Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I knew his type and was not surprised

I'm reading short novels right now as a stopgap measure until Mighty Reader finishes her Beverly Nichols so we can do our William Goldman readalong. Won't that be fun? Yes, it will. The short novel I picked up this afternoon after finishing Herman Melville's novella Benito Cereno (Spoiler: it's a slave uprising on the boat, and Melville telegraphs that punch from about the second paragraph; I can't believe this lethargic novella was written after such great works as Moby-Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener. It's just not very good.) is John Hawkes' Death, Sleep & the Traveler.

I hadn't heard of Hawkes before early this week, when an old band mate of mine quoted him at me. "Sounds like a pompous ass, one of those postmodern writers who have no technique so they try instead to be original," I thought. So I followed my curiosity and found one of Hawkes' books and now I'm reading it.

The writer I'm most reminded of is Nabokov. Hawkes doesn't have Nabokov's playful and intricate command of form; he's not building a puzzle box even though the narrative is fractured and told out of turn. You can piece together the story fairly easily, actually. But what Hawkes does have is the tone of Nabokov's first-person narratives. Here, the protagonist (a Dutchman named Allert Vanderveenan) is on a cruise ship, having lunch. His wife has sent him off on this cruise alone while she stays home and has an affair with their friend Peter. Allert knows about this affair; he and Peter and Ursula have had a menage a trois going for some time. The protagonist does not want to be on the boat. He doesn't want to be on vacation, and he doesn't want to have to find his way socially among a ship full of strangers:

The ship veered slightly, the sun flashed, two black-jacketed men began setting before us the low flat silver tureens filled with the tepid consomme and green garnishes and puckering chunks of lemon. I admitted to myself that the soup deserved some sort of public comment.

"This consomme," I said quietly, "has been siphoned from the backs of lumbering tortoises whose pathetic shells have been drilled for the tubes."

The silence, the singing of the crystal, the plash of water filling the goblets, the bent heads, the sun on the naked shoulders of the girl who was wearing pants and a halter, all this told me that I should not have spoken, should not have revealed in hyperbole my loneliness, my distaste for travel, my ambiguous feelings about the girl.

Later, a murder (possibly committed by our hero)! And a trial! And Ursula leaves Allert because he is Dutch, and she finds the Dutch to be dull.

"Yes, Allert," she said, "I am going to find somebody very different from you. An African, perhaps, or a moody Greek."


  1. I can't decide from this excerpt if this is something I would enjoy. But I did end up reading it more than once, so that's a good sign!

    Are there Tolstoy novellas on your reading list? Hadji Murad? Death of Ivan Ilyich?

  2. I have two books of Tolstoy stories that I keep meaning to pick up, but they're filed under "T" on the main shelves instead of on the designated "to be read" stack, so I keep forgetting about them. I'll move them to where I won't forget them. Unless I forget to. Which might happen. I am pointing to my head and saying, "it's a mess in here."

  3. I don't know if you'd like this book, though in ways it reminds me of Bread. I think Hawkes is worth reading, though. When I bought this novel, I bought the other two Hawkes novels that were on the shelf with it: The Lime Twig and Blood Oranges. I don't know if I'm going to jump right into those next. Probably not. Maybe I'll read some Tolstoy.

    Maybe what Hawkes does in Death, Sleep... was groundbreaking in 1973 American literature, though the European modernists got there fifty years before America did, and Murakami uses a lot of these tricks in the way he fractures his narratives, so I don't think there would be any formal surprises for you. Still, there's some good stuff going on with this novel, especially in terms of figurative langauge, character and voice. It's a very efficient narrative, too; there's no wasted effort and even when the images are complex and lush, the energy is concentrated and high-powered, if that makes any sense.

    I'll also say that there were passages that I appreciated as a writer, but didn't exactly enjoy as a person. Which is not a negative comment.

  4. Ah, the fractured narrative. It seems like everything I do has a fractured narrative. In my next book my narrative will be unfractured. Or at least, I'm starting with the mindset of having it be unfractured.

  5. The linear experience of life is what's fictional. Nobody's mind stays always in the present. Nobody I want to meet, anyway.

    My narratives are usually linear but filled with flashback loops. My next book will be told in reverse order, three times, with the final scene interrupting the narrative all through the book. I don't know from whom I have stolen that idea but I'm going to run with it and see what happens. Before that, I think I'm going to quickly write a nonlinear novella based on Moby-Dick. I'm going to call it There Once Was a Man From Nantucket and it will consist of excerpts from Captain Ahab's diary. I am not joking.