Archive | October, 2014

Interlude 2: Song Simone extemporaneously sang to me

27 Oct

(while I was sort of twerking in the pantry, which sounds weird when I write it)

 

Simone:

“Daddy is so stupid

His butt is made of chicken

His face is made of mayonnaise

His arms are made of chopsticks

His shirt is made of dust!

His pants are made of buttons (that stick into his skin)

His fingers are made of blueberries

And his mouth is full of poop!”

 

Me: Hmmm. I don’t know if I like that.

 

Simone: Did you hear what I said? “Your face is made of mayonnaise!” Ha!

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Interlude 1: Ode to Richard Brautigan.

23 Oct

(Still writing these, which even to me is strange. Gwendolyn Brooks and Ann Carson are in the dock. Still working on The Brotherhood of the Eye, and also about to dive into third draft of The Taunting Light. I’m aflame!)

 

Oh, Richard.

Little Richard.

Not-so-Richie Rich.

Ye of the counter-culture.

Silly, be-knighted Richard.

So much fun to read.

Full of wonk.

Full of spice.

Full of honky-tonk.

A fabulous first-rate poet.

Complex but fun to read.

Small but also big.

Just goddamn . . . great.

 

A very fine novelist, too, only of a very specific sort.

(Think Kenneth Patchen with a narrative through-line.)

Clever, but not just clever.

Funny, but not just funny.

Pithy but not just pithy.

Weird but not just weird.

Subtle melancholic erotic punchy muscular

Fabulous eye-opening stunning wondrous

 

Trout Fishing one of the best novels of its kind.

 

Yet, Richard, you lost faith in the creative world

You betrayed your own imagination

You plummeted

You misplaced your talent.

Or was it vacuumed up?

Did that peculiar dustbin of American celebrity sweep up your dreams?

 

So you plummeted.

You fell.

You banged your shins and dirtied your face.

You knew you had lost something special.

You drank too much.

You cared about the things you hated.

You could have ended up like most

kind of sort of washed up and past your prime

Beer-bellied and discontented

A John Cheever type.

retreating shrinking diminishing

boozing commiserating recriminating

bitter bitter bitter

 

But, Richard, a suicide?

Such a commonplace metaphor for loss of faith?

We expected better.

More subtlety.

Less cruelty.

More rapacious belief.

Something rhapsodic.

Something beautiful.

Something more than Hemingway.

Jesus, Richard.

 

You and the rest:

Don Carpenter

Kurt Cobain

Sylvia Plath

Virginia Woolf

Primo Levi

Petronius

Cesare Pavese

Stefan Zweig

Hunter Thompson

 

(the last I sort of forgive as his makes a kind of culminating sense

even though with suicide I have something like contempt)

 

the list goes on and on and on and on

 

magnum temple trigger, yuck.

I won’t spend too much time on his suicide.

His words are too grand for that.

 

There are comets, he writes, that laugh at us

from behind our teeth, wearing our clothes of fish and birds.

We try.

 

Beautiful.

 

And those machines of loving grace,

he saw the world we were moving towards

animal machine cybernetic reality

 

Richard Brautigan.

Big Sur.

West Coast, Buddhist thinking.

Hippie, left-right inclinations.

Big-country-don’t-read-on-me libertarianism.

Haight-Ashbury!

Free(ish) love!

Brautigan’s life a cross-section of 1960s counter-culture.

(before it became trendy)

He offers simple pleasures.

fishing walking hiking driving

he revels in the unorthodox

the paradox

the lovingly weird

Watermelons and trout and glorious sex

Weird ruins, small meals

rough housing with babies

screwing in a warm stream

light refracted through rain

 

There’s something lost about his work.

There’s something desperate in his silliness.

He belongs to a rarified group of writers—

Vonnegut, Carroll, perhaps Angela Carter—

comic and serious at the same exact time.

Their best work timeless and ageless.

 

Richard—trout fishing in babylon

and roaming the west with a confederate coward—

we have so very little in common.

But I sort of love you.

 

The boy with a thorn in his side, part 1: Saint Simulacra.

18 Oct

Part 1: St. Simulacra

(being a not-so-spiritual autobiography with many moving parts)

 

There’s an image, in the great comic The Invisibles, of a crying boy trying to pull out the nails from Jesus’s feet. He can’t. Jesus then turns to him and says, “I’m not the god of your fathers. I’m the stone that breaks men’s hearts.”

This sums of Christianity for a lot of people. Including me.

When I was in school, I was taught that we all crucified Jesus. And, like Peter, we all betray him. Every single day. It was the early eighties, with a newfound alignment between prosperity and morality, the Reaganomics city-on-a-hill suburbs, baby! America was God, in a weird sort of way. Sin led to destitution and poverty. Good living led to wealth and prosperity. Every year was year zero.

The story is that every person crucifies Jesus every day with our decision to sin—an impulse we inherited from Adam and Eve. We scour his back with nine-tails. We plunge thorns into his forehead. We pierce his side with a spear. We laugh at his suffering. We betray his teaches. We betray God. And the man. We betray in small ways, little acts of cruelty, evil thoughts, and in big ways, with denunciations, murder.

I never fell for this particular strand of guilt. It feels too much like a simulation of the real thing, a substitution of our actual shortcomings with actions that have and had nothing to do with us.

I also had plenty of other guilt to carry around.

In fact, I’ve never really bought into historical guilt as an idea. I refuse to feel bad, for example, that I was born into a world that privileges white males. I’m aware of my own privileged status. I work for justice and fairness in the world. Isn’t that enough?[1]

Anyway, my Christianity was a mash-up of direct experience with God and institutionalized beliefs. As a Southern Baptist we had less stock in rituals. Or, rather, we didn’t refer to them by that term.

I believed in Jesus, and felt him when I prayed. And when I didn’t. He was a whispery glow, an invisible halo, a sight pressure on my shoulders and chest. A constant threnody.

Partially because of my background, I’m interested in subjective religious experience. I guess this makes me a mystic. The Gnostic tradition values direct interaction with the divine over dogma or ritual. I would, too.

Jesus to me was a decent guy, wise but with a good sense of humor, humble and easy-going, a bit stern every once in a while but loving and intent on making the world a better place by easing suffering. God was something else, a crazed stentorian being that in my imagination was sort of an enormous cloud with tentacles. Sometimes an embittered old fisherman with glowing golden eyes. He was a scary fucker. Unknowable. Without qualities. A shadow out of time. This view only elongated with time. Beyond good and evil and therefore, no longer good.

Jesus good, God not good—this is the basis of a certain strand of heretical Gnostic thought. Arianism was the idea that the New Testament God and the Old Testament God were different dudes, and they were fighting an invisible war over the future of humanity. Deranged creator god—the god of the flesh, or in the other words, the devil—and righteous true god of the spirit. Ahura Mazda and Ahriman.

God and Jesus?

That stone and those hearts.

Which brings me back to comics, The Invisibles, mystery religions, pulp science fiction, Gnostic thought, and how they all jumbled together in my young brain. (see The Devil’s Lonely Boy, my first blog post!)

I was beginning to see the world in a Manichean context: two equal gods, one light the other dark, at constant war with each other. (This idea didn’t go away, it just evolved into a machine/spirit clash. Dan Simmons lays out this same thing in his very fine Hyperion saga, with a machine god duking it out with the human god. And Richard Brautigan sort of applies a similar idea in his great poem, “Machines of Loving Grace.”)

This complicated, pulp-inspired comic book cosmology was detonated by a single event, which I didn’t notice at the time.

I read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. A novel about an selfish, non-descript, smug, harried middle-aged man. It’s astonishing, funny, mean-spirited, satirical and ultimately redemptive. It’s the first great work of literature I read on my own accord.

Babbitt led to The Secret Agent. And The Secret Agent led to Gravity’s Rainbow. And that was it. I was hooked. I was converted. I fell in love.

It was a painful process. I also began to write in earnest.

The agnosticizing forces of modernity—the pulverizing power of the study of philosophy, history, science, and literature—worked on me, but slowly. Years passed. I stopped going to church. I read heretical texts. I drifted from the faith. I was haunted by God’s absence, and haunted by his presence.

I was, in two words, fucked up.

The inherent contradiction of an omnipotent god in a flawed universe never went away. Nor did the problem of suffering, evil. Or of black holes, red shift of stars, parallel universes, those goddamn birds on Galapagos. All of these problems, strangely, brought to the fore by the Silver Surfer.

The Silver Surfer works for Galactus, a deranged god who has near-omnipotence. Galactus is also eternally hungry. And the only thing that sates his hunger is planets. The more life on the planet, the more sustenance it offers. The Silver Surfer roams the enormity of space looking for suitable planets for Galactus to eat.

And he eventually finds earth.

The Marvel Universe never knew what to do with the plethora of evil gods, cosmic deities, Asgardians, Greeks, and mainstream Christianity. Jack Kirby, probably the most important creator of comics of all time, was a closeted Gnostic, and he marbled in all manner of Gnostic beliefs into the foundations of the Marvel Universe. I absorbed them, and they’re still there.

As my more coherent, mainstream, codified beliefs fell away, these darker, Manichean beliefs augered in my thoughts.

Strangeness remained.

More to come . . .

 

[1] I know that it (probably) isn’t.

NBAW, number 33: 1990’s Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson.

15 Oct

 (I haven’t given up on these. I’ve been writing writing writing on my latest manuscript, really trying to be professional, stay the course, keep my thoughts cued into what I’ve been working on, and the result has been a slower output for the blog. And, I’ve been writing all these intercoursing poems. And, this particular entry was difficult to write.)

1.

In 1990, Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for his beguiling high seas adventure cum philosophical rumination on the effects of slavery, Middle Passage.

The story follows a young hustler named Rutherford Calhoun, making his roguish way through early 19th century New Orleans. He’s a bit of a cad and a bit of a rake, who hires on to a slaving ship to escape marrying Isadora, a schoolteacher who has manipulated Calhoun’s creditors into applying pressure on him.

Johnson captures the New Orleans flavor of Kate Chopin: polyglot, multicultural, multi-lingual, racially complex. Here he has young Rutherford as he first enters New Orleans:

“New Orleans, you should know, was a city tailored to my taste for the excessive, exotic fringes of life, a world port of such extravagance in 1829 when I arrived from southern Illinois—a newly freed bondman, my papers in an old portmanteau, a gift from my master in Makanda—that I dropped my bags in a shock of recognition shot up my spine to my throat, rolling off my tongue as I whispered, “Here, Rutherford is home.” So it seemed those first months to a country boy with cotton in his hair, a great whore of a city in her glory, a kind of glandular Golden Age. She was if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then at least to a steamy sexuality. To the newcomer she was an assault of smells: molasses commingled with mangoes in the sensually damp air, the stench of slop in a muddy street, and, from the labyrinthine warehouses on the docks, the odor of Brazilian coffee and Mexican oils. And also this: the most exquisitely beautiful women in the world, thoroughbreds of pleasure created two centuries before by the French for their enjoyment.”

 

And this passage, which unfolds right near the first page, shows how deeply satisfying—and fun—Johnson’s prose style is. He creates magic in these pages.

The ship, aptly named the Republic, is run by a tyrannical polymath named Falcon. He’s set his ship on a tribe called the Allmuseri. His interests are more in the artifacts of the enslaved people than the slaves themselves. He’s also a dark philosopher in the pessimistic vein. Much of the novel is a grand maritime adventure in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym[1]. And like Poe’s only novel, Middle Passage turns weird, nasty, and cannibalistic.

Calhoun is an octoroon, and at first has nothing but disdain for the pitiful cargo. But he slowly begins to see that his part in the larger slave system is terrible.

There are arguments, storms, a mutiny.

And the cruel, calculating Falcon has something mysterious onboard indeed; he claims to have captured the god of a small tribe of Africans.

The book is a marvelous recasting of the high seas adventure as a rigorous moral examination of strength, power, and moral culpability. Here’s another taste of Johnson’s very fine writing style, with Falcon giving one of his many speeches to the young Calhoun:

“Another thing about not being physical most of the time is that it can’t understand any of the sciences based on matter, like geometry. Heh heh. It can’t do geometry, you see, ’cause it’s a god.’

‘Are you saying even a god has limitations?’

‘That I am. And not only limitations, lad. I daresay it has downright contradictions. For example, a god can’t know it’s own nature. For itself, it can’t be an object of knowledge. Do you see the logic here? The Allmuseri god is everything, so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on—a separation between knower and known—never rises in its experience. You might say empirical knowledge is on man’s side, not God’s. It’s our glory and grief both, a function of the duality of the mind I mentioned a moment ago.’”

The novel is so much fun, in fact, that the terror and horror of the historical middle passage sneaks up on you.

 

2.

Slavery is so horrifying—hundreds of years of torture, murder, dismemberment and dehumanization—that novelists can’t convey the cosmic horror of it while also maintaining any sort of story. In fact, the hundreds of years of the slave trade is so unaccountably horrific it seems obscene to try and create fiction—with its cascading ambiguities—out of it. (Think the famous line of writing poetry after World War I.)

Johnson understands this, and so approaches things with a light touch[2]. But he’s up to grand subversion in this swashbuckler.

He mixes genres. He breaks rules. In the middle of the novel there’s (possible) magic. He’s philosophical. One of his major points is devastating, and sneaks up on you. Slavery wasn’t just about individual suffering; entire civilizations—their language, folklore, totems, food, culture and even gods, too—were hijacked, appropriated or destroyed.

Johnson’s clever narration tucks the horrors of slavery into Calhoun’s coming of age and (ever so slow) moral awakening. In a king of fictional sleight of hand, Johnson has all these little tragic splinters poking through Calhoun’s selfishness. We’re reading for the plot, something out of H. Ryder Haggard. But we remember the suffering.

Here’s a sample, of the Allmuseri first being led aboard the ship:

“Once the Allmuseri saw the great ship and the squalid pit that would haouse them sardined belly-to-buttocks in the orlop, with its dead air and razor-teethed bilge rats, each slave forced to lie spoon-fashion on his left side to relieve the pressure against his heart—after seeing this, the Africans panicked. Believe it or not, a barker told us they thought we were barbarians shipping them to America to be eaten. They saw us as savages. In their mythology Europeans had once been members of their tribe—rulers, even, for a time—but fell into what was for these people the blackest of sins. The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allmuseri vision of Hell. And that was where we lived: purgatory. That was where we were taking them—into the madness of multiplicity—and the thought of it drove them wild. A one-handed Allmuseri thief attacked Cringle with a belaying pin and was shot by the mate. . . . A woman pitched her baby overboard into the waters below us. At least two men tried to follow, straining against their chains, and this sudden flurry of resistance brought out the worst in Falcon, if you can imagine that. He beat them until blood came. . . .

It was then my hair started going white.”

Brilliant.

3.

W.E.B. DuBois is a towering figure in our country’s culture, a polymath thinker, essayist, novelist, and civil rights trail-blazer. His strand of black high intellectualism is alive in Johnson, who writes in the same philosophical tradition. Only, Johnson is a hell of a storyteller, too.

On one level, the novel is a lean high seas adventure. But there are layers, narrative, allegorical, linguistic.

One trick he’s done is to appropriate the white adventure narratives of H. Ryder Haggard. The hero is every bit as naughty and dishonest as Alan Quartermain, something out of Rudyard Kipling, a hustler, a liar, a speculator.

So the pulp fictions of Haggard, the linguistic awareness of Chopin, the philosophical high-mindedness of DuBois, as well as the grand nautical tradition of Melville and Conrad. In fact, Middle Passage is in a kind of dialogue with Conrad’s The Nigger on the Narcissus. (What a pairing these two novels would be for a college class!) There are echoes of Edgar Allen Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym[3], the traditional excitement blasted through with flashes of phosphene high weirdness.

We can add another strand, as Johnson is also grappling with Huckleberry Finn, both with the content of that exemplary novel and its form.

Johnson is sly. He’s similar to Percival Everett—a very fine novelist—in his deconstruction of genre tropes, while simultaneously fulfilling them.

And this great syncretic novel, through grand synthesis and appropriation, has taken back a stretch of cultural space. He’s subverted the colonialist narrative.

Rudyard, eat your heart out.

 

4.

There is a caveat to this marvelous little novel: the cover. Every cover I’ve seen is horrible and misleading, portraying a sort of young adult coming-of-age story. It’s horrid, cheesy, bespeaking of the culture wars of the 90s, only with book designers suffering from severe aphasia. I avoided it for years. And I know, that whole book/cover thing, but I don’t like reading ugly books.

There’s this one, which is so poorly designed it’s as if the publisher wanted the book to fail:

 

Such a bad cover for such a great book.

Such a bad cover for such a great book.

And this one, which isn’t much better:

 

This one isn't just bad, but horribly misleading.

This one isn’t just bad, but horribly misleading.

In fact, I owned a copy of this novel—a friend gave it to me and I kept it due to the writer’s reputation—but I didn’t read it for years. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Don’t repeat my mistake. It’s great.

5.

1990 was not a great year for American fiction. Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King (admittedly, it was one of his better novels, The Stand), Robert Ludlum, Elizabeth George, and Scott Turow all published novels, the era of the big-name, blockbuster pulp from dudes approaching middle age. Kurt Vonnegut released Hocus Pocus, one of his lesser works. Thomas Pynchon published Vineland, similarly seen as lightweight. Joe Landsdale and Elmore Leonard put out novels.

Around the world, Orhan Pamuk, Ian McEwan, Roddy Doyle, P.D. James, and Hanif Kureishi, all put out novels. (And yes, there aren’t many women on either of those lists.)

The year held some great novels, though. James Ellroy published his dense, labyrinthine L.A. Confidential. Tim O’Brien released his novel in stories, The Things They Carried. Both are fabulous novels.

But Middle Passage is something special. A diamond-hard gem. You just have to look past the cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] I love it. But, goddamn, it’s a freaky deaky disturbing novel.

[2] Fraser, in Flash for Freedom, delivers one of the most horrifying depictions of slavery, tucked inside a comic picaresque novel.

[3] It’s a fabulous, if deeply troubling, novel. See footnote 1.