Thursday, November 23, 2017

"Flowering Judas" (1930)


Katherine Anne Porter's story is set in Mexico during revolutionary times. It's a murky but cosmopolitan scene. Our main character, Laura, is Anglo. A vaguely menacing character, Braggioni, is Italian. And there are Indians, Poles, Romanians, others. Already I get a hit of the surreal sense of Latin American literature, or culture, a kind of acceptance of the absurd that requires no discussion. Laura is frequently described in nun-like terms, and she dresses and behaves modestly. Braggioni is interested in her—courting her, even, but not in any way that she appears able to decline. She's in a situation, somehow, where her best choice may be to go along with it for the time being. Her occupation is described as teaching Indian children. Braggioni serenades her, singing and playing a guitar. "She knows what Braggioni would offer her, and she must resist tenaciously without appearing to resist, and if she could avoid it she would not admit even to herself the slow drift of his intention." Braggioni was some kind of commanding soldier in the revolution, grounded in carnal realities and equations of power. Despite Laura's modest manner and reserve, or perhaps because of them, Braggioni lusts for her: "he wishes to impress this simple girl who covers her great round breasts with thick dark cloth, and who hides long, invaluably beautiful legs under a heavy skirt." Laura is more than a teacher—she obviously has a stake and specific personal reasons to be there, attending union meetings and visiting political prisoners. Even if she were interested in a relationship she probably wouldn't have time—but, again, she appears to have limited choice, beyond those for any Anglo woman in that time and place. As we come to learn, she is also somehow involved in subversive activity. There's a strong but fleeting suggestion that she may have provided the means for a political prisoner to commit suicide. There are many layers to reality in this story, and tearing one layer away also can have the effect of resetting reality to a new ground. Laura is afraid of Braggioni's vindictiveness, which could leave her even more vulnerable in a situation she seems more committed to than ever. The story ends with a bad dream Laura has after going to bed. There's a sense there are many days and nights like this still ahead of her—and many already behind her. The language and images are precision-fitted, and altogether it's a pretty good story.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

I tried to go into Blade Runner 2049 with an open mind, even though I'm inclined to be suspicious of all sequels, reboots, and the like, I'm really not convinced of anything yet about director Denis Villeneuve, I had gleaned enough about the response to know it's already considered a disappointment and commercial flop, and last but not least I knew it was nearly three hours going in. Four strikes, you're out, man. And there were more red flags too, one each for Ridley Scott, Ryan Gosling, and Harrison Ford, each a problem for different reasons. I'm officially tired of Ford's farewell tour of his career greatest hits, after the Star Wars reboot, another Indiana Jones on the way, and who knows what else. Philip K. Dick's name comes after all of the above in the credits, which is probably as it should be because the whole thing is not very Dickian at all anymore. It is Ridley Scottian, and Harrison Fordian, and maybe even young Ryan Goslingian before it is Dickian. But Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuvian more than anything by way of his indulgence for high concept and tricksy plot developments, previously seen in Incendies and Arrival (at least). Sicario is the best and most exciting I've seen by him so far, looking for its complexities in the intricate levels of power in the cross-border drug trade, with everything else straightforward and somehow achieving a unique lucidity. Blade Runner, of course, is all concept and nothing straightforward, as received, and with the franchise now openly abandoning Dick and developing in other ways. It lifts a page from the Battlestar Galactica playbook and turns our tale of corporatism and human simulacrums into a story about robots interbreeding and giving birth, as opposed to being manufactured. This, you see—being born—is the dividing line between having a soul and not having one. It is all very busy building to a Big Reveal, which I admit seemed to play fair by all the rules I understand in these games of narrative peekaboo (and note that I'm not giving anything away). Yet it amounted to nothing—much like the reveal in Arrival, something garbled about perception and time and sadness. Blade Runner 2049 is long and feels every minute. Everything good about it is better in any one of the three or four cuts Ridley Scott already took at the original. At least it's beautiful. This franchise is a mess. Philip Dick wept.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Sacred Fount (1901)

Henry James apparently disavowed this short but interminable novel, declining to include it in a comprehensive 1908 collection of his work. Whatever else it is, The Sacred Fount is difficult and annoying, that's for sure. Even the typically anodyne Wikipedia has a note of impatience in its summary: "[A]fter a while, the narrator's theories begin to drive everybody, including the reader, a little nuts." Yes, and what's more, as usual, finding the antecedents to the pronouns is the hard part, with generous portions of "that to which he had earlier referred" and the like. The consensus appears to be that this nuanced narrator is overly interested in various sexual affairs going on behind the scenes at a weekend gathering in the country, and that might indeed be what this novel is about. I'm struck, however, that the basic clue appears to be who has aged among the weekend attendees, and who, improbably, has grown more youthful. Some of these people are 40 and look 25, that is, but their descriptions are rendered in such excruciating detail that I'm halfway willing to believe they actually are younger, and this is some kind of science fiction twist (after all, we've seen that James likes detective and horror stylings). "The sacred fount" is not sex, as most take it, but literally the thing Ponce de Leon was looking for. These richies have a line on it. Although that doesn't explain some of the unnatural aging of some of the other characters, so fuck that. The novel is probably short enough it could be mistaken for a Dick Francis in mass market paperback, but don't let that fool you. You're going to want to hurl this one across the room frequently, and you can take that as a recommendation underlining James's own instinct to avoid it—I read it so you don't have to—or perhaps you can take it as a personal challenge. After all, it's so short. It does have a kind of spooky Twilight Zone air somehow, as if the narrator is the only one truly alive there and the others come to life only when he engages them in conversation. Otherwise they are like murmuring extras in party and dinner scenes in movies like Last Year at Marienbad. If you're going to read The Sacred Fount, see if you don't agree with me that there really is some kind of potion or elixir these wealthy privileged characters are sharing with (and/or denying to) one another. They are visibly becoming younger even over the course of the weekend. In another week they might be teenagers. What the point of that could possibly be, I admit, is not a question I'm ready to answer yet. One theory that occurred to me is that James read Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and it made him mad with jealousy. Following this came arguably his greatest period of work.

"interlocutor" count = 14 / 172 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

87th Precinct directory

87th Precinct: 11 books to read first
Tricks (1987)
The Con Man (1957)
The Empty Hours (1962)
Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here (1971)
Killer's Choice (1957)
So Long As You Both Shall Live (1976)
King's Ransom (1959)
Poison (1987)
Lady, Lady I Did It (1961)
Fuzz (1968)
Cop Hater (1956)

List of reviews in series order after the jump.

Fiddlers (2005)

I don't know for sure that Ed McBain knew this would be the last novel in his 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, but he probably knew at least that it was approximately the 55th. McBain was also known as Evan Hunter, but his real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino and he was a pro to the end. The case here turns on a series of murders that are linked by the gun and method used—a Glock and two shots to the face. The title returns to one of his characteristic titling strategies, a single word played various ways. One of the victims here plays violin professionally, and the killer complains that all his victims fiddled with his life. It's decently constructed if a little rickety. There's a great joke here when Meyer Meyer confronts the killer. McBain certainly seems to be making a point of including everyone (and, interestingly, mentioning many of their ages). So Genero is here, and Eileen Burke, and even Nellie Brand, the prosecuting attorney who often showed up conducting formal interviews at the ends of his books. It's a little bit like the last episode of Seinfeld that way. I was distracted by some of the details about age that were disclosed. For example, Steve Carella's twin children, Mark and April, are fixed at 13 years old. They were born in the second of three novels McBain published in 1959 ('Til Death). Similarly, Bert Kling is identified as being 33 and we first saw him promoted as a raw rookie in the second of three novels McBain published in 1956 (The Mugger). He wasn't 17—I remember him being more like 23 or 24, or perhaps 21—so it's evident that time streams across the whole series are somewhat flexible from character to character. I can't say it's a surprise, as the amazing floating ages of Mark and April alone have always led to certain dislocations of perception. Kling also takes one more relationship pratfall in this one, with troubling aspects of his personality revealed again. But he's also made out to be a martyr, with his age specified. In a way, a sad way, his whole life turns out to be a joke. But Fiddlers involves a lot of wistful sadness anyway, some on McBain's part and some on my own, as I felt the ending of the whole thing close in. Is it flawed? Of course. In fact, as I've worked on putting together a short list of the best from the series, I've been dogged by the lack of consistency even within single novels. And the larger project in turn is brought down a little by a sense of dead ends and missed opportunities. Sure, he could have done more. Like Oskar Schindler, we all could. But 54 (or 55) books, any one of which will fly fine on an airplane, is not bad. Not bad at all.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Frumious Bandersnatch (2004)

Like most of the later novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, The Frumious Bandersnatch is loose and uneven, with some aspects given more thoughtful attention than others. McBain concocts a plot based on Lewis Carroll and hip-hop. Most of the energy is spent on the first very long chapter, which details a sensational kidnapping that happens to be captured by a TV crew. A new performing talent, Tamar Valparaiso, is about to release a debut album, a concept album which riffs on Carroll's "Jabberwocky." (I'm not sure whether McBain knew it, but there was a '60s psychedelic rock band from San Francisco called the Frumious Bandersnatch, whose members went on to play with Steve Miller and/or Journey.) At the launch party for the album, on a boat in the harbor, Valparaiso is kidnapped in a daring, brazen, etc., and we're off and running. The jurisdiction of the crime falls to the 87th, but because it's a kidnapping the FBI is involved. Our usual hero Steve Carella is dispatched to work with them. But there are tensions because the FBI has no respect for local cops. Inevitably Carella shows them how wrong they are. Once again, Fat Ollie Weeks is here because McBain likes writing about him. He has some unconnected scenes as he starts to date a uniform officer, Patricia Gomez. Because she's Hispanic, Fat Ollie has to confront his own bigotry. It's pretty much predictable but there's a surprising moment at the end of one of their dates. Meanwhile, the main case takes an ugly turn at the end—McBain actually finds a new way to be cruel with the fate of the singer. Overall the Carroll element is weak, most of it built into the singer and her album. But McBain randomly inserts Carrollisms all the way, to keep the concept freshened and perhaps out of appreciation for the always strangely lyrical nonsense syllables. Otherwise it's all familiar elements present and accounted for, e.g., the late humanizing of Fat Ollie. Bert Kling and his African-American surgeon girlfriend Dr. Sharyn Cooke get some scenes. McBain's voice is still engaging, but he's less energetic, more prone to dated ways of thinking. Not bad if you're getting to all of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Fat Ollie's Book (2002)

I've been through nearly all of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain now, and it is finally just dawning on me that Fat Ollie Weeks is McBain's favorite character in the whole thing after only Steve Carella. Which, in turn, raises interesting questions about McBain's own Jekyll and Hyde personality tendencies. Carella is a boy scout practically as good as it's possible for a human being to be. And Fat Ollie is nearly the opposite. He's fat, he's a slob, he doesn't go by the book, and he's a bigot. The only thing they have in common is they're both good detectives. But heck, Fat Olllie doesn't even work for the 87th Precinct. He's always been part of the neighboring 88th. He came along in the '70s and then just never went away. It was confusing not least because there was already one outspoken racist turd, Andy Parker, who was always part of the series. He's even in this one. Unlike Parker, Fat Ollie is smart and entertaining, though he tends to be despicable before anything else. But McBain evidently saw something redeemable in him, made him slightly more vulnerable in places, and set him loose. This book is his great moment, more or less. He's hot on his own big case, the murder of a politician, and incidentally trying to recover the manuscript of a novel he has written, Report to the Commissioner, which was stolen with his briefcase. It's the only copy he has so he's a little desperate. Fortunately, the thief is also a character in the case, so that means we get to see sections of it. It is actually funny, which means McBain accomplished the feat of writing funny too, no easy thing. What he did not accomplish, however, was writing funny and writing a decent mystery story, let alone police procedural. This is all for the laughs, and they are there, but it also feels like a wasted 87th Precinct story. It's late in the series, when McBain was getting sentimental, injecting more reminders of past cases, and outright reminiscing. Fat Ollie's Book just kind of lays there, until the excerpts from Fat Ollie's book come along, and they are entertaining. Some of that is because it's such paper-thin recasting of reality in the 87th Precinct world, such as Fat Ollie hiding his identity by making his first-person narrator / detective a woman named Olivia Wesley Watts (as opposed to Oliver Wendell Weeks). Some of it is because he's trying to skate by his own grammatical ignorance. After asking a rhetorical question, for example, Fat Ollie's narrator goes on: "I guess you know better than me, [Mr. Commissioner]. Or perhaps even better than I." And some of it is just because it's all so absurd. On the other hand, I'm not sure Fat Ollie's Book would be funny at all to someone not familiar with the series. Even if you are, it's still not one to hurry to get to.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nocturne (1997)

Nocturne may not feel as tired as other late entries in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—as tired, I say. It's still tired compared to titles before about 1980. The mystery story is complicated too, and gets hard to follow. One of McBain's favorite jokes here—he goes to it at least three times—involves people talking about that movie Alfred Hitchcock wrote called The Birds. Then other characters say they don't think Hitchcock wrote it. In fact, of course, McBain wrote it 35 years earlier under his Evan Hunter pseudonym. Another running joke starts with the death of the primary victim, gunned down point-blank with two shots to the heart. Most times this comes up someone says they saw that movie, and someone else says they don't think that's what it was called. It sounds like the reference is to One From the Heart, which was 15 years old at the time, but who knows? Happens in passing and never explained. The main case involves an old woman who is shot to death along with her cat. Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes are on the case, and yes, once again, Fat Ollie Weeks shows up working a case that might be related. He's not that offensive this time. Mostly he just works his case. The old woman was formerly a celebrated concert pianist brought low by arthritis and nagging hearing problems. Her granddaughter is also a pianist, but not as talented and more in the cocktail lounge style. The more I summarize the plot points the more contrived it looks. Cruel high school football players—or psychotic, really—are also on the town, preying on the vulnerable, though it's mostly played for laughs. That's the case Fat Ollie is working. Step away from McBain's storytelling voice and the jokes are not funny at all. Maybe that's a continuing problem, especially with these later ones. What once seemed dark and sardonic humor inflecting the action has turned steadily into easy cynicism, with exaggerations. People are bad enough. You don't have to exaggerate that. Save this for later, or read the series in order. Either way, this one can wait.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mischief (1993)

Though it's another Deaf Man episode, this police procedural in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain was more competent and engaging than I expected. It has numerous cases besides the Deaf Man story, and is also one of the very biggest entries by page count. The balance helps. More than anything, however, Mischief is an attempt at a statement on race in the wake of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riot which unfortunately falls short. There is a rap group here, Spit Shine—to start with, that strikes me as a terrible name. McBain's understanding of hip-hop is essentially stillborn. But at least he's trying? I liked the detective pairings in this one and how McBain used them to explore the chemistry of the characters. With McBain actively addressing both racial tension and political correctness, inevitably there will be wincing. Steve Carella, of course, gets the Deaf Man case, with Arthur Brown, the chronically underutilized African-American detective, here rotated more toward the front. Bert Kling and Andy Parker work an unlikely case of a serial killer. Someone is murdering graffiti artists (which McBain calls graffiti "writers"—I don't think I've ever heard that term). Parker used to be the chief designated racist in the series until Fat Ollie Weeks came along, but McBain still reaches for him as needed for the extra helping of obnoxious bigotry. Parker is always a reliable source of wincing, both for his sake and McBain's. Parker and his escapades are bad enough (very bad) so next to him Kling gets to play the good cop role, though he's often not a good cop. Mischief is also where Kling first meets a later love interest, Sharyn Cooke, an African-American forensics physician and surgeon. In many ways, the case that Kling and Parker are working is the A story here, though ultimately the Deaf Man is reserved for the finish—another elaborate crime with taunting clues as we go. In the social realism department, Meyer Meyer and Cotton Hawes are investigating seniors with dementia who are being dumped around the city. They have no ID and don't know who they are. If Mischief is dated and painful at least it is dated and painful in intriguing little ways, incidentally offering a profile of a white man with all the best intentions attempting to understand racial issues, and failing. I sympathize a little, because I'm sure I make my own mistakes, but that doesn't mean it isn't painful. At least it's a decent police procedural.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Fuzz (1968)

I got to this entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain late, partly because it's another odd bird as commercial product. Is this some matter of unusual holders of publishing rights? Even the kindle version is more expensive than most, which is the kind of problem seen more often in the 87th Precinct novels from the '90s and later. Fuzz was made into a movie in 1972, set in Boston and starring Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch, which might explain it. McBain wrote the screenplay using his Evan Hunter pseudonym. I haven't seen the movie. One of the plot lines is about teenagers who are hunting homeless people and setting them on fire, and shortly after the movie was released a number of copycat incidents occurred in Boston and Miami, for which the picture was blamed. That might explain it too, as similar problems followed release of A Clockwork Orange a year earlier and that movie was banned in London as a result. At any rate I'm glad it took a little while to get to it because Fuzz is actually a pretty good one, much better than the later titles I've been getting around to lately. It's short, barely 200 pages, but juggling three separate stories. The main case is another Deaf Man episode, with heavy emphasis on the masterful criminal masterminding, conducted with great mastery. As always, his antics are exaggerated to superheroic proportions. Here he is killing Isola city officials (with the greatest of ease) and demanding increasingly high extortion amounts to stop doing it. So it's a mixed bag—the Deaf Man episodes are always comic book jive, though Fuzz is not as bad as some of the others (notably his perfectly unbelievable introduction in The Heckler). The other two cases—the arson assaults on the homeless, and a weird stick-up plot that's there mainly to service the Deaf Man resolution—are more or less weak sauce, but McBain's writing is more vivid and freewheeling even than usual. Basically, it feels like he had more fun writing it. Whether it's worth paying the collectible premium is another matter, but you can easily enough get your hands on it for $10 or less.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Doll (1965)

The 20th novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain comes with a few mysteries of its own outside the covers of the book. Though copies are easily enough obtained, it takes a little extra work because presently it is out of print and there is no kindle edition. Doll is unusually violent, even for McBain, but not so much you'd think it would be just abandoned this way. The paperback I tracked down was printed in the US, but obviously edited for UK readers, at least in terms of its quotation marks, if not the variant spellings. Who knows? Anyone? It opens on a woman being slashed to death while her toddler daughter plays in the next room. The woman is divorced and a successful model, but with a dark secret to hide. It's an early use of a single-word title worked all different ways across the story. The dead woman is a model, or "doll," and her daughter plays with a doll during the murder, the doll that eventually breaks the case open. Other strange things: the much more grim tone than normal—very little of the light-hearted banter. Another would-be death of Steve Carella. A still grieving and totally broken-down Bert Kling, who is becoming the kind of bad cop everyone recognizes as such (compared with later in the series, when his lapses seem to be intended more on the order of overzealous bad form). In fact, it's so bad with Kling that he is booted off the squad. Temporarily, obviously—I'm throwing spoiler warnings to the wind here because Doll is just such an unusual entry in the series. Looking up fan reviews on Goodreads, I see that many consider it one of the best. The bad things are very bad here—heroin addiction and torture are more elements in play. But it does not feel like McBain is having much fun. He's not straining for effect here. It's just dark. But it makes me wonder about the circumstances of writing and publishing it. Is it really the high level of depravity that's keeping it out of print and off the kindle reading programs? I thought that stuff was more the norm these days. Did McBain himself have some say (or some specific lack of it) in suppressing it? Is it even fair to say suppressed? They feel like the real mysteries here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Jaws (1975)

USA, 124 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Photography: Bill Butler
Music: John Williams
Editor: Verna Fields
Cast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb

A few weeks ago, catching up on horror backlog during the Halloween season, I got a chance to see Frozen (from 2010, not to be confused with the Disney animation from 2013), which is pretty nifty and actually much better than I expected. Two particular things I noticed: the name of one of the production companies involved is A Bigger Boat, and in an interview director and writer Adam Green declared—tongue no doubt in cheek, but still—that he wanted to make a movie that would do for chairlifts at ski resorts what Jaws did for sharks at summer beaches. This in turn impressed two more things on me: the enduring impact of Jaws, and my basic immunity to its premise.

I mean that I'm not afraid of sharks, never have been, and never give them a thought. (Ditto chairlifts.) It's not like they're zombies or evil spirits or something. But I've watched people seized by the delicious agonies of the fear of them nearly all my life. That's just one more long-term effect of Jaws—adding sharks to the pantheon of classic movie monsters and/or gnawing human phobias (piranha too for that matter). The creature from Black Lagoon has nothing on these beasts, except similarly beautiful underwater footage. Over 40 years later we have a ridiculous Sharknado franchise going and some pretty good movies like The Shallows too. And they're all about sharks, which actually pose less danger to us individually than radical Islamic terrorists, tipping furniture, slips in the bathtub, or air flight crashes—probably combined.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

"The Cask of Amontillado" (1846)

Read story by Edgar Allan Poe online.

Edgar Allan Poe's dank tale of revenge, murder, and appalling cruelty is just about the perfect short story—a dark horror play with a twist ending and all elements laid in to support it. I'm about to give it away any minute so go read it if you haven't because of course that's where it is told best. In Italy, during carnival time, the first-person narrator Montresor lures a friend he has come to despise down to the wine cellar of his palazzo, offering to share a very good new wine he says he has acquired at a good price, an amontillado. Montresor's friend, Fortunato (O irony), is already half-drunk from the revels, wearing a jester's costume. The story, though it is dark and cruel, is also funny in many ways. Montresor's rage about Fortunato's unspecified "thousand injuries" and "insult," with his description of the rules for administering revenge, are as comical as they are mad. At one point, Fortunato challenges Montresor's claim to belong to the masons by asking him for the secret sign. Montresor reaches into his cloak and produces a trowel. On first reading, we don't know the significance of this any more than Fortunato and the gesture is more strange than explanatory. Later, when we know better, it is somehow even more funny—something about the mystique of the masons, perhaps, juxtaposed with the homely construction tool, momentarily like a scene from Laurel and Hardy. The setting in the catacombs of a palazzo is perfect—evocative of the 19th-century American view of Europe as a moldering graveyard, decaying and debased. Montresor's crime is impossibly perfect. He plays Fortunato with precision, luring him deeper and deeper into the catacombs. "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser," Montrosor notes early, later confirming that his crime is still unpunished after 50 years. In fact, it's all a bit too perfect. It might just be an impotent daydream after all. But it's a remarkable feat indeed to lull us as readers enough that we take sympathetic satisfaction from the crime as it goes down, relishing the pleasure of it with Montresor, though we have no idea what Fortunato did to deserve it. We see some ambiguous, potentially dismissive attitude by Fortunato toward Montresor, but not much. Mostly we are caught up in the seething rage and clinical precision of Montresor's monstrous deed. "[The wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong," Montresor also mentions as preface, and later he sees to that as well. Fortunato knows what is happening to him and, most importantly, by whom. "The Cask of Amontillado" might even be better than some of the revenge fantasies I've played in my own head. Don't miss those jingling bells on Fortunato's carnival cap.

"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe (Library of America)

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

This is the longest of the slave narratives gathered up in the Library of America volume, just over 200 printed pages. It's also from the 18th century, published in 1789. It has nothing to say about the American Revolution, but then Equiano's experiences in the North American colonies were limited and among his worst, in a life full of misfortune. He identified more as a European and lived his slavery years in the West Indies. I say his life was full of misfortune, but compared with many he had a good life. He chronicles some of the depravities he sees—he has particular revulsion for manufactured articles such as iron muzzles and thumbscrews. But what's more often shocking to me is the utter lack of value of Africans in society, except as property, in terms of money. For example, a black man's testimony couldn't be taken against a white man. It was against the law. Against the law. Thus, when Equiano is robbed and swindled, as he often is, he has no legal recourse whatsoever. I know it's arguably still like that now with the way many police departments operate, but at least there's the fig leaf of formal laws. At that time, in that place, it's as if Equiano's existence were simply negated. Another interesting theme I hadn't anticipated, but could have, is a continuing preoccupation with kidnapping. For obvious reasons it is actually the central fact of his life and many African lives, often occurring, as in Equiano's case, in childhood. He was 11 when he was kidnapped with his older sister, separated from her, and heartbreakingly reunited with her briefly. Then he never sees or hears of her again, nor indeed any of his family. As with the previous slave narrative, by James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Equiano also focuses on his Christian awakening and/or rebirth. It's certainly easier to see the appeal of religion in the context of 18th-century slavery. What I like about both of these first two memoirs is the sunny disposition of their authors. They are enduring levels of pain, privation, and danger I can barely imagine. They see a great many terrible things, and they are affected profoundly. But somehow they carry on. If it's from belief in the goodness of Christ, well, all right. I'll take those morals if a person really lives them. Equiano lived them, there's no question of it. There are always questions when it comes to text. I understand that. Even though it's the longest one here, it feels compressed and "edited for space." He lived a long, full, aware, and, yes, interesting life, and he left us this account of it as well. Wonderful stuff.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

"Home" (1978)

Story by Jayne Anne Phillips not available online.

Jayne Anne Phillips tells another story, which like "The Heavenly Animal" is also from her third collection of stories, Black Tickets, about fractured relationships in a modern media world. The first-person narrator, who goes unnamed, is 23 years old and recently returned home to live with her mother for an unspecified time. "I ran out of money and I wasn't in love, so I came home to my mother," is how she explains the situation. They watch the evening news most nights and worry about the general health of Walter Cronkite. Her mother is a professional, an "educational administrator," who works during the day and comes home and knits in front of the TV at night. They watch a lot of TV and attempt in various ways to connect. And they do connect, but they are also separated by the daughter's interest in exploring her sexuality. It looks—and not only to her mother—as if she is sinking into a life of serial monogamy, forever bewildered by an inability to forge something lasting. For the mother, it's alarming and depressing to see her daughter going that direction. The daughter, for her part, thinks her mother is just an old square. Her mother and father are divorced and there's some sense the father is dead now—a ne'er-do-well at best, as there is also a vague and ambiguous suggestion of sexual abuse. The narrative basically turns on the daughter inviting an old boyfriend for a visit. For the sake of the mother they stay in separate rooms, but they meet later for sex, which wakens and distresses the mother. The visiting ex-boyfriend is obviously a terrible relationship for the daughter—he's in another relationship and just taking advantage of an opportunity, though he's also sympathetic in other ways. I'm tempted to call the story dated because in many ways it could only take place in the '70s, but there's something broader and more universal about it than just that. It's a great example of a major direction for the short story after the '60s, with stories of broken families in American suburbs and a certain spiritual malaise (not actually Jimmy Carter's turn of phrase, but close enough), which lingered into the Reagan years and well beyond: divorce, TV, meaningless sex, temporary living conditions, and a grinding generation gap are typical elements. Phillips makes a pretty good job of it here, much better I think than "The Heavenly Animal."

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"The Heavenly Animal" (1975)

Story by Jayne Anne Phillips not available online.

This story by Jayne Anne Phillips has a lot of good ideas but never quite executes on them. The premise is so familiar to its times as to nearly verge on cliché, but I don't think that's the problem exactly. It's a baby boomer generation gap story about a young woman in her mid-20s, Jancy, whose parents have divorced acrimoniously and now she is stuck with the shattered pieces and ongoing fallout, still living at home with her mother. Her father refuses to visit or "even step on the grass" of the home he once shared with his ex-wife and Jancy. He lives only 10 blocks away and honks when he drives by and sees Jancy's car there. He expresses his love for her by making sure her car is maintained. Meanwhile, Jancy is footloose and often troubled by tormented relationships. This is good stuff, but it doesn't feel like Phillips gets very far into her material. She has a good sense for the way these people live their lives, but falls short a little in the expression. It somehow feels like she is telling more than showing, even as the story is full of short paragraphs and intriguing stylistic eccentricities such as no quotation marks for dialogue. Maybe this is ultimately more on the order of pioneering work, opening up a rich vein that others would mine with more success. Mary Gaitskill comes to mind. I like this kind of material actually a lot—family estrangements. I just expect them to be a little more heartrending than I found this story. It is built out of powerful emotional material, which is strangely distanced and inert. It labors for a big ending with an auto accident involving a deer, but feels too thought through and abstracted. I didn't like anyone here that much. The father is bumbling and means well but he's also an old-fashioned bigot. Jancy is too skittish and confused to trust, but it takes a bit to figure that out, with the result I felt a little tricked. I've already forgotten any impression of the mother. The father is extreme about rejecting his ex-wife even as he is slipping into unattractive cheap and easy ways to live, which make him look like he doesn't really care much about living at all. The whole car thing is where the story felt most stale to me, and it is fundamental to multiple strains in it. I guess that means I have to call it flawed. But I like the direction it's going.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Shining (1980)

UK / USA, 146 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Photography: John Alcott
Music: Krzysztof Penderecki, Bela Bartok, Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
Editor: Ray Lovejoy
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Danny Lloyd, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone

Here's a platitude. Horror is a matter of personal taste—whether you like it, first, and then what works and doesn't. I like horror, but The Shining has never worked for me particularly. It's too long, too slow, too dependent on performances that are mannered or desperate, with a story full of ridiculous holes. Among other things, it is at war with its source novel. The images that jolted me are only good once (blood inexplicably pouring out of an elevator shaft) or derivative (the twin girls, too reminiscent of Diane Arbus, though underlining director and cowriter Stanley Kubrick's origins as a photographer). I've never been impressed with Jack Nicholson's cackling looney tunes turn here, even less with Kubrick's mistreatment of Shelley Duvall to provoke the raw (and, yes, convincing) anxiety that she brings.

Yet that said, those kinds of problems and many others are hallmarks of Kubrick's career, and in spite of them I keep returning to his movies. So I have kept returning to The Shining, hoping something I could hold on to would shake loose. I got an important clue from the strange and often annoying 2012 documentary, Room 237, which features interviews with people obsessed with The Shining and what they think it's "really"  and "obviously" about: the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, an apologia by Kubrick for his part in the moon landing hoax, so on so forth. Out of this mess came my elusive moment of clarity, such as it was.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

"The Nightingales Sing" (1946)

Story by Elizabeth Parsons not available online.

I've spent a fair amount of time on this short story project characterizing some of the pieces I've encountered as "not a story"—that is, more like memoir, journalism, excerpt from something larger, or experiment of some kind. This story, published originally in the New Yorker, strikes me as more or less exactly what I have in mind as a short story. It's nearly perfect. It recounts a specific event, a visit by a young woman, Joanna, with the older brother of a friend to an eccentric household. She doesn't know the people living in the house at all, and she doesn't know the older brother well either. Her friend is not there because she came down sick at the last minute. The brother, Phil, kindly volunteered to accompany Joanna to a horse event she wanted to attend. That's where he meets his friends Sandy and Chris, who extend the invitation for the visit. Sandy and Chris are involved with one another, but Sandy is also married to another woman, with whom he also shares a house, shuttling between them. It's a small event, this visit, but seen through Joanna's eyes it's like encountering the world of adults for the first time all over again. There's no need to ask what the writer, Elizabeth Parsons, is trying to do. It's evident with every reaction from Joanna. This is what it's like to grow up. Suddenly you find yourself in a situation that changes you forever. The worlds of adults, responsibilities, and pleasures are revealed as infinitely complex, impossible to reduce to black and white platitudes. And more—discoveries like these, illuminating moments like this, may be the best life has to offer. Even after the brief evening visit is concluded and Joanna is home again, she realizes she will never be the same. Something has changed permanently and there is awe and mystery in the understanding. All that is compressed into this remarkable story of 16 pages or so, which stays close to Joanna's point of view but more often just dispassionately reports the events. From the way I'm talking about it I think it's fair to call it an epiphany story. Certainly something like that happens to Joanna. But what is the nature of her epiphany? That's not easily reduced to some didactic point, which is what makes this a great story. Joanna's experience vividly reminded me of some of my own early adventures in my late teens and early 20s, encountering unexpected revelations in my interactions with adults and strangers. There is a point where they shift from people who control you, abstracted authority figures, to flawed human beings a lot like you—peers. That's about as simple as I can make what I think Joanna finds in this wonderful story, and it's way too simplified for everything packed into it. This is one of the best stories in all these anthologies, even though, mysteriously, very little is known about the author.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Monday, October 23, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

There's enough to like about the unusual Twin Peaks redux to keep most fans going, probably, through the 18 one-hour episodes of David Lynch's intuitive crackpottery and never-ending freak show of the human unconscious. But there could also well be enough of those Lost Highway and Inland Empire dead ends to chase them away too. I wouldn't want to bet how many are actually making it all the way through The Return without bailing. For those who bailed, yeah, it only gets more inexplicable, but you missed Sheryl Lee. I know—at a certain point the mystery is why you care anymore about the mystery (inside the enigma wrapped in the riddle coiled around the conundrum all lathered up in ambiguous confusion). A certain exhaustion with mystery might be the very point and wouldn't that be fine.

I went all the way anyway and thought it was worth it. Not least because, with some 17-odd hours to spend, director David Lynch and his Twin Peaks writing partner Mark Frost found all kinds of surprising ways to be generous. Every cast member who made it back gets at least one genuinely nice scene, with the possible exception of Lucy Brennan, who is only annoying, and that's not Kimmy Robertson's fault. Even Lucy's now-husband Andy (Harry Goaz with a Jack Nance hairstyle) has one or two amazing scenes. (Did they marry on the show? I can't remember.) Lynch and Frost have sly fun with the legal cannabis now available in Twin Peaks, of course. Cherry pie and coffee make significant appearances, as they should. Laura Dern and Naomi Watts do their things, and are amazing as usual. And some of the most stunning establishing shots of cityscapes I have ever seen are casually tossed in there too—no kidding. Las Vegas and New York especially.

It's Kyle MacLachlan who makes the whole thing work, as much as it does, more than ever. Or it's easier to see how Dale Cooper is the one holding it together, from even the earliest scenes of the original TV series ("Sheriff, what kind of fantastic trees have you got growing around here?"). He gets the starring credit here and deserves it. He tears apart and puts back together the Dale Cooper role in a few different (albeit mystical) ways. David Lynch gets relatively more screen time than he's ever given himself, even in Fire Walk With Me, which I think is significant of the level of his involvement. He also directs every episode. For better or worse (you be the judge), there's also ample time to elaborate a woozy metaphysics based on overdetermined Native American arcana, nighttime dream signals, and midcentury fashions. The story at those points often feels too much like an episode of The X-Files, which in its own way perhaps owed its existence in the first place to the Twin Peaks original. The original series aired on CBS, by the way—somehow I remembered it as ABC. In the end, now, as I ponder the mass of clues set before me, I tentatively settle on things like extra-dimensionality to explain it. Or, a familiar fallback, no explanation at all, the implication being that no explanations are possible ever, for anything.

I don't want to explain it anyway. If its fantastical details are maybe too literal for my taste (I still haven't brought myself to see what the internet has to say about it), at the same time, as so often, they are also generally way too obscure. But it's better than Inland Empire. Chronologically, in an exercise I'm not yet prepared to execute, but can foresee doing one day, the whole thing starts with the 1992 movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, then proceeds to both seasons of the original series, and then finally to this recent Showtime production. Don't wait another 25 years!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

King Dork (2006)

This came to me as a recommendation in YA lit, out of the context of some thoughts I had on the animated picture Spirited Away. Frank Portman—who as Dr. Frank is captain of Bay Area punk-rock band the Mr. T Experience—is one of those enviable writers who can make his prose sing. That's helpful when, among other things, you are gunning for J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. This novel is more than just that, however: "It's actually kind of a complicated story," writes the first-person narrator, Tom Henderson, "involving at least half a dozen mysteries, plus dead people, naked people, fake people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, ESP, Satanism, books, blood, Bubblegum, guitars, monks, faith, love, witchcraft, the Bible, girls, a war, a secret code, a head injury, the Crusades, some crimes, misrepresentation of skills, a mystery woman, a devil-hand, a blow job, and rock and roll." Yet therein lies the rub, more or less. It reminded me a little of the TV show Lost. In the beginning it is bristling with exploding ideas, but in the end it is gyrating like mad to make the pieces fit. I got lost myself at some point in King Dork, but I have a hunch all the pieces do fit pretty well down at their details. It's more the big picture I was concerned with. Mistaken identity and/or not recognizing someone you already know (cf., Lois Lane and Clark Kent / Superman) makes one key plot point hard to believe. Tom's family story and his mother are murky but whatever the realities it sounds at least formative and traumatic, which is not represented very urgently here, or at all. Maybe that's beside the point. If your target demographic is the disaffected tween to teen boy, and you are thinking in those terms, then there may be no good reason to get touchy-feely and lose them. As a baby boomer, I was entertained to find myself on the wrong side of this novel's generation gap. Tom deplores us all as hypocritical blowhards who can't let go of Vietnam, civil rights, the Beatles, and especially The Catcher in the Rye, which he excoriates. It's not hard to recognize the caricature and its realities. As it happens, I reread the Salinger recently, experiencing again (not that I reread it that often) how dated it has come to feel with its prep schools and New York Upper East Side lifestyle. Portman's update on the state of the nerd circa the turn of the millennium is bracingly candid. Tom's friendship with his best friend Sam Hellerman is at once shallow and deep, tenuous and committed, as only the relationships forged at that time of life are. King Dork may cheat a little on the character development, but the surface presentation is often dazzling.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Tokyo Rose (1989)

More tall tales from the slush pile: Van Dyke Parks's fifth solo album came home with me in a stack of other undesirables from the office of an alternative newsweekly nearly 30 years ago. It has ended up sticking with me through the years in spite of the winsome highly orchestrated saccharine surface, which often makes it sound closer to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. To be clear, I don't consider sounding like a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta to be a good thing—I've had lifelong problems with Nilsson for similar reasons (Harpers Bizarre too, but no one seems to care about them anymore). But I do like Tokyo Rose. For one thing, if it makes like Gilbert & Sullivan it also shrugs off nostalgia explicitly at many surprising points and goes for the sharply political instead, as in "Trade War," which namechecks Ronald Reagan as it addresses the absurdities in the '80s between Japan and the US: "As is mentioned in the Bible / Nations tend to what is tribal / Across the ocean white with foam / Spend your dollars here at home." In fact, Tokyo Rose, from title to final track, works the cross-cultural currents of Japan and the US at deepest levels, which is signaled in the album opener, the only song here not written by Parks, the patriotic chestnut "America" fitted out with Japanese musical strategies. (Parks leaves Madame Butterfly alone, whose earth had been so wonderfully scorched by Malcolm McLaren just a few years earlier.) Tokyo Rose closes on one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard about baseball, "One Home Run," which by contrast is practically nothing but nostalgia, even as it lands on one more unique connecting point between the nations. It bears suggestive remnants of "Casey at the Bat," Joe DiMaggio, Sadaharu Oh, and all the aesthetic satisfactions of the geometrically displayed game, including the crack of the bat. But what ultimately sells me on this set is the usual expedient of hooks: "Yankee Go Home" and "Cowboy," for example, swell to irresistible singalong moments as their titles emerge, and "White Chrysanthemum" is positively inspired with its lonely cornet. I came to know Tokyo Rose first by 20-minute album sides, but now even that seems a little concentrated and I enjoy it more sprinkled into mixes with other artists. Even then, the peculiar '60s commercial sound may take getting used to. What else can I say? Nobody else wanted it so I gave it a home.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Love & Mercy (2014)

USA, 121 minutes
Director: Bill Pohlad
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner, Brian Wilson
Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Beach Boys, Atticus Ross
Editor: Dino Jonsater
Cast: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks, Kenny Wormald, Jake Abel, Erin Darke, Joanna Going, Brett Davern, Max Schneider, Hal Blaine

Though director Bill Pohlad owns many impressive credits as a producer (Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, and 12 Years a Slave, just to start), Love & Mercy is only his second film as a director and his first in nearly 25 years. This shows in both good and bad ways: he's bold or naive enough to try the dual casting—Paul Dano and John Cusack, respectively, play Brian Wilson as a young man and as a middle-aged man—but in many ways the picture proceeds with easy TV rhythms and obvious conflicts that are often reminiscent of Lifetime movies. I enjoy Lifetime movies, but a little can go a long way and it's hard to miss how predictably they move and develop.

What sets Love & Mercy off as something more special, transcending the TV movie feel and the inherent problems of a biopic, are the studio scenes where Brian Wilson is shown inventing in real time some of the greatest pop music ever made. The best of these scenes, which are all too brief, are even better than similar scenes in Grace of My Heart (another movie about Brian Wilson but in a more fanciful context). The mid-'60s were an impossibly exciting time in pop music, and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are not the only artists around which a movie like this could be built. Similar movies could—and should—be made about similar studio-bound adventures by the Beatles, Phil Spector, Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, Frank Zappa, Shadow Morton, and many others. For now, Love & Mercy might be the best we have, for all its weaknesses and shortcomings.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"The Used-Boy Raisers" (1959)

Story by Grace Paley not available online.

This is actually the first in a series of stories by Grace Paley about Faith Darwin, who is the first-person narrator. It's an unfortunate name in many ways, but that can't be helped now. The story is a loose meditation on the trajectory of her life. It feels like feminism without the vocabulary. She is making breakfast for her two husbands. She calls her ex-husband, who is visiting, Livid, and her present husband she calls Pallid. She has two sons by Livid, whom Pallid is now raising with her. Generally her husbands at the breakfast table are sniveling about things in a bantering way, and generally she is contemptuous of them. It goes beyond her names for them. It's hard to call this a story because nothing really happens—or everything has already happened, though perhaps things may happen again in the future. It's hard to say. You can't help but think of things like, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." It's 1959 so it's early for feminism—or late, really, but you know what I mean. Yet that's the vibe. It's a short story, under 10 printed pages, but that's more than enough time with Livid and Pallid. Both have their attractive qualities, sometimes different from one another, but many more unattractive ones. The main interest for me, I think—because mostly the story annoyed me—is its incoherent articulation of what's to come. Paley seems to know change is coming, as did Sam Cooke a few years later. The situation she shows is so obviously ripe for it. Nobody is getting what they want from these relationships, evidently, and yet none of them has any idea what to do about it. Partly it's the old joke about the guy who thinks he's a chicken but his loved ones won't confront him because they need the eggs. As it happens, the whole story, with an opening line to bring it home, is about two men who are peevish about the way a woman prepared their eggs. It's a quirky read, with a spasmodic and elliptical way of moving the action and fleshing out the background. And there are apparently more stories about Faith Darwin too, with or without her husbands and children. As a stand-alone, however, I don't think this adds up to much.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984)

After going big with The Executioner's Song and then indulging himself with Ancient Evenings, Norman Mailer trimmed back the metric word tonnage for this genre exercise, which at least is fun to read. It's basically hardboiled detective fiction. In this case the person doing the detecting is an amateur, Tim Madden, who is a marijuana grower and bartender. Naturally he is the prime suspect in a murder too. He is also a drunk and libertine and in general a lot like Mailer's ideal of manly. He is heartsick for a woman who has just left him and he is drinking hard. When Madden comes out of his latest blackout he finds blood all over the front seat of his car and the head of a blonde woman—only the head, no body in sight. So it goes. Crank up the lurid action and mysterious motives like a hurdy-gurdy coming to life. The setting is Provincetown in Cape Cod and there are lots of rich folks, who all seem to be terrified of being seduced by gay homosexuals. It quickly turns out to be the familiar anxiety panic states we know from previous Mailer fiction, perhaps most notably the previous book, Ancient Evenings. But this one also reminds me of an earlier novel, An American Dream, another febrile hallucination with all the Mailer trademarks. Tough Guys Don't Dance was a quickie to meet a contract, but it's clearly Mailer. Somehow so much keeps coming back to anal sex. One character here, an "Acting Chief of Police" with deep military background, is more or less officially put in charge of the homosexual panic. His fear and loathing is trembling on a hair trigger, and we all know what that means. Wait a minute—I'm not sure I do. In 1984, this kind of stuff still might have had some power to shock, and I note for the most part, without giving anything away, that the homophobes are generally on the losing side of things. Still, it's so strange that Mailer keeps coming back to this specter. It's like the gross-out effects in Frank Zappa's music—apparently baked in, and for reasons I'd rather not think about. As private eye stories go, think Ross Macdonald and the infinite complications of fracturing families. At that it's not too bad when Mailer gets out of his own way.

In 1987, a film version written and directed by Mailer came out. I remember the book but not the movie, at all, yet there it is, all legit-looking with Francis Coppola's name on it and Ryan O'Neal and Isabella Rossellini starring and music by Angelo Badalamenti. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum even includes it in his list of 1,000 favorite movies. But I had a hard time seeing past the painfully dated '80s production style. It is technically Mailer's fourth feature, but his filmmaking hand is tentative and distracted by effect, rudimentary at best using visual strategies to tell a story. I don't know his other movies. This one is professionally done, but the doomy literary pretensions are closer to Woody Allen phoning it in on a bad day than anything as raw and vital as, say, a John Cassavetes picture, which I would expect more to be Mailer's aim. Stick with the book if anything.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

L'année dernière à Marienbad, France / Italy, 94 minutes
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Photography: Sacha Vierney
Music: Francis Seyrig
Editors: Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff

It's tempting to fix the blame for the admittedly art-damaged Last Year at Marienbad on Michelangelo Antonioni and L'Avventura, which was released to wide acclaim (and derision too) the year before and which the following year, 1962, would be declared in a Sight & Sound poll of critics to be the second-greatest film of all time ever made. (Cooler heads have since prevailed somewhat and the 2012 version of the poll has L'Avventura at #21.) Both pictures are similarly aimless and pointless, er, I mean, ambiguous and ethereal, but the fact is, for all its artifice, I get a kick out of Last Year at Marienbad, and have so far remained mostly resistant to L'Avventura.

I use the word "artifice"—I'll even extend that to L'Avventura (though it is actually much more naturalistic)—and not the word "pretension," which is the one many may prefer. To be sure, I see the problem. Last Year at Marienbad is full of artfully posed mannequins wearing tuxedos and gowns, floating wanly about a mysterious French chateau with surrealistic geometric gardens, a wheezing cheesy organ providing soundtrack, and with no obvious point or even discernible plot beyond the cover story of a resort vacation: "The servants were mute," we learn from the randomly murmuring and often redundant voiceover narration, which is not always that informative (unreliable narrator, thy name is Last Year at Marienbad). "The games were silent, of course. It was a place for relaxation. No business was carried out, no plots were hatched. No one even discussed any topic that might cause excitement. There were signs everywhere: 'Silence' ... 'Silence.'"

Frankly, that sounds like a nice vacation to me, but for others, particularly of a fashionable European early-1960s Heroic Era of the Art Film bent, I'm sure it signifies a certain existential hell.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Cody's Story" (1987)

Story by Robert Olmstead not available online.

An obvious source for Robert Olmstead's story of two loggers eking out a living in a long-term partnership in 20th-century American wilderness is Jack London. Most American story writers with nature themes inevitably hark to him, at least since London's time. And this story is set well after London's time. G.R. and Cody not only make use of a horse (Buck, a pretty good character in his own right), but also "a 100-horsepower fully articulated John Deere skidder equipped with grapple, winch, and arch." Whatever that is—I only know it isn't 19th-century. G.R. and Cody know the wilderness and the lumber market well enough to get by. They have been partners for years, if not decades. Now G.R. is starting to slip a little in the area of mental function. He forgets conversations and brings the same things up over and over. He's responsible for the horse, who is slipping into old age and will likely need to be dealt with soon. At the time of the action of the story, such as it is—it's more brooding backstory overall—it's winter, which means special precautions for the frigid conditions at night. They live in a horse trailer with the horse, who is also a significant source of heat. There's no mention of what it smells like. G.R. questions the precautions several times, which both annoys and alarms Cody. After the two have spent the morning cleaning and maintaining their chainsaws, Cody goes outside to hunt deer in the afternoon. He falls asleep and has a long nap. It's almost nightfall when he wakes. He slips on an icy surface and has a strange, dreamlike accident, from which he is fortunate to suffer no harm. Back at the horse trailer, G.R. again wants to know why they are taking the precautions. Cody doesn't mention the accident. In the night they wake and it is so cold they decide to huddle, sleeping next to one another for the warmth, something they do when needed and are comfortable with. It's a tender and lonesome moment when G.R. raises questions once again that he has asked multiple times. Cody's story, the title, seems to be a realization that all things pass and fall away. Everything is temporary, including their business, Buck the horse, and his long-time partner, sharing body heat with him to make it through a bad night.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Monday, October 09, 2017

Mother! (2017)

Truly, I have much sympathy for the people who already hate this one, who walked out, demanded their money back, picked fights with policemen, whatever it took to shake it off, and have spent their time since denigrating it in no uncertain terms in comments threads everywhere. Mother! is pretty silly stuff, and that's evidently by design—a loud existential allegorical chamber drama handclap tricked out like horror but behaving more like a dweeby bookworm accidentally dosed with hallucinogens. Come to think of it, that might be verging on SOP for director and writer Darren Aronofsky by this point. He's done some great stuff before, notably Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, but he often misses. For example, no one in Mother! has names beyond what is given in the credits: Mother, Him, Man, Woman, Younger Brother, etc. What does that tell you? (It gets worse too: Cupbearer, Damsel, Consoler, Bumbler, Philanderer, many more.) The movie's inflection points are equal parts Amityville Horror, Day of the Locust, and Fraud, er, I mean, Freud-as-shallowly-construed (Freud and mothers, you know), with a dash of Rosemary's Baby. Aronofsky has given us some silly stuff before (Pi, possibly The Fountain, parts of Noah) but this one really takes the cake. Jennifer Lawrence is a young wife living in remote isolation with a poet, Him (Javier Bardem), who is suffering from writer's block. She spends her time working on restoring the mansion. Then people start showing up, and Him invites them to stay, one and all: Man (Ed Harris), Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Herald (Kristen Wiig), many others, dozens or hundreds. This is where it reminded me of The Day of the Locust, toward the end. At many points, Mother! is above average in showing the plight of an introvert unexpectedly confronted with socially aggressive people and ambiguous situations. Mother! is often like a nightmare. But it's often like many other things too: the creative process, the Bible, climate change, the Syrian crisis, the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, certain Beatles songs played backward, and of course celebrity cannibalism. Very many very big and important things. Yet when the connecting concept is finally revealed in full with the closing scenes, it's so ridiculous, this thing about a crystal, I felt my face burning with embarrassment for everyone involved, including myself for seeing it. Is Aronofsky being sarcastic about such neat and tidy resolutions overlaid with veneers of intellectual engagement (one feels philosophers or other great thinkers lurking in the wings)—or is it just stupid? Those are the kinds of unpleasant questions Mother! left me with.

Of course, I went into it as blind as I could, my usual practice, and later found out Aronofsky himself has claimed his intent was to make an explicit (if compressed) allegory of the Bible, fore and aft, meaning Old Testament and New Testament. In many ways that is picking up where Noah, his last picture, left off. I confess that Aronofsky's pictures sometimes don't fully clarify for me the first time. I don't like it and then on second viewing I do—a lot. I meant to take that second look at Mother! and get back to you. I still do. But let my reluctance give you some idea about the experience of seeing this movie. I'm in no hurry. It dripped with arch theatrical pretension and I really worry that won't change.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Sanctuary (1931)

The first and only other time I read this novel was in the '70s, so I was surprised that I noticed the difference between it and this "Corrected Text" version, which came along in 1981. Mostly what I noticed was the absence of William Faulkner's "misleading" introduction, written a year after the original publication, which he then changed his mind about and did not want included in later printings. But there it was in 1975 or so, a heaving disavowal of Sanctuary as a potboiler, "the most horrific tale I could imagine," written for the money and ultimately failing even at that. I suspect at bottom it's an issue of embarrassment—Sanctuary is a profile of a mindset of which Faulkner evidently was not entirely in control at the time of writing. The basic story is about a white college girl of 18 in Oxford, Mississippi—Temple Drake—and her coercion into prostitution. It's a solid foundation, even classic Zola style naturalism, but from that point on we are hard into Faulkner-land, and he's straining remember. The man who turns out Temple is known as Popeye. He is impotent and sickly, though lethal and dangerous. Faulkner thinks Popeye thinks he can do the job with a corncob. This is sufficiently lurid, yes, but I think we're losing track of believability, never mind taste. There is also a scene no doubt beyond lurid for its times, but far more graphic displays of it can be found by the hundreds now in the "cuckold" section of your favorite porn site. In a word: eww. But one word won't do: eww, eww, eww. Thus my fair warning to you, gentle reader, and too late now for spoiler warnings. I'm a little embarrassed myself by this overheated funk, but that's not really my main complaint. I've seen worse. At the same time, with its insistence on the poetic concrete—to the point I'm not always certain what is going on except on a base experiential level—he seems to want to have it two ways, writing a potboiler and maintaining his literary dignity. He is often examining light and shadow closely, and people and scenes slip easily into affects of oil paintings. He has a particular fascination with the texture of eyes, describing them as soft black rubber, knobby, and utterly black. In the Faulkner universe, this novel is slightly to the side. We run into a couple of the Snopes brothers, who I tend to enjoy though obviously they are a stereotype of poor white trash. I know the name Horace Benbow too—he is the attorney and knock-kneed moral compass here and has appeared elsewhere in Faulkner's work. Sanctuary is an interesting curiosity but I don't think it ranks with the best of his work. For its raw action it's not much fun to read either, though the language as always has its points.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Tusk (1979)

I had never fathomed the emptiness of this star vehicle until recent weeks. That's partly because I never owned a copy until it was years old and then never played it often. And partly because, when I decided to look into it, I went all the way with the Tusk box on Napster. All this time I've been inclined to defend Tusk based mostly on favoring two of its three singles (one very much) and also feeling some need to argue for the Buckingham-Nicks model against the ravening Peter Green hordes. Stevie Nicks made a natural companion with Christine McVie, who is as close to an original member as you can find after Green, drummer Mick Fleetwood, and Christine's brother ex-husband, John, the bass player. I'm not saying Stevie and Christine are natural companions because they are both women, but because in their outlook and mood they are equally sisters of the moon (as documented by name here in fact). If there are any further questions, Stevie Nicks is a Gemini and Christine McVie is a Cancer. They have more in common with Danny Kirwan or Bob Welch than Lindsey Buckingham, who is the real wild card here, a pop gremlin more out of the school of the Beatles, with an affinity for hooks, pop song constructions, and studio wonkery. It was natural in the late '70s that he would be drawn to New Wave. If Buckingham represented a wash of Beatles influence on the old Fleetwood Mac, New Wave was similarly a wash of Beatles influence on punk-rock. Tusk, as noted everywhere, was Fleetwood Mac's lavishly budgeted laboratory to do with as they wished, a job-well-done from the label for being so helpful in selling a kajillion records (Rumours is still in the top 10 of all-time album sellers).

I love the title song, "Tusk," which went to #8 late in 1979, and always have. It's not just the marching band, the whole thing is buggy but also tight as a drum. In fact, "Tusk" starts with, builds on, and never gets far from a basic drum pattern, on which the layers are built vertically, sliding in and out in overlays: nonsense lyrics, more percussion, the gorgeous Fleetwood Mac harmonies, and of course that marching band (the genuine USC thing). The song spins, it floats in the air, it sits down, it dances in place. It's irresistible, Buckingham's primal essay at New Wave. But inspection of the Tusk box has also convinced me that that single version is the only good one that exists (among a handful of other versions scattered over the five CDs). "Sara," the second single, was also top 10, and I liked it too, although I don't like it very much anymore—the mood of Stevie Nicks at her best is present, but slowed to a soporific crawl. You want to get this song a cup of coffee because it sounds like it's about to pass out. I'll stick with "Rhiannon," "Dreams," and even "Gypsy." The third hit from Tusk was a Christine McVie song, "Think About Me," which made it to #20 early in 1980. I'm not a fan. And the rest of the album, some 17 more tracks, moves through Buckingham New Wave experiments ("The Ledge," "Not That Funny," "I Know I'm Not Wrong") and lots of muzzy-headed buffaloing around the place from Stevie and Christine, which in spite of themselves sometimes wander into decent places, but only occasionally, such as a certain keening apotheosis in "Sisters of the Moon." For the most part Tusk is way too much work with way too little reward. Proceed to Mirage.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

"Aunt Granny Lith" (1990)

Story by Chris Offutt not available online.

Chris Offutt is a native son of Kentucky, which is a good thing because events here traffic dangerously with white trash caricatures. Casey is a moonshiner and maybe a drunk too. Beth is his third wife—his first two died of freak accidents on their wedding days. Casey is not under suspicion for anything. It's not that kind of story. It is, in fact, more the kind of story tempted to poetic flights like portentous wedding days. The deaths are symbolic of Casey's star-crossed fate and/or Beth's ability to back it off with brute strength and courage. Offutt has written that this story "is a hybrid of the Book of Ruth, an eastern European folk story, and the Eleusinian Mysteries from ancient Greece." I guess I'm happy to know it. Offutt also mentions that "two of the female names—Lil and Lith—form the name of Adam's first wife," which I found interesting because I didn't know Adam had a first wife. I read the story first without benefit of any of this, and was entertained by the febrile vibe. It opens, for example, with an energetic brawl between two women before breaking off into the extended flashback that provides most of the action. Knowing the literary sources makes me think I might get more out of it another time, but didn't inspire an immediate revisit. It's rich with detail and swift-moving events, and everything seems to add up. The stuff about Ruth and Adam only packs in more meaning. But hold on a second. Setting aside the thing about Adam having a first wife, how in the world are we supposed to take this stuff about Casey's first two wives? It's so ridiculous as to call attention to itself. Is it a comical transport? Some kind of literalism beyond my ken? As a teen and young adult I snorted at the very idea of symbolism in literature as a lot of preening mental masturbation. I'm more willing to accommodate it now (and good old ham-handed allegory too!) though I remain a little dubious. They still seem a little too easy. Of course, nothing is simple about this story, so there's that. And it's perfectly engaging on the surface, with lots of dialogue, action, and short paragraphs. Maybe I resent that it's making me work so hard after it promised so much fun. More likely, I really don't have much sense of what just happened when I read this story. At a time like this, I miss belonging to a reading group.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

There aren't many surprises in this Anne Tyler novel, but somehow I connected with it more than other recent novels by her. It's familiar stuff: the setting in Baltimore, the focus on a fractured and fractious family, and Tyler's usual eye and ear for the telling detail of human relationships, one of her great strengths. A Spool of Blue Thread covers four generations of the Whitshank family. The star is Abby, the Tyler woman who holds together a family by the strength of her love and will. And there's plenty of quirk to go around as usual—her four children and their children are still more typical Tyler creations: a ne'er-do-well son, a child adopted under strange circumstances, two types of sisters. Most of the novel follows events in the here and now as Abby and her husband Red enter their 70s with worrisome failings. In the last third, Tyler pushes the action back in time to the late '50s, when Abby and Red began their relationship, and then even further back, to the original family scions, Junior and Linnie Mae, when the family homestead was originally built in the 1930s. The story of their lives and courtship is actually blunt and a little shocking. Linnie Mae seduced Junior (as the narrative goes) when she was 13 and Junior was 26. The story has its comical elements yet Tyler writing in 2015 knows we can't take a 13-year-old girl's sexual agency at face value. You can say it's the times and place—both Junior and Linnie Mae are also Southerners—but we know better, which undergirds their story with tension and anxiety, and thus the story of the whole family. I said Abby was the star, but her black sheep elder son Denny is another main player here, and another typical Tyler figure, a bit like Barnaby Gaitlin from A Patchwork Planet and a little like a Jonathan Franzen character. I see myself in them too. Like Denny, I'm a little amazed by people who stay in one place and/or in regular touch across a lifetime. I'm amazed at some of the things these people accomplish—annual weeklong jaunts to "the beach," for example. Really, every year? How do you do that? Denny is the guy, all tripped up in his own problems, who can only make it every five or six years, which all the others find ridiculous. I enjoyed this one a lot. It's full of stuff like that, like all the best Tyler.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Innocence" (1948)

Story by Sean O'Faolain not available online.

Sean O'Faolain is another writer in these anthologies that I'm basically getting my introduction to now. I barely even know the name, but Wikipedia informs he was Irish (duh), primarily a short story writer, and fairly prolific. A man of letters—he also wrote criticism, biography, novels, and more. The language in this story is beautiful and seductive, but the story—which is very short, barely five printed pages—is kind of a labored joke about a boy's misunderstanding of the word "adultery." It's also saturated in Catholic culture. The misunderstanding occurs in a confessional. The scene is actually pretty funny. The priest is old and doddering. At first he mistakes his confessor for a girl, which suggests the first-person narrator's youth at the time of the incident—or his underdevelopment, because his voice might have still been high. The narrator is recounting the story as an adult many years later, a full-grown man with a son of his own, looking back through the haze of memory, quite evidently casting a glow on it. It's also a little too cute about withholding the term in question ("adultery"), which instantly clarifies all the mystifying confusion. But it wouldn't have been as funny that way. Oops, I gave it away. Well, it's an odd duck at any rate, much closer to memoir. I have to wonder if the "innocence" of the title is perhaps not a little the narrator's own still. The revelation appears to be that the Catholic church is fallible despite its claims. What he's most worried about now is what it will do to his son's psyche when he comes to the realization in his turn. It's something like the way we think about breaking it to kids that Santa Claus is all a hoax. So maybe it's me, after all, and not the narrator, who is the real innocent around here. Still, the whole little thing strikes me as a bit of a stunt. It's also way too Catholic for my taste. But my vague sense of O'Faolain's reputation (set permanently as Irish, likely in the long shadow of James Joyce), and especially the wonderful ease and expressiveness of the language here, make me think he might be worth looking into further one of these days.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine