Recent Work By John Madera

You’ll find decades-long repressed memories dislodged in Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Daydreaming Boy, where eyebright prose perfectly puts across a distressed narrator’s unrestrained thoughts. Orphaned in the midst of Turkey’s massacre of the Armenians, Vahé Tcheubjianthrough descriptions of unfulfilling trysts, brutal flashbacks, disturbing dreams, bizarre encounters with a monkey at the zoo, and imagined conversations with the mother who abandoned himconfronts his denials and ultimately challenges his very identity. Mirrors are Vahé’s tools for examining his past and its resultant pain, but it is the warped reflections of funhouse mirrors that he ultimately sees: distortions abound: here one stretches, this one condenses, and still another magnifies.

The trouble with discussing what you’re reading is that you might sometimes be clobbered by someone else’s dislike of the book you’re reading, a dislike sometimes felt and then expressed without their having read said book. It’s something I’m sure to have done, too, with books and just about everything else, forgetting the wise admonition to never “yuck somebody’s yummy”; and, perhaps in some kind of karmic retribution for my past, and surely upcoming perpetrations, of said admonition, when I’d recently mentioned I was reading Finnegans Wake (I’ve since finished it, falling way short of my goal to read it in as close to a single sitting as possible (it took me seven days, the significance of the number exaggerated in my mind)), trying to stay up while reading about someone who was, presumably, asleep, I received a few “yucks,” including, “I tried reading it, but I only know how to read English,” or something of the sort, the comment meant as nothing more than a joke, but, as we know with most jokes, it revealed an underlying belief, and the belief here was that Finnegans Wake is at best incomprehensible to readers, excepting the few academics still wheezing around in the dusty stacks, expert at splitting all kinds of exegetical hairs; or is, at worst, just a hodgepodge of navel-gazing jabberwocky. Joyce, however, quoted in Derek Attridge’s The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, would disagree: “If you take a characteristic obscure passage of one of these people [modern writers] and asked him what it meant, he couldn’t tell you; whereas I can justify every line of my book.”

As part of my preparation for my interview with William Gass, I began April with a reread of Conversations with William Gass. Once again, I highly recommend Conversations as it offers a great mind essaying off-the-cuff, and doing it brilliantly. I followed this with a reading of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, another of Gass’s fifty literary pillars. It’s an incredibly elaborate orchestration of metafictional play and stylistic counterplay. Seamless collage of seemingly disparate elements like pulp genres, Irish folklore and mythology, and frame within a frame within a frame tales is one mark of its formal inventiveness. One of the joys of At Swim is getting tangled in, and having to disentangle yourself from, the various threads, and following all the characters in and out of their nested boxes. As to be expected from a novel about a writer writing about a writer writing a novel, there’s a lot of commentary about writing: “There are two ways to make big money, he said, to write a book or to make a book.” And this was the remark that “provoked” a group of pseudo-intellectuals to have a “discussion on the subject of Literature-great authors living and dead, the character of modern poetry, the predilections of publishers and the importance of being at all times occupied with literary activities of a spare time or recreative character.” Love that capital “L” there! This whole passage, with the bits about how the room “rang with the iron of fine words,” how the “names of great Russian masters were articulated with fastidious intonation,” and how psychoanalysis “was mentioned-with, however, a somewhat light touch,” is hilarious. And I think this statement: “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another,” is critical, too, since it’s a justification, of sorts, of all the overlapping and juxtapositions of characters and settings throughout the course of the novel.

Considering my ever-detouring approach to reading, I think it’s appropriate that March for me began with Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, a series of transcribed lectures conflating the telling and writing of stories with Jorge Luis Borges’s metaphor of the woods as a garden of forking paths, or, as Eco puts it:

Woods are a metaphor for the narrative text, not only for the text of fairy tales but for any narrative text. There are woods like Dublin, where instead of Little Red Riding Hood one can meet Molly Bloom….Even when there are no well-trodden paths in a wood, everyone can trace his or her own path, deciding to go to the left or to the right of a certain tree and making a choice at every tree encountered.

In my darker moments, usually after being away from art for some hours, and, mind you, this doesn’t just mean literature, but paintings, sculpture, film, or whatever, I start feeling kind of jittery, but the darkness takes on an especially despairing hue when I start to think about the pronounced lack of ambition and its concomitant general distrust of virtuosity in the contemporary arts scene. Sure, I’m guilty as anyone else of romanticizing past eras, characterizing them as golden ages, when of course the amount of dross to gold has always been grossly disproportionate all throughout history. However, these necessary caveats do little to assuage my disappointment with the various contemporary scenes and milieus. That said, there are, of course, massive exceptions, and fortunately these examples do provide respite from our consumerist culture’s celebration of mediocrity, its wallowing in sloppiness. For instance, as I write this, I’m listening to Beirut’s odd fusion of folkloric textures from the Balkans and Eastern Europe with pop forms, all seamed together by Zach Condon’s plaintive, Jeff Buckley-influenced vocals (something which would normally annoy me but, strangely, as with Andrew Bird, the sincerity of the voice outweighs the obvious debt, and it might be because Condon also blends a bit of Robert Smith’s melancholy and Morrissey’s effete tonality). And during February, when New York City’s interminable winter and its resultant gloom invariably descends upon my household, well, upon my partner, but somehow it ends up being the primary theme anyway, I pulled through with books by William Gass, continuing my plan to consecutively read (and reread some of the books) his complete oeuvre. (I should mention that writing with music on is near impossible for me to do these days, and it is an incredible struggle for me to do this now, but there’s a feeling I want to stay in, and Beirut is helping me do that.)

Coming up with a name for something is always fraught, and so naming my column here at The Nervous Breakdown proved to be challenging. While definitely easier than naming my daughter (sometimes I think it makes sense to wait until a child has reached a certain age to give them their final name) it nevertheless was still difficult. What I’ll be doing here is sharing my thoughts about the books I’ve read over the past month, why I’ve chosen them, where they’ve taken me, how they’re impacting me as a writer and a reader, and also, perhaps, offering you some detours, the kinds that will tempt you away from the computer screen and, yes, crack open (but please, not the spine!) some books. They are our friends. With this focus in mind for the column, some of the names I came up with were “Silverfish for Bookworms” (it’s one I’d used for my own blog and wished to resurrect, but I really wanted something new); “Once Upon a Time They Lived Happily Ever After” (a good title, but since it potentially narrows down my focus to “stories” instead of opening to include all fictions, I dropped it); “Babbling About Books” (yes, it’s corny but it did lead me to think of the next one which I also liked); “From the Desk of Babel’s Librarian” (I’m always happy to associate myself with Borges); “Well-Read Man’s Float” (I really liked this one, too, but it sounded kind of cocky and while “Unread Man’s Float” seems closer to the truth, it also felt wrong); and lastly, “A Community of Words” (it’s what William Gass calls texts—more on him later). But I finally came up with “A Reader’s Log(orrhea)”. Beware! The writing here will be unapologetically excessive and wordy, and maybe even (gasp!) purple. Here we go!