Barthes, Simpsoned

GLYPH | By PERCIVAL EVERETT | Graywolf | 208 pages | $23 hardcover

FIVE SHOTS AND A FUNERAL | By TOM FASSBENDER and JIM PASCOE | Ugly Town | 277 pages | $7 paperback

MANIFESTO FOR THE DEAD | By DOMENIC STANSBERRY | The Permanent Press | 182 pages | $22 hardcover

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP. THE PERNICIOUS GLOBAL corporate techno-plutocracy failed to self-destruct as scheduled, but on the bright side, Percival Everett's Glyph is still available at your local independent bookseller. If only one novel of Glyph's wit and intelligence is written in Los Angeles every year -- which is a fairly safe bet, given that Everett, who teaches at USC, has written 13 books in the last 17 years -- this new millennium may just prove itself bearable.

In the tradition of Nabokov's academic satires and, perhaps more immediately, Don DeLillo's unsung masterwork Ratner's Star, Glyph takes on not just the vulgarities of recent fashions in academia, but the enduring philosophical questions of language and its relation to knowledge, the self and the world. It is also a very funny novel.

Glyph is narrated by 4-year-old Ralph Townsend, looking back on the adventures of his early infancy. It's the late 1960s, and poststructuralist literary theory is just beginning to take hold in the American academy. While his literature-professor dad and painter mom worry about Ralph's alarming failure to speak even a simple syllable, the kid, from his crib, has developed a working knowledge of the English language. His "poststructuralist pretender" of a father, whom he nicknames Inflato ("He was not a fat man, but he was bloated"), continues to think that Ralph is retarded until long after he writes his mom a note on the sheet of his crib: "why should ralph speak . . . lips look ugly to ralph when they are moving ralph needs books in his crib ralph does not wish to rely on the moving lips for knowledge ralph does not like peas."

The first book she gives him, notably, is Wittgenstein's Tractatus. He thereafter devours more philosophy, as well as great quantities of literature, history and magazines. Inflato finally cottons onto his son's talent and insists they have him looked at by a specialist, who turns out to be the evil Dr. Steimmel. Thus begin Ralph's adventures: Steimmel (who calls the baby "that shit machine") kidnaps him, planning "to uncover the secrets of language acquisition and the mechanism of meaning by cutting open [his] brain"; the military fancies him a potential secret weapon in its Cold War arsenal; a Catholic priest thinks he's possessed. The ever-silent Ralph remains gloriously levelheaded: "They thought I was a genius and this I found laughable. I reserved that designation for someone who could drive a car or at least hold his shit."

But the sections of Glyph that advance character and plot make up barely half the book's bulk. Most of the novel -- which, mimicking pomo pretensions, is broken up into eight lettered sections that are, in turn, broken up into fragments, some only a sentence long, with titles like "ootheca," "ens realissimum" and "libidinal economy" -- consists of meditations on language, literature and philosophy that are often hilarious, frequently nonsensical and occasionally wise. It is also interspersed with Ralph's anatomically themed poems (from "The Hyoid Bone": "Arch of bone,/greater cornu, reaching,/reaching, stretching/above the lesser"); frequent footnoted asides; invented correspondence between Wittgenstein and Russell; bits of doggerel verse; conversations between Aristophanes and Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others; lists, usually alliterative, of apparently unrelated words; single sentences in French, Latin or code; and the occasional short story about piglets.

Everett's target, through much of this, is the French literary theory of the '60s and '70s still popular in stateside lit departments today, which dislodges a single, unitary meaning from literary texts in favor of infinite, and infinitely shifting, readings. While Derrida and Lacan are subjected to brief turns at the whipping post (baby Ralph dismisses Of Grammatology as "a sick discussion at best" and contemplates Lacan while sitting on the potty), â Everett takes particular pleasure in flogging Barthes, who appears as a character in the novel, speaking incomprehensibly, stealing Inflato's grad-student mistress and getting kicked in the balls by Ralph's mom. It was Barthes who notoriously declared the author dead, an announcement that seems to have rankled the prolific, apparently living Everett.

Glyph is thus, in part, a sustained effort to reassert some authorial prerogatives. "I, personally," Ralph tells us, "do not adhere to the logical necessity of many or even one extra interpretation or decoding of a given story." Elsewhere he warns the potential deconstructionist, echoing Twain's famously unsuccessful author's note to Huckleberry Finn, that "attempts at filling in my articulatory gaps with a kind of subtext, though it might prove an amusing exercise, will uncover nothing." Everett even articulates a brief literary theory of his own ("Ralph's Theory of Fictive Space"), which is mainly valuable for its parody of the early Wittgenstein's axiomatic style. But if it doesn't quite stand up as literary theory, and if even as a novel it's got some holes in it, I suspect it will be some months before I have to stop saying that Glyph is the smartest and funniest novel I've read this century.  

BY WAY OF CONTRAST COMES FIVE SHOTS and a Funeral, a dull and cynical little book of poorly plotted, loosely interconnected mystery tales following the adventures of an almost preternaturally clichéd private eye. Dashiell Loveless is good with his fists, drives a powder-blue 1966 Galaxie 500 and keeps a bottle of Old Grand-Dad in his bottom drawer, but prefers to drink it while warming a stool at the H.M.S. Pandora (a not-too-subtle stand-in for L.A.'s own hipster hangout, the H.M.S. Bounty). Sound familiar? That's because this is not merely cliché; it's name-brand-dropping retro fun, and the fact that it's equally facile and dumb only makes it a better example of one of postmodernity's more worrisome and reactionary trends. In the old days, they left nostalgia for the old folks.

Five Shots was penned by Tom Fassbender and Jim Pascoe, who are also the founders of Ugly Town Productions, not just the book's publisher but -- so their publicity material claims -- a "creative idea house" specializing in "exciting written content." Perhaps it's because they imagine writing to be a simple question of content production (to be accompanied, of course, by slick retro packaging) that even the most devoted cigar-sucking, swing-dancing, vintage Ford Fairlane­driving fools will have a hard time finishing these stories.

NOT TO WORRY. THERE IS PLENTY OF LIFE yet in the mystery genre, despite Fassbender and Pascoe's resolute attempt to drain it. So proves Domenic Stansberry with his haunting Manifesto for the Dead. Stansberry's protagonist is aging crime novelist Jim Thompson at the end of his career in 1971. Booze, age and despair have rendered him so decrepit that the whores on Hollywood Boulevard mock him as he passes. The book begins with Thompson sitting at the bar at Musso's one afternoon, listening to a whisper from the bottom of his whiskey glass: "You're at the bottom of the pit, Jimmy . . . I can smell you decomposing."

But within minutes he bumps into Billy Miracle, a nickel-and-dime producer on the make who is shopping a screenplay about a love triangle and a killer that ends with "everyone get[ting] fucked." He wants Thompson to write a book based on the screenplay ("I'm thinking, if we have book interest, we can get movie interest too"), but can provide neither money nor the screenplay upfront. Thompson, desperate for work, takes the job.

A few mornings later he receives a visit from a nervous Okie looking for a man named Sydney Wicks. The Okie has the wrong address, and when a cop car cruises by, he turns and runs, leaving his car keys behind. Thompson finds the body of a young woman, apparently strangled, in the car's trunk. Drunk already, and suffering tremors "as if the world were tearing apart, the light disintegrating into the dark," Thompson is "overcome with an inexplicable guilt, as if he were the one responsible for the girl's death." He hides the car in a remote spot in the hills. Later that day, after ironing the deal out with Miracle back at Musso's, Thompson feels "the foreboding again, a trap about to spring. Planets misaligning, stars falling out of the sky."

His instincts are not wrong. Within a few chapters, Thompson wakes up, on the lawn of a Beverly Hills mansion, with no memories of the previous evening. The mansion turns out to belong to the big-shot producer who was supposedly backing Miracle's film project. And the big-shot producer turns out to have been beaten to death the night before. Thompson is set to take the fall, and his life is beginning to suspiciously parallel the plot of the book he's writing.

Despite its use of a historical figure as a character and its book-within-a-book structure, Manifesto for the Dead is for the most part a conservative noir. It has a booze-soaked antihero, plenty of testosterone and violence, a tight link between sex and death, all set in a nightmarishly decaying cityscape. Of Hollywood Boulevard he writes: "Darkness had descended, but the city was lit up, hazy as could be. The sky overhead was gray-black, smudged with yellow. Some drunks nearby hollered like animals . . . A woman sat on the corner, coughing blood." L.A. is "one long town with one long street. Stucco houses under a white sun that spun around other suns in a galaxy inside a universe black as black could be."  

But Stansberry is not content with a this-worldly tale of suspense. He buries a sense of cosmic foreboding in nearly every line. Through a poetics of menace that at times takes on a positively hallucina- tory beauty, Stansberry exposes the Manichaean heart of noir. Thompson waits for a phone call from the mysterious Sydney Wicks in an East Hollywood bar: "It was a long time before the phone rang again. An eon. Three eons. The sun collapsed and was born again and every living thing turned to dust. Then it started all over, the creatures creeping up out of the big nothing, tigers with fish gills, birds with snake eyes, the whole ugly business. The jungle roared and squealed. The freeway thundered." There is not just emptiness and evil in the world; the world is evil and it is empty. And it is apparently collapsing. Another good omen for the millennium to come.

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