Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Peter Roman

Peter Roman's The Mona Lisa Sacrifice (CZP, 2013) is the first novel I've read that made me feel like I was playing a video game.

Maybe it was the protagonist, who kept dying and coming back to life, fighting assorted demons (and angels) and progressing to higher levels of complex game play.

But the protagonist isn't Super Mario; he's Jesus Christ. Or at least the soul who inherited Christ's body. Confused? So is he. His name is Cross, as in the Cross, but also angry.

Cross has the biggest case of amnesia in history and a unique problem. He can't die. He wakes up in a cave, rolls away enough of the rock to squeeze out. He has vague memories of being crucified. He remembers his enemy, Judas. No Prince of Peace, he's pissed off.

Over the next two thousand years, he drifts around the world indulging the body's cravings (often simply described as wine and women), fighting in the Roman Coliseum, with King Arthur's Knights, against assorted knaves, rogues and rascals. He has a burning hatred for Judas and a permanent existential crisis. He cannot erase himself (he dies repeatedly, only to dig himself out of various graves). He is propelled forward for a desire to know himself (though he's not much for philosophy) and a desire for revenge (he's convinced Judas is the cause of his fate). Judas, it must be explained, is a lot like Lucifer; he is no mortal; he morphs throughout history, often placing himself at the site of catastrophe and chaos (e.g., Hiroshima et al).

The background of the story is Christ withdrew to Heaven and God withdrew from the world. Judas, essentially, inherits the earth, except he hasn't achieved the complete Doom's Day he expected either. Angels remain, abandoned by God, awaiting his return. A host of other magical creatures also exist, each with different agendas.

Cross is like Moses in the desert, cast out, wandering. How can one not quote Bob Dylan? "Like a complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone." He hunts angels for grace. He kills them and sucks out their power, which restores him. If he died low on grace, he would still be restored, but it would take longer. Being stocked up on grace also allows him to perform magic of various sorts.

While the context-setting is complicated, the plot isn't. The story opens with an angel offering Cross a bargain: find the Mona Lisa (the real Mona Lisa, not the painting) and he will be given Judas. And since his search for Judas is one of the few things that have kept him going for the past two thousand years, of course he says yes. He would do anything for that. And what follows is a series of the odd and improbable. It's also a love story. And everything wraps up tightly, while also setting us up for the sequel.

Part hard-boiled detective novel, part magical realism, part mystic fantasy, part picaresque adventure, this genre bending novel may leave you seeking grace yourself. Though as Cross makes clear, eternal life has its down sides.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Leon Rooke

There's a video on YouTube about manuscript records of Barry Hannah's at the University of Mississippi, and they interview a professor who recounts first reading Hannah, oh so many years ago, and the prof talks about how he had to learn to read Hannah the way Hannah wanted to be read.

He summarizes this as: learning to read for "language," not just for "story."

Rooke is the same way.

Read for the stories, the "acts of kamikaze fiction" in Wide World in Celebration and Sorrow (Exile, 2012) are going to confound.

Read as wild arrays of language, these stories will amaze.

Rooke's fans already know this. Eager readers everywhere, all aboard!


Here's my other post about the marvelous Mr. Rooke (from May 2010, written earlier), plus bonus interview!


Here's the Barry Hannah video:


Here's Leon reading poetry:

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Donald Barthelme

We're due for a Donald Barthelme revival. Or at least I was, because of passages like this (from an interview with Charles Ruas and Judith Serman, 1975):

BARTHELME: [On teaching creative writing] About the only thing I give them [the students] in the way of general pronouncements is that I forbid them absolutely to use weather in any form. ... Weather, weather. Thunderstorms, rain. 

I say, "This is an entirely artificial prohibition and as soon as you leave my class you can use all of the weather you want. But for this space of time, weather is verboten." 

That immediately gets rid of a lot of really bad writing.

RUAS: Why, because --

BARTHELME: -- Because it's so easy to use weather as the equivalent of an emotion, and you know --

RUAS: -- And Shakespeare's already done it better than anyone else can.

BARTHELME: Yes, and one very good student, at the start of this semester, said, "What, no weather? What would Lear be without weather?"

And I said, "The exception to this rule is if you write Lear."


My favorite quotations from Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews:
  • “There’s nothing more rewarding than than a fresh set of problems.”
  • “There’s nothing so beautiful as having a very difficult problem.”
  • “Beckett’s work is an embarrassment to the Void.”
  • “To quote Karl Kraus, ‘A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.’”
  • “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.”

Most people probably encounter Barthelme in a classroom, which is unfortunate, especially if he is taught as part of the post-modern crowd, which of course he is (part of it, and taught that way). His fiction may be of the 1960s & 1970s, but his influence (and potential influences) span backwards and forwards in time.

Not-Knowing begins with two substantial essays, "After Joyce" and "Not-Knowing," which establish Bartheleme's bona fides as a Modernist and a Texan. His father was an architect and high on the intellectual curve for his time. Barthelme's interviews and essays show his deep immersion in aesthetic debates from visual art, to buildings, to books. While he may have picked up some avant garde tendencies from his father, his pater didn't appreciate Donald's sense of humour, or the advent of the "post-" prefix.

What one senses in all of this is the primal conflict, perhaps best illustrated by noting the title of what of Barthelme's novels, The Dead Father.

"Not enough emotion" and "too many jokes" were what Barthelme considered the weaknesses of his fiction. We might identify here instead an anxiety to simply be himself. But what was that?

Barthelme situates his work, like Joyce (and his other oft cited influence, Gertrude Stein) in the perpetual state of becoming. Or as he calls it, Not-Knowing: "The not-knowing is not simple, because it's hedged with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives."

There is also the ongoing argument with those who don't "get it," those content to be hip to be square.

Barthelme quotes Kenneth Burke (from "The Calling of the Tune"):

For the greater the dissociation and discontinuity developed by the artist in an otherworldly art that leaves the things to Ceaser to take care of themselves, the greater becomes the artist's dependence upon some ruler who will accept the responsibility for doing the world's "dirty work."

Puzzle that one out for a moment, before reading Barthelme's response:

This description of the artist turning his back on the community to pursue his "otherworldly" projects (whereupon the community promptly falls apart) is a familiar one, accepted even by some artists. Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and the other writers of the transition school (Burke mentions them specifically) are seen as deserters, creating their own worlds, which are thought to have nothing to do with the larger world. The picture is, I think, entirely incorrect. ...

Burke's strictures raise the sticky question of what art is "about" and the mysterious shift that takes place as son as one says that art is not about something but is something. In saying that the writer creates "dissociation and discontinuity" rather than merely describing a previously existing dissociation and discontinuity (the key word is "developed"), Burke notices that with Joyce and Stein the literary work becomes an object in the world rather than a text or a commentary upon the world -- a crucial change in status which was also taking place in painting. With Joyce, and to a lesser degree with Gertrude Stein, fiction altered its placement in the world in a movement so radical that its consequences have yet to be assimilated.


Barthelme wrote that in 1964, just when the Sixties were becoming the Sixties. He then went on to become one of the leading literary innovators of his generation. His short stories and novels kept up the beat. The times were a-changing. At least, so it seemed for a while. They don't really change. They just modulate within a frequency. (What frequency, Kenneth?)

Check on the podcast by The New Yorker: Chris Adrian reads “The Indian Uprising,” by Donald Barthelme, and discusses it with fiction editor, Deborah Treisman.


As much as Barthelme was on his period, part of what we mean by literary influence is that the artist was ahead of her time. I think this is true of Barthelme. There is much (too much) "knowingness" in  the 21st century, despite all of the quakes, wars, economic and environmental meltdowns. And I don't just mean Dubya's "you're with us or agin us." So-called progressives can be just as closed-minded as the ultra-dumb, I mean, -right.

"Dissociation and discontinuity developed by the artist"? In the interviews Barthelme repeatedly asserts that he's a "realist." Amen to that. He's also a language-magician and an idea-jerking philosopher (joker, midnight toker).

BARTHELME: I say it's realism, bearing in mind Harold Rosenberg's wicked remark that realism is one of the fifty-seven varieties of decoration.

We're talking about art, people.

Repeat after me. Donald Barthelme revival. Donald Barthelme revival.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Sam Lipsyte

A quick look through the GoodReads reviews of this book suggested many of Lipsyte's fans were disappointed with the new collection, The Fun Parts.

For the life of me, I'm not sure why.

I started Lipsyte's Venus Drive a few years ago and couldn't get into it. The timing wasn't right for me, or something.

After finishing The Fun Parts, however, I'm ready to try again.

The new collection has 13 stories. They are darkly humorous. There is foul language, sexual themes, drug use, gun play and death. Some readers might be tempted to locate cynicism within. I didn't.

This is a completely subjective comment, but Lipsyte is the same age as me, and the collection had a nice "ah" feeling. The stories are uncomfortable, the characters struggling, contemporary reality is presented as a distressed array of random happenings. Yup, I recognize all of that as day-to-day.

So, yes, the stories have a male predisposition, but it's a post-modern, post-feminist predisposition. That is, a la Leonard Cohen, "the war is over/ the good guys lost." The characters are caught in the minor dramas of their lives, disconnected from any saving grace of any mega-narrative.

The disconnected isolation of the individual is a recurring strategy, in fact.

"Nate's Pain Is Now," for example, is narrated by an Augusten Burroughs-type memoirist, whose found himself on the outs. His redemptive self-story is no longer in demand. He just another former drunk/junkie with a father who's disappointed in him.

"Deniers" tells the story of the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who won't talk about his past, or show much emotion about anything. Her friend wants to write a poetry cycle about her, and then she hooks up with a guy with a skinhead past.

As a frame, the story risks cliche, but it avoids that fate and explodes with many small moments that enlighten and entertain, to risk cliche myself.

Here's one passage:

"Anyway," said Tovah, "I've been working on a poem cycle about you."
"A what?"
"A bunch of poems."
"About me?"
"You don't know anything about me."
"I know a lot, Mandy."
"Not really. Maybe about me and Craig."
"Researching facts isn't the point," said Tovah. "It's about my construction of you. My projection."
"So," said Many, "I don't get it. Are you asking permission?"
"A real artist never asks permission."
"But I don't want any static between us."
"Am I Mandy?" said Mandy.
"In your poem, am I Mandy? Do you name me? Do you say Mandy Gottlieb?"
"No. It's addressed to a nameless person."
"Then why should I care?"
Tovah seemed stunned.
"Well...because it's so obviously you."
"But you said it's about your structure of me."
"My construction of...yes, that's right."
"So who cares?"
"I don't really understand your question."
"It's okay, Tovah. Write what your heart tells you to write."

This short passage contains a number of nice reversals, seems to bring these two friends closer together, but ultimately illustrates the gulf between them, while still keeping them connected.

The fun parts?

Lipsyte takes readers to the edge of oblivion. He saves us, however, from going over into the void.