Friday, December 17, 2010

David Shields, Reality Hunger 2010, pt. 2

A continuation of my responses to David Shields' assemblage of numbered quotations on nonfiction as a question, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

#73 Shields or an unidentified source writes in rebellion against the niche marketing of Hollywood movies, comparing his preference to a dinner party at which he and his guests together will serve tacos, cordon bleu, and "perhaps some Japanese food as well. I want to mix it all together, because I think that's what life is like."

My response: Shields and those he approves of spend so much time doing things because they think "that's what life is like." Don't they know? Is their only access to life through their reproduction of it as an idealized pastiche of pop cosmopolitanism? Are they conflating life and commercial media?

#74 Cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, writing in Wired, plays the part of a 19th century railroad booster on behalf of the internet, declaring it "the opposite of broadcast... with as many senders as receivers." Well, that's just not true, but it's hard to hold Gibson responsible for such misinformation without knowing when he wrote it. Which we don't, because Shields, angry about being forced to source anything, fails to include dates in his begrudging citations. Maybe "because that's what life is like" -- if life, for you, is comprised of nothing but wit and irony. Gibson, whose fiction is more than that, offers even less in his attack on citation: "The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art." So once again these brave pioneers of genre crossing insist on the preserving the gated sanctuary of "art," into which the genres they raid are never to be allowed entry, lest art's purity be sullied. Which is to say: Lurking beyond all this pop art piracy is the same old regime of fauxhemian capitalism the would-be pirates say they're decrying. "Reality can't be copyrighted," concludes Gibson; it's worth noting, though, that his novels are. I suppose that's the kind of quibble Gibson might dismiss as pedantry akin to citation; I think it's just reality, no more, no less.

#78 The old regime resurrects another one of its dearest ideas, dressed up in the drag of techgnosis: "It's important for the writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms," argues an unidentified writer who may or may not be Shields.* "You can work in these forms or use them or write about them or through them, but I don't think it's a very good idea to go on writing in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves."

Only if you're a social darwinist. Implicit in this statement is the idea that art is a form of progress, that it "moves forward" -- that art is, by definition, a social good. But there's no suggestion in Reality Hunger that Shields or those he subsumes into his manifesto believe that all art is a social good. Indeed, most use "art" as a term to indicate that which they believe "evolves," that which serves the greater good of social darwinism. I suspect Shields would strongly reject this notion, as I've rephrased it. Hence, I'd argue, the veil of "art" drawn between genres even as these writers declare their own transgressions.

* Eager to evolve, I turned to a "more technologically sophisticated" form of citation, Google. This remark from Reality Hunger is widely cited, and usually sourced to Shields, himself. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

David Shields, Reality Hunger, 2010; Milton Rogovin, Portraits in Steel, 1993

I've been slowly reading David Shields' recent book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto for awhile now. I'm not sure if I recommend it -- I keep reading out of annoyance as much as pleasure. I've decided to try blogging it, a reasonable response, I think, to a book that is comprised of 618 numbered quotations related to the question of fiction vs. nonfiction. Or maybe simply fiction/nonfiction. I'm sympathetic to the not-very-new idea that it's difficult to draw a sharp line between genres, and I'm grateful for many of Shields' selections, but I'm bored by the book's cleverness (the quotations are only identified in an index he says his publisher forced him to include) and dismayed by the tired old conventional wisdom of "art" masquerading as genre-bending transgression.

But I can't stop reading. So I'm going to start taking notes on the the entries I find most provocative, starting with #45*:
"After Freud, after Einstein, the novel retreated from narrative, poetry retreated from rhyme, and art retreated from the representational into the abstract." In the margin I wrote, "glib & false." What bothers me in this statement, representative of a tone throughout the book, is the definite article: "the novel." 
Such grandiose statements remind me of the singularity with which some fundamentalists speak of gay people: "the gay man," as Pastor Ted Haggard used to say, before his regular male escort outed him as one. For Ted, the definite article elevated his enemy; for champions of the novel, the definite article elevates their sense of themselves as at the center of the only conversation about fiction worth having. The novel doesn't exist; only novels, many of which remained firmly committed to narrative.

#47** galls me for a similar reason.
"I listened to a tour guide at the National Gal'ery ask his group what made Rothko great. [Various possibilities follow.] The tour guide said 'Rothko is great because he forced artists who came after him to change how they thought about painting.' This is the single most useful definition of artistic greatness I've ever encountered." 
To which I responded in the margin: Each entry sillier than the last. Their problem is the distraction of "great."

But thinking on it now, I realize I'm disqualified from judging this commentary, since I don't believe there can be a "useful definition of artistic greatness." Such a definition isn't very useful, since it can only be definitive in the cliquish imagination of those who accept it. "Imagination" is perhaps too generous a word for those who cannot conceive of art beyond the world in which Rothko looms large. Poor Rothko; held captive by little minds for which size really matters.

#62*** concerns Brian Fawcett's Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, which, in my youth, was a book for young men who wanted young women to know that the A&P -- that'd be Art and Politics, capitalized -- left them no time for anything less than maximum sexual and romantic intensity. Nonetheless, Fawcett can't be blamed for this remark about his book, in which the top two thirds the pages are filled with fiction about media consumption and the bottom third features an essay on the Cambodian genocide:
"The effect of the bifurcated page is to confront the reader with Fawcett's point: wall-to-wall media represent as thorough a raid on individual memory as the Khmer Rouge."
Why stop there? How about: "TV, lacking greatness, represents as thorough a destruction of humanity as Auschwitz." Or: "Pop stars who aren't quite trashy enough for me to celebrate ironically represent as complete an assault on our ears as the machetes of the Rwandan genocidaires."

See, that's the great thing about insisting on no distinctions between fiction and nonfiction: you're free to draw on both in the service of literal idiocy at once.

#65****, on the preferred genre label of these bold pioneers, the "lyric essay":
"In fiction, lyricism can look like an evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it's apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real, that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know."
I believe this is from an advertisement for a penis pump called The Real.

#72***** More on the lyric essay.
"What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?"
The short answer, of course, is easy: kitsch. But I'm also reminded of a comparison my friend JoAnn Wypijewski once drew between the photographs of Milton Rogovin and Sebastio Selgado, both of whom set out to document the lives of workers. Selgado's work looks like fashion photography: it is lush, beautiful, lyric -- "a lovely sideshow to The Real, that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know."

Pretty, no? Get that bit in the center, where the nameless worker looks almost like he's on a cross?

Rogovin, who recently turned 100, has been taking pictures in his adopted hometown of Buffalo, New York, since 1942. My favorite book of his is Portraits in Steel, images of steelworkers whom he has come to know over decades. Each is photographed at home and at work, and many are interviewed, as well. The steelworkers collaborate in their portraiture, especially at home, where many pose with favorite items. Yes, they "pose," but there is nothing artificial about the process. Each pose, for that matter, might be considered a form of reportage, on the part of the worker, and of observation, on the part of Rogovin, more truthful than the capture of brutal elegance on display in Selgado. Here is a sample that gives only a limited sense, since most of these images are stripped of their companions and their identifying details. Even so:

* Shields thinks citations are a distraction from Art. I don't, but I've tried to give his book a fair shake by commenting on his commentaries without immediately identifying their source, as his wish. In the index required by his publisher, he provides some scant bibliographical data, with the caveat that he "forgot" some it "along the way." Shields suggests you cut all of it out of the book. He presents this notion as a rebellion against the ownership of art (why, then, attach his name to the book at all?), but it strikes me more as an evasion of the specificity he seems to believe would reduce his Art to the lowly status of information. Here, then, is as much information as he could bring himself to provide: #45 is taken from Lorraine Adams, "Almost Famous: The Rise of the 'Nobody' Memoir,"Washington Monthly. Shields doesn't include such trivia as dates, for what hath Time to do with Art?

**The source of #47, on Rothko, is unidentified.

***Likewise #62. Just as well. The asshole who thought it witty to equate big media with actual murder is probably left unnamed.

****I was wrong. The source for #65 is Ben Marcus, "The Genre Artist," The Believer.

*****The source for #72 is lyric essayist John D'Agata, though Shields doesn't distinguish whether this quote is from D'Agata's anthology, The New Essay, or from Shields' conversations with him, also mentioned as a source. I happen to be reading D'Agata's About a Mountain right now, too, which has raised some related questions I'll have to blog tomorrow or the next day, after I've moved on to the passages from Reality Hunger about which I have sweeter things to say.

The Falls Church (Anglican), 2010

About a month ago I posted a strange bit of spam I received that seemed connected to my work on the Family and a very conservative, and very influential, church to which it has ties, The Falls Church (Anglican). Falls Church isn't what most people think of when they think fundamentalism -- it's old, it's upper crust, and its membership includes some genuine elites -- Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, Tucker Carlson, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, former CIA director Porter Goss, Rep. Robert Aderholt (a Republican Family man from Alabama), and others. Here's a 2004 portrait by liberal evangelical writer Ayelish McGarvey, "Evangelical Elitists," written before Falls Church broke away from the Episcopal Church USA, which it viewed as too tolerant of homosexuality.

No real news. Just the arrival, this evening, of a pungent little defense of Falls Church, a response to my small critique.

"You typical demonizing Jew."

This is, I believe, what the Falls Church Anglican schismatics call "traditionalism."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Style Sheet, 2010

After four books, I've a good sense of what I like and don't like about publishing. What I like is writing the book. What I don't like is publication. The best part of the latter process, I've come to think, is the style sheet. This is a document prepared by the copy editor to let the author know how the publisher spells or presents terms about which there might be some debate. It reads like a grocery list from the author's subconscious, the particularity of the author's interests stripped of sentence and story, laid bare without meaning. It's organized alphabetically. Here are my favorite letter lists from the style sheet I just received for my next book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, coming from W.W. Norton in August 2011:


alef (Yiddish)
American Top 40
Acquire the Fire


feng shui-ers


Garden (for MSG)
Geimende aud dem Weg
Golden Arches
goyish, goyishe
Ground Zero


halfsies (n.)
Harold and Maude
head shots
hell house (n.)
hell-house (adj. before n.)
holy-spirit (adj. before n.)
homeschool (v.)




KISS (band)


Walmart (no hyphen since 08)
Western (for movies, books, and “attitudes,” etc.)
Western Edge
West Texas
wolfangel (1 word)



Sunday, November 28, 2010

Marilynne Robinson, "The dark side of justice," 2004

Tonight I discovered an old notebook from a class I sat in on with Marilynne Robinson, author of one of my very favorite novels, Housekeeping, and one that I like a great deal, Gilead. Robinson teaches in the Iowa MFA program, but this was something different: a Bible study, conducted in the basement of a church. Peter Manseau, with whom I wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, and I were in Iowa City to read from the book at Prairie Lights. Our friend Laurel Snyder told us about Robinson's class. She knew it was in a church, but not which church. So off into the night we went, and into a blizzard as well. We peered into several basements before we found it, in session, and interrupted nonetheless. Or rather, stood like frozen cattle in the doorway, staring at the great woman. She snapped at a heavily bearded poet to fetch us chairs and Bibles, and then we were in. Following are the notes I took in a miniature composition book I happened to have in my pocket.

"Can we imagine that He is happy?"

The story of Christ in the wilderness -- "How do we know this story? Did Jesus tell it himself? Regardless, it is strange, an embrace of natural laws, limitations."

A riff on the old English of "gospel," God spell, an accounting of Christ's speech patterns, the way he introduces statements with Amen, translated as verily. Literature, she notes, proceeds by pushing toward definition. (Really?) "The Messiah is a definition of how God will act in history." But Jesus, she proposes, presents a counterintuitive definition, since he is not an action hero.

"The revolution that goes on continuously," she says -- Christ in the world, I believe she means -- "is a refining of definitions."

"The whole Bible is trying to say, 'I take this very seriously.'" She speaks of God as an abused wife. She asks, "What would we do without feeling like we're on the dark side of justice?" Because justice has a problem: "As soon as the language of justice emerges, it becomes incredibly metaphorical."

Anything that threatens us, she says, we've created. Beneath which I write: "not so."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010

Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010
Chalmers Johnson, an academic cold warrior who became one of the most persuasive analysts of the ongoing costs of that conflict, has died. There's a respectable but too-brief obit in the New York Times, but Johnson hasn't gotten the Arts & Letters Daily treatment, a compilation of obituaries and commentaries for influential scholars and artists. Maybe that's still to come. Johnson certainly influential, both as a cold warrior, and then, after its official end, as a critic of the American empire into the service of which he put much of his scholarly career. Starting with Blowback, in 2000, and continuing with The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis, he moved from academe into public discussion; his books joined those of Hardt and Negri, Naomi Klein, and, of course, Noam Chomsky on the shelves of popular anti-imperialism. But he wasn't a radical; his critique of empire was that of a pragmatist, as Chomsky points out in a recent interview with the Jewish online magazine Tablet:
Take, say, the blowback theories. I like Chalmers Johnson, he’s a very good guy, but he argues that the U.S. policy of installing the shah didn’t work, because look at the blowback. Didn’t work? It worked perfectly for 25 years! That’s a long time in international affairs. Nobody plans for 50 years from now.
That's a fair point. But the real value of Blowback, the book, and the school of thought that grew out of it was the honest simplicity and eloquence of its accounting, its measurements of the costs. In 2000, I published a very short interview with Johnson for The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Verbatim" column. Here it is.
You know what they say about the road to hell and good intentions. Borrowing a Central Intelligence Agency phrase for the unplanned consequences of American actions-such as the 1988 terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which was probably retaliation for the 1986 U.S. aerial raid on Libya -- Chalmers Johnson, an emeritus historian at the University of California at San Diego, argues that in the aftermath of the cold war, the United States is facing an epidemic of "blowback" at every level, from individual acts of terrorism to the estrangement of nations.

Q. You argue that the cold war's legacies won't end anytime soon. Why not? Hasn't everybody had enough?

A. The American empire hasn't. The concrete origins of this book came as the result of a visit to Okinawa in 1996, after the rape incident of September,1995. I've spent my life working on Japan, thought I knew a lot about it. But Okinawa was a revelation. I was frankly just shocked by the sight of the then-42 American bases. And I was equally shocked that after a 12-year-old girl was raped by two marines and a sailor, the U.S. sought basically to spin the issue. To call it a unique tragedy. To claim that such things are not a common occurrence. To cover up the enormous costs of these bases on the Okinawan people. That then led me to ask, even if you could make a case for the deployment of American forces during the cold war, why are they still there 10 years after the cold war? Which led me to the conclusion, well the cold war hasn't ended in East Asia.

Q. Why not?

A. Whereas the Soviet Union created its own satellites, which then turned slowly into an empire in Eastern Europe, the U.S. did identically the same thing, and for identical reasons, often with even greater brutality, in East Asia. Whereas we may be able to make a strong case for our policies in Europe, in East Asia we have been in pursuit of empire. There the idea of the cold war was a sort of mask for an imperial project.

Q. Who needs an empire?

A. Mostly the military. For its bases, its budgets, its influence on foreign policy, which is bloated beyond reason. For instance, I believe that China is not a military threat, and that we ought to be much more accommodating in a military and political sense, to reassure them that we mean them no harm. By the same token, we ought to take them much more seriously as an economic challenge. If you want to be accommodating to China economically, who pays for it? It turns out it's not white men on Wall Street who pay for it. It's black steelworkers, in Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Alabama. The continuing hollowing out of our manufacturing is another kind of blowback.

Q. And then there's the violent kind.

A. Look at the cycle of terrorism. Osama bin Laden was a protege of ours in Afghanistan. He then objected to the stationing of American troops at Dhahran and Riyadh during the Persian Gulf war. They're still there. Saudi Arabia, the world's most important source of our petroleum, is beginning to look like Iran under the shah: a place where we don't really know what we're doing, where we're running on vested interests and established practices rather than thinking through whether we ought to be getting out of there, putting our relations on a much more commercial and less military basis.

Q. And if we don't?

A. One of the things that alarms me most of all is that we seem to be losing options to the point that we have only the military option. Our diplomacy is weak. We are no longer leading by example, and we're not even concerned about it. Moreover, this is occurring in the context of a discourse that forever tells us we are wonderful, we are perfect, we are the model of the world, that history came to an end because there are no longer any alternatives to the American way of life. These are signs of a mistaken and flawed polity that is asking for -- well, what happened to the Soviet Union.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Danica Novgorodoff, Killing the Buddha Tin Anniversary Poster, 2010

I'm naturally very excited about the upcoming Tenth "Tin" Anniversary Party for Killing the Buddha, the online magazine Peter Manseau, Jeremy Brothers and I started in 2000 (and edited by a long list of wonderful writers since, with Nathan Schneider, Meera Subramanian, and Quince Mountain shouldering the bulk of the work now). The party will feature performances by some of my longtime favorites, such as comedian Eugene Mirman and poet Eileen Myles, and some artists I'm just learning about now, like musicians Gangstagrass and Gabriel Kahane (here's a NYT profile). Plus, Quince, a graduate of auctioneering school, is going to auction of some KtB crap to make money for liquor and communion wafers. But the real surprise, for me, is this fabulous poster by Danica Novgorodoff, an artist I didn't even know had come into the KtB circle. Novgordoff is the author of one my favorite books of 2008, Slow Storm, an intensely beautiful graphic novel in water color. It's a thrill to have her contribute her talents to this party. Now it's up to you New Yorkers out there to contribute yourselves to the party, too. (And don't forget it's a fundraiser.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Some Very Weird Spam

On the night I receive news of a new Family offensive against my work comes this peculiar spam, "commented" onto every blog post. It's a bunch of Microsoft Word 2007 links embedded in a piece of text in favor of Falls Church, a schismatic rightwing Episcopal church closely linked to the Family (and the anti-gay African Anglican dioceses that have welcomed any American church unable to abide the presence of a gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in their worldwide communion). Coincidence, I guess, but creepy all the same. Here it is, purged of the links that might be viral.
NEVERTHELESS, THE CIVIL LAW is and must be neutral about who has a more noble or rewarding faith. The breakaway parishes ought to win every facet of the lawsuit not becausetheir beliefs or their politics are better, but because both law and equity, along with common sense, are on their side. Not only does Virginia state law (the Division Statute) explicitly apply to just such a ituation as now exists, but the historyespecially of The Falls Church argues against the claims of the Virginia Diocese with which the have disassociated. First, The Falls Church was founded, formed, and developed long before the diocese, or the national Episcopal Church, even existed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rev. Flip Benham, Stalker & Ladies' Man Flip Benham, head of Operation Save America, has been given two years probation by a North Carolina court for distributing Wild West-style "Wanted" posters featuring the home addresses of abortion providers. The court considered this stalking.

What a relief! I spent some time with Flip and a few of his associates four years ago and left wondering whether I should call the F.B.I. Never had I met a Christian fundamentalist leader who seemed to be so clearly flirting with the idea of terrorism. At one point, when I asked Flip about the Army of God -- the underground movement dedicated to killing abortion providers -- he winked. Of course, I didn't call the F.B.I. -- that's not the journalist's job, and Flip hadn't said or done anything genuinely incriminating. Here's what he did say, as I recorded it in my book The Family*:
There was the Reverend Flip Benham, head of Operation Save America, also known as Operation Rescue. He was the man who baptized Norma McCorvey—Jane  Roe of Roe v. Wade—into fundamentalism. For the rally, he was wearing vintage  white-and-brown wingtips, symbols, he explained, of his commitment to  pre-1947  America—1947 being the year when the Supreme Court ruled according to Jefferson’s “wall of separation” for the first time, in a case concerning government funds for parochial schools....

While we  were talking, Reverend Flip had begun to preach. He told the crowd about a recent victory he’d scored near Charlotte, North Carolina, where he’d led seven hundred prayer warriors to a school board meeting to protest the formation of a  Gay- Straight Alliance club in a local high school. “The preachers preached, the singers sang, the  pray-ers prayed, and the theology of the church became biography in the streets!” Flip said. The school board shut down the  club—a deliberate bid, it had declared, to bring the issue before the courts and get  gay- straight clubs outlawed everywhere. Flip said this was what Jesus wanted. He even did an impression: “Cry to me,” he said in his best bass God voice; the prayers of the righteous will be answered....

Across the table sat Pastor Rusty and Reverend Flip. Flip threw his tie over his shoulder and leaned back in his chair. The waitress, a handsome  middle-aged woman named Anna, looked crushed when she learned that the  whole group, out of respect for the nondrinkers among them, would be sticking to iced tea. Several of the men asked her where her accent was from. She said she was  Polish-Russian, but when she came around to Flip, he said, “Hola, Señorita,” and asked her where she was from. Anna rolled her eyes. We ordered, most of us the buffet. Anna came back to refill our iced tea. She tried to tally the orders, which the pastors kept changing.

“You ordered the buffet?” she asked Flip.

Flip took a toothpick from his mouth, fixed her with a stare. He
owned the room. “I think I already had a buffet,” he said, pronounc-
ing the word as Buffy. “Now I’d like to try an Anna.”

Nobody missed a beat. The party went on.

*Flip is not a part of the fundamentalist organization called the Family.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sweet Heaven Travel Itinerary

I've finally finished -- really finished -- my new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die.

The subtitle is Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between. For no reason other than it makes me happy to think about, here's an itinerary of my travels in that country for this book:

The 11th judicial district, Colorado
Knoxville, Tennessee
Princeton, New Jersey
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Scotia, New York
The old East Village, NYC
Kenilworth, Illinois
A Wisconsin death trip
East Berlin
Cleveland, Ohio
Tyler, Texas
St. Mark's-on-the-Bowery
America's Largest Mind, Body, Spirit Expo
The Khyber Pass, Philadelphia
Cradle of Filth tour bus
Tulsa, Oklahoma
Goshen, New Hampshire

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Corrections: The Oklahoman

C Street reader Kelley Duncan writes:
The conservative Daily Oklahoman (and owned by the arch-conservative Gaylord family)  is mistakenly referred to as the "Tulsa Oklahoman" in your recent book "C Street". The Tulsa World is a largely centrist to occasionally liberal daily. 
Keep up the good work. No good Okie -- and I try to be -- should be unaware of the shady (and just plain weird) behavior of our politicians. 
Thanks, Kelley. I'll correct this in the paperback. The error occurs on p. 120. Defenders of the Family and C Street are fond of accusing me of massive and grave errors. This post is my response: Send me a correction, and I'll make it. Writers always make errors. What's important is the effort you make to avoid doing so -- I paid fact checkers a nice chunk of my advance to go over every page of the book, with instructions to think of themselves as interrogators and of every sentence as guilty until proven innocent -- and that you then make the correction when you find an error, as you always will, if you're honest.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Dragons, Rock Like Fuck

The other day, a cab to the airport, driver says, "Too many people have, what you call -- opinions. That's how life works. If you can afford it, you can put your opinions out there."

I guess I can afford it. Tonight's my last night to work on the manuscript of my next book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, to be published next August. It's a collection of essays, some previously published, some not, all of them re-written to comprise, together, some kind of organic whole. Organic like Frankenstein, that is, with a lot of pieces stitched together -- anarchists, Yiddishists, evil twins, Willa Cather, blimps, sunflower disguises, miners, magicians, and a band called the Dragons, with an album called Rock Like Fuck. The original title of the book was Sweet Fuck All, Colorado, after a bar I stopped in on the way to South Park, and it also features a sweet, waif-like New Age healer who believes she's part fairie and likes to punctuate her spiritual statements with the word "fuckin'" because she believes it provides grounding. Not sure what it provides me -- an out, maybe, from all these years of seriousness about fundamentalism and democracy. Thank fucking God, I'm free at last.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jay Kirk, Kingdom Under Glass, 2010

Here's an effective opening sentence for a book: "He felt heartsick when he saw the gorilla start its death tumble." And then a very functional second sentence: "It was coming right for him."

They're from Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals, my pal Jay Kirk's first book, to be published by Holt in November. I met Jay when we were both fellows at the MacDowell Colony, a sort of artists' retreat where writers and painters and such are given cabins in the woods and three meals a day. Evening entertainment is usually comprised of ping pong and presentations. Jay and I paired ours, since I'd been given a magnificent "cabin" -- heated flagstone floors, a loft, more space than I could fill with all the documents I needed to write The Family. I read an excerpt about Jonathan Edwards, which wasn't as boring as you might think -- there was sex, Satan, and blood. Jay read an excerpt from Kingdom, then very much in-progress. It might have sounded less promising even than Edwards: its subject is a 19th century taxidermist named Carl Akeley. But Akeley didn't just stuff animals, he hunted them -- he once strangled a leopard with his bare hands -- all in the service of "knowledge," or maybe it was art, or maybe it was just for the thrills of the Gilded Age and a rising empire that sought to freeze the world behind glass. You can see the results and decide for yourself -- Akeley created the New York Natural History Museum's Hall of African Mammals. But don't just go and gawk -- read Jay's book, as I'm starting to do today, for an important piece of the story of how Americans first came to see wilderness as "nature."

Also, authors: covet this cover:

You Should Talk United States

Up late unpacking old boxes, I find an old notebook, circa 1998, I titled "American Deadpan." Notes toward a novel I wrote three chapters of and left behind like old chewing gum once I got all the flavor out of the story. That's how writing fiction is for me: greedy, delicious, and, ultimately, unsatisfying. So I never returned to the novel (which was going to be about Yiddish, communism, porn, and the Unabomber) but now I'll return to the notes, which include, among other sundries, a list of expressions I overheard in conversation or borrowed from other books with the intention of re-using. (That's also known as stealing.) Here are my favorites. I didn't record their sources.

*You should talk United States.

*He's like a girl who gives from under her dress for a ride in a car.

*You wouldn't be his wife without he's a fine man.

*Take your troubles to God.

*I am become an Irish.

*I got misery in my legs.

*He's a Sunday thinker.

*He was a good actor, but he always picked the wrong character.

*It's been an enjoyment to listen to you.

Monday, September 6, 2010

New Yorker, C Street, and Happily Ever After in Uganda

Yesterday I posted 5 predictions of what the New Yorker's Peter Boyer would include in his article on C Street (the movement, not my book). All I'll say about the piece is that I'm 5 for 5. The rest is between Boyer and his God. Or maybe his fact checker.

But one point needs to be addressed: Boyer's extremely misleading and dangerous statement on Uganda. Dr. Warren Throckmorton, a conservative Christian psychologist at Grove City College who has emerged as perhaps the unlikeliest champion of LGBT rights in the world, handles it well in his post, "The New Yorker Almost Reports on Uganda." If you care about these issues, Throckmorton's blog is a must-read.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

New Yorker, C Street

Last week I received a message from a New Yorker fact checker, telling me it was urgent she speak to me asap -- the magazine would be going to press with a feature on "the Fellowship and C Street" at the end of the day. I wondered what she was checking, since the author, Peter J. Boyer, had never spoken to me. And, in fact, she wasn't really checking anything. All she wanted to know was whether the title of my new book, C Street, and its pub date, both listed on Amazon, were correct. They are.

Meanwhile, I learned a lot. Turns out Doug Coe, the longtime leader of the Family, gave Boyer, an amiably centrist writer, complete access. That's not surprising; since last fall, evangelical superflack A. Larry Ross, one of the PR geniuses behind Rick Warren, has been advising the Family on how to handle fallout from the C Street scandals and their connections to Uganda's murderous Anti-Homosexuality Bill. As conservative World magazine reported, Coe's first instinct was to say nothing, while another faction wanted to go on a media offensive. Here it is.

I'm certainly not saying that Boyer is party to that. He's a reporter grabbing a big interview. I'm a little worried he may have inadvertently grabbed more than that, though. When I asked the fact checker if anybody there had drawn material from my as-yet-unpublished book, she assured me they hadn't. Then, in passing, she mentioned that they had two memos important to the Uganda story which I give a lot of space to. That puzzled me, since the memos are dated 1986, and after I obtained them, in 2003, the Billy Graham Center Archives, which houses the papers, put a 25-year restriction on them. Not even the author of the memos would be allowed to obtain them. But the fact checker told me that Boyer had done his own archival research and had made an exception on its restriction policy. Now that would be surprising -- a serious breach of scholarly protocol, favoring one researcher over another.

Fortunately, that's not the case. The fact checker wrote a while later to offer what she called a correction: Boyer had not visited the archives, and the memos had been supplied to him by the author himself.

Well, good for the Billy Graham Center Archives, and good for Boyer, too, I suppose, for getting them. They're not bombshells, but they're interesting. The signs, though, point to the kind of story a smart publicist like A. Larry Ross would want: Not a puff piece, but not investigative, either. A puff piece would be too much for anyone to swallow. All this needs to do to satisfy the Family is to paint it as a little quirky but basically benign -- and establishmentarian to the core.

Here are my predictions of what it'll contain:

1. A lot of Democrats friendly to the Family, saying nice things about it. How much these Democrats know is another matter.

2. Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay, who's praised the Family before, gently scolding it for its penchant for secrecy (he might say privacy) and touting its influence even as he declares it harmless.

3. A couple of the Family's more liberal members, like Bob Hunter, talking about their own good works -- Bob really has done some amazing things -- and saying the Family errs mainly in being too open to everyone.

4. Doug Coe talking about how everyone's welcome to love Jesus. If it's a real slam dunk for the Family, Boyer won't point out that there's not an evangelical, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist in the world who wouldn't say the same. That's not tolerance. Coe is a charming man, a far, far cry from the angry pulpit pounders most people think of when you say the word fundamentalism. Coe's fundamentalism is both more universalist, and, for that reason, more theologically vulnerable to exploitation for the sake of power.

Maybe I'll be surprised. Maybe Boyer will bring some theological depth to his conversations with Coe. If Boyer hasn't done archival research, as the fact checker says, it can't really be investigative, since nobody Coe isn't friendly with knows him well enough to offer a critical perspective. Since I labored long and hard in archives, I sound like I'm defending my turf, and I suppose I am. But I'm also hoping that this piece won't be a whitewash. I can't imagine Boyer, a veteran New Yorker writer, would let himself get rolled.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Glenn Beck, "Amazing Grace," 2010

Two a.m. and I've been packing for a big move for hours. An unpleasant chore, so I gave it an unpleasant soundtrack -- the three-and-a-half hour video of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor Rally," on C-Span. I've been reporting on the American right for close to a decade now, so I've mostly gotten past the snark with which lefties respond to this sort of thing. I'm more fascinated by the craft of mass movement manipulation. For the first couple of hours, I was thinking that Beck was genius. Because the rally really wasn't explicitly political, not even Palin, and there were Native Americans and black preachers and MLK, and even if it didn't make sense -- if Beck was stealing history -- he seemed to be getting away with it. That is, he was successfully passing off the radical witness of MLK as prelude to the almost all white crowd on hand. That great white crowd would leave feeling itself redeemed from and inoculated against charges of racism. The use of veterans, too, was masterful -- never about the war, always about the soldiers. Beck can say anything he wants now -- he's proven, to his followers, that he is above politics.

"So what?" says the liberal. His followers are, after all, his followers, right? Not exactly. He needs not only to keep them but to keep them moving. Beck isn't Rush; Rush appeals to the cranky, while Beck speaks to discontent. Rush satisfies his fans' cynicism; Beck offers them hope. Or, rather, promises them that it's up ahead, and there's danger behind -- keep moving, nation.

So I'm watching out of the corner of my eye while I pack, admiring the craft of manipulation, when Beck starts winding it down with the story of John Newton, the slave trader turned clergyman who wrote "Amazing Grace." Beck, predictably, mangles the story, as he has every other moment of history he's stroked during the rally. But what catches me off guard is Beck's description of the song as the best ever written for the bagpipes. Cue bagpipes.

Now, I like bagpipes, too, but "Amazing Grace" wasn't written for bagpipes -- a military instrument. It's not a militant song, but Beck, tipping his hand at the end, makes it a battle hymn. A few more songs follow, but that's the big finale -- Beck has closed his rally like Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. Remember, the boulder rolled away from the tomb, and the marching music rising, Christ rising too, to go kick some ass? That was Gibson's real theological sleight of hand, the replacement of the lamb with the action hero, muscular Christianity on steroids. Beck has followed his lead, turning the plaintive beauty of "Amazing Grace" into a war song. I know, firemen and policemen killed on the job sometimes get "Amazing Grace" with bagpipes. But somehow this is different. Those are funerals; this is a movement rising, getting read to kick some ass. It's the only moment in this really kind of dull rally that galls me -- the only real crack in Beck's facade of democratic pluralism. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

"No Solution," Wendy Doniger, 1999

More old notes from basement cleaning and packing, these from interviews with the great scholar of myth Wendy Doniger, whom I profiled for The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1999, I think. Her short book on method, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth, is one of my favorite books about writing. Even though it's not about writing.

In one of our conversations, she cited Levi-Strauss's idea that "myths tackle problems that have no solution." I said that in the context of her work, that made me think of a novelist knowingly wading into a doomed attempt to resolve a plot. "That's an interesting way of putting it," Doniger answered.
That explains to me why I drive my publishers crazy. Because I hate to produce conclusions. I tell all these stories and I have ideas about them, and I say, "Look at this, did you notice that, I know another story that sheds some light on it." Then I want to go home. And my publisher says, "What's the answer? What's the solution?" And I usually have to make something up for the book. But my heart isn't in it because I usually think there is no solution. It's just an interesting way of talking about the problem. I'm a mythologist.
I also salvaged an index card on which I'd written a comment from another conversation with Doniger: "There are so few interesting questions, and so many interesting answers."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"We are the moment the of deconstruction," January, 2001

Packing for a move, which means throwing out old papers. Among the notebooks to be disposed of is the tiny pocket one in which I wrote these words by a forgotten speaker, someone I interviewed about something in the late 1990s or early 2000s. I have no idea who it was. Nobody I'd planned to encounter -- that's why I wrote in a tiny notebook instead of my preferred steno pad.
Cocaine was rediscovered by the individual in the 1980s. Then, by a whole bunch of individuals in the 1990s. Cocaine was especially good for people with no sense of belonging. A lot of people don't have anything to belong to. They're not religious, they're not in a labor union. I'm drawn to labor unions, but I was not a worker. Well, that's not true. I was. I was a worker in the cocaine business. 
I've been an addict, I've been a dealer. But that didn't reflect who I thought I was. So I went to law school, and at law school, I sit down with all these people at lunch time, but they're not my people. The only place I see myself reflected is in the people I graduated from college with.
My disdain isn't sociological. I'm actually jealous of the fratboy law students. And of my boyfriend. [A minor dealer, in the business through family connections.] He belongs. And he feels belonging with me. But I don't belong. Do you? [Laughing:] We are truly postmodern. We are the deconstructionist moment. We're the day after generation. 
Sometimes I look at some insane piece of furniture, a $30,000 coffee table, and I calculate, How many families can't eat because of it? Because of the wealth compressed into this table? 
I asked, "Do you look at $180,000 of coke" -- a shipment the dealer had helped process -- "and think the same thing?"
[Thinking. Laughs.] You know, I was taught to be introspective. You know, hippie stuff, "I spoke to the river; did the river speak back to me?" And the answer is, I don't know. I see the problem. I understand the problem with what I'm doing. I can say with certainty that I'm not happy. I mean, I sell drugs; I facilitate the sale of drugs. I'm a saleswoman. It's not the drugs. It's the sales. I persuade, right? That's what you do, right? That's what journalists do? What's the difference? I'm a propagandist. You're a propagandist. That's what we do. 
Now that I'm done typing this in, I remember who I was talking with, and when. It was the late fall of 2000. I wanted to write a story about her, a dealer with plans for a union. But the coke had other plans. The last time we discussed the story she grew paranoid; she talked about guns. It was the eve of W.'s first inauguration. One of customer came over, giddy. He was a rising star conservative writer. He called her a Marxist, and giggled when she counted his money. She called him a fascist, and cackled with delight when he bragged about the young Bushies he'd soon be fucking -- confirmation of her low opinion. She considered herself -- she was -- a deeply moral person. She no longer touches coke, in any capacity, but back then she was a diligent law student by day and a drug dealer by night. Not the glam kind, the gritty kind, not slumming but paying the bills. It wasn't cute; as I recall, she told me she'd established her authority as a woman in a business of men by putting out a cigarette on the arm of an asshole who didn't pay her on time. She was always a tough girl. Still is; but sober, and past the moment of deconstruction.

Glenn Beck and American History

In light of Glenn Beck's invocation of phony American history on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial today, I think it's worth reviving my 2006 Harper's magazine story on the Christian Right's make over of the past, "Through a Glass Darkly: How the Christian Right is Re-imagining American History."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Joe Connelly, Bringing Out the Dead, 1998; King Motherfucker Rat, 1999

For years I've been wondering where I'd put some notes I'd made on a conversation with homeless guy by the office I was then working. Tonight I found them, written in the end pages of Bringing Out the Dead, Joe Connelly's amazing 1998 autobiographical novel of a New York City paramedic who's losing his mind. I was reading it one night in 1999,  when I left the offices of The Chronicle of Higher Education late. I covered the new research in the humanities; hardly the cops beat. It was good work, a license to travel around the country asking dumb questions of brilliant scholars, but it felt a little removed from the world, and the setting didn't help -- an antiseptic office plaza that looked, in real life, like an architect's rendering. A really boring architect's rendering. At night it was deserted, which is why a few homeless guys napped on the benches. I don't remember how I struck up an acquaintance with this guy, Joe, but I did; and on this night, March 29, I ended up scribbling down his words in the back of Bringing Out the Dead.

"The knife or the gun, they don't know nobody," my notes began. Joe was talking about an argument he'd had with a friend that had come close to violence before Joe walked away. "Let that shit rest in the past," he continued,
bury that motherfucker, call that shit dead and gone. Cause he is the sweetest, goodest kinda man when he sober, but get him a drink -- I can handle mine,  I can drink a beer, I can even drink liquor -- he don't know all to stop. Then he let the 'nigger' out."
Joe was black; his friend was white.
"Nigger" this, "Nigger" that. The racist type of shit -- holy shit, look at that rat!
A big rat was sniffing around a bench a few yards off.
You gotta see it cause he BIG. He on patrol.  Yeah, now look at him. In the alley -- ok, I sleep in the alley, but we don't got rats there, it's only when I come over by the clean buildings here. You tell em, that's dangerous, here in the clean buildings. That motherfucker. Somebody eat their lunch out here and he be on patrol. Then somebody set their sandwich down and that motherfucker rat take the sandwich and the hand, too. Cause I seen movies about them -- No! Don't throw nothing at him. Leave him be, cause you get him mad a dozen -- maybe 14 -- come out. I seen movies, they live in colonies, the peoples do. And they got a king motherfucker rat, he big as a dog, like this he stand up. I seen him. I hit him with a pole, like this, and king motherfucker rat stood right back up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

C Street

I'll be talking about my new book C Street, with NPR's Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" today, so now is as good a time as ever to blog the jacket copy. 
Democracy, desire, and the street address for fundamentalism in America 
Jeff Sharlet is the only writer to have reported from inside the C Street House, the Christian Fellowship residence known simply by its Washington DC address. The house has lately been the scene of notorious political scandal, but more crucially it’s home to fundamentalist efforts to transform the fabric of American democracy. And now, after laying bare its tenants’ past in The Family, Sharlet reports from deep within fundamentalism in today’s world, revealing that the past efforts of religious fundamentalists in America pale in comparison to their long-term ambitions.
When Obama entered the White House, headlines declared the age of culture war over—just like they did after the Democratic victories of 2006 and, ten years before, Bill Clinton’s re-election. It’s an American tradition, declaring conflict a thing of the past. In C Street, Sharlet tells the story of why these conflicts endure and why they matter now—from the sensationalism of Washington sex scandals to fundamentalism’s long shadow in Africa, where American culture warriors determined to eradicate homosexuality have set genocide on simmer.
We’ve reached a point where piety and corruption are not at odds but one and the same. Reporting with exclusive sources and explosive documents from C Street, the American-backed war on gays in Uganda, and the battle for the soul of America’s armed forces—waged by a 15,000-strong movement of officers intent on “reclaiming territory for Christ in the military”—Sharlet reveals not the last gasp of old-time religion but the new front lines of fundamentalism.
The Uganda chapter is excerpted in the September Harper's; and an excerpt of the excerpt is now online.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

R.I.P. Tony Judt

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, died today of Lou Gehrig's disease, at age 62. Before Postwar, I'd skipped Judt's essays in The New York Review of Books, thinking him a typical centrist liberal wonk. My mistake. I picked up Postwar while I was working on a chapter of my book The Family, about the role of American fundamentalists in the rehabilitation of Nazis. My interest, then, was limited to a small piece of Judt's book; really, I was simply hoping to find a generalist's account of the Adenauer government. But what I found was a vigorously argued, well-paced, deeply engaged history that picked me up and carried well beyond Germany. I'm usually not a fan of doorstop continental histories, but Judt's book is, in one sense, less than that, and thus more. Judt eschewed the omniscient authority of the all-powerful historian for the greater passion -- and, to me, persuasiveness -- of the essayist. It's a valuable book. And since then, I've read Judt's NYRB essays, including his moving memoir, dictated in his dying days, which begins here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lt. General Mike Gould, 2010; J.C. Hallman, In Utopia, 2010

What do you call an amplification -- not a correction -- issued in advance of the original statement? A preemptive post-publication addendum? Whatever it is, here's one. In my forthcoming book, C Street, I expanded on 2009 Harper's article of mine on Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. military, in which I briefly mentioned U.S. Air Force Academy superintendent Mike Gould:

Gould granted himself the nickname “Coach” after a brief stint in that capacity early in his career. Coach Gould enjoys public speaking, and he’s famous for his  3- F mantra: Faith, Family, Fitness. At the Pentagon, a former senior officer who served under Gould told me, the general was so impressed by a special presentation Pastor Rick Warren gave to senior officers that he e-mailed his 104 subordinates, advising them to read and live by Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life. 
“People thought it was weird,” recalls the former officer, a defense contractor, who requested anonymity for fear of losing government business. “But no one wants to show their ass to the general.” 
The "heroes" of the chapter are the activists of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a nonprofit watchdog dedicated to defending first amendment freedom of (and from) religion for military personnel of all faiths and no faith. Tonight, MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein forwards an email he received from an Air Force Academy professor that shows Gould has turned a corner. 
Today, I heard the most astonishing words from an Air Force Academy Superintendent that I have ever heard in my entire 16 years as an Academy professor.  Quoting from a well-known 1997 United States Air Force report, Lt Gen Mike Gould, Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy, actually said in a Commander’s Call addressed to the entire permanent population of the base that “military officers shouldn’t push their religious views on subordinates”.  My jaw dropped in astonishment.  This man clearly “gets it”.  My elation was tempered only by the sad fact that it took multiple Superintendents and several years of painful turmoil for us to finally get a top guy in here who clearly sensed that the environment was right to say something so blatantly obvious and true to every single person here at the Air Force Academy. 
 Credit, he continues, belongs to Mikey Weinstein and MRFF.

I sadden only when I realize that two years from now, this Air Force Academy Superintendent will retire, we will have a different USAF Chief of Staff, and the process of training yet another chain of command must begin anew.  Who knows what we will get.  That means, Mikey, that you and the MRFF must be vigilant.  You must be vigilant, and you must have staying power.  The forces you so appropriately and aggressively oppose here at the Air Force Academy, and indeed all over the Department of Defense, think in terms of eternity, so four years between Academy Superintendents is nothing to them.  Please, Mikey and MRFF, be there for an eternity too. 

Meantime, I have to give Gould some credit for being better than anyone expected or even hoped.


In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better ParadiseUnrelated, and, really, a lot more interesting, is the arrival in my mail today of J.C. Hallman's newest book, In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradisethe official pub date of which is today. (Or, yesterday, when I started this post.) It deserves more attention and will get it, but for now I'll go with the jacket blurb I contributed: 
Hallman brilliantly explores the idea of utopia and its applications in the real world, from hippie communes to shooting ranges to a massive floating city. We could hardly ask for a better guide: Hallman is an erudite but humble writer, with the skepticism, wit, and compassion necessary for those close encounters with the distant possibility of a perfected world.
Here's an excerpt from Hallman's last book, The Devil is a Gentleman, we published on Killing the Buddha.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Short History of Journalism and the Modern Fact (An Imaginary Book)

I was just fuming a bit over an article from the July 3, 2010 Economist, "The religious right in east Africa: Slain by the spirit." Because I've been reporting in this subject for the last nine months, I saw immediately the major factual errors in the piece, which I'll write about elsewhere. But the piece got me to wondering about fact checking. Evidently, The Economist either doesn't do any or does it terribly at times. What other publications don't fact check? I learned fact checking in the early 1990s, as an intern at The Nation. At the time, The Nation's rival, The New Republic, didn't fact check. (Or so we were told; I didn't check that fact.) I know they do now because they fact checked me, vigorously and well, when I wrote for them. When did magazines begin fact checking? Here's my proposal for a book that has probably already been written (again, I didn't check): A Short History of Journalism and the Modern Fact. If it hasn't been written, and you're interested in the subject, please write it and send me a copy.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post this morning, I've learned a few things. Apparently, very few British publications fact check. And The Economist is famous within magazine publishing for not fact checking. Worst of all, I'm told by a reliable source (you'll have to trust me!), are their statistics. On another front, I got the answer to a question that's bothered me ever since Ann Coulter misrepresented me in her book Godless: How do hacks like that get away with it? I don't mean, How do they persuade people? Rather, how do they avoid getting sued until they're in sack clothes? Why do their publishers stand by such crap? The answer, apparently, is publishers usually don't -- you can put a lot of garbage in a book, but if you do, the publisher says you're on your own. For people like Coulter, that's probably fine, since A) she's fabulously wealthy; B) lawsuits generate sales for people like her; C) people don't usually sue. I didn't sue Ann Coulter, and it's never crossed my mind to sue any of the online hacks who've said I use the blood Christian babies and kittens to bake my matzoh.

So it's up to the author. I paid a team of fact checkers to check my book before it went to legal review, instructing them to think of themselves as prosecutors and every sentence as guilty until proven innocent. Then the book, notes and all, went through legal review. That doesn't catch facts, but it does prevent any characterizations you can't back up. The lawyer's concern, of course, is defending the publisher, not me. Then again, I'm an afterthought to any lawsuit that's in earnest, since I have no real assets. "You sue the publisher for money," the lawyer told me. "You sue the author for fun." All the more reason to do everything she says.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Wire season 1, episode 6, Major Rawls

I get the irony of responding to this screed on "slow reading" in the Guardian on a blog, especially given that the article is itself the sort of thing the author doesn't think we should read much of at all. So I'm going to double down and blog, briefly, in advocacy for "slow watching" -- repeated viewings and pauses for contemplation. Not just for movies -- that's respectable -- but for TV. I'm in the midst of watching season one of The Wire for the second time, and I'm writing this during a pause in episode 6.

I was struck by a scene in which an external shot of police headquarters cuts away to show the careerist commander, Rawls, putting on his jacket to head home for the night. He glances down at a stack of three red folders on his desk, case files the season's hero, Detective McNulty, has left on his desk. Picks one up, shuffles it over, glances at another. Then he looks up and shouts "Jay!" -- his toady sergeant. That's it. The entire scene is about 25 seconds.

Two scenes later, we learn that what seemed opaque was actually exposition. Jay tells McNulty that Rawls wants arrests on the cases, a move they all know will improve their stats and hurt the larger case against Avon Barksdale's drug empire. But if it was just exposition, why make it so quiet, and why separate from the answer it's meant to provide?

So I watched again, and again. Most of the scene is dedicated to Rawls putting on his jacket and adjusting the lapels. He's a vain man, almost completely disinterested in police work. He's an apparatchik. He wants the system to work, which is to say that he wants to get a paycheck and to rise through the ranks and, perhaps, solve a few crimes. All this is summed up in the way the actor who plays Rawls, John Doman, puts on his dark grey jacket. He lets out an irritated sigh, gets his arms through the sleeves, and shrugs the coat up with his shoulders, still holding the puffed cheek expression of his sigh. Then he adjusts the lapels three times. He was too lazy to put the jacket on properly, but he wants it to look good. All along he's staring at the stack of case folders, his eyes presumably scanning the cover sheet. Again, too lazy to really engage with the folders -- three cleared cases, left to linger on his desk all afternoon -- but vain enough to want their rewards, and intelligent enough to recognize them easily. He knows what good detective work is, just as he knows how to wear his jacket. He just doesn't want to do the work to have either. He drops his hands, staring at the folders. We notice that his belt is around his belly button -- that although he's a man maybe in his late 50s, reasonably fit, aggressive enough in his demeanor that he passes for vital, he wears his clothes like an old man. We notice, too, his ID badge. For all his blustering authority, he's just a cog. So here's the cog, old before his time, vain, wanting something, too exhausted from his vanity to get it, seeing a shortcut on the desk before him -- and then he shouts "Jay," ordering his underling to make it happen.

But why this scene here, several minutes removed from the result of Rawls' decision? It's framed by two longer, more traditional scenes. Preceding it, we see Carve and Herc, the two greenest and most brutal detectives on McNulty's special detail, grab a young punk named Bodie who's been giving them trouble. They think he's skipped out on juvie, again, and begin to beat him for it. But he shows them a piece of paper that show's he's been given a pass by the court. They're incredulous. The thing is, so is Bodie. Not even triumphant. The juvenile system, he says, is a joke. Then he asks them for a ride to his grandmother's. "Get in the back, fucknuts," says Carve.

The scene following Rawl's jacket features D, a mid-level man in the drug operation -- something like Major Rawls -- waiting for a girl who's one of his runners to come out of a grocery. He takes her bag, looks in, pulls out some eggs. "Little early in the month for this, isn't it?" he asks, and begins dropping the eggs one by one on the sidewalk. He thinks she's been stealing. But D isn't a monster. In fact, he's too soft for the drug trade. He's killed one, maybe two people, almost cracked when presented with a (fake) picture of the kids of one his victims, and earlier in this episode was freaked out by news of the murder of one of the drug ring's enemies, by torture. "Let it go," he advises a younger guy, who can't; and D can't, either, so he passes it on to the girl.

Back to Rawls. Taken as a series, the three scenes are a study in authority. Nothing profound, just the observation that we pass suffering along. Not out of sadism but because the way you "let it go" is by getting it out of your system. Carve and Herc, constantly frustrated by the higher ups and by their own inability to either understand or really do anything about the crime they see, pass it on in a beating for Bodie, which Bodie escapes by pointing to the enemy above. D needs to purge himself of the poison of the murder he's been party to. And Rawls? That 25 second scene is the radicalism of The Wire. His poison is the system he's a part of. Not its corruption, but the system itself. Rawls, unlike drunken, idealistic McNulty, understands that his job is not to solve crimes, it's to "clear" them. Clear them off his desk, that is. Nobody expects anymore. Nobody wants anymore. And when McNulty gives them more, anyway, he disrupts the system. He thinks he's smarter than Carve and Herc, but he's not. Lazy, vain, amoral Rawls is the only one who gets what's going on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Giacomo Leopardi; Fishers of Men; Brilliant, arrived

A short post, since my deadline for my book has gone well into post-death, zombie time. Yesterday, though, brought encouragement in the mail. On lousy days I like to think of the review books that show up from publishers as "presents"; but they're usually the kind of presents you'd get from a semi-hostile distant relation. How else to describe the multiple copies of Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest I've received? According to the flap copy (which, to be fair, should rarely be trusted), it's a journey from crippling depression to self-acceptance by way of magic mushrooms and "shamanic ceremonies" in South America. Christ. I think I knew this kid back in college. You probably did, too. It's a good thing we have the Indians and their rituals to help us accept ourselves.

(My apologies to Adam Elenbaas if your book is not what your publisher has packaged it as. I know what that's about. But some of the blurbs from your friends really aren't helping -- that one about how tripping made you "God-realized" and capable of seeing the Christ we all need, or something like that? Or the one celebrating the "gradual absorption of ayahuasca shamanism into North American culture"? Really? Because absorption turned out so well for North American Indians?)

But yesterday, it really did seem like I received presents in the mail. Probably from a shaman, since the two books that arrived were both desired? One is Jane Brox's new Brilliant, about which I made a note here before; the other is Canti, a thick, bilingual edition of the poems of Giacomo Leopardi translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi. I learned about Leopardi, said to be one the first modern European poets, while I was reporting a profile on the cultural critic Cornel West:

“That’s the American way,” says West when I raise the question of the blue note and its dismissal, the common conviction that looking forward means forgetting the past. “ ‘No problem we cannot solve,’” he says, paraphrasing conventional wisdom. Well, that’s a lie. I don’t know why Americans tell that lie all the time.” He laughs, shaking in his chair, mimicking a voice that sounds like a suburban golfer in pants a size too small. “‘No problem we can’t get beyond.’ That’s a lie! But—it generates a strenuous mood.”
This, to West, is a good thing, the naiveté that makes ambition possible. “Engagement! I like that. Now, Brother Leopardi on the other hand”—Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th century Italian poet-philosopher revered in Italy but little read in the U.S—“he starts with what he calls, ‘The mind’s sweet shipwreck.’ Ain’t that a beautiful phrase?”
Leopardi should be the poet of our times, West tells me—late empire, mid-recession. “You hear about people rereading Steinbeck now,” he says, referring to a recent surge in sales of Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s Great Depression chronicle. “They got to go deeper than that!” Steinbeck lets us off too easy. West prescribes Brother Leopardi for “deep-sea diving of the soul,” a process’s not just personal but essential to understanding “the paradox of human freedom”: that we must summon the strength to resist and endure oppression even as we acknowledge that we are ultimately weak in the face of death and despair. “We are organisms of desire,” West defines the human condition, “whose first day of birth makes us old enough to die.”
West gets down on his hands and knees, crawling along the bottom shelf until he locates a green volume. “This is the Leopardi, brother.” He flips through the pages. “Oh, man! See this one? ‘I refuse even hope.’” He repeats the line, his body suddenly slack, staring at me as if to ask, “Do you follow?” I do, or, at least, I’ll try. West begins to read, rocking forwards and backwards at his hips like a metronome. “‘Everything is hidden,’” he reads, “‘Except our pain.’” He looks up. “Deep blues, man.” He returns to the green book in his hand. “We come, a forsaken race, / Crying into the world, and the gods / Keep their own counsel…’” I bend close, following the rhythm of his handwritten annotations down the margins: “blues,” “jazz,” “blues,” “blues,” “jazz.” ...
“Now, this, this is the greatest one,” West says, petting a page of Leopardi’s poems and looking at me with giant poem eyes as if to communicate the gravity of the words in his hand, the necessity of their immediate recitation.  He resumes rocking and reading:
That man has a truly noble nature
Who, without flinching, still can face
Our common plight, tell the truth
With an honest tongue,
Admit the evil lot we’ve been given
And the abject, impotent condition we’re in;
Who shows himself great and full of grace
Under pressure.…
West closes his book and stands still. His head shakes back and forth with admiration. That’s too polite a word for the emotion flooding over him: it’s relief, gratitude. 
After that interview I walked across the street from West's Princeton office and looked for a copy of Leopardi at Labyrinth Books, an amazing bookstore (with one of the best remainder tables I know of) that was my best bet for finding such a volume. No luck. I suppose I could have ordered one from Amazon, but books like this -- books that you bump into by accident -- are best waited for.