The Night Ocean: Weird Fiction Minus the Weird

To begin with a confession: I’m no Lovecraftian. I admire a dozen of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, particularly “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Shunned House,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” I had the pleasure of teaching “At the Mountains of Madness” last year in a course on imaginary Antarctica, which also included Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Verne’s The Sphinx of the Ice Realm and LeGuin’s “Sur.” I’ve read most of Lovecraft’s stories, some of his essays, and a little of the academic scholarship. But I’m not a member of any Lovecraft societies, secret or otherwise, and my knowledge of his personal life is cursory at best.

This puts me in the target demographic for Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, published in 2017 by Penguin. I read the first half the first day I bought it; the pleasure was so intense that I felt myself falling out of life. The rest of my obligations would have to wait while I disappeared down this rabbit hole. (The second half was much less enjoyable, for reasons I’ll go into later.)

My interest in Lovecraft stems from his work in the peculiar genre of “weird fiction.” This genre peaked in the first decades of the 20th century; it mediated the relation between modern sciences (anthropology, geology, sociology, psychology) and the folk cultures these disciplines took as their object of professional inquiry. The genre’s most notable writers include Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ambrose Bierce, and Robert E. Howard also contributed important stories, as did Henry James in “The Turn of the Screw.” Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll were revered innovators. As a genre, “weird fiction” has two chief characteristics: an intense interest in intertextuality and metafiction, and a dedication to testing the limits of rational knowledge. Although weird fiction owes much to gothic romances, from The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho to Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget” best epitomizes the modernist approach. Poe’s fictional detective Dupin pokes holes in the real-life investigation into the death of Mary Rogers by deconstructing newspaper reports; his fiction turns the scientific investigation against itself, discovering clues in the lacunae of official inquiry. It blurs demarcations between fact and fiction while preserving the “mystery” of Rogers/Roget’s murder. Dupin ultimately fails to name the “true” culprit, but Poe succeeds in debunking the “truth” generated by modern investigative techniques. Lovecraft and the other writers of weird fiction follow Poe’s lead by undermining the modern “myth” of a fact-based, rationally coherent universe discernible through a combination of textual research and immediate experience. It was, in short, a kind of late romanticism: exposing the underside of modernism’s professional rationality. Its protagonists are almost inevitably gentleman naturalists or academic researchers who glimpse realms beyond the grasp of science.

Weird fiction’s exposure of the fictions involved in the construction of the modern world led writers to explore two variations on metafiction. The first depends upon the construction of fictional texts, which function as “windows” onto mysterious and illogical regions of experience. M. R. James’s ghost stories, each disclosed through an antique book, best exemplifies this preoccupation. In “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book,” the illustration in the back of a 16th century manuscript calls forth the demon it depicts; in “The Mezzotint,” the illustration of a house changes each time it’s viewed, depicting a child’s abduction; in “The Tractate Middoth,” a library book hides a will that conjures a ghostly clergyman. The texts inside texts (inside texts) heighten the realism of the unreal by distancing it from the reader’s life, while simultaneously magnifying the pleasures of reading.

The second variation reverses this logic. While weird metafiction continually reframes experiential reality, weird intertextuality uses multiple references to create a singular world. Otherwise unrelated stories reference the same mysterious events in order to convince the reader that something must actually be “out there.” Several of Arthur Machen’s stories are designed around this principle; for example, in “The White People,” various characters glimpse the titular monsters, an underground race whose existence has given rise to folklore about fairies, elves, and ghosts. The canny reader picks up on the overlap between narratives, thereby getting to “discover” a world that no single narrator quite understands. (If weird fiction’s intertextuality is neurotic, its metafiction is psychotic.)

One of Lovecraft’s great achievements was to combine both modes. He invented numerous fictional texts–most famously, the dread Necronomicon by “the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” The book is referenced in many stories. He also invented Miskatonic University, in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts. More than fifteen of its faculty–biologists, doctors, folklorists, geologists, psychologists, zoologists– glimpse a pantheon of aliens–Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, and of course the infamous Cthulhu. Likely, this was a clever tactic for pulp writers, whose work was less distinguished by authorship than by the worlds they created. Readers of Astounding Stories, Weird Tales, and other pulps returned to writers by returning to worlds.

The other and more important quality of weird fiction was the weirdness. Today, we might think of it as a literary confrontation with the Lacanian “Real.” Characters encounter a thing (usually a creature, but also art, architecture, feelings) that simply can’t be described. In his book-length essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft pays no attention to the metafiction and intertextuality he mastered; his focus is entirely upon the literary production of fear. Folklore and organized religion, he argues, are “formalised” discourses designed to confront the biological fact that “we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure.” Weird literature is sharply distinguished from horror, a discourse that is “externally similar, but psychologically widely different.” The latter involves “mere physical fear and the mundanely grotesque.” It doesn’t achieve a break from “reality.” (Think Stephen King.) Weird literature, by contrast, creates an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” and a “particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” Zizek couldn’t define the Lacanian Real better. An amazing book by Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, explores this confrontation with the phenomenology in depth (going back to Heidegger and Husserl) and breadth (discussing all of Lovecraft’s major stories). Unlike most commentators, who obsess over “the real” Lovecraft and/or his fictional worlds, Harmon focuses on the author’s “deliberate and skillful obstruction of all attempts to paraphrase him” (9). This stylistic feature explains Lovecraft’s contribution to (weird) literature.  The trait for which some critics condemned him–his refusal to explicitly describe the “shambling horrors” his protagonists witness–is his genius. He advanced an insight nascent in Poe (the Freud to Lovecraft’s Lacan): that what is beyond reason is necessarily beyond the senses.

I love the first half of The Night Ocean because it plays with inter- and meta-textuality perfectly; I was disappointed by the second half because it refuses the weird. The former establishes La Farge’s novel as an enjoyable piece of postmodern, information-age fiction; the latter reveals a literary pretension inimical to weird fiction, which (as Lovecraft suggests in Supernatural Horror) was always a popular, rather than highbrow, genre.

The novel’s narrated by a New York psychoanalyst named Marina Willett. Her (possibly deceased) husband, Charles, was (or is) a freelance reporter specializing in profiles of the “almost famous.” His stories bring to life the hopes and travails of those who dedicated their lives to ideas that never took off. His final and most successful project attempts to expose Lovecraft’s sexuality: was he asexual (as most official biographies portray him) or a repressed yet practicing homosexual? Charles discovers Lovecraft’s Erotonomicon, a diary detailing sexual encounters with various young men, but especially Robert Barlow, a teenage fan with whom real-life Lovecraft visited for several weeks on two occasions. Lovecraft’s letters and biographies tell us that the notoriously reclusive writer spent a surprisingly large amount of time at Barlow’s parent’s house in Florida and made the teenager executive of his estate. They collaborated on a half-dozen stories, including “The Night Ocean,” from which La Farge’s novel takes its title. In La Farge’s novel, we learn that the story, which describes a young artist’s glimpse of a merman–”a swimming thing emerged beyond the breakers. The figure may have been that of a dog, a human being, or something more strange.”–can be interpreted as an expression of Barlow’s or Lovecraft’s “obscene” desire. I give little away when explaining that the Erotonomicon turns out to be a hoax inside a hoax. Since Poe’s “The Balloon Hoax,” the ability of texts to deceive us has been a staple of the genre.

La Farge spins an enormous and intricate web of intertextuality and metafiction as Marina recounts how her husband discovers Lovecraft’s journal of sexual exploits. In numerous excerpts from the diary, Lovecraft refers to himself as “the Old Gent” and to sexual acts as magic rituals and monstrous creatures readers of his stories know well. Upon arriving in Jacksonville, Florida, Lovecraft meets a boy at his hotel:

No sooner had I got my hat off and my stationery unpacked then he was scratching at the door, insinuating the he knew certain rituals which would turn even the oldest flesh to stone. For $1.25–how they are cheap down here! No morals, I suppose, to pay the price of–I had an Ablo and two Nether Gulfs. That showed him what old flesh can do! At least when warmed by the Florida sun . . . The imp limped out round-eyed, and offered to return in the morning with another of his brotherhood. (36)

A footnote (one of the novel’s delights are numerous footnotes, some meant to be from editors of the Erotonomicon, some from Marina) supposes that “Nether Gulfs” refers to “Active anal sex,” but notes that “Lovecraft refers to that act elsewhere as ‘the Outer Spheres,’ but, confusingly, he also uses this second term to mean orgasm” (36). Pointing out the uncertainty of the text’s weird signifiers is a technique Lovecraft used in many stories. In La Farge’s novel, it queers Lovecraft’s fantastic terms, a kind of laughing jab at readers who would prefer to think of these fantasies as exercises of “pure” (i.e., asexual) imagination. At the same time, as the above passage suggests, the Erotnomicon exposes Lovecraft as recognizably queer. The boy knows the Old Gent’s desires at a glance, playing on the idea of a subcultural system of signification that straight readers have missed.

References to the real world grow more intense as Marina traces her husband’s research into Robert Barlow. The real-life Barlow transcribed many of Lovecraft’s manuscripts before studying anthropology at several universities. Specializing in Nahuatl, he took a position at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. His prodigious scholarship earned him a Rockefeller Foundation grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He chaired the Department of Anthropology at Mexico City College before committing suicide in 1951, apparently because his homosexuality was about to be exposed. Among his students was William S. Burroughs, who wrote to Ginsberg of the “queer” professor’s death. Burroughs is one of many real-world characters that show up as we learn of Barlow’s life among early science-fiction fans in New York and radical artists in Mexico. With intense detail, La Farge imagines scenes drawn from Barlow’s biography. As a member of the “Futurians,” a proto-Marxist avant-garde sci-fi club, Barlow joins Donald Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, Robert “Doc” Lowndes and other writers and publishers for the first World Science Fiction Convention, held in New York in July, 1939. The story of their attempt to wrest science fiction away from “the fascists” is written with joyful intensity. They design costumes and print manifestos in a beat New York apartment:

Pohl took the cutout fabric to the window and sewed up the legs of Lowndes’s suit by hand, but we had all overlooked the fact that Lowndes was three-dimensional. He hopped around with one leg in the space suit, one out. “What are you people doing?” asked Wollheim, who had just come in. He had been in Pohl’s bedroom, typing up a leaflet with the Futurians’ demands, to be handed out at the convention. “We need a steamroller to flatten Lowndes,” Pohl said. “We need s-s-someone who knows how to s-sew,” said Michel. “Forget the costumes,” Wollheim said [. . .] He handed a mimeograph stencil to Michel. “I figure we need two hundred copies.” Over by the window, Pohl dropped a cigarette into the paint can. “Is paint flammable?” he asked no one in particular. (256)

I don’t know to what extent these details are “true to life.” I hope they are mostly invented. La Farge’s ability to (re)create the fan’s sensibilities–overlooking Lowndes three-dimensionality, proposing to flatten him to fit the costume–puts him on par with the very best postmodern novelists, such as Don Delillo, Katherine Dunn, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace. Pynchon’s epic tale of turn-of-the-century cultural anarchism, Against the Day (2006) frequently came to mind. Like that book, The Night Ocean moves effortlessly across space and time, without forsaking minute details of mundane life.

Matt Keeley, reviewing the book for, is exactly right when he argues that “While it hasn’t been marketed as such, La Farge may have written the first great novel of fandom.” Along with the above authors, we get gleeful glimpses of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Bloch and other science-fiction luminaries.

The playfulness borrowed from the early life of science fiction fades away in the novel’s rather tedious final act. Simply thumbing through the book reveals this difference. The first several hundred pages are full of journal entries, footnotes, transcripts of interviews and twitter feeds. The second half settles into much more conventional prose, with almost no intertextuality. Similarly, the story shifts away from real-world characters to focus upon a fictional character named Leo Spinks, whose life-story takes us to small-town Canada, the recently liberated Belsen concentration camp, and suburban New York. Without giving too much away, the second half “undoes” the first half. It replaces the queer Lovecraft with accounts of Spinks’ straight marriages, and replaces the fandom with sober portraits of holocaust survivors and bitter housewives.

To me, this swerve away from the weird feels like a retreat from the pleasures of weirdness. It exposes the century-old distinction between modern literature and genre fiction. Had the novel gone the other way–bringing us further into Lovecraft’s  “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”–it would have committed itself to the low-brow plots of pulp stories. Instead, La Farge contains his horrors within the bounds of historical reality. He chooses to write a paraphrasable novel in the end. Writing for the Washington Independent Review of BooksDavid Z. Morris, regards the straightening out of weird fiction as a positive. The Night Ocean, he writes, is “happily free of any version of Lovecraft’s own iconic creations. This separates it from a rather pathetic subgenre of work that waves a lot of tentacles around and calls it ‘homage,’ [. . .] the core achievement is darkly sublime, a translation of the cosmic insanity of Lovecraft’s work back into the human realm.” J. W. McCormak agrees; in a review for Culture Trip, he observes that La Farge’s novel “returns Lovecraft and his ambiguous legacy to the world as we know it, which is, oh yes, much more horrible than any ‘Colour of Space’ or squamous Cthulhu.”

It’s interesting to consider why these readers approve real-world horrors over fictional confrontations with the fantastic. Why is Lovecraft’s ambiguity such an offense? In the first half, La Farge suggests that we fear weirdness because it brings us into contact with repressed sexuality. Lovecraft’s barely discernible monsters allow us to catch glimpses of what Freud (in a phrase Lovecraft would love) called “polymorphous perversity.” Our infantile fears and desires are inseparable and infinitely malleable; “growing up” requires the separation, repression, and straightening out of these feelings, to produce a subject that fits into social norms. In this sense, The Night Ocean “matures” from a work of fan fiction into an adult novel.

One of the book’s best details is young Bobby Barlow’s bedroom closet, where he keeps his collection of pulp magazines. The closet is named Yoh-Vombis, after a story by Lovecraft’s colleague Clark Ashton Smith called “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.” In the Erotonomicon, Lovecraft first propositions Barlow while they sit in the closet, thumbing through a fanzine:

I could help myself no longer, and asked whether there might be a secret panel in the back of this closet which led to another closet, where he kept the truly accursed volumes of his collection. He professed not to understand what I meant: was I looking for something by Charles Fort? Yet I thought that in the back of his eyes–which are pale brown, by the way, and much magnified by his glasses–I saw some tremor of interest. (37)

The best parts of The Night Ocean discover closets within closets within closets, and resonate with a jouissance that balances innuendo with the fan’s delight in minutiae. Less interesting is the labor necessary to put all of this back into the closet before the novel’s close.


Metafiction” was coined by William H. Gass to call attention to fictions that call attention to themselves. It’s often associated with “postmodern” writers, such as John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O’Brien, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace. Of course the first and most influential novels–Don Quixote and The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy–were also the most playfully self-conscious.

Gass approaches the genre through modernist experiments. He regards Beckett, Joyce and Stein to be “pioneers” of contemporary (1970s) metafiction. Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968) is his chief contemporary example. In a telling phrase, Gass refers to Barth’s “extraordinary genius.” The strong relationship between metafiction and avant-garde modernism obscures “pulp metafiction”: novels about novels written by industry hacks. The pulp industry of the 1920s and 30s became the paperback mysteries, romances, sci-fi’s, fantasies and horror novels of the 60s and beyond. This “genre fiction” always also played with metafiction. The famous opening of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is an obvious example:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he’d done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the  meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Another example is the Nero Wolfe novels by Stein’s friend, Rex Stout. Archie’s narratives are consistently self-conscious. He explains why he chose one word over another or why he’s ordered the narrative as he has; sometimes, he exhorts his readers to guess “who done it” or assumes that they see some “obvious fact” that hadn’t yet occurred to him. Other authors who call attention to multiple levels of mediation include Edgar Allan Poe (in many works, but especially “The Mystery of Marie Roget”), Robert Louis Stevenson (in The New Arabian Knights), G. K. Chesterton (in The Man Who was Thursday), and horror writers, such as M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. Let’s not forget Kenneth Fearing’s novels, particularly Dagger of the Mind (1941), Clark Gifford’s Body (1942) and Loneliest Girl in the World (1951).

In this post, I discuss two works of popular metafiction written after Gass’s essay appeared. The first is Donald Westlake’s Jimmy the Kid (1974), one of the Dortmunder novels; the second is Fat Ollie’s Book (2002), an 87th Precinct police procedural by Ed McBain. Whereas the modern “genius” spends years on a “master-piece” (Stein’s phrase), Westlake and McBain published several novels a year for many years, aiming at a middle-brow reading public. Westlake (1933-2008) wrote well over a hundred novels under several pen names, including Richard Stark and Samuel Holt. McBain is the most popular pen name of Evan Hunter (1926-2005), who wrote Blackboard Jungle (1954) and the screenplay for The Birds (1963) while cranking out more than fifty 87th Precinct novels, not to mention the “Matthew Hope” series and numerous books under other names (Curt Cannon, Ezra Hannon, Richard Marsten). Both authors show all the virtues of the industry; their books are efficient, fast-paced, well-plotted thrillers that balance generic expectations with original narratives. Unlike many of their peers, both authors sustained high-levels of originality and craftsmanship, despite their prestigious output.

Their novels adhere to the standards of realism maintained by the culture industry. Indeed, pulp writers have contributed much to literary realism. What would it be without Dr. Watson or Philip Marlowe? Westlake’s and McBain’s stories are worth reading in part because their metanarratives occur within these conventions. This “layer” of generic realism doesn’t limit their metafictional explorations. On the contrary, the “real world” established in earlier books in the series contributes to the pleasures of their books about books.

So far, I’ve treated Westlake and McBain as interchangeable cogs in the fiction factory; to some extent, they are. Like “bingeable” TV, their episodic novels may be intensely enjoyed and soon forgotten. But their metafictions are quite different, and must be analyzed one at a time.

Jimmy the Kid

Westlake experimented with metafictional moments throughout his career, but became increasingly interested in self-reflective narratives in the final decade. Baby, Would I Lie? (1994), about a reporter investigating a country-music star accused of murder, and A Likely Story (1984), about a commercial writer putting together a Christmas book, deploy metafictional elements for satirical purposes; the Sam Holt novels, supposedly written by an actor-turned-detective, are self-conscious, with an eye toward drama. Holt frequently pauses to reflect that he knows how to act like a detective in “real life” because of his years acting on TV.

Jimmy the Kid is something else again. To appreciate it, one must know about Westlake’s most famous series: the hard-boiled Parker novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, and the comedy-thrillers starring the hapless thief Dortmunder, published under his own name. The Parker novels feature a gang of bank robbers with a strong focus on their titular hero, a brutal but honest stick-up man. Written in a tragic vein; they can be as fast-paced as a Continental Op story and as brutal as a Jim Thompson novel.

I prefer the Dortmunder novels. The series is a melancholic comedy about an extended family that ekes out existence on the margins of legality. John Dortmunder is the brains behind (but not the leader of) a gang of non-violent thieves operating in New York throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Other characters include Andy Kelp, the lock-specialist; Stan Murch, the driver; and Tiny, the muscle. Secondary characters include May, Dortmunder’s “faithful companion”; Murch’s mom, a cabbie who finds work for the gang; J. C. Taylor, who sells “How to” and sex manuals through the mail; Max, who owns the auto-shop that takes cars with “misplaced papers”; Arnie, the fence whose personality is so bad he gives better prices; and so on. Each novel is a loosely chronological episode in the life of this community, anchored by a complicated heist-gone-wrong plot. The gang’s rarely successful, but they never quite get caught.

The metafictional “twist” in Jimmy the Kid begins when Kelp gives Dortmunder a novel to read: Child Heist, by Richard Stark. It’s a typical, although wholly fictional, Parker novel (based on notes for a story that was never finished). One-by-one, Kelp convinces the other gang members to read it:

Murch laughed politely.

“No, on the level,” Kelp said. “What I want you to do, I want you to read that book.”

“Read a book?” Murch read the Daily News and several car magazines, but he didn’t read books.

“You’ll like it,” Kelp told him. “And I’ve got an idea that hooks up with it.”

Murch picked up the book. He would like it? Child Heist, by Richard Stark. “What’s it about?”

“About a crook,” Kelp said. “A crook named Parker. He’ll remind you of Dortmunder.”

“That sounds great,” Murch said, but without much enthusiasm. He riffled through the book: words on every page.    (22)

As Murch, “feeling the stirrings of curiosity,” begins to read, the first few sentences are printed in same same font as the novel we’re reading: :”When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, ‘Come see me next week when you get out. I think I’ll have something on’”  (22).

This isn’t just an attempt to promote one book by mentioning it in another. In 1974, Stark was selling better than Westlake, so the promotion would have to go the other way for it to work effectively. Most importantly, this “tie-in” is unthinkable within the hard-boiled atmosphere of Parker’s world, while being entirely acceptable within the Dortmunder comedies. Westlake’s comedic realism is more elastic than Stark’s stark dramas.

The reader of both series reads them for one reason: entertainment. But this isn’t what Kelp has in mind. He wants the gang to read the story as an instruction manual. His enjoyment of the story fuels optimism that a heist planned according to the book’s formula “was all going to work just beautifully. Just like the book. . . Robbery stories where the crooks didn’t get caught in the end–fantastic. For Kelp, it was like being an American Indian and going to a western movie where the cowboys lose” (23). Like Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, Kelp confuses fiction and life. He believes life will imitate art. He convinces Dortmunder, Murch, May, and Murch’s mom to adopt this view because, like him, they identify with the traditional “losers” of the American narrative. Their turn to fiction is an investment in contradictory fantasies: that the “bad guys” can win the day (reversing the normative ‘plot’ of popular culture) and that plots can organize life: things will go according to the book’s plan. Kelp insists that the novel, in which Parker’s crew holds a teenager for ransom, “had like a kind of realism to it,” but already he feels the tug of it’s romance: “the awkwardness of a guy bringing his new girlfriend around to meet the fellas at the bowling alley” (26). The dance between romantic expectations and real-world consequences is the source of this particular comedy of errors.

Chapter three ends with Kelp, “crouching like a surfer in the curl,” exclaiming “Don’t you see? We do the caper in the book! We do the book!” (29). The next chapter begins with the first obstacle: “Dortmunder just sat there.” His initial disinclination stems from associations between reading and doing time: “Reading can speed the days a little, and that’s all to the good. So all in all it had been a fairly familiar experience for him, reading a book, though strange to be doing it in a place with no bars over the window. And also strange to be doing it for some other reason outside of the act of reading itself” (30). The second obstacle arrives less than a page later, when the female members of Kelp’s reading group object to Stark’s sexism:

Murch’s Mom said, “I suppose you want May and me to take care of this brat, like the women in the book.”

Kelp said, “Well, we’re not talking about a baby or anything [. . .] We’re talking about a kid maybe ten, twelve years old.”

“That’s very sexist,” Murch’s Mom said

Kelp looked blank. “Hah?”

“Wanting May and me to take care of the kid. Role-assumption. It’s sexist.”

“Goddammit, Mom,” Murch said, “you’ve been off with those consciousness-raising ladies again.”

“I drive a cab,” she said. “I’m no different from a man.”    (31-2)

Such is the unsettling power of fiction, as Westlake views it. Personal and political associations cause even the most generic text to introduce antagonism. Even barely literate intimates disagree about how best to interpret the text. No “master-piece” is necessary for fiction to do it’s work. It immediately promotes multiple, divergent, delightfully chaotic misidentifications. It turns out that Dortmunder’s real concern stems from a perception of the book itself as a rival. He’s worried that he’ll be written out of the narrative. He’s the guy who plans the jobs; if the plan comes from a book, what’s his role? After May explains “aw-tour” theory to him–”the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director”–he acquiesces (38). “Well, I got an open mind,” he says, “I’m always ready to have a book writer tell me my business” (45).

Chapter 7 of Jimmy the Kid is chapter 4 of Child Heist. Parker, Krauss, and Henley find a target by staking out the exit from the Midtown Tunnel and watching for children riding alone in chauffeured limos. In Chapter 8, Dortmunder, Kelp, and Murch follow this plan. The juxtaposition of pages from the “two” novels illuminates the difference in style between Stark and Westlake. The Parker narrative is plot-driven. It confines itself to actions that contribute to the heist. Descriptions of characters and settings are minimal and objective: “When Parker walked into the apartment, Krauss was at the window with the binoculars. He was sitting on a metal folding chair, and his notebook and pen were on another chair next to him” (45). Dortmunder’s narrative is character-driven, full of inefficient actions and subjective judgments: “When Dortmunder walked into the apartment, Kelp was asleep at the window with the binoculars in his lap. . . . Kelp was sitting in a maroon armchair with broken springs; this was a furnished apartment, three rooms full of the most awful furniture imaginable” (48). The reader’s invited to ponder two modes of realism. The first locates reality in the minimal necessary material construction of the world; it emphasizes Parker’s indefatigable will. In the second, realism is guaranteed by the world’s gratuity; entropic bodies and semi-conscious desires take precedence. Parker’s stripped-down world is hard-edged and unforgiving. In Dortmunder’s, the world’s unpredictable excess helps as much as a hinders. In the very next scene, a cop questions Kelp and Dortmunder, but his investigation is interrupted when his horse shits on their (stolen) car, allowing them to escape.

Following the book’s advice, the gang tracks down Jimmy, the youngest son of a divorced Wall Street lawyer. He’s twelve years old, which Kelp considers an advantage: “The kid’ll have a ball, it’ll be like living out one of his favorite television shows” (63). He assumes that the kid has a capacity to buffer reality by experiencing it as fantasy, which of course Kelp does continually. The well-educated and lonely Jimmy proves much more “adult” than his captors. He’s introduced in the act of bantering with his therapist, the free indirect discourse revealing his sophistication: “”One of his unresolved and so-far unstated disagreements with the doctor concerned this aspect of childlike behavior; Jimmy felt that his own disapproval of such behavior in himself was so instinctive and so strong that it simply had to be trusted. He was not, however, prepared as yet to debate the issue with Dr. Schraubenzieher, so he altered the subject slightly…” (65). Jimmy regards himself as an “auteur” whose genius is unrecognized only because he’s still younger in body than in mind: “He knew he wanted to make movies because he was an artist; the doctor, assuming him to be a child, assumed the desire to be childish. . . Would they have given Mozart a toy piano? Wasn’t Mozart a child?” (67). Jimmy believes himself a genius, and acts accordingly; Dortmunder and friends know themselves to be loveable losers, and play their roles with much ineptitude and bickering.

Westlake explores the multi-layered relation between “reality” and “make-believe” with typical efficiency. In Child Heist, the gang wear Mickey Mouse masks “to make it easier for the kid” (72). “We’re all going to play make-believe for a while now,” they tell Jimmy’s fictional predecessor, Bobby. Their gambit works reasonably well. When Dortmunder’s crew attempt the same thing, Jimmy immediately fails to play the role they’ve assigned to him. “We’re going to play make-believe,” an exasperated May eventually tells him, “I’m going to make believe I’m Mickey Mouse and you’re going to make believe you can behave” (83). He does regard the adventure as a TV show, but doesn’t identify as a character so much as the director. He soon escapes, but returns to help the kidnappers complete their operation.

Meanwhile, the novel explodes metafictional fireworks in all directions. Jimmy repeats Poe’s trick in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” filing down nails in the window to leave Dortmunder with “a locked-room mystery” (115). He reverses their game of make-believe in order to stay up late watching Bride of Frankenstein: “But if you let me stay and watch the movie, you can take your masks off and I promise I’ll make believe you kept them on” (118). When Jimmy’s dad talks to the kidnappers (Murch’s mom, calling from a pay phone), the FBI records the call. Their conversation is revealed in a scene in which father and agents listen to the recording. Pausing and replaying it allows for another layer of mediation. Murch’s mom reads a “script” made out of passages from Child Heist. Hearing this, the FBI agents assume that the gang is more professional than it is; their mistake causes them to take extra caution, which helps the kidnappers. And on and on.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I’ll conclude by noting that the novel ends with correspondence between Richard Stark and his lawyer concerning Kid Stuff, a low-budget film Jimmy makes about his experiences. Not knowing the “actual” source of the film’s plot, Stark complains that it’s a “direct steal” of Child Heist (170). This is a fictional letter signed by a “real-world” pen name about a movie based on “real-world” events based on a fictitious novel. According to Westlake, Stark fails to recognize that life does imitate art; Stark’s perceptual short-circuit implicitly critiques the fetish for the stripped-down realism of the Parker novels.

Fat Ollie’s Book

The 87th Precinct novels follow investigations by Steve Carella, Bert Kling, and a dozen other mostly amiable, mostly hard-working detectives in a fictional city meticulously crafted to resemble New York. Each novel begins with the same epigram: “The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.” This frame, borrowed from Dragnet and recently used in Fargo (the movie and TV show), asks its public to accept the fiction for the sake of reality. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, as though what follows were based on “real-world” events.

“Established investigatory technique” turns out to be the routine itself. McBain locates realism in the slow slog of following leads and questioning witnesses. Conducting murder investigations is treated as a middle-class job, with many pages given to water-cooler conversations, being stuck in traffic, and balancing work with home life. Opening a book (Ice) at random, we find:

Carella was wearing a turtleneck shirt under his sports jacket that Saturday morning. The first thing Meyer Meyer said to him was, “Those things make you look short.”

“They keep me warm,” Carella said.

“Is it better to be warm or tall?” Meyer asked philosophically, and went back to his typing.        (Ice, 17)

In Fat Ollie’s Book, one cop makes another needle-point pillows that read:





Protect     (80)

This little cipher lengthens the typical police code: “Serve and Protect.” It locates love in the middle of the “SHLEP.” Love the process, is the wish this police lover gives to her police man. It works. “‘That says it all,’ he told her, and took her into his arms.” The romance of routine–following the codes–evokes McBain’s labor-intensive process as a writer. His world is constructed one stitch at a time. His books, like the pillow, are texts for non-academic readers.

The crimes are often brutal, and the stories build to thrilling climaxes, but the detectives are professional, and patient. McBain uses long passages of dialogue to convey the methodical collection of data in a city where everyone wants a say and no one’s perspective is truly objective:

“Were you here in the hall when all this happened, Mr. Coogan?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Where in the hall?”

“In the balcony.”

“What were you doing up there?”

“Listening to sound checks.”

“While you were listening to those sound checks, did you happen to hear the sound of a gun going off?”


“In the balcony?”


“Then where?”

“From somewhere down below.”

“Where down below?”

“The stage.”

“Which side of the stage?”

“I couldn’t tell.”          (10)

Several of the earliest books in the series included long transcripts from interviews in the squad room, all written like this. The utter banality of the dialogue works because McBain is also methodical. Every detail and inflection matters. The generic formula follows Poe’s juxtaposition of narratives in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and several of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels: closely related details are allowed to repeat so that the reader, like a cryptologist, learns to read the patterns behind the words.

A personal drama always occurs in the background, as counterpoint to the slow investigation. In one novel, Carella’s wife, Teddy, faces an assault charge; in another, Kling’s wife cheats on him; after the divorce, he begins a romance with a Black officer, and so forth. Like the construction of a fictional New York, this formula focuses the series on the negotiation of public and private lives. Policing requires constant intrusion of public officers into private lives. Each book in the series illuminates the private life of a different detective to various degrees, but only to the reader. More often than not, a particular officer’s personal problems are not known by the rest of the large cast. Private passions sometimes interfere with the procedure, but usually the detectives successfully police themselves.

Not Fat Ollie, a minor character in many of the novels. Detective/First Grade Oliver Wendell Weeks works in the 88th precinct. Originally he appears as a foil to Carella, Kling, and the others. He embodies all the worst traits of city police: he’s violent, corrupt, slovenly, and rude. Colleagues bemoan his racist jokes and open bigotry. He cuts corners, doesn’t follow the rules. He is the obscene underside of their professionalism: his crude improvisations gets results. The closest thing he has to a redeeming trait is a habit of imitating W. C. Fields:

“Seems a resident here got himself aced yesterday morning, ah yes,” Ollie said.

“So I understand,” Carella said.

“Then why’d you ask, m’little chickadee?” Ollie said, once again doing his world-famous W. C. Fields imitation. The pity was–but he didn’t realize this–nobody knew who W. C. Fields was. Whenever Ollie did his impersonation, everyone thought he was doing Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. (26)

Our view of Ollie changes drastically when, near the end of the series, his authorial aspirations are revealed. His private passion, it turns out, is writing police procedurals. His manuscript, “A Report to the Commissioner,” written in the voice of Olivia Watts, a sexy undercover agent, is stolen from his car while he’s responding to the murder of a Mayoral candidate. Ollie joins Carella’s investigation in order to track down his manuscript, which circulates through the underworld in advance of him, causing chaos when it’s mistaken for an actual police report.

The thieve’s confusion is understandable, because Ollie’s book follows “established investigatory technique.” His major epiphany as a novice author is to write it “true to life”:

At first, the book itself was giving him trouble. . . The trouble was that he was trying to sound too much like all those pissant writers out there who were not cops but who were writing what they call “police procedurals,” and by doing this, by imitating them, actually, he was losing track of his own distinctiveness, his very Oliver Wendell Weekness, no pun intended.

And then he hit upon a brilliant idea.

Suppose he wrote the book like a Detective Division report? In his own language, the way he’d type it on a DD form. . .      (20)

In multiple flashbacks, McBain uses Ollie to defend his own approach to the genre he’d written for fifty years. Ollie realizes that “anyone writing the stuff had better learn to keep it simple” (58).  He rewrites his “literary” style: “The sound of music came from somewhere inside the apartment. Its noisome beat filled the hallway tremblingly” becomes “Loud music hammered the halls” (59). This is the private part of his revelation: the discovery of his “own language.” The public part illuminates the other half of McBain’s formula. Upon “realizing that most of the mysteries on the bestseller list were written by ladies, Ollie took an entirely different approach.” Writing his report from a woman’s perspective, “he had found a voice at last” (59). Like McBain, he realizes that the macho world of the police investigation should be balanced by a feminine world focused on familial relations. In McBain’s work, these worlds are strictly heteronormative; the police sometimes run into “fags” on the street, but their love lives revolve around child-rearing, weddings, divorces, family vacations and other strictly straight-world occasions. Ollie’s plot queers this world; by turning the first-person narrator into a woman, he attempts to merge McBain’s work-life/family-life distinction.

The first eight pages of Ollie’s manuscript, printed in a different font, begin on page 85, appearing periodically thereafter. The manuscript contains texts printed in yet another font, suggesting an endless regression of quoted texts. Olivia interprets texts in Ollie’s text, which we read in the context of the series. A cross-dressing heroin addict named Emilio also interprets Ollie’s book. Mistaking it’s fiction for fact, he reads it like Dortmunder’s gang: as an instructional manual that will help to commit a crime. Whereas Westlake’s comedy hinges on a too-intimate reading of the book in question, McBain’s thief soon realizes that the “Report to the Commissioner” is written in code; he attempts to “translate” Ollie’s fiction by mapping it onto the “real” city–the fantastical city painstakingly constructed over dozens upon dozens of novels. “The trouble with Livvie’s city was that it was imaginary,” is Emilio’s epiphany. “The people, the places in her pages were all fictitious. For all Emilio knew, even the police routine was phony and not based on established investigatory technique” (166). Upon reading a passage of Ollie’s novel, Emilio thinks:

You’re not going to fast for me, honey. . . You’re giving me clue after clue. If I don’t find you by Sunday, I’ll eat my rhinestone-studded thong panties. You have just told me that your informant is a tall, thin, one-eyed Jamaican who is known as The Needle, big surprise, but whose real name is Mortimer Loop, which is probably not his real name, either, they are so fuckin cagey, these people….     (120)

We soon learn that “in real life, this was a white man named William “Fats” Donner. Ollie had changed Donner’s name and description for fictitious purposes and also because he did not wish to get sued later by a fat junkie snitch” (120-1). Nonetheless, Emilio makes more progress in his interpretation than Ollie does in his investigation.

Once the novel’s text is introduced, metafictional resonances explode. In a flashback we learn that Ollie receives advice from a publisher that includes “YOU MUST INCLUDE A TICKING CLOCK” (84). Immediately after Emilo begins to map Ollie’s fiction onto McBain’s fictional world, we’re told: “The clock is ticking!” The book’s “simple” formula doubles. The race between cop and criminal becomes a race between the character’s interpretation of the text and the reader’s progression through the murder investigation. McBain and Ollie fulfill this generic requirement simultaneously. While the investigation proceeds at its patient pace, it’s new romantic leads, Olivia (in Ollie’s novel) and Emilio (reading Ollie’s novel), spring from deduction to deduction, keeping one step ahead of the criminals (in Olivia’s fictional world) and the cops (in McBain’s mise-en-scenè). All of this is rhymed again by the book’s overall plot: Carella’s search for the politician’s murderer requires the interpretation of several letters, while Ollie’s search for his manuscript requires him to “uncover” Emilo’s double-identity: a man at home, a woman on the streets.

Meanwhile, Ollie gains interiority. Of all the detectives in the series, he has until now been the most caricatured. In the station house, he’s “a character,” constantly performing himself; in the series, he’s the most artificial character, his persona put together through a gross amalgam of stereotypes. Up until this point, he’s every fat white man in the popular-culture canon. He eats hamburgers as rapidly as Popeye’s J. Wellington Wimpy, banters as buffoonishly as Oliver Hardy, bickers as good-naturedly as Jackie Gleason, and makes bigoted declarations as innocently as Archie Bunker. Now, we learn his inner thoughts. Normally, a character’s’ personal-life intrusions concern “real-world” problems: Carella’s wife is deaf, Kling’s new relationship is interracial, etc. Of all people, Ollie’s romance is actually Romance. His interior monologues mix racism with literary opinion: “He could just imagine how difficult it was for poor Jonathan Franzen, whom Ollie admired a great deal because he’d dissed a Negress like Oprah Winfrey” (96). His literary perspective makes him an ass (an observation his sister needle-points into a sampler that hangs over his toilet), but also a better detective: “Ollie guessed Walsh thought he looked like a TV detective. TV detectives thought they looked like real-life detectives, which they didn’t. Trouble was, real-life detectives watched TV and then started acting like TV detectives, who were acting the way they thought real-life detectives did” (211). Ollie’s appreciation for the way life imitates art imitating life helps him to solves the crime his manuscript’s created. He doesn’t recover the manuscript until a later 87th Precinct novel arrives: Hark! (2004).  In this book, full of anagrams, palindromes, and quotations from Shakespeare, Ollie finds Emilio. He’s burned the manuscript–but also MEMORIZED it. Ollie puts him in an interrogation room with a microphone and he regurgitates the entire thing. 

Both writers use metafiction to explore the relation between books and their genres. Both raise questions about how casual readers interpret texts. Both imagine the popular narrative to introduce a thrilling / dangerous chaos into the world’s plot. Westlake focuses on the relation between auteurs and collective projects. McBain focuses on the campy misinterpretation of sexual codes. For Westlake, writing in the early 1970s, our fictions are Freudian projections that never quite hit the mark. Comedy results from the impossibility of following our own scripts. For McBain, thirty years later, fictions result from textual misinterpretations. Their organization of the future is more important than that they were organized in the past. In both cases, metafiction is existential–the occasion to meditate on the mediation of reality–but no more so than in ordinary life. Our anxiety over the construction of reality motivates us (positively, if foolishly, for Westlake, through its absence for McBain), but mostly because it’s annoying. It accrues in little frustrations: life’s “liveable shit” (to quote the Sleaford Mods).

For Gass, metafiction edges literature into philosophy. It adds serious reflection of a new order to the reading experience. The culture industry’s metafiction is more dramatic and playful. No one would mistake these books for Beckett, Stein, or Barth. But they do evoke the playfulness of Cervantes and Sterne. The confusion engendered by the book’s alternative reality is survivable; everyone gets “lost in the funhouse” but everyone gets out again. 

As I write this, a constitutional crisis plays its miserable “make believe” out through an unpresidented conglomeration of twitter feeds, CNN, Breitbart, and real-life reruns of Celebrity Apprentice. We’ve been creeping up on government via reality TV for decades. The question is, how do we collectively live this crisis? Those most invested in tragedy want a hard-edged, uncomplicated reality. The rest of us want something more capacious and contagious. We shouldn’t give up the fantasy of an ordinary, infinitely complicated, always misunderstood, endlessly forgiving reality.

BACK TO THE BONE: Jeff Smith’s Bone Comics

Bone coverLast week, I observed a comrade’s son reading Jeff Smith’s Bone. It gave me hope. Only a month earlier, I’d wished Bone upon a brilliant student who’d written her honors thesis on graphic novels. The coincidence got me thinking. I hope everyone remotely interested in graphic narratives will read this beautiful, crazy “cartoon epic.”

The term’s appropriate. Epics are long. Mythic and historical in scope. At 1,332 pages, Bone must the single longest complete graphic narrative. Obviously many comic strips and series burn thru more pages, but they do so serially, rather than with the attempt to create a singular story arc. (For example, the complete Love & Rockets would be much longer, but Los Bros. Hernandez use the open-ended narrative structure of telenovelas; by contrast, Bone sustains a singular narrative–a version of The Odyssey. Our protagonist, Bone, spends the entire time attempting to get home. The story’s closest living relative is the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the collected Bone even comes with a map similar to those constructed of Tolkein’s world). But it’s graphic narrative is also reminiscent of modern epics, such as Pound’s Cantos or Williams’s Paterson. Although mediated differently, Smith’s comic, like these long poems, prioritizes imagistic fragments, allowing the sweep of history to lodge within ordinary life. Bone is one of the most finely drawn and thoughtfully conceived comic stories. It’s “epic” in quality as well as scope.

When I told my friend’s son how glad I was to see him reading, in my phrase, “the best comic of all time,” he corrected me: “it’s not a comic; it’s a graphic novel.” Similarly, my student’s honor’s thesis required a defense of the genre: graphic novels should be regarded as comics book for grown-ups. Bone blurs this distinction. It’s both comic book and graphic novel; it mixes the cartoon’s slapstick with the length and complexity of a Russian novel. When it first appeared in 1991, I didn’t get it. I was too “young” because I was too concerned with being “grown up.” Into more macho and ironic graphic novels, I was put off by the amorphous, Pogo-like characters, intensely slow scenes, and black-and-white printing. 25 years later, I’m charmed by its whimsy. It balances adolescent enthusiasm with poetic intensity, and plays with genre expectations in delightful ways.

THE STORY (in 5 sentences)

Three cousins–Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Happy Bone–flee a riot sparked by one of Phoney’s get-rich-quick schemes; they get separated while crossing a mountain range into foreign territory. The arrive in a magical land populated by peasants, princesses, talking animals, dragons, and other monsters. It’s as foreign to them as it is to us, while their world, which we hear of but never see, is full of nuclear waste, organic gardens, venture capitalists and Fourth of July parades. Our protagonist, Fone Bone, falls in love with Thorn, a warrior princess; with the help of her kick-ass grandmother and a Red Dragon, they defeat a Tolkienesque evil. Phone Bone spends much time bickering with his cousins and trying to keep them alive; in the end, the three of them head back to Boneville, their reality.


Cartoon confrontationThe original comics were black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings. Before they were colored, Smith’s drawings depended upon the size and shape of lines, along with the spacing of narrative elements, to develop complex characters, slapstick humor, and fast-paced action. He contributed to the innovations in the use of negative space and “slow motion” that Frank Miller popularized in Ronin and the Dark Knight. But more like Hergé than Miller, Smith focused on a precise rendering of panel-by-panel actions and reactions. His work resembles Saul Steinberg’s in it’s love of the pen and George Booth’s in the the care it extends to the minutia of details.  But Smith does more; he uses two graphic styles to represent a fundamental rift in his world. Bone and his cousins are Pogo-like cartoon creatures, drawn with thick, smooth lines. The residents of the valley in which they find themselves are human and animal, rendered with thinner, scratchier lines. The Bones’ bodies are empty of all but the most significant details; the human and animals bodies are more fully “filled in” with textural marks. In other words, two styles share many frames. Compare this to Miller’s two realities but single style in Ronin or the distinct styles of Jaime Hernandez’s Hoppers vs Gilbert’ s Palomar. In Bone, characters from one stylistic reality (cartoonish / clear-line) find themselves in a world dictated by a different stylistic reality (realistic / textured). 

This difference is fundamental to the entire narrative; in Smith’s world, visual styles dictate physical laws. Bone and his cousins enjoy different gravitational effects. For example, unlike the humans and animals around them, they suffer few or no ill-effects from falling from great heights, but can be literally “bowled over” by love. They function in the story’s reality, but with a difference.

Bone Falls in Love

Thorn gives Bone an extra-long look, which adds romance to her statement that “we’re friends.” We see Bone absorb this; then he’s flipped out of his saddle by a feeling. The hearts floating over his head in the last panel don’t apply to Thorn, her grandmother, or other characters of the “human” world. In the last panel, Thorn looks back in surprise. Not only is she unaware of his infatuation (he’s about to write her some very bad love lyrics), she’s confused by its physical effects. The visual metaphor appears to her as an unaccountable accident. It’s as though Bone comes from the world of the Id, while Thorn remains within the world of the ego. The ego’s world is the only world we see, but the Id’s world sounds (as disclosed in conversation) more like our own. The ego’s world is inhabited by humans and (talking) animals; the Id’s world (Boneville) is represented by cartoon creatures, who are astounded that animals talk. The on-going negotiation between these worlds–both kinds of creatures attempting to understand the other with great patience–constitutes the daily life that fills the narrative foreground, even as an epic battle unfolds. 


In it’s initial stages, the battle unfolds in meticulously rendered chase sequences. Bone’s chased by two “stupid, stupid rat creatures”: Laurel-and-Hardy monsters you can’t help but love. Consider the time sequence and intense details in this typical sequence:

Stupid Stupid Rat Creatures

Slapstick rendered with intense naturalism recalls Buster Keaton’s The General or The Navigator. In the first panel, Bone, falling off the collapsing tree, catches the rat creature’s ears. In the second panel, the rat creature realizes the size of the cliff.  Both characters recognize the need to work together. But as Bone climbs to safety, the second rat creature slams into them and everyone falls. Look at Bone’s expression in the final panel and at how the rat creature acknowledges his critique. In Daredevil in the late 70s / early 80s, Miller began to depict action with this degree of balletic detail, a marked contrast to the more symbolic sequences of “classic” superhero comics. Smith applies this technique to comic effect. Everyone survives. 

The slowing down of visual narrative is used to amplify ordinary reactions to extraordinary events. One of my favorite sequences unfolds over two pages. Phoney, working off his latest scam by doing dishes in a tavern, is confronted by a wizard resembling the Grim Reaper:

Phoney Bone and Death 1Phoney Bone and Death 2

Phoney confronts  what for him’s a typical dilemma. He’s ready to assault any entity that threatens his cousin–unless a “business” prospect interferes. The thing appears first at the window, then sticks it’s head into the kitchen, provoking a physical reaction that can only be experienced by the residents of Boneville. The page ends with a comedic jolt as Smiley slams more dishes onto the counter. On the first panel of the next page, Phoney’s jitters are the result of both his confrontation with the mythic figure and the frazzling carelessness of Happy. Then the perspective reverses, and the wizard’s actions are mirrored as Phoney looks through, then leans through, the window. Note his shadow as he peers out. Four silent panels set up his realization that surreal forces are involved. He understands capitalism, but not magic…

It gets more complicated. As the forces of evil overwhelm the peasant-warriors, a meta-level hallucination occurs. Bone’s favorite author is Herman Melville; he carries Moby-Dick and a diary in his knapsack. As the forces of evil grow, Thorn’s and Bone’ dreams grow strange. In the following, he dreams that he’s Ismael and Phoney, Ahab. 

The White Whale

The dramatic perspective, technically precise detail, and embedded frames are typical of the entire comic.  Notice how the background details fade in the middle panel and disappear entirely from the bottom panel. The styles continually mediate a range of subjective/objective details; the more intense the personal drama, the more the style beckons toward early Disney comics, which minimized background. Bone’s dream enjoys a similarly multi-layered relation to the plot as a whole. Sometimes Phone Bone and Phoney Bone seem like the little angels and devils that appear in poems and cartoons to indicate moral decisions. Both are sought by the forces of darkness, whose prophecies suggest the importance of one or the other of them. Meanwhile, Bone and his cousin have a lot of baggage. They’ve grown up together, looking out for each other in myriad ways. Now their confronting a strange world,  often with their backs to the wall. Phoney, whose cartoon features are determined by greed the way Bone’s are by love, gets them into a lot of trouble. Happy Bone, whose trait is goofiness, usually goes along with his get-rich-quick schemes, leaving Bone  to confront his cousin. Their antagonism is symbolic, but also the subject of an intense, ongoing conversation.

Furthermore, dreaming is treated with great reverence; Thorn’s dreams reveal her destiny and are used to control her will.  Bone and Thorn, young lovers that they are, spend a lot of time interpreting each other’s dreams.  No one interprets Bone’s dream (when he wakes, everyone’s gone), so it’s up to us. Imagining Phoney as Ahab suggests the Bone recognizes his cousin’s mania, and also that he regards him as the Captain of their little gang. Indeed, the dream suggests that if Phoney is allowed to lead their quest for home, they will die. Bone must come to recognize that he’s the Odysseus to Phoney’s Ahab.

Smiley Bone and Rat Creature make money close upIt’s more complicated than that,  of course, because Phoney also wants to get them safely home; he’s just convinced that a large amount of loot will help them on their way.  Like Scrooge McDuck, he suffers from an intense money fetish. When Smiley and an orphan rat creature they’ve named Bartleby figure out how to coin money, Phoney weeps with joy. By contrast, Bone’s Caspar the Friendly Ghost, a frequently ignored superego that hovers near by, lamenting bad decisions when he’s not saving the day.

The climax involves a war between humans, rat creatures, and other monsters, plus an explosion that recalls Mt. St. Helen’s eruption. As the characters flee across the blighted landscape, they share a collective hallucination that causes Bone’s dream to come to life. Phoney finds himself having to traverse the boulder-strewn desolation with a wooden leg, thanks to his cousin’s Id. Their conversation’s hilarious.

Smith takes the time, panel-by-panel, page-by-page, to complicate everything. The characters are constantly commenting on their own actions and reactions; about 70% of the story involves their conversation about what’s going on. In the scene described above, Phoney yells, “It’s a VOLCANO! Can’t we just say that the mountain BLEW UP? Why’s it EVIL?” He’s never accepted the story about sorcerers and dragons everyone in this world seems to believe. He’s infuriated by Bone’s and Happy’s acceptance of this nonsense. Yet the evidence is right there–in his wooden leg, which only makes matters worse… Like Moby-Dick, Bone explores at length the numerous stated and unconscious goal(s) of the voyage. Even the love plot’s complicated. Does Thorn treat Bone’s infatuation lightly because: a) she regards him as doughy little cartoon; b) she sees him as a possible suitor, but is into hunky farm boys; c) like him, she’s shy; d) she’s got a lot of her mind as she transforms from peasant to princess-warrior. The answer’s all of the above. Their relationship, as important as that between Bone and his cousins, evolves tenderly through dozens of side-bar “check-in’s” as the epic unfolds:

Bone and Thorn conversation 1

Bone and Thorn conversation 2

Smith renews our trust in the possibilities of earnest conversation. Friendly banter–little apologies, admissions, explanations–will be the source of their survival. When it matters, they will trust each other and reason together.  This trans-species intimacy is at times facilitated and hindered by their wildly different experiences and bodies.  These bodies are “lived in” throughout the story, but also symbolic of two styles in the now-massive comic-book industry.  Bone and Thorn cross the boundaries between the adolescent slapstick of the dailies and the aesthetic priorities of the mature graphic novel.

In recent years, captivated by Hollywood, the comics industry has moved in the opposite direction. They create “universes” that are entirely monotonal, singularly textured.  When “Spiderman 14: A New Beginning” and “X-Men 36: Another Apocalypse” prove too much for you, go back to the Bone.


I studied poetry with Derek Walcott at Boston University during the 2004-5 academic year. It was a one-year M.A. program in Creative Writing; I was there to study with Robert Pinsky, whose poetry had captivated me a few years before. Upon arrival, I discovered that our first writing course would be taught by Walcott, whose name and I work I didn’t know.


This ignorance was, perhaps, partially excusable. My eyes & ears were open to all kinds of poetry in those days–full of an intellectual hunger,  since waned–but no one had introduced me to Caribbean poetry. There was, of course, no Google search (I wrote my B.U. thesis on a typewriter; this was also the year I met “web mail” and “the internet,” both of which, to my misfortune, I found uninteresting), so my first impressions of Walcott were, shall we say, untainted by prior information. (I’m trying not to be nostalgic, but O, how sweet was the world when a greater part was encountered in the flesh!)

Walcott was (in rough order of first impressions) intimidating, hilarious, sobering, enlivening. I was more intimidated by his mustache, tweed jacket and manner than by the Nobel Prize he’d won only a few years earlier (and which he was quick to discount, with sincere humility, the few times it was brought up). I’d become used to casual, friendly Professors (Pinsky was such); now we sat in a room with a man who demanded (rather than invited us to discuss) that we tell him what we knew about poetry, and who scoffed (rather than ate a sigh) at our ignorance.

There were twelve in the class; we sat at school desks in a circle around the edge of a small, tastefully decorated room on the second or third floor of a B.U. building overlooking the Charles. There was no syllabus, no books assigned. On the first day, Walcott assessed our ignorance, which was vast. He told us to show up for the next class having memorized W. H. Auden’s “The Fall of Rome.” I rushed to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop to buy a copy of the Selected Poems. Amy helped me learn the lines in the basement flat where I’d rented a room (close to campus, but otherwise a dismal affair owned by a depressed gay republican astrologer who kept four cats, a hundred fish, and a life-sized porcelain bust of Reagan above the toilet). I can still recite the poem at a moment’s notice. It begins:

The piers are pummeled by the waves;

In a lonely field, the rain

Lashes an abandoned train;

Outlaws fill the mountain caves.


Fantastic grow the evening gowns;

Agents of the fisc pursue

Absconding tax-defaulters through

The sewers of provincial towns.

As promised, the second class began with Walcott telling us to recite the poem, together. We tried and failed. Tried again, flailed our voices to bring them into sync while remembering our lines. “Pathetic,” was his comment. He told us to be prepared to try again, individually and together, the next time we met. He then explained the dense beauty of the poem, syllable by syllable. He liked how in the first line the l and d of “pummeled” visually mimic the slap of waves against the m’s of the pier; how the word “waves” withdrew, as though sucked out into the storm. “Lash” was the perfect word to describe what rain does to the surface of a wrecked train. “At what point in a nation’s history do outlaws fill the caves?” he asked. A dictator in power, the conditions for revolt at hand, but no organized rebellion. He taught us to marvel at the class antagonism that gaped in the space between the first and second stanzas. “Imagine what sewers at like in the provinces,” he insisted. “Now imagine the tax-man chasing you through them.” He asked us to imagine an equally difficult feat: writing a poem, in plain English, with rhymes that were half as sure-footed and profound. “I can’t do it,” he told us, “you sure as hell can’t do it. But it’s pleasant to imagine.” In my recollection, he asked us to think about the poem for more than two hours; at the end of which time, no one thought the poem to have been fully dissected.

Our next assignment was Auden’s “September 1, 1939”. It took perhaps three or four weeks for us to recite and understand the poem to a satisfactory degree. We next turned to Hardy; spent hours on “During Wind and Rain”: a novel condensed into four intricately crafted stanzas.  Twenty-two difficult years later, I teach these poems and turn to them frequently, companions now, grooves worn deeply into the synapses.

Walcott taught play-writing to another group of students in the afternoon. A few weeks into the term, he invited us to participate in a semi-regular ritual. After class, six or seven of us would walk with him three or four blocks up Commonwealth Ave to a Vietnamese restaurant near the theater. “Lunch is on me,” he’d proclaim.  He led the way, closely trailed by whomever was brave enough to make small-talk with ,him; he was irreverent and caustic, without forsaking his dignity. Once, he karate-kicked open the restaurant door, briefly showing us a sand-brown old man’s skinny shin. He scared us with a simple rule, introduced at the first such lunch: “You can order whatever you want. But you must give our waitress your order in complete sentences, without any ‘ah’s,’ ‘um’s’ or ‘err’s.’” He deployed the way U.S. schoolchildren were allowed to fill their speech with meaningless conjunctions. It was a symptom of white supremacy, the casual refusal of proper grammar when speaking aloud. The penalty for fucking up was you had to pay for your own lunch. This was a serious. Most of us had few bucks in our pockets and no credit cards; the nearest ATM was maybe three blocks away. The waitresses, I recall, were used to his antics.

He was one of few people I’ve met who possessed an actual eye-twinkle. He could bark scornful laughter, wrinkle his nose and brows in amusement, and scare up a devastating glare. But he could also generate a spark, slightly lascivious (as glee always is), that danced only in the eyes: a knowledgeable quickness, as though the Wordsworthian child in him had never been snuffed out. It said, “Wow! Can’t believe this shit! The world continues to surprise.”

After lunch, we were allowed to sit quietly in the audience to observe the play-writing workshop. This was his passion at B.U. He’d founded perhaps the most important counter-institution of the Caribbean renaissance, the Trinidad Theater Workshop in 1950. In 1971, Dream on Monkey Mountain had won an Obie. Ten years later, he’d organized the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, which allowed novice playwrights to work with actors and stage sets. Walcott would often sit in the audience, letting the students learn how to rewrite their scenes by watching them. Once I saw him intervene. With a few simple commands to the actors, he turned a scene that wasn’t coming together into a story narrated by one character to others from another scene. He placed the narrator and his audience downstage and cut the narrated scene into segments, performed between and often at odds with the narrator’s story. The original script’s incoherence was turned into itself, producing two or three new layers of meaning. A banal, middle-class drama became a stunning examination of class habitus. I learned two-thirds of what I know about modernism, deconstruction, and postcolonialism in that moment. I was becoming habituated to the logics behind these theories in other courses, but it was here that I encountered, for the first time and all at once, the practical aesthetics.

Wolcott once told us that, determined to “master the sonnet,” he got up each morning at five and wrote a sonnet before coffee, breakfast, and teaching. He did this for several years. I tried it, but after a week I gave up. I lacked stamina, or was it motivation? Wishing to understand formal verse–I’d been brought up on haiku, confessional poetry and the avant-garde–I brought a sonnet to our first one-on-one critique. It was a serious and humble poem, about the day I chopped a garden toad in half with a carelessly placed shovel, rhyming this event with my father’s death earlier that year. All the rhymes were in place. Walcott was unimpressed. “Do you compose on a typewriter?” he asked, giving me the glare. “Yes,” I confessed. “You can hear it’s clatter in the lines. The sound of the machine mars this verse. It’s rough and ugly.” “But the event was ugly,” I stammered. “Oh, poor you, killed a toad. Father dead. Who cares?” He dismissed me. “Next time,” he said, “bring me something you’ve written with a pen. The music has to come from the silence. Give up the typewriter; it’s distracting.”

As the term came to an end, and we’d  recited our Yeats, Walcott consented to discussing one of his own books. We read (his choice) The Arkansas Testament, published in 1987 and dedicated to Seamus Heaney, whose reading we’d all just attended. (What a thrill to sit in the audience with these other poets–readings by the Boston Circle of the time (Bidart, Pinsky, Glück, Warren, Hill and Heaney) were often attended by peers as well as students; Walcott was the only one we didn’t see read). I rushed to Grolier’s to get a copy before the rest of the class.

We tried to prove how much we appreciated him (not everyone did, of course) by reading his own poetry with the intensity that he’d taught us to apply to Auden and Hardy. He mostly sat back with a slightly embarrassed smirk. One hand on chin, listening, which is why I chose the above photo. Sometimes he leaned forward to intervene. He helped us to understand the politics of Caribbean nationalism behind “A Latin Primer,” which begins:

I had nothing against which

to notch the growth of my work

but the horizon, no language

but the shallows in my long walk


home, so I shook all the help

my young right hand could use

from the sand-crusted kelp

of distant literatures.

One sentence across two Audenesque stanzas; formal perfection justifies the explanation and boast. Each word a resonant knot: “the language” of “the shallows” is both waves plashing across the poet’s feet and the shallow culture of St. Lucia’s limited horizon; the “sand-crusted kelp” is not kelp at all, but the British tradition. The explanation is slightly defensive: what was a boy to do, but learn the tradition that provided immediate assistance? It’s counteracted by the mastery of said tradition. The poem continues for several pages, describing with Joycean precision the episodes of humiliation and pride that accompanied his quest for a culture he would have to make if it was to have true purchase. The epiphany comes when, one evening, depressed from teaching Latin lessons to students who “would die in dialect,” he sees a frigate bird and recognizes it in english, Latin and patois simultaneously:

[…]  named with the common sense

of fishermen: sea scissors,

Fregata magnificens,


Ciseau-la-mer, the patois

for its cloud-cutting course;

and that native metaphor

made by the strokes of oars,


with one wing beat for scansion,

that slowly levelling V

made one with my horizon

as it sailed steadily


beyond the sheep-nibbled columns

of fallen marble trees,

or the roofless pillars once

sacred to Hercules.


A sentence that stretches over four stanzas; “patois” rhymed with “metaphor,” “scansion” with the “horizon” that in the first stanza failed to “notch” his success. The “native metaphor” allows another flight–across modern English literature. It is a modernist move, the sudden shift in perspective as the bird sails into the classical tradition, crossing time and space to become a bird Homer might have seen, wading in the surf.

In the 1970s and 80s, at the height of Caribbean cultural nationalism, critics and poets sometimes compared Walcott to Kamau Brathwaite in order to distinguish between an “old-guard” anticolonialism and a more radical, more Black, poetics. Neither poet made much of this distinction; they were obviously pursuing different literary projects for similar reasons. Brathwaite brought the patois into Caribbean literature; Walcott sought to challenge the colonial tradition from within. At it’s best, his poetry deconstructed the British tradition from within; lesser poems fail to pull of the mimicry. They become brittle when too self-consciously elegant, but glimmer with a joyful intensity when formal mastery allows him to reimagine the British tradition with loving irony, such as one finds in some of Kerry James Marshall’s landscapes, such as Gulf Stream (2003):

KerryJamesMarshall_Gulf Stream

Walcott’s Omeros, his version of the Odyssey, is rightly regarded as his masterpiece; for me, it was “The Arkansas Testament,” a narrative poem that recounts a visit to the home of the Confederacy. Riffing on Lowell, Walcott begins by touring a Confederate cemetery:

The young stones, flat on their backs,

their beards curling like mosses,

have no names; an occasional surge

in the pines mutters their roster

while their centennial siege,

their entrenched metamorphosis

into cones and needles, goes on.

This formal elegance honors the dead, but somewhat foolishly. Already by the second stanza, Wolcott brings us into his black body; exhausted from travel, he falls asleep on the cheap motel bed, awakening to feel, “through the chained door, / darkness entering Arkansas.” Brilliantly, the threat is palpable because it’s not there.

The next morning, before the sun has risen, with “Pajams crammed into my jacket, / the bottoms stuffed into trousers,” the poet hurries through the empty streets, searching caffeine. He waits

        for a while by the grass

of a urinous wall to let

the revolving red eye on top

of a cruising police car pass

Finding an open cafeteria, with whites glaring and blacks behind the counter, he orders his coffee to go. “I looked for my own area,” he writes, For several intensely written stanzas, his scrupulous attention to the formalities of English-language verse coincides with scrupulous attention to the culture of the post-Jim Crow color line:

The self-contempt that it takes

to find my place card among any

of the faces reflected in lakes

of lacquered mahogany

comes easily now. I have laughed

loudest until silence kills

the shoptalk. A fork clicks

on its plate; a cough’s rifle shot

shivers the chandeliered room.

A bright arm shakes its manacles.

Every candle-struck face stares into

the ethnic abyss. In the oval

of a silver spoon, the window

bent in a wineglass, the offal

of flattery fed to my craft,

I watch the bright clatter resume.

Coffee in hand, the sun rises as the poet walks back to his hotel. As “day broadened” the neighborhood into the “prose of an average American town,” he muses on on-going “racial rage,” the Confederate cemetery and the underground railroad. As the sunlight diminishes the sense of threat, internal, personal doubts emerge:

My shadow’s scribbled question

on the margin of the street

asks, Will I be a citizen

or an afterthought of the state?

His doubts extend to the “place” he was assigned in the critical controversy over Caribbean postcolonial culture:

Can I swear to uphold my art

that I share with them too, or worse,

pretend all is past and curse

from the picket lines of my verse

the concept of Apartheid?

The shadow bends to the will

as our oaths of allegiance bend

to the state. What we know of evil

is that it will never end.

The strong allusion to “September 1, 1939” in the last line above helps to convey Walcott’s stance. Like Auden, he insists upon uncomfortable compromise. We know what evil is; we see it all around us. We have to live with it. We have, somehow, to make the most of it. We are always “thrown” in the philosophical sense of always being in the middle of something we did and didn’t choose. We make our history, but never with the terms of our choosing.

So buoyed, I left B.U. determined to be the poet of my tribe–whatever that was. Walcott caused me to believe that by becoming masterful at a craft, one might also find a way to sing the truth. In the several decades since, I largely failed to become the poet and person I wanted to become. Editors don’t like my verse, and various attempts at counter-institutions floundered between the Scylla of No Money and the Charybdis of No Time. Derek Walcott had something to help with failure, too. Once he showed several of us three file drawers crammed with manuscripts. “These are the rejections,” he explained. I gaped. I had never thought there could be so many. I keep similar file drawers today.



Most Presidents use anaphora, a rhetorical device in which the repetition of words, phrases, or pronouns or nominal / verbal categories lends emphasis. Anaphora is the temporal / tonal equivalent of italics. Repetitions allow the auditor to reorient meaning and feeling around certain words that logical syntax inevitably levels. Lincoln used anaphora in his second Inaugural address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right,…”. As in this example, the words that receive emphasis aren’t necessarily those that are repeated. “Malice,” “charity” and “firmness” are the concepts imparted by Lincoln’s use of this rhetorical device. In terms of classical rhetoric, anaphoric repetitions belong to the beginning of sentences; epiphoria is repetition at the end of clauses or sentences, and symploce is produced by repetitions that end one sentence and begin another.

In the 16 February press conference, Trump’s initial speech employs some important organizational anaphora. (All quotations from the New York Times fake news transcript). The speech-writers organized the initial statement around a series of opening repetitions using the third-person collective pronoun: “We’ve issued”; “We’ve stood up for”; “We’ve ordered”; “We’ve undertaken”; “We’ve ordered”; “We’re issuing”; “We’ve begun”; “So we’ve begun.” This was followed by another structuring anaphora, this one nominal and categorical: “Fiat Chrysler,” “General Motors,” “Intel,” Walmart.” In this case, repeated names of corporations implies thoroughness. Two car / weapons companies, an internet firm and the hugest retail outlet.

But this “official,” structural use of anaphora is hugely lost among the more frequent and strongly enunciated uses of this device that Trump deploys “naturally,” or improvisationally. Various rhetorical repetitions are key to his personal style, just as they were notably absent from Barack Obama’s press-conference style. (Obama used formal anaphora, but his carefully worded, drawn-out responses to questions often seemed at pains to avoid rhetorical flourish.) The above examples seem cynically formulaic when compared to Trump’s more frequent use of epiphora and symploce.

Trump repeats words to add affect; his repetitions usually take the form of afterthoughts, a habitual underlining that emphasizes various sentiments directed at various entities. Below are some of his most obviously improvised repetitions in the opening remarks and a few of his answers to questions. As a kind of short-hand, my analysis uses Silvan Tomkins’ basic categories for distinguishing between fundamental types of responsiveness. Tomkins theorized that primary affective states form a matrix of felt responses to (social and / or physical) environmental changes. These innate ‘triggers’ are used to co-construct / participate in emotional “scripts” and “scenes,” which are embedded within large-scale and immediate ideological networks, which are themselves generated by countless other scripts. Although the responses begin within the human animal, a kind of feeling machine, their meaning is entirely social. We learn how to feel what we feel about what we feel. Furthermore, Tomkins emphasizes the “freedom” of these feelings to combine with each other and with memories of previous events to produce emotions that help to organize subsequent feelings. Here, according to the transcript generated by the “liberal media,” are some of the affects generated by Trump’s anaphora:

It’s [unification] very important to me. I’ve been talking about that for a long time. It’s very, very important to me.

It’s [plan to reward women for being entrepreneurs] very important to me, very important to my daughter Ivanka.

We’re going to make trade deals but we’re going to have one on one deals, bilateral. We’re going to have one on one deals.

Obviously, Trump’s repetitions emphasize interest, excitement. He acknowledges an on-going concern. Such excitement is often desirable; it’s pleasant to observe someone’s ongoing engagement. Trump’s repetitions use this excitement to engage the press:

As a result, the media is going through what they have to go through too often times distort – not all the time – and some of the media is fantastic, I have to say – they’re honest and fantastic.

His hostility becomes affectively aligned with the participant’s engagement with an opposing team. They’re challenging each other because they’re playing a game. In animals, such as dogs, this signals trust expended by the powerful and potentially dangerous to a weaker opponent.

Although Trump uses many negative affects to support his painful and unpopular policies, he’s not without his enjoyment. These repetitions underscore hope and trust–the sharing of positive possibilities:

And I hope going forward we [the administration and the press] can be a little bit — a little bit different, and maybe get along a little bit better, if that’s possible.

In each of these actions, I’m keeping my promises to the American people. These are campaign promises.

In this passage, his repeats key words that support the argument that he’s making good on campaign promises:

to require American steel for American pipelines. In other words, they build a pipeline in this country, and we use the powers of government to make that pipeline happen, we want them to use American steel.

Those are a few of most positive affects I’ve found in Trump’s repetitions; others are not so nice.

He improvises anaphora to acknowledge shame or humiliation. In Tomkin’s view, shame is the feeling that accompanies the frustration of joy and a desire to master the situation. He conceives of it as a hiding and recalibration resulting from the interruption of positive affects. Trump’s boasts are Playboy responses to what he perceives as shameful situations:

We have made incredible progress. I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.

Israel, Mexico, Japan, China and Canada, really, really productive conversations. I would say far more productive than you would understand.

I turn on the T.V., open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos. Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite.

I just got here. And I got here with no cabinet.

Frequently, his repetitions signal distress or anguish: a feeling of being overwhelmed. His signature line evokes this feeling:

We’ve begun preparing to repeal and replace Obamacare. Obamacare is a disaster, folks. It’s a disaster. I know you can say, oh, Obamacare.

The same feeling is imparted in his defense of his Supreme Court nominee:

He [Coats] can’t get approved. How do you not approve him? He’s been a colleague – highly respected. Brilliant guy, great guy, everybody knows it. We’re waiting for approval.

For thirty years, neocons have attempted to beat neoliberals at the deregulation game. Consequently, “government regulations” have become the most ideologically charged cry of distress. They are imagined to suffocate, constrict, depress, weigh down and otherwise make the world an ongoing challenge:

We’ve issued a game-changing new rule that says for each one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated. Makes sense. Nobody’s ever seen regulations like we have. You go to other countries and you look at indexes they have and you say “let me see your regulations” and they’re fraction, just a tiny fraction of what we have. And I want regulations because I want safety, I want environmental — all environmental situations to be taken properly care of. It’s very important to me. But you don’t need four or five or six regulations to take care of the same thing.

The world is felt to be “too much” with us, and we hope to alert others to our pain. A closely related sensation is that of fear or terror. Provoked internally, through the repetition / recognition of prior scenes of surprise or distress, or by external stimuli, the sense of an emergent / overwhelming source of distress gives us an adrenaline boost that can lend voice to distress and strength to anger. Trump evokes fear through the repetition of loss and by pointing to danger:

Depleted, it’s [military equipment] depleted – it won’t be depleted for long.

the defeat of ISIS, a group that celebrates the murder and torture of innocent people in large sections of the world. It used to be a small group, now it’s in large sections of the world. They’ve spread like cancer. ISIS has spread like cancer – another mess I inherited.

When the cry for help goes unanswered and flight seems impossible, anguish amps up into anger or rage. We seek our own way out of pain, usually with much screaming, stomping, shooting. We make demands; we take our stand. Trump doesn’t express anger very directly, leaving that to his supporters. In the following examples, Trump sublimates his anger into the promise of future might:

But our country will never have had a military like the military we’re about to build and rebuild.

And the wall is going to be a great wall and it’s going to be a wall negotiated by me. The price is going to come down just like it has on everything else I’ve negotiated for the government. And we are going to have a wall that works, not gonna have a wall like they have now which is either nonexistent or a joke.

The promise of more offensive and defensive weapons evokes the resistance to threats we can’t run away from, and which presumably the existing political order doesn’t care to respond to (this is the fantasy).

Rather than express anger outright, Trump uses repetition to express what Tomkins called disgust and dissmell. Both reactions–the wish to expel, the wish to remove–foster a sense of his sovereignty.  These repetitions signify contempt. Trump pushes away and looks down upon anaphora’s object, as though to prevent it from generating the more immediate sensation of disgust:

contracts that were terrible, including airplane contracts that were out of control and late and terrible;

One promise after another after years of politicians lying to you to get elected. They lied to the American people in order to get elected.

In this passage he evokes dissmell by suggesting that immigrants should be treated like animals (parasites) caught in a trap:

we have ordered an end to the policy of catch and release on the border. No more release. No matter who you are, release.

Like this “external” object, the “internal” object of national fear–suffocating regulations–is also treated with disdain:

They go in for a permit, it’s many, many years. And then at the end of the process — they spend 10s of millions of dollars on nonsense and at the end of the process, they get rejected. Now, they may be rejected with me but it’s going to be a quick rejection. Not going to take years.

The ultimate, oft-repeated phrase from the early part of the conference combines shame, fear, anger and disgust into a perception of the Obama administration as shitty:

To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country; you see what’s going on with all of the companies leaving our country, going to Mexico and other places, low pay, low wages, mass instability overseas, no matter where you look. The middle east is a disaster. North Korea – we’ll take care of it folks; we’re going to take care of it all. I just want to let you know, I inherited a mess.

The situational irony here, given the mess Obama actually inherited, and given what he did with it despite outrageous opposition (Republican b/anality) is almost overwhelming.




Despite several previous posts, many in the mainstream press continue to focus on the President’s gaucherie. Sad! His populist style is not the best point of attack; it’s not practicable, since this is his armor. He looks good in the eyes of quite a few Americans when he looks like a straight-talker. The center will hold onto Trump when he’s an Andrew Jackson: a rough-cut hero whose “so-called” atrocities evidence his resistance to Washington’s refinement, otherwise known as “bureaucracy.” For a shrinking but no doubt sizable population, his nominations from the private sector are what “draining the swamp” is supposed to look like. Plus, hey, he’s a New Yorker. We like ‘em rough around the edges. We’ve been giving New York cabbies, thugs, cops, and corporate raiders a pass on rudeness since at least Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (Stephen Crane, 1893). Furthermore, these critiques of style  implicitly seek to reform the spectacle, without tackling the more dangerous and abhorrent nature of his populist logic.

Trump’s brutality isn’t personal. He doesn’t deserve credit for his vulgarity. His world view emanates from the small but robust and well-situated culture: the eighties playboy. This subculture, nurtured by magazines, movies (not all of them porn), and daytime TV, continues to be the forest for trees in coverage of Trump’s foolishness. His attitude or demeanor, his projection / rejection of personal space (from pussy grabs to ugly bro handshakes), belongs to a macho subculture that thrived in the late 80s, early 90s. As the this video [WATCH BEFORE CONTINUING], from 1993, makes clear, this strained, uncomfortably jocular, overheated form of masculinity was a direct response to the AIDS crises, a celebrity-news backlash to Act Up.


The performance of true feeling exhibited here is painful in several ways. Trump performs his part poorly. The whole subject is embarrassingly handled, played for the cheapest of thrills. No one seems to know what they’re doing. The appropriate words escape them, so they thrive on innuendo. This style is ideological; it performs a macho world-view that continues to organize the Donald’s perception / response. Two phrases seem particularly salient today:

Trump: I don’t know. I tend to like beautiful women more than I like unattractive women. Maybe that makes me bad . . .

Mullet-headed Dick Interviewer: Join the club!

What’s Trump’s key-card here? How has he joined the club? The password’s not hard: women are beautiful or unattractive; sovereign feeling is the source of judgment. Trump knows it when he sees it. His access to the club is granted when he confesses this password: a public intimacy that responds to a crisis in confidence a few American men thought they were facing in the 80s, stuck between “gay-cancer” and “pus([s]h)y broads.” The logic of Trump’s responsivity is beautifully travestied by SNL when they send him to the original reality TV, The People’s Court. This sensibility belongs to the CDC (Celebrity Dick Culture) of the period when Trump, Arturo Ui fashion, began his rise.

Today, this logic dictates Trump’s response to court rulings on the short-lived immigration ban. He likes any judge whose rulings are attractive, and finds the rest “so-called” and “political,” i.e., “bad” or unattractive. Short-lived personal attraction actually forms the basis for a so-called “personality” here. It’s what I like, what I don’t like, that founds, like a cheap cement pile, the girders of his “reasoning.” This form of idiocy is not endemic to men. We find it also in rat creatures.


A second, equally pernicious phrase occurs a minute later in the interview:

Trump: AIDS, AIDS, can I tell you what?

MDI: AIDS attacks everyone.

Trump: AIDS is a disaster. It attacks everybody, and who knows.

The interview gets more gross and stupid, but I’m struck by this early use of “disaster.” Trump’s wall, his bans, his “extreme vetting” are condoms, it turns out. Trump views “threats / others” hygienically. This explains the attraction between him and the far right, for whom “cleansing” is also a national project. He wants to fuck (over) a clean nation. The border wall is a diaphragm, which is why he thinks it appropriate that our southern (as in under) partner pay for it. Extreme vetting is an AIDS test, free at airports near you.

This is what a puncture in an inflated public figure looks like. A slow motion disaster, only it’s not so slow for those hit by the falling infrastructure.



“A wimpy commute tonight,” the radio sighs. The late-afternoon dj, late in the afternoon, sides with the traffic jams and accidents. They’re ‘strong’; they give her something to report. A downgraded, democratized media increasingly finds itself siding with the disaster. Or if not that, with itself; disaster and celebrity collide in Trump, but these forms of publicity are brought together by a more general (yet not more diffuse) structure of feeling.

Later in the same episode, WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago, reported on a speech Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave to “MBA students.” It wasn’t the speech so much as honest answers that were delivered “a bit more freely” than normal, that our reporter observed. For good reason, as they revealed a stance toward politics that’s worth observing:

Winning’s everything. If you don’t win, you can’t make the public policy. . . Sometimes, you just gotta win, OK? [Cheers and applause.] . . . And our party likes to be right, even if they lose. . . I’ve never lost an election. It’s about winning because if you win you then have the power to do what you need to get done. If you lose, you can write this book about what happened. Great. That’s really exciting. . . . Schisms [in the Republican party] have to be wedges, wedges have to be divides and divisions. . . Take a chill pill, man, you’ve got to be in this for the long-haul.

Our Mayor is the exemplary neoliberal technocrat. The long-haul means, among other things, the closing of an unprecedented number of public schools. He’s Betsy DeVos all the way. A professional politician who’s never lost a race because he doesn’t care what it takes to win. Regarding politics as a contest (therefore a spectacle, in which nothing’s at stake) is akin to regarding traffic jams as news. Consequences are foreclosed upon as “tough choices” and “difficult decisions.” It’s not that politics shouldn’t / doesn’t require these bold words; it’s that politics must also be played for stakes. Rahm appears to borrow from Saul Alinsky’s playbook when he insists that “If you don’t win, you can’t make public policy,” but despite what the neo-fascist right may assume, Alinsky wasn’t writing a playbook. He wasn’t an NFL coach, plotting spectacular action because you gotta win and when you’ve won, you’ve won, so you gotta win, right? Right! That’s why we went out there and won that game. We wanted to win it, so we won it. You gotta do what you gotta do and what you gotta do is win that game, so you win it, am I right?

Structures of feeling, as the above sentence painfully enacts, depend upon certain grammars to set them free. The so-called “Trump Era” (as though everything were going to go as expected already) is built. in part upon the neoliberal relation to political events that Rahm describes. Politics as spectacle, stripped of cause and consequence. When people call this “politics as usual,” they don’t refer only to the obvious entanglements of capital and politics (such as the pass Trump’s been given on taxes, or the foul that sent Illinois Governor G-Rod to jail), but to a larger sense of politics as a gladiatorial battle.


Frank Miller’s best-selling graphic novel, 300, supports this feeling’s structure. A rendering of the Battle of Thermopylae that  loves the spectacle of macho cunning and brutality more than its consequences. A small group of white, technologically elite warriors make heroic stand against dark-skinned Muslim hordes. The episode is constructed with a loving attention to the dramatic image. It’s the complexity of the cinematic scene, the angles and arrangement and postures that justify the slaughter This is the auteur’s approach to comic-book realities. 



One possible positive outcome of this fiasco would be public realization of just how easy it’s become to make money with money these days. The fat cats are back.


In the progressive era, they were rotund men in formal wear, usually with cane, top-hat and cigar, as pictured here. Accumulated wealth was figured as an excess of appetites, accumulated in flesh and elite commodities; the gentleman’s club was the scene. They were corpulent because labor was doing the work. The same cultural scene frequently depicted the laboring class as, in Carl Sandburg’s phrase, “bo-hunks”: muscled titans, in lumberjack shirts and overalls. Here’s one on the cover of an Anarchist pamphlet by Mary E. Marcy, printed by Charles H. Kerr Press, which employed Sandburg until it was raided by authorities during World War I, it’s presses smashed and editors arrested.


Since about the 1980s, U.S. tastemakers and social critics have preferred to imagine capitalists as trim, but over-indulgent go-getters. These new “titans of finance” are sleeker, hipper cats. They prowl through enviable offices and hotel rooms, sinuous and grossly obsessed or distracted.


In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas sets the mold. He reprises it in the more interesting, The Game (1997). In The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Martin Scorsese casts Leonardo DiCaprio in this role. The runaway capitalist is still well-dressed and likes his cigars (or coke, whatever), but he’s the product of accumulated productivity, not wealth. He works hard, plus he’s brilliant. He’s on the phone with banks of computers to look at and rows of buttons to press. His appetites are voracious, but they provide a continual athleticism. This virtuous, heroic figure has been prowling the American imagination throughout the Trump years (1980s-present); our President is the latest ghastly embodiment of this figure.


Steve Jobs plays the role with a little bit of Hamlet thrown in.

Current ideology would have it that these guys deserve big bucks because they’re smart and work hard. On the terrain of images, capital has stolen the previous era’s signifier of labor. They achieved this in the 1980s, when working out became a form of work. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an insane experimenter in this genre of capitalist machismo. (Mel Gibson a close second.)


He will terminate you!

Now that we’ve got a Wall Street Wolf in the White House, a bona-fide billionaire (so he says), we might begin to realize that these guys are totally clueless. They’ve worked out but never worked hard. They’re idea of making decisions is to select their favorites among absurdly simplified options. The curtains and portraits and tile. The terrorists and migrants and Patriots.

They “run things,” but moving millions around is about a million times easier than the work the 99% do every day. Such as finding a daycare center that opens at five and is on the way to Au Bon Pain, and still greeting customers with a smile. Such as whacking the hell out of a frozen lump of steel for three hours with the wind from the north and no global warming in sight. Such as negotiating the intricacies of medical and auto insurance while negotiating the intricacies of maintaining a visa while teaching 18th C. British literature to students who have never thought of the 18th C., never mind Britain. Such as convincing rushed shoppers to purchase a newspaper because you have to pay for shelter in Chicago, in the winter, at night, no matter how minimal.

Nope. These guys don’t know work. They think a phone call takes an afternoon, and they never sit on hold. They don’t know “push back”; they don’t know tantrums and bureaucracy and getting onto the bus again today. They are creatures of appetite because the road to their desires is so easy. The imagination grows in the body; the fatcats don’t have it. They’ve been living in / submitting to celebrity realities. The spectacle is a vampire; it gives you life everlasting in exchange for corporeal reality.

Mainstream criticism of Trump falls into two camps: observations of his boorishness and observations of his incompetence. These are two sides of the same billion coins. But assessments of Trump’s temperament risk attempting to reform him, as though he could somehow get it right (because he’s a brilliant / hardworking businessman after all). Far better to discuss his incompetence, I think. He’s never worked a day in his life. He doesn’t know what it takes because he only taken. Even bankruptcy is a win-win for the idle rich. Time to observe what it takes to make it in corporate U.S.A.




“This is the heart of the American idea…” the radio croons. “One of my favorites is actually President Reagan . . . that’s the America that I know and love and believe so many of us want to belong to.” Trump’s not looking back to the 50s; he’s thinking of the 80s, when coke was queen and Letterman king. Trump’s interviews on late-night and day-time TV, and stories about him in the New York Post are more revealing than the Pussy-grabbing tape. Like the latter, they narrate the core issue: we’re not dealing with an ordinary human, folks. Trump’s the most advanced form of celebrity ever to occupy the Presidency. He’s a virtual entity that’s temporarily assumed human form. Celebrity, when regarded, as Cintra Wilson does, as a “grotesque crippling disease,” consumes the brains and bodies of those in inhabits. Many celebrities kill themselves, others die from too many pain-killers, or go insane. Trump’s madness is a symptom of 35 years of getting himself on TV. 15 minutes just isn’t enough for some of us; twice 15 years isn’t enough for a narcissistic (homicidal) few.

Trump isn’t the first celebrity President, of course. But he’s way up there.

The Hill:

President Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office on Tuesday, The New York Times reports, an apparent nod to the populist sentiments of the new administration.

Trump’s rise has often been compared to the populist election of Jackson, including by some of the new president’s own team.

Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon called Trump’s inauguration speech on Friday “Jacksonian,” saying it struck the populist and patriotic tones Jackson was known for.


Check out the double-collar on this guy. Check out the hair. A romantic, like Napoleon… 

Bannon’s Jackson is the patriot who put Indians in their place (several thousand miles away) and opposed the central bank. Breitbart reports that

Jackson did all this while accomplishing something almost equally rare in the advancement of nations: he intentionally decentralized the government, vetoing wasteful infrastructure projects and sending them back to the states where they belonged.

Sounds like he approved the contemporary Republican opposition to Obamacare. As Raymond Williams observed, traditions unfold backwards in time; they are made in the present. Lacking this present reconstruction, that fail to exist in the present, therefore fail to be active traditions. Trump is not resuscitating ancient verities. I suspect that his Jackson is someone else, someone more “present-tense”: our first celebrity President. He would appreciate the simultaneous rise in fame and power exhibited by that half-literate land-speculator and militia leader who parlayed his spectacular victory in New Orleans into public office.


Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower did the same. But Reagan was Jacksonian in a new way. He wasn’t in the war, exactly, although he filmed the hell out of it; it was B-movies and cigarette commercials that put him before the public eye.


A culture-industry celebrity who parlayed his status in the virtual nation (plus strong ties to the anti-communist unions, later the Christian Right) into public office.

Trump outdid them both. His ability to catapult from Reality TV to within Electoral Advantage of the Presidency should tells us something about our relation to televised drama.  
In Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Superman responds to Reagan’s warning. Trump regards himself as such a man.

See also Joseph Stalin (Wikipedia):

Like other Bolsheviks, he became commonly known by one of his revolutionary noms de guerre, of which “Stalin” was only the last. “Stalin” is based on the Russian word сталь stal, meaning “steel”, and the name as a whole is supposed to mean “man of steel”.[344] Prior nicknames included “Koba”, “Soselo”, “Ivanov” and many others.[345]

In bridge, that game of the New York elite since the Gilded Age (,

When a suit becomes the trump suit, any card in that trump suit potentially has special powers; any card in the trump suit can win a trick over any card of another suite



In populist times, political battle-lines are redrawn: “old” arrangements (however new) partially erased. Borders blur; people switch foxholes; the terrain’s rearranged by new weaponry: heavy shells, grapeshot, gas. Populist moments challenge “official culture,” “politics as usual,” the “mainstream,” but what this means depends upon where you stand. The new culture wars are coming. Multiple terrains revised, others reactivated. Law v. order. Migrant v. resident. Environment v. resources. Love v. hate. Everyone enjoys the disorder (enjoyment v. fun).

In populist times, heroes emerge. Cowardly lions; bold Suffragettes. Anarchists give beautiful speeches; fat cats capture the headlines. “For every nine parts Moses, you need one part Jesus,” sings the radio’s vaudeville. “If you zoom out, this is a strategy that seems woven into the fabric of the cosmos,” the so-called rational voices croon.


Peter Bagge predicted this condition in Hate and related titles. His ordinary working-class partial dissenters suffer the contortions of cartoons. They don’t explode, except when they kill themselves. Alive, they bend and bulge, bounce, bubble, fold, collapse. Comic-book realities: bodies subject to extreme forms of fantasy. The airports are full, but it’s not the Thanksgiving rush.

In populist times, the spectacle overwhelms rational discourse. It wasn’t so rational to begin with; it just got worse. When, in the face of this, we fall for rationality, we justify the old regime. Already, numerous critiques of Trump stack him against Obama AND Shrub, legitimizing the latter. George W. Bush, a ‘normal’ president. The “alternative facts” mostly bend us; sometimes we break. A new puncture replaces the old, but leaves the tire weaker. Fortunately, human culture isn’t my bicycle. We get to do more than absorb our punctures. More kicks than pricks; more pricks than kicks: everything’s reversible.

How avoid the spectacle? The marvelous helps. A marvel is like a miracle, but made by us (the world), not god. The OED: “such as to excite wonder or astonishment (chiefly in a positive sense).” We need more of that in Trump’s Twitter Empire, I think. The marvelous distracts us with the glamour of our own creation. It may be rude; it may be graceful. The marvelous is like an angel of indecision that confronts us in the garden of our betrayal and delight.