- Fact: there are men still walking the earth who have shared a meal at Denny’s with Orson Welles. “One day in 1974, Orson Welles, John Huston, and the comedian Rich Little were sitting in a Denny’s near Carefree, Arizona, about to order a meal … A waitress approached the table where the three men sat. She recognized Little right away. After bantering with the impressionist for a bit, she nodded toward Welles and asked Little, ‘Who’s your fat friend?’ Huston, saving the day, answered for Little with a straight face. ‘You know, we don’t actually know this man,’ he said, indicating Welles. ‘We picked him up on the highway and he seemed undernourished. We’re going to feed him and then send him on his way.’”
- Today in the sex lives of whalers: few things speak to the hardships of a whaler’s life than dildos, which were ubiquitous (or, okay, maybe just not uncommon) in the New England homes such men abandoned for the seas. At least one such dildo survives to this day, all plaster and memories. “By 1830, the average length of a whaling voyage was thirty months, but they were often longer—Nantucket wives were dubbed ‘Cape Horn widows,’ because their husbands might be gone for eight years. In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab tells his first mate, Starbuck, that of the past forty years of ‘making war on the horrors of the deep’ he’d only been ashore three, leaving only ‘one dent in [his] marriage pillow.’ ‘[W]ife?’ Ahab rages, ‘wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive!’ The dildos, called ‘he’s-at-homes’ in some books on the history of the Yankee whale fishery, were meant to be some insurance of fidelity for a husband who was rarely present.”
- Halloween is coming, which means it’s time to practice an age-old ritual: reading online essays about books bound in human skin. Bonus points if you go on to give them to trick-or-treaters. “The earliest examples of books bound in human skin date from the seventeenth century and were produced in Europe and the United States … Many of the earliest examples relate to punishment. England’s Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that those convicted of murder would not only be executed but, as an additional deterrent, could not be buried … making items out of criminals’ skins provided yet another way to ensure the body stayed aboveground. A famous example of such punishment was the body of William Burke, who, with his accomplice William Hare, killed sixteen people in a ten-month period in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then sold the bodies to medical schools. After being caught, executed, and dissected, some of Burke’s skin was used to make a pocketbook as a final—and lasting—humiliation.”
- Back in the sixties, Kaiser Steel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, RAND, and Lockheed Aircraft started a program to match artists with corporations—a kind of late-model patronage system. “Some of the collaborations resulted in successful projects. Working with the magazine publisher Cowles Communication Inc., Andy Warhol created holographic photographs of daisies … Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Ice Bag (1969) was produced in collaboration with WED Enterprises, the design and development branch of Disney. The pink sculpture was designed to undulate and twist as it deflated and inflated, in accordance with Oldenburg’s interest in objects that broke and then reconstituted themselves … Richard Serra, who was matched with the Kaiser Steel Corporation, created stacked sculptures that did not differ radically from his usual output. In contrast, Robert Rauschenberg, who collaborated with the industrial company Teledyne, created an installation that split from his best-known assemblage work but was consistent with his later interest in viewer-activated spaces.”
- Andrew DeGraff’s Plotted: A Literary Atlas makes maps from great literature, allowing you at last to visualize, say, every nook and cranny of the bleak terrain in Waiting for Godot. Hours of fun await. “DeGraff’s book … raises the question of the way we tenuously hold fictional universes in our minds. Absent anything concretely visual to latch onto, we create messy, complex maps to maintain a grip on the disorienting profusion of information coming at us. If we could transcribe these mental representations, they would probably look less like DeGraff’s thorough, well-executed images and more like those medieval maps, with small pockets of knowledge surrounded by huge swaths of emptiness. In literature, as in life, we can’t see everything. We can’t keep track of all the details, nor can we truly envision specific geographies, even ones we’ve visited before.”
On the relatively short list of authors and artists who have collaborated on multiple books, there are few who so perfectly mirror one another’s sensibilities that it becomes difficult to imagine art and word as separate entities. I’d place Aleksei Kruchenykh and Olga Rozanova, A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake in that select group. And now I’d add author Robert Kloss and artist Matt Kish. The pair have, to date, worked together on two novels (Alligators of Abraham and The Revelator), a hybrid novel written with Amber Sparks (The Desert Places), and an ongoing project they call the “Bestiary.”
The two have published work independently—Kish, notably, has illustrated every page of Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness—but their joint efforts are of a different order, primarily because, being of like minds, one’s work influences the other’s in the course of making. The Revelator, which was just published this month, is a psychologically brutal tale about an itinerant zealot in nineteenth-century America. In the opening paragraphs, a group of forlorn sailors, “their faces blistered and their minds bleached and weary,” espies a mountain: “some named it the ‘Finger of the Evil One,’ and some called it a tower of soot, dreamed it an ancient citadel misshapen by flame, the horror of all trapped within.” Kish’s illustrations, sprinkled throughout, are correspondingly prophetic, alien, and apocalyptic.
Kloss recently moved from Boston to Boulder, Colorado; Kish lives in Ohio. The two have never met. Earlier this month, they conducted a conversation via online chat about the nature of collaboration and working in the shadow of Melville.
Kish: I’ve been thinking about this conversation for some time, alternately veering between excitement and intimidation. Aside from our numerous e-mails, this will probably be the most in-depth communication we’ve shared, at least on a sustained level.
Kloss: Let’s start with Melville then, since I don’t think we would be having this conversation without his work. Read More
Metcalf’s “poeticized collage” reckons with his great-grandfather, Herman Melville.
It is extremely rare, these days, to encounter something that feels completely new. That is, most literary artifacts are pretty easy to slot into one format or the other.What a gift then, what a rare, beautiful turn of events when you stumble on a book that seems to come from some spot entirely its own. What a gift, the moment in which you must summon all your readerly resources to grasp the enormity of what you are encountering, to see the pages as they are. I can count these reading experiences on one hand, and in each case I was somehow improved,made better as a reader (Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, by Bruno Schulz; The Recognitions, by William Gaddis; The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald; The Beetle Leg, by John Hawkes). Often the reason we read is in the hope of having these experiences of the truly, unmistakably original.
Paul Metcalf is one of these original writers. A writer who had to follow his own path, at significant cost to himself, over many decades, without a large following. A writer who took the forms that were at hand and shook them up, recast them, repurposed them, so that a traditional approach, after beholding his model, seems almost ludicrously simplistic. A writer of the new, the surprising, the arresting. Read More
Retracing Moby-Dick on a nineteenth-century whaler.
When Herman Melville was twenty-one, he embarked on the whaleship Acushnet, out of New Bedford. We all know what that led to. This past summer, Mystic Seaport finished their five-year, 7.5-million-dollar restoration of the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, the sister ship to the Acushnet. The Morgan is in many ways identical to Melville’s fictional Pequod, save that sperm whale jawbone tiller and a few other sinister touches. Mystic Seaport celebrated the completion by sailing the Morgan around New England for a couple months. I went aboard for a night and a day, intent on following in Ishmael’s footsteps, hoping to breathe a little life into my idea of the distant, literary ship. Below are passages from Moby-Dick that involve the Pequod, followed by my own accounts.
Late this morning, the pipes of my toilet began to make a noise that I can only describe as haunting. How to explain it? Loud, very loud. Sad, very sad. A sort of melancholy lowing, a primal moan expressing things seen and unseen. One could imagine ancient peoples hearing such things and looking to the supernatural for answers. If they had plumbing, I mean.
It went on and on. It was beautiful. I had been distracted, blue, depressed by the unrelenting humidity of an urban Tuesday on the day after a long weekend. And then I heard the mysterious sound and it calmed me. For the first time, I began to understand the New Agey penchant for whale songs.
I thought I had better look up “toilet groaning” on the Internet and see if it was something I could manage myself. I’m no plumber, but I grew up in a house with very uncertain old pipes, and in such cases you learn to do what you can. It’s very satisfying when you learn to do these things yourself, if you do. And I know an air vent malfunction when I hear it.
But somehow on my way to the computer, I found myself going to the bookshelf, and picking up Moby-Dick, and paging through it, and then, twenty minutes later, there I was, sitting on the floor, reading.
Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
It was at this point that things started gurgling, and of course then the toilet overflowed. I turned off the water source, mopped up, and notified the super.
- At the Morgan Library and in England, Jane Austen miscellanea abounds: recent years have seen the discovery, exhibition, and/or sale of Austen’s turquoise ring, Austen’s nephew’s memoirs (with her handwriting somewhere among the pages), Austen’s teenage notebooks, fragments of her unfinished novel, a stone shield excavated from a house near her birthplace …
- “Once a sci-fi plot conceit, time travel has become among the most popular structural devices in contemporary fiction. Today ‘time machine fiction’ reigns supreme.”
- Before Moby-Dick there was Mocha Dick—not a coffee-chocolate phallus but “a real-life whale … who fought off whalers for decades before being killed by harpoon.” It was a magazine story about Mocha that inspired Melville to write his novel; now, in a new illustrated book, Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury, the original whale gets his due.
- The history of nine terms of endearment, including such perennials as sweetheart (1290) and sugar (1930), but also some deep cuts: mopsy (1582), bawcock (1601), and prawn (1895), the last of which ought to come into vogue again any minute now.
- A manual for the first computer game—“The Ferranti Nimrod Digital Computer,” dubbed “Faster than Thought”—has sold for $4,200. The computer was designed specifically to play “a match-stick game called Nim that was played in the French movie L’Année Dernière à Marienbad.”