Archive | November, 2013

Interlude 1: Roger Ebert’s Life Itself.

24 Nov

1.

I just finished Roger Ebert’s end-of-life memoir, Life Itself, and it’s magnificent.

He tracks through his life in a series of short chapters about different facets of his life, including his childhood, his early days as a Chicago cub reporter, and his life amongst the celebrities after he became a celebrity himself. He highlights a handful of actors and directors, including a very fine appraisal of John Wayne (Ebert thinks Wayne’s been underrated as an actor and as a human being, and so do I); Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Ingmar Bergman and Werner Herzog. Here’s a sample of his writing about the great eccentric of German cinema:

He wasn’t pitching or promoting. It was clear to him what his mission was. It was to film the world through the personalities of exalted eccentrics who defied all ordinary categories and sought a transcendent vision. Every one of his films has followed that same mission. . . . Each film, in a new way, dealt with the fundamental dilemma of consciousness: We know we are here, we know what we see, we learn what we can, we try to do more than is possible, we fail, but we have glimpsed a vision of the infinite. That sounds goofy and new age, but there is no more grounded filmmaker than Herzog. He founds his work on the everyday realities of people who, crazy or sane, real or fictional, are all equally alive to him.

Damn good stuff, and right on the money. In fact, I struggled to find the locus of Herzog’s otherworldly power and weird intensity until I read this passage, and then Herzog’s entire oeuvre shifted into place.

2.

If you only know Ebert from his newspaper reviews, you’re missing a great writer and critic. Ebert’s short reviews were often weak, and he’s rightly eclipsed by many other great movie reviewers. (J. Hoberman writes the funniest reviews; Pauline Kael is the most infuriating and intriguing; David Thomson is the most engaging; David Denby has the best background[1], even though he privileges “message” movies; Anthony Lane is the most acerbic; Dave Kehr is the most dismissively opinionated.; I could go on, but all of these are arguably better film critics of individual films.) Ebert always seemed to like everything, and I always lumped him together with peter Travers, that other big-name reviewer who put his stamp on every piece of offal that Hollywood releases. I was wrong. Ebert’s the best appreciater of film, and his Great Movies series is the best introduction to great cinema I’ve ever read. He provides context, history, anecdotes—like most good critics—but all of it couched in a profound humanism and decency that gives each review a warm glow. It’s much, much harder to write insightful, appreciative criticism than it is to write snarky dismissals. Ebert, for much of his career, could do both. He lost his edge somewhere in the mid-1990s, but who doesn’t mellow with age?

Probably my favorite movie book.

Probably my favorite movie book.

His Great Movies books are full of wise, knowing, compassionate readings like this of (mostly) canonized films. Most of the movies are predictable, but some are not. I reread these with some regularity. They offer a vast canvas of film history chiseled out of four-page reviews. He champions foreign films from around the globe, while illuminating our own treasure trove of filmmakers here in the States. He isn’t casual dismissive, he doesn’t draw blood with sarcasm or vitriol; instead he builds a structure of great movies that could be a stand in for a film studies class. Every body should own a copy.

3.

His life was a string of newspaper successes. He was accomplished in high school, in college, and as a journalist all before he slipped into film criticism. He was by his own admission arrogant, imperious, difficult. He was lucky, too. Without any planning and little ambition he ended up on a television show with his best friend and worst enemy Gene Siskel and they became household names and international stars. Ebert tracks his relationship with Siskel with the warmth and affection of the passage of time. When they were up and comers fighting for the spotlight, they often went at each other with sharpened knives.

The book is punchy, rapid-fire scenes looped together with Ebert’s crisp, elegant writing. It’s often funny, always insightful and occasionally very moving. He tracks his friendships, his failures, his alcoholism, his busted relationships and his lifelong companions. His story contains the lives and deaths of many notable and not so notable people, and he gives each person their fair due. He has a superb touch evoking bygone days, foreign cities, the thrill of seeing a great film for the first time.

A very fine, funny, moving autobiography by one of the most humane appreciaters of culture America has produced.

A very fine, funny, moving autobiography by one of the most humane appreciaters of culture America has produced.

Eventually, Ebert became ill, had a series of bouts with cancer, lost his jaw, emerged from chemotherapy looking like a hideous creature from some bad science fiction film. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, lived off of tubes and couldn’t speak except with a computer or legal pad. Books and movies became his major point of entry for life, and gained greater importance. He became more humble, more introspective, better. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He didn’t pout or retreat from his suffering. Instead he opened up his thoughts and feelings for the world. He began to ruminate on this life through a weekly blog, and from these ruminations he formed his autobiography.He emerged as a more robust thinker and a public intellectual. Despite his handicaps—he didn’t eat or drink anything for years—he refused self-pity.

(Interestingly, the book that mattered the most to him in his final days was Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.)

Ebert chronicles his final years with humor, dignity and detachment. He knew he was dying when he wrote Life Itself, and his writing on the subject of death is as moving, honest and powerful as that of Marcus Aurelius:

 

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death of fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. . . . I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. . . . Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever.

He was an odd television star, well-spoken but often uncomfortable on camera. Here he is arguing with critic John Simon over the Star Wars films.

 


[1] His Great Books, about as a middle-aged man his re-enrollment in the great books courses at Columbia University, is not only one of the best books on literature, it’s also the best book about the culture wars of the 1990s.

National Book Award winners, part 14: 1959’s The Magic Barrel, by Bernard Malamud.

14 Nov

1.

In 1959, Bernard Malamud won the national book award for his fifteen short stories, titled The Magic Barrel. It is a magnificent collection.

The stories detail crucial moments in the lives of New York Jews. Malamud’s narrative voice is sustained by a wise, slightly detached, unflinching observer who has love but no help in his heart.

His sentences are clear and concise, but also sneaky, heart-rending. Here he writes of a shoemaker who has failed to set up Miriam, his daughter, with a capable bachelor:

He left. Miriam had not been mentioned. That night the shoemaker discovered that his new assistant had been all the while stealing from him, and he suffered a heart attack.

The characters all speak in a Yiddish-inspired idiom that Malamud mines for great comic effect. Here’s an excerpt from the title story, between a matchmaker named Salzman and Leo, a new rabbi.

“Her age is thirty-two years.”

Leo said after a while, “I’m afraid that seems a little old.”

Salzman let out a laugh. “So how old are you, rabbi?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“So, what’s the difference, tell me, between twenty-seven and thirty-two? My wife is seven years older than me. So what did I suffer?—nothing. If Rothschild’s daughter wants to marry you, would you say no on account of her age, no?”

“Yes,” Leo said dryly.

Salzman shook off the no in the yes. “Five years don’t mean a thing.”

One of the great collections of short stories.

One of the great collections of short stories.

My favorite story in this collection is “The Mourners.” It follows an old Jewish misanthrope who lives alone in an attic apartment in a tenement. He has an argument with the super, and the landlord, on a whim, evicts him. What follows is short, wild, crisp, heartbreaking. “He was much alone, as he had been most of his life. At one time he’d had a family, but unable to stand his wife or children, always in his way, he had after some years walked out on them. He never saw them thereafter because he never sought them, and they did not seek him. Thirty years had passed. He had no idea where they were, nor did he think much about it.”

And right there, the same honest, slightly detached tone of an observer who wants to help but can’t. It captures the heartless bored essence of a weak man, and sets the tone for a devastating comeuppance. You feel like hugging that same callous fellow by the story’s end. It speaks to Malamud’s supreme writerly skill that he can make you care about such a lout.

2.

Bernard Malamud is one of the great writers of the 20th century, an artist of the first order, a profound humanist, and so, so, so much fun to read. I love him.

His stories are supercharged with emotional power. His sentences are elegant but combustible. He sneaks gut punches into his work.

“‘Go anywhere,'” the narrator tells a recent widow in “Take Pity”. “Go to your relatives.”

“She laughed like laughs somebody who hasn’t got no joy. ‘My relatives Hitler took away from me.'”

I’m not sure why he isn’t held in higher regard. He’s infinitely better than Bellow, more interesting than Roth, more consistent than Updike, and more varied than Cheever, yet he clocks in behind them all. I’ve come up with a few possible reasons for this:

1. There isn’t a clear thematic line through all of his work, save perhaps the dignity of suffering, and thus he’s mislabeled as a magical realist, or a comic chronicler of Jewish immigrants. He’s both, and neither.

2. He doesn’t have one big book, or really any bad ones. The big book syndrome (such as Joseph Heller with Catch-22) allows students and academics to study an author through his/her best work. Malamud doesn’t have a best work; he has five excellent novels and fifty superb short stories. The interesting misfire—think of Norman Mailer—humanizes an important author and, as strange as it sounds, endears readers to him/her.

3. Malamud is easy to read, but handles complex material. The pleasure he affords makes him seem light, especially to academics, who tend to study byzantine writers like Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace, or the old warhorses Hawthorne, Melville, and so on. But he’s a damn good writer, better by far than most of the maximalist counterparts.

4. He has some kooky setups, such as with “The Angel Levine,” where a Jewish man prays for help and it comes in the form of an African American street-wise hustler who claims to be a Jewish angel. (The story is fantastic and it works.) Some of these oddball plots seems childish.

5. He sold well, and was also critically successful, and writers who accomplish both often are approached with suspicion by contemporary readers, critics, and so on.

6. He doesn’t traffic in a specific genre. He roams. He wanders. He writes comedy, tragedy, harsh realism, druggy fictions. He sets his stories in 1970s decaying Harlem, 1960s west coast towns, 1950s Brooklyn. He populates his stories with the old and the young. He writes about shop owners, criminals, writers, artists, the poor, the rich, the down on their luck.

7. Unlike many other great authors, he doesn’t have an autobiographical novel (David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, all of Philip Roth’s work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Naked and the Dead, etc.), and therefore it’s difficult to get at Malamud the man through his work.

8. Finally, he doesn’t belong in any one school of fiction, such as the hardboiled west coast authors, the maximalist or minimalist or regional schools; he isn’t even a New York writer, as his novels are set all over. He’s independent, and this sets him outside the purview of high school and college teachers. He’s tough to pin down. (John Williams, another great, underrated author, has this exact same problem.)

3.

Two years ago I read everything Malamud wrote (except Dubin’s Lives; not sure why I’ve skipped it; I’m a mystery to myself sometimes). He’s a fabulous stylist, big-hearted yet unsentimental. I can’t remember a writer giving me such happiness, pleasure, and heartache in equal portions. He’s funny, sensitive, elegant, but also brutal, unrelenting and vicious. He’s one of the rare, great novelists who writes killer short stories (there are others: Philip K. Dick and John Cheever among them.) He’s the cat’s meow. He’s the mutt’s nuts. He’s the real deal.

Here’s a breakdown of his novels. Do yourself a favor and start reading them.

The Natural is an epic study of a baseball star who comes late to the sport and even later to celebrity. It’s wonderful. It’s also misunderstood. It isn’t a fable so much as a sports saga with tall tale-ish undercurrents running through its pages. But the story is as much about regret, lust, corruption, manipulation, disassembly and loss of self-control. It’s unpredictable and hypnotic, written in near-perfect prose.

The Tenants[1] follows two writers, one Jewish the other African American, in a tenement building, in the 1970s. They are surrounded by urban squalor, casual crime, a decaying society. They attempt a friendship, fail, and become more and more antagonistic towards each other. The novel descends into a nightmare of paranoia, violence, as they each begin to sabotage the other’s writing life. It’s a thrilling, disturbing read; think Chekov dictated to Travis Bickle and then translated by Richard Wright and you’re close.

The Good Life is Malamud’s academic novel. It’s fascinating, thrilling even, following an idealistic young professor as he butts heads with the dean of his department, while accumulating small mistakes that eventually unravel his life. It’s funny at times, but in the end it’s closer to Coetzee’s Disgrace.

The Fixer follows a Jewish repairman in Kiev who is unjustly imprisoned. The rest of the novel follows him struggling to maintain his dignity while being subjected to physical and psychological torment at the hands of his jailers. In lesser hands this would be a depressing read, but it somehow isn’t. I can’t remember a novel I enjoyed reading more, that gave me more pleasure, and yet was a detailed account of a person’s suffering. Malamud’s narrative skills are unparalleled.

The Assistant is his great working class novel about the suffering of the Jewish people. A white dude robs an aging, struggling Jewish grocer and gets away. Yet he feels so guilty about it, he decides to try and help the grocer by becoming his employee who works basically for free. And throughout this amazing book, every time the thief tries to help, he causes the grocer more harm, more suffering. This is Malamud’s most complete philosophical statement, that all men are Jews, making his point that the absurdity of life, and the tragedy of human existence, don’t just scar Jewish people but the whole human race. And yet we must find some dignified, humane way to prevail. I cannot recommend it highly enough; a great place to start with Malamud.

God’s Grace sounds like a kooky idea; the last man on earth is commissioned by God to start a new world, and his only companions are apes who begin to talk. The last man begins to craft a nicer, sweeter society with the apes, and then it all comes crashing down. The blurbs describe this as comic, but it isn’t. It’s an angry howl against aging[2], a screed against the needless violence and suffering in the world. One of the most devastating horror novels I’ve ever read.

He also wrote Pictures of Fidelman, five short stories about a struggling artist (three of them are great).

I’ll finish with Malamud—it’s difficult for me to write about him—with praise that Flannery O’Conner said about him in a personal letter. “I have discovered a short story better than any of them, including myself.” High praise from a fellow master.

4.

1958 was a good year for fiction.

Raymond Chandler released Playback. Mary Renault continued with her groundbreaking historical novels, The King Must Die. Jack Kerouac published his intriguing if slightly overrated Dharma Bums. Terry Southern—who never quite lived up to his talents—released the overrated yet titillating Candy. Truman Capote published his very fine story collection, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

World literature was on the march. Lawrence Durrell, Alberto Moravia, Graham Greene, Kenzaboro Oe, Alan Sillitoe, Carlos Fuentes, Samuel Beckett, and Kingsley Amis all published novels. Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart.

Science fiction continued to blossom. Robert Heinlein, William Tenn, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, and Jack Vance all published book-length fiction.

Interestingly, although it had been in publication for a while, 1958 marks the date Lolita was officially published in the U.S. Barrel beat it out for the top award and it’s easy to see why. Malamud’s stories are rich, varied, sexy even, but subtle, graceful, and most importantly, humane. Lolita is a grand, masterful novel—like most everyone else I think it’s one of the great novels of the 20th century—but it’s also a study of evil and rationalization by a weak, disturbed mind. The language is stunning, the book is funny and thrilling, too, but it’s an unpleasant, compromised experience.

I think the National Book Award people got this year exactly right.


[1] They made a pretty good movie version of this with Snoop Dogg and Dylan McDermot. I’m not kidding.

[2] In the same way that the movie version of  A Prairie Home Companion seems sort of nice and frivolous, but is a terrible disturbed scream against death and dying.

Interlude 4: My life in comics, part 1: Mark Millar is an overrated idiot.

12 Nov

1.

I learned to read on comics, my first love was comics, and I still collect. I don’t write about comics much. Not sure why. But last night I read a comic that infuriated me, and I feel the spirit to comment.

Time to get my nerd on.

I’ve collected on an almost continual stream for thirty years. Like other fans, I think the comics are infinitely more complex and sophisticated than the movie versions; that graphic fiction, graphic literature and the like are insulting, demeaning terms; that comics are a rich, fertile and elastic medium that can be used in manifold ways; and that Jack Kirby[1] is one of the great unsung artists of the twentieth century.

The top tier writers are Alan Moore, Grant Morrison[2], Neil Gaiman, Ed Brubaker, Havey Pekar and Warren Ellis. (Peter Milligan is close.) The writing team of Mike Mignola and John Arcudi must be included. (B.P.R.D. and the other Hellboy offshoots are all absolutely astonishing.)

Then there are the great writer-artists, including Jack Kirby, Daniel Clowes, Darwyn Cooke, Charles Burns, Craig Thomson, Barry Windsor-Smith and Paul Pope, to name a few.

The middle writers—solid, a touch predictable, but capable of great stuff—is an enormous group, including Andy Lanning and Dan Abnet, Kurt Busiek, Jonathan Hickman, Mark Waid (his run on Daredevil is fantastic), J.M. DeMatteis, Jeff Lemire, I don’t know, there are dozens of talented writers who fall into this category, the bulk of comic writers both in the past and today.

The old warhorses, some of them excellent: Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Peter David (who remains a wry, humorous rascal; his mid-90s run on X-Factor was killer), Chris Claremont (God, the man had to narrate every single frame), Roger Stern (his mid-80s run on The Avengers and Captain American are crowing achievements of superhero comics), Mark Gruenwald (the man who made me love Captain America and his Squadron Supreme was incredible, a real powerhouse), Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon. There are tons of them.

There are the former champs who have gone to seed: Frank Miller, Jim Starlin and Garth Ennis. Miller was amazing, and then he was just terrible, and Starlin was cracking for years with Dreadstar and The Infinity Gauntlet and his early Warlock stuff, but then he stopped trying new stuff and he became stale. Ennis’s run on Hellblazer was incredible, and the first 25 issues or so of Preacher were great. But then he became a parody, and turned all of his work into a vehicle for mediocre black humor.

And then there are the overrated, dudes that either diluted their talents or were never very good to begin with: Brian Michael Bendis (he has some fantastic books, including the early Powers, but he has been one of the worst forces in the Marvel Universe for years, a very bad writer of action with a pretty wretched run on Daredevil, the comic that a good writer can always do well); Joe Casey, who had a fabulous initial run on Cable, but has put out mostly crap since; and the worst of the worst, the biggest turkey in the game, Mark Millar. A real son of a bitch creep.

2.

I fucking despise Mark Millar. He’s a terrible writer. And, I’m almost certain a miserable human being. Yet, he has interesting, often exciting setups and ideas.

Dumb jokes, bad morals, no sense of the characters and a self-satisified, shit-eating grin = a bad writer.

Dumb jokes, bad morals, no sense of the characters and a self-satisified, shit-eating grin = a bad writer.

Old Man Logan[3] is a good case in point. The world has fallen to the villains, some fifty years in the past. The country is divided into zones, each ruled by a different super-criminal. The heroes are either dead or in hiding. Wolverine is raising his family on a rundown little dust farm, he’s late on the rent, and his landlord is the Hulk. The Hulk’s grandchildren are super-strong thugs who rough him up. He has to make a delivery with an aged, blind Hawkeye, across all those enemy-occupied zones, to make enough money to pay his debts. And, because of a tragedy he won’t speak of, Wolverine’s a dedicated pacifist, refusing to unleash his claws.

A pretty nifty idea, derivative of Mad Max, Future Imperfect, Days of Future Past, and The Ultimate Warrior, among other sources, but pretty clever. Only delivered with a simple-minded, vicious, and callous nastiness that dismisses everything decent and good about these characters, about storytelling, about the human race.

I’m not kidding.

The Hulk emerges at the end as a homicidal lunatic who kills people indiscriminately because he’s bored. This isn’t edgy, it’s dumb and childish, and it reveals the lack of moral character and decency in Millar the person.

The Hulk only works as a character if Banner feels guilt over the Hulk’s actions, and somehow has to try to be a hero in spite of the raging monster inside. The Hulk’s value, as a concept, stems from Banner trying to assert influence on the damage the Hulk creates. Otherwise he’s just a monster, and a kind of boring one at that.

Yup. That happens in the comic, without any importance, emotional connection, nothing. Just a dude getting decapitated.

Yup. That happens in the comic, without any importance, emotional connection, nothing. Just a dude getting decapitated.

Here’s another example. Halfway through the story, Hawkeye meets his estranged daughter, who turns out to be a depraved, power-hungry killer. This subplot amounts to exactly nothing; it’s just another way for Millar to show how terrible humanity is. There’s nothing more to it. She’s a tough badass, and any kind of ethical or moral conduct can suck it. Millar admires her character, you can tell.

And, well, it’s a corny thing to say, but heroes matter, even made-up heroes, and to spend your lifetime diminishing them is, well, weird[4]. And kind of hateful.

By the story’s end, Wolverine has to reject his pacifism, that’s his character’s story arc. It’s replaced with a silly vigilante code of justice that comics were grappling with as early as the 1960s. In fact, the comic asserts that it is Wolverine trying not to kill that caused much of the problem in the first place. Okay, fine, but the moral weight of violence must be measured, interpreted. Good writers—and decent people—grapple with the underlying ethics of their fictions, even if the stories seem silly. Even in comic books. Wolverine must fight to keep his murderous instincts at bay, this is the essential conflict within him, and us. To reject this is to misunderstand the importance of restraint in storytelling and in life.

A very fine cover, but misleading. Wolverine and Hawkeye don't avenge their fallen friends.

A very fine cover, but misleading. Wolverine and Hawkeye don’t avenge their fallen friends.

His spin on Marvel Universe’s future—there have been dozens and dozens of dystopian future Marvel stories, including “Days of Future Past” and “The Age of Apocalypse,” even the New Warriors had a story set in some grim future—reveals how little he understands the characters. Wolverine is more than a killer. The Hulk is more than a monster. And I know to outsiders I sound like a nerd splitting hairs, but goddammit, it matters. To me, to other fans, to the medium and to our culture itself.

3.

I’m not finished. Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, besides being a total misfire, “updated” the mutants by making them horny, stupid, vapid, superficial and nasty. He doesn’t understand Magneto—a very hard villain to write well, I admit—and he doesn’t develop any of the other villains at all. (Chris Claremont would drop little clues to the villain’s backstories—he wrote in a time when most of the characters would think in dramatic monologues, asides, and soliloquies—and after a while, all the minor characters had the flicker of internal lives.) Millar doesn’t do any of this, so the minor villains remain mere henchmen. Why even name them? The storylines are all stolen from the original series. He added no new characters of any note. And he boiled the entire X-saga down to Professor Xavier and Magneto[5]. Worst of all, it was relentlessly boring.

Kick-Ass is my vote for worst comic of the decade (and a terrible movie), simplistic, boring even, unsophisticated, childish, a bit creepy with the adolescent sexual perversity. The story is a retelling of two dozen or so teenage origin stories, only marbled through with curse words and extra teenage angst. I hated it. You should, too. John Romita, Jr., is a great comic artist, and even his considerable talents couldn’t salvage this stinker.

4.

Other writers create ultra-violent stories. Warren Ellis, for example, also traffics in a hardline misanthropy, but he tempers his contempt with moments of wonder and transcendence. The Authority might be the best celebration of human ingenuity in the face of existential despair I’ve read. And The Ocean is hands-down one of the greatest science fiction comics of all time. My point: Ellis sees the good in people as well as the bad, and insists on giving some attention to the consequences of violent actions. And all of his output stems from his left-wing politics, which provides an ethical context and for his work.

Alan Moore’s From Hell is one of the supreme achievements of the medium, and it’s chock a block full of corpses, bloodletting, murder. And the Neonomicon, his Lovecraft-inspired miniseries, was one of the most disturbing horror comics I’ve ever read. And I loved it.

I could go on, but my point is that good writers have violence erupt from the characters, their passions, their flaws, their mistakes. Millar uses violence for nothing more than sarcasm, a big middle finger to fans, and I resent him for it. He wastes my time.

5.

Millar is bad at dialogue. It must be said. His characters are either stolen outright or weak retreads. His jokes are terrible. His one defining characteristic seems to be crass violence and unfunny tastelessness.

Okay, credit where credit’s due. His run on The Authority wasn’t terrible, but it was in some sense just a continuation of Warren Ellis’s excellent groundwork, and augmented by one of the great storytellers of the medium, Frank Quitely. His Wolverine: Enemy of the State had a great premise and was pretty fun to read.

And Millar has one significant comic, and I would argue that it is Bryan Hitch’s superb artwork—and there’s evidence that Grant Morrison, his former friend, helped develop the concept—and it’s The Ultimates. The dialogue is still bad. The characters are still vapid. But his run on the series had two great aspects. First, he shows how quickly the world would change, and how dramatically, if superpowers were possible. Second, he has an epic sweep to the geopolitical ramifications of super-powered beings. It’s poorly written, but still rousing stuff.

6.

Okay, I’ve kicked him enough. He’s prolific as hell, and I don’t feel like going through his back-catalog. I’ll finish with this. The artwork in Old Man Logan is exceptional. Steve McNiven is a very talented guy, and the landscapes and characters all look fantastic. But I kept feeling like the very essence of superhero comics was being twisted, but for no particular reason[6]. The crass jokes, the harsh ultra-violence, it added up to nada, zilch, nothing. It wasn’t any fun. I felt like he woke up one morning and thought, why don’t I have little hulkings raping and pillaging everything that moves? And Wolverine’s family will be killed for no reason? And Hawkeye will die for nothing at all? Wouldn’t that be cool?


[1] And Steve Ditko.

[2] I could write a doctoral dissertation on him. I love him.

[3] The comic that inspired me to write this post.

[4] By the by, I accept a kind of underlying viciousness to Celine, Trocchi, David Goodis, Genet and so on, but these men had formulated philosophies on how the world worked. Their misanthropy served a purpose; it was indistinguishable from their art. And none of them mocked the very artform they chose to write in.

[5] The best X-villains are the Reavers, cyborgs armed with futuristic weapons, who represent the other possible branch of human evolution, man melding with machine. And, for other reasons, Nimrod. And the Sentinels. And Mr. Sinister. And Apocalypse. And the Hellfire Club. I wasn’t lying when I said I was a comic junky.

[6] Alan Moore’s Watchmen is partially about the ruin of human ingenuity in the face of Dr Manhattan, and how superheroes would very quickly become ossified, boorish, or tools of the state.

Interlude 3: Two more thoughts on The Executioner’s Song and a brief excursion into memory.

6 Nov

1.

The middle third of The Executioner’s Song lags a little. It follows the media circus around Gilmore’s case. Reporters, agents, writers, movers and shakers, all descend on Gilmore and his family, looking for releases, waivers, offering cash, television appearances, and so on. Mailer makes his point: we cannot escape the celebrity culture woven into our country. The public relations industry has eroded the very concept of quiet dignity. Mailer was—when he wasn’t bloviating, boozing, head-butting his enemies or stabbing his wives—an insightful interpreter of our society and culture. Gilmore’s implacable drive to finish his own story , without providing ease or comfort to himself or others, feels so alien, like the actions of an ancient Spartan, or some pagan philosopher facing the rise of monotheism. He’s a marked contrast to the money-grubbing schemers around him who want to turn his life story into something neat, tidy, understandable, digestible, and therefore profitable.

2.

It’s rare, but reading sometimes brings another consciousness tumbling into my own. It can be a phrase, a character, something about the author’s way of description. It’s a plunging, disorienting, fantastic feeling, as if your life has been mapped out before you were born, or this author knows you better than you know yourself. (Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion is a book that did this to me, as well as George Saunders’s short stories, Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, Tom Franklin’s introduction to Poachers.) It’s psychic immersion, and the closest thing to magic we have.

The Executioner’s Song has done this very feat. I feel weirdly connected to Gary Gilmore.

Gilmore says in a letter that his favorite novel he’s read in the past year is The Ginger Man. This sent me thinking about my childhood.

I was an imaginative child, sensitive to criticism. My imagination manifested through play. I loved action figures. I created backstories. I enacted battles on alien worlds. I was happy, I smiled a lot. I had friends, I played soccer, I loved to draw.

But somewhere around 13, darkness entered. I still smiled a lot, kept a happy face to the world, but inside, I had macabre thoughts. I daydreamed about the deaths of my family. I visited my own funeral. My friends were murdered, I found corpses in closets, I fled from cannibals across malevolent cornfields. I watched too many horror movies. I had terrible nightmares. Sometimes, I sleepwalked. My outlook wasn’t misanthropic so much as disturbed.

As I neared the end of high school, I maintained my happy countenance. Inside, I brooded, fretted, worried. I had malformed thoughts. I sometimes felt that my nature was evil. It was a psychic split, mild but real[1]. I didn’t turn cruel. Over my life I’ve had a few moments of disassociation, where I feel like I’m watching someone else make my body’s decisions. My morbid, brooding interior life stayed melancholy, internalized. I didn’t hurt anyone; I started writing stories.

As I got older, I developed anxiety, paranoia. I felt unsafe walking by alleys. I always looked over my shoulder at night. I had a palpable fear I would be attacked on an elevator. I developed a conspiratorial frame of mind. I felt prematurely aged, weary. I was the very picture of the haunted man. I dieted on a steady meal of existentialism. Literature didn’t help this feeling. Far from it. Good books made me feel inadequate. I felt death lurking over everything, a vile sludge running in the invisible country that lay just beneath the surface of the visible world. I didn’t know why I was here, or what it all amounted to. Mixed in with the anxiety was a stony feeling of my own capacity for violence. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, but I could. It was there, the impulse, the wherewithal, the moral flexibility.

Which makes Mailer’s representation of Gilmore so spooky and personal to me. The Ginger Man is the best book I’ve read this past year, too, or at least one of them. And seeing Gilmore talk about it reverberated with me. If raised in a different milieu, could I have ended up like Gilmore? Mean, raw, and punishing? In another reality, could I have murdered someone for no reason at all?

I outgrew some of my paranoia, sublimated (most of) my feelings of violence, developed a perspective on much of the anxiety and learned to deal with it. I absorbed my literary failings and even grew to admire my fortitude in the face of them. I stabilized. I had children. The darkness eventually gave way to new, more mundane worries. The occasional anhedonia seems to be the extent of my psychological problems. The rest of the dark stuff I squeezed into fiction manuscripts.

Some of them are even pretty good.

Enough Norman Mailer. On to a man I love, trust, admire: Bernard Malamud.


[1] Perhaps the major reason why I write novels.

Interlude 2: Mailer, Borges, Bolaño, Brazilian knife fights.

4 Nov

(My newest manuscript is turning into a bizarre writing experiment. I’m mostly writing it in 3,000-word bursts, almost automatic writing, with the creative force just channeling through me. Leaves me exhausted afterwards, but it’s a wonderful feeling, that the stories are somehow coursing though your from parts unknown.)

1.

The New York Times has an astonishing piece about a knife fight in Brazil this week. I can’t get it out of my mind. (I urge you to read it here.)

Here’s the stripped-down version of the story. Two casual friends get into a fight at a soccer match in a rural village of Brazil. The dispute is over a yellow card, as one of the players is injured and refereeing the game. They exchange insults. The fight turns deadly. The referee stabs the player in the chest, killing him. The dead man’s teammates  tie the referee up, beat him, humiliate him, drag him around behind a motorcycle, then chop him into little pieces with a scythe. They eventually leave his head on a spike by the empty field. The murder took a few hours to commit. The police never showed.

Reporter Jere Longman presents a harrowing picture of sports, violence, lawlessness, poverty, rage, blood debts, savagery. It’s some of the best writing I’ve come across this year. (Finkel’s New Yorker piece about U.S. soldiers grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder is the other.)

Reading it, I kept thinking of two of my favorites short stories, “The South” by Jorge Luis Borges, and “The Insufferable Gaucho,” Roberto Bolaño. The stories, separated by sixty years, are in conversation. Both involve knife fights, the rural mindset of boredom, machismo and revenge.

One of Borges’s few non-fantastical stories, “The South” follows a recently released mental patient as he travels back to his parents’ hometown and country estate. He’s a fragile, disturbed man, weak, long separated from work and the land. He arrives at a bar in the little town. Almost immediately he’s goaded into an absurd knife fight with a stranger. He accepts the challenge, even though he knows he’s going to lose. Near the end, the story reads, “They would not have let such things happen to me back in the sanitarium,” he thinks, and then goes out to certain death.

Gaucho takes a similar starting point but ends with the exact opposite conclusion. In Bolaño’s hands, the man from the city adapts to the methods of the country in a brutal, heightened fashion. Bolaño’s gaucho poses. He postures. He bullshits. And in his affectations, he becomes a hardened and uncivilized man. When he returns to the city, he is a wild, armed and dangerous. This story, too, ends with a knife fight.

Both traffic in the collision of the urban with the rural. Both stories detail the mindset of the countryside. Both stories are terrific, sad, horrifying. Both pale in comparison to the depraved actions of those Brazilian soccer players in Longman’s article.

 

2.

From the rural poor of Brazil to the miserable, near-poor of Utah.

I’m finishing up Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, his epic, studied, disturbing, insightful “non-fiction novel” of American crime and punishment. The book follows dozens of struggling people in Utah. They drink, fight, steal, fuck. They fight, get high, drink too much, cruise around the dusty backroads, gamble, squander their resources, ignore their children. It’s a thousand pages. It zips. It soars. It’s a staggering achievement. I wish I had read it years ago.

The book centers on Gary Gilmore, an intelligent, lonely, undereducated, alcoholic psychopath as he gets out of jail, tries to start a new life, and then drift back into a life of crime. He’s conniving, manipulative and cunning, but has spent fifteen years in jail, and thus has little sense of social cues or emotional maturity. He’s a teenager in a man’s body, with a keen intellect but no moral center.

One of the monumental works of narrative non-fiction.

One of the monumental works of narrative non-fiction.

It’s a devastating portrait of a failing society. And, with the exception of some deliriously erotic passages, the book is very Un-Mailer-esque. He’s conspicuously absent as an authorial presence. The drunken swagger and outlaw bravado that permeated much of Mailer’s public life is missing. Gilmore isn’t a hero, he’s a failure. Mailer was often prone to excess in his prose, but here he gives a master-class in restraint; the whole book is a lean, taut, understated. It’s one of the best works of creative reportage I’ve read. (Under the Banner of Heaven is another.)

Here he describes how Gilmore’s parents met:

 

The next time Bess met Daddy was on the street and his name, she learned, was Frank Gilmore. “I’m getting married tomorrow,” he said.

“Congratulations,” she said.

 

When she saw him next in the street, she asked, “How’s married life?”

“It’s over with,” he said.

 

Song is a white-knuckle read. Increasing tension ripples through concise scenes of accelerating anxiety. Gilmore’s erratic behavior increases in volatility. He begins shoplifting, drinking too much, bragging about murdering a man in prison. Mailer knows how to tease out his story, and waits to hit the reader with Gilmore’s letters until some 400 pages in. The letters are astonishing, needy, humane, hurtful, vengeful, manipulative. They are the work of a raw, unhinged mind, capable of love in the most narcissistic and damaging form.

Song is less poetic than In Cold Blood, less beautiful perhaps, but just as powerful, disturbing, even more honest in a way[1]. Blood is fantastic, I’m a huge fan, and I think it’s one of the most moving pieces of literature I’ve read. But Song seems deeper, more meaningful somehow, more probing, more interested in regular people, less affected, less artificially structured.

3.

Which brings me back to that knife fight in Brazil. Are we better? No. We have similar episodes of depraved violence in many of our cities. In Englewood here in Chicago, for instance, one in twelve people is a victim of violence. We are bombarded by a daily torrent of rape and murder. Bodies are found headless, stuffed into suitcases. We have mass shootings, serial killers, professional hitmen, horrifying kidnappings, brainwashing, entrenched para-military gangs cannibals, and so on.

Mailer argues that we live in an oppressive system that creates murderers and thieves; we just don’t see the mechanisms as they shape us. Bolaño sees the world as a decaying space of casual criminals, where anyone can commit just about any crime (and in some cases that crime is a creative act). And what Borges posits, most simply but worst of all, is that the world is a giant asylum, and that the crazies are running things. Those crazies are us.

Happy thoughts. More to come, good people of earth. Typing away.


[1] Many critics posit that Capote was either in lust after, in love with, or deceived by Perry. I believe it was a combination of all three.