Co-opting the Alternative

January 1, 2015

Pynchon may be documenting the end of a specific era in American life in Inherent Vice, but there is a universal resonance in his description in which the mainstream co-opts that which was once new, unique, and “alternative”:

“Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever—those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?” (Pg. 130, Penguin).

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Turn the Survey Inward

September 21, 2014

Philip K. Dick’s story “Survey Team” was so prescient for its time that it has completed the cycle and now seems passé.

He sees a future where we are stuck in an endless cycle of resource abuse, casting out to other planets to replace what we have wasted. These explorers discover our ancestors had already ruined one planet (Mars), and a splinter group moved on to a third planet, farther into space, where we could possibly find resources to replace our ruined Earth. The protests of the character Mason at the end fall on deaf ears:

“It’s wrong!” Mason shouted. “Two are enough! Let’s not destroy a third world!”

Nobody listened to him. Judde and Young and Halloway gazed up, faces eager, hands clenching and unclenching. As if they were already there. As if they were already holding onto the new world, clutching it with all their strength. Tearing it apart, atom by atom… (Pg. 51, The Early Work of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2: Breakfast at Twilight and Other Stories, Prime Books)

That’s a great ending – and we have been inundated with that message for so long that most people, just like Judde and Young and Halloway, are immune to the moral protests against our behaviors. We are in a mindless survival mode now.

Azrael lesson for the day is to identify what is already in your life that is important to you, that gives your life meaning, and focus on that.

“That irreparable change a death makes in the course of our daily thoughts can be felt in a vague and poignant discomfort of mind.” Pg. 86, Nostromo.

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Thoughts like Fish

June 8, 2014

Many awesome passages percolate up from the thick tome that is Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (Picador Edition).

“…[S]trange ideas would come to my head. Ideas that were like dead fish or fish on the verge of death at the bottom of the sea.” (pg. 498)

And the entry by Guillem Piña give great insight on the inner life of an aging – and not-so-successful – artist:

“In retrospect, the passage from one state to another takes on the harsh, brutal overtones of the sudden and irremediable, but of course it all happened much more slowly.” (pg. 499)

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Attention to the Next Generation

March 24, 2014

A great line from Evelyn Waugh, said by a doctor no less, Dr. Puttock:

“Some people even think that a disproportionate attention is given to the next generation.” (The End of the Battle, Little, Brown and Company, pg. 93)

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A War on “Casual Violence”

March 23, 2014

Something about the phrase “casual violence” really tugs at my backbone. I think because it seems to exist in that first, early stage of literary writing, a buzz phrase from embryonic Nabokovs who feel they are flirting with profundity. Perhaps they feel they are venturing “outside the box” when they say someone is imbued with an attitude of “casual violence.” Such as “…this man who carries in his limbs the promise of casual violence…” in the short story “Summer Boys,” by Ethan Rutherford (pg. 31, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories).

Not to pick on Ethan, his was just the most readily available example. I probably have reams of my own story drafts tucked away that abuse this pseudo-significant phrase, as if it can decode the enigma that is humanity. So, in this year of 2014, let’s do what we can to divest our language of this overused, hackneyed, and now ultimately meaningless phrase.

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“Once a man started killing his wife…”

August 17, 2013

Here is another great line from Graham Greene, on page 67 of The Ministry of Fear (Penguin Classics):

“…a kind of self-protective instinct would have made Mrs. Wilcox hate him. Once a man started killing his wife, she would have ungrammatically thought, you couldn’t tell where it would stop.”

The line sounds awfully diabolical out of context, but trust me, it is a funny line, if you are reading the book.

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Moths and Snails and Slugs

June 28, 2013

I recently critiqued the writing style in Swamplandia!; however, there was at least one passage that had a lasting impact on me:

“Outside our porch had become a cauldron of pale brown moths and the bigger ivory moths with sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them. They entered a large rip in our screen. They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidentally killed one.” – pg. 41

It is not the most direct association, but I feel the same overwhelming sadness when I accidentally step on a snail. The snails come out on the sidewalk right after a storm, when the concrete is still moist and they leave silvery trails behind them, and if you are not careful – and sometimes even if you are – you will step on them. They pop, mixing tiny shards with the goop of their ruined bodies.

But perhaps I am overreacting, becoming overwrought with emotion. Is it a personal defect? Evil would think so.

Time Bandits, Evil
“Slugs! He created slugs!”

I would assume he has the same opinion of snails as slugs, so in that case, what is the value of a snail? According to Evil, not much: “They can’t hear. They can’t speak. They can’t operate machinery.”

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Inundated with Similes

April 25, 2013

Karen Russell makes excessive use of similes throughout her book Swamplandia!, at least in the first half I completed. Some are clever or insightful, such as “We were watching the small TV above her [hospital] bed politely, as if the TV were a foreign dignitary giving an unintelligible lecture…” (on page 106 in the Vintage Contemporaries edition).

These types of comparisons would be more effective if used sparingly, but from the very beginning, Russell leans heavily on this figure of speech.

A few examples – “like a caterer with a tray of bitter hors d’oeuvres” (pg. 83); “it was like a sword I’d made, glinting and strong” (pg. 49); “like an anhinga swallowing a fish” (pg. 35); “couples curled their pale legs together like eels” (pg. 4); “[l]ike black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled” (pg. 5).

It could be argued she is using this mechanism to develop the voice for Ana, her main character, as though the girl is trying to fit reality into some order or previous experiences … expect she uses the same simile patterns when she unceremoniously switches to third person for Kiwi’s chapters.

The style slows and often garbles the narrative for me, and it seems I could have enjoyed Swamplandia! … at the outset, it reminded me of Geek Love, Katherine Dunn’s masterpiece (as I remember it), which shined brightly when I was going through my John Irving phase.

But of course, as with most contemporary fiction, there are plenty of other opinions to counter my negativity.

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Reading “Cholera”

April 6, 2013

Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, like Midnight’s Children, was a long, hard slog, especially for one with a glacial reading pace. The text lives in thick blocks, with little to no dialogue (and rarely two lines of dialogue back to back). But there are many sublime passages, including the insightful line from Uncle Leo XII when he rejects the notion that he is a rich man:

“I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing.” (pg. 167 in my Penguin edition)

I was also struck by the descriptions of deforestation, near the end of the work, with the acute awareness of its impact and all that would be lost. With the area around the river stripped of entire forests, villages would be flooded “even in the cruelest droughts” (pg. 336). By coincidence, the skins of alligators, exterminated by hunters all along the river, went to the tanneries in New Orleans, which we all know would have its own flooding issues, due to similar factors, many years later.

At least Captain Samaritano emerged as an example of human compassion when he intervened on behalf of a baby manatee (and faced official censure for doing so) whose mother had been murdered (pg. 332). River travelers apparently victimized these harmless animals for target practice, and I can fully relate to Samaritano’s desire to punish these scum.

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Changing Places

E-books, tablets, iPads, they are flipping the concept of an ending. With DVDs and Blu-rays and VOD, all movies now have trackers, slide bars, countdowns, to tell you when the end is near, how close we are to completion. Used to be, we would sit in a dark theater, and you would have to guess, through the course of the narrative, when the movie would end. And some movies were really good at giving false indications, or no indications, when the the credits would roll. For example, I was fortunate to record my thoughts during the multiple climaxes (and not the good kind) for Face/Off

“Awesome, they are going to have the final shootout in the church. This should be great. Ok, now they are in a graveyard. Good, good. Slight change of scenery isn’t bad for the big climax. And this should be the… wait, holy s*&t, now they’re chasing each other in boats. What the hell, will this movie never end…?”

Really, I could still be in the theater, waiting for the next reel of Cage and Travolta beating on each other (and again, not the good kind). Both would probably like to go back to that point in their respective careers and live the rest of their lives in a perpetual chase scene.

For books, it was the opposite. Back in the day, you could feel the heft of the pages, and as that stack got thinner, you knew you were getting close to the end.

Jane Austen even comments on this circumstance in Northanger Abbey, noting that the reader can see the end is coming. David Lodge plays with this concept later in his novel Changing Places. But now, when you are reading on a digital screen, the end of the book weighs the same as the beginning. This screen is replacing the physical reality of a book, and we no longer count pages to the end. Books and movies, they have changing places.

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