This week, nine new installments of The Bat Segundo Show were released from the factory. I’ll be cross-posting the full capsules here at Reluctant Habits (the new preposterous name of this place) as soon as I find some time to complete them. (Books are now migrating their way to the new location, and this has been keeping me busy.) But for those who wish to plunge into the conversations right now, here’s a list of recent shows:
206. Sarah Hall. Hall, the recent winner of the James Tiptree Award, is an extraordinary writer. I’ve written a piece on all three of her books that will be appearing at another place. But in the meantime, you can listen to the nearly 70 minute conversation we conducted on her work as a whole. We carried out despite fire alarms and some lively debate.
207. David Hajdu. Hajdu is the author of The Ten-Cent Plague, but this conversation touches largely upon much of the journalistic methods he used in tracking down some of his subjects.
208. Tobias Wolff. This conversation has been excerpted elsewhere. Wolff was guarded, but he gradually warmed up as the conversation progressed, offering some interesting insights into how he puts together a short story.
209. Sloane Crosley. Ms. Crosley is regrettably known more for her shiny hair than her essays. Hopefully, this discussion will rectify this impression.
210. Cynthia Ozick. I was greatly honored to talk with the wonderful Ms. Ozick, winner of two recent lifetime achievement awards, a few days before her eightieth birthday.
211. Ed Park! Ed Park has written a very good debut novel. I had so many observations about his book that I had to cram into our conversation that we ended up talking for more than an hour.
212. Fiona Maazel. Despite the intrusive presence of a coffee grinder, Fiona and I managed to talk more or less intelligibly about Last, Last Chance.
214. Ralph Bakshi. One of my most anarchic interviews, but in a very good way. If you aren’t aware of Bakshi’s accomplishments in underground animation (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin), you’ll want to give this a listen.
215. Christian Bauman. We were ejected from a Midtown diner midway through our conversation, but this didn’t stop Mr. Bauman and I from discussing In Hoboken, which Mr. Bauman assures me is a “folk novel” and not a “rock ‘n’ roll novel.”
216. Mort Walker. The creator of Beetle Bailey reveals a number of unexpected attitudes about war and women.
- James Wood vs. Steven Augustine. I hope to have more to say on Wood’s review of O’Neill later, once I have thought more about why it rubs me the wrong way. It is not, in this case, Wood’s customary championing of realism above everything else, but rather the manner in which he articulates his position. Some of the generalizations that Wood has unearthed from O’Neill’s book (“This is attentive, rich prose about New York in crisis that, refreshingly, is not also prose in crisis”) are as troubled as the assumptions frequently attached to litbloggers: that they generalize and make obvious points about literature. In the paragraph I am citing, there is the illusion here of careful dissection that comes with the strained voice of sophistication (“one lovely swipe of a sentence”), rather than a passionate and more specific dissection. I suspect this is a case where what Wood writes is different from how Wood thinks. But some hard editor should have demanded more clarity. I wouldn’t go as far as Augustine to declare Wood “a middlebrow theorist using highbrow language to communicate his theories.” But I can certainly see why Augustine can come away with this conclusion.
- Funny Farm is a disconcerting but enjoyable distraction for those fond of association that will easily take away hours from your life. You have been warned. (via Waxy)
- Bob Hoover is quite right to point out that memoirs show no sign of slowing down, despite recent controversies. The one regrettable side effect about the whole “memoir” rap is that good old-fashioned autobiographies have fallen by the wayside. Which is a pity, because this means that books like Anthony Burgess’s two volume “Confessions” or Kinski: All I Need is Love couldn’t possibly be published in this environment. Can there not be more fluidity to the form? (via Slunch)
- We shouldn’t be asking ourselves the question of “Who killed the literary critic?” A far more intriguing line of inquiry would have involved the question, “Who killed the human?” Has the role of the human become obsolete in an age of boilerplate “intellectualism,” belabored points, and predictable sentences? Is passion still possible within such a stifling climate? A new book, The Death of the Human, says no, and argues that there are still reasons to believe that there are, in fact, humans who do populate this planet. There are some humans who still partake of rollercoasters, ice cream, and occasionally let loose a raspberry in Carnegie Hall.
- And there’s a lot more from Mr. Sarvas that should keep you busy.
[UPDATE: I have emailed James Wood and he has confirmed with me that he sent Nigel the email.]
The fourth Indiana Jones movie is a piece of shit. Gone is the sense of wonder. Gone is the great love of Republic serials. This is a movie made by two men who have misplaced their ability to have fun. Lucas and Spielberg’s collective contempt for their audience is evident from the opening shot, where the Paramount mountain dissolves not into a bona-fide peak, but a gopher hill. That’s right, a gopher hill with a bunch of bad CG gophers running around. (And if you think that’s bad, there are also bad CG monkeys in this movie too.) What the fuck is this? Caddyshack 3?
Typically, the opening Indiana Jones scene features an exciting set piece that sets up Jones as an ass-kicking protagonist and establishes a breakneck pace that the film must live up to. But not Indy 4. Instead, we get a bullshit cruising race between some Russians and some smarmy teens. Where the fuck is Indy? And then these Russians go to Area Fucking 51, shoot the men at the gate (with one of the big baddies leaning down to tie his shoe, a ridiculous visual) and are somehow able to walk through the entire base and into a warehouse containing some of the biggest secrets collected by the government without a single security guard around. (They can’t all be positioned at the gate.)
But where the fuck is Indy? Oh yeah. He’s in the trunk. He gets out, mutters “I like Ike” to prove that he’s American and all, condemns the Reds (in case we missed the “New Mexico 1957” title) and then there’s a ho-hum shooting scene before we venture into an hour of relentless chatter about geoglyphs and the like (although you’ll see the plot coming a mile away) and Shia LaBeouf as sidekick Mutt Williams, a character so bland that I actually longed for Kate Capshaw’s screams, which is something I’d never thought I’d do.
Should I tell you about how they turned Marion from a spunky, self-sufficient sidekick into a more or less helpless chick who drives the truck? Appalling. I’m sure the idea to put the hussy in her place (domesticated no less!) came from Lucas, and I want to punch him for it.
Should I convey to you the constant mimesis as marketing? At one point, Indy tells Mutt about an adventure with Pancho Villa he had “when I was your age.” And it’s nothing less than a plot summary for a Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode. Something that has nothing to do with the plot. Someone knocks over a crate in the warehouse and oh ho ho, it’s the Ark of the Covenant! Harrison Ford pushes his hat down while traveling in the plane. The same way he did in Raiders! And it is this constant repetition of moments from previous films in which we are expected to be charmed. Harrison Ford even says, “I have a bad feeling about this,” the dreaded line from Star Wars. The constant recycling suggests to us that nobody really wants to create anything original, that Han Solo and Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford are all the same. So why care really?
Harrison Ford looks good, but seems considerably irritated to be in this picture.
Cate Blanchett gives the worst performance of her life, unable to sustain a convincing Ukranian accent. (Her Australian seeps through in every sentence. Didn’t they have a dialogue coach on this?) She juts her chin forward, wears a preposterous black wig in a bob, and spends most of her time pacing with her hands folded behind her back. This is what is considered a convincing villain. I longed for Honey Ryder.
The plot is preposterously pedestrian. Lucas wasted nearly twenty years and several screenwriters on this. And what is the end result? An embarrassing Chariots of the Gods premise that will surely earn David Koepp’s screenplay a spot on the Razzie longlist.
It’s not all bad. There’s one very fun jungle chase scene in which Mutt and Cate Blanchett get into a sword fight, each of them on a separate vehicle. I liked some over-the-top red ants that munched upon victims. This is largely due to Spielberg’s half-hearted attempts to make something of this crappy material. But none of this comes close to the tank scene in The Last Crusade, the wondrous mine chase in The Temple of Doom, or any moment of Raiders.
This was the first Indiana Jones picture in which I didn’t have much fun. Not content to simply ruin the Star Wars franchise with the last execrable trilogy, George Lucas has made a mockery of the Indiana Jones universe, and will be rewarded with millions of dollars for insulting his audience and cheapening his creations. He doesn’t care. He is Hollywood’s answer to Kenneth Lay, defrauding his audience of the pleasures he is now incapable of generating.
Okay, ladies and gents, after nearly six months of experimentation (well, five actually, but who’s really counting?), I have decided to break the single post a day rule. For one thing, the amount of energy it takes to bang out a 900 word post every goddam day along with podcasts, freelancing assignments, fiction writing, kinky activity, lacrosse, eating tasty sandwiches, and numerous other tasks I perform each day felt as if I was attempting to power up a small city. For another thing, there have been too many instances in which I’ve wanted to write something in short format but have felt obligated in some sense to bang out some epic post. So I’ve decided to do away with the moratorium on roundups, paragraph-length posts, and other assorted bite-sized candy. Unfettered by these constraints, I shall have more opportunities to offend the smug and humorless, tap dance upon stiff toes, perhaps appraise newspaper sections with the reward or denial of delivered pastries, and otherwise be a giddy bastard.
For what it’s worth, I’ve written a good deal of material over the past few months that has been rejected by the editors here. The common answer? “Sorry, that’s a Reluctant post.” Clearly, this suggests that some of the Reluctant energy did not go away. I was just as shocked as anyone to learn that I had not matured. I would like to think that what we’ll be seeing here is some bastard stepchild of Reluctant and Filthy, which we’ll call Filthy Habits for now. Longass thoughtful posts. Short-form randomness. And the middle child, always the most neglected in a dutifully dysfunctional family, which we’ll call Henry. Most Henries I’ve met tend to be middle children, which is not to suggest that they are inferior in any sense. But they are after all named Henry.
And for the record, guest posts are still welcome. We still have editors here. At least I think we do.
I have procured tickets for the midnight show of Indiana Jones and the Quest for Geritol. A report of my experience, with an honest assessment of the film, will follow on these pages at some ungodly hour.
A chicken wrap now sits in a plastic container in the fridge, and I made this chicken wrap appear because I had skipped lunch, and was very confused. I did not pay for it. It was an unanticipated duplicate to replace the original chicken wrap. The wrap, kindly and originally ordered for me by someone else, had not arrived. Forgotten by the delivery man. Or so we thought. The “missing” chicken wrap was located after I barked into the phone, rationale on the wane. And I felt embarrassed. I ate the original chicken wrap while we waited for Delivery #2. We were then forced to hide the remains of the original chicken wrap. A serendipitous larceny with me as the main perp. Something I imagine an Enron accountant might have done had he dealt with chicken wraps instead of beans. I drifted into mock Method, feigning hunger just as the delivery man arrived again and after I had eaten the original chicken wrap. I felt guilty for this, even though the delivery man did not see me and did not particularly care. I pondered returning the spare chicken wrap and almost did. It would be something new indeed to return a chicken wrap to a restaurant and to offer a complicated explanation. But it was no good. The chicken wrap could not be sold again. Not by any stretch of the imagination. It had cooled. And how to explain anyway? I should have tipped the guy when he came a second time, but somebody else did. Perhaps I was frozen because others understood my dilemma better than I did, or were better and kinder people than me, or understood that my reaction arose because I was very hungry, because they had their sandwiches and I didn’t. After everyone had eaten, the second chicken wrap was offered to me, and I took it after some initial resistance, my own idea being that I could give this to a homeless man and atone. But I could find nobody homeless on the way home, and the plastic container was deposited in the fridge, where it is now situated like a metaphorical millstone. I do not know if I will ever eat it or if I can find someone else to eat it.
I feel very bad about all of this. Mix-ups like this do happen from time to time. I’m sure I’m not the first person in human history to believe for a moment that a chicken wrap ordered through takeout had not arrived, only to discover that it had arrived. And in my defense, another sandwich we had ordered had not arrived. So there was a two sandwich shortfall we had conveyed, with the chicken wrap being located post-phone call. So it’s not as if there hadn’t been some kind of mistake. There was. But does this excuse the minor deceit? The ethical dilemma of permitting my twelve hour hunger to overtake my mind, turning me into some slightly crazed animal, causing me to snap at the guy on the phone, still stings at me. The group did not, as a whole, see the chicken wrap that had been rightly delivered. Perhaps they did not want to see the chicken wrap. Perhaps none of us were meant to see the chicken wrap. Things get lost all the time. Human cognitive skills work only so well. Sometimes, we lose things and we find them right in front of us. And sometimes a chicken wrap contretemps reveals our gravest limitations.
As I sit in my black leather chair (purchased and delivered by OfficeMax; assembled with my bare hands after giving up on the incomprehensible instructions) staring into the dusty window pane (uncleaned for many weeks), I find it absolutely disgraceful that nobody remembers the little-known criticism of Gilbert Haverford. It is enough to make me ponder a serious reentry into weekly psychotherapy. If I were an ordinary man, I could hack away at these intellectual frustrations by settling for one of the bigger critical names that a good literary person is supposed to perform ablutions for. Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler. Even that scoundrel Christopher Lehman-Haupt, a miserable man who I understand may still be alive. I wonder if he reads blogs.
But it is Haverford who I now pine for, who I now bang my metacarpals against the desk for. He is a man who I think I can shed tears over, if I could find it within my literary heart of hearts to feel. A Jean-Paul Sartre volume had killed my emotional instincts only a few years ago, and I have been a confused man ever since. That there isn’t a Wikipedia page or an intelligible Google search result on Haverford’s considerable output is appalling.
I first encountered Haverford in 1995. It was a drizzly day in San Francisco, and I had retreated to the library in an effort to shake off the munchies, a gustatory state effected after a friend had passed a pipe. I had seen what such sensory states had done in the past (confused sex with a stranger who never told me her first name but who was ticklish and had smooth skin, rabid mastication upon a Costco-sized carton of Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers, et al.) and I had taken it upon myself to avoid these developments by shifting my ontological operations to the nearest library, making idle perambulations through the stacks, and fixing my coordinates on the least occupied part, where I might find some volume that nobody had else had regarded.
It was during one such journey when I discovered a coverless dark green book, caked with decades of dust and beginning to develop a vague mold. The reference label was torn off and the tome had been placed with books concerning themselves with CP/M and a travel guide on pre-Unification East Berlin. The upshot was that I had come to a book bier of sorts. But this was a funeral without any friends. The Haverford book looked the most interesting. I thought it might be a guide to the college. But it was, in fact, the author who was named Haverford. The book’s title was Literary Transcendentalism. A sleep-inducing title. Nothing to get charged up about. But literary criticism was literary criticism.
I rescued the book, returned home, and began flipping through the pages. I discovered angry screeds against Joyce disciples who frequented the East Village. I encountered a passionate defense of James Gould Cozzens. This was reactionary stuff, but it was entertaining bile. I was particularly excited that Haverford had not once mentioned transcendentalism. But I was forever changed. These were magnificent contributions to culture. Haverford went off on any subject for which he had a deeply visceral reaction. And yet nobody had the temerity to call him a crank. He claimed to write for newspapers. But what newspapers? This was the appealing mystery. And I searched through microfilm in vain.
Unfortunately, I lost the book during a move. And I have never been able to find another copy. Look up “Gilbert Haverford” now and you will find a remarkably absent record. I’ve gone through libraries. I’ve waded through databases. Not one reference to Gilbert Haverford has cropped up. Bad enough that a writer goes out of print. But it’s even more horrendous when his books appear to be erased from the records altogether.
It’s possible that the book I discovered was part of a very small print run, or part of a private collection. I don’t recall the name of the publisher, but I don’t remember it being an academic press. There is one passage of Haverford’s that I do remember:
The critical darlings are frequently subjected to a dichotomous scale entirely at odds with the glorious grays of true human experience. Literature is in trouble because these novelists cannot be bothered to commit their attentions to the irksome grit of regular concerns.
Of course, Haverford’s “regular concerns” were somewhat problematic. He did sometimes celebrate a novelist’s prolix tribute to the pancake, as well as extended passages devoted to realty. But his maxim above remains more or less true today. He said other things that were more profound, but I was not as adept a reader as I am now. So I cannot easily recall them. And I continue to hunt around in vain for a Haverford book, remembering only the dreaded residue upon my imperfect memory banks. But I do know that sometime, when I least expect it and when I am assembling another piece of OfficeMax furniture, Haverford will return to myh reading lair.
The action begins at the four minute mark. Kevin James does not know basic history. It is stunning that such an ignorant moron would be permitted to host a radio show.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m pleased to announce that Harper has given me a $3 million advance and a guaranteed public shaming by Oprah for my first novel, Hazy Chintzy Afternoon. I banged out the novel in two weeks in a drunken haze and forgot to use spell check. Hopefully, the copy editors will fix my mistakes. I trust that this novel will be taken more seriously than other offerings. What follows is an excerpt.]
Every city can be written about, and every writer writes about every city, employing facts that may be lies and lies that may be facts. Learning lies is really an enjoyable, and sometimes enlightening process. And, of course, it’s fun too!!! Here is Fun Facts, Volume 1.
After serving as a liar, James Frey, the forty-third vice president of the United States, was sodomized by the entire Cabinet to protect national security. Some believe that it was George Herbert Walker Bush who served as vice president. But it was really James Frey, whose father was a costermonger in 1893 London.
James Frey is 92 years old.
It is illegal to manufacture James Frey in the industrial zone of downtown Los Angeles. The issue is a sensitive one. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots were caused not by Rodney King, but by three James Freys being manufactured by accident in a sweatshop. The sweatshop had been promised an exclusive James Frey, but three James Freys had been let loose.
James Frey inhaled a large portion of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes at the Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine Temple in Pacific Palisades. He believed that when his lungs were at one with Gandhi, he would inevitably be forgiven by the public.
The economy of James Frey is larger than that of forty-six of the fifty states in the United States of America. James Frey’s current propulsion into godhood will ensure that a new edition of the dollar bill will be printed with Frey’s saggy face on the front.
It is not illegal to kick James Frey in the nuts within the city limits of Los Angeles.
Herding flocks of more than 2,000 James Freys on Hollywood Boulevard will result in a catastrophic collision between matter and antimatter and the subsequent destruction of the universe; because of this, any James Frey will be shot on sight by vigilant members of the Los Angeles Police Department.
It is legal for James Frey to be considered a sex offender.
The first sex offender recorded in the Megan’s Law database is closely related to James Frey.
There are sixty-five people in Los Angeles named James Frey who committed suicide upon hearing that James Frey was a liar.
There is more pornography produced in Los Angeles than in the rest of the world combined. Many of these pornographers produce their pornography in the vain hope that the mass dissemination of porn will somehow drown out any attention given to child molesters like James Frey.
Every year, approximately 100,000 women in Los Angeles County remove their eyeballs so that they will never catch sight of James Frey in their lifetimes.
Fun fun fun, everyone knows that a shotgun blast to the head is more fun than a James Frey novel.
The Safely Surrendered Frey Law of Los Angeles County states that citizens who possess a James Frey within their closets are permitted to bring the James Frey to any designated hospital or fire station and give the James Frey up without fear of arrest or prosecution. The authorities of Los Angeles County urge the Frey owner to participate in the subsequent conflagration.
Fifty-four percent of the citizens of Los Angeles County take pills on a daily basis in order to prevent their lips from loosening the words “James Frey” in casual discourse, compared with twenty-two percent of the citizens in the rest of the country.
It is illegal in the City of Los Angeles to provide or administer a James Frey book to children under the age of sixteen. James Frey books have, in fact, resulted in a rampant spate of illiteracy and this correlative connection was observed by the National Endowment of the Arts in the “Reading at Risk” report.
The average citizen of Los Angeles is capable of beating the shit out of James Frey with little effort.
The average citizen of Los Angeles is a better novelist than James Fey.
Dear Young Reviewer:
Thank you so much for writing in! Your writing samples are acceptable, which is saying something, seeing as how they’ve been published on one of those goddam blogs. However, we are under constraints to reduce our expenses and demonstrate to our shareholders that we can turn this rag into a profitable joint. Sure, we could compensate you for some piddling price that reflects the wages of someone who works in an export processing zone. But desperate times have had us thinking outside the box. Therefore, I hope that we can insult your intelligence by selling you on a new idea.
As you know, Books Daily is one of the most important publications for books. Sometimes, we even put a star next to a review! In a mere 100 words, we feel that we can encapsulate a book’s essence. Therefore, any reviews assigned after June 15 will undergo a stunning new business model: one that I believe you’ll find acceptable under the circumstances. Instead of paying you to review the book, we’d like you to pay us at the rate of $25 per review. Please know that we value the work you do for us. We value it so highly that we really think that you should be paying us at this juncture. Your astute reading and writing are what make our magazine so valuable in the industry and we regret this necessary action. All of us here are experiencing change. Some of us, in fact, are sleeping with the money men so that we can pay our rent. This is the only way we can justify our jobs as our magazine remains on the selling block. Our offices have, in fact, become a haven for drug trafficking. We figure that if we can’t hook the kids on books, we can certainly hook them on a particularly addictive form of Ketamine.
But we trust that you’ll understand why we’re doing this. After all, if you’re willing to expend seven to ten hours on a book and write a capsule on it for $25 (wow, you’re working for a mere $2.50/hour!), then surely you’re willing to pay us for the privilege of writing in our esteemed pages.
And just so you have an extra incentive, we’ll be happy to ship you some Benzadrine and other sleep supressants so that you can finish up your reviews for us. Hell, we’ll even give you a 10% discount if you’d like to buy any drugs.
With your modest financial sacrifice, we are committed to being the gold standard in book reviewing. And we hope that you will continue to enjoy our metaphorical violation of your pristine orifice. We really appreciate the way you’re stretching it out for us.
Very truly yours,
Editor, BOOKS DAILY
The rather odd modifier “unputdownable” is frequently attached to a book that compulsively entertains, offers a consistently fascinating narrative, or otherwise works to subsume the reader into an almost narcotic reading state characterized by the manic flipping of pages and circles under the reader’s eyes. Scott Smith’s The Ruins, Stephen King’s The Stand, and Audrey Nieffenger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife come to mind. But so do Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (despite Franzen’s near humorless disposition and narcissistic essays, one must be honest about the work), Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, Sarah Waters’s picaresque romps, and David Markson’s volumes. An “unputdownable” book need not be explicitly written for the crowd. While there is inherently a subjective component in what one reader finds “unputdownable,” the perhaps unfair line of demarcation I have drawn between the crowd-pleaser and the literary offering nevertheless suggests that there is such a thing as a literary page-turner. (A pal of mine once characterized Human Smoke as “potato chips” and remarked that it was very hard for him to stop reading.)
I don’t know if an “unputdownable” book is the literary equivalent of an earworm — that song that gets stuck in your head and that requires a fairly elaborate system of recurrent playback to get the terrible tune out. You play some goddam irresistible Pale Young Gentlemen song over and over until the melodic tendrils eventually detach from your lobes. For a while, you’re safe. And then inevitably, another catchy song latches onto your brain. And you must either repeat the process or go for a brisk walk or copulate with a loved one or circulate a bong amongst esteemed colleagues whereby the song is perhaps replayed yet again and the earworm sticks unfairly to other craws and the song’s sensations are even more pronounced and more troubling with the dutiful appreciation of tetrahydrocannabinol — in short, you do anything you can to get the earworm out!
But the salient difference between the earworm and the unputdownable novel is that, while the earworm occupies perhaps a three to five minute interval that may be repeated ad nauseum, the unputdownable novel involves getting to the end, whereby the obsessive tendency of experiencing the work is laid to a momentary rest. Unless one decides to repeat the journey.
The last unputdownable novel I read was Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days, which, save for a bite to eat and a few necessary conversations, I finished in one crazed sitting. I could not put the book down and I was quite alarmed by the rapid manner in which I had wolfed down this 535 page volume. While I mostly enjoyed the book, this is not to suggest that the book was without problems. A characterization of a 9/11 hijacker didn’t entirely ring true, particularly near the end. When one major story thread was resolved — one of the book’s major “unputdownable” qualities — Dubus struggled for about fifty pages before finding his momentum, only to secure the dreaded “unputdownable” pace again.
But despite my quibbles, I certainly wanted to know what was going to happen next. And I would contend that any book with an “unputdownable” quality is successful in some sense. This stance may alarm Dan Green, who has recently (and quite rightly) taken to task the “current literary culture mired in middlebrow mediocrity” and the mystifying hosannas granted to Amy Bloom’s quite putdownable novel, Away. While I do not think that a book should be judged “good” predominantly for its “unputdownable” nature, I do think that there is a rather snobbish attitude and a strange suspicion towards any book functioning as a surrogate form of oxygen. Perhaps this suspicion arises because literature is all too frequently misconstrued as some kind of cultural castor oil that’s good for you. With austere “gatekeepers” now in the practice of prescribing “GoodReads” and other prescriptive remedies that have more to do with authority and less to do with a variegated appreciation of literature, this sulfurous climate sometimes involves separating one’s sense of enjoyment from a sense of appreciation, which betrays John Updike’s first rule of reviewing:
Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
This tendency may also echo the separation of the head and the heart that T.S. Eliot observed in his 1921 essay, “The Metaphysical Poets”:
We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinicelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.
The second effect of the influence of Milton and Dryden followed from the first, and was therefore slow in manifestation. The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century, and continued. The poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected.
Is it possible that this dismaying disparity between thought and feeling has extended into the reach of “unputdownable” novels? That the shame felt in enjoying an “unputdownable” novel is no less different from a Goldsmith poem that is technically adroit but, in Eliot’s view, quite unfeeling?
One does not, of course, place the work of Stephen King in the same category as Thomas Gray. But to do so misses the point. A reader’s inability to open’s one heart in an effort to find some synthesis between heart and head certainly results in ill-thought douchery from the “important” critics. And I would like to think that an enlightened reader could find something within an “unputdownable” book that may help expand her notion of what literature can be. To thumb one’s nose up at a book that has grabbed the reader’s lapels is to thumb one’s nose up at a vital part of reading. In doing so, the reader confesses quite openly that he’s something of a bore. If literary culture is to endure, then why not consider this quality with the same attention that one considers the rest?
Subject, thirty-three, contemplated writing a confessional post that pointed to certain emotions established by (a) two phone calls, one currently unreturned, (b) the ontological isthmus from one apartment to another that must be crossed in the next two weeks, and (c) watching a late-period Woody Allen film, flawed but interesting, on Tuesday night, accompanied by aperitif but no meal. Subject did not consider (d) a lengthy book he was reading which was both profoundly moving and profoundly disturbing, a book he was rereading with what he assumed was greater wisdom and the troubling dilemma that his own age was closer to that of the protagonist. Book susceptibility hit him again, had him thinking of his own life in the third person, just as this book depicted a fictional character’s life in the third person. Subject has since shifted over to an enjoyable space opera book to improve mood. But subject now ponders precisely why the book in question caused him to momentarily consider breaking that personal threshold between himself and readers. Not that subject would reveal everything exactly. And not that subject is depressed. But subject is currently wondering why some books hit him just as hard in the heart as real-life encounters. Subject does not feel a particular sense of shame at being moved by fictional characters, but he does find the emotional crossover to be more than a bit goddam peculiar. Perhaps this is why subject had contemplated spilling emotions in some sense. Or perhaps subject is susceptible to text because he is currently proceeding forth with his own novel, in which he feels very deeply about his characters, even as he shifts them into terrible scenarios and must hear their cries of pain and anguish. But if subject felt sufficiently empathetic, why then did he do this? Because it was true, subject rationalizes. Even though this being the terrain of fiction, it is decidedly not true. Sure, subject has lifted a few ideas from personal experience, subverted and obverted many of them, modified them, found some surprising parallels and differences between self and subjects. So why then the sudden empathy overload that subject customarily feels for humans being transposed into fiction, both penned by subject and read by subject? Subject does not feel that he is retreating into this narrative, but he does sometimes feel that he is occupying this textual territory a bit longer than he feels comfortable. Subject carries on because he must perform his daily duty. But subject wonders why he decided to continue anew with this text while shifting residences and trying to extinguish sundry fires. No wonder subject has been taking more naps and feeling more exhausted. Subject now understands why novel writing is “difficult.” The hypocrisies of making characters miserable while likewise empathizing with them has subject wondering whether there are similar hypocrisies in his day-to-day dealings with everyday people, who are not invented and who have considerably more complex feelings than anything he could possibly set down on paper. It occurs to subject that the novelists he admires are those who tend to feel this moral conflict, and that those who do not are probably not doing their job. Then again, subject does not have a shitload of novels behind him. So perhaps this is all naivete on his part.
I always dreamed of being like Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele. Of writing novels devoid of character or intelligence or truth. Of multiple marriages that the tabloids could gloss over. Of a hack career that had nothing to do with my color, but everything to do with my narcissism and my execrable prose. I would be the center of attention! It would all be about me, me, ME!
I dreamed of appealing to the lowest common denominator. Maybe I, too, would sell over 400 to 500 million novels. Nay, two billion novels! I’d sell novels the same way that Atari once put out twelve million cartridges of Pac-Man with only ten million Atari 2600 units in circulation. There’d be more novels than readers! And all of them would have “Great” in the title. If there was one thing I was good for, it was writing novels with the word “Great” in the title. I’d even write a novel called The Great Gatsby so that the racist author F. Scott Fitzgerald would be forgotten. Maybe we could hold a book burning and incinerate all Caucasian scum.
If they wouldn’t buy my books or respect my delusions of grandeur, well, I could always play the race card without bothering to include an indispensible party. Never mind the other authors who had seen their work thrive for the very reasons that I would sue over.
For I am an American. And like many Americans, I am prone to litigious hysteria.
Anybody who disagreed with me or who questioned my claims would be declared a racist. Who knew that a white guy like George Bush would give me such inspiration? And the scum Ed Champion would at long last be revealed to be the Grand Wizard we all know him to be, together with that craven white supremacist Lynne Scanlon.
Sometimes, it’s good to be living the dream.
I’m very pleased to share that the matter has now been resolved to my financial and narcissistic satisfaction through an agreement, the terms of which can never be discussed. The details of my claims can never be completely checked out. Yes, other African-Americans will continue to see their work marginalized. And even though they may have more legitimate claims, cemented upon hard paths of contracts and documents memorializing conversations and developments, their important fight has now received a setback thanks to my solipsistic pursuits.
Who really needs to consider the bigger picture? I knew all along that Penguin would settle this suit privately so that they could get rid of it. I knew all along that my claims would never be verified. And I knew that my followers would carry on drinking the Kool-Aid.
Only in America can you have a dream sooooooooo bright; as bright as the sun itself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m blowing the first installment of the settlement money on a two week vacation to Maui, where I will begin work on my next novel, The Great Prevaricator.
Due to many pleasant events over the next few weeks, posting will be less regular, less frequent, with a possibility of intermittent showers and random madness here as the monsters use my brain. There is considerable output right now on the novel. (Somehow, a great anger in relation to current events has created an unanticipated rush.) But the energies I’m now committing to fiction have forced me to slow down a bit on other fronts.
I’m not attending BEA this year because I’m moving that weekend (within New York: same mailing address applicable). Bat Segundo interviews will continue, but at a somewhat reduced rate of production. (May is booked. June and July pitches are welcome.)
There are a number of pieces I’ve written that are floating around out there and I will link to them when they are made available. In the meantime, you can check out a podcast interview with David Hajdu, a podcast interview with Sarah Hall (the 70 minute conversation covers all three books and a lengthy article on Hall’s three books is forthcoming), a review of Stephen Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze, a review of Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl, and some hasty thoughts on Act II in Hamlet.
More very soon, I hope!
In the interim, here’s a running list of links of interest:
- MP3: John P. Marquand’s Wickford Point adapted by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater.
- Comic book scripts from Vaughan, Millar, Moore, and more. (via MeFi)
- Due to circumstances beyond my control (and I still haven’t been sent the book), I was unable to speak with the great Aleksandar Hemon when he came through New York. But Chicagoist caught up with him recently. (via Mark Athitakis)
- Steven Gillis guests at The Syntax of Things.
- Tom Bissell’s interview with the Avenger. (via Eric)
- Three Guys, One Book.
- Callie on ridiculous paperback reissue covers.
- The OED is going all digital. Nothing Luddite about it. This is utterly depressing news for those of us who like to hole up on the couch with a thick dictionary on one side and a thick tome on the other. What next? An imposed limit on reference book page counts? (via CAAF)
- GoodReads! Golly! The overwhelming message: We Take No Chances.
- Fashion predictions from 1930s designers. (via Linda Richards)
- I had a post tying together China, Myanmar, and Jenna Bush, but I have decided to abandon it for now. It may resurface.
- Ezra Klein on the Kindle.
- David Ulin: not a fan of the new Frey book.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
I write to impress my most profound apologies for our recent disservice to your book, Cup in the Hole: My Year Puncturing Baltimore’s Yeastern District. Had we been aware just how much these typographical errors had infected your work, we most certainly would have cleansed up the mess earlier. But we did not catch this problem until it was too late, and we were near the end of our reproduction cycle. We have suffered as much as you have. There are no excuses, but I assure you that our offices have been both labiarus and pro-active in preventing such grafts in the future. We funged up. I can’t tell you of the pain and embarassment that this mistook has caused us. I wish to assure you that we are now committed to reprinting your grate book in a cleaner and more hygienic light so that readers will at long last know how vulvid your account is.
Please also be advised that the entire stuff in our orifice have been undergoing remedial Anguish courses to insure that this will not happen again. We have plunged deeply into this matter to clean things up, so that a redouche will not occur. The main copy auditor for your book has been told that his services are no longer required. It was a tough decision, but we cannot afford to be tax about such matters. We have looked into our books to ensure that there are no additional errors.
I hope that you can accept our deepest apoplexies. We take these matters very serially and we will be doing everything in our powers to ensure that future additions of your book will not be butchered. But if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call my direct wine. I’m alway happy to clear everything up over a lengthy phone fermentation.
Deeply and sincerely bores,
DICTATED BUT NOT READ
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS
I recently had the opportunity to talk with underground animator Ralph Bakshi. A portion of our conversation appears this afternoon at Vulture, where you will discover the song that was originally going to play during the finale of American Pop. (For the specific reasons why, you will have to wait for the podcast.) Unfortunately, there were space constraints. So what follows is some of the additional material that didn’t make it into the piece. The entire conversation, which includes even more from Bakshi, will be released as a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show. (Please note that edited elements of the same conversation appear both here and at Vulture.)
Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about music in your films. It’s certainly important in American Pop. You pilfered from your record collection for that, as well as the “Maybelline” sequence in Heavy Traffic. And there’s “Ah’m a Niggerman” from Coonskin, which you wrote. I’m wondering if you did this because you have an aversion to Carl Stalling-style orchestral music.
Bakshi: First of all, I love music. I’ve always loved music. And I’ve loved various kinds of music. Music is part of our lives. It’s part of the soundtrack that what we all grow up with. Especially in my day. I don’t know today. There’s so many things going on. I’m talking about yesterday and my day, which are the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Music is so emotionally important to the movie. It’s just as important as anything else. If the song is emotionally correct for a scene, the scene plays better. Or the scene plays better than it would have with a different song. So music is so critical to movies. I chose songs that I knew emotionally worked with these scenes that I wrote. Because whenever I listened to music while either driving in a car or sitting at a bar or listening to Coltrane or Billy Holiday – you daydream. If you don’t daydream to music, then you’re not listening to good music.
I went out and I bought every record that I’ve ever loved that was right for the scene. “Yesterday” by Billie Holiday for Fritz the Cat was perfect for Big Bertha and coming into Harlem. You know, it was a classic song. “Maybelline” and “Twist and Shout.” And all these records. “Scarborough Fair.” All these records I used, I got for fifty to a hundred bucks. They were dirt cheap. I could buy any record I wanted for under two hundred dollars. Why was that? Unbelievable.
Because everybody else was scoring their films. And why were they scoring their films? Because if they had a hit, they’d own the music. They’d make money from the score. They’d own their own records. I can’t release Billie Holiday’s “Yesterday” and make any money out of it. I never considered that. The issue was what was right for the movie. I couldn’t believe the cheap prices I was getting. And I had a low-budget film! So I could afford to get anything I wanted.
Correspondent: But you had Andrew Belling on Wizards. I’m curious if you gave these composers specific instructions.
Bakshi: Well, Andrew Belling on Wizards did an absolutely brilliant job. Let’s talk about Wizards. Wizards is very low-budget. One million two. Okay. I’m not going to fall back on my records, because it’s not that kind of movie. I need a score. But I need a score that I love. And I don’t remember how I got to Belling. I’d been to New York with a lot of other guys. But Belling came with a little synthesizer. One little machine which was a very big deal. We didn’t have any orchestra. We had synthesizers. All that music was done with Belling in the room. And he said the right things and he did the right things. And he came back and he played me a piece of music that was beautiful. I think Belling did an incredible job in that song he wrote. And the battle scenes. And the emotion. Belling nailed it. He did it himself and everything. It was all done without an orchestra. It was good.
Correspondent: This is an interesting conundrum. I think one of the reasons why the “Maybelline” sequence in Heavy Traffic is so stirring is largely because of that music. But here you have a scenario in which someone else is composing music that doesn’t originate from another source.
Bakshi: I was terrified what he would do. I was scared. I was nervous. I had nightmares that it wouldn’t work. And he nailed it. I don’t know how he did it. I had nothing to do with it. How do you talk to another composer about music? Now look. Let’s talk about freedom. I demand freedom as a director. I demand the right to fuck up, to do what I want. I am not about to take that freedom away from another artist. If Belling walks in and says that he’s a composer, and I believe what he has to say and I believe that he’s sensitive enough and I believe it, man, prove it. Go do your music. It’s not my job to write the music for him.
(I also discussed with Baskhi why he hired Thomas Kinkade. In addition to the remarks at Vulture, Bakshi also had this to say.)
Bakshi: In the middle of the picture, [Kinkade] stands up and he says, “I’m going away with Gurney for three weeks. We’re traveling cross country.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute. We’re doing a picture.” “All right. We’ll be back on a certain date. We will paint enough before we go. And when we get back, we’ll double paintings.”
He worked with Frank Frazetta. Those kids, Gurney and Kinkade, painted wonderful paintings so fast. And Frank Frazetta would come in — he was a great illustrator – and show Kinkade a lot of tricks. Both of those guys, when they painted other stuff, when Kinkade painted closer to the Ashcan school, which I loved very much, wonderful. He can sell anything. He opened up galleries. He’s building a city now. He’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He owns half of California. So I have nothing against Kinkade. He’s funny. He is like Elmer Gantry. He’s ‘s a great painter. But he likes to make money. And he does. He doesn’t like the stuff he’s painting.
Correspondent: But that’s anathema to your position, which is about making it as true and as honest as possible.
Bakshi: By the time I got to Fire and Ice, I was bitter. It’s not my picture. I was burned out. I was through. Though people may like it, I don’t consider that a Bakshi film. That’s a Frazetta film. That’s me not caring. I was burned out. I was tired. At that point, I was gone. And I did. I closed the studio and then I left. I had no emotional interest in Fire and Ice to tell you the truth.
Liveblogging the elections.
12:18 AM: Listening to WIBC-FM feed. Indiana remains close, with Hillary ahead by only two percentage points. Gary, Indiana remains the big mystery. Hillary has just announced that she will not appear at any public event tomorrow. Does a public event entail a media appearance? Will Hillary concede?
12:22 AM: Gary, Indiana Mayor Rudy Clay’s prediction: “Barack is winning precincts 297 to eight and 153 to two and all that. Gary is going to be a big plurality for Barack Obama, a big plurality.”
12:25 AM: 92% Indiana precincts now reporting, still 51-49. Clinton 588,823 to Obama 568,156. Still waiting on the big bag from Lake County. From WIBC: “The national media is seeing a county that’s just starting to release numbers.” Some playful banter from these guys on the radio, who are marveling over how they’re now the center of attention and how the outside media doesn’t understand Indiana politics. It sure as hell doesn’t involve “hanky-panky.”
12:30 AM: Some additional numbers put Clinton in front. “Gary ain’t come in yet.”
12:33 AM: A report from the Terre Haute Tribune Star, where I am now looking out for a basement. Obama volunteer Casey Chatham began volunteering about a week and a half ago. He spent $57 to FedEx his absentee ballot from Nairobi.
12:35 AM: Also in the Tribune Star: considerable phone mobilization from the Clinton camp.
12:40 AM: Hillary had given a victory speech, but then the numbers began coming in from Lake County. Then there was the mysterious cancellation of public events. 95% of the vote now in, difference now 15,000 votes. Looking for corroboration of this.
12:42 AM: The Oregonian does the math.
12:45 AM: It appears that the clock on my computer is a few minutes off. Pardon any chronological confusions as these reports continue. I don’t think I can go to bed until Lake County comes in.
12:50 AM: Obama needs to win the remaining precincts by 69% in order to win. But the WIBC guys insist that because these precincts are based in Gary, Indiana, this could happen. Some specific info being blogged here.
12:51 AM: Lake County: 316 out of 561. Obama 46,759 to Clinton 25,100. Wow, this could happen!
12:52 AM: NWI: “We’re updating as fast as we get the results from inside the Lake County Government building.” Keep hitting F5, folks. Keep hitting F5. And thanks to the NWI’s dutiful reporting.
12:54 AM: NWI: Still 7,000 absentee ballots to count. All of Gary’s results in.
12:55 AM: Associated Press: “The northwest Indiana county is the state’s second-most populous with nearly 500,000 people. It had reported no results as of 11 p.m. Eastern Time. A large number of absentee ballots and a record turnout delayed the tallies, and polls there close an hour later than much of the state because Lake is in the Central time zone.”
12:57 AM: I highly recommend the WIBC feed if you’re a political information junkie. These guys are tracking all news updates in real time and providing specific sources. (And there’s some good radio from Indiana!)
12:59 AM: Globe and Mail: “The most unfortunate aspect of the much-maligned Lake County keeping Indiana interesting past midnight is that a completely befuddled Larry King has been forced to take the air while the results are still in question…..Update: After about eight minutes of airtime, Larry King appears to have been sent home in favour of more Anderson Cooper. Although it’s entirely possible Larry is still talking, and they just haven’t told him he’s off the air.”
1:02 AM: Video of Hillary’s “victory.”
1:08 AM: New Jersey Star-Ledger: “The divide feeds the Clinton argument that Obama can’t win in November unless he can convince white voters and those further down the income and education scale — the so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’ — that he understands their needs. It prompted Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton supporter, to complain on a television panel show last night that Democrats ‘can’t win with eggheads and African-Americans.'”
1:10 AM: Slideshow of Indiana voters.
1:12 AM: How Obama Beat the Line.
1:13 AM: WIBC on why we’re in a holding pattern. “We’re up to 98% in Lake County and yet we’re still at 95% in Indiana.” 99%, Clinton 51, Obama 49.
Looks like it’s over. Indiana for Clinton.
Clinton was dealt a major blow tonight. The only way that Clinton was able to win Indiana — and this was a slim victory at best — was through a campaign that involved saying damn near anything and using any slimy tactic in the book to win a vote. These are the actions of a political scum. Nixon is now widely regarded as one of the great American scumbags of all time. But let’s not forget. Nixon’s scummery still nabbed 68.7% of the popular vote in 1972. You could argue that it was George McGovern. But let’s not underestimate the way the casual American voter relates to scums or elects a President based on whether he’s the right guy to have a beer with. I am not certain just what dipsomaniac cachet Clinton has, but let’s not entirely rule it out.
Obama demonstrated that his base is quite strong, that he can maintain momentum based on a more ethical campaign. But was it Hillary hatred or hope that did the trick in North Carolina? It remains to be seen whether Obama’s North Carolina victory will translate into a movement against McCain in November, should he succeed in securing his presidential nomination. The theory of whether Obama has the ability to “close the deal,” however, is beginning to lose credibility. Even with all the superdelegate vagaries, it appears mathematically probable that he will be the Democratic frontrunner.
But it still remains a horror franchise with an endless stream of sequels. Hillary is Jason from Friday the 13th. She’s a candidate who doesn’t understand that she’s dead, but who continues to hack away at any innocuous ideal resembling a few kids fornicating in the forest. Despite skillful attempts at killing her off, she cannot be murdered. Perhaps she’ll succeed in massacring the remaining Democratic ideals before being confined to a space station. Or maybe we’ll all lose interest in the franchise.
The big question mark over Clinton’s head is why she canceled her public appearances today. Whether for health reasons or general fatigue, this is a catastrophic decision on her part. This is no longer a campaign in which you take a day off.
It suggests, by and large, that Clinton herself is the one here who is unable to close the deal, or come anywhere close to offering a fair one. But she’s tried every trick in the book and it’s still not working. If she doesn’t win this, and it looks increasingly likely that she won’t, there will be long memories and many pissed off people remembering what she did to split the Democrats. She could be as much of a political pariah as George Bush is likely to be, come January 2009.
I walked into my local comic shop and saw few unfamiliar faces looking over a few freebies. I walked out with a thick stack of comic books, headed home, and consumed them in the best way: in one mad tear, one mad comic book binge.
It was Free Comic Book Day, the comics industry’s to Halloween. But candy’s handed out in May. Comic publishers supply plentiful issues that are then handed out in comic shops around the world. It isn’t the pounds of sugar that will make your head spin, but the smell of fresh ink.
Four or five hours passed before I put down my last free comic book. A thought balloon hung over my head. What a complete waste of time. The seventh annual FCBD was a bad haul with the effort cut to accommodate the price. I must be insolent to complain about getting forty-one free comic books, but when a company gives you a sample, the idea is to make you a paying customer. But most publishers forewent storytelling and went straight for the sales pitch. These were comic brochures.
The majority of the Free 41 were either excerpts or pages of preview art. And the problem with the multiple previews could be seen in Viz’s Shonen Jump sampler. It had three stories — all close to incomprehensible.
(On the topic of the free manga offered, Jump was one of only three that fit the category. The others were a full-length graphic novel from Antarctic Press and a preview of the manga adaptation of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride novel series. Reading it left-to-right or the traditional manga way did not make the preview any less dumbfounding.)
Perhaps I could forgive the majority of comic book publishers had they offered new material instead of reprints. Gemstone Publishing brilliantly reprinted a 48-year-old story featuring Gyro Gearloose, successfully ensnaring today’s youth with colorful caption boxes: “How does Gyro happen to be in this awesome place? It is necessary to flash back to a recent day in Duckburg!”
DC Comics and Maerkle Press were the only publishers to offer a regular issue of a series for free. Unfortunately, issues were of the how-dumb-do-you-think-kids-are quality of Tiny Titans #1 and Love and Capes #7, the latter being a series flapping wildly in the world of superhero cliché.
DC’s other offering was a reprint of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman #1 — an entertaining book, but one originally published three years ago and since reprinted numerous times. Dark Horse offered new Hellboy stories from Mike Mignola — one of the few FCBD comics worth the trip.
Marvel, during a major movie weekend, made some questionable choices. It published a brand new story by the strong creative team of Mike Carey and Greg Land. But it was an X-Men story, not Iron Man or even the Hulk. Those two characters, who appear in movies this summer, were relegated to a new Marvel Adventures book.
The Free 41 could have been worse. There was variety, from kids’ books to comic book journalism to books where the protagonist doesn’t wear a mask. Indie publishers provided the bulk of the books but only one publisher, Oni Press, offered a full-length story that was outside the superhero genre. Unsurprisingly, superheroes, rather than regular Joes, had the highest representation.
If I were to offer a sappy speech about FCBD, the first thing I would say is that the event is supposed to be about more than just the free comics. It’s supposed to be a celebration of the medium, its power to tell a story, its rich history. But how can I believe that when most books bothered only to make a pitch to buy the next one, the real one?
If FCBD was about seriously good comics, the titles offered would have been worth reading. But where was the free issue of DMZ? Of Fables? Of Thunderbolts? Of The Fantastic Four? Of Ex Machina? Of The Killer? Of Uncanny X-Men? Of 100 Bullets? Of anything happening now? Of the book that will transform someone into a Marvel Zombie? Of the book that will make someone an addict of any comic book genre?
A free book along those lines wasn’t in my thick stack. And I doubt that many people who were in a comic shop for the first time will visit again and leave with an altogether different stack that contains a receipt. Reading an FCBD comic is like talking to the friend who tells you that he has an amazing story, but he doesn’t have the time to tell it to you right now. There were people in the stores, and FCBD deserves credit for this. But all these people ever got was a tease.
The smart shop owners built events into the day — artist signings, contests, etc. Some owners, however, can’t afford to do that. The villain of FCBD becomes the low quality comics that are not truly indicative of today’s comics — whether mainstream or indie. And if comic publishers want new readers, than they need to give the newbies the same comics that the old readers will pay for. The best sales pitch is a cliffhanger, not another six-page preview.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Sadly, this website’s proprietor could not attend PEN World Voices due to contracting a particularly nasty bug. Thankfully, the more robust Eric Rosenfield was able to pick up the slack. What follows is his report from the Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, and Mario Vargas Llosa panel.]
The theatre at the 92nd Street Y was packed. It was a sold out house for three prominent international authors. Umberto Eco read in Italian from his well-known novel Foucault’s Pendulum in Italian, while its English counterpart scrolled across a screen behind him. (This surprised me. I expected him to read from his more recent novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Foucault’s Pendulum had come out twenty years ago.) I liked the idea of the author reading his work in the language it was originally written (as Rushdie later said, we should hear the words the author actually wrote). But the text scrolled far too fast and the last lines didn’t move for a long time as Eco finished his reading. Next, Rushdie emerged. In a major blunder, ushers paced down the aisle asking for question cards. You see, the Y decided that the best way it would conduct its audience Q&A was by having the audience write down their questions on little cards provided in their programs, then giving these to the ushers, who would then pass these cards up to the moderator. However, it wasn’t right to collect the question cards as one author stopped reading and another author started. We were too busy listening to think about the questions we might want to ask.
Rushdie read from The Enchantress of Florence, a book that will be released in the States next month about Akbar the Great of the Mughal Empire, a sultan who apparently set up a kind of debating house where people could freely discuss philosophy and religion. Akbar’s relationship with his Muslim religion was best summed up during a funny moment where he proclaims “Allāhu Akbar” — the words meaning either “God is Great” or “Akbar is God.”
Lastly, Mario Vargas Llosa read from his latest novel, The Bad Girl. Again, the English text scrolled too quickly and ushers asked for comment cards. The excerpt itself was the touching story of an adolecent boy’s first crush and the cultural clash between him and that crush’s Chilean origins.
Finally the three sat with the moderator, Leonard Lopate. Lopate himself didn’t have to do very much; with the slightest prodding the three would go off on tangents about writing, language, politics or anything else. They were called “The Three Musketeers” because Eco had dubbed them that twenty years before just after a similar event in London. Other names were discussed, such as the Three Tenors — “you don’t want to hear us sing,” Rushdie dryly commented — or the Three Stooges. (For my money, bombastic, energetic Eco is Curly; dry, even-toned Rushdie is Moe; and Llosa, who waited his turn to speak and tried not to interrupt anyone, is clearly Larry.) The Musketeers theme gave Eco a platform to start talking about Alexandre Dumas. Eco explained that, while the Three Musketeers was a well written book, the later Count of Monte Cristo was awfully written. Eco said that he had once tried to rewrite Monte Cristo and cut it down by improving the style, but doing so made it somehow lose its magic. This led to a discussion about whether a book could create a myth without being a great work of literature. Rushdie said this was true of The Last of the Mohicans, which was also a terribly written book. Llosa disagreed about Monte Cristo. He said that he had cried when he’d read it and that’s what made it great literature: It had touched him. Sentence-by-sentence reading wasn’t as important.
The role of politics in literature and among literary figures was also discussed. Llosa had, after all, run for president of Peru. Rushdie said it was a great thing he’d lost, since he could now write more novels, and Llosa agreed, quipping, “The people of Peru loved my novels so much that they didn’t vote for me.”
Moderator Leonard Lopate asked why authors in America tended not to get as involved in politics, as opposed to other countries where this was more the norm. Rushdie said that Americans had been involved in politics as recently as Norman Mailer, who had “waded in completely” and made himself a figure of cultural consequence. Eco said that the problem with America, and England as well, was geographic. In other countries the universities were in the cities, while, in America and England, the universities tended to be outside of them, leading to the intellectuals being less involved with the general cultural and political scene.
Lopate suggested that in America, writers are seen more as entertainers. Rushdie said that “you can tell the importance of literature by the apparatus in place to repress it.” Llosa agreed, saying that you need a dictatorship: if a society and a government is functioning properly, literature is entertainment. Rushdie said that another part of the problem is the “professionalization of the commentariat.” In England, when there’s a major political event, the media goes to well-known intellectuals and asks their opinions. In America, the people who have opinions on political events are professional opinion-havers, and they’re the only ones who are allowed to have one. Eco pointed out that the exception was Noam Chomsky, but nobody in America knew how to take him.
Llosa also said that a lot of intellectuals weren’t trusted in other parts of the world. Think of all the intellectuals with terrible politics, elaborated Llosa. The greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, Heidegger, was a Nazi and never repented for it. Ezra Pound was a fascist. Sartre was a Maoist. This has, as a result, made people very suspicious of intellectuals.
Eco still thought it was strange that in America we have some of the most important writers in the world, that these writers are read all over, but they have no political power in their own country.
When the time came for the audience questions, there were predictably very few of them. Lopate commented that there were all these people and only five questions were passed up. The Y really dropped the ball on that one.
Despite this setback, the event was amazing. The three authors offered fascinating outsider takes on America and literature, and I think we need more of this type of event. Other mass-media events where authors are interviewed, such as The Charlie Rose Show or NPR, are always more structured and hindered by time constraints. Having three people like this capable of conversing with each other and talking freely about a range of topics was both refreshing and fascinating.
From John P. Marquand’s Wickford Point:
No one could teach anyone else to write. You could be as industrious as you pleased; you could steep yourself in the technique of all the Flauberts and Maupassants and Dickenses who had gone before, and out of it would come exactly nothing. That was the problem with Allen Southby.
There is something revealing about amateur fiction which is particularly ghastly, for in this type of effort you see all the machinery behind the scene. I could tell exactly what Allen had been reading before he had set to work. He had made a study of Hardy — it must have been a dreary task — and then he had touched on Sherwood Anderson and Glenway Westcott and O’Neill. He had been reading a lot of those earth-earthy books, where the smell of dung and the scent of the virgin sod turned by the plow runs through long paragraphs of primitive through slightly perverted human passion; but those others could write, and Allen Southby never would if he lived as long as Moses. Nevertheless I was finding the thing stimulating again. I was thinking of ways in which I might have changed it.
Allen was back at his desk, fiddling with his folio volume. He saw me right away when I paused and reached for the whisky glass.
“There’s nothing the matter with it, is there, Jim?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s very provocative, Allen.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Allen. “Thank you, Jim, but we mustn’t disturb Joe.”
The delicate feeling of liking that I was experiencing for him, born possibly from a sense of remorse, vanished with this remark. He was an intellectual snob and an intellectual climber. He had intimated without much tact that any admiration of mine was inconsequential now that Joe was there. He would never know that my remark had been completely truthful. Southby had been provocative because he was writing about something which I could understand far better than he could ever understand it. It was not the plot, which was horrible, that arrested my attention so much as his manner of writing. His pages resembled the efforts of visiting writers, who had spent their summers in Maine and on Cape Cod, to depict the New England scene. The effort was the same as when some Northern writer attempted an epic of the South, and could see nothing but nigger mammies and old plantations and colonels drinking juleps. These others,when they faced New England, saw only white houses, church spires, lilacs and picket hedges, gingham hypocrisy and psychoses and intolerance. Not even Kipling, the keenest observer who had touched our coast, could do it. There was something which they did not see, an inexorable sort of gentleness, a vanity of effort, a sadness of predestined failure.
I must have the same thing Tayari had. A deadly strain, not unlike the vicious superflu portrayed in Fiona Maazel’s Last, Last Chance, has knocked your faithful correspondent on his ass. So PEN World Voices coverage remains stalled for the present time. I’m going to see how I feel tomorrow and, if I feel better, I will venture out and report what I can. In the meantime, you can check out my review of Susan Hubbard’s The Year of Disappearances in Saturday’s edition of The Los Angeles Times.
Love and Sex with Robots
HarperCollins, 334 pages, $24.95
Review by Erin O’Brien
Let’s start with the RealDolls.
Actually, it’s not the dolls I want to dwell on, but the men who own them. I spent untold hours conversing on an online forum set up specifically for sex doll owners while researching this article. The human aspect of the sex doll fetish/hobby has stuck with me ever since that piece ran almost a year ago. The love doll phenomenon might seem banal at first blush, but I found it to be complex and surprising at every turn.
Sex is the most popular doll activity, but owners also dress the dolls, talk to them, kiss them, and purchase lingerie and perfume for them. They pose and photograph the dolls. They name them and often imbue them with fantasy personalities. Some men even present themselves on The Doll Forum as their doll. As I struggled to understand it all, one of the forum members asked me if I love my car. That stopped me. My Mini Cooper is compact and responsive and never takes more than it needs. I want to emulate it at every turn. Do I love it? I practically deify it. And it’s not the only object that is more to me than the sum of its parts. My iPod is not only a jewel, but also a valued companion on my endless walks. I am free to enjoy those affairs without fear of persecution, but the rules are different for men who enjoy love dolls. Most owners are terrified of being outed.
Doll owners constantly discuss advances in doll technology. They want convenience features such as removable sex organs that can be easily cleaned but stay put during critical moments. They want their dolls to talk and move. They pine for fully functional “gynoids” that they can be programmed to accommodate any sexual proclivity. Forum discussions wax and wane with excitement and disappointment, depending upon how close technology is to making their dreams come true. While on the forum, doll owners evoked my sympathy, empathy and antipathy — as well as my fascination. So when I heard about David Levy’s book Love and Sex with Robots, it piqued my interest.
“Accepting that huge technological advances will be achieved by around 2050,” claims Levy in the book’s introduction, ” … Love and sex with robots on a grand scale is inevitable.”
From day one, my world was filled with technology. My father designed and built machinery. My degree is in electrical engineering. I respect milling machines, I remember the Radio Shack TRS-80 computer, and I consider my laptop to be an attractive accessory that complements who I am. I agreed with Levy’s assertions about our advances in AI and computer technology. And yes, the human fascination with automata is boundless. It starts early too. Every kid is transfixed by a window display of animated Christmas elves no matter how repetitive and mechanical their movement. I know I was. I still am.
From this starting point and through three hundred odd pages of text, Levy’s premise could surely convince me to fall in love — and maybe even marry — a robot.
I’m just a love machine
Early in the book, Levy says he will not detail the mechanics behind the robot frontier. This immediately felt like a cheat to me and put a big chink in Levy’s credibility. The emulation of the human hand, lips, and tongue seem like important components to address when pondering lovebot technology. Yet Levy does not address such issues. No matter how hard I tried, the cunning engineer in me couldn’t stop worrying about design. A lovebot will require a heating system. (RealDoll owners often use an electric blanket.) Will the user manually lubricate the robot for sex or will it have a system with refillable reservoirs? Something along the lines of windshield washer fluid? That robot kid in AI got bested by a mouthful of spinach, but he did fine even after he fell in a pool. This is more than I can say about my cell phone. I eat a falafel sandwich to stay powered up. What will fuel a lovebot? How long will the rechargeable battery last? Coitus interruptus because of a drained battery would be a real drag. Sort of like having to put your cool road trip on hold for a few hours in Shamrock, Texas while the electric car juices up.
These mystifying “huge technological advances” didn’t sit well with the Los Angeles Times‘s Seth Lloyd either.
Lloyd brought his own credentials (quantum-mechanical engineering professor at MIT) to the intrinsic problems of programming computerized robots to perform even the humblest of tasks. He calls Levy on forecasting developments so far in the future that no one can refute them, calling such extrapolation a “mug’s game.” And make sure you dig his comments on Levy’s lack of literary references. Remember Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation? We thought R2D2 was adorable. And everyone drooled over Cherry 2000. Levy doesn’t mention any of them. Not even Jude Law’s silken Gigolo Joe, who would seem to embody Levy’s vision.
Levy also forecasts that lovebots will cost the equivalent of two C-notes by the middle of the century. Right now, $199 will buy you an iRobot Roomba Robot Vacuum at Target, but the only thing it sucks is dust bunnies and pet hair. Sure, the Roomba may go down in price. Electronics generally do. Mechanical devices do not. Build them cheap and, well, is anybody out there still driving a Yugo?
You make me feel like a natural woman
From Sex and Love with Robots:
Anyone who has doubts that women will find it appealing or even possible to receive the most incredible, amazing, fantastic orgasms, courtesy of sexual robots, should think again. Think vibrators.
Did someone say vibrator?
The Cone Vibrator boasts 16 settings courtesy of a 3,000-rpm motor and is fueled by three C-sized batteries. The smooth medical-grade silicone surface is easy to clean and comfortable to (ahem) interact with. And believe me, set this baby in the center of the bed and it stays put no matter how enthusiastic that interaction gets. It costs about a hundred bucks.
I love my ridiculous toys. But the idea of a life-sized male sex doll does nothing for me. Sure, a toy delivers satisfaction. But it is just a toy. It has nothing to do with men or lovemaking. (Well, maybe as an accessory. I mean, insinuate yourself on the cone and your entire upper body is free to … um … oh, never mind.)
Why? It has to do with the essence of our subtle physiological yin and yang: that swirling vortex wherein you find the quest for a woman’s climax, fear of impotence, a lover’s thrill at the sight of a swelling erection on a man he or she wishes to arouse and the sense of failure a flaccid member evokes in the same situation. The lie of a woman’s faked orgasm and the intensity of pleasure between two people exchanging undiluted desire.
That said, the vagina has more wiggle room than the penis. Erica Jong called the fairer genitalia an “all-weather” organ, suitable for use anytime as long as a bottle of lubricant is in arm’s reach. The passive nature of the vagina makes it easier for a heterosexual man to suspend disbelief and engage in activities such as prostitution and doll play. Not so with the penis. The Viagra discussion notwithstanding, arousal must produce a man’s erection, which silently proclaims, you are sexy and desirable to me. It is an honest organic response, not the proper execution of computer programming. An erection imparts affirmation that a phallus will never evoke.
As a heterosexual woman, I don’t think I’m alone in my indifference to the male sex robots of the future or the male dolls of today, but I’m not sure. Although Abyss, the manufacturer of RealDoll, sent me droves of info when I asked about their product, they didn’t respond to my numerous queries about how many “Charlie” male dolls they’ve sold. I’ve read that it’s only about a dozen.
Levy is completely at odds with this topic. In one sentence he proclaims that vibrator love means robot love. In the next breath, he admits that, unlike men, women do not buy love dolls.
Why not? Although breadwinning men with gleaming teeth and pompadours stiff with Brylcreem can have their RealDolls and eat them too, the cake of Levy’s argument asserts that women probably just can’t afford “Charlie” at $7,000. He admits that this probably isn’t the only reason, but it’s the only one he cites.
An angry red blush bloomed on my neck as I digested this factoid, but I must agree: $7,000 is a lot of money to pay for the privilege of lying beneath 100 pounds of inert silicone.
I suppose I could sit on top of it.
They’ll never get that perfect spot where shaft meets torso right. Besides that, Charlie wouldn’t fit in the box under my bed.
Even the losers
Levy is a savvy proselytizer. He appeared on the January 17 episode of The Colbert Report. When asked why people would want a lovebot, he said, “The most common reason I think at the beginning will be that there are millions of people out there in the world who for one reason or another can’t establish normal relationships with humans. They’re lonely, they’re miserable and robots, when they’re sophisticated enough, will be an excellent alternative.” When Colbert asked him if he would ever have interest in a robot, Levy responded, “No … this is for the other people.”
Okay folks, queue forms on the right. You lonely miserables–raise your hands. You guys head straight up front. The ugly guys are next. No, no. No need for you dogheads to raise your hands. We can see who you are. Just get behind the miserables. When all the pathetic losers are settled, the rest of you normal, middle-class, right-as-rain Other People have at it. As soon as I blow the whistle, let the stampede begin.
When a writer distances himself from his topic, he risks insulting his material as well as his reader. This is particularly relevant when writing about sex. If you don’t put yourself on the playing field either directly or indirectly, you come across as judgmental. To get on that field, you must put forth your assertions in the context of your reader and yourself. That is vulnerable territory–upon which Levy dares not to tread. Instead he relies heavily on studies and history in order to broach his topic. His research is thorough and interesting. Unfortunately, too often it looks backward and not forward. Catastrophically, it never looks inward.
Levy cites our pets, our Internet romances and our ongoing love affair with electronic equipment as examples of alternative human affections. So because I love my cats, I’ll marry a machine? And, yes, I have a complex relationship with my computer, but it serves mostly as a tool and a vital connection to other people. That argument led me nowhere. It’s true that people have online affairs, but in the end, it’s still something conducted in the flesh between two people.
This was the absolute scientific fact that proves humans will soon universally love and marry robots? I was still miles away.
A humanoid robot that is programmed to perform its owner’s specific wishes sounded like a new-fangled way to say hooker, trophy wife, or sex slave. The more sophisticated the electronic entity, the more cruel the electronic leash. I couldn’t see it any other way.
What I needed was a deep thought.
But it’s all in the game
Levy is an international chess champion and the author of dozens of books on artificial intelligence and computer gaming. His passion for his subject is evidenced by a long list of international credentials concerning those topics. He led a team to win the 1997 Loebner Prize (world championship for conversational computer software) and is currently the president of the International Computer Games Association. In 1968, Levi wagered that no computer would beat him at chess within the next ten years. He won that bet against his fellow AI aficionados, which garnered him considerable notability. Eleven years later, however, he was defeated by the computer program “Deep Thought,” which leads me to the heart of the trouble with Love and Sex with Robots.
This book is a commercialized version of Levy’s academic paper on the topic, for which he earned a Ph.D. The resulting scientific detachment about subjects that are not scientific–love and sex–is problematic. Although Levy’s passages about the histories of vibrators and sexdolls are wonderful, you won’t find one candid breath about the human beings behind them.
Love and Sex with Robots is screaming for eye-blinking moments such as an anecdote that a doll owner conveyed to me: he loved painting portraits but no model was patient enough for him. “A life-like doll seemed the ideal solution,” he said. “However, when she arrived, I was so taken with her realism that I automatically became fond of her.” And in an instant, this would-be Pygmalion instilled gentle poetry upon the idea of man and doll, which no longer seemed so strange.
That is how a writer must normalize a sexual subculture, by evoking the reader’s empathy over his sympathy. Exclude the anecdotal details and the droning research ends up sounding like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon.
Levy didn’t have to go very far to find a humanizing facet for his subject. All he had to do was step from behind the scientific mask for a moment and describe his lifelong fascination with AI. I smoldered with curiosity about the tipping-point moment when he knew “Deep Thought” had the game in 1989. How did he feel? I imagine it was a thrilling culmination of anger, hatred, respect, frustration, admiration and humility–a stinging slap from a beautiful woman. Perhaps it was arousing as well as infuriating. Such disclosure would have increased the power of this book ten-fold.
But the future lovebots Levy depicts are no Deep Thought femme fatales. They are submissive Stepford Wives for the masses, programmed to meet their owner’s every whim. When I juxtaposed McRobot against the brilliant Deep Thought entity that defeated a genius, it amounted to a subcontextual insult. How would Levy respond if asked to check off the box on the order form that indicated whether he’d like his custom-built robot to let him win at chess (a) always, (b) once in a while, or (c) never?
Perhaps such pedestrian options are for the “other people.”
Levy devotes 27 pages to “Why people pay for sex” whereby he quietly admits that buying a mechanical companion is akin to prostitution. To his credit, there is no hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold or Pretty Woman moment. The section about why women pay for sex is one of the weakest in the book. A tidbit involving ten female johns that Levy cites from a February 1994 article of Marie Claire (UK) does little to normalize the idea of paying a man to share a bed. The johns discuss their lack of success with men, the freedom from complications and constraints that inundates relationships, and the need for companionship they cannot fulfill otherwise. He concludes the chapter by saying paid sex “can be a positive experience even though [the johns] know that their sex object has no genuine feelings of affection for them.”
I wanted to make sense of all this. So I reviewed AI while writing this essay. I watched Gigolo Joe’s love scene again and again. Who is this scene for? The woman is a teary middle-aged cliché. People with complex sexual troubles surely do not see themselves this way. They don’t need pity; they need a solution. It’s not Gigolo Joe, who is more contrived than his human counterpart. Paying for sex doesn’t make sense to most women, which is why the call for heterosexual male prostitutes is a barely audible peep. Gigolo Joe’s mechanical hard-on is a lie as well.
I detest the isn’t-it-wonderful-that-these-sad-people-have-this-option-available-to-them shtick, but that’s all Levy offers me here. Again, I needed a quotidian inroads, such as the heterosexual fiftysomething man in a strapless evening gown I discovered when conducting research for a feature on cross-dressing. “Glenda” told me that, when she leaves Glen’s rough work clothes behind and steps out in pantyhose and heels, the world treats her differently — even if she’s not all that convincing in her role. Glenda can also leave Glen’s troubles behind, such as the grief surrounding his 19-year-old daughter’s suicide.
But at one point, Levy finally grabbed me. He chronicles the efforts of the Erotic Computation Group at MIT, which endeavors to explore modern computing, human sexuality and sex toys of the future. I sat up in attention, only to read the next paragraph, wherein Levy reveals that the group was a hoax, and was gravely disappointed.
Love and Sex with Robots represents a massive amount of work. But it fails to reveal a profound truth — something I believe is still waiting to be uncovered. I wish Levy had included some of his own secrets and desires. I wish he had gotten his hands dirty and talked to real people about real sex and fetishes. But the galvanizing details and their inherent vulnerability just aren’t here. As it is, Love and Sex with Robots feels like a date with a machine.