Writing right now, but back as soon as I figure out God and morality, politics, and the mysterious, tragicomic ways of the universe. Really, shouldn’t be long.
The discussion continues; scroll down for earlier posts. (And hey, you care about good writing, right? So buy a book. I would.)
This summer my favorite mystery writer died. This wasn’t a surprise; I knew they were terminally ill. I’d been following their postings on the topic, although even that seems intrusive. I’m not family, I have no right to grieve. I’m not even sure we’d have liked each other, in person.
But I was a fervent enough devotee to buy advance review copies of their most famous series off abebooks.com before the finished editions were available. I reread these books with no diminishment of interest, and who else can you say that about, except Christie? I’m talking about an emotional investment going back decades. I cared about the characters and vicariously observed, argued, and triumphed through them.
Until that final novel, with its shocking betrayal of trust. Well okay, not impeaching either of the two primary protagonists, but close, and this necessitated the sacrificed character acting completely out of character. Anyway, that’s how I see it.
While I assume this was an expression of personal rage, I realize I could be very wrong; it might have been a total coincidence, a planned digression for the series. But if not, was this really – I don’t know – legitimate? Fair? For some reason I’m still upset, digging away at this, and I’m not even sure of what I’m looking for. An apology? That’s absurd. Closure? I have no right.
I’m just a fan, with no rights at all. We all know how the fan-artist relationship can get crazy. But what about the presumption of safety inherent to this particular genre? What about the reader who was there from the beginning?
But my God, I’m screaming at a dead person over a laughably slight slap. If it actually was about sharing the pain, I hope it helped.
Photo credits: Jesper Sehested, write (CC BY 2.0) / Chris Bloom, Fan (CC BY-SA 2.0) / thierry ehrmann, le four alchimique…Nutrisco Et Extinguo (CC BY 2.0).
Is the novel still relevant? Last week I promised to let the questions lead the way, and I’m actually a little more forward. The definition of relevance seems key: what does that term mean, anyway? And relevant to whom, and why?
Importance might be the better descriptive: a work of art can be of enormous value to an individual, but not universally important. It might open your eyes, but the rest of the world is far ahead of you, and the subject’s been tweeted over forever.
Nothing can match the magic of reading fiction: the astonishing, irreplaceable gift of the novel is the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and often an exciting but anyway a different world, as well. But the truth is, this perspective can be adequately accomplished visually, and perfected with accompanying narration. A predetermined view is limiting but you see it, you see it, it has the upper hand.
Look, our common cultural heritage is visual and digital; that’s a done deal. We tell our story in images shared to the planet: towers falling, presidents shot, steps on the moon. I have to admit, I came to this realization late, I thought images and all electronic media transient, but quite the opposite: hardcopy is vulnerable; images are forever.
Another thing: the writing on TV is the best going these days; that’s where the exceptional story-telling is, no question. TV is an interesting field, both confined as to reach yet wonderfully varied. More, it has universal immediacy; everyone experiences it at the same time, we all talk about it, and we encourage everyone else we know to stream it. This is preserving the medium by modeling behavior for coming generations the way reading is very seldom modeled these days, if ever. Getting back to that notion of relevance or importance, TV and the Internet have effectively commandeered one particular responsibility traditionally vaunted by the novel: the exposé, whether personal or cultural, business or political. This elite responsibility once flourished in fiction but we don’t need The Jungle or A Christmas Carol now we have CNN.com and 60 Minutes. Who has time for something as self-indulgent as reading now it’s not morally supported?
Oral tradition evolved into the written national epic, then into everyman’s story in local languages; the novel became specific and personal but it remained universal: War and Peace matters to everyone. Today books are built to confirm and conform, and no one dares speak to the great topics. Or have we simply given up on universals the way we’ve given up on objective truth? Are we gutless, slyly knowing, or merely conscientious? Whatever the case, we’re in a sterile, and self-referential literary office tower, where clever editors with identical educations iron flat every obtrusive speckled thing. More and more, the narrative voice sounds just like the protagonist from the last book you read.
Of course this is also about economics, the preferences of that very specific segment of the populace: People Who Read Books. Who are they, and what do they want, anyway? The entire industry exists only to serve them, after all. And if they won’t demand something better, maybe even great, it’s going to go on spiraling smaller and smaller, and I guess I’ll see you at the cineplex.
Okay, so I’ve followed some questions, and I can discern the faint outline of a path ahead. Any kind of movement matters, and this conversation will continue. Meanwhile I’m back to working on my own fiction, that nascent book about the Other, whether self-created projection, alien intruder, or Ultimate Concept.
Thanks for your interest. And please check out the Home page for info on Worthy of This Great City, if you’re at all interested in fresh fiction.
Photo credits: Revise_D, Novel (CC BY-SA 2.0) / www.gotcredit.com – Print (CC BY 2.0) / Sean MacEntee, old media new media (CC BY 2.0)
A few summers back, someone threw a tennis or golf ball onto the roof of my little apartment building, where it clogged up the drainage system. My landlord came by to say the tenant downstairs was complaining about water coming through her ceiling. The wet splotch on my bedroom floor was nothing dramatic; we concluded an open window was to blame, and paid no attention to the slight stain on the ceiling. Cut to a week later and water was dripping from the stain, now a definite crack, at a rate that required a bucket but was still containable. Twelve hours later, it was a literal downpour, I’d been up over twenty hours dumping water into the bathtub from the big kitchen trashcan and every other large pot and bucket I owned, and all my towels were in circulation between my upper floor and the basement laundry. Early morning I came back from a laundry run to find the entire ceiling down inside my bedroom, slanting from tall dresser across the bed, broken into gigantic pieces, with stuff like wet gray wool hanging from above, and pieces of white plaster driven into everything. The entire room smelled sour. There’d been enough water to fill a swimming pool over my bedroom, and it had entered with force. I think I actually laughed.
So then a dehumidifier, painters, spackling, everything; I camped out in the living room, which was kind of fun. A section of the bedroom’s wood floors was in sharp waves; I was told they’d subside, but three years later and it’s still startling if I step on that area by accident. It’s hard to explain the overall effect of this kind of experience. I didn’t think much of it at first; it was all handled professionally and I was given a break on the rent to cover the dresser, so I thought I was fine.
But I’ve just recovered from – what? a minor depression? simply being overwhelmed? – to actually get around to making everything presentable again. It’s been exhausting: the dresser was part of a set, the backings of the framed prints were warped, family photos were ruined, never mind what happened to the drapes and quilt. Never mind that my low-grade leather living room set peeled beyond redemption. At first I patched the bald spots with shoe polish, which dripped and ruined the carpet.
You have to pay someone to haul all that stuff away.
Now I have new furniture, which is reassuring. And now enter the great big company that brings anything I want right to my door, so I don’t want to hear about them being employee-abusing, small-business-destroying vultures, at least not right now. They sent me a duvet, which I love. And throw pillows. And picture frame mats and backings. And spray paint for the wicker pieces. And touch-up paint for the woodwork. And a living room rug and then another rug for the hall. And some new houseplants. And flower pots and potting soil and plant food. And surge protectors. And an electric blanket and a regular blanket and towels. And a laundry hamper and some kitchen appliances and a shower curtain and regular curtains and a wok. And a throw quilt for the new sofa, and storage bags for the closet, cutting boards, a vacuum cleaner, and an alarm clock. And a good deal more, every restoration breeding a further desire.
They attempted to send me a white wicker wastepaper basket. UPS got it as far as a facility in NJ and there it stayed. Strange; did someone really need one that badly?
So I clicked onto Chat, which is something I enjoy, which tells you a lot about me. Chat said they were sorry, and if it didn’t arrive by Sunday let them know and they’d send another.
Sunday evening I logged onto Chat and let them know it hadn’t arrived, and they ordered me another white wicker wastepaper basket, which made it to a facility in NJ and stayed there. Note that lots of the other stuff I order through this same mega-company processes through the same facility with no issues. Why white wicker wastepaper baskets? Drug smuggling? Some obscure fetish?
I logged onto Chat and explained, whimsically I think, and they were apologetic; Chat is consistently apologetic, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. They agreed there was a serious problem and promised it would be reported immediately. Also they refunded my money, because I wasn’t about to try again. Then I ordered a white wicker wastepaper basket from another vendor that specialized in home decor.
They sent me Marvin. He came in an unmarked cardboard box, wrapped in an unmarked plastic bag, with the plastic loop for a price tag attached to him but no price tag. Marvin the anonymous. His photo doesn’t do him justice: he’s grayer, and mottled, and kind of mushy. Looking at him, you have to wonder why anyone would create him on purpose: an existential expression of the concept “wastepaper basket?” I went to the vendor’s website and connected to Chat. They were very apologetic; they would refund my money, but unfortunately the item I wanted was out of stock. They helped me order a similar white wicker wastepaper basket. As for Marvin, I uploaded a photo of him at Chat’s instruction, and they said that rather than return him, I should just hold onto him for a while. If I didn’t hear from them in a few weeks I could donate him to a charity. I swear this is true.
A few days later, a white wicker wastepaper basket actually arrived. Hurrah!
A few day later, another white wicker wastepaper basket arrived, a twin to the first. I decided to keep it for my refurbished bedroom and logged onto the evil humungous company’s Chat and told them they needed to bill me all over again because the item did finally arrive, and they understood, which was pretty impressive.
A few days later, another white wicker wastepaper basket arrived, so I had four: three identical white ones and Marvin, in his box, in my bedroom closet. I printed out a return label and left a white wicker wastepaper basket at the UPS pick-up at my office building.
And I started wondering if the whole incident of the bedroom ceiling falling in and flooding out my apartment might have affected me more than I first realized. The flood, and possibly some other things, all resulting in a predilection to Chat.
Me and Marvin, the endearingly pathetic, squishy piece of grayish braided something or other I’ll be throwing out.
It’s a groove, man. An Age of Aquarius blast of info, no getting around it. But what, precisely is the message?
Hey GET DOWN!
Oh, sorry; just someone at my neighbor’s door. More mass shootings this weekend so I’m a little jumpy.
Are you with me here? I’ve spent much of the past nine months revisiting late sixties, early seventies Hollywood, courtesy of Orson Welles, Eve Babitz, Charles Bukowski, Robert Stone, and now Quentin Tarantino. So much concentration on when and how it all ended: Manson of course, Altamont, or merely young people getting older. This is nonsense: it never ended, it was only just beginning. We just didn’t realize what “it” was.’ We thought those geeks in the Silicon Valley were outliers but they were the heart of it, the elite forces of the New Age. Maybe they need to be schooled by #MeToo but they created it, too, and every other virtual force for good or whatever.
They were later on the scene, behind TV, that first harbinger of unavoidable reality and the undermining of the American myth. Aquarius! Tarantino’s film is about the demise of old Westerns and GIs taking on the evil Nazis, all those black-and-white heroes with their guns drawn, ready to teach the bad guys a lesson. Guns are just so effective.
Take it back further, to road trips taken with Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, all that rootless post-war generation that crashed into the sixties with a rumor of enlightenment and a stalwart despair, with the urge to keep moving, but meanwhile think. They’re back again in Stone’s book (he sadly managed to miss the sexual escapades of Eve’s Hollywood). Unlike the naifs they inspired, the beat generation had some experience of the world; whereas the flower children, the protestors, the trippers – they were drunk on vivid possibility as much as chemical substances. They – we – thought ourselves good.
Today we know better. We see the havoc wrought by our immigrant ancestors and parents and obstinately selfish selves, or else we see how we’ve been cheated, and how cleverly, and by whom. Too many of us are frightened and refuse to see, and turn to guns to try and stop the coming righteous horde. But we know all that. I’ve written an entire novel about the inevitable moral crisis that must follow on our growing awareness of our imprint on everything everywhere.
Hollywood, manufacturer of every mimicked gesture and solution and recourse, passionately denies any responsibility for gun violence. The town has always worshipped and profited from violence. Tarantino, via Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, unexpectedly delivered me yet again to Musso and Frank, at this point my regular literary hangout. My God, what is it about this place, that everything I read or see ends up in its dim, comforting confines? Tarantino’s Hollywood is a town in sad transition, its studio system moribund, its narratives suddenly trite and suspect. The hero of an old TV Western (Leonardo DiCaprio)and his sidekick / stunt man (Brad Pitt), a veteran given to violence, are on the outs in this new world, and Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, are very in, but Manson and his crew are watching, figuring in their clouded, resentful way about how to inflict pain on the fortunate. They’re terrified but ultimately ridiculous children, under the malicious influence of the most pathetic child of them all, the brutalized child of a brutal system. The tension builds, an unlikely detour occurs, and there’s Tex Watson pointing a gun at Brad Pitt’s character, who, stoned out of his mind, humors him and points a finger gun back. It is one of the most astonishing moments I’ve ever seen on film.
Because of course Tex is a joke; obviously any rational adult would recognize a narcissist, a fascist, a lost child, and all the other scared assholes inexplicably running around loose. Only no, it turns bloody in the end; I guess somebody, somewhere wasn’t paying attention. In his movie, Tarantino plays at God and gives the victory to the old-timers; they vanquish the specter of natural consequences just like they won over the Germans
It’s absolutely lovely, but it didn’t happen that way, and here we are with all this truth.
Except it’s not that simple, either. Hollywood, though, is an industry town, hungry for the dollar, self-referential, always willing to go as low as it takes. And arguably movies are destructive by definition. To make something, anything, beautiful is to make it obsolete, to effectively kill it. So maybe the trite old movies did play a part, did pave the way by getting our illusions out of the way.
We’ve never been very conscious or considerate about how we use art; we just throw it out there. Orson Welles started filming The Other Side of the Wind in the fall of 1970. It was to be his comeback movie, a movie about a famous director making a comeback movie in transitional Hollywood, a film designed for young audiences, filled with meaningless sex and violence. Welles film debuted, miraculously, last fall; his doomed director delivers its final line:
You shoot the great places and pretty people. All those girls and boys. Shoot ’em dead.
Photo credits: Sarah Stierch, Charles Manson (CC BY 2.0) / Andrea Pass, Sixties (CC BY 2.0)