Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Joanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists

Unlike many other reviewers and critics, I don't automatically dump on authors who attempt difficult sentence constructions. Convoluted? Self-important? Abstract? Diffuse? Turgid? Nonsensical? Higgledy-piggledy slop? It's a case-by-case investigation, not an all-offboard damnation. Here are six examples, three each by two authors, of serpentine clauses and shifting insertions:

A) "She watched the final light condense into the clock face, and the dial change from a round orifice in the darkness to a disc suspended in nothingness, the original chaos, and change in turn to a crystal ball holding in its still and cryptic depths the ordered chaos of the intricate and shadowy world upon whose scarred flanks the old wounds whirl onward at dizzy speed into darkness lurking with new disasters."

B) "The way that he , scattered into a thousand, inchoate, diffusive directions ... he, a singular thing, a particle -- a part-icular -- body, still hurtling itself objectively through space and time, has yet, by accident, come to rest somehow, briefly, now."

C) "He stood there while on both sides of him they passed in a steady stream of little colored dresses, bare-armed, with close bright heads, with that identical cool, innocent, unabashed expression which he knew well in their eyes, above the savage identical paint upon their mouths; like music moving, like honey poured in sunlight, pagan and evanescent and serene, thinly evocative of all lost days and outpaced delights, in the sun."

D) "Shot through with an affection so fierce that it mingled in us with an equivalent sense of terror: at the amount that we had already taken from her, and also from the world, which we feared that we would never be able, or even willing, to return."

E) "Which leads me finally to believe that the small estuaries to which I have been blown are just as true as the rest, and that the deep and open and still untried waters have been left uncharted because they do not in fact exist at all; except, that is, in the magic lantern pictures of my mind where they are just a simple shadow-play of death, which someday, and far too soon, will have us all freely sailing there."

F) "She sat limp in the corner of the seat, watching the steady backward rush of the land -- pines in opening vistas splashed with fading dogwood; sedge; fields green with new cotton and empty of any movement, peaceful, as though Sunday were a quality of atmosphere, of light and shade -- sitting with her legs close together, listening to the hot minute seeping of her blood, saying dully to herself, I'm still bleeding."

(A), (C), and (F) are from William Faulkner's Sanctuary while (B), (D), and (E) are from Joanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists, published in 2009 (though I guess the initial run from Gaspereau was in 2008).

First off, I can anticipate the rushed furor of "well, how many can stack up against Faulkner? That's blatantly unfair!" Fair enough, but using extreme contrasts is a great exercise in just how wide is the chasm between great lit and prate lit.

After reading the above (preferably aloud, if you have the opportunity and inclination), notice that Faulkner breaks the same rules as Skibsrud, the rules that knuckle-rappers often warn against. Faulkner's (A), especially, is rife with abstraction, but of course it's unfair, in the case of both authors, to use these examples in isolation. (I don't have the time, inclination, or legal means to print out chapters, though I encourage those with any follow-up interest to look backward and forward from these quotations.) The point I want to emphasize in example (A), though, is that Faulkner occasionally makes these oracular highlights as a rhetorical buttress to the surrounding action or mirrored psychological state of the featured (at the time) character. The contrast is shocking in its aptness, emotionally stark in its prophetic conclusion, eerie in its quick metaphorical sweep.

In turn, note Skibsrud's (B). Also stuffed with incorporeal words, the rhythm is haphazard, jerky. There is no momentum, no force. The tone is non-existent. The sentence is riddled with delayed cliches. The diction is uniformly dull. But, again, we have to look at the sentence in the context of what comes before and after it. Well, that's the clincher. Because most of the book is of a similar hue. The above three Skibsrudianisms are put forth because of their especial stop-in-your-tracks effectiveness (or ineffectiveness).

As for the other four examples, look at how Faulkner's rhythm gathers and shifts in pace, uses repetition to increase the discomfort (balls, again, to those idiotic puritans who promote "elegant variation" as an automatic reaction against "lazy" repeaters: I suppose D H Lawrence and Shakespeare also lacked imagination, wut?), alters the length of clauses to capture conflicting moods (F), and even manages to evoke humour in syntactical units! (The monumental delay, that is, in the first and last three words, in C. Though some may link "in the sun" to the girls, and they would be technically correct in so doing, I much prefer to go with the alternate spirit, irony, and character-teasing link to the sentence's subject.)

Skibsrud's other two sentences? More cliches. Also note the grand statement. This is pretentious in two ways since there is no action or detail to pin any weight on in the first place, and there is nothing added to any universal stock of knowledge (in E). We're all gonna die, and all too soon, at that? Well, I never ... Note, also, the meaningless, inexact phrases: "equivalent sense of terror", for one. What does this mean? It sounds profound at first pass. But by this point in the book, any leftover readers are already running on fumes, so alert parsing is probably rare. How can any terror be "equivalent? Terror is alarming, obviously unique in contour and force. When Faulkner invoked the universal "chaos", he's doing what most critics, in our postmodern madness, abhor and fear: using the big, abstract words, here and elsewhere: sin, morals, endurance, honour. The difference between Skibsrud's "terror" and Faulkner's "chaos", though, is that Faulkner creates, through sound and sight and touch, a world in which those judgements are not only invited, but inevitable. Terror in The Sentimentalists? No. Boredom, yes. Which leads into a more focussed discussion of her novel.

Yeah, the book under review shouldn't ultimately be compared to Sanctuary, or even to Pylon. But it won the Giller, and a lot of people read it. They've responded with good sense. Despite my sentence-by-sentence excoriation, the biggest fault with The Sentimentalists isn't its writing, but its structure and content. Troubled narrator moves in with her father Napoleon, and Henry, father of Napoleon's murdered Vietnam confrere, Owen. Part one deals with the difficult communication between daughter and father. Part two deals with Vietnam reminiscences, ending with a historical transcript of a particular incident that went to trial (Napoleon on the stand as moral fink). That's it. So how to fill up two hundred eighteen pages? Why, with internal philosophising, and sadness, of course.

Anis Shivani, in a review of American poet Jorie Graham's career, wrote: "Part of the project of leading American poets today is to purge public memory of all excitement. If and when the external world does impinge on the poet's private thought processes, it is only to illumine some internal dilemma of the worrying poet, to strengthen or invigorate some pitiful struggle of his." Such is the cross-linked appropriateness, the ubiquitous and sad exactness of this insight, that it can and does describe the procedure and desire in a book from another country, in another genre, and decades after Graham wrote the volumes which inspired the above quoted critique. To recap: Skibsrud's outward "hook" is Vietnam, and its effects on one man, her father. But the father, despite his drinking and occasional shouting, suffers a subdued form of shell shock (I don't used the euphemistic post-traumatic stress syndrome -- so much language has had its rough edges, its onomatopeia neutered and sterilized); he's a lovable dude, with his harebrained stock-buying excursions, Bogart-mimicry, and shoulder-rubbing (of his daughter). Oh, he breaks a few bones, gets cancer, goes senile, and finally expires. But the relations between he and daughter-narrator are subdued, even when at their most strained. The theme is the impossibility of communication and of accurate memory. Daughter mopes and tries to make sense of it all. Ad nauseum. Meanwhile, there's a good story bursting to get out. What really happened in Vietnam with Owen and Napoleon, and how does it tie in to the latter's haunting post-war life? What's more, (and what the novel never takes into account), how much of who Napoleon became was due instead to who he was before the war. Much of our personality, and indeed our capacity for qualities like equanimity and courage, is formed in the first six years. Vietnam obviously complicated this, but none of us are blank slates until a traumatic event transpires.

But none of that matters. In fact, though some have said part two is more engaging, narrative-driven, interesting, I found it to be even worse. Because the experience itself was filtered (first) through Napoleon's confused memory, then through the daughter's understanding, and especially through the author's non-changing internal reordering. The transcription that effectively concludes the novel is puzzling within the novel's overall puzzling arc. The whole point of the "I think so", "I believe so", "I'm not sure" is to reinforce, as if it needed reinforcing, the theme of uncertainty, of memory's unreliability, and of the danger in reaching impatient conclusions. But here's the upshot: that, in a damning irony, is also untrue. "Truth" with a capital T doesn't have to be mounted like Everest. There are a lot of near truths, a lot of subjective, but strong truths, which many of us can find not only plausible but probable. The entire scientific procedure is built upon a series of truths which are themselves superseded. Does that mean everything is false because it's dated or always evolving? Of course not.

One reason I've gone into such detail about Skibsrud's cowardly sidestepping of anything notable to say about Vietnam is that I've known a few Vietnam vets myself. Not to the extent of the author's own relationship with her father, but enough to know some emotional truths about that war, about specific political hypocrisy, about detailed stratification among soldier classes, about torture procedures, about the grim post-war relationships these men (unsurprisingly) went through, about the nature of the daily grind without constant philosophical rumination. That brings me to the only scene in the novel that resonated. During Napoleon's only lucid telling of the war incident to his daughter, he brings her up short by saying women always want to know things in order to rework and figure them out, as if that will somehow reduce the sadness. Men are guilty of that, too. Perhaps all artists. But this gets back to the core problem with the novel. It's not about Napoleon Haskell. It's not about Vietnam. It's not about her half-page confession of marital break-up after she caught her husband in bed with another woman (that's all we get of her "story"). It's about the narrator's own wayward thoughts about life's difficulties in communicating, about her own existential sadness and "growth".

The premise of the novel had great promise. Too bad it was just an excuse for a smothering postmodern shrug.

Monday, March 26, 2012

J. A. Konrath's Whiskey Sour

Not a book critic, but a critic of the entire traditional publishing industry, Joe Konrath spearheaded, and continues to be a leading blogger for, the mushrooming ereader industry. (Note the symbolism of "mushrooming", however.) He started out the usual way, with contacts and contracts from the New York houses, but soured on them when he saw the potential for, and realization of, greenbacks from slapping his work on Amazon and other ebook facilitators. Other factors for his switch are important, as well, but for the purposes of this review, I'll shelve outlining them, and focus (eventually) on his first book, Whiskey Sour, published by Hyperion in 2004.

Books? I'm a snob. An elitist. As to hybrid forms, literary crime fiction is useless if the "literary" side of the procedure lets up or is insufficient, whereas it can be just fine if the writing is excellent but the crime devices are shaky or missing. I guess you could call Graham Greene's Brighton Rock literary crime fiction, but it didn't need the cloak-and-dagger, though it would be nothing without the wonderful writing and incisive characterisation.

Before Whiskey Sour, I hadn't read a single book of crime fiction. Oh, I've tried. But when encountering books for the first time that I have deep scepticism about, I like to give it the John Metcalf test: read the first sentence or paragraph and see if I need to waste any more time. In my adaptation, I'll often open a book at random and read a sentence. Performing this daring feat on one of Clive Cussler's books, I chanced upon, " "Get out!", she hissed furiously. "Get out now!" ". Three seconds of that is much preferable to twelve or fifteen hours. And last I saw, Cussler's books filled a row of a library, the author name on each resembling the type on blazing billboards decorating Highway One. But Cussler's got nothing on the omniprevalence of James Patterson's writing corporation. I didn't even need to make the one sentence test with Patterson Inc. Here's a cut-out on the inside jacket of his Cradle and All: "And in cities all around the world, medical authorities are overwhelmed by epidemics, droughts, famines, floods, and worse. It all feels like a sign that something awful is coming." (Bolding mine.) Unfair, I know. So let's open the book. P 71: "The sprawling festival of people stared upward with open mouths and widening eyes." Need another? P. 219: " "Believe me, Kathleen, evil is all around us right now. I know this to be true."//"You're scaring me badly," she said, "and I'm already so scared. I can't bear it. I can't listen anymore." ".

So you can imagine my trepidation when picking up Whiskey Sour. The first sentence: "There were four black and whites at the 7-eleven when I arrived." Short. To the point. A decent hook. Gathering action. All good. In fact, much of the book is economical yet propulsive, what I would take to be the perfect style for crime fiction in general. Characterisation is sacrificed to plot, as it must be, but Konrath's characters, while lacking many dimensions, nevertheless are believable as types. There is much humour in the book! And it fits pretty seamlessly. In any genre, and especially in the often portentous lit world, this is welcome. The only quibbles I had were the choice of police Lieutenant Daniels as woman (I kept picturing the ballsy heroine as a man with maxi dress in block heels), and the ridiculously implausible climax. But it ain't supposed to be Zola, and doesn't pretend to be.

If I can get by the one sentence test again, I might even read more crime fiction.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Anis Shivani's Anatolia and Other Stories

For two reasons, I always have a soft spot in my iron heart for reviewers who also write short stories/poems/novels. First, I agree with Martin Amis and Gore Vidal that a lively literary society means that creators also critically comment upon (not just advertise and ass-kiss) what's happening in the wide community; they called it a duty to do so. Second, a curiosity to find out how a creative piece by a critic matches his own standards and predilections is natural.

This is the second in a series of reviews regarding reviewer-critics/artists. I've admired Anis Shivani's criticism of (usually) American authors, and picked up his 2009 Anatolia and Other Stories, a collection of eleven short stories which criss-cross the United States, but which also makes for India, Tehran, Turkey (Ottoman Empire), and Dubai. The on-the-ground complexities and outcomes of multiculturism is the obvious theme stitching the disparate narratives together. An undocumented worker in Dubai who gets a lucky break only to meet up with the inevitable bureaucratic hammer of lead; an aging Japanese man in a California internment camp; an Indian businessman fighting the new marketing schemes of his brothers and their families; an aspiring playwright from the Deep South his first time at an elite (and expensive) annual writers' conference: these and other stories graph the intersection between benign expectation and silent coercion. Shivani writes with great insight and depth, remarkable for the convincing and numerous angles he allows between characters. The final story, in particular, "Tehran", is a gem, more dramatically insistent than the somewhat understated, casual pace of the other stories. And he's not afraid of making bold statements (no surprise, there) as linked social criticism, within an appropriate narrative thematic. Here's an example of the latter, from "Conservation", set in Boston:

"Nothing in any of the classics seemed alterable, not a brush stroke, not a pigment shade. He would almost stop breathing, so immersed did he become in the sublime grandeur of the works that seemed to have been created out of time, out of place.

Then morning came, and the busy bee workers returned, their lab coats and business uniforms spruce and spry. The women had become more like men, and the men more like women. They spoke of similar concerns, in similar tones, in similar vocabulary. All the races pulled together now, all were agreed on the moral values worth holding"

What those "values" are is made plain even in this short snippet, and it needs emphasizing that the paltry race-squawking from all sides during our politically correct humourless negotiations is quite beside the point when values and distinctions themselves often crumble into an art-hating conformist swamp. (I don't like the redundant "sublime grandeur", and other verbal indiscretions appear in various places, but Shivani's narrative powers of character endurance, social compromise, sexual politics, political vicissitudes, and universal scope makes these occasional constructions fairly easy to forgive.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Mark Sampson's Off Book

It's one thing for your publisher to go out of business just after your first novel comes out. It's quite another for them to screw up the production so much it grievously mars the work itself. I'm not sure how much of the former had to do with the many problems of the latter -- the repeating words, the missing paragraph separations, the typos, the indent adventures, the text packed like plasticine in a matchbox -- and how much had to do with an endemic lack of care which led to their demise, but the result must have had the author spitting and fuming.

Mark Sampson's Off Book (2007) tells a familiar story: boy grows up with artistic aspirations (playwright), learns of his own naivety through university, gets first job where he learns how many businesses conduct themselves (computer programmer facilitating advertising horseshit for a boss living the high life of nepotism and mid-day golf), and eventual plot (with the only worker on his side) to thwart the aspirations of the business.

What makes Sampson's book stand out from many of those growing-up narratives is the attention to character. The protagonist (Cameron), co-worker Pauline, first girlfriend Eve, and mentor-playwright Richard are all thoughtfully and idiosyncratically drawn, and that makes the reader not only care about their unpredictable journey, but invest in the dialogue with a focussed edge. And this is the biggest problem (aside from the publisher's, that is): Sampson's facility for character motivation and colour doesn't need so much of the extraneous internal justification and repetition. The hoary "show, don't tell" is, in this case, appropriate. As a first-time novelist, I assume this is perhaps a common tactic, the feeling that one must finish every cross-seam for the reader.

But, again, the prevailing negative here is the publisher's ineptitude. Unfortunately and perversely, it gets worse during the novel's climactic scene, culminating, during the penultimate, dramatic conversation, with the dialogue tag, "Cameroon said". Apparently, an African country slipped into the testy, closed-room meeting at the eleventh hour.

I understand Sampson has another novel finished, and is looking for another publisher. Perhaps the situation should be reversed: a lot of publishers should be out of work, sending out their ads for years trying to get a single prospective author to bite.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Haiku For The Season

"the haiku just feels too predictable to me with a lot of poems about the moon or the river; the use of season words feels cliché to me; inevitably a carp appears. a bell rings. there are clouds & butterflies. sunlight shines through leaves. ho fucking hum. I need poems with an edge. otherwise I don't get poem shiver. plenty of excellent poets love the form though. hell, what do I know, I love anchovies, pornography & sports movies." -- Amanda Earl, from her blog

"legs ninety wide, moons, to a man --
duh! -- gives hard edge, a woman,"
he wouldn't carp, "butterflies belled out"

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

People Say Some Silly Things During Commemoratives

Quite a few people have been weighing in on Irving Layton lately. But for every sensitive and intelligent piece (Kenneth Sherman's in the National Post), there are just as many uninformed and downright idiotic ones , as well. Matthew Wright's piece, in the same NaPo, on Noah Zacharin's thoughts on Layton is an example of the unfortunate variety.

" "I love crows because they are highly advanced and misunderstood," says Zacharin. "Kind of like poets." "

Perhaps Zacharin loves crows because he sees himself in them. Not just himself, but all his literary heroes, including Canadian poet Irving Layton." -- Wright.

Layton, in a confessional poem, complained of crows waking him up with their "matutinal puking noises."

" " Layton believed that the herd mentality would never produce something of lasting value or integrity," Zacharin says.

He added that Layton's story is one common to most Canadian poets and admirers -- it is the feeling of not fitting in, of being cast out by society for thinking differently, "just like the crow"."--Wright

Most of those poets and poetry readers are part of the .0000000000000001 per cent of all courageous individuals Layton praised above the philistines?

"But the poets with their obscene posturings
-cats covering their shit with kitty litter-
are even more duplicitous. Except for the savage
few" -- Irving Layton, from "Freud With All His Knowledge"

I haven't been able to attend any of the Layton celebrations, but I hope most aren't being used as an excuse to champion the poet's role (in a necessary emotional obliquity, the poets, in their confraternities, themselves).

Thoughts on Irving Layton's "Paging Mr. Superman"

The fascinating puzzle to Irving Layton's "Paging Mr. Superman" hinges on the "I" persona. Many dimwitted readers of a particularly knee-jerk, surface-reaction predilection will see the "I" in terms of Layton as Messiah, roll their eyes, and go no further. Others may see the "I" as an everyman just out to stir up trouble among the infinite number of dullards around us each day if for no other reason than to relieve one's own boredom. The poem, then, would seem a catty stick-in-the-ribs, and could then be reduced to a cheap Laytonian squib. I'll argue that both positions are wrong, and that the "I" of the poem is an enlightened intercessor, though nowhere near the promised land himself.

Though the poem is rendered as a dream, fantasy, or phantasmagoria, it also has many images of psychological aptness and real-world imagistic association. This mix of reality and imagination begins with the speaker immediately telling the clerk that the latter's "raw nose/Was part natal umbilicus". This is the kind of dialogue bold dream characters instigate all the time: goofy, but sometimes with a symbolic or at least provocative teasing. Much later in the poem, the clerk "rub[s] the umbilical/Part of his nose that was raw and itchy." In the second-to-last line, the Sheraton is referred to as a "bell-shaped womb". We don't need our umbilical cords immediately after birth; we can breathe on our own. Yet, the clerk's nose is (twice noted) raw, and after the main action -- itchy, denoting a self-consciousness, if not a realization.

Why is the tie-pin "made of the rarest onyx"? And why does the clerk not deny the narrator's request? Ezekiel ch. 28 v. 13: "Thou hast seen in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tablets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created." Not only is the umbilical cord not needed at birth, the glory of the newborn is readily apparent. Divinity is immediate. We aren't born in sin, and suffer no separation between a manufactured God and ourselves. The narrator knows this, but unlike Jesus' hortatory compassion, his paging request is unable to effect change. The humorous irony in the clerk granting the narrator's wish resides with appearances. The tie-pin obviously means the narrator is wearing a tie: he's respectable. And he also doesn't exhibit any outward manifestation of audacity. But the devil is a gentleman, said Shakespeare, and the umbilical provocation, along with the strange request doesn't faze him because the narrator is presentable.

The next character is the even more fascinating call boy. But this is no boy: he's "gray-haired", "one/Of the ignatzes the cities now breed/Reliably and with a more exact/Efficiency than former days." The key word here is "ignatzes". It has multiple associations, but the most obvious and immediate one would have to do with the last two syllables. When you join "Nazis" with "reliably" and "a more exact/Efficiency than former days", it shouldn't take a history PHD to figure out that the SS, and their later offshoots, had to have replaced the brownshirts in order for the party to be more than your typical haphazard internal political thugfest. So what the hell ties the National Socialist German Workers' Party to a fetched call boy at a Sheraton on a sleepy, sunny day in a prosperous, contemporary Western city? Well, what were the exigencies of those soon-to-be Nazis pre-1933? Hitler's party were roundly denounced, laughed at for a decade, even during the barest depressions after the Treaty of Versailles. But power, and a winning team, is an aphrodisiac. And Supermen and Gods live in the darkest recesses of the mind. Note the comical apprehension, later, of the five men and one woman: doubt mixed with hope. The vacillation between the two is always there. But "ignatzes" also has another intriguing association. Ignatz Mouse was one of three central characters in a comic strip extremely popular before and throughout the Nazi regime. Krazy Kat, the carefree, joyous, and naive feline of indeterminate gender was the victim of continuous bricks to the head by the mouse who hated it. To Krazy Kat, this was just the mouse's way of showing affection. Stockholm Syndrome? [edit: No, there's a difference between naivety and masochism. No need to provide the parallel to Krazy Kat in this situation.] But if I'm right, there's also no doubt about the poem's removed and hidden reference to the third main character, Offissa Pupp, the "law" who only occasionally manages to prevent the bricks being thrown. In this sense, the call boy is Ignatz/Schutzstaffel, but Hindenburg and Papen are Offissa Pupp. "He saw/Nothing remarkable in the clerk's request." And why would he? He's not there to reflect, or wonder, or imagine, or wrestle with spiritual dilemmas, or even to question the motive of customers. He's a time-server, more so than the clerk. He fulfills commands. But his voice and imagination were "constructed/In the faraway days of childhood in rooms/Alone with Atlas and the last pages/Of boys' magazines." Meaning, there's a sentimental bone remaining somewhere in his body, even if it's the vestigial tailpiece. But sentiment is the operative word. Sentiment and terror often go hand-in-hand in the banal psychological workings of the evil.

Superman's Kryptonian name "Kal-El" means, in Hebrew, "voice of God". (Superman's co-creators were both Jewish.) And it's impossible to ignore the comic book hero's link to Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch. Just as Superman has nothing to do with Nietzsche's conception of the hero (the icon was an upholder of moral norms), so too did Hitler's perverted interpretations of Nietzsche's ideas have nothing to do with Nietzsche's works. As a Nietzschean himself, Layton must have intended this. The complacent middle-class hiding behind social niceties to mask their moral cowardice and lockstep.

But when the hero's name is announced, "all the elevators raced upwards". The aftermath of the action is brilliantly realized, and a reference to "abunas" ("our father", also priest or bishop) is included, thereby linking it with the priestly origins of onyx. But the abunial dead-end of the elevators are a far cry from the valued onyx. Superman flies upward in a conscious choice to meet his foes; the elevators (and the imaginations of those so disposed) fly upward in a feeble hope, a pointless and reactionary one. But there is no Superman, at least not an actual one, but one in the minds of Depression-era creators Siegel and Schuster. It's a comic, after all, a kid's diversionary fantasy. Or is it? Remember that umbilical-nosed clerk. And the magazine-reading call boy. Many people never grow up, even if they discuss complicated schemes during "the cocktail hour when love/Is poured over ice-cubes". Superman vs a Godlike individuality. No wonder the six (and so many more) still wait. And what could be a better conclusion than the curiously ambivalent "ordinary sunshine"?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Irving Layton's "Paging Mr. Superman"

(by Irving Layton)

I myself walked into the Sheraton
And after remarking his raw nose
Was part natal umbilicus I told
The clerk in the loudest voice I could bear:
"Page me Mr. Superman," He looked
Diffidently at me but acceding
My tie-pin, made of the rarest onyx,
Belonged to neither a sour fanatic
Nor one sick in the head from eating
Shrimps canned in the Andes and contraband
Here, he signalled for the call boy who came
Running all spongy with awareness,
His cheeks flapping in the air-conditioned
Air and his white dentures extended in
Warmest greeting. "Page Mr. Superman,"
The uneasy clerk said eyeing my pin
To re-assure himself and in his mind
Recapitulating the small number
Of paid two-week vacations he had had.
Luckily the grey-haired call boy was one
Of the ignatzes the cities now breed
Reliably and with a more exact
Efficiency than former days.
He saw
Nothing remarkable in the clerk's request
And sent his voice through the loudspeaker
Of his imagination constructed
In the faraway days of childhood in rooms
Alone with Atlas and the last pages
Of boys' magazines. I heard the glory
Of it that afternoon like the closing
Chords of Handel's Messiah. "Superman"
It rang out clear across the floor polish.
"Mr. Superman." There was such triumph,
Such wild exultation in his voice,
The pale cigarette girl at the counter
For the first time in her life gave wrong change
And all the elevators raced upwards
As if a pistol shot had startled them;
They did not stop till they had crashed the roof
Where one can see their solemn closed cages
Side by side and standing pigeon-spotted
Like the abunas on the cathedral
Dazed-seeming by the wildest flight of all.

This was the cocktail hour when love
Is poured over ice cubes and executives
Lay their shrewdest plans for the birth of twins
With silver spoons; when one forgets the ships
Aground in fog, the pilot with letters
For mountain peaks and snow; the silent poor;
Or the wife with pre-menstrual tensions;
When Asia is rubbed out with an olive,
A truce ordered to the day's massacres.
I saw only six in the large lobby,
Five men and one solitary woman,
Who hearing Mr. Superman called
Looked up at once from the puddle of their
Lives where they stood at the edges making
Crumbling mud pies out of paper money.
While the stout woman adjusted her bra
And studied the door of the Gents' Room,
The men had risen to their feet watching
Scared and breathless the quick revolving door
As if they expected the flashing blades
To churn him into visible substance.
But no one emerged from either place;
The unusual name was finally
Lost under the carpet where it was found
The next day badly deteriorated.
The condemned six returned to their postures
And the hour rained down the familiar
Wrinkles and the smiles cutting like glass.
The call boy gave it as his verdict
Superman was nowhere in the lobby,
And the tall clerk now regarding my pin
Mistrustfully rubbed the umbilical
Part of his nose that was raw and itchy.
"He has not yet arrived," he said. "Perhaps
You'll return later." For a split second
I thought he was making game of me
But his eyes were steady as if fixed
On a T.V. serial. I thanked him
And smiling amiably in all
Directions of the bell-shaped womb, I walked
Out into the ordinary sunshine.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Peter Darbyshire's The Warhol Gang

Authors of futuristic novels can often have things both ways. For their imaginative worlds, the serious praise of prophecy rightly intuited is highlighted, as is the repeated bows and salutes for creating an alternate reality that mirrors aspects of contemporary society while introducing us to technology, social interaction, and psychological states that boldly go where ... (I know I know, treading on trademarked Gene Roddenberry ground, if he indeed penned it).

Peter Darbyshire's second novel, 2010's The Warhol Gang, is a futuristic proposition, but the time and space perspectives are near and nearby. It therefore has more responsibility to make its world believable for its transition from, and dependency on, today's streets and strophes.

Trotsky (most of the characters' names are cleverly penned as an ironic commentary on revolutionaries) is in need of a job, any job, so, through a career employment agency, is matched with Adsenses, a neuromarketing company which transposes product images in a hologram for its guinea pigs (or canaries) in order to see which areas of its employees' brains light up with excitement and (therefore) buying stimulus. The problem for Trotsky is that the images are so technologically effective, so powerful, that they literally erase great chucks of his memory and create an obsession for him to buy the products he sees in his workpod.

So far, so good. The story follows countless other fictions in which the past is erased, and one is left to negotiate between a shifting reality without moral guidelines or social commonplaces. At first, our troubled hero or anti-hero acquires the goods, but when his "Is that all there is" moment arrives, he goes searching for a deeper meaning through visceral, dramatic ambulance-chasing attempts to bond with the dead and dying. I'm not sure why Trotsky has this powerful impetus when no other fellow employees are stricken so, and especially when his brain has been so reprogrammed and manipulated. It seems that his confusion and amorality (dramatically convincing in paint-by-numbers prose) would set him off as just one more drone who inevitably goes postal after a meaningless existence, accelerated day by day. And in fact, a variant of that (likewise) nihilistic staple is next up. Theft ramps up to destruction and manslaughter, though I won't spoil the plot further.

The biggest problem with The Warhol Gang is in its prophetic course. Without a doubt, Darbyshire makes thoughtful points on the fifteen-seconds-of-fame desires of the mob (everyone? most? and how much is technologically driven, how much a psychological inevitability of human nature?) -- no subtlety, after all, that the gang is named after the proudly unoriginal Campbell's soup displayer -- and he also aces, in many wonderful scenes that go far beyond envy, an obsessive compulsion to become the other person which certainly have roots in consumer manipulation. But a sober look-'round, whether in Vancouver or Virginia, tells us that mall-mania and credit availability are already on the downturn, one that is likely to be long-lasting (perhaps permanent), worldwide, and relentless. There hasn't been a major mall built in the U.S. in a decade, and most of the remaining ones are filled with closed and closing stores; the international financial clusterfuck means credit card companies and banks will be (and are) reducing the number of right-side zeroes on consumer limits. Frivolous goods are still promoted, still bought, still desired, perhaps, in a perverse way, desired now even more so, but it's the desire for extreme experience in a war zone as one last stimulation before death (again, Darbyshire does an excellent job in delineating this). But it's not that people will clamour for ever more sophisticated versions of communications devices or work-easing appliances, it's that the money (i.e. natural resources) to create desires in prospective customers (in a pod or not) won't be there, meaning that it's tentacular grip will relax and sink to the bottom of the sea.

The second problem with the novel is its lack of any positive counterforce. (I don't call the "conflicted" Trotsky a meaningful alternative). Novels can certainly be unrelentingly grim, and some are better for their faithfulness to a monochromatic tone, but The Warhol Gang loses a lot of moral force and social realism by reducing its world to the disaffected inhabitants of a world uniformly compelled to sell it guns and garters.