josephconrad

Lord Jim (Modern Library #85)

(This is the sixteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Ragtime)

Much like today’s tawdry Hollywood movies, Lord Jim was based on a true story — back in the days when it actually meant something. On August 7, 1880, a ship called the Jeddah, on its way from Singapore to Arabia and carrying 950 Muslim pilgrims, had an accident. The British officers abandoned the ship near Cape Gardafui. But the Jeddah did not sink. Captain Clark was on his way out of the British Consulate when another captain reported that the Jeddah had been salvaged and towed. Clark got off lightly. His certificate was stripped for three years. But the Jeddah‘s first mate, Augustine Podmore Williams, received a harsher sentence.

This tale of lost honor and irresponsible officials eluding their duties so captivated Conrad’s imagination that he began drafting a short story in a thick album bound in leather that had belonged to his grandmother. The Jeddah became the Patna. (And the Patna would show at the end of Alien 3, lest you thought that film franchise was solely Nostromo.) Zdzislaw Najder’s very large biography, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, informs us that Conrad kept tabs on his word count in the margins. Serializing the yarn in a magazine was the idea, and his labor on the Lord Jim prototype intersected with the completion of “Youth” — a story that also featured the well-known Charles Marlow. Yet at this stage in the Lord Jim writing, Marlow hadn’t yet found his loquacious entry point. What Conrad would not know is that Marlow would become as ubiquitous in his work as the creepy adjusters you see in today’s subdivisions who show up minutes after a fire to stake out a husked out building. While Marlow may not have been driven by the adjuster’s compulsion to itemize and sweep in, he did share the common trait of being a remarkably patient listener to a tragic tale.

After some early starts, there was a six month break. Around this time, Conrad was also at work on Heart of Darkness (yet another deck for Marlow to walk on), which appeared in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine (and which will be discussed in a future Modern Library installment). Factor in an especially vituperative article from Eliza Orzeskowa (“The Emigration of Talent”) that accused Conrad of deserting the Polish homeland and diminishing his talents and one gets the sense that Conrad wasn’t exactly doing the happy dance around 1899.

Conrad had to go sailing on a boat (La Reine) he had purchased with his pal Stephen Crane to unlock Lord Jim‘s secret: namely, the shift from omniscient narration to Marlow, who is arguably one of the most formidable ramblers in all of literature. (Indeed, there is a strange pleasures reading Lord Jim in the 21st century and contemplating the type of audience who would sit through such a protracted tale without offering a question or an interruption. I’ve done the math here, and Marlow’s tale is probably a lot longer than Christian Marclay’s The Clock. When you factor in our short attention span age, the time investment and patience is tenfold more remarkable. Today, I have no doubt that people would be live-tweeting Marlow or checking their BlackBerries. And we haven’t even discussed bathroom breaks.) Conrad’s “long short story” of 20,000 words eventually expanded to six times the calculated length. This didn’t stop him from additional dips into continuous partial attention. He even collaborated with Ford Madox Ford on The Inheritors in early 1900.

In addition to bracing the pressure of Blackwood’s serializing Lord Jim, Conrad also faced the death of his BFF GFW Hope’s seventeen-year-old son on the high seas (with some evidence of a covered up sexual assault, thus accounting for the book’s dedication), and, like many writers then and since, tremendous financial uncertainty. The plan had been for “Tuan Jim: A Sketch” to be part of a collection, but this idea became spottier as the story mushroomed.

One can offer the theory (and biographer Jeffrey Meyers certainly has*) that Conrad needed to be oblivious to keep up with the time-consuming nature of novel writing, claiming to be just about finished when there was still a good deal of work that needed to be done. Yet Conrad plowed forward, fighting off bronchitis, malaria, and even gout. Indeed, if one isn’t humbled by the fact that Conrad wrote this sweeping masterpiece in his third learned language, there’s the impressive manner in which Conrad doggedly used a paperweight to keep down his sheets while working with an inflamed wrist.

Conrad’s grief over his good friend Crane’s untimely death on June 5, 1900 made its way into Lord Jim‘s last ten chapters. And given how these heavy feelings fueled such a heavy book, there is little doubt that Conrad had reached a point where he wanted to be done with Lord Jim, as he was to remark in a July 20, 1900 letter to John Galsworthy:

The end of L.J. has been pulled off with a steady drag of 21 hours. I sent wife and child out of the house (to London) and sat down at 9 am, with a desperate resolve to be done with it. Now and then I took a walk round the house out at one door in at the other. Ten-minute meals. A great hush. Cigarette ends growing into a mound similar to a cairn over a dead hero. Moon rose over the barn looked in at the window and climbed out of sight. Dawn broke, brightened. I put the lamp out and went on, with the morning breeze blowing the sheets of MS all over the room. Sun rose. I wrote the last word and went to the dining room. Six o’clock. I shared a piece of cold chicken with Escamillo [Conrad's dog, named after Carmen] (who was very miserable and in want of sympathy having missed the child dreadfully all day). Felt very well only sleepy; had a bath at seven and at 8:30 was on my way to London.

The thing that gets me is how Conrad felt the need to punctuate the end of his industry with a cold piece of chicken. But Conrad would initially dismiss Lord Jim as “a lump of clay.” While Lord Jim was to be favorably received, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. The first batch of 2,100 copies sold out in two months. The next printing of 1,050 copies took four years. Some reviewers complained. Many raved. Henry James sent Conrad a letter of congratulations.

* * *

If I am to be truthful here, I must confess that I had to start Lord Jim a second time before I really got into Jim’s woeful adventures from Patna to Patusan. My first reading attempt pushed me to the 200 page mark, but I zoned out, Conrad’s paragraphs washing over my eyes like imposing ebbtides. At first I feared that Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness I had loved so much in high school, did for me what Thomas Pynchon does for other people when they resent not being able to finish Gravity’s Rainbow. But when I put aside some professional obligations and realized that Lord Jim required my total attentions, I found myself stirred and fascinated by Jim’s remarkable obstinacy, his failure to shake off the shame from the bulkhead accident and move on. Here’s a guy who skips town anytime some stranger brings up the Patna incident. You almost want him to go all Dustin Hoffman (as opposed to James Marsden) in Straw Dogs rather than sit there passively while others deface his honor. Jim would never be able to get away with these chicken sprints in the age of Google.

Other characters tolerate this curious strain of romantic heroism. Poor Marlow, who you figure should know better, gets Jim a gig in the most munificent manner possible, pointing out to the troubled young hipster (sorry, but I can’t help but think of emo layabouts when imagining Jim in my mind’s eye) just how much he’s put his ass on the line:

“Look at the letter I want you to take. I am writing to a man of whom I’ve never asked a favour, and I am writing about you in terms that one only ventures to use when speaking of an intimate friend. I make myself unreservedly responsible for you. That’s what I am doing. And really if you will only reflect a little what that means…”

Jim gets the gig, offering a jolly “Jove!” in response to this generosity. (It’s worth noting that Jim is very big on “Jove!” I’m guessing that “Jove!” was the “Fuck yeah!” of its day.** And, on second thought, I don’t blame Marlow too much. If I was in the company of an exuberant lad who liked to yell “Jove!” all the time, I’d probably buy him a few beers with the remaining shekels in my reticule.) But he blows the job (and costs the man his business) when the second engineer of the Patna shows up. “I couldn’t stand the familiarity of the little beast,” writes Jim back to Marlow.

But given how Conrad offers us so many eccentric characters of the sea, is Jim’s bitching really called for? Especially when Jim’s stolid near Bartleby-like temperament causes people he knows to die after Stein appoints Jim as manager of his trading post in Patusan. We see any number of idiosyncratic types throughout Lord Jim: the German skipper who demands liquor by the light of the Patna‘s binnacle, the captain who is part of the Patna investigation and suicidally throws himself overboard as though “he had suddenly perceived the gates of the other world flung open wide for his reception,” Marlow’s brief chief mate Selvin who, upon not receiving a letter from his wife, “would go quite distracted with rage and jealousy, lose all grip on the work, quarrel with all hands, and either weep in his cabin or develop such a ferocity of temper as all but drove the crew to the verge of mutiny,” the butterfly-collecting merchant Stein, and the monstrous buccaneer Gentleman Brown who forces Jim’s hand in Patusan. Given his close proximity to goofballs and mountebanks, one would think that Jim would have something bigger on his mind than his own fragile ego.

If Jim is considered “a solitary man confronted by his fate,” then it interesting how he attempts to reconcile his honor with Cornelius, the “unspeakable” man embezzling and appropriating from Stein whom Jim replaces in Patusan. Cornelius treats his station and his girl quite unwell. But can we commend Jim for trying to be civil with Cornelius when he asks if he is unwell? Perhaps. But doesn’t Cornelius, for all of his odious qualities, carry some slim honor? Sure, the man has bamboozled Stein. He’s clearly stealing more than a few office supplies. But there’s something equally absurd to Jim in the way Cornelius offers to smuggle Jim out through the river for a mere eighty dollars. Cornelius certainly has a point when he declares to Marlow, “What did Mr. Stein mean sending a boy like that to talk big to an old servant? I was ready to save him for eighty dollars. Only eighty dollars. Why didn’t the fool go? Was I to get stabbed myself for the sake of a stranger?”

In light of the “Look at that wretched cur” farcical business at the Patna inquiry, whereby Marlow remarks on a weaving yellow dog and the oversensitive Jim believes that Marlow is talking shit about him, what makes Cornelius’s griping about sacrifice any less ignoble than Jim’s? And in disseminating Jim’s tale of dishonor to unknown listeners in the shadows, isn’t Marlow also sullying Jim’s honor? Certainly not in our eyes, if we look upon the tale from the outside. But Jim would most certainly think so, if he knew the full extent of Marlow’s goodnatured gossiping. We also have no idea how reliable Marlow is — especially since we are getting boatloads of hearsay. In fact, only “one privileged man” gets to hear the final word of the story, which is mostly second-hand from a fairly unreliable source.

Perhaps as Marlow says, the problem resides in the externals:

The conquest of love, honour, men’s confidence — the pride of it, the power of it, are fit materials for a heroic tale; only our minds are struck by the externals of such a success, and to Jim’s success there were no externals.

* — You may have observed that I haven’t really probed into Joseph Conrad’s bad behavior in this Modern Library installment. Given that there are three more Conrad volumes on the list, I’m thinking I’ll probably be addressing Conrad’s boorishness at some future point. However, since we’re on the subject, I feel compelled to point out that, should you check out Jeffrey Meyers’s Joseph Conrad: A Biography from the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, you will find this amusing marginalia on Page 187 suitably illustrating the author vs. work predicament:

Annotator 1: Ingrate! mistreats his wife I am trying to find something beneficial
Annotator 2: His writing!

Annotator 1: Constantly borrowing money
Annotator 2: So what?

** — Aside from “Jove,” “tumult” is another word Conrad is quite fond of — for abundantly clear reasons. I am also highly inclined to devise some Brooklyn answer to “tiffin” that I can work into my life and vernacular.

Next Up: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart!

hollinghurst

The Bat Segundo Show: Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #422. He is most recently the author of The Stranger’s Child.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering a new career that has nothing to do with literary biography.

Author: Alan Hollinghurst

Subjects Discussed: Ivy Compton-Burnett, attention to character panoramas in 21st century literature, the appeal of huge gaps in the narrative, Alice Munro’s Runaway, how Hollinghurst decides which characters get to pop up later, Chekhov’s gun, characters who have affairs with the same man, factoring in the reader’s need to know, The Line of Beauty, Michael Apted’s Up series, unanticipated flourishes that run throughout different historical epochs, the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act, avoiding writing directly about the Great War, the dangers of too much research, the James Wood review, how a single verb choice can alter a sentence, “muddle,” the paucity of laughter verbs in English, our correspondent’s highly pedantic (and unsuccessful) attempt to pinpoint Hollinghurst’s affinity for verbs containing the letter U, Paul Bryant as one of the most compelling cases against literary biography and literary criticism, real world Paul Bryants, how minor biographies are often written by the wrong people, Ronald Firbank, obsessiveness as a character trait, media overexposure, being comfortable with the inevitability of obsolescence, fiction and posterity, Auden and biography, Mick Imlah’s “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson,” legitimate literary biography, Michael Holroyd’s work on Lytton Strachey, Richard Ellmann’s Joyce bio, the fallibility of human memory, the corruption of poetry, the allure of the second-rate, life vs. art, having a vivid sense of someone over a weekend but not really knowing them, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, referential character names, why Hollinghurst couldn’t get through the whole of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, depicting older people, having a wide range of friends, The Swimming-Pool Library, relationships between young and old people, sticking with “said” in dialogue and appending description, Evelyn Waugh, dealing with idiosyncratic translations, the word “satiric” offered as a cue for later satirical exercises, loose environmental description, jostling characters around, class trappings, TS Eliot and PG Wodehouse’s past experience as bankers, growing up with a father who was a bank manager, and Hollinghurst’s novels increasingly moving further into the past.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In the first section, we are informed that Cecil’s servant cleans his change. Later in the book, you have Paul Bryant, who I want to talk about quite a bit — he works in a bank and he washes the money smell off of his hands in the gent’s room. Then you give Cecil a very firm handshake. And then in the third part, you have Paul with his bandaged hand. So there are these interesting historical parallels, historical contrasts, that I detected. And I’m curious how many of these you calculated in the book.

Hollinghurst: Well, you’re a wonderfully observant reader, I must say. I hadn’t actually been struck by the fact of the bandaged hand and the firm handshake. Yes, a great deal has been made of Cecil’s hands being very large. He’s always climbing up mountains and rowing boats and things. And seducing people with them. I mean, one is always cleverer than one knows, of course.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Hollinghurst: (laughs) One’s unconscious is just happily seeding all sorts of little details of that kind, which I may not have actually calculated. It’s always very gratifying when they’re picked up by reviewers, if they were fully conscious. But truly they’re often not.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious. The five part structure. To what extent was this motivated by knowing the characters in advance? Or did you just know the historical settings in advance?

Hollinghurst: Did I know when I started what the different periods were going to be?

Correspondent: Well, that, and also did, for example, considering the characters and how they would evolve determine when you set those particular parts?

Hollinghurst: Possibly, yes. I mean, the first and third sections in particular happened on the eve of very significant things for their lives. The first section is on the eve of the summer before the Great War. And the 1967 section happens just before the passing of the Sexual Offenses Bill in England, which decriminalized homosexuality or homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private.

Correspondent: And the course of your book is post-Wilde as well. So there you go.

Hollinghurst: Exactly. So those dates were both significant. Partly these gaps are a way of avoiding writing about things such as the Great War and so on. Which I knew I didn’t want to write about. And I know that what I always wanted to write about really was the more intimate lives of sometimes slightly strange people. Rather than large heavily researched panoramic sorts of things. You know, the Great War has been so wonderfully well written about by people who were in it and by people since. That’s just not the kind of writer I am, I think. But I like the idea of writing scenes that the reader would know what was overshadowed by historically imminent things.

Correspondent: But most importantly, it’s a very skillful way to avoid long years of research to these battles.

Hollinghurst: (laughs) Exactly.

Correspondent: I mean, most of these scenes — most of the settings are inside. And very often, we get these wonderful descriptions of architecture and the like. So I’m wondering if setting much of the novel indoors, in specific area, was a strategy to avoid perhaps this obsessiveness that would in fact go on to researching obscure details.

Hollinghurst: Yes. I think that may be right. There’s something defensively domestic about the whole scale of the book. I mean, it’s a large book in a way. It covers a long period. But I think it is domestic in scale.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask you about how often in your sentences a verb will transform something that is normal into something that becomes beautiful and intoxicating. One example. There’s one sentence where you have a servant pour soup into a bowl. And instead of saying “pour,” you use “swim.” And I became obsessed with this verb. How that one verb choice transforms the entire sentence. And it gives you this completely different look at an ordinary action. And this leads me to ask you. How much do you agonize over a verb choice? Like something like that.

Hollinghurst: I can’t remember that particular one. Well, I do write very, very slowly, as you probably realized. So I wouldn’t generally write more — you know, on a good day, two or three hundred words. It’s not quite agony. Because it’s actually very exciting and gratifying when it goes well. And as you say, when I surprise myself by a choice for a word. Which I think is probably an improvement on the obvious one.

Correspondent: Deliberation. Okay, so there’s this James Wood review in The New Yorker of your book. And I thought that it was a little on the silly side. Because he was going on about how you use the word “muddle” repeatedly. And I asked some friends, “Do you honestly are how often Hollinghurst uses muddle?” But this also leads me to ask you. I mean, when you have the entire book done, do you go through the entire manuscript hoping you don’t use the same word multiple times? Or is there a conscious choice to use a word like muddle? Or how much does this matter to you? I’m curious.

Hollinghurst: “Muddle” I was entirely conscious of. Yes. So it’s rather galling then to have it put back into something.

Correspondent: He had a list of all the sentences. I was like, “What?”

Hollinghurst: Yes. It was ridiculous. The schoolmaster like had a finger wagging. Yes, I think it’s very interesting. I think each stage — because I write things in longhand in the first place. And then I put onto them and print them out. And then they go into the proof. But at each stage, new things rise to the surface. And you’re aware of new patterns.

Correspondent: Such as what?

Hollinghurst: Recurrences of words. I mean, the first time I printed this out and it was read — I mean, I wasn’t aware of it. But a great friend of mine noted the word “chuckle.” “Frown” and “chuckle” appeared and alternated. Sometimes people frowning and chuckling even at the same time. So I had to go through. There’s a terrible paucity of laughter verbs in English. I mean, “chuckle” doesn’t really have an easy equivalent. And I think I perhaps replaced one or two of them with “giggle.” And then I had to do a “giggle” purge as well. I think there are things that one is not quite in control of. But “muddle” was a word I was very consciously using. Because in a way, it’s what the whole book is about. “Muddle” is also consciously Forsterian.

The Bat Segundo Show #422: Alan Hollinghurst (Download MP3)

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ttt2

Tales Too Terrible #2: Do You Have Eggs?

“When I last tried to tell you this tale, I began to talk to you about a surly gentleman named Dweezil Ness meeting an operative named Scrambled Sal Spinoza in San Francisco on November 19, 2009. But I reached a point where I could not proceed any further. This may have had something to do with the egg salad sandwich I had for lunch, which was terrible and reminded me of the terrible nature of the story, or my perhaps it was my personal disposition, which if I had to be honest was also terrible at the time. But now that my mood has snaked into the sanguine, I feel that the time has come to continue. As the good Charles Marlow once said, ‘I have as much memory as the average pilgrim in this valley, so you see I am not particularly fit to be a receptacle of confessions.’ But, dear listener, I shall try to be your receptacle. So let us shift back into Dweezil Ness’s headspace.”

This is the second in a new project called Tales Too Terrible. The first installment can be found here. In this project, mysterious fragments that have been lost or abandoned or disowned by various parties (primarily from a looseleaf notebook that I discovered from Gregory Stetson, who has no address, no phone number, and no email) are resuscitated into radio stories running somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. If you listen very closely, you may discover certain referential clues to other narratives that you may or may not be familiar with. However, for listeners who aren’t interested in such silliness, the Tales are also designed to be heard in sequential format.

There is no set schedule for this project. Whole months may pass by before you get another installment. Or you may get three new installments over the course of the week.

The second installment “Do You Have Eggs?” is fourteen minutes and 21 seconds long and can be listened to below.

Tales Too Terrible #2: Do You Have Eggs? (Download MP3)

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lithipster

The Literary Hipster’s Handbook — 2011 Q4 Edition

It has been five years since we last published a quarterly installment of The Literary Hipster’s Handbook. But the literary hipsters are still chattering.

“Ames it up”: The act of abandoning all literary activity to write for a television series. Also known as selling out or washing up. Literary hipsters who Ames it up are generally in their late 30s and early 40s and have lost much of their desire to write fiction. They beseech HBO and Showtime to give them a deal, attending dull meetings that are often spearheaded by illiterates, and, more often than not, end up writing material that is of noticeably inferior quality to their fiction. Literary hipsters who Ames it up continue to be observed at cocktail parties, where they are pitied by those who value art and passion more than money and vacuity.

“Duncan donuts”: 1. A hastily written essay written by a marginal literary figure (often of snobbish and humorless temperament) that only serves to widen the chasm initially created by said marginal literary figure. 2. An undesirable meal that literary hipsters should avoid. It is believed that the term was coined by two inebriated literary hipsters attempting to sober up in Dunkin Donuts while discussing Glen Duncan’s review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, but has since been used as a way to discourage other literary hipsters from eating anything from Dunkin Donuts.

“Dyer Maker”: A tedious and annoying individual who urges literary hipsters to read the latest essay written by Geoff Dyer. Dyer Makers are considered to be more insufferable than the Bolaño dilettantes, who can be easily forgiven. After all, the Bolaño acolytes are reading actual novels. Dyer Makers, by contrast, are merely reading mean-spirited criticism that has nothing especially original or substantive to say. In response to the Dyer Maker epidemic, several independent bookstores have created 86 lists identifying Dyer Makers in their community. The Dyer Maker is removed from the list once she can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and enthusiasm for D.H. Lawrence’s fiction, rather than some limey asshole’s reductionist take on Lawrence.

“Eugenides Vest”: Inspired in part by the Twitter account, a Eugenides Vest is a garment that a literary hipster wears, but ultimately discards after other literary hipsters have called attention to it. Much as Jeffrey Eugenides has failed to wear a vest at any public appearance after the Times Square billboard, the literary hipster’s Eugenides Vest, which is sometimes identified as a sweater or a scarf, is often considered to be a source of profound shame. It never occurs to the literary hipster that wearing the vest may actually augment the literary hipster’s approval within the community. In DUMBO, the term has also become an alternative term for Dumbo’s Magic Feather.

“to Keith”: To seek publicity and/or media attention by getting arrested at Occupy Wall Street. Literary hipsters who are Keithed generally have little interest in the actual movement and more interest in fulfilling their narcissistic fantasies. Much like those who are woodwinked, literary hipsters opting to Keith seek any excuse to avoid doing work or creating something that is truly ambitious and revolutionary.

“Rowan job”: Inspired by the recent Quentin Rowan plagiarism scandal, some literary hipsters have started to mimic other people’s seduction techniques, attempting to pass these moves off as their own. When the source of these seduction techniques is discovered, the literary hipster is then asked to withdraw from the dating scene due to “legal reasons.” (Note: Not to be confused with rim job.)

“woodwinked”: A feeling of crippling inferiority or needless resentment, sometimes expressed in published form and often mimicking the tone of a drama queen, whereby a literary hipster blames other people for his failure to produce a new novel. When woodwinked, the literary hipster spends much of his spare energies fixating upon some past incident (for example, a review written by James Wood from eight years ago) instead of working on new material. (Ex. Yeah, I’d go bowling with Toby, but he’s been such a drag ever since he got woodwinked.)

nationalbook2011

National Book Awards — Live Coverage

Reluctant Habits will be reporting from the floor of this year’s National Book Awards, which are being held on the evening of November 16th. Managing Editor Edward Champion will be offering strange observations, photographic evidence, and audio clips on this very page as they come in. He will also be tweeting various thoughts falling within the 140 character range. Please keep checking this page and the Twitter page throughout the evening.

3:28 PM: I have just shaved my head, in large part because my stubble was not long enough this year. For this, I apologize. I have donned a beard when attending previous National Book Award ceremonies. Maybe there will be National Book Award beards that I might grow in the future. The most compelling thought I have right now? Never count out any facial hair configuration. Styles change. So do temperaments.

I have printed off my press credentials. This is apparently a requirement for “entry” and I can’t help but marvel that the National Book Foundation is relying upon quaint paper technology as provenance. I’ve been informed by email that there will be numerous celebrities in attendance, including Michael Moore, John Ashbery, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nell Freudenberger, Yiyun L [sic], and John Waters. I am wondering if Yiyun, who is very friendly, a great writer, and someone who once appeared on The Bat Segundo Show, has shortened her name from Yiyun Li to Yiyun L to augment her street cred among troubled Southern California youth. This is quite a sacrifice. I mean, after the Shine/Chime mess, I find it inconceivable that someone could make a typo on a two-letter surname. I can only draw this conclusion.

Because I don’t usually wear neckties, I have been alarmed to discover that some among my modest collection have decomposed within the closet due to disuse. I have found a workaround and will be dressing up very shortly.

6:14 PM: I have arrived at the Cipriani Ballroom, feeling — after my considerable Occupy Wall Street coverage from weeks before — to be weirdly on the other side of what I usually cover. Policemen have told some of the press assembled here that the Kundera meets Umbrellas of Cherbourg vibe outside, whereby well-dressed rich people walk in straight rectilinear ways and numerous policemen stand on the sides of streets, has only been going down for a few days. Which is a hoot for anyone who has noticed the cops for the past few months. I just talked with the main man Harold Augenbraum and asked him if this was the craziest National Book Awards, security-wise, he’s ever dealt with. Not so. “One year I actually hired security,” said Augenbraum. “Someone threatened to disrupt the ceremonies. We hired security guards.” Apparently, some party objected to the specific choices that year — which may have been 2005. Of course, nobody ever did disrupt the ceremonies. And there aren’t security people that I’m aware of inside. Yet I can’t help feeling too comfortable in here — even if I’m wearing a suit, which is not something I entirely associate with comfort.

7:19 PM: I must say that Edith Pearlman is pretty punk rock for 75.

Correspondent: So here’s the question. Do you think that the Award — how much does it matter do you think? Compared to say the act of writing itself?

Pearlman: Oh! Compared to the act of writing, it doesn’t matter at all. I mean, I think writing is what matters most.

Correspondent: So why are you here then?

Pearlman: Because it matters some.

Edith Pearlman (Download MP3)

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7:49 PM: My audio conversation with Mary Gabriel, nonfiction finalist of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution.

Mary Gabriel (Download MP3)

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8:55 PM: There’s been much talk about Occupy Wall Street at the press table (PW‘s Cal Reed says he’s gone down and will again) and among many of the attendees, but the only person who has mentioned it on stage is Ann Lauterbach. Other than Lauterbach, there hasn’t been a single person willing to address it on stage. And, as I learned in talking with nonfiction finalist Lauren Redniss (Radioactive), even some of the finalists lack the guts to air their views. “I have many thoughts, but I’d rather not comment. Thank you so much,” said Redniss at the close of the following radio interview, as she slunk into the clutches of yet more half-baked talk.

Lauren Redniss(Download MP3)

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The Winners:

Fiction: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones
Nonfiction: Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Poetry: Nikky Finney, Head Off and Split
Young Adult: Thanhha Lai, Inside Out & Back Again

obreht

The Bat Segundo Show: Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #421. She is most recently the author of The Tiger’s Wife, winner of the Orange Prize and finalist for the National Book Awards (to be announced on Wednesday: check out Reluctant Habits and our Twitter feed for live coverage from the floor that evening).

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering a future in which writers are trained by Carl Weathers.

Author: Téa Obreht

Subjects Discussed: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” how much one needs to know about tigers, being a National Geographic nerd, research and laziness, readers who have different takes on a story, clumsiness, musicians who become butchers, precise metaphors within The Tiger’s Wife, having the illusion of knowing what you’re doing, talking in first person plural, storytelling and The Secret, regularly arriving at the wrong formula, the elephant scene, deathless men, finding inspiration at the Syracuse Zoo, why brains need to sit with ideas, working in a faux Balkans world, finding verisimilitude for faraway places within common present-day incidents, sharing earbuds on Walkmen and iPods, immediate points within life that connect you to stories, family members who avoid writers, writing what you know “at the moment,” trigger points, similarities between Underground and The Tiger’s Wife, Emir Kusturica, gypsy film soundtracks, learning English from Disney films, legends particular to Belgrade, the Kalemegdan fortress, film as a greater influence for dialogue than real life, Howard Hawks, bad cinematic trilogies, the Qatsi Trilogy, treating fiction as something fabricated, relationships between truth and fabrication, humor bridging the gap between magic and realism, laughing over awful events, Shoah, The Gulag Archipelago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Master and Margarita, finding a humorous path to the real, Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, bonding emotional with a book, whether death is inherently funny, Fawlty Towers, coffee grounds as personal mythology, thick Turkish coffee in the Balkans, parrots that quote poetry, legends that tend to spring up about English Bull Terriers in Belgrade, Kipling’s The Jungle Book vs. the 1967 Disney film, mythological animals, the rosy Disney view, reading from a non-American standpoint, being shocked by Kipling’s imperialism when discovered later in life, the dangers of embedded narrative, academics obliged to find silly interpretations in order to keep their jobs, mythology that is tied to a specific place, learning everything from Disney, American mythology, cowboy hats and immigrant stories, unnecessary suburban symbolism, hostile reviews from women, being confused as a YA novelist, paying attention to reviews, good art and polarizing people, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, critics who see things that the author never intended, standing by work, having doubts about early work, the inevitability of a few clunkers, deleting pages, overexposure and overexplaining, the possibility of Obreht turning into Smeagol if she wins the National Book Award, becoming corrupted by attention, J. Robert Lennon, insulating one’s self from attention, Sunset Boulevard, the importance of humility, defending the pursuit of writing and the need for books in a terrible economy, Richard Powers’s “What Does Fiction Know?”, the Occupy movements, and fiction as a form of help.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I must confess that Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was in my head on the way over here the entire time. And I have you to blame for that.

Obreht: (laughs) Thank you. I keep hearing it on radios now. Like whenever I do, I get embarrassed.

Correspondent: Really? You get embarrassed? You get shamed?

Obreht: I don’t know why. Because I get really into it. It’s pertinent now. And then I get embarrassed about myself.

Correspondent: Do you get sick of tigers now that you have dwelt upon them quite heavily and you have to constantly talk about them?

Obreht: You know, I don’t think I do. I think it’s just getting more and more entrenched into what I do every day. Every email I send has a tiger picture attached to it that’s pertinent to the conversation.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.

Obreht: I’m sure that at aome moment a big break will come and I’ll say, “I never want to see any feline again!” And I’ll kick cats as I go down the street. No, not really. Not really.

Correspondent: (laughs) Violence is welcome on this program.

Obreht: (laughs)

Correspondent: Even hypothetical violence. So you have to become a tiger expert, I presume? Have you been reading up on cats and the like?

Obreht: You know, I studied tigers a little bit for the writing of the book and went and sat in zoos a lot. And I’m a total National Geographic nerd anyway. So it came naturally.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about nerdom. National Geographic nerdom.

Obreht: Yay!

Correspondent: How much do you have to know about tigers to know about them? Or do they exist within the wonderful theater of the mind? What’s up?

Obreht: I’m a big believer in the theater of the mind. Especially when you’re dealing with fiction. I mean, there’s only so much you can know. And then there’s only so much of what you know that you can transmit before it begins to be clinical. So I think research, while it helps, can sometimes destroy you. And I was very happy to take a little bit of what I knew and run with that and let a thousand imaginations bloom about tigers.

Correspondent: Wow. So you’ve learned this fairly early on. A lot of writers have to wait decades before they realize sometimes, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t read every book on a subject.” You’ve actually managed to avoid that from the get-go. To what do you attribute this extra wisdom?

Obreht: Laziness. (laughs)

Correspondent: Laziness? Oh, I see. I see. Practical temperament concerns. (laughs)

Obrhet: No. I think I’m always terrified — I think a lot of students that I have had at Cornell have been terrified of not making their intentions known in their writing or not having something clear in their writing. I’ve always been terrified of the exact opposite. I’ve always been afraid of letting too much be known too quickly or hitting the reader over the head with something. Because I know that used to be one of my flaws. So I’m so overly cautious about it that I think that it sometimes cripples me. I think that there are some things that I could research a little more heavily or whatever I write about them.

Correspondent: Being too explicit about stuff. Like. Such as?

Obreht: Such as? I don’t know. I think that such as a particular kind of character interaction or…

Correspondent: Such as?

Obreht: Such as — well, actually I’m thinking about my short story — for some reason I can’t think of an example from the book, but my short story, “The Laugh” — there’s this tension between the two main characters. One is the husband of a recently deceased woman. And the other is his best friend, but also someone who was interested in the deceased wife. And I was terrified of laying this out too quickly and immediately and explicitly at the beginning of the story. Because it would totally break the tension. And so in an early — in the first five drafts of the story, it wasn’t clear at all. And people were like, “Why is this happening?” And I was like, “Well, he likes her! Or used to and now she’s dead.” So, for me, it’s always this holding back and then trying to ease into being okay with the information being there.

Correspondent: Is this one of the chief concerns when you’re going through this endless rewriting and endless revising? To find that tonal balance that really strikes between what the reader needs to know and what the reader needs to infer?

Obreht: Absolutely. And that’s one of the great endeavors of the short story — this negotiation between the reader and the writer and how that information is being transferred. And you can transfer information in a way where the reader knows. Like the implication is already there and all you have to do is trigger it with that one word for the reader’s neural pathways to open up in that particular direction. And it’s so much fun.

Correspondent: You sound like a drug dealer. Dopamine hits or something. (laughs)

Obreht: I do use a lot of caffeine! (laughs) But as a reader, I enjoy seeing how that happens. You know, how I came to the same conclusion as anther reader. That was one of the great exercises of workshop. How did you get to this place with this story? And I got to a completely different place? Or how did we arrive at the same place? Where was the information that led us both there? I love that as a reader. So I enjoy that as a writer as well.

Correspondent: But if you’re constantly revising to get that precision, how do you keep yourself in surprise? Because that, of course, is very important to maintain the life of a story.

Obreht: Oh, that just comes normally. Because I have no idea what I’m doing! (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. The big thing that nobody really understands. That writers really don’t know what they’re doing often.

Obreht: Yeah. Exactly. You know, you stumble into things. And you’ll be 75% of the way through something and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, I changed my mind! Actually, this is going to happen because it feels more normal, more natural.” Then you have to backtrack and shift everything. (flourishes with considerable exuberance, nearly knocking an object over)

Correspondent: (reflexes kicking in, saves object from falling off table) Almost knock things over.

Obreht: I’m gesticulating here!

Correspondent: No, no, no. If we knock something over, it will make this conversation 300% better.

Obreht: That’s awesome.

Correspondent: It’s already going very well.

The Bat Segundo Show #421: Téa Obreht (Download MP3)

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Tales Too Terrible #1: Meeting the Operative

“This is a tale too terrible. It was so terrible that it was plucked from a looseleaf notebook that I discovered from Gregory Stetson. Gregory Stetson. I have made efforts to track this gentleman down. But he cannot be located. The notebook was discovered in a library. It was left on a table. And regrettably there was no address. There was no phone number. There was no email address. What I was able to discover was that this Tale Too Terrible took place on November 19, 2009.”

This is the first in a new project called Tales Too Terrible, whereby mysterious fragments that have been lost or abandoned or disowned by various parties are resuscitated into radio stories running somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. If you listen very closely, you may discover certain referential clues to other narratives that you may or may not be familiar with. However, for listeners who aren’t interested in such silliness, the Tales are also designed to be heard in sequential format.

There is no set schedule for this project. Whole months may pass by before you get another installment. Or you may get three new installments over the course of the week.

The first installment, “Meeting the Operative,” is thirteen minutes and 33 seconds long and can be listened to below. Click here to go to the second installment.

Tales Too Terrible #1: Meeting the Operative (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #420. He is most recently the author of Uncanny Valley.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling 95% himself, wondering why he recoils at his mirror image.

Author: Lawrence Weschler

Subjects Discussed: Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley,” Zeno’s paradox, the difficulties of animating the face, getting past the uncanny valley in our lifetime, Quidditch matches, the human face as the welter of emotions, Paul Ekman’s Action Units, how humans are attuned to the slightest variation, human and robotic faces, engineers and college experiments, Nicholas of Cusa and his arguments with Aquinas, circles and polygons, the beginnings of the “leap of faith,” narrative, Peter Paul, and Mary’s “The Great Mandala,” “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” Avatar, the human brain secreting stories, the Capgras delusion theory, the Oakes twins, reconfiguring perspective onto a convex plane, Stephen Wiltshire, Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars, tracing the world purely through the eyes, the difficulties in confining thoughts to footnotes, Kepler and how to observe comets, Cinerama, curved projection and straight perception, David Hockney, the illusory nature of “straight” streets, architects who cannot compensate for bowing, natural bowed perception and digital rectilinear recreation, Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye, teaching a class with 50% poets and 50% reporters, analog vs. digital editing, the Apocalypse Now Valkyrie sequence reconfigured in Jarhead, crazy remarks uttered by John Milius, whether or not war films inevitably transform into war pornography, Anthony Swofford, authentic war movies, Samuel Fuller, contemplating the idea of a film capable of killing an audience through its authenticity, confusing moths for motes within the twin lights of the 9/11 WTC memorial, Decasia, trusting visual associations when our ocular proof is so unreliable, Everything That Rises, apophenia, confronting paradoxical forms of art, Freud’s unheimlich, a 1982 anti-nuclear protest at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, responding to David Ulin’s knee-jerk hostility to anarchism, Occupy Wall Street, whether protest is nullified if the activists aren’t aware of the symbolism, Bill Zimmerman, comparisons between the Occupy movement and Polish resistance in the 1960s, politics as theater, “No Drama” Obama, Tahrir Square, the generational conditions of protest, comparisons between Ugandan corruption and American corruption, the lack of an “enoughness” concept, and the acquisition of wealth and the uncanny valley.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s start off with the basis of this book. The uncanny valley. Masahiro Mori’s notion where at a certain point in the evolution of robots — maybe 90 or 95% — suddenly humans tend to recoil if the look or the feel is just not human. The opening essay in this book, which appeared in Wired nearly a decade ago, juxtaposes this issue against Zeno’s paradox, where you’re forever trying to travel the half distance, then the half distance after that, and you’ll never actually reach the end point. You declare “Close Enough for All Practical Purposes” to be the engineer’s ultimate response — this essay, of course, being one in regard to animating the face. But I’m wondering if there’s any legitimate way to reconcile Mori and Zeno. And also, based off of recent developments, is getting past the uncanny valley possible in our lifetimes on the robotics front? What of this? Let’s start off here.

Weschler: (laughs) Well, lots of stuff there. The piece is indeed a piece that I was doing about digital animation of the face. The first of the many pieces in the book. But it sets up a whole set of themes in the book, as you say. At the time, ten years ago, the digital animators had gotten to the point where they could do a hand. They could do a body. They could do a war. They could do a Quidditch match. They could do all kinds of things. But they seem to have hit this wall with the face. And they were getting to the point where it’s interesting — because the face on the one hand is possibly the welter of emotion and things that happen on the face may be the most complicated thing we know. Much the way that it is emphatically the case that the human brain is the most complicated thing we’ve encountered in the world. The human face may be the most complicated thing we’ve encountered in nature in the sense of — it’s a thing where 42 muscles, many of them not attaching on their own, but to other muscles with incredible subtlety and so forth.

Correspondent: Ekman and his Action Units. Unfortunately reduced by Gladwell.

Weschler: Right. Well, there you go. But the point is that, on the one hand, the face itself is complicated. On the other hand, and parallel to that, humans are incredibly attuned to the slightest variation. You could look across the street and see what somebody is looking at. Think about that for a second. Basically, what you’re doing is you’re zoning in on where the whites of the eyes are compared to the pupils and how much squint is happening. There’s tons of stuff going on in the brow. But that allows you to triangulate from — if you think about how tiny a part of your visual field that is, you get all that information. So we are incredibly attuned to that! We’re not particularly attuned to bellies or to kneecaps. But faces we’re attuned to. So indeed you get this problem that it’s both the most complicated thing and we have the most complicated response to it. And the question that was beginning to arise with these people was whether it was ever going to be possible at all to do it. And they indeed talked about the uncanny valley. Now interestingly, Mashairo Mori’s idea was about robots. And he would say that if you got 95%, great. That was fantastic. But 96%, suddenly it was revolting. It was a kind of revulsion. And one way of thinking about that is that, at 95%, it’s a robot that’s incredibly lifelike. And 96%, it’s a human being with something that’s wrong. You can’t figure out what. Now the interesting thing about robots. Forget the face for a second. But robots — the valley you go into, where it’s revolting, maybe only goes up to about 98% and then it comes out of it again. The whole thing is that you do get out of the uncanny valley. The questions with faces is whether you ever get out of the uncanny valley. Whether if you made it 99.999999% perfect, it would still be icky. In fact, we’d get ickier and ickier. In some vague way that we can’t quite identify.

Correspondent: And even if you could, perhaps there would be a new uncanny valley with which to mimic.

Weschler: Well, and that brings us to Zeno’s paradox. The paradox of: you can get halfway there and halfway to halfway. The whole point was that if you shoot an arrow, and the arrow gets halfway to its target, and gets halfway to its target again, before it gets halfway to its target in that remaining distance, therefore it could never get to its target.

Correspondent: There’s also a Cal Poly variation of that. Where they have these students gradually move half the distance, half the distance, with a very attractive woman at the other end.

Weschler: And that’a a variation on the old joke about the Oxford dons. They’re talking with each other. One of them’s an engineer. The other’s a mathematician. I think you referred to that in your opening question. And they’re talking about Zeno’s paradox. And at that moment, a beautiful woman walks by. And the mathematician despairs of ever being able to attain her, but the engineer knows that he can get Close Enough for All Practical Purposes.

The Bat Segundo Show #420: Lawrence Weschler (Download MP3)

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Q.R. Markham, Plagiarist

On Tuesday afternoon, the Associated Press’s Hillel Italie reported that a recently published spy novel — Q.R. Markham’s Assassin of Secrets — was being pulled after Markham’s publisher, Mulholland Books, had determined that Markham had lifted his text from other sources.

Reluctant Habits has obtained a finished copy of the Markham book. The following examples, compared from Markham’s book to the original sources, demonstrate just how much Markham (real name: Quentin Rowan) stole from other material.

* * *

Markham, Page 13: “His step had an unusual silence to it. It was late morning in October of the year 1968 and the warm, still air had turned heavy with moisture, causing others in the long hallway to walk with a slow shuffle, a sort of somber march.”

Taken from Page 1 of James Bamford’s Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency: “His step had an unusual urgency to it. Not fast, but anxious, like a child heading out to recess who had been warned not to run. It was late morning and the warm, still air had turned heavy with moisture, causing others on the long hallway to walk with a slow shuffle, a sort of somber march.”

* * *

Markham, Page 13: “The boxy, sprawling Munitions Building which sat near the Washington Monument and quietly served as I-Division’s base of operations was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space.”

Taken from Bamford, Page 1: “In June 1930, the boxy, sprawling Munitions Building, near the Washington Monument, was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space.”

* * *

Markham, Page 13: “Chase’s brown loafers made a sudden soundless left turn into a heavily deserted wing. It was lined with closed doors containing dim, opaque windows and empty name holders.”

Taken from Bamford, Page 1: “Oddly, he made a sudden left turn into a nearly deserted wing. It was lined with closed doors containing dim, opaque windows and empty name holders.”

* * *

Markham, Page 14: “…Chase mused, as he turned right into Room 32, a small office containing a massive black vault, the kind found in exclusive Swiss banks. Reaching into the front pocket of his gingham shirt, he removed a small card. Then, standing in front of the thick round combination dial, he began twisting it back and forth. Seconds later he yanked up the silver bolt and slowly pushed open the heavy door, only to reveal another wall of steel behind it. This time he removed a key from a small compartment inside the heel of his left shoe and turned it in the lock, swinging aside the second door to reveal an interior as bright and cheery as noonday sun.”

Taken from Bamford, Page 1-2: “Halfway down the hall Friedman turned right into Room 3416, a small office containing a massive black vault, the kind found in large banks. Reaching into his inside coat pocket, he removed a small card. Then, standing in front of the thick round combination dial to block the view, he began twisting the dial back and forth. Seconds later he yanked up the silver bolt and slowly pulled open the heavy door, only to reveal another wall of steel behind it. This time he removed a key from his trouser pocket and turned it in the lock, swinging aside the second door to reveal an interior as dark as a midnight lunar eclipse.”

* * *

Markham, Page 14: “Yet somehow, at forty-eight years old, Virginia-born Brewster had spent his entire adult life studying, practicing, defining the black arts of espionage and counterintelligence. Six years earlier, during the autumn of 1962, Brewster had been appointed the chief and sole employee of a secret new organization responsible for monitoring — ‘watchdogging,’ in the new president’s words — all of the other intelligence services: the CIA in particular.”

Taken from Bamford, Page 1: “At thirty-eight years old, the Russian-born William Frederick Friedman had spent most of his adult life studying, practicing, defining the black art of code-breaking. The year before, he had been appointed the chief and sole employee of a secret new Army organization responsible for analyzing and cracking foreign codes and ciphers. Now, at last, his one-man Signal Intelligence Service actually had employees, three of them, who were attempting to keep pace close behind.”

* * *

Markham, Page 15: “He was a natural administrator; he absorbed written material at a glance and never forgot anything. He knew the names and pseudonyms, the photographs, and the operative weakness of every agent controlled by Americans everywhere in the world. Brewster rarely met with any of them, and few of them knew he existed, but he designed their lives, forming them into a global subsociety that had become what it was, and remained so, at his pleasure. He was outranked by only three men in the American intelligence community.”

Taken from Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn: “He was a natural administrator; he absorbed written material at a glance and never forgot anything. He knew the names and pseudonyms, the photographs and the operative weakness of every agent controlled by Americans everywhere in the world. Patchen never met any of them, and none of them knew he existed, but he designed their lives, forming them into a global sub-society that had become what it was, and remained so, at his pleasure. His hair turned gray when he was thirty, possibly from the pain of his wounds. At thirty-five he was outranked by only four men in the American intelligence community.”

* * *

Markham, Page 15: “The machine measured their breathing, the sweat on their palms, their blood pressure and pulse, and it knew whether they had stolen money from the government, submitted to homosexual advances, been doubled by the opposition, committed adultery. The test was called the ‘flutter.'”

Taken from Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn: “The machine measured their breathing, the sweat on their palms, their blood pressure and pulse, and it knew whether they had stolen money from the government, submitted to homosexual advances, been doubled by the opposition, committed adultery. The test was called the ‘flutter.'”

* * *

Markham, Pages 15-16: “To Brewster, the heart attack machine was the ordeal of brotherhood. He believed that those who went through it were cold in their minds, trained to observe and report but never to judge. They looked for flaws in humanity and were never surprised to find them; the polygraph had taught Chase so much about himself — taught him that guilt can be read on human skin with a meter.”

From Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn: “To Webster, the flutter was the ordeal of brotherhood. He believed that those who went through it were cold in their minds, trained to observe and report but never to judge. They looked for flaws in men and were never surprised to find them: the polygraph had taught them so much about themselves — taught them that guilt can be read on human skin with a meter — that they knew what all men were.”

* * *

Markham, Pages 16-17: “His number two agent wore large horn-rimmed eyeglasses, had dirty-blond hair that covered his forehead and the tops of his ears, was broad-shouldered but slim, and very handsome. His eyes were a warm blue and he had the kind of weather-beaten face that suggested years of outdoor activity. Chase almost had the look of an old-time matinee idol, but there was a certain quirkiness, a wistfulness, a rueful irony to his face that left a different kind of emotional trademark. An almost dandified alienation. This, Brewster guessed, was what had endeared his number two man to all those serious dark-haired women in Paris and Milan.”

Taken from two sources (1) Raymond Benson’s High Time to Kill: “Group Captain Roland Marquis was blond, broad-shouldered, and very handsome. A neatly trimmed blond mustache covered his upper lip. His eyes were a cold blue. He had the kind of weather-beaten face that suggested years of outdoor activity, and the square jaw of a matinee idol.” (2) Geoffrey O’Brien’s Dream Time: “The mark this leaves on him is not shame but rather the wistfulness of the spy, his self-indulgent rueful irony, an emotional trademark that endears him to serious dark-haired women in Brussels and Milan. They are attracted to the way he embodies a dandified alienation.”

* * *

Markham, Page 17: “Also, it was evident to Brewster from the day he met Chase in Korea that he was the finest natural spy he had ever encountered. There was no easy explanation for his talent. Perhaps the first reason for his excellence was his truculent refusal to believe in anybody’s innocence. Chase treated all men and women as enemy agents at all times; they could be used, paid, praised. They could be loved. But they could never be trusted. What might seem paranoia in another man was shrewd intuition in Chase.”

Taken from Charles McCarry, The Last Supper: “Also, it was evident to Hubbard from the day Wolkowicz arrived in Berlin that he was the finest natural spy he had ever encountered. There was no easy explanation for this talent. Perhaps the first reason for his excellence was his truculent refusal to believe in anybody’s innocence. Wolkowicz treated all men, and especially all women, as enemy agents at all times; they could be used, paid, praised. What might seem paranoia in another man was shrewd intuition in Wolkowicz.”

* * *

Markham, P. 18:: “They’re reportedly responsible for the theft of those military maps from Hanoi from the Pentagon last month. A well-protected Mafia don was murdered about a year ago in Cuba. Zero Directorate supposedly supplied the hit man for that job.”

Taken from Raymond Benson’s High Time to Kill: “The maps disappeared from right under the noses of highly trained security personnel. A well-protected Mafia don was murdered about a year ago in Sicily. The Union supposedly supplied the hit man for that job.”

* * *

Markham, P. 20: “Some even thought he operated outside the apparatus; in fact, he was implanted so deeply within it as to be more or less detached from its rules.”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “…he operated outside the apparatus; in fact he was implanted so deeply within it as to be detached from its rules.”

* * *

Markham, P. 20: “But what happens to the market if you can’t keep a secret, if you never know which one of your people is going to be grabbed next and given a shot of something that makes him want to tell everything he knows?”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “But what happens to the market if you can’t keep a secret, if you never know which one of your people is going to be grabbed next and given a shot of something that makes him want to tell everything he knows?”

* * *

Markham, P. 21-22: “It made him think of a warm autumn evening a year before the shooting of John F. Kennedy when the president preempted regular television programming to give advance notice of the possible erasure of the world. Chase had been walking down K Street when the neon was just coming on. People were walking around in the usual way. Never had ordinary gestures — buying a newspaper, putting the key in the lock, shoving a quarter across the counter at the luncheonette — seemed so submissive, so humiliated. Even if a more precise hour were fixed for the great dissolution, the hand would continue in automaton fashion to shove the coin across the counter.”

From Geoffrey O’Brien’s Dream Time: “A year before the shooting of John F. Kennedy, for instance, on a warm autumn evening the President preempted regular television programming to give advance notice of the possible erasure of the world. On the street the neon was just coming on. People were walking around in the usual way. Never had ordinary gestures — buying a newspaper, putting the key in the lock, shoving a quarter across the counter, waiting on line to see the new adventure movie — seemed so submissive, so humiliated. The people on the street had in any case no way of responding. Even if a more precise hour were fixed for the great dissolution, the hand would continue in automaton fashion to shove the coin across the counter.”

* * *

Markham, P. 22: “As Chase himself would say years later, when he knew him better than anyone alive, the old man decided everything between his pelvis and his collarbone. Chase meant this as a compliment: anyone could be an intellectual.”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “As Patchen himself would say years later, when he knew him better than anyone alive, the old man decided everything between his pelvis and his collarbone. He meant this as a compliment: any damn fool could be an intellectual.”

* * *

Markham, P. 23: “…they called it that, never the ‘Soviet intelligence service’ or ‘the KGB,’ because in Brewster’s opinion there as no such thing as the Soviet Union, only the Russian empire operating under an assumed name.”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “…never ‘the Soviet intelligence service’ or ‘the KGB,’ because in their opinion there was no such thing as the Soviet Union, only the Russian empire operating under an assumed name.”

* * *

Markham, P. 23: “The victims were doing the Russians no harm, and even if the opposite had been true, it is seldom good practice for an intelligence service to kill an enemy it knows, because the victim will only be replaced by one that it does not know…”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “The victims were doing the Russians no harm, and even if the opposite had been true, it is seldom good practice for an intelligence service to kill an enemy it knows, because the victim will only be replaced by one that it does not know.”

* * *

Markham, P. 24: “He spoke fluent Arabic and English and was an expert in small arms, explosives, and small-scale guerrilla operations. ‘The strange thing about the operation,’ Brewster had noted at the time, ‘is that all of Lazarus’s shooters and all the supporting cast are bourgeois European leftists and students.”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “He spoke fluent Arabic and English and was an expert in small arms, explosives, and small-scale guerrilla operations. ‘The strange thing about this operation,’ Horace reported, ‘is that all of Butterfly’s shooters and all the supporting cast are Palestinian Arabs or bourgeois European leftists — romantic females, in about half the cases — who sympathize with the Palestinian cause.'”

* * *

Markham, P. 25:: “Black images of hundreds of small rectangles were scattered all over the torso and legs. ‘Who took this?’ ‘We did, in Milan, while he was waiting for his bags. Those are two-ounce gold ingots, two hundred and twenty…”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “Black images of hundreds of small rectangles were scattered all over the torso and legs. ‘Who took this?’ Yeho asked. ‘We did, in Milan, while he was waiting for his bags. Those are two-ounce gold ingots, two hundred and twenty of them…'”

* * *

Markham, P. 25: “Lazarus’s mission had been to create an asylum full of lunatics, and then unlock the doors and let them go. He was going to give them twenty-eight pounds of gold and a million dollars in currency, tell them they could kill anyone they wanted to kill anyone…”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “Butterfly’s mission had been to create an asylum full of lunatics, and then unlock the doors and let them go. He was going to give them twenty-eight pounds of gold and a million dollars in currency, tell them they could kill anyone they…”

* * *

Markham, P. 26: “Brewster gazed at Chase for several seconds in great seriousness — taking a quiet amount of pride in his creation. Then he threw back his head and laughed. ‘I was right, by golly,’ Brewster said.”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “The OG gazed at him for several seconds in great seriousness. Then he threw back his head and laughed. ‘I was right, by golly,’ he said.”

* * *

Markham, P. 26: “An odd nickname for the elegant, tall, and very efficient and liberated young lady with a taste for cocktail dresses and thigh-high boots. After a slightly shaky start, Chase and Frankie had become close friends and what she liked to call ‘occasional lovers.'”

From John Gardner, Special Services: “An apt nickname for the elegant, tall, and very efficient and liberated young lady. After a slightly shaky start, Bond and Q’ute had become friends and what she liked to call ‘occasional lovers.'”

* * *

Markham, P. 26: “In the past, he had often found himself bored by the earnest young men who inhabited the workshops and testing areas of G Branch, but the times were changing. Within a week of her arrival, Frnakie had become the target of many seductive attempts by unmarried officers of all ages. Chase had noticed her, and heard the reports. Word was the colder side of Frankie’s personality was uppermost in her off-duty hours.”

From John Gardner, License Renewed: “In the past, he had often found himself bored by the earnest young men who inhabited the workshops and testing areas of Q Branch, but times were changing. Within a week of her arrival, Q Branch had accorded its new executive the nickname of Q’ute, for even in so short a time she had become the target of many seductive attempts by unmarried officers of all ages. Bond had noticed her, and heard the reports. Word was that the colder side of Q’ute’s personality was uppermost in her off-duty hours.”

* * *

Markham, P. 27: “This consisted of a leather suitcase together with a similarly designed, steel-strengthened briefcase. Both items contained cunningly devised compartments, secret and well-nigh undetectable, built to house a whole range of electronic….”

From John Gardner, License Renewed: “This consisted of a leather suitcase together with a similarly designed, steel-strengthened briefcase. Both items contained cunningly devised compartments, secret and well-nigh undetectable, built to house a whole range of electronic…”

* * *

Markham, P. 28: “The large, circular smoked glass table which formed a focal point at the center of the room seemed to sink into the carpet, and from there came the sound of splashing water as it gleamed with light to become a small pond with a fountain playing at its center.”

From John Gardner, License Renewed: “The large, circular, smoked glass table which formed a focal point at the center of the room seemed to sink into the carpet, and from it there came the sound of splashing water as it gleamed with light to become a small pond with a fountain playing at its center.”

* * *

Markham, P. 28: “Then he saw her, behind the fountain, a small light dim but growing to illuminate her as she stood naked but for a thin, translucent nightdress; her hair undone and falling to her waist — hair and the thin material moving and blowing as though caught in a silent zephyr.”

From John Gardner, License Renewed: “Then he saw her, behind the fountain, a small light, dim but growing to illuminate her as she stood naked but for a thin, translucent nightdress; her hair undone and falling to her waist — hair and the thin material moving and blowing as though caught in a silent zephyr.”

* * *

Markham, P. 29:: “They made love with a disturbing wildness, as though time was running out for both of them. The draining of their bodies left the agile Frankie exhausted. She fell asleep almost immediately after their last long and tender kiss. Chase, however, stayed wide awake, thinking back to Korea…”

From John Gardner, For Special Services: “After dining at a small Italian restaurant — the Campana, in Marylebone High Street — the couple had gone back to Q’ute’s apartment, where they made love with a disturbing wildness, as though time was running out for both of them. The draining of their bodies left the agile Q’ute exhausted. She fell asleep almost immediately after their last long and tender kiss. Bond, however, stayed wide-awake, his alert state of mind brought about by…”

* * *

Markham, P. 32: “Certainly, they’d seen changes in each other in the fifteen years since then, but the changes were physical. Their minds were as they had always been. Brewster believed in intellect as a force in the world and understood that it could be used only in secret. Chase knew, because he had spent his life doing it, that it was possible to break open the human experience and find the dry truth hidden at its center. Their work had taught them both that the truth, once discovered, was usually of little use; men denied what they had done, forgot what they had believed, and made the same mistakes over and over again. Brewster and Chase were valuable because they had learned how to predict and use the mistakes of others.”

From Charles McCarry, The Tears of Autumn: “Patchen and Christopher saw changes in one another, but the changes were physical. Their minds were as they had always been. They believed in intellect as a force in the world and understood that it could be used only in secret. They knew, because they spent their lives doing it, that it was possible to break open the human experience and find the dry truth hidden at its center. Their work had taught them that the truth, once discovered, was usually of little use: men denied what they had done, forgot what they had believed, and made the same mistakes over and over again. Patchen and Christopher were valuable because they had learned how to predict and use the mistakes of others.”

* * *

Markham, P. 32: “They fought as they did, caring nothing about dying, because it seemed obvious to them that dying was the natural consequence of charging an American machine-gun position. Their bravery was an alien form of intelligence, dazzling but incomprehensible.”

From Charles McCarry, The Last Supper: “They fought as they did, caring nothing about dying, because it seemed obvious to them that dying was the natural consequence of charging a machine-gun position. Their bravery was an alien form of intelligence, dazzling but incomprehensible.”

* * *

Markham, P. 33: “Chase had never for a moment been blessed with the illusion that he was dead. He had known, touching the muzzle of the Bren with his swollen tongue, that he had not pulled the trigger. He realized, at the moment in which he felt the pain of the blow, that a Korean soldier had crept up…”

From Charles McCarry, The Last Supper: “Wolkowicz had never for a moment been blessed with the illusion that he was dead. He had known, touching the muzzle of the BAR with his swollen tongue, that he had not pulled the trigger. He realized, at the moment in which he felt the pain of the blow, that a Japanese soldier had crept up…”

* * *

Markham, P. 34: “He had a facial twitch; his cheek moved, causing the right eye to open like a caged owl’s. Chase had never seen an Asian with such an affection.”

From Charles McCarry, The Tears of Autumn: “He had a facial twitch; his cheek moved, causing the right eye to open and close like a caged owl’s. Christopher had never seen an Oriental with such an affliction.”

* * *

Markham, P. 34: “Only the table lamp, fitted with a brilliant photographic bulb, was burning. Colonel Zhao stood behind the lamp in the shadows. He removed a large hypodermic syringe from a leather case, and holding his hands in the light, filled it with an ampoule of yellow liquid.”

From Charles McCarry, The Tears of Autumn: “Now only the table lamp, fitted with a brilliant photographic bulb, was burning. Christopher stood behind the lamp in the shadows. He removed a large hypodermic syringe from the leather case, and holding his hands in the light, filled it with an ampule of yellow liquid.”

* * *

Markham, P. 34-35: “Chase sat with one flaccid leg wrapped around the other; his body shook and he wedged his hands between his crossed legs. ‘I want you to understand your situation. It’s possible for you to remain in this room indefinitely. Conditions will not change, except to get worse. No one will find you.’ Chase stopped trying to control his shivering. ‘They’ll find me,’ he said, ‘and when they do, you bastards…'”

From Charles McCarry, The Tears of Autumn: “Pigeon sat with one flaccid leg wrapped around the other; his body shook and he wedged his hands between his crossed legs. ‘I want you to understand your situation,’ Christopher said. ‘It’s possible for you to remain in this room indefinitely. Conditions will not change, except to get worse. No one will find you.’ Pigeon had stopped trying to control his shivering. ‘They’ll find me,’ he said, ‘and when they do, you bastard…'”

* * *

And that’s only through Page 17 35. As of Tuesday afternoon, I will have to put my investigations on hold due to several previously scheduled appointments. But I will carry on with my studies upon my return.

11/8/11 PM UPDATE: I have updated through Page 27.

11/8/11 PM UPDATE 2: Jeremy Duns, who did a Q&A with Markham and blurbed the book, offers his apologia.

11/8/11 PM UPDATE 3: It gets worse. Quentin Rowan (aka Q.R. Markham) also managed to dupe The Paris Review. In the Spring 2002 issue (No. 161), The Paris Review published “Bethune Street,” which featured this passage:

Time gives poetry to a battlefield, or some equivalent modern-day gathering at the rim of the awful, and perhaps these St. Luke’s girls were like little flowers on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.

And here is a passage from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana:

Time gives poetry to a battlefield, and perhaps Milly resembled a little the flower on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.

11/8/11 PM UPDATE 4: A tip from Sarah Weinman. Rowan also lifted passages in this story “Excellence” — which appeared in the Autumn 2003 issue of BOMB Magazine. Rowan’s passage:

There was a laboratory at Tembleke where a human brain was kept alive in breathwater. It was in a wooden cabinet like an old Frigidaire. I was taken by Provost Man to see it during those days and I wanted to ask questions about it — does it feel, think?

This text was lifted from Nicholas Mosley’s Accident:

There is a laboratory in Oxford where a human brain is kept alive. It is in a wooden cabinet like an old frigidaire. I was taken to see it during these days and I wanted to ask questions about it — does it feel, think.

11/8/11 PM UPDATE 5: Here’s a screenshot of blurbs from Joseph McElroy (“an original and contrary writer”) and Frederic Tuten (“Quentin Rowan takes down, word by word, the dreary, box-shape house of fiction…”) from the back flap of Bethune Street and Other Writings, which attest to Quentin Rowan’s “originality.” Note how Rowan is quick to describe himself as “original and edgy.”

11/8/11 PM UPDATE 6: More Quentin Rowan plagiarism. In this apparent essay on Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, Rowan has lifted the whole thing from Ralph Harper’s The World of the Thriller. Here’s one small sample.

Rowan: “I have never found the same mixture of sickness and menace in Cold War novels. The rational crime, to use Camus’ term, does not frighten me in the same way as the sick crime. Many of the earliest spy stories still seem the best, and lately I’ve been fascinated by Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands.”

Harper: “I have never found the same mixture of sickness and menace in cold war novels. The rational crime, to use Camus’ term, does not frighten me in the same way as the sick crime. The early spy stories still seem the best, except for John Le Carre’s; but then he is a very fine writer.”

11/9/11 AM UPDATE: The Guardian‘s Alison Flood reports on the Markham fallout on the other side of the Atlantic. Assassin of Secrets has now been pulled in the UK.

11/9/11 AM UPDATE 2: This morning, The Huffington Post reported:

Sure enough, we see Markham lifting again for “9 Ways That Spy Novels Made Me a Better Bookseller”.

Rowan: “A spy was calm and had a faintly sardonic smile, like Alec Guinness playing George Smiley or Sean Connery eyeing Claudine Auger. A spy might be kind, but in an offhand way as if he were humoring you. Just as – as a bookstore clerk – I find myself talking to customers as if they were children, the spy has no time for your trivial concept of what is real and what isn’t.”

Lifted from Geoffrey O’Brien’s Dream Time: “A spaceman was calm and had a faintly sardonic smile, like Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock Holmes. A spaceman might be kind, but in an offhand way as if he were humoring you. Talking to you like a kid, with your trivial concept of what is real and what isn’t.”

11/9/11 AM UPDATE 3: List updated through Page 35.

11/9/11 AM UPDATE 4: Duane Swierczynski, who blurbed the Markham book, weighs in: “The whole affair leaves me feeling embarrassed, puzzled, and more than a little angry.”

11/11/11 UPDATE: In the comments section at Jeremy Duns’s blog, Duns has revealed that Quentin Rowan responded by email to his request for an apology:

Dear Jeremy,

My apologies for not making an apology sooner. People have told me to wait on writing anyone because I may still be in shock. Also, I just thought I ought to wait for a little perspective to come. I can see how angry you are and know that I deserve every bit of it and more. I promise you that the inside of my head is not a pretty place right now and i am not sitting somewhere enjoying this or laughing about it. There is nothing anyone can say that could make me feel worse than I already do. I am so sorry that I ever got you involved in this mess and would really like to try to explain it all to you. I just can’t do that if you are going to print it or tweet it (for legal reasons etc.) But if we can talk off the record, I will call you back or send a written explanation and fuller letter of apology. Once again, I am truly and deeply sorry, and still remain a great admirer of your work.

With deepest regrets,
Q

This is the first and only known Markham statement after he was unmasked as a plagiarist.

11/15/11 UPDATE: This morning, CBC Radio’s Q was kind enough to have me on their program. I hope to have audio in a bit (I’m typing this while stealing wi-fi), but I wanted to follow up on one question that the excellent Jian Ghomeshi asked me and which I failed to offer a suitable answer for. Jian asked me why wholesale plagiarism of the Rowan variety was wrong. And I offered a rather bizarre lemonade stand metaphor, describing a hypothetical scenario in which a parentless man stole somebody else’s kid, parked that kid in front of the lemonade stand and claimed it as his own, while pocketing all the revenue. Jian then asked me specifically why this was wrong. And I responded something to the effect of “I just feel that it’s wrong.” What I meant to say plainly beyond metaphor — and perhaps I was too dazzled by Jian’s impressive interviewing kung-fu to do so — is that Duchamp’s “Fountain” and Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” involve clear and traceable sources and thus, in my view, constitute enough transformation of the original sources to become art. I am with Danger Mouse on The Grey Album and with the Random House-cleared edition (that is, sources in the back) of David Shields’s Reality Hunger. In the case of Rowan, he’s essentially stealing labor from other writers in the manner of a robber baron and sharing neither revenue nor credit. And because writers are already underpaid and working long hours for their sentences, I feel this is an especially egregious stance against creative art and creative labor.

11/30/11 UPDATE: The Fix has published an essay by Rowan called “Confessions of a Plagiarist.” While Rowan has not lifted any passages for this piece, it is interesting that he has not apologized, stated plainly that he was wrong, or otherwise offered any form of contrition. He’s getting hammered in the comments.

2/14/12 UPDATE: The New Yorker‘s Lizzie Widdicombe wrote at length about Rowan and was kind enough to include Jeremy Duns and me in her very interesting piece.

dianaabujaber

The Bat Segundo Show: Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #419. She is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Salivating in tandem with his diminishing wallet.

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Subjects Discussed: The dangers of French pastries, Abu-Jaber’s propensity for describing food in lurid terms, growing up with food-obsessed parents, wooing people and readers with food, Abu-Jaber’s former life as a restaurant critic, the atmosphere of revolving restaurants, getting irate letters from restauranters, early skirmishes with vegans, faux meat and tofurkey, the differences between foodies and egalitarian food lovers, Brillat-Savarian, MFK Fisher, needless food elitism, gourmet food trucks and gentrification, people who shy away from cooking, overpriced farmers markets, the dark side of sugar, writing without a routine, writing while cooking and while being stuck at a red light, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, studying elements of craft, consumerism and literature, finding precision within a chaotic work environment, outlines, laborious revision, setting imaginary deadlines, working with artistically-minded editors, characters who play with their hair throughout Abu-Jaber’s novels, writing about hair loss in women, being bitten by a brown recluse spider, suppurating wounds, when writing about a subject leads you to people who are living with the subject, the difficulties of cutting curly hair, exploring the Florida gutterpunk culture, real estate and Glengarry Glen Ross, talking with street kids, predatory people in their thirties living with kids in abandoned shacks, income disparity in Miami Beach, the dregs of club kids culture, earning the trust of street kids, maintaining an optimistic sheen while writing about victims of capitalism, readers who have complained about Birds of Paradise being too dark, Last Exit to Brooklyn, whether fiction has the obligation to solve problems, Dickens, Cristina Garcia’s review, Cynthia Ozick, Amazon reviewers who demand uplifting stories, unlikable characters being stigmatized in contemporary fiction, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, literary audiences and competing reader desires, Meghan Cox Gurdon’s uninformed YA stance, Sherman Alexie’s response, encouraging readers to take risks in fiction, commercial forces and offering novel samples, the origin of Origin, the pros and cons of having a genre-reading husband, the benefits of having a writing group (as well as having actual human beings in your life), character names names after notable American figures (Muir and Emerson), Idiocracy, autodidacts and American spirit, finding the good qualities within monstrous people, serial killers and the 1%, being very inspired by sunlight and water, cinematic imagery within Abu-Jaber’s prose, colons, Graham Greene, laziness and thwarted screenwriting ambitions, Elizabeth Taylor as a model for Felice, Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, tinkering with the idea of beauty, steering readers away from flattened culture, the narcotic allure of cooking shows, how food can enlarge a story, European novelists and food, T.C. Boyle, Kate Christensen, and food memoirs.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Abu-Jaber: Writing about a French pastry chef? All these venues are bringing in French pastries. People are bringing me pastries.

Correspondent: Oh no.

Abu-Jaber: People bring me cookies and croissants and Napoleons. I mean, it’s just fantastic. But it’s kind of like, oh my god! How am I going to fit into my airplane seat on the way home? Because it’s wild. And, of course, I have to eat them all.

Correspondent: So you have to eat them all? You can’t give them away to generous readers who have been standing in line?

Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Yeah, right. My excellent interviewers. Actually, I have given out some of my pastries. But I have to admit. I want to eat all of them, if possible.

Correspondent: I noticed that with Ron Charles, the first sentence of his review in the Washington Post was “Diana Abu-Jaber’s delicious new novel weighs less than two pounds, but you may gain more than that by reading it.” So this seems as good a time as any to talk about your propensity for describing food in very lurid terms. I mean, to offer an example, you even have those moments between dialogue. In Crescent, you have, “She starts splitting open heads of garlic and picking at the papery skin covering the cloves.” Now this is between lines. So it forces one to both be engaged with the text and it forces one’s saliva to start running. And so the question is how this business with food started.

Abu-Jaber: Oh! It’s not something I did deliberately. I didn’t choose this metaphor. It’s weird. I think that a lot of it came up because of being raised by a food-obsessed parent. My dad always wanted to have his own restaurant. As an immigrant from Jordan, he used food as a way of giving his children culture. And so I grew up with a sensibility just informing the very fabric of our days. And then my grandmother was a very serious Irish Catholic baker. And so my grandmother and my father waged this war over our souls — the children — to try and woo us through their separate crafts. And so I grew up between falafel and cream puffs. And between Dad’s wonderful Jordanian cuisine and my grandmother’s incredibly yummy cookies and cakes and pastries.

Correspondent: And no doubt, along with that, came a very imposing exercise regimen.

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, that’s got to be terrible. Wooing people through food. You’re wooing your readers with food. Why was food the ultimate axe to wield here? As opposed to, say, fashion or conversation or what not?

Abu-Jaber: It’s something that kind of happened organically in this book. I saw this woman. I was thinking about the book. And I had this image in my head of a woman wearing a chef’s apron. And I could see her back. And I could see that she had these very strong arms and shoulders. So I knew that she was someone who worked with her hands. And it became very clear to me that she was a pastry chef. And I had worked in food journalism for a while. I used to have a restaurant column.

Correspondent: You were a restaurant critic?

Abu-Jaber: I was.

Correspondent: Did you ever tear a restaurant to shreds?

Abu-Jaber: I think…I’m a pretty nice person! I tried to offer constructive criticism.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Abu-Jaber: But you are aware that you’re doing a social service by being a food critic. So you have to help the consumer, as well as the purveyor. And I might have shredded a little bit.

Correspondent: Like…such as what? What kind of constructive criticism was the worst that you possibly endowed?

Abu-Jaber: Oh jeez! Well, you know what I would do? I would try to offer people little guidelines about what to avoid in general. And I remember one of my big ones was that, if a restaurant has a great view, beware of the food.

Correspondent: (laughs Yeah. That’s actually very true.

Abu-Jaber: Uh huh.

Correspondent: Especially in this city too.

Abu-Jaber: Yes. Exactly. Or if it’s in a railroad car. Or if there’s a gigantic playground in the middle. It’s probably not going to be the best.

Correspondent: Or the infamous revolving restaurants.

Abu-Jaber: Ah, yes! If it moves, don’t chew. (laughs)

Correspondent: Which is a shame! Because it’s such — I’m a big fan of revolving restaurants. Not for the food, but for the kitsch of the experience.

Abu-Jaber: Sure. Sure. Just remember that some people are going for experience.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Abu-Jaber: I am somebody who likes to eat for the food. But I know that for many, many people, atmosphere trumps all.

Correspondent: Did you ever get a restaurant wrong during these early days? Did you get irate readers sending you letters saying, “Diana! You are absolutely off! Who do you think you are?” Anything like that?

Abu-Jaber: I used to get irate letters from restauranters.

Correspondent: Yes.

Abu-Jaber: From the people who felt that I’d gotten them wrong. I remember that I did a vegetarian roundup once. The vegetarian restaurants of Portland. And one of the local restaurant owners wrote to me irate. Absolutely irate. Because he had some vegetarian dishes on his menu. And he just thought that I should have included him. And he just really wanted to let me know that I had disrespected him.

Correspondent: Be thankful that you didn’t get involved with the vegans. Because they weren’t around back then.

Abu-Jaber: Yikes! Oh, lord in heaven. I think at that time — now this was the late ’90s.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Abu-Jaber: So at that time, there was maybe one vegan restaurant. And what they tried to do was present faux meat. So you’d go and you’d have turkey sculpted out of soy bean.

Correspondent: Tofurkey.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Exactly. So that was a whole other can of beans, so to speak.

Correspondent: So just to be straight here on the food issue, I mean, you would not identify yourself as a foodie, but a more egalitarian food person?

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. I’m sympathetic to the whole foodie idea. But I think that foodieism — if that’s a word — tends to elevate food to this sacred thing. It’s like this exalted object on an alter place, basically. And I just have never felt that that was never the point of enjoyment of any kind of primary activity like eating. That food is something that adds enormously to our lives, but that it’s a simple thing. And that we’re animals and that animal enjoyment is just a natural easy part of our lives. Or it should be.

Correspondent: Well, it went from something that was fairly harmless. Like Brillat-Savarin and MFK Fisher, who offer the perfectly sensible advice, “Well, if we’re spending so much of our time eating, we should probably pay attention to it,” but who are also championing food culture during the Great Depression. And this is the thing. It went from this rather egalitarian place to something that was ridiculously elitist or Ortega y Gasset-like, you know?

Abu-Jaber: Yes. Yes. We have started rhapsodizing about food and nobody wants to make it. People go out and buy cookbooks because they love the images and they love the idea of it and reading the cookbook like literature. But really nobody tries the recipes.

Correspondent: Yeah! I know, that’s the fun part!

Abu-Jaber: Yeah.

Correspondent: Especially when you make it with other people, who are as clueless as you are.

Abu-Jaber: You’re all in it together. You know, as an individual and as a parent, I want to make good, easy, nutritious food. And as a writer, I like the metaphor of food. Because it’s so malleable. It casts light on all these different elements in our psyche. All the different ways that we look at relationships in general. I don’t write about food to stop in food. That’s not the point. It’s more a filter through which to look at experience.

Correspondent: Sure. Have you seen, while you’ve been here in New York, some of our ridiculous gourmet food trucks? It totally defeats the purpose. Where before you’d get a hot dog for a dollar.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: Or you’d get some shish kabob or some sort of falafel really cheap. Now they have gourmet food trucks here. You should check these out. Empanadas that are really overpriced. Like six bucks.

Abu-Jaber: Oh really.

Correspondent: It’s now become — they’ve taken our food trucks!

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: The food trucks have gentrified!

Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Wow.

Correspondent: I mean, this leads me to wonder, just as a fiction writer, whether you may explore this in a future book. This issue of, well, we make our food, but now even the price of food goes up and the experience of eating food goes up.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: And even something like white trash cuisine, even the good parts of that, becomes taken away from us. So there is no affordable base. Like there used to be. The traditional kind of food.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: I guess I have some feelings on this issue, now that we’ve talked about this.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, because it’s an economic issue. It’s health and it’s relationships and family and economics, for sure. And that’s part of the problem with the foodie movement. Foodies indulge in a kind of extreme experience. They’re the top of the pyramid. The people who can afford to go into Williams-Sonoma and buy a special strawberry huller. Or just that experience of going into a glorious kitchen in which none of the instruments in the kitchen have been touched. You know, it’s s more like an operating room than it is a kitchen.

Correspondent: It’s almost like the Trail of Tears.

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because you have to find the produce places that the middle-class people have not found yet.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: So I’m never going to name them on the air — the places where I get really kickass produce.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. And you see that in the farmers markets.

Correspondent: Overpriced. Needlessly organic. God, don’t get me started on that.

Abu-Jaber: Absolutely.

Correspondent: We will discuss fiction. Don’t worry!

The Bat Segundo Show #419: Diana Abu-Jaber (Download MP3)

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weirdal

The Bat Segundo Show: Weird Al Yankovic

Weird Al Yankovic appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #418. His most recent album is Alpocalypse. Many thanks to Jay Levey for helping to make this unlikely conversation happen.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Got skills, he’s a champion of D&D.

Guest: Weird Al Yankovic

Subjects Discussed: Whether most people in the world are doing okay, Weird Al’s longevity, a fastidious concern for the English language, Weird Al as a storyteller, epic songs, writing about human behavior vs. writing about food, thinking of new ways to be funny, narrative songwriting, parodies in which words are transposed, Freytag’s triangle, recording dates, why original songs and style parodies are recorded for explicit parodies, trying to finish an album while responding to present a musical trend, how Al studies an artist’s oeuvre, earlier songs as prototypes for later songs, “One More Minute” to “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” “It’s All About the Pentiums” to “White and Nerdy,” confronting the defects of earlier material, the number of lists that Al keeps, when your laptop is more organized than your life, Amy Winehouse, keeping up with the increased cycle of emerging artists, the Arcade Fire and Muse, Weird Al’s criteria for selecting hits to parody, finding number one hits despite the rise of Internet culture, rap and polka medleys, attempts to break into long-form film and television, UHF, parts in movies that Al turned down, clearing up several suggestions made by the critic Sam Anderson, whether a gang of barbarians will delete the Internet to the ground, efforts to clarify Weird Al’s vegetarianism status amidst recent self-allegations of cheating, spouses who salivate in response to billboards depicting prime rib, not forcing children into a specific dietary direction, Matt Stone’s tendency to eat junk food, references to bowling in Weird Al’s work, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, watching 100 episodes of The Flintstones for “Bedrock Anthem,” whether intense research gets in the way of spontaneity, fake educational films, the Prelinger Archive, responding to charges that Al is “a parasite of ubiquity,” “Dare to Be Stupid” and The Transformers, Michael Bay, digital distribution, maintaining a long-term legacy, the accidental iconic nature of songs, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Mick Jagger, Weird Al’s confidantes, how Weird Al listens to music, including burps and other delightful gastrointestinal sounds in songs, avoiding profanity in work, Shel Silverstein’s “Get My Rocks Off,” the pros and cons of being family-friendly, Radio Disney asking Al to change lyrics in “The Saga Begins,” Nickelodeon asking Al to remove “gay,” why doesn’t Weird Al always call the shots, art vs. commerce, lines that Weird Al won’t cross, multiple versions of “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” choosing edgy animators for music videos, John Kricfalusi and the “Close But No Cigar” video, why there isn’t an Al TV installment for Alpocalypse and why these haven’t been released in video, taking advantage of blanket waivers, why Al took so long to sit in the producer’s chair after Rick Derringer, “Don’t Download This Song,” applying mainstream cultural values to hip-hop, whether “I’ll Sue Ya” props up reactionary values, unanticipated advocacy of the status quo, tort reform, Hot Coffee, attempts to keep songs non-political, fans who defaced the Atlantic Records Wikipedia page, the consequence of words, political groups who made Weird Al as a poster boy for tort reform, donating proceeds of songs to charity foundations, morality and the gray areas of parody, the breakdown of revenue, contemplating the end of albums, digital distribution, whether Weird Al will reinvent himself on schedule on January 24, 2018, William Shatner’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Has Been, playing the camp card, how Weird Al has stayed sincere over the years, and “Since You’ve Been Gone.”

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Weird Al, how are you doing?

Yankovic: I’m doing well. Thank you for asking. Yourself?

Correspondent: Oh. I think I’m doing okay.

Yankovic: Good. I’m glad to hear that.

Correspondent: I’m glad we’re on the same page.

Yankovic: I’m glad we’re all doing very well.

Correspondent: Do you think everyone’s doing okay in general?

Yankovic: In the world? Probably not.

Correspondent: Okay.

Yankovic: If you go with the percentages, there are certainly some people in the world who are not doing well currently.

Correspondent: Yeah. I hope you don’t mind. But I may have to — well, actually I will. I will start this off on a tenebrous tone. We’re talking about a year of heavy losses. We have seen the end of REM. The end of the White Stripes. The dissolution of the marriage of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. And I look to you, Weird Al, and I say to myself, “Wow, this guy’s been in business for 28 years. He’s had the same manager. The same band.” How do you do it, Al?

Yankovic: Yeah. Everybody’s wondering. When is Weird Al going to break up?

Correspondent: Yes.

Yankovic: And I don’t know. I keep waiting for my limbs to fall off. It just hasn’t happened.

Correspondent: Really? Really? Your mind perhaps?

Yankovic: You know, I have actually had the same band from the very beginning. Which in rock and roll terms is pretty unheard of. But I just still enjoy doing what I’m doing. And apparently the world at large hasn’t gotten completely sick of me yet. And the people that I work with still enjoy working with me. So it just seems to have all worked out. It’s pretty ironic. Because a career like mine, historically speaking, should not have lasted more than a few months. And here I am still.

Correspondent: Well, how do you avoid the fights and the fractiousness? Or is it all very carefully concealed so that the public doesn’t know about how dangerous things are backstage?

Yankovic: Well, I’ve got incriminating Polaroids of everybody in the band and crew.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Yankovic: If they don’t want them in public, I’ll play nice.

Correspondent: I’ve detected a fastidious concern for the English language in the course of my research. There was, of course, the infamous 2003 interview with Eminem that you did in which you corrected his triple negative.

Yankovic: Yes indeed.

Correspondent: But also, in an interview with Nardwuar, who I like quite a bit, you actually repeated “Otis Wedding’s Riffs.”* Where he said that to you. And you were very

Yankovic: Don’t remember that. Otis Wedding…what?

Correspondent: He said to you, “Otis Wedding’s Riffs.” And you corrected and repeated that back to him.

Yankovic: Oh.

Correspondent: But the point I’m trying to make here, Al, is why, in an age of increasing illiteracy, would you be concerned with such quaint things as English grammar?

Yankovic: I don’t know. You pick your battles, I guess. I mean, I’m one of those kind of guys — you know, I will not ever text the letter U instead of writing out “Y-O-U.”

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Yankovic: I am not Prince and I’m not a 13-year-old girl.

Correspondent: You’re not Prince? I’m getting out of here.

Yankovic: Oh, sorry. Sorry. Waste of time. No, I don’t know what it is. It’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction. I mean, I just enjoy the English language and several other national languages as well. So I prefer not to bastardize it.

Correspondent: Does it relate to your increasing need for precision in your audio, in your shows, in your songs…

Yankovic: It’s probably an extension of my whole OCD, anal retentive, compulsive control freak personality.

Correspondent: You’re a control freak. Well, how so? How do you keep it at bay? Because you have to work with people.

Yankovic: No. I mean, it’s not obnoxious. Or at least, if it is, people aren’t telling me about.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. You have handlers to prevent people from getting the truth.

Yankovic: No. But I mean, I work with people who understand that what I do is very precise. When we do parodies these days, we’re trying to emulate a sound exactly. And I don’t have to crack a whip. Everybody in the band knows. They know what we’re looking for. And they’re as OCD as I am. They’re very fastidious about getting it exactly the right sounds.

Correspondent: I want to ask you. Two recent songs, as well as your children’s book, suggest that what you’re really working toward more as an artist is storytelling. I’m thinking of “Skipper Dan” on this latest album, which transcends the Weezer style parody to become this really harrowing tale about this poor man. This guide. As does “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” where it isn’t really about the R. Kelly parody after a while. You listen to it and you say to yourself, “Wow, this thing’s going on for eleven minutes. And I’m not conscious of it.”

Yankovic: (laughs)

Correspondent: Which is kind of a carryover from “Albuquerque” from the album before. These songs seem to me more about human behavior than your typical obsessions with TV and food and the like. And I’m wondering if these are efforts to get away from the fact of “I’m stuck in parody and I’m stuck of having to replicate things.” And also, in contrast to things like “The Saga Begins” and “Ode to a Superhero,” which are really just cultural retellings of what we already know. I’m more interested in this new Al that’s talking about human behavior. Are we moving towards that? Are you consciously trying to move?

Yankovic: Well, it’s not conscious or calculated. But I’m always trying to think of new ways to be funny. Because I get stuck in ruts sometimes. Like in the ’80s, I wrote a lot of songs about food. And that was pointed out to me by a number of people for a few years. And then I wrote a lot of songs about TV. And currently I think I’m stuck in an Internet/nerd culture era where I’m writing a lot of songs about that. Because I surf on the Internet for a disproportionate amount of time per day. And you write what you know about. But I’m always trying to figure out different ways to be funny. And the nerdom style is a classic way of being funny, of telling a joke, doing a song. I’m a big fan of all those narrative songs from the ’70s. Like, you know, Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin and things like that. And every now and then, I’ll throw a song of that ilk. “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” is something along those lines as well. Again, I try to mix it up and be eclectic. And I wouldn’t want to do all narrative songs. But every now and then, it’s nice to throw one in there. Because people like a good story.

Correspondent: Well, why not? What’s so wrong about these really quirky behavioral narratives that we’re talking about here? I mean, why not more of those? The problem here is that, when you think of something like “I Want a New Duck,” well, that whole humor thing comes from transposing “drug” and “duck.” And it doesn’t always work. Although in the case of “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” which I think is epic and wonderful, that just transcends the parody. What of this conundrum?

Yankovic: It really depends from song to song. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” — I mean, the reason I wrote that particular narrative was because I figured I needed to do something with the R. Kelly song. It was such an iconic song. It was such a big part of the zeitgeist at the time that, you know, what can I do with this? Because it’s already pretty much about as ridiculous as it can possibly be. Kind of the same problem I had recently with Lady Gaga. How do you go a step above? So instead of even attempting that, I decided to go the other direction and make the song as banal as possible and do a very dramatic, a melodramatic eleven minute song where basically nothing happens. So that was my challenge there. To try and keep a compelling narrative and still have the story be pretty much about nothing.

Correspondent: But I would argue that actually is about something. Because it subscribes to Freytag’s triangle. You have escalating conflict from absolute banality.

Yankovic: Yes.

Correspondent: So as a result, I would say, “Well, despite the fact that he tried to bore the tears out of the audience, you’re absolutely hooked on every consequential step forward!”

Yankovic: Very much like Waiting for Godot or Seinfeld.

* — Yankovic scholars may wish to consult the source to determine if indeed Our Correspondent has his facts correct. Additionally, one word has been uttered throughout this program exactly 27 times.

The Bat Segundo Show #418: Weird Al Yankovic (Download MP3)

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