Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti

Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti is a collection of stories that would appear to veer between science fiction, fantasy and horror, or combine all three genres at once. Since they are determinedly fantastical and morbid, I suppose horror is the main ingredient, a horror that there is another world nearby, just across the northern border, where there are grotesque and inexplicable happenings and beings that somehow echo our daily existence and are, in fact, more real or authentic than our daily existence because we can barely see them but they apparently can see us.

Ligotti’s strengths are several. He writes extremely well in a story-telling, as opposed to story-showing, mode. By this I mean his sentences are vivid and strong and almost error-free in maintaining a distinctive tone and rhythm. They are comparable to Kafka in the sense that they powerfully understate the unbelievable, and that’s good, because the unbelievable needs to be whispered, not shouted. In addition, Ligotti’s tales are uniquely atmospheric; he creates wholly self-enclosed worlds that extend themselves, paragraph after paragraph, into deeper and deeper realms of the same thing, turning monotony (up to a point) into a virtue.

If Ligotti has a natural gift for a narrative arc, however, or an interest in a well-prepared “ending,” I can’t say I entirely grasp it. These stories are wonderfully detailed but more suggestive than conclusive. What one learns is what one would suspect all along: the secret-keepers on the other side of the northern border aren’t sharing their secrets, nor are they surrendering to rational interpretation.

So these are enactments, or performance art, meant, I would think, to fire up the reader’s imagination and engage her as a co-teller, someone who would infuse the reading experience with deeply personal anxieties and fears and suspicions.
Certain motifs recur: there are broken puppets, weird artifacts, recurrent bouts of indigestion, mysterious attics and mysterious basements. Doors, of course, are important. So are streets lined by tombstone-like buildings, evidently uninhabited and sometimes seemingly doorless and windowless.

When Ligotti needs to add communal ingredients to the mystery, he simply summons crowds of unintroduced friends of the narrator or inhabitants of the city or folks walking by who stop to watch the enigma stage a parade . . . or procession of the dead and dying.
I think a real Ligotti-lover would be someone who simply enjoyed his well-articulated vision and how it departs from the normal. This would not be someone who took horror seriously but rather someone interested in vacating the premises of quotidian reality.
It seems to me that Ligotti’s real claim and interest, again, has to do with how well and consistently he writes. He is not as ornate and melodious as Poe or as succinct and powerful as Kafka, but he is still like a hum, a drone, with an undeniably unsettling effect.

There is no “other” world lying nearby, staring at us and bewildering us, except in work like Ligotti’s, but that raises the question, explicit in several stories, about whether art is more real than reality, likely to take us unawares in strange moments, insist on the truth of dreams, and convince us that we are right when we admit to ourselves that we really don’t know what’s going on as we conduct our daily affairs, barely conscious of what we’re conscious of and significantly unconscious of what we’re really thinking despite all evidence to the contrary.

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Cruisers by Craig Nova

Cruisers by Craig Nova dwells principally within the worlds of Russell Boyd, a state trooper, and Frank Kohler, a computer repair specialist. Their stories are told in alternating sections, with an exception or two. Russell is on night patrols and living with a special needs teacher named Zofia. She’s lovely, accommodating, and worried about the dangers of Russell’s work. Her needs and demands are quiescent until midway through she discovers she’s pregnant and thinks it better to have an abortion than have a baby with a man in a line of work as dangerous as Russell’s. Russell is a stoic, deeply taken with Zofia, but a stoic, as many men are: he has a job to do.

Frank Kohler is more of an internal exile. His tarty mother was murdered when he was a boy and he saw her body parts crammed into a box on the side of the river. He lives alone but has an explosive quality, searching for conflict. At the same time, he’s lonely, and so he proceeds to obtain a Russian bride named Katryna through an agency. Katryna meets his needs, but not her own. She, too, is pregnant and wants an abortion, perhaps because the father is still in Russia; his name is Dmitri, and when she beckons to him, he manages to visit and disrupt Frank’s marriage and bring the killer in Frank to the fore.

This is a well-written, carefully paced story that provides a good natural background (New England in winter, dingy, dark, mucky) to the events that unfold when Frank and Russell ultimately have their foreshadowed encounter, which in itself is an elaborate and graphic scene on the side of a mountain somewhere near the Vermont/New Hampshire border.

The writers who come to mind when one reads Nova are DeLillo and Auster, though Nova isn’t as arch in constructing a rationale for his noirish tale: he finds it along the highways lined with Mr. Tire stores and Burger Kings and enlivens it just a bit with a foray into fox hunting.

Generally, Nova writes close to the skin of his tale without being minimalist or cute. His characters notice things, scents, colors, patterns of clouds in the sky; they’re fairly direct with one another when they tell the truth and when they lie.

At the end, after the crescendo, there’s an odd chapter that dips into an unsolved subplot and resolves it. I suppose it’s there because Nova wants to illustrate the fact that bad things will continue to go on despite the main story’s brutal climax, and Russell is still wedded to his work, looking for meaning in the thought processes of a state trooper engaged with yet another villain—it’s how he interprets or decodes reality, what he’s “about,” I suppose. How he got this way other than time on the job isn’t made clear, but he’s convincingly committed to what he does, and there is a way in which keeps the moral order of the universe under control. Otherwise guys like Frank and women like Katryna would just disruptively “happen,” and screw up a lot of lives in the process.

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The Constant Heart by Craig Nova

The Constant Heart is an exceptional, and exceptionally ambitious, novel. The story evolves from a tale of stymied adolescent love (paralleled by the breakdown of the boy’s parent’s marriage) into a Deliverance-like brutality thriller that culminates in the mysteries of morality and human relations.

Nova masterfully manages the limits of a first-person narrator, Jake, who excels in relating both the ambiguities of what he sees and what he thinks. The core triangle of Jake, Sara (his girlfriend), and Jake’s father is amazingly stable and deep at each angle. Sara’s adolescent interest in outlandish scheming is a wonderfully amusing emblem of her fundamental insecurity about life and herself. She’s evasive and compelling. Jake’s father, another male stoic, but a generous one, gently lets his wife drift away into New Age folly. Jake somehow manages to become a persuasively talented astronomer, giving him a rescue route at the end of the book when his father and Sara ultimately leave him on his haunted path into the loneliness of a universe that is speeding, according to Einstein’s disputed constant, away from itself.

At the outset, the novel is a funny suburban satire. It then loses its humor when Sara is placed in a series of detention facilities. The focus on Jake’s career takes center stage, then he gets a job back east to be near his father, and a hilarious robbery at a Radio Shack brings Sara back into the picture. She’s trouble, and knows it, but even though her series of misadventures veer close toward a caricature of how her rotten associates secretly run the world, Jake’s steady appraisal of what transpires (bolstered by Nova’s artful prose and gift for pace and description) keeps the mishaps and implausibilities under control. A reader could say, “No, no, a father dying of painful cancer can’t push that far into the woods on a trout-fishing expedition while being pursued by crooks and thugs,” but the details of those woods, the trees, the insects, the behavior of trout, the varying light of day from sunrise to sunset push incredulity aside.

It’s not easy to have it both ways: exploring the morality of alienation and the morality of affection at the same time. But Nova succeeds. I had not heard of him until recently. Now I would put him in a class of writers especially gifted, versatile and accomplished . Name the three contemporary writers you admire most, then add him as a fourth.

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Fire by Sebastian Junger

Fire is an excellent collection of essays by Sebastian Junger somewhat misleadingly titled.

The first two essays deal with fighting forest fires in the American West. The book then turns to essays, or feature pieces, that report on war in the Balkans and Afghanistan, diamonds in Sierra Leone, the peculiar division of Cyprus between Greeks and Turks, the last harpoon-using whale hunter in the Caribbean, and a few meditations on the difference between bravery (displayed when an action is not strictly necessary) and courage (displayed when an action is absolutely necessary, and dangerous.)

Throughout, Junger’s writing is clear, graphic, compelling, and well-informed. There are few happy endings, if any. His overarching journalistic strategy, in fact, is to seek out situations that are terrible and explore what has gone wrong and could keep going wrong. Along the way, he often phrases his observations beautifully, reminding me of Michael Herr’s book on Vietnam (Dispatches) and much of Joan Didion’s writing.

I wrote recently that literature might simply be the kind of writing that says what otherwise would not be said. In that sense, this book is not just journalistic reporting, it is literature because Junger goes to great and harrowing lengths to beautifully express many things that are true, terrible, and often ignored because they are both true and terrible.

He describes the science and fury of fire magnificently. He examines the depravity of war clinically. He is superb in recounting the stupidity of a divided Cyprus and the avarice of the diamond trade, both licit and illicit.

When Junger writes about war, particularly in Afghanistan, he’s superb. He provides the grain and gore of conflict, and he swiftly contextualizes it in cascades of bad policy decisions that turned innocent populations into fresh layers of dust on lands they once owned.

My favorite quote from Chekhov is, “Gentlemen, why do you live your lives so stupidly?” In his own way, Junger asks that question, too.

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Trump V. Ali

Recently I realized who Donald Trump resembles: Muhammed Ali. He is a loud-mouthed, amusing, theatrical, self-involved individual who uses bombast to build interest and keep his opponents off balance.

Before the then-Cassius Clay (I’ll call him Ali from now on) fought Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in Miami in 1964, few gave him a chance. Liston was a murderous puncher with more ring experience than Ali, already known more for speed than power, not typical of heavyweights. Sooner or later, Liston would catch him and shut him up.
The fact that Ali wouldn’t shut up before or during the fight confounded the media. He seemed to be inviting Liston not just to beat him but to kill him. For his part, however, Liston glowered in confusion. Like the political community now, he was not used to verbal bomb throwing, taunts, and indecent gloating.

But there was a method in Ali’s madness. He used his natural gift for showmanship to conceal a cunning beyond his years. Getting into the ring with Liston already was a triumph of brash talk. Same thing with Trump. He doesn’t belong in the ring with serious politicians like Jeb Bush or Lindsey Graham, but there he is, predicting a knock-out, indifferent to criticism, and making a curious statement: he says he is counterpuncher, basically a nice guy who only retaliates, never instigates.

That wasn’t true of Ali and probably isn’t true of Trump. Yes, Ali knew how to give ground, let opponents wear themselves out chasing him, but when the time was right, he battered them senseless. Mouthing off and shedding punches is basically what Trump is doing now. His strategy, like Ali’s, is to be everywhere and nowhere at once. He cries out that he is the greatest, and yet perforce he bobs and weaves and sizes things up before making a heavyweight move (if he has it in him to make a heavyweight move).

In their first fight Liston couldn’t catch Ali as Ali scored point after point. In fact, Liston exhausted himself trying to pound Ali just as George Foreman would do exactly a decade later in Zaire. Foreman, too, was the favorite in that fight, the stalker and mugger, but down he went.

Is this comparison giving Donald Trump too much credit? My point is not to predict that he will be a great champion like Ali. My point is that his strategy and tactics are similar and thus far similarly effective in giving him a shot at the title. Donald Trump has no political experience; he’s goofy; his policies so far boil down to the idiotic claim that he will build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

But there’s Trump floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. As his opponents try to decode his unorthodox style, they are wearing themselves out and suffering psychologically, incapable of figuring out how he’s dominating the media with his mouth, not his campaign staff or his fundraising success, much less his deeply informed policy views, if he has any.

Ali’s spectacular career, his integrity in refusing to fight in Vietnam and therefore losing the opportunity fight in the ring when he was in his prime, and his debilitating illness have endeared him to many Americans. But again, there’s something about boxing (and politics) that can be overlooked when a champion is sweet and bold outside the ring, and that is the fact that he is a cold-blooded killer when the bell rings. Sugar Ray Leonard had the same quality, baby-faced, innocent, but lethal. Likewise Oscar de la Hoya. And when Ronald Reagan’s first feckless campaign manager in the 1980 election, John Sears, told him to fire Mike Deaver, whom Reagan allegedly regarded as a son, Reagan fired him. Cold as ice—that was Reagan’s cheery secret.

The issue with Trump boils down to this: Can anyone who apparently is worth hundreds of millions of dollars be a nice guy on a weird winning streak despite his seemingly counterproductive antics? I think not. I think a lot of fists were thrown as Trump’s money piled up and a lot of ugly maneuvers were made. He’s been in the brutal world of New York and global real estate for decades. He knows how to twist his fist so that when it lands it tears skin. Affable but nasty, a counterpuncher only in the sense of his unorthodox style, fast like Ali, undaunted like Ali, difficult to take seriously like Ali.

Ali was not a wildly popular champion at first. That took time. First he had to suffer and sacrifice for his religious beliefs, make come-backs, and eat Joe Frazier’s enraged punches because Ali had called Frazier an Uncle Tom. After their fight in Manilla, Ali memorably said that he had thrown punches at Frazier that would have brought down cities . . . but Frazier kept coming. Ali exhausted and in danger was the Ali we came to love.
Trump is too old for a lengthy political career. This is his only chance at The White House. He could fall apart in the primary season, or he could keep tapping into the average conservative American’s rage at politicians. One thing is certain: his dancing and prancing and preening has a precedent. As Ali used to say, he’s so pretty. Not a mark on him. Yet.

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Collected Poems by W.H. Auden

For a month or more now I’ve been dipping into a 900 page collection of poems by W.H.Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson. Since there’s no way to “review” such a massive  book, I’ll divide this comment into two parts: I. Why You Should Read Auden and 2) Why You Should Not Read  Auden.

I. Why You Should Read Auden:

–Auden was a master of virtually all poetic forms employed in English.

–Auden’s range extended from the melancholy to the cheeky.

–Auden made poetry out of everyday life and friendships.

–Auden’s Dichtung und Wahrheit is a marvelous exploration of the complex statement we all make at one time or another: “I love You.”

–Auden’s poem, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” underscores a fundamental fact about his poetry: he had thought through and gained command over virtually every dimension of human experience.

–Auden was not afraid to write biting verse about contemporary issues while preserving poetic distance and form (not giving in to shocking ranting, for example.)

–Auden’s classical frame of reference could be challenging, but he still managed to write more directly and clearly than T.S. Eliot, whose mantle he was thought to have donned upon Eliot’s departure from the scene.

–Auden managed to be intelligent in virtually every line he wrote; the connective tissue between his perceptions was his gift for analysis and valuation.

–Auden both embraced and transcended his homosexuality, normalizing the facts and truths.

II. Why You Should Not Read Auden

–Auden’s been dead a long time now, so who cares?

–Poetic forms have been dead for a long time now, so who cares?

–Any poet who is ironically passionate about his passions isn’t passionate enough to be passionate about.

–A poet who doesn’t serve up the same stuff all the time cannot be trusted–did Auden ever have a thought he didn’t transform into a line of poetry?

–Auden wasn’t really the heir to Eliot, and he’d say so himself, challenging the notion of heirs altogether.

–Who has time for poetry that has a consistently gentle Olympian quality to it? I mean, who knows who Aphrodite and Achilles were? And again, who cares? Talk about dead, they were never even alive!

–Auden might have been gay, but he still was a male WASP who spent a lot of time at Oxford.

–Philip Larkin, the most overrated of English poets, has made perfectly clear that he thought Auden was overrated.

–Where did Auden come up with this Dictung und Warheit idea anyway? Who was Goethe? How do you even pronounce a name spelled like that?

–And he didn’t stop at memorializing Sigmund Freud, he carried on about Henry James, as well. Something about his “heart, fastidious as a delicate nun…” What’s that supposed to mean?

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A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces excited me, disappointed me, and finally wore me out. This is a novel that was published posthumously (Toole committed suicide at 32) because the editor most interested in it during Toole’s lifetime, Robert Gottlieb, found it pointless. He didn’t want to give up on it, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Thereupon Toole’s mother took the manuscript to Walker Percy, the novelist, and he was so enthused about it that he arranged for LSU to publish it and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

It’s not that hard to classify this picaresque book. It reads like Flannery O’Connor on steroids, which is how Thomas Pynchon’s V reads and how Ken Kesey’s  One Flew Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest reads and how Catch-22 reads. Literature meets comic book. Character becomes caricature. Storyline becomes … pointless.

Ignatius Reilly, our hero, is a fat, feckless, self-absorbed protester against life in New Orleans in the ’60s.  He doesn’t want to do anything except write notes on the Middle Ages, but his mother needs him to go get a job. He therefore gets a series of jobs that he consistently screws up. Meanwhile, a few subplots meander along, colorful and comical but off by themselves until summoned, and ultimately Reilly is saved from his misery by a woman who has bedeviled him for years.

Reilly’s mother is well-drawn, overwhelmed and pissed-off, and so is Reilly, but that’s about it.

Was Gottlieb right to hesitate over this manuscript . . . or was Percy right to praise it?  I would side with Gottlieb. A Confederacy of Dunces is so outlandish and brash that it’s easy to fall under its spell, but where, in the end, is it going?  Toole was a satirist, but what was he satirizing? He had a wonderful touch with black English, New Orleans style, and he captures the phantasmagoria that is New Orleans spectacularly, but A Confederacy of Dunces just goes on and on until the most unlikely of saviors appears to execute the mercy killing. End of book.

Last week when I started reading, I was mumbling to family and friends that I thought I’d finally caught up with the hullabaloo about A Confederacy of Dunces. This week I’m retracting my suggestions that others read it.

The pity and tragedy is that Toole was so wildly gifted that he wanted the novel published as he wrote it and couldn’t bring himself to revise it sufficiently to enter the comic pantheon of Pynchon, Heller, Kesey, and let’s add Vonnegut. That apparently led to a manic-depressive’s fatal decline.  By this point probably no one but me will risk criticizing a one-book wonder’s masterpiece, but I confess I’m hard-hearted about  literature. There’s no point patting ourselves on the back about how much we love a book that’s only half what it could have been.

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