Excerpt from 'My Back Pages'

My Back Pages

Reviews and Essays

By Steven Moore

Green Integer

Copyright © 2017 Steven Moore
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55713-438-7




Héctor Abad

The Joy of Being Awake. Translated by Nathan Budoff Brookline/Lumen, 1996

Literary translations are the poor relations of the publishing world, often showing up unwanted at the doors of book review editors and bookstore buyers, sniffed at by the book-buying public, and displaying foreign habits of little interest to most Americans. We are not nearly as interested in the rest of the world as they are in us. And one never knows about the quality of the translation: Few translators are as talented as the writers they translate, so one always feels cheated somewhat, like settling for a cover version of a song rather than the original. It's no accident that "lost in translation" remains a common idiom. Still, it's no virtue to be provincial, so hats off to those publishers — mostly smaller, independent presses — who continue to bring us literary translations against all odds.

The Joy of Being Awake by the Colombian writer Héctor Abad deliberately models itself on two key 18th-century works: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Voltaire's Candide. Like Sterne's eccentric novel, The Joy of Being Awake is a bittersweet account of the life and opinions of a man at odds with himself, narrated in nonchronological fashion with plenty of entertaining digressions and the occasional formal game. One chapter, subtitled in fine 18th-century style "Wherein a Eulogy of Silence is Proclaimed & What is Not Disclosed in Passing Over Several Years of Life is Declared," consists of two blank pages. The narrator, a rich, erudite man, shares Voltaire's rationalism and skepticism, and his eventual wife, the delectably named Cunegunda Bonaventura, even shares the name of Candide's wife, Cunegonde. Writing at the end of his life, the narrator often gives two versions of a memory: first, what he wishes had happened, and then what really happened. It's appropriate that he's the author of a collection of essays "on the double scatology of Quevedo, the metaphysical and the defecatory." (That "double" should be "twofold" — one of many instances where the translator chooses the wrong word.) Torn between the metaphysical and the defecatory, as it were, the narrator retreats into an ascetic life, candidly admitting he is "a man who doesn't feel." Like both Sterne's and Voltaire's books (though not in the same league as either), Abad's novel has a surface geniality that barely conceals undercurrents of discontent and despair.

Avant-Pop Fiction

Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation. Edited by Larry McCaffery Black Ice, 1993

Love Is Strange: Stories of Postmodern Romance. Edited by Joel Rose and Catherine Texier Norton, 1993

These two anthologies will interest readers of this particular issue of the Review, not simply because Vollmann is in both and Wallace in Love Is Strange, but because they also include many of the authors named in the interviews: Eurudice, Mark Leyner, and Kathy Acker are in McCaffery's band, and Rose and Texier's includes Lynne Tillman, Acker again, and A. M. Homes's Barbie story, in addition to much more. Both anthologies come less from the world of creative writing programs than from rock music, television, and the weirder manifestations of pop culture. The titles of the books derive from rock — Daydream Nation is the title of a Sonic Youth album, and "Love Is Strange" an old song from Mickey & Silvia (though neither is actually explained: if you don't already know the references, you aren't in the intended audience) — and the sensibilities displayed in the stories have less to do with traditional fiction than with TV shows like Saturday Night Live and The Edge. That is to say, these stories have all the appeal of the best kinds of pop — off-the-wall humor, brash innovation, breezy iconoclasm, unstudied charm, reckless energy — along with some of pop's disadvantages: insubstantiality, shallowness, and plain recklessness. That said, both anthologies are way more enjoyable than most collections of short fiction published these days. Avant-Pop is more daring and eclectic than Love Is Strange, and both are mostly made up of previously published material, but both are highly recommended.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1993

* * *

After Yesterday's Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology. Edited by Larry McCaffery Penguin, 1995

Mark Leyner. Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog Harmony, 1995

I read some of After Yesterday's Crash while half-listening to a CD of Balinese gamelan music — gorgeous stuff, what angels on drugs must listen to — and realized I was exemplifying part of what McCaffery was after in this anthology: we live in a world of bizarre conjunctions (in this case, ancient music played on a high-tech CD while reading a book of avant-garde fiction), but too few writers attempt to capture the disorienting mélange of media overkill, global awareness, hyperconsumerism, and sensory overload that makes up postmodern life. Add those other elements that make life in the '90s so interesting — drive-by shootings, phone sex, serial killings, terrorism, AIDS, date rape, conspiracy theories, infomercials, friendly fire — and you've got the world McCaffery's writers have downloaded onto their PCs. Add techniques borrowed from rock music, pop art, television (especially MTV), low-budget films, pornography, cartoons, and other examples of "low" culture, and you've got this lively anthology, one of the best collections of innovative fiction in years.

"Avant-Pop" is a term McCaffery has appropriated from composer Lester Bowie to describe art that mixes pop or low culture with serious, high-culture concerns. In literature, it could probably be traced back to Joyce's Ulysses, where advertising jingles, street noise, and the day's "pop" songs commingle with weightier matters in a stream of consciousness meant to simulate sensory reception; or better yet, to Eliot's Waste Land, with its "samples" from culture high and low mixed into a multilayered word collage (with its footnotes functioning as a low-tech prototype of hypertext). Burroughs and Pynchon further explored these techniques in the late '50s and early '60s, as did the older writers included in the present anthology (Coover, Federman, Katz, Sukenick). Many of the writers in McCaffery's indie forerunner, Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation (Black Ice, 1993), reappear here with new offerings — Stephen Wright, Derek Pell, Eurudice, Mark Leyner, Harold Jaffe, Ricardo Cortez Cruz, William T. Vollmann, Gerald Vizenor — along with a few better-known writers (Don DeLillo, Steve Erickson, Tom Robbins, Paul Auster, Bret Easton Ellis) and a gang of cyberpunks (William Gibson, Mark Laidlaw, Bruce Sterling). It's mostly a guy thing; of the 32 contributors, only five are women.

The hit single from this compilation is David Foster Wallace's "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko," a flawlessly executed neo-Barthian remix of Greek mythology. Also outstanding are Lauren Fairbanks's "Victims of Mass Imagination" and Guillermo Gómez-Peña's "Border Brujo," the few pieces linguistically dense and disorienting enough to simulate the sensory overload and hyperactive stimuli all the contributors address in one form or another. (The other contributors not already mentioned are Rikki Ducornet, Susan Daitch, Craig Baldwin, Craig Padawer, Ben Marcus, Curtis White, Mark Amerika, Lynne Tillman, and David Blair.)

Since Mark Leyner could be Avant-Pop's poster boy — McCaffery calls him "the most intense, and in a certain sense, the most significant young prose writer in America" — it's worth noting he has a new book out. The word Imprints in the title says it all: any other writer would have used Marks; the more precise Imprints, with its police-lab smell of forensic medicine, signals Leyner's greatest virtue: a way with le mot juste even when discussing things as banal as corn dogs. His vocabulary, like Burroughs's before him, often comes from medical technology, and (again like WSB) has a cut-up quality of disparate discourses. (Burroughs, rather than the Mad-Libs ludicrously suggested by the New York Times reviewer of this book, is the likelier source and/or parallel.) There is much in Leyner that reminds me of the late Chandler Brossard (an unsung godfather of Avant-Pop), which is to say he can be extremely funny and is always surprising. Even though Tooth Imprints is basically a random collection of magazine pieces (one of which, "Oh, Brother," also appears in After Yesterday's Crash), it is more creative, more engaging, and better written than three-fourths of the so-called serious fiction published these days.

Félix de Azua

Diary of a Humiliated Man. Translated by Julie Jones Brookline/Lumen, 1996 The narrator of Diary of a Humiliated Man is like [Héctor Abad's narrator] a man at odds with himself, but Spanish author Félix de Azua takes as his models not 18th-century writers but later ones like Dostoevsky and Camus. At a crucial point in his life, the narrator decides to go underground, to live like a stranger in his native city of Barcelona. As the title indicates, the novel takes the form of a diary, eight months in the life of a 47-year-old intellectual who fears he has become a "pious hypocrite." Deliberately seeking a banal, even humiliating life, he begins living a simple existence, only to descend into petty crime, temporary insanity, and homelessness. But he never loses his intellectual acuity — the novel is very erudite and richly allusive — nor his sardonic humor.

Like Ulrich in Robert Musil's Man without Qualities, the narrator is a sardonic commentator on his times: "Humiliated people are recognizable at first sight. We have the blasé, Ciceronian gaze of someone who has seen the universe sink beneath him without a single shot being fired. The ancient Earth has become a phone book. It says nothing at all, but it opens the way to cosmic charlatanism. And it's pricey. Very pricey." The novel is intellectually lively, but many of the cultural observations are not dramatically motivated by the material (as they are in Musil, Dostoevsky, and Camus) but rather superimposed by a brilliant, widely read author with opinions on everything. Nevertheless, it is an original treatment of age-old questions on the nature of sin, good vs. evil, human vs. animal, and so on, and is especially informative about Barcelona and Catalonia in general. Julie Jones's translation is exceptionally smooth and confident.

Nicholson Baker

The Mezzanine Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988

This wonderful novel begins at the bottom of the escalator a young man rides to the mezzanine level where he works, and ends at the top of the escalator a minute or so later. His circumstances at the time of that ride — returning from lunch with a bag containing new shoelaces, carrying a Penguin paperback of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations ("Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!") — provide the contents of the novel: what he had for lunch, why he needed new shoelaces, why he likes Penguin paperbacks, etc., all conveyed in reminiscences, digressions, footnotes (some as long as three pages), lists, and charts.

A mundane, even tedious subject for a novel? Not in this case, for Baker's delightful attempt to document "the often undocumented daily texture of our lives" also encompasses mini-histories of technical advances and human ingenuity in our time, from the workings of the escalator he rides to a celebration of perforation. At the end of a long footnote on "another fairly important development in the history of the straw," the narrator writes: "An unpretentious technical invention — the straw, the sugar packet, the pencil, the windshield wiper — has been ornamented by a mute folklore of behavioral inventions, unregistered, unpatented, adopted and fine-tuned without comment or thought." Giving voice to this mute folklore, the narrator — a Proust of the commonplace, a yuppie Tristram Shandy — links his own emotional history with recent technical advances by way of hundreds of analogies, metaphors, and fanciful comparisons that are so apt, so insightful, and often so amusing that I felt I was seeing the world I live in for the first time — as trite as that may sound. Often I've opened the package of a dry-cleaned shirt, but never have I noticed that "their arms [are] impossibly bent behind them as if each were concealing a present." As this particular image suggests, the narrator regards technical advances not as threats but as gifts, ones that we have taken for granted for so long that Baker has had to rewrap and present them anew in the form of an irresistible novel.

Nicola Barker

Darkmans Ecco, 2007

'Tis the season of huge literary novels. Those of us for whom size matters welcome with holiday cheer Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, James McCourt's Now Voyagers, two new translations of Tolstoy's War and Peace, Paul Verhaeghen's Omega Minor, Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, and the 900-page Adventures of Amir Hamza, an old Urdu novel (by way of Arabia and Persia) newly translated for the Modern Library. Crashing this boys' club from England comes Nicola Barker's 838-page Darkmans, her seventh and longest novel, and a finalist for this year's prestigious Man Booker Prize (which went to a much much shorter novel).

Darkmans records with manic energy a week in the chaotic lives of a dozen characters living in contemporary Ashford, near the entrance to the Chunnel. The cast includes a prescription-drug dealer named Kane, his no-nonsense father Beede, a foul-mouthed, miniskirted teenager named Kelly (my fave), a displaced Kurd, a troubled married couple with a precocious son (he has built a replica of the Cathedral of Sainte-Cecile from matchsticks), an antiques restorer/forger, and the shadowy title character, who seems to be responsible for the occasional supernatural irruptions in the novel. For something strange is happening to some of these characters: mental blackouts, hallucinations, hauntings, confrontations with malevolent birds, and various signs and tokens of the late Middle Ages. Many of the latter concern John Scogin, court jester to Edward IV (ruled 1461-83), and the famous book about him, Scogins Jests, which supplies some of the plot elements in Darkmans. Britain no longer employs court jesters; novelists now fill that function, a job open to members of either sex.

Despite these supernatural elements, Darkmans isn't really an occult novel but a social comedy suggesting the modern world has reverted to the premodern culture of the 15th century, an era of spectacle and over-indulgence, of superstition and conspicuous consumption. Beede owns a copy of Johan Huizinga's classic Waning of the Middle Ages and has underlined the sentence, "So violent and motley was life that it bore the mixed smell of blood and roses."

Life in Barker's England is likewise "violent and motley," bedeviled by many of the same problems we have here in "Yank-land" (as one character calls it): drug abuse, overdevelopment, declining standards, racism, and cultural illiteracy. And with a jester's license to speak truth to power, Barker conveys this in a motley style of great wit and daring. She relies heavily on idiomatic dialogue, deploys unconventional spacing and paragraphing, and exults in startling imagery and extended metaphors (with parenthetical asides), like this riff from Kane on his father's uncharacteristic refusal to meet his gaze:

Unheard of! Beede was the original architect of the unflinching stare. Beede's stare was so steady he could make an owl crave Optrex. Beede could happily unrapt a raptor. And he'd done some pretty nifty groundwork over the years in the Guilt Trip arena (trip? How about a gruelling two-month sabbatical in the parched, ancient Persian city of Firuzabad? And he'd do your packing. And he'd book your hotel. And it'd be miles from the airport. And there'd be no fucking air conditioning). Beede was the hair shirt in human form.


Excerpted from My Back Pages by Steven Moore. Copyright © 2017 Steven Moore. Excerpted by permission of Green Integer.
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