This Week in Books: Ends of the World, Reviewed

All is reborn, except the narrator’s poor dog, who stays unaccountably dusted.

Dear Reader,

In a review of several new books about physics, Priyamvada Natarajan takes a moment to contemplate the potential ends of the world outlined in Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). Natarajan seems to hold out tenuous hope, the way any good-natured person would, for the potential of “the bounce,” which is “the most speculative of [the] possibilities—a cyclic cosmology where birth and death alternate repeatedly,” but that fragile hope is fractured by Natarajan’s admitted fascination — a fascination-verging-on-longing that any good-natured person would, somewhat secretly, also harbor — with one of the other, far more grotesque, ends-of-everything described by Mack: 

Though I am drawn by temperament to a cyclic universe that has no beginning and no end, the possibility that fires my imagination is the Big Crunch. The sequence would start with a slowdown of the current accelerating rate of expansion before reversal. Having flipped course, a contracting universe would become an extreme place—heating up to incredibly high temperatures and densities, beyond anything we can produce in the laboratory. None of our current theories, quantum mechanics and general relativity included, offer any guidance to the behavior of matter at such high densities. Mack writes that what “you’d encounter when the entire observable universe is collapsing into a subatomic dot are all kinds of incalculable.” Nothing material that we know of would survive; eventually it all would hurtle rapidly into a singularity. There is a strange symmetry to this fate, in which everything may end up as it was before the Big Bang—in ashes, as it were.

In an essay excerpted from B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites, Namwali Serpell recounts an end-of-the-world similarly conflicted about whether it ought to be a moment of vast cyclic rebirth or an unimaginably violent reduction to ashes, in Wil­liam Hope Hodgson’s long-out-of-print novel The House on the Border­land. At first (well, not at first — a great number of strange things have already happened) time begins to speed up for the narrator (well, he’s the narrator of a story-within-a-story, but that’s not really relevant here) until a point when things are moving cosmically fast: 

Our ghostly narrator repeatedly hints that he has reached the end of time—yet time presses on. He drifts, with­out will, into unknown dimensions via large bubbles with human faces locked within them. Eventually, he watches as his house on the borderland—the borderland between what and what exactly?—is overrun with pig-men, set aflame as the Earth flies into the sun, and then rises again in the phospho­rescent incarnation of the house from his first vision. He is borne toward it, steps inside, and wakes in his study. All is well, it was just a dream … except that poor Pepper is still a heap of dust.

All is reborn, except the narrator’s poor dog, Pepper, who stays unaccountably dusted. Serpell continues: 

How can we conceive of the time of climate change, the time of planetary death? The House on the Borderland tried to conceive of exactly this a century ago. Yes, the narrator’s acts are fruitless. He gets haplessly carted about the universe to witness the end of time, which never really ends, is always at the edge, nearing an asymptote, on the borderland.

From “The book of dogs; an intimate study of mankind's best friend,” 1919.

In a review of Elvira Navarro’s short story collection Rabbit Island, William Repass likewise reflects on the fruitlessness of acts undertaken at, and against, the end of the world (such as how recycling plastic is mostly fake, or how curated email newsletters on climate change current events don’t really affect anything whatsoever…) — although, more specifically, it’s the acts that attempt to stop the end of the world without ever really exiting the framework which brought the end about in the first place that truly provoke Navarro’s ire(ony):

[In] the title story “Rabbit Island”... a man whose hobby is reinventing other’s inventions discovers a small island on the Guadalquivir and decides to inhabit it. He is disturbed, however, by the relentless squawking of the birds that roost on the island. He introduces a colony of rabbits, hoping they will outcompete the birds for resources. The rabbits strip the island of all vegetation before turning to the birds’ eggs, which give them the insatiable taste for flesh. Before long, they begin feeding on each other. This hideous outcome makes a mockery of the “non-inventor’s” naïve assumption that he commands his environment. If this parody of a Renaissance Man has reinvented anything, it is Enlightenment hubris and the monstrosity of colonization. Even this small island comprises a system beyond the protagonist’s understanding. A zone that affords him a sense of ownership and agency, it displaces the city as the center of his world, but turns out to be a reflection of the city: his ownership is illusory, his actions lead to repercussions as dire as they are unpredictable. Navarro hints at a certain irony in the term Anthropocene within this story: in an epoch characterized by the profound impact of human activity on the world around us, we feel powerless to reverse the consequences of our own power.

Which brings us to Woody Haut’s review of Myron Brinig’s newly reissued novel The Flutter of an Eyelid, in which total control is similarly paired with a total inability to control the end result of all that control. A novelist-within-the-novel, Caslon, begins to realize that he is writing real life into existence in his latest manuscript, and even though he has brought about catastrophe, he finds it impossible to bring the tale to a close:

That events soon spin out of control can be attributed to the novel Caslon is compulsively writing. Originally intending merely to portray his eccentric acquaintances and their activities, Caslon eventually realizes he’s no longer reporting but creating. And some of his associates sense they are anything but free agents. As Antonio says, “There is somebody else concerned in all this, someone who is pushing us relentlessly. We are mere pawns under his fingers. We are prisoners of the page, and yet we continue to live like desperate flies whose legs are entangled in the glue of a poisonous sheet.”

As the novel rushes headlong toward a conclusion predicted by an assortment of doomsayers and religious maniacs, all of whom he has apparently conjured up in the writing of his tale, Caslon is unable to finish.


1. “Items That Have Gone Missing Inside the Lucy Temerlin Institute for Broken Shapeshifters Containment Room” by Kuzhali Manickavel, The White Review

An excerpt from (or perhaps companion piece to?) Kuzhali Manickavel’s The Lucy Temerlin Institute for Broken Shapeshifters' Guide to Starving Boys- Their Salient Features, How to Find Them, How to Care For Them After They Die and Four Case Studies, which is available as an ebook.

S. Gayathri was an uncomfortably dark 17-year-old girl who was incarcerated on 25 December 1994, for unpatriotic behaviour and for shifting into an angel. The incident occurred during morning assembly, right in the middle of the national anthem, no doubt as the chests of faraway jawans opened like terrible flowers and bled onto unfamiliar soil. Two stumps resembling rotten banana tree stems burst from S. Gayathri’s shoulder blades for no good reason. A pair of blue eyes appeared on the palms of her hands and immediately started crying. Watery silver spilled from the sides of her tongue, making her breath smell like a car accident… 

2. “Does the World Need More Lesbian Corn?: A Conversation on Camille Roy’s ‘Honey Mine’” by Jessica Caroline and Emily Colucci, Filthy Dreams

Jessica Caroline and Emily Colucci have a conversation about Camille Roy’s Honey Mine: Collected Stories, which, as I gather from the conversation, at some points reads more like a collection of essays, or as if it were a sort of hybrid… a fictional collection of essays, an essayistic collection of fiction…

JC: …Roy’s “Craquer: An Essay On Class Struggle” is a deviation from the essay form to a haphazard account of family reunions, from cosmology to Communism to psychoanalysis to Pentecostal faith, to secrets between the ruling class and the servants who know everything. I thought she posed some provoking questions here, such as:  

“And what does the ruling class want from everybody else? What’s the emotional hook?”…

EC: I’ll admit I found a lot of “Craquer” and the coy “I’m not going to tell you what monuments hold my family’s name” to be a bit annoying and self-aggrandizing (but then again, what semi-autobiographical writing isn’t?). Part of it may be that the twist of “actually some of my family is wealthy” is not appealing to me as we watch our society further stratify economically. However, beyond the kind of/not really class breakdown, what the essay is successful at doing is showing the blurred line between fact and fiction in a lot of family stories. At least I also come from a family whose stories are all a little suspect. For instance, when I was in elementary school, my grandfather wrote a story about a goldfinch for a class assignment I had. It was really sweet and my mother said so to my father who responded: “Sure, if it was true.” But who cares? If it’s a good story, why not believe it’s true anyway? Like the potential interaction (brief love affair?) between Camille’s estranged grandfather Raymond and Pentecostal legend Aimee Semple McPherson. As Roy writes, “I don’t care what the truth is–not enough to pursue it, anyway.” And later, “Who hasn’t been lied to, constantly?”

3. “All Things Great and Small” by Priyamvada Natarajan, The New York Review of Books

Priyamvada Natarajan reviews three new books about physics, with her eye on our evolving understanding of the “atomized” nature of things: Katia Moskvitch’s Neutron Stars: The Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos, Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), and Frank Wilczek’s Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.

The five possible cosmic catastrophes that Mack discusses are the Big Crunch, in which our current cosmic expansion reverses and the universe condenses into a black hole—a singularity; the Heat Death, in which the universe expands forever, getting darker and more desolate; the Big Rip, a dark-energy driven, violent fate in which gravity is overpowered and eventually everything, including atoms, are ripped apart; Vacuum Decay, the least likely scenario, in which a rogue bubble of “true vacuum” would run amok and essentially cancel the universe; and the bounce—the most speculative of these possibilities—a cyclic cosmology where birth and death alternate repeatedly.

4. “To Witness the End of Time” by Namwali Serpell, The Paris Review

An excerpt from B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites, edited by John Plotz, in which Namwali Serpell writes about Wil­liam Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Border­land

…When fiction reappears after a spell of obscurity, we often say it was before its time. To me, The House on the Borderland is untimely in another, more enthralling way: it undoes time… 

…This account feels especially worth revisiting now, when time poses a new problem for humans: we’re running out of it. Or it’s running out of us—we are the grains of sand falling through the thin neck of years left before we reach three degrees too far… 

5. “Prisoners of the Page: On Myron Brinig’s ‘The Flutter of an Eyelid’” by Woody Haut, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Woody Haut reviews Myron Brinig’s newly reissued novel The Flutter of an Eyelid, which has “been languishing in obscurity for over half a century” despite, as Haut describes, its frequent featured status in works of Southern California criticism, such as Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster.

…Brinig was by all accounts on a fast track to literary notoriety — one that, in the year of Flutter’s publication, took him to New Mexico, where he was feted by that doyenne of Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan. She was so impressed by Brinig, who she thought might become an American D. H. Lawrence, that she suggested he help write her memoirs. Brinig claimed the rough draft of Luhan’s life was “one of the most damning arraignments of modern white society in literature.” …Brinig would offer a portrait of Luhan in his 1941 novel All of Their Lives, a no-holds-barred account that included the Luhan-like character’s fictional death by lightning. Brinig clearly had a fondness for such endings… 

None of his other novels, however, is as strange as Flutter. …[P]rotagonist Caslon Roanoke is... a “gray writer of gray novels” from Boston. Seeking to travel west for health reasons, he is offered a place to stay in Alta Vista... It isn’t long before Caslon is won over to California’s ways… But mostly he’s entranced by the fluttering eyelids of the beautiful Sylvia — it’s the eyelids, not the eyes, that are “important, beautiful, elegant, full of secrets”... 

6. “Rabbit Island – Elvira Navarro” by William Repass, Full Stop

William Repass reviews Elvira Navarro’s short story collection Rabbit Island, translated by Christina MacSweeney. 

…Regarding setting or location, Navarro is drawn to peripheral zones in one sense or another… In “Myotragus” and “Gums,” the islands of Lanzarote and Majorca, respectively, serve as backdrops. In “The Top for Room,” it’s the cheap hotel near a conference center where provincial Spaniards gather for business fairs. In “Regression,” a park that separates a wealthy neighborhood from a dilapidated one in a city emptied for the summer. These suburbs cut-off from the center, islands separated from the mainland, and provinces neglected by “progress,” where global monoculture has not yet established itself (or where it has already begun to lose grip) have an instability about them… In a word, they threaten to become centers of their own.

7. “This Ain’t No Picnic” by J. Hoberman, Bookforum

J. Hoberman reviews cartoonist Gary Panter’s Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise, first published in 1988 and recently reissued.

…The material is organized to create a quasi-narrative abstract action-adventure starring Panter’s recurring character Jimbo, a punk icon suggesting a bulked up, snub-nosed, post-shock-therapy burn-out mutation of the eternal high school student Archie Andrews. (One of the great things about Panter is how other cartoon characters surface, bent out of shape, in his world. Jimbo meets Nancy, and a Picassoid Fred Flintstone appears in another subplot.)

8. “The Epic Misery of Thomas Bernhard” by Missouri Williams, The Nation

Missouri Williams reviews Thomas Bernhard’s The Cheap-Eaters, in a translation by Douglas Robertson that was first published in 1990 and was recently reissued.

…The Cheap-Eaters is one of Bernhard’s least known works… An unnamed narrator recounts his relationship with a ranting obsessive named Koller, whose loss of a leg after he was bitten by a dog has given him the freedom to pursue his ideas to their “utmost limits,” since the dog’s owner, Weller, is obliged to pay him a lifelong annuity. The event slices Koller’s biography into two neat periods—before Weller’s dog and after Weller’s dog…

As a result of both the dog bite and another decisive event—a slight but significant variation in his daily walk—Koller’s thoughts latch onto the “cheap-eaters,” a group of four men who gather together every day at the Vienna Public Kitchen and who, like him, invariably choose the cheapest option.

9. “How Lovely It Is to Be Small” by Ryan Ruby, Poetry

Ryan Ruby reviews Susan Bernofsky’s Clairvoyant of the Small, a biography of Robert Walser.

…Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann praised [his] works—which frequently featured schoolchildren, pageboys, junior clerks, and journeymen poets—as examples of naïve or outsider art. Walser was also an important and acknowledged influence on Kafka. Robert Musil, whose own schoolboy novel, The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), had been a hit, dismissed Kafka’s debut collection as nothing more than a “special case of the Walser Type.” … [A]side from his novella The Walk (1917), which remains Walser’s best-known piece of writing, none of his novels or collections achieved commercial success. By the time The Walk was published, Walser’s career was beyond repair. He had already returned to Switzerland broke and burned out… 

…Walser seemed capable of viewing his institutionalization with a degree of ironic detachment, at least if [the critic Carl Seelig’s] reports can be trusted. When Seelig asked Walser if he knew why he had been institutionalized, he answered, “Because I’m not a good essayist.” 

10. “America’s Long Struggle to Tame Its Greatest Rivers” by Lina Tran, Undark

Lina Tran reviews Tyler J. Kelley’s Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America's Waterways.

…Thousands of dams were erected in the first half of the 20th century, and most were not designed to manage the silt and sand that rivers funnel through the continent. In South Dakota, backed-up river silt has converted farmland to bog, while in Louisiana, excess earth has transformed cypress swamps into oak forests. Dams on the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers have slashed the Mississippi’s supply of land-building sediment. That, combined with erosion and sea level rise, is erasing Louisiana’s coast.

…I found myself flipping to [the maps] constantly, tracing winding branches to find where rivers meet, how what happens upstream impacts others downriver. Kelley… lets his sources argue on the page. There is, for example, the oysterman in Plaquemines Parish who worries he will lose his livelihood to the torrent of freshwater that the head planner at Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority says is necessary to build new land and keep the state from sliding off the continent… 

11. “The Triumph of Mutabilitie” by Catherine Nicholson, The New York Review of Books

Catherine Nicholson writes about two new books about The Faerie Queene: Hazel Wilkinson’s Edmund Spenser and the Eighteenth-Century Book and Gordon Teskey’s Spenserian Moments.

…Wilkinson argues that The Faerie Queene was the original unread classic: the emblematic textual commodity of an age in which book ownership expanded from the domain of aristocrats and scholars to become a bourgeois expression of taste. As the philosopher David Hume dryly remarked in his 1759 History of England, “Spenser maintains his place upon the shelves of our English classics; but he is seldom seen on the table.”

…By the start of the twentieth century, The Faerie Queene had been abandoned to academics, who, in T.S. Eliot’s sardonic judgment, deserved it… Virginia Woolf was blunter still. To those eager to cultivate an appreciation for Spenser, she counseled, “The first essential is, of course, not to read The Faerie Queene.”

12. “Who started it?” by James Romm, The London Review of Books

James Romm reviews Anthony Barrett’s Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty, which investigates the ancient rumor that Nero intentionally set the Great Fire of Rome.

…The crucial question is that of motive. Nero’s character and mind are exceedingly hard to penetrate, given the bizarre tales our sources record – who knows what desires the destruction of Rome might have fulfilled? These sources speak of his disgust with the crowding and squalor of Rome and his wish to remake the city from scratch, perhaps even to rename it Neropolis… Nero did indeed rebuild much of Rome according to his own design, and at the centre of the scorched city he raised an astonishing monument to his own arrogance and vanity, a huge complex he called the Domus Aurea or Golden House.

Barrett describes in detail this architectural wonder, the ruins of which are still being unearthed and interpreted. (Since subsequent emperors partly destroyed or built over the Domus, in an effort to move past the hubris it represented, much of the original structure is unrecoverable.) Its scale and cost were enormous. Nero reportedly shook down the provinces to pay for it and pillaged the sanctuaries of Greece for sculptures to place in its niches. More a country estate than a building, it covered as many as four hundred acres… Painters unleashed an array of zoological fantasies on the palace walls; dubbed grottesche when rediscovered in the Renaissance, in a space that by then had become an underground ‘grotto’, their bizarre style gave rise to our ‘grotesque’.

In the end, what matters for Barrett isn’t so much whether Nero started the fire as what it meant to Rome to believe that he had… In a final discussion of Nero’s reputation, Barrett makes the important point that… the masses seem never to have rejected Nero… Indeed three Nero impostors surfaced in subsequent decades, playing on lingering public adoration.

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