American literature

NIGHTWOOD BY DJUNA BARNES

They come without being called, dog-nosing the air as though they sense a hard surface upon which they can lean or dash their heads. They claw at my heart, like a dog that has been put out for the night, with tales of infidelity, premature ejaculation, and a knife to the throat. And I sit impassively, sometimes sullenly, saying things like: ‘love means swallowing your pride and not letting the bitter taste show on your face.’ Do they believe that I can help them because I was born lost? Born lost, yes, but therefore never having known defeat. For them it is a new feeling, a new state of being, and that is why they are wild, why they writhe and howl in its strong arms. They come without being called and have their say. It is never anything I haven’t heard before. I am the defrocked priest of this parish. I am the comb they drag through their knotted hair. I tell them: read Jean Rhys. Read de Nerval. Christ, read The Daily Mail. Read Nightwood, if you must do something. Here’s your razor; here’s your rope. I cannot help you.

“I was doing well enough until you came along and kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.”

Of the many books that concern themselves with outcasts, with those on the periphery of life, Nightwood is the one I return to most often. Guido: a Jew, at a time – has there ever not been such a time? – when, and in a place where, to be Jewish was inadvisable. Guido: who is, by living in Europe, cut-off from his people both geographically and spiritually; and who, moreover, cannot accept himself, or perhaps dare not, and so pays ‘remorseless homage’ to a nobility that he has no genuine claim to. As does his son, Felix. With his mixed blood, he is perhaps even more rootless, more displaced, than his father. The wandering half-Jew. He is, we’re told, ‘everywhere from nowhere’. He is at odds with the world; and at home, if not at ease, only with the odd. There is something ‘missing and whole’ about him. He dresses, it is written, as though expecting to participate in a great event, and yet there is no event for which he could be said to be appropriately dressed. Even his hair, that symbol of vitality, strength and self worth, is wrong, for it starts ‘too far back’.

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As for the important others, I may deal with them later, if I can find them. Robin, however, is easier to pin down, although she flits around the margins of the story. Easier, because predictable, because like me. Which is to say that she lacks substance, lacks blood and guts. What is love, I once said, without fear? To love truly, successfully, one must be afraid; yet I am not, and nor is Robin. She is ‘fading’ and ‘noncommittal’; her attention, it is felt, has ‘already been taken’. She is easily appropriated – by Felix, by Nora, by Jenny – because she is not looking, or is looking, but somewhere far off, her eyes fixed on some nonexistent thing, on ‘something not yet in history’. Yes, Nightwood has sorrow and pain under its fingernails, nails hidden inside wet gloves. Even the minor characters, the off-cuts, the offal, are maimed: the girl with no legs who has at least a mouth to cry out her lover’s lament, Felix’s and Robin’s sickly and ‘strange’ child. Yes, all, all who are contained within the book are attired in grave weeds.

“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it.”

Yet they are not entirely lost; no, I wouldn’t say that. Say: avoiding themselves. Say: trying to be something they are not. Guido, remember, and Felix too, falsely lays claim to a Baronetcy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is not really a doctor, either. And the Count? ‘Her Gott,’ said the Duchess. ‘Am I what I say? Are you?’ Everywhere there is imitation, pretence. The paintings of Guido’s parents, which show a accidental familial resemblance, are ‘reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors.’ On Jenny’s finger hangs someone else’s marriage ring; Jenny, the ‘bold and authentic’ robber. But more than that: no one is any sole definitive thing. There is ambiguity, fluidity. Hedwig, Felix’s mother, who dies during childbirth, has ‘the masterly piano stroke of a man.’ Robin – a name suitable for both sexes, mark that – is a tall girl with the body of a boy. And O’Connor again? Misericordia.

Matthew-mighty-pinch-of-salt-O’Connor. Transvestite. Fabricator. Exaggerator. Drunk. Irish, but not really. Exile, certainly. His bearing is ‘apologetic’, ‘slouching, ‘pathetic.’ And yet he dominates the novel, with his mouth, with the ‘insistent hum’ of his words. Indeed, he acts almost as the narrator, or commentator. He sizes up, he diagnoses, he unleashes. Yes, it is fitting that he is a doctor, or a fake doctor, for Nightwood‘s losers drift towards him for advice, for commiseration, for illumination. He is the rock upon which they intend to lean, or fling themselves to weep, only to find that it is in fact made of sponge. He is necessary, O’Connor. Maddening at times, of course, though he is, he is indIspensable, for them and for us. His moments are the only moments when one isn’t kept at arm’s length, when one doesn’t feel as though one’s nose is pressed against aquarium glass, watching ugly fish swim in unclean water.

MOTORMAN BY DAVID OHLE

1.

Night times. Night man in the nightmare house.

The Kid blew orange smoke from wheezing mouth. The house didnotfalldown.

But he almost did.

2.

He had read Motorman. Read it twice, The Kid. It’s short on almost everything. It’s not a novel, he’d told Beagle. It has no pulse.

He thought about Moldenke, but what he thought was mysterious.

3.

“Listen up, jackass.”

“I’m listening.”

“That Moldenke,” said Beagle.

“…”

4.

That Moldenke, it is written, is puzzled, it is stated, by almost every phenomena.

He is likened, please note, to a rat.

Also: a brightly burning candle with a shortened wick, destined to burn low and give off gas.

5.

The phone rang in The Kid’s blue apartment.

“Listen, kid, give up this Moldenke business.”

“Hello? Can I help you?”

“Don’t be a jackass.”

6.

Bunce is the key; only the key is made of jelly.

And the lock is broken.

7.

With concentrated thought, The Kid tried to drown out the midnight drone, which itself was drowning out the scuttling of the night man as he ranged about the room. Bunce, he told himself, is in control. Of the lighting and of Moldenke. He tells Moldenke to do things, like put his hand in his pocket.

Reflexively, The Kid put his own hand in his pocket.

He rummaged around, and brought up air.

8.

Beagle had sent The Kid a questionnaire:

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The Kid considered these questions, unanswered.

9.

The world of Motorman, the two suns, the air.

The dying wind.

The artificial, the month, the mock war.

The resemblance to something like sky.

10.

Bunce wants blood. Or might want it.

Like the night man with Weetabix hair.

The unpinning threat of violence.

11.

The Kid called Beagle.

“Bunceresidence.”

He hung up the phone.

12.

Two days later he flicked on the TV. Beagle facing front:

“There’s a lot of weirdness, kid. A lot of odd shit. Don’t let yourself brood. Maybe you’re not meant to understand, huh? You thought of that? So there are jellymen, so what. Maybe you misdialled, huh? Maybe you got the wrong number? The wrong face in the crowd? Stop shouting out names in the hope that someone will turn around. Move on, Moldenke.”

RED HARVEST BY DASHIELL HAMMETT

I often get asked why, as someone who appears to be politically switched on, I try and avoid the news media as much as possible. Well, the thing is, the truth of the world is too much for me these days. I can’t take it. Call it cowardice if you like, but I hate feeling angry or upset all the time. I’m not a masochist. A while ago I learnt that the UK government has agreed to sell arms to countries that have been blacklisted for human rights violations, countries that – as in the case of Libya, for example – our politicians will then go on TV and condemn. And that’s nothing new, you know. This has been happening for years [Saddam, the Taliban], but, still, the two-facedness is extraordinary; it doesn’t become any easier to swallow the third, fourth, fiftieth time. But this is only one example, a dribble of spit in a vast ocean of thick snotty phlegm.

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s character talks about how ‘someday a real rain will come,’ a rain that will wash all the scum – the corrupt politicians, the pimps, the crooked businessmen etc – off the streets. I don’t advocate violence of any kind, but the film’s popularity attests to how powerful and attractive a fantasy this kind of ‘clean up’ is. It is, moreover, something that is at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, although it takes a little time to warm up to all that. The early stages of the novel are mostly concerned with what appears to be a relatively straightforward murder investigation. The Continental Op has been asked to come to Personville by Donald Willson, yet Willson is offed almost as soon as he arrives. A number of suspects are quickly identified, including Willson’s wife, his father, a local tough and his gold digger girlfriend.

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.”

However, before too long the Continental Op has collared the culprit, sown up the investigation, and really should be intent on getting the hell out of dodge. Yet he isn’t. Indeed, one gets the impression that the author was eager to get all that stuff out of the way, that he himself wasn’t particularly interested in who shot Donald Willson, and that once it is all neatly tied up the real fun can start. It is from this point onwards that one truly comes to understand why Personville is nicknamed Poisonville, as Hammett embarks on a convoluted, twisty and twisted, tale of backstabbing, corruption, power games, homicides and attempted homicides, dirty secrets and double-dealing, involving just about every prominent person in the town.

In the centre of this maelstrom of violence and immorality is the Continental Op, who appears, despite his irascible manner, to be having a whale of a time. In fact, he could be said to be the director of events, as he takes it upon himself to smoke out all the rats, play them off against each other, and, in one way or another, put them out of action. However, one should not make the mistake of thinking he is the hero of the piece, or some kind of avenging angel; his ethics are far too sketchy and dubious for that. In fact, at one point he openly admits that he wants to clean up Poisonville as revenge for the attempts upon his life during his stay, and gleefully talks about opening it up ‘from Adam’s apple to ankles.’ At times the plot comes across as being little more than a bunch of psychopaths being rounded up and manipulated by another psychopath; and the overall effect is of a grim dance, one that will never end.

“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”

It’s interesting that Red Harvest helped to pioneer the hard-boiled genre, because it only bears a superficial resemblance to the classic works that came after it. Certainly those by Raymond Chandler, who is probably the most famous titan of noir, seem safe and cosy in comparison. First of all, the Continental Op is overweight, apparently ugly, and, at 40, relatively old. He is tough, sure, and he cracks wise [although most of his one-liners are laced with spite, rather than humour], but he isn’t suave and is certainly no babe magnet. Moreover, he has absolutely no qualms about putting a slug in someone.

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[Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is generally thought to have been inspired by Red Harvest]

The femme fatale, Dinah Brand, doesn’t conform to one’s expectations either, being more fatal than femme. She is described as having stains on her dress, badly applied lipstick, and an untidy hairdo. She isn’t, it is fair to say, Jessica Rabbit. She’s also unscrupulous, with dollar signs in her eyes and just about any other place you could mention. In fact, outside of one of Balzac’s or Dickens’ misers, I’ve not encountered a character like her, i.e. one who would happily sell out her grandmother for a tarnished nickel. She does, however, have a strange kind of charm, in that there is something child-like about her attitude, her honesty vis-à-vis her motivations, and her insistence that it is only right and natural that she get paid for every service she renders. In this way, she reminded me of Undine Spragg, the villainess in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.

“You’re drunk, and I’m drunk, and I’m just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know. That’s the kind of girl I am.”

It ought to be clear by now that Red Harvest is at the grittier, darker end of the noir spectrum. There are a lot of savage and unpleasant crime novels these days, and while it cannot compete with those in terms of sheer graphic [or pornographic] brutality, there is a great deal of bloodshed, and, by the final page, the book has racked up a body count that would give Jeffrey Dahmer a stiffy. It is hard to say whether I find it admirable or not, but at no point does Hammett flinch. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, however, is just how odd this book is, how surreal almost. Bullets seem to constantly be in the air, people go to prison and then minutes later are walking the streets, bodies pile up and no one bats an eyelid [at one point the Op enters a house and steps over an unexpected corpse without even breaking stride], etc, until Poisonville stops looking like a dirty old town, and more like a Boschian Hell from which it is impossible to escape.

I got to the end of this review and realised that I hadn’t at all engaged with any potential flaws or criticisms. I enjoyed Red Harvest a lot but the book, as is the case with all books, is certainly not perfect. Therefore, so as to not ruin the structure of what is written above, I’ll note a few things here, which may be construed as negatives.

I wrote earlier that Hammett’s novel has a convoluted plot, and, well, some might actually call it ridiculous, or unbelievable, or at least hard to follow [the pace is breakneck, which gives you barely any time to catch your breath]. Moreover, the characters have very little substance, all of them being a type or one sort or another, but, having said that, I don’t know if you turn to noir for character depth. It is also worth pointing out that the book is almost entirely composed of dialogue, so that at times it reads more like a play. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, or it didn’t bother me at all, but I imagine that it might put some readers off.

THE LONG GOODBYE BY RAYMOND CHANDLER

Tom was a quiet, reserved kind of guy. Which at the time was unusual within my circle of friends. Most everyone I knew back when I first returned to Sheffield was a lush, a druggie or just plain crazy. I made friends in pubs and clubs. My friends didn’t exist in the daytime. Except Tom. He was 24/7. Normal. I was in a bad way myself, although I couldn’t see it. Perhaps the company I kept gave me a false sense of my emotional and physical well-being. When J is getting the sack because he has been on a Ketamine binge and can’t stand up for two days, and Alison is turning up for lectures with semen in her hair, you don’t feel so crummy. Everything is relative.

And everything pointed to Tom outlasting every one of us. You didn’t talk about it. You just knew. Only a fool would have thought otherwise. Yeah, Tom made fools of us all. He didn’t dance in clubs, and so you thought he was shy, standing off by himself most of the evening. He made comments about his appearance, and you credited him with a dry, deprecating sense of humour. He didn’t do drugs, didn’t take nameless girls home, and you didn’t judge, you admired him for it. What a sensible guy. If only we could be like him.

Yet sometimes I would wonder. And in my wisdom would take Tom for a drink. It was all I knew how to do. I hoped that would help somehow, that he would see it for what it was: an inadequate but heartfelt gesture of solidarity or empathy. I didn’t know what he was really thinking. You didn’t ask; he didn’t tell. That is just the way it was. And all the while he carried on slipping. A little at a time; almost imperceptibly. Until one day he was gone. The guy we thought would go places, did. And he didn’t come back.

I think about those times a lot. About Tom in particular. Mop-haired Tom, so unassuming. If his name ever now comes up people like to say his situation was hopeless. That is their comfort blanket. That he couldn’t deal with the things that were bothering him, and he couldn’t have been saved. I guess it makes them feel better to think that way. All I know is that whatever he was up against, whatever he was grappling with, he lost. That no longer surprises me. Life is a dirty fighter, I’ve found. Of course, I wish I could have done more. I wish I had. It hurts to know I failed him. Maybe there is nothing I could have done. Some people are not made to endure. But futile effort is like a shot of whisky, it can calm the nerves.

Raymond Chandler once wrote that to say goodbye is to die a little. Well, I never even got to say goodbye. It was a surprise to me that reading The Long Goodbye brought all this back up. It is not something I had expected. I was ready for wise-cracking PI’s, sultry dames, tough guys, and all-round dumb fun, but I wasn’t prepared to be so moved, to have some of my personal sore spots fingered so aggressively. I guess guilt is like a blood stain, it takes a long time to fade. But I don’t want to give the impression that the book is only worthwhile as a kind of Proustian madeleine. The truth is that many of the characters  – including Eileen Wade, strangely enough – got to me on their own terms, just like they got to Philip Marlowe. And the credit for that goes to the author.

“The tragedy of life, Howard, is not that the beautiful die young, but that they grow old and mean. It will not happen to me.”

The novel centres around the lives, and deaths, of two men, Terry Lennox and Roger Wade. As introductions go, Terry’s is one of the best. Marlowe first encounters the man hanging out of a Rolls, blind-drunk. Also in the car is his beautiful ex-wife. Immediately one gets a sense of each character’s personality, or role-to-be in the novel. The ex-wife is hard-nosed, unsympathetic, dispensable; Marlowe is, against his better judgement, and for no personal gain, drawn to Lennox and wants to help him; and Terry is vulnerable, in need of help, and likely to bring in his wake a whole lot of trouble. One understands very quickly that he is one of life’s perennial losers [a word I use without any negative connotation].

Lennox’s physical appearance is also significant. He’s a young man with a shock of white hair and comprehensive scarring on his face [which a doctor has attempted to fix with plastic surgery]. The scars were picked up during the war [and this is also significant, but I’ll touch upon that later]; they act within the novel as a physical representation of his emotional, inner life. Lennox is, both emotionally and physically, damaged goods. Marlowe isn’t in much better condition himself. He’s getting older [he’s 42], wearier. His wise-cracks, which readers seem to so cherish, struck me as angrier, or more bitter than usual, rather than admirable bravado or swagger.

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[Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe, in Robert Altman’s film version of the book]

What ties Marlowe and Lennox together is that both are, essentially, alone and feeling it. They drift towards each other out of a pretty basic human desire for contact or friendship. It is worth noting that Marlowe doesn’t know why he cares about Lennox. The men do not share interests, they do not really talk to each other all that much, but they could be said to need each other. At the beginning Terry is described by his ex-wife as ‘a lost dog,’ which is apt, but that phrase could also be applied to Marlowe too; in fact, it could be applied to every character in the book. It is interesting that the focus throughout is on moneyed people, privileged people; Chandler seems to be at pains to point out that being flush doesn’t stop you from fucking up, or getting sad. Indeed, The Long Goodbye is a terribly sad book, bleak even; its overriding message is that, as a result of two wars, the world is quickly going down the toilet, that humanity is starting to collapse under the weight of its own faeces. The wars, Chandler suggests, have taken our innocence, and left us worn-out, seedy, cynical and self-obsessed.

I’ve read elsewhere that Chandler intended for The Long Goodbye to be different from his other books. Apparently, he did not set out to write a Marlowe novel, but eventually lost his nerve. Wanting to ditch his famous narrator would indicate that the author was aching to spread his proverbial wings, was perhaps gunning for something more personal and with more depth. If that is so, then one might look to Roger Wade, the alcoholic writer, as the most obvious example, for not only is he different from what one would usually encounter in Chandler’s stuff, but he could even be said to be a stand-in for the man himself. Chandler’s own problems with drink are well-documented, but the parallels between him and Wade are not restricted to that. Both are writers, of course, but both are also struggling with their work. Wade considers himself to be a hack [he writes genre novels, historical bodice-rippers] and is tired of conforming to a formula. He even mentions his reliance upon similes, which is something that Marlowe [and by extension Chandler] also relies upon. Yet if he was taking a shot at himself here, I think Chandler is wrong to put himself down; for me, great similes are an art, and he was something of a master [he describes one man as having a face like a collapsed lung, for example]. In any case, it is clear that he felt dissatisfied with the writing process, that he found working within the PI, hard-boiled genre restricting.

“A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can’t predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.”

To this end, one finds the author experimenting a little. For example, during the Wade storyline one is allowed to read something he wrote while drunk out of his mind, which turns out to be a strange, stream-of-consciousness self-pitying ramble reminiscent of Gass’ The Tunnel or Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s great masterpiece. In fact, all the Wade chapters reminded me of Lowry, and that is a big compliment. This is not to say, however, that there isn’t any of the dumb fun I mentioned earlier. There are still dames, and femme fatales; there are murders and mysteries; there are crooks and hoodlums; and there are plenty of great one-liners, and square-jawed, big-balled machismo. It is simply that these familiar, well-worn things run alongside broader, more satisfying existential, moral concerns, while also delivering characters that we feel as though he get to know and care about.

Having said all this, it would be remiss of me to finish this review without mentioning some of the book’s less successful aspects, because it is certainly not flawless. It is episodic, and the structure is pretty poor, but then structure was never Chandler’s strong point. Nor was plot, which, here and elsewhere, is plodding and anti-climatic [although I think that is less of a problem with this particular novel]. A bigger issue, however, is the ending. Indeed, it would be a service to the author to quit about ten pages before the finish line, because the ultimate twist, the reveal [quite literally] is more than a bit silly. It is such a shame that the book ends in disappointment [for the reader and for Marlowe, I guess], because what precedes those final few pages is fantastic. In any case, The Long Goodbye is fit to stand beside any novel you care to name; it is a Shakespearean tragedy, with a two-day hangover and old lipstick smears on its pillow.

SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW BY WILLIAM MAXWELL

In times of unhappiness my mind rummages around in the past for poignant or painful memories, as though seeking some kind of brotherhood or solidarity; they need not be alike, the present feeling and the memory, in any way other than sharing the quality of being hurtful. Indeed, I may lose a job or a girlfriend and what my mind will turn up, will nose out like a bloodhound, will be something like Marc Richardson standing outside Thomas Rotherham College one afternoon. Marc was an ugly ginger-haired boy who had been in my class at school, who, despite the fact that we had no common interests, had somehow managed to become my friend, in the way that children make friendships by seemingly stumbling blindly, mindlessly into them. One day, while still at school, he had turned up with a squirrel’s tail as a present for me. He had shot the creature himself and thought I would appreciate the gift as I had spoken of my admiration for the animals. I hadn’t the heart to tell him how much what he had done disgusted me.

I hadn’t seen him since leaving school, hadn’t, in truth, really given him that much thought. Until that day, the day I spotted him outside the entrance to my college. I have no knowledge of why he was there, because I did not ask him, although I knew that he was not a fellow student. I do not know, either, how he felt upon seeing me, whether it caused him any distress, like it did me. It was not, as may be anticipated, the encroaching of one world, my school-life and my childhood, upon another, my college-life and my adolescence, that so distressed me, although I cannot say that that was pleasurable, it was his missing tooth, one at the very front of his mouth. Marc’s missing tooth, I see now, although I didn’t see it then, was significant only in so much that it was missing, in other words it was the fact that it was once there, that I had seen it, that meant that I felt its absence so strongly. As embarrassing as it is, it made me terribly sad to see that space in his upper gum; and for some reason I have lived with a kind of guilt ever since, I have clung to it as though it was the breast of a stout motherly woman. Where is his life taking him, that once tough little boy who had tried to win my affection? What else has he lost along the way?

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[Alberto Giacometti’s Palace at 4 a.m., which is discussed in the novel]

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow trades upon similar feelings and ideas, albeit the story involves far more drama. It begins with a murder, although it cannot be called a mystery. We know almost straight away that the culprit is Clarence Smith, the victim his friend Lloyd Wilson. The narrator, however, soon moves away from the murder to discussing his own childhood, which was affected by the death of his mother. The narrator was a deeply sensitive child, almost something of a loner, but certainly quiet and thoughtful. His mother’s passing appears to have made of his childhood something of a labour, something to press on through, rather than a joy. He struggles to connect with his father, his brothers, other children. Yet one day he meets a boy, Cletus Smith, the son of Clarence, the murderer. The two play together, without communicating much.

“Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.”

On one level the novel is about grief and about how you cope with what happens to you, or around you, as a child. The landscape of the narrator’s childhood was irrevocably changed by his mother’s death; Cletus’ was altered by his father’s actions [and his mother’s – who cheated on his father, which provided the motive]. We like to think that children are robust, that they take everything in their stride. Indeed, that is the message of another book I read recently, Hughes’ High Wind In Jamaica. Maxwell disagrees. He suggests that children don’t shrug bad things off, they don’t plough on hardily. They endure, yes, they get through it, because they must, because what other option do they have? It is interesting that the adults deal with their grief differently, that they, unlike the two boys, find a solution or a way out: the narrator’s father remarries, and Clarence Smith – whose grief is losing his wife to his best friend – kills a man and then kills himself.

“Who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.”

So Long, See You Tomorrow is also, quite clearly, about memory and guilt. The narrator, who at the time of writing is an old man. admits that what he remembers of his childhood might not be entirely accurate. How can it be? No one’s memories are flawless. In the second half of the novel he actually recreates, tells the story of, what happened between the Smiths and the Wilsons, how the relationship developed between LLoyd and Fern etc, events that he could not possibly have been privy to. This is something that we all do, or certainly I do. I hear about certain incidents, and I cannot help but try and act out the before, during and after, in my imagination. What did such-and-such say, how did such-and-such feel, how did this event even come about? It’s a kind of theatrical empathy, I guess. In terms of guilt, the narrator feels as though he let Cletus down in some way, just as I do with Marc Richardson. It’s funny how powerful childhood experiences are. He barely knew Cletus; I knew Marc only superficially. Both of us wish we could have said something, done something, reached out….but we were kids ourselves, and even adults don’t know how to behave, so what chance did we have?

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”

So far, I imagine I have given the impression that the book really touched me. To a certain extent that is true. Yes, I saw something of myself in it, and that always troubles my emotional equilibrium, but large parts of the book also bored me somewhat. For example, the narrator gives us the bones of the Wilson-Smith story in the first half, and therefore much of what he relates in the second half feels like unnecessary repetition, even if it is fleshed out a little. Moreover, Maxwell’s prose is frequently praised, and while I like the general tone and I thought he provided some nice insights and some impressive lines, it never really got my pulse racing. In short, I think the dubious quality of this review is, in a way, a representation of my experience of what I read: a bit so-so, a bit lacking in inspiration.

MOBY DICK BY HERMAN MELVILLE

I’ve been obsessed with the sea for as long as I can remember. When I was a child I would regularly listen to the shipping forecast on the radio; and as a teenager I fell asleep most nights to the sound of rolling waves, courtesy of one of those soothing meditation-type cds that my mother had bought in a HMV sale. It is not, I think, difficult to understand my obsession, being, as I was, an especially unhappy young man who had frequent, intense fantasies about escaping my hometown, my life; and so the sea  – alien, distant, mysterious and suggestive of freedom – was always likely to seem attractive to me. In this way, you could call me Ismail too.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

As I plucked Moby Dick from the bookshelf it immediately struck me as smaller than I thought it would be, than I remembered it as being. Perhaps it is the way that people speak, or write, about it, as though it is this mammoth thing, THE white whale of white whales, that convinces you, dupes you, into thinking that it is some wrist-wrecking 900 pager. I think that readers fear the thing, tremble before it, and so it swells in size and girth, becomes more imposing than it actually is, in the same way that people who are scared of house-spiders see them as bigger than they are in reality. Or maybe it is simply the case that your own perspective changes as you age and grow, so that what was big to me at 14, when I first read the book, is now – with In Search of Lost Time, The Tale of Genji etc under my belt – a trifling thing.

Despite the book’s reputation as being difficult and unwelcoming, the opening 150 or so pages are actually very easy to navigate, being conventionally plotted and, for the most part, light in tone. These pages focus on Ismail’s account of his and Queequeg’s friendship, and bring us to the point at which they board the Pequod. Moby Dick’s basic plot and central characters are so well-known that one cannot, therefore, approach the meeting of the two men in the same way as the original audience would; we will not be concerned about Ismail sharing a bed with Queequeg the cannibal and harpooneer, we do not see him as a danger or even as something alien, because he is so familiar to us. Yet, while some of the tension may have been sucked out of their initial encounter, the relationship remains one of the most interesting and surprising [not to mention homoerotic] in all literature.

“For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Even taking into account what we are likely to know in advance, there’s a great sense of Melville bucking your expectations. One must remember that although Queequeg isn’t perceived as a danger by us, both he and Ismail are seamen and would-be whalers [that so manly, often brutish occupation], and the book was written in the 1800’s, and so one would not expect these two men to bond so quickly and intensely, especially as they are not able to communicate properly. Consider how, even now, people are often wary of strangers, and even warier of those who look and sound so different to themselves. Yes, it is easy to make jokes about a couple of dudes sleeping together [and Melville does nothing to discourage these jokes – having Ismail wake up with Queequeg’s arm thrown over him], but there is something so refreshing, even touching, about the tenderness they show towards each other.

Ultimately, the story of Ismail and Queequeg’s friendship is one of tolerance and understanding; so much so, in fact, that it is a positive example to us all. Not only does Ismail not treat his bunkmate as a dangerous savage, as something frightening and other, but he takes an active interest in him, his culture and his religion. There is a scene in the novel when Queequeg is engaged in worship, which involves a little doll, Yojo, and some wood shavings. Many of us would do roll his eyes or mock, But Ismail actually participates in the ritual. There is something almost child-like about this complete acceptance of another person’s differences, and the eagerness to learn about the things that are important to someone else, rather than judging harshly out of ignorance.

While all may seem tranquil, good-natured, and easy-going, during the opening of the novel, there are hints throughout of something darker stealing up on Ismail’s [and the reader’s] shoulder. There is, first of all, the innkeeper, Peter Coffin, whose name, in the Dickensian tradition, is clearly significant; there is the Inn sign that resembles, we’re told, a gallows; there is the gloomy sermon about Jonah and the whale, and so on. Most telling, however, is the episode involving Elijah, a strange, unnerving little man who appears to delight in teasing Ismail about the danger, or certain disaster, involved in sailing on the Pequod. Elijah, as I am sure most of you know, is the name of a man who features in the Bible as a prophet; indeed, the title of the chapter is The Prophet, and so one is left in little doubt that Melville’s Elijah knows his onions, so to speak.

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The something darker that is being hinted at is, of course, Ahab, who makes his first appearance nearly two hundred pages into the book. This delay may be frustrating for impatient folk who want to get straight to the money shot, but keeping Ahab up his sleeve for so long is, I feel, one of Melville’s most successful moves, for, by the time he does show up, the boat is on the water, and so there is, for the crew, no backing out. This suggestion that the crew are essentially trapped on a ship with a madman, that they have, in a sense, been duped into becoming part of a madman’s dire crusade, gives the book a claustrophobic, tense atmosphere that is more usually found in straight horror narratives [something like The Shining, for example, trades upon a similar idea]. This is not to say that everyone is frantic and wringing their hands, but it is certainly the case that they all signed up under false pretences and are wary of Ahab.

As for the man himself, there has been so much spoken and written about the peg-legged captain that it seems almost pointless to rake over all that again, but one simply cannot ignore him. There is much in literature, as in life, that fails to live up to expectations, but Ahab isn’t one of them; he is everything that you want him to be: larger-than-life, enigmatic, tyrannical and unpredictable. Early in the novel, before he walks [or limps] onstage himself, he is described as a ‘ungodly, godlike man’ and I think that this is especially apt. One way to view Ahab’s obsession with the whale is as a manifestation of a god-complex, as a man trying to reign supreme over the natural world. I’ve long been interested in the psychology of men [it is usually, but not always men] who seek to conquer nature, by climbing large mountains or hunting tigers and so on. To my mind, what these people are trying to do is prove that they are better than, that they can bring to heel, the natural world, as though it has a consciousness that can acknowledge the defeat. It is, I believe, born out of a feeling of insignificance, or smallness. They look at this extraordinary, powerful force, and feel dwarfed by it, feel inferior at the side of it.

“He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

On one occasion, Ahab speaks of the whale as a kind of wall, through which he must break, the meaning of which isn’t clear to me, but it does indicate that he doesn’t want to kill the creature purely out of revenge for having lost his leg to it. Many of his speeches are rants or strange quasi- mystical, philosophical soliloquies; at other times it is as though he were trying to inspire an army before entering into battle, and certainly one can see many parallels between the attitudes and action in the novel and war. Starbuck is the one character on board who openly, consistently, doubts his chief; indeed, he considers his monomania, vis-vis the beast, as a kind of dereliction of duty and his desire to avenge himself against it as ‘blasphemy.’ This blasphemy comment is interesting, because it seems to suggest, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, that there is a religious element to the chase, that Starbuck sees, as I myself do, Ahab as attempting to play God, or simply that by demonising the whale, by giving it conscious malice, he is putting it on the same level as a human being. As for the whale itself, I have heard, or read, it being described as a stand-in for many things, God being amongst them, but it is worth pointing out that Ismail cautions against allegory; the whale is, he writes, simply a whale. However, the Jeroboam’s Story chapter, featuring the prophet Gabriel, gives weight to the God theory. When the Jeroboam spies the white whale, Gabriel warns his shipmates not to go after it, believing it to be ‘the Shaker God incarnated,’ and then, when they come into contact with the Pequod, predicts that Ahab will die if he too attempts to kill it.

[P] MOVES AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. HE LIGHTS A CIGARETTE AND STANDS WITH HIS BACK AGAINST A WALL

[Quietly, to himself] “Yea, tis true, tis true that ye sail upon tranquil waters for a time, but there be choppier seas to navigate. Look, look towards the middle distance: ahoy there, Cetology chapter! Aye, the sun doth go down, mates. Be not lulled unto sleep by that darkness, for ye will find thy craft capsiz’d while ye slumber. Do ye want to know about whales, say? Ask thyself: how much do ye want to know? Ye will know more’n ye ever thought ye’d need to know, before ye come into port. One on, one off! Aye, the narrative be reg’larly interrupted by chapters dedicat’d to the history of whaling, the nature and biology of whales…hold fast, mates, if ye be of little patience! Inexcusable? Unreadable? Aye, so some say. Yet, tis a book about whaling and whales, is it not? Pray, ask thyself: what was but Melville’s aim? I wager t’was not to bore thee. ‘Haps he thought ye whale-folk? Nay. Why, then? To instruct, to inform? Tis possible; no doubt he thought ye could profit by some background knowledge. But did ever an author care so much about his reader’s minds as to sabotage his own narrative? More likely he had a keener purpose in sight. Be it tempo, mates? A way of drawing out the tension? Or ‘haps tis contrast? Squalls and storms, madness and obsession, follow’d by stillness and calm, rationality and learning? Taking turns! Could be, could be…”

For those not familiar with Moby Dick, one of the most surprising elements is how experimental or idiosyncratic it is. Certainly, when I read it the first time I was not expecting Shakespearean soliloquies or chapters in the form of a play. Nor was I expecting quite so much of the book to be dedicated to short essays on the history and nature of whaling and whales. During this reread, I found myself in two minds about what some readers call the boring chapters. For the most part, I like the asides, the tangents, the almost encyclopedic approach; but I also think some of it could have been embedded in the narrative/story, that there are certain things that we should have seen the Pequod’s crew themselves doing or saying, rather than cutting away to a chapter that is entirely disconnected from the main storyline. Moreover, I think there are too many of these chapters in the middle section of the book. As I said, I mostly enjoyed them, but they do break up the story too frequently and, more significantly, for too long. For too long you are taken away from the Pequod, and so one is likely to forget what is happening on board. I’m also of the opinion that character development suffers due to Melville’s or Ismail’s preoccupation with understanding whales from every conceivable angle [it is interesting, as an aside, that one could call both Ismail and Ahab obsessed – one with knowledge or enlightenment and the other with destruction]; for example, early in the book one really feels as though you are getting to know Ismail and Queequeg, and one is given tantalising glimpses of Starbuck and Stubb’s characters, but this is almost entirely dropped when I would have liked it to be explored in more detail. Of course, the author could have done both, but he didn’t and one feels as though he chose one approach over the other.

All this is not to say that I don’t think these chapters serve a purpose. One can justify them in many ways: as a way of drawing out the tension of the chase, as a way of giving greater depth to the main storyline, etc. Ismail frequently explains a certain aspect of whaling and then says that this new knowledge will help one to understand something later in the book. In any case, no quibble or criticism I could make ought to be considered a serious one. Moby Dick belongs in the pantheon of the world’s greatest, most important, most profound, and most enjoyable, books. Really, no review can do justice to Melville’s extraordinary, immortal work. Everyone should read it at least once, even if, like a friend of mine, you have, to quote, ‘no fucking interest in fucking whales.’ Ah, see, it’s not really about whales. It is, as with all essential books, about you; it is about life.

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY BY FLANNERY O’CONNOR

So, there’s this big Thomas Bernhard fan and, get this, he starts reading a book by Flannery O’Connor, who he loves, right, ordinarily anyway, and about 100 pages into the thing he finds himself complaining about the, uh, repetition. Like, what the fuck, huh? You like repetition, dude, you even reviewed a book called Repetition and raved about it. And, hello, Thomas Bernhard?? He’s all repetition; he writes like one goddamn sentence and then just, uh, repeats it hundreds of times for something like 200 pages. And I told him this, I told him that he was being inconsistent, that there was just no way he could slam the O’Connor book for being repetitive, not with a clear conscience, and he said: ‘go fuck yourself’, which is rude. But then he said ‘no wait, let me explain.’ And I said, ‘go on.’ And he said, ‘repetition is fine when it’s intended, when it’s a tool that the author uses to create a specific effect.’ I nodded at this, because these were sage words. ‘But I didn’t get that impression from the O’Connor book. It didn’t feel like a style choice, but more like lazy writing.’ I wanted to say that he couldn’t possibly know this. Lazy writing? What you ever wrote, Mr Big Shot? Sweet F.A., that’s what. ‘The thing is, the book is about a crazy old man who kidnaps this kid, and then the old man dies and the now also crazy kid buries him and then burns down the house, and just think how irritated I must have  been by the writing to want to shut a book about all that.’ ‘You musta,’ I said, ‘because that sounds awesome.’ ‘It does, right? But she kept repeating herself, like she must have told me a gazillion times that the kid had been told he was to be a prophet – I heard you the first time, Flannery! A prophet, I get it – and how the old guy felt as though, when he was living with the kid’s uncle, he was being investigated by him – investigated! No need to make a mental note of that, cos Flannery will keep reminding you of it – and worst of all she kept describing how everyone was looking at everyone else, literally all the time, ten times a page.’ ‘People look at other people’, I said, ‘I’m looking at you right now.’ ‘Yeah, I know. But it’s a given though, isn’t it? People look at people. I don’t need a writer to tell me that someone’s looking at someone all the time. He looked! He stared! He glanced! She looked! She stared! They looked! They goddamn stared! You looking at me? Well there’s nobody else here! [Singing] Me looking at you, you looking at me, it’s always the same, it’s just a shame, that’s all. That’s a line from a song by Genesis! Ge-nes-is. This book…made me think…of Genesis. You know, Phil Collins? Smug bastard? That ain’t right, that just ain’t right.’ ‘No, I can see that,’ I said. Then he started to cry, and I felt bad. Poor bastard. Genesis.