Friday, July 31, 2020


I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom WolfeTom Wolfe had his strengths as journalist and social critic , and did write a few brilliant books of flashy and exciting prose revealing the vanities and conceits of his countryman, particularly the wealthy, the smart, virtually anyone who thought they could outsmart the Game. The Right Suff, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, The Pump House Gang, Radical Chic--without going into specifics as to why these non fiction accounts of the times and activities of Americans during the various periods display genius, I will merely stipulate that they splendid, dynamic, caustic, witty, flashy in ways that bring you back and force you to remember the underlying thesis/critic Wolfe was getting at. But that is his non-fiction. As a novelist, he was awful, ham handed, verbose, plodding in ways, I think, since Dreiser. His novels have their fans who make good defenses of the material, but for me the apologies amount to better writing than the volumes they praise. I Am Charlotte Simmons is only the latest in Tom Wolfe's failing attempts to assert his relevance in American literature as a novelist. It's a lost cause, really, because the very talent that made his non-fiction work, for the most part, such wonderfully acidic and last portraits of a consumer culture is the same things that make his fiction elephantine bores. Supreme inspection of ticks and toilet can elevate personality pieces to the stage of writing art, but it produces flat characters, static situations, and rather desperate stretches of over writing to compensate for undeniable inertia.Wolfe seems to want to assume the position of the late William Gaddis in being America's greatest comic social novelist, but the distinction between the two writers is crucial; Gaddis was a virtuoso with language, dialogue and character, and was more than able to make use of copious research in his fiction in ways that made his fiction's famous complexity actually worth sussing through.  The Recognitions  by William Gaddis is precisely the complex New York comic novel of art, commerce, greed and religion that Wolfe is incapable of writing. Wolfe insists that he's culturally conservative, yet isn't ready to make like John Dos Passos and tone down his writing; something in him desires to remain "edgy", or at least wants to thought of as beings so. On the one hand he produces literary manifestos denouncing academic and experimental novelists who've forsaken their calling to produce moral fiction, and on the other he produces ham-handed vulgarity under the guise of satire with Charlotte Simmons. He seems unaware that his novels are as bad as Brett Easton Ellis's, and his rationale for writing fiction the way he does is just as thin.


15376Purple America by Rick Moody was a novel that enraged me. He's been compared to one of my favorites, John Cheever, by many well-meaning critics, but rather than a young writer taking some cues from Cheever's careful and lightly applied poetry and sentiment as regards infidelity, alcoholism, insanity and lurking bi-sexuality, Moody is as effusive as busted water main. All of the previously described elements are there, but without Cheever's wit, irony or craft. None of his grace , either. Moody is one of these young novelists who are in a hurry to cram the world into each paragraph, with the goal being not to persuade the reader to go along with a story but rather to make the telling as intense as possible. This is the kind of ham handed narrative style that is a prose equivalent of an Oliver Stone movie, the uneasy work of an artist obsessed with keeping their "edge". Moody may have kept his edge, suggested by the jittery run-on disasters this rag of a novel lays out, but it's nothing worth sitting down for. Purple America, though, is worth throwing away

Monday, July 27, 2020

One trick phony

 The Darling
a novel by Russell Banks

Russell Banks a  novelist who gets considerable mileage out of his character's capacity to make themselves miserable, to attract misery without necessarily seeking it out, or being born into a miserable world that makes the bringing of each and every sunrise a cue to begin again for someone to arise and then debate whether to make coffee or slit their wrists.

I've read some of his novels--Affliction, The Relation of My Imprisonment, The Angel on the Roof, Trailer Park--and I have to say that while I find his prose often times gorgeous and genuinely moving, his fiction is so persistently dire, dour and depressed that it's problematic to say that I enjoyed the experience of turning page after page of seems , in hindsight, as little more than a cruel shaggy dog story. The misfortunes visited upon his characters are constant to the point that they become nearly comic in their overwrought attempt to create a saddened tone; the works are quite simply emotional melodramatic. This is less enlightening and far less artful beyond the grammatically pristine quality of the prose ; it may be much and hackneyed to expect qualities  as elemental as a moral of the story, an over arching metaphor, or just a riveting , compelling account of the hard luck  of particular characters existing, subsisting or merely occupying indeterminate space in a particular milieu. 

The Darling, concerning a rich young daughter who joins the Weather Underground during America's revolutionary mid-century who becomes involved in terrorist bombing that winds up killing people, we follow this poor soul as she flees the USA and winds up in Africa, in Liberia, where she gets a government post carrying for chimpanzees in a State Run field station. She winds up falling in love with a government minister who has taken pity on her and helps her, marries him and has sons. She becomes friends with Charles Taylor , the ruthlessly cruel President of the country and , strangely, she narrates at considerable length how she she seems to be communicating silently with the apes who are in her care. Disaster , revolution, race hatred, genocide follow , she flees back to the States and returns to her estranged parents and reconnects with friends from the political days. It was at this point where I closed this book and did not open it again, even though I was but 75 pages away from finishing. The improbable circumstances piled atop each other too quickly, too bluntly; Bank's prose stopped being graceful and tragically lyric at that point,moving in emotional impact and became labored. 

Clearly, he had too much going on and rather than cut sequences, scenarios and conceits that were't working to begin with--the kinship with the caged chimps creates incredulity, not empathy--he is reduced to hurrying through the story, to connect his plot points. In truth, there is nothing told here that could not have been done in 200 pages; we would have had a more powerful novel that might have actually destroyed you in the spot you were holding the book. We might allude to a crass metaphor, that Banks writes the way an alcoholic drinks, that once he gets one minutely detailed incident written into the narrative, he sets up the story for yet  another devastating bit of punishment, and yet more after that, and after, yet more, seeming without end. 

But the amount of things happening, the coincidences, from the heroine's early days as a Weatherman involved in anti-capitalist bombings, to an eventual return to the United States where her terrorist background becomes a secret she must account for, strained credulity no matter how hard and long I tried to suspend my disbelief. Banks' prose becomes mere padding making the page count thicker, consequently making the novel less desireable to stick with.  But we get blather instead, many long paragraphs of what reads like a twenty volume suicide note.You could here the strain and sense the tedium of a plot take its toll. This reads like a novelization of the most pathetic button-pushing mini series imaginable, circa 1973. The novel is a gargantuan bore.

Friday, July 24, 2020

ROBERT CREELEY: you know this man

I was recently asked :"What’s the shortest and most impactful poem you have heard?" My response began with a smart- ass riff, quickly got away from me as I continued to type away.That’s two questions actually. As phrased, the shortest poem I’ve heard and the most influential  poem I’ve heard exist as separate items. The shortest poem that has had an impact on me, that is , has influenced the way I view modern poetry, is this:

I KNOW A MAN by Robert Creeley:

*As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
*can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
*drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going. *

This poem, with its terseness, interruptions, seeming overlap of conversations, was important in college because it got me away from the verbal excesses of beat poets Kerouac and Ginsberg. Not to lecture on Creeley but rather to stick with the method of this poem and his poetry in general, the poet prefers a more taciturn approach express what is perceived in the world he finds himself in. There is more flavor and variance in Creeley’s poem than the latent punk rock crash this poem suggests, but here we observe that the writers is aware of the limits of speech , that rather than consisting of beginning a thought and developing it until a point is reached, verbally, often times speech, transcribed speech, as we read off the page, is discontinuous and disjunctive, resembling less a dialectic toward which a final synthesis of ideas emerges but instead a series of preliminary statements that begin and are rapidly derailed. The poem is jittery, hard edge in the way it breaks off from one statement to another, giving evidence of a speaker constantly backtracking to something said earlier that would be the key to an original statement one wanted to make but which only adds to the series of deferments that make a parse-able sentence come to being.
For Love by Robert Creeley
Everything is about to be said, a big question is about to be asked that would challenge the premise under which we conduct our lives in bad faith, a distraction is proposed, a big car is purchased, but the thrill of the highway joyriding veers too close to fatality for our narrator cares to experience. Again, there is a nervous, jacked up quality here, a jump-cut element that would remind those who have familiarity with various stages of being under the influence of high powered stimulates and the consequences therein will recognize, meth-heads, potheads, hooch hounds laying around some sorry den waxing and waning , yammering away with plots, plans and brilliant ideas that quickly circle the drain. Creeley’s creates this but splicing the evidence of what was heard together in a fast, jagged mosaic of speech, effectively giving us a poem that provides a structure all the same, a narrative that has the old fashioned ingredients of a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a monologue of a kind, with huge gaps of logic, a string of non-sequiturs, but what was made an impression on me in trying to bring order to this seeming random vocal spasm wasn’t what was being talked about or the logical connection between the tangible bits of the poem, bur rather how it was said. We have a voice narrating a sequence of things that are obscured, but the telling makes one wonder, ponder , what exactly is at the margins of this narrator’s world.

My grandfather once allowed me to have his 8 mm camera when I was nine or so during a family get together, a 1st Communion Party I think, and the result of me running around with the camera, stopping and starting the camera to film random activities around the back yard— my brother jumping from a tree, a neighbor’s dog snarling through a cyclone fence mesh, a swing-set with all the chained seats twirling by themselves, blinding shots of the July sun, my sister with chocolate stains on her confirmation dress, many shots of drunk aunts and uncles inexplicable happy to see me—seemed to me, seeing this decades later at another family get together after my father pass on, to be as edgy , purposeful and dysfunctionally beautiful as I had imagined it. And that’s how I KNOW A MAN struck me back on that fateful day in a poetry composition class taught by Paul Dresman; instead of trying to play every note you know or are still trying to hit because you think the amount of things done equates with quality, play just the right notes,the ones that serve the moment of perception. Miles Davis said something like that, or so the story goes. Creeley ignored the larger vocabulary and went instead for sentences and that sounded interesting, that intrigued him when they were stripped of context . Form,logic, coherence? That was for the reader to bring to the work.