Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wallace Stevens, Neko Case, and Jean-Luc Godard Walk Into a Bar...

As I've mentioned before, I'm currently working on a novel, trying to get a cohesive outline done, and tentatively drafting the opening two chapters. Once I get the first two chapters done, it's back to the drawing board, so to speak, since I have a few plot points that need to be carefully laid out. In addition to this, I have a few other fiction projects in the works, so I'm bracing myself for the next couple of months, when I'm sure to alternate between feeling productive/happy, and stalled/disgusted. I'm not at all saying that I'm going to have the novel done in a couple of months; far from it. I'll be happy if I have those first two chapters completely finished, let alone the entire project.

As I get to work (in addition to keeping this blog running at a consistent schedule), I know that I need to take a few moments to breathe and not get too caught up (I'm a master of beating myself up, especially when it comes to writing). In a wonderful case of coincidence, I've experienced three outside creative moments this week, little slices of wonder that have put me at ease and helped me savor the idea of creativity in all its forms. These have no bearing or relation to my fiction projects, yet they've been strangely peaceful, and I feel like there's some connection.

First, last week I bought a used copy of The Palm at the End Of the Mind, a poetry collection by Wallace Stevens. His name has come up a few times in my readings and research in the past couple of weeks, added to the fact that I'm way behind on poetry studies. As I read through parts of the book, I stumbled across a stanza in "Thirteen Ways Of Looking at a Blackbird," a sampling of lines that I read several times at once, astonished by the emotions and imagery packed in such a small space:

"Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause."
(Stevens 20-21)
I didn't know why it caught me so suddenly at the time, but now that I read it yet again, I'm stunned at the simple construction of eerie foreshadowing.
Then, a few days later, I was listening to one of my favorite albums, Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Everytime I listen to the song "Star Witness," I get chills when I hear the lines:

"The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain..."

The atmosphere does not diminish no matter how many times I listen to it. I can think of dozens of awesome (in the literal sense) song metaphors by many different bands/musicians, but that one line hits me in the stomach everytime, always carrying the same impact.
Finally, yesterday I watched a movie I've been meaning to see for a long time, Jean-Luc Godard's Band Of Outsiders (1964). Overall, I enjoyed it (mildly disappointing, but that's besides the point). The cafe dance sequence is one that has been cited and referenced many times, but seeing it for myself made me smile. It's so spontaneous and fun, and viewers can easily tell that the actors are enjoying it.

I'm always analyzing works as a whole (including my own), so I like being able to take these little moments at face value. Perhaps I was reading too much into my above statement of trying to make a connection. As I go about my projects, it's reassuring to know that great sequences can easily come in small samplings, in addition to complete works. The poem, the song, and the film were like therapy to me this week. Plus, don't most things come in threes?
Work Cited:
Stevens, Wallace. The Palm at the End Of the Mind. Copyright 1971 by Holly Stevens.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Diving Into the Abyss

"While we search for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, the new, that which can only be found in the unknown, we must continue to turn to sex, books, and travel, even knowing they will lead us into the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place we can find the cure." --Roberto Bolano

It's been probably four months in the process, but I've finally finished reading Roberto Bolano's 1998 novel The Savage Detectives (first published in English in 2007). Once or twice, I've mentioned it in one of my postings here, probably as a reminder to finish it. Other readings and writings interfered, and my hope was to have written an essay about the book awhile ago. Many an evening I'd be reading a different book and glance at the off-white spine of The Savage Detectives on my desk, feeling irked that I wasn't focusing on it. Now that the story has been bouncing around my head in a completed fashion for the last couple of days, I've realized a few things. One, without hyperbole, it's one of the greatest books I've ever read. Two, now that I look back, I've excitedly mentioned it in roughly ninety percent of the e-mails I've sent in the past couple of months. Finally, and most importantly, there was no need to kick myself for not finishing it sooner. The reading, much like the events of the novel itself, is about the journey rather than the set destination.

The following description will pretty much read like every available summary of the book, whether in print or online: Three Mexican poets (Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, and the primary narrator, Juan Garcia Madero) devote their lives to writing poetry, living and experiencing everything they can for the sake of poetry, and eventually searching for an elderly, elusive poet (Cesarea Tinajero). Most of the book is composed of interviews and testimonies of the people they've met, known, or merely crossed paths with at various points. Since Belano and Lima are so uncompromising in their self-proclaimed Visceral Realist poetry movement, the interviewees have mixed opinions about them, ranging from admiration to unabashed loathing. And yet, the book is about so much more, especially the necessity for poetry (and all writing styles, in my opinion) to be a lifestyle and a mission, not just a product.

"For Bolano and the others, rejecting a career in poetry was a way of taking poetry as seriously as life itself--and vice versa. If the author lived what he wrote in this spirit, Bolano liked to say, the reader would naturally feel the urgency and live it too (Wimmer xiv)."

Admittedly, this barely scratches or truly identifies the book entirely, but doing so would be impossible. Bolano (who died in 2003) created a treasure for readers with willing time and energy--The Savage Detectives requires several readings (which alone could take months or years, depending on time), references scores of real poets and writers (as well as fictional ones), and has metaphors that run wild. I know, after a single reading, that I've missed several pages' worth, simply due to my sore deficiency in Latin American literature. Also, creating a list of the characters would take up a full sheet of notebook paper, probably including the margins.

I mentioned hyperbole in the first paragraph, and the paperback edition of the book is rife with examples: "mesmerizing, glittering, utterly unique," to name a few. As much as I have a problem with book and film blurbs, the descriptions fall into the same category of trying to summarize the novel's contents. There is simply no way to adequately describe it with just a few adjectives. Since it's a partly autobiographical, and it's meant to represent the true meaning of poetics (according to Natasha Wimmer's wonderful introduction), a reviewer cannot be blamed for having to rely on grand descriptions. Before I realized myself that descriptions of this work are tricky, I went online to find opinions and reviews. One blog complained about keeping track of the characters, and someone commented on the blog expressing irritation of not knowing "the point" of the book.

"Bolano...had always been fastidious in his work habits (Wimmer xxiii)." Since we know of his great attention to details, it's obvious that nothing is intentionally vague in the pages. The dozens of characters are essential, even if they only appear once or twice. On top of that, as wonderfully dense as the book is, there is nothing out of the ordinary as far as his descriptions or the novel's layout. To me, it's a sign of Bolano's genius and restraint. With so much narrative available, he could have easily added more metaphors and cross-sections, creating a Rubik's Cube of Pynchon or Gaddis-like proportions. It's as if he wanted to challenge any potential critics. "If you think this is confusing," he might have said, "you should see what else I'm capable of doing."

This isn't supposed to be an overt review of The Savage Detectives, since it has been available in English for over a year. As I've mentioned, reviewing it would be a Sisyphean undertaking. This essay is more of an appreciation of the power of writing and literature, both in the book and reflected in Bolano's lifestyle. An understood rule is that a reader should never confuse the author with the written product, but an exception can be made in this case. Bolano was the true definition of a poet/writer--traveling, living, experiencing, and cavorting. Artists of all mediums should look to him as a model, since he came awfully close to personifying the answer to the age-old question, "What is art?"

Appreciation also has to be given to Natasha Wimmer for her exceptional translation and important introduction. I don't read Spanish, and even if I did, I do not have an original copy of The Savage Detectives. However, while reading, I had the fullest confidence that nothing had been lost in translation, since even in English, the book maintained a wonderful lyricism that is no doubt multiplied in the original Spanish copy. While Wimmer's introduction might seem like a basic short biography at first, she provides much needed insights into Bolano's personality. Read the introduction for a second time after finishing the book--it's amazing how various passages from the novel will come to mind.

Finally, during my browsing for articles on The Savage Detectives, I found this video clip. The title is "SirJack Recommends The Savage Detectives." I was hoping that the dog would do something cute like pull the book off the shelf, but it's a strangely compelling clip nonetheless. Probably because the dog is so cute, even while doing nothing.

Work Cited:

The Savage Detectives. Copyright 1998 by Roberto Bolano. Translation copyright 2007 by Natasha Wimmer. Introduction copyright 2008 by Natasha Wimmer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In Defense of Satire

If you glance to the right-hand side of this page, you will see a link to the webpage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I remember reading about the site in passing several months ago, but only visited it recently. The open letter to the Kansas School Board is a wonderful example of satire, one of a few pieces that truly deserves the misused label "Swiftian." Bobby Henderson (the author) wrote the letter as a humorous, yet smart attack on the theory of Intelligent Design. He makes an excellent point: If Intelligent Design backs the claim of an unidentified Creator, then any diety can be plugged in, hence the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I added the link button because anybody who knows me well knows my love of sly humor and satire (The Onion being one of my favorite publications).

However, I almost took the link down when I read that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is becoming a symbol for athiests. I personally don't have any strong religious beliefs, and there's no need for me to get into my own thoughts on the existence of a God (whatever the definition may be). My grappling with the subject is no different from anybody else's. However, I do try to take a benevolent approach. If someone is religious and religion plays a healthy part of his or her life, I support that unequivocally. Two things I don't support are the theory of Intelligent Design or religious fundamentalism. To me, it seems that some athiests sometimes adhere to a sort of fundamentalism, not much different from the strict fundamentalism (whether it be Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or otherwise) that it tries to attack and discredit.

Yes, a wild card can be dealt with the idea of agnosticism, but I want to stay focused on athiesm. The subject has been relevant in the past couple of years, evidenced by the sales and publicity of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great. I have not read these books, nor have I done any serious research for this topic, save for some skimming at Wikipedia. However, it seems that public, outspoken athiests are trying to "convert" people, insisting that their views are wrong. Again, how is this not a (anti)religious fundamentalism? Using religion wisely, as a guide to do good personally and for meditative purposes is wonderful. It's when fundamentalism comes into play that problems arise. If an athiest wants to respectfully speak out to defend science, to explain the dangers of fundamentalism, to point out the hypocrisy of Intelligent Design, and to ensure the separation of Church and State (an idea that seems lost today), that's honorable. However, there are scores of people who believe in the same things but happen to identify themselves with religion. To shoot them down because they attend masses is embarrassing.

I'm keeping the link up for its intended purpose, in my mind: intelligent satire against Intelligent Design. I only post these thoughts because using the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a symbol of athiesm takes away from that purpose. As Mr. Henderson is quoted on his website: "I don't have a problem with religion; I do have a problem with religion posing as science."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Movies and Life: The Self-Involvement Blog-a-thon

This is my contribution to The Self-Involvement Blog-a-thon that is being hosted at Culture Snob. All of the submissions I've read so far have been wonderful. I run the risk of sounding like an Academy Award presenter when I say this, but this project truly shows it's impossible for films to not impact us day-to-day. This essay recounts my early experiences with Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

"You know something? You read too many comic books."

This line, spoken by Jim Stark (James Dean) to Buzz (Corey Allen) is perfect, especially followed by the derisive laughter of Buzz's gang. While watching Rebel Without a Cause at twelve years old, I knew exactly how Jim felt at that moment. When you're being bullied or picked on, there is nothing you can say to defend yourself. Most of the time, even the wittiest, sharpest comebacks fall on deaf ears. He did not get the satisfaction of talking his way out of the situation. As the film went on, I identified with him, given my own problems with being an easy target.

As it's been said and written many times over, the film does appear dated and occasionally silly at times (especially as a precursor to 1990s television shows starring twenty-somethings as high school students). However, during tough junior high and high school years, I found solace in and a connection to Jim Stark. Sometimes, I found myself secretly wishing that I didn't have loving, supporting parents, just so I could yell out "You're tearing me apart!" ( it's an early scene in the film that still causes me to slightly jump, since it's such a jolt in the dialogue). Life doesn't always imitate the arts to the extent that we would like.

Some backstory: When I was eleven, my eldest brother joined the Army. At that point, I had looked up to him immensely, and quickly moved into his bedroom. The items he left behind captivated me to no end. I have distinct memories of walking into the bedroom and being hit with the atmospheres and emotions of the black and white posters on the walls: Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, and a small, crumbled poster on the bedroom door: A wonderful shot of James Dean, unshaven, looking away from the camera as if he couldn't be bothered (there's no doubt it was a posed shot, but remember, I was eleven). The bookshelves were filled with poetry, plays, and a handful of 1950s actor biographies. I was immediately drawn to James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton and a stunning collection of Dean photos taken by Dennis Stock. Not much later, my father took me to Best Buy, where I used some birthday or Christmas money to buy Rebel Without a Cause on a Special Edition VHS.

I was immediately hooked. I had daydreams of getting into knife fights ("Who's fighting? This.... is a crazy game") outside planetariums. I wanted a girl who would spurn me, fall in love with me, and kiss me within the confines of a single day (I had the "spurn" part down quite well). I didn't realize this at the time, but I probably wouldn't have minded a sexually ambiguous male classmate following me around like a puppy (Jim Stark didn't seem to mind). I wanted to get drunk and picked up by the police in the early hours of the morning (even though, at that tender age, I had no clue what being drunk felt like). Since the actions were beyond my reach, I happily settled for the looks.

I looked through old coats in my parent's basement and found a red jacket, purely by chance. It wasn't flattering, but I wore it constantly, unzipped halfway, standing in the junior-high parking lot trying to look as melancholy and brooding as a pudgy, thick glasses-wearing kid could look. When my parents weren't home, I'd take one of my father's cigarettes and just hold it in my mouth to complete the transformation. Most importantly, when I'd get picked on, since I was normally too afraid to seriously stand up for myself, I'd shoot deep glares, squinting like James Dean. No, it didn't work, but it felt great, channeling those cinematic influences. Two years later, my eighth grade class put on a play, part of which was set in the 1950s. The girls wore poodle skirts, most of the guys slicked their hair and wore white t-shirts and jeans, and I wore the red jacket, hoping at least one person in the audience would get the Rebel Without a Cause reference. Looking back, I was obviously very nerdy, but it didn't feel that way at all. I was Jim Stark.

As I got a bit older, those movie posters came down and were replaced by posters of Michael Jordan and Sammy Sosa. It wasn't until my senior year in high school that films became a serious part of my life. I signed up for a cinema studies elective, taught by the same English teacher who inspired me to major in English in college. Thanks to that class, I never looked at films the same way again, having been taught how to study and screen effectively. However, my fascination with Rebel Without a Cause was really the start. I didn't know it at the time, but I was mentally dissecting every scene, color, and angle.

Sadly, it seems that today those iconic (a word that is used too often, often inappropriately) images of James Dean's rebellious poses have turned into marketing, still being plastered on t-shirts, coffee mugs, collector's dolls, and wall clocks. I wasn't aware of it at that age. My love of that film went beyond escapism; it was my attempt to inhabit that world and those meanings.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Monday Night Baseball (Writing)

As I've mentioned in previous posts, sportswriting is, at best, a very shaky area. Whether it is done in the form of articles or interviews, there always seems to be an overriding devotion to melodrama or embarrassing cliches, even from the best writers and the most eloquent athletes. My brother and I continually engage in mock post-game interviews simply by repeating tired phrases: "pitching was the key today"; "the defense really picked us up"; "our fans really got behind us"; "you know, I just got a good pitch to hit and drove it" etc.

Even in the early days of baseball writing, writers were not immune to this. Since the style of writing was in its infancy, cliches weren't the norm, but melodrama was heavy. The book companion to the PBS Baseball documentary (written by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns) has several passages and features devoted to the styles of early baseball writers, and the depictions of grandoise imagery was amazing. I don't have the book available right now, so I cannot cite any examples, but writers such as Grantland Rice and Shirley Povich made baseball out to be epic. For the most part, baseball articles were a combination of war stories, Greek/Shakesperian tragedies, heavy patriotism, and a sprinkling of racism.

Tonight, I decided to have fun with these ideas. I wrote a summary of the Twins-Red Sox game that aired on ESPN and tried my best to write it in a 1920s style. It is highly exaggerated, but it shouldn't be too outlandish compared to those times, and perhaps even compared to present baseball accounts. It's only appropriate that the game was played at Boston's Fenway Park, the home of the Red Sox and the home of ridiculous hyperbole and overwrought baseball romanticism. As a baseball fan today, it's equally chic to hate the Red Sox as it is to love them. Don't get me wrong--I'm a Cubs fan, but I know that Wrigley Field gets the same treatment that annoys everyone else in the country who couldn't care less about the Cubs. But seriously, it was a Twins-RED SOX broadcast. Had the Twins been playing against Oakland, it probably wouldn't have been a national telecast. Let's see how this works:

GAME RECAP: Minnesota Twins 0, at Boston Red Sox 1 (7/7/08)

"On this beautiful summer's night, July the Seventh in the Year of Our Lord 2008, the World's Champion Boston Red Sox squared off against the rising Minnesota Nine. The warm air enveloped the proud patrons of Boston, fans none too pleased to see their beloved team so far out of first place. It was not a favorable setting for the Minnesota Ball Club looking to sneak up in the standings against the Chicago White Stockings in the venerable American League Central division. The crowd roared as Boston took the field at the hallowed ground of Fenway Park, that awesome baseball palace, the Green Monster rising like a phoenix to the heavens.

The starting pitcher for Boston was Daisuke Matsuzaka, the crafty right-hander from the mysterious east of Japan, looking for his tenth victory of the season. The hurler did not disappoint, tossing 7.1 innings, not allowing a single Minnesota baserunner to sniff home plate. His fastball and sinker frustrated even the mightiest of the Twins, Justin Morneau, who managed a double yet was denied the triumph of tagging home to get his team on the scoreboard.

The pitcher for the Minnesota Nine, cherub-faced Scott Baker of Louisiana, matched his Japanese counterpart pitch for pitch, lasting seven frames, sending seven Bostonians back to the dugout after seeing a third strike. He pitched a bold game deep in enemy territory, oblivious to the beer-fueled heckling of the Boston faithful. As the night went on, he was the pride of the Midwest, keeping the Red Sox in check. He was half of a wonderous pitcher's duel, bowing to Matsuzaka, strolling sixty and a half paces before turning to fire his stitched, round bullets.

My friends, the game was close, each side desperate to taste victory. This heated contest was decided not by a soaring home run into the Boston night, but by a single, a run batted in by that fearsome Dominican Zeus, Manny Ramirez. As the ball slipped past the second baseman, Dustin Pedroia skipped to the home plate, providing that slimmest of victory margins. Ramirez stopped at first base among the cheering throngs, having brought the home team closer to the end.

The game was closed out by another son of Louisiana, the intense Jonathan Papelbon. After he willed Denard Span to ground out meekly to first, the contest was decided, the roars drifting around the East. The Boston Red Sox were victors, a stern bunch riding their way closer to first place. Somewhere off in those heavens that seemingly reached by the Green Monster, the great Bostonian Ted Williams tipped his cap in appreciation."

Again, this is tongue in cheek, but if the Red Sox make the playoffs this October, this kind of writing and broadcasting won't be too far off. As far as writing goes, something like this can actually be a good exercise. Intentionally engaging in bad writing is actually quite difficult, since you're putting as much thought into the sentences and word choices as you would with serious writing. Either way, it's practice, with the hope that the bad and the good can be separated.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I. Before E.

A few years ago, I remember taking a class on Shakespeare, specifically remembering the time we spent studying Henry IV, Part One. One of my more intelligent classmates (I will give him that compliment) opened a discussion on Falstaff, a boorish, comic relief providing character. The classmate mentioned how Falstaff reminded him of Ignatius J. Reilly, the anti-hero of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. His next action after making this comparison is the sole reason I remember that day. Instead of explaining that Ignatius was also boorish and provided comic relief, he glanced around the classroom with a smug, satisfied smile. He started off with a great literary comparison that was relevant to the subject, and ended it with an atmosphere of "Yes, I'm extremely well-read. If you have not read A Confederacy of Dunces, I'm not going to explain myself. Shame on you."

This anecdote is a great representation of misplaced intelligence. Instead of using his knowledge for good, my classmate used it to elevate himself over other people, merely to look smart. Intelligence (and elitism, to an extent), have been on my mind a lot lately. A few weeks ago, The Daily Show ran a few clips of conservative pundits bashing Sen. Barack Obama for being a supposed elitist. I don't know Mr. Obama personally, but he's obviously educated, and I would imagine he's well-read (I would vote for a candidate based on this, instead of issues of whether or not he or she wears a flag pin). The image tossed about was that Obama is a "tofu-eating, latte-drinking elitist."

I find this shocking, since the message seems to convey that a Presidential candidate can be intelligent, but cannot use it to alienate voters. One would think that candidates (based on image alone) would or should be better off exuding intelligence. However, the pundits seem to think that conservative voters are threatened by that. (I will return to this, since the source of the elitist claims stems not from intelligence, but from comments made about certain groups of citizens). These thoughts alone made me go out and buy a book that I should have purchased long ago--Curtis White's The Middle Mind. This was my third reading of the book, and White does a stunning job of explaining the lack of serious thought and imagination prevalent in modern American culture.

"In this country, conservatives have no particular need for the Middle Mind since they have been quite content to have demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Chris Mathews, and Bill Reilly do their nasty thinking for them for many years...the Middle Mind is in the business of producing 'content' while seeming to provide an authentic culture (White iv)."

This might seem like an easy jab at conservatives (but liberals are just as much to blame, if not more, according to White). That is part of this books' brilliance. Instead of hitting easy targets, White spreads the blame evenly. In short, conservatives don't think nearly enough, and liberals think too much, in the sense that what appears to be deep thought ends up being transparent or insulting to someone's intelligence. This is what I mean when I mention the former classmate. Instead of explaining himself, he gave an example that would mean nothing to someone who didn't understand his reference. In virtually all of my own readings and essays for Chicago Ex-Patriate, I love making comparisons and contrasts, especially in literature. However, my goal is to make a point and to link that point to similar texts. I like to think that I'm intelligent and well-read, but I know there is a lot of information and literature that I'm not familiar with, and I would be the first one to acknowledge that fact. People who know more about given subjects than I do are fascinating to me. However, people who impart knowledge can be in a tricky position, and that is a part of White's argument. People are either talked down to ("The Middle Mind assumes that the people it takes as its audience don't know anything; it assumes that most people are benevolently stupid [31]") or given empty fillers that pass for culture and intelligence ("The Middle Mind's motto could be Promise him culture but give him TV [33]").

The roots of the elitist claims about Obama did not come about because he mentioned Thomas Pynchon in a speech; he made remarks about residents of small towns in Pennsylvania that many (conservative) people felt made him sound "above" the small town citizens. He referred to them as "bitter," clinging to "guns and religion" because of insecurities about employment and the economy. Once he said this (his intentions aside), people were quick to draw their elitist epees. I could go into the irony of conservatives defending religion and the right to bear arms, and then turning around to bash someone for a statement like that. Perhaps a replacement of the word "clinging" (maybe "focusing?") would have eased the sting.

Interestingly enough, in my research, I found an excellent blog posting by Carl Golden, a Republican (think of this as blog partisanship). He believes that Obama was being honest in a political arena where honesty can be taboo. Again, it wasn't what Obama said, it was how he said it. Like I mentioned above, the elitist claims did not come to light because of intelligence specifically, but the idea of elitism is rooted in that. An elitist (one can be found in any field of study and any political party) believes that he or she is above others, presumably because he or she is more intelligent and understanding on a given issue. I wish I had a specific quote, but I recall someone mentioning that all Presidential candidates are elitist, because they believe they are the best ones suited to run the country.

In conclusion, there should be more focus on intelligence, whether political or otherwise. "One of the great tragedies in public discourse in the United States is that what we need most (powerful intelligence) we forbid (White 59)." It's all fine and good for candidates to appeal themselves to everyone, but intelligence should be celebrated, not alienating.

Work Cited:
White, Curtis. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think For Themselves. Copyright 2003 by Curtis White.

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...