Now that my own book is mostly done (and I will have updates on that eventually, don’t worry), I’m trying to take a breather and actually read some new fiction. This is a challenge for me—has always been, because my interests tend to be past-oriented. The reasons here are multiple, including genre (no one writes the kinds of things I like to read anymore) and residual-snobbery (I still, in the recesses of my brain, wonder why I should read new fiction instead of older stuff—after all, the new won’t last, will it?). So this year I determined to make an effort. I tracked down several coming-in-2018 lists and preordered what amounts to a book a month for the next five months. I had a couple of requirements here:
1] The book has to be new, of course.
2] It has to be a novel; I do fiction professionally and should probably keep abreast of developments here.
3] The novel has to be outside my wheelhouse. So, very little detective fiction, nothing or almost nothing to do with American small towns, etc.
4] I privileged novelists writing from a minority perspective or dealing with settings and themes I don’t normally cover. There are two reasons for this: first, because I need to read some diverse voices after the long string of mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-straight authors I covered for the book. I was beginning to feel constrained and needed to break out of the mold. Second, because if the book is outside my wheelhouse  and covering topics or characters I haven’t done scholarship on , I’ll feel less pressed to make the reading “matter” by writing some piece of academic work on it.
5] The novel should by an American author, because I do American fiction and I want to see what it looks like these days.
6] I plan to log my reactions to the books I read in this project here. Don't expect anything deep. These are almost-totally-off-the-cuff ruminations, and sometimes I'll be speaking more from a place of ignorance than knowledge.
Now, rules are made to be broken—at least [Bette Davis voice] mine are, by me. So, for instance, when David Peace’s new novel hits Kindle, that’s my book for the month, and I don’t care if he doesn’t fulfill  and  and  because Peace is, for my money, among the authentically great living novelists of the day. One day, perhaps, I’ll do some writing on him. He’s certainly in my list of distant-dream-projects, along with Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys (or, at least, the TV series based on it—which you really should watch because it’s excellent).
Speaking of Crystal Boys, the second novel in this project reminded me of Pai’s novel in a number of key respects. (The first novel, James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux, is quite good, of course, but it was part of the project before there was a project, so it barely counts). Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties follows a group of young LGBTQ characters from 1976 through 1993. These are characters who have been rejected by their families. They find themselves hustling on the streets and eventually form the House of Xtravaganza. Which is real.
I won’t repeat the Wikipedia page. I know nothing of the ball scene and won’t pretend to know any more after reading the novel. We’re talking Paris is Burning, here. The characters are, we are told, fictional (except when they’re not) but they do seem to map roughly onto the real-life persons of the House of Xtravaganza. Venus is Venus, for instance, and Angel is Angie. Dorian is Dorian, and is also the only character to narrate her own sections in first person.
This isn’t a happy book. Most of the real-life persons involved died from AIDS (or, in the case of Venus, violence), and the book doesn’t hide that fact (it is dedicated to the people lost to AIDS as well as those killed in the Pulse shooting of 2016). It could be argued to be a joyful book, in that it celebrates the community formed by these outcasts and bears witness to their triumphs as well as their tragedies. In this sense, the novel can be thought of as a tribute to the House of Xtravaganza and to the ball culture in general.
Which is fair, of course, but the question to ask of any novel is whether it works. And I’m honestly not certain. It did make me feel things, which is, from one perspective, the point of fiction. The prose is racy and energetic, musical without falling into that hoary old critical cliché “lyrical” (whenever I see a novel’s prose described as “lyrical,” I tend to run the other direction). The characters are defined and their struggles nobly portrayed (Cassara pointedly refuses to show either actual deaths or the aftermath of deaths, which I assume is the contemporary version of “drawing the veil” over scenes too delicate to be shown).
But, really, I can’t say right now what I think about the novel. It left me with a melancholy that’s characteristic of much good fiction—more than that, it left me with a sadness for these people who lost so much. In that, I suppose, we can say it is good in the same way that all good fiction is good—it succeeded in its task, and it lingers after the last page has been read. And it’s got me finally curious about watching Paris is Burning, so on that level, too, it succeeds.
For a television series that covers similar-though-not-identical ground, watch Crystal Boys.
So this is the book on which I end my year.
It's a good one. Greenblatt gives a far-ranging account of the ways in which the Adam and Eve story developed in (Western, Christian) thought--from its initial status as premodern speculation on origins, though Augustine's neurotic attempt to escape whatever sexual hangup he developed as a child, through Milton (of course!) and finally to the rise of evolutionary theory and the subsequent "fall" of the first parents. It's a lot of book, and I'm probably lucky to have approached it as an audiobook rather than in print (or Kindle) edition.
Greenblatt makes a lot of the status of Adam and Eve as primal parents--that is, of their position as a just-so story to explain evil and death--but the really interesting stuff comes up when he discusses the ways in which sexuality interacts with the pair. Sex is, of course, the under-acknowledged core of the Eden myth; the command to "be fruitful and multiply" demands copulation, after all, whatever Augustine initially wanted to say. And Greenblatt shows the different ways in which various thinkers and writers used Adam and Eve to understand sex--Augustine, again, and Milton--the latter of whom makes the Adam-Eve couple more interesting as a couple than as avatars of sin and death. The discussion of visual art is, of course, where the sexuality/sensuality stuff really pops. Greenblatt's discussion of Albrecht Dürer's engraving (above) gives a lot of attention to the amount of attention Dürer gives to his Adam and the revolution that attention created in the art world.
I could wish (as Tim Whitmarsh seems to) that Greenblatt had said more about Jewish and Muslim reflections on the myth. I certainly wish that he had said more about twentieth century approaches; ardent fundamentalism is only one way the myth continues to exert itself. Ross Lockridge, Jr. positions the myth at the core of Raintree County, for instance. But that's a minor sort of quibble. This is a fascinating, and occasionally thrilling, study.
As a chaser, I recommend R.W.B. Lewis's The American Adam.
Here we are at the end of the year and I have been dreadful about keeping this website updated. Partly this has to do with my duties at work; though I’ve got a pretty nice workload, it still occupies a lot of my attention (as does, y’know, the whole process of getting settled down in a new city and a new country). Moreover, my book project—an expanded version of my dissertation, about which more early next year some time—has so thoroughly colonized my brain that with one exception (a piece for Rise Up Daily, which you can read here) I’ve simply not had the time or emotional energy to attempt anything on the side.
That changes next year. The book is nearly ready to send to the publisher for review, after which I’ll be casting around for new projects while I wait for the comments to come back. So it’ll be a lot of reading and (finally!) catching up on Riverdale, the first season of which I loved more than is probably healthy.
Meanwhile, here’s an end-of-the-year book list. This isn’t a list of the “year’s best”—it’s more like the sort of thing biblioklept does: books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. They are in no particular order.
In terms of fiction, I started the year out with Call Me By Your Name--an agonizingly beautiful novel about summer romance. The novel came to my attention about the time the movie did—when it was announced that Sufjan Stevens was providing songs for the film. Beautifully written—like, achingly written, the kind of prose that’s hard to read in public because it’s so sensuous and silky. And full of lines like this: “What I didn’t realize was that wanting to test desire is nothing more than a ruse to get what we want without admitting we want it.” The book captures the confusion and agony of a boy in the throes of love for possibly the first time—Elio is, let’s be clear, kind of pretentious and stubborn. But he’s a teenage boy, so there’s some allowance to be made. The ending is perhaps a bit too saccharine, one area in which I think the movie actually improves on the source material.
Call Me By Your Name also pairs nicely with another book I read for the first time this year, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. The two books have more in common than their Italian setting—both are lushly written narratives of a kind of fall from Edenic innocence to experience. Hawthorne being Hawthorne, The Marble Faun is also intensely weird in the best possible way.
Pretty much all the rest of the fiction I’ve consumed this year has been for the book, so if you want my thoughts on Grace Metalious’s The Tight White Collar (and why wouldn’t you?) you’ll just have to wait. It will be worth it, I promise.
Nonfiction, too, was largely connected to the book—but I’ve fired up an Audible account, and a lot of my nonfiction pleasure reading has started to come via that medium. Thus, Nabokov in America and The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship were listened to as audiobooks. Nabokov is one of those outsized personalities—like Gore Vidal—who fascinate me as much for their lives as for their books (I did start re-reading Lolita last month, but like so much of my other pleasure-reading it stalled before the need to read stuff like Return to Peyton Place). I can’t let this section pass without recommending Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb—actually the first book I completed this year. Green writes in defense of criticism, which he distinguishes from scholarship in that criticism attempts to describe and elucidate the effects of a text, while scholarship looks at context etc etc etc. The book is divided into three sections: the first outlines Green’s perspective while the second and third—on failures and successes, respectively—apply that perspective to reviewing actual critics (among the failures is James Wood; among the successes, Harold Bloom).
This book is a bracing defense of the concept of focusing on a text as a text rather than as an object to be viewed through a particular “critical lens.” As such, I found it very attractive at the end of my sprint toward the Ph.D.
On my to-read pile (besides Lolita):
Pai Hsien-Yung, Crystal Boys. Ignore the cover on Amazon, which makes the novel look like a softcore gay porn. I’m halfway through it (stalled out at around the beginning of the year) and it’s a closely-observed story of life among street hustlers in Taiwan. The tv series—which I watched before buying the book—is quite good. There’s also a movie, which I’ve not seen.
Patricia Highsmith, Carol. Picked this up in a bookstore in Wuhan. Formerly known as The Price of Salt. I liked the movie a lot, and I’ve heard great things about the book, so….
Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City.
--in addition to around a dozen books for the next project (whatever it winds up being—I have three options, so there’s a lot to look at). Meanwhile, I've finally got a little free time to maintain this site, so I'll post occasional pieces here.
Oh, and Merry Christmas.
I have been meaning to put down some thoughts on Twin Peaks: The Return, but events have conspired to keep me from doing much writing at all outside of my main project. So I’m going to throw together some thoughts here, hopefully leading toward some sort of coherent take on this new season.
The first thing to acknowledge is that Twin Peaks: The Return is not Twin Peaks: The Return. Everything after the colon was added by Showtime. For Lynch and Frost, Twin Peaks: The Return is simply Twin Peaks. Which is funny, right? Because very little of Twin Peaks: The Return actually takes place in Twin Peaks; the season ranges all over the United States, devoting long stretches of narrative to Las Vegas and Buckhorn. This opening-up could have been predicted. Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks similarly works to tie the events of the original series to a deeper occult history of the United States. Twin Peaks—both the show and the town—is an example or an instance of something bigger.
So, to the hammer everything looks like a nail. My research involves the ways in which small towns are used in American literature to express or analyze national anxieties. And Twin Peaks is very much part of this tradition. At the beginning of Main Street, Sherwood Anderson says “this is America”—meaning not simply that the town of Gopher Prairie is located in America, but that it is in some way an expression of America itself. For Anderson, this observation means that America is close-minded and provincial, hostile to change or cultural exploration. The fact that Lynch and Frost are carefully establishing that Twin Peaks is rooted in this broader occult history suggests that they, too, consider the town to be a mirror or model of the larger nation.
Lynch has a number of consistent obsessions. You can set your watch by them. And one of the most notable is this idea of the “woman in trouble.” Twin Peaks, the original series, is obviously an example of this. Laura Palmer, though dead before the series begins, haunts the narrative, and after her murder is solved the series falls apart. Fire Walk With Me makes it clear that Laura is the core of Twin Peaks—the show could not exist without her. And so we come to The Return (a title I persist in using even though I realize it isn’t the proper one), where Laura haunts the opening titles and periodically reappears, even though her murder is long in the past and not a focus for the majority of the season.
There are other women in trouble, though. Indeed, this series is packed with them—Diane, Shelly, Audrey…. Even Janey-E is a woman in trouble, saddled initially with her unfaithful Cooper-tulpa Dougie and then with Cooper himself, his mind evacuated, incapable of speech beyond parroting what people around him say. And this pairing is typical; throughout the season, we are presented with women under duress confronting passive men. Janey-E and Dougie, Audrey and Charlie, Doris Truman and Frank…. These pairings do not exist on a single level of interpretation, and anyway I doubt Lynch is interested in delivering a Definitive Word on the Patriarchy. But it’s important to acknowledge that in each case the viewer’s sympathy is directed toward the woman, not the man. These are not harpies who hector their long-suffering male counterparts. These are women in impossible situations (in Audrey’s case, perhaps even unreal) who find their male counterparts insufficient to meeting their needs. And so they suffer or else they solve their own problems (Hi, Janey-E!).
This concern with women in trouble isn’t unique to Lynch, of course, even within the canon of small-town narratives. Laura Palmer exists in a tradition stretching back to Henry Bellamann’s Kings Row, a novel in which we meet Cassandra Tower, a victim of incest and (ultimately) murder at the hands of her father. Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, also centers an incest-victim in the figure of Selena Cross (Metalious was persuaded by her publishers to change Lucas Cross, the rapist, to Selena’s stepfather, a move she regretted). In Selena’s case, the story doesn’t end in her death but in her killing Lucas and burying him in a sheep pen. Laura exists somewhere between these two figures: she is murdered by her father, to be sure, but ultimately in Fire Walk With Me is able to achieve some sort of victory.
What does it mean that incest forms the core of so much small-town literature? And what does it mean in the context discussed above—that is, in light of the fact that the small town is America? Lynch’s broader focus in The Return and his insistence that Laura haunt the narrative even though her story isn’t the primary focus, certainly suggests that he sees the violence visited on Laura as a general malaise.
So this brings us to that ending—which, full confession, I have only been able to watch once. Cooper finds Laura (possibly! Anyway, it’s Sheryl Lee) and brings her back to Twin Peaks, back to the Palmer house, to discover that the Palmers are gone, that the world has changed (somehow) in his attempt to rescue Laura from her fate.
(As a side point, as I write this I am listening to the most recent Lodgers podcast and they have an excellent discussion of the ways in which that last episode deconstructs the hero myth)
But there’s a complicating factor here, and one I want to think more about, though I’m not sure where it will go. The evil in the original series of Twin Peaks is explicitly paternal. Leland Palmer, the father, rapes and murders his daughter. The idea of male violence against women is at the center of the Twin Peaks narrative. But in The Return evil is maternal. The Experiment—which may or may not be Judy—is a vaguely female figure who gives birth to BOB in part 8. And Sarah Palmer seems to be carrying darkness within her just as her dead-alive daughter now carries light.
Sarah Palmer herself is an interesting study in guilt. Fire Walk With Me heavily implies that Sarah knew what Leland was doing to Laura. Sarah is a victim just as much as her daughter is, but she is also (on one level, and certainly in her own mind) complicit. What we see of her now in The Return—drinking and smoking in a dark room, biting the faces off truckers in bars—is a shell of the woman she once was, wracked with guilt for her daughter’s fate. Doomed to darkness by her own demons.
So I need to wrap this up and try to Say Something—we do have to Say Things, right? But the truth is, I’m not sure what to say. Lynch presents a world permeated with violence, birthed in violence (see the nuclear blast in part 8), a violence particularly seen as directed against women (though not exclusively so). At the same time, The Return moves the focus from paternal demons to maternal ones (castrating mothers, too—The Experiment shows up in a sex scene, and the frog-moth crawls into the mouth of a girl who has just kissed a boy in part 8). What shall we do with this? Certainly a Gnostic reading would fit here: the mother births the world, and so can be thought of as a demiurge. The association of female-ness with fertility and creation may be unfortunate from a political point of view, but it still carries a powerful artistic punch. So it’s possible that The Return is a narrative about being trapped in the world of illusion, a world created by the demiurge.
All of this seems unrelentingly dark, and I think that’s not really fair to The Return. This show isn’t only about darkness and degradation. It’s also about Dougie—simple kindness and love. It’s about Janey-E Jones, who is one of the shining lights of the series. It’s about Carl Rodd (rest in peace, Harry Dean Stanton). It’s about the redemption of Bobby Briggs. It’s about the Log Lady and her log of gold (rest also in peace, Catherine Coulson). There is hope here. Perhaps next time I should do a few thoughts on that.
Some of you might remember me from my previous blog "More Man than Philosopher." That was--oh, years ago. I got distracted; as it turns out, getting a Ph.D. is inimical to 'blogging. So. That dropped off and I hardly wrote anything except the dissertation--about which, more eventually.
But I'm back, and I've got some exciting news coming in the next few months, so stay tuned. I've started up this website as a sort of placeholder until I can start sharing that information with y'all.