wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: reading

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (tr. Merwin), briefly responded to.

You must read the classics.

I expected the pagan wildness of it to stick with me — this is a Christian tale set in the bizarre hybrid mythosphere of Arthur’s Round Table — but was taken aback by its strange proportions. The Green Knight’s physical description takes dozens of lines, and the longest descriptive setpiece in the book is an account of a boar hunt and subsequent skinning and dismemberment. (A later foxhunt takes only slightly less space, and refers to the fox directly as ‘Reynard,’ adding to the atmosphere of feral primitivism.) Because courtly knighthood was a form of insanity, and because the bedroom scenes are skillfully intercut(!) with the frenzy of the hunt, the simple virtue-testing story is tinged with an unexpected weirdness. Merwin’s translation is unadorned, which is the right approach: our distance from the story is part of the point, now.

Reading Gawain felt a bit like my long trip with Graves’s Greek Myths, a more self-conscious ‘literary’ experience in terms of presentation but generating that same feeling of enormous distance and mystery. I know that ‘deep time’ refers to the geologic, specifically as distinct from the historic, but the term feels appropriate all the same: the old mythoi fill me with a particular ‘adventurous expectancy’ which has to do with the unbridgeable distance between ways of seeing the world. I think of Mark Booth’s silly Secret History of the World, all about a lost mythic mode of seeing; I think of Julian Jaynes, of (getting less silly as we go) Eliade, Couliano, Aegypt, Star Wars, the new Westworld, Gilliam’s Munchausen, of storytelling and drama as incarnation of gods/myths rather than remembrance. The idea of story as a transmission vector for a way of apprehending the world which is in a sense a lost world unto itself, a hologram, invisible interference pattern left by light now past which when properly illuminated brings the old forms and colours back into being — that’s why I turn to the mythic and the mythological.

Distance and time. Terrible distance and murderous time.

SHATTERED (Allen and Parnes, 2017).

Attention conservation notice: I wrote this a while back, after devouring the first 2/3 of the book (on Clinton vs Sanders) and choking down the rest. This 2,400-word ‘review’ started as a personal exercise in summary and reasoning-through, so don’t expect cogent argument or lofty rhetoric. The book is useful but not good, which is the best we can hope for this blogpost too. N.B. Subsequent events have changed my sense of Comey’s role in the election; I’m no longer sure that ‘sinister’ is at all the right word to describe his catastrophic intervention. –wa.

Terrifying, a little heartbreaking, but not a good book — the authors should be embarrassed. Shattered is essentially a less elegant Game Change.

It’s totally myopic in the same way as that earlier book: nothing matters but the campaign process, no one matters but the campaigners, every staff squabble is a nuclear war, every personality flaw is a great plague, and everyone is a hungry young assassin or a wizened old hand plus everyone (we’d never say this aloud) is a vicious sociopath. There is no world in Shattered except the campaign, and because the authors had no access to the Trump campaign (and almost none to the Sanders campaign), there are two kinds of events in the world of Shattered: what HRC’s campaign does, usually incompetently, and the inexplicable and unpredictable and above all totally unfair acts of God which happen to them.

This myopia means the book is worthless as an analysis of American politics in 2016, but in compensation Allen and Parnes happily deliver page after page of the court intrigue which again plagued the Clinton campaign. As a kind of implicit sequel to Game Change, Shattered delivers a genuine shock to those of us who took her competence for granted: Clinton and her team overreacted to the 2008 race without actually learning from it, and ran a totally incompetent trainwreck of a campaign.

Obligatory pitch and synopsis

The book is an inside-baseball account of Clinton’s 2014-2016 official/active run for president. (Surprising no one, Allen & Parnes make it clear that HRC’s work at the State Department was always intended as prelude to a 2016 run.) The central drama of the book is the generational fight within the Clinton campaign between the ‘data’-driven folks, led by millennial campaign manager Robby Mook, and an ‘intuitive’/retail-politics cohort which included John Podesta and ex-President Clinton himself.

(Scare quotes around ‘data’ because it’s not at all clear from Shattered alone that Mook has any actual expertise w/r/t his precious Numbers, just an abiding faith in what the analytics team put up in lieu of ‘old-fashioned polling.’ If there’s a villain in Shattered, it’s Trump, but Mook comes off worst relative to his reputation. If there’s justice, he’ll never work in Washington again, but I’m willing to bet he’s already making $200K+/yr somewhere.)

The authors conducted ‘scores’ of interviews entirely on background, with promises not to publish a word until after the election. As a result, they had a running commentary from inside the campaign, and the ambivalent and critical tone of the early interviews is telling. A&P write in the introduction that Trump’s victory finally ‘made sense of’ their reporting — they knew the Clinton campaign was an omnishambles and that the mainstream press was missing the deep electoral stories, but they couldn’t quite believe their eyes until election night.

Clinton not only never shared but apparently never actually possessed a clear vision of why she should run the country, only that she would (by dint of her mastery of policy, intense work ethic, extensive Washington experience, and enormous Rolodex) be good at it. Repeating one of the key mistakes of her 2008 race, she built a campaign organization characterized by the same sorts of warring cliques, and followed her campaign manager Robby Mook’s strategy of spending as little as possible, completely avoiding ‘retail’ politics, literally hiding from voters in ‘swing’ states, and making no attempt to convince undecided voters or those weakly supporting Trump (beyond pointing out what they already knew, i.e. that he’s a vile imbecile). Within her organization no one had permission to criticize her; the contrast with Obama’s ‘team of rivals,’ a purpose-driven organization built on ex-Professor Obama’s respect for competence, is striking.

This is difficult but important to understand: Clinton and company never saw Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump coming. They were tragically mistreated by the press and (sinisterly) by FBI head James Comey, whose reputation for unimpeachable nonpartisanship was badly wounded by his repeated political interventions in the race; not to mention more than a decade of coordinated voter disenfranchisement efforts by every level the Republican Party (no mention of this in the book, of course), but Clinton still could and should have won — Shattered makes clear that a competent campaign, never mind a competent and bold one, could have handled these external forces. The tide of history is against candidates like Clinton right now, but she and her team ran a bad campaign from beginning to end. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Clinton’s team bears much of it, as must Clinton herself.

Obligatory recommendation

Shattered is likely to remain the #1 source for telling anecdotes about Clinton’s miserable campaign, but hitting the high (low) points should suffice for normal people. Like the less ‘juicy’ but more skillful Game Change, it ends up an accidental portrait of the absolute hollowness of these wanting days of neoliberal empire, directly appealing to fans of a debased media-electoral process but indirectly (yet more importantly) throwing light on deeper problems with the republic.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose?

Allen and Parnes don’t know. They’d have you believe that it was mostly (1) the incompetence of Clinton’s campaign, which stemmed from (2) her catastrophic lack of any kind of vision for governing this country, which was only a problem because of (3) HRC’s combination of greed/cynicism/lust for power and her obsession with ‘wonkish’ policy details, all of which ran up against (4) Trump abstractly rendered and (5) the extraordinary intervention of Comey.

But that’s not an explanation, and it’s certainly not an analysis. Clinton had every imaginable institutional advantage and the best possible general-election opponent; if elections were sporting events 2016 couldn’t possibly have been anything but a blowout for Clinton. But elections are about voters, not candidates, and only D.C. myopes (is that a word?) and those addicted to/duped by the ‘horserace’ believe otherwise. Moreover, this revelation of incompetence isn’t even news: everyone knew Clinton’s campaign was a leaden disaster — even Obama got a big laugh at her expense all the way back in April, joking that her campaign slogan ‘Trudge Up the Hill’ had proven less than inspirational. Her inability to ‘crush’ Sanders was evidence of her campaign’s incompetence.

The news, which won’t reach the apologists who need to hear it most, is that the implausible ineffectiveness of HRC’s campaign trickled down from the candidate herself, who was unable (for a variety of reasons, not entirely her fault) to serve as a backstop, a guiding light, a strong and trustworthy chief executive. This is an ancient pattern with the Clintons: they can never fail, they can only be failed. (It was forbidden, inside the campaign, to criticize Clinton to her face — can you imagine? At points they had to bring in outside ‘friends of Hillary’ to point out her shortcomings.) Shattered reveals that Hillary doesn’t actually possess certain essential skills for executive leadership. Trump certainly doesn’t, and neither does Sanders, but then Clinton’s (not actually) (cf. Bush Sr, Nixon) the ‘most qualified candidate ever for this office’ etc., etc., etc. Her campaign was always a bid for meritocratic and technocratic ascendancy, which is why ‘inevitable’ really did strike the insiders as a plausible rationale: the correctness of her nomination and election could be logically deduced, and anyone who ‘disagreed’ — i.e. who failed to see the truth — was himself incompetent. Deplorably so.

And so anyone who says she should have reached out to white working class voters is a racist or a reactionary or a misogynist(?), even though the funny thing about Rust Belt working-class whites is that they were actually ‘undecided’ this time around, i.e. the exact people a candidate should be going after. They went for Sanders and then Trump in a big way because Clinton didn’t (couldn’t) talk to them on their terms. We’ll never know whether they would have been open to a Clinton campaign pitch, because as far as they knew Clinton didn’t actually make one. (‘But her policy papers are on the website!’ Sure, I’ll print them out and mail them to grandpa out in Little Valley.)

Maddeningly, Shattered doesn’t concern itself for even a single paragraph with why so many voters were furiously angry this electoral cycle. This is the authors’ greatest failing, and whatever their personal politics (betcha a dollar they’re 100% conventional Democrats), it’s enough to say that they come from the D.C. bubble, which is cut off from actual citizens’ concerns by design. (How can you get real work done if you have to listen to that braying and snorting all day?) Bill Clinton is derided repeatedly in Shattered for talking about Brexit, seemingly without context or provocation — which is to say his political instincts were still right on, but he didn’t know how to act on them, and his minders thought him a babbling old fool (because they’re deeply, deeply stupid). The idea that populist anger might be justified, that there might be anything questionable about the neoliberal consensus that Bill and his DLC fellow-travelers sold the post-Reagan Democratic Party a quarter-century ago, never crosses the authors’ minds, nor does it occur to even a single one of the alleged human beings in Shattered. Poverty and despair are ‘millennial’ concerns, you see, they’re not real.

In other words, Shattered both (cattily) renders and naively embodies the limitations of the D.C. consensus. The few moving moments in the book tend to involve mentions of the ‘eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling,’ reminding readers that Clinton’s appeal has always been her combination of bloodless technocratic competence and symbolism. She desperately wanted to be a candidate of destiny like Obama, but never found a way to make that case — opinion polls showed that 2016 voters didn’t care much about her sex, though on the other hand never forget that states which have never elected a female governor cut hard against her, i.e. culture is complicated and ugly, time to read (a synopsis of) Albion’s Seed.

I think the reason Hillary’s moments of humanity — maternal, teacherly — are so compelling in Shattered is that they make such a startling contrast, not only with Clinton’s alternately feckless and scolding managerial persona, but with the overall gossipy-melodramatic tone of the prose. In the midst of such a grim parade, the reminder that Hillary is a human being comes as a relief (rewatch the scene on Veep where Selina finds out she’ll be president, and hides in the bathroom) (Shattered confirms that Veep, along with The Wire, is the best-ever show about American politics). But oddly enough, her command of policy does not function the same way in the story — we learn in the first few chapter or two that the happiest time of the campaign for Hillary was the intial period of four-hour meetings with her policy director, hashing out the fine details of her plan for running the country. For someone like me, this is a genuinely heartwarming scene; I know how she feels, and in those moments I ‘connect’ with her ‘as a person.’ But the flipside of this portrait is the revelation that Clinton didn’t want to run, delayed entering the race partly for that reason, and admitted to aides over and over throughout the campaign that she had no idea what was going on in the country or why she wasn’t breaking through to voters.

The cost of running a ‘modest midwestern Methodist’ candidate, a ‘wonk in both the positive and negative sense,’ is just that: she had, and has always had, no idea how to reach people outside of her circle. This is a personal flaw, but a private citizen can make a life which mitigates it. For a lifelong politician and would-be chief executive, this is a crippling professional liability — though less so in the Senate than we might wish, since that august chamber is in the main a club for wealthy corporate-friendly compromisers (Clinton was, by all accounts, undistinguished but effective there).

So: is Hillary Clinton to blame for Donald Trump’s presidency? It’s an ill-posed question, sorry. ‘Monocausal’ is a bad word! And Trump’s margin of victory was miniscule, as my wife has repeatedly pointed out to me. But Shattered takes us back to 2008, to an odd and telling moment: desperate to figure out what went wrong against Obama, and wanting to root out leakers and disloyal courtiers, Hillary got administrator access to the campaign’s internal email server, and read all of her aides’ emails. (She and Bill then made up ‘loyalty cards’ indicating which ones should be purged from the party.) This is paranoid, yeah, but it’s also a contemptible violation of her employees’ privacy. And from her own action she drew an iiiinteresting (and sensible!) lesson: you have to control your email, because otherwise someone — someone like Hillary Clinton, perhaps — will come along and uncover your deepest secrets.

It’s an ugly and telling moment, the kind of on-the-nose foreshadowing a novelist would be embarrassed to invent. It made me pity and dislike her all over again.


OK, I’ve burnt out on this book despite having said only part of what needs saying. Let us summarize: Shattered suggests that Clinton’s 2016 campaign was a hollow, soulless disaster, which seems fair; it suggests that she and Robby Mook bear a big portion of the blame for the disastrous outcome, which also seems fair — they were in charge, after all. But Shattered has no interest in the historical forces which made a Trump candidacy possible (led to Brexit, brought Marine Le Pen closer than ever to running France, etc.), none whatsoever, nor do its authors evince any empathy with the tens of millions who got up on Election Day, waited in line to vote, and pulled the lever for one of the worst candidates (and now presidents) in history; its overemphasis on day-to-day campaign blunders is symptomatic of the same D.C.-insider cynicism that made Clinton’s candidacy ‘inevitable’ in the first place. Shattered suggests, but can’t quite admit, that regardless of the dangerous extremism and (at times hilarious) dysfunction of the Republicans, the Democratic Party is a shambling disaster — this isn’t a ‘big picture’ book. It’s an indictment, not a work of history. Clinton and her staffers should read it. I’m not sure anyone else should, but everyone should know what it says. It says: it didn’t, and hopefully doesn’t, need to be this way.

Concerning a reread of LORD OF THE RINGS.

Wrote this in a bit of a swoon after finishing Return of the King couple months ago. I forgot to mention the thing that surprised me most, the conversation between the two orc soldiers in which one orc suggests running away and starting a new life away from the masters and their stupid endless war — but this is long enough as it is.

I first read Lord of the Rings in late summer and autumn of 1994. I can now see some of the ways it changed my life, revealing to me the previously unknown ‘categories of my imagination’ — though I’d already read the Dragonlance Chronicles and maybe Legends trilogies, the combination of the trip to Europe, the week at a guest house in the south of England, and my first exposure to Tolkien’s hobbits on the train back from Brighton was definitive. It was the greatest reading experience of my life, I suspect never to be surpassed.

That was a little more than 22 years ago. I mustn’t wait another 22 years for my next visit.

In fact I might go back at the end of this year.

What’s left to say about this story? It’s greater than its critics. The contemporary tendency to reduce books to their authors’ presumed political perspectives is more embarrassing than usual in contrast with Tolkien’s mythic vision, so I’ll refrain from moaning about Tolkien’s king-worship and luddite conservatism. They seem so small, so fanciful (in Coleridge’s usage), when set against his imaginative achievement.

Frodo and Sam’s trip through Mordor is fully imagined; you feel every step, every ragged breath, every precious sip from Sam’s water-bottle. My patience with descriptions of landscape starts out thin and wears quickly, but Tolkien wrote with extraordinary passion about the land itself, not the geography or topology but its meaning, its history; both past and present were fully alive for him in a way that (to me) anticipates the ‘psychogeographers’ without falling into the triviality of psychology itself. Tolkien’s ‘subcreation’ was infused with myth-history — there are interesting moments in Return of the King where the narrator will speed ahead for a paragraph, accounting briefly the future history of an artifact or figure, and it seems less like a modern literary device than a matter-of-fact reflection of his conception of time and place.1

I’ve seen the films too many times, and so been conditioned to think of Return of the King as misshapen in a sense — too many codas — but of course the Scouring of the Shire would be an anticlimax if it came too quickly after the eucatastrophe, or even the coronation. The long journey back to the Shire is a structural necessity, because the Scouring is essential to the arc and meaning of the whole story, and it mustn’t be hurried. Tolkien had more savvy as a storyteller than he’s given credit for by pop critics (though lay readers seem intuitively to understand this).

I responded most strongly, this time, to the smallest things, the extraordinary contrast effects which Tolkien’s shrewdly juxtaposed setting (a mysterious continent with 10,000 years of history) and subject (the suffering and triumphs of little hobbits, and little people) are uniquely able to generate. Lobelia’s resistance to Sharkey’s goons, her bequest, and the other hobbits’ candid assessment of both her personality and her pluck; Pippin’s umbrage at the gate-keeper’s disrespect shown to the Ring-bearer; Merry’s cocky hornblowing; Gimli and Eomer settling the matter of Galadriel’s beauty; Ioreth’s gossipy narration to her country-cousin; Rosie’s easy familiarity with Sam; the way the hobbits of Bree are less interested in business ‘away down south’ than in their own families’ safety; and of course the love story of Frodo and Sam: the passing of the Third Age would be mere abstraction (‘worldbuilding’) in the hands of a less humane author, and complaints about Tolkien’s royalism ring false when the book lingers so long (both at first and at the end) in the Shire. The King doesn’t matter much to the hobbits; in the end, as always, they defend their own, and Saruman’s men underestimate them at great cost.

In any other book, Pippin’s reaction to the arrival of the Eagles — his belief that they are characters from someone else’s story, and his consciousness of himself as a bit player in a story of his own — would seem like a modernist literary gesture. But here it seems like correctly ordered consciousness: Pippin has come to see the great Tale of Years unfolding, and perceives his place in the narrative. A whole life passes before his eyes. Zaphod’s trip to the Total Perspective Vortex is a joke about the same experience, but Tolkien — who like Robert Graves lost more than friends at the Somme, and who began writing about Middle-Earth while recovering from his wounds — was finding a way to report his own harrowing experience, and would never joke abut it. His battle scenes celebrate glory, but not for nothing does the Beowulf scholar dwell on the death-songs of the Rohirrim, the carnage and cost of every victory. What makes Lord of the Rings a great war novel is, I think, its attention to the impossibility of returning to the world after the war, the world that the war made.

Does Frodo survive his adventure? The answer isn’t simple, nor is his story. And as for Sam…

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

…in a scene of such happiness, with his wife drawing him in and setting their baby daughter on his lap, hot dinner on the table, and a fire in the hearth, I’m not sure that deep breath is necessarily one of ease or contentment. Several times during those final days, Frodo insists that Sam must be whole, because he (Frodo) can never be so — but Sam isn’t, is he? He survives, as Tolkien survived his friends at the Somme. Standing on the shore at the Grey Havens, looking west, he sees heaven — heaven is where his friend has gone, the ‘Undying Lands’ — and for the time being he’s denied passage. Someday he can go, but he can’t die yet, he has things to do: Frodo has laid down his burden, and Sam once again carries it for both of them. Frodo doesn’t survive his wounds. Tolkien awakens in a field hospital and begins to create another world whose true heroes will be little folk, boys really, who faithfully serve their masters and their quests and do not die at the appointed time. Crucially, his heroes live to tell their own stories, in their own time to their own people, but they all return to the world transformed, nearly unrecognizable. (Literally so: confronted at the gates and in the village, the Weirdly stretched out hobbits — Merry and Pippin by the ent-draughts, Frodo and Sam by the Ring — appear to their former friends and neighbours unprecedented, alien.)

In any case, I long to return to Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings has now given me not one but two of the best reading experiences of my life.


  1. Ursula Le Guin cites one of these depth-first narratorial maneuvers, a brief jaunt into the consciousness of a passing fox, in her book on writing. 

‘So Expressionist!’

One obvious mark of a poseur is that they declare art good or bad based on whether they can identify its style. This is a handy heuristic for dismissing ‘critics’: if their interest in a text scales with how neatly the text fits an existing pattern of judgment — genre markers, current narrative tropes, allegorical Significance — then they’re not really attending to the text.

One trouble with art criticism in general, then, is that once you’ve found the great critics, the ones who engage deeply with individual artworks on their (the artworks’) own terms, in their (the critics’) own voices, you no longer get the comfort of abstraction. Great critics don’t arm you for cocktail-party talk about Art, because that talk never gets past schema, category, dead-end recurrence to personal taste. How could it? People at cocktail parties hate each other and share nothing meaningful, since (and therefore) they only hang out at cocktail parties. Strong critics set their own terms; they change conversations rather than keeping them going for status reasons.

(This nitpick, like most of what’s left of American ‘intellectual culture,’ brought to you by a tweet that annoyed me and inspired our post title.)

Graves’s Greek myths.

Updated 21 May (see below)

Three ways into poet/novelist/crank Robert Graves’s retelling (synopsis) of the the great body of Greek myth:

  1. Naively treating the book as a neutral compendium of Greek myths (this is a recipe for madness, and will likely lead in short order to the next reading-posture)
  2. Knowingly treating the book as two — expert retellings of the myths marred by oddly deflating synoptic intrusions, plus a parallel, less compelling work of fantasy in the endnotes — and savouring the main text while dipping into the notes from time to time
  3. Knowingly treating the book as a single work of fantasy based on the Greek myths, marking the endnotes as a kind of optional countermelody

The advantage of the third approach, which I’ve tried to adopt in my own reading, is that it accommodates Graves’s deflating alternate versions and parenthetical insertions — instead of damaging a conventional narrative flow, they can be understood as a necessary feature of an alternative form.

If you haven’t read Graves, this is the sort of thing you can expect:

The Eleventh Labour: The Apples Of The Hesperides

a. HERACLES had performed these Ten Labours in the space of eight years and one month; but Eurystheus, discounting the Second and the Fifth, set him two more. The Eleventh Labour was to fetch fruit from the golden apple-tree, Mother Earth’s wedding gift to Hera, with which she had been so delighted that she planted it in her own divine garden. This garden lay on the slopes of Mount Atlas, where the panting chariot-horses of the Sun complete their journey, and where Atlas’s sheep and cattle, one thousand herds of each, wander over their undisputed pastures. When Hera found, one day, that Atlas’s daughters, the Hesperides, to whom she had entrusted the tree, were pilfering the apples, she set the ever-watchful dragon Ladon to coil around the tree as its guardian.

b. Some say that Ladon was the offspring of Typhon and Echidne; others, that he was the youngest-born of Ceto and Phorcys; others again, that he was a parthogenous son of Mother Earth. He had one hundred heads, and spoke with diverse tongues.

c. It is equally disputed whether the Hesperides lived on Mount Atlas in the Land of the Hyperboreans; or on Mount Atlas in Mauretania; or somewhere beyond the Ocean stream; or on two islands near the promontory called the Western Horn, which lies close to the Ethiopian Hesperiae, on the borders of Africa. Though the apples were Hera’s, Atlas took a gardener’s pride in them and, when Themis warned him: ‘One day long hence, Titan, your tree shall be stripped of its gold by a son of Zeus,’ Atlas, who had not then been punished with his terrible task of supporting the celestial globe upon his shoulders, built solid walls around the orchard, and expelled all strangers from his land; it may well have been he who set Ladon to guard the apples…

Graves goes on this way for several pages; his retelling of the Labours of Heracles expands zenoparadoxically into a series of digressions and clarifications and alternate visions that seems as if it may never end. But it does, and I was sorry that it did — Graves tries my patience but I love this stuff all the same. Paragraph b is typical: I can’t imagine a nonexpert caring one way or the other who exactly gave birth to a 100-headed polyglot dragon, and it matters not even a tiny bit to the flow of the story, but this is neither ‘proper’ scholarship nor pure narrative, and conventional satisfactions aren’t the point.

The function of paragraph b — assuming you think Graves has a point and isn’t simply mad — isn’t to slow the story but to broaden it: Typhon and Ceto don’t figure in this particular story, but by invoking them in this quasi-scholarly way like a Biblical scholar noting concordance between the synoptic gospels, Graves sets them to echoing in the background, as it were. Heracles’s labours matter to Graves and to the book’s metanarrative as part of a system of knowledge; on their own, as a series of well supplied violent rampages by a psychotic demigod, they’re Neat but not hardly Significant. But the mention of Typhon, with his arms 300 miles long and an ass’s head that touched the stars, deepens the colour of the story somewhat. Graves’s endnotes ground the stories in a (ridiculous) myth-history, and his cross-cutting invocations of a heavenly genealogy ultimately function as worldbuilding rather than, er, monomania and indiscipline.

If you think of stories as payloads for information, this strategy won’t make sense; there are better ways, for Christ’s sake, to establish the complexity of the Greek mythos than by dropping a steaming info-pile in the middle of the narrative pathway. But if you think of a story, like any work of art, as a machine for inducing psychotropism at a distance rather than a kind of inductive proof, then Graves’s approach has a certain imaginative logic. The mythos is a map whose territory is an entire long-dead culture’s collective imagination, and you don’t need instructions (‘plot’) to browse a map.

Which isn’t to say Graves’s individual retellings aren’t fun to read — I’ve been reading the Myths for months, a little at a time, and I’m enjoying them more now than ever — only that ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the point.

Non-Newtonian narrative

Sticking only to stories here for a second:

‘Visionary’ narrative maps an imagination — it attempts to render the encounter between a complex mind and a complex world without reducing either to the status of narrative components. Visionary art tends to be unconcerned or at least under-concerned with its own parseability. It doesn’t concede to convention, which at any rate is always a post hoc rationalization of an originating vision.

Conventionally satisfying linear (‘sane’) narrative does not directly map an imagination. It maps a kind of second-order reality: the narrative sequence you cocreate in your mind, Reader(s), is and must be orderly in a way reality never ever is, and the same goes for the author’s private story that the text bundles, encodes, and transmits. A story must be tellable to be told, duh, but the world isn’t. The world is the opposite of a story: it doesn’t presuppose sense and then work within it (unless of course you think the world is a story made by gods, in which case good luck with that), because the world doesn’t assume or presuppose anything. Before everything, being is. Telling comes after, because everything that dreams is needy.

My point here is that when I talk about ‘visionary’ art (which I do a hell of a lot, I know, and not only in the context of ahem psychedelic improvised rock), I mean art that doesn’t presuppose an orderly knowable ‘tellable’ world — nor a tellable mind. I’d say Graves’s own mad autodidactic myth-history falls into this category, though his close contemporary Tolkien’s mostly doesn’t: Tolkien’s legendarium is supremely orderly, which geeks like, and his brilliant long novel, though a work of actual genius, is satisfying in (among others) the totally conventional sense of putting its heroes through escalating heck and restoring them to something like sense on the other side, wrapped up in a bow. As GRR Martin points out, Aragorn is a good ruler because he’s the titular returned king, and for no other reason, really; he represents a neat’n’tidy idea, and he never attains the particularly complexities of a human being because he never actually has to rule. Frodo and Sam, meanwhile, are more richly imagined figures, their humanity tested rather than their fitness for the role of ‘plucky heroes.’ They’re the ones who grow in the telling.

I’d say that Tolkien attains a dreamlike ‘visionary’ power at points in Lord of the Rings — Shelob’s lair, Moria, Minas Morgul, the doom of the Rohirrim — but his storyworld always snaps back into place afterward. Middle-Earth isn’t elastic like Graves’s ‘encoded patriarchal overthrow of authentic Triple-Goddess worship’ frame; part of the ‘adventurous expectancy’ (HPL’s term) in Graves’s Myths comes from the feeling that he might, on page 600, just start gibbering about Celtic paganism and never stop. The basic imaginative content is the opposite of definitive, not least since you (I) have no idea which of his goddamn endnotes (which take up at least half the book) he’s just made up whole cloth. Whereas Middle-Earth is or at any rate can be written down somewhere, safe and sound. (This is no deprecation of Tolkien or his creation.)

All of which is why I don’t fault Graves’s dryly synoptic presentation. He’s not trying to tell a series of little stories, he’s trying to accurately render his felt sense of the deeply weird complexity of the whole sort of general mythos-mishmash. It is boring at times because worlds are. It contradicts itself at times because worlds do. It makes no sense because the world doesn’t, can’t, because the world isn’t made to make sense. It isn’t made. This is the great virtue of what we might call a ‘mythic outlook’: it pushes us toward an acceptance of the world of the mind (and the world itself) as it is. It is a posture of eager receptivity.

Visions come to prepared spirits. (Kekulé)

Update (21 May 2017)

Coda: The final piece of Graves’s project is a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Despite his odd dismissal of the latter (‘the first Greek novel,’ a lower form than myth of course), throughout the Myths Graves has given himself freer rein when nothing was at stake, mythographically speaking. And his dry presentation of the myths, which for a long stretch prior to the labours of Hercules had gotten a little boring, crackles to life whenever the focus of the stories shifts from the divine to the (comparatively) human. The Odyssey is suffused with melancholy anyhow, but Graves treats it as the coda to a vast cosmology, the birth of the modern in a sense — ‘Well, I’m back’ and ‘Goodbye to all that’ — and that framing only intensifies the source texts’ deflationary effects. By linking Homer’s poems to various Mediterranean myths of city-founding, and devoting so many pages to partings and dissipations, Graves undercuts Homer’s narrative arc but finds a deeper, sadder story: the end of the Trojan War seems to take as long as the war itself, and Odysseus’s reclaiming of his throne barely registers as climax before he’s banishing his son to avoid prophesied death (which comes from the sea anyway, ironically in the form of one of his illegitimate half-divine children).

The Homeric material concretizes the Myths, makes them finally into a book rather than a grab-bag of Frazerian fixations.

Plus Graves has one more goofy surprise waiting in his penultimate notes section: Homer was Nausicaa, whatever the hell that could possibly mean.

John Le Carré, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY.

The third Le Carré I’ve read and the most impressive, the most ambitious. I look forward to finishing the ‘Karla trilogy’ soon — though not right away, and not only because I’m reading Blood Meridian and Graves’s Greek myths…

Schoolboy‘s not quite as warmhearted as Tinker, Tailor for several reasons, not least the change of primary venue from beloved England to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, centering on Hong Kong. Le Carré deftly handles the intricate politics of his setting, letting the American humiliation in Saigon serve as backdrop to a more complex and far-reaching story of ’round-eyes’ integrating into a society which (for all its strangeness) is as wearily, complexly human as Le Carré’s Europe. But for all its effortless evocation of time and place, and Le Carré’s usual eerily precise characterization, Schoolboy‘s plot is a touch more diffuse than Tinker‘s. It breathes, its rhythms make sense in retrospect, but it’s a damned long and complicated book — and Le Carré’s deftly employed narratorial touches (proleptic insertions and retrospective commentary, unexpected almost gossipy asides) pull focus, somewhat, from the ‘Russian gold seam’ premise to enact a kind of ‘literary’ meta-level mystefaction: Schoolboy‘s narration suggests not only that it may end with a surprise but that the kind of ending it will deliver will come as a surprise.

In other words, you always get the rug pulled out from under you with the master’s books — deception as such is a deep thematic interest of Le Carré’s — but Schoolboy goes further than the previous ‘Karla’ novel in unsettling the reader, upsetting not just the world-frame but the narrative frame. Of the three I’ve read so far, it’s the first Le Carré novel I’d identify as making a consciously ‘modernist’ commitment, engaging in the kind of epistemological games which litcrit types enjoy in lieu of actual fun.

Which isn’t to say Schoolboy isn’t conventionally satisfying! It’s a grandly cynical romance, an Englishmen-abroad potboiler, a great ‘jungle novel’ — the long setpiece in which Westerby and his charming young driver cross into Thailand is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting piece of adventure writing, reminding me so strongly of Norman Rush’s canonical Mortals that I wondered whether the latter novel was intended partly as an homage — and it ends not only with an extended bang-up climax but with a perfectly judged coda in which the ashes of concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are scattered unceremoniously in the Thames.

It’s just that Le Carré seems to be trying here for a level beyond what his previous ‘spy novels’ had attained. Tinker, Tailor is about (among other things) the madly, ruinously circular clash of two declining empires, but plotwise focuses tightly on the Circus, its gorgeous boys’-school interludes working thematically off to the side a bit; Schoolboy attains both greater intimacy with its fully human protagonist Jerry Westerby and painfully harrowing distance, Greek-tragedy distance you might say, by carefully rendering what feels like a vast civilizational unraveling all around him. Awe-inspiring wide shots of a world at its end…and then inescapable, claustrophobic closeups. And again. And again.

I didn’t love Westerby’s story as I loved Tinker, Tailor — honestly I wanted to spend more time with Smiley, because I’m a sap, and Westerby’s great Error is the one element of the novel I had trouble subscribing to, and there are a lot of hateful bastards harrying the Better Guys in this story. But while the previous novel inspired admiration and love, Schoolboy inspires awe. Days after finishing, I can’t believe what I’ve just read.

Girl note

Well, there’s one other shortcoming to talk about. The three Le Carré novels I’ve read have spent little time on the inner lives of women, and not one that I can recall has passed the ‘Bechdel Test.’ Yes, he writes about a largely male world; yes, he peppers these stories with interesting female characters with serious expertise and complex private views facing grave moral choices. Yes, he was a ‘man of his time.’ And Lizzie Worthington, the great test of our schoolboy’s honour, is a self-created protagonist of her own story, wearily trading on sex and perceived shallowness to make her way. She’s an Interesting Female Character. But her viewpoint doesn’t enter into the book’s narrative calculus — the book’s ‘third act’ would be something very different if Worthington’s view of Westerby and the Circus were made explicit, but for Le Carré it’s enough for us to watch her watch the plot.

That didn’t strike me as any sort of great problem while reading — Westerby’s emotions are laid bare throughout the book, and any vividly rendered inner life is a gift; plus the book is brilliant (did I mention?) — but the pattern’s there, and it matters. Only in our idiot century could it be said to matter more than the stories themselves, and to me it doesn’t. But a true account of this extraordinary book, and its extraordinary author, demands honesty on this score.

One-line reviews/summaries.

Literary Theory (Terry Eagleton)

The whole history of literary theory has led inexorably to the literary theory of Terry Eagleton. –Terry Eagleton, convincingly

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter Thompson)

Mustn’t slow down or the Seventies will catch you.

Seinfeld (Larry David et al.)

Apparently in the 80s and 90s everyone was inexplicably wealthy and Jewish and everyone was terrible, and the reason your idiot friends hate the final episode isn’t so much that it isn’t funny as that it was the first moment when David et al. refused to cut away from the severed heads and gouts of blood.

Logan (James Mangold et al.)

A perfectly fine latter-day Western is accidentally marketed as a superhero film; hijinks ensue.

Deadpool

Only in our era of absolute myopic cowardice could this intermittently funny movie for scared 20something boys be called ‘risky’ or ‘adult.’

Sidenote re: Deadpool

The joke about International Women’s Day (pegging) was, in my mind, the moment it went from ‘forgettable’ to ‘contemptible’; YMMV.

Pilgrim’s halting progress.

One manifestation of my catastrophic indisicipline is the fact that I’ve always got like ten or twenty half-finished books in progress. Some samples from the fiction shelf:

Blood Meridian. A fantasy apocalypse starring a doomed boy and the Devil. The description of the judge as ‘clever’ raised the hairs on the back of my neck — strong Riddley Walker flashback, ‘Mr Clevver’ yes yes — and the embedded narrative of the massacre in the volcanic crater is horrifying despite containing almost no actual violence. I say ‘fantasy’ in the familiar sense: this is a Dying Earth story about black magic, and a sharper critic than me could make hay by reading McCarthy’s vision against Stephen King’s (anti)parallel apocalypse The Stand, with Flagg standing for Holden. I’m reading a couple of chapters a night, because a boring logistical matter keeps me from falling asleep with…

The Honourable Schoolboy. Le Carré’s sequel to Tinker Tailor represents a big leap in ambition for him over his early work; he plays games with narrative time and voice which give the book an unexpected intimacy, as if he were letting me in on the story’s own private thoughts. Le Carré’s rendering of George Smiley refers repeatedly to Smiley’s ‘myth,’ which (paradoxically) further humanizes him: in Tinker Tailor he achieved wonders beyond any expectation of him, while in Schoolboy he’s measured against his own idea, and at times found wanting. And the occasional narratorial leaps forward heighten this effect by pointing out Smiley’s misjudgments and weaknesses, so that an otherwise inexorable march toward heroic confrontation (I bet the ‘good guys’ win) is coloured with thoroughly modern ambivalence. A little more than halfway through, I can feel the noose beginning to tighten — I now fear for Westerby’s safety, and should have done from the beginning — and I’d be falling asleep reading it if it weren’t an ebook on our old iPad Mini, which interferes with my sleep even with nighttime colours. Hellfire!

Robert Graves’s Greek Myths. Graves was mad, let’s say that right out; my teacher Professor Thorburn warned me not to take his monomaniacal speculations too much to heart, and I’ve read enough of The White Goddess to see his weirdnesses coming. But this long collection (I’m halfway through after months of nighttime sampling) is ace, the resolutely deflationary footnotes no less than the at times misshapen renderings of the myths themselves. Graves’s laconic synoptic insertions (‘others say it was not Athene who slaughtered the oxen but an eagle sent by Zeus; or it was Poseidon who raped the entire family to win a wager with’ some other mad god, etc.) underscore the alienness of the myths, their oddly unstorylike quality of reflecting a foreign (group-)consciousness without any effort at communicability, translation. They were never meant to be read, certainly not at spatial or temporal distance, and Graves barely treats them as stories in his footnotes — for him they’re historical evidence to be interpreted by a kind of literary forensics, and you’d never know from the text whether he thought them exciting or bewildering or beautiful. That lack of apology, of any framing that might ease the imaginative abrasion, is wonderfully alienating. Graves is the High Weirdness uncut and unfiltered, baby — and reading him before and after Tolkien is, of course, perfect.

Wizard and Glass. I got through the insufferable train-riddles portion of this Stephen King novel, the fourth volume in his Dark Tower series, only by a herculean effort of will; now we head deep into story-within-a-story mode, to hear about Roland’s first love and such, but my problem with the Dark Tower books — rapidly diminishing returns — kicked in roughly 1.5 books ago, and has not gone away. The Gunslinger is superb, Drawing of the Three is very good on very different terms, and in a world where Viriconium exists, I’m just not convinced I need this series as much as I once did. Still, I’m intrigued by post-accident King’s turn toward metafiction (a term he detests) and self-conscious continuity, and am curious about the last three volumes. At any rate, King’s books fly by; I’ll finish this one in a few months.

Illuminatus! I started over last year, got most of the way through the first volume, and stalled out. Yes to libertinism, yes to groovy occult psychedelia, but Wilson and Shea just weren’t great writers, no way around it. And at this point I’ve been exposed to so much of this kind of nonsense that the ‘guerrilla epistemology’ schtick doesn’t have the impact it had when I fell for this series in high school — for one thing I’ve finally read a couple volumes of the ‘Montauk mythos,’ a less artful or funny or cynical (and much less benign) specimen of breathless dot-connecting eliptonic horseshit. Oh! and Thomas Pynchon himself, who’s better at everything involving the written word than RAW or Shea. Better, come to think of it, than almost everyone who writes in English, and if there’s a reason not to read Illuminatus! it’s the fact that Gravity’s Rainbow is there on the shelf, waiting for a reread of its own…

Two Le Carré novels.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Perhaps the bleakest book I’ve ever read — suave, cool, fiercely moral, furiously angry. Extraordinary. The present-time narration includes surprisingly few events; most of the plot unfolds as backstory, in shadow, or just offscreen. I’ve never had a reading experience quite like this: for the entire middle stretch of the book, every few pages, I had to reorient my reading, as Leamas’s goal (and Control’s scheme) seemed to shift completely. Le Carré’s command of his material is, to put it simply, complete. I feel as if I’ve hardly drawn a breath for the three or four hours I spent reading the book. Now it’s done and I need to read Tinker Tailor. Why did I wait so long to explore these books?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Relates to The Spy Who Came In… the way, say, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit relates to Code of the Woosters: warm and celebratory where the earlier, younger books are coolly calculated; driven by less obvious or less obviously aggressive purpose; at times sentimental; the voice thoroughly lived in, at times seemingly ‘accidental’ where the earlier novel had been a kind of showpiece. Less likely to be called a ‘masterpiece,’ but much more likely to give joy to actual human beings.

Like Feudal Spirit, this book glows where the reputation-making early work glitters.

George Smiley, who appears briefly in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, is the hero and the heart of Tinker, Tailor — an older man, unjustly forced out of his job at the Circus, cuckolded, rumpled, humiliated, put upon…and piercingly intelligent and serious. A very good spy and, despite talk of his ‘vanities,’ a good man. Smiley is one of several portraits which Le Carré draws with an affection and warmth totally absent from The Spy Who Came In… And where the breakthrough early work is a perfectly formed standalone piece of something like political theater (its settings somewhat abstract, especially in its final act), Tinker, Tailor is very much a serial novel: one chapter of an ongoing story set in a living world. Moreover, Smiley is a sympathetic serial protagonist where Alec Leamas is a bit of an unlucky bastard.

Smiley is a great character. So are the members of the inner ring of the Circus. And Control — fully alive as a force within the novel though he’s dead from page one! — and of course Jim Prideaux, the wounded spy-turned-schoolteacher whose full story is one of the book’s deep secrets. All of them are invested with what we might call excess imaginative energy. They’re all living beings. Even the traitor.

But the greatest thing about the book, I think, is the story of little Jim Roach, richest boy at Thursgood’s school. The first and last chapters belong to Roach and Prideaux, and the opening in particular is a perfectly observed short story about a kid catching glimpses of a dark grownup world. Le Carré’s telling of Roach’s story is heartbreaking; I knew from the earlier book that he was a gifted novelist, but I had no idea he was this good in this way. If he hadn’t written spy stories, would his talents have been recognized earlier? Or not at all?

The story of Alec Leamas is ‘greater,’ by what we call ‘literary’ standards. It’s pure and cruel and ends in darkness, characteristics literary critics appreciate because they make critics’ lives easy. But I think Tinker, Tailor is the better novel, the richer world. I think it’s sad and absolutely beautiful.

Summary note

I share both of these responses — written just after finishing each book — to make two points:

  1. I still think of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold as a perfect novel. But I find, as I get a bit older, that ‘perfect’ art affects me intensely in its moment but doesn’t tend to stay with me in the same way as art whose imperfections come from imaginative excess. Philip K Dick’s books, for instance — as ‘science fiction’ many of them are incoherent messes, yet when granted autonomy from SF’s dead boring genre norms they’re among the most potent imaginative works of the 20th century. The Crying of Lot 49 is a perfect little book, but Gravity’s Rainbow is a city, a universe. Litcrit types fetishize writerly ‘control’ (an MFA-program euphemism for tribal conformity to the prevailing style at MFA programs), but no one else cares about it; human beings want transport and transformation. We want rapture. Which is why stoners and musicologists get breathless about In C but everyone else who wants minimalism cranks up Remain in Light.
  2. My initial impressions quickly become unrecognizable to me, but they remain valuable, and it’s good to preserve them. It’s a small measure of accountability.