Review of My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays by Steven Moore

ISBN 1557134375 (ISBN13: 9781557134370)

This is a book of professional book reviews, about 780 tall pages. All about writers from the 20th Century, with maybe a few exceptions for writers from the late 19th and early 21st.

As explained in a closing essay, this is the pseudo-third volume of his Alternate History of the Novel series. The total page count of about 2700 pages comprises a more inclusive survey of literature than Harold Bloom’s canon books, and more specialized information on hard-to-find, less-famous, unconventional, and just-plain-interesting books. They are less didactic than Bloom and written in a very readable, yet polished style.

List of books I bought after reading this book:
Graves – The White Goddess
Coover – Public Burning
Stephen Wright – Meditation in Green.
Lawrence Norfolk – Pope’s Rhinoceros
All of Lawrence Durrell
Books I still plan to buy: Kathy Acker, Karen Elizabeth Gordon, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, more Djuna Barnes, Mary Butts, Elizabeth Smart, Ronald Firbank, Frederick Rolfe, Will Self, Mary Camponegro, Jeanette Winterson.

All of the other big names Moore discusses at length I already owned or disagreed with. Even books I didn’t love were still given fair, well-rounded examinations.

Authors discussed at great length:
William Gaddis (Moore is the world authority).
William Gass
Thomas Pynchon
William T. Vollmann
Joseph McElroy
Alexander Theroux
David Foster Wallace
Paul West

Some surprises:
Moore really liked Kafka on the Shore. I’ve read it twice and I missed half of the things he picked up on. His 2-page essay is illuminating and provides many compelling arguments in defense of the bizarre novel.
He mentions Graves’ White Goddess, Gaddis’ The Recognitions and other favorite works constantly. After years of studying these texts, he could not help but name-drop them. Even if you haven’t read half the books he mentions, you can use the evidence he provides to make the all the necessary reading choices of your foreseeable future. After purchasing all three volumes, I will probably never need a book recommendation again. Oddly, he neglects Italian and German literature, as well as all of the novelists from Liechtenstein, but I doubt anyone can expect to outdo Moore’s accomplishment. He has clearly read thousands of books, most of them with the attention of a professional reviewer, if not a scholar.

I was already a fan of Wallace, Gass, Gaddis, Theroux, McElroy, Vollmann, Pynchon, Joyce, Antunes, and dozens of others, but he managed to teach me a surprising amount about books and writers I thought I knew well. It was nice to see someone finally tear Mailer to shreds and stomp and spit on the shreds. Junk Mailer deserves its own book, and people need to stop ignoring his atrocious mistakes.

So far my reading experience has taught me I hate David Peace and simply fail to enjoy most of Danielewski. Moore defends them with much empirical, aesthetic analysis. Ducornet, Delillo, Elkin, Lowry, Barthelme, Barth all get loving treatments. If I’m speaking your language, definitely pick up this book.

Special warning about the 2 volume Alternate History of the Novel. It is a masterpiece. However, are you the type of reader who is interested in Tibetan literature? Do you see yourself reading Ancient Chinese epics? Since I am obsessed with books like Honoré d’Urfé’s and proto-novels of Japan and China, these histories were godsends. But consider where your interests lie. My Back Pages suggests enough delectable reading material for a decade.

Review of The Golden Lotus Volume 1: Jin Ping Mei by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng

ISBN 0804841705 (ISBN13: 9780804841702)

Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng was the author of one of the 5 Great Chinese novels. This is his contribution to immortal letters.

There are many English versions of Jin Ping Mei. The five volume edition, which is more than 2000 pages in length, suffers from hundreds of pages of notes. If you are interested in all the minutiae of Ming Era Chinese aristocracy – like what four hundred different varieties of flowers symbolized, that is the version for you. I chose the 2 volume version by Clement Egerton, weighing in at over 1300 pages. I really don’t need more detail than this translation has. It is already about on the level of Virginia Woolf. Elevating the prose even more with detail and poetic imagery would slow me down. The translator mentioned that he left out a great number of poems. That being said, the extra poems are almost incomprehensible without contextual explanations, from what I’ve read. The insertion of poetry did not add very much in volume one, where it appears, but you can tell the author was going for some lewd puns. Good for him. The other notable fact is that this translation is based off the one from centuries earlier, where the dirty parts had been rendered into Latin. This humorous obscurantism only created more work for the gutter-minded readers. Honestly, who would pick up this book nowadays, unless they had a particular interest in Chinese literature? That was my thought. There are far more sensual and erotic things to read than this out there, and far easier to come by. You should cast aside all your assumptions and read this near-masterpiece as a superb example of storytelling – of proof that Chinese literature was far more developed than the European equivalent before 1600.

Overall, this was an engrossing read, if a little repetitive. It speaks a lot to the same class dysfunctions you will find in Story of the Stone. But the relationships here are all interesting and meaningful. The treatment of servants is very brutal. Ximen is the foremost figure of the novel, and his abuse of the women surrounding him is telling. For centuries this was condemned and printed in secret throughout China, like all those “dirty” French novels were throughout Europe. The difference here is that by today’s standards, this is almost PG-13. There are a few mentions of sex and anatomy, but this work is characterized far more by its psychological portrayals, its world of corrupt bureaucracy and obsession with money. That it is still thought-provoking today shows that it is a wise and timeless tale, with some love and spice, a little conflict here and there, and a lot of atmosphere. It is a luxurious read for the serious culturally minded reader. I look forward to continuing this intricate, lengthy study of Ming decadence with volume 2.

Review of The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

ISBN 0141395621 (ISBN13: 9780141395623)

Since I’ve read every word Haruki Murakami has published in English I felt obligated to read his introduction once it showed up in the preview on Amazon. People saying “Haruki Murakami is my favorite author” has now become a cliche. But cliches can sometimes be true.

His introduction was nice and long and juicy. My impression of the collection of stories was that they were chosen, as Mr. Rubin explains, for the casual reader. Maybe it’s pretentious but I consider myself more than a casual reader of Japanese fiction. I have an entire bookcase devoted to Japanese literature.
I like to imagine what stories I would have picked if I had the opportunity to compile an anthology of this kind.
There are new translations, which are sorely needed in this day and age. Akutagawa’s previously untranslated short story “General Kim” was my favorite inclusion. Out of Akutagawa’s 300+ works only 77 have thus far been translated into English. Since he’s one of my other favorite authors I’ve actually gone to extremely nerdy lengths to read them all. I wish Rubin would just translate all of Akutagawa already. And maybe Bakin while he’s at it.
I am glad that he put a lot of translating into this volume, but why include “Patriotism” and the first chapter of Sanshiro? Not only do they take up valuable space but they are available almost anywhere. I buy anthologies because they contain stories on the brink of obscurity. Where are all the translations of Hiromi Kawakami or Junnosuke Yoshiyuki? I would have liked to see something new from Ryu Murakami, who never gets anthologized but is one of the best Japanese writers of all time.
I gave this book four stars because it was excellent, but it really could’ve gotten five. The two stories by Haruki are previously available, but luckily we get something new by Banana Yoshimoto and Akutagawa which save this collection, in my opinion, from being a rehashing. It’s hard to find Kenji Nakagami and we are treated to a new story by Mieko Kawakami, which was appreciated, so while I would not recommend this for your shelf if you can only have one Japanese literature anthology – it’s hard to beat the two volume Columbia anthology – I’d put it in my top 5 Japanese literature anthologies. Yes, I am that much of a geek that I would create a top five.
Though this is a step in the right direction there’s about 3000 miles of stepping left to do if we are ever going to get the most out of J. Lit. I keep asking myself, why can’t I just read Japanese? Oh yeah, it’s insanely difficult. Anyway, check it out if you are a fan.

Review of Selected Short Stories by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac, I have found, is one of those authors you can read for your whole like, like Dickens, spreading out the oeuvre as necessary

Balzac’s books, in my opinion, are not to be consumed like snacks or junk food. They are hearty vegetables, often not terribly exciting, but vigorous and nourishing. One can become enamored with his style or one can become distracted, depending on one’s enthusiasm for the everyday lives of 19th century people.

Balzac died at 51, after working 20 years on his Human Comedy, comprising 90 works, and rising to the rank of greatest French author in many critical opinions. For much of his life he was fighting off debt, and 2 months before his untimely death due to overconsumption of coffee, he married a rich Polish countess. He produced 50 short stories, and we have 12 selected here. At first this selection appeared meager and insignificant, but further along in the slim volume the value compounded.

In summation, this is a fabulous depiction of the discrete charm of the bourgeoisie. Balzac drops aphorisms and well-sprinkled witticisms throughout his calm, collected recounting of lives. He is a vastly intelligent writer, on the level of Chekhov, with a subtle wit rarely equalled. He captured the people and key details of his time astutely. Unlike Anatole France, Balzac confined his subject to a set period, wishing to give the fullest picture of a slice of history, concerning almost entirely the French characters he was familiar with, picking and choosing from real life and his imagination as necessary, conjuring perfect examples with precision. He could discern a person’s key attributes from a single glance, seemingly, and could draw out descriptions for pages where a lesser writer would have dashed off a few nondescript lines.

His stories are often simple. 10 sous can mark the border between life and death. Money and ambition take center stage, as does the honest work of the poor. He describes abject poverty like a pro, and the many guises it takes, its resonating affects upon families and great geniuses, for, as has been said, most everyone in Balzac is a genius. He utilizes melodramatic displays of charity and good will worthy of Dickens. There is much sacrifice, injustice and sorrow mingled with the surprisingly uncommon instances of romance.

There is only one decapitation in the whole collection, which is to say that Balzac is no Dumas. Dumas relied on cinematic gestures, grand statements, and a flair akin to the stage plays I imagine he devoured. Balzac rather, reveled in the tiny tragedies, the heartwarming moments, without entirely neglecting the grand episodes of the climaxes of his novels and the occasional “pulp” story. There is to be found the attendant troubles which come from the sudden acquisition of wealth, and much more in several entertaining stories in the second half of the book. The first half is rather droll, though it contains deep irony and brilliant characters. My rating verged on 5 stars after the final story – an amusing satire on the life of a painter. In short, these stories will not satisfy everyone, but if you are an appreciator of delicate sensibilities, prose which moves elegantly and logically through crystalline storytelling, it is hard to do better than Balzac. Take, for instance this quote:

“…creditors being today the most real shape assumed by the ancient Furies. He wore his poverty with a gaiety which is perhaps one of the greatest elements of courage, and like all those who have nothing, he contracted few debts.”

Much meaning in a tight package. Look to Balzac for both distraction and enlightenment.

Review of Peace by Gene Wolfe

ISBN 0312890338 (ISBN13: 9780312890339)

I never expected so much depth. While it is barely Science Fiction, it is most certainly literature of the highest caliber.

Like Faulkner, Wolfe constantly cripples the reader’s understanding with his obscure perspectives and elegant suggestion. Chronology and irony are never explicit, and characters are always hiding pieces of their personalities. In a way entirely unique to his oeuvre, Wolfe invents layers beneath the surface narratives – stories surrounding an enigmatic core, like onion-skin.

After finishing Fifth Head of Cerberus, I was already convinced that he had deliberately designed a multi-dimensional masterpiece. Possibly even more thoroughly with Peace, he manages to make good on his techniques, and to deepen the modus operandi. We are forced to dig to uncover the rippling insinuations of his world.

A second or third reading will likely reveal more puzzles and subtexts to the seemingly innocuous, and tenuously connected stories of fragmented memories, contradictory doctor visits, Midwestern town life, the nearly Victorian tale of a porcelain egg, an homage to the Arabian Nights and the undercurrent of human deception cutting through it all.

Structured like a memoir, Wolfe’s style is never forced, and is always confidently stringing the reader along, no matter how thoroughly razzled your flailing body becomes. It is nonetheless a fascinating joyride, an imaginative dream, half-remembered but sprinkled with divine joy and profound sadness. Witness his use of playful fairy tale, and his staggering ability to engross and entertain you. His voices will haunt you, like the ghosts and banshees in his books, because of the uncanny magic of ‘what they know.’ Wolfe excels at dangling the forbidden fruit of knowledge before the reader. All you are allowed is a taste, but it is enough to realize the breadth of mystery inherent in any imperfect being’s conception of the universe.

Review of Fado Alexandrino by António Lobo Antunes

ISBN 0802134211 (ISBN13: 9780802134219)

Grandmaster of Metaphor

Trying to come up with the right word to describe Antunes’ prose is difficult. Any comparisons are superficial, but I’ll mention all the writers he resembles in minor ways. The best single word I could find was “tintinnabulation.” That’s what his words do. They rattle around in your head, slide around like unsecured luggage on a freighter, jostle and chortle, and crowd one another out, the images swarm, magnify and recede, searing your mind, and continually, and over and again, tintinnabulating until you’re terrorized, barreling forward into Surreal, fractured heavens and hells.

At times I was lost, groping through the text, wall-eyed with indefinable sensations. The difficulty level bordered on Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom! at first, but I could feel the blockage loosening up. The dams eventually burst and the rollicking, hedonistic, rambling, phantasmagoric words flooded in with Biblical insistence. The author’s intrinsic reliance on crunchy, noodling metaphors within metaphors sold me on the style, but it took practice to acclimatize myself to the hailstorm of his method. Having read The Land at the End of the World, I immediately bought all 13 volumes of Antunes currently available in English. Fado Alexandrino is a doubly forceful encore to that book, vaster and braver and more insane in every way. His prophetic images, nuanced through bodies and minds, his visionary texturing of layer upon layer of perspective, the imagination, the absurdist comedy, the deep pathos, the bloody violence, all congealed into a twisted nightmare. It took me far too long to read. At times I recoiled, gasping, but I always dove in for more.

The book takes place in a restaurant so splattered that the colors all run together. The men who tell their stories here are tied together by the tragedies of war and the semblance of lives they lead afterward, some politics intrude, reality blends seamlessly with their words – it is sometimes impossible to tell if a line is spoken aloud by a character or not, since quotation marks were missing from Antunes’ typewriter. There is an astounding richness of diction, an abundance of syntax that is most inspiring, a Nabokovian variety of descriptions, endless clarifications, and haunting, Kafkaesaue flights of fancy all intricately interwoven with contra-textual interpolations, until it becomes a fabric of dispossessed, roiling, shamanistic visions, belligerent speculations, Borgesian depths of irony and allusion, an ever-deepening darkness, a whirlpool, spewed out by the most expressive, articulate of cynics, amid the most entertaining and gruesome business of warfare, as he warps mentally between Mozambique and Lisbon, cradled by his whores, the narrator, abysmally in his cups, indulges in luscious flashbacks, which layer the novel with a hazy filter.

It is a book to be treasured, devoured, regurgitated, and savored repeatedly. It is sustained dementia, a mesmerizing panoply of humanity’s willy-nilly selfishness. It’s mind-boggling to conceive how Antunes’ brain concocted all of this controlled chaos. The riveting imagery makes for an immersive experience, as crowded as an Altman film, with “the strange toothache of nostalgia,” fading in and out, coupled with effective motifs and repetitions, as the characters “vomit out the sea.”
It is an interior sea, as detailed and manic as Javier Marias at his best. The sea of human emotion and strife, language as a liquid, solidifying around them. The narrative flows. The chapter divisions become almost meaningless, but stopping reading is like coming up for air before plunging back down into an ocean of grease. It meanders, digresses, diverges, submerges you. You have to succumb to the galloping rhythm if you are going to make it all the way through this monumental work.

Schizo-phrenetic, with constant interruptions, confusing jump cuts and scene changes, often mid-sentence – just roll with it. It’s a sophisticated form of impressionistic storytelling. The environment is constantly personified, wilderness mingles with urban settings, nurses become creatures, and the wildest illusions intrude into the mundane conversations of night club drifters. Get used to the feel of mud, insects, rot, destruction, toads, make way for sex, murder, strangulation, erotic fixations, bursting pustules everywhere, simply everywhere, war-torn landscapes of the mind, stumbling, delirious soldiers, and obviously, death as a hovering omniscience. Antunes is as acerbic as Céline, but somehow dignified in his irreverence. His prose is always biting, pissing and scratching as it scrambles through labyrinthine paragraphs, you are grabbed, manhandled and left in a slowly drying pool of excrement. The book is truly fecal in texture, with elephantine horrors sliding across the page, dwelling too long under your nose, dribbling over your mind, leaving a definitive, tongue-shriveling aftertaste, at times deliciously repulsive. Reminiscences manifesting with lucid detail, scenes morphing into still-lives, memories metamorphosed into fossilized hangover hallucinations – these are the corridors of this literary convolution. Remarkably, it is crystalline in structure, and gem-like metaphors sprout in abundance: “The washing machine was sobbing away at its work.” – Hundreds of profound observations about the state and nature of objects and environments parade through the narrative, every character is caught with their pants perpetually down, trailing afterbirths, or excrement, like baffled fish in the grit-smeared tank of Antunes’ mind.

The squelching, magnificent simile-metaphor sandwiches are to be re-read endlessly, like the following – “Madam Simone, hand-in-hand with the fellow in a red jacket, came back on stage rolling her ancient body with all the grace of a locomotive, and bending over in an awkward bow that made the vast withered mass of her mammaries pop out like cartilagenous heads of twins peeping out and hanging down in the course of a birth.”

How could you not read this?

Review of The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

ISBN 1982134038 (ISBN13: 9781982134037)

Ken Liu is one of my top five favorite short story writers working today. And he is really the only one of the bunch being prolific. 

I believe he has published over 80 stories in most reputable speculative fiction magazines over the past 10 years. He attained the remarkable feat of gaining popularity in the supersaturated medium of speculative fiction magazines. The reason he was able to rise above the rest, I believe, was his storytelling ability, which often combines traditional Chinese storytelling tropes with razor-edged scientific knowledge. Along with Ted Chiang, I think it is safe to assume that Liu’s intelligence is much higher than the average purveyor of science fiction these days. Borderline, if not certified, genius.

The Paper Managerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu’s rock-solid debut collection, was a masterpiece. The finest collection of short stories to come out of the speculative genre in recent decades. It can hold its own against The Martian Chronicles, Endangered Species, and other must-reads in my opinion. It is not likely to be equaled or surpassed anytime soon. It is very likely to be reread, by me, and very soon. It is an emotionally charged, politically relevant, and breathtaking summation of his career thus far. His silk-punk novel series is still unknown to me. I know I will have to set aside a significant amount of time to read it. I have dabbled in the first volume, but I know I will come back to it when I’m ready. I cannot help but think that that project will be overshadowed by Liu’s short story collections to come. It may be wishful thinking, but he was born to write short stories imho. Maybe he will be regarded as another Bradbury one day.

This second collection, despite the glowing accolades it has already garnered, is not as perfect as his previous effort. It could still be called a masterpiece, perhaps, but I had several gripes with it. Several stories were a slight chore to get through, it pains me to say. Luckily, the collection is well-rounded and the best stories toward the end of the collection, leaving me with a satiated aftertaste.

Taken together the stories become less than the sum of their parts in one distinct way, by virtue of repetition – first of the distracting inclusions of dozens of emojis and the reused character tropes exploring father-daughter and daughter-mother relationships. The family ties in all of Ken Liu’s short fiction are critical to the functioning of plot. Here, they are bittersweet and forced. The patterns grated on me, almost as if he recast the same characters in the same roles with slightly differing world building constraints.

Taken separately the stories are all pretty strong and engaging. Many themes stand out in this volume including: post human scenarios, virtual reality, AI, mega corporate corruption, environmental activism, post apocalyptic landscapes, uninhabitable earths, atemporal existence, multi dimensional family dynamics, ethics, the troubles of old age, infirmity, and fear of death, war and slavery, extra-terrestrial archaeology, and much more. That sentence right there should give you enough reason to read the collection.

“The Hidden Girl” was a nice, representative story, an impressive piece of storytelling, combining his trademark Chinese cultural references with his trademark brilliant s-f ideas.

Ken Liu remains an incredible writer. His talent is undeniable. He should also be commended for bringing us several volumes of Chinese science fiction in translation. It is hard to know which contribution is more valuable. We are sitting on a veritable treasure trove of untranslated literature, and heroes like Ken Liu are brave enough, and generous enough, to set aside their fame and risk exposing new talent to the masses. I appreciate what you do, Sir.

Review of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

ISBN 1609455878 (ISBN13: 9781609455873)

Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs is a bold literary statement and another first person, modern, feminist novel from Japan.

Staking a claim among literary celebrities like Banana Yoshimoto, Hiromi Kawakami, Natsuo Kirino, and Yoko Ogawa, it would almost appear that the future of Japanese Literature is female. It would make sense, in a way, since its past was male though and through with the notable exception of Murasaki’s monumental Tale of Genji. I first heard of M. Kawakami when I read her short stories in Monkey Business and various anthologies. All of the stories were good. Her first novel in English, called Ms. Ice Sandwich, was disappointingly simple, unmemorable, and almost unmentionable. This work is far more complex, substantial and controversial.

Mieko Kawakami is one of the few Japanese authors I know of who has been granted interview time with the reclusive Haruki Murakami. In fact, Murakami was so taken by this book, that he announced his new favorite Japanese author, namely, Mieko Kawakami. She then went on to do a book length interview with the literary superstar. Hopefully we will get this interview in English soon.

The novel was quite uneven in my opinion. The first 40% I would rate 5 stars, the last 30% would get 4 stars and the middle 30% would earn 2 stars. The voice took on entrancing rhythm from the start, as intimate and easy to read as I had hoped. An absorbing, fast-paced chronicle involving complicated family issues ensued, including the ramifications of plastic surgery and some relatively common concerns and reminiscences of a young girl in the modern age. A very readable and rewarding first part overall. The second part falls into many tedious repetitions on the theme of fertility and the morality of artificial insemination. If you can get through it you will be rewarded by a satisfactory ending. The main character is a writer who offers us another cliched and idealistic view of the writerly life. Do writers really spend 90% of their time in restaurants discussing their meals and their work with literati? Hemingway would have you think so. Kawakami loads her novel with table conversations, and wastes our time with the inaccurate writer’s complaints. Do writers really have to fend off their editors in person with clever dog-ate-my-manuscript excuses? Of course, she has writer’s block – almost never touches the keyboard, yet still embodies all of the qualities we have come to associate with the ideal writer figure. She is an artist, who can’t be rushed. You might begin to notice the influence of Haruki Murakami at this point. Yet, the protagonist’s fixation with childbirth, its unfeasible application to her own ambition, and the relationships, hardships and sacrifices involved paint the picture of a self-absorbed artist on an existential ego trip. The character mentions this in the book, pointing out her own flaws. I commend the author for her well-rounded exploration, but the obsession infiltrates the plot so heavily that it weighs the book down for a large part.

Toward the end of the novel, many moral issues are explored with erudition and insight. Kawakami is an astute observer, and very confident in her ability to wrangle emotion out of the reader. She doesn’t shirk or bow politely, she cooks up charm and smarm and really goes for broke sometimes. There is a scene detailing a meeting with a potential sperm donor that had me laughing out loud. It was the kind of masterful confrontation Murakami could have written. I was highly intrigued by Kawakami’s stance or explanation of the value and demerits of sexual relationships. How they stand in stark contrast to Murakami’s portrayal of sex in his novels was fascinating. It is not always productive to assume that just because a writer’s main character is a writer who treats women like objects, that the writer treats women like objects. Or is it? Does writing about mistreating women constitute mistreating women? Kawakami faces off with Murakami’s controversial female characters by lambasting male character tropes. She bashes men throughout the novel and takes a firm moral stance on women rights while exploring the emotional content of fertility choices. It is a vast and moving essay on the matter and an entertaining coming of age story.

The painful flaw of this novel lies in the repetition, which Murakami’s style suffers from as well. It is a sort of dumbing down of the themes. But the themes are still there. The characters, their voices, and the strangled atmosphere of Japanese polite educated class strugglers tugged at my nostalgic love for Japan’s literary past. I really adored parts of Breasts and Eggs, and you should give it a read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the free ARC.

Review of Crash by J.G. Ballard

ISBN 0312420331 (ISBN13: 9780312420338)

A 2008 interview with Vice quoted infamous mangaka, Shintaro Kago, saying: “Shit and sex are merely the starting points, and unless you can tick those off you can’t even begin thinking about a narrative.”

Grotesque literature has its paramours, and Ballard sits in the ranks of William S. Burroughs and Georges Bataille. Examining Ballard’s literary output, you have to wonder what this unbashful bloke was thinking behind those puffy, doughy features. His innocuous, austere sci-fi worlds glisten with post-human despair. His crystal alligators frozen in time are reminiscent of hard-edged fantasy, and the dozen novels about urban ennui amid thinly veiled warlike conditions read like historical poetry from the amber-thick mind of a slathering autocrat.

In Crash, Ballard occupies the headspace of an obsessive narrator, inconsequentially, also named James Ballard. This is not an autobiography, neither is it autofiction. It is a novel about automobiles having sex with people, or is it the other way around?

In a gallery of fractured dreams, Ballard immortalizes the destruction of innocence, the disharmony of vehicular manslaughter recast as moral epiphany, the elegance of chrome fixtures reflecting dark insecurities, the cruel inhumanity of inflatable HOV-lane partners, the fallacy of the crosswalk’s imagined, scintillating security blanket, the tragicomic splendor of careening into a parked ice-cream vendor with your head jutting from the window, jowls jostling like a jolly St. Bernard, the salacious out-of-body experience of Cro-magnon-level rutting in apocalyptic parking lot Twilight zones, the tabloid-fumes wafting through the hot, sticky ventilator, the secret pock-marked underbelly of the depraved masses spasming toward the perfect societal thousand-car-pile-up of a newly evolved symphonic mutilation of the planet.

I was reminded of two unassuming short stories, one by Vonnegut, the other by Bradbury. The first depicts Earth as a world inhabited by cars. People are mere organs within these mechanical beasts as they roam endlessly and without purpose, toward their ultimate disintegration. The second tells of car-crash enthusiasts, gathering around the bloody craters of crash-sites, always the same eerie faces, staring down, gaping into the maw of the twisted, excruciating pleasures of death. The group gathers innately, like an atmospheric anomaly.

The “formula of death” prescribed by Ballard in what some have called his greatest work is a pure expression of mankind’s technological dependencies, which taps into our mental gas-holes to inject them with sugary, straight-faced dementia. It is an examination of the fascinating nature of accidents, the unexplainable collision of particles, the spontaneous idol-worship that occurs on the side of the freeway four to eight times per day along your routine commute. What you think about on your daily drive, the perverse morbidity that comes bubbling out of your psyche as you stroke the worn leather of the grease-imbued steering wheel. There is of course an obsession with wounds, as separate from the death fixation, but involved with the involuntary compulsion lurking in every passenger’s mind, that sick daydream crash that always happens between meaningless conversations, if only subconsciously. Not to mention the animalistic instincts, the macabre voyeurism of driving by those apartment complexes at night, slowing down, turning off the headlights, sinking deeply into the well-stained driver’s seat…

Love, in this novel, is ungendered. Vaughn’s masculinity is supplanted by other factors – the presence of forehead grease for one, or the sickly sweet odors secreted by the human body, and much, much more. He is the accomplice lover, a being composed of concrete, asphalt, tar, heat and smoke, grit and slime, the personification of the machineries of joy, connoisseur of the soul-enlivening destruction of binge-frolics in the multi-story car-parks, the seedy airport terminals, erecting frozen testaments to forbidden pleasures, tweaking out psychotic musings mid-sentence, obscene snapshots tumbling out of his day-planner, erotic tenderness oozing from his pores. Get ready for discomfiting juxtapositions, deliberate, depraved behavior, and a flaunting of the artistry of fate. Ballard’s creepy poetic sensibilities have their roots in Nabokovian lyricism. He paints a “lacework of blood,” mosaics of shattered bone, all while preserving an awkward confessional quality. What could be misplaced desires leads to rehearsals of death, strange coagulations of reality and imagination, superimpositions, mythic ur-lusts, unparalleled vanity, palimpsest upon palimpsest, dripping with blood and sex, and endlessly beguiling repetition. What are the correct symbols of violence? Could not a surgery be a warzone? What clinical thrills go unacknowledged amid the reeking bedpans and crusty sheets? Sociopathic neuroses manifest like tummy aches. The savors of slo-mo, heart-stopping artistic doom punctuate this egotistical monstrosity.

Imagine what this character would say in the confessional. Would any number of Hail Marys absolve his behavior? Instead we are given a sodium-lit romance of twisted steel, Polaroid pornography, freaks courting disaster, children lost in the wild foreplay of undiscovered vistas of lust and ecstasy, head-on, roll-over, whiplash, pulsing horrid, motorized phalanxes distilled from the marriage of sexuality and a satirical hellscape. The sweet tingle of tinkling glass, the glorification of scars as status symbols, those quiet gas puddle rainbows gleaming in the driveway. What are our bodily fluids but gas driving us toward the various fender-benders of fate?

We are desensitized crash test dummies, which objects, Ballard believes, were originally designed as sex toys. Our recalibrated brains are nightmare-machines, our lives are described as serene sculptures in motion, awaiting the beautification of death, corpse-painted traffic lines, jewel-studded windshield-powder pavements are the backdrops of our carefully controlled environments. The petrol-explosions, the geometric, weaponized pleasure, the psychological horror of transcendental spectatorship, the poetry of excess, the charnel-house back room discussions, the taboo fatuations of inveterate recluses, the relentless rhythm of our boring-as-parked-cars lives, all add up to a pulsing hamburger meat roadkill-fest, a maiming mad scientist, Ballard deploys the stylized assassinations of propriety and our hallowed securities beneath the insensate heavy mass of molded plastic that is our cloistered civilization, with cinematic exuberance, and not sparing us the intricate descriptions of vomit clotted between the seats – in this, Ballard has not been equalled.

Lastly I am reminded of the odd film by Shin’ya Tsukamoto titled Tetsuo, The Iron Man, which I watched at 1 AM one night years ago on a fuzzy, miniature television – I never bothered with the Cronenberg adaptation. This transgressive s-f may be an untapped literary grove. This is not Grimdark, it can only be called Kago or Ballard. Even Burroughs never fully concentrated his literary pretensions. These works speak of our aimless destinations as a surrogate for our purposeless existences and the unrestrained attractions and misconstrued emotions inherent in our lives lived in cars, between places, the car as a second body and the total prosthetic, our true bodies in which our souls are no more tangible than the wings of angels. This book is a celebration of human frailty, a lucid rite of passage, haunted by the pressures of our impending demise, a cathedral composed of smegma and mucosa, the ultimate expression of anthropomorphic literature, which reveals the true purpose of car magazines. Even with its ceaseless, Sysiphean copulation, its hollywoodized disregard for sacred human rights and logic, its anarchism and religious imagery, the fossilized rictuses of weird WASP botox-faces, the absurd accumulation of details, and the immense stark, uncompromising vision all combine to provide a salacious and enigmatic masterwork.

I appreciated the parallels with bullfighting, probably misinterpreted the ritualized cruelty, the executions, but feasted on the meditation these pages offered, pervaded by euphoria, a pervasive unease, and improvisational streamlined distortions of reality, immense cerebral dislocation, immeasurable cognitive dissonance, found in the Darwinian confidence of these theatric method actors. Is it possible to go too far in consumerist desecration, in recording the private, unspeakable thoughts bred in solo exertion of literotic muscular spasms, in partaking in arousal prolonged to torturous heights, in self-immolating furies, in feverish, palpitating prose-serenades, in gory frenzies of flesh-toned bumper cars? As all this percolates uncomfortably into your brain, ask yourself if this soiled purity, these syphoned veins, this chaotic exhausting manifold transliteration of homo erectus prutid journalism is what you actually wish to read.

Will you share in the gross weight of secret knowledge, will you also come to regard car dealerships as brothels? A collide-o-scope of horror, for the most jaded literary enthusiasts, who don’t mind a page-by-page instant replay of the suggestions of coitus in the mere act of driving with the main character’s automobile mistresses. Anatomical contortions, lacerations, toxic relationships, the significance of partnership, illicit amatory forceful enemas, viscerally uncouth seduction, trance-like precision, squealing tyres, infinite corruption, mannequin-like waxy uncanny valley characters all sliding down the greased slope of post-modern wingeing, toward a pallid, comatose climax. If you were not bothered by Burroughs’ fictive suicidal asphyxiations, witness the driver’s seat become Ballard’s orgone accumulator. I have not used the word ‘fetishistic,’ but don’t forget ‘brave, bold, and un-subtle.’ It is a waterfall of metamorphic imagery, a scatological haunted house pantomime, a pareidoliac encyclopedia of orifices and mechanical architecture. Reckless but not wreckless. Also, the fictions imposed on reality by television should not go without mentioning, and cinema’s effect on our perception of reality seeps into the thin plot. The synthetic narrative distance it provides is paramount to nurturing the transgressive nature of the animals we have become. If the vivid vortex of exterior description is not too repetitive for you, the melancholy people in their nakedness will leave your tank on E.

Review of The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes

ISBN 0393077764 (ISBN13: 9780393077766)

Antunes tunes into vivid illusions. Had I known of his work, I wouldn’t have bothered reading László Krasznahorkai.

Mr. Lobo’s work has the same breathless fluidity, but the imagery is stronger, the dramatic pulse is quicker, and it appears far more inclusive, as opposed to the Hungarian’s stark Beckett-like isolationism.

This great Portuguese war surgeon turned writer utilizes warlike tangles of symbolism to tango with heartache and human futility. Within nested imagery and dense, coupling metaphors, he explores multilayered settings with floral sentences, replete with luscious detail, free associating between dreamlike war reminiscences and enigmatic conquests. His haunting, serpentine, grisly prose, is both harrowing and alluring to behold. His seamless narration passes from atmospheric locales like a disembodied spirit of defiance, blending poetry and terror in a grueling alphabet soup of evanescent verbal eruptions. Since this is an anguished monologue, it dehumanizes with its existential horror and paints rich pastiches of a war-torn Angola from the desperate exile of Lisbon.

Baring his soul, the narrator conjures famous artists: Rembrandt, Dali, Bosch – overlaying their immortal scenes with his own shattered memory – “Cézanne’s card players” appear before his beleaguered eyes, and so do “El Greco’s greyhounds” and Magritte’s skies. There are many integrated literary references and a tone reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, about men forgotten in far corners of the world, struggling to undo the incomprehensible atrocities of well-fed, demonic leaders. An uncomfortably profound read. A lucid nightmare of knotted analogies. And some of the most enlightening rants I’ve ever encountered.

Review of Parade by Shūichi Yoshida

ISBN 0307454932 (ISBN13: 9780307454935)

Parade is a seamy novel by a Japanese novelist. 

It does not fit nicely into the “crime novel” formula. Its characters do not care if you are staring at them in horror and fascination. Its plot is not concerned with your level of patience. Though it has a similar texture to Natsuo Kirino’s gritty murder books, it is quieter, and couldn’t have made less noise as it slid into English translation. Where are all the other translations of Yoshida? There is also a book called Villain. But Parade was my introduction to his work. Villain was a nice after dinner snack. It was damn good, but it did not keep me thinking about it for days afterward, as did this little gem.

I do not feel the need to analyze the character motivations, the atmosphere, the literary style or the intense disturbing quality of this book. (I do feel the need to reread it.) I would rather encourage you to discover it yourself. It is one of my favorite novels from Japan – and I’ve read a fair amount of them. But picking it apart would ruin the point. I didn’t feel like examining Ryu Murakami’s literary intentions when I read In the Miso Soup. I just wanted to witness a breathtaking cinematic gore-infused nightmare. This one beats Kirino hands down. It throws down the gauntlet when set beside bad-boy Ryu. But who ever talks about Shuichi Yoshida? The writing is not as polished as Ryu Murakami’s but the atmospheric conditions of the novel are comparable. Yoshida has the casual, almost careless style of a crime writer, but somehow manages to wipe the floor with Seichō Matsumoto. If you liked Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, this will also tickle your fancy, but it’ll be more of a deep-tissue massage, maybe blunt force trauma. Expect the unexpected in the third act. Try to be bored; I dare you. This is another Japanese writer writing whatever the hell he wants, and my eyes are begging for more.

The only other things of his in English I’ve found is obviously Villain and a beautiful short story in The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction If you know of any other English stories in existence please let me know. I can tell Yoshida has what it takes to give Murakami a run for his money as my favorite novel-producing machine currently in Japan. I’m sorry, Keigo Higashino, but I’m just not that into you. Can we get some translations over here?

I admire when a writer deviates boldly. Subversion. Scare tactics. All the required ingredients of escapism are present here. Like Murakami’s work, it is super easy to relate to these characters. They are young, of course, bored, dissatisfied, opinionated, ever so slightly witty, libidinous, angst-ridden – apply whatever adjective you will. In the end, there is plot, there is character development, but the intricacies congeal into an amorphous whole. I could live in this novel for a while. And I know I will revisit it. Slip into the shady, retro, bleak and quirky Tokyo Yoshida provides. Dark secrets abound in this singular work of subtle and not-so subtle inter-character relations. See if it haunts you like it does me.

Review of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

ISBN 0141183047 (ISBN13: 9780141183046)

A very interesting book. No plot, no realistic characters, no dialogue. It’s not strictly philosophy, or poetry, or a diary. It is a mixture, a concoction. Aside from a few topical details, it might have been written by a Chinese, or an American, or anyone.

Did you ever have a thought, during your droll daily life, which at the time seemed to sum up your state of affairs perfectly. These flitting thoughts, so profound and appropriate, occasionally visit us, and then disappear. We can never remember them, and never write them down. Pessoa conjured those contemplative miracles seemingly at will, and compiled them on scraps of paper, hidden in a trunk, like notes he was leaving for future archaeologists.

Through aphorisms and abstract reflections, Pessoa plumbed the depths of the human psyche, explored relationships between his fellow men (and only occasionally mentioning women) and the Creator, whom he does not call by name or put all of his confidence in. He discusses the Portuguese poetry he peruses with the detached air of a casual reader, though one can only assume he has read much more widely than he lets on. It is necessary to remember that Pessoa always wrote under different pseudonyms, or heteronyms, as he called them, which proliferated in his mind like real personalities, and who were responsible for the other prose poetry he produced during his odd career.

Pessoa is not partial toward humanity or the cosmos. His attitude is difficult to pin down, but the ease with which he communicates deep subtleties is continually startling. You can revisit this book endlessly, I think, as I’m sure I will. It has a way of reminding you of the power within us to create. It is a balm and a pat on the back, when the plague-sores of life get you down, when you are under the pressures imposed by laws and conventions, the freedom Pessoa strives for, the freedom of the thinking man, giving his thoughts free reign, is invaluable. This applies to everyone, because in some circumstances, this freedom is the only freedom left to us.

As haphazard as this book appears on the surface, it is a finely polished work. Wandering thoughts were never so interesting as when they touch lightly on physical objects. The narrator regards the physical world like a composition of artistic set-pieces, endless in variety, and full of meaning. The simplest moments in this book can be the most moving, can keep you up at night, regarding your past like a series of visions.

I don’t think it’s possible to read this book without feeling something. Pessoa’s words slip in through the cracks, lodge themselves in your heart. There is treasure everywhere, he seems to tell us, in everything.

One of the most quotable books of all time, encompassing oceans of loneliness and love into one-page capsules. If anyone ever doubted the value of dreaming, look no further than this book. Communicated in spine-tingling whispers, messages you have always felt but never expressed, this book is a friend, an ally, and a light in the darkness.

Review of The Miner by Natsume Sōseki,

ISBN 0804714606 (ISBN13: 9780804714600)

I didn’t expect this novel to leave such a big impression on me. It seemed like a throwaway novel in Soseki’s oeuvre, with hardly any character development, almost no plot and little adornment. But it is a subtle exploration of character, theme and atmosphere. It’s an adventure novel disguised as fictitious reportage. It’s falsely autobiographical, it’s heart-breaking by accident and it managed to worm its way into my psyche.

Soseki wrote it for a fan, based on a scattered retelling of a juvenile anecdote. But he simply couldn’t help but live up to his own standards.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Soseki’s work. Uneven novels like I Am a Cat and unmemorable ones like the Wayfarer are balanced out by amazing experiences like Kokoro and masterful evocations like Three-Cornered World. Sometimes, I’ll reread a passage from a sloppier work and realize my initial reaction was too harsh. You get the sense that Soseki never knew what he was writing about, never really had more than a vague plan. But at other times, he writes with the assured confidence of a literary genius. Too much is made of his experience in London I think. It is treated like a defining moment in his career. Soseki is credited largely with bringing together Eastern and Western literature, but I would argue that Toson did a fine job of it as well. And Lafcadio Hearn understood better than either of those writers the extent and impact of culture clash. Whereas Abe was more readable and experimental, Soseki’s experimentation is always praised, and his mundane repetitions are hardly ever criticized. He wrote from the heart though, and his heart was not always sincere. His characters are always himself, even when they are in the form of a cat, and they are extremely easy to identify with. His women characters are not the best, but his novels are a criticism of his own traditional trappings even as he puts on Western clothes. He explored the mindset of an artist with a hasty, desperate thoroughness. He never had a chance in London – that much is clear from his reportage, and I think he largely wasted his time there. Writers like Nagai Kafu wrote about experiences abroad too, and I believe, brought back more objective observations.

Though it is clear Soseki used a lot of the experience to focus his own responsibility as a spokesperson of the Japanese Everyman, the Miner is an unassuming novel. Like something he wrote against his will. Like a kid’s homework assignment that the student writes with gritted teeth and many resentful tears but the teacher ends up framing. The Miner might be my favorite Soseki novel, though it’s impossible to pin down what makes each novel so good and memorable. One day I side with Botchan, and on other days I remember Ten Nights’ Dreams more fondly. The plots of The Gate, The Wayfarer, And Then, and Sanshiro can blend together, like segments of a single narrative, but The Miner certainly stands apart. It takes place mainly in darkness, mostly within the psyche. In many ways, it reminded me of Kobo Abe’s Ark Sakura. Soseki can be incredibly prolix (as in Light and Darkness) but one of his great strengths is his seemingly accidental insights into people during periods of subtle psychological strains, and just putting that on the page can make for a compelling narrative. It doesn’t have to be something colorful. It’s completely monochrome actually, but it contains a quiet mystery I will never forget.

Haruki Murakami’s personal thoughts are laid out in the Introduction of the 2015 translation. In many respects I agree that this novel changed how I regarded Soseki. It may be difficult to rate his works above Tanizaki’s or Toson’s but I can’t deny that the consistency of his writing and the Everyman narratives give his books a timeless charm.

Review of 2666 (2666 #1-5) by Roberto Bolaño

ISBN 0312429215 (ISBN13: 9780312429218)

Read on a cruise ship. And I remember very little else about the cruise itself. This was eight years ago, but the book stands out in my mind, murky but stamped among the convolutions of my hippocampus.

This book reaffirmed why I love reading. It is a book of literary mysteries. First, the structure of 5 intertwined novels, its unfinished nature and the unexplained title lend to its mystique, and combine to baffle as they entertain. Beyond all this intrigue and amid the sinusoid life of its obliquely likable author, the book reads like a dream, one with shades of nightmare and joy. A slow-paced thrill, a force of heated literary dopamine to be swallowed in a few sittings with a slavering mind, but lingered over in remembrance. There is a 2666-shaped lump of putty in my chest to this day.

The heart of the book lies in a complex network of murder and obsession. It is a celebration of expression and devotion. Any interpretation is inevitably flawed because any answers it offers do not quite congeal around the unknowns. You have the naive but determined linguists, on the chase for their Pynchonian prey, reporters and detectives, and a jaunt across continents, to keep your blood pumping. If Bolaño never would have written this masterpiece he would still be pretty high up there in my author pantheon. I raced through his oeuvre and revisit the smaller novels and story collections from time to time. He shares a shelf with Antunes and Cortazar. To read Bolaño is to feel him in your presence. But because this book exists, any distaste that might have lingered in my mind relating to The Savage Detectives or his strange and unappealing poetry, has evaporated. I glimpsed the hidden depths. I caught sight of the monster he spent the latter part of his life chasing. Subtly, Bolaño’s opus explores the possibility of mastering the art of the novel. In the end, my appreciation of his value as a writer only grows the more I delve into and reread his work. I do not dissect his stories or critique his novels, I simply keep reading them for pleasure.

From the crystalline first pages to the bittersweet final chapter there is enough plot and character in the book to satisfy any reader. Whether you go for pulp or poetry, contemporary or classics, 2666 fits between the interstices of genre, unwieldy but unignorable.

In a brilliant cascade of stylistic techniques, 2666 delivers near-constant engagement with fictional precedents, bearing up against comparisons with Don Quixote, 100 Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, and any other of those hefty tomes spawned in the cultural Euro-Latin collision built into the music of the Spanish language. I do not think it is possible to remain unmoved by the end of this book. It is scattered, deviating into labyrinths of love and hate, but consistently interesting, harrowing, surprising and alive. It breathes as you clutch it in your hands, and blinks back at you as you stare in wonder.

Like its competitors, Underworld, The Tunnel, The Recognitions, and Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666 is another concrete-dense pleasure-dome, decreeing freedom from mediocrity. It is a building block of imaginative ore to be sequestered for the construction of the cosmological shelf of human artifacts, a stone in the pillar of our civilization.

Review of The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann

ISBN 014100200X (ISBN13: 9780141002002)

Swept away by the alternately sensuous and utilitarian prose, the incredible diversity of emotions I encountered while reading this book defied strict categorization and boggled my mind. 

It felt like my brain had tipped sideways and any trite notions of innocence I might have held in reserve in the untouched corners came tumbling out.

Through the course of these 780 closely packed pages we are made to witness strange intimacies and acts which at first seem unnatural, but upon closer inspection, reveal incredible human depth. The Royal Family is a portrayal of flawed loves, damaged souls, and transgression as a form of mourning. The medication of human contact is everywhere in evidence, as is the deep-seated need for love, which we bear like a curse – the “mark of Cain”. Dan Smooth’s religious dogma and hypocritical proclivities are among the most disturbing aspects of this very incendiary text. For instance, the parody of scriptural language most evident in chapter 476. One aspect of Vollmann’s trickery, aplomb, dexterity and blasé scribblings are that they are preternaturally sublime.

If the many quotes from scripture do not distract, along with the inclusion of Buddhist and Gnostic texts, the Book of Mormon, Zoroastrianism and other sects, flit through the pages with varying degrees of appreciation and misappropriation. The direct blasphemies are another form of psychological distress manifested throughout. The pleasure of self-destruction infuses the book with a dark, heady intoxication. In the end it proves to be a genuinely moving, massively detailed epic of limited scope that penetrates deeply into a closely related set of realistic characters. Clearly an outrageous masterpiece orchestrated for the precious few brave enough to drown in its effluence.

The vast majority of its action is contained in the Tenderloin district like an eternally boiling pot of cast-off unsavories. Through realistic dialogue, and an unbelievable variety and richness of slang, Vollmann’s journalistic investigation of broken lives and lives glued together with Elmer’s is by turns touching and memorable. Perhaps we all know at least one person who took a turn that led them down into dark days, someone cracked or cracking up, or virulent with amoral or physical diseases, or who somehow, in their wandering, began to resemble what we would normally dub “inhuman.” But in their wretchedness, they are often far more human than their soft-cheeked, pale, freshly laundered counterparts in their air-conditioned ranch style homes. The concept of disease in all of its forms infiltrates each layer of the district described until our notion of disease is turned on its head. Humanness is not an easily defined term. But it is easily defied, constantly on the stand, and the jury is out for most of our existence. Desperation and dependence are the bricks and mortar of these lives, as they cascade from one high to the next, skirting the law, hiking the skirt, and drawing down one John after another into the whirlpool of vice, where they might have belonged, if circumstances had been different, or their pleasure prolonged…

It takes place in the off hours, in a cacophony of haggard voices on which the city feeds. Vollmann takes his subject very seriously, as seriously as his other historical contexts in the Seven Dreams series. This is the fruit of research, not some quirky self-indulgent fantasy ego-trip. This is a magnificent display of the condensation of life. But it could very easily be labeled by some as obscene, and relishes the contradictory definitions of obscenity. Is there any way to separate the obscene from literature, and does doing so protect or harm our sensibilities? History might have settled these questions for the time being. But in the book’s defense, its intentions may not be as complex as its execution.

The tiniest details emerge as telling character facets. This is a character-driven novel, slow-moving and methodical in its unflinching examinations of the minutest qualities of human beings. Does this book’s impetus and execution stem from a fascination with transgressive individuals or an obsession with perceived injustice? Vollmann was very familiar with the real-life people on which these characters were based. He interviewed them. But how much deeper did his involvement go? How did he get some of this insight? How much is simply made-up or extrapolated scene by scene into the deep ravines of dark, unaerated rooms? As far as the interpretation of firsthand accounts go, the verisimilitude on display is astounding.

Adultery, and the art of bringing off the tacit affair is a tired trope, but Vollmann gives it life so it may function as a backdrop to his main character’s motivations. But of course, the possibility of idealized love goads our anti-hero forward. His selfish desires propel him into the heart of the district and leads him to become an adopted member of this “family.” But underlying his indulgence is a concern for the other players. The repetitive street life, and the bar-room anecdotes are his antidote, his coping mechanisms.

The novel functions through strong character development: Tyler, the Queen, Domino, Dan Smooth, Irene, Chocolate and others. Grief, aimlessness, self-abasement, the saturation of the body and the mind with need, want, love, psychological torment, the people sitting around in a bar talking, are all seminal (pun intended) glue reinforcing the moral ambiguities and lovely, simply lovely immersion the novel affords. It epitomizes the sought-after emptiness, the eager, underachieving human soul, grafted onto chaos, spurned by our own, fallen, and continually falling into the state of spiritual death.

The transgression becomes so familiar you will become inured. Not one single line of the book might be expected to cause arousal, rather, the language is designed to suggest poetic forms, to coalesce into abstract wonders of dream sensations, resulting in a miasmic seething, and you are forced to wallow in a dense accumulation of disgust until Stockholm syndrome sets in – we are captives of our own fascination. Shrouded in a fogged hyperawareness, innocence is lost, desensitization is incurred, and anhedonia blossoms. But with it comes a slew of other emotions, the depression, the isolation, the cool slide into ghostliness. And the fact that aging is sort of an embarrassing, humiliating descent into uselessness and dependence and death.

It juxtaposes the sacred and profane and on at least one occasion directly equates prostitutes to saints and specific religious personas to prostitutes, weighing moral standpoints and building a case. Vollmann’s sympathies are clear straight off the bat.


Perhaps every city is diseased, and feeds on its own desires. In “obsidian darkness” families are born. The Tenderloin morphs into a surreal landscape, at times nightmarish, but beautiful in its rich perversity, luscious, hollow skyscraper cliffs hem the reader in, dripping seedy joints crowd the well-trodden streets, and sagging shadow people haunt passersby at the mouths of abyssal alleyways, against the car horn white noise and screeching cats, one can almost hear the underground seething potential energy, the sizzling beneath the grungy pavements, the potential for corruption about to burst forth and flood the leaning high-rises, which will come toppling down in a rush of bank notes and bathwater, mingling into the gutter-moat leading into that vast uncharted territory called “Otherness.”

The troubles of Cain, the life led by a modern Cain, an essay on authority and power, how “many follow one,” the concept of secular divinity in the titular Royal Family of the book, the meaning of non-blood relations’ inherently familial bonds, and how families are forged in hardship and love all occupy the central force of the novel. Many brilliant scenes make use of the same patterns of sudden, impulsive delights wrought into sad, withering despair, with a recurrent tone of heartbreaking loss, sadness and oppression hanging over it all.

The rich imagery and the character studies in the midst of life’s tragedies feed into the plot of a tired detective, seeking after the lost loves that lives on in his fantasy-world, while he further retreats into the heart of his own troubles. The humor, pathos, atmosphere, lyricism, and historical details are all on point. Vollmann is an overachiever. The language of nostalgia pervades the whole. The skittering wreckage of damaged lives are too alluring – you can’t look away. The beating pulse of city life, its ways and means and blood and marrow definitely echoes with his other illuminating novel, Butterfly Stories. I am as yet a Vollmann neophyte, but know I will traverse the rest of his oeuvre.

Abuse, deformity, pedophilia, the transgressive essence of erotic literacy, wrought out with demented surrealism, rife with innovation and condemnation, the animal in man, and the mental inertia, all point toward the sadness inherent in any examination of collective humanity. Everyone is unfaithful to something or someone. Even if only themselves.

The prolix familial squabbles add another layer of captivating cohesion, as do the casual drug deals, the professional jargon, the shifts in stresses and pleasures, the motif of royalty as a perceived allocation, the moments of twisted spirituality, the balm of charity, how kindness can relieve briefly the day-by-day despair of powerlessness. These are the domains Vollmann weaves together. Figurative language is used to communicate understated emotion. Everywhere, he is always improvising, concocting significance out of the insignificant. Life happens in the interstices, and his characters inhabit the interstices of society. Obsolescence weighs them down. Life passes by like an impressionistic blur, while the dreams the characters hold dear display photographic vividness. Shamanistic influences pervade the text, but the sources are often mysterious.

Tyler’s brooding, his surrogate love objects, his incapacitation, all lead to the conclusion that his love is his disease. Addiction is a powerful force in society, and it comes in myriad forms. But this book also touches on the justice and injustice of the System, and how people make use of harmful antisocial delusions, and get caught up in obsession, until Vollmann’s consistent moral calculus slowly clarifies and justifies the excessive inclusions, the twisted worldview of the brutally honest novel.

We all belong to mythological families, whether online or in person. We join “clubs,” which, broadly defined, are social groups, and cultivate an image for the benefit of ourselves and anyone in our circles. Sources of love and its purpose are sometimes unknown, but TRF posits many interesting theories about how such a culture of prostitution could survive.

Vollmann also inserts a dramatization of the pluses and minuses of the commercialization of sex – the oldest profession. How it is combined with corporate greed is not the most compelling statement of the novel, but it does lend a Hollywood-esque component, an inflation of grandiosity.

The marital strife, hypocrisy, octopus-minded overanalysis, the Narcisissm and social performance, the spirit of exploitation, all converge in Brady’s pet business, which is just the commodification of women. Loneliness, the power of money and memory, and the uncomforted dispossessed occupy most of the novel’s run-time. There is not as much instant gratification as you might expect, but it is ever-present in the characters’ psyches. When stated so bluntly, the almost mythic proportions of stereotypical male erotic fantasies are slightly hilarious.

In summary, Vollman doesn’t coddle you. He sticks you with the hypo of his intellectual daring. If you can pry your fingers from the covers by the end and pull yourself out of the vortex of his creation you will feel a heavy nuance of appreciation for his accomplishment forevermore.

Review of Unbabbling by REYoung

ISBN 156478164X (ISBN13: 9781564781642)

This Dalkey Archive discovery is deceptive in its approach but memorable in the extreme.

The prose is packed with slapstick, imagery and song, an equal ratio of panic and satire, passion and heartache, while it bubbles over with bombast, belligerence and, after acclimatization, brilliance. Truth be told, it took about a hundred pages to convince me, but after that I became a REYoung reader for the foreseeable future. Now out to purchase the other books, before they disappear…

What is an Unbabbling? After finishing the novel, I can only guess: an unrivaled unraveling, a midsummer night’s Babel. Like one of the narrators, I drank long and deep, but from the book’s intoxicating style. The plot is marked by simplicity, but it is also rich with experience. The value lies in the language, the luscious, exuberant, frolicsome wordplay, and the lucid undercurrent of anger, terror and hedonism.

The first part’s forward-slashing prose deluges verge on delusional, while REYoung introduces the reader to a hoarse, slavering, wage-slave schmooze, a deadbeat, a deadened, heartless Bukowskian complainer, whose days and nights blur like a grainy tape on fast forward, until the sick joy of haggard reminiscence instills a palpable dread. The pages drip with ecstatic sweaty spasms of laboring paragraphs, wherein images swarm like the cross-section of a beehive.

The impact of real life can often be moving, and the horrid prospect of merely living is disturbing when described in the gritty, greasy manner here employed. Our main character reaches for the bottle, murders a part of himself every night when he comes home, gets back up in the morning, and that weight gets heavier and heavier all the time. A Sisyphean accumulation. I, for one, sympathized with the amassing burden experience imparts.

The unhinged descriptions continue in part 2, as the context shifts. The unremitting anger is reminiscent of Ellison’s underground man – a scenario which occurs in Part 3 to full Dostoyevskian effect. Here, cynicism, is a form of wisdom. Interior monologues merge with dialogues – yet which pieces are pretend, which manifestations are real versus imagined? The monster of self-loathing morphs into a universal loathing, but it is somehow crystalline, even amid the frazzled, frenetic, hectic burping prose avalanches, which gurgle forth in volcanic bursts. It is perhaps because of the marvels of compression the author pulls off, that his hypnotic storytelling takes on such depths.

In Unbabbling, REYoung tunnels straight through the heart of America, down into its rotting belly, excavating the fear and disgust which has piled up for centuries like the bedrock holding up the guv’na’s house.

Review of Sea Above, Sun Below by George Salis

Sea Above, Sun Below by George Salis is a rich and masterful novel. While reading it, from the beginning to end, I never doubted I would rate it five stars. It is a balanced reading experience, told from differing perspectives, chockablock with symbolism and allusion and wordplay.

The descriptions of people, the universe and abstract concepts, are always lyrical and moving. The characters, though isolated in their narrative spheres from other characters, all relate in symbolic ways, interacting like entangled particles.

This is a tale about skydiving, and the brave divers through the sky, and the diverse revelations they encounter, on land and in the arms of God, up in the air, floating like angels, hovering above the ball and chain of their earth, which to some is an Eden, and to others, an egg, flush with history, pregnant with myth.

It is also about childhood, and escape, tragedy and the infinite potential of the future, told in convincing voices, with heart and love and joy. I was enchanted by the realistic characters, the effortless flow of the evocative language, the precise word choice, effective dialogue and seamless storytelling. The novel works on muliple levels at once, guiding the reader through layers of meaning. It does not engage in hand-holding, nor is it like wandering a lanyrinth. Reading it is like falling, which is a metaphor the novel makes ample use of, falling into a magical realm. The picture widens as you proceed, and the sky behind you is full of Halley’s comets, decaying gods, and past memories discarded like ballast.

This is a truly great novel that does not rely on literary crutches. It shirks influences and finds a style all its own. If you write, you will likely be envious of his accomplishment. If you had handed me this book and said it was a lost novel by an early J. G. Ballard I would have told you Ballard didn’t write this well. I’m being serious.

There are many brilliant moments of interstitial congruency. Like the following quote:

“With the advancement of technology, he knew the future, however distant, would reveal the reality of alchemy.”

Sea Above, Sun Below is literary alchemy.
I encourage you to savour the complex fascinations to be found in this expertly crafted book. I hope the author continues to pursue his creative ideals. A magnificent novel.

Review of Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

ISBN 038554572X (ISBN13: 9780385545723)

I devoured this scrumptious coming-of-age novel in two sittings. 

On the level of voice, character development, and humor it struck all the right chords. It’s Catcher in the Rye with a female lead, more modern, more swear words, and just more adult. Easily a cult classic, it was one of the most memorable and enjoyable books I read all year.

I will gladly read anything else the author puts out. For a first novel, it sizzles. It never stumbles, falters or cowers. From the gorgeous cover to the immersive rhythm, the pages flew by. Who doesn’t love a saucy narrator? Taking the first person internal monologue to new heights, JKF lathers each chapter with alluring, intimate details, enough to overwhelm anyone’s emotional arteries. The novel explores love, in all of its myriad forms, friendship, commitment, lassitude, drudgery, modern ennui, and the angst that has become inescapable in our culture.

A thrilling, bold, timeless literary statement, not a junk food entertainment.

Review of The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

ISBN 0679733787 (ISBN13: 9780679733782)

One of my favorite books of all time. One of the best film adaptations of a book as well, done by Hiroshi Teshigahara in collaboration with Abe. Both are equally mesmeric.

Kobo Abe’s well-honed, surreal worlds became etched permanently in my mind, and this novel more than his others. Even after reading some of his less intense, and less masterful novels, I still retained a deep appreciation for his bizarre aesthetic. You will discover a similar texture and attitude as in Poe or Baudelaire. Though he is not often discussed in the same circles as Kenzaburo Oe or Haruki Murakami, his influence has become far-reaching, and is more singular in its approach.

This is Abe’s finest work, in my opinion, far-surpassing Box-Man, Ruined Map, Ark Sakura and Kangaroo Notebook. However, almost everything he wrote affected me in one way or another. This could have been because I read most of his oeuvre in college, impressionable as I was.

It wasn’t until I also read Quicksand, by Tanizaki, that I realized that both novels were about on the same level in my mind. Tanizaki’s masterpiece, less about sand, and more about love, felt like a parry to Abe’s, even though Abe’s came later. Both are existential. Abe’s is more mythic, and Tanizaki’s more grounded. I was socked in the gut by both. There is an essence of self-sabotage to the characters’ psyches and an inescapable passion consumes them, leading inevitably toward a void. I was enraptured by Abe first, and will likely return to this novel far more often.

Entomology exists on the fringes of Woman in the Dunes, as it does in Ark Sakura. Insects crawl through the novels, but they also make for a nice comparison to the main characters, who are trapped in an environment, where their humanity wears away, kept in a terrarium of sorts, and we, the readers, are studying them, fascinated. The film captures the voyeuristic quality of the narration incredibly well.

The shifting psychological portraits that Abe presents to us, are reminiscent of his experimental plays. I believe he was concerned with the human being as an object among disorienting constraints. As in Box Man, the most intriguing aspects of the plot arise from the juxtaposition of humanity with the absurdity of their own weakness, their limitations define them, and allow them to discover hidden potentialities, often as disturbing as they are enlightening. He explores humanity’s survival instinct in Beasts Head for Home, and much of the same sentiment can be found here.

As dark and brooding as Kafka, but pure, simple, yet beguilingly complex, this novel rewards those who seek to dwell in the liminal spaces between reality and dream. The burden of understanding ourselves is an illustration of perpetual motion. Humanity’s protean heart is contained in us all, vaguely buried beneath layers of propriety, comfort and self-denial. If all the world were sand, if it was all we knew, how would our minds conform to the contours of our flat horizon? Would the solitary figures of other minds, blasted smooth and coppery, sink into our anima?

Enmesh yourself in this softly distressing masterpiece.

Review of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

ISBN 0802130208 (ISBN13: 9780802130204)

I always enjoyed the line from Jonathan Swift – “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

This novel, much like Swift’s, is a scathing satire. Ignatius Reilly is both a truly sad main character and probably a partial analog of the author, whose even sadder demise undercut my casual reading of this brilliantly humorous book.

I read this in my childhood and it stuck with me. I enjoyed many of the scenes immensely and laughed out loud throughout. Around the same time, I picked up Gulliver’s Travels. In both works I felt that the critiques of human foolishness were on point, while they are separated by hundreds of years in both style and authorship, the two works will forever be interwoven in my mind.

I stumbled across the brightly colored Confederacy of Dunces volume in a family member’s house, remembered it, and then sought it out. She had been telling me about her thesis, which had involved Pope’s “The Dunciad,” which I later read and enjoyed as well. I seemed to have an obsession with the word “Dunce” in my youth, for the same reason I felt drawn to certain other unusual words I won’t mention.
Little did I know that this novel was a polished masterpiece of subtle philosophy and an effective and enjoyable character study. I did not know who Boethius was until later, but I still cherished the novel, and identified with the skewed perspective, which occupied an overblown space in my head, as I replayed the scenes later, always picturing the main character as John Candy from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

The style is not for everyone, but it is a shame when any author’s reputation interferes with anyone’s enjoyment of a rewarding novel.

Review of If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

Intrigued by the title, one day I opened this book, didn’t get it, put it back, saw it again years later, did the same thing, stumbled upon it again years later with a sense of déjà vu, read no more than a few pages. 

For some reason, it seemed as impenetrable as Hegel. But the title was stuck in my head like a pop song. That unfinished sentence bothered me, yet I would not play into the gimmick and read it just to find out what the fragment meant. I determined to put it off forever. This was before I realized Calvino had written Cosmicomics. Another title I adored by accident, fancied the title again, stumbled upon it years later, but I still resisted his quirky cheekiness. Almost broke down and read this one then. But didn’t.

A decade passed, I was sitting in a rental car office. It would be a few hours. There was a bookstore down the street. I walked there, found this book within thirty seconds on the shelf for 2$, purchased it. Read it within 3 hours like a person possessed. Part of that time I was sitting in the rental car. Inhaling the ineptly concealed lingering scent of tobacco smoke. Reclining in the vaguely stained cloth seat. I felt like a slice of toast left in the toaster for three weeks. Somehow drove home, stumbled inside. I couldn’t shake the surreal, otherworldly daze with which I was plagued.

Calvino, sitting in a room, typing the segments separately, shuffling papers, retyping, rearranging. Writing a novel like this should not result in a readable conglomeration. But it does. Crafting, playing games with the reader, goofing off. That was my first impression. But I kept coming back to it. Flipping it open, mulling over the elegant, irreverent quirkiness. I sympathized with the character’s search for a haunting book. Its atmosphere of heady grief infected me. It was the principal of the thing. The search for a title was the search for a book, which became more books. Doesn’t the author’s duty include closure, explanation, justification? Can an author really just write whatever they want, without regard to the reader’s puny intellect? Unless I approach it as a study, a departure, an experiment. I wasn’t used to thinking this way back then. Each book within the book was composed of sections of dissimilar books, but when put together you had the story of a book, of an adventure in textual manipulation, and a novelistic tongue-twister. It was as precise as the Golden Ratio. I had been manipulated, tricked. Calvino had planted a seed of carnivalesque whirlpools in my mind, thoughts invoking memories, spiraling into a labyrinth. It is eerily geometric, and reading the partial interludes is like dividing segments of a ruler in half, until you reach the Planck scale and your phantom ruler phases out of existence. You never reach the conclusion, but you enter into each layer Inception-wise, with the hope and joy of discovering a book, its world, its philosophy, which is normally gift-wrapped between two covers. Calvino offers up a Chinese finger-trap, where on the inside of the trap you feel other, tiny, stroking fingers. At least, I felt trapped by If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… A traveler you become, and like his knights and cities, this novel reveals hidden isles, provokes the unlikely kinds of thoughts you only encounter in fleeting corridors of strained meditation, pathological tightrope walking between the abysses of insanity and genius.

Calvino proves that traditional structure is only a limitation. Beginning, middle and end are repellent concepts, false securities. He channels Borges, who was afraid to write a novel, because of the can of worms such bold experiment unleashes. To find out if you are a Calvino fan peel back the pages and slowly wrap your head around his whimsical conceptual design, if you can, if you have enough wrapping, and if you find yourself lacking, try his meteoric Comics, his stellar stories. He is dungeon master, professor, and explorer of lost dimensions. This book is a floating waterfall. A spectacle, a bottomless well, a specter and a…

Review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

ISBN: 0316921173 (ISBN13: 9780316921176)

Infinite Jest – the kind of book that, when it is mentioned, creates a hushed silence of mingled awe and fear in the room. 

A brick of a tome of a journey of a boy and his harried growth in spurts of tennis-fueled tragedy. An obsessive, compulsively readable, unreadable contradiction. A hyperbolic time chamber of thrilling literary filibusters. Read it, sink into the groove of D. F. Wallace’s intricately patterned brain. The most addictive textbook you will ever encounter, and a world unto itself. Slide into conundrums of gorgeous prose, wander insensate through grungy halls of psychological torment. Love and hate it, and be healed.

Truly, Wallace performs heroic feats of coddling, pampering our desensitized temperaments, spoon-feeding our barely discernible IQs with his intellectual manna. A challenging, riotous, quietly menacing book, this is, and haunted as I am by its immense fortitude and undying spirit, I crack open the covers again and again, because no semblance of life, scrawled on paper, nudging aside other swan songs, has ever etched its penumbra on my psyche so deeply. What is the cherished meaning at its heart? What does it say, with a voice so loud, that our blasted ears frequently must mishear?

Discoveries abound within the wall-to-wall text prison of this book, hemming you in like the dripping bathroom stall. A search for sanity always starts beneath layers of hypocrisy, doubt and denial. It is a carnival of tortured souls inside a kaleidoscope of condensed American dreams. Are we, in fact, peering inside the unquestionably troubled author’s mentality, perceiving untrammeled vistas of psychological sewage, or is the vision skewed by infinite strata of posture, mimesis, synecdoche, and [insert 438 literary devices here]?

It is the hopeless descent into oblivion of a perpetual motion automaton, excavating the amorphous entertainments, unhallowed relationships, and self-deceptions which proliferate in every id.

The desiderata of our questing bodies, unmoored from familial bulwarks, magnetize us toward the nightmares we dread. Jest with me, you hideous Gargantua, infect me with your awful questions, delve out with speculative pick my slumbering and half-hidden dementia. Keep on commenting on the commentary of the narrative of the dream of the tennis match, which is simply a symbol, a corrupt government, an impotent conspiracy of avant-garde slackers, and a recursive, molten war memorial against the interior civil unrest we were all born with.

Read it, form an opinion, and if it still calls you, read it again, because it is worth your time, your patience and your money. For me, it is one of the endpoints of literature. For, what more do you need?

Review of Antkind by Charlie Kaufman

ISBN: 0399589686 (ISBN13: 9780399589683)

A literary apocalypse of compulsive cinematic ungendering.

More Kafkaesque than Kafka. More borgesian than Borges. Less Shakespearean than Homer. These accolades mean everything and nothing. Because accolades, in any form, tell partial half-truths, like any communicable piece of information, as Kaufman shows us ad nauseam, in this Rabelaisian charade of a novel of a singularity, of a Big Bang, of a black hole. Or is it a white hole?

Hilariously obscure references and arcane film and literature shaggy dog jokes were a few of the defining moments. Let me clarify: This is about the hollywoodization of real life. It is about externalizing the internal. The fetishization of film. Bringing filmic techniques into fiction, then bringing mental puzzles into fiction and merging the two. Atemporality, non linear time. Non linear narrative. It is about chronology and human relationships to time and other humans. Each human has their own point of access and mental timeline. The possibility of living in a film. Or never escaping it. The possibility that life is film and film is life, and vice versa. Visa versa.

It is a novel about film. Obviously.
The plight of the unseen. Also obvious. The unfilmed actors, not the extras. The ones who weren’t in the film. Those are the people who people this novel.

Literal manifestations of psychological aberrations and metaphorical concepts. The nature of genius, the excuses of the brilliant. The selfish pursuit of art. Gender, class, race. The macrocosm within the microcosm within the macrocosm. Hazy definitions of reality, blurring those edges, and crossing the line so many times the line takes on new dimensions.

An exploration of Outsider art, which is a pet obsession of many artists. The Darger-esque character, Ingo, is fascinating, even though characters in this novel are all reflected through the narrator’s lens. Rosenberger, the narrator, as separate from the character, Charlie Kaufman, who is also in the book, as a lampooned filmmaker, who made the exact films the real Kaufman made.

This book is Hyper-metafictional, as any Kaufman fan probably expected. Similar in spirit to Synecdoche, New York. But more far-reaching, dense, and neurotic than any other book I’ve read. It’s narrator shares many similarities with that in Adam Levin’s Bubblegum, but Kaufman’s fictitious persona is more readable and not simultaneously. He embodies countless dichotomies.
What allows me to control my annoyance at the constant backtracking, second-guessing, triple-guessing, and justification, qualification and inquisitive mania of Rosenberger is an appreciation for the style of excess, and a high tolerance for meta-fictional bullshit. It’s taken to an art form and then it’s overanalyzed on the page. Which is all fine, once you see how he does it.

The ideal love illusion. How characters constantly fall in love at the drop of a hat. This is a plot device in Rosenberg’s own life. Non binary double binds – there are so many of them that it goes far past political correctness into obnoxious self-reference. The sad lonely inevitability of aging, the so-described irreducible tragedy of old age and attendant biases. The symphonic loneliness and depression of Rosenberg is both poetic and infinitely self-inflicted. The recursive propagation of further complexities, the consistent appearance of competitors, the dramatic and cinematic tropes of rivalries, foils, and predictable outcomes. Character non-development. Rebels and conformists. The evolution of cinema. The evolution of inclusivity. Fascinating sub cultures which respond to social injustice and become cults. (These were extremely interesting, but will get on some peoples’ nerves, I expect – but if you have any functioning nerves left after finishing this book, they will be frayed.) The social justice inquisition. That is also what this book is about. The crusade of artistic abasement. Clandestine and overt pandering, pondering, wandering, intellectual masturbation, onanistic romance, infatuation both with art and unattainable true molecule-to-molecule contact. Social contracts, pet peeves, insurmountable personal obstacles.
Rosenberg succumbs to the same biases he abhors. The abhorrence of bias are everywhere, the inevitability of bias is omnipresent, the infinitude of biases… the differences between cultures around the world and their various standards. The all-encompassing impossibility of an inclusive America. Of course, it’s about that too.

The ethnic and economic injustice inherent in our culture. Exploring derangement and infinite regress. Social politics. The end and means and the never-ending, always mean suffering of any possible minority.

The only way it could be more meta would be if they made a film of the novel and then novelization of the film and then a film of the novelization and so on and so on, which Kaufman includes as a possibility, of course. This book contains its own macrocosmic universe, as I said. The whole universe can be extrapolated from its first few pages. The skeleton housing the set-pieces are all expertly in place from Kaufman’s inconspicuous method. With enough suspension of disbelief you can get away with just about anything. Keep increasing that suspension. Dangle unbelievable things in front of the reader long enough, and in the right way, and it’s almost brainwashing.

A dream within a dream under hypnosis inside a remembered film that could be a figment of his imagination. Are you bothered by dream sequences? Well, there are a lot of them.

Pointing out continuity errors in a film can be fun, Rosenberg does this but with his real life, and there are so many continuity errors that the director must have put them there on purpose. He knows this. He knows he is a fictional character. And it shows.

The function of memory. How many functions does it actually have? The function of false memories. The fallacy of memory authenticity. The curse of eidetic memory. The possibility of Total Recall. And not just the remake. The concept. Buried memories, Freud, Jung and the sub sub sub sub sub sub “et chetera” conscious and conscience and nescience and the aesthetics of neuroscience, neuroses, and the art of forgetting.

There are built-in excuses for anything which might be considered a flaw in this novel. Everything I could say about it could easily be refuted by a super-defensive ultra-qualified Inner Kaufman. It creates recursive intentionality. Everything is intentional because it can be explained within context, no matter how insanely absurd it is. Every. Word.


Escapism. The novel functions within its constraints and without them. The novel escapes. The characters are escaping, and so is the reader. They merge and then propagate downwardly.

The Deterioration of Reality. Capitalized. That is a big theme. Maybe The Theme.

Every film technique Kaufman ever used, he uses again in this book. He invents new ones. He even invents many film ideas he may or may not make.
All of Kaufman’s films are contained in this book in one form or another.

I read the screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for film class. At least that had human limitations. The limitations of this novel are almost superhuman. A proper analysis would requires theses. The thesis is contained in the novel, though. So no one will write it, except maybe Kaufman at a later date. And he will do so in the form of a film. Probably.

No one could have written this book except Charlie Kaufman. If I were given it without the author revealed I think I would’ve guessed even before the self references occurred.

This book has the capacity to take the pleasure out of reading.

Like, have a cup of tea. Settle down man. Super analysis of the environment is a rabbit hole we don’t need to always follow down. It’s rabbit holes all the way down to the edge of the universe. There are always more sub-atomic particles. I’m sorry. Our puny lifetimes are too short to maintain the hope that we can learn everything there is to know.

Polymathic. Maybe. Monomaniacal. Definitely. Maximalist. In extremis. Pynchonian. Sure. DFW-esque. Obviously.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind within eternal sunshine of the spotless mind etc. He constantly lampoons his own films. Which was appreciated. Eternal darkness of the clouded psyche.
Excess in a void. He lampoons other films too, which will be great for film buffs. You probably won’t get much enjoyment out of the book if you aren’t to some extent a film buff. Or at least film conversant. If not buff then built, or chiseled or comfortable with your self-image, I guess.

Obsessive compulsive disorder combined with molecular Legos in a sandbox of infinite dimensions. That’s Kaufman.
The book appeals to ocd if you have it and you likely won’t be physically able to stop reading because you will need to see what happens. But isn’t any good book putting you in the same boat?

The hilarious digs at Nolan and Inception. Well done.

Time reversal. Time extension, dissension, dissection, and general clowning. The literal clowns. Are they supposed to be symbolic? Everything is symbolic. That’s the first assumption you should have made. Time malleability, the marketability of memories, the market value of genius. The perception of genius. The mind-f– shenanigans are unconscionable as they pile up. And they keep going on long after you want them to stop. Kaufman is that kid in the back of the interminable car ride signing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, and he always starts over when he gets to zero and he has perfect pitch and tremolo and a megaphone, and you are too polite or considerate to ask him to stop, not that he would listen anyway.

I am disillusioned or heavily influenced or intoxicated. Yes there is a toxic quality to his brand of semantic overload. Over capacity synaptic sputtering. Shock treatment for your humor glands. Over medication, the book rewards binge reading and rereading and memorization. It is a perpetual positive feedback loop. A negative one as well. A heady doctoral thesis on human madness, on mad humanness. It contains our multitudes and eludes your grasp, it hinges on fringes of acceptability and outrage. It is prescient and analog. It is insensate and utterly nonsensical. It is uberdescript.

This book ruined Kaufman movies for me. At least until I recover a little of my sanity. The inevitability that art will always surpass itself. If it does not surpass its predecessors, is it real art? Is this a 720-page ruler by which all metafictional novels must be measured? Is it a ruler by which Kaufman is measuring his intellectual qualifications? Or is it a simple artistic experiment?

I think it’s more accurate to say that this is the absolute or near absolute expression of the genre, that the human heart, spirit, and mind can only tolerate so much meta before it projectile vomits miniature selves projectile vomiting miniature selves. See Kaufman, anyone can write weird metafiction. I just did. Metafiction for Kaufman may be a form of medication and he is most certainly addicted to it.

Fiction bleeding into reality in every conceivable way. This happens all the time in movies. It happens here too. A lot. I caught the subliminal Philip k. Dick reference. He put it in the book for me. I just know he did. As I am a PKD fan. He also put other things about paranoia in the book for me too. Because I have thought those things previously, and now I’m reading them in a book. I think.
I’ll leave it to you to find the reference. The constant contradictions between Rosenberg’s memories and factual accounts and reality. This is another Dickian trait. I’m assuming Kaufman read Dick, instead of just watching Blade Runner, like most people.

Philosophical conceptions of comedy and human dimensions of history. It’s nice that he decided to include those too. What didn’t he include? Humility? Humbleness. No that’s in there alright. I can’t think of anything actually. It does contain everything. One of the footnotes contains Infinite Jest. Wait that was a mismemory. All it needs is 800 footnotes to contain Infinite Jest.

Harlan Ellison or Descartes would say: I have a mouth, therefore I am a scream.
I have a brain, therefore I am a stream of consciousness.
Kaufman you should either be incredibly ashamed of yourself or incredibly proud. I’m not sure which.

Thank you to the publisher who provided an advanced copy through NetGalley.