“How False it all seemed”: The Book you expected to
suck, which didn’t
There’s a scene in Charles Bukowski’s great coming-of-age novel, Ham on Rye, in which the protagonist Henry Chinaski discovers the magic of books. I can’t quite remember if he discovers, a la Bradbury, how to stay drunk on the words before or after he discovers the joys of being literally drunk, but it happens sometime in mid-pubescence, while Hank is going through hell. He breezes through Faulkner and Hemingway, finding himself a bit stumped by the former but counting himself an acolyte of the latter (at first at least; Bukowski always went back and forth with Hemingway). He encounters the works of John Dos Passos, and pronounces them not great, but good enough, which is about right. At one point he gets his hopes up after finding a book with the title Bow Down to Wood and Stone, but he soon realizes that the content cannot live up to the title. Then he discovers D.H. Lawrence. It’s a story about a pianist who’s slowly losing his mind. How false it all seemed at first, Hank muses. But as he reads on, he realizes that the tale is a very worthy one indeed. I think we’ve all had a similar experience. There’s a book or a writer whose work we may look at askance, as perhaps a bit precious or pretentious, or just boring, and yet we start the work, however reluctantly, only to discover that it is in fact damn good. My moment came when I encountered the book Stoner, by John Williams. I never would have sought it out on my own, but for some reason my father sent it to me sometime during my last year in the Army. At that time I was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, running out the clock on my contract with Uncle Sam, whose lease on my weary soul was about to expire. I was also trying to become a writer, and if Stephen King’s old quip about cashing a check for a story makes one talented, I guess I was also talented. Or at least talented enough to pay for a cab ride or stuff a sizeable tip into a stripper’s G-string. During that last fateful year of my time in the Army, first year of my literary career (if you can call it that), I had developed a bit of a strip club habit that threatened to spiral out of control into a full-blown addiction. But that’s a story for another day, or frankly one that doesn’t even need telling. Each Friday after final formation, I’d fall out, hail a cab, and go to a hotel, where I would proceed to write a short story. I’d polish up the short story on Saturday, maybe send it out Saturday night, and then head back to base and my barracks to get ready for the next week as a regular Joe in an air defense artillery battalion. Of course during those weekends at the La Quinta hotel, I’d have to pause to eat (usually at the Village Inn) and sleep, and I’d also do some reading in my downtime. Mostly I read Philip Dick, Joe Haldeman, or maybe some Gary Philips if I was in the mood for something pulpy rather than a mind-bending bout of SF. Out of respect to my father though, and with some trepidation, I started Stoner. How false it all seemed, the most cliched and depressing grist for a literary writer too respectable to tell a story with plot, action, and all of those other base elements that go into making something actually entertaining. Yes, Stoner was that dread and musty artifact of that most rarified of the literary classes: a campus novel. What’s the old Haldeman quote? “Bad books on writing tell you to ‘WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW’, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.” William Stoner is a young man who goes to college at the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture. At some point during his undergrad years he discovers Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Reading about bare tree branches trembling in the cold gives young Stoner a sort of epiphany, and he decides to get his MA in English instead of returning back to the family farm to make stuff grow. At this point I thought I had an idea how the novel would unfold. Stoner’s changing of his major would be a source of tension between him and his salty old yeoman planter of a father. He’d meet a young coed who’d eventually become a henpecking wife whose scolding or cold indifference would send him running into the arms of another young coed when he himself was no longer so young, and so on and yada-yada. Here’s the thing, though. Most of that didn’t happen. Instead the focus of the book tightened to become about Stoner’s quiet faith in the ostensibly humble life he had chosen for himself. There are interdepartmental intrigues with dishonest and conniving profs, and students whose ambition and mendacity are far more well-honed than their creative faculties or passion for poetry. There are major historical events that sweep through the larger world, but merely cast their shadows over the university, resulting in manpower shortages on the homefront that makes Stoner’s path through the professional ranks perhaps a bit easier than it otherwise might have been. But Stoner doesn’t politic well and so a sinecure or even a well-earned cushy seat remains well out of reach. And, yes, there is tension between Stoner and his wife, especially as concerns the rearing of their daughter, but the novel remains centered on the vault of the man’s unbroken mind, where his faith in the words is never destroyed. The book makes its case for the moral rectitude of Stoner’s position without a bunch of loud or obvious melodramatic scenes. Most of what Stoner thinks remains just that, thoughts unuttered but nurtured until his convictions become nigh-religious. His refusal to be swept up in the massive, epoch-changing events of his time (the Great War, the Great Depression, the Bombing of Pearl Harbour) causes the seemingly minor events of his life to assume a grandeur such minor victories deserve, but which we rarely if ever afford them. “War,” as Thomas Mann once observed, “is the coward’s evasion of the problems of peace.” I might not have believed that before I joined the Army and went to Iraq, but I certainly believed it afterwards. War, as bad as it is, divides one’s life into easily separable “before” and “after” periods, unburdening it of the complexities that unbroken continuity brings to life as most people live it: the unrelieved pressures of work, home, work, the cultivating of relationships, the repairing of them when they’re damaged, the acceptance of their state as irreparable when we recognize that they can’t be mended. All of this is hard to deal with, complicated, messy. War is undoubtedly messy (debriding a wound takes forever) but it’s simple and straightforward and it is something that by its very intense nature confers a meaning on a life, even if that meaning is cliched, and frankly at root a lie. Stoner, as Steven Almond pointed out in his fine study of the work, is about genuine bravery as it is quietly exercised, rather than as it is commonly construed and loudly proclaimed. There’s something about the pacing and quality of Stoner that made it immensely readable. It was by no means a page-turner in the traditional sense, and yet the way the author controlled the unfolding of time, dilating a moment between Stoner and a student here, contracting a season or the duration of a World War there, made it feel as if the reader were being given a peek into the mechanism of time as it is actually viewed from the outside, by a deistic god or whatever great timekeeper exists beyond the Veil of Maya. Imagine an elder being (less eldritch than one of those in Lovecraft’s bestiary) letting us view a human through the lens of deep time and you’re in the neighborhood of the strange and frankly miraculous feeling the book evokes. As someone once said of the Stanley Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon, it captures the shape of a life, not with a plodding dogged Dickensian determination. It’s not in the tradition of epics that take us from someone’s childhood to old age, but rather uses the fine-honed eye of a miniaturist or a jeweler who knows exactly where to look and what to overlook. Not only is it an engrossing, quick read; it is actually a fairly short novel, which makes the wealth of its content all the more remarkable. Reading Stoner I felt like the boy in Michael Ende’s The Never-Ending Story (or maybe it was just the movie version), who kept shaking his head as he read deeper into the tale of Atreyu and discovered that the young and intrepid hero was aware of the boy reading of his adventures. That’s impossible. It should have been impossible: a book about a guy who starts agricultural school, who switches his major upon reading the Bard, and then proceeds to spend his life teaching, waging some kind of internal and silent battle against the forces of the world which seem to take scant notice of him and his humble doings. I think I read the whole book that weekend at the hotel, never once understanding exactly what trick or strange twist of magic made it so readable when I had expected to chuck it down after a few pages, politely evading any questions my father might ask about its contents, should our twice-monthly phone conversations stray toward the book he’d gifted me. I doubt I got any writing done that weekend at the hotel, but I know that, had I written rather than reading Stoner, it would have been a much poorer use of my time.
Breaking Ice with Axes, putting out Fires with Gasoline
Franz Kafka said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Along similar lines, David Bowie, in Ashes to Ashes, cries out for an axe to break the ice. I personally have nothing against axes. Besides which, who am I to argue with Joseph K. or the Thin White Duke? It’s hard to say exactly what either man meant with his words, and since they’re dead it’s not like I can ask them now. Here’s what it makes me think about, though: Most of our days consist of repeated actions. For most people, this means getting up, going to work, coming home. The luckiest among us genuinely enjoy our work, but relief for most of us comes during the weekend. Some people get drunk; others go out dancing. Still others just sit around the house and relax. These activities certainly relieve pressure, help to “thaw” one from the freeze induced by doing the same thing over and over again, day in and day out. But here’s the thing: if your method of “thawing” (we’ll just stick with that term) is the same day in and day out, eventually that becomes another form of freezing. Big-brained thinkers call this the “hedonic treadmill,” an example of the concept of hedonic limit. Briefly, here’s how hedonic limit works. Say you get on the treadmill to go for a little jog. You set the machine for 3.5 miles per hour. And because you start out walking on the treadmill at a slow pace, you feel this increase in pace as a jolt to your system. Maybe you enjoy the speeding up of your heartrate, or how opening your stride and placing your feet on the treadmill matches the time signature of the music on your i-pod as you run. Maybe you’re hungover and the whole thing is agony, and the first beads of sweat that break on your forehead smell like hundred-proof liquor. Regardless, you feel the change in speed from barely moving to going 3.5 miles per hour. After a while, however, whether in the groove or still hungover, that jog at 3.5 miles per hour starts to feel like walking, or even as if you were at a standstill. Unless you’re really hungover, in which case any exercise remains a nigh-unbearable agony. In order to get the same feeling you got speeding up from zero to 3.5 mph, you now have to go faster than 3.5. The excitement came from the sensation of speeding up, not necessarily going at a speed that you can objectively perceive as faster than your starting rate. You only realize you’re going faster than you started out when you glance at the treadmill’s readout. Your body has adjusted to this speed, though, and comes to regard it as almost a form of rest. You have been introduced to the concept of hedonic limit via the example of hedonic treadmill, while jogging on the literal treadmill. This concept explains why even if you’re one of those privileged few who does not have to work, you will feel the same freeze as those whose life is mostly a long, monotonous slog. Because whatever pleasures you indulge in, you will become acclimated to them, and in order to receive the same stimulation that you once got, you will have to up the ante. The story of the dissolute rich man who squanders his wealth and soul in search of some ultimate high is familiar enough to all of us now to have withered into a hackneyed trope. Right now I’m reading a police procedural called Heat from Another Sun, about a Houston-based billionaire whose penchant for reels of graphic war footage eventually lead him to commission a snuff film. That man is running way too damn fast on his treadmill. Both numbness that comes from doing the same thing over and over again, or the numbness that comes from trying to break the ice by trying to shock the nervous system can be circumvented with the creative act. Any creative act. Take either the books that Kafka wrote or the songs Bowie composed. What you have is a way to navigate the numbness stemming from dutiful obedience to the day’s laws, or the insensibility produced when we try too hard to satisfy self-destructive, Dionysian urges we indulge in at night trying to escape. The creative act introduces spontaneity, a break from the predictable, by its very nature. Consider: The English language features more than a million words total, but this includes rarely used chestnuts like “tatterdemalion” or “melioristic.” Your average person whose only reading consists of tabloids will still have access to roughly 20,000-30,000 words, and because they also have access to the internet this automatically gets bumped up to something like 170,000 words. I was never good at math, but if you know even a little bit about exponents you can see that your chances for variation- new sentences with which to surprise yourself, turns-of-phrase to admire or that embarrass you with their clunkyness (failure breaks as much ice as success)- offer a kind of limitless field of play. Your piano only has twelve notes, and you’re even a bit more limited if you keep things confined to the pentatonic scale (the black keys). But the law of exponents still means that when you play the piano the ability to mix and match notes gives you a musical icebreaker nonpareil that can offer unlimited relief from the routine. Despite the fact that there are far more words than musical notes, music is a far superior form of expression to writing. I think Kurt Vonnegut said as much, more pithily than I can currently recall, or even paraphrase (I’m pretty tired right now). I always imagine the mind and spirit like the skin. Touch one spot on the skin and it can feel good, produce a rush of blood and stippling of goosebumps as you provoke the nerve endings in an unpredictable manner. Continually rub the same spot and the nerve endings become inured, then aggravated by the repetition. Move to another spot and the sensation of pleasure begins anew. A creative outlet introduces a fount of inexhaustible spontaneity in a well-regulated world. Conversely and just as therapeutic is that, if your life is chaotic, the creative act introduces an order, a set of rules (grammatical or musical) that’s just as salvific. Is this outlet enough? Obviously not for some people, because plenty of writers and musicians have become drug addicts or committed suicide, or both. But joy is sometimes a dangerous thing, as its intoxication can call out for a potentiator, something to enhance the already exquisite rush. But Bowie, who once had a mother of a cocaine addiction, eventually got clean, and said that after trying everything from satanism to pottery it was music that got finally got him there, rescuing him from the abyss. Good enough for Bowie (or Kafka), good enough for me.
Many moons ago I had this buddy. This buddy wrote a book featuring an angsty, Holden Caufield-esque protagonist who railed against all sorts of things, from great injustices to minor nuisances. One of the things that pissed this character off was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle. He said something like, He writes impossibly escapist bullshit in which good is too good and evil is too evil. Escapist fantasy has been pissing off writers for a long time now. I recently ran across this old chestnut by Robert Bloch, firing off a missive to the editor of Weird Tales, telling him he’d had enough of Robert E. Howard and his damnable Conan: “‘I am awfully tired of poor old Conan the Cluck, who for the past fifteen issues has every month slain a new wizard, tackled a new monster, come to a violent sudden end that was averted (incredibly enough!) in just the nick of time, and won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchant for nudism won her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration... I cry: ‘Enough of this brute and his iron-thewed sword-thrusts-may he be sent to Valhalla to cut out paper dolls.’” It's a nice takedown, curmudgeonly enough for the reader to perhaps experience a bit of surprise when they learn the author of said-letter was actually about a decade younger than the man-child he was attacking. Is it such a bad thing to want to escape when you write, though? And is this evasion of the pain and pathos of “serious fiction” somehow a shirking of the writer’s innate duty? Writing itself is probably a shirking of one’s duty, especially if that duty is to earn a living and be a productive member of society. And I have a hard time begrudging anyone their flight from pain, even if the retreat that helps them in the short term hurts them in the long run. Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, obviously had demons, and was tortured enough by the death of his mother to take his own life shortly after she expired. But I don’t think tying a bedspread around his chest with a clothespin and pretending it was cape hurt him all that much. And Conan the Cimmerian won Howard a minor fame during his lifetime, and also paid his bills, which is the sine qua non of adulthood. There’s a movie about Howard’s abortive relationship with small-town schoolteacher Novalyne Price (played by Renee Zellweger) that addresses his arrested development and flight from the adult world. The movie’s only a cut or two above the standard made-for-TV fare. Most of it shows us Novalyne and Howard strolling side-by-side (rarely hand-in-hand) discussing themes both weighty and inconsequential as the sere brown expanse of Cross Plains, Texas passes behind them. The movie (based on the book by Price, One who walked Alone) suggests that Novalyne was unsuccessful in her attempts to wean Howard away from his Oedipal dependence on Mama. Neither could she steer him away from his one-man cosplay adventures through town, or trick him into donning a more appropriate costume, like, say a groom’s black tie. Not all of the futile efforts were expended by Novalyne, however. Howard tried in vain to wean Ms. Price away from her gig as schoolteacher, toward the Dark Side where she might try her hand at the disreputable but more spiritually rewarding job of writer. Alas, Ms. Price wrote nothing after giving the world her account of her brief, less-than-torrid encounter with the quixotic, small-town scribe. And she has since died. I’m frankly not sure here, though, whether Howard needed to be weaned away from Conan, even if it might have saved his life (and I doubt it would have). Besides which I don’t think that escapism is truly possible, or that a writer can shirk their duty to the truth (assuming they have one) even if they try. And not everyone who retreats into fantasy eventually puts a bullet in their head. And who knows? Maybe Bloch was just pissed that Conan kept getting the covers over at Weird Tales.
Everyone is familiar with the writer Leo Tolstoy, and it would be a waste of time to attempt to summarize his achievements in world literature (although there are some who regard him as turgid, a bit of bore). I bring him up now only because a quote attributed to him is relevant to these late night musings, a subject I’ve been turning over in my mind. The quote goes something like this: “Good versus evil is interesting, but good versus good is more interesting.” That’s a paraphrase (Russian no doubt loses something when tortured to produce English). Great literature (and movies and wrestling matches) can be made on the storyline of good versus evil. Fairytales don’t require moral ambivalence, or a villain with an origin story to explain what they do. Some queen is evil and therefore decides to put a curse upon the land, and someone who is innately good takes it upon themselves to thwart said-queen. What about tales of good versus good, though? These may be more interesting than tales of good versus evil because they force the reader (or viewer) to not just cheer someone on, but to decide whom to support in battle. Making things even more complicated is that one’s loyalties can change based on how the two combatants conduct themselves in their war. Parallel to what Leo Tolstoy said are some words by character actor Joe Don Baker. For those not familiar with him, Joe Don played the lawman in the original Walking Tall, a film about a sheriff (an ex-wrestler, incidentally) who stood up against a townful of bad guys. Joe Don has also played his share of baddies, though, including a sadistic hitman in the fast-paced, underrated crime gem Charley Varrick. Joe Don’s range as an actor is as wide as the moral spectrum (or his waistline, for that matter). He can scowl and smolder. He can squint and grimace with his flouncy jowls until he resembles the unholy offspring of Winston Churchill and a largemouth bass. He can convincingly play a hayseed sheriff who leers, spits baccy and asks a city boy, You ain’t from around here, are ya? And he can be just as convincing as a wide-eyed everyman who’d be overwhelmed by the wickedness of the world except that he needs his composure, wits, and toughness to put a dent in said-evil. Someone once asked Joe Don in an interview if he liked playing bad guys more than good guys. His response (perhaps worthy to stand alongside Tolstoy’s) went something like this: “Does any bad guy ever see himself as bad?” The bad guy is driven by a knack for rationalization. And who knows, maybe their reasoning is in fact solid. Let’s perform a thought experiment to see if sometimes it’s impossible to tell good from evil. Say there is a billionaire who owns warehouses across the planet where goods are packaged, sold, shipped, and transshipped for global markets. He is the richest man on Earth. Let us call him Joffrey Tidewater (it’ll work, as it sounds slightly exotic but also slightly villainous). Joffrey treats his workers like crap. He is a megalomaniac perfectionist, obsessed with Taylorism and all of the other pet theories of early twentieth century efficiency crafted by the great robber barons who preceded him. Only unlike those forebears, Joffrey Tidewater has no social conscience. Rather than endow museum galleries with edifying art or university libraries with tomes, he sinks his money into space exploration efforts that smack more of vanity than a pioneering spirit. In this telling, Joffrey Tidewater will strike the viewer or reader as a real asshole. If the teller of our tale takes us back to Joffrey’s childhood, to reveal Joffrey lived in a tarpaper shack, malnourished and shivering from the cold, then maybe we’ll factor that into our overall assessment of him. Sure, he’s an asshole, we’ll reason, but now he’s an asshole whose assholery has been contextualized. But let’s make things more difficult, more interesting for the reader (or less elemental, if you prefer the fairytale version of things where evil is evil and good is good and that is that). Let’s say Joffrey started out as an idealistic, if somewhat nutty and libertarian-leaning businessman, beginning his mail-order business from a basement. By day he worked as a custodian in a building and at night he returned to his cot in that building’s basement where he lighted incense in a sandalwood holder lain before a red resin bust of Ayn Rand. In his free time, he sought escape in musty Golden Age science fiction paperbacks. He’d curl up with these dusty pulps, thumbing their yellow pages while leaning against a warm boiler flush against an exposed brick wall. He’d listen to the hum of the boiler and pretend it was a fusion engine on an interstellar ark traveling between galaxies. He’d read guileless fantasies of a future that never was, where men with fishbowl helmets and zap guns defended utopian colonies (and damsels corseted in bullet bras) from evil green lizardmen. One day Tidewater’s business takes off, and he begins to reinvest in it, and to expand, and to dream big. He moves out of the basement and now owns his own cedar lodge perched atop a snowy escarpment overlooking some ski slopes. His business has grown large enough now that it’s time to go public. He decides to go the Trader Joe’s route and be a compassionate employer. He’ll offer his workers flexible hours, adequate medical and dental care. He’ll throw in other perks like scholarships and childcare meant to guarantee loyalty and professionalism from the lowest stock boy (a job Tidewater once held as a kid) on up to the public relations staff. He’s drafting up a moving speech he intends to make about the responsibilities of the rulers to the ruled. He has Carnegie in mind, reasoning that even the robber barons built monumental libraries and public works. While drafting the memo, however, a whirlpool-like tunnel appears before him, a yawning green oculus of light in which radiant funnels circle each other, like coiled strands in a radioactive Fibonacci spiral. A green man steps out of the incandescent portal. He’s bulb-headed and holds a laser pistol gripped tight to the suctioned radular cups lining the insides of his spatulate fingers. The green man makes it sweet and simple. “You, Tidewater, have an obligation to your species which is greater than your obligation to your employees. We have used our Tachyon Time Jumper to discover that it is imperative you forego this seemingly compassionate plan, and that instead you save as much money as you can. You will then use this capital to build a fleet of spacecraft, ostensibly to be used by the vainer and richer homo sapiens among you keen to travel to Low Earth Orbit as tourists. However, your private space exploration firm, if begun in earnest now, will eventually be responsible for creating a star armada that will one day defend not just homo saps, but all of the sentient beings in the universe. True compassion requires sacrifice. This is yours. Your gift to the universe in the long term must come at the expense of the comfort of your race in the short term. That is all.” The green man disappears back through his portal. Tidewater sits at his desk, stunned into silence, trying to rearrange the papers that scattered to the four winds when the alien emerged via his Tachyon Time Jumper (wasn’t that what he called it?). Joffrey Tidewater wants to dismiss what happened as a dream, an apparition, a bit of undigested soy left over from a hearty vegan lunch consumed earlier this afternoon. But there’s that smell, a cloacal musk that’s hard to escape. It emanates from the stream of slime the green man left lingering on the floor. The mucilaginous drip ends at the far wall where he first saw the portal, and the space still faintly glows as if someone had smashed a photophore-rich fish against the plaster. It was real. It happened. Then the phone rings, startling Tidewater so that he jumps in his ribbed leather office chair. He reaches for the phone, picks it up off the cradle. “Hello?” “You said you had a big announcement?” Tidewater is on the edge of being a billionaire, and the reporter on the other end of the line wants to hear what he has to say. “Yes.” Tidewater spins in his thronelike seat (which feels even more kingly, now that he understands the power and burden that lie with him). “I previously stated that we were considering modeling our employee benefits’ package on the popular Trader Joe’s grocery chain. Unfortunately, that announcement was based on previous, and ultimately inaccurate calculations. Associates at Tidewater will be paid minimum wage, and are entreated to perform calisthenic exercises before and after work to limit risk of injury while on-shift. Dental hygiene is also not a matter for the company to involve itself in. Although I should add that employees will receive discounts on any Colgate-brand products purchased through the company’s store, or shipped online via Tidewater Unlimited. That is all.” He hangs up the phone, a chill working its way through his body, followed by a bout of nausea that sends him heading for the toilet to test out the bowl’s motion sensor-activated Smart FlushTM feature. He pukes, discovering the smart toilet works (available $69.99 from Tidewater Unlimited Online). That’s the good news. The bad news is that he’s evil. Or is he? Hell, I don’t know. Ask Tolstoy. Or Joe Don.
Awhile back a writer buddy of mine mentioned he had a book in his to-read pile with the title of Nobody wants to read your Shit. He never got around to reading it, telling me, “I’ve had enough tough love,” or words to that effect. I personally never tire of finding new ways to remind myself that I suck, and so I decided to give the book a whirl. The book is as direct as the title suggests. The author is a successful writer who started out working on Madison Avenue and later had success writing The Legend of Bagger Vance, a story about a numinous negro who helps white protagonists work on their golf handicaps. One of the author’s insights is that the mechanics of storytelling may have some universal features across all times and cultures, but there are certain idiomatic quirks from country to country it still helps to be aware of. For instance: in American stories, the main character must be the ultimate agent of their destiny. People in other cultures (he cites the Russians) are more comfortable viewing the protagonist as the plaything of forces stronger than himself, whose self-realization (or progress over the character arc) comes when they realize they have no control over anything. But your American character, whether he or she fails or succeeds, should do so by his or her own hand, if you hope to have a readership larger than six embittered, beard-stroking baristas. One could speculate on the reasons that this is so, assuming one accepts the premise (and I guess I more or less do). America is a relatively young country that has never lost a war on its own soil. Or, in the delightful phrasing of poet Charles Bukowski, “The problem with these people is that their cities have never been bombed and no one has ever told their mothers to shut up.” It’s easier to believe in the ability of one person to challenge the world and win when it’s so deeply engrained in our collective cultural DNA. Whether it’s true or not is beside the point; we respond to films like Rocky, giving our cynicism a little caesura for a couple hours no matter how deeply rooted we think it is. The quintessential American is Horatio Alger, writing about young, impoverished boys pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to rise to positions of wealth and prominence. The quintessential Russian tale is Nikolai Gogol’s lowly clerk in The Overcoat, who scrapes and saves for a new garment and still ends up freezing to death. I think Dostoevsky or Tolstoy even said words to the effect that We all came out from beneath Gogol’s overcoat. Are there exceptions to this rule, though? Distinctly American tales in which the main character is someone to whom things happen rather than one who does things? Men and women, who, in grammatical terms, are indirect objects rather than subjects? I think so. For the sake of argument, take Goodfellas, starring Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, the mafia associate made famous for his betrayal of various Luchese Family bigwigs. I won’t recap the movie’s plot, nor its brilliance, nor its cultural permanence in cinema. It would be as absurd as me trying to describe the music of the Beatles to someone. Either you’re familiar with the work or you’ve been living feral and in the woods, too busy foraging for food and evading predators to bother with pop culture. Goodfellas’ relevance to my ramblings is that the central character of the film is a man seemingly without qualities. He is adrift in a sea of larger-than-life personalities, men willing to use violence over the slightest perceived insult, men who are basically supernovas of unbridled passion exploding in every direction. They have massive appetites for sex, money, and literally food in the cases of some of the more rotund and fleshy gindaloons. And because they have the muscle to break anyone who might thwart them and the resources to keep the party going, there are basically no checks on their behavior. Watching the waspish establishment types trying to corral hotblooded Irishmen and Italians like Tommy and Jimmy as they go on their crime sprees is like watching an overworked superego trying to reason with an irrepressible id. But Henry is mostly a cipher, a dud. Despite being the main character, and being a naturally motormouthed raconteur (most of the film consists of his voiceover narration), he does very little. Even the violence done by the mob on a daily basis is something he mostly watches, usually with a mixture of dread and horror in his eyes. He’s most a spectator in the film’s key scene, in which his crew murder made man Billy Batts. It’s this act that divides the mafia (and America) into two separate eras, one where rules and tradition are mostly adhered to, and another in which they are jettisoned and disillusionment sets in. His involvement in the infamous killing consists mostly of cleaning the “skunk” smell of the man’s corpse from the back of his car’s trunk. Later, when the body needs to be dug up and moved to another location, he spends most of his time puking his lungs out while Tommy and Jimmy do the digging. His one major act in the film is to rat on his friends. And because this act essentially strips him of whatever identity he had, it only compounds his cipherhood rather than giving him agency. Henry ratting immediately unpersons him in the eyes of his friends and even to some extent in his own eyes. He notes as much in the film’s final scene after getting resettled by Witness Protection, as the camera pans over drab suburban tract houses plotted to the featureless flat horizon. I get to live the rest of my life as a schnook, a nobody. The blandishments that came to Henry as criminal- the closetful of Italian suits, the wingtip shoes, the sugar bowl full of cocaine- were the only things that gave him any sense of self. And now they’re gone. Interviews I’ve seen about the real Henry Hill only confirm the impression of a man who wasn’t there. His own sister in one interview expressed her lack of shock that her brother would rat people out. “Henry was always a rat.” And yet it’s because he’s not much of a “doer” that Henry Hill makes such a good observer. Even in the grips of a cocaine-induced nervous breakdown, he remains a reliable narrator. That, I suppose, begs the question: is the man/woman of action not the best person to relate events? Is doing in and of itself something that precludes one from seeing, or at least relating? I’d be tempted to say “Yes,” or at least entertain the idea, if there weren’t so many ready examples to the contrary staring us plainly in the face. Take the droog Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Like Scorsese’s Henry Hill, Kubrick’s Little Alex loves to talk. His voiceover is delivered in the Nadsat argot invented by author Anthony Burgess, rather than the Queens’-Brooklynese of Henry Hill (who related his exploits to crime scribe Anthony Pileggi). But Alex, unlike Henry, is the agent of his own demise and (ostensible) redemption, despite being the plaything of institutional sadists first in prison and then in the medical profession. He finds the time to do everything from raping women to bludgeoning his friends for disobedience, all while keeping his running commentary going. All this is beside the point, though, as Alex is British, not American. That said, it’s worth considering that the person who doesn’t do but merely sees does have roots as an American archetype. Take Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He mostly lives at a remove from the wealthy and beautiful people around whom he orbits, attracted and repulsed by them so that he inhabits a kind of moral Lagrange point ideal for seeing without acting. Nick cannot join the club because he is not rich, anymore than Henry Hill can join the Mafia due to his Irish ancestry on his father’s side. Maybe that’s the key insight to take away from these only tenuously connected musings. Some central characters are observers rather than actors because they frankly have no choice. It isn’t that this type is not as American as apple pie; it’s that the recoiling at this state of affairs is the outgrowth of a specifically American disposition. The Russian would likely just accept it as the natural state of things whereas the American sensibility lashes out against it. Deductive logic would tell us that as America collapses on itself, our films should become more mature and self-reflective, or at least nihilistic. That hasn’t happened, though, as the Dream Factory seems to churn out more and more movies about superheroes saving the world. This attitude certainly made sense in the postwar years of heady optimism, where America was flush with pride after defeating the Axis powers in the Second World War and standards of living were rising across the board. What it portends now, aside from a deep sense of denial, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps I should just leave you with the bardic sagacity of comedian Dave Attell: “When you’re a kid, you think your father is Superman. As you get older, you finally realize that he’s just an alcoholic who walks around the house in a cape.”
“It becomes its own Thing”: Lisa Simpson on Aesthetics
Occasionally I’ll get bored enough to watch a DVD commentary. Either that or I’m just too lazy to take one DVD out, march upstairs to my library (shelf, really) and find another one. People talking over a movie isn’t all that appealing to me (aside from the Mystery Science Theater riffs). That said, I did hear something that stuck with me awhile back when listening to a commentary track for a Simpsons DVD. It was said by Yeardley Smith, the woman who plays Lisa Simpson. Like most professional voice actors, she also has a distinctive speaking voice. Adenoidal might be the best way to describe it, high-pitched but more adorable than grating, well this side of Minnie Mouse. Betty Boop might be a more apt comparison, although there isn’t that weird neotenous sexpot thing happening with Yeardley that bombshell Betty had going. In the commentary in question, Yeardley and some other Simpsons staff were watching an episode, maybe The Old Man and the Lisa (a bona fide classic). Someone asked her, “So when you watch an episode, do you see Lisa and think of her as you?” “No,” Ms. Smith replied. “Because it becomes its own thing.” I think what she meant was that her own voice, her contribution, was subsumed in the overall effort, interweaved with the craftsmanship of the animators, other voice actors, and the musical cues and stings provided by the underrated film and TV composer Alf Clausen. The work of art itself, when properly done, provides relief from the burden of ego and self-consciousness, and all the other petty vagaries that come with being a human being. Art is something made by people, but when done well, sincerely and with great effort and care, we find ourselves seeing the work alone and not the creator behind it. That is ultimately the beauty of art, relief from the burden of being in the struggle that comes with being a person “flattened by trivialities,” as Charles Bukowski once put it. When we interact with each other our guards are up, as if we are in a competition, and at the most basic level we are. For resources, for praise, for jobs, and, at the most primal level, for mates. Art allows us to filter out the extraneous and ugly things about human need and desire that mar communication (even when the work of art in question is focused on human ugliness). It allows us to establish a link with another human that is unburdened by the weight of all this normally heavy baggage. Inferior works of art remind us of all the things we can’t stand about other people and ourselves. How many bad movies have you seen in which you could sense the mercenary nature of everyone involved, the shallowness of the actors and vapidity of the director and screenwriter, buffered by and beholden to nothing greater than momentary trends? Hell may be other people, as Sartre said, but I think Bradbury was right when he suggested we could stay perma-drunk (without the hangover) on the words (and the songs and the films) of others. I think we all struggle with some fears of inferiority, fears that we’re talentless (no matter our level of success or the praise heaped on us or our works that are supposed to serve as concrete benchmarks of our accomplishments). And when we encounter something good created by someone else, the admiration carries a slight undercurrent of jealousy, the threat that our fear of being frauds is going to be exposed in the presence of the real thing. It’s best to just be honest about this. “It was good and I was jealous,” is how Bukowski put it in Ham on Rye when he wrote about his first time reading a story written by his best friend, a fellow aspiring scribe. It’s a sentence not many would be honest enough to write, and a feeling not everyone would even be eager to cop to. To be fair, maybe some of us are actually above such pettiness. Not me, at any rate. Here’s the thing, though: while encountering something good might bring these residual and myriad petty feelings to the surface, when I encounter something great I forget that it was created by a person. My disbelief is suspended and my ego goes with it. Greatness is so rare that when I encounter it, I’m relieved to find that it still exists, no matter the source (well, maybe if my younger brother wrote a great book, I might have to kick his ass). But here’s the other thing: that same egoless spirit in which I received the work was probably the one in which it was conceived. This is the reason, I think, that someone like Norman Mailer could never really craft a great novel (no matter what prize committees or critics say): he was too consciously trying to aspire to greatness to subordinate him and his talent to let something shine through him rather than trying to shine in and of himself. In his book How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card points out that the main difference between poetry and fiction is that fiction impresses at the subconscious level, while poetry has its most striking effect in a much more manifest manner. You read a great poem and think That’s great. You read a great book and think, I believed that. Or, I was transported by that. Your admiration for the author only begins once the book is closed. The experience and not the creator is the focus. Felt everywhere and seen nowhere, as I think Zola or Flaubert said. And if you write a great book or a great poem, what do you feel then? Hell, don’t ask me. I have no idea. When I read something I wrote, and I don’t wince and feel a sense of shame, that’s victory enough for me. Maybe one day I can get to the place where Tolstoy was on his deathbed when his daughter (I think) pulled a book down from the shelves in his paneled library and proceeded to read a passage to him. “That’s beautiful,” Tolstoy supposedly said after she finished. “Who wrote that?” “You did,” his daughter replied. But he had written it so long ago that only now, on his deathbed, could see his work with fresh eyes, a Christian death absolving him not only of his sins in this world but the usual and pesky interposition of his (overly)critical faculty. Half the battle is won or lost in getting to that point where your characters, previously puppets, start to caper around like voodoo dolls, animated by something besides your fingers on the keyboard or the ego lodged in some secret chamber of your mind. Some writers claim it’s an artistic defect in control to let the characters dance too far free of the leash, while others claim that when the creation slips its tether, that’s where the fun starts. Maybe that’s the key. Forget about creating something great. Have fun, instead, amuse yourself first and then go from there.
It’s the little things that break your heart. I remember this one time as a kid going downstairs to the kitchen to get something to eat. I poured myself a bowl of cereal, opened the fridge, and found no milk inside. Being lazy, I didn’t bother to pour the cereal back in the box, or even to dump it in the trashcan (you know you’re lazy when you can’t even be bothered to waste something). A couple hours later I went back downstairs and saw my mom getting ready to go to the grocery store. She turned and said, “I saw where you poured yourself some cereal but couldn’t find any milk. It broke my heart.” She was exaggerating, of course, but there was still enough feeling in her words for them to contain a bit of genuine pain. Mothers are like that, cursed to feel too much, especially toward their most unfeeling children. But apparently sons can be like that, too. I had one of these moments of minor heartbreak the other night, that low threnody that plays through one’s bones and soul, and which once can’t seem to shake despite how silly it all seems. You’re overreacting, you tell yourself. But yourself tells you to go fuck yourself and to let it feel what it wants. It was Halloween and I was driving to the drugstore to pick up some candy for the trick-or-treaters. I always put it off til the last moment, mostly because I don’t get many kids knocking on my door. I joked with my neighbors that there must be a rumor out there that I’m the guy in the neighborhood hiding razor blades inside apples. Except I don’t ever hand out apples, and for the young and processed sugar-obsessed kids, an apple is a horrific enough prospect sans razorblade. Might as well be the one curmudgeonly puritan who passes out tubes of toothpaste. In order to get to the drugstore I have to drive through my old neighborhood. The section where I live now is solidly lower-middle and middle-class, two story brick and vinyl-sided houses inhabited by people who drive exterminator vans and cop cars to work, have their kids in little league and soccer. I could leave a bike in the driveway and not worry too much about it being stolen in the night. My old neighborhood is what people in real estate and those given to a euphemism call “transitional.” There are laundromats and gas stations with a desperate air, as if they’ve just been hit by armed robbers or will be getting stuck up soon. Fumes from the city bus mingle with the scent of fried food, rap music from tricked-out hoopties rattles the window panes in the apartments where kids try to do their homework. It’s a neighborhood where the humble and law-abiding live quietly in the shadow of their louder and more violent neighbors. En route to the store I hit a red light and was forced to stop. To my right was a cemetery that locks its gates early to deter vandalism. To the left was a liquor store, which apparently also sells candy. I saw a group of kids walking into the store dressed in their costumes, boys in their superhero silks and girls in their black witch finery. They were trudging inside to buy themselves some pregame sweets before the big door-to-door push to fill their pillowcases. My heart dropped in my stomach at the bravery of these kids. Despite the cynicism (and frankly danger) all around them were still trying to be kids. They’re not naïve enough to overlook how wrong everything is in the world, and how that wrongness is magnified where they live, but they are still innocent. Their braveness broke my heart. My cowardice, and the cowardice of all of us who are leaving them this world, disgusted me. But then the light turned green, and I drove on and didn’t think about it anymore. At least not consciously. Not until now.
The Right to be Forgotten: Some Musings on Immortality, that stupid Invention of the Living
When I was a young man I wanted to be a writer. I tried for a few years while working crap jobs on the side and living at home with my mother, but I had very little success. I had some very rare acceptances here and there, but even those were for little or no money and eventually it became painfully obvious to me that I would have to give up on my dream, or at least defer it for a while. I made a quite unoriginal decision at that juncture: I would join the Army (during wartime no less) and if I didn’t die or go crazy, I would try this writing thing one more time after I got back, with four years of life experience under my belt and the GI Bill to sustain me while attending college. The plan didn’t quite work. I mean, I started selling stories for token payment, but I did it while still in the Army rather than when I got out. I had told myself to go and live for four years as a soldier and then to return to the cave and to write of my experiences. But after two years the words were flowing through me and I had to write again. I had a simple technique for honing my craft. Every Friday in garrison after falling out from final formation I would pack a bag in the barracks, call a cab, and head to an off-post hotel for the weekend. I would spend Friday writing the story, Saturday editing the story, and Sunday morning I would submit the work before heading back to the barracks in a cab. By the time I got out of the service I already had several short story credits under my belt, my Montgomery GI Bill money that would allow me four years to waste, as well as twenty-thousand dollars or so in my bank account (it is hard to spend a lot of money in a remote outpost in Iraq when your mail comes only sporadically, and then via helicopter or uparmored Humvee). The only things I lacked upon exiting the service were my mind, my body, and my soul. I had a host of injuries to every part of my person ranging from the hip to the shoulder and the testicle; I had PSTD to the point where I could not perform sexually. I was also certain that I was going to hell when I died, or possibly sooner. Other than that, I was doing alright. Eventually, after multiple surgeries and countless stays in VA bughouses I started writing again, only this time instead of short stories I was writing novellas. Some of the novellas sold. Then it was on to novels. Those somehow got published; sure they were of varying quality and the operations that put them out were either micro-presses or fly-by-night outfits, but they weren’t vanity presses. I was living my dream, however ragged its contours may have been in comparison to the seamless vision I’d conjured up in my mind all those days and nights ago lying around as a young man after working a shift at Pizza Hut and living in a small house with my mother, or some years later as a slightly older young man sitting in my barracks’ room waiting for my chance to be free, to have what was left of my body and mind and soul belong to me again instead of to the state or to some petty boss whose life consisted of slaving in some grease pit to make a man he would never meet even richer than he already was. As my career (if you can call it that) progressed, publishers demanded I promote my work, and I was required to do things like track down blurbs from fellow authors and to give readings. I am very much of the school that believes you do not pester people you admire, but since my publishers were adamant, I decided to at least give it the “ole GED try” as my First Sergeant liked to say. And I figured that if I was going to bug someone for blurbs, it should at least be someone I admired. During my time in the Army I really got into crime novels, noir, hardboiled, whatever the hell you want to call it. At some point while in the service and just getting my chops as a writer, I came across a blog hosted by a man named Don Herron, a noir and fantasy aficionado (he wrote a quality book about Conan creator Robert E. Howard). Herron also led the Dashiell Hammett Tour in San Francisco, taking readers through the stomping grounds of Sam Spade, presumably shuttling tourists from one haunt to another via cable car over the rollicking and befogged hills of San Fran. On his blog Don sang the praises of a noir writer named Tom Kakonis, claiming he was heir to the mantle of the late and singular crime writer Charles Willeford, whose work I very much admired. I added the name “Kakonis” to my mental rolodex and didn’t think much more about him for a while after that. Sometime later (while stationed in Germany and still trying to sell stories) I took a supercheap Ryan Air jaunt to Dublin, Ireland, and spent a weekend wandering around the rain-soaked cobbles of the old city. I didn’t do any Stoker or Joyce tours, though I did slip into a small boutique bookshop called Murder Ink. It had everything I could want as a noir fan. There was Chester Himes, William Lindsay Gresham, Howard Browne, Walter Mosley, all the greats, both the prolific and those so given over to melancholy or the bottle that they ended up choosing self-destruction over continued creation as authors. I found a Tom Kakonis book in Murder Ink called Criss Cross, about a once-athletic, now gone-to-seed middle-aged man working security at a big box store during the holidays. The man doesn’t know it, but an attractive girl who works in the shop is about to pull him into a bloody strongarm caper involving her ex-con ex-beau, his dimwitted drug-addled sidekick Ducky, and a whole rococo cast of grotesqueries, including a computer programmer whose only source of sexual satisfaction is having a woman place her hand in a rubber glove, submerse said-hand in Crisco, and then to relentlessly fist him while his flaccid, curtain-like shanks of stretchmark-scarred fat tremble and he writhes in ecstasy. It’s a wild book, some kind of masterpiece, but it didn’t seem to get the love it deserved when it came out. Most of the reviews I read of Kakonis either criticized him as wordy (minimalism is especially prized by most fans of crime fiction) or, strangely enough, because his cast of characters were usually too loathsome to follow across the span of several hundred pages. But I loved his stuff, and when I was hunting blurbs on behalf of one of my books, I finally had a chance (or excuse) to look him up online and call him, tell him how great I thought he was, and to tell him that I was trying to make it myself as a writer. His wife Judy picked up the phone when I called him, and while she obviously functioned as his screener, eventually she became convinced of my good intentions and let her guard down and passed the phone off to the man himself. He was friendly, relaxed, and generous, more bemused than embittered with his fate as a casualty of what he called “the midlist crunch.” He also not only agreed to read and blurb my book, but became a sort of mentor for me throughout my career. Eventually he did what we are all going to do or have already done, which is to say that he died. I only found out about his death one day as I was googling his name and I got an auto-complete assist of “obituary.” After I found out he died, I called his number again. I wanted to not just express my condolences to his wife, but my gratitude. But I got the answering machine. I’m no good at speaking, especially when I know my voice is going to be recorded, but my conscience would not let me just abruptly hang up without saying something. In my disjointed way I said most of what I wanted to, the words spilling out of me, and just as I was about to hang up his wife Judy came on the line. She told me that he had appreciated my friendship, was flattered by my admiration, but that he didn’t want anyone making a big to-do after he was dead. He didn’t even want a funeral, I think. She said, in essence, that he wanted to be forgotten. At the time I remember thinking that for him to be forgotten would be a sort of injustice. Now, and especially in the wee hours of the morning, sitting here in front of this computer monitor, I’m frankly not quite so sure anymore. “Immortality is the stupid invention of the living,” as the cantankerous bard of Skid Row Charles Bukowski once said. I’m starting to think he’s right. I’m starting to think that part of the dignity of death is in the being forgotten, commended back to the soil and returned to whatever great cosmic Ur-trough we’re all born from. If all is vanity, and all is transient, than the shedding of the body and the sloughing off of ego are not only necessary but something to be celebrated rather than bemoaned. And if there is an afterlife, and any dead writer is there haunting that realm, I would hope to God that they have more important things to worry about than the books they wrote to cope with the torment of being trapped in a mortal coil all those years ago. You cannot transcend this realm and maintain a painstaking bibliography of your works at the same time. At some point, I think you not only have to let go of the idea of being important, but of the search meaning itself. When I am finally free of life, I also want to be free of words, too, for while they are my consolation and friend in the late and lonely hours like these, they are also shackles, a reminder of my limitations as a man, an artist, a human being. I’m not quite ready to go as far as William Burroughs and say that words are a virus that needs exterminating (though sometimes I sure feel that way), and I’m not even sure that language is a medium that more readily lends itself to abuse than any other (I think images are much better at that, considering the way they sort of bypass not only the intellect but the conscious mind). It’s hard to say how much solace words provide, versus how much torment they cause, since writing is a form of thinking and we tend to torture ourselves with our endless thoughts, the locutions of the patterns of painful memories and fears playing across the canvas of the mind, or the pixels of this screen. I ask myself if would it be balm to the soul of someone like the departed Edgar Allen Poe to know that some girl has a poster of him on the wall in her bedroom above a bookcase made from wooden planks and red bricks, or if he would get a kick to discover there are reprints of some aquatint of him looking forlorn and immiserated on mezzanine walls above bistros in big box bookstore chains spread across the country. Either he’s been reunited with his Lenore on the other side and all the attention we lavish on him is moot, or the crowing raven wins and it turns out that all that we do, including all that we write, is for naught. Maybe I should think less of Poe and think more of Whitman, whose metaphysical cast of mind was less burdened by romanticism’s morbid obsession with death. I will borrow a couple bars from his Song of Himself, and look for a bit of Tom Kakonis beneath the sole of my shoe tonight. And I guess I’ll continue to sing this song of myself for the time being, at least until I get hit by a bus or develop crippling carpal tunnel syndrome or something.
A Guy getting Shot in Sarajevo can screw up your Sex Life
Traditionally human beings have regarded the history of events as worth documenting, and history’s effects on the individual as much less worthy of note. Most of the time the individual’s role in history was typically confined to the principal movers in the conflicts, say, a Caesar’s recollections about a campaign against some enemy of Rome. Readers in previous ages were obviously aware that individuals were fighting in these setpiece battles, but to read of the account (or even stranger, the personal terror) of some lowly hoplite or spearman in a phalanx would have struck them as bizarre. Why would you want this “worm’s eye view” when it will give you very limited details about the topography of some conflict? Surely a general’s account or even that of some aide-de-camp would be far superior. This started to change for a lot of reasons in the late 19th and early 20th century. This is just an ill-trafficked blog (and I just woke up and the coffee hasn’t quite started to course through the veins), so we won’t go through those reasons tonight in any detail, but just to count a bit of coup: Humanity as a whole became more literate over time, and access to both learning to read and the printing press meant that classes previously unable to articulate much of anything had more time and resources to do so. Also industrialization and advances in weapons technology started to give even the most martial of minds the heebie-jeebies about men being the playthings of their weapons and not the other way around. A man wielding a sword against his foes is the star of the show. Someone sitting behind a caisson and limber in the rear and stuffing mortars into a tube is a mere subaltern to the cannon he’s manning. One might be tempted to add that nascent philosophies such as humanism also changed the focus from what the general saw to what the grunt felt (or what the civilian whose hut was in the way of the shell suffered), but I’m not quite sure about that. Young Paul Bäumer in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is undoubtedly a humanist, a disillusioned soldier and budding pacifist whose world is mostly an interior, private rebuke of the Weltanschauung in which he was steeped from birth. But the deeply pro-war, perhaps even war-worshipping, diarist Ernst Jünger was every bit as fiercely inward-looking and individual-obsessed as the compassionate humanist Bäumer. Jünger’s early fascist leanings didn’t keep him from being as solipsistic in his view of soldiering as any tortured teenaged diarist filling up a moleskin diary with her thoughts, observations, and feelings. You can of course find exceptions to the rule occasionally cropping up even before the modern era, books more concerned with how historical events, especially wars, can ruin an individual life, as opposed to how they change the course of the world. Jakob Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus is a seventeenth century book by a man and about a boy who both view the Thirty Years’ War as a senseless intrusion onto the lives of individuals who have much better things to do with their time than kill or die, things like read, make love, drink wine, wander around in mummers’ bells singing funny songs, et. al. I’m probably not telling the reader anything they don’t already know and I know this well enough myself. Still, sometimes one needs a reminder and hopefully finds some individual account of a lone voice screaming against the Amtrac treads of history grinding bones to meal. And it’s at that point that one can do nothing but marvel. I’ll give you a little example: Recently I was reading Jahrgang: 1902, which I think is called Class of 1902 in English. It’s not about a class that matriculates in 1902, though, but rather about a group of boys who are born in 1902. They’re obviously too young for the Great War, but are at just the right age (and right time in Germany) to valorize war and all things martial, and to fantasize about soldiering as feverishly as they dream of sex. Speaking of sex, there’s a scene early in the book in which the young protagonist, having heard pray tell of this act, arranges with a local rowdy to watch him perform the horizontal mambo with a young girl in the town who’s willing to do it for money. A plan is arranged for our protagonist, E. (his actual name in the book) to pay this boy a nominal fee (plus the fee demanded by the girl) to watch them roll around in a nearby field. It’s planned without the girl’s knowledge, and E. takes up a comfortable but hidden watch where he can play spy and sentry. The rowdy and the young girl lay in the field, proceed to copulate. As they go at it, the sex becomes more intense, and the girl first begins panting, then starts to moan. E. is an innocent who hasn’t been briefed on the details and mechanics of sex, and has only the scantest information which he was able to glean from schoolyard rumor and innuendo. Thus he’s confused about the mystery being revealed to him, although he’s obviously already started to undergo puberty, with an older female relation asking his parents at one point, Hatte die Junge Pollutionen bereits? (“Has the boy had pollutions already?”). He freaks out, shrieking at the horror of the secret world that sex conceals. It is simply nothing but murder! His screams naturally terrify the two who, regardless of their low caste, cannot afford to be caught in flagrante in public making love on the heather. E. turns from the scene, runs in terror toward his house. As he makes his way home, however, he senses a strange level of activity, a bustling among the townspeople whom he passes as he runs over footbridges and stumbles across the cobbles. He’s convinced that the word is already out about the pimply kid murdering the young prostitute for his personal edification. When he gets home, E. finds his father standing there. The setting of the house is described as Biedermeier-esque, staid and solidly middle class, with the parents being educated and steeped in the life of the mind in a way that would have been unheard-of but a couple generations ago in Prussia. The father looks at the son gravely, confronts him. The son braces for the conflict. Most of the people in the town are products of peacetime. The father is no exception, though there is some talk starting to brew that the lack of violence since the Franco-Prussian War is causing people to become enervated and for their lives to become meaningless. Not only does the father not strike E., though, but he tells him grimly why the town is an uproar. No, not because they heard about E. watching those two unsavory kids getting busy in the heather. Something far more momentous has happened: The Archduke Ferdinand has been shot in Sarajevo. E. inwardly heaves a great sigh of relief, realizes that he’s not in trouble, that no one knows about him paying the young couple to have sex. All that happened was some minor noble he never heard of got shot in some city he at most heard mentioned once or twice in class, if that. History is indeed very small sometimes, and the feelings and fears of the individual are very large. But we only know that because some people are still screaming to us across the chasm of time to please stop killing each other. Sure, maybe we can’t; maybe it’s too deeply engrained in our DNA, but try to spare a thought for the ants getting trampled beneath the feet of the elephant, from time to time. And more importantly, try not to get trampled yourself. But if you do get trampled, and you survive the stomping, make sure to write a book about the experience so that you can warn those who have not yet even been born what’s in store for them when they get old enough to kill and make love.
Euphony is the opposite of cacophony, and it’s a word you hear a lot less often. Why is that? The reason, I think, is simple. When something sounds bad, or at least discordant (not quite the same thing), you notice it; it sticks out. When something sounds good, when it works aesthetically, yes it can draw your ear, but in most cases, because it works you don’t really notice it. We notice a lot more cacophonous than euphonious sounds. I read something awhile back (I can’t remember where) about an experiment in which both Polish and English babies were placed side-by-side, and each group was played sentences from the other’s language. The Polish babies were exposed to people speaking English sentences that were correctly spoken and those which were in some way wrong (grammatically, syntactically), and vice versa. The researchers found that when the babies of English-speaking parents heard an incorrect Polish sentence, they would cry or otherwise register displeasure or confusion. The Polish babies would also whine and cry when they heard incorrectly spoken English sentences. Babies, of course, cry quite a lot for reasons that have nothing to do with their quest for bilingual perfectionism; they are still working on mastering monolingualism, after all. But I think the point of the exercise was to show that babies had an instinctive capacity to know which sentences sounded right and which ones didn’t; that this was innate, and that in some ways learning a language was the process of selecting which sounds to listen to and which ones to filter out. My guess is if you were to play the same sentences for the parents of these children (or for these same children as adults), they would not register disgust or frustration at hearing incorrectly spoken sentences in the foreign tongue. Not only would they not cry or whine (being adults) but they would barely listen to the sentences in the foreign tongue. They wouldn’t be able to listen at first; it would not so much have no scansion, as it would reach their ears the way the voices of adults struck the children in the Peanuts cartoons of Charles Schulz, like someone blowing into a trombone with a mute in a bell. Part of language acquisition (whether you think it’s instinctive or social or some combination of the two) is learning not just which sounds to pay attention to, but which to ignore. Those factory-direct babies not only lacked the capacity to listen only or especially to those speaking their own language; they were still listening to everything as well as learning to navigate their four other senses, working their way through an unfiltered and intense miasma of light and sound and smells that only synesthetics experience as adults. But still, even for the adults in body and mind, there is a time and a place to recall that childhood sensory array; not in logjam traffic on the highway, but maybe lakeside on a Sunday afternoon. Returning to language, Charles Baudelaire once said that “genius is childhood recaptured at will.” Foreign language acquisition is, I think, the mind (and ears) of a newborn recaptured through hard work and a lot of listening. Let me give you an example. A few years back I was at a convenience store here in America with my girlfriend who was from Germany. We were speaking in German (she spoke it better than English) and the cashier, an older woman, said, “It just sounds like ‘choka choka choka’ to me” (I can’t remember the exact “bar-bar”/”blah-blah” onomatopoeia she used). German definitely sounded like that to me when I first tried to learn it, just a bunch of fricatives punctuated by plosive pops and a lot of guttural, umlaut-laden low troughs (more Bavarian alphorn than trombone with a mute in the bell), as well as throat clearing sounds to rival the perorations of a Klingon rabbi. But now, after years of much reading and writing in German, after speaking it and listening to it for so long, German does not sound like anything to me. I just pick up the information being conveyed by the speaker. Varying degrees of effort are required of course, some difference in listening to a meteorologist versus listening to someone recite an expressionist poem. I have not learned anything so much as I have become able to hear things I previously tuned out because I had no need to learn about them, or curiosity about them. You can apply this idea of the crying baby to aesthetics as much as to linguistics, attuning the ear and the eye better to what works and what doesn’t, what sentences or words or colors or sounds would piss off the ward full of babies and which ones are sonorous and would thus leave them cooing. Some science fiction writer (I think Ray Bradbury) had a story about some adults who wish to be children again, thinking that, once granted their wish, they would once more step back into a world of innocence and encharmed magic. They get their wish be kids again, but end up doubled over in fear, overwhelmed in the swell of emotions washing over them. I imagine that if this wish were actually granted to someone, they would not just experience emotional turmoil, but true sensory overload, a kind of perverse instantiation that could give a genus malus a chance to really roll up his sleeves and go to town when a credulous and greedy human rubbed his lamp and asked to “be a kid again”. I don’t know about you, but the emotions that I have, especially the deeply imbedded ones that go back to childhood, feel dulled these days, like echoes of what they once were. And I don’t exactly bemoan this state all the time, since I cannot afford to feel anything now as deeply as I did back then. And I mean “afford” literally. If I enjoyed playing in a pile of leaves or watching ants crawl today as much as I did thirty years ago, I might find it fun for a while but I would also probably end my days homeless in a park, prodding ant colonies with twigs and stuffing dead leaves into my pants (I may still end up doing that, actually). Returning to the subject of this meandering blog entry, the goal should not just be to seek out euphonia and eschew cacophony. An overflow of euphony can become treacly, the harmonious sounds somehow eventually becoming grating, simply because writing must be varied, modulated, and some contrast must be displayed to heighten the sonorous, leavening it with the dissonant. Call it linguistic chiaroscuro, if you like painting metaphors. Call it the “changeup,” if you like baseball. “The slick polish grates,” as I think the writer Charles Bukowski once said (though I think some of his detractors might argue that Buk could have stood with some polish, assuming he didn’t try to drink it). My ultimate point here is that there is some paradox involved in the effort of learning what sounds good, what works, since what works by its very nature doesn’t draw attention to itself, and is therefore harder to notice (let alone study) than what doesn’t work. But it’s still there, waiting to be heard and learned, spoken and written.