Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Tunnel

The dark side of the limerick

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“As almost nothing that has been written about the limerick can be taken seriously—which is perhaps only fitting—a few words may not be out of place here,” the scholar Gershon Legman writes in his introduction to the definitive work on the subject. Legman was one of the first critics to see erotic and obscene folk forms, including the dirty joke, as a serious object of study, and The Limerick puts his singular intelligence—which is worthy of a good biography—on full display:

The limerick is, and was originally, an indecent verse form. The “clean” sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificially ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence. There are, certainly, aggressive bawdy limericks too, but they are not in the majority. Except as the maidenly delight and silly delectation of a few elderly gentlemen, such as the late Langford Reed, and several still living who might as well remain nameless, the clean limerick has never been of the slightest real interest to anyone, since the end of its brief fad in the 1860s.

Legman describes the work of Edward Lear, the supposed master of the form, as “very tepidly humorous,” which seems about right, and he apologizes in advance for the vast collection of dirty limericks that he has prepared for the reader’s edification: “The prejudices, cruelty, and humorless quality of many of the limericks included are deeply regretted.”

But a metrical form typified by prejudice, cruelty, and humorlessness may end up being perfectly suited for the modern age. Legman claims that “viable folk poetry and folk poetic forms,” aren’t easy to duplicate by design, but it isn’t an accident that two of the major American novels of the twentieth century indulge in limericks at length. One is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which includes a remarkable sequence of limericks in which young men have sexual relations with the various parts of a rocket, such as the vane servomotor. The other is William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, which prints numerous limericks that all begin with the opening line “I once went to bed with a nun.” In his hands, the limerick becomes the ideal vehicle for his despairing notion of history, as a character in the novel explains:

The limerick is the unrefiner’s fire. It is as false and lifeless, as anonymous, as a rubber snake, a Dixie cup…No one ever found a thought in one. No one ever found a helpful hint concerning life, a consoling sense. The feelings it harbors are the cold, the bitter, dry ones: scorn, contempt, disdain, disgust. Yes. Yet for that reason. nothing is more civilized than this simple form. In that—in cultural sophistication—it is the equal of the heroic couplet…That’s the lesson of the limerick. You never know when a salacious meaning will break out of a trouser. It is all surface—a truly modern shape, a model’s body. There’s no inside however long or far you travel on it, no within, no deep.

Both authors seem to have been drawn to the form for this very reason. And while Gass’s notion of writing “a limrickal history of the human race” may have seemed like a joke twenty years ago, the form seems entirely appropriate to the era in which we’re all living now.

Another prolific author of limericks was Isaac Asimov, who clearly didn’t view the form as problematic. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, with typical precision, he writes that his first attempt took place on July 13, 1953. A friend challenged him to compose a limerick with the opening line “A priest with a prick of obsidian,” and after some thought, Asimov recited the following:

A priest with a prick of obsidian
Was a foe to the hosts of all Midian,
Instead of immersion
Within a young virgin
’Twas used as a bookmark in Gideon.

“I explained that the ‘hosts of Midian’ was a biblical synonym for evil and that ‘Gideon’ was a reference to a Gideon Bible, but no one thought much of it,” Asimov writes. “However, when I challenged anyone present to do better, no one could.” Asimov was encouraged by the experience, however, and he soon got into the habit of constructing limericks in his head “whenever I was trapped in company and bored.” Not surprisingly, it occurred to him that it would be a shame to let them go to waste, and he convinced the publishing house Walker & Company to let him put together a collection. Asimov continued to write limericks with “amazing speed,” and Lecherous Limericks appeared in 1975. It was followed by six more installments, including two collaborations with none other than the poet and translator John Ciardi.

And the uncomfortable fact about Asimov’s limericks is that most of them frankly aren’t very good, funny, or technically impressive. This isn’t a knock on Asimov himself, but really a reflection of the way in which the limerick resists being produced in such a casual fashion, despite what thousands of practitioners think to the contrary. (“Amateurs amble over everything like cows,” Gass writes in The Tunnel. “The A which follows so many limericks stands for Amateur, not for Anonymous.”) Asimov was drawn to the form for the same reason that so many others are—it’s apparently easy, superficially forgiving of laziness, and can be composed and retained without difficulty in one’s head. And it’s no surprise that he embraced it. Asimov didn’t become the most prolific author in American history by throwing anything away, and just as he sent the very first story that he ever wrote as a teenager to John W. Campbell, who rejected it, he didn’t have any compunction about sending his first batch of limericks to his publisher, who accepted the result. “One good limerick out of every ten written is a better average than most poets hit,” Legman accurately writes, and Asimov never would have dreamed of discarding even half of his attempts. He also wasn’t likely to appreciate the underlying darkness and nihilism, not to mention the misogyny, of the form in which women “generally figure both as villain and victim,” as Legman notes, while also calling it “the only kind of newly composed poetry in English, or song, which has the slightest chance whatever of survival.” Gass, and presumably Pynchon, understood this all too well, and the author of The Tunnel deserves the last word: “Language has to contain…emotions. It’s not enough just to arouse them. In a perverse way that’s why I use a lot of limericks, because the limerick is a flatterer, the limerick destroys emotion, perhaps it produces giggles, but it is a downer. It’s an interesting form for that reason.” And it might end up being the defining poetry of our time.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2018 at 8:26 am

Quote of the Day

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If you want to think about something really funny, kiddo, consider the fact that our favorite modern bad guys became villains by serving as heroes first—to millions. It is now a necessary apprenticeship…But if you want to think about something really funny, consider how the titles of tyrants change. We shall suffer no more Emperors, Kings, Czars, Shahs, or Caesars…the masses make such appointments now; the masses love tyranny; they demand it; they dance to it; they feel that their hand is forming the First Citizen’s Fist; so we shall murder more modestly in future: beneath the banners of Il Duce, Der Führer, the General Secretary or the Party Chairman, the CEO of something. I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called Coach.

William H. Gass, The Tunnel

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2018 at 7:30 am

A lump of darkness

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I’ve spent the last few days leafing with interest through the new second volume of the collected work of the graphic artist Chip Kidd, whose portfolio includes iconic covers for such books as Jurassic Park, The Secret History, and seemingly half of the prestige titles of the last thirty years. Kidd is the closest thing that we have to a celebrity book designer—he’s certainly the only one whom even a fraction of readers would be able to name—and his credit on the inside flap of a dust jacket remains one of three surefire indications that an author has made it. (The others are a headshot taken by Marion Ettlinger and an interview with The Paris Review.) He’s undeniably a major talent, even if the covers from the back half of his career don’t stand out as strongly from the pack as his earlier work, in part because his innovations and style have been absorbed into what people expect from a particular kind of hardcover. Kidd’s fondness for vintage art, his use of miniature photography, and his knack for visual paradox have all turned into shorthand signifiers of a certain level of class, and you could make a similar case for Kidd himself, who, not coincidentally, worked with Lisa Birnbach on a new edition of The Official Preppy Handbook. I don’t know how much he earns these days for an average commission, but I doubt that it’s dramatically higher in absolute terms than it is for many other designers, and it can’t be more than a modest fraction of the overall cost of producing a book. Kidd’s imprimatur has become an economical way for publishers to assure authors that they’re special, without having to spend a lot of money on the advance or the marketing budget, even if they’re positively correlated in practice. There’s also a feedback cycle at work, as Kidd is associated with the best books because of his longtime association with top authors, and he remains the first name likely to come to mind when a publisher is trying to project confidence in a title.

Which doesn’t mean that all of his ideas are automatically accepted. Browsing through Chip Kidd: Book Two, one of the first things that you notice is how many of his designs were rejected, sometimes on the way to a successful solution, but occasionally ending in a kill fee. A note of regret often slips through, as with it does with Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti: “My role in the project pretty much ended there; sad, because we had done so much great work in the past on his previous titles.” He sometimes pointedly employs the passive voice: “It was decided in-house that we should follow the design scheme of the previous book.” “It was determined that we needed [Obama’s] face.” “It was taken out of my hands and further abstracted.” “The approach, sadly, was nipped in the bud.” Kidd’s favorite clients are mentioned warmly by name, while a writer who didn’t like his cover designs becomes “the author.” He has a poor track record with HarperCollins, which nixed his initial designs for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and the paperback reissue of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Even John Updike, with whom Kidd had a long and productive relationship, killed the original cover—with lettering by Chris Ware—for My Father’s Tears: “Doesn’t this jacket strike you as, well, kind of wimpy?” Perhaps Kidd’s harshest words are reserved for the cover of You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs, of which he recalls of a few failed attempts:

The answer was either to start over or bail. I couldn’t bear the thought of the latter…Somehow even this [last] image wasn’t blowing everyone’s dress up, and the plug was pulled. The dreaded kill fee. Adding insult to injury was what they finally came up with. You’ll have to google it, and you won’t believe it.

My point here is that even Chip Kidd, of all people, doesn’t have final say over how a book will eventually appear, and that’s doubly true of authors. Kidd hints that “third-rate writers are the hardest to work with because they subconsciously want the jacket to make up for the mediocrity of their work,” but it can be difficult for even a writer at the top of his craft to force through a difficult cover. The Tunnel by the late William H. Gass, for instance, might well be the least commercial novel ever put out by a major publishing house, and it required a huge leap of faith from Knopf. Gass, who died last week, wrote up a memo with his specifications for its design, and it makes for fascinating reading. Here’s a short section:

The book should be bound in rough black cloth. The spine should be broad and flat the way Viking Press’s edition of James Joyce’s Letters is, or Finnegans Wake. The title of the book, THE TUNNEL, should appear at the top left edge of the spine, indented, in silver…My name may have to go on the jacket and if so it should appear on the bottom of the spine up and down like the title and on the opposite or inner side of the spine panel. Otherwise there should be nothing on the book’s cover or dust jacket. It should be completely empty and dark like outer space or the inside of a cave. The reader should be holding a heavy really richly textured lump of darkness. The book’s size should be larger than normal. Again, the size of Finnegans Wake seems about right. It is important that my name appear nowhere on dust jacket or cover, and that nothing else be put on the jacket—no bio, picture, blurb, etc. The publisher will no doubt want their name on the book so it might be embossed at the bottom of the spine (but left black) and printed in silver at the bottom of the spine of the jacket.

This went over about as well as you might expect, and the result doesn’t look much like what Gass wanted. The interior of the book, by contrast, is beautifully designed and faithful to his vision, which implies that Knopf’s uneasiness about the cover was more about not totally crippling a novel that was already going to be a hard sell to most readers. It didn’t exactly work, as we read in Gass’s obituary in the New York Times: “Mr. Gass was one of the most respected authors never to write a bestseller.” But perhaps the lesson here is that the cover of a book, which is one of the few places where something like control seems like it ought to be possible, is just as much the product of compromise as anything else in publishing. (One of Kidd’s most memorable anecdotes involves the cover of Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, which the printer initially refused even to produce, since it couldn’t guarantee that all of the elements would properly line up. They eventually negotiated a slippage factor of a quarter of an inch, and the book’s design was robust enough to look good even when the alignment was off—which feels like a metaphor for something.) And it may simply be that The Tunnel came out twenty years too soon. As I tweeted yesterday, it certainly seems like the novel of our time, as when its narrator writes of Hitler, whom he calls a “twerp”:

What I wonder about are all of those who weren’t twerps who willed what Hitler wished…they, who idolized a loud doll, who loved the twerps-truths, who carried out the wishes of a murderous fool, an ignoble nobody, a failure so unimportant that failure seems a fulsome description of him.

He concludes: “I would have followed him just to get even.” It might be time for a new edition. And Kidd would probably be the one to design it.

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2017 at 8:36 am

Disrupting the printed page

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A page from House of Leaves

Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere—although I haven’t been able to find the exact reference—that all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same. Stevenson’s advice is generally taken as a warning against the use of ornate vocabulary that doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the line, but in my own work, I’ve also applied it to the level of paragraphs and chapters. Not every chapter should read the same way, of course: a climactic moment should feel different from a chapter primarily devoted to setting up information for a coming run of scenes, and a novel that was written in the same tone throughout would soon grow dull. When you glance quickly over the text without reading it, though, every page of my fiction looks pretty much like any other. Along with the many other arbitrary rules I follow, I’ve never used narrative devices like found documents or diagrams, I stick to one typeface, and I’ve done what I can to make the surface of the book look as seamless as possible, presumably on the theory that any visual device that calls attention to itself can only distract the reader from the story.

This may seem like something other than a matter of style, since it’s primarily visual, but I don’t know what else to call it: it affects the balance between dialogue and description, helps determine paragraph length, and has a subtle but very real influence on the narrative register of my stories. A book that alternates between many different tones often reflects this on the page: the stylistic shifts in a novel like Ulysses are visible at a glance. This is also true of popular fiction, which can alternate between long passages of rapid dialogue, extended sections of description, and strings of short paragraphs and sentence fragments for action scenes. Part of the reason I’ve tried to keep my novels visually consistent is a desire to see if I can get the same effect through the writing alone. In a way, it’s another constraint I’ve laid down for myself: I try to make the story’s events as colorful and interesting as I can while remaining within the same narrow visual range. It limits my range of options while forcing me to develop other skills to compensate, and thus far, I’ve been pleased by the result.

A page from The Tunnel

All the same, I sometimes get a little jealous of novelists who seem comfortable with radical typographical or visual experimentation. I’ve never managed to get through all of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, for example, but it still occupies a treasured place in my home library: every few months, I’ll leaf through it, my eye caught by its oddly sinister flags, shifting fonts, and stretches of comic strip narrative, each of which stands like an island in the middle of the sea of Gass’s prose. The same is true of the works of such authors as John Barth and Georges Perec, not to mention House of Leaves. When I flip through a novel in a bookstore and come across a diagram or unexpected illustration, I’m always a little tickled, as if I’ve stumbled on a bonbon for browsers. Indeed, a striking typographic trick will often make me more likely to buy a book, or at least remember it: they’re like advertisements within the text for the author’s ingenuity, or cleverness, which may be one reason why I resist them in my own work, at least in the absence of any overwhelming reason to the contrary.

And while I wouldn’t rule out using graphic elements in my fiction in the future, I have a feeling that their presence would be as systematic as their absence has been so far. I’m most comfortable when operating within clearly defined rules, even if they’re only obvious to me, so any attempt at formal experimentation I’d make would probably be closer to something like Dictionary of the Khazars, my favorite novel of this kind, which embeds considerable typographic and visual invention within an attractively uniform surface. It’s a choice that can have unexpected consequences these days, when it’s likely that many of my books will be read on Kindle or a similar format over which I have less control: few, if any, of the novels I’ve mentioned above would survive that transition. When all of your sentences look more or less the same, you don’t need to worry about how they’ll appear in print, and I’ve been glad to leave that aspect of my novels to professionals who know what they’re doing. That way, I can focus on trying to put variety into the story itself, regardless of how it’s laid out on the page—which is more than hard enough as it is.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2013 at 8:43 am

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