Archive | July, 2012

Reading: Durant, O’Neill, Mitchell.

29 Jul

1.

I’ve been dipping into Will and Ariel Durant’s Interpretations of Life, Will’s take on 20th century fiction writers he admires. It’s great. He’s a very fine writer and researcher, engaged in the kind of grand synthesizing history that few of our contemporary historians attempt. (The couple’s History of Civilization, compulsively readable and erudite runs to two or so bookshelves. The only other writers I can think of who worked on this scale are John Gunther, Theodore White, Edward Gibbon, and, perhaps, Jared Diamond.) He wrote, Ariel edited, and together they formed an unparalleled publishing dynamo. Lessons Learned From History, a tiny little book, should be required high school reading.

Will and Ariel Durant, the great husband and wife writing team.

Durant’s take on literature is humble, insightful, rigorous and conservative. His insights can be at times kind of silly. He criticizes some writers for course language while praising their realistic depiction of real people, he has strange standards for style, and he favors the canonical. For instance, he passes over Dos Passos for Faulkner and Hemingway, Graham Greene for Steinbeck. He has this to say Of Human Bondage, one of the great novels of the 20th century: “The book is not high literature; it does not hold attention through depth of thought, nobility of feeling, or excellence of style; it is, however, a faithful and unpretentious record of a soul’s development.” All of which is (strange) nonsense; Durant is exactly wrong. Bondage describes with precise, moving language the story of a young orphan becoming a man, through his perceptions and thoughts and feelings. The boy grapples with art, religion, love, hardship, society, success, and failure, coming to a hard-won, secular morality. His struggles are depicted with such a big-hearted humanity—even if Maugham in his personal life was a rapacious ass–if it doesn’t possess nobility of spirit, I don’t know what does. The style of the novel is a perfect example of the old adage: easy reading often masks damn hard writing.

Anyway, his essay on Eugene O’Neill is the best in the book. He loves O’Neill, and gives an exemplary account of his life and works. Here Durant describes O’Neill’s time in the bowery: “His favorite resort was a tavern popularly known as the Hell Hole . . . . He liked the inebriated philosophers who meditated there, and who in their cups revealed the secrets of their lives; these men, he said later, were the best friends he had ever had.”

Eugene O’Neill: Portrait of an unhappy man.

O’Neill used these railbirds and hustlers, castaways and drunks, prostitutes and pimps, rogues and rapscallions as the basis for the cast of his second best play, The Iceman Cometh. (I wrote about the film version here.) Iceman is a powerful, if at times punishing experience, but the denizens of the bowery dive come to life. You can feel the lives of these desperate people.

2.

I love when my reading dovetails. Here Durant, O’Neil and Joseph Mitchell sort of fit together like a puzzle. I just finished my second pass through Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Mitchell’s writing.

Joseph Mitchell was a staff writer for The New Yorker for some 30 years, filing story after story about the rough and tumble eccentrics and drunks who occupied the Bowery area of mid-century New York. He loved drunks, saloonkeepers, weirdos, visionaries, hustlers, the stinking homeless, the destitute, the outcasts, the outlaws—the same characters O’Neil writes about in Iceman. No one has tried, but there’s probably some overlap in the people they wrote about. Mitchell visited the same places, just 20 years later.

Mitchell is an unparalleled stylist, a journalist-poet with one foot in the gutter. His profiles of bar people rank among the best of America’s writing, witty, humane, elegant, insightful—a view into a disappeared world. He makes journalism, and writing, look easy. Here he is describing a regular named Eddie Guest in his collection, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon: “Eddie Guest is a gloomy, defeated, ex-Greenwich Village poet who has been around the Bowery off and on for eight or nine years. He mutters poetry to himself constantly and is taken to Bellevue for observation once a year. He carries all his possessions in a greasy beach bag and sleeps in flophouses, never staying in one two nights in succession, because, he says, he doesn’t want his enemies to know where he is.” He loved ramblers, gamblers, working class heroes and inebriated philosophers. He is the factual mirror for Iceman. You can smell the breath of his profiles; you can hear their hearts beating. Everyone who reads him falls in love. He was a goddamn superb writer, a true one of a kind.

Joseph Mitchell, the great reporter of the downtrodden and depraved.

He spent his time with the denizens of America’s underbelly, mined it for poetry, and it exacted a price. In 1964, he filed his last story for The New Yorker. And for the following 32 years, he came into work, typed in his office, but never turned in a single sentence for publication. Then he died.

His longest work is Joe Gould’s Secret, where he revisits the lies and manipulations of a grand raconteur who he had profiled as a younger man. (The profile is called “Professor Sea Gull.”) Through the course of this exquisite, and heartbreaking, long essay, Mitchell reveals the dark side of Gould’s deceptions, while delineating his precipitous mental and physical decline. It’s clear that Mitchell felt he had betrayed Gould in his essay, and the consensus is that after Gould’s death, he somehow lost his voice, couldn’t write anymore, didn’t see the value of it. And then he eked through thirty more years of typing. Was he faking? Did he destroy all the work? Did he lose his mind?

Joe Gould, the drunken raconteur.

It is one of literature’s mysteries, although Mitchell isn’t alone. Edward Anderson, a superb author, wrote just two novels: Hungry Men, my vote for the best depression era novel, and Thieves Like Us, one of the finest crime novels of the 1930s. And then nothing. Or John Williams, one of our country’s finest novelists, author of the incredible Stoner, who wrote just four novels over the course of some fifty years. And then nothing.

The truth of it is that Mitchell was probably exhausted from his decades-long infatuation with the rank poverty of dilapidated New York, exhausted in his spirit and in his bones, and seeing Joe Gould perish so stupidly and alone, fractured the core belief that his writing mattered.

A second letter to WBEZ.

24 Jul

(WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton—the recipient of my open letter from last week—responded today. She requested that I not include her comments. I will say that she was measured and fair in her response, although she and I have some strong disagreements. I’ve included my response.)

Hello, Linda.

And thank you for responding. I’m going to put up our give and take on my (admittedly meager) blog, so that people can follow along, comment, and so on. I like that we can have a back and forth. If you want me not to include your response(s), please let me know and I’ll take them down.

I actually have dug through a lot of your educational reporting over the last nine months or so. You do good work. And, I’m sorry for conflating you and Vevea. When I went to the story page, it listed both of your names. Obviously, much of my criticism should have been and is aimed at Becky. (Her story was egregiously, almost viciously, biased.) That was a mistake, and for that I’m sorry. However, I feel like you both were biased against the teachers union on simplistic grounds. I feel like the quotes you chose, the way you framed the story—for instance, emphasizing that the teachers’ union didn’t take long to reject the arbiter’s findings, and if I remember correctly you returned to this point during the discussion—seems unfair.

In the conversation section, I do think you highlighted the average teacher salary in a disingenuous way. I don’t know any teachers who make $70,000, save for perhaps one or two old-timers who’ve been in the system for a long time. Most teachers make in the $50-60 thousand a year mark. (I’m not counting the pension pickup.) This is hardly rich, and to my way of thinking a solid middle class income. (I think of myself as a writer first, lived off $12,000 a year for four years in a row, and I think teachers get paid pretty well, actually.) I think everyone who wants to work should be able to have a living wage; good healthcare; and a reliable retirement. Re-aligning our national tax structure—including marginally raising taxes on people like me—would help towards this goal. I think comparing the public and private sectors is absolute nonsense. In times of prosperity, the private sector does much better than the public, and in some sense people work for the state and federal government for these baseline protections. Do we get to say, when there’s an internet boom, “Look how well those silicon valley dudes are doing; we should be overnight millionaires, too!” Of course not. We’re the tortoises, economically speaking, in the rat race, and we are not greedy for wanting to stay middle class. Let the hares run wild with their scheming. We just want to be able. In some sense, teachers and other public sector employees choose to be sensible. In good times we do okay; in bad times we do well.

But you must concede this fact: there are no rich teachers. (There are some rich administrators.) $70,000 a year is not rich in this country. As I said above, it’s a good wage, but it is not rich. But what constitutes a living wage is, up to a point, subjective. In an ideal world, I think the pay should be higher, partially to attract even better candidates to the field, although most public school teachers I know are sharp, dedicated professionals.

What isn’t subjective is the mayor’s role in all of this, and in this discussion, Emanuel got a pass. He created this crisis. He pushed for something he can’t afford, hasn’t budgeted for, and, frankly, hasn’t thought through. The longer school day creates major staffing issues; I have a masters degree, and under the longer school day I have to oversee two recesses. I don’t mind, I don’t have pride in this sort of thing and like to be helpful, but it is a profound waste of my experience and skill-set to run a recess. But I have to, because we don’t have the staff. (We also don’t have band, orchestra, any second language teachers, and so on.) Without new enrichment courses, or a well-thought out roll-out of the longer school day, it’s just a political game. I think you would admit that the mayor doesn’t seem particularly worried about individual CPS students. He wants to look tough, decisive; he wants to look like he’s changed things for the better. Fine, but this is not the way to do it. And with two of the longer school day pilot schools scoring worse, well, there’s data supporting the union’s claim, which is, let’s have a longer school day, if we can staff it properly, use the time wisely, and pay for it.

I know the story was short, although with the conversation afterwards, the story was long enough to get into some of the other issues. You brought up the educational reformers. But you didn’t report on them. You didn’t tell us anything about them. If I didn’t know better, I would have left the story feeling that there are these great, enlightened thinkers out there with answers to how to fix education without an agenda, but Chicago school teachers just don’t give a damn because they’re greedy. This is unfair, and a misrepresentation of the facts.

I acknowledge, finally, that the union could indeed bend/compromise on some issues, including tenure as it stands (we have to have some bulwark against administrators firing people because they don’t like or agree with them, but it could be a touch looser); some type of pension reform (I’ve read in multiple places that Illinois pays a large matching rate into every public sector pension and this is a big part of the state’s budget crisis); and even annual pay increases (I like them, but we could discuss). I want fair reporting and balanced coverage. But the mayor tried to circumvent the existing system by fiat. His logic is simple. He wants a longer school day, and damn the torpedos, we’re going to have one. Who cares what teachers think?

I guess I feel like both or your stories had enough space in them to include subtle and not so subtle critiques of the union’s position, but did not have enough time to comment on the mayor’s intransigence, which, even to his supporters, is quite severe.

Returning, finally, to your past reporting, I feel that if you objectively scrutinized this piece—including Becky’s report and the subsequent discussion—it would not meet your journalistic standards. It feels like you let some personal anger over what you perceive to be inflated teacher pay, or perhaps a bias against public sector unions, color your story.

Teachers have been demonized enough. Let’s dig into some of the other levers/causes/issues surrounding student performance. Let’s take the mayor to task for creating a crisis.

Thanks again for responding.

Ben

An open letter to WBEZ

21 Jul

(The following is an open letter to WBEZ, following a dreadful story about the Chicago public schools contract negotiations with the teachers’ union. It sums up my feelings on the longer school day, charter schools, the mayor, and teacher pay.)

1.

I’m a Chicago public school librarian, and I’m unhappy—disgusted is a better word—with WBEZ’s coverage of the contract negotiations between CPS and the teachers’ union. Linda Lutton’s “news” story on the arbitration report was biased, misguided, underreported, sloppy and unfair. Her disdain for the teachers’ side of the debate was clear and unabated. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m half-convinced that Fox News has hijacked WBEZ.

This is my retort.

The story was laid out in a disingenuous manner. Lutton began by saying, “When was the last time someone offered you a twenty percent pay raise?” She could just as easily have begun by saying, “When was the last time someone tried to make you work twenty percent more for less pay?” (She does not mention that the board revoked our contracted raise for the last school year.) She framed the entire debate by teachers’ greed, instead of Mayor Emanuel’s implacable devotion to a political hobbyhorse—a longer school day with no substantive improvements, no enrichment programs that would improve our children’s lives, and no additional staff. Lutton presents teachers as greedy leeches with their grubby hands in the public coffers. But I don’t know anyone on the planet who would want to work longer hours for the same pay, or accept 20 percent more unpaid work without some type of challenge or negotiation.

2.

The major problem with Lutton’s story was what she didn’t report.

Some of the best schools in the state are Chicago public schools, operating under the current school day. This wasn’t mentioned. Some of the worst school districts in the country exist in “right to work” states. This wasn’t mentioned. Two of the CPS schools that experimented with the longer school day this past year saw their scores go down. This wasn’t mentioned. Other school districts with longer school days offer more enrichment opportunities (very few CPS elementary school students have access to learning a second language, for example)—the types of educational experiences that make children enjoy going to school and score better on tests; these classes require more staff, which CPS can’t afford. This wasn’t mentioned. An increasing amount of CPS budget money is allocated to charter schools. This wasn’t mentioned. Nor was the fact that, noted in a WBEZ story among other places, charter schools, in general, don’t perform better than their public school counterparts.

Thirty years ago the U.S. educational system was the envy of the world. This with almost 90 percent unionized teachers (and very few standardized tests). This wasn’t mentioned, either.

Mayor Emanuel—the manufacturer of this current crisis—was hardly mentioned at all. There was no discussion of why we’re in this budget crisis. The administration’s tax policies weren’t brought up; nor the “bonus,” Emanuel found money to fund, offered to schools that adopted the longer school day early (which was consequently ruled illegal); nor the controversial TIF funds; nor his bullish tactics; nor his saying “Fuck you,” to our union presidentduring an early negotiation meeting. Finally, amid Lutton’s editorializing on the teachers’ salaries, Emanuel’s refusal to any compromise whatsoever was mentioned, but not commented on at all.

Emanuel causes this situation, but the teachers are being blamed.

3.

Emanuel clearly sees this conflict in political terms. He wants a win. But teachers see this conflict as essential to our mission and survival. Every teacher I know wants the world to be a better, more equitable place. Many CPS teachers see the job in terms of social justice. But it is enlightened self-interest: we want to be fairly compensated for our work. Teachers who are valued, trusted and fairly compensated will be better at their jobs than teachers who are maligned, mistrusted, and abused. What’s good for the teachers is (almost always) good for the students.

If the union rolls over on this, we’re lost. Our autonomy, our relative economic stability, it will all be taken away. Emanuel, and the following mayors, will be able to do whatever they like with public schools, by fiat. Good older teachers will retire early. Good younger teachers will look for work somewhere else. Talent will drain out of the system.

And who is better suited to decide what’s best for our kids? People who have dedicated their lives to the craft of teaching, people who work with Chicago public school students every day, people who have trained and earned multiple degrees in the field?

Or, a rich Beltway mayor who hasn’t taught a day in his life?

4.

After Lutton’s biased report, other voices should have been brought in for commentary. Someone with an opposing point of view should have been present. But the subsequent discussion—with Tony Sarabia and Becky Vevea—did nothing more than validate Lutton’s prejudice. This is problematic for three reasons. First, the whole point of the commentary setup is to provide dissenting points of view, allowing for competing viewpoints to battle it out in the marketplace of ideas. Second, editorialists—such as Maureen Dowd or David Brooks—do not operate as reporters who then get to comment on their own stories. Lutton should not have been there to reiterate her earlier points; she already expressed her opinion on the matter. Third, and most importantly, the whole panel touched on half a dozen issues without digging into the causes behind those issues.

Reporters dig; editorialists opine.

Here’s an example: Lutton mentions the “education reform” groups working down in Springfield; she portrays these organizations as disinterested good guys. She gives no names. She gives no background. She offers no context. She doesn’t even say what their agenda really is. One of these “education reform groups” is Studentsfirst, headed by Michelle Rhee. Studentsfirst has a stated policy to abolish teacher tenure; link pay to data; and bring in more free market principles (meaning deregulation), among other things. Author Diane Ravitch addresses Studentsfirst and other “education reform groups” in the March 8th edition of The New York Review of Books: “The reformers’ detachment from the realities of schooling and their indifference to research allow them to ignore the important influence of families and poverty. The schools can achieve miracles, the reformers assert, by relying on competition, deregulation, and management by data—strategies similar to the ones that helped produce the economic crash of 2008.”

These educational “reform” groups see collective bargaining—a right many people, me included, see as constitutionally protected—as a barrier to making life better for students. These “reformers” are dedicated to our destruction. They want nothing less than the eradication of teachers unions. And we can’t work with someone who wants us to fail.

You either believe in collective bargaining or you don’t. If you don’t, take a look at the public education utopias in right-to-work states like Georgia, Florida, Alabama and so on.

5.

Lutton made a point of emphasizing the average teacher salary, $70,000 a year. First of all, so what? Do we want the best teachers for our kids? If so, we have to be willing to pay them well. Secondly, Lutton does not explain whether this figure includes the yearly CPS pension contribution, money that, thanks to a broken pension system, young teachers expect never to see. Nor does she note that since teachers pay into the pension system rather than into social security, we will not be eligible for social security when we retire. Teachers want job security, a decent wage, and a reliable retirement. And we’re the villains? Lutton stands alongside Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Mitch McConnell in her unexamined attack on public sector employees. At least Hannity, Limbaugh, and company are up front about their allegiances and don’t let their editorializing masquerade as disinterested reporting.

This was and is a very important, very complicated news story, and Chicagoans across the political spectrum deserve a balanced in-depth report on the issue. They did not get it. Nuance, details, dissenting opinions, historical context—these facets, the things that make this story complex, were ignored. Sarcasm, ad hominem attacks, and snide remarks were opted for instead. These are the amateur’s weapons.

6.

The final irony of all this is that WBEZ is a public radio station. The same root forces attempting to destroy public sector unions are also dedicated to the ruin of NPR and its local affiliates (as well as PBS). NPR is an annual target for small government Republicans. They despise the notion of public radio. Just two years ago, the Republicans in Congress mounted a national campaign to end all public funding to NPR. They find the very idea of tax dollars going to radio programming to be obscene. One pundit said, “One [tax] dollar is too much for NPR.”

Now, I love NPR. I love what it stands for. I love that it exists outside the profit-driven paradigm and runs commercial free. I love that it is a public sector success story. I love that it offers balanced news stories with insight and integrity.

But this was a political news story, and there was no insight and little integrity. Someone who is opposed to NPR, or WBEZ, could very easily misrepresent the tax dollars to public radio discussion in terms of deficit-reduction and political bias—and those same opponents to NPR could use this story as an example—saying something like this: “When was the last time someone made you pay for political programming you fundamentally disagree with?”

Latest reading: Bernhard, Vidal, Baker

19 Jul

1.

After Dale Peck’s absurdly glowing review of novelist Thomas Bernhard’s oeuvre (offering up a very fine summation of 20th century fiction along the way; you can read it here), I rushed out to buy some of the new editions of Bernhard’s work. I demurred, however, when I leafed through them and saw novels with no paragraph breaks at all. I don’t know why, but I hate when authors/translators do this. There is never any good reason, save perhaps for Saramago with Blindness who explains why the form of the novel is the way it is near the end. The no paragraph break thing has ruined more than one reading experience for me, and made my edition of The Trial a real slog when it didn’t need to be.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the infamous grumpypants—one of his books, for instance, is a sustained attack on why Austria is such a shitty place and why the awards he won are useless—and he’s really, really good. Better than a lot of the touted German/Austrian authors, such as Peter Handke, and better even, on a first read, than Gunter Grass. He’s a remarkable talent, and I’ve rearranged my queue to add more of his novels.

A pungent writer of deranged fictions.

Gargoyles follows a university student going on the rounds with his doctor father in a rural area still operating in the feudal model. The doctor’s rounds draw them both into a world of violence, racism, primitive people and weirdness. There’s murder, decrepitude, and an atmosphere of gloom. As the father and son move towards the castle and the Prince, who owns the land all around, it feels as if you are wandering through some final novel, the end of all things. The last 90 pages are an extended monologue from the Prince, who is half-mad with isolation. That’s the summary and, in some sense the book, entire. Much of what happens is innuendo, implied menace, a sort of shadowy wraith hanging over the entire proceedings. There’s no real plot or denouement, but it’s thrilling to read.

He’s a very strong writer, a magician with his prose that washes over you in a disturbing, hypnotic fashion. He’s prone to philosophy but unlike many philosophical writers what he’s arguing isn’t always clear, which makes him confounding and enigmatic. He drapes his philosophical ponderings over well-drawn characters and events. His narrator writes early on, “Self control, I said, is the satisfaction of using your brain to make the self into a mechanism that obeys your command.” The meanderings of his potent mind seem to grow out of the novels. He’s polemical but he isn’t didactic. He’s quite a marvel.

Gargoyles is a powerful novel, full of high strangeness and melancholy. There’s a great passage, halfway through, where the son/narrator visits an outlying shed near a mill where a disturbed family lives. “At first I saw nothing in the outbuilding. But then, when I had become adjusted to the darkness and the curious smell, a smell of flesh, I saw lying on a long board across a pair of sawhorses a heap of dead birds. They were from the aviary, I saw at once, the finest exotic birds. The beautiful colors nauseated me. These slaughtered birds were in fact the most beautiful specimens from the cage, and I turned around to the miller’s son with a questioning look.”

The narrator learns why the millers are killing the birds, and their answer is so foolish and pointless yet logical, and the banal horror of it doesn’t register until a few pages later, and it’s clear what Bernhard, who lived through World War II, thinks of the human race: we are deranged and murderous fools.

2.

Gore Vidal is an underrated novelist. His historical novels are dense, intricate, sophisticated, polemical and often too damn long. But he’s a very fine researcher, and a wicked, funny novelist. He wrote plays, essays, stringent criticism; he wore the mantle of a public intellectual for some thirty years; he was threatened by William Buckley; he was reportedly punched in the face by Norman Mailer (I could only find the Dick Cavett dustup here); but he will be remembered, if at all, for his novels. He won a genuine convert in me with Julian; I’ve read half a dozen histories about Constantine and Julian since.

America is Vidal’s target and muse. He loves stalking her hallowed historical halls, pushing ideological buttons. Like Bernhard, he’s acidic, incendiary, and often angry. Unlike Bernhard, he has a broad sense of humor. He isn’t above a pie to the face.

Sly, snide, sarcastic, witty, wicked.

With Burr, Vidal uses the disgraced former vice president as a mechanism to puncture the myths of America’s founding fathers. (George McDonald Fraser, in his hilarious Flashman novels, does the same thing with British military failures of the Victorian era.) So Vidal, through the voice of Aaron Burr, presents Washington as a power-mad fat ass who lost every military engagement he participated in, but somehow won the war; John Adams as intelligent but belligerent and strangely incompetent, who was outsmarted by his far more cynical contemporaries (“He never did understand men, but he was quite at home with their ideas.”); and Thomas Jefferson, the serpentine, manipulative hypocrite who always said one thing but did another.

Here’s a sampling:

“Jefferson was a ruthless man who wanted to create a new kind of world, dominated by independent farmers each living on his own rich land, supported by slaves. It is amazing how beguilingly he could present this contradictory vision. But then in all his words if not deeds Jeffers was so beautifully human, so eminently vague, so entirely dishonest but not in any meretricious way. Rather it was a passionate form of self-delusion that rendered Jefferson as president and as man (not to mention as writer of tangled sentences and lunatic metaphors) confusing even to his admirers. Proclaiming the unalienable rights of man for everyone (excepting slaves, Indians, women and those entirely without property), Jefferson tried to seize the Floridas by force, dreamed of a conquest of Cuba, and after his illegal purchase of Louisiana sent a military governor to New Orleans against the will of its inhabitants. . . . had Jefferson not been a hypocrite I might have admired him. After all, he was the most successful empire-builder of our century, succeeding where Bonaparte failed.”

And, later, “Jefferson was the whole continent as a kind of Virginia . . . he wanted no cities, no banks, no manufacturies, no taxes. Jefferson was wrong and Hamilton was right. Worse, Jefferson was impractical.”

Vidal paces his novels well, but they always feel about 50 pages too long. Still, Burr is a rich and illuminating experience, and a great counterargument to the lambasting Aaron Burr has taken over the last 200 years.

3.

And now to weirdo Nicholson Baker, one of the strangest bestselling authors we’ve got. He’s a difficult writer to pigeonhole. Unlike Bernhard and Vidal, he doesn’t write one type of book. He’s a minimalist. He’s a fabulist. He’s an eroticist. He’s an astute critic, a part-time historian, a weirdo Luddite, and a lover of esoterica, minutiae, good writing.

Baker’s review of video games for the New Yorker—he’s not a gamer so he approached them aesthetically—was superb, and he later fired the first major salvo at the e-reader phenomenon reviewing the first batch of e-readers.

House of Holes is his latest novel, and it’s a raunchy, silly, sexy little tale about a fantasy retreat where physics, time, history and rationality can be bent towards pleasure. The people who run the House of Holes can read your thoughts, uncover your genetic background through a sniff to the crotch, and fulfill the nastiest fantasy. It feels like a cross between Anais Nin and Douglass Adams, sort of inspired pornographic lunacy, madcap, at times deadpan, linguistically stretching and distorting like a contortionist in the middle of one of the orgies he describes.

Just your ordinary sex-obsessed grandpa.

It’s hilarious, a puffed up skin tableau, an endless display of human pleasure, and he’s so obviously mocking the sex writing of everyone else that the fluff feels almost mean. If it weren’t so good.

He can write well: “Rhumpa . . . saw a pepper grinder in the middle of the table and while they talked about the price of tires she unscrewed the little knob on top, and when it came off she lifted the wooden part off the central spindly thing and looked inside, where she could see the shadows of peppercorns. She thought, the peppercorns are waiting to be ground up. They’re still round, like little dry planets, but not for long.”

There’s no real plot, just page after page of erotica. He uses every descriptive word you can think of for human genitalia and it is a blast to read. Here’s an example, of when Rhumpa first arrives at the House:

“ ‘I like men who are intelligent and witty,” Rhumpa said. ‘Also kind to animals and interested in other people and able to hold a conversation of reasonable length.’

Daggett frowned and looked at his clipboard. ‘It says here that you favor a man with a heavy, dark dick. It quotes you as saying, “Some nice things are just not possible with a small, pale dick.”’

‘Where did you get that piece of information?’ Rhumpa asked, outraged.

‘During reassembly we do spectrum analysis,’ Daggett said. ‘They screen for diseases, of course, comb through for lurid thoughts. What’s your ideal sexual encounter?’

‘Oh, touching, kissing, caressing,’ Rhumpa said, at a loss.

‘It says here that you would favor having three Italian airplane pilots in uniform shoot their comeloads onto your belly while you cup your clitoris with a wooden spoon.’

“They don’t necessarily have to be Italian,’ Rhumpa said. ‘And they can be race-car drivers if that’s easier.’”

Simone and Pixar and the movie peter

17 Jul

I took Simone to Brave last week, her second movie in the theater. (Despicable Me was first; I didn’t like it. There’s a scene where an elephant is shrunk with a laser beam and Simone thought it had been exploded. She screamed, “No! No! No!” in the crowded theater. I felt horrible.) She liked Brave, although it scared her in a few places and at one point, during a thunderous night fight between two bears, she insisted that we leave. In the lobby, she demanded we go back inside. It was cute.

Her new mantra is, “I want to go to the movie peter!” She loves it. She takes after me. As I’ve said in other places, I was sort of raised on movies. Some of my earliest memories are of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Gus, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Star Wars. Star Trek II. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Candleshoe. (Throw in the Bible and comic books and G.I. Joe and cartoons and summers with my cousins in the creek and a soupcon of hellfire and damnation and the specter of a late-Soviet Union comeback and an overactive imagination and you have my childhood, in under a hundred words.)

Brave was . . . interesting. I’m not going to write a full review, but it was a very beautiful looking movie—with swooping shots across craggy vistas and hilly grasslands—but a step down from Pixar’s other films. My hunch is that the movie was rushed a little, to stave off the increasing cries of chauvinism leveled at the now ultra-profitable subsidiary of Disney. The story follows a princess in the Scottish highland clans who must marry one of the princes of three neighboring clans. The main characters are the princess, her mother, and a witch and they run the show, grapple with the real issues of running a household, a nation-state. The men are drunkards, brawlers, and fools. This was and is probably true, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the movie wasn’t devised as a stopgap. It feels concocted.

The hero of Pixar’s latest, showing off her archery skills for a congress of numbskulls and louts.

The movie was fine, pretty good, okay. Simone liked it, but she didn’t love it and I didn’t either. It feels as if they are going through the motions. It doesn’t feel special. It lacks magic.

Pixar was one of the great story engines through the 2000s. Every movie was good, and The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Wall-e were superb. Up was uneven, but the first ten minutes are rhapsodic, heart-rending. Pixar’s output was creative, funny, intelligent, warm and rousing. Taken as a whole it’s an astonishingly consistent body of work. I’ve said in other places but their output was historic, really, and should be included with the other big movie movements of the last fifty years, including the British and French New Waves, and the New American Cinema of the 1970s.

That light is really a great totem of glowing cash.

Cartoons or no, their shit was good. So good, that Pixar improved the quality of everyone else’s animated films. There was a time when only Miyazaki made animated movies that were as sophisticated in their pacing, direction and design as their adult counterparts. The oughts brought us Shrek, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Ice Age, Robots, Monster House, The Tale of Despereaux and Kung Fu Panda to name a handful. Pixar paved the way, and credit is due.

With quality came success, and with success came a name-brand, and with a name-brand came oodles of cash. Pixar is enormously, freakishly, scarily profitable. They’ve had no financial duds in thirteen films and have netted enough cash to fund revolutions in a handful of unstable South American countries.

But things are starting to slip. Cars 2 was, by all accounts, terrible. Their three holy trinity of talented dudes—Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, and Brad Bird—have moved on to big budget blockbusters. And the company now seems more interested in recycling their existing characters, basically seeing their art as products. Toy Story 3 is excellent, I’ll grant that. It’s so powerful to the imagination of a child that Simone has never made it through the middle section, each time demanding we turn it off. It brings tears, and honestly I have a hard time watching it without the weepy feeling and I have a heart of stone.

The scene that breaks Simone up, every time.

But the idea that they can leverage existing characters into derivative sequels is untenable and sort of tacky. I’m certain that there will be sequels to either Nemo, The Incredibles and/or Ratatouille in the next five years, and maybe all of them. Brave II: Braveheart, or something like it.

It’s understandable. The cost of their movies keeps inching up, which increases the pressure for their movies to be sure-things. This is, of course, what has happened to most of Hollywood. It’s why they keep making sequels; movies cost too much nowadays because of the spectacle, and thus the bean counters across the world want to minimize as much risk as possible.

And, as Francis Ford Coppola said once in an interview, “You can’t have art without risk. It’s impossible.” He should know.

Crumley and Mankell and the simple art of murder

1 Jul

1. The popular appeal of murder.

For American readers, mystery is the most popular literary genre. For proof we can look at the New York Times; on June 12, 2011, ten of the top fifteen bestselling novels were mysteries.

Half a dozen distinct sub-genres exist under the “mystery” banner: the police procedural; the hard-boiled detective story; the cozy, armchair mystery; the serial killer thriller; the existential mystery; and the crime story. Each has its adherents, its embarrassments. Each type holds a different type of allure. The variety within the genre holds the key to the genre’s durability, popularity and appeal.

I read two very different mystery writers recently, James Crumley and Henning Mankell. Each writes in a specific subgenre of the mystery novel. Crumley works in the hard-boiled mode. Mankell works in the procedural. Juxtaposing the two authors—their novels and the genres they work in—results in interesting observations about the nature of each subgenre’s appeal.

2. Men who drink.

James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss operates as a direct descendent of the original hard-boiled detective novels, replete with a detective, high body count and convoluted plot. The detective in this case is a drunken romantic named C. W. Sughrue.

Sughrue stands with a large batch of rough and tumble detectives, a descendant of Hammett’s the Continental Op and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He’s tough, gruff, and violent, but lives by a strict moral code. He’s loyal. He’s intelligent. He’s resourceful. He’s trained, armed, and weary. He hides his emotional bonds with cynicism, alcohol, and irony. He drinks too much and lives too hard. It’s a detective novel where the detective is a lone wolf. He carries around psychic wounds from a tour in the Vietnam War. He is (secretly) amazed by the world’s depravity.

Crumley utilizes many of the staples of the hard-boiled novel: fast dialogue, random violence, tough talk, dangerous women and a constant threat of death. Unlike Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, however, Sughrue doesn’t live in a city; he drives up and down the west coast. He barely has a home, dwelling in an unfinished cabin in the woods. His search drags him into prostitute rings, amateur pornography, and into the cross hairs of murderous gangsters. He grows more and more horrified at what he finds.

Crumley deviates from the hard-boiled detective story in interesting ways. Written in the first person, The Last Good Kiss reads like an earthier Philip Marlowe. He’s preoccupied with drink, sex, the past—imagine Jim Harrison writing via Ross McDonald and you have a good idea of what it’s like—but he does not like his life. Half the book focuses on friendship, food, sexual liaisons. The plot almost feels like a hindrance. Sughrue doesn’t want to get involved; he prefers to drink, fish, eat, and sleep. This reluctance to get involved with the basic storyline works well. I kept thinking of Jim Harrison’s Warlock, and strangely, The Big Lebowski. The character feels alive.

James Crumley, author of The Last Good Kiss.

Crumley has two detective characters, C. W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch. Both operate in a druggy, self-destructive mode. They each have their own novels, but they know each other. Both try to be decent, but in attempting to do good end up causing a whole heap of trouble. The Sughrue novels are a touch better, and The Last Good Kiss is his best. (The others are worth reading.) Crumley—like Hammet, Chandler, Ellroy and many of the other hard-boiled writers—can flat-out write.

Here’s an example of how good Crumley the writer can be, taken from early on in the novel. “So I settled back into the bucket seat of my fancy El Camino pickup for a long siege of moving on, following Traherne from bar to bar, down whatever roads suited his fancy . . . following him as he drifted on. . . . Then in Reno I lost the trail, had to circle the city in ever-widening loops, talking to bartenders and service-station attendants until I found a pump jockey in Truckee who remembered the big man in his caddy convertible asking about the mud baths in Calistoga. The mud was still warm when I got there, but his trail was as cold as the eyes of the old folks dying around the hot baths.”

Crumley uses both detectives as a cipher; he’s a key to understanding the interlocking problems facing 1970s America. America as a society so focused on winners that the losers are left to drown. Complacency has allowed villains to sprout. Greed has distorted our fundamental values. There is no community, and without community, we’re left with drink, isolation, loneliness and violence. The ruthless pursuit of self-advancement has resulted in monstrous narcissism. The lack of a coherent social safety net has left marginalized peoples behind. Crime pays. Morality is a hindrance. You can get away with your sins.

3. The corrupted world.

One of the assumptions of the hardboiled novel is an inherent contradiction: the world is flawed, ruined, corrupted and abandoned by God, but the detective is moral, upright (to a point) and loyal. As Raymond Chandler says in his famous essay, “He [the detective] must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world . . . if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.”

The concept of integrity, essential to the genre, also explains its appeal. Readers get to project their moral system into the situation, while validating their own ideas of loyalty, honesty, and the like. It’s an interesting trick: the nastiness of the larger world in these detective novels amplifies the righteousness of the detective, even though both originate in the mind of the author.

The stories aren’t realistic. There is a touch of the cartoonish in detective novels. Violence is too commonplace. Fights of various degrees of danger break out every few pages. Strong men take punches and smile. Tough guys guzzle whiskey, gin, and beer without the requisite hangovers, alcohol poisonings, obesity. It portrays a lifestyle that is unsustainable and full of misery, offering a vicarious but unrealistic snapshot into the lives of cartoony thugs. This lack of realism is central to the genre’s appeal.

Bogart playing the honest, big-hearted detective Philip Marlowe in the movie adaptation of The Big Sleep.

The Last Good Kiss is an excellent example of the genre, and a great novel. The narrator’s internal journey mirrors his external wanderings through the backroads and back alleys of the American dream. The plot is twisty, but never strays from the relationships between the characters. Crumley knows the rules, toys with them, but ends up, like some twisted north country backroad, exactly where he’s supposed to be.

The appeal of the hardboiled novel is complex. On one level, it is a paean to the myth of masculinity. They often don’t investigate the consequences of violence. People die, que sera. Except for Mickey Spillane, the genre adheres to a strict moral code for the protagonist. The hardboiled novel is often about redemption, not for the reader or the minor characters but the detective, attaining forgiveness for the flaws of the human race by following the hard path of uncompromising rightness. Sensitive, wisecracking, intelligent, capable, vengeful and self-righteous, the detective is a stand-in for the ideal American male.

4. The Gloomy Detective.

The Man Who Smiled is a mystery, too, but it falls into the procedural category, where a crime is committed, and then the police attempt to decipher the various elements—exactly like the reader—and figure out who committed the crime. The main character is Kurt Wallander, a gloomy, self-directed, depressed, and always on the verge of early retirement cop. He loves the job, and yet, it sickens him. The constant immersion into the criminal mindset, combined with the endless cold and fog of Sweden, has induced aphasic adhodenia. He’s lost the ability to experience pleasure, he sees the worst in everyone, and he cannot talk about it. Unlike Sughrue, Wallander does not have a sense of humor. Neither do Mankell’s novels.

Mankell’s face says it all: humorless, aging and grim.

The popular appeal of these gloomy Scandinavian crime novels is difficult to understand. On the whole they are violent, humorless, and methodical. The atmosphere is antiseptic; the characters don’t seem to breathe, procreate or even go to the bathroom. These things are mentioned, but they aren’t part of the character’s daily lives. Reading them is an immersion into a asexual, joyless world. You keep hoping Barry Hannah or Jim Harrison will jump out from under the bed and holler while running around the room, spilling cheap whiskey. Or  Cormac McCarthy appearing out of nowhere to spray the room with buckshot. Or Richard Price kicking in the door and riffing on the quality of the current drugs on the street.

It’s a plodding limp of a book. No oomph or ah or dash. No spice. No laughter. Just loneliness and fog.

5. The detecting mechanism.

Written in the third person, Mankell operates in the Agatha Christie (without the nostalgic drawing room stuffiness) mode: the detective talks and talks, rehashing the salient points of the case over and over. A sense of exhaustion—probably realistic to the job—sets in. The procedural offers a glimpse into a working world, as well as a challenge to solve the mystery before the main characters do. Unlike the hard-boiled detective story, the procedural offers predictability and order. Gone is the savage individual. Instead, you have systems, methods, deductions: talking and thinking. There’s danger, but it tends to haunt peripheral characters. The violence often happens between scenes. The procedural is antiseptic in terms of emotional and sexual involvement. It is, in this sense, a less offensive, less abrasive sub-genre. In the procedural, people talk, drink, sift through evidence, and die.

The appeal of this subgenre, I think, rests on the predictability of the process. Through interviews, footwork, research and raw thinking, a consensus can be reached and criminals brought to justice. It is the law, justice and society that are validated, purified and venerated. The process matters. Gone is the lone wolf, the tough-talking hedonist. Life may be random, but it can be parsed, dissected, examined, studied and eventually understood. People have agency in the unfolding of their own lives. If we hire good enough police, then no crime will go unsolved.

Like Sughrue, Wallander is emblematic of a whole generation. He’s a peek into the collective male psyche of mid-90s Sweden. He’s perpetually exhausted, on the edge of bewilderment. The glamour of the socialist society has worn off. Globalism has brought in new immigrant groups, new problems. People are slipping through the cracks. Women are entering the police force in larger numbers. What does it mean to be Swedish? What is the cost of efficiency, affluence, and decades of neutrality and peace?

6. Those bleak Scandinavians

I keep wondering about why these Scandinavian mysteries hold any appeal at all to American readers. The places sound strange. The writing is fine but no better than a dozen American crime writers and worse than a bunch. The plots are fine, too, but not particularly clever. The only thing I can surmise is that the novels are exotic—they’re from another country—while at the same time familiar, as they hew so closely to the genre’s expectations.

Mankell can write pretty well, using an unadorned, economical style. He’s no Hammett or Ellroy, though, with the sentences pared down to a spiky poetry style. The dialogue is expositional. He’s more workmanlike. Competent, but you aren’t going to write home about him after a first date. Here’s a good example of his writing style: “The afternoon had turned into evening, and rain threatened. . . . life is made up of a series of rites of passage of whose existence we are unaware until we find ourselves in the midst of them.”

There are now five or six of these Scandinavian mystery authors out there humping up and down the bestseller lists, and I can’t figure out why. They all write in the vein of the Mankell procedural.

Bad, not good, and terrible.

One of these is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an inelegant piece of gimcrack that is pretty terrible. The writing is quite bad, the plot as impossible to follow as any mystery I’ve ever read. The villains are sadistic Nazis—nothing new there—and the bulk of the book follows the main character eating sandwiches, drinking coffee, and checking his email. (I’m not kidding; the writing is also just that banal.) He sexes it up with every other woman he meets, but the bedroom scenes are joyless. There’s tits but no titillation. There’s rape, incest, disgusting murders—but it doesn’t unfold for the reader. You learn about these things without the tingle, the worry. The prose is about equal to the writing in the Da Vinci Code.

Their collective popularity bothers me because we have so many better crime writers stateside. I haven’t mentioned the British women—Ruth Rendell and P.D. James and Dorothy Sayers, to name a handful—or the plethora of our own great crime writers. Why seek out mediocrity elsewhere when you have excellence at home?

7. Rocks and crags and hard-packed soil.

America is a big country, and much of our best fiction explores this fact. Our crime writers tend to operate in cities, for that’s where the people are. Cities hold noise, money, shadows, corruption and prestige. The Last Good Kiss uses our infatuation with our own bigness to explore notions of violence, success, and ambition. Crumley sets his detective on a straight line from his forebears; they are, on the whole, larger than life characters. They swear, fight, drink and stand apart from the gross corruption of the world. He uses the tropes of the hard-boiled detective, updates them to 1970s America, and then twists them for his purposes. In this way, The Last Good Kiss is a self-conscious novel.

Sweden is a smaller country, more efficient, less fractious, more homogenous. Henning Mankell sets his procedurals in a very specific milieu. Like Crumley, Mankell’s borrowed from a number of his predecessors. The procedural is a safer genre, quieter, easier to manage, but tough to set apart. Mankell’s novels are okay—they don’t creak or strain or sag like Larssen’s books—but they are just okay.