Monday, November 5, 2007

"Junky Fried Eggs"; Ozick's "Entrails"; Ask the Dust; Mike Gold; Rocketship; Middlemarch (again)

I am the weasel that bites into its prey long after it's dead.

So says Mr. Ditty, in response to my "unused syllabus" a few posts below. Mr. Ditty -- Noahjohn -- has been one of my favorite writers since I met him at college 17 years ago. I thought he was hands-down the most interesting writer in a class that included several who've gone on to publish a great deal -- le thi diem thuy, Joshua Beckman, and me among them. I'm a big fan of thuy and Joshua, too, but Noahjohn's stories were the rawest, the funniest. They were accidentally "experimental," almost always sentimental, often exaggerated, and never less than true. Noahjohn did a stint for a small town newspaper after college, but then he returned to Florida to teach; and now he teaches in North Carolina. But he's thinking about writing again. His subjects, he suggests, may be his own life, Mars, and the occult -- a redundant list. To rev himself up, he's posted a couple of his old memoir stories on a blog called, unjustly, "Mediocre Ramblings." Here's my favorite: "Junky Fried Eggs and Lady Fingers."


Another friend I haven't seen in a long time has also started a blog: Of América: Roberto Lovato on Dreaming Beyond the Walls of Civilization.

Start with this post, an NPR interview with Roberto about Latino politics after Gonzalez.


O, Cynthia Ozick!

Such is my comment on Ozick's latest essay, "Literary Entrails," published in the April Harper's, read by me more recently. Such exclamation points, simultaneously ironic and earnest, a signal of a superior mind's resignation to the bustle of reality, are part of Ozick's rhythm. "A coterie!" she writes, mocking Lionel Trilling. "Spiritual ancestors! Posterity!" The question is, did Ozick discover the utility of exclamation points on her own, or does she borrow the point from Saul Bellow, whom she so reveres that she speculates that while another Bellow may be in the infant stages at this very moment, it's also possible that another 200 years will pass before such a genius bestrides the literary world. Bellow was a great exclamation point user, which is perhaps why his fictional alter egos were always running into trouble with the brutes, the Chicago savages, whom they often adored and feared. The brute bashes the exclamation point because it fails the test of authenticity on three levels: it is ironic, it is earnest, and it is enthusiastic.

O, Ozick!


When an editor calls and tells me some story I've been working on for a few months is set to run, I go out and buy myself a new book as a reward. John Fante's 1939 novel Ask the Dust was my reward for publication last spring in Rolling Stone of a story about a fundamentalist youth movement called BattleCry. I bought the book, I'm ashamed to admit, at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble, which is not only a chain store, but a branch of a chain store that once attempted to ban me for life after the manager took offense at a reading Peter Manseau and I gave from our book Killing the Buddha. Even more shamefully, I bought Ask the Dust despite the fact that it boasts an introduction by Charles Bukowski. I'm no fan of Bukowski, but that's not the point; what I resent even more is the Bukowski industry, the stamp of gritty authenticity his name is meant to provide for the legions of semi-punk kids who read nothing but Bukowski because he's "real" -- as if a thousand writers haven't drunk themselves stupid and/or lyrical.

But what does this have to do with Fante? All too much, as it turned out. I bought Ask the Dust because I'd heard Fante was brilliant, and because the first two paragraphs were funny and unadorned:
One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up, or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.

In the morning I awoke, decided that I should do more physical exercise, and began at once. I did several bending exercises. Then I washed my teeth, tasted blood, saw pink on the toothbrush, remembered the advertisements, and decided to go out and get some coffee.

That may be the high point of the book. Or rather, it's even keel -- Fante hits that note perfectly and holds it for a couple hundred pages. I stopped reading thirty pages before the end. There'd been a lot more coffee and self-deprecatory bravado, as well as misogyny polished to a high sheen and the roaring anxieties of the writer/anti-hero's ego crashing against the rocky shore of publishing. Along the way other hard-luck characters ambled through the pages, but Fante can never leave his anti-hero for long enough to fully develop any of the sideshows. Maybe he'd plead the logic of character -- his anti-hero narrator is so self-obsessed, how could he really get anyone else? I'd buy that if I hadn't seen it done, by Frederick Exeley in A Fan's Notes, his memoir/novel about being a deeply neurotic, almost violent, self-obsessed, failing writer.

Exeley came along decades after Ask the Dust. Fante wrote from the 1930s, and I can't help wondering whether his popularity isn't due to desire of depoliticized critics for working class grit lit unburdened by the radicalism of that period. Literary types ever since have insisted that literature can only be political if it's ambiguous, as if ambiguity can't become as didactic as the plainest proclamations of proletarian literature.


I much prefer Mike Gold's Jews Without Money (1930) to Fante's narcissism. Gold was the golden boy of proletarian lit, derided ever since as didactic, blunt, and unimaginative. Blunt, yes; but there's nothing didactic about his thick description of not just poverty but the political feelings that sometimes grow from it. And to call Gold unimaginative is to say that the world isn't worth imagining. Much of Jews Without Money is a curiousity cabinet strapped into a car without brakes, a catalogue of sights and sensations and sentiments spun through the mind of a child narrator. It's no Call It Sleep, but that's a good thing -- Roth is overrated, a brilliant stylist so narcissistic that his communism -- his broad social politics -- tied him up in knots for decades, while Gold's freed him to write simpler, less innovative prose that nonetheless will survive longer than Roth. Says me.


Here is where books survive:

Or maybe it's where they go to heaven. This is the El Ateneo book store in Buenos Aires. Nothing has made me want to have learned Spanish more than this bookstore.


My favorite comic book store is called Rocketship, on Smith Street in Brooklyn. It is to comic book stores what Grocery and Saul are to the Smith Street restaurant scene -- so snobby that it's out of place even on the street of the yuppies. But justifiably snobby -- it's simply better than the rest. So much better, in fact, that I used to feel guilty buying super hero comic books there -- Ed Brubaker's Daredevil, Brian Bendis' New Avengers (both of which I've given up on -- talented writers spread too thin). I felt as if I should be buying the experimental graphic novels and collections of obscure early 20th-century comics stacked up on the recommended table. Then, one day I was furtively buying Buffy the Vampire Slayer (not so furtively -- all geeks know Joss Whedon is a genius) when the owner suggested World War Hulk. World War Hulk? Seriously? Yes, seriously. "I love it!" she said. "He's so angry it scares me!" I bought it. Eh. But now I'm freed to buy super hero comics without shame. Which brings me to Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men #22, or, the death of Scott Summers. That, technically, is a spoiler, though the cover art by John Cassady of Summers floating in space as if crucified on Dali's cross, his Cyclops goggles occupying the foreground of the frame -- drifting away from his corpse -- should not leave anyone confused.

I hope he's really dead. Whedon has already portrayed death as well as I think I've ever seen it done on tv with an episode of Buffy called "The Body." The death of Cyclops, a character who goes back to the 1960s, may be another step in Whedon's exploration of character assassination. Cyclops' death, foretold on the cover, isn't even the main storyline of the comic -- after forty years of pulp, he gets just a few pages in the end. Contrast that with the melodrama of Captain America's murder this past spring, so significant that The New York Times had to take notice. I'm more interested in this death-in-passing. Melodrama is what one expects for the demise of the secularized gods of super hero-dom; but this incidental death seems more in keeping with the logic of super hero stories, in which characters are always alienated from the normal emotions of the world by their powers. They're apart; and they die apart. In Captain America, that means opera; in Joss Whedon's X-Men, it means loneliness.


Now I'm reading Middlemarch, which has already displaced Wuthering Heights as my new favorite novel. Wuthering Heights, after all, was like a comic book; Middlemarch is what novels would be in a smarter world. It's Moby-Dick for grown-ups, its plot meandering between observation and philosophy that's half-baked and over-cooked and strangely spiced. I'm only 400 pages into the book, so I won't say more. My wife, meanwhile, says I'm becoming a matron -- over the course of the past summer I went from tough guys like Mike Gold and John Fante to Emily Bronte and George Eliot. I think I'd be content to remain in the world of 19th century novels for awhile. I tried reading Pynchon's Vineland while we were on vacation in just that territory, but I couldn't get past the jokes -- he seemed to want his readers too much. Eliot didn't want readers, I think; she simply knew they would be there. And so I am.