Adventures in literature, late October ’05
H. Melville, The Confidence-Man
I one-million-percent support the idea and prosecution of “secret writing” if post-Pierre Melville (so like, this book and some short stories) is actually secret writing. i’m willing to buy that Bartleby is a extensive dig at Thoreau and i get that Melville basically made and shared large volumes of hatorade for people, himself included. anyway, the whole secret writing thing tells us that Melville conceived several of his later prose works as elaborate gags in which outwardly he’s writing straightforward Melville novels about the strenuous life or something, but inwardly, for those who *know*, the novel(s) are a hilarious takedown of pretty much everything except Nathaniel Hawthorne. I don’t know; not that the book isn’t perceptibly an attempt at taking the entire world down several pegs, it’s just that it’s not so secret. if anyone tried to read this book for the surface narrative, they would stop about 10 pages in and not remember those 10 pages terribly fondly. they’d stop because this book is clearly at least 40% bile. but it’s really nice bile, is the thing. i bought this book almost six years ago, and it took me almost then entire time to get to the halfway point of it, reading it on and off. I don’t think I have such a complicated relationship to any other work of fiction. pr’ecis: the devil gets on a steamboat at st. louis and proceeds to assume various wacky personalities, all of which spend their time convincing people to give him their confidence, either in the form of money, faith, agreement, relenting on their own beliefs, or some combination of all three. the moral privateering of con games is an excuse for melville to unload on pretty much every single social/personal phenomena of developing american cultural character, which he does, along the way hilariously misquoting the Bible, blaspheming and generally being a bilious asshole. this is so incredibly evident as a good and worthwhile project, esp as a kind of uptempo companion piece to the interior novel of Pierre. Unfortunately, and actually literary critics might actually not agree, it’s a horrible turd to read, which I would venture is part of the point. If you enjoy novels of ideas where the author clearly disagrees with almost all of the ideas promulgated, you will thrill to even smell this. also, I have three copies of this, two of which are Norton critical editions, so if someone wants one, i got that snit.
Richard Stern, assorted stories: the jacket contains a bizarre baseball-connected endorsement from saul bellow (“his control is perfect, his fastball is devastating. nobody walks, nobody steals a base”) so i will honor that by saying that richard stern is clearly the derek lowe of post-WWII american intellectual novelists. he certainly looks the part (bald, smiley, big glasses) and has the pedigree (teaching jobs, u of c connections, generic name, orig. from NYC). also like derek lowe, he is only good approx five times a season but they are all relevant times. richard stern can clinch the world series for you provided you get richard stern to the last game of the world series. left to his own devices to write way too much about weird obscure slovaks and divorces and coughing at feminism, he will do all of those things. still, you give me a guy who sets short stories in hyde park and you have given me a guy that i will read. maybe in the end result a lesser light of U of C culture wehrmacht. but i read this, so, there you go.