Wednesday, October 21, 2009

John Berger, Tears and Dead Moon

The day I turned 30, I was in Santa Cruz with Katy, already a well-documented trip, and went to my old place of employment, Logos Books and said what the hell, maybe they'll have something I've been looking for, something my own store doesn't have or that I haven't seen yet.

Amazingly, I found this first edition of To The Wedding by John Berger for a very good price. Inside was a postcard of the cover of the last book I had read: Jean Rhys, The Complete Novels. A simple, if somewhat strange coincidence. Later we went to a spa with our books and didn't get them wet and when I got home, I inscribed my name in the book, with Logos and 30 underneath it.

Of course, it hadn't taken me long to become enraptured with Berger's works.

All I had to do was become reappraised of him and to judge among his large, and bewilderingly varied output and to read one of his latest works a few months back, Here Is Where We Meet, a poetic, fictionalized autobiography of landscape and loss that still dazzles my memory and haunts my own writing.

Today, in an infrequently patronized cafe, I finished To The Wedding and found myself dabbing away hot late morning tears over my large cup of weak coffee. Crying doesn't usually happen when I read but Berger, at least based on these two novels I've read, deals in a sort of transformative poignance that is unlike anything I've encountered before in fiction, except maybe for Coetzee in Waiting For The Barbarians and Life And Times Of Michael K.

But Berger's vision is even larger, large enough to contain historical episodes, artistic interludes, geographical quirks, odd species and local customs, among the whole range of variation and fable that are his palette.

Speaking of found objects, because so much of Berger's work feels like a chain of found objects possessing its own logic:

I had forgotten until the other day that I had since replaced the postcard of the young lovers in Brassai's French bistro with another, older postcard that Katy found in one of the books in the sale cart in front of my store.

By all accounts, Eastern European peasants or Roma of some sort, and a mysterious piece of writing on the back.

I hadn't started the book after my birthday trip but instead had laid it aside while I finished another birthday present, The Secret History, a wonderful novel in its own right.

But with To The Wedding, I took my time, I savored the gem-like sentences, the undulating episodes that often, in their telling, take on the form of the wondrous landscapes that Berger, with his painter's eye, renders palpable on the page, mostly black, night-darkened mountains that are being pierced by a sagely motorcyclist and long rivers with many fingers and conduits upon which a melancholy, Czech woman with an aching finger is idly floating down en route to a rendezvous.

The wedding in question is truly, purely bittersweet; and the love story that initiates it feels like one of the most honest, uplifting ones that can exist, mainly because corrosion and mortality and disease are such a defining feature of it.

To love someone unconditionally who is doomed to a wildly premature death, who is tainted with a terminal, ravaging virus, to know that she has 2, maybe 3 years without a blemish before the disease starts to do its rapid destructive work. Berger poses this quandary amidst the plane trees and fields and rice paddies of rural Europe, in the shadow of Communism's failure, in the general soul failure of middle class existence and in all the little things, the trinkets, the food, the palaver of life that constantly bubble to the surface of his prose.

Berger, while remaining staunchly a Communist, a farmer, a man clearly on the side of the earthy and the earthly, turns books into prayers almost, but prayers to the earth, to mortality itself, not to get even with death but to sing of the paradoxes that beset us, as if acknowledging them in the most beautiful, haunting way possible will make them more understandable.

It's a beautiful book, quite possibly as beautiful as everyone has claimed. I would be hard-pressed to distill from all the complex tragedies and joys of life a book that seemed so much like an invocation, a promise to the dead, some ancient Greek form of homage that has long been forgotten.

As Michael Ondaatje says, "In some countries it must still be the writer's role to gather and comfort. . .to hold and celebrate a moment before darkness. With To The Wedding, John Berger has written a great, sad and tender lyric, a novel that is a vortex of community and compassion that somehow overcomes fate and death. Wherever I live in the world I know I will have this book with me."

It left me kind of shattered today after I read it, and then I had a strange day at work, with many awkward, misunderstood and tantalizing encounters. For some reason now I feel sore and beaten, but for no good reason and I better pluck up because I got to go to Chicago in a day from now for a wedding as well! A very happy wedding I'm excited to be attending.

Oh -- and because brute passion really is the stuff of good art, I'll leave you with a band I listened to at work that reminds me of the passion of John Berger: a three piece band from Portland called Dead Moon who played for nearly 20 years, husband on guitar and vocals and his wife on bass and vocals.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Ides Of October

Recently, besides listening compulsively to The Cramps, Siouxsie, and the Gun Club, I have seen two memorable movies, Carnival Of Souls and Jean Cocteau's Beauty And The Beast.

Both of which are perfect for Halloween viewing.

Both of which excel in sense of place, place as persona, as spirit, as monster, as beloved. Both feature lovely leading ladies who are tormented by yet strangely attracted to ghastly male callers, one in the form of a midway ghoul in a train conductor suit, the other as the aristocratic Beast with his star-flecked wizard cape jacket. Both feature enchanting, spirit-imbued locations that are as weirdly seductive as the two men who live within them.

Maybe I can write some creative essay about both of them?

In the meantime, thanks to a surreptitious encounter with legendary zine-writer Aaron Cometbus (he came into my bookstore wondering if we would sell his zine, Cometbus; of course we would!), I have delved back into my large copy of Despite Everything, A Cometbus Omnibus, a book I procured several Octobers ago, having wandered the city with a huge Cometbus fan who was as bundled in black as I was, and having autumnal thoughts for things like leaflets, trinkets, mementos, perhaps the afterthought of a cheap hotel hangover, we ducked into Needles And Pens and she convinced me to buy it, saying I would like it, that it was "large-hearted, enthusiastic writing, open to everything, in love with life", words to that effect. . .and I bought it along with some map pins which I've since lost.

Many Octobers ago when I discovered bands like The Fall and Television and The Gun Club.

Reading Cometbus is such a blissed-out vacation from the formulaic parade of cleanly-edited, neatly-arced stories about someone having a crisis, and then a revelation and then sustaining in his or her mind's eye a lingering image from his past that the reader is asked to appreciate as a sly summation of all the character's deepest desires. Of course those stories have their moments too, but sometimes you want the sloppy, honest, self-published, handwritten tangents.

Zine-writing is more like life-writing and I had forgotten that.

There is an elegant, slangy, generous spirit alive in Cometbus and I had neglected that and I had forgotten as well the larger zine-spirit and have wondered lately whether the spontaneity, spunk, and fury of zines can translate into blogs.

Hmmm, I suppose it depends on a lot of things.

Finally today I got a chance to visit Katy's grandparents' fruit orchard up in Martinez, CA where apparently John Muir spent lots of time. It was a beautiful place and I was reminded of Steinbeck's description of those rolling golden hills: pastures of heaven. Both of us have realizable fantasies of having an acre or two out there in some lovely rural place like Martinez.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A weird photo I found of myself

I have lots lots lots to write about, but it's late, I can't think and I dealt with idiots for most of the day. The evening is a steambath, a tropical malaise, all the young yuppies eating fancy pizza outside in designer tanktops. The sound of chainsaws from this morning. Flies over shrinkwrapped meat. "Emotional athleticism": the word tossed around last night at The Phone Booth, a place you should only go when you want to force the hand of fate, or nonchalantly make momentous decisions.

I found a photo that made me happy and was from a party that was, by and large, "fun". A lot can be told from a photo. I think this captures the narrative of a high point in the evening.

I like the placement of the hands in this photo: and the look on my face that says, "I am resigned to a curious fate."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Decidedly Autumn

Autumn always begins too soon. A brown leaf blew into the restaurant. The waiter served us too much water. It was a windy walk home. Weird head colds swapped. Too many cookies. Too many blankets. Watching Dexter of all things, the first TV show in years I've followed. Not since syndicated Twin Peaks. Finished reading The Secret History: a superb performance, reminiscent of The Magus as a friend pointed out. I'm always a little giddy when a friend reads a book I've just recommended: in this case, it was Ben Caplan.

And I started reading To The Wedding by John Berger -- in which, as usual every sentence is a jewel, every word significant -- and am holding off for the time being the intimidating idea of starting McEllroy's sweeping and sprawling Women And Men.

Meanwhile, I have this history of Islam by Tamim Ansary I need to start: Destiny Disrupted.

I'm thinking about secrets and rumors constantly. They are featured in this novel-in-progress I worked on today for several hours. The hero is an instinctive, compulsive archivist, a folklorist, a gatherer of hearsay and secrets because, coming from a librarian mother and a seminarian father he has conflated the words Holy and Important, and since all is Holy, all is equally important and such is the benign curse he must live down. What enables him to be so good at gathering information is a forced hollowness of his character, a willful surrender to the people's dispositions around him.

Meanwhile, some Autumn shots of nearby and around, in big resolution as always.

Fire escape fascination never ends (hearkens back to that song by "Belly": "made a mistake on a fire escape in San Francisco. . .)

The following three shots are my attempt at capturing in the early afternoon what I think is a very creepy looking house in my neighborhood. . .

And below a lovingly spread red tie in the grass of the park, suspiciously snake-like.

And if you're bored, I recommended some twisted love films at The Rumpus.

And I talked about how my store's wonderful customers tell me what to read next.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Few Snaps From The Other Day

The other day I got the hell out of my neighborhood.

It was terrific, a bright, hot, gassy October day and I biked over the hills of the rich, down into the tree-shaded house grottoes of the rich called St. Francis Wood, down into a strange enclave of Asian diners and bagel shops and other non-descript boutiques, all the way to the glittering ocean and back through the park that was mobbed with cars for the bluegrass festival.

I went to my favorite "Secret" cafe -- discovery thanks to Seth -- and wrote like an over-caffeinated graphomaniac for several hours. It's important to find remote places in this town, or else you'll implode.

Also: went to my favorite ridiculously long, austere and dreamy Masonic-style temple -- also thanks to Seth's discovery.

Capped it off with Happy Hour at a new, wonderfully neon-sign-wearing bar, Ritespot. Which has an excellent Happy Hour.

Neon signs are always suitable for on the fly photographs.

That night told very sad stories about death in college and blamed it on the harvest moon.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Excerpts From "Fake Memoir", With Pictures

My new long project, which I'm surprisingly making some headway on will be a "fake memoir" about myself, but cast in the role of a wily folklorist who finds himself single in the big city and in need of a haircut and on the trail of a very secretive group of people who coordinate the Affairs of The Dueling Cities (Oakland and San Francisco) and who have access to the mysterious place called The Vague Room.

I'm looking for a seamless melding of noir, surreal, magical realism, erotic, comic, and satiric. Yeah, that's my plan at least.

I hope to exploit my meager amount of photographs (more to come) for illustrative/suggestive purposes. Here are some excerpts from a rough draft in progress with some rough photos (some maybe already seen).


The moonlight was all washed out with smoke as we stood in the center of the street, playing with each other’s fingers, bending them back until one of us shrieked or sucking on them until one of us got tired. People watched us with befuddled grins. It was at least four in the morning. When summoned at ridiculous hours to wait indefinitely, this is all we knew how to do, lament the fact we weren’t detained in a larval state. Lately, life had required lots of waiting, moments of detention when fear, instead of glee should have been the reigning sensation. We waited for the bathroom. For the kitchen. For the accident to be cleared from the sidewalk. For the cats to be rescued from the trees. But everyone was always smiling, as if people had finally gone mad all together. The night of the fire was no exception.

A child had pushed us awake. One of my housemate Zen’s cousins. Knuckles to my eye; hot, sweet breath. I rose and wrestled with the air, still in dream mode. He patted me gently, looking angelic in the dark. The kind of child that will be innocent far longer than he should.

“Fire, in he house,” he said. Monica and I had both fallen asleep in our clothes again. The child’s hand was cold and runny with some kind of sauce. I thought it was the beginning of another nightmare, the kind I had been having lately full of diseased transients and medical mishaps. Every time you see a transient, a teacher once told me, you see a symbol. I always remembered that dictum every time I dreamt about a homeless person or gave a legless man my three dollars in change. But I never cared for that dictum either.

Outside, in the crowded, noisy cul-de-sac, the night smelled of burnt bread. And mesquite. And revving engines. And below that, but swiftly taking the upper hand, a noxious odor that her and I knew only too well. Rotting meat. The ROTC guys in the unit below ours had some kind of black market butchering thing going. A good way to pay for school, one of them said. Whatever it was, I couldn’t imagine anything more invasive than that smell that had somehow found a way to permeate our bedroom every other night. We timed our love life accordingly. Sometimes we gave up though and just embraced it, as we did lots of things those days.

I had three of her fingers in my mouth, but I knew she would rather be talking than playing. Our life was growing unbearable. The same for many, we supposed, but it was up to us to find a way out. Why was it up to us? Because we had decided it was. All the people around us looked at us suspiciously. What were we doing in this part of the city? We didn’t have an excuse.

Surrounding us was everyone from our cul-de-sac, an impressive cross-section of the poorer, immigrant population. And the people not even from our cul-de-sac were there too, wrinkling their noses, laughing loudly and talking on walkie-talkie phones. They had swept in on motorbikes, almost out of some gangland musical.

Another three a.m. fire had broken out so it was cause for a gathering. I hadn’t been scared of such things for a long time and neither had Monica.

Since the fires had begun over a month ago, everyone in the city was better connected. It was part of the general program of over-crowding. There were probably at least a dozen other fires raging on other nearby blocks. Most of them were car arson. But some was caused by structural damage and electrical malfunction. Others just wild hearsay. No fires at all, just constant reports of fires. These false reports, in turn, seemed to spur on actual blazes. The buildings on our street were made entirely of kindling wood. The fires out there in the Excelsior were realer than most.

Time For A Haircut

“When was the last time you got your haircut?” she asked me, pitching her hoarse voice against a siren scream. By then we were sitting down and wondering what to do with ourselves. She had rolled a splif and was licking her lips hungrily. What really to do with ourselves, on a larger canvas that involved not only this night but hundreds of nights to come. Our house was overrun, doors slamming, windows open, salutations and commands richocheting everywhere amidst a confusion of fog and smoke. Our own friends were no longer around –they had long quit the city for smaller towns along the coast, or else had simply vanished like so many people had– and wouldn’t have ventured so far out to see us anyway.

The fire had been faked, but nobody was going back inside. Nobody was sleeping. Dawn wasn’t far off, another grizzly-grey dawn, a hollow light seen burning through a curtain of fog.

I was taken aback by her question and instinctively ran my hand through my bushy hair as I’ve done since I was two. It’s my way of combing not my hair but my thoughts, which are forever tangled, in need of ordering. I don’t think it has ever worked and if it did work I wouldn’t be the same person. I might be a happier person but not the person I want to be.

Her implication was true though, I hadn’t got my hair snipped in a while, mostly because Hank’s whereabouts were still unknown even by his fellow hairstylists. And the police were as taxed in the vanishing department as the firefighters were in arson. Monica didn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation but this had more to do with the fact I hadn’t talked that much about myself yet. I never understood, either, the full extent of her photography assignments, her modeling stints, or her films. What I knew about her was that she was brutally honest but that, like me, we both savored a necessary modicum of mystery, or else life would go static and flat. And love would too.

I hadn’t really explained Hank’s significance to her. So much of my past I was waiting for the appropriate circumstances to unleash upon her. And she was enough of a marvel for me to forget about myself altogether. Her past looked, on paper at least, more like history than mine; there were more tangibly formative events and calamities and of course, a significant origin myth at the heart of it that bound us eternally like sinful siblings.

My own life has revolved around minor events and major obsessions. For me, I tried to explain to her, I couldn’t fathom not going to Hank, not dishing out the forty bucks for a perfect haircut and even more perfect conversation. Bottomless conversation which managed to drudge up all the tiny miracles and hysterical mishaps of my life. Words shared with a man that gave flesh to my own life, gave it a narrative that would sustain me. And when I left him after each session I looked more like the story I wanted to tell about myself. People noticed too.

The thought of him, like most everyone else I loved, having vanished was only further proof that my world was disintegrating, along with my mind, my organs and all my pleasures. There was always the question that sometimes she insinuated: were they really vanishing or was it mostly my imagination? Were they instead, moving on to bigger and better things, as they say? Abandoning a city that was on the verge of collapse? It didn’t matter. What mattered was an unlikely amount of absences. In the absence of loved ones and easy comforts, life would take on an unbearably sharp resolution. It would be a field of rocks without anything soft to sit on.

I still had her though.

I had Monica and she had me. Which is really all I ever wanted. She, the first person I remember fixating on in the crowd and wondering about in my beloved city. And loving her more than made up for the vanishing of the others. Except maybe for Hank. Except maybe not at all.

It wasn’t the first question I figured she would ask. I thought, instead, she would ask, “Where to now? Where can we go now?”

In the muddled light, she looked nude and chiseled, like a tree made of ice. But she wasn’t completely naked. There were stripes to her. She had on her token torn fishnets, damp with mist. She was wearing a black felt hat that she picked off the head of a biker the summer before. A shirt that doubled as a scarf. A pair of old black leather boots she had found in the free bin outside the Church. She had stopped wearing her veil, but sometimes broke it out for nostalgia’s sake. That shade of cobalt blue had been mined from peacock feathers it was so gorgeous.

In the mist, she stood and strutted like a sailor boy working the docks. Her face, caught in the crosshairs of moon and emergency lights, was serious as death. A tension had set her jaw, the same fixity when she developed photos or made stuffed mushrooms or fucked me. Her seriousness was something I hadn’t ever encountered before. It drew her body into a weapon-like posture. Her flesh drawn taut, locked and loaded. I was afraid to say anything. I would sound stupid and weak no matter what.

We knew so little about each other. And it was nearing a year of being together. Or at least I had told her so little.

I wanted to lay her on the warm asphalt with the blurry night fuming around us. I would have condensed into aphorisms my own history and leaked them into her ears. I knew if I had brought that up, she might have agreed but by then we were surrounded by old people in robes and young people on motorcycles. The old people smoked while the young mostly sucked on fruit ices.

Where they got them from at that emergency-fraught hour I’ll never know