Sunday, December 30, 2007

Whitney Balliett, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, 1986

Among the dead of 2007 is Whitney Balliett, a longtime jazz critic for The New Yorker. When I read Adam Gopnik's obituary of Balliett, I remembered that I knew one of his sons, Jamie, at Hampshire College. Jackie Mason described the senior Balliett as "the Waspiest guy I ever met," and I'd say the same for Jamie, in the best sense. Born into privilege -- his wedding would make the NYTimes "Vows" column -- he responded to the world with quiet generosity and gentle curiousity. I don't think I realized before our fourth year of college -- we weren't friends, just passing acquaintances -- that through his father Jamie knew many, if not most, of the day's jazz giants, that as a boy he'd sat in on drums with musicians I was just learning in college to revere.

My reverence, though, was shallow -- I've never much felt jazz. I understand why the best of it is amazing, but "understanding" is not the stuff of a real response to music, and so my interests went elsewhere. Still, when I heard that Whitney Balliett had died, I decided to track down one of his collections. I could have bought it on Amazon, but I wanted to find it in a bookstore. That proved difficult, and soon I forgot about it.

Then I read in my alumni magazine that Jamie was very ill. That day, I walked into a used bookstore in Rochester, NY, and without looking for it found American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, by Jamie's father. At first I was disappointed -- the writing seemed hagiographic, too genteel, even, at times, trivial. Balliett doesn't begin his pieces as a critic but as a broad-minded fan, presenting facts he's learned about his heroes and long quotes from other sources. But that's all part of his polite style. When he finally comes to the music, he's astonishing. Here's a passage about trombonist Jack "Big T" Teargarden I liked so much I typed it out to get a better sense of Balliett's observational power -- unpretentious, precise, and driven by delight. I'm posting it in memory of a writer I've only just discovered and in the hope that his son's health returns.
Teargarden had several different tones: a light, nasal one; a gruff, heavy one; and a weary, hoarse one -- a twilight tone he used for slow blues, and for ballas that moved him. He had a nearly faultless technique, yet it never called attention to itself. Opposites were compressed shrewdly in his style. Long notes were balanced by triplets, double-time spurts by laconic legato musings, busyness by silence, legitimate notes by blue notes, moans by roars. Teargarden developed a set of master solos for his bread-and-butter tunes -- the tunes that his listeners expected and that he must have played thousans of times: "Basin Street Blues," "A Hundred Years from Today," "Beale St. Blues," "Stars Fell on Alabama," "St. James Infirmary," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "After You're Gone." Each time, though, he would make generous and surprising changes -- adding a decorative triplet, a dying blue note, a soaring glissando -- and his listeners would be buoyed again. Sometimes he sank into his low register at the start of a slow blues solo and rose into his high register at its end. Like his friend and admirer Bobby Hackett, he stayed in the bourgeois register of his horn, cultivating his lyricism, his tones, his sense of order and logic. Teargarded was a good jazz singer. His singing, a distillation of his playing, formed a kind of aureole around it. He had a light baritone, which moved easily behind the beat. The rare consonants he used sounded like vowels, and his vowels were all pureed. His vocals were lullabies -- lay-me-down-to-sleep patches of sound.

Monday, November 5, 2007

"Junky Fried Eggs"; Ozick's "Entrails"; Ask the Dust; Mike Gold; Rocketship; Middlemarch (again)

I am the weasel that bites into its prey long after it's dead.

So says Mr. Ditty, in response to my "unused syllabus" a few posts below. Mr. Ditty -- Noahjohn -- has been one of my favorite writers since I met him at college 17 years ago. I thought he was hands-down the most interesting writer in a class that included several who've gone on to publish a great deal -- le thi diem thuy, Joshua Beckman, and me among them. I'm a big fan of thuy and Joshua, too, but Noahjohn's stories were the rawest, the funniest. They were accidentally "experimental," almost always sentimental, often exaggerated, and never less than true. Noahjohn did a stint for a small town newspaper after college, but then he returned to Florida to teach; and now he teaches in North Carolina. But he's thinking about writing again. His subjects, he suggests, may be his own life, Mars, and the occult -- a redundant list. To rev himself up, he's posted a couple of his old memoir stories on a blog called, unjustly, "Mediocre Ramblings." Here's my favorite: "Junky Fried Eggs and Lady Fingers."


Another friend I haven't seen in a long time has also started a blog: Of América: Roberto Lovato on Dreaming Beyond the Walls of Civilization.

Start with this post, an NPR interview with Roberto about Latino politics after Gonzalez.


O, Cynthia Ozick!

Such is my comment on Ozick's latest essay, "Literary Entrails," published in the April Harper's, read by me more recently. Such exclamation points, simultaneously ironic and earnest, a signal of a superior mind's resignation to the bustle of reality, are part of Ozick's rhythm. "A coterie!" she writes, mocking Lionel Trilling. "Spiritual ancestors! Posterity!" The question is, did Ozick discover the utility of exclamation points on her own, or does she borrow the point from Saul Bellow, whom she so reveres that she speculates that while another Bellow may be in the infant stages at this very moment, it's also possible that another 200 years will pass before such a genius bestrides the literary world. Bellow was a great exclamation point user, which is perhaps why his fictional alter egos were always running into trouble with the brutes, the Chicago savages, whom they often adored and feared. The brute bashes the exclamation point because it fails the test of authenticity on three levels: it is ironic, it is earnest, and it is enthusiastic.

O, Ozick!


When an editor calls and tells me some story I've been working on for a few months is set to run, I go out and buy myself a new book as a reward. John Fante's 1939 novel Ask the Dust was my reward for publication last spring in Rolling Stone of a story about a fundamentalist youth movement called BattleCry. I bought the book, I'm ashamed to admit, at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble, which is not only a chain store, but a branch of a chain store that once attempted to ban me for life after the manager took offense at a reading Peter Manseau and I gave from our book Killing the Buddha. Even more shamefully, I bought Ask the Dust despite the fact that it boasts an introduction by Charles Bukowski. I'm no fan of Bukowski, but that's not the point; what I resent even more is the Bukowski industry, the stamp of gritty authenticity his name is meant to provide for the legions of semi-punk kids who read nothing but Bukowski because he's "real" -- as if a thousand writers haven't drunk themselves stupid and/or lyrical.

But what does this have to do with Fante? All too much, as it turned out. I bought Ask the Dust because I'd heard Fante was brilliant, and because the first two paragraphs were funny and unadorned:
One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up, or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.

In the morning I awoke, decided that I should do more physical exercise, and began at once. I did several bending exercises. Then I washed my teeth, tasted blood, saw pink on the toothbrush, remembered the advertisements, and decided to go out and get some coffee.

That may be the high point of the book. Or rather, it's even keel -- Fante hits that note perfectly and holds it for a couple hundred pages. I stopped reading thirty pages before the end. There'd been a lot more coffee and self-deprecatory bravado, as well as misogyny polished to a high sheen and the roaring anxieties of the writer/anti-hero's ego crashing against the rocky shore of publishing. Along the way other hard-luck characters ambled through the pages, but Fante can never leave his anti-hero for long enough to fully develop any of the sideshows. Maybe he'd plead the logic of character -- his anti-hero narrator is so self-obsessed, how could he really get anyone else? I'd buy that if I hadn't seen it done, by Frederick Exeley in A Fan's Notes, his memoir/novel about being a deeply neurotic, almost violent, self-obsessed, failing writer.

Exeley came along decades after Ask the Dust. Fante wrote from the 1930s, and I can't help wondering whether his popularity isn't due to desire of depoliticized critics for working class grit lit unburdened by the radicalism of that period. Literary types ever since have insisted that literature can only be political if it's ambiguous, as if ambiguity can't become as didactic as the plainest proclamations of proletarian literature.


I much prefer Mike Gold's Jews Without Money (1930) to Fante's narcissism. Gold was the golden boy of proletarian lit, derided ever since as didactic, blunt, and unimaginative. Blunt, yes; but there's nothing didactic about his thick description of not just poverty but the political feelings that sometimes grow from it. And to call Gold unimaginative is to say that the world isn't worth imagining. Much of Jews Without Money is a curiousity cabinet strapped into a car without brakes, a catalogue of sights and sensations and sentiments spun through the mind of a child narrator. It's no Call It Sleep, but that's a good thing -- Roth is overrated, a brilliant stylist so narcissistic that his communism -- his broad social politics -- tied him up in knots for decades, while Gold's freed him to write simpler, less innovative prose that nonetheless will survive longer than Roth. Says me.


Here is where books survive:

Or maybe it's where they go to heaven. This is the El Ateneo book store in Buenos Aires. Nothing has made me want to have learned Spanish more than this bookstore.


My favorite comic book store is called Rocketship, on Smith Street in Brooklyn. It is to comic book stores what Grocery and Saul are to the Smith Street restaurant scene -- so snobby that it's out of place even on the street of the yuppies. But justifiably snobby -- it's simply better than the rest. So much better, in fact, that I used to feel guilty buying super hero comic books there -- Ed Brubaker's Daredevil, Brian Bendis' New Avengers (both of which I've given up on -- talented writers spread too thin). I felt as if I should be buying the experimental graphic novels and collections of obscure early 20th-century comics stacked up on the recommended table. Then, one day I was furtively buying Buffy the Vampire Slayer (not so furtively -- all geeks know Joss Whedon is a genius) when the owner suggested World War Hulk. World War Hulk? Seriously? Yes, seriously. "I love it!" she said. "He's so angry it scares me!" I bought it. Eh. But now I'm freed to buy super hero comics without shame. Which brings me to Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men #22, or, the death of Scott Summers. That, technically, is a spoiler, though the cover art by John Cassady of Summers floating in space as if crucified on Dali's cross, his Cyclops goggles occupying the foreground of the frame -- drifting away from his corpse -- should not leave anyone confused.

I hope he's really dead. Whedon has already portrayed death as well as I think I've ever seen it done on tv with an episode of Buffy called "The Body." The death of Cyclops, a character who goes back to the 1960s, may be another step in Whedon's exploration of character assassination. Cyclops' death, foretold on the cover, isn't even the main storyline of the comic -- after forty years of pulp, he gets just a few pages in the end. Contrast that with the melodrama of Captain America's murder this past spring, so significant that The New York Times had to take notice. I'm more interested in this death-in-passing. Melodrama is what one expects for the demise of the secularized gods of super hero-dom; but this incidental death seems more in keeping with the logic of super hero stories, in which characters are always alienated from the normal emotions of the world by their powers. They're apart; and they die apart. In Captain America, that means opera; in Joss Whedon's X-Men, it means loneliness.


Now I'm reading Middlemarch, which has already displaced Wuthering Heights as my new favorite novel. Wuthering Heights, after all, was like a comic book; Middlemarch is what novels would be in a smarter world. It's Moby-Dick for grown-ups, its plot meandering between observation and philosophy that's half-baked and over-cooked and strangely spiced. I'm only 400 pages into the book, so I won't say more. My wife, meanwhile, says I'm becoming a matron -- over the course of the past summer I went from tough guys like Mike Gold and John Fante to Emily Bronte and George Eliot. I think I'd be content to remain in the world of 19th century novels for awhile. I tried reading Pynchon's Vineland while we were on vacation in just that territory, but I couldn't get past the jokes -- he seemed to want his readers too much. Eliot didn't want readers, I think; she simply knew they would be there. And so I am.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Print Inventory: Simple Machines, Musical Illusions, Stellar Kim, Magic Tricks, Disinformation, Boys of Her Youth

An inventory of new and new-ish books ordered, received, or merely contemplated:

Laurel Snyder has published her first full book of poems, The Myth of Simple Machines:

The cover reminds me of the first time I met Laurel, when Peter Manseau and I went through Iowa City on our Killing the Buddha book tour. We knew Laurel through her online work for, which began, I think, with her Yom Kippur prayer, "To Pardon All Our Fucking Iniquities." Laurel put us up, guided us through a blizzard to find novelist Marilynn Robinson's church-basement Bible-study, courageously waded into a dogfight from which we cowered, and strongly recommended James Thurber's The 13 Clocks, the brilliant Marc Simon cover of which -- the one Laurel's new cover brings to mind, in style if not subject -- I can't find online. I've been friends with Laurel since, have written for her, published her, and have heard her read from her first chapbook really of poems, Daphne and Jim: A Choose Your Own Biography in Verse. Sound like a terrible idea? Consider the possibilities: "For a bird's eye view of the death of the sixties, turn to page 20. To follow Jim to Norway on snowshoes, turn to page 5." It's not a gimmick. Well, yes, it is, but one that transcends the gag. In Daphne and Jim Laurel does something unusual with parent biography, using the form of a children's literary experiment (Thurber should clue you in that Laurel loves children's literary experiments) to consider seriously choices made and not made, the lives her parents might have led and might have preferred, and her own repetition of their mistakes, wrong turns, and lucky chances.

But enough about Daphne and Jim; the event of today is the beautifully-titled, beautifully-jacketed Myth of Simple Machines, which I will have more to say about when my copy arrives.


I'm also eagerly awaiting my finished copy of Alex Rose's The Musical Illusionist, to which I contributed a blurb after reading it in galleys: "The Musical Illusionist is literally marvelous, a curiosity cabinet of wonders and conundrums and mechanical miracles. Alex Rose sets his discussion of impossible cities, absurd mathematics, and books of weird science in the Library of Tangents, and for that he'll be tagged as in the tradition of Borges. But he's no Borges; he's Alex Rose. 'The world repaginates,' writes Rose, and so it does with this splendid collection of stories."

You can get it on Amazon, but better to go directly to its small press publisher, the excellent Akashic Books, which describes itself as "reverse-gentrification of the literary world."


The annual Best American Short Stories series might be described as full-speed ahead gentrification, but this year's edition features an inspired choice of an editor in Stephen King, a cranky, bitter, smarter-than-you'd-think, not-quite-as-smart-as-he-thinks kind of guy who doesn't give a damn for propriety. My review of the table of contents bears out King's angry introduction, in which he rails against the relegation of short fiction to journals filed at foot level in big box store bookshelves: Although I've read novels by several of the contributors, I managed to get through 2006 without reading any of these stories. Now I've corrected that oversight by one: Stellar Kim's "Findings & Impressions," brought to my attention by the presence of Stellar herself in the cabin closest to mine at the MacDowell Colony this past September. This is her first published work, which makes it all the more impressive a departure from the maudlin self-therapizing that afflicts so much contemporary fiction. Some notes I made on first reading it:

Told from the perspective of a middle-aged single dad widower radiologist (narrative broken up as if he's filing a report), about his formation of a friendship and abandonment of a patient consumed by cancer. Story begins with the patient's breast on a plate, progresses to a mid-treatment backyard party at her house, to his withdrawal from the friendship – veering toward relationship – to her death. At first I thought the story was simply a very fine technical exercise – a manipulation of emotion in a classic situation, the sterility of medicine contrasted to the grind of grief. But then I realized that the radiologist is a more complicated character, that Stellar has threaded through his account undercurrents of more subtle grief, and vanity. The radiologist tells the patient he has to back off because his son can’t stand to lose a mother figure so soon. (This is how the patient learns that she’s likely to die.) That’s true, in part, and reveals the incompleteness that’s now part of the whole of the man.

But it’s also a lie, and the patient knows this. The only other relationship the radiologist has had since his wife's death in a car crash is a brief, mostly sexual liaison with a lingerie model. Not his ordinary speed, he tells us, but looking back the reader remembers that his dead wife was a TV reporter, glam and blonde. He’s lying, to us and himself, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a physical vanity of which he's ashamed. But then, that brings us back to grief – his son, Nick, staring at his mother’s blonde replacement on the TV news, trying to figure out how to get to her in the box. The radiologist’s memory of her has been split in two, the body of the model and the human-ness of the dying patient. He rejects both. The model returns to the Sunday advertising pages; the patient goes to the grave. The radiologist is left with nothing but "findings."


When I left MacDowell, Stellar and some of the other residents (they're called, unfortunately, "colonists") gave me as a present two Jesus books (in irony) and, in mockery (gentle, I think) of the fact that when I was a boy I once went to "magic camp," Magic Tricks & Card Tricks, by Wilfrid Jonson (1950). I'm not sure if you could learn how to do a magic trick from Jonson's casual, digressive narrative, but his asides are surely more valuable than his instructions for "The Flying Dime," "The Afghan Bands," or the intriguingly-titled "Patriotic Balls."

"We think it is time to speak to you now about
writes Jonson, "the words a conjurer uses when he is performing, which are not always so unconsidered as they may seem. There is a fashion at the moment, a fashion which we think is on the wane, for conjurers to be also comedians or, at least, for conjurers to attempt also to be comedians, for many of them are very sad comics.... A century ago people would flock to see anything that was marvellous, anything they could not understand. The few conjurers of the time, in spite of the profound limitations of their technique, had no difficulty in holding the attention of their audiences, to whom their tricks were astonishing and inexplicable mysteries, and they presented their feats seriously. Then came the twentieth century, with its scientific revolution, to produce a public surrounded always by inexplicable mysteries and satiated with marvels.... We mention all this to reassure you. It is not necessary to be a comedian to be a conjurer."


Books received, not cared about:

Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke, FSG's big fiction entry for the fall: first 40 pages filled with sentences stolen from DeLillo, their serial numbers sanded down. I'm probably in a very small minority in believing that Johnson's most interesting work isn't this doorstop or his legendary short stories, but his nonfiction.

John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, FSG's heavyweight nonfiction entry. Declaring the death of utopia is like announcing the end of history, a neocon habit Gray, a British philosopher, rightly mocks. But he's lost in the thickets of American religion, a major concern of the book: Philosophers almost always fail to deal with that subject adequately, since they depend primarily on secular filters for their accounts of traditions biased toward experience.

Jonathan Lethem, Omega Man, a comic book. Oh, sadness: the author of best writing about kids and comics ever -- Fortress of Solitude can't write comics themselves. Back, Lethem, back! To the pages of black letters in neat rows, images implied only. Comic books should be simple. Like Mike Mignola's B.P.R.D. series, my favorite comic book right now. Monsters! Friendly mummies! Wendigo! Tragedy, starkly drawn.


"Broward County, Florida," a nonfiction story Peter Manseau and I wrote for Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, lacks a Wendigo, but there is a monster, a (sad) mummy, and tragedy, starkly drawn, which is perhaps why it appealed to Russ Kick, editor of the Disinformation series, the latest volume in which is Everything You Know About God is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion. Kick is heir to Adam Parfrey's "Apocalypse Culture," but he's less interested in the purely bizarre than in work that's sneakily subversive. Besides our "Broward County" -- which can fairly be called sneaky, since we worshipped at full volume with a church bent on murder and then wrote about the horror, theirs, ours, maybe God's -- there's good stuff from the little-known Sex Life of Brigham Young, Mark Twain's anti-religious rant, and work by comic book polytheist Neil Gaiman.

I make the "honorable mention" list in David Foster Wallace's Best American Essays, 2007 for my November 2006 Harper's story, "Through a Glass Darkly," but I can't complain since it's a pretty good list, and led off with a new essay I'd missed by Jo Ann Beard, "Werner." Not online, unfortunately, so I'll have to sit around the bookstore cafe reading it, since I'll be spending my money on a new copy of her only book, The Boys of My Youth, published nearly ten years ago. I've loaned it out twice since, and lost it twice.

(Reward for safe return. No questions asked.)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Oxford American's 9th Annual Music Issue (2007)

A little while ago, I tried to write something about the short stories of Lee Hays, the bass foundation of '50s folk group The Weavers and author of lyrics to songs such as "If I Had a Hammer" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." That project stalled -- his stories are so simple and good and outside the normal frame of literary reference that I failed to find a language in which to write about them -- but in the meantime I've published an essay about Hays' life, radical politics, strange religion, and brilliant music in Oxford American's annual Southern music issue. My title was "Oh Yes, Oh Yes, My Darling!" but OA changed it -- without asking! -- to "The People's Singer." Oh, well. I strongly recommend going out to a store -- probably a big box bookstore, alas, since OA doesn't have a huge circulation -- and buying the magazine, which comes a CD comprised of songs by the various artists, past and present, whose stories are told therein. Almost always well-told, I think.

A particular highlight in this issue is "Hype Machine," by Bill Wasik. I've known Bill for several years now as my editor at Harper's, but like all the best editors he turns out to have been quietly developing his own voice as a writer, and, of course, it turns out to be so smart and funny and perceptive that I feel bad for having made him wade through my messes over the years. "Hype Machine," ostensibly about a band called The Annuals, is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, My Crowd, an unclassifiable work of narrative nonfiction, gag, hoax, subtle ranting, and cultural criticism.

I've yet to read the rest of the issue; UPS seems to have misplaced my copies.

In the meantime, though, I'm obliged to disclose what appears to be a misunderstanding in my account of Lee Hays. Based on various textual sources, I thought Lee was gay, that his homosexuality, closely guarded in the rural south of his youth, perhaps informed the empathy, hope, and anger so evident in his music, and that it was not controversial to say so. What I thought was the evidence was sufficiently persuasive for Oxford American's fact checkers, too. But -- I've learned I read the record incorrectly. A source close to Lee Hays while he was living (he died in 1981) called as soon as he read the story to tell me that Hays' sexual persuasion, asexual if anything, did not inform his music. This source said that my mischaracterization would have made Lee very unhappy. Doing so certainly wasn't my intention, which is why I've no hesitation in saying: I was wrong. I'm an enormous admirer of Lee's life and work. When OA sent me a list of Southern musicians to consider for the music issue, I proposed instead Lee Hays, whose name meant nothing to them. I want his name to mean a lot, to as many people as possible. That led me to scrutinize the available sources on Lee's life as closely as I could to produce a full portrait of the man. Evidently, I misread some clues.

Of course, my mistake raises all kinds of interesting questions I'm going to think about if I keep writing about musicians' lives. Why did I assume sexual persuasion is relevant to the life of an artist? Can it be irrelevant? How does a biographer determine when it is, when it isn't, and when the evidence is too thin to decide?

That said, this time I got it wrong. I hope the rest of the essay goes some distance to redeem my mistake by inspiring a few readers to go straight to the best source, the wonderful music of Lee Hays. The best record to start with, I think, is The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, a live recording of their 1955 comeback concert after the anti-communist blacklist had nearly destroyed their musical careers.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age Is In Us(1996); George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871)

I fell asleep last night drawn down by Tarik O’Regan’s Voices, recent choral works which were sufficiently startling to delay sleep by an hour, and Alexander Cockburn’s The Golden Age Is In Us, which I’ve no intention of ever completing, or ever fully abandoning. I find Cockburn’s diary -- essays in short form, off-hand analysis, quick attacks, clear-eyed reads -- strangely soothing. The entries cover the late 80s and early 90s. I remember some of it, Nancy’s drug campaign, Arafat on the White House lawn; and have since learned about other events chronicled therein (SDI, Satanic panic), and know almost nothing about tiny liberation movements in Hawai'i, or, for that matter, in the broccoli fields of Watsonville, California. This last is of extra interest due to the gravity of narcissism -- Julie and I recently drove past Watsonville, thus endowing the little town with our vast worldly importance.

Cockburn’s point is that Watsonville is plenty stocked with worldly importance already. Here he’s writing about Frank Bardacke, a long-time radical writer residing there. Bardacke’s been on my mind, though the most I’ve read of him are his letters to Cockburn reproduced in Golden Age. But JoAnn W. tells me she is editing his giant manuscript on the UFW and that Bardacke spent ten years on this, and knows it as well as anyone in the world.

Cockburn is writing about Bardacke at the beginning of that project, I'm guessing, flush with the power of perception, detecting in Watsonville’s dusty streets, steeple-less church, seemingly blank broccoli fields all the forces of political economy, empire building, international commerce, money, sex, death, etc. Bardacke is apparently not interested in some Winesburgian distillation – he works in sweep and scope, inverting the cliché “All politics are local”: the local is the political, at the farthest reaches of the latter word’s definition.

Which brings me to the spark for this entry: One page of Middlemarch, read while brushing my teeth. Rosamond is pressing her father, Mayor Vincy, to allow her to marry Dr. Lydgate. Vincy has turned against his earlier generous spirit. “I hope he knows I shan’t give anything – with this disappointment about Fred, and Parliament going to be dissolved, and machine-breaking everywhere, and an election coming on –” “Dear papa! what can that have to do with my marriage?” “A pretty deal to do with it!”

Indeed. It’s no discovery that Eliot’s “pastoral study” is large in scope, but this first mention of “machine-breaking” -- workers' sabotage -- underlines the novel’s interest in the relationship of economies large and small to the usual stuff of money, sex, death, etc. Eliot no more subsumes the concerns of the former than would her characters in ordinary life. And yet neither does she burden them with explanatory speeches, representative positions, and such. One of the lessons of Middlemarch is that positions -- class, political, medical, even -- are like musical tones, only of significance in their relation to other tones and only stable if a phrase were to repeat itself endlessly.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Universe, Universe, circa 1970s; Hieronymus Bosch, "Garden of Earthly Delights," 1504

Working 24-7 through Labor Day weekend on what I pray-pray-pray will be my last article about fundamentalism ever, I take a break to drift through the internets and am rewarded with this 70s Christian rock album by a band called Universe:

Note the contrast between the musicians: While the one on the left enjoys both a cosmic halo and sartorial splendor, the guy on the right is floating in the void, looking uneasy in a shirt that is only mildly daring in this context. I can find no further information about the band, but my guess is that Cosmic Halo lives in Crestone, Colorado. As for the nervous one, look a little closer, and imagine what might have become of a fellow eager to put his freak in the closet. Trim the hair, pad the jowl, add 30 years. Could it be...

I think it is! Fundamentalist former presidential candidate Gary Bauer.

The cover is even better. It's Christian Druggachusetts!

But best of all, listen to the tunes, and imagine what America would be like today if the Jesus freaky fundamentalists of the '70s had only listened more to these guys instead of Jerry Falwell:

Friday, June 22, 2007

Unused Syllabus, 2007

I've been teaching narrative nonfiction to grad students in NYU's Department of Journalism for 2 1/2 years, and it finally paid off: not one tenure-track job offer, but two, one of them here at NYU. Decent pay for nine months of work, very interesting colleagues, lifetime job security -- of course, I turned both jobs down. I'm going to write full-time. There are books to write, I hope. One of the things I'll miss about teaching, though, is writing syllabi. It's like making a mix tape -- pick your favorite writers and hit shuffle. Here are a few that ended up on more syllabi than not:

Garry Wills' Nixon Agonistes; Roy Mottahedeh's Mantle of the Prophet; Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer; various essays by JoAnn Wypijewski, Jack Hitt, Ellen Willis, Michael Lesy. I discovered that Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain, a flawed but compelling book, is a great teaching text, while James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a flawed but absolutely genius book, is a bomb in the classroom. I tried teaching novels to journalists -- James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain, Tomas Eloy Martinez' Santa Evita -- with mixed results. Tony Kushner's fantasia Angels in America, though, ends up making perfect sense. Three anthropologists proved so effective that I taught them over and over: Susan Friend Harding's The Book of Jerry Falwell, the best book about fundamentalism I know of; Barbara Myerhoff's Number Our Days, a book that redeems the word "schmaltz"; and Michael Taussig's trippy Colonialism, Shamanism, and the Wild Man, a text closer to the heart of darkness than Joseph Conrad.

For the coming semester, I made up a recommended extra reading list. Nothing but a procrastination, which is why I'll post it on this blog instead of giving it to the students who I now won't be teaching:


Here are some names every literary journalist should know: Agee, Mitchell, Didion, Orwell, Mailer, etc. Following are some texts that won’t show up on many syllabi of literary journalism. And yet I found them coming up in conversations with other journalists over the years. Consider these titles the ghost canon of our mutant genre.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. Yes, the whale. The hack cliché about this book is that it’s a great adventure story if you skip the whale description chapters. That may be true; but if you read them, it’s one long meditation on the problem of documentation, which is to say, the problem of writing some kind of truth. There’s a Harper’s editor who tells his writers to approach every story as if they’re going to write the Moby-Dick of their given subject. One really did – an epic, brilliant meditation on rubber duckies called "Moby Duck."

Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire. It’s a movie about angels who fly around Berlin taking notes on the life of the city, gathering not news but small revelations of character and perception. Nice work if you can get it.

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions. Borges was a fiction writer, poet, and essayist whose name has become a touchstone for many literary journalists. His stories are lots of fun to read – so much so that that you might go too fast and forget to think about the subtle arguments about narrative contained within them. Consider the most fantastical of his stories as nonfiction, and imagine how they were researched and reported.

Jane Kramer, The Last Cowboy. Kramer, a working New Yorker writer, is hardly an unknown, but much of her best work is unjustly out of print. You could start anywhere – with Unsettling Europe, or What is Art?, but this one may be the most useful to the young writer, a near-perfect book-length profile in the third person.

Rosemary Mahoney, Whoredom in Kimmage. Journalist walks into a bar is the basic set-up not of a joke but of half the hack would-be workingman’s poets in literature. More often than not, it’s no more than the first step into soggy sentimentalism, but Mahoney, who set off to write a book about Irish women, perfects the form amongst a pub full of brilliant bullshit artists in the Irish countryside. (Here's a link to Rosemary Mahoney's place in a peculiar little experiment called a literature map. Nick Hornby, Alex Garland -- looks like she's in a bad neighborhood. This book, at least, deserves better; maybe this list is a step in the right direction.)

Melissa Faye Greene, Praying for Sheetrock. This probably does show up on a lot of syllabi, but not mine, and I don’t want you to miss it. It’s gripping, as they say, technically true crime but truly literature in every sense of the word, worth studying for Greene’s full, third person reconstruction of incidents she wasn’t present for.

John Dos Passos, USA trilogy. One of the great modernist documentary experiments of the early 20th century, fiction that inspired much of the “new journalism” of the’ 60s.

Studs Terkel, Hard Times. The gold standard for oral history, Terkel has probably inspired more awful imitators than any writer alive. Don’t be one of them. Read his oral histories closely and figure out how they’re structured – Terkel doesn’t just turn on a tape recorder and walk away. (Here's a great Terkel site w/ excerpts from his Chicago radio program.)

Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons. An early 20th century example of muckraking as scripture. Like many of his contemporaries, Josephson wanted to write about the bastards who’d ripped off a nation; but unlike less imaginative writers, he fell in love with his subjects, and the result is this Dante-eque tour of the history of American greed by a writer who knows that Hell is more interesting than Heaven.

Barbara Kopple, Harlan County, USA. Why this documentary more than others? Because Kopple resolves a problem literary journalists often face, that of narrating a conflict within a community. The conventional method is to pick a character, maybe two; Kopple gets that the crowd is the character.

Wallace Shawn, My Dinner With Andre. May all your sit-down interviews be this engrossing.

Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia. As good as My Dinner With Andre, but there’s only one man talking. Journalists have a lot to earn from the art of the monologue.

Charles Bowden, Blues for Cannibals. I used to assign this, but it infuriated 2/3 of every semester’s class. It’s hard going, dense, circular, often overwrought, in need of editing, and absolutely brilliant. Makes the phrase “dark lyricism” meaningful. Sort of like James Agee’s best work; study it, but beware of trying it at home.

Don DeLillo, Libra. “Every plot is a conspiracy of armed men,” writes DeLillo in this novel that uses an assassination as an excuse for a meditation on narrative structure and the construction of truths. Historical fiction shouldn’t be confused with history, but literary journalists will do well to read the best of the genre for insight into how facts shape stories.

Joe Sacco, Safe Area: Gorazde and Palestine. Sacco is one of the best narrative journalists working today, which is saying something given that he draws all his stories.

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking. Learn how to write essays and bury people at the same time, from a poet who runs a funeral home. Build a collection of collections by contemporary essayists like Lynch, Annie Dillard, Judith Moore, Vivian Gornick, etc. Practitioners of the “reported essay” ought to study the pure form.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

James Marsh, The King, 2006; Edward Norton, Down in the Valley, 2006

Down in the Valley stars Edward Norton as Harlan, folksy innocent roiling with secret malice -- the same kind of role that made Norton famous 11 years ago in Primal Fear -- and Evan Rachel Wood as Tobe, a teenage girl that the older Harlan, a wannabe cowboy, falls in love with, seduces, stalks, shoots, and flees from. Norton can almost carry the movie with his Jimmy Stewart charm, made all the more effective by our knowledge that menace lies ahead, but the plot was that of a clever 17-year-old's imagination. That's better than the plots conceived of by stupid adults, but Valley is still a pale imitation of James Marsh’s The King, starring William Hurt as Pastor David Sandow, a Texas exurban preacher, and Gael Bernal as his bastard son, Elvis Valderaz, returned to haunt the father he never knew. I make the comparison because James’ wife, Anne-Mette, told me that Down in the Valley, released shortly after The King, drove the latter film out of theaters. Apparently, there isn't room in this town for two independent films about angry youths with patricide on the mind. In both movies, a strangely blank prodigal son sets up shop in a fleabag motel and then seduces a too-young girl. In both cases, the seduction is meant to hurt the prodigal son's father, not the girl. Both movies result in surprisingly extreme violence.

And for whatever it’s worth, both movies feature a white horse. In The King, the white horse is, I think, a subconscious echo of Michael Lesy’s 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip -- a movie of which Marsh also made -- and thus a more evocative but less easily translatable symbol. In Valley, the white horse on which Harlan rides is plain ol’ inverted irony. Beware a man in the modern age who rides a white horse, for he is surely wicked.

Valley is a pastiche of such symbolism, so leaden that it dishonors the sources to which it alludes. Norton quickdraws in the mirror, a la De Niro in Taxi Driver (Bernal practices rifle drill in the mirror, but he has an audience in his girl, and so the scene becomes something new), and teaches a wan little boy spunk by kidnapping him, a la Kevin Costner’s superior A Perfect World. Yes -- Down in the Valley makes a Kevin Costner movie look smart. In the end, David Morse, as the girl’s father, hunts Norton down, gets shot, keeps coming, and kills the son-of-a-bitch, a la every Charles Bronson movie ever made. Morse even wears black. Get it? He wears black, but he's the good guy. Father really does know best. That’s the message.

It’s the father who gets it in the end of The King -- even though he’s accepted his bastard son, confessed to his church, and, really, been everything a Christian preacher is supposed to be. But violence still visits him, and despite his repentance, he is no more innocent of the violence than the bastard son who perpetrates it. Norton’s character becomes more obvious and ridiculous as we learn his motives -- he’s secretly Jewish rebelling against his hasidic father by playing cowboy -- whereas Bernal’s character becomes more blank and yet more subtly drawn. What we thought we understood, we realize, we don’t. And we only see how wrong we are –- how hard it is to understand the past, to recognize sin, to interpret a white horse -- around the same time William Hurt does, as his life is burning down around him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"Jim Webb's Never-Ending War," 2007

From my latest story in Rolling Stone: "As night settles between the two mountain ridges that rise on either side of Lebanon, Virginia, a rough little strip of a town in the state’s southwestern corner, Senator Jim Webb’s people assemble in the Russell County Courthouse. They’re coal miners and coal miners’ wives, a third of them in the camouflage strike gear of the United Mine Workers, many of them wearing ball caps declaring them veterans of Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq. A leather-skinned veteran named Eldridge tells me in a raspy whisper that he voted for Jim Webb because Webb, a novelist and historian, had gotten these people, mountain people, right in his most recent book, a bestselling history of the Scots-Irish in America called Born Fighting. 'We’ve got our own ghosts and goblins,' Eldridge says, and he thinks Webb sees them. 'He has the Second Sight.'

"He’s the third person this evening to cite the supernatural—a kind of cultural memory, maybe—as a reason for supporting Webb, a fact that doesn’t surprise Virginia’s new Democratic senator. 'My grandmother taught me my ghosts,' he tells me, his voice a low, considered rumble."

Rolling Stone doesn't post many whole stories online, but for those who want to read it -- and willing to endure a slow download -- I've posted a pdf of "Jim Webb's Never-Ending War."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Stephen Shore, "American Surfaces," 1969-79

Some images from Stephen Shore's "American Surfaces." I saw this exhibit yesterday, bought the book, and wish I could stare at it for a couple of days. Shore is often associated with Walker Evans, who also took deadpan portraits of ordinary places and people, and Andy Warhol, with whom Shore got his start and who evidently influenced his sense of pop and the beauty of the banal. Comparisons with Robert Frank are also made, but to less effect, I think -- Frank was a romantic, and I don't see that in Shore. He doesn't seem to be looking for hidden magic and secret symbols in the landscape, as Frank was. Rather, I think he's trying to relearn langauge. These pictures remind me of kid's ABC book. Shore's ABCs are a lot more complicated, but not mystical -- they're in the open, there for anyone who wants to look.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Faith Between Us, 2007; Arcade Fire, Neon Bible, 2006; Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998

This is about this year's earnest geek hipster breakthrough band, Arcade Fire, and that of 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel. I'm just an earnest geek, not a hipster, so I hadn't heard either until a forthcoming book coauthored by my friend Scott Korb inspired me to buy Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The book is The Faith Between Us, and the "Us" is Scott, an observant Catholic with Jewish tendencies, and his pal Peter Berbergal, a Jew sobered up from a drugged out mysticism. The two trade chapters of memoir about their ambivalent yet intense relationships to their respective religions. At the end of each installment, one critiques the spiritual progress of the other. It'd be Maoist, but they're kind to one another, and deservedly so -- the accuracy with which they capture earnest geekdom provides a counterpoint to their mushier spiritual questing, and the result is something smarter than ordinary memoir. Scott, for instance, imagines that a facial twitch he's afflicted by is a sign from God and takes it as cause to play the holy fool. Then the doctor tells him it's just a twitch. Some fucked up nerves. Nothing special, just something to live with. Which is to say, he isn't chosen. Berbergal, who technically is chosen, is so fried at the beginning he's imagining new religions -- scary, psychedelic, occasionally glorious truths that happen not to be true.

Both band references take place in Scott's chapters -- an epigraph from Arcade Fire and a passing mention of Neutral Milk Hotel -- but the two bands serve in my mind as stand-ins for the early religious experiments of Berbergal and the sincerity of Scott's youthful Passion. Arcade Fire is a trippy symphony of pop hooks, adolesecent beats, and the kind of orchestration typically described as "lush" and "velvety." More like plush velour. Arcade Fire is rec room wacky, which is to say, knowing in its allusions to more dangerous and difficult artists -- Nick Cave and fellow Canadian avant-pop orchestral swingers Godspeed, You Black Emperor! lurk behind Arcade's strings and dark genre camp. But they're closer in effect to Echo and the Bunnymen, with guitars by the Cure and vocals lifted from 80s U2 clones The Alarm, and even Bruce Springsteen, circa Nebraska. Which isn't bad at all, but it's a clue that things are never going to spin too far out of control with these guys. It's not that they lack the courage to push as far as Cave or Godspeed. Rather, they seem more interested in what happens when you dress pop up in strange, when you take avant-garde to the prom. Arcade Fire presents a populist freak show, a prettified death trip for the masses.

Both Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel load up their songs with God references, which is why they show up in a book of digressive spiritual questiong. But Arcade's religion, from the Neon Bible of its title (a reference to a posthumous novel by everyone's favorite bestelling crazy novelist John Kennedy Toole) to the goth vamp glory of "Ocean of Violence" is all allusion, the faith of would-be believers alienated from their nirvana by the cultural code in which they describe it. Neutral Milk Hotel's religion, meanwhile, sounds as raw as the Jesus freaking of a college kid so high on Christ that he doesn't notice that his Campus Crusade meeting has all the spiritual intensity of Kiwanis Club. The second track, for instance, "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2 & 3," opens with a slowly plunked-out seven note palindrome leading into the drawling vocal by Jeff Mangum: "I love you Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ I love you, Yes I do."

In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is said to have been inspired by a series of dreams Mangum had about a Jewish family in hiding. I believe it -- this is more grounded stuff, so to speak, than Daniel Johnston's literally insane noodling, but it's in that same family of fucked up. In Mangum's imagination, such a plaintive cry might really have belonged to Anne Frank, which is sort of dumb; but in his instrumentation, it's wall-of-sound pop, made almost reasonable by the coherence of his songs, sturdy little vessels decked out with horns and accordians in addition to the guitars and the fuzz. Listening to Johnston is a aural voyeurism. Neutral Milk Hotel -- the tightness of the band, Mangum's songwriting -- holds Mangum's crazy together, channels it toward sane. For awhile, anyway; Mangum reportedly lost it after Aeroplane, the last album the group recorded.

Neutral Milk's In The Aeroplane was re-released in 2005 with a cover blurb from Arcade Fire. Its influence is on Neon Bible is loud, but despite the fact that Arcade's perfomance is more of a shtick, deliberately derivative, it's no less provocative than that of Neutral Milk Hotel. What was weird on In the Aeroplane shows up as wit on Neon Bible.

The relationship between Scott and Berbergal with which I began this little exercise isn't so direct or simple, and I'm reluctant to push it too far lest I replicate the same cliches with which Peter Manseau, a Catholic, and I (a half-Jew) were stereotyped when we paired up to write A Heretic's Bible -- Peter the spiritual one, Jeff the smart alecky one. What's interesting about collaboration is that whatever identity you bring to the process quickly slips away from you and into the hands of your doppelganger, and vice versa. That's what happened in A Heretic's Bible, and I think that's what I see in Scott and Berbergal's book. Berbergal's the mushroom mystic, Scott's the anxious face twitcher; Scott thinks he's called by God, Berbergal sobers up; Berbergal starts a family and a heroic record collection, Scott writes family history around his tattoos.

Then there's the Catholic and Jewish stuff, which I'll leave for some later ramble. I'm not required to have a point -- this is a blog, not an essay -- nor a verdict about religious pop or pop religion, the two subjects at hand. Suffice it to say that the blurry boundaries between all parties delight me enough to speculate on origins and intentions and effects for a few hundred words. And since this is a blog, I don't need a kicker. Besides, I must get busy with a response to something Scott wrote for The Revealer, one of my day jobs.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Robert Graysmith and Zodiac, 2007; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 1847

It's my 35th birthday, which gives me occasion to think on the fact that on my 30th I had just left Ivanwald, the elite fundamentalist training house that would eventually lead me to the book I just signed off on last week. Half a decade I spent writing about fundamentalists. That's enough. Looking at the big stack of manuscript pages, I'm reminded of the tagline from the most recent movie about the San Francisco Zodiac murderer: "There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer." In the movie, that line applies most of all to the Jake Gyllenhall character, Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle whose love of puzzles leads him to attempt to solve the murders. (That's a funny phrase -- "solve a murder." Of course, no such thing can be done.) The movie suggests that Graysmith probably did figure out who the killer was, and yet there was never any resolution. Graysmith got two books out of the deal, but he lost his job and his family. The most depressing scene was that of Graysmith surrounded by boxes of papers, the apartment he'd once shared with his family wholly devoted to the attempt to reconstruct a murderer through documents.

I'm familiar with the scene. I saw Zodiac a couple of months ago, two days before I wrote the last words of Jesus Plus Nothing. I caught the late show, then I went back to work at the industrial studio I rented for the project. It's a big space -- maybe 400 square feet -- but I'd covered most of the floor and a good part of the walls with documents. At the height of the writing, I could wander these snow drifts and pluck out whatever I needed from among thousands of pages. Now, a couple of months on, the paper tide slowly receding, it all seems blank to me. The other night, Julie was looking at some index cards I had pinned to the wall and laughed out loud at a quote attributed to a late industrialist, a brute who so hated anyone left of J. Edgar Hoover that he went insane, convinced that everyone around him was a communist out to get him; even the mail, he concluded, was a socialist plot on his life. Just desserts. The quote was from a speech he gave in 1960: "We are victims of our own decencies." What a lovely, ironic line. I have no idea what I intended to use it for.

A bleaker example: By my desk, there's a stack of documents from the Reagan archives half a foot high. I read them all and tabulated and underlined them; and used none of them, a fact that caused me great distress at one point. Now, it's only the recollection of how much they cost me to obtain that stops me from throwing them away.

There is, in fact, evidence of murder in those pages, but I don't think I'll ever put the pieces together properly. Unlike the cartoonist who almost solved the Zodiac murders, I'm not much interested in puzzles. It would take a mind given to intricate imagination, indeed, to read the cipher of murder that runs through those pages. The victims, in this case, were South African; the killers were the usual suspects in that country. The accomplices were in the White House. And they got away with it.

It'd take me five more years to figure out how exactly it all went down, whether and where and to whom shipments of American guns were made, and what they were used for, and the scriptural justifications by which true believers justified their actions. But I'm done with the fundamentalists. Five years of archives and angry churches and numbingly righteous books and "purity" manuals and deliberate omissions and sanctimonious snark and -- oh, but there were people, too, people with ideas. Dangerous and cruel ideas, I think, but passionate ones, at least. It wasn't so bad to listen to them for awhile.

But I'm done. If I went on any longer with the fundamentalists, I'd end up like Robert Graysmith -- with two overlong books instead of one and an apartment full of documents and empty of life.

So I'm getting back on the Brooklyn yuppie path I veered off of five years ago. Going to some parties. Sitting on my stoop on a mellow evening. And exercising -- what I lost in sanity during the five years of making this book I gained in girth. So I'm going to the gym, and to get myself through the first painful and boring days, I decided to buy an audio book to listen to on my IPod. I went for Wuthering Heights. I've always wanted to read it, if for no other reason than that my wife loves it, as do a lot of women whose literary tastes I follow. I thought it would be like a Jane Austen book -- a little dull, to my mind, but full of finely observed details.

But what a treat Wuthering Heights is! I'm only five chapters in, but I'm much skinnier for my choice -- I ran an extra mile on the treadmill, unwilling to stop listening and shower. And already there are nightmares and devil dogs and witches and dark glances and dangerous weather and the mysterious gypsy boy who'll become Heathcliff. That is to say, Wuthering Heights contains all the melodrama I love in comic books, only more artfully rendered. Bronte's attention to landscape and architecture and furnishings easily surpasses that of the best comic book artists (I think comic books are home to some of the best landscape and cityscape writing going these days), and the narrator, Lockwood, is a figure of comic complexity, frequently declaring himself a mirror of Heathcliff's apparent misanthropy and yet hungering all the while for gossip and company. He is the writer as she wants to be and is.

Yes, he is a she, very clearly I think. Wuthering Heights is from that literary school that disdained omniscient narrators. Stories had to come from some place, and so an observer had to be positioned accordingly, and granted an almost supernatural curiousity. Thus, the vanity of Lockwood, expressed through fascination with Heathcliff in his older years. One needn't resort to queer theory to determine that the gravity between the two -- or, at least, that attraction exerted by Heathcliff upon Lockwood -- is homoerotic in the most literal sense. That is, Lockwood has no sexual desire for Heathcliff, but his obsession with the man transcends ordinary interest, and the details he is drawn to and, often as not, infuriated by, are those that might compel a woman in love with Heathcliff.

So Bronte must have been with her creation. Her love for Heathcliff is not what makes Lockwood a woman writer in drag, however, but rather the way it's expressed. I think it's brilliant -- I wish I could learn to love my subjects like Bronte loves hers.

That's why male writers not naturally gifted enough to rise above cultural conditioning on their own must make sure to read lots of women writers (and vice versa, I suppose, though that's hardly a challenge given the testosterone-drenched canon). Years ago, many of my favorite writers were women -- Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion, Marilyn Robinson, Kate Chopin. But my half decade of fundamentalist research drew me into a masculine universe -- dry historians of religion, angry fundamentalist texts, and thousands, hundreds of thousands of documents by and about industrialists and political hacks and military hustlers. The form my obsession with my subjects took therefore adapted. I lost the nimbleness of Bronte's Lockwood alter-ego and probably became some kind of monstrous cross between Heathcliff himself, absent the romance and good looks, and his ridiculous servant, fearful sputtering Joseph. Such a persona may have served a purpose -- with no romantic heroes to be found in my story, I had to develop a determination to push some ultimately very bad men along through the historical narrative -- but I wonder how the story would have changed had I come to Wuthering Heights sooner, had I been reminded of the way some writers love their characters.

Maybe not at all -- Wuthering Heights is, in a sense, about people who've lost their lives to obsession. Heathcliff is Robert Graysmith, only he had the good sense to brood in the moors instead of producing true crime books without resolution.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Jim Webb, Lost Soldiers 2001; Marilyn Robinson, Bible study, 2004

Almost two months since my last post on "Call Me Ishmael."
During that time, I finished my book, published a trimmed-down piece of it in Rolling Stone and wrote a review that's part of my thinking for the next book. Also, the name "Ishmael" has been thrown into temporary disrepute by its appearance (as "Ismail") in red ink on Killer Cho's arm.

My reading life has been dominated by Jim Webb, the novelist-turned-senator about whom I'm writing a profile. Which means I've been immersed in national epic, historical fiction, thrillers, and history-as-destiny. The most enduring work is probably the first, Fields of Fire, but the later thrillers, more conventional in form, have their own pleasures. Here's a great pulpy line from Lost Soldiers (2001), from a scene in which Dzung, a former South Vietnamese soldier, is being coerced into committing an assassination for the communist regime: "The reality of what Manh was putting before him crept up Dzung's spine on soft little scorpion's feet, causing him to shiver."

Some might take issue with the shiver -- a cliche? -- but I think it's perfect. The art of the thriller lies in adding nuances to recognizable notes. The image of a scorpion walking up a spine does just that. The scorpion's body looks like vertebrae, a spine upon a spine Develop that picture, and you'll see that this is a subtly clever twist on the old shiver routine. The scorpion -- Dzung's government counterpart -- looks much like Dzung. Worse, from Dzung's moral perspective, the scorpion uses Dzung to control Dzung, ascending his spine like a ladder. Dzung is complicit down to his bones. Are a scorpion's feet soft? Probably not -- but they surely feel that way, given that a scorpion is as light as an insect. There are no heavy blows here: Manh doesn't beat Dzung down, he gives him a gun. That is, he makes him a scorpion.

The subject of this post isn't Lost Soldiers, however, since I'll have plenty of space in Rolling Stone to write about Webb's books. It's another thriller, another collection of familiar notes in which smart readers and writers have been finding unexpected nuances for thousands of years. The Bible, of course. As I was sorting through some old papers tonight, I find a little pocket notebook. Paging through, I realized it contained some notes I'd made in 2004, when I attended a Bible study led by one of my favorite novelists, Marilyn Robinson, author of Housekeeping and Gilead. (Here's an essay about Robinson by Chris Lehmann.)

Peter Manseau and I were in Iowa City on tour for Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, staying with our friend Laurel Snyder. Laurel told us Robinson taught a Bible study in a church basement, and after several drinks, we decided to venture out into a snow storm to find it. Our method: Peering into windows of churches. It took us about a dozen tries, but we found her. Robinson didn't seem surprised at three snow-covered strangers stomping into the middle of her class. Laurel hung back, but Peter and I pulled up chairs. "Fetch these boys some Bibles," Robinson instructed one of the bearded poets who'd become her disciple. Robinson's students were mostly writers, but she's serious about her Bible, a self-declared Calvinist and, if I recall, an ordained minister.

My notes from the evening are fairly cryptic. I'm going to write them down anyway, and then throw out this little notebook. I don't share Robinson's beliefs, but I'm fascinated by her gods.

Literature, says Robinson, proceeds by pushing toward definition. The messiah is a definition of how God will act in history. Which is to say, a counter-intuitive definition, since the messiah's action is that of literature. "The revolution that goes on continuously," says Robinson, "is a refining of definitions."

Would that it was so simple. But Robinson detects in the story impulses toward universalism and impulses away from universalism -- a literary rubber band.

Or, a "pulse." "We have broken His heart a million times over." And every time we do, God responds. "The whole Bible is God trying to say, 'I take this very seriously.'"

But we just won't listen, and we keep knocking God around. God, says Robinson, can be understood at times as like an abused wife -- an interesting idea about who holds the power in this relationship between humanity and the divine.

Then Robinson says: "What would we do without feeling like we're on the dark side of justice?" I'm not sure what she meant by that, but I wrote below it, "asked in a tone of gratitude." She follows with: "As soon as language of justice emerges, it becomes metaphysical." So perhaps this all means that we're spared the abstraction of one of the things that matters most to us -- justice -- by being on the wrong side of it. There are moments of justice in this world, she says, but not where we expect them (or create them?)

The last coherent note I made was: "Humanity will be betrayed by authority."

Monday, February 26, 2007

President Roslin, Battlestar Galactica, 2005

I've been hearing about the new Battlestar Galactica as one of the best things on television for a few years, but I foolishly resisted the hype. I say foolishly because I responded to the show just as friends do when I try to tell them that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was brilliant: Whatever, dork.

Know thyself: Dork, geek, and now, Battlestar fan. The show won me over with its patience. The first half hour or so of the pilot episode is dedicated to slow, ordinary life, and yet it's filled with dread. Not suspense, exactly, but something thicker and deeper beneath the surface. The plot is this: Forty years ago, the humans defeated their creation, the Cylons; the Cylons left and haven't been seen since. Life is peaceful and good. The Galactica is about to be decommissioned. The moment, as more than one critic has pointed out, is Clintonian -- the Cold War is over, and things are ok but not grand, and something is missing, and we're worried that something bad may be coming. It's a period of exhuberance for most and White Noise anxiety for the few. The ranks of the latter include Edward James Olmos as the brooding old admiral of the Galactica, who, warns in his farewell speech that you can't escape your sins. The past isn't dead, it isn't even past. And so it is with the Cylons, who return to destroy the world.

But before that happens, the show features a series of moments as good as one of the best Buffy episodes ever, "The Body." We see a handsome middle aged woman waiting in an elegant but sterile room. Sun filters in through skylights; the atmosphere is wan. Who is she? What is she waiting for? When a doctor finally enters, it's so obvious that we barely need dialogue; and get almost none, as a space ship lumbers overhead, obscuring their words. Cut to a scene of the woman aboard a space ship, which looks -- deliberately -- just like an ordinary airplane; mundane. She is, we gather, a politican, but not a very important one. Just a functionary. Her aide, immediately recognizable as the kind of young earnest hack that trots around Capitol Hill, asks her a question. She cannot respond, flees to the bathroom. Unbuttons her jacket, grabs her chest, heaves with repressed grief and shock.

And that's about all we know of the death sentence, perphaps breast cancer, of the woman who is about to become president of the survivors of the Cylon attack (by virtue of her position as 43rd in succession, following the Cylon's nuclear attack). It's slow and painful and very real, perhaps all the more so for its contrast with the fantastical story. Indeed, it makes the fantastical story much sharpe -- the cancer dread, so understated, is real. So then might be our fear of the Cylons, who, after all, are a metaphor.

I'm not ready to say for what. I've only seen the pilot and one episode. The latter is a bit weaker. One of the strengths of the pilot was that the same quiet observation with which we attended the president's diagnosis marked the approach of the director to the inevitable space battles. Geeks know there's no noise in space, of course, so that wins the show some realism points. More importantly, it forces the viewer to provide the soundtrack; and the usual "action theme" won't suffice. In the silence we confront the fact that the good guys will rally like David fighting Goliath, but to no avail. They'll be destroyed like anyone who terribly underestimates their enemies.

Alas, the director evidently overestimated the average viewer. The first regular episode features laser guns a-blasting and Cylons droning in space battle, standard sci-fi theatrics. What's left -- what makes the program still so interesting -- are the actors, particularly the president (Mary McDonnell). She quietly suppresses the horror of their post-apocalyptic condition as she carries on with leading them to survival. It's the silent dread of the pilot episode's space battles, or of an ordinary, horrifying prognosis -- an emotion I haven't seen portrayed on television since Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Whatever, dork.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others, 2007

Imagine if The Lives of Others, Germany's contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was set not in Berlin, 1984, but Berlin, 1944. We have before us three moving pieces: an artist pure-of-heart, a government official who is pure ambition and evil, and a man trapped in between -- a bureaucrat with an artists's soul. The artist scorns the Nazi regime, but his art ruffles no feathers, and so he is allowed to prosper. The evil government official, though, is out to get him, due not to personal animus but to a contrived plotline that we can ignore. What matters is that the State hates Art. But our middleman -- our Nazi-with-a-soul -- is charged with actually bringing the artist down. This he is well-qualified to do, since he has done it so many times, and so well, that he moonlights as a professor of torture and interrogation.

This time, though, something's different. The Soulful Nazi, surveilling the artist -- who has powerful friends, and thus cannot be simply rounded up -- is gradually won over by the artist's art. In the critical scene, a single tear falls from the Good Nazi's eye. (Spoilers ahead.) So, he covers for the artist; the artist creates a heroic indictment of the regime; and, after the regime crashes down, presumably laid low by his art, creates his masterwork, dedicated to the Soulful Nazi who saved him. The artist calls it, "Sonata for A Good Man," and it is such that the very fact of its existence -- we never know for sure what it consists of -- is enough to move we, the film audience to tears.

There, in a nutshell, is the story of this smarmy exercise in self-exculpation. If the thought of a Nazi killer -- or a redeemed Stasi fiend, as is the Good Man of The Lives of Others -- moved to shed a single tear does not move you to tears, you are perhaps afflicted by what many Germans used to call, in the late 1940s, the "Spirit of Morgenthau." Morgenthau was Truman's Jewish Secretary of the Treasury, and the most vocal advocate of a complete dismantling of Germany's war machine and full reparations for Germany's victims. In both instances, his arguments lost. Germany, as subsequent generations of genuine artists and activists managed to reveal, preferred to forget the past, to re-set the clock at "stunde null," zero hour.

The Lives of Others manages to do so again for East Germany, even as it devotes a couple of heavy-handed hours to the brutalities of life in the GDR. Or, rather, to the brutalities of the regime personified -- and thus limited to -- two repugnant personalities, a stupid, vulgar Communist Party bigshot and a conniving Stasi agent whose sadism is expressed mainly by the fact that he has a very ugly moustache. The CP bigshot is as corrupt as the artist, a playwright, is dedicated to "Art" (which shall hereafter be capitalized in recognition to its overpowering importance). Whereas the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a beautiful man, the CP big is revolting, never more so than he drops trou to reveal his massive ass in tightey-whiteys, moving in like the backside of Jaws as he assaults Dreyman's actress-lover. CP Big's henchman is not as ugly, but his bulging middle and cautiously leering ways let us now that he will be just as soon as he gets enough power.

To say this is a caricature is to belabor the obvious, but it is also to risk being accused of sympathy for the devil. In this case, I have none; indeed, I'd much prefer a movie that dealt more painfully with East Germany's surveillance regime than this does simplistic tear jerker.

To be fair, my eyes watered. How could they not? There is a tragic death, and quiet heroism, and the sort of "moral ambiguity" designed to make liberals feel brave for acknowledging nuance. This last comes in the form of Dreyman's girlfriend, who, when threatened with being denied the chance to ever act again, informs on Dreyman. What's ambiguous about that? He protected her; she betrayed him rather than give up the spotlight; and both are screwed by the Stasi. Well, leave it at that, and it really might be morally ambiguous. But we're expected to take seriously the notion that her need to perform -- to practice her Art -- was of at least near-equal value with the life of her lover. For this, the film -- and its Good Men -- forgive her.

But heroism is reserved for the Good Stasi. Dreyman plays "Sonata for a Good Man" in remembrance of a theater comrade driven to suicide by the Stasi. The Good Stasi, Weisler, listens in on his surveillance equipment, sheds his tear, and then is stabbed in the heart with remorse when Dreyman quotes Lenin on the subject of Beethoven's "Appassionata": "If I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution." (Revolution=bad; Art=good. Let them eat sonatas.) In case viewers deficient in sentimentalism fail to grasp the point, the next scene shows Weisler confronted with a cute little boy who inadvertently reveals that his father doesn't like Stasi men. Weisler, in an amazing act of moral courage, does not gobble the child up, and that is how we know he is the sonata's Good Man.

Fast forward (as the film does over and over, "two years later," "four years later," etc.) to unified Germany. Dreyman discovers that Weisler saved him (the clue, worthy of the board game Clue, is a red fingerprint) and sets out to thank the man. In unified Germany, Dreyman is doing well, his plays finally performed properly (that is, with the actresses in glam evening gowns instead of factory drone dresses) for the right audiences -- rich ones, that is. Weisler, however, is even poorer than he was in the GDR, a sickly-looking mailman in the East Berlin slums. Dreyman decides that the best thing he can do for this wretched soul is not to thank him personally, but to transform his story into a bestselling novel -- under Dreyman's name, of course. But that, for Weisler, is enough -- the last words of the movie are Weisler buying the book and declaring "It's for me."

Let's sum up the heavy-handed morals of this "morally ambiguous" tale: If, like Dreyman's girlfriend, you rat out your lover for your Art, you're a tragic hero. If, like Weisler, after years of terrorizing innocents, you are moved to tears by Art, you're a tragic hero. And if, like Dreyman, you turn your story of suffering into a bestselling tale through which an entire nation, uncomfortable with its past, can blame it on a few ugly men and declare everyone else their victims, then you, too, are a tragic hero. The author, not authoritarianism, will reign supreme, if only we keep our faith in Art. Dana Stevens, reviewing The Lives of Others in Slate echoes the widespread critical love affair with this movie when he writes that it "ultimately becomes an ode to the transformative power of Art." (Capitalization mine.) It's an ode to something, alright, but it sure isn't art.

Hollywood makes this kind off movie, too, only instead of Art, we have Heart. Our Good Stasi and playwright rolled into one is a boxer named Rocky, a private named Ryan, a runt named Rudy, and even a German, Schindler and his list. If anything, Hollywood's sentimental escapism is better than that of The Lives of Other People; most of us are mature enough to recognize that Rocky is a fantasy. And not even Rocky was as heavy-handed as the director of Other People's Lives so unsure that we'll get the message of the music that he tells us the song is called "Sonata for a Good Man."

It's hard for me to grasp how this film played in Germany, where it's about what people among the audience did and didn't do not so many years ago. But in the U.S., where the film's surveillance state theme tickles the scaredy-bone of the kind of upper-middle viewer who goes to Art houses (I'm one of them), the raves are more disturbing. They reveal a mixture of moral self-pity and moral self-regard, a sense that we are all caught in a terrible system not of our making, subject to the whims of powerful Bad Men, whom we resist by going to the cinema, there to be transformed by Art.

Were such an aesthetic cliche trotted out to redeem Germany's upper middle-class 60 years ago, it would have been denounced as horrendous. That it is being used -- not in Germany, but here -- to assuage upper middle-class anxieties about political impotence, in a country and time where real resistance (and real art) is actually possible is, like the CP fatcat humping away at the morally vacant actress in The Lives of Others,, stupid, vulgar, and vain to the point of obscenity.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Scott Carlson, "On The Record, All the Time," The Chronicle of Higher Education 02/09/07

How is a magazine article like a message in a bottle? In that it's read differently by people you know, and particularly people with whom you've lost touch. Most of my magazine stories take me months to report and write, which means I publish infrequently enough that my name is hardly a ubiquitous presence within mainstream media. One of the upsides of that is that people I haven't heard from stumble across an article and read it in part as a letter -- a resumption of some conversation we had in the past. And then they write a letter back.

Such is the case with an old friend and colleague of mine at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson, who ran across some story and wrote me about a project he's contemplating. About memory, and, appropriately enough, "lifelogging," the practice of recording one's entire life. Some futurists see it coming sooner rather than later, and for a variety of reasons other than narcissism. Scott decided to get a head start. He bought a digital recorder and hung a sign around his neck that said "Warning: This conversation may be recorded."

The results -- along with a survey of the state of lifelogging -- are recorded, as it were, in Scott's latest article for The Chronicle, "On The Record, All The Time." It's fascinating stuff. As it happens, I've been thinking about some related subjects lately for a possible Rolling Stone piece on futurists and "The Singularity," a tech idea that finds its most sci-fi fulfillment in the prediction that we are rapidly approaching a point at which we'll be able to "upload" our brains -- our "selves" -- into computers. "Total Recall," the name of a Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick based on a Philip K. Dick story, won't be just an option; it'll be plain reality.

Well, maybe. Despite the predictions of some heavyweight scientists, I wasn't able to find much evidence that we're really close to this happening. The tech just isn't there, at least, not yet. But maybe I was thinking too sci-fi, after all -- maybe the tech is there, and Scott bought it for a hundred bucks at Radio Shack. The people around Scott seemed to think so:
I was a freak. At the farmers' market, the man who sells Communist Party newspapers picked me out right away. "So if I told you my name" — and he told me his name and some information about himself — "you would record all of that?"

"I just did," I said.

Out in public, no one asked me to turn off my recorder, but few people went out of their way to talk to me. In the office, colleagues asked me to turn off the recorder every other day, usually to relate a juicy bit of gossip or gripe about some office drama. Journalists are accustomed to the conventions of going off the record, even in private life.

My wife, who is also a journalist, banned recording at home for the first week because she said I acted like I was "on stage." I had noticed that, too. I never really forgot that the recorder was on, and now and then I sensed I was talking differently, as if to a crowd. I consciously avoided saying things that might be deemed politically incorrect or downright gross, although some of that slipped out and into my memex.

One weekend I got tired of wearing the recorder and put it in a drawer. I felt liberated in a way that is hard to describe. That Sunday I found myself pacing the house and whispering to no one — something I often do when I'm alone and trying to work out ideas for stories I'm writing. I realized I rarely did this when I had the recorder on. It was like I was afraid someone would catch me acting schizophrenic.

But I'm probably the only person who will ever listen to the recordings, so what was I worried about?

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on privacy, explains my anxiety through a concept from Jewish law called hezzek re'iyyah, or "the injury caused by being seen." Jewish law says that the mere possibility of unwanted observation, even if no one is really watching, injures a person's sense of privacy.

Those are ethical and emotional issues. But as nonfiction writer, you'd think people like Scott and me would be thrilled about the possibilities. Well, I'm not. Another one of Scott's talking heads explains why the prospect of total recall is deadening to pleasures of this business:
Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard University, says some of the appeal of her profession is the intrinsic mystery of people and the stories she can pull together from scant evidence.

"There is no part of the sensibility of total recall of the minutiae of my life that appeals to me, and encountering another human being through that medium as a researcher feels a little unsavory," she says.

"If I could know what George Washington was thinking when he wrote his will, emancipating his slaves — sure, I would like to know that," she says. "Would I want him exposed to me in a way where I couldn't even have the curiosity of that question? ... It seems horrible."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana; Kirk Douglas and Henry Kissinger, friendship

I've been trapped in my box, as I call the industrial space by the Gowanus Canal in which I write, trying to finish the last pages of my book. My reading has been almost entirely work-related, but not tedious. Today, I bought a fresh copy of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which I read years ago. I was looking for an epigraph for a chapter, but I wound up buying another Greene novel as well. Our Man in Havana. Here are its first lines:
"That nigger going down the street," said Dr. Hasselbacher standing in the Wonder Bar, "he reminds me of you, Mr. Wormold." It was typical of Dr. Hasselbacher that after fifteen years of friendship he still uses the prefix Mr -- friendship proceeded with the slowness and assurances of a careful diagnosis. On Wormold's death-bed, when Dr. Hasselbacher came to feel his failing pulse, he would perhaps become Jim.

The Negro was blind in one eye and one leg was shorter than the other; he wore an ancient felt hat and his ribs showed through his torn shirt like a ship's under demolition.

That was as far as I read before I decided to buy it. What I love about the opening of Our Man is Greene's indirection. Greene was not a racist, and anyone familiar with his work would not suppose he uses "nigger" absent-mindedly. No, the word is meant to shock; not by itself, but by the casualness with which it is redressed by Wormold, who digresses on Dr. Hasselbacher before asserting "Negro" in the slur's place and proceeding with a description. First, we receive data about Hasselbacher; second, about the black Cuban. But every word is revealing the milquetoast spy Wormold, "our man" of the title, especially his distaste for Hassebacher's racism and his cautiousness in responding to it.

On the subject of indirection, skullduggery, and strange friendships -- yes, this will be a thin connection -- I want to record a few words from a memo I found on an exciting new (to me) research tool provided by the NYU library, a searchable database of declassified documents. This one is the transcript of a 1971 phone conversation between Henry Kissinger and Kirk Douglas, the actor. It's hot stuff -- it wasn't declassified until 2004. The exchange starts with the two men chortling about a "very pretty blond girl" Kissinger wound up with at a party. Neither remembers her name, but both laugh over how dumb blonds are. Then Douglas gets down to business:

Douglas: Where can I reach Billy Graham?

Kissnger: I don't know but I can find out for you.

D: If you find out where he is, tell him that I plan to call him.

K: Can you tell me what about?

Kirk Douglas, who is Jewish, wants to make a TV special about religion. He's going to have Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Muhammad Ali, and, if Kissinger will wrangle him, Billy Graham.

D: Would this be a problem for you?

K: No. I like him. He wrote me a nice letter and I want to acknowledge
it anyway.

D: I think this would be something very interesting for him to do because
he relates to young people.

K: Have you ever been to one of his meetings?

D: No, but I have watched him on television

K: I went to two of his revival meetings. At the end he spoke in
a very soft voice and it is really unbelievable how they all started to
come up. It is to me very moving. You ought to go to one of his revival meetings. When those people
step forward, it lasts as long as his speech was. His speech is very
strong and traditional but he talks in a much gentler way when he asks
them to come forward.

D: Were you ready to go forward?

K: No, but I was very impressed.

D: I don't know if you are aware of the tremendous religious movement
there is. The top selling record if religious songs that talk about Jesus
Christ, the Lord, God.

Such spiritual heavy lifting tuckers them out, so they return to their favorite subject, the ladies. Both agree that Marlo Thomas is "a bright girl." Douglas invites Kissinger out to LA for what he promises will be "an interesting dinner party." Then Kissinger giggles. "Why are you laughing?" Douglas asks. "We"--Henry Kissinger and Kirk Douglas--"are practically going steady," says Kissy.
D: Yes, but look, what you are doing on the religious, spiritual revolt in the
country. I don't know if you really are aware to the extent this is taking

K: I don't know if I am.

D: Are you behaving yourself in Washington?

K: I play on the West Coast, I behave myself in Washington.