The narrator of this Jonathan Lethem novel, an orphan afflicted with Tourette’s, is handpicked along with a few school comrades for exploitation as black market stooges. The opportunity frees them to work on street education degrees where coursework involves the detective mystery that is coming of age. I had briefly confused Jonathan Lethem with Jonathan Franzen, both peers of David Foster Wallace, Franzen a close friend and Lethem Wallace’s successor teaching creative writing at Pomona College. A used copy of “Motherless Brooklyn” had been gifted to me a few years back but it found a place on a shelf unread, and when I recently pulled it out to take a look, I wondered where I’d picked it up, thinking it was probably from the free library book box down on the corner, but opening it read the thank you gift note handwritten to me. Sometimes writers or books find their way to readers unready or caught off guard. We often think we know what we want to read, what will be good, what will be good for us; we just as often don’t. “Motherless Brooklyn” is about words put into action, plot as call and response, setting as streets and commerce, alive with verisimilitude easily mistaken for fantasy given its enjoyment.
Part human, part deity, these working gods are restless. What happens when one wants out? Episodes of a god on the run, “Inventories” is now available in paperback book format. “Inventories” first appeared here, at The Coming of the Toads, near daily installments over several months in 2020, a quarantine exercise. The text was revised for this book publication first edition.
ASIN : B08VM82YRK
Publisher : Independently published (February 2, 2021)
Language : English
Paperback : 190 pages
ISBN-13 : 979-8702891125
Item Weight : 9.4 ounces
Dimensions : 5 x 0.48 x 8 inches
Skid out. Conversation with a cop. At home with Sylvie. Lightning balls over the Sound.
A hard rain falling, still blocks from Val’s Club, through the red light at the Seneca exit coming off the freeway, spin out of control and slide into a flooded work zone, taking out an orange CAUTION sign, and the engine dead, and I push to the nearest curb out of the water, not quite clearing the lane, hog’s tail sticking out. I try to kick the engine over a couple of times before surrendering to the waterlogged fact. I reach into the saddle bag for my briefcase, thinking I can run the rest of the way to Val’s Club, and wake up to a blue and red light show and a uniform walking toward me. License and registration, please. The young fuzz looked to be under twenty-one. More fate. A ’56 Buick 6 full of sailors speeds past. Fuzzball gives them a glance but doesn’t seem interested, repeats, license and registration, please. Very polite, very determined. The fuzz is super starched, but getting wet. And there’s now a backup examining my bent license plate. What seems to be the problem, officer? I mean, I’m sort of in a hurry here. Very late for a very important meeting with some very influential people, if you know what I mean. License and registration, please. But what’s happened is, the city needs to clean the crap out of its storm drains. What’s happened is, I’ve asked you for your license and registration. Yes, sir, I say, deciding a little compliance might soften the starch. You Charles Murphy? Yes, sir, though as unsure as ever, but decide not to get into that with him at this point, my collection of identifications. Tie Your Own Trailer Park, Mt. Si Road. Is that your current address? Yes, I say, thinking, one of too many. You know, Mr. Murphy, here in Seattle, we like to think of stopping at red lights as the law, and not merely a suggestion. Ray is a veteran Seattle PD detective. We were in the Army together, buddies in Vietnam. Sounds cliché, but true story, so I’m using it to get out of a jam. I was a clerk typist. Ray was a grunt promoted to sergeant, result of his optimistic volunteerism, otherwise known as MF crazy. But he credits me with saving his life out on a walk for a late evening smoke one night. I suspected Ray of being a god even then, before I knew much about the gods, just the stories Mom raised me on. Ray saved my life one too many times. He kept throwing me in and pulling me back out. Slowly over the ensuing years I began to realize that the gods make mistakes. A clerk typist just doesn’t see that much action, get into that many fire fights. Anyway, Ray’s out in the rain tailing the fuzz newbie in a training exercise, and while he doesn’t save my life this time, I am let go, as the saying goes, with a warning. Back home on the upper balcony with Sylvie and a bottle of Pinot Noir chasing one of Pinot Grigio and we’re playing a game of whiffle ball with lightning balls made on Sylvie’s magic cop spindle trying to hit the islands in the Sound. The rain falls and falls as thick as the Anything Goes chowder Sylvie whipped up for a simple evening of sitting out and bouncing lightning balls skipping like rocks across the Sound.
Late for a meeting. "extreme and unusual risk." "hacked and...gobsmacked"
I was late for my meeting with Walter. I had some explaining to do, but I wasn’t in the mood for working together as a team in the spirit of cooperation toward common goals for the mutual benefit of all. Nor did I feel like throwing any bums a dime. I was their in house Risk Manager. Walter was itself a Risk Management Brokerage, specializing in extreme and unusual risk. Sometimes avoidance was the best answer. I rode down Pine to First and over to Pike to the Market and looked for a place to pull the Harley over and park. Cleo nodded I could squeeze into the space in front of his international news stall. The rain had stopped, the clouds still low and grey and blue and hanging bushed like wads of cotton candy over the diamond. Out on the water a ferry would be approaching, carrying Walter from his The Breakers West on Bainbridge Island. I was late with my quarterly report. We’d been hacked and I was still too gobsmacked to explain it. Walter would want to know who, when, what, where, why, and how. “Damned if I know,” was not the answer he’d want to hear from his six digit plus bonus contracted Risk Manager.
“Hacked and Gobsmacked”
is episode 2 of
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads
Riding Harley in the rain in Seattle. Ball lightning. The gods.
I throttled my green gnarly Harley across I-90 from Bellevue, wind chopped waves blowing over the wall on the south side of the bridge, the water as smooth as a coffin lid on the north side. I raddled through the last tunnel and merged onto I-5 north to downtown Seattle. A glob of ball lightning looped out of a smoke ring cloud hanging over the ballpark. The ball lightning bounced across the closed roof. The baseball stadium looked funereal. No game tonight. The winter circus was in town. On nights like this the gods might get bored and when the gods get bored no amount of prayer satisfies these clouds of gluttony, the local paradise filling like a wet basement. Why so many gods, I don’t know. Even the Catholics (and I am one, though maybe not a good one, whatever good means, but as Reverend Mother Mary Annette never tired of telling us, once a Catholic, always a Catholic), who profess belief in but one God, pray to the Saints and Mary and the rest, who seem to function much like the old Greek and Roman gods, one for every need or desire, one for every occasion, one for every problem, one for every predicament. A god for this, a god for that. A god for the nice, a god for the mean. Finely balanced too, the old gods, but like an unequal arm balance, some more powerful than others, leaving it to the mortals to try to balance things out. Still, evens up: one for light, one for dark; one for water, one for air; one for love, one for hate. Always meddling in human affairs, though, these immortals. Sure seem to get in the way all too often. Always wanting something, too, a piece of the human pie chart, insatiable. Why do we keep calling out to them? Was there a Saint of scooters? Could use a prayer to him now. Dear Saint Scooter, please get me and my Vespa downtown safely, as an 18 wheeler passes at twice my speed, his mud flap cowgirls waving and laughing. God of lead, god of gold. God of the meek, and god of the bold. God of yes, and god of no. God of hot, god of cold. God of bought, and god of sold. God of gods, who never grows old, oldest of all.
“The gods Get Bored”
is episode 1 of
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads
In spite of embedded Shakespeare and sundry 19th Century potential footnotes, Caleb Crain’s new novel, “Overthrow” (Viking, August, 2019), may remind readers more of the William Powell and Myrna Loy films that made noir comedies out of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” than to Henry James (who, it might be argued, made drama out of living room comedy). The plot of “Overthrow” might also be said to parody the best of legal action writer John Grisham. Nick Hornby comes to mind, too, his “A Long Way Down.”
“Overthrow” is a protean novel. Ingredients of farce, satire and irony inform contemporary ideas of group-think, economics, media, conspiracy theory, identity and relationships, existential earworms. “The media” performs the role of Keystone Cops, as do the real cops, chasing the story controlled by puppeteers, whose rods and strings get crossed.
As essay, “Overthrow” might be subtitled: “Where we live and what we live for.” And when. The slow, slow art of the novel. Who remembers the Occupy Movement, which may now be recalled as more of a campout than a revolution? If (to) Occupy is the protagonist, who or what is the antagonist? But first, what does Occupy want? To seize? To have sex with?
Is overthrow of governance periodically necessary to maintain a balance of human nature? Has human nature improved over time, or are we no better than any of our ancestors? Or, indeed, were our ancestors better off than us: non-specialized, at one with nature, unpolluted, non-alphabetic. Did our ancestors, as we do, have a picture of themselves? If not, when were these pictures invented? Were the pictures they had of themselves the same pictures others had of them? Overthrow and revolution of the I, the me, subject and object.
Not what does revolution mean, but what does it mean to make revolution? Certainly not to write a novel. But, yes, that, too, as it turns out, particularly a novel about building relationships. Is human nature capable of democracy? Can we “rule ourselves”? The question is important to Michael Hardt in Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers,” which predates Zuccotti Park Occupy by a few years. And while many thought and still do that the Occupy Movement was a failure, its aims unclear, its results a discredit to the possibility of change, using Hardt’s thinking, it achieved a great step on the road to democracy: Occupy created relationships, corresponded directly to participant lives, illustrated (arguably) collective self-rule, or, at least, to go back and use Hardt’s words, it might have created “the terrain on which the training in democracy can happen – the training and the collective ability to produce social relationships” (149, The New Press, 2009).
And producing social relationships is what “Overthrow” is about, in its most serious reading, the goofy stuff aside. Why write a book no one will read? A poem no one will ever see? A song no one will ever hear? Similarly, why a pick-up? Why a one night stand, as if a relationship requires no more investment than a moment in a head, an hour or two on a couch, or a night in bed but easily forgotten? We aren’t in “City of Night.”
Crain’s sentences come alive, twisted and contorted as we find tree and bush limbs in nature, beautiful. Cultivated, maybe, by some unseen hands, and, at times, readers might think, they are overthrown. You can’t take a comb to them. But we don’t get quite as much of that as we did in “Necessary Errors” (Penguin, 2013). Maybe because “Overthrow” has more dialog. Still, consider this artwork, and note the consistent style that isn’t so much rococo decorative but the way the world actually passes by, in and out of the senses, projection and reflection. The description and detail of observation suggest total control, and objective correlative emotions appear and disappear, as nostalgic fits can sometimes be brought on by certain odors or sounds, but which can only appear at random and not be called up by will, only by suggestion, asides of a sort:
From “Necessary Errors”:
They passed into the black water of the shade of the bridge. Out of the corner of either eye, Jacob watched the gray, triangular battlements slide up from behind and widen, approaching them on either side, in embrace. Then the bridge itself crossed overhead with its water-blackened stones. While it covered them, hands seemed cupped over their ears; all they could hear was the water’s eager lapping against the heavy walls beside them.
“Are you fair to him?” Annie asked.
The black stones lifted off, and the air was free and empty again around them. “It’s not like that.” He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed (391).
After looking down, Matthew by reflex looked up, into the beautiful double rigging of the old bridge, which was unusual in that it was both a cable-stayed and a suspension bridge, doubly supported because its builders had meant for it to stand for all time. Cables that spread at an angle crossed cables that fell straight down, interlacing like fingers and creating diamonds that in their sequence of gradually varying dimension seemed to be unfolding as Leif and Matthew rode past them.
They crossed the water; they descended into downtown (55).
What is overthrown remains out of reach. One of the themes circling through “Overthrow” concerns a kind of deontological question of the value of certain activity or action, of writing for example, of writing a poem or a book. The answer seems to rest in giving way to what it is a person might be fit for:
This was something he could do, he told himself, as he kept dabbing. This was the sort of task he could safely spend his anger on. Even if he didn’t save the plant and even if the plant didn’t in fact need saving (298).
Substitute planet for plant in that paragraph. Matthew is looking for a way out of his cynicism:
He had written a note about Samuel Daniel, he remembered. But what if he was interested in Daniel and touched by Daniel’s devotion to his vocation only because he himself, in choosing to write literary criticism, was making a mistake like Daniel’s – giving his life to a kind of writing that was about to pass out of the world? To a modern equivalent of Daniel’s poeticized, aestheticized history?
He picked up the forked paper, to read over the note, but the handwriting wasn’t his.
“You can read it,” Lief said, appearing at the door.
“I thought it was mine.”
“It’s the devil,” Leif said. “It’s one of his voices.”
“I don’t need to read it” (219).
What can be worse for a writer than to presume his writing won’t be read? The “Overthrow” working group, which Matthew joins but only peripherally, his object being Leif, and not revolution, is apparently under surveillance, yet the authorities miss that the group has maintained a blog. So much for blogging. Crain’s theme of what has meaning, purpose, and value against what is given exposure, watched, and chosen touches on every aspect of the characters’ lives:
“She wondered if he would give permission. She wondered if he was still willing to fight, regardless of whether he still believed. The new order had revealed to them that poems didn’t have to be published in order to have meaning as poems, but apparently the same order was also going to require the publication of all the prose of one’s life” (377).
In Stalin’s Russia, one had only to think a certain thing to be accused and convicted of a crime. But how did they know what one was thinking?
Hardback copies with dust covers occupy the bookshelves of the conservative library. Conservative in lots of ways, but here in the sense that writers and readers want their books to retain their value, even increase in value over time. We want that piece of capitalistic system to succeed, and to ensure our own success. The economics of the body, the body of the book, its spine, sewn, its jacket, shield against the elements, nomenclature (either or fallacy of identity – “Then he began to curse and swear, saying, ‘I do not know the Man!’”). Is the hardback economically efficient? Books as collectibles. What does a book become without its dust cover? Its value diminishes significantly as a collectible. Aren’t paperbacks “cooler”? Is the hardback a middle class writer’s heyday? “Occupy” is a novel: this is not a book review. If we are going to spend $27.00 for a hardback book with a cool dust cover, shouldn’t we at least expect not to trip over any typos?
But if we think books expensive, consider the cost of obtaining legal help:
“I know your parents are already being so generous.”
“How much was it?”
“About twenty-eight hundred dollars.”
For a couple of days’ work. The side of town where Matthew’s parents lived was built on a hill, up which he and Fosco were gradually proceeding, a long, slow hill that, as was always explained to new arrivals in town, served as an objective correlative of the relative financial net worth of the households along it. Blocks ahead, at the top, were mansions with a view of the distant city. Matthew’s parents lived more than halfway down, where the houses were still faced with brick and perfectly respectable but not grand (209).
In other words, middle class, but “more than halfway down,” so maybe lower middle class. In any case, we are talking about a generation of a country’s youth who will not live even that high up the hill, except maybe as they are now, living in the garage or the basement, trying to pay off their student loans on the income of a barista, a fact checker, a literary critic:
“Let me talk to my parents,” Mathew said. “Thank you for telling me.”
Was he going to ruin them?
Mathew has already explained “reversion”:
“There’s an old legal term, ‘reversion,’” Mathew began. “You possess something in reversion if another person has the use of it now but you’ll get it after they die. Someone from another branch of your family may be living in a manor, say, and it will be yours if you manage to outlive them. Sometimes Shakespeare uses the word metaphorically, to mean anything in your future, anything you’re looking forward to, but legally, technically, it’s something you might not live long enough to put your hands on. My thesis is that in the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the individual is no longer thinking of himself as the subject of a king but as someone who himself has a kingship in reversion” (43).
In other words, as Harold Bloom put it, the “invention of the human,” the creation of the I. Who will pay for that me? The King, in reversion, overthrown:
Mathew demurred. “Representative democracy works a little differently….”
“People don’t really want to be king anymore,” said Raleigh. “There aren’t even any lunatics in the asylums who want to be Napoleon anymore.”
“Maybe they want to be reversionary one-percenters,” suggested Elspeth.
“One percenters are too boring,” Raleigh objected.
“They have no charismatic virtues,” said Mathew.
“They have no charismatic vices,” Raleigh corrected him. “They would be charming if they would only let us see them being greedy and trivial.”
“I wouldn’t find them charming,” Elspeth said.
“Yes you would,” Raleigh insisted. “They’d be like the millionaires in screwball comedies” (44).
One thing Raleigh might have wrong in the conversation from “Overthrow” quoted above is the “lunatics in the asylums,” since asylums, like newspapers, have mostly disappeared, beginning with Reagan in California.
“I think another reason the notion of revolution has been discredited is its association with misery, as if revolution would involve giving up all of the pleasures that everyone enjoys” (Hardt, 153).
But the asylum is now the streets. And Hardt and Taylor, in “Examined Life,” are rowing in a boat on Central Park Lake:
“It’s such an idyllic and seemingly anti- or even counterrevolutionary location, one associated with old wealth and the stability of power, the leisure activities of the rich. Maybe, in a strange way, it will help us work through some of these issues like who can think revolution, who wants revolution, where we can think revolution, and who would benefit. Maybe this seemingly strange location can help us cast away what seem to me destructive limitations on how we think about this” (Hardt, 153).
If we think about it at all. And if we do, if we choose to read or maybe even to write about it, kings of our spirals, our unpublished napkins, our unread blogs. And then, frosting on the cake we’ve been let eat and chocolate in the latte we’ve been let drink, to talk to someone about it.
I reviewed British poet Scott Manley Hadley’s debut poetry collection, “Bad Boy Poet,” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. The book, just out this week, is available from the publisher (Open Pen) and at Amazon (paperback and Kindle editions). Read my review here.
My novel “Alma Lolloon” is now available in Kindle electronic edition format. You can download a copy for $2.99 here (free if you have Kindle Unlimited).
Julian Gallo’s “The Penguin and The Bird” (2018, New Horizons Editions) is an impressionistic work. It functions as a graphic novel, but one without the drawings. There are 72 short chapters spread across 122 pages of text. The chapters are organized into four parts: “Her Mother’s Violin Early Autumn, 1979,” which concludes with Chapter 13, subtitled “New York City, Ten Years Later”; the second part is titled “Diamond Street, Brooklyn New York Mid Spring 1989”; the third part is titled “Under Black Light Late Spring-Late Winter, 1990″; and the fourth and final part is titled “The Penguin and The Bird Early Spring, 1991.” These named parts allow for a traditional structure to an otherwise experimental form. Narration shifts from third person omniscient to a second person who seems to be talking both to himself and to someone else, and taken together sometimes seem to merge briefly into a third person plural. Each short chapter functions as a kind of graphic novel thought balloon, but again, without the mechanical drawing. Other characteristics of traditional genres are employed, including plot and character development, the protagonist a dynamic character who changes significantly from beginning to end, and there are traces of noir and mystery genres, Bildungsroman, minimalism, and a kind of anti-writing, a writing that both discovers and develops itself in an improvisational jazz style while at the same time destroying the very expectations it creates, and in that sense the writing is realistic. But the impressions created while reading last, and the novel must be read from an appropriate distance: too close, and the strokes won’t properly merge to create the impressions; too distant, and a reader’s preconceived ideas of what a novel should be will interfere.
The chapters in part one transition in turns from the protagonist, at the time a 13 year old boy trying to write and draw comics, to the antagonist, a Polish immigrant we will come to know as Nadja. They are sixteen years apart in age. They don’t know one another, but they will meet. The narration withholds information; or, rather, the information necessary to follow the plot unfolds to the reader as it does to the protagonist. The opening juxtaposition of the boy’s and Nadja’s situations, their predicaments, reflect the theme we will later see resolved in the last part of the novel, in Chapter 67, where Nadja tells the story about the penguin and the bird, which offers up a traditional meaning for readers who might be in need, while adding another layer to the form’s structure.
Other techniques creating symmetry are employed, and the novel takes on a sophisticated, well-structured form. The language follows the form, beginning with the short, staccato-like sentences of the boy in the beginning, followed by the visceral, sour, and surreal hallucinations of the boy’s, now 23 years old, unrequited, unparalleled, and phantasmagorical fantasies of love and sex in the “Black Light” section. Nadja may be seen as moody, but the temperament of the young man, irrational and even non-rational, his complaints, editorial asides, and tortuous though short monologues, become increasingly angry, fearful, bitter, cynical. At times, the reader may feel like the episodes are being written from Desolation Row. But the writing appears to reflect the costs or risks involved for these characters. These middle chapters are written in a kind of diarist form, self-castigating, accusing, questioning, exploring, wanting, rejecting. This is not a superficial book; its aim is discovery and honesty.
The novel ends in Flushing, New York, the style of the writing returning from the Poe-like intensity of some of the middle chapters to a settling and sober epiphany that is calm and even tender in its resolution, language, and tone. Certain scenes from other parts of the novel are repeated, but with more information now at the disposal of the reader (and protagonist).
The novel’s atmosphere is noir and nouvelle vague. There is a romantic ending, but not of the Hollywood type. While the controlling theme throughout might be love, the love theme also contains naiveté awoken and the coming of age discoveries that dispel fantasy, or at least mixes it with frustration. We see a love turn to rage as love’s perfection is seen as unattainable, unrequited, even viewed as abuse. Metaphor is used throughout to create these impressions. Because of the aphoristic style of the many short chapters, the reader begins to realize the creation of an overall rhetorical device, where one is reminded of details that did not seem all that detailed to begin with. This is another technique that adds to the impressions. Included in the setting is the Poland background history of Nadja and Lena (a foil character if there ever was one). Repetition is another rhetorical device effectively used throughout the novel, in places both in terms of plot presentation and in sentence structure. The language always follows the feeling.
There is an air of intellectualism that blows lightly over parts of the novel, exhibited by often obscure literary and popular references, and the primary characters are made interesting in part by their intellectual pursuits of, or involvement in, culture, but they are not academic intellectuals, which makes them even more interesting. They may not be even necessarily accurate in every reference, but their predicaments are alive with feeling and emotion, with comprehension coupled with lack of understanding that results in a realistic depiction of the human in love and in fear. That depiction also gives them a realistic bohemian character, an avant-garde spirit often it seems forced upon the immigrant. They have lived as well as read about their literary adventure. That life contains so much irony is another of the novel’s themes. There is also much that is witty and sarcastic, sharp and soft, in the writing. Nadja’s meeting the parents after the tryst is an example of such a scene. Though they may all maintain their “little secrets,” it’s hard to keep private in a novel.
Julian Gallo is a prolific writer, but this is the first of his twelve novels I’ve read. I’ve read a few of his shorter pieces online. “The Penguin and The Bird” is a well-designed paperback, its format of short chapters natural and contemporary for today’s online habituated readers. The mix of literary and popular culture also seems a strategic choice for marketing a novel these days. There are references to The Kinks and to The Sundays. The many references to other writers will provide readers potential reading and listening lists, Vonnegut, for example, though when our hero meets Lena, he seems to have been a bit distracted from his Mr. Rosewater, or maybe I missed a gender bender jab there? In any case, the novel may be said to borrow its short chapter format from some Vonnegut examples, also its distancing, and there’s mention of Konwicki, and Cortazar, not to mention the French Sinatra, Aznavour.
I very much enjoyed reading Julian Gallo’s “The Penguin and The Bird.” Its range is wide, from what might be called the sentimental to the gritty and uncompromising.
For more on Julian Gallo, readers may refer to his website at www.juliangalloo66.blogspot.com
I was reading Jessica Sequeira’s debut novel, “A Furious Oyster” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), when the 30 August London Review of Books arrived in the day’s mail. A book review should reveal something unexpected, but to do that the book under consideration must be heard in a whisper.
I turned to the review of Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays; the LRB reviewer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, quotes from Zadie’s foreword:
“‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist … My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’”
Later in the review, we might recall that quote and think Zadie is telling us something more, but on the slant, that where she comes from, who she is, who her parents were, the various markings often used for identity, also don’t necessarily serve as “real qualifications”:
“‘Who am I to speak of this painting? I am a laywoman, a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert – not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted … I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art.’”
That ‘whisper’ is often precisely both unexpected and unheard. The whisper follows no code of style. The whisper comes after the existence of the writer, and describes her essence, her choices, her existential leanings, what she has decided to follow. The whisper is the writer’s breath. The whisper might also be how something is said, and is often paradoxical. The whisper breaks the piece, ruins the lecture, calls from the pit, stops the show. The whisper might be a prayer of praise or a heckle in time with popular opinions.
There’s something else, too, about the whisper; it’s what most of us do who have no real qualifications. And out of all those whispers (the all but silent blogs, the self-published and distributed broadside, the furious but funny poem in the on-line lit-wall), which ones should we home in on? And why would someone whisper when already no one’s listening?
Sometimes, of course, the whisper “goes viral,” bounces and echoes off walls, scampers up trees, drifts through subway tunnels. But who or what is the host for that sometimes poison, at times the scent of lavender? And it’s well known, though often not accepted, the virus does not respond to antibiotics, the stubborn use of which weakens the resistance.
All noise dissipates into whisper, so it should not surprise us that John Cage’s 4’ 33’’ goes briefly viral upon each new discovery. We realize even the Big Bang was a silent singularity. Not only might the world end not with a bang but a whisper, as Eliot almost said in “The Hollow Men,” but the world probably began with a whisper.
A whisper is not a whimper. A whimper is what comes out of a giant mouth at the end of a rant. A whisper is a careful timing of breath, a largo escape, patient. The whisper goes easy and around.
“Although that isn’t quite right either: how to describe something like the voice of a person just out of sight?” (A Furious Oyster, 92).
Hilda Mundy’s voice was far out of sight when Jessica Sequeira brought it back: “I don’t want them to punish me with comments” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, trans. Sequeira, We Heard You Like Books, 2017, 17). “Them,” the “three-dozen readers laughing at the pages of my failure” (17).
The whisper never fails: “I began to hear people whispering things to help me, advice. I don’t know whether those voices were really there or not, but they brought me serenity. They helped talk me through my situation, suggesting new paths, pointing out what I needed to do” (A Furious Oyster, 92).
“I have great respect, in contrast, for the metaphor. This is that” (118). So when we are told Pablo Neruda has ridden a wave of energy from an earthquake or the ocean or some great storm to enter the realm of the living, we believe. “This is my body.” This voice, this word. The metaphor transfigures.
Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster” is diary, memoir, investigation, document, thesis, mystery, love story. Let’s “be clear,” there are “other realities” (55). The reality of the metaphor, for example. “Strong wills work even in the shadows of the afterlife” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, 29). Does every word contain its erotic origin? “How pleasant and suggestive a couple in love is!” (Mundy, 34). “Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time?…Her kisses alternate, soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know, I know. I know, and how I wish I did not” (A Furious Oyster, 38).
“A Furious Oyster” is a story of two famous poets in Chile, Pablo Neruda and Pablo de Rokha, literary adversaries, it seems, but both driven by the sufferings and loves of the people of a place, a land, a geography, a structure, to reach out, to reach. The geography of Sequeira’s book reveals her interests in shapes: “Sometimes at night, I dreamed of these theoretical shapes – the rhombuses, the ovals, the diamonds, the ellipses of sub-arguments within the prose. I kept only one notebook, and the diary of my personal life merged smoothly into the most abstract of notes on these Chilean poets, here and gone before my time” (55). “A Furious Oyster” is also the story of a writer researching, composing, working, in a relationship, watching, listening. And it’s the story of a place, Santiago de Chile.
Sequeira possesses that most unique of minds, the one able ambidextrously to move easily from the hard academic to the soft poet (or is it the soft academic to the hard poet?) within the same shape. The flow of “A Furious Oyster,” its style, is redolent of the Duras of the “Four Novels,” or Lispector’s way of creating mystery while unveiling surprises. I also thought of the modernism of Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin. Jessica Sequeira is a translator, a scholar, a writer. She both understands and comprehends literature. For those of us who can only comprehend, but feel we are indeed also “struck with this thought,” we can only whisper in her shadow that you really should read “A Furious Oyster.”
A fun and generous review of Alma Lolloon has appeared on Amazon. Here is a link, and I’ve pasted the review below:
by, Rucker Trill
July 4, 2018Format: PaperbackVerified PurchaseDear Miss Lolloon – You are no doubt by now growing weary of fan mail after the publication of your eponymous novel, Alma Lolloon, but I just finished reading it, so I must write to tell you how much I liked it.
Right off the bat I thought, hmmm, this is new and unusual given the absence of most punctuation not to mention quote marks so that I knew I was in uncharted waters here, or maybe a better metaphor (I learned that word from the book)would be along the line of separating skeins of different colored yarn after the kittens have been in the knitting basket. But soon enough I got my stride and realized that this is the way things happen in real life – there are no quotation marks there, now are there. And it seems like that’s the way this book unrolls, just like life with the unexpected hidden just around the corner, under the everyday. (Though given your five husbands I wonder if anything about your life is “everyday”.)
I’m no writer myself, but one of the things I liked was how you and your friends talk about the book right there in the book while they’re supposedly hearing the book! I mean whoa! What’s that about? It was like falling into a hall of mirrors or something. I asked a professor who lives down the block about it, and she said you were “meta-texting” and after I showed her a few pages she said you were doing it very humorously, and I confess I laughed way more than once. But like I said, I’m no writer, so who knows.
Now, I don’t knit but I’d love to join you and Curly, Hattie, and Rufa some day for coffee and scones and we could talk more about your book. I could even bring the scones. Maybe some time in August? I plan to be up your way then.
Anyway, I’ve run on too long and I know you’re busy on your next book. I hope it’s a mystery, I really like the mystery part of the book with Jack Rack. (I think you should have married him!)
Best regards, Rucker
Day job workers share in common evenings. Time off, free time, leisure time, time-wasting, occupy the evenings. What to do? The question often haunts office and factory workers (workers clutching daytimer calendars are bothered by another version of the question). The evening absorbs the question of what to do like a fountain swallows wish thrown coins. The equity of time off beggars everyone. Free time hours can’t be saved, must be spent. On what?
Frits van Egters, the main character of Gerard Reve’s “The Evenings” (first published in Dutch in 1947), works an office day job he considers so boring he barely mentions it. His attention is focused on his evenings, how they might be spent, how they pass, what he might do with his free time, and what he does do. Frits lives with his parents when in December of 1946 we are invited to spend his evenings with him as they pass from around Christmas thru the new year. He talks to himself, has bad dreams, tells horrible jokes, thinks about the evening hours passing, goes out and about, visits friends, is condescending toward his parents, alienated, sarcastic, cynical. It’s freezing outside. Inside there’s the coal stove, a radio with a classical music and a news station, books, food, his bedroom. One night he goes out and drinks too much and gets sick. By the next evening he’s recovered enough to be able to go out again. He sees a film, rides a tram, crosses canals, walks along a river. He owns a bicycle, but it breaks.
The layout is dense, the dialog embedded in paragraphs, and the book is meant to pass as slow as an evening might, and to mean the same thing, which is nothing, which is to say, everything. Often, Fritz’s thoughts during a conversation are spoken to himself and interwoven with what he actually says and hears. His dreams are related in a similar way, so that the reader may not immediately realize when a dream, or the memory of a dream, has begun or ended. The writing is clear, though, the descriptions appealing to every sense. The home meals, the food, for example, are described with local, specific detail – texture, smell, look, feel, taste. You can even hear the meal cooking, eaten. The clothes, weather, walks also all described with realistic detail, a pleasure to read. There is no television, no devices to distract or synch. “The Evenings” is a book, a perfect way to pass an evening.
The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale, Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, London, 2016.