On Sunday morning, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment. He was the victim of an apparent heroin overdose. The New York Police Department found a syringe sticking out of his arm. He was only 46.
Hoffman was a rara avis: an energetic and unforgettable vessel of thespic truth that comes once in a generation, if not every two. His dramatic range was as wide and as variegated as such indelible character actors as Paul Muni, John Cazale, or Lon Chaney Jr. You could watch three minutes of any Hoffman performance, even when he was cast in a mediocre movie, and learn six new things about acting. Hoffman’s smartest directors often imbued this great and irreplaceable performer with some physical limitation. In Charlie Wilson’s War, Mike Nichols put Hoffman behind glasses, dyed hair, and a mustache and Hoffman’s body moved inward, almost of its own will. One of his most memorable early performances was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, a scene in which Hoffman is situated behind a craps table for three minutes, and the force of nature that emerged when Hoffman ferociously fired up a cigarette or addressed his audience simply could not be contained as he stood coiled in the same place.
The man never gave a boring or derivative performance. He could swing from Lester Bangs’s cautious idealism in Almost Famous, masticating ever so slightly while addressing the young music journalist as if his own convictions were malleable, to vampiric addiction in Owning Mahowny, always keeping his head down in shame and his arms scooping up sad racks of chips with the routine need of a man who knows nothing else. He played heroes, losers, villains, and psychotics, but he used the titanic force of his charisma to demand that we peer inside men we would otherwise avoid. In this sense and many more, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a true artist.
He walked on the stage and screen as if he had a thousand souls trapped inside him, all screaming to come out. Yet he was also fighting a chronic drug addition. There were reports last year of Hoffman falling off the wagon and entering rehab. It is truly tragic that drugs got him in the end.
We may never know the true totality of Hoffman’s demons, or what Hoffman had to sacrifice to give us his electric performances. It seems vulgar to probe further, even as any cursory flip through his cinematic performances reveals that they were all great, not a dud among them.
The loss of a talent as huge as Philip Seymour Hoffman feels like a referendum on American culture: a baleful strike against the waning truth and intelligence increasingly in short supply within our motion pictures. You could find the people that Hoffman played all across America, yet neither time nor place could contain this giant. Philip Seymour Hoffman will not be easily forgotten.
This afternoon, both John Shirley and Harlan Ellison confirmed that Richard Matheson, the author of some of the most awe-inspiring scripts and stories of the 20th century, had passed away. He was 87. The cause of his death is unknown.
On April 5, 2008, I wrote the following essay for The Los Angeles Times on Richard Matheson, pertaining to Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, a collection published by Tor.
* * *
Had he not cemented his cinematic rep with Richard Matheson’s horror story “Duel,” Steven Spielberg might still be struggling in television. Had George A. Romero not openly pilfered from Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, the flinty fount of zombie flicks might not have struck. And had not Stephen King studied Matheson’s tales for their focus on attention to American fears, he might not have become a mass-market juggernaut.
Yet Matheson’s influence remains somewhat understated. It’s almost as if he’s the second-string quarterback called up only when Ray Bradbury can’t carry a second-half drive.
Perhaps this is because Matheson’s concise stories, like the dozen in the new collection Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, read less like fantasy and more like domestic tales from the glory days of Collier’s Weekly. “Dying Room Only” features a couple making a pit stop for lunch at a desert cafe. The husband disappears into a washroom and the wife accuses the regulars of kidnapping her man. In the pitch-perfect title story, another couple is torn apart by an outsider’s unexpected offer: Push a button and collect $50,000, but at the cost of another person dying.
Matheson has a talent for sustaining tension through proximity. In “Button, Button,” a woman glares “at the carton as she unlocked the door” and a man reaches “into an inside coat pocket” to withdraw “a small sealed envelope.” In “Shock Wave,” a character’s fingers “lay tensely on the table.” His almost theatrical concern for where his characters are situated and where objects are located may explain why so many of his stories have been adapted for film and television.
He also builds narrative momentum with nouns and adjectives. In “Mute,” a home-schooled child who has been trained not to speak has survived a fire. His parents have died, and as the boy tries to blend into society, Matheson describes the boy’s predicament: “Words. Empty, with no power to convey the moist, warm feel of earth.”
Matheson often ends his stories with O. Henry-like twists, as in “Button, Button” and the lightly libidinous “A Flourish of Strumpets.” But surprises also arise from overly optimistic faith in the law. His characters often summon police to assist in pedantic matters. In “Dying Room Only,” a sheriff looks into the husband’s disappearance, even though he’s been gone only a few hours. “Strumpets” takes this further. Various women knock on the door of a happy couple’s home propositioning them to take part in “an experimental program.” A cop called in to investigate dismisses this as a sorority prank. An FBI man likewise brushes it off. The inability of authority to serve and protect allows Matheson to tap into the familiar American fear of helplessness.
When Matheson’s conceptual angles trump quotidian concerns, his stories can be a bit labored. “No Such Thing as a Vampire” is a competent yarn, but it dwells less on fear and more on traditional problem-solving to trap the ostensible vampire. Nevertheless, it’s worth observing that “Clothes Make the Man,” which deals with “magical” apparel, came a good seven years before Bradbury’s classic short story “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.”
As serious as Matheson is, he also has a marvelous sense of humor. “‘Tis the Season to Be Jelly,” a comic tale written in unwonted vernacular, begins with the eye-popping opening line, “Pa’s nose fell off at breakfast.” The satirical “Pattern for Survival” describes a manuscript’s journey from typewriter to typesetting, openly taking on science fiction publishers who boast too much about schlocky material: “[H]e dropped into his leather chair, restrained emphatic finger twitchings for the blue pencil (No need of it for a Shaggley yarn!).” And I suspect even the bleak-minded urban theorist Mike Davis could not resist “The Creeping Terror,” which depicts suburban sprawl afflicting the nation, with California citrus trees popping up in Nebraska cornfields. (In a nod to Robert Noble’s “Ham and Eggs” social initiative in the late 1930s, Matheson describes a “‘Bacon and Waffles’ movement . . . $750 per month for every person in Los Angeles over forty years of age.”)
Because Matheson wrote these stories in the 1950s and 1960s, well before Third Wave feminism and New Wave science fiction, some narrative elements don’t hold up as well. Wives sometimes remain troublingly submissive to their husbands. When Matheson describes a woman’s “sick feeling of being without help” in “Dying Room Only,” I expected a mustache-twirling villain to tie her to a railroad track.
But on the whole, these tales provide remarkably fresh evidence that Matheson deserves more than a footnote in speculative fiction.
The first time I met David Rakoff, he offered me food and food and more food. It was 2007, just after Thanksgiving. With typical munificence, David had made too much of it. It became very clear from David’s steadfast concern and his adamant offers, in which he also insinuated that he kept some modular storehouse in neat hidden niches throughout his modest Union Square apartment, that this wasn’t some commonplace matter of fobbing off leftovers, so much as an opportunity to feed every spare mouth he could find. And that included overlypreparedliterary journalists. The man was an entertainer. It extended to his conversations. It extended to his kitchen. It was always there in his work.
“There is little in this world that I find more galvanizing than someone in trouble,” Rakoff once wrote. “I am well aware of how dubious that sounds, coming from someone who makes a living writing in the first person.”
David wrote his essays extremely slow: just three slim yet pithy books (Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty) in a little less than a decade. And this deliberate snail’s pace had much to do with the high neuroses David brought to the writing process. I once pointed out a few vaguely similar images he had used over a few essays. And David, mortified, put his hand to his mouth and cried out, “I’m a hack!” I then spent several minutes ensuring Rakoff that he wasn’t. In a world besotted with writers who recycle their own paragraphs or who fabricate quotes, David’s commitment to the original must also be memorialized. He was a man so committed to precise language that, during a 2010 interview, David and I spent five minutes looking up the word “vitiate” to ensure that we both understood its nuances.
He began that unmistakable wet-mouthed, lip-smacking, compulsive swallowing that indicates the impending need to vomit. His upper lip shone with perspiration, and his eyes were closed. The woman had nowhere to go — indeed, there was nothing else she would be able to do until the train reached the station, and that might not be in sufficient time. If the first thing you do on the first day augurs the spirit and tone of your new year, this woman was in for a very bad 1987.
David described giggling at this woman, but he pointed out that the joke was on him, for 1987 was to be his shitty year. Such vicious ironies would race throughout his life, yet David would receive them with realism and good humor. A self-described therapy junkie, it was hardly accidental that, years later, he read Julie Norem’s The Positive Power of Negative Thinking very carefully (yet became so consumed in his research that he was never able to write a piece about it). At 22, he was hit with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but managed to beat the cancerous rap after eighteen months of treatment. But in 2010, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and, in one of life’s malicious replays, was forced to start chemotherapy again. But this didn’t stop him from living. From “Another Shoe”:
I try to comfort myself with the first-person accounts I’ve heard of those who die on operating tables and come back: the light, the warmth, and the surge of love from one’s dead ancestors urging you forward. But even that doesn’t help as I wonder what on earth the Old World, necromancing Litvak primitives from whom I am descended would make of me? You’re forty-four and not married? You’re a what? We had one in the shtetl and he was chased from the town with brickbats. How much treyf do you eat? What kind of writing? And from this you make a living?
Here was a man who personally apologized to me for having to stop tape every 30 minutes to take the medication that was keeping him alive. The apology was unnecessary. I told David that if he didn’t want to talk, we didn’t have to. But for David, the show had to go on. The man summoned some wonder to the very end.
Last night, David lost his battle with cancer. But we still have the three books, the many This American Life appearances, and David’s quiet suggestion that a comic yet realistic dignity is an extraordinary defense against life’s cruel setbacks.
A few days ago, I reported the death of Wayne Shannon, whose legacy as a broadcasting innovator and precursor to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and and Michael Moore had been needlessly overlooked in recent years. Wayne was also a friend. And last night, the cause of Wayne’s death was revealed to be a suicide. Wayne’s body had been found by two hunters in Northern Idaho. His body had been there for many months.
As of Friday morning, the San Francisco TV station (KRON) where Wayne worked for many years, has not acknowledged Wayne Shannon’s death in any way. Last night, I contacted KRON by telephone. I spoke with Bonnie Hitch, who was kind and who offered me a few minutes of her time. Ms. Hitch told me that KRON still hadn’t decided on whether or not it would recognize Wayne Shannon, but that they had learned of his death. KRON had not been aware of Wayne’s suicide.
I also asked Ms. Hitch about how well the KRON news archives were preserved. What was the state of Wayne’s numerous commentaries? His segments in the field? His body of work? She informed me that there wasn’t even an archivist employed at KRON these days. “It’s a very different news station,” said Ms. Hitch. KRON culture had changed. Ms. Hitch wasn’t even sure that the airchecks had been preserved. She told me that she would put me in touch with the person in charge of the news archives, and it is my hope to contact someone at KRON who is even remotely interested in preserving KRON’s long legacy as a major news station.
In his final years, Wayne had assembled a disc containing a small handful of his work. Was this all he had? Unfortunately it was. This disc was all that remained of his considerable work. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne had written to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”
Shortly after talking with Ms. Hitch, I went through my files and located Wayne’s disc. It contained this note:
A few weeks before Noel Coward died he held an intimate soiree at his home during which, by all accounts, he performed for the very last time.
Those in attendance, if memory serves, were Lunt and Fontanne, Oliver and Leigh, Oscar Wilde, Jascha Heifitz, the Raymond Masseys and the Rex Harrisons, the latter naming their first born son after Noel.
We are assured that it was an exquisitely memorable night of much wine and laughter and tears born of same, along with a game that developed whereby participants challenged their memories by trying to match some of the more obscure lines of dialogue from his plays — with the titles of his many Broadway and Piccadilly triumphs.
This was followed by a medley on the piano of Coward’s many hit songs, accompanied by Heifitz, which naturally concluded with his immortal, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”
I am, of course, no Noel Coward and, unfortunately, have more years to live than I doubtless deserve. However, I wanted you to know that to me…you are not only to be numbered among the “luminaries” he had about him that evening those many, many decades ago…but, had I been able to do so…you would have been invited to such a gathering — though you may very well have had the good sense not to attend or, perhaps, admit to it later.
However, if you had done so, you too would have seen my final performance — from virtually my first words ever on American TV — to undeniably my last, “Yahoo!”
I cannot accept Wayne’s work falling into obscurity. I cannot accept his self-deprecatory nature refusing to understand, even in this note, that people loved and respected what he did. And I cannot accept his work not getting its proper due.
So I have uploaded nearly all of the video I have so that people can see how Wayne was ahead of his time. The twenty-one segment salute below reveals that Wayne, who won six Emmys for his work, was a wily reporter, a witty commentator, a skilled performer, a gleeful satirist, and a man who was very good at talking with people.
Star Wars: This is one of Wayne’s earliest television appearances, in which he talks with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. He even asks Carrie for a kiss, a move that would be unthinkable in today’s junket climate.
Rocks (1980): This is a great example of the muckraking multipart series Wayne was known for during his days in Detroit. (Indeed, as I learned in a 2008 radio interview I conducted with Wayne, many of Wayne’s pioneering concepts during these days would be stolen by Michael Moore and used in Roger & Me.) Wayne fearlessly took on many of the auto manufacturers and was run out of Detroit for this (despite the fact that his segments greatly improved the evening news ratings). And the “All by Myself” montage where Wayne abandons his “rock” on the freeway and rollerskates away is an unusual break from the hard journalism that local television news was then known for.
Lemons: In Philadelphia, Shannon was known as the “TV 2 Troubleshooter.” His coverage, as we learn here, could be hilariously epic (in this case, the segment above is “part three of his ten part series on lemons,” as Robbie Timmons introduces) — almost as if he was working on one giant documentary film split into neat segments for the evening news. Wayne’s ability to combine consumer advocacy with comedy is in great form here, especially with the concluding Rocky homage.
Hedgehogs: This “TV 2 Troubleshooter” segment sees Wayne fleshing out his satirical journalism. There’s the opening sound gag, along with some folksy banter with a stamp collector (“Ever been took?”).
The Box Top Rebellion: In this segment on coupon clippers (which contains some eerie parallels to post-2008 economic life), we see that Wayne was very keen on highly theatrical introduction sequences. But he was also very good about learning how a system worked, as seen from the fascinating clips inside a coupon clearing house (“where old coupons go for that big redemption in the sky”).
Magic Nails: Not only do we get a quick glimpse of a young Maury Povich, but we see Wayne taking on “Magic Nails” — a dangerous toy manufactured at a Burger King restaurant. Wayne’s journalistic rigor is on display. He talks with pediatrician Alan Freedman and updates the story with some shoe leather reporting.
The Vent People: I don’t know if the success of Wayne’s consumer advocacy had Channel 3 assigning Wayne to more hard reporting. Perhaps they didn’t quite know what to do with him. But this segment also shows that Wayne was a good journalist. He reveals efforts to uncover how the homeless sleep on the steam vents at night, along with the reasons why others aren’t allowed to help the vent people.
Wayne-Bo and Tom: The first part of this clip is rather baffling. It features “Wayne-Bo” entertaining kids and talking with Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. Was this a bona-fide children’s show hosted by Wayne which aired in Philadelphia? The second part features a clip of Tom Snyder extolling Wayne at the end for an episode of The Tomorrow Show, which Wayne made an appearance on. (Note to self: A trip to Paley is in order.)
Santa and Thermatron: The Santa bit is from a bizarre 1981 program that Wayne did called Santa and Son. I have no idea if it even aired anywhere. Then there’s a “Thinking Out Loud” segment on the Thermatron, a precursor to the commentaries that Wayne would be known for during his KRON days.
KRON Clips: Wayne, now at Channel 4, talks with Jonathan Winters. There are three additional segments: (1) a Wayne commentary on how laser beams are being used to cut through clogged arteries (and how Wayne has sought “a revisionist nutritionist”), (2) a closing credits monologue of Wayne on the road, and (3) a Wayne commentary on how to celebrate California adventure (with some inside dirt about then Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood).
The Merv Griffin Show: Merv Griffin, who lived in Monterey, was a Wayne Shannon fan and invited Wayne to appear on his program. Wayne reveals the trouble he got into for suggesting that dumping atomic waste into the ocean might be a possible solution. “I guess you don’t hear that viewpoint that often.” “Why would you advocate that?” asks Merv. “Well,” replies Wayne, “because everybody else isn’t.”
Claim to Fame Promo: Wayne appeared on another locally produced KRON show called Claim to Fame, in which an assembled panel tried to guess who the person was based on their vocation. Wayne was one of the regulars, along with Ann Jones, Charlie Haas, and Sylvia Brown (later with an E). This promo for the show features Wayne prominently. There is also a ten second clip from the show attached.
Claim to Fame: Here’s a longer part of Claim to Fame, which features a more spartan set than the one with the FAME lights. (Budget cuts at KRON?)
Bay Area Minute: This short KRON segment features Wayne rhapsodizing about the Bay Bridge.
Three KRON Commentaries: In these collected clips, Wayne offers a commentary on Tanzanian chimpanzees getting high on leaves, another commentary on pesticides, and a third commentary on Fleet Week.
CNBC: In these clips from his CNBC days (featuring some charmingly retro graphics), Wayne provides a commentary on Norplant, sits patiently at the ACE Awards (for which he is nominated), co-anchors a Real Estate Report, and interviews Ken Hakuta, the inventor of the Wacky Wall Walker (and self-styled “Dr. Fad”), with absurd results.
TV 25 Vancouver: In this TV 25 Vancouver segment, Wayne investigates a post office branch in Vancouver, Washington, discovering how postal workers toil and the impact of a holiday package influx.
TV 49 Portland: In the first clip from Wayne’s TV 49 Portland days, Wayne probes Nick’s Famous Coney Island, talks with owner Frank Nudo, and contends with hot dogs. The second clip features Wayne’s movie reviews of Mad Love, Judge Dredd, and Crimson Tide>
TV 6 Portland: In this clip from TV 6 Portland, Wayne goes out in search of white deer in Redland.
Ask the Weather Guru: This interview with Wayne Shannon (just after his television days) has Wayne coming out as the “Ask the Weather Guru” man at Yahoo. He attempts to explain what an occluded front is. But I can’t help but focus on just how small his apartment is at this time.
The Memorial Wall: Wayne’s last appearance on television, from August 2011. He was in Idaho, visiting the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall and wanting to know if three people from his hometown of Moses Lake, Washington had been killed during the war. He didn’t see their names. Months later, he would walk into the woods and never come out.
Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer best known for the long-running American Splendor, died this morning in his Cleveland home. He was 70 years old.
Pekar was devoted, more than many of today’s lifeless literary practitioners, to depicting the truth behind everyday moments. And it is especially painful to know that Pekar’s passing comes a little more than a month after David Markson’s. Like Markson, Pekar knew that life didn’t offer any tidy resolutions and that art, even at its best, served as an intermediary. “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” he would write most famously. It was one of the key lines that made it into the 2003 American Splendor film adaptation. But the film, as great as it was, couldn’t compete with the work on the page.
Pekar was not the type to pull punches or avoid the harsh truth. He wrote fearlessly about his testicular cancer scare, his failings with women, his anger, and his inadequacies. But his work was never solely about a lifelong exploration of the self. He wanted those who read his work to understand the world. For Pekar, that universe was Cleveland. And Pekar demonstrated that it was hardly just some flyover state to be overlooked by the bicoastal snobs. He described the hopeless art of trying to pick the right checkout line when standing behind an old Jewish lady. He wrote about Emil, the Ukranian laborer who lived next door to him in the mid-1960s, moved into a rough Cleveland neighborhood, and saw his idealism dissolve into racism. Of his jury duty experience, he would point to the hypocrisies of “rich people like Nixon and Agnew” staying out of prison while poor people were thrown into the slammer for less serious crimes. These anonymous lives presented stories that were just as important, but more recklessly forgotten.
Pekar’s later volumes became more ambitious than these Cleveland chronicles. There were graphic histories featuring Students for a Democratic Society and the Beats. With Michael Malice and Macedonia much like Emil, Pekar investigated the hypocrisies behind idealistic commitment. But regular people remained very much a priority with an adaptation of Studs Turkel’s Working.
Righteous indignation was an essential part of Pekar’s work. (Indeed, one story from 1986, “Hysteria,” depicts Pekar getting so worked up that he lost his voice.) But he did have a good deal to be angry about. Here was a very sharp autodidact toiling as a file clerk, who was often needlessly ridiculed. The most infamous scorn came from David Letterman, who booked Pekar on his show so that he could lob potshots at the weirdo he never bothered to read or appreciate. These regular appearances ended when Pekar got sick and tired of being the butt of the joke, shortly after he rightly condemned Letterman for his ties to General Electric. He would write about this experience in 1988′s “My Struggle with Corporate Corruption and Network Philistinism.”
But even Pekar’s most vocal mainstream supporters didn’t seem to ken him. I know this, because Pekar contacted me by telephone to talk about it. With Dean Haspiel’s help, he sought me out shortly after I had written a blog post in his defense. The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin claimed that Pekar was writing too much in his later years. But Ulin had failed to note 2005′s The Quitter, which I declared “an inarguably raw and mature portrait of a younger Pekar developing some of his anger while being tormented on the Cleveland streets.” And he had failed to cite anything specific in his criticisms.
“This David Ulin guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” barked Harvey over the earpiece. “Look, man, I’m trying to stay alive.”
He was. He took any gig he could and he did his best to offer something worthwhile. And should a man be condemned for his work ethic? Not when he’s constantly contriving new ways of staying fresh. Pekar employed eclectic artists to keep his stories new. There was Rebecca Huntington’s photorealist approach in the 1988 story, “I Don’t Wanna Seem Judg-Mental, But…,” the dependable boxiness of longtime collaborator Gary Dumm, Val Mayerik’s free-form frameless approach in 1985′s “A Marriage Album,” and, of course, those early innovations with R. Crumb. He was often quite generous in soliciting other artists to collaborate with. And the artists were very often supportive in return. In later years, he would refer to Dean Haspiel as “my agent.” Haspiel helped Pekar to book gigs as the post-retirement medical costs accumulated.
I was lucky enough to talk with Pekar very early into The Bat Segundo Show. I was new at this interviewing business at the time, but I did ask the man why he continued to use the “STRAIGHT OUT OF CLEVELAND!” line for so long during the American Splendor run. And he told me that he had always intended this declaration as an alternative to superheroes. And indeed, why bask in nothing more than spandex-soaked chronicles when the real world has never had to retcon its glaring realities? A comics world without a new Harvey Pekar volume every year will be a much sadder place. For Pekar wasn’t just some gloomy guy. He was a committed cultural chronicler.
David Markson, who was one of my favorite living writers, has passed away. He was 82.
It’s difficult to convey just how much of a loss this is for American letters, but I’ll do my best as I now fight back tears. Along with John Barth, William Gaddis, and Gilbert Sorrentino, Markson was one of the few writers who proved that experimental writing need not be prescriptive. For Markson, chronicling the consciousness was often tremendous fun: both for him and the reader. And if you were fortuitous enough, it could extend beyond the book. If you lived in New York, Markson could often be located in the Strand’s basement, amicably chattering in good humor with any stranger willing to engage in wanton mischief. The first time I met him, when he was being inducted into the American Academy of Letters, he shouted, “You’re drenched!” in response to my offered hand. This was just after he observed my rain-soaked white shirt. There was the funny five-minute conversation about burlesque and Lili St. Cyr, where we talked about the geometric possibilities of a woman’s derriere. Another run-in where we discussed Ted Williams. On the fourth unexpected collision, he said he would do Bat Segundo if I gave him a call. I neglected to follow up. But maybe this was just as well. For Markson was one of those rare authors who was so great and so thorough that he didn’t really need to offer much more beyond the books. He’d write to you if he liked you. Or if you reminded him of some slinky figure from his carousing days. My girlfriend was the recipient of several flirtatious postcards.
His textual tinkering was never pretentious, never explicitly postmodern, and always good for great laughs. It’s extremely disheartening to know that Markson’s The Last Novel will have the misfortune of living up to its title.
Markson was best known for Wittgenstein’s Mistress, along with a remarkable set of novels beginning with Reader’s Block, whereby random facts about cultural figures were carefully interspersed in short paragraphs, with the “Author” or “Writer” often stepping in with jocular asides. “Writer is almost tempted to quit writing,” begins This is Not a Novel. Was the “Author” Markson himself or some construct? Well, that question was entirely up to the reader.
Roy Campbell was an anti-Semite.
And was one of the few writers or artists aligned with the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
Why is Reader always momentarily startled to recall that Keats was a fully licensed surgeon?
Does Protagonist even have a telephone?
Just consider how the associative mind is depicted in these five sentences from Reader’s Block. The Reader is not only invited to confirm these “facts,” but she is very interested in sharing the Author’s surprise about Keats. Was Markson, or the Author, alone in this sentiment? And why should cultural figures be lionized when they were just as fraught with human flaws as anyone else? Markson cemented most of his novels with a very specific consciousness, but he wrote his books in such a way as to include any reader who might be keenly excited about these questions.
The sad irony is that his books never sold very well. Perhaps in passing, Markson’s genius will be rightly recognized. Bestselling authors skimping out on such subtleties have prevaricated about a reader being a friend, but Markson understood that the author-reader relationship worked both ways. If life offers no tidy resolutions, then why should the novel? Does this have to be a depressing prospect? Or can we laugh at such folly along the way? Why can’t the reader share in the predicament? Markson’s books were shared connections between the author and reader, but all participating parties required other texts, other resources, and other souls to make sense of the madness. The other option was Donnean perdition:
Still, what I am finally almost sorry about is that I never did write to Martin Heidegger a second time, to thank him.
Well, and I certainly would have found it agreeable to tell the man how fond I am of his sentence, too, about inconsequential perplexities now and again becoming the fundamental mood of existence.
Unless as I have said it may have been Friedrich Neitsche who wrote that sentence.
Or Soren Kierkegaard.
That last passage comes near the end of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, where the narrator is a woman who believes she’s the last person on earth. But as we start to comprehend the real fiction that she has used to transform her reality, we see that her lonely sentiments matter more than anything else. Text itself is no panacea. Indeed, the very ability to remember text has dwindled without the emotional necessity of other souls. Or as Markson would declare in Vanishing Point, “Do certain people actually remember learning to read?”
Many of Markson’s “facts” were true. They were true in the sense that the tantalizing tidbits originated from some unspecified origin point, but could not be confirmed outside of what was inside the text. Much as an untrue rumor circulates without anybody bothering to consult the originating party. Much as an author would rather talk about his instant passions than the work he has long put away. Because living life is just too damn important.
UPDATE 2: Mainstream outlets are starting to get it together. The Associated Press’s Hillel Italie has the best article so far, getting quotes from Elaine Markson. There’s also a blurb from Los Angeles Times blogger Carolyn Kellogg with a quote from Martin Riker. I’ve also been informed by other editors that more obituaries will be arriving in newspapers over the next few days.
I was shocked to learn the terrible news that Derek Weiler, editor at Quill and Quire, has passed away at the ridiculously young age of 40. Derek and I had many heated arguments here in the comments and through email. (He once called me “pathological.”) But despite our feisty exchanges, Derek was a very fair-minded and reasonable man who deserved to live much longer. And I enjoyed our volleys. He had the balls to take me on, and the decency to understand positions that were contrary to his own, which I can’t say about a lot of editors. My profound condolences to Derek’s family and friends for this terrible loss.
Patrick McGoohan changed the way I looked at television. Before McGoohan, I had believed that television was merely a medium devoted to passing entertainments. But when I first caught an episode of The Prisoner playing out its surreal madness through a fuzzy black-and-white Samsung television at a very young and impressionable age, I realized that television could transform into a medium that grabbed you by the throat and had you pondering the mechanics and complexities of the larger world. McGoohan was the guy who proved without question that television was art. He created mesmerizing landscapes and provoked without apology. There were always fascinating motivations behind his creative decisions. Who were the strange guys sitting behind the Rover shrine at the end of “Free for All?” Why did McGoohan heighten the ends of certain sentences in his lines? He was often an eccentric actor, but he was always interesting and he refused to explain himself. To some degree, he was the thinking man’s Robert Mitchum.
It certainly helped that, as an actor, McGoohan played the consummate badass. Nearly every kid I knew who had seen The Prisoner wanted to be McGoohan. They wanted to build a kickass boat out of a faux artistic sculpture. They wanted to enter a room and not take any shit. McGoohan’s characters did all this without a gun.
As both Number Six and John Drake, McGoohan had one of the most commanding presences I have ever observed in a television actor. His fierce eyes, buried beneath his tall forehead, would shoot laser beams through the glass, demanding that you do something. Because he sure as hell was going to do something. So why couldn’t you? McGoohan smiled when he damn well felt like it, which was rarely. But he would crack that telltale grin every so often, letting you know that you could be in on the joke, if you had the smarts and the instincts to keep up. When McGoohan exploded in a furious rage, which was quite often, he had the talent of making you believe that the feral act was somehow rational.
Underneath his brazenness, McGoohan was a first-class entertainer, both as an actor and a writer-director. He had the rebellious courage to know damn well what he wanted. It wasn’t James Bond (which he turned down twice). And it sure as hell wasn’t playing John Drake forever. Instead, he used his status to produce one of the best television programs ever made. The episodes that he wrote, directed, and acted in had McGoohan dipping into wild surrealism (“Fallout”), devastating political satire (“Free for All”), and Beckett-like power plays (“Once Upon a Time” — see above clip).
Hollywood didn’t know what to do with McGoohan, but he stayed busy on episodes of Columbo (many of which he also directed) and appeared in a short-lived series as the brilliant detective Dr. Sid Rafferty. He was possibly too smart for the film industry, but he wasn’t too stodgy to send up his most famous creation in an episode of The Simpsons.
McGoohan was a maverick in a medium that prides itself on conformity and the lowest common denominator. But his fierce determination to make television better inspired other creative forces to turn out smarter material. For this, we have McGoohan to thank and his output over the years to marvel at.
Giles News is reporting that Gregory McDonald, the tremendously talented author of the Fletch series has died. I am now making efforts to confirm this. If this is true, this is a tremendous loss to American letters.
[UPDATE: I have confirmed by phone with Charlie of the Giles County Ambulance Service that Gregory McDonald passed away on Sunday. As soon as I have a chance to collect my thoughts and feelings, I plan to offer a full-length tribute here. I'm still in shock.]
I first encountered the Fletch books in the library when I was twelve. The ratty paperbacks were bound in taut cellophane. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t been released in hardcover. But as it turned out, there were complex reasons. I had, of course, known about the Chevy Chase movie. But Chase’s wisecracks (as conveyed through Andrew Bergman’s screenplay) weren’t even close to McDonald’s great barbs. The first Fletch book was driven almost entirely by dialogue, keeping up a momentum that sucked me into the text. The story goes that mystery purists were upset that McDonald published the Fletch books as paperback originals. They were also angered that McDonald had used sex and wit to draw readers into his novels. But McDonald wanted ordinary people to read them. McDonald’s Fletch books, however, were far from ordinary.
Here’s the first page from Fletch:
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your full name?”
“What’s your first name?”
“Irwin. Irwin Fletcher. People call me Fletch.”
“Irwin Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars for just listening to it. If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars, go away, and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?”
“Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?”
“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to murder me.”
The black shoes tainted with sand came across the oriental rug. The man took an envelope from an inside pocket of his suit jacket and dropped it into Fletch’s lap. Inside were ten one-hundred-dollar bills.
Now what sane person wouldn’t want to continue reading this story? This opening is as gripping as the first page of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice often taught in literature classes, but it likewise carries a concern for precision reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. McDonald stubbornly resists description until the very end. He lets his characters convey the specifics through dialogue. We learn that Fletch is a casual sort who can’t abide fussy types using proper names. We learn immediately that he’s sharp, that he’s not going to permit himself to get caught up in illegal activity without considering all the details. We learn that the mysterious interlocutor is more concerned with specifics rather than logistics.
And then there’s that magnificent amateur quality juxtaposed against this questioner’s wealth. The sandy shoes indicate that this mysterious questioner probably isn’t what you might call experienced. But he does have a lot of money.
McDonald was able to set this very careful relationship, along with its many nuances, in a mere 138 words. And he was able to do this almost entirely through dialogue. He was an extraordinary writer. And what made him so extraordinary was his ability to merge this concern for detail with a tremendous ear for dialogue, down to the comma, producing books that could be enjoyed and appreciated by both popular and literary audiences. (A telling indicator of his mass appeal is that filmmaker Kevin Smith learned to write dialogue by reading the Fletch books. Smith snatched up all the movie rights to the Fletch series many years ago, but movies have yet to appear.)
But because McDonald insisted that ordinary readers were capable of basic intelligence, because he insisted that his books should be priced affordably, he was not taken as seriously as he deserved by the old guard. Fletch, nevertheless, would go on to win an Edgar Award for Best Novel. And the book’s sequel, Confess, Fletch, would win for Best Paperback Original.
By all accounts, McDonald was a private person. But Vintage Crime reissued all of the Fletch books a few years ago. And the work will live on.
MCDONALD: There is a very exciting thing going on in this country. And that is that there have begun to be small publishers in places like Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, wherever. And they are not doing what the big commercial houses are doing, of trying to publish the imitation of last year’s imitation of last year’s imitation. And I’m sorry that I can’t cite you chapter and verse. But I am finding that these small publishing houses are creating or letting be published for the first time in a long time in American history and American literature, and they are publishing very exciting stuff, very real stuff, very original stuff, and taking the risks that the big commercial houses wouldn’t do. And they are nurturing the work, and they are nurturing the writers in a way that the big commercial houses don’t do. And I don’t mind at all throwing my lot in with them.
[UPDATE: Mere hours after this post went up, The Rap Sheet's Cameron Hughes offered his "tribute," seeing fit to use the same excerpt, similar phrasings, and similar examples from this post. Gee, thanks a lot, assholes.]
One week after the death of Jesse Helms (and, alas, Thomas M. Disch), the universe illustrated once again that, despite its many abominations, it still maintains a self-correcting impulse. Tony Snow, the smug apologist for President Bush’s disgraces, finally expired after a bout with colon cancer. He was 53.
It was a particularly fitting way to go. For Tony Snow was far from a sweet man, and certainly neither a nice nor a reasonable one. On February 13, 2007, when CNN’s Ed Henry calmly asked the perfectly legitimate question about Iran’s purported influence in Iraq — a claim unfurled by Snow and company without a single shred of evidence — Henry was told by Snow to “calm down.” Snow, of course, could not provide a reasonable answer. It was a typical instance of Snow’s regular insults to reporters, something that also came to light when reporters asked Snow about Scooter Libby’s commuted sentence. (During this conference, one reporter declared, “You are insulting our intelligence.”)
Snow demonstrated that if you served up enough hypocrisy and possessed nothing in the way of ethics, you too could live the spin doctor’s dream. You could even nestle your way into the baby arms of government itself. But even this utopia wasn’t good enough for Snow. He needed more than $168,000 a year to get by and was prepared to tell any lie to get more money.
But Snow’s lies weren’t those of the amicable “dog ate my homework” variety. They were deeply unsettling efforts to occlude a truth that has killed 4,000 American soldiers and untold thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Snow was the last somewhat savvy guy who could take on the job of White House Press Secretary and live with his daily hypocrisies. And it’s a telling indicator that Snow’s porous replacement, Dana Perino, didn’t even know about the Cuban Missile Crisis when she signed on.