27 June 2009


A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

His Wikipedia entry makes a comparative reference to Thomas Pynchon. The back of the book says “He is like Pynchon, Barth, and William Gaddis.” But Harry Mathews is no Pynchon, nor a Barth or Gaddis for that matter.

It was back in late-April that I heard Mathews’ short story Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double) read on the Symphony Space program “Selected Shorts” (and available as an MP3 here; I highly recommend it). I had never heard of him, and after digging up his biography online, I was both comforted in my ignorance and surprised, given the odd pathways of literature that I have followed, not to have found him earlier. I bought three of Mathews’ books, and have just finished Tlooth, his second novel, originally published in 1966 and (in the case of my copy) republished in 1998 by Illinois State University’s Dalkey Archive press. And off we go...


“Fully dressed, Dominique had worn sixteen garments and ornaments. She shed four of them on the first day, three on each of the next four days, and at the end she danced naked, shielded only by her hands and hair. Every piece of her jewelry and clothing had been fastened with an inextricable knot, from which one or several tassels hung. The dancer’s enchantment worked yeastily through her audience while for hours she slowly tried, with shakings and suave caresses, to pamper loose one cluster of dangling strands. When the voluptuous ferment became unbearable, the girl, turning away with a mild complicit shrug, would draw from a scabbard fixed upright near her a wicked blue scimitar, and slice the knot. The sword, always visible to the crowd, gathered terrific significance as the moment of its use approached; and each severing of trivial cords fell on the tormented mass like a scourge, exciting hysterical shrieks, fits, faints, onsets of importance, confessions of speakable crimes, miraculous cures, numberless psychic and physical traumata, and the exchange (settled by the unpredictable time of the event) of millions of francs among the slightly cooler-headed gambling element.” (Pages 151-152)

This might be one of the most inspired, enervating paragraphs I have read in a long time, alive with words not often found in fiction (“yeastily”! “traumata”!), combined with a description of a series of acts of such improbability that it still comes as a surprise to learn in the next paragraph that Dominique the stripper has died on the sixth day of her marathon dance session. One has a sense of Dominique as trapped by these knots she cannot remove, and yet empowered to remove them; she is performing, voluptuously, but also bored, as the shrug suggests This Moroccan stripper’s is, on the one hand, considered so tangential that it is entirely parenthetical. On the other hand, Mathews’ frames her death as of such magnitude that “she was proposed to Rome for canonization.” It hadn’t once occurred to me she might be a Catholic.

If Mathews owes a debt to anyone, it is Georges Bataille and his Story of the Eye. Tlooth is less aggressive (if no less violent) but just as manic in its appetites, and just as absurd in its approach to the same. A long section—at least, long in the context of this story—in the middle of Mathews’ novel is itself another fiction, a living walkthrough of a movie script, highly pornographic, that the narrator has been hired to write. I call it a “living walkthrough” because, as the reader, you lose your own sense of whether you’re reading the script that Mathews’ protagonist has written, or if that same protagonist is now actually in the story.

We get references to how the camera should pan in one direction or the other. We get a mixture of highly specific, scene-setting detail—from clothing to the use of Wedgwood china to the acts being performed and in which locations—and at the same time a glib skipping over of any kind of context that might help the reader establish a genuine point of reference. It doesn’t really matter. And still, at the end of the whole section, after so much absurdist human interaction, it comes as a surprise to find the script completely dismissed by the crazy Count who commissioned it: “It’s interesting. But where is the character development? In the last scene we do not really know anything more about Sister Agnes than we did in the first.” (Page 136)

Indeed, we do not learn much at all about Sister Agnes. The character development is ours, the readers’. We learn something of ourselves from Tlooth, as we do from most difficult (and may I here use the word surrealist?) works. Yes, we learn about ourselves and our ability or willingness to read through challenging literature. More importantly, I think, are what novels like this teach us about our sense of self: whether, in wading through complicated, deeply layered and hidden ideas, we find things at which to smile or laugh, and whether we can see in small, absurdist details, analogies to how most of us also fixate on the little bits of errata in our daily lives. We just don’t normally see such things as particularly absurd—but perhaps we should. We might be happier that way, and more alive.

Labels: , , ,

25 April 2009

Still Faking After All These Years

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Holland Cotter, the New York Times art critic who recently won a Pulitzer Prize, pulled out another terrific review last week, for an exhibition titled “I Am Art: An Expression of the Visual & Artistic Process of Plastic Surgery” at New York's Apexart gallery. It's a measure of Cotter's qualifications for journalism's highest honor that a review of an exhibition so potentially off-putting can be, instead, so intellectually intriguing.


I have to admit: reading that exhibition review, the first thing I thought of was something I wrote a few years ago. (Don’t worry, I'm not comparing myself to Cotter.) In my piece titled "Smooth, Firm, But Not Subtle," I explored a question that was nagging at me: how does our society treat authenticity—and fakery? As I wrote then:

Two of the most obvious and hifalutin subjects in which authenticity factors significantly are religion and art. ... Likewise in the arts, the 'real' is prized (whether in painting, sculpture, or other fine handicrafts) and an entire network of 'temples' has been constructed around the world to house art objects. Much like religion, art also relies on a broad pool of people who respond with devotion—a devotion bordering on the religious, and epitomized in the form of gifts, much as a religious establishment might receive—to those objects which the clergy comprised of museum directors, curators, and collectors has deemed to be authentic.

I then continued on to suggest that our cultural affection for authenticity is often fairly weak, and used breast enhancement surgery as an example of the point. Broadly speaking, if some 300,000 women per year (according to USA Today, although those are pre-recession numbers) are having their breasts "enhanced"—many presumably without a separate medical need for breast reconstruction—that says something about our collective need for the authentic.

That is not an expression of judgment; it is an observation. Certainly we all, at times, find some form of happiness in fakes of one kind or another, just as we can also find a kind of pleasure in the authentic. Extending the analysis into a very present-day context—the Madoff scandal and other Ponzi schemes—one might even say that we seek out people and situations we likely know cannot possibly be authentic and yet desperately hope that they are.


Still, an exhibition that explores, artistically, this very subject has got to have some real mettle attached to it. It does not sound like this is “Nip/Tuck,” a show that glorifies the whole premise of our physical artificiality (or, our artificial edifice). Nor does it sound like the photographic version of “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People,” which categorically mixed up and confused so many of the issues that relate to our collective body image (if we can be said to have one, and I think we can).

Cotter’s review makes the exhibition sound much smarter than that, and more compelling. At the same time, the question of authenticity that nagged me then remains, and I feel I am no closer to an answer.

Labels: , ,