On the one hand, 2016 was the year that killed off a dense cluster of our favorite Avatars of Popaganda. There died Bowie, who not only created a couple of masterpieces (Station to Station, Scary Monsters) and some very strong minor masterpieces (Lodger, Low, Heroes, Ziggy Stardust) and lots of painstakingly-choreographed and terribly silly super-shit that people seem to have forgotten… but who also, notably, helped the Reaganite 1980s bring back the Nazi Fantasy Aesthetic to wipe away a brief, sweet interval of brown-eyed American Romantic and Neorealist heroes (B. Lee, A. Pacino, R. Roundtree, E. Gould, P. Grier et al). Bowie was a bit schizoid, wasn’t he? He meant well.
There died Prince, whose career did so much to popularize the middlebrow, middle class, middle-aged and mid-Western preoccupations of guilty sex and dirty (dreams of) money that keep so many Americans oblivious, shrinking the cosmopolitan coasts to slivers and grossly expanding the Ideological Flyover; Murrkka is almost 100% Flyover now, in the corniest and tackiest and funkiest way. All those Human Resources Officers and Clerks at the DMV in split-crotch panties… thanks, Prince! But any notion that Prince was sort of hip had to fly out the window when he started pounding doors as a Jehovah’s Witness; again: schizoid… is that how we like them?
And there died Leonard, whose case was way too complicated to go into here without derailing this essay… (but I’ll bet you didn’t know that LC was a Reagan-loving conservative who had joined theIDF)…
On the other hand: 2016 saw the end of a 15-year winning streak for whoever it was that benefited most from 9/11 and the “Liberal” Cover provided by the BHO regime, which was surely meant to pass the neoliberal torch to an HRC regime that miraculously never happened. Neither did Syria… not the way They (What consortium? Which families? How many of the Croesuses seen and secret?) obviously wanted. So now we know how much time a stunt like 9/11 can buy these people: 15 years. 15 years that we started believing, right before it changed, would last forever. Not invincible, after all! Remember that before they manage to slam the barn door shut again.
2016 IN SUPERLATIVES
MOST SHOCKING DEATH OF A NOVEAU RICHE DRUG ADDICT FROM THE ’80s
CLASSIEST ASSISTED SUICIDE IN ADVERTIZING CAMPAIGN TO BOOST CHART POSITION
MOST SATISFYING BUCKET-OF-WATER TOSSED ON WICKED WITCH
MOST CARTOONISH RISE OF A MINOR FASCIST TO POWER
SLOPPIEST PROPAGANDA AIMED AT THE MOST CREDULOUS AUDIENCE BY THE MOST CYNICAL BULLSHITTERS USING THE MOST POWERFUL MEDIA
CLEVEREST DEFLECTION OF A MAJOR STORY BY SPINNING IT WITH A GOOFY NAME
CRINGIEST EMERGENT ALT-NEWS-BLACKWASHING MEME
MOST POIGNANT CELEBRITY EXIT THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN MADONNA
MOST PERSUASIVE EVIDENCE SUPPORTING PARALLEL UNIVERSE THEORY (FOR THE SECOND YEAR RUNNING)
MOST DECEPTIVE END OF AN ERA (aka THE DEATH OF THE SELF-APPOINTED GOVERNOR-FOR-LIFE OF THE USA’S TOP SECRET 51st STATE)
MOST REGRETTABLE UNMASKING
FUNNIEST SOUR GRAPES
MOST COST-EFFICIENT COINTELPRO, BASED ON FLIMSIEST FAUX AUTHORITY, WHICH CAUGHT ON FOR ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD REASON
MOST EMBARRASSING RECYCLE OF A TIRED OLD JINGOIST TROPE
MOST REFRESHING PARADIGM SHIFT
“Russian” is the new Black
BEST NEW WAY TO SUBVERT SOCIAL MEDIA’S ORIGINALLY ASTONISHING POTENTIAL TO CONNECT AND UNIFY THE MASSES BY DIVERTING ITS USERS INTO ADDICTIVELY FRIVOLOUS EDDIES OF PUBERTAL NARCISSISM
MOST POWERFUL UNSUNG DRIVERS OF THE NEW ECONOMY
12-16 year old white girls
MOST OBVIOUS PLANE CRASH
Russian defence ministry flight from Moscow to Syria
CHEEZIEST SWEDISH ATTEMPT AT GETTING A COMMAND PERFORMANCE
Nobel Prize for Lit
BEST METAPHOR FOR THE WHEELS FLYING OFF THE NEO-LIBERAL BULLSHIT-JUGGERNAUT OF DEATH
MOST URGENT TOPIC OF STUDY THE YEAR’S DEVELOPMENTS (not to mention those of the century preceeding it) NECESSARILY LEAD US TO
Several long-time readers (aka very strange people to whom I can usually relate) have contacted me about the “shock” election. They expect me to be ranting about Trump. What I say about all that is…
A BUFFOON ran against a WAR CRIMINAL and the BUFFOON won.
It’s really that simple. Neither candidate was less than laughably horrific, although, between the two, Clinton (one half of one of the most corrupt couples in American history, if not the history of “The West”) had the bloodiest track record. Billary’s track record is bloodier than 20 Macbeths; blooodier than 100. Even a cursory examination of the mainstream information on these people indicates that; the so-called “Clinton death list” (some or most of which is quite plausible) is extraneous. The more important, mainstream Clinton Death List includes (among others) 500,000 Iraqi children (starved to death by sanctions levied to send a message from Bush/Clinton to Saddam Hussein), civilian casualties in Kosovo, sick or starving Haitians who were cheated out of relief funds by the “Clinton Foundation”, Libyans (and their raped/murdered leader), the uncounted deaths in North and South and Central America connected to the Iran/Contra drugs-for-money-for-guns scheme (for which Bill Clinton provided the all-important airstrip in Mena, Arkansas, for drug-drops… the favor, for Daddy Bush, that probably won Billary the presidency)…
The recent Wikileaks Clinton-email-dump offers proof that not only is The Clinton Foundation receiving hefty donations from the same source (Saudi Gov) that supports EYE****ZIZ (don’t want to trigger any scanners, do we?)… but that the Clintons were fully aware of this all along. That’s mind-boggling enough, but what’s worse is that it’s only one degree of separation from the obvious deductive conclusion about the whole Rep/Dem Turrist Game they’ve been playing (and killing over) since the dawn of this century. People are still in Guantanamo over having had infinitely-more tenuous links to Turrists. Think about it. The implications are staggering.
No, Trump is no savior. Nothing will improve under his watch. Nothing will improve… for the 99%… under any President’s watch, because the President’s function is not to improve things for Serfs; his/her function is to anesthetize Serfs to the painful results of the constant and many schemes against them; to numb Serfs as they are hacked at, from all angles, by gold and silver hatchets. The President’s function is to sell the concept of Thanksgiving to the Turkeys; The President is there to sing convincingly of the warmth and beauty of Fire… to kindling. He/she has to be good at acting.
Nothing will improve under Trump… but there’s a good chance that cheating the surpassingly-creepy Clinton out of her prize has cut down on the intensity of Cold War 2.0., to a useful extent. Some people were worried about nuclear conflict with Russia, under Clinton… I don’t think that ever would have been likely (why would The Owners agree to having vast swathes of their property covered in radioactive Fallout for thousands of years?). But things, I think, could have gotten very nasty, if only in the sense of conventional warfare. Perhaps we’ve dodged that one for now.
Now, tellingly, I’ve been arguing about The Hillary Problem (you admire a War Criminal: why? Her vagina?) for weeks, now, with at least a dozen HRC dupes, and every single HRC dupe I encounter, online and/or in Meatspace, invariably attacks (the low-hanging fruit of the creepy) Trump, or me, even (Liberals resort to ad hominems even quicker than Conservatives, in my experience)… but absolutely no one rebuts/refutes the analysis of HRC’s record as a War Criminal. No one defends her with a single Fact. No one engages the issue on the level of the public record of HRC’s many ethical/moral/criminal lapses. The psychology is fascinating. It’s exactly like arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses/ Scientologists/ Madonna fans…
But: yes… no: Trump is definitely psycho, too. No mistake about that. He’s a jar of psycho that’s labelled properly; Clinton is a jar of psycho labelled “Angel”. I find that sickening. I’ve found eight years of BHO’s psychopathy (drone-killing kids? No prob! I kill and grin!) sickening for the same reason: he’s a jar of psycho labelled “Savior”. In fact, his record makes it clear that BHO is a liar, a killer, a sucker of big cold bloody corporate cock. Sickening. Weeping so-called Liberals (you pathetic, infantilized dupes) would weep even harder to hear that.
Good. (And, no, I’m not “Rightwing”… unless that word now means being anti-war, anti-military, anti-corporate and feeling strongly that the tax-payers’-funded war-making budget should be diverted instead to social services, free uni, playgrounds, alternative energy research, libraries and real schools for children; and that’s the problem: America has moved so far to the Right, in four decades, that the so-called “Progressives” are really the Center-Right, the “Liberals” are Far Right and the Right Right are a Baby-Killing Fuckface Zombie Stink-Bot Scourge …)
Yeah. I imagine HRC screaming all night, several nights, in fury and despair, at the results of this election… screaming until she’s hoarse, pounding the walls (or a flunky) until her cruel hands bleed….
…and I think: justice with a small “j”.
Better than nothing.
PS And now for something completely different… YouTube’s first Pundit Satanist?
The well of culture has been poisoned with propaganda. It may not be as lethal as a literal well-poisoning but it is as sickening.
Culture is now, essentially, the liquid that happens to be flowing through the pipes of The Media. It is no longer grounded in, or determined by, local conditions (via community gatherings, bands, local art movements, word of mouth, samizdat and any other low-budget repositories or propagators of Culture). The Media are global tools of their various powerful owners, obviously, and though these many powerful owners each have agendas of their own, and are probably more often competitors and/or enemies than friends, their interests can generally be categorized as being divergent from the interests of the Serfs (that’s us) that The Media are used to influence. If the interests of some powerful co-owners of The Media harmonize politically, the harmony is an effort coordinated by Governing structures of Finance and the Intelligence Agencies.
Geopolitical exigencies supervene upon matters of Culture. It is difficult, now, to distinguish between the push to sell cultural merchandise (books/ films/ pop singles/ TV shows) and the push to normalize a particular worldview or burnish the status of a supposed “way of Life”. Certainly, in the context of a Cold War that is clearly heating up again (after the apparent Gorbachev-intermission of the 1990s), “America” is a concept, created and maintained by The Media, to represent Nobility/ Freedom/ Fun in opposition to the “Russia” concept’s complementary Corruption/ Oppression/ Gloom.
In the middle of the 20th century, the need to burnish the image of the “America” concept, at the height of the first Cold War, led to crucial Media support for the Civil Rights movement: “America” couldn’t very well win the hearts and minds of a planet expected to choose between Washington and Moscow (as ideological beacons and colonizers) if “America” still boasted racially-segregated lunch counters, water fountains, high schools, strip clubs and swimming pools. An interesting corollary: the temporary juggernaut of the Civil Rights movement began to lose steam, and roll rather alarmingly backwards downhill, almost exactly at the time that relations between Washington and Moscow seemed to thaw.
Now that Washington and Moscow are again glaring at one another through binoculars in very chilly air, and NATO’s misadventures in the “Middle East” are ramping up, “America” needs burnishing, again, and representatives from a wide range of Racial and Gender “minorities” will be the beneficiaries. Why is this? In short: spotlighting brown faces (and celebrating non-het sex orientations) seems to do wonders in softening the image of a Global Hegemony; it would seem to be difficult to invoke Nazi Blitzkrieg, regarding America’s use of overwhelming military superiority in the invasion and occupations of several countries, when a Black or Female President oversees the invasions. How Evil can an Empire be when it nominates a woman as its figurehead… right? It doesn’t matter how irredeemably co-opted and corrupted the Black figurehead-puppet-actors and the Female firgurehead-puppet-actors are because the audience isn’t paying close attention. The audience is over-medicated, under-rested, ears-deep in debt and primarily concerned with blockbusting movies about Super Heroes… the propaganda doesn’t have to be brilliant in order to work. It only needs to be relentless.
The difference between Cold War 1.0 and Cold War 2.0 being that “NATO” is now, essentially, a synonym for “America” or “The West”. In other words, The Media busy burnishing “America” and/or “NATO” are not restricted to such organs or events as Hollywood, The New York Times, The Pulitzer Prize, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, et al. The Guardian, Stern, Die Zeit, Charlie Hebdo, The Nobel, The Booker, et al, are all part of the normalization and burnishing of a particular worldview and “way of life”.
I was reading some Lit Bloggy “Best Of” List, a few weeks back, and noted, in the comment thread, that a lady was rhapsodizing over Peter Matthiessen, the chiseled, patrician hunk who wrote “The Snow Leopard” and other stuff of limited interest. So, I thought: 40 years after the first time Matthiessen was outed as a CIA agent who “founded” the Paris Review as a propaganda organ to enrich the Cold War, and four or five years after the outing was confirmed as fact, most still don’t know, or don’t give a shit. Because I thought the revelation pretty much changed everything.
I suddenly realized that many poets and writers I had always believed that I had come to like as a natural extension of my own interests and preferences actually got lodged in my mind at the CIA’s behest. I mean, “Modernism” (and, therefore “Post Modernism”) may or may not have been created by US Gov, but it was promoted so heavily by US Gov that it pushed everything else off the menu for the entirety of my Formative Years as a reader. In other words, I’m as much of a construct as The Paris Review, literarily speaking, shaped by a hidden agenda that Matthiessen (reputedly, if one of his ex-wives can be trusted, a sort of psychopath who once swerved on the road in order to drive over a large turtle) was working to serve. Matthiessen and that self-effacingly patrician super-smoothie George Plimpton, who was much better at keeping it to himself (Matthiessen being the kind of jocky cocksman who probably couldn’t resist bragging, to the better looking debutantes, that he was CIA*).
I like how Matthiessen stares down the camera in this clip (professional liars often make a point of looking you in the eye while plying the trade, you know):
One would think that the casually definitive exposure of the Paris Review as a “former” (cough) front for the CIA would put that particular asset out to pasture, but, hey: waste not, want not! The Paris Review still has a name redolent of faded patrician cocksman glamour in the Lit World and there are still tiny brains out there to wash. I mean: maybe it’s a coincidence: but when arch-Islamophobe (and iffy stylist) Michel Houellebecq squatted over his Remington and grunted out the most Islamophobic chunk of Dystopian Sci Fi of the past 50 years (it puts Dune to shame), guess who translated it into English? Lorin Stein, Ed in Chief of The Paris Review! Or maybe that’s a coincidence (like the fact that Houellebecq’s nightmare of Burkas and hand-chopping was published, in Paris, mere hours before the Charlie Hebdo passion play of early 2015, assuring bestseller stats). Whatever. “Am I Islamophobic? Probably yes,” said Houellebecq. So anybody wanting to stir the book-reading public into a froth capable of green-lighting (say) the invasion of Syria would definitely want to get Houellebecq’s shitty books in all the sweaty little credulous hands out there. And so on.
Despite all that, I doubt seriously the Paris Review is going to be pulling off the kind of culture-wide deceptions it must have been shitting its pants, with glee, about in the 1960s and 1970s. Matthiessen himself managed to win all kinds of “prestigious” lit awards in those days, which is a little like the nephew, of the guy who runs the corner shop, winning the lottery on a regular basis… but he got away with it, with just the hint of a weathered smirk, at the end. And, as I said above: a couple of generations of us were well and truly duped. With the caveat that the experience taught a cranky few of us to read falsified elements of the Zeitgeist as though they’re comic books. With relative ease and for pleasure, almost.
Which leads me to last season’s announcements regarding the lucky few who were visited, this year, by the MacArthur Genius Grant Fairy: each one gets 625K in pre-collapse dollars for writing not-particularly brilliant stuff that radiates a simple message that conforms to parts, or all, of some Plutocrats’ agenda(s). As the alarmingly (perhaps sinisterly) interesting Daniel Brandt put it, way back in 1993:
Anyone who follows today’s academic debates on multiculturalism, and by happenstance is also familiar with the power-structure research that engaged students in the sixties and early seventies, is struck by that old truism: the only thing history teaches us is that no one learns from history. By now it’s even embarrassing, perhaps because of our soundbite culture. Not only must each generation painstakingly relearn, by trial and error, everything learned by the previous generation, but it’s beginning to appear that we have to relearn ourselves that which we knew a scant twenty years earlier. The debate over diversity is one example of this.
Researchers in the sixties discovered that the ruling elites of the West mastered the techniques of multiculturalism at the onset of the Cold War, and employed them time and again to counter the perceived threat from communism. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was funded first by the CIA and then, after this was exposed in 1967, by the Ford Foundation. CCF created magazines, published books, and conducted conferences throughout the world, in an effort to wean intellectuals to democratic liberalism.
We’re talking about “multiculturalism” , now, because the Artists and Writers among the 23 awardees of this year’s MacArthur Genius Grant look like a Benetton Ad. Which should be fine by me because I look like a Benetton Ad. But we aren’t called “minorities” for no reason, so when groups which live in the relatively small slices of the population pie chart are extremely over-represented as beneficiaries of spectacular philanthropic largesse, it feels like social engineering. As a Writer of Color, I would have been immensely pleased if a Writer of Color of Genius had been included in this lottery… or, at the very least, a writer as solidly mediocre as Jonathan Franzen. Instead, the material is very meh. Just the stuff to win a “Genius” award in The Kingdom of Bullshit.
Two of the awardees, Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson, had books that came out, in 2014 and 2015, respectively, that I was aware of before 2016’s MacArthur announcement.
First, among the cultural debris of the more recent dumping grounds of Identity Lit, I found Nelson’s exhibitionist, post-90s, theory-porn-novel (written in intermittent academese) THE ARGONAUTS (excerpt):
Like much of Catherine Opie’s work, Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), which features the bloody stick figures cut into her back, gains meaning in series, in context. Its crude drawing is in conversation with the ornate script of the word Pervert, which Opie had carved into the front of her chest and photographed a year later. And both are in conversation with the heterogeneous lesbian households of Opie’s Domestic series (1995–98)—in which Harry appears, baby-faced—as well as with Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), taken a decade after Self-Portrait/Pervert. In Opie’s nursing self-portrait, she holds and beholds her son Oliver while he nurses, her Pervert scar still visible, albeit ghosted, across her chest. The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden.
This balance is admirable. It is also not always easy to maintain. In a recent interview, Opie says: “Between being a full-time professor and an artist and a mom and a partner, it’s not like I get to have that much time to go and explore and play [SM style]…. Also, all of a sudden when you’re taking care of a child, your brain doesn’t easily switch to ‘Oh, now I’m going to hurt somebody’”
There is something profound here, which I will but draw a circle around for you to ponder. As you ponder, however, note that a difficulty in shifting gears, or a struggle to find the time, is not the same thing as an ontological either/or.
That excerpt is from a novel, remember… not a TA’s blog post. Wherever Kathy Acker is, she probably still doesn’t make much money and she’s probably pissed. 625K in pre-collapse dollars, Kathy Acker! How does that make you feel? Kathy Acker, please note: the author doesn’t mutilate herself in this excerpt from an autobiographical text about loving a partner of “fluid” gendernicity, she reports on someone else’ self-mutilation. See how it’s done? It’s too easy to imagine Butthead chortling, at the end of this excerpt: “She said ontological.”
And here: two random excerpts from Rankine’s “Citizen”, a “lyric essay,” most of which appears as a diaristic litany of Race-y moments, in her life, that spoiled a bunch of Ms. Rankine’s various days as a Black Woman:
Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship , when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget. If this were a domestic tragedy, and it might well be, this would be the fatal flaw—your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt because it’s the “all black people look the same” moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.
Oh, the humanity. A reviewer in the NYRB writes:
Told mostly through a series of “micro-aggressions” (the term coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe unconscious insults nonblack Americans aim at black people), Citizen is a circuitous and intimate descent into the poet’s past in order to examine race in America. Some of the incidents happen to the poet, some are reports from friends. Rankine writes almost exclusively in the second-person present, a tense that implicates as it includes, endowing events with a sense of immediacy and urgency.
“Micro-Aggressions” pretty much nails it. The most aptly-tepid word possible. Yawn. The MacArthur Fairy itself says:
In ‘Citizen,’ Rankine’s aesthetic evolution culminates in a powerful poetics, at once visual and documentary, as she brings to life a series of everyday occurrences tinged with racism directed toward African Americans: from slips of the tongue and suspicious looks, to empty seats on the train next to black men, to complaints about affirmative action.
Ouch… and here I am complaining about affirmative action.
Writers who can’t really write… grossly overweight models… transsexual infants… welcome to The Now. What kind of psycho-social Agenda is being shoved down our throats? And how is Massa Capitalism planning to use it?
Oh, and what is “Graywolf”? (emphases mine):
Graywolf has been winning for a while. Over the past few years, as publishing conglomerates merged, restructured, and grappled with Amazon, a midwestern press snuck in and found a genuinely new way forward for nonfiction. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams entered the Times best-seller list at No. 11, while Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a half-versified meditation on racism, stormed post-Ferguson America. Each has sold more than 60,000 copies, putting them in Graywolf’s all-time top five. Citizen just went back to press for a tenth time, putting it close to having 100,000 copies in print. That hardly puts Graywolf in league with Penguin Random House, but neither is it just a scrappy little press punching above its weight. It’s a scrappy little press that harnessed and to some extent generated a revolution in nonfiction, turning the previously unprepossessing genre of the “lyric essay” into a major cultural force.
The term lyric essay was popularized in the ’90s by the writer John D’Agata (a Graywolf author) to describe a hybrid form of nonfiction that accommodates verse, memoir, and criticism. But its origins go back at least as far as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, journalist-critics whose work is magnetically personal. Its present-day progeny is more diverse and more direct, answering to a very modern hunger for well-worded social arguments rooted in identity and experience. It’s a rapidly expanding niche, where Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay can turn painful confessions into powerful exhortations while — in a different mode — Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti can make universal claims out of private stories. On this shifting ground, Graywolf’s poet-critics are punching above every weight class.
The publisher’s very good 2014 wasn’t a fluke but a culmination (and its lyric-essay run continues with this year’s The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s deconstruction of both gender and genre). Publishing just over 30 books a year, Graywolf has had authors win four NBCC awards, a National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and a Nobel Prize — all in the last six years. This year, it will exceed $2 million in sales for the first time. No other independent press, never mind a 41-year-old nonprofit, has come so far so fast. It didn’t happen by accident. [blog-owner’s commentary: YUP]
“I think of success as being able to say yes to something that doesn’t necessarily look like a commercial winner,” says Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s publisher since 1994, over yogurt and decaf on one of her monthly visits to New York. “Knowing something is good and having to say no, that seems to me the bigger failure.” An affably owlish Brit, McCrae started out in London’s legendary literary Faber & Faber before transferring to its small American spinoff in Boston. Three years later, she heard that Graywolf’s founder was resigning.
Scott Walker began hand-sewing poetry chapbooks in Port Townsend, Washington, in 1974. While picking up poets like Tess Gallagher and Jane Kenyon, Walker turned Graywolf Press into a nonprofit and relocated to the Twin Cities, home to a thriving philanthropic base (which also supports nonprofit presses Milkweed and Coffee House). But in the ’90s, a publishing slump hit Graywolf particularly hard; Walker resigned and his board eventually hired McCrae. At the time, she had zero experience in nonprofits — possibly to Graywolf’s benefit, because she chafed at the complacency to which nonprofits are prone. “There’s got to be a way in which you absolutely value Graywolf,” she says, “but like, come on, everybody! Other small presses are not the measure. Do you say, ‘For our size, we get more attention, so that’s it,’ or do you say, ‘Where can we go?’”
In 1999, McCrae won a $1 million grant by promising to take Graywolf to “yet another level.” [blog owner’s commentary: that’s usually all it takes, isn’t it?] A couple of years later, they raised another $1 million with a detailed capital plan: a grant for work in translation; a fund to increase author advances; a budget for travel to global book fairs; a New York city outpost; a “national council” of fund-raisers; and the Literary Nonfiction Prize that would launch Biss and Jamison. Just as important, Graywolf switched its distribution to prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “That signaled something,” says Jeff Shotts, Graywolf’s executive editor. “It put our books in the same conversation with Seamus Heaney.”
Graywolf reached its fund-raising goals, and just as McCrae was beginning to get impatient — “I remember thinking, Where’s the big hit?” — Graywolf’s initiatives came together to help create one: Per Petterson’s 2007 best-seller Out Stealing Horses. Acquired and promoted via Graywolf’s new global connections, listed beside giants in FSG’s catalogues, and hand-delivered on a visit to the New York Times, the Norwegian novel won the IMPAC Dublin award, scored a Times Book Review cover, and sold 70,000 copies in hardcover. Petterson has spurned corporate advances to remain with Graywolf ever since.
McCrae admits that they dug deeper than usual to keep him, but it was partly thanks to Petterson that advances have roughly doubled in ten years (as has the annual list). Graywolf can now sometimes pay $25,000 for a book — not much, unless you’re a young writer whose work defies conventional categories. And it’s exactly in the cracks between history, memoir, poetry, and criticism that Graywolf has lately thrived. When the NBCC nominated Citizen for awards in both poetry and criticism — unable to decide which it was — “it was fun to watch that debate,” says Jeffrey Lependorf, head of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. But at a larger press, “that’s a question that might have led to a marketing department putting the kibosh on it.”
Graywolf’s nonfiction hybrids don’t just defy publishing categories; they also offer subtler takes on issues like race (in Citizen) and gender (in The Argonauts) than some publishers might prefer. They are difficult to summarize in tweets. Yet Graywolf uses Twitter to great effect; it has more than twice the followers of FSG and almost as many as Knopf, which is six times its size. That’s a serious asset for a house with a surfeit of distinctive voices but a limited marketing budget. “You don’t have to pay for cyberspace,” says McCrae. “It’s equalizing in that way.”
The publisher’s oddest source of free publicity was its working with debut poet James Franco. The polymath gadfly name-checked Graywolf on Jimmy Fallon last year while promoting his collection, Directing Herbert White, which referenced his own short-film adaptation of poems by Frank Bidart. It was Bidart who brought Franco’s work to Graywolf’s attention. “It was a risk, sure, as a first book of poetry can be,” says Shotts, Franco’s editor, “and one written by someone under public scrutiny. Graywolf published it in a pretty subtle way. It was an opportunity to reach readers who don’t normally come to poetry.” He hastens to add that Franco was paid a standard poetry advance and has never donated to the house.
Celebrity poet aside, Graywolf tends to lead on trends or avoid them. “They obviously have to look at trends, but they can be a little more adventurous,” says Rick Simonson, the buyer for Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books. “I’ve watched the bigger houses plunge into things and back away. People in New York, if they were trying to sell me a book of essays, they’d say, ‘I know essays are a tough sell.’” Now that essays are selling at Graywolf, others are catching on.
So, to recap: a quaint little Indie press, like quaint little indie presses all over post-literate America, was on the verge of folding; the old Hippie who started it stepped down; a hip New Lady from the UK was flown in and: presto: 2 million bucks were donated (hear that, Agha Khan?), followed by a slew of awards and unprecedentedly fantastic sales in the ever-more-lucrative LYRIC ESSAY genre! If it weren’t such a solid business model, one admits, it might all look a wee bit suspicious.
And, wouldn’t you know it: many of the books on Graywolf’s roster skew toward topics that are consonant with 21st century Social Engineering. In fact (one shits you not) there is even a (a decidedly pro-vaccine) book about vaccines, called OnImmunity: An Inoculation ! It came out at the height of the “anti-vaxxer” controversies. Hey, got any lyric-essay books about Global Warming….?
You could not, as Writers often say, make this shit up. Well, actually, you could and they did.
But I’ve invented a new term for writers like Ms Rankine and Ms Nelson and whoever else plays a role, “witting” or not (a distinction, by the way, that seemed crucial to the circle around the WASPy nucleus of the Paris Review, soon after the rumors started circulating). The new term is an acronym: PLIMP.
PSEUDO-LITERARY MOUTH PIECE
Wouldn’t George have given that one a horrified chuckle?
And now a shitty book by writer-of-color Paul Beatty has won The Booker prize (the first American writer to do so) after a year of the shitty book garnering uniformly (head-scratching) hyperbolic praise. If The Sellout is a good book, then every book I’ve ever read (and every book ever written) is a good book. Which can’t be true.
There was a heated debate over at The Millions, recently, regarding this shitty book and its Booker win. I caused the debate to heat up, in the first place, by registering my aimed-at-the-culture-itself complaint that Beatty’s poorly-written book has gotten unanimous raves from the largely Liberal White Lit Critter establishment for subtly sinister reasons. I diagnose the otherwise head-scratching uniformity of hyperbolic praise for Beatty’s sophomoric book as being all about Liberal White Condescension. The bar is very low. Is it also about burnishing NATO’s image in the run up to another attempt to get Duh Masses to green-light an invasion of Syria? Ie “look at how much we love our darkies! Even the darkies mildly critical of us! How can we be Nazis?” The two things… NATO-burnishing and Liberal White Condescension… can quite often and quite comfortably co-exist. Beatty’s case is complex: many of the condescending White Liberal readers and critics, who fell over each other, last year, in a mad stampede to celebrate his shitty-in-a-stale way book, can’t read very well and have no taste. They think TV is churning out masterpieces. They read and adored Hary Potter. They are efficiently dumbed-down and infinitely accepting. But there were good readers among the cheerleaders, good readers who only want one thing from Writers of Color and that thing is the opposite of Intellect. It’s not about mastery of the language or the mastery of anything. It’s not so much about making, it’s about being. Being of Color.
Just as the code word, for any Black male too old to appear to be a potential rapist, is (the Morgan-Freemanesque) “dignified”, the code-word for any Black who can speak or write with basic proficiency is “articulate” or “smart”. Sometimes (especially if the writer/comedian/ politician can provide Liberal Whites with a free pass to laugh, good-naturedly, at Black “foibles”) the code word is “genius”.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout descends from a long line of loosely-plotted, sloppily-written, slapsticky assaults on Black America through the flimsy targets of very old stereotypes (“watermelon” appears 15 x in the book, “chicken” : 10x) while pretending to be “satires on race”. Many of the most successful of these “satires” are Stand Up Comedy (go back and look at Eddy Murphy’s first big HBO stand up special, Delirious, with some critical distance: who is laughing at who’s expense and why?) and some are movies (shudder: Tyler Perry) and many are books like Beatty’s, which is the latest in a (roughly century-long) tradition. Zora Neale Hurston was not the first Sellout to depict idiotic Negroes in the framework of the broad grit and “humor” of a flimsy book.
In fact, it was about a fourth of the way through Hurston’s “brilliant” and beloved Their Eyes Were Watching God, that I was inspired to fling that book, casually, across my bedroom one Saturday (I must have been 17 or 18). I came to the following passage (if anyone can remember the Sinclair filling station chain, with its green Brontosaurus logo, the “varmint” referred to in the following insulting passage is that very logo) and had had enough:
“Look at dat great big ole scoundrel-beast up dere at Hall’s fillin’ station—uh great big old scoundrel. He eats up all de folks outa de house and den eat de house.”
“Aw ’tain’t no sich a varmint nowhere dat kin eat no house! Dat’s uh lie. Ah wuz dere yiste’ddy and Ah ain’t seen nothin’ lak dat. Where is he?”
“Ah didn’t see him but Ah reckon he is in de back-yard some place. But dey got his picture out front dere. They was nailin’ it up when Ah come pass dere dis evenin’.”
“Well all right now, if he eats up houses how come he don’t eat up de fillin’ station?”
“Dat’s ’cause dey got him tied up so he can’t. Dey got uh great big picture tellin’ how many gallons of dat Sinclair high-compression gas he drink at one time and how he’s more’n uh million years old.”
“’Tain’t nothin’ no million years old!”
“De picture is right up dere where anybody kin see it. Dey can’t make de picture till dey see de thing, kin dey?”
“How dey goin’ to tell he’s uh million years old? Nobody wasn’t born dat fur back.”
“By de rings on his tail Ah reckon. Man, dese white folks got ways for tellin’ anything dey wants tuh know.”
“Well, where he been at all dis time, then?”
“Dey caught him over dere in Egypt. Seem lak he used tuh hang round dere and eat up dem Pharaohs’ tombstones. Dey got de picture of him doin’ it. Nature is high in uh varmint lak dat. Nature and salt. Dat’s whut makes up strong man lak Big John de Conquer. He was uh man wid salt in him. He could give uh flavor to anything.”
Yes, because the Black characters in that book have IQs of roughly 75, I suppose. Knee-slappingly funny stuff. Wiki says:
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a 1937 novel and the best known work by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. The novel narrates main character Janie Crawford’s “ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny.”As a young woman, who is fair-skinned with long hair, she expects more out of life, but comes to realize she has to find out about life ‘fuh theyselves’ (for herself), just as people can only go-to-God for themselves. Set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century, the novel was initially poorly received for its rejection of racial uplift literary prescriptions. Today, it has come to be regarded as a seminal work in both African-American literature and women’s literature. TIME included the novel in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
Yes: “the novel was initially poorly received” because the novel’s initial audience was largely comprised of literate Blacks who knew when they were being insulted. Those days are fading from view, no? With Liberal White/ Structuralist Feminist academics as her new target demo, Hurston can’t go wrong. Zadie Smith, who hasn’t the sense to do anything but go along with the huggy-hopey crowd that buys her books (she was the writer who wept tears of awe over BHO‘s ghostwritten boilerplate political autobiography) calls Their Eyes Were Watching God…
“A deeply soulful novel that comprehends love and cruelty, and separates the big people from the small of heart, without ever losing sympathy for those unfortunates who don’t know how to live properly.”
Zadie is referring to a book by a Black writer in which a Black character responds to the sound of thunder with“Big Massa draw him a chair upstairs,”… this was almost thirty years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted me a human’s legal status in my own country. I have never heard a Black of any age or nationality speak English that way. I’ve heard lots of bad grammar in my Life but nothing like that. What was Hurston’s goal there?
Such books now tend to be written in First Person Pidgin (mirroring, at a sub-grammatical distance, the sudden First Person Present Continuous Craze of the early-noughties), though variants, like Beatty’s, deploy a kind of jokey collegiate grandiloquence popularized (in the 1930s) by H. L. Mencken. The narrative style range of these books seems to toggle between Hoody Pidgin and Stilted (18th century British) Antiquarian (Percy Everett has done both, but he has matured, unlike Beatty, into a serious writer with some real chops). Beatty slips in enough sophomoric “fancy” stuff (references to Kafka, say ) to signal to the Liberal White readers that the Author is not quite as “stupid” as the “average Black”: a wink, if you will.
After a springtime’s worth of weekend surfing, Marpessa trusted me enough to accompany me to my high school prom. With a graduating class of one, it was an intimate two-person affair, chaperoned and chauffeured by my father. We went dancing at Dillons, an under-twenty-one pagoda tower of a disco as segregated as anything else in L.A. The first floor—New Wave. Second floor—Top-40 soul. Third floor —watered-down reggae. Fourth floor—banda, salsa, merengue, and a touch of bachata in a vain attempt to steal Latino clientele from Florentine Gardens on Hollywood Boulevard. My father refused to go above the second floor. Me and Marpessa took the opportunity to ditch him, hiking up the smelly stairwell to the third floor, where we shimmied to Jimmy Cliff and the I-Threes, and camped out in back behind speakers, downing mai tais and standing as close to Kristy McNichol’s crew as possible so that security wouldn’t fuck with us, thinking we were the teenage movie star’s token black friends. Then it was on to Coconut Teazers to see the Bangles, where Marpessa slurred whispered rumors that some guy named Prince was fucking the lead singer.
My ignorance of His Royal Badness almost got my ass kicked. And nearly postponed my first kiss until who knows when, but an early-morning Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast later, we were in the back of the pickup, speeding down the 10 freeway, doing eighty miles per hour in the fast lane, using the bags of feed and seed for pillows as we alternated wrestling with our tongues and thumbs. Played Who Can Hit the Softest. Kissed. Puked. Then kissed again. “Don’t say ‘French,’” she cautioned. “Say swap spit or bust a slob. Otherwise, you sound inexperienced.”
My father, instead of keeping his eyes on the road, kept turning around, peering nosily through the little cab window, rolling his eyes at my breast-fondling technique, mocking the spastic way my head lolled uncontrollably when I kissed, and making the universal sign for “Fuck her already” by taking his hands off the wheel, forming a circular vagina with one hand, and sticking his index finger into it over and over again. For a man whose only evidence that he’d ever had sex with someone not enrolled in his class is possibly me, he sure was talking a lot of shit.
Between the bus and rides, the back of the pickup, the trips on horseback to the Baldwin Theater, it’s crazy how much of our relationship was spent in motion. Marpessa put her feet on the steering wheel and covered her face in a tattered copy of Kafka’s The Trial. Though I can’t say for sure, I’d like to think she was hiding a smile. Most couples have songs they call their own. We had books. Authors. Artists. Silent movies. On weekends we used to lie naked in the hayloft, flicking chicken feathers off one another’s back and leafing through L.A. Weekly. There’d be a retrospective of Gerhard Richter, David Hammons, Elizabeth Murray, or Basquiat at LACMA, and we’d tap the ad and say, “Hey, they’re exhibiting our oil on canvas.” We’d spend hours picking through the used-film bins at Amoeba Records on Sunset, hold up a copy of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and say, “Hey, they’re digitally remastering our movie,” then dry-hump in the Hong Kong movie section. But Kafka was our genius. We’d take turns reading Amerika and Parables out loud. Sometimes we’d read the books in incomprehensible German and do free-association translations. Sometimes we’d set the text to music and break-dance to the The Metamorphosis, slow-dance to Letters to Milena.
What is this nervous ramble of middlebrow cultural signifiers supposed to add to the experience of navigating this text… beyond maintaining a sense of random, pointless, unassimilated lists (did Beatty ever meet a forgotten scribble in a notebook he didn’t subsequently dump into a novel)? That passage is only there, in that form, to make sure that Liberal White Readers know that Paul Beatty went to college (why does Beatty care? That’s not his gimmick) … while the vulgar bits give him that “street cred”… I guess. Being hosed down with references doesn’t take me anywhere in the narrative or deepen my imaginative engagement with the characters; it’s the textural version of a post-vacation slide show that can only rush, rush, rush because of the sheer (unfiltered) number of slides we have to get through before the end of the numbing presentation.
“My ignorance of His Royal Badness almost got my ass kicked.”
And then what? Nothing. So why mention it? Shrug.
Beatty’s job was either to convince me that something actually happened involving human beings, there, or that a writer behind that scene had something more interesting to say and do than to bother trying to get me to suspend the reader’s disbelief. He failed at both.
“Sometimes we’d set the text to music and break-dance to the The Metamorphosis, slow-dance to Letters to Milena.”
Yup. Beatty has zero chops as a writer. He has an imagination… aka, The Car Keys… that’s about it.
With the most lauded Black writers expected (subconsciously) to be intellectually inferior to the most lauded White writers, and White Liberal critics lowering the bar, accordingly, on the judgment of Black texts, how will this hellish feedback loop reverse itself?
Ten years ago I wrote a story, called “The Black,” in which I took a sarcasm-laced swing at Gertrude Stein (lately exposed, incredibly, as a Vichy collaborator) and Richard Wright, one of the “elder statesman” of Black American Lit; I took a swing at Stein’s infuriatingly racist “Melanctha,” one third of “Three Lives,” and Wright’s repulsive apologia for it:
The Black picks up a handsome old volume with a photo of what looks like a sinister Edwardian chickenhawk on the cover and rifles the pages and puts it with vague reverence back. The Black hasn’t the slightest idea who Gertrude Stein is (although the name rings some kind of bell) and he has certainly never read Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha, the second story from Getrude Stein’s much-discussed Three Lives, so how could The Black possibly be aware of Richard Wright’s oleaginously positive assessment of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of the Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein?
“The first long serious literary treatment of Negro life in the Unites States,” is how the Negro writer Richard Wright praises Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of Gertrude Stein.
“Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress,” writes Gertrude Stein about the character Rose Johnson in the Richard Wright-lauded Gertrude Stein story Melanctha. “Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose,” explains Gertrude Stein, “had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.”
Richard Wright noted: “I gathered a group of semi-literate Negro stockyard workers… into a [Southside of Chicago] basement and read Melanctha aloud to them. They understood every word. Enthralled, they slapped their thighs, howled, laughed, stomped, and interrupted me constantly to comment upon the characters.”
Later in this edition of Gertrude Stein’s Selected Writings, sui generis Gertrude Stein displays her mastery (a mastery which clearly vindicates what might seem simple and racist in such writings of hers as Melanctha) in a piece inspired by travel, with her mousy factotum, to Spain: It can no sail to key pap change and put has can we see call bet. Show leave I cup the fanned best same so that if then sad sole is more, more not, and after shown so papered with that in instep lasting pheasant. Pheasant enough. Call africa, call african cod liver, loading a bag with news and little pipes restlessly so that with in between chance white cases are muddy and show a little tint…(sic)
Here, read more Negroes from the Kapo Class (is any other kind allowed through the filter?) praise Stein’s ugly tract; this is as much about these Kapos knowing which side of their stale bread the dirty butter was on… as it is a great advertisement for brainwashing:
In the criticism of the racial stereotypes in “Melanctha” (on and off the record), little is ever made of the fact that since its publication in 1909, many black American writers have credited “Melanctha” with inaugurating a new era in the representation of black Americans by white writers. James Weldon Johnson stated that Gertrude Stein was the first white writer to treat African American characters as “normal members of the human family.” Eric Walrond reportedly told Leo Stein: “Gertrude was the only white person who had given real Negro psychology.” And Nella Larsen wrote in a letter to Stein, “I never cease to wonder how you came to write it and just why you and not some one of us should so accurately have caught the spirit of this race of mine.” Richard Wright adored “Melanctha” because it enabled him to hear English, “as Negroes spoke it: . . . melodious, tolling, rough, infectious . . . laughing, cutting. . . . And not only the words, but the winding psychological patterns that lay behind them!”8 Clarence Major has argued that earlier black characters created by both black and white writers possess “none of the humanity that Jeff and Melanctha obviously possess. In this sense Stein broke the white American literary tradition of portraying black characters as subhuman or as fools.”9 Given the story’s frankly crude racial stereotypes, such appreciative remarks from African American writers are surprising. But the ways in which Gertrude Stein synthesized material from her personal experience, European and American literary forms, and features of popular black American music may account for this high praise.
The author of the above-quoted essay published it in 2003, before the general acknowledgement of Stein’s cozy/bizarre relationship with the Third Reich in Occupied Paris (where Stein, very strangely as a Jew, thrived).
America is racist on many levels, in many registers: there’s the violent racism of the Klan in the downscale barn of the red end of the spectrum, and the “friendly” racism of Liberals at the upscale lounge of the opposite end (the downscale wing of the gentler end of racism being “Wiggers”, of course). White Liberals cherish “Black authenticity” as a blended abstraction of poverty, physical excellence, intellectual simplicity and raw emotions (with sex saturating the package), immutable as a natural law. Appropriating a virtual Black phallus in the form of a blues legend, basketball star or a rapper is a standard rite of passage for White Liberal American male. But there’s no way to comfortably appropriate a genuine Black intellectual as a virtual phallic prosthesis (too complicated/ not macho enough/ inauthentic) so what is the use for one? Well: they are good for being lightning rod tokens at otherwise-mega-white Right-wing institutions but Liberal Whites ain’t interested.
Paul Beatty, who is not dumb (though his books are), knows on which side of the stale bread to find his dirty butter. He gives the Liberal White Reader exactly what he/she already expects to find (all of these books are the Same Book, after all) and they love him for it.
At the beginning of The Sellout we are expected to wade through a dense jumble of not-super-original riffs (or slides), observations and Google artifacts. A better (half-decent writer) could shape the following material into something maybe half as long, with twice the focus and power (containing even an actual laugh or two):
Most times cops expect to be thanked. Whether they’ve just given you directions to the post office, beaten your ass in the backseat of the patrol car, or, in my case, uncuffed you, returned your weed, drug paraphernalia, and provided you with the traditional Supreme Court quill. But this one has had a look of pity on her face, ever since this morning, when she and her posse met me atop the Supreme Court’s vaunted forty-fourth stair. Under a pediment inscribed with the words EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, squinting into the morning sun, windbreakers dotted with the dandruff of fallen cherry blossoms, blocking my entrance into the building. We all knew that this was a charade, a last-minute meaningless show of power by the state. The only one not in on the joke was the cocker spaniel. His retractable leash whirring behind him, he bounded up to me, excitedly sniffed my shoes and my pant legs, nuzzled my crotch with his wet snot-encrusted nose, then obediently sat down beside me, his tail proudly pounding the ground. I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering after fifty years of exploding refineries, toxic spills and emissions, and a shamelessly disingenuous advertising campaign. So I clear my pipe with two loud raps on the mahogany table. Brush and blow the gummy resin onto the floor, stuff the bowl with homegrown, and like a firing squad commander lighting a deserter’s last cigarette, the lady cop obligingly flicks her BIC and sparks me up. I refuse the blindfold and take the most glorious toke ever taken in the history of pot smoking. Call every racially profiled, abortion-denied, flag-burning, Fifth Amendment taker and tell them to demand a retrial, because I’m getting high in the highest court in the land. The officers stare at me in amazement. I’m the Scopes monkey, the missing link in the evolution of African-American jurisprudence come to life. I can hear the cocker spaniel whimpering in the corridor, pawing at the door, as I blow an A-bomb mushroom-cloud-sized plume of smoke into the faces that line the giant friezes on the ceiling. Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon—these veined Spanish marble incantations of democracy and fair play—Muhammad, Napoleon, Charlemagne, and some buffed ancient Greek frat boy in a toga stand above me, casting their stony judgmental gazes down upon me. I wonder if they looked at the Scottsboro Boys and Al Gore, Jr., with the same disdain.
Only Confucius looks chill. The sporty Chinese satin robe with the big sleeves, kung fu shoes, Shaolin sifu beard and mustache. I hold the pipe high overhead and offer him a hit; the longest journey starts with a single puff …
“That ‘longest journey’ shit is Lao-tzu,” he says.
“All you motherfucking philosopher-poets sound alike to me,” I say.
It’s a trip being the latest in the long line of landmark race-related cases. I suppose the constitutional scholars and cultural paleontologists will argue over my place on the historical timeline. Carbon-date my pipe and determine whether I’m a direct descendant of Dred Scott, that colored conundrum who, as a slave living in a free state, was man enough for his wife and kids, man enough to sue his master for his freedom, but not man enough for the Constitution, because in the eyes of the Court he was simply property: a black biped “with no rights the white man was bound to respect.” They’ll pore over the legal briefs and thumb through the antebellum vellum and try to determine whether or not the outcome of this case confirms or overturns Plessy v. Ferguson. They’ll scour the plantations, the projects, and the Tudor suburban subdivision affirmative-action palaces, digging up backyards looking for remnants of the ghosts of discrimination past in the fossilized dice and domino bones, brush the dust off the petrified rights and writs buried in bound legal volumes, and pronounce me as “unforeseen hip-hop generation precedent” in the vein of Luther “Luke Skyywalker” Campbell, the gap-toothed rapper who fought for his right to party and parody the white man the way he’d done us for years. Though if I’d been on the other side of the bench, I would’ve snatched the fountain pen from Chief Justice Rehnquist’s hand and written the lone dissenting opinion, stating categorically that “any wack rapper whose signature tune is ‘Me So Horny’ has no rights the white man, or any other B-boy worth his suede Pumas, was bound to respect.”
The smoke burns the inside of my throat. “Equal Justice Under Law!” I shout to no one in particular, a testament to both the potency of the weed and my lightweight constitution. In neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, places that are poor in praxis but rich in rhetoric, the homies have a saying—I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six. It’s a maxim, an oft-repeated rap lyric, a last-ditch rock and hard place algorithm that on the surface is about faith in the system but in reality means shoot first, put your trust in the public defender, and be thankful you still have your health. I’m not all that streetwise, but to my knowledge there’s no appellate court corollary. I’ve never heard a corner store roughneck take a sip of malt liquor and say, “I’d rather be reviewed by nine than arbitrated by one.” People have fought and died trying to get some of that “Equal Justice Under Law” advertised so blithely on the outside of this building, but innocent or guilty, most offenders never make it this far. Their courtroom appeals rarely go beyond a mother’s tearful call for the Good Lord’s mercy or a second mortgage on grandma’s house. And if I believed in such slogans, I’d have to say I’ve had more than my share of justice, but I don’t. When people feel the need to adorn a building or a compound with an “Arbeit Macht Frei,” a “Biggest Little City in the World,” or “The Happiest Place on Earth,” it’s a sign of insecurity, a contrived excuse for taking up our finite space and time. Ever been to Reno, Nevada? It’s the Shittiest Little City in the World, and if Disneyland was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-Saharan African nation like Detroit.
I didn’t always feel this way. Growing up, I used to think all of black America’s problems could be solved if we only had a motto. A pithy Liberté, egalité, fraternité we could post over squeaky wrought iron gateways, embroider onto kitchen wall hangings and ceremonial bunting. It, like the best of African-American folklore and hairstyles, would have to be simple, yet profound. Noble, and yet somehow egalitarian. A calling card for an entire race that was raceless on the surface, but quietly understood by those in the know to be very, very black. I don’t know where young boys come up with such notions, but when your friends all refer to their parents by their first names, there’s the sense that something isn’t quite right. And wouldn’t it be nice, in these times of constant conniption and crisis, for broken Negro families to gather around the hearth, gaze upon the mantelpiece, and take comfort in the uplifting words inscribed on a set of lovingly handcrafted commemorative plates or limited-edition gold coins purchased from a late-night infomercial on an already maxed-out credit card? Other ethnicities have mottos. “Unconquered and unconquerable” is the calling card of the Chickasaw nation, though it doesn’t apply to the casino gaming tables or having fought with Confederates in the Civil War. Allahu Akbar. Shikata ga nai. Never again. Harvard class of ’96. To Protect and to Serve. These are more than just greetings and trite sayings. They are reenergizing codes. Linguistic chi that strengthens our life force and bonds us to other like-minded, like-skinned, like-shoe-wearing human beings. What is that they say in the Mediterranean? Stessa faccia, stessa razza. Same face, same race. Every race has a motto. Don’t believe me? You know that dark-haired guy in human resources? The one who acts white, talks white, but doesn’t quite look right? Go up to him. Ask him why Mexican goalkeepers play so recklessly or if the food at the taco truck parked outside is really safe to eat. Go ahead. Ask him. Prod him. Rub the back of his flat indio skull and see if he doesn’t turn around with the pronunciamiento ¡Por La Raza—todo! ¡Fuera de La Raza—nada! (For the race, everything! Outside the race, nothing!)”
If this were a High School assignment I’d advise the intermittently-precocious teen who handed it in that the “cherry blossoms as dandruff” metaphor doesn’t really work on the scale of a cop’s shoulder (find something better), that the “snot-encrusted” snout of the cocker spaniel is a classic case of useless over-description (which adds to the verbosity problem, throwing off the text’s rhythm ) and that the sentence “I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering after fifty years of exploding refineries, toxic spills and emissions, and a shamelessly disingenuous advertising campaign” would profit immensely (in sense and “humor”) from being chopped to a manageable “I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering.” (Try substituting the word “loitering” with “discrimination”, there, Paul: better? A little funnier? Word choice is all.) But even that improved version of the riff could only be funny if you’d happened to read it in the early 1960s. Watermelons… Hitler… each “joke” as dated as it can be.
I’d also warn the teen author to lay off the Google Erudition; not that I wouldn’t think he was already vaguely acquainted with Lao Tzu or a racist Italian saying or two; it’s just that a novel isn’t, ideally, the proper receptacle for all the neat stuff a writer can’t quite bear to throw away. The passage I cite isn’t quite two pages long and is among the first the reader will encounter of the book; it’s like wading through rusty, dusty junk in a very poorly organized Racialist Thrift Shop. Fred Sanford’s (look him up) Thrift Shop of Racialist Clichés. A super-compressed (and depressing) experience of second-rate writing; please point to one original ha ha “joke” in all that. Point to one riff that hasn’t already been done to death, I’d say, to the precocious teen. Not to crush him/her but to inspire her/him to do better.
But, ah: bad news: the author isn’t a precocious teen who needs to learn a little writerly discipline and work on his rhythm and the precision of his sentences for a few years, he’s a man in his fifties and The Sellout is his tenth book (fourth novel). Paul Beatty is a writer in his fifties who stitched together this crappy, amateurish book and (hold on to your hat) he teaches at Columbia University. They’re not really charging (or paying him) for his courses, are they?
After fifteen minutes of mountingly-incredulous Googling, I found one dead-on review , of The Sellout, that didn’t make me feel as though I was running in circles around an episode of The Twilight Zone:
“…280 pages of ham-fisted, overwrought, self-indulgent, obvious, cheap and unamusing jokes. The torpor inflicted by mile after mile of smart-arsed rambling excess, pointless swearing and compulsive digression calls desperately for a robust and exacting editor. No amount of attributes, and there are some to be found (other reviewers will tell you all about them as if the flaws don’t exist), can possibly survive what is effectively a polemical stand-up set masquerading as a novel. Seldom is an opportunity missed to give too much of what we don’t want, nor to rob us of what we do.”
I commented (excerpt):
But “The Sellout” really is a shoddy piece of work that Beatty clearly stitched together with his patronizingly-forgiving White target demo in mind… he knew he could get away with this kind of thing, because he’d gotten away with it before, but even he, on some level, most be both A) ashamed of how far short the book falls of being good and, B) aware of the irony that bar-lowering Affirmative Action is one of his favorite targets for broad, unfunny, college newspaper-type “satire”. Which should make some of us serious readers, happy, at least, for the return of one of postmodernism’s favorite Meta-gimmicks: Beatty has entered his own book as an unfunny Black writer that Liberal Whites find hilarious! Bravo?
On the other hand…
“Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game.” Good Reads
“Outrageous, hilarious and profound.” Simon Schama, Financial Times
“The longer you stare at Beatty’s pages, the smarter you’ll get.” Guardian
“The most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read.” New York Times
‘I was banned from reading in bed because I was laughing so much.’- Olivia Williams, Man Booker Judge 2016
‘Beatty is an original and irreverent talent.’- The Times
‘There’s satire and then there’s satire, and without question Paul Beatty’s caustic third novel, The Sellout, definitely falls into the latter category…Brutally honest and very funny.’ –Independent
‘An outrageous scattergun satire taking aim at racism and what racism has done to black Americans…The Sellout aims to do for race relations what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – a favourite novel of Beatty’s – did for the Second World War…Beatty’s sharp humour challenges pieties from all sides, while never losing sight of the fundamental issue: America’s racism and the legacy of slavery. Intelligent and entertaining.’- Telegraph
‘Both riotously experimental and touching…erudite…and viscerally engaging…Exceptional comic writing makes the skeletal plotting work…Beatty’s inspiring new novel about the impossibility of “post-racial” anything in America is much more than “scathing” – it is constructive.’- Times Literary Supplement
‘There’s satire and then there’s satire, and without question Paul Beatty’s caustic third novel, The Sellout, definitely falls into the latter category…brutally honest and very funny’.- Independent
‘Beatty’s sharp humour challenges pieties from all sides…Intelligent…entertaining…exhilarating’.- Daily Telegraph
‘Beatty is an original and irreverent talent’.- Times
‘The longer you stare at Beatty’s pages, the smarter you’ll get.’ – Guardian
‘[A] howl-a-passage assault on the pieties of race debates in America…outrageous, hilarious and profound…It takes a whole other level of sheer audacity to expose atrocious things through the play of wit. Beatty plays for high stakes – but he wins. His brilliant, beautiful and weirdly poignant book knocks the stuffing out of right-thinking solemnities and he delivers droll wisdoms besides which the most elevated rants…pale into ponderous sententiousness…Juiciness stains every lovely page of Beatty’s mad, marvellous, toothsome book.’ – Financial Times
‘Brilliant. Amazing. Like demented angels wrote it.’- Sarah Silverman
‘[An] outrageous, riff-strewn satire on race in America…[The Sellout] combines effervescent comedy and stinging critique, but its most arresting quality is the lively humanity of its characters.’ – The New Yorker
‘Hilariously caustic.’ – Rolling Stone
‘Scarysmart…A hell of a ride.’ – Newsweek
‘[The Sellout] is among the most important and difficult American novels written in the 21st century…It is a bruising novel that readers will likely never forget.’ – Los Angeles Times
‘I am glad that I read this insane book alone, with no one watching, because I fell apart with envy, hysterics, and flat-out awe. Is there a more fiercely brilliant and scathingly hilarious American novelist than Paul Beatty?’ – Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Alphabet
‘Let’s get this out of the way: The Sellout is a work of genius, a satirical opus on race in 21st-century America.’ – O, The Oprah Magazine
‘‘[The Sellout] may end up being the smartest, funniest, and most important novel of 2016.’ – Flavorwire
‘Had we been granted a chunk of pages in this magazine to extol the virtues of Paul Beatty’s uproarious new novel, The Sellout, we could’ve easily and gladly filled them – much as Beatty floods his 288-page racial satire with blistering comic flourishes.’ – Penthouse
‘The Sellout isn’t just one of the most hilarious American novels in years, it also might be the first truly great satirical novel of the century…[It] is a comic masterpiece, but it’s much more than just that-it’s one of the smartest and most honest reflections on race and identity in America in a very long time.’- NPR.org
‘Beatty creates a wicked satire that pokes fun at all that is sacred to life in the United States…His story is full of the unexpected, resulting in absurd and hilarious drama.’ – Library Journal
‘As Mark Twain so ably showed us, America…is rich with material worthy of ridicule. But where is today’s Twain? The answer is Paul Beatty…Beatty has written a wild new book, an uproariously funny, deliciously profane and ferociously intelligent send-up of so much of our culture.’ – San Francisco Chronicle
‘An exuberant parade of forbidden words and twisted stereotypes…It’s incendiary fun with very serious undertones.’ – New York magazine, “Vulture” blog
‘Timely, phantasmagoric, and deliriously funny.’ – Barnes & Noble Review
‘[An] audacious, diabolical trickster-god of a novel…[A] damn-near-instant classic.’ – Bookforum
‘Beatty is funny as hell…Behind all the humor, however, Beatty asks important questions about racism and identity. The Sellout is a knock-out punch.’ – Shelf Awareness
‘[Beatty] is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet …[A] daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.’ – Kirkus
‘Beatty, author of the deservedly highly praised The White Boy Shuffle (1996), here outdoes himself and possibly everybody else in a send-up of race, popular culture, and politics in today’s America . . . Beatty hits on all cylinders in a darkly funny, dead-on-target, elegantly written satire . . . [The Sellout] is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and, in the way of the great ones, profoundly thought provoking. A major contribution.’ – Booklist (starred review)
‘Paul Beatty has always been one of smartest, funniest, gutsiest writers in America, but The Sellout sets a new standard. It’s a spectacular explosion of comic daring, cultural provocation, brilliant, hilarious prose, and genuine heart.’ – Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask
‘A brutally fun read, but don’t misunderstand it as unserious…Beatty delivers brilliant humour with a caustic bite, and parts can be uncomfortable to sit through…But it was unlike anything else I’d read before, at once side-splitting and thought-provoking. It’s a book that forcibly ejects you out of your comfort zone, and once you’re there, you’re going to want to linger a while.’- The Atlantic
‘It will make you laugh, but most of all it will make you think.’ – Sunday Times
‘Beatty’s towering talent proves there’s no subject, no matter how infuriatingly unjust, how outrageously sorrowful, which can’t be made to glitter like gold in the hands of a brilliant writer.’ – Big Issue
‘Beatty impresses hugely in this mischievous and caustic satire, which buzzes with inventiveness and iconoclasm.’- Sunday Herald
‘Beatty takes very little entirely seriously in this zany, irreverent take on racial politics in America today.’ – Shiny New Books
‘[The Sellout] is the most lacerating American satire in years, fearless in the way that it takes apart our sacred cows and shared delusions. It responds to America’s tortured relationship with race in the past and the present with the mockery it deserves, sprinkling jokes steeped in tragedy throughout.’ – Guardian
‘The first 100 pages of [Paul Beatty’s] new novel, The Sellout, are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt…The riffs don’t stop coming in this landmark and deeply aware comic novel…[It] puts you down in a place that’s miles from where it picked you up.’ – Dwight Garner, New York Times
‘Swiftian satire of the highest order…Giddy, scathing and dazzling.’ – Wall Street Journal
Strange, eh? Beyond the fact that the intellectual standards of the average, book-skimming American have plummeted since the middlebrow heyday of the 1970s (when Wallace, Michener, Wouk and Hailey plodded the Earth), to praise such iffy-to-crappy writing so hyperbolically must be a function of very, very low expectations.Even the middling readers who embraced James Frey’s atrocious hoax-memoir A Million Little Pieces didn’t all call Frey some kind of genius… they liked the book because the degradation in its pages spoke to them; they embraced Frey because Frey was the self-proclaimed anti-genius of The Real (ironically). Google “James Frey + Genius” and compare/contrast.
In what world, other than the one informed by the low expectations of Liberal White Condescension, is The Sellout a Swiftian satire of the highest order?
One of the biggest (and nastiest: I remember it well) cultural events of the mid-’90s was the publication of Hernstein and Murray’s “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life”. Its essential(ist) premise: Blacks are the congenital underclass in America not because they’ve (we’ve) been the victims of segregation, discrimination and the ongoing experience of being viscerally Othered away from the assimilation that every other group has managed to commence, at its own pace, since the early 1900s: nope: it’s because we are, according to the cooked statistics of the eugenic pseudo science the book champions, part of the dumb tail of the “bell curve” of IQ distribution, representing the doomed 20% of the population with an IQ range of 75-90. A typical nugget from the book:
“The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.”
Which is not dissimilar to Hillary Clinton’s leaked purported email message (or rough draft of a speech):
“Some groups of people are almost always highly successful given only half of a chance (Jews*, Hindus/Sikhs and Chinese people, for example), while others (Muslims, blacks** and Roma***, for instance) fare badly almost irrespective of circumstances. The biggest group of humanity can be found somewhere between these two extremes – the perennial overachievers and the professional never-do-wells.”
According to Wiki, “Fifty-two professors, most of them researchers in intelligence and related fields, signed an opinion statement titled “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” endorsing a number of the views presented in The Bell Curve.” The book still has passionate defenders to this day and not because it was the first to suggest that Blacks are dumber, on average, by nature. That particular meme is a cultural legacy and, as a founding meme of prosperous America, The Shining City upon a Hill, lodged deep in the subconscious of the Liberal Worldview, it’s a subtle retrovirus that surfaces in odd places and in unexpected moments. A big chunk of the concept of the “Authentic Negro” has to do with the forbidden topography of The Hood making “lower IQs”, crime and stringently-narrowed cultural options energizingly-dangerous and sexy; it’s the foundational Goldilocks myth feeding America’s Racialist Id: Blacks are a little too Dumb and Jews are a little too Smart and Whites are Just Right.
Like fish in water, most Americans are happily oblivious to the feel and meaning of the ambient Racism. It just is. A 50-ish Black American teacher at Columbia University writes a secondhand Stand Up routine masquerading as a novel, a book a high school kid could have written, and White Liberals call it a work of genius. Insulting?
What’s all the fuss about? ask the fish.
*Bearing in mind that we can’t possibly keep track of which project/illusion belongs to which intelligence outfit, “CIA” is a generically-useful term like “cancer”
Two days ago I was on a 2-hour expedition with a very real friend (who displays, however, many of the properties of an imaginary being), C. My friend C and I have covered more than a thousand kilometers of Berlin since we started these walks late last year. She is one of my most intelligent chums: nothing I say goes over her head, and nothing I say is softened or simplified to reach her. She’s had a full, bizarre, busy and cinematic life already, and passes easily, back and forth, between the Exotic and Mainstream worlds that I thread my way between without touching either.
To maintain the ideal balance of Duty and Pleasure in any long, committed marriage, it’s best to keep one’s gritty, sinister or wholly irrational bits to one’s self… to which end, my Wife and I play Sex Games like teenagers but… she doesn’t demand that I hang out with her friends and I don’t force my Literary Exertions in her face. When C came along I was used to sharing that aspect of myself with intellectual avatars, from all over the world, with names like “Sean McNulty” and “Alarming” and “Mishari” and “EC” (yes and my old litblog chum James Marcus, who flew over from NY and took the meandering tour, a while back). Anglophone C (my Wife is a beautiful Teutoniphone) was the first living, breathing image, right there in local space with me, able and willing to read my grittier mindstuff in bulk. Which had a galvanizing effect on my productivity… metric tonnes of it (or mega-joules? Is matter or energy or catshit the best metaphor?) have surged out the factory since C and I started walking last year. The woman has a mutant mind unhindered by material obsessions. If her mind keeps growing at its current rate the world will tremble (happily) one day to whatever instructions she gives it.
My only advantage over C being that I experienced the fleeting peak of Secular Humanism, as it dawned here and there, around the Western world, intermittently, in the late 1970s, before it was bludgeoned and buried with a rusty shovel during the “Reagan (ie Bush) Revolution” of the 1980s. I was there but C can only read and hear about it… I sometimes feel like a surviving citizen of the Lost Continent of Atlantis. C was born two years after I landed, the first time, in Berlin at the age of 31 and she has little idea what it’s like to live in a world in which Stripping wasn’t considered a valid, yes even a feminist, career choice. So one of my jobs is to get it right in describing this lost world to her. In a way (via some genetic twist or childhood experience), C is a natural citizen of 1977, and she only needs the critical spark of a few more trenchant filibusters, from me, to realize her potential as a cultural warrior capable of saving the rest of us from the worst of this era.
Anyway. C and I were having a walk and a talk and we happened by the English-language cinema on Hauptstrasse, the Odeon, where I saw (a weirdly-miscast) The Sheltering Sky, in 1990, when I lived around the corner, on Eisenacherstrasse (where I roomed, briefly, with Frank B, who was giving rather loud and avant garde voice lessons to Gustav Mahler’s great niece Beatrice). The film of The Sheltering Sky was iffy but it led me back to Paul Bowles’ work, and reading PB colored Berlin in the early ’90s for me. As C and I stood in front of the Odeon, I was surprised to see posters for a film adaptation of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder… they’ve made Remainder into a film? I own a few of McCarthy’s books but I hadn’t gotten around to reading any of them (Pynchon’s Against the Day is an overturned beer truck on the highway of my to-read list, with two dozen scowling books in a queue behind it) so, later that day, after my walk with C, I began to read Remainder.
Half-way through Remainder I was driven to stop and check its reviews at mainstream magazines and on respected literary blogs: uniformly positive; quite a few were hyperbolic in praise. Which I found puzzling because I don’t find Remainder to be very good as a literary text… though I can now see how it might turn out to be a better movie. Having gnawed my way through several mountains of pulp sci fi as a kid, I know well the problem (and the sinking sensation of encountering it): intriguing premise undermined by a pedestrian (occasionally rushed) execution. Worse, McCarthy is often cited as some kind of postmodernist, or “experimental” writer but, minus the Kafka-Ballardian premise, Remainder is as workaday as anything written by Kingsley Amis in the mid-1960s, minus KA’s wicked jokes. Once you’ve gotten the premise, your mind can’t help itself in working through the permutations implicit in the premise, just as the author (McCarthy) must do. Sticking with McCarthy as he works his way, laboriously, through the self-imposed limits of a thought-problem of his own making becomes a chore in the absence of stylistic talent. A chore bore. But it’s meant to be a pleasure, isn’t it?
Here’s a good representative of the not unpleasant, yet utterly not pleasurable, chore bore I mean (during which, by the way, Sartre fans among you will begin to suspect that McCarthy has a programmatic, and not-quite-integrated, fondness for Existentialist lit, like his buddy Lee Rourke; or maybe that’s just a stiff reference to the Nouveau Roman‘s obsession with goo, down there) :
One strange thing happened. It might seem trivial to you, but not to me. I remember it very clearly. At Green Park I had to change lines. To do this at Green Park you have to ride the escalator almost to street level and then take another escalator down again. Up in the lobby area, beyond the automatic gates, there were some payphones and a large street map. I was so drawn to these—their overview, their promise of connection—that I’d put my ticket into the gates and walked through towards them before I’d realized that I should have gone back down again instead. To make things worse, my ticket didn’t come back out. I called a guard over and told him what had happened, and that I needed my ticket back.
“It’ll be inside the gate,” he said. “I’ll open it for you.”
He took a key out of his pocket, opened the gate’s ticket-collecting flap and picked up the top ticket. He inspected it.
“This ticket’s only for as far as this station,” he said.
“That’s not mine, then,” I said. “I bought one for Heathrow.”
“If you were the last person to pass through, your ticket should be the top one.”
“I was the last one through,” I told him. “No one came past after me. But that’s not my ticket.”
“If you were the last one through, then this must be your ticket,” he repeated.
It wasn’t my ticket. I started to feel dizzy again.
“Hold on,” the guard said. He reached up into the feeding system on the flap’s top half and pulled another ticket out from where it was wedged between two cogs. “This yours?” he asked.
It was. He gave it back to me, but it had picked up black grease from the cogs when he’d opened the flap, and the grease got on my fingers. I walked back towards the down escalator, but before I got there I noticed all these escalator steps that were being overhauled. You think of an escalator as one object, a looped, moving bracelet, but in fact it’s made of loads of individual, separate steps woven together into one smooth system. Articulated. These ones had been dis-articulated, and were lying messily around a closed-off area of the upper concourse. They looked helpless, like beached fish. I stared at them as I passed them. I was staring at them so intently that I stepped onto the wrong escalator, the up one, and was jolted onto the concourse again. As my hand slipped over the handrail the black grease got onto my sleeve and stained it.
I have, right to this day, a photographically clear memory of standing on the concourse looking at my stained sleeve, at the grease—this messy, irksome matter that had no respect for millions, didn’t know its place. My undoing: matter.
The camp dramatics of that “right to this day” are woefully unearned, whether straight or as a knowing joke, aren’t they? Two hundred pages of this kind of thing is too much. So how to explain the unanimity of praise, out there, for the brown-bag banality of the self-conscious exercise called Remainder? Either the critical establishment is no more objective/trustworthy than the output of any advertizing agency… or people are fucking thick. Well, it seems to be a combination of the two. An Era of Stupidity is bad enough and an Era of Mendacity is worse but an era of Stupid Fucking Relentless Mendacity is a chore to live through. But we manage.
One thing that happens, when familiar people die, is that Religion comes back into focus, temporarily, from the chamber in society’s subconscious where it hides, most of the time (I’m restricting my analysis to the purview of “The West”). Grandma croaks, when you’re a kid, and grown-ups dust off the old legends, or their favorite common-sense evasions, to explain where she went (which is everywhere in the universe but the muddy hole in the ground near a disused railroad track where she actually went). This happens on a massive scale when a celebrity dies, in the form of a thousand near-identical explanations for where the dead celebrity “ascended to”. If he/she was a musician, she/he went on to perform in an eternal jam session in Heaven, which sounds like Hell; no one ever seems to track dead writers to Heavenly Book Signings, however. The celebrity who dies gets his/her Wings… aka, his/her Heavenly Raiments… the flashiest among which is Genius.
Prince died, recently, and it’s a tribute to our gullibility as an audience that initial reports, that drugs had something to do with it, felt impossible. Which is (not to speak ill of the dead) amusing. Prince, whose most impressive skill, in my opinion, was his ability to execute funked-up versions of intricately-choreographed clog-dancing while playing and singing generic funk or rock, became the greatest Genius in the history of Western Music when he died. He only managed to write a handful of halfway-hummable melodies (the rest are all standard blue-note drones or tuneless modal gimmickry, the drawback of his debt to James Brown… go on, hum your way through a dozen Prince tunes and tell me what you find); he was a pretty good programmer of drum-machines… he was reasonably proficient on a few instruments (I’ve seen people cite the figure “45”… this tally includes, of course, the triangle, the tambourine, the king-sized Oriental Harem Gong and the kazoo)… he could do the splits… this is what passes for Genius? What we have here are the ineffably credulous fuddlements of Religion, from which, as long as there are more than a dozen humans on the planet, we will never be entirely free.
It’s not just Dead Prince, who’s a Genius, with a million hysterics in tow. I was watching an Atoms for Peace video, in which Thom Yorke was having fun grooving with Flea and singing in his heartfelt and tuneless and invariable way (don’t get me wrong: I enjoy at least 30% of what Thom creates and am occasionally inspired by it)… and the comment thread was luminous as a candle-lit procession to Lourdes. Maybe our Techno-Media amplifies this state of collective hallucination: the screen shows a pretty straightforward example of normal people doing fun (but far from incredible) things and millions of viewers get big-eyed and weepy and wail. Like watching David Bowie make pancakes: too many people would find the act fundamentally better than watching their own grandmothers do the same thing. When Bowie died, he became a Genius and a Saint and so will Thom Yorke. The music (the means by which our objects of fascination entered the metabolism of Apotheosis, somehow) is just an excuse… as though a spot foretold awaited them each, long before their respective births, and nothing they could do (eg “Never Let Me Down” or “Tin Machine” or “The Glass Spider Tour” or Thom’s bleached mullet) could unearn it for them. It’s Spooky; a Spooky Religion. And the Heaven of this Spooky Religion seems to be reserved for males who touched guitars.
This deserves serious study.
I watched the most blatant piece of propaganda I’ve seen all year, last night.
I was Googling “Michael Palin” (the normal-looking one from Monty Python’s Flying Circus), for reasons I refuse to disclose, and found a YouTube video… a three-hour movie… of the “first dramatic role Palin has undertaken in twenty years” (or something like that). Intriguing already but, even better, I thought: the film is a ghost story, edited into one piece from a three-part series that was shown on British Television in 2014.
Reading the comments under the posting of the film you’d think the film was a masterpiece, but it was a silly bit of corny shit: generic “ghost story” stuff padded with expository and sub-plot longueurs (to stretch the story out to fill three long installments). The “scary” bits might well have scared me when I was ten years old and my scarless imagination was much stronger than my leathery incredulity became. The plot: an old duffer (Palin) had this nanny when he was a pie-faced boy in knee-pants, see. The nanny drowned at some point and decided to haunt Palin jealously, killing anyone too close to him, for all his long life. So far, no propaganda… but here’s the twist designed to accommodate the nauseatingly-blatant Xenophobia: Palin’s character was a child during the last days of the Raj. Eh? But the movie is happening “now”. Which makes Palin’s character (who looks about 70; a good-looking 70)… 110 years old. What? And the ghost-nanny? She’s “Indian” (obviously: this is just nasty blowback from days of the Raj, see?)… her name is “Isha” (why not Isis?) … she’s “terrifying” during her several manifestations because whenever she appears (making witchy/ reptilian sounds and movements) she… she… looks like a dark-skinned Indian lady wearing a Sari!
Whether or not this is conscious and target-specific propaganda, it’s racist as fuck, creature-fying a normal-looking ( or rather beautiful, from what you can make out behind the Muslim-like veil) non-blonde woman, who, among her supernatural terrorist activities, defenestrates a friendly, uncomplicated, busty British blonde nurse.
At roughly the same time (Oct-Dec 2014), the Daily Mail was doing its best to support the shock-horror-darkies narrative with this “story”:
An Asian man whose marriage breakdown allegedly led to the murders of his parents and sister may have split up with his wife because he had a love-child with a secret girlfriend.
Kamar Mahmood separated from his wife Nabeela after being married for nine years.
It is understood that the shame of the couple’s split – and the news that Mr Mahmood had allegedly cheated on his wife with a white, blonde girl – outraged Nabeela’s family so much that they decided to take revenge.
Nabeela’s three brothers and two other men are accused of shooting dead Mr Mahmood’s father Moham-mad Yusaf, 51, his mother Pervaze, 49, and sister Tania, 22, who were in Pakistan for the marriage of their youngest son, Asad, 24.
The victims were sprayed with bullets as they prayed at a relative’s graveside in a village in Gujrat province.
Mr Mahmood, of Nelson, Lancashire, who is unemployed, separated from his wife last year.
The couple have two daughters, aged three and five, who are living with their grandmother. Nabeela is understood to be staying in a women’s refuge.
Relatives of Mr Mahmood in Lancashire and Pakistan said they separated because they ‘just grew apart over the years’. But according to Pakistani police, one of the reasons behind the split was Mr Mahmood’s alleged relationship with a white woman.
A birth certificate obtained from Lancashire County Council offices in Preston shows that he had a baby boy in October 2005 with a young woman who lived only two streets away from the Mahmoods’ marital home at the time. She gave birth to the child at Burnley General Hospital when she was 17.
There’s so much in there: The bloody savagery of tribal overreaction, The Filthy Paki knocking up a BLONDE while he was unemployed and while the BLONDE was 17… does anything good ever come out of that general part of the world?
Between the horror stories of machine guns/ brown erections and Sari-wearing, dark-skinned ghosts (and all the rest… a quick read through back-issues of the DM reveal tons of lurid stories like these), I have to wonder what was going on, in 2014, that required a good stiff poke of the citizens’ Xenophobia button.
Googling “Top Guardian Stories 2014” we find a list including the “Lindt Cafe Siege of Sydney” of December 2014 (“The man behind the Sydney cafe siege is reported to be 49-year-old self-styled ‘Muslim cleric and peace activist’ named Man Haron Monis, who is currently on bail facing dozens of charges of indecent and sexual assault“) and some stuff about Ebola (speaking of which: what’s going on with that darkies-based-plague narrative these days? Did they cure it? What happened? Weren’t we all about to get it, back in 2014?)
Ah, but then there was this, from the summer of 2014:
Heightened tensions following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens led to an exchange of rocket fire, resulting in a formal Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip called Operation Protective Edge. The rocket fire lasted seven weeks, with Israeli Defense Forces targeting Hamas rocket launchers that the group placed throughout the densely-populated Strip. The United Nations reported that 2,192 people were killed in the Gaza Strip, the majority of whom were civilians, while Israelis reported 72 casualties, only six of whom were civilians. The rest identified as members of the military.
Which ended up being somewhat of a PR disaster, I recall, for the country of anti-Muslimia™, owing to the disproportionate destructiveness of reprisal (imagine the French airforce getting involved if three French teenagers had come to bad ends in Italy). The anti-Muslimian™ image needs burnishing now and again and, you know, it does seem that the frighteningly, blonde-killingly, beardy, burka-based, Sari-based, brown-erection-oriented imagery ramps up a notch until overall empathy for anti-Muslimia™ is restored.
My response is a necessarily long-winded one. This cannot be a definitive collection of arguments, though, because the (my) clock works against that. The last time I wrote a serious c. 5,000-word essay (at Dan Green’s behest) it was about Nicholson Baker and that took me about a week (after which I was still picking out typos, and formatting problems, for days). This I can only work on for a few hours before I have to get to other things. Maybe I can come back to polish it, later. This will be full of typos and there are bound to be unfinished thoughts and blind alleys. But the gist of this will generate a few ideas worth, at the very least, your passionate rejection.
Questions Re: the competing values of “conventional” vs “experimental”, or “middlebrow” vs “high style”, come up all the time, in Lit Chat: brainier (and, often, younger) readers/writers get bored with everything “conventional” they were forced to read in school (and anything similar) and decide to “light out for the territory” to discover and/or conquer the Frontier. The presumption being that A) space (and potential progress) are limitless, with the corollary that B) there will always be a Frontier. But my private discovery is that neither is true. My private discovery is that we’ve been led astray (by that trickster-demon Fashion). “Limitlessness” is an illusion that may or may not have a special appeal to the American psyche. [caveat, in blood, covering this Treatise: this is all merely InMyOpinion].
There are limits built into Lit’s capacity to answer to every Ambitious Sophomore’s compulsion to reinvent the wheel of Lit for his or her “Time”. These limits force the cold-bloodedly-objective Literary Scientist to bounce back, away, from the standard compulsion to develop outward (toward the Frontier) and go up, down or in instead. For example, if Kathy Acker‘s heroic experiments hadn’t generally produced the results that they proved the strength of the Limits, would she have been forced to compensate by tossing her nude body into the discussion? [please address all hate mail to…]
Can we agree that in Lit, Form is the container and the Content the container is designed to hold is the spooky stuff: the transmission, from brain (author) to brain (reader), of Experience, Real-plus-Imagined? (Even if we can’t agree on that I will chug forward as if we can). Form, at the general level: Novel, Short story, Verse. Refining that and zooming in on the novel we have a variety of shapes, including, say, familiar options such as the Epistolary or the Present-Continuous Confessional or the Modernist Run-On (a la Bernhard). Dozens of familiar forms (even Henry James’ Anal-Discursive quasi-legalese structures) work perfectly well as Containers for the (spooky) Content. Going literal on the topic, you can paint the cup and twist it into all kinds of contortions and add lots of extraneous filigree and protuberances; as long as the cup is still a cup, it will carry the content. Smash the cup into little pieces and arrange these pieces in arresting patterns on the table, though, and what you have is a really cool experiment you can’t drink out of.
AND: one of my attempts at forging an INTEGRATED AVANT GARDE by playing with “ordinary language” to execute a “post modern” trick: interspersing a “murder mystery” in a “roman a clef”, HERE
A couple of years back, in fact, on HGIANT, I got into an argument with some questing young writers on the topic of Asemic Writing. Wikipedia says “The word asemic means “having no specific semantic content'”. And a blog dedicated to the practise (a blog called ASEMIC, with confrontational no-nonsense-icality) says: “Asemic writing seems to be a gigantic, unexplored territory.” Which is that fallacy again, the fallacy of Limitlessness, especially striking when Asemic Writing represents the very opposite (not “gigantic” but non-existent), in matters of Lit. Because “having no specific semantic content’ is the same as saying “having no Literary content”. Because we love to fool ourselves; fooling ourselves is a Literary Activity of its own. The questing types who have “discovered a new territory” and planted a flag thereon (a flag of a country called ASEMIA?) remind me of Christopher Columbine erm I mean Columbus. ASEMIA, as it turns out, is a little island off the coast of a fully-populated country called GRAPHIC ARTS. In a hemisphere called PAINTING. The country called LITERATURE is not there but to the North.
So desperate for a taste of the New, for the Oedipally-Rebellious, for the Culturally Bespoke and Cool, we fool ourselves, as young women and men… we play these (fittingly) semantic head-games with ourselves to convince ourselves we’ve left all that Dusty Old Bullshit behind. Vain conceit.
All to support my argument that the only Frontiers left in novel-writing (after Sterne went pretty much as far as one could go, and still “Transmit experience, Real + Imagined” in the middle of the 18th century, with Tristram Shandy, as you know… Sterne “killed it”, as they say in Funk and Jazz… he killed it and he sowed the soil with salt, which is one of the advantages of coming to the game not too long after a fundamental technology is created) are not “Out there” but closer, hidden, on the map of the territory we already know. Just as Americans ran out of literal Frontier pretty quickly, “exploration” of the continent is now a matter of Psycho-geography… a game of nooks and crannies and walking through walls or over roofs.
And that’s how Philip Roth does it. The Frontier is now topologically inverted.
But, let’s get back to Tristram Shandy for a moment. An old (virtual) friend of mine, a sensitive reader (he put me onto the addictive genius of Stewart Lee) and greatly talented writer (I’ve known three, in my life), disses Roth’s work as “journalism”… meaning that Roth is pushing no boundaries but merely transcribing quotidian existence. This friend… let’s call him Wallace… wrote a brilliant novel using the avant garde-ish technique of Detournement. Wikipedia says:
“A détournement (pronounced: [detuʁnəmɑ̃], French for “rerouting”, “hijacking”) is a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International, and later adapted by theSituationist International (SI), that was defined in the SI’s inaugural 1958 journal as “[t]he integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.”[
To put it simply, my old friend’s use of Detournement involved lifting paragraphs and sentences from a couple dozen fairly-well-known works (by James Joyce, Bruno Schulz, et al) to reincorporate them in a Sci Fi novel with a ’30s feel: a thrilling little collage of barely-digested pastichelettes into a whole too variegated to feel like a pastiche but too sample-rich to feel continuous. His novel is a pleasurable read and very clever and feels sort of New.
As it happens, Unca Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, was already doing the same thing, in 1759, for more prosaic reasons than kicking against the edifice of the Conventional (there wasn’t yet enough of a mighty commercial bulwark of the Conventional, in “Western” Lit, to kick against, in 1759): he was sampling from choice sources to increase the depth of his production (like any hit-making rapper). Wikipedia (the patron saint of this essay) says that the first person to note Sterne’s Detournement of Bacon, Rabelais, Burton and others, wrote:
If [the reader’s] opinion of Sterne’s learning and originality be lessened by the perusal, he must, at least, admire the dexterity and the good taste with which he has incorporated in his work so many passages, written with very different views by their respective authors.
Which is exactly how I felt about my old friend’s novel and the 18th-century technique it uses to chart “new territory”! Old friend Wallace thinks little of Roth, but his novel, as fresh as it feels, only manages to achieve a fraction of the depth/power/resonance that Roth achieves in his best books. Which, to me, underscores the Limits of that particular experiment in planting a flag at the Frontier.
In my opinion, one of the great Unsung Experimental Journeys in Literary Technique of the post-Industrial West is called COMPRESSION [an unlikely master of Compression is the upper-middlebrow Aesthete Bruce Chatwin: his novels/essays are compellingly-fragile parings, not a word extra]. Compression, simply put, is about how much you can leave out of a text. Great strides were made in the Narrative Sciences courtesy of a NOVEL vs MOVING PICTURES symbiosis. Whereas in the olde days, if you wanted to move a character from the wingbacked velveteen chair, in his study, to the Vicar’s study, on the other side of the village, you’d pretty much have to get the character dressed properly and show him opening and closing the study door, down the stairs, fetching the latchkey , out the front door and down the walk until the chapter ended … and the next chapter could begin with a scene in the Vicar’s study (or a different scene). Action and description both can usually be pared with positive results (I’ve always accused Nabokov of being an over-describer, and the example I like to trot out comes from Pnin, in which Vlad very unnecessarily describes a squirrel as having an “oval face”).
[when I polish this I’ll insert an example of Uncompressed Bronte or somesuch]
Moving Pictures were like that, initially, too: they’d have to show most of the connective steps in a transition between set-pieces. But soon they were dispensing with that (driven by an eye on the cost of filmstock, or by the audience’s potential boredom?) and cutting out all sorts of Extraneous Narrative Connective Tissue. The climax of this Narrative Compression Quest has to be Kubrick‘s match-cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, where the man-monkey (who has a name, btw: Moonwatcher, or Moon Watcher) tosses a femur in the air and it becomes an orbital platform for nuclear weapons. 150,000 years worth of Compression. And LIT/FILM, I think, helped each other get there, practitioners of the one form often being fans/students of the other.
Roth is a master of Compression (which allows him to pile on the layers and convey LOTS more stuff in his Transmission of Experience, Real+ Imagined). Here’s his opening for SABBATH’S THEATER:
EITHER FORSWEAR fucking others or the affair is over.
This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered in tears to her lover of sixty-four on the anniversary of an attachment that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness—and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret—for thirteen years. But now with hormonal infusions ebbing, with the prostate enlarging, with probably no more than another few years of semi-dependable potency still his—with perhaps not that much more life remaining—here at the approach of the end of everything, he was being charged, on pain of losing her, to turn himself inside out.
She was Drenka Balich, the innkeepers popular partner in business and marriage, esteemed for the attention she showered on all her guests, for her warmhearted, mothering tenderness not only with visiting children and the old folks but with the local girls who cleaned the rooms and served the meals, and he was the forgotten puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, a short, heavyset, white-bearded man with unnerving green eyes and painfully arthritic fingers who, had he said yes to Jim Henson some thirty-odd years earlier, before Sesame Street started up, when Henson had taken him to lunch on the Upper East Side and asked him to join his clique of four or five people, could have been inside Big Bird all these years. Instead of Caroll Spinney, it would have been Sabbath who was the fellow inside Big Bird, Sabbath who had got himself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sabbath who had been to China with Bob Hope—or so his wife, Roseanna, delighted in reminding him back when she was still drinking herself to death for her two unchallengeable reasons: because of all that had not happened and because of all that had. But as Sabbath wouldn’t have been any happier inside Big Bird than he was inside Roseanna, he was not much bruised by the heckling. In 1989, when Sabbath had been publicly disgraced for the gross sexual harassment of a girl forty years his junior, Roseanna had had to be interned for a month in a psychiatric institution because of the alcoholic breakdown brought on by the humiliation of the scandal.
Three paragraphs, 375 words, which precapitulate the first half of the 451-page book. It’s all there, in vivid detail, each word nearly a set-piece. Roth is the hypnotist who explains exactly what he’s going to do to you (what he’s going to make you “see” and feel) and then does it. He gets you to swallow the novel in capsule form before you’re done with the first page and thereafter makes good on the sensations the capsule promised: but we miss the trick, we undervalue the technique, trained, by Fashion, to expect “bravura” in the form of bold orthography or weird (read: zero) paragraphination or Detournement, et al. But, surely, after the Experimentation one expects the Results, and many of the Results are in: some of the tricks work poorly (because they distract from the Content or become it, like the camera-work becoming the film ) and some work not at all (eg Asemic) and some just represent one tool in a tool kit that needs to be stocked with dozens (if not hundreds) of tools before the Writer can pull off the trick of Transmitting Experience, Real + Imagined.
It’s difficult to compare what Roth does, to what other writers do, if we don’t notice what he does. Taking a look at his openings, we find Roth prefers a very old trick, a pre-TV trick: the Narrator blithely violates that corny old Workshop Commandment against Telling rather than Showing. Here’s the second paragraph from I Married A Communist:
Along with the brawn and the conspicuous braininess, Mr. Ringold brought with him into the classroom a charge of visceral spontaneity that was a revelation to tamed, respectablized kids who were yet to comprehend that obeying a teacher’s rules of decorum had nothing to do with mental development. There was more importance than perhaps even he imagined in his winning predilection for heaving a blackboard eraser in your direction when the answer you gave didn’t hit the mark. Or maybe there wasn’t. Maybe Mr. Ringold knew very well that what boys like me needed to learn was not only how to express themselves with precision and acquire a more discerning response to words, but how to be rambunctious without being stupid, how not to be too well concealed or too well behaved, how to begin to release the masculine intensities from the institutional rectitude that intimidated the bright kids the most.
There’s an awful lot of Telling in that and one little dollop of Showing. There’s no way to Show “kids who were yet to comprehend that obeying a teacher’s rules of decorum had nothing to do with mental development”, for example, without writing a whole novel (encompassing Hollywood’s favorite narrative arc of self-discovery; that’s the script from To Sir, With Love, isn’t it?) on that sentence alone. Roth Tells a lot and studs the Telling with dollops of Showing and very cleverly sets up cascades of meaning/sensation while pretending to get to the utilitarian business at hand, the laying of the Plot Lines. The last sentence of that page-one paragraph is not only impeccably musical (making it astonishingly propulsive) but it is a neat little divagation through a corner of an extensive treatise on Liberal Philosophy of Post War America. Masculine Intensities? Being “too-well concealed” or “too-well behaved”? Institutional Rectitude? Sounds like we’re being pulled in a little wagon in a tightening hypnotist’s spiral around the psychic territory of the McCarthy Era… with Wagnerian overtones. Which is exactly what’s happening.
Roth and the seasoned campfire griot of antiquity, both, work manipulative subliminal magic to Transmit Experience, Real + Imagined. But where the griot makes convenient use of the shortcuts of physical gesture, facial expression, vocal tone and perhaps the living Rorschach of the campfire, Roth is forced to do it on the page: his magic is of a slightly higher sort (a forced evolution as populations grew geometrically and Gutenberg and Media took over?). He lowers your psychic guard (Disbelief) even before he Suspends it with the folkloric approach of the “simple” narrative voice. There’s nothing to cope with or decode or sort out as he Tells… he slips in with alarming penetrative (laugh; lanolined?) ease. Showing is problematic in comparison: Showing entails describing a picture; if the description of the picture takes longer than the action the picture displays, there is a proportional shortfall in “Sensation”, IMO, as Cognition grinds away. Writers like the reliably middlebrow (mid-period) Paul Theroux, for example, master Action in their Set Pieces to minimize the problems often inherent in Showing. Showing is the preserve, properly, of Film, is it not? Watching a second of action onscreen, one is subliminally aware of hundreds of descriptive details (the set-design) without wasting precious Suspended Disbelief Time digesting it all in a sequence. On the page, it has to come in a sequence. To the detriment of the goal of Transmission. For the Transmission to be flawless, certain Cognitive Gates have to be down. Consciously or not, Roth knows this and does his subliminal button-pushing to keep the conditions right.
Just to contrast: here’s an intro passage from the excellent Penelope Fitzgerald, from Offshore [the problem here and above being that I can’t block-quote without drenching it all in italics, which is unfair to Fitzgerald as well as Roth]:
‘ARE we to gather that Dreadnought is asking us all to do something dishonest?’ Richard asked.
Dreadnought nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.
‘Just as a means of making a sale. It seems the only way round my problem. If all present wouldn’t mind agreeing not to mention my main leak, or rather not to raise the question of my main leak, unless direct enquiries are made.’
‘Do you in point of fact want us to say that Dreadnought doesn’t leak?’ asked Richard patiently.
‘That would be putting it too strongly.’
All the meetings of the boat-owners, by a movement as natural as the tides themselves, took place on Richard’s converted Ton class minesweeper. Lord Jim, a felt reproof to amateurs, in speckless, always-renewed grey paint, over-shadowed the other craft and was nearly twice their tonnage, just as Richard, in his decent dark blue blazer, dominated the meeting itself. And yet he by no means wanted this responsibility. Living on Battersea Reach, overlooked by some very good houses, and under the surveillance of the Port of London Authority, entailed, surely, a certain standard of conduct. Richard would be one of the last men on earth or water to want to impose it. Yet someone must. Duty is what no-one else will do at the moment. Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.
Fitzgerald’s opening gambit is mostly Showing; it’s modern, cinematic. It’s intriguing, already funny, I’m dropped into the middle of a scene in a witty movie and I have to catch up, and my confusion drives me into the novel. The drawback of this method (the SHOW/FILM method) is that Cognition is grinding loudly as I process the scene: what are these people talking about? What is this book about? Is this going to be some kind of maritime caper? Something about insurance fraud? Smuggling? First comes Showing and then a little Telling but it doesn’t help to orient me. Fitzgerald has me so busy with receiving/collating Data that she isn’t Transmitting Experience, Real + Imagined, yet (I won’t even go into the matter of passive sentence constructions and all that)… but I can only attest to the fact that that’s how I feel about it. Aka: it’s just my opinion, but…
I once wrote a comparative book review of Philip Roth’s Everyman vs John Banville’s The Sea, in which I pointed out that Banville had picked, and stuck with, the wrong kind of Narrative POV (First Person) for the kind of Narrative (pseudo-memoir, reaching back 50 years) he was trying to deliver. Whereas Roth’s choice in the same department was ideal. A simple but fundamental matter. But that’s where most of the real action, in the ongoing Story of Aesthetics/ the Arts, is, I think: on a level so fundamental we generally take it for granted. All the glamor/flash/fashion adheres to the surface stuff. The Spooky Machinery is by fathoms deeper.
At his best, Roth doesn’t re-invent the wheel and he doesn’t waste any time trying to. The real Frontiers in the practise are elsewhere.
PART TWO (if I ever get to it):
A) “Rude” as the proper Avant Garde and B) the possible source of certain Literary Fads and Fashions…
For now I give the last word to Mr Sterne, in a passage with rhythms I identify as the unrefined version of the rhythms of Mr Roth in full flight (if you can’t read French, and neither, for the most part, can I… pretend it’s ASEMIC):
Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs? for we are got no farther yet than to the first landing, and there are fifteen more steps down to the bottom; and for aught I know, as my father and my uncle Toby are in a talking humour, there may be as many chapters as steps:–let that be as it will, Sir, I can no more help it than my destiny:–A sudden impulse comes across me–drop the curtain, Shandy–I drop it–Strike a line here across the paper, Tristram–I strike it–and hey for a new chapter.
The deuce of any other rule have I to govern myself by in this affair–and if I had one–as I do all things out of all rule–I would twist it and tear it to pieces, and throw it into the fire when I had done–Am I warm? I am, and the cause demands it–a pretty story! is a man to follow rules–or rules to follow him?
Now this, you must know, being my chapter upon chapters, which I promised to write before I went to sleep, I thought it meet to ease my conscience entirely before I laid down, by telling the world all I knew about the matter at once: Is not this ten times better than to set out dogmatically with a sententious parade of wisdom, and telling the world a story of a roasted horse–that chapters relieve the mind–that they assist–or impose upon the imagination–and that in a work of this dramatic cast they are as necessary as the shifting of scenes–with fifty other cold conceits, enough to extinguish the fire which roasted him?–O! but to understand this, which is a puff at the fire of Diana’s temple–you must read Longinus–read away- -if you are not a jot the wiser by reading him the first time over–never fear–read him again–Avicenna and Licetus read Aristotle’s metaphysicks forty times through a-piece, and never understood a single word.–But mark the consequence–Avicenna turned out a desperate writer at all kinds of writing–for he wrote books de omni scribili; and for Licetus (Fortunio) though all the world knows he was born a foetus, (Ce Foetus n’etoit pas plus grand que la paume de la main; mais son pere l’ayant examine en qualite de Medecin, & ayant trouve que c’etoit quelque chose de plus qu’un Embryon, le fit transporter tout vivant a Rapallo, ou il le fit voir a Jerome Bardi & a d’autres Medecins du lieu. On trouva qu’il ne lui manquoit rien d’essentiel a la vie; & son pere pour faire voir un essai de son experience, entreprit d’achever l’ouvrage de la Nature, & de travailler a la formation de l’Enfant avec le meme artifice que celui dont on se sert pour faire ecclorre les Poulets en Egypte. Il instruisit une Nourisse de tout ce qu’elle avoit a faire, & ayant fait mettre son fils dans un pour proprement accommode, il reussit a l’elever & a lui faire prendre ses accroissemens necessaires, par l’uniformite d’une chaleur etrangere mesuree exactement sur les degres d’un Thermometre, ou d’un autre instrument equivalent. (Vide Mich. Giustinian, ne gli Scritt. Liguri a 223. 488.) On auroit toujours ete tres satisfait de l’industrie d’un pere si experimente dans l’Art de la Generation, quand il n’auroit pu prolonger la vie a son fils que pour Puelques mois, ou pour peu d’annees. Mais quand on se represente que l’Enfant a vecu pres de quatre-vingts ans, & qu’il a compose quatre-vingts Ouvrages differents tous fruits d’une longue lecture–il faut convenir que tout ce qui est incroyable n’est pas toujours faux, & que la Vraisemblance n’est pas toujours du cote la Verite. Il n’avoit que dix neuf ans lorsqu’il composa Gonopsychanthropologia de Origine Animae humanae. (Les Enfans celebres, revus & corriges par M. de la Monnoye de l’Academie Francoise.)) of no more than five inches and a half in length, yet he grew to that astonishing height in literature, as to write a book with a title as long as himself–the learned know I mean his Gonopsychanthropologia, upon the origin of the human soul.
So much for my chapter upon chapters, which I hold to be the best chapter in my whole work; and take my word, whoever reads it, is full as well employed, as in picking straws.
In 2005 I had an email conversation with an old friend (she in Manhattan, I in Berlin). I pasted the individual emails into a single document as a diary of the conversation. A. is a kicky intellectual who’s into kick-boxing and neuro-physics and counts Peter Beard as a friend and an Ex (she’s a former model as well). A. once sent me the greatest “care package” of snacks and curiosities I’ve ever gotten via international Fed Ex. She is sometimes flashy.
Some (or even many) of my ideas/attitudes have changed since the below-posted exchange happened; for example, I think my “Hidden Hand” theory of History/Realpolitik is largely absent in this discussion, but, to be honest, I tended to keep those ideas to myself back then, exposing them only after greater trust/intimacy had developed… like a sexual fetish one is just dying to reveal, eh? These days I’m more militant about that particular kink…
The setting is the early part of an early year in the 21st century. Two people, two continents, two computer screens.
S: Just cleaned the kitchen floor on my hands and knees (sponge mops are very rare in Berlin, believe it or not; a strange detail rarely mentioned in travel guides), which is how I like to do it. Zen contemplation. About to go pick up S. (she’s rehearsing a new piece) and then we go to the German premier of Spielberg’s Munich… we get invited to these things and most of the ones we attend are for throw-away flicks like that last Cameron Crowe cliché-riot. By the way, is it really that common a phenomenon, guys who make the transition from early-middle to middle-middle age while clutching the urns of their father’s ashes? Is this a rite of passage I somehow missed? The funny thing about that premier was that Crowe and the star, Kirsten Dunst, attended it (in total salvage mode). So to get into the cinema we had to walk up a red carpet while paparazzi flashed away at us thinking, I’m sure, who the fuck? I was wearing the same musty pants and pullover I’d been wearing since the previous Friday. S. was in a fur coat she got from a rich Gay friend. If we fail to go to these things they’ll stop inviting us and what if something good comes, eventually? What if Fellini comes back from the dead? So, tonight we see Munich. They will confiscate our cell phones.
A: I’m curious what you think of it.
S: Okay, we saw it. Great cinematography, toothsome acting out of Geoffrey Rush. At nearly three hours long, it felt like two and a half… so there’s that. But, like any ‘serious’ Hollywood film with guns in it, it wasn’t much more than an action flick with light political and philosophical padding. Traditional suspense-machine template: tension… release, tension… release, comic relief, tension… release, etc. How seriously can I take it… or to what extent can I trust in its attempt at gritty realism… when no character in the film says anything genuinely nasty, overtly racist, or even really vulgar? I think I remember one double entendre about something being ‘hard’ near the beginning of the film and this was an army guy lecturing troops. Aren’t there racist terms for Jews and Arabs? Of all the people in the world, wouldn’t the characters in this film about the conflict in the Middle East be the most likely to use these racist terms the most often? Gee, everyone in this movie was so nice and polite you kinda wondered what all the gun play was about. I think a little hatred on both sides would have improved the flick and made it at least resemble the story it was supposed to be telling, not to mention the planet the story is set on.
Spielberg keeps making these films (see Schindler’s List) in which he tries to get heavy but shies away from dramatizing pure HATRED. How can you talk about the Holocaust without investigating pure hatred organized on a scale previously unknown on Earth? Hate on a schedule; hate with a timetable and factories: the Hate Industry. In Schindler’s List Spielberg carefully replaced all the hatred with nuttiness… he prefers to show the really murderous Nazis as insane rather than consumed with hatred. But hatred is the big motor behind genocide. Ideology isn’t much of a motivator compared to hatred. Hatred is just one of the human things that we don’t put enough time into discussing because it’s too close. It’s easier to blame George Bush or Arafat or Sharon or David Irving or Hitler, for that matter, than it is to face the truth: the capacity for hatred in humans is greater than we care to admit. I find it interesting that passionate love is what we express in private, as individuals… while passionate hatred works best on a national scale.How can we delude ourselves into thinking, therefore, that the one is capable of balancing the other? There’s your laughable failure of the Hippies in a nutshell. Hatred might even be what millions and millions do best together. Nations kill.
A: What is hatred?
S: “What is Truth?”
A: No I’m really asking! What is it? This needs explanation… you said: “Hatred is just one of the human things that we don’t put enough time into discussing because it’s too close.”
S: My theory? It’s ancient animal aggression plus a thin veneer of self-persuading rhetoric slapped on top because our brains have gotten so big in 30 million years that we need justifications for our inexplicable urges. A dog’s snarl is hatred in its pure form, I’d say. Sometimes it’s fear-motivated but quite often it’s just the opposite… it spills over from an excess of confidence… the sense that a clear and easy victim is present. You may or not recall that from the school yard.
A: An excess of confidence is not really confidence, though. I will have to think about this.
S: Well, I don’t think the psychology of it is always that fancy. Bullies aren’t usually afraid of the pipsqueaks they knock around…they don’t do it because they’re afraid, I think. They do it because they can and the weakness of the target demands some kind of punishment. They do it because the ratio of power to weakness is at a crucial value that just begs for action. Bullies fixate on certain vulnerable targets with this almost righteous disgust bordering on… ecstasy. This was probably part of the process that weeded the weaker humans out of the early gene pool. We probably owe our existence to it. Grudgingly.
A: What are the political or economic solutions, do you think?
S: Mood-altering drugs. The hippies were comically right, in a vague sort of way, when they suggested giving world leaders LSD.
A: Why does sectarian and/or racial violence subside eventually in a place like Belfast but burn so bright for so long in Jerusalem?
S: For some reason the young men in Belfast got bored with their hatred. I think that’s a big story. Someone should analyze this. Making hatred boring may be the only hope. Or, I would check the demographic shift. The hatred hurricane probably requires a critical mass of young men to feed it. Did you get the package I sent?
A: Are you awake? What time is it there? Thanks for the package! Must have cost a fortune to ship but the tragedy is that we have Nutella at the corner store. Must be Germans in my neighborhood.
S: Nutella is an Italian invention.
A: Okay I’m back. There’s been a rapist active in my neighborhood and Xeroxed wanted posters are up everywhere. The sketch on the poster is a generic, menacing-looking black guy in a watchman’s cap. It seems to me that every spring posters like this go up in my neighborhood. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a Rite of Spring. Maybe this black guy is Pan.
S: Or the Yuppie libido.
A: Or the Republican conscience.
S: I just read the news: a poll in the U.S. indicates that ‘most Americans’ believe that there has been ‘significant progress in achieving Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality.’ The article goes on to qualify that statement with, ‘though most blacks are skeptical.’
A: Priceless. Do you know anything about cats? I think my cat has a foot fetish.
S: One more thing about Munich. I watched it in a cinema in Berlin. Audience is full of Germans, obviously. I noticed that every single time someone in the movie used the word ‘Jew’ it made me nervous. I winced.
A: Interesting. But I want to return to something you said in a previous thread. I had this thought: bullies aren’t afraid of the pipsqueaks, but they are constantly afraid that the pipsqueaks aren’t constantly afraid of them. They are insecure shits.
S: They are also hyena-brained and far more ‘natural’ than we want to admit, because we use the word ‘natural’ to mean all things good…when in fact it doesn’t. I think most of what we call our noble tendencies are pretty artificial. We learn them by pretending.
When an irresistibly beautiful woman passes out drunk on a date and a man doesn’t take advantage of the situation, it’s noble of him… and unnatural. A monkey would do it, all things being equal. A dog would. ‘Natural’ is what mommy hamsters do to their wiggling newborns when they’re feeling peckish from time to time. ‘Natural’ is the rape that Bonobo monkeys get up to on a rainy day.
A: Yes, natural does not necessarily = good. Whenever someone defends the shite they are eating as being natural I always say, “arsenic is natural, it’s even on the periodic table, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
S: Natural is more valuable as a word than as a reality.
A: But we live in a verbal reality as well as the concrete one, right?
S: We live in a Narrative Field, yeah.
A: A Narrative Field?
S: Imagine taking a quiz. Multiple choice. One of the questions is, ‘You are a passenger on a trans-continental flight. The plane you are on is less likely to crash if the person sitting in the seat beside you is A) well-dressed B) poorly dressed, or C) dressed like a clown.’
S: Exactly. Despite the fact that we can both agree that such a quiz is patently absurd because the tenet that it pre-supposes…that the outcome of a plane flight is contingent in any way upon the physical appearance of any of its passengers…is nonsense. But we both know on another level, in a way that transcends ‘sense’, that a plane carrying a passenger (or many) dressed like a clown is simply unlikely to crash. Why? Because plane crash wreckage with huge red floppy shoes strewn about it is unthinkable. It just doesn’t fit.
A: Probably why so many people fresh from being diagnosed with terminal cancer have fatal car accidents or get mugged or raped or what-have-you. It’s not that they’re dazed by the news and therefore unobservant of their surroundings… it’s more that they’re thinking, I’ll bet, on some level, why bother fucking me up any further now? I already have cancer! The cancer is my protection! It’s like driving around all day with the parking ticket on your windshield. They let their guard down. Don’t you think?
S: I have a friend who has always, as long as I’ve known him, talked like a well-informed cancer patient. He had the ease with jargon and he had the cadences down…he just was really good at reeling off technical specifications of any kind and probabilities and outlooks with this clipped, confident, guardedly optimistic voice…and then he got cancer. And there was no break in the flow of the way he communicated; he was verbally unchanged before and after. It’s like he hit the ground running as far as cancer was concerned.
A: Can you invoke a probability with words? And if so, isn’t that essentially what we call a ‘magic spell’?
S: There’s no physical reason that lightning can’t strike the same spot ten times in a row. What argues against it happening is the Narrative Field. Statistics are a narrative, essentially. Don’t statistics pre-suppose some kind of connection from one moment to the next? But without consciousness, which supplies the narrative, what connects the first coin toss to the fiftieth? As far as the inanimate coin goes, each toss might as well be its first…there’s no physical reason why there shouldn’t be a string of 5,000 heads (or tails) in a row. It’s only the Narrative Field that prevents it! It’s really almost frightening.
A: I just got back from jogging and am reading this: you’re right. It’s frightening. This Narrative Field stuff.
S: Speaking of which. I’m finally reading LIBRA by Don DeLillo… it’s monstrously good. This guy’s I.Q. just hums off the page. I’d say Philip Roth is the better storyteller but DeLillo is the bigger genius. His books burn your fingers. DeLillo isn’t really telling stories, he’s writing almanacs the use for which we will be informed of at a proper point in the future. His best books are paper super-brains. Any minute now, in fact, I’m going to go take a long hot bath and re-read Underworld.
A: Don DeLillo. I keep reading about him. I should read him? I’ve been burned so often that I’m afraid to try new things. New books aren’t cheap! Why are so many books so bad now?
S: A yes underlined and surrounded by stars. Definitely: read DeLillo. The badness thing. Hmmm. I think that runs deep. I believe the U.S. takes very seriously its role as an anti-intellectual nation… in Kennedy’s day the idea of an anti-intellectual was Robert Frost! They’ve raised the level of ‘anti-intellectual’ to a considerably less forgiving standard by now… honed it… so the current poet laureate of the U.S. is a guy called Billy Collins (you couldn’t make that name up)… his stuff is high-level greeting card. Very waiting-room-reading-material, very Reader’s Digest; the material wouldn’t be much of a jolt to avid readers of In-Flight magazines.
He’s on this ‘accessibility’ jihad akin to crusading to put ramps instead of stairs in front of all public buildings. Maybe he forgot or never knew that part of the lasting value in Art is difficulty. Billy Collins is the product of a late-capitalist model that can’t distinguish between a hamburger and a work of Art. I think one unscientific but very useful measure of ‘Art’ is how long a piece can sustain interest after your initial exposure to it and after having read, say, Ted Hughes’ ‘Football at Slack’ about twenty times over as many years I’m still very interested in it; ditto with Anne Sexton’s ‘Transformations’ or a few poems by Larkin or most paintings by Lucian Freud. But after reading about a dozen of Collins’ poems once it’s hard to want to take a second look at any of them… the meaning comes out so quickly and with so little ambiguity and you think: is that all there is? Some of them are funny in a wry kind of way, though. But so are some greeting cards. It’s almost impossible to avoid having your intelligence insulted these days.
A: I was reading an online zine. There was an interview with this Vendela Vita, have you heard of her? She’s married to someone famous. The interviewer remarked that Flannery O’Connor once said there are “too many writers.” Ms. Vida responded: ‘I completely disagree with that. There can’t be too many. At our writing lab, 826 Valencia, we’re trying to raise all these kids to believe that they are writers–and indeed they are–and convince them that they can go around and say, “I am a writer,” or, “I am a poet,” at age twelve, and hopefully they will take that conviction with them the rest of their lives. So I don’t think there can ever be too many writers.’
S: Well, I think that’s awful and foolish. That makes me think of a five-storey smiley face logo on some future Ministry of Culture in which even the buttons in the elevators will correspond not to numbers but pictographs of dullards performing simple tasks. At the very least, Vida is indulging in the most pancreas-taxing strain of PC egalitarian cant going. At worst, by tricking these kids into proclaiming themselves as writers at the age of twelve she robs them of the pleasure of the infinitely more magnificent declaration, ‘I want to be a writer when I grow up.’ What’s wrong with putting the blood, sweat and tears into mastering a discipline? What’s wrong with working long and hard at something and if the effort doesn’t pan out, quitting to make way for the truly talented? What’s wrong with countering Nihilism with standards and values rather than fostering it through obsessive compulsive egalitarianism?
Okay, I’m off to bathe (and read).
A: That was a long bath. Don’t you get prune fingers?
S: Strangely, no. What does that mean, I wonder? (In fact I believe I was lying in there and reading for over an hour).
A: Wild. That means that your body defies the laws of osmosis. Which just goes to prove that laws of physics are bunk and totally not invariant, as I had long suspected.
S: Wait: I’ve stumbled on a more likely (and less thrilling) explanation. My fingers don’t prune when I bathe because I’m reading a book while I’m in the bathtub. And I try while reading and bathing at the same time to refrain from submerging the book, which I hold with both hands, in the water.
S: I debunked you.
A: I was at the co-op today and I swear to God I saw a guy who was a dead-ringer for the guy on the rapist wanted poster, watchman’s cap and everything. But he was weighing and then baggie-ing a quantity of dried organic apricots so I felt safe. I ended up right behind him in the check-out line and when the checker asked if he was a member he said yes and even showed some i.d. Boy was I intrigued.
S: This morning I read something in The New Yorker by the usually-sane Louis Menad. Wrapping up the article, Menad posited a hypothetical to illustrate a Martian’s attempt to parse Earth culture, writing, “The Martian sees only that human beings attach high value to some of these otherwise identical and interchangeable objects and low value to others, and he/she attempts, by analyzing the system in which the objects are produced, circulated, and consumed, to figure out how this happens.”
Notice the ‘he/she’ near the end of the sentence. Menad, remember, is talking about a hypothetical Martian. Is this not mind-blowing? Is this not a major statement of some kind? All I can say to that is, when I’m feeling chary of the litigious wrath of feminist Martians I usually run for the safe haven of the gender-neutral personal pronoun ‘it’. I mean: is he kidding?
A: Apparently not. Nor is anyone. We’ve been going at this topic for a week now and I’ve begun to notice something which is that I’m really starting to think in terms of US and THEM more consciously than usual. Maybe more than I ever did. Should I blame you for this?
S: Blame is the sincerest form of flattery. Even more troubling to me is the fact that my response to the various nefarious activities of ‘Them’ started off, innocently enough, as disquiet and has grown much much darker of late. In the old days, I’d read about some legal battle in some far away southern state being waged about teaching Darwin in public schools and think… now what are they up to? I’d read it and sneer and move on. But if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that I now sense, flying in from a long way off perhaps but flying in nevertheless… this feeling of (for lack of a better word) hatred. My own, I mean. As in an ‘I hate those dummies’ kind of thing. Do you know what I mean?
A: I think so. It’s still just a faint sensation, though, right? Like, it’s probably still just disgust, contempt, etc. You wouldn’t pick up a baseball bat and actually do something about it, so there’s the major difference. Isn’t it?
S: I hope so. I have to wonder, though, am I observing or participating? Am I playing an important role…or, that is, do I belong to a group that’s playing an important role… in all this?
A: Sorry! I was on the phone. Guess what the topic was? Apparently, the police have released a statement to the effect that our friendly neighborhood rapist is only targeting women of color, which elicited some kind of neighborhood sigh of relief, over which some of us are now understandably up in arms. But the crazy thing is I caught myself feeling, like, in some way put down by this latest twist. Rejected. It’s like when you’re at a reading and there’s the Q. and A. afterwards and the famous author doesn’t point at you when you raise your hand to ask the clever question you thought up already half-way through the reading. But I digress.
Okay, so the 64 dollar question remains, what do you/we mean by ‘all this’. It’s like you sense some kind of overall trend at work but don’t have the distance yet to say what, precisely. But I have the feeling that about twenty years from now we’re going to look back at this period as a turning point. Towards what? For better or worse?
S: A combination of Occam’s Razor and Murphy’s Law seems to indicate ‘worse’. Yeah. It’s scary. I completely agree. Whenever I read about the Holocaust in junior High School I always had the terrible sense that I just wanted to yell at the Jews: why didn’t you run? Why didn’t you get out of the country? Couldn’t you see what was happening? But of course, from inside the nightmare, right up close to it, you couldn’t see it. You just couldn’t. It’s amazing how something so big can sneak up on you.