag full of souvenirs and photographs. It is a gentle operation that leads, in the best of cases, to a slight loss of provincialism and a lessening of xenophobia. The outer layer of this satisfaction is wrapped in the tourist’s own smug self-satisfaction. This is what Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, calls kitsch. Kitsch is harmless in the last days of our millenium: self-satisfaction is short-lived now, thanks to the never-ending streams of anxiety produced by ever-newer forms of the exotic.

I don’t think Codrescu would be ashamed to admit that he is himself a professional (as opposed to accidental) tourist. While he does an excellent job of encapsulating the history of a place, he never ventures into a city with a strong pre-formed impression, but seeks out its odd nooks and crannies, the kitsch which distinguishes it from the town up the road, and forms his impression from there. This book is saturated with a traveller’s love of the new and unknown. At the same time, it is a carnivalesque series of meditations on what America means, now that it is a postmodern nation. Conclusion: it means a lot of things and nothing in particular. Codrescu loves America, in all its quirkiness and absurdity, its beaches and its buildings, and its kitsch and its toxicity, its ironic splendor.

Going on the road this summer? Take Hail Babylon! with you. It’s the perfect book for the beach, or the car, or the plane. If you’re a carsick type, Codrescu’s meditations are just the right length for a quick read before lowering the window to expunge. If you’re staying home, read this book and you’ll feel like you just went on a whirlwind tour of these here states. You might even feel inspired to take advantage of those low prices at the pump to go seek out some kitsch of your own.

Originally published on Authors Review of Books, Author at the Miningco.

Review of Will Teach for Food

Will Teach For Food
Edited by Cary Nelson
Paperback, 248 pages
Published by University of Minnesota Press
Publication date: April 1997
ISBN: 0816630348

An Inter-Review by Dirk Stratton and Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 5/26/1998

SCOTT: So Dirk, we’ve both read this Will Teach For Food book. The book has got a scary title. And what it says has some horrible immediacy to us as Ph.D. students tenuously approaching a job market that appears to be filled with snapping sharks. We’re not just teaching and learning in graduate school . . . we’re getting ourselves fed into a system which will exploit us just about as far as is conceivably possible. Not that we’re completely free of complicity. We have chosen to enter this profession, well aware of the risks our pursuit of this vita contempliva entails.

DIRK: It wounds me to accept such complicity, even though I do every time we discuss the current situation. If I’m complicit in my exploitation by the university, what that means, in effect, is that I should never have come to graduate school in the first place, that I should have recognized the unconscionable way they treat graduate employees (which I did) and then give up my dream to earn a Ph.D. (which I haven’t). The complicity argument is just a variation of the old “blame the victim” line, as if my acceptance of an exploitative situation completely absolves the creator of the exploitation, namely the university. Just because you can recruit victims willing to suffer doesn’t justify the suffering or excuse it. One message of Will Teach For Food is that the universities, including the faculties, are the villains, and what a sad collection of villains they are. Essay after essay on the Yale T.A. unionization portray the Yale faculty and administration as besotted by their privilege, doing imitations of Marie Antoinette enraged and befuddled that the peasants want some bread. And whereas Nelson and his contributors would certainly understand a graduate student opting out of such a corrupt system, abandoning the workplace will not alter the work conditions. According to this book, if change is to happen, it will have to come from inside the university, through collective bargaining by T.A.s organized into labor unions.

Where I am definitely complicit, however, is in my complete failure to get involved in such an effort. I have the usual excuses, no time, laziness, a sense of hopelessness. And part of it may be that I’m doing things I love: being a student and being a teacher. The joy I garner from these activities seems precariousness enough without antagonizing people with union talk. Lame. I know. But there it is. Sure, I’m being exploited, but it isn’t entirely a one-way street: I am getting something out of the deal. I’m not working 9 to 5, for instance. Though that does not hide the fact that that’s a pretty feeble rationalization for accepting getting treated like an indentured servant, particularly when the “masters” expect us to be grateful for the abuse.

SCOTT: Here’s a few words from the MLA Report on Professional Employment:

the MLA’s latest job placement surveys suggest that if present employment patterns continue fewer than half the seven or eight thousand graduates students likely to earn Ph.D.s in English and foreign languages between 1996 and 2000 can expect to obtain full-time tenure-track positions within a year of receiving their degrees.

That’s us, pretty much, that they’re talking about there. So we spend a decade studying in the university for at best a fifty-fifty shot at a living wage. And that “within a year” factor should not be interpreted as meaning that it gets any easier for someone after they’ve been out on the job market for a few years.

DIRK: In fact, as Nelson describes in his Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, it gets worse, since the people who fail to get a job one year don’t simply disappear. Say 5000 Ph.D.s get degrees but don’t get jobs this year; they’ll be back on the market next year in addition to the new crop of seven to eight thousand. The surplus of Ph.D.s seeking jobs continues to expand as the number of jobs declines. Of course, eventually people get exhausted and give up the search, but never enough to eliminate the oversupply.

SCOTT: Graduate students and part-time faculty at universities across the country are familiar with the terms of this debate. There is an overflow of academic labor, and the university, it turns out, is even more willing than the private sector to exploit the situation.

Also from the MLA Report:

In Ph.D. granting departments, graduate students taught 63% of the first-year writing sections, part-timers 19% and full-time non-tenure track faculty members 14% on average.

The proportion of all faculty members who are part-timers grew from 22% in 1970 to 40% in 1993

The university is pretty much systematically eliminating funding lines for full-time faculty and replacing them with part-timers, who will only be paid a fraction of what a normal full-time employee would cost the university, usually without benefits. There’s not only too many of “us” job-seekers, but the number of above-sustenance-pay-level jobs is also being dramatically cut. Graduate programs produce people qualified to be professors, but then the university replaces the decent jobs those qualified people might have filled with scandalously underpaid part-time positions. I’d go so far as to say that if what has happened to academic labor at American universities over the past twenty years were happening at American automobile factories, the assembly lines would have ground to a halt more than once by now.

DIRK: There is a certain irony in the fact that the intellectual elite of this country find it more difficult to protect their economic rights than the blue-collar workers many academics would scorn as “uneducated” or “lower class.”

SCOTT: I think if Upton Sinclair were alive today, he’d skip the meat packing plant and head straight for the university.

When Nelson spoke here at the University of Cincinnati he compared the position of contemporary English Ph.D.s to that of migrant laborers. More than a few of our colleagues have bounced around from part-time position to part-time position, maybe a one year appointment here or there, never quite achieving a wage substantial enough to make any progress on their student loans.

DIRK: I remember reading an article years ago about “gypsy scholars”–profs who went from visiting professor appointments to one-year replacement appointments, maybe taught a class here and there at his local community college. The crux of the article was that such folks, while not exactly rare, were not the rule, or shortly would not be since the academic labor crunch was just around the corner. I think the rumors of an academic labor shortage have turned at least four or five corners and thus have entered the world of myth. What we have is the reinvocation of that irresistable story: the “Golden Age,” in this case, another seller’s market like existed during the fabled 60’s, when if you were within sniffing distance of a Ph.D. a job was waiting for you. I can recall reading at least three different versions of this myth over the course of the past 20 years; each time the birth of the Golden Age was pushed up half a decade. We’re still waiting.

One of the most disturbing things about reading all the essays in Will Teach For Food about the Yale imbroglio was all of the evidence demonstrating that Yale has decided to emulate the ruthless business practices of corporate America. An extremely wealthy, non-profit institution, that, I assume, at one time espoused liberal, humane values, and presumably sought to teach such values–this institution has decided that it is in their best interests to squeeze every penny they can from their workers, not only their graduate students but their service, maintenance, clerical, and technical workers. And for what? Maximizing the earnings of their endowment. Nelson is correct when he states that one of the worse messages Yale’s action sends is that if a rich institution like Yale supposedly can’t afford to pay people a living wage, what are the chances that poorer institutions will suddenly find the money necessary to do what Yale claims it can’t?

SCOTT: The real crime is what they do with the money that they do have. They’re always willing to spend it on the physical campus. Donors and corporations like to see their name on shiny new buildings. Our campus at the University of Cincinnati is constantly under construction, expensive buildings, designed by the world’s most famous architects. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent, but on bricks and mortar: not on bringing university employees up to a decent standard of living. This is going on nearly everywhere. Implicit in the spending trend is the idea that what “university” means is a better set of buildings, and not the people who work in them. Knowledge workers are understood to be interchangeable, and disposable. The buildings are what is important to the typical Board of Trustees; not, apparently, what goes on in the classrooms.

DIRK: Another irony is that at the same time as the systematic impoverishment of a majority of their teaching workers continues, the university loudly mouths platitudes about the importance of undergraduate teaching to worried parents and suspicious politicians. No matter how dedicated an individual is to teaching, no one is going to do their best work if they have to continually worry about food, health insurance, child care, etc. etc. or have to commute between two or three campuses to teach. Since in America estimates of quality have been reduced to finding out how much it costs or how much money it generates, do this test: whenever you hear a university promote their belief in quality teaching, ask them how much they’re paying to get this “quality.” T.A.s and part-time adjuncts are extremely valuable to universities because they’re cheap, not because they’re expected to provide excellent teaching. In other words, university words are not backed up by university practice: if universities really valued teaching, they’d reward those who taught with the only commonly recognized sign of merit in this country: cold hard cash.

SCOTT: I think you’ve hit on a general trend in the academy as whole. There is a real shift towards a corporate influence, and a corresponding corporate approach. From the Coca Cola Commons at Emory to the Procter and Gamble School of Nursing here at the University of Cincinnati, universities are depending more and more on big corporations for their funding. While I’m not saying we should necessarily turn away every gift horse that shows up at the door, we ought to make sure it’s not a Trojan before we let it go galloping through the gates.

DIRK: I realize that this is going to expose me as a dangerous, pink-eyed, obviously hopelessly out of touch with contemporary values, liberal or something, but all these crimes are being done in the name of business values, or because the university has to become more like a business. Excuse me, but isn’t “business values” kind of an oxymoron? What values does business teach? I’m willing to concede that business may be a necessary evil, but when did it become something that everything else is supposed to emulate? What has business done for us lately? Poison our air, water, land, and food, move thousands of jobs overseas, buy our political system, made billions for a few, while poverty increases, etc. etc. Business cuts corners whenever it can and frequently has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of legality. And this is admirable? I’d prefer the nebulous concept of “family values” with all its pitfalls to “business values.”

SCOTT: Standing in the checkout lane of this new supermarket-style formulation of the university, I constantly find myself wondering: whatever happened to the idea of liberal arts? Call me idealistic, but I still think that education is meant to be preparation for living a better life in toto, not just a training in business values, or in a the technical procedures of a particular profession. University administrations are changing the conception of what higher education in America is meant to be.

On the one hand, it makes sense to train people, to give them practical skills. But the university is shifting towards a completely consumer-based model, and the consumers, surprisingly, are not the students or their parents. The consumers are the major corporations who need employees trained to their particular specifications. Not that the human resources department at your average Fortune 500 corporation necessarily knows how to best educate the kind of critical thinker that will make for an inventive and productive employee in the 21st century. A person’s education is not the same thing as his or her job description. I think it is important, as well, to realize that the English classroom is not without economic value. The ability to write well is becoming increasingly valuable in the new information economy. The skills that we teach are vitally important to the future success of college students, in business and in life.

DIRK: Returning to the notion of complicity with which this desperate conversation began, Nelson bluntly accuses university faculties of, more or less, profiting from the exploitation of graduate students. That is, since there are limited resources, if T.A. salaries and benefits are to be increased, the money has to come from somewhere, and Nelson suggests that that somewhere is out of the pockets of the full-time faculty. Which is not something I’m going to hold my breath waiting for. For some of the essayists in Will Teach For Food, this competition for resources explains the Yale faculty’s surprisingly intemperate approach to graduate student unionizing. Them’s that gots the cake, want to keep it.

SCOTT: As Nelson says, tenured faculty members need to speak up for their less-privileged peers. I think that the first step is acknowledging that the money necessary to rectify the horrible economic disparities of the current system needs to come from somewhere in the university. Change at this point has simply become necessary. If a university wants to lay claim to any kind of ethical justification for its existence, it needs to back up its supposed values with the way it spends the interest on its endowment. Tenured faculty have an ethical responsibility to see to it that the discipline which they inherited is not completely rendered “valueless” on their watch. Faculty need to object to the state of affairs, and they need to do it in public.

DIRK: As Nelson puts it, how can English faculty claim to be humanists, while simultaneously benefitting from the exploitation of fellow human beings? Of course, to question one’s ethics is quite a bomb to lob into the genteel parlor of most faculties, who have completely bought into the idea that they’re powerless, that the Administration is solely responsible for the horrible working conditions of adjuncts and T.A.s, and that that gets them off the hook. The worse part is that if by some miracle I actually do get a tenure-track job, I’ll become complicit in the system that is currently exploiting me.

SCOTT: Well Dirk, that could get ugly, I suppose, but certainly not paralyzing. I think the trick is for English faculties to stop waiting for change to come from on high, and to start working towards it from within. False consciousness is the watchword of the day.

DIRK: Agreed. But, you know, right now I’m kind of depressed. Let’s go get a drink.

SCOTT: As long as you’re not talking about hemlock. . . .

You can visit Cary Nelson’s Faculty Page at the University of Illinois.

Review of the Rise and Fall of English

The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing a Discipline by Robert Scholes
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published by Yale University Press
Publication date: March 1998
ISBN: 0300071515
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, May 25, 1998

In the beginning, there were no English professors. . . . and then there were far too many of them. In The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing a Discipline, Robert Scholes, Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Brown University, sets out to describe what has happened to English between then and now.

The book opens with a guided tour of the early history of English in America. This section makes for some interesting and enjoyable reading. Scholes is clearly nostalgic for days gone by, both before critical theory and the “New Criticism” that preceded it:

In the good old days, before there were professors of English, there were teachers of oratory and belles lettres who themselves practiced belletristic oratory. They did what they taught and they taught what they did. No wonder they were respected by those who came to learn from them. (9)

In his encapsulated history of the discipline, Scholes latches onto one Yale professor of English, Billy Phelps, who taught from 1892-1933, for whom professing English was a form of evangelism. Phelps saw himself as “a popularizer, a teacher, and of course, a preacher” (17). For Scholes, Phelps represents the heights from which English has fallen. The “professionalization” of English since then, first via T.S. Eliot/Cleanth Brook’s brand of New Criticism, and then via critical theory, represent for Scholes a process of moving further and further away from the mission of teaching undergraduates rhetorical skills and the “love of truth” that Phelps once preached from his platform at Yale.

Scholes’ project in The Rise and Fall of English is an ambitious one:

What I am trying to do in this book is work through the very complex situation of a field of study the seems to me hollow, falling, though perhaps not yet visibly fallen. I shall also try to offer solutions, at various levels, to the problems I discern. (18)

Though most in English would disagree with Scholes that our field is “hollow,” or that its common practice is what Scholes calls “hypocriticism,” most would nonetheless agree that something is rotten in the state of English. Across the country, battles are being quietly waged in seminar rooms and committee meetings for the “soul” of English. The discipline itself is in a state of not knowing what it is. Scholes might be said to represent a middle ground between the “old school” approach, which emphasizes English (meaning the literature of England) as a form of inherited historical and cultural knowledge and the “theory camp” which emphasizes various forms of cultural and linguistic analysis grouped under the rubric of critical theory. Scholes makes two general observations which form the basis for his extrapolations and proposed solutions:

1) English is now a foreign literature in (relatively) familiar language. . . . We can no longer take it for granted that the literature of England (as opposed to literatures in English) should be the center of English Studies.

2) Literature in general, which once seemed to be an in itself because it led directly to transcendental values (“the kingdom of light”) is now seen, both positively and negatively, as politically interested. (21)

Without getting into the philosophical quagmire (which Scholes visits more than once in this book) of trying to define “Truth,” I’ll agree that these two statements “ring true.” It would be foolish to think that we, in America, should offer courses only in the literature of a dead Empire whose literary history, while rich and worth dipping into, is essentially no longer our own. There is no longer one English canon. We now have American, Canadian, Australian, African, Irish, Asian [this list could go on and on] literatures in English. While nobody is proposing that we stop carrying the banner of Shakespeare, the time has come to acknowledge (if we haven’t already) that the world is now far larger than the British Empire, and so is the range of materials that English as a discipline can and should explore. And of course, literature is politically interested. Much of the work of 20th Century philosophy writ large has been in revealing the relationships between culture and ideology. While there is still room for aesthetics, to deny that texts are politically interested would, at this point, simply be silly.

However, as Scholes says, there is a sense that the discourses of the discipline as a whole are somewhat out of step with public perceptions of what English should be:

The truth about what we are doing is not pretty. The spate of recent attacks on universities, and especially on their humanities faculties, has been both dangerous and infuriating. These books and essays offend us partly because they are full of distortions if not out right lies. But they also worry us because even the worst of them often catches some glimpse of a troubling reality. (47)

The New York Times seems to take a certain mean-spirited delight in knocking down English, annually lambasting crit-speak in a cartoonish manner. But Scholes is right: there is a degree to which English has become over-sub-compartmentalized: that we have become so specialized, so entrenched in our own jargon, that we can no longer even explain what exactly it is that we do in layman’s terms. No wonder English has bad P.R.! Professionalized discourse has it’s place — when scholars get together, they ought to be able to discuss the terms of their debates with precision. But when it has gotten to a point where they can’t translate what they are saying to a room full of undergraduate students, it has gotten to the point of being a problem. There is a definite need for what Michael Berubé calls the “public intellectual,” English professionals who can write about what they do in a language that the public can digest. The discourse of English should not be whispered in a closed room, but available to any who care to listen in. Scholes links this problem of over-specialization in particular to the fact that many of the “best” faculty in English departments teach only graduate students:

. . . most university professors would rather teach graduate students than undergraduates, and many reasons are advanced for this situation. But the most telling reason is seldom even considered–perhaps because it exposes too deeply the futility of our enterprise. I believe that most professors are comfortable teaching graduate students because graduate students are expected to lead lives in which the reading of literary texts will continue to play a vital role. That is, at the supposed summit of our profession, the ideal to be attained is the teaching of English literature to people who are themselves in the process of becoming teachers of English literature. (79)

I’m with Scholes on this one. If English professors at a major university aren’t teaching at least half their course load to undergraduates, they’re doing something wrong. They’re forgetting the main reason that they’re at the university to begin with–to teach. The comforts of a shared language should not come at the sacrifice of quality undergraduate education, which will always necessarily be the primary mission of English departments.

Overall, Scholes calls for a return to a emphasis on teaching our students to be better thinkers, readers, and communicators. He calls for a focus on “textuality.” His argument makes a lot of sense, given the way that the discipline has developed over the past several decades, and given that our primary mission is to educate undergraduates who will not become Ph.D.s in English. At this point in the “history of English,” it makes sense to study “texts” writ large. I think that the biting satire of a contemporary cultural artifact like The Simpsons, for instance, bears just as much relevance for undergraduate study today as does The Dunciad. We need to get our students to understand that what they learn about texts in English class is also applicable in the world that they live in, in the present tense. All literary theory is a form of cultural study. When we focus on the skills that we are teaching undergraduates, rather than on teaching English as a historical subject, the sphere of texts available for study widens considerably.

Scholes makes a lot of arguments in The Rise and Fall of English, and the majority, though not all of them, make sense. His trouble with the erosion of the concept of “truth” seems, to me, a little nostalgic and to a degree beside the point, but his overall focus on the importance of undergraduate education bears consideration. Scholes has a clear sense of his own mission as a teacher. These are the words of one who cares about his subject, who cares about his discipline, who cares about what his students learn from him. When he gets into the specifics of his plan, there is plenty of room to quibble with him. For instance, his proposal for solving the problem of English employment — by extending the indenture of Ph.D. students from 5 or 6 to 10 years — didn’t make a lot of realistic sense on a system-wide basis. But when you get into the specifics of any plan for systemic change, there are bound to be a few rough spots.

Scholes’ views, as represented in The Rise and Fall of English, are not the only ones to be heard on the issues at play as English undergoes its next transformation, but his is a lucid voice that English professionals should take the time to listen to as they prepare for the next wave of disciplinary self-fashioning.

Review of Salvation and Other Disasters

Salvation and Other Disasters by Josip Novakovich
Paperback, 200 pages
Published by Graywolf
Publication date: May 1, 1998
ISBN: 1555972713
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 4/21/1998

While the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia raged, while “ethnic cleansing” campaigns decimated entire towns and cities, while torture, brutal rapes, summary executions, and mass murder became commonplace, while an entire culture was dissected along ethnic lines and reconstructed as a no-man’s land where anarchy and authoritarianism ran hand in hand over the ravaged landscapes, most in Western Europe and America sat on their hands and shook their heads, saying “nothing can be done.” Through our media lens, in the U.S. we understood the troubles in the Balkan states as tribal conflicts, as the product of age-old ethnic hatreds. Trained by the Cold War to reduce every conflict to black and white, to good and evil, the Balkan War challenged our sensibilities. “We want to do something, but who are we to bomb?” Finding the white hats jumbled everywhere with the black, and no clear divisions, we did nothing until the battle had all but exhausted itself. After the genocide had waned, we moved in and proclaimed it our victory. We read our occupation itself as a form of salvation. Having let “these people” kill each other with impunity for years on end, we finally moved into the rubble and hoisted the NATO flag, policing borders which had not existed five years before, our act of charity towards the barbarians.

The American impulse towards war is to dehumanize it, to objectify it in quantifiable terms. In Vietnam, we were provided charts of body counts. In the Gulf War, we watched videotapes taken from smart bombs, surgical strikes from high in the clouds. When it is our war, it is a technological marvel. When it is somebody else’s war, it is the indecipherable brutality of the uncivilized upon their fellows. In Josip Novakovich’s latest collection of short stories, Salvation and Other Disasters, however, the author has done us the service of closing that comfortable distance, of demanding that we stand closer to the carnage, and recognize that what happened in the Balkans did not happen to faceless crowds of “Serbs” and “Croats” but to individual people, whose lives were forever altered by the conflict and its aftereffects.

In the world Novakovich presents us with in this volume, there are no white hats. It is a world after the fall, where everyone suffers from a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome that no dose of Prozac could ever cure. The narrator of the first story in the book, “Sheepskin,” is an unreliable tale-teller, a Croat survivor of a Serb invasion of the town of Vukovar. Tortured while in the hospital, he emerges from the ordeal physically healthy but psychologically malformed, obsessed with the idea of revenge. When he spots “Milos,” one of his former tormentors, on a train, he follows him and kills him. When he realizes that he may have killed the wrong man, he justifies it by reasoning that now he has even more reason to hate Milos, since he is now responsible for the death of this innocent double. The narrator then seduces the dead man’s wife, extending his violation to the family of the deceased. The victim here becomes the victimizer. In an atmosphere of distrust and dishonesty, he who was a sheep has now himself become the wolf, wearing sheep’s clothing.

These stories raise deep psychological questions which refuse simple answers. The distinctions between friend and enemy, between sin and circumstance, are completely muddled. In “Out of the Woods” what begins as a story of love and seduction between a war widow and an eye doctor turns into a tale of abiding distrust. After Dena’s new husband hears that she had to prostitute herself in order to survive during the war, his view of her is drastically altered. He tells her that she has the “whore hormone,” and denies her even a shred of understanding of her ordeal. They both seek sexual fulfillment outside marraige, as their home becomes just another battleground. Their household is brought together again only by violence, when their child is nearly killed in a mine field. Only when they huddle together admidst a cloud of deer’s blood (thankfully not that of their son) do they once again become “one joyful family.”

Novakovich doesn’t stick to the mapped borders of the new Balkan states, but extends the reach of his stories to those Croatians and Serbs who, like the author himself, have moved away from the Balkans, seeking a new life in another country. One of the most absurd, while also absurdly realistic, stories of the volume, “Rye Harvest”, features a narrator who needs to flee his Croatian village after he has set free a non-combatant Serb, one of his childhood friends. Perhaps the most existentially “good” character in the entire volume, his sufferings prove once again that, especially in America, “nice guys finish last.” Tortured and nearly killed by fellow Croats for freeing his friend, the narrator finally makes his way to “the land of opportunity” on a borrowed passport. Having escaped harrowing dangers, his freedom is finally denied from within an American courtroom. Though he describes in great detail the dangers that a return to his native village will pose to him, the judge denies him asylum on this basis: “This country has invested enormous resources to make sure that the peace in the Balkans would take hold, and therefore I see no reason why the country should put even further resources in taking care of refugees who would apparently be safe in their native reasons.” In other words, “we’ve already sent in the calvary, pardner, now you’re on your own.” Though this kind of treatment might seem to be unthinkable in the U.S. of A., one need look no further than the docket of the local immigration court to see that it has its basis in reality. A xenophobic American bueracracy reasons that, having thrown money at a problem, it has solved that problem. Kept an ocean away, the wars in the Balkans were a heroic opportunity for American intervention, but brought within our own borders, the problems become too complicated for us to deal with them.

Like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka, Josip Novakovich is drawn to the wreckage of scarred human consciousness. Backed into corners, his heroes are anything but heroic. No one is saved, and everyone is culpable. War rapists marry their victims; lifetime friends sell each other out; war profiteers manuever riches from the wreckage. Given the wrong set of circumstances, every man is a dog, every human relationship a transaction. What in peace-time were petty resentments during and after the war become Nietzschean ressentiments, the grounds for slitting the throat of a boy you once played with or buying the wife of your neighbor. Ironies are complicated by ironies, onion-skin layers of deceit. These are complicated, dark, human stories, and they are important for that reason. I highly recommend you read Salvation and Other Disasters. These carefully wrought tales perform one of the tasks that great fiction ought to — they bring us a clearer understanding of what’s going on in our world, in our time. While it might not help you sleep at night, Salvation and Other Disasters will definitely give you reason to rethink the way you watch World News Tonight.

JOSIP NOVAKOVICH was born in Croatia and now teaches at the University of Cincinnati. Recently honored with a Whiting Writers’ Award and the Friends of American Writers Award, he was also a Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, the Midland Prize for Literature, and the Paterson Prize for Fiction. His other books include Yolk, Apricots from Chernobyl, and Fiction Writer’s Workshop.

Review of a Field Guide to Poetics

A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics
Edited by David Young, David Walker, and Stuart Friebert
Paperback, 342 pages
Published by Oberlin College Press
Publication date: June 1997
ISBN: 0932440770
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 4/28/1998

The first time I took an undergraduate poetry workshop, one of the required texts was the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. A mammoth green paperback, the book is exactly what it promises to be — an encyclopedia of terms, genres, histories and formal definitions, arranged with Aristotelean exactitude. It is a useful volume, containing all the “codes,” as I thought of them, all of the rules of the genre. An impressive reference book, but something about it scared me. As if poetry were something to be ruthlessly indexed, reformatted and empiricized, a kind of carefully arranged math with words. Though I learned the difference between a sestina and a villanelle, The Princeton Encyclopedia didn’t really make me want to write poetry, or help me to think about the way that I was trying to write it.

The newly revised and expanded A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of book that should be thrust into the hands of novice poets and poetry readers on the first day of their first class. This collection of essays by 29 contemporary poets is an illuminating and inspiring guide to poetry, not simply an art form, but also as a way of life. Loosely divided into 5 sections: The Process of Writing, The Poetic Line, The Image, Poetry and Values, and Portraits and Self Portraits, the Field Guide presents a wild melange of subjective reflections by practicing poets, all writing in their own intimate terms about what they know best.

The essays collected in this volume treat poetry not only as a product but as a process. The tone of most of these reflections is refreshingly un-academic — these are poets treating poetry as act, as something that they do, rather than as something done and solidified, ready for a scholarly post-mortem. Poets as varied as Larry Levis and Laura Jensen, Galway Kinnell and Adrienne Rich, represent perspectives and aesthetics from across the spectrum of contemporary poetry.

Rarely will one find a collection of essays on any topic as consistently passionate, inventive, and playful as are the essays collected here. Many of the poets acknowledge that what they do is not easily definable or necessarily “teachable,” as Margaret Atwood states in “Poetic Process?”:

I don’t want to know how I write poetry. Poetry is dangerous: talking too much about it, like naming your gods, brings bad luck. I believe that most poets will go to almost any lengths to conceal their own reluctant, scanty insights both from each and from themselves.

Some of the essayists incorporate the techniques they discuss into the construction of the essay itself, as does Russel Edson, in “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas or Notions on the Care & Feeding of Prose Poems,” which is an essay about prose poetry in the form of a series of prose poems about a fat man as he writes prose poetry.

Though the essays in the Field Guide are subjective in nature, the editors have arranged the book in such a way as to bring into focus the basic building blocks of the form, including meditations on line breaks and imagery, the poem as confession, as lament, as politics. The poem is as many things as there are poets. This collection offers up a parade of poets, a chorus of distinctive voices.

Some of my favorite essays in the Field Guide are also the shortest — perhaps because poets are usually at their best when they shoot for compaction, such as Charles Simic’s gem “Images and ‘Images'” which makes an argument in the form of aphorisms:

Poets can be classified by how much faith they have in truth via “images.” It’s for the sake of truth that one makes one’s grandmother ride a giraffe–or one does not.

Besides, any day now, “images” will attack poets and demand that they fulfill their promises.

Overall, the most resonant lesson of the essays in the Field Guide is that poetry isn’t necessarily done according to specific rules and codes, but that, for poets, poetry is a way of life, as C.D. Wright puts it, “a necessity of life, what they used to call a taxable matter.” I could go on for hours about the joys and revelations contained within the Field Guide, but this is a book review, not a lecture, so I’ll stop here. If you are a poet, or if you enjoy reading poetry, or if you’ve had a hard time thinking of what gift would be right for the would-be poet in your family, buy a copy of this book. First complied back in the 70s, it has recently been revised and expanded to cover even more of the ideas at play in the field of contemporary poetry. It is a great show, well worth the price of admission.

Review of Riven Rock by T.C. Boyle

Riven Rock by T.C. Boyle
Hardcover, 466 pages
Published by Viking
Publication date: February, 1998
ISBN: 0670878812
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg on Authors Review of Books, 3/5/1998

T.C. Boyle’s got a thing for apes and monkeys. More than one protagonist of his early stories had a tango or two with a primate of a lower order than her own, including a primatologist who fell head over heels for a chimpanzee. The apes are back in Riven Rock, but only as a subplot, part of a visiting psychiatrist’s baggage. Boyle, a prolific and inventive writer, turns his sardonic gaze to a tougher target than the tummy tickler this time around. Over the twenty or so years Boyle has been publishing fiction, he has earned a reputation as one of America’s best prose stylists. Spanning wide sweeps of the American sociological landscape, Boyle has amused his readers as he has described eccentric, zany characters both of the past and the present. From his first novel, Budding Prospects, about life on a marijuana farm, to his recent historical spoof The Road to Wellville, about the dietary regimens of a group of the very rich nearly a century ago, Boyle has demonstrated a great talent for finding the humor, both subtle and slapstick, in diverse situations. He is the king of the great detail, of the mot juste. For a writer like Boyle, sentimentality is a poison, to be avoided it all costs. Like a lot of writers of his ironic generation, however, in the middle of his career he’s discovering that he misses human emotion — “the icky stuff,” as it’s know in the profession.

Perhaps because he is so good at sculpting the surface of a story, at being damn clever and observant . . . but distant, always distant . . . stuck in the pose of pomo ironist, this time around Boyle chose a particularly difficult, pain-wrought situation as the focus of his latest novel. Like much of his other recent work, Riven Rock has a historical basis. Stanley McCormick, the heir to International Harvester founder Cyrus McCormick, is at the time of his wedding in 1904 one of the richest men in the world. His bride, Katherine Dexter, is one of the first female graduates of M.I.T., a scientific woman and a suffragist. Stanley, who at first appears to be an awkward but charming young man, wooing his wife with socialism, unfortunately turns out to be a misogynist and sexual psychopath. The Riven Rock of the title is the California estate in which Stanley is confined and treated by the best psychologists money can buy. For almost forty years, Stanley is kept away from women, including his own wife.

Boyle’s novel spans about fifty years, from the turn of the century to Stanley’s death in 1947. Boyle weaves together and follows two narrative strands: the time when Stanley was apparently still sane up until shortly after his marriage, and episodes from the life at Riven Rock afterwards. Boyle bounces back and forth from before insanity to after insanity. The book is divided into sections named after Stanley’s main attending physician during each period, “Dr. Hamilton’s Time” “Dr. Brush’s Time” and “Dr. Kempf’s Time.” Much of the comedy of the novel emerges from the different approaches each psychiatrist takes to the patient. The novel is set during a time when the field of psychology was still very new, and even its practitioners themselves were unable to agree whether or not “the talking cure” of psychoanalysis was any more useful than witch-doctoring. The only doctor who is able to make any progress with Stanley, the psychoanalyst Dr. Kempf, is sent packing. There’s no real catharsis in the story, but it becomes clear, both in Stanley’s confinement and in his wedding bed, that he’s got some major hangups of the Freudian variety.

The main point of view character in the novel is Eddie O’Kane, Stanley’s male nurse, and a philanderer with plenty of issues of his own (children by two women, avenging Italian brothers). Even though the novel is clearly not intended to be his story, O’Kane is probably the strongest character in the novel. This is both a strength and a weakness of Riven Rock — we almost always view both Stanley and Katherine from afar. We get to know them about only as well as their employees know them. When, towards the end of the novel, we are suddenly inside Stanley’s head, it is even a little bit disorienting. On the other hand, the distance between the narrative and it’s main characters is reduced as the novel progresses. The quotidian frustration of O’Kane’s life is correspondent with the lack of progress Stanley makes as his life goes on. If we readers never really get to know what’s making the deviant tycoon tick, then neither the people who live with him for years.

By the end of Riven Rock, it feels like Boyle has pulled something off in the emotion department. Katherine’s unrequited and steadfast love for her husband, O’Kane’s tenderness towards his employer, even Stanley’s groping, ever-failing attempts to be “normal” are sincerely moving. There’s more to this book than an ape caught in a revolving door and a series of gags about psychoanalysis. Author Boyle is stepping out into the icky zone of tenderness. Boyle’s been good at giving us sly sideways glances at American culture for quite some time. His ability to spot the ridiculous swimming around in the everyday is uncanny. His sparks of humor light up the page. While Boyle checks neither his sense of irony nor his flashy style at the door, he’s clearly made a departure with Riven Rock, and one that is worth his risk. Boyle will clearly never be “serious” about anything for too long, but he’s edging towards the fire in Riven Rock. Underneath all that style, he’s made a move towards substance.

Review of Plays Well With Others

Plays Well With Others by Alan Gurganus
Hardcover, 353 pages
Published by Knopf
Publication date: November 1, 1997
ISBN: 0394589149
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg, Authors Review of Books 12/21/1997

I can imagine that when Alan Gurganus set out to write a novel about AIDS, he laid out some challenges for himself. Since the wide outbreak of the disease took on plague-like proportions in the mid-80s, an entire body of literature, almost a genre in itself, has penetrated the media culture. At this point, AIDS lit has produced award-winning drama, novels and journalism, has become the stuff of movies and musicals, and has so saturated the culture that it has become difficult for a writer to create a new text about the disease that avoids a whole series of cliches. Some of the stereotypes that Mr. Gurganus undoubtedly hoped to avoid:

1) An AIDS novel is necessarily elegiac in tone.
2) An AIDS novel lionizes the victim, and scrupulously details the struggles of the caregiver.
3) An AIDS novel is serious, serious, serious.
4) An AIDS novel is always about victims, who take their victimhood very seriously.
5) The most important topic in a novel that contains AIDS is AIDS. Everything else is just atmosphere.
6) An AIDS novel is an emotional and political message, not entertainment.
7) An AIDS novel is the story of the general, rather than the specific struggle–its characters are types, not individuals.

Gurganus knew these stereotypes, and from the first pages of the novel, it is clear that he will not let them become traps for his story to fall into. The majority of the characters in this novel, with the exception of the Ishmaelesque narrator Hartley Sims, Jr., die of AIDS. But this novel is not about their deaths. It is about their lives. It is about the people that they were, and the fun that they had, while they were living. It is a novel that is much more about art, play, and life, than it is about disease, dying, and death. It is a seemingly impossible contradiction: a FUN novel about AIDS.

From the first scene of the prologue, it is clear that this will not be your standard weepy elegy. Hartley Sims Jr. is cleaning out the apartment of his friend, AIDS victim and Titantic symphony composer, Robert Christian Gustafson, in preparation for a visit by Robert’s parents, who have come, for all intents and purposes, to be with their son as he dies. In a stereotypical AIDS novel this scene would likely teeter into the realm of the maudlin. Not so here. Instead, our narrator discovers that he will have to deal with a closetful of dildoes (the kind of thing that nobody’s parents should have to deal with). Gurganus is at his best in his comic descriptions:

Thirty dildoes are a lot of dildoes.

They were piled knee-high, like cordwood. Propped, bald, ridged, and spired. Set on end, they formed a little onion-domed Kremlin. Some used adjacent cleaning products as their splints. Clumped there, the dildo quorum appeared unionized yet disgruntled.–Like toys caught in the act of trying to become the Toy-maker. Here were toys that’d crawled up off the floor, yeah, into an erect position, okay‹‹but had not evolved much beyond.

Striving? yes.
Brainy? no.

Gurganus never forgets that his characters are people, and he never loses his sense of humor. Hartley, Robert, and Alabama Byrnes are a triumvirate of artists at play. Gurganus wisely chooses not to focus exclusively on the portion of their lives that is dominated by their struggle with AIDS and Death, but to give us a fuller picture of the lives that they lived before (and during) their age of AIDS. The novel is divided into 5 sections: a prologue, followed by “Before,” followed by, “After,” followed by “After After,” and finally an appendix, “Toward a More Precise Identification of Newer Angels” (a short story by Hartley Sims). Each of the main characters is an artist: Hartley a writer, Robert a composer, and Alabama a painter.

Much of the vibrance of the novel comes from the story of the three artists’ struggle to make it in the Big Apple. The “Before” section of the novel, which is the largest, is about artists “on the make.” Before they were famous, Hartley, Robert, and Alabama were poor, hungry, dedicated to making their names, having tons of anonymous sex, and having the time of their lives. Hartley makes no apologies for his promiscuity or that of his friends. And why should he? The “Before” section brings alive a time (Pre-AIDS) when Manhattan was swinging. The book jacket refers to the novel as a “Disco-Requiem,” and these characters are clearly taking part in all aspects of the dance, with no worries aside from the occasional dose of the clap, easily remedied with a shot of penicillin. They are kids in their 30s, who have chosen to live the lives of artists, and they live at full tilt. Hartley makes rent (though not always) by donating sperm and tutoring rich kids. The lives they lead are, at first, not particularly glamorous, and yet is hard not be jealous of these people, they have so much damn fun.

Some of my favorite sections of the novel are those in which we see each of the 3 artists coming into their own. The pure joy of artists who are finally “making it in the big time” is rendered here with the expectant excitement of one who knows what it is like to finally arrive. Robert’s symphony gets a performance conducted by Aaron Copland–Alabama gets a show at the White House–Hartley gets a story (about the effects of a divorce on the family dog) published in The New Yorker). As their address books expand, we readers get to share vicariously in the joy they take in their own achievements in their chosen fields (in addition to the loving jealousy that they feel for each other). If Gurganus had merely done this section of the novel as well as he does, it would be worth reading on its own. Here’s a novel idea: Portrait of the Artists as Young New Yorkers.

But Gurganus doesn’t stop there–he doesn’t neglect the dark side of the lives he portrays. When Robert and other friends are struck with the disease, Gurganus stays with his characters, at the same time as he avoids the pitfalls mentioned above. The experience of Hartley’s plague years is not a generalized one, but a specificized, local experience. These are clearly sad years, but they are not maudlin. The quotidian experience of caring for loved who are dying is painted in great detail, which somehow retains the comic elements of the earlier chapters (Hartley tells us how he spends time with Emily Post’s Etiquette, working on the right tone for his many letters of condolence, and how the people at the flower shop keep a standing order ready for his call). Though the exhaustion of the caregiver is clear, this is never a whine, but a lived experience. When Hartley heads back home “for a rest” he discovers that his parents aren’t in the best shape either. The time Hartley spends with his dying father down South is a potent emotional counterpoint to the time he spends with his dying friends in New York.

This is not to say that the novel is without seriousness or anger. One episode of the novel details a gay-bashing attack made on Robert and Hartley, in which Robert is pistol-whipped and nearly blinded: “The kids ran, cursing, hurling back at us the insult word beginning with F-, a description of gay men that I cannot bring myself to write here even now. How had they known? Were the velvet and magnolias a tip-off? But that year everyone was wearing velvet!” Once again, Hartley and Co. are laughing through their tears. And while the novel won’t sacrifice its comic sensibility for the sake of politics, it doesn’t ignore the political realities either. As he describes the onset of his friends’ illnesses, Hartley takes a moment for a paranthetical:

At about this time, a “civilized” conservative columnist named William F. Buckley proposed in hundreds of American newspapers that every HIV-positive person be tattooed on the wrist, and again upon one buttock, and then deported to some compound in the far West, so as to spare the rest of us. May I quote? I’ve kept it. “The next logical step would be to require anyone who seeks a marriage license [to have] an AIDS test. But if he has AIDS, should he then be free to marry? Only after the intended spouse is advised that her intended husband has AIDS, and agrees to sterilization.”

. . . I read this column . . . on the very first full day Robert was hospitalized. –I sure did hide that paper from my friend, Bill Buckley.

Shame. Shame on you forever.

Plays Well With Others is a virtuoso performance by a writer at the height of his powers. Gurganus plays well in this novel, and brings a whole bag of postmodern story-telling tricks to the table. It is an intertextual novel, that moves across different art forms, including pastiche elements of visual and graphic arts, as well as literary references to many other texts, from works by John Keats to Daniel Defoe to Tony Kushner. Occasionally Gurganus overdoes the playing, but not so much as to distract from the work as a whole. The author took a great personal risk in writing this novel, arguably the first AIDS novel to entertain as well as inform, to have fun even while it chronicles a modern plague. AIDS in this novel isn’t the whole story, it is just the tragic ending of some wild, comic, playful human lives.

Review of Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom

A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Peter Sekirin
Hardcover, 387 pages
Published by Scribner
Publication date: October 1, 1997
ISBN: 0684837935
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 11/16/1997

The Commonplace of a Great Spirit

It is better to know a few things which are good and necessary
than many things which are useless and mediocre.
— Leo Tolstoy

One of the great unforeseen literary boons of the end of the Cold War and the opening of Russian society over the past decade has been that previously banned books, which have never been translated before, are coming out of Russian cellars and basements and finally finding their way into print. Along with the works that Soviet censors considered “decadent” or “Western,” materials with a religious orientation were anathema to the Soviet regime. Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom is dripping with spirituality. Tolstoy compiled this book of quotations and reflections during the last years of life, when his thoughts turned to teleological matters. Most of the pages were created by Tolstoy himself in 1903-1910 and are dedicated to matters of love, faith, kindness, knowledge, sacrifice, family, meditation, and prayer. Banned by Lenin during 75 years of of the Soviet regime for numerous quotes from the sacred texts of many major world religions, it is again a best seller in its native land.

For the elder Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom was alledgedly the most important project of his life, a book he proclaimed himself prouder that his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. “I hope that the readers may experience,” Tolstoy wrote in 1908, in the preface, “the same elevated feeling which I have experienced when I was working on its creation, and which I experience again and again when I re-read it every day.” In 1910, when Tolstoy fell seriously ill and knew that he was dying, he asked his caretakers to bring him the Bible, the Works of Shakespeare, and the Calendar.

A Calendar of Wisdom is constructed like one of those quotation calendars (ie Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy) you’ll find all over the stores this Christmas buying season. It is a compact hardcover volume, with a beautiful cover representing each of the four seasons. The pages of the book are divided by the 365 days of the year. For each day, Tolstoy has collected quotations, not only from the Bible, the Koran, Confucius, and Buddha, but also from secular philosophers like Thoreau, Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Carlyle. I have to admit that I might not be the ideal person to review this book. I’ve read little Tolstoy, and I’m a devout agnostic. Perhaps, on the other hand, I’m an ideal reader for those same reasons. While many of the religious quotations don’t particularly stir me (plenty of people make meaningful lives without completely “submitting to the will of God”) the focus of the book is essentially unitarian. By spreading his spiritual sources across different religions, different philosophers, and different continents, Tolstoy composed a text which is not so much about any particular religion as much as it is about a nearly universal human need for some sort of spiritual fulfillment, some way of making a coherent meaning from a human life process that inherently resists coherence.The books is very smart in this way — it is not a consistent argument for “one true path” but a series of often contradictory shots in the dark of metaphysical uncertainty. Thus, while on February 16, Tolstoy informs us, via Cicero,

Remember that you are not mortal; only your body is mortal. What is alive is not your body but the spirit living in your body. An unseen force guides your body, just an unseen force guides the world.

on March 21, Tolstoy also offers us a secular focus, via Alexis de Tocqueville:

Real life is found only in the present. If people tell you that you should live your life preparing for the future, do not believe them. We live in this life, and we know this life only, and therefore all our efforts should be directed toward the improvement of this life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this work is its very intertextual nature. In literary study, we break things down into categories, and very often treat these categories as if they exist in a vacuum. The academy tends to downgrade the value of study of works in translation. “If you want to read Russian novels,” some academics might say, “learn Russian.” But this book is a potent reminder that such categories are arbitrary, and that translations are vital to an understanding of our shared literary heritage. Tolstoy was not influenced exclusively by the Russians who preceded him. Shakespeare, Seneca, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lucy Mallory, John Ruskin, Benedictus Spinoza, Francis Bacon, Lao-Tzu, and Arthur Schopenhauer bore just as much influence on the way that he viewed the world as did Gogol. This book is evidence of that. This is the way that ideas move across the world. It didn’t take the World Wide Web or international distribution systems to make Tolstoy an international novelist. He lived in Russia, but he drew from, and wrote for, the whole world, even “way back then” in the 19th Century.

This book is chock-full of what Tolstoy thought was the world’s wisdom. I don’t always agree with him, but I don’t think I could have chosen a wiser guide. I haven’t read this book from cover to cover, but rather, as I think Tolstoy intended, I have spent some worthwhile minutes each morning pondering the quotations that Tolstoy offers me for the day ahead. These moments have not been ones of prayer, but part of a kind of conversation with one of the world’s great novelists. I wish every great novelist had written a book like this one.

The translator of The Calendar of Wisdom, Peter Sekirin, is the author of a recent biography,The Dostoevsky Archives. He is completing his PhD in Russian literature at the Universty of Toronto.

Review of Unbabbling by REYoung

Unbabbling by REYoung
Paperback, 253 pages
Published by Dalkey Archive Press
Publication date: October 1, 1997
ISBN: 156478164X

Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 11/16/1997

If Beckett Were an American Monster

You’re nothing but a worthless little piece of shit crawling inside the belly of some giant worm. It’s bombarding you with acids and digestive juices, it’s sucking proteins, fats and carbohydrates out of you, assorted vitamins, minerals, and trace elements, it’s ingesting you, squeezing you along the endless loops and coils of its alimentary canal, and at some point it’s going to poop you out again, an undigested little turdlet, an ex-parasite writhing and squirming in the great yawning indifference of eternity.–Reyoung, Unbabbling

Some books test the limits of a reader’s patience, and worse. They bombard you with long strings of barely coherent phrases that make your head hurt. They overpower you with language and leave you quivering on the floor, like an epileptic having a seizure. These books are hard to get published, and even harder to sell. Sometimes they are worth your trouble. Gravity’s Rainbow is like this. It kills you with language. It makes your paranoia grow like a cancerous adenoid. It makes you realize that you have no idea of what is going on, and just barely. Something is lurking in there, you know it, and your head can explode in the process of trying to figure it out. It has happened. I have seen it. It is not pretty. But it’s worth it if you survive to read it again.

I spent a long month this summer wading through another such book, or three. Samuel Beckett’s TrilogyMolloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable are novels which rip to shreds the idea of novel-making. The Trilogy is probably the most beautiful un-reader-friendly work written in the English language. We move gradually from what appears, at first, to be a relatively sensible if prolix tale of a man falling in a ditch and another man setting out to find him while being abusive to his son in tow (this is a gross simplification of Molloy, my apologies to Mr. Beckett) to a point in The Unnamable where language itself makes it impossible to tell a story, any story. In that Ur-un-story, language also paradoxically makes it impossible for a story to die. Closure evades us, even to the end:

I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

In the computer program Photoshop, there are plug-in devices called filters. You take an image, say of mountains, and apply a “fire” filter to it, zap, and they become mountains of fire. In Unbabbling, Reyoung has taken a tale of an accidental revolutionary, and applied the Beckett filter to it. This makes reading the novel more difficult, and ultimately more interesting as well.

I don’t know much about Reyoung. The back cover of Unbabbling says that he was born in Pittsburgh in 1950, got a B.A. in literature from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and then spent several years as a Russian linguist in the U.S. Army. I don’t even know if his name is real (or an identity-stripping pseudonym, like that of Evan Dara, author of The Lost Scrapbook). I’m certain, however, that Reyoung has read Beckett. Unbabbling doesn’t have much in common with Beckett’s Trilogy in terms of plot, except for the fact that in the end neither book has much of a plot at all. Unbabbling is about primarily about voices. The main character is wannabe visionary, a pseudo-novelist, an idea man.

Unbabbling is also a trilogy. In the first part of the novel, “Unbabbling,” the narrative is divided by lines of slashes which apparently represent time transitions (or trips to the typewriter). Harry, the narrator and main character, is a hard partying, hard working American male, damn disgruntled with late capitalism. He lives with Cassa, an artist. The setting is uncertain. They live in a future where life is very much like our own, with the exception of the fact that there has been some kind of cataclysmic war in the Plains (Harry and Cassa live in the city.) Harry is a former soldier in the War, and is a self-proclaimed monster. He cheats on his wife, and is a misogynist to boot. Cassa’s father, Frank, comes over to drink one night and unbeknownst to Harry records his son-in-law as he babbles. This tape becomes a central fulcrum of the rest of the action of the novel. Harry rants his revolutionary ideas about changing the world. He gets his wife pregnant. They have a kid. He continues to come home reeking of perfume and booze. The narrator has a vigorous, aggressive, Henry Milleresque voice, which can make for some energizing reading, though he’s clearly a complete ass when it comes to interacting other human beings.

The second part of the novel, “Hell Squared,” shifts around from the third person, to the second person and the first person plural and introduces another consciousness into the story, “Nakt.” Like “Mahood” and “Worm” in Beckett’s The Unnamable, Nakt is more a representation of a certain psychic state than a distinct character. Harry meets Nakt on the street, and Nakt becomes his audience. At some point Harry is rechristened Luce. Nakt is his dark motivator, a spirit of dissent. At the conclusion of the second part, Luce/Harry is carted away, “he couldn’t move because of whatever it was they had strapped him down or nailed him to with a needle in his arm and that neat little hydraulic system pumping its infinitely slow poison into his veins.” As is in Beckett’s Trilogy, the second and third parts of the book are in some ways a retelling, and reexamination of the first. The second part concludes on this note, “but it didn’t matter anymore, he was so tired, he just wanted to sleep now, he had to sleep, and maybe later, maybe later he’d remember, he’d try to remember again, but it’d be different, it’d be better if he remembered it differently, next time.” Again we see the Beckett filter in action. Something has failed, something has stopped in the story. There is nothing to do but go on again.

In the third part of the novel “Manhole (also called babble on),” our focus is on the Harry/Luce character again, this time renamed Erde. Erde is on trial, and then is a ditch digger, and then is being lowered into a hole. There is a great deal of metaphorical resonance with the conclusion of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which another failed revolutionary winds up stuck in a hole. As Erde is lowered into earth, the story fractures in micro-stories, into slapstick (reminiscient of but on a smaller scale than Beckett’s Malone Dies). On page 244, the inevitable effect of the Beckett filter strikes again, when suddenly,

Erde, merda, that little schmuck doesn’t exist anymore.
He was on a roll. Ready for the big time. Poor fool. Of course it was all a dream, a fabrication of his addled brain. He was completely deluded.

As in The Unnamable, in Unbabbling, the story itself finally becomes merde, something the narrator/writer eliminates, and the final concern of the story is not with the story, but with the shifting voice that tells it. Beckett’s narrator says:

They’ll clap me in a dungeon, I’ve always been in a dungeon, I hear everything, every word they say, it’s the only sound, as if I were speaking, to myself, out loud, in the end you don’t know any more, a voice that never stops, where it’s coming from.

The voices in the dungeon of Reyoung’s Unbabbling are just as transitory and ultimately unknowable as Beckett’s. Like Beckett, our narrator will go on, but in Unbabbling, the “I” becomes “subsumed by we, they, the writhing mass of existence.”

Beckett’s Trilogy isn’t for everyone, and neither is Reyoung’s Unbabbling. You’re unlikely to see this one on the best seller list any time soon. Pleasure-seekers look elsewhere: this is not an easy read. But if you’re up for a challenge, or if you ever wondered what it would be like if Beckett were a lowlife American revolutionary, this is the book for you. Reyoung’s voice is distinctive, and his intellect is powerful. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld

Underworld by Don DeLillo
Hardcover, 832 pages
Published by Scribner
Publication date: October 1, 1997
ISBN: 0684842696
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg for Authors Review of Books 10/17/1997

Everyone Ought To Read Underworld Twice

Okay, so I’m biased. I thought Don DeLillo walked on water long before I ever laid eyes on his latest novel, the Cold War behemoth, Underworld. So let me get the opinion part of this review out of the way straight off. Underworld is unquestionably one of the most important, most culturally resonant, most accomplished, most technically innovative novels to come along in years. Read it. Buy two copies and send one to an old friend. If you’ve had a pulse any time during the last 57 years, the book has got something in it for you, something that you will remember. Especially if you’re an American.

Don DeLillo writes careful sentences. He pays attention to every word. He’s got an almost mystic sense of the rhythms of language. He can write dialogue that somehow gets away with sounding hyper-real on the page, when in fact it’s no more mimetic of the way people really talk than anything in Henry James. DeLillo didn’t like the standard conventions, so he invented new codes. When you talk about DeLillo, you aren’t talking on Updike’s patio, you’re talking in Pynchon’s back yard. William Gaddis is playing bocce ball back there, too, and they’re setting a place at the picnic table for the spirit of James Joyce who, though dead, insists on taking part in their recreation. Paul Auster is lighting their cigars, David Foster Wallace is trying to hop the fence, and Jonathan Franzen is back home, writing them all a great big love letter.

I’m just spouting now. Call me Ishmael. Or make me a graffiti artist and call me Ismael, a.k.a. Moonman 157. I love DeLillo puns. About the book, Underworld. Read it. It’s a great book. Speaking of Ishmael. If you’re going to write “The Great American Novel” (if such a leviathan can in fact yet exist), what sport immediately pops into your mind? Soccer? Golf? Tennis? I don’t think so.

Underworld Is About Baseball.

The Polo Grounds, October 3, 1951, the Dodgers-Giants Playoffs. Underworld kicks off with a transcendent 60-page omniscient, filmic, multithreaded account of the final game of the 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff series at the Polo Grounds. Branca throws the pitch, Thomson hits the ball, Pafko’s at the wall. It is 3:58 P.M. “The shot heard round the world” that decides the series goes over the wall just after J. Edgar Hoover (at the game with Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Toots Shoor) has been informed by Clyde, his faithful homoerotic G-man companion, that the Russians have successfully tested a nuclear device within their own borders. So with one “cold shot” we see the beginning of the Cold War and the end of the Dodgers pennant hopes (and in NY, NY, the second event is bigger news than the first.)

The ball becomes a totem, an organizational device for the novel, and a symbol. Nick Shay, the central character in the novel (and the occasional first-person narrator), forks over $34,500 for the ball when he purchases it. He tosses it at night, alone, when he thinks about his wife cheating him and his father who abandoned him. He’s the last to own the ball. Along its way to him, the ball changes hands from Cotter Martin, the black kid who scooped it up at the Polo Grounds to Manx Martin, his father, who sells his kid’s pride for $32.50 to Charles Wainright, a Manhattan advertising executive who gives it to his kid, Chuckie, hoping that it will mean something to him, which it doesn’t, after which it probably though not clearly ends up with his wife Susan, who somehow gets it to the Rauch family, who have it in the car when Juddy Rauch is murdered, presumably by the Texas Highway Killer — anyway, Marvin Lundy, after a life-long search, gets his hands on it. Once he’s dying, he shows the ball to Brian Glasic, who tells Nick Shay about it. Nick Shay buys it and uses it to heft around his regrets: “I didn’t buy the object for the glory and the drama attached to it . . . . It’s all about losing.”

Underworld Is About Connections.

The connections spin off of two central hubs — the baseball and Nick Shay himself. DeLillo’s world is that web which connects the ball game, the physical ball, Nick Shay, and the culture which surrounds him. The central narrative is the personal one. On one level, Underworld is a pure bildungsroman. We start with middle-aged Nick Shay, and hop back in time to all of his big moments — the day his father went out for cigarettes and never came back, the day he cheated on his wife with a swinger in a California hotel, the day he shot a man. Nick, “a country of one” is taking us on a reluctant tour of his own, personal underworld. We discover what he’s lost along the way, and what he has discovered for the losing.

We also learn about the lives of Nick’s friends and relations — Matty, his brother, a “bombhead” and chess prodigy, whose dreams of a “normal” family life fall apart in the Nevada desert — Marian, his wife who grew up in 60s Madison, and who in turn betrays him — Brian Glasic, his best friend and betrayer — Klara Sax, an artist with whom Nick had an affair at age 17, who moves through and across subcultures in New York and California — and then, in addition, all the significant people in each of their lives. In a conventional novel, the influence that these relationships had on the central characters might be all there was to it, and any flaws in rendering these relationships might mar the novel as a whole. But in Underworld, the emotional landscape is only half of the game — it is just as important to DeLillo is that these people give him the opportunity to move around space and time, to sample America from the 50s to the present. Thus we get to Dow Day (October 18, 1967) in Madison, Wisconsin through Marian. We get to see a bootleg Rolling Stones documentary, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and the (fictional) missing Sergei Eisenstein film, Unterwelt, through Klara Sax. We get the quintessential portrait of a “normal” family during the containment-culture 50s through Eric Demming, a friend of Matt. You get the picture. It’s a big country. We get around.

The novel ends up, appropriately I think, on the World Wide Web, where everything is connected, where Sister Edgar, Cold War nun, is one click away from J. Edgar Hoover, the “other Edgar,” where a site on miracles is only one click away from a site on H-Bombs. The Web may very well be the organizing principle DeLillo had in mind as he set about structuring this massive web of language.

Underworld Is About the Famous Dead.

If a novel were a symphony, we could say that Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover both play important “leitmotif” roles in the “musical composition” of Underworld. Lenny Bruce, with whom the author clearly shares an artistic identification, is rendered during the Cuban Missile Crisis, screaming “We’re all gonna die!” at audiences in San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami. The Lenny Bruce material in the novel is so convincingly voiced that I, for one, was left wondering how much of it was actual Lenny Bruce and how much of it was Don DeLillo Lenny Bruce, and if I would ever be able to tell the difference between the two again.

Hoover is particularly highlighted during the prologue, snatching Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death” from his shoulder and thinking about the bomb, and during the Black and White Ball hosted by Truman Capote in November, 1966. Hoover’s voice is as well imagined as was Lee Harvey Oswald’s in DeLillo’s novel Libra. The theft of his garbage by leftist archaeologists offers one of the novel’s greatest moments of hilarity. Speaking of garbage,

Underworld Is About Garbage.

Nick Shay is an executive at Waste Containment (Whiz Co). The novel takes us on a tour of all the latest in waste disposal techniques, from the Fresh Kills landfill in New Jersy to a human waste freighter floating in the ocean without a port of entry to an underground nuclear explosion waste disposal system in Kazakhstan.

Nick Shay and family recycle.

There’s a fair amount of energy dedicated to condoms, empty and filled with sperm.

Human waste is a recurring theme.

In the sections about the Wall, a poverty stricken New York neighborhood, garbage dumped from restaurants, discarded aluminum cans, and wrecked-out cars become the components of an entire economic system.

Nick and Klara both visit Watts Towers, an assemblage of garbage turned into art.

Garbage takes on an almost metaphysical role in Underworld. The baseball, the coveted Holy Grail of the novel, is itself a kind of garbage, a remnant.

The personal memories that Nick slowly strips away become a kind of garbage as well. The self as a toxic waste dump.

The culture itself as scatology. The scatological analysis of culture by Lenny Bruce.

Oppenheimer says the bomb is merde.

Underworld Is About Betrayal.

Nick Shay’s wife betrays him with his best friend and co worker, Brian Glasic (and, to make matters worse, she does heroin while she’s betraying him).

Earlier, Nick had betrayed his wife with a swinger at the same hotel as his waste convention.

Much earlier, when he was 17, Nick assisted Klara Sax in betraying her then-husband Albert Bronzini, thus deflating almost all happiness from the poor man’s life.

Manx Martin betrays his boy, Cotter Martin, by selling the baseball, his most prized possession, for a lousy $32.50.

During the height of the Cold War, betrayal was the theme of the age. Hoover compiled dossiers on everyone. There was a Red around every corner.

Nick Shay signed a petition in support of Senator McCarthy.

Nick Shay’s father went out to get cigarettes and never came back.

Think about Leopold and Marion Bloom and Blazes Boylan in Ulysses, and poor Stephen Daedelus’ soulaching too. I think DeLillo was when he wrote this book.

Underworld Isn’t Perfect.

Oddly, one of my favorite things about Don DeLillo is that he will occasionally stumble in print. The prose which was transcendent a few pages back will get momentarily clunky. He’ll make a narrative choice that will hit with a resounding thud. And yet we’ll still fly through it, because the story as a whole is still rolling, and on a sentence-by-sentence basis, his phraseology is still sound, still clicking. He’s human. If this sentence doesn’t work, you move on the next one.

In Underworld, the young Nick Shay character seems strangely disjointed from the older Nick Shay, not because of a lack of biographical detail and verisimilitude, but because of the voice or its absence. It seems as if the closer we get to the events that are at the emotional heart of the novel, the further we get from Nick Shay. By the time we get around to the manslaughter which is his darkest secret, it doesn’t feel like much of a revelation. The young Nick Shay is basically a hood, and we don’t get much more than that. There is a quality to the depiction of young Nick which suggests “wise elder recalls wasted youth with a jaundice eye” (a perspective which, since we’re apparently getting it through the older Nick, may be appropriate). While young Nick does all of the things a young hood does, we don’t get access to any sense of the highly formed personality that Nick undoubtedly had at the time. We get no great DeLillo headtalk for young Nick. Maybe this emotional withdrawal is itself a product of the author’s identification with the character, but I found myself wishing we could have seen more through young Nick’s eyes, in his head at a particular moment in time. But it’s tough for even a great writer to go from Cold War, Jesuit-toughened, philosophical middle-aged executive to young hood and do each part equal justice.

Underworld Is About the American Zeitgeist.

Fundamentally, Underworld is a novel of great historical significance. It is the first novel to take into account the whole depth and breadth of American culture during the Cold War. As Marvin Lundy points out in the novel, history is like a pointillist painting. When we’re up close to it, all we can see are isolated dots of color. It is only when we step away from the canvas, when we have a certain amount of distance from it, that we can see the picture as a whole. The Cold War ended eight years ago. In the future, it may be recorded as one of the most absurd periods of American experience, one in which the “American” world view was reduced to binary oppositions, to good and bad, to black and white, to Communist and McCarthyite. It was a culture in which divisions were clearly drawn, and normality was clearly defined. It was period in which official language inflicted its codes on an entire culture. As William S. Burroughs said, “language is a virus,” and as DeLillo shows, language also became the only weapon in another Cold War, the one that divided our country over Vietnam, the one that impeached Nixon, the one fought by Lenny Bruce and by Don DeLillo.

Twenty years from now, when college students enter a literature classroom to study the “Late 20th Century American Novel,” Underworld will be at the top of the list, precisely because of the fact that contains so much of the spirit of the age, both the one that has recently passed, and the tenuous, uncertain one that we now find ourselves living in. Underworld is one of those rare books that tells us our own story. DeLillo has written America a secret history of the recent past, a history that was only kept secret from us because we were living in middle of it.

This review was originally published on the Authors site at the Miningco (