Monday, May 25, 2009

Branching Out

I mentioned this quite awhile ago, but some friends of mine have finally launched Collision Detective, a website devoted to video games, video and audio technology, and postings about any other type of media imaginable.

By virtue of being friends with the creators, I'll be making contributions to their site when I can. I just posted my first substantial essay, "The Literary Cipher," an introductory look at William Gaddis. I've written about Gaddis a few times (here is one mediocre example), but for now, I'm pleased with what I just posted. So again, please support the fine people who have put a lot of work into Collision Detective. The link is available to the right, as it has been since the site was launched last year. It's now rolling consistently.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Casual Friday--Poetry IX



"The reader's resulting uncertainty is just what [John] Berryman intended. A reader was meant to keep wondering who is talking to whom. Berryman believed that the hallucinatory effect of such doubt and ambiguity added to the richness of the passages that produced it (Merwin xxv)."

My past few poetry posts have been focused on, for lack of a better phrase, safe bets. Whether I've looked at T.S. Eliot or Charles Bukowski, I've analyzed works with the best intentions, but highlighted with a quiet understanding of what I was getting myself into, so to speak. These are gifted, honorable poets, for sure. However, in the interest of familiarizing myself with other poets, I asked around for recommendations. A friend of mine immediately suggested John Berryman, which led to me picking The Dream Songs. Going into a work of fiction without any prior knowledge of a given author is exhilarating for me. With poetry, however, there is a deal of trepidation, specifically the fear that I'll miss obvious references or the meaning of the poem altogether.

As I read the poems of Berryman, the trepidations are still present, and I'm sure there are some references and wordplays that I haven't picked up on at first glance. Despite these admissions, Berryman's gifts are on full display. He wrote with an intangible combination of rigid structures and almost freestyle verse and dialogues. While I would have picked up on this notion eventually, W.S. Merwin's introduction is invaluable. He gives insights into Berryman's psyche, yet not to the point of over analysis or intentionally confusing the poet with the poem. Merwin acknowledges the inherent difficulty in studying these poems, but also asks the reader to simply enjoy the language on display. As with any modern poet, there are hints of poets who have come before in Berryman's works (Eliot and Dylan Thomas come to mind).

While linking a writer and a work can be wrong at times, one must realize that Berryman was known for being a Confessional poet, and he himself acknowledged autobiographical meanings in his poems. This idea of 'confession' comes across more as 'contrition,' at least in my mind. Here is a stunning example, especially when viewed with the understanding of Berryman's lifelong battle with alcoholism:

"96

Under the table, no. That last was stunning,
that flagon had breasts. Some men grow down cursed.
Why drink so, two days running?
two months, O seasons, years, two decades running?
I answer (smiles) my question on the cuff:
Man, I been thirsty.

The brake is incomplete, but white costumes
threaten his rum, his cointreau, gin-&-sherry,
his bourbon, bugs um all.
His go-out privilege led to odd red times,
since even or especially in hospital things get hairy.
He makes it back without falling.

He sleep up a short storm.
He wolf his meals, lamb-warm.

Their packs bump on their '-blades, tan canteens swing,
for them this day my dawn's old, Saturday's IT,
through town toward a Scout hike.
For him too, up since two, out for a sit
now in the emptiest freshest park, one sober fling
before correspondence & breakfast (Berryman 113)."

I feel that this poem serves as a sort of composite of the ideas listed above. Along with the notion of the confessional, there are hints of sadness, unapologetic drunkenness, and a sort of common street dialogue. The majority of his poems three six-line stanzas, so the two-line addition (the second to last stanza) seems to break up the rhythm. The phrase that strikes me the most is "one sober fling," as if a moment of sobriety is a wild notion in an otherwise inebriated existence. Overall, it's as if Berryman's style could be a subdued version of Bukowski, a tighter, less obvious look at excess as a regular part of one's daily schedule.

Work Cited:

Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. Copyright 1997 by Kate Donahue.

Merwin, W.S. Introduction copyright 2007 by W.S. Merwin.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

In Full View




In a great example of coincidence, I read Jose Saramago's 1995 novel Blindness a week after a profile of his Portuguese contemporary, Antonio Lobo Antunes, appeared in The New Yorker. Peter Conrad's article does not disparage Saramago's contributions to international literature, but does hint at some bad blood between the two men.

"At home, the two writers, like rival political parties or sports teams, have noisy partisans, and those who cheer for Lobo Antunes claim that the wrong man won the Nobel [Prize]. Lobo Antunes himself apparently agrees: when [The New York] Times
called for a comment on Saramago's victory he grumbled that the phone was out of order and abruptly hung up (Conrad 69)."

This opinion is a stark contrast to an old co-worker of mine who offered nothing but praise to Saramago's novel The Cave. These differing views were on my mind as I read Blindness, the balance between the praise and the likely contempt of an undoubtedly important writer. This also reaffirms that even the best artists have plenty of detractors, and that the art world can have heated debates not unlike sports bar arguments during a football game.

Blindness takes place in a nameless city inhabited by people who are identified only by their professions or physical attributes. These citizens include the doctor, the doctor's wife, the old man with the black eyepatch, the thief, etc. The city is hit by a sudden epidemic of "white blindness," which the government attempts to control by isolating the infected under armed guard in an abandoned mental hospital. Any concern or hope for a cure becomes a primal, almost Darwinian fight for survival. The "inmates" are shot with brief warnings if they stray too far from their designated areas. Blind criminals withhold food from the other inmates in exchange for valuables and the wanton rape of the blind women. To top this off, the blind must deal with squalor and the bodies of the dead. The doctor's wife inexplicably retains her sight, which leads to personal moral questioning as well as immediate leadership unknown to anyone except for her husband. Should she keep her sight a secret in order to quietly help the others? Or should she come forward and risk being a sort of slave for the helpless? A common description of the novel is that it reflects the mentality behind shameful events of the twentieth century. The isolation and fear of the blind can be an easy metaphor for the Holocaust or the Japanese internment camps of World War II. While this is certainly true, the novel could also be applied to the discrimination against Middle Eastern-Americans following the September 11th attacks:

"The suggestion had come from the minister himself. It was, whichever way one looked at it, a fortunate not to say perfect idea, both from the point of view of the merely sanitary aspects of the case and from that of the social implications and their political consequences. Until the causes were established, or, to use the appropriate terms, the etiology of the white evil, as, thanks to the inspiration of an imaginative assessor, this unpleasant sounding blindness came to be called, until such time as treatment and a cure might be found, and perhaps a vaccine that might prevent the appearance of any cases in the future, all the people who had turned blind, as well as those who had been in physical contact or in any way close to these patients, should be rounded up and isolated so as to avoid another further cases of contagion (Saramago 37)."

Or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:
"The Government is fully aware of its responsibilities and hopes that those to whom this message is directed, will, as the upright citizens they doubtless are, also assume their responsibilities, bearing in mind that the isolation in which they now find themselves will represent, above any personal considerations, an act of solidarity with the rest of the nation's community (Saramago 42-43)."

According to the Wikipedia article on the 2008 film adaptation of Blindness, there was considerable outrage from blind organizations, claims that the depiction of blind people was negative at best and animalistic at worst. However, these claims were best dismissed by Saramago himself: "Stupidity doesn't choose between the blind and the non-blind." Again, the blindness fear could be substituted with any quick change in security or stability, especially on such a drastic, widespread level. This is probably not a major spoiler, but the uplifting ending of the novel also mirrors the levels of calm that return following natural and national disasters. These thoughts represent a small selection of the metaphors available in the novel's pages. Another admirable trait is Saramago's liberal use of what otherwise would be considered cliches, thus proving that all cliches and overused sayings are steeped in truth.

"Nothing lasts forever, be it good or bad, the excellent maxims of one who has had time to learn from the ups and downs of life and fortune (Saramago 121)."
"...don't think that blindness has made us better people, It hasn't made us any worse...(Saramago 133)"
"...as is only just when someone dares bite the hand that feeds him (Saramago 164)."

A question presented by the novel (at least in my mind) is whether the blindness is truly contagious, since the doctor's wife retains her sight throughout the text. However, her sight, besides the obvious necessity, also exists to create a metaphor for feminism, despite continually going by the name "the doctor's wife." Even without identity via her own name, her actions show her growing independence and assertiveness as the horrors progress.

"What I'd like to know is who did the stabbing, The women who were there at the time swear it was none of them, What we ought to do is to take the law into our own hands and bring the culprit to justice, If we knew who was responsible, we'd say this is the person you're looking for, now give us the food, If we knew who was responsible. The doctor's wife lowered her head and thought, He's right, if anyone here should die of hunger it will be my fault, but then, giving voice to the rage she could feel welling up inside her contradicting an acceptance of responsibility, But let these men be the first to die so that my guilt may pay for their guilt (Saramago 195)."

Later in the novel, the women are referred to as "washerwomen," easily a demeaning term. However, despite the initial shock of the word, the reader knows that it doesn't hold any true demeaning power, given the courage and strength the women have displayed from the very beginning. No matter what befalls them, whether intentional hardships or natural ones, they fight back admirably.

Saramago is a natural storyteller, and Blindness moves briskly, reading simply, yet is filled with allegorical weight. The examples I've cited don't even come close to demonstrating the full spectrum, especially given Saramago's propensity for religious symbolism. These metaphors and allegories are, in the same breath, part of what brings the novel down at times. Saramago is a gifted writer, yet the plot points almost beg to be the metaphors that they are. Perhaps he wanted the text to raise quick, obvious, and important questions, but given the layers of the story, they didn't have to be as blatant. Being set in a nameless city, the text lends itself to universal connections, whether those be the horrors of war or looks at basic interactions. Returning to Conrad's article, one of Lobo Autune's differences is that his works focus specifically on the trials and landscapes of Portugal. The question open for discussion is: Is it better to use fiction to cover universal problems or only on a given writer's homefront? I hinted at the uplifting ending, which I had some problems with, given its unbearably quick turnaround and resolution. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it made perfect sense in the context of the novel as a whole. As true as the actions feel, it's Saramago's style to have events not completely grounded in physical reality. A final quote from Conrad's article sums this up perfectly, and it can either be a compliment or a criticism, depending on who reads it:

"Saramago is a benign magus whose fictions similingly suspend reality (Conrad 70)."

Works Cited:

Conrad, Peter. "Doctor and Patient." The New Yorker, May 4th, 2009.

Saramago, Jose. Blindness. Copyright 1995 by Jose Saramago and Editorial Caminho. English translation copyright 1997 by Professor Juan Sager.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Universal Languages



As I hinted with my look at Tropic of Cancer, most of my posts in the coming months will deal with literature, primarily authors whom I may have overlooked thus far, albeit unintentionally. My latest reading, Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes, turned out to be a stone that killed a few birds. Not only is he an author I should have read years ago, but his works represent international fictions, an area I haven't touched much since my looks at Roberto Bolano. The final side of this stone is that The Elephant Vanishes is a short story collection, and anyone familiar with this blog knows my strong admiration for this art form.

Any discussion of Murakami might very well turn towards the label/designation of his writing as postmodern. While a few of his stories fall into that category, I want to avoid any looks at the notion of postmodernism, only because I feel that it can occasionally be too all-encompassing, sometimes to a fault. Without reviewing some of my older posts, I'm almost certain that I've made this argument before. Postmodernism is an undeniable literary style, but one that tends to be used too frequently. Also, despite Murakami's lauded place in international fictions, my reading brought to mind the idea of "the classic," not in the old-fashioned sense, but in another (sometimes overused) phrase, "the classic short story." One of the best creators of the short story was Raymond Carver, and I noticed striking similarities (this is meant in the best way possible, not to disparage either writer) between the story crafts of Murakami and Carver. A friend of mine brought to my attention that Murakami not only translates Carver's works into Japanese, but professes an admiration for the late writer.

The similarities are not limited to these two men, but rather, they span the details of what most people consider a "good" short story. One of these details is precisely that: a detail. Murakami and Carver undoubtedly prescribe to James Joyce's famous maxim that "a writer should always know how much change a character has in his pocket." These details tend to go overlooked in everyday life, but in the medium of the short story (and, of course, the novel) they are elevated above the everyday and fill in vital details about the characters. For example, a usual feature of anyone's day is food.

"Like a guest invited to dinner by a feuding married couple, Noboru Watanabe tried to come between us by asking me, 'Have you ever thought of marrying?'
'Never had the chance,' I said as I was about to put a chunk of fried potato in my mouth. 'I had to raise my little sister without any help, and then came the long years of war...'
'War? What war?'
'It's just another one of his stupid jokes,' said my sister, shaking the bottle of salad dressing (Murakami 179)."

"My large parties are gone now and also the old couple. The place is emptying out. By the time I serve the fat man his chops and baked potato, along with more bread and butter, he is the only one left.
I drop lots of sour cream onto his potato. I sprinkle bacon and chives over his sour cream. I bring him more bread and butter.
Is everything alright? I say.
Fine, he says, and he puffs. Excellent, thank you, he says, and puffs again.
Enjoy your dinner, I say. I raise the lid of his sugar bowl and look in. He nods and keeps looking at me until I move away (Carver 6)."

Of course, these are not what the respective stories are all about, but in both examples, food highlights the larger themes and activities (more explicitly in the Carver passage). The story, "Fat," focuses on a waiter describing a heavy-set diner, with the unspoken notion of social stigmas. In Murakami's "Family Affair," food is part of a family dinner, with the unspoken notion of blunt conversations not associated with the usual Western assumptions of Japanese societal norms (another point is to note is that criticism of Murakami is that he is too influenced by the Western authors he admires).

This leads to the strong depictions of family life tinged with unhappiness and disappointment. In this sense, Carver and Murakami share a literary version of dynamic equilibrium, i.e. "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Murakami hints at less than stellar relationships with a noticeable degree of tact, whereas Carver is much more blunt and visceral. Is this due to a difference in literary styles, or a difference in society--Western emotions versus Japanese restraint? Arguments could be made for either, although their styles are not completely set in stone. Carver has passages of quiet observation, while Murakami's characters can be very abrasive and occasionally antisocial. Here are examples of Carver's emotion and Murakami's restraint:

"'Listen, listen to me, Ralph,' she whimpered. 'I swear to you he didn't. He didn't come. He didn't come in me.' She rocked from side to side in the chair.
'Oh God! God damn you!' he shrieked.
'God! She said, getting up, holding out her hands, 'Are we crazy, Ralph? Have we lost our minds? Ralph? Forgive me, Ralph. Forgive--'
'Don't touch me! Get away from me!' he screamed. He was screaming (Carver 238)."

"We're still happy, of course. I really do think so. No domestic troubles cast shadows on our home. I love him and trust him. And I'm sure he feels the same about me. But little by little, as the months and years go by, your life changes. That's just how it is. There's nothing you can do about it. Now all the afternoon slots are taken. When we finish eating, my husband brushes his teeth, hurries out to his car, and goes back to the office. He's got all those sick teeth waiting for him. But that's all right. We both know you can't have everything your own way (Murakami 79)."

And here's an example of a calmer Carver and a more agitated Murakami:

"He stood naked on the tiles before getting into the water. He gathered in his fingers the slack flesh over his ribs. He studied his face again in the clouded mirror. He started in fear when Marian called his name.
'Ralph. The children are in their room playing. I called Von Williams and said you wouldn't be in today, and I'm going to stay home.' Then she said, 'I have a nice breakfast on the stove for you, darling, when you're through with your bath. Ralph?'
'Just be quiet, please,' he said (Carver 251)."

"I closed my eyes and kept them shut. Then I opened them and looked at my son's face again. And then it hit me. What bothered me about my son's sleeping face was that it looked exactly like my husband's. And exactly like my mother-in-law's. Stubborn. Self-satisfied. It was in their blood--a kind of arrogance I hated in my husband's family (Murakami 104-105)."

Another proof that struggling relationships transcend regions and emotions is that both of the Murkami passages come from the same story ("Sleep"), the same with the Carver passages ("Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"). The beauty here is that the emotional hypotheses I presented are both valid and invalid, depending on how one reads the given stories. They can be bent slightly to prove these points or thrown away altogether.

The final idea I'd like to mention is the reoccurring theme of unresolved problems and clashes (a postmodern trait?). With both writers, the usual ending of a given story is very logical, yet the given problems or questions are rarely resolved, thereby making the reader either a.) come up with their own conclusions as to where the characters are headed, or b.) take the story as a small piece of a much larger issue. This is a major part of my fascination with both writers, a fascination that has stretched for a few years now (beginning with early readings of Carver while in college and continuing with the recent readings of Murakami). There is nothing at all wrong with a short story that ends with a satisfactory conclusion, yet I've noticed a trend in my own story writing that follows the same open-ended conclusions...in other words, stories that logically leave someone wanting more information in a bad way should instead be looked at as realism. In everyday life, problems and issues are not resolved within the sum of a few pages. With writers as gifted as Carver was and Murakami is, these gentle and abrupt fadeouts lead to reader discussion and heavy contemplation of what will happen next. Small ideas like these might seem obvious, but can be easily lost in the never-ending discussion of what compromises a good piece of writing.

Works Cited:

Carver, Raymond. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Copyright 1991 by Tess Gallagher.

Murakami, Haruki. The Elephant Vanishes. Copyright 1993 by Haruki Murakami.