Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The year of reading long, difficult novels

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
JR by William Gaddis

#1 Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion; an astonishing work of art; it must have smashed KK to have it ignored so. The skill with which he jumps around consciousness of characters, impressive. Adept at weaving stories, setting scenes and evoking atmosphere. Why he is held at bay by those who compile lists of Best Novels is beyond me. Same with William Gaddis. You want to see American novelists build on their advances in technique and novel construction. Kesey, ever tuneful, strikes many wonderful notes. Yet the theme of the brother antagonism, at times wanes. One brother so involved in the physical world, observing, watching, wondering - can he be so bound by obsession? OK. Anyway, wonderful to hear West Coast slang: Hey bub, Doohicky, rinkydink. Closing in on the mystery of Ken Kesey, all his themes were there, the nature of men and the nature of nature; he was the first to write about the Pacific Northwest; to make literature about it. He wasn’t sufficiently celebrated for his vision, for his art. His power, the slang, the bringing alive of what was not there before. Who else? Bernard Malamud in his big long Oregon novel, A New Life. But Kesey. Massive, ballsy, wonderful. I’m under the influence. Reading notes to the annotated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Kesey stresses point of view as essential to the growing of a novel. Where Nest is compact Notion is diffuse. You can practically see KK running – even though many of the themes are the same: strength vs weakness, self-overcoming, west vs east, brothers-in-conflict, etc. You see his seriousness in Notion. Kesey's artistic seriousness is plain. Strenuous even, maybe?

#2 Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra- so damn complicated; he’s got the Faulkner disease: wherein you empty out the thesaurus and the dictionary mix stir blend whip chop grate and hope that something edible comes out. A species of higher ventriloquism. Terra Nostra: Carlos Fuentes is determined to be placed in the Louvre or the Prado or the Madrid Museo de Bellas Artes…you often sense that Fuentes is writing books from inspiration based on his wide reading in history and coffee table art books or from spending time in museums. Where is the life felt, lived, tasted? The details in his novels, however good, seem second hand. But onwards, we go…will I get a masters degree for reading it? I am at 695 pages still at sea with this thing. It’s harder than hell to tell just what he is up to here. The novel seems to be some kind of historical monograph on the Spanish conquest of America and Spain’s failure to take the better of many roads when it seized European ascendancy in the 16th century; AND that Spain’s great writers – Cervantes, Fernando de Rojas – and artists had some idea of the correct road to take. Thus the blending of fictional and historical characters. Even so the book is striking me as monstrous and self-indulgent to a degree not to be believed. The effect is somewhat like looking at Niagara Falls for a year. Torrent of words. Terra Nostra is circles of themes, circular history versus fiction or fable, austerity vs lush tropical abundance, old vs new, ancient vs modern. Also that the thread of Spanish history has followed illusion while Hispanic ficcioners have followed what is reality; also power as the pathway to impotence/madness. However, Fuentes seldom stoops to illustrate those themes in other than chalky, literary inflated literary language. Fuentes tosses out contrasts and circles like so many language frisbees. While Felipe II was building the Escorial in Madrid, America was being discovered. During its Golden Age Spain turned its back on success and hope sacrificed all for gold. Crazy power-mad orthodoxies become prisons, wasting, unhygienic bodies in uncleanliness. The austerity of the Spanish king, Felipe II and the craziness of his wife Juana la Loca (La Dama Loca), ruling narrowly while a new world was being conquered and re-born. Fuentes would assert that the Golden Age fiction writers were writing reality while the living historical personages were living a fiction. And the style; heavy word showers; Faulkner as though the Mississippi had taken a turn into the Rio Grande and then into the Amazon...

#3 El Ontoño del Patriarca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ powerful and ballsy novel (finally a novel which you can rightly call powerful). I now see it as a natural development from Cien Años de Soledad. Garcia Marquez has boiled off the charm, gotten rid of the cutesy stuff and matched method to theme. Portrait of a gruesome dictator, GGM inhabits his life and brain; it is a vast tidewater of slush and terror; a study of power and loneliness; GGM’s leftist politics aside, he has nailed forever the wimpyness, the smallness of dictators. Castro must read this and weep, as must Pinochet, Rios-Mott and all the bloodthirsty madmen who sick armed forces on their own unarmed civilians. GGM has torn off the mask of terror, the hollowness of the power-mad and given us the insides of these monsters, the puny lonely swamp-messes that they are…

The poetry reading (I may not be good but I am not this bad)

- The cute self regard
- The idle description
- Cliché, of course: dropping on us like leaves
- The why was this written poem
- The I am in love with my own pen hand poem
- Anthropomorphic dreck: the kitten loved me, etc
- Weird nonsensical flights that could be good in a wholly different context
- Illogic covered in sloppy word paint
- Unwarranted shifts in point of view
- Abuse of authorial point of view and authorial privilege
- Torturing-teasing the reader with non-meaning
- The loved one dying of cancer poem (overwhelm your reader)
- The overwrought undeserved epiphany
- The mismanaged metaphor: …the mood hanging over us like a gavel falls…is the mood hanging or banging? A gavel doesn’t really hang does it?
- The disregard for the sovereignty of the line: the usual chopped prose (who lets students get away with that?)
- Overuse of abstract nouns: Death, our..seas…loss
- Overly evanescent description – you don’t know what they are talking about – perhaps to mask a dull or pointless theme
- God Bless my psychedelicasies
- X 2 poems about the French language: wretch
- The usual references to Europe, painting, critical theory…The trite the inane wagon hitched to the sublime

Monday, December 29, 2008

Literary fuses III

#1 The Figured Wheel Robert Pinsky’s collected poems (bought for a dollar at the ½ Price remainder rack). Again baffled at the whole poetry/publishing/academic matrix. As a book it is a lovely package, cover, layout etc…But not one line jumps out and claims your emotions or love or loyalty. Not a line of risk, of ambition, or daring, let alone savagery. It’s all so safe. Sensitive writing, yes, careful description, yes; but where is the fucking poetry? He uses the word “heart” (that puts anyone on my shitlist) in fact, includes it in the title of his 1984 book: Poets! Remember this was a word Woodrow Wilson used to get American boys to throw their bodies into the breach in 1918! His essay on Psychiatrists is a piece of buffoonery. Lightweight dithering. Who gives a shine about psychiatrists anyway? And then you’re pissed because you want to like this guy…

#2 Don DeLillo: you read his depictions, his observations funny finely honed finalities of observation; they are often brutal often brilliant, e.g., the way technology changes us, e.g. “we don’t pick up” (the answering machine) not “we’re not home.” The concept of not being home is destroyed. His observations are like glass: beautiful to look at but will shatter if you handle them too roughly. You sense that he tries too hard, sees too much. DeLillo stares at the picture of the boat on the water so long, so hard that the boat in the picture starts to move. Things become sinister, while he offers up too much of the private self to the storms of public madness. For DD a cigar is never just a cigar. It’s a conspiracy, a symbol, a plan - BUT human beings are weirder bouncier more supple than he gives us credit for. Slavery has to qualify as about the most degraded institution that good ol’ demonic human mind could devise; but how did blacks deal with it? What tools did they use to get over? They didn’t all commit mass suicide. They talked to themselves, sang to themselves, came up with new and weird ways of being…there’s more bounce to us to humans than writers give us credit for…

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Literary fuses II

#1 Stanley Crouch’s Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome
It’s a book I wanted to like. I like his total perspective that doesn’t cave in to unscientific race babble. He wants to dig at the sore pick the wound. Even though the book is here with me I feel it chained to the author’s mind. The feeling that he is still writing it. It is a composition of arias. Strung together. Deep conversations keep popping out of nowhere to analyze the black white situation in America. Some of this material has been done over via Baldwin in Another Country.
SC takes the amateur techniques
a) interior monologue
b) meaningful exposition
…vices of young writers…I agree with so much of what he says about race but he drops into essays….insistence on the middle class as the breeding ground of all civilized things. He despises, rightly, the fake gangsta chic that has taken hold among black kids.He was not inventive enough. He stuck to the old interior monologue scheme and failed. I submit that we – the mind – never says “however” to itself while thinking. So many false notes wrong notes of tone of carriage (my literary term as in “no carriage”). You can see that he lacks the gift of dramatization. This does not have to be a total defect. He should have done like Manuel Puig and written a dialogue novel - or La Celestina - a novel in dramatic dialogue. But some of his arias and catching the black idiom are simply grand – the frank discussion of bodies, that no area of life, of body, goes unchecked.

#2 T.C. Boyle is content to run a highlighter pen across social and journalistic situations. Gone the sense of discovery in his fiction; it is all rendering, expertly done of course, but full of cheap shots and pandering to our recognition. We’ve done Dickens for god’s sake. Enough already.

#3 Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ true model is Pliny the Elder. He – Pliny – recounts fabulous tales and “facts” with a deadpan objectivity, wild tales and bogus illustrations of animal lore and far off countries and customs…

#4 If I taught poetry class I would set up a few rules:
a. Down with Pathetic Fallicy- no more sensitive waves or happy clouds. Nature ain’t us or ain’t about us. The “ambivalent” surf, surely the “indifferent” surf is meant here.
b. Don’t make things do what they don’t do: the pinecones rang in the green steeples on the hillside (when describing a stand of pines). There are no bell like sounds coming from trees and esp not from pine cones. They may look like bells but they are non-ringing-quiet bells…
c. Watch your verbs…”doused” with flour? (after frolicking in a bakery); sorry, douse is to extinguish with liquid or plunge a thing into liquid. i suppose you can use powder to de-louse but not douse. Or how about screeching sun? Does the sun make noise? Small shards of rock…aren’t shards usually already small…on and on…
d. Poetry is not an excuse to be poetic. No adjectives as nouns: Coins of perfect clear appear under my feet: clear what? I want to ask…
e. Poetry is not an excuse to wax poetic.

#5 It is unreasonable to expect Americans to be interested in novels or poetry. We do not possess the extended sympathy required to share what the aims of a novel are. We do not know how to ask questions or carry on conversations. It is a tall order to ask Americans to get involved with imaginary characters unless those characters reflect themselves or echo their own mundane and cliché ridden selves. We do not have sufficient civilization to extend ourselves beyond kids and jobs into the imaginative worlds that novels offer. Forget character. Unless that character is outstanding…Remember: everyone thinks about himself first and foremost.

#6 Reading Rick DeMarinis’ short stories: lively, funny, poignant, clever, vivid. Then, you get restless; that sense that the author knows his characters too well which leads to stage management; sins I include here:
a) What he does for a living (info dumps: you try the reader’s patience; the set up; very few of these set ups are intrinsic to the story; mostly they just succeed in showing the author’s intelligence before a broad range of data – about work, life, school, psychology; the rush to inform is a sign of weakness, or nerves such as at a cocktail party: “and what do you do?” think of Chekov; he disposes of information as an aside to get you into the story not to show off his cleverness. This is so hard to do it even fouls an expert like RD.
b) What he looks like (looking in the mirror) more manipulative information;
c) Setting boundaries of character early on and knocking them over (the conservative man whose life is turned topsy turvy by a cad).
d) The basic problem of the short story as practiced in America; since there is no hook or strong conceit then the writer has to perform in a vacuum; if you do without conceit you must be subtle; RD is so smart and there is so much going on that you can only think: this writer is smart ; and the first person preclude the necessary oxygen of other perspectives that make a short story happen.
e) This is my impatience with the short story;
f) But then; he puts one right in your head between your eyes: Novias the guy can write and here is proof;
g) The problem of fiction is the problem of knowledge; how do you get to know things? You learn things along with the narrator or does he feed you as you go?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

VS Naipaul and thoughts

#1 Naipaul’s follow up to Among the Believers, Beyond Belief. There is no laughter in Naipaul. For all his criticisms of 3rd worlders their disillusionment with revolution and frustration with their present and submission to murderous buffoons he is all sympathy; his judgments make you wonder are human beings so loaded with their pasts? Do people pass lives in stolid unreflecting torpor and has the West such a comprehensive grip on the more successful countries of the world namely the Anglosphere? Are peoples, entire countries so bereft of hope, of humor or enduring human qualities? I wonder. Naipual rightly decries the insane murderousness of what he sees in the convert countries. But does he have to sweep away all signs of life before him? Of humor? Independence and struggle for life? Do they not exist at all? Really? It is hard to believe. Updike, in a review of The Loss of El Dorado says, “But in viewing an entire hemisphere as a corrupted dream, Naipaul dissolves what realities there were…[TLED] rests upon an unexamined assumption, of metropolitan superiority…Was the cruelty of slavery not an extension of the cruelty already present on the African continent?” I think Updike is trying to push back at Naipaul’s assumptions that we – the Americas, say, only got the bad from Europe as all the high flown phrasings of brotherhood equality, constitutions, democracy became pure air under a floor of despotism and slavery. Giving the Americas an atmosphere of unreality and emptiness. That real life was happening elsewhere (Europe for instance); that the collapse of metropolitan values led to unreality simplicity and moral degeneracy. Updike ends with this reasonable question: “Does not the collapse of “metropolitan” values amid “simpler” conditions demonstrate their own frailty and unreality?” He pronounces finally about Naipaul’s “bleak and caustic” tone; two adjectives appropriate to much of his writing.

#2 In a latter volume of essays Updike refines his assessment of the Naipauls' (this time commenting on a book by Shiva): “Yet people live here, under these imperfect governments, and their lives are truth.” What a beautiful statement. Also found: a perfect copy, bookclub edition, of Marquez’ The Autumn of the Patriarch. He worked so hard on it I have to give him credit; the scale of Latin American misery and subjection to murderous fools; the scale is so small and seems to take place in a rim of the world so far off as to be barely notable, yet it exists. The cultures are dynamic and vibrant filled with mistrust and thievery they are hermetic, however. And not so hospitable to outsiders.

#3 Finished Naipaul’s Beyond Belief. It is beyond belief the madness taking place in the Muslim convert countries he writes about: Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan. Insanity on a mass scale. And to hear leftists trash America as an imperial power messing up the world. These people have no sense of how good we have it; we still have the power to deliver happy childhoods to our kids. These other countries don’t.

#4 Have to admit I love the stretch of Rainier between Graham and Henderson. It is full of life: drugs, prostitutes, religion (Muslims, Black churches galore), politics (Black Panthers). Driving through it with my cousin D--, he pronounced it “seedy.” I said, "au contraire it seethes with life." I do love it so. It quickens my writer’s eye and pen. I can see a V.S. Naipaul passing through and declaring it a intellectual wasteland; worse! A quicksand, undernourished or mal-nourished, on dreams of resentment and a whirling nihilistic drag; with no apportionment for the future, no sense of the wider world of success within which it is lodged. So true, but it is filled with life...

#5 Naipaul’s thesis that Islam is a lock and hammer upon people and their sense of past; it - he believes - closes down inquiry and historical knowledge. It only allows for itself to flourish. Islam is the most demanding of mental imperialisms, sez he. Are you sure, Vida? Muslims in America: our inner cities are seeing thousands of orthodox Muslims, mostly from Somalia, set up families and shops. They are the ones who have decided to invest in lives in our towns and cities. This is not exactly unprecedented. Big cities of the eastern seaboard saw many thousands of orthodox Jews from Europe fill their poor neighborhoods at the end of the 19th century - beginning of the 20th. Otherwise, extreme religious folk have chosen to develop out of the line of fire, as it were; the Mormons founded a community on the hard salty badlands of Utah. The Mennonites took to the far fields of Pennsylvania to develop and breed apart from totalizing secular America. But the forces will go two ways: they will pick up converts, yes, but the pull of plain-flavored, God-less life will also work its way into their communities. This tension will bring about good things, much as orthodox Jewish communities of the end of the 19th century brought forth creative thinkers and doers in every field of human endeavor. This is what happens when you plunk down in the middle of a secular modern city. It is inevitable. So mostly I am optimistic. The current liberal left however is not doing this new community any favors by leading them to think that America is ready to pay them obeisance or otherwise codify their reverence with civic niceties. The new immigrants must take their knocks along with everyone else.

#6 Just because VS Naipaul is tired of the novel am I supposed to give up enjoyment of literature? He loves to declaim and make pronouncements: the novel is dead and dying, it doesn’t address the imaginative needs of readers, it is fake, it is phony, therefore let’s be done with it. Well, this kind of pronouncement-making is what intellectuals do. He claims he is not an intellectual but like bodily smells you can’t just wish ideas away. They stay close. So he pronounces and produces ideas; there is a grimy peasant mentality to VS Naipaul’s work; it is truth, but it is an ungenerous and mean truth. A mean and spiteful truth of peasants, their hostility, spite and suspicion.

#7 Naipaul riffs on Latin America. It is screwed up because there is no facing up to the Indian part of the country that is despised. That is to despise a part of yourself and you will never overcome. Latin America wants to be an extension of Europe; that is all and well but there is more to the story. Latin America is a continent that has been trampled over. I'll quote Naipaul on Latin America. He sez:
These things happen over the course of a writer's life. I used to be called a satirist. I don't know what I was supposed to be satirising. The reason is probably that I've never been an official writer - many colonial chaps, their passion is to be an official writer. Latin America is full of nothing but official writers. You mean as they were in the Soviet Union? No, an official
writer is someone whose views do not harm the Establishment, the government, authority of all kinds. I was thinking about Latin America, where most writers are trying to be official writers, who do what is required of them, who do what they feel they are expected to do. It is full of official writers who offend no
one, and leave Latin America eternally in its mess, because they offend no one. The truth is dodged, the mess continues.

Further comment from Naipaul:
Well, I'll tell you what happened. I actually was in Trinidad at the end of 1971, by which time this Michael X had murdered and buried people. And out of interest I went to look at the house and the holes where the people were buried, and I followed the story there. I had no intention of writing about it, and then my friend Francis Wyndham of the Sunday Times asked me to write about it. And I went back and did a lot more research, got a lot more documents and everything and did that story. And in doing it I learnt something about people who support revolutions, and that was not greatly different from what Conrad had discovered,
in The Secret Agent. What did he discover? This woman who supports the anarchist believes she is so secure and so aristocratic, that when the world is blown up only the others will be destroyed. She will float serenely above the wreckage. So there are secure people who encourage revolutionaries. When societies are not secure it's a different matter.

Naipaul keeps calling 3rd World countries and societies “half-made” but their mere living grants them a shot at truth. (Naipaul offers up the sharp criticism of Latin America ever: he said these are scum societies, societies that think that killing the right people will solve all their problems. Hate to say it, but, he got that part right.

#8 It took me a long time, but I might finally get Naipaul. I am a slow learner. I believe I can peg the two poles of modern literature: at one end stands Nabokov who proclaims all ideas “hogwash”. Only the production of superior images matters in fiction. At the other end you have Naipaul, who claims that literature should only reflect ideas that in turn, act as X-rays into society of the time; these ideas should also deliver commentary on society, also poke it, prod it, shake it up, etc. Both writers point to Gogol, incidentally, to shore up their positions. Naipaul calls Gogol a great novelist of his society and times and Nabokov wrote a short biographical tract to say that Gogo; was, like Nabokov, interested only in flashing images of pure art, society be damned.

#9 Here is J.M. Coatzee reviewing Naipaul’s Half a Life:
Both father and son believe they see through other people. But they detect lies and self-deception all around them only because they are incapable of imagining anyone unlike themselves. Their shrewdness of insight is grounded in nothing but
a self-protective reflex of suspicion. Their rule of thumb is always to give the least charitable interpretation. Self-absorption, minginess of spirit, rather than inexperience, are at the root of Willie's failures in love.

#10 Naipaul would dash myth or the mythopoetic spirt of modernist literature. He condemns Joyce for sitting in Trieste and writing about his life or life in Dublin (much as a young Naipaul sat in London and wrote about a long-lost Trinidad). I want to tell Naipaul, there is more to it than that. Europe, the continent of free wills, of generosity of spirit and the spirit of community, metropolitanism, of self-sacrifice and civic ideals is that but it is also a killing floor. Its own maniacal death-seeds contain its defeats and fears and these have not all been faced; yes, the 19th century novelists did their jobs and did them well but in the 20th century we inherited a suicide/slaughter house; Western novelists have been on suicide watch and as ignominious as that is, it is the reality that we inherited. We can’t go back to the comprehensive liveliness of the 19th century and atomize society as the grand novelists of the time did. Pine, as we may, for the comprehensive vision of 19th century novelists but theirs is not our world. We must take the world as we got it. It is not fair of you, Naipaul, who, yes, forced through the novel the voices of the unknown, to say now that all is known and the novel has nothing further to contribute. Is it up to Naipaul to declare this? Go ahead, but it is just one more nattering intellectual voice offering prescription and proscription – telling the artist what to do. Art management, Naipaul’s new bag. The novel may be a failure as a form but a bigger failure is Art Management. There is still much room to move.

#11 VSN on Latin America, again. As for Latin America being a place of self-deception and mythmaking – wide avoidance of history and past cruelty – a longing for denial, etc – well, Latin America’s literary artists didn't exactly avoid reality in their novels. As early as the 1920s you had Miguel Angel Austurias writing up his society realistically albeit in ghostly forms - as he saw it. Ditto Alejo Carpentier. Worthy and artistic attempts perhaps influenced by European or American literature but very much their own design. To come to Naipaul and the present: The successful novelist pronouncing the death of the novel is a bit of a cliché. Let Updike have the last word here: “Authors do well to remember that they are not really kin to priests and politicians but to singers and stand-up comedians―entertainers, of a devious sort.”

#12 Sadly much of Naipual’s critique can be hurled at America, think of Faulkner and his mythmaking. His style. Now I am reading Naipaul's A Turn in the South; very strong, very moving. It is hard to believe that such hatred (between black and white but mostly the hatred of white toward black) thrived in your own country. Naipaul’s renditions of slavery: the entry of a new slave from Africa and how they would put him in a box while next to the box an old slave would calm him down, sooth him into his new life. This is the true horror of slavery, if you can imagine your way into it. You want to weep, to tear your teeth out, to scream; it was a violation of everything that America stood for. One of humanity’s truly unavenged crimes. The whole enterprise was hysterical, the looting of Africa for flesh over centuries. What happened to the moral core of the west? It vanished when it came to slavery. And its particular brutal American variety that denuded the slave of his past; obliterated it. It was an exalted (or rotten) sex cult in which everyone who came near it was degraded.

#13 VS Naipaul continues with his thesis that great civilizations, not realized, lie to themselves and that all modern literatures not of the West, are fakes and fantasists (they don’t tell things or portray things as they are but spin fantasies about themselves). He indicts the ancient Romans for not exposing the brutalities around them but for fluffing up their own mythologies. For all Naipaul’s emphasis on truth telling and hard realities, you often don’t believe him. The seeing and not seeing, the half-seeing of ancient writers; heavily weighted sociology. Well now, can’t societies produce misfits, visionaries and dreamers? In short, novelists? And why can’t they dream? Are dreams the monopoly of the fully realized, self actualized, truth tellers of the West? (What does that mean?) I am suspicious. That is, I suspect Naipaul’s claim to Indian-ness, especially in that he doesn’t speak Hindi. He places himself at the periphery of British Colonial civilization, that much is true, but to insert himself into India as Indian is wrong; he can praise the aspects of the British world that he internalized, even living on the periphery, and exult in those but I don’t see his background as granting him any special place in Indian life. India has its own dynamics and ways of carrying on. Some of them strike Naipaul as shameless and self-serving but so goes the life of nations. Nationhood is a push me - pull me affair; VSN has some idea of the West as a self-fulfilling dream - all was good for the novel, in the old days of early Dickens. But shame on modernism and Joyce and all that decadent, non-socially useful flowed into the novel via Modernism. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Then VSN calls the ancient writers to task for not analyzing their own societies, but what did Seutonius do? What did Tacitus do? What about Apuleius? What about Saint Augustine’s Confessions? Martial? Juvenal? Petronius? These were not exactly time-servers or ass lickers. Likewise, to return to the present, is the 3rd world so bereft of critical writing of self-reflection and condemnation? Miguel Angel Austurias? Early Carpentier?