Archive | January, 2013

Simone and Pearl and the Power Cosmic!, part 4: The Princess Affair.

28 Jan

 

1.

For the past few months, Simone has obsessed over princesses and the accompanying accoutrements. Her favorite outfit is violet “up-shoes” (heels with faux opal baubles); a Disney princess lavender dress; and an amaranth hooded cowl that fastens in the front. When she’s dolled up, she clomps around the apartment like some fairy tale runaway dipped in amethyst.

She only wants to wear purple. For Christmas she asked Santa for “maybe purple jackets and purple sparkly boots and purple dresses . . . anything purple really.”

Her other mode is nakedness. At random times during the day she’ll shed all her clothes and sit by the heating vent. She vacillates between the princess and the pauper. I’m not crazy about either extreme.

Her favorite books are Cinderella and the Knuffle Bunny books. She looks for signs of princesses everywhere. She’s also made a habit out of leafing through a Spider-man guidebook I have. She’s (mostly) her father’s daughter.

She’s taken to playing games and building “princess and candy” castles with the pastel-colored legos. Yesterday Pearl kept trying to destroy what Simone was building and she said to Beth, “Mama, this is ridiculous.”

Her favorite game is a princess matching game. She understands the rules, but wants to collect all the purple princesses anyway, despite whose turn.

Her favorite movie is My Fair Lady. She wants us to fast forward to the dresses. She likes Oklahoma, too, but feels like there isn’t enough dancing. The Music Man has been making the rounds as well, but this too gets the fast-forward treatment. She has little patience for romance, longing or slow songs.

Her favorite musician is Elizabeth Mitchell, a folk singer Beth discovered who makes records for children. In-between I’ve returned to rotation Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall, Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and some mix cds I made years ago. Simone has mostly stopped turning the music off when loses interest. Pearl, however, has taken up the gauntlet, now that she can reach the buttons.

2.

The princess thing is complicated. I want her to pursue the things she likes, but I don’t want her to fall into a clichéd (and hackneyed and potentially damaging) cultural trap. When she was a baby, we dressed her in blue and black and brown. My favorite outfits for her made her look like a ninja, or an assassin. We roughhouse. We goof off. We watch football. (This isn’t true.) We hunt. (This isn’t true either.) Beth bought her blocks and worker’s tools, and yet here we are. Surrounded by gaudy purple finery and a mindset somewhere between Audrey Hepburn and Honey Boo Boo.

Perhaps the cultural programming is inescapable.

This morning she said to me, “Daddy, when I get married? Maybe I have to kiss somebody?” I said she didn’t need to get married for a long time, after she had figured out what she wanted to do with her life and succeeded in various things. She ignored all of this, saying, “I think I have to kiss somebody.”

She remains a spitfire nutcase. She’s adopted a new horse-inspired gallop, where she trots along at great speed and clamor.

3.

Pearl is ten months old. She has eight teeth, all in the front. Her hair remains thin, her eyes large and multi-colored. She looks like some glinty-eyed old man in miniature. She’s mischievous, too. She loves to knock cds out of the case and then look at Beth and me, waiting for us to run over and say no. She sometimes crawls away, as if engaged in a game of chase.

She makes hilarious faces when Simone snatches a toy away, or hugs her too tight. She bares her teeth and scrunches up her nose. Or she’ll glare at the adults in the room with a sign of immense indignation as if to say, why are you letting this happen to me?

Pearl took a step yesterday and often scoots along furniture. She’s poised to be just as destructive as her sister.

She and Simone now share a room. They seem to like it, although Simone gets up a few times each night and in her peripatetic wanderings often awakens Pearl. They both get up around 6, Simone usually earlier, so finding time to write has become an even bigger challenge.

I’ve been editing and rewriting my latest manuscript and it’s good[1]. I had a not-so-brief session of fear and trembling, considering scrapping the fiction thing once and for all. But I persevered—although the angst and worry and existential despair gets harder to overcome as I get older, not easier. The idea of quitting instills panic attacks, shortness of breath, cosmic rage. So I continue.

And now it’s time to re-gird my loins for the submission process.


[1] This is why I’ve been posting less frequently.

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The Taste of Others, part 10: McCarthy, Hemingway, Fitzgerald.

26 Jan

In which I continue to explore and respond to one-star reviews on Amazon, and suffer the tyranny of other people’s tastes, so you don’t have to.

1.

I’m continuing with my one-star reviews reviews. I left the children’s books behind, and now I’m onto books that I love. I started with All the Pretty Horses, one of the finest novels written in the last 30 years. There were 28 one-star reviews. Ye gods.

First, some context.

McCarthy lived a nomadic life for thirty years, writing in stone huts and rotting cabins while living off of grants and foundations. He was an unknown writer well into the 1980s. His early novels are set in Tennessee, and they traffic in grotesques, peopled by drunks, murderers, rapists. The language is prolix, complex and reads like some black-hearted crime novelist, with a penchant for cruelty, writing in a half-Faulkner, half-mythic patois. Child of God, the best of the early novels, follows a murderous necrophiliac who drags his victims into limestone caves. Great writing, but dark, dark, dark.

Then he published Suttree. It’s a giant, staggering character study of a hard-living dude in Tennessee, and the whores, roughnecks, drunks and hardcases he spends time with. It’s a very fine novel, with dense, if extremely beautiful, language.

He left Tennessee for Texas. Here he wandered through the sage, the creosote, the cactus and the bramble, researching his violent parable based on a true life scalp-hunting expedition into Mexico. The characters are misfits, killers, thugs and thieves. The language is rhapsodic, stunningly violent. The body count is immense. He titled the novel Blood Meridian. I try to read it once a year. It isn’t for everyone, but goddamn, it’s amazing. It’s reads like some lost chapter of the Iliad. The one where they kill an entire tribe with stones and bullets and knives.

He stayed with Texas, wrote his border trilogy. They follow two cowboys through three decades on the border. All the Pretty Horses is the best of the bunch—the writing is absolutely electric—but The Crossing is very fine, too and Cities on the Plain broke my goddamn heart. They’re the best cowboy stories you’ll ever read[1]. Horses won him notoriety and cash; he no longer had to live like some homeless hermit. He was 59 years old.

He moved on to a crime novel, No Country for Old Men. It’s very good. And then he published The Road, in some sense his bleakest and vilest book, a man and his young son wandering through a dying world, populated by cannibals and murderers and dead animals and unspeakable cruelty. Somehow this one resonated, became a bestseller.

He’s one of my favorite authors, and one of the most important American authors of the last fifty years. He eschews most punctuation and he doesn’t translate any Spanish into English. He isn’t difficult to read so much as idiosyncratic.

2.

Now for an exercise in futility. I’m going to respond to the one-star reviews. Hold on to your butts.

The criticism seems to focus overwhelmingly on the preponderance of “ands.” Forget that this is a style that often works; I challenge anyone to read two sentences, one chockfull of commas and the other instead with its clauses delineating through various conjunctions, and tell me that the comma-infested sentence is better. It isn’t. The other major beef is McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks. Other writers who do this often bother me, but with McCarthy it’s always clear who’s speaking and when it’s dialogue.

One reviewer said that McCarthy had slapped off a first-draft. This is the height of ignorance. McCarthy is a very careful writer, famously so. He spent nine years writing and rewriting Suttree. Nine years! Ditto for Blood Meridian. He writes and rewrites and is a very careful editor of his own work. Why would anyone accuse him of being lazy?

Here’s one reviewer: “This guy is no Hemingway. He just tries too hard to be the great Hemingway and he uses a lot more ‘and’ than he should. Anyone who reads and loves this guy, I’m sorry to say, is just not willing to admit that, deep down, this guy is untalented, unoriginal, and a hack of Hemingway at best.”

This makes my blood boil. Others say that McCarthy is trying to be like Faulkner, trying and failing.

McCarthy isn’t a Hemingway or Faulkner knockoff; he’s a better writer than both. He’s more consistent—he’s not without his weaker books; The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark aren’t the greatest reads in the history of fiction—but he marries Faulkner’s complex and often beautiful diction with Hemingway’s lucidity and sparse style. McCarthy bridges the two major modernist American writers. Sometimes he’s the worst of both writers, but more often than not he’s the apotheosis of the two stylistic extremes. Hemingway wrote some weak books, and so did Faulkner. A weak book does not a bad author make.

The snarky tone is especially strange for a writer like McCarthy, who doesn’t employ irony or sarcasm, instead operating (mostly) on a mythic plain. One reviewer says that, “most fifth graders can write better, more enthralling narratives.” God, to quote Woody Allen, what I wouldn’t give for a sock full of horse manure.

He’s influential. Other writers steal from his style, to varying success. William Gay’s Provinces of Night, inspired by McCarthy, is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last nine months. (Coal Black Horse, by Robert Olmstead, on the other hand, is a miserly McCarthy knock-off.)

He isn’t for everyone. Neither is Don DeLillo, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Cather, Wolfe, or for that matter Chekhov, Dostoevsky or Flaubert. He belongs in this rarified company. He belongs with Updike and Dos Passos and Roth and Proulx.

One of the great authors, described by one reviewer as, "No Hemingway."

One of the great authors, described by one reviewer as, “No Hemingway.”

He cannot be dismissed. Not easily.

And this is the lesson these one-star reviews teach us. You cannot bloviate and opine with any type of dignity if you ignore balance, context and history. You can dislike or even be offended by something but acknowledge its skill.

You can be offended by a great writer and find the point of their work execrable. (Writers who employ misanthropy, such as Celine or Hamsen or Dennis Cooper, for example, or writers exploring the intersection of sex and cruelty, like Nin or DeSade or Bataille.) But there’s more to literature than what you like. I have no real enthusiasm for Philip Roth—although I think So I Married a Communist is a very fine novel—but he’s a very fine novelist who has had an unprecedented career. His books leave me cold, but that doesn’t mean they are bad.

2.

I didn’t stop with McCarthy. Hemingway and Fitzgerald don’t escape unscathed either. One reviewer said he wished Hemingway had killed himself thirty years earlier, so that the Nick Adams stories hadn’t been published[2]. Another reviewer called The Sun Also Rises “boring, overrated, impoverished!”

Hemingway is misunderstood; his life has overshadowed his work. He doesn’t hate women, far from it, and his stories aren’t macho or violent. There’s plenty of drinking going on, and there are a few stories about outlaws and criminals. But many of his stories deal with hurting people coping with their emotional baggage. He loved hunting and there are hunters, he loved fishing and there are fishermen, but the bulk of his stories are about surviving, even transcending, our unseen psychic wounds.

Papa Hemingway, at the mercy of teenage critics in the digital age, condemned as both violent and boring.

Papa Hemingway, at the mercy of teenage critics in the digital age, condemned as both violent and boring.

I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway—although I absolutely love love love some of his short stories and I think the Nick Adams collection is superb, essential reading. But Hemingway is a meteor on the literary landscape, a titan who changed fiction forever. His approach, to pare down the bullshit and bore into the characters by what they do and say, as opposed to the trend of psychological novels a la Henry James that meander through a character’s thoughts and feelings, is still the dominant strand of American fiction. His inimitable prose style has been copied, parodied, and worshiped for eighty years. A Moveable Feast, his charming anecdotes of being poor in Paris during the 1920s, is one of the best books on American expatriates.

He can’t be dismissed either.

3.

Fitzgerald is another matter, a more problematic presence in American letters. It’s not that he lacked talent. He just misused, misrepresented and abused it. He floated through a life of privilege with the piercing knowledge that he could never live someone else’s life.

The Great Gatsby is called “mediocre prose”; “the characters are not interesting” (this same reviewer gave Tarzan, a bloated piece of dated, purple prose, five stars); “shallow”; “agonizingly elementary”; “an excellent substitute for valium” (this is kind of funny, actually); “a really bad book”; “sentences are basic and blunt”; “painful to read”; “you find yourself in a dreary funk”; “so vanilla”; and “swill.”

I think Fitzgerald is overrated, especially near the end of his career. (The Pat Hobby stories are amusing but crepe thin.) He drank too much, and the drink didn’t provide grist to his writing but rather turned him moribund and self-pitying. Some of his stories are dynamite, others are silly contrivances that say little and go nowhere. He’s light and airy, not a very careful writer and he hasn’t dated well. He lacks the sophistication and subtlety of some of his peers. And because everyone reads him in high school he has had an out-sized impact on our culture, inflicting his stormy self-entitlement to every new generation.

The author of Gatbsy, before booze and self-pity destroyed him.

The author of Gatbsy, before booze and self-pity destroyed him.

But.

He is important, too, and cannot be judged without some context.

Gatsby is an enormously important novel, lean and taut at 185 pages. It’s arguably one of the first (or early) “American” novels in its themes and approach. The characters are haunted, lonely, and rich. The pursuit of wealth and status has left them hollowed out and unhappy. They are the embodiment of Tocqueville’s insightful comment on Americans, that the freer we are, the more aware we are of the inequality that separates us. So that the more freedom we have, the unhappier we become. And if Gatsby has at its core a bright shining lie—of course it’s better to have money than not to have it—it also has the hard wisdom best captured by Biggie Smalls: mo money, mo problems.

Roaming through the labyrinthine corridors of Internet opinion is enervating, frustrating, addicting. The endeavor is such a collapsing cascade of, well, nothingness. It’s a strange, self-perpetuating activity. I want to stop, but then I think of another great book to see what buffoons hate it and why.

Sadly, I’m sure they’ll be more to come.


[1] Excepting perhaps Butcher’s Crossing, by John Williams. And Warlock by Oakley Hall is good, too. Little Big Man belongs on the list.

[2] It’s hard to believe the vileness of these anonymous reviews. The vicious evil in this sentiment exposes an odd urge in certain types of readers to attack the author of a work they dislike.

Salvation Songs, part 5: Steppin’ Stone.

15 Jan

(I’ve been posting less for two reasons. One, I’m working hard on a third draft of my latest novel manuscript. Two, I was doing my writing between 5 and 6 in the morning. But my two daughters now get up, too—I’m writing this one-handed with two little children squirming in my lap.)

The last new tape I ever bought was U2’s Achtung Baby! The first cd I bought was Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. Between these two albums there was a world of discomfort and pain and musical growth. The boy loved U2. The young man dug Pavement.

I entered high school enthralled with progressive, college rock and what is now called Britpop. I liked R.E.M., The Las, early U2, The Soup Dragons, The Stone Roses, and Jellyfish. I also maintained an adoration for power ballads and hair metal until a disparaging comment from Jackson George about a Warrant concert ruined the whole genre, at least in public. I held on to the classic rock thing, still listening to the Beatles and The Doors and so on.

I caught the indie rock/slacker rock bug. I listened to Dinosaur, Jr. and Pavement. I listened to Jane’s Addiction and Mudhoney. I listened to the first wave of grunge, but was already too hip for the next big thing; like all self-respecting musical aficionados, I favored Mother Love Bone to Pearl Jam[1]. I was on my way to an ensconced spot with the slacker crowd, despite year-round soccer and my strict religious household. Two of the coolest slacker kids in the city, Jay Thomas and Ryan Nalley, were my friends.

But then punk hit. A meteor, and the world changed. The simplicity of punk’s rage, the howl of its rancor, the disgust with the material world, the immense discontent—these things spoke to me in a profound way, and delivered a temporary outlet for my darker impulses.

I was a (mostly) sweet and (overly) sensitive kid. Yet I had the same macho self-destructive impulses as other teenage males. Some of my friends fought. Some smashed up mailboxes. Some sublimated their aggression through sports. For me, my anger manifested in the music.

Metallica was serious business when I was in middle school. They had long hair, bleak videos, and crushing music[2]. Guns N Roses were around, too, a segue from the hair metal power pop to garage rock. I had tapes of both, but had to discard Appetite for Destruction because one of my mom’s Christian radio announcers had denounced it in a vituperative and very public speech.

But Metallica’s primary focus was paganism and the terrors of Christianity[3]. Punk was concerned with the social and political. Most punk was squeegeed clean of sex. Punk was pure. It was atonal, discordant, and grating, too, but the essence of it was a counter narrative to the mainstream. I loved it.

And unlike other musical dalliances, punk stayed, a pungent force in my teenage years.

Around 16, I started going to shows at the Nite Owl—they had shows at Sluggo’s too, but I was too young to get in–where I was purged in the pit. The pit wasn’t about hurting other people, although this happened quite a lot. It also wasn’t about being out of control. The only time I saw someone totally out of control was at a music festival; some bizarre proto-goth kid ran and dove into a group of people standing outside the pit. They kicked at him some and then booed him away from the music. The pit wasn’t about dancing, it wasn’t about looking cool, although there was an etiquette, there were expectations as to how you would move. No, the pit was a way to express naked aggression without fighting. In a large mosh pit, you’d get kicked, slapped, punched and head-butted. But you took it with an inner smile.

Ian MacKaye in the crowd; look at the joy.

Ian MacKaye in the crowd; look at the unbridled joy.

This isn’t new. In an earlier generation, most of us would have become soldiers. Or we would have worked on the farm, or done some other manual labor. Or, we would have hung out in pool halls, smoked cheap cigarettes and punched out rival gang members.

Punk allowed me to circumvent some of the more unfortunate musical trends of the nineties, but I missed out on some cool stuff, too. Punk is an invasive plant, like kudzu; it drives out anything that isn’t punk.

I scoured the used record stores for punk tapes. Somehow, the economics of things made punk tapes cool. I went backwards in time. I listened to the Sex Pistols. I listened to The Circle Jerks. I listened to NOFX. I listened to Swingin’ Utters and Avail and Hot Water Music and Face to Face and Lagwagon and Bad Brains and Christian punk[4], too. And I listened to the best tape in my possession, Minor Threat[5].

The best hardcore/punk tape of all time.

The best hardcore/punk tape of all time.

Minor Threat was the punkest of the punk. They advocated straight edge living—no drugs, no alcohol, no caffeine, a spartan existence. Most of the vegans I knew in the ’90s were also straight edge people. They lived with a set of principles more austere than the Old Testament values my mom espoused. I dabbled with straight edge from time to time, and I’m a strict vegetarian now.

The cover was solid blue, of a skinhead sitting down with his shaved head leaning on his black trousers. The album is short, less than 30 minutes for the whole thing. And it is a humdinger, a raucous, virile, primal scream of a punk record. The whole tape is killer, but my favorite track was a cover of a Sex Pistols’ cover of a Monkees’ song. Written by Neil Diamond, no less.

One time I played it so loud I blew out one of my dad’s car speakers. Another time I screamed along with such conviction I damaged my vocal chords. My friends all loved it, too.

Listening to it years later, the song is catchy, hardly punk at all, MacKaye’s immense vocals firing on all cylinders. I don’t need to write about the sound; it speaks for itself.


[1] I’m still a touch embarrassed by the little pockets of snobbery in my former self.

[2] I didn’t see the humor in their work until much later.

[3] The common thread of heavy metal; it’s primary focus is always religious.

[4] I will write on this, later.

[5] I know I’m supposed to like Mackaye’s Fugazi better, but I don’t. Waiting Room belongs on any desert island juke box, however.

Salvation Songs, part 4: Waiting for a Star to Fall

2 Jan

Secular music, excepting oldies music with my dad (always in the car), was banned in my parents’ house when I was growing up. I listened to kids’ praise, Christian radio plays, Christian audio books, and Focus on the Family, a radio station that broadcast sermons and homilies from a variety of pastors, scholars, theologians and blowhards. No Bach, Handel, or Mendelssohn. No Stryper or Petra either, but I now count this as a good thing.

My older sister had Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. I had nothing and no one. Only Psalty. And if you don’t know who Psalty is, you didn’t grow up in the Southern Baptist church. (He’s still around.)

This all changed when I was in sixth grade. For Christmas, my dad bought me a two-cassette boom box[1]. I had a handful of Bill Cosby tapes and a Ricky Nelson album. But the stereo brought me radio, and the world blossomed into something new and rich and strange[2].

I had to listen to the radio with headphones, else my mom would hear and I would be lectured. Or, worse, have the radio policed or even taken away.

Christmas morning, I put in the large batteries, jacked in the headphones, and then lied down on my single bed. I propped my feet up on the end of the wooden frame and, tired out from the late night anticipation from Christmas Eve, closed my eyes while turning on the stereo. And the first song I heard was “Waiting for a Star to Fall.”

There’s a strange revisionism to eighties music. Hugely popular bands, like U2 and the Police, are seen as precursors to progressive and underground music. They really weren’t. They filled arenas and scored number one hits. Some of the more underground stuff has, as Chuck Klosterman is always pointing out, remained viable because critics like it. (See early R.E.M.) Meanwhile, other enormous acts of the decade, such as Ratt, have been completely forgotten. Klosterman argues that the underground and the outside, over time, becomes in. Liking popular music from years ago, such as KISS, becomes the true underground. Every professes a love for The Pixies now. But who listens to Frankie Goes to Hollywood anymore?

The music of the eighties feels shimmery and ethereal. New Wave and Post-punk were great things—I still listen to the Talking Heads, XTC, James, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Prince, (some) Tom Petty and The Pet Shop Boys, among others—and hair metal and 1980s R & B were pretty terrible. But there was a strand of pop music that was pure, light as air, and streaked with sugary life. The tone was airy, a kind of light-weight synth pop that worked as dance music for people who couldn’t really dance. As a genre, this 1980s pop music could manifest as a kind of lame pseudo rock—think of Roxette or David Essex and Eric Carmen (I admit a weak spot for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack)—or as a kind of precursor to the teen pop of today, such as Paula Abdul.

I speak of Dan Hartman, Crowded House, Taylor Dane, Timmie T., Duran Duran, Go West, and yes, Boy Meets Girl. Anthemic pop music that is catchy but forgettable. Unified less by a sound than a set of (vacuous) musical values. I’m immensely fond of this body of work; I find it to be aesthetically distasteful but sentimentally satisfying.

Back to my first day with the stereo. I fell asleep with the headphones on, and my mom awakened me some time later in the day. “What are you listening to?” she asked. The headphones were cheap, the music too loud. I was stone cold busted.

“Oh, nothing. You know. I was just fooling around.” I put on my best stupefied face. “I don’t really know how to use this thing yet.”

She gave me a disapproving shake of the head and then left the room. I dodged my first bullet. It wouldn’t be the last.

Here’s the song. It means nothing to me now, musically, but everything to me emotionally. Strange.


[1] I cringe to say it now, but at the time we called this type of setup “ghetto-blasters.”

[2] Up to this point I only had the rollerskating rink for my pop music fix.