Although I refrain from writing about the broader issues regarding literature, I like to consider myself reasonably conversant with them. For instance, I make an effort to keep up to date on the offensives of the armies on both sides of the war for the soul of the contemporary novel. (1) In general terms, two factions – the Realists and the Experimentalists – hold each other accountable for the decline of this ancient art form. The former accuse their opponents of writing elitist, opaque, dense, hermetic, formalist, self-conscious, lifeless, reader-inimical hogwash; the latter, after ridiculing them for their formal conservatism, and affirming the pleasures of exploring language for its own sake, make the claim that their abstruse methods capture our fragmented contemporary reality more truthfully than old-fashioned formulae. In one camp you have: B. R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto;” Jonathan Franzen’s attack on William Gaddis in “Mr. Difficult;” Dale Peck’s hatchet job on Rick Moody that served mainly to provide him with a platform from which to launch an attack on that “tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses;” and James Wood’s How Fiction Works, a treacherous book whose true intentions deserve the more honest title of How to Write 19th century novels in the 21st century that James Wood will award five stars to. Apotheosis arrived in the form of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which basically argues that the novel has run its course and must die in order to clear the path for something called the lyrical essay, which will sate the appetite for reality afflicting current readers, for whom publishers can’t print non-fiction books fast enough and in suitable quantities.
The other side includes: curmudgeon Gabriel Josipovici, whose Whatever Happened to Modernism rakes the major British novelists – Rushdie, Amis, etc. – over the coals for conforming too much to stale novelistic models instead of blowing them up like their Modernist ancestors did; Ben Marcus’ riposte to Franzen’s anti-Gaddis diatribe; just about all the non-fiction William H. Gass has published since 1970; and Zadie Smith’s laughable “Two Paths for the Novel,” an essay wherein she compares one realistic, formulaic but prettily written novel called Netherland to a faux-innovative and horribly written (Tom McCarthy writes better self-promotional PR than literature) novel called Remainder, and decides that the future of the novel involves McCarthy’s ordinary, bland prose like the one I can get on my IRS tax form or in coupons pushed into my hands at the entrance to the subway. (2) I include Smith here only for reasons of completeness; I know very well that in this war she serves as a double agent for the Realists, donning the enemies’ uniform to besmirch it with her nonsensical defences of experimentalism. Alas, if only she managed to keep the façade intact; if only she didn’t write Howards End pastiches; if only she didn’t churn out conventional novels, thus making her infatuation with experimentalism seem schizophrenic; if only she hadn’t tweeted about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, that utterly pedestrian, banal novel that epitomises 19th century retro-realism, having “completely blown my mind” (for God’s sake, it’s just Raymond Carver times 3,000 pages; how much she must despise literature for that to blow her mind); if only she hadn’t done all those things, then her deception might have fooled someone.
Now the way both sides conduct this war poses two problems: first, in pitting realism versus experimentalism they tend to forget that literature should strive to achieve excellence; secondly, both sides remain very much certain that literature involves something to do with depicting reality, or dealing with human issues, or bringing life onto the page. Give an Experimentalist enough paper and ink and eventually he’ll sound like James Wood, waxing poetics about consciousness and lifeness. Like dissenting sects within the same religion, Experimentalists and Realists have identical goals; they just want to achieve them through different ceremonies and doctrines. With that said, I hereby pledge my allegiance to the Church of Steven Moore. For me, The Novel: an alternative history remains the most lucid and persuasive addition to the Experimentalists’ papyruses; Moore not only attempts to explain what excellence in a novel means, but he puts it in historical context; and although his definition has room for those who obsess about literature remaining a vessel for “real life issues,” it doesn’t really need them to work; in fact it did just fine without them for a couple of millennia.
In the introduction, Moore claims that he wrote his history book in response to naysayers like Franzen, Peck and Myers and to correct the typical view of the novel’s history. Although consensus goes that once upon a time – the 19th century actually – there existed the realist novel, the zenith to which the genre should aspire, and then somewhen in the 20th century Modernists tore it apart out of meanness and haven’t stopped their aggression since, Moore goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans to show that what we call experimentalist novels have always existed and constituted the lake that fertilized the soil on which the genre grew and prospered, and that only around the mid-18th century did the realist effluent swell and flood its abundant banks, submerging it under dark depths where it thrives only through chthonic small-press publishers who take risks.
Moore defines the victors as the “straightforward, lightly romanticized stories of recognizable people out of everyday life, usually narrated in chronological sequence and in language no different from that of the better newspapers and journals.” And: “realistic narratives driven by a strong plot and peopled by well-rounded characters struggling with serious ethical issues, conveyed in language anybody can understand.” Forget the bit about chronological sequence, and this passes off as a synopsis of My Struggle; you get the impression an aphasic wrote it. Moore doesn’t like these novels that dethroned the old mainstream; he prefers the ancient tradition: “The earliest novels were Greek romances and Latin satires, where the plot was a mere convenience that allowed the author to engage in rhetorical display, literary criticism, sociopolitical commentary, digressions, and so on. It was an elastic form that made room for interpolated poems, stories within stories, pornography and parodies, where the realistic and fantastic blend together.” As for excellence, he makes it clear in different ways what the novel should aim at. “The only contract artists have with their audience is to perform at the top of their abilities in the expectation we will raise ourselves to their level, not pout because they haven’t lowered themselves to ours.” And: “We read [great novelists] for the same reason we might go to the opera or the ballet: to be dazzled by a performance.” And also: “Literature is a rhetorical performance, a show put on by someone who possesses greater abilities with language than most people.” This, too, would pretty much do away with Tom McCarthy, whose short, declarative sentences, pared down, uncomplicated style, absence of figures of speech, and fifth-grade-level vocabulary suit him better for dailies, or the spin he excels so much at.
I adore this theory of the novel as performance, of linguistic showmanship as its own reward, perhaps because it coincides so much with where my readings have taken me since 2014: after reading them it becomes hard not to crave Vladimir Nabokov’s off-kilter metaphors, or William H. Gass’ beautiful, alliterative sentences, or Alexander Theroux’s pedantically obscure vocabulary, or William Gaddis’ erudition that he parades gratuitously because he can. It does feel strange finishing one of their books and then returning to something lesser; it produces a sense of deprivation, of famine, of impoverishment. Sometimes these performances do baffle me; recently I completely failed at enjoying Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, a complex, punishing, tiresome novel that didn’t reward me in the least for all it demanded of me; the ambition that goes into novels like it entails such risks occasionally, but I prefer that to talentless Norwegian autobiographers who brag in interviews about not caring about writing amazing sentences. Then why do you write at all? Why don’t you just express yourself through pantomime in an Oslo street corner? If you hate words, why molest them?
My search for more logophiles has brought me to Paul West (b. 1930), a novelist born in England who lives in New York. A well-kept secret, like the medium the Old Masters used in their paintings, in spite of accolades from his friend William Gass, a long oeuvre and a reputation as one of the English language’s finest living stylists, many of his older novels have gone out of print and his name has but a residual presence in the internet. Not knowing where to start, I bought his most colorfully-titled novel, Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas; published in 1972, it concludes a trilogy about a madman called Alley Jaggers, or AJ. Although not the ideal place to start, the novel quickly explains what went on in Alley Jaggers (1966) and I'm Expecting to Live Quite Soon (1970): AJ, for reasons I’ll eventually find out, murders a pop star, tries to have congress with her corpse, and ends up in a mental institution; his father dies, perhaps of grief; and his wife, Dot, turns to prostitution, marries a black man and has a daughter with him.
As Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas starts, AJ has lived in a mental institution for five years now, under the care of Dr. Withington (With), his mother has stopped visiting him, and he uses his antics to entertain a panel of psychiatrists he calls the uncles. Dr. With lives with Plonk, a drop-out hippie who writes songs, smokes grass and has friends in a commune (where she later meets and fucks AJ). Out of what he calls “professional curiosity,” With helps AJ escape, ruining his career but apparently becoming a happier man; meanwhile AJ wanders into this commune, tries to sodomize a cow (before Plonk makes herself available), later kills a different cow, wrecks a cemetery with a bulldozer, and desecrates a church before the cops bring him back to the hospital where, now under Dr. McIntosh’s watch, it seems AJ will use his remarkable mental prowess to manipulate him like he did With, “using his head at the world, for that is his gift.” In case you think I just spoiled the whole novel, bear in mind I merely regurgitated the dust jacket’s inner flap’s information. West clearly doesn’t worry you know the whole plot and denouement in advance. He’s not that kind of writer.
Like Moore’s ancient novels, West uses this skeleton of a story to hang powerful muscles and tendons of rhetorical tricks, impressive imagery, endless wordplay and alliteration. What kind of life form these organs amount to I don’t know, some sort of mutant that can’t pass on its genes, but at least we can marvel at it while it lasts. Psychology barely exists, and perhaps no purpose justifies the protagonist’s shenanigans; in the final pages, in a text written in toilet paper delivered to Dr. McIntosh, AJ cites Mark Twain’s famous notice to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
I also like Moore’s theory because AJ, for me, personifies the author’s need to dazzle the reader with performance. AJ behaves like a god of language, enchanting an audience. The connection comes from the title – Bela Lugosi, an actor; but AJ doesn’t so much impersonate roles as he behaves like the modern artists in a happening: he gets onto a stage and improvises, no other tool other than language and its power to hold in thrall. Like a picaresque novel, most of the communication occurs via dialogue, and AJ constantly needs to find someone to talk to; when he doesn’t have humans in sight, he can talk to his dead father, a cow, or God; but he never ceases talking and inventing new syntax. And West has an endless repertoire of tricks (“I used to mix things up a bit, like one of those old alchemists, trying to come up with something new? Except it was just in my own mind”); he masters the extended metaphor:
"As perpetually disobedient and renewable as Prometheus, he is as greedy as Faust and as chutzpah-rich as Frankenstein. Too, in a sense he is chained to the rock of the jail; he can be said to have trafficked with the devil in an act of manslaughter culminating in corpse rape; and his experiments are very much with disject membra; yet his liver is in grand filtering order, his soul remains unmortgaged, and his creations have next to no chance of destroying him. Amazing to record, he balks the gods with impunity, spurns the devil's bargains, and has no more need of cadavers than a computer does of steam."
Shoots off palindromes:
“Able was I ere I saw Elba”
“Elba saw I era I was able”
“Like Glen Elg”
Conjugates silly verbs like to dildo in Latin form: “dildeis, dildei, dildoume, dildete, dildoun.”
Displays his erudition via the last sayings of famous men AJ collects and turns into fodder for some stand-up comedy routine: “That Socrates, the one who had to drink poison, I forget why. I suppose I never knew. He comes right out with it, good old Soc: I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? It’s a good thing job he owed nobody a cunt.” Joke rimshot! Yes, this novel veers from highly cerebral to quite puerile.
Metaphors, alliteration, wordplay, palindromes, foreign words – West uses everything he can to make this a busy novel. Now I don’t think the tricks always work: AJ pronounces Goethe as Go-Eth (like we all do), “as if dismissing a truncated Ethel or an Ethyl alcohol,” and I found this one weak; sometimes his attempts at playing with repeated sounds come off as forced: “make mutton pies out of butterflies, ribbonfish out o riboflavin, ichor out of ichneumon flies…” But like With writes about AJ, “To him, if it hasn’t been thought before, it’s priceless.” A few duds will pop up whenever the author tries to make every sentence unique.
In the hospital AJ has become a “colossal reader.” “His first year he read nothing, but just shaped and reshaped blobs of modeling clay. His second year he read modeling magazines. His third he went back to his boyhood favorites – Dracula, Robinson Crusoe, Coral Island, The Last of the Mohicans, King Solomon’s Mines, and Tarzan of the Apes – and began to collect stamps in an album provided by one of his uncles. His fourth year he moved along and plunged into H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the World, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, and the Penguin Shakespeare. His fifth year was a mental explosion beginning with a subscription to the National Geographic magazine taken out by the library and continuing with an Everyman Encyclopedia supplemented by manuals on modern science and ancient thought (this in something called the Living Thoughts Library).” With collects AJ’s riffs in a notebook called Bela Lugosi’s White Christsmas. “For whom to read, I wonder. Maybe me alone. Why Bela L. And not Boris K.? AJ’s fault. He’s so arbitrary. Might just as well have been ‘Lon Chaney’s Ramadan’ or ‘The Phantom of the Opera at Passover,’ whoever it was played him in the movies.” With doesn’t want to cure him and in fact grows to like him. “AJ, in fact, was my first case in depth, may well be my last. Of course, he’s not going to get out, not going to be let out, not going to be got out, not least because I’d find it hard to face the days in here without him. All the riffs, all the Last Great Sayings, all the mock anthropology we do, all the heathenish japes we get up to. Hell, it’s a waste of time trying to tabulate him. It’s petty. And he’s gotten me too space out to care.” As you can see, With shares a bit of AJ’s mental instability. With enjoys his company, and finally suggests a means of escape and even aids him. Nothing distinguishes the doctor’s voice from the patient’s, his demonstrates the same playful, inventive, metaphor-heavy tone. Writing about AJ, “A dictionary or a map to him is the Sierra Madre, every square millimeter crammed with gold.” West doesn’t let boring details like verisimilitude intrude on the control over craftsmanship he sustains from cover to cover. Sacrifice inventiveness to realistic speech? What, and damage the performance? The audience paid good money for this!
The recurring theme involves AJ’s refusal to behave like other people, to conform; he prefers to invent, to make things strange, as if he were a walking ostranenie. In the hospital he makes papier-mâché masks because “I don’t want to go around looking like everyone else. Just a bit of individuality is all I ask.” He shows this not just in the way he uses language but also in the many identities he likes to put on to entertain his uncles: "Bonkers used to be his own word for how he is, but Dr. Withington's is different, and AJ cannot quite remember it, knowing only that it is something like a blood transfusion in a funeral parlor, something that's no good. Not that AJ finds words difficult: not any longer. For the past two years of his five spent here, he has been reading hard (even the dictionary), like a builder studying a brick mound, and schizophrenia is a familiar brick. He likes its sound when it falls, is let fall, near him; its noise of snipping the brain in two. Bunkers he calls it, fully aware of the golf course it evokes, of his having done a mental bunk, of the underground retreat that was Adolf Hitler's, of the bunk he sleeps in, of the literal bunk he talked to the visiting phenomenological psychiatrists who agreed with him that, when he said he was Genghis Khan, he was so, just as he was Snowflake the white gorilla when he said that. And they asked him about the central heating in his tent of state as Khan and about the color problem in the jungles of Spanish equatorial Guinea, where Snowflake came from. And the one thing he never refused them was his answers, finding himself for almost the first time in his life being taken seriously. (…) Day in, day out, during each of the visits, he reinvented himself and reformed himself just because they were willing to listen, and not Genghis Khan and Snowflake only, but also a Birdman, a polar bear, and the first fish to walk on land, as well as a legless giraffe, a trunkless elephant, and – pathetically stretching out on the floor with both hands in front of his propped-up face – a blind Alley.”
Although seldom mentioned alongside the 1960s postmodernists, Paul West shares their meta-fictional techniques (3) and has the habit of explaining the novel through the novel itself, and I think this novel, in spite of its injunction against trying to find meaning, has its own explanations ingrained in the text. As I see it, AJ stands for a demiurge, a God of Storytelling. He sees himself as an alien in With’s world and considers the normal universe “just a wee bit carelessly put together, fundamentally, firmamentally fucked up.” As opposed to the beauty, harmony, secret combinations of words that bring to life his delicate mental universe. And to explain it more in depth: “I never applied for admission to your so-called universe. I was kidnapped into it from a better place that keeps coming back to me in the dead of night, when all the other brains have shut down. Where it was altogether more previous than this, with things not so fixed and not even with words for them, dozens of different sexes and faces with all kinds of noses, folks with several heads, cannibals that fancied grassy green and vegetarian that swallowed eye-balls whole. Where it was more optional than it is here and now, about the time old God Almighty was in a poxdoctoring dither, not sure which way was which, and wondering why the bejesus he got involved with the whole things in the first place, inventing light out of sheer cussedness just to see if it suited him, and then getting into that terrible balls-up with the plumbing, and then having gone that far almost feeling obliged – so as not to have wasted all that time and effort – to get the lion grass growing, the birds into the so-called blue heavens, the fish into the U-boat pond, and so forth.” AJ defends the freedom language has, not to reproduce or imitate, but to flat-out invent what doesn’t exist; he doesn’t deal in mirrors, he deals in orichalcum. And this universe he comes from devotes itself fully to intellectual exercise. “Ho, he mutters, if I founded a church it wouldn’t be shaped like any cross; it would be something that’d appeal to the mind.” And does not Jane Austen define the novel as “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed?” And throughout West’s novel we accumulate parallels between AJ and Jesus Christ: With records his words like a disciple; helps him evade like some theories claim the Apostles helped Jesus Christ feign his death; he forgives his wife, an adulteress; tries to resurrect his dead father by digging his grave with a bulldozer; has a chat with the other God, the Christian one, in a church; and his pursuit ends in a dam where policemen find him fishing. Other characters liken him to other deities, and he even compares himself to a Holy Fool, those figures whose madness empowers them with insight: “Our man in Dementia, some have called him. Others dub him Jaggernaut, no doubt intending the festive corruption of a Hindu deity; others address him to his face as AJ; and he himself thinks of his role as that of a holy Fool, the capital F having roared in upon him from his reading like a peerage bestowed or a White House medal.”
In fact as soon as the novel starts AJ compares himself with Satan, the trickster, the manipulator, the first rebel and also a symbol of creative forces, of imagination, in this astonishing piece of prose:
"Upchuck," yells AJ. "What speed I couldn't tell, except it's like how Satan would be after two thousand million years of going without his greens, misering his sperms, and then one day out with his weapon big as a spaceship with a pearly warhead and working himself off both-handed. Floom, swoosh, it pours out, red-white-hot big flying rocks of come from out his balls underground and up the chute with a roar like that bomb at Hiroshima. Except it isn't just one weapon, it's million of them jabbing up above ground wherever you look and shooting high into the newly manufactured sky as if millions of jets have written con trails in milk, all curling and twining into one another, and then down it comes, the debris heavy as the world itself, the sperms big as elephants and buses, denting terra firma, blasting its chin and cheekbones off and melting everything in sight. The land's bubbling, there's steam everywhere, and those who don't get their heads smashed in by what's falling out of the sky will have their feet burned off by what's flooding the ground. Except there's nobody here to see it at all. Just as well. If I'd been that Lord Byron, I'd have had a private jet full of king-sized beds, and then at six hundred miles an hour I'd be going at it night and day back and forth across the Atlantic, nonstop, or just from London to Baghdad and back, with a special stock of vitamin pills in the bomb bay and oysters by the million... Nonstop forever. That's how to keep the roses in your cheeks. It's a doodle once you've learned how."
Finally we have my favorite sentence in the novel: "There ought to be laws against great minds bringing universes into being just for fun." This is taken from “AJ’s first book of the Bible.” AJ is less character than the personification of infinite wordplay possibilities. A universe made of sheer invention and combination of words, the entire English language at his disposal, and foreign words too for West is a polyglot. And that universe comes into being for no reason other than explore those combinatorial possibilities that allow language to transcend mere utilitarian purposes of “revealing consciousness” or “discussing moral themes” or “lifting a mirror to society,” all those clichés that attempt to justify literature for those who can’t stand it for its own sake. “Remember that Greek – Cretan – who went around saying all Cretans were liars? Well, I’m the cretin who goes around saying all cretins tell the truth.” He’s a Holy Fool constantly transforming himself to show that truth does not exist, like With, his apostle, ends up discovering. Not Dr. McIntosh, though: he wants to understand why his predecessor called the notebook after White Christmas. He wants to analyze, categorize, make sense of things, see hidden meanings. But AJ tells him, “I won’t cut a hole in myself for you to fish through. Mac, old son, Mac, my boy, you’re on your own. I’ve no uncles any more.” No answers, perhaps no lifeness in this novel, but lots of superb prose.
I started this text saying I don’t write a lot about general literary topics; that’s because I can’t bring myself to care about writers like Jonathan Franzen, Tom McCarthy, Elena Ferrante and Knausgaard: minimalists proud of their minuscule words; minimalists in maximalists’ clothes; barely-literate nobodies who think their ordinary lives are worthy of my precious time; Camus plagiarists playing at big innovators thanks to reviewers paying more attention to their press releases than the actual writing in their worthless novels – if that’s the future of literature then I’m glad Amazon sells used copies of Paul West’s 1970s novels at cheap prices. Let the other bloggers write about the future; I’ll stick to great minds bringing universes into being just for fun.
1) Effort? Actually I just read once in a blue moon Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading for all my news.
2) For more eloquent McCarthy vitriol I recommend Obooki's Obloquy pieces on him.
3) Paul West, or a mysterious I that narrates, actually intrudes on the narrative a few times to talk to the reader; so we can add fourth wall-breaking to the list of misdemeanors.