Thursday, July 7, 2011

Andrei Codrescu Is Up to Something...

But I'm not sure what it is. His last three books have all been very different, but they seem to be congealing into or contributing to some grander project. Whatever it is, Codrescu is writing from a completely unique space, mixing genres, styles, and voices like a DJ winning a bet about his/her eclectic vinyl collection. He's found a spot between fiction and non-fiction, between narrative and philosophy, between something you sort of recognize as having experienced in other books and something you're pretty sure you've never seen before. In The Post-Human Dada Guide, The Poetry Lesson, and Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments, Codrescu is up to something. Yeah. Something.

Oddly enough, Post-Human Dada Guide is the most traditional of the three works. It is a work of philosophy or cultural studies that, are you ready for this, explores the idea of the “post-human” through the lens of Dada, the early 20th Century, though-it's-not-quite-right-is-quite-a-bit -easier-to-say, sort of Surrealist art, literature, philosophy, and life movement, while imagining a hypothetical chess game between Dada founder Tristan Tzara and, well, Lenin, THE Lenin. And it does what a work of philosophy does. It has endnotes in Codrescu's conversational style (not really the conversational style most use, but this guy's brilliant so, technically, it's probably how he converses), and a glossary, and if you've read any of the late 20th Century French philosophers, an acceptable prose style. The concepts are complex and the images imaginative, but it's a work of philosophy, and, even if philosophy isn't really your thing, you at least know how to interact with it.

But Whatever Gets You Through the Night, is different. It opens with a series of epigraphs, some of which seem like the kind of results that slip through Google filters and others are cited as coming from articles “published” in 2012. From there the book is a kind of mash-up of cultural studies and fiction. Codrescu retells the beginning of the 1001 Nights, footnoting the text to provide context as he goes along. However, quite often, the footnotes contain as much fantasy as the story itself, and many passages in the story veer into the style and content of criticism. Codrescu's style is like a cup of coffee in which milk has been stirred; you know the cup contains coffee and milk, but you can no longer see the boundary between them. Whatever Gets You Through the Night has both story telling and criticism, but they're woven together so tightly, it is often impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. One then has to ask, what's the difference?

And yet, The Poetry Lesson might be the strangest of the three works. At least you can call Whatever Gets You Through the Night a novel, and shelve it in fiction (given that few bookstores and libraries have shelves for Free Range Meditations on the Action and Purpose of Sheherezade). The Poetry Lesson though is written in the tone and style of a memoir, claiming to be an account of the first day of a poetry class given by Codrescu. However, it is clear that the students in the class are characters and though they might have some connection to actual students Codrescu has taught, they are almost entirely fiction.

Once you realize the students are “fiction” the walls between non-fiction and fiction start to crumble. What does that do to the events in the book? Is there a distinction between fictional characters that are amalgams of real people and fiction characters that aren't? What does it mean for the thoughts Codrescu has and the statements he makes in the books? But at the same time, it doesn't have the distance and images of fiction. You know its not a memoir, but it feels like one.

I wrote about The Poetry Lesson for The Millions and the best conclusion that I came up with for getting a handle on what the book is, is to simply believe the title. It is not a novel, an essay, a memoir, a work of criticism, a statement of aesthetic purpose, or an ars poetica; it is a poetry lesson. It just happens to have an unusual pedagogy.

Taken together, the three books seem to be leading somewhere. The blending of genres, the intellectual depth, the exploration of storytelling; Codrescu seems to be wrestling with some of the questions of form and style raised by modernism and experimented on through post-modernism, but in a tone that is neither ponderous with severity nor dismissive with irony. He seems to approach the questions of genre and category as either already answered by earlier border busting works, or not important enough to be bothered with. And this is before grappling with the actual ideas in the books.

Codrescu is up to something and it might be even simpler than it at first appears. There are a lot of different ways to understand the drive for creating fiction. In a sense though, it's about constructing ways to say interesting things. One of my favorite things about reading is encountering sentences and statements that would be absolutely ridiculous if said out loud in conversation, but are absolutely brilliant within the structure of the work. The characters and events of fiction allow the writer to say interesting things that can't be said in regular communication. It might just be that Codrescu had interesting things to say and these books were the structures he developed that allowed those interesting statements.


  1. This is all more than just a little strange.

    After reading to my kids and tucking them in to sleep I came downstairs to begin writing an introduction for a reading Andrei Codrescu will give at 10 Middle St in Gloucester (a few blocks away from me) on Thursday night 25Aug11. I made some notes on themes and anecdotes; then I set about making sure to get a few facts straight. At Andrei's website I found a link to your blog.

    I'm sure your aware that he quite likes your post.

    I smirked at the coincidence that two Cooks were thinking about and writing about Codrescu this summer. So the coincidences began with our shared surname.

    Then after I arrived at your site I made note of our common interests...and the more I read the more the common ground grew.

    I read your posts on Tek's art & the trade deadline (What do you think about Bedard?) hours after listening to the Sox on WEEI while working on curriculum for September.

    I read your post involving Under the Volcano a day after getting word that Polis, the litmag I co-edit, is on its way from the printer . The subtitle of this issue is "Este Jardin" (taken, of course, from UtV).

    I read your post on "What went wrong in American Food?" a few days after discussing The Omnivore's Dilemma with students at Gloucester High School in a summer seminar. (I've also been working my way through the "slow food" canon this summer.)

    Though I tend to read more contemporary poetry than prose my taste in prose tends toward the experimental. (I wrote down several names of people I haven't read mixed in with writers I have. Aside: Have you read Tres Tristes Tigres by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (the English trans. is Three Trapped Tigers) or Larva by Julian Rios (in trans.)?)

    & politically there's plenty that jibes too.

    (Finally, geographically speaking, judging from references to Porter & Davis Squares, you're not far from Cambridge Rindge and Latin where I did my student teaching & Tufts where I got my Masters & Highland Ave off of which my brother lives...etc.)

    All of this pushed me out of my lurking anonymity into making contact. Thank you for the stimulating reading, especially on contemporary fiction.

    all the best,
    James Cook

  2. Mr. Cook,

    I guess we'll let the Internet live for now. (A pitcher that helps the Sox to the post-season while keeping Beckett and Lester fresh is a good move, and they got Bedard at a reasonable price.)

    Is Codrescu speaking about Whatever Gets You Through the Night or something more general? I work at Porter Square Books and actually did an interview with him for the store's blog. He's one of the most interesting people thinking at the moment. I wish I could make it, but I work in the evening and Gloucester is a bit of a hike without a car. Don't know if he'll remember the interview, but, if in the course of introducing you get a chance to chat with him, give him my regards.

    I haven't read Larva, but I have read The House of Ulysses, which is a quality read, especially if you enjoyed Joyce's Ulysses. (I reviewed it on and I'll definitely check out The Three Trapped Tigers. Good chance it's right up my alley.

    Intellectual connection phase 2: it's funny you bring up contemporary poetry, because I actually review poetry for I'm reading Noah Eli Gordon's The Source right now (which reminds me of Baurdrillard's Cool Memories series) and am a huge fan of Paul Guest, Brian Turner, Karyna McGlynn, Kevin Young...

    Send me a link to your lit mag. Is it print or online only? Regardless, I'd love to take a look at it.

    You write what's in your head and send it out in the world and hope. Thanks for connecting with me. Hope to hear more from you soon.


  3. Mr. Cook,
    The title of Codrescu's talk is "Teaching Olson in Baton Rouge" but my guess is he'll talk about more than that. If I get the chance I'll deliver your regards. Based on the note on his website I'm all but certain he'll remember you.

    Thank you for the Rios recommendation. I'll check out the review. As for Joyce's Ulysses it is likely for me the last and most lasting *formative* literary influence. (I reread, at least several chapters, yearly.)

    How is Noah's book? I knew him when he lived in the area and had the pleasure to hear him read several times. *The Frequencies* is the book of his that I've read though I read his work whenever I come across it in journals. Of the other poets you mention I'm only familiar with Kevin Young. I'll track down work by the others. Most recently I've read *The Flood & the Garden* by Dale Smith and David Rich's chapbook "Arshile Gorky".

    The mag's online presence such as it is can be found at this address The site there is maintained by co-editor Zachary Martin in San Francisco. Soon I'll be writing a biweekly column there. The mag itself comes only in a printed form. When it arrives from SF I could send along a copy (you could email me your address at or I could hand deliver on one of my trips "up the line," as we say in Gloucester.