Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Snake Tree by Uwe Timm


Translated from German and published by New Directions in 1989, Uwe Timm’s The Snake Tree is a book in which pretty much every sentence is tense with anxiety and foreboding. The story does not either let up or let go. It belongs to that category of novels, like the books of Paul and Jane Bowles and Alejo Carpentier, or Peter Mathiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, in which Europeans or Americans find themselves in remote third world contexts. Both the people and the physical conditions of that context are simply not subject to Western thought-control and machine-control, however much that control harms them.

The main character Wagner, “an all-efficient German engineer,” finds himself in a place, whether on his worksite or off, whose logic escapes him and whose people he can’t fathom. Even more so than books by the other authors I’ve mentioned, The Snake Tree presents an increasing spiral of terror and goes both differently and farther than readers might expect (even readers of this kind of fiction). It’s also an especially good example of showing how wrong bureaucracy can go and how much it can make bad problems worse.

Reading up on Timm, I find that he’s still alive as of summer 2022 and has been a tremendously popular writer in Germany. The book reads like an excellent blend of streamlined narrative and complex and sophisticated literature that would never be popular in the United States. It’s simply too good at what it’s trying to do.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

My Washington, DC meeting with Jeremy Stewart


So if you live in San Diego, like I do, and you’re having great conversations online with someone who lives in British Columbia north of Vancouver, where do you meet? In Washington, DC, of course. When I was there back in June, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Jeremy Stewart, a poet, essayist, scholar, and musician. He was in DC for a conference on Jacques Derrida (who knew they had those in DC?) and headed on to other stages of a journey, the next of which I think was Boston. We’ve been having conversations online since 2017, when he wrote me about publishing some of my poems in his magazine Dreamland.

Jeremy’s most recent book, In Singing, He Composed a Song, published by the University of Calgary Press, concerns alienated youth in a British Columbia town and the way music and their friends and hanging out and drinking and taking drugs (usually not too serious ones) gets them through a difficult growing up but can also land them in trouble with schools, the police, and even hospitals. It’s a novel (loosely) comprised of poems, photographs, prose narrative sections, and interviews (fake or real: they seemed so true that I couldn’t tell the difference). The story centers on one young guy and how trading a cigarette for a poster about a poetry reading while on school grounds can land someone in a lot more trouble than they ever expected.

Oh, and by the way, Jeremy told me he was doing some academic job interviews too. Given his wide array of talents, someone ought to hire him and quick. They won’t regret it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Changeling by Joy Williams

Talk about an ambivalent reaction to a book. There were so many things about Joy Williams’ The Changeling that I loved and quite a few that I didn’t like at all.

Fabulous imagery, often very disjointed and yet logical in its odd associations, a psychological weirdness that reminded me of Shirley Jackson. A still quite contemporary-seeming American surrealism that was often deeply convincing.
Propulsive, unforgettable sentences with a relentless drive.
An interest in psychological perverseness and the fringes of human complexity.
A vivid collapsing of the boundaries between the human and the animal.

A lack of narrative energy and focus, despite the intense energy of the sentences. Events in the book meander more than develop, and at times the momentum of the narrative comes nearly to a complete stop while the powerful sentences just kept going. There are significant stretches of the book that feel like the story is going nowhere.
Unconvincing portrayals of the real, especially when it comes to the nature of events. The “real world” in the book is at times at odds with the “dream world” and at times seems to blend with it. While that’s interesting when I put it that way, in practice the passages that seemed to be taking place in reality were often not convincing and relied boringly on coincidence and the unlikely. “Maybe it’s all a dream” is both unconvincing in terms of the narrative and also a boring cliché.

I also had mixed feelings about the stream of consciousness passages, which had a sort of “look what I can do” showiness that felt imitative and not essential.

Add it all up, I guess, and there’s a mix of less convincing story and narrative elements with fascinating writing and world view.

Sometimes I read the reviews on Amazon of ordinary people who write responses to an author or book, and I found all sorts of people saying things not all that different from what I’m saying about not only this book but others of hers as well: brilliant writing and strange thinking but unfocused stories that people lose interest in.

So my conclusion: at best, brilliant. At other times, an unconvincing pile of words that’s not headed anywhere. And no, I’m not saying something here that’s anti-experimental fiction. Experimental fiction still usually has narrative drive, and this book isn’t especially experimental anyway. The introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition comes from Rick Moody; Williams’ work seems most connected to the context of later 20th century American realism even while the realism of this book is very thin.

Anyway, if you’re a fan, help me understand what you like about Joy Williams’ work.

Friday, July 8, 2022

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart (my Goodreads review)

This book is a fun, energetic, easy read, of no huge distinction until you realize that it was published in 1908, a dozen years before Agatha Christie’s first book. What that means is that the things it seems like it might have in common with Christie’s work (a big rural house, untrustworthy servants, most people as possible suspects, etc.) are not things that Rinehart, an American author, borrowed from Christie.

Otto Penzler’s introduction identifies Rinehart as the leader of a loose school of “Had I only known!” authors. While I don’t think I’ll be following that particular lead any further, it’s interesting to note that Rinehart’s curious overuse of this foreshadowing technique was seen by others as a good way to build suspense. If Rinehart is hardly the first American woman writer of detective fiction, she seems like a big player too in the history of the cozy mystery concept. Nothing in the book is ever really shocking, no matter how often the narrator, Rachel Innes, is shocked, and the book feels entirely light and easy-going.

Miss Innes, as she is usually called by others, is not the official detective, although she certainly does plenty of sleuthing. She’s someone who wants to maintain order and happiness among her family and the others she cares about and is determined to do so. She’s curious sometimes, and sometimes not, but she’s always protective. It’s interesting to think of her amateur detective status, and that of a few other amateur women detectives, as preceding the creation of Christie’s Miss Marple.

One serious caveat about these books: the class and race attitudes, although gentle in expression, are pretty appalling not only by contemporary standards but probably even by those of the progressive political era of American history in which the books appeared. Servants are invariably silly and superstitious, and if they’re black they’re especially superstitious even if they might otherwise be portrayed as thoughtful and sensitive. There’s only one line, late in the book, that’s aggressively offensive, but the light-hearted class and race humor doesn’t fare well now, and people who want old works of pop literature to offer present-day standards should consider themselves warned.

There’s nothing great about this book, and nothing about it is remotely convincing, but it moves along at a highly energetic pace for a book more than a hundred years old, and I enjoyed it. I think the book will mostly be of interest to people who want to know more about the history of detective fiction and the history of detective fiction by and about women particularly.

This review can be found also on my Goodreads page:

Monday, July 4, 2022

What Happened to the Confederate Press?


I’ve been looking for an adequate answer to this question for awhile and never found it before reading Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press. What role did newspapers and government intervention into newspapers play in the role of the Confederacy? In contrast to the rambunctious, contentious Northern press, which produced viewpoints of all kinds, why was the Confederate press so limited and controlled?

Holzer’s book isn’t just about Lincoln and the press but about the development of newspapers in the United States from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. Yes, Holzer looks at Lincoln’s deep involvement in the world of newspapers over the whole of his life and political career, but the book is more broadly about the connection between newspapers and politics in American life during the years leading up to the Civil War. Holzer shows not so much how changes in American newspapers affected the ways people saw the war, but how newspaper men actively intervened in and shaped and sometimes controlled Northern response, often including official response, to the war.

One of Holzer’s basic points is that far from creating comments that came from outside the world of U.S. politics, the U.S. newspaper industry was directly connected to the U.S. political industry, with many people going back and forth between roles at newspapers and official government roles as politicians. As his key opening example of this interconnection, Holzer gives details regarding the fact that in 1859, Abraham Lincoln purchased and subsequently ran a German-language newspaper operating out of his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, although very few people even then knew about it. Lincoln’s investment (financial as well as political) in the world of newspapers was one of his most key and successful political practices.

Holzer’s 566-page book devotes only five of its pages to the history of Confederate newspapers. What’s surprising is that those few pages are all that’s really needed to answer the question of what the Confederate press was and what became of it.

Why did the Confederate press not keep its citizens as widely informed as the Northern press? Why was there so little information, why was it so controlled, and why did the Confederate press play such a very small role in the life of people in the South, offering them poor information, late information, and often enough no information at all?

For context, it’s important to understand that during the Civil War, in the North there was in no simple sense freedom of the press, although there was equally no simple censorship. Instead there were newspapers presenting all perspectives, including pro-slavery and pro-southern ones, and including newspapers whose owners and editors were accused of being, and sometimes were, traitors secretly supporting Confederate armies. It was often forbidden to report on the specific movements of troops, reports which might reach Confederate armies. The question of what ideas might be forbidden, under a national government that officially supported freedom of the press, depended on who you asked.

Who might do the forbidding was also a key issue, and the answer was different in different cases. Censorship was sometimes enacted on specific newspapers, editors, or reporters by Union army generals and other military and political representatives stationed in the local environments of the press in question. It was just often enacted unofficially by citizens who would attack press buildings or the operatives of those presses, including reporters, when those presses or reporters were seen as pro-Confederacy. If censorship was never a broad and clear political policy in the North, it was never absent either.

Lincoln’s response to all of this was, as Holzer shows, yet another example of Lincoln’s political savvy.

Lincoln said very little publicly on the subject beyond supporting general concepts of freedom of the press and denying that one had the right to tacitly or explicitly be a traitor. In practice he often said nothing when local officials shut down or destroyed an anti-Union press, although he sometimes chastised generals for going too far (especially if they weren’t generals who had won important battles). He also helped some Democratic presses and journalists (that is, those that might be pro-slavery and anti-war but not traitorous) return to production, although only after stern warnings. So Lincoln never said a lot publicly in favor of censorship while being willing to see it happen, encouraging or discouraging it in some cases.

So what was the Confederate Press like during the Civil War and why does it get only four pages in Holzer’s extremely detailed book? The answer turns out to be both simple and startling.

During the Civil War, in the South, Holzer writes, “a once robust two-party political culture vanished” (457). There was increasingly over the years of the Civil War no Confederate press at all.

Holzer lists a couple of key reasons why the Confederate Press vanished. One of them is not a lack of readers. People living in and under the Confederacy were often desperate for news, and just as often they couldn’t get it.

The first reason Holzer gives for the vanishing of the Confederate press was “near-universal white conscription.” Nearly all white males roughly ages 16-65 were required to join the Confederate army and fight, which left very few white men able to run a press or be a reporter. How the men who were exceptions came to be exceptions is something that Holzer’s book doesn’t discuss.

Another key element is that what Southern presses did remain were shut down quickly by the Union Army whenever a city was successfully invaded. The Union knew very well the role that Southern newspapers had played, often through false and outrageous stories, in creating the war in the first place, and so the army shut them down and also helped pro-Union papers in the South get started. As early as 1862, there were pro-Union papers in parts of the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia.

Lastly, and this reason was the most surprising to me: as the Civil War went on, the Confederacy and its supporters increasingly had little or no paper. And so, obviously, they had nothing to create a newspaper on. As Holzer points out, “The South boasted only a fraction of the nation’s paper mills before the war began, and fewer still once Union forces began occupying significant portions of its territory” (458). Given this extreme shortage of paper, newspapers had to cut back publication and increasingly just ceased. In some cases, they continued for a while publishing small, often even one-page editions. During the siege of Vicksburg, an extreme case obviously, the one remaining newspaper in town published a few small editions on the backs of former bits of wallpaper from (I’m guessing here) buildings abandoned in Vicksburg when the citizens left their homes during the bombardment to live in caves.

A few Confederate newspapers, like the Charleston Courier, held on longer than others, and surprisingly a few new periodicals Confederate periodicals opened (temporarily), but editions were small both in terms of numbers of pages and sizes of print runs and they could reach no more than a few people. Obviously, such papers had only limited information to offer and presented only pro-Confederacy perspectives.

A few years ago, a friend of mine said when I was talking with him about differences in the news and newspaper cultures of the North and South that he had probably assumed, without thinking about it, that news in the North and the South operated on relatively similar principles. As it turns out, not only was what could and couldn’t be said very different (not to mention what was and wasn’t said), what was even more different was the material and social conditions under which newspapers could say anything at all.

In the North, wildly energetic press activity tried to present a huge range of perspectives, including those of not just pro-slavery and pro-war voices but of acting traitors to the Union cause. It ran up against equally loose and fractious censorship activity, sometimes military and government, sometimes unofficial groups of angry citizens, activity that for the most part Lincoln quietly supported or condemned from a distance.

In the South, the one-party Confederacy had, over time, fewer and fewer newspapers to publish its perspectives, fewer reporters to write them, and ultimately no paper on which those perspectives could be written.

I’ll conclude this essay with one final thought: in the days of the Internet, any individual or group no longer needs paper to produce large scale editions of their perspectives that can be distributed widely. A post-paper, Internet news future is one in which the mechanics of reaching people has profoundly changed. It’s a change that will affect the future of war, rebellion, and revolution in ways we are only now beginning to see.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Shudder Folk Horror Movies Thumbnail Reviews Batch Two

I’m not sure how much longer the Folk Horror collection on Shudder will be available, since Shudder rotates its titles fairly frequently. In any case I’ve enjoyed watching all these movies, even the ones I didn’t like much. It was a fun project. The term “folk horror” feels pretty broad at times as a descriptor for all these films, but nothing I watched seem to fall outside the concept, which ultimately makes it pretty effective as a term for thinking about the subject matter and themes of these films.

The Wicker Man, British, 1973 (5 stars): Still often called the best British horror movie ever made, and I’ve not seen anything that makes me disagree. I have a DVD box set of this movie. Nearly every moment is beautiful; nearly every moment is eerie and disquieting, and the pervasive discomfort just keeps building. As a viewer, you always know something’s wrong, but the film is so surprising and original that you never know what it is. By the way, the hugely popular 2019 film Midsommar borrows tons from this movie and I haven’t seen anybody else note that. And I can say this and viewers still won’t know what to expect from this movie.

Il Demonio, Italian, 1963 (4 ½ stars): Surprisingly and effectively, this movie splits the difference between an Italian neorealist film and a horror movie. Set in a convincingly disturbing rural environment, the movie depends on Daliah Lavi’s outrageous and compelling portrayal of a out-of-control character who often turns out to be less disturbing than the more ordinary people around her. The movie’s not scary really, but it sure is disconcerting. Also, there’s a scene in it that’s the basis of an infamous scene in the director’s cut of The Exorcist. The scene was probably cut from The Exorcist for good reason, but the original in Il Demonio is riveting.

Kill List, British, 2011 (4 stars): This movie is even more brutal than its brutal trailer would lead you to believe. But it’s also a much better movie than the brutality might lead anyone to suspect. The situation is off-kilter and disturbing, the characterizations are effective, and even if one has a general sense of what way the mysterious elements of this film are going, I myself didn’t really see the ultimate turns coming. There’s more than a little Tarantino influence here, but this movie is really doing its own thing. I’m not kidding about the brutality though, so consider yourself warned.

The Blood on Satan’s Claw, British, 1971 (3 ½ stars): The term “folk horror” was originally used by reviewer Rod Cooper in describing this movie. It’s quite enjoyable although much of the story is ridiculous and the psychology of it paper thin. Good atmospherics and tone carry the day so that the action doesn’t become too ludicrous to bear. The atmospherics of this movie are quite foundational in terms of many horror movies that follow it, including The Wicker Man, so it’s an essential folk horror watch despite moments that might make you laugh derisively.

La Llorona, Guatemalan, 2020 (3 stars): There are some things to like about this movie and a lot not to like so much. Director Jayro Bustamante borrows heavily from Guillermo Del Toro, but as much as I like the idea of setting a horror movie in a rich historical and political context, the movie takes the worst part of Del Toro (and the reason I’m not a fan of Pan’s Labyrinth): a heavy-handed political moralizing that precludes much surprise. At every moment, this movie tells us exactly who is bad and for what reason and in what degree and then proceeds to sledgehammer its agenda into place. There’s a good sense of mood, good acting, and some memorable and at times chilling visuals, and those things help lift it above its dull and obvious moral lecture.

Dark in August, American, 1976 (3 stars): The first hour of this movie is quite good, a four star effort that establishes intriguing characters and a striking rural setting. J.J. Barry is an original presence as the main character. But then there’s the rest of the movie.

Clear Cut, Canadian, 1971 (2 ½ stars): Graham Greene is such a compellingly watchable actor that he almost pulls off the two-dimensional character he plays He also overwhelms the mediocre performances by the other actors. The plot, about a land struggle between white Canadians and indigenous people, has all of the expected features but not much more. I like it when horror gets political, but that like anything else needs to be done well. The film is supposedly controversial because of the stand it takes that sometimes violence might just be the best response to oppression, but I didn’t care enough about the white characters to be concerned at how badly they were beating treated. Don’t more conventional slashers also suggest that it’s tremendous fun to see stupid arrogant assholes get sliced and diced and that the world is a better place when they’re gone?

Tilbury, Icelandic, 1987 (2 ½ stars): The flat acting and lack of convincing action were on some level an important part of this odd little film, which tries to combine the presence of an ancient horror with a historical drama of World War II Iceland during a period of occupation by supposedly friendly British and American troops. The disjointedness made the action difficult to care about, so this movie survives on its weirdness mostly, and it was often weirder than I was expecting, with some scenes that are surrealist not in a loose sense but truly.

Roh, Malaysian, 2019 (2 stars): Sigh. I was rooting for this movie when I started watching it. But the story was verging on absent, and the mythology was general and vapid: bad things happen to bad people, and even the possible twist that everyone might be bad couldn’t save the slow scenes, the barely comprehensible narrative turns, and the lack of strong atmosphere. A lot of the story revolves around a mother failing her children, or supposedly failing her children, but I’ll be darned if I could ever figure out what it was she was supposed to have done. Apparently she became a bad mother right when her husband died, or was being accused of being one from that moment, not that the story ever resolved or even really approached an answer to what had created the problem.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Last Time I Saw These Copies of Thomas Pynchon


These rank among the most life-changing books for me. Now that these copies are falling apart, I wanted to photo them and comment on them before the copies (not the books themselves) exit my life.

I first found out about Thomas Pynchon in a graduate class taught by William Spanos (RIP) on Postmodern Fiction at SUNY-Binghamton. We really did read Gravity’s Rainbow, over at least two weeks if I recall, although I don’t recall, not entirely. Other books we read in that class included Calvino’s On A Winter Night a Traveler, Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and Borges’ Labyrinths. I loved most of the books in that class, but right now I don’t remember the others.

But Pynchon, wow. Gravity’s Rainbow sent me into another universe of possibility entirely. The politics, the open-ended quality, the nearly impossible combination of humor and seriousness, the huge geographical and historical worldview. Not long after, I published my first work of fiction on the graduate level (I had published some stories in undergraduate magazines). It was called “The Last Time I Saw Thomas Pynchon,” a series of vignettes in which I as narrator encountered Pynchon as character in a series of absurd, urban, postpunk environments (I was very much a postpunk at the time) and he told me things I needed to know.

I picked up and soon read V and The Crying of Lot 49 as well. At that time, Pynchon hadn’t published a new novel in more than 15 years, so this was the era when these three books, and the short story collection Slow Learner, were all the available Pynchon fiction there was, the later avalanche still unforeseen. He was sometimes referred to in print as a 60s satirist whose half-earned moment of fame was long gone.

Anyway, I’m wishing these near-pulp editions goodbye. They have long since pulped themselves. I suppose, human or book, sooner or later we all pulp ourselves, although some pulp gets under our skin a lot deeper than others. In fact it’s just as I write this that I remember one scene from my now lost story “The Last Time I Saw Thomas Pynchon”: he as character and me as narrator met at a garbage dump, where he told me that I could learn more about people’s lives by going through their garbage than by looking at the objects they kept in their houses.

To prove his point, here’s some garbage of mine.