Thursday, January 29, 2009

Image Inspiration

Inspiration for me often comes from recurring images. Things in the field of vision that you just can't get out of your head. Like this picture of tree-serpents hugging Greek columns in Oakland.

Sometimes all you need is an image you catch on the fly and then catch again and again. One of my most accomplished stories, 'Hysteria In Autumn' or so I think its accomplished based on the number of drafts of it I wrote, was inspired by the site of a porta-pottie being lifted into the heavens by a crane. At the time I was going through a tough spot in my life (involving bad decision making in the romance department) and I took a lot of personal refuge in ironic images, or at least interesting contrasts that made me laugh and entertain hope at the same time.

THE holy toilet that so captured me, however, was carried aloft at the construction site for the Catholic Church in Oakland below known as Cathedral Of Christ The Light. Unfortunately, I never managed to capture it on camera there, so the above photo from a different site will have to suffice.

I did however spend many of my work breaks over a year or two watching the church evolve from glorious raw scaffolding to ovoid launch pad to its current state as iridescent glass vulval egg that some people claim is more Ikea than Holy.

I'm not alone either in noting the suggestive shape of the center part of the church. I can't tell you how many people I've overheard walking around Lake Merrit exclaiming, "Wow, that church is going to look like....look like...a vagina!" NO offense to church-goers or women; tis more a commentary on architecture than anything else.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of my reconnaissance, I was enthralled by the virginal scaffolding and the strange men that moved within that cocoon:

THE close-up was particularly inspiring.

THE WHITE CRANE was the one that lifted the porta-potties high into the sky.

My office building is the large steel-grey megalith filling the left side of this photograph that completely dwarfs everything else in its path.
HERE is the wonderfully autumnal view from my work window:

Anyway, it all makes me curious what other landmark/thing/specter in the field of vision will provide similar inspirational fodder.

I'll keep you posted.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sharing A Segment About Oakland

Some of you might recognize the above from West Oakland. I took that photo a long time ago. But for some reason this morning, as we spit out of the tunnel as I do every working day, I remembered how pretty Oakland is and can be, despite its delapidated, grimy, rubble-strewn character. Plus today was a perfect Oakland day: a sparkling lake, a beautiful skyline, all sort of people walking around the water.

Oakland is a muse for me, believe it or not. For lots and lots of reasons which I will talk about endlessly here and there and in my stories.

Other good photos of my old stompin ground: West Oakland.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of sharing actual fiction on this site, I wrote this morning the BEGINNING of a potential very short story about life in Oakland. I think I want to, at least for right now, share BEGINNINGS of stories, to see if they work and if they encourage further readership. The following is more poetic, less plotted, and more rough than most things I write.
Encouragment and critique accepted graciously.

Scenes From A Story About Oakland:

Morning was like a mock birth in a freshly-ruined cathedral. Sawdust and chipped plaster stuck to my skin as I stretched away my aches.

Right around seven, the vaulted ceilings of my home began fluttering pale blue as gilded dust danced in every corner. Doves or pigeons fattened their chests against the crusty glass. You anticipated some visitor from on high, maybe a paratrooper or a crash landing.

The air was as alive as any slum, invaded by the spirits of long-dead industry, the oily dreams of cylinder merchants and steamboat conductors and peg-legged prostitutes. I’ve watched old home movies of this neighborhood and my house still stands in them. I'm connected to things that should have been utterly obliterated.

The cracked windows flooded with dirty, sepia light as Henry appeared at the top of the stairs in his polka-dot suspenders, his shredded jeans, and little else. Half-naked was the way to go around here. Or else you’d be itching and turning red more than usual. Not from illness, but from weather that has been trapped and taunted like a rare, ruby-backed moth.

I knuckled my eyes open and coughed up a part of last night. Instantly, I smelled eggs going hard in oil and my stomach remembered the boilermakers from the night before.

My sweat had almost eaten through the winter flannel on the bed.
I have to do something about the fractured headboard. I need to sweep and buy tools.
I made a note of all this on the back of a crumpled receipt as I slithered into my underwear.

A ruined cathedral?
Or a shipwreck?
I awoke to a different interpretation each day.

Day by day, I was retreating further from the things that raised me. If only those things could see me now, I thought, they wouldn’t even know me.

If the other eight stowaways weren’t already grumbling awake, they were after Henry made his boisterous, Gene Kelly on angel dust entrance down the rickety, blue staircase. We started with coffee out of a French press and sticky buns that the bakery wanted to throw away. We finished out the evenings with curry, red ales and horror films, the combination conducive to nightmares that always clarified some hysterical part of my adolescence that I had forgotten.

By day, when we were running around, there were taco trucks and stealing from the orange orchards of the filthy rich. Sometimes we’d splurge on Korean barbecue which always left us in a state of catatonia.

The summer would get so stifling I took to sleeping outside on the concrete loading dock on a piece of factory-grade silk. Above me, a pink moon hung like a pumice stone on the mottled washboard of the Milky Way.

Black cats would undulate out from the foliage as I slept, and keep me company, or else act threatening, when they were only having full-moon fevers.

Distant big-rigs, night-time helicoptors, the bleating of wild dogs, my own conjurations of future success lulled me into a twisting and turning half-sleep.

I found a newspaper and a quiet park in the late mornings. I read the names of the survivors on the plaque. The black kids would throw bottles at the lily-white joggers; the metal artists in their oil-stained Dickies scored methadone behind the boarded-up church. I looked at the facts. They looked askance. This wasn’t how it was designed. But nobody could think of anything that fit together better.

I didn’t have to imagine, but I was convinced that my caravan was forever turning in for the night at some crucial, yet hazardous crossroads. A spice I couldn’t name kept dogging me onward. A woman I couldn’t remember kept calling out my name.

The whole of the Western part of the city was an asphalt desert; all the buildings were eroding back to their original scaffolding, the color of mildewed copper, tide pools, and rotting fruit.

One word sufficed: ambergris.

Wednesdays, the parade of cement trucks broke the pre-dawn hush with the racket of churning and braking, backing-up and dumping. The lot lizards came out from their chicken-wire corners, hobbling like the elderly and suffering sun-stroke in their vinyl skirts. It was hard to feel bad for them, without feeling bad for everyone else too.

Evenings, we did our more daring runs. Rust was in. Old boat parts were in. Anything from a fire truck or an ambulance, a school bus or a golf cart. We didn’t touch chemicals except a cheap cocktail of hash and opium, called Red Rock. I learned the wiles of broken-down machinery. How to negotiate a busy street corner without attracting attention. A crowbar or a composition book rarely left my satchel. Coffee could you take deep into the day, I discovered, turn you into a camel that could cross these industrial latitudes without cramping up or going hungry.

To be continued. . .

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In Pursuit of the Short Story

Because you can't be in front of the computer all day I took a brisk hike yesterday, under overcast skies, through bracing, sea-scented air, up the crooked, wooden staircases set into the bright green, boulder-strewn hills of Glen Park.

Lately, all I want to do is sweat in the woods.

The eucalyptus here aren't real woods, true, and they do seem to monopolize all the sunshine. But really, just to stand sore, muddy, even scraped and spun on endorphins on the top of some steep, misty place is a good thing. I miss nature oftener than I used to.

Glen Park offers gorgeous views. And intriguing, muddy ravines below. Clover-patches glistening from old rain. I imagine a body laying in the clover: a strong image for something worth writing down.

I find gorges that enclose tree-canopied corridors to someone's version of an underworld. Intestinal, mildewed tunnels leading into the depths. Nature as Gothic. A word for that I remember out of the blue: chthonic.

Seth introduced me last week to this simple, but invigorating place. On my hike yesterday, I thought mostly about how to achieve unity in my prospective short story collection. I thought about how I think so much clearer when I'm pursuing some semblance of a healthy life too.

When I got home, I figured out a curriculum, in counterpoint to Seth's own short-story curriculum. If I read a rotating variety of short stories, perhaps I'll get better at writing them? And then I can put together story compilations like mix-tapes.

So far, stories from the following are on my present list, but I've hardly started reading them:

1. Blow-Up and Other Stories by Cortazar: so far, very interesting. I enjoy weird stories where you're not sure exactly what happens but yet you can't forget the story. Or where exquisite vagaries abound in nonchalant harmony. It's all in the details. Same thing with his novel, Hopscotch: not much happens except for verbal mazes and interior deliberations and uncanny images, but a lot of it is pretty unforgettable.

2. Scrub-Station by Julia Solis: Actually, re-reading this. A brilliant photographer, adventurer, chronicler of decay, urban ruins, etc., she's also a great fiction writer. Solis' stories tells what happens when the sinister magnetism of ruined landscapes conspires with our own appalling desires (which just so happens to be an obsession of mine too!) "Elizabeth of Factories" might very well be one of my favorite short stories. Her website is Dark Passage, and she is the author of the equally amazing: New York Underground.

3. The Invention Of Morel by Aldolfo Bioy Casares: Apparently, this novella has been getting lots of pop-cultural street-cred because it's featured in Lost. Borges also calls it "perfect" and its heavily alluded to in the art-film fashion-fest Last Year At Marienbad.

4. The Collected Stories of Grace Paley: Don't know much about this yet, but many, many writers think she's brilliant. Look forward to it.

5. The Delicate Prey by Paul Bowles: Bought this years ago, never really got to it. If Tobias Wolff says it's "one of the most profound, beautifully wrought, and haunting collections in our literature" than I bet it's pretty damn good. Interesting guy too, who lived most of his life in Tangier, Morocco, played music with Aaron Copland and wrote the novel The Sheltering Sky, which Katy read and loved and is on a distant reading list of mine.

6. Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass by Bruno Schulz. Reading this now for a potential essay I'm writing about it. Strange stuff that takes a while to get used to. Incredibly lyrical, complex evocations of the writer's own young manhood in the small Polish town he lived right when Hitler came to power. Fascinating for his emphasis on mythologizing his own upbringing in prose that isn't afraid to read like poetry. Also features the artist's own drawings which are wonderful. Will probably be commenting on this book later.

Also: many of the usual suspects of short stories: Kafka, Joyce and Flannery O'Connor.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Spaces, Places, Paintings in Books, Part One

I'm inspired a lot by things I can't do, like paint, make movies, or play music. I'm inspired by doctors, journalists and firefighters too. By soccer-players, prostitutes and soldiers.

(With that in mind, I fully intend to learn the piano again, take up ornamental cartography, start playing soccer again and finish a screenplay.)

Painters, musicians, and filmmakers pop up a lot in my stories, and I seem to make many references, especially, to paintings and movies, as if stories can be considered as verbal paintings and word-films just as easily as they can be called pieces of creative writing.

The painting above is by the Greek-Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.
He's one of the earliest painters I remember really liking. And then I discovered Marc Chagall, Paul Klee and Francis Bacon.

I tried to paint once. Really. Maybe I'd just get stoned, put on the Cowboy Junkies, sit around naked and play with my acrylics when I should have been doing my algebra homework but I tried to paint, I really did. Instead of succeeding, I think I just absorbed some painterly aesthetics in my early poetry and prose. (Much of my early poetry has been destroyed, along with all those Uma Thurman photos. But I remember my poems were more or less token, teenage surrealism, shot through with "shocking" juxtapositions, sort of like the famous sentence in Lautreamont's Maldoror that became a model for surrealist writing: Lautréamont describes a young boy as "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!")

Final word on my failure as a painter: I was always better at map-making but I'm terrible at reading maps. Most of you can testify to my poor sense of direction too. I guess being disoriented is more fitting for my temperament.

Anyway, De Chirico had a revelation one day that concerned the metaphysical beauty of Roman piazzas. This I just learned, but always thought his paintings seemed like subconscious renderings of the piazzas I spent a lot of time in during my short trip to Rome and Florence. Certain images resonated afterwards: the chaos of the marketplace or the fact that ruins nonchalantly rubbed shoulders with modern convenience stores, or the dark, twisting thoroughfares and the rain whipping across the cobblestones and the boiling water tossed on the plazas and the crazy, death-defying cab rides and the oh-so-sultry statue of The Ecstasy Of St. Theresa.

We stayed in a more native quarter of the city, Trastevere, and although our apartment was robbed, it was a good trip because I was forever getting lost in the labyrinthine streets and plazas of Rome.

Right now I'm working on a short story, or possibly a novella that is both about a man who is hiding out in Rome and about his youth in a dingy coastal town (think Venice meets Santa Cruz) where he lived in a crumbling apartment complex that had a courtyard-like plaza in its open-air center.

In this story, I'm trying to capture a sense of decay, of haunting, of lostness, and ruination by making a place as fully-fleshed as a character.

One of the recurring problems and/or opportunities I will be exploring in this blog is how to create imaginary spaces in books.
And how books too are their own imaginary spaces, becoming cities, worlds, labyrinths in their own right.

But back to my rough story: Rome, for my doomed narrator is like a holier mirror of the beach-town he used to live in, back when he courted the cornsilk-blond marine biologist who witnessed her mother's murder but who's in love with the stand-up bassist who, himself, is also having an affair with the lumberjack who isn't really a lumberjack and who has the word DOXA tattooed on his forehead. But those are just ideas so far. Sort of based on people I knew, loved or lost.

One of the visual inspirations for this tale comes from a pretty squalid and notorious place that a lot of my friends lived in back in Santa Cruz, La Bahia (above.)

Although I never lived there, I attended many parties there and was always half impressed and half repulsed by its hip squalor. I was more taken by its beautiful, hacienda-like architecture as well as its lovely inner courtyard that was so conducive to reverie and melancholy and chainsmoking and fretting about love affairs gone south.

Finally, a third recurring place/image in my mess of a story, a place that one of the main characters often travels to on strange errands is Buenos Aires which, actually, reminded me a hell of lot of Rome. Rome meets Mumbai, I've heard it described.

So this story is one of the first ones I'm writing where many different, yet resonant spaces are important to the mode and tone of the piece. It is written as something of a collective, thinly-veiled requiem for people loved and lost, but also a fantasy of paranoia and melancholy that is contingent on the places in our lives. Places that become magnetic because of what happened there, who loved, fought and died there.

I'm interested in how other people conceptualize space in literature, or just space in general. Especially cities. I think this will require a part two and part three.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The last apologetically long rant for awhile! Featuring Poets!

Below is a transcription of the inaugural poem, Praise Song For The Day, written and read today by the poet Elizabeth Alexander:

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise.

All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign;

The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self." Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

I think she wanted to go for something in the rugged, working class, pluralistic American idiom, something like this.

Her poem was well-crafted for the occasion, but lacking in boldness. I'm not sure if the occasion was calling for boldness though. Her poem, maybe to it's credit I'm not sure, was able to pull off that amazing sleight-of-hand that happens when listeners are so rarely presented with a poet reading from his or her own work. The poet--in this case her, loaded with all the historical significance of the occasion --only had to enunciate an action, no matter how simple, followed by a weighty pause, and that action thus described took on soul-shaking significance. Instantly, you understand it is a GOOD thing, or if not GOOD then at least somehow HEROIC.

"A woman and her son wait for the bus"

Which could have easily read:

A man sits on a chair


The woman opens the pantry

In this case, at least to me, ACTION is good because doing things that seem productive must be emblematic of the American dream, of how much work has been done to make sure it happens, or is happening now after all the past toils, the past blood, sweat, tears and whatever else has been shed.
A poem written about America now seems often only like an extended homage to America's deeply-troubled past, back when suffering served some distant future purpose (or so it would seem now) no matter how egregious it might have been (which it certainly was), back when the unjust sacrifices of our ancestors would become heroic preludes to how far we've come today. Past as prelude.

Every oration a requiem.

The crimes of the past exculpated by the emergence of present heroes.

It could be too that our history is so short and so much has happened in such a short time. We can't outstrip our pasts, nor should we try. And I'm probably saying obvious things, because I'm just exercising my long-dormant ability to appreciate a poem fraught with history. And in the process to appreciate history as I can feebly grasp at it with my own blind spots.

Obama, of course, is a shining example of how far we have come. He stands unique and independent above the unruly history that made him possible.

But it's hard sometimes to think of the last 8 years as the fulfillment of a previous generation's suffering and toil. If anything, the Bush Years (that dark, surreal 8 year 'present') that I just lived through as an unskilled office worker with a creative streak, in my isolated, non-Bush Bay Area bubble, didn't seem at all like the collective promises of the struggles of my parent's generation, but more like a collective Backlash by something scared, paranoid and resentful in the American psyche.

Does every lash needs a backlash? (Is there such a thing as a lash?)

In Walt's way, he celebrated the present as present, with all its robust paradoxes and complex beauties. Also its struggles yes. Back when America the concept was still fresh and exciting. I'm speaking merely of the poem, and not of the terribly-divisive historical events like the Civil War that happened when Walt was alive. And yes America was young then, almost virginal I suppose. But also rife with evil.

Alexander's poem was safely sans Walt's earthiness and joys and more laden with the ambiguous heritage of the American work ethic, whether it was embraced by the upper class or thrust upon the slaves, the poor and the immigrants. The work-ethic so beholden to the toils of the past. Pencils and ploughs ready for hard labor. But no bailout for the farmers or the teachers. It had the heart-stirring solemnity of a dirge, but nothing of the lusty zest of Leaves Of Grass.

Obama's speech too, as exceptionally well-executed as always, was rife with notions of sacrifice, compromising, hard-decisions, and labor-intensive endeavors. All indications predicted he would eloquently acknowledge the gathering crises our nation is embroiled in. And yes he would cite our "collective failure." But also our collective strength which, apparently, is boundless when politicians refer to it.

But if what I hope he meant about sacrifice was that we, as spendthrift, Wal-Mart employee-trampling-to-death, gas-guzzling, billionaire-assisting, puritanically hedonistic Americans need to rein in our earth-destroying ways and our fellow-nation-enraging hubris and doing this will require some sacrifices, as befitting any social contract, and some acts of restraint, as befitting human integrity, then his speech was a success. And I think that's what he meant.
But I'm not really a pundit, or that kind of blogger. Back to poetry:

Back to the poem specifically: it wasn't bad, I'm not saying that. In fact, its simplicity seemed appropriate and was occasionally lovely. The inauguration was not a moment to indulge in pomp when so much is going badly. Although I think she could have read it less woodenly. I especially like the "love beyond marital, filial, national". To me, that has possibilities beyond gestures and ceremonials. Beyond rhetoric too. Beyond nationalism, religion, and many of the more blood-soaked narratives that keep history moving at a rapid clip.
I still wonder though, among us, who reads poetry anymore.

I read it sometimes these days, and used to read it almost exclusively back when I wrote heaps of poetry for girls who remain unmoved.

Obama certainly reads a lot, including poetry (like Derek Walcott) and that is exciting.

He actually gives me hope that books, literature, the arts and the intellect still have some staying power in this country. I hope he considers the Secretary of the Arts petition too.
After all, civilizations are remembered more for their artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, and great intellects than for their plutocrats, politicians, bankers, and CEO's, right?

Today is a momentous day though. I'm glad to be experiencing it, to be a part of history, even if I can't fully grasp the enormity of it all.

I wish I wasn't so sleepy though, or felt the lousiness of the hyper-allergenic, or the fiscal anxiety of the part-timer.

And it is very busy here at work as I man the phones and steal away a little time to think about words on this historic day.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The article is up so momentum must be maintained

Ah Roberto,
All that reading, obsessing, note-taking, bad dreams, and insomnia paid off. That long, demonic, beautiful book is done and so is my long, long essay, "The Beautiful Nightmares of Roberto Bolano's 2666", that went up a couple days ago on The Rumpus. I'm very happy about this. That novel will haunt and influence me for some time to come. I'm glad I could say a little bit about it in a way that I thought was unique and not your standard review. My own challenge with this is essay was that 2666 seems to be the most written about and reviewed book of the last ten or fifteen years. So it seems at least. But yes, forward motion.

I'm going to cool off my mind now with some Cortazar short stories, maybe some Richard Brautigan, and some Ishmael Reed. As someone who is trying to write short stories, I find that I sometimes avoid reading them, preferring the long, athletic devotion that a novel demands. Which is odd. Because short stories are really the diamonds of writing. Novels are like giant icebergs of quartz. If that makes sense. I think I'm just exercising late night word choices though. Tis been a week of culture consumption and social butterfly-fishing.

Or maybe, instead of reading, I'll go to a baseball game. Camping is being planned to keep things in perspective. Like what life is like outside of cities. Trees, dirt and creeks: good purgatives.And many homemade meals involving greens, lentils, and spring vegggies: hearty, earthen, rooty things that make you feel lucid and clean.

Questions constantly arise: how to be a writer and a reader and remain healthy, vital, active and reverential of nature and physical activity and adventure? How to balance the desk and the laptop with the forests and the creeks?

Anyway, as I was saying, or trying to say. And part of the charming perils of this blog is that what is being tried will often turn quickly into something that hadn't been even considered. But yes:

I'm glad that people are obsessing over 2666, the novel and I hope too that the unbearably tragic source material for his novel is explored at length by the same people who so admire the author's fictions. Crimes committed in the name of machismo will not go away. And they are the rankest form of evil. Because machismo is usually a groundless facade, smoke and mirrors and little else and yet it does so much harm in the world. I'm not certain if I succeeded but I tried, in my own essay, to investigate the political aspects of the work while also remaining staunchly on the side of human ambiguity. Well not staunchly. Ambiguously.

I hope I can write more essays on the intersections between books and the experiences of the people reading them, both with the book and beyond it. Does that make sense? Like not just your typical book reviews or academic essays, but more open-ended, more in the "rhizomatic" sense, if I may drop a preposterously ill-defined yet exceptionally exciting po-mo word. I discovered that what I did as a literature major is exactly what I don't want to write like now. What symbolizes what, how so and so is a foil to so and so, or how the author is exploring class relations (what novelist or novel isn't exploring issues of class??), etc., etc.

Yes, its useful maybe, but I'm interested in the sensations that books provoke and evoke. And yes even political sensations because at this point it's ludicrous to say that anything, really can be somehow apolitical. There are distinctly anti-political actions you can take like, for example, not following the news, or choosing to ignore what is in the food you eat, etc. But these are still in the realm of politics.

I don't know if it is worth exploring in this entry which simply began as a little piece of personal news. And I'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Poet and an Unusual Edward Gorey Story

First, the Edward Gorey story. Below is a picture of something worth knowing about. Edward Gorey was one of my formative influences. Luckily, Joey de Villa, the Accordion guy scanned images from the rare book below, The Recently Deflowered Girl. Please read and laugh and feel weird accordingly.

In other news, last night, at Modern Times Books, I saw a reading by the great poet: William Taylor, Jr. Here is a picture of his book, Words For Songs Never Written:

You should be reading him. You should be going to his readings. His poems are beautiful, funny, melancholy, acerbic, consoling and triumphantly human all at once. You can find Taylor's books for sale here: So Much Is Burning and here: Centennial Press. His poems have gotten me through some of the darkest and brightest parts of my life. Thanks Bill!

After the reading we got into the following discussion about poetry at the Elbow Room. Who's better?, we asked each other:

a) Sexton or Plath, b) Baudelaire or Rimbaud, c) Keats or Byron, d) Olson or Duncan.

A discussion that just reminded me I should read more poetry. Tis good for honing words, flexing your metaphors and just generally building that soul of yours that keeps you from going under.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How I feel most days

A drawing by the wonderful and wonderfully weird Austin Osman Spare.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Caffeine-Fueled Miscellany About 2666

I spent the last three days hammering out my essay on 2666 that clocked in at a probably overly high nine pages. But there is so much that has already been written about the book, most of it in the most gushing ways imaginable, praise which is mostly justified I feel but strange at the same time. I'd like to think such an overwhelmingly positive reception is a combination of various factors--among them, Bolano's masterfully rebellious genius-- and not just our cultural obsession with violence.

2666 is a vicious, bludgeoning, despairing, visceral and brutal book concerned with the extremes of human depravity (mostly directed against women) as well as the futility of art, or anything else for that matter to do anything about it. But weirdly enough, it is art like that, and not all such art can do this, that makes me feel that life is worth living and worth striving for. Not every exercise in sounding the depths of darkness can be life-affirming. Most become morbid, nihilistic indulgences, like collecting serial killer souvenirs or the unfortunate genre of concentration camp exploitation films.

A word I think that is instructive, for our culture and many others (like the one Bolano explores in his works), is a German word: Schadenfreude.
Its interesting to see this concept in other languages as well.

In my opinion, most of what passes as "sick and twisted" is just exploitive, heartless dispatches from our collective fascination with other people's misfortune, or else just more installments in the torture-porn culture that has become the substitute for meanginful, human explorations of fear and pain. And yes, there remains slippery slopes as always, movies that are deplorably hard-to-watch but still amazingly insightful regarding the wiles of the human heart, like
Audition and Old Boy.

Which is to say that 2666 is still not for everybody. Even subtracting the 300 page murder narrative, the book is still rife with nightmarish riffs on love, disease, sex, war, insanity, betrayal and loss--capturedly darkly and vividly, often like a fever dream, but also with Bolano's quintessential humor. Gallows humor, yes but very much about living life intensely even in the face of obvious futility.

Yesterday, after finishing the essay, I went to Philz Coffee on 24th and Folsom, sat outside on cold metal in the warm shade, and while admiring a slowly-shifting slant of light on the yellow wall across the street, I drank a large coffee and people-watched until the caffeine made me reach for my notebook. All sorts of people congregate there, not too far away either from various scenes of recent gang-related homicides. The best jolt to the mind in my opinion is a not-too-sweet cup of the So-Good blend.

There in the failing light, the gathering, street-odorous shade, I thought about other odes to mortality unfolding, like Warren Zevon's
The Wind.

I felt pretty damn good drinking that coffee, and I started work on a short story based on a couple deaths of fellow Santa Cruz college students I used to know. The story is also about a phosphorescent algae that makes people go mad. It could have been a very morbid afternoon but, for whatever reason, everything felt gloriously alive despite the funereal timbre of my thoughts.

Both 2666 and The Savage Detectives (which I read last year) will continue, hopefully in a good way, to influence the way I write and the way I view the world. At first I couldn't pinpoint exactly what accounted for the magic of the language, which is often spare, and the style, which is often excessive and monstrous until I read an essay by the translator, Natasha Wimmer. She acknowledges what makes his writing so compelling: a distinct lack of rhetoric, a candor bordering on dementia.

Laundry needs to get done. Money needs to be made. Furniture needs to be assembled.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Re-remembered a favorite painter of mine, the notorious Balthus, also known as Balthasar Kłossowski de Rola. Somewhat depraved. Somewhat. . .

Something is going on here, but I'm not sure what.
I think that's what I like about certain scenes in novels: they can be like paintings.
Clearly, I'm evading other responsibilities right now.

Inspiration Jambalaya

I have a novel in progess. I like to think about it a lot. Like I think about quasars and other countries and deep sea creatures. I like to take notes on it, sketch out the characters, plot plots and subplots, imagine the far-flung research I'll have to undertake in order to explore the themes I want to explore. Sometimes I dream about it, or wake in the middle of the night with scenes that are priceless and must belong in my novel. The one I haven't written yet. The one I will soon. Oh so soon, after I finish all those short stories.

As far as the "novel" goes, so far I think it's about religious fanaticism and maybe just fanaticism in general. Like, if you want to live an impassioned, meaningful life on earth, sometimes it helps to be cursed and/or blessed with Strong Belief, be it in the powers of the body, the beauty of the earth, the meaninglessness of it all, or the challenge to forge vibrant communities amidst general chaos. In general, things get done if you're more of a fanatic than not. Some are just fanatics for chaos. Others for helping people. Some for drugs, others for music, others for misery. Some scientists are fanatics for hard evidence and nothing but. And some just want to slough off the chains of this prison planet for some netherworld paradise.

Fanaticism is a mixed bag. But profoundly interesting.

But it's also about fear. My novel, I mean. About a government in the prelude to a civil war. It's about an island run by a monastery. It's about that same monastery supporting their order through a heady, libertarian dose of "victimless crime" rings. It's about a crippled idiot born on this island who's name is Percy. It's about his strange physical conditions. His fevers, his insomnias, his clubfoot. It's about his adventures, his lovers, his failures, his disillusionments. I think it would be fun to do a comic-heroic re-write of the Perseus myth, an idea based on my own origin myths.

Spouting all this out here, I wonder if it sounds compelling, readable, or even remotely like something that would fit nicely into the novel form.

So yes, a novel-in-progress: I might be saying that for awhile, but don't worry, if it becomes tedious, I'll just mutter it to myself, in the wee hours of the night when the walls are crawling with things I couldn't possibly do justice to in mere words.

And as much as I like to make fun of the trend of possessive titles in novels these days (just the day before Christmas at Borders I saw three books side-by-side: The Heretic's Daughter, The Bone-Setter's Daughter and The Memory Keeper's Daughter which weren't all that far away from Corelli's Mandolin, Omnivore's Dilemma, Flaubert's Parrot and The Astronaut's Wife), for this "work-in-progess" I've been calling it "St. Lucy's Fire." For one reason or another, probably due to subliminal mind trickery.

Here's some links for my own benefit more than anything, regarding things I'm researching or reimagining for St. Lucy's Fire:

A memory from New Orleans: Saint Expedite

A memory from childhood, celebrating this feast day in Balboa Park: St. Lucy's Day

The myth: Perseus!

A recurring theme throughout: BIOLUMINESCENCE

Inspiration for spaces: Dark Passage

Ok, that's all for now.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Brother Joseph's 19th Century Must-Read List

I'm embarassingly under-read in the 19th century novel department and for someone who wants to write novels, I realize this oversight needs to be rectified.

I asked my good friend, Brother Joseph, a learned man who marries the best in literature and religion in his cerebral carriage, to advise me on his own favorites. Normally we talk about the Jesuits or I pretend to like baseball, but sometimes we talk about books.

I think his list is a good one and may he forgive me for quoting it verbatim:

Balzac: Lost Illusions, Old Man Goriot
Stendahl: Red and Black
Zola: Germinal, The Masterpiece
George Elliot: Middlemarch
Dostoevskii: Brothers Karamazov, Devils (a Christian's understanding of the horrors lurking within each soul...the most important literature ever)
Melville: Moby Dick
Turgenev: Fathers and Sons
Flaubert: Sentimental Education
Austin: Pride and Prejudice
Burnett: the Secret Garden
Carroll: Alice in Wonderland
Gogol: Dead Souls
Twain: anything would be fine.
Collins, Wilkie: Moonstone
Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
Wilde: Picture of Dorian Gray
Conrad: Heart of Darkness

Other recommendations? Advice? Scorn? Amusement?

tropes and themes in 2666

Mentally, as I near the end of this monstrous book, I'm trying to keep track of the recurring themes that make all five books of the novel cohesive.
Here is the most interesting article, by the by about the book:
Alone Among The Ghosts

Here is a tentative list of themes in the book:

Madness/Insanity especially suffered by artists (the painter who cut his hand off, the poet who went to the asylum, the wife of Amalfitano who moved into a cemetery)
Madness/Insanity as a larger stratum (the asylum director, for instance)
The idea of the Real Story that the journalists only discover later, the real story being Crime and its Perpetuation
The concept of The Sacred (in films, in Mexico, the experience of the Penitent as his so-called sacraphobia, or fear of sacred objects)
The eroticization of death/the thanatization of eros.
Infirmities and diseases (Morini's disability, Amalfitano's wife who dies of AIDS, Archimboldi's girlfriend who is sick, etc.)
Murder and atrocity, especially committed against women (300 pages of the novel are devoted to examining this)
The emotional crises of men set against a backdrop of violence against women
The writer as detective/the detective as writer
The futility of finding Archimboldi/the futility of finding the Santa Theresa killers
The oceanic symbolism of Archimboldi/the oceanic desert of Santa Theresa and Sonora
Recurring ideas of Image and Semblance, their variances
Sensuality and lust amidst squalor, war and atrocity
Life as dream morping into nightmare and back again
etc., etc., etc., etc.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

What It Is

So I'm still trying to figure out what I want this blog to be and, knowing me, I'm going to go for the extravagantly-ambitious and outlandishly all-inclusive.

However, what this blog is not includes the following:

1. Not a place where I will discuss my PRIVATE LIFE! Especially regarding my own shortcomings as a man.
2. Not a place where I will talk about how I hate doing the laundry, doing dishes, taking the garbage out and walking behind slow pedestrians but do keep in mind that I do hate all of that.
3. Not a place where I will spew venom on the world because nothing is going right.
4. Not a place where I will discuss the itinerary of my day which often includes waking up and cursing, taking a shower, taking trains and buses, eating food, going to the bathroom, working, kissing my girlfriend, kissing her again and knitting and knitting and knitting....

On that note, here is what I hope this blog can be:

1. A bulletin board for intellectual, scientific and artistic schemes, concepts, lore that I find intriguing and interesting and would like to share with others.
2. A place to talk about books I'm reading, movies I'm seeing, music I'm listening to and television series' that I should feel guilty of not following.
3. A place to outline, excerpt, expand on, deepen and elucidate works of my own fiction that are either done or in progress or mere whimsy. Along with that, I'd like to mind-map, or think aloud, about the processes, either lived, imagined or half-dreamed, that have inspired my fictions, because I find nothing more interesting than how ideas come to people. And how many false starts, labyrinths, dead ends and diverted roads were involved.
4. A place to outline, excerpt, expand on, deepen and elucidate essays and journalistic asides, philosophical arguments, travel jottings, opinions, and all that falls under the rubric of creative non-fiction.
5. A place to share links to other creative sites and people that are dear to my heart.
6. A place to give thanks for all the multifarious, labyrinthine promiscuousness of culture.

That should cover my hopes and dreams for this humble venture.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Word Diagrams

Here is a list of words and improbable phrases with definitions both likely and improbable.

Autumnal Drift: The entropic migratory pattern of the human mind, which also takes the form of a self-lubricating map, or a five-dimensional book of emblems that can be shaken up like a broken kaleidoscope.

Russian Lilacs: Visions commonly found in high fever during adolescence.

Acephale: The Headless, or the secret society started by Georges Bataille.

Perichoresis: A technical term of the Catholic liturgy that denotes the mystery of the trinity. It derives from the Greek and implies an interpenetration of opposites.

Deco-verite: The method of the hoodwinking storyteller who uses adorned truths and brutally naked falsehoods to inflect authenticity with the timelessness of myth. Comes from the marriage of the root words deco, meaning false or adorned and verite, or truth.

More words and phrases to come. I am sufficiently amused.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A preliminary personal curriculum for '09

I have reason to believe that 9 is one of my lucky numbers, along with 11 and 46. In any case, I hope to maintain a voracious, yet well-rounded reading diet this year of the ox.

A preliminary list of things I'm finishing and have yet to begin but hope to soon:

2666 by Roberto Bolano: nearing completion! And then I must write that review and read something much, much, much more light-hearted. Which I probably won't do.

St. Genet by Jean-Paul Sartre
American Tabloid by James Ellroy
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Invitation To A Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
Ada, Or Ardor by Vladmir Nabokov
Our Lady Of The Flowers by Jean Genet
The Predicament Of Culture by James Clifford
Steps To An Ecology Of Mind by Gregory Bateson
About Writing, The Motion of Light In Water, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, etc, etc. by Samuel R. Delany
Various short stories by Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Jhumpha Lahiri, Grace Paley, Julio Cortazar, Stephen Millhauser.
The following by Cornelius Castoriadis:
World In Fragments
Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy
The Imaginary Institution of Society

And many, many more I probably won't get to till next year, or the year after that.

All of that, right this minute, as I'm still in the throes of fatigue and dislocation from the saturnalia of the holidays, seems mighty ambitious.

Notes For Projects

Inspired by my good friend Orion's vast erudition, not to mention his own extensive and inspiring reading blog, I am starting a reading/idea/philosophy blog to help me maintain the momentum of my own obsessions. Or something like that. Might also be useful to present theses, ideas and smatterings that need to be revised or round-filed or fine-tuned.

We'll see what happens.