As to those, who in presence of their betters are too lowly in speech so that they bring not their voice whole to the lips, it happened to me and without full utterance I began:1
Yes, it is terrible, and sudden2. He thrown everything off balance.3 And then he did go off balance on the ice, taking a step back from the eyes which had penetrated him and emptied his face.4 What was that dim distant music, those vestiges of color in the air?5 The penalty of light forever.6 Then he would be able to think about it and sort things out.7 He swore he would forget the enormous hallucination which had thrown him off at first, and he sought another method of work.8
The scare will appear as a ripple at the base.9 Pushed up where a blue-sheen God with listless eyes could look at it. 10 The picture isn’t sharp or it won’t stay in my mind.11 I huddled in my cave, grinding my teeth, beating my forehead with my fists and cursing nature.12 There was some affectation and pose in this; but as time went on, I felt more and more genuinely indignant.13 This basic phenomenon being what more abstraction-capable post-Hegelian adults call ‘Historical Consciousness.’14
He began his search already convinced that he wouldn’t find anything.15 Passion there was none.16 It has already been remarked that questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the rule.17 We live in a world in which there is an immense amount of organization, but it is an external organization, not one of the ordering of a growing experience, one that involves, moreover, the whole of the live creature, toward a fulfilling conclusion.18 Everyone has—technical secrets.19
This was their music, loud, bland, bloodless and controlled, and he was beginning to like it.20 He moved, and the scene became itself.21 There were no parachutes.22 No climax.23 No light; but rather darkness visible.24 It is lightest just before the dark.25 He could have been telling the truth, I don’t know.26 And escalators are safe.27 I never bore people I haven’t known for at least a thousand years.28 Instead I fix my gaze on a series of pathetic furnishings.29 It was in no sense time wasted.30
I fear that this place is very shocking to you; can I do any thing to make you more comfortable?31 He slipped because when I told him stay out of that mopped spot did he do it?32 Have you already decided on the next barn to burn?33 Or, like me, do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction, and that they have been replaced by fakes and poseurs?34 Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs?35
The Industrial Revolution meant both a departure from traditional technologies and a bewildering eclecticism of revived historical forms.36 Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background.37 Produce the impressions or original sentiments, from which the ideas are copied.38 When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience.39
The scrape of a match, and at once he is bathed in cool blue flame.40 As though there were some anti-placebo effect.41 Any reference to the author’s avowed or supposed purpose and general state of mind is in fact misleading, for it distracts us from the text to “external” matters about the author’s biography and his psychological condition or creative process, which we tend to substitute for the “internal” constitution of the work as such.42 This kind of foolishness carries very little water with me.43
Then the question of the hangman came up.44 He’ll take advantage of anybody’s necessity.45 One must not look at stigmata.46 And there comes a point where you have to call an end or at least announce a limit to sacrifice.47 Silently the corpse awaited the autopsy.48
So he made a very small forest, with just one tree in it.49 We hunch up knee to knee and nose to nose like the two devils on the Rorschach card.50 Your new hairdo is fascinating and cosmopolitan.51 I don’t suppose, maybe, we could …52 This was when they sighted the returning butterflies.53 It is an offering now, as they drive between the black cornfields.54 Storm still.55 The storm almost killed us.56 I accepted the melodrama of declaring that.57
One night while her head lay upon his heart and their cigarettes glowed in swerving buttons of light through the dome of darkness over the bed, she spoke for the first time and fragmentarily of the men who had hung for brief moments on her beauty.58 Maybe they were smiling.59 Later they traded stories about the books that had saved them.60 I am glad if I gave satisfaction.61
It is a just remark of Dr. Johnson’s (and what cannot often be said of his remarks, it is a very feeling one), that we never do any thing consciously for the last time (of things, that is, which we have long been in the habit of doing) without sadness of heart.62 But melancholic inhibition seems puzzling to us because we are unable to see what it is that so completely absorbs the patient.63 And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.64 The world, perceived as an interior, shimmers with artifice.65
The stranger hastily retreated, and drew his hat over his eyes.66 And it was a pity, because I could have buttered him and eaten him alive.67 His indifference had left him on the periphery both of that movement, and of life, and of everything, so he barely had been touched by it.68 He got right in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there.69 Everybody drowned but the rats.70 If I could become one of them, if I could only part with my language, my manner, my belongings.71
Is it possible that for some time past the destructive elements in Klee’s character were few and effectively—though with great effort—submerged, but that Klee perversely guarded the notes and themes provided in despairing moments by these elements, and that these notes, all too honest, all too unanswerable, eventually contributed decisively to his inevitable but no less abrupt and disturbing end? 72
I don’t know how the authorities could have entrusted him with such a position.73 But by now too many choices have been made.74 The hospital had come for me.75 Let’s suppose for a moment that I don’t go flying off into the night.76 I wish you and yours every joy in life, old chap, and tons of money, and may you never die till I shoot you.77
Clouds make the sunshine blink light and dark in the yard.78 It was the same sun, the same light still shining on the same sand as before.79 Shapes of risen sleepers lay in the pressed and poisoned grass.80 I heard the repeating rifles behind me and the shrieks, but my head was a calm green church.81
On the one hand, the author wants to have his or her own words, wants to be the master of a personal style; on the other hand, narrative bends toward its characters and their habits of speech.82 Hence I keep my phrases hung like clothes in a cupboard, waiting for someone to wear them.83 I had all the freedom I needed, so I stayed right here with the masters.84 I know very well, how little reputation is to be got by writings which require neither genius nor learning, nor indeed any other talent, except a good memory, or an exact journal.85
1 Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio, Canto XXXIII.
2 Sophocles. Aias. You may not want to toggle between the footnotes and the main text; the illusion of continuity is fragile enough as it is.
3 Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” And who knows what I might blurt down out here, in small type.
4 William Gaddis. The Recognitions. None of the lines I’ll be using are infamous, as far as I know. Except for Milton’s.
5 From Nabokov’s Pale Fire, whose system of footnotes and references, if traced with academic rigor, prevents the reader from ever finishing the book.
6 John Ashbery, “To Redouté,” from The Tennis Court Oath. Which may be the only volume of poetry I own.
7 Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, a book forever associated with my mother, who loves to teach it in her English class, and my sister, who as a little girl looked quite like the movie’s Scout, not least in the haircut department.
8 Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins.” Are you trying to guess where each of these comes from?
9 From “In a Tub,” by Amy Hempel, whom I once saw but did not approach on the subway.
10 Jean Toomer. “Becky,” from Cane. Gil-Scott Heron sings a song about her.
11 Susan Sontag. In America, with shadows of “On Photography” flickering about.
12 John Gardner. Grendel. Literature punishes monsters for being true to form, and also for frightening us as children.
13 Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The Gambler. There’s a lot to be said for books that fit in your back pocket.
14 David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. I’ll spare you the reflexive and long-winded and syntactically curlicued joke about enshrining a footnote enthusiast in a footnote.
15 Italo Calvino, “The Queen’s Necklace.” But is there indeed any victory in becoming a reference point?
16 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It seems that nothing of Poe will surpass my introduction to him.
17 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism. In the spirit of its contents, I use this treatise as a drink coaster.
18 John Dewey, Art as Experience. I am only ever 70% sure of what Dewey is talking about.
19 Philip K. Dick. The Man in the High Castle. I am only ever 70% sure Dick was sane.
20 Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis. Mysteriously shrugged off by critics but to my mind the best post-9/11 invocation of pre-9/11 Manhattan. Not that I was there.
21 John Williams, Stoner. If I convince you to read one thing, let it be this.
22 Joseph Heller, Catch-22. Perhaps the truest line in this whole desperate exercise.
23 John Barth, “Title.” As my dad would sniff, “It’s about aboutness.”
24 This comes from Milton’s description of Hell in Book I, line 62 of Paradise Lost, but I have never read Paradise Lost. Rather I have read the David Markson novel Reader’s Block, which borrows the phrase without attribution.
25 Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me. I’m wondering which other clichés can be similarly reversed for noirish punch.
26 Kelly Link, “Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water.” Which unfolds smack in the middle of my own neighborhood.
27 Nicholson Baker. The Mezzanine. I am to be haunted by this sentence for life. The rest of the novel, too, in all its Byzantine banality.
28 J.D. Salinger. “Just Before the War with the Eskimos.” Eric is playing coy with Ginnie, but it’s a legitimate aspiration, or at least a convenient explanation for the bouts of silence and/or aloofness that have been known to convince new acquaintances that I hate them.
29 Daniel Clowes, David Boring. The jarring possibilities of sequential art—dream-logic juxtapositions—realized.
30 Joan Didion, “California Dreaming.” Yeah, is the wasting of time even a scientifically coherent event? Are we not always fully using it?
31 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Bad nonfiction has stolen the alternative title tic. There’s little so discouraging as a journalistic blockbuster styled “[Provocative Phrase]: [The Boring Thing This Book Is Actually About].”
32 George Saunders, “The End of FIRPO in the World.” You will weep, I promise.
33 Haruki Murakami. “Barn Burning.” You will feel a slight tingling, probably.
34 Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood, an all-question novel whose gimmick I am hijacking for the purposes of this paragraph, and of which I have only read the bit excerpted in The Paris Review No. 187 (Winter 2008), an issue given to me as a housewarming present, that I might “leave it on the coffee table and never read it.”
35 Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. No digression of mine could do this shaggy dog justice.
36 James F. O’Gorman, ABC of Architecture. Because in some unforeseen circumstance, I may be required to design a building. And I want it to be pretty.
37 William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 2nd Edition. I have long thought it would be funny to assassinate a minor celebrity, get caught, and have a heavily annotated and scrawled-upon copy of this tract discovered in one’s trench coat pocket. Obviously with special attention lavished upon purely illustrative sentences like “Without a friend to counsel him, he found the temptation irresistible.”
38 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There is a Humean tormentor in the freezer in my office break room. It is an “everything” bagel that sits nestled in the door shelf. Every time I open the freezer my eyes fall upon it; this connection is unshakeable. Surely it is the same bagel that was there yesterday, and the day before, yet our human resources department informs us that the refrigerator is swept clean every Friday afternoon to keep it hygienic and, in theory, odorless. Possibly they do not bother with the freezer when cleaning out the main cavity of the refrigerator. Possibly a coworker buys a new bagel early each morning and eats it after I have left for the evening. But who is storing bagels in the freezer, anyway? And is it really an “everything” bagel? Is it not sometimes just a poppy seed bagel, or a sesame seed bagel? Curiosity and empiricism are not enough to bridge the gap between the impression and its attendant idea. Good art shrinks that gap but remains a faint idea, more beautifully stated than most. Were I to open the freezer door and find the bagel missing, it might feel like tumbling off a roof and discovering that, in certain rare cases, gravity makes an exception.
39 Edmund Burke, An Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Life can be softened by pretending you are not the one living it. Also: does no one write enquiries anymore?
40 J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. Its three pages of elemental violence outweigh a century of Hollywood carnage.
41 Kay Ryan, “Bitter Pill,” published in that same issue of The Paris Review I meant to not read.
42 M.H Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 3rd Edition. N.B. This sentence has been wildly misappropriated. As have the rest.
43 Jim Shepard. “Ancestral Legacies.” There is no crumb of history so ludicrous that Shepard cannot extract some further strangeness.
44 Donald Barthelme. “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.” Its ending a decrescendo of dizzy perfection.
45 Willa Cather, A Lost Lady. Is it too late to mention that I haven’t exactly read all of the sources referenced? That I am forever “getting around to that one”?
46 Stanley Elkin. The Living End, a novel about the afterlife. Mainly hell. Frankly, it doesn’t seem publishable.
47 Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow. Proof that insufferable people are capable of fiendishly engineered art, as if you needed it.
48 Octave Feuillet, Luck’s Favorite. But I know it from its harmonic appearance in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, an epic with many memorable phrasings of its own. I imagine Bolaño preferring to be remembered as a formidable reader, and surely he knew what Borges once said when asked a vague question about his artistic lineage: “Well, I can tell you about the influences I have received, but not the influence I may have had upon others. That’s quite unknown to me and I don’t care about it. But I think of myself primarily as a reader, then also a writer, but that’s more or less irrelevant.” I should add that this Borges quote is another of the many gems I came to through Markson’s Reader’s Block. Yes, Markson’s books are like that, addictively so.
49 Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon. The grandfather I never met was named Harold.
50 Walker Percy, The Moviegoer. One sort of New Orleans.
51 John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces. Another sort of New Orleans. I’ve never been.
52 Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Allegedly written in the small town where I attended college, in a house I no doubt passed every day.
53 Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses. A novel.
54 Alice Munro, “Labor Day Dinner.” A short story.
55 Shakespeare, “King Lear.” A play. A drama. A tragedy.
56 The Curse of Lono, Hunter S. Thompson transcribing a justifiably rattled Ralph Steadman.
57 Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances. More meteorology. More madness.
58 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned. Whenever someone says they couldn’t enjoy a novel because they “didn’t care” about its “unlikeable characters” I want to hurl this specific volume at them from across a very large room. And miss wide.
59 Raymond Carver, “Tell the Women We’re Going.” People of the minimalist sect talk about the power of the unsaid, of the hollows, and they’re mostly right.
60 Andrea Barrett, “Birds with No Feet.” A title that would take a lifetime to top.
61 P.G. Wodehouse. The Code of the Woosters. Jeeves, of course, but something I hear Wodehouse saying when complimented on his mastery of farce.
62 Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which should be reprinted at great expense and branded as “THE ORIGINAL ADDICTION MEMOIR.”
63 Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia.”
64 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Or: Thar, She Blows!: The High Seas Heyday of Weird Whalers, Craggy Captains, and Ill-Considered Revenge.
65 “The Dome.” Dangerous Laughter. Steven Millhauser. Whose storytelling will resurrect your wonder.
66 Matthew Lewis. The Monk. Just a luridly gothic tale of the supernatural written in ten weeks toward the end of the 18th century by some nineteen-year-old who was about to become a member of British Parliament.
67 Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Which is based on the actual honor killing of the author’s friend.
68 Michel Houellebecq. The Elementary Particles. Becoming a novelist would be great, but becoming a controversial French novelist would be really great.
69 Denis Johnson. Angels. There is a specific awe attached to first-person accounts of death—when they’re very good one suspects the author has done the dying and come back to tell us about it.
70 Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle. I suspect the reason we treasure Vonnegut in our teens is because he sounds like a teenager, too, but a way smarter one.
71 Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski, a Jew who served as an altar boy while hiding in plain sight in Poland during the Holocaust and, four and a half decades later, cut short his prolonged illnesses by asphyxiating himself with a plastic bag, leaving a note that remarked: “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.”
72 Robert Coover, “Klee Dead.” One day the uncanny will come for you, too.
73 Nikolai Gogol, The Government Inspector. Bureaucrat-bashing cannot go out of style. When there are no bureaucrats left, we will continue to ridicule the type.
74 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow. I have a terrible habit of bringing one giant book on vacation, with the preposterous logic that it’ll “lighten the load,” and always look like a broody snot on the beach.
75 Donald Antrim, The Verificationist. Which I have already written about reading.
76 Michael Frayn, Copenhagen. The understated, non-scientific metaphor in a sea of polished, high-concept similes.
77 James Joyce, “A Little Cloud.” There was a time when I did not recognize how miraculous it was to rebuild Dublin with total precision, brick by brick and word by word. There are things I want my younger self to understand.
78 “Trilobites,” by Breece D’J Pancake, whose suicide may have been an accident.
79 Albert Camus, The Stranger. Is it somehow easier to cherish bleak things?
80 Cormac McCarthy, Outer Dark. I hear McCarthy’s friends are geologists.
81 Barry Hannah, “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb.” In which time is dilated, then compressed.
82 James Wood, How Fiction Works. I am pleased that there are people who try to know.
83 The Waves, Virginia Woolf. I am pleased that there are people.
84 Anton Chekhov, “The Cherry Orchard.” Uttered by Firs, the absurdly old and pathetically dignified butler, and who knows how any actor can say it with a straight face.
85 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels.
Sometimes Miles Klee stays inside.