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What’s the hurry, son?

hocus pocus

Hocus Pocus tells the story of the life of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran and a former college professor who, while awaiting trial in prison and dying slowly of TB (cough, cough), considers the final tally of two activities he excelled at throughout his life; the number of people he killed during the Vietnam War, and the number of women he slept with throughout his life. Mild spoiler: the number is the same for both (and it’s pretty high). In his confinement, he scribbles on hundreds of pieces of paper to form a fragmented narrative

The events that occur are always slightly eccentric, and stretch belief – I often find Vonnegut narratives are like fairy tales loosely grounded in reality. In Hocus Pocus, we hear of a prison riot (inspired by the Attica Prison riot in 1971), where the all-black inmates march across a frozen lake and begin opening fire on civilians of the town, taking the professors at a college hostage and even shooting and crucifying a member of the staff. There is a genetic craziness that affects Hartke’s mother-in-law, and eventually Hartke’s wife, and potentially any further women who share the ticking time-bomb genes. A computer program called GRIOT can give an approximation of what sort of life a person may lead based on an existing database of other people, with the variable information needed being: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.

It’s bonkers, but this is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, so it should be expected. In his uniquely satirical way, Vonnegut points a finger at the wrongs, the injustice in the world. Hocus Pocus contains his views on the Vietnam War, the treatment of veteran soldiers, the careless destruction of the environment, the divide between the rich and poor, the state of America’s prisons, and so on. Really, in this novel more than his others, it’s difficult to prioritise one particular theme here. Vonnegut simply does what he does best – he preaches, with sharp humour and ominous warnings, without the patronising superiority and condescension.

That said, Hocus Pocus is not one of Vonnegut’s stronger books. Unlike Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan – I think Hocus Pocus,  published in 1990 and Vonnegut’s penultimate novel, is for the most part, forgettable. It’s enjoyable, it’s humorous, it’s touching, but unlike the very best he wrote, I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking over the book since I finished it. Or maybe I have. The beauty of Vonnegut’s stories is that, amongst the despair and suffering and sadness, there is hope and beauty. I like to think the impact of his books never truly leaves your subconscious.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, is a monstrous creation of twentieth century literature, a harrowing and sprawling massacre, biblical in scale and tone. The majority of the book takes place in the borderlands of southern United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time of conflict and war for land, boundaries and culture. Irregular US army outfits push into Mexico to claim land for America, encroaching on the regions of Native Americans who hunt, and are hunted by, mercenaries in the thriving market for indian scalps. More closely, the narrator follows ‘The Kid’, a young adolescent who leaves home and becomes entangled with a group of depraved scalp hunters, led by John Joel Glanton. Together, the ‘Glanton Gang’ carve a bloody swath through the borderlands, initially hunting Indians for the bounties on their scalps, before turning their guns and knives towards any living being in their path, peaceful indigenous tribes and innocent citizens, to fulfil their desire for sadistic pleasure or senseless nihilism or something else entirely.

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On criticism of McCarthy’s Western odyssey, there is none more discussed than the use of violence. Brutal, gratuitous, humiliating, terrifying, nauseating. Blood Meridian chronicles the murder of men, women and children, the rape and destruction of entire communities and towns, the scalping and mutilating of corpses who even in death cannot rest. The Wild West is a nightmare world and bloodshed is its currency, it is the. But more unsettling than any of the countless encounters which end in death and desecration, is the presence of one man throughout, Judge Holden.

Blood Meridian is full of terrible characters, and all men in this tortured land can be considered villains. McCarthy heavily researched and based the Gang’s sordid exploits on the memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue, and Chamberlain confirms he rode with John Joel Glanton and his outlaws between 1849 and 1850. The Glanton Gang’s penchant for violence is nauseating, but the role of a true antagonist in the novel is slowly but surely filled by the Judge Holden, arguably one of literature’s greatest. Shall we start with appearance? “Immense and terrible”, the judge stands at seven feet tall, massive in frame, extremely pale white flesh, and a giant dome of a head, completely bald and lacking any body hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes. He stands out of any crowd and is instantly recognisable. Holden is first encountered by the Kid early on in the novel, at a tent revival in Nacogdoches, where he incites a crowd to physically attack a preacher, and whom before being engulfed by the crowd, calls the judge out as the devil. An early glimpse that this man is capable of easily influencing the minds of men.

The reader comes to know Holden as a professional scalphunter in the Glanton gang, when the Kid and Toadvine are recruited by Glanton from a jail in Chihuahua, and while Holden’s talent for violence and killing is clear, it becomes evident that the judge is successful at anything he puts his hand to. As Tobin the expriest says, ‘a dab hand’. And through late night conversations around campfires or in darkened taverns in foreign lands, Holden displays preternatural knowledge and skill for paleontology, linguistics, law, philosophy and more. He is articulate and persuasive. His strength and movement is unnatural (he is an excellent musician and dancer) with fast reflexes and a skilled marksman. Several of the gang refer to meeting Holden at some point in the past. All agree, he seems not to age a day.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Some scholars have highlighted ‘gnostic’ elements present throughout Blood Meridian. By no means an expert, I’ve understood Gnosticism to refer to religious beliefs and systems which understand the material/physical world and the human body to contain the Divine spark, which can be translated as knowledge or knowing, and the judge represents a demiurge, the ruler of the material world, often malevolent or an archon, a kind of demon. Certainly, the nature of the judge’s chilling views suggest he holds some higher status over the human race, particularly when he explicitly expresses to want to be a ‘suzerain’.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

Whether or not McCarthy intended Holden as a gnostic archon or not, the first time I read Blood Meridian, I had a theory that the judge was,  if not the Devil himself, some other demon or evil incarnate, with whom Glanton struck a deal. The Glanton gang are gifted – miraculously talented – at killing, becoming an almost unstoppable force of merciless savagery. And for the scalps they take from men, woman and children they are rewarded with currency, food, liquor. Glanton is despicable and the undisputed leader but he seems to listen to the judge, and values keeping Holden with the gang, as evil and unsettling the presence of the judge may be. Once Glanton died, the ‘deal’ was broken, and this lead to the harrowing pursuit by Holden of the Kid and the expriest through the desert, to collect debts. Of course, this might have made sense if the judge did kill Toadvine and David Brown, but it is revealed they died the following year, hung publicly in Los Angeles. In subsequent readings the theory seems a little heavy handed, but it did make some sense when the judge returns at the end of the book to confront the Kid. Regardless, it’s clear to me the judge is not merely a man.

He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

There is plenty of speculation of the fate of the Kid, now a man, at the end of Blood Meridian. The judge appears to ambush the Kid in the jakes outside a saloon, naked, and ‘gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh’. The narrator chooses not to reveal the kid’s fate, and the only words an onlooker can mutter when witnessing the scene is “Good God almighty”. In a book which graphically depicts shocking violence throughout, something happens in the jakes that is indescribable in its horror. A haunting ending, one where the judge returns to the saloon to dance into the night, boasting that he never sleeps and he will never die.

John Steinbeck is one of the great American writers. His novels and short stories frequently took place in southern and central California and often focuses on themes of love, fate and justice, with ‘everyman’ – often terribly flawed – central characters. After the world celebrated Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, after a body of work containing the Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath, and other notable works such as Cannery Road and Of Mice and Men. But it is the epic East of Eden, published in 1952, that Steinbeck considered his magnum-opus. “There is only one book to a man”, Steinbeck famously wrote of East of Eden, a 600 page novel set in the Salinas Valley, California, at the turn of the 20th century.

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The narrator tells the story of two families – the Trasks, headed by Adam, and the Hamiltons, headed by Samuel – as their lives intertwine over several generations in the rich farmland of the Salinas Valley. I won’t go into any more detail than that – I can’t, not without writing another thousand words – but East of Eden is heavily influenced on the Bible’s Book of Genesis, especially the story of Cain and Abel, and the struggle for their father, Adam. The title itself is taken from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”

The Trask family end up re-enacting the rivalry of Cain and Abel not once but twice in the book. First, with Adam and Charles Trask vying for their father Cyrus’s love, and then in Salinas, where Adam raises the two twins Aron and Caleb Trask, alone. The parallels are obvious, from brothers being very different people, to the handling of rejection and the wrath of jealousy, and the consequences of these actions. I don’t think Steinbeck was trying in any way to be subtle, and while the symbolism may seem somewhat heavy handed at times, they are no less powerful, and this is testament to how well Steinbeck writes and breathes life into these characters. Lee, the Trask’s Cantonese, surprisingly philosophical servant, and old Sam Hamilton, a jolly inventor and farmer who is adored by all for his strength and heart and values, are personal favourites, and I have not felt such a strong attachment and admiration for two fictional characters in some time.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

East of Eden is a strange book. To describe it as ‘biblical’ is sheer laziness, but it is a unique and beautiful read. It feels historical, mythical, magical all at once. It suffers from heavy handed characters, some of which are too easily defined as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, it can be verbose and melodramatic, but it has a strong heart. A compelling fable retelling the story of man’s original sin, the maddening way of love and the consequences of its absence, and the internal struggle that happens within all of us, that of right and wrong, and the human ability, that freedom to choose.

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.

Last year Curtis Bausse hosted a writing competition, which I took part in. I did not win, but my short story was included in an anthology. My piece was called ‘Coffee, Whisky, Funeral‘, and it followed a man returning to his home town in order to bury his father.

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All submitted stories had to use the following quote (from Curtis’s novel One Green Bottle) as a prompt:

A long time ago, when life was tolerable, almost good, he had two cats that kept him company. How old was he? Seven? Eight? Before his father began to question the worth of his existence. Back then, presumably, he was cute, almost as cute as the tabbies. He never knew what happened to them but they disappeared, both of them, all of a sudden, and he was left only with an inconsolable sadness.

Curtis has been taking part in the A-Z challenge, in which he is attempting to blog every day throughout the month of April. Recently, he chose to focus on Coffee, Whisky, Funeral for one of his posts. You can visit the link on Curtis’s blog here.

The anthology is called Cat Tales and you can purchase it on Amazon here. The proceeds from Cat Tales go to two charities, Cats Protection and the Against Malaria foundation.

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, age 50, and left behind a frenzied body of work that has embodied him as a giant of Latin American literature. He received unanimous critical praise for 2666 posthumously, despite primarily being a struggling poet for much of his life, only really turning to literature and fiction for his last ten years on Earth. The Return, translated by Chris Andrews and published in English in 2010, is a collection of short stories initally contained within Bolaño’s two Spanish collections, Llamadas Telefonicas (1997), and Putas Asesinas (2001). With much of Bolaño’s work, it is generally dark in tone but often deeply personal, with stories emerging from reminiscing friends, or reliving past and repressed memories.

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The titular The Return is arguably the pick of the stories: a revolting and surreal story of a celebrity necrophiliac, with a tantalising opening line (I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.”) But in truth there are many fascinating tales within. Detectives contains no prose or description, only the speech between two detectives as they drive through the night, and which is loosely based on Bolaño’s arrest and imprisonment during the Pinochet regime in his native Chile, where he was allegedly allowed to escape by prison guards he had once attended college with). Prefiguration of Lalo Cura follows the childhood memories of a man whose mother was a pornographic actress, a deeply disturbing look into the adult film industry and Latin America as a whole. Photos and Meeting with Enrique Lihn are surreal nightmares of which nothing is truly certain.

Not every story is up to the high standards of those mentioned above but all do share that awful quality of foreboding terror and violence, while life continues to float on by in its absurd and accepted normality. A brilliant insight into the mind of Roberto Bolaño.

Discharged from his service during World War II, Hazel Motes returns home to Tennessee in his early twenties, his childhood doubts over salvation, sin and his faith further shattered by the war, to the point he identifies himself an atheist, or anti-religion. A chance meeting in the city with a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath, exacerbates Motes’ detestation of the Church, and he vows to form his own ministry, The Church Without Christ, and he delivers impassioned sermons from the hood of his dilapidated car. All the while, a teenage boy, Enoch Emery, follows Motes on his blasphemous path, compelled by the ‘wise blood’ that runs in his veins, infatuated with the idea of The Church Without Christ.

wise-blood2Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Along with her second, The Violent Bear It Away (a dark and superbly challenging book) and several short story collections, it represents a small but powerful collection of writings of a woman who died tragically young, with an imagination so powerfully vivid she was willing to examine and dissect the ruminations of man’s relationship with God.

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

As to be expected with O’Connor’s work, there are the powerful themes of religion and faith, there are several flawed but deeply fascinating characters, and there are dark, violent, macabare twists and turns. Wise Blood is a simple tale, but O’Connor introduces us to several ignition points and has them dance dangerously close to one another. Motes alternates between an anxious, confused young man and a bitter, violent wretch, cast from the shadow of his preacher grandfather, and as the story progresses we discover Motes cannot completely reject God. False prophets and phoney preachers and corrupted teenage girls are ultimately too much for him to handle. His crisis of faith descent into religious fanaticism and while sad and at times, horrifying, there is black humour throughout. The scene where Enoch stabs a man in order to steal his gorilla suit is deliriously freakish, and just one of many intimate pieces of life and characters that O’Connor exposes to us in this strange city. “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.” 

“Do you think, Mr. Motes,” his landlady asked hoarsely, “that when you’re dead you’re blind?”
“I hope so,” he said after a minute.
“Why?” she asked, staring at him.
After a while he said, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.”

At times the narrative doesn’t flow, which I attribute to the fact that several of the scenes were originally released as individual, stand alone stories, but it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling I took from the book. O’Connor is a giant of southern gothic literature, and her stories never fail to shake me. Wise Blood is no different.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.