Archive for January, 2013

We made plans for the giant cheese grater atop the Yulee Street Market. Options included the construction of a catapult made of our houses and the reboot of MC Bomb. But it put out all that cheese, not real, duh, but edible. We’d been eating hazard gates and manhole covers. Now, tummies filled with yellow disease, we considered voting.


Posted: January 25, 2013 in greater writers than me

fjordsi’ve tried several times to write about Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords, Vol. 1, but the long and short of it is that this book does just about everything you can ask a volume of prose poetry to do.

a) simple words are arranged into direct sentences, but that simplicity and directness is all on the surface. dig: “the world is as steady as if it were sewn into the skin of the universe.”  the metaphor suggests that the steadiness is painful. the sibilance underlines the metaphor. nothing is forced.

b) the poems can be enjoyed singly, but this is a definite collection. they’re best read as a volume in one sitting. then read it again in another sitting. you’ll better appreciate the plays on death, free will, and love. you’ll better feel the interconnectedness of the poems, the large themes of death, indifference, free will and love and the repeating images of trees, cats, and Paris.

c) ideas. contemporary literature rarely offers conclusions. in this work, though, conclusions are drawn and then redrawn. in “tiny castle,” we grow up and, afterward, ‘we can never again be swallowed by the enormity of something besides ourselves.” in “miner death,” the speaker is lost in a labyrinth of mines. then “you open your mouth. A bright circle of countryside is out of it.” philosophers are under pressure to resolve or explain contradictions. poets* describe their mystery.

i haven’t discussed his dry surreality. dude, just try this example.

The Donut Hawk

On a long hunt over the ridge, I finally spot the elusive hawk that is made of a donut. It is called the Donut Hawk. It has been a myth in my clan for generations, so I set out to prove its existence, and shoot at it. My first bullet goes right through its donut hole. It lifts off the ground clumsily, wet with sugary glaze, so I shoot again, killing it. When I approach it to bring its donut back to my village, I find that it is not the only donut hawk in existence, that in fact there are millions of donut hawks sleeping peacefully in a hidden valley on the other side of the ridge, each in perfect families of twelve. With my rifle, I kill one whole family. This is where donuts come from.

*include imaginative writers of all stripes, plus, at least, kierkegaard.

lispectorShortly after reading Blake Butler’s article on Clarice Lispector, I picked up The Hour of the Star, which he did not discuss. He does describe Lispector’s explorations of the dark interior, her ability to draw so much terror and plain interest from the barest scraps of material.

The Hour of the Star transforms those bare scraps, as well as numerous workshop taboos, into brilliance. The story is threadbare: Macabea will clearly die. Before she dies, we are told of her failures: she is poor, ugly, untalented, unimaginative, uneducated, and unloved. Worse, she has no idea she should be miserable.

This draws first the disgust of her narrator, a writer, a man who can “only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.” He sees her once, and from then she preys on his imagination. He is compelled to describe her life. He becomes predictably softer and kinder toward her as she nears death.

In some ways, this novel prefigures Lispector’s posthumous A Breath of Life. Butler describes that work as a dialogue between character and author. In The Hour of the Star, the narrator never speaks to his creation, only of her. The struggle to find words to capture an essentially wordless woman is the novel’s tension. Macabea wonders about words she hears on the radio. Meanwhile, the narrator can tell one anecdote after the next, yet he finds himself unable to say what he must say, perhaps because he knows Macabea’s fate is too simple, too inevitable. It cannot be made beautiful. The more he talks about her, the more he grows to admire her, and the more reluctant he becomes to have her die.

Eventually, he can be comforted only by silence. He writes only because he waits for death. This leads, interestingly, to a kind of debauched desire: “I want to be both pig and hen, then kill them and drink their blood. I think about Macabea’s vagina, minute, yet unexpectedly covered with a thick growth of black hairs—her vagina was the only vehement sign of her existence.” As ever, it is the story, but it isn’t just the story. When Lispector allows her narrator to riff and rant, her work shines brightest.

I suppose this is what I am after most in my own writing, at present. Lispector’s story exists, yes. It builds toward a climax just the way Freitag said it should build. As Forster said,  “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish it was not so, that is could be different – melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.”* I want to write fiction with the barest bone structure of a story in place, just enough to allow my mind and imagination to riff all kinds of ways, in passages that speak to and around subject, something like this: “Meanwhile the clouds are white and the sky is blue. Why is there so much God? At the expense of men.” I can feel that and wonder about that for hours.

Lispector offers the most maudlin material: a poor, doomed girl. Yet it is, like all literature, an affirmation. Unlike most literature, it has two affirmations. They are explicit. One begins and the other ends the work:

a) “Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born.”

b) “Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.”

But note the difference between the two yesses. The first involves molecules dealing with molecules, a vision of life that is beautifully worded but cold, abstract. The second is stripped of theory and speculation. It describes a life that can be lived and dreamed by anyone. In the shadow of death, berries gain value.

after all this

Posted: January 21, 2013 in but whatever

i am staggered by the number of otherwise intelligent people who are inspired by the speeches of politicans.

an appreciation

Posted: January 14, 2013 in greater writers than me

edistoMy history with Edisto is strange. In college, I quit after twenty pages. This was about the time that Padgett Powell rejected my submission, and I could not take his class. I was not above bitterness. In some cases, I am below it still. But I have read and reread this novel since then and would like now to share a few thoughts on the chapter “Doctor, Duchess, Soldier, Mother.” It suggests the construction of the novel and it warms my heart.

The chapter is a collection of anecdotes that you might call a patchwork or a younger reader (picture me in college, full of weed, hope, and stupidity) might find confusing. At least eight anecdotes make up this six-page section. All of them suggest a view of the narrator’s mother, who has four nicknames. It is perhaps not already obvious that the narrator has been confused about his mother. These anecdotes build toward a final assessment. They include: the Duchess purchasing liquor from the Baby Grand, the poor black bar; the Duchess racing her car to get her husband’s goat; the father (the Progenitor) giving him $20 as an “irregular” tooth fairy; the Doctor as still as a tree on the curve outside their home, smoking cig after cig; the soldier stealing a leatherbound edition of Horace for him; the Doctor kissing a cuckolded woman at a party in front of that woman’s husband and the cuckold himself; and the mother finding a proper husband for her son.

These are described in luscious physical detail. Here Powell is describing how both husband and wife used to run their cars ragged: “He’ll do that ratchet noise with the transmission, and the six-inch skid, and that’s all, while she’ll paint a Darlington stripe from here to Savannah.” Here the narrator sees his mother outside: “Anyway, one day during this time, I got off the bus at the hard road and just as I turned into our road one of the trees we have painted white to mark the curve moved. And smoked a cigarette. It was the Doctor, in white.”

It is the narrator’s mental dexterity and agility, captured beautifully, which tie these scenes together. Some of Powell’s techniques are simple. Comp 1 transitions move us from one anecdote to the next: “Anyway, one day during this time…”; “But I do think that’s when she became the Duchess”; “Well you can live with a Duchess easy, it’s the Doctor part can get you”; and “Also, she stole it.” They lead to a recognition of all his mother has done for him, arranging for him to meet the poor black men at the Baby Grand as well as father surrogate Taurus, finding a suitable father, and stealing that volume Horace outweigh the mom’s other craziness. Even in the kiss, he detects generosity. The theft in particular helps clarify the rest: “There are all these old books that she says will be sold for a quarter in a basement sale one day that she takes as she needs—now, not wholesale, but at need, like Indians and buffalo, which is strictly soldier. Anybody on the outside wouldn’t notice good soldiering in this, he would just see a stage mother in overdrive shoplifting, etc.” But he’s on the inside, seeing her clearly.

All this builds toward a powerful appreciation of his mother: “All through the liquor and leftovers and coroners and mendacity is this other string-pulling shadowy maneuvering of things, mostly for me” and, finally, “I realized now I sort of trusted her as the commander all along, the man in charge…” This trust, not discovered but recognized, is the boy’s real love for his mother, warts and all. People who say that sentiment has no place in fiction ought to read this passage and read this book. Sentiment is not melodrama.

Whatcha Reading, Pactor?

Posted: January 10, 2013 in greater writers than me

Don DeLillo has often bored me. Like everything baseball-related, Underworld’s long baseball passage made me drowsy. Its long ponderous stilted dialogue eventually put me to sleep. Maybe I read White Noise too late. It might have seemed fresh when it was first published, but it felt dated to me in 2004. Mao II’s opening sequence was brilliant. The rest of that book was meh. Libra was probably my favorite DeLillo novel, though I can’t remember much about it at all, and I’m afraid that what I do remember might be what I remember from a late night of History Channel drinking. The Body Artist flat stunk. People say that he is funny. Well, um, okay.

Despite all that and despite a gushing blurb by Jonathan Franzen, I read Point Omega. It has not changed my overall assessment of DeLillo’s work, but I have gained new respect for his abilities.

The novel opens with a viewing of 24 Hour Psycho, an installation at the MOMA in New York. Basically, the artist slowed down Hitchcock’s film Psycho so that you’d view it over the course of twenty-four hours. It heightens the effect of every detail in the movie.

Often the story helps us makes sense of a theme. In this novel, the theme of slowness helps us appreciate a story in which very little happens. IN the desert, time flattens out, days mix with one another, eventually everything becomes landscape. The narrator, Jim Finley, has gone there in hopes of persuading a former foreign policy advisor to go on film and discuss what happened with Iraq. But the advisor, Robert Elster, would rather talk about the desert and human drives for extinction.

His daughter Jessie soon joins them. Her mother has exiled her there because Jessie is hanging out with a shady guy. Jessie isn’t exactly happy to be there, but she is a passive type. The narrator becomes predictably, pathetically attracted to her. It does inspire some of his best writing: “She kept appearing in some inner field of vision, indistinct, like something I’d forgotten to say or do.” The metaphor suggests that desire, the haziness of the desire, the impossibility of the desire, the divorce of the desire from Jessie herself (she a “something”), and the distinction between that desire and the understanding of how to act on that desire. That’s a lot of good work for a single metaphor.

But thank God DeLillo swerves hard and away from all that. Jessie disappears. Finley and Elster presume violence. Regardless, we never hear from her again. The loss tears at Elster in a way the war never did. This is, I think, the most interesting, penetrating part of the novel, and the one that speaks to my understanding of all these intellectual chickenhawks theorizing about war and extinction and what people, which they must picture as a vast smudge of the universe waiting for their hands to guide and assemble into something coherent. That is, Elster’s supposed knowledge, even his rhetorical skill, get wiped out by the personal, singular tragic event. All those dudes talk tough, but when it goes down, they go down as hard as anybody.

But more interesting is the fact that we are all necessarily Elsters, far from war. Even those of us who think the Iraq War stunk cannot contemplate what kind of awful crap went down there. Our appreciation for the deaths of soldiers and civilians is as every bit as abstract and unhelpful as Elster’s theories. That’s why we sympathize with that schmuck.

a beautiful mess

Posted: January 3, 2013 in greater writers than me

DFW’s work has always left me uncertain. A number of individual passages are brilliant. The man’s observational power is second to none. He is basically the most influential stylist (which does not mean he is the best) of the past twenty years.

People don’t talk much about his first novel, The Broom of the System. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have footnotes. It’s still (Is this adverb necessary? Is it actually possible that people don’t find DFW interesting if his work doesn’t offer footnotes? Is it actually possible that footnotes are considered a sign of his mature work? Well, fuck me) worth reading. Much of his trademark brilliance is on display. The combination of humor and philosophical depth suggest a Bellow influence spiked with Roth. Bombardini is the greatest example. His theory about Weight Watchers is that you’re supposed to lose weight to make room for others in your life. When his wife leaves him, he flips the theory around. You should gain weight to make room for yourself. He decides to eat the universe. Beautiful.

Wallace’s great weakness as a writer (besides the annoying repetition of “really”) is that he is a Bombardini. I’m not talking about his navel-gazing tendency, which is more prevalent in other works than it is here. I mean that he tries to swallow the universe. The novel is awash in characters. Brothers and sisters and mothers abound, and while he’s great at stirring the pot, the climax doesn’t quite deliver the hot meal. At the end, a large number of these characters end up inside the Bombardini building. It’s almost Dickensian. Everybody’s yapping and Lenore, the protagonist (you see how much is going on that only now, in paragraph 3, do I get to her), sits in her chair, overwhelmed by events. So are we.

Ostensibly, Lenore is searching for her great-grandmother, also named Lenore. This second Lenore has apparently taken off with first Lenore’s father’s new secret baby-speech-enhancer-speeder-upper formula. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t mind never finding the second Lenore. But these aren’t normal circumstances. I get the sense that at this climax, Wallace himself is also exhausted. That might be why we don’t get a good sense of what actually happens to Lenore afterward.

Well, you probably shouldn’t read DFW novels for plots which are resolved. This novel, in particular, suffers from his efforts to make a resolution. Its real strengths are in the development of character and in the development of ideas. Rick Vigorous is Lenore’s boyfriend. He is maximally insecure. Over the course of the novel, he goes nuts, which is kind of predictable but pleasurable to watch. Even his dreams are cool, and I am a reader who despises dreams. Here’s a fragment of one:

“Lang and I are in my office, in our respective chairs, the translation between us. We are both mysteriously and troublingly nude. It is noon; the shadow is moving. I look down and cover myself with a tea bag, but there is Lenore on the back of the final page of “Love.” It is a stunning, lifelike drawing of an unclothed Lenore. I begin to have an erection behind my tea bag. Lang’s pen is in the shape of a beer bottle; Lang sucks at the pen, periodically. Lenore is there on the page, on her back, a Vargas girl, a V. Lang puts his initials in the side of Lenore’s long, curving leg: a deep, wicked W.D.L.”

The tea bag suggests Wallace’s ability to find just the right suggestive hilarious detail. The dream itself, especially the full dream, tells us everything we need to know about Vigorous’s character.

Idea-wise, Lenore’s family, second Lenore in particular, has screwed up Lenore’s head with words. The meanings and uses of words become important in a variety of ways, as one character after the next tries to find a “thing” (an object or mannerism) which will help them connect to or at least place themselves in the world. All these things are, ways of breaking windows or piercing membranes. Yes, it’s sexual, and yes, it’s Freudian. The “thing” allows you to operate correctly within the human-world system. Your place as a person in relation to other persons is thusly defined.

But which is the more important part of the human system: you or all the others? Wallace plays around with that question throughout the novel, most entertainingly in the phone line fiasco, in which Vigorous’ office receives calls for mechanics and S&M clubs, among others.

This book, like all big books of ambition, is a beautiful mess.