ADVENTURES in the PLUS TARD GARDE: a CRITIQUE in PROGRESS

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1. August 28th: LIDIA YUKNAVITCH

It didn’t take Publishing very long to catch up with The Record Biz’ epiphany that getting involved with Real Artists is risk-rich and bottom-line iffy and totally unnecessary. The Ersatz Artist is Late Capitalism’s all-in-one tool of choice in the Creativity Racket. If it looks like an Ahtist (young/pretty) and sounds like an Ahtist (kinda sexy/ rebellious) and is good at imitating Previously Successful Content… well, that’s close enough! The Audience (mostly Ahtists) won’t know the difference.

So here we have flavor-of-the-week writer Lidia Yuknavitch, performing that never-fails writerly strategy of giving the Squares what they want, which is that good old Corny Luridity (a la The Blackboard Jungle)… only, this time the lure is pure nostalgia, isn’t it? Because the Squares aren’t Levittown Burghers with pools and breezeways… that was their parents’ and grandparents’ gig… the Squares have fallen in the world and now live with horrors a thousand times more gritty than Yuknavitch’s MFA-with-a-mohawk bullshit (which is replete with typographical gimmicks to jazz it up… hey, look, every third letter is italicized!)…

“I walk into the living room. This room always reminds me of Mr. K. It even smells a little like him. When he first came on to me, Mr. K., the friend of my father’s, he had a butterknife in his hand. Who knows why a butterknife. He just did. Just me and him in the living room. Just rain whispering like nuns against the pressure of the walls and windows. He had this butterknife in his hand, and he crossed the carpet to me. He trembled. He put his hand on my hip, then he put his other hand near my collarbone. I had a Pixies T-shirt on with safety pins decorating the neckline. He leaned in and sort of suck nibbled my neck and he whimpered. He smelled like Old Spice and Altoids.

It was so retro. Like something out of a Lon Chaney movie. It should have been in black and white with dramatic and creepy music in the background. I’d have YouTubed it. What the fuck did he think he was doing? I pulled out my pocketknife. I flipped open the blade. He took a step back, thinking it might be for him, I guess. I held the little blade in the air between us. I menaced him. It cracked me up. Then I drew the blade to my own collarbone above the safety pins and Pixies to the very place he had trembled and whimpered. I held his gaze in mine. Without even looking, I made a little smile on my skin. I could hear him swallow.

I was fourteen.”

Is that a blog post or an excerpt from a novel? We caught the scenario; where’s the writing? Wait: am I hearing bongos and menacingly-rhythmic finger-snapping and the blood-flecked saliva falling from a teen’s reckless sneer? Pass the popcorn, Daddy-O.

The New Yorker sez, with a straight face: “In all of her work, sex, violence, and art are inextricably linked.”

Is there anything for sale, these days, about which that description is not depressingly true?

2. August 30th: KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD 

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The new living embodiment of the relentless anti-intellectual debasement of the literary Arts has stolen the crown from talentless word-processing juggernaut Haruki Murakami: Karl Ove Knausgaard, claim your crown and sceptre! I haven’t read duller, more vacuous, more will-sapping prose in a very, very long time. Knausgaard’s word-piles are almost as quick to read as they were to write; trash lit for lazy elitists who see themselves as being somewhat better than that. It’s sad to contemplate the fact that the chunk of the reading public that isn’t (thankfully) soaked in ethnocentric solipsism is soaked in this. A stinking, Birkenstock-brown necropolis of world-class Solipsism. A minute-by-minute account of Knausgaard’s own crushingly unremarkable life.

Knausgaard has managed to super-excrete his own version of A Dance to the Music of Time; or of, perhaps, À la recherche du temps perdu (for you Struldbrugian readers out there) to much hype and knee-jerk acclaim. Here’s a sample from Volume 2 (“A Man in Love”): Knausgaard, his partner Linda and two of their children have arrived at a birthday party given by the parents of a child attending the local day-care with their 4-year-old, Vanya:

‘Don’t you want a carrot?’ I asked.

‘No,’ Vanja said.

‘But there’s a dip,’ I said. Went over to the table, took a carrot stick and dunked it in the white, presumably cream-based, dip and put it in my mouth.

‘Mm,’ I said. ‘It’s good!’

Why couldn’t they have given them sausages, ice cream and pop? Lollipops? Jelly? Chocolate pudding?

What a stupid, bloody idiotic country this was. All the young women drank water in such vast quantities it was coming out of their ears, they thought it was ‘beneficial’ and ‘healthy’, but all it did was send the graph of incontinent young people soaring. Children ate wholemeal pasta and wholemeal bread and all sorts of weird coarse-grained rice which their stomachs could not digest properly, but that didn’t matter because it was ‘beneficial’, it was ‘healthy’, it was ‘wholesome’. Oh, they were confusing food with the mind, they thought they could eat their way to being better human beings without understanding that food is one thing and the notions food evokes another. And if you said that, if you said anything of that kind, you were either reactionary or just a Norwegian, in other words ten years behind.

‘I don’t want any,’ Vanja said. ‘I’m not hungry.’

‘OK, OK,’ I said. ‘But look here. Have you seen this? It’s a train set. Shall we build it?’

She nodded, and we sat down behind the other children. I began to lay railway track in an arc while helping Vanja to fit her pieces. Heidi had moved into the other room, where she walked alongside the bookcase studying everything in it. Whenever the two boys’ capers became too boisterous she swivelled round and glared at them.

Erik finally put on a CD and turned up the volume. Piano, bass and a myriad of percussion instruments that a certain type of jazz drummer adores – the kind that bangs stones against each other or uses whatever materials happen to be at hand. For me it sometimes meant nothing, and sometimes I found it ridiculous. I hated it when the audience applauded at jazz concerts.

and a few hundred pages more of that…then (another random sample)

Gilda came behind him across the floor in low heels and a flowery summer dress.

‘Hi, Karl Ove,’ she said. ‘How are you?’

‘Hi, Gilda,’ I said. ‘Very well. How about you?’

‘Fine too. Working a lot now, you know. How are things at home? With Linda and your little daughter? It’s terrible how time has flown since we last talked. Is she OK? Is she doing well?’

‘Yes, she is. She’s busy with her course at the moment. So I’m busy taking Vanja out in the buggy during the day.’

‘And what’s that like?’

I shrugged.

‘OK.’

‘I’m wondering about it myself, you see. What it’s like to have a child. I think they’re a bit repellent. And the enormous belly and the milk in your breasts – that bothers me, to tell the truth. But Linda’s happy?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Well, there you go. Say hello to her. I’ll ring her one day. Tell her!’

‘I will. Regards to Kettil!’

She raised a hand in a wave and went back to her seat.

‘She’s just taken her test,’ I said. ‘Did I tell you that? The first time she drove on her own she was behind a lorry and two lanes merged into one, but she thought she had time to overtake, accelerated and moved out, only to see that she couldn’t. Her car was forced against the crash barrier, ended up on its side and skidded along for several hundred metres. But she was unhurt.’

‘That one’s going to live to be an old lady,’ Geir said.

The waitress came and cleared the table. We ordered two more beers. Sat for a while without saying anything. I smoked a cigarette and manoeuvred the soft ash into a little pile in the shiny ashtray
with the tip.

‘I’m paying today, just so that you know,’ I said.

‘OK,’ Geir said.

If I didn’t say straight out I was seeing to the bill he would, and when he had made up his mind it was impossible to change it. Once we had been out, all four of us, Geir and Christina and Linda and me, to a Thai restaurant at the end of Birger Jarlsgatan, and he had said he was going to pay, and I had said no, we should at least share, no, he said, I’m paying and that’s that. After the waiter had taken his card I had pulled out half the sum in cash and put it on the table in front of him. He made no move to take it, in fact, it didn’t seem as if he had even seen it. The coffee came, we drank it and as we got up to go, ten minutes later, he still hadn’t touched the money. Hey, take the money, I said, we’re sharing this one. Come on now. No, I’m paying, he repeated. It’s your money. You take it. So I had no choice but to pick up the money and stuff it back into my pocket. If I hadn’t it would have been left there, I knew. Then he smiled his most obnoxious I-knew-you-would smile. And I regretted not having paid. No sacrifice was too great for Geir when it was about not losing face. But from Christina’s face, which was so incredibly sensitive and betrayed all her thoughts, she appeared to be ashamed of him. Or at least found the situation embarrassing. I had never entered into open conflict with him. Wisely, perhaps, for there was something in him I would never defeat. If we had a competition to outstare each other, the way you do when you’re young, he would have held my stare for a week if need be. I would have held his as well, but sooner or later I would have thought this was unnecessary and looked down. He would never entertain such an idea.

oh and then there’s this:

“I went into the supermarket down in the Metro station by Stureplan, bought a grilled chicken, a lettuce, some tomatoes, a cucumber, black olives, two red onions and a fresh baguette, popped into Hedengrens on the way back and found a book about Nazi Germany, the first two volumes of Das Kapital, Orwell’s 1984, which I had never managed to read, a collection of essays by the same author, a book about Céline by Ekerwald and the latest Don DeLillo until Vanja brought my browsing to an end and I had to go and pay. The DeLillo I regretted buying the instant I was outside because even though I had been a fan of his, especially the novels The Names and White Noise, I hadn’t been able to read more than half of Underworld, and since the next book had been terrible it was evident that he was in decline.”

Fuck off, Dunce.

But, hold on there; rather than sneer and fume at this newest plastic nail in the Styrofoam crypt lid of Lit, why not rejoice over it? If data-processing quotidian experience is the way to hefty checks, let’s jump on the Crap Wagon! Try this…

I walked to the bio-markt, before shaving, to buy some organic milk for wife’s coffee, and was faced with an excessive variety of choices in milk. Did I want milk that was low in fat, or milk that was free of lactic acid, or milk from Northern Germany, Southern Germany, France or Poland? Did I prefer milk from cows or milk from goats or milk from soy beans? I tried to remember the color of the cartons she usually purchased, the price I had to pay for forgetting my phone, the consumer product I usually relied on to replace my memory, my legs and the physical presence of most of my friends; because of this miraculous device, I was usually even spared the tedious chore of listening to most of my friends’ tedious voices: I could read them, in banal little sentences, instead. And not whenever they demanded my attention but merely when I felt like bothering to pick up the phone and look through the sentences it had collected the previous hour or two. The modern world is very good at coming up with new problems, then solving them for a price, you see… then undoing the solutions with new problems it will eventually solve for a price, a tendency I first caught on to during the ’80s, when I agreed to pay a little extra on my phone bill, every month, for the “Caller ID” feature. At the time it was a miraculous innovation: I could see who was calling me before I picked up the phone! I could avoid the calls I preferred to avoid! Until they offered, not 6 months after the innovation of “Caller ID”, for a price, the ability to block the “Caller ID” service. Suddenly we were all back to square one… while paying for two new mutually-contradictory services.

Having forgotten my phone (and therefore unable to call home for the information), and having no concrete memory of the colors of the cartons of the milk my wife usually purchased from this bio markt (a ridiculous little shop where you pay three times more for the privilege of having vegetables with the dirt still on them as you carry them to the check-out girl, who is guaranteed to be slower at her job, while she chats with the sickly-looking “organic” food enthusiasts, than her abacus-using equivalent in any primitive country on Earth), I purchased four different cartons of milk, hoping to cover every possibility. Hoping, most of all, to please my wife, who was still in her pyjamas while I was shopping for milk, unshaved, and whose stunningly perfect breasts were the motivation that I kept in mind as I loaded the cartons on the conveyor belt to the piously-titless check-out girl, who looked perhaps ten years younger than my wife but who wasn’t even a fifth as beautiful. What I wanted most of all was to get home with the milk, for her morning coffee, before my beautiful wife put her clothes on, in order to claim some sort of childish (yet mildly pornographic) reward. Is it possible to reduce life to more trivially compelling meanings? Or writing to such blatantly empty metaphors? What’s the difference?

Looking at the clock I see it took me roughly ten minutes to crank that out. I could easily excrete 1,000 pages of that in a month. What’s stopping me? All I need to do is hire a craggy-looking writer-type to do the jacket photos.

3. SEPTEMBER 14th: JONATHAN FRANZEN

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[or you can read Barrett Brown’s rather more lethal take-down!]

At the turn of this century I flew back to Southern California, after a long Christmas vacation in Berlin and spent the next few months packing my books and shipping them out of the country (to Berlin). In June, I think, I returned to Berlin. Permanently. Or, put it this way: I was fairly certain then (and remain so) that I’ll never return to the US. But it was the long flight from Berlin to Southern California that acquainted me with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

I’ve crossed the North Atlantic thirteen times by jet (and hurried around the US that way at least as many times) and that is enough. What I’ll miss about the collective Russian Roulette of jet travel is the rare opportunity to indulge in disposable movies and shitty novels. Under no normal circumstance would I have read The Corrections. A friend in Berlin, who’d been given the book as a useful distraction during his recent flight from Manhattan, had pressed it on me. “I was afraid to open it. Maybe you’ll have better luck.” The book was a big hit Stateside, a red flag to both of us.

With very low expectations (and with The Reaper whispering in my ear about the age of the plane, the recreational drug-intake and chronic sleep deprivation of the crew) I opened the book. It wasn’t as embarrassingly obvious/corny/ naive as I’d expected. A third of the way into it, passages were striking me as witty; as well-written. Whoa, I thought. This might actually be… good.

Because it’s been fifteen years, I don’t remember at what point in the book I realized it was going bad.  Half-way? I remember saying, under my breath, “Oh come on,” the miraculous moment the patriarch of the tale is spotted, by the matriarch, through a porthole, plummeting into the ocean from the deck of their cruise ship. I felt I’d been had. That sudden sinking feeling in certain books and airplanes, yes? The Corrections began to feel rushed, obvious, corny, facile, TV-like. It began to seem that it was being a little too much “fun” (that is, not serious business) to write, for Franzen. Here’s a rule of thumb that can’t go wrong: if it was fun to write, it probably sucks.

Franzen, a few years back, famously wrote a manifesto of renunciation regarding “difficult” books/ high-brow writing. Very much the Teetotaling Eunuch “renouncing” rum, sodomy and the lash. Disingenuous Eunuch! Jonathan Franzen isn’t even as edge-testing, at heart, as corny olde Tom Fucking Wolfe. What Franzen was hoping, in the future, to avoid, by loudly staking his claim as a member of the sub-literary school of the New Reactionaries, was  merely The Lash. He was pandering to the Post-911, Neo-Liberal Critical Apparatus that had used a mysterious (and convenient, and mysteriously convenient)  national catastrophe as an excuse to fire all their weapons at long-hairs like  DeLillo, DFW, et al, while the steel under the World Trade Center was, literally, still molten. James “The Barren Governess” Wood fired his anti-DeLillo salvo on Oct. 6, 2001 (“How Does it Feel”, The Guardian) and Franzen jumped on the bandwagon to kick the softest pomo target possible, William Gaddis, on September 2, 2002 (“Mr Difficult”, The New Yorker). He should still be ashamed of himself for that. But did the maneuver work? Have the waningly-influential neo-liberal litcrit fuckers been easy on Franzen as a result? I wouldn’t know! I don’t follow Jonathan Franzen’s PR.

But I did, out of curiosity, read his latest… PURITY.

Like The Corrections, PURITY starts off a little twee-seeming, a little cloying, then suddenly gets rather better/denser than one would have expected, considering. Then the precipitous fall-off into chubby-cheeked white person corn, into TV-cliché, into topical glibness and the pointlessly horny  and the occasionally (strangely) psychopathic.

Regarding that last note: does Franzen really believe that it’s a nod-worthy universal that, within the continuum of a Normal Het Male’s complicated feelings about Het Women, there’s a frank bit of bandwidth dedicated to suppressed urges to bludgeon, stab or strangle one’s lover to death? Or is that just Franzen’s nod to Norman Mailer? But, back on topic…

The point: is Jonathan Franzen really a novelist?

I say Jonathan Franzen shows signs of being a solid (if not particularly inventive) longish-short story writer; he could very well be a pupal, stunted, Midwestern Flannery O’Connor. I don’t think he has the stamina, or the pacing (for Abebe Bikila-level pacing, see “Sabbath’s Theater” and at least half a dozen more from Philip Roth; see Nabokov’s best, Kundera’s best; see “Underworld” and “Libra”; see solidly-middlebrow Paul Theroux, early McEwan, Pynchon, Malamud, Isherwood, Seebald, Munro, Calvino… even corny olde Tom Fucking Wolfe) to be a Novelist. Franzen is good for, it seems to me, at most, two hundred pages of concentrated effort before he gets bored/ distracted/ smug/ exhausted/ whatever. For 100-200 pages he almost pulls it off. And then you realize you’ve been embarrassed to be reading this shit for thirty, ninety, one hundred, two hundred pages. You realise you need to hand this over to the nearest Yuppie with an IQ of 105 and get on with your day. You can tell he thinks he’s cruising at that point; steaming towards a Broadway ovation finish; laughing out loud and punching the air while cranking that pander machine…

Ugh.

16 Vomit-Inducing samples from Jonathan Franzen’s record-breakingly puerile (and occasionally psychopathic) “Purity”:

1***”He was a tall, trim, vigorous man with nearly white hair, a distinguished male version of his daughter, much better-looking than your average billionaire.”

2****”Flor was a tiny American-educated Peruvian; if Disney ever made an animated feature for the South American market, its heroine would look like her.”

3***”Over the years, Leila had come to believe that politicians were literally made of special stuff, chemically different stuff. The senator was flabby and bad-haired and acne-scarred and yet completely magnetic. His pores exuded some pheromone that made her want to look at him, keep hearing his voice, be liked by him. And she did feel liked. Everyone he wanted to be liked by did.”

4****”If you were incredibly attractive and privileged and wanted only to make the world a better place, complaint was unbecoming.”

5****”Colleen had grown up on an organic farm in Vermont and was, it went without saying, very pretty.”

6****”There was a football-size rock near her head. I wondered if she’d deliberately lain down by this rock to suggest a thing that she was still too shy with me to ask for. I wondered if the idea was for me to pick up the rock and smash her skull with it.”

7****”I seized her and kissed her, my Anabel. She was snotty and teary and hot-breathed and dear. Also quite seriously disturbed and all but unemployable.”

8****”She couldn’t think of anyone whose standards she would have wanted less to run afoul of. His maturity and manliness, his fleshy shaved cheeks, his bald head, his crookedly knotted tie, his fashion-defying glasses all seemed to brook no nonsense.”

9****”He told me stories of bad business moves he’d made—the selling of a Brazilian sugar mill a year before it became wildly profitable, his torpedoing of a partnership with Monsanto because he thought he knew more about plant genetics than Monsanto’s head of R&D did—and made fun of his own arrogance. When the conversation turned to my career plans and he offered, first, to get me a job at the Washington Post(“Ben Bradlee’s an old friend of mine”) and then, after I’d declined that offer, to fund the start-up of my contrarian magazine, I had the feeling that he was daring me to be fabulous like him.”

10***”Cynthia’s face had crumpled, but my mother remained dry-eyed, dignified. German. In the shadow of death, she was no longer the person I’d known. She’d become the person I hadn’t known, the German person. The decades of her unhappiness, the years of her dronings, now seemed like a long failure to find a good way to be American.”

11****“She’s a billionaire, Colleen. She has a trust fund worth, like, a billion dollars. She’s like a renegade heiress. I can’t begin to figure out how to deal with that.”

Colleen frowned. “A billion dollars? You told me she was poor.”

“She changed her identity. She ran away from it. Her father was president of McCaskill, the food company.”

12****”“Weak people hold grudges, Mom. Strong people forgive. You raised me all by yourself. You said no to the money that everyone else in your family couldn’t resist. And you were stronger than Tom. You put an end to it—he couldn’t do it. You got everything you wanted. You won! And that’s why you can afford to forgive him. Because you won. Right?”

Her mother frowned.

“You’re also a billionaire,” Pip said. “That’s a kind of winning, too.”

13****”The heaven of soul-merging was a hell. Clutching my head, I ran away from her and threw myself on the living-room sofa and lay there for some hours, experiencing mental torture, while Anabel did the same in the bedroom. I kept thinking, this is our wedding night, this is our wedding night.”

14***”What I do remember clearly is what a full moon did for Anabel, how she came and came. I was too clumsy to manage it in the purely thrusting way I would have liked to, but she showed me different ways. It seemed inconceivable that such a total pleasure machine couldn’t come at other times of the month, but later experience seemed to bear this out. She was a nearly silent comer, not a screamer. In the warmer light of dawn, she confessed to me that during her now-ended years of celibacy she’d sometimes waited for her best day and spent the entirety of it in her bedroom, masturbating. The vision of her beautiful, endless, solitary self-pleasuring made me wish I could be her. Since I couldn’t, I fucked her for a fourth and last sore time. Then we slept until the afternoon, and I stayed in her apartment for another two days, sustaining myself with buttered toast, not wanting to waste the moon’s fullness.”

15***“The man who ‘forgets’ his toothbrush in a woman’s house is a man who wants to come back.” My panic intensified. I looked over my shoulder and saw a fractal of lightning on the next ridge over; I waited for the thunder. When I looked into the house again, Anabel was not in sight. I considered, quite seriously, strangling her to death while I fucked her and then throwing myself in front of the 8:11 bus. The idea was not without its logic and appeal. But there were the bus driver’s feelings to consider …”

16****”“I hate you,” I said. “I hate you even more than I love you. And that’s saying something.” After a moment, her face turned red and she began to cry piteously, like a little girl, and it didn’t matter that I hated her, I couldn’t stand to see her in such pain. I sat down on the bed and held her. The rain had gone away, leaving behind a blue-gray curtain of cloud that looked almost wintry. I thought of winter as I held her, grew bored with holding her. The winter of no Anabel in my life. As if sensing it, she began to kiss me. We’d always relied on pain to heighten the pleasure that followed it, and it seemed to me we’d reached the limit of the psychic pain we could inflict. When she lay back and opened her robe, I looked at her breasts and hated their beauty so intensely that I squeezed a nipple and twisted it hard. She screamed and hit me in the face. I was murderously aroused and hardly felt it. She hit me again, on the ear, and glared at me. “Are you going to hit me back?”

“No,” I said. “I’m going to fuck you in the ass.”

“No, I don’t want that.” I’d never spoken so violently to her. We’d reached the end of the road of our feminist marriage.

“You wrecked the condoms,” I said. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Give me a baby. Leave me with something.”

“No way.”

“I think it could happen tonight. I have a sense about these things.”

“I think I’d sooner kill myself than sign on for that.”

“You hate me.”

“I hate you.”

She was still in love with me. I could see it in her eyes, the love and the pure inconsolable disappointment of a child. I had all the power, and so she did the only thing still available to her to stab me in the heart, which was to roll over submissively and raise the skirt of her robe and say, “All right, then. Do it.”

I did it, and not once but three times before I escaped from the house the next morning. After each assault, she went straight to the bathroom. My state of mind was that of the crack addict crawling on the floor, looking for crumbs. I wasn’t raping Anabel, but I might as well have been.”

Forget, for a moment,  the question of Franzen’s literary sins.

Is he insane?

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