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.

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.)

Over at arts blog Big Other, they’re gathering together a reading group for Flann O’Brien’s great comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds, to be consumed at an approachable-yet-respectable clip of 100 pages/week. See AD Jameson’s post about reading guides for the complex-ish modernist book. But don’t be scared! To fully enjoy O’Brien, you really needn’t be equipped with anything more than a good sense of humor and a love for language. I highly encourage people to read along, or at least check in from time to time to listen in during the ensuing book banter.

JC: John Dermot Woods’  The Complete Collection of People, Places and Things turned out to be one of the highlights of last year’s reading for me, serendipitously finding its way to my doorstep. The surreal little collection is a feast of animated language, whimsical tales and poignancy, and JDW’s many drawings throughout add to the fun. Here’s his contribution – prose and sketch – for our WWFIL series.

John Dermot Woods

The first time I read At Swim Two Birds, it took me two months to finish it, reading it every day. I was enamored with the idea of the book from the first scene of Dermot Trellis, the doomed author, whose characters rebelled against him and hated him, but I kept getting lost. I was living in Dublin at the time (a few blocks from where Flann O’Brien had lived) and studying with one of the foremost authorities on O’Brien at the time, which should have helped things along. But either because of the anxiety of serendipity or the lure of Guinness, I didn’t so much read the book as look at it. Where things really got going for me was at a neurological ward in Prague. I waited for hours while my friend Rob was being diagnosed by non-English speaking doctors for the strange rash that had just turned him into Two Face. Puss-ridden sores and a rosy crust had totally painted the left side of his face over the previous 48 hours, but the right side was untouched. He was told he needed brain surgery and would have to be sent back to Ireland for that. (Turns out he didn’t, but we didn’t speak Czech. They were just telling us they did brain surgery and that they couldn’t help him.) I read At Swim Two Birds while I spent the next two days, perfectly healthy and in Prague for the first time, sitting in a darkened room in an affordable but clean pension, missing out on my European teenage backpacking adventure, so I could apply a thick cream to Rob’s crusty eye every few hours until we could get him on plane. And the trick was, that I had to get the cream onto his eyeball itself, which was hidden by two lids sealed with crust. His eyes could not tolerate light of any kind, so I had to sit by a crack in the shutters to read the book. It sucked to miss a few days of vacation, but the absurdity of that scene seems only right for Flann O’Brien. It’s the closest I’ve come to living a scene from the book. (Rob’s eyes still twitches and reddens when he’s tired, a permanent remnant of the airborne illness he caught during his ill-fated Spring Break.)

Living in New York City isn’t always so great, especially when you’re twenty-two, work in public relations (under the mistaken impression that it funds you better than writing short stories or going to art school), socially awkward, broken up about the loss of some girl or girls, and your dad just died no so long ago, without warning. Through my years, I’ve skillfully avoided entertaining any serious plans of suicide or chemical addictions. Instead, I usually choose making stuff as my chosen therapy. My first girlfriend dumped me and I learned to paint. Next time the world turns black, I think writing short stories will be a fun and positive way to spend my time. Happens again. Hey, why don’t I draw comics? That seems easy. (I choose more difficult, less appreciated, and more hermetic practices each time.) More than really drawing comics (which I learned was painfully difficult and lonely), I began reading comics. And this is when I first read Chris Ware’s depressive masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. While it proved to me that artistic possibilities of the medium and set me on the ill-chosen and molasses-covered creative track that I’m still running along to this day, the utter hopelessness of the book (the vividly expressed generations of hopelessness) did little to assure me that life did in facthave a meaning just beyond my grasp or whatever construct of tomorrow I thought I needed. Moreover, the book itself, the object, such a singular thing of beauty, told to me to give up on all that. It’s all right to give up. Narratives are empty promises, and nothing can be enough, because it has to be-you don’t have any choice. So I quit my job shilling for lame duck dot-coms and moved to Baltimore.

In Baltimore, I met 60 Stories. It was given to me by my friend, a fresh student of Donald’s younger brothers in Mississippi, who repeatedly swore to me, in his booze-tinged Anglo-Indian lilt, “This book is haaaahtbreaking. And that is the only goal of fiction. To break the reader’s haaaht.” He was right about 60 STORIES, at least. It did just that. I thought I was done with sentimental emotional abstractions and pinning my hopes on some metaphysical order. Guess I was wrong. So, how do I explain the change of heart? Flann O’Brien never tried to sort his absurdity, Chris Ware never defines a purpose for his compulsively precise and overwhelmingly complex models, Barthelme tried to trip the story every time it turned its back on him, so I’ll follow them and leave it at that.