Dr Seuss on the Juice (as performed by Dr. John)

 

 

When I read Kafka

I get wasted on Vodka,

 

Though Mr. William Faulkner

Go better with Johnnie Walker.

 

Can’t do Proust

With no gin in my juice.

 

Obviously, Guinness be the choice

When I open up my Joyce.

 

(Finnegan’s Wake sober

Mean a walloping hangover).

 

Never do Virginia Woolf

Unless the bottle say 100 proof.

 

Nobel Laureate TS Eliot

Requires an even stronger inebriant.

 

And remember,

if you want to stay alive,

Don’t read and drive.

 

 

 

Jonathan Franzen, Literary Piñata

Looking at the Thing

I guess I was one of the last English majors to be trained to look at literature through the supposedly un-tinted lens of what used to be called New Criticism.

Back then, we were taught not to factor biography into our assessment of artistic products. According to this way of judging art, the fact that Cormac McCarthy’s ex-wife pulled a “gun out of her vagina and threatened her boyfriend with it when a sex act/argument about the existence of aliens [. . .] took a turn for the weird” does not shed any light on McCarthy as an artist.

New Criticism demanded we look at and judge a poem, play, story, or novel according to its architectonics and organic synthesis. In other words, it was the imposition of the scientific method upon the creative product, a detached analysis of how parts fit into a whole to highlight some sort of significant statement about what it means to be human.   Call me hidebound, but I prefer New Criticism, which now goes by the moniker of “formalism,” to reader-response criticism, semiotics, new historicism, etc.

6a00d8341c630a53ef0134862b33e8970cSo I’m not much interested in Jonathan Franzen’s biography, his Midwestern roots, his literary heroes, his divorce, his love of birds and disdain for predatory house cats. I’m not interested in judging him as a human being; I am, though, interested in his art, his novels’ architectonics, character development, and entertainment value – not necessarily in that order. Even if Franzen himself in an essay on Edith Wharton claims that “a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character,” I’m not interested in writers’ characters or personalities; I’m interested in their books.

Why Creative Artists Frequently Hold Critics in Disdain

I’ve started to write I don’t know how many novels but only finished two, both of which were comic and featured adolescent protagonists, so I didn’t have to wrestle with the complexities of adulthood nor fear the consequences of failing at trying to create a serious work of art. Nevertheless, even in the construction of those piddly narratives, I suffered a bit in that I ended up spending hour after hour locked in the sordid little garret of my own unconscious, not a very pleasant or healthy place.

Writing a novel is hard. Faulkner, who cranked out As I Lay Dying in 6 weeks, said writing a novel is like “trying to nail together a henhouse in a hurricane.” Of course, the English form has its roots in the 18th Century and especially flourished in the 19th when middle class people needed something to do during those long, gaslit but wirelesses nights. Back then, many considered novels unhealthy, the way my father thought my reading comic books was unhealthy, the way some parents think playing video games is unhealthy. Another oft-employed metaphor in this context is junk food. Think of Paradise Lost as a banquet and Monk Lewis’s The Monk as a big bag of licorice jellybeans.

According to Marc McGurl’s The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James, before James no one thought of a novel as a work of art, and, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses demonstrated not only that a novel could be a work of art, but it could also be high art. So I say J. Joyce and H. James have made the serious novelist’s work more difficult because now this genre that has its origins in entertainment and costs a lot to produce and market needs to be ideally both high art and entertaining, and when’s the last time you’ve seen someone on the subway reading a paperback edition of Absalom, Absalom?

When critics do their jobs and judge books and find them lacking, so-called creative writers sometimes mock the critics as functionaries (muse-less hacks), or worse, vampires (parasites living off of someone else’s creativity).

Not surprisingly, Yeats has expressed these sentiments as well as anybody:

The Scholars

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,

Old, learned, respectable bald heads

Edit and annotate the lines

That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair

To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

 

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;

All wear the carpet with their shoes;

All think what other people think;

All know the man their neighbour knows.

Lord, what would they say

Did their Catullus walk that way?

Christian Lorentzen’s Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Novel

Despite my being a mere dabbler in writing fiction and poetry, I have to admit I felt a little like Yeats when reading Christian Lorentzen’s review of Purity in New York magazine.

Don’t get me wrong. Lorentzen’s review is in many ways brilliant and unequivocally very entertaining. The cat is a superb stylist and, as we say on Folly Beach, knows his shit. In fact, I laughed out loud in the bar where I was reading the review when I read this sentence:

Franzen proves adept at telling an old-fashioned murder story, even if he pounds the notes of guilt and shame a little too hard with his Victorian hammer.

However, despite his protests otherwise, you can’t help get the impression that Lorentzen really dislikes Franzen the man. I’ve added the italics:

Prisoner of a too-early, too-idealistic marriage premised on mutual artistic success, a taste of which he got and she didn’t. En route to a divorce colored by his wife’s failure to sell a book, confusing the end of love with rage against environmental devastation, trying in vain to sell out with a dud of a screenplay that sublimated his marital crack-up. Depressed and penniless divorcé, coping with writer’s block and his own competitive instincts in the face of his friend’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, by trying to figure out what it means to be a reader. Resurgent literary champion, reaping the rewards of a decade’s struggle but always prone to media gaffes. Advocate and lover of birds, even if it sometimes seemed the ornithologist-novelist was copping a move from the lepidopterist Nabokov. Time cover boy with a net worth reported to be in the eight figures, but always generous to younger writers as well as select literary forebears. Failed television writer (when HBO preemptively canceled a series adapted from The Corrections) and pained bystander to his brilliant friend’s suicide, an awful thing to endure, however muddled Franzen’s public response (“suicide as career move”?) has sounded. Scourge of online culture, an endearingly Sisyphean self-appointment. I confess I find Franzen the man sympathetic at every turn. I only wish that next time he returns with a novel that isn’t a bad date.

Only 6 of the 21 paragraphs of the review deal with Purity, and given the above, it’s not surprising that Lorentzen finds the novel lacking. Its “execution is shoddier” than that of The Corrections and Freedom, its “[b]its of sociology break the spell of a convincing present.”

Franzen in 1977

Franzen in 1977

For whatever reason, lots of people seem to have it out for Franzen, people like Matt Yglesias, whose writing I dig.  They tend to develop a real animus for Franzen. Do they find him smug, too contemporary, too ambitious? Was Franzen that kid in school whom everyone picked on?

All I know is that I find his novels entertaining, and I care about his characters. From The Corrections I know what having Alzheimer’s feels like, and I also know that creating realistic characters and placing them in three-dimensional spaces is really, really difficult, like, um, “nailing up a henhouse in a hurricane,” so I’m inclined to give novelists more slack.

I know, I know, creative and analytical intelligences are very different (I suspect that Mrs. Harold Bloom isn’t packing heat, even in her purse), and critics must do their jobs, but every once in a while, before they start gathering their stones, they ought to at least sit down and try to write a sonnet.

Let’s Get Real

A few years back, I contemplated moving to western or southern Ireland for retirement, maybe to the Beara Peninsula down in County Cork or up to County Mayo on the coast, perhaps purchasing a rustic cottage with a glimpse of distant mountains or of the sea.

3229244181_a516f6ab0d_zHave you ever witnessed a rainbow in Ireland? I don’t know if it’s the air up there or the angle of the sun, but the rainbow Judy Birdsong and I saw in ’79 mesmerized us. It was so misty-shimmering wonderful that it could almost make you believe in leprechauns, in magic, in Lir.

Beara’s and Mayo’s landscape is gorgeous, their people gregarious. The Irish and my kinsmen, folk from the South Carolina Lowcountry, share a love for the oral tradition of story-telling. We’d get along fine I think. The Irish love music and poetry and literature. For example, before the Euro, James Joyce himself appeared on Ireland’s ten-pound note, which would be like having Walt Whitman on a US fifty. We Americans might put our beloved authors on stamps, but they don’t rank high enough in our estimation to appear on legal tender. Of course, Irish currency doesn’t have “In God We Trust” printed on it, which would not go all that well thematically with Mr. Joyce’s bespectacled mug nor with Herman Melville’s otherwise presidential countenance.

IEP-banknote-10-irish-pounds-james-joyce

melville fifty

 

 

 

 

But I digress. When I mentioned this silly romantic notion to Judy, she reminded me that my three trips to the Emerald Isle occurred in May or June, not December or February, and she reckoned that in those dark and dreary months the odor of burning peat might very well lose its allure as building a fire transitioned from exoticism to drudgery.

Miss Birdsong knows all too well that dreary weather and Wesley don’t get along. In fact, a shrink back in the day suggested that I could very well suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (which I have immortalized in a poem you can listen to me read in my golden Lowcountry baritone HERE). No, day after day of leaden skies, the sun setting by three or four, would be bad for my state of mind.

Take this winter, for example. We might as well be in Ireland — or Ingmar Bergman’s Sweden. A glance at the five-day forecast, more often than not, has yielded a succession of cartoon clouds, dark, with resiquite raindrops slanting down.

Max Von Sydow

Max Von Sydow

My neighborhood “pub,” Chico Feo, roofless as it is, has been closed for days at a time, often for rain, less often for cold, but closed nonetheless. As I have driven to work morning after morning through fog, I have half expected to see Max Von Sydow and/or Liv Ullman trudging along the side of Folly Road.

But as PB Shelley famously put it, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Sure enough, the sun peeped out on consecutive days this week, so I popped in at Chico Feo. On the first day, I got to witness a book burning and on the second some low wattage police brutality.

Perhaps I underestimate Folly as a retirement locale.

bookiburning 2But, before I go, let me assure you that the book burning wasn’t Fahrenheit 451.1.0 but part of a very indie film noir murder mystery starring the Chico crew, my hobo hero Greg, and prolific Chris, a graphic artist and novelist who works at Bert’s.

And the “police brutality” merely consisted of a very, very, very drunk man having his arms twisted behind his back and then being slammed rather roughly to the pavement of Second Street. Alas, I had absentmindedly left my phone at work, so I didn’t get to capture the disturbance, which was quite a spectacle taking place as it did in front of the mural of Bert done up like a smiling, squinting, dismembered pirate.

IMG_0004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Won’t Believe These Killer, Innovative, Somewhat Offensive Halloween Costumes

[cue puppy ahhhhhhh]

[cue puppy ahhhhhhh]

As far as I’m concerned, Halloween should have an “AKA Mental Health Day” attached to it. I’m sure there are several studies out there that argue being reminded of your own mortality in a jocular way is a healthy thing. Plus, children get to transform themselves into princesses, Ninja Turtles, or adorable zombies.

Adults, too, can disguise themselves, don costumes that project their dearest archetypes (pirates) or mock creatures/institutions they despise (Jehovah Witnesses/The Chamber of Commerce).

Plus, in disguise, it’s almost like you got a license to get Dionysianly drunk but somehow forgiven for that extra-marital flirting, that making an ass of yourself in general..

So with that in mind, I thought I’d share with you five innovative, inexpensive, costumes that you can whip together in no time — just in case you get that last minute invitation (I’m still waiting for mine).

Ebola Heath Care Worker

backpack optional

backpack optional

Okay, before you start flailing away in a tizzy of outrage, remember that Halloween’s all about death and mayhem. Admit it, you don’t know anyone who has ever died of, much less contracted Ebola. If it’s okay to dress up like a hobo/homeless person, what’s so wrong about dressing up like an Ebola health worker? I bet more homeless people freeze to death on the streets of Detroit this winter will die of Ebola in the next decade.

Assembling the Costume: Go to Walmart and buy a disposable paint overalls, wading boots, rubber gloves,  goggles, and a breathing mask. Bingo!

Charlestonian

slider-21-1170x683bucksThanks to global warming, we’re no doubt looking at another sweltering Halloween, so the regulation seersucker Charlestonians sport will be not only comfortable, but, let’s face it, slimming. Fellows, a bow tie is a must; ladies, I suggest some sort of hat. Both sexes need to always have a drink in both hands.

Dr, John, the Night Tripper

If you don’t know whom I’m talking about, shame on you. Skip to the next costume. For the cognoscenti, this costume comes in two vintages, the Old Dr. John, which, though fun, is complex. See illustration.

DRJOHN11 drjohn200-341bc5b44a7808bf984e964aac6c68f09c0340a5-s2-c85

I suggest the contemporary Doctor John with pasted-on van dyke (if you’re not sporting one already), purple blazer, green shirt and matching funky fedora, necklaces, etc.

Ladies, don’t let this look be off-limits. It’s easier for you to pull off than a “Gertrude Stein.”

zurich james joyceJames Joyce

Of course, no one is going to know who James Joyce is, but that should make you feel even more superior than these bourgeois losers who decided to invite you only at the last minute..

All you need are glasses, an eye patch, a suit, some sort of a hat, and a cane. Presto.

Hassidic Jew

7e1e17e7ada66b3d8256c61cd03c2416A last minute desperation choice and in as poor taste as dressing up like Aunt Jemima but nevertheless covered by the First Amendment.

Just add a hat and braids to last year’s Hamlet costume.

Here’s a LINK where you can cop a hat with braids.  Better overnight it.

Bang Endings

Barry-White-Soul-SeductionA while back, I posted a piece called “First Impressions,” which celebrated killer opening sentences from various novels like [cue Barry White] this here delicious, obsessive echo chamber of a love song from Mr Baddass himself, Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

However, as Franz Kafka once told me, “Starten eines Roman ist eine verdammt viel einfacher, als Abschluss einer“* so I decided to lay 5 of my favorite closing lines on you, lines that rat-a-tat-tat the novels’ themes in sound and sense. (BTW, the actual quotes themselves should be read aloud).

*Starting a novel is a helluva lot easier than finishing one.


1. The Sound and the Fury: “The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

If Mr. Faulkner were employed by SparkNotes, he might “summarize” that last sentence like this: A description of Benjy — christened Maury — Compson, idiot grandson of the Confederate General patriarch of that fallen family, the drooping and broken flower an emblem of Ben’s beloved lost sister’s honor, Maury/Benjamin just having gone apeshit because the black tween servant Luster had swung the wagon bearing the family on their ritualistic visit to the grave of General Compson’s alcoholic son Jason Sr. to the left of the monument, provoking sounds of ”horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless, just sound,” from the that thirty-three-year-old with the mind-of-a-three-year-old, bellowing until the “only sane” Compson brother, Jason Jr., catches the reins to swing the horse Queenie in the opposite direction, calming Benjy, the sentence itself capsuling the fall of the House of Compson, the disappearance of the Old South, its doomed fetish for tradition.

joyce mainUlysses: O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Riding the rapids of Mrs. Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness as she contemplates her hubby Leopold, heroic cuckold, who has come home again, home again, jiggedy jig, and who lies in bed next to her, his feet facing the headboard and his head facing the footboard, and what can you say to the life-affirming ending of that concluding sentence but yes sir ree bob tail– Yes!

Y’all ready now for a slow dance?

The portrait of Abert Camus by Haeree Choi

The portrait of Abert Camus by Haeree Choi

3. The Stranger: For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

Mon Dieu, is smoking a cigarette during the absurd ritual of sitting up all night with your mother’s corpse or having casual sex the night after her funeral so wrong? How absurd! These acts by our narrator Meursault seem to shock his all-white Algerian jury more than the offing of a mere native (which in Colonial Africa is tantamount to jaywalking).  You might say that Meursault’s jail sentence has been a Godsend – i.e., you might say that if he didn’t exist in an arid, godless abyss of a universe — but the good news is that in the fleeting ever disappearing now in which he types the concluding paragraph, he has discovered that he and the indifferent universe are one. OM.

4. The Sun Also Rises: A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”fiesta-sun-also-rises-ernest-hemingway-paperback-cover-art

Who knows if Viagra would have worked on narrator Jake Barnes. Did his war injury render him a gelding or sever his penis? No crisp declarative sentences answer those questions. Certainly, as a man Jake is the opposite of what the vulgar call “dickless.”  Whatever, all I really care about is that mounted policeman raising his baton is an invaluable tool in convincing skeptical students that phallic symbols aren’t perverse illusions engendered by English teachers’ diseased minds .

5. “Midnight Rambler”: I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts!

Okay, as Condoleezza Rice’s and Colonel Kurtz’s lovechild might say, “Strictly speaking, ‘Midnight Rambler’ isn’t exactly a novel, but it is a narrative, sort of, and this post is getting too long, and goddammit, that last line of the Stones’ classic absolutely nails the sound and sense of the sort of narrative, and it‘s literally “killer”, so fuck you and your rigid mind-forged manacles.”  

Let_it_Bleed

Freud, Jung, Hamlet, and Joyce

A Finger Puppet Play in One Act

freud pyschoanalyzes Hamlet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scene One : The castle at Elsinore.

Enter Hamlet moping

Hamlet: O, would this too, too solid flesh melt

and resolve itself into a dew.

O, how weary stale and flat seem to me

All the uses of this world. Fie on it. Fie!

 

Goddamn it! What a rogue and peasant slave am I!

 

The night sky that wheels above us,

That brave o’er hanging firmament,

That majestic roof fretted with golden fire,

Why it appearth no other thing to me

than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

 

O, to be or not to be that is the question.

O, to sweat and groan under a weary life.

 

Fie on it. Fie.

But soft! Methinks

I hear that most pernicious woman

whose name is frailty.

 

Enter Gertrude:

 

Gertrude: Hamlet, O Hamlet.

Hamlet: Yes, mother.

Gertrude. O Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off and

let me giveth thee a sponge bath.

Hamlet: O mother, you know I have that appointment

Today with Dr. Freud.

Gertrude: I had forgot. Cancel it, love.

Hamlet: You knoweth what a procrastinator

I be. I shall go to the appointment.

Gertrude: Well giveth your mother a little kiss,

my love, before thou leavest.

 

Scene Two: Dr. Freud’s Offices.

Freud and James Joyce engaging in “the talking cure.”

Freud: Keep Going, Mr. Joyce. Get it Out

Joyce: Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing!

Freud: Very well then, Mr. Joyce I’ll see you next time.

Joyce: By the way, Doc, to say that a great genius is half-mad, while recognizing his artistic prowess, is worth as much as saying that he was rheumatic, or that he suffered from diabetes. Madness, in fact, is a medical expression to which a balanced critic should pay no more heed than he would to the accusation of heresy brought by the theologian, or to the accusation of immorality brought by the public prosecutor. Good Day

exit Joyce

Freud: His Inflated ego is furthered pathologized by anal expulsiveness. What is that last book of his Finnegan’s Wake by a vast shit explosion? Anna!

Enter Anna Freud.

Anna: Yes, Father?

Freud: Whose next?

Anna. He calls himself Hamlet, Hamlet the Dane.

 

Scene Three: Hamlet and Freud’s session

(Hamlet lying on the psychiatric couch)

Freud: Enough about your mother. Tell me about this step father of yours.

Hamlet: O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! Bloody, bawdy villain!

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!

Freud: So I take it you do not like this man.

Hamlet: I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal.

Freud: My son, it’s quite clear that you suffer from an Oedipal complex, that you are fixated in the phallic stage.   Our work is done here. That will be 500 marks.

Hamlet: You joketh. That’s it? I want another opinion.

Freud: Very well. Anna!  Bring in Dr. Jung

Enter Jung.

Freud: Dr. Jung, this young man wants to kill his father.

Hamlet: Stepfather!

Freud: To kill his father so he can be with alone with his mother, which obviously denotes the Oedipal complex.

Jung: I’ve been thinking, Herr Mentor, that you over-emphasize the sexual component in mental illness. I have a slightly different take.

Freud: I dare you! How dare you! Contradict me!

They fight.

Scene Four: Hamlet alone on the Battlement.

Hamlet:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

 

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The rest is silence.

Enter Joyce doing a jig

Joyce: If others have their will Ann hath a way. By cock, she was to blame. She put the comether on him, sweet and twentysix. The greyeyed goddess who bends over the boy Adonis, stooping to conquer, as prologue to the swelling act, is a boldfaced Stratford wench who tumbles in a cornfield a lover younger than herself.

End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousandsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

Exeunt.

The End.