So Many Solarises

There’s a nice comparison of Solaris (Lem, 1970), Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972), and Solaris (Soderbergh, 2002) over at The Verge:

When the Russian film master Andrei Tarkovsky adapted Solaris, he jettisoned almost all of Lem’s philosophizing. (Like Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey he considered cold and sterile, Tarkovsky took a cavalier attitude toward rendering the work of others.) In some ways, his film is richer for it: where Lem executed a thought experiment about alien contact, Tarkovsky moves the focus away from the ocean planet and onto the people overcome in its wake. Most of the characters remain sketchy in Lem’s depiction, but Tarkovsky gives them personalities and human histories.


Tarkovsky felt like he failed with Solaris because it retained an SF flavor (which he did succeed in stripping from Stalker), but I’m glad that he wasn’t able to rid it of its genre trappings. As it is, Tarkovsky’s Solaris is SF as it should be, concerned with ideas and fleshed-out characters.


The Literary Flâneur Looks at Ravicka

If you find Ravicka on the map, throw the map away. The map is not the territory, no matter what the cynics might tell you. It will keep you from ever finding Ravicka. You will never believe in the city unless you become a part of it.

In the beginning of Renee Gladman’s Event Factory, the narrator arrives in Ravicka, a small city-state possibly located in Eastern Europe. The narrator, a “linguist-traveler,” tells us that “[f]rom the sky there was no sign of Ravicka. Yet, I arrived.”

As a reader of Event Factory, I had the opposite problem: I saw all the signs of Ravicka, but I couldn’t seem to arrive. Before departure I’d read a few reports from other readers, so I knew I was in Ravicka from the yellow sky, from the vitality of the architecture, from the citizens fleeing in advance of an unnamed crisis. But characters didn’t make sense, spaces turned out to be mirages, time stood still/reversed/repeated. Though I was there in Ravicka, I couldn’t get into it; the book held me at arm’s length. Nothing seemed to mean anything.

In her foreword to Jessica Fisher’s book of poetry, Frail-Craft, Louise Glück distinguishes Fisher’s poetry from the poetry of the Modernists, pointing out that for the Modernists the meaning of the work was of paramount importance. In contrast, Fisher and her contemporaries, she argues, write about the moments before meaning coalesces from chaos. It is not that meaning is less important to them—it just hasn’t arrived yet.

When I applied this idea of deferred arrival to Ravicka, I found it was easier to understand. Rather than trying to get somewhere, I just hung around like a literary flâneur and observed the city.

If you want to know what happened, click here to read my Music & Literature review of Renee Gladman’s Ravicka novels, Event Factory, The Ravickians, and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge. 

The Stages of My Reading Life

Discovering that the Hardy Boys books were ghost-written.

Discovering that the Hardy Boys books were largely the same story told over and over.

Discovering that the earliest versions of particular Hardy Boys stories (in the books with the brown covers) were actually longer than later versions and filled with more complex sentences.

Chucking Hardy Boys books altogether.

Reading Michael Crichton’s The Lost World until my mom found out that there were cuss words in it.

György Lukács, Creator of the Star Wars Franchise

J.W. McCormack on a film adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666:

In fact, the blockbuster potential of 2666 should be obvious to any reader who has braved its something-like-900-page-length. It is manifestly what György Lukács, creator of the Star Wars franchise, called “the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given…yet which still thinks in terms of totality.”

To read more, click here.

A Letter Addressed to Those I Love (about J.C. Hallman)

Author and 2013 Guggenheim fellow J.C. Hallman will be reading from Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love and the Letters between William and Henry James at Magers and Quinn at 7:30 tonight (4/23/13).

From the introduction of the book:

[Emerson] was most fond of letters addressed “to anyone whom I love.”

Emerson’s longing for intimate letters offers a clear contrast to modern “correspondence,” such that it is. The infection of monotone prose appears to have grown only more virulent, more gangrenous, and whatever we write these days, be it letters, or memos, or blogs, either electronic or “hard,” is not addressed to those whom we love–rather, it is ‘released’ to whomever it may concern.

I think that’s why I began to feel as though Wm’s letters were addressed to me: because no other letters were addressed to me.

And here I go, releasing this on a blog, but I love you all. (Can’t you tell from my prose?)

If you want to hear Hallman read from the book this quote is taken from, be at Mager’s and Quinn tonight at 7:30.

Also, the book is a beautiful thing.


The Essential American Novels?

This fall I’ll be teaching an undergraduate course on the American Novel, and I’m putting together the reading list. At this point, I’m pretty sure of a few texts, but I’m wondering what other texts/authors people think ought to be covered in an American Novel course.

Here’s what I have so far:

Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)

20130214-205035.jpgIn grad school I took a class on trauma in slave narratives, and for a moment, I toyed with the idea of writing a new version of Harriet E. Wilson’s autobiographical novel, Our Nig. In my version, Wilson’s protagonist, Frado (known to her owners as “Nig”), would be Samuel L. Jackson. I never figured out how it would work—would Frado look and sound and act like Jackson, but still be based on Wilson? Or would Nig be Samuel L. Jackson through the power of pastiche or some trick of space-time? However it worked, I knew one thing for sure. Instead of taking the punishment dished out by her owners in the book, Harriet E. S. L. Jackson-Wilson would call said slave owners every name in the book, then kill them before lighting out for the territories. Or maybe she would set up housekeeping on the old plantation and plant the seed of revolt. I wanted a story to match the rage that had been building in me with each narrative we read.

Instead, I abstracted that rage away with a seminar paper filled with academic jargon.

Anyway, Wilson’s story of Frado is one I’ve been itching to get back to, and here’s my chance. As an autobiographical novel, it will give the class an opportunity to explore the conventions of the novel.


Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)


In undergrad this book got under my skin. Technically not a novel but a short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio is an examination of humanity that is simultaneously cloying and clear-eyed. As a student, I identified with George Willard, the young man who eventually leaves Winesburg for the city. When I last taught a few of the stories, I wondered if I was still George or whether I was in the process of becoming the mother who sent him away.

I’ll teach it if for no other reason than it was an obvious influence on Ray Bradbury, and I very much doubt I’ll slip The Martian Chronicles or Something Wicked This Way Comes into the class.


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1964)

The_man_in_the_high_castleGiven half a chance, I’d have students struggle with the very different divine encounters of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, but topic of The Man in the High Castle (an alternate post-WWII USA where the Axis powers won the war) is just too good to pass up in a course about the American novel. I mean, what are we if not Nazi-beaters?

The Man in the High Castle is the only of Dick’s novels to win a Hugo, a distinction that may help it past muster with the powers that be. Also, the word is that it will soon be turned into a miniseries by Ridley Scott.


Kind One by Laird Hunt (2012)

cover_kindoneKind One is the kind of book I wanted to transform Our Nig into. It’s a tale of revenge, yes, but Hunt’s lyrical and elliptical storytelling keeps it from being understood as merely about revenge. Perhaps by the time students get to Kind One, they’ll be ready to trace the narrative threads that wend through the novel.

I was thinking of having students read a different Coffee House Press book, Leaving the Atocha Station, but I’m thinking that Kind One will provide a nice counterpoint to Our Nig.

Look for my review of Kind One in the Spring issue of The Quarterly Conversation.


So that’s what I have so far. Only one canonical text and that one’s not even a proper novel. I’ve been thinking of adding Melville, Hawthorne, or Cooper on the recommendation of D.H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature. I might use The Road (which Rohan Maitzen is discussing on Novel Readings today) in order to get one of Bloom’s Big Four into the class.

Who would you cover in a course on the American novel?

Otherwise Known as My Condition

photo (2)Then, after an interminable amount of time, the back of the old gentleman in front of me shifted out of the way, and I stood face-to-face with Geoff Dyer. Just before the old gentleman moved, as his small talk with Dyer wound down, I realized that there was a rather high probability that I was about to freeze up, and I began to panic.

There was something familiar about meeting Dyer in the flesh. It wasn’t déjà vu, exactly, more like confirmation of a hidden, oft-experienced reality. Every time I sat down, sprawled out, or hunched up with Out of Sheer Rage or Zona or Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, I came face-to-face with Geoff Dyer.

So here we were again — Geoff and I — meeting with a book between us. But this time was different: this time the book was closed. Because we were in the same location, the 3rd-floor catwalk of the Minneapolis Central Library, there was no need for the book to act as go-between. The normally talkative Geoff Dyer sat quietly behind a table. This time he would open the book, and I would say something.


It’s probably too late to tell you that I have a literary crush on Geoff Dyer, but I didn’t know about this crush myself until after I’d met him. I knew going into the library that he was one of my literary heroes, but I’d masked the depth of my feelings behind the language of competition.

I discovered Dyer when J.C. Hallman recommended I read Dyer and Nicholson Baker as examples of critics who “projected consciousness” onto the page. As I read them, I was jealous of their ability to mine their own lives for writing material. At least I thought I was jealous at the time. I now realize that what I was feeling was my consciousness uncurling. In the two of them, I saw a way forward for myself, a way to move from aping the garrulous David Foster Wallace and his footnoted footnotes to writing as the less-garrulous but still chatty Chris Fletcher.

First I read Baker’s U and I, a book that started as an essay on the author’s feelings about the work of John Updike (the “U” of the title). Reading Baker induced in me a kind of highway hypnosis. I’d start out watching Baker exchange his 500 pennies for a $5 bill and a hamburger at McDonald’s, pass a paragraph on William James on the left, rubberneck an “esophagus waggling like an unruly forelock” on the right, and begin to nod off at the approach of a “capelli d’angelesque decorative marking.” I’d come to my senses at the next mention of McDonald’s, but sometimes there was nothing to snap me out of the hypnosis for pages and pages. In those cases, the hypnosis would wear off, and I’d groggily skim ahead to the next identifiable landmark. Reading through Baker’s consciousness was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting.

I avoided reading Out of Sheer Rage for a while because I feared that introducing Dyer into the same cramped quarters as the ursine-looking Baker (who seemed unlikely to budge for the skinny Brit) would lead to a cranial blowout on my part or, at the very least, a honey of a pressure headache.

My fears on that account were, like most of the fears I’ve had throughout my life, unjustified. While Dyer was as much a consciousness-projector as Baker, reading him was like throwing open the windows after a long hibernation.

The differences between U and I and Out of Sheer Rage remind me of the differences between the video games I played growing up. As a video game, U and I would limit the player to first-person mode. And looking through the eyes of a digital avatar can be dizzying, as I found out one motion-sick Christmas.

I was playing Dark Forces, not U and I, but the effect was the same: from time to time I looked up from a furrowed squint to squeeze the bridge of my nose and rub my eyes, which would buy me a few more minutes inside the head of the space smuggler Kyle Katarn. A decade later I was in the head of Nicholson Baker doing the old squeeze and rub to buy time.

As Baker, the reader must put pen to paper and make lists of things Baker remembers about the works of Updike. The reader must scratch Baker’s psoriasis. The reader must dicker with the editors of The Atlantic over the length of the long essay she writes though Baker as she also writes the book the essay eventually becomes. Even though the Baker consciousness branches and doubles back on itself, the reader must march in lockstep in order to progress through the narrative. There is no room for heading down another fork and meeting up with Baker at another juncture. Throughout, the action is relentlessly internal. After all, U and I is a book about the process of writing a book.

Out of Sheer Rage, on the other hand, is a book about not writing a book, and so Dyer is free to do more things the reader can see. Here he is in his London flat hefting the collected letters of D.H. Lawrence against the weight of Lawrence’s selected letters; here he is not reading D.H. Lawrence in Greece; here he is crashing a moped in Italy. As a video game, Out of Sheer Rage would let the player toggle back and forth between first-person and third-person.

Dyer can be as inwardly focused as Baker, but there is space between the first-person and third-person modes of play for the player to insert themselves into the story. At least that was what I was able to do. While watching Dyer roam the Continent not writing his book about D.H. Lawrence, I saw myself. Like Dyer, I write about myself because I’m the one subject always at hand, and in writing about myself, I usually end up writing about my intended subjects.


So I said “Hi,” thrust my book at Geoff Dyer, and stood there screaming inside my skull as he looked at the sticky note on the cover. (The sticky note had been given to me as I stood in line, and I had written my name on it in order to avoid any sticky spelling situations. It wouldn’t do for Dyer to inscribe my book to “Kris.”) Should I tell him that he is to me what Thomas Bernhard is to him? Should I tell him that he’s actually heard of me, that I’m the anonymous student who, a year or so back, had told Hallman that Zona was forthcoming? Should I tell him that I’d almost brought Zona for him to sign because I loved the film on which it was based — Tarkovsky’s Stalker — as much as he did but decided on Otherwise Known as the Human Condition because the book gave me hope for my own future as a writer of essays that take as their subject my reaction to the subject ostensibly under observation?

Geoff Dyer turned to my wife Bethany and asked which of us was Chris, which was good for one of those laughs that eases the tension of a socially awkward situation that doesn’t have to be awkward but is because I’m thinking too hard about what to say. Seizing the opening, I joked that I’d thought about having my wife bring one of my books to have signed to “Chris” because I was too embarrassed to bring a stack of books for him to sign. He said that he’d felt the same way in the past. I thanked him, the “you” getting stuck in my throat, and we left.

Walking out into the cold Minnesota air, I unfroze. Filled with self-recrimination, I blathered about what I should have said to Geoff Dyer: I’d enjoyed his piece in The New York Times, the one about going to a dinner party and bringing half a dozen books for Martin Amis to sign despite the social faux pas such a move is. Remembering the essay while getting ready to leave for the reading that evening, I took the wrong lesson from it. I decided to bring only the one book, but I should have followed his lead, bringing all of my books to be signed. Had I said that, I could have forged some sort of connection, shown that I’d read and related to his work and hadn’t just picked up a copy of the book he’d talked about that night.

My wife, seeking to reassure me, told me not to worry, that Geoff Dyer wouldn’t remember me anyway. This truth was strangely comforting. I realized I didn’t want talk to Dyer anyway. I wanted to project my consciousness for him. I wanted him to experience his writing through me, something I could never accomplish face-to-face.