Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

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A Nasty Piece of Work In Progress

My hour-long commute home on Friday took an extra four hours. A downed power line stalled my train for half that time a couple miles short of it (my destination a couple miles the other side of it), and electricity was restored only to permit a slow return to the Jamaica, Queens hub, after several other provisional measures (offloading on to a diesel train to the same purpose, or emergency evacuation, as some passengers undertook on their own initiative to the dismay of the train crew and the notification of local police) were mooted. No provision was made at Jamaica other than direction(s) to the bus station a few blocks away (did I mention the freezing rain?), not that any extra buses were allocated until another hour had passed, nor was my inquiry as to my eventual drop-off point answered accurately by the driver (adding another bit of a stroll to the end of the journey).

This provides an apt metaphor to reading Gass' The Tunnel. I've lived inside this book (or vice-versa) for a month, forgoing other novels so as not to confuse the issue; I read slowly, deliberately, even when a text does not seem to demand it -- and demand it this one does: beyond stylistic niceties, the interleaving of many narrative strands requires careful parsing. But for all the pleasures of local density and of complexity, and aside from any repugnance of the narrator and the subject matter (more warp than woof), Gass imposes a dysfunctional author-reader relationship, abusive, a literary sadomasochism, somewhat akin to having Humbert's apologia addressed directly to Dolores Haze. For example, as to the flash & trash I mentioned before, Gass on typography: The meaning is deliberately left ambiguous. But the reader is invited to wonder “what the fuck?” As, indeed, I did, and not only in this instance. Halfway through, I was tempted to set aside the book indefinitely, despite Complete Review's high marks; the only other instance of this (setting-aside) being Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which the nyrb's introduction is provided by Gass. Figures. Anyway, it took a reading of Penguin's selected essays and aphorisms of Arthur Schopenhauer, drawn from Parerga and Paralipomena, to re-engage Gass. (I found Schopenhauer, for all the literary interest he was supposed to have excited, profusely and profoundly even ponderously unquotable, and for whom textual vivisection is too kind a fate.) I can see the point of disconcerting one's audience, but disaffecting them? Even the allusions sully their referents. I see no reason to revise my provisional assessment, retaining the throwaway comment as more comprehensive than I knew, as The Tunnel falls short of the excellence of some of the parts. FWIW, Dalkey provides a casebook, not without its own ambivalence.

(Such a negative response always raises the question of whether I am lacking some capacity for appreciating particular aspects of literature. I don't pretend to any canonical taste; I'm not blogging as some kind of surrogate book-reviewing, but to better formulate, while still fresh, what it is that I found interesting about what I've read. What's interesting in this case is that for all the fine ingredients, the book should fail to cohere, just as the birthday cake [and party] does as the story draws to its conclusion -- but overbaked rather than half-baked. We seem to judge people by the books they enjoy [a narcissism of fictional differences?] no less than we judge the books themselves. My detachment is not a refusal to engage, disinterested isn't uninterested; my inclination is to extend the benefit of the doubt, practice a sort of hermeneutics of suspension of disbelief. A book that doesn't live up to expectations doesn't put me off its author [unless it's taken as epitomic; White Noise put me off Delillo for good]. Others may well find merit in what I find meretricious; this is as it should be. But still ...)

Better reading was had in Eugenio Montale's The Storm and Other Things, trans William Arrowsmith. The only complaint is that the supporting notes are a little overdone, distracting from the poetry. Brodsky put him on my list as well as C.P.Cavafy, up next.


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