The Way of Florida – Russell Persson

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Faith is therefore no aesthetic emotion, but something far higher, exactly because it presupposes resignation; it is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence – Fear and Trembling –  Soren Kierkegaard

The best novels are never confined. They avoid simple reductionism or definition, they’re as amorphous as history itself. They can never really be known, although of course obscurantism for obscurantism’s sake is a loathsome goal and we must be wary. Criticism tries but is only ever a terse gesture towards themes or subjective readings, a celebration mostly, the proverbial bigging up. The best novels are about everything.

The Way of Florida is one of those novels. It elevates itself above its context, although it doesn’t use its context, it doesn’t simply rohypnol it and go for a quick fumble, and it never feels like a crutch or burden, there’s a respect and duty paid, it never loses sight or tries too hard to break away and be something more, this something more is achieved through Persson’s keen moral eye and spiritual concern and his assiduous handling of an now almost alien time in human history.

It’s as such we sail or drift us in this sea who calls our path. The maize in its own lessening. How could the sky in day see fit to spend us like it does? This in turn is answered. The gathered clouds. The wind who moves a bird against its usual wing into a tumble. The wave who begins to have a tip crested turned over into a brief witness the lip of what’s coming. A still wind over the tips enough to move the smell of what’s coming on to us and then a wind rises gusted at times and risen into the unwelcome.

The language is neither anachronistic or pastiche, maybe it’s a weird blend between the two I’m not sure, but it doesn’t feel like either, wholly the author’s own, a brilliant run-on hybrid that just when you feel Persson has lost it he snaps it back to his command like a ringmaster does his whip. There’s a delirium to the prose but also a sanity, a thoroughness and rich sincerity. It doesn’t sound like it’s from the past, in fact the total opposite, it’s a voice from the future and is all the better for it – the sort of prose Vollmann has occasionally managed but never sustained for a whole novel the way Persson does here.

But is it each his own read of what’s above? 

The sections are hypnotic at times and it can be easy to overlook much of the novel’s deeper and more profound ideas as they come nestled within each euphonious burst, stuff like “Men at arms do they come ready in this life for moving a fast arm against another man?” It raises the old questions of man’s inhumanity to man, the ideas of violence begetting violence, trust vs suspicion within the nature of man, whether consequence justifies certain amoral actions, but there’s a spiritual muscle at work, this is a conversation with God, with faith, with one’s own sins, with one’s own humanity “I find myself a marvel that I proceed at all though I marvel again at the enormity I carry and at the lands inside me yet to fold out”.

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At the start of the novel we’re introduced to this ship with 400 men and 80 horses and this is cut down throughout the book until we’re left with no horses and less than half a dozen men. This kind of weakening is important when considering the novel’s stance on human potentiality and when coupled with Heidegger’s view on potentiality. Heidegger’s reading of Paul embraces a weakness in the human condition, that what we move towards to become we cannot actually become, much in the same way that what the narrator and crew chase is not attained, importantly this arc occurs under the guise of faith – for me what you have then in this Heideggerian predicament is a powerlessness that becomes a kind of triumph or at least a revelation that helps us better understand our potentiality, the last sentence is crucially dealt callously as a way to question our intentions over a power we do possess and that we must confront.

There is a challenge within this book both for and against someone like John Gray’s naturalised and Darwinian re-description of original sin, the idea that we’re all just essentially killer apes, homo-rapiens as Gray calls us. But as this book demonstrates, we might be apes and capable of inhumanity for inhumanities sake given a certain context or none at all, but, crucially, we have a strong metaphysical longing, a suspicion about us of a deeper spiritual connection to what we call world – this novel is about a literal journey and period of discovery and colonisation but this serves as metaphor for the wider and more profound journey and discovery this book tackles, the journey of faith and the epiphanies there in.

Are we not the sons of trees? . . . Are we not the sons of almond and the sons of our home trees the nut elm and the leg oak we look back on to the trees of our home and they are bark and knee and bowl and canopy and we fasten us to them here to so live throughout the blow.

Just as a kind of addendum to this point and linking to the quote above, the idea of the Earth and “mother nature” and our place in the ecosystem is also interwoven within the narrative, it’s impossible to escape I guess in a novel featuring treacherous seas and burning sand but it’s an interesting aspect of the novel and again provides a deeper layer to the themes presented.

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As the narrator and his crew and the Indians suffer from every type of exhaustion imaginable the malnutrition comes through in the voice, and coupled with the inexorable evocations of God, you might think he’s speaking in tongues at some points, the whole body of the text is warped and vexed under the brutal conditions of narrator and crew as the text begins to resemble their makeshift rafts on those dubious seas.

So more ready to continue as if the weather and the sea waves had a mind and that mind was set to go on and its eyes were open and direct upon you unblinking almost in savour of the turmoil it hands out. Us gullied out on the worn maps of Him sunken down into the grooves cut deep by all who came before and augured into the sand of their own claim.

Do you believe that everything is random, do you believe like Bast in Gaddis’s JR that order is simply a thin perilous condition we impose on the true nature of chaos, that determinism itself is chaos and that chaos is deterministic, that we are all just matter and tiny particles (that’s basically pulsing light continually coming and going into and out of existence taken at the most minute level, some Planck scale) and that we’re all just this stuff playing itself out like pool balls flung across a table, seemingly chaotic but ultimately predictable and our paths defined – and if indeed it is all paved, our sins and all, do you believe that there is some meaning to it all at the end and what exactly is meaning given such a predicament?

The final sentence rocked me and helped refine much of what I’d read to that point. I won’t go into too much detail as I don’t want to muddy other people’s opinions or readings but I will say that there is suffering we can do little about and all we have is God and speculation for that, and mercy and sorrow and regret, but the true horror is horror we can do something about but condone or participate in anyway.

“Endings, instead, possess me . . .” – William Frederick Kohler

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Zero K – Don DeLillo

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2.5/10

Lots wrong with this novel – I might do a video soon elaborating on my thoughts about this but for now I’ll just leave these random thoughts.

The main problem is with the narrator, DeLillo has rarely if ever been capable of creating a memorable character, or a particularly interesting narrator, and what makes Underworld a cumbersome bore for me is the central character(s), and I agree with Martin Amis (of all people) that Underworld’s strengths are in its beginning and end passages, the rest is forgettable and overcooked and it’s little wonder that people rarely have much to say about the main chunk of that book. Obviously literary fiction isn’t about creating memorable characters but McElroy, Gass, and Hawkes and more recently Vanessa Place all manage to give their subjects a compelling voice, which accentuates the ideas of the novel and furthers them as lasting works of art, Zero K with its heavy ideas was crying out for this but in the end it added up to little more than a routine tour through transhumanism and never really progressed beyond TED talk levels of depth.

That’s not to say there aren’t glimmers of something deeper, there’s little bits on Heidegger and DeLillo’s own mini version of McElroy’s Plus half way through – there’s a decent novel in here trying to get out but it’s hidden behind DeLillo riffing for the umpteenth time about the New York bloody skyline and I feel the subject kind of overwhelmed him and he got caught up in conceptualised oddities instead, like the architecture of the underground facility. DeLillo edifying the everyday was good 20 years ago but it’s not interesting now and you feel a certain limpness in the prose, as if DeLillo found these sentences in the back of a draw somewhere, even he’s not convinced by them or what they’re doing in this novel. You get the feeling that the novel and maybe even DeLillo’s talent (or lack of in this novel) can’t really sustain the vast ideas he’s dealing with, and this becomes explicit about halfway through when DeLillo abandons the underground facility and retreats to safety and back to New York for another aimless riff. He does go back to the facility near the end but you get the feeling it’s merely perfunctory and again he goes to New York for the novel’s final pages.

I really don’t see what the first person narration adds here, if anything it draws things away, he should have done it like Mao II with multiple POV’s, and this book kind of reminds me of Mao II but at least with Mao II he cut it short and got out at just the right time.

A part of me feels DeLillo might even be playing some sort of accidental joke with the narrator as I’m not convinced that he’s even alive to begin with – he’s like one of Eric Packer’s banal underlings, at least in Cosmopolis and with Eric Packer DeLillo realized he had a monster on his hands and abstracted him to the point where his alien form was interesting and the Limo became a kind of spaceship (and this was complimented with the alien world of huge abstract financial movements), here his lack of conviction has created this kind of non-character.

DeLillo seems to even admit the narrator’s weakness just over midway through the novel when the narrator turns down a job and wants to tell the employer that they don’t understand him “not everything, not the part that makes me interesting.” Yeah, I don’t understand the part that makes you interesting either. There’s also a weird confessional air to the phrases some people say to the narrator when they describe him as a “shapeless man” and when he feels “a shiver of anonymity”.

Pond – Claire-Louise Bennett

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8.9/10

Despite what the reverse cover says, this book is not a collection of short stories, or a novel, it’s something else, a meditation by an unnamed narrator on the pitfalls and subtle tragedy of living alone – the narrator’s perspective is jilted, a little mad and surreal at times, but always smart and insightful, the kind of insight that can only come from a flirting with madness (the narrator describes her condition sometimes as feeling terrified for years or as a sense of melancholia), often she’ll riff on the seemingly inconsequential, at the end she admits that she’s “left it a little too late to cultivate the necessary outlook”, it’s this “necessary outlook” that she’s doing battle with, it returns us to the dynamic of existing “normally” within the world and the narrator’s quasi existence. And the book could be seen as a cultivation not of the “necessary outlook” but of the complete opposite and as the reader we’re then essentially asked to contemplate the validity and Truth of this perspective, which in turn reveals as much about ourselves and our world as it does the narrator’s – I think that the lack of conventional plot and narrative structure also accentuate the importance of these questions.

Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that’s not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would be hardly any need to daydream. (113)

I feel the quote above encapsulates one of the main tensions running throughout the book, the tension between the solitudinous life and an engagement with the world, the idea that there is wonder and awe to be found when you reject the conventional aspects of being in the world and the price that’s paid by this rejection.

And it’s as if the history of a particular place knows all about this blankness you contain. (97)

It’s no surprise in a way that the book uses a quote from The Poetics of Space as one of its epigraphs. This is a book about existing in spaces, homes, living rooms, and kitchens, the very spaces we take for granted. This is a book about affecting space and being affected by space, the nightmarish aspect that there is in a sense no escape from existing somewhere.

There are of course a number of regions in any abode that are foremost and yet unreachable. (91)

There is a problem of knowing that comes up a number of times in the book, “no one can know what trip is going on in anyone else’s mind”, there isn’t anything particularly  new going on here but Bennett’s expertly tuned brevity reinvigorates these old tensions of knowing, you feel like the narrator is either on the verge of complete madness or profound revelation and all of this while she’s talking about tomato puree and the picayune, it’s brilliant stuff – although I do think at times it might hide behind its brevity or use its ambiguity to kind of get away with things but the harm is minimal. I have little doubt that this will be one of the better books I’ll read this year.

The Public Burning – Robert Coover

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7.2/10

This is an often brilliant but overly long and unsatisfying satire of the American dream and Cold War American thinking.

The events in the book focus around a public execution of the Rosenberg couple who have been found guilty of treason after giving secrets regarding the nuclear bomb to the Russians. The execution is due to take place in Times Square New York with a big self-aggrandising and typically American event planned to coincide with the execution. Richard Nixon narrates much of this although there are sections that feature an essentially omniscient narrator.

The book is very funny in places and obviously it’s expertly put together, Coover is a master with this kind of form, but it’s not quite on the level of other American literary satires like Gaddis’s JR, which in terms of satirical bite and literary invention trumps it. Something like JR just has more stuff going on and is a better investment of your time – and considering just how much America has been satirised the novel at times feels kind of dated, for lack of a better term.

I found the riffs on the nature of history and the more sophisticated considerations of Nixon on what it meant to be in power the better parts of the book but these were few and far between particularly towards the end. There’s also a scene where Nixon goes to see Ethel Rosenberg to try and convince her to confess so she can avoid the electric chair, but this scene while commenting on the nature of love and desire and Ethel martyrdom among other things just felt pointless and exposed the limp nature of the narrative.

Nixon, apart from maybe the most disturbing epilogue I’ve ever read, is portrayed in a favourable light I thought, he appears morally conflicted by the Rosenberg case and sceptical of the American dream despite being enchanted by Uncle Sam’s interpolations into his life (the Uncle Sam stuff I found pretty funny and added a much needed energy to the book).

All the various moral dimensions of the case and how this relates to America is one of the more interesting aspects of the book but it’s often lost or pushed aside to maintain the comedic pulse of the novel, which is fine I guess, but the end scene with the execution ceremony dragged on way too fucking long.

If I was a bit more of a dick I’d say the book itself is a kind of satire of American, as it’s too long, too obnoxious, brash and cruel, full of itself, doesn’t know when to shut up, and ultimately feels hollow.

Seiobo There Below -Laszlo Krasznahorkai

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8.0/10

Because not to know something is a complicated process

Essentially it’s a 400-and-something page meditation on the nature of art and the artist and whether art and our engagement with it can offer some sort of profound meaning to alleviate our existential dread. This is all unpinned by Japanese culture and mythology and a vague concern with the Fibonacci sequence and the mathematical intricacies that might also reveal some sort of profound Truth. I hesitate to call this book a novel in the strict sense as there are no real recurring characters, no plot as such, and all the familiar crutches are gone and the various themes and concerns are left to float around on an amorphous stage.

There are obviously big questions being asked by this book, one these is based around the idea of sacredness and whether art can provide some sort of route or gateway to a deeper understanding of our place in the world or release us from the burdens of our need for some sort of deeper understanding. In many ways religion used to fulfil our desire for some connection with the eternal and answer our questions over the apparent suffering of the world, and in different ways Krasznahorkai puts religion as well as art on trial here. He asks us to consider the role of art in a largely secular world, the ability of art as we apparently move further and further away from the sacred. We’re asked to question our commitment towards art and the transcendental plains it might provide. In the opening story we’re introduced to what Krasznahorkai calls the “Prison of Complexity“, which refers to an order “between people and things, people and people, things and things” that “cannot be grasped by a human being” and how it’s this dynamic that gives rise to art and the kind of mercurial wonder that stalks the shadows of this book.

The section “Distant Mandate”, which is about the Alhambra palace is probably one of my favourite sections of the book. It has a lot of parallels with certain contemporary movements in philosophy, particularly the overmining and undermining of objects as presented by the field of OOO (Object Oriented Ontology). This section fluently debates the essence of an object and reanimates Kant’s argument that the thing-in-itself cannot be known and how our “knowing” in this sense is at odds with how the world actually is, something we cannot grasped from our limited perspective. And of course there are all the other issues surrounding the nature of things that OOO (and this section) are interested in: what is a thing and what it might mean to us given our knowledge about it, how a thing can be known and if it is known what is knowing in this sense.

We’re told that “the Alhambra offers everyone the understanding that it will never be understood.” Krasznahorkai later challenges this bleak conclusion with a positive interpretation of the Islamic geometry that makes up the Alhambra. However, the unknowability of the Alhambra is soon regurgitated and seems to quench all hope until it’s suggested that this unknowability actually offers a path to Truth, that the Alhambra itself, despite being unknowable in our rigid sense, is, in itself, the truth.

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palace patterns from inside the Alhambra

The books is full of cerebral pay offs if you’re willing to endure the huge walls of text and the relentless sentences. It can be easy to get lost, like some of its characters wandering around the art galleries – but maybe that’s the point, to reject all our rigid and secular forms of understanding and lose ourselves in the thing, that merely feeling the essence of a thing will in some way lead to understanding.

Best books of 2015

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So these are my favourite reads from 2015.

A couple of contemporary novels actually impressed me this year, Lerner’s 10:04 was funny and clever and overall just a very solid interesting read. I guess there’s a bit of buzz around Lerner  at the moment what the with MacArthur genius grant and everything, but at least he’s not gone for a huge obnoxious doorstopper early in his career, he seems to be quietly making his mark and I look forward to what he produces in the future. Full review of 10:04 can be found here for those interested.

McCarthy’s Satin Island was another one that impressed me, McCarthy has always struck me as someone almost too erudite to write fiction and this does almost become some metafictional titty pincher (to quote Wallace), the protagonist is called U ffs, but I think the novel attempts to take familiar postmodern concerns around Truth and meaning and the overwhelming complexity of the world and try to construct something new with them and move beyond the generic conspiratorial narratives and ideas of entropy that have dogged postmodernism for so long, it’s a move in the right direction although not a particularly large step. Full review that I did a while back can he read here.

On an impulse I decided to reread DFW’s The Pale King. I really don’t rate Infinite Jest, I feel like I should say this to reassure you that I’m not one of these DFW cult members who praises his every word and links This is Water every 2 minutes, although when I was younger I did go through a bit of a DFW phase that was largely inspired by his comments on irony that resonated with me at the time and that I still think are relevant and useful to young people coming up. Having said all that I think TPK is a pretty great novel, I feel like DFW does devolve at times back to similar plot lines of IJ and other postmodern works, there’s the whole idea of a shadowy group wanting to harness someone’s powers but there’s something brilliant about a novel based around taxes and wigglers and what all this means to America. Great book. More comments here.

Don DeLillo’s The Names was my favourite Don of the year. This is the earliest Don I’ve read and it has a lot of the charm and inventiveness of his later more abstract works. And although it doesn’t really fully succeed in everything it aims to do and at times gets lost it’s still better to read Don wandering somewhat aimlessly than most writers at their so-called best. Review review review.

Joseph McElroy’s Plus was something else, there are a few books that over the years have changed the way I’ve thought about literature and what it can do and just changed the way I think generally, Gaddis’s JR was one of them, Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition was another, Gravity’s Rainbow too, and McElroy’s Plus joins that list. McElroy is a genius, it’s a shame the publishing industry seems to have forgotten and Knopf would now rather bring you 1k page novels by preppy try-hards as opposed to actual artists. Plus is a novel about many things, a riff on memory, meaning, redemption, it’s a DeLeuzian becoming, a leaping off point for possibility and the potentials of the heart and mind. More words.

Special mentions for Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality (full review here, fans of Kafka etc will love this thing). Both great works and postmodern classics if there is such a thing. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition was a reread and something I haven’t read in years and man I realized how much that novel has informed my thinking over the years and how all these so-called internet novels like Cohen’s dire Book of Numbers and Pynchon’s underwhelming Bleeding Edge that are meant to tell us how we relate to technology man and how complicated it all is yeah? have really nothing to say and how Ballard wrote the best “internet” or technology novels decades before anyone was even awake to that shit. Review here.

Vanessa Place’s LA Medusa also really impressed me and also kind of baffled me but in a good way. A novel about the consciousness or phenomenology of the Los Angeles? It’s a huge astonishing work with echoes of the greats running through it and an authentic play with voice that you rarely see in novels nowadays where everyone seems to have the same voice. It’s near the top of the pile for my reread list. Review.

Noy Holland’s Bird was one of the final reads of the year and easily one of the best books to come out in 2015. The language gorgeous, the book is a tight perfectly formed thing that’s ragged at the edges just enough to make it interesting and keep you on your toes, it’s a short one but not brief, grief and big ideas are laced onto every page, brevity is a triumph in this case. Review.

Roll on 2016 . . .

Mao II – Don DeLillo

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8.4/10

This book is easily one of my favourite from DeLillo’s oeuvre, the prose is on point, the ideas are thick and fast and genuinely interesting and DeLillo doesn’t drag it out too long. I’ve always felt he works best in the somewhat shorter form, the 150-400 page range, something like Underworld just didn’t work for me, there were a few sections I enjoyed but the book suffered from an undercooked and soggy middle, but in Mao II Don’s prose never wavers and he gets out just in time before the whole thing burns away.

In the dust-jacket’s blurb it says the story is an intimate story about faith, longing, and redemption. I didn’t feel a sense of redemption about this book, or even much of a discussion about faith or longing. There are overt themes about the nature of art and the artist’s role in a society “reduced to blur and glut”, the isolated nature of the artist, and whether art is mere entertainment or something deeper and more profound. DeLillo has crammed a lot in here, there are multiple POV’s where all these themes and questions are streamed through and I think for the most part it works, DeLillo’s prose rarely drops a beat and the whole time you’re aware you’re in the hands of a master at the top of his game, and even though the plot is a mostly failure I’d rather read a beautiful failure like this than just about anything that gets lauded nowadays.

The opening section is worth the price of entry alone, a brilliant account of a mass Moonie wedding which is then followed by the young bride’s (Karen’s) nascent religious journey through tough urban streets. This idea of giving yourself away to something and self-sacrifice is obviously brought up early in the book and runs throughout it in various contexts. And I do think that the idea of faith to an ideal, whether it be art or some wider political struggle, is one of the stronger elements of the book and one of the more interesting concepts it wrestles with.

Of course you don’t read DeLillo for the plot but as I mentioned before the plot really doesn’t go anywhere, the whole thing just falls apart and DeLillo is left awkwardly tying bows, as in the end Bill Gray dies somewhat peacefully and abruptly, the poet held by the terrorist cell essentially disappears and is rumoured to be changing hands across various organisations, the photographer Brita moves on to documenting terrorist leaders and the books ends as it started with the scene of a wedding.

They way they live in the shadows, live willingly with death. The way they hate many of the things you hate. Their discipline and cunning. The coherence of their lives. The way they excite, they excite admiration. In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There’s too much everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn’t figured out how to assimilate him.

Throughout DeLillo’s career he seems to have had a fascination with the terrorist outsider, that Beeb documentary he did was largely about the questions raised in this book and also Libra, and his work post-Libra seems dotted here or there with terrorist acts and a particular curiosity with the media’s portrayal of these acts and the cultural significance of these atrocities – the parallels between these preoccupations and his fascination with death are also worth noting.

In some ways DeLillo’s take of the terrorist as the outsider and not assimilated by culture seems kind of dated now with the rise of the religious fundamentalist terrorist in culture in recent years, particularly in mainstream media culture where the terrorist, while still horrific, is almost a caricature and more a political tool than some fascinating martyr.

Obviously the terrorist’s acts are still outside the cultural ideals of The West and this gives them their power “terror is the only meaningful act”, and I guess art in this regard is somewhat impotent in the face of what the terrorist can do and how they can come to dominate culture, and there is little doubt that the terrorist “dominates the rush of endless streaming images” as DeLillo describes,  but indiscriminate murder will always have a degree of shock and power regardless of how it’s framed. The novel seems to bask in this self-deprecation and this is its weakness, DeLillo doesn’t seem to make a case for art and how much it has over terrorism – just to add to this train of thought, the German composer Stockhausen famously suggested that the attacks of 9/11 were the greatest work of art ever made and that art couldn’t touch them in terms of magnitude and impact (remarks that he later retracted).

Art moves in ways beyond simply horror or bafflement or even awe, the fact that art manages to move and stun and change you without relying on the nefarious tactics of terror is what makes it art and not just barbarism or some grave use of force. Art has a dignity and grace and humanity terror doesn’t have, this is art’s power.