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Start Suffering

“You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t.”

– Flannery O’Connor


The stakes get raised again. After reading John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig I’m of a mind with Louise Glück lines from “Mock Orange”:

How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?

And ‘odor’ is a very apt word. I’ve never read a book where there were so many scents, so much olfactory maneuvering. Here the narrator speaks of the femme fatales sent to distract the married Michael Banks:

The smell of women–girlish, matronly–and the smell of meat sauce were the same. As soon as it spread across his plate it went to his nostrils and they might not have bothered with their clothes, with procrastination. (150)
A recapitulation of the plot is wrong-headed (even the back of the book is mum on what really happens) because Hawkes is about atmosphere. Because his sentences are so unique and slippery, it seems all the action is taking place in slow-motion and indeed the motion of reading Hawkes apes this as one returns and rereads sentences to fully apprehend them. Safe to say there are three main characters: Hencher and the couple, William and Margaret Banks. When Hencher convinces William to steal a race horse, the ‘plot’ is triggered. Things go awry. A gang of ruffians intrudes and the three ‘innocents’ (Hencher narrates the first section of the novel, telling about his caring for his mother during the fire-bombing of London) are innocent no more.


A survey of sentences.

Margaret’s cat while eating:

…the cat, creature that claws tweed, sits high in the hallway, remains incorrigible upon the death of its mistress, beds itself in the linen or thrusts its enormous head into an alley, now sucked and gagged on the fish as if drawing a peculiar sweetness from the end of a thin bone. (63)
A strange, whispering man approaching a seemingly incarcerated Michael:
…behind the spectacles the man had watering eyes, eyes nearly awash in the sockets, and he did not blink. On either side of his nose–bookish–were grains of blood and scratches. When he whispered, the saliva behind his lips, between his teeth, was tinted pink with blood constantly trickling into the throat. (93)
Margaret’s sobs after being beaten:
The sobs were not sweet. They were short, moist, lower than contralto, louder than she intended; the moanings of a creature no one could love. (131)
Michael eating his eggs, which the femme fatale Sybilline insists he do:
Brown and broken yellow, thick and ovarian, his mouth was running with the eggs and sauce while the whiskey glasses of the women were leaving rings. (150)
Description of Annie, one of Michael’s local lovers:
At three o’clock in the morning she was a girl he had seen through windows in several dreams unremembered, unconfessed, the age of twenty that never passes but lingers in the silvering of the trees and rising fogs. Younger than Syb, fingers bereft of rings, she would come carelessly to any door, to any fellow’s door. (155)
I had a failed 40 page reading encounter with the book a few months ago, but I knew I’d have to return. The book’s obliquity is its honey. A character will have been put into a different situation but one may not know it and though one may not know, the sentences will spell an uncommon dread.  Each Hawkes sentence contains multitudes and Chinese box after Chinese box (he worked on the novel for five years). The sentences cling to the reader’s skin like a horsefly that won’t go away. One wants to keep walking and enjoy the view, but the view is aimed at the base of each sentence. One has to sink into each’s strange music before going on.   Even a toss-off like, “He said only…” is brimming with brio, the ‘only’ making the dialogue that follows (that of the man Thick, who tortures Margaret) all the more grim. As noted critic Leslie Fletcher says in the introduction, “The order which retrospectively we impose on our awareness of events…Hawkes decomposes.” (xiv)

The Lime Twig is a nightmare. It’s presentation of evil is similar to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, complete with a memorable retinue of rogues. The leader being Larry who “towered…and there was the perfect nose, the black hair plastered into place, the brass knuckles shining on the enormous hand, and the eyes, the eyes devoid of irises.” (157) Compare Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden who was close to seven foot tall and devoid of eyebrows and eyelashes. I feel confident Hawkes is a little responsible for the most feted American author at the moment.

Still, I can’t think of another great American writer with such a paucity of material on the internet. The best page is the Brown University tribute site–he died in 1998. The Dalkey Archive interview being a great resource.

He taught some of the best writers of today including Marilynne Robinson, Mary Caponegro, Rick Moody, James Robison, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joanna Scott and Jim Shepard. He served as an ambulance driver during WWII, where the nightmares of the world infected him so:  “For hours I would study rows of burn victims lying swathed in cocoons of gauze on stretchers set up on saw-horses in an abandoned wine factory.” Hawkes once remarked, “”I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.”

Eighteen novels is a wealth. I have only been stretched on the fictional rack once, but I’m ready for more. We have to read Hawkes.

21 thoughts on “Start Suffering

  1. I need more difficult writing to read like I need another hold in my head, but this does intrigue me. I like his sentences, I’ll just say that. Can you point me in the direction of a good short story, something to get a bigger taste of his work? I also like to write heavy on atmosphere and senses, and don’t mind a bit of the surreal as well.

    I liked this quote from his Wiki as well:

    “The writer should always serve as his own angleworm —and the sharper the barb with which he fishes himself out of blackness, the better.”

    I’m also a fan of Cormac and Flannery, so I may have to pick up some of JH’s work.

    Suggestions anyone? Shorts or novels? He’s got a lot to look at, to choose from.

    Great stuff, Greg. Thanks for all of this.

    1. Thanks Richard. Perhaps all the Hawkes experts will come out of the dark, like John Domini, maybe?

      There is only one book of short stories. I would just read the Lime Twig. It’s not that long in terms of pages – 175. And Travesty is barely 100 pages. It’s on the BO’s book club list. Many of the novels are 1 cent on Amazon at this moment.

    2. Hi Richard,

      John Barth, here, suggests that readers interested in a taste of Hawkes could start with Humors of Blood & Skin: A John Hawkes Reader, a collection that may be hard to find. I’m not really inclined to pick up a reader, though, so I’d suggest starting where I started, too, and regrettably ended with, at this point, that is, with The Lime Twig.

      I’m glad we’re going to read Travesty, at Big Other, and the idea of it makes me want to just go ahead and read all of Hawkes. Alas, it’ll have to wait until I’m done with Henry James. (I’m four novels into the reading all of his novels. I started about a week-and-a-half ago with reading them in order.) Some writers, like Hawkes, are mountains, and you don’t climb a mountain by taking a couple of steps onto it and saying, Oh, I’ve been there and done that, which is kind of the smug attitude I encounter with way too many people, even writers, who, perhaps, should know better.

      1. Thanks for all of that. That’s why I was trying to find a short story online or something to get a little taste. I must admit that the excerpts here are really great, and that alone makes me want to read him.

  2. this is a great little tribute. The Lime Twig is a terrific and haunting dreamspace. thank you for reminding me of this line: “the moanings of a creature no one could love.” i’d also recommend The Blood Oranges and Second Skin, the latter of which, in its prose, is almost Nabokovian and some versions have a cool introduction by Eugenides.

    1. Thanks Alan – Second Skin. I started reading Hawkes account of what it was about (below) and I did a triple take. And some still claim we can reduce all those stories in the world to about seven!

      “Now the novel was to be told in the first person by a fifty-nine-year-old ex-Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade called Skipper. Skipper would be an artificial inseminator of cows on a “wandering” tropical island of the imagination. There he and his former messboy, Sonny would together father a black child (an impossibility that would be totally natural on such an island); there Skipper would write the “naked history” of his unsuccessful attempts to prevent the suicide of his daughter, Cassandra, on a cold and cruel New England island after Skipper’s return from his tour of wartime duty in the South Pacific.”

      1. But Greg, that’s Story Template #5!

        Great foray into Hawkes here. I really like the phrase “stretched on the fictional rack,” which seems to capture really aptly what certain books do to us–stretch us like we are their canvases rather than they ours, or like yoga does, a suffering that is anything but actual suffering (WITZ is doing this to me right now. I feel like I’ve been in downward dog for the past fifty pages).

  3. “…she thought that a wet newspaper would be unbearable.”

    From my limited experience with Hawkes, the Lime Twig seems like a good place to start. I recently read The Owl and The Goose on the Grave and I’m not sure if I’d have tried to read much more if that was the only work I’d read.

    Also, add Marilynne Robinson to the list of his pupils.

    1. Good Lord, how could I have forgotten Marilynne? Thank you, thank you.

      I have to say that the trifecta of the extended excerpt of the ‘newspaper’ scene in ‘On Being Blue’ by Gass, along with the book being one of his fifty pillars, along with John Madera telling me to read the book, made me read the book.

  4. Loved this post, Greg.

    John Hawkes is…

    Well, I’ve been sitting here writing and rewriting descriptors for ten minutes trying to explain how immensely important his work has been for me — alas what all my attempts boil down to is supreme admiration and gushing thanks. He helped shape my literary aesthetic probably more than any other writer.

    I first read The Lime Twig about fourteen years ago and can still remember the power of that experience. I think it was the first time I realized that I actually like sentences more than stories, and that sentences can actually be massively more interesting than stories. He was one of the first writers to give me permission to break the rules that I had been taught in school. I can’t express the gravity of that revelation: to realize one can do whatever one likes however one likes is beyond expression. He emancipated my imagination from the torture chamber of plot, setting, character, and theme.

    Indeed, the “true enemies” quote you mention has become a sort of guiding principle for me. I love the elegance of how succinctly it encapsulates such a vital counterpoint to Aristotelian narrative convention.

    I hope to participate in the discussion of Travesty when y’all get around to it.

    Again, great post. Thanks!

  5. greg i enjoyed this post. i just finished lime twig a week ago. id never read any hawkes before, so i didnt really know what to expect. i liked the fielder intro: theres a line he has in it about how you cannot have love without terror or something like that and i really liked that. there’s one tiny bit/phrase where banks looks for his wife in the crowd at the race and its terrifying. thanks for this post

    1. I wonder if that love/terror thing comes out of this quote that I recently ran across by Nietzsche:

      “Did you ever say yes to a pleasure?
      Oh my friends, then you also said yes to all pain.
      All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another.”

      1. yes, yes, that works too. had not thought of N.

        i was thinking of burke’s ‘on the sublime and beautiful’ when he writes about grief/pleasure and the loss of pleasure:

        “in grief, the pleasure is still uppermost; and the affliction we suffer has no resemblance to absolute pain, which is always odious, and which we endeavor to shake off as soon as possible.”

        not love, exactly, but it felt pertinent.

    2. Thanks Ryan. I remember that scene. Interesting because it’s all we get of him thinking about her after all that’s happened. He says her name twice too – “Margaret…Margaret.” (italics)

      1. yes, thats what puzzled me about the book (in a good way): we get very little of him thinking of margaret, i guess which is why when he does, i freaked out.

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