Oct 17 2021

When Nothing’s Not New and Everything’s Always Random

typewriter

Some Recent Encounters with Surrealism in Contemporary Literature

I.

I recently reread the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), a habit which, it seems, occurs every five to ten years.

So it was fresh on my mind when I reviewed Nicole I. Nesca’s short-story/poem “Child” (2017).

And maybe, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman says, my attention is too “anchored,” too primed and predisposed to see the surreal when reading recent works of prose, poetry, or something in between.

But it can’t be all that. There must be (a little) something more. For, as Kahneman points out, simply being aware of the biases brought on by an anchor is still only half the battle:

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). (Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) p. 128)

II.

One of the things (I think) Breton is getting at in the Manifesto is that surrealism existed long before he (or anyone else) gave it a name. Breton, moreover, didn’t let himself be lured by the temptations of Originality. He knew he didn’t invent surrealism. Nor was he afraid to list his precursors on the subject:

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism….

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid…

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

And, as I discussed in the Nesca review, part, but not of all, of the “game” (Breton’s word) of surrealism is radical juxtaposition. Let’s let Breton explain again (and admit his unoriginality again):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)….

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

This radical juxtaposition, however, at least in my (mis)understanding of surrealism, brooks no endorsement or herald or call for absolute randomness, á la pseudo-Dadism, anarchism, nihilism, the Voynich manuscript, etcetera. For if surrealism is a “game,” then it must have certain rules. Games remove a certain amount of randomness from any situation. If a game contains so many rules that it (theoretically) removes all randomness from (or within) the game itself, the situation is no longer a game: the situation is a machine: it is completely predictable and repetitive in its outcomes. Or, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it, “Without the random, there can be no new thing,” (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 147).

On the other hand, as Bateson elsewhere pointed out, pure randomness, whether in literature or natural science, can only be achieved via infinite means across an infinite amount of time:

It may well be that any particular pattern (or redundancy) in the method of search will necessarily blind the searcher to certain possible patterns in the universe; and that only RANDOM search can ultimately catch all possible regularities. This ideal will be achieved, however, only by a searcher with infinite time and in a universe which makes available infinite series of data.

(“The Message of Reinforcement” (1966) in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.141–42)

Part of this is because of the difficulty of defining the word “random”:

In both the theory of evolution and the theory of learning, however, the word “random” is conspicuously undefined, and the word is not an easy one to define. In both fields, it is assumed that while change may be dependent upon probabilistic phenomena, the probability of a given change is determined by something different from probability…. The word “random,” upon which all of these explanations turn, appears to be a word whose meaning is hierarchically structured, like the meaning of the word “learning.”

(Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 254–55)

III.

All this is to say that the game of surrealism strikes a balance between pure randomness and absolute predictability. Surrealism, at its best, offers moments of such balance, often through radical juxtaposition, as Margaret O’Brien has recently pointed out:

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

Some recent encounters with surrealism in literature I’ve had include the following emboldened quotations:

The world is a broken lightbulb / no one cares enough about to sweep up. / Please, Marshmallow, lick the glass/ until your tongue bleeds sunlight.

(Austin Davis, “Marshmallow,” Some Houses Are Built with the Wrong Bricks, Massachusetts: Moran Press, 2020)

*****

At first he is ecstatic and brings in his wife who is overjoyed at the lively giant baby. The joy turns to panic soon when they realize the baby is still growing at an alarming rate. After an hour young Philbert is too big to hold. After his nap he is to [sic] big for the house and eats his parents. By the time for “One Life to Live” he had gone through the beach homes of the rich and famous, and working on the western half of Fire Island. By the third rerun of the “Simpsons” he had devoured four million people including the staring back line for the Islanders.

(James Thornton, “Tony Randall vs. the Giant Baby Who Ate Long Island,” Meaty-Ochre no. 1, Austin, Texas: Self-Published, 2019)

*****

Cool sea water sweeps away his jetlag for the time being. Dried off, we eat ice-cream and return to the airport.

(Anthony Rudolf, “Pedraterra,” Two Fables: Pedraterra, Angleterre, (Les Brouzils, France: The Fortnightly Review, 2021) p. 5)


Oct 7 2021

Tenderness: A Writer’s Tool

bookshelf

Lately I’ve noticed when reading some recent works of fiction occasional moments which can only be called (at least to my mind) “tenderness.” As a reader it seems you either catch them or you don’t. Perhaps you have to get attuned, putting your ear to the ground to see if you can hear the train coming etcetra.

Take for example the opening lines from Richard Daub’s short story “The Huffy” (2021), via New Pop Lit:

Day after Christmas, 1983, fifth grade, in the attached garage at Eric’s house—

“They got you a Huffy?” Eric laughed, referring to Carl’s new bike. “Huffys are for losers. Did they buy it at Sears?”

And also this moment from Stacy Swann’s novel Olympus, Texas (Doubleday 2021):

That day, while at school, Hap had missed his brother. He’d been excited when, after walking the quarter mile from the cattle guard, where the bus stopped, his mother met him by swinging open the screen door and setting an impassive March on the porch. “Go play,” she commanded before she went back inside. (p. 18)

Like the old legal definition of obscenity, it must be admitted that while I can’t quite define such tenderness–I can’t tell you why x is tender and y is not–but I know it when it see it. And the tenderness conveyed in these examples seems to be something ephemeral, never sustained; always momentary, never stationary.

But such tenderness isn’t limited to fiction alone. Chris Arnade’s work, which I have studied for several years now, also periodically captures this delicate humanity, this non-poisonous sentimentality at which, in a seizure of squeamishness, the jaded soul too often shrieks:

While we are talking an older regular comes in, who is blind. Not somewhat hard of seeing, but completely blind. A few regulars get up and quietly map out the lay of the bar to him, explaining where he shouldn’t sit based on who else is near by. It is a very sweet moment, that isn’t especially special. Just people being decent. It happens everywhere.

I try not to overthink stuff. I try not to be all metaphorical. But I am buzzed, and it is a blind man coming to a sports bar, something he clearly does all the time. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 2: Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott,” Intellectual Inting, October 7, 2021)

Tenderness is found in those so-called “cheesy,” “cornball,” nostalgia-laced moments of life on the Backrow that more of today’s American writers need to capture (and realize why they really aren’t cheesy) if they sincerely wish to shrug off the group-think elitism they acquired while sitting in the Front Row of so-called writer’s workshops that trained them into submission. As Arnade has recently pointed out:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

So, as writers, let’s find the tender moments, but not metamorphize them. Don’t turn them into allegories, just learn to behold the present moment, be mindful of it. Learn to be, not do—focusing more on what is tender rather than what is travesty.


Sep 4 2021

Short Story Review: “Child” (2017) by Nicole I. Nesca

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Nicole I. Nesca’s Let It Bleed (Screamin’ Skull Press, 2017) is a book of prose and poetry—of verse, vignettes, as well as short stories—and a book both Canadian and American.

In it readers will find pairs, symmetries, contrasts, and sometimes, radical juxtaposition—the kind prophesized (though not before acknowledging necessary precursors) by Bard André Breton (a prophecy which still needs hearing in 2021):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

(André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (c. 1924), trans. unknown)

In Nesca, readers can encounter this idea of radical juxtaposition of either/and with regard to structure-medium-content: similar to the way William Blake’s paintings and poetry can be absorbed with profundity individually, but, when found together, offer an intimidating sense of wonder to those modest readers who nevertheless continue their approach toward Blake’s super-art, though they learn they must approach with fear and trembling.

But in terms of content for either a poem or story—the writing’s agency that acts upon the reader when something jars that reader simply because what the reader encounters is adjacent to something else (and can also occur with painting or music or architecture)—results often in mere perplexity, though occasionally, in sound enlightenment. The results are such things as: McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (1970), a radical juxtaposition of two or three, depending on how you count them, different pieces of music; Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and the irreverence of the title to the movie itself; Metallica’s “One” (1988), which begins as a quiet, solemn dirge toward the singer’s own death, then, shifts into an loud, angry invective against Death itself; Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1989), which is almost two separate movies sandwiched together, though a sandwich with almost nothing in between, so it might be better to say squished; or even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), with its wild rural setting in the South that then moves to the wild metro setting of the North)….

So too with Nesca’s book overall. Particularly, the piece “Child” is what stood out for me upon first-reading (certainly not the last) with its radical juxtaposition.

For here is poetry that flows into prose—but there is a vivid narrative underlying it all, one with a true beginning, middle, and end—yet here also is a clash of lyric and free verse, a clash of Nature’s organic pheasant and Humankind’s artificial rifle, a clash of daughter and father, of life and death.

Or is it not so much a clash, as a balance of all these things?—dare we say a Dao of things?––if my feeble misunderstanding of the Dao is correct? Here I’m thinking of something recently written by Alan MacFarlane, who earlier this summer explained in The Fortnightly Review:

Working in Japan was a larger challenge. As Ruth Benedict, among many western observers, pointed out, the essence of Japan is that it is not an Either/Or civilization, but rather a Both/And one. All categories overlap in Japan and they fluctuate all the time. There are numerous instances of situations and thoughts which do not fit into western binary categories. Just to take one example. I make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the realm of spirit and normal, secular, activities. So, for me a religious service or prayers are sacred, while a game of football is secular.

This does not work in Japan. Many of the so-called sports and games there, often with an ending which mirrors the idea of ‘dao’, the path or way in Shinto and Buddhist thoughts, are both sacred and secular. This is the case with ju-doken-dosu-mo, and with Noh opera. It is true of archery, of sword-making, of the ‘way’ of tea (cha-do), the way of gardens. Indeed, it turns out to be true of all Japanese art and all its crafts, which are both spiritual and secular at the same time.

So, yes, I think Nicole Nesca is getting at something like that Dao, or balance or sense of both-and rather than either-or––in particular in her story-poem “Child,” but also, her book Let It Bleed maybe getting at something similar overall. Overall, this is a book I intend to return to. There is definitely something wild going in Winnipeg, and ’tis nothing to do with weather nor wildlife.


May 20 2021

Short Story Review: “Server” (2020) by Stephan Moran

Western book stack

I don’t recall having that many (consciously) physical reactions to literature…. though upon arriving at the last pages to Andrew Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), I remember being tempted to throw the book across the room.

Since the book was borrowed, I ended up not throwing it (also because it belonged to my supervisor at the time). Later he and I discussed Card’s denouement, and I eventually came to realize it didn’t have (what, as kids, my siblings and I would’ve called) a “trick ending.”

But reading Stephen Moran’s short story “Server” (Moran Press, 2020? [hand-stitched!])—each of the three times that I read it—gave me the heebie-jeebies, a sense of constriction bordering on claustrophobia, the way some people have described how they felt watching Uncut Gems (2019).

My siblings have worked in restaurants over the years, and I try to tip generously except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, so I can somewhat empathize with the server-narrator of the story named Scott. Parts of it certainly reminded me of passages from chapter XIV of Orwell’s memoirish Down and Out in Paris and London (1933):

Between constantly seeing money, and hoping to get it, the waiter comes to identify himself to some extent with his employers. He will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.

And:

According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hôtel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English––no French––and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.

Stephan Moran’s “Server” offers similar sentiments, but much more intensely. The story is nearly pure intensity. Reading it is like running out of coffee but resorting to sticking your finger in an empty light socket in order to wake yourself up.


Aug 19 2020

The Brave New World of Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” (2019)

pencil shavings

I’m very excited to have The Fortnightly Review publish my essay review of Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019).

It covers not only Arnade but has plenty of Thoreau, Frederick Law Olmsted, James Agee and Walker Evans, William Least Heat-Moon, Samuel Johnson, Wesley Yang, Yuval Levin, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Jul 19 2020

Short Story Review: “Coven Covets Boy” (2018) by John Elizabeth Stintzi

Mark Twain in Athens

In short, John Elizabeth Stintzi’s short story “Coven Covets Boy” (Puritan Magazine, March 2018) is an amazing piece of contemporary short fiction.

My amazement at such a work makes it difficult to write about it with sobriety. Compounding that difficulty is the sheer difficulty of the text itself. For, like Allen Dulles’s description of counterintelligence as a hallway of mirrors [sorry, I can’t find the citation]—or perhaps more readers are familiar with the climax of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973)–Stinzi’s text contains stories inside other stories. Here readers will find refractions of narratives running on multi-vector trajectories.

In “Coven Covets Boy” readers encounter characters (mis)interpreting and retelling facts and acts from daily, various high-school scenes, scenarios involving notebooks, diaries, “fieldbooks”–– scraps of stories overlapping and interwoven within one another, much in the tradition of Borges, Calvino, Derrida, Eco, and even Tokarczuk—all this, and Stintzi still manages to have a coherent, linear pulse beating underneath.

There are in this story people who forget they are characters in these scraps of micro-stories, while others are unaware—still others are willfully (sometimes manipulatively) aware of the many, sedimentary layers of narrative they and their peers are involved in.

This story merits multiple rereadings and offers much to working artists as well as casual readers.

Huzzah!

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Mar 23 2020

Rereading “Slaughterhouse-Five”

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

I first heard of the book Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) when, as a kid, my siblings and I would often watch a VHS copy of the film Footloose (1984) that makes mention of the book at the film’s beginning.

But that movie doesn’t mention the author. So I first heard of the name Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) when I was in college and he was interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in 2005. At the time, there were certain mannerisms from Stewart that made this viewer think Vonnegut was, for Stewart personally, one of the most important interviews he’d ever done.

I first read Slaughterhouse-Five during the weekend of my sister’s wedding, about twelve years ago. Before then I had never heard about what happened at Dresden.

But now, holed up at home, I found my great-grandfather’s copy and read it over this past weekend.

I’d been wanting to reread a particular passage in the sixth chapter that has stuck with me since the first reading.

It’s just a few paragraphs about maintaining order and routine and self-respect and dignity:

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I found no deeper meaning in the passage this second time around, though the book overall seems more poignant now in my memory than it did before.

But I still don’t know what to think of the novel overall: it is comedy and misery and absurdity and truth all thrown at the reader in a scatter-shot style.

I did, however, notice in this second reading, how much of a Midwestern book it is, by a Midwestern author. This geographic significance is what I’ll retain as I continue my readings and eventually compare it to other things from the Midwest that I’ve read or intend to (re)read.


Mar 20 2020

Short Story Review: “Earning Disapproval” by Shashi Bhat

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[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

Sashi Bhat’s short story “Earning Disapproval,” published in The Puritan magazine (Winter 2019), is a story that focuses much on an abundance of detail. This surplus renders for readers something between a sense of verisimilitude and nostalgia for the life of a Hindu Indian-Canadian girl in middle school during the mid-late ’90s.

Some of the details mentioned I recall from my own days in middle school–such as girls’ enthusiasm for the film The Craft (1996) and the slime toy Gak (which smelled awful) made by Nickelodeon.

Other details I wasn’t so familiar with, such as the narrator’s mention of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), a very popular Indian film I was unaware of; although, after watching a clip from it, I recognized the star Shah Rukh Khan from things I once watched for an Indian film class in college.

Overall, reading “Earning Disapproval” reminded me of a remark by critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) when, in his essay on Milton, the critic mentions:

… the famous “Miltonic vague”—the preference of vast but rather indeterminate pictures, tinted with a sort of dim gorgeousness or luridity, as the case may be—to sharper outlines and more definite colours….
(Saintsbury, “Milton, § 22 His versification and style,” The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume VII: English Cavalier and Puritan, eds. A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller, (Cambridge UP, 1907–1921).)

“A sort of dim gorgeousness or luridity….” yet containing things with “sharper outlines and more definite colours” is the lasting impression I have after reading Bhat’s story. I find these traits in my own attempts at fiction, so perhaps I’m being overly critical of Bhat because of my self-awareness.


Mar 15 2020

Short Story Review: “The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess

porticos in Bologna, Italia

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

So I got around to reading GD Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde,” a short story published by New Pop Lit this past January. It makes for interesting, but exhausting reading. The same could be said for much of Proust, some of Ulysses (1922), and the great rant by the father at the end of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997).

By “interesting, but exhausting” as in Joyce’s Ulysses, I mean things like:

—Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope. Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies. Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeenwoman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugial love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures. You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III. And the gay lakin, mistress Fitton, mount and cry O, and his dainty birdsnies, lady Penelope Rich, a clean quality woman is suited for a player, and the punks of the bankside, a penny a time.

(Ulysses, IX [“Scylla and Charybdis”] )

Whether or not this kind of story-telling is your cup of tea, this kind of thing is what can be found in Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde.”

Shoptalkwise: Dess crams a lot of micro-narratives, pustulating plots and bursting conclusions in single paragraphs–but all through a well-controlled, well-modulated narrator’s voice–one neither excessively loud nor wanting in volume.

As a story, “The Bayside Blonde” is quite Aristotelian in terms of plot: it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Overall, I don’t know if I “like” it per se, but it works. It doesn’t cheat readers of their time. I don’t feel “ripped off” for having taken the time to read it. And that’s more than can be said for a lot of short fiction slung around these days.

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Jul 19 2019

Evil Elvis

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This is one of Rod’s better columns in a while. But there are things one can be nit picky about, such as when I read:

There is a certain sort of tiresome person who, whenever you bring up the steep and consequential decline of cultural standards, can be counted on to say, “People used to think Elvis was evil.” If a cable network ever stages live executions or barnyard orgies, these same people will turn up mouthing the same cliche. This line is not an aid to thinking clearly, but is an obstacle to it. It’s meant to assuage the consciences of those who say it, and to grant them permission not to think about the troubling thing in front of their noses.

…. as if some of the enemies of Elvis were not interested in a WASP-led theocracy against godless communism, as if their antagonism against black music and black music appropriated by white singers was something other than an effort to maintain their power and influence over all non-affluent WASPs and all non-WASPs? (Were not the enemies of Elvis also the enemies of Catholic-all-too-Catholic JFK?)…. 

But overall this is a great post–particularly the part about the Atlanta airport and the elusive sense of “home” shared between strangers.

UPDATE: I guess what I mean to say is that the “troubling thing in front of” my nose, is that WASPy extremism is just as extreme as “barnyard orgies” and broadcasting “live executions.”

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