Vastness Breeds Craziness

America Divided? Look to the Land and Its Myths

This evening, two thoughts came together in my mind with a kind of grim ferocity. On one hand, I am troubled by the 74 million voters who backed Trump in 2020. Where did they come from? And why?

On the other hand, I read a wonderful essay by Geoff Dyer entitled “Ranging Across Texas” in the July 17, 2020 issue of The Times Literary Supplement. Dyer is one of those writers whose words set me to thinking. Ostensibly, his essay is about his experience reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. In it he quotes V. S. Naipaul who, in writing about John Steinbeck, says, “A writer is in the end, not his books, but his myth. And that myth is in the keeping of others.”

My ideas on this are still not well formed, but I am thinking that there is something about the American landscape and its vastness that gives rise to the crazies who belong to the Oath Keepers, QAnon, the Proud Boys, and others. In the narrowness of the European continent, people have to work together at the risk of repeated mutual slaughters. Americans, however, can hole up in a small town in the middle of nowhere and be as crazy as loons.

America is vast, particularly the West and the Great Plains, where much of Trump’s support is concentrated. (The rest is in the South, where the Civil War is still being contested in slow motion.)

In one of his essays, McMurtry writes:

In time I came to feel that there ought to be some congruity between prose and landscape. You wouldn’t adopt a Faulknerian baroque if your story was to be set on the flat unbaroque plains of west Texas.

I remember my visits to Patagonia where, in the rain shadow of the Andes, where there is almost always a howling wind, there is a similar history of crime and even anarchy.

We don’t much celebrate Columbus Day any more, because we are becoming more acutely conscious of the fact that we massacred millions of Indians for their land. In Patagonia, that was even more of a crime: There are relatively few aborigines in Argentina after the “Conquest of the Desert” of General Julio Argentino Roca in the 1870s.

I guess we have always tried to paper over our crimes with fine thoughts. We just have to recognize, in the words of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, “Hieronymo is mad agayne!”

Serendipity: Calvino’s Ersilia

Giorgio di Chirico’s “Italian Plaza with a Red Tower”

Giorgio di Chirico’s “Italian Plaza with a Red Tower”

I have been reading Italo Calvino’s masterful Invisible Cities, inspired in equal part by Marco Polo’s Travels and the paintings of Giorgio di Chirico. In turn, it inspired Geoff Dyer’s The Search.

Picture to yourself Marco Polo describing to Kublai Khan the cities he has passed through to reach the Celestial Kingdom. Each city is more fanciful than the next. Here, for instance, is Ersilia:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade,  authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

Dragged Kicking and Screaming into the 21st Century

A Brave New World

A Brave New World

It used to be that, in fiction, the story was king—partly, I think, because God was in His Heaven and all was right with the world. A few things have happened since then: two World Wars, terrorism on a global scale, Charles Darwin, contraception, quantum mechanics, the Internet, and the Atomic Bomb. Mind you, I still love the great storytellers, men like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nikolai Leskov (see illustration below), Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, the authors of the Icelandic sagas, and John Steinbeck. But the world has changed, or at least is in the process of changing, and the only people who still stick with the fundamentalist view of society are the United States (particularly in the Bible Belt) and the Middle East (with the Jihadists).

Slowly, I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the postmodernist 21st century. In 1999, Martine and I walked right by the Picasso Museum in Paris without expressing any interest in its contents. I still actively dislike Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and most abstract expressionists. As for much of current architecture, I curl my lips in disgust. As for music, I tend to be pretty conservative, especially as I listen to most music while reading. Perhaps, for the time being, I am interested only in the literary impact of postmodernism. As for the other art forms, perhaps later….

Russian Stamps Honoring Nikolai Leskov, One of the Great Storytellers

Russian Stamps Honoring Nikolai Leskov, One of the Great Storytellers

What started me down this path is my clear enjoyment at reading such authors as César Aira, Geoff Dyer, Juan José Saer, and Samuel Beckett. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe has attempted to define the postmodern artist:

The post-modern artist is reflective in that he/she is self-aware and consciously involved in a process of thinking about him/herself and society in a deconstructive manner, “damasking” [i.e., weaving with elaborate design] pretentions [sic], becoming aware of his/her cultural self in history, and accelerating the process of self-consciousness.

In an interesting Chinese blog by Xiaoqing Liu, two characteristics of postmodernism include “a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problem of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative” and the principle that “the perceiving subject cannot be taken out of the equation.”

One result is that postmodern literature can be painfully difficult to read. There is little respect for straight chronology. Sometimes, as in Geoff Dyer’s The Search, surrealism suddenly intrudes and plays havoc with the susceptibilities of more traditionally-oriented readers.

Still, there are rewards. The Godlike narrator is gone, and time and place are twisted out of shape. One interesting result is that reading becomes an activity similar to crime detection; and that’s partly why postmodernism has certain affinities with the mystery genre.

The painting at the top is by the British postmodern painter Francis Berry and is entitled “Tonic Moment: Search.”




The Melancholy of Departure (and Arrival)

Giorgio di Chirco’s “Gare Montparnasse: The Melancholy of Departure”

Giorgio di Chirco’s “Gare Montparnasse: The Melancholy of Departure”

I usually do not write about a book until I have finished reading it, but I decided that I had to post this while the ideas were still fresh in my mind. Geoff Dyer’s novel The Search (1993) started out as a genre mystery/detection novel, but has transformed into a Giorgio di Chirico painting.

We are in a non-specific country in an area known as The Bay. A man named Walker (no first name given) winds up at a party with his brother and meets an alluring woman known as Rachel Malory and asks him to track down er ex-husband in order to get some papers signed. Walker finds Rachel seductive, but she does not allow herself to be seduced, which only spurs Walker on. Although he does it ostensibly for money, it is really she who is the goal of his endeavors.

So far, so good. But it is not long before strange things begin to happen. First of all, he meets a man named Carver who wants badly to compare notes with him about Malory. When he refuses, Carver threatens to kill him. So while he is chasing Mallory, he is being chased by Carver. Then even stranger things begin to happen:

There was something strange about the city but he was unable to work out what. Then it came to him. There were no trees or pigeons or gardens. Yet all around were the sounds of leaves rustling and the beating of wings, the cooing of departed birds. He was so shocked that he stood at a street corner, listening.

Then there was a closed bridge that was actually vibrating like a plate of Jello in the wind. Walker goes through a series of tatty cities in this strange nondescript landscape. In one, there are no people; and he is able to get a suit and a car without paying for them. In another, there doesn’t seem to be much of a city, but whatever there is is surrounded by a network of wide freeways on which all the motorists are speeding furiously.

There don’t seem to be any clues about Malory, but Carver or some unknown assailant is still chasing him through a series of random cities.

“Enigma of a Day”

“Enigma of a Day”

That’s when I thought of di Chirico, that painter of mysteriously nonspecific cities. Cities like Meridian, Port Ascension, Eagle City, Usfret, Kingston, Monroe, Durban, Iberia, Friendship—the list stretches on. Each town is different from the other, in a sort of alternate United States with black and Latino ghettos. In one unnamed city, he even finds what looks to be a picture of Malory with Rachel.

As the surrealism grows, I almost want to ration the rest of the book so that I don’t finish it too soon.




Last Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film Stalker

Last Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film Stalker

The following is adapted from my review of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room as posted to Goodreads.Com.

What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one loosely based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972), perhaps the most memorable of the Russian brothers’ science fiction novels. Then came Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), ostensibly based on it and, in fact, employing the Strugatsky brothers as screenwriters. Now there is Geoff Dyer’s long essay entitled Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. This last is in a genre by itself, an extended commentary retelling the story of the film with lengthy footnoted riffs about how the film has impacted Dyer’s life and imagination.

All three works are masterpieces in their own right. I have now read both books as well as seen the film, and I yearn to reacquaint myself with all three of them.

Is there something perhaps a little perverse about writing a ruminative essay about something that comes from something else. Have we somehow put ourselves too many removes from the original work by the Strugatsky brothers? Or does it matter, inasmuch as both Stalker and Zona are totally absorbing, as was Roadside Picnic.

Perhaps I should draw back a little and give you some idea of the world of the composite work of art I think of as “The Roadside Stalker Zone.” We are some time in the future, in a grimy post-industrial wasteland in a small country near an area once visited by extraterrestrials who just happened, for whatever reason, to leave strange inexplicable things behind—including a room in a deserted building which, if you enter it, grants all your innermost desires. (Never mind that the only known person to have visited it, a man code-named Porcupine, hanged himself shortly thereafter.)

These zones formerly visited by the extraterrestrials (who have all moved on without getting their visas stamped) have been sealed off by the authorities. But there is an active group of individuals called stalkers who, in contravention of the law, take people to visit the zones and perhaps bring some things back—things which are marvelous and inexplicable. The children of these stalkers are themselves strange, like Monkey, the film’s Stalker’s daughter (shown above), who has the power of telekinesis, which we do not learn until the very end of the film.

Stalker takes two individuals, referred to in the film only as Professor and Writer, into the zone. Their journey is a journey of self-discovery. Do they enter the room? I do not wish to spoil the story for you, so I urge you to consume the entire triptych, in order of publication or release, to come to the same realization that I have arrived at: That Geoff Dyer is a phenomenal writer whose work I am going to enjoy reading in the months and years to come.

Feature Attractions


Tarkovsky’s Stalker

This long tracking sequence, following the trolley as it clanks and clangs along, is the most straightforward journey imaginable—horizontal, flat, right to left, in a straight line—and full of all the promised wonders of cinema. That’s what we are being sold in the trailers that precede what used to be called the “feature presentation”. Unfortunately, this has become the most debased wonder in the history of the earth. It means explosions, historical epics in which the outcome of the Battle of Hastings is reversed by the arcane CGI prowess of Merlin the Magician, it means five-year-old children turning suddenly into snarling devils, it means wrecking cars and reckless driving, it means a lot of noise, it means I have to time my arrival carefully (twenty minutes at least) after the advertised programme time if I am to avoid all this stuff which, if one were exposed to it for the full hour and a half, would cause one’s capacity for discernment to drop by fifty percent (or, conversely, one’s ability to tolerate stuff like this to increase a hundredfold). It means sitting there shaking one’s middle-aged head; it means that one is wary about going to the cinema. It means that there are more and more things on the street, in shops, on-screen and on telly from which one has to avert one’s ears and eyes.—Geoff Dyer, Zona