Tag Archives: fall 2012

KIPPENBERGER: The Artist and His Families

Susanne Kippenberger
translated by Damion Searls
J&L Books ($34.95)

by Erika Stevens

In 2011, Martin Kippenberger’s installation Wenn’s anfängt durch die Decke zu tropfen (When the ceiling begins to leak) —a work of art worth more than a million dollars—was cleaned by a very thorough Putzfrau(cleaning lady). She saw a dirty residue in a rubber basin below a wooden frame and ruthlessly set about making it sparkle. The residue was actually a patina that Kippenberger (1953-1997) had painstakingly painted to resemble evaporated rainwater.

The art world responded with horror and a little Schadenfreude, but Kippenberger himself might have roared with joy and waltzed the cleaning lady around the room. What the artist wanted, more than anything in the world, was to engage people. The very fact that the Putzfrau couldn’t resist the impulse to clean up Kippenberger’s “messy” installation testifies to the work’s success. The incident is actually a pretty apt representation of Germany’s reaction to Kippenberger’s art as a whole beginning with the desire to clean it up, and ending with wide acceptance and popularity.

A multifaceted artist who thrived on disruption, Kippenberger made a business of creating works of art from unlikely, quotidian objects. He wanted to outrage, please, anger, and move all at the same time. Although he took pleasure in—even demanded, at times oppressively—ritual and comfort, there was no such thing as “ordinary” or “quotidian” around Kippenberger. It simply wasn’t in his nature to be bored or still; even the most mundane rituals, objects, and relationships were glorified in a sort of real-time exercise of the Kantian sublime.

Kippenberger’s sister, Susanne, makes all this and more clear in her biography, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families. Susanne, now a journalist, was the youngest of the five Kippenberger children. She painstakingly traces her older brother’s path through the German and international art worlds and shows, in exhaustive detail and as much as any sister can, the relationships, rituals, and Sturm und Drang of a man to whom moderation was by turns anathema and goal. It was also, for the most part, impossible for him either in work or in pleasure. He died from liver cancer at the age of forty-four.

Suzanne describes Martin, four years older than she, as “something of a Rumpelstiltskin. He bounced through the art world as a collector, painter, impresario, museum director, installation artist, graphic artist, dealer, photographer, braggart, teacher, and puller of strings. For him, that was the freedom of art: to constantly overstep boundaries, including the limits of good taste.” We learn that Martin was not an easy friend or family member to have—the cost was high although the rewards could be great. He demanded full engagement from family and friends and, later, also from viewers of his art, but he himself gave nothing less.

If he needed to be sweet, he was. If he needed to push, to agitate, to confront, he did. “His rituals for getting under people’s skin (the endless, pointless jokes; the swaggering, macho songs sung in groups that pointedly excluded women) were all tests,” Susanne writes. “What are people willing to put up with, and when will they start to rebel? Do they know a joke when they see one?” She also draws parallels between Martin and their parents: “All three of them,” she writes, “were drama queens.” Each was artistically inclined. Gerd was a mining engineer and artist who “could be crude as well as charming and tended to find the shortest path from one social blunder to the next. He loved provocation and making fun of people.” Susanne notes that an artist friend of Martin’s coined the term “Zwangsbeglücker,” meaning “someone who forces others to have fun”; that could apply to both father and son. Eleonore, their mother, had trained as a doctor. Her “child rearing methods were laissez-faire, although she could be strict and sometimes even a bit hysterical.” She experienced an artistic flourishing after her divorce from Gerd, and took up writing, wearing flamboyant hats, and traveling; she died in an accident when “a truck overloaded with EuroPallets took a curve too fast and lost some of its freight.”

Martin, of course, revered both parents. References to his mother’s death occur frequently in his artwork. However, after the early family history we don’t see much of the Kippenberger family. Instead, Susanne shows how, over and over again, Martin created family and community, sometimes via sheer force of will, sometimes out of deep connection. What we don’t see is how his sister moves through his life, a strange absence in an otherwise meticulously constructed biography.

From childhood on, Kippenberger had an insatiable appetite for interaction. He wrote long letters from boarding school to guilt trip his family for not paying him enough attention: “Call me please. Write me!! And send a package! If you don’t I’ll run away! But I probly will anyway,” he wrote disconsolately. When he didn’t get what he wanted, he often simply arranged things as he wanted them to be. It was during his adolescence that Kippenberger started to curate his very being, using his body as a canvas, his life as performance art. One of his friends called him aGesamtkunstwerk (a total, multimedia work of art), saying, “He not only was loud, he looked loud too.”

We follow Kippenberger to Hamburg for rehab then art school. We move on to the Berlin of the late 1970s, where—in the shadow of the wall—he made art, installed elaborate shows, danced, made music, and generally created the scene he wanted to be a part of. He managed the punk club S.O. 36, got beat up, fell in love, and opened his own gallery called “Kippenberger’s office.” His sister writes, “It was a time of ‘genius dilettantes,’ as they were called in Berlin at the time: people who did whatever they wanted, not only what they were good at. It was the time of theGesamtkusnstwerk.”

After Berlin, there were various other locales, but most of all there was Cologne, where he spent the longest time of anywhere in his adult life. There he helped define the decadent 1980s art scene. Having been almost completely destroyed in World War II, Cologne had had to create a new sense of identity for itself. Martin harnessed that energy. He cut a wide swath through the art world there and continued his multimedia art making and production. “In Cologne, as elsewhere, Martin did not limit himself to producing works of art; he worked on how the art was presented, the framework and the sideshows.”

One thing that becomes clear as we read this book is that it serves as Susanne Kippenberger’s chance to stand up for her elder brother. On more than one occasion she sets the record straight. Kippenberger, for instance, has sometimes been accused of being a borrower, sometimes worse. This, his sister argues, was not an apt description. Instead, she describes him by saying, “he threw everything he thought was interesting into his cooking pot, whether it came from himself or someone else, from an artist or a child. All he cared about was the quality of the idea. ‘Let it not be old, let it not be new, let it be good’ was one of his favorite slogans.”

Susanne knows that her brother was a holy terror at times, and she makes a valiant effort to catalogue his sins as well as his humanity, as we see in this exhaustive account of his life constructed through interviews, family papers, correspondence, and art monographs, among other things. She makes few excuses for Martin, but she does explain and interpret. At times, she is less able to maintain the critical distance or do the sort of broader cultural and contextual analysis that some might wish for, but it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that of her, or of any sister. For the most part, this well-wrought history captures the hedonism and richness of the artist and of German art culture, even if we must sometimes struggle with how to reconcile appreciation for Kippenberger with his sometimes terrible and often questionable behavior.

Meanwhile, Kippenberger might well still push through the world as a poltergeist. Somehow, just as I was settling in to review this book, I dropped my pencil and knocked over an almost-full wine glass, the contents of which the book promptly absorbed. The first several chapters were completely saturated, and I had to delay my review so the book could dry out. Zwangsbeglücktum, anyone? The book and I sat on the patio, compatibly. Martin could have just told me he was thirsty.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

LESS THAN NOTHING: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Slavoj Žižek
Verso Books ($69.99)

by Jim Kozubek

GWF Hegel (1770-1831), the pre-eminent German idealist, changed political discourse by staking the claim that “antimonies” or inconsistencies were persistent to any thesis, thus a system would be perpetually besieged by antithesis, and subject to transition into a synthesis. In his churning 1000-page new tome, Slovenian philosopher and social critic Slavoj Žižek tells us that “what happened after Hegel” was that systems lost their ability to “condense” and incorporate the multiplicities of society, “so the excess became ‘unbound’, a threat to the representative system in all its guises.” In short, no power structure can contain everything. There would always be ample room for revolution.

Žižek, a self-described “communist in a qualified sense,” draws upon the legacy of Hegel, along with the work of Sigmund Freud, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and philosopher Alain Badiou. His ambition is to enhance discourse on social, political, and scientific deadlocks by showing that inconsistencies are inherent in most positions. To Žižek, inconsistencies are not solely categories or arguments, but inscribed in nature (e.g. the collapse of the wave function into a particle). Žižek calls these inconsistencies a “parallax,” the “name for the most elementary split/diffraction.” His 2006 work The Parallax View (MIT Press) is an excellent exploration of this theme.

Žižek draws a distinction between the “symbolic necessity that regulates our lives” and the Real that defies expression and resists incorporation into the order, expounding upon the Lacanian formulation of the objet a, a “little piece of reality” that compels us to incorporate it into the symbolic order (he puts a glyph of a naked woman on the book’s dust jacket as an example of objet a). For Žižek, the Real resists incorporation into the symbolic order, and thus remains a surplus and a compulsion. The objet a stands in for a “hole in the symbolic order”—in Hegelian terms “the night of the world,” or in Freudian terms the “death drive.” But this all means that theobjet a is a “signifier” of the Real which must be destroyed (e.g., Christ) in order for the symbolic order to emerge. Things don’t get to be symbolically important until they stand in for something missing.

The objet a embodies compulsion to approach the real. It also undoes our logic and sense of normalcy. “In a love letter,” Žižek says, “the very failure of the writer to formulate his declaration in a clear and effective way, his vacillations, the letter’s fragmentary style, and so on, can in themselves be proof (perhaps the necessary and only reliable proof) that the love he professes is authentic.” Or so as Simone Weil says, the lack holds our attention: “where there is nothing, read that I love you.”

“Less than Nothing” is Žižek’s expression for the lack in the symbolic order, the surplus that resists symbolization. He argues that approaching the Real is necessary to renew. “Hegel is also aware that, in order to prevent its own death by habituation . . . every bourgeois society needs to be shattered from time to time by war,” he tells us. Žižek seeks to progress upon Hegel by incorporating the objet a into Hegelian theory. The lack is essential to a system: “the radically New emerges only through pure repetition.”

Žižek sees the time of Hegel, Fitche, Shelling, and Kant as contributing to a critical Rupture in historical thought proper. This development was later taken to a new level of interpretation in the birth of modernism. Yet he is critical of thinkers (such as Michel Foucault) who adhere to a historical thought process and seek to mediate historical and social influences through deconstruction (a “synchronic” analysis). Žižek insists the French “post-structuralists” and “deconstructivists” placed too much emphasis on the burden of the constructs, and not enough on the subject’s engagement and achievement through them. Instead, he expounds a dialectical approach. To Žižek, relationships are essential to ensure our authenticity, our freedom; they ensure we don’t devolve into our own notions and fantasies. While modernism implored “the outcome of its own activity,” postmodernism, relativism, and mobilism get it all wrong, he tells us, since they miss out on solidarity.

Not surprisingly, Žižek is also critical of what he calls “New Age Obscurantism,” or any system which implies a harmony or unity of opposites. “Its falsity lies in the fact that it frees the universal notion of modernity of its antagonism,” he says. “‘Postmodernism’ is rather the name for a regression, for a refusal to follow the consequences of the modernist break.” For Žižek, the inscription of the parallax and the Real implies that nature is never resolved in harmony. The wheel of life never stops, and even after we think we’ve mastered something, it can all come apart. “Eppur si muove” or “and yet it moves,” he says. The Real persists, eternally, beyond the symbolic order.

In the political sphere, Žižek argues that compromise cannot exist as “a unity of opposites” but rather implies a failure of commitments. He argues that in a deadlocked two-party system, one party is simply a “symptom” of the other’s intransigence, its effort at “specialness,” its failure at solidarity. He therefore deplores strategies via centrism (Bill Clinton’s “third way”), which obscure delusions in the current capitalist system. Instead, he argues for a radical alternative outside the current system—one which requires the current system’s complete downfall prior to renewal.

To illustrate this point, Žižek looks to recent European history. If Communism failed in its commitments, Žižek postulates, fascism failed in its revolution. Of the Holocaust, he says, the Jews, by becoming the “chosen people,” had to “suffer the reaction to the fact that they excluded themselves from organic communal life and thereby abandoned themselves to a rootless, alienated existence.” The symptoms are apparent, as “anti-Semitic discourse constructs the figure of the Jew as a phantom-like entity to be found nowhere in reality, and then uses this very gap, between the ‘conceptual Jew’ and the actually existing Jews as the ultimate argument for anti-Semitism.”

Symptoms of previously failed states, therefore, are apparent to Žižek in “late capitalism,” with its rabble of unemployed peoples and its isolated elites; these display failed integration into the organic whole and betray failed solidarity. He is concerned with the modern gap between the notional and actual (the intellectual arguments for capitalism and the endemic problems on Wall Street; the abstraction of capital, its digitalization, and its function of “money begetting more money”) as a serious threat to the social sphere. Yet he sees the Occupy Movement (which he attended last fall) as close to being a reaction to a notion of capitalism rather than a genuine third way, its own alternative stand-for-yourself organization. He urges its proponents to build an intellectual edifice to claim a moral ground.

We need each other, Žižek claims, not an enemy. He notes that Hegel’s fascination was the “primacy of self-contradiction over the eternal obstacle” such that the “struggling subject needs the figure of the enemy to sustain the illusion of its own consistency . . . so much so that his (eventual) victory amounts to his own defeat or disintegration.”

Indeed, Žižek has built his reputation as a confrontational intellectual and conveys violent allusions in his writing: “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was ‘not violent enough’ . . . his violence was not ‘essential’ enough . . .” Žižek gets in trouble with sentences like this because they are so easy to misinterpret, but reading through the entirety of the tome, his message is clear: a real revolution is a commitment to solidarity, not a reaction to some notion of people in your community. If the Nazis wanted change, they should have focused their libido (violence) on their own purposes, not reacted to projections like “the Jews.”

So Žižek wants Occupy Wall Street to grow up and do something of the same. Yet his direction, and this book, offers no real vision of alternatives to the current economic model in the West. He borrows a lead from Hegel and channels the “Owl of Minerva,” a mythical owl who “only takes flight at night.” In other words, philosophy is only retrospective, not prescriptive, and we can only see the errors of “late capitalism” in retrospect. Žižek doesn’t let his readers know what parts of the system he sees as functional, but rather exhorts us to engage in “radical emancipatory politics” (whatever that means).

Less than Nothing is a master work that is eminently readable, chock full of cinematic allusions and graphic jokes; it strives for a product like Hegel, where “each passage” does not necessarily follow a linear progression but “is a moment of creative invention.” The book is raw with vital force, surplus even, and Žižek goes at it with a death drive all his own. And yet he leaves obvious unturned questions. What went wrong with Stalinism and Leninism and why? Could a model of strictly employee-owned corporations work? What we’re left with is a surging, fragmentary work, which is, perhaps, the only reliable proof of its authenticity.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Brian Mooney
Thorogood Publishing ($24.95)

by John Toren

During the summer of 2010, retired Reuters correspondent Brian Mooney stepped out the front door of his home in Essex, rucksack on his back, and set off for Rome—on foot. This 1,400-mile journey took him seventy-five days. The title of his retelling of the experience, A Long Way for a Pizza, may seem like a humorous, self-depreciatory label masking a profound and dramatic experience, but in fact it’s perfectly apt. At no point along the way does Mooney come up with a compelling reason why he made the journey—though he ponders that question repeatedly along the way.

Long walks have become a staple of travel literature in recent years. Some are journeys of self-discovery, such as neophyte walker Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Others, such as Jack Hitt’s Off the Road, draw much of their interest from characters met along the way. Yet a third approach is exemplified by W.S. Sebald’s rambling and evocative The Rings of Saturn, in which the solitary walker explores the history of the various landscapes and historical sites he passes at such great length that we’re sometimes startled to be reminded that we’re on a walk at all.

Mooney’s book offers none of these virtues. He prides himself on being an experienced long-distance walker who lets nothing stand in the way of putting the requisite number of kilometers behind him, day in and day out. At one point he remarks that “long-distance walking does not combine well with leisurely tourism” At another he observes that conversation with other “pilgrims” is likely to throw one off the track.

Mooney meets up with precious few hikers during his trek in any case, which may be a fact worth pondering. Unlike the Santiago Trail, which stretches across largely-rural northern Spain and draws thousands yearly, Mooney’s chosen route, the Via Francigena, transverses vast tracts of land peppered with suburban and industrial real estate, highways, and high-speed rail lines. Thank God for the canals and deserted country roads! No wonder he sees so few pilgrims and loses his way almost daily.

From the very beginning, Mooney treats us to observations about the buildings and towns he’s passing and the landscapes he’s moving through, but they’re delivered in the clipped, matter-of-fact style of a seasoned news correspondent, with nary a wisp of romance or atmosphere involved. At each stage on the journey, the details that might interest us are crowded out by mileage reports, complaints about signage, judgments about the quality of the four-star hotels at which he stays—and the nationality of the masseuses who tend to the numerous physical ailments he develops. Though Mooney himself seems to be an agreeable chap, his entire narrative seems rushed. That may be a good way to walk, but it isn’t an interesting way to share the tale.

A case in point: Mooney has arranged by mobile phone to be ferried across the River Po. He writes, “Reaching the little riverside jetty about thirty minutes before Danilo had arranged to pick me up, I had time to visit the farming hamlet of Corte San Andrea before returning to the white sandy shore . . .” But he doesn’t describe the hamlet or explain why he went there. Nor does he describe the River Po in any great detail. Is it a half-mile across, or fifty yards? Are there boats moving up and down the river, or is it a desert of reeds and swamps? Mooney would have written a better book (and probably had a better hike) if he’d sat on the shore for that half hour, soaking in the countryside, and then shared a few details of that experience with us.

Those who stick with the narrative will notice that the book gets more interesting when Mooney finally reaches the Alps, and it becomes more engaging still when he drops down through the Val D’Aosta into Italy. Yet while he says “walking to Rome was to become a magical, almost mystical experience,” the promise of this remark is never fulfilled. We reach the end of the narrative with the firm conviction that the reason Mooney walks is not to “hold back time” and to “understand how small we really are,” as he himself attests, but to avoid reflecting on who he really is by methodically placing one foot in front of the other.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

AN UNQUENCHABLE THIRST: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life

Mary Johnson
Spiegel & Grau ($27)

by Chris Beal

The less we think of ourselves, the more God thinks of us.       —Mother Teresa, as quoted by Mary Johnson

Nineteenth-century novelists may have thrived on the theme of forbidden sex and its consequences, but in the modern era, there are few contexts in which sex is forbidden. Adultery—even the word sounds old-fashioned—along with other kinds of what used to be called “illicit” sex, is now too ordinary to be the stuff of drama. But there is one place in Western culture where all sex is still forbidden: Catholic religious orders. It is not surprising, then, that a no-holds-barred memoir by a former nun would focus on this most human of desires and her struggles to overcome it.

Sister Donata, as Mary Johnson was called, is still a virgin when she becomes a nun in 1977. She is well into her training when a very forward sister, Niobe, comes on to her. Donata relishes feeling special to someone, as well as the delight of touching and kissing. Afraid she will give in to more, she asks God to save her from this temptation, and He appears to do so when Niobe is transferred to another site. But this memoir reads like a novel, so readers know that Niobe is bound to show up again. And she does so some time later, when Johnson is in a supervisory position over other nuns. She confesses to an understanding priest, Father Tom. Gradually, she and “Tom”—he asks her to drop the “Father”—become secret lovers and again Johnson must question her calling.

After Sister Donata has completed her first year of training in New York, she is sent to Rome, where she lives during most of the rest of her twenty years with the Sisters of Charity. There she soon learns that something has been omitted from her training in New York: the discipline. The “discipline” is a rope with which a sister is to beat herself every night.

Denial of the body's needs doesn't stop there, though. During virtually all of Johnson's years as a sister, she suffered sleep deprivation, dragging herself around to each activity but not daring to ask for more sleep than her sisters were getting or to refuse on the grounds of exhaustion any task asked of her. Even sickness was looked upon as weakness, and a nun had to collapse before receiving medical attention, as Johnson did more than once.

One of Johnson's accomplishments in this book is the immediacy with which she describes experiences she had decades ago. She has somehow been able to put herself back into the frame of mind she had as a young girl, new to the Sisters of Charity, naïve and enthusiastic about helping the poor and giving herself to Jesus, just like Mother Teresa. And then she lets us see how she gradually loses that enthusiasm as she faces obstacle after obstacle. She wants to work with the poor, and loves the assignments she has when in training—especially working with children. But once she takes final vows, she is given one supervisory position after another, training junior nuns. Her goal then becomes to help these mostly young women, rather than have them fear her, as they feared their prior superiors and as Johnson had feared most of her own superiors. Through everything, her deep faith that God has called her to this profession keeps her going. She interprets everything that happens to her as a message from God and spends much effort trying to decipher what He is asking of her.

Gradually, as the order grows more politically and socially conservative and she herself more open-minded, Johnson finds herself at odds with the superiors she is supposed to obey. Toward the end of Johnson's life as a nun, education of women is even frowned upon; women are to serve and obey, period. Any exploration of new models of spirituality—for example, the enneagram—are branded blasphemy. Views of birth control or abortion differing from those of the Vatican are, of course, out of the question.

All through her time as a nun, Johnson reminds herself of the picture she saw of Mother Teresa on the front of Time Magazine when she was a teenager which had inspired her to give her life to the Sisters of Charity. She believed it was a call from God. But toward the end of her story, in a moment of anger, she regrets the day she first saw this picture; the reader knows then that her days as a nun are numbered. Another pivotal moment comes when she realizes that Mother Teresa, while eschewing all material possessions, wants more than anything to be canonized. Ambition can take many forms, Johnson realizes.

The reader can't help wondering how Johnson coped after 1997, when she left the order to which she had given her life, and an epilogue written ten years later offers some details. It would have been wonderful to hear more of that part of her story, told in the same intimate manner with which Johnson recounted the rest of her tale. But with the book already at 526 hefty pages, clearly that was not feasible, so Johnson summarizes her considerable post-convent struggles. This book is a testament that she made it through. She has written a memoir detailing a world about which most of us know little at the same time as she invites us into her journey to find both authenticity and peace.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


The Secret Violence of Henry Miller
Studies In American Literature And Culture
Katy Masuga
Camden House ($70)

Henry Miller and How He Got That Way
Katy Masuga
Edinburgh University Press ($59.99)

by Greg Bachar

In his essay “Writers Lost In The Distance,” Roberto Bolaño describes “remembering the writers who were important to us in our youth and who today have fallen into a kind of oblivion . . . We thought, of course, of Henry Miller.” Katy Masuga attempts to rescue Miller from oblivion with her critical studies The Secret Violence Of Henry Miller and Henry Miller And How He Got That Way.

One of Masuga’s fundamental points in The Secret Violence is that “writing can only ever grapple at a truth that is the manifestation of a collection of subjective experiences, or, rather, the expression of subjective experiences, which are experiences that become forced and into a collection that becomes the book . . . Order is not made through language, as nothing is actually made through language in a concrete and final sense.”

Miller addresses this notion in a passage from Tropic Of Capricorn: “I must have the ability and the patience to formulate what is not contained in the language of our time, for what is now intelligible is meaningless. My eyes are useless, for they render back only the image of the known.”

Masuga, looking through the lens of Maurice Blanchot, responds: “if writing is defining what is unknown . . . it must always leave the unknown to be unknown, even though its purpose is the attempt to uncover and to disclose that unknown.”

Why, then, should one read these books that attempt to make “known” various “unknown” aspects of Miller’s writing? Masuga might refer the reader to an earlier passage in the book where she explores Miller’s idea that “this was the business of authorship, as I then conceived it. Make mud puddles, if necessary, but see to it that they reflect the galactic varnish.” In response to Miller and addressing the reader:

The galaxy is the unknown world as we project it before ourselves, despite the fact that its varnish is evidence of a deliberate finishing on a stupendous scale. We do not see its transparency, however, but the grandeur of the galaxy only as reflected in the mud puddles we make, and yet we mystify it through that reflected presence. We feel incapable of ever seeing the surface of the galaxy: how it shines, how it is already finished (by us). We come to imagine it as impenetrable, when in fact it is created—and subsequently easily accessible—through the activity of mud puddle-making: through the intellect, which is language and, hence, is the act of writing. Language, particularly writing itself, is the tool we create for ourselves as intellectualizing beings to understand the mysteries that our own intellectualizing has created.

Masuga makes such heady stuff interesting through extensive sampling of examples and sources to create thick mash-up layers of theory, language, influence, and intertextuality that form the analytical basis for both volumes. A brief section of Henry Miller And How He Got That Way serves as an excellent example of her technique.

In response to Miller’s statement that, “long before I read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus I was composing music to it, in the key of sassafras,” Masuga brings Proust, Cezanne, Bosch, Chagall, Matisse, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Carroll, Wittgenstein, synesthesia, word play, and language games into the proceedings to illustrate that Miller, “as usual, is engaging in multiple forms of intertextuality” and “literary correspondence that can transcend space and time” between himself and his ancestral authors.

Masuga explores four forms of intertextuality in Henry Miller And How He Got That Way: “Miller’s direct allusions to his influences”; “styles that are unconsciously borrowed”; “reverse influence . . . the manner in which the manifestation of the writer of influence in Miller’s work has perhaps affected a new reception of that figure of influence in subsequent criticism;” and “with Miller presenting the writer of influence as a figure in the text, occasionally even as a character.” Masuga selects Miller’s ancestral authors Walt Whitman, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lewis Carroll, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, and D.H. Lawrence as the central figures for the book’s explorations of these four forms.

The Secret Violence Of Henry Miller is the more spaciously-written and linear book of the two, though not as much referential fun. Masuga’s goal here is to “suggest a new way of reading Miller that is alert to the aggressively writerly and self-conscious form of his work.” To accomplish this, she’s divided the book into chapters that explore categorization of Miller’s work by others, a study by Deleuze and Guattani on “minor literature,” metaphor, Miller’s descriptions of objects and places, his use of motion, time, and space, and the presence of visual and literary arts in Miller’s work.

Both books summon a long list of supporting characters. Blanchot, Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, Bataille, and Barthes get star billing with additional appearances by an epic multitude of others, a very short list of whom includes the likes of Harold Bloom, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Francois Villon, Samuel Beckett, Borges, Coleridge, Byron, Nietzsche, and Charlie Chaplin.

Where some of Miller’s ideas and attitudes seem handcuffed to the times in which he lived, Masuga aims toward the future of critical theory. And while she succeeds in achieving her goals for both books, it’s hard to see these efforts sparking a Henry Miller renaissance. It’s more likely that readers will want to read more Masuga, but who knows? As Roberto Bolaño points out:

The explanation for this ebb of writers . . . is very simple. Just as love moves according to a mechanism like the sea’s, as the Nicaraguan poet Martinez Rivas puts it, so too do writers move, and one day they appear and then they disappear and then maybe they appear again. And if they don’t, it really doesn’t matter so much, because in some secret way, they’re us now.

Click here to purchase The Secret Violence of Henry Miller at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Henry Miller and How He Got That Way at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

SUPER BLACK: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes

Adilifu Nama
University of Texas Press ($24.95)

by Isaac Butler

One Christmas, Bill, my brother, seven years my senior, bequeathed me his comics collection. Although born out of necessity—he had run out of available funds before it came time to buy me anything—it was the best Christmas present I’d ever received. I spent the next few months enraptured, reading comic after comic from the early to mid ’80s, falling in love with Spider-Man and The X-Men(we were a strictly Marvel house), thinking uncomfortable thoughts about Kitty Pryde and Mary Jane, reading the multi-issue crossovers again and again.

Out of all of the characters, team-ups, and series, I was particularly drawn to Power Man and Iron Fist, in which the nigh-invincible African American Luke Cage (that’d be Power Man) teamed with Danny Rand, a white guy who had been raised to be a badass zen warrior by aliens in the mystical city of K’un-Lun. Of course I loved them: I saw Bill and myself in them. Bill was black, I was white. Bill was the toughest kid I knew. I practiced martial arts. Playing out in the pages of Power Man and Iron Fist and in events like Secret Wars, I saw a utopian vision of how the two of us could get along despite the gulf in our ages and races and non-comic book interests.

As Adlifu Nama discusses in his fascinating, frustrating Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, he (and countless other kids) had a similar moment in the 1970s, when he discovered the superhero Falcon, “a black man that could fly.” The first critical survey of black superheroes, Super Black takes Nama’s childhood passion and examines it through cultural, historical, and critical lenses. In its pages, you’ll meet the aforementioned Luke Cage alongside African prince Black Panther (created right before The Black Panther Party began in Oakland), Black Goliath, The Black Lantern, Cloak from Cloak and Dagger, Black Lightning, Storm, Misty Night, Steel (aka John Henry), and even Barack Obama.

Throughout, Nama takes a refreshingly nuanced approach to his subject. It would be all too easy to point to the black characters created by well meaning white liberals in the late ’60s and early ’70s and see nothing but problematic, condescending, ham-fisted portraits of African American life. Nama complicates the black superhero by also seeing the ways that they put issues of post-colonialism, race, poverty, and identity struggles front and center in the comics they graced. Writing about Black Lightning, Nama comments that:

Despite his nearly laughably disco-chic look and the embarrassingly awkward black jargon Jefferson adopted when he became Black Lightning, he articulated a serious set of class and racial politics. Jefferson Pierce was a striver, a black guy who fought his way out of ghetto squalor to become an accomplished athlete, a successful educator, and, finally, a ghetto superhero. Black Lightning’s upward-mobility narrative registered subtle elements of Black Power politics concerning self-determination and black social responsibility, but his black middle-class status was also a source of multiple anxieties.

It’s this kind of complex take that is the book’s core virtue. Nama refuses to simply laud or take offense at the various and evolving black superheroes over the past few decades, instead showing how something could be both groundbreaking and condescending at the same time. He shows once again that nothing ages worse than yesterday’s progressivism.

Within the book’s subject we witness the intersection of two different kinds of symbolic characters, and Nama is adept at excavating the representational meanings hidden therein. Superheroes, after all, always stand for more than themselves (he ain’t called Captain Americafor nothing) and African American characters—particularly when they are invented by white writers and intended for white readers—seldom are allowed to exist as individuals. Thus, writing about Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, a reluctant enforcer for the Devil who spends his time viciously murdering evildoers so that Hell can have some more souls around, Nama comments that “Spawn is a cipher used to examine despicable acts of depravity and act out gruesome acts of vengeance too dirty, too stigmatizing, and too unsettling for white superheroes like the Mighty Thor or Superman to address.” He also devotes an entire chapter to the fascinating subject of black heroes who were initially conceived of as race-reversed knock-offs of major properties, including Steel (the black Superman), Black Goliath (there was a white Goliath), and Wonder Woman’s short-lived black identical twin Nubia (!!!).

It’s too bad, then, that this insightful book on this interesting topic is written for an academic market that insists on squeezing all life out of the writing it produces. This problem—that the kind of writing that would actually make Super Black appeal to people outside of university circles would also make the book anathema to academic committees everywhere—affects the book both structurally and on a sentence level. It’s impossible to imagine a general-interest treatment of this subject that included not one interview with or piece of biographical information on the characters’ creators or subsequent writers, but with academe fully confident that the author is dead, such moves have become verboten.

Super Black is, to a limited extent, trying to reach beyond the market of the University Press. Nama eschews sesquipedalian words and leaves most of the hardcore theory off the page, intentionally restricting himself to interpretations that a lay reader of comics would be likely to understand. He also leaves room for fannish kvetching about the quality of costumes various characters get. Still, the prose feels beaten into a kind of leaden repetitiveness and torqued into awkward constructions. The words “arguably” and “despite” begin at least one sentence on many pages, setting up classic “They Say/I Say” constructions, a tic that is particularly odd asSuper Black is the first book of its kind and thus no counterarguments to Nama’s points exist. Similarly, cultural context is often provided by writing “In films such as . . .” and then listing a title or twelve, and sentences like “Cloak is neither as elegantly drawn nor as fully fleshed out as Frank Miller’s definitive comic book noir rendering of Batman as a deeply conflicted superhero” abound.

Reading the book, it is hard not to imagine a better version of it, one in which Nama combined the stories of the writers and artists with relevant history of the industry to go along with his insights. A book, in other words, that mimics works like Simon Reynolds’s Rip It Up and Start Again! or Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by infusing narrative and character into the criticism. Without this, readers less familiar with the works in question might be left wondering how Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams decided to be the first mainstream artists to tackle racial issues in comics, or who the late, great Dwayne McDuffie—a man more responsible than perhaps anyone for mainstreaming black superheroes—was. Perhaps in the future, Nama can push his studies of African American genre entertainment (his previous book is a study of race in Science Fiction) further, taking ideas forged in the academy and, through graceful prose and good storytelling, bringing them to the wider world.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

THE HASHEESH EATER: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean

Fitz Hugh Ludlow
Theophania Publishing ($17.99)

by Gregory Stephenson

After enjoying a flourish of notoriety following its first publication 155 years ago, The Hasheesh Eater (1857) by Fitz Hugh Ludlow soon declined into obscurity and from thence descended to oblivion where it remained for a hundred years. It was summoned back from the netherworld of lost and forgotten books in 1960 by artist and filmmaker Alfred Leslie, who printed the text in its entirety (in double columns) in his “one shot” literary journal, The Hasty Papers. Since then, half-a-dozen small publishers have at various times issued reprint editions of The Hasheesh Eater and the book has gone out of print a corresponding number of times. Fortunately this remarkable classic of American visionary literature has again been rescued by a dedicated and enterprising independent publisher and is available to readers in a handsome and inexpensive edition.

The Hasheesh Eater is an autobiographical account of the author’s extensive experiences with a preparation of Cannabis Indica. It is a vivid record of visions, reveries, and dreams provoked by ingesting hashish, a record interspersed with passages of reflection and analysis, together with comments upon certain implications of the drug in terms of psychology and metaphysics. The book was written when the author was only twenty years of age, composed (he tells us) in urgent haste and without revision even while Ludlow was still enduring dire after-effects of what had become for him a devastating psychological dependence upon the drug. Yet his account is expressed in clear and careful prose, and reads as the product of a poised and mature mind.

Ludlow begins his journey “beyond all the boundaries of the ordinary life” while still a secondary school student living at his family’s home in a small town in rural New York State during the early years of the middle decade of the 19th century. Possessed of a keen intelligence and an inquiring mind, Ludlow’s intellectual interests are broad and varied. It is in consequence of his amateur fascination with pharmacology that he makes himself a fixture in the local apothecary’s shop, where he pores over medical volumes and the pharmacopoeia. Motivated by scientific curiosity, young Ludlow begins to test upon himself the various drugs within his reach: chloroform, ether, opium, and other agents. At length, he discovers a vial of hashish (employed by physicians as a specific against tetanus) and begins to experiment with the drug. Taking at first small doses, to no effect whatever, Ludlow then carefully increases his dosage until one evening when quite unexpectedly he experiences the singular power of the drug, including ravishing, transcendent visions.

After his initial hashish experiment, other such experiences soon follow. Ludlow revels in the heightened beauty that he discovers in natural scenery while inebriated by hashish, in the wondrous adventures which in his imagination he undertakes, in the mirth and high good humor provoked by the drug, and in moods of tranquillity and the sense of mental acuity that he experiences while under the influence of hashish. He feels “new born,” and compares his state to that of one “who walks in Paradise for the first time.” Later, however, darker aspects of the hashish state begin to manifest themselves. These become gradually more frequent and more forceful, and increasingly dominate his experiences.

The powerful and prolonged effects of hashish upon Ludlow’s consciousness seem closer to those produced on the mind by modern synthetic hallucinogenic drugs than to those effects commonly associated with the use of cannabis. This may be attributable to the potency of the substance itself or to the fact that it is ingested rather than inhaled into the lungs as smoke. Whatever the cause, hashish makes available to Ludlow enhanced experiences in the areas of the aesthetic and perceptual, the cognitive, and the visionary or mystical. Together with these heightened capacities, however, there is also an intensified potential for fear, depression, and a sense of isolation or alienation.

Nights of alternating agonies and raptures under the influence of hashish at length lead Ludlow to resolve to forsake all further indulgence in the drug. However, without hashish, the external, physical, material world now seems to him unbearably insipid and drab, lacking utterly in comeliness, meaning, and mystery. Ludlow soon begins to thirst desperately for “insight, adventure, strange surprises, and mystical discoveries.” He begins to use hashish again. And again, for a time, his experiences under the influence of the drug are of a pleasurable character with glimpses of supernatural beauty and celestial harmony. Then once more come dreadful apprehensions and an overwhelming sense of despair. Yet even as the visitations of terror during the state of hashish intoxication become more frequent, Ludlow indulges in the drug with increasing frequency, until, as he states: “life became with me one prolonged state of hasheesh exultation.” Finally, feeling himself on the verge of madness, he vows again to desist from what has become to him a poison.

After a grim struggle, Ludlow recovers his spirits, deriving succour and strength from nature, art, the performance of good works, and the patient cultivation of the spirit’s innate power. He learns to look upon the natural world not as a mockery of the ideal world, not as an imposture of the true and the real, but rather as a realm informed by “truthful essence” and infused with unsuspected splendours. In art, Ludlow discovers the highest expression of the human ideal, which he regards as a reflection of the divine mind. Compassion and charitable actions represent for him another source of meaning. Ludlow also learns to practice a form of contemplation of the Infinite through the medium of his own spirit, making himself attentive and receptive to those impulses of growth and glory and “a grander life” which arise within him, providing him with hope of advancement toward and ultimate union with the Supreme Reality.

Although, repeatedly throughout his account of his experiences with hashish, Ludlow places emphasis upon the baleful aspects of the drug, at the same time he vigorously defends the impulse that inspires individuals to experiment with vision-inducing substances—for that instinct, he believes, is an expression of the spirit’s appetite for the infinite. Ludlow argues that the human inclination to attain by means of drugs a visionary state of consciousness proves “man’s fitness by constitution and destiny by choice, for a higher set of circumstances,” and serves to confirm “the soul’s capacity for a broader being, deeper insight, grander views of Beauty, Truth and Good than she now gains through the chinks of her cell.”

In complement to its affirmation of the imperatives of the spirit, The Hasheesh Eater also presents a critique of the pragmatic, materialistic view of life. For Ludlow, the great adventure of human existence is the journey of the spirit. All that impedes or distracts the spirit in its passage to the Infinite is to be disdained. Consequently, the author looks with scorn upon the squalid contentment of the man of merely sensual appetites and acquisitive aspirations.

In this regard, despite its sometimes pernicious actions on the mind, hashish is seen to possess value as a vehicle of exploration, a tool of discovery, in that it can provide glimpses of “hitherto unconceived modes and uncharted fields of spiritual being,” or may reveal to the user how “things the least suspected of having any significance beyond their material agency may be perceived to be the most startling illustrations and illuminations of spiritual facts.” Yet while the drug can transport the user to a transcendent realm beyond ordinary perception and ordinary existence, the drug does not enable the user for long to remain in that state. This central problem of transcendence—how to achieve it, what it implies, and what to do about it afterwards—that Ludlow treats in The Hasheesh Eater bears a number of similarities to that encountered by the English Romantic poets who frequently describe in their poems an instant of transcendent being or vision, succeeded inevitably by a return to the ordinary, commonplace world, and a subsequent sense of loss and longing afflicting the mind of the person who has experienced such transcendence.

Certain of Ludlow’s insights into the nature of the human psyche may be seen to anticipate the theories of Abraham Maslow a century later. In particular, Ludlow’s views concerning human needs and motivations possess significant correspondences to Maslow’s later concept of the hierarchy of human needs, ranging from basic physiological needs, to the requirements of physical safety, through the fulfilment of emotional and social needs, and finally to “self-actualization,” a process that culminates in transcendent experiences and glimpses of ultimate reality.

Moreover, certain of Ludlow’s comments and speculations concerning the character of his hashish experiences prefigure theories of perception and psychology put forward only much later, in the 20th century. Based upon his own experiences of hyperaesthesia and synaesthesia while under the influence of hashish, Ludlow speculates that human perception of the phenomenal world is but partial and fragmented. Beyond the separate organs of sense and their several effects—sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell—there resides, he believes, latent in the mind an “all-comprehensive oneness of sense,” which the author argues is accessible during certain states of consciousness and which represents a mode of perception that is higher and truer, and closer to the Real. Ludlow concludes that due to habit, to lack of observation and discernment, and to lack of receptivity and awareness, human beings scarcely even begin to exercise such reduced powers of perception as they possess.

In a similar manner, certain of Ludlow’s speculations with regard to perception and the brain may be seen to prefigure ideas later put forward by the philosopher Henri Bergson in his bookMatière et Mémoire (1908), and later endorsed by the Cambridge philosopher C.D. Broad and by Aldous Huxley. Bergson’s provocative hypothesis was that the function of the human brain was chiefly eliminative, that is that it reduced potential awareness to a biologically functional level suitable to meet the needs of survival in the world. Human awareness is thus a reduced, utilitarian mode of apprehending the world, a mode which humans tend to regard as the only possible form of awareness and one that accurately and comprehensively reflects reality. Ludlow posits the notion that hashish acts in such a manner as to make available to the senses and the mind of the user wider and deeper modes of perception than those to which humans are accustomed. Ludlow further theorizes that ordinary perception consists in the main of “props, and helps, and screens,” the function of which is to protect the human mind from the unbearable infinitude of the universe as it really exists in its immeasurable, inconceivable multiplicity, its endless extension in space and duration.

Ludlow thus infers that the limitations and conventions of human perception and conceptualization serve as protective structures while hashish functions in such as way as partially and temporarily to make permeable those boundaries which confine our senses and our awareness. It is, however, this latter action of the drug that makes “the hasheesh awakening”—as Ludlow names it—so unbearable, for under the influence of hashish the sense organs are extended and expanded “until we almost perish from the inflow of perceptions.”

Ludlow records one striking instance of “the awakening of some unknown intuitional faculty” as experienced by a friend to whom the author administers the drug one evening. Listening under the influence of hashish to the performance of a piece of music previously unknown to him, Ludlow’s friend is—by means of a vision—able to identify both the specific subject matter and the composer of the piece. Similarly, an out-of-body experience that occurs while the author is under the influence of the drug serves also to suggest to him that hashish makes accessible wider areas of psychic activity.

The implications of such phenomena as these would seem to include the possibility that the human mind may possess the potential for levels of awareness beyond the limitations inherent in the existence of the individual conscious mind as a separate entity, and beyond, too, the laws and operations of the material world.

The Hasheesh Eater is a profoundly absorbing, deeply intriguing account of a bold and highly intelligent young man’s exploration of remote, uncharted regions of the mind. Ludlow’s record of his inward voyages inspires in the reader a mingled sense of wonder, mystery, awe, and alarm. Moreover, this neglected and under-appreciated book is curiously prophetic of the widespread interest in psychoactive substances that has characterized a significant segment of the population of the western world since the middle years of the 20th century. The enduring value of Ludlow’s record of his experiences resides in the author’s intense and compelling descriptions of the exquisite beauties and infernal terrors of the inner realms of the mind, in the character of the author’s speculations which raise fundamental questions concerning consciousness and perception, and in the quality of his insights which extend the frontiers of human inquiry and knowledge.

Inevitably, comparisons will be made between Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), and Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater, which appeared thirty-two years after De Quincey’s extraordinary and ground-breaking volume. The latter book was definitely inspired by the former and shares certain of its traits, yet though there can be no question that The Hasheesh Eater is in the strictest sense derivative of De Quincey’s Confessions, at the same time it ought to be noted that Ludlow’s book is in no way imitative of that of De Quincey. Indeed, insofar as possible given the similar character of the subject matter, the younger American author scrupulously avoids shaping or expressing his account after the manner of De Quincey. While certainly a descendent and a lesser work, it must be conceded, Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater possesses an authority and a validity altogether its own.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Evan S. Connell
Penguin Modern Classics (UK £8.99)
Counterpoint (US $14.95)

by Malcolm Forbes

In “The Promotion,” a 1966 short story by Evan S. Connell, a woman chides her man for being lily-livered and dithering over leaving his wife. “You disgust me,” Sylvie tells Lester, during one harsh outburst. When poor Lester finally finds his tongue he uses it to criticize his wife: “The way she pecks at me!” he wails. “Peckety-peck-peck!” This masterstroke of irony caps the tale: Lester is blind to the fact that both women in his life are chronic naggers, and that leaving one for the other will be akin to jumping from the frying pan into the fire. In another story, “The Corset” from 1961, the two leads are man and wife but the hotheaded censuring remains the same. He, just back from military service overseas, would like to recreate some of the sexual exploits he got up to with Parisian prostitutes. His wife labels his request “revolting” and him “unutterably disgusting,” although soon undresses and lets him have his way.

Much of Connell’s writing, short and long, is concerned with if not a battle of the sexes, then those crucial gaping margins that separate them. However, his most famous novel, Mrs. Bridge(1959)—finally admitted by Penguin to the Modern Classics canon in the UK—is significant for the way in which those discrepancies are present though repressed. Husband and wife never bicker. Necessary communication goes unvoiced. Cravings are reined in, desire stifled. Connell’s eponymous heroine would never dream of upbraiding her husband, just as his staid and starchy paterfamilias is neither lacking in gumption nor about to ask for more explicit antics in the bedroom. Mrs. Bridge and its 1969 follow-up Mr. Bridge were combined by Merchant Ivory for Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), and the filmmakers expertly captured Connell’s shrewd depiction of unsaid longing (doing so again three years later for their version of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day).

Connell’s books could be successfully conjoined, but in film and book both main characters remain apart—cohabiters who are unable to properly know one another. After the famous opening line (“Her first name was India”—the first of many sparkling ironies at play with our earthy, unadventurous and resolutely un-exotic protagonist) Connell describes how they met, married and moved to Kansas City with detail that is sparse yet just right. The chapter ends with Mrs. Bridge lying in bed, unfulfilled, starting as Connell means her to go on: “This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.”

“Chapter” may be too generous. The book is composed of 117 vignettes, some mere paragraphs. Almost all take the format of Connell’s opening section: events, from the momentous to the seemingly inconsequential, compressed into tight, pithy, economical language which ranges from comical to heartbreaking, with never a word squandered. (Connell would try a similar construct with a later novel, The Alchymist’s Journal, but the vignettes there fail to add up to an as-satisfying whole.) We follow Mrs. Bridge’s humdrum, deeply conservative life in suburban Middle America between the wars. She shops, gossips with friends, wrestles with learning Spanish and admits defeat with religion. This “bona-fide country-club matron” brings up her three children, Ruth, Carolyn and tear-away Douglas, instilling in them good manners, consideration towards others, and the importance of personal hygiene—values she sees as virtues. “Appearances”—that is maintaining them—are an “abiding concern.” She teaches Ruth deportment and tells Carolyn she should say cleaning woman not lady (“A lady is someone like Mrs. Arlen or Mrs. Montgomery”), and in so doing exposes her inherent snobberies. She embarks on a tour of Europe with her husband and displays hilarious dyed-in-the-wool provincialism. Careful to temper his light with shade, Connell also draws our attention to a streak of bigotry.

Mrs. Bridge is a novel about adapting to, and making sense of, the passing of time. There are wonderful sections that catalogue childlike innocence. Alice, Carolyn’s playmate, believes firemen create fires and little people live inside the radio-phonograph. When Mrs. Bridge’s children mature and fly the nest Connell increases her ingenuousness, particularly her sexual naivety. Ruth, now a fashion writer, tells her mother about a gay colleague but Mrs. Bridge has no idea what homosexual means. Where before we saw her as merely inexperienced and prim (she feels she has failed as a parent when she discovers an erotic magazine in Douglas’ bedroom), we now realize she is irremediably cosseted from real life. Mr. Bridge even tells her how she should vote. “Don’t you have a mind of your own?” an incredulous friend cries. In one scene she does think for herself, mentally trying to visualize a friend’s rape. It is a daring sidestep for Connell, and at first seems out of place, like a scion snipped from his darker novel, Diary of a Rapist. But it is handled well, not least because of the payoff: ultimately Mrs. Bridge is unable to sympathize with her friend because her weak imagination cannot conceive her as a victim of a crime, rather someone “smiling and chatting and eating crabmeat sandwiches like everyone else.”

The brittle humor that suffuses Mrs. Bridge’s bafflement gives way to pathos when she ruminates on how lonely she is with her children gone, and in her marriage. Her life of leisure curdles into a life of boredom. Birthdays “come to visit her like admonitory relatives”; the rest of the time she feels she is waiting for something. “Surely someone would call, someone must be needing her.”

In less talented hands a needy character would eventually grate but Connell ensures any scorn we might have for her is neutralized with pity. Mrs. Bridge is a triumph, and a worthy Penguin Classic, because the best of those vignettes skillfully blend gravitas and frippery. By extension, the comic moments are a fusion of the two, sometimes taking the form of killer one-liners, sometimes appearing in more subtle, miniaturized form, sparkling like mica. Instead of being shocked by the fact some friends have been robbed, Mrs. Bridge is surprised that “Mrs. Noel Johnson’s ring had been zircon.” Another woman is attacked in her car by a man who jumps out from behind some shrubbery—“a clump of spirea, according to Madge.” Up close we are mesmerized by the comic detail but as Connell pans out we see a fuller, more unsettling picture shot through with futility and tragedy. The very hallmarks of a classic, then.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Luke Geddes
Chômu Press ($14)

by Stephen Delaney

Losing myself in my room as a kid, I’d often sense that the ever-strewn toys surrounding me—my one-armed teddy bear, twin Yodas, and red-suited Bionic Man, to name a few—had warm and complex thoughts. And it seemed quite likely that, say, when my Archie comics weren’t open, the rompish Riverdale High cast went on living out some unknown, yet ever wholesome and unfailingly upbeat, unpaneled lives.

Reading Luke Geddes’s debut collection, I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, recalled such pleasant impressions. Whether showing the human side of Wonder Woman, the yearnings of a pimply “mental hygiene” film subject, or the trials of a lordly, 72-inch model television set as he gradually grows outmoded, Geddes engages us readers so fully that not only do we believe in the substance of his characters, but, in due course, feel the ache in their phosphorous hearts.

To summarize these characters seems, in a way, unfair—reducing them to those stock pop-culture icons Geddes so expertly implodes. Sure, there are the rebel and his weak-kneed followers, the party animal, and the loutish, sex-crazed boys, but what’s most interesting is watching them break from their molds. In “Betty and Veronica,” for instance, the canned dialogue and poses are all there (hilariously, when the two fight, Archie and Reggie cheer on, “Batten the hatches, mate. We’re in for a blow!”), but like lightning on a clear summer day, real life—Veronica’s purging, Betty’s longing for her lover’s commitment—flashes through the cozy pulp world. For the protagonist of “The Party Don’t Stop,” the bash he hosted in youth—now running amuck through adulthood—compounds his sense of loss: “The party was to have been a respite from your desolate post-adolescent existence . . . a homecoming, a reclaiming of mojo, a baptism by beer bong.” And in “Defunct Girl Gangs of North American Drive-Ins,” a story built like a guide of ornithological specimens . . . well, let’s just say that the Zip-Gun Angels, Swingin’ Sassmouths, and Kittens with Whips are unlike any street gangs you’ve known.

As in all good fiction, closely enmeshed to these characters’ lives is place. Details position us in time—typically between the 1950s and ’80s—lending a gloss to most stories suggestive of some near-mythical world. As with character, though, what captivates us most is the incongruous—a priest’s “hot garlic breath,” tall hats that “resembled works of modern art out of wire coat hangers and tin foil,” a wad of chewing gum that’s “fleshy and glistening in the dull wood like a tumor or a set of lips.” But details can also, in a stroke, line up conflicting sides: To the outcast characters, the culture they find themselves in, with its high-minded morals and norms (and, it often seems, intolerance of anyone less than bubbly), creates a nagging pressure, building to such extremes that the only out, finally, is some force in a contrary direction.

In “Invasion,” for example, the fathers of a town are seen as model citizens, “their sprawling suburb a brilliant Technicolor pinup of American values: a television in every living room, a Lifemagazine on every coffee table, an automobile in every garage.” Now faced with their children’s rebellion—in the form of their daughters’ sudden craze for an unnamed singer—the fathers are at a loss. They watch as the girls dance provocatively, grow breasts overnight, create “shrines on the periwinkle walls of their bedrooms.” Worried, the fathers enlist their sons for help, then arrange for a community record burning. As we read, rather than taking sides (Geddes plays fair enough that we sympathize with several characters), our interest lies more in the conflict’s repercussions, the forms the growing havoc will take. As things unravel, we feel mixed emotions: longing for an impossible past, sadness at the realities impinging on it, glee as the whole sham structure falls.

This collection, then, is a riveting guide to ’50s pop culture and its aftermath, a zany corrective to our sometimes blinkered memories. It’s also, quite simply, a bang-up debut by a writer to read and watch.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Carlos Fuentes
translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger
Dalkey Archive ($17.95)

by Vladislav Davidzon

It’s not easy being a Vlad in the West. Trust me, I know. Eastern Europe remains trapped in age-old feuds, economic dysfunction, and social morass. Occasionally one is forced to flee depreciating currencies, pitchfork wielding mobs, or communists. In Carlos Fuentes’s delectably blood curdling and final fiction, a retelling if not a sequel to Dracula, the ageless wanderer is transported to modern-day Mexico City, a town whose endemic lawlessness, moral dissipation, and shoulder shrugging indifference to the specific whereabouts of this or that citizen make it the perfect roost for the dispossessed revenant.

This obliquely modernized but not modernist reimagining of Bram Stoker’s gothic classic is told from the perspective of a pedigreed and ambitious young lawyer, Yves Navarro, partner in a Mexico City law firm. Navarro is tasked by his boss, the enigmatic Don Eloy Zurinaga, to assist an old Sorbonne Law School friend with very particular tastes in procuring a house—one that is “easy to defend against intruders” with a ravine in the backyard connected to a dungeon by secret tunnels. Helpfully and not uncoincidentally, Navarro’s doting young wife Asuncion is a real estate lawyer. The self-conceited young Bobo couple’s nights are consumed by bouts of steamy sex, and their mornings by equally languid breakfasts. They have a lovely daughter and are a model family but for the tragic drowning death of their son, a lingering trauma that poisons the family idyll. When the hapless young lawyer is asked to drop by the haunted house, a hunchbacked butler named Borgo is of course not far behind (recall Jorges, the villainous librarian in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, also named after the master).

As Dracula, that strigoli of semiotics, sinks his fangs into sex and class relations as often as he does the carotid artery, Fuentes’s novella is an allegory for the strange suffocations of bourgeois family life. Bored Asuncion lusts after the prince of darkness in pleasingly frothy manner (“I enjoy being with Vlad. He’s a man who instantly knows all a woman’s weaknesses . . .”) and sly references to the Dracula canon abound. The book offers some rather alluring instances of intertextuality to keep cadres of comparative literature scholars working, as well as setting out a mock fantasy lineage and believable East European alternate history.

The novella is morbidly funny and exquisitely readable. Fuentes takes an unmistakable pleasure in serving up disappearing castles and blood sausages (no garlic in the recipe—“We use pork dust, Maitre Navarro. From an old recipe that Saint Eutychius prescribed to expel a demon that a nun had swallowed up without noticing,” the count tells us before reciting a bawdy tale to the horrified young lawyer). His death this past spring has left a gaping hole in the firmament of world literature. Having lost a friend, we must mourn and reread his books—and hope also that he does not return to us as a member of the Nosferatu.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012