Thursday, August 27, 2009

Steve Erickson, Los Angeles and Beyond

Today I finished reading Days Between Stations, Steve Erickon's first novel.

I found it devastating. Heartbreaking. Brave.

Suffused with a guttural dreaminess that anybody, anywhere might recognize from losing a loved one, or losing love, or losing one's memories, or simply being heartbroken and lost in general.

Life gets weird when those things happen. You don't just sit there, "having emotions".

The whole world changes, the weather inside and out.

This is why we need writers like Erickson. We need "romantic fabulists" and "cynical fantasists." Not just ironic realists.

In a flurry of Vietnamese coffee at a small, dark and very clean cafe well south of Mission down 24th, I wrote this long rant about it, which was more about my feelings about Los Angeles than anything else.

But it's also worth reading my link at the end: Brian Evenson's insightful appreciation of Erikson which is also an astute diagnosis of the problems behind the "postmodern" label.

More about Erickson, J.G. Ballard and sci-fi/spec. fiction soon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Notes On Beginning A Novel

I just read online today that an old friend of mine from high school just completed his first novel. I'm happy for him and feel justifiably motivated to start working on mine. I wonder how one finishes a novel, or really, for that matter, maintains the presence of mind and the necessary tunnel vision to even start one. Yet another problem arises:

I start working on the novel, but then my brain jumps back to the common assertion that actually, no I need to write and finish some short stories in order to savor the notion of finality. To be able to submit them. To, god forbid get them published.

But rarely does a short story give me the same frisson as a good novel, or even a big, baggy, sloppy novel. There are exceptions, fairly major ones: Jesus's Son, Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Amy Hempel and my now long-lost copy, which keeps getting rarer by the day of The Piano Stories by the forgotten progenitor of Latin American magical realism, Felisberto Hernandez.

I used to think that one of the stories in that collection, "No One Had Lit A Lamp" was one of the greatest things I'd ever read, as well as being a prime example of how every instance can contain unquantifiable weirdness.

I gave it to a girl a long time ago. Or lent it, I can't remember which.

And yes there is Tobias Woolf too: there are segments in the second half of the justly-famous, and perennially studied "Bullet In The Brain" that make me tremble.

So I'll work on them, knowing each one, in some way, is only a prelude or a hint of the novel I want to write, or one of the novels I want to write. And then I think that wanting to write a novel is the offspring of a febrile, stunted mind. But then again, not wanting to write the novel would leave me vastly wanting. In life you figure out how to fill wants and needs in a more less practical balance? And yes, it is a question.

This "first" novel is going to be about a LOT of things I have no personal knowledge of, like murder and crime families for one thing. And Islam too. Islam? I suspect it will have less to do with Islam per se and more to do with fanciful heresies and related sects, like the much over hyped Yezidis who live in Northern Iraq. The Yezidis?
The Peacock Angel of the Yezidis. . .

Now, I'm curious to see my own thought process splattered on the page. A novel-planning binge began in my brain today. It was this morning, a grey, quiet day at the bookstore, typical for Mondays. Not many people passed through but some real maniacs felt compelled to loiter in the doorway. I shelved, I cleaned, I researched a rare book or two. I've started buying too, that is to say: buying books for the store from people who want to sell them to us, which is always enjoyable because people bring in all sorts of unlikely things. Like a bag entirely full of gardening, civil war history and erotica, and then you speculate what the soon-to-be prior owner of the books does or used to do, either for a livelihood or a vocation or simply for pleasure.

But it's impossible, when I'm working and when I'm working alone which is most of the time, not to think about writing. Here are the artifacts of it, enclosing me. The smell of the used bookstore which I've grown to savor. I'm reminded six or seven hours of the day about what I want to do with my life, with my brain, with the images in my head. It's oddly claustrophobic, somewhat stifling but also lucky. Like being inside my brain. And then escaping back into it.

I need some other completely unrelated part-time job. Or volunteer gig that is as far away from books as possible. This is one of the challenges for myself right now.

The books exist on the shelves to remind me to start thinking like a writer. And doing that means making improbable connections across the pulsing landscapes of the brain. The Internet aids and abets this process, often hampers and exacerbates. I'm forever thinking I can never do enough research or I haven't been to enough places or read enough books. And then the Internet corroborates this. I'm sent into the wilderness of other people's exploits and failures and victories, trying to cull from that history something that is profoundly mine yet everyone else's too.

I will refrain from saying anything else right now. Mostly because I'm full of tempura eggplant and being mollified by warmth and tango.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Two Recently Discovered Writers

I went off the handle today at the Rumpus about two new writers I've discovered, Anne Carson and Thomas Ligotti.

(I also realized today that "my world" is becoming more and more absorbed in literature/writing, which is kind of panicky, because I don't want to lose the "connection" to the "real world" but I also don't want to abdicate the very absorbing prospect of calling yourself a writer. That beings said there are at least 5 people I'm supposed to call back, three things I need to edit, ten stories I need to rewrite, 14 other people I need to bestow some kind of attention upon, and a blender to procure. Oh, and running shoes.)

Tonight: cooking cod and kale.

Anyway, in both small profiles above, I maintain a very over-the-top tone, thanks to the fact that lately I've felt somewhat over-the-top.

Both writers are worth tracking down. And for very different reasons, both having to do with the unanswered question at the heart of every moment.

Plus, no need to add that the result of having just discovered these two authors will certainly lead to some expanded notes and ellipses.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

At The New Place: A Few Shots

The view from the top of a hill in Glen Canyon, a natural refuge that is in the neighborhood of Glen Park which is only a half-dozen, meandering blocks away from my neighborhood of Bernal Heights. Glen Park is sort of a mirror to Bernal, with its handsome homes, long-standing eateries, a bookstore, a market, a bank, its quiet, its families, its hints of nature.

Since we are technically all adults now, I will insist, and frankly we'll all insist that the above fireplace ledge is only a temporary tableau but for right now it provides instantaneous unease when you enter our sizable living room.

Just a random shot on Mission St. Not really near my place at all. A grated alley crammed with derelict theater seats. Or something. Part of my incentive to have my camera with me more often.

Figments of the past come back in different personae; here, your classic warehouse, with the checkerboard of windows flashing in the sun, at the end of our new street, Cortland. I can't tell who lives inside, or if it's live/work but it looks gorgeous within, lots of plants and hanging things and paintings.

But then your past comes back in the exact SAME guise. Here, across the street from the end of our street (where Cortland slams into Mission), is the warehouse offices of Golden Gate Tank Removal, my former employer who, when I worked there, used to be situated in a romantically destitute shit-shack in the South of Market. And now they are one block from bucolic Bernal Heights.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Long Part Of A Story

Here's a rough, uninhibited draft part of a story I'm working on: a false memoir story: just part of the first two are covered, and not the third one which comes later.

Three Things To Forget

I was never taught to kiss or shave or tie my shoes.

I find it funny that when I first did them it was at the same time.

Was it really? No, not quite. But almost. I knew how to tie my shoes, but it was the easy way, the way a paid nanny taught me and it was not the proper way. Kissing I thought was violence. Until I did it wrong. And it was. Shaving, I assumed, was just what the muscular Apollos in the commercials did before they are whisked away on a sexual spaceship.

Now I can say I have a fairly hefty past. Because of just three things which are the beginning of many more.

It was when kids who were almost not kids played cruel games to pass the time.
Like Truth Or Dare. Or Thirty Seconds In The Gazebo or Doing Time or Smother The Lover. Doing Time, as you might have guessed, was an incarceration game. Smother The Lover riffed on the notion of the dog-pile which was an experiment in endurance, sort of like being tickled when you’re bound to a chair with garden hose. The word "lover" was our first dirty word and it incited the players to pile upon each other like rabid dogs. Often the pea at the bottom of that writhing pod would be four breaths close to passing out. But it was exciting being that pea.

The kissing was at a party full of ten and eleven year olds. It was a pool party where some brave boys had snuck in beer but the parents were nesting within the bowels of the house, playing a card game or watching detective shows, leaving us kids to the darkly-lit residential fringes where water splashed and girls laughed and the sound was the same but different.

Cold feet on rough concrete, easily scraped. We're always running. The slimy rim of the pool that made me shiver. The taste of pie you buy from the vending machines, the stale, frosted shell and the slaughterhouse innards.

Was it a birthday party or some other festivity? Birthdays were the only reason why anyone did anything. You always wanted to get old. Made a big display of it when you did. The houses had scraping edges and basin-shaped backyards that typically had pools gouged into them. The landscape was artificial like candy and thus purely enticing. You don’t stop liking candy even so close to your teens. Candy is a prop and a delight. It is not an acquired taste.

A bamboo grove, falsified or real, whispered on the edge of the pool. Some bogus oriental gazebo where people played their cruel games in. Things like Velcro wallets and limited edition tennis balls got lost in the ornamental foliage and people used that as an excuse to hide there. The unmistakable sound of Velcro opening, even on those sneakers where you could stow secret nickels. But the Velcro sound was never naughty, for it never protected such things.

I admit, now that I remember, it wasn’t a kiss at all that first time.

It was a glorious fuck-up.

Instead of kissing, I sucked and then finally bit this poor girl’s cheek. Her skin was tasteless but flushed. I heard her take in a sharp breath. A shard of air. Every particle was distinct and important. My tongue met her skin, as light and dry as an eyelash. My lips followed, my two front teeth with their rabbit’s gap sank into the occasion.

She took in another gasp. The sound of her breathing was shocking. Maybe she had sipped a half a beer and been splashed by cold, chlorinated water in the side of the pool as of yet unwarmed by the jostling of smooth bodies. I never thought about breathing until I sucked that poor girl’s cheek in the poolside twilight.

I wonder why it wasn’t her lips I kissed. They were, after all, presented to me. But I turned her cheek. What was it about those lips? They were chapped like motel wallpaper and there was candy, perhaps meat stuck in her braces, dissolute traits which made her seem dangerous and I remember it wasn’t her but her sister Corey, who chased me and pinned me against a grounded canoe in a game the camp counselor called Predator Prey.

Corey’s braces had made her gums bleed which invested her with a menacing, predatory face. That was a game that made me nervous. I took those things seriously. It was an unspoken way to gain status: being good at unimportant games.

Cruel games and cruel experiments: later we sit in offices and crack jokes about dying young.

The night of the pool party we had been experimenting with beer foam and lollypops like kids will do, and sometimes with more outright cruelty, knowing that something will always get hurt and will forever cry out to make it stop. Make it stop something will demand. Or not.

I don’t know why it wasn’t her lips. The peeling skin and the flotsam rotting under her metal-gated teeth was less nightmare and more ambiguous invitation. But her cheek was like the skin of a fruit. I’m talking about someone else now, I think. Pale like marble on the outside, sticky, fuchsia meat within, as distant and astronomical as a neighboring galaxy.

She told me it was funny what I did.

Everything was either funny or nice. Agony we kept quiet about. Ecstasy we saved for our dreams. I played it off like a joke. This was a first survival mechanism. I learned early to play things off as jokes, until people got wise that that was what I was doing which made things worse.

You set the fire in the bathroom? Yeah, all in good fun though. You scored a point for the other team? It was a joke, man! When you read aloud your voice cracks and you sound like a girl? I’m mocking my fat friend but I love him. You throw bottles at passing traffic? That was not me, that was him, his father abused him, his sister tried to sleep with him and soon, but you don’t know this now, he’ll become a white supremacist who’s doing time. And not the game Doing Time which was always interesting when the girls got to be the guards. There was visible unease in the boy's faces, as if a lesson was not only being taught but forcibly digested.

. . .HERE AN awkward encounter with a friend in a park. . .

I wouldn’t have kissed him were it not for the cheap wine and the lovely, riparian verse and the harvest moon with the frilly edges, almost cigarette-burned. B
But the girl I kissed was at a pool party where people were shooting billiards under a plantain tree. The submerged lighting gave everything a blue Hollywood glow. The boys had hairless, bright chests like billiard balls.

I was less self-conscious about taking my shirt off but I remember that even the slightest gust from the valley below could harden my nipples. My friend’s chests felt good to my open palm, like matter at its most permeable. I was palming them because of some game, twister meets hot potato and the smiles in everyone’s eyes were as hard as candy.

We had other games too. Hide N’ Seek crossed with Doing Time (a jail game).

We were ten or eleven and not afraid of life, only each other and what we might become. The girls had fierce hips. Less jutting than stabbing, like they were sidewinders and could injure you in your blind spots if you weren’t paying attention. Walking was as risky as driving when you’re night-blind. You had to pay attention. It was all quite nerve-wracking.

I remember she had a Polish last name and hair so blond it was almost white. I don’t remember being driven home later than night or feeling the anticipation of being in my room, stranded with myself and my eager hands. I don’t know how vivid my conjuring might have been, or if my imagination has gone stale in the intervening years that have done much to sully the soft, impressionable matter I was then. Life’s work, at least in these dirty metropoli is to mangle the softness, a task both necessary and traumatic.

I don’t remember what I might have done by candlelight with my headphones on. Today I attribute minor hearing loss to having expensive headphones. I attribute my immunity to hot coffee cups to my child’s love of candles. But what I would give to remember those first raptures, like a cow remembering dry lightning

But that night I also shaved because I thought I had whiskers. It was just prickly fuzz and I bled a lot, shiny pinkish blood that I smeared in my journal like some occult oath. The oath of the abyss I called it. I would cross the abyss of my own male fears. I’m an only child. I used to love Christ. But now I mistake him for matter. I’m a junkie for matter but I don’t have a lot of things.

I just praise the stones I pull from the creek. . .


A mid month obsession update, brought to you by yard sale weather

Today has been yard-sale day in Bernal Heights!

A recipe for neighborhood mayhem. Everyone is out in their skimpiest, summer-worshipping threads, treasure-hunting their way through the highlands of Bernal, stopping to drink iced coffee, buy flowers and rifle through our books. I've been slain by honey-dripping stares, made dizzy by breaths pickled in booze, made flabbergasted by the demands of the occasional madman.

All in good fun.

I also hear it's national relaxation day. I'm doing that now, in my window nook study, sipping "sweet-spicy" tea, jumping between different pieces of writing. In a little bit I might walk up to the hill and stare at the water as cypress-tinted breezes tickle my arms. I might lay in the grass too. Today has been busy in a good way. My legs hurt contentedly. My mind hums pleasantly. My senses feel grass-fed and wild-roaming.

This morning my bookstore, which is right in the center of the yard sale circuit, was selling books by the pound. I was there, making signs and weighing books and helping people. We had an antique scale and we had boxes of books out front in the sun and the streets filled up and people dove through the boxes and filled up the store eagerly and hungrily. Some doubted the accuracy of our scale. Most were thrilled. It was controlled chaos and it was wonderful. I love the improvisational flourishes of the job and, in a larger sense, this neighborhood.

Improvising and thriving on chaos are two things I need not forget how to do. Especially as my manhood becomes a fuller and richer reality, with new challenges and new ways to resist.

The sun is still out but I'm inside for awhile, not wanting to be tempted by commerce. I like using my study too. It's odd being inside sometimes. I've gotten used to wanting to escape my house. Now it feels like a refuge from other refuges. A persevering chain of refuges.

At our book sale, I weighed an immaculate copy of Sexual Personae. It weighed one pound. I paid a dollar for it.

Here's the first paragraph:

"In the beginning was nature. The background from which and against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the supreme moral problem. We cannot hope to understand sex and gender until we clarify our attitude toward nature. Sex is a subset to nature. Sex is the natural in man. . .Society is an artificial construction, a defense against nature's power. Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature."

I have never read her, I only know she is considered provocative and controversial. If her thesis is that art arises from pagan chaos, then I can whole-heartily agree.

I've decided that Camille is a good name for a female character too. I also like names like Octavia, Esther, Rose and Lynne. Right now, I'm trying to visualize a novel protagonist who looks like and has the same nervous energy as a certain Crispin Glover.

I'm working on too much: short stories, the beginning of a novel and several long-winded episodes from an "apocryphal memoir". Maybe that's the most fun project of the moment, fun in that it reeks of pure self-indulgence and spins on a typical obsession: reading. Oh, reading and "desiring". Moreover, learning how to desire. What to desire. Who to desire.

I mean, who teaches us what we want? I think books have taught me a lot worth sharing.

My idea for this "memoir" which I call apocryphal just to be a pain in the ass, has coincidental resonance with a recent memoir by Nathan Rabin, a writer for the Onion. His book, The Big Rewind focuses on particularly formative and traumatic parts of his life through the lens of certain cultural works that he enjoyed at the time, like Dr. Dre's The Chronic or the film Grey Gardens. It is, he claims, a "memoir brought to you by pop culture."

Now what I have in mind is slightly different: more about books, for better or worse, and certainly far less traumatic, at least based on what I've read about Rabin's life and the disease, madness, homelessness and incarceration that has colored it. I just want to talk about times in my life through the filter of books I've loved and learned from.

This seed might have been planted when I read Henry Miller's essential The Books In My Life.

I hope to limit this to several long essay-stories, including one about queer culture in San Francisco, the long, weird summer and fall of 2001, learning about Death in college, figuring out what Sleaze means in high school, and getting my haircut and talking to my hairdresser about failed affairs, lurid liaisons and ridiculous misunderstandings.

All with books throughout. Ok, then. . .onward!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

John Berger And An Excerpt

"In the center of a square in Lisboa there is a tree called a Lusitanian (which is to say, Portugese) cypress. Its branches, instead of pointing up to the sky, have been trained to grow outwards, horizontally, so that they form a gigantic, impenetrable, very low umbrella with a diameter of twenty metres. One hundred people could easily shelter under it. The branches are supported by metal props, arranged in circles around the twisted massive trunk; the tree is at least two hundred years old. Beside it stands a formal notice-board with a poem to passers-by written on it. I paused to decipher a few lines: . . .I am the handle of your hoe, the gate of your house, the wood of your cradle and the wood of your coffin. . ."

This is the opening paragraph to John Berger's utterly beautiful and ambitiously non-classifiable "fiction" called Here Is Where We Meet.

It was probably the last book I read and the last book I really, really loved. Because it is ostensibly about a man named John Berger walking through the cities and villages he's loved (Lisboa, Krakow, Geneva, Madrid, and rural Poland) and meeting people he once loved who are now dead, interspersed with the most vivid, painterly details about plazas, food, light, water, architecture, love-making, war, weddings, and death, it would be easy to ask the question: what genre is this? It's easier and far more relevant to ask: who cares? It's absolutely brave and brilliant and heart-rending. And it was probably the twentieth book he wrote too.

John Berger is someone I'll talk more about. I reported on him once before at the Rumpus. There are entire paragraphs from this book that are worthy of being quoted in full.

To understand him as well, it is necessary to appreciate what he looks like now. His author photo is one of a kind.

I think Susan Sontag's description of Berger is one of the most complimentary things I've ever heard one writer say about another:

"I admire and love John Berger's books. He writes about what is important, not just interesting. In contemporary English letters, he seems to me peerless; not since Lawrence has there been a writer who offers such attentiveness to the sensual worlds with responsiveness to the imperatives of conscience. . ."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Personal History As Cosmic Mess Or Vice Versa: A Photo Essay Of Houses

In the interest of exploiting personal myth towards historical ends (after all, what is the point of art but self-exploitation?), and inspired by the fact I just moved again, I'd like to dabble in a photo-essay chronicling the houses I've lived in while living in the Bay Area, those post-collegiate years where, for better or for worse much of my manhood played out, ridiculously at certain times, heroically at others, most often with staid, quotidian grace, the perfect trait of the pedestrian.

And walking is my forte.

I like taking pictures and matching them with words. It's a very simple yet effective way to create a story with multiple insinuations.

So A Brief History Of Homes. . .beginning with

The Lower Haight, a cat on my gut, when I was reading Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, also featuring a cat.

Onward to the infamous Capp St., with the writing room where very little writing was done.

And the tea party where very little tea was drunk.

and there was the kitchen with the shit-clogged windows next to the Gothic Buddhist temple.

And the bicycle in harsh contrast with the checkered floors.

And then the exodus to Oakland, a dream of lake-mist and scaffolding.

Where a "house" was secured in the Far West of the City, a house with dirty windows and a red door and faded yellow bricks.

With a room that was a "fixer-upper" to put it mildly.

And the foyer was a veritable junkyard fit for a king of sorts.

And our hallway, like the loading dock behind an Edwardian dance hall, was always decked out with the most fascinating props.

Which opened up onto your standard, suburban living room.

And from the interior ship's balcony, our kitchen proved not too shabby either.

But then I moved East in Oakland to the place called San Antonio where the skyline was like this:

The water trickled ashore into fake ruins, gnarled trees, odd little copses of greenery where people rolled around and mock marriages were held.

I moved into a house that was about 140 years old, according to the commemorative plaque next to the door, a house that included weird medical-style drawers in the kitchen as well as an attic that was as big as a small church and full of tiny crawlspaces and alcoves. (Unfortunately I neglected to photograph it.)

Nearby was this weird turf that looked like a maze at night. . .

Although East of the Lake was often warm, sunny and humid, there were days when the whole lake was obliterated by fog. . .

Sometimes I dreamt of living in other houses that were nearby. . .
It was the first time I ever lived with strangers, so I spent lots of time decorating my study
walls to indicate what type of human they were dealing with. . .

I also took moody, self-portraits before I hit the town. . .

I refer to it as a"tough" time in my life, but really how tough was it?

Anyway things happened and I moved again, this time back across the pond into a house with friends, a place that was well-wooded and mariner-themed and generally felt to be a cozy container ship full of the coolest people ever, all of us set sail for a life of red wine, boisterous laughter and baroque schemes that went well past midnight, much to the bemusement of the landlord below.

Among the first ship's mates were these wonderful ladies:

Some of the rooms in the house were truly astonishing examples in mood music.

My own room let in the most oceanic light of any place I've ever lived in.

The Inner Sunset was a neighborhood with interesting twilights and good strong sea smells.

There were evenings there where things got out of hand and people walked the ceilings.

With good tidings, I went abroad and stayed in 25 hostels and came back without a house. But then I found a place and a new neighborhood which has been well documented here.

That proved to be a weird year, and so I moved again. And that's where I am now, 152 Park St., Bernal Heights. No photographs yet.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

But What About The Soul That Grows In Darkness?

I just retired my photoblog of the Excelsior now that I know longer live there and can no longer focus on it as terrain, wonderland, maze, weirdoland, frustration, rapture and hangover.

It is day two of having to walk just two blocks to my job and coming home to a clean, wide, bright house full of Good Folks with Good Vibes (and a walk-in pantry, among other amenities.)

A park, a fire station, a coffeehouse. A window, a stoop, a school. I want to sit on the stoop and watch the fire trucks go by. It's like out of a set piece.

Simple spatial indexes that are grounding and consoling. Plus the fact that my dear friends already lived here and I spent ample days and nights at this house.

Houses and jobs: the most interesting things we can talk about sometimes.

Yesterday, I unloaded my boxes of books, found a window-facing nook that my desk fit perfectly, helped arrange shelves and sofas to facilitate both personal creative space as well as communal dancing space and decided that I had much in the way of paper to shred, burn and recycle.

Now time for reading, writing, biking, cooking and sharing.