“The Worst Book I Have Read in the Past Three Years”

In today’s edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, you will find my review of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Let it be known that I did not arrive at my assessment lightly. I am an ardent lover of ambitious literature, and I realize when taking on any review assignment that an author has probably sweated for years on a project. As such, I do everything in my power to attempt to understand a book on its own terms.

But this novel was so atrocious that I was forced to record a video presenting just how this atrocious book left me vitiated. If you haven’t yet seen the video and you’re on the fence about Littell, I strongly urge you to see what it might do to you. For if you have any decent literary standards, you may very well find yourself incapacitated in a similar manner when you reach the end. (I still don’t know how Orthofer got to the end, but his review is also worthy of your attention.)

One other side effect of reading Littell: I was forced to spend half a day staring into space in order to recover from the book’s sheer awfulness. You can find out the specific reasons why in the review. But I must stress that, even if I didn’t possess some modest spirit of decency, I could not possibly recommend this book to my worst enemy. The Kindly Ones still rests in the stacks of spent tomes, sullying the fine offerings of other skilled voices. I have strongly considered burning it.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Heather Armstrong

Heather Armstrong appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #276.

Heather Armstrong is most recently the author of It Sucked and Then I Cried.

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[This is the first show in which a guest's Twitter feed emerges during the course of the conversation! This historical moment can be found at the 13:05 mark.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering his deficient parental duties.

Author: Heather Armstrong

Subjects Discussed: Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, checking with other people on stories and blog posts, the fairness of sharing, the private medium of the letter being publicly aired, drawing the distinction between work and fun in personal writing, dealing with negativity and hate mail, public scrutiny, factoring the audience into business decisions, the oddness of an audience as a focus group, writing in all caps and emphatic house style, Armstrong’s affinity for Chili’s, imagining vs. comparing Leta at sixteen, whether or not Bob Costas is insipid, parent writing and the “special” nature of children, Janet Jackson’s nipple, fixating on particular points to keep a narrative going, the two-book deal with Kensington, “having a baby is pretty much a book of commentary,” filtering daily events, following up on investigations by the Pioneer Press, and the concern for “normalcy.”

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EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about your affinity for Chili’s, which you bring up. I don’t think it can be entirely predicated on a love for the chips and salsa, or the fact that the server brings two Diet Cokes at the same time. This can’t merely be the exclusive reason! So I’m curious if you can elaborate on this particular concern and love and joy you have for Chili’s.

Armstrong: Well, I actually worked at Chili’s for three days back when I was a freshman in college. And I lasted three days. I couldn’t wait tables. I am not a table waiter. And there’s just something about the Americanness of the experience, and having that much food brought to you that makes me very connected to the flyover states — that normally I’m not very connected to politically. You know, I don’t see eye to eye with them. Except when they’re bringing me those two Diet Cokes. And when they’re refilling the basket and basket and basket of chips. I feel very American.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if it’s the specific glasses they use.

Armstrong: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: The specific way in which they bring to your table. Because this is a chain restaurant. There are plenty of restaurants that will bring you two Diet Cokes.

Armstrong: Well, consistently though. I mean, I have never had to ask for the second Diet Coke. They will always bring it. And I wasn’t taught this rule when I worked there. I just think that there’s something about the culture there. They know. They know you need it.

Correspondent: Wow. Maybe there’s some divisions of Chili’s in which they bring you that Diet Coke immediately. Or maybe it’s a Utah scenario?

Armstrong: No, it happened in Tennessee too.

Correspondent: It happened in Tennessee too.

Armstrong: It did. It did.

Correspondent: This is an investigative journalistic report.

Armstrong: It really is. (laughs)

Correspondent: Really. You should pursue this further. I want to talk about when Leta is taken in for an MRI and is given some Nembutal. You write that she was “as drunk as a sixteen-year-old on prom night who has had a Long Island Iced Tea on an empty stomach and is in total denial about how drunk she is.” Now this was very interesting to me. Because I must observe that sixteen is right between your age and Leta’s age.

Armstrong: (laughs)

Correspondent: I must also point out that this is not imagining Leta at sixteen. It’s comparing her to a sixteen-year-old. Does the notion of thinking of Leta at sixteen mortify you? And is this why you need this comparative point to someone who is sixteen? Who couldn’t possibly be Leta? Or what?

Armstrong: I’m probably comparing her to the sixteen-year-old I wasn’t actually. And the possibility that she will be very different than I was. I’m raising her ideologically very differently than I was raised. And I don’t want it to seem that it would be okay with me if my sixteen-year-old got drunk. But there’s a part of me that probably needed to when I was sixteen. And the thought of her in her teens, actually, does absolutely terrify me. Yes, it does.

Correspondent: How far in the future can you think about Leta?

Armstrong: Oh, not very far. No, no, no. You can’t do that with her. I mean, it’s a new lesson. You wake up and you think you’ve got it mastered. And then she will just knock you on your ass immediately the next day.

(Photo credit: Carol Browne)

BSS #276: Heather Armstrong (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Tatia Rosenthal

Tatia Rosenthal appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #275.

Tatia Rosenthal is is most recently the director of $9.99. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It is also scheduled for limited release on June 17, 2009.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ushering in an economic revolution.

Guest: Tatia Rosenthal

Subjects Discussed: Unintentionally defying the “good things come in threes” maxim, animating at two frames per movement, Bill Plympton, the aesthetic advantages of budget limitations, character proportions in relation to the sets, camera placement, a shared affinity for short lenses, immersing puppets in shadow, dealing with sweat in animation, animating natural elements, “A Buck’s Worth” as template for $9.99 (YouTube link), compositing vs. in-camera stop-motion animation, shrinking the Lilliputian puppets down in post, sticking to scale parameters, the look of the piggy bank, human mouths and animating Os, the problems of animating dialogue, whether animation must have fantastical elements to be “animation,” magical realism, animating eyes and blinking, breaking away from stereotypical body movement and defying cliches in animation, animating multiple characters in the Show and Tell scene, Anthony Elworthy, ambition, tracking shots, color coordination, self-help books, and graphical elements.

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EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: The other thing I wanted to note is sweat in this film, and bodily fluids in general. Now we see sweat in a love scene late in the film and also in the elevator. However, going back to this question of lighting, I should point out that you lit this in such a way so it appears that the texture is sweating, even though it isn’t. So I’m wondering about how you dealt with this idea of actually having to put some sort of moisture on the puppets in order to get that sense of seat. And not only that. You also have to animate that as well. So I’m curious how this came about.

Rosenthal: I think you’re going to be surprised by the answer. Did you like it?

Correspondent: Yeah, I did.

Rosenthal: Interesting. Because it was an accident. And we were doing our best to conceal the sweaty look. Because the silicone actually appears shiny and looks like sweat. The material that we used. And we were doing our damnedest to erase it with powders and stuff like that. And then some of it would get revealed. Because the animators were touching the puppets. And they looked like they gradually were sweating. And then when we got to post, what we did, when it was really distracting, we deleted it frame-by-frame.

Correspondent: Really?

Rosenthal: Painstakingly. And the places where it stayed were the places where it felt appropriate to the scene. Like you’re remarking. So it was really sweating in reverse.

Correspondent: Oh, but I like sweat! Characters should sweat. Puppets should sweat.

Rosenthal: I like it now.

(Photo: Quentin Jones)

BSS #275: Tatia Rosenthal (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Del Deo

Adam Del Deo appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #274.

Adam Del Deo is most recently the co-director of Every Little Step. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It is also scheduled for limited release on April 17, 2009. You can also read our related review.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Walking a thin line between the need to perform and employment.

Guest: Adam Del Deo

Subjects Discussed: How an outsider’s experience assists in the making of a Broadway documentary, working with James Stern, filming the audition process for the A Chorus Line revival, behind-the-scenes access, hesitation from prospective cast members being filmed, capturing uncomfortable truths in a documentary, documenting the compulsive need to perform, keeping tabs on the many documentary subjects, whether being liked is an artistic liability, casting discrimination, Baayork Lee, Bob Avian’s directorial temperament, Jacques d’Ambrose blowing out his knees in his forties, what a dancer does when he can’t dance anymore, Michael Bennett profiting incommensurately from the dancers, the original A Chorus Line dancers not receiving royalties for the revival, not talking with Wayne Cilento, and whether a documentary filmmaker has the moral obligation to show all sides of the story.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

adamdeldeoCorrespondent: I also wanted to offer an observation. One moment in which Yuka, who is up for Connie, reveals that she was born in Japan. And the production team expresses some concerns because she can’t, in their view, possibly nail the right dialect because she wasn’t born in the States. In fact, Baayork Lee says, “There’s something about being born in America and fighting for a seat on the F train.” Seeing as how Yuka did, in fact, get the part, this is interesting to me. Because if you were to take such a judgment and put it into another occupation, it would be discrimination. So I am curious. If an actor has the chops, should they not be able to essentially get the part irrespective of the background? This is one of the interesting things, I think, about the film, in which you see such a blunt judgment — despite the fact that it’s done in all love — laid down on the table like that. So what of this dilemma?

Del Deo: I think it’s an interesting observation. I think you’re right. Whoever’s right for the role and best for the role should get the role. But casting roles is very, very subjective. There’s not a specific set of standards and information. I mean, what Baayork is seeing and what Bob Avian is seeing, they’re seeing that differently. That part of the film is, to me, one of the most fascinating parts of the film. Because Baayork is looking at Yuka. She created that role. Baayork Lee was taped by Michael Bennett. And that narrative created the role of Connie. She also happens to be the choreographer for the revival. Now over thirty years later, she’s casting the character of Connie. Which is her. And so she says to Bob Avian, “You know, I don’t see myself that cute.” And Bob’s saying, “Well, she’s very likable.” And she’s like, “Well, it’s me.” And so that was very interesting. But it’s so subjective. And there’s a good healthy debate that happened between the creative team as to who was going to play what role. And I think it’s part of the process.

Correspondent: But do you think though that such a judgment almost crosses the line to some degree? Because she does — like I say, she gets cast in the part. She does a great job. And so it could be one of those things that Baayork just let off. Because they’re all excited about casting the right role. Nevertheless, I say to myself, “Well, this is very interesting. Because if this is a judgment. And these people are true professionals. Imagine what all the other shows are like.” And so I’m not sure if it’s entirely fair if the actor has the chops.

Del Deo: I mean, she got the role.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Del Deo: Baayork, she had questions about that. They ultimately all decided she was best for it. Correct? But she maybe wasn’t on board right away with that decision. She wanted to express her desire possibly to cast someone else. I think she talks about J. Elaine [Marcos]. That was her opinion. But it wasn’t her call. I don’t believe it was a racial issue.

BSS #274: Adam Del Deo (Download MP3)

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New Directors/New Films: Parque Vía (2008)

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

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The first image of Enrique Rivero’s striking feature debut sees a spider crushed by a boot. The boot belongs to a man with a wan and wrinkled face named Beto. Beto is a housekeeper living in a desolate and unoccupied manse in Mexico City that can’t be sold. He wears the same white shirt every day and scrubs the same ellipitical perimeter of the bathtub. His life is one of droll and circular routine. He turns corners in the house at rigid right angles. Gruesome news headlines blare at him from the television as he chows down on tacos. Last month’s newspapers, bundled in a tidy and philanthropic bunch, are given to him for reading. He feasts on the news of the outside world, but does not wish to involve himself in it. He is a spider caught within a web of perfunctory duty.

There’s some solace for Beto in visits from Lupe, a middle-aged woman who sleeps with him every week. Beto, we learn later, is a widower. But Lupe isn’t necessarily a black widow preying upon the last of his identity. The film does not explicitly state whether or not Beto pays Lupe for the privilege, but it does something much craftier. Our first glimpse of Lupe is through an extended long take as she dances with a man. We learn that she’s Mexico City’s answer to a dime dancing girl. (And it’s interesting that this taxi dancer rides to her appointment in taxis.) But we don’t see the man she’s with — just the back of his head. We do see Lupe’s bored expression. She snaps her gum. She fixes her hair. Her life is a husk and the man paying her for the privilege, too busy burying his head into her shoulder, cannot see this. That Rivero reveals such a major socioeconomic chasm with such sideways glimpses is a testament to his talent.

Is Beto paying Lupe for these weekly trysts? During one bored morning, shortly before Lupe’s visit, Beto orders some tamales from a cart, asking for the third one to be given to him on credit. He wolfs down the tamales. Lupe arrives. When she undresses, Beto claims that he is too full and cannot sleep with her. The underlying assumption is clear. A roll in the hay with Lupe is the price of two tamales. But is this precise detail something which the audience infers? Or is it the calculated truth? One is tempted to say yes to the latter question. Rivero himself is an engineer who turned to filmmaking. And he has presented us with a film, with many stretches in which nobody says a thing, that feels at times like a brazen calculation worked out over a series of large chalkboards. But in saying yes, does the audience confirm its blind worldview? Why shouldn’t Beto and Lupe have their small frivolities? Does the fact that Lupe is later arrested for lewd behavior attest to her lowly status? Or is this film challenging us with a more striking hypothesis? If we are presented with another view of class relations, carried out from a different viewpiont, will we come to the same conclusions?

This troubling series of dilemmas isn’t just limited to class. There’s an interesting dialectic here, operating often in yin-yang, between the interior and the exterior worlds. The dichotomy is there when trick-or-treaters knock on the door and Beto, lacking candy to give the youngsters, screws up his eyes and pretends to be a monster. But perhaps Beto does not have the eyes to see the world beyond the house? Beto sits in his chair, sucking down news and food, and the drapes behind him are drawn. But the daylight seeps through on the undrawn part of the window. Prospective buyers often stop by to look at the house. Beto observes them through the window. Initially, we do not hear the conversation. But as the film progresses, the chatter starts to penetrate through the window. And at this point, Beto isn’t capable of existing in the outside world without total collapse. But is it his occupation or his locale that causes such agoraphobia?

Parque Vía shares many qualities with Todd Haynes’s 1995 film, Safe. Both films feature main characters who have terrible physical reactions to the external world. But where Haynes had multiple chemical sensitivity, there isn’t a clear-cut diagnosis for Beto. We know that he doesn’t wish to leave the house. We also know that his occupation is far from secure, even if the house manages to get sold. And it’s something of a cruel joke that certain events playing out late in the film occur over Christmas.

Then there’s the mysterious Señora, her white hair bundled in a genteel beehive, who owns the estate and keeps Beto on the payroll. What are two tamales to her? What indeed are her pleasures outside of the parties we see from the perspective of her servants? She does something kind for Beto late in the film, but is her generosity rooted less out of an intrinsic concern for people beneath her social station and more from a cruder sense of blind duty? Is she just as isolated in her internal world as Beto? The Señora asks Beto if he is happy, and he says yes. But surely she should see that he’s not. She knows that Beto has lost his wife and she suggests to Beto that he should marry another woman. But are these not a vassal’s vagaries?

This film works as well as it does because it constantly challenges our assumptions like this. Rivero invites us to get close to people that the world does not wish to be intimate with, giving us small gestures such as Beto constantly curling his hands and little details like Beto’s alarm clock resting on top of a Bible. And yet Rivero’s intimacy is often false, and that’s only because his characters are locked into specific societal roles that we might perceive if only we could get beyond the class system. Beto’s world is sadly insular. He is talked about by others, but rarely engaged. Not even his fellow servants will answer his questions. So what does society do with a lonely man like Beto? Rivero doesn’t offer any easy answers, but he presents a cinematic viewpoint that gently compels us to step beyond our comforts and consider the richer possibilities of brotherhood. For if we don’t, we may just be hiding within our own dark houses.

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New Directors/New Films: Every Little Step (2008)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

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An actor friend and I recently entered into a heated but civil disagreement about his career. My friend insisted that it was now the time to self-promote and self-aggrandize like there was no tomorrow. I pointed out to my pal that he had talents that simply hadn’t yet been recognized by the right people, and that getting noticed simply wasn’t something he could calculate. He had the goods, but I had grave concerns that his work would be marred by solipsism, whether real or perceived. He had the obligation to stay working — whether it be dinner theater, off-Broadway, or top-notch production — and to practice as much humility and tenacity and dignity as he could under the circumstances. The acting business involves a lot of waiting, many nos, and an array of judgments which simply do not exist in any other occupation. Small wonder then that, when an actor does manage to secure himself a top perch, he is granted an unprecedented amount of assistants and press protection. For by the time an actor has made it this far, the relatively anonymous artist who struggled for years has capitulated his relative obscurity. But isn’t the acting profession something of a devil’s bargain? You entertain a crowd, but you do so at the expense of presenting your true self. And you do so knowing that you will have to fight tooth and nail to keep the rent paid and the work coming. Not many people can do this, but so many are driven to expend every ounce of spare energy into seizing a small scrap of the stage.

The documentary Every Little Step examines these often underreported realities with the casting sessions for the 2006 A Chorus Line revival. Filmmakers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo were apparently granted backstage access as the casting stretched into endless callbacks over many months. I do not know if there were any quids pro quo arrived at during this documentary journey, but there’s certainly a meta irony given the show in question. As audience-friendly as A Chorus Line and Every Little Step both are, Stern and Del Deo are to be commended for exposing a handful of the profession’s ugly little truths. There is, for example, some concern about an actress up for the role of Connie. She was born in Japan, but can she nail the right dialect if she wasn’t born in the States? A cocky dancer and choreographer named Tyce Diorio boasts to the camera that he wants his own television show. But his clear hubris is immediately observed by the casting team and he is dumped. One dancer is asked to reproduce what she did last summer, but cannot recall specifically what it was and is too nervous and shell-shocked to ask.

The film is careful to expose what lies in the future for these young and hungry gypsy aspirants, but it doesn’t always present its mini-narratives holistically. One dancer’s father describes a moment in his early forties when both of his knees blew out. He still tried to dance anyway and found himself backstage with his boots soaked in blood. But what did he do when he knew he couldn’t dance? That might have been another documentary altogether, but this intriguing yet unfulfilled story demonstrates the film’s weakness in trying to tackle too much.

Of course, as every good Broadway aficionado knows, A Chorus Line was one of the first major Broadway productions to be workshopped, with Michael Bennett leading a recorded series of confessions after midnight that served as the transcribed template. The film does not quibble with the controversial claim that Bennett was the sole man behind the show, nor does it quite expose Bennett’s tendency to control every project that he was involved with.

I likewise found myself wondering how much Bob Avian (the revival’s director) was playing up his kindness before the cameras. He is presented here as a gruff, no-nonsense, barrel-chested administrator, his team shuttling around and encouraging prospective applicants. But Avian is capable of being genuinely moved. When Jason Tam delivers his gut-wrenching monologue as Paul, both the show’s production team and the audience watching this film know that he will get the part. So perhaps Every Little Step functions on three levels: the Broadway audience who will see the show is “entertained” by dancers begging for their parts (lightened somewhat by the Marvlin Hamlisch’s famous bouncer, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”), the audience who will see this film is “entertained” by dancers begging for their parts (lightened somewhat by crowd favorites getting the role), and the director being photographed is “entertained” by prospective dancers while making often brutal decisions (his duties lightened somewhat by a few on-camera moments that suggest he’s not that bad of a guy).

I was less taken with the film’s clear promotion of A Chorus Line, but quite engaged by the process of auditioning itself. Hearing a director describe the ideal Val as someone with “a truck driver’s mouth, but who’s really a sweetheart” is a sentiment you might find on any promotional pamphlet, as is Hamlisch himself describing yet again how the title “Tits and Ass” transmuted into “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” But seeing a director quietly beseech an actor on stage to get a performance right, because there may very well be some rejection that he must uncomfortably come to terms with, is the mark of a decent documentary. I wished Every Little Step had pursued more moments in the latter category. But a struggling actor may find some of the film’s quiet revelations engaging — in large part because the actor doesn’t always see himself from a camera’s third-person perspective.

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The book appears to have been completely ignored by American newspapers. There’s this snobbish Bookforum review which observes “lowbrow thrills” and appears written by a humorless gentleman who wouldn’t know fun even if he were offered the role of his choice in a custard pie fight. (This regrettable quality is quite typical of the people who Albert Mobilio hires these days. It has been suggested to me that Mobilio does not laugh at all or that he titters infrequently at best. To expect humor, much less fun, in Bookforum‘s dilletantish pages is akin to asking a paraplegic to wake up one morning and participate in a 10K run. It’s simply not going to happen.)

My own take on Alberto Sánchez Piñol’s new novel, Pandora in the Congo, a book that is especially wonderful, can be found in today’s Barnes and Noble Review. I must also praise translator Mara Faye Lethem (who is disgracefully unmentioned in the Bookforum review). Translators are often granted the least hosannas. But between Pandora and Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World (which I am now sneaking pecks at between other books), Lethem is one of the few translators who truly gets pulp, perspective, and idiosyncratic voice. These are vital aspects of literature that are beyond the understanding of Mobilio’s army of hubristic hucksters, but are thankfully within the easy reach of the rest of us.

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The Onion Narrative

On the morning of Saturday, March 21, 2009, I left the house to purchase an onion. This action, in and of itself, might be considered meaningless. Most would consider this a perfunctory deed or an insignificant errand. There isn’t a foolproof way to capture all comparable actions occurring at the same moment (9:30 AM EDT), but why should any of us ignore the potential pleasures contained within such a routine act? Are we taking this modern convenience for granted? Is a trip to the store to be sneered at? If we view a produce run with contempt, do we therefore view a previous age of humanity with contempt? Why should it have to be about us? A 10th century Viking berserking his way across North America certainly didn’t have this option of a neighborhood market. The Viking’s diet consisted of what he was able to hunt and gather. I am certain that if the Viking learned of developments eleven centuries later, common to every civilized being, and further ascertained that we were complaining about what a pain in the ass it was to get an onion so early in the morning (for the Viking surely had to spend half of his day plunging through the river for some fish), he’d put a battleaxe through our skulls. And we might very well deserve it. (At the risk of self-aggrandizement, let the record show that I did not complain.)

What I hope to document here is one such act, which I style “The Onion Narrative.” Because my effort to obtain this onion exists in the past, fixed and immalleable and further complicated by the mind tinkering even as it accounts for what happened. I have provided diagrams (certainly not to scale) that have divided my Onion Narrative into three tidy stages. And to demonstrate how imperfect this process is, as an experiment, I attempted to recreate my Onion Narrative on video, following the exact same walking route and purchasing yet another onion. My recollection of the details isn’t nearly as precise as I’d like to think. The video confirms that I overstated the width of the food aisles in my diagrams. For the diagrams, I used only memory as my guide. And the video camera placed additional limitations. I was forced to adjust the narrative circumstances contained within my memory. Because I was holding a camera, admittedly a small one, I was nevertheless required to take a dollar out of my wallet in advance so that I could hand it to the register clerk. This way, I wouldn’t have to set down the camera and extract the dinero from my leather pouch. In addition, the price of the onion was different from the initial price. The onion itself was different. Moreover, the social conditions surrounding my journey had drastically changed. (For one, there were more dog walkers.) I’ll explore the implication of these details very soon. But for the moment, let’s concentrate on the original narrative contained within my memory.

The Original Narrative

We needed the onion to make breakfast. We had run out of onions the night before because we had used the last one in our kitchen to make some homemade soup. The market was only blocks away from where we lived. The task offered an opportunity for me to walk. And I also found it somewhat comical that I would be going to the market for only one item. Just some commonplace produce that cost under a dollar. Was this bad time management on my part? After all, if you’re going to go to the store, shouldn’t you go there for multiple items so that you might save yourself some trips?

I did not see the situation that way. Here were my priorities for this five-minute excursion:

Priority One: Obtain onion.
Priority Two: Go for a walk, commune with the world, get away from the damn computer.
Priority Three: Find random opportunities for recurring curiosity about others to take root.

I willfully revolted against my first priority by purchasing not one onion, but three. It might be argued that by purchasing one onion, I had fulfilled my priority and that the two additional onions represented a new priority that I had whipped up on the spot; a spontaneity that I had not anticipated until I arrived at the onion bin. A more austere type might wish to punish me for my failure to obey the set dicta, or for not following the subconscious directions to the letter or for exceeding my budget, as ridiculously minuscule as it was. (For what it’s worth, I only purchased one onion when I recreated the incident.) I suppose it all depends on how much value you place on the onion or whether you feel comfortable having an extra onion around the house. Nearly anybody can afford an onion. Or at least nearly anybody lucky enough to have a roof over his head. And perhaps purchasing two extra onions doesn’t really matter if you have, as I did, even four dollars in your wallet. But if you only have a dollar and you purchase two more, then you are forced into a position of potential embarrassment when the clerk is forced to put the additional onions back. The second onion, beyond your means in this hypothetical case, determines your social position, which is very low indeed. But maybe you have no shame and you wish to max out your meager budget. Or maybe you want to see how the clerk will react to such a dilemma.

stageoneAs I progressed to the store (see the accompanying graph labeled Stage One), the first priority became less significant. I found myself considering the number of cigarette butts scattered on the sidewalk, which had proliferated considerably from last evening. This then led me to wonder if there was a higher percentage of smokers in my neighborhood than I originally estimated, or whether there were some people who who only liked to smoke on Friday night. But could I really make such a judgment when I wasn’t devoting my complete attention to how frequently the streets were cleaned or the people cleaning them? I then began to observe people as I walked. Over the course of my journey, I counted 31 people who were out and about.

31 people! And this was just over the course of five minutes. That’s 372 people in one hour, assuming that the rate of wanderers remains constant and that you don’t run into the same person twice. Given these numbers, small wonder then that we still obsess over the phenomenon of “running into someone.” And yet none of us, I think, are quite aware of just how many people we see or how many social or conversational possibilities we are presented with at any given time. We are often so fixated on our solitary task (in this case, the purchase of an onion) that we fail to consider our true insignificance.

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Since I was in a jocular mood, I’d like to think that I plentifully partook of these social opportunities. But there were only two people with whom I had direct contact with. And this was in the store. (I do not count the dog with a sad-looking face just outside the store who angled his head through two metal railings for attention and who I proceeded to pet and speak in a soothing voice to.) At Point A: A boy saddling along with his mother and carrying a glum expression. Recognizing the boy’s need to feel happier, I stuck out my tongue at him, and he smiled. At Point B: Some banter with the register clerk. A “Good morning” and “How are you doing?” and a “Thanks.” A smile. But nothing beyond that. Indeed, at Point B in the video, I did even worse. My recreated journey on video sees me communicating with nobody save the clerk, and my socialization was limited to “Thanks.”

I felt like a terribly selfish person when these details were revealed. Had the video made me more self-conscious? Was I less jocular? Or were the circumstances inveterate? Can we be exonerated if we aren’t really aware of how few people we talk with? Or is it incumbent on us to be more socially responsible? If it is socially acceptable not to talk with even half of the 31 random people we regularly run into on any given day, then are we any less culpable in failing to live up to the possibilities before us? In 2007, a University of Melbourne researcher concluded that political candidates sitting on the left-hand position of a stage are more likely to draw attention. Because the brain, when tracking a tableau, has a tendency to drift to the left. I must note that in Points A and B that the individuals were to my left. I also see that my own journey to and from the store had me situated mostly on the left side of the street. Therefore, if my brain was going out of its way to excluding people, it was possibly because my visual cortex was occupied with the buildings and edifices. Was I subconsciously going out of my way to avoid people? (Additional factors to consider: I learned later in the afternoon that I was in need of social engagement. Several opportunities presented themselves and were taken.)

What is also troubling in my video reenactment is that the only time I comment on anything is when I see a bus parked at a stoplight. This bus is in almost the exact same position as another bus was during my original journey. And seeing the similarity, I am forced to violate the conditions of my recreation: commenting upon the action. This would further support the “running into someone” theory. Consider what cognitive scientist Colin Cherry identified as the cocktail party effect, whereby a person has the ability to focus in on one talker while a steady chatter of conversation is going on. This was supported last year by a study that revealed the auditory cortex does a good deal of work in filtering conversation. And if your brain has robust basal ganglia, well, then you likewise may have a robust “irrelevance filter.”

I do not know how tough my basal ganglia are. But I am troubled by how smoothly my brain deems certain details irrelevant. How little it notices. How needlessly egocentric it is on a subconscious level. After the fact, I am going out of my way to locate the new, the unseen, the underdogs, the moments I didn’t seize, the people I could have talked to, the emphases I now find phony or false.

stagethreeStage Three of my journey seems less significant than the first two stages. By my own judgment, it is also the least interesting part of the video recreation. The onion has been obtained. I recall that during the original narrative, I found myself observing more people. I was not in a rush to get back. But on the video, I am circling around people rather than approaching them. I do not know if this is because of the camera or because I felt uneasy reproducing the narrative. And why should Stage Three be the least of the three? The primary goal has been obtained. The mind is at ease and can be more spontaneous with the rigid order out of the way. Or so one would think.

This exercise originated, in part, from ruminating over Roger Ebert’s recent post about the determinism of the universe, although the subject has long been on my mind. I am a secular type who does not believe in a deity, and yet, on some primordial level, my mind seeks to find connections and patterns. Even in thinking about why my mind reacted the way that it did, I am still trying to pinpoint a framework. How is this any different from Intelligent Design?

Among George Santayana’s great arsenal of pithy maxims is this one, written in response to William James’s the Varieties of Religious Experience: “Experience seems to most of us to lead to conclusions, but empiricism has sworn never to draw them.” I hope that I have been more explicit about my free will than James was, and yet I share with James a strange pleasure in vivisecting my experience. Of coming to terms with my subconscious limitations as a human being through diagrams and video reenactments. One should probably not approach life this way, because on a certain level, one must live with blind and uncomfortable truths. But is the truth really unraveled when we consider the structure beneath it? Or is the mind so hopelessly fallible, so determined in its determinist filtering, that human beings are doomed to repeat the same mistakes even when the horse has been led to water? This seems cynical rhetoric, but it’s quite liberating to know that, no matter how much you slice and dice up a moment, the mind remains a dutiful deflector.

unmadebeds

New Directors/New Films: Unmade Beds (2009)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

unmadebeds

The title of Alexis Dos Santos’s second feature film suggests either a Chekhovian spright or a close kinship with Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, perhaps one of the most definitive portraits of young people ever burned to celluloid. Certainly there are many allusions to French cinema throughout: a Jules and Jim-like menage-a-trois and a belabored homage to the bear suit in Renoir’s Rules of the Game that suggests a lack of auterial confidence. But Unmade Beds is a plodding and episodic film that can’t quite locate the definitive comforter to keep its many bedhopping twentysomethings from toppling out of the boxspring. A movie involving aimless characters should work, if only because this involves people having to react to random scenarios and reveal who they are. Certainly in Axl, a 20-year-old rootless kid from Madrid searching for his dad, there is some promise. By Axl’s count, he has slept in some twenty beds over twenty years. But if his current lifestyle reflects a certain deficiency in his counting skills, I must report my distrust in this tidy philosophical number. Now in London, he goes out to party every evening and can never quite remember what happened the night before. This results in a stolen kiss from someone he was carnal with the night before. Somehow, he stumbles his way into an industrial flat where nobody seems to pay rent and there seems to be plenty of liquor (courtesy of a club named the Lost and Found). “How many people live here?” asks Axl. His new roommate (a parachutist enthusiast, as it turns out) replies, “No idea. It changes all the time.” Of course, you never know when the place is going to be used to shoot a dubious music video with people dressed in animal suits or when you might be asked to select one of the many ratty mattresses in the cellar. Having spent a portion of my early twenties bouncing around similar living arrangements, I commend Dos Santos for going out of his way to depict this uncertain bump and grind.

But let’s be clear on this. The film is on shaky ground, because it tries to balance the clueless frivolities of youth with a crude conceptual philosophy (“Two people will always be one plus one”). That’s a tall order for even the most talented filmmaker. And Dos Santos mangles this severely with his other major character, Vera (who is French!), who also lives in the flat and spends much of her time meeting up in motel rooms (one is numbered 353, a palindrome reflecting just how this will turn out) with a man who who later reveals his emotional complexity with a homespun song (“I’d like to spend the day with you / I’d like to spend the night as well” are some of the lyrics). Here is a lad that you might find charming if you really just want to boff a guy who will pick up the lodging bill. You can scrounge up a dozen of them without serious effort in Williamsburg. Vera and the man — I know that he had a name, I know that I wrote it down, I know that I can probably IMDB it, but he made such little impact on me that it scarcely seems worth the effort — settle into an affair in which no phone numbers are exchanged. Only meeting times and locations. Dos Santos attempts a semiotic significance by having the man constantly dash the tips of his fingers on stair railings. (Again, the French film imagery!) But we never really get a true sense of the desperate loneliness behind this relationship, save for one moment in which this couple dashes onto the next random train and a decently-directed sex scene that has the two nervously discovering their bodies. Unfortunately, every time these two meet up, Dos Santos has Tindersticks’s “Cherry Blossoms” play. And play again. And again. I mean it’s a good song and all, but — “Get in the morning.” Oh, shit again? No, Dos Santos! “Climb in beside you!” Yeah, I get it. For fuck’s sake, make it stop! “Watch the clock for half an hour.” No, make it stop! I hate this song!

It’s safe to say that if I were Stuart Ashton Staples, I would seek legal action against Dos Santos for making one of my well-known croons almost totally unappealing over the course of 93 mere minutes.

Axl does track down his dad. He’s a staid real estate agent who Axl welcomes to his jungle by pretending to look for an apartment. But will he confront him with the truth? It’s the allegorical unmade bed in action. That steady place where you can fall fast asleep so long as you combat your laziness and take some responsibility in the morning. One almost expects a flashing subtitle to spell this out and clue in that part of the audience who has fallen asleep. (I counted five dozers at the screening I attended.) There’s an odd backstory in which a young Axl pretended to be a superhero and leaped from a tall domestic place only to injure himself. This boyhood slip-and-fall, by no means comical, is revisited in the present.

But neither Axl nor Vera are half as interesting as a snotty bookstore employee who insists that Vera arrange all the books in their correct order. Dos Santos continually suggests that Axl and Vera will eventually be forced to confront the need for some kind of order in their lives. But he isn’t a daring enough filmmaker to suggest that these two might find order on their own terms. He’s good enough to reveal their wanton desires, but what Truffaut did so well with his Antoine Doinel films was to juxtapose his drifting slacker against the need to find a sense of purpose — even accidentally. This bookstore employee may very well be an allusion to the struggling writer in the Doinel films who is always hitting Antoine up for cash in the street. “At least this writer is trying to do something on his own terms,” Truffaut is almost screaming to us with these moments. “But Antoine is not. Will Antoine finally get it?”

Well, Axl and Vera never do get it. They don’t even come close to getting it. Vera keeps a Moleskine in which she neatly inserts her photos. But this is just killing time. That we don’t have any sense of where she might go or what she might do with her life is a major cinematic debilitation. We know pretty early on how Axl’s quest for his father will turn out. And we also know that without this pursuit, he’s nothing. Axl tells his father that he’s in business school. He clutches onto his father’s business card and makes random calls to him on a pay phone. But give him five years and he’ll be a wreck. He has only a schoolboy’s jacket he finds at the flat to cloak the internal qualities he can’t coax out. But shouldn’t we have some sense of what lurks behind these details? I’m not against films about rudimentary twentysomethings, but shouldn’t we be curious?

barkingwater

New Directors/New Films: Barking Water (2009)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

barkingwater

Oklahoma, a state unfairly associated with Rodgers and Hammerstein, is a vast prairie with a pan-shaped territory suggesting a definitive cooking surface for the great American melting pot. It has been dismissed by East Coast elitists as a hotbed of virulent Christianity and backwater intellect. But as Will Rogers famously quipped to the state’s detractors, “When the Oakies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the IQ of both states.”

It’s something of a relief to know that filmmaker Sterlin Harjo has dedicated himself to not only raising the stereotypical plateau with which his homestate is viewed and understood, but by documenting the state’s Native American population over the course of three films. It should be noted that Oklahoma has 25 Native languages, which is more than any other state. The lingua franca is so fascinatingly variegated that the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill in 1990 that permitted a Native language to serve as the state-mandated high school language requirement.

Language of an altogether different sort is what makes Harjo’s third film somewhat interesting. Here is a young filmmaker struggling to collect the quiet experiences that older people often keep to themselves. At one point, our two heroes — Frankie, a man dying of cancer and hoping to clear up a few fractured relationships before passing on, and Irene, his ostensible soulmate — thumb a ride from a young couple from Tulsa. The young woman, Wendy, remarks to her husband about how adorable they are and how they might be able to forward to a future where they can be just as comfortable with each other. Her husband looks upon this lifelong commitment with a quiet horror. And when Irene brazenly announces that the two are not together, the young couple’s illusion is shattered. But a mix tape serves as a cross-generational point of reconciliation. One particular song proves so intoxicating to Frank that we see him torturing Irene later, playing the tune over and over again in a car. Since the man is dying, he’s excused for this apparent rudeness. But is it really rudeness? Or is this Frank’s way of expanding Irene’s rigidly parochial perspective? Is the lie that Irene committed years ago — a prevarication that Frank himself has quietly braced and has never attempted to clear up with anyone — worse than Frank’s auditory sleight?

That such character questions are buried inside this film is a testament to Harjo’s talent. Perhaps it’s the landscape itself that’s cloaking these concerns. Harjo frequently cuts away to shots of rusted stop signs and the flat terrain, as if to suggest that the patient and restricted Oklahoma culture may be responsible for some of these communicative failings.

There is one unexpectedly flamboyant scene at a diner that suggests an alternative Oklahoma. Irene, who only has a ten dollar bill for their journey, is in the habit of calling friends and relatives to get people to buy the two meals. She calls on a nephew that neither Frank nor Irene are particularly crazy about. The nephew and his friend are delightfully boorish. (The pal insists on ordering nothing but “a whole mess of bacon.”) And Harjo films this scene using wild and often low diagonals, even capturing the large deer’s head at the top of the wall. The glum waitress taking the order insists that every breakfast platter requires toast. And one gets a sense of the need to resist such rigid folkways by the bacon enthusiast’s baseball cap reading RESIST.

“That’s what I miss most about being young. Magic,” says one character at one key point in the film. And this sentiment reveals the film’s major flaw. Harjo doesn’t quite have the chops to present us with the magic dazzling at the other end of life: that jam-packed existential epoch just after sixty troublesomely incompatible with Hollywood’s commercial emphasis on the young and unshaped. Frank and Irene keep a very interesting enigma to themselves. But instead of permitting these characters to communicate the edges of this mystery with a telling look or a curious conversational fragment, Harjo spoils it all with that most amateurish of film narrative devices: the flashback. And once this mystery is revealed, Frank and Irene become thinner in character dimension than they have every right to be.

Here is an ambitious film that knows its underserved state very well, but it doesn’t quite know people as well as it should. But I harbor a faith that Harjo’s subsequent films will become more expansive as this young filmmaker matures with time. Let us hope that some benefactor permits him to make more films and hone his craft. His voice, as unformed as it is, is needed.

The Covenant

Some years ago, not long after Herb Caen’s death, I decided to make a series of pilgrimages to the San Francisco Public Library to dust my hands and wrangle microfilm. I had known Caen’s three dot columns for some time. Or, at least, I thought I had known. When Caen passed away, as others dwelt on his coinage of “beatnik” and “Baghdad by the bay,” I felt that it was my civic duty as a San Franciscan to begin at the beginning, which very few at the time had thought to do.

As it turned out, in the late 1930s, Caen had started off as a nightlife columnist, attending swank parties and banging out his observations. What’s rather amazing about this old school epoch is that the newspapers once hired about five or six guys to go around town like this. They’d drink a good deal at upscale hot spots and write columns about their social engagements late into the night as their heads crashed with the competing crassitude of too much gin. When scanning through the microfilm rolls for Caen’s words, I was stunned to see photographs of other dapper gentlemen next to other columns. And I suspect that, beyond the prohibitive cost of scanning and providing all this online, the newspapers may not want you to know that they once actually paid whole armies of columnists of this ilk. This was, in short, a newspaper in which plentiful voices were represented, even on a seemingly pedantic subject. Here was a cadre of niche-specific columnists gathered together under one umbrella. And with multiple newspapers in town, there was a healthy competitive spirit that encouraged the columnists to do better.

You might say that these columnists were the bloggers of their time. And Caen, with his little snippets, certainly reflected the compact summation that Izzy Stone would later offer by mail and bloggers would later present through the roundup format (which has subsequently gravitated to Twitter, where the act of reader engagement becomes more explicit). But these columnists were different because there was an odd journalistic quality attached to these activities. You’d think that columns about running into dilettantes and drinking martinis would be somewhat superficial. But despite this emphasis on swank social tableaux, Caen always had a good eye for observation. He noted odd conversations and paid attention to the details around him. And he did this without belittling what could easily be belittled. (To compare this with the present epoch, we’re now expected to see a report of a party or an event from some snarky Gawker type. Easy targets are eyed and assessed. But what do we really learn about how this world works? Does Gawker really have the longer view in mind? Would it not be better if it dared to detail or if it dared to establish an off-the-record trust with which to convey the scene?) Because Caen was able to establish a trust with the social scene he was documenting, he was able to acquire details and, decades later, his columns remain immensely helpful. For instance, I learned from these old columns that there had been a chain of stores called the Martha Washington Candy Shop. (This was essentially the See’s Candies of its day.) The chain had inexplicably folded and there simply wasn’t any information about it on the Internet. So I began jotting down all of these details, compressing them into months and putting them all into a short-lived blog that I called Raising Caen.

Herb Caen, as we all know, became indelibly associated with the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a revered figure (and many attempted to cajole or influence him) because of his details, and because of his voice. There hasn’t really been a Chronicle columnist on that level since. Unless you count Mark Morford (Steve Outing draws the line), who provides an often frenetic metrosexual voice to the Chron. Hiring Violet Blue was a step in the right direction. The vanilla newspaper simply had to come to terms with the fact that they were circulating in a sex-friendly metropolis. But here’s the thing about Morford and Blue. Neither of them are particularly good at using their voices to get at those important details about a location or an event. Blue does interview people from time to time, but opts for a predictable Q&A format. What if her editors pushed her to give us multiple sources or a description of a scene? What if an editor demanded that Blue provided those vital details that made Caen a draw? As for Morford, his problem is that he is so caught up with wild conceptual approaches and stunts that we often don’t get a sense of Morford either (a) in the thick of things or (b) engaging directly with the community. (The alternatives to this, of course, are the dutiful Matier and Ross, the bland and voiceless Debra J. Saunders, and dependable cultural columnists like Tim Goodman. But what has caused this schism between voice and journalist? Why must it be an either-or proposition?) The newspaper columnist, who once served as a vital chronicler and detailer, is now viewed as an apparent draw only in so much as she can present a perspective. The columnist, in turn, deals with the public through letters and emails.

But perspective, as important as it is, simply isn’t enough. What made Caen such a local household name was his ability to include his readership within his columns. If he found a particular morsel, he would always attribute the reader who included it. His readers therefore felt a level of engagement.

One must therefore ask why Roger Ebert, aside from his television work and his Pulitzer Prize, remains such a household name with the Chicago Sun-Times. It is because he also engages directly with his readers. Consider his blog. Read through the comments and you will find Ebert personally responding to comments in bold. Ebert, like Caen, knows that a columnist’s responsibility involves engaging with his readers. What has changed, however, is the manner in which that engagement is presented to the public. What was once a series of private exchanges now becomes open to public scrutiny and dissection. But by including the readers in the manner that he does, Ebert offers his readership a place for their own ideas. His site remains a draw. Trolls are discouraged and a spirit of civil disagreement is maintained because the readers know that Ebert may respond to their comments.

In the past several days, many have fawned over Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” as if Shirky’s obvious and belabored points about newspapers failing to seize the possibilities of the Internet were new. What Shirky fails to observe in his section on micropayments is that Paul Krugman was, in fact, a big draw for the New York Times. When Krugman was behind a paywall, there were ways of obtaining his column. An informed perspective seemed to matter. And this wasn’t all that dissimilar to the rampant Dave Barry piracy with which Shirky initiates his essay. For that matter, we must ask whether those who clipped out columns (and there were many who did this in the pre-Internet days) were any less piratical than those who pass along a link to an article by email or Twitter. The information, I suspect, has always wanted to be free, even before this notion became a hip catchphrase. It’s wanted to be free whether a second-hand newspaper swiped from a cafe or a printout of a microfilm decades later. The real question is whether the columnist is fulfilling a public need. And by “public need,” I am not necessarily referring to a mass market. (A recent Minnesota Post article pointed to small local papers still doing well. The number of adults reading small community newspapers actually increased from 81% in 2005 to 86% in 2008.) The real question is why newspapers have failed to provide an atmosphere in which tomorrow’s Dave Barry or Herb Caen might be allowed a voice.

Small wonder then that readers have turned to blogs as a substitute for this. Indeed, since expanding the word count of these posts, I have seen readers refer to my posts as “columns,” as if I am fulfilling some journalistic duty that I did not anticipate. I leave the comments open to everyone and permit anyone to take me to task, if they must. But some of the more heavily trafficked blogs have not, contrary to Caen or Ebert, respected the readership like this. Love or hate Boing Boing, one of its key appeals involves massive strings of comments attached to each post. But Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s egregious disemvoweling strikes me as anti-communal and disrespectful of the readership. This autocratic arrogance is not advancing the case for trust between columnist and reader. And it’s just as bad on other sites. There was a time when, if you want to leave a comment at one of the Gawker sites, you were expected to “audition” for it. (Thankfully, this control has been relaxed.) There is, in these sites, a fundamentally antidemocratic act of disengagement. The commenter must humble herself to the blogger, and not vice versa. All of this fails to acknowledge the fundamental democratic ripple floating from from the undulations spawned by any newspaper columnist.

Shirky is right to point out how the exclusive informational terrain of newspapers has transformed. A specific journalistic item can be disseminated in a 140 character tweet, and it’s no longer new news. CNN’s scrolling news ticker has likewise suggested that audiences want their news in capsule form. But the successful journalism at Talking Points Memo works because the investigative process is now a part of the relationship between journalist and reader. This approach now permits a journalist to carry out his work and to obtain helpful tips with which to pursue a story. The reader, again, is engaged with the process. And instead of print people and bloggers seeing this dramatic shift in the presentation of information as an opportunity to do better and to attract a greater readership, they have instead declared war on each other. The Washington Post‘s Kathleen Parker writes a vitriolic column bemoaning the “drive-by pundits” who are pointing to the deficiencies of present journalism. A South by Southwest panel labeled “New Think for Old Publishers” sees publishers who aren’t providing new information to a paying crowd, but demanding this information from the audience. Instead of the print people listening to the criticisms and learning from these developments, they ignore them and refuse to listen. And the bloggers, in turn, don’t always consider that there are virtues in long-form journalism. In many cases, they wish to tap-dance on the hospital bed of the dead tree patient succumbing to a terminal cancer. (Jeff Jarvis is by far the worst offender in this regard.)

And when Shirky declares

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

the idea-slinging optimist in me wants to muzzle the man. Nothing will work? Really? Is it possible that the medium itself doesn’t matter? Will the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s investigative work be any lesser because the newspaper is now only available online? (Indeed, the big question is whether or not the Post-Intelligencer becomes self-sustaining if the costs of print production are reduced. As Nicholas Carlson recently suggested, it would cost the New York Times twice as much to print and deliver the newspaper in one year than it would to send every subscriber a Kindle.) If the local papers in Minnesota are attracting more readers, might it not have something to do with this broken covenant between the reader and the journalist? Might it not have to do with the information itself? Have newspapers seen their subscription base dropped because they have failed to respect the readers? And have bloggers been hindered from teaming up along the lines of the 1930s nightlife columnists because this has become a zero sum game predicated on one’s authority and rank on Technorati? Are bloggers and newspapers guilty in not respecting the old covenant?

The New York Times‘s dreadful practice of referring to a “well-known consumerist blog” without citing the URL that first established the connection runs counter to this spirit of connectivity, and the demands of the covenant. Technology chipped away at the verdigrised armor that we all begrudgingly accepted before the Internet spawned what Parker refers to as “drive-by pundits.” And I suppose this is the fruit of Shirky’s “unthinkable” proposition: the idea that print and online journalists might join forces and a more effective economic model will emerge. Because a fusion of voice, the journalist-reader covenant, and investigative journalism will become a must-read central point for all concerned parties.

When Maureen Dowd fixates on Michelle Obama’s biceps, she is breaking the covenant. When Lee Siegel impersonates a reader and leaves a comment in a desperate effort to feed his own hubris, he is breaking the covenant (indeed, so much so that he should not be invited to be part of the process). When Jeff Jarvis or a clueless publisher lets ego get in the way of listening to what somebody else has to say, they are breaking the covenant. The readers are intelligent and they want to be engaged. They want others to synthesize the information so that they, in turn, can synthesize it. They look to any columnist or journalist or blogger and they want to be engaged and challenged. They want voice and they want to be a part of the process.

The nice thing about the covenant is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the journalist has to capitulate to the readership. The journalist can be as subjective or as wild as she needs to be. The only part of the deal is this: The journalist must listen. Particularly to the points of view that seem unseemly.

segundo273

The Bat Segundo Show: T.C. Boyle III

T.C. Boyle appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #273.

T.C. Boyle is most recently the author of The Women. To listen to our previous interviews with Mr. Boyle, check out The Bat Segundo Show #70 and The Bat Segundo Show #10.

segundo273

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering new author taxonomies.

Author: T.C. Boyle

Subjects Discussed: How to conquer jet lag, Ellen Key’s The Woman Movement, the individual vs. the spirit of the time, feminism and Frank Lloyd Wright, notions of education, Miriam’s presence and hypercaffeinated prose, balancing the women in The Women, the ABAB narrative of the first section and Talk Talk, representing Wright through his women, novelizing a fictive novelist’s biography, Blake Bailey, the burdens of chronological order, parallels between Wright and Boyle, the question of what anybody really knows about history from hearsay, seeing the details through an ever-shifting prism, the novel as a suspect medium, Riven Rock, dashes, sentences, and parenthetical information, annotations and “the rest is commentary,” art standing above morality, balancing empathy and the satirical impulse, rejecting reader expectations, reputation and renown vs. not knowing, why cruelty is necessary, reevaluation, empathy and narcissism, and understanding an artist.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

boyleBoyle: I try to get it both ways. I try to involve you in something in a satiric way. And yet it should also move you. And of course, in this book, I had to do that because of the tragedy of Mamah, which will conclude the book. So you have to set the reader up for that throughout. And I think there is tragedy throughout the book. Tadashi’s life is incredibly tragic in many, many regards. So again, I’m playing one element against the other throughout. And there is commentary upon commentary upon commentary. And, for me, it opened up the structure and it made it fun. It made it invigorating. A lot of the footnotes exist to give you information that I would like you to know about Frank Lloyd Wright and his buildings and where he was at any given time. But a lot of them also, I just express surprise on the part of Tadashi. And I find the hilarious.

Correspondent: Well, the question is: Okay, the reader wants to know about the artist. And essentially you believe — your own particular view is — that the art should stand above any morality. This is interesting because we don’t know about the artists. And simultaneously, well, you do have many details about Taliesin, as well as the skies and the views and all that. But I’m curious if this almost runs counter to the impulse if you’re playing with the reader’s expectations. So that they will never know about the artist, even though this is, in fact, why they read your books. Whether that’s entirely fair to the reader.

Boyle: Well, don’t forget that when I am creating art, I don’t mean to be fair to the reader or unfair to the reader. Those questions lie right outside the parameters of what I’m doing. I’m dreaming something. I’m creating something for my own purposes. I deliberate to you. And I hope that you interact with it in some way. And obviously you do and other readers do. Sophisticated art, to my mind, doesn’t provide answers and doesn’t have an agenda other than art itself. So I think a book like this one, of all my books, is probably the one in which the reader will be most engaged to try and unravel the truth of what it is in its own right. And don’t forget. I’m not writing about an unknown figure here. Kinsey, as you know, was recognizable second only to the President in this country in his time. But by the time I wrote about him, everyone had completely forgotten who he is. No one knows who he is. And Kellogg too was lost to the mists of history. But again, Frank Lloyd Wright, there’s been a thousand books. There’s a cult. People are lined up in Chicago today, freezing, to get in and go on the tour. So this is someone who has been written about eternally and is very well-known. My interest is: How do I get a new angle on this?

Correspondent: So by him being more well known than Kinsey or Kellogg, you can then justify this notion of not knowing Frank Lloyd Wright. That’s what you’re saying. Of the reader not knowing.

Boyle: If this is your interpretation, I would say yes. But again, I think you do know him. You do see him from his point of view a few times. But I didn’t want to represent his point of view a great deal. Because then you know his motivation and you know what he’s thinking. I would rather have it — that’s why I called it The Women. I’d rather have him viewed from other perspectives so that you can make your own determination. And, yes, I think part of that determination is that he was incredibly narcissistic. Maybe one of the most narcissistic people who ever lived. And yet narcissism, as we talked about with regard to Peck Wilson in Talk Talk, can be very damaging to everybody around you. I like to hope and think that I am sympathetic to people whom I meet and with people who are close to me. And that far from damaging them, I might even be aiding them in some way. A narcissist like Frank Lloyd Wright though, or Kinsey or Kellogg, doesn’t view the world in that way. Everybody else is simply valuable, only as they fit into his regime. So I think that any reader, even the least sophisticated reader of this book, will have a portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright that may be more true than what you get from a biography.

(Photo credit: Christopher Felver)

BSS #273: T.C. Boyle III (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Andrea Peyser

Andrea Peyser appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #272.

Andrea Peyser is most recently the author of Celebutards.

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[PROGRAM NOTE: At the 22 minute mark, while the conversation concerned itself with the dangers of generalization, a woman, who was sitting at a table located a good seventy-five feet away from them, gave Ms. Peyser and Our Young, Roving Correspondent a note. The note read: CAN YOU PLEASE TALK QUIETER? Now it should be observed that, while the conversation was animated, the two talkers did keep their volume level to a reasonable decibel level. Indeed, many folks sitting adjacently to these two appeared to be interested in the conversation. (This has been known to happen from time to time, since these conversations are recorded in public places. Indeed, there are a few amicable people working at one Midtown cafe who have urged Our Correspondent to come back because these conversations are apparently quite odd and intriguing to them. It also helps that we tip well.) It should also be noted that the woman with the note had congregated with a group of peers for a discussion that deployed such strange terms as "synergy," "collaboration," and "market forces," and that this group talked at a level far exceeded all other conversations occurring in the cafe. We note all this for several reasons: (a) to explain to the listener yet another odd and unusual moment in the history of this program, (b) to point to the problematic lack of distinction between workplace and social gathering point in our present epoch, and (c) to demonstrate that strange forms of passive-aggressive behavior remain troublesomely alive and well.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pursuing the unexpected qualities.

Author: Andrea Peyser

Subjects Discussed: Why celebrities cannot be ignored, “anti-American” sentiment, Sean Penn’s trips to other countries, whether or not Alec Baldwin is entitled to privacy, photographers and paparazzi, the limits of the media, whether hypocrisy is a valid description of celebrity, First Amendment rights, Martin Sheen’s 9/11 remarks, being invited to be honorary mayor, rudimentary viewpoints and free thinking, Nancy Pelosi’s importance, whether it’s possible for Peyser to agree with Al Sharpton, Munich and Black September, the problems of holding an artist’s statement on the same level as the art, Steven Spielberg’s remarks about Israel, the problems with generalizing about Mumia Abu-Jamal’s followers, being friends with Rosie O’Donnell and O’Donnell’s betrayal, on not taking the high road, celebrities of virtue, Bruce Springsteen, old Hollywood vs. the present publicity machine, on being vituperative in the New York Post column, quibbling with the infamous Heath Ledger column, “knowing” the celebrity from a snippet view, whether or not Peyser is happy, giving into the readership, and a few positive things that Peyser can say about the entertainment industry.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

peyserCorrespondent: You deem Alec Baldwin a celebutard partly because of the infamous voicemail to his daughter. But I’m wondering if it really is fair, given what you’ve just discussed in relation with Sean Penn and his political sentiments, to take something that was never intended for the public and put it up there with something that is actually in the public record. I mean, is it really fair to deem someone a celebutard for their private actions like this?

Peyser: Well, private actions. He left a voicemail. Any idiot knows that anything you say on a cell phone, anything you email and voicemail, it’s out there. He was in the middle of a custody battle. He was threatening his daughter. To come over to California and straighten you out. It got into the public eye and he got furious because of that too. He blamed others for his own actions. That’s also a common thread in celebutardism. When Barbra Streisand, for example, is caught being really, really stupid, she blames other people for her own stupidity. So in the case of Alec Baldwin, he did something really stupid — actually dangerous — and he blamed someone else.

Correspondent: But if it were not Alec Baldwin, someone could leave that voicemail and it may not have been disseminated out into the media like this. Just as, for example, you mention George Clooney and his anger and fury towards a photographer shooting a picture of him above the men’s stall. You’re saying to me that if a photographer came up to you while you were doing your business that you wouldn’t have any particular problem with that?

Peyser: No.

Correspondent: It’s out there to be disseminated?

Peyser: I wish George Clooney would make up his mind. One day, he’s fighting against the stalerkazzi, as he’s called them. As other celebrities have called them. People who stalked Princess Diana. Of course, the courts found that she was killed not because of the paparazzi, but because of her drunk driver. But anyway, he made a very big deal about that. People could be seeing it as censorship. Whatever. But then he turned around and he decided that I am going to back off. And that is censorship. And it’s okay. Say whatever you want about me. So I wish he’d make up his mind really.

Correspondent: Well, he is expressing understandable anger at a photographer shooting a picture of him above the stall. If someone did that to me, I would probably also be quite upset. I’m sure you would too.

Peyser: Yeah.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if it’s fair to hold him accountable for that particular understandable reaction and use this in the broader painting of who he is in relation to all of his other actions.

Peyser: Well, that was in Australia, first of all. He’s giving a picture of the media. The media. I love that word. I’m not shooting George Clooney naked. I really don’t care. But that was in Australia. He got the thing suppressed. He threatened a lawsuit. And I wish he’d now be quiet. And now he’s decided that the media has to be left alone. Which one is it? Are they killing Princess Diana? Or are they okay? Which one is it?

Correspondent: But do you believe that a celebrity is entitled to some level of privacy? Is it really fair to constantly — I mean, you’re living a life as a celebrity. You’re having all these photographers, reporters, paparazzi, you name it, invade your particular personal space. So understandably, your particular lines in interviews and the like are going to be subject to more scrutiny. And so this makes me wonder whether it’s actually fair to attack them.

Peyser: What I really love is how somebody — like, take Madonna, for example. Way back when, she was creating things that would attract media attention. She was desperate for media attention. And now that she’s a huge star, she’s the most controlling person who exists as far as interviews go. So why can they run to me and say, “Please, pay attention. Pay attention.” They do everything including taking their clothes off in public to get us to write about them. To take their pictures. And then when they reach a point of fame and fortune, it no longer exists. I don’t know. Actually, I would say that the media is dreadfully controlled by celebrities. I don’t think it’s as much of a free-for-all as you’re suggesting. I think there are armies of publicists out there who really control the image.

Correspondent: I certainly agree with you about that. You make many interesting points about Tom Cruise and Michael Moore certainly.

Peyser: Yes, that’s very…

Correspondent: I would never interview them because of these particular controls. But nonetheless, look at what happened with the Christian Bale outburst. This was remixed in a very fun way on YouTube. And suddenly things did get out. But the question is whether it’s entirely fair. I mean, I understand what you’re saying. Which is that the media — one needs it to advance in one’s career. But simultaneously, is there a particular point when the media should back off? Should they be probing and taking pictures of children and the like? And that sort of thing?

Peyser: Well, you know, personally, I have never done that. I don’t go after somebody’s children. Not without permission. But you know, I don’t know. Michael Jackson goes out in public with his children in veils. I would say that he’s attracting more attention to them then if he had just gone out in public with children with their faces showing. But I don’t personally condone using children. But I think that a lot of celebrities put them out there. Put them out there to attract attention.

Correspondent: Even if they’re doing their shopping, for example. And the children happen to be along. And then the paparazzi come. I mean, see, this is where we get into — I’m trying to just clarify where you’re coming from here.

Peyser: See, once again, this is a very small thing. I make the point. And I do this in the cases where the celebrity is obnoxious in the control. Of pointing out that at one point in their career, when they were very young, they would do anything for attention. Now I have never stalked anyone. Everything I get is from above-board sources. So I’m not speaking for myself. I’m talking about the hypocrites. The celebrities who use the media and then have no use for it once they’re famous and rich.

BSS #272: Andrea Peyser (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Tony Stone

Tony Stone appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #271.

Tony Stone is the director, writer, producer, editor, and actor of Severed Ways, a film about Vikings that opens in limited release on March 13, 2009.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Unsure of whether he wants to be a Viking or not.

Guest: Tony Stone

Subjects Discussed: The many crew positions that Tony Stone worked, music clearance people who keep weapons under their beds, making a film with seven chapters, how a two week shoot went on for three years, not getting the visuals right the first time, motivations for handheld camera work, accepting art as it is, “Greedo shoots first,” contemporary slang transposed into Viking talk, A Knight’s Tale, how far filmmakers can go in “modernizing” historical settings, the ethics of killing chickens on screen, Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, helpful ways of agitating both vegetarians and meat eaters through cinema, filming a defecation scene, the appropriate constituency of shit for a beautiful shot, Charles Leland’s Algonquin Legends, abstaining from profiling the Abenaki religion, paganism, anarchy, and secular humanism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

tstoneCorrespondent: “This fish is pretty killer.” Well, “killer,” as I understand it, is a recent modifier in the English language.

Stone: Yes, it is.

Correspondent: And I don’t think necessarily that the Vikings were using this or that the Nordic tongue had any answer to “killer.” So why the modernization of etymology here? Is this an inroad point along the lines of the Viking headbanger who likewise appears in this?

Stone: Yeah. It’s that. But it’s also that a lot of the times, you’d watch any period piece or historical film, whether it’s Romans or barbarians or whatever else, they’re speaking in semi-Shakespearean accents in their Old British. It doesn’t really make any sense. And everything’s very formal. There’s no reason why, a thousand years ago, they weren’t just as casual as us and they had their own vernacular. So this is using a piece of dialogue — like “This fish is killer” — is basically more of an accurate translation in my mind. Because you’re taking whatever their vernacular was and putting it into our vernacular. So you understand the tone and the vibe of what they’re actually saying. So I actually find there’s more accuracy in it. And we’ve just been so beaten down by the traditional Hollywood stupidity of how I’m dealing with history in films. So that sort of explains why I wanted it there. And of course, the film is trying to bridge the past and the present. And so it’s maing these characters have mannerisms that maybe the dude walking down the street has. Or whatever else. It’s trying to just not have it be this distant, far off, separate thing. It’s trying to make it more current and now. And it is with us.

Correspondent: But on the flip side, there is a certain point where it becomes ridiculous; i.e., A Knight’s Tale, for example. In which you have the Nike swoosh in the Middle Ages. Do you remember this film?

Stone: Yeah, I do. I do.

Correspondent: I mean, it was totally ridiculous. It was fun. But at the same time, one does not look to this for verisimilitude.

Stone: “The Boys Are Back In Town.” Yeah.

Correspondent: So the question is: how far can you go with this?

Stone: Yeah, that’s interesting. A Knight’s Tale. I forgot about that. It’s been a while. But yeah. They use modern music.

Correspondent: “We Will Rock You.” Yeah.

Stone: Then there’s that amazing part where they’re going back to London. And the Thin Lizzy song comes in. “The Boys Are Back In Town.” (laughs) It’s very incredible.

Correspondent: I mean, if we’re talking about Hollywood stupidity, I’m wondering how…

Stone: Yeah. Obviously, there is a level of absurdness to it. I’m not going to deny it. But I think the film is sort of rebellious in a way. It’s trying to set up a dialogue. I don’t know. But in a way, like I’m saying, it’s sort of modernizing the Viking. Making him a current character. Making him more similar to somebody maybe you know is the idea. I’m just getting away from that wall that’s usually put up in terms of dealing with historical material.

BSS #271: Tony Stone (Download MP3)

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missmarch

Miss March (2009)

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Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore are part of a comedy group called The Whitest Kids U’ Know [sic], a television show presently airing on the IFC Channel. One of their more popular sketches, the unimaginatively named “Slow Jerk,” can be viewed on YouTube. 4.8 million people have watched this tired retread of the Austin Powers phallic silhouette/camera placement gags, with many apparently finding it funny. But the difference between “Slow Jerk” and Austin Powers sketches is that the latter found creative methods of playing with perception. What the camera or the characters viewed wasn’t necessarily the truth. And it didn’t really matter that Austin’s naked stretching was implausible. Because there existed a pleasant choreography that made the joke worthwhile. Artistry was attached to Austin’s unseen member in the positioning, and audiences laughed accordingly.

The same, however, cannot be said of the “Slow Jerk” sketch. We see two men engaging in banal office banter. One man makes a casual masturbation gesture and says, “Just joking.” Then the other man attempts the same gesture in slow motion. But when one compares this to the Austin Powers sketches, what artistry is there? The obvious joke is that such locker room banter is happening around the water cooler. The imaginary dick is needlessly large. But just about any simpleton capable of curving his hand and stroking it up and down can perform the same gesture. So it’s hardly advancing comedy.

Presumably, the “Slow Jerk” sketch caught on because many YouTube viewers needed a quick chuckle while trapped in a grim office job. If only they could get away with that and not be charged with sexual harassment. Another sketch, “Cubicle Boss,” uses this same phony populism as its basis. A boss asks his employee if he fucked his girlfriend, threatening to fire him if he doesn’t reveal the private info. Then the two draw images of what they did the previous night on a whiteboard. (In a telling sign of this show’s lack of originality, the boss rips off Dr. Evil’s “Zip it!” during the sketch.) Again, we have a case where forbidden office behavior is “funny” in the context of a stolen moment on the clock. Because the sullen office worker watching this could likewise draw stick figures and a giant cock on a white board if only he were allowed. But is this really funny outside the workplace? In four minutes, does the “Cubicle Boss” sketch come close to the amount of artistry and comedy information contained within a minute of one episode of The Office? I’m certainly capable of appreciating a well-deployed lowbrow joke as much as anyone, but is there anything in this dialogue to distinguish the joke? Is there anything ridiculously class-conscious here, such as Mel Brooks’s “Oh, piss-boy!” from History of the World: Part I?

One must therefore ask if the “comedy” that The Whitest Kids U’ Know perform is any different from a group of high schoolers joshing around after gym class. If we remove the social restrictions of office behavior, could not any of us mime jerking off to our cubemates or drawing crude figures on a white board? And without that ability to offer that unusual juxtaposition in Austin Powers or Mel Brooks, isn’t such a comic stance insulting to the millions of people who have watched these sketches?

But none of the Whitest Kids‘s comedic deficiencies can possibly compare to the worthless material contained within Miss March, a film written, directed, and starring Cregger and Moore. Make no mistake: This is a vile and condescending piece of shit. You would get more laughs spending 90 minutes strangling an animal. It is a film so mind-numbingly atrocious that nothing would delight me more than to lead a glum and exhausted team of vigilantes in a dutiful lynching of these talentless cretins. And if Trevor Moore does not win a Razzie for Worst Actor, I may be forced to approach the Golden Raspberry Award Foundation in person. (More on this anon.)

The film offers racist stereotypes and rampant misogyny. It is artless and witless and stupid. Laugh at the overweight Spanish-speaking nurse named Juanita because she’s overweight and she speaks Spanish. Titter over a rap song because it repeats the phrase “Suck my dick while I fuck that ass” ad nauseam. (Wouldn’t this have been funny if there had been some escalation, with the sexuality becoming progressively stranger as the lyrics went on?) Smile at the two Russian lesbians who pick up our heroes and ask them to drive them to Los Angeles so that they can screw in the back of the car the entire time. For this setup, Cregger and Moore merely gape open their mouths the entire time while one of the women inserts a beer bottle in the back seat. And we’re supposed to find this funny. But what if the two men gradually grew more uncomfortable by all the sexual activity? What if their wildest fantasy (two women getting it on) led them to be disappointed and yet they pretended to be turned on in true macho camaraderie? With such a basic escalation, there might have been enough irony and conflict to sustain an amusing comic scene. But Cregger and Moore don’t have the brains to think about such basics. They think so little of their audience that they can’t be bothered to think themselves.

This is a movie that hasn’t a clue about the way the real world works. Even if one identifies Miss March as a male wish fulfillment fantasy, good entertainment needs to have some entry point. But Miss March occupies a paralogical realm in which you can casually flip through a stroke mag in a gas station (instead of asking for one behind the counter) and CDs can still be purchased up at Tower Records. (Never mind that the Tower chain collapsed three years ago, leaving one to wonder if this script had been rotting in a drawer for at least six years.) A woman opens an uncommonly large window on a bus, strips for one of the two protagonists, the bus bumps over something, and the woman is then sucked out the window. We’re supposed to find this funny because it’s “outrageous.” But anyone with an IQ over 75 will see the setup coming well in advance. And there are unanswered questions. What if the woman was killed? And why doesn’t anybody ask about her? Would not any of these points have provided more conflict and unpredictability for the narrative?

Another gag sees Cregger suffering from atrophy (days after he has awoken from a four-year coma) while trying to pump gas. You’d think that this would be a fine opportunity for Cregger to demonstrate his physical comedy chops. Alas, he has none. And the filmmakers know this. For they have Cregger wearing a hospital gown that is blown up by a preternatural gust. We see his ass. Some other people at the gas station see his dick. He’s naked. Ha ha. But what Cregger and Moore don’t understand is that random comic nudity along these lines must have some context. We laugh at the waiter’s buttcheeks in The Naked Gun (ripped from the “Sit on My Face” performance seen in Monty Python’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl) because we don’t expect to see it when he turns around. The waiter serves a role of service and propriety, and, when his ass shows, we see wild impropriety.

But, of course, Cregger and Moore, a pair so incompetent that any wretched soul sitting through this turkey may actually pine for Pauly Shore’s cinematic oeuvre, prefer gormless and badly conceived comedy. It is offensive not because it shocks (it doesn’t), but because it isn’t funny or artful. It is a film thoroughly against the human condition. It is stupidity writ large on a forty-foot screen. At the Playboy Mansion, a dog pisses into a playmate’s drink and she prefers this cocktail to the ones at the party. (Would any human in such an upscale context possess such a palate?) This is a film that thinks it’s edgy, but it is too cowardly to reveal any prominent anatomy in a Playboy centerfold. This is a film that steals the art direction from the motel room in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and attempts to pass it off as its own. This is a film so amateurish that one can actually see Raquel Alessi reading from cue cards when she juts her head out the window in an early scene. (The same, alas, applies to Hugh Hefner, who shows up in the end. Did he appear in this film because of his recent financial difficulties?) There isn’t even a compelling visual component to this. Most of the scenes are static long takes, with the actors (if one can, indeed, call this talentless cast “actors”) in TV-friendly camera placement.

There’s one promising idea involving vengeful firemen who are chasing our heroes in firetrucks with axes. I had hoped that the firemen might transform into modern-day Vikings, perhaps revealing a secret society of feral marauders. But the firemen are one-dimensional. We’re supposed to find them funny because they throw axes at a station wagon. I wanted to throw axes right back at the filmmakers for their inept cinematic execution. I guarantee that my aim would be more accurate because this film is so very, very bad.

I can report that I did laugh once during an early scene at a party, in which a bald muscular man wearing an orange shirt is randomly smashing his fist through glass cabinets. This was funny, only because I was exceptionally curious about this man. Who was he? Why was he there? Why is he committed to such gleeful violence? But I must conclude that this side character was a serendipitous aberration.

The promising comic actor Craig Robinson (Darryl from The Office) plays a rapper named Horsedick.MPEG. A tired joke involves Robinson constantly barking “Dot MPEG!” whenever another character refers to him as merely “Horsedick,” and this should give you a sense of how criminally the man’s talents are used.

And I haven’t even begun to tell you about Trevor Moore’s horrible performance. His character has been given an epileptic girlfriend, and perhaps this is a subconscious clue to the audience that his thespic ineptitude may indeed cause you to have a seizure yourself. Both actor and character are without appeal. Cregger and Moore are such condescending pricks that they believe that their audience hasn’t seen any movie older than five years. To this end, Moore’s character has been styled as an Ace Ventura knockoff. Like Jim Carrey’s character, he dons a Hawaiian shirt, an unruly shock of hair, and bulging eyes. Carrey, however, is an actor who has remained engaged in comic exuberance, even when he doesn’t have decent material. Moore, by contrast, does not have an expressive face, an ability to understand what’s happening in the scene, or a talent of any kind.

To get a true sense of the worthless specimen that Trevor Moore is, why not listen to his answer from this Orlando Sentinel video interview? Here he is, quoted verbatim, in a question asked about performance:

I mean, I think, you by and large, everyone kind of just writes their own characters for the most part. Like you end up just, sort of, you know, uh, I mean, it’s kind of a way that the group works troupe-wise. Um, I mean, everyone helps pitch in lines for everything. But you kind of formulate your own characters from those part. [sic] And it just kind of, you know? Uh, like with this movie, we never really sat down and we’re like we’re going to do this guy, we’re going to do this guy. We just kind of, you know, right up, uh, I’m going to go over here and do this and then, you know, and I’ll do this. Oh, you just kind of. It’s sort of how we work.

Keep in mind that this answer comes after Moore has been on the road doing publicity at 38 colleges for five weeks. Keep in mind that this stunning insight comes after this 28-year-old man — not a teenager — has been asked a variation of the same question over and over again. That this inarticulate answer, even accounting for the fatigue that sets in after heavy promotion, is the best rejoinder he can come up with should tell you everything you need to know about how inept and unqualified he is at his craft. It should spell out quite clearly that this guy is as dumb and as valuable to our culture as a commonplace rock. Indeed, he would be better suited chopping up rocks in a quarry.

I do not know if audiences will flock to this film in the same way that they rushed to Paul Blart: Mall Cop. And I do not think there is anything I can say that will prevent people from reveling in this cinematic fatuity. Miss March is, to say the least, a great disservice to popular comedy. It is a movie that left me so dispirited that I was required to walk about forty blocks in order to restore my faith in humankind. If an extraterrestrial species were to see Miss March and conclude that this was the kind of “art” that humanity was capable of, they’d surely nuke our planet from orbit ten times over.

Recession Recipes: Veggie Corn Chowder

In an effort to encourage folks to whip up some decent eats during this economic downturn, here’s an improvised recipe for vegetable corn chowder. It will probably set you back about eight bucks or so at the market (assuming you already have flour, butter, and olive oil in the kitchen, like most folks). But this will feed about four people. It goes down well with corn bread and Heineken. And the wonderful thing about this chowder is that it’s quite filling. Deceptively so.

First off, you’ll need to make yourself some fresh vegetable stock. Because trust me on this. The chowder will matter more if you have really kickass vegetable stock. You can alternatively use water. But that’s not really much fun. So here’s a quick rundown of how to make the stock. If you’re a lazy bastard, you can skip all this. But I have a sense that you’re going to want to go the distance. Because good chowder is worth it. And since you’re going to so much trouble here to make veggie corn chowder from scratch, what’s wrong with another hour devoted to the stock?

Stock ingredients: One onion, three stalks of celery, three bigass carrots (I mean, you need circumference here), ten cloves of garlic (or one big bulb), ten or so peppercorns, a bay leaf, and water (of course!).

1. Chop up all the produce. Now the segments should be substantially sized. Because keep in mind that you’re essentially filtering the flavor of the vegetables when you’re cooking this sucker. So you don’t want to chop the produce into crazed little bits. (If, like me, you love chopping shit up with knives, well, you can save your mad dicing skills for the chowder, which we’ll get to in a minute.) That goes for the garlic too. You should just be using the stripped cloves. You’re going to want carrots of about an inch or so in thickness. And you’ll only really need to halve the onions. Anyway, throw all this into a big pot (probably the same pot you’ll be using later for the chowder). Then throw in the peppercorns (could be ten, could be fifteen, don’t stress over it) and the bay leaf.

2. Fill it all up with water. You’re going to want all the vegetables to be under the agua. Once you’ve done that, fire up the burner. Once this all boils, let it simmer. Then let it sit for about an hour. Try not to go too much beyond an hour. I mean, if you’ve got a DVD you need to watch while the stock is doing its thing, make sure it’s an episode of The Wire or something (assuming you can confine your viewing experience to one episode at a time). Not some two hour movie. Because if you let the stock go beyond this, you’re going to have stock that isn’t optimal for the chowder.

3. Alright! It’s been an hour. You’ve been uplifted by some important television episode from David Simon. You’re angry at the world, probably less so than David Simon. Or maybe you’re just enthralled. Anyway, whatever your emotional state, you’re now ready to drain your stock! Now if you’ve made noodles, this is essentially noodles in reverse, in that you’re disposing of the veggies and keeping the water, which as its glorious yellowish green tint will indicate, has transformed into stock! Now be careful. You’re going to want to preserve as much of the stock as you can. Don’t beat yourself up if you spill any of this into the sink. Just make sure you get at least a cup or two of this stuff into a measuring cup or a Tupperware bowl or something.

4. Seal the stock. Refrigerate. Voila! You’re ready to make some kickass veggie corn chowder tomorrow. But you’re going to need to make sure this refrigerates for at least a few hours. Ideally, you should probably make the veggie stock the night before. And keep this in mind. If you have no intention of using the stock this week, you should probably put it into the freezer. It lasts a week in a fridge and about a month in a freezer.

Okay, so now we’re onto the corn chowder.

First off, here’s what you’re going to need.

– Two potatoes (peel and dice into small bits)
– Three or four bigass carrots (peeled and chopped; now don’t go crazy like you did with the stock; you need about 1/3 inch chunks here)
– One onion (diced into very small parts; go with a Spanish onion if you can, but I must warn you; Spanish onions are a pain in the ass in the tears department; nevertheless, they give the chowder the kind of pep that a regular yellow or white onion can’t quite do; so it’s worth crying over)
– Two thirds of a yellow bell pepper (chopped and diced)
– Three stalks of broccoli (chopped; try cutting these into thin slivers or florets; be wary of the stems; they are sometimes a pain in the ass)
– Three cloves of garlic (chopped, pressed, or what have you)
– A little bit of red bell pepper (you’ll want to grate this)
– Your veggie stock or, for the lazy bastards, water
– Some flour (about a tablespoon or two; you can eyeball this)
– 2 cups of milk (you’ll want to heat this up; it’s okay if you pop it in the microwave for about two minutes)
– Some butter and olive oil
– A can of corn kernels (or, if you’re really hard-core and you’re in a place where corn is cheap and in-season, you can use about two or three fresh ears and scrape off the kernels after you boil it)
– Fresh cilantro (okay, if you need to save money, if you’ve got some ground cilantro in your spice rack and it’s between the $2 they sometimes charge for fresh cilantro and getting fresh veggies for the stock, I’d opt for the veggies; really, you need good stock to make this work)

Now that seems like a lot of work. But once you have everything prepped, this will all get done in about an hour.

1. So you’ve got your big pot. You’re going to want to put in a dab (roughly half a tablespoon) of butter and the same amount of olive oil. Make sure you get the entire bottom of the pot coated with this wonderful concoction. Because you’re going to be zipping around later.

2. Into the pot: the potatoes, the onions, the garlic, the carrots, the ground bell pepper, the diced yellow bell pepper. Saute all this for about five minutes or so. (Don’t worry about the hardness of the potatoes. Because when you add everything else, they will cook quite marvelously.)

3. Stir in the flour after you’ve sauteed this vegetable mix well. (Don’t worry. We’re about to get to the corn and broccoli. Hold your horses.)

4. Here’s the part where you’ll need to have some care. You’re going to gradually add the warm milk and the stock (or water). Do this in increments. A little milk, a little stock, stir. Don’t go crazy because you’re going to get some bumps if you throw it all in at once. Keep doing this until you’ve exhausted all the milk. Now you’ll likely have leftover stock. Here’s the thing. If you’re a stickler for thickness, your chowder’s going to appear thicker than it really is. So you’re going to want to have a thicker chowder here while you’re letting all this boil. But be sure to use all the milk! Or else you won’t have a decent chowder!

5. Stir everything around. Keep doing this until it comes to a boil. Again, the constituency of the chowder is the most important. So you’re going to want to make sure you stir this.

6. While the chowder is congealing, add the salt, pepper, and the cilantro and stir it in.

7. When the chowder boils, reduce to low heat. You can let this simmer for about 30 minutes. And while you’re waiting, make some fresh corn bread if you like.

While the chowder is simmering, be sure to stir it every so often. You’ll then start to see what I was talking about in Step 4. The chowder is thinner than you expected. But it’s thick enough because it should be coming together.

Voila! Vegetable corn chowder! And it’s also very good for a potluck.

Now if you’re eating alone, I wouldn’t recommend this recipe. Because it is a lot of chowder. Unless you’re the sort who enjoys eating the same thing four nights in a row. But it’s not bad for a couple who likes leftovers the next day. And if you have two kids, I think that they’re likely to go crazy over this chowder with some corn bread. Certainly I have witnessed a few extraordinary reactions to this chowder. It is quite healthy. And if you’re a carnivorous type wooing a vegetarian, well, I assure you that this is a hearty enough chowder to fill your stomach.

A Call For Plenitude

It is a happy necessity which obliges wisdom to do good, whereas indifference with regard to good and evil would indicate a lack of goodness or of wisdom. And besides, the indifference which would keep the will in a perfect equipoise would itself be a chimera, as has been already shown: it would offend against the great principle of the determinant reason. — Leibniz, Theodicy

In recent weeks, I have observed undeserved burdens heaped on too many good souls. The Duane Reade clerk (one of two jobs she holds) too exhausted to lumber any faster beneath the register. The woman in her early forties juggling compact and BlackBerry, as if both were stray capsules from the same big bottle of panacea, while her heels clack with staccato desperation against the sidewalk, The sour middle-aged man sitting alone on the subway staring at a flimsy severance check and wondering what the hell he’s going to tell his family.

When I ask the kind Best Buy employee why she’s carefully examining the twenty dollar bill I hand over, she apologizes and tells me that there’s been a steady uptick in counterfeit bills. I’m genuinely surprised and I assure her that I’m no crook. “More shoplifting too?” I ask. She whispers yes. Her eyes dart nervously to her slim and nervous manager, whose eyes survey the floor like two surplus security cameras. I wave hello, but it’s no good. Every customer’s a suspect. It’s a good thing I’m just buying something expendable.

I’ve seen my trusty neighborhood bodega go under. The guy running the place couldn’t make his rent. But he understood that others were in similar straits and he cut his customer base some slack. “You pay me next time,” he said to a mother who couldn’t scrounge up the change for a dozen eggs. He paid all right. Never mind that she kept coming back.

There have been jittery emails from friends. Crushed voices over the phone carrying strains of reluctant endurance. Confessions of fatigue. They wonder if now is the time to take chances. We’re all getting by and we can’t imagine taking vacations. Instead of hanging out the whole day, how about a few hours after that job fair? Not that there’s a chance in hell of getting anything, but the savings won’t last forever. Yes, she lost her job too and I’m trying to cheer her up. You’re not expected to work overtime, but if you don’t, they’ll bring it up in your next performance review. Yeah, they’re having more performance reviews. You should see the applications fluttering in at Starbuck’s. Got any leads? Do you know anyone who has work?

Jobs being cut. Pay being slashed. Benefits lost. And everyone must work harder. Without rest. Until the unseen hunters stop shooting at the ailing beast that all of us have to bear on our backs.

But we’re not allowed to talk about any of this. To bring up the fortitude it takes to carry on is an indicator of weakness or defeat. A blot on our record. An arrogant man by the name of Rick Santelli blames it all on bad behavior. Even the latest chapters in the history books must be written by the winners. And those with the bulging wallets, those callous solipsists who kvetch of the difficulties of living in New York on less than $500K, hope that their spastic hand-waving ensures that the ink stays permanent.

So our faces become grimmer. Our hair grays faster. And we begin turning on each other like savage animals corralled in a cage. We search for any insouciance to lift our souring dispositions.

None of this is acceptable.

If fingers can cling resolutely to a cliff, the soul can easily extend beyond a mere Babbitt. We’ve reached a point in which we must take chances and throw ourselves into the wild briny patches of innovation. But why accept a world in which free thinking is replaced by a sad search for cues from someone who people think has a clue? Why believe that any one person is right all the time? Why celebrate a culture of entitlement and honor those who feel obliged to their spoils?

Tangible happiness expressed and received. A smile to a stranger. Five minutes to listen. Efforts to establish common ground. The burying of hatchets. A fey risk.

Are the most qualified people necessarily the best? And are the apparent dunces truly the worst? Must we cling to our groups and our clubs and our coteries? Or is there an epiphany to be found in the new and unpredictable?

The present conditions demand a blend of perfection and incuriousity that is incompatible with the human condition. To be human is to screw up and to seek out, to dust one’s self off the ground and try again and encourage others to do the same. Are we to get out of our present mess by playing it safe? Why limit the possibilities?

segundo270

The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kraft, Part Three

Eric Kraft appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #270.

Eric Kraft is most recently the author of Flying. This is the third of a three part conversation with Kraft about all of his Peter Leroy books, an epic of more than a million words which Our Young Roving Correspondent was insane enough to read. These podcasts tie in with a roundtable discussion of Flying involving numerous people.

(To listen to Part One of this conversation, go here. To listen to Part Two of this conversation, go here.)

segundo270

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating the stamina of listeners.

Author: Eric Kraft

Subjects Discussed: Writing about a location when not being at that location, intermittently returning to Babylon to absorb some details for Babbington, the limitations of revisiting place, having too many facts at one’s disposal, mysterious dark-haired girls, Peter Leroy’s muses, the gradual augmentation of swagger, seducing the audience, misheard literalisms, whether or not a meal has feelings, Boston Phoenix restaurant critic Robert Nadeau and B.W. Beath, the “warm and cuddly” label attached to Kraft’s work, perverse impulses and the telling of the tale, the source of the odd smell in Matthew’s apartment in Reservations Recommended, Kraft’s delivery of a letter to Jean Shepherd and a subsequent radio show based around that letter, dwelling more on the recent present, going to towns that have interesting names, Leroy’s influence on the memories of Kraft’s friends, efforts to make Kraft a famous writer, the effect that Random House’s purchase of Crown had on Kraft’s books, making a big score with a commercial book, dealings with Amblin, writing the Inflating a Dog screenplay, Donald M. Murray’s My Twice-Lived Life, the relationship of socks to a writer’s output, Madeline’s position on mismatched socks, self-congratulation and repetition, how to become an experienced tequila drinker, the semantics of “cult audience,” whether or not Kraft gets bags of cash in the mail, caring about an audience, the jokes that the Krafts wish they heard in bars, waiting for the dialogue to come, being in control, and the burden of holding onto scraps.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

erickraftCorrespondent: Has it ever occurred to you to try and make a big score in terms of writing a completely commercial book? In an effort to get people attached into the Peter Leroy universe? Or is such a thing absolutely impossible? Or did you, in fact, try to do this and it turned out to be so quirky and eccentric?

Kraft: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m just curious.

Kraft: Where is it? I’ve forgotten which book it is.

Correspondent: Oh yeah. One of the books where there’s the publishing meeting. I think it’s the first one in Manhattan.

Kraft: It’s in Leaving Small’s Hotel, where Peter’s publishers want him to add more blood and gore to the Larry Peters series. And he can’t do it. It doesn’t work out that way. He keeps turning in quirky Larry Peters stories. And I’m much the same way. I don’t think I could possibly do it. I haven’t bothered wasting my time trying to do it. And the other way I’ve managed to shoot myself in the foot so very well is in the matter of film sales. When Herb ‘N’ Lorna was released and was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times, I got a call almost the next day from Amblin — Steven Spielberg’s company. And I spoke with people there. And we had a number of interesting conversations. And I think perhaps, in the second or third phone call, I said, “Of course, the one thing that’s of great concern to me is that, because I have plans for all of these characters, there are many, many other things I want to do with them. I would have to retain control of the characters.” There was a silence. And essentially after that, a click!

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh my god.

Kraft: It wasn’t quite like that. But it was almost like that. That the matter was at an end.

Correspondent: Wow.

Kraft: And there have been other little explorations from Hollywood and so on. And I’ve basically said the same thing. However, now that I’ve brought the characters along as far as I have, I’m ready. So…

Correspondent: Well, this makes me curious about a parallel universe in which you would open up a Happy Meal and get a piece of erotic jewelry. That would be very good for America, I think.

Kraft: I think that the marketing rights are something we’d really have to — yeah.

Correspondent: But simultaneously…

Kraft: And Leroy Lager, I think, would be launched as well. A poem on the back of each bottle.

Correspondent: Simultaneously, you did write a screenplay for Inflating a Dog.

Kraft: I did.

Correspondent: So you were actually trying to have a big score here. Or at least some sort of film out of the deal.

Kraft: Actually, that was a time when there was no work for us in educational publishing. I couldn’t find any work at all. And I had a lot of time on my hands. And I was thinking, “What can I do that might bring in some cash?” So there were two things that seemed to me like brilliant ideas. Write a screenplay based on Inflating a Dog. And approach Eli Zabar about turning the shopping experience at the Vinegar Factory into something like a treasure hunt, where I would write descriptions of the foods that would lead people from one thing to another.

Correspondent: (laughs) It would confuse them.

Kraft: An astonishing day would be Eli Zabar whizzing around town from one shop to another. But he almost liked the idea.

BSS #270: Eric Kraft, Part Three (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kraft, Part Two

Eric Kraft appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #269.

Eric Kraft is most recently the author of Flying. This is the second of a three part conversation with Kraft about all of his Peter Leroy books, an epic of more than a million words which Our Young Roving Correspondent was insane enough to read. These podcasts tie in with a roundtable discussion of Flying involving numerous people.

(To listen to Part One of this conversation, go here. To listen to Part Three of this conversation, go here.)

segundo269

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Astonished by the celerity of interlocutor and author.

Author: Eric Kraft

Subjects Discussed: The notion of roles in the Peter Leroy books, King Lear, Peter Leroy’s alternative universe, the Muddleheaded Dreamers Motorcycles Club, Marlon Brando, the halfway house between the real world and the imaginary world, geek swagger, adjusting to contemporary folkways when writing about the 1950s, whether truth is findable within limitations, the old definitions of novel, Herman Melville, Pandora in the Congo, Perry Melville’s The Raven and the Whale, increased emphasis on formalist structure in the Leroy books, borrowing structures from other books, Raskol vs. Raskolnikov, being informed by other literary work, Don Quixote, on not knowing narrative details in advance, the risk of losing spontaneity, writing in the predawn hours, martinis at 5:00 PM, the North American Proust Society, the concern for construction in the Leroy books, Peter and Albertine shifting from hotel proprietors to hotel occupants, having twenty titles for future books, the Peter Leroy books on CD-ROM, uphill battles with publishers, why the Leroy books went out-of-print, cross-references and hyperlinks, the epidemic of vidiocy, Kraft’s changing views on online annotation, and the future of the book.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

erickraftKraft: Peter’s alternative universe at the time of Flying is located at something like 1960 in our universe and in our America. And at that time, the definition of the roles available to a boy his age were quite rigid. And the number of options was quite narrow. Things were not as fluid, certainly as they are now. And that’s one of the things. When I put myself back in the time from my life that was going to have to serve as the basis for Peter’s, it was something that I reacted against and found laughably limiting. At the time, it was frustrating and annoying. But now, from distance, in how much has happened and how many more options are open to a boy like Peter, it seemed laughable. And so it became essentially laughable. But you know, a lot of those roles were defined not directly, but by various cultural artifacts. You mentioned the MDMC — the Muddle-Headed Motorcyclists Club — and Johnny is the leader of that. Well, Johnny — the portrait of Johnny when you first see him — is exactly Marlon Brando in The Wild Bunch. I mean, there he is. With the same sort of cab driver’s cap and so on. So I very deliberately littered the ground with these references to the kind of cultural role-defining models that existed at that time.

Correspondent: But the MDMC is something of a halfway house between the real world and the imaginary world. It’s almost as if a swagger, which is a big component of this particular book, is something that is presented as an almost alternative form of swagger. I would call it “geek swagger,” which has come an increasingly acceptable notion in contemporary culture. But it also brings to mind what you just described in your answer. And that is you’re writing from your own memories filtered through Peter Leroy, and you’re writing from a time in which folkways are different, mores are different. The way in which we accept things are different. So is the artificial universe the way to find this halfway house? Similar to the MDMC? In order to create a “true” narrative? What’s the situation here?

Kraft: Well, this is the question I’m constantly asking myself. I know that there is an essential truth running through these books somewhere. If I could only find it. (laughs) There’s a time where I thought I was directly heading for it. That I knew it would be something that lay between Peter’s world and my world. And that I probably had a much better chance of success at displaying it if I focused on Peter’s world. Because mine would be an attempt at an honest memoir. And it’s impossible to write an honest memoir. It’s impossible to write a true memoir. As you said, every perception is a misperception to begin with. And from there, it just becomes more and more of a distortion. Can’t be done. However, if you work on the reflection instead, you may be able to adequately suggest the truth of the underlying facts. But finding them is the work of the reader. So because I’m so involved with this, I can no longer quite tell whether that truth is findable, is discoverable. I hope it is. And one aspect of it is, for example, this limiting effect of the roles that society was forcing on people back then. You saw it. So it was there.

Correspondent: Sure. But simultaneously, I might also counterargue that, because the form of this book is different from most novels, that truth, that verisimilitude, really shouldn’t matter so much. So, in a sense, you are both looking for the truth while also redefining what the truth is. And I’m wondering. This must create a dilemma for you when you’re writing any of these particular books. How do you go in and set yourself straight? This is the real I know, and this is the imaginary. We can go Lacan on this.

Kraft: This is a delicious dilemma. This is part of the pleasure of making the books. And I hope it’s part of the pleasure that the reader takes from them. The way I play with verisimilitude is, I hope, a way of scattering treats for the reader. I think it’s what I call absurd verisimilitude. Let’s drop back a bit. Here we are in Edgar’s Cafe. Well, at the time of Poe and Melville, the word “novel” was not what we use it for now. A novel was a true account. A novel would be what we call a memoir today. When Melville wrote Typee, he announced, “This was a novel. It’s all true! It all happened to me!” The opposing form — what we would have in opposition to memoir now is a novel. What was in opposition to a novel was a romance. And what made a romance succeed was not so much the flights of fancy in it, but what at the time people called resemblance. Verisimilitude essentially. Achieved primarily through accumulation of minute detail. Well, that’s what I do. There’s accumulation of minute detail. But my details, I hope, are details that lead the reader to say, “But this is preposterous!” Sometimes, if it works really well, there’s a time when the reader says, “Yeah, yeah, this is real,” and then has that “couldn’t possibly be.” One of the most rewarding moments was at a book club when I was talking with people about Herb ‘N’ Lorna. And after all discussion was over, and we were having coffee and pastries, a woman said, “I just have to confess something. Because this is really hard for me to admit this. But until about ten minutes into your talk, I thought this was all real. I thought this was a biography of two people.” So that was success.

BSS #269: Eric Kraft, Part Two (Download MP3)

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Should Maureen Cover Up?

Bloggers are never supposed to start a piece with a scene on the subway because it reveals either the frugal reality about the way they live or a tendency to pad out an essay with needless name-dropping.

Nonetheless, I’m going to. Because I’m really concerned about Maureen Dowd’s tits. And you should be too. Because understanding Dowd’s tits — wantonly focusing upon these two sagging points of no return — is the key to understanding the world we live in. For Maureen Dowd’s tits, as woefully deficient as they are, represent undeniable truths about politics and media. While Dowd herself is a boob, her boobies are twin prophets. They are the Romulus and Remus of today’s media world. (Or at least they are in Maureen Dowd’s mind.) And if you think that Deborah Solomon asking a “journalistic” question about how much someone weighs is hard-core, then you really haven’t considered that Maureen Dowd’s tits may very well be the real reason why the New York Times keeps her fumbling on the page and collecting from the payroll.

During weak moments, David Brooks and Leon Wiesltier have been known to leer at Maureen Dowd’s tits. And their satyr-like stares are rewarded with awkward references and backslapping and, in rare cases, an occasional hand job. If you stare at Dowd’s tits long enough, you’ll begin to see that her tits could easily wind up and punch out Rush Limbaugh, Bernie Madoff, and even Maureen Dowd herself. This is an impressive fact, for Dowd, so far as anyone knows, has not augmented her breasts.

A guy who works at my local cafe named Enrique and I were on the A line on our way to meet some dicey pot peddler somewhere out in Far Rockaway. “Fuck,” said Enrique. “They cut weekend service again. It’s going to take forever.”

But we got there in the end. And the dour drug dealer was a blithe spirit who told us to get the fuck out of his house once we had the bag in our hands. The drug dealer downgraded our “special relationship” to a “special partnership.” He then declared in front of his other waiting clients that he was going to stand “podium-to-podium with Maureen Dowd’s tits.”

I didn’t quite understand what Maureen Dowd’s tits had to do with any of this. We were only there to get our drugs and get high. I pointed out to Enrique that Wall Street was weak and jittery. Once the weed was sampled, it became evident that Enrique and I had been scammed out of decent leaf. Suddenly, I began to understand where Enrique was coming from.

Let’s face it: The only bracing symbol of American wankery right now is the image of Maureen Dowd’s tits. And it’s just too damn bad that they aren’t “sculpted” like Michelle Obama’s biceps. She does not have a husband to urge bold action. Indeed, she does not seem to think that men are necessary. So there doesn’t seem to be a comparative point of reference here, other than the drug dealer’s fey assertion.

On the subway back, when I asked Enrique again about Maureen Dowd’s tits, he indicated it was time for her to cover up. “She’s made her point,” said Enrique. “Now she should put away Sagbag and Droopy.”

“That’s a terribly sexist and objectifying thing to say,” I replied. “If you said something like that in a New York Times column, then surely you’d be fired.”

“Well, no,” said Enrique. “It’s become a more common practice for women employed at the New York Times to resort to throwback misogyny to demonstrate their continued worth to the old boys club.”

Maybe so. But Maureen Dowd, and her complete confidence in her malapropisms, are a reminder that Americans can do better than Dowd if they put their mind (or perhaps their tits) to it. Unlike other columnists, who think before they write and take the time to put forth an argument, Maureen Dowd has sagged every day. And we’re forced to pay attention to her tits because there really isn’t anything of substance in her columns.

I also have no doubt that she can talk cunt-and-tongue with ease and a wild stench.

kraftrt5

Flying Roundtable: Stage Five

(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four can also be read. Many thanks to Eric Kraft and all the participants for their time and careful attentions.)

Eric Kraft writes:

Thank you, Ed, for organizing this roundtable and assembling such a diverse and interesting group. I hope that they will find at least some of what follows as interesting as I found their remarks.

Peter as Dreamer (for Sarah Weinman)

At one point in “Do Clams Bite?” one of the novellas in Little Follies, Peter speculates that his pursuit of impossible dreams, his attempts to become airborne one way or another, and the subsequent feeling that he’s been a fool for trying might result from the influence of his ancestors, Black Jacques Leroy and Fat Hank Leroy:

Broadly, being like Black Jacques means, I think, letting yourself be seduced by your dreams, pursuing them, sending them flowers, and never noticing, or caring, that people are laughing at you behind their hands, never even quite noticing, at last, that you’ve made a fool of yourself. And being like Fat Hank means being ashamed of a dream, sneering at it, pushing it away, abandoning it as foolishness, and having it haunt you, having it leave a cold, empty spot right behind your breastbone, as if you had swallowed an ice cube when you drained your drink. But the two strains have become so mixed and confused along the Leroy line (if they were ever really distinct, for there was some Hank in Jacques and some Jacques in Hank) that the voices of Black Jacques and Fat Hank sometimes speak to me at once, and I can’t always tell which is which.

kraftrt5To me, Peter’s essential effort is to recover what he has lost to time, what time has taken from him. He can’t, of course. He’ll fail again. He fails at most of what he attempts, and yet, in the telling, in his accounts of his failures, there is that sense of buoyancy, for those who feel it. It is, I think, meant to be a gift, a gift from Peter to you. He manages in the reconsideration and reconstruction of his past, his failures and his losses, to rise above them, and he’s happy to take you with him, if you will allow him to.

Peter would agree with Henry James about the difference between realism and romance. James said, in his preface to the New York Edition of The American, that romance deals with “experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from the conditions that we usually know to attach to it and, if we wish so to put the matter, drag upon it.” In a lighthearted image, he likened the effect of romance to the lifting power of a lighter-than-air balloon: “The balloon of experience is in fact of course tied to the earth, and under that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or less commodious car of the imagination; but it is by the rope we know where we are, and from the moment that cable is cut we are at large and unrelated: we only swing apart from the globe—though remaining as exhilarated, naturally, as we like, especially when all goes well.” And then he turned to the art of the romancer: “The art of the romancer is, ‘for the fun of it,’ insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detecting him.”

To get that balloon airborne, Peter makes a lifting gas out of memory and art.  He has referred to his books as “memoirs with inventions,” and in the preface to Passionate Spectator he wrote about a life both examined and imagined:

For the obsessive memoirist, the actual living of life is a blessing and a curse.  Diurnal existence, with its quotidian comings-and-goings, provides the raw stuff, the basic and essential substance of the memoir, and that fact, the utility of life as lived in providing the ingredients for the memoir-baker, if only at the daily-bread level, makes life worth living, but the mind is not content to eat life raw, so the stuff of daily life is just grist for its mill, and the mind requires some time to do its grinding.  The memoirist requires some time to do the writing, and the revising, and the re-revising and on and on until the life in the memoir, the life on the page, has found and memorialized what wasn’t evident—perhaps wasn’t even there—in the chaff of the lived day.  I guess that’s not quite right.  I suppose the mind does eat life raw, but in the manner of a ruminant, cycling the stuff round and round again, chewing its cud until the mash is digestible.

For the memoirist who invents as much as he records, living life is only half the fun.  Life is a rough draft.  The mind remakes it, revises it, and rewrites it, unwittingly through memory, deliberately through the imagination.  To what we have actually experienced we add our thoughts about those experiences, and we transform them in the process: the unexamined life is not worth living.  We also transform our actual experiences by including in our accounts of them not only the facts but also the possibilities: the unimagined life is not worth living.

The Partnership of Kraft and Leroy (for Ed Champion)

Our little partnership is as nothing compared to the corporation of collaboration established by Fernando Pessoa.  Here’s George Steiner on the curious case of Pessoa and his others (from “Foursome: The Art of Fernando Pessoa,” The New Yorker, January 8, 1996):

It is rare for a country and a language to acquire four major poets on one day. This is precisely what occurred in Lisbon on the eighth of March, 1914. .  .  . It remains one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of literature.

Looking back on the event (in a letter of 1935), Pessoa tells of “a trance whose nature I cannot define. .  .  . My master had appeared inside me.” Alberto Caeiro wrote thirty-odd poems at commanding speed. These were followed, “immediately and totally,” by six poems by one Fernando Pessoa. But Caeiro had not sprung into being alone. He had two principal disciples. One was Ricardo Reis, and then [as Pessoa himself put it]:

Suddenly, in antithesis to the appearance of Ricardo a new individual burst impetuously onto the scene. In one fell swoop, at the typewriter, without hesitation or correction, there appeared the “Triumphal Ode” by Alvaro de Campos—the ode of that name and the man with the name he now has.

I created, therefore, an inexistent coterie. I sorted out the influences and the relationships, listened, inside myself, to the debates and the difference in criteria, and in all of this, it seemed to me that I, the creator of it all, had the lesser presence. It seemed that it all happened independently of me. And it seems to me so still.

Pseudonyms, noms de plume, anonymities, and every mode of rhetorical mask are as old as literature. Motives are manifold. They extend from clandestine political writing to pornography, from playful obfuscation to deadly serious personality disorders. The “secret sharer” (Conrad’s familiar), the supportive or threatening “double,” is a recurrent motif—witness Dostoyevski, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Borges. .  .  . Multiplicity, the ego made legion, can be festive, as it is in Whitman, or darkly self-ironizing, as it is in Kierkegaard. There are disguises and travesties that the most minute scholarship has never pierced. Simenon was unable to recall either how many novels he had begot or under what early and multiple pseudonyms. .  .  . As Rimbaud proclaimed, in his instauration of modernity, “‘Je’ est un autre”: “‘I’ is another.”

Destruction and Preservation (for Ed Champion)

Yes, there definitely is a tension between, one might even say a kind of argument, and eventually collaboration, going on between, destruction and preservation, and what Mario Vargas Llosa called, in The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, “real reality” and “fictitious reality.” He says:

The system of dualities around which the fictitious reality is organized is not built upon what dialectics calls the identity of contraries, but, rather, on their reciprocity: they are not eventually united in a superior synthesis but instead coexist as different elements, which nonetheless attain full reality only as a function of each other . . . while neither of the two loses its identitity in an intermediate, hybrid blend; . . . and it is this relationship of antagonistic fraternity, of jarring proximity (like that of the scents of lemons and of decaying human flesh in Jaffa) that fascinates Flaubert.  As his memories of the courtesan of the Nile and of the cemetary in Palestine prove [see letter to Louise Colet, March 27, 1853], such dualities are possible in real reality.  In the fictitious reality they will be necessary.  In real life they may manifest themselves; in the fiction, things, persons, and events will give the impression of manifesting themselves only through dualities, in the form of contrast, as in these cases, or in the form of resemblances.

I think Peter agrees.

The Impossibility of Objectivity (for Brian Francis Slattery)

The diagram below illustrates in schematic form the situation of the author within the world and of the author’s worlds within the author’s brain, including the author’s imagination.

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The area outside the outermost ring represents the ambient reality through which we all move and from which we get everything we know of everything there is.  This is what Emerson called “the actual world—the painful kingdom of time and place.”  For Peter Leroy, who is a fictional character, it is a place not quite so real as ours, though still a kingdom and sometimes painful.

The first ring is the author’s persona, a thin protective shell around the author within.  Notice, however, that the ring of persona is gray and fuzzy, as are all the areas in the diagram. These qualities in the schematic, grayness and fuzziness, are meant to indicate (1) permeability, the fact that information can pass through an area (in both directions) and (2) imprecision, the fact that the boundaries of the regions are ill-defined, not sharp and precise. So, the persona is a kind of semipermeable membrane, through which information about the real world can pass into the region of the author and through which the products of the author can pass into the real world.

So, all the ideas, and all the characters, in the author’s mind began as perceptions; however, all perceptions are misperceptions, because our senses simplify and distort what we perceive, and, an instant later, the intellect has further distorted and simplified the already simplified and distorted perception and categorized it and filed it for reference in the memory, so that it is now only a recollection of a perception, a shadow of its former self, and—by some mysterious process still poorly understood despite the best efforts of students of consciousness—these memories begin an apparently inevitable drift toward the region of the imagination, where they are massaged and amplified and bent and twisted until they are scarcely recognizable as the offspring of the bits of the outside world that gave rise to them.  Thus, Scrooge’s undigested bit of mutton becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past, and thus there are no immediate experiences, and thus there are no characters drawn directly from life.  The stuff of fiction, all of it, is conceived somewhere in memory; that is to say, somewhere along the path from the real world to the region of the imagination.

Luis Buñuel said much the same thing in far fewer words in his autobiography, My Last Sigh (apparently written, at least in part, by Jean-Claude Carrière):

Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths. Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance. . . . I am the sum of my errors and doubts as well as my certainties. 

Nice Books Finish Last (for Matt Cheney and Eric Rosenfield)

Regarding the book’s being too “nice,” I think that Peter might say something like this:

Suppose someone could look down on the life of a man from a great height, . . . how many disasters would he see in store for it!  Man’s birth is painful and sordid, his upbringing wearisome, his childhood fraught with dangers, and his youth hard-won with toil.  Old age is a burden and death a harsh necessity; armies of disease close their ranks around him, misfortunes lie in wait, ill luck is always ready to attack.  There’s nothing without its tinge of acute bitterness, quite apart from all the evil things man does to man, such as the infliction of poverty, imprisonment, slander, dishonor, torture, treachery, betrayal, insult, litigation, and fraud. . . . However, I am here, and with a mixture of ignorance and thoughtlessness, often with forgetfulness when things are bad, or sometimes hope of better things, with a sprinkling too of honeyed pleasures, I bring help in miseries like these.

He’d be quoting, of course. He’d be quoting Folly, in Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Praise of Folly, but I think the words could as well have come from Peter, if he’d thought of them first.

Peter’s childhood friend Matthew Barber disliked Peter intensely because he and Peter seemed not merely to see life differently but at times to be seeing different worlds. At one point, they are both examined by the school psychologist at the Babbington Central Upper Elementary School. Peter reports the results in “The Fox and the Clam,” one of the novellas in Little Follies:

Of Matthew, Mr. Grundtvig had written: “One is struck at first by his attitude of blank despondency, his apparently chronic melancholia, but one is delightfully surprised to find that this somber little fellow actually has a lively imagination and a well-developed comic sense.”

Of me, he had written: “Although on the surface he appears to be unbelievably naive, with only the most frivolous and trivial thoughts, one discovers upon closer inspection that he has depth, that he harbors a profound understanding of the absurdity, the pain, and the misery of modern life.”

Matthew went beyond wanting to punch Peter in the face. He actually tried to drown him. Here’s Peter’s account of the incident, from the preface to Reservations Recommended:

It happened one summer when we were boys at summer camp together. There we took a course of instruction in lifesaving. Matthew was not a strong swimmer. I was. In the final test, each boy had to swim from shore to the middle of a small lake and bring back a victim, another camper who had paddled out in a canoe, thrown himself into the water, and begun thrashing convincingly. The instructor impressed on all of us the likelihood that the victim would resist help, and he urged the boys playing victims to resist fiercely, to work themselves up to a witless panic. Matthew played victim to my lifesaver. By the time I reached him, treading water had tired him. The panic he simulated was very convincing. He fought me with a furious irrationality that I couldn’t tell from the real thing. I couldn’t get a grip on him, but he certainly got a grip on me. He pulled me under, and I was taken by surprise, caught without a breath. When I fought free of him and regained the surface, I was gasping, spluttering, and humiliated. A maniacal fire flamed in Matthew’s eyes, and he reached for me again. I turned away from him and swam back to shore. The instructor pulled Matthew into his rowboat. Neither of us ever got our lifesaving certificates.

There is also the possibility that Peter is a fool.  Here is Folly again:

Doesn’t the happiest group of people comprise those popularly called idiots, fools, nitwits, simpletons—all splendid names according to my way of thinking?  Perhaps what I’m saying seems foolish and absurd at first sight, but really it’s a profound truth. . . . They are . . . untroubled by the thousand cares to which our life is subject. . . . Now, foolish sage, please count up for me all the nights and days when your soul is tortured by anxieties—heap all your life’s troubles in one pile, and then at last you’ll realize what the evils are from which I’ve saved my fools.  Add the fact that they’re always cheerful, playing, singing, and laughing themselves, and bring pleasure and merriment, fun and laughter to everyone else wherever they go as well, as if the gods had granted them the gift of relieving the sadness of human life.

If Only No One Died (for Kathleen Maher)

For me, Peter’s memoirs seem to be almost completely about loss. It is true that no one dies in Flying, but over the course of his memoirs Peter loses everyone who is dear to him, and those who are dear to him lose those who are dear to them. His mother loses the love of her life when Buster Leroy is killed in World War Two. She settles for his brother, Bert, who is forever unhappy knowing that he was her second choice. Peter loses his maternal grandparents, Herb and Lorna, and discovers after their deaths that he never really knew them, never knew the secret that they kept throughout their lives. Peter admits that his best friend, the best he has ever had, is his childhood imaginary friend. Peter loses his great-grandmother, his paternal grandparents, and the man who played a mentor’s role and may have been his actual father. His mother never achieves the self-respect she yearns for, and when Peter tries to help her win it, he fails, and the enterprise sinks. Peter and Albertine struggle to make a go of Small’s Hotel, but they fail, and they lose the hotel. And Peter knows what will happen to him if he loses Abertine: he will become the Matthew Barber of Reservations Recommended.

At the beginning of “The Static of the Spheres,” one of the novellas in Little Follies, Peter recalls listening to radio dramas in bed, with the radio under the covers, late at night, when he was a boy:

Of all the programs that I listened to on that radio, I can remember only one clearly: one about a boy about my age who lost everyone who was dear to him—his mother and father and grandparents and a clever younger sister with a voice like a flute—in a shipwreck, and was left alone, entirely alone, on an island somewhere warm and wet and windy, and called out for them in the night, calling against the persistent, overpowering sound of the wind and the sea, and listened in despair for the sound of their voices through the crashing surf and howling wind.

I think that what Peter is trying to do at many points in his memoirs is to use memory and imagination to enable him to hear those voices from the past through the noise of forgetfulness and the static that comes from all the clutter that accumulates in a life.  Why does he have to add imagination to memory?  I think he tried to explain why when he described his grandmother’s technique with a slide rule in the same novella:

Gumma was fondest of the cursor. From her first off-season job installing screws in the shiny little metal frame that holds the cursor in place on the stock, she had worked her way up to chief checker in the cursor department.

Despite the effort that Gumma and her dedicated crew put into making the hairlines in the cursors fine and straight, the slide rule remained an imprecise device. For discovering the final digits of an answer, the user had to rely on interpolation, on imagination. It was this quality of the slide rule—its bringing the user not to an absolute, indisputable answer, but only within the realm where the answer could be more or less accurately imagined—that won Gumma’s affection, that made working with the rule as intriguing a pastime as reading detective stories. What Gumma understood at once—and she was always just a bit annoyed by the fact that she couldn’t get anyone else to regard this fact with quite the awestruck reverence that she did—was that the hairline in the cursor did not reveal the answer to a problem: it concealed it. The edges of the hairline defined the limits of the range within which the answer lay; therefore the answer itself was under the hairline somewhere.

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Flying Roundtable: Stage Four

(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Five can be read here.)

Edward Champion writes:

“There was beauty below them, inarguable and unique — many fine things built for the contentment of hardy men — and there was decadence — more ships in bottle than on the water.– but why grieve over this?  Looking back at the village we might put ourselves into the shoes of a native son (with a wife and family in Cleveland) coming home for some purpose — a legacy or a set of Hawthorne or a football sweater — and swinging through the streets in good weather what would it matter that the blacksmith shop was now an art school?  Our friend from Cleveland might observe, passing through the square at dusk, that this decline or change in spirit had not altered his own humanity and that whatever he was — a man come for a legacy or a drunken sailor looking for a whore — it did not matter whether or not his way was lighted by the twinkling candles in tearooms; it did not change what he was.”  — John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle

kraftrt4We’ve had many interesting opinions on this book.  In favor of Kraft, we have Sarah Weinman, Brian Francis Slattery, Kathleen Maher, Jason Boog, and me.  Against Kraft, we have Matt Cheney, Robert Birnbaum; and Dan Green.  On the fence (or perhaps on the wing) are Nigel Beale and Anne Fernald.
Brian has suggested that Kraft is “playing on the same playground as Proust, Nabokov, and several centuries’ worth of other fiction writers and continental philosophers.”  And Sarah has evoked Jean Shepherd. But I think Kraft falls somewhere in between.  He’s not a full-blown fabulist.  But with his libidinous asides and unusual epitaphs and ephemera, I don’t think he can be entirely pinned down as a folk narrative hero (but certainly there is a pining from Peter Leroy to be pinned as a legend).  Perhaps a better comparative point is John Cheever (Mr. Birnbaum: I’m sure you’ve read him!), who was neither one nor the other.  Much like Cheever’s “The Swimmer” offered a grand fusion between realism and surrealism, with the sense of time attached to the narrative becoming an amorphous expanse.  Neddy Merril’s quest begins in a suburb.  And perhaps Bolotomy Bay is similar to Cheever’s pool.  The headline writer at The New York Times mistakenly declared Cheever “The First Suburbanite” in a recent issue, but such an emphasis clings needlessly to where these stories are set.  While Nabokov rather famously declared that he needed to know the lay of the land before writing a narrative, I don’t think these rules apply to Kraft.  And with the shifting nature of the characters throughout the Leroy narrative (composites? real or invented?), I don’t think it really matters.  My question to the naysayers and the fence-sitters, asked with genuine curiosity, is this:  What precisely has prevented you from putting yourself in the shoes of a native son?  (And, Matt, I’m not talking about the sentences, but the perspective.  While I agree to some degree with Kathleen about the folly of proceeding forward with something you hate, are you so sure that Peter Leroy is so nice?  Consider his selfishness.  Consider that Albertine is, to a large degree, Peter’s enabler.  Consider the prevarications that he is applying to real people.  Is playing with the truth so amicable?)

I agree with Brian that Kraft’s jokes would go over well in bars.  But I would answer that the bars in question no longer exist in the present.  Perhaps they are entirely illusory.  Let us consider the DVD that Peter and Albertine discover entitled “Jack and Jennifer’s Dream.”  Here is a scenario in which Jack and Jennifer, who run a hotel with a “former-tumbledown-millhouse look,” not only implore our happy couple in the present to enjoy themselves, but present a slim paperback book called “The Story That Is Jack and Jennifer’s.”  We are presented with a story detailing how the Yucatan Honeymoon Midnight Snack came to be, and it’s terrible.  Mind-numbingly naive.  You simply cannot trust it.  Kraft then follows this with the DVD found in the room, where the dream becomes a pitch to open a franchise.   It’s a sad and hilarious moment.  Something that suggests that these nonexistent dreams can now only be communicated through some bizarre entrepreneurship.  The desperation contained within this pitch suggests very much that dreams, even terrible and aimless ones, do matter very much.  But perhaps these dreams are only attainable through the confines of fiction or Leroy’s “memoirs.”  So while Brian may chide our good Marcel for inhabiting his cork-lined room, what’s worse?  A tangible set of volumes (a set of Proust in lieu of of a set of Hawthorne) that emerges from this sense of dreaming or unimaginative authorities attempting to rectify or place monetary value on such seemingly aimless drifting?

As to Sarah’s question about earnestness, I’m going to have to disagree with her.  And it may be because I had a slightly different reading interpretation than she did.  Peter is certainly making a earnest effort (that niceness that Matt mentions) to tell a good yarn, but is he really being all that earnest?  The lovely aerocycle may be an amicable chatterbox, but, instead of Peter presenting some of his more negative feelings, the Spirit of Babbington is largely a place for him to kvetch.  And Peter betrays the Spirit by leaving her the garage.  That particular moment was especially sad and moving for me.  Because it represented an emotional transference of what Peter doesn’t have the courage to confess in his memoirs.  This imaginary manifestation, who exists in the past almost as a surrogate Albertine (with the stewardess coming in to fill that role later), becomes nothing less than a dumping ground.  And that, irrespective of the positive places that Kathleeen brings up, seems to me especially tragic.  The idea of dishonoring the wonderful entity that you created in your imagination.  Very much like Don Quixote.  But unlike Quixote, Peter isn’t really mocked for his efforts.  He’s secured an entire subjective realm through his memoirs.  But should not some of this be challenged?  Should not some of this be mocked?  Is it entirely fair to Peter to have him continue like this?  Shall we send a case worker over to the Kraft household to ensure that he is treating his creations well?

Maybe this is also where the chapter headings that Jason likes so much come into play.  Is it really fair for Peter to label a chapter “THE SECOND MOST REMARKABLE THING IN THE LIFE OF CURTIS BARNSTABLE” when the event in question is really just a replay of the cropdusting scene from North by Northwest?  I mean, it’s Peter here who asks Curtis, “Does that sort of thing happen often around here?”  “Never,” Curtis replies, “In fact, before that, the most remarkable thing I ever saw around here was you.”  As a guy who likes people a lot, I find this especially troubling.  Curtis’s two most remarkable things are (a) Peter (a facsimile of the real invented out of whole cloth) and (b) a facsimile of a famous movie scene.  Is Peter so self-absorbed that he cannot “remember” what was really great about Curtis?  What made him so interesting?  What made him a three-dimensional being?  Given incidents like this, the ephemera of schematics, magazine ads, and the like becomes more haunting. What right does Peter have to introduce ephemera when his characterizations of the real center first and foremost around him?  Or is this the lot of every novelist?  I’d be curious to hear what you folks had to say on the subject.

Anne Fernald writes:

I have enjoyed reading and eavesdropping tremendously and have finally more than half the book under my belt. “Taking Off” was slow going indeed, but I am enjoying it more and reading it faster — both seem to help.

Exasperating.

Exasperating would be my one word summary of the Flying trilogy, or what I’ve read of it so far (that would be a bit more than half). I don’t always hate the narrator, Peter Leroy, although I find him cloying. It’s just that the writing is just good enough to make me keep reading and yet, it misses just often enough to make me wonder if my time might be better spent some other way.

For a novel that depends so heavily on boy’s adventure lit, a novel about flying and escape and travel, for a picaresque, these failings are not small.

The successes are not small either. It is really funny and some of the social critique is spot on, some of the observational comedy is genuinely funny. But I don’t find it as funny as Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to An End, even though this is a much more ambitious, richer, and more allusive book.

Part of the problem is with me: it’s an occupational hazard of my life that I’m reading Kraft’s Flying next to, on the one hand, Ulysses and To the Lighthouse for my teaching, and mountains of the bureaucratic reading of professors (applications, student writing, copyedited book reviews) on the other. Plus, in addition to being in over my head, I am a very, very slow reader and this is a book to gobble. The book is indebted to the big novel of great ambitions without a doubt: it’s full of Shandeisms and Joycean play. But the alternation between memories of the youthful “flight” and the adult reenactment in “On the Wing” rarely arrive at the kind of momentum of the alternation between Mr. Ramsay in the boat and Lily painting at the end of To the Lighthouse — a much more modest journey, but one with tremendous, mythical implications within the book. Time and again, as I page through Ulysses and then return to Flying, I’m struck by how much more Joyce loves Bloom — and makes us love Bloom — than Kraft loves Leroy.

I totally disagree with Sarah’s sense of the heart and mind being widened by the book: I feel myself in the company of a solipsist. I think it’s no coincidence that he has a deep fondness for blowhards, for those loud soliloquists who hang out in bars and diners.

I think Kraft is proud of Leroy and amused by Leroy, I wonder if he is Leroy, but I don’t feel the same intense joyous fondness emanating from Kraft for Leroy nor from me for Leroy.

Sometimes, I even wonder if they are characters to him. It bothers me, for example, that shortly after her release from hospital from a fractured pelvis, Albertine is willing to go along with Peter’s search for a spot to make love en plein air. I’m sorry to be so dogged, but that injury felt really real to me — funny, but also a smart way of showing off their connection, Peter’s failings — and I wanted a line that assured me she was recovered enough for such an adventure. (I know how flat-footed and dumb that sounds, but it broke the illusion for me in ways that were not good.)

Still, there are things that keep me reading and will make me finish the trilogy. I love the trope of the dark-haired woman, always coming on to him, always available, always an anticipation of Albertine; and I love Albertine’s wresting the “truth” of this apparition out of him. In general, I love the intertextual moments where, as Ed promised, the boundaries of memoir and fiction get stretched to their limits. One of the weaknesses of “Taking Off” for me was the lack of such moments of interpretive doubt-casting in the final third or so. I have never read such a funny funny take on the pitiful ways in which small towns try to make their Cheapo Sleepo chain intersections distinct: he has brochure language, of franchises and of unique tourist attractions down pat.

But must there be so many of them? It’s just so damn long. I have a little more patience with it than Dan Green, though if I weren’t reading it for y’all, I think I’d have given up. And then, Sarah’s putting it in the context of the fifties and Kathleen’s elucidation of why Astaire in a blurb is apt was a lot more helpful to me than all the other yammering on about the heavyweights of the history of the novel.

That’s it for now. I am, as Ed suggested, decidedly on the wing.

Nick Antosca writes:

Apologies for weighing in egregiously late, I’m afraid I overestimated my ability to go without sleep for large portions of February.  I have only just finished reading, but my delay in getting to this point so was not, as seems to have been the case with others, and others, a result of disinterest or discontent with the book.

My reaction to the first pages was kind of like Matthew’s — uh-oh, the scent of whimsy ahead, and so many pages to go, dear god, the voice and apparent content of this book don’t seem to justify its thickness and weight… but I came around.  In the end, I enjoyed it a great deal, even though my experience was fragmented and I probably would have gotten a richer experience by devouring it in a couple sittings, as Sarah (and others?) did. 

Flying seems Nabokovian in its playfulness but not in the deftness of its prose, which is extremely clear and easy-to-read but not what might be considered “transcendent” or “transporting” (despite the journey it describes, ha).  It’s light and clever and farcicial.  And maybe that’s why I kept having the nagging weightiness of content vs. volume of tome issues.  That is to say, while I thought the voice was entertaining/amusing/really-well-done, I kept saying to myself, “Does it justify this much?  This book is so long!”

One thing that delighted me were the subversions of expectation that happened simultaneously on multiple levels.  I particularly liked the moment right near the beginning when Peter’s getting ready to making the aerocycle in the garage and he very unrealistically hopes that all his friends, who’ve begged off, will show up to surprise him with their dedication and support, etc.  When he won’t get out of bed yet because he’s “giving his friends time to surprise” him we feel a little pity for him, since we know that it’s a foolish hope; and when he tries to believe they’re assembling outside under his window and convinces himself that the reason he can’t hear them is because “evidently they were a stealthy bunch, those friends of mine,” we’re amused by the extent to which he’s willing to rationalize to avoid acknowledging the fact that his friends don’t want to spend an uncomfortable day abetting his quixotic adventure.  But the joke seems to be on us when he goes downstairs… and they’re all there waiting with his father!  On immediate further reflection, though, do we believe that they really showed up?  Is the appearance of the ready-to-assist mob of friends (and the teacher) just an extension of the delusional expectation that they might show up?  If Peter’s willing to delude himself a little bit, why not delude us a lot?

Others have taken issue with the figures and captions.  I liked them.  I liked the drollery of captioning them with lines taken directly or almost directly from the text as through they were scientific illustrations from a scholarly paper. 

I found the brunettes a little eerie, in a very pleasing way–a sort of reverse-Vertigo effect, with the woman who inspires them appearing later and perhaps as a construct or amalgamation — the epitome of the available brunette.  What Peter really wants is a perfect foil, so does he conjure one up on the page because she could never exist?

Also, I have to say I’m going to read Flying again — in a sunny place, in a warm time of year.  Context is much.  It’s a cold and stressful time of year, and simultaneous with this I’ve been reading Brian Evenson novels and Helter Skelter, the Charles Manson book by Vincent Bugliosi, as well as doing readings from my novel that just came out which is about a drowned boy who throws up monster dogs.  Flying, I think, didn’t quite fit in, and I had to get into a different mindset every time I picked it up, so I’m honestly very excited to read it again under more salutary conditions.

Matt Cheney writes:

A quick note this time, because much of what I would say has been said quite well by others, most recently Ann and Nick.  I’m still inching my way through the book, but my progress is feeling asymptotic at this point, so I doubt I’ll get to the end, but I have certainly developed a better appreciation for the novel(s).  My own preferences, proclivities, and prejudices as a reader keep me from being able to embrace Flying with any great enthusiasm, but the responses of the enthusiasts here are certainly helping me expand my appreciation for it.

Ed directed a question toward me that is, I expect, central: “…are you so sure that Peter Leroy is so nice?”  He suggests it’s a matter of perspective rather than sentences, and I expect I would agree if I could get past the sentences (by which I mean, I suppose, tone and diction, but the part of me that is revolting against reading the book keeps muttering the word “sentences” in my mind’s ear).  Clearly, Leroy possesses many of the qualities of a picaresque rogue, as Jason suggests, and there’s an interesting tension between his presentation of himself and the “reality” that we can guess at beneath the layers of that self presentation.

For some reason, alas, I just can’t draw much energy from that tension in Flying.  Though, with Ann, I find Leroy’s narration cloying, that’s not an immediate deal-breaker for me, because cloying narrators can be quite interesting — the problem is what she describes next: “it misses just often enough to make me wonder if my time might be better spent some other way.”  Once that wondering begins, I can’t continue, because yes, there are other things I’m reading right now that I’m finding more rewarding.

Nick’s coming around has given me hope, though.  If he can make it through Flying while also reading Helter Sketler and Brian Evenson, I’ll keep giving it a shot and hope for more connections.

Nick Antosca writes:

I had trouble with dramatic tension, or lack thereof, too.  Somewhere early on, I decided not to hold it against Kraft simply because that wasn’t what he was up to.  No fair judging the writer (in most cases) for failing to do what he never tried to do, and so forth.  In fairness, I have the same trouble with Pale Fire, a novel I deeply love and respect, which has games aplenty, but which has zero tension or what we might consider dramatic momentum.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

This has been a fine exchange and I especially want to commend the pro Kraftians for their zealous  advocacy and scrupulous exegesis.

In one of my conversations with the immensely enjoyable British badboy of letters, Will Self, the subject of his confrontation on a radio program with an English writer of a reactionary bent came up. That writer had a new tome, of which Self, admittedly, had read only a few hundred pages. Self’s adversary took umbrage at Self’s failure to read the book in question in its entirety—to which Self responded, “Did it somehow turn in to War and Peace after two hundred pages?”

On a number of occasions I have arranged to meet an author before I read their current opus — and to my dismay, I found the reading unfruitful. But feeling honor bound to forge ahead, I would  — and on occasion I would actually stumble across some kind of code-breaking element and achieve a more felicitous result from my reading. A reward for diligence…

The point, finally, here being what confronts most if not all of us in beginning a new book — what is the fair and respectful threshold of escape for a book with which we are not having a fruitful experience? I ‘d be interested in hearing /reading whether my fellow roundtablers have anything approximating a rule of thumb.

Anne Fernald writes:

In reviewing, I think it’s essential to read the whole thing in order to offer a convincing and fair presentation of just how a book failed or succeeded. If it’s truly awful, I skim. But I cast my eyes on every page.

In a roundtable, like this one, or in broadcast journalism (as in the hilarious but awful Self example), I’m more forgiving of quitting and less thorough skimming.

I felt strongly that I’d just have to beg off this roundtable with an admission of failure unless I finished the first of the trilogy; once that was done, I just kept turning pages: I found that I had some momentum. And I kind of liked it.

If I were the author Self skewered, I’d feel sorely aggrieved: and I think, rightly so. Still, Self’s point, which Kathleen (I think) made earlier with her 100 pages rule of thumb, is right: once you’ve given a work enough of a shake to determine its goals, scope, ambitions, and achievments, it’s ok to bail.

When reading for pleasure, bail at once! 

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

I’m sorry to see this discussion go. It’s funny to me that that something as good-natured as Flying should be so divisive. This seems to be further support for Ed’s remark that Kraft isn’t as nice as he seems on the surface; clearly he’s pushing some buttons. Because nobody here has suggested that the book is, you know, stupid. Kraft is a good writer and a smart guy, and it seems that what frustrates people about him is that he never Gets Serious. For instance, why would someone write such a long book that stays so breezy throughout? Aren’t light, comic novels supposed to be short? Why is he screwing with us like this? Even more interesting, those of us who enjoyed the book can’t quite seem to put our fingers on what we like about him. I compared him to Proust and Nabakov, yet as several people have pointed out, the comparison doesn’t really work—which I agree with, but hey, a guy’s got to start somewhere. Then there’s the Hardy Boys/1950s Americana stuff—but that doesn’t cover the games Kraft plays, either.

What I’m saying is that, in some ways, Kraft is something of an original, the sort of guy for whom books by other people only somewhat prepare you to read. He throws together stuff that doesn’t usually get thrown together, and none of us have been quite able to make anything of it. If Kraft were already part of the canon, with imitators and devotees all over the place, we might have the word Kraftian to describe it, because little else would do. Kraft’s doing his own thing, and whether you like it or dislike it, you have to admit that he has a thing he’s doing.

In some ways, Kraft reminds me of John Crowley, another author that some people really like and others find totally maddening. Both set up expectations only to foil them; neither play by rules we’re completely familiar with; both seem to be following a different kind of logic, but refuse to reveal what exactly that logic is—and both seem to like it that way. There’s an interesting second discussion to be had about that, about why we haven’t been able to talk about Flying in the same way that we usually talk about books. Perhaps an interesting critical essay to be written—again, if Kraft were part of the canon, we’d have dozens of such essays—that goes through Kraft’s many novels to pull out the common threads among them and the logic that might weave them all together. I’m not an academic and don’t quite have the mind for that style of reading. But I would love to get a look under the hood of Kraft’s work one of these days, to see how the gears turn.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

I take exception to Brian’s statement “Because nobody here has suggested that the book is, you know, stupid. Kraft is a good writer and a smart guy, and it seems that what frustrates people about him is that he never Gets Serious.”

The fact that Kraft and his effort have not been negatively assessed, I think, stems from a lack of interest. I can’t comment on whether Kraft is smart and a good writer — the first and only threshold has been whether I found him readable — which I did not.

Seeing the author respond to this discussion gave me the possibility that the scales might be removed from my eyes. In short, no go.

Nigel Beale writes:

Somerset Maugham in his introduction to The Ten Best Novels of the World said that the novelist had the right to demand of the reader sufficient imagination, some power of sympathy and  “the small amount of application that is needed to read a book of three or four hundred pages.” He also said that a novel is to be read with enjoyment. If it does not give that “it is worthless.”

I wouldn’t say Flying is worthless, however, I’m now twenty pages from the end of “Taking Off,” and still sitting on the runway, not particularly looking forward to the flight. The book, as I mentioned earlier, is amusing enough, but amusing in a TV sitcom sort of way. A few smiles, but a sense that first I could be spending my time much more enjoyably elsewhere; second that the dialogue is inferior to that which I participate in day to day with my more animated, intelligent friends…so why waste the time; why apply myself when I know that rewards are greater elsewhere?

Unless of course, as someone else has said, I’m missing something. Every so often an intriguing concept rears itself in the text, the fallacy of significant coincidence for example: “coincidence is not merely commonplace but constant, a pervasive fact of life and all existence,” which in itself is “ceaseless motion, an uncountable number of events, happening all the time, with an uncountable number of them occurring coincidentally at any moment.” “‘we regard those events as directionless and meaningless until one of them affects us”…we then interpret all events in light of that one that has affected us…

But then this thought, instead of being torn apart, examined, exampled…just sort of drifts off into the fog which hangs over this meandering stream of a story…sure, perhaps the narrative itself is supposed to show and tell and fill out the meanings and themes associated with these big ideas…but if they do, I’m afraid the connections are too loose for me to want to tighten them up myself.

Not sure if I will find the second wind that took Anne to the end of this trilogy.

Megan Sullivan writes:

I’m a late chimer in because I had many problems with this book. Matt’s thoughts echoed mine completely. I made it through the first two sections but have yet to finish the book. Even the obvious set pieces that I know are meant to be funny I don’t find it funny at all. I found a good rhythym at the end of the first section and the beginning of the second, but then it started to drag as the journey progressed. I’m not sure that I have Anne’s fortitude to finish.

I felt Kraft winking at me the entire time I read Flying and that annoyed me. The false cheeriness and throwback language felt flat to me. It’s just not my cup of tea. We can’t all like every book. At least one good thing that came out of reading Flying–this discussion which I’ve been finding very illuminating.

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Flying Roundtable: Stage Three

(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Two, Part Four, and Part Five can also be read.)

Kathleen Maher writes:

kraftrt3Regarding the comparison of Flying to Proust (whose “Swann’s Way,” I almost struggled through); Nabokov (whom I admit enjoying); and Pynchon (never got past 100 pages) — these are blurb-writers’ selling points. The blurbs also compare Kraft’s writing to Fred Astaire’s dancing. You may be disinterested in Astaire’s Hollywood dance routines, but accusing him of “lead” feet? Not right. Suggesting Astaire was difficult to follow or understand? Unlikely.

Kraft writes easy prose. True, he employs serial references to high and low culture. But love him or hate him, Kraft has rhythm.

And although, I suggested Matthew Cheney might want to hang it up for another day, I’ve thought of another approach. Harold Brodkey was a writer who annoyed me so much I used to rip into his stories with furious curiosity and even a kind of vengeance.

Most of you may not be old enough to remember him. Harold Brodkey died of AIDS in 1996 and was published in The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, where he wrote book reviews and letters to the editor in the same convoluted, highfalutin voice in which he wrote his stories.

His Wiley Silonowitz “stories” were long even for the old-style New Yorker. They appeared as quasi-memoirs or roman a clef concoctions about growing up with an adoptive family. The ones I remember best damned the mother and/or sister, despite hints that the father molested him. Then in The New Yorker of 1995, Brodkey wrote a nonfiction “confession” that he was dying of AIDS, which at that time was shockingly honest.

If there happen to be others here who remember Brodkey, you’ll know his writing taunted us with the memoir/fact/fiction issue. Except it wasn’t scandalous back then. Nobody expected literature to sit in the witness box and tell the whole truth and nothing but. Readers expected literary work to show us what mattered rather than what indisputably happened.

Nigel Beale writes:

I, with Matthew, am having trouble taking off with this book. Have been slowly taxiing along now for some 70 pages, hoping to leave the ground.

Here is my early take:

It’s a pleasant enough meander through mind and memory –- reminiscent of DF Wallace in a way, though not so self obsessed, so claustrophobic, so micro-managed.

Funny, perhaps because of the initial Sterne quote, the first few pages reminded me of The Sot-Weed Factor. Playful. Not as engaging or funny, but certainly lighthearted enough to entertain. And faux grandiose in this way: “I have tried, during some of those telephone interviews, to correct a few errors of fact and interpretation, but my efforts have been dismissed with the condescending politeness that we employ with those whom we regard as having had their wits enfeebled by time.”

In addition to its theme, there’s also an amusing mock heroism to the writing that recalls Don Quixote. I like the passage above too because it sums up, I think, Peter’s sense that ‘truth’ doesn’t really matter. That regardless of what he may say, his interlocutors will interpret his story in ways they want to; just as the media treats its facts.

This leads to an examination of how the present re-writes the past: consciously, purposefully. In the case of “Babbington – Gateway to the Past,” it recreates an image of itself “as it never was.” Embellishing the truth — lying, for cold. commercial purposes — and unconsciously – honestly recalling detail which may or may not be accurate, versus dishonestly. At one point, Peter talks about remembering in a way that is honest “overall,” but at the same time inaccurate, “vague about details.” Telling a version of the truth, but one that allows people to believe what they want to believe. “Far from the version I planned to tell them.”

Peter flew a total of 180-200 feet on the way out to New Mexico, but he’s not about to dispossess his fans of the “heroic” image that most seem to hold of him as a fearless, resourceful adventurer.

Apropos of this, “Proust famously pointed out that we cannot remember what has not occurred; he might just as well have pointed out that we cannot digress from a route that we had not intended to take.” If people want to see my escapade as heroic, who am I to disagree…they aren’t listening anyway…and in fact, I kind of like the positive attention.

Kraft then gives us various takes on truth, memory, and dreams to contemplate:

Dreams free us from purposefulness.

Memory serves as a refuge from a painful present. There’s also a curiosity to notice what wasn’t initially noticed.

Memory/imagination as a flying machine, assembled from scratch, or from pieces cut from lived life.

Kraft’s prose to this point lacks Proust’s limpid beauty; his consistent, soft, sensual phrasing; but there are hints: I’m impressed with this for example: “the leisurely ascension of the morning mist from the slack surface of the river.” Slack! Very nice.

Hopefully more to come, for this, in large part, is what keeps me reading a book, along with its humour, and the strength of its ideas, how well they provoke debate.

I’ll check in after another two hundred pages or so, hopefully in totally engaged mode… For now, I look forward to hearing from others.

Daniel Green writes:

I’m hesitant to even interject my response to the book at all since, if anything, I find it even less compelling than either Matt or Robert. My problem is similar to theirs, however: the writiing is, well, boring, the character’s voice so “nice” the effect, at least for me, is simply eye-glazing. (The long stretches of superflous dialogue don’t help, either.) I’m sorry to say I couldn’t get even half of the way into the first novel before knowing that finishing the whole thing would be a hopeless task.

This is my usual response, however, to “clever” novels whose cleverness doesn’t permeate to the level of stylistic liveliness. The supposedly “quriky” story (which in this case for me never rises above mere whimsy) is told in such a bland and earnest way I never find myself engaged by it. My criticism can thus be taken as perhaps just a consequence of my particular reading preferences. Those who don’t share them can listen instead to the other voices in this conversation.

Sarah Weinman writes:

Flying has proved my rule that the authors most likely to make an impression are the ones that polarize people. And clearly, this book has polarized, what with me, Ed, Brian and Kathleen in the “positive to the point of evangelism” corner and everyone else who has chimed in so far, well, not having that reaction.

It does, I think, come down to voice, so let me bring up Matt Cheney’s question about it: “My problem with Peter’s narration is harder to define, but I can say that the voice seems awfully, well, nice.  Like Leave It to Beaver or My Three Dads.  Perhaps this is because, given how fragmented my reading of the book has been, I haven’t been able to get enough sense yet of what’s at stake within it, where its edges lie, and so perhaps I’m missing some big irony or subtle clues to an unseen darkness.”

Kraft’s books, or at least the ones I’ve read, are written in a kind of deliberate throwback to the narration style that permeated a lot of American literature and storytelling in the 1950s. And since Flying (and most of the Peter Leroy books, for that matter) purport to be a memoir of 1950s boyhood, it then takes on the boyhood narration characteristics of those time. The best example of this, far and away, is Jean Shepherd. No one really talks about Shep all that much anymore and it’s a damn shame, but to wit, he hosted a radio show for years (the heyday was the ’50s, on NY-based station WOR) that was listened to by practically *every* boy of a certain age, usually under the covers when parents thought they were asleep. Shepherd recounted stories – purportedly true, but heavily embellished – of his alter ego’s adventures in Hohman (really Holman) Indiana, but he also did crazy stuff like convince his audience to storm bookstores and order a book that didn’t exist, propelling I, Libertine to the bestseller lists before it was written. And of course there is A Christmas Story, which is based on Shepherd’s tales and after being a minor cult favorite is now aired religiously, wall-to-wall, every Christmas on cable channels.

Why this digression? Because if you don’t like or don’t care for Jean Shepherd, Eric Kraft may not be your thing. But Shep was the thing for so many people of a certain age, many of whom never got to see the sights of NYC. Shep had the knack of capturing the Americana flavor even though he lived an urbane, proto-beatnik existence in Greenwich Village (before decamping to Florida) but beneath the whimsy of his humor was a pretty nasty streak. Kids shot their eyes out with bb guns or glued their tongues to freezing poles. It all looked like the gloss of niceties, but beneath that gloss was the beating heart of how kids could be cruel and other dark impulses.

It’s pretty hard to be earnest now, or at least ape the trappings of earnestness, because irony and showy styles are so common as to be mind-numbing. Or you end up with commercial earnestness like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle — a good book, but if you poke beneath its Hamlet structure and love of dogs, there isn’t really all that much embedded underneath. But Flying? It certainly looks smooth and easy because Kraft’s using a seemingly accessible style in order to engage (or, obviously as it’s turned out, not engage) the reader, but his is the subtle satire of an earlier age that is so little practiced no wonder some fail to recognize it.

More soon, but I hope others who haven’t yet responded will weigh in. And I suspect there’s more common ground between the two camps than we think! Or maybe I’m just a damn optimist, but I can’t help it.

Jason Boog writes:

I wanted to say thanks to Ed for including me on this spirited round-table. It will be something to behold, all the pro-Leroy and anti-Leroy folks on the same virtual page. First of all, Sarah writes: “Kraft’s books, or at least the ones I’ve read, are written in a kind of deliberate throwback to the narration style that permeated a lot of American literature and storytelling in the 1950s.” As a fan of the old Hardy Boys mysteries, Mad magazine and radio dramas, I cheered when she reminded us of those primary influences.

I spotted a “throwback” as well. Kathleen Maher brings up Don Quixote, noting: “Cervantes was skewering the popular (and purportedly kitschy) adventure stories that were popular in the early 17th century.” He was playing with a form that I think has everything to do with Flying — the picaresque. I think Peter Leroy is a great-great-great grandson of the picaresque hero.  I’m not the fancy English major I once was, but Wikipedia lays it out pretty well: “The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca”, from “pícaro”, for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.”

However lovable Peter Leroy may be, nobody can deny he’s a lying, scheming, cheating “roguish hero”—both as a boy and a man. While his memoirs take fantastical leaps of logic, the actual events seem to depict his misadventures in “realistic and often humorous detail.” As we can see by his struggles as a penniless flyboy bartering with garbage dump bums, busty hotel workers, and disenchanted French literature professors, Peter fits the “low social class who lives by his wits” part.  As for the “corrupt society,” he’s tooling across Atomic Age Cold War America, where smart young boys are recruited by Kraft’s chilling brochure on page 54, corrupting kids with space race militarism: “YOUTH OF AMERICA! UNCLE SAM NEEDS YOU! … We need a new generation of whiz kids who can build rockets, satellites, and fearsome weapons for us!”

But you know what I love about the picaresque more than anything? The subtitles. This prose form developed the fine art of demarcating episodic adventures with subheadings like: “In Which Our Dashing Hero Meets The Damsel Of His Dreams And Loses Her To An Untimely Accident.” I’ve loved the technique since I was a kid, and I played with them in my novel writing. When I read Spaceman Blues by fellow Kraft-work analyst Brian Francis Slattery, I loved how he broke up his hallucinatory book with literary headlines. I ended up interviewing him about how he wrote those episodic subtitles. He cited William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg as the most helpful examples of the form. With dazzling headline breaks like: “Paneling, a Thought Experiment” (p. 146) and “Dreams of a Professional Fool” (281), I hereby add Kraft to Slattery’s list of literary headliners.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kraft, Part One

Eric Kraft appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #268.

Eric Kraft is most recently the author of Flying. This is the first of a three part conversation with Kraft about all of his Peter Leroy books, an epic of more than a million words which Our Young Roving Correspondent was insane enough to read. These podcasts tie in with a roundtable discussion of Flying involving numerous people.

(To listen to Part Two of this conversation, go here. To listen to Part Three of this conversation, go here.)

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for his alter ego.

Author: Eric Kraft

Subjects Discussed: The relationship between Kraft & Leroy, reexamining and reimagining biographical details through a fictional hero, MTV and the 1950s, acts of liberation and the shared mind, the Larry Peters books and the gaps between the chapters, references to other books, the love affair between Peter and Albertine, the stewardess and the dark-haired lady, alter egos, Matthew Barber and B.W. Beath, the many twins throughout the Leroy books, being taken back to an earlier conception of the work, Mark Dorset, characters who knock on the doors, Porky White, aerocycles that does not fly, being able to talk with machines, the burdens of memories and stories being tinkered with, aging and dreaming, memories that trigger events, whether misrepresented representations can be defended, maternal grandmothers and erotic jewelry, the importance of digressing, whether every dreamer needs a muse, Albertine as an enabler, exploring the possibility that Albertine doesn’t exist, strangers vs. maps, Phileas Fogg, the conflict between living life and getting it written down, finding the humor in losing people, “printing the legend” while taking a stance for truth, dogboarding accidents, life as “the first draft of memoirs,” and auditors vs. readers.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Peter sets up this journey early on. He includes a helpful explanation and a chart that indicates his need to digress. He writes, “To digress, you must begin by traveling a route that will get you where you intend to go. You must have a goal and a plan for achieving it in order to depart from it. You cannot digress from the right path unless you are already on it.” And yet Peter does acquire a number of maps obtained from gas stations. He then tapes this up on the wall. And then he decides to do away with these maps. And he writes, “Having no map forced me to ask directions of strangers, and along the way I learned that doing so leads to fascinating exchanges, exchanges that are, more often than not, useless, but fascinating nonetheless.” But then, he writes that if he has to take his journey all over again, well, he would do so without a map. Because he’s decided in hindsight that maps are more trustworthy than the advice of strangers. So it seems to me that there’s a conflict going on here. Almost a tragic conflict. Because on one hand, he wants to digress. He wants to meet these particular strangers. On the other hand, if he had to do it again, he would do it through this kind of topographical thrust. And he becomes just as trapped by living on that particular structure and avoiding the digression, if he goes that particular route. So what of this notion of revisiting a possibility in hindsight like this? When Peter buys the candy bars also, it’s Albertine who comes up to the clerk and expresses the magic of receipts. And it’s a wonderful little passage. But this leads me to wonder if Albertine is something of an enabler so that Peter can occupy this disparity between what he did in this past (allegedly) and what he’s coming to terms with in the present, which might also be further tinkering as well.

erickraftKraft: Yes.

Correspondent: And what he insists he would do now if he had that particular chance again. I mean, could Peter even function without her?

Kraft: (laughs) No!

Correspondent: I’m wondering though if it’s your suggestion that every dreamer along these lines needs a muse? I know that’s a lot to throw at you. But go for it.

Kraft: Yeah. An enabler certainly she is, and muse she certainly is. She also grounds him. In the best sense. In ensuring that if his head is in the clouds, then his feet are somewhere near the ground at least. And she, at the same time, encourages him. She establishes for him a space within which he will be free to let his imagination roam. He wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything much in this life without her. Clearly, when he was a boy before they met, he attempted many things. Nearly none of them ever worked out as he hoped they would. Or even worked out at all. And that’s a pattern that is extended into his mature — can we dare to call him mature? Into his later life anyway. But Albertine, she smiles lovingly at his quirks and follies and the strange things that she tries to do. But she’s also there to say, “Peter, it’s time to calm down, sit down, and look at this rationally.”

Correspondent: But simultaneously, one might also consider that Albertine may also be a figment of his imagination. Certainly that’s what I thought.

Kraft: How dare you! (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, I’m telling you. You’ve been holding back on this whole meetup between her and Peter!

Kraft: You’ve found something that hardly anyone has even dared to suggest. But I have asked myself several times whether that could be the case. I’ll just ask the question. I don’t have an answer for this yet. Is Albertine Peter’s way of keeping himself under control to a degree? I don’t know yet.

Correspondent: It’s certainly possible.

Kraft: I don’t know if I want to explore that much more, but it’s certainly possible.

Correspondent: But since he is in the process of concocting composite characters like Raskol, his childhood friend, since Matthew Barber is fictive sometimes and possibly real in some sense, and since you have constantly avoided the question of how he met Albertine, this is why…

Kraft: Although, that’s coming up!

Correspondent: I know that’s coming up. I know you’ve settled that.

Kraft: But even if you read it, you’ll still be asking yourself whether he might not have concocted this. And I’ll be asking myself too.

BSS #268: Eric Kraft, Part One (Download MP3)

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Flying Roundtable: Stage Two

(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five can also be read.)

Matt Cheney writes:

kraftrt2I’m going to throw another topic out there for discussion, because I’m only one third of the way through Flying and I’m struggling.

Here’s my question: What do you make of the narrative voice?  Or voices, if you identify them differently?

I ask because I’ve been reading the book off and on for a month now, but have only just begun On the Wing, not for lack of effort, but for the fact that all the way through Taking Off I found myself gritting my teeth — I utterly hated Peter Leroy, mostly because of the way the book’s sentences rang in my ears.  The writing seemed to me slick, even smarmy, and all I wanted to do was get it out of my head.  I kept trying to put my finger on what it was that bothered me so much, that made me grit my teeth as if I’d OD’ed on Smarties, but I didn’t get very far in my quest to figure out what was making me react in such a strange way.  The closest I came was when I decided I found the captions to the pictures annoying.  I liked the pictures, particularly the doctored pictures of old magazines and books, which were clever and surprising, but the captions weren’t usually necessary, and I resented being given redundant information.  I wanted them to do something more, to be in some sort of conflict with the pictures or the narrative, to add complexity rather than just tell us stuff we already knew.

But that’s primarily a problem for me only with the captions.  My problem with Peter’s narration is harder to define, but I can say that the voice seems awfully, well, nice.  Like Leave It to Beaver or My Three Dads.  Perhaps this is because, given how fragmented my reading of the book has been, I haven’t been able to get enough sense yet of what’s at stake within it, where its edges lie, and so perhaps I’m missing some big irony or subtle clues to an unseen darkness.  (Which says more, I expect, about me than the book — “pleasant” is not, for me, a term of praise for art.)  Perhaps On the Wing and Flying Home will add some vinegar.  I haven’t yet been able to make myself care about Peter’s various embroideries of the apparent “truth” within the novel’s story because I haven’t yet been able to figure out why it matters whether he’s “truthful” or not, or what effect this should have on me as a reader.

Or maybe it’s just that the book is comedic and I don’t get the comedy.  (Is it comedic?)  It hits me in a similar way that Confederacy of Dunces, another book I found far more annoying than amusing, did, and maybe there’s some sort of litmus test for this kind of thing — I know plenty of people who find Confederacy uproariously funny and great fun to read, but I’d rather spend a day watching water boil than read that book again.  Similarly, I adore Catch-22 and know plenty of people who would rather read Confederacy of Dunces whilst standing in boiling water than read Heller’s novel, so…

It’s late at night and I’m rambling; my apologies.  I merely wanted to ask you all for some reports of your reading experience of the book — I don’t know if it will help me get beyond my allergy to Peter Leroy, but I am honestly curious to know how people perceived the book’s narrative voice — charming? engaging? amusing? enthralling? — because I feel kind of stuck in how I first heard it, and there’s no way I’ll make it through the next two novels if I continue to hear it that way.

Kathleen Maher writes:

I’m speaking to Matthew Cheney first, because his message pops up first in my gmail.

If you’re beginning On The Wing, and Peter Leroy grated on you all through Taking Off, I doubt you’ll enjoy you the rest of it. If it irks you, I would put it down. (Ed may not agree with me on this, because if you push forward, hating it, you might contribute more to the roundtable than all those saying, “It’s so great, so hilarious!”) Generally, I make it a rule to give a book 100 pages–I’m a writer, not a book reviewer–and past that, if I don’t like it, I put it on the shelf. A year or two later, I might try it again. Frequently, it’s that second or third time that the book grabs me.

This has convinced me that fiction is even more subjective than real life, which strikes me as so subjective that (quoting Sarah and Ed and Brian) it compares to walking on quicksand.

In reference to Ed’s question about Peter possibly being tragic, notice that: No one dies; Albertine has proper health coverage; and Peter is far better off as a muddleheaded dreamer than Big Bob, once head of the Muddleheaded Dreamers Motorcyle Club now the “world’s foremost [clinician] for Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”

Dr. Bob Wylie suggests a tragic if tangential Quixote-type more than the self-aware, self-conscious but all the happier for it Peter Leroy.  Although once you bring up “swagger,” Ed, I see various parallels between Peter Leroy taxiing the country in Spirit and Quixote charging on horseback. I read Don Quixote in college and at that time found it likewise hilarious, perhaps because the teacher presented it that way. Cervantes was skewering the popular (and purportedly kitschy) adventure stories that were popular in the early 17th century. I’m sure there must be dissertations galore comparing those cheap oral tales with DC or Marvel superheroes and/or the 1950s real-life versions of Kraft’s Bold Feats magazine. 

Easy to imagine that someone might not be in the mood for these hi-jinks, Matthew. And because Kraft does deftly address high and low culture, questions of taste, time, and philosophy in such a seamless, fast-paced style, his prose might come across as “slick.” But that’s the risk anyone takes telling stories.

I promised my husband to keep this short. Ha-ha. The poor man suffered along as I insisted upon trying to read passages out loud to him, but mostly giggled..

Among my favorite passages is the one where Judge Whitley takes Peter outside and questions him about Faustroll.

“You have sailed in the doctor’s boat, across the Squitty Sea?…soujourned in the Land of Lace?…

“You don’t want to go waving this book around. People are going to take it the wrong way….”

Then, too, as someone who too late in life attemped rollerblading too fast and too often, giving it up only after a few full-fledged concussions and a shattered wrist, I especially relished the dog-boarding business.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Well, fellow bibliolistas,

Since I began to read Flying by Eric Kraft late last month — an author previously unread by me — I have begun ten or twelve books, 6 or 7 of which I read to their ends.  So, it seems clear this narrative hasn’t exactly captivated me. Like Matthew, I find a few things about this novel unfelicitous — not the least, the, what I experience, kind of leaden exuberance and as Brother Cheney opines, smarminess.

It occurs to me I was asked to participate in another one of Don Eduardo’s roundtable confabs — around Pynchon’s Against the Day. Which I see as having a similar tonality — also unpleasing to me

Like Kathleen, I see it as perfectly fitting that there is a panoramic range of response — exactly what makes a  convincing case for the subjectivity that attaches to fiction (and other things)

I am struck, and a bit bedazzled, by the high wattage of the illuminating discourse — which, if it signals the type of book this is, makes it even less likely for me to complete.

I noticed that Proust and Nabakov’s names were bandied about — also writers I have not (I am still trying to account for any significance to the fact I have read virtually no Updike— I have learned to offer this guitlessly) — though I would wager I have read more Nelson Algren than most people.

It is, of course, pleasing that a number of readers enjoyed this writer and have things to say and that other people have things to say about those other things. The whole point is I gather indeterminate —as the immortal Thomas Waller shrewdly observed, “One never know, do one?”

I will dip into this book, perhaps even advancing to various places in the novel — though from what I have read in the commentary, this story seems to be intricately constructed and interwoven with all manner of minute details and cutesy nomenclature. I will certainly look forward to the polylogue, as many of the contributors are people known to me to be sensible,  erudite and useful observers.

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Flying Roundtable: Stage One

(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Here’s Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)

Introduction

kraftrt1This week marks the release of Eric Kraft‘s Flying, a collection of three novels that include Taking Off, On the Wing, and the previously unreleased Flying Home. This trilogy forms the latest set of volumes in Kraft’s ongoing series of books set in the Peter Leroy universe, which Kraft has devoted more than a million words to. Peter Leroy is a dreamer who has been writing his “memoirs” about growing up in a town called Babbington, New York. But his stories tend to be wild lies. And if Peter is committed to the pursuit of a certain form of truth, why then are his “memoirs” such elaborate yarns? Why is there also so much corresponding ephemera in these books?

In the case of Flying, we see two differing narratives. The young Peter builds an aerocycle (that curiously does not fly) and travels cross-country in the 1950s. The older Peter, in the present day, is likewise traveling across the nation with his wife Albertine in an Electro-Flyer. Many of the stories presented in these books conflict or even revise previous incidents that have appeared in the Leroy chronicles. And in an effort to unpack Flying further, we’ve enlisted an able team of readers to offer their thoughts on Kraft’s work. There is also a three-part podcast interview with Kraft coming later in the week as well.

Sarah Weinman writes:

I wanted to open the discussion with a quote from the end of On the Wing because, to my mind, it not only sums up the book but a general state of mind:

If strangers should come into your midst, strangers passing through, visitors from afar, take them in. Try to feel their loneliness, the terrible isolation of outsiders in an alien culture, and if they seem odd to you, if the things they say and do seem disturbingly different from the things that you and your neighbors say and do, please realize that in their loneliness those strangers may be clinging for consolation to familiar customs and trying desperately, awkwardly, ineptly to ingratiate themselves with you. Don’t reject them. Welcome them. The foods they eat, the ideas they hold, the emotions they feel, and everything they hold dear may be weird and worthless to you, but they are neither weird nor worthless to them. Open your hearts. Open your homes. Let the strangers in.

It’s hard not to feel like your heart and your mind is opened while reading all of Flying. I know both of mine certainly expanded beyond their natural limits. “Buoyant” was the word I kept thinking of while reading the book, for a number of reasons – it brings to mind a sense of uplift, like the Spirit that Peter Leroy creates and concocts to get him away from Babbington and on to New Mexico; a sense of wonder at how much Kraft builds into what looks on the surface to be rather straightforward prose; the longstanding back-and-forth, years in the making, between Peter and Albertine in their older years; and the way in which Kraft forces the reader — or at least me — to accept the fullest possible spectrum.

Peter is a dreamer, a creative type, his heads in clouds like those depicted on the book’s cover. His quest to be airborne is harebrained and strange and yet it enables him a sense of heroism that persists in Babbington, perhaps longer than it ought to, as his late-in-life journey with Albertine to retrace those younger steps proves. But without Albertine as his anchor, Peter’s impossible dreams might not be able to be interpreted, or would be so extreme as to lose their context. She grounds him, but just enough so that his sense of buoyancy isn’t in danger of being stifled. And together, they encounter a whole host of strangers in their travels, like the couple named Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, greeted with disbelief by the hotel clerk until the man offers a name change to Darrow (yeah, I love little jokes like that.)

But the real buoyancy comes from the way Kraft blurs the lines between what is real and what is not. Take the alternating structure of then (Peter writing his memoirs of the aeronautic trip, and later his account of attending the science institute) and now, with Albertine wryly checking in to find out what is the truth — or at least, what truth Peter is willing to admit to her (or to himself?). “I can poke and probe and bring something back, and then I can add to that whatever else comes drifting in on the wind, and out of what I actually remember and what comes drifting in I can make something that resembles a memory,” Peter says early on when Albertine implores him to describe the flight “beyond which I was going to make things up.” A simplistic view of Flying is that it explores the murky terrain between real and fake, but I think that notion takes away a lot of the beauty of the line-blurring. Even though I gobbled the book up in two sittings, I couldn’t ignore the feeling of walking on quicksand, with the threat of being swallowed up by the fuzzy lines of Peter’s heightened reality examined at close level. There are a lot of wonderful tricks to obfuscate that murkiness, especially in Flying Home when Peter is engaging in all sorts of madcap adventures with his young friends and the trick of a camera focused on a girl he has a crush on. But even there, reality is less interesting than imagination, as Peter describes in relation to another girl named Andrea, thanking her “for saving me from falling in love with an immaterial ideal rather than a real girl….the dark-haired girl I was falling in love with was not a girl at all. She was not the one in the window that I’d seen from the observatory, and she was not in any of the ones that I’d met or seen or thought I’d seen on my trip from Babbington to Corosso. She was a creature of my imagination, my dark-haired Galatea, sculpted from a memory of a dark-haired girl I’d seen sunning herself on the foredeck of a lean blue sloop when I was eight…” And who is “the dark-haired girl who had made me notice-or imagine – all the others?” Kraft, writing in Leroy’s voice, hints it will be Albertine, but that too seems to be part of the reality/fiction blurring…

One more thing, because it’s all too easy to wander down alleyway after alleyway getting lost in thought and analysis — which, I suspect, is part of Kraft’s intentions with Flying and the other Peter Leroy books (so far I’ve read two others, Inflating a Dog and Reservations Recommended, both very different but of course, forever linked up.) It’s hard not to put Flying in context with the plethora of memoirs, real or fake, on the market these days. Peter Leroy seems to tip his hat with constant references to confession and expiation, but there’s a limit to how much he’ll confess and how much he’ll make up. But Kraft also doesn’t want the reader to settle on binary conclusions: Peter Leroy is making things up therefore he is a fake, or he’s telling a good story therefore he’s a genius. No, the wonderful thing about Flying, about all the Peter Leroy books, is how they inhabit the in between spaces, looking at the margins and the scribbled notes that are both visible and invisible to the naked eye. Trusting in one truth means missing out all the others. And really, when it comes right down to it, one never knows, does one?

Edward Champion writes:

“It is a curious kind of partnership, Kraft & Leroy.  The usual descriptions — author and character, ventriloquist and dummy, left brain and right brain — are inaccurate and inadequate.  When we were just beginning to work together, Kraft may have thought that in me he had merely found a way to write about himself, and I may have thought that I had found a ventriloquist who was willing to play the straight man while I got the laughs, but as time has passed, each of us has found himself liberated by the other, and each of us has found that to a certain degree he has become what he is through the agency of the other.  We are not the same person, though we share a mind.”

  — From the introduction to Leaving Small’s Hotel

To launch off Sarah’s point about how the aperture of a reader’s heart and mind is sharply widened upon reading the Flying trilogy, I think we should likewise explore the notion of the alter ego, and how this creation of identities ties into the telling of the tale.  In all of the Peter Leroy books, we are presented, on a basic level, with an author created by an author.  A memoirist who is committed to a wandering organization of memories, but who requires confirmation from his trusted wife, Albertine, who may or may not be a fictional construct.  Very often, this creation within creation requires alter egos within alter egos.  Passionate Spectator proffers a scenario in which Kraft begets Peter Leroy, who, in turn, creates Matthew Barber, who, in turn, creates B.W. Beath.  (This, in itself, recalls the comparatively simpler nesting of Barber/Beath in Reservations Recommended, which is, rather interestingly, predicated upon the form of a restaurant journey experienced by Barber and written up by Beath in his newspaper reviews.)  We learn throughout the books that Peter Leroy’s childhood friend Raskol (named after Dostoevsky’s often hallucinatory prevaricator) is an invention.  Matthew Barber may be real in these books, but he also serves as a stiff conformist counterpart to the “real” Leroy.  (In the Flying trilogy, while Leroy journeys to New Mexico in his nonflying aerocycle, it is Barber who opts to fly by commercial airliner.  Where Leroy glories in the hops, or stages, of the journey, Barber requires a flight in one go.) 

In the later Leroy books, we have also seen a greater concern for a formalist structure.  Whereas the earlier books feature an introductory interjection from Peter in the present, the later books present alternating chapters of Peter and Albertine in the present and Peter in the past.  Leaving Small’s Hotel, which is almost a prototype for what Kraft pulls off in the Flying trilogy, sees Peter and Albertine about to sell off their hotel.  In the spirit of Scheherazade, Leroy tells a new chapter every night of his life in the fifty nights leading up to his fiftieth birthday, hoping that these episodes will serve as a draw to new customers, and Kraft juxtaposes Leroy’s struggles to fix a decaying hotel in the present with a story from the past involving Leroy trying to construct a Flying Saucer Detector and communicate with the town of Babbington through an underground radio network.  The destruction that lives in the present is bolstered by the construction from the past.  We see this theme crop up in the Flying trilogy as well, but Peter and Albertine seem to embrace the inevitable end to their memories in the present.  Instead of operating a hotel, they check into many rooms at other hotels.  They are very much strangers passing through (as we see in the passage quoted by Sarah) and they attempt to convey their joy to others, such as the amusing episode with the clerk, in which Peter cadges off power to recharge the Electro-Flyer and Albertine explains the delight of receipts (“It’s a caprice of mine — saving receipts.  I keep them in albums — the other people keep photographs.  They are mementoes, tokens of the fleeting moments of my life.”). 

I’m curious what your thoughts and feelings are on Leroy’s need to collect. Why it is so essential to Leroy’s need to tell the tale?  If Leroy gets his memories wrong, he somehow manages to authenticate it with various clippings, photos, and other minutiae.  But is he really authenticating it?  Or is he less of an exuberant hero and more of a tragic Quixote?  Why is memorializing the past so important to Leroy?  Does he need the past to accept the unexpected developments of the present, such as the rather bizarre notion of dogboarding?  Or is he memorializing the past because the present is too unkind to him and does not wish to regard him?  And if the past is so important, why then must he avoid confronting the truth through these alter egos?  The reader may very well enjoy the adventure, but if the relationship between Leroy/Kraft and his readership is predicated upon auctorial liberation, are the many minds offered here to share stories undermined by the inherently self-serving nature of the project?  Or must we welcome all these characters because life is just as much about listening and welcoming odd and possibly lonely strangers who we must not reject?

There is also something quite interesting in the way Kraft’s blurring of the real and the fictive subverts odd little truths throughout his books.  Leroy’s unusual paraphrasing of Lao Tzu (“A journey of a thousand li begins with a single step”) in On the Wing suggests that the little maxims we categorize under Taoism may not necessarily help us understand the true nature of the universe.  Or that the true nature of the universe cannot possibly be understood through any form of philosophy.  Lao Tzu certainly doesn’t get Leroy very far.  But the talking Spirit of Babbington, whether hallucinatory or imaginative, helps Leroy to get his bearings.  Likewise, the typo on the Kap’n Klam sign (THE HOME OF HAPPY DINNERS!), which has the stiff Matthew Barber (again, an alter ego; but perhaps one debilitating to Leroy’s ebullience) quibbling over whether dinners have feelings, suggests that the joys of imagination can sneak up on us even through a misheard literalism.  Is imagination a surrogate for philosophy?  Or does the only sane response to an ever-shifting America involve escaping into dreams like Peter Leroy or Walter Mitty?  I’m also curious about how you folks felt when reading this book.  As Sarah suggests, there is indeed a strange simultaneous feeling of joy and walking on quicksand.  (Kraft’s constructs have a tendency to sneak up on you.  There were times in which I had to put the book down, so that I could properly process the story beneath the story, and the alter egos behind the alter egos.  And yet wandering through Leroy’s imaginative terrain proved terribly intoxicating.  I felt a strange compunction to remain puzzled by the inconsistencies.)  But I’d like to propose that this is because Kraft is attempting to give the reader a visceral feeling of imaginative detachment.  Perhaps to some degree, this detachment makes up for the self-serving nature of the curious Kraft & Leroy partnership cited above.  Or maybe he’s suggesting that we’re all pretending like Leroy in an effort to survive.  We all have our roles and it’s just possible that if all of us revealed the totality of our interior hearts and minds in a book, and confessed what we wished to remember, that we might likewise accuse each other of being as egoistic as Leroy. 

I’d also like to get into the notion of “swagger” as it recurs throughout the book, particularly with the MDMC and the strange count at the institute.   But I think I’ll step aside for now, and let others offer their summation of the many threads within this quite intriguing volume.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Sarah, I was delighted that you started with the passage you quoted, because one of my favorite moments in the whole trilogy happens immediately after and because of it:

“…Open your hearts. Open your homes. Let the strangers in.” I paused. In the hush, I could hear sniffles. Then I asked, “Would anyone out there be willing to put me up for the night?”

That little passage made me laugh so loud that I woke my poor wife, who gets up much earlier than I do. In the course of reading Flying, I actually woke her many times by laughing too much and too loudly; she has grown perhaps to resent Eric Kraft for the hours of sleep she’s lost.

I realize that Sarah and Ed are zeroing in on the meat of the book, the sort of epistemological questions about truth and memory and the like. I don’t mean to derail that conversation, either. But the thing that stands out for me about Kraft — who is playing on the same playground as Proust, Nabokov, and several centuries’ worth of other fiction writers and continental philosophers — is how damn funny he is, and not in a no-really-it’s-funny way, like you have to be with some books when you want to encourage certain people to read them, but really actually funny. Kraft’s jokes would go over well in bars; they’d be funnier after three drinks than after one, and I mean that as a serious compliment. The riff about Peter’s father creating an early remote for his TV; the several scenes in various restaurants (“‘What if I’m allergic to something [in the food]?’ I asked. ‘What are you allergic to?’ ‘Penicillin.’”; “The man of the family ordered at once: ‘Corned beef hash, poached eggs, biscuits, home fries, sausage, bacon, a pork chop, extra gravy and a beer.’ He thought for a moment, then said, ‘Make that two beers.’”); the collect call to his father near the end–these and many more are out-and-out hilarious.

At first, the sort of epistemological stuff and the funny stuff struck me as not having much to do with each other, apart from making Flying both smart and super-entertaining. But as the trilogy went on, I started more and more to see the humor as a tool that Kraft uses to talk about the questions about truth and memory that he’s interested in. Take a look at that collect call, the one Peter makes to his dad near the end of Flying Home:

“Hello?” said my father.

“I have a collect call for Mr. or Mrs. Leroy from Peter,” said the operator. “Will you accept the charges?”

“Peter?” said my father, as I’d known he would.

“Hi, Dad,” I said.

“Will you accept the charges?” asked the operator.

“I’m not sure,” said my father. “How much will this cost?”

“Dad, please accept the charges. I need to talk to you.”

“Young man, stop talking,” said the operator. “I’m going to have to cut you off if the other party will not accept the charges. Are you Mr. Leroy?”

“Yes,” my father said.

“Will you accept a collect call from Peter?”

“How can I be sure that this is really my son?”

“It’s me,” I said.

“Young man,” said the operator, “if you speak again, I will cut you off.”

“Can I just say something to convince my father that I’m his son?… I just want to identify myself.”

“How do you propose to do that?”

“I’ll tell him something that only I would know.”

“All right… go ahead young man,” the operator said.

“I’ll be home on Tuesday,” I said.

“Will you accept the charges?” asked the operator.

“I’m not sure,” said my father. “He doesn’t sound like my son. Of course, it’s been so long since I heard from Peter that I can’t be sure. His voice may have changed…. Peter would be calling to ask for money. I’m sure of it.”

First off, of course, it’s funny — in fact, one of my cousins had told the same joke at a family gathering just a few weeks before I read this passage, about how in the days before cell phones they’d use the automated collect-call service to send messages to their parents from pay phones (e.g., “Will you accept the charges from I’ll Be Home at 11?”). But now look at the passage again, this time with your armchair philosopher’s cap on. This little piece of conversation drives straight at the heart of the books–”the notion of the alter ego, and how this creation of identities ties into the telling of the tale,” as Ed put it. In Flying, the tale creates the identity as it goes along, and it’s important that it’s done with such lightness. The big question of “who is this” or “who am I,” whether asked by the author (whoever that is) or one of the characters–a question that so many of Kraft’s predecessors treat with such seriousness — Kraft treats as a game, and the way Kraft plays it, at least to me, it’s a lot more like kickball than like chess. It’s wonderful and refreshing, and in the context of the many works that have preceded it, it seems to have a really nifty point to make (here’s where I really start flying by the seat of my pants). Complete objectivity is, after all, impossible. Your memory of damn near everything is almost certainly faulty in some way or another. And if you spend all your time in a cork-lined room agonizing about it (sorry, Marcel, sorry!), you’ll never take that trip, or have that beer, or let that stranger in.

But it’s not just Kraft telling his predecessors to lighten up. Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s campaign manager, famously said that Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign was “the least factual and the most accurate.” Both in the fictional world of the book and the relation between Kraft and Leroy, how much does what really happened matter? I don’t know; but it seems to me that we learn so much more about who Peter Leroy is because he lies, and lies, and lies again, than we ever would have if he stuck to telling the truth.