Gary Shteyngart and the American comic novel

I had been in something of a blue funk about the state of the American comic novel until about a year ago, when I came across Gary Shteyngart, whose latest from Random House, Our Country Friends, was gingerly deposited on my doorstep yesterday afternoon. Lake Success, published in about the middle of the Trump Era (or, perhaps, the First Trump Era; the possibility of a second makes my teeth itch), chillingly and hilariously described the social and cultural foundations of that particular madness; Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart’s 2010 dystopian satire, described the crumbling of an urban, youth- and image-obsessed civilization that had earlier not been without its charms; and Little Failure, his memoir of his arrival in the United States and subsequent childhood and adolescent traumas and embarrassments, remains one of my favorite true-life shaggy dog stories of recent years. Since then, I’ve been pressing copies of his novels and the memoir into the hands of my increasingly annoyed friends and family, who, I insist, do not know what they’re missing.

Though Shteyngart’s perspective is that of a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union, this doesn’t narrow his appeal to native-born Americans, especially not those who realize that they too or their parents are in many ways still immigrants themselves, and to call him a “comic novelist” isn’t to pigeonhole him into a particular genre, either — especially since many of America’s greatest novelists, in particular Mark Twain, have been marginalized by that characterization itself. The American comic novel, from Twain through Nathanael West and Ring Lardner through Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, and Terry Southern, exhibits themes and qualities all its own: a mastery and delight in the spoken American vernacular; an enthusiasm for the tall tale; a dark mistrust of and irreverence toward authority, conformity, and their media products; a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for offending the right people; the burden of dragging around our parents and ancestral memories; a reluctant but cheerful pessimism; and a trust in the integrity of the individual rather than community conscience (however much there’s a nagging fear that even this trust in the individual might be misplaced). Shteyngart brings a Central European flavor to the mix, tossing in a handful of Gogol and Gogol’s twentieth-century Russian progeny Vladimir Voinovich.

Along with Carl Hiaasen, then, Gary Shteyngart gives me hope that the American comic novel might not be quite dead yet, even now, when most of the United States seems to have lost its sense of humor: a sense that provides irony, perspective, compassion, and a dollop of humility, a necessary sense especially in these most uncertain times. Shteyngart provides an introduction to his novel and its themes in his interview with Dave Davies on yesterday’s Fresh Air; you can listen to it below. Meanwhile, I’m off to the liquor store to stock up on a few bottles of wine to quaff while I sit down with Our Country Friends tonight.

… and welcome to it

Crumb’s World, a record of the unforgettable 2019 R. Crumb exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, is a portrait of the artist at work, considering Crumb’s long career and embracing all of the forms in which he’s worked: the autobiographical comic, obviously, but also illustration and social satire. It’s impossible for any single volume to encompass all seven decades of Crumb’s art, of course, and the focus here (as well as the gallery show) is the evolution of his style and his draughtsmanship over those decades. Arranged in chronological order, we have early comics and sketchbook pages, along with reproductions of book layouts and cover art, tracing his progression from funny animal comics to the contemplative and semi-parodic but exquisitely rendered Art & Beauty series. There are a few more recent treats to be found, too — “Art and Money,” a two-page conversation between Crumb and exhibition curator Robert Storr, and “Bad Diet & Bad Hair Destroy Human Civilization,” a Trump-era meditation by Crumb and his wife and long-time collaborator Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Storr’s introduction is a blessedly non-academic consideration of his career. The book is published by David Zwirner Books. No Crumb collection is complete without it.

Storr may have avoided academese, but the academy too is sitting up and taking notice of Crumb these days. Just a few weeks ago, the University Press of Mississippi released The Comics of R. Crumb: Underground in the Art Museum, a collection of essays that seeks to situate him the context of his culture and aesthetic influences, and the same press issued David Stephen Calonne’s R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self back in February. Usually professorial interest in a popular culture figure like Crumb is a kiss of death (though it’s true that his work erases the distinction between popular and so-called “high” art), especially for a figure as irreverent and controversial as Crumb, but at least the first book had his co-operation, and both books seem worthy purchases.

The range, variety, and sheer volume of Crumb’s work bears comparison with Mark Twain’s; like Twain, he worked in popular culture forms and extended their expressivity into self-deprecatory autobiography, social satire, and dour meditation on art, the spirit, and the world. In this range alone, He stands apart from his peers; but the extraordinary level of his achievement in his best work transcends genre, and it must be said that he is as good a writer as he is a visual artist, a master of American vernacular. As these books all demonstrate, R. Crumb’s comic, bitter, and misanthropic grumblings, as well as his more esoteric meditations (especially his concerns with the environment and creeping conformity and authoritarianism), speak to the 21st century as much as the 20th — if not moreso.

A few small gifts from New York Review Books

“‘Merry Christmas!’ the man threatened.” — William Gaddis, The Recognitions

A few months ago, the publicity department at New York Review Books (NYRB Classics) was kind enough to send me review copies of their new editions of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955) and J R (1975), the first with an introduction by Tom McCarthy and the second with an introduction by Joy Williams. Handsome and necessarily sturdy the new editions of these lengthy novels are, too; what’s more, this is the first time either book has been corrected and re-set in decades, following careful readings by Gaddis experts. I had been hoping to have the time to re-read both of these, but time presses more now, even when time has seemed to become more abstract than usual. I do have a few moments, though, to welcome these new editions, perhaps the seminal satiric novels of post-war America.

Their accomplishments as satire have been overshadowed by their reputations as proto-postmodern novels, leading to a general conclusion that the books are just very hard to read because of their formal and stylistic innovations. Gaddis himself demurred about this characterization, considering himself the heir to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and T.S. Eliot, if anyone. And the style itself, exemplified by just the first few pages of The Recognitions, is redolent more of a dry, distanced wit and humor, more down Evelyn Waugh’s alley than William Burroughs’. An example from page 10 of the new NYRB edition:

Nevertheless, they boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor, provided for against all inclemencies but these they were leaving behind, and those disasters of such scope and fortuitous originality which Christian courts of law and insurance companies, humbly arguing ad hominem, define as acts of God.

On All Saints’ Day, seven days out and half the journey accomplished, God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted: Camilla was stricken with acute appendicitis.

The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they persisted as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonnière sometimes appeared through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, proved to be of paper, and he looked like the kind of man who scrapes foam from the top of a glass of beer with the spine of a dirty pocket comb, and cleans his nails at table with the tines of his salad fork, which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin. …

A self-portrait by William Gaddis

There, now that didn’t hurt much, did it? What’s more, the three paragraphs alone introduce almost all of the major themes of the book, which is a catalogue of spiritual, social, and aesthetic fakery, falsity, and fraudulence in post-war American culture (not to mention fate: “the unswerving punctuality of chance,” a phrase that appears in all five of Gaddis’ novels) — an admirable economy. And there’s a body count: the “ship’s surgeon” is in reality a counterfeiter who botches the surgery and ends Camilla’s life, setting the entire action of the 933-page book in motion.

One day I hope to get to writing some more about Gaddis; in the meantime I celebrate these timely holiday offerings from NYRB Classics. To read more about these reissues, I point you toward Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times (“Read The Recognitions and J R as great, funny, tightly constructed, vastly populated, deliriously inventive and happy books. Because that’s what they are”), Craig Hubert in the Observer (“It may be that after 65 years, the world has finally, for better or worse, caught up to Gaddis’s vision in The Recognitions“), and perhaps best of all, Dustin Illingham in the Point:

The immense pessimism of his fictions grows out of [a] sense of rootlessness. Gaddis’s America is cut off from the redemptive potential of continuity, be it in God, or art, or a shared sense of tradition. He is an heir to Eliot, whose quests, imposters and enervated landscapes haunt his novels, as well as the great Russians — Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev — with whom he shared the hope of civilizing a benighted nation. That such an undertaking was doomed to failure lends his work its paradoxical idealism. His novels refute utopian imagination, but always with a sense of frustrated longing. This longing — contemporary in its contradiction — is the skeleton key to his fictions. Where so many postmodernist writers envisaged a range of possible futures, Gaddis dreamt of an unbroken past that would render his satire unnecessary.

Those who wish to dig deeper are directed towards Joseph Tabbi’s biography of the novelist, this collection of Gaddis’ letters (a bit pricey at the moment), Steven Moore’s seminal monograph on the writer, and this anthology of recent essays about Gaddis’ work. And below you can watch a rare interview with the novelist, conducted in 1986 by Malcolm Bradbury.

A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!

Kraus in English

Update: Speaking of Kraus’s play The Last Days of Mankind, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Austrian artist Deborah Sengl’s 2014 “staging” of the play at the Essl Museum in Klosterneuberg bei Wien — with, somehow appropriately, stuffed rats. Marjorie Perloff also contributed an essay to the book about the exhibition.


This week Yale University Press released a complete translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms of Karl Kraus’s late masterpiece The Third Walpurgis Night. Formerly available only in excerpts, the anti-Nazi polemic was written in 1933 but withheld from publication, to be published only in 1952, almost two decades after Kraus’s death. It is a diatribe against the Nazis, of course, but it’s also a diatribe against the media, both left and right, that created them. Writes Marjorie Perloff in her introduction:

In the Age of Trump, Kraus’s book could hardly be more timely. … In its brilliant and cruel dissection of the Nazi media of 1933, The Third Walpurgisnacht is … a truly prophetic work.

It’s winging its way to me now, per Barnes & Noble, though you’d best order it through bookshop.org. I wrote about Prof. Perloff’s fine Edge of Irony, in which she discusses about Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind, in 2017; that review is below.


I want to start the month off by recommending Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire from the University of Chicago Press. The book defines what Perloff calls “Austro-Modernism,” a form of modernist thinking engendered in the years 1914 through 1933, when the Habsburg Empire collapsed and its territories became awash in a bewildering brew of nationalism, anti-Semitism, exile, and blood. Perloff differentiates Austro-Modernism from its German cousin, forged in the political cauldron of the Weimar Republic. She writes:

Weimar was the workshop for radical ideas, from Marxist theory to Heidegger’s ontological exploration of being-in-the-world to the film theory of Krakauer, Rudolf Arnheim, and [Walter] Benjamin himself. But this is not to say that Austro-Modernism, from Freud to Wittgenstein and Kraus, to Musil and Roth, to Celan and Bachmann, is to be understood as a weaker version of the strong intellectual formation of the Weimar Republic. It was merely different. Given the particular situation of the Habsburg Empire and its dissolution, given the eastern (and largely Jewish) origin of its writers, it developed in another direction, its hallmark being a profound skepticism about the power of government — any government or, for that matter, economic system — to reform human life. In Austro-Modernist fiction and poetry, irony — an irony less linked to satire (which posits the possibility for reform) than to a sense of the absurd — is thus the dominant mode. The writer’s situation is perceived not as a mandate for change — change that is always, for the Austrians, under suspicion — but as an urgent opportunity for probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles. (13; final emphasis my own)

Perloff’s analysis stretches from the “probing analysis” and documentary social satire of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind to the “probing analysis” and socio-erotic frisson of Celan’s later lyric poetry, with an excellent coda that muses upon Wittgenstein’s obsession with the Christian gospels towards the end of his life. Ironic satire is a dominant mode in the fiction of both Musil and Roth, but it’s a satire that, as Perloff notes, doesn’t lead to political action, but instead to contemplative action. “In the face of war, in the face of the twin evils of Fascism and Communism and of the corruption that seemed to threaten democracy at every turn, one could expose the follies and evils of one’s world, but meaningful change could only be personal,” Perloff writes. “The aim, as Wittgenstein put it — and Musil and Roth concurred — could only be ‘to become a different person.'” (15)

Although all of Perloff’s subjects were German-speakers, many didn’t start off that way. They were born not in the Empire’s capital Vienna — though Vienna remained a shining beacon of ambition for each of them — but rather on its periphery, and in many cases its easternmost periphery, speaking languages other than German. Karl Kraus was born and raised in the town of Jičín (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of the Czech Republic); Joseph Roth was born and raised in the town of Brody, a small town near Lemberg, now Lviv, in East Galicia (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of Ukraine); Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, Bulgaria (an independent nation then, but with close ties to the Empire);  Paul Celan in the Romanian town of Czernowitz (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now also a part of Ukraine). That they can be considered various facets of that common experience that led to Perloff’s “Austro-Modernism” points to the role that the Empire played in their upbringing.

The Habsburg Empire in 1914 was a mess. Franz Josef I was considered a weak and vacillating leader; its polyglot culture made it all but impossible to administer effectively (especially by a somewhat corrupt and inept central bureaucracy); what we now call its “multiculturalism” was just as bewildering. But it was a mess that somehow functioned, and for much the same reasons. The same Empire gave rise to a Central European form of Modernism that produced composers like Arnold Schoenberg, philosophers like Freud and Wittgenstein, writers like Arthur Schnitzler, painters like Klimt and Schiele. Austrian Jews enjoyed particularly broad freedoms following the 1782 Edict of Tolerance issued by Joseph II, and in 1867 Franz Josef I formally bestowed equal rights on the Jewish population of the Empire. Indeed, in recent years revisionist historians like Pieter M. Judson have emphasized its strengths (even if, ultimately, its weaknesses led to its dissolution in 1918), suggesting that its tolerance  could be something of a model for the polyglot multicultural societies of the 21st century.

The cataclysmic collapse of the Empire in 1918 left Austria a rump state. The Habsburgs were gone; in its place an unstable republic, an easy target for neighboring fascists, that would last for only 16 years (the monarchy ruled for nearly 400 years). This left Perloff’s writers, working in the years between the two world wars, with a sense of loss — that they’d been cut adrift from the land and culture of their youth. Kraus and the others weren’t sentimental about what was gone, but they recognized its strengths and opportunities as well, giving rise to what might be called an ironic conservatism in their outlook. Ultimately, the collapse was a collapse of cultural identity as well. Despite the almost unimaginable size of the empire’s territories, Musil, Celan, Roth, and the others shared a historical culture, which inevitably led to a common recognition — a recognition reflected in habits of thought, social conventions, mind, language — of their tragic situation. They harbored no optimism for the restoration of the monarchy in the years after 1918. Indeed, they harbored no optimism at all — except for the possibilities inherent in what a “probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles” might reveal about us as individuals and how we live. For this reason alone, Edge of Irony is worth a look.

I happen to be a child (or, at least, a grandchild) of the periphery of the Austrian Empire myself. My paternal grandfather Maxsym Hunka arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 from Ukraine (probably from Berezhany, Ternopil, then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of western Ukraine); he too was an exile from a collapsing world, perhaps sharing (in the peculiar ways of his own situation) in the habits of thought, social conventions, mind, and language of the subjects of Edge of Irony. He was far from an intellectual, receiving only a fifth-grade-level education according to US Census reports from later years. But if there can be said to be a cultural DNA just as influential upon us as our biological DNA, passed down in the form of these habits through the generations, they might generate in us an affinity for characteristics of our ancestral cultures, their origins barely recognized in our individual histories unless we look for them.