Pieces of

Albert Goldbarth
(Graywolf Press)
If you are into dyads, circles, rings, Moby-Dick, breasts, Niels Bohr, glass wands, Max Planck, counterpoint, the two-world theory, Samuel Pepys, cancer, Dickens, Latin canticles, amputation, Montaigne, bifurcations, geishas, early science fiction, early comic books, Jack London, dogs that find their way home to their masters over many a mile, your lost wedding ring turning up in fish you are about to eat, puns ("pane" "pain" "Payne"), and

    the scintillant drizzle of stars across the night sky, and the whale, and the werewolf, and the snick of a key unlocking a door at a cheap motel along I-35...

In other words, if you seek a novel that fools around all over the place, has footnotes that may or may not be important, is jammed with clever (and sometimes very funny) references to science and literature and history and other cultures, other ages, other worlds; a novel which may not even be a novel, one that, whatever it is, can, at times, find just the right phrase to make chills up your back: then Pieces of Payne will be your cup of tea.

We've seen its like before --- Pynchon, Rushdie, Naipaul, Coetzee, Desai, Atwood, Byron, Ghosh --- trying to ding our minds with all those tricks, puns, involutions, double anagrams. Some do it like masters --- see "Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster." On the other hand, some just make a show-off mess of it.

Goldbarth? I suspect he pulls it off, but I may have been in a pull-my-leg mood, and may have to re-read Pieces of Payne when I am feeling crappy just to make sure.

And if I have to go through it again, I won't mind so doing, because this kind of writing is a fun-house, a very literary döppelganger, a writer's writing for literary types like you and me.

§     §     §

The story line, if this funhouse of literary nooks and crannies can be said to have a story line, is Eliza Phillips, daughter of Dr. Randolph Phillips. She is an astronomer, was once married to a Russian astronomer named Jay Gaposchkin. She is having a few drinks with someone named Albert who may or may not be Goldbarth the author, who, indeed, may be another persona entirely, maybe John Barth or John Gold or Albert Finney or Jay Gould.

Eliza's father does mastectomies. She teaches high-school science. The dyad, her mirror self, is one Cecilia Payne, who was born in England and fell in love with the stars around the turn of the century, before they even had women astronomers. Payne's life's story turns up, mostly in the footnotes of Pieces of Payne.

Get it? Footnotes. Pieces of Pain, Payne, Pane.

There are fifty footnotes. What are we to make of them? Is this a scientific treatise or what? At times they remind us of Will Cuppy who wrote a story where the footnotes got entangled in argument with the main text, ending with insults all around.

Here the footnotes, according to the author, can be read with the main text, or saved for dessert and read all at once. I did the back and forth routine, which nicely breaks up the story line, distracts one so one loses one's place --- which I am prone to do, because of having to keep my fingers here and there in the pages, all the while keeping notes in the back of the book (another finger) --- finding, at times, that the notes seem to have little or nothing to do with the text, but then again, if you stick with it, you find they will, further on down the line, if you catch all the references, if you have patience. Like,

    [T]he great violinist Fritz Kreisler ... confessed in February of 1935 that he had been playing his own compositions for thirty years, but ascribing them to such early masters as Vivaldi, Couperin, Porpora, Pugnani and Padre Martini.

Padre Martini!

§     §     §

There are times reading the text where one is swept up by the sheer wonder of narrative. For instance this from Moby-Dick, a passage I certainly didn't remember having read in college, and which the author, being such a gamester, may well have made up whole-cloth; but in any event, this rather extended passage will give you the taste of his style, all those parenthesis and asides aimed at us, so we are all wandering about in a devil-may-care fashion, which may make the book infuriating to some, enchanting to others --- turning the actual text into a footnote to the footnotes, before he sends us running off to look at the next footnote, the subject of which may possibly turn up soon, if he chooses to bring it up again, as he does here with Moby-Dick.

He calls the book (Melville's, not his own) "a manual on slitting part from part --- of ship from shore and leg from torso:"

    We must see, too, that the novel acts as a treatise (or let's say "manual" again, meant with an etymological literalness, since I'll quote soon from the chapter "A Squeeze of the Hand") on things become whole, becoming mended. (After all, from the point of view of the ocean, a ship going down is not a loss, but a returning.) At one point, Ishmael serves in the circle of men who stand about the tub of decanted, cooling, and (due to the cooling) somewhat lumps-ridden spermaceti. "It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid ... my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentize and spiralize."

    Into this sweet, ultra-absorptive and all-equalizing cetacean honey, Ishmael's consciousness dives, dissolves. "As I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour ... I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, or any sort whatsoever. I squeezed that sperm till I almost melted into it ... and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Oh! my dear fellowing beings ... let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness ... In thoughts and visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti...

If nothing else, with quotes like these, we can love Goldbarth for making interconnections with those points of literature that we literary sorts may have forgotten.

If there is a failing to Pieces of Payne, it is that the writer cannot leave it alone. He gets so infatuated with these circles and rounds and links and "I am of two minds" that they slop over the footnotes and on into the "Afterword," somehow dragging in 9/11 and Ground Zero and 3,000 lives lost and the "parfait, stew bone, olla podrida, confetti-strewn, ragtag, haggis-and-ragout simultaneity-universe." Let it be, we think, singing John Lennon, singing about these "grimly circling questions" which, at times, turn grim at the end of this merry-go-round when they should be merely merry.

But Goldbarth has heart, and sometimes he can turn a phrase that wins our hearts, moistens the eyes. This, on Cecilia Payne's last days:

    She played the violin (Saint Cecilia is patroness of musicians.) "My father began my musical education when I was two weeks old." At eight, an Albert Hall performance of the Messia swept her to tears. As a student at Cambridge, she conducted an award-winning choir. She founded the Observatory Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted its premier concert. She hummed. She scanned the sky all night and kept the stars from falling asleep by serenading them with The British Grenadiers and The Galway Piper. They may have sung back to her in return. And when the cancer had finally made a lacy interior shroud of her lungs .... when she could no longer speak ... her children "brought music, the Messiah and Mozart's Magic Flute." A beatific look came across her face as the first strains of that soft music reached her ears from the tiny speaker placed on her pillow. The following morning she died in her sleep.

It's up and down, this one, but mostly up. And just to be sure you are minding your p's and q's, in a hundred or so "Acknowledgments" at the end of the book, the author sneaks in Goldbarth, Albert: "Introduction" (for The Measured Word, ed. Kurt Brown) and --- between Panek, Richard and Pepys, Samuel --- there's Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia: The Dyer's Hand: An Autobiography (edited by Katherine Haramundanis).

As my mumsie would say when I tried to put something over on her, "You old sly-boots."

--- Lolita Lark

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