Sunday, August 14, 2011

LOVIN' INFANT MONKEYS, a mini review

Lydia Millet's "Love and Infant Monkeys" to put it plainly rocks socks. I know I can be a little effusive when it comes to praise round here, but the truth is I was a less than enthusiastic fan of her novel, "Everyone's Pretty." But I enjoyed her short story "Sir Henry" that appeared in issue 1 of Electric Literature, so I thought I'd give her another go with the aforementioned "Love and Infant Monkeys" -- which includes "Sir Henry" in its pages.

I don't know if Millet is better in short form or what, but "Love and Infant Monkeys" was far more to my taste. A little bit daring in terms of using real-life subjects, i.e. celebrities and other famous persons, as primary or main characters. The strange tempo of the third-person stream of consciousness in the first story, the one in which Madonna has successfully if inadvertently killed a pheasant during a hunting outing with her then husband, Guy Ritchie and his cronies. His cronies, I think, are depicted fairly by Millet, at least what my imagination brings to mind.

The eponymous piece "Love and Infant Monkeys" is easily the most tragic of them, in terms of subject matter. It concerns the real-life experiments of an American psychologist, Harry Harlow, and the infant monkeys on whom he tested his various hypotheses. It's easy to see after a few descriptive passages of the animals' treatment, most disturbingly Harlow's "pit of despair" or in the story, Harlow recollects he's been entreated to call them "chambers" rather than "dungeons" by his assistant, a graduate student named Stephen Suomi, who noted the latter would be "bad for public opinion." Harry Harlow's dysfunctional, self-destructive nature is put on full display in "Love and Infant Monkeys" -- not used to rationalize as much as emote the purpose behind Harlow's eccentric behavior. He seems to float through the story in something akin to a alcohol-induced stupor, described early on in its pages as a "functional alcoholic." It ends with a particular strong narrative revelation about Harlow, which I won't reproduce here because you should read the story in its entirety and get the full effect.

The final story in the collection "Walking Bird" hit all the right notes for me too. Conveyed certain feelings seamlessly, touchingly. A good ending punctuation to the entire collection, and all told, the collection is one of the best I've ever read in terms of its "even" quality. These stories were made to be read side by side.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Snapshot of Work in Contemporary the USA

I had a rare opportunity at work the other day -- one of my jobs, a Costco sales employee -- to talk about things a little more meaningful than a more detailed discussion of the specs on the latest LED LCD Full-Array Vizio HD television we carry. The man, as it happened, was fairly well-traveled. He'd grown up in an Eastern bloc country, although I wasn't able to discern which exactly.

First, he talked about his visit to the Dead Sea and its immediate and literally corrosive effects. It's quite a vista, he added, noting especially its depth below sea level. He spoke of the Cold War, too, and the nature of U.S. - USSR power-play dynamics during that period. He also made an offhand remark regarding the nature of employment at a place like Costco, which, honestly, I was not offended by, but nevertheless, it immediately struck a chord with me. He said a job at Costco is fine for younger people, i.e. college aged, (there was a slight language barrier; his English was good but not entirely fluent) but that if an older person (i.e. above college-aged), an older man in specific, worked at Costco. then you knew something was, to paraphrase, wrong with that individual.

I didn't debate the matter with him, nor would I now with the benefit of hindsight, nor do I think he meant to insult me specifically (since technically I'm at about college age, or could reasonably be confused as college aged). I feel I understand his perspective, which is a common one, and is a stigma worn by people working in retail in general, not just at Costco. But what the man I spoke with failed to realize, and what the great many people who think in the same terms fail to realize, is that we've created an infrastructure, via cultural norms etc., in which this is the only alternative for many, many people, even college educated people, who for a pantheon of reasons do not work in more "respectable" fields. It's like everyone acknowledges we need companies like Costco., Wal-Mart and McDonald's, but nobody acknowledges that someone has to draw the short end of the stick and actually work there. These are the new factory jobs, people. Worse than that few of them are allowed to unionize where there was at least a time when that option existed for factory workers (still do for those who remain in the vastly diminished US manufacturing industry).

Look at this advertisement (later parodied by Dave Chappelle on his agonizingly short-lived "Chappelle Show"). It depicts a young black man who's bettered himself, avoided the pitfalls of his community, by working at a McDonald's. At the very least you should be able to see how this is a culturally insensitive portrayal of "Calvin" the young black protagonist.

We talk about socioeconomics and things like people's place in our society in glib terms, more often than not. If someone works a low level job at McDonald's it's because they aren't trying hard enough to go out and aspire to something better. But as I've said, I'm a Determinist insofar as I believe there are many external factors that play into who we become. No bigger is the cycle of poverty. Probably second to poverty's cycle is the cycle of affluence.

The point is, fine, go ahead and say "Calvin" is better off working at McDonald's than being a gangbanger and petty crook. No one disagrees (except maybe gangbangers and petty crooks). But how can we then say there's something "wrong" with a person who has evaluated his or her options only to decide / realize the best, most apparent one is working at a McDonald's? So we can then say the mentally defective populate these positions? And is it not funny that we let corporations off scot-free, bearing no burden of culpability by building these corporations that employ only "mental defectives," i.e. people who do not earn a respectable living, but the individuals themselves are the ones stigmatized. We need our McDonald's but we'd never deign to be employed by one! Or is there no incongruity? Is there no cake and eating it too, here?

How callous have we become as a society, and where does it end?

Regarding Untoward and People and Rejection and Stuff

Sometimes I'm going to talk about Untoward, because I need as many venues as I have at my disposal to get word out that, primarily, my interest these days is in publishing fiction, i.e. either getting my own fiction out into the world (where hopefully it will elicit a reaction, either positive or negative (and no, truthfully I don't care which, I care more that you react than not)) or publishing other people's great fiction. And the latter of which is the point I most want to talk about here. Untoward Magazine exists and I hope you'll send something our way. We might reject it. I've been rejected, as a certain previous post will attest, probably somewhere in the 90-95% range to this point in my career. It's a part of it. Anyone will tell you that. This isn't new to anyone who has tried to get published. It's hard to create a name for yourself in the world of fiction publishing. But it's good that you're trying, too. Keep reading and ignoring posts like another of mine that appears here today on Literary Equations. The important thing is that you're building relationships with other people, so step out of your shell a bit. That is the realization that has kept me going throughout all of this, that it doesn't much matter to me if my stories get accepted (I'll keep crafting and developing my style just the same), what matters is I don't lose sight of the fact that I want to know and engage other people, even though that's not what comes most naturally to me. I force myself to do it because I know how much happier I am when I feel I've successfully related to someone else (and in this case, relating is almost exclusively positive, or I'm not happy if I've had a negative relational experience with someone. I think most people feel the same way, no?). All right, so that's my rant for now, but maybe you have some comments? I'd love to hear them.

Also, Untoward is on Twitter, so if you are I implore you to follow us. We appreciate your readership more than you know.!/Untoward_Mag

No One Should Ever Read a Thing

No one should ever read anything by anyone. Controversial? Perhaps. But I didn't join the blogging game to sit idly by and play nice. Oh no. I joined it to do otherwise.

But let's think about my blaspheme for a second, won't we?

What can you say you've honestly taken from reading anything? Besides nothing? Maybe you've taken thoughts from it, but were those thoughts you wanted to think? If you wanted thoughts you didn't want to think put into your head why not just go watch TV and some great advertisements? Not writing rife with thoughts you didn't want to think. What a waste of your thoughts. What about the ones you did want to think? Where'd those go?

Have I just blown your mind? I apologize, but it must needs be done sometimes.

Oh and I don't care about the irony here, reading something by me. I think of myself as much more like TV, in that the true endgame of my words is to subliminally get you to desire McDonald's or maybe Nike shoes, depending on my mood. So don't throw that in my face, because like Yahoo! "comments section" denizens who most often comment on stories of a politically charged nature and are named things like "THUG" or with single letters like "P." I don't have much desire to sit here and explain what I'm thinking. I just do. And what's more, think about how right I am if I just believe it. I think Stephen Colbert has vocalized something to that effect, if nothing else then subliminally.

Do you see how none of this is explained very well? That's fun to do!

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Brief Exchange

The day buoyant met curmudgeonly. Of course. How could I forget?

“Ha ha ha, I have found you! I was looking for you and now I have found you!”

“Do I look like I give a care? Do I look like I give just one single care?”

“Yes! Yes, you do look that way.”

“Fine, now let me take you out for a cup of coffee and some sausages.”

“You’ve got yourself a done deal!” sprang the middleman, ready to shake hands, bring hands together.

And no one was killed or otherwise harmed for the most part, i.e. aside from one stinger to one member of the party’s left arm, following his being thrust down on his head very hard and purposefully!