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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

St. Clair McKelway. Reporting at Wit's End: Tales from the New Yorker

The rain fell on the just hardened concrete of the runway, on the black-topped asphalt of the taxiways and the hardstands, splashed into the faces of the ground crews crouching in pup tents alongside the places where the homecoming B-29's would park, if they ever did park. It fell on the surrounding white-capped sea. It washed away some of the unfinished roads leading from the airstrip to the air crews' quarters; it flooded already muddy roads and walks in wing and group and squadron establishments along the bluff over the sea; it ruined the previous day's work of the Army Engineers, who were building three-lane asphalt highways to the impressive headquarters of the island commander on Saipan's highest hilltop; and it made a mess of the carefully graded terraces between the closely packed Quonset huts where the administrative business of the island would be carried out weeks later when a fresh invasion force took off from Saipan to invade Iwo Jima. It fell on the cemeteries of the Marine and Army men who had been killed in the battles that won the Marianas from the Japanese.

The rain fell and drained inside Possum's and Rosy's raincoats, streamed down their backs, down their chests, over their stomachs, down their thighs, their legs, their ankles, into their muddy, soldier's shoes. It trickled off their hats into their ears, into their eyes. They stood looking into the almost impenetrable sky, walking up and down, looking to east, to west, to north, to south, and saying nothing. There was nothing they could do and there was nothing they could say. ("A Reporter with the B-29s: I -- Possum, Rosy, and the Thousand Kids," The New Yorker, June 9, 1945, pp. 36-37)

Neither I nor very many other people in the Twenty-first Bomber command knew anything about [Curtis] LeMay beyond the fact that he unquestionably had a fine record as an Air Forces officer and as a B-29 commander in China. His looks had not helped us to take a jolly view of the future. He was around a few days, said almost nothing to anybody, was what, by civilian standards, would be called rude to many people. He was a big, husky, healthy, rather stocky, full-faced, black-haired man, thirty-nine years old, from Columbus, Ohio. He apparently couldn't make himself heard even in a small room except when you bent all your ears in his direction, and when you did he appeared to evade your attempt to hear him. He did this by interposing a cigar or pipe among the words which were trying to escape through teeth that had obviously been pried open only with effort, an effort with which the speaker had no real sympathy and to which he was unwilling to lend more than half-hearted assistance. ("A Reporter with the B-29s: II -- The Doldrums, Guam, and Something Coming Up," The New Yorker (June 16, 1945), pp. 32-33.)

Whatever their jobs were, officers and men did not want, and seemed unable, to sleep more than three or four hours at a time. They ate irregularly, sparingly, and hurriedly. They worked almost incessantly and, when they felt like it, played or relaxed completely, knowing they had it coming to them. Even airplane commanders and their crews, back from a fifteen-hour mission to Japan, usually hit the sack for not more than five or six hours and were up and around again, attending classes, studying tactics, bombardment, navigation, and ordnance, and forming little groups in Quonset huts, talking flying talking fighting, using their hands as airplanes, the way fliers do, flying the latest mission over again, perfecting it, and flying the next mission once or twice in advance, before the takeoff. Good men were better. Men who had seemed mediocre became good. ("A Reporter with the B-29s: IV -- The People," The New Yorker (June 30, 1945), p. 35.)

Most of the counterfeiters the Secret Service men have caught, or have ever heard of, were extraordinarily clever craftsmen. Old Mr. Eight Eighty was so inept that his counterfeit one-dollar bills were laughable if they were even casually looked at or felt. His clumsily retouched portrait of Washington was murky and deathlike. His border work and his numerals and lettering were botched. The paper he used was an inexpensive bond paper that can be bought at any stationery store. Old Mr. Eight Eighty kept passing the things, though, and he passed them at what the Secret Service considered a hideously humble rate. None of his fellow-citizens ever looked at or felt his dollar bills when he passed them. They were, after all, only dollar bills. When people discovered that they had been stuck with them, they were, it seems, taught a lesson only to the extent that the loss of a dollar ever teaches the average American a lesson. Long before the Secret Service men caught up with Old Eight Eighty, in the spring of 1948, and arrested him in the kitchen of his sunny, top-floor tenement flat near Broadway and Ninety-sixth Street, he was, besides being known to them as Old Mr. Eight Eighty, generally recognized by them as the most exasperating counterfeiter of all times, and the least greedy. (True Tales from the Annals of Crime and Rascality, p. 233-34)

(I'll confess to never having heard of St. Clair McKelway, who wrote for The New Yorker between the 30s and 50s, until reading Roger Angell's ecstatic review of A Reporter at Wit's End, an anthology of some of McKelway's earlier pieces, in a March 2010 issue of The New Yorker. In fact, what caught my attention was the extraordinarily mesmerizing account of the falling rain, from a 1945, four-part article on the B-29's bombing Japan at the tail end of WWII, which led me to the articles themselves -- and thus to an exquisitely detailed description of Curtis LeMay, inevitably a villain in my books for the obliteration of Tokyo and then for pushing SAC in an age of missile defense (for which see Neil Sheehan's A Fiery Peace in a Cold War). (In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara said that, had the US lost the war, they would all have been shot as war criminals.) Inevitably, McKelway's profile of LeMay, written at the height of the war, presents the counter-point: a hard-working, intelligent general, intent on ending the war as quickly as possible. At any rate, St. Clair McKelway is a terrific journalist, and I am glad to have discovered him. Although not as flashy a journalist as A.J. Liebling, and not as whimsical as Joseph Mitchell, he's easily their equal in the solidity and elegance of his prose, and his choice of subject matter -- often rascals, criminals, and outsiders, including an old codger who counterfeited dollar bills -- is so eccentric and compassionate, so concerned to get out of his subjects' way, that everyone in McKelway, from Possum to Rosy, from Curtis LeMay to Old Mr. Eight Eighty, is treated with a fine mixture of bemusement, dignity, attention, and respect. I suppose that in an age of irony, if not downright cynicism, the straightforward, honed efficiency of McKelway's prose might strike one as naive, but as best as I can tell, it's an expression of his faith in humanity. Every once in a while you run into an author who invites you to look twice, and then thrice, in order to take the true measure of a person's worth. Having seen better, you're the better for it.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Carol Sklenicka. Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life

On the "daemonic compulsiveness" of a writer:

[This is about Raymond Carver taking a creative writing class from John Gardner at Chico State in 1959, before either of them was anyone:] These first-day pyrotechnics were meant to intimidate students who weren't serious. Carver stuck. "... I'd never laid eyes on a writer. And he was a writer, even though he hadn't published at the time." Gardner thought that writers had to possess particular traits -- "verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, and a measure of the special intelligence of the storyteller" -- and he believed he could help his students develop those traits. Gardner thought, he wrote in On Becoming a Novelist, that a novelist needs "almost daemonic compulsiveness." Gardner had that, even though to Ray he looked like a "square" in his "dark, severe-looking clothes." He was thin with fine facial features, a pale complexion made more dramatic by thick, black, crew-cut hair, and enormous energy. No doubt Carver expected a writer to have the means and discernment to own a stylish car, because he noted with disappointment that Gardner's black four-door Chevrolet with black-wall tires "didn't even have a car radio." More to Ray's taste was the fact that Gardner sat on his desk and chain-smoked in class. (pp. 65-66)

You don't have to be published, but you do have to write:

Perhaps the most useful thing Carver learned from Garner was that a serious and passionate writer might also be an unpublished writer. When Carver used Gardner's office, he saw stacks of correspondence from other writers and editors and boxes of manuscripts, including an early version of Nickel Mountain, a novel he later published, heaped on the floor beside the desk. Carver was desperate to publish, but the sight of those stacks of pages gave him reason to hope and be patient in the years to come. (p. 69)

You don't need A's; you just need to write:

Although Ray wrote some "superb" papers for his literature classes, he asked [Richard Cortez] Day [at Humboldt State College] at the end of one course, "How would you feel if I don't turn the paper in?" In reply, Day asked his student how he'd feel about a C. "Ray replied, 'Fine.' Because he was working on a story. So, like anybody with any sense [Day recalls], Ray chose the story." And took the C. (p. 78)

Iowa Workshop director Paul Engle and his staff understood that talented writers were often imperfect scholars. On the strength of Ray's writing samples, his As in English, and a letter of recommendation from Day, Carver was admitted. Engle offered him a $1,000 fellowship for the year. (p. 86)

On Carver's "consuming interest":

I don't know that there is ever any explanation for a drunk's being a drunk, but in my opinion [recalled Curtis Johnson, one of Carver's early publishers] , just my theory -- he couldn't stand the little hurts that people inflicted on each other; I'm not talking about self-pity -- he just wanted to get along so that he could write. That was his consuming interest. And conversation was fine, camaraderie was fine, making love was fine, raising a family was okay, but it interfered with his writing. He just wanted to write. And why he wanted to write is as inexplicable as why he wanted to get drunk. Maybe they have the same root cause. It's likely. (p. 152)

On making luck happen:

The most impassioned passage of his [Carver's] introduction [to Best American Short Stories 1986] is about luck:

"Once in a great while lightning strikes .... It may hit the man or woman who is or was your friend, the one who drank too much, or not at all, who went off with someone's wife, or husband, or sister, after a party you attended together. The young writer who sat at the back of the class and never had anything to say about anything. The dunce, you thought. The writer who couldn't, not in one's wildest imaginings, make the list of top ten possibilities."

Ray had been all of the people he lists -- the drunk and the teetotaler, the philanderer, the dunce. He knew that there was no assurance that the best writers enjoy the most success. But he'd also been the one that lightning struck. So he believed that it was all right to help his friends. Who else would? ... Thus he balanced the odds, had his cake and ate it, too, and tried to keep everyone happy. Lightning strikes, he continues, "But it will never, never happen to those who don't work hard at it and who don't consider the act of writing as very nearly the most important thing in their lives, right up there next to breath, and food, and shelter, and love, and God." (pp. 439-40).

And don't forget the paper clip:

"But at that moment [concludes Carver's short story "Errand"] the young man was thinking of the cork still resting near the toe of his shoe. To retrieve it he would have to bend over, still gripping the vase. He would do this. He leaned over. Without looking down, he reached out and closed it into his hand."

With a gesture known to no one except the waiter, this ending represents a restoration of order.... Either Carver or [Tess] Gallagher might have found a hint for closing the story in this piece of advice from Raymond Chandler: "They [readers of detective fiction] thought they cared nothing about anything but the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk." (Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life. Scribner, 2009, p. 452)

(Although The New York Times Book Review listed this biography as one of the top 10 books of 2009, I wouldn't recommend it, particularly. While its account of Carver's life is remarkable -- the years of struggle, endless writing, and poverty; a marriage, a wife and children, all sacrificed on the altar of Carver's craft; hair-raising accounts of Carver's alcoholism -- the biography smells of index cards and makes the exhausting, laborious process of crafting this biography look exhausting and laborious. If sprezzatura is the art of making the difficult look easy, its antonym should be sweatzzatura -- the art of making the difficult look difficult. And besides, what author -- or editor -- for that matter should settle for two "writer's" in the same sentence, much less for the tired cliche, "had his cake, and eat it, too"? Nonetheless, I thought that the comments on the writer's craft and its -- on how hard you need to want to write, on what it costs to make "luck" happen -- were worth the price of admission.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest

In outline, it eventually boiled down to this: a desperate Barry Loach -- with Mrs. L. not on 25 mg. of daily Ativan and just about camped out in front of the candle-lighting apse of the Loach's parish church -- Loach challenges his brother to let him prove somehow -- risking his own time, Barry's, and maybe safety somehow -- that the basic human character wasn't as unempathetic and necrotic as the brother's present depressed condition was leading him to think. After a few suggestions and rejections of bits too way-out even for Barry Loach's desperation, the brothers finally settle on a, like, experimental challenge. The spiritually despondent brother basically challenges Barry Loach to not shower or change clothes for a while and make himself look homeless and disreputable and louse-ridden and clearly in need of basic human charity, and to stand out in front of the Park Street T-station stemming change, and for Barry Loach to hold out his unclean hand and instead of stemming change simply ask passersby to touch him. Just to touch him. Viz. extend some basic human warmth and contact. And this Barry does. And does. Days go by. His own spiritually upbeat constitution starts taking blows to the solar plexus. It's not clear whether the verminousness of his appearance had that much to do with it; it just turned out that standing there outside the station doors and holding out his hand and asking people to touch him ensured that just about the last thing any passerby in his right mind would want to do was touch him. It's possible that the respectable citizenry with their bookbags and cellulars and dogs with little red sweater-vests thought that sticking one's hand way out and crying 'Touch me, just touch me, please' was some kind of new stem-type argot for "lay some change on me,' because Barry Loach found himself hauling in a rather impressive daily total of $ -- significantly more than he was earning at his work-study job wrapping ankles and sterilizing dental prostheses for Boston College lacrosse players. Citizens found his pitch apparently just touching enough to give him $; but B. Loach's brother -- who often stood there in collarless mufti up against the plastic jam of the T-station's exit, slouched and smirking and idly shuffling a deck of cards in his hands -- was always quick to point out the spastic delicacy with which the patrons dropped change or $ into Barry Loach's hand, these kind of bullwhip-motions or jagged in-and-outs like they were trying to get something hot off a burner, never touching him, and they rarely broke stride or even made eye-contact as they tossed alms B.L's way, much less ever getting their hand anywhere close to contact with B.L's disreputable hand. The brother not unreasonably nixed the accidental contact of one commuter who'd stumbled as he tried to toss a quarter and then let Barry break his fall, not to mention the bipolarly ill bag-lady who got Barry Loach in a headlock and tried to bite his ear off near the end of the third week of the Challenge. Barry L. refused to concede defeat and misanthropy, and the Challenge dragged on week after week, and the older brother got bored eventually and stopped coming and went back to his room and waited for the St. John's Seminary administration to give him his walking papers, and Barry Loach had to take Incompletes in the semester's Training courses, and got canned from his work-study job for not showing up, and he went through weeks and then months of spiritual crisis as passerby after passerby interpreted his appeal for contact as a request for cash and substituted abstract loose change for genuine fleshly contact; and some of the T-station's other disreputable stem-artists became intrigued by Barry's pitch -- to say nothing of his net receipts -- and started themselves to take up the cry of 'Touch me, please, please, someone!,' which of course further compromised Barry Loach's chances of getting some citizen to interpret his request literally and lay hands on him in a compassionate and human way; and Loach's own soul began to sprout little fungal patches of necrotic rot, and his upbeat view of the so-called normal and respectable human race began to undergo dark revision; and when the other scuzzy and shunned stem-artists of the downtown district treated him as a compadre and spoke to him in a collegial way and offered him warming drinks from brown-bagged bottles he felt too disillusioned and coldly alone to be able to refuse, and thus started to fall in with the absolute silt at the very bottom of the metro Boston socio-economic duck-pond. And then what happened with the spiritually infirm older brother and whither he fared and what happened with his vocation never gets resolved in the E.T.A. Loach-story, because now the focus becomes all Loach and how he was close to forgetting -- after all these months of revulsion from citizens and his getting any kind of nurturing or empathetic treatment only from homeless and addicted stem-artists -- what a shower or washing machine or a ligamental manipulation even were, much less career-ambitions or a basically upbeat view of indwelling human goodness, and in fact Barry Loach was dangerously close to disappearing forever into the fringes and dregs of metro Boston street life and spending his whole adult life homeless and louse-ridden and stemming in the Boston Common and drinking out of brown paper bags, when along toward the end of the ninth month of the Challenge, his appeal -- and actually also the appeals of the other dozen or so cynical stem-artists right alongside Loach, all begging for one touch of a human hand and holding their hands out -- when all these appeals were taken literally and responded to with a warm handshake -- which only the more severely intoxicated stemmers didn't recoil from the profferer of, plus Loach -- by E.T.A.'s own Mario Incandenza, who'd been sent dashing out from the Back Bay co-op where his father was filming something that involved actors dressed up as God and the Devil playing poker with Tarot cards for the soul of Cosgrove Watt, using subway tokens as the ante, and Mario's been sent dashing out to get another roll of tokens from the nearest station, which because of a dumpster-fire near the entrance to the Arlington St. station turned out to be Park Street, and Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations, had had no one worldly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn't automatically be honored and granted, and Mario had extended his clawlike hand and touched and heartily shaken Loach's own fuliginous hand, which led through a convoluted but kind of heartwarming and faith-reaffirming series to circumstances to B. Loach, even w/o an official B.A., being given and Asst. Trainer's job at E.T.A., a job he was promoted from just months later when the then-Head Trainer suffered the terrible accident that resulted in all locks being taken off E.T.A. saunas' doors and the saunas' maximum temperature being hard-wired down to no more than 50 [degrees] C. (pp. 969-71)

(A day after we went to see Avatar, James Cameron's latest, predictable, but nonetheless miraculous sci-fi extravaganza, my son asked me if I had thought about it at all. I hadn't. "See?" he said, "told you it wasn't any good." If turning it over in your mind, brooding about it, watching its ripples wash up against the shores of your own fears and anxieties and dreams -- if thinking about it again is any measure of artistic success (and I think it is) then surely David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is one of the most memorable, hence best (?) novels I've read in the past decade. Not that I'm recommending it, exactly, no more than I'd recommend a car wreck or a fall on a roped climb, but once you start its some 1100 pages (including 100 pages and 400 footnotes), it's hard to stop; and once you've finished, it's impossible to forget this alternately stunning, memorable, and shattering novel, as much as you'd like to. Ostensibly, it's a novel about a film called "Infinite Jest" but referred to as "The Entertainment" -- a film so mesmerizing, that its viewers die watching and rewatching it -- and about a group of Quebeci terrorists who are trying to get their hands on the Master Copy, so that they can distribute it on the Internet and terrorize America. But what it's really about is America's self-indulgences, its addictions to pleasure, and its addictions to addictions, whether films (like Avatar, I suppose), heroine, cocaine, Demerol, pills, pot, booze, and more. And what's really stunning about the novel is the extent to which these addictions, the size and nature of the black holes that addicts dig for themselves, is spelled out in such excruciating and horrifying detail that, when my sister asked me what it was like to read the book, I said without skipping a beat or giving it a thought, that it was like eating broken glass. So like I said, I'm not exactly recommending it. Its chief figure (as opposed to hero) is Hal Incandenza, a tennis star at a tennis prep school (DFW was himself a tennis star in his youth), whose mother's distance and father's suicide have left him a hollowed-out, pot-smoking shell. And then there's Dan Gately, a recovering addict at a half-way house in Boston, a moose of a man who nearly dies from a gunshot wound while saving the life of Lenz, a despicable fellow resident of the half-way house; and then who nearly dies again in the hospital, wracked with pain, refusing the Demerol that will surely cut short his recovery, his last-ditch attempt to get his life back, to stay straight, staying alive. Multiply these harrowing addictions by a dozen, and you've got a kind of unforgettable, post-modern Ulysses -- a meticulous dissection of America's self-indulgences and pathologies, at once tormented and compassionate, that anticipates DFW's own life-long depression and suicide this past spring. All in all, it's a harrowing performance -- as dishevelled and ungainly as one of Thomas Wolfe's manuscripts, badly in need of a Max Perkins --written by a genius and polymath in a singular, haunted voice, chasing down his own demons -- and as impossible to read, as impossible to turn off as "The Entertainment" itself. Not surprisingly, David Foster Wallace received a McArthur ("Genius") Award in response to the novel, which was surely the death of him. In requiescat pasce.)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Tim Winton. Cloudstreet

It's quiet for a few moments and then they begin to sing, and once they start it's hard to give it up, so they set up a great train of songs from school and church and wireless, on and on in the dark until they're making them up and starting all over again to change the words and the speed. Quick isn't afraid, and he knows Fish is alright. He lies back with his eyes closed. The whole boat is full of their songs -- they shout them up at the sky until Fish begins to laugh. Quick stops singing. It's dead quiet and Fish is laughing like he's just found a mullet in his shorts. It's a crazy sound, a mad sound, and Quick opens his eyes to see Fish standing up in the middle of the boat with his arms out like he's gliding, like he's a bird sitting in an updraught. The sky, packed with stars, rests just above his head, and when Quick looks over the side he sees the river is full of sky as well. There's stars and swirl an space down there and it's not water anymore -- it doesn't even feel wet. Quick stabs his fingers in. There's nothing there. there's no lights ashore now. No, There's no shore at all, not that he can see. There's only sky out there, above and below, everywhere to be seen. Except for Fish's giggling, there's no sound at all. Quick knows he is dreaming. This is a dream. He feels a turd shunting against his sphincter. He's awake, alright. But it's a dream -- it has to be.
Are we in the sky, Fish?
Yes. It's the water.
What dyou mean?
The water. The water. I fly (114).

Is it the war that's done it to you?
It's all war, she said.
What is?
I don't know. Everythin. Raisin a family, keepin yer head above water. Life. War is our natural state.
Well, struggle maybe, said Lester.
No, no, it's war.
Ah, things come along. You take the good with the bad.
Oriel rears with sudden passion: No you don't. You know about boats. You can't steer if you're not going faster than the current. If you're not under your own steam then yer just debris, stuff floatin. We're not frightened animals, Lester, just waitin with some dumb thoughtless patience for the tide to turn. I'm not spendin my livin breathin life quietly takin the good with the bad. I'm not standing for the bad; bad people, bad luck, bad ways, not even bad breath. We make good, Lester. We make war on the bad and don't surrender.
Some things can't be helped.
Everything can be helped (pp. 229-30).

At dawn, and the first raw-throated stirrings of hidden birds, Cloudstreet floats soundlessly from the gloom to join the day. Down on the tracks a Fremantle freight creeps past under a limestone sky, and in her tent, towelling the water from her face and chest in a manner so delicate as to be secretive, and to someone who knew her, completely uncharacteristic, Oriel Lamb feels the vibrations in the duckboards. When she's finished washing she applies a little talcum powder and dresses in her floral frock, stockings and hardsoled sandals which look more like work boots with ventilators cut into them. She notes again the ugliness of her feet all distorted with corns and bunions. She still remembers her own bare running feet on the dirt of the home paddock when the world was a place given by God for the pleasures of children, when all that was good was unbroken (p. 251).

No. No. I'll stay a cop. But it's not us and them anymore. It's us and us and us. It's always us. That's what they never tell you. Geez, Rose, I just want to do right. But there's no monsters, only people like us. Funny, but it hurts (Tim Winton. Cloudstreet. Simon & Schuster / Scribner Paperback, 1991, p. 402).

(It's a rare novelist I can bear reading these days, which I intend as a comment on my (dis)abilities as a reader rather than on the novels themselves. But in too many, the details seem inconsequential, the prose style plodding or predictable, the characters as aimless as the plot itself. So it was a real pleasure this Christmas break to read Tim Winton's Dirt Music, which is about something like love and hope, rooted in the broken, unfamiliar soil of Western Australia. And then from there to Winton's magnum opus, Cloudstreet, a great, sprawling novel, a cross between Dickens and Faulkner -- the tale of two over-sized families, the Pickles and the Lambs, tripping over one another in an equally over-sized mansion in Perth during WWII and then in the 50's and 60's. It's hard to say what makes this novel so great -- in part, its elegance and eloquence; in part, its quirky humor (including a talking pig and an addled young man named Fish who appears to glow at times); in part, its love of its extraordinary cast of characters, not despite but because of their gloomy passions, quirks, and obsessions; and in part for its faith and resilience. Among many things, Tim Winton's in love with music, and the lilt and thump and beat and rhythm of instruments and songs make these broken lives whole. I really loved this novel. It was one of those rare books that, once finished, sends you back to the beginning, half because you can't bear to let it go, and half because you want to find out what else the author has written, because you can't let him (or her) go either.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Robert Clark. Dark Water

You could have called the gaps that needed to be filled [in Cimabue's Crocifisso] injuries, insults, and wounds to the figure of Christ except for the fact that they were more akin to decapitation, dismemberment, or flaying. The forehead and right side of the face were destroyed. So too was the center of the torso, the breastbone and heart down to the navel; and so too the left-hand side of the rib cage, upward to the armpit. . . . The palms of both hands were destroyed precisely in the places where Christ's real wounds ought to have been.

All that would be covered in chromatic abstraction -- in what from a distance would look like a loosely woven mat of green-gold flesh -- and perhaps abstraction was precisely the right word. Because when on the tenth anniversary of the flood the Crocifisso was returned to Santa Croce, you could not say it had been restored in the sense that something that had once been part of it and lost had now been put back; or could you say that the wounds had been closed or healed. Rather, they'd become like the phantom limbs of an amputee: they were, for all their self-evident absence, still there, still palpable to the eye even as the eye registered the space they'd once occupied and moved on. In sum, what was once concretely present and then concretely absent in the Crocifisso was now present again, but as an abstract presence. You couldn't put your finger or eye on it, but your mind grasped its reality, the specter of what had been lost (pp. 249-50).

Beauty, like truth, was supposed to be timeless, but the fact was that beauty was always falling apart or decaying. It needed constant shoring up, and the labor could make you weary. Beauty was, al fondo, in the final analysis, very like human flesh and bone. In Florence, where they'd made so much of it, there was that much more of it to break or injure. Left alone, without restauro, it would all eventually disappear. Really, art was always dying, beauty forever decaying. "I had not known death had undone so many," Dante marveled. . . .

But the art in an artwork might not be located precisely where you thought it was. Perhaps it was just as much in the damage and decay as it was in the intact original. Perhaps it was in the gaps -- in contemplating and tending those insults and injuries -- that we find ourselves, by compassion; by bandaging, however imperfectly, those wounds. Art may be a species of faith, the assurance of things hoped for. It contains nothing so much as our wish that we persist (Robert Clark. Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces. New York: Doubleday, 2008, p. 258).

(Robert Clark went to Florence on a fellowship to write about the intersection of art, beauty, and faith, and discovered instead the devastation of the flood of November 4, 1966 -- the destruction of human lives and of tens of thousands of manuscripts and priceless works of art. Clark's eloquent and moving account of loss and restauro, restoration, is in part a celebration of the angeli del fango -- the "mud angels" -- students from around the world who dropped everything to spend years of their lives retrieving and washing and drying out the manuscripts. But this extraordinary work's brooding account of the destruction and restoration of priceless masterpieces -- especially Cimabue's ground-breaking Crucifixion -- turns this into a tale of not only the restoration and loss of art and beauty, but of faith itself.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

David Foster Wallace. Consider the Lobster

The intimacy of the whole thing is maximized at home, which of course is where most lobster gets prepared and eaten (although note already the semiconscious euphemism "prepared," which in the case of lobsters really means killing them right there in our kitchens). The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they come in ... whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous a lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you're tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container's sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle's rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster's fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature's claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it's in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven-timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over ("Consider the Lobster," pp. 247-48).

The psychology of jokes helps account for part of the problem in teaching Kafka. We all know that there is no quicker way to empty a joke of its peculiar magic than to try to explain it -- to point out, for example, that Lou Costello is mistaking the proper name Who for the interrogative pronoun who, and so on. And we all know the weird antipathy such explanations arouse in us, a feeling of not so much boredom as offense, as if something has been blasphemed. This is a lot like the teacher's feelings at running a Kafka story through the gears of your standard undergrad critical analysis -- plot to chart, symbols to decode, themes to exfoliate, etc. Kafka, of course, would be in a unique position to appreciate the irony of submitting his short stories to this kind of high-efficiency critical machine, the literary equivalent of tearing the petals off and grinding them up and running the goo through a spectrometer to explain why a rose smells so pretty. Franz Kafka, after all, is the story writer whose "Poseidon" imagines a sea god so overwhelmed with administrative paperwork that he never gets to sail or swim, and whose "In the Penal Colony" conceives description as punishment and torture as edification and the ultimate critic as a needled harrow whose coup de grace is a spike through the forehead (David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster [Back Bay Books, 2006], "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness," pp. 61-62.)

(I'm really sorry that it was only upon news of his untimely death that I picked up David Foster Wallace's brilliant, eclectic, and subversive collection of essays -- partly because it's ghoulish, but more partly because I've not had the past decade to get to know him better. At any rate, I think these essays are terrific: typically, "Consider the Lobster," which was supposed to be a review of the Maine Lobsterfest for Gourmet magazine, turns into an inquiry into animal cruelty, just as "Up, Simba," a remarkably prescient essay on the 2000 Presidential campaign of John McCain, turns into a manic meditation on the ways in which such campaigns strip human beings of their humanity. Among other things, the remaining essays hang out in Las Vegas at an annual porn awards event (same theme) and review Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage in order to distinguish levels of usage from Standard English. There's also a review of Tracy Austin's memoir, in order to ask how and why a tennis star can play so smart and sound so dumb. But he's terrifically disturbing too: it's like watching an extremely intelligent version of an 18th century scientist dissecting the nerves, ganglia, vessels, and innards of our post-modern society in search of the soul / truth, only to find it exasperatingly elusive and, inevitably, out of reach. His other collection of essays is A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and yes, I know, he's most famous for his 1000-page + novel Infinite Jest, which I'm still working up the courage [and looking for the time] to read. Maybe next summer.)