read this or kill yourself

Read This or Kill Yourself: Maud Casey’s The Man Who Walked Away

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

It’s not often that I finish a book, especially one I really liked, where I have nothing to say. I tend to be able to situate it somewhere in my mind, somewhere among the various books of various types that I’ve sat down with, be it cultures or subcultures of literature, genre fiction, mass-market texts, or theory. Typically, I’m able to find some angle to enter with. But this book, Maud Casey’s The Man Who Walked Away, is not exactly typical. Let me explain.

Set in 19th century France during the dawn of psychiatry, this novel tells the story of Albert, a man who, again and again, wakes to find himself walking across Europe (from Paris to Constantinople and everywhere in between), pathologically walking, blacking out, masturbating, and walking some more, until one day, he walks himself back to his hometown and is placed in an asylum and under the care of the Doctor. But this isn’t exactly the story. The novel also tells the story of the Doctor, a man who’s unsatisfied with the current psychiatric suggestion that mental illness is neurological, who, in his own trauma, sees something in the newly arrived Albert and begins, in equal parts professional care-giving and obsession, to help Albert uncover if not the story of his illness, the source of it, the “invisible lesion” that set him walking in the first place.

Though that’s not exactly right either. The novel also sets out to tell the story of telling stories from pieces, of how to make coherence (and even something larger, art) arise from one man’s story with an unremembered plot, another man’s obsession whose motivations are similarly psychologically inaccessible, and from the voices of a handful of other patients at the asylum, each with their own invisible lesions, their own traumas that fail to cohere, become too large for them to bear, and which Casey consciously avoids fleshing out. In other words, this is not a psychological mystery during which we, with the help of the Doctor, piece back together anyone’s broken story as a way of healing, of getting over things. Instead, we get the pieces, the voices, the gaps in story and sense, and the story of using those gaps to create, in Casey’s words, “astonishment,” but that of a very particular, almost Stein-ien kind.

I really can’t help but recall the beginning of the “Objects” section in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons:

A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Reading Stein, to me, produces the same kind of astonishment as The Man Who Walked Away. While not nearly so experimental in her prose style (of which we’re all, I think, eternally grateful), Casey’s mode—of alternating chapters centering around Albert and the Doctor, of italicized refrains of “Listen” and “He returns”, of different pieces of a fable in which a boy grows up with one arm a bird-wing—creates a calculated confusion that, combined with her sure-footed writing style, comes across as ethereal, otherworldly, as if the novel were written with a different set of rules in which story doesn’t matter (though I assure you that there’s a classical plot guiding everything), information is everywhere, and psychological access to anyone is next to impossible. We get the characters’ problems, their stories, but never their pathologies; pathology, in a way, becomes synonymous with astonishment and is always just out of reach, just beyond sense, but which, for us as readers trained to psychologize as a part of reading and for the patients and doctors desperate to cure and be cured, hangs just outside what’s written, demanding to be discovered.

In many ways, the novel works as similar to one of the text’s recurring tropes: the vase. In various places the asylum is referred to as a vase, the body a vase, the mind making sense of experience a vase. For Casey, the idea of a vase, fundamentally, is not a place to display dead flowers but a container that makes sense of difference, that creates and maintains a kind of homeostasis by gathering and displaying together everything it’s gathered. This becomes synonymous with well-being; not the discarding of dead flowers or the fertilizing of the water but the simple fact of everything being held together, everything able to be acknowledged, to fit in a single container. Disturbance (which only receives positive or negative value when the experiencer acknowledges or fails to grasp his/her “vase”), then, is a vase overflowing, a too-much-ness in which one is unable to account for every piece inside the container; instead, there’s an excess/access problem in which something overwhelming is just a bit out of reach, whether it be coherence, a moment forgotten, an unknown cause; something known but not quite grasped which, nevertheless, acts and causes action. To put it another way, Casey’s astonishment is created by being comfortably contained while experiencing an excess while the text’s illness/pathology is created by lacking a sense of containment while still being overwhelmed by the surety that there’s even more one can’t see.

So when I say that this is an astonishing novel, please do not misunderstand me as using a praise-y abstraction to avoid getting to the meat of the text. This is a book that, on the sentence-level, the chapter-level, and the book-level, creates a sense of coherence, of stability and story and pleasure while simultaneously disorienting, overwhelming with stories and moments and juxtapositions. While never out of control, the text is always, and assuredly so, too much, at any moment, to think or speak. This book is as simple and complex, accessible and inaccessible, as we are, and that, achievement enough, is astonishing.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image: NPR

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Anne Carson’s Red Doc> – An Artwork on the Edge of Sense

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

Where you headed /
bit further along the road /
why

you running / oh I often do
/ are you

meeting someone / yes
/ who / a stranger / how
will

you recognize each other /
in a strange way / strange

to both of you / that

would have been a
problem / it’s no longer a
problem / no

(p. 119)

 

To call Anne Carson’s work, in general, very difficult would probably be an understatement. I mean, it’s not inaccessible nor is it written in cryptograms (though, for a very interesting interpretation of conceptual, cryptographic poetry, check this out), but it’s definitely the kind of work that, if you found yourself on an overseas flight—or stuck on a very long journey—and all you had was Red Doc>, you might be a little upset. But you shouldn’t be.

Red Doc> is a kind of follow-up to Carson’s 1998 title Autobiography of Red, a myth-in-novel-in-verse (thing) retelling Herakles’ tenth labor, to kill Geryon, from a different perspective, instead exploring Geryon’s coming of age, coming to terms with his homosexual love for his pal Herakles, and his artistry as a photographer. What may be most vital to understanding about Autobiography of Red, for my purposes anyway, is that it makes sense. It’s clearly more committed to behaving like a novel-in-verse, a transmission of plot with moments of elevation. It’s coming of age, at times moving, and well reviewed by The New York Times Book Review. Red Doc>, on the other hand, is not. In fact, why don’t you take a minute to peruse other reviews of this book. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Whether you chose to or not, what you’ll find is that, largely, no one knows what to do with it. Daisy Fried of The New York Times praises Carson, recommends you read it, and goes on to call it a failed novel but that it “succeeds at linguistic confrontation” (whatever that means) while The Guardian goes a bit further, kind of paraphrasing the plot (because yes, there is a kind of plot) before ruminating over the title itself. Both agree that the heart of the work (because both reviewers believe poetry has such a thing) lies in Geryon (here G)’s final conversations with his mother at the end.

For the time being, though, I’d like to avoid talking about the ending, the place where we see a somewhat traditional rumination on time, mortality, mothers and sons, etc. because there are approximately 150 pages that deal with all sorts of other, in my mind more vital (and certainly more useful), thoughts, ideas, and tropes. Buckle up; this will be as silly as it is pretentious.

Let me get the kind-of plot out of the way. The book opens on G, middle-aged, having trouble coping with age, the loss of his looks, his friends, while still (sort of) tending a herd of musk oxen. He meets back up with Herakles, here Sad But Great (Sad for short) who’s deeply troubled with post-war PTSD, and they go on a kind of picaresque road-trip with the artist Ida to a glacial lake (which features a glacial rift leading toward a cavern filled with “ice bats” who live in—I kid you not—Batcatraz), and then to an autoshop / clinic, presumably for people with mental health issues. There are volcanic eruptions and riots and eventually G returns to his mother.

The plot, though, comes across as kind of meaningless. And maybe it is. Even Carson, talking through one of the characters in the book (I tried hard to find it; I really did), claims that plot is a house and poetry is the man on fire running through it. So why have it at all? Why waste time jerking us around, forcing us to re-orient ourselves again and again in different, less and less comprehensible situations, obscuring real understanding of G or Sad of Ida or 4NO, each characters who—whether haunted by the past or the rapidly coming future (4NO is a prophet of five seconds into the future)—are unable to access the present moment. Why not just write a book of poems thematically structured so that we may comfortably interrogate the man on fire?

I think that, for two reasons, the answer lies in the poem/section I provided in the epigraph. First (and probably most obvious) is that this book isn’t an interrogation of a single character; it works as dialectic (a conversation between at least two parties). Many of the poems are structured as conversations, and, section to section, character to character, what we are left with is this. Try as we might, there is no patterned similarity or concern linking these various players. They’re just, fundamentally, different. But wait Austin, I’m sure you’re thinking (because I’m thinking it too), what about the fact that none of the mains can access the present moment? That each is driven, in some way or another, by some subconscious concern, be it the past or the future? Isn’t that a pattern?

Yes. Yes it is. Sort of. However, to simply link these characters together—one obsessed with his aging body, his sexuality, his herd, another whose mind is ravaged by way, another who’s only access to the present is only seeing five seconds into the future—under such an abstract pattern is incredibly reductive. It seems that, were we being asked to drop the specifics of each concern, to generalize and lump together each character to fit our idea of coherence, what’s lost is profoundly strange and profoundly real. Yes, I do think that the pattern of similarity is important—it is, after all, what makes us culturally (maybe even ontologically) recognizable to one another, empathizable with one another—but I think that, with the jumps in plot considered against the organization of the book (which poems/sections come after each other), we’ll see a kind of freedom, an intentional strangeness that’s pointing toward itself.

Which brings me to the second reason I chose the epigraph that I did: the lines “how will you recognize each other / in a strange way.” What we’re being pointed toward, even with the goddamned > in the book’s title, is not simply Anne Carson’s I’m a super badass hijinks. Instead, it’s a statement of strange recognition, a new kind of identification that occurs beyond what we, as a culture of people, are conscious of. I’d bet dollars to donuts (because I love donuts) that the majority of you look at the title and think that looks like a file I’d save on my computer, and it is! That’s the whole story of how Carson titled the book. But beyond that, it’s a piece of information that communicates similarity and similar understandings to us despite the fact that, linguistically/grammatically/philosophically, it is meaningless and just plain strange. The surrealist picaresque plot of the book, then, the organization, the characters’ relationships with one another, the fact that this is sort of a novel, doesn’t exist to create what most of us would classically think of as coherence. After all, we all know what a novel does: It uses plot to move a theme toward resolution with characters either furthering or impeding that progress. And a poem: It’s a pattern of language that makes the incoherent cohere. Here, we have those things, but also we don’t. As much as there seems to be a plot, seems to be patterns coalescing toward an identifiable meaning, there isn’t. What we come to instead is a profound strangeness and a profound identification alike (with characters and poems and forms and genres), an experience of the unheimlich, the uncanny, a thing both twisted and recognizable, home and not. We see the human, the mythic, the literary, the poetic, the cultural, and, at the same time, we see none of it, just strangeness, some unidentifiable piece of work existing completely on its own and in a vacuum.

When I made the statement in the title that Red Doc> exists on the edge of sense, I meant that sincerely and even as a kind of celebration. This is not a conceptual poetry that can’t be read, but, at the same time, it certainly isn’t the kind of poetry or novel that you’re likely used to reading. It’s an artwork of the mind and its reality, of the dissimilarity that each of us knows to be true about ourselves and, ultimately, what it means to connect with another, to be alongside them in life, on a journey, in time when this is the case. To never escape our shit while moving forward through time. To be with another and to know nothing of them, to see their cruelty and damage and violence and insanity and their capacity to care, to feel, to empathize and identify. To “be / suspended in the lives of/ others and still not.” This is a book about being.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: Telegraph

Read This or Kill Yourself: The Invention of Influence by Peter Cole

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

“Who wants to read Kabbalist poetry?” asked no one, ever. In fact, when this book was recommended to me (I’m a sucker for New Directions Press and a friend said it was pretty good), I didn’t have any sense of what a Jewish poetry might even look like, much less a Kabbalistic Jewish poetry. Yet here we are, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Really, truly, this book (parts of it anyway) are knock-your-face-off-shit-your-pants good. And I don’t say that often. A drunk and very sad guy I know recently sent me a tweet-manifesto decreeing, “contemporary poetry has stagnated.” Obviously, this is stupid. Fields don’t stagnate.

What this guy was actually talking about (though he was likely far too drunk to realize it) is that his own particular expectation of poetry — his idea of poems — wasn’t being met. And that’s fine; I get that. In fact, on a particularly good day (today isn’t one), I might go so far as to make the claim that if you don’t find that, largely, current poetry (i.e. a body of poetry that hasn’t been eroded to its core by time, if you will) is unsatisfying, (though not stagnant), then you’re fucking stupid, but I won’t because I don’t feel well, and I’m tired of defending myself against the anyone-can-write-poetry crowd who believe that phone books, framed in just the right way, are art. What I will say is this: there’s a reason that, Charles Wright (in some poem I spent half an hour looking for but couldn’t find) writes “make your song/your favorite”; that with something so diverse, so culturally and intellectually and ideologically differentiated within itself as poetry is, idiosyncratic preferences are going to express themselves, whether or not you’re too lazy or drunk to realize it.

I say all this to impress upon you two separate things:

1) that this book speaks to me, my sensibilities and concerns as a poet and a human being, it is the ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside [me] (Kafka) that I’ve been looking for for about six months and, more importantly,

2) my little aside gets at the core of the book’s intellectual project: that (in the Kabbalist idiom) angels, which become synonymous with epiphanies and artworks throughout the text, are the product of influence… but not in a bad way. Rather, the angel/epiphany/artwork is the result of what’s learned, inherited, through blood and culture and socialization, internalized by you, and changed so that, when you see it/speak it/write it in the outside world, it is both you and not, an unknown knowledge you’ve received and re-articulated as your self. It is both you and not you, and, in being so, it changes you.

Now, I know that last paragraph reads like heady grad-school crap. I know it. So, let me try to make a metaphor (though Cole’s are much more arresting): Imagine moving to a new, profoundly regional part of the country (say, Alabama) and moving into your grandmother’s old house. By living there, interacting there, you’ll be inherently changed, you’ll adapt and adjust without even realizing it, but you’ll still retain who you were prior to the move. Some day, you look in the mirror and think: Fuck, I’m not who I used to be at all. That’s the sort of commonplace, everyone-has-experienced-this-thing dulling of Cole’s project. Now, take that experience of moving and internalizing and realizing, and amplify it to mystico-spiritual, super-introspective heights. Are you starting to get the picture?

At the center of this book (literally, section II of III), the titular (title poem) “The Invention of Influence: An Agon” rests, a behemoth of a poem completely obsessed with (and in many parts, comprised of the writing of) the tragic Victor Tausk, a suicide and disciple of Freud who was the first to use the language “The Influencing Machine” to consider a schizophrenic’s perception of his/her own mental capacity. The “influencing machine” Cole-as-Tausk writes “makes them see pictures. It produces/thoughts and feelings, and also removes them,/by means of mysterious forces./It brings about changes within the body—/ sensation and even emission,/ a palpable kind of impregnation,/ as one becomes host.” With this idea, Cole weaves a thread through mental illness, the Kabbalist Jewish experience (which he takes very seriously), and Tausk’s suicide (resulting, it seems, from his inability to stop doing the work Freud was doing, to remove the influence of his teacher and to do his own work, to see that he has his own, individuated vision of psychoanalysis (as opposed to regurgitation of another master’s thoughts)). And what’s amazing, what truly sets all this apart, is, formally, just how well he does it.

I’m sure the non-poetry crowd is, at this point, thinking I don’t give a fuck. Stop talking or I’ll stop reading. They’re thinking please don’t talk about how nearly the entire book is written, classically in couplets or quatrains and then juxtaposed, fragmented, against each other, or how most poems are rhymed (some not quite so silently as I’d like, though maybe that’s the point), how the poem “On Coupling” argues that couplets are used to join unlike things (remember the vision of the angel as simultaneously the self and the internalized influence??) and that rhyme creates the effect of simultaneously going backward (into what we’ve internalized) and forward (into the exterior world in the present moment and beyond), that quatrains, two rhymes set in four lines, are as “Ezekiel’s/four-faced cherubs facing at once/every direction.”

So I won’t. I won’t talk about it. Instead, I’ll suggest that you give a long, hard thought to why Cole might write in such a kind of modern/postmodern, jagged classicism, or in a verse-form itself so dedicated to joining two things at once, so appropriate for moving backwards (in rhyme) and forwards (because we can’t read the same two goddamn lines forever) when talking about influence and artwork and angels.

This book walks a fine line between the pointedly post-modern—pastiche, fracture and juxtaposition, and ambiguity—and the pointedly classical—rhymed, measured, searching for “wisdom” and “truth” and all that shit no one believes exists anymore—, and it’s gorgeous. Really.

What I’ll leave you with is a great, difficult, short poem from the book. If you don’t read the book, kill yourself. If you don’t read this poem, kill yourself twice.

The Reluctant Kabbalist’s Sonnet

It is known that “desire” is, numerologically, … “the essence of speech.”

Avraham Abulafia, “The Treasures of the Hidden Eden.”

It’s hard to explain What was inside came
through what had been between, although it seems
that what had been within remained the same
Is that so hard to explain It took some time
which was, in passing, made distinctly strange
As though the world without had been rearranged,
forcing us to change: what was beyond
suddenly lying within, and what had lain
deep inside—now… apparently gone
Words are seeds, like tastes on another’s tongue
Which doesn’t explain—how what’s inside comes
through what is always in between, that seam
of being For what’s within, within remains,
as though it had slipped across the lips of a dream

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: New Directions

Read This or Kill Yourself: Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

seiobo

Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself, we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

If you haven’t heard of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, you’re not in the minority. To be completely honest, the only reason I’m aware of him (and this book) is that I was trying to impress the book reviewer at The Washington Post so he’d help me get a better job (look how well that worked out).

Cool story, huh?

Anyway, Krasznahorkai is Hungarian, super allusive, and has only had a handful of books translated into English over the last decade or so. To us readers of English literature (even us grad school pricks), he’s pretty fucking remote. But, as with many things we’ve never heard of (or are just starting to see creeping up on our cultural radar screens), this guy is really, really good. Just read this excerpt. Can you believe how. fucking. good. this. guy. is?

Let me start again.

It might help to describe the basics of this book first. It’s hard to say whether Seiobo There Below (henceforth STB) is a novel or a collection of stories, but I’m not sure that the distinction between the two would be, in any way, meaningful to the understanding of the book. It’s definitely divided into sections (that are numbered using primes to imply a kind of “golden spiral” relationship between the sections [hence the impossibility of determining whether to read it as a whole or as discrete stories]), none of which are connected in any way but by theme. All of these pieces, in their own ways, are obsessed with the moment of transcendence through art, following various makers, protégés, and tourists through strange times, places, and works of art.

For example, in STB, you’ll read incredibly thorough accounts of a character consumed by the process of crafting a mask for the Japanese Noh Theater, another wandering through Italy to stare at an artwork he’s seen before, another exploring the Alhambra trying to make sense of the impossibility of knowing what the architectural masterpiece could have possibly been intended for, and another watching a bird standing in the middle of a river. Even as I’m writing this, I’m thinking to myself, it’s impossible that this book isn’t the most boring, most pretentious thing in town, but it’s not! It just isn’t. And I think I know why.

While some people love a good plot, some love great characters, and some (academic assholes) get off on meaning or cultural implication or philosophical value, I find that (and it seems like others agree) what really matters in the creation of great, meaningful literature—what really sets it apart from journalism, grocery-store fiction, bad genre fiction, etc.—is the sentence. That’s it. Now, perhaps it’s because I’ve thought about ways to aggrandize my life as a poet for a bit too long (because, shit, I still have to explain that to myself each morning), but for me (and a lot of other people much smarter and less pretentious than me) the sentence is what separates the good from the bad, what can create empathy with the reader or destroy the possibility of it. Think about it.

Sentences comprise our entire material experience of any book; sure, they are the units of thinking used to build meaning, understanding, and communication, but, left at that, all you have is really good journalism or a really meaningfully essay. Great sentences, on the other hand, call attention to themselves as sentences. Yes, they carry logic and information, but they have rhythms, they pause strategically, they themselves (as opposed to the content they carry) create ironies with what you expect sentences to be. Sentences are the basic units of organization, and organization in art is what allows us to experience it, to feel it rather than just read it. Sentences are fucking cool, y’all, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Krasznahorkai is one of our living masters of such.

I’d really like to show you one, but the average sentence in this book is easily 15-20 pages long, so I’ll spare you (and my genius editors here [ed note: thanks). If you’d like to see one, check out the link above. In a nutshell, these sentences are long (lol), difficult, and unlike anything I’ve seen in American literature. They are different (and difficult) because, unlike Faulkner’s, or Foster Wallace’s, or even our old ex-friend Frank Bidart’s, contrary to the basic logic of a sentence, they don’t build forward momentum. Let me say that another way (so you don’t kill yourself with boredom): the average sentence (even the more wonderful, more artful one) operates like a car rolling down a hill toward a brick wall; the speed increases and the overall tone gets more dire, an expectation is created (i.e. that the car will hit the wall) and, in some ways, you’re waiting for and preparing yourself for the full stop, the experience of collision with meaning.

Krasznahorkai’s sentences in STB, on the other hand, are a bit more like taking a tour bus around an unfamiliar city. You get on, somewhat oriented, and go and go and go, and there’s a tour guide saying look here and did you know about this; things feel assembled piecemeal, there’s chatter, honking horns, you stop briefly at stoplights (ahhh, the semicolon) and, yes, there’s a destination, but that seems less important, or, rather, distantly important; you’re here to get lost in the miscellany one piece at a time so that when you finally arrive at the conclusion, you know that you’ve had a meaningful experience that had more to do with the sum of the tour, all of the little meaningful (or not so much) pieces of your experience, than it did where you ended up.

But where you end up is important too; after the tour, after you get to know the texture and contours and history of the place, winding up in the Upper West Side can be pretty revelatory, despite the fact that you only started a few blocks away in Times Square.

These are not the sentences of a beach read (unless you like to inflict this kind of work on yourself while on vacation); these are the sentences of a major artwork that you will feel working on you, changing you, bending you around its purpose. You will get tired of them; you will beg the sentences to end, the paragraphs to end, the sections to end, because my God I just wanted something to read on the subway, let me out of your fucking world, but, in a way, I think that’s the point. Just as there’s the ambiguity between short-story collection and novel at play, so too is there a sense that these sentences could be shorter, should be shorter, but, because they’re all joined, some larger book-length, sentence-length ritual is being enacted, something vital you could miss if you don’t stick around. And that’s the pleasure of this book: it wraps you up meaningfully; it makes you work meaningfully. It’s written, sentence by sentence, section by section, in such a way that you can’t help but see the structure, feel its constraints, and experience the pleasures of the each section’s yield as the result. This book is a full-scale interrogation of art as holy and will force you into the repetitions, the rituals, and the cramped spaces of the makers; you will see and feel what is so large, so vital, in objects so small.

Image source: NPR