Tag : bat-segundo

A.M. Homes III (BSS #486)

A.M. Homes is most recently the author of May We Be Forgiven. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #58 and The Bat Segundo Show #115.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeing if there’s anyone left to forgive him.

Author: A.M. Homes

Subjects Discussed: May We Be Forgiven as an update to White Noise, Nixon as a replacement for the Holocaust, Don DeLillo’s influence, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, David Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow, the evolution of televised presidential debates, growing up with Nixon as the first President on one’s consciousness, how personal commentary has replaced professional commentary, references to David Lynch in May We Be Forgiven, This Book Will Save Your Life, families as an inevitable narrative solution, how a series of calamities unexpectedly transformed into dimensional character, the picaresque qualities of The Adventures of Augie March, knowing when a protagonist has a path, turning uninteresting lumps into vivid people, Paul Slovak’s input as editor, being asked to add material to the manuscript, finding hope and battling literature, including vaguely surreal qualities that are real, the South African bar mitzvah as cultural triangulation, being taught by Grace Paley, taking Yaddo people of all ages to play Laser Tag, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Blake Bailey, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, the hunger for lost communication, media and narrative in relation to existence, fashioning a narrative based off quotidian minutiae, Instagram, how American fiction responds to the predicament of snapshot-based life, men who write big books, assumptions about women writing domestic novels, George’s homicidal impulses, unusual psychiatric institutions within May We Be Forgiven, when a novel adopts a hostile stance to therapy, Homes’s enrollment in a prison survival class, Erving Goffman’s Asylums, having a lifelong fear of ending up in jail, the burdens of being an outsider, how outsiders become insiders, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, why even outsiders even needed to be rooted, balancing being an insider with being an outsider, the responsibilities of being a Girl Scout leader, when trying to be like other people doesn’t come naturally, operating within a system, growing up in an upper middle class suburb, having socialist parents, lunatics who believe in rational conversation, simple anti-Thanksgiving food contained within May We Be Forgiven, fish sticks, Nixon and China, the dangers of stereotypical Chinese characters, George Shima*, working the cultural and the psychological fiction angles rather than the socioeconomic ones, Chinese manufacturing, the women who are attracted to Harry Silver, whether empathy gives promiscuity a distinction, the inevitability of family history, Homes being judgmental to her characters, how viewpoints change with age, pretending that you don’t have a family, and when parents interfere within telephone calls at inopportune moments.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’ve got this guy named Harry Silver. He’s a Nixon Studies scholar. And this, together with a homeless version of Don DeLillo who crops up in the book, suggests a deep connection to, of course, White Noise. And I wanted to ask you about this. To what extent would you say this novel serves almost as an update to White Noise? And has Nixon replaced the Holocaust as the go-to reflective tragedy in American life?

Homes: That’s a very enormous and large and interesting question. Did you say a homeless DeLillo?

Correspondent: Well, he’s like a homeless DeLillo. He’s a ragged DeLillo in the book.

Homes: Well, he’s not homeless.

Correspondent: Well…

Homes: He’s a wandering DeLillo.

Correspondent: A wandering DeLillo. All right. A vagabondish DeLillo.

Homes: In fact, in my mind, I’m stressing that. Because I thinking that the novel takes place quite near where DeLillo lives in reality. So I’m sure that he’s well housed.

Correspondent: Is DeLillo apprised of your narrative tinkering here?

Homes: I’m not sure.

Correspondent: Along with David Remnick and all the others. Lynne Tillman even shows up.

Homes: I think they’re dimly aware and soon will be more aware.

Correspondent: They certainly will be very soon. But anyway, White Noise.

Homes: The bigger question.

Correspondent: Nixon. Holocaust.

Homes: Right. You know it’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it directly in relation to White Noise, which I think conceptually or philosophically in terms of how I think of as a writer. Clearly, DeLillo is a huge influence. And it’s funny. You know how — I think it is in White Noise — there’s the big airborne incident? Which if you go back to Music for Torching, there’s that thing where they close off the house with the hazmat and all that stuff. It definitely comes out of that. But I think for me, the thing about DeLillo that’s so interesting — especially increasingly — is his ability to blend fact and fiction, and to combine the exploration of fact through the use of fictional characters. Like in Libra and in White Noise and in the last novel and in Underworld. So that definitely is a touchstone for me. I think the thing’s that interesting about Nixon as the defining American tragedy in some ways…

Correspondent: The only one people can remember.

Homes: Well, exactly. The only one that people can remember. But you know, what caught me off guard was that this year, Ann Beattie published the book Mrs. Nixon, which is very much a literary response not only to Mrs. Nixon, but to her own kind of evolution as a writer and a thinker. And I think that that book was in many ways was underreviewed or inappropriately reviewed or taken too much along the lines by Nixon scholars as being about Nixon and not enough as a literary exploration. But then also Tom Mallon wrote this book called Watergate: A Novel. So I think it’s odd that all of a sudden, without having spoken to each other, three people are launching Nixon-related fiction in a given year, which I think says that, yes, there is something about Nixon that is in some ways unresolved and that is representative of a classic American tragedy.

Correspondent: Well, I have to ask. How much research into Nixon did you do? Because I thought immediately of David Greenberg’s book, Nixon’s Shadow.

Homes: I don’t think I know that one.

Correspondent: Oh! It’s a really wonderful book that’s all about Nixon’s image. And I had developed this theory in my own head that you had actually read that book and said, “Well, I’ll make the brother a television executive.” Of course, if you look at Nixon from a purely straight standpoint, it was television that he learned to understand and therefore learned to master and become who he was.

Homes: It was also television that initially also undid him in the public eye.

Correspondent: Exactly. Unless, of course, you closed your eyes and listened to it on radio.

Homes: Well, right. So I wrote the other day this piece for one of the newspapers in England that talks about how after the Nixon/Kennedy debate, the people who heard it on radio thought that Nixon had won and the people who’d seen it on TV thought Kennedy had won. And that was the first ever, for TV, debate. But curiously after that, Nixon refused to debate again. So there was no debate. Then LBJ, also intimidated by it, refused to debate. It wasn’t until Gerald Ford in ’76 that the debates came back. And I think what’s so interesting is, we see right now in looking at the televised convention, we all know in a way how much the media plays a role in it. But the other piece we don’t even get to evaluate is how much the guy in the media truck plays a role in it. Because it’s also a lot about how that producer’s shots of the audience or what he cuts to or how they literally frame and deliver it to us. We’re not thinking about the choices that are made for us and that guide us in lots of ways that we don’t realize. So I find that all very interesting. For me, Nixon, weirdly, is a childhood thing. I grew up just at the edge of Washington DC and Nixon was the first President of my consciousness. And we took these class field trips to see Nixon greet the leader of France and things, and we’d be playing on the White House lawn while Nixon’s up there speaking. Because what did we know? Nothing. We were little, little kids. And we always used to see the Nixon girls in the shoe department at Saks, which funnily enough, Ann Beattie writes about the shoe department at Woodward & Lothrop was the opposite store from Saks in that neighborhood called Friendship Heights, just at the edge of Washington. It’s also things like I was at summer camp when Nixon resigned. In the South. And I remember this one counselor saying something like “I bet my mom was having a heart attack.” And I remember thinking, “That’s so odd. Because in Georgetown, I’m sure they’re having a party.” So just beginning to realize that the President wasn’t just the mayor of a town, but this much larger figure. So Nixon really for me evolved as part of my growing up, but also, curiously, there’s still more and more information about Nixon and Nixon’s presidency being unveiled. Which we don’t have usually to that degree of a President.

Correspondent: But there’s also this intriguing idea that you present in your book that I actually thought of last night in relation to the Democratic National Convention and watching Obama speak — last night would be when we are recording this. This is the first series of political conventions where now you’re required to participate in the commentary. On Twitter. I was tweeting up a storm. So was everybody else. And it’s a rather fascinating idea that, instead of actually studying or trusting other people to comment upon the actions, we are the ones who actually filter it. And people now seem to be watching CSPAN. They don’t necessarily trust the news. I mention this because, in light of what your book has to say about narrative — I want to get into this too. So little time. I’ll do my best. So you have at least three references to David Lynch in this book. You have the tied cherry stems. You have “blue velvet curtains.” You have a missing girl who shows up later, which is very reminiscent of Laura Palmer. And I said to myself, “Hmmm. Well, isn’t this interesting?” And isn’t it also interesting that you even have a firm show up. Herzog, Henderson & March. Which of course has us going back to Bellow. And, of course, you mentioned DeLillo earlier. What is the degree that narrative now plays in our life if we’re constantly commentating? Does fiction even have a place for reflection anymore? Or do we now have to, as you have with this book quite wonderfully, stuff our novels with commentary on all sorts of things so that people can commentate further? What of this?

Homes: You know, it’s a good question. And in many ways, I don’t actually know the answer. I mean, I think the idea of “Does fiction have a place?” is an important one. And I think people really don’t know anymore what the difference between fiction and nonfiction is. And often they’ll say, “So you wrote a fictional novel?” And I’m thinking, “That’s right.” Or they’ll say, “Is it all true?” And you think, “Well, it’s a novel.” So it’s very difficult. And I’m not sure that there is a sense of what the role of the novel is. It’s kind of in culture at this point. And it would be curious to actually try to think about what the evolution of that is. We’ve kind of lost that. Is it a result of the memoir? The idea that everything has to be a real thing. Reality TV. The impact of all these things. Have we moved away from an imagination? And my sense is that in many ways — I mean, I see this when I teach — people have forgotten what the imagination is and how to use it. It’s as though there’s not any trust in the idea of being able to make something that wasn’t there before, as though that’s too magical an idea, or how to use fiction and story to weave something together that is a heightened version of an unreal thing that is incredibly reflective of real experience in some way.

Correspondent: Well, I’m going to quote from This Book Will Save Your Life. You have the voiceover of the disaster film. “What you are about to see is a work of fiction. It has not yet happened and yet each of the elements represented are real. It was written using everything I know about the state of the world we live in, which means it’s coming soon.” So here we have in May We Be Forgiven, this notion of “coming soon.” Each of the elements are represented as real. I’m curious if this was in fact a problem in writing the book. Because the first half of the book has Harry engaged in one calamity after another. It’s this heap of abuse and he carries through. But then something rather interesting happens halfway through. Families are formed. Families are formed in the strangest of places. And every amount of narrative that you can actually heap upon Harry, going back to this idea of “coming soon,” well, it’s simply not enough for him to live as a character, as a human. So I’m wondering how this dilemma afflicted you during the writing of this and how this was your response. The idea of family, the idea of finding other people and creating this interesting snowball effect. So by the end, we have all these people in the house and so forth.

Homes: Right. That’s a good question. I’m not sure exactly what the question is. But I think the thing that was interesting for me is that this, in many ways, started as a short story. Not in many ways. It did start as a short story. So I feel like if you cause a tragic injury in the beginning, you have to raise the stakes. Because where do you go from there? On Page 20, there’s this gigantic upsetting incident. So part of it was that. And also the interesting thing for me as a writer was, early on, my difficulty with Harry was that I was writing about somebody who didn’t know himself. And it’s very hard to be led by a person who doesn’t know where they’re going. So I think as Harry began to unfold as a person, to himself actually, he became more of a character. A more open character to me as a writer. If that makes any sense. Because only by coming to some understanding of who he is and what’s happening to him is he then able to make the connections. And the connections are family and to build this family. And that’s both what slows him down and what begins to kind of ground it. And then you’re not rolling from calamity to calamity. And I think it’s very true of our lives as well. That we often live in reaction to things and things happen to us. And it’s very hard sometimes to get enough — I don’t know what you call it — traction to slow it down, to make choices or to take action or to not just be responding.

* — At the 36:29 mark, during an impromptu moment, Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to “Joe Shima” when he meant to refer to George Shima. George Shima was known as the Potato King of California and his story deserves more than the rushed reference offered by Our Correspondent. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — one of the most diabolically racist acts of legislation in our nation’s history — restricted Chinese laborers in the States, including those who had just come across the Pacific to work on the transcontinental railroad, several Japanese came across and took their place because of the domestic labor shortage. George Shima became a self-made millionaire. Our Correspondent suggested that Shima had fought the Chinese Exclusion Act, when he really fought against the California Alien Land Law years later (which restricted Asians from owning land), although he was quite vocal about many of the discriminatory laws during the line. Much of this is documented in Kevin Starr’s excellent volumes of California history. And if you would like to learn more about George Shima, there’s a good article here (PDF).

Categories: Fiction

Scarlett Thomas II (BSS #357)

Scarlett Thomas is most recently the author of Our Tragic Universe. Ms. Thomas previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #117.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Unusually pedantic about modifiers.

Author: Scarlett Thomas

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to address one review. Jessa Crispin in The Smart Set. She said, “Well, you adhered to the two laziest storylines that the world of fiction has ever thrown up. Love Conquers All and Secretly a Princess.” But to my mind, I thought this was a severe misreading and misunderstanding of the book. I mean, the book is very much concerned with how narrative must rely on contrivances in order to present life. On the other hand, when you have, for example, the deus ex machina of the magic money appearing in Meg’s account, this is something of a risky proposition for someone who is accustomed to the page-turning of your previous books. So I’m curious as to how much you worried or agonized over this, coming off of a fairly substantial success — particularly in the UK and particularly here among bloggers and the like. Did you just not care? Or did you worry about people misreading this? Because you’re presenting narrative within narrative within narrative and some people are clearly not picking this up.

Thomas: Yeah, I mean — God, there’s quite a lot there. I read the Jessa Crispin piece and I feel quite frustrated with it. Because the reading that she presents is the reading that’s set up for you in the book. That, in fact, it’s one character’s analysis of what’s happened. But the book sets it up as probably wrong. The reading that’s there –- I mean, this is just my own reading. Everybody is welcome to read it the way they like.

Correspondent: Sure.

Thomas: But the idea is that you actively go through and think, “Oh! Aha! So it was the cosmic ordering that gave her the money. And then this and that and the other. Oh my god, everything’s prearranged. And there’s no free will and everything’s perfectly placid. And it’s just like Kelsey Newman. Do I actually want to live like that? Or would I rather read it a different way?” So that’s what you’re supposed to be doing with those ideas. And Jessa seems to have stopped a bit too early. The money device – it’s not really a deus ex machina. Because Meg has written these novels. And they have been optioned for TV. And she has got the money for it. And I think, as most writers know, you do these things. And everybody’s always talking about optioning this and optioning that. And you might get some money. And you never do. And one day, you open your online banking. And there’s some money. And it does kind of change your life. For me, The End of Mr. Y did so well in the UK and Europe that there were days when I’d open up my bank account and think, “Whoa! Where has that come from?” For the first time in my life. Because, you know, I’ve always been pretty poor. And I wanted to try and write out that experience of suddenly having some money. But, of course, it’s really hard to do in a novel. Because the novels are supposed to be about drama and struggle and conflict, and somebody striving. You’re supposed to get the money at the very end of the book. I wanted to play with the idea of getting the treasure in the middle. And then what happens to life after that? But I have to say that Meg is not really a princess. Not for me anyway. What was the other thing?

Correspondent: I was going on about how narrative has to rely on contrivances to some degree in order to represent life. But to phrase that in light of your last answer, what I think we’re talking about here is the problem with coincidences, which occur in reality and life all the time. And yet when you put them into a novel, then, all of a sudden, it seems like “Oh, that can’t possibly happen!” And that’s the problem with structure, I suspect.

Thomas: Well, you see, another thing I’m trying to do in the novel – maybe not so obviously; well, maybe it is obvious – is to look at coincidence. Is the world and our experience of it – is that somehow structured in a scientific or positivist and rationalist way? Is it structured on the spiritualists on some level? Because that’s also a structure that’s imposed. Is it completely random? Or the fourth option – I may have just said there are three.

Correspondent: Well, that’s okay. We’re not counting.

Thomas: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t think you can count. But the fourth option is more interesting to me. And I think that there is no structure. But there are lots of people who are aware of lots of different structures. Which is interesting. And there are things that happen that aren’t pure coincidence. So that things don’t just happen out of nowhere. But they happen through plots or series of events leading up to that that are so minute that you almost can’t see them. So, for example, towards the end of the novel, Frank and Vi turn up miraculously on the River Dart, where The Beast maybe is, and end up taking place in some action there. And for me, I really liked putting them there. Because I thought they were there because they read Alice Oswald’s poem about the Dart. So it’s not that they weren’t there randomly by complete chance. Everybody does everything for a reason. I’m really interested in that. And so looking at the reasons for why people do things, and why that might lead to something else, that’s what’s really fascinated me in this book. So I really don’t believe in complete coincidence. I believe in choices and desire and motivation of characters, and just how interesting it is when you look at the tiny aspects of that.

Correspondent: You’ve created almost by necessity, however, a system. And life is what happens when you make other plans. So I’m not certain if I entirely buy your causist explanation for these characters. Because I think you also portray much of the attempt to explain the universe, or explain the world around us, as a trap. And a way to avoid living without absolute cognizance. So I’m curious about how you managed to depict this double-edged sword here.

Thomas: Yeah, it might. I don’t know. I mean, you don’t have to buy it. But it’s absolutely how I wrote the book. That okay, on some level, when you write a novel, you do have to impose some kind of scheme on things which don’t have a scheme like that. You need a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need to choose when you take up with the carrots. When you let them go. All of that. Yes, you do impose a structure. But for me, one of the most interesting moments in the book was when I realized that Arthur Conan Doyle, when he believed in the Cottingley Fairies. For him, the fairies were more believable than these working-class girls who could actually forge pictures of fairies. I found that so fascinating. Because for that to be your explanation – because it was impossible for him to believe in the motivation of the girls, for him to think his way into their lives and the way they would have planned something, wasn’t just a coincidence. They didn’t just happen upon the pictures. They actually made them. And that’s a wonderful thing to imagine. I think it’s great and so inventive. And then, for him, it was easier to believe in the fairies. For him, the more believable plot or the more believable story is that the fairies exist. And, for me, that was a really central image in the whole book.

Correspondent: So even if you don’t clutch to the Kelsey Newman-like idea, you still can find solace in either the Conan Doyle fairies or, as Meg has in this childhood flashback, where there’s this guy who says, “I can teach you magic.” Which is interesting in light of the fact that her father is very much about finding an explanation for the universe with numbers. And so it seems to me that the burden of these characters is very much to find any kind of explanation –- or even the self-help books that Meg must review for this particular column. That this is really the onus for almost all the characters. Either that or you have the option of just tossing your car into the river.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. I’m fascinated with the process of looking for explanations for things, and understanding things scientifically. Which has always been my urge. Even though I’m not into the kind of — this nouveau atheist movement is not my thing at all. Because any explanation that makes sense would be okay for me. Usually it’s a kind of scientific explanation. Sometimes, it’s not. But if I’m up in a plane, I want to know how it flies. I want to know why I’m not crashing.

Categories: Fiction

David Shields (BSS #326)

David Shields is most recently the author of Reality Hunger.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Settling for a quesadilla or some reality for lunch.

Author: David Shields

Subjects Discussed: The origins of the novel and the pretense of actuality, Shields’s dismissal of Myla Goldberg’s forthcoming novel based solely on a catalog description, the creative possibilities that emerge from mishearing, Sherman’s March, the mutability of text, Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, whether a truer creative impulse comes from misappropriation, common reality and the individual reception of a novel, Spenser’s “Mutability Cantos,” espousing work that is true to human consciousness, Shields’s view as the lyrical essay as the best opportunity for investigation, dreamworlds, Shields’s hatred of the exit door within the novel, Shields’s dismissal of Lolita as a “masturbatory book” that is “smug, so sure of itself,” laden with “purple prose” and “full of condescension,” Shields’s boredom with the “monuments,” Shields’s opinion on “formulaic” plot, the Ca’pn Crunch moment in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the Huey Lewis and Genesis chapters in American Psycho, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Shields’s view of novel reading as a “childish” and “frivolous” activity, Vollmann’s The Royal Family, challenging Shields on the “fun” of reading, Sarah Waters, David Markson, Shields’s boredom with The Great Gatsby, a lengthy attempt to find a Lou Reed-related quote in the book, the value of the “hyperfake,” the Gormenghast books, China Mieville’s City and the City, Shields’s failure to maintain a “story gene,” Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Sebald, Rothko, quibbling with Shields’s definition of “a great artist,” David Foster Wallace and Tom Clancy, the meshing of high and low culture, Shields’s distaste for DFW’s fiction, Ulysses, “in no way is Infinite Jest a great novel,” Laura Miller’s review, the contradiction of Shields dissing a book without finishing it, and Shields liking Franzen’s The Corrections when sick and then getting over the flu and retrieving his brain to loathe it.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s start with the beginning of the novel. I think that’s pretty appropriate. You write, “The origin point of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality.” You point to Defoe and Fielding’s efforts to suggest “real” accounts. But I’m wondering if any effort to offer a pretense of actuality in our present age, whether it’s through a remix or a collage, really represents an inevitable return to this antediluvian form. This pretense of actuality.

Shields: Exactly. I’m going to see if I can find this wonderful quote by Adam Gopnik in the book. And maybe you can help me find it. But he basically says that the only kind of — I’ve been trying to find it of late. Let me see if I can find it.

Correspondent: You didn’t memorize all 600? (laughs)

Shields: I’ve memorized most if them. But see if you can find the Gopnik. But anyway, there’s this incredible passage by Gopnik, who says that the only kind of work that can move us is work that is full of a kind of gallows humor and, above all, has an authentic disorder.* I think he’s talking about Francis Bacon. I’m not sure what. But I don’t know. Perhaps later, we’ll find it. But I think that’s right. That in a way, you’ve cut to the core of it. And Gopnik has. And I hope I have. Which is: any such gesture like, for instance, I must admit I was looking at the Knopf catalog. You know, I visited the Knopf office and they send you home with a catalog. That’s their big gift to you. And I’m looking at some of the books described. Various mainstream novels. And I’m just thinking, “You cannot be serious.” That in 2010, you’re publishing this book by this person. It seemed like such an unbelievably antebellum thing. I mean, it’s like, what does this possibly have to do with life lived at the ground right now? It just seemed absolutely preposterous. I just started bursting out in laughter.

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

Shields: Well, the book that was being described — and no offense to her; I haven’t read her work — but it was a book by somebody named Myla Goldberg. Do I have her name right?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Shields: And, my god, talk about a formulaic text with these little plot points. (to waiter) Thanks a lot.

Waiter: You’re welcome.

Shields: You know, with these little plot points everywhere. (to waiter) Some more water when you have a moment?

Waiter: Sure, I’ll be back.

Shields: And it was just like, I don’t know what. You know, probably an intelligent, well-meaning, well-read writer. It’s like, “Wow!” This is so — you may as well be writing the most formulaic sitcom. And she’s a respected — and I think somewhat respected, somewhat commercially successful writer.

Correspondent: But you’re also…

Shields: And I was like — anyway, this is a longwinded answer of saying.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Shields: You’ve cut to it. Any such gesture now strikes me as antediluvian indeed. Absolutely.

Correspondent: But you’re also judging this not on the book, but on the description of the book. So therefore, we get into meta territory. So how can you make a judgment based off of a catalog description. If I did that, then I would probably avoid most books.

Shields: True.

Correspondent: Because they’re often written in this corporate copy.

Shields: Of course. But I’ve read enough of her other book. I’ve flipped pages to realize that catalog copy was all too relevant to the book. And also I love the line of Borges in the book, where he says something like, “Why write the book? Let’s just write the commentary of the book. The book can be summarized in ten sentences. Let’s write the meta commentary and cut to the point.” So the meta commentary interests me at least as much as the text itself. So in this case, it did not seem to be doing a disservice to the book.

Correspondent: Even though you haven’t actually flipped through the book.

Shields: Well, I’ve read her earlier — I’ve read in and around her earlier books. And it seemed the way — frankly, the way in which the book can be entirely summarized as a narrative machine — seemed to me a very, that very fact meant it was, by definition, for me, a dead text. I mean, there wasn’t a single thing discussed, but “this happened” and “that happened” and “this happened” and “that happened.” I mean, you might as well have had — it was just really embarrassing. It was embarrassing to read.

Correspondent: Embarrassing? You felt embarrassed?

Shields: I felt embarrassed that I was part — I mean, I think it was a Doubleday book. I was embarrassed that I was a publisher that had a relationship to that. I was like, “What does this have to do with the advancement of culture?” You know, nothing.

* — The specific passage Shields is trying to locate can be found in Paragraph 365, and reads: “It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need, if not humor, then at least some admission of their own absurdity — expressed in general awkwardness, or in an authentic disorder.” It’s taken from Gopnik’s “What Comes Naturally,” The New Yorker, July 20, 1992, pp. 66-69.

Categories: Fiction, Ideas

Marilyn Johnson (BSS #324)

Marilyn Johnson is most recently the author of This Book is Overdue!

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to avoid being arrested by Rusty the Bailiff.

Author: Marlyn Johnson

Subjects Discussed: Why libraries are little regarded by the American public, the preservation of blogs and websites, Josh Greenberg’s efforts at digital preservation, the Firefox extension Zotero, the rickroll video’s removal from YouTube, the Barnard Zine Collection, the reliance upon private entities to preserve information, the lone guy archiving Hunter S. Thompson’s early articles, the French government’s commitment to preserving culture vs. Google, Jessamyn West’s Ubuntu video and copyright problems, the inability for Joseph V. Hamburger’s archives to find a library, a writer’s responsibility to preserve their writing, Salman Rushdie’s digital manuscripts, commenters and obituaries, dead people writing obituaries, the mutability of text, future generations of computer users and libraries, inflatable humans vs. librarians, the New York Public Library consolidation and permanent closing of the Shiochi Noma Reading Room, specialist libraries vs. public libraries, the American Kennel Club Library, librarians within Second Life, vital specialists vs. unpaid volunteer librarians, shaky wifi connections and libraries, the need for out-of-work and underemployed librarians to have online identities, Twitter as a questionable source for librarians, strange construction workers who attempt to hijack the conversation between the Correspondent and Ms. Johnson, street librarians, Radical Reference and whether it provides services those who don’t question authority, and whether the efforts made by the librarians opposing the Patriot Act have fallen short due to harsher prison terms for those hanging helpful signs.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Johnson: The Internet is in the library. Google is in the library. The librarians know how to use that. So you go to those public computers in the library. You have a librarian who can not only do Google, but who can also tell you, point you to any number of other resources that are not included in Google, or that are very difficult to get to through Google. It seems like Google is so simple. “It’s so simple even your grandmother can use it,” is the way it was described to me. Yeah, it’s brilliant for getting the quick hit on the restaurant in the Village that you want to have dinner at. There’s the address. There’s the phone number. There’s the little Google map that will get you there. But when you are actually trying to track back. When I have a clipping of a newspaper, and I’m trying to find the digital version of that, I get lost sometimes. It can’t find it. The bread crumbs don’t take you to where you know it has to be. And I’ve had librarians who have actually shown me how to wend my way through Google, which is, after all, full of redundancies, not weighted in terms of date. You need to put your heavy boots on to wade through it sometimes.

Correspondent: But then again, we are seeing various developments along the lines of what we were mentioning earlier about the mutability of text.

Johnson: Yes.

Correspondent: The Semantic Web, which I can probably go into.

Johnson: Blah blah blah. Yeah, we could go on all night.

Correspondent: Yeah. But to shift it to libraries, are the advantages essentially these informed people, the aspect of physical space, and the aspect of real-life interaction? As opposed to online interaction? Do you think that these elements are strong enough to endure whatever technological developments are emerging in the next four decades?

Johnson: Okay, I’m zipping around the Internet like crazy. I’m not unsavvy. I’ve bent a few corners. I’ve been to the few corners of the Web. I make a telephone call and if there are seven options — the automated answering service that tries to funnel me down one little hall, as opposed to another — I never fit in the categories. I’m never Option 1 through 7. Would you like to hear these options again? I freak out. I go crazy. I need the human. I need the human to help explain it to me. I need the human to help me know what I missed. I need the human to help me phrase the question. And I don’t think humans are ever going to go out of style. Call me crazy.

Correspondent: Yeah. Until, of course, the inflatable human arrives.

Johnson: No, no. You need the librarian. You need the librarian!

Correspondent: The recent New York Public Library consolidation caused the Shiochi Noma Reading Room to be permanently closed on September 8, 2008. You talked with John Lindquist, the former director of this Asian and Middle Eastern Reading Rooms, now curator, who pointed out that his staff had been halved, When the Arabic-language cataloger retires, the library will be without an Arabic-language librarian. So this closing is particularly ironic, given that, in 1997, more than a million dollars were poured into this room to refurbish it and to make it spruced up and the like. So if specialized knowledge like this is so fleeting, if something recently renovated only ten years before is going to be thrown out the window, is it safe to say that the generalists are winning this internecine war within the libraries?

Johnson: They have a really interesting challenge. The New York Public Library. And they’re galloping forward. They’re really trying to take a research institution and preserve as much of the research in it as possible, and also make it a much more tourist-friendly place. People don’t understand that when they come to the library, it is a research institution. That you don’t check things out. So the New York Public Library — the Board — has decided, and the librarians — the chief librarians — that they’ll have a children’s center in the basement there. And they will circulate the books there. And they want more regular users to come to this beautiful building. They want to open it up more. So all of those treasures from the Middle East are there. They’re there. The librarians who administer them and who work with the scholars are not. They seem to be going away. And now John Lundquist has gone away. And this room went away, not because they didn’t like the room or they didn’t like what it stood for, but because it happens to be on a central hall that’s going to provide access for what will now be circulating parts of the library. They took this research library and are melding it with the circulating library. So in the course of making it friendly to people who want to just come and check out a DVD, they’ve had to squeeze some of the other stuff into different places. And those librarian positions that are very scholarly and very specialized, when they come up for retirement, they are not replacing those librarians. They’re putting it into people who can work with the ordinary office/street library user.

Correspondent: Those librarians are part of this big squeeze. So, therefore, will we have to turn to more specialist libraries, such as the American Kennel Club library, which you investigated, or will the onus fall upon universities to pick up the specialized slack?

Johnson: Well, you want to hear a tragic story? I went to the American Kennel Club library. And that librarian is no longer there.

Correspondent: Really?

Johnson: And you know why? Because they’re running out of money. And where are they going to cut it? Where are they going to cut funds? So the librarian is no longer working there. You can go there. There’s an archivist. There are people who work for the American Kennel Club magazine. All the information is still there. All the material. The beautiful skeleton of the old dog looking over the reading tables is still there. But if you want to find something, you’re going to be taking out a flashlight and looking around. It’s just heartbreaking to me. These are really tough times. To lose the human being who is the guide to all this information, and often the architect. Who put it all together. It’s craziness. And we are losing something so valuable right now. This book is overdue, and I wish it had come out last year. Before ever so many of these cuts had been instituted.

Correspondent: So it seems to me that the generalists are winning the war against the specialists. But you do bring up things such as the Second Life librarian. And the scenario there is that it’s largely based up of volunteers. But if you’re relying on volunteers and you’re not relying on compensation, then how can you have enough of a buffer to replace these vital specialists? And not only that, but if a librarian is essentially a persona — a metaphor, if you will — then does that necessarily replace the real thing? Is it something of a ruse? More of a sort of fantasy than a duty to the public?

Johnson: Wow, we’re going to go down some labyrinths here. You know, what’s interesting about Second Life is that there are bona-fide librarians who are out there, in their spare time, doing research and development in the field. Like saying, here’s a really interesting wonky kind of thing that we can do. Let’s see if we can adapt library science to it. And, in fact, when you think about it, any population that you can think of can use a librarian to help it. This brilliant Radical Reference librarians, who said “Street protesters in great numbers coming to New York, a place that does not have public toilets. Let’s go serve up some information. Let’s go make ourselves available. And if they need us, they can ask us hard questions and we’ll do our best to find true answers for them.” You know, combat rumors. Help them navigate the streets, some of which will be closed. In Second Life, they’re saying, “Oh my goodness. Here’s this exciting, cool, weird place. Virtual reality on the Internet.” And anybody can access it by downloading the free software. And you create a little avatar and you go into this world. “I bet they need librarians.” And in fact, they do. Why? Because ever so many little corners of this world are created by the people who go on Second Life as recreations of a time in history. For instance, there’s a Renaissance island that has a replica of Shakespeare’s — what do you call it, the theater.

Correspondent: The Globe, yeah.

Johnson: Yeah. There is a Harlem Renaissance world that recreates the 1920s. And so librarians are there doing all this research to help make that world accurate. They’re saying, “This is what fashion looked like. These are what cars looked like. Yes, this existed during that time. This didn’t. This was how a joust went. This is what a lady would wear in her hair.” And these kinds of factual historic questions, librarians are ideally suited to answer them.

Correspondent: On the other hand, when you tried to contact J.J. Drinkwater and these other folks, you had your wifi connection cut out on you. So this leads me to wonder…

Johnson: What?

Correspondent: You mention this in the book.

Johnson: Okay.

Correspondent: That you were trying to interview the Second Life librarians and that you were doing this in a library in your laptop.

Johnson: Oh my goodness.

Correspondent: And the wifi cut out. So this leads me to wonder…

Johnson: Yes.

Correspondent: The real thing, which is not going to cut out. At least I would hope that someone would not dissolve before my eyes. Second Life is not exactly the best substitute for that.

Categories: Ideas

Justin Taylor (BSS #323)

Justin Taylor is most recently the author of Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fearful of sanguine book titles.

Guest: Justin Taylor

Subjects Discussed: Not naming protagonists until well into the stories, dissatisfaction with formality, how characters reveal themselves, gender confusion within “Weekend Away,” Taylor’s aversion to “bright neon signs” within narrative, the dangers of being too specific, similes, concluding lines and addressing the reader, the final line of “Jewels Flashing in the Night of Time,” Donald Barthelme and Taylor’s veer from the phantasmagorical, Sleeping Fish and 5_Trope, Shelley Jackson, the Gordon Lish school of writers, Gary Lutz’s “experimental” nature, Taylor’s concern for hair, describing Florida primarily through the weather, the helpfulness of knowing a place before writing a story, boundaries and possibilities within limitations, age declarations at the beginnings of stories, the difficulties of getting all the numbers worked out within “The New Life,” the important of precise age, research that comes after writing a story, eliding the coordinates of a Planned Parenthood, 1960s counterculture, the Grateful Dead, distrust of pithy maxims and prescriptive text, and believing in aspects of a story.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to go back to the hair. I had alluded to that earlier. It could just be me, but you do have a concern for hair. It’s often quite specific, as I suggested. You begin “Amber at the Window in Hurricane Season” by describing her pushing “a blond lock behind her ear, stray hairs glancing off a steel row of studs.” In “In My Heart I Am Already Gone,” you describe how Vicky “cuts her own bangs, a ragged diagonal like the torn hem of a nightgown.” In “Weekend Away,” the hitchhiker has “black, messy hair mostly covering his ears.” In “What Was Once All Yours,” Cass has hairy forearms. I’m curious about this hair. And also we haven’t alluded to the cat as well. Is it more of a protective element? You know, these characters are often barren against the elements, so to speak. And I’m curious about this. You are a hair man, I have to say.

Taylor: (laughs)

Correspondent: Or are you the President of the Hair Club for Men? I don’t know.

Taylor: I can’t really answer for that. I mean, every writer has certain concerns or tics that they might not even be aware of. I asked a similar question to David Berman once. I got to interview him for The Brooklyn Rail. And I was asking him this question about water. I said, “You know, American Water.” And there’s this line in Actual Air. “All water is classic water.” I had, I don’t know, two or three other examples. And I finally just asked myself, “So what’s the deal with all the water?” And he said, “You know, nobody’s ever asked me that before.” And he really didn’t have an answer. And then he told this story about mowing his lawn on a hot day. Which I think was supposed to exemplify that water is — water’s nice. And, you know, I don’t know. Hair is nice, I guess. I don’t know why. Because it’s mostly haircuts, hairstyles. I don’t know why I notice. Those are like what I’m visualizing with a character that appears or seems to be worth mentioning rather than eye color or height or anything else. I don’t know.

When I was a kid, I never liked getting haircuts. I still don’t like getting haircuts actually. I always feel like I don’t have a good haircut. Like everybody else has the style that they’re supposed to have. And mine always feels a little off. I feel like I’m impersonating.

Correspondent: Not one satisfactory haircut in your life?

Taylor: I’ve had some decent haircuts. But it was like a very early — it was when I was a really little kid. It would get long and I would be worried that I would look like a girl. And they would take me to get my hair cut. And then after it was cut, I would see myself in the mirror and I wouldn’t even recognize myself. And I would really lose it. And that doesn’t happen so much anymore. I’ve learned to recognize myself.

Correspondent: With more confidence, more confidence in hair and haircuts.

Taylor: There’s only so old you can be crying at a barbershop.

Correspondent: I’ve seen very older men cry at barbershops.

Taylor: (laughs) In any case, the answer is “I don’t know.”

Categories: Fiction

J. Robert Lennon (BSS #300)

J. Robert Lennon is most recently the author of Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand.

jrl

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating his surprising longevity after 300 shows.

Author: J. Robert Lennon

Subjects Discussed: Ending sentences with nouns, how location affects character description, objects and places as the territory of a story, how the land in upstate New York inspires narrative, objects that regular readers can relate to, lost childhood, lost parents, more isolated characters in Lennon’s later novels, meals in fiction, antipodean metaphors within Castle, working with a narrative juxtaposed against a cultural-historical symmetry, Stanley Milgram, Vietnam and Iraq, whether Loesch’s actions are exonerated by historical injustice, the white symbols and black redaction throughout Castle, cutting down on pre-planning novels and trusting the subconscious, whether we’ll ever see the full version of Happyland, restarting a writing career multiple times, dealing with marketing forces, accessibility, Stewart O’Nan, New York publishing biases against small towns, the unexpected American publication of Pieces for the Left Hand, how naps permitted Lennon to finish Pieces for the Left Hand, relying on anecdotal culture for narrative, long thin environments within Lennon’s novels, survivalist novels written in dark, evil writing labs, the “gray”/”grey” controversy, and batty character surnames close to specific words.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You seem to veer between these really lonely tales and these outright satirical tales. After the whole incident where your novel got serialized at Harper’s, I’m curious if there’s some hesitancy on your part to pursue satire. Is that why Castle‘s so dark?

Lennon: No, no, no.

Correspondent: Why bounce around tonally?

Lennon: I had written Mailman and Happyland in sequence. I was in that antic black comic mode for a while. Which I think is kind of my default mode. I like to think that I go away from it for a few books. I do something very different. And then, whatever I learn there, I bring it into default mode. I mean, right now, I’m writing a book that has a large cast of characters with some manic satirical elements. And, in fact, it’s a family book. Except it’s the opposite of the other family books. It’s not that family members are missing. It’s that there are too many of them. It’s a big ad hoc family that has come together in spite of the unlikelihood of that happening.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because I thought you were going to give me the James Ellroy line for this book.

Lennon: Oh?

Correspondent: You know how he says, “It’s fun for the whole family…if you’re the Manson family.” He does this every time he sells a book.

Lennon: (laughs)

Correspondent: But I mean, that’s interesting. I should also point out with Eric, there is nevertheless a strange absurdism to his need for having things in place. And, in fact, and I’m sorry to just throw a bunch of things at you at once, I wanted to ask about the two meals he eats, which are essentially bipolar. You have this really greasy cheeseburger. And then he goes and he eats this vegetarian meal. So it’s almost as if his choices are reflective of not being able to fit into the middle of these two antipodean ends. And I’m curious how much this was a part of devising the character. Having specific locative places like this that he couldn’t inhabit. The middle ground.

Lennon: Well, I think the problem with him is that he can’t inhabit the world. And I wanted to have a scene with him twice, where he had to go and eat something, and he would take that opportunity to sit and think about things for a few minutes. And it occurs to me, “Where does this guy eat?” He’s so abstract. He’s so detached from human life — or this is how he presents himself anyway — that the notion of him eating a cheeseburger is just ridiculous. And it was only later I realized, there’s nothing I could have him eat that would seem right. Because he’s not the kind of person that goes to a restaurant. He’s the kind of person that exists in this sort of dark, violent abstraction as a dark, violent abstraction. I mean, this isn’t an explicitly comic book by any stretch, but I found these scenes to be kind of funny to write. I mean, he’s at the Vegan place!

Correspondent: Well, there’s also this notion too of him fixing the renovations on his house under time, which is interesting in light of the fact that you do mention Iraq in this book. And, of course, Iraq has no timetable. So I’m curious again about these points of disparity throughout the book. How many of these were designed along these lines? There’s also the symmetry, of course, of his very predicament. Here he is. Something terrible has happened to him. And he, in turn, has become someone who has done something terrible as well. So I’m curious. At what point during the conception or the writing of this novel were you aware? Or did you design such symmetry?

Lennon: The Iraq thing came first. And it was only after my wife was reading an article in Weird NJ — the magazine — about a guy who finds a castle in the woods while walking through the woods that it occurred to me that this should be the setting for this book that I had in mind. Like she was the one who told me that that was the setting for the book I had in mind.

Correspondent: Really?

Lennon: Yeah, and when I started thinking about this guy, I was reading a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro. You know, how his narrators are — they’re liars really. Nothing dishonest, but they’re creating a reality for themselves that’s appealing to them. They’re justifying their actions. They’re justifying the things that are happening around them in a very self-serving way. I’m just going to write a first-person narrative like that. Not unreliable, per se. But it’s the sound of a guy who’s done something wrong convincing himself that there isn’t any ambiguity about it.

Categories: Fiction

Guy Maddin (BSS #293)

Guy Maddin is most recently the author of My Winnipeg, a book version of the film of the same name. For listeners who are fans of reading and watching films, this conversation accounts for all experiences and contains more than a few prevarications.

mw

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconsidering the veracity of his topography.

Guest: Guy Maddin

Subjects Discussed: Whether living in Winnipeg for many year makes one an expert of Winnipeg, expertise and confused feelings, the importance of not straying from your methods, pleasant feelings and hellish depictions of Winnipeg, the strength one obtains from retellings of Icelandic sagas, the difficulties of laughing at smallpox plagues, “My Winnipeg” vs. “My New York,” Marcel Dzama, artists doing their bit for Winnipeg, being murdered by a puck, Winnipeg purse-snatching, being indoors in Winnipeg, Canadians who are being unduly rattled by Americans, James Frey and the problems with American memoirs, finding the disclaimer, naked laps, getting a nude model in Winnipeg and Manhattan, quick cutting in Maddin’s films after 2000, title cards and Godard, walkout ratios in Maddin’s films, smelling the mildew in the tableau, live elements to Maddin’s films, J. Hoberman’s assessment, Maddin reading his own press, the IMDB, Internet ego searches, getting rid of obsessions, having to live with Guy Maddin the character, Darcy Fehr as the only actor to play “Guy Maddin” twice, the Seattle Guy Maddins, having an actor impersonate Guy Maddin at a Chicago event, why Guy Maddin hasn’t played himself, whether or not Darcy Fehr is Maddin’s Jean-Pierre Léaud, similarities between Brand Upon the Brain‘s Sullivan Brown and Antoine Doniel, redacted dialogue in My Winnipeg, Ann Savage, the OCD quality that Winnipeggers have, recurring handshakes, ramming the audience over the head, editing lessons learned from Cowards Bend the Knee, title cards, actors who performed scenes in several different languages in the early sound era, Maddin’s shift from storyboards to spontaneity, editing speed and cramming ideas, good actors vs. bad actors, George Toles’s dialogue, the official report on the Guy Maddin Casting Couch, hockey locker rooms, chorizo metaphors, walking and coming up with ideas, Guy Debord, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, how walking gives you courage, the advantages of sleeping in hallways and on ladders, time travel and peregrinations, the grim nature of the future, and not being a great planner.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: If I were to say My New York, you would look at me and declare me the world’s ultimate narcissist….

Maddin: Yeah.

Correspondent: …and yet, when you say My Winnipeg, you can get away with that. And I think that you have a little bit of advantage being in Winnipeg and being able to say that. I really wish that I could say My New York, but I would just be looked at as if I had the biggest head in the world.

Maddin: Well, so many people have done New York too.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Maddin: I’ve got the advantage of just being among a small handful of artists doing it. The artist — the now New York-based artist — Marcel Dzama from Winnipeg has been doing Winnipeg quite a bit. I was out for drinks with him last night and we were chatting about how we’re doing our little bit to keep Winnipeg on the map. But things happen there on their own. They’re always kind of remote outpost kind of things. And stark and grizzly things. You know, someone murdered by a puck. Or Susan Sarandon’s jewel theft turned into a disembowelment. And I don’t know, a bus riding decapitation. Most recently, I just returned to Winnipeg for a couple days and the first story I read in the paper was about a gang of teenage girls who roam the streets and hack with a hatchet the purse strings of women walking around near them. One purse snatching was foiled by the purse holder flinging a cup of molten hot Tim Hortons coffee in the assailant’s face. I don’t know. There’s just this kind of stuff going on all the time. And obviously, it’s not unique to Winnipeg. But it seems like the headlines are being written by a 19th century translator of Brothers Grimm stories half the time.

Correspondent: Or perhaps some of the people who commit these crimes are doing so to alleviate the intense indoorsdom of being in Winnipeg six months of the year.

Maddin: Yeah, exactly. Cabin fever. It’s that kind of year. And they’re just writing their own legends. We don’t really — Canadians don’t really talk about their history. They don’t really boil down legends or folk tales the way every other country does. Possibly because we’ve been dwarfed so badly — rattled so badly by our presence right next to America.

Correspondent: I’m sorry about that. Really.

Maddin: No, no, no, no. It’s kind of good.

Correspondent: You don’t deserve it. There’s a lot of great things that come out of Canada.

Maddin: No, no. Whatever. You know, my temperament is part of that whole thing. And I kind of like it. I kind of like feeling like when you roll over, I should look out.

Categories: Film

Laura Lippman (BSS #280)

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of Life Sentences.

lippman

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Frightened of sleazy and opportunistic biographers.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Cassandra Fallows vs. Kathryn Harrison, writers with peculiar personalities, the memoir dictating the memoirist, Hegelian synthesis, the Quarter Pounder and Proustian comparisons, philosophical modifiers, the inauthentic self, stereotypes of NPR listeners, book smart vs. people smart, satire and gentle fun, shaking the “serious is better” notion, Thomas Pynchon, being true to voice, the problems with the word “ballsy,” writing effrontery, Janet Maslin’s overanalysis of Life Sentences, the value of the red herring, the benefits of found opportunities, the problems with plans, Portnoy’s Complaint, creating deflections for the reader, the Oz books and the Nome King, Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, overworking sentences, the joys of dashes, Emily Dickinson, smarmy memoirs, reading the entire book aloud at 40 pages per day, writing a book a year, following instructions, William Gibson, editing as “deboning a fish,” Lippman’s work ethic as a saving grace, racist perceptions, generalizations, and the older generation in Baltimore, the fallibility of memory, the purpose of memoir, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, making stuff up, basing a novel on true crime, the ethics of taking from real-life stories, responding to email, investigative journalism and amateurism, faking it, and losing sight of the victims over the course of fiction or investigation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You have, of course, Callie-ope — Calliope — and Cassandra. I read Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times and she seemed to be really hung up on the notion that this represented some Greek mythology. But when I read your book, I immediately said to myself, “Oh! Well, this is a very funny red herring to throw the reader off.” Just as the dates that precede each particular section have no significant meaning, or very little meaning, on the narrative. And I’m wondering if little red herrings along these lines are intended to either see if the critics of the Janet Maslin streak are going to latch onto them or whether they represent a way for you to obtain this level of “just doing it” that you just described in your last answer.

Lippman: It is true that both Cassandra and Calliope show up in the narrative, show up in my writing, with their names attached to them. I did not sit down and schematically design a story in which, yes, I will create two characters named after classic figures of Greek mythology. Cassandra was Cassandra. And then I realized her father was a Classics professor, and I began to think he would have conveyed. And Calliope was just always Calliope. There’s a certain Baltimore-ness to it. But I’m a really big believer in found opportunity. And sometimes writers create their own found opportunities. So it’s an accident that the two main characters of this novel have these names that have a lot of resonance. But I’m okay when people then see the resonance and point it out. It’s like someone at a painting and focusing on a detail that might not have been the intent. But it’s in there. It is there.

My belief is that if one is overly schematic in writing, it will feel a little stale and airless. So on the one hand, I’m delighted that people come to this and say, “Oh! Cassandra and Calliope. There’s all this significance.” Well, there is for them. They found it and it affects the way they read the story. And that’s great. At the same time, I think that if I had had a plan, I think the novel would have a really contrived feeling to it. I think it would feel kind of pedantic. One of the things I didn’t plan. You know, it just comes out. You’re writing. I write trying to think about who is this person and what would they be doing and what would they be thinking at this moment. And there’s a scene in which Cassandra has sex with someone who she’s really been yearning for. And because Cassandra can’t turn her head off ever, she’s thinking and thinking. And for some reason, she starts thinking about Leda and the Swan. Which if people are really paying attention, and they’ve seen the bit about Portnoy’s Complaint in the book, that’s very important in Portnoy’s Complaint. So Cassandra, whether she knows or not, is actually channeling that book that she read as a kid, which she remembers seeing in her father’s house.

So I’m writing this. And, you know, I don’t remember every line of Leda and the Swan! And, by the way, although I’m pretty well versed in Greek mythology, I didn’t remember that Leda gave birth to Cassandra. I didn’t remember that. So I go back and I read the poem and I just think, “Oh my god. That’s hilarious!” And if I had planned it. If I had been writing to that moment steadily for days and days — “Oh, I can’t wait until the moment in which Cassandra evokes her namesake’s mother. Via Yeats in bed.” — I think it would have felt a little off.

Categories: Fiction

Carl Wilson (BSS #279)

Carl Wilson is the author of Let’s Talk About Love and reports indicate that he is loved, in turn, by the actor James Franco.

wilson2

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Evading the pomp and circumstance of cultural taxonomies.

Author: Carl Wilson

Subjects Discussed: Celine Dion and incompatible tastes, Elliott Smith, the questioning of canonical knowledge, Paul Valery’s concept of taste composed of a thousand distastes, TV on the Radio, choosing sides when dismissing trash, defying the stereotypes of Celine Dion fans, snobbish record store clerks and zealous fans, anti-snobbery, false dichotomies and cultural advantage, culture and existing power structures, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, the Internet and the music industry, fans and cultural capital, Immanuel Kant and “common sense,” cultural consensus, the Beatles, questioning Wilson’s party criteria, middlebrow aesthetes in newspapers, separating the person from the artist, the relationship between vituperative feelings and meeting people, the celebrity-industrial complex, Dion’s 2005 appearance on Larry King, whether or not Larry King mocks his guests, judging a person on a handful of eccentricities, whether it’s possible to see the “real” Celine Dion, reinforcing celebrity image, whether or not personal information about an artist can affect your opinion about the art, Michael Jackson, “classic” vs. contemporary pop culture, the expiration date of scorn, that damn song from Titanic, Celine Dion in Vegas, music and emotional frames of reference, the problems with the word “social” being applied to art, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, the problems with “hip,” coolness and judgment, the Mountain Goats, the perceived “hipness” of alt-music boosters, authenticity, “keeping it real,” and civil disagreement.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: But look at the Beatles and Elvis. I mean, this would seem to me to confirm the ideal conditions. It would be very difficult to find someone who is a music lover who hates the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elvis. I mean, there’s a fairly common consensus. Even if you don’t love them, you can at least appreciate the achievement of these bands that just went in and likewise captured the popular consensus. And this is a little bit different from Celine Dion.

Wilson: It is.

Correspondent: In which there’s an artistic criteria likewise being applied. So how do you separate this?

Wilson: I mean, it’s different than Celine Dion. And it’s different than Stockhausen. Right? So look at them as poles of a spectrum and the Beatles and Elvis as being somewhere in the center of that spectrum. By the end of the book, there’s a whole essay at the end of the book about taste and different ways of thinking about it and criticism. And the thing, that at the end of this whole process of immersing myself into a different taste world than my own, was that where those big aesthetic disagreements arise, my tendency at this point is to suspect that really it’s a problem of terms. That people are arguing on a different set of assumptions than one another, but that their conclusions are perhaps equally valid. But that doesn’t mean that I think now that Celine Dion and the Beatles are equals. And it would be a whole other sort of chapter of this exploration to figure out where to find some kind of more objective set of measurements for greatness. But if you’re using populism and anti-populism hand in hand, what you do find with people like Elvis and the Beatles, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles — you know, they kind of win all of those contests. I’m not saying everything’s the same.

Correspondent: Then what accounts for the aberrative impulse for Celine Dion then?

Wilson: I think that there are things that are confirmed both by elite opinion and populist opinion. And in those cases, it’s kind of good to think, “Oh, well, whichever direction you come from, this gets through the gates.” What explains what doesn’t get through one set of gates and what doesn’t get through another set of gates. And so the book is more concerned with aesthetic disagreement than aesthetic agreement. And it’s a question of when we have these fights. When you’re at a party and somebody’s saying, “This is great,” and you’re saying, “This is terrible,” what are you really talking about? And my suspicion is that you’re talking about something that has more of a deeply autobiographical root than it has any connection to some objective set of markers. But that’s not to say that there might not be works of art that are more profound and universal than others.

Correspondent: But see, Carl, this is where I’m going to have to disagree with you. Because you’re applying a criteria here where if I go to a party to express a particular opinion about music, I’m immediately going to focus in on Celine Dion and absolutely damn her to the skies. When, in fact, in my case, I have not actually thought about Celine Dion in any serious capacity until I read your book. I mean, I largely ignored her. So this is why I’m a little suspicious. I mean, I hear where you’re coming from. But I’m a little suspicious of how you’re applying such a broad brush to how we have tastes and how we express those tastes at parties.

Wilson: Well, it might just be that Celine’s not the best example for you. But maybe Whitney Houston is a good example for you. I think there’s a whole category…

Correspondent: I ignore her too!

Wilson: But that just, to me, speaks to the aesthetic world that you live in — it’s well cordoned off enough from places where you might have to deal with that. But, I mean, the places where I use as examples in setting this up is, in the media, the people who are representatives of our tribe. You know, the aesthetes. Which are middlebrow aesthetes in terms of who’s writing a column in the newspaper. Celine is a very favorite whipping boy.

Correspondent: Whipping boy. Have you looked at her lately?

(Photo credit: David Waldman)

Categories: Ideas

T.C. Boyle III (BSS #273)

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

boyle

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering new author taxonomies.

Author: T.C. Boyle

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo credit: Christopher Felver)

Categories: Fiction

Tony Stone (BSS #271)

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

tstone

Play

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

Guest: Tony Stone

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

Stone: Yes, it is.

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

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

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

Stone: Yeah, I do. I do.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: “We Will Rock You.” Yeah.

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

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

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

Categories: Film

Neil deGrasse Tyson (BSS #265)

Neil deGrasse Tyson is most recently the author of The Pluto Files.

ngt

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconfiguring his planetary paradigm, with the aid of minatory electrodes.

Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Subjects Discussed: The Great Planet Debate, sensible classification systems, “reorganizing” the solar system, why the International Astronomical Union wasn’t approached before the Rose Center display was established, the usefulness of the word “planet,” playing 20 Questions to gain insight into what Tyson talks about, Copernicus, acceptable groupings, quibbles with the New Horizons reconnaissance mission to “complete” the exploration of the solar system, government and space exploration, Sedna vs. Pluto, efforts to explicate Sedna’s orbit, the ethical implications of scientists who write popular books, scientists and get rich quick schemes, pedagogical paradigms, manned missions to Mars, the celebrity culture of astronauts, manned space program vs. robotic expeditions, how science can endure in the face of looming budgetary cuts, the financial return of science, communications with the Obama Administration, and the possibility of the asteroid Apophis colliding against the Earth in 2036.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Tyson: We just reorganized the solar system, combining objects of like properties together. And at the time, more frozen bodies — small with tipped orbits, crossing the orbits of other planets — were found in the outer solar system that looked more like Pluto. And Pluto looked more like them than any one of them looked like anything else in the solar system. So all we did was group Pluto with its brethren in the outer solar system. Then we grouped the gas giants together as a family. Then we grouped the terrestrials — Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars — together. So the family photo of the solar system was presented in these groupings. At no time did we recount the planets in the solar system. And, in fact, the word “planet” is undervalued in the exhibits entirely. We prefer to focus on physical properties of these objects, rather than try and salvage a word that hasn’t been formally defined since before Copernicus.

Correspondent: Well, to talk about the notion of introducing this exhibit and not tipping anybody off initially, until this New York Times reporter ran with the ball and created something of a media storm, you…

Tyson: Something of a media storm?

Correspondent: Something of a media storm.

Tyson: Just say “media storm.”

Correspondent: Well, I’d like to use reverse hyperbole here. But in the case of this considerable media storm, you didn’t tip anybody off. And I’m curious. I mean, the sentiment in this book that you express multiple times is “Science is not a democracy.” And I’m wondering though why you didn’t approach the IAU to essentially get them to get with the program. That Pluto is not a planet. That it is essentially a TNO, and…

Tyson: Trans-Neptunian Object.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. Exactly. I’m wondering why. Perhaps you could have smoothed things over a little bit with the IAU before introducing this. Does the IAU really not matter in this particular group?

Tyson: IAU cares about what a planet is. And we didn’t. It’s that simple. We didn’t present a case for planethood or not. All we did was say, “Here’s an interesting way to look at the solar system.” Put Pluto with the icy bodies and present it as such. We didn’t say Pluto was not a planet. We made no such claims. We were widely stereotyped for having done so. And that’s the simplest — if you don’t have the time to read what we did, then that’s the simplest thing that people did. Many interviewers — media — would come up to me and say, “So how many planets are there in your exhibits?” And I said, “We don’t count planets.” We just simply don’t count planets. So I had no interest in lobbying the International Astronomical Union. Because they’re concerned with the definition of planet. And when they do, fine. Define it however they want. It doesn’t change sensible ways to organize the information content of the solar system.

Correspondent: But in the minds of people. You had to be aware of the public perception. I mean, in this book, you point, of course, to the Caltech parade in Pasadena, the funerals for Pluto, the endless editorial cartoons and the like. In fact, I actually saw a Discover magazine headline that said, “Beyond the nine planets.” That was a week ago. So people are still struggling with this taxonomy, even though it’s clearly not a planet. I mean, you had to have been aware of this in some sense. What kind of adjustment period do we need? What kind of outreach do we need? Even to the IAU members. The 10% who voted against the idea, who voted for Pluto being a planet.

Tyson: Obtaining its planet status.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Tyson: A mere 10%, I might add.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Tyson: Well, let me make it clear. There are people who have a lot invested in the word “planet.” Odd. Because like I said, “planet” had no formal definition. Not since ancient Greece. Planet means — it comes from the Greek “planetas,” meaning “wanderer.” And it referred to the objects in the night sky, from night to night, would wander against the background stars. There were seven of them — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Did I get the seven there? Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Seven. That’s an unambiguous definition. No argument there. Seven planets. Copernicus says, “Wait a minute. The Sun is in the middle. Earth is one of these objects that goes around the sun. The moon goes around the earth.” So Earth became a planet. The sun became not a planet. The moon became not a planet. And so, okay. But even at Copernicus’s time, the word “planet” did not get a formal definition. It was only, “It just seems right. Let’s just keep it.” It was not formally defined until the IAU in August 2006. I’m fine with their definition! Because it doesn’t matter to me. The word is not useful.

Categories: Ideas