Archive | January, 2014

Interlude 4: Brief essay on pestilential weed (also known as William Burroughs)

31 Jan

(Writing, writing, writing. Working on next National Book Award essay, as well as latest novel manuscript.)

1.

There’s one lunatic in American letters who shot his way into the canon and doesn’t belong there.

It’s time to speak of William Burroughs.

Burroughs is a strange figure—truly fringe—who managed to storm the walls of American culture and appear in the mainstream. He’s a prime mover in drug fiction—one of the founding fathers of a whole genre of writing. He’s the originator of some startling ideas. He has legions of admirers. And he’s a talented writer who wrote many bad books.

He wrote one great book: Junky. Influenced by Herbert Huncke he catalogs the urban wanderings of a group of nomadic addicts in 1950s America. It’s lean, elegant, taut—near perfect. I love it. It reads like a memoir, or an oral history, which is how the project began. Burroughs could have written novels like this his whole career and he’d be a John Fante for the second half of the 20th century.

Instead, we have giant cockroaches and despicable yellow dust. For the more writerly Burroughs tried to be, the worse his books became.

Naked Lunch is not without its merits, but I challenge anyone to decipher it in any kind of joyful way. It’s drudgery, the reading of it, with moments of soaring prose.

Ditto for The Soft Machine. Ditto for The Place of Dead Roads. Minus the soaring prose.

Exterminator is worth reading, I suppose. So is Queer, an inferior sequel to Junky.

That’s it. Avoid the rest.

Burroughs is extreme—his books are ultra-violent, pornographic and alienating—but the lurid descriptions seem like they are the point of his writing. They aren’t used for anything. They serve no purpose.

Burroughs is viciously amoral. I prefer the thrum of Celine’s misanthropy, or the rutting excesses of DeSade, to Burroughs and his disaffected violence, grotesque in its casualness. He isn’t satirizing anything. He isn’t critiquing. He isn’t recording, cataloging or bearing witness to anything. He’s just . . . spitting. Or belching.

He isn’t really even experimental. He got high, wrote down a bunch of shit, and then tied it all together with bugs and aliens and guns and poison.

He isn’t Joyce. Or Stein. Or Markson. Or Erickson. His cutup technique all these years later seems lazy, unfocused. He writes stream of consciousness with no glue.

And without beauty, or a good story, or interesting characters, or a narrative thread, reading his later novels is an exercise in—I don’t know how to categorize it—poetic masochism? Stream of consciousness flaggelation?

Peter Schjeldahl nails it with his review (the reason I decided to weigh in here).

Not a nice guy.

Not a nice guy.

2.

Burroughs’s life is more interesting than his fictions.

He is born in 1914 but he is never young.

From St. Louis to Harvard to the streets of New York City.

Junk, rough trade, guns, the hustle.

Gay. But he marries.

From NYC to Texas, to grow marijuana on a dirt-farm. Has a child.

Gives the boy his name.

Toil, raw earth, struggle.

Failure, frustration—on to Mexico.

Drugs and more drugs. He shoots his wife in the head at a party.

She dies. He flees. All over, up and down the Amazon.

To London. To Paris. To Tangiers—where he spends time with Paul and Jane Bowles (how’s that for a great set up for a movie or play).

Drug-fueled peregrinations. Booze and pills. Minor celebrity.

All of it adds mystique to a dreadful man who was an okay artist. He should have read more and lived less. The epiphanies that most people experience when they have children—that your life is no longer solely your own; that the world exists independent of your urges; that kindness and decency have to be taught—never took hold. He faded out of our reality into his books. He’s a specter. He’s a shade. The emptiness in his books is the emptiness that resides inside him. It’s a cosmic hollowness. A vast disconnectedness. He’s a reptilian brain with a fierce, evolved intelligence, with none of that pesky morality.

Read Barry Hannah instead (He wrote a crazy story about Burroughs, “Two Things, Dimly, Were Going at Each Other”). Or J.P. Donleavy. Or Ginsberg, or Huncke, or Keroauc. All better writes in the final tally. They all have some essential humanity; Burroughs lost his somewhere before his life began.

Disagree? Let’s get into it.

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Interlude 3: the books I read last year.

26 Jan

Inspired by Hal—a friend, not the human-hating computer—I decided to try and remember all the books I read in 2013. I read about two books a week, excepting massive tomes that take a bit longer. (Gravity’s Rainbow, when I read it years ago, took me two months.) I’m always half-underwater with the NY Times, the New Yorker (books and movies first and always), the Chicago Reader, weekly comics (I still collect), graphic novels, and little bits of books here and there. The pattern for this past year was mostly American (visitors already know I’m making my way through all the former National Book Award winners) and mostly fiction (this is where and how I live). So here’s my annotated list. Enjoy.

The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren—Superb story of America’s losers, and boy are they losers, drug addicts, homeless, hustlers, gamblers, convicts, derelicts, drunks all at the end of America’s tether. Poetic and crushing and beautiful.

Collected Stories of William Faulkner—Never my favorite, but Faulkner’s stories shine.

From Here To Eternity, James Jones—Vicious, poorly written tale of soldiers in Hawaii pre-World War II. A heaping pile of excrement.

The Adventures of Auggie March, Saul Bellow—Meandering anti-novel of a person’s life; well written but goes nowhere.

A Fable, William Faulkner—A very bad Faulkner novel; his late period is nothing to write home about.

Ten North Frederick, O’Hara—Entertaining but misanthropic and in poor taste. O’Hara tracks the petty lives of a small town through the death of one of its “upstanding” citizens.

Field of Vision, Morris—An excellent story of tourists in Mexico. Starts out normal and turns surreal and strange.

The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever—I wish I had devoted a month to re-reading it instead of just skimming it for a second time. Cheever’s saga of a not so rich New England family through their sexual misadventures. A desert-island novel.

A great story collection by a master.

A great story collection by a master.

The Magic Barrel, Bernard Malamud—All men are Jews in Malamud’s stunning collection of stories that veer from horrifying to heartbreaking. One of the great American writers.

Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth—Roth’s first, and one of his finest, books. A young man and a young woman sabotage their first love, each in a different way for different reasons.

The Waters of Chronos, Conrad Ricther—Thin conceit about a man traveling through time to see his grandparents and parents in a small mill town in the northeast. A thin parable that feels like part of a series, and a novel swiftly moving to total oblivion. In twenty years Richter will be out of print and forgotten.

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy—Ennui in New Orleans. A passive narrator ruminates on things and goes to very few movies. Not a bad novel by any means but no great shakes either. Not sure what all the hooplah is about. Goodbye, Mr. Percy.

Morte d’Urban, J.F. Powers—Droll, at times very funny, story of a priest who has aspirations to greatness. Sent to a hamlet parish beneath a provincial headmaster he struggles to maintain his urbane identity. A very good novel for 150 pages, then it all sort of falls apart and amounts to nothing.

The Eighth Day, Thornton Wilder—Superb, wonderful novel about a family in ruins over a murder their father did not commit. Described as Little Women as conceived by Dostoyevsky. Big-hearted yet cruel; I loved it.

The Green Ripper, John McDonald—McDonald takes his detective and turns him dark and moody with murder, betrayal in south Florida. Very good genre writing.

Jem, Frederick Pohl—A very strange science fiction tale of different trans-national interests bringing their geopolitical madness to a new planet, infecting the different races their with our thanatos syndrome. Strangely written, good at times, terrible at others.

Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike—Updike’s third novel about Rabbit Angstrom, as he thrives in the late 70s American economy as a car salesman; his sexual appetites have diminished, and he’s attained something akin to wisdom. Feels like Updike wants to rehabilitate Updike’s terrifying egocentricity, and he almost succeeds.

Licks of Love, John Updike—A very fine collection of short stories. Updike wrote too much but he was a rare talent. The final novella is very fine indeed, managing to transfer much of Rabbit’s Angstrom’s problems to his insecure and troubled close-to-middle-age son.

The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines—Big-hearted, honest, earnest, funny, touching, devastating. Gaines’s fake autobiography of a child freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War follows her through almost the entire 20th century. Ambitious and great.

Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon—Perhaps my favorite novel from last year, elegant and creepy, a literary thriller about identity written with supreme style.

Stay Awake: Stories, Dan Chaon—Uneven, but the good stories pack a wallop.

Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño—I re-read this on a whim, was pulled back into one of the great works of contemporary literature. Poetry plus crime plus Mexico plus drugs plus sex plus more poetry equals Bolaño. One of my heroes. 

Nazi Literature in Americas, Roberto Bolaño—One of the great re-reading experiences, richer, more intriguing, more beguiling the second time around. Led me back to Distant Star, which is the last chapter of this novel expanded into its own book.

Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño—Pitch perfect novella about Chile before and after Pinochet, with a murderous poet who writes poems in the sky. Unbelievably good and deeply unsettling.

The Insufferable Gaucho, Roberto Bolaño—A very fine collection of short stories, with the title story somewhere in my all-time favorites. I re-read this after Detectives.

Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolaño—So fucking good. I dip into this every year.

The Great Leader, Jim Harrison—A very fine, lusty, bawdy, earthy novel from one or our great wild men of letters. A middle-aged ex-cop hunts for a cult leader by way of booze, long walks, ruminations on history, and plenty of butts. I absolutely loved it.

A Woman Lit Only by Fireflies, Jim Harrison—Three novellas by Harrison, and each is quite fine, but Brown Dog is wonderful.

The Good Lord Bird, James McBride—Cross-dressing pre-Civil War picaresque involving a freed slave who accidentally joins up with John Brown. A homage to Little Big Man.

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth—The Radetsky March is one of the great novels of the 20th century; this is Roth’s final statement on the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it follows a group of aging dandies as they drink, woo, talk, all in the decadent twilight of the dying empire. Moody, small and unforgettable.

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham—Giant man-eating plants stalk remaining Londoners through a post-apocalyptic England after most of humanity’s gone blind. A bit better than it sounds.

Prose beautiful and sharp like cut glass.

Prose beautiful and sharp like cut glass.

Nightmare Town, Dashiell Hammett—One of the kings of American crime writing, Hammett here delivers hard-boiled stories in his inimitable staccato fashion.

Southern Cross the Dog, Bill Chang—Big build up, big disappointment. Various southern types—huckster preachers, hard-living bluesmen—collide in this pastiche southern gothic that somehow made the cover of the New York Times. Not bad but terribly overrated.

The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak—Snipers in World War I somewhere on the eastern front; not bad at all but hardly memorable.

You Can Call Me Al, Ring Lardner—Lardner’s epistolary novella about an under-educated palooka who hits the big leagues but can’t quite keep it together. A light but ripping good read.

Little Big Man, Thomas Berger—Epic, fantastic revisionist western following a white boy who ping pongs back and forth between white and Amerindian civilizations, finding violence and horror in both. An American classic.

The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant—The semi-true story of Bonderant’s family of moonshiners during prohibition, and their squabbles with the law and other criminals. Not half as good as it sounds, and strangely formless.

City of Bohane, Kevin Barry—Highly stylized science fiction bowery boy cum western following rival gangs and lost loves amidst an ultra-violent Ireland. A good novel that focuses just a touch too much on slang and not enough on the story.

Wonderful revisionist western.

Wonderful revisionist western.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt—Simply fantastic. Two gunslinging brothers are hired to assassinate a gold prospector who has invented a new way to dig for gold. Wonderful, spare, funny, thrilling, and profoundly moving western written with discipline and aplomb. There’s more than a touch of True Grit here, which is high praise indeed.

Satantango, Lazlo Krasznahorkal—Societal breakdown amidst rain and ruins in an isolated Hungarian town; I wanted so badly to love this, but I did not.

Middle Passage, Charles Johnson—Superior maritime adventure about a New Orleans black hustler who is tricked onto sailing aboard a slaveship. Elements of fantasy and science fiction and nautical adventure handled with wit and style. I loved this.

An Empire of Their Own, Neal Gabler—Gabler’s history of the first studio heads. His thesis is simple: their Jewishness defined the movie studios, and we still live with the values and points of view of those original moviemakers. A fantastic history of the early movies.

Scenes for a Revolution, Mark Harris—The 1967 Oscar race, in Harris’s hands, becomes the proving ground between the old Hollywood (Dr. Doolittle) and the new (Bonnie and Clyde); Excellent film history. l I loved this book, save for Harris’s dismissal of In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke.

The Great Movies I and II, Roger Ebert—Ebert’s major contribution to the world of film is his Great Movies books; they are fabulous, fun to read and filled with wisdom; he wrote best about movies he loved.

My Life, Roger Ebert—Ebert’s brisk, funny, pithy, warm and wise autobiography details the newsrooms of the sixties and his run-ins with writers, directors and stars.

The Scenes that Mattered, Daivd Thomsen—Thomsen’s first dud, a movie book with great photographs but thin writing which Thomsen was never guilty of, until now.

The Big Screen, David Thomsen—Thomsen’s excellent history of movies, which begins as a discursive study of screens but devolves into Thomsen ruminating on the movies he loves and knows so well. A great book.

Cassada, James Salter—Salter is a careful, patient writer and a superb craftsman. Cassasda follows a young pilot as he makes his way through pilot school. Not as good as The Hunters, but still worth reading.

All That Is, James Salter—An entire life passes through these pages, the sex and love and drinks and food and books and fighting and children and heartbreak and old age decline. Salter’s most ambitious book and a hell of a read.

Masterful.

Masterful.

Pastoralia, George Saunders—Saunders is the great short story writer of our new century, wise, sardonic, brutal, funny, big-hearted and unsentimental; he gets us, how and where we live, what our internal lives are like in this era of corporate-speak and digital self-replication. The title story is my favorite of all of Saunders’s work.

Tenth of December, George Saunders—Saunders had a big year with me, and this collection is stunning; “Semplica Girl Diaries” is perhaps his greatest story, and with a talent as impressive as Saunders, that’s saying a lot. Just a fabulous book.

The Twenty-Year Death, Ariel Winter—Winter’s first novel is an astonishing narrative trick, three sections each aping the voice of a different crime writer. The first section mimics Georges Simenon, the second channels Raymond Chandler, and the third copies Jim Thompson. The chapters aren’t gimmicky or thin, and each captures the distinctive voice of a great writer; I loved it.

The Psycopath Test, Jon Ronson—Ronson is one of my favorite journalists, and Them is one of my favorite non-fiction books. Here he explores the fringe of the medical world, exploring the notion and reality of psychopaths, and if there’s a way to identify and perhaps help them. A very fine book.

Augustus, John Williams—Williams is one of my favorite lesser known writers and I reread his epistolary novel of ancient Rome on a lark. I adore it; Williams manages to imbue small things with a thrilling gravity, and he captures the otherworldly dignity, and cruelty, of Augustus.

The Ides of March, Thornton Wilder—After The Eighth Day, I read two other Wilder novels and “Our Town.” Ides is his epistolary novel of ancient Rome; it is a very fine piece of writing and historicity, but it disappears from your mind as you are reading it.

The Bridge at San Luis Ray, Thornton Wilder—Wilder’s taut, lean novella of a monk investigating the lives of five people who died on a collapsing bridge; the monk is looking for evidence of God’s purpose, what he finds is . . . I won’t give it away.

Provinces of Night, William Gay —The best novel by a fantastic writer who appeared on the scene as an old man and then pushed out a few more books before dying. Night—I might have read it last year, the books at the beginning of the year sort of jumble together—is the story of a dissolute, violent family of southerners. Their story is dour, gothic, disturbing and borderline grotesque. But Gay accomplishes a great coup in this novel, adding into it a bad luck klutz with a decent heart who drives much of the plot and provides all the levity. A superb, absolutely wonderful novel.

Artfully pornographic literature from Brazil.

Artfully pornographic literature from Brazil.

House of the fortunate Buddhas, Joao Riberio—Brazilian novelist Riberio takes a crack at the perverse of the seven deadly sins in this diabolical little novel about lust, told in a pornographic monologue by an aging libertine near the end of her sexual adventures.

Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs—Had to try it. The prose is overcooked, the characters thin, the whole endeavor is unsubtle and blunt. Having said that, there’s something remarkable about the story of a little boy raised by apes.

The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson—Astonishing. The story of a alcoholic writer on a five-day bender, and the horrifying degradation—both internal and external—his binging brings. A nearly forgotten classic, and a breathtaking thriller of the deranged mind.

The Gallery, John Hope Burns—A panoramic view of Naples at the end of World War II, this is a fascinating, well-written novel bursting with misanthropy and (self) disgust. Burns was such a vapid and disagreeable man he burned every bridge in his personal and professional lives. A bitter pill.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline—A blast of nostalgic nerdiness that had me rooting around online for the old arcade classics. The creator of the program everyone plays online, instead of living their lives in the burned out, corporate-controlled world of the present, dies. He leaves clues to his inheritance, and control of the game, in eighties’ movies, games and music. A near-perfect genre read.

Secret Lives of Great Filmmakers, Robert Schnakenberg—A trifle, but lots of fun to read. Schnakenberg details the shortcomings, neuroses, and infidelities of the great filmmakers. A gossipy tell-all series of anecdotes.

Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, Scott Korb—A very fine history of Palestine when Jesus was supposedly born. Korb is a good writer; he has a way of unpacking complex ideas with gentle humor.

Like being drunk and hungover at the same time.

Like being drunk and hungover at the same time.

Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock—A two-fisted, cracked out riff on Winesberg, Ohio, and boy is it a great read. Pollock is a major talent, bent towards the gothic and the grotesque. He writes like a man possessed, and his big shortcoming is his lack of subtlety. Taken as a whole, the book is a grim tour of a depraved world.

Fatale, Jean-Patrick Machette—A tidy little murder novel where the fatale sweeps all the characters into the trashbin; Machette uses the noir devices to drive home his points about the perils of unchecked capitalism. Interesting, but nothing to revisit.

Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe—An Irish outsider narrates this tale all out of order, and he might be a murderer, or just a criminal, or perhaps something worse. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t.

The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy—Holy shit, I loved it. The story of a drunken rake in Ireland who abandons his child, beats up his girlfriend, and steals from his friends. Written in astonishing prose, and funny as hell. Squalid, tormented, yet also full of love. One of the great novels of the 20th century (I know I say this a lot).

Song of the Viking: Snorri and the Making of the Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown—Brown investigates the life of Snorri, the Icelandic poet who recorded—and perhaps created—almost everything we know of the Norse myths. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already interested in the people and the region.

Far Side of the Dollar, Ross McDonald—If Chandler inherited the crown from Hammett, McDonald is the successor of Chandler. He writes in Chandler’s vein, funny, descriptive, punchy. He plots in a similar way too; the twists come loose and fast.

The Duel, Anton Chekhov—Amazing and unforgettable. Chekhov is a lucid, lean, elegant writer and here he details a growing feud between a hedonist and a leftist on the outskirts of the Russian Empire. Insults boil over into a duel.

The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer—Over a thousand pages following a murderer before, during and after his crimes. The first 200 pages are unparalleled in their intensity and skill; near the end I wanted to tear my hair out. But I’m glad I read it. It’s a monumental piece of literature.

Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Reader, Charles Portis—Delightful. Portis is one of my favorite authors, and this is a real treat; a collection of his short stories, travel pieces and a play. The stories are good; the play is funny; but the travel essays are superb. If you haven’t read Portis, go out and read Norwood or Masters of Atlantis immediately.

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan Koerner—A fascinating history of hijacking in the late 1960s, focusing on an unlikely biracial couple who steal a plane and end up holed up in Algeria with Eldridge Cleaver and other Black Panthers.

The Unwinding, George Packer—Inspired by the U.S.A. Trilogy—one of the great novels of the 20th century—Packer follows three real people through the ups and downs of three decades in American life. The portraits form a tapestry of a great unwinding, of how downsizing, political corruption and gridlock, and a loss of a national narrative are unraveling the fabric of the U.S. Sobering, yes, but also thrilling in a way.

 

Interlude 2: The hidden story of Marvel comics.

22 Jan

(I recently read Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. It’s a very fine history of the comic company, and also a disturbing saga of betrayals, reversals, backstabbing, and the clash of egos wrestling for creative control, all against the backdrop of big and bigger money swooping in to get control of the vast repertoire of characters. What follows is my rambling response, in 28 unbelievable bullet points.)

• Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is one of the great books on comics. The others are The Ten-Cent Plague, Super-GodsThe Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Understanding Comics.

• Howe’s book is a sobering—and often repugnant—read. He keeps his opinions sewed up tight. His disdain for Stan Lee seeps through.

• Marvel began as a small part of a large magazine empire. Stan Lee started out as an intern. He hid his ambition from the handful of the original oldtimers; he wanted to rule the world. In some sense, he succeeded.

• Stan Lee, to most people outside of comics, is Marvel. Fans know better. Half-huckster, half-public relations patchwork humanoid in the vein of a celebrity-obsessed Frankenstein’s monster, Lee was one of the original writers in comics. He created the myth of the Marvel bullpen, the merry group of prankster artists pushing the consciousness of American youth. He was, in a word, a liar. Read his later work, when he wasn’t paired with a strong artist, to see how weak his writing could be.

• Lee is an easy target. His scripts haven’t aged well; he sided with the corporate suits over his friends time after time; he turned himself into a brand at the expense of his soul; and his claims to being the creator of all the major Marvel characters have turned out to be a goddamn lie.

• The key to understanding how Lee got away with his chicanery is the Marvel method of comics he invented. The artist would plot the story out (with or without Lee), then pencil in the pages with word balloons and boxes for exposition. Lee would write the scripts based on the existing pages, then they would be inked and colored and printed and shipped. In many cases, the worst part of those 1960s Marvel titles is Lee’s words. He loved puns, cornball jokes. He often misunderstood the power of the characters he was writing. And he benefitted from two oddball geniuses fated to draw for him: Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

• Jack Kirby was ripped off, mistreated, undervalued, and remains removed from the very characters that have, in a sense, conquered the second half of the twentieth century. The entire structure of the Marvel universe—read Earth X number 0 to see it laid out, it’s fascinating—was created by Jack Kirby. While Stan Lee was paid $500,000 a year to do nothing in his dotage, Kirby was left near destitute and furious at his mistreatment. This was wrong. Kirby is comics John Ford and Orson Welles and Michael Curtiz combined.

One of Jack Kirby's many, many evil gods.

One of Jack Kirby’s many, many evil gods.

Steve Ditko is a stranger case. He walked away from Spiderman, the most popular comic in the world, giving no reason for it. He spiraled into the circular madness of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, wrote and drew a few comics here and there, but has been quiet and withdrawn ever since. He is the Thomas Pynchon of comics.

• Kirby and Ditko weren’t great writers, but they had mountains of ideas. Together, they built most of the Marvel we know today. Kirby provided the weird cosmic madness of the Fantastic Four. Ditko provided the Peter Parker portions in Spiderman, insisting that the comic would only work if it spent equal time with both halves of his psyche, and that Spiderman’s success would hurt Peter Parker, and vice versa. He was a goddamn genius.

• In Mutants and Mystics, author Jeffrey Kripal makes the argument that Kirby was obsessed with Gnostic and occult ideas. And that the Marvel Universe is built around the Gnostic principles of evil, alien gods and archons and so on. This is exactly right.

• When you first look at Kirby, his art strikes you as blocky and rushed. It takes years to see the immense creative power—it’s like being dunked into a blue ocean of pure imagination—of his work. His best work is The New Gods.

• John Buscema has always been underrated as an artist. Ditto for Wally Wood, John Romita, and Paul Ryan.

• Howe doesn’t mention Mark Gruenwald’s ten-year run on Captain America. He achieved greatness. Ditto for Roger Stern on The Avengers. Both provided rich characters and epic storylines that effortlessly moved one to the other. These were superhero comics done right.

• Gruenwald, Stern, Archie Goodwin—one of the pure souls in the shady business of comics, his decency radiates through the pages—Bob Layton and Carl Potts all emerge as minor heroes in the Marvel saga. They had talent, vision and basic decency. Jim Shooter, Roy Thomas, and Jim Salicrup all come off as difficult, arrogant and untrustworthy.

• The great, underutilized character in Marvel comics is the Silver Surfer. The most interesting hero in the Marvel Universe is the Vision. The most fascinating villain in the Marvel universe is Doctor Doom. The problem with all three is that they are so very easy to get wrong. I remain convinced that the Black Panther is one of the great black characters in American pop culture. Power Man[2], on the other hand, was a goddamn disgrace.

Dreadstar remains one of the great, underrated comics. Jim Starlin[1] rules.

• Marvel succumbed to the blockbuster mentality that shook the movie world in the 1980s and continues to reverberate through book publishing right now. It started with Secret Wars. Marvel began overlapping their stories between titles, often pointlessly. The result was an escalation that damaged the individual mythologies of the characters and forced readers to buy titles they didn’t want. The best writers held these larger stories at bay to focus on their little corner of the world, but many didn’t.

• This is when I started collecting. (My favorite villain was The Lizard.)

• The low point for Marvel was the specialized collector’s covers in the mid-1990s. Speculators entered the comics market. Prices went up. Fans were bewildered. The value of individual comics ceased to be about the characters; the value of individual comics was judged in terms of dollars. This was, and is, obscene. (Blame New Mutants # 87.) Comics used to be mini-novels, modes of expression, often hemmed in by a culture and format that simultaneously liberated some writers—like the old Hayes’ Code—while bedeviling others. But with the rise of the 90s artists, comics became a product, like candy, foisted on an ever-aging fanbase.

• Almost everyone fell into the speculator’s trap; all of my comic book collector friends bought multiple issues of the ever-increasing issue number ones.

• The nineties sucked, comic-wise. The reason is simple: Rob Liefield.

I'm speechless; to this day I can't understand how Liefield got rich off this crap.

I’m speechless; to this day I can’t understand how Liefield got rich off this crap.

• Liefield had no talent for writing or drawing, but somehow snookered the industry into giving him the keys to the kingdom. I think he made a Faustian deal with the devil. What else explains his career? (Visit here for the best denunciation of Liefield I’ve ever read.)

• I left Marvel in 1995—which means I left comics; I’ll cover DC later—over my distaste over the myriad X-titles, and the ever-expanding list of lame mutant characters, as well as the drop in storytelling quality and the dissipating weirdness that made comics matter. I washed my hands of the entire medium.

• I wasn’t gone long. Six months later I returned. Vertigo—especially The Sandman and The Invisibles—brought me back[3]. Vertigo was a dark fantasy line of comics for adults. It was modeled on Marvel’s ill-fated Epic Comics.

• The same problems that bedevil Marvel now—too many titles, too many restarts, too many retreads of the same stories, too few new characters, too many crossover events, too much reliance on a byzantine mythology built by other people, many of them dead—was there at the beginning.

• Marvel’s business strategy—and this is a book on business—was to flood the market with product, and crowd competitor’s off the newsstands. Marvel does this same thing today. They don’t learn anything from the history of their own company, pushing themselves through boom/bust cycles that could be avoided if they focused on quality writing and drawing. Having said that, the art at Marvel right now is superb.

• If, as Kundera says, all that we have is the present moment that we cannot truly experience, comics are all present. Put another way, comics can’t escape the past and they can’t escape the future. They are fixed in the present. The way forward seems to be to reset the characters at a zero point, forever wedged between possibilities in both directions.

• Marvel should salvage their universe by copying DC’s 52, illuminating the dark corners of the universe through the minor characters, such as a rogue doombot; Dugan; Mockingbird; the Zodiac supervillains; some LMDs; Scourge[4]; and Ben Urich navigating it all with his sights on a major story. If anyone from Marvel reads this, let’s do this thing.


[1] His Warlock is my vote for the weirdest superhero comic ever written.

[2] Marvel has retrofitted him with more strength, no jive talk, no more mercenary nonsense. He now goes by Luke Cage.

[3] And Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing remains one of the strangest, most thrilling comics ever written. That said, it went on too damn long.

[4] I’ve written a Scourge treatment. The first issue is titled, I am a Scourge, like my father before me.

interlude 1: Simone’s favorite songs from 2013

12 Jan

Simone loves music, but she’s particular. She prefers female singers and a whimsical sound. I love that she’s developing her own tastes. My only concern is the influx of princess stories. (Pearl loves these, too.) I’ve been listening to the new National record, Trouble Will Find Me, and I love it. But both Pearl and Simone can switch the music off, which they do whenever I leave the room.

Anyway, here are Simone’s favorite songs from 2013 (most of them aren’t from 2013):

 

“A Real Hero” — College & Electric Youth

“San Francisco” — Foxygen (We belt this one out together, it’s adorable)

“Ho Hey” — Lumineers

“Girl on Fire” — Alicia Keyes

“If I had a Hammer” — Peter, Paul and Mary

“Faithful Man (bare bones version)” —Lee Fields (I love this song)

“Get Lucky” —Daft Punk

“Scarborough Fair” — Simon and Garfunkle

“Here Comes My Baby” — Cat Stevens

“Leaves that Are Green” — Simon and Garfunkle

“Royals” — Lorde

“Forever” — Haim

“Give Your Heart a Break — Demi Lovato (A guilty pleasure but I love this song, too)

“Hearts on Fire” — Cut Copy

“Don’t Sleep in the Subway” — Petulia Clark

Disney princess cds, especially Beauty and the Beast (ugh)

 

National Book Award winners, part 19: 1966’s The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

10 Jan

 (Wherein I read all the former National Book Award winners, so that you don’t have to.)

1.

In 1966, Katherine Anne Porter won the national book award for her Collected Stories. In the seventeen years since the national book award began, she was the first female author to win.

Since 1950—the first year of the award—Pearl Buck, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Lorraine Hansbury, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates all published major novels. None of them won.

The story of women in American fiction is a study in rebellion against acute social control. The big names of Edith Wharton, Djuna Barnes, Kate Chopin[1] and Willa Cather are studies in steely determination and immense talent and drive. Many male authors back in the day slid into writing careers. The women had to hack their way in with bone-handled knives.

Until 1920, women were second-class citizens; they didn’t even have the right to vote. Higher education, publishing, most professions—these things and more were closed off to most women. Virginia Wolff famously said that “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own to write fiction.” Marriage was considered the major goal for women, and raising children the only honorable ambition.

Fiction in America was almost exclusively a man’s game. A handful of female writers broke through this gendered divide. The counterculture didn’t do much better; for all its vaulted transgressive morality, the Beat Movement was just as much a boys’ club as any Ivy League school[2].

Libertines, rebels, spinsters—most of the American female writers were outcasts, expatriates. The accomplishments of American female novelists were often overlooked in their home country. Gertrude Stein, a towering figure in modernism, became successful in France.

2.

Katherine Anne Porter’s life is the stuff of great fiction. She was born in a tiny town in Texas in 1890. It was a wilder time. Lives were stranger, less fixed. Expectations were low for a poor southern girl like Porter. And like many people of her time and station, Porter lived a hard life. Her mother died when she was a child. So did one of her brothers. Her father moved her here and there across Texas, Louisiana. In hotel rooms and boarding houses. She married at 16. She suffered at the hands of a hostile, abusive husband. She divorced at 25. She survived tuberculosis, barely survived the flu pandemic. She moved to New York City. She began writing. She wrote and wrote. Articles and stories. She had lovers, husbands, miscarriages and sadness. She carried bitterness like a stone in her heart.

 

The first female winner of the top fiction award. It only took 17 years.

The first female winner of the top fiction award. It only took 17 years.

Porter was famous in her lifetime for her novel, Ship of Fools. It follows a group of characters heading towards Germany in the 1930s. The writing of it took her over 20 years, but it was worth the wait. Fools was a monster bestseller, adapted into a movie, and it left Porter scalded by fame but also rich.

She didn’t write any other novels. The shorter form was better for her, easier.

3.

Porter is precise, controlled. She writes about small moments, little epiphanies. Some of her stories remind me of D.H. Lawrence. She isn’t flashy. Some of her stories feel plain. The conflicts are often subdued. I kept dipping in and out of the stories waiting for a shock of electricity. The shock never came.

This isn’t to say she isn’t a good writer, for she is. I just kept waiting for the prose to ignite. But she isn’t that kind of writer. She details the internal lives of her characters in quiet tones. Many of her stories are hushed. She details despair and disillusionment, often women realizing the fallow character of their husbands. She traffics in melancholy and regret. You can sense her lurking behind her stories, carrying around a lifetime of hardship and disappointment. To read her stories is to engage with a sad, lonely intelligence of the first rank.

Here’s a taste of her talent and style, the first paragraph of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”:

 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was the not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep.

Now I must get up and go while they are all quiet.

 

I didn’t read all of her stories. I couldn’t. I won’t revisit her work. I (probably) won’t ever read more than the few pages I’ve already read of Ship of Fools. Porter is important for a lot of reasons, but I’m ready to leave her behind.

4.

It was a weak year for American fiction. Irving Stone, Vincent Starrett, Jerzy Kosinski, James Michener, Peter Matthiesson and Norman Mailer all published middling novels. Frank Herbert released his sci fi magnum opus, Dune. Kurt Vonnegut published another intriguing (and depressing) science fiction novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Flannery O’Connor released her fantastic collection of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Porter’s Collected Stories is as good as any of these books, except for O’Connor’s. I just can’t get excited about reading it.

The Nobel prize winners of today were cutting their teeth on the sixties. International fiction was ablaze with bright, young talents who we’re still feeling today: J. M. Clezio, David Lodge, Witold Gombrowicz, Raymond Queneau, and Iris Murdoch.

Now on to Bellow (boo!) and Malamud (yay!).


[1] The Awakening is one of my favorite novels of all time.

[2] Please read Harvey Pekar’s graphic history of the Beats. It’s fantastic.

interlude: I review The Wolf of Wall Street. (I hated it.)

5 Jan

1.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a depraved, decadent, and boring film so in love with itself that no one involved seems to get how bad a movie it is. But it isn’t just a bad film, it’s an evil movie.

Scorsese and company have made a paean to a vile, horrid system. And although critics have given them the rubber stamp of satire, “truthfulness,” “bravery,” and so on, the critics are wrong.

My temple has been sullied.

2.

Beth and I left the theater to a night of wind and snow. We rushed home to get the kids to bed and relieve Beth’s dad, and as we did so, Beth began her rant against the movie. This is the angriest she’s been after a movie since we saw Oldboy in the theater. (She didn’t speak to me for a forty-five minute train-ride home after that one.) What follows is a small taste, with her comments in italics:

I can’t believe we just wasted three hours on that movie. We could have cleaned the apartment, we could have gotten the kids to sleep on time. We should have gone to see American Hustle.

It’s based on that guy’s memoir. The movie kept saying he could sell anything, and then he takes his disgusting crimes, turns it into a book, and then sells them to us. It’s enraging.

So we just handed over a small portion of our hard-earned cash. We’re the schmucks with no paper towels and a dirty fucking house and those rich assholes, all of them—Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese—are laughing their asses to the bank with our twelve fucking dollars in their pockets.

No, that scene with Kyle Chandler is the movie. We are those schlubs on the subway. We bought penny stocks. “Sure, Martin Scorsese, here’s our twelve dollars. Here’s three hours of our lives.” Maybe it is a great work of genius. That he has convinced us all to see this movie, and fucked us up the ass with it. The movie is perfect. Form follows function.

It. Blows. My. Balls.

I’m not going to see another movie in the theater for two years.

(Beth revisited the movie a bit later in the evening)

I think the movie makes the most sense in tandem with the rest of Scorsese’s career. He’s saying that these guys are just as bad, if not worse, than the dudes in Goodfellas, only those guys all go to jail or get killed. These guys get away scott-free. They get movies made about them. I’m still not going to see a Scorsese movie in the theater again.

3.

Scorsese is a hero[1] of mine. I’ve always felt that his immense knowledge of film and his skill with the camera was augmented by a moral intelligence. He’s made three or four of my favorite movies of all time: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, After Hours, Goodfellas. Plus he champions forgotten filmmakers, film restoration, makes interesting documentaries and so on. He’s always struck me as a decent person in an often indecent business who carries a heavy load of Catholic guilt, using his movies to work through his quandaries.

But he’s lost his way. Somewhere, one of our most gifted and driven directors has stumbled.

I think this movie fits with the late-period decadence of Scorsese, an often tortuous and very public decline in quality that seems to be inextricably linked to Leonardo D. Shutter Island is a nightmare, just terrible; The Departed is a flashy piece of well-made trash; The Gangs of New York is an at times beautiful nightmare, but what a train wreck. This leaves only The Aviator, his one solid movie in fourteen years, and it has problems, too.

Time was, Scorsese’s little side projects were fascinating little gems, like After Hours and The King of Comedy: unpredictable, stringent, funny, harrowing, lean as an arrow. Hell, even his remake of Cape Fear has its adherents, with a wild and fascinating performance from Bobby D.

But his post-2000 work was never inelegant or shoddy. His movies have always had interesting side characters. Something to say. Little moments that stick with you.

I won’t go into the Wolf’s manifold flaws—it has no structure; good scenes are cut short and bad scenes run too long; it has no plot, so the characters have to carry the story only the characters are vapid, one-dimensional and boring; the look of the movie is gaudy and inelegant; and the script is loud and flabby; there’s no sense of time, so the entire movie could take place in two years or twenty; the soundtrack is non-existent—except for its deformed moral sense.

Beth’s contention is that the movie is a brilliant piece of satire, delivering its message hours after you’ve finished watching it. “The whole thing is a middle finger from the ultra-rich.”

She’s being generous. I think the movie is nothing less than one of the most opulent disasters I’ve seen in fifteen years. Pauline Kael called Straw Dogs the first great fascist piece of art. She’s right in a fashion; that movie celebrates Dustin Hoffman smiting his enemies. He doesn’t outsmart them or form a coalition of other like-minded people or anything like that. He just punches, kicks, chops and boils them until he is victorious. The movie is a celebration of a type of might-makes-right punitive justice. I admire Straw Dogs, but it is, at its core, evil.

So is The Wolf of Wall Street. The movie doesn’t interrogate, unpack or contextualize the evils of unregulated capitalism[2]. The movie doesn’t contest any of the basic assumptions of Wall Street. The movie doesn’t do anything but catalog the tiresome sexual escapades of DiCaprio and his chubby cronies. Men behaving badly. There, I just summarized the entire movie in three words.

Worst. Movie. Of. The. Decade.

Worst. Movie. Of. The. Decade.

But unlike Straw Dogs, which is a compelling, piece of filmmaking, Wolf is boring. So fucking boring.

4.

I’m not through with the movie’s lack of ethics, morals, decency. A movie can show a depraved or deformed mind or character and still have moral intelligence—Bad Lieutenant, Zodiac, hell, even Pasolini’s Salo—but Wolf of Wall Street is profoundly imbalanced. There’s no moral perspective at all. And as there’s no real comeuppance, the movie has no narrative balance. It also has no poetry, no beauty, no life to it. Amidst the orgies and the yachts and the mounds of cocaine and the flashy clothes and the absurd cars the movie has no time for people eating, drinking, moving through the sunlight. The movie substitutes—as a narrative choice—screaming and shouting and speechifying for any kind of emotion, tension or drama. Worse, the movie offers—as a narrative choice—the audience absolutely nothing to root or worry for. Everything is surface. Everything is gloss. We aren’t given even a sliver of something to care about. The best thing about the movie is Matthew McConaughy, and he exits after a mere ten minutes.

Other directors have carried their talents within their flaws. DePalma, for example, used his weaknesses as his virtues, especially at the beginning of his career: self-conscious camerawork, heavy-handed visual themes, weird acting. At a point in his career, his bold, self-referential style was cutting edge. But for twenty years, his movies have been pale comparisons of his former work, indulging in the same tricks, only no longer fascinating or new.

Scorsese always balanced his tendencies towards excess with his humane appreciation of his characters, and an underlying moral sense. He built his films out of internal conflicts in his characters. But here, there is no subtext, no nuance or ambiguity; It’s all surface. But if this is his point, if this is his indictment—that we live in a society so rotten we spend our money to watch the depredations of the assholes who’ve ruined it—did the movie have to run three fucking hours?

If you want to see a movie that subjectively lowers you into the consciousness of a narcissistic Wall Street trader, go re-watch American Psycho, a movie that balances the torturous horror of this decadence but with wit, panache, and a wicked political bite.

Unsophisticated and childish, unthoughtful and churlish, petulant and obnoxious and irritating and un-literary, nasty and brutish, misanthropic and racist (I don’t have the heart to get into these other flaws, but my god, the women in this movie are given no internal lives at all, they’re just tits and asses and smiling faces)—The Wolf of Wall Street is a smug, shitty movie about an unrepentantly revolting human being.

There are a few laughs, but so what? They come at the expense of our moral outrage. Near the end of the movie I heard a ringing in my ears. It was the death of American cinema.


[1] His Conversations with Marty is the best introduction to film I’ve ever seeen. It’s marvelous.

[2] Go watch the original Wall Street if you want to see a great movie about the injustices built into the system.

interlude: Random thoughts as I enter the 2014.

2 Jan

1.

I took my dog Jack for a walk on New Year’s Eve. I was on the tail end of a four-day flu, replete with aches, fever, coughing, low-grade misery. When I get fevers now, I experience weird temporal distortions. Time speeds up, slows down, skips a minute or an hour.

So I walked. It was early evening, cold, dark, snowy. I looked up at the second story windows, saw a tall dude talking on his phone. I stopped. He looked like me. He had short hair, he was thin, he had gray clothes. At the moment I look like the last survivor of an Arctic expedition gone horribly awry—I’m unshaven and unkempt with absurdly long, curly hair threatening to mulletify—but a few years’ ago, I looked just like him. I waited. He laughed, throwing his head back. I do the same thing. He was pacing in front of the window while on the phone. So do I. Is that me? I wondered. Am I peering back in time?

He stopped, stared out at me. I stared back. I couldn’t make out his features. I felt creeped out. I moved on.

I walked Jack around the block, came upon an empty parking spot. Next to the spot were two shoes, placed as though their owner had evaporated while waiting to be picked up. It was eerie. I walked over, put my foot next to them.

They were almost, but not quite, my size.

Life can feel portentous, if you let it.

I went back the next night, same snowy darkness, same window, same dude. He looks nothing like me. He isn’t even that tall.

The shoes were gone.

2.

Roberto Bolaño (I love him; see my review of his life’s work here) gave a series of speeches, as his literary celebrity was rising and his body was failing him. The most famous was titled “Literature + illness = illness”. His point is that literature, which he worshiped and adored, could do many things. But it couldn’t heal him.

I’ve had a roaring end of the year run of sickness—stomach flu, pneumonia, colds, coughs, aches, nausea. As well as dangerously low iron stores (I was a regular blood donor and I am a dedicated vegetarian), reoccurring bursitis in my left shoulder and a rib on my right side that slips out of place[1].

I’m falling apart. I’m not feeling sorry for myself, or looking for pity. But I’ve been writing a lot, trying to push through when I feel ill, and that Bolaño speech keeps echoing through my thoughts. Does literature offer anything when your body is in arrears? Even diversions matter little when nausea is knocking at the door. Or put another way, when I feel sick, I don’t want to read at all.

Literature + illness = illness.

3.

I watched Breaking Away tonight. It’s a great movie, shot with that film stock that seems to glow with sunlight. I kept thinking that linked with some other movies, it forms a kind of epic American tale of anxiety, masculinity, ennui, male sexuality and decline. Stand By Me and then The Outsiders and then Breaking Away and then The Breakfast Club and then Dazed and Confused and then The Diner and then 25th Hour. 

You can see River Phoenix becoming Dennis Quaid/Judd Nelson/Nicky Katt, becoming Mickey Roarke becoming Barry Pepper.

4.

I remain convinced that It’s a Wonderful Life is the greatest film ever made.

I’ve been sleeping with my legs crossed and my hands in my pockets. I feel elegant, like Cary Grant. I stare at the ceiling and imagine I have a cigarette dangling from my mouth.

Simone’s favorite movie—I swear I’m not making this up—is John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. It’s a fabulous movie, often criticized for beating Citizen Kane for best picture in 1941. Critic Dave Kehr thinks Valley is the better movie. He might be right.

Because of the girls, I don’t make it to the theater very often. The best movie I watched this year was 2011’s Once Upon A Time in Anatolia. The second was probably 1950’s The Gunfighter. The worst movie I watched was 1983’s Lone Wolf McQuade.

5.

There is a generation of dudes who revere Chuck Norris[2]. I’m not one of them. He’s wooden, blocky, and his movies have the worst kind of politics. But Lone Wolf McQuade feels special. People remember it as Norris’s Spaghetti action movie, with an epic fight at the end with David Carradine.

None of this is true. I rewatched it. The movie is terrible. The music is a miserly Morricone ripoff. The action scenes are slow and muddled. The plot is stupid. The highlight of the movie is Chuck Norris pouring a beer on his face to rejuvenate himself after a beating, and then drive his all-terrain vehicle out of a dirt pit where he was buried inside. Here’s the clip. Do yourself a favor, watch this and skip the rest of the movie:

 

 

 

However, it fits with my thinking on 1980s action movies. As a whole, they are really about racial reconciliation. Think about it. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, They Live, Firewalker[3] are all about forming bi-racial friendships, cleansed (or purged) of racial prejudice through extreme violence.

6.

As some people have noticed, I’ve been writing about Simone and Pearl less. As they gets older, funnier, more self-aware, I feel like writing too much about them for this blog seems . . . wrong somehow. I’ll keep inserting little anecdotes here and there.

A few days hence, I’ll continue on with the National Book Award Winners. I’m taking a slight reading break to catch up on all my Christmas books. Until then, au revoir.

 


[1] From an injury I received while working backstage at a play in college. Seriously.

[2] I have a theory that a whole generation has a special attachment to the movies TBS played all through the mid-1980s. These include Beastmaster, Krull, Conan the Barbarian, Delta Force, Lone Wolf McQuade, The Octagon, Ladyhawke, and so on.

[3] I could go on, but isn’t Louis Gossett, Jr. and Chuck Norris saving each others lives evidence enough? Iner