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choose your own adventure: middlebrow mad libs

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I went through a period as a boy when I was obsessed with Mad Libs. Were they a UK thing too – or was there something similar? Basically, the player is given a set of prompts for parts of speech, various types of words, and the like. These are then plugged into a prewritten story, and of course much non-sequiturism and absurd hilarity (if you’re 8 or 9 years old) occurs. It’s sort of a poorman’s Oulipo, a vulgar literary surrealism for kids.

Anyway, tomorrow is the first day of summer, so the blurbs and related PR materials for all the middle-to-higher middlebrow fiction is starting to flow through the social media sieves. And as I skim this stuff, it’s impossible for me not to get a sense that the writers / agents / publishers responsible for its positioning on the airport news agents’ shelves and the tables at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble marked with the cardboard palm tree aren’t playing their own version of literary Mad Libs.

A young (doctor/student/yoga instructor) has suffered through (a divorce/ a bereavement / a layoff / pancreatic cancer) and decides to visit (Nepal / Laos / Peru / inner city Detroit). There she meets a (Buddhist school teacher / flamengo instructor / holistic gynaecologist / homeless savant) who teaches her to enjoy (food / dance / sex / her “curves” / abstract art) and, thus, life again. Upon returning to (London / New York / the family manse) she meets a (stock brocker / surgeon / idealistic social worker) and almost loses love… but ultimately, in the end, finds it.

Of course, one could compose similar rubrics for the various subgenres of this sort of stuff (the post-English Patient war romance, the self-discovery memoir, raunchy post-chick-lit chick lit, etc). (And hey, if you care to, post your own versions in the comments!) And further, of course, the fact that you can do this part of what makes genres genres – you could do the same for science fiction, the nineteenth-century realist novel, mid-century American “outsider” fiction, whatever.

But still, there’s something infinitely depressing about the implicit psychological profiling of the potential reader that seems to be running behind the construction of these blurs and the books that they stand for.  Commercial publishers know their readers, I guess. Or at least they know the (ever fewer?) readers who are already buying their books. And these readers, it seems, at least according to the evidence available in the products on offer, stand at the book tables (or their html equivalents) going through a not very complex dance of identification and aspiration as they decide which book to purchase for their carry-on luggage or beach bag. Ah, that’s like me. That’s like me too. That’s not like me but I wish it were. Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out like that… 

(I’ve written about this process of identification in relation to the cover art of such novels before.)


Take for instance the work that can stand as an avatar of the middle range of the middlebrow stuff just as Ian McEwan’s Saturday can stand for the upper reaches of the form: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a memoir, but it fits the rubric above so perfectly that it’s almost the platonic ideal of the genre – and undoubtedly has become a model that the book business looks to replicate over and over. Here’s a description of the work from wikipedia:

At 32 years old, Elizabeth Gilbert was educated, had a home, a husband, and a successful career as a writer. She was, however, unhappy in her marriage and initiated a divorce. She then embarked on a rebound relationship that did not work out, leaving her devastated and alone. After finalizing her difficult divorce, she spent the next year traveling the world.

She spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (“Eat”). She spent three months in India, finding her spirituality (“Pray”). She ended the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for “balance” of the two and found love (“Love”) in the form of a Brazilian businessman.

In this description, we can almost read the handwriting of the invisible hand that drives the publishing and marketing of such books: Our readers are almost all women, and what we all know about women is that women like to eat (even though they sometimes have to be coaxed into really going at it) and they like feelings and deepness and softcore “spirituality.” It’s even better if that leads (coaxes them into?) love and sex. It’s like a perfect dating experience – a dinner, followed by some deep conversation, and then, and only then, some sex –  extended into a self-discovery memoir! 

At any rate, what’s less interesting about all of this is to discover the venal cynicism of publishers and the vapid selection principles of some readers. It’s an old story, and not a particularly interesting – and perhaps not even entirely true – one. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider, as I’m starting to do here, what we can make out of all that goes into the production of such products – especially at the spots where form intersects with baser motivations. That is, what I’m interested in is the semi-allegorical posture of the narratives to presumed customers lives, the socio-ideological substrate of the relations between the writing and the market, and what we might call, after Fredric Jameson, the nature of the political unconscious that somnolently calculates “Bali, Indonesia” as the reconciling synthesis of Italy and and India.


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June 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

notes on the novel, genre, woolwich

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What else does the novel, by the very nature of its elemental form, teach us than that there is some relation, or at least should be, between our internal subjective states and the world in which we move. Foreground / background. Protagonist / context. Romance / history. The family / the city. Wires run between the one to the other, from the outside in and back again. Almost every name of a novelistic subgenre or period movement (realism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism, to name just a few of the recent ones) names a different mode of wiring. Shifts in genre represent new ideas about how to write the machine. How tangled or untangled it is, how many wires run hither and how many yon, what buttons there are to push to control the voltage and wattage of the link up, how much bandwidth in total is carried.


Has there ever been a “terrorist attack” as uncanny as the one that happened yesterday in Woolwich? And uncanny is the right word – utterly familiar (tropes of beheading, tropes of “bringing the fight back to the oppressor,” the visibility of violence) yet at the same time utterly not (the refusal of both escape or self-immolative martyrdom, the implicit invocation of the laws of war when it comes to “innocent bystanders,” the further refusal to “let the event speak for itself,” or be spoken for by leadership organisations far away and ex post facto, or through pre-recorded statements aired after the event,  and the immediate extinguishing of the fear of further attacks, at least by the same actors, as per Boston). With this one, we seem to slip from the genre called “terrorism” to something else: a gruesome morality play about the calculus of war, the algebra of carnage. Street theatre allegory that trades the fake blood for the real.

So was it the “genre shift” that explains the strange reactions of the bystanders who observed the attack and its aftermath? Women reportedly ran over, in the course of the attack itself, to attempt to help the dying or dead soldier, thinking that the three actors in this play were rehearsing an all-too-common everyday scene we call “a car accident.” Who was it, and why was it, that someone stayed to film a man whose arms were drenched in blood, who carried a knife and a cleaver in his left hand, while he delivered his final soliloquy? What to make of these recorded conversations between the killers and their audience?

Is there a better answer than that a genre had been disrupted or reinvented, and thus the rules that normal apply (murders try to escape, bystanders flee, etc) were unavailable for consultation?


Genre is also another name for myth. While it sometimes postures as science, it has far more in common with superstition. Throw salt over your shoulder, and lucky will occur. One character says something, the other, naturally, touches wood. We now, in our pharmacologically-lexiconed period, are far more likely to call superstitious practices the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One has to check, and check again, that the water’s not running in the bathroom before one leaves the flat. Push hard three times on the front door to make sure it’s locked… or else another storyline will ensue, the one that has an evening return to a gaping door, the laptop gone, the bedroom drawers dumped. This is literally it – some sort of chemical depletion or superfluity occurs, some traumatic event takes place, and then an almost mystical belief in certain irrational storylines takes over. To disobey the mandates of genre is to open oneself to an unhappy ending.

Last night: this news-story. On television and especially on the web. Fraught conversations about the arithmetic of death. And then a phone call. Bad news of the sort that late night phone calls usually bring. The trope of the middle-aged son and the ailing parent. The novel teaches us to think of the one thing as related, if complex, to the other. At least metaphorically, or even just formally. What is happening out there of course is a prelude to what is about to happen right in here, in the space of the family home and especially the skulls (and bodies) of those that inhabit it.

Think of the script. The call in the night in the movie. The early middle-aged son who ignores the call momentarily, caught up as he is in an argument about the gruesome news on television. The politics of violence, the physics of the world system. The cigarette whose space allows a second thought, a second glance at the mobile phone. Ominous – we can imagine what will happen next. The film that will play out from its start in a graphic sequence of news images morphs into a dark family drama. How does one cope when the worst comes home to roost?


A fallacy (a word quite close to “myth” and “superstition”) that doesn’t have a name, one that is hardwired into the DNA of the novel as a form. I’ve tried to name it in things that I’ve written, in seminars that I’ve led. Sometimes it seems to have more to do with temporality. What happens after what, or at the same times as each other. We could call it presumptive fallacy. Retro-prospective fallacy. The fallacy of coincidence. Sometimes it’s simply about the structural mandate that the foreground be read in the light of the background and vice versa. Contextual fallacy? Flaubert, disrupter through over-fulfilment of so many genre mandates, so early in the game, was aware of the problem. Think of Frédéric waiting for Madame Arnoux while the revolution kicks off a few blocks away in L’Éducation sentimentale.  The New Critics liked to label fallacies on the part of the reader. I am more interested in the fallacies inherent in artistic forms themselves, even though obviously these can turn into the former and often do through the sort of training that novels provide. 


But of course, myths are also true in a very serious sense. I don’t simply mean that what we believe we are. What we think is the only thing there is. Although that may well be true. In this case, it is also useful to think of myth or superstition or even fallacy as a customary practice, a mode of operation, running orders against confusion. The world, as we know, lives out the demands of its many operative genres every single day. Perhaps now as much as ever. A myth is habitus, generated by practice, an operating manual written and re-written each time we act.

The novel makes us stupid in one sense, solipsistic, tends to make us look for our angle on things, what does this mean to us? What were the attackers yesterday, in both his words and deeds, and deeds both during and after the attack, trying to say to me? Or at least us? There is a counter-instinct, for those disciplined a certain way, to try to climb up the ladder of transcendent wisdom, to disavow the inwrought narcissism of our conditioned response. To gasp and yell when the news commentators reduce a global to a local question, an a serious question to a matter of insanity or unanchored spite. They might think what they want, but they have no right to act it out here. To force us into these stringent attempts to adjust the genre back to something we’re comfortable with. 

But the attempt to climb out of the fray of self-interest, however complex, however Wallace-ianly convoluted and self-reflexive, is of course a trope in yet another sort of story, another sort of myth, one that – we need to remind ourselves – has the deepest affinities with an imperial mindset, one that takes the world panoptically, one for whom impersonality is a transferable skill.

What retards political development – and really contemporary thought as a whole – more right now than an inability to come to terms with the relationship between the self, located wherever it might be, and the world-system as a whole? At least here where we are? What are we, sequestered in the posh uptowns and suburbs of the global system, meant to think or say when we are in the wrong jurisdiction? We know not to fall into the ethical mode, charity is of no use, but there may be an exitless cloverleaf, a highway cul de sac, ahead if

Despite all the complicities of the novel, these generic demands and the demands of its sub-genres, the promise remains that the bad faith strictures themselves make space for revelatory manipulation, clarifying detournage. They even, potentially, lead us toward the formulation of simpler questions, question more pressing in their semi-solipsistic simplicity. Like this one, that with the little revision, some shifts in seemingly inevitable consequence, the script I outlined above could be made to ask:

Who has to die in the prime of life, and who is afforded the luxury of death that comes at an actuarially appropriate stage? 

“you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths”

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JPS getting Flaubert profoundly right in an interview in the New Left Review from 1969:

Yet one cannot say that Flaubert did not have, at the very height of his activity, a comprehension of the most obscure origins of his own history. He once wrote a remarkable sentence: ‘You are doubtless like myself, you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths’—les mêmes profondeurs terribles et ennuyeuses. What could be a better formula for the whole world of psychoanalysis, in which one makes terrifying discoveries, yet which always tediously come to the same thing? His awareness of these depths was not an intellectual one. He later wrote that he often had fulgurating intuitions, akin to a dazzling bolt of lightning in which one simultaneously sees nothing and sees everything. Each time they went out, he tried to retrace the paths revealed to him by this blinding light, stumbling and falling in the subsequent darkness.

Beautiful, this. We all know, have long heard, that the literary novel is bent (historically, commercially, formally) upon encouraging us toward the cultivation of a full technicolor self, a vivid autonomous owness that, of course, is infinitely susceptable to the comeons of international capitalism as it tries to clear its inventories of various consumer products of all stripes. So the literary novel is bad, bad, bad. We know.

But on the other hand, and really this is honestly the only thing that interests me about the form, but it’s a big enough thing as to make for a piechunk of lifeswork, just as soon as the literary novel self-constitutes as a genre, round about 1850, it starts this grand game of diving ever deeper in only to expose the ineluctable externality of what it finds in all the grey knotted stuff. Just per Sartre’s description.

Of course this process can end up as simply a more complex version of the same crisis of bourgeois interiority that it would seem to have set out to resist.  I am flat, I am a cardboard character, there is nothing unique about me, but perhaps, given the arrival of cash or literary work or a pretty woman who truly loves me, then, only then, might I escape the fatal trap of the déjà lu and the déjà veçu etc etc. The panic that comes of a glimpse of the whateverness of the self, the fact that the ownmost is just a particularly tight inflection point of the generalized Gerede that goes around is after all, a yawp that we are long familiar with and that we know leads nowhere. See, for instance, DeLillo’s White Noise or sure anythign by Ian McEwan. But facing up to this danger might also be a risk that one has to take if one would puncture the bubble or illuminate the potentialities of the one-day open city of the self.

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July 20, 2009 at 10:16 pm

genre fiction

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Not supposed to read Amis on anything, especially not for chrissakes the “Islamic World,” but I was bored in the hospital and so I did, and found something intriguing right at the end:

As for apocalyptic Islamism, in all its forms, I cannot improve on the great Norman Cohn. This is from the 1995 foreword to Warrant for Genocide (1967), where the subject is the Tsarist fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and what Jewry calls the Shoa, or the Wind of Death:

“There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics [notably the lower clergy] for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.”

It’s interesting that Cohn (and by affirmative citation Amis) offers here a genealogy of such ideologico-political developments as Nazi anti-semitism as a sort of genre fiction – the sort of thing devised by the ill-educated who give their pathologies the run of the house, the sort of thing that the “ignorant and superstitious” devour off the bookracks of our not-so-better booksellers. The higher clergy, the sleekly educated, keep their fantasies clean and aboveboard.

Reading Bourdieu (more to come, more to come) feels a bit like taking a drug that permanently alters, as if automatically, everything that you come across in the wake of the trip. Everything take the shape of cultural class war, lumpens vs. undead aristocrats. (It’s only more interesting that the primary front of said class war is located within the individual artist herself or himself). What Amis quotes takes the same shape, but here aesthetico-politically instead of politico-aesthetically. But of course, the truth is that the high priests of these businesses design their genocides to be pablum palatable rather than gothicky and sickelven. That’s right – I’ve not read enough Bourdieu to figure out if this is boring to say, but would be interesting to examine the cast of characters of the 20th Century Horror Show in the same way that he reads the literary players of Mid-19th Century Paris.

Starts to feel like Disney itself is the missing link that keeps America all things to all people, especially those that it slaughters for spoil. No one sanitizes the dark fairy tale, the ur-stuff of fantasy fiction, like their cartoonists. As one genius knew very very well as he finished burning down the Beckton Gas Works…

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July 18, 2009 at 11:31 pm

Posted in genre

“personally, i always preferred lipton’s”

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I promised the Voice That Whispers in My Ear at Night (hereafter VinE – I mean for this post and future posts) that I would a) read for two hours then b) write not-blogposts for an hour or two. Ooops! I will make it up by posting something serious and potentially work-facilitating.

I’m the comments to my post on macroeconomic microfictions / fiction in the aggregate, Dave suggests (if I have it right) that I work from individual focus toward panoptic aggregation via a terminal wide-angle shot, one that reveals that the selfsame story is going on for a whole bunch of people at the very same time. I could do this, and will do I’m sure, but let me show you something that I think about, unreconstructed modernist that I am.

Some of you, I know, won’t like this clip, but allow it me it as it shows something relatively quickly and clearly.

(Now: if you have 15 minutes, watch the whole thing. If you have 8 minutes or so, you’ll be ok. Watch the first 8 minutes and you’ll figure out the trick if you’re paying close attention. If you only have 4 minutes, just watch the first 2 and the last 2 minutes, you’ll still get the point…)

So it’s Anthony Minghella’s 2000 version of Beckett’s 1963 Play. I happen to think it’s pretty fantastic. OK, Minghella’s bit is OK, but the play itself is head-slammingly perfect. And I actually really like the performance by the britishy superstars involved.

Let me just say it again. I absolutely love every single thing about this play. If you’re looking for me, where my heart lies aesthetically, this is a fairly good crystallization in 15 minutes. I’ll say why, I hope, in the course of writing this post and answering Dave’s comment.

Just to keep things simple, let’s talk about Minghella’s version, as it is a bit different from the scripted version of the play. And in fact, his variations speak to exactly the question that I’m trying to get at in writing this. (Oof. Right there, all of a sudden, this fell into being something that I should write for real, not for blog. Did you see that? Started sounding like someone who actually writes about drama….)

Now, Beckett / Minghella’s Play drives at the generic from two different angles, in two different ways. The first way is the Minghella addition. Those panning shots that reveal, most strikingly at the end, that we’re in some sort of place where everybody is chattering on in just the same way, perhaps about exactly the same sort of thing, except, we are led to imagine, in their own way. Same yet different. What other sort of story do we expect these other urn-dwellers would tell?

(This runs a bit far from Beckett’s script, which does call for a chorus, but it seems to be a chorus composed of the three characters – the two women and the man – themselves. They are to speak a sort of barely discernable scattershot redux of their previous language. But, no, in Beckett’s version, there are no other urns, no other urn dwellers, there is no whole world or hell of similarity in difference… Minghella’s retraction of the camera to see all these others is his own addition to the work….)

I think Minghella’s tactic actually does work, if cheaply, but works only as an underscoring of what we already should know from what we’ve seen of the three characters themselves and their words. And here is where we find the second, and ultimately more satisfying, mode of rendering the generic available here.

For it is the story itself that we’re bound up in here – this tawdry, ultimately boring story of some sort of utterly predictable love triangle, and the emotional atmospherics that are concomitant with it – that is the first and best vehicle of the genericness of the play. People, Beckett seems to say, get caught up in these things, the things spur endless amounts of chattering solipsism, we cannot stop spitefully talking about them, about ourselves, even if there is no one left to listen, nobody who would possibly stay to listen to what we have to say. The amazing false profundities on display, the cliche takeaway – Adulterers, take heed: never admit! – already tell us all we need to know, before the pan, before the wide shot, about the play’s take on the ostensible subject matter at hand.

The formal devices of the play and the stage-directions work to intensify this effect. First, and most obviously, there’s the fact that the play turns at midpoint only to repeat itself in its entirety, which brings a hellishness to bear that preempts Minghella’s setting of his film version in the place that Clov can see out the windows in Endgame. Whatever individual interest, whatever romantic frisson, is left after the first go-round is decisively killed off when we hear the same damn thing again in full. And the mode of delivery indicated by the directions (and, I think, impeccably followed by Thomas, Stevenson, and Rickman in this version,) only make things worse…. that is to say better.

Faces impassive throughout. Voices toneless except where an expression is indicated.

Rapid tempo throughout.

It’s all fast and underbreath – the voice of neurosis, or of prayer said rote in order to finish quickly and get on to something else. Thy kingdomcome, thy willbedone, on earthasitisinheaven. The impassivity of the speakers signals that the words, the words that press up for no interlocutor,  press up to be said because they, situationally, have to be said, the situation requires their saying. So florid, so ostensibly full of emotion and relevance, uttering them (and that’s what they’re doing here – uttering) undercuts them, leaves them as all too human psychopathology, the stuff you say when your mind is out of your control because you’re caught in an altogether familar situation.

Ack. I need to get to sleep! But for now, let’s just put it this way. The panning move on Minghella’s part would be worthless, a false suggestion of true genericity, if not for all the steps that Beckett’s already taken to make sure that the foregrounded stuff is what it is, is generic. The pan, the wide shot, forces the point – but one should only force (right, VinE?) what’s ready and appropriate to be forced. This is the capacity that I’m looking to develop – the widening out works, but only when there’s generic ready there for the widening. Or in fact, as with Minghella’s version, the widening shot works mostly – only – when it’s there to reindicate, to underscore, to clarify, to intensify. We can see all the other cars in the parking lot, in other words, but that only does what I want it to do once it’s clear that the foreground story is, in a sense, the story of behind all the other cars in the parking lot. I have no problem tipping my hand, but I want to be sure first that I have a hand worthy of being tipped.

Anyway, a post that is not likely to come – as it’s a part of my book that I will dutifully revise MTWTF this summer, has to do with the initial and literal announcement of the generic as the principal issue of what will become modernism at the start of Madame Bovary. This bit, and sorry for the French, but it’s untranslatable, sets it out in writing:

Nous avions l’habitude, en entrant en classe, de jeter nos casquettes par terre, afin d’avoir ensuite nos mains plus libres; il fallait, dès le seuil de la porte, les lancer sous le banc, de façon à frapper contre la muraille en faisant beaucoup de poussière; c’était là le genre.

Now remember, the word genre has a triple meaning in French. Here it’s “the way things are done,” but of course it also means literary genre. Further, it also means gender. But that’s another story altogether, he whispers to the VinE, whom he hopes is pleased that he didn’t totally fuck his night, even if he didn’t quite do what he had promised her he would….

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February 17, 2009 at 1:42 am

Posted in beckett, flaubert, generic, genre

the tailor of ulm

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Lucio Magri in the current New Left Review:

At one of the crowded meetings held in 1991 to decide whether or not to change the name of the Italian Communist Party, a comrade posed this question to Pietro Ingrao: ‘After everything that has happened and all that is now taking place, do you still believe the word “communist” can be used to describe the kind of large, democratic mass party that ours has been, and is, and which we want to renew so as to take it into government?’ Ingrao, who had already laid out in full the reasons for his dissent and proposed that an alternative course be taken, replied—not altogether in jest—with Brecht’s famous parable of the tailor of Ulm. This 16th-century German artisan had been obsessed by the idea of building a device that would allow men to fly. One day, convinced he had succeeded, he took his contraption to the Bishop and said: ‘Look, I can fly’. Challenged to prove it, the tailor launched himself into the air from the top of the church roof, and, naturally, ended up in smithereens on the paving stones below. And yet, Brecht’s poem suggests: a few centuries later men did indeed learn to fly.

I was thinking “The Tailor of Ulm” would make a bad name for a good blog, a good left group blog. I’m sniffing around for one of those, a name, by the way, so send suggestions but only if they’re really, really good. Anyway, it’s hard to knock pieces like Magri’s, as there is some value in taking ourselves yet again on a quick trip through the narrative of left high and left low and left nearly gone and landing back at “What is to be done?”

But… there is also a way, I think, that pieces like this one, that follow this same trajectory through the continued pertience of our line of thought and work but the “to be honest” poor prospects that anything presently existing could be harnessed into real work, these pieces performatively, reiteratively on some level enforce the stasis that they describe.We hear again that new histories of the immediate past, new theorizations and adaptations of the line need to be developed in tune with current conditions, we hear that there are valuable lessons in the past but that new work remains to be done to render them current, and so on. There is a way that space-filling, talking issuelessly through the gap, becomes tyrannical in itself. It has, this sort of piece, become a genre unto itself, and as such builds guiderails into the flow of ideas, has a determinative effect on future productions, comes to frame (more rigidly and effectively than one might expect – genres are very powerful) ever more constrictively the place where this ever-announced new growth would arrive. It is the fault of no one piece – this is not Magri’s problem – but en masse, these things enforce depression, tacitly instruct that the way to solve the problem is to name the problem again and again and again and again until, what, men learn to fly.

It feels like bad form to head in the “Whereof one cannot speak…” direction…. Ooof… just like that, with the Witty reference, it dawns on me I’ve written this post before. See? The nastiness of genres. They breed like the mice Magri mentions in the piece, Marx’s mice, the mice we can’t stop mentioning, anticipating, baiting… You see what happens when you duck again below the cabinets to check….

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July 15, 2008 at 9:45 am