Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Writing about being poor: condenscension does not feed or clothe people

The little David Barber I've read, particularly in his book "The Spirit Room", show him to be a strong poet who can attack a myriad of subjects, arcane and mysterious, and come up with a compelling language that makes us consider our convenient thinking. Not a terse poet by any means, he still has the economy of line and measure of rhetoric that keeps his images in fighting trim. There is nothing slack in the verse that I've come across. His is the ideal of a "thinking person's" poetry from an author who does not forget that there's someone he's talking to -- an off-page other, an audience -- and it's this intimacy that keeps the poems from becoming private journal entries, cryptic, gnomic, that have found their way onto the public page.

Most of the time , anyway, this poem effort by Barber, (published in Slate here in December of 2002) is a dreary thing, hermetically sealed and curious, full of gaps a reader is meant to furnish with details from their own recollection. The problem, though , is that the piece is entirely too sealed off from reference that would make us care about what's transpiring, or what the dynamic between the formal and the italicized text might actually be -- a beggar and a taunting benefactor, a homeless person with a touch of schizophrenia trying to make formalize his ambivalence about what ever redundant ritual he or she have assigned themselves? There is no compelling reason to care or take interest in the goings on here, since nothing of context, locale, or season is given to make us look again and pay attention to the twisted circumlocution.

Nail Broth

Rusty, twisted: scrounge one from a scrap-heap plank.
How long did you say you've been down on your luck?

Rasping groan, out it comes: crude thing, fang-like.
Exactly how low are you intending to sink?

Lockjaw's no picnic. Look sharp: don't get pricked.
Wouldn't it be simpler to stick with the tin cup?

There's an old crone I know—a classic skinflint.
Doesn't she ever get wise to your act?

When you live by your wits, you go with your gut.
How do you sleep with such sham in your heart?

Root cellar, spice larder, bomb shelter, ice box.
Does it really help when you smack your lips?

Stir like you mean it. Keep up the sweet talk.
Do you know in your bones when she's ready to crack?

Steam up the panes. A round stone also works.
Are you trying to say you'll do whatever it takes

This is , I think, a timid presentation of a schizoid trying vainly to think about the world he or she lives in. It brings us only so far into a personality's habit of address, and then backs off, preferring a safe, literary vagueness, something less than the eternal rage that is the tone of most of the unhospitalized unfortunates I come across and on occasion talk to.

Background would have made this a stronger poem, context, color, a concrete place where all this imagined dialogue takes place, with the bits of talk
coming in more evocative snippets, things truly overheard and fleeting, provocative against the ear. It's certainly within Barber's considerable powers to do; an interplay between the environment and the personalized language would give us a mood, a tone -- under rated things in the mad search for either anal-retentive rhyme schemes or it's undesirable opposite, an all Explosive expressionism -- that would make the ideas emerge much better and play on our empathic instincts all the better.
The dialogue, by itself, plays not all, and this is a shame from a poet as good as Barber.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Still more old music from CD collection

Wow--Moby Grape

Their first album, Moby Grape, is on generally considered one of the best albums done by a Sixties American band, and with good reason, but I've a soft spot for their sophomore effort, the much maligned Wow. It certainly deserved some of the critical slamming it received when it was released in 1968, as the band and producer had a batch of solid songs they wanted to gussy up, festoon and otherwise psychedisize in the trend of over-produced pop wrought by Pet Sounds and Sgt.Pepper. Large parts are made literally unlistenable--at the time of release, the band killed the "newstolgia" fad of the period that not only had one song written and performed in the 20's style, but which also required the poor stoner to get up and change the album speed from 33 and 1/3 to 78 rpm. The results were not amusing. Some songs come out unscathed, though, as with "Motorcycle Irene", "Murder in My Heart for the "Judge","Can't Be So Bad" . At heart a good bad fucked by drugs, ego, and mental illness, but what they had, briefly, was terrific talent. Jerry Miller was one of the best blues guitarist of the period, bittersweet and fluid in ways Mike Bloomfield never quite realized, Bob Mosely was a natural blues belter, and Skip Spence was an American Syd Barrett, fried before his time. Needless to say, I'm burning a disc of the best tracks and jettisoning the artsy remainders which are unsustainable and hopelessly junked up with effects.

Whatever Turns You On-- West Bruce and Laing

This is another cassette that's going to hit my trashcan soon. This is an grandiose, cluttered, sloppy,utterly phony release from good musicians who can't scratch up a good song between the three of them.Leslie West has his ringingly sweet guitar tone, Jack Bruce's bass work and keyboarding are busy as bees jacked on pollen, and Corky Laing, bless him, is one hell of a good rock drummer. An exception is the song "Token", which manages to be both arty and rocking all at once--power chords against a mystery time signature, nicely tensioned harmonies and verses from West and Bruce, a rousing riff out at the end. Power trios needn't be brain dead, as this track shows, but "Token" is also an aberration, for the genre and this band. It comes back to songwriting, as it always does; chops, vision, attitude, looks get you only so much credibility if the tunes are , say, underachieved.

The Photographer--Phillip Glass

From the svelte skronk of Zorn's Ornette tribute to the minimal meditations of Glass's impressions of a man trying to find out if a horse's feet all leave the ground at one time. Good stuff, on a re-listen. I had a girl friend in college who was given to sudden and intense love affairs with many a hip trend and avant garde mannerism, much of which has aged badly and is either in cold storage or ready for the next garage sale; The Photographer, though, has it's repetitive pleasures; it's not especially gripping at an emotional level, but the sheer rigor of Glass's pared formalism is compelling in the way that an idea , a concept, finds its situation and flourishes under the circumstances. This is the kind of stuff John Tesh would compose if he had a brain.

The Idiot--Iggy Pop

Confirmed. I didn't like this set of Bowie-produced mood music when it came out in the Seventies, and I like it less even now. Iggy isn't especially interesting when he's given to reflection, confession, or other poetic indulgences. Avenue A is a more recent example of the side of him that sends you running. Iggy talking about his feelings may be an occasional compulsion he gives into, but it's not something he's turned into art. Our boy is a reactor, an angry cuss, a fast wit, an in-the-moment realist, and he rocks.

Port of Call-- Cecil Taylor

Repackaged sessions from 1960-1961 released in the States on an economy lable called Past Perfect, this is a bit more comprehensible and, say, conservative than what Taylor and his bands are known for. An abstract heat still burns away , though, and there's great moments here; the ten minute piano deconstruction of "This Nearly Was Mine" keeps you guessing and anticipating where Taylor and his trio would take the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut, and "Things Aint What They Used to Be"is rethought a dozen different ways by Archie Shep and Steve Lacy.

Writers and their books which pleased me

Bear v Shark
a novel by Chris Bachelder

First time novelist Chris Bachelder scores big with his debut novel, and has produced the kind of post-modern satire that the over-praised and under-edited Jonathan Franzen strains for in his "Corrections" leviathan.
In the future, the televisions have no off switch, nor do they have remote controls, because technology has gotten to the point that television no longer influences the culture, but IS the culture. Reality and simulation melt together seamlessly, without a trace of resistance from the archetypal family whose path we follow as they prepare themselves for a Las Vegas vacation to witness the much hyped Media Event of Bear v. Shark. Bachelder keeps a straight face through out most of this short but punchy novel, and displays an ear for the way television cant infiltrates our daily speech, and invades our dream life. Scattered through out the book are a heap of fast and savage rips on Mass Mediated news, sports call-in shows, flouncy entertainment under which nothing substantial resides. In this world, experts in the guise of pundits, jocks, philosophers, and academics all feed a an uncountably intrusive technology that renders every distraction and disturbance into an entertainment value, to be used until a new contrived sequence of illusion can be set in place. Bachelder, demonstrating a brevity and incisive wit that trashes the claims made for the word-gorged "genius" of D.F. Wallace, writes surely, sharply, with his eye never off his target. Though he does, at times, resort to the sort of post-modernism stylistics and cliches, such as having the author step out from the story to deliver some self-aware discourse on the limits of narrative's capacity to represent the external world fully, completely -- he has a novel or two to go before the lit.critese is pounded out of him -- our author finally reveals a humane side underneath the smart language, and issues forth a funny yet serious warning about our habit of relinquishing our thinking and our capacity to live imaginatively over to the hands of data-drunk programmers.

Jim the Boy
by Tony Earley

Earle’s' rendering of a Perfect Past has it's attractions and charms, and is in many ways endearing, as long as the reader remembers that there was never a time in either their life or the life of anyone they know when such earnest happiness and satisfyingly extended good- will ruled the day. Suspension of disbelief is the best advice before perusing these pages. Early evokes the simple tale of a boy being raised by his mother and four uncles in such a poetically sustained way--sure language, spare cadences, a sharp ear for knowing when stop a description-- that you forgive the over ripe sentimentality that is at the heart of this book.
The success, I think, is in the author's ability to describe Jim's point of view in a straight forward manner, free of seeming authorial intrusion: Jim and the others, particularly the Uncles, emerge as credible characters, each with their particular character ticks and quirks. This set of relationships, balanced and relatively sober, almost makes up for the sheer mysticism that Earley wants to cast on rural South Carolina during the 30s. There is something subtly fake about this beguilingly transparent coming-of-age story, a Disney tale for the postmodern period, a reverse Alice Walker, a past that is re-assembled into a more perfect union. Needless to say, I'm ambivalent about the tale and the telling, but it is a tribute to Earley's art that his debut novel resonates as well as it does.

Poem by Ed Dorn

The late Ed Dorn wrote a masterpiece with "Gunslinger", an anti-epic poem that prefigures many post-modern gestures from its 60s era starting point. Funny, cartoonish, erudite to the extreme, it also locates a tuned lyricism in the Western vernaculars that Dorn uses: the metaphysical aspect of our legends, the sheer questing for answers as Euro-Americans come treading closer to a West coast that will stop them and force them to settle and create lives from dust and ingenuity, comes alive in way that never escapes the zaniness of Dorn's' narrating inquiry into the nature of the search.

Civil Noir
Poems by Melanie Neilson
Melanie Neilson has a genius for tearing apart the suggested givens of an image, and then reassembling the details in ways that confound meaning. She gives a long look behind the set designs of our social construction, and inserts a heated zaniness into our negotiations with the normal. Her sense is visual, her language--exploded, elongated, twisted, resolutely reshaped---sensual and snaking with percolating pleasures.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

a novel by Norman Mailer
Mailer had said that he wanted to write something fast, nasty and fun after the time and energy he lavished on two of brilliant and more ambitious projects, Ancient Evenings and Executioner's Song. Tough Guys Don't Dance is that book, in the tradition of Chandler, Hammett, Ross Macdonald. Tim Madden wakes up after a long life of wasting away as a binging alcoholic and finds his bed drenched in blood; later he finds his wife's severed head in a secret pot stash. He, however remembers none of it, and this provides Mailer ample room to ruminate about the metaphysics of hangovers and black outs and the perversions one finds themselves willing to commit when wealth and power are at stake. The cast of characters are unruly, pinched in the nerve and casting a faint whiff of what one imagines the store room where Dorian Gray's portrait was held in sick secrecy. Madden, hardly an innocent himself, stumbles and routs about trying to piece together the events of his last binge, terrified in the possibility that he might well be his wife's killer. Mailer's prose is breathtaking and poetic, and creates a tension with the gamy undertakings of the plot. This is not one of Mailer's masterworks, not be a long shot, but it has verve and drive and a splendidly sick wit, and it reminds us that Mailer can construct an odd tale and twist it in any direction he pleases.

Meet Me in the Parking Lot
stories by Alexandra Leggat

Flannery O'Connor, Russell Banks and Jersey Kozinzky meet for coffee , hash browns and small talk about psychic exile and the best sort of knife edge to hack through a bothersome bit of bone. Odd, disturbing, violent material here--violence either explicit or always at the edge of the crystallized situations here--all of which are made more jarring with Alexandra Leggat's taste for terse sentences and abrupt endings.

It works, for the most part,and the arc through the stories, life inside cars, on dark streets, side roads, parking lots behind anonymous bars, presents us with any number of dazed, abused and high strung women and rattled, crazed, raging men enacting any number of strange movements and quirks. At best, these stories are an adrenaline jolt, speaking truly to the sort of flash that gives one the urge to leap in front of traffic, to challenge immensity of grave and

Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S.
A novel by Jeremy Leven

No one has ever done a subtler or a more devastating send up of the psychiatric/psychology industry, nor have many been able to insinuate sly philosophical digressions into a frothing satiric text with such grace and pacing. This satan, faceless, locking himself inside a computer in a public gallery, has the charm to coax a snake out of new skin. The complications are wonderfully wild and orchestrated, and Kassler's travails as a single dad trying to rekindle a relationship with his children are heart breaking as they are potently hilarious. I am in the league that lent his copy out, and I've been trying to replace it for years. This book needs to come back into print. Author Leven has given us one of the best structured, best written American comic novels, and its a disservice to the reading public to keep it out of print.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Jargonized Murk

Some nuggets regarding the subject of postmodernism and writing, surely a blast from the distant nineties when anyone could sound like a language philosopher around the time clock . It's my vanity to think that this is writing of some heft other than the volume of words; honestly, what I like was learning the art of conversation drift, that is, starting at one point with one idea, maybe two, and then letting the words drive through whatever neighborhood they felt like. It's my vanity here, but then again, it's my blog. Sometimes I just like to "hear myself write", as Duncan Shepard has remarked of Quintin Tarentino's dialogue.

"Isn’t ‘deconstruction’ an attempt to apply scientific principles to the analysis of language and what it implies? There is a lot of science-envy among the critics in the arts and humanities, and they’ve seemed to have latched on to the extrapolated language of anthropology and linguistics in order to keep their jobs. There is an effort, in the mission of literature departments, to continue to prove that there is stuff of quantifiable worth to be extracted from the study of novels and poems, and that they are in some way adding to the body of knowledge. Post-modernism, as a style, as an artistic impulse, as a habit of mind and gesture inevitable in an image-saturated time has cut-up, bricolage, pastiche, parody, and other sorts of archival hooliganism at its heart, and that the artist (writer) should use the images at hand, whatever their source, and give them free play and transgress boundaries, the notion remains that the impulse is, in fact, pre-modern, about ritual and mystery. The universe shrunk down to symbolic particulars that have a power to establish order in things that ultimately are not quantifiable by science or argument. Writing and literature are all veils, I would think: if anyone could get ‘IT’ with a piece of work, we would have to assume the writer and his audience are satisfied, sated, and are disinclined to hear the story again. But there is always another wrinkle to relate, another nuance to discover, another veil to be taken away.

This echoes Barthes’ idea of writing/writing as being an erotic function; that the end that one gets to at the end of the tale is not the point of the quest but the quest itself. The unveiling of language; the constant reassimilation that names for things are made to undergo as the nature of the material world defies literary form; it is the imagination that needs to work within the waking sphere, not the world that needs to fit within its contours. We find with reading that writers we care about themselves could care less about what kind they are supposed to be according to literary archivists; thus they will have stylistic extremes that venture into another camp away from what common knowledge dictates is their ‘native’ style or manner. Is Gravity’s Rainbow any less a work of ‘Magical Realism’ than what we’ve seen in Garcia Marquez or Borges? Is Nabokov’s work Pale Fire less postmodern than say Mulligan Stew?

It becomes a definitively moot point; irresolvable and subject to an unending detour that circles around the precise meaning of finally inconsequential terms. Imagination is a trait that will use any manner or style suitable for a writer’s project at hand and it ought not be surprising or upsetting that many writers assigned roles by career-making PhD candidates simply do what they need to do in order to get their work done. This gives us fascinating paradoxes: Norman Mailer by temperament a romantic existentialist who might have been in the late 19th century is one who took postmodern strategies to render his work. The range of his assumed styles and experimentation creates specific problems with literary historians who might be eager to be done with his books and his name. Somewhere so far as criticism has gone in the last half-century, a link was made with other discourses which made much of literary study something of a gawky laughing stock: not historians not scientists not psychologists not philosophers. The gamiest of theory wonks could prate on and onward on fields not their own keeping tenuous connections between their specialty fictional accounts of experience and real-time bathos and tragedy obscured with an ever-deepening reservoir of jargonized murk.

Last Night on DVD: "Road to Perdition", "Changing Lanes"

Saw Road to Perdition and witnessed what turned out to be a significant disappointment. Director Sam Mendes seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources mounting the film and not enough time directing it. It has a an interesting look, particularly with its' near monochromatic hues and lighting that suggests the eye of a Dutch master, but this wears thin quickly as the the plot and characterization fails to develop at either a credible pace or with interesting results. There is nothing especially awful here, just stuff that is predictable , an offense made worse by sheer lethargy. Hanks does little more than grimace, Paul Newman, performing well in the first part of the film, has little to do afterwards except sit and stare into his lap with an old man's regret. Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Jason Leigh may as well be furniture here. Not the best crime drama since "Godfather". Missing in this artfully mounted yet oddly inert diorama is the script that made the difference with Mendess' previous effort, American Beauty. The plot here is adequate, I suppose, for the purposes of the graphic novel it's adapted from, but on screen, as is, the storyline is little more than a thin, cracking mortar between the cut stones of a huge mansion, ornate and impressive at first view, but revealing a crumbling structure the closer one gets
into it.

In the same sitting--a long sitting--I also caught up with Changing Lanes, thought it was a decent enough Hollywood "message" film, though it had the dopiest premise imaginable. It's not that I object to happy endings -- in this case, each of the characters played by Sam Jackson and Ben Affleck realize the exact nature of their wrongs and wind up doing the right thing by the world and themselves -- it's that I want the fictional solutions to seem fictionally plausible. The concentration of the events into one day snaps credulity, and while you're wondering whether this is an alternative universe where there are 76 hours to a day, the film drags way too much in key areas. Jackson and Affleck are both quite good here, but in the crush of the events that are eating our protagonists up, there is too much reflection, too much self examination, too much fortuitous circumstance for the characters to redeem themselves. Irony is fine, but Affleck's pragmatic do-gooding at the end is too much of stretch, theatrical without being dramatic. Like the film as a whole.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More old music from my CD collection

MX --David Murray and Friends (Red Barron)

w/ Murray -- tenor sax / Ravi Coltrane -- tenor sax / Bobby Bradford -coronet / John Hicks -- piano / Fred Hopkins --bass / Victor Lewis -- drums

Dedicated to the memory of Malcolm X, this is a roll up the sleeves and get to work album: the playing is all over the map, from Ellington like swing, deep seething blues to hard blowing "outplaying" that winds a nice loop throughout, characterized by the staggering effortlessness of Murray's playing. He will crowd his choruses mightily, and push his tone and his lines to the point where they break, but returns to the blues, landing mournfully, finally, beautifully. Ravi Coltrane on the second tenor is an inspired match--he is more reserved, a subtler phrase, not wild at all, but with full tone control, and wit to spare.


--The Uptown String Quartet (Blue Moon)

Saw these four women on CBS Sunday Morning a year or so ago, and their bringing their classical training to bear on jazz was a quirky notion that works genuinely well. Name it and the style is here, Kansas City blues to some very "out" moments and some blues to spare, with the ensemble not seeming to try to preserve the dusty air of the chamber, nor falsely infuse their work with a creaking notion of swing. It swings nicely at that, and a bonus is a left field arrangement of "I Feel Good". It's glorious to hear James Brown in long hair circumstances.

Mistaken Identity --Vernon Reid (550 Music/Epic)

Not the guitar show off album one might have thought, but rather a grungy funk hip-hop acid groove fest, with Don Byron on reeds coloring the hard rock salvos of Reid's guitar work. This disc twists in a dozen directions.

Avenue B--Iggy Pop (Virgin)

An album that's more interesting to read than listen to, I'm afraid: much too much of this is light, redundant pop stylings that sap power from Iggy's delivery. The version of 'Shakin All Over' rattles the teeth rather nicely, but overall, this album seems misguided, a mistaken idea to market Iggy into Real Legend, the Last Rock and Roll Survivor Who Matters. He may well be, but this kind of self-consciousness doesn't wear well with the Ig. That is not where his genius lies. Ig has to rock rough and hard, with those clipped couplets and first-lesson guitar chords slicing up the music of history in ways that remind you that wit is a survival instinct. He can do it, as his fellow Motor City brethren Wayne Kramer, former MC-5, does on albums like The Hard Stuff and Citizen Wayne. We don't need Iggy to become the American Peter Townsend, forever flummoxed by the irony that he didn't die before he got old.

Early Days --Chick Corea (Laserlight)

w/ Corea--piano / Woody Shaw--trumpet / Bernie Maupin--tenor sax / Dave Holland--bass / Horace Arnold--bass / Hubert Laws--flute and piccolo/ Jack DeJohnette--drums.

Recorded in NYC in 1968, this is a bracing and varied set, with the musicians exploiting the broadest range of their ability. Ornette style free playing, swinging waltz times, long and layered improvisations are the highlight. Bernie Maupin shines with his sax work, DeJohnette keeps all the factions talking to one another, and Corea leads the session with significant aplomb. Recommended.


--Chick Corea w/ the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Origin (Sony Classical)

The word "pretentious" comes to mind, as well as "waste", in so much as Corea, one of the surest and most ingenious musician/composer talents alive, takes one of his most perfect compositions, "Spain" and elongates into a series of "movements", no doubt meant to explore new ideas, poetry, impressions. What he has here is near unrecognizable from the original, except when the orchestra kicks in with some obligatory figures: the improvisations from Corea and the worthy members of Origin are tentative at best--they sound like they are sitting next to insane wrestlers on a crowded bus-- and the piece, long, shall we say, stops and goes with no real dynamic emphasis or emotional wallop delivered, or even hinted at in the foreshadowing. Corea ought to know better; he can certainly do better.

Ju Ju -- Wayne Shorter (Blue Note)

Wayne Shorter -- tenor sax / McCoy Tyner -- piano / Reggie Workman -- bass / Elvin Jones -- drums

A 1964 session, sweetness and light meet fire and deep-seated anxiety in seeming alternating breaths. Shorter is thoughtful, probing the moods of his ingeniously laid-out material with finesse that hints at more expressionistic playing to come--his tone always struck me as inner-directed--while the band delivers everything their names promise. Elvin Jones continues to convince that he is the greatest drummer in jazz history.

Times Up--Living Color

Superb hard rock and shred guitar rock, crisscrossed with hip-hop and Colemanesque cadences, though Singer Corey Glover's pleading soul-isms are sometimes thin and, frankly, whiney. Still, Vernon Reid is a seriously under-discussed guitar genius, I think, and here demonstrates an ability to execute his solos at wind-burn speeds that never fall into the ejaculating cliches that have stymied the art.
And their topicality is uncommonly pithy--short, to the point, like a well phrased daily political column. So far as that goes, the lyrics had the economy of a well-oiled slogan.

Standards --Mike Stern (Atlantic Jazz)

Fleet and easy treatments of standards, or new material composed "in the tradition", all of which highlights Stern's high-velocity lyricism. A 50's Miles mood prevails--Randy Brecker's trumpet work is achingly cool, restrained, a nice change for the fiery blower-- and Stern allows himself a lot of ground to cover, fill, do what he wants with. But you do wish he'd let go of the electronics and just play it straight, if only for our benefit. If it's good enough for Metheney, he can it a try.

A Tribute to Miles(Qwest/Reprise) -- Herbie Hancock (kybd) / Wayne Shorter (sax) / Ron Carter (bass) Wallace Roney (trumpet) / Tony Williams (drums)

Tribute albums are usually overly polite in their treatment of their musical subject, but this one burns mightily. Roney in the trumpet position has a fine, aggressive style, and the efforts of the others are in full swing, force and at the top of their game. It is always amazing to re-discover what a supreme pianist Hancock can be, and the sheer genius of Williams on drums makes you angry that he ever wasted his gifts on the bulk of his fusion efforts. His early death stilled an amazing, revolutionary musician. Wayne Shorter, of course, is all over the place, pushing his broad sweeps over melodies that crackle with electricity

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Writers and the Books they Wrote that Irritated Me

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was a book I detested when I read in high school, and it remains the most overrated book by an American writer I've encountered. There are moments of real poetry here, yes, but the waxing and waning of dated and contrived hip argot was embarrassing to read through. 

Underworld was easily one of the best and most important American novels of the last fifty years, and the care and mastery of his writing is a quality the talented but frequently expulsive Jonathan Franzen should pay attention to. The Corrections, Franzen's most recent attempt to join William Gaddis as fabled practitioner of the Big Novel, is an epic that conspicuously hadn't completed the editing and revising process; some sentences, similes, and metaphors are so hamstrung and haphazardly constructed that you wonder if a blue pencil was taken to his manuscript at all. A shame because Franzen is a good prose writer, as you can witness in either Strong Motion, his previous novel, or in his collection of essays and journalism How to Be Alone

I have a great aversion to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, an obese scale-breaker that ought to have been chopped into a series of novels, ala Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. There's certainly the material. I have a sneaking suspicion that the book has been used more than either a weapon or varies kinds of braces and blocks than as a book to be read. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is the one book I would claim to be morally offensive; offensive for its wretchedness as a novel, offensive for the valorization of selfishness and insisting that the base quality is actually a virtue. 

American Psycho 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. 

You Shall Know Our Velocity by David Eggers irritated me no end, a rapidly written novel about two young men trying to fly all over the world in a week's time to give away $32,000. A good idea for a screwball comedy, but as a novelist Eggers exhibits that same rhythm and pitch he showed A Heartbreaking of Staggering Genius, breathless and stammering. A bag of noise, essentially, not unlike watching a string of bad stand-up comics on pot luck night. 

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe is another of that author's attempts to revive the Dickens/Anthony Trollope social novel, a college comedy, of sorts, where the bright but sheltered title character arrives at a modern college where the ways of the student body is anything but academic. 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 are 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. Gaddis's The Recognitions is precisely the complex New York comic novel of art, commerce, greed and religion that Wolfe is incapable of writing Wolfe lost his punch years ago, producing two-dimensional door stoppers as novels and angry-dog rants as essays in his most recent efforts, and Simmons has the kind of over-writing found in once-hip writers trying to establish their relevance. He sounds shrill and angry here. 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 be 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 I Am 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. 

Joyce Carol Oates is not my favorite writer, but for all the repetition of her themes of fragile women being imperiled by evil masculine forces they masochistically desire, she does occasionally publish something both compelling and well written. I detested "Beasts" and "The Falls" since she exercises her familiar dreads in contrasting lengths, the first book a slender novella, the latter a literal brick, both books sounding rushed, fevered, and breathless, as first drafts of novels usually do. Or a finished Oates novel, for that matter. She does get it right sometimes, as she did with "Black Water" and "Tattoo Girl"; with the right configuration, her usual wit's end prose style and fascination with fragile psyches and marginally psychotic psychologies get as intense as fiction is ever likely to get. Zombie is a rather potent little psychodrama, and it's the kind of writing Oates excels at. She gets to the heart of the fringe personality better than anyone I can think of. The Tattooed Girl, from 2003, is likewise a well shaped melodrama. She depicts the thinking of women who allow themselves to be beaten and killed with seemingly scary exactitude. Oates can also be a bore, evident in We Were Mulvaneys and The Falls. My fascination with her continues, though, since it's impossible to tell when she publishes another novel that will be gripping and unnerving. 

She merits a bit of respect, although you wish she'd stop trying to win the Nobel Prize so obviously with her tool-and-dye production and take longer to write a novel a reader didn't have to rationalize about. It's not just a matter of writers who write quickly getting away with redundant excess and awkward passages, such as Oates and Stephen King. Those who take their time also seem to avoid the more severe markings of the editor's blue pencil, as in the case with Jonathan Franzen. 
Even though I half way enjoyed The Corrections, I was embarrassed by many parts where the good, meticulously controlled prose just stopped as if it were exhausted after a long workout and suddenly went lax and slapdash and cliché glutted. This is a tendency in writers who feel that every sentence they compose is required to sum up the human condition. A good editor would have handed the work in progress in a conference with the author with a discussion about how to make the writing even better, punchier, and less hackneyed. I would love to see Infinite Jest broken up into a series of novels in the manner of Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, a project that would force Wallace to rid the work of the twenty-page footnotes and furnish comprehensible arcs from one book to the next. It would make an interesting set of ideas about the nature of addiction readable to people other than fringe grad school sorts. 


It's been said that John Updike can write extremely well about nothing whatsoever, less to do with the sort of hyperrealism of Robbe-Grillet or the purposeful taxonomies of David Foster Wallace than the plain old conceit of being to love your voice. There is no theoretical edge to Updike's unceasing, albeit elegant wordiness. It's a habit formed from deadlines, I guess, having to write a long and coherently in short spurts. He has published a minimum of one book a year since his first book The Poorhouse Fair was published in 1958, and like any artists who are as prolific over a long period--Wood Allen and JC Oates fans take note--there will be the inevitable productions that are ambitious but under constructed, dull, repetitive of past success, what have you. 

Toward the End of Time was one of his occasional flings with science fiction, and it was dull beyond repair. Licks of Love was rather a quaint and grandiloquent selection of lately composed stories that don't add much to his reputation. The Rabbit quartet, though, is masterful, a genuine American Saga of a man who is the quintessential rudderless citizen who goes through an entire lifetime in which none of his experiences gives any clue to purposes beyond his disappointments and satisfactions. Updike is brilliant in this sequence, and for this alone I'd guess his reputation as a major writer is safe for generations to come. He's had his share of duds, but an unusually high proportion of his work is masterful, even brilliant. The Rabbit quartet, The Coup, Witches of Eastwick, Brazil, Beck: A Book, The Centaur, Roger's Version. I could go on. It's interesting as well to note the high incidence of experimentation with narrative form and subject. Rabbit placed him with this image of being someone comically dwelling on the lapsed virtues of middle-aged East Coasters, ala John Cheever, (another writer I prize), but he has been all over the map so far as what he's written about and how he wrote about it. Even though I've cooled on Updike lately--I've been reading him for thirty years--I can't dismiss him nor diminish his accomplishment. He is one of the untouchables. Besides, neurosis is character, and it's hardly a monochromatic shade. It's a trait that comes across in infinitely varied expressions, and we need someone who can artfully exploit their potential. 

I have generally enjoyed and admired the Hemingway I've read, and I think the short stories in In Our Time are among the best by an American author in the 20th Century. That said, The Sun Also Rises was spectacular and To Have and to Have Not equally so. At his best, Hemingway really could convey large emotions and subtle movements of mood with very few words. It was a reverse virtuosity that couldn't sustain itself, though, and left him with nothing but self parodied the more he was unwilling to change his style. Old Man in the Sea, among others, are relentlessly dull and full of the kind of self-pity that makes you want to smack him. 

Purple America by Rick Moody was a novel that enraged me. He's been compared to John Cheever by some critics. Moody, however, doesn't come to close to Cheever's achievement. 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 a busted water main. All 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 rushing 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. 

I've spent a reading lifetime berating Ayn Rand and her work, and I've been given the "it has some good ideas" counterargument, a response that makes me want to search for a brick wall to bash my head against. There's nothing like having a well-fed yuppie stockbroker or Pilate-addicted trophy mom go flat line on you with that kind of defense after you've delivered a passionate and well-tuned indictment of Rand and her pretensions of philosophical worth. She was, if nothing else, a marketing genius, and knew her audience well, the various "little men" of no particular talent or depth who imagine themselves betrayed by Statist boobery and see themselves as intellectual giants who are fated to rise above the rabble and make their rules. Perversions of Nietzsche, to be sure, but Rand understood that if she presented herself as the quintessential Übermensch she might well gather about her otherwise educated toadies whose need to be bossed about and humiliated in hopes of maybe someday gaining the kind of Roarkian moral imperative to bomb public housing projects because they offended his sense of propriety ( The Fountainhead). Rand was a greasy, amoral mind fucker whose basic concern was controlling her little world and its inhabitants with the ironic promise of that she might lead them to greater freedom. 

I rather like David Eggers in Theory, in so far that his McSweeney's publishing enterprise encourages new writers and marketing that fall outside the conventional corporate habits and style, but I, personally, am appalled by his writing. I cut him some slack for A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, since it does tell a true story of a hard time in his life, where every bad thing that could happen did happen all the same time. The hastiness of the prose even added to the reading. His fiction, though, is fast talking affair that does not work on any level apart from demonstrating Egger's skill at filling monitors with words in short order. You Shall Know Our Velocity was a shaggy dog story told by a crack head. Not good, and singularly annoying.

Writing well is the best revenge

I've no use for care-and-share poetry myself, and have made myself obnoxious in these parts for voicing the opinion more than once. I don't think, however, it's useful or even correct to assume that most people people you meet "... live in a sort of daze, content to live empty and meaningless lives."

There was a time when I thought living intensely and passionately was goal number one and that all else would just have to go by the sidelines while I fulfilled the requirements of my holy assignation, but finally, surviving the deaths of intimates, getting fired from jobs, sobering up, and cleaning up wholesale wreckage humbled me somewhat. Living at the edge of experience was over rated, I came to believe, and more often than not inspired a kind of redundantly exclamatory writing about awakening the senses, or an equally repetitive series of morose dwellings on addictions, tragic pasts, unending sadness. Glaring exhibitionism and constant melancholy didn't seem a desirable way to conduct my affairs, and certainly, in retrospect, made the poetry I was writing at the time, during the seventies and through the mid eighties, incoherent, choppy, self-pitying. The normal life, whatever that was, became more attractive, if only that I needed a relief from the burden of self and wanted to get involved in those matters that just baffled the shit out of me. Over time I found that there was an endless variety of life's condition in between the limited extremes I first held as constant and non-negotiable. What I found was that there were people among the dullards, the pretentious, pompous and just plain phony who had very interesting lives, who were doing good and creative things in their world, who had a nuanced view on what life had them. They were having infinitely more interesting experiences than I was as a gloomy Gus. The onus was on me, the poet, to "wake up" and become a witness to what was actually out there, beyond my opinions and set pieces.

It's presumptuous to assume that you have an accurate read on the inner life of each and every person you meet during the day, and it's best to back off this kind of thinking. It gets in the way of your ability to be a witness to experience.The poets I like have to be good writers, first and foremost, no matter what their work looks like on the page. There are many writers whose works are stunning to look at as a kind of typographical art, but reading them winds up being an insufferable experience, unpleasant not so much because the poems are difficult but because the writing is just plain awful, being either willfully obscure to disguise a lack of real feeling toward their experience, or, most typically , for exhibiting an inane, unoriginal and cliché choked sensibility that would never have gotten out of a junior college poetry workshop.In either case, the visual look of a poem is a distraction from the mediocrity of the piece being read. Good writing always matters, and there are many, many wonderful poets whose works have an originality achieved through a mastery of language that fortunately leads us away from the nagging dread that a tactless and unschooled savant garde has completely overtaken the conversation.Good poets must be concerned with language,I think, since that is the stock and trade of the art. Language made fresh, reinvigorated, reinvented-- I have no arguments with anyone who earnestly attempts to make language convey experience, ideas, emotion, or even the lack of emotion, in ways and with techniques that keeps poetry and poetic language relevant to the contemporary world, the one that's currently lived in, but there is a tendency for a good many young poets , fresh from writing programs, to repeat the least interesting ideas and execution of their professors and to make their work obsess about language itself, as a subject.The concern, boiled down crudely, is that language is exhausted in its ability to express something fresh from a Imperialist/patriarchal/racist/individualist perspective, and the only thing that earnest writers can do is to foreground language as their subject matter and investigate the ways in which proscribed rhetoric has seduced us and made our work only reinforce the machinery that enslaves us. This kind of stuff appeals to the idealist who hasn't had enough living, not enough bad luck, not enough frustration or joy to really have anything to write about, in large part (an grotesque generalization, I know), and it's easy for someone to eschew the work of absorbing good poetry -- Shakespeare, Stevens, Whitman, Milton, Blake, O'Hara-- or learning something of the craft and instead poise their work in non sequiters , fragments, clichés, sparsely buttressed inanities, framed , usually, in typographical eccentricities that are supposed to make us aware of the horrific truth of language's ability to enslave us to perceptions that serve capitalist and like minded pigs.More often, this sort of meta-poetry, this experimental notion that makes a grinding self-reflexivity the point of the work, reveals laziness and sloth and basic ignorance of the notion of inspiration-- the moment when one's perceptions and one's techniques merge and result in some lines, some honest work that cuts through the static thinking and makes us see the world in way we hadn't before.I speak, of course, of only a certain kind of avant garde; one I endured in college and have since survived when I found my own voice and began to write what I think is an honest poetry. With any luck, some of these writers will stop insisting on trying to be smarter and more sensitive than their readership and begin to write something that comes to resemble a real poetry that's fresh and alluring for its lack of airs. Others might do us a favor and get real jobs. Others, I think, will continue to be professional poets as long as there is grant money to be had, and will continue in their own destruction of forest land.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

AJ Soprano, mob boss

The Sopranos is now down to four remaining episodes yet unseen, and the speculation about the cognoscenti , given the pending demise of Tony Soprano's reign as Boss, is who might come after him, continue the business, so to speak. It's a slippery slope,
but one wonders if this New Jersey enterprise will stay a Soprano-helmed concern. What about Anthony Jr.?We've already had a taste of AJ acting like a made man a couple of seasons back when he was organizer enormous parties for under aged drinkers; in one scene he and an associate told some guys who got into a party without paying to pay up, and when told to buzz off, kicked the collective of the deadbeats. AJ seems like a young man who only really gets motivated when he's excited about something, whether that means being in love or punishing those who owe him money. Given how unsatisfactory straight life has been for him, he'll find it easy enough to continue the sins of his father as his father continued the sins of his pater familias. It's a big apple tree with very short branches. If AJ became the next boss, after various time spent in the earner's trenches, he would likely find that would inherit more than a business from his Dad; a generation of conniving and resentment comes with the job description.

What Tony has had to contend with since he became boss, more about protecting his position as Boss against various challenges and less about extending the mob's clutches into other scams. But then his is not a business as anyone understands capitalist instinct, that profit and the bottom line matter more than strong senses of entitlement. In the real business life, ventures run on a third of the collective, mendacious vanity of mob culture would go out of business(sans the violence). for all the talk among the bosses and the captains and various members of the crew about being better "earners", grotesquely distorted feelings of entitlement , envy, resentment and a general lack of seeing beyond the demands of their primal wants undermines all efforts to conduct this enterprise like it had a rational purpose. It's fitting, perhaps, since what they make money on are the libidinous appetites of a those willing to pay for access to illegal vices and wares--gambling, prostitution, drugs, boosted dry goods-- and that the disinterested stance needed by a merchant who refrains from sampling their product is not Tony's nor his crew's quality to posess. Dispite a hundred forms of denial,rationalization and excuse making about themselves and what they're doing in The Life, they fall victims to their own wares, gambling, drugs, whoring and the lot, and exist in a perpetual state of impulsive action. What I find riveting here is that the truth of The Life and the unvarnished facts of Tony Soprano's realm is being bluntly exposed. His years of trying to live on both sides of the fence are taking their toll, and it's the truth that he will find unacceptable on any terms other than in madness and death, like Lear.