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The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall

(In an effort to ensure that all of Sarah Hall’s work is covered in some form on these pages, I am collecting all material I have written on Ms. Hall. What follows is an essay, which covered all of Hall’s fiction up to Daughters of the North and appeared elsewhere in slightly different form in 2008. Hall’s fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, was the subject of a roundtable discussion that was published on these pages during the week of September 7, 2009: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five. An essay on Sarah Hall’s fifth book, The Beautiful Indifference — infuriatingly without an American publication date, but available in the United Kingdom and Canada and well worth your time — is forthcoming. You can also listen to my one hour interview with Hall, conducted in 2008.)

Sarah Hall’s fiction ekes out a territory somewhere between Scarlett Thomas’s “novels of ideas” and David Mitchell’s narrative know-how. In her first two novels, Hall examined the dramatic effect that the construction of a reservoir has upon a small town (Haweswater) and chronicled a tattoo artist’s journey from a gritty English seaside resort to Coney Island, its fraternal twin across the Atlantic (The Electric Michelangelo). Her third, Daughters of the North, adopts aspects of dystopian fiction reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed, presenting a world in which women’s reproduction has been regulated, the economy has collapsed, and environmental resources have been whittled away. An isolated army of feminist revolutionaries represents slim hope for human progress: Daughters‘ futuristic time frame, its more concise prose, and its first-person perspective would appear, at a cursory glance, to be at odds with the 1930s settings, lengthy descriptive passages, and omniscient narration contained within Hall’s first two novels. But the novel represents both an extension and an evolution of what might be best perceived as a narrative inquiry into the relationship between humanity and environment.

This close connection is intimated by Hall’s tender attention to terrain. In Haweswater, the earth’s manipulation is an essential part of the story, with a river “redirected out of the lake — flowing within a man-made channel away from the heart of the building arena.” One of the women in Daughters has a “blue tattoo above her ear ran all the way around her skull, down the median of her neck, disappearing at the hem of her jersey.” These passages share a unique directional quality that provides a moody map for the reader, reflecting the deeply tactile manner in which Hall’s characters relate to their world.

But Hall’s characters must also contend with a constructed world of their own making, a topographical tapestry of makeshift structures and occupied edifices, closing in. Michelangelo‘s hero is mostly confined to a hotel and tattoo tents. In Daughters, an initiation ceremony involves throwing a new revolutionary recruit into a dog box for a period of time. And the harsh price to pay for this self-actuated world is not unlike that embodied by the child in Ursula K. Le Guin’s philosophical essay “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” who is forced to live in a small, squalid room so that others might enjoy a constructed utopia.

The body itself is frequently as scarred as Hall’s environments. Haweswater‘s main character, the farmer turned anti-reservoir activist Janet Lightburn, has a star indentation on her forehead, the result of a bullock’s kick and “a reminder that her life has included the sporadic brutality of her family’s trade.” Likewise, in Daughters, one of the female soldiers has a dent in her forehead, described as “the mark of a perpetual frown, an expression that seemed to be worn perhaps even when she did not mean for it to be present.” In both cases, the mark serves not so much as a stigma but as a proud physical badge of hard work. It’s as if these women are the new Zeuses of the landscape, with untold deities springing from their foreheads to follow in their footsteps.

Michelangelo‘s chief protagonist, Cy Parks, grows up in Morecambe, working with his mother in a hotel for consumptives. He is horrified by the bloody basins he must collect in the halls, but this leads him to be relatively inured when he serves as an apprentice to Frank Riley, a bawdy tattoo artist who teaches him his artistic skills. Interestingly enough, Cy’s mother shares the steely fortitude of Haweswater‘s Ella, who is Janet’s mother. Ella likewise contends with the visceral horrors of nurturing the wounded when serving as a World War I nurse but has no problem inhabiting this “brutal landscape of the mind.” Indeed, Hall’s female characters are often stronger than their male counterparts. During Cy’s encounter with a dissatisfied customer, Grace stops this contentious banter with the flash of a knife, telling Cy shortly afterward, “You are a kind man. I think if you ever truly had to sting someone, you wouldn’t survive it.”

Hall’s environments sometimes take on the metaphorical characteristics of a body. In Michelangelo, Coney Island is a “fat, expensively dressed in-law with a wicket smile and the tendency, once caught up in the mood, to take things too far.” That both Coney Island and Morecambe are “made up of a multitude of interdependent entertainment cells designed to remove a person from the dimension of ordinary life” suggests that these vacation spots are not so much living and breathing organisms, but complex environments presenting alternative ways of living to the commonwealth. And if this desire for an alternative existence is so seductive, it might also explain what causes Daughters‘ protagonist, Sister, to venture northward to Carhullan, a farming community run by an idealist with the telling “Tricky Dick” name of Jackie Nixon.

But as these environments become anthropomorphized, the faces of Hall’s characters, in turn, reflect the fierce qualities of landscape. In considering a career-ending assault upon Riley, Michelangelo‘s Cy notices “how a man’s face in barbarity will show traces of compassion even though it is already determined in its fulfillment of cruelty.” When Cy first meets Grace, the muse he falls in love with, Grace’s face is described as “pale and vividly sloped.” Pages later, Hall observes that “the face under the make-up seemed not be hers.” As Grace watches Cy draft a sea of illustrated eyes upon her body, her face one rare part of the canvas left bare, Hall describes the “dark red hair pinned back off her recessive face.” The phrase invokes “the old distinguished grace” of Yeats’s “Upon a Dying Lady”, who reclines “her lovely piteous head amid dull red hair….rouge on the pallor of her face.”

Equally important in this interdependent relationship is the way that Hall, in her first two novels, separated her descriptive prose from the chatty islets of her dialogue, as if unable to unite these components into a singular narrative landscape. But in Daughters, Hall began merging dialogue and description within the same paragraph, causing an altogether different postmodern device to emerge from this blending. The novel, which is the fictional statement of a female prisoner, has much of its “data lost.” And this lost testimony involves unseen violence. This is a particularly striking elision, considering the grisly consumptives and tattoo customers in Michelangelo and the brutal deaths of expendable reservoir workers in Haweswater. Hall appears to be sharpening her own formidable talents for novels of greater complexity and accessibility. There may be masterpieces in the future, but, in the meantime, these three fine novels present a great novelist in bloom.

samarovhack

Dmitry Samarov’s Hack

It was recently suggested by The New York Daily News‘s Alexander Nazaryan that Jonathan Safran Foer’s purported “truth about human experience” could be instantly dismissed due to Foer not really knowing a life without bona-fide hardship. Nazaryan came to this viewpoint not necessarily because he is bitter (he claims to be, but I don’t think he is), but because he was raised in Soviet Russia.*

Fortunately, one recent book is committed to a less abominably assumptive approach to human existence. Like Nazaryan, artist, author, and cab driver Dmitry Samarov also experienced a childhood in Soviet Russia. And I suspect that this background is one very salient reason why Samarov’s insights into everyday life in Chicago are so real and winsome, rather than trite and didactic like Foer. Eschewing prepackaged claims of Taxicab Confessions authenticity (although the show is mentioned twice), Dmitry Samarov’s Hack (University of Chicago Press, $20) is a slim yet thoughtful volume on what it is to live as a taxi driver. The book bristles with an intriguing street poetry, referring to a gas station’s “welcoming neon glow” as “fool’s gold” when Samarov describes the difficulties of finding a place to relieve himself and depicting the unusual dernier cri (“a straw cowboy hat and a green Day-Glo bracelet”) which elude the monied charlatans who hole themselves up in vacuous manses. Samarov is clearly interested in people, but, like the prostitutes, the journalists, and the psychotherapists who cater to their clients in similar fashion, he knows very well how his fares perceive him. He registers his observations in a rapid-fire yet unpretentious manner (many of his anecdotes originated on a blog), as if he has only a few minutes to capture a few sentences (or sketch one of the many illustrations accompanying his stories) before hustling for the next fare.

Samarov is candid enough to express his understandable self-interest, describing how he wants his cheeseburger more than an “angry man with a backpack [who] marches right up to the window and demands service” at a McDonald’s which prohibits walk-ups (and which generates a quick fare stream for wayward cabs in the area) while also showing us his reticence to reveal certain personal details to his more probing clients.

And why should the hack spill? After all, when we enter a cab with the idea of entering a conspiratorial trust with the driver, how much of our taxicab conversations do we truly remember? Isn’t there something inherently troubling about placing our trust with a stranger like this? Perhaps. This may be one of the reasons why so many “confessions” of this sort often depict the taxi driver as some dutiful stoic who has seen it all. But this take severely underestimates the hack’s ability to understand the implications of his observations. As Samarov himself writes when trying to peg a woman pushed into the back of his cab by a disheveled old man, “There’s no polite way to broach such a subject, so I content myself with speculating.”

Samarov is willing to impart his fears and dangers, even when they reveal unexpected thoughts about on-the-job dignity. Of dealing with incompetents and ireful types on the road, he writes, “I wouldn’t be caught dead out here if there wasn’t money at stake. The fact that the masses submit to it of their own volition makes me question my membership in the species.” Does this need for the take, often ruthlessly pared down by a cashier when checking the cab in, make Samarov any less superior to Foer? Not at all. But it’s refreshing to see Samarov marvel at the universe even as he seems conflicted about it. It’s this marvelous duality of being alive that books, especially in the hands of the prissy and the uptight, too frequently take for granted.

* And if you’re truly on the fence about whether or not Foer is a loathsome human being and/or an astonishingly overrated individual, consider the fact that Foer had the audacity to apply, and win, one of the coveted Cullman Center fellowships (which awards a $65,000 stipend, an office, and considerable resources to each winner) offered by the New York Public Library this year — this when Foer himself owns a $6.75 million brownstone in Park Slope (purchased in large part through the family’s coffers), is doing extremely well with the Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close film rights and foreign sales, and this after Foer’s equally pansified wife, Nicole Krauss, won a Cullman grant two years prior to her husband. A source informs me that Foer resigned from the fellowship, which explains why his name is no longer listed among this year’s fellows. Still, why would any remotely decent person do this? I suspect the answer is quite self-explanatory. If you go for an evening stroll through Prospect Park, especially when it is colder and more desolate in the wintertime, you can listen to the gelid pelt of Marie Antoinette-like sweat oozing from the west without surcease from Nicole Krauss’s privileged pores, which is siphoned into a special stock for the children so that they too can sup from the free ride tureen well into early adulthood. Given all the recent dialogue involving the richest 1% taking everything from the remaining 99%, it’s astonishing that the Foer family’s unrelenting selfishness and unfathomable avarice has gone without remark or rebuke by the literary community. But I digress.

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Ocean Marketing: The Dramatic Reading

It began, as most forms of Internet frontier justice do, with a post that spurred outrage. Ocean Marketing, a firm that had promised to deliver an Avenger game controller before the Christmas holidays, failed to live up to its pledge. People did not get their controllers. There was an email exchange whereby aggrieved parties attempted to seek restitution with Ocean Marketing. But Ocean Marketing, failing to comprehend one time-honored maxim (‘The Customer is Always Right”), decided to get huffy about rectifying its mistakes, with the company’s representative becoming mind-numbingly arrogant when it came to the power of memes and the potential for serious screwups to create viral PR nightmares. The result was a public outcry and subsequent investigation that revealed even more astonishing sins, including plagiarism and phony charities.

In other words, the whole Ocean Marketing mess quickly became a veritable rabbit hole: a fascinating and time-consuming parable on how a representative’s poor conduct revealed a company’s true disgrace buried not especially deep beneath the dirt.

Others have done a commendable job of following this ongoing story. So in an effort to provide the appropriate journalistic context, I have performed several dramatic readings of the more snottier Ocean Marketing emails. I hope that my performances have appropriately represented the smarmy and self-serving behavior which galvanized this mighty electric storm. (Please note that I have replaced all instances of “LOL” with suitably melodramatic laughter.)

Ocean Marketing: Dramatic Reading #1 (Download MP3)

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Ocean Marketing: Dramatic Reading #2 (Download MP3)

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Ocean Marketing: Dramatic Reading #3 (Download MP3)

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Report from Toronto

Toronto is the first city in a long while in which the locals haven’t asked me for directions. Perhaps the Canadians know the true me: the jocular jake who walks into a room and who somehow gets involved in some sprightly banter in which some questionable expertise is detected. Maybe it’s the cold knife that carves your face into redcheeked conviviality whenever you step into the cold outside. The moon is noticeably lower up here at night. “Bowed” is the first descriptive modifier entering my head mere minutes after I have touched down at Billy Bishop Airport, crossing water on a brisk two minute ferry that feels anticlimactic after the ten minute wait. (The question of why nobody thought to build a bridge over such a comically short distance is one I consider taking up, but my inquiries are put to a halt when I learn of a 1971 collective effort in which Toronto managed to stop an obnoxious Robert Moses-like project called the Spadina Expressway, which surely would have obliterated vibrant neighborhoods and is an admirable example of Canadian can-do.)

Toronto is bowed because the red hands at the crosswalks have more of a curved edge at the tips of their digits than their American counterpart. (As for the wan man who lets you legally cross an intersection, his legs are more noticeably spread, resembling the bottom half of an X and suggesting, quite rightfully, a metropolitan commitment to hardcore ambling which I quickly take up.) Toronto is bowed because the bay windows one sees in residences just north of Kensington Market jut forth with a modest commitment to bumps (and I am also impressed with the acute-angled gables, which mimic the crosswalk men) and the expensive waterfront high rises feel compelled, despite their obdurate vertical reach into the sky’s whites, to extrude half-elliptical bulges many floors above the bustling traffic. Toronto is bowed because even if you walk down a prominent downtown drag like Bloor or Yonge or Bathurst, you feel a slight but not unpleasurable list when you squint into the distance. Toronto is bowed because, from what I can tell, the taxi cabs are very much committed to free market anarchy. There appears to be no dominant color or company. I observe red, green, beige, and yellow cabs, sedans, minivans, and myriad car body types, but the only common denominator is a large TAXI sign atop each vehicle, much larger than the notices I’ve seen in many American cities. Like much of Toronto, its edge is bowed.

I’m guessing the Canadians aren’t asking me for directions (although they are talking with me and, from what I can detect, genuinely curious and highly pleasant) because I haven’t yet learned that my “restroom” is actually a “washroom” up here or because I haven’t peppered my speech with the numerous “yeahs” proffered to confirm any compelling point. I’m a big “yeah” guy myself, especially when I am in an exuberant mood and wish to encourage my colleagues and peers, but my “yeah” frequency pales in comparison to the Canadians. I am hardly the first to remark upon this linguistic phenomenon, but I’m marveled by it all the same. There is scant profanity and, aside from the occasional commitment to holding hands, far less public displays of affection than I see in New York. I observe a man around my age step out of a restaurant and painfully stub his toe on Bloor Street. He shouts out “Ow!” with the same declarative resolve in which I would loosen a “Fuck!” or “Shit!” mere microseconds after my nerves registered some minor and easily bandaged physical affliction. I’m not sure I have it in me to rid myself of this vulgarity, but I don’t want to suggest that Canadians aren’t committed to the profane. A Toronto newspaperman I meet hours after the toe-stubbing incident serves up at least five “fuckings” during our animated talk. In the men’s room (sorry, men’s washroom) at the World’s Biggest Bookstore (which I learn to my dismay is owned by a corporate chain), after my wet hands run afoul of a malfunctioning blower, a man next to me says, “No paper towels? To hell with this.” And I enjoyed his clipped yet confident masculinity, which I wish to see imported into Williamsburg back home, perhaps planting a seed among the indecisive and often passive vegan men with the pipe-thin arms who are fond of wearing T-shirts as dry in their fashion as a handful of the bad sweaters I’ve seen up here. (More bathroom notes. A graffiti in the stall reads: “GOT BLOWJOBS? ASK FOR EDDIE.” Also, American Standard is still the urinal of choice.)

The Downtown Toronto area, where I’m staying for two days, is hardly a reliable sample size with which to remark upon the multifaceted Canadian character, which keenly interests me. But on the whole, Canadians are quieter and more polite than Americans. In a bar, I observe them modulate their collective voices with a greater collective intuition than I usually see in my homelands quiet and swank places when a very young man begins fingerpicking Christmas medleys on his guitar. There appear to be more smokers here, but they tend to burrow themselves into the deep square recesses of buildings. (Did I mention that it was much colder up here? When I packed in a rush, I forgot to bring gloves with me. But Honest Ed’s, a splendorous place which I’ll get into a bit, saves my hands with a two dollar offering. There’s an almost Chekhovian beauty in this moment, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Yet I also notice a curious geometric quality in the way people walk. Like New York, you will get cut off if you dabble on the sidewalk for even a minute. But this isn’t rudeness. It’s some collective commitment to an unspecified formula, involving time required to get freezing ass to indoor destination and minimum number of steps or this rectilinear stretch of the journey as vital variables, passed down through generations of pedestrians.

I walk up Yonge and discover a modest street theatrical scene at the corner of Dundas. There is a man dressed in a Batman costume (I am to learn later that Toronto has a fairly solid and far from obnoxious science fiction community: Bakka Phoenix remains a prominent bookstore fixture), several 9/11 truthers thumping the Infowars hard line, a handful of breakdancers, two lone drummers banging their sticks to a modestly appreciative audience, SpongeBob SquarePants, and a guy hawking copies of the Bhagavad Gita. They remind me of the eccentric types who tended to congregate around the 16th and Mission BART station when I lived in San Francisco. Yonge Street is a curious main drag, in that you will find unsightly chain stores, half-decent kabob houses (one night I scarf down a falafel for around five Canadian dollars) not far from payday lenders and adult business establishments like the Stag Shop. And judging by a few flesh-themed fliers I see bolted to poles, I conclude that Toronto has nestled its concessions to seediness within its apparent good cheer. It is remarkably difficult to purchase a six-pack of beer or liquor up here outside of a bar. For the former, one must go to a chain called The Beer Store. You will not find beer in convenience stores or pharmacies. I’ve been taking my American luxury for granted. I am told that the liquor authority is less uptight in Quebec.

I’m unsure what Toronto does with its homeless or those who don’t have a place to crash in the evening frigidity, but, beginning at around eleven at night (and sprinkled throughout the day), you can find them sleeping on grates which expel warm air. At 5:30 AM, I observe a drunken woman saunter though the Hotel York corridors, talking into a tape recorder with a curious admixture of bitterness and cheer. It appears to be some tape for some boyfriend, now long gone, about the good times they experienced in the past. I walk through various hotels at early morning hours and observe people sleeping in chairs. They all seem to be tolerated. I don’t see anybody calling the police. For that matter, whenever I enter a store, I am never asked to check my bag (unlike America). The sign so commonly observed in dense American metropolitan areas (RESTROOM FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY) is nonexistent here, and it’s not just because WASHROOM has been swapped for RESTROOM.

Nearly everyone I talk to about the local government has nothing but hostile words to say about the mayor, who many describe as a buffoon. I ask one Torontonian if he can be compared to the Antichrist just before forgetting that my American sense of cathartic invective may not quite align with Canadian civility (although Hunter S. Thompson is read here). He stops short of this, but I’m wondering what he’ll say if I ply him with more drinks. The mayor is a man named Ford who made extravagant claims about closing a major budget deficit that he couldn’t carry through. It is an old political tale. Restless population wants regime change, votes any old dummy in. But one can’t entirely blame the locals. Ford appears to have charmed or possibly played some members of the media in his rise to office. I’d be a bit pissed about this too.

If you dine at some restaurants and you use your credit card, the server will perform the transaction with a portable device at your table. This reminds me very much of a practice I observed in pre-Euro Germany, whereby the server came to your table with something resembling a bento box, the slots all filled with coins. Bookstores are more robust here than in New York. I count at least five nestled along Bloor Street during one of my many saunters throughout Toronto. But prominent literary tastemakers assure me that Toronto has, like other regions, taken a hit.

I am surprised by how few establishments are open at around 11 AM along Queen Street. I begin to believe that there’s a sizable slacker cluster in Toronto, until I am informed, rather remarkably, that the idea of stores open on Sunday has only been introduced in the last three decades. Throughout Toronto, I notice several bike racks where you can rent a bike over 24 hours for five Canadian dollars. My dormant criminal impulse, which I tend to confine to idle contemplation, begins to wonder how the appropriate bicycle authorities can trust people to return to bikes. Well, the machine sucks up your credit card, which contains your address. And if you don’t return the bike in decent condition, there are fines. And the process isn’t perfect. Some bicyclists who sign up for this scheme discover that they are being charged $2/hour atop the $5 charge, and the process of restoring one’s financial dignity involves an unpleasant battle with ruddy tape.

Yet the environmental idealist will surely have a wet dream over the fact that public trash containers are likely to give you a wet dream. They are very often divided into four slots: GARBAGE / BOTTLES, CANS, CONTAINERS / PAPER PRODUCTS / COFFEE CUPS ONLY. It’s too bad this hasn’t gone down in America. On the other hand, I do notice that residential trash containers are curiously proprietary. In addition to the addresses written in dominant type, the containers are all numbered and contain a bar code. But I wondered if, when the garbage men do come, the amount of trash is weighed and possibly scanned and collected. How much trash information does Canada collect on its citizens? It’s a fair question to ask, seeing as how CNN (one of my few news sources up here, given that I decided to largely abstain from the Internet up here) is reporting on a UN climate change conference with serious concessions and Toronto itself has some of the most impressive street cleaning units I’ve ever seen. On the latter point, I am fortunate to catch one of these vehicles, which resemble a giant vacuum. There is a long black neck which sucks up debris from the curb. It’s so much more targeted than the buffing approach in America. I am nearly consumed with a desire to start vacuuming the streets myself before I remember (a) it’s fucking cold out and (b) I am sure that there are strict and vigorous Canadian safeguards that would prevent some whimsical Brooklynite from doing this.

Honest Ed’s is a national treasure – and not just because its now dead proprietor shares my name. As someone enamored with the quietly eccentric and as someone who has maintained a pious disposition regarding the acquisition of items out of vocational necessity, I cannot say enough wonderful things about this marvelous place. Established by an impresario named Ed Mirvish, this capacious store not only sells numerous items you may or may not need (Elvis busts and seven dollar fedoras, all size 11, for example) at ridiculously cut-rate prices (and is quick to remind you of this fact), but it boasts some of the greatest cornball jokes this side of the Catskills. “Honest Ed’s a Nut! But look at all the ‘cashew’ save,” reads one sign outside. There’s another one inside in which Honest Ed is declared an idiot because of his “cents-less prices.” I had thought that my high point of Canadian cheese would be a silly TV commercial involving “The Loan Arranger,” with a man in a Mountie costume playing up the groans as he attempted to sell jewelry. But I was wrong.

The common message, listed outside Honest Ed’s in red lettering and several times inside within the maze of white and unadorned rooms, is: DON’T JUST STAND there!! “BUY SOMETHING”! And one is so alarmingly impressed by this goodnatured excitement that it is very hard to ignore. For Honest Ed’s – established in 1948 – is very much a time capsule for how a certain type of human lived in the last six decades. Upon encountering one negligee in the “lingerie department” (actually one small corner of the room), I noticed a large dark stain. But because Honest Ed had went to the trouble of getting someone to compose a friendly theme song – a little ditty on a guitar that was somewhere between calypso and Slim Whitman with the lyrics “How can be honest / When his prices are so low” – piping through the speakers, I was very hard-pressed to resist the urge. (Indeed, the shivering souls gathered outside Honest Ed’s just before it opened seemed to quiver about not so much because of the cold, but because they needed to perform some civic duty transcending mere Christmas shopping. Keep in mind that, on Honest Ed’s 88th birthday in 2002, 60,000 people showed up. There is a Mirvish Village and an Ed Mirvish Theater along Yonge.)

Honest Ed’s may very well be the secret to why Toronto is what it is today. It is cheerful, inviting, and willing to use any method of getting the casual bystander to see the humor in a common situation. I had heard of a Santa Speedo Run, whereby numerous men and women ran half-naked for charity, that had gone down and I remain certain that Honest Ed’s influence was partly responsible for such a goofy gathering coming into fruition. Yet someone who was fairly well-schooled in the Mirvish legacy told me that Honest Ed’s is now facing an uncertain future. I certainly hope this isn’t true. Every city needs its larger-than-life icon, its glorious excuse to bow in the presence of strangers.

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2011: The Year in Broken Windows

Alexis Madrigal: “Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, who has specialized in tracking police tactical changes, found that the the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing, which was introduced to a national audience by this very magazine, has also had a major impact on protest policing. As we wrote in 1982, broken windows policing did not attempt to directly fight violent crime but rather the ‘sense that the street is disorderly, a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters.’ As Vitale would put it, the theory ‘created a kind of moral imperative for the police to restore middle class values to the city’s public spaces.’ When applied to protesters, the strategy has meant that any break with the NYPD’s behavioral preferences could be grounds for swift arrest and/or physical violence.”

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In the December 2011 issue of Philadelphia Magazine, there was a list printed on Page 72 with the heading which read THINGS WE NEED TO GET RID OF. Among the items listed? The Mummers. Poet CA Conrad went onto Philadelphia Magazine‘s Facebook page and demanded that it write a letter of apology. There was no response. He kept writing. He was blocked from the site. So Conrad went to the magazine’s office in person. He was polite. He did not yell. He asked to speak with the online editor. He was told no one was in. Nobody had the courage to talk with him. Instead, the Philadelphia Magazine receptionist called the police. “The truth is that they were embarrassed by what I was saying,” wrote Canto on his blog. “And they gloated over my removal from the office on Face Book. Oh, and while I was being escorted OUT, one of the magazine’s enforcers said that I was to be arrested if I ever stepped foot inside the building again. NICE!” (I learned of this story from HTML Giant.)

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“Behavioral preferences.” That’s not unlike the highly elastic term “juvenile delinquency.”

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A parent in Calvert County, Maryland wrote into The Bay Net. Her six-year-old daughter Brianna had made an “inappropriate comment” at Dowell Elementary, saying she was going to kill another student. This was a joke. She was pulled from recess by a teacher and ordered to sit and wait in various administrative rooms. Brianna assured the principal that she was only joking and that she had no intent of killing her fellow students. Despite her confession, the principal then grilled Brianna about her home life. Other students were brought in. One of Brianna’s good friends was pressured to rat her out — this, after she had already confessed as to the nature of her comment. The parent asked in her letter, “How do you justify not calling the parent of a six year old and holding her in the office for 2 hrs asking her about her life at home over an innocent comment? Do not get me wrong, I know what she said was inappropriate but to all that know my daughter know that she would never intentionally hurt anyone!! How do you justify treating her this way? This is the problem, noone will or can justify this to me. I email jack smith the super of cc schools, I of course get pushed onto someone else who calls me asks me what happens and about the only response I get it ‘well as ling as you do understand what she did was wrong!’ Really? I have yet to speak to the super as I’m told he is very busy with meetings….!”

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The Guardian: “James Harding, speaking at the Society of Editors conference on Monday, was talking days after Tom Watson accused James Murdoch in parliament of being the ‘first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.’ A clearly irritated Murdoch responded that he thought this was an ‘inappropriate’ comment.”

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Etymology for irritated: 1530s, “stimulate to action, rouse, incite,” from L. irritatus, pp. of irritare “excite, provoke.” An earlier verb form was irrite (mid-15c.), from O.Fr. irriter. Meaning “annoy, make impatient” is from 1590s.

It took only six decades for “irritate” to have its meaning corrupted.

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At a Cannes press conference on May 18, 2011, the filmmaker Lars von Trier stated, “I understand Hitler but I think he did some wrong things yes absolutely but I can see him sitting in his bunker.” These words were received with understandable umbrage. Von Trier apologized the next day, purporting that his remarks were meant in jest. “I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.” Despite this apology, he was banned from the Cannes Film Festival, declared persona non grata with the decision supported by French culture minister Frederic Mitterand. Mitterand remarked of the ban, “There is a major difference between a film that was chosen in a calm atmosphere and a director who clearly blew a fuse.” Yet in 2009, Mitterand protested Roman Polanski’s September 26 arrest in Amsterdam, “To see him thrown to the lions and put in prison because of ancient history — and as he was traveling to an event honoring him — is absolutely horrifying.” Why are terrible words uttered in 2011 more “horrifying” than terrible action in 1977? It took a day for Lars von Trier to apologize and nearly 35 years for Polanski to apologize.

* * *

In January 2011, the BBC apologized for remarks made by Stephen Fry on the comedy quiz show, QI Fry had made a quip about Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man who had survived both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fry called Yamaguchi “the unluckiest man in the world.” Japanese viewers, watching the clip on YouTube, became irate and wrote in. Japanese blogger Yuko Kato wrote: “So, in this sad case, literally a comedy of errors, the lack of knowing and understanding goes both ways. The BBC and the people involved in the QI segment (including Stephen Fry, whom I dearly love) failed to anticipate Japanese sensitivities; and if they had but still went on with the broadcast then that’s even worse. For as a Japanese (despite my unabashed love of British comedy), I was very uncomfortable with the segment, especially with the audience tittering. On the other hand (no limbs left), most of the Japanese public have absolutely no idea what British humour is about; they simply don’t know that it’s a form of expression that strives to tell things like it is, that it’s an art form that tries to illuminate all the foolishness and idiosyncracies and negativities of the world through irony.”

* * *

In February, fashion designer Kenneth Cole tweeted, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” Outrage ensued.

* * *

DJ Gardner was ranked the 64th best college basketball player in the country. He was a freshman forward standing six-foot-seven, an accomplished shooter described by a former high school coach as “an unselfish kid” who understood that it didn’t matter which player made the points. He was wooed by Mississippi State, told by the smiling men that he’d get serious time on the court and, like any hardworking kid baffled by the two other young men rotating as shooting guard, agreed to a redshirt year for the freshman season. On Twitter, he let off some steam:

These bitches tried to fuck me over.. That’s y I red shirted .. But I wish my homies a great ass season.. I don’t even know y I’m still here

He called the top brass “liars.” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury booted Gardner off the team for his tweeting, claiming his words to be “repeated action detrimental to the team.” And while Gardner’s mother, Angela, was hardly happy with the behavior of her son and the coach, she said, “I felt like there should’ve been some communication.”

* * *

On July 3, 2011, Charles Hill was shot by BART police in the Civic Center station in San Francisco. Hill was drunk. He pulled a knife and threw it at the floor. And the police shot and killed Hill. Witnesses reported that Hill had neither ran nor lunged at the two cops. The police claimed Hill was using an open liquor bottle as a weapon. BART police chief Kenton Rainey claimed he was “comfortable” with the decision of his men.

This brutal incident led many to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest Hill’s death. But on August 11, 2011, BART muzzled cell phone service at four stations, ridding the protesters of their right to coordinate a peaceful assembly. The ACLU of Northern California replied:

All over the world people are using mobile devices to organize protests against repressive regimes, and we rightly criticize governments that respond by shutting down cell service, saying it’s anti democratic and a violation of the right to free expression and assembly. Are we really willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States?

* * *

On November 21, 2011, a Kansas high school student named Emma Sullivan attended a Youth in Government program, listening to a speech by Governor Sam Brownback and ridiculing him on Twitter under the hashtag “#heblowsalot.” Brownback’s office spotted Sullivan’s tweet during “routine media monitoring” and forced Sullivan’s principal to ask Sullivan to write an apology letter. Sullivan refused, but she did say, “I think it would be interesting to have a dialogue with him. I don’t know if he would do it or not though. And I don’t know that he would listen to what I have to say.” Sullivan’s mother said that she wasn’t angry with her daughter. The story made the rounds. Brownback issued an apology.

* * *

On the afternoon of July 19, 2011, I was contacted by a detective from the Cheverly Police Department. The detective was a nice and reasonable guy. He explained to me that blogger and critic Mark Athitakis was accusing me of harassment. What was so harassing? Several comments — all under my real name, really a bunch of silly performance art that I had been leaving intermittently over the last few months, nothing intended to harm and more than a bit absurdist — one evoking a fictitious Shakespeare quote reading “let’s kill the critics” and the like. I told the detective that these comments were clearly satirical. That a comment containing the lyrics for Rebecca Black’s “Friday” could not possibly be written with violence or threats in mind. The detective agreed that he and I both had better things to do with his time. He was merely checking up on the complaint that he received.

At no time did Mark ever contact me personally to (a) clarify the beef that he has with me, (b) state that I was harassing him. He did email me on July 14th, writing, “Your behavior is abusive, disrespectful, and unacceptable. It has to stop.” I emailed him a suggestion on how to clear things up, writing, “If you want to use this email as an opportunity, then I’m all ears.” He repeated the same line in another email on July 15th. I replied, “This comment is not abusive. Here are the facts: you have no sense of humor, you are disrespectful of my thoughts and voice, and you cannot take criticism.”

That was the last direct contact I had with Athitakis. I did not visit his site again until July 19, 2011, when I was attempting to explain the situation to the detective. So Athitakis must have filed the complaint with the Cheverly Police Department after this exchange.

* * *

On October 2, 2011, then New York Times freelance journalist Natasha Lennard was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge while covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. On October 14, 2011, she spoke before a panel at Blue Stockings, expressing her opinions about organizing protests and using colorful language. A right-wing website, unable to see the distinction between reporting and opinion, posted the video with speculation, demanding “appropriate disciplinary action against Lennard” and asking her to rat out “any potential planned criminal activity by Occupy activists.”

Natasha Lennard responded with a Salon essay, “Why I quit the mainstream media”:

As the Times publicly noted, they found no problem with any of the reporting I had done for them on OWS. Indeed, a court hearing upheld that I had been on the Brooklyn Bridge as a professional journalist and as such, deserved to have the disorderly conduct charge against me dismissed. The only reason I was on the Brooklyn Bridge that day was as a reporter, gathering and relaying information on what I saw, and nothing else. However, as has become clear, if I — or any other journalist — want to express a strong opinion on a political matter, I cannot contemporaneously report for a mainstream publication.

* * *

From a New York Times opinion piece written by Rebecca MacKinnon (November 15, 2011):

Adding to the threat to free speech, recent academic research on global Internet censorship has found that in countries where heavy legal liability is imposed on companies, employees tasked with day-to-day censorship jobs have a strong incentive to play it safe and over-censor — even in the case of content whose legality might stand a good chance of holding up in a court of law. Why invite legal hassle when you can just hit “delete”?

The potential for abuse of power through digital networks — upon which we as citizens now depend for nearly everything, including our politics — is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. We live in a time of tremendous political polarization. Public trust in both government and corporations is low, and deservedly so. This is no time for politicians and industry lobbyists in Washington to be devising new Internet censorship mechanisms, adding new opportunities for abuse of corporate and government power over online speech.

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The Bat Segundo Show: William Kennedy

William Kennedy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #427. He is most recently the author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.

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For related material, you can read my Modern Library Reading Challenge essay on Ironweed.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught in a migratory comedy of errors.

Author: William Kennedy

Subjects Discussed: Resonances in historical fiction that align with the present day, the William Gibson notion (“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”), Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding, the 2008 Greek riots, writing Ironweed while being firmly immersed in the 1930s, referring to the homeless before “homeless” existed as a word, prophetic novelists, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the tradition of torture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Roscoe, writing about the Albany political machine for forty years, stolen elections and kickbacks, interviewing morally shady figures as a novelist and as a journalist, meeting with Charlie Ryan, Dan O’Connell, how Kennedy coaxed political figures to tell him stories over the years, sources who insist on being on the record as insiders, intrusive noise, the journalist as the intellectual equivalent to the bartender or the barista, politicians who talk differently when microphones are present, Newspaper Row in Albany, lead filings and rats descending from newspaper ceilings, journalistic squalor, Kennedy’s relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Pulitzer’s notion of journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, fiction vs. journalism, The Ink Truck, Fellini, how a multidimensional fictitious form of Albany sprang from extremely devoted research, writing seven drafts of Legs, invention and informed speculation, the importance of letting imagination settle, Legs‘s resistance to realism, structuring a novel on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovering newness as a writer, precedents for Ironweed, parallels between Cuban history and civil rights, efforts to find the right Cuban history period for Chango’s Beads, Fulgencio Batista’s kids going to school in Albany, the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses as a possible inspiration point, The Gut in Albany, Black Power and community action during the late 1960s, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X sitting in the balcony of the New York Senate, Eldridge Cleaver, the Albany Cycle beyond 1968, telescoping Albany history for the sake of telling a story, arson and riots, the figure of Matt Daughterty, having to publish newspaper stories in out-of-town newspapers to avoid the wrath of the Albany political machine, comparisons between Quinn’s Book and Chango’s Beads, following personalities contained within fictitious families over many years, journeys away from Albany in the Albany cycle, avoiding Albany burnout, a new play based on a departure from Very Old Bones, and fiction driven by bullet-like dialogue.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We were drawing a distinction between the journalist who is the bartender or the barista — the intellectual equivalent to that — and the novelist, who may in fact have an even greater advantage. Some novelists who were former journalists have told me that they’ll get people to talk with them more if they say they’re a novelist. I’m sure this has been the case with you.

Kennedy: Oh yeah. When the Mayor invited me over to talk about writing a book with him, he didn’t say quite why. I couldn’t understand it. Because I thought he had great antipathy toward me. But I went over. And we just had this conversation. And I sat there and talked to him. And I took a lot of notes. And he said he wanted me to maybe interview him and dredge up whatever I wanted to and write whatever I wanted to. And then he would rebut it. And I didn’t think that was going to work. But I knew that it was a great opportunity to talk to the Mayor.

So anyway we carried on. And it turned out I did write a lot about him in this book. It was kind of a biography. I wrote three pieces actually on him. And he was great in the first meeting. And then the second time, I brought over a mike and a tape recorder. And he clammed up. I mean, he didn’t stop talking, but he didn’t say anything. I mean, he was very salty in the first conversation. And he was a very intelligent man and very well-educated and smart as they come politically. And he had a great sense of humor. But it was boring in the second interview. So I took him out again. I took him to lunch. And he opened right up again as soon as he knew there was no tape recorder. And I took notes. He’s safe with notes because he can say, “He got it wrong.” There’s no proof.

Correspondent: Well, I actually wanted to ask — speaking of history, there are moments in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Quinn’s Book where you have newspapermen who are wearing hats as the lead filings are falling upon them. In the case of Billy Phelan, there’s actual rats falling from the ceiling.

Kennedy: That’s true.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Did you have first-hand experience of this?

Kennedy: No. This was at the newspaper that I was working on. But in their previous incarnation, which was only a few years before I got there, they were on Beaver Street in a very old, old center of the city. The South End. In The Gut. And it was Newspaper Row. The Albany Journal was there. The Albany Argus. The Knickerbocker News. The Knickerbocker Press. Etcetera etcetera. The Times Union was up the street a bit. And then they moved into new digs. But I remember that one of the reporters and the copy editors said that the rats used to come down, walk the ceiling. The composing room was upstairs. Over the city room. And there was always these lead filings that were coming through the cracks in the floor. And so these guys wore their hats around the desks. And the reporters wore their hats indoors.

Correspondent: The pre-OSHA days. (laughs)

Kennedy: You know, it had a practical application, those hats. In addition to being the style of the day. And the rats used to come down and eat the paste out of the paste pots.

Correspondent: Which is also immortalized in Billy Phelan.

Kennedy: That’s in Billy Phelan. They were all stories that these guys who had grown up there, they’d seen it. One of my buddies, he’d been a reporter for ten years or so all during that period in Beaver Street. And he was a great storyteller. And he told me…well, you know.

Correspondent: Did you experience any first-hand journalistic squalor?

Kennedy: Journalistic squalor.

Correspondent: Along those lines. Or perhaps other forms of squalor.

Kennedy; (laughs) Well, no. Not quite like that. The paper had modernized. I mean, I was there in the age of the typewriter and the clacking teletypes and papers would stack up on the floor like crazy. At the end of the work day, everybody threw everything onto the floor. The old newspapers. All the old teletypes. And it was a great mess. There was….hmm, squalor. (laughs)

Correspondent: Rotting walls? Asbestos-laden environments? (laughs)

Kennedy: Sorry, I can’t. I knew all the guys who had gone through it.

Correspondent: Well, on a similar note, Hunter S. Thompson. I have to ask this largely because The Paris Review interviewed you and cut this bit. He said, “He refused to hire me. Called me swine, fool, beatnik. We go way back.” But I also know that he wrote you a quite hubristic letter. How did you two patch things up after this early exchange of invective and all that?

Kennedy: Well, I never called him a swine.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kennedy: It’s possible in a letter, in later years, I might have called him a swine. But that was his terminology.

Correspondent: He was trying to prop you up.

Kennedy: I would just throw it back at him or something like that. You know, there was no rancor at all. After the first exchange of letters, almost immediately it was patched up. I mean, he was furious at me for rejecting him when he applied for a job. You’re talking about the quote there where he said…

Correspondent: He said that on Charlie Rose.

Kennedy: Charlie Rose. But he was referring to my attitude toward The Rum Diary. Which was the novel that he was writing down in Puerto Rico when I got to know him. And he had just started it. And in later years, he sent it to me. I wish I had kept it. I don’t know why. I can’t find it. I don’t think I have any remnants of it and I’ve got a lot of his stuff. But maybe I have some pieces. But I don’t remember. And I can’t even remember the letter I wrote. But I wrote him a letter and I told him, “Forget about this novel. You can’t publish this. This is terrible.” And it was a big fat novel. It was fat and it was logorrhea. And it was a young man’s ruminations and discoveries of all of that.

Correspondent: A journalist aspiring to be a novelist.

Kennedy: Right, right, right. And he was a smart guy. Very, very smart guy. But that novel just didn’t work. What was published — the book that was published is one third of the text of the old book. It doesn’t have any of those flaws that I could see — I just started to read it again the other day. I tried to see the movie three times, and I can’t.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Kennedy: Well, I’m in the Academy and I get these screeners from the Academy. But it didn’t work. The screener didn’t work. It says “Wrong disc.”

Correspondent: Oh no.

Kennedy: So I have to get another one. But I’m anxious to see it. I think it’s full of probably libelous accusations against the [San Juan] Star, the newspaper down there and the people who run it. But that was expected from Hunter.

Correspondent: What do you think distinguishes your approach — being a journalist turning into a novelist — from Hunter’s approach? I mean, was he just not serious enough and you were more devoted? Was it a matter of being well-read? What was it exactly that distinguished the two of you?

Kennedy: Well, I was a serious journalist. I mean, he presumed to be. That was the basis for our initial argument about that bronze plaque. You know about that? The bronze plaque on the side of The New York Times — it’s a quote from Joseph Pulitzer When that building was home to The New York World, a great newspaper that Pulitzer ran in New York. Anyway, he revered that. You know, it’s this high-minded attitude toward the news. No fear of favor or whatever. Work against the thieves. Whatever. I’ve absolutely forgotten what Pulitzer said.

[Note: The Pulitzer plaque reads: "An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty."]

Kennedy; I remember its tone. And I could find it. And this whole episode is summed up in the introduction to Hunter’s book, The Proud Highway — his first collection of letters. He asked me to write an introduction to that. And I told the whole story of how he applied for the job and didn’t get it and so on. But his attitude toward journalism was high-minded. But when he started to practice it, a year or so later, roaming around South America, he started writing — he was winging it, you know? He wasn’t interested in “Just the facts, ma’am.” He was half a fiction writer in those days. Roaming around. Whatever caught his fancy or his imagination, he would write it. I mean, it came to a point where he went to the Kentucky Derby and that was the one that really put him on the map. “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” It ran in Scanlan’s Monthly, I think. And it had nothing to do with reporting. He was making it up. And it was fiction.

There may have been some basis in all that happens in the story for it. But he just invents the dialogue that goes on between the various people and follows his own chart and reacts as a novelist, and then presents it as journalism. This is what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was presumably journalism. But it’s fiction. It’s a novel. And he claimed in retrospect that he had notes to prove every element in that novel. But he didn’t. (laughs) I mean, all the hallucinations. Whatever his hallucinations were, they were hallucinations. And they’re his. And they’re internal. And who’s to say who’s hallucinating when he’s writing what he’s writing. The sum and substance of Thompson was that he started off as a journalist and he became this wild crazy gonzo journalist, which was half a fiction writer’s achievement. And he was always in the early days thinking about the novel and new forms of the novel. And he created one. Novels are very valuable in their wisdom and their insights and their reporting and their historical penetration of the world that they’re centering on. And he was famously talented in all those realms to achieve those things. And he did. But in the end, I mean he comes off as a career journalist and a singular one. There was nobody like him and there never will be. A lot of people have tried. He’s inimitable. But when he started out, he had all the baggage that goes with the aspiring novelist. And he always made the distinction that I started off to be a journalist and turned into a novelist and he started off to be a novelist and turned into a journalist. And that’s true enough.

My journalism very rarely could be challenged — it could never be challenged as a work of fiction. I never did anything like that. I found ways to enliven the text with language. So did Hunter. But Hunter also reimagined history and reimagined daily life when he invented his world.

Correspondent: To go to your work, The Ink Truck — I wanted to ask you about this. Your first published novel. This is interesting because, unlike the topographical precision that you see in the Albany Cycle, the details of Albany in The Ink Truck are not nearly that precise. They’re more abstract. And I’m curious why that sense of place only emerged in the subsequent novels.

Kennedy: Well, because when I wrote that novel, I was reacting to my resistance to traditional realism and naturalism. You know, I had been there with Steinbeck, Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and so on. And Hemingway also was a great realist. Not the naturalist, but the great realist and the great reporter. And I was in a different mode. I was immersed in Joyce at that time and very much aware of Ulysses and the wildness of the invention that pervades that novel. I was thinking of the surrealists. I was in the grip of Buñuel the filmmaker. I loved his work.

Correspondent: Also a wonderful late bloomer too.

Kennedy: (laughs) And Fellini. I though that 8 1/2 was one of the great movies ever made. It may be the greatest to me and I’m not sure I don’t think that still.

Correspondent: What of Satyricon? (laughs)

Kennedy: Well, I thought it was interesting. So much of Fellini I do love. But 8 1/2, because it was in one guy’s head and it just went in and out of reality, that’s what I wanted to do. I used to say that novel was always six inches off the ground. So levitating was important. And I wasn’t really interested in grounding myself in the squalor of that situation. That was a pretty squalid time when we were in the guild room during that strike. There was a strike that I went through and was the inspiration for that novel. But that book is sort of an excursion to comedy and surreal comedy. I mean, it presumes to be serious in certain stages of its intensity. But basically it’s a wild, crazy, surreal story.

Correspondent: But when you have the character of Albany begin to appear in your work, suddenly I think there’s more of a kitchen sink approach. You have very hard-core realism. You have hallucinations. Surrealism. You have all sorts of things. Almost a kitchen sink approach. And I’m curious if the increasing complexity of your books, where this comes from. Does it arise out of your very meticulous and fastidious research? Does it arise from wanting to reinvent the form of the novel? To not repeat yourself? Does it arise from having established a Yoknapatawpha-like universe of characters? What of this?

Kennedy: Well, all of the above. Everything you said. I was always trying to do something that I hadn’t done before, that I couldn’t attach to anybody in particular. You know, you can’t imitate Joyce. You can’t imitate Hemingway. I tried and I did all the way along in various failed enterprises. And I knew that it was a dead end. I was trying for something new. With Legs, I was inundated with research. I spent two years under the microfilm machine. We no longer have to do that. Just punch in Google. Now it’s amazing. But in those days, I would spend days. All day. Half the week inside the library. Not only microfilm, but all the books of the age. All the magazines. I went to New York and got the morgues of all the major newspapers. The Times. The New York Post. The Daily News, which was fantastic. And so on. And I researched everything there was to find on Legs Diamond serendipitously. And then I also kept turning — I probably interviewed 300 people. I don’t know how many. Sort of cops and gangsters. Retired gangsters with prostate trouble. And I really stultified myself at a certain stage in that novel. And I had to stop and take account of what was really going on. And I had to reinvent the book.

Correspondent: You wrote it seven times, I understand.

Kennedy: I guess the seventh was the final time. I wrote it six times. Or was it six years and eight times? The eighth time was a cut. I had finished it but it was too fat. So I cut 70, 80 pages. I don’t remember what I cut. But I don’t miss them. Whatever I cut, it was all right. But I started from scratch really. After six drafts, I went back and spent three months just designing the book all over again and designing history of every character all over again and putting a totally new perspective on it. Because I had too much material. And there was no way to stop it from coming to me. Except to just close it off and say, “I’m not going to read another newspaper. I’m not going to crack another book. I’m going to write the story. I’m done with the research.” Of course, that never really happens. You have to go back and check. But that’s what I did. And that’s how I finished the book.

The Bat Segundo Show #427: William Kennedy (Download MP3)

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(Image: Judy C. Sanders)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #426. She is most recently the author of The Corn Maiden and the editor of New Jersey Noir.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with needless tempers and false heaters.

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

PROGRAM NOTE: For many years, I had hoped to schedule Joyce Carol Oates on this program. And the opportunity at long last came in November. Wishing to make the most of this, I read eight Joyce Carol Oates books in advance of the conversation. The interview was to take place in Otto Penzler’s basement office at the Mysterious Bookshop.

There was just one problem. Otto Penzler didn’t like me. You see, five years ago, I had written some satirical blog post about Penzler. Something I barely remember. For all I know, I was drunk or stoned at the time. I probably banged it out in about twenty minutes. What I did not know was that Penzler had neither the humor nor the ability to let any perceived sleights roll off his back.

Why is any of this important? Because during this program, I had the misfortune of having one of the audio channels – the channel that was recording Ms. Oates’s voice – blow out on me. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Because I could have salvaged the sound from the other channel. Unfortunately, because Penzler is not the type who likes to give up a petty grudge, he decided to turn on what he insisted was a “heater” during the course of our conversation. Not only did this “heater,” which spewed out cold air, cause Ms. Oates to shiver, but it also disrupted the conversation. And this “heater” is also the reason why Ms. Oates, despite my best efforts with EQ and noise removing tools, sounds like a robot for about eight minutes of this conversation. It is also the reason why this episode contains the most passive-aggressive moment in the history of The Bat Segundo Show. Thank you for listening.

Subjects Discussed: Prolific writing, nightmares in fiction, psychological realism, Edgar Allan Poe, carving swastikas into foreheads, pesky heaters, feral characters, the history of violence contained within tragic narrative, stories generated by characters who meet, My Sister, My Love, experiments in style, being the child of a well-known infamous figure, JonBenet Ramsey, articulate sociopaths, writing in the satirical mode, Expensive People, humor in Joyce Carol Oates’s work, characters who have a penchant for malapropisms, A Fair Maiden, characters who give into naive situations, pathetic fantasies, editorial relationships with Daniel Halpern and Otto Penzler, not sending novels out for publication until they’re ready, advances and author contracts, needy authors and first drafts, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, when business concerns impede into artistic discovery, keeping a novel in a drawer for a year to avoid emotional connections, on whether JCO requires an immediate response to the world, contending with short story requests for anthologies, Otto Penzler’s rejection of a JCO short story title, words that JCO is fond of (including “glisten”), word choice, Nicholson Baker, James Joyce, “formula” contained within Ulysses, similarities between feeling and image, the allure of vacuum cleaning, memoir vs. fiction, A Widow’s Story, feral cats that wander around dumpsters, the tough clime of New Jersey, Martin Scorsese, organized crime, fictitious communities that are inspired by the classics, appropriating places and giving the place a very different way, places like Princeton, Russell Banks and Miami, Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, revisiting a 1982 keynote address collected in Woman Writer, being a woman writer in 2011, William James and multiple selves, chick lit, Kate Christensen, contemplating The Sportswriter as a “boy novel,” Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, Ursula K. Le Guin, Dostoevsky as crime writer, epistolary fiction, Twitter, the pleasures of reading letters, finding pleasure during the difficult early stages of writing a novel, TC Boyle, and comparisons between writing and heroin.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In considering the ideas of nightmares as fiction — because, of course, this is The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, that’s the title of this book — I think of John Hawkes. I think of Poe. I think of Kafka. I think of Shirley Jackson. The nightmares in The Corn Maiden, I think, differ. Because these tales are careful in the way that they relate psychological realism to the dream state. In the title novella, you juxtapose this troubled mother who is losing her daughter with this sacrificial ritual. There’s the psychological grief in “Helping Hands,” which triggers a nightmare, it could be argued. In “Fossil-Figures,” you describe Eddy Waldman’s work as “covered in dream/nightmare shapes.” So I’m curious how psychological realism gives shape to these nightmares that are in your fiction.

[Otto Penzler turns on an alleged "heater" in his office, which, unbeknownst to Correspondent and Oates, begins to pump cold air throughout the room in the next few minutes. Said "heater" also creates noticeable interference on the audio, which producer does his best to rid from this program with parametric EQ. Said hiss of "heater" also interferes with collective concentration.]

Correspondent: Do you find that, without such realism, these nightmares can sometimes be too burly to contend with?

Oates: Well, it’s a very good question. I think it’s a matter of what sort of genre one is working in. If you’re working in a horror or fantasy genre, you would have no hesitation about writing about the supernatural. But I tend often to write in a realistic mode. And, of course, in reality, people have dreams. So the psychic experience or the neurological experience of a dream is real, even though it’s invisible. So in writing about dreams and nightmares, I’m not writing about a supernatural world at all. Particularly The Corn Maiden is completely realistic. There’s nothing in it that’s far-fetched or particularly preposterous. Some of the other stories shade into the surreal. Sort of the Edgar Allan Poe zone. And I think Shirley Jackson often moved into that zone where the more supernatural figures.

Correspondent: Violence. I have to bring that up. It’s an ineluctable quality in your work as well. In “Beersheba,” you have a character who is denied his diabetic shot and who experiences this very specific yet savage wound. At the end of A Fair Maiden, another book, you have a character bleeding from a deep cut at his right eye and cuts at his nose and mouth. You have, of course, the trepanning in “A Hole in the Head.” You have Herschel carving the swastika in Jeb Meunzer’s forehead in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. I could go on. But what I’m interested in is how precise your violence is. And this leads me to wonder. Well, what do you do to get that level of precision? Does this come entirely from the imagination? Do you read a lot of police reports? A lot of true crime stuff? What of this?

Oates: I don’t read any police reports or true crime material really. I don’t write about violence. I write about people. And some of the people find themselves in dramatic or tragic situations in which violence is a consequence of some choices that they made or decisions that they made. But I don’t set out to write about violence. It’s more about human beings and their complexity. And they might make a bad decision. When Shakespeare writes his great tragedies of Macbeth and Othello, they are extraordinary people who’ve made a mistake. And they take a wrong turn. King Lear is another great example. And Hamlet. They’re all examples. But Shakespeare is beginning with the character. That’s what interests him. And I begin with characters and with language. A certain tone. Certain cadences. A certain music. That to me is very interesting. And it’s interesting. I’m surprised that you mentioned the swastika cut in the forehead in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Because that sort of came to me as I was writing that scene. That this particular character has been so mistreated, his family of Jews have been treated so badly, and now it’s his turn to get revenge. And he does something almost spontaneously. Even unconsciously. He carves the swastika in the forehead of his enemy. But I didn’t set out to write that. It’s more like it was a consequence of that character.

Correspondent: Well, that swastika certainly makes itself known in the text. But describe this. How does such violence keep coming up in your work? Is it a matter of a character proving so feral that things up that way? I mean, how does this exploration of the human condition lead to such stark and striking imagery?

Oates: Well, tragic fiction — so tragedy deals with acts of violence that sometimes are ritualistic. In works of tragedy by Aeschylus or Euripides, the acts of violence are offstage or they came before. Before the action of the play. But it’s caught in certain ritualistic, almost ceremonial language. And that’s what I’m more interested in. How people enact their destinies. I’m interested in maybe two people meeting. Or three people. Or a family. Moving through time and encountering events that then translate into their personal destinies.

[Oates is now visibly shivering, with Otto Penzler seemingly oblivious to his malfunctioning "heater."]

Oates: It’s just a little cold in here.

Correspondent: Oh. (to Otto Penzler) Uh, Joy…

Oates: Otto?

[Otto Penzler pretends not to be paying attention.]

Oates: Hello? Otto?

Otto Penzler: Yeah.

Oates: Hi. It’s just a little cold in here. The vent.

Otto Penzler: (faux incredulous) It’s cold? That’s the heater.

Oates: It’s the heater?

Correspondent: (baffled by this bizarre Dickensian exchange) It seems like cold air.

Oates: It’s actually like an air conditioner.

Otto Penzler: It’s not. It’s a heater.

Oates: Oh.

Otto Penzler: But I’ll turn it off.

Oates: Because it seems like the ai…

Otto Penzler: It’s probably just because you’re right in front of the vent, which is…

Oates: Okay. It seems like the air conditioner.

Correspondent: Yeah. It’s cool air. Or it’s one of those heaters that take the length of this conversation to get started.

Oates: Yeah. But also, it’s a little distracting with the noise.

The Bat Segundo Show #426: Joyce Carol Oates (Download MP3)

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(Image: Shawn Calhoun)

denniscooper

The Bat Segundo Show: Dennis Cooper

Dennis Cooper appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #425. He is most recently the author of The Marbled Swarm.

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Subjects Discussed: Cannibalism, worming, BDSM, “industriously garbled syntax,” reconciling confusion within literature, being a Francophile, Rimbaud, irritating certain readers, attempts to tame language, Alain Robbe-Grillet, de Sade, Cooper’s efforts to disguise his own voice, violent metaphors as a writing strategy, shock value, listening to other people, garbage languages and British dialect, rereading The Marbled Swarm and a universal explanation, confusion as the new literary strategy, Occupy Wall Street, expanding space within literary space, tight jeans, red herrings, the truth offered by the protagonist, 21st century literature and longueurs, Blake Butler and the HTML Giant crowd, David Lynch, Enter the Void, humor as an entry point for experimental writing, violence in contemporary fiction, raw first drafts, constructing a voice with every book, the difficulties of not being clever all the time, secret tunnels and connections, hostility towards anime, technology and keeping up with youth culture, The Sluts, clarifying relationships between the unnamed protagonist in The Marbled Swarm and George Miles, Joshua Cohen’s review of The Marbled Swarm, the future of transgressive fiction, whether Beckett and Joyce can be deviant in the 21st century, Lars von Trier, William Burroughs, reading as a more specialized pastime, Little Caesar, whether punk can be applied to today’s literary culture, Tao Lin, contemporary experimental writers, MFA students, revolution, the absence of sincerity in today’s age, the dilemma of ignoring sophistication, emo culture, whether or not mainstream culture matters, definitions of “cult writer,” Dancing with the Stars, outsiders who are actually insiders, Harper Perennial, Shane Jones, Amelia Gray, being disliked, receiving death threats, comparing reactions to literature over the past few decades, being excluded vs. not caring, the luck of having a following, and whether a young Dennis Cooper could flourish today.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s start with cannibalism. I think that’s a very good place to start. I mean, this is not exactly a subject in which one can find first-hand material in quite easily. So I’m wondering — sort of using this as a jumping point to talk about the overall violence in your work — how do you get that precision? Of biting into things?

Cooper: Well, you know, the Internet. Imagination. I did some research into it. I did a lot of research into it.

Correspondent: Such as?

Cooper: Oh, you know, there’s a lot of people who do it. (laughs) And actually there’s not only people who do it, but there’s these fetish sites where people advertise themselves as maybe interested in all sorts of things. And one of the fetishes is cannibalism. And I don’t think anybody ever does it. Because otherwise there’d be arrests all the time. But they’re very detailed about their fetishes. About the ones who want to eat and the ones who want to be eaten. It’s not a huge subculture, but it is there. And so I go that. And, you know, there’ve been guys throughout history who’ve done it. And then ultimately in the book, there really isn’t that much. He just talks about it all the time.

Correspondent: It’s a good litmus test as to whether one should carry on further. So you looked at underground websites?

Cooper: They’re not that underground.

Correspondent: Your IP must have been tracked while you were performing these searches.

Cooper: Well, they’re not that underground. There’s this site called Recon. Essentially it’s a master and slave site. Which is what it is. But there’s all kinds of subtext for people who like it. There’s weirder things than that. There are these guys who want to get wormed.

Correspondent: Oh.

Cooper: That’s the thing. They want to be wormed. It means having their arms and legs cut off — and live as a worm for their masters. So there’s stuff that’s weirder than cannibalism.

Correspondent: Wow. Worming. They actually do get wormed.

Cooper: Well, I don’t think anybody ever — I think it’s all…

Correspondent: Yeah. Sort of BDSM onto the next level.

Cooper: But they’re very serious about it. So yeah, those are all totally above board sites.

Correspondent: Above board. The “marbled swarm” in this book. It’s described as an “industriously garbled syntax,” a quote unquote — quote unquote appears quite a lot in the book — “exalted style of speaking” that the protagonist learns from his father and that becomes in his tongue “more of an atonal fussy bleat.” So you have this protagonist who is constantly alluding to hints of a deeper story throughout the text. But he’s also using language as an excuse for his behavior, his fantasies, and what not. He claims at one point, “My father used the marbled swarm to…well, I was going to say become a wealthy man, but to say he ruined would my life would be as accurate.” So the interesting thing about that is that the implication is that language — especially this stylized language — is really almost comparable to moral justification for why you had a shitty upbringing and the like. So I’m curious about this. Especially with most of the paragraphs beginning with “still comma.” There’s almost a comic formality about this reconciliation. I’m wondering how this patois developed and to what degree is this a response to reconciling confusion.

Cooper: Well, yeah, my books are in some fundamental way always about reconciling confusion. Because that’s of super interest to me. And language presents this idea that confusion can be corralled and all that stuff. And it can’t. And that tension does interest me. But how this happened? I don’t know. It took me a long time. I’m really slow and I do all these experiments. I test out things and try different forms and things. And it was a combination of living in France and not speaking French very well. And it was a very interesting thing to be on the Métro or whatever, and hearing people talk, and sort of understanding a little bit of what they’re saying. But not completely. And having to make it up or something and imagining. Because people always say that I romanticize French people enormously. Because I’m a huge Francophile. So when I’m on the subway with these people. And I imagine them talking about Rimbaud or something. And, of course, they’re talking about their laundry or whatever. So that begin to interest me. That I do that. So that started the idea of trying to create that in fiction. And I had usually written in a spare way. But I wanted to make it really, really dense so it would really multitask. Because I like things to be really layered and experimental. And so I tried to find this voice that was really, really dense and could do a whole bunch of stuff at once, and just fiddled around until that one came up. And then I had to figure out — because it’s really limited in what it can do. Its tone is really particular. And it’s really irritating. And so then it was just a matter of how fast will the pace be. Because will people not get too sick of this guy? And he can be kind of funny. But he can be really sincere, but only in a certain way.

Correspondent: Yeah. Did you actually end up speaking like this character during the course of your writing?

Cooper: No, no, no.

Correspondent: I mean, certainly I’m listening to you now and you don’t sound anything like that.

Cooper: No. I have to do readings now and it sounds so awful. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did you read any of it aloud to make sure that it could be plausible or anything like that?

Cooper: No. It all worked in my head like that.

Correspondent: Well, you mentioned this voice being irritating and slowing things down. And I’m wondering. Your books do have a tendency to irritate some people. Especially the mainstream. So how much irritation is enough in your fiction?

Cooper: It has to be really balanced out. I mean, I always feel like I have to do something formally or stylistically or structurally to justify that stuff. Because I’m not interested in — there’s this idea that — not just me, but other writers who do stuff like me are out to shock and all this. And it’s so not true. It’s completely the opposite. It’s like: How can you use really aggressive language like that and not be shocking? That’s my interest. Cause it’s such amazing language and it’s very emotional and it’s very pure. If you take that away, if you start treating it like a horror movie, or if you start doing this psychoanalytical kind of thing about what the motivations are behind that stuff, you really lose the powers. I wrote that power and I want to try and tame it or something. So I don’t know. It’s always tricky. With this book, there’s not as much violence in it. And the language like — so when you get to the part, there’s one part that’s really kind of intense. And I’m hoping that the language, you’re so involved with the language in a pleasurable — like it’s funny or something — that that’s kind of the barrier.

Correspondent: Well, you mentioned taming the language. Can your type of language ever be entirely tamed? Especially this moment that we’re alluding to about, I think, 120 pages in the book. You know, I found parts of that both funny and vaguely horrifying. But the funny to my mind outweighed the horrifying. Maybe I’m just warped.

Cooper: Well, yeah. You can only do so much. And I try different strategies at different times in different books and things. And this one, you get used to how he’s circumventing everything and subverting everything and doing everything. And he uses metaphor all the time. So that when he gets to the scene, it’s really totally metaphoric. When something violent happens, he’ll reference like an alligator or something. So that’s just my strategy. And it isn’t going to prevent people from being shocked. But with this book, you have to really be looking for it. Because it’s not as aggressive as in my other books.

Correspondent: That’s true. I’m wondering if you looked to any specific types of people to get the marbled swarm of this book. Or the “garbled marbled swarm.” Did you listen to a specific type of affluent wanker? Or what?

Cooper: It’s a little bit like the sound of French literature. Or certain kinds of French literature. I mean, there’s a little bit of that. Like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Sade and some of the writers who were important to me. And then my own voice. I mean, it’s basically me disguising my own voice. So a lot of it is just my usual stuff. I mean, the sentences are much more complicated than my usual sentences. But it’s all basically my voice. It was just more like trying to keep it sounding foreign and maybe be kind of French, but also having this weird American stuff thrown into it. And so it was kind of like a garbage language. I mean, the thing, it sounds British.

The Bat Segundo Show #425: Dennis Cooper (Download MP3)

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charlesyu

The Bat Segundo Show: Charles Yu

Charles Yu appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #424. He is most recently the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Saying goodbye before saying hello.

Author: Charles Yu

Subjects Discussed: Accusations of egomania, Abbott and Costello, the real Charles Yu vs. the fictive Charles Yu, writing a novel in a nonlinear fashion, how time travel encourages emotional truth, father-son bonding experiences, viewing your own memory as a bystander, freedom of movement within text, skimming vs. careful reading, intense reading experiences, Finnegans Wake and recursive reading, David Foster Wallace, Faulkner, lack of concentration and the Internet, Dan O’Bannon, Red Dwarf, working stiff protagonists, schlubbiness, inner worlds and inner schlubs, gazes and looks within fiction, non-conflict conflict, drawbacks within time travel novels and extended meditation, diagrams contained within the middle of books, loneliness and sexbots, genre and MacGuffins, sticking with skeletal plot no matter what, gobbledygook and cryogenics, Richard Feynman, legitimate and illegitimate research into quantum mechanical texts, the appeal of language vs. the appeal of ideas, the fun tone of fake science, “Problems for Self-Study” (PDF) as a precursor for How to Live Safely, schematics as the genesis for finished fiction, smudging a list and Silly Putty, not laughing at one’s own comic writing, the funny qualities of email vs. fiction, Twitter, Moisture Man, schlubbiness vs. Asimov’s robotics, Phil the Computer Program, crushing the sentient feelings of computers in the future, reconstructing individual AI personalities from Twitter feeds, personality algorithms generated from books, books as simulacrums of consciousness, fakery injected into fakery, stories that are told in other voices, the use of hypothetical robots within fiction, fakery used to aid the idea of conflict, tangible boxes that have levers and stuff, and projections of machinery.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Yu: I think schlubbiness is my default protagonist, unfortunately.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Yu: Yeah. I’ve yet to write — and lots of people have pointed it out, but really now it’s coming into focus. Because I realize how much I kind of schlub it up when I start designing. Not designing. But that’s how they come out. Maybe it’s a reflection of my inner schlub that I don’t know how to create a dashing hero yet.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Yu: I want to.

Correspondent: You’ve made attempts? (laughs)

Yu: I’ve probably made some half-hearted attempts. But I’m going to try harder to make a non-schlub protagonist. Because I want to try something different. I think it’s partly a reflection of just the worlds too that these guys live in — and so far they have been guys. That they’re sort of slightly broken, damaged worlds in the stories I’ve written too, for the most part. So they fit into that, I guess.

Correspondent: Inner worlds create inner schlubs.

Yu: (laughs)

Correspondent: So you’re saying that the schlubbiness is dictated more by the worldbuilding that you’re undergoing in a short story or a novel. Or the fact that you can be more, I suppose, confidently schlubby on paper as opposed to life.

Yu: No, I think the worlds make the schlub. And I think there’s a bit of a change in the Charles Yu character. I think he tries to stop being such a depressed navel gazer and look forward a bit. I mean, I don’t mean to spoil anything for people who haven’t read it and want to read it. But it also seems easier for me to see the change that I want to have in the character. Or to start with somebody who’s really sort of broken. And have them find some measure of some resolution or something.

Correspondent: Well, on that subject of something else being in plain sight — no pun intended for the next question, which is rather elaborate — in describing a sexbot, you write, “Something about the look in her eyes gets me, even though I know they aren’t really eyes.” When an older Charles observes a younger ten-year-old Charles and his father, you write, “And it looks as if they are staring, not through me, but right back at me, and with their minds immersed in the theory of time travel and their eyes fixed on the future.” Late in the book, when Charles Yu faces a serious existential crisis and contemplates several options, he has one choice. “Nor can I change the path of my body, the words from my lips, not even the focus of my eyes.” So it’s interesting to me that Charles Yu — in the book, not you — is just as aware of these fixed looks and staring into these windows of the soul and he can’t quite connect through the space-time continuum and through the act of writing. So I’m curious where this interest in eyes came about. Was this a way of informing the reader on what Charles Yu is missing out on? These recurring stares? This recurring communication with souls and the like?

Yu: Yeah, that was an elaborate question. So I’m going to try and give an appropriately elaborate answer.

Correspondent: Fantastic.

Yu: It only seems right to do justice for that question. Because I think you’ve put your finger on something I was trying to get out. Which is this kind of feeling of missed connection across time. And yet when Father and Mother are gazing toward the future, or Charles is looking at something, can sometimes sense something in the room, it’s this idea that now that future Charles is in that room looking back, maybe the first time around you feel the future there too. And that’s what you’re looking at. But you can’t connect. As you pointed out, you’re not directly looking at it. But there’s a sense in which what’s going to happen is already in the room with you and you can feel it there. You can’t see it yet. And then in the past, you can see it now. But you can’t change anything about it. And that also, in terms of narrative mechanics, there is some squiahiness to my sci-fi here. It’s not hard at all.

Correspondent: Squishy and schlubby. This is great.

Yu: That’s right. Yeah. Not hard sci-fi. Squishy, schlubby, mushy sci-fi.

Correspondent: It was never on the jacket copy though.

Yu: (laughs) But the one constraint I wanted to have in there. And I won’t pretend to know whether or not I ever violated it. But I think I said as a rule that you can’t change the past. And if you do, you shoot off into an alternate reality. But here’s where the sort of paradox comes in. You can’t — like the Charles when he realizes he’s caught in his time loop, if he wants to stay within his chronology, he can’t say or do anything different. And he can’t even look in a different place. But he can think something different. So I’m drawing what I understand is an artificial distinction between thinking and doing. But that was sort of where that comes from. It’s that even if my eyes — you know, everything I do is exactly the same as the first time down to where I’m looking. I have the tiny degree of freedom of changing how I feel about the same experience. Therein sort of lies the difference where he goes through this for the second time, basically.

Correspondent: Any alteration in the time stream causes the protagonist Charles Yu to not be able to see or to interact. Which is a really bummer offshoot of any of his decisions. Even a stray drift from this prevents him from doing anything. That’s quite a high wire act you set for yourself as a writer. How do you generate conflict if you have a protagonist who is incapable of doing what most humans are doing? When his pro-active decisions create this mess?

Yu: Right. That was a problem. It really was. And I’m not sure I surmounted that problem. I think if I were to judge by some of the responses I’ve gotten, some people have said, “Not enough conflict in this book.” And I think that’s a fair statement. And what conflict there is is necessarily pretty internal. One drawback for having a time loop novel and one in which the form of time travel requires you cannot change anything.

Correspondent: Was this form of non-conflict conflict the best way for you to explore these issues of memory and consciousness and choice and loneliness? That that was really the only comfortable or reader-accessible way for you to tackle these issues?

Yu: I think so. It’s the only way I could figure out how. I mean, I wanted it to be sort of an extended meditation on something. And that doesn’t make it sound terribly attractive when you’re thinking of reading and writing a book that’s going to last for a couple hundred pages at least on a meditation. But it was, to me, the only form that — it just kind of grew out of what I was writing about. For better or worse. So I was like, “Well, this is going to be the plot.” And as you know, there’s that diagram in the middle of the book, which sort of gives you the plot points. And there aren’t many of them But that’s what I did pretty early, like very early I drew that. And I said I’m going to stick to this. Because this will keep me from getting lost and violating the rules I’ve set up. And keep me focused on exploring the ideas of consciousness and memory that you pointed out.

The Bat Segundo Show #424: Charles Yu (Download MP3)

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waynek

The Bat Segundo Show: Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #423. He is most recently the author of Humiliation.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fully considering the witnesses.

Author: Wayne Koestenbaum

Subjects Discussed: Whether a deliberate slander of a surname is a humiliation, the three components of humiliation (victim, abuser, and witness), the differences between recorded humiliation and experiential humiliation, spectacles of martyrdom, preexisting humiliation and statutes of limitation, edicts of instantaneous revocation, Koestenbaum’s use of triangles to uphold book concepts, itemizing shameful personal anecdotes, self-excavation as a writer, the pleasure of sentence making, being eons away from publication, rousing one’s self from stupor through stimulated memories, glimmerings that regurgitate and abreact, Koestenbaum’s obsession with a paddled third-grader, shifting personal anecdotes around to serve the narrative and whether this cheapens it, life as an experience of first times, Freud’s cathexis, cheapening vs. coarsening, what Koestenbaum doesn’t write about, Koestenbaum’s uncertainty in knowing whether or not he humiliates his own parents, growing up in a family where disclosure is normal, observing a large woman who urinates in the middle of a sidewalk, Edith Massey, Female Trouble, parodying Russ Meyer, John Waters as instigator of a cinematic spectacle, being simultaneously atrocious and radiant, Divine, fecal doppelgangers, honesty vs. humiliation, displaying one’s body, David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Son,” the genuine facial expression of a person in orgasm, Anita Bryant being pied, pornography and humiliation, seeing the malevolent as human, the draw of Liza Minnelli videos, the human duty to understand multiple perspectives, an artificially polarized theater of affect, Freud and children getting beaten, being kind to the humiliated, finding Alec Baldwin sexually attractive, Alec Baldwin as a macho ego ideal, rejecting tabloid culture, the scapegoating culture, the London riots, privileged humiliation, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the Jim Crow gaze, Abu Ghraib, Michael Jackson, whether Osama bin Laden was humiliated because America withheld the photo, Annie Leibovitz taking photos of Susan Sontag’s corpse, David Rieff, respecting evil historical figures, whether Shakespeare humiliated language, Basquiat striking out words in his paintings, Finnegans Wake, humiliation vs. a sense of wonder, radical muscularity within language, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” logocide, writing with physical pleasure, humiliation vs. sorting out thoughts, critiquing the sign system of American power, writing on paintings, wrongness as the new gold standard, Gertrude Stein, “maltitude,” well-done violent movies, John Woo, major human dynamics at stake, behavioral options when responding to assholes, Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent” maxim, humiliation and consent, Freud’s anti-Semitic experiences, writerly failure, vengeance, TC Boyle’s “Bury your enemies,” and aggression in writing.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In “Catheter,” you write at the end, “I have a noble aim: to urge you to be kind when you see someone humiliated, even if you think that the shamed person deserves punishment.” When you find someone like Alec Baldwin sexually attractive and, in your own words, “wondering why I agree to occupy this role rather than refuse it by vowing to ignore the tabloid trade of trashing the stars,” I’m wondering if you are being kind to Alec Baldwin. If you don’t know the figure who is being humiliated, if you’ve never met them, can you always be kind? I’m curious about this.

Koestenbaum: You mean, is that like the tree falling in the forest thing? Like if I’m kind to Alec Baldwin by not reading a scandalous story about him, how will he know I’m being kind?

Correspondent: That, and also this compelling allure of participating in that culture. I mean, when that whole thing came out, I heard about it from friends. But I made a conscious choice not to participate in it. Because I just felt that it wasn’t worth my time. I’m only getting one side of the story. I don’t know Alec Baldwin. I like him as an actor, but, you know, what business is it of mine? You know what I mean? So as a result, it seems to me that you’re finding or you’re vacillating with “Should I participate?” To be or not to be.

Koestenbaum: Right. Okay, I will say that I totally get your point. That you’re talking about the kind of conscientious objection to or an abstaining from the gladiatorial carnival of consuming celebrity carrion.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Koestenbaum: And I understand that. I would say that in my life, I have made a few golden exceptions to that rule because of deep libidinal and imaginative connections that I had. And so for example, having written a whole book about Jackie Onassis, that’s a case where I flagrantly did not abstain from the national profession of consuming images of Jackie. I indulged it. But that’s because I had deep unconscious motives. And I felt that much for me was personally at stake in pursuing that obsession. In the case that you’re mentioning, where you like Alec Baldwin as an actor but you don’t have strong feelings about him, it’s not a difficult thing for you to abstain. For me, like Alec Baldwin, I didn’t consume it as deeply originally as I did when I decided to write about it. But I do have a kind of long-standing crush on Alec Baldwin. I’ve interviewed him. I wrote about him in my book Cleavage a little. “My Evening with Alec Baldwin.” We’re the same age. He is a kind of weird hectoring ego ideal — hectoring isn’t the right word. I mean, he seems like a kind of bossy guy. He’s a kind of macho ego ideal for me. So I have — he’s a — I agreed, agree I have cast him in my drama, but, yeah, I’m using him as a teaching point.

Correspondent: But how can you be kind? I mean, I think you nailed it on the head there by pointing out and being fully candid about the fact that there’s an allure there. There’s a sexual attraction there. He forms an imaginary impulse for all sorts of things in your mind. Which is perfectly fine and that’s completely understandable. But at the same time, can you also be kind when you have that going on as well? It’s almost as if this is another instigation point for humiliation.

Koestenbaum; Right. No, no, no, I will say then that, toward Alec Baldwin, perhaps I have not been supremely kind. But I’m not alone. And I would like to think — maybe I’m dreaming — I would like to think that I’m placing the whole Alec Baldwin crease within a really large cultural context of these kinds of spectacles. And I’m reviewing, I’m saying on the one hand I get a sort of sadistic erotic relish from this. And then on the other hand, I wish to abstain from the process of scapegoating others. I’m never saying he’s a bad father. There’s never a moment where I pass judgment on him. I’m commenting instead on his use of the word “humiliating” in the thing to his daughter. It’s hard for me to really explain this, except to say that I’m not making judgments about Alec Baldwin. I’m making judgment about the star culture and the culture of scapegoating.

Correspondent: It can be argued that the London riots, which occurred a few days ago at the time of this conversation, that they arose because you have the poor, the young, the disenfranchised given no choice. Essentially they are humiliated. Thus, you have revolt from humiliation. You touch upon this very early in the book where you deal with revolt, activism, and uprising as a response to humiliation. You conclude that, “Choosing homicidal martyrdom as a response to historical humiliation, I become a suicide bomber.” What of this space in between which causes riots? Very often you have no progress but more of the same. How do you reconcile? What we’ve been talking about here is essentially privileged humiliation vs. an unprivileged humiliation in which it’s unrest or activism.

Koestenbaum: That’s a really — I mean, I don’t have profound or definitive things to say. That’s a moral conundrum for deeper minds than mine. Honestly. But in a way, it’s the question of a justified violence or of revolution, a violent revolution. And when it’s justified or it’s not. And who is to decide when it’s justified. That’s a big question. And I think it’s — I want to say case by case. I would hesitate to make any generalizations about revolution. I think I talk about what I call the Rosa Parks principle, where humiliation leads to uprising and activism or Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. But let’s just call it the suicide bomber or the terrorist question. I don’t want to say pro-terrorist things. Because I don’t really feel very pro-terrorist.

Correspondent: But you are willing to confront what you call the Jim Crow gaze. That look where someone looks at another person as if there is nothing there. Complete invisibility. Entirely because of race and also often because of class or because of sexual orientation or what have you. It seems to me that this willingness on your part to tackle this difficult question doesn’t necessarily make your views on humiliation legitimate or transferable from this place of privilege and this place of media obsession to this really stark territory of “How do I get by when I don’t have any options on the streets?”

Koestenbaum: Right.

Correspondent: No thoughts in terms of the Jim Crow gaze in comparison to the Alec Baldwin stuff we were talking about before?

Koestenbaum: It’s a really — I mean, I talk about both things in the book. Because it seems that with the title and a subject like humiliation, I have a feeling I don’t want to write a book just about the Alec Baldwin things. That’s only one question that interests me. And I was just as much motivated to write this book by the Abu Ghraib things. But as I say, very honestly, there were three catalysts: Clinton, Michael Jackson, and Abu Ghraib. They have very little to do with each other. But there is a kind of spectrum where all three instances involve the United States, power, scandal, and sex. Or the sexualizing of — I don’t know. I don’t want to say glib or wrong things.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Koestenbaum: I try in this book through the use of these numbered fragments to keep as separate as possible some of these kinds of instances for exactly what you’re suggesting. That it’s not possible to map what you’re calling “privileged humiliations” or, as I describe on my own, having had a relatively humiliation-free and lucky life, nonetheless I could go into this litany of my humiliations. I don’t want to say that all suffering is the same.

Correspondent: Life is not a comparison of horrors. That kind of thing.

Koestenbaum: No.

Correspondent: Well, let me try to get on this from another angle. You had mentioned very early on — and I was actually going to bring this up too — the photos that Annie Leibovitz took of Susan Sontag. The Osama bin Laden execution. There was no photo of a dead body. Saddam Hussein’s execution, we do get to see him. Now you write of Leibovitz taking photos of Sontag’s corpse, as we said earlier, quoting David Rieff, who said that she was humiliated posthumously. So the question is, if one doesn’t have the choice of seeing the photos, is it still possible to humiliate the object or the person? Was the decision, for example, to not release the Osama photos a more respectful choice? Or was it possibly something — by not giving Americans the option to humiliate or to not humiliate, maybe it was almost a dishonest choice. What do you think about that?

Koestenbaum: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to chicken out of a question But I can’t. I don’t know — do I really want to talk about the Osama bin Laden photos? It feels way beyond what I can speak about responsibly in a way.

Correspondent: Even if you were also simultaneously asking us to feel kindness for those who are absolutely terrible as well.

Koestenbaum: Yeah. I mean, the only reason I say I don’t want to — it just seems — just because I wrote this book, it doesn’t mean I feel that I’m an expert on the world’s atrocities or am some extraordinary moral barometer in a way. The question has a lot of responsibility tied into it. As if because I mentioned the Susan Sontag photos in the book, I’m automatically going to have an opinion about the Osama bin Laden photos. Which I don’t. I mean, basically, I don’t have a stand about “Yes, release all photos” or “No, don’t release all photos.” Maybe I don’t understand your question.

Correspondent: Maybe the direct question to ask you is: Is Osama worthy of the same respect if someone is being humiliated as David Rieff suggested of Sontag?

Koestenbaum: Well, is that then the question of, like, “Is it possible to imagine Hitler had a mother and that she loved him?” And that’s again a question way too complicated to know the answer to. Is it possible to include in the human family some of the worst people? And I do say in the book that when I imagine or see a serial killer led to his execution, whimpering, I feel clemency rise within me. Yeah, I have that impulse. I bet you do too, if you’re asking the question. Yeah, I do have that impulse.

The Bat Segundo Show #423: Wayne Koestenbaum (Download MP3)

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