Tag Archives: spring 2011

THE BOX: Tales from the Darkroom

Günter Grass
Translated by Krishna Winston
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($23)

by Joshua Willey

Günter Grass’s most recent opus is a miniature epic, packing an amazing amount of material into a single afternoon’s read. The Nobel Prize winner here writes in an elliptical, fragmentary mode; there is so much to read between the lines that his prose sometimes verges on poetry, though there is another art form at work. Subtitled “Tales from the Darkroom,” the narrative hinges around photography, revealing deep love for photographic mechanics and particular reverence for a certain old Agfa camera.

Grass has set up a stunning parallel between photography and memory. In both cases, he argues, the spatial and temporal constraints that ruled the original moment no longer apply. Thus, the magical Agfa can capture phenomena that are not, in the strictest sense, there in the first place. Likewise, the act of remembrance is as much one of imagination as it is of history, as Grass, a master novelist knows all too well. A fellow German, the luminary filmmaker Werner Herzog, speaks of a secret magic of cinema, instances when forces beyond direction come to the surface, and it’s these instances which Grass seems intent on capturing here, though the book is also a sort of memoir (following 2007’s Peeling the Onionand to be followed by what he claims is his final foray into memoir, Grimms' Words: A Declaration of Love). “The only thing about which there should be no doubt is that once upon a time there were guardian angels, when Marienchen could prove everything in black and white” Grass writes. Such sentiments smack of another recent star of German literature, W. G. Sebald, who famously went so far as to fill his small oeuvre with black and white photos, which bore diverse relationships to the text, but consistently ushered the reader into a highly charged space where the shaky dynamic between representation and history creates a kind of euphoria.

The Box focuses largely on the period when Grass was writing Dog Years (the conclusion of his Danzig Trilogy, which began with his masterpiece The Tin Drum), and he gives the reader a good sense of his writing process, implying that photographs were in fact essential to his prose. “And on the stove, which she’d made a point of photographing, a kettle was steaming, as if someone not visible in the picture, the mother say, was about to make tea or coffee” he writes.

It’s refreshing to read Grass in such an intimate and relaxed mode; his career has been so politicized that it has at times been tempting to let that overshadow his artistry. Grass served in the SS (as he recounts inPeeling the Onion), and was one of the founders of a distinctly European magical-realism, but here he seems to be planning a vanishing act. Though the final lines of The Box do anticipate more ink to come, the work’s obsession with time eventually indicts itself and its author, admitting not only the inevitability but also the seductive power of that final step out of existence.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

GROWING UP PSYCHIC: From Skeptic to Believer

Michael Bodine
Llewellyn Worldwide ($16.95)

by Kelly Everding

If you’ve ever watched Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal, a reality TV show that helps children who suffer through the uninvited attention of ghosts, you know that a common theme runs through each show: fear and helplessness followed by eventual acceptance, empowerment, and confidence. And that is basically the theme running through Michael Bodine’s Growing Up Psychic, although Bodine adds a healthy dose of humor, self deprecation, and a little bit of rage to the formula. In this compulsively readable memoir, we learn about Bodine’s introduction to the shadowy world of the dead starting as a six-year-old in 1960s-1970s Minneapolis, Minnesota, along with his more famous older sister psychic/healer Echo Bodine. Theirs was not a typical childhood, as creepy visitations jolted them out of their picture-perfect upper middle class lives and deposited them soundly in the world of channelers, mediums, crystal gazers, and the like. Much like the children of Psychic Kids, Bodine resented the weirdness and was afraid of what his friends and others outside his household would think of him and his family. “I just wanted it to be normal. I was tired of the people, the church, the noises, the smells, the things moving around. I didn’t want to talk about reincarnation, life after death, or poltergeists. . . . I wanted to look at someone and not see colors all around them. And it would be nice to come home from school and not have one of my family members possessed.”

Bodine’s humor and snarky voice leavens the terrifying things he experiences throughout his childhood into young adulthood and beyond. His ambivalence borders on disbelief, even with the proof right before him. Regardless of the cool aspects of his gift (such as Jerry, a boy spirit who attaches himself to Michael—although this friendship turns a bit ugly later on), Bodine fights these powers tooth and nail, eventually succumbing to alcohol, drugs, and delinquency to escape them. The family pretty much falls apart. His mother, a stalwart embracer of the paranormal and gifted psychic in her own right, invites the strange psychic community into her home, but finds that she can’t keep her marriage together. When Michael’s father leaves, the money eventually dries up and the Bodines are reduced to a comparatively poor existence. At the age of fourteen, Michael entered into addiction treatment at a place called Pharm House. When he returns home from one such meeting, he explodes, “I don’t want this shit. . . . If it’s a gift then where do I exchange it? If I can’t exchange it, show me how to block it out.”

Despite the psychic camps, possessions, ghost busting (well before the movies came out), and his self-destructive tendencies, Michael Bodine somehow comes out the other end a successful psychic, a consultant to the stars (this book features a great introduction by comedian Lewis Black). He eschews any new age-y or spooky clichés, but rather favors blunt assessments, emphasizing his grounded and genuine personality. Michael’s just a normal guy who helps people with his exceptional—and nonreturnable—gifts.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

ANIMATING SPACE: From Mickey to Wall-E

J. P. Telotte
The University Press of Kentucky ($40)

by Emy Farley

To paraphrase one of the great critiques of reviewing, writing about a visual medium is like dancing about architecture—a challenge, to put it mildly. But like Wile E. Coyote’s relentless pursuit of the Roadrunner, J. P. Telotte enthusiastically attempts the impossible—discussing the importance of “space” in animation, from the physical to the philosophical, without the use of the visual platform on which animation rests—in his latest study on the culture of film, Animating Space: From Mickey to Wall-E.

This 260-page essay anchors itself largely within two camps: one on the conclusions of historian Anthony Vidler and theorist Stephen Kern, and one primarily on theorist Paul Virilio’s assertions. Kern and Vidler’s perspective, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is that “space is a form of understanding and not an objective reality”—i.e., space, along with our understanding of it, is relative to the perspective of the individual. In the visual world, this movement caused artists to attempt to “capitalize on this fluidity” by almost letting their audience in on the process or the thinking behind what decisions went in to the artistic choices being made. Virilio’s postmodern view, on the other hand, focuses not on what is there, but rather on what is not there—our willingness to allow a “reality effect” to “stand in for the real, ceding primacy to what we have constructed rather than to the models for that construction.”

Telotte frames his discussion within the history of animation, weaving these philosophies in as he goes. Moving through time, the study starts at keyframe animation’s beginnings with Winsor McCay’s 1914Gertie the Dinosaur and ends at such recent live-action-and-animation hybrids as 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and 2007’s Beowulf. This approach shows how time and technology have slowly led animation from Gertie’s Point A, where the animator brings himself, and his audience, in to the film, and the animated actors manipulate their own worlds from inside the screen, straight to today’s Point B, where humans in film are often motion-captured simulacra, carrying out their actions in animated worlds through special effects.

Animating Space traces technological innovation in animation through time as well, and studies how its use became animation’s double-edged sword: through technology, animation could make its audiences feel that the action on screen was almost as real as reality itself. Telotte then asks the question: if animation ceases to be fantastic, then how is its reality any different than the reality of live-action film? If animation strives to become more real, then what is the need for the expense and time called for by animation? Here, Telotte succeeds in studying and explaining the mitigation of this potential disaster by examining the path of Disney Animation, and exploring how that studio used technology to their advantage by not simply allowing technology to give their films nice decoration, but rather by using it as part of the film’s natural environment, by having characters interact with the advances technology afforded them and making technology almost a part of the story—making it seem as though the characters all lived in three-dimensional worlds. This move not only served to help audiences accept the characters, but also helped the films retain their sense of the fantastic, the feeling modern audiences continue to have when confronted by wonders of modern cinematic technology: the awestruck wonder accompanied by a gasp of “how did they do that?” This jump also helped to re-define animation’s status, moving it from a sub-category of film to being thought of as film in its own right.

Moving on from his study of full animation, Telotte discusses hybrid films, such as 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where animated characters and humans interact with each other within the same worlds. In these works, Telotte begins to move out of Vidler and Kern’s relativistic vision and into the “reality effect” world of Virilio, slowly building toward a caution “about the reality effect that has become pervasive in postmodern culture . . . to both animated film and life itself.” Telotte goes on to quote Patrick Tatopolous, a production designer and director, as saying “the dangerous thing about creating environments in CG is that because you can do anything, you can lose track of that sense of reality,” which can, in turn, Telotte says, “create impossible spaces, improbable movements . . . and pointless trackings through ‘space.’” Telotte closes by looking at today’s modern films, pointing out how virtually everything released now combines live-action and animation, binding animation inseparably from film in ways its pioneers could never have imagined.

While Animating Space proves surprisingly adept at attempting to show readers what the author has seen in a lifetime of studying the history of animation, the truth is that if the reader does not already have an understanding of animation, its jargon, or its history, this book may prove frustrating or even inaccessible without a dictionary and YouTube close at hand. If the reader cannot instantly conjure up an image of the film being analyzed, much of the discussion falls flat and otherwise convincing points can easily be lost. Thus, the book needs more images than it provides to woo those outside the “animation geek” realm.

This aside, Animating Space succeeds marvelously, and provides a means for exploring how animation has reflected society’s views on what is and is not permitted when it comes to films showing us versions of our own realities. Whether there is any intentionality on the part of the animators behind this reflection remains unproven, however Telotte’s point was not to prove causality, but simply to study how animation’s rules have changed as society’s perception of reality has shifted. As a study, the book manages to do just that. With a little more architecture and a little less dance, it does what the coyote couldn’t—it catches the elusive Roadrunner.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE PREPARATION OF THE NOVEL: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978–1979 and 1979–1980)

Roland Barthes
Translated by Kate Briggs
Columbia University Press ($29.50)

by Spencer Dew

What is published here are the posthumously “established” notes for Roland Barthes’s lectures of a two-part course called “The Preparation of the Novel,” along with a brief assortment of related materials—a series of photographs, by Nadar, of people known by Proust, accompanied by Barthes’s notes for a seminar that never took place; a smattering of haiku referred to or cited in the first part of the course; and, finally, photographic reproduction of eight pages of notes, possibly for a novel, accompanied by translations of the same. This is not a course on the novel, nor on specific novels, nor on novelists, nor the writing of a novel, but rather “the preparation of the novel,” premised—as Barthes insists all courses must be—on a “fantasy,” a fantasy related to the novel, to the desire to write, and certainly to what Barthes calls “the jouissance, the joy of writing,” which, as jouissance, is as much about the anticipation—the preparation, even—as about the fulfillment or completion of the act itself.

A sense of what to Barthes must have been delicious postponement, edging around the event itself, characterizes this course, but the pleasure here (unlike, say, the likewise posthumous publication of Barthes’s course from the year before this course started, The Neutral, published in 2005 by Columbia University Press) isn’t necessarily contagious. While The Neutral represented a climax of theorizing, the culmination of an exhilarating breadth of reading and thinking and writing, The Preparation of the Novel is tentative, a preliminary-yet-public thinking around how to frame the issue under consideration. While the editors push the narrative that Barthes was, perhaps, preparing to write a novel (hence the reproduction of notes at the end of this volume), there is a sense, throughout, that whatever Barthes wanted to do next, it would involve a radical departure from previous forms—hence the elaborate “preparation,” and hence, too, the fact that those photographically reproduced pages are labeled Vita Nova, after Dante’s experiment in pushing the limits of form.

Indeed, it is in relation to form that The Preparation of the Novel will be most interesting to a general audience. One way of talking about the split between the first section of the class, “From Life to the Work,” consisting of thirteen one-hour sessions, and the second section, “The Work as Will,” consisting of eleven two-hour meetings, is that the main focus of the first is haiku, or, as Barthes says, a concern with the “minimal act of writing that is Notation, chiefly through an exemplary Form of Notation, the Haiku,” while the second purported “to track the Work from its Projection to its accomplishment: in other words, from Wanting-to-Write to Being-Able-to-Write, or from the Desire-to-Write to the Fact-of-Writing,” and focused heavily on Proust. The early pages of this volume contain classical Barthesian analysis of the excess of meaning conveyed by photography versus the minimalism of haiku—how, in haiku, “something happens but it’s not an effect,” how “The Short Form is its own necessity and suffices in itself,” offering “a tiny element of ‘real,’ present, concomitant life.” The later pages obsess over the intricacies of “writer’s legends,” differences in writing schedules, and even “the question of the ‘Novelist’s outfit,’” all out of a concern with “writing” as a comprehensive way of life, meaning that more attention is paid to “the Trials of Writing”—Choice, Patience, Organization—than to that to which such trends stand as prelude, “the practice of writing in real terms, day after day . . . the body in the process of writing, the hand poised over the blank page.”

Both of these aspects are, for Barthes, intimate, autobiographical concerns—from practical considerations about textuality (“don’t underestimate what the layout of speech on the page can do”) to consideration of the drain that “Administration,” even “managing your social circle,” exerts on the writer’s ability to write, reflection on the “relief” from such obligations tuberculosis offered Kafka or how Rimbaud’s “spectacular scuppering of Writing” relates to the limits of language itself. As critic and theorist, Barthes has always been marked by a dual focus on both the textual and the domestic. Both of these realms give him pleasure, and his work—his writing—is always also very much a pursuit of pleasure. When Barthes examines the diets and eating habits of famous novelists, for instance, he is indulging a desire that runs throughout his oeuvre. However much he might turn attention, in earlier works, to “the writerly,” he also always remains the writer who mused on the centrality (if not sacrality) of the writer’s notebook, diary, and daily habits. Fitting, then, that this volume preserves his pages of notes as an artifact, a relic even, discovered only after his death two days after the course’s last meeting. The identification with Proust certainly reverberates with Barthes’s loss after his own mother’s death; he argues that “in In Search of Lost Time . . . the Mother-Grand-Mother [is] the one who justifies the writing because the writing justifies her,” while in his own work (consider the remarkable Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes) Barthes likewise gave his mother a central role.

The general reader, then, will find this affiliation with—even affection for—Proust to be more enticing than claims that “the Novel is a structure,” or that the writer’s Desk is likewise “essentially a structure . . . a localization of functions and connections between microfunctions.” Barthes becomes exciting when readers recognize and appreciate his sensual engagement with such “microfunctions.” A domestic writer who writes lovingly of routine, of solitude and fantasies of solitude (oh, to study classical texts in winter, next to a source of warmth!), and of both the mechanical intricacies of a text and the broad, contextual preconditions for such texts, Barthes, in these lectures, pursues his own pleasures at his own pace, actively avoiding his old nemesis, Boredom (“the metaphysical condition of Man”), while virtually caressing the details of both text and life that he offers up to his audience on these pages. Consider this passage from Proust: “My existence is extremely unsociable; I love its uneventfulness, its quiet. It is complete and objective nothingness.” Barthes holds this on his tongue until it melts to pure sweetness. For readers who can share such a pleasure—and who can acclimatize to the particular form both of Barthes’s writing and this truncated, lecture notes format—The Preparation of the Novel will generate some jouissance indeed.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


So Far from Simple
Donald F. Bouchard
Prometheus Books ($19)

Elements of a Life
Robert Zaretsky
Cornell University Press ($24.95)

by John Pistelli

Borges says somewhere that all literary classics finally end up as children’s books. The works of Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus seem to have met this fate: the bare style they shared, meant to reflect the numb integrity of those still standing after the bombs of the twentieth century had gone off, now seems to circulate most widely among adolescents. They can identify, after all, with writers and characters forced to assume rigid poses lest they break down in tears or run away screaming.

Among adults, though, and especially academically inclined adults, the reputations of Hemingway and Camus have fallen from their mid-century, Nobel-winning heights. In the 1950s, post-Hitler, post-Stalin, and post-Hiroshima, a sober affectlessness may have looked like the veritable last stand of Man. Now, however, when we are post-modern, post-feminist, and post-colonial, the posture of Hemingway and Camus appears to be merely the final exaltation of the straight white male, a spurious universalization of an elite and partial perspective.

Aren’t Hemingway’s celebrated “clean, well-lighted places,” where men at war condole with each other and seek short-lived comforts in the unreliable arms of women, just glorified boys’ clubs? Isn’t his masculine stance and plain prose a defense against emotion and all else that he abjects as “the feminine”? As for Camus, well, his vaunted humanism and moderation during the Cold War and the Algerian revolution was a ludicrous bid for neutrality between unequal forces, hence a crypto-conservative defense of the status quo by one who stood to lose his privileges in the radical tumult.

I may have overstated the case against Hemingway and Camus, but it’s to suggest what two new books on the authors—Donald F. Bouchard’s Hemingway: So Far from Simple and Robert Zaretsky’s Albert Camus: Elements of a Life—are up against as they make claims for the artistic and even moral greatness of these men.

Bouchard, a former English professor at McGill University, was instrumental in bringing Michel Foucault’s thought before North American audiences. Thus he applies the insights of Foucault (and Foucault’s post-structuralist cohort, including Deleuze, Said, and Barthes) to Hemingway’s fiction, demonstrating that its superficial simplicity actually enacts a dense re-working of tradition and a radical theory of writing.

Charting Hemingway’s career from the early short stories to the last works, Bouchard considers the entire oeuvre to be a “text” in the sense given that term by French theory: “Hemingway’s text is an achieved hyper-realism and only incidentally concerns the faithful representation of external reality. . . . it is the writer’s beginning intentions that are reexamined at successive stages in the writer’s career and repeated with variations.” All of which is to say that Bouchard considers Hemingway’s writing not as a set of discrete units of representational meaning (i.e., realist novels, memoirs, and stories), but rather as a field of language ever making and re-making itself and the “self” of the author, who is the creation of his writing rather than the creator of it. These are common enough ideas when applied to Hemingway’s acquaintances Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, but Hemingway himself, with his stripped-down style seemingly intent on mimetic fidelity to the concrete particulars of the world, has received such high-theory treatment less often, and Bouchard does it persuasively.

Toward the end of Bouchard’s study, he discusses Hemingway’s 1930s quarrel with the orthodox Marxist left: Bouchard writes that the Marxists, as represented in For Whom the Bell Tolls, had “a terrorist conception of history . . . the present can be sacrificed for the promise of a successful historical resolution.” This argument—between a utopian vanguard and its present-minded skeptics—would structure much of Albert Camus’s career in the 1940s and ’50s, and Robert Zaretsky concentrates on this theme in his brief, fragmentary biography of the Algerian novelist and philosopher. Zaretsky, a history professor, emphasizes Camus’s political thought rather than his literary achievement. Narrated episodically, Elements of a Life covers key moments of Camus’s social engagement, from his early reportage from the impoverished mountains of Algeria to his late, doomed, and controversial attempt to bring about peace between his native country and its occupier, France.

Zaretsky’s main goal is not to challenge the attack on Camus from the academic left, but rather to rescue the writer from his current neoconservative devotees, who would enlist him—as a representative of “European Enlightenment”—in the supposed clash of civilizations between western liberalism and political Islam. To this end, Zaretsky focuses on Camus’s almost classical sense of moderation in politics. A reader of Thucydides’s sober histories and the right vs. right tragedies of the Athenian playwrights, Camus sought through his writings and political interventions to honor the complexity of events and minimize bloodshed as much as possible.

From this perspective, the revolutionary fervor of the Communists and the Algerian nationalists appeared to hold in dangerous contempt the necessary compromises that made political life possible. Leftists will regard such a position as insufficiently radical, if not as an apology for imperialism, and neoconservatives—who wish a version of liberalism to be forced upon the world at gunpoint—will happily agree. But Zaretsky, with his clear, swift, and moving style, offers his slim book as an exemplary biography in the old-fashioned manner of Plutarch. It is intended to inspire moral reflection and worldly humility in readers, rather than to make their ideological trigger fingers itch. Zaretsky especially appreciates Camus’s silence when the political crises of his time had slipped beyond his control. He quotes a 1953 essay: “We live for something that transcends ethics. If we could name it, what silence would follow!”

We cannot name it, of course, and Hemingway and Camus wrote out of an impulse to evoke and suggest the truths of experience without ever being so hubristic as to put labels to them. This does not absolve us of criticism, and Bouchard and Zaretsky are both sometimes too credulous toward their subjects. Zaretsky’s book never really considers in detail the charge that Camus was complicit with imperialism, while Bouchard quotes without censure passages in Hemingway’s fiction that would outrage even someone who had only heard of feminism.

But if Bouchard and Zaretsky do not answer the accusations of the critics directly, they nevertheless give us good reasons to go on reading the two men’s works, flawed as they are. Hemingway and Camus wanted to make literature answerable to the silence of experience, especially the experience of violence, trauma, and war. If all we do is loudly condemn their works with the multitude of ethical names in our own proud lexicon, then it will be our loss.

Click here to purchase Hemingway: So Far From Simple at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Albert Camus: Elements of a Life at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

OUR SAVAGE ART: Poetry and the Civil Tongue

William Logan
Columbia University Press ($29.50)

by John-Ivan Palmer

William Logan has been called by Slate “the most hated man in American poetry . . . [and] its guiltiest pleasure.” He’s been threatened by a few angry poets and banned from certain newspapers for lavishing scorn on what he considers prize-winning phonies and crowd-pleasing flyweights. In his view, Franz Wright is “rancid and repetitive,” Dean Young “uses non sequiturs the way a snake uses mice,” and Gary Snyder writes poems like the “disconnected thoughts of a man trying to make verse with magnets on a refrigerator door.” Imagine A. R. Ammons reading this about himself: “Even if you paid through the nose to get a vanity press to publish this, you’d have to bribe the typesetter not to cut his own throat.”

In Our Savage Art, Poetry and the Civil Tongue William Logan argues that it’s time to end the “oath of omertà” between poets and critics “never to breathe a word of criticism against a fellow of the guild.” Sensitive subject matter should not be untouchable. This would include the ghosts of evil in poems by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian holocaust survivor. Logan describes two of Milosz’s poems in Second Space as “so tangled in religious themes they’re like cats lost in a great ball of yarn.” Yet he credits Milosz’s skill at recognizing the dead as from an “unknown country” with a geography that “cannot be transferred to maps.” As for Rita Dove, writing of the Black experience in America, he sees her as an example of what critics too easily accept as poems not about ethnic identity but that are ethnic identity, offering only a “needle’s-eye” view of the world. He acknowledges the motives buried beneath the surface of her poems, but argues that ultimately they weigh out as soulless. His perspective is, “thank goodness Homer didn’t go on about being blind and Ionian.”

In spite of his learned references and closely reasoned arguments, reading William Logan is like watching an insult comic go from table to table—and hoping he doesn’t stop at yours. After a couple hundred pages, the jokes start to seem formulaic. Typically, he links a quality and a punch line with a conjunction. For example, with Thomas Pynchon (reviewed because of his poetic prose style) “you think he’s about to pull a rabbit out of a hat [quality] but [conjunction] there are always three hundred rabbits and twelve dozen hats [punch line].” Or Ted Kooser: “the language is as generic [quality] as [conjunction] a pair of blue jeans [punch line].” One wonders if Logan doesn’t sit around and compose these lines [quality] like [conjunction] knockouts from a punch press in his basement [rimshot].

Likewise, although initially we might welcome that pie in the face for certain overly awarded poets (especially if it’s made of Logan’s favorite ingredient—cement), after a while we begin to feel our laughter might be coming from a place not altogether pure. No poet has a kill rate of one hundred percent. Does Richard Wilbur really sound “like an old fussbudget sorry he threw out his last pair of spats”? Is Les Murray such an Australian hick he’s “the Crocodile Dundee of the poetry circuit”?

And this is what Logan says about the poets he likes: Frost had no sense of humor, Pound and Eliot were “iffy about Jews,” Wallace Stevens was a tyrant, William Carlos Williams a womanizer, and Marianne Moore “an emotionally stunted terror” who called blacks “coons” and American Indians “sluggards.” Philip Larkin was “one nasty misogynist and racist,” but his poems of ordinariness contain “a kind of heroism.” Robert Lowell suffered from revision disease and “revised his poems down to a line, then a word, and finally just a punctuation mark.” When the praise does come, as for the work of Amy Clampitt or Gjertrude Schnackenberg, it feels like a relief.

Of the sixty-nine poets Logan reviews, not all of them get plucked and gutted; with appropriate tweaks and fillips, almost forty percent could be construed as praised. The ones who escape the Logan abattoir are somewhat predictable: Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath all survive the day, along with a few lesser names. The longest and most positive review is of the obscure 19th-century novel in verse, Guy Vernon by John Townsend Trowbridge.

“Forward Into the Past” is an essay on criticism itself, which, together with Garrick Davis’s closing interview with the author, provides insight into the shape of Logan’s approach. As the title implies, he gestures to a Golden Age, roughly the first half of the last century, when individual talents like Cleanth Brooks, R. P. Blackmur, I. A. Richards, and William Empson, not to mention the overshadowing Pound and Eliot, criticized books on the basis of transcendent imagination and their relevance to other books. The judgment they passed was not scrawled on the chin of a smiley face. As Logan says, “The worst way to create readers is by praising everything under the skies.”

Our Savage Art does raise the question of how much natural habitat is left for poetry—is there room to support a viable ecosystem of predator and prey? A generation ago most large and small newspapers ran poetry reviews, and in the early 20th century literary magazines like Criterion, Horizon, and Partisan Review had substantial readerships. Audiences read Cyril Connolly and W. H. Auden to see whom they were going to eat next. Wyndham Lewis was a one-man death squad who went after everyone. In 1964 Vladimir Nabokov launched an attack in the New York Review of Books against Walter Arndt’s translation of Eugene Onegin, which he claimed sank “to the level of uncontrolled abuse”; the circulation department must have been elated when Edmund Wilson then attacked Nabokov’s translation, resulting in a cage match in print that went on for weeks.

One could argue that the biome of the poet and critic has been reduced to little more than a puddle in a public park, with every last poet and critic desperate for the other. Logan admits that it is naïve to expect poets to review their friends harshly. But what if that’s all there is to the audience? To keep from eating ourselves should talentless writing be praised by what Craig Raine has called “the lazy consensus”? The alternative, the “slow grinding of critical analysis,” might annihilate a few poets who are sincerely trying, but those who survive might indeed be the ones we’ll truly want to read—or reread—in a new and brighter light.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

DEAR SANDY, HELLO: Letters from Ted to Sandy Berrigan

Edited by Sandy Berrigan and Ron Padgett
Coffee House Press ($19.95)

by Cliff Fyman

Ted Berrigan's 1962 letters to his new bride Sandy capture the determined spirit of young lovers and poets separated from each other for reasons beyond their control; they also forcefully express the spirit of the times in which they are written, a time in which the Beat era was about to push forward and become the hippie movement. The message is universal: the young will always love those they want to love, despite the protests of their parents. The letters speak for a generation of youth who are aware of the hypocricies the older generation has settled for, and who aren't going to take it anymore.

The book is carefully organized in sections, the main body of which is Ted's letters of experience to Sandy; these are followed by Sandy's letters to Ted (a mixture of innocence and new-found experience), then selections from A Book of Poetry for Sandy, Ted's collection of his and his friends’ poems and photos, assembled March–October 1962. There are also three appendices: “A Ted and Sandy Chronology,” which clarifies the narrative drama that propels the letters; “Glossary of Names,” a guide to the relationships of people mentioned in the letters; and “Notes on A Book of Poetry for Sandy.” All combined, the book is an artifact that documents a highly fertile period of development by this second-generation New York School poet, the context in which it happens, and the many personal friends (and a few enemies) who are involved in stirring the pot.

In early February 1962, Ted rides down to New Orleans with Tom Veitch, and through Dick Gallup meets Sandy Alper, a nineteen-year-old student at Sophie Newcomb College. After a week they elope to Houston, where they marry. Next the couple pays a polite visit to Sandy's parents in Miami, and they have Sandy committed to a mental institute, figuring she has to have some loose wires if she'd marry a man who doesn't work—at least that is her parents' excuse for trying to annul the marriage. She is underage, and her daddy is a prominent Miami doctor.

These letters of passion and commitment come almost daily from Ted in New York City to Sandy in Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. During this turbulent stretch, the letters map what Ted is reading and thinking about in the nights and days leading up to his masterpiece, The Sonnets. It is a time when rents are still low, when painters, dancers, actors, musicians, and poets stay up and talk all night, when friendship and poetry mean everything.

In the March 19 letter, Ted writes for Sandy's understanding about the Theater of the Absurd: “The plot is either nonexistant, or else upside down and backwards. The idea is to make the audience view the old tireless problems with new eyes, a fresh approach.” At this time Ted's writing is breaking away from traditional sonnets, and one can read into his excited comments about theater the permission he is gaining in order to open up the boundaries of his own poetry. He quotes critic Martin Esslin:

If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterization and motivation, these are often without recognizable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these have often neither a beginning nor an end . . . these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings.

On March 31 we hear about Ted’s experience sitting in on Kenneth Koch's class:

Koch lectured on Wallace Stevens, and it was the best lecture I have ever seen or heard on a poet. . . . He also read from The Tempest to show that Stevens writes language very much like Shakespeare. He talked about Stevens's devices, and he said that it is the surface that really makes a poet interesting. Because if you cut deeply into poets you find sayings, but on the surface is the way they say them.

Ted's new poems brokered a fresh, colloquial, heartfelt, spunky surface. Also affecting him was his attraction to visual art, as in his April 4 description of walking through the Museum of Modern Art with Joe Brainard, something they regularly did, and being delighted by a painting by Dufy: “Raoul Dufy has always been a favorite of mine. His color is so fresh, so alive, so airy. He uses a dominant color often in a painting, and shapes the painting to the color. His greens, his blues, his reds, always make me feel light and happy and healthy and like skipping rope.”

Dear Sandy, Hello not surprisingly reveals the formative literary works undergirding the poet as well. Ted’s reading list starts with Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness, which he told Sandy “deals with the mythology of all peoples of all times,” and it continues with Tropic of Capricornand Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, George Bernard Shaw, his hero Frank O'Hara, Alfred Whitehead, Freud, Reich, and a brilliant list of avant-garde poets across time. His trunk-load of reading signals his brave endeavor to change himself, his poetry and the world around him. Such a meticulous, intimate record of impressons isn't matched today by email, so this correspondence might be among the last of its kind, at least for a while. In addition, letters to be received needed a home address. Ted moved around a lot near Columbia University, and his instructions to Sandy as to where to send mail create a portrait of his friends and comrades getting by with as little money as possible. When it's time to change apartments, Ted takes his books in a baby carriage down Broadway.

Dr. Alper hired Pinkerton detectives to dig up some dirt on Ted, which they couldn't do. Ted's outrage and protest are carefully voiced—in fact, the force of his argument is in how gentle and firm he is in knowing he's right. The attacks on his character don't faze him or diminish his love, but the narrative thread of patiently waiting for her release from the mental ward finally wears out, and Ted urgently writes on April 8, “Run, Sandy. Come to me, or let me come to you. Be my wife. No one, no one, will help us, except those who love us. . . . These people [the doctors, her parents] aren't playing games. There is no rule book. It's run or we both shall be wasted. And that would be a terrible tragedy.”

In addition to their emotional lovelorn narrative, these letters are valuable because they offer the reader a glimpse inside a poet's working furnace, just as he’s approaching the peak of his powers. Co-edited by Ron Padgett, who continues to dedicate his substantial literary skills to bringing his best friends back to life, these letters generously rekindle Berrigan’s spirit more than a quarter century after his death.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Orhan Pamuk
Harvard University Press ($22.95)

by Spencer Dew

In the 2009 Norton Lectures at Harvard, collected in this volume, Orhan Pamuk articulates what he calls “the most important things I know and have learned about the novel,” exploring issues of form and technique but also the ethical and political functions of literature. He frames his theories through the notion of “a center,” “a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined,” acting as a core to both the process of constructing and the practice of reading novels. “Novelists write in order to investigate this locus, to discover its implications, and we are aware that novels are read in the same spirit,” he says.

Such universalizing claims are, Pamuk says, rooted in a kind of humanism, a “Montaigne-like optimism,” the “belief that if I frankly discuss my own experience of writing novels, and what I do when I write and read novels, then I will be discussing all novelists and the art of the novel in general.” While explicitly autobiographical—he stitches, for instance, his developing notions of the novel to specific experiments performed in the crafting of each of his books—The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist is also invested in exploring the divide between novelistic practice in “the West” and novelistic practice in what Pamuk terms “closed or semi-closed societies.” He argues that the ethical and political values of the novel are more immediate and more revolutionary in these “closed” settings as opposed to in the “naïve” West, where novels have become just another commodity, another entertainment in both production and consumption.

Pamuk’s title comes from Friedrich Schiller’s distinction between naïve and sentimental poets, one Pamuk reworks into a divide between those writers and readers “who are not at all concerned with the artificial aspects of writing and reading and a novel”—the “naïve”—and those “readers and writers who are fascinated by the artificiality of the text and its failure to attain reality”—the “reflective”—though one use of these categories is to advance the argument that the ideal, for a novelist, is “being both naïve and reflective at the same time.” It is here where social context comes into play. Pamuk, a Turkish citizen, speaks from within one of those “closed or semi-closed societies, where individual choice is restricted.” In such “closed” societies, novelists are struggling to answer questions about method and meaning for existing in the world, while in the West, novelists are characterized by the “lack of constraint, for the confidence and ease with which they write—in short, for their naïveté,” Pamuk argues that this is a result of “the recognition shared by writers and readers that they belong to the same class and community, and from the fact that Western writers write not to represent anyone but simply for their own satisfaction.”

Representation, as an issue, is more than a concern with physical objects and the roles they can play in literary narratives (though Pamuk explores this at length in order to plumb his deeper interests); rather, that novels represent human lives in detail, thus prompting an experience of empathy for others and an examination of one’s own self, is, for Pamuk, an “ethical point” of great importance. The reading (and writing) of novels “relates to freedom, to imitating other lives and imagining oneself as another person,” and, as such, is inherently political.

According to Pamuk, novels lead to “a breathtaking sense of freedom and self-confidence,” putting emphasis, as they do, on “our world and our choices”; they make the seemingly banal, the domestic, the internal, the individual “as important as historical events, international wars, and the decisions of kings, pashas, armies, governments, and gods,” and they demonstrate that “our sensations and thoughts have the potential to be far more interesting than any of these.” There is a political use to this, a political effect. Indeed, the very act of imagining others is, Pamuk argues, political, yet such a reading of literature as political should not be confused with that “limited genre” that Pamuk calls “the political novel.” Ideological platforms, when given the role of shaping artistic representation, involve “a determination not to understand those who are different from us,” while the novelistic enterprise must do the opposite. “But,” says Pamuk,

the extent to which politics can be included in novels is boundless, because the novelist becomes political in the very effort to understand those who are different from him, those who belong to other communities, races, cultures, classes, and nations. The most political novel is the novel that has no political themes or motives but that tries to see everything and understand everyone, to construct the largest whole. Thus, the novel that manages to accomplish this impossible task has the deepest center.

If representation of human life leads to political and ethical effects, Pamuk’s notion of a “center” at the core of the writing and reading of all novels imparts to literature something like a religious effect. “The reason we turn to literary novels, great novels, where we search for guidance and wisdom that might confer meaning on life, is that we fail to feel at home in the world,” Pamuk argues. Disconnected from a meaningful sense of the universe, we turn to novels in an “effort to believe that the world actually does have a center.” What novels provide—alongside “views of the world” and “ethical sensibility” is “the vivid illusion that the world has a center and a meaning, and because they give us joy by sustaining this impression as we turn their pages.” This is not to say that there is some immutable center to our world, merely that we have a hunger for such a thing. “For the modern secular individual,” Pamuk writes, “one way to find a deeper, more profound meaning in the world is to read the great literary novels.”

As autobiographical document, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist charts “the emotional and intellectual heart of my work as a novelist,” chronicling the development of Pamuk’s skills, theories, and even his humanity. This text, then, also stands in defense of Pamuk’s oeuvre, shedding light on specific practices (the use of physical objects in the writing and text of a novel, for instance) while also advancing a broader claim about the “new forms and novelistic techniques” he and other writers “outside Western cultural centers” have been innovating. There is, indeed, a mysterious center to this text, as well—one constructed, like Pamuk’s novels, around something unspoken, a tantalizing lacuna. Many Americans, unless they are already followers of Pamuk’s work, may dismiss this slim volume as so much oddly unfashionable criticism—so much reading of one scene from Tolstoy, so much of what seems like dancing around the political issues at play—but one is also left with the sense that Pamuk’s theories may well be discussed and debated “outside Western cultural centers” for years to come, and that his vision and his style, while resolutely not that of the contemporary American moment, are—for precisely that reason—of urgent interest elsewhere.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated by Philip Roughton
MacLehose Press (£12.00)

by Amy Henry

Our existence is a relentless search for a solution, what comforts us, whatever gives us happiness, drives away all bad things. Some travel a long and difficult road and perhaps find nothing at all . . . the rest of us admire their tenacity but have enough trouble ourselves simply existing, so we take cure-alls instead of searching, continually asking what is the shortest path to happiness.

The stereotypical depictions of heaven and hell as destinations have no place in this novel by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Set in Iceland, his locations are very much tied to the earth, a chilly place where there is neither burning heat nor angelic bliss. Instead, he toys with the various meanings that a person may ascribe to each—sometimes comically, at other times deadly serious. And while the life he describes never reaches tremendous highs or lows, it is the simple in-between that makes a satisfying destiny.

Two friends begin this journey, one young and one old. Bardur has taken a younger orphan as an apprentice to his life of fishing in the volatile Arctic sea. These fishermen spend seasons of twelve-hour days fishing off small-oared boats, their thoughts only concerned with changes in weather and friends that rest in the sea below. Those who have drowned are an obsession for the living fisherman, who can’t swim and who are afraid to look into the water, for fear they may see one of their own roiling in the tide. The boy idolizes the handsome Bardur, whose love of literature sets him apart from the other fishermen, and who leaves every woman who sees him sighing in his wake. Yet for all his vision, Bardur succumbs to the heartless sea, condemned to death because he forgot his outer jacket. That he forgot it because he was delayed reading Paradise Lost becomes the undercurrent of the story. As Milton imagined: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. / What matter where, if I be still the same . . .”

From this point, the orphan begins a quest to return Paradise Lost to its owner, an aging sea captain in his own hell, confined to his personal library that mocks his blindness. In returning through a blizzard to an isolated town near Reykjavik, grief over his friend’s death prompts the boy to plan his suicide. Yet the care he shows in planning it, to assure that no child finds his body after the thaw or that the book be damaged, foreshadows a value he puts on others that makes us hope he will value himself. His journey completed, he finds his tentative plans no match for the strange appeal of a simple life: the warmth of a fire, the glance of a pretty girl’s bosom, or the sight of a clear, starlit night.

Stefánsson wrote Heaven and Hell so beautifully that portions of it feel like poetic verse. He reveals dimensions of the Icelandic landscape far beyond the typical cold—the region is alive with its own moods and tension. Stefánsson uses birds as an atypical motif to signify uncertainty and remorse, and shadows and light don’t always play to type. The characters he creates are at once impossibly strange and yet familiar. The town drunk wades around the Village and contemplates his dreadful existence, yet in the next moment he’s flirting outrageously with an old widow. That the author can, in just a few brief paragraphs, make this character’s thoughts sound realistic in opposing situations—one sad and the other riotously funny—reveals a concise hand that knows human nature.

Subtle, too, is the way he can explore a thought deeper than one would traditionally expect. Milton’s daughter, charged to write the verses her blind father dictated, gets more than a nod for her steadfast duty: “We thus bless her hands, but hopefully they had a life apart from the poems, hopefully they were able to hold something warmer and softer than a slender dip pen. . . . words are not enough and we become lost and die out on the heaths of life if we have nothing to hold but a dip pen.” Similarly, as Stefánsson describes the characters that fill the Village, we see beyond their surface: Fisherman “so insolent that they could kill a dog with their language” turn meek at the sight of one man; quiet women hide their faces because “life streams out of our eyes, and thus they can be cannons, music, birdsong, war cries. They can reveal us, they can save you, destroy you.”

While a quiet novel, Heaven and Hell proceeds to a satisfying denouement that never becomes complacent or overwrought. The struggle for life and death ties its characters to each other and to the land—an afterlife never enters their thoughts.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf ($24.95)

by Josepha Gutelius

Bret Easton Ellis has a dazzling arsenal of skills, no question about it. In his latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, his dialogue has all the pitch-perfect suggestiveness of Don DeLillo, and the plot is, on one level, a whodunit, chockablock with sinister characters and mysterious disappearances. His choice of Hollywood as a setting couldn’t be more satisfyingly nightmarish: every description is a toss of venom toward a place of fakery that is easy to hate. Even the lovely LA sunshine takes a turn for the worse: here the weather is mostly stormy noir or blisteringly sun-shocked. The ghost of Phillip Marlowe would be happy here.

Well, sort of. The difference, of course, is this is Bret Easton Ellis’s take on Hollywood, and fakeness is the least of his characters’ problems. The nice folks who people his Hollywood will not just bed down, pander, and manipulate their way into an audition for a movie role—they will rape, torture, and murder. Stardom, in this relentlessly evil biz, will always elude the wannabes; a horrific death-by-torture is more likely their reward. (There are more than a dozen graphic depictions of torture-murders in this slim book, which clocks in at less than 200 pages.)

Clay, a middle-aged screenwriter, is being stalked by anonymous, creepy text messages and an ominous vehicle. Clay dresses and behaves as we might imagine the stereotype: he is never not high on something, drives a BMW, and has a loft in New York, a condo in LA, and a slew of ex-relationships that are as postmodern as they are depraved. An astute observer, Clay is brilliant as a protagonist—he is both among evil, of evil, and spooked by his own shadow. He has his vulnerable moments: he lives in “pale fear,” experiences anguish, and is losing weight like crazy. The girl he uses (and who uses him) calls him Crazy, and she is a typical Hollywood train wreck: a beautiful waitress/hooker/talentless actress whom Clay strings along with promises of an audition for his next movie. This passage is close to being the essence of the novel:

She didn’t want to come over but I tell her I would cancel [the audition] if she didn’t . . . and when I first touch her she says let’s wait and then I make another threat and the panic is cooled only by breaking the seal off a bottle of Patron and I just keep fucking her on the floor in the office, in the bedroom . . . the Fray blaring from the stereo, and even though I thought she was numb from the tequila she keeps crying and that makes me harder. . . . “I’m just helping you,” I tell her soothingly.

Here we see Ellis at his most chilling and pithy, including the reference to the specific music playing (pop songs are everywhere in the book) and the girl’s panicked attempts to numb herself. Unfortunately, however, Ellis’s characters feel panic and anger and paranoia, but nothing much else. They are self-described fakes, but astonishingly stupefied by their own fakeness. And they are surreally evil. There is not a suggestion of average humanness in any of them, which leads us, as readers, to keep our distance.

By the end of the novel, Ellis has locked himself into such a claustrophobic nightmare that he has to keep upping the ante: more scary text messages, more scumbags stalking and threatening his protagonist, more sick sex, more grisly murders. As for one of the last, repugnant rape scenes, in Palm Springs no less, Ellis is careful to point out “the girl was impossibly beautiful—the Bible belt, Memphis” and the boy from “Australia . . . modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch.” The phrasing is typical of the narrator’s penchant for detail and label-dropping—and, significantly, of his relish in degrading the beautiful and the young. One hardly has to wonder, upon finishing the book, why such a mesmerizing journey leads nowhere.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011