Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Alissa Nutting's Tampa

I dislike almost every online review I’ve read of this novel, pro or con, thus providing my chief stimulus for this consideration.

Tampa, because it’s based on the actual lurid adventures of a female hebephile, got a lot of coverage, much of it focusing on the sociological issues and legal ramifications weighing on the narrative like a 60000 lb elephant expanding with each ingested and titillating doughnut while among several innocents trapped in a rec room.

The novel’s advocates: Nutting bravely shines a light on the often overlooked crime of women in power sexually abusing young males. She reveals the hypocrisy in a society which still considers a fourteen year-old male student to be the benefactor, not the victim, in this scenario.

The novel’s detractors: The sex scenes, which extended to the way the book was marketed, were damning in that they ironically set out to excite the reader, thereby adding to the bottom line of both author and publisher. (Duncan White’s review in The Telegraph was particularly adamant with this criticism.)

To the advocates: the big picture 60 Minutes-style overview is reductive, obvious, shallow, and unimaginative. Of course Nutting is pointing out the hypocrisies and sententious blather of the mouth-breathing boob tube enthusiasts, the boasting idiocies of the jock culture, the silence or downplaying or oppositional stance from female sexual-abuse support groups. But that’s a muted grand issue and, in that wise weighing of proportional characterization-within-theme, it shows a real and rare skill in a book fighting its way within a literary world – from author, reviewer, award-giving panel, and reader – frequently consumed by ideological positions of moral uplift that conflates a book’s worth with its potential for social change.

To the detractors: the sex scenes are indeed covered with a rancid motel 6 oil of pornographic spew. That’s the point. The first-person criminal sociopath described her experiences in A into B geometric, goal-scoring terms because that’s how she experienced them. The reader isn’t welcomed into a world of bad porn, but one of the psychology of desire without emotion. This is particularly well done because the predator’s demeanor with Jack is smooth, accommodating, encouraging, even laudatory. And it’s this frightening duplicity – everything she does is as a means to sate, temporarily, her sexual addiction – that shows what Nutting is about with her lead, both in and out of the bedroom.

Another negative position taken by the novel’s critics focuses on the improbable plot points. I don’t know. Have any of these people read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? I’m assuming they refer to the (spoiler alert!) father’s sudden death, or to the courtroom scene. These aren’t everyday outcomes, but there’re many stranger events happening every day, and you don’t have to read the Enquirer’s 86 lb front-page kitty to discover them. I thought the plot, though baggy at times, propulsive and dramatic.

Finally, both pro and con reviewers remarked on the writing. Either it was wonderful or awful. I found it was frequently wonderful and awful, sometimes on the same page. Here are two quotes from page 102:

“Suddenly all the panic inside me that had recently drained gushed back in full force.”

“He took a seat on my desk, his pants rising up to reveal trouser socks patterned with rows of tiny rainbow-trout icons.”

Nutting overwrites, and her syntax is often awkward (though the latter deficit isn’t lowlighted here). But she also has a delightful lyrical facility, an imaginative wit and dark humour integrated with emotional seamlessness. Since this is her first novel, and since her faults are repetitive ones, the publisher has to bear a large responsibility for the stylistic failings on board. So – it’s not poorly or expertly written, but is wildly uneven. But I’ll take a wide variation to get to the talented phrases and sentences, rather than endure a competent but talent-challenged and even-keeled experience.

I don’t have time to remark on the other fine psychological investigations Nutting digs into in the book. (The criminal’s reaction, (another spoiler alert!), now behind bars, to her husband’s anguished questions, is devastating in its cold, banal first-person assessment and off-topic trivial concern.) But I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking that a shocking book is praised and denounced for invalid or misconstrued reasons.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Philip Roth's Indignation

Philip Roth’s follow-up to Exit Ghost, 2008’s Indignation, sees the workaholic turn up the heat while dealing with the same obsessions: sex, alienation, and death. Especially death. For those who’ve yet to read the short novel, beware of reviews – online reviews, anyway – that sabotage the narrative through giving away important plot points, including one structural surprise, that can be anticipated to some extent, but nevertheless have to experienced on first reading for best effect. The New York Times’ Kakutani is the worst culprit for this. But whereas the protagonist of Roth’s preceding novel was seventy-one, Indignation’s intense first-person narrator is just out of his teens and trying to complete his first year of college. The outside world is always present – the ramped-up Korean War – as are Marcus’ parents, though the young man, at Ohio’s Winesburg college, has left them back in New Jersey because of his admonitory, overbearing father.

I’ve only read eight or nine of Roth’s twenty-nine (+?) novels, but I’m sure there’s a lot of standard fare here. College life, sexual awakening, the exotic shiksa, rebellion of all sorts, self-definition. Unlike others who felt the structure was both shoddy and clipped, I thought the transitions and amalgamations of the larger worlds (college, war, politics of both) were handled intelligently and, just as importantly, raised a number of points which transcended Roth’s irritating propensity for didactic verbosity (though at times that didacticism was handled humorously and with purpose, as in the central set-piece between a smug and patronizing Dean and a nervous yet defiant Marcus). I’d develop this line of thought a little further, but it would come at the expense of narrative explanation, so I’ll just plug the book and leave it at that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jerzy Kosinski's The Devil Tree

Jerzy Kosinski’s career makes a farce out of the notion of artistic progression. His first novel, 1965’s The Painted Bird, is the most talented and realistic literary horror novel I’ve yet read. His last, 1988’s The Hermit Of 69th Street, is a dislocated series of private pleas and belligerent defenses. 

His second novel, Steps, is a series of thematically linked vignettes, and the revenge the protagonist was unable to formulate and enact in The Painted Bird was dramatically rendered in that novel’s follow-up.1973’s The Devil Tree is also structured in brief episodes, but as a fractured narrative. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth between shocking action and lacerating interior criticism doesn’t work organically, or with any narrative momentum. Repetition dulls the more lurid effects, and one already gets the sense that Kosinski has played his best hands early in his career.

I believe it’s at least partly circumstantial. By 1973, burrowing into self-exploration had morphed from a psychedelic game into a painful picking at scabs. Kosinski’s forte – psychological revelation under extreme and sudden violence – had given way to this much different obsession, and Kosinski couldn’t find a way to successfully transform the two directions in a unique vision. Worse, Kosinski’s amoral anti-hero, Whalen, had already been done more convincingly by a number of authors before the 70s, including Camus and Dreiser in different modes.

But the fearless chronicler of hypocrisy, upper-class coldness, and perversion still knocks it out of the park in several episodes, including one in which Whalen’s father fires his loyal servant of twenty years for changing the blade in the master’s razor one day too early.

As for the charges of plagiarism directed at the Polish emigrant, it’s no wonder revenge played a part in most of his stories. After surviving World War II, only to land in a free country rife with jealous orchestrators of the unfounded, cowardly attack (though some of those pipsqueaks also originated in Poland), Kosinski could only lash back in his art. Unfortunately, his most open attempt to settle the record came when his mental health had already plummeted. Though he had been fighting his demons longer than the first of the personal literary attacks took hold, his last novel was a narrow, emasculated response to his accusers. The Devil Tree’s original epigraph, also appearing in the novel’s last pages, is scarily accurate when turned on Kosinski: “the devil, getting tangled in its branches, punished the tree by reversing it”.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost

Christopher Hitchens' review of Philip Roth’s 2007 Exit Ghost is funny and brilliant.

That said, and granting many of the damning points made, I liked the book quite a bit more than him. First the agreements:

The sassy shiksa still drives Roth/Zuckerman to lusty agony (emotionally only, that is --the protagonist is impotent after prostate surgery), though Roth's eros-thanatos dialectic has been debased. No one gives a damn about literature, especially not the young upstarts talking half the day on their cell phones -- grumpy old man makes visit to New York city after decades-long absence. Jamie’s dialogue with the “seductive” Zuckerman is stilted and unbelievable. And the conversations – all characters expatiate joylessly – are boring and repetitive.

Yet Roth paints a few bulls-eyes, as well. Hitchens, surprisingly, adds no word on the largest concern in the novel: the traffic between respect for privacy and the desire (right?) for the public to go after, and discover, secrets, whether they’re cheap and dubious or pertinent and spiritually revelatory. Zuckerman, in this light, and despite his morose obsession with writing and (as the novel progresses) desperate plea to Jamie to resuscitate his soggy organ, attacks the public’s insatiable appetite for trite journalistic detail concerning their faddish heroes. The irony is that Lonoff, Roth’s mentor, has been forgotten, anyway, but as Zuckerman has it, that’s not the point. Dignity doesn’t depend on whether or not the public cares for the degraded presumptions, only that they were made against the dead’s inability to defend them. One can see more than a little fear in Roth’s own life and work here. Zuckerman’s hatred and envy of the young, strong, and charismatic Kliman is palpable.

The Amy Bellette character – with brain cancer in its final stages – is well done and quite an achievement. She’s drawn sympathetically, hard to do while unflinchingly dwelling on her physical ruin and mental collapse.

Roth also aces class hypocrisy, having Zuckerman catch Jamie’s complaint about the use of the word “underprivileged”.

“SHE: I don’t like that word.

HE: Why?

SHE: Well, what does it mean? Under privileged. Either you have privilege or you don’t have privilege ...

HE: You were yourself  so privileged. One might even say overprivileged.”

Jamie had earlier struck out in rage and disbelief during and after George Bush’s election night second-term win. Yet she’s the beneficiary of old Houston money – (her father was friends with Bush Sr.) – which put her in the connected schools right up the line, which then allowed an acceptance of her neophyte effort in the New York Times despite the fact she always seemed to be too afraid (after 9/11) to work at all.

And on that always prickly and complex class speculation, Roth, in a curious structural choice toward the end of the novel, crafts a sedate and admiring introspective eulogy on the late George Plimpton. The aristocratic New England editor and essayist wasn’t slumming, as many (Mailer included) criticized, when the author of Paper Lion and Out Of My League tried his hand at exhibition play with the pros of football, baseball, boxing, and golf. (I’ve read, and delighted in, all of his sports ventures and would select The Bogey Man as Plimpton’s best.) Remarkable that one so privileged could create such a sympathetic picture of the borderline roster players in all those sports. Roth’s point is that Plimpton’s talent and compassionate observational powers were so advanced he could overcome those charges with in-depth adventures in class contrasts, not hypocritically sucking up to the disadvantaged nor boasting about the stars.

But how does that tie in to Roth’s main narrative? Well, it’s a damnation of Zuckerman (and by extension Roth) since – PLOT SPOILER! -- the writer is reduced to sour personal defense among his own kind -- fellow writers -- which can only be “won” by having the first-person narrator denying Jamie in his own alternate narrative in Exit Ghost’s final page.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Anis Shivani's My Tranquil War and Other Poems

“What should the war do with these jigging fools?”, said Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. And he was the good guy! The fool’s representative? The poet. It’s important here, and subtle, as is much in Shakespeare (easily overlooked during bombast or mellifluous speech), that the poet is present, yet Brutus speaks about him to Cassius. And why not? The poet is known to the Imperial generals, but is not important enough to bother with. This is also the status of the poet (and artist in general) today, as Anis Shivani well knows.

In My Tranquil War and Other Poems, published in 2012 and ten years in the making, the Pakistani-American’s rhetoric is longer and wider than a Houston freeway. (There’s a you tube car cam video showing a driver’s entrance into the squalid asphalt-and-concrete maze that is Houston that’s at once frightening and banal, fixed states that Shivani also implants in a cumulative overdose throughout the volume.) The numbing fear and enraged impotence one is assaulted with, in poem after poem, is the result of increasingly sophisticated international political systems married to an amazingly naive liberal ideology.

Shivani’s first poem, “Harold Bloom’s Old Age”, acts as a transitional introduction. Composed as a sonnet (appropriate that it’s a Shakespearean sonnet, though with a twist), the turn achieves what every good sonnet should: a surprise. But surprise isn’t quite the right word. The tack-on couplet can be seen as a sarcastic swipe at Bloom’s footnoting self-importance, but there’s a further shock, and a queasy aftershock ( a 7.2 to a lingering 3.8), that Bloom’s ordered world is gone, and has been gone for over a century, “as each day I’ve murdered my sad Macbeths”, a terrifying modern abstract metaphor for suppression of grief based on collective guilt. We can still plunder the canon, but we resurface (or should) with an awful reminder that the same humanism, however talented, has today been neutered, (often justifiably) derided, or (most often) ignored.

Political poems are notorious for their propensity for propaganda or sentimentality, the worst of them combining both features in equal measure. (Read any essential Bush Jr. poems lately?) But contemporary examples exist. Robert Bly wrote some angry and affecting anti-Vietnam poems when he bothered to temporarily jolt himself out of a decades-long search for spiritual mentors in forest ponds. But almost all options have been pulled from under the poet’s aesthetically pleasing rug. Anger either gets you ridiculed by the academics or profiled by Homeland Security. Arms-length irony has long been an ineffectual boring reflex. Humanism (again), is naive if not hypocritical, and has also been co-opted, anyway, by the phony-holy purveyors of priestly consumerism. So what’s left? Well, as I remarked in a different post while quickly running through the origins of surrealism, as a preface in a review of Stuart Ross’ You Exist. Details Follow., it’s always puzzled me why that mode hasn’t undergone a renaissance. But on further thought, it should have been obvious: post-poststructuralism has shattered and dispersed a creative and passionate response into a Chinese doll of meta-meta-meta pay for academics and their ambitious students who couldn’t give a flying fuck about poetry.

Shivani, despite his pessimism, is no quitter, though. A disjunctive rage, for as much in what’s in view in the mirror as out the window, persists. In “Modernism on File: Writers and the FBI”, “What had happened to the ‘pure and lyric dreamer’ in the futuristic forest?” gets as much thought as “[t]he direct object of those readings was to unearth seditions”. A little more consideration shows those seditions overseen not just by the FBI, but by the “critic-spy” (wonderful double meaning, politically, here). And, as is adroitly deployed throughout this volume, black humour surfaces, this time briefly, like a hangman slipping on a wet platform while holding the noose: “Just because paranoids have real enemies does not mean they cannot also be paranoids”, which is also, of course, another take on an established joke that I shouldn’t have to repeat. (The original is still funny because it’s true. Many tin foilers are still laughable, but some have become prophets.)

Liberalism’s naivety has always been a bigger cause for anger and disgust, with me, than its see-saw partner, imperial consolidation and defense, if for no further two dozen reasons than its infuriating sanctimony, intellectual bankruptcy and cowardice, entrenchment, sentimental persuasiveness, rampant advocacy, and sickening superiority. Not to mention (did I just mention it?) its blithe optimism and complacency. And on that latter flat note, Shivani’s hilarious and timely poem, “Billy Collins Confronts a Herd of Mexicans Caught in a Trap”, is part ironic fable, part suburban nightmare, part liberal mystery. It’s a full two pages, but here’re a few snippets from images and psychological poses which are captured wittily and with exquisite voiceover bafflement: “standing at the edge of my unmade bed in clarified mystery”, “I like to arrest the world in its act of entrance,/before it makes a case study of me”, “Perhaps the return of my next-door neighbor’s cocker spaniel,/delivered from the place lost dogs survive in limbo”, “Perhaps my editor, shown from afar, missing her tempo.//’Stand back!’ citizen Collins was ordered.”, “I would not have my answers.”, “What kind of a morning was this?”

Forms are matched to subject and tone in effective conjunction throughout the collection. “An Address to Walt Whitman after Reading the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass” is a galloping long-limbed rhetorical filibustering stump speech that, though it overreaches in its national condemnation, nevertheless is reminiscent of the Master in its sweep and drive, its spill and out-of-bounds passion. In “When Dean Young Was Young” (I love the title’s additional meaning, and don’t take it as an abnegation of identity, but as a considered acceptance of confusion) the channel-surfing images and caroming non sequiturs ape Young’s brilliant creativity, though don’t approach his impulsive enjoyment. Djuna Barnes gets a formal, terse appreciation as a multiple transgressor brought up to date as ironic icon. And the personal Cold War fatwa victim, in a wonderfully inventive and funny “Salman Rushdie Detained (and Deported?) by Homeland Security”, is the cause for further confusion among the birdbrain minions of obtuse bureaucrats, who, in first-person Keystone Kops holding-cell officiousness, regale the unfortunate author with, “Is there not/for Christ’s sakes, a fatwa against transporting barrels of/homemade secretions, which you call the poet’s muse, prose-/writer though you may be. Acchoo! Bless you!”

There are many other audacious successes throughout My Tranquil War and Other Poems, successes in packed content within severe formal constraints, as well as sonic repetitions and variations both within each poem and with the originating subject across multiple poems. I’d like to choose, and close with, one of them, “Ghazal: War”, an incredibly wise consideration of the book’s two intertwining themes. The classical ghazal signature, in the final couplet, is sobering in its self-laceration, but also condemnatory of us all, master or  slave.


We think of the thirties, expectant in the squiggly room of war,
as unrepeatable: never again that prearranged doom of war.

Hamadryads lounge in kilts – there, soldiers cleaning guns –
the obscene sceneliness inspires Parnassian boom of war.

Among kings and kingpins, logomachy is the timely art;
they say no sensuality overwhelms the wordy perfume of war.

In the narrow straits, the oil tankers have been quickly reflagged,
the reticulum of allegiances rewoven to the womb of war.

The secretary of state, in her hour of fame, brings the charts.
Her periphrasis disguises the revealed nom de plume of war.

O known and unknown soldiers, Samadhi, in sleep, is yours:
eternal sleep, where seraphs fly on the witch broom of war.

It is never too young to die for the homeland, never too gory.
At home, weaklings are enlivened by the purple plume of war.

You, Anis, logrolling joints, stare into the abyss of your Hallux.
In the closet sits your effervescent self, the bloodless costume of war.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Brian Busby's A Gentleman of Pleasure, and The Heart Accepts It All

The first book listed in the blog title is Brian Busby’s biography of John Glassco, the second a Selected Letters of the same Quebec writer.

Busby is an indefatigable investigator and compiler of Glassco’s life and work. His findings, in A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco – Poet, Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer, were made more difficult by his subject’s mischievous lies and diversions, as well as Glassco’s discretion, which caused the late writer to delete and burn material which would be likely to compromise him personally in some way. It’s especially understandable he’d protect himself from puritanical condemnation since a darker element of this often-experienced (among writers) story concerns laws prosecuting homosexual behaviour during the years of Glassco’s sexual awakening. But I was surprised to learn that Glassco’s caution was also sparked by a concern for others condemned, in ignorant and stupidly judgemental hearsay, for the writer’s lifestyle by association. Surprised, because Glassco comes across as a self-regarding pleasure hound, one unabashedly in pursuit of the sexual conquest, the next drink, the slot of endless days bathed in diversion and aesthetic enjoyment, whether of sights and sounds, or the words – in writing or reading – that would honour them.

The especial joy, though, arrives in The Heart Accepts It All, Selected Letters of John Glassco, where Busby edits a pruned but revelatory archive of personal correspondence which captures Glassco in a wide variety of moods and subjects. I was particularly delighted to learn of Glassco’s brilliantly perceptive off-the-cuff criticism of contemporary writers and books. (It shouldn’t have been as much of a surprise, however, since his Memoirs of Montparnasse displayed  wise and lively arguments during the dialogic disquisitions in that book.) D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover gets raked over the coals for the English novelist’s “projection of himself into a woman; his real love-object is Mellors”. Now, I don’t agree with it, but his case, made with more development than I’d care to type out here, is nevertheless forceful and (to my mind) original.

Busby strikes a judicious and respectful balance between adoration of his subject, and wart-exposure. And it’s a difficult task because the complexity of the excellent, unfashionable, oft-overlooked writer offers no easy answers, or even thematic lines. At once selfish and compassionate, a connoisseur and decadent, Glassco demands exploration from many angles, and these letters (and the biography which sets the table) afford the reader a chance to appreciate the subject through searing wisdom, heartbreaking loss, and humbling experience.

Elizabeth Bachinsky's The Hottest Summer in Recorded History

“Living in houses lets me know
what it is like to live
in houses. The very best houses
(yours) have art on the walls
that I can look at and know
what it is like to look at real
art. Something real made
by someone real ... “

So begins “Other Poets’ Houses”, a poem, one of the few, in Elizabeth Bachinsky’s 2013 The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, not addressed to a relative or poet-friend. Frank O’Hara staked his claim on the personal-messaging persona, but though O’Hara is wildly overrated (and poorly imitated), he at least varied his output with unique conceits and creative idiosyncrasies that outran their insular affections. The lines quoted above have the affection of banality meeting dullness against a background of grey. Ah, but the tone!, one might interject. And it’s true, the voice, as the poem wanders from room to room, works inward in a faux-naive mix of subtly inflated wonder and sadness. So if it’s an improvement over the (sincere or ironic, or sincere and ironic) “know/what it is like” opening, it’s a case of pick your poison and hope for a Hail Mary pass completion later in the book (if it’s not too rude to ask of it in the next poem). That irritating tone, though, prevails. Actually, one of two. Cute/sassy, or cylinder-misfiring serious.

To the former, which make up a majority of the poems (these are, after all, private letters to friends): “Occasional Poem for bill bissett, August 21, 2011” is a verbose, even-toned loving rumination on ... well, on bill’s personhood and work, “THE GREATEST/POETRY because I loved how the words were all over/the place and spelled wrong”. She was fourteen – (there is little change in persona to vary  the recording monotony of the “I” throughout the book) – at the time, but as the meandering anecdotes pile up like potato peels nudging towards the garburator, the reader notes her continued admiration for “MAGICAL” bill who “gave me a Halls/cough candy, which was great because fire is stressful/and Halls are so soothing”. I realize the tone is in loving mimicry of the holy simpleton which is bissett, but how about those words “great” and “so stressful” for precision.

And that’s what’s most frustrating about Bachinsky’s poetry. The direction is all over the map. Precision and worthy material, one concludes after reading Hottest Summer, are so yesterday, but she’s also been praised for gritty realistic narrative in her earliest (and best, though still prosaically deadening) Home of Sudden Service. There is no hybrid poem that reconciles this. Or if there is to be a way around it, through it, the skill required would have to be on an obverse vertigo-inducing higher level.

Six split-up poems, or texts, or answering machine tape messages, or phone blurts, are interspersed throughout the volume. The acknowledgements enlighten us that “David” is poet-friend Dave McGimpsey. I won’t repeat much of the recording, but I’ve overheard wittier conversation while queuing up at a 3 a.m. 7/11. And if wit wasn’t the point of those six pages, what was? Well, like George Bowering’s various poem-memoirs, it’s a present to that friend, and to a lesser extent, to a narrow circle of literary knockabouts. Others can bugger off if they haven’t closed the book at the first “4:50 pm: David – Davey in the hizzy. How you, darlin?”

But it’s not all cut-ups and back rubs. At some point, when collecting this material, Bachinsky may have tallied up the suitors and realized the resulting MS needed a slight tug in the opposite direction, gravitas by way of a canonical name-check. A pre-email ghost. “The Mountain” (after A.M. Klein) belongs to that smaller subset of cylinder-misfires. In invoking Klein, the lyrical stakes are raised, and one hand after another – King-high, two twos, ten-high – spreads out in a losing procession: “cover and canopy of youth” (cover and canopy?), “grows dark”, “suddenly spill”, “made bright”, “still/rests in the leaves”.

Books of this sort must be a blast to write and compile. Friendships consolidate and literary paths are cleared. But the reader outside the hand-holding inward-facing circle shrugs and moves on. Not that that matters to the community, of course.