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.’
‘The Graduate. You better not…’
‘The graduate? Which graduate? Who?’
‘The film. Dustin Hoffman! You…’
‘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 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.
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.
“In November 2016, a slightly altered version of the 2013 College Tour interview [with Bertolucci] was uploaded to YouTube, 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. Several celebrities condemned Bertolucci and the film, based on Butler’s article 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 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.
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.
Several long-time readers (aka very strange people to whom I can usually relate) have contacted me about the “shock” election. They expect me to be ranting about Trump. What I say about all that is…
A BUFFOON ran against a WAR CRIMINAL and the BUFFOON won.
It’s really that simple. Neither candidate was less than laughably horrific, although, between the two, Clinton (one half of one of the most corrupt couples in American history, if not the history of “The West”) had the bloodiest track record. Billary’s track record is bloodier than 20 Macbeths; blooodier than 100. Even a cursory examination of the mainstream information on these people indicates that; the so-called “Clinton death list” (some or most of which is quite plausible) is extraneous. The more important, mainstream Clinton Death List includes (among others) 500,000 Iraqi children (starved to death by sanctions levied to send a message from Bush/Clinton to Saddam Hussein), civilian casualties in Kosovo, sick or starving Haitians who were cheated out of relief funds by the “Clinton Foundation”, Libyans (and their raped/murdered leader), the uncounted deaths in North and South and Central America connected to the Iran/Contra drugs-for-money-for-guns scheme (for which Bill Clinton provided the all-important airstrip in Mena, Arkansas, for drug-drops… the favor, for Daddy Bush, that probably won Billary the presidency)…
The recent Wikileaks Clinton-email-dump offers proof that not only is The Clinton Foundation receiving hefty donations from the same source (Saudi Gov) that supports EYE****ZIZ (don’t want to trigger any scanners, do we?)… but that the Clintons were fully aware of this all along. That’s mind-boggling enough, but what’s worse is that it’s only one degree of separation from the obvious deductive conclusion about the whole Rep/Dem Turrist Game they’ve been playing (and killing over) since the dawn of this century. People are still in Guantanamo over having had infinitely-more tenuous links to Turrists. Think about it. The implications are staggering.
No, Trump is no savior. Nothing will improve under his watch. Nothing will improve… for the 99%… under any President’s watch, because the President’s function is not to improve things for Serfs; his/her function is to anesthetize Serfs to the painful results of the constant and many schemes against them; to numb Serfs as they are hacked at, from all angles, by gold and silver hatchets. The President’s function is to sell the concept of Thanksgiving to the Turkeys; The President is there to sing convincingly of the warmth and beauty of Fire… to kindling. He/she has to be good at acting.
Nothing will improve under Trump… but there’s a good chance that cheating the surpassingly-creepy Clinton out of her prize has cut down on the intensity of Cold War 2.0., to a useful extent. Some people were worried about nuclear conflict with Russia, under Clinton… I don’t think that ever would have been likely (why would The Owners agree to having vast swathes of their property covered in radioactive Fallout for thousands of years?). But things, I think, could have gotten very nasty, if only in the sense of conventional warfare. Perhaps we’ve dodged that one for now.
Now, tellingly, I’ve been arguing about The Hillary Problem (you admire a War Criminal: why? Her vagina?) for weeks, now, with at least a dozen HRC dupes, and every single HRC dupe I encounter, online and/or in Meatspace, invariably attacks (the low-hanging fruit of the creepy) Trump, or me, even (Liberals resort to ad hominems even quicker than Conservatives, in my experience)… but absolutely no one rebuts/refutes the analysis of HRC’s record as a War Criminal. No one defends her with a single Fact. No one engages the issue on the level of the public record of HRC’s many ethical/moral/criminal lapses. The psychology is fascinating. It’s exactly like arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses/ Scientologists/ Madonna fans…
But: yes… no: Trump is definitely psycho, too. No mistake about that. He’s a jar of psycho that’s labelled properly; Clinton is a jar of psycho labelled “Angel”. I find that sickening. I’ve found eight years of BHO’s psychopathy (drone-killing kids? No prob! I kill and grin!) sickening for the same reason: he’s a jar of psycho labelled “Savior”. In fact, his record makes it clear that BHO is a liar, a killer, a sucker of big cold bloody corporate cock. Sickening. Weeping so-called Liberals (you pathetic, infantilized dupes) would weep even harder to hear that.
Good. (And, no, I’m not “Rightwing”… unless that word now means being anti-war, anti-military, anti-corporate and feeling strongly that the tax-payers’-funded war-making budget should be diverted instead to social services, free uni, playgrounds, alternative energy research, libraries and real schools for children; and that’s the problem: America has moved so far to the Right, in four decades, that the so-called “Progressives” are really the Center-Right, the “Liberals” are Far Right and the Right Right are a Baby-Killing Fuckface Zombie Stink-Bot Scourge …)
Yeah. I imagine HRC screaming all night, several nights, in fury and despair, at the results of this election… screaming until she’s hoarse, pounding the walls (or a flunky) until her cruel hands bleed….
…and I think: justice with a small “j”.
Better than nothing.
PS And now for something completely different… YouTube’s first Pundit Satanist?
The well of culture has been poisoned with propaganda. It may not be as lethal as a literal well-poisoning but it is as sickening.
Culture is now, essentially, the liquid that happens to be flowing through the pipes of The Media. It is no longer grounded in, or determined by, local conditions (via community gatherings, bands, local art movements, word of mouth, samizdat and any other low-budget repositories or propagators of Culture). The Media are global tools of their various powerful owners, obviously, and though these many powerful owners each have agendas of their own, and are probably more often competitors and/or enemies than friends, their interests can generally be categorized as being divergent from the interests of the Serfs (that’s us) that The Media are used to influence. If the interests of some powerful co-owners of The Media harmonize politically, the harmony is an effort coordinated by Governing structures of Finance and the Intelligence Agencies.
Geopolitical exigencies supervene upon matters of Culture. It is difficult, now, to distinguish between the push to sell cultural merchandise (books/ films/ pop singles/ TV shows) and the push to normalize a particular worldview or burnish the status of a supposed “way of Life”. Certainly, in the context of a Cold War that is clearly heating up again (after the apparent Gorbachev-intermission of the 1990s), “America” is a concept, created and maintained by The Media, to represent Nobility/ Freedom/ Fun in opposition to the “Russia” concept’s complementary Corruption/ Oppression/ Gloom.
In the middle of the 20th century, the need to burnish the image of the “America” concept, at the height of the first Cold War, led to crucial Media support for the Civil Rights movement: “America” couldn’t very well win the hearts and minds of a planet expected to choose between Washington and Moscow (as ideological beacons and colonizers) if “America” still boasted racially-segregated lunch counters, water fountains, high schools, strip clubs and swimming pools. An interesting corollary: the temporary juggernaut of the Civil Rights movement began to lose steam, and roll rather alarmingly backwards downhill, almost exactly at the time that relations between Washington and Moscow seemed to thaw.
Now that Washington and Moscow are again glaring at one another through binoculars in very chilly air, and NATO’s misadventures in the “Middle East” are ramping up, “America” needs burnishing, again, and representatives from a wide range of Racial and Gender “minorities” will be the beneficiaries. Why is this? In short: spotlighting brown faces (and celebrating non-het sex orientations) seems to do wonders in softening the image of a Global Hegemony; it would seem to be difficult to invoke Nazi Blitzkrieg, regarding America’s use of overwhelming military superiority in the invasion and occupations of several countries, when a Black or Female President oversees the invasions. How Evil can an Empire be when it nominates a woman as its figurehead… right? It doesn’t matter how irredeemably co-opted and corrupted the Black figurehead-puppet-actors and the Female firgurehead-puppet-actors are because the audience isn’t paying close attention. The audience is over-medicated, under-rested, ears-deep in debt and primarily concerned with blockbusting movies about Super Heroes… the propaganda doesn’t have to be brilliant in order to work. It only needs to be relentless.
The difference between Cold War 1.0 and Cold War 2.0 being that “NATO” is now, essentially, a synonym for “America” or “The West”. In other words, The Media busy burnishing “America” and/or “NATO” are not restricted to such organs or events as Hollywood, The New York Times, The Pulitzer Prize, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, et al. The Guardian, Stern, Die Zeit, Charlie Hebdo, The Nobel, The Booker, et al, are all part of the normalization and burnishing of a particular worldview and “way of life”.
I was reading some Lit Bloggy “Best Of” List, a few weeks back, and noted, in the comment thread, that a lady was rhapsodizing over Peter Matthiessen, the chiseled, patrician hunk who wrote “The Snow Leopard” and other stuff of limited interest. So, I thought: 40 years after the first time Matthiessen was outed as a CIA agent who “founded” the Paris Review as a propaganda organ to enrich the Cold War, and four or five years after the outing was confirmed as fact, most still don’t know, or don’t give a shit. Because I thought the revelation pretty much changed everything.
I suddenly realized that many poets and writers I had always believed that I had come to like as a natural extension of my own interests and preferences actually got lodged in my mind at the CIA’s behest. I mean, “Modernism” (and, therefore “Post Modernism”) may or may not have been created by US Gov, but it was promoted so heavily by US Gov that it pushed everything else off the menu for the entirety of my Formative Years as a reader. In other words, I’m as much of a construct as The Paris Review, literarily speaking, shaped by a hidden agenda that Matthiessen (reputedly, if one of his ex-wives can be trusted, a sort of psychopath who once swerved on the road in order to drive over a large turtle) was working to serve. Matthiessen and that self-effacingly patrician super-smoothie George Plimpton, who was much better at keeping it to himself (Matthiessen being the kind of jocky cocksman who probably couldn’t resist bragging, to the better looking debutantes, that he was CIA*).
I like how Matthiessen stares down the camera in this clip (professional liars often make a point of looking you in the eye while plying the trade, you know):
One would think that the casually definitive exposure of the Paris Review as a “former” (cough) front for the CIA would put that particular asset out to pasture, but, hey: waste not, want not! The Paris Review still has a name redolent of faded patrician cocksman glamour in the Lit World and there are still tiny brains out there to wash. I mean: maybe it’s a coincidence: but when arch-Islamophobe (and iffy stylist) Michel Houellebecq squatted over his Remington and grunted out the most Islamophobic chunk of Dystopian Sci Fi of the past 50 years (it puts Dune to shame), guess who translated it into English? Lorin Stein, Ed in Chief of The Paris Review! Or maybe that’s a coincidence (like the fact that Houellebecq’s nightmare of Burkas and hand-chopping was published, in Paris, mere hours before the Charlie Hebdo passion play of early 2015, assuring bestseller stats). Whatever. “Am I Islamophobic? Probably yes,” said Houellebecq. So anybody wanting to stir the book-reading public into a froth capable of green-lighting (say) the invasion of Syria would definitely want to get Houellebecq’s shitty books in all the sweaty little credulous hands out there. And so on.
Despite all that, I doubt seriously the Paris Review is going to be pulling off the kind of culture-wide deceptions it must have been shitting its pants, with glee, about in the 1960s and 1970s. Matthiessen himself managed to win all kinds of “prestigious” lit awards in those days, which is a little like the nephew, of the guy who runs the corner shop, winning the lottery on a regular basis… but he got away with it, with just the hint of a weathered smirk, at the end. And, as I said above: a couple of generations of us were well and truly duped. With the caveat that the experience taught a cranky few of us to read falsified elements of the Zeitgeist as though they’re comic books. With relative ease and for pleasure, almost.
Which leads me to last season’s announcements regarding the lucky few who were visited, this year, by the MacArthur Genius Grant Fairy: each one gets 625K in pre-collapse dollars for writing not-particularly brilliant stuff that radiates a simple message that conforms to parts, or all, of some Plutocrats’ agenda(s). As the alarmingly (perhaps sinisterly) interesting Daniel Brandt put it, way back in 1993:
Anyone who follows today’s academic debates on multiculturalism, and by happenstance is also familiar with the power-structure research that engaged students in the sixties and early seventies, is struck by that old truism: the only thing history teaches us is that no one learns from history. By now it’s even embarrassing, perhaps because of our soundbite culture. Not only must each generation painstakingly relearn, by trial and error, everything learned by the previous generation, but it’s beginning to appear that we have to relearn ourselves that which we knew a scant twenty years earlier. The debate over diversity is one example of this.
Researchers in the sixties discovered that the ruling elites of the West mastered the techniques of multiculturalism at the onset of the Cold War, and employed them time and again to counter the perceived threat from communism. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was funded first by the CIA and then, after this was exposed in 1967, by the Ford Foundation. CCF created magazines, published books, and conducted conferences throughout the world, in an effort to wean intellectuals to democratic liberalism.
We’re talking about “multiculturalism” , now, because the Artists and Writers among the 23 awardees of this year’s MacArthur Genius Grant look like a Benetton Ad. Which should be fine by me because I look like a Benetton Ad. But we aren’t called “minorities” for no reason, so when groups which live in the relatively small slices of the population pie chart are extremely over-represented as beneficiaries of spectacular philanthropic largesse, it feels like social engineering. As a Writer of Color, I would have been immensely pleased if a Writer of Color of Genius had been included in this lottery… or, at the very least, a writer as solidly mediocre as Jonathan Franzen. Instead, the material is very meh. Just the stuff to win a “Genius” award in The Kingdom of Bullshit.
Two of the awardees, Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson, had books that came out, in 2014 and 2015, respectively, that I was aware of before 2016’s MacArthur announcement.
First, among the cultural debris of the more recent dumping grounds of Identity Lit, I found Nelson’s exhibitionist, post-90s, theory-porn-novel (written in intermittent academese) THE ARGONAUTS (excerpt):
Like much of Catherine Opie’s work, Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), which features the bloody stick figures cut into her back, gains meaning in series, in context. Its crude drawing is in conversation with the ornate script of the word Pervert, which Opie had carved into the front of her chest and photographed a year later. And both are in conversation with the heterogeneous lesbian households of Opie’s Domestic series (1995–98)—in which Harry appears, baby-faced—as well as with Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), taken a decade after Self-Portrait/Pervert. In Opie’s nursing self-portrait, she holds and beholds her son Oliver while he nurses, her Pervert scar still visible, albeit ghosted, across her chest. The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden.
This balance is admirable. It is also not always easy to maintain. In a recent interview, Opie says: “Between being a full-time professor and an artist and a mom and a partner, it’s not like I get to have that much time to go and explore and play [SM style]…. Also, all of a sudden when you’re taking care of a child, your brain doesn’t easily switch to ‘Oh, now I’m going to hurt somebody’”
There is something profound here, which I will but draw a circle around for you to ponder. As you ponder, however, note that a difficulty in shifting gears, or a struggle to find the time, is not the same thing as an ontological either/or.
That excerpt is from a novel, remember… not a TA’s blog post. Wherever Kathy Acker is, she probably still doesn’t make much money and she’s probably pissed. 625K in pre-collapse dollars, Kathy Acker! How does that make you feel? Kathy Acker, please note: the author doesn’t mutilate herself in this excerpt from an autobiographical text about loving a partner of “fluid” gendernicity, she reports on someone else’ self-mutilation. See how it’s done? It’s too easy to imagine Butthead chortling, at the end of this excerpt: “She said ontological.”
And here: two random excerpts from Rankine’s “Citizen”, a “lyric essay,” most of which appears as a diaristic litany of Race-y moments, in her life, that spoiled a bunch of Ms. Rankine’s various days as a Black Woman:
Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship , when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget. If this were a domestic tragedy, and it might well be, this would be the fatal flaw—your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt because it’s the “all black people look the same” moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.
Oh, the humanity. A reviewer in the NYRB writes:
Told mostly through a series of “micro-aggressions” (the term coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe unconscious insults nonblack Americans aim at black people), Citizen is a circuitous and intimate descent into the poet’s past in order to examine race in America. Some of the incidents happen to the poet, some are reports from friends. Rankine writes almost exclusively in the second-person present, a tense that implicates as it includes, endowing events with a sense of immediacy and urgency.
“Micro-Aggressions” pretty much nails it. The most aptly-tepid word possible. Yawn. The MacArthur Fairy itself says:
In ‘Citizen,’ Rankine’s aesthetic evolution culminates in a powerful poetics, at once visual and documentary, as she brings to life a series of everyday occurrences tinged with racism directed toward African Americans: from slips of the tongue and suspicious looks, to empty seats on the train next to black men, to complaints about affirmative action.
Ouch… and here I am complaining about affirmative action.
Writers who can’t really write… grossly overweight models… transsexual infants… welcome to The Now. What kind of psycho-social Agenda is being shoved down our throats? And how is Massa Capitalism planning to use it?
Oh, and what is “Graywolf”? (emphases mine):
Graywolf has been winning for a while. Over the past few years, as publishing conglomerates merged, restructured, and grappled with Amazon, a midwestern press snuck in and found a genuinely new way forward for nonfiction. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams entered the Times best-seller list at No. 11, while Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a half-versified meditation on racism, stormed post-Ferguson America. Each has sold more than 60,000 copies, putting them in Graywolf’s all-time top five. Citizen just went back to press for a tenth time, putting it close to having 100,000 copies in print. That hardly puts Graywolf in league with Penguin Random House, but neither is it just a scrappy little press punching above its weight. It’s a scrappy little press that harnessed and to some extent generated a revolution in nonfiction, turning the previously unprepossessing genre of the “lyric essay” into a major cultural force.
The term lyric essay was popularized in the ’90s by the writer John D’Agata (a Graywolf author) to describe a hybrid form of nonfiction that accommodates verse, memoir, and criticism. But its origins go back at least as far as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, journalist-critics whose work is magnetically personal. Its present-day progeny is more diverse and more direct, answering to a very modern hunger for well-worded social arguments rooted in identity and experience. It’s a rapidly expanding niche, where Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay can turn painful confessions into powerful exhortations while — in a different mode — Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti can make universal claims out of private stories. On this shifting ground, Graywolf’s poet-critics are punching above every weight class.
The publisher’s very good 2014 wasn’t a fluke but a culmination (and its lyric-essay run continues with this year’s The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s deconstruction of both gender and genre). Publishing just over 30 books a year, Graywolf has had authors win four NBCC awards, a National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and a Nobel Prize — all in the last six years. This year, it will exceed $2 million in sales for the first time. No other independent press, never mind a 41-year-old nonprofit, has come so far so fast. It didn’t happen by accident. [blog-owner’s commentary: YUP]
“I think of success as being able to say yes to something that doesn’t necessarily look like a commercial winner,” says Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s publisher since 1994, over yogurt and decaf on one of her monthly visits to New York. “Knowing something is good and having to say no, that seems to me the bigger failure.” An affably owlish Brit, McCrae started out in London’s legendary literary Faber & Faber before transferring to its small American spinoff in Boston. Three years later, she heard that Graywolf’s founder was resigning.
Scott Walker began hand-sewing poetry chapbooks in Port Townsend, Washington, in 1974. While picking up poets like Tess Gallagher and Jane Kenyon, Walker turned Graywolf Press into a nonprofit and relocated to the Twin Cities, home to a thriving philanthropic base (which also supports nonprofit presses Milkweed and Coffee House). But in the ’90s, a publishing slump hit Graywolf particularly hard; Walker resigned and his board eventually hired McCrae. At the time, she had zero experience in nonprofits — possibly to Graywolf’s benefit, because she chafed at the complacency to which nonprofits are prone. “There’s got to be a way in which you absolutely value Graywolf,” she says, “but like, come on, everybody! Other small presses are not the measure. Do you say, ‘For our size, we get more attention, so that’s it,’ or do you say, ‘Where can we go?’”
In 1999, McCrae won a $1 million grant by promising to take Graywolf to “yet another level.” [blog owner’s commentary: that’s usually all it takes, isn’t it?] A couple of years later, they raised another $1 million with a detailed capital plan: a grant for work in translation; a fund to increase author advances; a budget for travel to global book fairs; a New York city outpost; a “national council” of fund-raisers; and the Literary Nonfiction Prize that would launch Biss and Jamison. Just as important, Graywolf switched its distribution to prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “That signaled something,” says Jeff Shotts, Graywolf’s executive editor. “It put our books in the same conversation with Seamus Heaney.”
Graywolf reached its fund-raising goals, and just as McCrae was beginning to get impatient — “I remember thinking, Where’s the big hit?” — Graywolf’s initiatives came together to help create one: Per Petterson’s 2007 best-seller Out Stealing Horses. Acquired and promoted via Graywolf’s new global connections, listed beside giants in FSG’s catalogues, and hand-delivered on a visit to the New York Times, the Norwegian novel won the IMPAC Dublin award, scored a Times Book Review cover, and sold 70,000 copies in hardcover. Petterson has spurned corporate advances to remain with Graywolf ever since.
McCrae admits that they dug deeper than usual to keep him, but it was partly thanks to Petterson that advances have roughly doubled in ten years (as has the annual list). Graywolf can now sometimes pay $25,000 for a book — not much, unless you’re a young writer whose work defies conventional categories. And it’s exactly in the cracks between history, memoir, poetry, and criticism that Graywolf has lately thrived. When the NBCC nominated Citizen for awards in both poetry and criticism — unable to decide which it was — “it was fun to watch that debate,” says Jeffrey Lependorf, head of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. But at a larger press, “that’s a question that might have led to a marketing department putting the kibosh on it.”
Graywolf’s nonfiction hybrids don’t just defy publishing categories; they also offer subtler takes on issues like race (in Citizen) and gender (in The Argonauts) than some publishers might prefer. They are difficult to summarize in tweets. Yet Graywolf uses Twitter to great effect; it has more than twice the followers of FSG and almost as many as Knopf, which is six times its size. That’s a serious asset for a house with a surfeit of distinctive voices but a limited marketing budget. “You don’t have to pay for cyberspace,” says McCrae. “It’s equalizing in that way.”
The publisher’s oddest source of free publicity was its working with debut poet James Franco. The polymath gadfly name-checked Graywolf on Jimmy Fallon last year while promoting his collection, Directing Herbert White, which referenced his own short-film adaptation of poems by Frank Bidart. It was Bidart who brought Franco’s work to Graywolf’s attention. “It was a risk, sure, as a first book of poetry can be,” says Shotts, Franco’s editor, “and one written by someone under public scrutiny. Graywolf published it in a pretty subtle way. It was an opportunity to reach readers who don’t normally come to poetry.” He hastens to add that Franco was paid a standard poetry advance and has never donated to the house.
Celebrity poet aside, Graywolf tends to lead on trends or avoid them. “They obviously have to look at trends, but they can be a little more adventurous,” says Rick Simonson, the buyer for Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books. “I’ve watched the bigger houses plunge into things and back away. People in New York, if they were trying to sell me a book of essays, they’d say, ‘I know essays are a tough sell.’” Now that essays are selling at Graywolf, others are catching on.
So, to recap: a quaint little Indie press, like quaint little indie presses all over post-literate America, was on the verge of folding; the old Hippie who started it stepped down; a hip New Lady from the UK was flown in and: presto: 2 million bucks were donated (hear that, Agha Khan?), followed by a slew of awards and unprecedentedly fantastic sales in the ever-more-lucrative LYRIC ESSAY genre! If it weren’t such a solid business model, one admits, it might all look a wee bit suspicious.
And, wouldn’t you know it: many of the books on Graywolf’s roster skew toward topics that are consonant with 21st century Social Engineering. In fact (one shits you not) there is even a (a decidedly pro-vaccine) book about vaccines, called OnImmunity: An Inoculation ! It came out at the height of the “anti-vaxxer” controversies. Hey, got any lyric-essay books about Global Warming….?
You could not, as Writers often say, make this shit up. Well, actually, you could and they did.
But I’ve invented a new term for writers like Ms Rankine and Ms Nelson and whoever else plays a role, “witting” or not (a distinction, by the way, that seemed crucial to the circle around the WASPy nucleus of the Paris Review, soon after the rumors started circulating). The new term is an acronym: PLIMP.
PSEUDO-LITERARY MOUTH PIECE
Wouldn’t George have given that one a horrified chuckle?
And now a shitty book by writer-of-color Paul Beatty has won The Booker prize (the first American writer to do so) after a year of the shitty book garnering uniformly (head-scratching) hyperbolic praise. If The Sellout is a good book, then every book I’ve ever read (and every book ever written) is a good book. Which can’t be true.
There was a heated debate over at The Millions, recently, regarding this shitty book and its Booker win. I caused the debate to heat up, in the first place, by registering my aimed-at-the-culture-itself complaint that Beatty’s poorly-written book has gotten unanimous raves from the largely Liberal White Lit Critter establishment for subtly sinister reasons. I diagnose the otherwise head-scratching uniformity of hyperbolic praise for Beatty’s sophomoric book as being all about Liberal White Condescension. The bar is very low. Is it also about burnishing NATO’s image in the run up to another attempt to get Duh Masses to green-light an invasion of Syria? Ie “look at how much we love our darkies! Even the darkies mildly critical of us! How can we be Nazis?” The two things… NATO-burnishing and Liberal White Condescension… can quite often and quite comfortably co-exist. Beatty’s case is complex: many of the condescending White Liberal readers and critics, who fell over each other, last year, in a mad stampede to celebrate his shitty-in-a-stale way book, can’t read very well and have no taste. They think TV is churning out masterpieces. They read and adored Hary Potter. They are efficiently dumbed-down and infinitely accepting. But there were good readers among the cheerleaders, good readers who only want one thing from Writers of Color and that thing is the opposite of Intellect. It’s not about mastery of the language or the mastery of anything. It’s not so much about making, it’s about being. Being of Color.
Just as the code word, for any Black male too old to appear to be a potential rapist, is (the Morgan-Freemanesque) “dignified”, the code-word for any Black who can speak or write with basic proficiency is “articulate” or “smart”. Sometimes (especially if the writer/comedian/ politician can provide Liberal Whites with a free pass to laugh, good-naturedly, at Black “foibles”) the code word is “genius”.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout descends from a long line of loosely-plotted, sloppily-written, slapsticky assaults on Black America through the flimsy targets of very old stereotypes (“watermelon” appears 15 x in the book, “chicken” : 10x) while pretending to be “satires on race”. Many of the most successful of these “satires” are Stand Up Comedy (go back and look at Eddy Murphy’s first big HBO stand up special, Delirious, with some critical distance: who is laughing at who’s expense and why?) and some are movies (shudder: Tyler Perry) and many are books like Beatty’s, which is the latest in a (roughly century-long) tradition. Zora Neale Hurston was not the first Sellout to depict idiotic Negroes in the framework of the broad grit and “humor” of a flimsy book.
In fact, it was about a fourth of the way through Hurston’s “brilliant” and beloved Their Eyes Were Watching God, that I was inspired to fling that book, casually, across my bedroom one Saturday (I must have been 17 or 18). I came to the following passage (if anyone can remember the Sinclair filling station chain, with its green Brontosaurus logo, the “varmint” referred to in the following insulting passage is that very logo) and had had enough:
“Look at dat great big ole scoundrel-beast up dere at Hall’s fillin’ station—uh great big old scoundrel. He eats up all de folks outa de house and den eat de house.”
“Aw ’tain’t no sich a varmint nowhere dat kin eat no house! Dat’s uh lie. Ah wuz dere yiste’ddy and Ah ain’t seen nothin’ lak dat. Where is he?”
“Ah didn’t see him but Ah reckon he is in de back-yard some place. But dey got his picture out front dere. They was nailin’ it up when Ah come pass dere dis evenin’.”
“Well all right now, if he eats up houses how come he don’t eat up de fillin’ station?”
“Dat’s ’cause dey got him tied up so he can’t. Dey got uh great big picture tellin’ how many gallons of dat Sinclair high-compression gas he drink at one time and how he’s more’n uh million years old.”
“’Tain’t nothin’ no million years old!”
“De picture is right up dere where anybody kin see it. Dey can’t make de picture till dey see de thing, kin dey?”
“How dey goin’ to tell he’s uh million years old? Nobody wasn’t born dat fur back.”
“By de rings on his tail Ah reckon. Man, dese white folks got ways for tellin’ anything dey wants tuh know.”
“Well, where he been at all dis time, then?”
“Dey caught him over dere in Egypt. Seem lak he used tuh hang round dere and eat up dem Pharaohs’ tombstones. Dey got de picture of him doin’ it. Nature is high in uh varmint lak dat. Nature and salt. Dat’s whut makes up strong man lak Big John de Conquer. He was uh man wid salt in him. He could give uh flavor to anything.”
Yes, because the Black characters in that book have IQs of roughly 75, I suppose. Knee-slappingly funny stuff. Wiki says:
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a 1937 novel and the best known work by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. The novel narrates main character Janie Crawford’s “ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny.”As a young woman, who is fair-skinned with long hair, she expects more out of life, but comes to realize she has to find out about life ‘fuh theyselves’ (for herself), just as people can only go-to-God for themselves. Set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century, the novel was initially poorly received for its rejection of racial uplift literary prescriptions. Today, it has come to be regarded as a seminal work in both African-American literature and women’s literature. TIME included the novel in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
Yes: “the novel was initially poorly received” because the novel’s initial audience was largely comprised of literate Blacks who knew when they were being insulted. Those days are fading from view, no? With Liberal White/ Structuralist Feminist academics as her new target demo, Hurston can’t go wrong. Zadie Smith, who hasn’t the sense to do anything but go along with the huggy-hopey crowd that buys her books (she was the writer who wept tears of awe over BHO‘s ghostwritten boilerplate political autobiography) calls Their Eyes Were Watching God…
“A deeply soulful novel that comprehends love and cruelty, and separates the big people from the small of heart, without ever losing sympathy for those unfortunates who don’t know how to live properly.”
Zadie is referring to a book by a Black writer in which a Black character responds to the sound of thunder with“Big Massa draw him a chair upstairs,”… this was almost thirty years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted me a human’s legal status in my own country. I have never heard a Black of any age or nationality speak English that way. I’ve heard lots of bad grammar in my Life but nothing like that. What was Hurston’s goal there?
Such books now tend to be written in First Person Pidgin (mirroring, at a sub-grammatical distance, the sudden First Person Present Continuous Craze of the early-noughties), though variants, like Beatty’s, deploy a kind of jokey collegiate grandiloquence popularized (in the 1930s) by H. L. Mencken. The narrative style range of these books seems to toggle between Hoody Pidgin and Stilted (18th century British) Antiquarian (Percy Everett has done both, but he has matured, unlike Beatty, into a serious writer with some real chops). Beatty slips in enough sophomoric “fancy” stuff (references to Kafka, say ) to signal to the Liberal White readers that the Author is not quite as “stupid” as the “average Black”: a wink, if you will.
After a springtime’s worth of weekend surfing, Marpessa trusted me enough to accompany me to my high school prom. With a graduating class of one, it was an intimate two-person affair, chaperoned and chauffeured by my father. We went dancing at Dillons, an under-twenty-one pagoda tower of a disco as segregated as anything else in L.A. The first floor—New Wave. Second floor—Top-40 soul. Third floor —watered-down reggae. Fourth floor—banda, salsa, merengue, and a touch of bachata in a vain attempt to steal Latino clientele from Florentine Gardens on Hollywood Boulevard. My father refused to go above the second floor. Me and Marpessa took the opportunity to ditch him, hiking up the smelly stairwell to the third floor, where we shimmied to Jimmy Cliff and the I-Threes, and camped out in back behind speakers, downing mai tais and standing as close to Kristy McNichol’s crew as possible so that security wouldn’t fuck with us, thinking we were the teenage movie star’s token black friends. Then it was on to Coconut Teazers to see the Bangles, where Marpessa slurred whispered rumors that some guy named Prince was fucking the lead singer.
My ignorance of His Royal Badness almost got my ass kicked. And nearly postponed my first kiss until who knows when, but an early-morning Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast later, we were in the back of the pickup, speeding down the 10 freeway, doing eighty miles per hour in the fast lane, using the bags of feed and seed for pillows as we alternated wrestling with our tongues and thumbs. Played Who Can Hit the Softest. Kissed. Puked. Then kissed again. “Don’t say ‘French,’” she cautioned. “Say swap spit or bust a slob. Otherwise, you sound inexperienced.”
My father, instead of keeping his eyes on the road, kept turning around, peering nosily through the little cab window, rolling his eyes at my breast-fondling technique, mocking the spastic way my head lolled uncontrollably when I kissed, and making the universal sign for “Fuck her already” by taking his hands off the wheel, forming a circular vagina with one hand, and sticking his index finger into it over and over again. For a man whose only evidence that he’d ever had sex with someone not enrolled in his class is possibly me, he sure was talking a lot of shit.
Between the bus and rides, the back of the pickup, the trips on horseback to the Baldwin Theater, it’s crazy how much of our relationship was spent in motion. Marpessa put her feet on the steering wheel and covered her face in a tattered copy of Kafka’s The Trial. Though I can’t say for sure, I’d like to think she was hiding a smile. Most couples have songs they call their own. We had books. Authors. Artists. Silent movies. On weekends we used to lie naked in the hayloft, flicking chicken feathers off one another’s back and leafing through L.A. Weekly. There’d be a retrospective of Gerhard Richter, David Hammons, Elizabeth Murray, or Basquiat at LACMA, and we’d tap the ad and say, “Hey, they’re exhibiting our oil on canvas.” We’d spend hours picking through the used-film bins at Amoeba Records on Sunset, hold up a copy of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and say, “Hey, they’re digitally remastering our movie,” then dry-hump in the Hong Kong movie section. But Kafka was our genius. We’d take turns reading Amerika and Parables out loud. Sometimes we’d read the books in incomprehensible German and do free-association translations. Sometimes we’d set the text to music and break-dance to the The Metamorphosis, slow-dance to Letters to Milena.
What is this nervous ramble of middlebrow cultural signifiers supposed to add to the experience of navigating this text… beyond maintaining a sense of random, pointless, unassimilated lists (did Beatty ever meet a forgotten scribble in a notebook he didn’t subsequently dump into a novel)? That passage is only there, in that form, to make sure that Liberal White Readers know that Paul Beatty went to college (why does Beatty care? That’s not his gimmick) … while the vulgar bits give him that “street cred”… I guess. Being hosed down with references doesn’t take me anywhere in the narrative or deepen my imaginative engagement with the characters; it’s the textural version of a post-vacation slide show that can only rush, rush, rush because of the sheer (unfiltered) number of slides we have to get through before the end of the numbing presentation.
“My ignorance of His Royal Badness almost got my ass kicked.”
And then what? Nothing. So why mention it? Shrug.
Beatty’s job was either to convince me that something actually happened involving human beings, there, or that a writer behind that scene had something more interesting to say and do than to bother trying to get me to suspend the reader’s disbelief. He failed at both.
“Sometimes we’d set the text to music and break-dance to the The Metamorphosis, slow-dance to Letters to Milena.”
Yup. Beatty has zero chops as a writer. He has an imagination… aka, The Car Keys… that’s about it.
With the most lauded Black writers expected (subconsciously) to be intellectually inferior to the most lauded White writers, and White Liberal critics lowering the bar, accordingly, on the judgment of Black texts, how will this hellish feedback loop reverse itself?
Ten years ago I wrote a story, called “The Black,” in which I took a sarcasm-laced swing at Gertrude Stein (lately exposed, incredibly, as a Vichy collaborator) and Richard Wright, one of the “elder statesman” of Black American Lit; I took a swing at Stein’s infuriatingly racist “Melanctha,” one third of “Three Lives,” and Wright’s repulsive apologia for it:
The Black picks up a handsome old volume with a photo of what looks like a sinister Edwardian chickenhawk on the cover and rifles the pages and puts it with vague reverence back. The Black hasn’t the slightest idea who Gertrude Stein is (although the name rings some kind of bell) and he has certainly never read Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha, the second story from Getrude Stein’s much-discussed Three Lives, so how could The Black possibly be aware of Richard Wright’s oleaginously positive assessment of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of the Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein?
“The first long serious literary treatment of Negro life in the Unites States,” is how the Negro writer Richard Wright praises Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of Gertrude Stein.
“Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress,” writes Gertrude Stein about the character Rose Johnson in the Richard Wright-lauded Gertrude Stein story Melanctha. “Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose,” explains Gertrude Stein, “had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.”
Richard Wright noted: “I gathered a group of semi-literate Negro stockyard workers… into a [Southside of Chicago] basement and read Melanctha aloud to them. They understood every word. Enthralled, they slapped their thighs, howled, laughed, stomped, and interrupted me constantly to comment upon the characters.”
Later in this edition of Gertrude Stein’s Selected Writings, sui generis Gertrude Stein displays her mastery (a mastery which clearly vindicates what might seem simple and racist in such writings of hers as Melanctha) in a piece inspired by travel, with her mousy factotum, to Spain: It can no sail to key pap change and put has can we see call bet. Show leave I cup the fanned best same so that if then sad sole is more, more not, and after shown so papered with that in instep lasting pheasant. Pheasant enough. Call africa, call african cod liver, loading a bag with news and little pipes restlessly so that with in between chance white cases are muddy and show a little tint…(sic)
Here, read more Negroes from the Kapo Class (is any other kind allowed through the filter?) praise Stein’s ugly tract; this is as much about these Kapos knowing which side of their stale bread the dirty butter was on… as it is a great advertisement for brainwashing:
In the criticism of the racial stereotypes in “Melanctha” (on and off the record), little is ever made of the fact that since its publication in 1909, many black American writers have credited “Melanctha” with inaugurating a new era in the representation of black Americans by white writers. James Weldon Johnson stated that Gertrude Stein was the first white writer to treat African American characters as “normal members of the human family.” Eric Walrond reportedly told Leo Stein: “Gertrude was the only white person who had given real Negro psychology.” And Nella Larsen wrote in a letter to Stein, “I never cease to wonder how you came to write it and just why you and not some one of us should so accurately have caught the spirit of this race of mine.” Richard Wright adored “Melanctha” because it enabled him to hear English, “as Negroes spoke it: . . . melodious, tolling, rough, infectious . . . laughing, cutting. . . . And not only the words, but the winding psychological patterns that lay behind them!”8 Clarence Major has argued that earlier black characters created by both black and white writers possess “none of the humanity that Jeff and Melanctha obviously possess. In this sense Stein broke the white American literary tradition of portraying black characters as subhuman or as fools.”9 Given the story’s frankly crude racial stereotypes, such appreciative remarks from African American writers are surprising. But the ways in which Gertrude Stein synthesized material from her personal experience, European and American literary forms, and features of popular black American music may account for this high praise.
The author of the above-quoted essay published it in 2003, before the general acknowledgement of Stein’s cozy/bizarre relationship with the Third Reich in Occupied Paris (where Stein, very strangely as a Jew, thrived).
America is racist on many levels, in many registers: there’s the violent racism of the Klan in the downscale barn of the red end of the spectrum, and the “friendly” racism of Liberals at the upscale lounge of the opposite end (the downscale wing of the gentler end of racism being “Wiggers”, of course). White Liberals cherish “Black authenticity” as a blended abstraction of poverty, physical excellence, intellectual simplicity and raw emotions (with sex saturating the package), immutable as a natural law. Appropriating a virtual Black phallus in the form of a blues legend, basketball star or a rapper is a standard rite of passage for White Liberal American male. But there’s no way to comfortably appropriate a genuine Black intellectual as a virtual phallic prosthesis (too complicated/ not macho enough/ inauthentic) so what is the use for one? Well: they are good for being lightning rod tokens at otherwise-mega-white Right-wing institutions but Liberal Whites ain’t interested.
Paul Beatty, who is not dumb (though his books are), knows on which side of the stale bread to find his dirty butter. He gives the Liberal White Reader exactly what he/she already expects to find (all of these books are the Same Book, after all) and they love him for it.
At the beginning of The Sellout we are expected to wade through a dense jumble of not-super-original riffs (or slides), observations and Google artifacts. A better (half-decent writer) could shape the following material into something maybe half as long, with twice the focus and power (containing even an actual laugh or two):
Most times cops expect to be thanked. Whether they’ve just given you directions to the post office, beaten your ass in the backseat of the patrol car, or, in my case, uncuffed you, returned your weed, drug paraphernalia, and provided you with the traditional Supreme Court quill. But this one has had a look of pity on her face, ever since this morning, when she and her posse met me atop the Supreme Court’s vaunted forty-fourth stair. Under a pediment inscribed with the words EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, squinting into the morning sun, windbreakers dotted with the dandruff of fallen cherry blossoms, blocking my entrance into the building. We all knew that this was a charade, a last-minute meaningless show of power by the state. The only one not in on the joke was the cocker spaniel. His retractable leash whirring behind him, he bounded up to me, excitedly sniffed my shoes and my pant legs, nuzzled my crotch with his wet snot-encrusted nose, then obediently sat down beside me, his tail proudly pounding the ground. I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering after fifty years of exploding refineries, toxic spills and emissions, and a shamelessly disingenuous advertising campaign. So I clear my pipe with two loud raps on the mahogany table. Brush and blow the gummy resin onto the floor, stuff the bowl with homegrown, and like a firing squad commander lighting a deserter’s last cigarette, the lady cop obligingly flicks her BIC and sparks me up. I refuse the blindfold and take the most glorious toke ever taken in the history of pot smoking. Call every racially profiled, abortion-denied, flag-burning, Fifth Amendment taker and tell them to demand a retrial, because I’m getting high in the highest court in the land. The officers stare at me in amazement. I’m the Scopes monkey, the missing link in the evolution of African-American jurisprudence come to life. I can hear the cocker spaniel whimpering in the corridor, pawing at the door, as I blow an A-bomb mushroom-cloud-sized plume of smoke into the faces that line the giant friezes on the ceiling. Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon—these veined Spanish marble incantations of democracy and fair play—Muhammad, Napoleon, Charlemagne, and some buffed ancient Greek frat boy in a toga stand above me, casting their stony judgmental gazes down upon me. I wonder if they looked at the Scottsboro Boys and Al Gore, Jr., with the same disdain.
Only Confucius looks chill. The sporty Chinese satin robe with the big sleeves, kung fu shoes, Shaolin sifu beard and mustache. I hold the pipe high overhead and offer him a hit; the longest journey starts with a single puff …
“That ‘longest journey’ shit is Lao-tzu,” he says.
“All you motherfucking philosopher-poets sound alike to me,” I say.
It’s a trip being the latest in the long line of landmark race-related cases. I suppose the constitutional scholars and cultural paleontologists will argue over my place on the historical timeline. Carbon-date my pipe and determine whether I’m a direct descendant of Dred Scott, that colored conundrum who, as a slave living in a free state, was man enough for his wife and kids, man enough to sue his master for his freedom, but not man enough for the Constitution, because in the eyes of the Court he was simply property: a black biped “with no rights the white man was bound to respect.” They’ll pore over the legal briefs and thumb through the antebellum vellum and try to determine whether or not the outcome of this case confirms or overturns Plessy v. Ferguson. They’ll scour the plantations, the projects, and the Tudor suburban subdivision affirmative-action palaces, digging up backyards looking for remnants of the ghosts of discrimination past in the fossilized dice and domino bones, brush the dust off the petrified rights and writs buried in bound legal volumes, and pronounce me as “unforeseen hip-hop generation precedent” in the vein of Luther “Luke Skyywalker” Campbell, the gap-toothed rapper who fought for his right to party and parody the white man the way he’d done us for years. Though if I’d been on the other side of the bench, I would’ve snatched the fountain pen from Chief Justice Rehnquist’s hand and written the lone dissenting opinion, stating categorically that “any wack rapper whose signature tune is ‘Me So Horny’ has no rights the white man, or any other B-boy worth his suede Pumas, was bound to respect.”
The smoke burns the inside of my throat. “Equal Justice Under Law!” I shout to no one in particular, a testament to both the potency of the weed and my lightweight constitution. In neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, places that are poor in praxis but rich in rhetoric, the homies have a saying—I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six. It’s a maxim, an oft-repeated rap lyric, a last-ditch rock and hard place algorithm that on the surface is about faith in the system but in reality means shoot first, put your trust in the public defender, and be thankful you still have your health. I’m not all that streetwise, but to my knowledge there’s no appellate court corollary. I’ve never heard a corner store roughneck take a sip of malt liquor and say, “I’d rather be reviewed by nine than arbitrated by one.” People have fought and died trying to get some of that “Equal Justice Under Law” advertised so blithely on the outside of this building, but innocent or guilty, most offenders never make it this far. Their courtroom appeals rarely go beyond a mother’s tearful call for the Good Lord’s mercy or a second mortgage on grandma’s house. And if I believed in such slogans, I’d have to say I’ve had more than my share of justice, but I don’t. When people feel the need to adorn a building or a compound with an “Arbeit Macht Frei,” a “Biggest Little City in the World,” or “The Happiest Place on Earth,” it’s a sign of insecurity, a contrived excuse for taking up our finite space and time. Ever been to Reno, Nevada? It’s the Shittiest Little City in the World, and if Disneyland was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-Saharan African nation like Detroit.
I didn’t always feel this way. Growing up, I used to think all of black America’s problems could be solved if we only had a motto. A pithy Liberté, egalité, fraternité we could post over squeaky wrought iron gateways, embroider onto kitchen wall hangings and ceremonial bunting. It, like the best of African-American folklore and hairstyles, would have to be simple, yet profound. Noble, and yet somehow egalitarian. A calling card for an entire race that was raceless on the surface, but quietly understood by those in the know to be very, very black. I don’t know where young boys come up with such notions, but when your friends all refer to their parents by their first names, there’s the sense that something isn’t quite right. And wouldn’t it be nice, in these times of constant conniption and crisis, for broken Negro families to gather around the hearth, gaze upon the mantelpiece, and take comfort in the uplifting words inscribed on a set of lovingly handcrafted commemorative plates or limited-edition gold coins purchased from a late-night infomercial on an already maxed-out credit card? Other ethnicities have mottos. “Unconquered and unconquerable” is the calling card of the Chickasaw nation, though it doesn’t apply to the casino gaming tables or having fought with Confederates in the Civil War. Allahu Akbar. Shikata ga nai. Never again. Harvard class of ’96. To Protect and to Serve. These are more than just greetings and trite sayings. They are reenergizing codes. Linguistic chi that strengthens our life force and bonds us to other like-minded, like-skinned, like-shoe-wearing human beings. What is that they say in the Mediterranean? Stessa faccia, stessa razza. Same face, same race. Every race has a motto. Don’t believe me? You know that dark-haired guy in human resources? The one who acts white, talks white, but doesn’t quite look right? Go up to him. Ask him why Mexican goalkeepers play so recklessly or if the food at the taco truck parked outside is really safe to eat. Go ahead. Ask him. Prod him. Rub the back of his flat indio skull and see if he doesn’t turn around with the pronunciamiento ¡Por La Raza—todo! ¡Fuera de La Raza—nada! (For the race, everything! Outside the race, nothing!)”
If this were a High School assignment I’d advise the intermittently-precocious teen who handed it in that the “cherry blossoms as dandruff” metaphor doesn’t really work on the scale of a cop’s shoulder (find something better), that the “snot-encrusted” snout of the cocker spaniel is a classic case of useless over-description (which adds to the verbosity problem, throwing off the text’s rhythm ) and that the sentence “I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering after fifty years of exploding refineries, toxic spills and emissions, and a shamelessly disingenuous advertising campaign” would profit immensely (in sense and “humor”) from being chopped to a manageable “I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering.” (Try substituting the word “loitering” with “discrimination”, there, Paul: better? A little funnier? Word choice is all.) But even that improved version of the riff could only be funny if you’d happened to read it in the early 1960s. Watermelons… Hitler… each “joke” as dated as it can be.
I’d also warn the teen author to lay off the Google Erudition; not that I wouldn’t think he was already vaguely acquainted with Lao Tzu or a racist Italian saying or two; it’s just that a novel isn’t, ideally, the proper receptacle for all the neat stuff a writer can’t quite bear to throw away. The passage I cite isn’t quite two pages long and is among the first the reader will encounter of the book; it’s like wading through rusty, dusty junk in a very poorly organized Racialist Thrift Shop. Fred Sanford’s (look him up) Thrift Shop of Racialist Clichés. A super-compressed (and depressing) experience of second-rate writing; please point to one original ha ha “joke” in all that. Point to one riff that hasn’t already been done to death, I’d say, to the precocious teen. Not to crush him/her but to inspire her/him to do better.
But, ah: bad news: the author isn’t a precocious teen who needs to learn a little writerly discipline and work on his rhythm and the precision of his sentences for a few years, he’s a man in his fifties and The Sellout is his tenth book (fourth novel). Paul Beatty is a writer in his fifties who stitched together this crappy, amateurish book and (hold on to your hat) he teaches at Columbia University. They’re not really charging (or paying him) for his courses, are they?
After fifteen minutes of mountingly-incredulous Googling, I found one dead-on review , of The Sellout, that didn’t make me feel as though I was running in circles around an episode of The Twilight Zone:
“…280 pages of ham-fisted, overwrought, self-indulgent, obvious, cheap and unamusing jokes. The torpor inflicted by mile after mile of smart-arsed rambling excess, pointless swearing and compulsive digression calls desperately for a robust and exacting editor. No amount of attributes, and there are some to be found (other reviewers will tell you all about them as if the flaws don’t exist), can possibly survive what is effectively a polemical stand-up set masquerading as a novel. Seldom is an opportunity missed to give too much of what we don’t want, nor to rob us of what we do.”
I commented (excerpt):
But “The Sellout” really is a shoddy piece of work that Beatty clearly stitched together with his patronizingly-forgiving White target demo in mind… he knew he could get away with this kind of thing, because he’d gotten away with it before, but even he, on some level, most be both A) ashamed of how far short the book falls of being good and, B) aware of the irony that bar-lowering Affirmative Action is one of his favorite targets for broad, unfunny, college newspaper-type “satire”. Which should make some of us serious readers, happy, at least, for the return of one of postmodernism’s favorite Meta-gimmicks: Beatty has entered his own book as an unfunny Black writer that Liberal Whites find hilarious! Bravo?
On the other hand…
“Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game.” Good Reads
“Outrageous, hilarious and profound.” Simon Schama, Financial Times
“The longer you stare at Beatty’s pages, the smarter you’ll get.” Guardian
“The most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read.” New York Times
‘I was banned from reading in bed because I was laughing so much.’- Olivia Williams, Man Booker Judge 2016
‘Beatty is an original and irreverent talent.’- The Times
‘There’s satire and then there’s satire, and without question Paul Beatty’s caustic third novel, The Sellout, definitely falls into the latter category…Brutally honest and very funny.’ –Independent
‘An outrageous scattergun satire taking aim at racism and what racism has done to black Americans…The Sellout aims to do for race relations what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – a favourite novel of Beatty’s – did for the Second World War…Beatty’s sharp humour challenges pieties from all sides, while never losing sight of the fundamental issue: America’s racism and the legacy of slavery. Intelligent and entertaining.’- Telegraph
‘Both riotously experimental and touching…erudite…and viscerally engaging…Exceptional comic writing makes the skeletal plotting work…Beatty’s inspiring new novel about the impossibility of “post-racial” anything in America is much more than “scathing” – it is constructive.’- Times Literary Supplement
‘There’s satire and then there’s satire, and without question Paul Beatty’s caustic third novel, The Sellout, definitely falls into the latter category…brutally honest and very funny’.- Independent
‘Beatty’s sharp humour challenges pieties from all sides…Intelligent…entertaining…exhilarating’.- Daily Telegraph
‘Beatty is an original and irreverent talent’.- Times
‘The longer you stare at Beatty’s pages, the smarter you’ll get.’ – Guardian
‘[A] howl-a-passage assault on the pieties of race debates in America…outrageous, hilarious and profound…It takes a whole other level of sheer audacity to expose atrocious things through the play of wit. Beatty plays for high stakes – but he wins. His brilliant, beautiful and weirdly poignant book knocks the stuffing out of right-thinking solemnities and he delivers droll wisdoms besides which the most elevated rants…pale into ponderous sententiousness…Juiciness stains every lovely page of Beatty’s mad, marvellous, toothsome book.’ – Financial Times
‘Brilliant. Amazing. Like demented angels wrote it.’- Sarah Silverman
‘[An] outrageous, riff-strewn satire on race in America…[The Sellout] combines effervescent comedy and stinging critique, but its most arresting quality is the lively humanity of its characters.’ – The New Yorker
‘Hilariously caustic.’ – Rolling Stone
‘Scarysmart…A hell of a ride.’ – Newsweek
‘[The Sellout] is among the most important and difficult American novels written in the 21st century…It is a bruising novel that readers will likely never forget.’ – Los Angeles Times
‘I am glad that I read this insane book alone, with no one watching, because I fell apart with envy, hysterics, and flat-out awe. Is there a more fiercely brilliant and scathingly hilarious American novelist than Paul Beatty?’ – Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Alphabet
‘Let’s get this out of the way: The Sellout is a work of genius, a satirical opus on race in 21st-century America.’ – O, The Oprah Magazine
‘‘[The Sellout] may end up being the smartest, funniest, and most important novel of 2016.’ – Flavorwire
‘Had we been granted a chunk of pages in this magazine to extol the virtues of Paul Beatty’s uproarious new novel, The Sellout, we could’ve easily and gladly filled them – much as Beatty floods his 288-page racial satire with blistering comic flourishes.’ – Penthouse
‘The Sellout isn’t just one of the most hilarious American novels in years, it also might be the first truly great satirical novel of the century…[It] is a comic masterpiece, but it’s much more than just that-it’s one of the smartest and most honest reflections on race and identity in America in a very long time.’- NPR.org
‘Beatty creates a wicked satire that pokes fun at all that is sacred to life in the United States…His story is full of the unexpected, resulting in absurd and hilarious drama.’ – Library Journal
‘As Mark Twain so ably showed us, America…is rich with material worthy of ridicule. But where is today’s Twain? The answer is Paul Beatty…Beatty has written a wild new book, an uproariously funny, deliciously profane and ferociously intelligent send-up of so much of our culture.’ – San Francisco Chronicle
‘An exuberant parade of forbidden words and twisted stereotypes…It’s incendiary fun with very serious undertones.’ – New York magazine, “Vulture” blog
‘Timely, phantasmagoric, and deliriously funny.’ – Barnes & Noble Review
‘[An] audacious, diabolical trickster-god of a novel…[A] damn-near-instant classic.’ – Bookforum
‘Beatty is funny as hell…Behind all the humor, however, Beatty asks important questions about racism and identity. The Sellout is a knock-out punch.’ – Shelf Awareness
‘[Beatty] is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet …[A] daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.’ – Kirkus
‘Beatty, author of the deservedly highly praised The White Boy Shuffle (1996), here outdoes himself and possibly everybody else in a send-up of race, popular culture, and politics in today’s America . . . Beatty hits on all cylinders in a darkly funny, dead-on-target, elegantly written satire . . . [The Sellout] is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and, in the way of the great ones, profoundly thought provoking. A major contribution.’ – Booklist (starred review)
‘Paul Beatty has always been one of smartest, funniest, gutsiest writers in America, but The Sellout sets a new standard. It’s a spectacular explosion of comic daring, cultural provocation, brilliant, hilarious prose, and genuine heart.’ – Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask
‘A brutally fun read, but don’t misunderstand it as unserious…Beatty delivers brilliant humour with a caustic bite, and parts can be uncomfortable to sit through…But it was unlike anything else I’d read before, at once side-splitting and thought-provoking. It’s a book that forcibly ejects you out of your comfort zone, and once you’re there, you’re going to want to linger a while.’- The Atlantic
‘It will make you laugh, but most of all it will make you think.’ – Sunday Times
‘Beatty’s towering talent proves there’s no subject, no matter how infuriatingly unjust, how outrageously sorrowful, which can’t be made to glitter like gold in the hands of a brilliant writer.’ – Big Issue
‘Beatty impresses hugely in this mischievous and caustic satire, which buzzes with inventiveness and iconoclasm.’- Sunday Herald
‘Beatty takes very little entirely seriously in this zany, irreverent take on racial politics in America today.’ – Shiny New Books
‘[The Sellout] is the most lacerating American satire in years, fearless in the way that it takes apart our sacred cows and shared delusions. It responds to America’s tortured relationship with race in the past and the present with the mockery it deserves, sprinkling jokes steeped in tragedy throughout.’ – Guardian
‘The first 100 pages of [Paul Beatty’s] new novel, The Sellout, are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt…The riffs don’t stop coming in this landmark and deeply aware comic novel…[It] puts you down in a place that’s miles from where it picked you up.’ – Dwight Garner, New York Times
‘Swiftian satire of the highest order…Giddy, scathing and dazzling.’ – Wall Street Journal
Strange, eh? Beyond the fact that the intellectual standards of the average, book-skimming American have plummeted since the middlebrow heyday of the 1970s (when Wallace, Michener, Wouk and Hailey plodded the Earth), to praise such iffy-to-crappy writing so hyperbolically must be a function of very, very low expectations.Even the middling readers who embraced James Frey’s atrocious hoax-memoir A Million Little Pieces didn’t all call Frey some kind of genius… they liked the book because the degradation in its pages spoke to them; they embraced Frey because Frey was the self-proclaimed anti-genius of The Real (ironically). Google “James Frey + Genius” and compare/contrast.
In what world, other than the one informed by the low expectations of Liberal White Condescension, is The Sellout a Swiftian satire of the highest order?
One of the biggest (and nastiest: I remember it well) cultural events of the mid-’90s was the publication of Hernstein and Murray’s “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life”. Its essential(ist) premise: Blacks are the congenital underclass in America not because they’ve (we’ve) been the victims of segregation, discrimination and the ongoing experience of being viscerally Othered away from the assimilation that every other group has managed to commence, at its own pace, since the early 1900s: nope: it’s because we are, according to the cooked statistics of the eugenic pseudo science the book champions, part of the dumb tail of the “bell curve” of IQ distribution, representing the doomed 20% of the population with an IQ range of 75-90. A typical nugget from the book:
“The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.”
Which is not dissimilar to Hillary Clinton’s leaked purported email message (or rough draft of a speech):
“Some groups of people are almost always highly successful given only half of a chance (Jews*, Hindus/Sikhs and Chinese people, for example), while others (Muslims, blacks** and Roma***, for instance) fare badly almost irrespective of circumstances. The biggest group of humanity can be found somewhere between these two extremes – the perennial overachievers and the professional never-do-wells.”
According to Wiki, “Fifty-two professors, most of them researchers in intelligence and related fields, signed an opinion statement titled “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” endorsing a number of the views presented in The Bell Curve.” The book still has passionate defenders to this day and not because it was the first to suggest that Blacks are dumber, on average, by nature. That particular meme is a cultural legacy and, as a founding meme of prosperous America, The Shining City upon a Hill, lodged deep in the subconscious of the Liberal Worldview, it’s a subtle retrovirus that surfaces in odd places and in unexpected moments. A big chunk of the concept of the “Authentic Negro” has to do with the forbidden topography of The Hood making “lower IQs”, crime and stringently-narrowed cultural options energizingly-dangerous and sexy; it’s the foundational Goldilocks myth feeding America’s Racialist Id: Blacks are a little too Dumb and Jews are a little too Smart and Whites are Just Right.
Like fish in water, most Americans are happily oblivious to the feel and meaning of the ambient Racism. It just is. A 50-ish Black American teacher at Columbia University writes a secondhand Stand Up routine masquerading as a novel, a book a high school kid could have written, and White Liberals call it a work of genius. Insulting?
What’s all the fuss about? ask the fish.
*Bearing in mind that we can’t possibly keep track of which project/illusion belongs to which intelligence outfit, “CIA” is a generically-useful term like “cancer”
1. IF I DEALT IN CANDLES: THE LOST MASTERPIECE OF RALPH ELLISON
Constance thanked Wally profusely for his helpful critique and slipped the manuscript into her purse while Fan, with her gloved hand on Wally’s throbbing mitt, beamed at him and they all ordered drinks and that was the last anyone ever heard of it.
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
It had been days already and he couldn’t get that line out of his head. Bald frigging sissy. Bald frigging wig-wearing pansy son of a bitch. Couldn’t sleep because of it. Heart racing. Well, that and Fan’s snoring. It’s not marriage that kills the marital romance but the fartsoaked, snorehaunted warmth of the marriage bed. Poor Fan: the mottled brown back she smuggles into sleep in her pyjamas. Guilt from thinking this triggered a wave of loving pity and genuine gratitude like an endorphin rush after a hammer blow to an extremity and he thought, with a nod and the tenderest smile: partners for life, Fanny.
She always slept so deep and hard he could pretty much do whatever he wanted on his side of the bed without waking her. There he lay with his bedcovers thrown back and his pyjama bottoms off and his big fat jimmy in his hand while birdsong, streetsong, the singing of the water in the pipes as the neighbors performed their ablutions heralded another pinkeyed Paris dawn. Wally swears you can hear the French dookie crashing against the s-curves in the pipes on the way down but Fan just laughs at him. Like meteorites. Like fiery meteorites. His vivid imagination.
-This vivid imagination paid for that dress, didn’t it?
-Now don’t you start!
-I’m just saying, Fan. I’m just saying.
He still relishes the fact that it’s no longer Fanny who brings in all the money.
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
He finally gets his very own Paris Reviewinterview and they send Tinkerbell and Butterfly McQueen to do the job. Ain’t that something.You know how lethal a white sissy and a faghag Negress can be together, each a canny burlesque of the other… inside jokes and furtive looks and an infallible knowledge of absolutely everything, especially, of course, manner of dress and style of speech. Condescended to by a couple of hincty short-story writers for godsake. Ain’t that rich. For this I win the National Book Award? Vilma and her conked hair and that keloid on her right biceps and she’s trying to get saditty on him.
He had his eelhead jimmy in his hand and Connie was crawling across the hotel’s Persian carpet towards him on her white satin belly just begging for it. There goes that vivid imagination of yours again, Waldo. The most important Negro-American writer on earth… shove this in that little pink mouth of yours, gal… winner of the National Book Award… he couldn’t believe that either Saul or himself had ever been so young or on intimate terms as to competitively compare erections. It was a close race but his was bigger and so of course Bellow runs and gets a tape measure. Hoping he’ll triumph in girth. Then he theorizes with a straight face that the Negro penis isn’t rooted as deeply in the groin as the Caucasian organ and this explains the average extra inch or two. In other words the Negro prick is cheating. The Negro prick; the Hebrew schnozz; the Irish capacity for drink: the exemplary dimensions of the ethnic. Saul’s buzzword: exemplary.
The look on Chester’s face as they picked their table at the Café de la Mairie and Chester ordered in high school French and Wally opened his mouth and ordered in a nosy rich Boursault of a tone and switched to his professorial English for the duration of the interview… Chester’s look had been one of those well what do we have here looks and Wally immediately thought of Saul’s frigging Sam Johnson joke, of which he frigging never tires, apparently, and if Saul tells it one more time at a party in Wally’s presence Wally will break that schnozz of Saul’s for him. At the very least put it out of joint. Besides which he always gets it wrong: it’s not a talking dog it’s a dog walking on its hind legs. Is that erudition?
Saul would sit there with a book of ‘great’ quotations open right next to the typewriter and salt-and-pepper his manuscript with kultcha. Season it with what he called ‘smarts’. Wally has seen him do it. Saul would wink and say, Whaddya think, buddyboy, a Matthew Arnold or something from Suetonious? Or maybe let’s throw ’em a real curve ball and opt for a schmeck of Lao- Tze. Way back when when Saul was still in on the joke. They would argue well into the night, Wally and Saul, about teleological niceties such as the fate of consciousness after the fact of mortality and Saul could not abide Wally’s assertion that individual consciousness reverts to its place in the great Undifferentiated Essence upon the moment of death… he was adamant, vociferous, nearly hysterical in his condemnation of it and Wally finally twigged that Saul’s resistance to the concept was, at root, anti-integrationist.
Connie paging through the manuscript.
I’m fat, thinks Wally. Call me Wally, says Ralph. I sweat too much, I need to lose weight, I’m losing my hair. I hate this big round barrel-shaped Negro head of mine and I hate these black gums and ashen elbows. This mustache. I look like an usher at the Apollo. I look like a Gold Coast garbage man. Freddy Dupee with that lethal smirk of his going, it’s funny, but he only seems to bark at you and the garbage man. Nobody fears or respects me. I’m all curves and no angles. I look like the over-stuffed furniture in Connie’s grandmother’s parlor. No wonder she won’t screw me. Saul and his goddamned girlish waist. Fine, if you like runty.
Vilma winking at Alfred so subtly that Wally almost misses it and she asks him, smiling with parental tenderness, Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
-Call me Wally.
In the intro to the interview, in the penultimate sentence before the interview commences, this: “While Mr. Ellison speaks, he rarely pauses, and although the strain of organizing his thought is sometimes evident (emphasis Wally’s), his phraseology and the quiet, steady flow and development of ideas are overwhelming.”
Saul’s paging through Wally’s top secret manuscript, the follow-up to Invisible Man, kind of wincing and shaking his head and muttering to himself: damaging, very damaging. He tells Wally, Okay, fine, it shows a new sort of fluency for you, but fluency at what cost? This is very damaging to one’s reputation; they’ll massacre you if you’re crazy enough to publish it. Better to aim low and hit a bulls eye than aim at the stars and kill an albatross instead. Listen, don’t be sore. You wanted my honest opinion and now you have it. My suggestion would be to take this new found fluency and apply it to something a little closer to home. Your own people, for example. Don’t over-reach, Wally. What, this rich, vibrant diasporan culture you keep telling me about… this fertile vein of ore, as you once put it, has suddenly run out of stories?You’ve outgrown it? It ain’t worth mining any more? Dismissive gesture at the manuscript. Is that what this means?
Constance, Saul and Ralph standing at the corner where the eyepatched veteran sells roasted chestnuts from a rusty cart across from the Tuileries in full flower and throng. A warm but overcast day. Saul’s holding a helium-filled balloon and unties it and sucks the gas and does a few bars of What’ll I do? in a cartoon grasshopper croon and Connie laughs, thoroughly charmed. Ralph is fuming but he can’t show it and says, I say, old chap, you sound like one of Hadrian’s prize eunuchs!
All three traipse arm-in-arm across the Place Pigalle, gay talk and big smiles except Ralph’s smile, of course, which is faux as an undiscovered Lautrec, a wet forgery, not even a good one, twitching at the corners. He keeps having this vision of an open manhole appearing suddenly on Saul’s side of the sidewalk. Saul, wearing his hat at a rakish angle, is saying, out of the corner of his mouth and rather loudly, Be advised, young lady, that if you keep up with these enchanting ways of yours you run the severe risk of ending up in one of my novels. You’re not litigious, I hope. Constance blushing. Saul snaps his fingers. Say, that’s an exemplary title for something: The Litigious Sylph. Whaddya say, Waldo? We haven’t heard a peep outta you since the Tuileries…
Ralph and Saul in the alley behind the hotel.
-I saw her first!
-This isn’t the schoolyard, buddyboy. This is the jungle and in the jungle, as you oughta know by now, the king of beasts holds sway. Namely, moi.
-You only even came over in the first place because of those damned letters I was writing about her!
-Hindsight is 20/20, ain’t it?
Constance paging through the manuscript on the checkered tablecloth in an out-of-the-way bistro that Ralph discovered with Fanny last year and whereinto Saul is highly unlikely to stumble. Ralph’s palms are moist. Constance is radiant in a pink mohair sweater, matching beret, black satin slacks and patent leather mules. Wally inquired, both to quell his nerves and because he had a genuine interest in fashion, as to the shoe’s designer. Constance said she honestly couldn’t remember; Robbie had given them to her right before the divorce. Robbie would know, she said. He has a shoe fetish.
Ralph joked, “What do they know of mules who only mules know?”
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
Fanny croaks, “Baby?”
“Are you awake?”
“Was I snoring again?”
“No, baby. You weren’t snoring. You were talking in your sleep.”
“You sure were.”
She reaches for her glasses on the nightstand and rolls over to face him, blinking behind the lenses, face lined with the meaningless diagram of her recent dreams, monogrammed silk pyjama top buttoned to the neck. Smiling she says, “What did I say?”
“You sang Stardust.”
She slugs his shoulder affectionately. Wally’s hand is still throbbing… it’s killing him. His writing hand. It’s infected. It amazes him that Fan has yet to notice the four raw against-the-grain gouges in fat fester behind the knuckle rill.
The three of them emerge from the rear exit of Madame Tussuad’s, blinking into the midday sun, waiting under the awning, and Saul does one of his impromptu magic tricks, only instead of a quarter from behind Ralph’s ear he snatches a frigging cotton ball.
Connie must be, what, 34 or 35 and she looks it at certain angles and yet there remains a youthful glow to her, a creamy kind of pastry warmth and though she is not quite the sylph that Ralph first saw on C.L.R.’s arm in ’46 he remains terribly smitten. She looks up from the manuscript and studies his face as though mystified.
“And the title…”
“If I Dealt in Candles.”
“That’s right. It’s very pretty, Wally. Where is it from?”
“An old Yiddish proverb. If I dealt in candles, the sun wouldn’t set; if I dealt in shrouds, people would stop dying!”
She closes the manuscript and without taking her eyes off the title page she says, “It’s just so well-written, what I’ve read so far. It really is. But I…”
“I’m glad it pleases you. I thought…”
“Yes?” She seems to steel herself against the blunder she’s certain he’s about to make.
He takes a deep breath in a sort of now-or-never way and she beats him to it, interceding on behalf of their friendship. She says, pressing her palms flat on the paper, “It’s not my place to comment, Wally, and please don’t be sore, but, gee, isn’t it kind of, I don’t know, wrong for you to be writing about Shtetl Jews, no matter how beautiful the writing is, while your own people still strain against the bonds of slavery?”
“By adding this certain amount of beauty to the story of the Jews, aren’t you stealing the same amount from the story of your people, who can ill afford to have this beauty stolen from them?” She says, “Oh please, please don’t be sore about all this, what I’m saying, Wally, but I guess I’ve taken it upon myself to speak for your race in this matter because you’ve turned your back on them… with the blood of old Egypt in your veins you’d rather tell the story of Moses! With that gorgeous, wonderful, heart-breakingly loyal woman by your side all the years of a fruitful and intimate marriage you opt to pursue the fickle affections of a silly, inconsequential, self-absorbed white girl who couldn’t even manage to stay married to the father of her own poor mulatto child. Wally, Wally, what’s the matter with you? What are you doing to yourself? Are you sick in the heart? Tired of being the luckiest Negro on Earth?”
“Don’t get me wrong… as I said, gosh I’m impressed, Wally, I really am, it’s beautifully written… it proves that you’re more of an intellectual than even I or Richard or Saul ever took you for, though I’m sure Fanny wouldn’t be surprised at all… she’d read a few paragraphs and know it was you, although, ironically, and correct me if I’m wrong on this: she was never meant to see it. Was she? Was she, Wally? Is that what being intellectual is for, Wally… for fooling your own good wife? Is being intellectual, in the end… is it only good for writing clever books for fooling your people and your wife? Is there no higher end towards which to apply the magnificent mind in that little boy’s head of yours? That school boy head of yours with its silly school boy crush on a sad, tired female of your oppressor’s race?”
“I will always love you, Wally, honestly, although by the time I’ve said my piece I’m willing to bet your passion for me won’t exactly be blue ribbon material.” She laughs and digs her fingernails hard into the hand he reaches for her under the table with.
Wally had been so concerned about eluding Saul that he’d clean forgotten about eluding Fanny. In walked Fanny to find Wally and Constance in a cozy little corner of the out-of-the-way bistro that Wally and Fan had discovered together last year. They called it ‘Our Out of the Way Bistro.’ It was a common rendezvous point. Had Wally forgotten? Or was his subconscious the secret engineer of the entire scenario? He stood rubber-knee’d but steadied himself and fetched a chair for Fan from one of a dozen empty tables and said, with a smile that seemed to be little more than his mustache itself, Constance was just showing me a manuscript for a book she’s working on, Fan. He glanced down at Constance who glanced up at him and he addressed her,
“It really is marvelous, doll, but it needs work, as I say. I wouldn’t show it to anyone else until you’ve rectified, uh… a few of the particular points we discussed. I’d be happy to look it over again after you’ve… yes… worked on it a bit…”
Connie chained naked and writhing to a rusty bedspring in a vacant lot on the South Side of Chicago on an overcast day in Autumn as several dozen identical Bigger Thomases in tattered flesh-revealing piss-reek finery emerge in deprivation and hunger from various caves, warrens, gutters, cellars and trash heaps in the vicinity…
Wally holds his breath. He toe-tenses and… sees stars and… detects one of the semen arcs landing with a tap on the Herald Tribune far away atop the dresser. Where the other two squirts land he neither knows nor cares but in the tingle of post-ecstatic slump he envisions Alfred Chester in that ratty orange wig tilting back in his chair at the Café de la Mairie with his fingers intertwined on his chest and his lips moving in the deliverance of some grand theory or profound observation or other as though he’s the famous writer being interviewed for the Paris Review and Wally fantasizes standing up and hauling off and punching Chester so hard his head snaps back and the chair back cracks and a fusillade of flashbulbs going pop pop pop pop pop like Ernest Fucking Hemingway has just walked in the room.
2. ORGONE ENERGY
“And we are?” asks Saul, on the rising tune of the inveterate pedant.
“Visiting specialists from the Mayo Clinic,” drones Wally. He can’t be bothered to lift his eyes from Life, specifically Kim Novak. Luscious as platinum cantaloupes on the dark background of the flapping page. The odor of terror-intensified pigshit pulses through the car like an evil silk as Wally pumps the window crank without taking his eyes for a moment off his girl.
“Visiting specialists by the name of…?”
“Drs. Gus Guildencranz and Harold Rosenstern,” finally looking up, “but that’s where I think you’re going too far, old bean. If you don’t mind a little constructive criticism.”
Window sealed he can hear his stomach growling so he rolls it down again for the cover of the roar of the road. Just an inch. He’s starving but to ask Saul to stop for a bite anywhere along the next forty miles of U.S. Route 19 is to risk death or humiliation.
“This is a pilgrimage of sorts,” says Saul, lifting that chin. “And by the way, Wally, what’s the state of your Chaucer?”
I can’t get the line Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana out of my head.
Without waiting for a response, Saul launches into a few lines from the gap-toothed Wife of Bath’s prologue, Yiddish lilt intact, and Wally wants to guffaw but restricts himself to a smirk because it’s still rather early in the drive and this isn’t exactly the most propitious spot on the trip to be hailing a cab. But he can just see Saul assaying the arduous task of memorizing a little Olde English in preparation for the very conversation he was sure to initiate in order to feature it, rehearsing it out loud on the toilet and over breakfast and while packing his overnight bag with that pungent Italian aftershave and the Japanese fishgut rubbers Berryman mailed him for his 49th birthday.
I keep wanting to sing it Talleyrand.
The truck of pig thunders by again, a massive green Waukesha semi from the 1930s, pitching like a slave ship, left flank studded with flexing pink snouts, the smell in the wash in its wake instructive. Wally knows pigs as intelligent, sensual creatures, all too aware of their fated purpose. From the pig’s point of view, the totality of human culture is dedicated to the control, torture and consumption of pigs. Wally waits until Bellow competitively overtakes the truck again and he rolls down the window again and his hand is a dark glider, pushing the interstate wind. He’s sweating in his laughable smock (Bellow’s idea) and the wind that funnels down the sleeve is a numb tongue licking his armpit.
Makes him think of some good old days. Driving back in the back of the feed truck from a squirrel hunt with Tooty, say. Shoot enough squirrels and it starts to feel like you’re shooting squirrels; that is, that squirrels are being shot like bullets from the barrel of your squirrel gun. Tooty said so and it was true. You aim the barrel and the squirrel bounces against the fence or the tree trunk in a savory puff of smoke.
“To translate,” Saul adds, with a wink, “surely cock and cunt weren’t designed by the good Lord for the mundane purpose of distinguishing the sexes, or mere pissing, or the making of more pissers. Listen, along those lines, something’s been haunting me, and I’d like your esteemed gloss on it. I would appreciate a little sober reflection before you pontificate on the matter. How do you suppose a medieval cunt smelled?”
He tosses an unwrapped stick of Beeman’s. Flicks it. It bounces off Wally’s head and lands on the detritus between the two car seats, the crumpled mimeographs and candy-wrappers. Lots of candy wrappers, because sweetmeats and poontang are the Bellow Scylla and Charybdis: he’s always either skinny and in rut or chaste and chubby. Wally must admit he prefers this slower, rounder Bellow. Even in the ridiculous lab coat. Wally must also admit that the idea of visiting Wilhelm Reich in Lewisburg State Penitentiary may be just what he needs to kickstart his muse.
Come, Mr. Talleyrand.
Wally had been half-way through the writing of a novel about which he’d told not even Saul, the type of thing called Science Fiction, set three thousand years in the future, an end-of-the-world sort of scenario, the races of man all extinct but for one middle aged Negro intellectual and one young Scandinavian tourist girl (speaking not a word of English) who is first spotted by the Negro on the observation deck of the Statue of Liberty, to which they’ve both climbed to get a view of post-apocalypse Manhattan. Anyway, he’d gotten that far, one hundred and forty pages, and then froze, but froze in the dynamic paralysis of a tightrope walker who’s made the mistake of looking down. Simply stopping won’t save you.
“He possessed the affable good looks of the man who accepts that he is not handsome, nor need he be, winning from surprisingly attractive women of his caste and color, once every blue moon, that fair genus of sympathy that is not altogether distinguishable from love.”
He’d been rewriting that sentence for a week, stymied as to how to go on, when Bellow rang. And now they’re on the way to pay a visit to cosmic sex-theorist Dr. Wilhelm Reich, an involuntary guest of the Feds these days for shipping an Orgone Box (a telephone-booth-sized chamber specially designed to accumulate cosmic radiation while an occupant masturbates in it) across state lines. The guy is the Wernher Von Braun of mental sex hygiene and he’s locked up in the joint with bootleggers, killers, white slavers, pansies, mulattoes and tax shirks. Bellow downshifts and says something about the erect penis being a rigid, all-purpose umbilicus and Wally responds rather plaintively:
“But don’t you see… sex is the profoundest subject on Earth… until one speaks of it? Isn’t it rather like one of those bewitching monsters that dwell at the bottom of the sea? Miles and miles down? More beautiful than anything encountered on the surface? Shining like dreams in the cold, deep dark of an eternal night? But when one makes the fatal mistake of bringing one up into the warm light of day… a few ounces of dead gray sludge on the hand is all one is left with.”
“I like that metaphor, kiddo. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I admire it. Would you mind, terribly, if I took the liberty of extending it for your edification?”
“Not at all, old bean.”
“Well, the wondrous creatures of which you speak are, in point of fact, sometimes brought to the earth’s surface for close examination by the great scientists. They’re brought to the surface in specially-pressurized containers in which they survive the journey quite wonderfully intact. I propose that the mysteries of sex can likewise handle the transition from the murky depths of man’s subconscious to the sunlight of rational analysis if the language dealing of it is a special container, so to speak. A special container, designed for the purpose. This is where the topnotch novelist, with a philosophical inclination and unequaled experience in the field, not dissimilar to our best scientists, mapping the unknown, enters the picture.”
“And you’re working on something…”
“It is going to be earthshaking.”
“And this pilgrimage to Herr Doktor Reich…”
“Research. This book will be like no other book I’ve written, Wally, or that anyone has written, for that matter, and it is therefore incumbent upon me to get this thing just right. There is precious little room for error in this undertaking. Quite frankly, there’ll be none. I’m not an impressionist like you, buddy boy, which is not to say that impressionism doesn’t have its place, of course it does, there are people out there who light their lamps with it, but I’m dealing in high explosives here. As I see it, I’ll either end up blowing the lid off of two millennia of Western man’s psychosexual oppression, from which every modern evil springs… famine, war, social injustice, racial hatred… and, thereafter, be feted as a hero on a par with a Paul Revere or a Martin Luther, or…”
“Or you’ll end up with your ass in a sling and a baked apple in your mouth.”
“Far from kosher.”
“You know what I always say.”
Lining the left and right of the modern highway run buffers of bristling greenery behind which a highway-bisected community of American citizens united in the near-unanimity of their conception of Wally as a sort of trick gorilla bustles. Or so Wally sees it. They are cloving hams and clipping coupons and sluicing driveways and pruning forsythia and tweezing chin-hairs and house-breaking puppies and listening to a county-wide Little League tournament on the radio. And if Wally by some deranged caprice were to persuade Saul to drive to the patchbald diagrammatic field where the Bluejays were besting the Hickories and were then to walk as in a dream towards the pitcher’s mound amidst all those uniformed, apple-cheeked, freckle-nosed Buds and Scottys, the radio announcer would’ve whooped and said There’s a nigger on the field, ladies and gentlemen, a mustached nigger on the field in a medical smock! Good Lord and Hallelujah I have truly seen it all!