Wouldn’t it take an outsider to aptly critique the American scene, the American people, the American culture? Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, did this at the end of a section devoted to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in his book A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. A book dedicated to Guy Davenport. A book on Donald Barthelme’s syllabus.
The Circe episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses is a jeweled phantasmagoria; and it’s filled with incredible inventories, including one where Bloom’s “bodyguard distribute[s]
Maundy money, commemoration medals, loaves and fishes, temperance badges, expensive Henry Clay cigars, free cowbones for soup, rubber preservatives in sealed envelopes tied with gold thread, butter scotch, pineapple rock, billets doux in the form of cocked hats, readymade suits, porringers of toad in the hole, bottles of Jeyes’ Fluid, purchase stamps, 40 days’ indulgences, spurious coins, dairyfed pork sausages, theatre passes, season tickets available for all tram lines, coupons of the royal and privileged Hungarian lottery, penny dinner counters, cheap reprints of the World’s Twelve Worst Books: Froggy and Fritz (politic), Care of the Baby (infantilic), 50 Meals for 7/6 (culinic), Was Jesus a Sun Myth? (historic), Expel That Pain (medic), Infant’s Compendium of the Universe (cosmic), Let’s All Chortle (hilaric), Canvasser’s Vade Mecum (journalic), Loveletters of Mother Assistant (erotic), Who’s Who in Space (astric), Songs that Reached Our Heart (melodic), Pennywise’s Way to Wealth (parsimonic)…
So what, for you, would rank as the world’s twelve worst books? Please feel free to add your own parenthetical qualifying appellations.
Gass on history: “What counts for me…is what happens to human consciousness…what was lost when you piled up bodies, what is gained when you decide not to.” – Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt
I felt ready for The Tunnel. I could have warmed up more with his first novel Omensetter’s Luck and read Gass’s fiction in order of composition but an inside voice said, No, and as I kept paging through The Tunnel, I knew I was holding the object I’d have to read next. But surely, just looking at The Tunnel and not reading a word is an experience of the book, of the art. One marvels at how many typefaces there are, how many bolded sections, the pictures, the comics, the limericks, the stanzas of poetry—a book beginning with two opposing pennants on the page after the title pages (The Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions). Niggardliness is opposed by Churlishness. Spite by Sloth. What is going on here? We aren’t even on page one and passiveness has been pasted and highlighted, poured over the reader’s mind.
Do you feel a duty to read and acknowledge your literary, theoretical, and musical foremothers?
I’d argue that most people have no idea who their artistic forebears are. For example: students tell me all the time that David Foster Wallace is their favorite novelist. And when I see their work, they’re indeed writing very DFW-influenced stuff. But they rarely know anything about DFW’s own inspirations, or the lineage(s) he inhabits.
This is only natural; we all of us live artistic lineages backward. (I’m no exception; my initial influences were G.I. Joe and X-Men comics.) And this is why I’ve been saying for a little while now (polemically, mind you) that Ulysses is no longer all that influential a novel: not many people sit down and actually read it, let alone get direct inspiration from it. (“I discovered stream of consciousness by reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and now I use it in my work.”)
Rather, people read more contemporary authors, like DFW and DeLillo and Franzen and Pynchon (to name authors of a particular type), and they imitate them. And so they get a lot of Joycean influences, but only indirectly, and mainly through those authors. (E.g., they see DFW or Pynchon shifting narrative registers, but they don’t see how Joyce did a lot to pioneer that trope in Ulysses.)
This is always happening. People imitate Lydia Davis without reading the Symbolists. People (used to?) imitate Vonnegut without reading Céline. And so on.
Having just reread William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid” yesterday morning, I decided to do a study of associations–what my brain does as I read, what I think of, what I take away–though right there I sally and this Heraclitus quote, used as an epigraph in W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, drips back into my consciousness:
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”
Is this nugget saying that which we can’t understand stays with us? Maybe. But more and more I take with me what is mysterious. The trove of Wallace Stevens poems that I’ve examined recently has somewhat sunk into me as what I write now leaks his influence. But really the conglomerate of Gass/Gaddis/Rilke/Stevens via John Madera has been instrumental in boosting the language quotient and destroying a quasi-plain style I took on after a few months with Lydia Davis. So lines or formations like, “She wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do and this frustrated him,” become “There is a way you carry yourself, he said, quickly breaking off because evening drew on, evening and everything evening measures. Our pace, the space between canyons, this leaf living in the book on the chair.”