Thursday, August 27, 2020


I can assure you, sir, that these things really suck!" -- Don Van Vliet,when selling a vacuum cleaner to Aldous Huxley 

I'm so glad that your long-winded voicemail messages and my delete button  have become such good friends. | Workplace Ecard
Image by mikeable10
No , you're neither drudge nor dullard  for not being drawn to Don DeLillo.  he either appeals to you or he doesn't, as is the case with any other serious (or less serious) writer who wants to get your attention.The charges that DeLillo is tedious, wordy and pretentious, not necessarily in that order, are themselves tedious and , it seems, levied by a folks who either haven't read much of the author, more likely, put forward by a host of soreheads who use DeLillo as a representative of a kind of fiction writing they dismiss wholesale. I'm not an easy sell when it comes to be seduced by writer's reputations--my friends accuse me of being too picky, too "critical"--but I've read most of DeLillo's fifteen novels since I discovered him in the early Seventies; if I didn't find his writing brilliant and vibrant or found his narrative ruminations on the frayed American spirit engaging, I'd not have bothered with him. DeLillo is a serious writer,  sober as a brick, but he is not pompous.

I  marveled at the economy of his writing. He does write long sentences in parts of his novels, but they are so precisely presented they seem positively succinct. And that, I think, is a large part of their power. There are some readers who are slightly stunned when it's revealed that one of DeLillo's avowed influences , a model to learn from , is Ernest Hemingway, who's low-modifier, low-simile, spare and sharp focused prose is detectable even those writers noted for their compound sentences. It would seem to be a matter of not the length of the sentence itself, but with the precision of the words being applied, the practice where typing and jotting things down becomes actual writing, that is, composition, a state of bring elements together that makes the expression comprehensible (shall we add "relatable"?) to readers besides the author and his or her immediate circle. Power and purpose are the things that make a long sentence of fiction a thing of wonder;good sentences are like pieces of great music that you read again, listen to again. The Godfather of the terse, abrupt phrase, Hemingway could, when he chose to , compose a long sentence that had the advantage of serpentine rhythms snaking their way around a nettlesome gather of conflicting emotions and sentiments, but still had a wallop of an adroitly worded police report. The longest sentence he ever wrote, 424 words in his story "The Green Hills of Africa" is cinematic in its sweep: 

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student's exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing---the stream.

The sentence approaches the state of pure lyric poetry, where the facts of what the senses reveal to us about the part of the world a character inhabits and finds intimacy with pass by in a rapid, camera like sweep, a suggestion of motion that brings about fast,brief, fleeting descriptions, associations and swift suggestions of emotional attachment  . The scene is both familiar as family yet made strange in the recollection, as a character's subsequent history disrupts an instinctive nostalgia and provides an undertone of rueful irony , a sense of things not taken up. This a fascinating case of recollection examined both as Eden and , maybe, a ring in the the concentric circles of a hell formed by a character's own decisions and choices.For the sheer joy of reading the next passage, let's have a look at a longish sentence from DeLillo's Underworld, where a character is driving, and manages to discern the roads, the highways, the freeway system as an ecosystem . DeLillo allows himself to riff on the theme, and to encroach just slightly on a rant, but the sentence , like many other passages in the sprawling genius of Underworld, is from  a master who knows something about the mystery that comes from the not getting it right avails us of the heart-stopping poetics that momentarily cause us to reflect on our own history of acting in our exclusive interest.
He drove into the spewing smoke of acres of burning truck tires and the planes descended and the transit cranes stood in rows at the marine terminal and he saw billboards for Hertz and Avis and Chevy Blazer, for Marlboro, Continental and Goodyear, and he realized that all the things around him, the planes taking off and landing, the streaking cars, the tires on the cars, the cigarettes that the drivers of the cars were dousing in their ashtrays--all these were on the billboards around him, systematically linked in some self-referring relationship that had a kind of neurotic tightness, an inescapability, as if the billboards were generating reality...
I think there's a clutch of  otherwise smart people who distrust and actively dislike anything that suggests elegant or lyric prose writing. John Updike, who I think was perhaps the most consistently brilliant and resourceful American novelists up until his death,was routinely pilloried for the seamless flow of his telling details. If one cares to do a survey, I suspect they'd find the same caustic template levied at other writers who are noted for their ability to detail the worlds they imagine in ways that make the mundane take on a new resonance. Nabokov, DeLillo, Henry James,  Richard Powers have all been assessed by a noisy few as being  "too wordy". The sourpusses seem to forget that this fiction, not journalism, that this literature, no police reports.The secret, I think, is that a writer possessed of a fluid style manages to link their  mastery of the language with the firm outlining of  the collective personalities of the characters , both major and minor.

 The elegance is in service to a psychological dimension that otherwise might not be available. The thinking among among the anti-elegance crowd is that writing must be grunts, groans and monosyllabic bleats, a perversion of the modernist notion that words are objects to used as materials to get to the essential nature of the material world. Lucky for us that no one convincingly defined what "essential nature" was, leaving those readers who love a run on sentence with more recent examples of the word drunk in progress. I don't mind long sentences as long as their is some kind of mastery of the voice a writer might attempt at length; I am fond of Whitman, Henry James, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carol Oates, writers who manage poetry in their long winded ways. That is to say, they didn't sound phony and the rhythms sounded like genuine expressions of personalities given to subtle word choice. Kerouac, though, struck me as tone deaf. After all these years of complaining about his style, or his attempts at style, the issue may be no more than a matter of taste. Jack Kerouac is nearly in our American Canon, and one must remember that the sort of idiom that constitutes literary language constantly changes over the centuries; language is a living thing, as it must be for literature to remain relevant as a practice and preference generation to generation.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Briefly, Two Novels by Richard Powers

The Echo Maker has been called an "post 911 novel",a description that seems to fit in that its central metaphor is the yearning for a time before life became problematic.But that's too pat a description, and it cheats against Power's on going themes of characters trying to reintegrate themselves into what they view as an ideal past they've either been torn from, had ignored until they were older and hobbled with responsibility and ailments, or were denied outright. There's some things in common with Don DeLillo, as in how a constructed reality and the narratives we create to give them to give them weight, but DeLillo, despite his frequent beauty, hasn't Powers' heart. The Echo Maker makes me think of a comedy routine where the comedian posits "I went to bed last night and when I woke up everything around me had been replaced with exact replicas".The comedy routine was funny, the novel is tragic, but they share the same premise, finding yourself stuck in a skin where nothing around appears false, a world of impostured objects. Family crisis time, of course, as neither Karin nor Mark having especially heroic lives to begin with, suddenly tossed by circumstance into a medical dilemma where the desired , dreamed of outcome would be a return to the banal life that existed prior to the accident. Powers shares with DeLillo the ability to wax lyric on the familiar world and make it appear strange, foreboding, erotic, fancying a semiological turn as the associations with the objects and places fade and the remains of memory become a forlorn poetry. But again, Powers has the younger, bigger heart than DeLillo's magisterial detachment, and we appreciate quietly conveyed message; pay attention to the moment you're in, make note of what's important, do something with what you have. Not to do so invites regret and final years of wondering what happened during the time in the middle of life. 

The time of our singing richard powers.jpg
The previous Power's novel, The Time of Out Singing  is a saga about a family of mixed race, white German and African American where he watch the struggles of three mixed-ethnic children struggle to find niches for themselves in a racially divided America of the Fifties and Sixties; politics, art, music are areas the two sons and daughter respectively seek their places within, and all are shunned and shunted off. The consequence is hard bitterness , with the power of the novel being that being an outsider in a culture that brags of its inclusionist brilliance is a lonely crock to find yourself stuck in. Powers , additionally, gets the heartache and the delirious joy right; there is alway something seething under the character's surface, passions and obsessions lighting or dimming their view of the day.  There are three children, one with a beautiful singing voice who opts for a classical music career, a daughter who becomes involved with the civil rights struggle,and a second brother who, though gifted as well, buries his ambition to bridge the gap between his siblings. Not a perfect novel--sometimes Powers' superb style turns into a list of historical events as a means to convey the sweep of time-- but the central issues of race, identity, culture are handled well within the story.The writing is generous and frequently beautiful, especially at the moments when the description turns to the music. Powers, as well as any one, describes how notes played the right way can make one believe in heaven and the angels who live there.The Time of Our Singing Powers is  an engrossing and ambitious generational tale of an American family with a mixed heritage of African-American and German Jew, and covers the travails, triumphs and tragedies of this family. 

Staring at the Spines of Some John Updike Titles on a Book Shelf: a very brief appreciation

Select Bibliography | THE JOHN UPDIKE SOCIETY
It's been said that John Updike is able to write extremely well about nothing what so ever, less to do with the sort of hyper-realism of Robbe-Grillet or the purposeful taxonomies of David Foster Wallace than the plain old conceit of being in love your own voice. There is no theoretical edge to Updike's unceasing albeit elegant wordiness. It's a habit formed from deadlines as he authored many books of short stores, published novels at a steady click, and wrote high caliber book and art reviews in great quantity. He was a writer by trade, and write he did . 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 is as prolific over a long period--Wood Allen and Joyce Carol 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 own 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 matter. 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.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020


Of course there had to be a Dylan record on a list of albums that had a high impact in the manner I put my straight shoulder to the wheel, and its this one, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED. This is less a music collection than a weapon, a dual- edged shiv that brought everything that songwriter was interested in--Burroughsesque nightmares, the plaintive flatness of rural folk traditions, a carnivalization of the inane and crucifying obligations we've bought into to rationalize lives based on a religion comprised solely on the idea of debt. It was a glorious anarchy as well, a chamber of blues, boogie, electric guitars , guitars and drums thrashing forward without penance with a momentum that ripped the seams of whatever structure these songs had to begin with. Dylan is nasal, braying, mewling, nasty in his vocalizing, which is to say that he's pissed, a combination of gotcha!, dead-to-rights broadsides against what is false and based on distraction deception and deceit and outright school yard finger pointing, an aggrieved creep ranting at others about how unfair he's been treated. 

This is a fantastic combination, folkie Dylan backed by an electric band getting the tracks done fast, taking little time for finessing the brew. It's worth mentioning that while blues guitar genius Mike Bloomfield was on the session (with Al Kooper as well, late of the Blues Project and later to found Blood Sweat and Tears), Dylan, jerk/punk/asshole/speed freak he was, told Bloomfield that he didn't want "any of that B.B.King shit..." Or words to that effect. The disc is full of rawboned, ethereal masterpieces like JUST LIKE TOM THUMB'S BLUES, FROM A BUICK SIX, BALLAD OF A THIN MAN, QUEEN JANE APPROXIMATELY, and his epic Masterwork DESOLATION ROW, which may be the most convincing evocation of Dante's 9 Circles of Hell. One can enthuse, elaborate, abstract from and wax philosophical upon these keen nihilistic odes, but it will have to suffice to remark that I consider this record one of the albums that needed to exist for the birth of punk rock to take place, along with the KICK OUT THE JAMS by the MC5, and the first albums by the Stooges and Velvet Underground. . 

Everyone seems to start and end at different places, tempos are ragged, sometimes tentative, the pace is bludgeoning, the instruments are often out of tune, and its all glorious,brilliant Dylan in the middle of it all, snarling, burning through his genius and abusing his muse for the greater glory of what would become a definitive record. It is raw and spiky and gives you a perspective that says that there is no proof because there is no pudding.You'd be right, I suppose , in linking Dylan's early cynicism about the motives of people and the institutions they represent to his dalliance of brimstone Christianity. It does seem a natural progression, although I've expanded my view on is SLOW TRAIN COMING album and would equate it closer to the fatalistic Christianity of Flannery O'Connor, a writer who was obsessed with the vision of Christ, the afterlife, as a strange way of thinking that you've cut the spiritual requirements to sit at God's right or left hand,which ever comes first. Her's was a body of thinking about Christianity that was too weird and personal to be of any use to any to anyone except those readers of American Southern fiction who marveled at the writer's skill at imagining the worst while dealing, even in submerged form, on matters of Belief.Her measure of Christian love was a love of Christ himself, not so much for the fellow man. 

What had been pure in intention, spreading a gospel of love and service to others--to be genuinely 'Christ like"--had been perverted and become ritual, fetish and an excuse to gather material riches and oppress others in the name of silent God and savior. O'Conner was cynical, and her stories in many ways reveal how characters sacrifice their best interests and the good of others in pursuit of that goal. Wise Blood had a preacher who very much made me think of a young, venomous preacher who founded a Church that had no God. God is a brand-name and the institution is the thing itself, its real purpose being only to perpetuate its own existence. She is closer to Dylan's finger wagging than most of us care to think about. Dylan's Christianity is likewise too weird to be of any use to any evangelist who might to cite him as a saved celebrity. His view was apocalyptic and I think no less nihilist than when he was a mad lad surrealiZing the universe with his skill at saying profound sounding things that no one honestly understood. But for HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, it's more profitable , nay, more enjoyable to take this on its own terms and it's own era-defined conditions of composition and again get wowed by the spiked punch of insight, insult, revelation, resentment, love , rage, the general rampage of impulses he contained with the simple guitar chords he had in his armory. The wonder of the album is that unlike so many discs by great artists at the time, including, this one hasn't aged.


BARRY ALFONSO: I sniff off-the-cuff nihilism, crank-'n'-reds know-nothingism and wink-twitch name-dropping glibness, though it IS better to drop T.S. Eliot's name than, say, Stevie Nicks's.You can trace our current era of Trumpean meanness right back to the unbridled rudeness and insensitivity of "Like A Rolling Stone." That song is arguable the first pop hit featuring a man insulting, belittling, shaming and humiliating a woman in front of the world. Fast-forward 51 years to Trump's behavior towards Megan Kelly at the first GOP debate and look at the naked lunch dangling at the end of the populist FORK.I disagree that O'Connor was cynical -- she believed than man was fallen and helpless and blind as the bats of Jehoshaphat -- but there was the possibility of redemption. She wanted to shock people into realizing their utter need. Dylan has spent most of his career looking for a stick to beat people over the head with, whether it is poor Mr. Jones (who isn't "with it") or unbelievers during his Jesus phase. O'Connor used dark satire to point out truths about humanity -- I don't hear ANY truths about humanity in Dylan's three Christian albums except that you are all going to burn in Hell unless you submit immediately. I would say O'Connor was profound. Dylan? He was a sour, nearly burned-out rock star who needed a new nozzle for his bile. Dylan wanted the applause of the crowd so he could piss on it, causing his sopping-wet fans to worship Bob the Bard all the more. A dump truck for an overloaded head and a cold, cold heart. I can see Reed now, wringing out his own neck like a dishrag wrapped around an old biddy's broom handle...

Sunday, August 16, 2020


Mid August, and the nights are too damned hot for any reasonable person to put up with, a situation made worse when one realizes after starting this sentence that there is nothing "any reasonable person" is able to do to make the temperature of the day and the night that follows more agreeable. So it's hot, one flips the pillow over and over and over again in an effort to stay keen with the coolness the underside might provide to one's reclining face, yet this is in vain as the evening humidity is such that the body is maintaining a light patina of sweat at all times , a perspiration that covers you again quickly no matter how many times you washing your face in cold water or the number of cooling showers in the day one takes. The relief does not last, and the flipping of the pillow to get a bit of a chill is undermined by the cushion's quick absorption of the perspiration that drips in quick rivulets from brow to pillow case. It's near the same thing as trying to rest on a pile of damp dirty laundry.

But one gets up , trying to be reasonable and anxious, perhaps, to do something with this time not sleeping, so the television gets turned on, the thumb depresses the buttons on the remote control in rapid succession looking for something of interest to stare at and so get lulled into a somnambulist state but the crushing inanity of popular culture racing by the eyes --emus in dark sunglasses, smiling people on hikes and having family picnics while an announcer intones warnings of many awful theoretical ways this cure might kill you, people of all races and genders and sexual identities acting like nine year olds when the mystery brand name doesn't match their collective expectations, talk show host  and pundits in a car going over a cliff.

 Not so much for the last entry,it's just the wishful thinking that might occur as a nagging undertone as one speeds through the channels and rejects what this many tentacled monster is offering one to waste time with, the whispering urge to somehow make all these actors get into a big station wagon and speed recklessly into the Hollywood Hills where the road is winding, narrow and an easy fantasy to have when the wall paper seems to bleed cheap paste and the darkened fixtures of the kitchen, the sink, the dishes, the refrigerator, are outlined like a demon's posse spare -changing in the corner for beer and chips. Nothing on television . It is 4 AM and work begins at 8 AM, the essay one is supposed supposed to write , a thousand words on writing in quarantine as a means of keeping one's wits sharp and focused. So one arrives at work early because it's too damned hot. Any reasonable person would, no?