Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Snowden Prophecy, 1991

My father, preparing to move, has been sending me boxes of old papers. Today's prescient find: a nonfiction story I wrote for Michael Lesy's literary journalism class at Hampshire College in 1991. 1991--23 years ago, 22 years before Edward Snowden's revelations.

The prescience isn't mine but that of a college friend I'll call "Kyle." Kyle, Lorraine, Steve, and I had driven several hours north to what we thought was going to be a sizable drug deal, several pounds of pot that'd transform our lives. But it didn't work out that way.
"I don't like this," Kyle said, lighting another cigarette. "The FBI have aerial surveillance. They could be watching us right now, waiting for us to buy the pot so they can bust us." 
"Christ," I said, "why would they care?" 
"Because," Kyle said with complete seriousness, "it's a war on drugs. They can track down anybody. The CIA stole this software that tracks dissidents. They can use it to keep tabs on anybody, anywhere." 
"That's ridiculous. How can they track you on a computer if you don't use a computer?" I asked. 
"You don't have to use a computer! Wherever you go you leave traces. Phone conversations, bank transactions, receipts; they have access to all the video cameras filming you when you go into a store! You can't exist in this society without them knowing. If you're a dissident, they'll find you anywhere." 
"Shut up," Steve said.
Kyle smoked a lot of weed, ate a lot of acid and read a lot of Philip K. Dick. I didn't believe him that day, or awhile later when he tried to describe something called "the web." When he withdrew from college to deal with some mental health issues, I thought the verdict was in: just crazy talk, all of it.

Sorry, Kyle. You saw it coming.

Monday, May 5, 2014

My New Book, Radiant Truths

My new book, Radiant Truths
published April 29 by Yale University Press

Read an excerpt, "This Mutant Genre."

Buy the book.

"Rare is the collection of other people’s writing that coheres into something new and original; and rarer still is the one that takes on meaning because we read it through the eyes of the collector. Radiant Truths is exactly that rarity."
            --Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Review of Books

Radiant Truths an important book. I know people say that a lot about all kinds of books, but this one really is important, particularly if you take into account a couple influential trends in American culture.... Radiant Truths features some of America’s best writers, well known and not, at the top of their game, attempting to explain the unexplainable. And Sharlet is an excellent guide showing how, in almost every case, the writers he showcases get close to that impossible goal of literary journalism, "perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise.                                                                                                                         --Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, The Daily Beast

Sharlet assembles a highly literate potpourri of writings about religion, faith and other manifestations of “the production of social life.” 
The phrase, notes the author in his introduction, is a commonplace of cultural anthropology, describing the narratives that enable us to live in the world: Jesus died for our sins, America is an exceptional nation blessed by God, and so forth. Interestingly, Sharlet’s chief criterion here is to gather pieces that speak to “what happens when we say ‘religion’ out loud.” The collection begins and ends with Walt Whitman: At the start, he is praying and singing with wounded Union soldiers in a Washington hospital, while at the end, writer Francine Prose is moved to tears on seeing his words, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” on a sign above the Occupy Wall Street encampment, inspired to resist “the awful isolation and powerlessness of knowing we’re being lied to and robbed on a daily basis.” Between those Whitmanesque braces are numerous pieces that are not widely enough known, such as pioneering journalist Abraham Cahan’s report from the streets of New York on the suicide of a Jewish man at Purim... Meridel Le Sueur’s almost supernaturally charged account of the Minneapolis strike of 1934, a Woody Guthrie song come to life (“the walking, falling back, the open mouth crying, the nostrils stretched apart, the raised hand, the blow falling, and the outstretched hand drawing me in”); and H.L. Mencken’s dismissive analysis of the fundamentalism that propelled the Scopes Monkey Trial: “Divine inspiration is as common as the hookworm.” 
...Readers will find plenty here to sustain questions—and perhaps even a few answers—of their own.                                                                                                                                               --Kirkus

Sharlet is an astute commentator on and questioner of American writings that investigate belief and disbelief, popular culture, and the meaning of religion and politics in American life. Here he gathers and comments on pieces composed from the Civil War through Occupy Wall Street. The collection is eclectic, in the best sense, and includes works from a broad spectrum of writers such as Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Meridel Le Seur, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Francine Prose, and others to discuss "things unseen" and the meaning of an engaged conversation about religion. 
VERDICT: Sharlet's important and thought-provoking book is highly recommended for readers who are interested in our country's culture (both religious and political), creative and literary nonfiction, and well-written, well-argued writing.—Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence                                                                                                                         --Library Journal

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How to Read Wisconsin Death Trip

The following are reading notes I made for my Dartmouth College course "Raising the Dead," a creative writing and reading course in experimental nonfictions. I teach one of the books that introduced me to the genre, Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, who taught me as an undergraduate 20 years ago. Back then, my classmates at Hampshire College and I were puzzled by the book, enthralled by it. I remain both puzzled and enthralled. First time I taught it at Dartmouth most of my students dismissed it out of hand. "It doesn't make sense," they said. "True," I agreed. "That doesn't make sense, either," they said. The problem, I came to suspect, was that they had little experience with a text without a plot, a text without an argument, a poem that does not look like a poem.

So I made these reading notes, about one of the first images in the book. This horse. The first time we see the horse, we get only the body. Emphasis on the mane. Emphasis on the phallus. Turn the pages, and the whole emerges. How to account for this? There are many possibilities. These are a few of them.

We begin with a horse. Or rather, a cropped photograph of a horse, a picture of part of a horse. Which part? Not the head, not the eyes -- the part of every animal we look to first.

Instead, a dichotomy: the mane and the phallus. The mane, an extraordinary mane, can’t be ignored; the phallus, meanwhile, has been made the focal point by the cropping of the image. So we look first at the mane and tally the obvious: long, white, wavy. Perhaps Rapunzel comes to mind. As for the phallus, there’s nothing so whimsical; just the fact of it.

In the text that follows, Lesy alerts us to his interest in archetypes. So we can read his cropped photo, his selection, in “traditional” terms: the mane is the feminine, the phallus is the male.

If that seems too simple, too reductive—as it should—just wait.

We read the introduction. We learn that there will be photographs of horses because the photographer, Charles Van Schaick, was paid to take photographs of horses. We learn that the photographer’s intentions were banal; at least, the ones he knew about. We learn that Lesy believes we have more intentions than we know about.

Then we turn the page, past the big numeral one—and again, the horse. Same picture. Right side of the page. Just the horse and nothing but the horse and not even the whole horse. Look at this horse! says Lesy. Because, after all, it seems to be a remarkable horse.

I mean, have you ever seen a horse like that?

“The thing to worry about,” Lesy has just told us, “is meanings, not appearances.”

Perhaps you, like me, are worrying about meanings. Perhaps you’re worrying, looking at this strange horse, that you don’t get it.

So you turn the page.  Ah! The whole horse. The horse depicted as a horse should be depicted, standing in profile, its most wonderful feature – that mane! – restored to its proper place as the focal point of the image, no longer in tension with the phallus. Now we know where to look and how to read the picture.

Nice horse. 

But what’s with this horse on the next page? 

Cropped, again. (In the book, we see just the body.) The whole head chopped off. (A horse head? The Godfather?* When did that come out? To Wikipedia: 1972. And Wisconsin Death Trip? 1973. Is it possible? That connection? But to what end? The horse head: chopped off. A warning?)

What’s left: Ribs. A reflection of the white horse’s mane, a photo negative. The glorious flamboyance reflected as bone against flesh. Mortality. Lesy’s told us what to look for: Life and death. Here we have it.

Turn the page. (Same image, cropped even tighter.) Closer now, the ribs, mortality, death, but the “camera” – Lesy’s cropping, our gaze – moves, up toward the head, almost to the head, almost to the eyes. Almost but not quite. Almost to the eyes looking toward the text, the page, our destination. Our eyes move there; we complete the horse, become the horse, the horse’s ribs become our ribs, the white horse’s mane our beauty, and now we’re in, animal observers of the stories that follow.

But how to read these stories? NOT STRAIGHT THROUGH. You’d die of terror or boredom or numbness. It’s worth paying attention to the title: A death trip. The drug allusion is deliberate: The book is a product of its times even as it stands outside of normal time. Now, I know none of us have any experience with mind-altering drugs, but we’ve seen the effects in the movies, so we know the experience isn’t linear or even narrative, precisely.

It may help us to turn to the definition of the “lyric essay” offered by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, champions of the form: “Lyric essays forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. . . . [The lyric essay] might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic.”

“Sidewinding poetic logic.” A poetic logic by which we give attention to repetition and pattern; a sidewinding logic in which we look for these patterns not by plowing from A to B to C but by jumping from A to K to G.

In other words, read enough of Wisconsin Death Trip straight through to start picking up patterns; then start jumping around.

And I do mean jump around – that means you jump backwards as well as forwards.

But all along, you're paying attention to the text to which Lesy calls our special attention. The passages of his writing – the full page italics, the conclusion, the boxed prose poems of themes in various years – and the passages of his commentators, as defined in his introduction.

The clippings are just that, clippings, no more no less. Read them, but not all of them; mark them not for information but for the moment when juxtapositions begin to make sense.

ONE LAST PIECE OF ADVICE: Return to the pictures. That’s the death trip. Note Lesy’s manipulations, his commentary in the form of line drawings. Don’t try to decode them; try to inhabit the pictures and the mind of this strange person, “Michael Lesy,” who has gathered them for us.

* You may be wondering what The Godfather is. That’s ok. That’s how allusion, intended and accidental, works: not by directing us only to texts we’re familiar with but by sending us off toward texts we don’t know, by developing a context, a landscape. It’s ok if we don’t catch all the allusions. They’re just there. Or they’re not.