PICTURED LEFT: Henry James, author of The American Scene
PICTURED RIGHT: Winston Churchill, author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
PICTURED LEFT: Henry James, author of The American Scene
PICTURED RIGHT: Winston Churchill, author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
PICTURED LEFT: Doris Lessing, author of The Golden Notebook
PICTURED RIGHT: Unidentified woman in Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.”
PICTURED LEFT: Neal Pollack, former satirist and one-time front man of band.
PICTURED RIGHT: Jack Black, former satirist and one-time front man of band.
PICTURED LEFT: William T. Vollmann, with pistol.
PICTURED RIGHT: Francis Ford Coppola, with pistol.
Not here, mind you, but over at Tito’s.
The Chronicle: “Onuma Chumsri, a 24-year-old Thai woman awaiting sentence for drug trafficking, was the winner Thursday night of the annual Miss Spring contest at Santa Monica Women’s Prison in Lima’s Chorrillos district. ‘Sex appeal is important but it is not as if we are seeking just the physical aspect but rather the value as a woman, the value of the person is the essence of all of this,’ said Maria Jaen, director of the prison. Prison officials said preparations for the contest started two months ago. Entrants were required to have good conduct, attend psychological therapy sessions, and participate in some of the prison’s permanent workshops, such as cosmetology, drawing, and fabric painting.” (Thanks, Minh & Lina!)
PICTURED LEFT: Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
PICTURED RIGHT: James Callis, “Dr. Gaius Baltar” from Battlestar Galactica
[NOTE: Both tormented by significant other. Coincidence?]
PICTURED LEFT: Jerzy Kosinski, author of The Painted Bird.
PICTURED RIGHT: Richard Kline, “Larry” from Three’s Company.
(Inspired by Languor Management.)
First, DeLay gets indicted. And now Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Lewis Libby, has been outed by Judith Miller. Corruption leading all the way up to Bush and Cheney? Why, say, it ain’t so! Not in America!
(And I should point out that given the dollops that anyone with progressive stripes has had to digest in the past four years, the lives lost, displaced and otherwise disrupted under the hands of the GOP goons, you are hereby granted permission by me to engage in as much schadenfreude as you need without guilt. Why, if this pace keeps up, I might very well renounce my atheism and believe in a higher deity after all!)
From a 1975 interview with William Tenn (aka Philip Klass): “I think we live in the freeest goddamn time in the history of Man. Insanely free time. There are freedoms now that I never thought would have been available. Just the kind of language I can use, and I wish — the things I could write about. And this — of all the criticisms of our society, so far as I’m concerned — is the ultimate freedom to date. We are the only society that is examining itself in an open way, that is constantly trying to improve itself. I feel very strongly about America, but the point I’m making does not relate directly to science fiction…but in a way it does. I think back to when Man developed such freedoms, and it seems he just can’t stand them, and they’ve got to be ditched. And they’ll probably be ditched in your lifetimes. I think the pendulum swings, and in very few and very short periods of history has Man been free….
“You find you get used to it, but what the hell do you think it was like when the Germans said ‘No more war?!’ Man has been through the first World War, and has built a social democratic republic. Those older people especially, to whom their children said in the 1930’s, ‘You’re so old fashioned, you don’t believe in war. War is the natural state of Man…’, to them their parents said, ‘You’ll get adjusted to it.’ And I don’t know how or exactly when, but you kids won’t spend the last part of your lives in as much freedom as you had, or have, right now.”
We’ve only just been released from the hospital and we’re spending a good deal of time adjusting to our unexpected euphoria. We have some things to say about Ben Marcus’s Harper’s essay on Jonathan Franzen and experimental novelists (which we read ourselves the other day) that we hope we’ll find time to get to, although, at the present juncture, it looks unlikely. We’re as surprised as anyone that, save Reader of Depressing Books, the litblog scene has been so silent on it. (You lapped up Dale Peck. You lapped up Heidi Julavits’ antisnark manifesto. And you mean to tell me that yet another polemical essay calling for a reevaluation of how we interpret the novel has evaded your attention? Fer shame!)
Perhaps the silence has much to do with the fact that Harper’s, like many other misguided American periodicals, has not produced the essay in question (with the exception of this excerpt) online. Which is a damn silly thing to do at this particular moment in the 21st century and a damn silly thing to publish today, at the end of the month of all things, when I myself just received the next issue of Harper’s in the mailbox.
So what is this, Lapham? A last-minute take to get nimble-minded literary enthusiasts and grad students to set down the baroque threads of their lives and race to their newsstands and bookstores and librarires before it is sold out or replaced by the next issue? All for you? All because the essay failed to strike the appropriate chord online because, after all, you failed to produce a substantial chunk of it online until the very last possible minute (“published Thursday, September 29, 2005″)?
Is it possible that even Harper’s still operates as if it’s 1995?
It don’t work that way, my ornery friend. If you want a public debate these days (and just to be clear on this, we’re talking the Year of Our Lust 2005, Anno Domini, Glorious Year of Tom DeLay Being Indicted, Britney Spears With Child and the Hopeful Declivity Ensnaring the Republican Menace), you do what the New Yorker, the New York Times, and any other functional magazine does (even The Believer does this to some degree!). You provide it for us online. And if you still insist on an excerpt to ward off the freeloaders, you provide a substantial chunk for all of us to peruse and respond to. That essay is long, man!
The minute I heard the news that Tom DeLay had been indicted, I experienced a sudden burst of euphoria. I felt a wave of equanamity settle over my entire mind and body. I was good-natured and friendly. I didn’t mind if others won at the board games. Hell, I was feeling so good that I’d happily play the UnGame again.
The doctors took me into a room and gave me a checkup. Then Heidi (the doctor) took me aside and said, “I don’t believe this, kid, but not only will you not need any tricyclics again, but you won’t need yulthodranine. Why, you can walk right out that door if you wanted too!”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Not at all, Ed. You see, you’ve just taken in what’s known in Washington as a muckup mirabillis. Your mind and body was so overjoyed to see some small moment of justice in a hopelessly corrupt system that it responded instantly with bonhomie and defeated your mental malady.”
“None. You’re a veritable Tesla coil of calmness.”
“I can leave today?”
“The orderlies will help you pack your things.”
I looked at the orderly whose finger I had bitten. I asked this orderly if I could give him a hug. He complied. He squeezed me a bit too hard. Then he gave me a roast beef sandwich with raw roast beef. At least the guy had a sense of humor.
The other orderlies helped gather my stuff and pretty soon, I was out the building.
I was cured all right.
I have to ask: What is the point of playing a board game when you can’t screw someone over? Is not the purpose of a game (whether life or Life) to win with as great a margin as possible? If I learned anything growing up in a chronically miserable and highly competitive family, it was this: If you don’t screw them over, then you’ll get screwed over. Play the game until they run to their bedroom sobbing.
I’ve played several games of Monopoly, tittering like a smug bastard every time someone lands on my hoteled Park Place and watching their hard-won and carefully accumulated savings go into my prodigious coffers just after they’ve mortgaged all their properties. In an instant, my opponents are down to nothing. But, so as not to completely humilate them (well, this is a bit of a lie, but at least the sentiment exists), I’m taking every property they own with the exception of the purple ghettos of Mediterranenan and Baltic Avenues, the latter involving a measly maximum rent of $450 with a hotel. In the rare moments in which I land upon Baltic Avenue, I observe my opponent’s eyes light up, collecting the $450 like a transient huddling over an unexpected yet meager fire.
I’ve also enjoyed invading multiple continents when playing Risk, strong-arming my way across the globe only after I’ve suggested to the other players that I am their friend and that I would never ever consider taking Brazil to complete my acquisition of South America. I suppose this is the closest that one can come to living out the Hitler-Stalin Pact.
Of course, since I play these board games to win, I’ve lost a few friends who didn’t understand the objectives. I’ve seen boards flipped over just before my final moment of conquest. I’ve had people not speak to me for weeks, telling me that if I’m going to play a board game that way, then I’m likely to stab them in the back during a birthday party or sleep with their girlfriends. I should point out that violence is not within my nature, but I argue that if the object of the game is to win, then what crime have I committed exactly? I’m only abiding by the game designer’s wishes. I’m only playing by the rules.
With these sentiments in mind, I sat down this afternoon to play the UnGame. My participants were a sixty-year old schizophrenic, a man whose wife had moved out with their children leaving only a note reading I WASTED THIRTEEN YEARS OF MY LIFE WITH YOU NOW I’M GOING TO FUCK ANYTHING THAT MOVES, and a teenage lesbian who had been forced into the hospital by her parents, insisting that the doctors could “make her normal,” whatever the hell that meant.
In other words, I was assured an almost complete and total victory. But au contraire. Much as one would expect from the rosy and desperate title, The UnGame challenges the traditional object by creating an entirely new goal: everyone wins! In other words, the UnGame challenges what is likely a healthy outlet for surviving in a ruthless capitalistic system and replaces it with some Kommisariat-style form of socialism. I expected all of us to be hauled away to the quiet room and shot sequentially with ruthless Soviet efficiency.
Alas, the executions didn’t happen. But bad feelings did. The man spurned by his late-blooming virago began to tell us all along that he had been an ass man and that his estranged wife wasn’t interested in sodomy. We shifted in our seats as he confessed these needlessly intimate details. The teenage lesbian, in particular, thought this was a hoot. The schizophrenic thought that he was talking about the gas man and began shrieking at the top of his lungs about a gas leak that the bastards upstairs had failed to tell us about.
I hope we don’t play the UnGame again. I don’t recommend it. Because without that pivotal conquest component, how can one enjoy one’s self? It’s miserable listening to the problems of the world. But perhaps that was the whole point of introducing the game. Never mind that the U.S.S.R. was a failed experiment at this sort of forced socialism.
Like other folks, I had seen this Heidi Julavits article on nudity just before I checked in. It was one of the last things I had read just before the men in white suits packed me into the back of the ambulance. In fact, it was not the straitjacket that had me howling in the back of the vehicle. Whenever my limbs are bound, I’m generally a good sport about it — particularly when the people binding your limbs are medical professionals who might have some input into how long you stay at a hospital. Had I not been in a straitjacket, I would have likely tipped generously.
Unfortunately, my politeness and good sense drifted away when I entered a primordial millieu — not unlike Spock resorting to his atavistic urges in the Star Trek episode, “All Our Yesterdays,” when transported into the past. Like Spock, I thought of the Julavits article and had the sudden urge to eat raw meat. The details are a bit fuzzy, but apparently I bit one of the orderlies. And when the orderlies could not calm me down, and the raw meat I desired could not be produced, I screamed, “HEIDIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!” and asked the orderlies to tear off my clothes so that I could jump in a hot tub myself and be photographed by a New York Times photographer performing fellatio on Dave Eggers or, failing that, giving his wife’s hair a good wash. Shortly after this, blood trickling down his hand quite close to where I had bitten him, I was injected with something that caused me to see a number of birds flying around my head in an elliptical pattern and passed out.
If I had to figure out just how the article enraged me, I suppose that what set my anger went over the pot (the entrepot of supposed ideas that the Gray Lady has continously promised us?) was this: Julavits, perhaps the closest thing the literary hipster set has to a sanctimonious and sniveling Emily Post type, could not perceive nudity within any other context other than checking out other people’s privates or being fundamentally aware of them. This struck me as a remarkably adolescent approach to the human body. So self-conscious was Julavits that she actually believed her “lobster-red bum” would have any real bearing on scheduling a reading.
Then again, I live in San Francisco.
Then again, The Believer is based in San Francisco. What the hell?
I wondered why Julavits would attend such a “naturalistic spa,” let alone write about such an experience, if she had so many personal hangups. Did not most people get over their initial fears spending a weekend prancing around in front of a trusted and intimately connected person such as a main squeeze? I wondered further whether this was a stunt to garner publicity for the Believer. After all, she had enlisted many of the staff members to appear for the corresponding photo. This seemed especially ironic in light of Julavits’ inability to accept her own body.
Now I myself have pale-white skin myself and went through years of being ashamed by it. I was called “albino” and “ghost” growing up and, for many years, did not deign to wear shorts or short-sleeved shirts. I thought of this as the men in white suits put the white straitjacket and shepherded me into a white vehicle leading me to a white building with shiny white linoleum floors, white walls and indeed white everywhere. White, white, white! But yes I could deal with this. What I couldn’t deal with was the contrarian view that somehow white (or “lobster red”) was somehow bad or verboeten.
This morning, I confessed all this during my individual therapy session. The doctor’s name is Heidi too. So our talks have been a little bit on the uncomfortable side of things. However, Heidi (the doctor, not the writer) has proven quite empathetic to the finer details of my collapse. She told me that she wasn’t the one who wrote the handwritten note. There was another doctor who was a bit on the drug-happy side of the fence. This doctor had a look at my file and had based his decision solely on a videotape of my entry into the clinic and a followup therapy session. This doctor, who Heidi did not name, has since been reassigned to another wing of the hospital, as apparently other patients had been doped up with tricyclics. Heidi told me that while I would likely be ingesting drugs that would help me, she didn’t want to place me in a total stupor. I thanked her for this.
Heidi (the doctor) has also told me that reading anything by the McSweeney’s/Believer crowd was likely to upset me. She has prescribed 10ccs of something called “yulthodranine” — a new antidepressant that pertains to people with my rare condition, namely those who get upset by people they perceive as “literary hipsters.” So far, I’ve been able to write about my Julavits experience without feeling like Spock, much less having a hankering for raw meat. Maybe this yulthodranine’s working!
Anyway, they’re asking me to come in and watch the late morning movie, which they tell me is an overlooked 1999 gem starring Kathleen Turner called Baby Geniuses. This movie will be followed by a hearty lunch and a few rounds of The UnGame, a board game in which everyone can win! My transition, so far, has proven quite exciting.
This afternoon, as I was holding a cold compress to my lower lip, hoping that my toothache would go away, I found the following handwritten note that I thought I’d share with you:
Patient shows signs of chronic self-loathing and repeated hyperbole. Patient spent most of afternoon session talking about a writer named Dave Eggers and revealed closet fantasy of writing novel and having it eviscerated by Dale Peck in a metropolitan newspaper. Patient repeatedly used the word “ass-fucking,” alluding to the New York Times, and insisted upon accessing my laptop so that he could “blog.” Continues to make vague references to “tramodol” and “penis implants.” Despite medication, patient shows no immediate signs of recovery. Bipolar condition is chronic and [illegibile word]. Recommended course of action: more tricyclics.
Today, I obtained a Xanax subscription. If the Xanax fails, then I’ll try Trazodone. If the Trazodone fails, I’ll have to resort to stuffing sizable amounts of powdered sugar down my throat.
The question now is one of functionality. If there are drugs to help alleviate this premature midlife crisis, rest assured that the doctors will prescribe them. The doctors have been commissioned to keep me in the locked room away from the laptop, reminding me not to refer to myself in third person or use the first person plural. They will indeed prescribe any and all capsules that they feel will increase dopamine levels and transform me into a happy and functional person who won’t rock the boat and who will be able to work a drab day job without complaint. They say that I will eventually find either a wife or a heterosexual lifemate and that I will work with this new person to produce the 2.2 children that the United States of America demands me (a white guy) to sprout.
Here’s where I’m at on the writing: This afternoon, I wrote three haikus. It’s not much. I’ve never been much of a poet. But I suppose this is better than nothing. The first haiku dealt with a very sexy traffic officer that gave me a nasty scowl when I waved hello to her out my barred window. It goes like this:
blue bottomed mama
will you take off your pants?
write me a ticket
The second haiku concerns a shooting pain that I had in my teeth when I was having my lunch. I had been served a hot dog and had asked for some sauerkraut. Sauerkraut was against regulations. So I settled for just ketchup and mustard. I was able to coax the man to sprinkle three microscopic bits of onions on the weenie. The hot dog man did, much to my surprise, have a beating heart like the rest of humanity. Who knew if it was in conflict with itself?
Anyway, when I bit into the dog in question, I experienced something unexpected. Fortunately, this sort of life experience translates quite easily into art and I wrote this second haiku of the afternoon:
frozen weenie. ouch.
bleeding bicuspids aren’t nice
dentist trip likely
The third haiku, I’m afraid, is a bit too personal for me to share with you. But I will say that it got me in touch with a sensitive part of me that I had long forgotten about.
More later. It’s time to cross-stitch.
Don Adams has passed on. Damn.
I grew up with that curious generation just at the beginning of the Internet (i.e., the Usenet days) and near the end of UHF saturation (before I gave up television). And Adams was one of my unspoken comic heroes. If I learned anything from watching Get Smart, it was this: deadpan ardor with dollops of sincerity can get you through a lot of life’s unexpected scrapes. It didn’t help that Smart worked with a damn sexy and damn smart gal named Agent 99.
The Maxwell Smart persona was dug up somewhat with the Inspector Gadget cartoons, but Gadget was only Adams’ voice. And while Adams’ voice, in itself, was intoxicatin, you needed the expressive eyes and the benign look of confusion to get the full schtick. It was not dissimilar to John Astin’s Gomez Adams, an equally exuberant comic figure. But where Gomez invited destruction, Maxwell Smart unwittingly did so. So it’s Maxwell Smart that I remember and I mourn, wondering if there is a single comic actor (let alone an ambitious producer actually concerned with developing a comic character) who can ever fill Adams’ shoes.
Blog life changes fast.
Blog life changes more times than you can change your underwear.
You sit down to lunch and you know that there’s a blog awaiting you.
The question of pity parties.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. I had sent off yet another epistle to a media outlet. Mr. Tanenhaus’s assistant had personally telephoned me, telilng me that I was “chasing windmills” and that the New York Times office would no longer be accepting my brownie shipments. I can’t be sure about the dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Last-ditch olive branch letter to Sam Tanenhaus.doc,” I think it was called). I had long since deleted it and freed up that portion of my hard drive to download more porn. I sure as hell was’t Joan Didion, who clearly had more important things to say to the Gray Lady’s affluent and upper middle class demographic. I could sweat long and hard on a thoughtful essay about Gilbert Sorrentino or the interesting history of Soft Skull Press, but in the end if Didion wanted to write some 6,000 word essay on the sensation of putting two quarters into a soda machine, she’d have top priority and wouldn’t be edited at all. Never mind that I had suffered my own personal grief in 2005 and had used my sense of humor and perseverance to keep on writing.
For a long time I wrote haikus.
Blog life changes more times than you can change your underwear.
The ordinary underwear, not the expensive boxers I wear to give girlfriends smooth and easy access.
At some point, in the interest of remembering that letter, I decided not to allow myself to be crippled by morally complex decisions. Instead of laboring over a Word file, I wrote half a play, traded notes with a producer about a screenplay we were developing, banged out a lot of words on a novel-in-progress, began a literary podcast, and continued to blog profusely. All this with a full-time job. Like most writers, I didn’t have the luxury of a literary reputation to fall back on. I saw immediately that quibbling over the haikus was probably a bad idea, because, really, what good is there in laboring months over a sentence? I recognize now that there is nothing unusual in this, that most writers aren’t nearly high-profile enough to earn that particular advantage and that the Times was culpable in allowing a talented writer to take a colossal misstep, playing into the sympathies of a liberal elite that had very likely never known a day without a hot meal, much less stretched their hand across the class chasm to listen to and understand the very people they purported to support. Maybe back in 1966, when they were hungry and struggling and dealing with editors who would call them on their shit, these writers might be capable of stunning us with their amazing powers of observation; without exception, they had declined to do this for quite some time, never deigning to speak with the freaks and the bohemians and the dissidents and the crackheads and the troubled souls so regularly observed in my everyday life (but apparently not theirs) that the Sunday Times Magazine had so regularly ignored. Instead, they bankrolled top talent and suggested that they write about vacuity. They played into the whole essayist superstars mythos. And all this as the New York Times Company had laid off staff while silently pondering why the shares had dropped.
“And then — blogged.” In the midst of life we are surrounded by obsessions, and I had said this sentence one too many times. It had not been said by any philosopher of note. Later I realized that my rage at the newspapers, compounded by their deafness to my creative pitches, is what led me to become some febrile chronicler of literary motifs and happenings. Friends were kind enough to not tell me directly that I was chasing windmills, letting me find out for myself that such a regular plan was far from tenable. Never once did I exploit the intimate details of my personal life. All this without that bradykinetic yet pivotal period of thinking, of allowing dreams to unfold and wild ideas to transform into arguments and complex tales.
One thing’s for sure: there was never any hired help named Jose to pick up my mess. I cleaned my own toilet. I washed my own dishes. Every week, I picked up the detritus. And I never once asked my reading public to feel sorry for me through such a shameless publicity stunt: a desperate attempt to draw in more readers by headlining one individual’s personal misery.
August 23, 2005, a Tuesday.
I had ordered a large pizza.
I had seen the pizza advertised in a leaflet that had somehow been crammed into my mailbox and decided to give it a shot.
The pizza, with its pepperoni and mushrooms, would give me the strength to blog some more.
The pizza man arrived, I tipped him generously, I offered two slices to a friend and one to a homeless lady in my neighborhood.
All this, of course, is unimportant. But one must understand the exact contents in which the Tanenhaus letter was sent.
If the pizza could be said to have any feelings, I’m guessing it would have felt relieved yet somewhat homicidal as the pizza slicer partitioned it into eight pieces. If it could read, the pizza would probably be reading Sun Tze’s The Art of War, which is particularly sad, as the pizza itself was unarmed and had no appendages, much less a sentient mind, with which to attack its assailants.
The pizza was scarfed down by dawn.
Another one was ordered less than two weeks later. It was a pretty good idea, considering the untold burden of grief.
* * *
I used to have a large white dry erase board in my small rented room, for reasons having to do with a silly effort at appearing professional. Initially, I drew task lists for what I needed to do during any given week. But because the markers were colorful, I soon began drawing obscene pictures involving stick figures in flagrante delicto. I would invite friends to come by to play drunken games of Pictionary, carefully rationing the large bottle of Jim Beam that I had purchased on sale at a Safeway earlier in the year. I was using the dry erase board as a way to keep things going in light of the grief that threatened to destroy my routine.
I sobbed as I scrawled those naughty pictures of stick figures. At the time, I wasn’t getting any and I had resorted to relentless masturbation to maintain my sangfroid. So should we all.
There was still no hired man named Jose who would help me balance my checkbook. I couldn’t afford such a man. Like most people, I had to sort this all out by myself.
But the dry erase board helped, even if it proved the wrong conduit for me to organize my life.
I had to believe that the grief could die. I had to believe that learning to laugh at the crazy world around us, without resorting to a long-winded personal essay, was the right road out.
I did lots of laughing in the months that followed. I’ve always done a lot of laughing. I’ve been kicked out of funeral homes for laughing. The fault, I suppose, is mine.
I didn’t own a car and I slept on a futon. What kind of conditions were these for a man in his early thirties? Would things eventually happen for me because I had a pretty strong work ethic and produced who knows how many thousands of words? If there were any deficiencies in the way that I was approaching this, it was perhaps the simple fact that the things that interested me were quirky and alternative and not always highbrow. I had actually enjoyed The 40 Year Old Virgin! What was wrong with me?
Dale Carnegie, in How to Win Friends and Influence People, points out that the essential characteristic of winning people over is to dun your nose as you listen to a person of influence. Certainly, people interested me and I fancied myself a halfass listener. But why should anyone have to suffer fools gladly when one exists in either an imagined or a palpable sense of grief? Why should anyone reveal so many pedantic details to move newspapers? Shouldn’t some things be kept close to one’s chest? Shouldn’t more substantial things be written about?
The smell of sweet bullshit.
That was one way I could come to terms with this ethical conundrum.
I did not anticipate a midlife crisis at the age of 31.
The Love Parade, the Blues Festival, Webzine 2005, antiwar protests, and that remarkably sunny weather that creeps into San Francisco during this time of the year didn’t stop about 250 people from gathering at the All Saints Church to listen to Tom Robbins read from his newest book, Wild Ducks Flying Backwards — an event sponsored by the Booksmith. The crowd consisted mostly of people in their twenties and early thirties, with a few hoary-haired holdouts that had somehow kept their humor and idiosynchratic faith while flaunting sartorial garb from the L.L. Bean catalog: no mean feat by anyone’s standards.
I had hoped to get Tom Robbins booked on the Bat Segundo Show, but while the people at Bantam were more than accommodating, it wasn’t in the cards. As Robbins himself explained to the crowd, he had recently had surgery in his right eye and had recently been the victim of “a Category 5 dental emergency.” This resulted in Robbins, at times, speaking out of the corner of his mouth. Robbins warned the audience that he “sounded like a cross between Gomer Pyle and Boy George.” Nevertheless, he still maintained the traces of his North Carolina drawl with a deadpan timbre, speaking at a measured pace and pausing to shout specific words into the mike for emphasis.
A few words on the new book: While the title shares the exuberance of Robbins’ previous tomes, this book collects short pieces that Robbins had racked up over the years. There are travel articles, “tributes” (more like over-the-top paeans, a few of them from 1967) to the likes of Ray Kroc, Nadja Salemo-Sonnenberg and redheads, an extremely mixed bag of “stories, poems and lyrics” (the less said about the poems, the better), “musings & critiques” and finally various responses to questions. In form, the book reminded me of Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt; the difference, of course, being that Robbins isn’t dead. While it’s a bit odd to experience Robbins in short form, causing one to reconfigure one’s head for unexpected ends (often after a mere paragraph), like The Salmon of Doubt, it’s still an interesting portal into Robbins’ thought processes. Just don’t pencil in the entire afternoon. You’re likely to knock this puppy off in a few hours.
Robbins was dressed in a grey suit that was slightly rumpled, although just crisp enough for a public appearance, and a black tee with the portrait of a cherubic green boy with crimson devil’s horns (the cultural connection momentarily eludes me). On his right hand, there was an extremely large and extremely round watch. He only took off his shades during the reading to reveal hounddog eyes surrounded by the deep circular recesses of age. But he kept the shades on during the Q&A session and, of course, during the mad rush of Robbinites stampeding towards the book signing line. He had dark tousled hair that appeared to have been cut by a barber in a rush. Near the back of his head, several sharp spikes emerged like blades of jet grass hankering for a head-shaped lawnmower.
Since we were in a church, Robbins started off by observing that his two grandfathers were Southern Baptists and that, because of this, he felt that it was his disposition to be in the pulpit. He said that he had spent some time in the Haight dring 1967 and remarked upon the many things to do in San Francisco. By comparison, Robbins noted that in his Northwestern town, there was little to do but throw a stick of margarine in the microwave and watch the oysters and clams come in from the fields.
He noted that despite San Francisco having “the highest cost of living in the solar system,” he was shocked that a bohemian culture still existed. This was, he thought, very conducive to art. And Robbins said that he had experienced a sudden burst of artistic activity. He had started writing a script entitled Pyrex of the Caribbean, which involved maintaining an oven-ready backing condition on the high seas. His offering for reality television was Fungi for the Straight Guy, whereby the producers would take a conservative Republican and give him a syphillitic mushroom with a camera crew following him around. And he had devised a pitch for a dramatic television show, Helen Keller: Private Eye with the tagline: “She’s blind, she’s deaf, she’s mute, but she can smell a rat a mile away.”
He read a piece first written in 1967, in which he had just seen the Doors. He read another piece from 1967 about the Seattle arts community. He read the Sonnenberg piece, as well as a travel piece called “Canyon of the Vaginas,” a story called “Moonlight Whoopie Cushion Sonata” and his response to the question “How do you feel about America?” in which the original response had been written in 1997 and updated with a footnote for the book. During the course of these readings, he would frequently stop midway, saying “And this goes on and on….”
Then there were questions. Robbins was asked what his favorite novel was. He said that Still-Life with Woodpecker was his favorite to write because it was so short. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, he found, “the structually most impressive.” Skinny Legs and All and Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates were “the ones I most admire,” although he said this with some uncertainty. Robbins doesn’t read his books after he’s written them. And this proved problematic when he had done several interviews in Italy. Unknowingly, Another Roadside Attraction had been republished. Unlike American journalists, Italian journalists actually read the book. So he was forced to respond to questions for a book he had not read in 25 years. He couldn’t obtain a copy of his own book, as the only ones available were in Italian.
An extremely obsessive Tom Robbins fan asked Robbins if Fierce Invalids from Hot Climates‘ Switters, seeing as how Switters appeared at the end of Villa Incognito, would be appearing in a future book. Robbins was clearly mystified by this and answered, “I haven’t been thinking about another book.” But he did mention that he was thinking of outsoucing the next book.
Robbins was asked which book he most admired this year. He said that he hadn’t been able to do much reading this year because of the eye. But he did say that the best books from the past 3-4 years were Louise Erdrich’s The Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and Manil Suri’s The Death of Vichnu.
Questioned about his thoughts on the film version of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, he said, “It was a big hit in Hungary.” He noted that Gus Van Sant was such a fan of the language that he had decided, against Robbins’ suggestions, to present the book’s dialogue as is. Robbins felt the film spiraled downward after the “first ten to twelve exhilirating minutes” and that, given the stylized nature of the language and that people don’t talk like this in real life, he felt it was a mistake that Van Sant had made that decision. Particularly since the first words were said by an actress who had never acted before. “Not a lot of authors will tell you that,” he said, mentioning that most novelists want to retain the original feel of a book.
Robbins doesn’t base any of his characters on real people, save Jitterbug Perfume‘s Dannyboy, who was “50% Timothy Leary.” However, the aforementioned Switters was based in part on a CIA agent Robbins had met in Singapore. Despite being a member of one of the most evil agencies in the world and despite desiring to be posted in Southeast Asia so that he could have sex with underage girls, Robbins remarked that this agent was articulate, well-educated, charming, funny, and the kind of guy who would risk his life for you. It demonstrated to Robbins that human beings were more complex than we give them credit for. Thus, Switters was born.
There was another minor character who Robbins had based on a real person — a yuppie he knew in “one of those books.” Apparently, a note from the editor came back, indicating that this one character didn’t seem real and was “too artificial.” But in this instance, Robbins had essentially taken the details from ordinary life.
Asked about Finnegans Wake, Robbins again insisted that he was stuck on page 49 and that he understands it all. He said that it was “the most realistic novel ever written” and said that it was almost impossible to be real in fiction.
Once, Robbins was on a panel with John Irving. And Irving had remarked that he could never write a book until he knew the end. Robbins couldn’t believe this and said, “Isn’t that like working in a factory?”
Since this is San Francisco, there was one question asked about what Robbins’ stance was on polyamory. Robbins genuinely did not know what this was. He confused it with polygamy. After an explanation, Robbins said, “I had some experience with that. I tell ya, it only can lead to disaster.”
Situation: There are more books here than I can possibly read. I would like to give all of these books a fair chance, given that the publishers have gone to great lengths to send them my way. But I am one person and, in order to exist in this world and have something of a life, it would be completely unrealistic for me to read them all. I can read three books a week, but not fifteen.
Now I am far from a trust fund kid, but here’s what I propose as a solution: If you would like to review these books that I cannot read, please drop me a line at ed @ edrants.com. Tell me a little bit about yourself and the authors you dig. And I will hook you up with a book that works within that template. I cannot pay you, but what I can do is offer my services as an editor and I can ship you the book. I’ll help you hone your voice and I’ll work with you to find a kickass tone. We can take a firm whack at these books that warrant coverage and, together, we can ensure that this heinous backlog is, to some small degree, abated. So what do you say?
Just when you thought that Oprah had confined herself to dead writers and the “Summer of Faulkner,” Oprah recently announced a return to living writers. Her first new book along these lines is actually quite interesting: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. I must confess that I’m highly amused at the idea of suburbanites in upstate New York and Orange County reading Frey’s gritty memoir. But if this represents the timbre of Oprah’s future offerings, then Return of the Reluctant strongly endorses the Oprah Book Club revival with the following proviso: No more Wally Lamb! Let’s see the Oprah Book Club dig up the kind of books that will provide a much needed jolt for soccer moms.
1. I have recently discovered The Avalanches. If you enjoy goofball hip-hop with a wide range of samples and influences, then I highly recommend their album, Since I Left You. If you’re interested in sampling the Avalanches, “Frontier Psychiatrist,” one of the album’s grand highlights (with something in the area of 50 vocal samplings), exists as a highly inventive music video that truly needs to be experienced. Strangely enough, these folks originate in Australia of all places.
2. I’ve loved Weller from the Jam onwards, but Paul Weller should probably not be experienced live. He is (or, at least, at the Warfield, he was) an extremely bitter performer with a generic-sounding blues band who showed remarkable contempt towards an audience that demanded that he perform Jam and Style Council songs. Let’s put it this way. He smoked two cigarettes on stage just before performing “That’s Entertainment,” did a lifeless cover a full stop below the recording, and then threw his guitar down at the end. I don’t blame a performer for getting annoyed when they perform their back catalog. But Weller could have easily reinvented the song and found a way to love it, the way he reinvented “English Rose” for his “unplugged” album, Days of Speed, and actually enjoyed himself in the process.
3. M. Ward (who I saw not too long ago with the magnificent Tito Perez) puts on a nice no-frills show, but I’m not sure if I like his baseball caps. Then again, I have a problem in general with baseball caps. So I’m sure it’s just me.
4. Elbow, the Manchester band that sounds dangerously like Coldplay but thankthegoodlord is not Coldplay, has a new album out called Leaders of the Free World. Alas, like the BRMC’s recent move towards undistinctive acoustic blues, this new album represents an unfortunate shift from the nuanced inventiveness of Cast of Thousands into the unfortunate territory of Travis/Coldplay clones. Do we really need any more? Even Guy Garvey’s voice suddenly sounds like Chris Martin’s. And the lyrics have shifted away from riffs on “sex toys” and are now more straightforward whinings about lost love. A shame.
5. Rick Moody wonders if rock ‘n roll is still for him at the age of 44. The real question is whether such a question can be answered when he genuinely believes that “the new Rolling Stones song has some pep.” But I’m sure he meant to write that the new Rolling Stones has one reaching for Pepto-Bismol.
6. And while I haven’t yet heard it, the new Paul McCartney album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, is of interest because McCartney, in an effort to try something different, enlisted Nigel Godrich (producer of OK Computer) to produce this album. While Mick and Keith have demonstrated time and time again that they are incapable of growing old gracefully, it’s interesting to see rock icons attempt reinvention when they’re financially solvent.
In lieu of content today, I’ll point to a meme uncovered by Rasputin:
1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.
ANSWER: “A pomaded, well-oiled machine slightly better than Willie Brown, but no less accountable.”
Rita: the third largest hurricane in history. Source of Texas oil supply. Population thankfully moving north. This will not be pretty.
The Los Angeles Times: “The paperback publisher of Tom Wolfe’s unevenly reviewed latest novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons” is hoping that a dramatically redesigned cover — and a youth-oriented marketing campaign, complete with a contest featuring a trip to Cancun — will help draw young adults to the book, mocked by some reviewers who found the septuagenarian author’s accounts of campus sex life unconvincing.”
INSIDE A MANHATTAN OFFICE, NINE MONTHS AGO:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have some terrible news.”
“Dave Eggers wants us to publish a book of McSweeney’s lists?”
“Jonathan Safran Foer wants six covers for the paperback release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?”
“No. Even worse. We’re handling the paperback campaign for Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons.”
“But nobody liked that book!”
“That chick at the Seattle Times did.”
“But she was the classical music reviewer! Not a book reviewer!”
“That’s exactly right, Hank. Sometimes you have to think outside the box.”
“But who’s going to read this book?”
“I’ve got two words for you: youth market.”
“Look, Samantha, we’ve marketed crap before. But have you lost your mind? This thing won the Bad Sex Award. ‘Slither slither went the tongue.’ All those STATICs. The PlayStation 3? The poorly realized characters? Do you really think today’s youth will go for it?”
“All good points, but we landed this deal. And there’s no way out. It’s the only chance we’ve got. Now I’ve had Jo, that new color specialist we just hired, look into this problem. And she says that green is the new black. Green is the color that the human eye sees the best. It’s one of the reasons why it’s used for night vision goggles. Jo says that a neon olive will probably ingratiate us with the martini crowd.”
“Um, Samantha, I may not be the hippest cat here. I don’t understand Beyonce or Kayne West. In fact, you folks don’t pay me enough. So I can’t very well set foot inside a Crate & Barrel. But I can tell you this: lounge revival is so 1997.”
“We’re thinking a nondescript young lady on the front. Perhaps something for the Lindy Hop revival set.”
“Samantha, did you even hear a word I just said?”
“Yes, goddammit! But can’t you see we’re painted into a corner here? Tom Wolfe’s fans have already read this. The literary set has already read this. There’s nobody left! And we’ve got to sell this thing!”
“Guys, calm down. I think I might have the answer.”
“Earlier, you mentioned thinking outside the box. Well, what about this? We don’t even have to put the title on the book! We can take your lounge revival motif and just put the name TOM WOLFE on the front. Those who haven’t heard about the book, that youth market you were talking about, might be vaguely familiar with the name and they’ll scoop the book up. We just have to make sure that we buy out all the remainders so that they have no frame of reference.”
“That’s not bad, Hank.”
“Now here’s the other thing. You can never go wrong with black. We may not stand a chance in hell, but I have to say: black is audacious. It implies that there’s something deviant and steamy within the pages.”
“It also implies that this book is the prodigal son of literature.”
“Well, does anyone else have a better idea?”
“Okay. Let’s roll with this.”
(Hat tip: Jeff.)