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The Beetle Leg - John Hawkes

I am an uncontrolled variable.

The text, in this case The Beetle Leg, is the independent variable.

My reaction, or yours, or anyone else’s would be the dependent variable.

With this experimental novel, one might (I was) tempted to say that the experiment failed, but experiments don’t fail—they produce unexpected results, or results unhoped for.


I did not enjoy this one. Not at all. Not one little bit. I’ve looked over at my unfinished copy. For more than a week. 10 pages to the end, and I just don’t care enough to pick it up and finish it. For me it is unsalvageable. Hawkes’ experiment has gone awry. So pared down as to barely constitute a novel at all. The language doesn’t excite or move. Threads of story don’t congeal. Plot has run amok (and not in a good way). I’m irritated, enough, and frustrated, enough, to not even much care about badmouthing it.


Suppose a director made a movie (or a film, for those who care about such distinctions). Now further suppose, rather than making a trailer for the promotion of said movie/film, he or she made several trailers. Then suppose, for some unknowable reason, the director took those individual trailers, sequenced them end-to-end, then bookended them with mini-scenes involving two of the characters, who in no ways dominate the film as either protagonist or antagonist. In a final outrage, the director then decided the trailers and mini-scenes worked best as the movie/film, and that version would be the only commercially released manifestation. Voila, The Beetle Leg.

Reading this has come too hot on the heels of bad experiences with The Master and Margarita and The Tetherballs of Bougainville. I’ve been lucky. I’m unaccustomed to so much dissatisfaction coming so closely together. Others, others whose opinions I regard highly, have rated all three of them highly and write wonderfully extolling those novels’ better aspects. I can’t find an aspect of TBL to praise (well, beyond its brevity, and that’s kinda bullshit, and we all know it.)

Some reviewers have commented on TBL’s similarity to the writing of Cormac McCarthy. I’m not exactly buying it. I can see why others find those similarities—the novel’s dark tone, characters one wouldn’t want to know and find troubling to identify with, rural locations seemingly filled with rubes, grizzly gruesomeness, etc. But the dirty realism strand of minimalism the two authors share is not inherited one from the other, rather what is used occasionally by the one (McCarthy) seems to be part and parcel of the other (Hawkes), at least in TBL. I’m unaware of anything so open-ended, so vague, with the possible exception of the end of Cities of the Plain, so devoid of coherence.

Usually, after finishing a novel, I like going back through it, looking at passages I’ve liked and highlighted, or words I’ve had to look up, or notes, or burn holes (damned exploding seeds!), but in TBL, I only marked two passages, and those because the one iterated the other with a slight modification. I’ll share:

Trim no trees of vines when the Moon or Earth is in Leo. For they will surely die.
He stopped reading and marked his place, and began to talk.

It is a lawless country. (p. 7)

The Sheriff scowled into the magic page. ”Trim no trees or vines when the Moon or Earth is in Leo. For they will surely die.” He stopped reading, marked his place, and began to talk.

It is a lawless country. (p. 46)

It is almost as if Hawkes foreshadows his own novel’s lawless abandon of story ( sjuzhet) leaving only plot (fabula), which can’t be abandoned whether the author chooses to or not, while at the same time, overestimating the ‘magic’ of his pages.

Occasionally while reading TBL, I’d hit a passage that made little sense, actually it happened frequently, but when forced to slow down, slow down and reread, the passage would yield logic when finding the right emphasis—you have to pay attention. But in the end, the paying of attention, for me, didn’t make the reading worthwhile. Alas, another for my Ugh shelf—another joining the ranks of TM&M, TToB, On the Road (another mind-number), and other titles many have loved, but I’ve found wanting.

Three stars, barely.