Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Beetle Leg– John Hawkes

 Beetle LEg

 

Presenting the titular novel for my Blog, for this (along with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), represents the high water mark of Windswept Fiction….

Most would have started their foray into John Hawkes overlooked oeuvre with one of two of his best known works, The Lime Twig or The Blood Oranges. I on the other hand had been made aware of him in the early 80’s when he was (then) on the second wave of the next great American novelists. After Barth, Pynchon and Barthelme, came W.H. Gass, Robert Coover, John Hawkes and Stanley Elkin. Of the second wave, only Gass and Coover have remained on the literary landscape, though Hawkes had a strong critical following in France. After recently reading a novel by each Hawkes and Elkins, I would argue their semi-obscurity is undeserved. Both treat themes with narrative processes that are still quite relevant. Both possessed an immense amount of talent. I had read many years ago, his 1985 Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade. While I remember it having some noteworthy prose, it was not at all otherwise memorable, and is now considered one of his weaker efforts. I picked out The Beetle Leg, because mention of his obscure early novel kept cropping up by some heavyweight writers I admire. Written in 1949-50 while he was spending the summer in Montana’s ‘Badlands’, as a tour guide on the Fort Peck Reservoir dam.  This was his second novel, after The Cannibal, and as a 24 year old his prose and narrative style here were on the forefront of experimental fiction. His mentor-editor noted novelist and critic, Albert J. Guerard called it ‘Surrealist Western Fiction’ so the typical readership of the time could nod to themselves when they came across passages like:

Now I’ll talk. You’ve answered to me for having found him crouched with bare, folded feet, for having watched the thinly wrinkled, perforated breath of skin that was his throat-dry now, untouched, except for the soothing pressure of some tons of earth-for having spied on the wrappings, the colorless cloth, the complete expulsion of bodily fluids, the immobility of ten dangling fingers shoved like minnows into the shriveled ground.

 Reading halfway through I wondered if Cormac McCarthy read The Beetle Leg before he wrote Blood Meridian… Hawkes’s early credo was: ‘the true enemies of the novel were character, plot, setting and theme’. The novel’s structure is more akin to a that of a poem, chapters are movements, stanzas made up of the un-framed scenes and images of these few who search for something human to hold up, to finally hold onto in this impossible and nightmarish desolation of the reservoir. The prose has its own unique cadence, and is dominated by its visual nature, it breathes what it sees. Interestingly, the chapters are ‘numbered’ in braille symbols. Hawkes constricted narrative lens offers little interiority of the characters, with little contextual framing of scenes. He interweaves a backstory of a local geo-catastrophe, the Great Slide, the one event shaping the the landscape as well as the families scratching out a living in the sere badlands, with the story of the lost’ couple, the ‘Campers’ in the narrative present. The insignificant settlers are pitted against the menacing landscape. The first chapter frames enough to offer an entry point before the increasingly dense later chapters. Surrealism it isn’t tho. The undertow here is more important than the chaotic-sometimes incoherent seeming surface. If you are not averse to non-traditional fiction, and if you do read it, don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading it aloud. To friends and family. To random strangers…

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The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro–Antonio Tabucchi

 

untitled

 

What BB King has to do with Antonio Tabucchi….

I came to my second venture into the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi’s novels through the side door so to speak. I had read his Indian Nocturne some while ago, and was mostly distracted by an incredibly bad translation. It was disappointing, as I had been given to believe Tabucchi is Italy’s most respected living novelist. In my mostly unsystematic research for reviewing Nobel contenders, Tabucchi’s name kept appearing on lists. In keeping with Traces focus on things in the corner, the margins, of course his better known 1994 Pereira Declares and supposedly masterful short stories were passed over in favor of this 1996 New Directions published novel translated by J.C. Patrick (not the same translator as for Indian Nocturne). Many times recognized in European letters, Tabucchi must have at least a wall devoted to his considerable array of literary prizes. He is a part-time Professor of Portuguese at Siena University and spends the rest of his time with his Portugese wife in Lisbon.

Viscera (a.k.a. The Thrill is Gone)

Set in Oporto Portugal, the protagonist, Firmino is a young Lisbon tabloid journalist. He is sent out to look into a report that a Gypsy had found a headless corpse in his encampment. As we begin to follow Firmino in his investigations, we are introduced to the illustrious lawyer Don Fernando, who becomes a sort of mentor for Firmino, and the pension owner, Donna Rosa. The mystery, which I will effortlessly not reveal more of, unfolds equally effortlessly on Firmino’s part, as the puzzle is rather rapidly pieced together with the guidance of both the lawyer and Donna Rosa without as much of a hint of interference from higher powers. The question of influences, and the sociological impact of literature is a back story. Firmino also happens to be an aspiring literary critic, and he is repeatedly queried by the sagacious lawyer as to the methods he intends to use in his investigations, both in this case as well as the approach he will use in his aim of someday publishing a thesis on Post Realistic Portuguese Fiction. Firmino explains that the Marxist Critic Lukacs has been a great influence on his thinking. The learned Don Fernando reveals in one of several of his ‘lectures’ to Firmino that the Austrian legal philosopher Hans Kelson has been his obsession.

Bones: (a.k.a. Why I Sing the Blues)

The novel’s framework is conventional enough. With the exception of the opening chapter narrated from the POV of Manolo the Gypsy “King of the shit heap,” the rest of the narrative is all from Firimino’s lens with the exception of inserting three of Firmino’s newspaper special edition reports into the narrative as well as a later badly reproduced tape recording of the pivotal trial. The novel spoofs the mystery/thriller form, as Tabucchi’s narrative ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’, not to dramatize plot events, but as a mechanism to allow the cerebral dialogue between Don Fernando and Firmino to replace the normal dramatic tension from mystery sleuthing that is absent. The prose is attenuated to bring the scenes into an ultra sharp focus without being heavy handed. The narrative voice is genteel for treating such a hard-boiled subject. Most interesting for me are the bohemian cast of peripheral players set up against the back drop of a corrupt local government.

Themes and such: ( a.k.a. Nobody loves me but my mama, and she could be jivin’ too)

Tabuchi examines through the interchange between mentor and pupil, the idea of dialectics, or binaries: Truth vs. Untruth, oppressive state vs. the individual, theory (influences: both literary and philosophical) vs. practice (how, or if, one finally acts). Firmino ironically caries with him a tourist guidebook that becomes an actual frame of reference for how he is going to finally view the chronicle of events he has uncovered. Another motif is one of moral decay. The decaying head as well as the scattered statements by characters referencing their state of ‘rot’.

What I took away: (Lucille speaks)

Tabucchi has been called Italy’s Graham Greene, though I am not completely sure why, having only read two of the former’s books. I do see similarities in their moral, humanistic tone. Its pace is brisk despite the heady (excuse the pun) material. The Don Fernando dissertations while interesting, are not supported by the narrative momentum and I found myself wishing that he would make use of a breathmint. His spider web that is to lead everything to the center, for me is too slight and the strands not sticky enough for the weight of its intended prey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ghosts– César Aira

Ghosts

 

César Aira is considered to be in the forefront of contemporary Argentine literature. He has published over fifty books of stories, novels and essays, and despite this he has limited public recognition. He has only two other readily available novels in translation, all published (thank goodness) by New Directions and translated by the noteworthy Chris Andrews:  An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and How I Became a Nun.

As with all Aira’s novels, this is a short book (139 pages) that takes place in 24 hours significant to one of its themes, time, on December 31. It setting is the construction site of a highrise luxury condo. It opens with the prospective tenants touring the building to see how close it is to completion, as  it scheduled to open the next day. The Chilean family of the construction site security guard has been living on the top floor of the condominium during its construction, and they plan for a  New Year’s Eve party.

For almost the first 30 pages,  the author plays at a narrative point of view ‘tag’ game. It finally settles on Patri, the oldest daughter, as the protagonist and curiosity gradually builds when snapshots of the site’s other-worldly inhabitants crop up repeatedly but matter-of-factly. Aira masterfully shades them into the narrative so that we become accustom to their liminal presence as Patri is.

 The architecture motif  functions perfectly to examine ways in which art (this text) relates to time and space and IS also the figurative apartment complex. Since the characters reside in this building during its construction, Aira and his ghosts can play in this transitory stage and explore the thresholds there, the trope of “built/unbuilt”…
Like another writer of Liminal Fiction, Jorge Luis Borges, who also explores ideas more than human relationships, characters tend to be flat.  But that said, if  one approached them with traditional character-plot expectations one should be wasting their time reading them…

 Aira pulled off the supreme multi-layered ironies in The Ghosts. His explorations of thresholds (becoming vs negation), of the myriad natures of time in fiction, art held up against “real” time…The precise use of architecture constructs (endless rooms stretching out to infinity to compartmentalize our existence for example) is humorous and interesting, as exemplified in the almost kisch irony about Patria needing to find a “real man”.

In exiting the novel, one can almost butnotquite find themselves wanting to leap into the void with Aira’s Ghosts….

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