Tom Towers Reads in May
All that osi elt is...god?
Go Tell It on the Mountain: James Baldwin
The greatest strength of If Beale Street Could Talk was the use of the colon. No such immediate pleasures exist in Go Tell It on the Mountain; instead, the prose is an intoxicating, alcoholic mixture of rhythm and hyperbole: drowned in religious imagery and allusion. The repetition is too broad to be an accurate imitation of the King James bible, but it does give the prose a consistency in both quality and style that otherwise are absent in much of James Baldwin’s other novels; and the sex scenes are, mercifully, successfully implied; and when literally depicted, more than an impotent collection of flaccid similes and cliché.
However, classic James Baldwin unevenness still manages to poke through the rich, biblical veneer in the form of tepid, diluted exposition. But, so powerful is the prose that, unlike with Baldwin’s weak passages elsewhere, the steamy momentum already established continues to drizzle through the valve; the valve once more contracted upon its conclusion to release the following successful passages at the same concentrated pressure.
Stepin Fetchit is here a euphemism for subversion: while American racial discourse is so often a quagmire of repression and oppression as to form the perpetuation of both under any guise—but always in simple, politicised and propagandised language and concepts; for instance: using Stepin Fetchit as a binary symbol—there is no salvation or even ultimate comforting destruction: there is only continual and unending suffering; only the valid simplicity that should be a part of this discourse: Stepin Fetchit is here a euphemism for the avant-garde which transcends the absurd dichotomy that is the dictum of America’s diseased conception of race.
The Castle of Otranto: Horace Walpole
The first Gothic novel is, beyond a clearer display of literacy and skill, no different to the last: juvenile narrative contraptions of melodrama wander aimlessly and amusingly from one scare or plot twist to the next; a simultaneously childish and pubescent sensuality underpinning all scares and twists.
The prose is consistently, subtlety alliterative: not straining together obvious or obscure passages of obsequies soliloquies, but writing, as a general rule, with an easily definable sound into which the majority of the words fit; to little apparent or relevant effect. The plodding opening’s only amusement is that of the absurd (but accepted as genuine translation at the time by ignorant critics; the gothic genre is not the only thing unchanged) imitationof Ye Olde Englishe: using the same inaccurate words—while also constructing the sentences in the same way—as modern, and equally inaccurate, imitations of the same era.
However, once the melodrama begins in earnest, and the plot begins to twist simply to entertain, then the juvenility of the characters perfectly complements the absurd plot, and overwrought, grandineloquent writing.
The Tick Tock Man: Harlan Ellison
A bagful of subversive jelly beans; forming an Orwellian mire of poor aftertaste at the end: but lush, sweet and tart until the point of the swallow.
God Laughs and Plays; Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right: David James Duncan
The Eastern concept of selflessness and persecution of the Ego is equivalent to the application of puritanical shame: in this way society may dictate what is accepted as true visionary experience; dictate the practicalities in achieving these true visionary experiences, and thus easily perpetuate the repression of the individual: how can one experience the ultimate fading of the illusion of duality that is, so advise the true prophets, even more powerful than any mere and deliberate transcendence by consciously and morally, denying one half of this false duality? The concept of truth cannot exist without that of the lie: but to understand that everything true is to also understand that everything is a lie: therefore the denial of one also destroys the other. This is not a dogma.
An example: David James Duncan’s own visionary experiences as described here and experienced during the layman’s only natural visionary experience: childhood. These entirely blasphemous descriptions, and the blasphemous way in which they were elicited, are no thet great art achieved and described by more talented visionaries—but does that make them any less true? Should one follow the advice of The Upanishads and label poor David a false prophet because he did not see fit to re-interpret his visions through the dogma of any religion?
David also briefly confuses empathy and compassion: labelling the latter the former: empathy, apparently, is a conscious shoe swapping exercise that bypasses the Ego through intellect. However, empathy, the simplest and most obvious of all religious and mystical experiences, acts entirely through the Ego: to literally feel someone else’s, another Ego’s, suffering or joy, is the most practical, the most scientific, the most universal (requiring no visionary talents; and experienceable post-maturation of the brain) argument for all religious concepts: if two separate Egos (practically speaking, brains) can, indeed, share the same physiological experience with another; why not with every other? In this way the individual, the Ego, ceases to exist: and in its place is only god.
Nevertheless, the not politicking David is as amusing and undogmatic as one is likely to find a political mystic. A mild mannered American Psycho?
The Final Solution: Michael Chabon
It boggles the mind that a writer as exceptionally skilled in the construction of prose does not understand similes: Chabon’s absurd similes are not only verbose and utterly incompatible with the language and rhythm of the prose in which they are so vulgarly inserted, but damage the quality of the pastiche: which is already weakened by his inability to seamlessly punctuate his prose with the relevant vocabulary as plucked from Arthur Conan Doyle’s almost Edwardian dictionary.
The acumen of the unnamed Sherlock Holmes has also clearly dwindled over his beekeeping retirement, and the mystery which he is confronted with could scarcely be described as such; its solution is more akin to the bungling of his once famous street Arabs, than his own ratiocination. However, this is not a detective novel: it is a character portrait; and a vaguely interesting one at that. The banal, mean-spirited arrogance of Sherlock Holmes is, at times, perfectly captured. And the pre-epilogue passage from the perspective of a parrot is infused with the authors own sense of fun that we might vicariously imbibe it.
The Worshippers: Damon Knight.
Banal genre writing confronts the critic with a demoralising conundrum: how to describe something so indescribably vapid? Recount the plot, pontificate upon the latent, mystical themes that might easily be replaced with any other; or ignore the work entirely and instead recount to the reader the problem facing the critic?
Another Country: James Baldwin
Another Country, like much of Baldwin’s fiction, suffers from dialogue which fails equally when stylised or naturalist and undercuts the heady characterisation; characterisation which benefits much more from the settings the characters inhabits, and here suffers in latter passages from the mazy intellectual mumbling almost as much as from the dialogue.
Book 2 reads like Jane Austen fan fiction (a lucrative, but disgraceful genre) and the depiction of Paris is akin to poor travel writing; reminding us of its superior intellect and powers of observation by overtly and obviously subverting stereotypes, and so ascribing Paris with a completely unconvincing air of the gothically grotesque. Without setting, then what does James Baldwin have left but his already inadequate inner monologues, droll descriptive prose, and hilarious sex scenes that produce similes such as these: “like an infuriated horse, or a beached fish” and “It began to pour out of him like the small weak trickle that precedes disaster in a mine”? Censorship is a poor excuse for such vacuity.
Eric’s alienation and incomprehension is, of course, the excuse for the intangible depiction of Paris, but the form and the content are not successfully integrated and, therefore, fail to transcend one another and create that which one might refer to as voice; through which one might feel and understand the awkward writing that literally depicts characterised awkwardness; and not merely be awkward: instead were only understand it; and understanding is not empathy but sympathy or compassion—the three qualities which cause the principle characters so much suffering: inadequate replacements for empathy.
Although book 3 is still polluted with inept intellectual, existential suffering and, through repetition, the settings are cardboard and hollow, there is enough built up momentum to carry Another Country to the end—there is enough of Rufus; a man Eldridge Cleaver so easily dismissed because Eldridge Cleaver is Rufus: and the two are born of suffering; a suffering which no one, not even Eldridge Cleaver, was willing to accept; as was the white man’s (and therefore the black man’s) discourse at the time. Perhaps instead of chastising Rufus for participating in the white man’s pastime of suicide, Eldridge Cleaver would do better to ask himself why he participated in the white man’s pastime of rape and of comical minstrelly and carnival freakshows? To define what empowered Eldridge Cleaver to travel from victim to minstrel is to define his transformation as what it is (suffering) and to forgive him, too; and if a minstrel is forgiven, then he ceases to be comical; and so he ceases to exist.
Oh, and we get it. There is no need to repeat the child and horse motif so fucking much. We are not children, and we are not horses: we are not idiots.
Damon Knight: Special Delivery
Written before the side effects of drinking (alcohol and caffeine) and smoking (tobacco) during pregnancy by some years were well known; however the exact nature of the side effects might have been more accurately predicted: rather than resulting superhuman acumen, the inverse is generally true; however, the tyrannical gravity of childhood disability is not entirely dissimilar to the dictatorial baby described within; and slapping a newborn baby’s bare buttocks is almost offay; au fait? Three words which I imagine to mean taboo, but unfortunately do not..
The Upanishads: Translated and edited by Jaun Mascaro.
Juan Mascaro apparently selected the most spiritual passages, a decision for which he argues by suggesting that much of The Old Testament might be also removed in a similar way; for family lineage has no real spiritual value—even though that family lineage might be used as transcendent chant; and might be interpreted as reincarnation or evolution; even though that family lineage is so beautifully, simply written.
In the same introduction, he considers false prophets; praising the growing spirituality of science (which has since become, regrettably, its defining characteristic; surely science’s greatest strength, and the delusion that made it so powerful and unique once the right gaze was so settled upon in any of its wide ranging mediums, was the complete lack of spirituality?), meanwhile regularly quoting the two Williams: Blake and Shakespeare; if one can fall for a prophet as false as Shakespeare and spiritually shallow, but aesthetically pleasing, then what hope is there in one translating religious texts? And, alas, although much of the rhythm is faithfully transported; none of the humour or subtlety is—the same dryness that infests all bad translations of ancient Asian texts festers so offensively here, too.
Eidolon: Harlan Ellison.
A stirring metaphysical self-help manual.
A Study in Scarlet: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In spite of Sherlock Holmes’ contrary arguments, the riddles so solved are not nearly so complex as those confronting C. Auguste Dupin; but at least the culprit is not an enraged orang-utan. The acumen is, at times, questionable as well: few write on walls directly at their eye-level—most write just below or above for the obvious practical difficulties that writing directly at eye-level is ever likely entail; and the red herrings are only ever red herrings due to the ineptitude of the constabulary’s expositional dithering. Expositional dithering depicted in a different voice to that of the exposing character—despite the dialogue elsewhere being so well infused with character tics and diction. The prose is written with equal skill: simple and, often repetitive, but rarely grotesque or unpleasantly gaudy.
But, at climax a gargantuan and hideous Mormon interlude sucks all momentum from the story. Post-desert rescue, all tension fades, and with the flimsy characters, there is only the novelty value of early American Mormonism being swept up in wider American conflict (and creating its own); and the propagandised English interpretation that results. By the time the noble murderer is so excused from an unjust execution (detective stories set in a state that executes its criminals create an interesting moral conundrum: in all other settings, the punishment is generally lesser than the crime and, therefore, the establishment is morally superior; but if it executes murderers or less, its punishment causes equal or greater suffering than the criminal act), one must muster up a great deal of insincerity to deign to care. Otherwise my nose might have bled briefly in excitement.
Still, fifty percent of the popular detective mode is established here: crystallising the concepts applied in the two “fictional” detectives Sherlock Holmes holds in such disdain, and turning their ratiocinations and momentums into an easily reproducible form that is instantly accessible to both the author and the audience alike.
The White Negro: Normal Mailer.
God is neither literal; nor a metaphor. God is a euphemism. The White Negro fails because it denies this undeniable fact: even the staunchest atheist cannot deny the existence of God: He can only ignore God; but if God ever decides to cease ignoring Him, then His feigned ignorance will be unable to protect Him from imprisonment, persecution or execution. One may accept God’s existence, and still have nothing to do with God until God chooses to acknowledge one’s existence—but, up until that fateful point, one might live in perfect, individual bliss: at that point one may still continue living in such a mode if one is predisposed to joy and happiness; but one cannot deny one’s physical imprisonment, or Godly persecution. Just as a Creationist might deny evolution, but a millennia or two later evolve an intellect to accept it: and even if still consciously denied, this creationist will nevertheless have evolved His new intellect.
Elaboration: to aesthetcise controlled dissension, is not to transform it into genuine dissension. The increasing, controlled tension between black and whites that anyone might have foresaw is an unimpressive observation and prediction: but perhaps not in America; where even today those over the age of twenty do not understand the simplicity of their children’s views of race—nor how such an inherent, important part of their entire conception of the world could be reduced into such an absurd, simple contraction: if Norman Mailer had looked beyond the revolution to the result of the revolution, one might have more reason to be impressed; for every revolution comes only after the point of change, and not before.
But—beyond being altogether too verbose and datedly psychological and racistly patronising—something which Eldridge Cleaver, as a minstrel, revels in—there is, at least, a genuine style to the prose.
Notes on a Native Son: Eldridge Cleaver
The vitriol expelled from tortured intellects in the name of liberation is not only a direct and deliberately controlled form of repression—as initiated and directed by the oppressors—but also, when combined with politics, has the frightening and delusional voice which so pollutes all deranged, mentally ill literatures: whether written by the psychotic or the politician; or, in this case, the psychotic politician. Thank black Jesus that Cleaver, nevertheless, has a reasonable sense of rhythm and gravitas to his writing: I will have to actually read Soul on Ice for research one day.
The Oblong Box: Edgar Allan Poe.
In regards to the ending: well, obviously.
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street: Herman Melville.
In which an autistic copywriter acts as foil to the protagonist: as usual Herr Melville fails to apply form to moral, and moral to form, and the result is the predictably entertaining, but utterly irrelevant alliterations and painfully accurate, but equally redundant, descriptive prose: out of which, nevertheless, grows one complex character (the protagonist) and a cast of simple complements who barely not thrive in the short form: their maturation stinted by some several thousand words.
A Predicament: Edgar Allan Poe.
Schadenfreude or slapstick? Must the two be mutually exclusive? What of satire when taken at full complement? http://www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1971206.htm
Selected tales: Edgar Allan Poe; Edited by John Curtis
John Curtis’ compilation includes some of my favourite Poe articles, and has arranged them in chronological order; this allows one to follow the evolution of Proe’s technical abilities: a general and equal growth in the areas of plotting, prose, characterisation and, most conspicuously, vocabulary; although he regularly returns to his favourite words no matter the point inchronology; a spider thread of: wan countenances, minute, cataracts, unneye opium engendering grandiloquent swoons, and then ingress the reposed apertures; but either egress or quit.
Instead of referring to any of my favourite articles (although, The Fall of the House of Usher was clearly caused by myalgic encephalomyelitis, and might be used to describe the few limited expansions on The Castle of Otranto’s gothic mould in which all other gothic works are cast) I should instead like to bring attention to the two articles in which one might easily condense all of Poe’s impressive, original shortform output: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Domain of Arnheim:
The former is, perhaps, not so impressive a display of ratiocination as both The Purloined Letter and The Gold-Bug (a genuine, milk-less dark chocolate of European origin) are, but that such a dryly expositional and non-fictional article can be so visually complex, detailed and prosaic is nothing short of astounding; indeed, it is one of his most clearly written and well defined articles: even the completely irrelevant characters who are described in such a taciturn air (but for the humorous condescension of the newspaper writers), are more tangible and literate than the more obviously characterised of his other personas.
The latter succinctly summarises the defining elements of Poe—literally describing his aesthetic and spiritual principles in a brief, and suitably, visionary nirvana; transcended soul; untranscended soul, depending on which religion one wishes to consult for the relevant language pertaining to joy (oh, there’s another one!). Even the composition of the story is of a classic Poe mode: like most art, the more successful of Poe’s short articles are not usually divided into three parts, but two: a single tract, then an epilogue; or an introduction and then single tract: here it is single tract and then an epilogue; the tract defining Poe’s aesthetic and spiritual conditions in achieving joy and in creating his artistic ouput, followed by the result of these principles: a lengthy description of Poe’s garden of Eden: visited by the author, and now recreated in prose; or, in fiction, as an avant-garde and impossible landscape garden.
This is the key to the success of The Mystery of Marie Rogêt: here, as in so much of Poe’s writing, reality as might be perceived by the non-visionary is thus infused with the visionary’s experience: which is, naturally, inherently and always more perfect and beautiful than reality itself can be; the visionary, instead of merely depicting reality, embellishes reality with his own vision of aesthetic perfection and bliss and, if one is empathetic enough, then this vision is more powerful than reality—unless one is a visionary oneself; in which case it is only equal: for waking reality has already been embellished and improved by one’s own joyful vision.
The Man That Was Used Up: Edgar Allan Poe.
Should this article not be considered in the context of science fiction rather than merely satire or, unbelievably, horror? The Man That Was Used up exists unnaturally not through magic or otherwise unexplained phenomenon, but through the liberal application of described, fictional technologies: technology which surely constitute as much thematic importance as the satire.
The Demolished Man: Alfred Bester.
The cartoon characters render (almost) the first half all but unbearable: limp and banal characterisation and psychological examination fail to complement the absurdly long set-up of an incredibly simple murder mystery; and in spite of the deliberately meticulous (but actually not) construction of the crime, the resolution offers the reader no catharsis—much of the back and forth between detective and criminal is little more than second-hand brutality.
But this second-hand brutality, once it starts to roll, is what makes the second half of The Demolished Man so fun. No longer is it a banal detective story, but a rollicking action-adventure, featuring a drunken Captain Haddock stumbling from trap to trap; leaving behind him a trail of obvious, incriminating brutality in an absurd psychotic fit designed to cover up his perfectly planned, but poorly executed crime.
The science fiction is merely an excuse to exaggerate the power of Freudian analysis in the form of telepathy, but it does allow for a suitably abstract finale that reaches the climax without ever losing momentum; and post-climax ends in hilariously, perfectly absurd, saccharine resolution.