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Brian Chappell

Okay! Fine. Tea Obreht is a veritable prodigy, and The Tiger’s Wife is uncannily good. Most (no, all) reviewers, as well as the likes of Colum McCann, TC Boyle, and Ann Patchett, say no less. But this novel is not just good for a twenty-five year old. Most of us would kill to kill it like she does.

It’s a story told by a young doctor named Natalia, who travels through an unnamed Balkan nation, having been, about to be, and, maybe, perpetually always, war-ravaged, inoculating children, deriding (but perhaps eventually acquiescing to) local superstition, and, most importantly, seeking out the facts of her grandfather’s last days before his death by cancer. But the reader quickly comes to realize that the collection of a plastic bag full of Natalia’s grandfather’s personal effects fails to explain the man she loved. Rather, his stories, which she re-tells with elaborate and emotional texture, bring her real closure, in turn sending this novel brilliantly toward the borders of fantasy.

Here’s what some critics have said about these legends:

David Ulin: “What these stories represent is mystery, the unanswered questions that, even in a rational universe, exist at the center of the world.”

Michiko Kakutani: This novel “explores the very essence of storytelling and the role it plays in people’s lives…It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making in the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs, or supernatural legends) reveal – and reflect back – the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies, and hatreds.”

Liesl Schillinger: “Ingeniously, Obreht juxtaposes Natalia’s matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling, and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen…Arrestingly, Obreht shows that you don’t have to go back centuries to find history transformed into myth; the process can occur within a lifetime if a gifted observer is on hand to record it…The Tiger’s Wife is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination.”

Ron Charles: “That The Tiger’s Wife never slips entirely into magical realism is part of its magic – its agile play with tragic material and with us – because, despite Natalia and her grandfather’s devotion to science and rationality, this is a story that bleeds into fable with the slightest scratch.”

This unabashed praise shares a collective awe at how Obreht subtly imagines the thin border between reality and legend that pervades not only her stories, but, more importantly, the lives of the people whom these stories are about. So how does she pull it off? In short, the subtle mysteries of these stories are managed via even subtler narrative moves that generate this mythic atmosphere. Natalia simply sets up the structure of her story near the very beginning of it:

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life…One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.

This is the novel in a nutshell. But the language here is important to note. Namely, by indicating how she came across these stories, Natalia is prefacing how she herself is going to deliver them to us. Her journey with her friend Zora, which gets sidetracked by news of her grandfather’s death, serves as the framing narrative, told by Natalia in the first person. Chapters are interspersed that recall memories of her childhood with him, visiting the local zoo, admiring the tigers. But suddenly, mid-story, she will declare, “He thought for a long time while we walked with the elephant. Perhaps under slightly different circumstances, he might have told me about the tiger’s wife. Instead, he told me about the deathless man.” And so, the grandfather assumes the narrative in his own voice, recalled verbatim by Natalia. His recollections stand alone as their own short stories (within stories within stories), and they are utterly compelling as such. His encounter with Gavran Gaile, the deathless man, is the story, Natalia indicates, of how he became a child again, spiritually, with his eyes open to his lost faith and to his own death (and, thus, his life).

The story of the tiger’s wife is, indeed, the story of Natalia’s grandfather’s maturation. But it is told by her alone, having pieced together anecdotes through interviews and research. It is consequently imbued with the fantastic, that is conveyed, again, by embedded stories, subplots about vicious hunters, slighted lovers, and a superstitious village. These chapters stand alone, as interruptions of the framed narrative, but internally they are more complex and digressive than any of the other chapters. Obreht has the pupil’s grasp of detail and metaphor, and her appropriation of magical realist elements is deft and subtle. But her management of these narrative levels across and within chapters, and her ability to render relatively unnoticeable rapid and frequent shifts between them, smoothly moving from one embedded story to another, mid-paragraph sometimes, is her most impressive quality. It is this ability to create authorial distance from your subject matter that renders the embedded story most mythical, even beyond the mysterious events of the stories being told. Obreht pulls it all off swimmingly.

Obreht brings it all together with emotional force by novel’s end. When the tales of the deathless man and the Tiger’s wife are complete, we return to the framing narrative, in which Natalia has learned of her grandfather’s death. A sense of her grief has been somewhat elusive to this point, as the reader is more rapt by her stories than by her own predicament. But as she retrieves her grandfather’s effects and returns to her medical task at hand, we see, through her own eventual encounter with the mysterious and mythical, the origin of her impulse to tell all these stories in the first place. What had so far come off as a meandering weave suddenly takes on the feeling of a completed circle, and Natalia takes on extraordinary depth in just a few climactic scenes. Her subsequent mastery of diverse voices, especially her willingness to take on the very voice of her dead grandfather, is thus a direct outcrop of her grief, which will make re-reading her narrative even more powerful.

This is an achievement for Obreht – we think of really good writers as having gone through some sort of mysterious training period, where their craft is almost magically honed by fire in some far unreachable realm. Obreht is too young for that, and, thus, she feels more real. The Tiger’s Wife is sticking with me, and I suspect it will for a while. This alone is a testament to what I hope will blossom into the career that it already promises to be.

One can see that David Foster Wallace was thinking about the main problem of what would become his final work when he delivered his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005. Now regarded as a seminal piece on modern compassion, it proposed to reveal, as any small-college commencement address worth its speaker fee is wont to do, the “real purpose” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, it was this:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Wallace elaborates by applying this idea to a regular occurrence – a trip to the grocery store. Rather than lament our vice-tight schedules and the depressing lighting, or loathe the overfed customers in the overlong checkout line, we should look around, and imagine other people’s stories, realizing “the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.” More than a trite dictum on empathy, this idea is first and foremost about storytelling, about filling in for ourselves the unheard narratives that people tell themselves. And Wallace over the years was most interested in narratives of suffering. Boredom (so closely linked to the problem of addiction, which he addressed in Infinite Jest) is one such type, and it takes center stage in his last book, an unfinished project published under the title The Pale King.

Really, any book about the IRS that doesn’t talk at potentially tedious length about boredom would need to have its head checked. But Wallace makes it work in surprising and brilliant ways. Like Infinite Jest, the book establishes a central setting – this time a tax collection and processing center in Illinois – through which a wide variety of zany characters come and go. While the chapters that digress into the backgrounds of many of these characters constitute the type of attention to personal narratives Wallace spoke about in his address, there are other chapters, which go on for pages and pages about tax code, that deliberately test the reader’s ability to stick with it. We watch characters concoct more and more methods to cope with office tedia (the story takes place in the ‘80’s, pre-Internet), but we also watch characters experience supernatural effects of hyper-consciousness (one character floats when he’s really focused). Toward the end of the manuscript, our main protagonist (more on him later) comes to a final realization:

I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy…I discovered the key. The key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for…The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.

This passage comprises nearly the entirety of one short chapter, which I don’t have a problem calling the book’s climax. The remainder of the book (there’s not much left after this chapter) is similarly hopeful. Amid the subplot (any sequence that one wants to label a “plot” in this book would do well to call it a subplot, in that it operates, always, beneath the surface of things. Emily Cooke said it well in The Millions when she affirmed, “events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation”) of the attempts to replace human workers at the IRS with computers, certain characters, as mentioned, discover that they have special abilities to focus, not just on tax-work, but on the lives of others. The penultimate chapter, in which Meredith Rand, a beautiful (and, thus, emotionally isolated) agent, tells the story of her stint in a psych ward to Shane Drinion, the man no one else pays attention to, is the best in the book. It is a story about listening, about paying attention with unmotivated empathy. To see Wallace’s notes in the appendix address some of how this storyline would play out filled me with sadness over the potential this book really had. Namely: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

It’s fairly clear how preoccupied with boredom Wallace actually was in his final years. Jonathan Franzen asserted as much in his recent article in The New Yorker:

That [Wallace] was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil – was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it – is not inconsequential…When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

Franzen spends a good deal of this article hashing out his anger over Wallace’s suicide. But if we put his observations of his dear friend’s decline alongside what Wallace came up with in The Pale King, we see the tragedy. In short, this book is as much about writing as it is about working at the IRS. Tom McCarthy made the right connection between the image of the service agent and of the novelist, hailing the book as “a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward – properly and rigorously forward – in an age of data saturation.” Cooke agrees: “The question is whether, along with the data, [the agents] can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an ‘information society.’”  It’s ultimately up to you to determine whether, like Franzen did, Wallace’s vocation and vision had left him, but, here, that struggle is valiantly dramatized.

Like addiction in Infinite Jest, boredom serves as a centripetal theme. Everything comes back to boredom. But, also like Infinite Jest, the theme is developed piecemeal, in a plotless tableau that is nonetheless filled with the delicious nuggets that we have come to love Wallace so much for. We have characters like the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine, the compulsive and uncontrollable sweater David Cusk, the logorrheic and narratively expansive Chris “Irrelevant” Fogle, and the monastic Shane Drinion, who floats when he concentrates. Not to mention other chapters that tell of menacing infants, terrifying childhood shit stories, and life in the ‘60’s. They are digressive in that wonderful Wallacean way, becoming like legends, the way you can kick back with a friend and say, “Remember that part in Infinite Jest?” In that sense one feels that The Pale King could have been as long, as Rabelaisan, and almost as scriptural as its predecessor.

But the most interesting move Wallace makes is a vexing narrative divergence from the structure of Infinite Jest (by the way, I am happy to talk about Wallace’s shorter fiction, or his first novel The Broom of the System, but there really is no other analog, in a holistic sense). Namely, everything reads along just fine, until you hit Chapter 9, titled “Author’s Foreword.” The first line may evoke that familiar postmodern groan. Oh. This again. It begins:

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, Dave Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:

All of this is true. This book is really true.

The rest of the chapter recounts his suspension from university (rich students paid him to write their papers) and subsequent employment at the IRS. In a later chapter we learn how he was confused for a higher-ranking David Wallace and was thus given a job well above his pay grade. All of this is fictional, of course. Wallace wasn’t even forty in 2005. He was 43. Not to mention the fictional home address and social security number (“Wallace” claims he was issued a new one when he joined the Service). But this is not the point. In short, this whole sequence is a blatant ploy at the idea of fictionality in general. There are other first-person narrators, some identified, some not. Other chapters refer to Wallace only in passing, as merely a tangential character. He is both focalized protagonist and wallflower. But there is more to it than what “Wallace” himself calls “postmodern titty-pinching.” The real point here, broadly, is that Wallace seems to be writing a counterfactual life. If we take Franzen at his word, we might partly read this book as a dramatization of Wallace’s own despair. Many characters share famous Wallacean traits (excessive sweating, precocious “data mysticism,” penchants for storytelling), and we find that their lives in the Service have a Plan-B quality. Sylvanshine wants to become a CPA but can’t; Cusk has unnatural processing abilities but is too paralyzed by his condition to live a public life; Fogle shifts life paths after he stumbled into the wrong review session in college; Lane Dean signs up after he gets his girlfriend pregnant. Across these characters Wallace depicts the tragedy of what could have been, condemning characters to lives of tedium. The saddest thing about it, though, is the hopeful note it ends on, as these seemingly doomed characters become friends and begin to rise to the challenge of remaining relevant in the dawning digital age. At any rate, we see Wallace here searching, an activity that maybe occurs most often when we are bored, for greener pastures.

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that I have refrained to this point from calling The Pale King a novel. This was essentially my way of broaching the rabbit-hole debate over the book’s textual status. A particularly snarky article (and that’s saying something) from Slate’s Tom Scocca took to task Michiko Kakutani’s review. He writes:

Evaluation is beside the point. Kakutani, gamely taking things at face value, wrote that the book was “lumpy but often stirring” – well, why wouldn’t it have lumps? It’s not a finished novel.

And: “this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity.” But why would it be continuous? It’s not a finished novel.

The Pale King is less inventive and exuberantly imagined than Wallace’s previous novels.” But it is not a finished novel.

It is “[t]old in fragmented, strobe-lighted chapters” – but it is not a finished novel!

And so on. Scocca accuses Kakutani of over-harshly mistreating The Pale King as a finished, polished product, when it is really just a draft.  He’s looking for his “Gotcha!” moment, but his qualms, in form and content, are more reductive than Kakutani’s claims by far. She’s doing her job of evaluating what’s there. Scocca drops the ball by assuming that what’s there is somehow worse than what could have been there. In other words, he dodges the idea that a fundamental characteristic of any novel is its unfinishedness. This is an idea as old as Bakhtin and central to deconstruction, as well as to novel theory in general. The Pale King offers a rare glimpse into process in a raw state. As Emily Cooke concluded, “the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive [Wallace’s] questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t…As much sense as it settles into, it will escape us. It escaped him.” If ever a novel was going to be patently unfinished, it should be this one. Wallace has created an open-ended counterfactual existence, where he was free to imagine possibilities bleak and hopeful. That he couldn’t give us a final answer was the great tragedy of his life, but perhaps his most novelistic quality.

I had downloaded an off-line map of Vancouver for my iPad to prepare for our trip. But when I searched its catalogue for bookstores, it yielded only the BC Marijuana Party Bookstore, located in the back of the BC Marijuana Party establishment just east of Gastown (I eventually visited at the end of the trip). Luckily, Google maps yielded considerably more options, spread across the city. But how to discern which to visit, on my limited conference schedule and lack of motorized transport? Our decided upon method was a combination of combing the neighborhoods that we already wanted to see, and tossing a net around the area of our hotel (Fairmont Downtown, conference headquarters, swank city, abuzz with hipster theorists).

Kitsilano proved to be gorgeous. Located on the west end of the Burrard and Granville bridges, it is home to the University of British Columbia and surrounding neighborhoods. We toured Point Grey Road along the water’s edge, admiring the view of the bay and mountains that was actually rivaled by the coastline mansions of diverse styles. We made it all the way to Jericho Park before turning back along West 4th. After passing ABC Books, a Chinese children’s textbook shop, we came to Kestrel Books. They prioritize quaintness over selection, but they do sport sections devoted entirely to different branches of Eastern spirituality, nature writing, travel narratives, and the like. The juxtaposition of titles in the fiction and poetry sections is particularly fun:

burgess

Further down West 4th we stopped at the considerably larger Banyen Books and Sound (“Sound” refers to their collection of wind chimes and flutes on the left side of the store). That, actually, may be an indication of the type of store we were dealing with. Consider these lists of topics:

list

There is an overall peaceful vibe there, though the fiction and poetry section sports only Beat meditations on Buddhism.

Between Banyen and the bridge are Comicshop and Drexoll Games (“Board Games & More”), but as it began to rain, we stopped for dinner before redoubling our effort to return to the Fairmont.

The following morning – still raining – we set out for MacLeod’s Books, on the corner of Richards and West Pender. Along the way we stumbled upon manga heaven (as well as a $2 copy of Madame Bovary):

manga

This bright homogeny (the whole store had that fluorescent Japanese flavor) contrasted sharply with what we found in MacLeod’s. But, as soon as we walked in, we knew we had found what we came for. Namely, beautiful used and rare books. Everywhere:

booksmorebooks
tons

 

This is the type of place that requires maximum restraint. Simply browsing will lead you to decades old copies and even originals from Bellow, Barth, Roth, Rushdie, and, well, pretty much every major novelist you like. When I get into situations like these, I tend to leave them all behind, so as not to open the floodgates. But I had to come away with something here. And then it hit me (really, it did, much more than I found it). The Mother Lode:

burgess

Disclaimer, now, for clairification. I collect used Anthony Burgess novels. There, I said it. Except for maybe Sam Weller’s in Salt Lake City, this was the best Burgess collection I have ever seen. But which to choose? I own most of the books in the photograph, so mostly I just wanted to choose something hard and small, for packing and travel. Moses simply stood out as the best choice. It’s a lyric narrative much like Byrne, and very much in Burgess’ preferred vein of historiography and biographical novels. Moses is the story of (yes, that) Moses in lyric epic, for $5. Quite an outing.

As a post script, we returned to MacLeod’s on our last day in Vancouver, after touring Gastown and backtracking to the Fairmont. I wanted to re-view their Barth section, just to see. Letters was under $10, but it’s bulky. I stopped in the bathroom before heading to the street again, and, mirabile dictu, even it was flooded with text. Books, magazines, posters, etc. I could easily have just shoved that copy of Adventures of Augie March into my pack. But of course that would be to desecrate this holy space (not only the bathroom, but, you know, the whole store). There was even a note pinned near the mirror – a customer apologizing for having stolen a book from here many years ago, with the appropriate $7 payment.

Respect.

If you go to Vancouver, go to MacLeod’s. But also go to shops that I didn’t get to, and comment here about it.

This is how I usually go to Kramerbooks. I arrive in Dupont Circle in the pre-dinner hour, emerging from the Q Street exit of the Metro and heading shortly down Connecticut Avenue and through the glass door by the shop window. Immediately you are inundated with wood shelves and stacks of all the books you’ve been reading about in magazines and online in recent weeks. Moreover, the smell of the place – coffee and pastries mostly, but pervasive and richer; it seems to have seeped into the pages – is most inviting. I browse the stacks of new releases, reading first pages and blurbs, getting a sense of what the reviewers have been talking about. The large wall to the left of the entrance comprises the fiction section, while smaller, chest-sized shelves in the foreground display titles in philosophy, religion and spirituality. In the back, facing the entrance, are travel and foreign language titles, as well as politics and history. Neighboring the back wall is the entrance to Afterwords cafe, with one of the best menus in Dupont, and not just for a bookstore.

When you enter the store and gravitate toward the fiction wall, there is an entrance adjacent to it to another room that houses poetry and local titles, as well as a shelf of recent anthologies from The New Yorker, Paris Review, and “Best American” series. Also in this second room is a cozy bar, where you can order a Rogue Dead Guy Ale, which, especially for $6.50, is up there with The Big Hunt’s House Amber as one of the best bets for beer in Dupont. Grab a book from any of the copious shelves and saddle up to a two-person table to peruse and sip before heading to happy hour or dinner.

Typically, I browse for a good quarter of an hour, before friends arrive and we head to another spot for drinks and dinner. During this short interim, I indulge fantasies of ownership, lament the limited capacity of my wallet and shelf space to accommodate all the books I want. But I gird myself and leave with nothing, happy to have looked, touched, but saved myself again. After wine at Circa or beer at The Big Hunt or vodka at The Russia House, grab a meal at any of the incredible restaurants in the Circle and surrounding areas. Maybe head to Gazuza for a nightcap, hookah, and some of the best downbeat jams in the city. Then, when you’ve had your fill of eat and drink, head back to Kramers for the best after-hours atmosphere in town. There is low-key live music every Friday and Saturday night, and the restaurant is open well into the early morning. Wind down the evening with friends over brownie sundaes or any one (or two) of their gourmet pies.

And then the coup de grace. Inhibitions and apprehensions disarmed, I return to the bookstore, at last ready to purchase. A night of full indulgence sufficiently dulls the pain of $27 for a Zizek or new fiction. Bargain books Kramers is not. But the massaging of the senses, physical and intellectual, makes for a great city night.

Visit kramers.com for menu options, music schedule, and hours.

Since I moved into my current house off of Kennedy street in Northwest last summer, Busboys and Poets, located just down 14th Street in the vibrant U Street corridor, has become an increasingly frequented spot. The bookstore/bar/restaurant is a cultural bastion for the bookishly inclined across the usually stark cultural divide in Washington, and the prevalent African American themes create a unique flavor not found at Kramers or Politics and Prose. The background music (which remains happily in the background) spins current and classic jams and R&B. The bookstore, considerably smaller than Kramers and P&P, identifies itself by content that you can’t find at the other two. The fiction and poetry sections focus primarily on the African American experience in a much more involved way, sporting the best black writers from across generations, many of whom you’ve never heard of. Their politics and culture section is beefed up, with shelves devoted to (mostly leftist, in a good way) accounts of the economic, political, social, and religious issues of the major regions of the world. What they lack in size, then, they compensate for with books that are hard to come by most elsewhere.

When you enter at the front (two doors up 14th from Marvin, one of the best restaurants in the city), the restaurant opens to the right. Two-person tables are interspersed among couches occupied by various types with laptops. If you turn to face this open area, the bar is on the left wall, adorned with a mural depicting manifestations of African-American femininity. The bookstore is located directly ahead of the entrance, before you have a chance to turn into the restaurant proper. After browsing the fiction section and turning a couple pages of D.C. Noir, I find a seat at the bar and order from their comprehensive beer selection and sneakily exquisite dinner menu (which sports many vegan and gluten-free meals). With Magic Hat in hand and shrimp and chorizo pasta on the way, I dig into Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children. As the late afternoon turned into early evening, more people arrived from work, and the conversational din began to rise. One can make an outing from eavesdropping, and the setup is conducive to it.

After dinner, I make my way to the back of the restaurant, past an area of high tables and booths and into the Langston Room (named after the poet), an enclosed space that hosts readings and discussions on a regular basis. The theme of the room is peace, and the walls are decorated with images and phrases from the likes of Ghandi, King, and the Dalai Llama, as well as local artists. Tonight I am here to see Jones himself, who was to discuss his participation in Marita Golden’s new book, a collection of interviews with major black writers about their literary upbringings. This was thrilling for me. Jones famously rarely appears in public. He was as I expected him to be: painfully shy, shielding his face from the spotlight throughout, barely making eye contact with questioners. Never smiling. He’s not prickly per se, but not as generous as other writers I’ve seen. His discomfort made me wonder why he agreed to show up at all, though I chalked it up to his character and loyalty to friend Golden. My mild disappointment was assuaged at the book signing, where I told him that I was a fifth generation Washingtonian, and my father had grown up in Southeast. He seemed to like that, and smiled when I told him he was DC’s Homer. My signed copy of The Known World is now one of my treasures.

Experiences like these are not uncommon at Busboys. Keep your eyes peeled on their website, busboysandpoets.com, for weekly open mic nights, and even more frequent readings and discussions with important writers from the African American, academic, and local spheres. The place hops for most of the day, from lunch, to afternoon coffee, to happy hour, to early evening events, to dessert and late-night conversation. Stop in before a night out on U St., or afterwards.

Introduction

If we want to call Yahia Lababidi’s work since Trial by Ink fiction, we should do it for lack of a more accurate term. Like Trial, the following, titled “Underground Revisited,” exists between genres. We have an invented speaker and audience, and a steady flow of ideas and verbiage. But we don’t have a manageable Aristotelian plot, or any sort of substantial tension between characters (except for the occasional thrown shoe). This is man v. himself. Sounds more like a long poem.  On the surface, “Underground Revisited” is a hardy homage to Dostoevsky, a stylistic parody, in the Hutcheon-esque postmodern (i.e., aesthetically and theoretically productive) sense of the word, that, as a good parody does, reaches beyond mere play with form, that says something about that form via repetition and imitation. Here, Lababidi continues the aim of his major work, namely, that of answering big questions. As he told me, literature hasn’t changed that much. It’s still people trying to deal with living in their own skin and among others in a society. That’s precisely what’s going on here. Notes from Underground is so timeless because it, as Dostoevsky’s novels so masterfully tend to do, poses fundamental questions about human existence. Lababidi is up to much of the same. His speaker, like Dostoevsky’s, is self-loathing, but attention-starved, deep-thinking, but obsessed with action. He feels trapped between personal codes of being, imploring his (in this case, literal) audience for advice and understanding. Both stuck and unstuck, he struggles to put one intellectual foot in front of the other. This uncertainty cuts to the core of what it means to participate in a discourse, but, more importantly, of what it means to try to get along in one’s own life.

Underground Revisited
by Yahia Lababidi

Abominable Ladies and Gentleman, thank me for coming!

Tonight I empathize with every one of you. I’m overcome by a peculiar affection encompassing all and, almost myself. I do not lie.. now! Just how long I shall continue to experience this curious condition, I do not know. There are no constants and there are no certainties. Yes, there are none, certainly. We are merely figures of fun moved by unseen forces, which have no right to make any claims to knowing ourselves. (Nor can we assume any credit for our actions, only blame). It is important, therefore, that we recognize the notion that we should accept ourselves, fully, for what it truly is: a fallacy. We most certainly should do no such thing. To accept oneself, fully, is to assume responsibility for all that wanders in the wasteland of our heads and, that is a most dangerous thing to do. Instead, one should only judge oneself by their actions, and not for their thoughts. Thought is thwarted action, impotent action, unactualized action; active but not action. The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we don’t define us to ourselves. Only partially, of course, for one can never fully know themselves, nor should they want to. The over examined life is even less worth living than the unexamined one, trust me. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, true, but a lot is absolutely fatal … particularly self-knowledge.

It is a wonder then that people are able to identify on any level at all with others -family, friends, or lovers- when they are unable to identify with themselves. How they do it, I shall never know. Which is not to say that I should not care to know but, the truth is, I do not care to know. I care much more for extraordinary personalities than I do for ordinary persons; and I shall continue to be consumed by character until the day I live (which must account for my most shameful self-absorption). But, I do hope you don’t believe every word I’ve said, however, even I don’t. Or, perhaps, especially I don’t. But more likely, affectations aside, I don’t entirely. Believe every word I’ve said, that is. You see, I most certainly do not ‘see the world steadily and whole’. Rather, I see it oscillating wildly and fragmented. But, everything is difficult to see when one will not open their eyes. I know that. I’m aware that I am walking around with one eye firmly shut, and the other half open. Don’t be alarmed. I’m all too aware that I only say half-truths, and that I’ve lived even less than what little I’ve seen, all theory and hardly any practice. With me, there can only be so very little life in my life for it to be livable; any more life and I could not continue; any more light and I would go blind. Yes, I’m all too aware of that. I am aware. I have the suffering of awareness, though, and not merely the awareness of suffering (which is only its offspring). But, please, don’t take me too seriously – it’s enough that I do.

I’m sorry if you do not find the programmed amusing so far -I did not intend to depress you, I only meant to impress you- but the truth is that I don’t either. And, why should I make myself amusing to you when I can’t find myself amusing? Why should you be able to enjoy me, when I can’t enjoy myself? Don’t answer me! An answer would rob me of my uncertainty, and that is all I have left. Without it I am left with nothing. Please, don’t answer me. But, believe me, I wasn’t always this way. I wasn’t always a haunted man. You would not have recognized me then, just as I do not recognize myself, now. You know, the metamorphosis of others from friends to strangers is not so tragic, even if it occurs overnight. To become a stranger to oneself, until one no longer knows who they are … that is. Still, one ought not to be suspicious of change, for it might be the only constant. And if history books are littered with instances of hardened sinners becoming selfless saints, then why can’t a clumsy, careless clown exchange his costume for the cloak and crown of a sad, thoughtful philosopher? Just why not? But, it is not proper to discuss such matters with strangers. I can see you’re already uneasy.  There’s no reason why you should not be able to enjoy yourselves, individually and collectively.

You sir, the one with the divided nature, can enjoy yourself twice, or thrice, or however many times you are unable to identify with yourself. I, on the other hand, shall continue exploiting my selves. Why? Because I am an entertainer, first and foremost, and I am not to forget that ever again, if ever I hope to become a human being, secondly. What does he mean by that you might ask, if I permit. You see, I am not altogether human. Humane, yes. Human, no. But, how can you see? If you could, then it would not be a curse and, I am cursed. Cursed to find differences where there are none, and to ignore the differences that exist. I am the abominable one. Really, it’s a shame. No doubt you came counting on being amused, astounded with witticisms perhaps, and, instead you have been abused by being made to witness a savaging, of one abusing himself. Perhaps I should recite you some sublime passage from one of the unassailables, those immortal untouchables, and charm you with the breadth and width of my learning…

I apologize, again. I’ve merely forgotten my place, that is all. Yes, in deed to forget one’s place is most certainly all. It is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. And, I have done so, repeatedly. But, believe me, when I say that I do so against my will. I am the victim of a virus which deforms and defiles and destroys. No, I am not that. I am the virus itself. So, lest it prove catching, I ask you all not to listen too closely. My origin is unknown, my destination unavoidable. In a void, able. I am. In a void, I am able. Inavoidiamable. There, that is something at least. If nothing else, I have given you a new word: “inavoidiamable”. Now, tell me where you have heard such a thing? Nowhere, I am sure, for I have not heard it before. I’m sorry, that is another fault of mine, that I can not imagine. To assume that you have not heard of a word simply because I have not is arrogant. To not imagine, that is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. The fact of the matter is, I have tried to concentrate on the world within to the exclusion of the world without, for some time now. That is why I cannot imagine. But, I have only tried, and failed. All along I was aware of -no, I impatiently awaited- the world without. And even when my vessel began to sink I only waited aboard, bored, not to learn a lesson in survival but so that I might tell a tale later. Not share, but tell a tale, like the sole survivor of a shipwreck. No, like the soul survivor…

Honorable ladies and gentleman, I have a confession to make: I have no soul! None whatsoever. And it is very likely that, due to disuse, I stand to lose my body soon. For, just as Evolution suggests that we lost a tail for which we had no use, I am to lose a body I cannot use. Already, I have witnessed my soul silently slipping away from my body, disgruntled and disgusted, unable to play another (false) part except the one written for it -whose language I could not, or did not want to decipher. Since then, I have forgotten my place as I’ve said. I have borrowed from other souls, much finer, nobler, than the one I do not possess; and, I continue to do so even now. In exchange, I have loaned myself, only to realize I was over-drawn and artificially propped up on bounced reality checks.  That is why I must stand here, and you must sit over there. I must not allow myself to get any closer to you; it would not be fair to either of us. So, please, do not approach me; do not answer my questions; do not even look my way, lest you pity me. You may however, ask me questions -although I feel obliged to warn you: I have far more questions than answers

Yes, madam, you in the corner without a blouse. What is it you wish to know? No, I do not own clothes, anymore. That does not mean we are the least bit alike. You do not wear a blouse for a reason, no doubt, not because of doubt. You have either forgotten to do so, or you have chosen not to for some ridiculous reason. Or, perhaps you are poor and cannot afford one. In short, you have a reason. I have none. You have conviction. I have none. You have a belief in something or other:  be it a Cause, or your Self. I have none. There are others like you: counterparts, representatives, similar specimens. I am not even like myself.

Yes, sir, in the front row, in the middle. What? How dare you say you are in my position when we do not inhabit the same imaginative universe?  I have accessed regions of my soul you do not possess.  I have traveled landscapes of the mind you cannot fathom. I have had rarified sentiments you are not entitled to. What do you say? You want concrete evidence. With all due respect, sir, I am not a construction worker! I do not deal with the concrete. It is the abstract I traffic in. But, if you must, I will give you clear and irrefutable reason why we are not in the same position. You, sir, are comfortably seated. I am standing, always, and uncomfortably at that. What’s more is that you are in the front row; I need not say where I am, but it most certainly is not there. Finally, you are in the middle, balanced, moderate. I, my good man, am an extremist. I would sooner be beneath that seat in the farthest corner than exchange places with you. I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten my oath, to myself really more than anyone else: to empathize. Believe me, I do not mean what I say; if I did, I wouldn’t feel the slightest need to say it. It is but an act, though I am not an actor, per say. I can only act offstage, before close acquaintances or distant friends. Still, I ought to at least try and act naturally. Really, it is only that I’m in love with my own voice. I am like the bird that, seduced by her song, cannot stop singing throughout the seasons and catches her death of cold in winter, if not of exhaustion beforehand. No, I am not in the least like a bird. The bird is as beautiful as its song. I am as vile as my venom. I apologize; I shall not lapse into such extravagant indulgence again.

Thank you, sir, for throwing your shoe in my face. I don’t deserve it. You are far too kind and considerate to throw only one shoe. Really, you show such restraint. Yes, madam. You, without the arms, in the arms of the furry fellow. Well, what about Love? Yes, by all means, I believe in it. What it does not create in us, it compliments. It is perhaps the last of the miracles. Its chief allure is how unrealistic it is, and yet how senselessly we pursue it. Then, when we think we’ve found it, how senselessly we chase it away. What is that you say? Oh, no! No, my good lady. You have entirely misunderstood me, and I’m sure that is a fault of mine, since those who are consistently misunderstood must be to blame somehow. No, I do not believe in the possibility of love in my situation. I very much feel I am denied this possibility. Unless, of course, I were to find one who were constructed, and then deconstructed, in a similar vein. And, frankly, I don’t think it at all possible since I’m doing all I can to avoid looking for, or being found by, such a non-person. I say: I will never fall in love and, I don’t. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Now, tell me, who says there are no more prophets when there are prophesies? Just as, who says there are no more miracles when there exists even the idea of Love? I tell you, whoever says anything at all has spoken too soon, for they are bound to discover the inverse truth -sometime after- perhaps when it is already too late to benefit from it. That is why it is best to say nothing, or else everything, if one possibly can. Personally, I never mean what I say when I say it. I might mean it tomorrow, or yesterday. But, never today. That is why I feel that the only thing I cannot endure more than being misquoted is being quoted at all. It is simply maddening. You can quote me on that.  Actually, please do. It would do me a great deal of good to have my words echoed by strangers. It might even restore my faith in humanity, and bring me to embrace the person who uttered those dear, dear words. Yes, sir, with the broken spirit. What is it?

0! My God … my goodness! What a startling question. I don’t quite know how to respond, or if I ought to at all. It is important to refuse to answer certain questions, on principle, since one can’t speak lightly about absolutely everything. But wait. I’ve already answered your question indirectly, which is the best way to answer any difficult question, anyhow. Your answer is “my God… my goodness.” The two are interchangeable for me. No, they are not. That is far too simple an answer to such a complex question. Certainly, I believe there is injustice and there is imbalance; there is evil and wrong doing; there is sickness and suffering; poverty of the body and spirit. How then can I, or any intelligent, seeing human being say that God is all good, or even that there is a Heaven and a Hell? He is not all good. Rather, He is all: good and bad.  If we are created in His image, therefore it should follow that He is capable of greater good, and bad, than we are. We are limited, He is limitless.  ‘The greatest leap of man’s mind is to realize its limitations.’

What’s that, sir, you say about heaven and hell? I have not made myself clear on that point? Does that mean I have been clear on all others! Please, see me after this is all over and explain it to me, will you. Yes, heaven and hell, there’s no denying them. Only not in the next world, Heaven and hell are here.  Every Day is judgment day.  If you go unrewarded in your life, then, you must be good; and that, in and of itself, is your reward (and punishment). Yes, it is all absurd and senseless, particularly for the sensitive few who would like to believe otherwise.

Yes, Miss, with the bookcase on your back. One must think everything and do nothing? Are you suggesting then, learned lady, that thinking is not doing? Now, you must be sounding like me to amuse me. But, believe me; I am not amused to hear you repeat such things when I do not fully believe in them myself. I may amuse myself with such folly, you may not. You dishearten me. I did not think it possible to influence persons before and, I do not still. We receive only the stations our antennas attract, which is why we should keep our antennas out at all times in the hopes of picking up all of our stations. Otherwise, I cannot persuade you of what you do not already believe in the dawning of your knowledge. I cannot awaken in you what is not dormant. I cannot plant a seed where there is not fertile soil. And that is why it disheartens me that you should be like me in any way. Not that I feel I have affected you, for if you had not heard my words now, it would have been any incident or accident later that would have stirred you to those words. Yet, I wish it were not my words, and that you had heard them elsewhere. You are far too clever to join the daily increasing ranks of the overfed and undernourished. That is what it means to be overeducated.  But, it is not a fault that cannot be undone (sadly, it takes far longer to ‘unlearn’ than it does to learn, just as it is nearly impossible to ‘unsee’ what one has already seen). It can be achieved, however, and I am living proof of it. Although, perhaps “living” is too strong a word. Still, I am proof of it, nevertheless. You must not quote any more of those journals or ‘important’ authors, however. Or at any rate, if you must, then do so with some feeling. Where is your passion? Without it, you are merely a corpse with a borrowed mouthpiece, an ass carrying a bookcase, that is all. Intellect without sentiment is a cold, concrete structure without either doors or windows. Structurally solid, it is uninhabitable to the occupant, and impenetrable to the passerby.

Yes; the elderly gentleman with the black tears and the soil in his hands. No, sir, I could not possibly make light of your grief. What you hold in your hands is the Body of God. Yes, the Body of God is not invisible, it is Nature. How can we be in awe of one and not the other? It is the land, the sea, the air and the Infinite Universe. In which case, Humanity must occupy God’s nether regions. I apologize, that was careless of me … but not thoughtless. And, I’m not sorry. I do see the stars in space as His upper body, which can only mean…. God is not dead. Nature is independent of us yet, we are dependant on it. It goes about its natural cycles as it did before we came to be and, will continue to do so long after we cease. We have not tamed nature, we have only maimed it:  with electric blades and metal claws that pierce, tear, torture and spoil the air, the earth and its waters. Or what we call:  travel.  And, then monstrous machinery that devastates and contaminates its skin and soul. This we call: the cost of our living. And, next to those weightless clouds, Industry has contributed their own leaden clouds to choke the skies. Yet, we shall pass and It shall remain, majestic and mysterious, mocking us who have named it and so think we have known it. So, sir, I share your grief. For all our private and public worlds -and the monuments built to honor our accomplishments, thought forms and inventions- we are no more than a passing intervention, insignificant in the laughing eyes of Eternal Nature. Yes, Nature is God, and to be natural in thought and deed is divine. I, however, cannot be natural even when I sleep, or view nature except with envious eyes in my waking hours. There is no hope for me. But surely you, young man with the clear glass eyes, can see that it is not too late for you to be saved, provided you do not grow any further.

No, most certainly not! You should not wish to grow like me, mine is a malignant growth. I speak since I am not at peace with my silences. My words are elaborate because my thoughts are unclear. You speak with such simplicity and sincerity. Why you would want to emulate me worries me immeasurably and reminds me of the poisonous charm of words. Please, not another word or I shall expose myself! I must forget all that I am to be happy, you must only remember it. There is no use denying that yours’ is the superior state. Do not think that because you have the knowledge of happiness then, I must have the happiness of knowledge. Happiness and Knowledge are not to be wed in my world. For the feeling person, Ignorance is Happiness; and for the thinking person, Happiness is Ignorance. This I know. Ignorance on the first, simple, and natural level of existence is the prerequisite for Happiness, while on the second, more complex (hyperconscious) level of existence, it is the contrary: Happiness is considered Ignorance. But there exists a third level where Happiness and Knowledge can coexist. The selfless few who arrive at this state are those who ‘see the world steadily and see it whole’. But, I’ve already spoken ad nauseam on where I stand in relation this notion…

All of a sudden, I realize I am weary with fatigue, and I’m sure you feel the same. Thank you for your patient audience. What’s that? One more question? What a terrific trick that is you are performing, sir! Or, is it madam? What do you say? It is not a trick, it is a talent? A gift from God? No, I beg to differ. Look where you are seated, my dear ma… friend. The seats by your side are vacant, though there is a shortage of seats. You are all alone. Lately, I am of the opinion that a talent is not a gift but a curse, or at the very least, a hindrance. Any remarkable ability, as such, which differentiates one from the herd, that is talent, true. But, as a result of it, you will not be viewed with tenderness and understanding; and perhaps as a result of it, too, you will not be able to view others with tenderness and understanding.  You call that a gift? No, I must differ with you. I must be allowed to leave, now. I am too tired to continue this charade any longer. Also, I have already said too much although, to some of you, it might seem like I’ve said nothing at all. Whatever the case … Honorable ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming.

Wait! Don’t go…. I do not wish to be alone, anymore. I have nowhere to go. There, I have said it! And I have said it with neither trembling lip, nor quivering voice. I have said it rather bravely and matter-of-factly; because in fact, I do have enough energy to continue. I have to have enough energy to continue. And, sir, when I am done -when I am truly over and done with, and no longer of any use to anyone- then you may throw your other shoe in my face. In fact, please, do so now, I cannot stand the suspense. Thank you! Now, where was I before I so rudely interrupted my selves? Oh yes, talent is a curse. Yes, I’m sorry I stand by that. Forgive me, but I cannot take any more questions. Why? Because for every question of yours I entertain, I ignore one of my own. So, the format shall continue to be question and answer; only I shall be asking the questions and answering them. And, it shall be better this way for all of us. Believe me. But, please, stay a while longer. I require your presence for inspiration. I’m afraid if you leave, my muse shall, too. Also, if you stay, I promise to be more honest than I have been before, within the confines of the impossibility of honesty, of course.

What then, is the impossibility of honesty? Simply, it is to say that complete honesty with oneself is impossible and, with others improper. What one can do however is to bridge the gulf between what is said and what is done. (Perhaps also between what is thought and what is said). That is the utmost extent of honesty anyone can afford. How very polite of you, sir, to nod so understandingly while I am speaking. Really, manners are everything. Manners and Morals, and all the more so if they are natural (and not the product of some pretentious finishing school). More than anything, manners simultaneously express respect and self-respect; and morals enforce them. Which brings one to ethics. What of ethics? Can ethics exist outside of society? Absolutely! One is ethical for one’s sake. In fact, not only do ethics exist outside society, they exist only outside of society, since the ethics within society are simulated and inauthentic. For God’s sake, ethics exist outside of organized religion, as well, which accounts for the irrefutable goodness and non-judgmental stance of some atheists. All that is well and good is not found without, but within, irrespective of whichever club one is a member of. It is important not to lose sight of that in one’s lifetime, just as it is important never to lose sight of one’s death during one’s life.

What do I mean by that? “Death destroys a man: the idea of death saves him.” To realize the day shall come when one will lie beneath the earth they tread upon, and to realize that day may be tomorrow, is very wise indeed. Such a realization either endows one with a sense of urgency or futility. As always, the answer lies not in the middle, but in the continual excursion to either extreme. Yes, the senselessness of life and the senselessness of death, that is what one should preoccupy oneself with. Nothing else is of the least importance, other than Art, but certainly not Science. What a bore Science is with its relentless insistence on evidence and proof and, how unrealistic that is. There is no proof, and there are no guarantees! Proofs of purchase and guarantees accompany appliances, not us. Which is all the more reason never, ever, never, to lose sight of death or attempt any number of ways of maintaining a firm foothold in the quicksand that is life. Make no mistake, we are sinking, and we shall all soon be submerged. There is no avoiding it. Why the startled look, how could you have thought otherwise? Or had you simply not thought? Still, that’s no reason not to live because you must die. There is life to live for, and Art. What is Art? It depends on whom you ask:  the artist, or the public. To the artist, Art is the act of clearing his/her throat to find a Voice, silencing the voices in their head, and luring from it’s lair all that is secretive or mysterious. It is the act of dressing the invisible, of giving Form to the formless. And, only by becoming a slave to Art can the artist ever hope to master Life. To the general public, Art is a beautiful translation of the transition that is Life, rendering it more possible to endure. But, Art is not reserved to artists alone (and many artists are poor artists at that). Some people live artfully and fill their lives with art, while others artfully live and fill art with their lives. Ultimately, to burn brightly with one’s own Art, that is the purpose of life, if indeed there is one.

What then, is the greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows? Desistance. To recognize one’s passion and not pursue it: to realize and refuse. Ignorance is bliss, to ignore is heresy. In which case, I must be damned… But, never mind me. Please, never mind me; I mind me enough as it is. Anxiety-ridden and doubt-driven, I am. I wonder: if one forgets about themselves, will they be forgotten? I don’t know. I know I don’t know. I also know endless self-scrutiny is fruitless. To concern oneself constantly with the endless possibilities of one’s growth, and in which direction is, as sure a way as any, to stunt one’s growth. But what can one do? We are not free … to do anything. We are free, but not Free. We suffer from a restricted freedom. We are free, from within a cage, yet we are also given a key -not to the cage, of course, but to ourselves. This way, we have the possibility of being free, to surprise others and ourselves. But, the true surprise is how hesitant we are to act. And when we do, just how helpless.

Excuse me, may I ask you a question, sir? What is the difference between you and that horse you are riding? There’s no need to take offense, an answer will suffice. No, I mean other than that it is an animal, and that it is mounted, since both of those conditions apply to the human condition. What do you say? There are no differences, then? No, sir, you are mistaken, again. There is one; one difference you have overlooked. The difference between you and your horse is that his blinders are removable. What do I mean by that? Just that his blinders are external and can be discarded; whereas ours are not and cannot. Don’t be so surprised. We all wear blinders which determine what we see and what we don’t, and accordingly, what we respond to and how. Some of us only see what is ahead of us, while others only see what is around them. The rest of us are looking at our noses. I do not see anything since my eyes are not in accord. But, I promised not to discuss myself, further…

How much time and energy we exhaust discussing ourselves, as though we were existing beings when, in truth, we are merely symbols. Collectively, we are a physical manifestation of the complex character of Creation, that is all. For, just as Nature is the Body of God, all of Human Nature is His Soul. That, I believe, is why we are here -to act and interact in such a way as to make manifest to Him the possibilities of His Being. But, this is not a solemn sermon -much as it may sound like one- since I am not in the position either to be solemn, or to present a sermon. Perhaps, I should speak of something else, then. How about aesthetics and insects? Yes, insects and aesthetics, it is. And, 0, what a frightful emphasis in our infinite vanity do we place on aesthetics!

You do not agree? Look at the cockroach. Now, look at how you recoil in horror! Look at your lips, upturned in disgust, and how your eyes long to recede to the back of your skull. Now, look at the ladybug, and look at your delight. Look at the fly, now, look at the butterfly. What is it about appearance that allows us to dismiss creatures so carelessly, and approach others so eagerly? What do we know of the nature of the black beetle that depicts it as any less loveable than the lady bug, or the butterfly? It is not harmful, nor is it lacking in usefulness; it only commits the unpardonable crime of not being pleasing to the eye. Likewise, why am I addressing myself to the attractive members of the audience, the more visually arresting of you? Is it because we assume, somehow, that Beauty is a kind of benediction, while ugliness expresses varying degrees of sin. Or, is it more superficial, but more meaningfully revealing, than that? I don’t know. Whatever the case, it is a temptation that must be avoided. No, that’s wrong. Can you tell me what is wrong with that sentiment? I’ll tell you. Temptation is not to be ‘avoided’, it is to be resisted. To be present and resist, not to distance yourself and avoid, that is noble. But, I have nothing in common with nobility. I tremble before temptation. I must avoid it, since I’m not strong. Okay, sir, you may now throw your other shoe in my face; I am over and done with. You already have? Very well, then, I shall exit unclimactically. At least, it is closer to the Truth that way. Thank you again and, please, remember me in your prayers.

It was the novel, specifically The Brothers Karamazov, that once and for all set me on the path toward dedicating my life to literature. Only recently has poetry come to occupy a similarly sacred space as the novel in my outlook. This delay is not due to any prejudice on my part, but more to a simple lack of sufficient exposure.

The main catalyst for this awakening was John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” When I first encountered it, I had been studying Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Namely, practitioners of the massive, whose major works will undoubtedly stand as monuments to our historical and cultural moment. “Self-Portrait” is one such undertaking.

The sheer philosophical, epistemological, formal and emotional scope exhilarates me every time I read it. It is a virtuosic, dynamic, and ultimately heart-wrenching meditation on self-consciousness and loss, central notions of late twentieth-century art. Like those masters of narrative I mentioned, Ashbery causes me to pause and reflect with awed humility that I could never do what he did in this poem.

Yahia Lababidi remembers late nights in his dorm room at George Washington University, tossing in bed as the voices of Wilde, Rilke and Kafka reverberated around him.  Words or phrases, even the tiniest snippets of philosophy, would teem, pulse and swirl to a boiling point, until he could no longer resist formulating his own response, entering the conversation. “They were literally bouncing off the walls,” he told me, “I would go to bed with a stack of napkins or receipts, and I would never put my glasses on because if I put my glasses on it would scare the thought away.  The fox would not leave its hole if the hunter was outside.”

But he persisted, and his haphazard notes, over time, became numerous and provocative enough that multiple professors and mentors encouraged him to compile and try to publish them. The result was Signposts to Elsewhere, published in 2008, containing his meditations, in the form of a long list of aphorisms, on what he sees as the central human questions: “We’ve always been wrestling with the same things…It’s still a human being, in a body, trying to deal with other human beings, in a society. It hasn’t changed that much…I’m more interested in those who can distill the matter to its essence.”  Just such a project begins in Signposts, where Lababidi liberates the essence of these ideas from the shackles of cliché, which, he believes, are truths that have “lost the initial shock of revelation.”  The aphorism is “not just an aesthetic thing, but an edifying thing. They are truths with an –s that we stumble across and hopefully try to live up to some of the time.” Not greeting card rhetoric, but, actually, “we think in aphorisms. If we quote the outcome of our thoughts, they are aphorisms.” Consider the following, from Signposts:

The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others,
______the ones we do not, define us to ourselves.
Opposites attract. Similarities last.
Time heals old wounds because there are new wounds to attend to.
With enigmatic clarity, Life gives us a different answer
______each time we ask her the same question.
The primary challenge for creators is surviving themselves.
A good listener is one who helps us overhear ourselves.

Previous iterations of these ideas have probably occurred to us, but the delicacy of Lababidi’s aphorisms resides in the fact that, as James Richardson asserts in his foreword to the book, “Unlike the poet, [the aphorist] doesn’t worry whether we’ve heard his exact words millions of times. Nor does he have the Philosopher’s care for consistency. He doesn’t mind that today he warns ‘Time is money’ and tomorrow contradicts that with ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ He has neither the ambition nor the naïveté of the systematizer, and his truth, though stated generally, is applied locally. When he says ‘Like father like son,’ he doesn’t expect anyone to object, ‘Wait, I know a son who’s not like his father.’ He means that right here, right now, a particular son has behaved just as his father might have.’” This dialogic interplay between the universal and the local provide the aphorism its applicability (and popularity).  It has a special quality of speaking to the particulars of life while remaining unstuck from time and space.

After Signposts to Elsewhere, Lababidi turned to poetry, for which he is now more widely known.  He has published in World Literature Today, Cimarron Review, Agni, Hotel Amerika and many others.  Two poems are currently up for a Pushcart. Recently, however, Lababidi has returned to the figures who originally inspired him. Evoking Azar Nafisi, he asserts, “It was these ‘dead white men’ that really did a number on me. It wasn’t a matter of influence, but of initiation. They are closer to me than my own blood.”  Lovers of literature have had similar moments. Mine was weeping over the end of The Brothers Karamazov, under a dim desk lamp, with my college roommate sleeping nearby. As budding thinkers, we want to let our copious thoughts, despite whoever else may have already had them and articulated them much better, out into the open. In short, to write. Lababidi remembers how his notes in the margin became journal entries, which became essays, which, we now see, became a book.

Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (2010) is the type of book critics want to write. It is an intellectual memoir, a sharing of one’s own personal engagement with those who have had a dramatic impact. In the spirit of Susan Sontag (who receives an entire chapter), Lababidi replaces systematizing and arguing with a Montaignian (whose idea of the essai opens the Preface and serves as inspiration for the title of the book) of figuring things out as we go along. “I’m always in a state of discovery and beginning,” he told me, “what I think I know, I’m trying to communicate. You have to get out of your system whatever is yours, whatever speaks to you.” This, for him, is a refreshing departure from the work of academics, who too often “go to the same well to drink, excluding the regular people who perhaps may be more curious. If you give it to me in a way that is forbidding, I’m not interested.”

Trial by Ink, therefore, strives for the opposite. He stresses as much in the Preface:

This…is a subjective work where I attempt to evaluate what I care for and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture. In the course of such investigations particular judgments emerge, expressions of taste and values. They are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and my pen across the paper, to determine what I think about a given subject….In turn, what you have before you is a catalogue of interests, possessions, exorcisms and even passing enthusiasms, derived from what I was thinking, reading, watching, dreaming, and living over a seven-year period.

I envy the intellectual freedom, which Lababidi takes up here, to, say, write about Dostoevsky, without the requisite knowledge of Russian language or history, simply because I love him so much. Lababidi has such a relationship with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka and many others. He reminded me, though, that to do this, one must always come from a place of relative authority. “Not to dis the blog,” he says, “but they are not essays.” They don’t partake of the type of “deep and continuous mining” and “literary soul-gazing” that are the rudiments of a trial, of an essay.

I agree with this. The first of three parts of Trial by Ink, titled “Literary Profiles and Reviews,” exhibits his mastery of and, frankly, unique and refreshing insights into his masters. He works most provocatively when he puts figures, who, on the surface, don’t seem to have much to do with each other, into an intricate dialogue with each other. Just this occurs with Nietzsche and Wilde. Chapter 3, “The Great Contrarians,” is a lengthy comparison of the two, on the levels of style, their affinity for and belief in the importance of appearances, and their threshold for pain and suffering, especially since they each met with similar types of struggles, including certain levels of moral degradation, which have had occasionally negative effects on their legacies. One need only, as Lababidi does, compare the content of their aphorisms (they were both virtuosos of the form) to begin suddenly to see uncanny similarities:

What fire does not destroy it hardens – Wilde
What does not kill me makes me stronger – Nietzsche
The simple truth, is that not a double lie? – Nietzsche
The truth is rarely ever pure and never simple – Wilde
Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas – Wilde
To say it again, Public opinions, private laziness – Nietzsche
We possess art lest we perish of the truth – Nietzsche
The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art – Wilde
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things – Wilde
Not to perpetrate cowardice against one’s own acts!…
The bite of conscience is indecent – Nietzsche
Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or nation – Wilde
Every great progress must be preceded by a partial weakening – Nietzsche

This type of analysis occurs across the first part of the book. Whereas it might not be critically expedient to place Nietzsche, Wilde, and Susan Sontag into a dialogue, this is nonetheless how they speak to Lababidi. And that’s all he’s worried about. Consequently, “I was told not to write this book, in the sense that it was ‘unpublishable.’ Who didn’t tell me that? Academic publishers thought it was too literary. Literary publishers thought it was too academic. I was stuck.” Perhaps. But, ultimately, Lababidi’s book occupies a space of dialogic freedom in which the personal and the critical mesh with refreshing enjoyment.

The cultural dialogue continues in the second and third parts (“Studies in Pop Culture” and “Middle Eastern Musings,” respectively). While Part II contains interesting ruminations on Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, serial killers, and the values of silence, Part III was particularly illuminating. Here Lababidi returns to his Muslim heritage in Egypt and Lebanon (where he spent a good amount of time growing up). His discussion juxtaposes the repugnant effects of draconian sexual repression in Egypt (especially contrasted with ritual belly dancing) with the Lebanese’s zest for life in the face of seemingly constant and imminent death in a way that can enlighten a Western reader to the diversity of the “Muslim World,” a term Dr. Nafisi derided at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum, for obvious reasons.

Lababidi was at the forum as well, and was intrigued by Nafisi. When I reached out to him to discuss Trial by Ink, he responded with the type of enthusiasm Nafisi showed me. “Conversation is very close to me,” he asserts, not just the type of conversations he has with the likes of Nietzsche, “who is very much alive,” but with contemporaries and collaborators. He was generous enough to meet with me about his work, and about this type of work in general. At the end of our discussion, I asked him what was next for him. In addition to more poetry, he says, “I am returning to these conversations in a much more direct way.” Namely, he is continuing his conversation about his conversations with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka, and others in a strictly dialogic way. Chapter 2 of Trial by Ink consists of a back-and-forth with poet and critic Alex Stein about these figures. Like the college-aged Lababidi who refused to put on his glasses so as not to scare away his thoughts, “I will call Alex in the middle of the night, without turning the lights on, and just speak.” The result is a series of conversations (I hesitate to call them interviews) between the two that digs deeper, that “mines” for answers.

From my time with Yahia and by reading the early stages of these new dialogues, it is apparent that face-to-face conversation, where one can engage another on more dynamic and intimate levels, suits the type of broader cultural and intellectual dialogue he has spent his career trying to foster. He doesn’t mind living like an aphorism, unstuck from time, space and generic classifications, asserting, “I don’t think of myself as an aphorist. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I don’t think of myself as an essayist, which leaves me with nothing to say, so to speak…but I’m clarifying something that I suspect I see. I don’t get why from 18 to 22 I chose aphorisms, or aphorisms chose me. It seemed like the most instinctive way to talk, to communicate…at some point it shifts to poems…words have a life of their own…ideas have a life of their own. They decide how to dress themselves…the form doesn’t matter as much as trying to communicate a territory that on some days I have been privileged to have been shoe-horned into.” This openness has organically led him to the dialogic form as the best (only?) way to convey what he sees as the real essence of all these thinkers, “and this is where I wish that the lights could dim and I could whisper it into your ear so no one can hear. This is about the artist as mystic. If you think it’s mad, it’s mad. If you think it makes sense to you on a personal level, then it does…If it works as literary soul-gazing, take it. If it works as pure fiction, then it does.” The ambition, and the already apparent spiritual depth of this new trial, is titillating, the type of book I want to write. But what happens when the conversation is finished? “Ten years of silence, under a rock somewhere.”

Why do we make lists?  I tend to agree with Paul Tankard, who wrote in Prose Studies, “[A list makes] an implicit truth claim that subverts prose…a list in a novel is part of the fiction, a list in a poem is part of the poetry, but in both cases the list introduces a pragmatic element. What a list does in pragmatic circumstances it will seem to do in a literary circumstance. It stops us reading and starts us counting…It moves the reader, for a moment, outside literature.”  Or perhaps Umberto Eco’s thesis of his book on literary enumerations is more to the point: “we like lists because we don’t want to die.”

That pretty much accounts for the pragmatic elements.  But what about this “stepping outside of literature” business?  Every year around this time (especially since the advent of Twitter) we are flooded with Best-of-the-Year-Books lists.  This year was the first time I saw a few Best-of-the-Best-of-the-Year-Books-Lists-Lists.  Why?  Any discerning reader knows that you can’t just rank your favorite books, that nothing stacks up in a neat little row like that.  We need individual books to fulfill individual needs, and some do certain things really well that certain others can’t, or don’t intend to.  That’s the beauty of literature.  But here we are, and here I am, delivering my list.  I’ve been doing it independently since ’08, but I am glad to share with you my year in fiction.  The reason I (we?) do this is not too far from Eco’s – namely, we can take stock of how much we have read, but in doing so don’t we always become even more morbidly aware of how much we haven’t read, and how many more years like this there are to go?  Death would be a rather unfortunate inconvenience in the yearly reading campaign.

In the past, I’ve posted my broad results of yearly reading.  The lists included any book that I read that year, young or old.  This runs the risk, in the long term, of becoming repetitive.  That is, anytime I read Underworld, Infinite Jest, or The Brothers Karamazov (which I hope will occur often), they will automatically make the top five.  It’s nice to flaunt, but it’s completely unhelpful to a reader looking for my opinion on the best fiction of a given year (that is why you’re here, right?)  Now, I wish I could be like Maureen Corrigan or Ron Charles and have a hundred books delivered to my door every week for review. I wish I could come from a place of having read all the relevant novels of the year.  That’s not the case.  I missed new ones from Tom McCarthy, Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan, David Grossman, Louise Erdrich, and John Banville, among many others. Still, I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have read five novels that many would agree are “Best Of.”  But since I don’t have high authority, I feel unqualified to label this a “Best Of” list.  So, like Oprah, I give you my Year-End Favorites.

The first question most newspapers, magazines, and blogs have asked is, “Will Freedom make it?”  The literary event of the year has made mine, perhaps because of its literary-event-of-the-year status.  It’s too important to ignore.  So, I’ll begin there.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Franzen may not be The Great American Novelist the way Time has set him up to be (only Time will tell if that is true).  But he is a great stylist, and his sentences make the book.  His characters are deplorable and spend most of the novel engaged in one Girardian mimetic triangle after another, repeating the mistakes of their parents, with potentially ruinous effects. I have friends who hate the novel on the grounds that they believe that Franzen actually likes these people and hates pretty much everyone else. A certain snobbishness does pervade, but it can be overlooked thanks to the same type of page-turning fun that characterized The Corrections and the scathing satire of his near impeccably crafted sentences.

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields.  So, I cheated.  Shields’ portentous rap against the state of fiction in favor of memoir is technically nonfiction, but it’s so artfully produced that I must comment.  Namely, he argues that contemporary fiction, forty years after Barth’s “Literature of Exhaustion” is, finally, exhausted.  Memoir, in its emotional authenticity and basis in fact, is gaining more steam by the year.  While he’s at it, he spends a good deal of time addressing the issue of plagiarism, i.e., if we’re dealing with memoir, how much can be made up, borrowed, stolen, etc.?  In his opinion, anything goes.  The content of the argument is relatively compelling, but about halfway through the book you have an epiphany.  It has to do with the structure.  The book consists of twenty-six chapters, each named after a letter of the alphabet and dealing with issues of nonfiction (“overture,” “mimesis,” “reality,” “memory,” and “blur” are just a few of the chapter titles). Each chapter is comprised of a series of aphorisms ranging from a sentence to a paragraph in length.  There are 618 such aphorisms.  But, halfway through (or earlier, if you’re sharper than me), you realize that Shields didn’t write any of these aphorisms.  They are all lifted from somebody else.  No quotation marks, no citations.  I can’t tell you how much this added to the reading experience.  I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it.  To Shields’ dismay, he was forced to include a works-cited appendix at the end, slightly undermining his argument for total and credit-less sharing.  I was still compelled, if not convinced.

Solar by Ian McEwan.  “The Master of the Macabre” surprised me here with an homage to Updike and Rabbit Angstrom in the figure of Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who is charged with the task of solving global warming.  He has more than a few problems, though, mostly pertaining to the amount of potato chips (and women) he consumes.  This sets the stage for a Rabelaisan romp that, stylistically as well as structurally, provides laughs at nearly every turn.  Ultimately, the bureaucracies whose job it is to solve the world’s problems are bitterly satirized here in a refreshing turn from the recent darkness of On Chesil Beach.

Zero History by William Gibson.  “The Bigend Trilogy” concludes with a journey into London’s underground fashion trade.  At the center of it all is multi-billionaire Hubertus Bigend, whose single goal in life is to fulfill his many curiosities. Here, it is, in an elaboration on the idea of pattern recognition (also the title of the first novel in the series), a fascination with predicting trends in the market.  That fascination manifests itself in an attempt to corner mass produced military wear for civilians.  This is vintage Gibson, a commentary on the simulacrous state of consumerism, the invisible workings of desire and demand.  But can those workings be manipulated?  In addition to all this, Gibson is so enjoyable because he brokers in cool.  Apple products and Twitter pervade the novel, as well as a good amount of motorcycle courier-ing.  His comments at his reading in D.C. this fall tell us the most, however.  “For anyone serious about writing,” he asserted, “genre is only useful as a narrative strategy.” This best sums up this recent trilogy.  He deftly made the transition from out-and-out SF into what a London writer called, in reference to Spook Country (the second part of the trilogy), “one of the most important books of the decade.”  Count that for all three.

And the winner is (but who’s counting?)…

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  I will re-post my review from the summer here:

Until three days ago, I had not read anything by Gary Shteyngart.  But, true to form, the YouTube trailer of Super Sad True Love Story (released July 27) intrigued me enough to spend my birthday money on it. I was aware of Shteyngart’s propensity for hilarity, and this novel delivers.  But it was layered in unexpected ways.  It is the story of Lenny Abramov, an – ahem – middle-aged Russian-American with a taste for books.  Only, in Lenny’s America, books have become physically repulsive (they stink), and every citizen is perpetually linked to his or her apparat, a media streamer good for all things data and entertainment.  Reading has been replaced by “text scanning for data”; dollars are now “yuan-pegged” due to China’s global economic dominance; Credit Poles are set up in public spaces, which flash people’s credit scores as they walk by; people are subsequently divided into HNWI, and LNWI groups (High/Low Net Worth Individuals), your membership of which determines your social prospects; similarly, women’s “Fuckability” and “Personality,” their apparently only two appealing traits, are broadcast by their apparats; like David Foster Wallace’s near-future, Shteyngart’s is saturated with acronyms and product placement, with the vulgarity turned way up.  JK (“just kidding”) is replaced with JBF (“just butt-fucking”), and name brands such as Polo and J. Crew are replaced with AssLuxury and JuicyPussy. Americans get their news from Fox-Liberty Prime and Fox-Liberty Ultra (“the Fox”). This alone indicates the hyper-conservate policies that run Abramov’s America, a nicely woven sub-plot that comes to a surprising head by novel’s end.  Citizens are constantly screened for their credit ratings and, if returning from abroad, for how many foreigners they’ve slept with. Almost precisely this happens to Abramov, whose story centers on his love for Eunice Park, a Korean-American he falls for while abroad in Rome for a year.  The narrative is told from their alternating perspectives – one chapter will be comprised entirely of his diary entries, the next by her e-mails and online chats.  A nice dichotomy between old and young, literate and “post-literate.”

And ultimately, that’s what this book ends up being about.  The gaps (emotionally and technologically) between generations (Abramov works for a company that helps people try to live forever), and the (im)possibility of love, romantic or otherwise, between them.  Amid his satirical romp that lampoons, cleverly, the future of American political and consumer society, Shteyngart rounds the narrative out to address what Abramov realizes are life’s only two truths: my existence and my demise.  This novel shows us that how we get from the former to the latter is, yes, a super sad true love story.

To help get my mind around what Synetic Theater was trying to do with their adaptation of Bulgakov’s oppression-defying, faith-affirming romp The Master and Margarita, I turned to Linda Hutcheon’s helpful study of postmodern adaptations, her 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation.  For too long, she asserts, we have evaluated adaptations as products, in terms of accuracy, verisimilitude, and the like.  But, in true Hutcheon fashion, we should be focusing on the process as well as the product of an adaptation.  We can best do that by examining not so much the form of the piece (novel-to-screen, novel-to-stage, etc.), but what she calls “modes of engagement.”  There are three types, which are all, as she says, “immersive”:

Some media and genres are used to tell stories (for example, novels, short stories); others show them (for instance, all performance media); and still others allow us to interact physically and kinesthetically with them (as in videogames or theme park rides).  These three different modes of engagement provide the structure of analysis for this attempt to theorize what might be called the what, who, why, how, when and where of adaptation.  Think of this as a structure learned from Journalism 101: answering the basic questions is always a good place to start.

This seems simple, but it is quite obviously very useful in an age of hyper-interactivity and myriad Hollywood adaptations.  Hutcheon studies opera extensively, so it would be interesting to see what she would have to say about The Master and Margarita.  In short, it is an exemplar of this theory, in that it is a dynamic hybrid of the latter two modes. In the program distributed by the Landsburgh Theatre (the host venue, in DC’s Chinatown), we learn a little about Synetic Theater. Their slogan reads as follows:

Synthesis: the coming together of distinct elements to form a whole

Kinetic: pertaining to, or imparting motion, active…dynamic…

Synetic Theater: a dynamic synthesis of the arts

In other words, before the opening curtain, a clear idea of what you are about to experience–or engage with–is murky.  Not shortly afterward, however, are confusions assuaged (and expectations met).

We sat in the front row, a few seats away from a friend and colleague who is a dancer and has many more intelligent things to say about that side of things. But from our vantage point, it fully seemed that this troupe, in the words of P90X’s Tony Horton, flat out “brought it.”  Or, to quote The Washington Post’s Nelson Presley,

The Performers of Synetic Theater seem to have made up their minds about what they are: rock stars…As performers, [director Paata Tsikurishvili, who also played Master, and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, who played Margarita]…are mesmerizing, melding intensity and craft…But no matter how striking the staging and effects, which include creative decapitations and even a zombie scene, the story is consistently clear and forward-moving.

More on the story in a minute.  But to finish about the execution–the sheer physicality of the entire ninety minutes left us breathless and exhilarated.  In addition to the Tsikurishvilis’ performances, Alex Mills’ contorting Azazello and Philip Fletcher’s Behemoth dazzled. And Armand Sindoni’s Voland was hilarious in an appropriately demonic way.  I can’t drift too far out of my territory to comment on sets and choreography, but when you’re coming away from a night at the theater muttering, and pardon the pun, “damn, damn,” something must have gone pretty well.

But I did have an agenda.  The third part of my Bakhtin-Dostoevsky-Bulgakov Masters thesis analyzed the novel within the novel, the source of the Master’s troubles, “Pontius Pilate,” a subversive re-telling of Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion.  It is a prototype for what would come to be known in the postmodern era as “historiographic metafictions” (Hutcheon again), the underpinnings of which are encapsulated by Voland in the early going, when he asserts, “Of course Jesus was real…But you should know that nothing in the gospels actually happened!”

“Pontius Pilate,” therefore, attempts a re-conceptualizing of Jesus’ conversation with the title character.  And the final chapter of my thesis dealt with just that.  As opposed to the Jesus of the gospels, the Yeshua of the Master’s imagining converses at length with Pilate, eventually converting him–not to Christianity as we know it, but to the simple idea that everyone is inherently good, just unhappy sometimes–only too late.  The rest of the novel depicts Pilate’s regret in the form of a hallucinated dialogue in perpetuam with Yeshua, as they walk up a moonbeam into space. Very Bakhtinian, no?  Long story short, I was most interested in how Synetic was going to stage this encounter.

The first few scenes from “Pontius Pilate,” staged as the Master’s memories of his now-burned manuscript, are consistent with Synetic’s set pieces, substituting verbal exposition with interpretive dance, music, and sound effects.  They are effective, emotionally, but I was wondering when the conversation, the intellectual centerpiece of this encounter, would begin (we never even see Yeshua’s face in multiple flashback scenes).  But just as some discontent began to brew, Synetic put its most creative stamp on their project.  Toward the end, the Master and his cell mate in the insane asylum, the poet Bezdomny (Ryan Sellers is formidable in this role as well), are bound to chairs, seated back-to-back, and interrogated.  Bezdomny by a Soviet officer, the Master by Pilate himself.  Here we get a decent amount of the dialogue between Yeshua and Pilate, envisioned, perhaps, as Bulgakov intended.  The parallel between the Roman authority of the first century and that of the Soviets is made explicit as Bezdomny and the Master alternate lines from Yeshua’s conversation, asserting the goodness of humanity and the trouble with totalitarianism.  While much of the actual conversation is still left out, we are given the force behind it, and the force behind The Master and Margarita–that is, even if we, as the Soviets wanted to do, strip the story of Jesus of its mystery and miracle, we are nonetheless left with the very simple message of love in the face of authority, a miracle in itself.  That Synetic chose to stage it this way emphasizes the dialogic nature of our relationship with history. And it no doubt effectively fits their own mode of engagement. They deliver.

Was I nitpicking?  Perhaps.  You need not do that here, nor will you really have time to, in this frenetic and ecstatic adaptation.

The week before last, Salman Rushdie visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue to read from and talk about his new novel Luka and the Fire of Life.  It is a sequel to the popular Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written, as its predecessor was for his first son, at the request of his second son.  Its hero is Haroun’s younger brother Luka, the second son of the famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa, who must endeavor a similar journey into the Magic World to once again help his father. These books walk and talk like children’s stories, but we should believe Rushdie when he asserts that “we are all children,” and that the appeal of these books, he hopes, is broad.

He carried himself with his usual joviality: he congratulated one overzealous fan for her question, telling her that she should publish it; on another occasion, when asked about his process, he replied, already laughing as if he couldn’t help himself, “I write left-to-right, all the way across the page, and then all the way down the page until I’m finished”; when I asked him at the signing if he could convince Thomas Pynchon to visit the Synagogue, he replied, and this was after 200-odd signatures, “You know, if I only had his phone number.” But his explanations of this book were insightful.  “It looks like it was easy,” but he assures us that “re-writing one of the oldest stories ever told–the story of man gaining fire from the gods” is arduous.

This intention is a good place to begin, analysis-wise.  Haroun appealed to young audiences because of its protagonist’s fanciful and action-packed adventure to save the Sea of Stories from pollution, in turn restoring his father’s lost yarning mojo.  It appealed to me because it was essentially a metafictionalist’s manifesto.  Nearly all the tricks were on display (to recount them would taint them; they are best encountered in their surprising and entertaining form).  Storytelling itself thus becomes the central theme of Haroun, a defense of its imaginative and restorative power.  Young audiences will similarly delight in Luka’s adventure into the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life and help the ailing Rashid.  But while the theme of Haroun was storytelling, here we deal with philosophy.  Life and death (or, as it is overtly put here, Being and un-Being) as well as issues of time (characters who literally represent the past, present and future play prominent roles in Luka’s journey) are central throughout the narrative. Again, to say more would spoil its richness.

Each book’s themes figure at times heavily and delicately, but narratively they are each driven by a paradigmatic plot structure. In each case, the young hero finds that the Magic World somehow resembles his own imagination, and the solutions to many of the problems he faces arise from his memory of these imaginings.  So, for example, Haroun becomes a character in a princess-rescue, employing tools from the stories his father had told him.   But it is the narrative paradigm that drives Luka I find extremely interesting.

We learn early on that Luka

lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisted bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog, and a streetfighter and a rockstar, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red-and-black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.

Just as Haroun’s adventure is driven by his memories of Rashid’s stories, Luka’s journey resembles his beloved video games, replete with save points, bosses, accumulated lives, and increasingly vexing levels (not to mention the fantastic nature of the Magic World to begin with).  This fits the philosophical themes of time and death very nicely.  Many times Luka debates whether he actually controls the outcome of his adventure, or if it’s all been pre-programmed. Toward the end he accuses his nemesis of treating this ordeal like a game, only to be refuted with “No. It is a matter of life and death.”

Kudos to Rushdie for not shying away from video game imagery; I agree with the L.A. Times’ Jon Fasman when asserts, “Rushdie, almost alone among modern fiction writers, gives these games their narrative due.”  It’s extremely risky, but if you’re going to talk about such things as parallel universes, multiple lives, determinism and free will–in stories, let alone in life–is not the video game a reputable analog?  So, in many ways, Luka and the Fire of Life is in fact about storytelling after all.  Is it a case for the value of video games as a storytelling device for children and adolescents?  Probably not, but the video game motif–something I have not come across, at least to this extent, in fiction–nonetheless works here both as a model for plot and as a meta-commentary on the tension between determined structures and the always present freedom of an author to create the incredible.  Rushdie manages both quite nicely here.

Why did I – why do weget into this profession? It’s hard to remember. Maybe they want us to forget.  But how could I?  Late nights with Dostoevsky, The Tempest at the Globe, Gravity’s Rainbow pre-dawn on the Metro.  In a word, love. Or perhaps another, vocation.

A few weeks ago I was asked by a professor in the English department to participate in a roundtable with undergraduates to discuss graduate school. How to apply?  What’s it like? After discussions of the logistical details, the professor asked if any of the panelists had any last words of wisdom. Her husband, also a tenure-track professor in English, replied simply, “Don’t go.”  That is, “Don’t go – unless you must.”  This sums up my experience with the all too maddening - and now sadly disillusioning - English PhD program.

“Don’t go.”  The job market is toast. I actually took a class titled Introduction to the Profession of Letters this semester.  I think it should have been called The Way It Used to Be.  We learned about publishing books, peer reviewing, academic freedom, politicization.  Important issues, no doubt. But you can see where I’m going with this – they don’t want us to know that we aren’t going to get the glitzy job that we dreamed of getting when we signed up for this.  No – adjuncting, living year-to-year, teaching four classes a semester for peanuts – this is our real future. Had we known, would we have come?  It looks bleak.

“Dont go.”  I love literature, but to say that I still do might surprise a lot of people in my position.  This gig seems to want more than anything to suck any romantic notions out of reading.  This is a profession, after all, that requires the utmost in objectivity, discipline, and taste.  Of course however they don’t mention an aptitude for backstabbing, brown-nosing, elitism and downright mean-spiritedness, tricks of the trade for the “successful.”   I’ve seen departmental politics hault the progress of a graduate student firsthand.  It looks bleak.

“Unless you must.”  Thankfully, a silver lining.  Namely, the spirit that guided me into this program in the first place. Sure, jobs are scarce, and life in an academic department is not too dissimilar from a corporate office, and the pressure to say something “smart” so that our papers will get published and we can lord our intelligence over friends, students, and, of course, interviewers, remains.  But it will break me only if I allow it.  My spiritual food still nourishes me. I still read the books that I like, and not because I think I should like them.  I can’t leave home without something to read.  I write sentences in my head, walking to work, riding my bike.  Less than a week removed from the final gauntlet of papers, I am recovering this spirit. And with a year to go before my comprehensive exam, I have no obligation but to take in as much American lit as I can.  I promise to do so on my terms, and politics, pressure, elitism, resumes, jobs, titles, and whatever other inferiority complexes that grad school wants to provide as a requisite, can go to the devil.

If James Franco’s first name had been Ben, it would take very little to convince me that he is, in fact, the 24-hour multimedia reincarnation of the original King of Enterprise and Toil, Benjamin Franklin, whose parades through Philadelphia at the dawn bell with a wheelbarrow full of already-completed paperwork resemble Franco’s continuous and uncanny stream of films, art exhibitions, grad lit classes, short stories, and appearances on soap operas.  Sam Anderson rode the wave briefly over the summer, and wrote a telling profile for New York Magazine, concluding,

Plenty of actors dabble in side projects – rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism – but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.

Except for, well, Franklin. Anderson continues,

This fall, at 32…he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.

Anderson’s quippy exaggerations nonetheless point up the outrageous nature of Franco’s juggling act.  But it begs the appropriate question: is this seeming jack of all artistic trades still a master of none?  Anderson smartly points out the lack of virtuosity in much of Franco’s work, particularly his fiction. He doesn’t, however, attribute it to being thinly spread, but to a more organic transitional period that besets every artist’s life. Ultimately, “He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.” Regardless of the quality of his work, his unabashedly zealous desire to work inspires me.  Would that we could all be so tireless.

While many, including Anderson, may consider Franco’s entire professional life (this might be redundant—he doesn’t seem to have any other kind of life) to be a piece of performance art, I want to talk about two actual such pieces.  In Franco’s fashion, two films—Howl and 127 Hours—are currently playing that have cast him as the lead, and each has the potential to establish Franco among the upper echelon of screen actors.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on the inception, production, and delivery of Allen Ginsberg’s euphoric masterpiece exists across a series of evenly paced set pieces.  The film begins as a seemingly reticent Ginsberg stands before an eager crowd at the now legendary Gallery Six in San Francisco, preparing to read for the first time those famous and often parodied opening lines. We return to this scene periodically as the entirety of the poem is eventually read across the film.  The rest of it alternates between the obscenity trial (with a Hamm-like performance from Jon Hamm and well placed cameos from Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels), which ultimately serves an interpretive function, an interview with Ginsberg circa 1957 in which we glean most of our biographical information, flashbacks to his life pre-”Howl,” and an hallucinogenic rendering of the poem itself from animator Eric Drooker.  This is by far the biggest risk of the film, but I don’t agree with the Times‘ A.O. Scott that it was “nearly disastrous, the one serious misstep in a film that otherwise does nearly everything right.”

I’m going to disagree with not only the first part of that claim, but also the latter part.  There is one grating thing that, for me, Howl misses. The film does well to emphasize that much of Ginsberg’s poetic energy sprung from his (questionably) unrequited love for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.  But each of these figures is presented as a stiff, Don Draper type, rather than as the real madmen that they were.  For a movement so devoted to the lovely power of the human voice, these characters have a combined total of—get this—zero lines.  Not only does this serve to render Ginsberg’s love unrealistic, it does a disservice to the Beat generation and what it stood for. Both Kerouac and Cassady come off as leering fraternity brothers, in a malicious way. The real Beats were assholes—just not that kind of asshole. Ginsberg himself claims in the interview portion (granted, the entirety of the dialogue is drawn from historical record, but this was still a directorial choice), “There is no Beat Generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” I don’t think anyone, including Ginsberg, believed that in 1957. Regardless, Franco’s performance across these set pieces is every bit as “impressive [and] beguilingly sensitive” as Ann Hornaday claims in her Washington Post review.  The film is worth seeing for that alone.  What is more, with the sudden recuperation of the perpetually “in production” adaptation of On the Road, we may see a great Beat Generation film sooner rather than later.

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Whatever hype I had encountered about 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, spoke to the climax, what David Denby of The New Yorker has dubbed “The Scene,” namely the re-creation of Aron Ralston’s brutal extrication from a dire encounter with a rock.  If you’re like me, then perhaps the most excruciating element of this experience is the anticipation.  When is he going to get trapped?  Is now the time when he will begin cutting?  Are these screams going to be even more blood-curdling when he hits the nerve? But Danny Boyle spends this time of nervous anticipation artfully juxtaposing crowds and solitude, noise and silence in a way that prepares the stage for Ralston’s spiritual crisis (in all, Boyle stylistically airs it out on a premise that could have come off as, well, boring). Regardless, you will throughout the film sit with your hands (for which you are suddenly very grateful) at the ready to cover your eyes, pull at your hair, or just wring for minutes at a time.

Generically, 127 Hours can be compared to Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, but while Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless treks to Alaska out of a rejection of society (not to mention everyone who loves him), Franco’s Ralston is passionate about the wilderness.  He’s not escaping; Canyonlands is his “home away from home.”  But his love and positive enthusiasm (when his co-worker tells him to have a good one, he replies, “Always do.”) are put to the ultimate test over five days, as his ordeal transforms from a race against time to free himself from the rock without dying of thirst into a spiritual journey through his conscience, memories, and hopes for the future.  He “has nailed himself to his own special cross” (Denby), eventually realizing that “this rock has been waiting for me for thousands of years.”  This is Ralston’s Trial, and it is ultimately a parable about embracing life.

The beauty of Franco’s performance resides in his preservation of Ralston’s quirkiness amid desperation.  This story is so powerful because we know that this is a regular guy who has done something extraordinary.  But Franco and Boyle were brilliant not to locate the human universality of the story in the unfathomable circumstances but in Ralston’s personal experience.  Faced with death, he repents, remembers times of love, and laments unrealized future ones, all via nicely placed flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations.  But the nuance here is important—Ralston’s not a bad guy.  He loves his parents, misses his ex-girlfriend (whom he apparently did slight), and laments his vainglorious subconscious wish not to have anyone know where he is.  His life wasn’t in shambles, hence his happy-go-lucky attitude that pervades the first part of the film.

His transformation, however, is no less remarkable.  His family knows he loves them, so he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness for wrongdoing; rather, he, and we all can identify with this, apologizes into his camcorder (which, for much of his ordeal, serves as a Bakhtinian superaddressee, a God-figure) “for not acknowledging you in my heart as much as I could.”  This was powerful, and had me weeping, childlike.  The acknowledgement of a higher power becomes more palpable the deeper into crisis he becomes. As he agonizes, his bellows of “Please!”—to the rock, to the camcorder, to God—resonate with our similar moments of angst.  But his utterances after he gains freedom (which, thankfully, only took about five minutes, contrary to rumor) are most revealing.  Standing there, suddenly unbound, bleeding, he almost immediately mutters, “Thank you.”  He says nothing as he staggers his way out of the cave and—incredibly—rappels down a canyon wall.  Soon after, he sees, murkily, a group of hikers, and, desperately, but at this point triumphantly, begins screaming for help.  Of course, he needs medical assistance. But in this moment he is also affirming that he needs help in the same way that we all need help.  The subsequent dénouement is exuberant, an exaltation over the letting go of material life—our literal attachments to our bodies—for the sake of a new, spiritual life. Which, for Ralston, is as enthusiastic as the one he already led, only with added consciousness.  One comes away from 127 Hours not necessarily thankful for being spared a similar ordeal, but jealous of Ralston’s trial and awakening.  But true to the humanness of this story, it reminds us that every day we are faced with the possibility of death, and should act and think accordingly.

I could say a lot more about this film, especially about Boyle’s work, but I will stay on task about Franco.  Truth be told, I wrote the first half of this article before I saw 127 Hours, and a large part of me wants to take back that jack-of-all-trades bit.  What if Franco wins an Oscar for this performance?  Will he continue with his Alexandrian feats of intellectual conquest?  Or will he focus on fulfilling his vast potential as an actor?  Regardless, I propose Franco begin his speech as follows, in keeping with the mysterious and ironic fashion of his persona: “I’ll make this brief – I’ve got somewhere to be.”

A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.

My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.

This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.”  The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.

This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.

He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.

The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”

For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.