brothercyst: May 2006

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Interview with John Crowley [contains actual, exclusive news for longtime Crowley readers]


I interviewed
John Crowley, author of Little, Big, The Aegypt Quartet [more about this later - that's the news], The Translator, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, Novelties & Souvenirs, The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, and other books.

He's one of my favorite writers and was also, for a little while, my professor. Little, Big is a novel like no other, and you will hear its fans say things like, "best novel by a living writer" or "among the great 20th century novels" or "best novel of the last 25 years" and so forth.

Of particular note is that the 25th anniversary of Little, Big is around now and with Crowley's blessing and participation, some people are putting together what looks like a beautiful special subscription edition. It's expensive but, well - I ordered one. It looks worth it. Here's the site.

Crowley's also well-known for the Aegypt Quartet. Only three of the books have been published so far. The fourth and final one has been eagerly awaited by readers for quite some time. It is finished but unpublished. There is news - like, actual, exclusive news - about that book in the interview below.

Here's John Crowley's personal site (discussed below in the interview) which he started recently and which is updated pretty consistently with fascinating oddities and valuable reading recommendations.

Here's the "official website " Harpercollins set up for him.

Here's a terrifyingly detailed page by a Crowley fan.

Here's Crowley reading at KGB last fall. This was a good reading; I went to it. Afterward everyone went out and ate Chinese food on St. Mark's Place.

And here's the interview:


Me: You have written the fourth and final book in the Aegypt series, but it is not published. This is annoying. For you it is probably more annoying than it is for me. Are there plans to publish it? How long did it take to write the entire series? Will I ever fully understand what is going on in this series if I don't have a deep and comprehensive grasp of Gnosticism?

Crowley: I'm not able to make the official announcement yet – the publisher wants to prepare his/her own press release announcing this momentous thing – but the book is, three years after its completion, at last going to be published, late next spring, from a surprising source. More on my Internet Journal [see below] when this is closer to actuality. My gratification at this almost allays my deep frustration at the delay in the appearance of what has to be described (whatever its other merits or failings) as the most ambitious thing I've done or am likely to do. The series began to be written in 1981, just after Little, Big came out. So that's a long time. (Other things got written in the interstices.) You don't need a deep and comprehensive grasp of Gnosticism (I don't have one) any more than you do to grasp The Matrix. It's a mythology that describes the world we live in as a false or temporary or ad-hoc construction in which we can never feel at home, within which our deepest, bravest, most agonizing and fearfullest feelings – our heart of hearts – are more real than the physical world we seem to be living in. As the imaginary novelist Fellowes Kraft will note in that now-at-last-to-appear volume, this may not be very much like our actual universe, but it's very much like the universe inside novels, made all of words; and the dilemma of characters in novels, who do not seem to be solely made of words, and who can intimate but never really know their state, is one I ponder.


Me: Little, Big has been probably your most popular novel. Harold Bloom considers it canonical and has said it's one of the best novels of the 20th Century. It is soon to be re-released in what promises to be a gorgeous limited edition if enough people sign up for it. What do you think about the fact that this novel gained such a cult following? Do you look back on it with the same love that many readers and critics do?

Crowley: What moves me most about it is that it is still in print, one way or another. There just isn't anything else a writer wants. You can say it doesn't really matter that your book's out of print, that it's got its ISBN and can't be got rid if, but that's like saying your failed marriage or alienated children are just the way of the world. Why is it loved? I think that in the writing I tried to provide for myself all the satisfactions of Edenic wish-fulfillment, including that dash of grief and longing that makes it piquant; and my wish-fulfillments matched other people's, at least somewhat. That, and people found it surprising to have a story of "enchantment" and wish-fulfillment taken so seriously and given such a full-dress literary treatment. Makes the pleasure less guilty. Do I love it as much? I marvel at it – how shameless I was, how I let so much flow out of me without caution. I love that I seem to have got away with so much. It's possible that it will turn out to be the "best" of my books, the best regarded, which is of course a little painful when so many followed and keep on coming. When Vladimir Nabokov was asked what he thought was his best book, he answered, "The next one."


Me: One of my favorite incidental passages in Aegypt describes Pierce Moffett's experience as a professor, haplessly teaching students who are of a generation that seems "not to understand the nature of evidence." You teach writing at Yale. You were my professor. Do you find teaching writing to insistent and overly ambitious undergraduates like me a) engaging b) frustrating c) simply financially necessary d) other or e) all of the aforementioned?

Crowley: Pierce's experiences were described before I'd ever tried to teach anybody anything. When I came to teaching, I was amazed to find young people (the ones I encountered, anyway, at Yale, and selected by me on the basis of their writing) to be so open-hearted, open-minded, witty, unfooled, and far better writers than I was at their age. I was a little abashed to try to teach them anything, and I think that many were right not to listen anyway, but the act of teaching – of talking about things I know a lot about (the writing life and labor) that almost nobody else wants to hear about but those who aspire to it, and the pleasure of encountering young writers – has been a very great pleasure. The writing teachers in a dozen comic academic novels – failed writers trying to escape a bunch of hopeless, self-regarding, analphabetic and deluded students, or out to lay them – well it's not been like that for me. Now after a dozen years of it I'm a little tired of saying the same things over and over – but that's where that money thing comes in. So far the puzzling thing has been that so many of the very best writers I've encountered have not appeared in print, as far as I know (present company proudly excepted). I think I automatically attribute to the best writers I encounter the other strengths you can't do without – persistence, and a granite ego, and dissatisfaction, and will – which they may well not have.


Me: You started an online journal, which is linked to on this site. I was totally surprised by this. I read it almost every day. For some reason (perhaps it is just my default image of writers) I have always pictured you as a somewhat prickly and reclusive writer who would be averse to jotting down daily musings on the internet. Of course, I am (I think) constitutionally averse to doing this, too, and yet I do it anyway. I like it now. Why did you decide to create a journal? Has it slightly improved your life?

Crowley: Well it was a cold-eyed attempt to raise interest in that limited edition of Little, Big you alluded to, being sold by subscription – if the edition doesn't get enough subscribers, it won't be published, and I'll never see or have it, and it's going to be spectacular. (The site to sign up at is www.littlebig25.com, see what I mean?) But once having started, I found it pretty addictive – not so much my own writing as the responses. I live in a very small town without a lot of literary company; Yale professors tend to flee from downtown and head for the suburbs when the sun goes down – I don't encounter them in the places I go after work on the days I'm down there (though I imagined it would be one of the fun parts of the job). So it's a place to engage with the amazingly witty and welcoming bunch who have found my site, and laugh at their jokes, and respond. Of course it takes up time, but the dirty secret of the writer's life is that you don't, actually can't, spend all that much time writing. A page or two – four if you tear up the first two and start again – isn't a bad day's work. I certainly can't – except in extraordinary circumstances – spend more than three hours at it at a time. A lot of time is spent reading the papers and other "research" or puttering in the garden or other timefillers. So there's this instead. The danger I guess is that typing witty or elegant or impassioned stuff can trick you into thinking you actually are writing.


Me: In the collection Novelties and Souvenirs, there are a number of stories I particularly like. "Snow," which is a story about a facility that stores images recorded over a person's life by a "wasp" that hovers over that person, is one. It turns out though that images cannot be accessed in any organized way, and that the heartsick viewer, re-watching scenes from the life of a loved one, can only access them randomly. Furthermore, the images degrade over time, and, well, yeah...it's strange and sad. And reading it, one slowly realizes one is reading something different from what was expected - not a stereotypical sci-fi story so much as a description of the painful experience of remembering and of re-experiencing loss. You are considered a sort of hybrid sci-fi/fantasy/intellectual/literary author. Where is most of your readership? Do you think about balancing the expectations of different kinds of readers? Does it bother you that your earliest (sci-fi) novels for a long time helped define your reputation?

Crowley: It always seemed to me that the attraction of SF (different from its odd associate or twin Fantasy) was in creating a technology or a scientific structure or a natural event (aliens landing, the world turning to crystal as in Ballard's great novel) that itself would bear the emotional and human burden in the story: not functioning as a symbol of the subject but itself the subject and generating the feelings. I rediscovered fantasy and science fiction in the late 60s, when it had matured into a really interesting form, but still allied to its popular and genre roots (try something like Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss or Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch or, if you dare, Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney to see how far it had got). The genre allowed you to write whatever you wanted and yet live within a literary community that was very welcoming. The difficulty arose when you tried to exchange the currency of SF for what only the genre writers and fans refer to as "mainstream" – it was heavily discounted. Kurt Vonnegut is about the only writer I can think of whose early SF doesn't cling around his reputation. Of course it's easy to go the other way, as Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth (who seems to believe he invented the alternative-history-Nazi-America mode) have all done, without blotting the escutcheon. I don't know. I'm usually satisfied with the bargain I struck. Playing in the big sandbox from the beginning might have only meant getting sand kicked in my face. Books I wrote in the 70s that never sold hugely are still in print [see above] because the SF fans want and need them. And I think that the SF/F genres are actually on the point of dissolution, with books like The Time Traveler's Wife on the one hand and the universal acceptance of fantasy tropes in everything from graphic novels to vast film epics.



Me: I have heard rumors about your next book, the one you are (allegedly) working on now. A relationship, dreams, something... Can you say anything about it?

Crowley: Well I might have hinted at the existence in fetal form of a few different projects. All the ideas I've ever had seem to me to be somehow still extant and every once in a while some concept I had in high school or on acid forty years ago will taxi back and seem to be alive, sometimes only to die again. Having signed a contract, I guess I can say that I am actually working on a novel about people working in a bomber plant in World War II. Most of them are women. One is a disabled man who gets involved with a surprisingly large number of them. The bomber is the great VanDamme Pax B-30, of which a couple dozen were built but which never flew (and which I have in fact invented.) That's all I can say as of now.
This weekend I read a manuscript of Tao's novel EEEEE EEE EEEE. It's kind of like Tao himself in that it's hilarious but once in a while exasperatingly repetitive (as, uh, the title might suggest). I think I actually prefer it slightly to Bed, the story collection, which I also like.

EEEE EEE EEEE also features me as a minor character at the end...a grinning character named Shawn. Shawn says and does things that I said and did, in exact scenes pretty much taken from real life, at least at first. A girl I was seeing last summer also appears as "Lelu," as does the story of how she and I met (saw each other through windows - our eighth floor apartments are across the street from each other)...but then "Shawn" is quickly gotten rid of, and the character who is Tao spends a lot of time talking with Lelu, which made me laugh out loud and say, "Tao...what the fuck?"

Sunday, May 28, 2006

excellent page by former classmate Alex R. Alex is also former president of this defunct comedy group (failed after he left the presidency, though - it flourished when he was in charge).

consistently good writing on his page. despite odd title (and who am I to judge), worth reading on a regular basis. and his recent post about William Trevor is good, and right.

morning

It's morning.

The weather's nice.

My visitor vomited extensively last night.

Time to go to the bakery and buy pastries for breakfast.

And go to the roof.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Nothing in the World (2)

Last night I read Roy Kesey's novella Nothing in the World. It was very good...very strong. There were interruptive italicized stories that I could've done without. They were in third person and distracted from the immediacy of the main character's experience, which Kesey describes powerfully and without misstep.

Interestingly, when Kesey described the book before reading from it a couple weeks ago, he said the main character gets "lobotomized" by flying shrapnel early on. And he does. But he character doesn't change much at all.

The part where he gets captured and tortured for desertion and no one believes him when he tells his name, since he has become a legendary war hero in his absence, is great. The moment where he must steal pears from an orchard and an old man with a stick catches him (then becomes a young man with a rifle and is quickly dispatched) is also nice.

All in all, a pleasurable read. Very short, incidentally - readable in 90 minutes or so.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A spreader of "defeatist propaganda"

A very interesting writer of short stories has come to my attention.

Daniil Kharms

Sort of, maybe, like Cortazar or Gombrowicz, two of my favorites.

I like this story.

And this one.

And this, too.

And especially this one.

Read them, they're really short.

Thanks to Hel O. for the introduction.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The beginning of a new story.

I put melodramatic ellipses at the end because when I post an excerpt here, some people think it's the whole story, and they say, "I kind of liked that...but it was so abrupt. I think it needs...more."

(Actually, I put "..." when it should technically be the slightly less melodramatic "...." but I don't feel like going back and changing the .jpg now.)

Click, then enlarge to read.



Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Nothing in the World

Twice in the past two days, I saw this person Roy Kesey read. Sunday night at KGB and again Monday night at The Back Room as part of an event for Opium Magazine. He read from Nothing in the World, his novella. I liked the first excerpt but didn't have enough money to buy a copy. I really liked it the second time, and I did have the money, so I bought it. If the excerpts he read are any indication, Kesey's a terrific writer, and I'm really looking forward to reading.

Right now I'm rereading American Psycho, though, because I haven't read it since I've been living in Manhattan, which changes one's perspective on certain sections.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Saturday, May 13, 2006

I read The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi this past week, mostly on the subway. It's very good.

Oyeyemi was 18 when she wrote it.

Not sure how old she is now - she was born in 1984. I saw her speak and briefly met her at the PEN festival, which is where I got her book. She seemed nervous and little out of her league on stage (understandable, with Etgar Keret and four other much older authors surrounding her) but her book is totally impressive.

The novel is a ghost story, and I liked that, while it's clearly marketed and intended as a "literary novel" rather than a "genre novel" (don't whine and bitch at me about this distinction; I used quotes, see that?), it isn't, by the end, possible for the reader to legitimately think that "maybe it was all going on in the main character's mind - maybe the book is a sort of psychological metaphor. Wow!" I hate this.

(Despite my love of American Pyscho, which contains many supposedly real scenes that a lot of people believe only take place in Bateman's mind.)

There really is a ghost in the novel, or a demon, that follows a little girl home to Britain from Nigeria and begins tormenting her and hurting her family and friends. Oyeyemi doesn't flinch much as a writer, and I think the ability not to flinch (and I'm not talking at all about violence or sex or content, period; I'm talking about the ability to follow through on a chosen theme or idea or stylistic choice, follow through to the very end...
Denis Johnson does this in Jesus' Son and, not to mention this one book again and again, Ellis does it better than anyone in Pyscho...there are no authorial intrustions in that book, no moments where the author sort of whispers to the reader, "Hey, I know what I'm doing here, don't worry...see, I can describe things with literary flair, even though my protagonist wouldn't see them that way...and I know that murder is wrong, even if my protagonist doesn't..." etc.) is one of the most admirable qualities an artist can have.

In any case, it's a fine book. It isn't perfect, but it is convincing, and it stands on its own - one doesn't feel compelled to bring Oyeyemi's age into the equation when assessing the quality of her writing ('It's really good for a...").

Look, I wrote a whole post about a college-age author without mentioning the name of that plagiarist from New Jersey.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Crowley!

Wow: John Crowley has a livejournal. This is amazing.

I'm not sure why it is amazing, but it definitely is.

Even though I know him, I sort of picture him as this reclusive, slightly cranky genius. Do they have livejournals? I guess so.

Also, I just bought (well, signed up for) what promises to be a beautiful edition of Little, Big, his masterpiece. It's $95, but whatever. Worth it.

He's a seriously intense writer. His novels are mostly about secret histories - fake histories of the world and humankind. And his short stories are frequently brilliant. Read this collection.

A cult exists of people totally obsessed with his writing. I'm not one of the obsessed people, probably because I don't understand gnosticism all that well, but I think he's a fucking great writer and I wanted to study with him since I was fifteen or sixteen.

Crowley was my professor at Yale. I wasn't an English major, so I had to fight to get into writing classes. He taught Advanced Fiction. I submitted my application for the seminar, but since I wasn't an English major, or a creative writing concentrator, and I hadn't taken any of the prerequisites, they just threw my application away and he never even saw it, so I didn't get into the class. But then I tracked him down and he read my writing sample and let me come to class on the first day, and someone who had been admitted decided not to take it, so I got in.

After that I did two independent studies with him, meaning that for a year I wrote on my own and we met from time to time to talk about writing. Technically you're not supposed to do two independent studies, but we sort of twisted the red tape around.

In his most recent posts, Crowley has been talking about gaps in his reading. Fuck, most of the books he's embarrassed he hasn't gotten to yet are ones I've never even heard of.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Best American Fiction of the Last 25 Years.

Beloved? Really?

And for God's sake...Philip Roth is more boring than aspirin.

Blood Meridian I can see. There's a point in that book where you realize you're reading something that will never leave you. For me at least. I remember having that thought somewhere near the end, while the boy and the preacher are being hunted across the desert by the Judge and his man-child sidekick. A bizarre, vaguely Biblical sequence.

Jesus' Son, also. So glad that's on the list. Surprising, too.

And The Known World. Certainly my favorite novel of the last decade. Incredible.

But my personal favorite novel from the last 25 years is nowhere on the list. That book is American Psycho, which in my opinion is rivaled only by Lolita for the twin titles of Most Disturbing and Most Hilarious Book Ever.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

cab driver sex

I just took a cab home from work (which the company pays for, since I stayed so late, and for so long) and met a stereotypically talkative cab driver (accent: Arabic).

(For the most part, I've found cab drivers aren't a very good-tempered bunch [understandable, particularly with the gas prices]. I got into an ugly argument with one the other day when he yelled at me for getting out of his cab while it was stuck in traffic. What was I supposed to do, stay in the cab as charity and have him take me further than I needed to go? Anyway, the cab driver tonight was awesome.)

He said: "I'm tired. Some guy is painting my apartment and he comes at 8 a.m. and I go to sleep at 1 or 2 a.m. I drink like ten cups of coffee a day. Strong coffee. This is my life." A pause. I asked if he was born in New York. "I just got here. Twenty-five years ago." Another pause. We have a little more conversation; I can't remember the transition. "All I do is work and make love. Work and make love. Work, make money, make love. Other people care about stupid things. People get in my cab and ask me about the Yankees. 'Did you see the Yankees?' 'No, I was making love.' What do I care about Yankees. Sex is the only important thing in life. Not the most important thing, the only important thing. If we're all going to die, that's the only important thing, except one thing when we die, which is, Is there a god or not?"

He continued: "Let's say there is a god, he made sex, he put that in us, and so it's good. And even if, let's say there isn't a god, then, well, sex is still in us, so, you see..."

I interrupted, trying to help out: "If there isn't a god, then it would probably be wrong to say that sex is good because it seems not so likely that there would be any 'good' or 'bad' except in each person's personal system, and everybody's is going to be unique even if only in subtle ways. And if that's the case, then sex is a biological drive and it still might actually be defensible in an evolutionary sense, if we assume we're talking kind of colloquially, to say that sex is the 'only important thing' since it's the engine that drives the survival of our species."

Him: "So, right, yeah, then there would be a god."

Me: "Well, that's not really what I --"

Him (sort of wistfully): "Yeah. Sex is the only important thing."


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The excerpted story is called "Amphibian."

excerpt

excerpt from story

As they say on other sites: click for big.

Then enlarge for clear.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

[I'll just say, right off, before I post this, that there is no reason for anyone to read the below. I'm just transcribing dreams.]

A long weekend...a tiring weekend. I had the most bizarre dreams last night. In one, I was in some sort of zany, "gen x" comedy (think Wedding Crashers) in which I was one of the rogueish protagonists, except what we trying to do wasn't seduce women under false premises or anything as simple as that...we were trying to cover up the fact that we had murdered one of our friends. (My actual friends in real life, some old ones to whom I haven't spoken in a long time, were co-starring in the dream.) We had poisoned him over a period of time with some sort of slow-acting poison that, in addition to killing him, caused the fingers of his hand to mutate and fuse together (I believe this detail about the hand is from Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show, which I reread last week) and then we buried him in a swamp. At the end of the dream, somehow, his body showed up, mailed to someone near us (some authority figure) in a large crate. We were afraid, because the appearance of the corpse implicated us, we thought. But then there was a sort of cut to our friend's funeral, and we were the pallbearers, and we were whispering to each other - apparently because his hand had turned into a sort of lumpy tumor, everyone thought he had died of cancer, not of poison. The whole tone of the dream was as if we were just engaging in a sort of boys-will-be-boys mischief.

Then I woke up. It was six a.m. or so. I went back to sleep and had another dream.

In the second one, I was back home in Maryland near the Potomac River, and I was with someone who fell in and presumably died. But for some reason I wasn't supposed to be with that person, so I couldn't tell anyone that he/she had died. Then the police were investigating the disappearance as murder, and they were closing in. Then, somehow, we found the person still alive in the river, and the person was not a person but a small white flimsy bichon frise dog like my grandmother has, except so flimsy and small that it was almost a butterfly. And then, somehow, in the same dream, I was in a house that resembled my high school girlfriend's house, and I was watching a movie of something that was taking place elsewhere in the house: some asian gangsterish villains (like from, say, Hard Boiled) were besieged in a large room by their gun-toting assailants. They were waiting for the attack. But there were tanks of lobsters in the room. Suddenly, instead of a gunfire attack from outside, the lobsters began to explode as if someone had put grenades inside their bodies. The bodies would bulge and the shells would crack and lobster intestines would be suddenly floating around in the tanks.

That was it.

Friday, May 05, 2006

I'm really fucking tired this week. Thinking about starting to write a new story over the weekend.

But the ideas I'm having now are different from what I used to have in somewhat disturbing ways. Ways that feel inconsistent. How important is it to have a "voice" in fiction, I wonder. I mean, if Kurt Vonnegut suddenly wrote a book that was in the style of, say, Nabokov, would that negate his older books and make him less authentic? Would I, reading all his books, have a vague sense that what we think of as his "voice" was faked? That the tone of Slaughterhouse and Cat's Cradle was a conscious put-on, rather than something inherent to him, something directly congruent to his way of thinking and his perspective on life?

That is, if I write grimy realism one month and surrealism the next, am I foundering? It doesn't feel like it. Perhaps it should feel like it. Revising Fires made me wonder about this. I love the book, but it's not something I could write now - it's not a concept that would occur to me.

Going to MoMA now.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I'm bored.

My mind is soft grey cheese.

So is my job.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Two Cloverfield Books

I have written previously about Cloverfield Press, and have been meaning to write about them again. Two of their books arrived in the mail several weeks ago. These are not really books but bound, stand-alone short stories. They are lovely little things, each with a cream-colored dust jacket upon which title, author, and minimalist illustration are gently embossed.

The ones I got are "Gentleman Reptile" by Henry Baum and "The Cubist Infant" by Justus Ballard. I read each twice; both are very good. "Reptile" is the simpler story, about a man who finds out that his daughter has been appearing in internet pornography, then must reconcile his disgust with his own consumption of pornography and supercharged sexual appetite. Up until the end it's a decent story, but the closing paragraphs made me rethink it (although the final sentence is unnecessary, or maybe just too blunt), and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and it became a lot better than just decent.

"The Cubist Infant" is a sprawling fictional account of the friendship between Picasso and Georges Braque. Braque is sexually obsessed with Picasso and somehow becomes impregnated by him. All sorts of jackassery goes on between the two. The story is fascinating if oblique, and it contains perhaps the most stomach-turning birth scene - truly, it is disgusting - that I have read anywhere.

I have two more Cloverfield books coming. I look forward to reading them. I am very careful with the ones I have now. (The same is true of Valzhyna Mort's handbound chapbook, which is sitting on my bookshelf, sort of carefully propped on its own, as I type this.) They're so delicate. I really enjoy having possessions like this.