CAREER MOVE (a short story from CITY of AMATEURS and GERMANTOWN)

dsc_1935-career-move

Wednesday evening at 19:00, Simon’s event at the North Coast Gallery, in association with Absolut Vodka and Virgin Records, is scheduled to open with a wine-and-cheese reception, followed by a learned discussion between Kahn-Meyers and five panellists, followed by the event itself. Simon is in competition for the lucrative and prestigious Stein Prize.

The North Coast gallery is a handsome space on Sophienstrasse in Berlin’s gallery ghetto, where there’s an opening every night of the week in the last warm period before the soggy beast of winter’s stomping return. Openings which feature munching crowds on the sidewalks in commingled clouds of German champagne, garlic breath and American cigarettes. The heated scramble for cred and/or authority in a comically under-funded milieu results in a bitter, bitchy lethargy that is part of the charm.

Simon feels that civilization is in conflict with itself and that it all goes back to the playground. We tell children, be good; do no wrong, but a child who turns in a wrong-doer is a quisling or a snitch. We tell a child, do not resort to violence, but a child who goes to a teacher for protection is a whiner or a crybaby and the kid who kicks the ass of a bully gets our eternal respect. Simon did not enjoy his time in primary school.

Simon’s submission for the Stein Prize this year is a tent. Simon has won the prize twice already, but not more recently than the year of the second Space Shuttle disaster, when he hung a gallery full of illegal Chinese skeletons dipped in dark chocolate and called it SUGAR COATING DEATH; the smell itself had been a statement. The current piece is a tent, deluxe model, weather-proof and kelly green, reeking of newness, big enough for two Yuppie camper couples with a wordly arrangement going, pitched in the middle of the gallery’s judging-you-white concrete 85 square meter floor. A cool spider of complex tracklighting stands on the tent, lightbeam-legs akimbo. Within the tent, in odalisque-parodying repose, is reputed to be Simon’s stunningly beautiful irony-naked 29-year-old Eurasian girlfriend Thy Trann, herself an artist (a “Wetter Künstler”), who will likely be ovulating (as the catalogue attests that her gynecologist has attested) during the climax of the event.

As the catalogue puts it on page ten, after recapping Kahn-Meyers’s illustrious CV and indulging in the requisite dense page of art-speak mumbo-jumbo, plus sponsor ads: any one of the six anonymous judges of this year’s Stein Prize is invited to sign a release form (at an undisclosed location) waiving paternal rights and responsibilities and be chauffeured via special limo to the gallery… to enter the tent (hooded) and impregnate Thy. If the insemination is successful, Trann and Kahn-Meyers have pledged to raise the resulting child in a kind of ongoing Performance Art that will, “hopefully,” as Kahn-Meyers put it, “long outlive me.”

The title of the piece is THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE and there is a giggly buzz in the usually demonstratively unimpressed crowd of both highbrow and boulevard press and cognoscenti and curious onlookers and free food parasites who meander around the outside of the mute tent with their plastic champagne flutes, their chatter kept at a curiously polite low level, as though in a room where a child is sleeping. The thought that the tent contains not only a beautiful naked girl but the artist’s girlfriend herself electrifies the evening with a kind of verisimilitude that hasn’t been generated since Warhol’s pioneering efforts at making decorum irrelevant in the midst of the decorum-hungry 20th century.

Not that Simon Kahn-Meyers reveres Warhol. He tends to deride the “Slavic hucksterisms”. Kahn-Meyers wants, first and foremost, to draw a line in the critical sand between Warhol’s conceptual moonings and serious work such as his own. Kahn-Meyers considers the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy of received art history intolerably irksome and will assail this sloppy thinking with this his latest masterstroke, reminiscent of the work that immediately preceded it, the gently titled PLACEBO.

PLACEBO featured a fully operational vintage voting booth from the American state of Illinois containing a naked Thai (not Thy) on a chopped-legged stool in the booth offering oral pleasure to anyone who could produce a passport stating Artist in the blank reserved for “occupation.” In the catalogue Kahn-Meyers refers to THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE as a “self-evident escalation” of PLACEBO’s intent: to blur the lines between public duty and personal compulsion. The only thing Simon fears now is German taste: they always confuse metaphysical with intellectual, these Germans, and Simon can never, he fears, get quite metaphysical enough for these Kraut fucking mystics and their prize money. Simon is thinking of his first major piece: a life-sized ironing board made of pure white wax called Irony Board; sold it for a pile. Heartbreakingly beautiful. Seems like a century ago.

At the far end of the gallery is set up a long table upon which are placed three microphones facing six empty seats. Facing the six empty seats, on the other side of the table, at a respectful distance, is a square of thirty six black metal folding chairs. Slowly, the thirty six chairs are filled. Those who stand do so with German Kultur rigor: chins up, hands clasped behind their backs. The difference between the overly-cerebral and the occult is what, exactly?

He takes his seat at the center of the table with a recondite smirk (as if contemplating the news of the humiliating defeat of an old rival) and the five other panellists straggle in from various conversations around the spacious gallery like staff at a private school, summoned by the principal to a disciplinary hearing. The panellists (in the order they take their seats): Yeon-Ju Bongiovi (video soap artist), Riley Klein (Kahn-Meyers’s gallerist), Simone Pohle (film maker/writer/art critic/clothes-designer/model), Siegfried Stummfeldt (photographer) and Sylver Goldin (self-proclaimed “self”-artist, patron of the arts, and prosperous local gender-ambiguous restaurateur, driven to the event in its trademark lavender Jaguar). The music being piped in over the gallery’s sound system (jazzy Bach) dwindles to a hiss as Simon taps his microphone.

“Before I begin,” says Simon, “although, how one can begin before beginning is not entirely clear…” he shrugs to acknowledge the titters this receives, “I’d like to say something to, uh… I want to address something to the artist Thy Trann,  I’m sure you know and respect her work… who… uh… as you are aware is collaborating with me on this particular… piece.” He lifts his chin over the microphone and raises his voice. “Thy?”

All thirty six seated members of the audience and the dozen or so standing twist like licorice to hear Trann call out from the tent behind them, in her throaty trans-Pacific accent, “Yes, Dear?” which also receives titters. The un-amplified quality of her localized voice, in contrast to Kahn-Meyers’s Moses-like omni-directional amplification, serves to call vivid attention to her presence in the tent, while at the same time serving to subliminally support the visual imagination of her as stark naked therein. Not to mention providing, for the comfort of sensitive or militant lesbian members of the audience, confirmation, inferable from the casual music of Simon and Thy’s exchange, that Thy isn’t being coerced… wasn’t bullied, threatened, drugged or tricked… into performing this history-making “action”.

“Thy, I just want to make sure you’re comfortable in there. Are you comfortable in there?”

There is the sound of Thy punching a plush pillow or two. “Yep!”

“And you’re warm enough?”

“Yep!”

“Good. I just need… I just need for you to bear with our chatter for a little while… and, uh… yes. And then… you can… get ready to…” Kahn-Meyers’s gaze sweeps the audience carefully, almost accusingly, in order to complete the sentence in everyone’s head for them.

“A-okay!” Trann calls out, and the panel discussion can commence, granted the easy segue of generous applause for Thy Trann, this evening’s sacrifice.

So far so smooth, thinks Kahn-Meyers.

“Before I begin,” begins Riley Klein, Simon’s jowly American gallerist, pausing a beat for the laughs he anticipates being able to milk further from Simon’s inaugural witticism and getting one… from Simon himself… he continues, “I want to thank all of you for coming, as well as salute Simon and Thy,” more applause, “because we are all, each one of us, a part of this equation.” He clears his throat, plucks his glasses from a pocket in his dark tweed blazer, and hunches forward with the glasses on the end of his nose to read aloud a “provocative statement” from a sheet of paper on the table in front of him, his hands in his lap. He looks like a dutiful school boy and reads with the dutiful schoolboy’s abashed singsong.

After the statement (a long quote from Robert Mapplethorpe) is read and absorbed, the first panellist to speak, Simone Pohle, touches her microphone as if to give it pleasure and looks sidelong down the long white table with narrowed eyes and poses the question, pushing her white-blonde hair out of the way and displaying perhaps the faintest hint of piquant hostility, “Mr. Kahn-Meyers, what is it that you are trying to achieve here tonight?”

Kahn-Meyer’s blinks innocently at the audience and replies, stroking his neat white beard, “What am I trying to achieve here tonight? I’m trying to win an art prize!” And the audience loves it.

 

The Paracelsus of Hair Straightening

Across town, Sadie Olubodun is putting the finishing touches on herself to the sound of Les Negresses Verts, a horn-driven French ensemble that gallops out of the stereo with a loping gypsy beat; the music is a stupid dog dashing ecstatically between the man-sized speakers. There is an aura of romantic anarcho-collective about the band that Sadie loves, having herself been raised and schooled by Catholic nuns from Belgium. The music is very loud. There are intermittent floor, wall and ceiling  bashings from the neighbors. 

In the free-standing “bathroom” mirror (there are no walls around the toilet) Sadie is puckering her lips to paint them: a swollen strawberry into a deliquescing heart. She’s running a special comb through her very long hair; the very long hair she is very proud of. Staying stick thin is easy: pharmaceuticals take care of that. Flawless black vacu-formed skin and giraffe height and a spot-lit Steinway smile she was born with. But her hair is the Grand Project of Sadie Olubodun’s life.

Having just turned twenty seven, Sadie O has been busy with hair maintenance since the day she “graduated” (escaped over a chain link fence) from Saint Serifina’s Polytechnical Boarding School for Wayward Girls. She literally ran away, five barefoot miles down a dusty road at dawn to a bus stop, to make it to a model casting at a French hotel she’d read about a week before, by accident, after unwrapping Friday’s fish. Sister Berthe-Claudette is probably still shouting Sadie’s name during roll call every morning. Sadie Olubodun, that tall skinny shy girl with the modest afro. No longer!

Every three or four weeks for the past twelve years Sadie has gone to have her hair straightened first by the best black private hair stylist in West London, a dwarfish Gay Canadian named Horton Bard, nicknamed Hard-on Board, and then, after she’d escaped London, by the best black private hair stylist in Hamburg, a portly straight Senegalese named Monsieur who often worries about the fact that most of his clients are wealthy black Muslim ladies who procure his services at the risk of being stoned.  Sadie makes the trip to Hamburg monthly. Monsieur happens to be Horton Bard’s hand-picked acolyte; his initiate in the alchemical mysteries of hair straightening. Monsieur is the Comte De St. Germaine to Horton’s Paracelsus.

“Kinky hair,” says Horton “is merely asleep. We wake it up!”

Sadie has cultivated her hair to the point that it rivers down the macadam of her back, ending near the Lamborghini scallop and sudden twin convexities of black lacquered showroom ass. She calculates that her hair (rippling with windblown arabesques like Muslim devotional script)  has cost her, to date… she figures something like £30,000. Her hair is a statement and an investment and a way of life.

What she hates is when sisters of every nationality go the cheap route and prance around in public with armadillo shells and coconut husks for hair. She’s ashamed for them. You’re not satisfied with your natural hair texture and so you fry it, pickle it in pigeon grease, stack it atop your lye-scorched skull like something scraped out of a drain? Sadie wonders what she abhors more, the lye-job conks or the… the thirty dollar polyester wigs from Woolworths. Honey (hah-nee), she wants to say, just shave it off… you might as well… have a little pride. Have a little dignity (deeg-NAH-tee).

If Sadie, a girl from a village (born in a semi-detached house with only two televisions) can afford to do it right, how are you going to persuade her that an American can’t? Sadie’s hair is a contrarian manifesto of equivalence that says: if a European (Your-OH-pee-ahn) can get her hair curled, I can get mine straightened! If she can wear blue contacts, I can too, or wear them red if I choose. For every hundred Your-OH-pee-ahns who pay for twenty minutes in a tanning salon, one Michael Jackson is allowed to bleach his skin! Or lop off his nose! Or whatever. Fuck off.  She kisses the locket on the gold chain around her neck, a thumb-sized engraving of Olaudah Equiano.

“Hey ho, let’s go!” she shouts and punches Siegfried’s ceiling-high, twenty year old rubber tree plant in the midsection on her way out of the flat, slamming the eight foot steel-reinforced door behind her. She can still hear Les Negresses Verts from a block away as she flips her hair in the wind and raises her arm for a taxi. The taxi over-shoots Sadie then screeches to a halt, that time-tested cinematic cliché.

Whoever Loves a Black Girl

Simon glances at his cheap watch as a heated argument between a panellist and a member of the audience stretches like an interminable surrealist ping pong game in which each side keeps serving a brand new unreturned ball. He’s never heard the name Tristan Tzara evoked so many times in his life. Tristan Tzara and the word paradigm. He can remember when it was synergy. Hell, he can remember when it was parameter; he can even remember back to the ‘50s when the artspeak word of choice was atavistic.

Put one Englishman in a room full of Germans and the Germans will outdo themselves avoiding the speaking of German, because no one wants to seem provincial. Consequently, Simon has never lost an argument in Germany, though his rhetorical fire has been doused on more than once occasion in America (even, once, by a Mexican fucking clerk in a fucking Rite Aid ) with the dreaded un-trump-able… whatever. Only Americans could have invented “whatever”, the neutron bomb of heated debates. America, the looking-glass land where the children of slaves subsist on welfare and where being crippled is seen as some kind of advantage and where guns don’t kill people (bullets do); America the anti-abortion, pro-death penalty land of puritanical pornographers and pro-Israel anti-Semites where you can lose weight and save money by eating and buying more…

Simon rubs his eyes and has a vision of a mound of corned beef hash of infant pinkness beside a weighty brick of hash brown potatoes dressed in two fried eggs like a bikini top, an unheard of dish in Berlin and something he could have right now, or even at three in the morning (the hour he roughly calculates this ordeal will be over) if he were in Manhattan. But if he wants to keep his prices up in New York he has to keep his mystique alive in Europe and that’s why he’s doing this. Business has been bad since 9/11, a simple fact. He can’t help selfishly framing that fishy act of terror as him being put out of work by a rival gang of faux naïf Event Artists with deep-pocket patrons.

He’s on the verge of calling the discussion to a halt (fifteen minutes to show time) when the discussion calls itself to a halt. Everyone in the back of the gallery to listen to the nothing-at-stake rhetorical jousting of the panellists is suddenly peering back to the front of the gallery where a taxi was just heard to screech to a halt and screech off again and there are curious murmurs and shiftings of attention and all artspeak has ceased, for the nonce. Art is so easily ignored when Real Life gets up off its ass and deigns to reclaim our attention. Simon stands up and gestures to Riley to put phase two into motion; he leans forward into his microphone and says, solemnly, redundantly, “Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our panel discussion…if you will please move to the front of the gallery…” because they’ve already started moving that way.

Good God, whispers Simon.

Standing just within the gallery’s front door, having effected a grand entrance, is a six foot plus, on teetering Lucite heels, skinny-as-a-Giacometti alien. Universe-black, possibly female. Nude, at first glance, in a see-through vinyl raincoat. On closer inspection (Simon strides fearlessly her way) she’s dressed in a black bikini under the coat, which warps and pools the light from the ceiling across its dazzling surface. It’s like she’s walking around in a force field or a vertical swimming pool, this towering black alien with the ponytail tickling her flog-worthy ass.

Imagine owning one of those, thinks Simon, with survivable guilt. Those 18th century Yanks weren’t fools.

Ancient graffito from poor Pompeii: Whoever loves a Black girl is set ablaze by black charcoal; when I see a Black girl, I willingly eat blackberries.

She’s not stark naked, but the effect is the same and Simon nearly panics: the integrity of the event is being threatened: camera flashes have already started their scale model electrical storm around the gallery. She’s de-focusing his event.

He takes her by the arm and says, very softly, very deeply, “I’ll need you to clear the entrance, here, darling… would you care for some wine? Some cheese? Riley…” Riley is panting close behind, “Get this lovely girl some… sustenance. Smashing outfit,” he adds, squeezing her waist as he passes her to the blushing care of his gallerist, who takes her by the elbow as though he is wearing asbestos gloves.

“I would like to please draw everyone’s attention…” shouts Simon, then, at a lesser volume, “to the two gentlemen standing in front of the tent.” He has to work to get his timing back after the miraculous aberration of the alien (where is she? Near the back with Riley and that pony-tailed photographer clod; they seem to know each other). Normally, Simon lives for miraculous aberrations. But not now. He points and proclaims: “Elite members of a private security force.” From out of nowhere, two very large gentlemen, dressed in identical secret-service type suits, have materialized, anthropomorphic representations of the capital letter A in front of the tent.

“They are not. Not. Here to protect… Thy.” Simon strokes his beard as though weighing carefully the next remark. “They are here to protect… you. To protect… Art.”

Glancing again at his watch he asks, “What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is that art is a serious matter. I am not, as they say, fucking around. If one of the judges of the Stein Prize has the courage to take me up on my challenge, the question is… will I then have the courage to follow through?”

“Let’s be honest. The odds are not great that one of these so-called judges will climb into that specially assigned limo… have I mentioned already? That the limo… a vintage 1933 Hispano Suiza J-12…”

Simon pauses; several older art buffs stagewhisper Picasso… Picasso. Simon’s eyes narrow.

“I mean: I know that the likelihood is not great that I’m going to have to follow through on all this. But without at least the risk that we will all be involved in a life-changing event here tonight, can we call this… Art?”

“These large fellows,” Simon smiles, “are here to protect you … and Art Itself… by insuring that Simon Kahn-Meyers, the so called international art star, ” he says with very nearly misjudged vehemence, “Doesn’t get cold feet. That I don’t renege on a promise. If one of those judges has the courage and vision to take me up on the ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE challenge, there’s… nothing I can do to stop this thing from running its course… because these gentlemen have been pre-paid rather handsomely and instructed to physically restrain me from interfering with this event, if need be. They are under contract, in fact… should they fail to restrain me from ruining this event at a crucial moment, they are each legally liable for a considerable sum.”

“Thy Trann is now in a state of inner contemplation… she is deep in herself… she is creating this piece even as I speak… deep within herself in this tent. I was the conceptualist but her fertile body is the concept. We have agreed that she say nothing at this point… nor attempt to communicate with anyone until this event is formally over, whatever happens..”

As unlikely as anything really is to actually happen, Simon’s words and masterful delivery have mesmerized the audience. Lulled them into an eerie sense of traumatic relaxation, or anticipatory recovery. As though the event as described has already happened and his words have started a healing process; have started them on the road to recovery after all they’ve all been through. Though nothing has actually happened. But everyone could see it, somehow, as Simon spoke it. Could picture the old man flailing in a shamingly effortless headlock, screaming “No! Stop! Make it stop!” and straining against the merciless professional restraint that he himself has hired. So moved is the audience that they aren’t even sure of the etiquette of applauding, until a trickle starts (from a far corner less affected by the charismatic field of Simon’s presence, possibly) and then an ovation.

During which Simon does his best not to be caught peering furtively after the stunning, must-have Watusi from Mars who very nearly stole the show. She’s still in the dead bit of the gallery where Riley is keeping her. Riley and that ponytailed galoot. Simon sees, with satisfaction, however, that the alien is applauding him heartily, with all the rest. How to separate her from that Nikon-toting idiot (dressed in a Tuxedo jacket and camouflage battle fatigues) long enough to get a phone number or set a lunch date?

Hispano Suiza

The Vernissage has reached that point in the evening when all of the cheese is gone, the champagne is running very low, and the chatter is thinner but very loud. The contemplative low rumble of pseuds wallowing in the aural loam of their own pronouncements has become the boisterous deaf barking of drunks. The evening, which hasn’t even truly begun, smirks Simon, has been a mild success.

About twenty minutes ago, one of the somber giants standing with arms folded in front of The Tent was given a bottle of Evian to hand to Thy within it, for which gesture she was heard, by those nearest The Tent, to thank the guard, who had reached in without looking. About seventy percent of the original attendees are still present; the ones who have gone on (to home, or restaurants, or bordellos) are of no importance. The ones who have remained (Sylver Goldin, Simone Pohle, et al) are networking and therefore connected and therefore useful.

Simon’s already thinking of his next piece. Either the Muslim thing he’d been conceptualizing of late or a technology gambit involving taking dead kittens and puppies and stuffing them with animatronics to get them gamboling around a gallery in all their cloudy-eyed rotting flesh. Which one he starts on next will depend on whether he wins the Stein Prize because those animatronix are expensive.

Simon makes his way to the back of the gallery and touches his gallerist’s arm and whispers “Riley, give that freakish black girl my cell phone number and instruct her to call me in exactly forty five minutes” and returns to a spot where he can hover in close proximity to The Tent. He is thinking, because he suddenly remembers the dread and pleasure of reciting it in his bed in the morning as a child, of:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
And that was the end of Solomon Grundy
.

There are about thirty people outside, smoking or cellphoning or smoking and cellphoning or cellphoning smokers, when the Hispano Suiza, huge and sinisterly well-kept in its antique ebony and white leather sleekness, in mass and value so like a cast-iron yacht, pulls into a long space marked by parking cones in front of the gallery, rumbling and hissing like a docking dirigible and scattering a dozen onlookers. The liveried driver climbs smartly out, circles crisply round the side, and opens a heavy door, chin held high, as one… two… three… six, finally, hooded men of various heights, weights, apparent ages and classes; two in tuxedos and others in business suits and one gangling fellow in a track suit; emerge from the limo, striding through the gallery door and stooping into the tent to gasps and then merriment from the crowd.

“Oh my God!” claps Simon. “All six of them! This is great!” He hurries to the front of the tent (where he is blocked, politely but firmly, by the two large gentlemen) and calls into it, hands cupped around his mouth, “Way to go, boys! Thanks for having a sense of humor about this!” He turns to a bystander and adds, “You see, deep down, maybe I was a bit afraid the judges were offended by my little stunt…” laughing “…but, you see, they’ve shown us all how classy…” he turns and gestures at Riley with a sweeping arm, raising his voice jovially. “Riley, get some Moet up here toute suite…”

But wait: evidence of struggle. Grunts and groans and what sounds like a compressed scream in an avid hand clamped over a mouth. Scheisse, comes a brutal male voice from within the tent, Sie hat Mich gebissen!

“Thy!” shouts Simon. He lunges for the tent but, as he had to expect, one of his Armani-suited security guards grabs him and holds him fast to a spot about four feet from the flapped opening. “Let go of me, you fucking ape… are you brain-dead? Those aren’t the Stein Prize judges in there!”

He squirms and punches out wildly but is headlocked with humiliating ease. The chiselled brute holding him doesn’t even look much bothered. He looks pleased. He obviously likes his job. What he’d really like to do in fact is kick the rich old Jew around the gallery floor for a few minutes but that would be a too-liberal interpretation of the range of his duties.

“Let go of me! They’re raping my girlfriend!”

Some of the bystanders are still amused, applauding, but an increasing number achieve a sense of giddy disquiet or even concern, frowning, approaching the tent from all sides, exchanging thrilled glances with a communal sense of having the historical luck of being present where some REALITY is taking place. I was there, many can already imagine saying, when that famous artist was raped in that gallery…

“Thy!” screams Simon.

What did he say to you?  hisses Siegfried to Sadie, after Riley Klein walks off, showing concern, towards the front of the gallery. Siegfried, ignoring the ruckus, grabs Sadie’s hand and pulls her to the dark corner of the gallery where the few remaining boxes of champagne are stacked. He sits her down on a box, hands on her shoulders, staring into her upturned face.

-What did he say?

-He gave me that art bloke’s number and said I should call him in forty five minutes.

-Kahn-Meyers? Simon Kahn-Meyers wants you to call him? And are you going to do it?

-Should I?

-Of course you should. Do you know who he is? Who he knows?

-Who?

-Everyone.

-You’re worse than the nuns. You’re just a pimp…

-You know how much I love you.

-Then why are you always giving me away?

-Because, otherwise, my love for you would destroy me.

-Oh Ziggy…

-You wouldn’t know what to do with me if I loved you the way you think you’d prefer me to. I could write you love poems and give you flowers every day, but you wouldn’t be happy… you’d be bored within a week…

-But how can you stand the idea of other men with their hands on me? With their lips on my lips? Their things… in my…

-It’s just like having a bad tooth. Have you ever had a bad tooth?

-No…

-No, you wouldn’t, not with your east African teeth… your east African teeth are perfect. But we Europeans, we have much experience with having a bad tooth. And when you have a bad tooth, I’ll tell you something strange… it gives you much pain, the bad tooth, but, somehow, biting down on it, and making it hurt even more… it feels good. So I give myself the pain of knowing that another man fucks you in order to kill the pain…

-Nonsense! You simply buckle under your perceived pressure of the responsibility of loving me! You want to spread the responsibility as thinly as possible… and if you can get something out of it, by pimping me to men you want something from… all the better. Or perhaps, deep down, you’re homosexual and giving your girlfriend to other men is a way, indirectly, to fuck, or be fucked by them and the sad truth is it’s probably a little bit of both explanations and I’m a fool to put my heart at your mercy.

-Maybe you’re right. But what are you going to do about it? We’re stuck with things as they are, just like everybody else. Can you pretend that it would be better with other men? Can any woman?

Siegfried stares hard into Sadie’s eyes, blinking slowly, and Sadie looks away, then back into his eyes, then away again. And there’s nothing more to say or think on the topic. She stands, brushing his hands off, turns slowly and walks towards the front of the gallery, where all the shouting is, hugging herself in her transparent vinyl raincoat.

 

Aboveness

The first time Sadie Olubodun saw Siegfried Von Stummfeldt, he was sitting at the snaking long wrought-iron bar of some trendy nihilist cave-like club in a run-down neighborhood deep in East Berlin, reading Baudelaire and looking so above it all. The music was deafening and the disco lights were seizure-inducing and this guy is sitting there with a green glass of Absinthe reading Les Fleurs du Mal with a smirk of genial boredom. Of course she had to talk to him.

He was wearing leather pants, sandals, and a tuxedo jacket over a hooded sweatshirt. Sadie was wearing a terribly expensive tiny kidskin backpack over a second hand wedding dress over thigh-high black vinyl boots and her hair piled in a tilted tower atop her perfect little black head. She stood behind him and spied on what he was reading, so close that she was literally breathing down his neck, but he played it cool and did not react and she spotted a fortuitous couple of lines near the bottom of the page, something that would go very well with the Absinthe, and she raised her voice, quoting it to him over the idiot throb of the music: Et dans ces bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent, Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent…

He closed the book without looking up and finished the passage for her, declaiming: …  Il n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété, Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé!  He gestured to the bartender to bring another glass, filled it about two thirds full from his bottle, and placed his own monogrammed spoon (the slot in it was like a snake, writhing in harmony with the wrought iron bar itself) over the glass, then a sugar cube in the slotted spoon and so forth. His preparation of her drink of wormwood was practised and precise and embellished with magician-like flourishes of his long-fingered hands. The satiny hands of a man who’s never done a day of manual labor in his life.

One thing Sadie truly abhorred was the hard-earned “character” of a workman’s paws. The pathetic scars and bulging knuckles and ugly calluses. She could never bear to be handled by mitts like that. Mr. Fleurs du Mal’s face was merely so-so and his body was not the sexiest she’d seen, but she was instantly smitten with those aristocratic hands.

He handed her the glass and shouted, “Do you know the Café Slavia? It over-looks the Moldau. There is a painting in it of a good-dressed Bohemian fellow enjoying his delicious Absinthe and seeing this most lovely vision…”  he touched the air above them with the glass,  “… a naked, absinthe-green girl floating. But now I see…”  he handed her the glass,  “…that this floating dream girl, she was really very black and has come to life in front of me.”

Linking arms they sipped the Absinthe.

Things happened very quickly. They left the bar, ears ringing, and hailed a taxi and promised the driver a huge tip to defy the speed limit rushing to Siegfried’s loft where Siegfried practically kicked the huge door down and Sadie hiked up her wedding dress and commanded Siegfried to bugger her without much preamble right there in front of the kitchen sink. In her kidskin backpack there was a water-soluble clove-scented chapstick from The Body Shoppe that she favored and bending over and bracing her hands on her knees she’d directed Siegfried to fetch the chapstick out and smear it on liberally as a numbing lubricant. This chapstick she never used on her own lips of course but she’d been known to share it on location once or twice with various models and booking agents she didn’t much care for. When he’d slipped in with much gasping and groaning she asked him, firmly “Will you do as I say?” and in a very humble tone he said yes.

She said, “Good. Now, hold very still. I will do all the moving. You see?”

And he held very still with his hands bracing his back and his mouth hanging half-open with bomb-defusing suspense as she moved on him in the high-ceilinged gloom of his lit-only-by-a-tiny-fluorescent-light-under-the-buff-aluminum-kitchen-cabinets loft with an almost imperceptible corkscrewing of her serpentine hips. There curled a livid seam somewhere deep in her rectal lining just itching for the jab of a pointed dick. That irritable little seam was her ersatz clitoris. By slowly rolling and shifting and clinching and un-clinching she inched the tip of his organ towards that very spot, holding her breath, eyes closed, straining, knees weak, creeping up on a howl of satisfaction…

Without so much as discussing the matter with him, Sadie moved into Siegfried’s loft the very next week, bringing over a dozen suitcases in a taxi around dinner time, unannounced. He hadn’t eaten dinner yet and they went for a walk in the twilight along the Spree where the sun was warm butter on the cool green water as it set. Siegfried, with a massive old Leica hanging from his neck and dressed in the dashing vest and dented ball cap and worn khakis of a modern war correspondent, took the opportunity to lay out his Manifesto, seeing as they were now living together, and also to tell Sadie about his best friend Hansi Kraus…

…the I.P. photographer whom Somalians had beaten to death in the city of Mogadishu in 1993. Poor sweet little Hansi who loved black American culture like you wouldn’t believe and was executed by an African mob for his white skin. Siegfried described the weekend-long soul parties Hansi would throw in his cool pad on Wiener Strasse… described Hansi’s proudest possession: the old time American juke box stocked with mint-condition 45s… What Does it Take (to win Your Love) by Junior Walker and the All Stars and Give it Up (or Turn it Loose) by James Brown and Love On A 2-Way Street by The Moments, etc., but even better: three different versions of Mbube, that unrivaled Meisterwerk of African pop, by the late great Solomon Linda… the first version (1940 or so) of moan-inspiring rareness and scratchy as a recording of Edison’s voice and it had to be transferred from the original massive clay 78rpm disc to the “modern” 45 on vintage equipment in Stuttgart to even play in Hansi’s jukebox…  that’s how much passionate love and tender respect Hansi Kraus could show towards African culture.

Second version, recorded live in concert in 1957 by a white group called The Weavers and also not the easiest artifact to come by was re-titled “Wimoweh” after a homophonic approximation of the refrain, and Hansi had that one, too. The third version of the song in Hansi’s jukebox was the one almost everyone knows: The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a Christmas hit for The Tokens in 1961, and this was the version that the drunks at Hansi’s soul parties would end up singing along with at three in the morning, cracking the glass in all the windows of the apartment block by singing the high parts en masse, though it was the original version, the version performed by its creator, the profoundly cheated Solomon Linda (who received less than one percent of what he deserved in royalties) that Hansi would insist on.

It just so happens that Siegfried was watching CNN the night they reported Hansi’s lynching and Siegfried was eating spaghetti with ketchup for sauce when he saw the footage… glimpsed a near-naked barefoot limp white corpse being kicked and dragged and spat upon, and it may have been Hansi or it may have been one of the others in his doomed entourage but the sheer magnitude of the injustice was surely greater than whatever happened to Solomon Linda. Siegfried spent the next two weeks shouting accusations at whatever confused little African students were unlucky enough to cross paths with him, no matter from where on that continent they’d come to Berlin.

Siegfried said to Sadie I must be completely honest with you…  since then I have had two feelings…  A) that I need to do whatever I can do to insure that such a misunderstanding never again occurs in this world and B) a certain ambivalence towards blacks.

Siegfried talked and Sadie listened. He talked not only about poor Hansi but also about Baudelaire and Lou Reed and Thomas Bernhard and all about the Artist’s responsibility to his own Aboveness… above Work, above Morality… which is why in ninety nine out of one hundred cases women can’t really be Artists because they are too firmly grounded in the quotidian… the domestic banalities of clothing and food and children… too grounded to know Aboveness… even if they let themselves float a bit they get an earthy reminder once a month that no amount of detachment will enable them to ignore… and yet any woman truly capable of Aboveness is such a freak that her presence would be repulsive and sexually intolerable and the Muslims would be right to stone her. This last bit was a joke. Wasn’t it.

He said, as they passed closely by plain or unattractive couples strolling in cautious or giddy hand-holding silence, these people aren’t even living. He said do you know what the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said when he was told, while he was in the middle of performing a great calculation, that his wife was dying? Siegfried beamed at her and shook his fist with admiration:

He said: please tell her to wait a moment until I’m finished!

Intermittently, during that rambling inaugural lecture on the topic of his  Weltanschauung… his worldview… Siegfried would halt… at a corner or facing a weird old Gothic Church or the streaky hand-lettered storefront of a Turkish Social Club (through which you’d see the men at various little round tables in their cheap boxy suits, smoking and playing cards) and snap pictures. Siegfried said: Sometimes I go out without film in the camera and snap pictures anyway, to remind myself that it’s the taking, not the having, that counts… after which he leered at her significantly. Sadie had just started thinking: yes, I could be happy doing this for a year or two when she noticed that Siegfried’s speech was starting to jumble and slur.

And his stride was getting. It was becoming slightly limpy then staggery and…  was he being funny? But his breath. It smelled…  it began to reek… of chemicals. Acetone. Had he popped some evil powerful pill unbeknownst to her during the course of their conversation? One minute they were walking side by side like any slightly awkward man and woman on a date, crossing Berlin in the twilight, and the next thing Sadie knew this tall strange Siegfried was stumbling and ranting like a shit-faced belligerent drunk trying to walk across a trampoline.

He crumpled to his knees and then collapsed on the curb like a string-shorn marionette. This is not happening, she thought. Oh, okay: it’s a dream, yes? No. Her new boyfriend was thrashing about and screaming and foaming at the mouth and what was she supposed to do about it?! She barely spoke German!

He was having some kind of seizure right in front of the gates of a playground and kids from all over the little park ran to the gate to watch him flop and sputter on the sidewalk under the garishly cruel street light half-shaded by a tree and all Sadie wanted to do was back away… back away a few paces and turn and run because it wasn’t fair because he hadn’t even told her he was an epileptic! Or possessed by the devil or whatever the fuck his problem was. His lips were shiny black with blood and his eyes were vivid whites rolled up in his head and he was growling and banging his skull on the pavement as though refuting the untenable principle the pavement was intent on adhering to.

A cherubic redhead with a mouthful of corrective braces that made her look too young…  in overalls with a two-year-old slung over her hip…  calmly unlatched the playground gate and handed numb Sadie her squirming child. She knelt beside Siegfried and batted his flailing hands away and stuffed a Snickers bar in his mouth and even pressed his jaws together to start him chewing it. She glanced over a shoulder at Sadie and said, with a reassuringly competent British accent, “I’m assuming your friend never bothered to mention that he’s a diabetic.”

Sadie stared.

“I always carry a bit of candy in my pocket or a can of Coke or something in my purse just in case.”

Sadie blinked.

“A pretty good indicator is when they start behaving in an inebriated fashion.” Looking puzzled and shifting back on her haunches and standing up she added, “But then it got to the point with my Marco that I could always tell something was amiss when…  he’d suddenly become this playful, affectionate…  puppy, almost. Not like him at all, seeing as he’s a 14 stone Squaddie. Funny, isn’t it? When he was being lovely to me it always meant something was wrong.” She stared at Sadie and said, “You poor dear.”

She handed down to Siegfried a Kleenex to dab his mouth with and fetched her child back from Sadie and looked on with tired benevolence as Siegfried sat upright on the sidewalk, moaning and looking very much like he’d fallen out of a tree. The lens on his Leica was good and cracked. There was the slow blue flashing light of an ambulance pulling up on the pavement. The redhead squeezed Sadie’s arm and walked back through the playground gate towards where another daughter was calling from the floodlit swings.

How many embarrassing and/or terrifying diabetic fits has Siegfried jigged through since that first one, her initiation, wonders Sadie. Twenty? Twenty five? The prize winner had to be the time his big fat mouth got him in trouble with a Prole in front of a Curry Wurst stand and he puddled into a seizure as Sadie pleaded and the Prole had him by the lapels of his jacket, preparing the head-butt. And yet he’s the one afraid of commitment! And if his racist Austrian mother has finally in some small way accepted the black African Sadie Olubodun in her precious son’s bed it’s only because Siegfried Stummfeldt needs a fucking nursemaid and nobody else, certainly no German bitch, is stupid enough to do this thankless job.

“Aboveness!” spat Sadie, pushing her way through the hubbub of the gallery and looking for Simon Kahn-Meyers, who was at that moment indisposed; working; wrapped up in the grand drama of his own design. She knew better than to interrupt just yet. She spotted his gallerist, Riley, instead, and shoved towards him and Siegfried watched her move, a Queenly silhouette, a head above the others…  he watched from the safety of the darkness at the back of the gallery.

World Fame

Sadie is having her toenails painted with voluptuous care like a travesty of the famous scene in Kubrick’s Lolita where Humbert is abasing himself to his nymph. Heavily allegorical: rich wise old Jew in a bathrobe and lovely young Negress, nude.

Glistening.

Sadie reclines in a special throne of leather and chrome, a customized gynecologist’s chair re-designed for the purpose, her foot secure in a raised stirrup while Simon Kahn-Meyers, squinting into a jeweler’s loupe and squatting on a stool specially designed for the purpose, lacquers her nails from an expensive bottle of cardinal crimson. The scene is reminiscent also of Tintoretto…  a cross between  Suzanna at her Bath (c. 1560) and a detail from Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples (c. 1547)… compositional elements from the former and psychological aspects of the latter, with Simon playing the part not only of Suzanna’s diligent foot-attentive servant but the voyeuristic elders looking on, as well… and Christ.

Sadie’s toes wiggle indolently. She’s thinking about tomorrow’s hair appointment in Hamburg. She’s not thinking about Siegfried at all. She gazes upon the speckled pate of the old man who is her transitional lover. A patronizing smile softens her calculating expression. She’s thinking that the next one will either be about true love or mind-boggling amounts of money. The next one will either be her soulmate or someone who owns a private jet. Simon is neither, but at least all he wants is to play with her feet. The money shot he spares her. Does it out of earshot (eyeshot) in the bathroom or somewhere. Maybe he can’t even get an erection any more. That’s fine with her. If everyone else in this world could only want what no one would mind giving them, this would be paradise, wouldn’t it?

Sadie wiggles her toes and closes her eyes and drifts off into semi-sleep. It’s so relaxing. She needs this. Simon needs this too. It relaxes him.

He didn’t win the Stein Prize. He didn’t win the Stein Prize. That beautiful Korean nut who calls herself NO won it, of course. She won with a simple-as-a-shit-in-a-bucket piece called YESTERDAY’S INSULTS ARE TOMORROW’S COMPLIMENTS. In which she sat casually dressed in a darkened room in a gallery watching a loop of old black and white Laurel and Hardy movies… crying.

Weeping, softly, non-stop for precisely eight hours and eight minutes. What the numerology of the piece was supposed to symbolize Simon has no idea but he knows that not only didn’t he win the Stein Prize with his infinitely wittier and more provocative installation (come on: a gang rape of the artist girlfriend of an artist competing for an art prize by the judges of the art prize? what’s not to like?) but he’s out a lot of money. That was an expensive fucking installation. From the rental of the Hispano Suiza to the security guards to the actress playing his girlfriend and the actors playing the half dozen rapist-judges and six cases of champagne and god knows how much expensive French cheese and crackers. The sponsors covered the advertizing, flew in a couple of the panelists and presented everyone of importance with a bottle of Vodka, otherwise it was Simon’s dime. Jesus. Meanwhile, how much did NO spend on her prize-winning schtick? The cost of a junkshop television. She probably didn’t even buy the TV. She probably borrowed it. It makes him sick.

Simon needs to relax. Simon needs to think. His real girlfriend, the “weather artist” Thy Trann, has been strangely evasive of late. Could be that she smells a plane crash. Could be that she senses that Simon’s stock is plunging. Simon’s problem is that he’s a British conceptualist, and his reputation is therefore ineffably bound to the public profile of Damien Hirst, who is being perceived as slightly passé of late. What Simon needs is for Damien to make another big splash and soon. Or Simon himself will need to do it.

But he’s afraid.

He first got the idea years ago, when those towelheads laid that career-making fatwa on lucky Rushdie. The death and destruction which Rushdie trailed in his wake (people forget: there were casualties of that particular fatwa, even if Rushdie escape unscathed…  for now) put Simon off the idea for a few years, but then 9/11 happened and he was seriously tempted to go for it. But, again…

He was afraid.

And yet, what does Simon Kahn-Meyers fear more? Death or irrelevance? Which does anyone fear more?

Sadie has a dream right there in the chair in which every man loses his head over her. Their heads literally fall off. Their eyes go wide with panic and they point at their necks, gesturing frantically, as the necks turn black. And then their heads fall off.

Doonk.

Three hours later. Sadie announces loudly that she’s going to a dinner party. No answer. She’s already showered and perfumed and dressed in a gold lamé pantsuit and green velveteen slippers and ready to step out the door… she searches for and finds Simon sitting at a slanted work table in a back room in the flat and announces again quietly that she’s leaving for a dinner party.

“A dinner party? How delightful. I am feeling peckish.”

“Darling, it might be slightly rude to bring you.”

“Why would it be rude?”

“Darling… they aren’t expecting you. You aren’t invited.”

“Perhaps my arrival will be a glorious surprise. I am, after all, a known artist, Sadie.”

“Simon, I promise you, they have never even heard of your name.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“But how?”

“Trust me.”

“But how?”

“I’m going to be late. If you insist on tagging along you had better get yourself dressed in five minutes.” Five MEE-nots.

“I am dressed.”

Sadie gives him a look.

“Okay, okay. Give us a minute. I’ll put on a fucking suit, for Christ’s sake.”

While Simon roots around in the armoire in the next room for his one serious suit, Sadie saunters across the studio and peers with blasé curiosity at the large sheet of drawing paper on the work table that Simon had been hunched over. Beside the paper are a drawing pencil and the wretched black rubber frying pan crumbs of a vigorous erasure or two. There is also a T-square and a plastic lettering stencil.

On the creamy sheet of paper, in roughly-sketched lettering, are two simple words in large block print; one an expletive verb and the other the name of a major religion. Two smaller words, in cursive, look more like notes or directions than sketches of the art itself. The two small blue-ballpoint words are the word green and the word gold…  Sadie is struck by the coincidence: these are the colors she’s wearing. Kismet? The little word green seems to be a note about the color of the background. Gold is scrawled within the body of one of the letters of the two large words which are obviously meant to be the subject of the painting itself.

There are numbers across the bottom of the page: 22′ x 18′.  Sadie nods. That’s feet not inches.

 

THE GRADUATE (a short story from DIFFICULT TEXTS)

the-graduate

Miriam with the curly blonde hair that when you looked closer was full of white and gray. Her point being that everyone knew she had two college-age offspring from a previous marriage. Who would she be fooling with a dye job? Robert didn’t want to seem timid or dull in Miriam Wallace’s eyes.

Robert had first met Miriam during the Christmas season after his twenty-second birthday, the Christmas he flew back to Philly from Minneapolis to tell his parents he wouldn’t be going to graduate school. Turbulence on the flight had strengthened his resolve. Turbulence and his rotten stomach. His bachelors degree would have to be enough. He’d told his father that he needed time to consider his options and his mother, from the next room, the kitchen, had shouted, ‘Your options to fail?’

They drove, not slowly, the twelve blocks from Wayne Avenue to the Wallace house in Mount Airy on streets so icy and some so steep that Robert had a hopeful premonition that they would all die silent and angry in a grisly wreck. His mother angry at his father for his father’s laissez-faire attitude to discipline as Robert was growing up; his father angry at his mother for attaching so much weight to the opinions and judgments of outsiders; Robert angry at both of them for his existence and, more pressingly, the churning guts courtesy of the evening’s outcome. Robert’s mother’s technique of what his father called ‘analytical sarcasm’ was devastating and had left Robert longing for the corrective violence of a bowel-puncturing crash. The fatal relief of it. They drove by five illuminated black Santas in a row without comment.

Robert’s vision of an impact had been so vivid that it felt like a dream of the afterlife when they all found themselves on the Wallace’s dark front porch fifteen minutes later, kicking clots of snow off their heels as if they meant to demolish the building. Miriam Wallace answered the door in a ball gown with that bemused look of hers. She didn’t know Dot or Alan terribly well and Robert seemed new to her, though it’s possible that she’d petted him once at a bar-b-cue when he was a child.

‘Vampirella,’ said Robert’s mother under her breath as they followed Miriam into the living room. Miriam Wallace was tall, leathery, svelte. She had boyishly short curly blonde hair and definition in her biceps and an ass in the shiny dark material of her low-cut backless gown like a wet plum.

Forty minutes prior to their arrival at the Christmas party, right before Robert’s confession that he was ditching the notion of grad school altogether, Robert’s father had confessed, with Chablis breath, that he and Robert’s mother had been ‘fairly dedicated swingers’ in the ‘70s. And that Victor Wallace had been among the discreet circle of friends who had taken their Updike too seriously. Nineteen seventy four. His father said further that Victor, an architect, had fellated him and that the man sported a goatee in those days that looked like an Irish au pair’s fussy pussy. The women seemed to have been more interested in seeing Alan’s cock in Victor’s mouth than in each other and weeks later Robert’s mother was still making his father wash his penis with Phisohex before relations. Robert’s father said Victor had coughed the semen out into his cupped hands with his back to everyone, and then he handed Robert a glass of Chablis and said, winking, ‘This isn’t freaking you out, son, is it?’ Beaming.

‘No dad. It’s just that I have something I need to tell you.’

The swinging had lasted no longer than the whole country’s appetite for Scrabble and fondue. When Victor’s first wife Marnie, who was such a ‘cutie’ that Robert’s father had endured Victor’s ‘finicky’ blow job just to ‘get at her,’ died of breast cancer, the two families of former swingers used the funeral as a watershed; an excuse to wipe the slate clean. The surviving adults behaved as though the swinging had never happened. As though Victor had never tasted Alan’s semen or that Marnie and Dot had never awkwardly petted and kissed or had intercourse on numerous occasions with each other’s husband while the others watched and sometimes photographed it. They only socialized still at all because pointedly not to socialize would have been a tacit reminder of the unspoken. There stood Robert’s family on the Wallace porch on Christmas Eve, alive and brooding.

Miriam Wallace had paid no particular attention to Robert at her Christmas party for the first hour or so after he’d arrived. As Robert put it, in her arms in a rented bed a year later, it seemed as though it was an idea that ‘kinda sorta creeped up’ on her. Miriam said no, it wasn’t that. She’d had a lot on her mind that night. Her husband Victor, also responding to whatever nostalgia trigger a combination of mulled wine, Christmas, and the anticipatory angst of seeing old friends after a gap of years can create, had bragged to her about the swinging, too. With the notable twist that in his version of the confession, Victor hadn’t been the one coughing the semen out. Though Miriam stopped short of adding this detail when the topic came up. Let the boy keep his illusions. There is no kinder sentiment.

They were three assignations into the intermittent affair and spring had arrived in the form of green lawns appearing through block-long scabs of slush. More dangerous driving conditions; a self-conscious, rhythmless slow dance behind the drawn curtains of the motel window. Afterward, Miriam, up on one elbow in bed, tracing random arabesques on Robert’s hairless chest with the finger of a much younger woman, told him, ‘You can’t imagine how jealous I was. It was bad enough that pictures of Marnie were still up all over the house, fifteen years after she’d died. Some of her clothes were still in the guest room closet, for god’s sake.’ She said, ‘Then I have to find out that Victor fucked Dot and Alan and this experience he shared with his dead wife the titless saint? Give me a break.’

As Miriam described it, Victor, clutching a wineglass with one hand and tugging the waist of his wife’s gown with the other, had pulled her into his study while friends and a token neighbor or two were singing along teary-eyed to a scratchy Joni Mitchell album in the living room. The scratches and skips on the record are the sound of our wrinkles, Miriam remembered thinking. That’s when Victor made the confession, producing a manila envelope of faded Polaroids from the back of a locked desk drawer for proof.

‘He was so proud of himself I wanted to slap him.’

The sun was setting in the curtains. Miriam and Robert had known each other for over a year. It struck Robert as his eyes darted from Miriam’s heaped clothing on the chair nearest the bed… to her fur-trimmed coat on the door… to that Panzer-like purse on top of the television and the lipsticked water glass beside it… that she had made the room her own. That is, although Robert had chosen the motel himself and made the reservation and would soon pay for the room with tip money it felt like they were trysting in Miriam’s boudoir. He felt bound by the rules of decorum imposed by being her guest. He couldn’t just get up and switch on a light, for example, or take a piss without asking. The mere thought of voiding his bowels in the motel toilet… her motel toilet… was beyond the pale. He wondered if this was something she was good at, taking over a space, and was it just her or tall, attractive, adulterous wives in general. And yet, he reflected: ironically, she is the guest of her husband’s dead first wife in her own home.

Miriam squeezed the hollows in Robert’s cheeks together in a way uncannily like his mother had done when he was a boy and she was a happier, more playful person and said, ‘You better not be thinking this is anything like a scene from The Graduate, buster.’

‘What?’

‘The Graduate. You better not…’

‘The graduate? Which graduate? Who?’

‘The film. Dustin Hoffman! You…’

‘Who?’

‘Simon and Garfunkle!’

‘Simon and what?’

‘Jesus fucking Christ.’

Miriam said nothing for a long time during which Robert could actually hear his Swatch watch ticking on the counter beside the sink in the bathroom. He thought: there are people who could pass gas in front of an attractive woman and laugh it off with a joke and people who’d rather hold it in for hours of discomfort and I am of the latter group. Although I admire the former. Life must be so much easier for them. He stole a glance at Miriam whose hands were covering her face. He came to understand that she was crying. He tried to imagine what the rest of his life would feel like if he let one fly beside Miriam under these circumstances. Hot and hissing and green like absinthe… the poltergeist of a rotten egg. His actual insides, exposed to the open room and her judgment.

‘Miriam.’

‘No.’

‘Miriam. No what?’

He pulled her hands away from her face and he flinched: she wasn’t crying, she was laughing with mirthless glee like a deaf child torturing a cat. She rolled off the bed and fetched her purse and got her cigarettes and lit a Kretek and sat with her back to him. She puffed like it was a thinking tool or a method of divination. She turned to squint and said ‘Okay, the problem is this.’ More puffing.

‘An older married woman having relations with the young son of her husband’s friends, there’s plenty to hide. But in our case, ja? My husband encourages this. He asks for details afterward. We’re just doing it in this motel room to give us the illusion that we’re indulging in an illicit thrill.’ Puff.

‘We could be doing this at home and Victor would be reading the New York Times downstairs in the fricking breakfast nook. Or washing the dishes. And he’d call up the back stairs and ask if anyone wants an herbal tea. He’d serve us on a breakfast tray complete with linen napkins. How erotic is that?’

‘What we do isn’t erotic?’

‘You think it is.’

‘I always assumed that anything anyone did with my erect penis was erotic.’

She turned her back to him again and blew out an empty blue thought-balloon of smoke. Robert passed wind and waited.

THE AWFUL PERVASIVENESS of LIE CULTURE

dsc_2026-lie-culture

Any Propagandist with a highly-visible (possibly-well-paid) gig probably can’t wait until all Facts are finally made illegal.  Facts will be outlawed, soon enough,  for threatening national security, sales figures and the overall happiness of the Consumer.

As a person accustomed to expressing Strong Opinions… and as a very cautious commenter who won’t press an argument without being in possession of enough factual information, or direct experience, to support the argument… I honestly can’t remember the last time I was involved in a heated debate in which my opponent cited facts in order to “counter” my argument(s). This is as true Online as it is for Meatspace. Ad Hominems, appeals to authority and appeals to various sensitivities have all replaced Facts as the gold standard for determining Truth, Justice and who does or doesn’t get mob-shamed for his/her age/class/gender/color/ physical appearance. Superior Hand-waving skills are now enough to get you a spot on the Harvard Debate Team. In too many “developing nations”, engineering, manufacturing and architectural standards seem to be just as horribly unreliable and people often die as a result. Here in “The West”, what is dying is clearly Reality. Agenda-driven Narratives are taking over.

I’m not talking about Lies on a human scale; the necessary Lies of negotiation that kids tell parents, or that parents tell employers, or that lovers tell each other to reconcile individual needs with shared goals. I don’t mean the little white lies of actors shaving years off their actual ages or friends reassuring friends about hideous haircuts or irritating spouses.  I’m talking about Agenda-Driven Bullshit on a Larger Scale. I’m talking about Propaganda, which is Agenda-Driven Bullshit crafted to swing Reality in order to justify a War or push ten million worthless units at a premium price or shape society in sinister ways. And the local Lies we tell ourselves and then each other, to prop up these big Lies, Lies that aren’t even on our behalf, as though we love the Lies so much we’re happy to spread them for free. The Lies that make us Lie against our own Lives. The Lies we betray ourselves to disseminate.

For whose benefit?

I just read this at the Guardian (after reading a dozen hysterical tweets/ bloglets/ comment threads on the same topic), by Melissa Silverstein, about Maria Schneider’s experience on the set of the film Last Tango in Paris:

“‘It’s important to note that Schneider, who died in 2011, told the Daily Mail in an interview way back in 2007 that she “felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci’. This wasn’t a little bit rape. This was rape where she was penetrated by a stick of butter. They actually took a prop and forced it inside her. In addition, the scene wasn’t in the script. The 19-year-old was blindsided by a bunch of older men who, according to Bertolucci, “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress’.”

This is from the Daily Mail interview that Silverstein’s essay links to:

“Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears.

“I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.”

Many believed that the sex scenes between Brando and Schneider were for real, but she insists: “Not at all. There was no attraction between us. For me, he was more like a father figure and I a daughter.

Well then. An actress felt humiliated by a rape scene she played in a film (the rape scene was in the script, the opportunistic “stick of butter-as-lubricant” was not; she consented to the former, not the latter… the former and the latter both being imaginary) and regrets having been in the film: fair enough. But not quite social justice rage-inducing enough to justify hysterical headlines, so Melissa Silverstein has very helpfully re-written the facts to change Maria Schneider from an actress who regretted being in a film that may have tarnished her image… to being the victim of an on-screen rape/penetration with a movie-prop wielded by Marlon Brando. Oh, and don’t forget: Brando was old… ugh… he was a part of a rape crew consisting of a “bunch of old men”. Much better. What’s really noteworthy: Silverstein actually links to the source that refutes her claim, either counting on the fact that you won’t bother reading through a few paragraphs to discover the Facts… or having skipped the very procedure herself. Perhaps she had a deadline to make.

To reiterate:

“In November 2016, a slightly altered version of the 2013 College Tour interview [with Bertolucci]  was uploaded to YouTube,[25] which gained attention when Yahoo! Movies writer Tom Butler wrote an article about the clip. Butler reported that Bertolucci admitted to filming a non-consensual rape scene and that the interview took place at the Cinémathèque Française.[26] Several celebrities condemned Bertolucci and the film, based on Butler’s article[27] and a number of newspapers picked up on the story, reporting that Bertolucci had confessed to Schneider being raped on set. Tim Molloy of The Wrap criticized the media’s misinterpretation of the video, observing that Bertolucci did not admit to a rape occurring on the film and that Schneider herself stated that no intercourse occurred during production, including a statement that “what Marlon was doing wasn’t real.” Molloy also pointed out that neither Bertolucci nor Schneider ever stated that Brando physically penetrated Schneider with the butter.

Peter Bradshaw (also at the Guardian) rather disingenuously wrote:

Well, we now know that there was no consent in real life. Whatever balancing moments existed in the story, Bertolucci certainly never discussed anything with Schneider without telling Brando. It was all the other way around. The power lay with the famous director and famous actor.

So,  the fact that “Bertolucci certainly never discussed anything with Schneider without telling Brando”  had nothing to do with Brando being precisely what Bradshaw describes him as: a world-famous movie star… and Schneider being a complete unknown, then? So, we’re saying that in a scene involving Julia Roberts (or name your current world-famous female lead: I haven’t sat through some shitty popular movie since c. 2005, when my now-Wife was pregnant and the Real World became infinitely more interesting to me than the derivative fantasies on modern screens) … in a scene between a Famous Actress and a promising young unknown male… the director would defer, of course, to the unknown male’s superior genital configuration? Yes? No?

Weirdly, despite his apparent patriarchal advantage on the set…

“Brando said to Bertolucci at the time, ‘I was completely and utterly violated by you. I will never make another film like that’. Brando refused to speak to Bertolucci for 15 years after the production was completed. Much like Schneider, Brando later said he ‘felt raped and manipulated’ by the film,” (Wiki)

None of the hysterically outraged commenters want to discuss Brando’s feelings of “rape” about the film, one supposes, because the righteous outrage would then shrivel to a tepid point about Bernardo Bertolucci’s method, rather than one about the inherent evil and/or savagery of (straight) Men. Which is lots less sexy, won’t sell newspapers, or bait clicks and won’t serve the apparent social engineering goal of further alienating Women and (straight) Men from one another. Perhaps it’s a form of Population Control?

Now here’s something: how many Pro-Billary sophomores currently losing their minds over Maria Schneider’s apparent humiliation regarding her experience filming the imaginary  rape of her imaginary character have nothing (nothing) to say about Bill Clinton’s real rapes and Hillary’s tendency to attack/ undermine her rapey husband’s accusers? Perhaps the Culture (with its constituent granules) is not just mendacious but insane, as well? And I’m no Conservative, folks: I’m an anti-War, anti-Corporate, anti-Gun, anti-Television, anti-Car, anti-Alcohol , anti-Race-obsession, anti-Professional Sports, Pro-Enlightenment crypto-Mod.

My Wife is a semi-famous classical musician and does a few newspaper interviews every year. In a recent interview, she told the interviewer that she’d participated in various performance competitions as a young girl. From this fact, the interviewer invented the fanciful tale that my Wife had purchased her first (very expensive) instrument with the earnings from these competitions. Anyone knowing my Wife knows this isn’t true, so it was quite embarrassing for us, since it appeared that my Wife, and not the effortlessly-untruthful journalist, had made the story up. We had to call quite a few friends who read the interview. We called the newspaper the day the article came out. “What do you want us to do about it?” asked the Newspaper.

To them this Lie was merely Business as Usual.

Q: So what’s it like, living inside the Awfully Pervasive Lie Culture … ?

A. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to describe.

THIS YEAR’S WINNERS of the ERIC BLAIR MEMORIAL IMPERIAL HAIKU AWARDS

xberg

FIRST PRIZE WINNERS

 

affirmation

without exception

we’re all exceptional for

exception’s the rule

 

affirmative acting

they never lower

the bar without then matching

the ceilings, suckers

 

trigger #1

“her breasts”

expose those words as

unacceptable

 

authenticity #1

condition  those kids:

polite, erudite, prepared:

not their attributes

 

xberg2

SECOND PRIZE WINNERS

 

witness

the war criminal’s

vagina resulted in

many painless deaths

 

guidelines

“morbidly obese”

is a hurtful description

use “relaxed-fit” graves

 

warning

appropriation’s

cross-culturality is

often too playful

 

trigger#2

without permission

regardless of intention

erection is rape

 

xberg3

THIRD PRIZE WINNERS

 

positivity

new euphemisms

bury nasty old facts like

straw conceals spike-pits

 

social contract

equality once

meant  equal access to being

superior, no?

 

authenticity #2

the author can’t write

the story’s derivative

a must-read race book

 

inclusivity #1

there’s room enough for

everyone (after we all)

(kick these losers out)

 

xberg4

HONORABLE MENTIONS

 

history

in ancient days of

celebrity babies named

tony or gladys

 

justice

hot young  teacher fucks

quarterback just as bad as

gross molester man

 

diversity

celebrate difference

we’re amused by,  kill

or suppress the rest

 

free speech

free speech remains the

cheapest of concepts until

it costs you something

 

xberg5

ENTRANTS WHO NEEDN’T HAVE BOTHERED

 

protest

march & beat drums to

demand more drums & wider

circles for marching

 

empowerment

sly white male corporate

power has declared your stats

a talent, rejoice

YET ANOTHER OBITUARY LETTER

lcrip

Dear____:

This hardhearted year keeps blowing old troubadours down like some tyrannical Baron striking Serfs with his blackthorn and it got Leonard Cohen last week. I was expecting Leonard to slip his way elegantly through the stage door, at the end of the year,  as usual, doffing his cap, singing Auld Lang Syne, a song he could have written, waltzing wisely up the alley to 2017.  But: no. If 2016 were represented by a Tarot card, it would be one eerie card.

Unlike Prince, Leonard’s music was appropriate for grownups (much of it, in fact, is indecipherable to kids) and, unlike Bowie, Leonard’s music actually meant something. Leonard didn’t conjure his lyrics with lordly disinterest, like Bowie, by tossing random phrases in a hat he borrowed from Burroughs. Cohen often wrote dozens of drafts of dozens of verses, trying to get it right. While I disagree with those who claim the results can stand alone as poetry (Leonard was a serious Songwriter but he was not one of the great Poets; his craft was perfected to the discipline of forging lines that can be comprehended in one listen, more or less, at a speed no greater than 120 bpm), the results stand out in the canon of great North American songs. Cohen, Mitchell, Strayhorn, Zappa, Gershwin, Holland/Dozier/Holland…

Unlike the case with Bowie but similar to my blippy little brushes with Prince and his checkered history, I had two second or third-degree brushes with Leonard Cohen, delivered up by happenstance, only one of which I’ll describe, in detail, in this letter. The moments of connection started in my very early twenties and ended when I was thirty one, the perfect interval for lyrical interventions from Fate.

By the time I left college, Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was a big part of my love life, along with candles, cones of incense and the aforementioned Tarot, which I didn’t read but the reading of which was a standard prelude to seduction among sensitive, bookish, post-Hippie types of the late 1970s. Tarot, palm-reading, back rubs… that’s how we did it then.  No one I know used alcohol to make Sex happen and very few of us had seen anything more pornographic than a Playboy magazine (or an Evergreen Review), so it was an innocent age… but with an innocence that was better, and more knowing, than the Puritans would have been able to deal with. Back then, Girls didn’t generally strip, shave their legs, wax their crotches, worry about AIDs (we hadn’t heard of it)  or dream of breast implants: breast implants, like shoulder pads, were the armor of the Spartan 1980s. Boys (in my circle) dreamed of particular Girls (not “pussy”) and the contraceptive of choice was the romantically inefficient diaphragm. My first sexual experience (with the current Wife of the Ambassador to P____, a terrible Neocon) involved so much spermicide that the smell (and tongue-numbing taste of it) is all I can remember of that milestone. I could barely keep from sliding off. Oh: but I also recall quite clearly that I finished in twenty seconds, tops, and was ticklish as hell after my anticlimax.

Sorry Maggie!

I lost my virginity a few months before college, in my Great Aunt and Uncle’s bed, in their bedroom in the grand building housing The Family Business (Undertaking) in a casually integrated, middle class neighborhood with traces of Bohemia running through it. There were enclaves of Berryman-reading, whole-food-shopping, college-educated Whites around two corners, the parents of my school friends. I went to an all-boy, college-prep high school you had to pass an exam to attend and my friends were Black, Italian and Jewish American boys with high IQs and no clue what to do with the brainpower. Every morning, before school, we gathered at the foot of the great stone steps of our sister institution, the simply named Girls High School, which was right down a leafy lane, and pretended we had business there.

The parents of my Black school friends were all too successful and busy to hang out with, but the Bohemian parents of my Jewish and Italian friends often invited me to dinner or just hung out with us at the table, talking books in their shabby genteel, chicly-messy kitchens which streamed with tiny brown ants. One friend, in particular, whose father had died by falling from a ladder while scraping the dormers, lived in a big, untidy old tinderbox of a Beat-poet house and it was a dense dark library that represented more wealth, to me, than any yacht. His mother was an alcoholic in the grand tradition of literary alcoholics but I envied him. We’d be eating big buttered hunks of bread all slathered with honey and talking nonsense about Poetry or Philip K. Dick and Cohen’s music would be audible from some upstairs room in the house. Either Leonard Cohen or the Brandenburg Concertos or a Shakuhachi flute. Those days may actually have been the high point of Western civilization and I wouldn’t mind being able to step back for a visit to the East Coast of 1977. Though, on the other hand, could I bear meeting my furtive younger self?

We were all being shuttled toward higher and higher Ed and Corporate Success and we were all, at the time, resisting. At least, I thought we were. I know I was. Reading Berryman and Sexton and Hughes and all the others in those big fat anthologies… (I can still remember lugging those shaggy monsters of plain design straight home from the book shop with genuine excitement, every time; I can still remember coming to Hughes’ Moortown and Sexton’s Transformations as if a roulette wheel of print had finally trapped the marble)… reading that stuff did something to my mind that it didn’t do to the others, possibly. Certain poems, certain songs: I couldn’t see myself being “normal” and getting a “career” and all that “jive” after hearing them. The Pied Pipers got to me. Cohen among them.

Cohen’s “Goodbye, Marianne”: I can only think of beautifully awkward kisses in very strong sunlight when I hear that song.  In Fellini’s witty Casanova (also of that era), the hero brings to every seduction a clockwork Venetian bird in a box he uses to regulate the tempo of his Sex; the bird is his mojo and his Familiar. Cohen’s Songs of Leonard Cohen was my version of that device, I guess. “Goodbye, Marianne”, “Sisters of Mercy” and “Suzanne”, especially, are the inlaid jewels of Sex/Romance/Love in the facets of my cleverly-crafted heart.

I took that album with me to college in the upper Midwest (I just wanted to go as far away from relatives as I could get; I had been offered places at Ivy League Schools because my SATs were so high, despite the fact that I blew off my senior year to fill my days with Experience) and I started kissing girls there, to it, too. I was still listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen, from a cassette,  many nights, in Berlin, in the early 1990s, in the arms of my Persian girlfriend (now a dentist!)  and in the arms of a German girlfriend (now a psychologist!) who was  modelling in Paris and whose parents owned a cottage next door to Leonard’s on the island of Hydra. In a Vonnegutian Universe, I’d be a peripheral member of Cohen’s Karass. The tenuous connection, appropriately, was always Sex. The Poetry thereof, I mean. Not the standard brutal assignations of today.

I’ve only ever tried mixing music with Sex with three albums: Songs of Leonard Cohen (always apt), The Doors (esp. “The End”; again with the Persian) and Meet The Beatles ( a disaster). Before I got my bearings, in college, my first few weeks there, listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen by candle light was more about pretending to have sex,  rehearsing it, blanket up to my chin and my eyes closed. Slowly, but surely, I added real partners but never changed the album.

I picked up the guitar in earnest that first year in college and that was that: I walked out before the year was over and started a parody of a commune with a gaggle of up-for-it friends, guys and girls, communal bed, synchronized periods, the dropping of acid (having never smoked, nor boozed, nor anything else psychoactive,  except chocolate, before or since). I wrote songs, wrote poetry, painted and had increasingly good Sex quite often. This was years before I was finally (finally) driven, by a certain kind of ambition,  to strip it all down, cut out the extraneous,  until the only thing  left (on the canvas or in the guitar or on the page or in bed) was what actually worked. I was undisciplined before that change but humming and fizzing with a radical sense of the possible.The foolishness of that period was heroic. I was wearing shoulder-length hair and embroidered shirts from the mandatory Import shop on the West Bank (near the University Campus); I was a perfect anachronism but I wasn’t alone: lots of us were perfect anachronisms: we were doing 1969 all over again, ten years later, fish out of temporal water. I moved out of the “commune” (which was three blocks from one of the mansions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s youth, on St. Albans) to the magical Dinkytown (a cross between Greenwich Village and the village of The Prisoner)  and took a little apartment that was kitty corner to Bob Dylan’s old place, the place where he named himself Dylan.

From there I ended up in an old Mansion that had been converted to a kind of thirty-room Hippie Flophouse with an enormous communal dining room (adjacent to a hot tub/ steam room) in the basement. We had a juggler poet (a muscular guy with a well-developed upper body and a feminine, slender, shorter, Polio-created left leg which blessed him with a Byronic limp) and a mad, great, Artaud-esque painter who lived in the attic and a tabla-player from Chile named Pepe and way too many Tarot-reading, I-Ching throwing witches. There was a jolly fat bearded auto mechanic who looked like a red-cheeked, Satanic Santa in oily overalls and his petite blonde pixie girlfriend; there were all kinds of people (including a whole Cult, one summer) in and out. We had tribal get-togethers on the front lawn or the back yard (and the authorities were aware of us; I remember calling the phone company to try to get a line installed, in my name, because I was the only one without bad credit, and I was astonished to have the AT&T representative, who was on the line, identify me by my full name when I’d only introduced myself with my first). Among the characters flowing in, out and around this Hippie Mansion was Suzanne Verdal.

Suzanne was very pretty, dark haired, Gallic, big-eyed, with two fairytale children, dressed like a Medieval Prince and Princess (puffy sleeves, Guinevere dress, Prince valiant haircut and all), who were named, at the time, Romy and Karima. I was never sure of the spelling and I’ve heard they got themselves other names, eventually. But I had no idea who Suzanne was.

One late afternoon, during one of these get-togethers, after the third or fourth time I’d seen Suzanne, the Byronic Juggler took me aside and said, “Don’t you know who that is? That’s Suzanne, from the song!”

I’m sure my jaw dropped. I peeked around the corner and watched Suzanne dance, on the lawn, to Pepe’s tabla, while the Byronic Juggler filled me in. I was probably holding a paper plate of organic potato salad. Suzanne’s two youngest kids, Romy and Karima, were by a guy who was the current love of Byron’s ex girlfriend. The ex girlfriend’s young son, Nico, was the half-brother of Suzanne’s children. She was in town trying to sell a house of hers. She’d been a dancer on French television in the 1960s. She must have been in her mid-thirties then, an intimidatingly poetic “older woman” to my jittery 21. I went back out to the party on the lawn, armed with my brand new Awe. The sun was setting and I grabbed a guitar and played some pseudo-Flamenco nonsense that would have been gibberish to the ears of any real guitarist but, a bit later, Suzanne cornered me and suggested that we could form an act together: Suzanne dancing, idiot faking flamenco guitar. She then asked if it would be possible to borrow thirty dollars. Ah, Life! Absurd, no?

The next day at noon I showed up at the address Suzanne had given me (I had to borrow the thirty dollars to loan it to her), an apartment complex laid out like a California motel, two levels of white stucco units around a courtyard, a u-shaped catwalk connecting all the units on the second level. It’s possible I’m conflating the premises of Suzanne’s borrowed complex with one I visited in San Diego; all I remember of this building, for sure, are the external stairs and the white stucco. And the fact that when I knocked on the front door, a very soft voice called, “It’s open!”

The first things I saw in the dark living room were the posters and photos, some framed, of a younger Suzanne on the walls. Suzanne dancing on French Television in 1968, say. Dazzling to a 21-year-old, for sure. And then I looked down and to my right and saw Suzanne under a sheet on a futon. The sheet was pulled up around her neck in such a way to give the impression that the sheet was all that clothed her.

“I’ve just had the most terrible dream about my children!” she said, her eyes big, her accent perfectly French, her voice still very soft; just above a whisper. Actually, I remember thinking that her voice reminded me somewhat of the character of “Ginger”, the movie star, in the seminal show of my youth, Gilligan’s Island… that breathy, pouty, campy Monroe pastiche. I remember noticing but not thinking it was funny; maybe I liked it. She told me she’d dreamed that she and her children were floating far out at sea and her children were calling to her and she couldn’t see them. Where were her kids, by the way? I don’t think I wondered at the time but I wonder now.

We discussed the dream, Suzanne on the futon, sheet wrapped around her… and there was I, absurdly (slap-worthily) still standing, not three paces from the threshold I’d walked in through at noon. I stood and listened and added my distracted,  heart-pounding two cents. And then the conversation shifted and tip-toed then bolted toward strange terrain. My ears pricked up, as it were, when I heard the beautiful Suzanne Verdal saying,

“…but you know, Steven, I’ve always felt that the only real men are the dark men.” Ze daaark men.

May the great god Pan Have Mercy on my Pathetic, Callow, Bookwormed Soul but it was at this point that I found myself handing Suzanne the thirty bucks and making my excuses and practically running out of the flat and down the stairs and away, away, away.

To this day I haven’t the slightest idea why I did that. Imagine the story I might have told.

Anyway: who’s next?

Dylan?

Joni?

Keith?

Seize the day, all. Seize it.

JUSTICE with a SMALL “j”

selection

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 CLOAK ‘N DAGGER PENTAMETER: a review of Paul Beatty’s THE SELLOUT and a look at several other shitty books and why they’re Hyped

augpost

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?

or

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 On Immunity: 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?

2.

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 literatureTIME 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

‘Paul Beatty’s blistering The Sellout shares DNA with the work of Swift, as well as possessing some of the savagery of Wyndham Lewis, and the single-minded absurdity of Myles na gCopaleen.’- Jon Day, Man Booker Judge 2016

‘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?

3.

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”