Monday, September 9, 2013

Raymond Carver, Tom Waits: an Appreciation

"You got to understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please" the man said, "let me ask if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me."

I just finished Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver.  It's an interesting way to read Carver. Take the line above from A Small, Good Thing, which mirrors Dante's (translation via Robin Kirkpatrick) "At one point midway on our path in life,/ I came around and found myself now searching/through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost." Where Dante goes on to rediscover his path by illuminating the divine symmetry of his Christian moral universe, Carver gives us hot rolls and bread, still seemingly Christian, but practical and shucked of the morality and symmetry. The bread-breaking, the small good thing of the story, follows a gut-wrenching vigil over the result of random, anonymous harm, with the comfort of the material world finally expressed in a communion between strangers. In a nutshell, that's Carver-- the modern world is our Inferno, we have no compass to navigate it, but always the invitation to understand one another despite ourselves, to take comfort in another person's story.

I continually thought of Tom Waits as Earl in Robert Altman's version of Shortcuts, Tom Waits in general as the theatrical counterpoint to Carver. Though dashed dreams run through so many of Tom's songs (that's how the sentimental juice gets out), Carver rarely deals in dreams (read ambitions), there's a shared set of characters they both like to look at, and they all seem to watch daytime TV since bankruptcy, accident and divorce attorneys like to list their attributes. Diametrically opposed in terms of style, Tom's early characters are peacocks and one-way phoenixes, creatures to watch, and occasionally to feel for ("Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis"). Carver's stories are free of flash. There's a solidity to them that matches say the plywood boxes of Donald Judd or the art world's minimalists, a point of unshakeable control. Waits makes the ever day into opera and Carver makes opera into the every day.  


Thursday, August 8, 2013

The History of Luminous Motion

For a time, Philip Guston's work ran parallel to the abstract expressionists. He painted what some called abstract impressionism, taking the big gestures of Pollack and de Kooning and turning them in on themselves.

Recently reissued by Calimari Press Scott Bradfield's The History of Luminous Motion reads as the impressionist book of post-modern hyper-realism, collapsing the psychological novel, the bildungsroman, the novel of ideas, the road novel and the meta-novel into one exquisite, heartbreaking and unsettling paradox. It probes into the problems of postmodernity with high lucidity and intelligence, but reads, nearly, as a standard narrative, using its lacunae to great effect.

The novel begins with a Badlands-esque road trip, but instead of Kit and Holly, the two murderous lovers, we have Philip, our unreliable narrator, and his mother, a dazzling presence, equally unsettled and unsettling in her role as enabler. Taking the perspective of Philip's interior the book presents itself as the site of unsettled reality. Philip is presented as a precocious eight-year old psychotic. His intelligence and range are outside the standard domain of eight-year old precocity and he seems more a medium for the deeper essay of the author's play. Within the confines of literalism, Philip as an eight-year-old would be pursuing subjects equal to the emotional range of a thirty-year-old, let alone the intellectual range-- which isn't to say such a child couldn't exist, it's part of the book's undertaking to make it plausible if not immediately realistic. Counterposed to Padgett Powell's more genuine Simons Manigault in Edisto, where his intellectual precocity is shown to be limited only by the questions he can think to ask at his age, Philip's precocity reads as one of the places the author has given the reader to question the tenacity of its narrator, but also as a place to explore a sense of simultaneity.

The specific type of simultaneity here is usually at play within memoir: the author's voice looking back and inflecting wisdom or giving form where there may not have been on his or her younger self. Parts of Philip may be autobiographical, but it is the quality of the thoughts and perceptions attributed to Philip that comes through as authentic. Philip is the agent that allows the author to pursue a limitless fictional universe, a place where that Dostoyeskian question (Is everything permissable?) can be explored. The paradox of the unreliable narrator is heightened here by the high lucidity and beauty of his voice. With Nabokov's Pale Fire, where a resolution of the meta-plot may be uncovered after following the novel's clues, The History of Luminous Motion seems more interested in allowing the facts of the plot to remain in question. The reality presented is Philip's, which may be all we ever get.
The truth of the particular form of this character may or may not arise from biographical facts from within  the author's own life.  It is the interest required to make Philip's world elegant in its duality and the capacity to plumb a character that is this intellectually disturbing, as an avatar for moral and perceptual relativism, that makes the book. It is the sadness, imparted in unexpected ways, of Philip's condition, the inherent brokenness, that made this book human. A mediated tragedy, not tragedy as Sophocles would portray, but as felt in the passing wonder of distant lives.

Published in 1989, two years before Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, five years before Stephen Wright's Going Native, and seven years before David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, this book prefigures and quietly implodes a number of tropes that would come to dominate the US media-scape in the 90's.    

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

It's What They Didn't Say, William H Gass's Middle C

Considering Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, I return to Luc Tuyman’s portrait of Condi Rice, of the greyed-out tones, where the former Secretary of State’s lips are central. To Dick Cheney’s office not saying not to torture. It’s what strikes me now, a few weeks after finishing William H. Gass’s Middle C, a document made interesting by its mistakes and its lacunae, written over the last ten plus years. The narrator, Joseph Skizzen, shows how carefully he revises a single sentence and yet, all the while, we are reading a book purportedly by his hand.
How many times must we know better before we can conclude that all evidence has been doctored or withheld? The wait places us in the American Midwest, where Joseph admits to small breaches, bureaucratic infractions to allow himself to get by, to survive in the American middle class and pass himself off as a music professor at a small college.
At which point are the screams properly heard? When the quirk of his Museum of Inhumanity appears more like a balm to the character’s conscience than testimony to the world’s harsh realities.
And yet, in the uncertainty of this novel of elision, plowing through its encyclopedic references to music and man’s inhumanity to man, the character of Skizzen is what’s in play. He presents himself in such mild terms and comes across as a composite of Kafka, Bartleby, Wyatt Gwyon and Hazel Motes. His passivity is what we should question. Such a person is possible, such a person abandoned by a father is certainly possible, more possible than the alternative. Is his guilt simply that of the survivor? Or is he his father in disguise? Was his father a Nazi war criminalWas Grunge widely available in record shops in the 1960’s?
To the dogmatic reader, one stuck in faithfulness to the text, Gass has given a paradox and a potential way out of dogmatism. How deeply should we question what we are reading while Miss Moss, one of the book’s librarian witches, breaks and manipulates old books? The writing itself mirrors the high Victorian when Joey is approached sexually. What happens to our innocence when we start asking questions? With its meter, internal rhyme and sing song, the writing is gilded, enthralling, enough to pull the reader through even the drier, small-town gossip  portions of Joey’s story. 

And then there’s Gass on the back cover, looking like the cheerful and encouraging Midwestern author rather than the deviser of this Cartesian puzzle. Pay attention class, the teacher is speaking. To connect this too closely to standard politics is to limit its impact. Gass has created a book precisely to pique and to stimulate, to catch between, to exist in the textual uncertainty of our time.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Barry Hannah, the Playboy Dinosaurs and the Southern Baroque

There's an art to extinction. Reading Barry Hannah, it doesn't seem like that much time has passed since he was active, alive, and working, but how out-of-date and slapdash, inconsistent, drunken, hilarious and surprisingly tender are his stories? Tooling around the internet, one notices the cult of personality that seemed to creep after him.  Guns, motorcycles, booze, etc.  Fun. The bottom line to most of his stories appears to be the ever present author's creed to give the reader a good time, so even in his bad stories, he's knocking himself out to make them entertaining.

There is in this collection an absolutely perfect story, settled in amongst a number of great shorter works, whiz-bang sentences and some fall-apart call-the-editor wheezing notions. Testimony of Pilot may be one of the best paced stories I've ever read.  The details are meted out in Elastic-man prose, the plot is expansive though focused, the images are unique, the characters and the setting are enthralling. It is terrifying to see that story jammed up against some of the other pieces in this collection. 

I came across Hannah as well as some other excellent work through this site:

Talent spends. Hannah had gobs of the stuff. Reading this collection, I get a sense of its wastes. I also get the sense of the importance of a good editor, someone who can point a writer to the good vein. The other stand-outs were Water Liars, Love Too Long, and Our Secret Home. 

Read Hannah and you get the humanity of all those southern dinosaurs, spitting their epithets and chuckling at the comics in Playboy. Feather those bangs and place this one beside The Bushwhacked Piano for a good time.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Writing from the Darkest Shadows in the Room: a Quickie for Christine Schutt

Sebastien Tellier, the french electronic musician, issued a set of instructions for the way in which he wanted his first album, L'Incroyable Vérité, to be heard: with the lights off and by candle.

Nightwork makes a similar mood, except the light is made by burning the Freudian furniture and the writing comes from the darkest shadows in the room. The copy I read from the library came pre-highlighted with each of the favored stories in the table of contents accompanied by a highlighter star. Incest, frail and flawed mothers, women in decline, disturbed sons, and wealth. The sentences are mystifying, in places elegant in places vague. Admire the precipitous architecture of this piece of the first sentence in the collection and you'll get a sense of the spaces she's playing in:

She brought him what she had promised, and they did it in his car, on the top floor of the car park, looking down onto the black flat roofs of buildings, and she said, or she thought she said, "I like your skin," when what she really liked was the color of her father's skin...

As a reader, there's work to be done to track back the referent and attempt to sort through the strata of impressions to see if there's a core, if the narrator is in the car with her father simply preferred her father's skin and was absorbed by the idea.  Schutt gives us both, she doesn't let us off the hook, in the best of her stories here she asks us to carry the baggage for the narrators. By the end of the collection, I felt that shock, something big and ugly was removed and my body reeled from it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading a Never Read

I acquire books with a slight compulsion, based on recommendations or references or some other chain of interest. The books will either be read immediately as part of a streak, brachiated with a Tarzan yodel, page to page, cover to cover then relegated to the spot on the shelf for exhausted matter or added as furniture, place-held for the future hours its leaves will turn. Of the collection of unreads, there's the assortment of never-reads. It's difficult to define what makes a never-read. The book may have been purchased, the glow of commercial appeal, the cover design, the font and layout, all appealing in the store, but the prose never quite catches or some other stronger strain keeps relegating that book with its realm of associated recommendations to the sidelines and so there's the small guilt of disposing of a book unread on which I spent money. Some are gifts and the guilt of money spent is replaced with the guilt of a friendly gesture ignored.  And still some are found items, dimly assuring in their centrality to the canon of literature that they will, one day, be consumed or at least thumbed through with feigned interest.

Prompted by an imminent capacity purge, I read a never-read, or read a portion. I was reminded of past presumed never-reads that I read and felt something near the hygienic satisfaction of an attic cleaned by toothbrush or what John Baldessari writes about in his pencil piece. Something inert, weighted, on the edge of oblivion, recalled and now found to be momentarily satisfying. I flipped through a journal given by a friend who had assistant-edited the thing. I found a piece that I enjoyed, "List of 50 (31 of 50): You Could Never Finish Stretching" by Blake Butler. The piece, registered as non fiction in the journal's ToC, is a list of cascading memories and impressions given by the author to a specific prompt. It's clean, honest and engrossing and works within the spare limits of its four-page mostly-single sentenced list to evoke a good portion of the strange parts of the author's childhood. 

Recently, I was turned onto , which is an experiment in mining the lost works edited by Gordon Lish. Having engaged with the idea, I logged onto my library's portal (to avoid further, permanent shelf-occupation) and kindly requested the archivist pull a few of these pieces out of storage. They arrived at my local branch and I read. I am apparently late to the Barry Hannah party, but the crazed discomfiting pace of The Tennis Handsome is sending me back to the stacks for more. Another, Campfires of the Dead by Peter Christopher, is partially through and I found the title story gorgeous and haunting, following a tack near Amy Hempel's world of ordinary days with their echoes.