Friday, November 25, 2011

The Fool On the Hill

“You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.”

--Jodorowsky’s Alchemist

Cinema was developed more than a hundred years ago with purely entertainment purposes in mind: it was a way for an entrepreneur to make a buck. However, it didn’t take the State too long to discover its manifest possibilities as a tool of propaganda, which, more or less, bears little difference to having a warty man with bad breath shouting slogans in your face—disagreeable no matter your politics. Later Hollywood developed guidebooks for living that have evolved with various zeitgeist movements, whether it’s embracing consumerism or choosing to follow one’s dream. “Your life is yours to live!” is a popular New Age bromide for those who need the reminder. To misquote for my own purposes of making a point, “The message is the medium.”

It’s inevitable that many filmmakers will to articulate his politics or belief system in a narrative format. The bravest ones will even try to capture that elusive ghost better known as the meaning of life. Whether or not I agree with the message does not seem the point—most messages are just idealistic clichés anyways, whether good-hearted or not, the candy-coated maxim often interchangeable among very different films. I’m more concerned with the messenger and how he utilizes his imagination to make such points without resorting to saccharine behests or melodramatic drivel. That he succeeds is the difference between good storytelling and bad.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a self-described magical shaman, is generally not a great storyteller and his masterpiece, The Holy Mountain, is not a great story if one defines storytelling by taut structure and a sense of urgency. Now that that beef’s out of the way I can and will say that Jodorowsky is an undeniable genius of the mise-en-scene. Within The Holy Mountain, a brave attempt to dramatize the spiritual quest for immortality, is a world hitherto unseen anywhere in literature or film. One doesn’t just watch The Holy Mountain. One experiences its caterwauling, rank odors, and tactile projections on a very visceral level. A fat woman urinates in a tall toilet, an art magnate pokes the ass of a live human exhibit, the Chief of Police castrates a teenage boy, a crusty, old man removes his glass eye from its socket and hands it to a child prostitute. For those partial to the gross-out, he’s an inspiration unlike any other.

But what is it all supposed to mean? The answer evolves slowly in episodic quantities. The Holy Mountain is set in a disturbing, dystopian future run by perverse industrialists and a corrupted government. Undesirables are publicly executed by firing squads, their bodies mutilated, eviscerated, and pillaged to the delight of camera-toting First World (American) tourists, one of whom is raped by a soldier, the physical violence of which is filmed joyously by her husband on his camcorder. Streetwalkers worship a very bloody crucifix and ply their trade in front of the cathedral. Poverty is endemic, madness ubiquitous.

Witness to all this is a human savage, revived and cared for by a multiple-amputee gimp. The savage has an unmistakable Christ-like visage in his ratty hair and beard, naked but for a g-string loincloth. If that weren’t enough likeness, he carries an oversized cross, is drugged by obese Roman legionnaire actors, and while passed out his likeness to Jesus is molded and reproduced into a thousand Christs. Through it all, he is more thief than martyr, reacting rather than willing: equally victim and wastrel.

Within this savage society, he discovers a windowless tower rising high out of the human stink. (One is reminded of Kubrick’s black monolith and its mysterious projection of order within chaos.) Into this tower our savage enters a marvelous room painted in bright rainbow colors. Ravi Shankar-style fusion-rock sets the mood. A Bactrian camel looks uselessly on and a statuesque black woman tattooed with enigmatic runes stands guard by a man in white priestly tunic and a conical hat, apparently awaiting the visitor on a throne partly composed of bipedally arranged goats. This man in white is the alchemist. He quickly subdues the savage via some gentle martial arts moves.

The alchemist is our guru for the film, played by Jodorowsky himself. He sees potential in the savage as an apprentice (“It is the master who seeks the disciple”) and following a scrub-down baptism in a bathtub with a baby hippo, he educates his inductee in a tarot-themed room on the perversions of politicians and industrialists— “thieves like you”—their wax effigies spaced in niches throughout the round room. The fat middle of the film digresses into their individual biographies, e.g. gluttonous habits and exploitative fortunes, et. al. It is worth going into some detail about these tycoons, as the flesh of power structure is thoroughly skewered in the bizarre presentation of a decadent plutocracy.

There is Fon, of the planet, Venus, heir to a cosmetic empire, prospering because “people want to be loved-- not for what they are but what they appear to be.” Isla, of Mars, runs a chamber of horrors, manufacturing ray guns, hydrogen bombs, bacterial diseases, anti-matter waves, carcinogenic gases as well as novelty arms like “psychedelic shotguns, grenade necklaces, rock and roll weapons... mystical weapons for buddhists, jews, and christians.” Berg, of Uranus, a weirdo with a fat-woman fetish and financial adviser to the President, reports “to save the nation's economy we must eliminate 4 million citizens in the next five years,” to which his superior responds by picking up the phone and casually ordering to “begin operation of gas museums, gas movies, gas whorehouses, etcetera.”

Beyond profiting off the superficial traits and weak character of a society losing its moral prerogative are those who seek to profit by brainwashing it. Sel, of Saturn, is a beautiful redhead who dances in a mime troupe in her off hours when she isn't running a toy factory operating in conjunction with the war department. In her words, “We feed the computer data on coming wars and revolutions. It tells us what kinds of toys to produce to condition children from birth... For example if the government decides to wage war on Peru, we manufacture hyper-sexed, brown, native vampires who can only be destroyed by crossing white skin.” They produce a comic book called The Peruvian Monster, another calculated move to indoctrinate children to “hate the future enemy... in order to kill Peruvians with pleasure.”

There is also Lut, of Pluto, who claims to work in architecture, but whose prowess is in urban realignment. Having lost money building “homes” with central heating, plumbing, electricity, he and his architectural firm want to convince workers that they don't need creature comforts and only require shelter. In a presentation to fellow champagne-imbibing, drumstick-gnawing magnates, he unveils his model of residential planning-- dozens of tall, coffin-like rooms bunched together in faceless buildings, an anonymous, meaningless existence in a ghetto designed to maximize profit at the expense of the human spirit but advertising minimalist merits on a colorful poster, behooving us to, “Be a free man. Without a family. Without a house.”

Flying by helicopter to join the alchemist and his small entourage, the millionaires embark on a quest for immortality that will take them to a holy mountain at Lotus Island. Before this is possible, they must renounce their fortunes as well as their individuality, becoming part of a collective being. In addition to money, wax effigies are ceremonially burned. Heads are shaved, identical cloaks donned, chlorophyll concoctions drunk, the journey undertaken. There are distractions on the way, notably the last stop for sinning on Lotus Island called The Pantheon Bar where debauched parties are thrown in French-style cemeteries. It has the atmosphere of a Renaissance fair or a lysergic carnival. A drug dealer points out, “The holy mountain is in this vial,” selling a shortcut to enlightenment. But this coterie, as grossly self-serving they may be, are wise enough to trust that so far as immortality is concerned, it's not to be found on the cheap.

I won't tell you whether or not they acquire the immortality they so desperately covet-- by now it should be obvious that this film is crawling in messages, though one supersedes all others and after all the guru-speak, its thematic declaration comes as a bit of a surprise, in effect turning the film's aesthetic on its head. That the message is commonplace and sensible makes it all the more beautifully resonant after such a ride. Jodorowsky then proves himself a wonderful messenger, although that’s an underwhelming way of putting it. There is no other film like it—The Holy Mountain is weirder than anything Bunuel or Fellini or anyone else has ever dreamed.

Well, what happened? John Lennon and Yoko Ono, fans of Jodorowsky’s acid-Western, El Topo, provided the bulk of financing. The film’s distributor, Allen Klein, who built his hipster CV managing the Beatles and Stones, had a very public falling out with Jodorowsky, burying the film for more than thirty years. Already finding it difficult to secure funding for his outrageously subversive material, this petulance on Klein’s part effectively denied Jodorowsky an audience for his very best work. All filmmakers have personal ‘What if…’ scenarios but few are as likely disappointing as Jodorowsky’s, who has only made three films in the near four decades since.

Though of course, even had he found the audience that might have loved him in 1973, it’s not inevitable they would have followed him into the 1980s and beyond. The Holy Mountain has been described as a movie very much of its time. But really it is a sixties artifact in politics and content—by the time it came and went in the few theaters it was shown, most spiritual questers had abandoned the communes for jobs in the city. The “Me Generation” was developing a belief system in which wealth and enlightenment were not irreconcilable. Immortality could be rendered in lifestyle through Beverly Hills cosmetic surgery and haute-couture fashion.

The Holy Mountain is a cauldron of ideas, many of them dangerous, and for every enthusiast then there is the proportionate number of haters. The comments section in youtube videos is as a good place as any to extract testimony from the court of public opinion. Beyond the majority of “Trippy, Dude!” comments we discover some surprisingly visceral language. One person writes, “It was a complete and total piece of shit that attempted to portray disgusting and distasteful shit as something meaningful.” Okay, then, but another poster, named ‘Oblivious Wolf’ writes, “This movie made me hate the human body and seeded a rage inside of me that gave me an urge to punch things till my fists were just bloody stumps.”

Perhaps ‘Oblivious Wolf’ harbors strict rules regarding filmmaking conventions. Or he/she did not like a Christ-like figure portrayed as an ignorant, avaricious, primal screaming fool. Or he/she watched it late at night dosed on controlled substances, as it seems many are wont. (The Holy Mountain does not need a psychedelic coating— it is fully formed weirdness, just the right amount, no need to up the dose. A cup of coffee and a sense of humor will suffice.) That it can be so polarizing makes it all the more important as a work of art. You love it or hate it but you never shrug, “Meh…”

Not a lot of people saw The Holy Mountain when it came out, though not a lot of people saw The Velvet Underground live in the 1960s either. They say that anyone who did see the V.U. play went off to start their own bands. And maybe that’s true here too, as there are elements of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, George Miller, and Marilyn Manson, among others who likely saw the film and said they want to do that too.

It might seem to today’s wired-up, post-modern kids that all the sacred cows have been butchered, packaged, digested, shat, flushed. But judging by the vitriolic on youtube there are yet plenty of prudes left to provoke. All we need are wealthy eccentric financial benefactors who understand that immortality is not just a spiritual quest but attaching your name to piece of art that survives to piss off future assholes and inspire artists who say, “Yeah, that’s right. Now let’s see what I can do.” Ad nauseum. To the infinite.

* This was originally published in Heso Magazine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

"Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world." –Patti Smith

In one of my favorite scenes in Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes," two disheveled old men raise their glasses for a toast. One says, 'To Paris in the 20s;' the other pauses for a moment, considering his own heroes: 'To New York in the 70s.' Both are wistful of generations mythologized and eulogized, beloved and altogether gone. They were societies where artistic impulses thrived over commercial ones and yet, ironically, because of their brilliance and decadent grandeur, these urban neighborhoods have become prohibitively expensive and are thus unlikely to spawn the kind of anarchic creativity that marked those cities in more carefree, dangerous days. For those of us who were never there, the closest we may come are paeans from persons who knew it best.

It's no surprise therefore that Patti Smith's "Just kids," a memoir of that heyday era should be a bestseller. New York in the 1970s: a crossroads of Avant-garde and street movements, hippies putting away tablas and sitars, giving way to a younger generation of punk kids turning on electric guitars and rage. Smith's rise from a starving artist to household name straddles this evolution in taste and form, the arc from flower power giving way to the aesthetic 'fuck off.' Those of us born in its aftermath can only YouTube those times with great envy, navigating our own generational malaise with characteristic longing. If that weren’t envy enough, ‘Just Kids’ is a record of Smith’s “making it,” appreciated for her own peculiar hybrid of poetry, rock and roll, and shouting. Even if like me, you’re not a fan of her music, credit is due: rock stars aren't born, they're made and it takes time, luck, talent, and of course, the thing that counts most of all in the end, persistence.

Through it all, Smith had a friend in the battle, the late photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, who was her closest friend and greatest confidante in those transformative years and for whose memory this memoir is indubitably dedicated. Smith writes tenderly of her memories of Mapplethorpe, the gay, pixie prince who became world famous for his Polaroids of S&M carnality and the censorious rebukes his work engendered. But in the Summer of 1967, they were 'just kids,' a couple of dreamers from the American suburbs. Smith left a factory job in Jersey to make it as a poet in New York (does that still happen anymore these days? the hungry poet in the big city?), sleeping in the park and taking day-old loaves from charitable bakers. In the beginning Smith had absolutely nothing to live on, save the faith she belonged somehow to New York and that it would be all right. We don't know what might have happened otherwise, but it seems that her meeting Mapplethorpe might have saved her from danger or worse, the disaster of giving up and going back to where she came from, never to return.

Mapplethorpe dresses the dandy-- when she fell in love with him he was into beads and a sheepskin vest but he went through a sailor boy phase and Lizard King leather, among other personas attempted and discarded, "searching, consciously or unconsciously for himself." In 1967 he didn't own a camera-- for him photography was getting your image snapped on the Coney Island boardwalk. A talented dilettante, he dabbled in jewelry design, collage art, drawing; he did not read, though he was Smith's first audience when she recited her poetry. A lapsed Catholic obsessed with good and evil, he flirts with Satanism, tarot cards and the occult. Smith recalls there was something indefatigably childlike about him. He drinks chocolate milk and loves grilled cheese sandwiches. He could not keep a job-- Patti was the breadwinner (she's an ace at uncovering rare first editions, Henry James, The Golden Bough, for instance, and unloading them on customers when she worked at Scribners). As long as he followed his artistic aspirations, she was happy to provide for the both of them.

Smith paints a picture of an enviably adorable couple: never mind they were among the beautiful people; they understood one another's needs like few lovers could. That his homosexuality precluded longtime physical compatibility did not mean that their friendship could not thrive. Together they had their songs, signs, a coded language. Inspiration was the sustenance that they fed one another. Their mutual role-playing had always been founded on muse more than lover. Through it all, they are one both with and against the world: "Nobody sees things as we do, Patti," Robert tells her.

In those days, an artist could catch a break or two that is difficult to contemplate happening today. Many struggling, broke, down-at-the-heels types stayed at the famous Chelsea Hotel. Some went delinquent on their bills, trading in their portfolios to management as collateral. When Smith and Mapplethorpe arrived there in 1969, sans a dime and Robert suffering an abscessed mouth and ailing wisdom teeth, they did just that, trading in their work to Mr. Bard, the manager and shouter extraordinaire, as most of the residents were lousy with jobs, rent and various real-life obligations. Robert and Patti rented a small room with neither windows nor physical space to set up their workstations. Nevertheless it was the very best thing that could have ever happened to them, for if the art world is a beast (and many will attest it is exactly that), then they had landed themselves in its belly. The Chelsea Hotel had dirty shared bathrooms, an irresponsible clientele, and brownish tap water but it was also was a community within a larger society.

The Chelsea Hotel

Smith and Mapplethorpe made fast friends, eventually finding themselves regulars at Max's Kanas City, with its rowdy transgenders and Factory crowd, enjoying the Velvet Underground, the occasional house band. This was more Robert's thing as he idolized Andy Warhol. Smith and Maplethorpe were more conspirators than lovers at this point and she drifted into friendships with scenester Bob Neuwirth and Todd Rundgren. She learns intimately from poet Jim Carroll and the playwright, Sam Shepherd. Patti is privvy to Janis Joplin's boy troubles and Jim Hendrix tells her his dream of a new musical language.

Smith's own language sometimes feels that she read 'On the Road' at an impressionable age and never quite got over it. Her prose has some affectations: she calls fellow Chelsea Hotel residents, "inmates... guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses." Making art is "an unholy ritual." She has hippie-dippy superstitions; birthdays of famous poets are often propitious. Hipspeak colors her interactions (maybe this reviewer, with his allegiance to many formalities of language would be too "square" for the scene he idealizes) and she and Robert often speak of magic. So she may have had a beat fetish, I will grant her this: she was a friend to Burroughs, Ginsberg tried to pick her up (he mistook her for a 'pretty boy') and she loaned money to Corso to support his junk habit.

There are a lot of famous names in 'Just Kids,' but Smith does not drop them to prove her worth-- she seems as much at awe at her good fortune as we are. But for all their fame, the rock stars and celebrity artists are only background characters here. The story through it all belongs to the kids, Patti and Robert. The memoir begins and ends on a cold day in March 1989, when Robert dies of AIDS complications. By then, they'd drifted apart, Smith to a family and recording career in Detroit, Mapplethorpe to a stellar artistic career as a photographer. They reconnect because of his illness and once in touch, the old patterns return and they understand anew a quality of friendship that is uniquely theirs. It's a love story between friends and to feel Smith tell it, those impoverished years when Mapplethorpe was her greatest companion is worth all the gold records on the wall. A trip to Coney Island in 1969 suggests the purity of this friendship beautifully: "We were just ourselves that day, without a care... Only weeks before we had been at the bottom, but our blue star, as Robert called it, was rising. We boarded the F train for the long ride back, returned to our little room, and cleared off the bed, happy to be together."

So what is a kid in New York City with paint on his hands a tumblr site that no one visits is supposed to take home from all this? It could happen to you too and that might help a person navigate optimistically the next couple months as he struggles to pay his rent and make the time to create something that might find an audience, or better, a champion.

* This piece was originally published in Heso Magazine

Monday, September 26, 2011

Freedom Is Fun! Freedom Is Good! Freedom Is Sexy!

That Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, debuted at #1 on the Fiction section of the New York Times Bestsellers List in September last year is one of those phenomenal outliers that defy the logic of free market capitalism. It’s not that it has no business being #1 when the spot is usually held by the likes of Henry Potter and Danielle Steele— on occasion there are tremendous works of literature that manage to win public adulation (although it doesn’t happen anywhere near as much as it used to)— what makes Franzen’s sales trumping remarkable is that it is a case of dog biting the proverbial hand. Freedom is an angry work of literary activism that wholeheartedly skewers the celebrated virtues of capitalism— unrestricted growth, consumer branding, mass production— indicting nearly every American, who whether they feel guilty about it or not, enjoy unsustainable lifestyles that are a “cancer on the planet.” Freedom is a novel that Al Gore might have written had he the imagination to portray the extravagant waste of the Bush era as an American family in microcosm.

The family in Freedom is the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, who raised their son, Joey, and daughter, Jessica in St. Paul, Minnesota. On the surface, to neighbors for example, they are secular middle-class Democrats. But in literature, a character is rarely just a character; just as often it is a metaphor for an idea. Walter is an environmentalist with a Malthusian obsession of population growth, a “nice” guy who loves his wife in spite of her eccentricities and lingering depressiveness. Because she was once a basketball “jock,” Patty has a very competitive spirit that shadows every decision she makes. She is a stay-at-home mother, an atheist, and an adulterer. The person she has a long-term affair with is Richard Katz, a moody, womanizing post-punk front man, and Walter’s long time best friend. This rather untenable and scandalous development is the personal drama of the novel. At its bones, Freedom is the story of a Midwestern family growing up and growing old, weathering the inevitable life crises that is the fate of all of us.

At 562 pages, Freedom is quite a bit more than just a tricky love triangle. It’s not possible to describe the many subplots of the novel but suffice it to say, the political undercurrent begins in the novel’s first paragraph referencing an item in the New York Times about Walter making “quite a mess of his professional life out there in Washington… in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people,” in methods described as “arrogant” and “ethically compromised.” How “nice” Walter got into so much trouble is a mystery that beguiles the reader to understand what might have developed.

But horses will be held: we’re almost 300 pages into the novel before Franzen lets us inside Walter’s life with the close third person. The novel, carved into jigsaw pieces that slowly fit together, begins in St. Paul, describing how the Berglunds had become the inspiration of playful, if sometimes malicious gossip, as conveyed in the tone of an omniscient scuttlebutt. Their next-door neighbor, Carol Monaghan, falls in love with a noisy, self-righteous Republican, Blake, while her daughter, Connie, seduces Patty and Walter’s son, Joey, who leaves his family to move in with the Monaghans, disappointing Walter and devastating Patty. It’s comic and sad and seems to suggest that American families, for all their secrets, can’t help exposing their dirty laundry.

The second section is a long “autobiography,” called “Mistakes Were Made,” written by Patty, a Babushka doll-like story within a story in which Patty writes about her social awkwardness, her rape experience, her desire to get away from her parents and “special” siblings. When she finishes high school in Westchester, New York, she attends the University of Minnesota, plays collegiate basketball, and falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, Richard Katz, who fronts a band called The Traumatics, singing derivative punk ditties like “I Hate Sunshine.” At a Traumatics show, she meets Walter, who comes from a rural dysfunctional family that doesn’t appreciate his intellectual curiosities and strong work ethic. Richard and Walter are challenging thinkers—they can recognize the bullshit of the Reagan-Thatcher era they’re entering—but diverge wildly with their attitudes toward women. Richard has the rock star’s gratuitous one-bite-and-throw-‘em-away appetite. Walter, sensitive beyond reason, falls in love with Patty, who has a thing for Richard, who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings but thinks she’s pretty unique for a jock. Patty is grateful for Walter’s many kindnesses though she’d throw it all away for a wild night with Richard. The triangle’s degrees thus first measured.

Patty, recognizing that by choosing one man she loses the other, hedges her bet, and marries Walter even though she’s not nor could ever be in love with him. But Walter is smitten and acquiesces to her bourgeois middle class desires—buying and renovating a house, finding a good-paying job and starting a family that she stays at home to raise even though he’s a Malthusian feminist, suggesting that for Patty’s sake he compromises on his ideal woman, that of the childless working professional.
Not all crushes go unrequited however and years later there is a short weekend with Richard, brisker yet much more intense than the average honeymoon. It’s a betrayal that’s horrible for the both of them—Richard and Patty are essentially competitive people whose touchstone for goodness is Walter. And for Patty their amorous aberration magnifies the emptiness in her life:

“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”

Patty drifts into depression while Richard discovers enormous success. In his early forties now, he draws from their affair a mature, quiet, lyrical alt-country album that goes multi-platinum, turning him into a reluctant celebrity. It’s the kind of CD bought by people who like Norah Jones or the “Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack: easy listening background music for people who don’t really have sensibility or taste, something Starbucks might promote as a tie-in, a stocking stuffer. It’s so disheartening for Richard to become a profitable product for capitalists that he quits the industry altogether to go back to his day job of roofing. Having been spewed out by the star-making machine, he can only express his fall from artistic integrity in bitterly cynical terms:

“We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everyone else.”

An inevitability in American exceptionalism and the cultivating of online personas in which our tastes and predilections are catalogued and itemized on social networking sites, Richard is speaking for all of us in the iEverything generation, zoning out on iPods, tweeting on iPhones, watching downloaded vampire flicks on iPads—generally oblivious to the Big Picture, that of the world going to hell in a hand basket. People may give lip service to the environment but self-interest prevails in habit and identity.

(As an interesting aside, how much of Jonathan Franzen is in Richard Katz? Franzen is more famous for refusing Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club seal of approval when she praised his last novel, The Corrections, than he is for receiving the National Book Award for the effort. In a famous Harpers essay from 1996, “Perchance to Dream,” he claims he sought to follow the example of author William Gaddis, in that the novelist should get out of the way of the novel: “no matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may seem in the short run, the artist who’s really serious about resisting a culture of inauthentic mass-marketed image must resist becoming an image himself, even at the price of certain obscurity.” Franzen doesn’t need to apologize his dissing Opraholic housewives who in his estimation didn’t have the necessary literary intelligence to understand The Corrections. Nor does he need to explain why such a contrarian viewpoint might be useful dramatic fodder.)

By this time, Walter and Patty have left St. Paul for D.C., where Walter has forged an unlikely working alliance with Vin Haven, a Texan multi-billionaire whose fortune was built on America’s limitless capacity for energy consumption. For all his professional faults (he also hunts with Dick Cheney and is pals with Bush) Vin is a bit of a birder and wants to preserve some considerable land in coal-rich West Virginia where a certain songbird, a cerulean warbler, breeds in its annual migration to and from the South American tropics.

Of course, when you’re dealing with wealthy, ambitious Texans, it is good to beware of looking gift horses in the mouth: the devil in the deal is MTR, mountaintop removal, a term most familiar to coal companies and green activists, in which a mountain is blasted and pillaged of its minerals. But once plundered, it is the responsibility of the coal company for reclamation, that is, reforestation of the surface. Walter wants to be an insider, a voice of conscience ensuring that the coal companies keep their word and build a biodiverse forest that will serve as a sanctuary for the cerulean warbler and other migratory words. But the compromises are obvious— condoning mountaintop removal, coal extraction, and the eviction of local families with longtime ancestral roots.

But Walter is no starry-eyed college student mired in Manichean us-and-them trenches. It’s better than nothing and it gives him access to unprecedented capital for his more important project: putting population control on the mainstream activist agenda. The correlation between rising population levels and rising energy use is obvious. Walter believes it might be checked with responsible “breeding.” He wants to marginalize big families living in big houses with big lawns, which, though sensible of course, is like scribbling earnest agitprop over a picture postcard of the American Dream. In Walter’s own words: “We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment. Like smoking’s an embarrassment. Like being obese is an embarrassment.”

In order to make it work, Walter has invited Richard to work with them on the message. He needs Richard because Richard is famous and cool and thus people want to follow his example: “Join rock legend Richard Katz in Washington this summer.” Richard, bitterly cynical yet generally apathetic, is more intrigued by Lalitha, Walter’s young, lovely, energetic Bengali-American personal assistant. It seems to Richard that Walter and Lalitha have, if not “a thing,” then some powerful chemistry going on and Lalitha has an obvious crush on Walter. She lives upstairs from Walter and Patty in D.C.. So it seems to Richard that their triangle has expanded into a quadrangle. And we are then well into our characters’ midlife crises, from which personal catastrophes— the stuff of page-turning literature— is wrought.

Nearly ten years after Franzen snubbed Oprah for recommending The Corrections, Oprah Winfrey came out last year with a ringing endorsement for Freedom. It is not surprising she would like the novel— Franzen has a gift of interweaving the micro and the macro, the family and the nation, that Leo Tolstoy was so tremendous at (Oprah is a big Tolstoy fan). But though I had posited some of Jonathan Franzen was in Richard Katz, it is likely that a lot more of Jonathan Franzen is in Walter Berglund. If Franzen wants his Cassandra calls for temperate energy use heeded, then he needs the largest possible audience and with Oprah comes her common touch, a medium that connects his ecological concerns to those millions of American housewives who might otherwise glance at his novel’s title and girth, shrugging, “Meh, too political.”

Franzen writes ‘social novels,’ a certain kind of fiction that holds a mirror up to the society that has produced the conditions that gives the social novel its raison d’etre. In this increasingly distracted media culture we’ve entered, it is becoming increasingly difficult to process the warning signs when we have the “democratic” options of channel changing and googling. With so many entertainment options, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize our limitations— social, political, economic, special— much less care. Walter puts it best while pitching his Free Space campaign to limit population growth to Richard:

“We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”
In that same Harper’s essay from 1996, Franzen wrote, “Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems— seems to me a peculiarly American delusion.” It’s just a book and not only that but a work of fiction. But the purpose of art, unlike argument and documentary, is a transformative experience. Art affects the heart more than it does the head; more often it is emotion, rather than reason, that is the source of our convictions. And perhaps in literature a political message can become more palatable because in this forum ideas are explored rather than declared. Franzen, perhaps aware of the rare privilege bestowed upon him— a polemical artist with mainstream reach and generous publicity—is willing to challenge that delusion and like Walter Berglund, utilize his authorial star power to reach those normally impervious to such viewpoints.

But how successful can such ambitions be? It may very well depend on your existing political framework as well as preferential taste. Some critics believe that literature is blighted by politics, i.e. the world is already a bad place and we need not be reminded of it when our agenda is escapism. The page for Freedom is especially contentious. The book rates only three out of five stars; there are as many one star reviews as five. Not a few people hate Franzen, his ideas, and most especially, his books.

But should we take what Franzen said in 1996 at face value? That it is “delusional” that a novel could enter the national conversation as a voice of conscience counterweighing our extravagance? Should we make allowances that the world has changed enough in the fifteen preceding years that artists have been politicized, embracing a sense of duty in spite of the accompanying baggage of delusions, hatred, and ridicule? To my mind, it’s worth it. We are better off with Jonathan Franzen than without him. We need more event books populated by rational environmentalists and selfish nihilists instead of teenaged vampires and boy magicians.

Freedom defines a decade— it was the idea of ‘freedom’ that morally guaranteed our bombardment and, later, privatization of Iraq and it was ‘freedom’ behind the motivation of banks making questionable loans to people buying McMansions beyond their means to afford them. American freedom has hardly changed since we defeated the Soviets in the Cold War—that is, the freedom to buy whatever you want, whether its blue jeans or rock and roll LPs or Italian sports cars, the layman’s simple explanation why capitalism, perhaps imperfect, remains the world’s best economic model. Yet the correlation between freedom and purchasing power is so obvious it must confound the political philosopher that there is not more violence in the streets. When we say we want our MTV, we don’t mean we want to watch the cable network—we want lifestyle freedom, liberated from our economic limits.

When luxury becomes the end game of freedom (private jets and gated communications its apotheosis) getting there is going to be competitive. You could argue those who invested in defense and energy blue chips in the aftermath of 9/11 were vultures fattening on our freedom to bomb Islamic countries and pillage and pollute the earth but you might also say such investments were exceptionally prescient (or pragmatic). Walter and Patty’s son, Joey, a burgeoning Republican, suffers a massive crush on Jenna, a high-maintenance rich girl who believes that “…the world wasn’t fair and was never going to be fair, that there would always be big winners and big losers, and that she personally, in the tragically finite life that she’d been given, preferred to be a winner and to surround herself with winners.”
Joey has his own interesting subplot. It involves pro-war Jewish American think tanks and parasitical war profiteers. Joey, who has an independent streak and a contentious relationship with both Walter and Patty, becomes immersed in a shady business deal (involving a company modeled on Halliburton) that would make him incredibly wealthy but would almost certainly consequence in dead Americans overseas in Iraq. Herein lies the true freedom of a human being, that of trying to determine and act upon the right thing. With financial and personal needs, the answer is not always obvious:

“He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right.”

It’s not easy being free. Sometimes it takes an 18-years-old kid speaking off the cuff to frame the discussion perfectly:

“Isn’t that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.”

*This piece originally appeared in Heso Magazine.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Parting. Sweet. Sorrow.

Bear with me: at this eleventh hour, I feel compelled to attempt the complex task of fitting eight years of my life into a short essay. I wasn’t planning on doing this—the haphazard entry dating in my journal attesting that self-reflection, at least the kind organized on paper or screen in paragraph format, has not been my strong suit of late. When the personal life moves fast, rare is the indulgent hour in which the whirlwind can be tamed with coherence. And at this particular moment, the personal life is moving particularly fast.

I could tell you about watching my last sunset from a terrace I called home for more than five beautiful years but that would be getting ahead of myself. Rewinding some eight years ago, I first landed in Tokyo on the 27th of February, 2003. At the time I had not expected to stay long in Japan. Not a week into arrival, I had lucked upon representation for my first novel (any good news or career advancements in an artist’s life is 90% luck, 10% talent). My agents at the time were excited about my story, eager for it to make the rounds in large New York publishing houses. They were certain of imminent success. I imagined returning that summer as some kind of hero, feted by a literary community apologetic for overlooking me for so long. It seemed then my primary reason for leaving America in the first place—disgust with the direction of Bush America— had been misguided. Watching footage of the Iraq War my third week abroad, a war in which I’d marched in protest against, I felt the world I’d known (the one I had always felt comfortable writing about) needed my attention. After all, I had to come up with a story for my second book and being a fictionist interested in the social novel, I was confused how exactly I would do this away from America, embedded in a culture to which I had virtually no experience or genuine interest.

There it was, the ugly truth. I had none of the idiosyncratic curiosities that draw so many foreigners to Japan. I didn’t really care about karate or manga or ikebana or anime or video games or Zen gardening or kimonos or design or tea ceremony or karaoke or J Pop or kawaii culture. I didn’t know anything about the language, was not a huge fan of sashimi, and had no real yen for Japanese girls. What I liked was literature and cinema and though there were some great masters in both disciplines, I wasn’t avid enough a fan that it warranted relocating across the Pacific.

As I said, I’d wanted to get out of America— America and its corporate gangsters and its strip mall environmental character and its fanaticism with war and revenge— I found deplorable its rank materialism for her winners and dead-end cages for its losers. I’d wanted a break from all that, a place where I’d make enough money to travel. America might have been a horror show, but I craved a frame of reference, journeys within other cultures and figured that Japan, for all its recessionary gloom was a place I might make enough cash to fund adventure.

Some plans bear out, others don’t. My novel didn’t make the grade in New York and my agents and I eventually parted ways due to creative differences. It would take me nearly five years to compose my second novel. It takes place in India, a country I’ve visited five times. I have been extraordinarily fortunate for my travels (occasional lucrative bookings as well as commissions from a national travel magazine) but this story is not about India or my novels or even how things pan out exactly as you hoped (your career as a novelist excepted). It’s about Japan, particularly Tokyo, and the home I’ve made for myself.

Last Thursday, the 23rd of June, a moving van came to the apartment in Meguro I have shared with my girlfriend, Ariko, for more than five years. They took everything we needed to Kyoto, our new home city beginning this September. After a dinner at a local Thai restaurant we’ve enjoyed for years, Ariko left on the bullet train to manage the storage of our things on the other side. I have stayed on alone with just a backpack, a few books and items of clothes, a computer, and a ragged Thai cushion to sleep on. The areas uncovered by sofas, fridges, washing machines are amok with tufts of dust and undesirable matter. All that’s left of the pictures, drawings, charms, and mementoes on our wall is the tape’s sticky residue and a few thumbtacks. Our rock garden is bagged and boxed, the houseplants drinking Kansai water down south, the sofa where I’d loved to loll for the occasional afternoon nap, gone. There is no more music. The gas is off, the showers are cold, the pantries are bare. The air-con still works, as does the Internet, giving the place the feel of a squatter’s paradise. Home is as much about possessions and person as it is place and it’s hard sometimes remembering what was once was. Something’s already gone. I’ve compensated by sleeping at friends’ places, though last night I bedded down on the Thai sofa, awoken at five a.m. by an aggressive mosquito.

From those early times of asylum and dreams through my current last days of Tokyo residency, a lot of things went right, a lot of things went wrong. Nearly every aspect of Japanese culture of which I had once been indifferent I now entertain very strong feelings (some loving, many loathing). If I might never altogether adapt to the culture, it does not mean that I haven’t found communities within, and within these communities, good friends that make urban life bearable.

At times, it can be very difficult to enjoy Tokyo. When the enormous crowds lose their novelty, they are simply annoying. As are the lights, the barkers, and the buskers. While I have acquired a strong appreciation for the national cuisine, for all its pretensions of a Michelin-rich restaurant scene, it can be an expensive, disappointing trial-and-error journey finding a decent bean burrito, pepperoni pizza slice, or pan of squid paella. Teeth-grinding music blares constantly from storefront speakers and politicians sloganeer from obnoxious election vans. The youth culture frightens the sensible with its hopeless mediocrity and tasteless heroes. Too many read manga, not enough read books. The geek culture, its obsession with cartoon porn and blow-up dolls, is completely beyond my comprehension.

But for all that I was happy here. Tokyo doesn’t lead itself to a singular understanding—it’s a collection of fragments that never add up to a whole. You get lucky when you find your community. Luckily, I found a few. The reality then is not the city itself, but the home you’ve made for yourself and the friends you keep. Eight months abroad can only become eight years via a series of accidents. Nothing was planned. I simply got lucky.

Having been terrible at self-reflection all this time, I cannot begin to imbue it with any higher meaning beyond this. It’s too late for swift and decisive declarations and I’d be a fool to commit myself to revelation. And Tokyo, as anyone who has spent any amount of time here can assert, defies any assessment beyond the usual clichés of enormousness, peculiarness, and bedlam. What I can say for sure holds true for any other city—that if you can leave in better shape than when you arrived, the city has been good to you. And when you consider your person-metropolis relationship in this context and you come out on the plus, then your complaints might be a bit shrill. But then when you and the city you adopted for some considerable and impressionable period of your life fall a little short of greatness, it’s no big deal. Fallibility is what makes things real.

I feel sad in this coming darkness, this end of things. The sentimental fool feels saddest when something splendid has passed into ephemera. He will miss all of it, especially, the things he’s taken for granted, the things he looked at ten thousand times. He knows this move is significant— he’s getting older but it does not make him any wiser. He is, in fact, a fool. A fool enjoys his foolishness, most especially because it makes him feel connected to the greater powers within and without.

So he says, ‘Sayonara, then, for now…’ and means it, swearing some kind of bittersweet return, knowing it will never feel quite the same way again.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Beguiling Charms of Handsome Self-Interest

"It don't take long to kill things. Not like it does to grow."

-- Melvyn Douglas (Homer)

It is entirely natural that formative personalities with a thing for cinema will gravitate towards Paul Newman. From the late 1950s through the early 1970s he’d picked up where James Dean left off, becoming the embodiment of the handsome, brooding rebel, a man at home with tough guys and dangerous ladies, operating outside mainstream moral codes. Because becoming an adult entails following societal rules—the wife, the job, the mortgage, the taxes, the Judeo-Christian value system— flouting them, or at least making it up as you go along, can make a man feel unique, alone among a crowd of dullards, though all his desperado might be, at best, a smokescreen covering up the insecurity about making one’s way in the world, and at worst, a tragic absence of real human empathy.

Of all Paul Newman’s films, the one I think best embodies this juxtaposition of charming hustler and selfish man-boy is Martin Ritt’s Hud, based on the novel Horseman, Pass By, written by Larry McMurtry. Produced in 1963, Newman plays the eponymous Hud, a philandering cowboy who works for his father, Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), and razzes his nephew, Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde) and housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal). They live on a ranch in a large spread in remote cattle country Texas. The crisis in the story involves one of their cows dying of foot-and-mouth: a highly contagious livestock infection that requires special quarantine measures as well as the immediate slaughter of all infected animals to contain the disease.

James Hong's cinematography sometimes reminds you
of Edward Hopper surveying Texas

Of course, the right thing to do is to follow the law. Homer doesn’t like the situation one bit— he’s been a rancher all his life and stands to lose his fortune. But the alternative is knowingly swindling his neighbors, passing his crisis on people who trust his word, which not only means bankrupting a man after looking a man in the eye with a strong handshake but also possibly unleashing an epidemic that could affect the region, if not the nation, infecting millions of cows and financially ruining hundreds of other families, who like the Bannons, have been living off the land for generations. But that’s exactly what Hud proposes to do before the government veterinarian can declare an emergency situation: “Let us put some of our bread in that gravy while it’s still hot.”

Beware of men bearing flowers?

Caught between Homer’s sense of duty and Hud’s self-interest is Homer’s grandson, Lonnie, an impressionable sixteen-year-old getting to the age where he is figuring out what kind of man he wants to be. It’s not such an easy path. Soft-spoken, addicted to cowboy ballads on his wireless, he admires Hud’s way with women, the devil-may-care attitude that puts him in daily situations most sensible men would recognize as dangerous, like driving drunk and tomfooling with married women. Living off his family wealth and good looks, Hud acts impulsively with a sense of entitlement oblivious to naysayers and moralists. For a kid suffering both hormones and virginity politely, the spectacle of a man that gets what he wants—what society fetishes but does not altogether condone, that of the virile, uninhibited lothario— is heady inspiration.

Uncle Hud and his corruptible nephew

Essentially then, Hud is a family drama about the contestation of two ways of life. And though we naturally sympathize with Homer, we can’t help liking Hud. Newman’s performance inspires every man’s inner sixteen-year-old. We know he’s wrong, even morally repugnant, but Newman plays him so charming that the audience— women, but especially men— forgive him. This is good for a film but bad for us as a species. That we could be so bamboozled by charisma suggests why so much has gone wrong for America in the last thirty years. The character, Hud, epitomizes the late twentieth century politicking corporate cowboy that would connive us out of our clean skies and untouched frontiers with huckster good ol’ boy hucksterism.

“Don’t plant ‘em where I park,” he barks at the housekeeper, Alma, after she reprimands him for driving over her flowers. It’s a small detail—an automobile crushing a delicate patch of Mother Nature— but suggestive of how little Hud is tied to the land. He has none of his father’s frontier spirit. There is no romanticizing this vast, stark, dusty landscape. A modern man trapped in rural Texas, Hud is a new kind of pioneer, the technocratic cowboy, much more comfortable behind the steering wheel of a convertible than holding the reins of a horse.

Hud anticipates the opportunist millionaire oilman that would transform Texan power. His father, Homer, senses that his son represents the changing times. When it becomes clear that the family’s situation has become perilous and it’s suggested that they drill for resources, Homer rails beautifully against a future landscape ruined by tractors, derricks, and tarmac scarring up God’s country: “What can I do with a bunch of rotten oil wells? I can’t ride out there and prowl amongst them like I can my cattle… I can’t feel a smidgen of pride in them. I want money to come from that something that keeps a man doing for himself.”

The moral contest escalates as it becomes certain that their cattle will be ruled dangerous. But Homer never doubts there is any other way than living by his conscience. “I want out of this spread what I put into it,” Hud tells his father. It leads to a painful confrontation in which Homer reprimands his son in the clearest possible language: “You don’t give a damn… You don’t care about people… You don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You don’t check your appetites. You live just for yourself which makes you not fit to live with.” Lonnie expresses some solidarity for his uncle, arguing that Hud may be selfish but he’s not so different from everybody else. Homer, recognizing that he may lose his grandson to Hud’s easy living, responds sadly, “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.”

The bulldozer & the horseman

It’s a beautiful line, prescient of our contemporary celebrity culture that has blurred the traditional merits of heroism. I don’t remember exactly how I felt watching Hud fifteen years ago other than liking the film and loving Paul Newman for it. But watching it recently, I no longer felt empathy for his character, only tremendous respect for Newman for giving such a contemptuous antihero magnetic charisma. From this viewing many years later, I have to wonder what kind of person I was at twenty that I could be taken with a character so symbolic of man’s capacity to trample the earth and his fellow men. Is it just me? Or is it a mistake nearly every young man makes in his long journey to goodness?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chrome Jell-o

“For if one had an imagination vivid enough and a sympathy sufficiently sensitive really to comprehend and to feel the sufferings of other people, one would never have a moment's peace of mind... One is always alone in suffering; the fact is depressing when one happens to be the sufferer, but it makes pleasure possible for the rest of the world.”

--Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow

The problem for the author who writes a landmark novel is that once he or she has departed and is thus no longer capable of putting out new work, it is all too easy for posterity to associate him or her with that single legendary text. Herman Melville might have believed it all right we revere Moby Dick but it hardly stands to think that Jack Kerouac— who published eighteen novels in his lifetime and who disassociated himself from the Beat Generation—would be pleased that outside his small, committed fan base, anything not titled On the Road is mostly yellowing, dusty, forgotten, unread. It might be said that for any author who desires immortality, a beloved masterpiece is the ticket, but a caveat of oblivion for the remaining oeuvre is fair warning.

Aldous Huxley was one of those great geniuses who wrote one of the twentieth century’s masterpieces, Brave New World, which with its test tube babies, soma addiction, and sexual promiscuity predicts the pleasure principle of our contemporary times. It deserves its place in the literary canon but like said conundrum for many writers, most readers stop right there, as if all there was to know of Huxley and his godlike omniscience of the human condition was in that small, lovely book.

Published in 1922, Crome Yellow, Huxley’s first novel, demonstrates his unique gift for language, theorizes some of the blueprint that would become Brave New World, and vaguely predicts the Second World War as well as the eventual apotheosis of the machine as man’s best friend.

Crome Yellow is a quietly subversive parable, the whole of which takes place on the eponymous castle estate in the English countryside. It is less a story and more a forum for Huxley to air his many social theories regarding history, politics, reason, madness, love, and poetry. Not much really happens: a small party from Britain’s leisure class has congregated for the season to banter, create, review, discuss, and feast. The reader enters and leaves this tableau with Denis, a young, middling poet with a few published broadsheets and a modest book of verse to his name. His hosts, the Wimbushes, have a niece, Anne, whom Denis is hopelessly in love with (in the desperate, maddening vein romantic poets are wont) but whom treats Denis cynically as she would a kid brother for whose best intentions raise only snickering. She is more drawn to Gombauld, an artist of some repute and Byronic handsomeness.

Among the other guests, the primary character of interest is Mr. Scogan, who looks “like an extinct saurian… his nose was beaked…the skin of his wrinkled brown face had a dry and scaly look; his hands were the hands of a crocodile.” A friend and contemporary of Henry Wimbush, he is something of a pedantic, a bore, a philosopher king and, conjecturally, a mouthpiece for Huxley. He also has many of the novel’s choicest lines. Upon learning Denis is at work on a novel, in Scogan’s assumption of the plot he indicts nearly every writer of the 1920s, including, one supposes, Huxley himself:

“I’ll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.”

His spot-on assessment humiliates Denis who vows quietly to tear the pages to pieces when he unpacks later that night. It’s a bad start for a young artist of marginal confidence and it’s a slippery slope from there. When alone with Anne he often contextualizes their time together by quoting poetry, an affectation which his muse calls “a bad habit.” In a setting of larger-than-life personalities at home with confirmed belief systems, the work-in-progress Denis inevitably flubs his lines (his social ineptness and half-cooked awareness is not dissimilar to Huxley’s more famous punching bag, Bernard Marx.) However, due his ingenuousness, Denis is an ideal sounding board, especially for the talkative Scogan, who often pins him down with breathless soliloquies.

Huxley would not publish Brave New World for another decade but here are the seeds being planted by Mr. Scogan, a self-described realist in an age of madmen. Anticipating the Greek alphabetical hierarchy of Huxley’s imagined future is a rough sketch of what would become the human organizing system of his greatest novel:

“In the Rational State, human beings will be separated out into distinct species, not according to the color of their eyes or the shape of their skulls, but according to the qualities of the their mind and temperament. Examining psychologists…will test each child that is born and assign it to its proper species. Duly labeled and docketed, the child will be given the education suitable to members of its species, and will be set, in adult life to perform those functions which human beings of his variety are capable of performing.”

This so-called Rational State consists of three distinct groups: the Directing Intelligences, the Men of Faith and the Herd. The breakdown is self-explanatory: the Intelligences devise the system, the Men of Faith sell it and the Herd follows orders. Of Denis’ role in this future society, Scogan is at a loss. Denis being independent but neither persuasive nor clearheaded, Scogan “can see no place for you; only the lethal chamber.”

Huxley before the Future

Denis’ host, Henry Wimbush, is a scion of some fortune. His magnum opus is a history of the village of Crome and especially the castle where they reside. On two occasions, Henry reads from his historical tome. One story involves an ancestor named Hercules, a dwarf, while another relates three sisters feigning an anorexic appetite as pseudo-spirituality. The first story is decidedly tragic, the second comic, which seems true for the novel as well. Although Huxley’s narrative voice is sportily sardonic, the philosophical musings on the future reflect an anxiety about the end result of technology intertwining itself with the worst instincts of human nature.

When the consequence is not deadly, it may be simply alienating. Even the affable Wimbush isn’t very much interested in mankind. Being a character in a Huxley novel, he is thoughtful, given to intelligent musings with some remarkable capacity to witness the distant future. Confiding with Denis the night of the country fair, Wimbush describes his own utopian vision:

“Perhaps, in the future, when machines have attained to a state of perfection—for I confess that I am, like Godwin and Shelley, a believer in perfectibility, the perfectibility of machinery—then, perhaps, it will be possible for those who, like myself, desire it, to live in a dignified seclusion, surrounded by the delicate attentions of silent and graceful machines, and entirely secure from any human intrusion.”

Huxley is not describing television, video games, and the Internet, or any of the quotidian appliances that guarantee a self-sufficient existence. But he knew human nature and its pull over us like moths to the flame. Would the descendants of Henry Wimbush bother hosting a party of individuals for the summer season if it stood to interrupt their online presence?

The answer is difficult to say. Denis might disagree. Humiliated multiple times he nevertheless needs other people to exist himself. He has no true form without recognition from others. In his own words:

“The individual is not a self-supporting universe. There are times when he comes into contact with other individuals, when he is forced to take cognizance of the existence of other universes beside himself.”

If we are to survive as a viable, energetic, empathetic species, may it always be so.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Time Has Come Today

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

--David Byrne

“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know when it’s happened?”

--Rhea from A Visit From the Goon Squad

I believe it was in my mid-twenties when I began downgrading my artistic aspirations from ‘the voice of a generation’ to what it has become ten years later in its more or less present incarnation, ‘a voice.’ It’s embarrassing looking back but there was a certain point of my life when I truly believed I would be one of those authors— the few, the proud— who would survive posterity not only as one of those writers whom people wanted to read but also whom they wanted to be. Hey, there’s still time and you never know but I’ve had to adjust my expectations into a more modest outlook. Sometimes I’m okay with this. Sometimes I’m not. I’m only human.

As you roll into your thirties, you should be hitting your career stride. When you aren’t, you can’t help but observe those who have. Particularly friends and acquaintances. If you dare go there, the route is peppered with questions, like, what is it about the neighbor’s grass? What makes it so green? Is it a human folly to envy the qualities of others or is it Madison Avenue marketing that has created this general dissatisfaction? Is the difference between happiness and discontent the difference between having chosen the life we lead and the life we have having chosen us? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? The way we are compared against the way we were supposed to be?

Whoever said introspection was for weenies never took a long, hard look at the mirror. ‘What if…?’ is the worst kind of self-interrogation since it almost always consequences in regret. This self, this person that we are leading now may be hard-won but isn’t necessarily the best person we could have been. Invariably something went wrong somewhere and this life we lead is the one we got stuck with, for better, for worse.

Disheartening this is, we can self-medicate. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are viable options (but don’t they often mislead us away from our ideal selves?). Or one can read good literature that utilizes sex, drugs, and rock and roll to frame these questions. A worthwhile book need not answer the unanswerable— it’s enough that it reminds us that failure and humanity are cut from the same cloth and that this might be a beautiful thing.

It is certainly beautiful the way Jennifer Egan writes about it in her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, the closest a book has ever come to the literary equivalent of a solid mixed tape, rewinding and fast forwarding across the years, or perhaps ‘skipping’ over generation gaps, as the story—it travels between New York City, San Francisco, Naples, and Italy as well as from the early 1970s to the 2020s— is as much about the progress of technology as it is culture. The truth whether or not new technology is good or bad, necessary or distracting, safe or dangerous, nearly always depends on who’s asking. For those holding onto some yesteryear ideal, change is something to be despised, as Bennie Salazar, a record label owner who came of age in San Francisco’s late 1970s punk scene, wearies once the direction of his company changes after a corporate takeover:

“The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitalization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!”

Just as our relationship to music and musicians evolves with technology (shrinking considerably from LPs to cassette tapes and CDs, disappearing totally as a tactile thing with the rise of the mp3), so does the way we communicate with one another. As Bix, an NYU student doing his postgrad in computer engineering in early 1993 tells his friends, “This computer-message-sending is going to be huge—way beyond the telephone…” But though Egan touches on facebook, google and how “the days of losing touch are almost gone,” she goes further: a preteen using Power Point slides to describe her family’s dysfunctional faults and then later to the near future when Instant Messaging has become the medium for our more difficult words as when Lulu shares with Alex on their “handsets” that she “Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn,” texting him this even though they are sitting across from each other in a café.

But now you’re wondering who’s Lulu? And who’s Alex? In 2021, they are working together using Internet bloggers called ‘parrots’ to word-of-mouth the upcoming concert of Scotty Hausmann, a publicity-shy, burnt-out slide guitarist who played in The Flaming Dildos, the same High School punk band Bennie played with in the 1970s. Scotty had unsuccessfully pined for Jocelyn, a girl who learned the fast life as Lou’s teenage mistress. Lou is a super successful rock and roll producer-cum-hedonist that mentors Bennie. Bennie marries Stephanie, a one-time protégée to La Doll, Lulu’s mother and a PR titan who falls from grace. Stephanie’s brother, Jules, is a journalist who goes to jail for assaulting a movie star named Kitty Jackson. Meanwhile, Bennie makes a name for himself in the music business discovering and recording a punk band named the Conduits. Around this time his factotum is Sasha, a beautiful redhead who euphemistically calls her shoplifted things, “found objects.” She survives a druggie stint in Naples and leaves New York and the music business when she reconnects with her college sweetheart, Drew, moving to Arizona to start a family. She has an autistic son obsessed with great pauses in rock and roll songs and a daughter who expresses herself with Power Point slides. If it seems very six-degrees-of-separation, it is. One story’s peripheral character is another’s hero.

And heroes they are in a very rock and roll sense of the word: interesting people making catastrophic mistakes, sometimes large, sometimes so small it is hard to know exactly where everything went wrong. Once The Flaming Dildos disbanded, why did Bennie wind up with his own record label and a corner office on Park Avenue with a fantastic view while Scotty performed janitorial functions and fished for his lunch in the East River? It doesn’t bother Scotty too much when he goes to see his old friend again because, “there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park.”

Like the incremental movement of continental plates, pressures mount in our own lives to a breaking point, in which an inevitable seismic shift leaves a trail of victims, most especially ourselves. For Jules Jones, Bennie’s brother-in-law, once a promising, young writer who had come to New York full of ideas (“Who isn’t, at twenty-four?”), his decline began when he’d become another hack celebrity journalist. This is the late 1990s now and some are getting spectacularly wealthy while most are being left behind. His feeling is common to many of us, that sense of not belonging, of having missed some boat that’s not coming back for us. In a young, ingenuous film star, Kitty Jackson, he witnesses everything he will never be: beautiful, rich, successful, loved. His sole advantage over her, the one card he can play, is the knowledge that time, though slow and deliberate, takes no prisoners:

“Because Kitty is so young and well nourished, so sheltered form the gratuitous cruelty of others, so unaware as yet that she will reach middle age and eventually die (possibly alone), because she has not yet disappointed herself, merely startled herself and the world with her own premature accomplishments, Kitty’s skin—that smooth, plump, sweetly fragrant sac upon which life scrawls the record of our failures and exhaustion—is perfect.”

In a very confessional meta-me article for Details Magazine, he describes his attempted rape of Kitty in the canny, ironic prose so typical of magazine writing today, but briefly he too considers what went wrong:

“At what precise moment did you tip just slightly out of alignment with the relatively normal life you had been enjoying theretofore, cant infinitesimally to the left or the right and thus embark upon the trajectory that ultimately delivered you to your present whereabouts—in my case, Rikers Island Correctional Facility?”

It seems no accident then that the album central to this story should be called A to B, offered up by the Conduits’ former frontman, Bosco. Bosco was once a skinny, manic redhead known for his explosive live shows but he didn’t age well. As he explains to Stephanie, Bennie’s wife and his publicist, “The album’s called A to B, right? And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?” But A to B is not a comeback album— for Bosco it’s the only dignified way out of his messy life. It is his belief that this farewell tour should be a rock and roll suicide, “I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away— I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.”

Bosco believes his tour will be a success because of the public’s infatuation with “Reality TV.” Reality, of course, has everything to do with authenticity and is at play in the characters’ lives. It’s extremely important, yet somehow elusive, as being real is knowing oneself. As Rhea says enviously of her friend Alice, “I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?”

It’s not an easy question, but there might be some connection between authenticity and happiness, at least in this literary world. We are always in the act of becoming: artists, doctors, drug addicts, hookers, lovers, husbands, fathers and mothers— and some roles work better than others. It often depends on who you’re partnered with. Jules’ sister, Stephanie, knows that Bennie is unfaithful and she suffers to keep their marriage intact. Witnessing the flabby, tragic mess of Bosco, once a promising singer, now a joke on her hands, is a straw-camel’s back revelation: her life is a sham and an unhappy one at that. Helplessly she thinks of the old days: “premarriage, preparenthood, pre-money, pre-hard drug renunciation, preresponsibility of any kind…going to bed after sunrise, turning up at strangers’ apartments, having sex in quasi public, engaging in daring acts that had more than once included (for her) shooting heroin, because none of it was serious. They were young and lucky and strong….”

… And perhaps, real.

* * * * * * *

Published in 2010, Jennifer Egan has already won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Two days after receiving the Pulitzer, she inked a deal with HBO to adapt A Visit From the Goon Squad into a television series. It’s no surprise. Like very few novels, it succeeds on visceral, literary, and spiritual levels. It’s bold: besides the Power Point chapter, her point-of-view shifts between the third person, close first person and even the second person in a way that the ‘you’ is not directed at the reader but at the self-critical narrator himself. Skipping around between years, places, and heroes does not feel jarring in the least bit. Each story feels self-contained, yet integral, not to the greater story, but the unifying theme, that which relates to the inevitability of personal change.

Perhaps nowhere in the novel is this exemplified better than when Sasha disappears to Naples and her stepfather sends her Uncle Ted out to search for her. Instead of looking for her, Ted, a tenured arts history professor at a minor university, spends most of his time wandering museums, the ruins of Pompeii, and labyrinthine alleyways. He is away from his family and unusually pensive. Why had he sexually disengaged himself from his wife, Susan, to the point that there could be no more true intimacy between them? From an initial rage, Susan mellows into a “sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible without death to give it gravitas and shape.” What is so tragic about this turn of events is that he didn’t abandon his desire for any other reason than because he could. He had ruined her and now having found Sasha and trying to win her confidence to come back with him to America, he helplessly recalls a happy moment before everything was irrevocably ruined. Herein may be the saddest paragraph in a bittersweet book:

“On a trip to New York, riding the Staten Island Ferry for fun, because neither one of them had ever done it, Susan turned to him suddenly and said, ‘Let’s make sure it’s always like this.’ And so entwined were their thoughts at that point that Ted knew exactly why she’d said it: not because they’d made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse at lunch—because she’d felt the passage of time. And then Ted felt it, too, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats and wind—motion, chaos everywhere—and he’d held Susan’s hand and said, ‘Always. It will always be like this.’”

Perhaps Ted was caught up in the moment but he was certainly not disingenuous. At the time he believed it was true. As Bosco says, “Time’s a goon.” The novel’s boogeyman is as invincible and irrepressible as any villain in literature. Time sets the booby traps and we’re the ones clumsy enough to step on them— yet it might not be our fault. We can’t be so hard on ourselves as we don’t always have as many choices as it may seem.

Fucking up is a life process as universal as birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, aging, and death. Being inevitable thus, we can only hope that when it happens to us, it a) is not lethal and b) perhaps we learn something.

Not all of us are lucky enough to balance self-destruction with redemption. A comeback is not always in the works. But sometimes it may be enough to learn from our mistakes and carry on the best we can.

Sasha speaks for the novel, if not a good percentage of the human race when comforting her friend, Rob, after a failed suicide attempt she reminds him:

We’re the survivors.”

This originally appeared in Heso Magazine