Review of Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

One’s enjoyment of this collection may depend on one’s enthusiasm for wordplay. 

There is a significant amount of utterly clever portmanteuing. Buried beneath the lexical prestidigitation is a penchant for unconventional storytelling. Combining homages to classical mythology with post-modern shenanigans, Barth’s creative use of the English language is a rare confection. Yet, there are points when his esoteric noodling will become inscrutable for Cro-magnon readers like yours truly.

The high-browness of some sections are Rushmore-esque. Experimentation prevails through retellings, reimaginings, and regurgitations of Greek tragedies, pseudo-Arabian tales, and a perplexing ménage a treize of Gulliverian travails.

He admits preference to long-form fiction, though condensed, his voice is richly exuberant. My fave example was the tangled Siamese twin’s illicit and unimaginable tale, told in a slippery and macabre bildungs-Geschichte.

If I had to describe the nested tales in one word it would be: ovoviviparous.

Review of Three Fantasies by John Cowper Powys

In the Afterward, Cavaliero draws a lot of biographical significance out of the farcical improvisation of the juvenilia of Powys in his dotage. This Beckettian collection of three novellas is both saddening and quirky

 At the forefront are confrontations with physical embodiments of Death. The skepticism of an animist, the waning imagination of a latter day Rabelais. These are cold and disconcerting, but readable nursery confabulations.

As in other works, Powys is mainly concerned with discussing the relationship of human beings and the natural world. This intersection of ideas was expanded to the greater universe in his final years. Here you can see how he depicts how history bleeds through time, staining the present. The nature of consciousness within the physical world never leaves his mind. The psychic nature of the wild also impinges on the reality of very two-dimensional characters. This author produced plenty of literary oddities, but even multiple readings of Three Fantasies will probably confound most readers.

Powys elicits a heartwarming nostalgia in some of his works, I think, the aura of abstract uncanniness has the capacity to overwhelm. He excels at portraying quiet, psychologically strained scenes wherein supernatural forces intrude like an impending gloaming, suffusing the whole atmosphere of the story.

The first story in this triumvirate of tales is Topsy Turvy. It contains philosophical discussions by furniture of varying worldviews. The dialogue of personified souls in inanimate objects is merely a stage for an exploration of standard Powysian ideas. It is argued that Powys believed all things to be animate, and he elucidates the manifestations of souls in his household objects, extrapolating their human qualities to an absurd degree. It is both odd and alarming when he suddenly slips into notions of rape which end the story on a note of spiritual significance. I simply shrugged and turned to the next story.

Part of the force of creative energy is imbuing objects with consciousness and perceiving this consciousness throughout one’s experience. I picked that up right away in “Abertackle.” It gets pretty tangled up with procreation, which according to Powys, is the intertwining of souls. His random ramblings take in several literary and historical figures apropos of nothing, and fly quickly off the deep end toward the stars. His eerie pronouncements are at times fascinating and for fans of improvisational writing, this is better than most modern experiments in unplanned, casual automatic writing. Famous writers, angels and demons make their way into the second story, which is the most chaotic. Everyone gets naked in order to inhabit the vague “Fourth Dimension” where they jump back and forth through history, space and time, discussing religion. Spouting off theories about God’s death, man’s creative powers, the reincarnation of Merlin, a lot of speeches made by the Devil. It’s all very uncontrolled.

Overall, I prefer Powys reigning in his creative energy, focusing it on elaborate set-pieces of constrained storytelling. He’s got some incredible books to his name, but this is minor in every way. It showcases none of his genius and only an ounce or two of his personality and charm. It is quite readable, and harmless, if a little unhinged.

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.