Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Birthday to Bob / Happy Thanksgiving to All!

This time last year, apparently on Thanksgiving, I posted my first post. It was a "brief" reflection on Walter Kirn's "Mission to America." Things have only become less brief since, but I'm glad for the outlet, thankful you could even say, and I'm glad for the various friendships with like-minded people this here blog has allowed me to make. I remain your undaunted reader and reviewer, to be sure! Books is life.

I've also not forgotten these literary equations, what with my focus on Untoward. There will be some more thoughts on Nabokov (as if I could go very long without thoughts on him, right?) and you should expect to see more on "J.R." by William Gaddis, as I near conclusion of that tome, which has been a really enjoyable reading experience in its own right, indeed. So keep checking back, and please, if you're so inclined, remark on said posts or email me. I do and will respond.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Untoward is A LIFE!!

Greetings friends and so-called friends, I come to you as a man humbled by the greatness of the website he created with little assistance from others, or maybe lots of assistance. Actually a great deal of assistance from Jon Mau, who has also written a little for the site. One would imagine Jamie Ferguson will be contributing, though often pseudonymously it perhaps seems.

In any event, aside from cronies, I invite you, the world, to submit as well. Check out the beginning of what I hope will be a great and exciting new project (for all those involved). My opinion is that it will. So should yours be.

I suspect there may or may not be more to come on this project and the details. Please note, though, that I consider it more or less separate from my doings here. My doings here are a different sort of doings, which will continue to keep happening, as always.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I Think Therefore We Are: "A Scanner Darkly"

Philip K. Dick might be our most underrated writer of the last 100 years. Yes, honestly, I mean that. I've said before his prose is more workman-like than artisan, which has cost him points with the establishment, but it can't be enough to detract from his recognizable gifts, not least among which are the sprawling spaces his narratives travel. Because it could just as easily be said that he was our most insane writer, too -- in the most positive sense of the term (though I acknowledge "insane" connotes many negative things).

"A Scanner Darkly" is the last book of his I needed read before "VALIS" (one of the handful I've read to date (all of which are reviewed on this site), a list based in one part on someone else's recommendation and one part my own self-imposed reading requirements) -- which is now, finally, at long last, next, and which I'm extremely excited about (although I believe I've said that before; I worry now I won't be anything but disappointed, ah, but that's enough negativity!)

There is something nearer and dearer about this novel, separating it from the other, more sci-fi oriented works of PKD's collection I've read. Never have I encountered an author who seems more committed to allowing his work to flow on its own momentum and not from something contrived. Donald Barthelme may have articulated this notion of "Not-Knowing" best, of valuing the cultivation of uncertain aspects of the story from the vantage of writer as artist, free from the convolution of a pre-established conclusion and the plot points building to that (showcased with devices like foreshadowing), but no one I've read has adhered to this approach more devotedly than seems PKD.

And "A Scanner Darkly" tells the story of a motley group of bums and burn outs the likes of which I've never seen before. Think if The Whole Sick Crew of Thomas Pynchon's "V." were given a follow up, set somewhere ambiguous in the future. Which if "A Scanner Darkly" is anything in specific, it's got to be an epilogue to PKD's experiences with drugs and excess in the '60s. As PKD himself notes in the opening line to his "Author's Note" at the end of the novel, "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did."

It's also a novel about losing yourself. Ok, so then you ask, well, to what exactly? Drug use is the simplest answer. I wouldn't say it's an incorrect answer, but I do think with Philip K. Dick, there's something lurking on the tip of tongues, said but not said, and going beyond illicit drug use and dependance. It's about the paranoia that comes from attempting to live a subculture lifestyle free from the opprobrium and castigation of the mainstream. It's also about how desperation and mistrust / betrayal are rampant within the parameters of such an environment, not forgetting the fact that drug use does tend to take people out of their right mind so-called. (I do hate to sound like some nuevo-hippie hellbent on questioning the sacrosanctity of society's cherished mores as concern drug use, but I think judiciousness requires that I remind people (myself included) not to take the tack of the normative underpinnings of that mainstream I mention.)

Some spoilage immediately forthcoming, depending on your point of view: There is certainly something to how Fred slowly moves away from recognizing that he is, in truth, Bob Arctor, a not-so-subtle but still deftly achieved effect by PKD. Of course saying what I've said in the previous sentence requires a little plot background, so spoiler alerts sounding sonorously, here goes: Bob Arctor dwells in a home with two other miscreants, Jim Barris and Ernie Luckman, all of whom are regarded among the dope-using derelicts of society, wasteoids and burn-outs. They're criminals society takes time only to wrest from freedom and put into prison, or possibly some derivation of a recovery program, but such programs are occluded and one's admission is not guaranteed.

It happens that Bob Arctor is addicted to a mysterious drug referred to only as "Substance D." So too is his alter-ego or alias, "Fred," because, as it happens, Bob Arctor is also an undercover police officer. Problem is, "Substance D" is a mind-altering substance, um, literally? It literally alters your mind? Basically that's true, and how it does this is, in a nutshell, by impelling the two hemispheres of one's brain into two distinct and altogether separate consciouses.

And while this internal reconfiguration is ongoing, Arctor as Fred meets with "Hank," his superior, for reassignment. Arctor's last mission was a bust, and the criminal whom he was responsible for arresting apparently escaped into the arms of a recovery program. Worth mentioning is that neither Hank nor Fred knows the other's true identity (this is because all undercover officers are veiled in a scramble suit (described by a Lion's Club M.C. as rendering an individual a "vague blur"), which is a a suit made up of multifaceted quartz lens and attached to a miniaturized computer that plays on loop from its hard drive the multiple visage components of a million and a half human images).

So what's revealed by Hank is that Fred's reassignment is himself, Arctor, i.e. Fred is to surveil Bob Arctor and determine if he's as involved in illegal drug sales and so forth, as an informant has alleged. All the elements of Kafka's "The Trial" set in some futuristic dystopia, with, as said, a touch of Pynchon's "V." and Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" for good measure. The artificiality of our world is constantly regarded by the rampant consumerism manifest in ubiquitous advertisement, which several characters find themselves in varying degrees of conflict with. The narrator reaches its most pitched pathos, however, with the interplay extant between Arctor and Donna Hawthorne, a young drug dealer, who herself seems to have something more than just drugs and drug use to hide.

In the end I'd say what's most surprising is how cleanly PKD pulls off the mania of this narrative. It's truly a departure from everything I've read of his, heretofore. Whatever rules I might have thought existed in his narrative world, they're very much tossed to the side in "A Scanner Darkly." I shall remember this when tackling "VALIS" -- which I can only imagine what to expect from Horselover Fat in its pages.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Here Comes Another Review . . .

The New Yorker fiction has not been "doing it" for me in quite some time (I blame full immersion in their Top 20 Under 40 writers for my palpable awareness of this fact). I like Jim Shepard's latest, but mostly I'm off of New Yorker fiction. I feel as though I keep saying this, but much as I keep saying it it doesn't become any less true. I also haven't defined what precisely I mean by "New Yorker" fiction, which is fiction mostly concerned with the interpersonal dynamics of individuals and their family and / or friends, delivered in a very straightforward, often exceedingly literal way (with the usual symbolism and tropes interspersed) . It might also be referred to as "realism," although I'm not bothered by what of it that's "real" but the tired and banal, the used up, i.e. the crumbling ruins of writer's reactions to life and living which bore me.

Occasionally, though, and why I'll always keep checking up on them, the New Yorker'll publish an anomalously strange, good writer like George Saunders, Karen Russell, Chris Adrian or Ben Loory (I've about given up on Joshua Ferris, whose New Yorker fiction has only served to prove the point of his being ho-hum as invention goes). But another one who's legit, so far as I can tell (i.e. "legit" -- what an arbitrary term in this sense, meaning only that I approve of him), is Stephen O'Connor, whose New Yorker short story "Ziggurat" first introduced my eyes to his fiction and creative writing prowess. I might also add, before I go on, that O'Connor is legit but with a few caveats I shall put forth in the proceeding.

So O'Connor's "Here Comes Another Lesson" then presented an opportunity to really acquaint myself with what he does, oeuvre wise. Point blank: "Ziggurat" is more or less my favorite story of this collection. "Man in the Moon" is also very good. The series of stories featuring the professor of atheism were all good, if I felt at times he missed some kind of creative opportunity with them. Like, there was more there to them, and if he were willing to take still greater risks (an aspect of his authorial character for which he has received much praise from his peers, with superlatives like being one among the "bravest and most inventive" writers and a tendency to take, as said, "serious risks" in his fictions), I believe the stories would have been, well, more exciting. Serious Lee.

I am possibly speaking from only my own lived experience with writing, but I tend to think the psychology of this creative discipline is much the same as all other forms of creative expression, and that as with how evidence has shown nearly all (something around 98%) children start off with genius level ability at divergent thinking (my own anecdotal experience here reinforces this notion in my mind) and it is only with time and normative anesthetization of literal and non-literal varieties that we begin to lose it, so too is the case with writers who become creatively anesthetized. This is where the incestuous character of doing as others do is manifest to problematic, even noxious, degrees. O'Connor is a creative writer, but I'm bothered by what I perceive is an unwillingness to take the risks his talents afford him. So now let me cite specific examples of what I'm talking about and expositions of what I think don't hardly work near as well as it could (then you come in and disagree with me profoundly):

[SPOILERS ALERT] I'd put O'Connor somewhere on the same plane as that of my affection for the work of Gary Shteyngart, at least presently. (I'm hoping time will elevate both.) Gary Shteyngart errors differently in my esteem than O'Connor, though. Shteyngart to his credit takes risks with his penchant for "quasi-malapropisms" -- a term used if not coined by Andrew Seal over at Blographia Literaria, in a great post from last summer less-than-praising of Shteyngart's writing and general insights -- and various other narrative turns, which while not always effective, are often understandable (i.e. I feel I know why he attempted them). I'm less certain of O'Connor's risk-taking, in part because I don't think that's his inclination. Which is why he'll get praise of his writing for being not as "consistently arch" (Mark Athitakis -- a post which is over all very merited and good) as a George Saunders' collection. But arch is embedded in Saunders' writerly DNA, just as like it or not, Gary Shteyngart possesses stylistic quirks that clearly separate him from other writers. So too does O'Connor but he frustrates me as he falls back on monotonously ordinary plot lines, like, say, with "White Fire," a story of the war vet who wishes not to be called a hero, who can't speak about (except in a flash revelation expressed to his two young daughters) or forget the evil things that happened and in which he participated during his tour of duty; it's a nice character study but, I dunno, curious and uninteresting territory for a writer like O'Connor. Not that he shouldn't go there, but for what purpose? What was creatively inspiring about it? "White Fire" is a fine story, written with unusual and character-laden syntax, but there's not much more I can say that would excite you to read it.

O'Connor does fancy some kind of cliche or trope, as I see it, in that several of his stories either end or feature at some point a character slowly fading into the distance as an indefinable speck. I mean that literally, as in the ending of "Ziggurat": "Until at last -- there he was: A tiny figure moving up the shore. A minute silhouette against the mirror sand. A wavering speck. Then smaller. Even smaller." And then again with "The Professor of Atheism: Here Comes Another Lesson": "And gradually, to anyone looking up from the ground, he grows smaller and ever smaller, until finally he is such a tiny dot of light that he could just as well not exist." And finally, for a third time, with the cormorant in "Disappearance and": "Then the cormorant was only a bird in the blue. A tiny, horizontal wiggling. A trembling dot. Nothing." I mention this tendency in part because it is a good one, and he can use it as much or as little as he likes certainly, but I can't shed the feeling that its overuse says something of creative limitation, stuntedness. It's not as though the symbolism changes noticeably, in all its manifold possibilities, and is further developed / made new use of within the context of the three stories in which it appears. So I say, anyway.

I suppose I might go even further with various criticisms tending toward the negative, but I genuinely enjoyed O'Connor's collection. It's one of those things where I felt I must be forthcoming with all my misgivings, though. I suppose this problem is bigger than O'Connor, too, and he's not one of my top offenders in the realm of stymieing creativity via establishment-oriented writing. I guess I just hate to see good writers absorb some of these traits I don't like so very much.

AND . . .

I've been worrying over whether ruminating about something's being adequately creative is objective enough (if anything I write on this here blog is objective enough), then I decided that's kind of beside the point. What I take issue with I take issue with, and by that I mean: it bothers me in others' writing just as much as it bothers me in my own (and it bothers me when I spot it in my own. And I spot it in my own, often, bothersomely.). It's what I deem is taking the easy way out, the short cut home. Leaning on what you know because, hey, that's recognizable. People will identify with that. You could rightly argue that that's just my opinion, man, but then so is that yours, man or man-ette.

(P.S. - Put in less convivial, different terms, you can write anything you like as a writer, and you can like anything you read as a reader, but I don't have to be impressed by either of those things. I think I've made an adequate case for why that is.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Kafka Nightmares and Freud's Slips: Curtis White

Curtis White's writing is a lot like Franz Kafka's nightmares, i.e. the nightmares I envision Kafka having. I've never witnessed personally any of Kafka's nightmares, though an interesting idea -- oh, if I could (a tangent is building in my own mind, but I'll spare you that).

I like reading the reviews of books because sometimes you come across real gems of people not knowing what they were in for and thus being caught completely unprepared, then writing of their reaction to that. Here's one reader who did not get from Curtis White's "Memories of My Father Watching TV" what he had expected (which might also be the real genius of White's exceedingly innocuous-sounding, evocative title):

My 28 year old daughter gave me this for Father's Day because she knows I like old TV shows. I believe she had no idea about the content. I guess to be chartiable [sic] I will call this an artist's book about fathers.

Yes, well, in the strictest sense, yes, "Memories of My Father Watching TV" was a novel about fathers, skewed through the purview of a particularly humorous and morbid artist.

But, well, why is that such a negative thing? To this Amazonian.commer? If I'm dismissive and self-righteous I say he's a philistine. Maybe he is, but I choose not to be those things, at least whenever avoidable. And so instead I say White's abstract approach to old-time meat-and-potatoes television wasn't what this individual was looking for, and certainly not to the taste of his joie de vivre. (There now, I've certainly achieved full pomposity.) I also wonder if in the commentator's review there isn't a hint of resentment for his daughter's not investigating her gift more carefully. But that is getting beside the point, and I wouldn't ask you who read this to speculate about that without the entire context of the gentleman-in-question's whole review, which I flatly refuse to paste here. Because that would be exceedingly beside the point.

Weirdly, and since I'm culling from divergent, non-traditional sources already, the novel's back cover promotional synopsis reveals a little of what I would agree is more specifically than the preceding the essence of "Memories of My Father Watching TV":

Comic in many ways, Memories is finally a sad lament of a father-son relationship that is painful and tortured, displayed against the background of what they most shared, the watching of television, the universal American experience.
It's a lot like that if you remember to also include very graphic and sometimes incestuous descriptions of sexual intercourse, like think in terms of sex as a violent act. Because to be fair, doing it sometimes is just that, you know, violent. White relishes descriptions of said violence. In re-imagining the real-life television show "Maverick," which I'll make small claim to knowing anything about, he depicts "Blue Maverick," ostensibly tied to the character Bret Maverick played by James Garner (the blueness of White's Maverick having to do with conflating the television show with eastern Indian religion and, in specific, the god Vishnu, all falling into another area in which I will lay no claim of knowing much about), but anyway, in a scenario besting a villainous doppelganger disguised as his sister. How? Like this:

Blue Maverick, however, was quite aware that this was not really his sister Lila . . . and he sensed that her breasts flowed not with milk, but with deadly poison distilled in fact from the horns of a million murdered buffalo . . . Maverick closed his eyes and allowed the beautiful woman to take him on her lap as if he were her infant . . . but when she gave him her tit, Blue Maverick squeezed it between his powerful hands . . . "Whoa, honey, that's a little rough," she said . . . "Simmer down. You know, that can hurt a girl. That's sensitive business in your mitts there. Owee. OWWWEEEE!"
See? Violent! Of course not entirely sexual, but you get the idea. In fact, the weird infantilization and sexuality of the situation, brought together with the fact that Blue Maverick is in fact slaying this creature whatever she be, is itself an orgy of perversion that somehow clicked with me, if for no other reason than its obvious excess. It's like, of course he would kill this entity by robbing it of its life fluid, its poison milk.

And speaking of the novel on the whole, which a very fractured story it is, everything Oedipal is happily conflated in one fell swoop of patricide coupled with the / a protagonist's lecherous preference for his sister more than his mother. Mothers make very few appearances in this story, apparently avoided with purpose or else this conversation between siblings at novel's end is strangely coincidental:

Then Janey said, "What about Mom?"

"Where's Mom?"

"Where has she been all these years?"

"She never does anything with us."

"Let's wait for her."

"Hey, here she comes!"

Indeed it was Mom, hopping across the lawn, laughing, catching up.
If you've never tried a Curtis White story before, I suggest you whet your lack with this short, "The Order of Virility," available for your reading pleasure at, also deserving of mention, ero guro sensu lit magazine (You might recognize a lot of its current imagery as being from the David Cronenberg cult classic, "Scanners," which I just finally saw this past Halloween season for the first time ever! Famous head explosion and all!).

It treaded into Kafkaesque territory, you should know. Sorry to say it, but it did. It's when the father becomes a pontoon bridge on "Combat," and it's necessary for the Americans on the show to blow him to smithereens, to thwart the Nazis.

So is it television? Is it real life? Since Kafka is directly and indirectly referenced in several ways early on in this episode, I needn't endeavor at all to convince you he was, at least, on the author's mind, to whatever extent. For example, here is this explication, rife with questions put forth to and impelled from the reader:

Was my father's fervently held notion . . . that he was a pontoon bridge for the Nazis delusional? Was Gergor Samsa's depressed ideation ("I am a monstrous vermin") delusional? Or were these things metaphors? Is a metaphor a delusion? Does the probability of Franz Kafka's depression require us to think less of him as an artist?
I suppose I most like the question proposing Gregor Samsa is suffering from depression. Lots of fragmented miscellanea abounds, but I have to believe the philosophizing and speculation is with some literal purpose, at least at times. I gather White fancies misdirection and constant invocation of the slow-burning effluvium of an American mind (any mind really, but for the most part, the book deals with American TV). Life merged with TV becomes the reality. But even then, one has no active role in the unfurling action. Waiting. Only waiting. I'll spare you obvious literal rehashing of the fate of White's "father" in this episode. Know that he departs from his predicament no worse for wear, though, if that's something that can really be evaluated within the framework of a story like this one. It certainly seems, as a pontoon bridge, this father was himself unhappy, if not depressed. I would be.

There's not much more I can say of this book, which I liked. It's another frenzy of chaos, of the specter of television and whatever that specter did to assisting in dissolution of human-household relations, of the nuclear family. White's labyrinth here is, of course, not designed to answer questions; that much I can say for certain. It certainly raises questions, but what does it all mean? -- that's worthless here. Maybe 'cause who can say what this means? We've got the catalytic addition of the television and its postmodernity, which of course led the charge of the burgeoning multi-media dispensaries, which can't easily be understood as an effect. We just don't have enough to go on at the present lacuna. Time will tell, so stay tuned -- as if you really have a choice.