Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Guns, Letters And High Involvement: Rant?

(Hunter S. Thompson motivational posters. Telling it like it is. And yes, it is connected to what I'm saying...)

I sat down and wrote a letter the other day.

I haven't done that in a while. It was to a friend who prefers the low-tech form of letter writing and who makes me hate myself for being suckled so often and eagerly on the Internet. (
Like I'm doing right now with this blog and my other one.)

It used to be I was always sending letters and mail. At one point, it was a game I invented at a very boring, soul-sucking job I had years ago. Besides scraping off rat droppings from my keyboard, and calming down hot-headed real estate agents, I had unlimited access to a whole wonder world of antiquated office machinery. I tried to see how much interesting mail I could make on the clock with all the interesting office machines they had on hand and then I would mail it back to my house under an assumed name. After a couple months, I had accumulated close to a hundred pieces of mail, all without getting caught by the Man. Most of this stuff I'm going to turn into some sort of "zine" type thing. Strangely enough, it creates a pretty cohesive narrative about relationships, 6th street, garbage, poverty, myths, desire, and history.

Even now, I have a compulsive urge to look in the mailbox, hoping that that one letter/parcel/announcement will finally have arrived. But perhaps this is more of a habit acquired by scoping out grad school rejections, or seeing if my Amazon books have arrived.

Hunter S. Thompson, even as early as 17, would carbon copy all the letters he wrote (and he was a prolific letter-writer), claiming that he knew that he would one day be FAMOUS and people would want to compile them at some point.

It was in large part thanks to reading The Proud Highway, his selection of letters aged 17-28 or so, that I got inspired to do a little traveling a few years ago.

I would recommend this book for anyone who needs to be jolted out of their tired, old ways. It never gets old. His letters are uproariously funny and savagely inspiring. They document the transformation of a swaggering young man into a full-fledged writer and all the madness that went with it.

His dispatches about being constantly broke, uprooted, at loose ends, unemployed, prone to constant, dangerous distractions and flailing about inside of his own neurotic fantasies are healthy reminders that trying to do what you want often requires a lot of inhuman gusto. Good stuff. It's more or less the only Thompson I've read in its entirety. Which is a shame probably.

In light of letter-writing, I thought about an interesting proverb I read in Samuel Delany's About Writing: he quotes the seminal media theorist Marshall McCluhan: "Low Resolution Makes For High Involvement." Which in itself is a solid argument for letter-writing, magazine-making, "crafting", cooking and writing in general, not to mention all sorts of other high-involvement/low res. pursuits.

I want higher involvement in things. I didn't always think this. I've never been a good "joiner" and am usually fearful/hesitant to the point of neurotic passivity when it comes to any kind of formal/institutionalized/obligatory conglomerates of people. Classes, seminars, workshops: historically, my devotion to these things is spotty at best. Which isn't to say I'm a bad student. I'm not--and even graduated with Honors-- I'm just suspicious about gatherings where everyone HAS to be there. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, or remembering all those D's in behavior I got, even though I got straight A's in what counted.

Generally, I've preferred spontaneous get-togethers or drunken frolics or just walking around aimlessly without an "agenda" or a "target goal." Unfortunately, the world doesn't often cater to such frivolity, especially if you want to do something with your life. Which I do, even if writing isn't really considered "doing something with your life." Actually, writing is more what you do when you're not doing things with your life. NOT that I believe that either though. Like everything worth doing, it's a balancing act and most people take a tumble.

But getting back to Hunter S. Thompson:

I remember thinking March got off to a great start: I began last month by going with my friend down to Jackson Arms and, with impeccable instruction dutifully dispensed and under the watchful eyes of the well-trained (and armed) employees, I fired my first pistol, a 9MM Glock at a paper target that was perhaps 10 or 12 feet away. And I even hit the target, and in fact, I didn't miss the target at all even though I seemed to favor the right side.

I was surprised by the experience and found it invigorating. Shell-casings flying around your head, the snap of the pistol, the stance you took, etc. I was excited and humbled, scared and ambivalent, but in control. Of course, I deplore most violence, think guns in the wrong hands are evil, all that eminently reasonable stuff. I read the Oakland headlines every day. And the San Francisco ones. And as recently as today, a man went on a killing spree, making it the 5th shooting spree in the past month alone.
I can't talk about guns or the ethics behind them. I can acknowledge that they exist and that, in certain hands they do considerable harm. I can't say I worry too much about whether the government will take them away from me. I find them intriguing, I do. As objects they are astonishingly odd if you think about it. And prone to the most abject fetishism.

What I can talk about, sort of is the fact that I'm embarking on a novel that I thought I would never write but that seems the most honest thing I've yet concocted. And it's about murder and guns and sexism and violence, topics that have had little to do with me personally but are still pervasive in everything I read and see and absorb and wonder about when I walk down the street.
But more on that another time.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Briefly: The Brothers Karamazov And Other Things

I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. I'm about 200 pages into it.

What's amazing about it is just how readable and engrossing it is despite the fact that many of us probably can't relate to the trials and tribulations of 19th century alcoholic landowners, village idiots, monastic elders and underhanded mercantile ladies. I think part of its power though is that you relate with every one's constant bad decision-making (I know I do) and the fact that many of them, quite poetically and with often amusing and highly-drunken grandiosity, accept their ambiguous fates and continue to do the worst possible things to themselves and to each other.

Dostoevsky creates encounters that are supposed to be explosive and volatile, scandalous and melodramatic--and it all seems absolutely plausible and true-to-life. There is a deliberateness to these scenes that can seem contrived if they weren't also so affecting and just plain interesting. You often wonder how you would react in their situations, whether you'd be pushed to the breaking point, whether you'd flail and curse the heavens. Or really you wonder at their self-importance too and their sense of being fated to a certain life and not another. Do any of us feel that way? Do any of us feel humbled by the Sacred for that matter?

Back-stabbers, quarrelling families, religious contrarians, etc. talk and talk and talk and fight and fight and fight. It's a very talkative book. Huge dialogues over cognac. Rhetorical oneupsmanship. Not a lot of scene-painting, and it's almost like a play, which I guess was Nabokov's criticism of it.

There's little I can say about the book though that hasn't been said a thousand times before by more eminently qualified people. When I'm done with it, perhaps I can talk more about how to use it as a fascinating model for novel-writing.

A discussion which would have to include a lot of Bakhtin.


IN OTHER NEWS: People today are all abuzz over some infomerical anti-hero's violent run-in with a tongue-biting prostitute.

MEANWHILE, spring has been declared in Oakland and the local Whole Foods is abuzz with healthy and attractive people filling up their bicycle baskets with organic foodstuffs. I'm reminded of how desperately I need to bring a box-lunch with me, to bicycle again, and perform maintenance on my over-used and abused laptop computer.

IN LIGHT of FAILURE (to the grad programs yet again), I'm making swift, work time schemes and plans and I'd be lucky, if a third of them made their way from latency to fruition, things such as Transylvanian farm internships, writing fellowships in Vermont, part-time immigration law work (ANOTHER reminder at how woefully I failed in acquiring functional Spanish), careers in cultural anthropology (HA!) and being a thrifty penny pincher.

A handful of good, literary readings coming up in April though. Plus, my first trip to Macon, GA to see my parent's place. I'll take pictures.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Dame Of The Sacred And Profane

Hot on the heels of a grad school rejection (Indiana), I finished my second Iris Murdoch novel, The Bell, a captivating tale of wayward and extraordinarily flawed spiritual searchers who are camped out in front of an enclosed order of nuns deep in the mist-drenched English countryside. The encamped members constitute a "lay community" of Christians who can neither "live in the world or out of it" so have chosen this monastic halfway house as their place of semi-controlled living. Three guests are also snared somewhat ambiguously in their ranks: an embattled married couple united by fear and resentment and a fresh-faced youth who is about to have all of his illusions crushed by the complex blossoming of sexual desire.

On one hand, their group faces the nearby village and on the other they are pressed against the seemingly impenetrable walls of the enclosed nun's abbey. Their little experimental community, more like a disorganized cult almost, is directly at the crossroads of the sacred and the profane. All of this becomes a warped microcosm where every one's spiritual hungers are interrupted, second-guessed and thoroughly compromised by love, lust, madness and personal resentments. Murdoch is incredibly agile in creating characters who are so believably muddled in their convictions and whose thoughts, lavishly brought to life on the page, are forever at odds with their perplexing and increasingly more alarming actions. Lastly, and most damningly, she diagnoses what the jailhouse of a bad marriage is actually like, with all its tug-of-wars, ultimatums and acts of emotional terrorism.

In fact, she managed in this novel to create a male character who is so disgustingly unlikable as a husband (and a human being) that I was actually cursing him out as I read the novel. At the same time, his tormented and confused wife inspired equal amounts of angry frustration if only because you know she should leave him but that she has hardly anything to leave him for. And Murdoch reveals just how her other options, at least in the form of human partners appear to be as damning as what she is already imprisoned with.

Cutting like a pagan current through all these mixed-up lives is the intriguing subplot of the lost abbey bell that is allegedly buried at the bottom of the lake that separates the Abbey from the Community. The bell, according to legend, landed there through some curse that was placed ages ago on a nun who was having an affair with a man. This subplot is evoked masterfully through Murdoch's vivid use of what, for lack of a real term, I'll call "gothic pastoral" where on moonlit nights mysterious, yet well-intentioned figures are prowling around the base of the Abbey walls, where a guilt-stricken man accidentally stumbles upon a naked youth taking a swim, where people wake in the middle of the night to the ominous booming of a phantasmal bell and where an unlikely pair collaborate in darkness to bring the ancient legend back to life.

This novel, like the first Murdoch I read, the Booker-prize winning The Sea, The Sea, is so brimming over with amazing characters, complex ideas, lush and evocative language, and page-turning action that I can't think, really, of more I can ask for from a novel. The amazing and confounding thing is that Dame Iris wrote 26 novels, more or less dealing with themes of the Sacred and the Profane AND was a professor of philosophy too.

So I've kind of taken her as a working model, someone to look up to, to learn more about and to read more of. I haven't been this driven to read some one's biography in a long time. With the exception of Graham Greene but his is three volumes long.

Meanwhile, I just started what will be a long and luxurious first-reading of a certain novel called The Brothers Karamozov.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Reading/Watching Mid-March

I finished Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation To A Beheading at the beginning of the month. I remember mostly the words.

The language was startling, superhuman, as if he single-handedly took it upon himself to invent a whole new way of writing sentences, making metaphors and stringing together words. And he did it again and again in twenty or so works of writing. Meanwhile, he studied butterflies.

This novel was consistently funny (in a muted way) and nightmarish yet frequently as claustrophobic as the book's phantasmal jail cell where most of the action takes place. I read it with an increasing sense of dread while at the same time I was constantly floored by the perfection of his sentences. It was almost a poem, or an aesthetic exercise in futility, where every word counted for something while at the same time signifying nothing beyond the beauty of its utterance. Nabokov, I read somewhere, declared that all good art is composed of "beauty plus pity." The situation of the accused in this book is beyond pitiable but rendered in the most beautiful possible way.

I remember reading Pale Fire a long time ago back, I think, before I could fully appreciate it. And I also only read Lolita for the first time last year, an experience which definitely warrants a re-reading.

As much as I love Nabokov's singular style, the same way I appreciate writers like Saul Bellow, I think I'd rather strive for the sharp and limpid prose of Paul Bowles, whose stories collected in The Delicate Prey I've been slowly reading and savoring these past couple months. What I love about Bowles are the same things I love about J.M. Coetzee, namely an angular, sensual prose that relies more on stark imagery and contrasts than colorful word-play and discursiveness. Maybe also a part of me is smitten by the roles that both Bowles and Coetzee play, both in their fictions and their non-fictions, of being ambiguous witnesses in seemingly distant lands who knit together parables of cultural discord and dislocation.

I think too I'm a sucker for a writer who can capture space and place with a vivid intensity that I can almost smell. I've discovered lately that I especially like reading things that play to my sense of smell, because I think it is the most subtle and elusive sensory component to capture effectively. It also strikes at the deepest parts of memory and consciousness.

As for rendering space, in Bowles's case, most of these stories I've read take place in tropical, muggy, mostly Latin-American places, where giant birds alight on dripping tree limbs in misty forests, or else children harboring odd secrets hunt for money through sweltering plazas. His sensuality is rife with contrasts, the moral lessons are dark and often as not amoral and there are frequently appalling and sudden clashes between Others, be them travellers and natives, husbands and wives, or children and elders. They are enviable tales, some of the best I've read, and I'm looking forward to reading his novels and essays.

Meanwhile, I watched two Marlene Dietrich movies, Blond Venus and Scarlet Empress. Scarlet Empress was a bizarre and tantalizing viewing experience, if only because Dietrich has got to be one of the most beautiful women who ever lived, especially in the conflict-fraught role of Catherine the Great, forcibly betrothed to a mad idiot and made into the marionette of an aging, antagonistic matriarch. She embodies the transformation from a doe-eyed Prussian innocent to a wilful, seductive and dominating Queen exquisitely, all within the most lavish and decadent Tsarist kitsch movie sets I've ever seen.

I also watched The Innocents, one of my favorite scary movies, with a screenplay by Truman Capote and a story based on The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James. It has some of the best haunted house lighting too which, to me, means a great deal.

I think I'll wait for another post to talk about grad school rejection, my new workshop, and this great Belgian detective-noir writer I just discovered.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sedimentary Images For Future Use

We went to the Presidio this weekend and sort of wandered around blindly. The military cemetery was beautiful and humbling. You never quite know in a group of people how everyone is going to react to being in a cemetery. Some people might get awkward, other people rowdy and still others melancholy. Myself, I always feel stern but almost self-consciously so as if I'm trying to deliberately coerce the presence of all these graves into making me feel something so much different than what I normally feel. Cemeteries interest me though for many reasons. I like the idea, expressed in the singularly indispensable desert island book A Pattern Language, that graves should be not demarcated from common, living places but naturally integrated into them, not only as reminders but also because they are so much a part of life, even if we can't rationally grasp what they represent and indicate.

The Presidio will be an ongoing place of exploration and easily accessed too. Even though I live in the hinterlands of the city, in District 11 right before it becomes Daly City, I discovered that it isn't that far by bus from the noisy intersection near my house to the sea-swept colonial barracks and undulating green pastures of the Presidio. Along the way you pass through many conflicting parts of town. By the time you reach Geneva near my cross-streets, the only people boarding the bus are Asian-Americans. By the time you reach the Presidio, the bus is empty because everyone is driving, either in their BMW or their Audi.

It is amazing to me how many places I have yet to fully explore in San Francisco. Eventually it becomes easy never to leave your neighborhood, especially if you live in places like "The Mission" or "The Lower Haight", two neighborhoods I used to live in and quite rarely left. Parts of the Richmond, the Outer Sunset, for example, I have hardly touched by foot. Other pseudo-neighborhoods like Twin Peaks, Laguna Honda, Congo Elk I can never even remember where they are.

My own neighborhood, The Excelsior--a place with one of the most tarnished reputations in the City-- I'm committing to exploring and documenting more in depth here. This photo-journalistic project will be terse, topical and temporary: I don't want to live in the Excelsior forever.

Meanwhile, whether it goes back to my own adolescent fears of the YMCA public restrooms or something more diabolical like all those recurring haunted lavatory dreams I used to have that looked like a Tool video, I'm interested in bizarre, eerie or sinister bathrooms, I'm sad and embarrassed to say. Because I think visual cues can inform and deepen one's writing, I'm going to shoot bathrooms occasionally. Like this one below in Golden Gate Park.

I'm glad to start using a camera again in the service of exploration, documentation and understanding. I think the visual accompaniments will also inspire freshly-inspired writing jags too.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Adventure And Literature: John Law Reading

Last night, I saw John Law give a reading and a slide-show at City Lights Books to a capacity plus crowd of admirers, old friends, new friends and people like me who he doesn't know from Adam. The event was to celebrate the release of his first book, The Space Between which is a series of short stories about his nightmarish and hallucinatory experiences climbing bridges and exploring their intricate interiors.
Altogether it was a great presentation, highly inspirational and the slideshow was dazzling, especially the crazy photographs that nobody else had been to able to capture unless they were as brave as him and the rest of The Suicide Club. After the reading I wandered a bit around Chinatown thinking about bridges. Someone at the New York opening filmed John Law's slide show and put it on youtube in three parts. Below is the first part:

Monday, March 2, 2009

March Clarity

I hate the idea that I'm inexorably becoming stupider, more distracted, more forgetful and less able to concentrate on one thing, or see one thing through to its completion. There are facets to my mind that seem predisposed to the unruly tangled web of the Internet and all its quick data fixes and doses of condensed, on-demand information. My obsessiveness, associative brain and general connection-making manias are perfect symptoms of the ideal internet consumer who will gladly get lost for hours in the user-generated labyrinth of meaning that is the Internet.

I think the over-production of meaning--and the over-inundation of "meaning"--is a dominant characteristic of my age and generation. It is a good and bad thing, I think. But maybe the more "they" insist that what we are consuming has meaning, the less meaning there actually is.

I mean do LOL Cats actually mean anything that is culturally-ethically relevant? When does all this codified amusement become so esoteric that only people who are on the Internet 24 hours a day can begin to understand it?

When amusement replaces insight, privileged in-jokes replace communal storytelling, how can there be culture or politics?

Like most people, a curious little flame will ignite and I'll leap as if from a burning building into the endlessly clarifying creek known as wikipedia. But who writes this stuff, I wonder? Someone like me who learns things from the Internet? Regardless, I'll sit down to write a story, and the process immediately gets bogged down by some irrational need to clarify something in the story by going on the Internet. Has writing in free wireless cafes completely slowed down the output of today's writers? I know it has for me.

Generation Meme, I like to think of us, but have yet to defend or support this thesis. And maybe even taking part in such an argumentative project would incriminate me as just another meme myself.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in connection to the slew of books appearing that are bemoaning the advanced state of inattention and amateurness passing for expertise and complex argument. More about this here.

I remember as a kid of eleven or twelve maybe and my family bought our first complete Encyclopedia Britannica, auburn leather-bound editions that I would idle over for hours.

But now I wonder if anyone buys that anymore?
Was has become of the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman?

February was muddled for me; March I attain for clarity. We'll see where I am in thirty odd days. I also hope for shorter, more succinct blog entries.