Tuesday, June 30, 2009

To Peter Cole, RE: "Things on Which I've Stumbled"

Your book has four parts, but actually two. One, the first, (and represented by the first section), preoccupies itself with the passion of translation, with words themselves, and this section slowly bleeds into the second half of the book, which, as it moves towards the fourth and final section, is more and more about Israel as a political entity. That age-old question, "What does it mean to be Jew?" gets recast as "What is Israel?"

As a translator, you fall squarely on the side of Israel's cultural heritage--it (Israel) is its language, its religion (which I think you'd say are one and the same), as embodied in the long tradition of midrashim (and of which I see you taking part via the secular gap-filling of poetry). You have no respect for fences, for aggression, for justice, security, etc. (And I use those words as loaded terms, as you yourself go to lengths to point out in the poems--that other process of "translating" that governments do in order to justify their actions: Justice will be / their diversion--a presence / leading up from the mouth / of malice, which has no defense // without it). You're not shy about your politics. You've lived in Jerusalem for a long time now, wrestling with every aspect of Hebraic culture, so these are arguments into which you've "stumbled", in the sense that, living where you live, doing what you do, they are unavoidable. In a city so sharply divided, one must have a clear sense of where one stands--or one cannot make a living out of being precise with his diction.

But, true to my non-political nature and my B.A. in religious studies (most of which was spent taking courses in Judaism), I'm more interested in the words ("Letters are things, not pictures of things." - Eric Gill----thank you for this quote), specifically how well you channel that Biblical, rabbinic voice, while still filtering it through a contemporary one:

Lord, goes the prayer, increase my bewilderment,
which really means allow me to question
everything, but not be lost within that
stance to the small flowers of common sense
in season. Increase, Lord, my discontent.

Sometimes your penchant for rhyme goes too far--I'm sensitive to this sin--but most of the time it's just right:

The army has nearly written a poem:
You'll now need a permit just to stay home.

Or in "Israel Is", reproduced here in its entirety. (Some poems are much too whole to be excerpted from):

Israel is he, or she, who wrestles
with God--call him what you will,

not some goon (with a rabbi and gun)
in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill.


...A municipal mess and the Western wind. Promising land. Almond blossoms over axons, dispersing a sweetness high in the brain. Worms turning beneath the garden. An ethic rotting. Oils brushed-up in my walking: hyssop, sage, anise, thyme. Herbs crushed. Shifting nouns. Canaan. Sion.

[The first three times I read that passage I read "ethnic" for "ethic" and "mind" for "wind."]

Abraham, refusing plunder,
swore that from a sandal strap
for a thread, he'd take not a thing;
for which he was given the thought of heaven
This is what, they say is given

as being's foundation, by which we exist:
Through the merit of men in a quarrel
able to render themselves as nothing--
by this alone, the world subsists...

[Italics yours. You seem pretty consistent about italics always meaning that the words were translated from somewhere else, so I assume that's true here as well.][I wonder about that line, "able to render themselves as nothing" though. It could be interpreted as mere charity, subsuming the ego, or it could be read as suicide bombing.]

The thought of you comes and I die--
and then I revive;
and thus it is I've died so often
I've lived a thousand lives.

What good is thinking that one keeps within?
What valve does it have, until it finds
expression, until it bodies forth as
action, events informing work and feeling--
as wisdom is joined to pleasure once again?

To Ben Greenman, RE: "Please Step Back"

I reviewed your book at the paper. Not as personal, but hopefully fair and worth reading.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

To David Foster Wallace, RE: "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"

I'm gradually making my way through everything you wrote, hopefully in time to read your posthumous novel (when it comes out) with all the other books behind me. Not sure if I'll get there, especially with Infinite Jest looming, but I'm trying.

It's hard not to read "Brief Interviews" without reading the biographical knowledge of what we now know about your psychic history into it--the 20-some years of clinical depression, endless therapy, experimentation with every medication that ever hit the market (quoting from "The Depressed Person": Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Welbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders Clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person's every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth...). (Nardil was the one, if I'm remembering the New Yorker article correctly, that you were using up until you went off them altogether.) So it's easy to read stories like "The Depressed Person" and "Suicide as a Sort of Present" as thinly-disguised memoirs, purposefully written with female protagonists to throw off the reader's scent, i.e. female protagonist as cowardice, fiction as cry for help.

But I don't read them that way (at least in total). I think you were much too smart (and much too well read) to believe that such a plan would work (or succeed). And there's too much nuance in the stories, too much that sounds like your mind at work for the sake of art (and not for the sake of DFW) for them to be simply memoirs by slight of hand. I think the idea of memoir by slight of hand would have been sickening to you, and even if you wanted to do it (which you probably did), you wouldn't have been able to, and this one of your qualities that I admire so deeply: (and which will sound cheesy, no way around it) your commitment to your art in spite of yourself. (Or put another way, in an adjective, "Excellence.") The range of formal skill, imagination, and emotional daring in "Brief Interviews" would be sullied by the presence of a flat piece of memoir, even one that exposed with total candor the amount of pain your illness was causing you. And what would it really have gotten you, in the end? I think the outpouring of sympathy would have been utterly despicable to you, and would have only magnified the self-loathing. Like, I'm so weak I actually wrote down my request for your sympathy. No, to do so would have been much more terrible than keeping it all silent, bearing the weight alone and with close family.

And because you couldn't simply write a first-person memoir, you had to write fiction, and if it were fiction, well then it had to be good fiction, which means it had to access all of your abilities, which means it had to be imaginative, which means it couldn't be any sort of simulacrum. Even if the emotional core of it was what the Old School (and me) calls "True." Even if all of the twisting, self-flagellating thought depicted therein was, at one time or another, enacted in your own personal life. Because I didn't know you, it's difficult for me to be sad about you being gone, but you as an artist (who I'm becoming more and more familiar with) being gone I am very sad about, and if the function of an artist is to define and magnify the human, well then I guess I am sad about you being gone. Very sad. Sadder with each book.

[I had something more to say about how the story "On his deathbed, holding your hand, the acclaimed new young off-Broadway playwright's father begs a boon" can be read as a play written by the new young off-Broadway playwright himself, and thus as a fiction within a fiction that calls into doubt all of the father's sentiments--or solidifies them--but I don't have the energy. Plus it's possible I just said all I had to say.]

"You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer."

"There are right and fruitful ways to try to 'empathize' with the reader, but having to try to imagine yourself as the reader is not one of them; in fact it's perilously close to the dreaded trap of trying to anticipate whether the reader will 'like' something you're working on, and both you and the very few other fiction writers you're friends with know that there is no quicker way to tie yourself in knots and kill any human urgency in the thing you're working on than to try to calculate ahead of time whether that thing will be 'liked.' It's just lethal."
-is there better writing advise out there than this?

"She said the best way to describe focus to a person who hadn't undertaken what were apparently her domination's involved and time-consuming series of lessons and exercises was to envision focus as intense concentration further sharpened and intensified to a single sharp point, to envision a kind of needle of concentrated attention whose extreme thinness and fragility were also, of course, its capacity to penetrate..."

"...it was as if my mind was having a garage sale..."

To Animal Collective, RE: Your June 9 Show at the Culture Room in Ft. Lauderdale, FL

I hadn't heard much of you previous to going to the show--a couple of older songs my friend Ryan had given me (and that I'd never really responded to) and My Girls (oh, and Comfy in Nautica which I guess counts but struck me as "Beach Boys Lite")--so I downloaded (and paid for! I'm old) "Merriweather Post Pavilion", listening to most of it on the way up. And liking it but also anticipating that the live show would persuade me one way or the other, as it always has with other bands.

But two days later, I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

Our freelance blogger at the New Times was pretty effusive about the show, comparing your sound to Terry Riley, which is an apt comparison if we're talking about "In C" but not for something like Music for the Gift or Birds of Paradise. And really, if a writer's going to go in that direction, he could throw out any number of post-WWII minimalist composers and find at least one recording that sticks: Reich's Piano Phase or Music for 18 Musicians, parts of Stockhausen's Stimmung, Philip Glass (pre-film score), Adams' Shaker Loops, etc. But he could also probably say Aphex Twin or Brian Eno, or hell, the Grateful Dead if he's referring to the way you guys chunk parts of different songs into greater medleys.

And certainly, not many of the teenagers--and the crowd was definitively under 21--had no such reference point for what they were hearing. All of the lush transitions were lost on the crowd. I scanned the faces around me pretty frequently, and unless you were hitting the hook of one of your songs, I saw a lot of yawning, or determined scowls trying desperately to access what was happening on stage. Which was the part I liked. And what made me happy that your band has become this juggernaut with a teflon-resistance to all criticism. Those kids came for a rock show, but what they got was closer to an AMM-style free jazz performance with snippets of rock songs.

And the kids did rock out when you let them. Whenever Noah Lennox played the drums, it was on. There were ecstatic moments of hands in the hair, jumping, etc., but for a band as desperately adored by the younger set as you guys are, reaching those moments is the easy part. It's much harder to get those kids to enjoy the endless looping. Did they? I'm sure they'll say they did. It was a small show so even getting to go was something of a privilege, and everyone likes to say, "I saw so-and-so in a 200 person club on blah, blah, blah, and it was [insert generic high praise]." But I think a lot of them were a little confounded.

Of course, there's the possibility that it was only me who was slightly confounded. Me who didn't even recognize the hooks of the songs (save for the afore mentioned My Girls, which was played within the first ten minutes of the show--I remember thinking, OK, that was my moment), me who is possibly too old to be a true fan. I was listening to a lecture by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney recently (who is 28) in which he talked about not begrudging the next generation a different set of aesthetic preferences, so I concede if I'm too square or too uninformed.

But if our blogger's correct, and you're actually jumping off from a piece of music composed in 1964, then I should be able to access it right? Especially if I'm quite familiar with that music. Yet I think what separates your live show from, say, "In C", is that you're not building off of one loop; you're jumping around, starting and stopping, still mostly in the mode of a standard rock show. And the sound felt in between to me. Whereas "In C" is very sharp, your electronic sounds came off a little bit dull--hammers as opposed to knives. A rock show. But one in which we're not exactly allowed to rock. One in which we spend most of the time admiring the Top Chef-like skill which all three of you display running back and forth between different instruments (also reminiscent of John Cage's Water Walk). A performance, in other words, I'd like to hear with much more clarity, and decidedly less volume, especially in such an intimate space.

It might be like Bob Dylan going electric, but I'd like to see you guys go back to acoustic. Either way, I was impressed enough with your abilities as musicians (utterly undeniable) that I'd see you again.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

To Keith Gessen, RE: "All the Sad Young Literary Men"

I was definitely prepared to dislike your book, Keith. Not because of n+1, but in spite of n+1. Basically, I hate the title. "All the Sad Young Literary Men" is both a terrible, terrible title, and also a very fitting one for the book you've written, which I did like very much. How these two things are compatible I'm not sure. I mean, after I finished the book, I understood the tone in which the title was composed in--tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the earnestness of the protagonists' struggles, recognizing, in the overall scheme of things, that those "struggles" are minor. In some ways, I think you underplayed your hand with the title. I think it apologizes for the book in a way it doesn't need to. I think the title says, "Read this book if you want, but if sadness, and irony, and youth, and maleness don't interest you, by all means, keep browsing." Which is short-changing the whole for an inventory of the sum of its parts. And not even all the parts. How many novels deal head-on, and in entirely convincing fashion, with the Israeli-Palestinian question? How many look coldly and calculatedly at their literary heroes? How many deal with sentimental issues like divorce and young love and Al Gore's daughter without a trace of sentimentality? (or least, I bought the sentiment) And the fact that the title's a Fitzgerald pastiche only makes it worse, not better. And by the way, I went to a party at Harvard with Sarah Gore, and since reading the book, I've been wondering if you were there. It wasn't a very large party--25 people tops. The guy's apartment had a fake photo essay about the uni-bomber done in poloroids--very funny as I recall. It was hanging in the kitchen.

Anyway, I really liked your book (which I didn't buy, sorry; I work at a Village Voice-affiliated newspaper and it came in the company mail) so I hope you take more time out from n+1 to write fiction. That same common sense that the journal dishes out is present in your fictional voice, and even if what you're saying at each moment is not true, it feels true, like you're clearing away all the intellectual cob-webs. It's a pleasurable feeling. Just ask Jonathan Lethem or someone to title it for you.

"...This is why it's so important to meet your heroes while you are young, so they can tell you. When I met Morris Binkel I wanted merely for him to say: Yes. I see it in you. You can do with it what you will, but you've got it. You can be like me, if that's what you want."

"Four hours later he was in the Syracuse bus station. It was--here was the joke--the cleanest, most modern, best-lit and comfortable bus station he'd ever been in. It gave you the wrong idea about Syracuse, boy. Of course, that's what bus stations were supposed to do, throughout history. Give travellers the wrong idea."

To Roberto Bolano, RE: 2666

You swallowed my month of May. April, too actually because I finished you in April, but I was so exhausted from reading 2666 that for awhile I was only capable of reading articles here and there, poems here and there, etc., not an actual book [though, I did read two books-more on those in the next two posts]. Exhausted and exhilarated, too--a post marathon feeling. A marathon in which I also got married mid-run. And finished in the top ten.

I've probably written enough to you on this blog in the five months it's existed, and I'm far enough away from the last page of 2666 that my thoughts/impressions of it--other than a general awe, appreciation of its skill, and gratitude for the chance to read it--have faded. So I'll give way to the passages that made it into my notebook. [Truthfully, there should be many more. Often times I'd be caught reading it without my notebook open and lament that I was passing by a passage that I wanted to save and knew, if I didn't get up that instant and write it down, that it'd be lost, but I didn't because I wanted to retain my forward momentum in the text. So these are lost. Someday I hope to re-read this book. I very much look forward to that day.]

"...dazzled by the shine of their own virtue, a shine that might not last (since virtue, once recognized in a flash, has no shine and makes its home in a dark cave amid cave dwellers, some dangerous indeed)..."
[I have no idea what this means btw]

"Morini was about to shout again and wave when he sensed someone at his back. Two things were instantly certain: the thing was evil and it wanted Morini to turn around and see its face."

"Coincidence, on the other hand, is total freedom. Our natural destiny. Coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don't know what they are. Coincidence, if you'll permit me the simile, is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet. A senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures. In that hurricane, in that osseous implosion, we find communion. The communion of coincidence and effect and the communion of effect with us."

El Cerdo's hierarchical system of four different business cards: the "A" card has his home phone number; the "B" card has his office phone number; the "C" card has his secretary's phone number; and "There's nothing on the D card, it's blank, just my name, that's all."

"Or at the German embassy in Moscow, in a Chanel suit, with two Russians in her retinue, declaiming on Bulgakov and the (incomparable) beauty of Russian rivers in the fall, before the winter frosts."

The entire section on pages 128-9 that describes the city of Santa Teresa is breathtaking, but too long to reproduce the whole thing. Here's a chunk:
"To the south they discovered rail lines and slum soccer fields surrounded by shacks, and the even watched a match, without getting out of the car, between a team of the terminally ill and a team of the starving to death, and there were two highways that led out of the city, and a gully that had become a garbage dump, and neighborhoods that had grown up lame or mutilated or blind, and, sometimes, in the distance, the silhouettes of industrial warehouses, the horizon of the maquiladoras. The city, like all cities, was endless."

"The sky, at sunset, looked like a carniverous flower."

"So miracles were possible, after all. The internet bookstores worked."

"Sometimes Pelletier was by the pool, in a sweater or wrapped in a towel, sipping whiskey. Other times Espinoza found him in a room presided over by an enormous border landscape, painted, one could see instantly, by someone who had never been to the border: there was more wishfulness than realism in the industriousness and harmony of the landscape."

"The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetary that suddenly begins to think, in vain. It was also like an empty dance club."
[my favorite couplet in the book]

"Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfaction. They turned the pain of others into memories of one's own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility."
[I take this as your own description of the book inside the book itself]

"Calm is the one thing that will never let us down."

"When they got home it was dark but the shadow of Dieste's book hanging from the clothesline was clearer, steadier, more reasonable, thought Amalfitano, than anything they'd see on the outskirts of Santa Teresa or in the city itself, images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragements, fragments."

"He wrote an essay on the future of literature, which began and ended with the word nothing."

"As if all the Germans cared about was reading and food, which was wasn't true but sometimes seemed to be, especially in Cologne."

"They talked about books, about poetry (Ingeborg asked Reiter why he didn't write poetry and he answered that all poetry, of any style, was contained or could be contained in fiction)..."

"You may say that literature doesn't consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers. I was wrong. There's actually no such thing as minor work. I mean: the author of the minor work isn't Mr. X or Mr. Y. Mr. X and Mr. Y. do exist, there's no question about that, and they struggle and toil and publish in newspapers and magazines and sometimes they even come out with a book that isn't unworthy of the paper its printed on, but those books and articles, if you pay close attention, are not written by them.
Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man's wife can attest to that, she's seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she's seen is only the outside, the shell of literature, a semblance...The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece...if his wife had x-ray vision she would see that instead of being present at an exercise of literary creation, she's witnessing a session of hypnosis. There's nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself I mean."

"Few are the writers who give up."

"In a word, experiene is best. I won't say you can't get experience by hanging around libraries, but libraries are second to experience."

"The day came when I decided to give up literature. I gave it up. This was in no way traumatic but rather liberating. Between you and me, I'll confess that it was like losing my virginity. What a relief to give up literature, to give up writing and simply read!"

"...Archimboldi had a view of literature (though the word view is too grand) as something divided into three compartments, each connected only tenuously to the others: in the first were the books he read and reread and considered magnificent and sometimes monstrous, like the fiction of Doblin, who was still one of his favorite authors, or Kafka's complete works. In the second compartment were the books of the epigones and authors he called the Horde, who he essentially saw as his enemies. In the third compartment were his own books and his plans for future books, which he saw as a game and also as a business, a game insofar as he derived pleasure from writing, a pleasure similar to that of the detective on the heels of the killer, and a business insofar as the publication of his books helped to augment, however modestly, his doorman's pay."

"...and a little gravel path that crunched underfoot, a noise that set one's nerves or nervelets on edge."

"...free of the anxiety of time, because now they had more than enough time, which is perhaps what distinguishes a democracy, spare time, surplus time, time to read and time to think..."