pseudopodium
. . . Hammett

. . .

Last year, the Comics Journal split its double-sized hundredth issue between Chris Ware (proprietor of the well-griefed Acme Novelty Library) and Charles Schulz (still the sole artist on Peanuts). Critical wisdom, repeated several times in the course of the magazine, is that this provocative pairing works for only the first half of Schulz's career, and that by the mid-1970s the final sparks of viciousness and bitterness were leached from Peanuts, leaving it a thin collection of very soft gags.

Well, it's true that Schulz doesn't kick Charlie Brown around much any more. But there's still plenty of crummy mood left in the old guy, and for the last couple of decades, it's been channeled through a character left unmentioned by the Comics Journal: Spike, the beagle hermit who looks a little like Dashiell Hammett.

Only a week or two ago, he featured in a downright Warean moment: a single-panel strip of a desert thunderstorm, with Spike, small and centered, braced against a cactus and accompanied only by the thought-balloon "Mom!" (Or, as Ware would've put it, "M-m-mom?")

And my favoritest Peanuts of all time ever was a 1980s Sunday Spike -- I paraphrase from memory so's not to stir up the lawyers:

(Spike looks at cactus) "Did you ever hear how it was that I moved to the desert? When I was very young, almost a puppy, I lived in a house with a family. One day the family had a birthday party in their yard. A guest saw a rabbit and told me to chase it. And then everyone was shouting for me to chase it. I was excited and wanted to do the right thing, and so I chased the rabbit. The rabbit ran into the street and was run over. And so I came here, where I can never hurt anyone again." (Pause) "I've never told anyone that story." (Looks at cactus) "I guess I still haven't."
I think of that punchline a lot... it seems like it's hit something essential about fiction, and criticism, and autobiography -- maybe about all writing for publication.... "I've never told anyone that story. I guess I still haven't."

. . .

Not Going to See the Movie Comment: I was too young to deal with Mansfield Park the first time I read it, and I can't picture a living commercial movie director who isn't. Maybe if Kubrick had been interested in women, he could've managed it instead of Barry Lyndon. Maybe the Hitchcock of Vertigo and The Wrong Man could've, if he didn't mind having another flop.

But probably it's best left to an uncommercial experimenter like Valeria Sarmiento, 'cause it's never going to be a popular story: it's too unpleasant to seem charming and too pleasant to seem important. And unless you maintain that sour-and-sweet balance between the character of poor fostered-cousin Fanny Price and the voice of Jane Austen, you might as well throw the book back onto the Unfilmable shelf.

And that's OK by me, since I like Fanny almost as much as the villains and the narrator do. But then I wouldn't be all that popular in movie theaters either....


2015-06-09 : Regarding the "narrowing of horizons," Josh Lukin adds a contender:

You'd be surprised at how many people think We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends happily (Although I guess Constance's horizons aren't broad at the start, however much she wants to imagine that they are).
And, following up:
I had in mind the feminist readings that say, Yay, productive community among women, for which one has to pretend that Constance likes where she ends up as much as does her sister, rather than having to relinquish all her hopes and become a '60s homemaker, as it were. Reflecting on it, I guess it's no surprise that some readers trust Merricat so much that they miss that part.

. . .

What proofs did Bloom adduce to prove that his tendency was towards applied, rather than towards pure, science?
Insofar as wise critics have looked at science fiction, critical wisdom has it that the genre's most distinctive form is the series, and particularly the "fix-up": the novel built up of mostly-previously-published more-or-less integrated more-or-less independent short stories and novellas.

"I do not like that other world"

"More-or-less" being the distinguishing factor here. The close relationship of the pulp magazine and pulp novel industries led to many hero-glued fix-ups in other genres of popular fiction (Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's early novels, for example); the short attention spans of protosurrealists, pseudosurrealists, and other artistes-fines led to a number of single-hero multiple-narrative (Maldoror, Miss Lonelyhearts) and single-narrative multiple-hero (As I Lay Dying) assortments.

"After God, [insert name] has created most..."

But what defines sf is not a peculiar approach to character or narrative but a peculiar attention to the implied context of the fiction. This implied context is usually called the work's "world," as in the quintessential sf skill "world building" or the quintessential sf hackwork "shared world" writing. Because the constructed context is what defines a "work" of sf, a single sf "work" can cover a great deal of time-space ground (as in Robert Heinlein's "future history") and incorporate many different lead characters and closed narratives.

"He's dead nuts on that. And the retrospective arrangement."

Given a long enough lifetime, sf authors sometimes start to wonder if all their worlds might somehow be "shared" in the all-in-one person of the author: Isaac Asimov's attempt to combine his Foundation universe with his Robotics universe to make Asimov Universe TM; Samuel R. Delany's multi-decade cross-genre remarks toward the modular calculus....

"...if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book."

Outside the sf genre, what this reminds me most of are Jack Spicer's notion of the "serial poem," Louis Zukofsky's notion that a poet's lifetime of work is best considered as one long work, and James Joyce.

(... further reflections generated by the essays in A Collideorscape of Joyce: Festschrift For Fritz Senn ...)

As Jacques Aubert points out in "Of Heroes, Monsters and the Prudent Grammartist," child Joyce's writerly ambition, like that of many genre workers, was fired by reading heroic adventure stories: "Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes." And, also like many genre writers, Joyce continued (would "compulsively" be too strong a word?) to use the notion of the heroic (alongside the notion of author-as-trademark) as an organizing principle while undercutting it with a self-awareness that ranged from scathingly bitter to comically nostalgic.

In "Dubliners and the Accretion Principle" Zack Bowen very convincingly treats the collection of mostly-previously-published stories Dubliners "as a single unified work... the stories so interrelated as to form a type of single narrative" with a clear structural pattern and a loose but extensive web of inter-episode linkages. (A biographical tidbit unmentioned by Bowen backs this up: Joyce knew "After the Race" was a weak story but felt compelled to include it to save the overall shape of the book: a common architectural problem for the fix-up author.)

On the next hand, Christine van Boheemen's "'The cracked lookingglass' of Joyce's Portrait" makes a case for breaking apart A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, since all the chapters use the same semi-self-contained bump-down-and-bounce-up narrative structure rather than gliding smooth-and-steady towards maturity: "Instead of psychological and emotional growth, the fiction depicts repetition." Each episode imagines itself to be first, last, only and alone whereas it is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.... Van Boheemen's approach would imply that the "final" flight to Paris on the wings of artistic vocation is merely another roundabout to the next repetition. And Stephen's bedraggled comedown in Ulysses, so embarrassing to those who pictured him ascending to glory at an angle of fortyfive degrees like a shot off a shovel, certainly seems to give her approach the edge.

There hasn't been much need to remind readers of the heterogeneity of Ulysses, starting from its serialization episode by episode, each episode a chronologically, thematically, and stylistically closed unit. (Are there any other novels for which we refer to "episodes" by title rather than to "chapters" by number?) Timothy Martin reminds us again anyway in "Ulysses as a Whole" that inasmuch as anything can be said to tie the book together it's a shared context -- implicitly an externally documented day in the world, explicitly the inter-episode allusions and reflections, "many of them added late in the book's composition."

As always, the limiting case is Finnegans Wake, whose compositional history also includes serial publication and last-minute blanket-tucking additions. But here the repetition and fragmentation go simultaneously down and up the scale to such an extent that almost no one ever reads the book except as scattered sentence-to-page-sized episodes semi-explained by references to other episodes: "holograms" and "fractals" became rhetorical commonplaces for Wake scholars as quickly as for sf writers.

Maybe that's why Exiles seems like such a flimsy anomaly: it's a self-contained traditionally structured single work where a revue or a burlesque show might have felt more appropriate....

. . .

Condensed Time Since movies began, they've been swapping techniques with dreams. I think that's because they share a structural problem: how to maintain different rates for elapsed time and for narrative time -- expressing years in an hour, an hour in minutes -- in a medium where the narrative is directly experienced rather than related.

Rather than come to grips with this problem, the filmmakers of contemporary Hollywood tend to simply give up, appending more and more running time to avoid the question of condensation, and saddling clumsy voice-over narration onto the broken back of the "direct experience":

Hi-ho, Sliver! and away!
In another way, all narrative art, including written narrative, condenses time: creator time vanishes into the much shorter audience time. A novel may take a month or fifteen years to write, but almost always takes less time to read.

And with movies the time compression is even more extreme, especially if we start talking about people-hours....

Now, although there's always the possibility that I'm falling into the food-in-a-tube fallacy, it seems to me that this compression -- story as time-compactor machine -- is key to the pleasure taken in the curiously strong arts of narrative. As evidence, when there's little or no such compression -- as with the semi-automatic writing of Gertrude Stein or Lionel Fanthorpe, or the semi-automatic early moviemaking of Andy Warhol -- the results, fine though they are, seem more lyric than narrative.

We must think further on this, if we can do so without falling asleep....

Although a narrative work's creation takes more time than any single incident of its consumption, a certain type of audience (mine) may revisit it so often that audience-time eventually sums up bigger than creator-time. I know for certain that I've accumulated more days reading The Glass Key than Dashiell Hammett took to write it.

My type of audience includes most of the critics in the world, and we aren't shy about flattering ourselves (e.g., Barthes's "Those who fail to re-read are obliged to read the same story everywhere," undoubtedly referring to Joseph Campbell). But there's something distinctly unelevated about surrounding ourselves with these papered and videoed units of time, like so many Everlasting Gobstoppers, and I don't believe we escape the market through our repetitions any more than a kid with The Lion King T-shirts, action figures, picture books, and computer games fights the power by insisting on watching the original work again.

Instead our re-reading and re-viewing gives us the chance to treat time itself as a commodity -- something to collect, to hoard, to revel in -- becoming misers of time, diving and wallowing in our libraries for all the world like Scrooge McDuck....

Scrooge McDuck

. . .

There's no denying the mythic catchiness of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. And there's no admitting his possibility. Just where would a glib dumb prissy pushy tall dark handsome breast-beating alcoholic intellectual low-brow heterosexual urban nostalgic two-fisted prose stylist idealist spring from? Los Angeles? Regretfully, no. And how would he make a living? As a private detective? I think not. Marlowe can only be explained as a self-loathing writer's pastless futureless power fantasy, who springs only from a book and makes a living only in books.

Which entices moviemakers into a dried river bank surrounded by giant ants, n'est-ce pas, cherie? Movies are supposed to be able to handle detectives; it says so right here in my Popular Culture Handbook. But how can the movies straightfacedly present such an unjustifiable character? ("With Cary Grant" is the best answer, but Chandler didn't manage to talk the studio into it.)

The first successful Chandler adaptations saved themselves by keeping some snappy lines and imagery and ditching the leading man: Edward Dmytryk's "Marlowe" reverts to sleazy Hammett-style professionalism and Howard Hawks's "Marlowe" anticipates James Bond's irresistable aplomb.

Less successful as film but more interesting as critique, two later adaptations tossed out the easy stuff like Chandler's dialog in favor of Chandler's essential oddity. Proving again that hostility towards one's source material is the healthiest stance for a director, Robert Altman's attempt to destroy Marlowe is cinema's first real tribute to the character. The Elliott Gould "Marlowe" could be an aging trust-fund kid who's retreated into fantasy, but there's no way of knowing for sure; the movie preserves his inexplicability while giving it a believable presentation (this Marlowe is as passive, inarticulate, threadbare, and isolated as most self-deluded personalities) and environment (this Los Angeles is too universally self-absorbed to take notice of any particular citizen's delusions). And Sterling Hayden's towering and toppling "Roger Wade" is just the self-loathing powerful writer to shove the Chandler subtext explicitly into our face and down our throats where it belongs.

The only movie ever influenced by The Long Goodbye was The Big Lebowski, a hoot-and-a-half in which Altman's ego-gored hostility is replaced by the Coen Bros.' aimless playing around. Since Jeff Bridges' character pretty much shares their attitude, the result is the most warm-heartedly engaged take on "Philip Marlowe" yet, even if there's not much Brotherly affection left over for any of the other characters....

For a long time -- like, a really long time, let's not even go there -- I've dreamt about my own fully explicated version of a Chandler detective: he's a paranoid schizophrenic who's assigned cases by the voices in his head and whose secretary / leg-man is his pet parakeet. But I have a hard time writing fiction so I've never committed this dream to print. Probably just as well.

Perhaps a similar dream prodded at young Jonathan Lethem, who came up with an admirably tailored science-fiction-y explanation for the Chandleresque narrator of Motherless Brooklyn: Tourette's syndrome. The gap between the narrator's careful prose style and his hit-me-harder banter? Tourette's syndrome affects speech and not writing. The narrator's weirdly monastic dedication to the case? Tourette's syndrome is associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior. His inability to sustain a sexual relationship? Say no more. If anything, it's too well-tailored: even the narrator eventually notices the snug fit, but, of course, is able to explain that explaining his every trait as a symptom of Tourette's syndrome is actually just another symptom of Tourette's syndrome. Clothes make the man if you're selling clothes, syndromes make the character if you're selling pop psychology, but a novel's air gets kind of stuffy by the end....

Which also counts as a Chandleresque effect: Chandler's The Long Goodbye was more like The Long Squirm in a Pinching Suit (but in an interesting way, if you know what I mean), and I could never spend more than a couple of minutes in Playback without rushing back outside for a breather....

. . .

What it corresponds to

Some writers are recognizable in their correspondence and some aren't. (Recognizable to readers, that is; their recognizability as the animals previously encountered by fleshy intimates is an unrelated matter.)

Those writers whose letters cozily nestle alongside their oeuvre -- Henry Adams, Raymond Chandler, Samuel R. Delany, among many others -- rely on a "micro" verbal impulse as well as a "macro"-building one: an impulse to respond to the world and its inhabitants by producing paragraphs, whether those paragraphs are meant to fit into a larger structure or not. Their books may seem colder or crueler or wiser than their letters, but the material comes from the same source. (And, not all that paradoxically, their letters may sometimes seem a bit impersonal: the sausage meat grinds on in a steady stream, regardless who gets the individual link....)

Whereas Dashiell Hammett's letters, like James Joyce's, are purely practical objects (even when their practical purpose is to give their recipients a sense of personal connection), springing from completely different impulses than the writer's book-objects, constructed along completely different lines, and not of much interest except to the addressed or the biographer. For the enthusiastic reader? Well, from one letter where Hammett uses full-out "Hammett style" to describe a day of Army life, I learned that lapidary prose can be a very dull thing outside a structural context; e.g., you can't polish dust. That's about it.

Having now trudged through a Alaskan-sized mud stretch of these letters, I feel the need to revisit some flashier gewgaws, such as those of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. And, look, since they're out of print anyway, how about I pass a few past you as well?

The Earl of Rochester gives some friendly advice, c. 1671

Whither Love, Wine, or Wisdom (which rule you by turns) have the present ascendent, I cannot pretend to determine at this distance, but good nature, which waits about you with more diligence than Godfrey himself, is my security that you are not unmindful of your absent friends. To be from you & forgotten by you at once is a misfortune I never was criminal enough to merit since to the black & fair Countesses I villainously betrayed the daily addresses of your divided heart; you forgave that upon the first bottle, & upon the second on my conscience would have renounced them and the whole sex.

Oh, that second bottle, Harry, is the sincerest, wisest, & most impartial downright friend we have, tells us truth of ourselves & forces us to speak truths of others, banishes flattery from our tongues and distrust from our hearts, sets us above the mean policy of court prudence which makes us lie to one another all day for fear of being betrayed by each other at night. And before god I believe the errantest villain breathing is honest as long as that bottle lives, and few of that tribe dare venture upon him, at least among the courtiers & statesmen.

I have seriously considered one thing, that of the three businesses of this age -- women, politics & drinking -- the last is the only exercise at which you & I have not proved our selves errant tumblers. If you have the vanity to think otherwise, when we meet next let us appeal to friends of both sexes &, as they shall determine, live & die sheer drunkards or entire Lovers. For as we mingle the matter, it is hard to say which is the most tiresome creature, the loving drunkard or the drunken lover.

The Earl of Rochester starts a seduction, c. 1675

If you distrust me and all my professions upon the score of truth and honor, at least let 'em have credit on another, upon which my greatest enemies will not deny it me, and that is its being notorious that I mind nothing but my own satisfaction. You may be sure I cannot choose but love you above the world, whatever becomes of the King, Court, or mankind and all their impertinent business. I will come to you this afternoon.

. . .

 
Hammett
Dashiell Hammett: tubercular veteran of two world wars, political target
I started thinking about the following topic while reading Dashiell Hammett's letters a month or two ago, back when I was one of the only people I knew who would've described themselves as "patriotic."

Nowadays there's a lot more of that going around, but it still seems worth bringing up. Flag-waving (link via Electrolite) is an easy and transient exercise; worthier of scrutiny are less strictly symbolic acts, such as legislation. Our current national leaders have a history of opportunism, and they've been handed a splendid opportunity.

+ + +

No one's really bothered to pick it up yet, but over the past two decades, right-wing Republicans have had to discard what used to be one of their favorite political weapons: patriotism. (A narrow form of xenophobia is still wielded in especially racist states such as California, but America, being a nation of immigrants, doesn't lend itself to ethnically-based nationalism.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Republicans were able to push the patriotism button pretty heavily. Left-of-liberals muddied domestic waters by dopey idealization of the Soviet Union or China, southern Democrats still saluted nothing but Dixie, and opposition to government involvement in Vietnam easily slued into attacks on the military itself.

Well, there are essentially no more left-of-liberals, no one outside the executive suite has much good to say for China, the military budget has been devoted to frivolous weapons research while ignoring personnel, and the dominant wing of the Republican party doesn't have a red, white, and blue pot to piss in.

Reaganesque anti-federal propaganda brought a plague of do-nothings who move into political office on corporate support, interfere with or dismantle useful services, re-route tax money to corporations, and then move back into cushy corporate positions. (I might not exactly enjoy the thought of sewage, but that doesn't make me want to hire a high-priced plumber to remove all the pipes.) Their allegiances are pledged to two special interest groups:

  1. Global corporations, who are dedicated by law to the profits of their shareholders and by inclination to the financial security of their upper management. Legally speaking, nothing else can be allowed to take precedence. A corporation cannot afford to instead emphasize, for example, scrupulous service -- which is why, for example, you wouldn't want one to be responsible for your health care. And certainly it can't afford to consider the good of the nation. That's why it's global, right? Corporations maximize profits by taking jobs away from American citizens and by taking taxes away from the American government. They have no interest in improving American life or in defending American freedoms.

  2. Fundamentalist demagogues, who, like fundamentalist demagogues elsewhere in the world, are avowed enemies of the secular democracy set up by the Constitution of the United States and avowed proponents of its replacement by rule of their interpretation of their sacred texts. Frequently supporters of domestic terrorism (although I assume Ashcroft is trying to ensure that bombing birth control clinics and murdering doctors won't fall under his expanded definition of the term), they're one step away from being traitors, and often seem none too particular about that step.
Republican leaders idealize only (their) money and (their) church. They have no workable concept of country.

"Big-spending" "bleeding-heart" liberals, by definition, believe that the American system of government is good and capable, that the American people are worthy of defense and respect, and that America can be both a haven and a promise of limitless possibilities. That gives them access to a heap of rhetorical tools that've proven very useful in the past, and which might as well get used.

. . .

The Customer Review that they don't want you to see

The Library of America did an excellent job with its Raymond Chandler volumes, which lacked only the stories that Chandler had "cannibalized" into novels, but I can't say the same for its second (and final) volume of Dashiell Hammett, edited by Steven Marcus.

Of the three Hammett short story collections on my shelves, this $35 book replaces one: The Continental Op, edited by the same Steven Marcus. It includes only 5 of the 20 selections in the recent Nightmare Town repackaging; from The Big Knockover it leaves out "The Gatewood Caper," "Corkscrew" (the Continental Op goes cowboy), and, most unforgivably, "Tulip," an autobiographical meditation on storytelling which is the only sizable chunk of Hammett's postwar writing ever to surface. It does include "Woman in the Dark," currently in print as a thin single volume, dropping its subtitle ("A Novel of Dangerous Romance"); there may be good textual reasons for that decision, but they aren't described in this edition's notes.

Nice to get this work on acid-free paper, but the Library of America is intended to produce authoritative editions. It's unfortunate if predictable that this goal is forgotten when the series takes on the genre writers who need such attention most.

On the other hand, the complete novels of Dawn Powell!

. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

1.
Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

2.
"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

3.
I remember them all with such happiness.
4.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
5.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
6.
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

1.
And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
2.
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
3.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
4.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

1.
That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
2.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
3.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
4.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

1.
"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

2.
He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
3.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .

Induction of Intent

Phew. I'm glad that's over. Aren't you?

Serialization helps, but still the time it takes for me to finish any piece of writing increases exponenentially with the piece's projected length. That's why I had to give up fiction. All my ideas were for novels, and none would have been drafted before my great-great-grandniece's wedding.

During the month-long harrowing of Graceland, I solaced myself misty-eyed at One Pot Meal, Ftrain, and Fireland, which have all recently indulged in navel-gazing on the positive tip. A pleasant trick of nostalgia, since back in the olden "home page" times I didn't have much in common with Ftrain or Fireland.

My own models for the reversed-chronology many-entries-per-page form were Alamut (a professional artist's notebook) and Robot Wisdom (the "What's New" list of a reclusive crank). For those I quickly grew to think of as my compeers, the web was an adjunct to a more established career or, for the younger writers, a projected adjunct to a hoped-for career. Among them, my distinguishing trait (if any) was bovine rectus acceptance of the web as my primary medium and serial self-publishing as my primary work.

That wasn't the result of community values or allegiance to the cutting edge, but merely of crabbèd age. Insofar as I displayed confidence, it was the confidence that no other path was left to explore.

At thirty, I'd found it necessary to begin writing. By forty, I still found it necessary, but I had even less notion what to do about it. I'd made the mistake of believing that skill and intention were equivalent to capability: that a writer writes what they choose to write rather than what they're capable of writing. (This seems laughably naive to me now, but it's been a common enough naivete even among those I respect: think of Dashiell Hammett starting [and starting] his mainstream novel or Raymond Chandler finally getting the chance to work on that historical romance....)

In ten years of confusion, backtracking, and intermittant clarity, I'd gained ability and access, but my capability stayed stubbornly put. In 1999 as in 1989, the writing was motivated by dialogue, you-gotta-see-this enthusiasm, problem solving, and the mesmerizing glitter of verbal artifacts-cum-artifacts; it remained mulishly unspurred by ambition but turned into Red Hot Ryder's mighty Sliver whenever it whiffed a digression -- "Whoa, horsey! Aw, come on, horsey, won't you please whoa?" --; and it arrived as opaque fragment or self-undermining rant or pseudo-conversational speech.

Boy meets form. "For good or for bad," as one mildly disapproving friend said.

Three-and-a-half-years in, the compeers swarm and I grow ever more grateful to the form. Which is saying something, since it started pretty much saving my life from the get go.

Even the "vanity publishing" label comforts me, much as a fetishist might take comfort in wearing the fetished object, no matter how despised by the mob. Virtually all my writerly heroes enjoy only mild-to-imperceptable popularity. And so, if I had somehow managed to succeed in my ambitions for my own work, I was certain that I wouldn't have helped the financials of those nice editors in the slightest.

. . .

The Launderer's Hand

Continuing the discussion:

As has been pointed out many times before, "genre" is not a simple compound, or even a clear formula, and its assorted aspects of publishing, writing, and reading are only loosely interdependent. Some writing, it's true, affirms generic coherency, snug and compact in a neatly labeled bundle. But much of what I'm drawn to seems badly wrapped, corners rubbing against frays and duct tape.

It always comes marked, however. No matter how much writer or reader idealizes invention from whole cloth, there'll be some natural discoloring, someone to see a pattern, and someone to apply a dye. Even the launderer's hand grows red with wringing.

To drop the metaphors:

  1. My favorite writing is sui generis.
  2. It was (and is) all published (more or less antagonistically) within a generic context.
  3. Assuming that one particular genre has special access to the sui generis greatly reduces the chance of actually finding it.

Which is why, as I wrote earlier, plowing cover-to-cover through some 19th century volumes of Blackwood's or Harper's, or High-Modernist-era New York Times book reviews or High-Hollywood-era movie reviews, would be salutary for most English and creative writing majors. Someone who refused to look at smut would have missed Lolita (fittingly, Nabokov himself first received Ulysses as an exemplar of smuttiness); someone who refused to look at sea stories (or flop gothics) would have missed Melville; someone who refused to look at cornpone humor would have missed Twain; and so on. And someone who refused to read academically canonized writing would miss all the same books now. For we who love to be astonished, it's worth attempting to read Hammett's and Thompson's (or Fitzgerald's and Faulkner's) prose the same way whether behind pulp covers or a Library of America dustjacket.

To take a limit case, there are (and have been) an astonishing number of readers who treat everything written by women as its own genre, resulting in a comedy of re-interpretation when misattributions are corrected and as the purported "genre" is denigrated or celebrated.

All this from publishers and readers. For a writer, genre may considered a conversational context, with one's social circle not necessarily restricted to one's neighbors, or even to the living. Since the literary mainstream's "discovery" of Patricia Highsmith began, I've seen a number of bemused references to the influence of Henry James, but this isn't an unusual phenomenon. The work itself is always more (or less, if truly "generic" work) than whatever genre it's in.

Carol Emshwiller, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Jack Womack, and Kelly Link write the sui generis they write and publish in whatever genre welcomes (or allows) them. But a contemporary may find it useful to learn that they all began publishing within the context of the science fiction genre, whether they themselves started as genre readers or not. And although I seek out Dalkey Archive and Sun & Moon Press spines in the bookstores, I enjoy knowing that the past decade of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has shown more lively variety than any university-sponsored or trust-funded fiction journal.

Responses

Lucius Shephard also

God, yes. There are, oh, let's not start feeling guilty about not mentioning M. John Harrison, there are lots more. And then all the great writers who are publishing mysteries, thrillers, romances, Y/As, and including, sure, the literary mainstream and the poetry presses, but all of them, now ignored or long forgotten or even deservedly noticed, should get more than just a for instance, and I just meant for instance.

. . .

Do you think that you could make it with Frankenstein?

A question at the end of one of Jeff VanderMeer's recent posts has been nagging at me -- "Do writers of experimental fiction need to prove they can tell a good story before they start experimenting?"
- Mumpsimus

Conclusions elude us. It could be there are none to be drawn without distortion.

  1. The laws are ambiguous and the judges are prejudiced.

    Matthew Cheney and I both seek out the tang of the unexpected problem; we welcome obstacle. And so, faced with increased experimentation, we're likely to tilt our camera eye to make a narrative of progress where others may tilt a decline. Whenever Joyce published, he lost a former supporter. Gardner Dorzois, among others, regrets the "squandered promise" of Samuel R. Delany's maturity. And I'm sure there are some who wish M. John Harrison had never put Viriconium through its literary retcon.

  2. Outside a historical context, terms like "craft", "good story", and "experimental" are little more than Whiggish fertilizer.

    Nothing I've read in the past few years can compare with the experimentation of Tom Jones or Wurthering Heights, but we don't see Mark Amerika giving them props. Me, I don't think Beckett ever again wrote anything as brain-droppingly new as Watt; I think of his last thiry years as laying down a very good groove and think of John Barth's later career as safe shtick. Make Barth as hard to find as Barbara Comyns or Bob Brown and I'll reconsider.

  3. It's chancy to generalize about particularities.

    Was Orlando more or less experimental than To the Lighthouse? How about positioned between To the Lighthouse and The Waves?

    Flaubert started out with wildly uncontrolled blurts of fantasy. Were those stabs in the murk less or more experimental than Madame Bovary? Was Salammbo less experimental than The Temptation of St. Anthony? Bouvard & Pécuchet?

  4. What seems blandly normal or tediously artificial to the reader may have been a coltish celebration of new skills for the author.

    If Melville chafed against the limitations of the autobiographical sea story while writing Typee, it doesn't show. The sincerity of Modernist poets' juvenilia is hardly its besetting problem.

  5. In conscious transitions from "expected" to "peculiar", what matters may be the sheepskin, not the education.

    That is, the trigger is being granted permission to experiment, either from the publishing industry or oneself. If you write to make a living, there may not be much of a distinction. The Glass Key wouldn't have been Hammett's first publication, if only because he couldn't have afforded it.

    The most startling such transformation I've personally witnessed was at Clarion 1993, when a workshop member who'd slaved over unconvincing Analog filler realized that such an apprenticeship wasn't required, and suddenly began producing beautifully polished and balanced works of ambiguous speculation. (Like most good artists, he seems to have eventually decided that artmaking wasn't worth the effort, but that doesn't dim the thrill of witness.)

Responses

Discussion continues at Mumpsimus, at Reading Experience (with a clumsy, verbose response of my own), and at Splinters.

And does Dan Green's hospitality know no limits?— still more at the Reading Experience.

Update: Dan weeded and discarded his initial post in 2006. Here was my comment at the time:

I'm prone to note resemblances, which is fine, but then rhetoric sometimes tempts me to go too far. So I might talk about a "tradition" of presumptious lyric, and in that jumble together some unaristocratic Tudors, some Restoration satirists, Keats, the Objectivists, the New York School, and Language poets. I suppose somewhat the same impulse determines Oxonian anthologies and encourages such after-the-fact categories as film noir, nationalist canons across the world, and women's writing.

In your brief overview of "experimental writing," there's a temporal gap between "Tristam Shandy" and James Joyce's career. Do any books fit in there? I ask partly because I think I'd like them, and partly because explicit experimentation *as a tradition* would seem to require a firmly established norm, and I'm not sure when the particular narrative conventions being fought became firmly established, or how long it took before insurgent tactics became narrative conventions in their own right.

I also wonder about the conceptual gap between a single book and a career. "Tristram Shandy" stays just as wonderful but becomes slightly less startling positioned between the "Sermons of Mr. Yorick" and "A Sentimental Journey"; Sterne-as-career becomes slightly less startling positioned between the polyphonic digressions of sixteenth and seventeenth century English fiction and the sentimental, didactic, and political novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Even before an "oppositional" tactic becomes group property, it may be a personal habit. Is a writer who attempts something drastically new in each new publication only as "experimentalist" (to use Steve Mitchelmore's word) as a writer who challenges narrative convention the same way every time? (I'm not denigrating the latter, by the way; I believe in the power of the groove.)

Conversely, early Joyceans proved that it was easy to miss the formal ambitions of "Dubliners" and "Portrait" without "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" to foment suspicion. One might read "Moby Dick" as a (failed) conventional narrative, but can one say the same of "The Confidence Man"? 150 years after "Madame Bovary", we might take it as conventional, but I believe Kenner is right to draw Joyce's artistic ambitions directly from Flaubert: "A Simple Story" to "Dubliners", "Sentimental Education" to "Portrait", "Temptation of St. Anthony" to the later episodes of "Ulysses", "Bouvard and Pecuchet" to Leopold Bloom -- and, on a different trail, to Beckett's "Mercier and Camier".

And there's that final gap between the isolated heroic figures of the modern canon and a contemporary American school of writers who share some publishers, make livings in academia, and swap blurbs, bridged by the pulp-sprung and compulsive Burroughs.

Well, I'm afraid all this gap-minding sounds both more detached and more combative than my feelings justify. You yourself call it a "pragmatic" distinction. I suppose my uneasiness truly comes down to worrying just what use our pragmatisms get put to. Provisional categorization can work as a portal of discovery. (Jerome McGann's championing William Morris as the first Modernist is a delightful example of what can be done with hindsight genre.) But windows require walls, and human beings do seem to love their wall-building. Once we have our categories up, it may be hard see around them. If I'm not mistaken, a similar uneasiness stirred your "Don't Change" entry of September 22.

I suppose I sound as if I'm trying to eradicate distinctions, when what I'd like is to make them finer.

. . .

Christmas Trimming

Between the ravages of the Bush administration, the wraths of the Universal Monotheism Smackdown finalists, and Miranda July Grossinger, 2005 has gone by without me once mentioning the Coppola family. This will not stand. By me. Up withwards. What's the point of an idée fixe if you drop it for the first general cultural collapse that comes along?

This one goes out to the old gang at the Hotsy Totsy Club:

"Hammett . For years I’ve been hoping to see the original Wim Wenders cut of the feature that I consider his most underrated, even after producer Francis Ford Coppola substantially revised it. Sam Fuller, who acted in both versions and contributed a few ideas to them (such as the shot from under the typewriter keys), told me more than once that the original was incomparably better. So I was crestfallen to learn from Wenders when he visited Chicago last spring that he recently approached Coppola’s company about bringing out a DVD with both versions, only to be informed that the director’s cut no longer exists. A video that was once made of Wenders’ version, taped off a Steenbeck, may still exist somewhere, but the film itself was junked. ... it’s an incalculable loss, and one that reminds us that things aren’t so different now from the way they were when studios were slicing up works by Stroheim and Welles."
- Jonathan Rosenbaum

Remember, kids: When a Coppola offers you a gift? It's gonna end up all about the Coppolas. You think anyone will ever hear again from the kindly old Napa vintner they got stuffed in the trunk of that cherry Tucker?

Responses

Kip Manley sighs:

All this about the Coppolas and yet not one word on Sofia's latest?

Sigh.

Maintaining the Peanuts groove, my one word is "AAUGH!"

. . .

On or around Hammett's last two novels

The innocent live in a less complex world than the guilty. At their most intimate, that represents pure reflexive self-defense. A betrayer can afford to play flaneur: the false starts and blind alleys, the peaks and subterranean pipes, hold no threat; lingering tenderness can be revisited like an old diner in an old neighborhood. For the betrayed, that scenic view bristles with pikes, all converging on one target. Best by far to walk away quickly, somewhere smoother, someplace comprehensible.

When escape's blocked, the innocent would rather slit throats than let go of Occam's Razor.

Of course they're right that the mystery was important; it's only the solution that isn't.

. . .

Genre note

Although auteurs like M. John Harrison will always fit old clips into new montages, the all-out fixup novel served as loyal attendent to the commercial market for short stories and novellas and did not survive its patron.

While fiction magazines withered, academia doubled-down on publish-or-perish. Journal and books lists exploded, culture took its course, and for several decades humanities' new-shelves have been as loaded with fixups as a 1950s paperback rack.

Of course, not all the tactics of their original home were carted over. Lacking the pretense of organic character-focused narrative, no fixing-up scholar need attempt the reconstructive surgery of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Isaac Asimov's Foundation is the model: elucidation and proof of millenia-spanning psychohistory through chapters on Theocritus's Idyll 15, Eliza Heywood's Distress'd Orphan, and Grand Theft Auto V's soundtrack. As the man says, "ideal for tales of epic sweep through time and space."

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.