I got a copy of “Bottom’s Dream” on the secondhand market; Dalkey Archives sold out ages ago. The book got a print run of 2.500. My copy was still in shrink-wrap, unopened. No one had read it. I once remember reading a review of Morton Feldman’s “Second String Quartet” which was released in a quantity of 3,000. While the reviewer compared it to “locking people out of museums”, there’s also a tacit acknowledgement that there may not have been more than 3,000 people who wanted to listen to a four hour or so string quartet in which very little actually happens. The same may be true for a 1,400 page novel translated from German in which very little apparently happens. I don’t know. It’s still sitting on the bottom shelf of my bookcase, periodically mocking me as I walk by.
One of the things that everyone mentions about “Bottom’s Dream” is that it contains a lot of references to Edgar Allan Poe. They specifically mention that “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” figures into the first part of the book, and since I plan to read it someday, I figured I’d revisit some Poe.
I probably hadn’t read any Poe since the 8th grade or so; he occupies a strange place in ‘literature as it’s taught to people’; his life, notably his poverty and alcoholism are frequently emphasized, his work as a literary critic and his work outside the ‘mystery’ or ‘horror’ genres ignored, and the context in which his work existed glossed over in favor of the more shocking elements of his stories. It works, kinda; there’s no doubt that anyone who takes a couple of English classes in college is made aware of his influence and as an inventor of genres (more like a distiller rather than an inventor, but I only have so much time, and this is a blog, not a thesis). At some point you’ll end up reading a few of his short stories in high school or a lit 101 class, and if your friends are huge prog nerds, one of them will try and convince you that the Alan Parson’s Project’s album based on his works is a classic. They are mistaken.
“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” is cited as an influence on Melville and H.P. Lovecraft. The Shuggoths of “At The Mountains of Madness” cry “Tekeli-li!” which is a direct lift from Poe’s only novel. I can certainly see the Melville comparisons, but influence is a funny thing. The German weirdo composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who once wrote a string quartet to be played in helicopters, is an influence on Pink Floyd. I like both of them, but the reaction of a lot of Pink Floyd fans to a recording of “Gruppen” is likely a request for it to be shut off.
So, this influential work that is apparently almost required reading to prepare for a reading of “Bottom’s Dream”? I hated it. This may be one of the books I have actually finished that I hated as much as I did. I wanted to like it— it’s got cannibalism, adventure on the high seas, and an abrupt, weird ending like Poe decided “well, fuck this” and went back to writing poetry. There’s a lengthy section about curing sea cucumbers. It’s not helped along by Poe’s flowery writing, which has always grated on my nerves— his stories always seem longer to me than they actually are because of it. Here, it serves to make some parts nearly interminable. Here’s the narrator describing being excited when a passing ship rescues them:
“Shortly afterward an incident occurred which I am induced to look upon as more intensely productive of emotion, as far more replete with the extremes first of delight and then of horror, than even any of the thousand chances which afterward befell me in nine long years, crowded with events of the most startling, and, in many cases, of the most unconceived and unconceivable character.”
The whole thing is like that. I’m certain for some readers this is a good thing, for me it’s like being trapped in a corner at a party by someone who won’t shut up and get to the point. The interesting and gory bits of the book get swallowed up in heaving masses of words, and some of it feels a little like padding to bring the thing up to length. Poe famously called it “a very silly book”. I don’t think it’s a silly book; just an overwritten one.
There’s a lot of literature out there. I used to slog my way through any book I started, hoping it would click or that I’d learn to like it; I don’t know at what point I figured out that you could not finish a thing and it would be just fine, but eventually I did. I finished this partially because it’s comparatively short (250 or so pages), and because of the whole “Bottom’s Dream” thing. I once read Peter Hook’s awful memoir of his days in Joy Division because I like Joy Division a lot. However, I haven’t even started “Bottom’s Dream” and while I still listen to Joy Division, leaning that their bassist is a huge dumbass is of questionable value.
Not unlike Poe’s novel, I’m having trouble sticking the landing here. This blog exists as a way of sharing my thoughts on a largely solitary hobby, and sifting through the detritus in my brain that forms as a result of it. Some things don’t have tidy endings, and that’s fine, as long as the walk is an interesting one.