Archive | April, 2014

Interlude 1: Coffee stains on a discarded page. (For God’s sake, a poem?)

29 Apr

1.

It’s my last day as a 36 year old.

I don’t know why I decided to write a poem.

I don’t much care for poetry.

I don’t read it.

I don’t write it.

I don’t appreciate it.

But here I am.

(I’m often an enigma to myself.)

2.

I love Rumi, Roberto Bolaño and William Blake.

A weird combination of people.

Rumi is sexy and wise

Bolaño is sexy and weird

Blake is weird and wise

Sex and wisdom and high weirdness

These things, clearly, matter to me

in some odd circular tautology.

3.

And the coffee stains on the discardible papers

A near-perfect semi-circle colored sludgy brown

And the sun-ravaged faces of the young

We have too much sun in this country

We have too much rain in this country

We have too much wealth in this country

I can’t seem to synthesize the disparities.

Everything these days is coated with dead skin and dust.

 

Something about the scarred page.

I start this poem.

4.

A memory.

I was fourteen.

It was late at night.

My cousin ran over a possum with his shitty car.

We turned around to look at the carcass.

The possum’s mouth was still moving.

My cousin shined his headlights on the dying animal.

He muttered something I didn’t hear.

We stared at the dying creature.

I knew then that one day I would die.

5.

A real memory, parsed through words.

Language is the most diabolical of traps.

You can feel the edges of it, the sinewy musculature

The bones and teeth of it, the gaps, the erosions

The imprecision.

Always the imprecision.

And what is poetry but a quest for precision?

Nothing is true, language seems to say.

Not even the words “nothing is true.”

Deconstruction. That’s the literary term.

Led me to some dark thoughts.

of squiggly lines

jagged realities overlapping in bizarre places

each person carrying a flawed universe inside.

I didn’t like it.

Everything felt liquid and insubstantial.

 

Boiled down to this:

6.

Words lie.

Images lie.

7.

So do people.

8.

Everything is everything.

Lauryn Hill said that.

If it is, it can be.

If it can’t, it won’t.

If it were so, it might be.

But as it isn’t, it ain’t.

That’s (stolen) logic.

9.

It was a horror, the deconstruction.

Sartre and Beckett and Conrad and Bergman and God’s silence

Tarkovsky and Dostoevsky and Dracula and Superman and God’s silence

I struggled.

I suffered.

I synthesized.

I sublimated.

Real horror is nonsense.

Real horror is unanswerable, patternless.

Death and the machinery.

Dust and decay and the crumble of buildings.

Fresh skulls repurposed for TV.

The blight of history.

All just words.

(I take some comfort in this.)

10.

I don’t drink enough coffee

I drink too much coffee

I can’t drink coffee and liquor on the same day

Therefore I never get drunk

An almost-syllogism for the modern man,

Who flickers against the digital displays of a billion monitors.

I don’t believe in the singularity

Although I want to be a futurist.

 

(Dig: the collective human imagination can liberate everything. Even our consciousness.)

11.

Bolaño always fucks famous writers in his poems.

He relishes the high/low brow saturnalia.

Blake fooled everyone, hiding the demiurge in a Christian’s robes.

Blake is one of the great tricksters in literature.

Rumi is pleasure and wisdom mitigated only by beauty and concision.

One of the most engaging minds in history.

There’s something here.

In this unholy trinity.

12.

My wife says you can be Whitman

wild and self-promoting

full of vigor and half-crazed with delight.

Or you can be Dickinson

inward and self-directed

quiet and insulated from the world.

“All artists fall somewhere on this spectrum,” she says.

I agree.

My fear is that I’m Whitman pretending to be Dickinson.

Or the other way around.

I admire them both.

Don’t ask if I read them.

(I don’t. Not anymore.)

13.

Language memory literature

At 19 I was an existential Christian.

I didn’t drink coffee.

I didn’t drink booze.

I read. A lot.

I loved Paradise Lost.

Milton almost bridges that God free will evil conundrum

I loved Gilgamesh

(and still do)

ancient god man sad and lonely looking for eternal life

I hated the Mystery Plays

and pretended to love Shakespeare

while I preferred Ben Jonson.

I studied the Romantic poets

Wordsworth and Byron and Shelley and Keats

and Coleridge and Tennyson and Browning

(I liked Coleridge best.)

For a hater of poetry, I’ve lived with a lot of it.

14.

Then Kafka, goddammit.

Kafka fucked me up.

He reinforced the Manichean sex-is-evil thing

He floated through my life like a ghost

A cringing weirdo.

An overdose of masochistic

self-lacerating

romanticized

yearning for real life.

And all of it false false false

(I’ve never forgiven him.)

15.

Literature began with two books.

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

I read them when I was 19.

Babbitt is about a small-minded man boxed in by the world.

He isn’t happy.

He is mangled by foolish thoughts.

He is as real a character as anyone walking and breathing now.

I love him for his failures and pettiness.

Gravity’s Rainbow is about boners bombs orgies the Nazi war machine

There’s an octopus trained to record human movement

It’s about the absurdity of the human condition and the absurdity of using language to render that human condition

Babbitt remains one of my most personal novels

He’s a friend of sorts, a man I fear and love.

Gravity’s Rainbow has receded

Something messy about the lack of structure, even the language.

(I now prefer V.)

Pynchon brought me DeLillo, paranoia, absurd linguistic dynamite.

Lewis brought me realism and pungent social criticism.

(There was a time when I confused him with Upton Sinclair.)

16.

Other confusions: Lee J. Cobb and George C. Scott and Rod Steiger. (Booming voices.)

And Celine and Genet and Gide. (French misanthropes.)

And love with sex

and laughter with intimacy

and rebellion with substance

and schlock with art

and heights with danger

and derangement with insight

Movies with real life

Movies with real life

(Who doesn’t prefer the beautiful lies?)

I stole that line from Ham on Rye.

17.

Or maybe it was Keroauc. Yes.

On the Road was the beginning of something.

And an ending.

It’s about wanderlust and drunkenness and being young

And finding a way through the stony nonsense

and he was a fatigued, unhappy man

miserable at the end

self-erasing.

There’s a lesson there, too, about art and writing and society and crime.

A flowering and wilting.

Did Keroauc know himself too well?

Or not well enough?

18.

I turn 37 tomorrow.

I spent a day in-between things writing this poem

Without a clear reason why.

Rootlessness, ennui, the bespectacled age

Coffee stains on an innocent, blank sheet of paper

Faultless without the human intention

Blameless before the smudge.

 

I must now decide

Do I write on it or toss it aside?

 

 

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National Book Award winners, part 25: 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow.

23 Apr

1.

In 1971, Saul Bellow won the national book award for his odd, melodramatic little novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. It was Bellow’s third time winning the top award.

The Adventures of Auggie March, despite its reputation, is overwritten and meandering. (See my review here, along with a summary of 1950s fiction.) Herzog is magnificent, a masterpiece of American fiction and one of the finest novels of the twentieth century (review here). Sammler falls somewhere between the two, never boring but never quite superb either, didactic at times, a touch overheated in others, with long, tedious speeches about the sins of people and the future of man. It’s an interesting failure from a talented writer of immense learning.

The story follows Artur Sammler, a Holocaust survivor, Polish émigré, one-eyed and aged part-time intellectual, through a few days in 1960s New York. His daughter is aimless. His doctor-nephew—and also his benefactor—is dying. The doctor’s son is a dope; the doctor’s daughter is a sex fiend. Sammler sees a pickpocket commit a crime.

He travels by foot, car, subway and bus through the city.

He thinks. He ponders. He bears witness.

The different storylines converge. Some resolution is found. Some characters die.

Sammler suffers all the indignities of his current age with a stoic detachment. There’s something chilly about his heart, and the novel is refracted through his past suffering.

Here’s an early passage, outlining Sammler’s relationship to his planet:

 

“He was not sorry to have met the facts, however saddening, regrettable the facts. But the effect was that Mr. Sammler did feel somewhat separated from the rest of the species, if not in some fashion severed—severed not so much by his age as by his preoccupations too different and remote, disproportionate on the side of the spirtual, Platonic, Augustinian, thirteenth-century.”

The best parts involve his reminisces, his undulating horror at his past. These sections are poetic, moving, horrifying. For example, his war experiences include being buried alive in a ditch full of corpses.

Fascinating, challenging, just not great.

Fascinating, challenging, just not great.

Sammler can’t reconcile the sins of mankind with the advances in science. The world around him is decaying, dismal, alienating. Yet, the human race seems to be moving forward, somehow.

The worst parts involve his ruminations on the social ills of present-day New York.

And when Bellow misfires, he really misfires.

2.

Bellow is grappling with youth culture, with urban culture and with black culture. In this, he fails[1]. He belongs to an early generation, of good manners, clear class divisions, an established literary canon, as well as Trench coats and spats and canes and fedoras. Bellow’s attempts to portray what he clearly perceived as a coarse, threatening youth culture falls flat, flat, flat.

The pickpocket is African American, and the novel belabors the point, returning over and over to the thief’s race and racial characteristics. Even his genitalia.

The pick pocket dresses like a pimp. He doesn’t speak. And he haunts the novel like some specter of sexual dread. Worse, he attacks Sammler near the beginning of the novel and forces the old man to stare at his big penis. (I’m not making this up.) Sammler spends much of the novel deciphering the symbolism of this act. There are no other black characters. The result is a dark, demented minstrelsy that overshadows the rest of the book. But it doesn’t make it any less discomfiting to read. Bellow is attempting to understand and capture the reality of New York while also maintaining a high literary style. The result is cartoonish and creepy.

Here’s a taste, of when Sammler is assaulted:

 

“He was never to hear the black man’s voice. He no more spoke than a puma would. What he did was to force Sammler into a corner beside the long blackish carved table, a sort of Renaissance piece, a thing which added to the lobby melancholy, by the buckling canvas of the old wall, by the red-eyed lights of the brass double fixture. There the man held Sammler against the wall with his forearm. . . . The pickpocket unbuttoned himself. Sammler heard the zipper descend. Then the smoked glasses were removed from Sammler’s face and dropped on the table. He was directed, silently, to look downward. The black man had opened his fly and taken out his penis. It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumsised thing—a tube, a snake; metallic hairs bristled at the thick base and the tip curled beyond the supporting, demonstrating hand, suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant’s trunk, though the skin was somewhat iridescent rather than thick or rough. Over the forearm and fist that held him Sammler was required to gaze at this organ.”

It’s the second line—“than a puma would”—that makes this passage so difficult to accept. Read it again and see if I’m wrong, but it isn’t Sammler thinking that line. It’s Bellow.

Bellow falters, I think, in his attempt to capture the old man’s distaste for the youth culture then in full swing. It sounds too much like an out of touch dude, angry at being left behind. You can hear Bellow’s high-minded distaste for the changing world around him, and through Sammler he often sounds reactionary, old-fashioned and out of touch. And, well, ugly and sexist and racist, too.

The racism seems to come from the slightly paternalistic generosity of the old-time liberal. Bellow was 55 when the novel was published. He had seen the seismic shift of values during the 1960s on the wrong side of 50. The obscenity trials, the British Invasion, the first theatrical adult films—the culture was changing, and it’s clear that Bellow wasn’t comfortable with the shifts.

That he fails is clear.

What he achieves isn’t so obvious.

It would be wrong to linger too long on the novel’s shortcomings without speaking to its virtues. It’s funny. It’s (for the most part) compelling. The writing is often crisp, freewheeling, poetic, free-associated, rip-roaring. Bellow, like all the great writers, ignores rules of grammar, syntax. He wanders. He riffs. He waxes. He razzles and dazzles.

And Sammler is an intriguing character, bent by history but not broken. Bellow tries to use Sammler’s life to find some type of basic decency to people, some redeeming quality of life. He mostly succeeds.

Here’s another passage, with Sammler imagining H.G. Wells near his final days:

 

“Rancor, and gradually even rage, came over Wells at a certain point as he talked about the powers of the brain, its expansive limits, the ability in old age to take a fresh interest in new events diminishing. Utopian, he didn’t even imagine that the hoped-for future would bring excess, pornography, sexual abnormality. Rather, as the old filth and gloomy sickness were cleared away, there would emerge a larger, stronger, older, brainier, better-nourished, better-oxygenated, more vital type, able to eat and drink sanely, perfectly autonomous and well regulated in desires, going nude while attending tranquilly to duties, performing his fascinating and useful mental work.”

And a paragraph later, Sammler’s sad rebuttal to Wells:

 

“Accept and grant that happiness is to do what most other people do. Then you must incarnate what others incarnate. If prejudices, prejudice. If rage, then rage. If sex, then sex. But don’t contradict your time. Just don’t contradict it, that’s all. Unless you happened to be a Sammler and the place of honor was outside. . . . And the charm, the ebullient glamour, the almost unbearable agitation that came from being able to describe oneself as a twentieth-century American was available to all. To everyone who had eyes to read the papers or watch the television, to everyone who shared the collective ecstasies of news, crisis, power. To each according to his excitability. . . . Humankind could not endure futurelessness. As of now, death was the sole visible future.”

Good writing, urgent, pungent, bleak and hopeful and accepting all at once.

3.

There’s a nice symmetry to Bellow winning the first award of the 1970s. Bellow remains one of the strongest of the 1960s novelists, combining the erudition of the academic with the linguistic dynamism of a wordsmith. He’s related to the postmodernism of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo with the moral intelligence of Vonnegut, but he also fits with terse realism of the Victorian novelists, even akin to Hemingway in a bizarre way. He has a foot in both worlds. He’s a key figure in the literary scene. A bridge.

He won over James Dickey’s redneck revenge tale Deliverance, as well as novels from Shirley Hazzard and John Updike and Eudora Welty. Thomas Berger, Gore Vidal, Jimmy Breslin, John D. McDonald, Taylor Caldwell, Roger Zelazny, and Poul Anderson all published novels[2].

Bellow won on his reputation, on the punched up sections of this novel that read like no one else. But the sum isn’t much, in the end, and the novel’s deficiencies are thorny and disagreeable to my 21st century eyes.

Bellow’s weaker novels have a way of feeling overwritten but undercooked. Sammler is no exception. It has breathtaking moments of superb writing and longwinded nonsense that should have been cut.

I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t read it again.

 

 

[1] Malamud, in his white-knuckle The Tenants, grapples with the racial issues in New York in a very different manner; two writers, one white the other black, inhabit a tenement building and through miscommunication and misunderstanding, drive each other to murderous insanity.

[2] I know some of these writers are terrible.

Salvation Songs, part 7: The Fear

14 Apr

(They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. Ordained by God, and transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. Salvation songs. Read parts 5 and 6.)

1.

My life in music, abridged: oldies with my dad; then classic rock, a la the Beatles and the Stones; then terrible hair metal and power pop; then indie rock, with Dinosaur, Jr. and Pavement; then punk, fuck yeah!, that lasted years and years, resulting in a deep hatred for music and a period of intense non-musicality; then soul music through my early twenties—I really believe that soul music saved me, redeemed me to the pleasures of the world somehow—and that brings me to 25, living in Atlanta, jobless, depressed, suddenly aware of the sub-strata of the unemployed, trying to make it as a writer, finding a job at a bookstore and eking out a living on 238 bucks a week. Two hundred of this went to bills. Twelve went to Friday night beer. That left me with 25 bucks to live on.

(You can read my lengthier autobiography in music here.)

The key to this period of my life was my consuming worry over money. I spent most of my time looking for freelance work. My writing suffered. I went on movie junkets. I reviewed films and books. I wrote little shitty pieces for two local papers. I ghostwrote a couple of books. I edited here and there. I had a safety net with my parents but I wanted to survive on my own. There was a trick to this living and writing and working thing that I wasn’t getting.

I suffered. I was nervous, jumpy, edgy and anxious. I had anxiety attacks. My big fear was getting assaulted in elevators. I white-knuckled late night walks around the neighborhood. I thought strangers were terrorists or murderers or thugs or weird sex perverts. It sounds weird now, but I was convinced that I was destined for a violent end. I had nightmares about severe beatings, with baseball bats and spiked clubs and even those old ball and chain maces from medieval times.

I broke my foot in a soccer game. I didn’t have money to go to the doctor, so I limped around with a deep purple smear across my swollen skin.

A long term relationship had recently ended, and I was upset about this, too.

I enrolled in a medical trial for a medicine for generalized anxiety. The trial was horrible. I had weird night sweats. I became convinced that the company was experimenting on me in some nefarious way (not helped by the padded elevator I had to take once a week to get to their offices).

Part of this was simply my being tuned in to the national mood. The U.S. was mobilizing to invade Iraq. Crisis was inescapable. Torture, the threat of nuclear war, instability in the middle east, weird rumblings of an impending food and water crisis, my broken foot and my inability to publish fiction and my recent breakup in my memory exists as a heady, self-pitying and viciously solipsistic stew.

The specter of failure seemed to hang over everything. I felt inside my skin there was a diamond hard, hateful little man, spewing bile into my thoughts. Behind everything, every wall and every ceiling and floor I imagined a viscous black tarry substance—the true material of the world.

In a word, I was fucked up. And young.

2.

I was hungry, through. Hungry to write. Hungry to publish. Hungry to progress and evolve. I wrote a screenplay, titled “The Doctrine of Last Things.” A horror screenplay too damn long that manages to be more melancholy than scary, more pretentious than moving. I submitted it to Project Greenlight. I reviewed eight screenplays in the first round. My goal was to make it to the second round, a round of one thousand screenplays. I have to be as good as a thousand other screenwriters, I thought.

I was wrong.

Whereas I tried to be generous in my evaluations of the other screenplays—and except for one, they were horrible—but the reviewers of mine trashed me six ways from Sunday. Some said the characters were terrible but the dialogue was good. Others said the characters were interesting but the dialogue was miserable. To a person the reviewers thought the screenplay was dark, disturbing, depressing, unstructured, outlandish and just plain bad.

I spiraled. I internalized. I suffered.

I wrote short stories. Most of them bad. Two weren’t. “The Sound of Breaking Waves,” and “Infestation.” I submitted them both to a variety of publications. “Waves” was rejected. “Infestation” was accepted, to a new literary magazine, and with some enthusiasm. This was good news. I felt vindicated, excited, ready. I wrote three more stories. I even typed out a few poems.

Then the magazine folded before the first issue came out.

I published two ultra-short stories in a friend’s literary magazine, Honeydu. Both were fine, if a bit thin: “Good Neighbor Policy” and “Hypothetical.”

3.

My roommates were my cousin, Keith, and a friend of his from kindergarten, Jonathan. We lived like college kids, up late and unpredictable, with makeshift furniture and a rotating cast of suspicious rakes, weirdoes, obsessives, failures, and drunks. Keith and I had family there, so we had sisters and cousins folded into the bizarre mix. We had a lot of fun. We watched movies. We wrote and performed plays. We had parties. Life seemed chaotic and extreme.

I had somehow fallen out of the mainstream upticking corporate-minded life of America, where you trade jobs to move upward, always upward, you do better than your parents who did better than their parents and you end up rich and contented just before the reaper takes you away. I existed in the stormy, moody, twilight world, with inverted principles. I wasn’t quite a radical, not yet, and I wasn’t a hippie or an addict. I drank, read and wrote.

I had no idea that I would remain in this countercultural sub-strata for years.

Keith, Jonathan and I made the mistake of moving into an apartment we couldn’t quite afford. Keith made his money in the testing world, writing, editing and tutoring for college preparatory materials. Jonathan was a bartender, a waiter, a bit of a good-natured, puckish hustler. I was a failed and failing writer and a bookstore clerk.

We listened to a lot of music.

I was still in the soul period. James Brown, The Temptations, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, the big names, but also The Sandpebbles and David Ruffin and Mary Wells and my appetite for soul music had been inexhaustible but in those dark days I was losing interest even in this.

Keith and Jonathan brought me new stuff. Jonathan was into two strands, really, electronic stuff—including Mates of State, who I still love, but also Muziq and Daft Punk and so on—and American roots music. He’s where I first heard The Jayhawks.

Keith liked hip hop and indie rock[1]. He brought The Postal Service into our house and we listened to it all the time. He also brought The Streets, and later Arcade Fire, Caribou, Vampire Weekend and Tokyo Police Club.

But one song not only encapsulates my whole two-year life in Atlanta, but also managed to liberate me from some of my (mostly self-inflicted) wounds.

“The Fear” by Mu-ziq.

4.

The song is beautiful, simple, dreamy, a sort of precursor to the chillwave bands like Washed Out and Beach House[2]. The lyrics are repetitive, healing. The instrumentation is high-pitched. There’s a touch of the trashy European techno song here, only slowed down and beefed up with reassuring flourishes.

One morning I got up to walk my dog—my foot was healing but still damaged—and Jonathan and two of his friends Paul and Michael were all sitting on the front room couch, quietly contemplative, each with glassy eyes and a contented vibe. It was seven in the morning, chilly. I looked at them. They looked at me. “What’s up, fellas,” I said. They nodded. I sensed a late night, the tremors of which were sublimating into a soporific state, aided I’m sure by booze or something stronger. They sat, not talking. I fed Pepper and took her outside into the early morning sunshine. When I got back, Jonathan and Paul and Michael were gone. I got busy with the business of making breakfast.

I was alone in the house.

The sky was cloudless, cleansed with blue.

I hugged and petted Pepper.

I decided to let some of my worry and nonsense go.

I wouldn’t be miserable; I would no longer indulge in the fear.

And I flipped on the stereo to listen to this song. (And whenever I feel defeated or weary, I listen to it again.)

 

 

[1] He will, if he reads this, take umbrage to this description of his musical tastes.

[2] I love both of these bands.

Interlude 1: Thomas Ligotti, True Detective, and the conspiracy against human race.

11 Apr

1.

I’ve long been a fan of what’s labeled weird fiction for a long time. This includes horror, science fiction and fantasy, but only in so far as the narrative is damaged somehow, askew, bent. My canon for weird fiction is lengthy, a sort of catch-all, including H.P. Lovecraft—who is a touch overrated, despite writing some excellent stories[1]—Robert Howard, Robert Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, E.T.A Hoffman, Philip K. Dick, Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, Michel Houellbecq, Jonathan Carroll (Voice of Our Shadow is excellent), Roberto Bolano, J.K. Huysman, Angela Carter, Victor LaVelle, James Ellroy, as well as the literary pornographers Marquis DeSade, Anais Nin, George Bataille. Obsessives, lunatics, visionaries, perverts, creeps both high and low—I welcome weird writers of all types. I include in the above list the comic book writers Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (and don’t ask me to weigh in on that particular debate; I love them both), Neil Gaiman, to a lesser extent Peter Milligan and Ed Brubaker.

The point: I like the weird, the dark and the bizarre. Always have.

I also thought True Detective was excellent. So I was excited to dig into some new weirdoes on the literary fringe. I dipped into Brian Evenson (intriguing and singular but one note) and Heidi Julavitz (a very fine writer I must return to).

Which brings me to the horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti is a horror writer of some reputation. I haven’t been able to get my hands on his fiction as of yet. But I did pick up his merciless, vicious overview of pessimist philosophy, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I just finished it.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Um, no and kind of boring.

Um, no, and kind of boring.

2.

Ligotti summarizes the pessimists including Nietzche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Cioran, Weineger (a minor character in the excellent The World as I Found It), alongside other angry, dour, despondent dudes. The basic belief is this: consciousness is a curse, an evolutionary mistake, and mankind should quickly and quietly bring itself to extinction by not having any more offspring. A collective eradication of our species.

Ligotti reiterates certain key points to his philosophy, but the big one is the oldest: space is empty and bleak, airless, full of sucking black holes; life exists to gobble up other life; non-life exists to gobble up life; nothing can justify or redeem humanity because humanity is temporary and useless; and humans are merely meat puppets with no agency, free will, and only the illusion of control. Ligotti’s using this tradition of pessimist philosophy to argue for nothing less than the complete extinction of the human race, and as quickly as possible. His version of reality is the ultimate reduction, and therefore very difficult to crack[2].He and his ilk invert the values of most of history by laying all our turmoil at the feet of hope and belief, while arguing that there is succor in nothingness and suicide.

Here’s a taste:

“We know we are alive and we know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.”

No daisies or puppies or rainbows for him.

Fifteen years ago this would have gnawed at my waking hours and plagued my dreams. I would have jotted down notes, read arguments against Ligotti’s summation. I would have fretted, worried, paced. I would have lost sleep, had nightmares, night sweats. I would have suffered.

Now I just shrug. Hundreds of thousands of thinkers, artists, poets, and theologians have grappled with these issues for millennia, so I’m not going to add anything by trying to contradict his claims. I’ll just say that he’s cartoonishly[3] negative. Not content to live in a shitty paradigm of joylessness, he insists that everyone from the dawn of man to the end of time lives in the exact same terror that he does. In a word, he’s wrong.

I defer to Epicure and sunlight and the transcendentalists and the music of Bach and Ray Charles. I would also quote William James on rationality and logic and philosophy:

“There arises a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned . . . . What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”

Put another way: Nothing is logical. Not even the most basic premise. Everything is preconditioned by the flawed human minds that create them[4]. We are our experiences and beliefs.

Eat it, Ligotti.

3.

Much of the book is an oddball sequel of H.P. Lovecraft’s overview of the at the time current weird fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature. (I wouldn’t recommend this either; for fans of weird fiction I would suggest the out of print and magnificent Illustrated History of Fantasy by Franz Rottensteiner). Ligotti is on his surest footing when writing about other writers, adding a few surprises into the mix. He covers Poe and Lovecraft, but also Pirandello and Conrad (he correctly loops in Heart of Darkness in this literary lineage). I almost enjoyed his literary analysis, although his stilted writing style, a kind of faux doctoral thesis psychobabble, never really worked for me.

With all those caveats, there’s something disturbing—and intriguing—in Ligotti’s tone, almost ironic, close to Swift in his famous essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Only Ligotti isn’t joking, satirizing, pretending. He believes his own nonsense, like one of Jim Jones’s acolytes guzzling the kool-aid.

I’ll let him have the last word. You tell me if this wouldn’t work as some type of absurdist high-concept comedy routine (voiced by Adam West, perhaps):

“You would then know the horror and know that you know it: that you are nothing but a human puppet would not be impossible to believe. What now? Answer: Now you go insane. Now our species goes extinct in great epidemics of madness, because now we know that behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world. Now we know that we are uncanny paradoxes. We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.”

Gimme a break.

 

[1] I love At the Mountains of Madness.

[2] It’s simplicity should be a huge warning sign to people.

[3] You can hear the nihilists in The Big Lebowski yelling from the pages: “We believe in nozing, Lebowski, nothing!”

[4] And this, too, offers little solace in the final tally.

National Book Award winners, part 24: 1972’s Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

8 Apr

(In 35 magnificent bullet points! And one footnote.)

• In 1972, Flannery O’Connor won the National Book Award for her collected short stories. They are, in a word, magnificent. They are also wicked, wild and weird.

• O’Connor had been dead for eight years. She deserved the top honor.

• What to say about O’Connor that hasn’t been said a dozen times before?

• Much of her adult life she suffered through Lupus. She also lived much of her life with her mother out in the country.

• Illness. Deformity. Rural locales and weird familial relations. Not too bad a description of O’Connor’s work.

• Two of the judges that year were Joseph Heller and Joan Didion. Wow. American fiction in the seventies.

• Themes: spoiled children, haunted Christians, fear, worry, anxiety. Lack of sexual experience. Lack of social experience. Outbursts of violence. Social wolves, dressed as sheep, prowling amongst the weak.

One of the masters of the form, O'Connor is devious, wicked, cruel and unsparing.

One of the masters of the form, O’Connor is devious, wicked, cruel and unsparing.

• There’s racism, my God, and it isn’t just reporting. Something in her art seems tilted towards a seething resentment and near-hatred for southern African Americans. Apologists argue that she is setting up the ironic disconnect between dreamers (often liberals) and reality (the rural, often violent south).

• I think this a generous interpretation. Here we have a boy and his grandfather in “The Artificial Nigger”:

“Nelson turned backward again and looked where the Negro had disappeared. He felt that the Negro had deliberately walked down the aisle in order to make a fool of him and he hated him with a fierce raw fresh hate; and also, he understood now why his grandfather disliked them.” 

• Great writing. Intriguing point of view. But, also, something disturbing in the coded language, the total subjectivity. I don’t detect irony here; I see O’Connor revealing something about her own beliefs.

• More on O’Connor’s racism, or rather, more on her unsparing racial commentary. Here she is, in “The Circle in the Fire,” with one of her characters thoughts after upbraiding one of the poor blacks: “Her Negroes were as destructive and impersonal as nut grass.” Ouch.

• Is she using her character’s racism for some end? Is she delving into the racism that saturated so much of the South? Or is she portraying the world as she thought it was? A hard question for her fans to answer[1].

• Let’s move on.

• A Good Man Is Hard To Find remains one of the greatest short stories ever written—terse, yet somehow large and spacious as a novel. The characters have life in them that seems to exist far outside the boundaries of the story. It’s only 23 pages and it’s goddamn, fucking perfect.

• The first line: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”

• More themes: suicide, religious confusion—simple minds incapable of grasping the true meaning of Christ, sacrifice. Bullets, (just hinted at) perverse sex, children at the mercy of a vicious adult world.

• O’Connor’s progeny: Harry Crews and William Gay and (to a lesser extent) Barry Hannah.

• Hannah is sillier, more playful, less wicked, more obvious, more in love with his own words, more in love with life and booze and sinning. Less enthralled by asceticism, less likely to leave a disabled woman stranded with no possible way home, as O’Connor does in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”)

• Here’s the first line to that splendid story:

“The old woman and her daughter were sitting on the porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time.”

• William Gay—a great novelist prone to the same excesses of O’Connor. An almost reductive tendency toward the abused and the grotesque; casually racist characters unexplored and unexamined; a specter of violence and decay unfettered by life’s little joys. Having said that, Provinces of Night is an absolute masterpiece. Here’s the first line:

“The dozer took the first cut out of the claybank below Hixson’s old place at seven o’clock and by nine the sun was well up in an absolutely cloudless sky and it hung over the ravaged earth like a malediction.”

• Ditto for Crews. Feast of Snakes is one of my favorite novels. What the hell, here’s the first line to that, too:

“She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.”

• Gay is O’Connor plus love. Crews is O’Connor plus sex. Taken together with Hannah they form a bizarre buffet of southern grotesquerie.

• O’Connor’s novels are problematic. Her short stories feel richer, more multifaceted. The sentences read like scrubbed stones. She’s an absolute master of the short story; they are wonderful, complex, fun to read. The novels, not so much.

• One of my favorite sentences, from “The Artificial Nigger”:

“He felt he knew now what time would be like without seasons and what heat would be like without salvation.” Wow.

• A great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: merciless.

• Another great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: prophetic.

• Yet another great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: devious.

• She seems to thrive on humiliation, negative epiphany, casual cruelty. She is so wicked. (I love her for this.) She has hate in her heart the width of a mile-long stone. Her conscience—and I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary—is malformed.

• More themes: terror of sex, horror of cities, of throngs of people, of the riot of everyday life.

• Deceased and probably just bones in the ground, and yet in 1972 she still beat out some very fine writers: Stanley Elkin, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, Walker Percy, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, Jerzy Kosinski, Ernest Gaines, Richard Brautigan, Frederick Buechner and E.L. Doctorow. That’s a hell of a list. American fiction in the seventies! Still, O’Connor deserved the win.

• Tom Tryon published The Other that year. It’s overrated, but fits in with O’Connor somehow. Dark spiritual doubles. Murder. Mania and jittery nervousness.

• Yet, in O’Connor, the same elements are elegant, hard-edged, crystalline.

• This same year, B.F. Skinner released Beyond Freedom and Dignity. That would be a great title for an O’Connor biography.

• Clark Ashton Smith released a book of poetry. This has nothing at all to do with O’Connor or her work. Just weird. Who would want to read his poetry?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Read her letters if you have any doubts. Yowza.

Interlude 2: Two new lines from Simone.

3 Apr

1. Simone: Daddy, did you see my arms? One, I have big muscles. Two, my dance teacher put a stamp on my shoulder.

2. Simone: Daddy, I’m going to slap your face and put it in a pizza!

Interlude 1: The World As I Found It.

3 Apr

I’ve neglected this little blog.

I’ve been writing, two manuscripts really, as I’ve had a little enthusiastic nibble from an agent and now must try to reel in the big fish. I feel heartened and emboldened. More on this later.

I’ve also been beguiled, bewitched, hypnotized, horrified, aroused and ultimately enlightened by one of the most profound reading experiences of my life, Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It.

The novel follows dozens of real people through fifty or so years, focusing mainly on the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G.E. Moore. Each man emerges as a complex, enigmatic person—to others and to themselves—with contradictions, shortcomings, mean-spiritedness, generosity, and immense intellectual power. Russell is a libertine gripped by sexual passions, hypocrisies, self-sabotage. He yearns to turn philosophy into a science. Moore is a practical man living in an impractical profession, unsure of how to get around his British proclivity towards civility and quiet. And Wittgenstein emerges as a type of psychic vampire, besieging the people in his life with his pessimism, his uncompromising nature, his vicious blankness. Wittgenstein wants to bore down into the fundamental tenets of logic and language, removing all the sediment and laziness that prevents true understanding. His quest is quixotic, punishing.

The novel follows each character through the arc of their life, beginning with Wittgenstein’s infamous confrontation with Karl Popper (captured in David Edmond’s biography, Wittgenstein’s Poker) and ending with all three heading towards the grave. The characters include D.H. Lawrence, Otto Weiniger (who lays the philosophical groundword for Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a huge influence on True Detective), fathers, sons, wives and daughters. The canvas is pre- and post-war Europe, England and America. Wittgenstein and Russell and Moore cycle through friendships, lovers, epiphanies, failures and successes. They are alternately pals, rivals, enemies. They struggle with the formation, application and conviction of each man’s ideals and ideas.

A fabulous novel about ambition and ideas.

A fabulous novel about ambition and ideas.

World is at turns erotic, thrilling, dramatic, horrifying, big-hearted and wicked. It is an acerbic academic novel, a sexy romp, a historical incision into the world before and after the two world wars. It is first and foremost a novel of ideas. Duffy explores the limits of logic, the shortcomings of science, the utopian ideals of the late Victorians, the pessimistic philosophers between the world wars, the dueling combative intellectuals that straddled psychology, economics, religion. He dips into hedonism, melodrama, history, poetics. Duffy utilizes the language and dramatic skill of Bergman, Ibsen, Chekov, yet the linguistic agility of DeLillo or Pynchon or Foster Wallace. The closest book I could think of was Julian Barnes’s excellent non-fiction novel, Arthur and George.

I read The World As I Found It with a sense of bewilderment at Duffy’s writerly skill. The writing is rigorous, direct, lucid and yet also descriptive, beautiful. He manages to convey melancholy, nostalgia, bitterness, I kept asking: How did he do that?

Here’s a taste of Bertrand Russell, meditating on the coming war, on a trans-Atlantic cruise ship:

 

Often in those days just before the war, Russell felt like a fraud. Because for all his expressions of principle and humanity, he saw there was also a nihilistic side of him that was as eager for war as anybody, eager that, for better or worse, life might change. The news, meanwhile, grew worse. Returning to his cabin after breakfast one morning, Russell saw his first iceberg, a glowing, white-hot hull whose heights it seemed he could never scale as he watched it slip by, smoking white against the fog and alive with the cries of birds he could not see.

And here we have D.H. Lawrence taunting Russell at the zoo, by hitting a caged monkey with his umbrella:

 

A screech and a shower of dust and pizzled straw as Lawrence lunged with his umbrella. Whirling around, Lawrence flicked the umbrella up like a pointer, the better to show his fellow Utopian the coiling beast, the venomous red eyes.

Look at him, Bertie. So much like you, that hideous aggressor, that savage Kaiser lurking beneath. Hah! Lawrence ran his umbrella along the bars, then thrust it at the fanged jaws. This also is you, Bertie, lusting to jab and strike like a man with a bayonet, saying, This is for the ultimate peace. Why don’t you own to your nature? What is the use of you, haranguing the populace with vain talk of nations kissing one another? Give me no more of your lies, moaning about goodness and humanity. You are the enemy of mankind—spiteful and murderous, filled with bestial, repressed desires. Hah, monkey! Wouldn’t you love to sink your teeth into my pretty neck? Hah! Hah!

But then the blood flooded Lawrence’s face, and he began to hack and wheeze.

The novel has so much life in it, so much of the nuance and compromise and terror and heft, so much of the challenge and beauty, I couldn’t put it down. I’m not one to have a favorite novel, but this might be it.

Here’s a passage right near the end, as Wittgenstein is near death, wandering around wildflowers on a mountain:

 

He had forgotten how small and concentrated in their essences the hardy mountain flowers are at that altitude—how they gouge the eye with their spectral brightness. In the distance, hot coils of golden red light slowly effused in the darkness over the glowing snow tips of the mountains, the bending sky pressing down over the earth like a wide bowl. Wittgenstein had the old sensation of having his hair slowly being pulled by the roots. Under the hot magneto of that sky, it seemed the light did not refract or reflect, but rather extracted a color clear from the molten depths of the earth, drawing it up through the flossy tips of the grass heaped in the rocky meadows like a manna snow.

You could study that passage for years and not quite get to the end of its excruciating beauty.

Like any great work of art, World left me feeling cleansed and purged and new when I finished it.

Please, friends and strangers, do yourself a favor and read this magnificent book.