“…and while Scary is Exciting, Nice is different than Good.”

-Red Riding Hood, from “I Know Things Now,” Into the Woods

And so we end in a warm living room, all gathered together, knocking back rack punch and talking about that freaky time back just after we got married where Mina got totes possessed and we ran all over Eastern Europe chasing a Vampire.  Vampire, pleeease.

So is Dracula a Good book?  Meh.  I think it has probably been more of a Nice book for me … a creepy tale of the supernatural mixed with no small amount of “Law & Order”-like proceduralism to keep the pace going.  But for me, all of the compelling bits ended up falling short of their early promise:

Mina as the “New Woman” – why couldn’t her Baptism by Blood have proven to be the small impetus needed to turn her from an apologist for women who wanted more out of Victorian life to a rabid champion for what womanhood could have been.  Lucy might have been the hot one, but Mina had all the makings of that kind-of-wierd-but-sort-of-hot girl in your Psych 201 class, with all the threat and promise of the same.

Renfield as the Spurned Apostle – poor most-likely-bipolar Renfield.  Never have we seen a more plain case of hero worship/man crush gone horribly wrong.  Imagine what his diary might have been like … secreted away under his stool, pages sticky with melted sugar and the cover painstakingly adorned with the pearlescent sheen of a thousand blowfly wings.

Van Helsing as the (Un)witting Impetus — Abraham, with your so halting speech and  knowledge of the wampyr that seems almost uncanny in its thoroughness.  Surely Stoker must have thought you had a little bit more in you.  In your so-strong drive for knowledge, a drive that drove your poor wife Sarah mad with fear and grief, you saw something one night, didn’t you?  Peering up over a rock lip onto the unholy convocation of the scholars at Scholomance you witnessed something so thrillingly wrong, so completely, compellingly depraved that the rest of your life would be spent trying to scrub that so-not-of-Gott image from your mind, hoping against hope that you’d fail.  Abe, you are a sick little monkey.

Jonathan “I Was Cuckolded by The Undead and All I Got Was this Lousy Head of White Hair” Harker:  You never could get those three women out of your minds, could you, Johnny?  How could Mina ever be enough after the freaky bloodthrill of getting three-wayed in the Eastern European equivalent of the Bunny Ranch.  ANd tell me you didn’t go into explicit detail the minute you and the boys were out of earshot of the women.  Dude, you had three undead, bi-curious, possibly related wraith women fighting over who would be your first?  How do you not turn that into the best campfire story ever?

Of course, the slash fic possibilities are endless.  And maybe in the end, it’s that malleability that makes Dracula a classic.  You can hang sex, mystery, nationalism, criminality, class warfare and so many other Big Ideas from the hooks Stoker leaves festooned around the story that Dracula can’t help but be retold and reread time and time again.  It brushes up against enough of humanity’s Naughty Bits that it ends up being the perfect framework into which we can all cast our own hopes and fears about Life, Death, Sex, Money, Class and Technology and more and watch what happens.

So is Dracula a good book?  Maybe not.  But is Dracula the book we need and deserve?  Mien Gott, yes.

The Grapes of Wrath

I am apparently incapable of giving a post a title that is not the title of a famous work by another author. Is there a support group for this?

I found myself thinking tonight about the Irish allegory that my edition of Dracula says lurks under the surface of the story, and all the poorness and starvation and suffering of 19th-century Irish potato farmers, when all of a sudden, The Grapes of Wrath popped into my head. It’s been a long time since I read Steinbeck’s novel, but the gist as I recall it is that farmers during the dust bowl era who couldn’t make a go of it on their own land moved westward and have a horrific time of it, rather like the Irish potato farmers Stoker must have had in mind as he wrote about his blood-sucking absentee landlord type figure.

And then that final dramatic scene of The Grapes of Wrath flashed into the foreground for me. I suppose I’ll be spoiling Steinbeck’s book here for any who haven’t read it, though I’ll try to be a little oblique about it. That final scene is a similar sort of cannibalism to what we see (or will see, I presume) in Dracula and less directly in “A Modest Proposal,” isn’t it? Yet, for all the uproar over its being indecent or pornography or whatever some prudes have made that final scene out to be, it’s the most wholesome sort of parasitism. It’s the free offering of the self rather than a sort of rape; it’s the other side of the coin from what Swift and (I gather) Stoker were writing in opposition to, in which the well-off feed on the poor by force. Steinbeck shows us the poor helping the poorer, and what a triumphant thing that is! How validating of the human spirit at its best when confronting the human condition at its worst.

This makes me think of a post I wrote while reading Infinite Jest in which I noted that Wallace was exposing so much sadness and brokenness for which, I feared, there was perhaps no remedy. I begin to harbor a suspicion that works like Swift’s and Stoker’s may be demonstrative of a problem without providing any sort of real hope or solution. I don’t suppose Steinbeck provided any sort of solution either, but in The Grapes of Wrath, he does offer a glimmer of hope. Perhaps for the next installment of Infinite Summer, we should read something marked by unbridled hope, if only to cleanse the palate for 2666, which has its share and then some of despair.

Angels and Demons

Not too long before Infinite Summer started up, I ordered books by two authors I figured I was overdue to read. The first was Cormac McCarthy, whose Suttree is set in Knoxville, where I happen to live. I read that one during the last couple of weeks of Infinite Jest (and enjoyed it; will be reading more McCarthy for sure). I hadn’t really known about McCarthy until fairly recently, which fact I suppose I should be a little embarrassed about.

The other author I had known about for a long time. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel is set in a fictional town based on Asheville, NC, just a hop over the mountains from where I live. Further, Wolfe studied at UNC Chapel Hill, where I happen also to have studied. He’s kind of a big deal around those parts, yet I never managed to read more than one chapter from his signature novel (and that one from deep in the book, excerpted for a Southern literature class), or anything else he wrote. I always meant to but just never was in the frame of mind for what I figured would be a coming-of-age type novel set in a South I had grown up in and found uninteresting and perhaps unworthy of reading about.

As I get older, a sense of place, and more specifically of my own place — the place where my people are from — is more and more important to me, and I suddenly find myself yearning to read about the places I once took to be prosaic and probably a little backward. And so, having gotten a taste of Knoxville in McCarthy’s novel, I’ve now moved eastward and back in time (on both the literary calendar and the calendar of my own geographical migration) to Asheville, where I’ll read about the angel Wolfe borrowed from Milton (a particular interest of mine while studying yet farther east in Chapel Hill) at the same time I’m reading about the demons we’re all being treated to this Halloween month courtesy of Bram Stoker.

What else are you reading alongside Dracula?

Of Swine

I don’t know what I have, but I can only assume it’s swine flu. (Right? Because that’s going around?) I’m simply not up for writing right now. I owe a few kind commenters (and other bloggers) comments that I may not get around to posting. I hope I can build up enough steam to write something later in the week, as I sure don’t want to fizzle out right here at the end, having come all this way.

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten about halfway through Suttree (which I had picked up a few weeks before Infinite Summer started) and so got a neat little thrill to read Eden’s post today linking Infinite Jest and McCarthy.

In other Infinite Summer news, my copy of Dracula arrived today. I don’t have it in me to read or write about that one as obsessively as I did about Infinite Jest, but I look forward to reading this classic I’ve always managed to overlook. And I may write a word or two about it from time to time as well, whether here or elsewhere TBD. Anybody else coming along for that ride?

Anniversary (Nothing Morbid, Merely a Weird Coincidence)

The September issue of Poetry magazine includes a poem by one Dan Beachy-Quick entitled “Anniversary.” It’s a thick issue, and, beyond flipping to the poems by Atsuro Riley, whose work I always crave, I had given it only a cursory glance. Today I skimmed Beachy-Quick’s poem and sort of wrote it off as something sentimental I wasn’t much interested in investing much of myself in. But I gave it another chance, and though I’m not sure I’ve given it enough of a chance yet, a few weird things started to jump out at me. I’ll quote the poem in full, hoping that qualifies as fair use:


You are for me as you cannot be
For yourself, chaos without demand
To speak, the amethyst nothing
Hidden inside the trinket shop’s stone,
Dark eyes dark asterisks where light
Footnotes a margin left blank. You
Don’t look up to look up at the sky.
Your ears parenthesize nothing
That occurs, that I keep from occurring,
In the poem, on the page, as you are
For me, not a shadow, but a shade
Whose darkness drops from no object
But is itself yourself, a form of time
Spanning nothing, never is your name.

Let me first qualify what follows by saying that I don’t present it as any sort of theory or close reading. It’s just a set of associations that I couldn’t help noticing. Of course, what you take from a thing you read is largely a product of what you bring to it, and I’ve got Wallace and Infinite Jest very much on the brain these days.

So the title. Anniversary. September 12 marks the anniversary of Wallace’s death, and this is the September issue of Poetry. Of course, it often takes months for submissions to be accepted or rejected, much less published, so synchronicity here is either lucky or orchestrated (probably lucky).

Chaos without demand to speak calls to mind Hal’s aphonia.

Wallace was born in February, and the amethyst is the birth stone for February.

The trinket shop makes me think of the Antitoi brothers’ shop.

Asterisks and footnotes: ’nuff said.

There’s lots of sky imagery in Infinite Jest (though to be fair, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a book that didn’t have lots of sky imagery).

The notion of occurring makes me think of a certain rant of Schtitt’s.

The mention of darkness makes me think of The Darkness. The association of that darkness with objects makes me think of The Darkness’s relationship with objects.

I could probably tease out more, but this is a quick brain dump. For the moment, I’m resisting the temptation to look for some kind of annagrammatic acrostic in the poem’s first lines’ first letters (the initials DFW do appear, but not in uninterrupted sequence). I don’t fully grok even the basic thing the poem is saying and need to do a different sort of reading of it than I’ve done so far. Just thought I’d put this free-association out there in the mean time.

Update: I wrote the poem’s author, and he kindly wrote me back and said that he hadn’t read Wallace, so the things that jumped out at me are in fact weird coincidences and/or the product of my overactive imagination.

What about Ophelia?

About a month ago, when we were in the mid-400 page range, I wrote about how there was a lot of water imagery associated with Don Gately. I’ve kept kind of half an eye out for this ever since. We see a lot more of it in this week’s milestone (and, though not covered here, beyond):

  • “Gately’s outsized crib had been in the beach house’s little living room” (809)
  • “It seemed to him more like he kept coming up for air and then being pushed below the surface of something.” (809)
  • “Some things seem better left submerged. No?” (815, spoken by Tiny Ewell, however)
  • “He ran through the crazed breakers to deep warm water and submerged himself and stayed under until he ran out of breath… He kept coming up briefly for a great sucking breath and then going back under where it was warm and still.” (816)

On page 814, there’s sort of a hidden reference to water, as the confessional Tiny Ewell mentions Gately’s “reluctant se offendendo,” which phrase has a note that reads as follows:

Latin blunder for self-defense’s se defendendo is sic, either a befogged muddling of a professional legal term, or a post-Freudian slip, or (least likely) a very oblique and subtle jab at Gately from a Ewell intimate with the graveyard scene from Hamlet — namely V.i. 9.

Whether Ewell is making a jab here or not, Wallace is inviting us to take a look at the famous graveyard scene from which he borrows a phrase for the book’s title. I don’t know about you, but I always tend to focus on Hamlet himself during the graveyard scene. What occurred to me this time around, as I had water on the brain, is that the funeral procession that follows Hamlet’s graveyard pontification is for Ophelia (also the referent of the aforementioned se offendendo), a character who went mad and drowned — the hidden water reference I mentioned. The “se offendendo” here would be Ophelia’s self-offense (or suicide) or possibly Gately’s having gotten himself (through no fault of his own and for entirely noble reasons) into a rather self-offending position.

Beyond that link, I don’t know that there’s much kinship between Gately and Ophelia. Ophelia goes mad and incoherent after her father’s death and so does have a sort of kinship with Hal, though it’s never the kinship that springs to mind when reading the book (are we that afraid of crossing gender lines? Wallace sure isn’t). But kinship with Gately? With the water imagery and the pointer back to Ophelia in this Gately/Ewell interface, I can’t help thinking something’s going on here. I just haven’t figured out yet what it is. Thoughts?


As a number of people have already said, the last couple of hundred pages of Infinite Jest tend to be kind of a downhill sprint. I was by no means among the first participating in Infinite Summer to find myself in the 800s and unable to stop myself at the spoiler lines. As hard as it’s sometimes been to avoid spoilers (accidental ones, at least), having read the book a number of times before, it’s especially hard during this last leg of the book. So I keep finding myself false-starting on posts this week and will probably do the same next week. Things I want to say reach too far into the future for me to be able to chisel much out of them just yet.

So for tonight, a diversion. I’ve flirted with poetry for years. For decades, I guess, if you count a thing I wrote in elementary school that rhymed “butterfly” and “flutterfly.” I wrote the usual dark angsty suicidal type stuff in high school and early college, and then I began to think more seriously about poetry midway through college. It became for me less about expression and feelings than about structure and playing with formalism and convention, about hewing something out of the raw material of language. That’s not to say I was any great talent at it, but I did pursue the interest and even got a minor in poetry writing. In the decade-plus since I graduated college, I’ve written only a little bit, and rather poorly. Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a sheaf of works in progress, but it’s not a serious pursuit by any stretch of the imagination. Even more rarely, I’ll slingshot something (usually something old and fairly polished) out to a journal, so far with no luck (but with so little invested, it’s hard to feel too bad about it).

Of course I read a lot of poetry throughout school as well, though I’ve forgotten most of it by now. A few years ago, I sold most of my poetry books to clear space on my shelves prior to a move. Gone are my Auden, my Yeats, my Larkin, my Stevens, my Creeley. Gone is even good old accessible Billy Collins. And William Carlos Williams. Lord, I almost forgot him, though he was one of my early and enduring favorites, whose quest for an appropriate but elusive American poetic foot informed my own such ill-fated quest. Ah, and Wordsworth, of whom my early imitations constituted something rather more like battery than flattery. They’re all gone. Remaining are a collection of Wilbur (whom I dislike), another of Pinsky, and a few anthologies, mostly Norton. There’s an Andrew Hudgins book and a couple of Robert Wrigley books. These two gentlemen I won’t do without. I have a slim volume of Donald Hall’s that I used to own in hardback but sold and then bought again in paperback a few years later when I had a change of heart. The collected work of my mentor throughout college, and then a book of a colleague of his. A few other scattered things, like a long one by Derek Walcott that I’ve never yet managed to read, though it sits waiting in my bedside table. Then there are the back issues of Poetry magazine, I don’t know how many years’ worth.

So there I go namedropping, right? Well I don’t really mean to, because the sort of sad thing I’m coming around to is that I don’t often really enjoy reading poetry. It’s the prose and the letters in Poetry that I most enjoy these days, finding typically one or two poems over the course of two or three months that really stand out to me. And part of why I sold my various collected and selected volumes was because I rarely went to them and, when I did, I found so very little that I really enjoyed. The Wilbur and Pinsky I kept because they’re signed and not because the work is especially meaningful to me. Yet something in me still craves poetry. Again and again I go back to it, hoping to find something electrifying. But so much of it just falls flat for me.

I spent some melancholy time this week leafing through my few volumes with the idea of posting an excerpt in memoriam (even my Tennyson I sold back) of a certain author the anniversary of whose death is looming. But I couldn’t find anything I liked, or I couldn’t bear to wade through all the insufferable stuff in order to get to some decent nugget. Occasionally when I’m experiencing this sort of dread of poetry, I try to make a point of reading more carefully, of putting more into the reading in hopes of getting more out. There’s not usually a payoff. And I’m not blaming the poets, mind you — clearly the work is deemed by some body of people to be worth ink and paper. I think I’m just not a good reader. Which invites the pretty bitter supposition that if one isn’t a good reader of poetry, he surely can’t be that good a writer of it, which goes hand in hand with those flurries of rejection slips from various publications when I experience a little spurt of poetic allegiance.

What I’m ultimately sort of coming around to is that I think I’ve been a fairly conscientious reader during Infinite Summer. Oh, I don’t mean to say that I’ve been a great critic or have cut new ground or anything, but I’ve put a lot in, and I’ve gotten a whole lot out. So why the blind spot with poetry, I wonder, when something in me really does want to get a lot out of it?

In the short story “Little Expressionless Animals,” Wallace has a character say of poetry that “It beats around bushes. Even when I like it, it’s nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious.” The person that character is talking to replies, “But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious.” At the end of the story, the second speaker is talking again about the obvious and borrows from an Ashberry poem (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” — another poem I can’t bring myself to read in its entirety) to cut kind of a beautiful figure:

“You asked me once how poems informed me… Remember? Remember the ocean? Our dawn ocean, that we loved? We loved it because it was like us, Faye. That ocean was obvious. We were looking at something obvious, the whole time… Oceans are only oceans when they move… Waves are what keep oceans from just being very big puddles. Oceans are just their waves. And every wave in the ocean is finally going to meet what it moves toward, and break. The whole thing we looked at, the whole time you asked, was obvious. It was obvious and a poem because it was us. See things like that, Faye. Your own face, moving into expression. A wave, breaking on a rock, giving up its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape. See?”

It’s the last lovely bit about the wave that Wallace borrows pretty much verbatim (with acknowledgment) from Ashberry. And the thing for me is that it’s entirely palatable and meaningful to me when Wallace gives it to me like this, but when it’s buried in the middle of a bunch of stuff that looks like a poem but reads like a stylized inner-monologue, I just can’t grab onto it. I can’t hang on for the ride.

How about you? Do you read poetry? What do you like? Have you found any little poetry references in Infinite Jest? There’s at least a Larkin reference; Auden is fairly promiment in The Broom of the System; and Wallace wrote a prose poem or two. Should Matthew over at Infinite Summer consider adding some poetry to the mix for the ongoing reading program he’s proposed? If so, do you have any recommendations? Can you name a poet (or particular poem) that really takes your face off (and explain why)?