Friday, August 26, 2011

David Foster Wallace

It was only a matter of time, I guess, before a trend emerged  critiquing the  late  David  Foster Wallace's prose style as wanting . Maud Newton takes him apart in a recent New York Times  dis-assembly,  stating that Wallace's  diffuse approach to the paragraph was  "...  mannered and limited in its own way, as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade." Newton goes to lengths to connect Wallace to the decline in properly arranged prose on the internet, quite an accomplishment anyway you look at it.     Matt Kiebus in Death and Taxes comes to DFW's defense with equal force, opining that "Wallace’s slangy style somehow made cluttered passages filled with a rather pedestrian amount of “likes,” “ums,” “sort ofs,” “reallys” and “pretty muches” look beautiful. The sprinkling of such ordinary words by an extraordinary writer was extremely uncommon at the time. His style reflected his personality and humanized a man whose mind didn’t operate on our playing field. Wallace’s colloquialisms made him likeable. His talent made him revered."

Wallace's worst sin as a writer wasn't the slangy quality of his style or even the I-might-be-wrong qualifiers that dot his long paragraphs, but that his sentences lacked emphasis. Where other great writers specializing in long sentences achieve their ends with having a point they are unambiguously headed for, which is to say that they have direction and and drive, Wallace has only spread much of the time. In his shorter efforts, like his non fiction collection "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again", the approach works best ; his thinking and digressions are limited to what is actually in front of him . 

The fact that he cannot   transform something materially objective from his imagination is motivation for him, perhaps, to keep matters moving along. It works as well in his book of short fictions, "Oblivion". where is a bit more off-the-leash in his musing. But overall, you weary of his tone, his ambivalence, his diversions from a subject and realize that reading both his fiction and essays leaves the effect of trying to read a book while the pages are being flipped rapidly. Wallace has the dual characteristics of having a short attention span and being perpetually chatty.  What fans might think to be a masterful unraveling of the invisible links between unrelated subjects I find to be a rudderless drift. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ape shit

I just took an extended gander at "The Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and this reaffirms that 2011 has been the tamest and lamest of Summers for action, science fiction and fantasy films. It's not that there was anything wrong with this newest version of the Apes franchise--a prequel that goes to lengths to furnish background drama on how those Damn Dirty Apes got so smart and how they could speak in stilted, theatrical English-- but just how bloodless this enterprise is. I would assign the blame to length, as this film tends to linger on the admittedly wonderful special effects to make the ur-Simian, Caesar, into a convincingly expressive animation.

 All told, though, there is not much room for the non-disguised actors to do here, given the kind of Exit Stage Left dialogue that is sounds like hurried rewrites of various signifying cliches.The cast never really  commit themselves to the eviscerated exchanges provided them , a shame, since there have been a number of action films  with  rickety chit chat that still managed to give a number of quality thrills, accomplished , I think, with a one two punch of a cast going for the gold as they mine whatever worthwhile emotion they can from the silliness of their set speeches, and direction, where a good director with an instinct for set ups, surprises, pacing and editing can create a verve the script doesn't  originally contain.

Pacing goes a long way, and this film drags fatally in the middle ; it makes you long for the days of leaner action movies, like Die Hard  or Alien.  An action movie cannot decide to take a rest in the center of it's unfolding. The actors, as a result, appear to have nothing else to do except trudge from one scene the next. The shoes and their boots  appear uncommonly heavy.James Franco in the lead has fewer expressions than headless mannikin; worry, concern, inner turmoil, anxiety, dread, dread, dread, the man appears to be nursing an ulcer rather than overseeing a scientific breakthrough.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Let the magic happen

After lunch I turned off the computer and noticed that there was a tickle in the back of my throat, the sort of irritation that makes you think of wet sandpaper being the universal standard for raw flesh and blues hysteria. My throat felt the way Tom Waits sounds, amplified aggravation in the center of the soft tissue, red and familiar like a bully's smirk before he knees in the nuts and bitch slaps you more time when you try to sneak out of school via the custodian's entrance. There was nothing I could do about the damn condition at the moment, but I did have a half bottle of Tussin , some generic syrup for the alleviation of sore throat, cough and yet manly enough to expel the grubbily greased mucus from the deepest of chest resonating chambers. I drank it one gulp, a semi sweetened version of the cruel cures your grandmother used to force down your throat with a funnel and the business end of a high heel shoe. It was awful, and all at once the store room started doing jumping jacks, my stomach declared itself a sovereign nation, my eyes saw through the thickest walls of the building and could the lips of cops writing crime novels behind billboards when they weren't getting hummers from bums who need one more dime for some Blue Nun. I was stoned on something, and suddenly the phone rang, or I thought I did. All I remember, really, was that I answered something.

"Gewekeekek" I said into the receiver.
"Hi, I need a  red rubber octopus..."
I paused.
"Don't we all" I answered.
And then the sun exploded.

Recollection at lunch time

I was reading an  piece by Peter Whitmer about Norman Mailer's essay "The White Negro"  while on the bus coming to work this morning and noticed that the day so far had the hue of a dingy wash rag. I lifted my eyes from the twitching pages I was trying to read to see someone standing at the bus stop where the bus had paused to pick up new passengers, spying a guy in a grey hoodie standing on the side walk  looking into the bus, straight at me where I was seated.

Alien twelve tone gangster movie theme songs emerged from my pocket just then, my cell phone was ringing. I answered, staring into nothing but an interface crowded with blurred icons. "This is me" I answered, "Who are  you?"

The voice didn't bother with an explanation  or an introduction or a confession of any kind, Rather , he issued a command,

"Let me talk to the other guy" he said. There was a burst of static, a high whistling shriek. And then the phone became very hot in my hand.

Later this morning

Later this morning there is a mood of subdued insanity as each of  us smile tightly, the corners of our mouths jagged like upended hangers, boomer rang creases pushing the eyes and eyebrows into the leering slant of a deranged carnival clown. Everything is fine and all of are going to heaven in a white boat with Black sails, that seems to be what we are dreaming while awake, a promise of deliverance tempered with an omen for perpetual disaster. Free floating anxiety that wakes up ten minutes before you do and starts pressing the proverbial buttons on the control center that constitutes your dreaming self. Oh dear, oh my, the worst has already happened, although neither the West nor the East coasts have slithered into an angry, boiling ocean. That boiling sound is more of a gurgle, the coffee maker that has stopped working, producing scratchy gurgling noises ; it gave me half a cup this morning and did nothing else other than engage that death rattle. Another fine day to begin the day, especially on a Sunday. And now here I am , wondering,

what? What am I wondering?

This morning

There is little else but ill will circulating through the tubes of the internet this morning, general grousing, gripes and jeremiads about little of consequence, although I would have to lend credence to the notion that alot of anger is generated by site specific fears of losing one's financial security. This means that a good number of us in the work force, from upper management, mid management and the guys who wash out the the trash dumpsters in the back of the stores we can't afford to walk into are worried that they might be invited into the boss's office and asked to close the door behind them. Not a fun way to start the morning, so I force myself to think only happy thoughts.  La la la la la la is what I sing to myself, and I imagine pink ponies with ribbons and rainbows and smiley faces all over the landscape. Next I turn to my  Facebook page where one of my friends posted a video of Brit punk band The Exploited doing the least ambiguous song I will hear all month: FUCK THE USA.

The rainbows evaporate,the pink ponies eat some tox ragweed and fall over and die. Red robins drop from the sky. The smiley faces are now flipping me off.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dig your tunes or get buried by them

Talent in any form will trump attitude day of the week with me, but first I have to ask what the the talent is for. "Bad attitude" can be a talent by way of a trait some might think cool and alluring from afar, "chronic depression" seems to go a long way for other listeners to ignore the calculable merits of melodies, vocals and lyrics and wallow in the sepia-toned aura of guitaring cave dwellers whose talent inhabits a dampened set of neurons. Likewise, a punk with a torn black t-shirt, crud-encrusted jeans and a spoke through an upper lip doesn't require a discourse in harmony or theory to justify the inherent value of his or her choice of belligerent tone warping. What it represents is the value, the noisy symbolism of rage, which means the niceties of song construction don't even enter the discussion. Attitude and persona only get you so far, though, and many are left scratching whatever body part that itches, wondering what the hell?

So I go back to the songs themselves and weigh their characteristics--no mystery here, it's melody, vocal, lyrics again, along with musicianship, production, and a host of other niggling details--and make a judgement based on an floating scale as to how the ingredients succeed or fail in doing what songs are supposed to do, which is to kick ass, make me sad, make me rage, rant, pant, behave or go crazy in the head, or, in worst case scenario, turn off the damn noise off.

Standards and demands on good songwriting are in constant flux, of course, and you need to have the proverbial big ears to assess material's worth against not just the history of pop music in general, but also within the genre the artist writes within. Standards within standards can make this a no win proposition for someone trying to create an objective criteria, but we're all aware of the most rigorous test: does the music grab you , make you bob your head with your eyes closed, cause your hands to beat time with the flat of your palm, force you to improvise solos composed of  

non words and advanced variations of clearing the throat, all of while enthralled with melody , a snappy drumbeat, a sweeping crescendo, some manner of melody that has sneaked under the barriers around your sense of propriety and seduced you beyond this moment's repair?
The first reaction is one that can't be faked with faux theory and revisionist contextualization along sociological rather than musical lines. You are either moved in a visceral , immediate way, or you are left there formulating a more intellectualized response. Considered, thoughtful, critical responses are legitimate too, in their place, but there's a lot of fakery going about the net and print media. But that riff, that drum beat, that whoop of aggression that gets your legs moving, fist pumping, jaw jutting? Priceless commentary on the music coming forth, without the vocabulary to obscure, cloud and confuse the experience. It's not a necessarily an accurate gauge of a song's value and worth in the scheme of recorded music , but its value lies elsewhere, in a rare moment in the week where you're responding to something that needn't , for the moment, be classified, catalogued and critiqued like it were a virus that science is trying to destroy

Sunday, August 14, 2011


There is an amusing story in Slate where the editors queried a number of noted critics about what they individually considered the most overrated novels they had the misfortune to struggle with; the responses from a group including Amy Bloom, Stephen Burt, Tom Perrotta among others presented some dour words over a fine selection of iconic texts. The idea, it seems, was similar to that of the collection edited by rock critic Jim DeRogatis, Kill Your Idols, where he asked a significantly younger generation of pop music critics to write devastating reviews of what was basically the Rolling Stone magazine canon of the Greatest Rock and Roll Albums ever made. 

Without going into detail, I will say that the anthology was a great idea that landed on the sharp rocks  by one negative review after another;  virtually no musician or band was as good as older scribes had claimed, a conclusion  you expected given the title of the collection, but the sensibility was put down and sarcasm, cheap insults, a strained irreverence that , with the repetition of one review after the other, sounded practiced, more inauthentic than the alleged phoniness of the albums under review. It was a bad writing contest, the contestants vying to produce the most wretched Lester Bangs impersonation. Bangs, though, would have none of this; he bared his soul, he argued his reasons, absurd or irrational they might have been. He was a great writer. The point is that the Slate article is merely a chance for some payback:  tired of the praise Joyce receives, have you had it with Salinger’s name sucking the air from the room, do you think Pynchon is all sizzle and no steak? Here is your chance to put these elevated middlebrows in their place. What we get are smart people, good critics, staying in the shallow end of the pool.
It's interesting that virtually any touted book that does not hold my attention beyond the first 200 pages instantly gets reassigned to the 'over rated" section of my book table, that stack of tomes I will give away, donate, sell as the opportunities arise. "Over rated", though, is as overused a term as, say , "brilliant", "masterpiece" or "ground breaking"; hasty dismissals and instant praise without a cant-free discussion about why these judgments were rendered exposes the opinions as being as inflated as the book one seeks to bury . Or to rise. Time was when book reviews, even the reviews available in middle brow magazines like Time, made you believe, even feel, the sluggardly pacing and torpor a bad stretch of prose could have on a writer. These days the field is dominated by wise cracks that are suitable for photo captions.

 Remarks of this kind are fine for the chit chat that comes with book group debates about the relative merits of emerging authors or the swan songs of authors who have died are seem about to; to disguise a selection of rhythmic grumbling as an article is something else. Our critical discourse is cheapened and reduced to something you can read while going to the refrigerator for another O’Doul’s.  It's not that I'm against subjecting a work to critical examination, it's just that we seem to live an a time of instant opinions. Much of what passes for a critical debate these days sound like a gaggle of disenfranchised booksellers vying to see who can produce the most quotable sound byte, negative or positive. It saddens me that we haven't another John Leonard on the horizon, someone who could dig deep and give a complex reading of a book , yay or nay, and not leave the personality and heart out of the whole thing.       It used to be 200 pages before I continued on with a book or put it down; these days I am in the same 50-75 page ratio of test driving a text. It's simply that there are too many pleasurable writers to read to waste the time trudging through something out of fool's sense of duty. Gertrude Stein told Hemingway that "remarks are not literature", and to that end I agree, literature is writing at length and writing that seeks to achieve something more remarkable than what the water cooler/coffee pot/ Good Reads cabal of laconic pedants offer as commentary. Even criticism that takes literature apart and inspects the workings of fevered personality taken to extreme graphomania ought to aspire to the level of the best books it takes under consideration. As it goes, though, remarks and not essays are the preferred method of judging new books, old and older. Remarks are not literature, nor are they criticism, but it is what people seem to read as the computers become repulsively more portable. It's a bad cafe drink: just a rumor of coffee, lots of cream,  heaping spoonfuls of  white sugar.

Friday, August 12, 2011

6 ways of looking at a grouchy old man

Wallace Stevens found 13 ways of looking at a blackbird; Ishmael Reed's poem "Scrub Jays" imagines the birds looking back   at the man glaring at them, finding six stanzas of taunts. This is , in essence, a poem about aging, the gaining of some simple knowledge that was formerly obscured by ego and youthful exuberance. Where a younger man could sustain a good battle in protecting what he perceives to be rightfully and exclusively his, his apple trees and the fruit they bare,  running to and from his house with all manner of pesticide, rakes, air horns , convinced that he can make short order of this ordeal and restore the principle of property rights to his personal piece of earth, the body with time grows slower, muscles go soft, bones ache, the awareness arises that no amount of assertion of will can make settle anything permanently. The bird is the old man's inner voice, speaking in mocking tones under remains of the rhetorical veneer that refuses to acknowledge inevitability. It is not this bird, nor even birds in particular that will win this battle.

What good are apples
To old men, anyway
You have lost your bite
You have run out of
 Ladders to climb
Your ultrasonic solar-powered
Animal repellent
The Honda among dissuaders
Might rid your garden of
The capo cats, but
 The bandit raccoons
Within 48 hours  
What good are apples, indeed what good are things that one attaches one's name to and changes their essential nature from being something useful and with a function , or purpose, in a large and infinitely complex system of things and makes them mere trophies, souveneers of a conquest? With the ache of the limbs and the fading of light from eyes that no longer see things crisply, clearly, without ambiguity, the possession of things is an error, a mistake in perception.  Nature, in any event, turns out to be not a particular thing one does battle against, not a personality, a thing, a personality one defines the terms of their existence against. Nature merely is, that condition of existence within which all things exist and , more or less, abide by. This includes the deflating ego of many a strong willed man and woman who assumed their could change the terms of the condition . The tragedy, voiced by Reed in the voice of birds who mock him for his erring presumptions about his cosmology, isn't that we all become bitter old men yelling at kids and critters to get off their lawn, but that we might never realize that we didn't own the lawn in the first place.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Summer reading 3

The Women
by T.C. Boyle

We enter the world of Frank Lloyd Wright and the cult of personality that surrounded him at his compound Taliesin and find the iconic and inconsistently brilliant architect as the center who spent much of his time managing his reputation, manipulating his followers, student architects and engineers, into doing the grungy and tedious work of preparing his various projects, attempting to borrow money or extend his exhausted credit lines and, as the title suggests, wooing women and then betraying them. 

The upshot is that Wright is less than the Frank Lloyd Wright cult would have us believe, that he was without flaws; T.C.Boyle relishes the chance to exhibit the man as a self-creating blowhard, more persona than center, who was by historical accounts not the most thorough of architects. It wouldn't unfair to say that as an architect he may have been a splendid designer--his buildings have a majesty and grace only the truly touched seem to render with ease--but in technical aspects he was resoundingly incompetent, given to short cuts , half measures, and shoddy workmanship on the smaller , essential things, like safe and certified electrical work. 

To this day his buildings are crumbling, and the novel shows us the grandness that is his home, Taliesen, burning to the ground because the Maestro couldn't be bothered with a thorough inspection of the work that bore his signature. This is a fine comic novel, the latest in Boyle's ongoing series of historical fictions revealing the fun and folly of scorched earth originality. Imperfect humans are the creators of otherwise beautiful and useful things. 

One does wish that Boyle would finesse his sentences and paragraphs a bit more--he is a good prose stylist when he chooses to be, but too often and for too long his writing sounds rushed, which is ironic, really , considering that a main point of this novel, a group portrait of the lovers and sycophants surrounding Wright, is that Wright was a splendid and artful draftsman who didn't see to the smaller details of his designs. So to Boyle does not lift his passages from the mere , pleasurable hum they are and lift them to a richer music.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


He wouldn't change his mind
so I mailed him a brick and a rose
postage due, of course,
because the wind had gone from my sails
and I was stranded at the bus stop
with no token, after dark,
falling asleep to the barking of dogs
behind a fence.
I wouldn't apologize
so she sold my books
and record collection
to a man who specialized
in another decade's glory,
I cried under her window,
I sang her a song
written in schemes that rhymed
and plots that didn't,
I cannot be sorry
for invisible gestures
committed while I spoke on the phone, I explained,
hooking my thumb on a belt loop
when I mentioned nothing
what you thought it might
when I mentioned
"cake" and "bombast" in the same sentence,
but you gather my hats all the same
and toss them to the oak tree
that hangs over your roof,
one hat per limb,
one duck bill spinning toward the gutter
where leaves burn, as if on cue,
or my, what shall I do?
The government wouldn't straighten its spine
and walk a straight line
nor speak something without qualification,
so we held our breath
and took on horrible lovers
who would take our money from our wallets and purse
after we are asleep ,
we buy things we don't want
on the basis of a cute photos of grand kids on cell phone galleries,
we get in the car we stole
and drive to the edge of the map
after which there is only the tile of the floor below us,
checkerboard pattern and spread out newspapers
where the cat takes his craps,
this world
gets so much larger
the more we complain,
the biggest box

Monday, August 8, 2011

Distinct purposes

There are times in the middle of the afternoon after I've finished what I think is an inspired poem when I have the momentary sensation--fleet! is the world--that all those wonderful metaphors and inverted oppositions were given to me by God Himself. I've been sober for twenty four years, though, and I have a strong feeling that if I ever heard God speak, he'd tell me to go ahead and have a shot of hooch. Faith I have, but not to the degree that I think a higher power uses me as a mouthpiece for his left over tropes. The feeling passes, and I disabuse myself that poems and prayer are linked in degrees more bountiful than rare. I think the distinctions between the two things are clear and crucial, as both modes of address are for distinct purposes.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Summer reading 2

by Norman Mailer

Anyone who has had difficulty with Norman Mailer's militant ego-- or just plain irritated with the prospect of a writer declaring himself the best scribe in the land simply because he was the only one with the temerity to reach for the crown vacated by Hemingway--won't find relief here in his award winning book 'The Armies of the Night'. Too bad for them, I say, because even though Mailer's self regard is legendary and obnoxious without redemption in lesser pundits, Mailer shrewdly uses the persona, the third person referenced 'Mailer', to engage the the collision of forces that made up the political sensibility of the 60s ; the counter culture, anti-war activist, avowed Marxist revolutionaries, feminists, black nationalists , yippees, hippees, crazies of all sorts converged on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam and what was seen by many alternative life stylers as the fatally erring trajectory America had taken; all the sins of capitalism, white racism, imperialism and the like were now returning to the soil from which they came, demanding the bill be paid and the interest collected in full.

Mailer, someone who had announced early in his career, in his introduction to 'Advertisements for Myself', that he was obsessed with radically transforming the way his country came to see itself in the strange and terrifying world that was emerging in the post war period, comes off as the smartest guy in the room, someone conducting a running commentary on the tensions and contradictions that were coming from the estranged forces that composed the American Left. Much of the fun, though, certainly has to be the adventures of the swaggering, blustery, drinking and drunk Mailer as he wades through the issues and the worries that accompany movements that want to seize the future. There is an apt awareness of his own absurdity and celebrity, there is a realization that even his imagination cannot single handedly stop an a congery of policy evils already in place and being executed. What he could do, though, was maintain his sublime sense of irony and report, comment, opine and theorize with the quick witted verve that only the best stylists maintain.

This is a worthy read, an important document from a period of American which to this day refuses to be understood in retrospect. The

Summer reading

by Brett Easton Ellis
I would be willing to accept the defense that Ellis’s quickie squib is in fact a satire of consumerism, a literary bit of photo realism if there was compelling art here. There isn't, however, and the defense falls apart. Ellis writes as if he had to submit this against a deadline, and he'd wasted his considerable lead time by living off his hefty advance. Ellis does a good job of diagnosing the narcissism of the eighties, but that by itself does nothing for either our understanding or empathy.
The emotionally neutered stretches of hacking, slicing, stabbing and bashing , juxtaposed against descriptions of material things that may as well have been photocopied from catalogues, is an interesting effect and achieves an ironic value soon on, but just as soon the effect is spent. And yet the detail goes on, as does the singularly flat line narration. Even the gross out factor wears thin and grows tedious; as with pornography, the power Ellis brings to the subject of hyper-violence isn't aesthetic, certainly. This reminds you of nothing else so much as someone taking pointlessly large doses of drugs in the vain hope of finding the rush and thrill of their first encounter. What Ellis has done is written a bad book who's only distinguishing element is that is all symptom. It does not deaden the reader to the horrors of psychotic violence, as most readers I encounter are sufficently offended and aghast at the amount of disheartening imagination Ellis can cast. Perhaps the ideal readership was supposed to folks like him, already deadened.

by Alan Lightman

Out of the DeLillo playbook, a business commuter gradually loses the use of his limbs, and his confronted with medical experts who disguise their inability to treat him and render a diagnosis by having him submit to yet more tests. A novel full of comic moments and sleights of hand-- the father's relationship with his son is sad stuff, two-hankie time-- but there is strong feeling of what the world would be like if all the things that we plug into stopped giving us the illusion of information and clarity and instead added to our anxiety, increased oh-so-slowly another ten or twenty degrees. Lightman isn't the most graceful writer, but this novel works rather well. One will note the shared concern with DeLillo, who wrote a kind blurb for this novel: nominally intelligent citizens who realize too late their trust in the priesthoods of specialists and jargon masters have not only not aided them in their real or imagined crisis, but in fact made their lives worse.